Tag Archives: murder

Fat Girl, Terrestrial #readwomen #bookreview @FCtwo

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Fat Girl, Terrestrial #readwomen #bookreview @FCtwo

Fat Girl, Terrestrial by Kellie Wells
published by FC2, September 2012

“As you can imagine, I have never been very successful at being a girl, though, for my mother’s sake, I have tried. I have wambled about on gimlet heels that left divots in hardwood floors, permed my hair into a fungal fuzz, wrestled my hips into girdles, painted onto my face a bright hoax of come-hither allure, following closely the prescription in those fashion magazines that advise women how to be more woman than they already are (or less), but this was all a disguise that fooled no one, least of all my mother; an authority on feminine.”

Going into any FC2 book is about like jumping down the rabbit hole: I know it’s going to be different (see FC2’s motto), and I want to experience different whole-heartedly, and yet I’m not sure how much plot will be a factor versus other forms of storytelling. Wells’s novel begins with quite a bit of emphasis on plot and goes off into many tributaries of stories from there.

Fat Girl

Meet Wallis Grace Armstrong, a giant of a woman. She’s 8 feet, 11 (and-a-half) inches and 490 pounds. We first get to experience Wallis in the present; she’s walking alone at night when a man presses a knife to her throat and threatens her. What she doesn’t know when she blasts him with pepper spray is that he’s asthmatic, so her aggressor, Hazard Planet, dies. Wallis’s police report is viewed skeptically, for who would dare attack such an enormous woman? Fortunately, Wallis sticks up for herself to the police, reminding them that “a violent crime against an individual occurs every eighteen seconds and an assault occurs every twenty-nine seconds….You never know when some…flour enthusiast might set up a mill and start grinding…” Wallis decides to meet Hazard’s family, which includes a mother and his sister, Vivica Planet. Lo and behold, Vivica is a giantess as well, “solid as a diamond.” What will this family think of the woman who accidentally murdered their kin?

Something is a little odd about Vivica’s response to Wallis’s visit: “You believe I’m angry with you for what you’ve done, think perhaps I hate you for killing my brother. You imagined no matter what my brother was like I must have loved him very much, because he is, he was, after all, my brother, and that’s what people do, love their brothers, isn’t that right? Brothers, like fathers and husbands, tycoons, magnates, deities, kings, presidents, despots, dictators, do what they do knowing, in the end, we have no choice but to love them?” Vivica’s comparisons of Hazard to male figures that we can deduce are associated negatively in her mind make readers suspicious of what Vivica’s and Hazard’s relationship was like before his death. It’s not until nearly the end of the book that we learn more.

There are some more moments in the present of the novel, including Wallis visiting a family who claims their future daughter-in-law hanged herself in their barn. Wallis’s specialty is finding small clues in crime scenes that no one else notices because she creates teeny replicas of the scene at home. The problem is that Wallis has always seen her very body as a “crime someone had committed, a Class 1 felony, a crime [she] was determined to solve.” Should she ever find who committed the crime, she would punish him, which would make her “immediately shrink to fit that girly frock, and [her] mother would love [her] and coddle [her] and wish [her] no harm.”

Crime is not new to Wallis as an adult. When she was a girl–very large but young–Wallis tried to get kidnapped so she would feel like she was worthy of someone’s attention. Fortunately for her, she encounters a nice man who has a daughter of his own, though he looks how Wallis perceives criminals who steal little girls. She also helped a bit on the case of a girl missing from her hometown. Wallis and her brother Obie appeared in the newspaper as a result. It’s very early in the book (about five pages in) that we learn that Obie will disappear later, and that the present is about twenty years after that disappearance. Except Wallis can’t help find Obie and is of no help to authorities. She doesn’t know where he is or what happened.

Obie is a strange boy, one who we would never find in real life (though life is stranger than fiction, so, really, who knows). Obie sees Wallis as a god. Why wouldn’t she be? Only someone that large who walks the earth with her head that close to heaven could be a god. He prays at the foot of her bed at night and asks her to tell the biography of god. If you don’t think a giant woman and her devoted brother are too odd, that’s fine. Kellie Wells takes it slowly for us. But then we learn that Obie can talk to animals. His voice is also much more adult that it should be, giving him the wisdom of a learned philosopher. For example, “God is less knowledge than buoyancy in the acquiescence to its inevitable absence.” I know many readers complained of Oskar in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close being a young boy with Jonathan Safran Foer’s brain, but Obie goes way beyond Oskar. Foer’s character is overly tuned in–or at least this is how we can perceive him if we want–but Obie is like a religious professor and Dr. Dolittle mixed into one (in fact, the detective looking for the missing children is named Doolittle, though this may suggest he isn’t worthy of his occupation).

The more I read Obie, the more I struggled with his character. I was especially perplexed when trying to think of reasons why Kellie Wells would choose Wallis’s brother as worshiper. Wallis also has a dance instructor (in the present setting) who is attracted to her and how large she is. A romantic relationship might help readers see why Wallis is so close to a character who sees her as deity. It’s not until much, much later that we learn that Wallis and Obie are meant to be foils to Vivica and Hazard.

It is the interest in a god and who god is or isn’t that causes the tributaries in the story. An assignment from when Vivica was a girl is shared, suggesting how Vivica feels about men and worship. The assignment is to write a letter to a historical figure, and Vivica addresses the letter to “King Hatshepsut, Former Dowager Queen, Vivifier of Hearts, Wife of God, Divine Adoratrice of Amun, United with Amun in the presence of Nobles, Matkaare, Truth is the Soul of the Sun God, Esteemed Pharoh.” Hatshepsut becomes a gender bender when she marries her brother (making her the wife of god in her lifetime), who dies, which means she wants to rule (as god), so Hatshepsut dresses like a man. Her stepson, however, ruins her reign by essentially erasing her from history’s memory. If his predecessor is a woman, he will be humiliated. When Hatshepsut’s mummy is found, Vivica raves that a god of the past isn’t allowed to be so small. How can a god be small? Vivica doesn’t appear to want to be ruled by men and admires those who agree with her, but she’s also not listening to any small women, either.

There are many other stories of creation and gods in the book: a modified Adam and Eve, the tale of a baby born out of an ear, how man is created by Allah, the Book of Ezekiel (a homeless prophet), and a pied piper who takes children after destroying rabbits. Kellie Wells’s last spiritual tale explores the crucifixion:

“…and he saw the swelling serry of the people of posterity whose perishing his sacrifice would reverse (far too many, he thought, to fit inside the most generous paradise) would find more and more ways to inflict suffering–they’d have a genius for it–sometimes in the name of vengeance, often in the name of nothing, and he saw that they would learn to do so with staggering efficiency and that there was a vast and endless freshet of the blood of humans and animals waiting to boil across the millennia to come (today was like every other that would follow), and just before the beating of the man’s heart came kindly to a halt, this heart turning its charity at last on him, he realized there was no such thing as love and never had been and that an empty heart would be the heavier for daring to rise again, a plummet in the airy ectoplasm of his risen chest, all the heavier for existing without at least the avocation of animating the flesh, but it was too late now not to die, and so he did.”

You can almost feel Wells asking, “Do gods still walk the earth? In what form? And do we believe those who say they are close to god?–because we never really know what is meant by god. Are we worthy of a god?” These questions are intriguing inquiries into the world of what isn’t readily available for us to accept. Stories are the only way we can make that connection to a spiritual realm — we can’t see or touch or hear or smell it — and Wells use of a woman-god who’s learning what it means to be a god (even to one person) and comparing her to a woman who wants to be a god, is an ingenious vehicle for exploration.

I want to thank you Kellie Wells for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher #20BooksofSummer #LGBT @KensingtonBooks #ReadWomen

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Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher #20BooksofSummer #LGBT @KensingtonBooks #ReadWomen

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (Lesbian Career Girl Series #2) by Monica Nolan

published by Kensington Books, 2010

I eagerly jumped into my second Monica Nolan book! Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary was a delight to read, though sometimes it felt just a tad silly. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher felt more grown up, in a way, because she knows she’s a lesbian. Lois Lenz took 80% of the novel to figure it out (despite making out with women through the whole thing). Thus, I enjoyed Bobby Blanchard’s story a great deal more. Mind you, you don’t have to read Lois Lenz first. However, I would recommend that you read the books in order (there are 4 lesbian career girl novels) for maximum enjoyment.

best lois lenz

It’s 1964 and we learn that Bobby Blanchard is a field hockey player. She played in high school and college, but then a stupid accident causes her to break a bone, leaving her unable to go pro. Now what does she do? Going pro was her whole plan, despite majoring in teaching in college. Miss Watkins, a guidance counselor (who was the guidance counselor in Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary) visits Bobby in the hospital and reminds the sad athlete of her teaching credentials — and says there is an opening for a gym teacher at Metamora Academy for girls! (By the way: Bobby and Lois did not go to the same high school, so Miss Watkins is a bit like a guardian angel guidance counselor for lesbians, which I find funny).

Bobby has concerns about being a teacher, though:

“But my grades — my brains –” Bobby struggled to express herself. “A teacher has to be smart.” How she’d sweated over those lesson plan assignments in Pedagogy II, how lost she’d felt when the class discussed the pros and cons of module-based teaching!

But off to Metamora she goes. I’m not sure if all academies have the same labels, but instead of “gym teacher,” Bobby is the “Games Mistress.” Instead of grade levels, like 9th or freshman, the girls are “formers,” as in “4th formers.” I could never keep track of what each form meant, which made it hard to image the students’ ages. The alternative titles were something I did not enjoy.

Miss Watkins, the guidance counselor, almost never gets it wrong when she advises young lesbians! But not all the Metamora faculty are that excited by newbie Bobby, especially the new Math Mistress, Enid:

“And when you teach something as basic as gym, you can always tell them to do laps when you run out of material. . . .That’s what my high school gym teacher used to do.”

How insulting to Bobby! Author Monica Nolan seems to enjoy writing the prim, snippy, librarian-type. In Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary it was Netta Bean. In Bobby’s world, it’s Enid. When there is always a know-it-all with a secret and a grudge in Nolan’s novels, readers can predict that the librarian may let her hair down and whip off her glasses for some between-the-sheets fun. Sometimes, the stereotype helps with expectations, and Nolan uses the sexy librarian stereotype beautifully.

bobby blanchard

Another distinct aspect of the world Nolan created is that everyone is lesbian, gay, or bisexual. You can guarantee that married or not, man or woman, teenager or adult, everyone is (note that very few men appear in Nolan’s novels). Nolan doesn’t make her character’s sexuality much of a secret, either, which is interesting. You just keep reading and become part of a world in which no one is straight, and it all is perfectly normal. You don’t have to wonder who’s point of view is the focus; it’s the titular character, and she’s a lesbian who doesn’t feel shame. I still remember Lois Lenz declaring, “I’m a lesbian career girl, too!” and feeling very excited about such a world.

Nolan does add a lot of subplots and points of contention to keep the story going like a mystery novel. When the mystery was solved at the end of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, I thought it was a bit silly. Some subplots circling Bobby’s life are:

  • How to integrate “Angle,” a frustrated teen with divorced parents who are of different faiths, with the other girls.
  • The Headmistress whose lover fell (or jumped!) from the tower last term and was killed.
  • The new field hockey team with most inexperienced players that Bobby put together at Metamora that keeps winning — because terrible “accidents” happen to the other teams’ players.
  • The ghost on the glowing bicycle.
  • Who stole one of the girl’s beloved locket.
  • A student who keeps buying Ouiji boards to summon the dead.

There’s a lot to take in! I’m not sure why Nolan heaps it on, but she did in both Lois Lenz and Bobby Blanchard. Piling on subplots was something I noticed in the mystery novel Terror in Taffeta. I want to call the Lesbian Career Girls series “cozy mysteries.” There is sex, but it’s mostly off page. There is almost zero violence. Things are wrapped up happily in the end. Perhaps plenty of subplots to misdirect readers is a key ingredient of a cozy mystery, one that other readers will appreciate more than I did. On a positive note, the books aren’t about the mystery, though; it’s about watching the main character develop into a stronger woman (YES!).

Most notably, Bobby Blanchard is just plain fun and funny. She’s always using sports metaphors to explain her feelings about other women. Early in the book Bobby meets up with her girlfriend, Elaine, a young woman who refuses to be seen in public with Bobby. Elaine wants to marry a boy so her father, who has lots of money, will stop threatening to send Elaine to college if she won’t get hitched (Elaine loves being lazy and having money). In reality, Elaine says, she will keep sneaking off to have sex with Bobby and marry some guy with even more money! The gym teacher let’s her have it:

“You may not be off the team, but your team loyalty is certainly in question!” Bobby responded hotly.

Elaine’s temper, never placid, began to fray. “Maybe I need a more competent coach,” she shot back. “One who understands the point of the game!”

“What are you saying?” demanded Bobby indignantly. “Are you implying my ball-handing skills are slipping? Why, I taught you everything you know! Your technique, your wide knowledge of plays…”

Keep in mind, they’re talking about whether or not Elaine is a traitor to lesbians, and if Bobby is sexually experienced enough. The metaphor goes on for just long enough to have any reader in stitches!

Furthermore, Nolan includes other bi-sexual women in the book who want Bobby in bed but not public, giving the reader serious food for thought. There is no shame in the characters regarding their sexuality, but the 1964 setting means society may have something to say about two women (and at one point there is a raid on a lesbian bar). Society is never one character; it’s a presence, though, allowing Nolan to overlap her imagined world and reality. In a way, Nolan asks the reader to consider her attitude toward LGBT couples — and not just feeling liberal, but actually seeing LGBT couples in public and not making untoward comments.

Monica Nolan does some fun world building when Miss Watkins, the guidance counselor from the beginning of the book, runs into Bobby while she is with Netta Bean, one of the main characters of Lois Lenz! Netta is a teacher, too, so she tries to help Bobby feel better about yelling unreasonably at her students by sharing some mistakes she’s made, including when she “failed to take a student’s threat to the assassinate the principal seriously.” The author keeps the characters just over-the-top to move you to gently snort with laughter. And the cross-over of the author’s novels is such a delight to read! I feel like I’ve run into an old friend, since I learned so much about Netta before.

Bobby Blanchard is an enjoyable read, one that I was happier to pick up and read to my husband each night than Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary. Beware: Bobby’s story is definitely more risque: she knows she’s a lesbian, she is promiscuous, and at one point has a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student (legal, but questionable ethically). Overall, though, a great, fun book!

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.

Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore Review on Goodreads, as Grab the Lapels is a ladies only site! 🙂 I had to read Fluke earlier than I originally planned because book club was 8/28. *Rilla of Ingleside is still coming!*

Terror in Taffeta #bookreview #mystery #wedding #20BooksofSummer #ReadWomen @kindacozy

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Terror in Taffeta #bookreview #mystery #wedding #20BooksofSummer #ReadWomen @kindacozy

This is book #10 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge. Please note that I read Fire in The Ashes by Jonathan Kozol immediately after I read Nickel and Dimed. The books pair well together, but since Grab the Lapels is #NoBoysAllowed, you can find my review on Goodreads.

Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper

published by Minotaur Books, March 2016

The premise: at a destination wedding in Mexico, unlikable bridesmaid Dana falls over dead in the middle of the ceremony. The bride’s demanding mother insists that wedding planner Kelsey figure out whodunit — especially since the police have said no one can leave the city. There are many suspects Kelsey uncovers and interrogates, giving the book several twists as she works toward finding the murderer.

Terror in Taffeta is the first book of its kind that I can remember reading. I think this is what readers call a “cozy mystery,” but I’m not sure. There is no violence or sex, and Cooper gives the story over to first-person narrator Kelsey, who navigates police, the bride and groom, the rude mother, an ex-boyfriend, and a best buddy who just can’t quit her. Quickly, the police take the bride’s sister into custody, claiming they have undeniable proof that she’s the murderer.

terror in taffeta

The book does have some seriously funny moments. When Dana collapses in the first few pages, Kelsey knows she needs to tell the bride, but she runs into the bride’s mother, first. Mrs. Abernathy, a wealthy white woman, insists Kelsey not ruin her daughter’s special day with bad news. Kelsey asks her friend Brody (whom she hired as the wedding photographer) what she should do. Brody asks, “What would Emily Post do?” Emily Post, of course, is the mother of the etiquette book — if you’re ever unsure what to do in a given situation, turn to Ms. Post.

Another great scene that had me in stitches was when Kelsey was trapped at the funeral of a man she didn’t know. She thinks, “I did the only appropriate thing there was to do: I pretended to pray.” In another example, the bridal party must move from their current luxury hotel. They’d planned a week-long visit, but the death of Dana expanded it to two weeks, and people with hotel reservations were about to show up. Kelsey worries about sticking Mrs. Abernathy in a shoddy hotel with “a room with a bed that vibrated if you inserted a couple of pesos.”

Kelsey isn’t just funny; she avoids the stereotype of the wedding planner who spends so much time planning weddings that she’s single and lonely. Instead, Kelsey uses an analogy:

People always assume that when you’re a wedding planner you want to get married really badly, when actually, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s like if you worked at an ice cream shop. For the first month, you’d eat ice cream every day and think, Wow, I’m super lucky; I can have ice cream whenever I want. Then you’d start gaining weight and getting bored with the ice cream. You’d eat it less often, and after a few months, you’d find that you preferred salty snacks.

Kelsey’s ex-boyfriend does play a role in the book, but he’s not what you’d think, and Cooper avoids the sticky-sweet love stuff.

Yet, there were a two big things that drove me insane in Terror in Taffeta, things I couldn’t get over that really spoiled the story for me. First, Mrs. Abernathy: she’s so contrary in every single situation that she felt unrealistic and under-developed. She’s classic racist white lady: “No live-o here-o” she tells Mexican police. And she’s obviously one of those moms who think only her birth children are “real” family.

“You think I’d let a murderer on the guest list? I approved every last person myself….But if it was one of the guests, it’d have to be one of his,” she said, jerking her thumb toward the groom.

What does Mrs. Abernathy have against her new son-in-law? Nothing readers have been told. However, I’ve met parents who don’t consider spouses “real” family. They indoctrinate their children with the notion that spouses come and go, but blood is forever. Ew, creepy, cultish.

abernathy

How I picture Mrs. Abernathy — photo from AVclub.com

Mrs. Abernathy isn’t above a bit of aggression, either. She’ll jab Kelsey in the ribs to get her attention. Rib jabbing is common in books, but have you ever allowed someone to assault you in real life? I hated the way Mrs. Abernathy was a cliche.

Much worse than a cliched character was the premise stretched to nearly breaking: why is a wedding planner playing detective? Well, she doesn’t want Mrs. Abernathy to cancel her final payment. I kept mulling over the logistics: if you hire someone to do a job, you can’t cancel payment because they refuse to meddle in police affairs.

Kelsey does have the good (realistic) sense to call the police when a room has been ransacked and to turn over physical evidence. But then she demands the police do something with the evidence to release the bride’s sister.

“I don’t know why you have this vendetta against [the bride’s sister], but you can’t prove she did this. You know why? Because she didn’t. So why don’t you stop acting like Barney Fife and start doing your job — pronto!”

barney fife

photo from tumblr

Who demands the police do things — and for a person she doesn’t really know? Well, in books people do, which makes the police look like they don’t care. I was so frustrated that Kelsey was playing detective in Mexico when the police have told her she’s in the way, but I was also frustrated that they weren’t doing things with the evidence she gave them.

So, I talked to an actual police officer (thanks, Brad!). He said that the police don’t determine someone’s guilt or innocence, which is what Kelsey is demanding, but rely on the court system to present the evidence and come to a verdict. I see readers ask why police always seem so stupid in books; I’m pretty sure it’s because writers give “the mic” to characters running around trying to save the day for no good reason.

In the end, the nagging question — Why the hell is a wedding planner risking her life and career in a foreign country on solving a mystery without giving readers any real reason for doing so? — wouldn’t go away, and I was happy to be done with the book. That’s not to say plenty of readers didn’t love Terror in Taffeta. I read this book on recommendation from crime/mystery writer Margot Kinberg, the book has blurbs from excellent sources, and most ratings on Goodreads are five stars. Perhaps the genre wasn’t for me, so you’ll have to decide! Are you able to suspend disbelief when a realistic character makes unrealistic choices repeatedly?

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

Rebecca #20BooksofSummer #bookreview #readwomen

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Rebecca #20BooksofSummer #bookreview #readwomen

Welcome to my review of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier! Since this is an older book, published in 1938, I’m going to have lots of spoilers. I don’t feel bad about this, as many of you have mentioned how much you love Rebecca already. I’m also going to share images from the film, as images are awesome and the book and film follow each other fairly closely. But this is the book review.

My introduction to Rebecca came only recently. It all started with my immense hatred of the horrible movies coming out these days, which led me to my local library, where I began checking out old black-and-white movies like a crazy person. I skipped social events to watch them in the dark (you can’t watch black-and-white movies with the lights on. Everything looks wrong). And then I got to Alfred Hitchcok’s Rebecca, a gorgeous film with the indescribably expressive Joan Fontaine and the handsome (I can easily describe why) Laurence Olivier. I told my husband Rebecca is a ghost story with no ghost.

Rebecca

The novel begins with a narrator describing Manderley and how “we” can never go back. The wilds of nature have taken it over. To my knowledge, readers aren’t told who “we” is at this point. Then she explains how “we” sit in boring hotels and talk about boring subjects for the sake of their nerves, which are shattered at any memories of Manderley. Then, the narrator remembers how it all happened. Nice hook, du Maurier!

A young woman (our narrator), who is a twenty-one-year-old paid companion, travels to Monte Carlo with her employer, Mrs. Van Hopper, a gossipy, fat lady (my fellow fatties, please forgive me). There, the narrator meets Maxim de Winter, the forty-two-year-old owner of the renowned Manderley, an estate so grand it’s all anyone talks about. After Mrs. Van Hopper is laid up sick, the narrator is asked by Maxim to spend time with him. Over the course of a fortnight (that’s two weeks, folks), the narrator falls in love with him, and Maxim asks her to marry him (though he expresses no love). Should we be suspicious? Is this a shotgun wedding? Snoopy Mrs. Van Hopper certainly wants to know!

the naughty

As Mr. de Winter explains to Mrs. Van Hopper that she’s out  a paid companion, the narrator holds a book Maxim had loaned her earlier. It’s signed “Max from Rebecca.” Yes, that Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife who tragically drowned at sea ten months ago! The narrator, in an odd moment of defiance, tears the page out, rips it up, and lights it on fire. And now we’re done with Rebecca, right? Wrong.

She’s everywhere at Maderley. The servants tell the narrator how “Mrs. de Winter” did things (I put it in quotes because the narrator is also Mrs. de Winter). The woman who runs the house is the skeleton-like Mrs. Danvers, a villain in this novel, who mechanically obeys the de Winters but also schemes to get the narrator out of Manderley, even encouraging her to commit suicide! Maxim is distant, possibly because he’s twice the narrator’s age; the housekeeper is a sabotaging nutbar; and it’s always Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca. If only Maxim could stop loving Rebecca and love our poor narrator!

Suicide.gif

Rebecca gets to be the title, and a woman, bur the current wife doesn’t even get a name, she’s so insignificant to Manderley. At twenty-one, she’s constantly referred to as “the child” because she’s half everyone else’s ages.

When they first met, the narrator expresses her love like that of a child:

“There’s a cold wind this morning, you had better put on my coat.”

I remember that, for I was young enough to win happiness in the wearing of his clothes, playing the schoolboy again who carries his hero’s sweater and ties it about his throat choking with pride, and this borrowing of his coat, wearing it around my shoulders for even a few minutes at at time, was a triumph in itself, and made a glow about my morning.

This scene was so familiar to me and recalled how important it was in high school to lay claims on your boyfriend’s sweatshirt, one that said his name so everyone would know you were involved. You felt like a superhero all day long in that sweatshirt.

Near the end, a sailing boat is discovered at the bottom of the sea near Manderley…and Rebecca’s corpse is in the bottom. Someone’s jabbed holes in the boat and the seacocks were opened, which you never open while afloat because the water pours in. Rebecca was an expert sailor. Was it foul play? Did she kill herself? Was she really just careless for one moment and the sea ate her up?

The pacing of the plot of Rebecca is, for the most part, spot on. Daphne du Maurier knows just when to summarize an event for us, like much of the time Maxim and the narrator spend together when they first meet. She knows when to let the plot linger. Maxim is convinced to have a fancy dress ball at Manderley, just like he and Rebecca used to do all the time, and the narrator decides her costume will be a surprise. Problem is, she can’t think of what to dress as! Mrs. Danvers suggests she copy one of the family portraits hanging on the wall, and the narrator thanks Mrs. Danvers for her kindness.

the costume

Unfortunately, as she descends the stairs on the day of the party in her costume, Maxim, his sister, and brother-and-law are shocked and appalled! It’s the same costume Rebecca wore to the last fancy dress ball! Dammit, Mrs. Danvers and your shenanigans! The narrator spends the whole night standing near Maxim, not talking to him and responding the same way to everyone who thanks her for hosting the party: “I’m so glad.” This “I’m so glad” scene goes on for several pages, lingering in this horrible moment during which Maxim is distraught and won’t comfort his poor, deceived young wife.

The ending, however, gets a little slow, and I wondered if I felt this way because in the movie so many things are squished together to make the ending speedy. Maxim reveals he shot Rebecca and stuck her in the boat, there’s an inquest, Rebecca’s death is ruled suicide, Rebecca’s favorite cousin calls foul play, the police get involved, they track down a mentally disabled witness, they play with the telephone a lot, they track down a key witness, wait a day, go to the key witness, talk to him, drive home, stop at a gas station….it was so long compared to the quick dashing around in the film, in which everything is resolved in one day.

Many of the pages of Rebecca are devoted to setting. It’s not hard to picture Manderley. The rose garden out the east wing, the angry sea at the west wing, the morning room, the library with the China cupid, the brazen rhododendrons up the driveway, Happy Valley and the azaleas, the shingle beach. In many books, so much description would seem extraneous to me, but in Rebecca, the appearance of Manderley is important, not only because everyone loves it so, but because it’s appearance is all due to Rebecca’s demands: where things were placed, which flowers grew, what to hang on the walls. It’s lovely, indeed, but our narrator doesn’t care for much of it, and the decorations only remind everyone of Rebecca, emphasizing the focus of the book — REBECCA.

Now we’ve come to my two favorite aspects of the novel: the characters, and the imagining. All of the characters are memorable, distinct, and unique. Bravo! Mrs. Van Hopper is the first memorable character. She’s a gossipy fake, whose “one pastime, which was notorious by now in Monte Carlo, was to claim visitors of distinction as her friends had she but seen them once at the other end of the post-office.” Our poor narrator is embarrassed by Mrs. Van Hopper, but “there was nothing for it but to sit in [her] usual place beside Mrs. Van Hopper while she, like a large, complacent spider, spun her wide net of tedium about the stranger’s person.” I almost lost it when I read “net of tedium.” What a funny way to think of someone! When Mrs. Van Hopper is saying something especially stupid, the narrator thinks, “…she ran on like a clumsy goat, trampling and trespassing on land that was preserved…”

Maxim’s older sister, Beatrice, is my favorite after the narrator. She says any and everything she’s thinking, and she’s antagonistic to her brother, like all siblings. After meeting the narrator the first time, Beatrice ends the visit with “Come and see us if you feel like it….I always expect people to ask themselves. Life is too short to send out invitations.” When the narrator and Beatrice travel (Bee driving at break-neck speeds), the narrator feels a bit down. Beatrice wonders if she’s been experiencing morning sickness, and the narrator tells her no. Beatrice continues:

Oh, well — of course it doesn’t it always follow. I never turned a hair when Roger was born. Felt as fit as a fiddle the whole nine months. I played golf the day before he arrived. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about in the facts of nature, you know. If you have any suspicions you had better tell me.”

And in that moment, thanks to her matter-of-fact personality, I loved Beatrice and her shame-free talk with her new sister-in-law.

Jack Favell, who is Rebecca’s favorite cousin and her lover, is a slinky, memorable guy, but also a “bounder” (thanks for that word, British friends!). When Favell explains to Maxim why he’s not embarrassed to admit he was sleeping with a married woman, his sexist nature rears it’s ugly head:

All married men with lovely wives are jealous, aren’t they? And some of ’em just can’t help playing Othello. They’re made that way. I don’t blame them. I’m sorry for them. I’m a bit of a socialist in my way, you know, and I can’t think why fellows can’t share their women instead of killing them. What difference does it make? You can get your fun the same. A lovely woman isn’t like a motor tyre, she doesn’t wear out. The more you use her the better she goes.

Even the way Favell drinks is unique to me: “Favell drank it greedily, like an animal. There was something sensual and horrible about the way he put his mouth to the glass. His lips folded upon the glass in a peculiar way.”

Jack Favell.gif

I’m not surprised the actor who played Favell also voiced Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Have I ever told you that my imagination once almost killed me?

Yes, I was riding my bicycle up and down our long dirt drive way, which led to a dirt road. Up and down I went, and I began to imagine, though I don’t remember what. Suddenly, I found myself underwater, looking up into the sun beams shimmering through. (If you think I’m making this up, I have two witnesses). What happened: I was so deep in my imagination that I never made the turn at the end of the driveway and instead went right across the road, into the deep ditch full of water, and lay at the bottom with my eyes open (to think this is the only time I’ve had my eyes open under water). I didn’t breathe in water, I wasn’t destroyed by a car.

Long story short, I absolutely deeply relate to the narrator of Rebecca.

She’s constantly so lost in her imagination that whole mini-scenes play out. Frequently, she refers to how things would have happened in a book, but more often she imagines the scene. When she’s changing out of her costume — after the big humiliation of wearing what Rebecca had — into a new dress for the ball, she overhears the workers on the lawn who are checking bulbs on the party lights. She imagines the man’s continued narrative:

Later in the evening he would stand with his friend in the drive and watch the cars drive up to the house, his hands in his pockets, his cap on the back of his head. He would stand in a crowd with the other people from the estate, and then drink cider at the long table arranged for them in one corner of the terrace. “Like the old days, isn’t it?” he would say. But his friend would shake his head, puffing on his pipe. “The new one’s not like our Mrs. de Winter, she’s different altogether.” And a woman next to them in the crowd would agree, other people too, all saying, “That’s right,” and nodding their heads.

“Where is she to-night? She’s not been on the terrace once.”

“Mrs. de Winter used to be here, there and everywhere.”

“Aye, that’s right.”

And the woman would turn to her neighbors, nodding mysteriously….

“Of course I have heard before the marriage is not a wild success.”

“Oh, really?”

“H’m. Several people have said so. They say he’s beginning to realize he’s made a big mistake. She’s nothing to look at you know.”

And this scene continues a page and a half. The imagined voices stir up the narrator, she confirming her own worst fears: that she’s not good enough, that she’ll never be the real Mrs. de Winter, that everyone is judging her like “a prized cow.” If the narrator were real, we’d both have Xanax.

Rebecca is absolutely a must-read book. It’s funny, mysterious, vivid, tragic, and well written. I don’t often look for books to relate to me, but this one really did. However, the fears and anxieties of this curious younger person will relate to any number of people, regardless of their unique identities. My only hesitation is that if you decide to buy a copy, the Avon mass-market paperback edition has a dozen or more typos.

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffetaby Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

Retelling #20BooksofSummer #readwomen #bookreview

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Retelling #20BooksofSummer #readwomen #bookreview

Retelling by Tsipi Keller

published by Spuyten Duyvil press, 2006

As I’ve mentioned before, Tsipi Keller refers to her three books — Jackpot (2004), Retelling (2006), and Elsa (2013) — as a trilogy in her Meet the Writer feature, but since they do not go together and can be read in any order, I refer to them as a “trio” that are similarly themed and focus on women who are psychologically challenged in the story. I was horrified when Elsa, a spoiled woman looking for a mate, was held captive and appeared to have Stockholm Syndrome. I couldn’t believe the sexual abuse Maggie endured and didn’t even realize it in Jackpot. The premise for Retelling was the most intriguing to me: the narrator, Sally, is the prime suspect in the murder of Elsbeth, but Sally in no way believe she murdered her best friend. The back of the book says that Keller “fuses the elements of a Rashomon-type narrative with a Hitchcock classic.” That combo seemed like the ultimate winner.

retelling

Although I think this cover is gorgeous, I had a hard time hiding it during my summer job at St. Mary’s College, which hosts many Catholic retreats!

Retelling starts with Sally thinking about how happy she is to be alive, despite her best friend’s recent murder. She has money but not job, and we’re told she’s working on a dissertation, though about what or in which field we do not know. Instead, Sally wakes up and takes some grapes to the park in Manhattan’s East Side. She gets black coffee from the same Mexican man’s cart. She watches old men play chess. Tom the bicyclist often stops to complain about his Chinese girlfriend. Franklin, a black homeless man who is almost handsome, sleeps on a bench wrapped up in a comforter Sally gave him. These things happen over and over and over again. For most of the book.

elsa

There are moments when Sally either remembers or goes to the police station to offer her help by describing what happened the night Elsbeth was murdered. She’s sure they were drunk, and she’s sure she did not go upstairs into Elsbeth’s apartment. The detective, though, is certain Sally is the murderer; he only needs her to confess because they have no hard evidence (at least, none that the reader is presented. The situation reads more like a lack of evidence against anyone else, so the police assume Sally’s guilt).

Though I was enamored by Keller’s other two novels, I didn’t enjoy Retelling. In Rashomon, to which this novel is compared stylistically, several characters describe the same incident. In Retelling, it’s all Sally. She doesn’t remember things differently from day to day. In fact, it’s hard to tell when a day has passed because she’s constantly ordering black coffee and “munching” or “nibbling” on grapes (and it doesn’t help that I loathe when women are described eating like horses or squirrels).

jackpot

Sally’s friend Lydia is meant to provide readers with some more context. There are some quotes from Lydia (so we’re mean to trust them; they’re not Sally’s memories). Lydia describes her feelings toward Elsbeth to Sally in a surprising way:

She was cold and calculating, she knew the gestures of love and friendship, knew how to make people believe what they wanted to believe. You were so blinded by her glamour, or by what you thought was glamour, you didn’t see how deranged she was. Add devious, too. She was a disaster waiting to happen. I even told the police.

Are we to trust that Sally was used by Elsbeth? Or is Lydia a jealous, hateful, second-place friend in Sally’s life? This is about as tense as the book gets. The police tell Sally she’s guilty, but Sally says no, they can’t hold her without evidence, and she goes back to her grapes and coffee in the park.

There were a few things that held my interest: Sally’s parents are both dead before 50 from cancers. Elsbeth’s dad committed suicide. But what does it mean? Possibly Elsbeth committed suicide like her dad? That Sally is mentally suffering because she has no parents? But the thread isn’t fully pulled through. There’s also a bit of time during which Sally wears tight shorts so that people can see the outline of her vagina. (In fact, there is a sharp focus on the vagina in all three books of the trio, one that is unbelievably memorable. I could still easily describe to you how Keller describes the two types of vaginas in Jackpot). She thinks:

When men stared at me, I understood in a flash how they could work themselves up to the required frenzy to gang-rape a woman. I felt meek under their gaze, and hated myself for feeling meek. They sneaked glances or smiled affectionately at my triangle, each according to his own weakness, while I pretended not to notice. And I continued to wear my tight shorts. Ever so innocently, daringly, women courted danger.

This passage got me thinking. Perhaps there is a comparison to men staring at Sally’s vagina and Sally’s possible culpability in Elsbeth’s murder. Just because Sally wears tight shorts, we might say she is to blame for men looking at her crotch. If you don’t want stares, don’t invite them. Similarly, just because Sally was the last person who saw Elsbeth alive, we might say she was guilty. If you don’t want to be accused of murder, don’t be friends with the woman who is “cold and calculating.” This is a huge stretch, a theory I’m not convinced Tsipi Keller purposefully wrote. That last line, though, about “courted danger,” does get the brain wheels turning. Did Sally befriend Elsbeth because she was a dangerous person?

Really, we don’t know if Elsbeth was dangerous, unfeeling, or manipulative. We don’t have evidence that Sally is a murderer. Sadly, I felt like this was a 286-page novel about sitting in the park. Perhaps someone else will get more out of Retelling than I did, but I would go recommend going straight to Elsa or Jackpot.

I want to thank Tsipi Keller for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce
  9. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  11. Of Zen and Men by Robin Stratton
  12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of Avonlea
  14. Anne of the Island
  15. Anne of Windy Poplars
  16. Anne’s House of Dreams
  17. Anne of Ingleside
  18. Rainbow Valley
  19. Rilla of Ingleside
  20. The Brothers Karamzov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Bystanders #readwomen #bookreview

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Bystanders #readwomen #bookreview

Bystanders: stories by Tara Laskowski

published by the Santa Fe Writers Project, May 2016

Bystanders contains 13 short stories, ranging from 5 to 25 pages in length. Given the title, I started looking for the bystanders right away. The first story is easy; a woman sees a man in his car hit and kill a boy on a bicycle. Other stories are more difficult, making the game of finding a bystander more akin to Where’s Waldo. People might be bystanders of their own lives. A cat might be a bystander to messy human interactions.

Bystanders would have been a great book to use in a literature class I taught about 4 years ago that I dubbed “The Twisted Domestic.” I was teaching at an all-women’s college, and I wanted to show my fresh(wo)men that domestic life wasn’t just bliss or violence, that the shades in between were quite difficult. We read books like For Sale By OwnerThe Dangerous HusbandIn the House, Cul de Sac, and The Book of Ruth. First I noticed that many stories in Bystanders were about new mothers. Then came the husbands who were trying to survive domestic life, too. Sometimes, there were young women who might throw a wrench in marital happiness, but the way the relationships merged or deflected weren’t predictable.


shapiro   hamilton   baby


Bystanders has a few themes that tie it together nicely, making the characters and plots memorable. Few collections do that for me. Basically, an author’s best stories in one book don’t make a great collection, to me. Aside from domesticity, Bystanders had a lot of wind/storms. The wind was constantly kicking up, making me leery and wondering what would happen next. I wondered if the wind was a purposeful choice, or a happy coincidence. I remember when I wrote a novella for my master’s degree, everyone kept asking why the characters were always doing things with hair — combing it, playing with it, shaving it — and I had not realized they were doing so.

Another theme is ghosts or spirits. Some stories, like “The Monitor,” suggest there are actual ghosts hanging around. Others, like “There’s Someone Behind You,” which sounds like a set up for a ghost story, have people pretending to be ghosts. There are ghosts of the greatness people used to be, or what they could have been. For a collection not about ghosts, there are a lot of haunting vibes in these stories.

Many of the endings didn’t sit well with me. I went back in forth, wondering if I was demanding unfairly for the author to wrap up the stories with bows, or if she was cutting short the plot. In the end, I settled on this: the endings often come too quickly, leave me with too many questions, and gave me the sense that I stopped reading in the middle of a chapter. The stories that ended on firm footing weren’t packaged and handed to the reader, but they felt like a conclusive place, one where I wasn’t confused to turn the page and see a new story title.


kelcey parker

culdesac   lynnkilpatrick


I did like that the author gently played with narrative styles. These different styles were both accessible and fun. For example, in “Half the Distance to the Goal Line,” the narrator tells us, “Don’t judge Diane, she feels guilty enough.” Ahhh, the old talking-to-the-reader narrator, the one we see in books like Vanity Fair, is one of my favorites. In one paragraph, the narrator tells us what Diane is thinking, then what Jack is thinking, then what that narrator thinks. Weirdly, the narrator is described as “we,” like a group of people, as if the narrator represents all the other kids from high school judging a few of their peers.

There was also some terrific imagery in Bystanders. In “The Oregon Trail,” a husband, wife, and their toddler are near the Red Desert in Wyoming when their car breaks down. A truck pulls up with two teenage boys, and this is where it seems like things could go bad. One boy looks at the wife and smiles. She feels, “his smile was like peeling back a can of Friskies — cold, sharp, metallic, with a whiff of something foul underneath.” Now, perhaps this sounds stupid, but I was wondering what that smile would look like, so I tried it myself, slowing pulling back the corners of my mouth like I was carefully opening a can with a sharp lid, and immediately got it. It was terrifying.

laskowski

More great imagery is in “There’s Someone Behind You.” Ruthie, the mistress of a dentist, is going a bit nuts from being the other woman. She buys some peanut butter and drives to her lover’s home, because she knows he isn’t there:

The peanut butter is good, and as she drives through William’s neighborhood Ruthie eats more and more of it with her fingers, digging out gobs of it. She wonders if William has called yet. Oh, what would he do if he knew what she was up to! And how annoyed he’d be about what the sugar was doing to her teeth!

The story “The Monitor” is about a woman struggling with her newborn baby. What I admire most about contemporary domestic fiction is how brutally honest it is about babies and motherhood. The things people used to not say is now all over the printed page. Think about it: Doris Lessing wrote the horrifying story “Room 19,” but not once did the narrator tell her children she didn’t want them. Instead, she quietly committed suicide, but we get what’s going on. Here is what the mother, Myra, in “The Monitor” thinks about her baby:

She found herself weirdly creeped out by her child — how wrinkled she was, how delicate, how helpless, rooting around Myra’s breasts in the middle of the night like a parasite, staring off into space.

Sure, moms aren’t telling other people what they think of their kids, but they’re finally telling readers. Great imagery can change our perspectives about new babies. I’ll never forget the description of the newborn son in Paula Bomer’s short story “Baby” as being the first I’d read that was honest. Just after the baby is born in the hospital:

His tiny ears looked like two miniature, crinkled vaginas, his eyes were hooded and dark, and his head was as pointy as a birthday hat. He looked nothing like her. He upset her so much that she cried and asked that he be taken to the nursery.

Are you as appalled as my “Twisted Domestic” students were? I must say, that 18-year-old young ladies thought this was the devil’s writing, but as I get older, I hear more frequently — especially on “mommy blogs” — that being fed a dishonest tale about domesticity is incredibly damaging to one’s sanity. And in Bystanders, struggling mothers often felt alone, and like failures.

Despite some endings that left me wishing there was more, I would recommend Bystanders as an excellent addition to contemporary fiction that looks at the home lives of men and women. Laskowski gives an honest portrayal from male and female perspectives that proves to be at times unsettling, but always about persistent, memorable individuals.

I want to thank Tara Laskowski and her publisher for sending me a reviewer copy of Bystanders in exchange for an honest review.

PHD to Ph.D.

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PHD to Ph.D.

Po Ho on Dope

Title: PHD (Po H# on Dope) to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life

Author: Elaine Richardson, Ph.D.

Published by: New City Community Press in 2013

For me, it’s been a long time between finishing this book and writing the review—about two weeks. I always have something to say about a book, but am careful to write an outline and decide which pages I want to point to and quote. But this book has almost scared me out of writing anything. I met Elaine Richardson at an education conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she was a keynote speaker. She was electric, charming, and intelligent in a way that intimidated me despite my own schooling and experience as an adjunct professor. When she signed my book, she was very kind and wrote, “Melanie, thanks for teaching and loving! Dr. E.”

PHD to Ph.D. is Richardson’s memoir about growing up a black girl in Cleveland. She writes briefly about her parents, a mother from Jamaica with very little education and a father who played with Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, though he was never famous (7). Richardson has some girlfriends who help her get into trouble when she is a girl, and later starts dating a much older boy, which is when things get drastically worse. He begins using her as a prostitute, and Richardson ends up prostituting until she is about 27. She has a baby with one of her pimps, and another baby whose father she doesn’t know. On many occasions, Richardson almost dies. When she finally gets things together and decides to go back to school, she never could have imagined how education would save her from certain death. The book is a compulsive read, but isn’t balanced evenly between being a drugged-out prostitute and a college student.

Richardson made me care about the people in her memoir. Her father isn’t written about much, but I still remember how cool he was in his old neighborhood. Richardson writes that her father dressed “gangsta style. When he wasn’t going to work, he wore his brim broke down and carried his pool stick in a long black case….His pool shootin friends called him ‘Bullwhip shawty from section 40’…” (5). Her father was a Black Muslim, like Malcolm X, and he had a “Black name” (meaning his Muslim name): Gulam Jameel Abdul-Rasheed (7). Richardson remembers how she felt about her father: “[My brother and me] cracked up at that name. We didn’t know any better. Daddy was also into something called Mentalphysics. He had his books and encyclopedias in a special place in the living room and couldn’t nobody touch em!” (7). Richardson’s dad is a textured guy: gangsta, pool shooter, musician, Black Muslim, reader, and I liked how memorable he was. I also like that Richardson maintains her childish voice: it’s “mentalphysics” as she remembers it, instead of “metaphysics.”

Her mother, too, was a vivid presence, though she is mentioned a lot more than the father. It really stuck with me that when Richardson was on a drugs and prostituting that her mother would call the police anytime she saw her daughter on the streets (141). The mother doesn’t necessarily want her daughter in trouble, but kept from dying.

Richardson herself is someone I care about, even when she makes terrible choices and I want to dislike her. While it may sound like Richardson writes herself in a sympathetic light, I didn’t find that to be the case. People live their lives and survive as best they can, period. Richardson describes herself as a girl: “I was a good kid. I played violin in the orchestra, sang in the choir, I was in the smart kids’ reading group, I was outgoing” (24). But, she’s also tormented, made fun of: “Other names people called me were chub, fat girl, liver lips, rubber lips, and bubble lips” (21). Down and down her sense of self-worth goes, and Richardson knows it’s important to connect her self-esteem to becoming a prostitute.

In 7th grade (about age 12) she is a victim of statutory rape and becomes pregnant. Her mother helps her procure an abortion, and Richardson reflects on it. She realizes she shouldn’t have hung out with girls who “knew” more than her, and she shouldn’t have gone into a room with a boy who was 19, because that meant that you wanted to have sex. She says she didn’t know these things at the time (43). We all know that hanging out with the cool, fast girls is a way to heal our broken self-esteem.

But, her new boyfriend, Andrew, understands nothing, and when they have intercourse, he comments on how “loose” she is. Richardson breaks my heart when she writes, “I had had an abortion in the second trimester. The baby I would have had was developed. Whatever the size of my vagina, it was the way it was because I had had a dead baby. All he talked about was how huge I was down there” (43). While dating Andrew, who is 17, Richardson continues to go to junior high, where she loves to learn. She is leading a double life of intelligent girl at school, and girl with poor self-esteem hanging out with older boys who pay attention to her. Andrew eventually convinces Richardson that if she loves him she will work the street, and he becomes her pimp.

I learned that pimps have favorite “hos” and treat that prostitute almost like a girlfriend. When Richardson has intercourse with her second pimp, AC, she knows that she feels nothing from sex. She believes it might be her experience in 7th grade or from having turned tricks for a while already, but it’s like she’s dead inside to sexual relationships (98). I felt terrible when I read her assessment. Sexual intimacy is so important, but Richardson doesn’t feel it anywhere in the book because sex is disconnected from love and partnership.

Richardson still has dreams, even when she’s drugged out and working as a prostitute for pimp #3, Mack. They plan to save enough money to open a legitimate jewelry store, and it makes sense to her 19-year-old mind (139). But not much later, Richardson is stabbed while escorting a trick (158). It’s hard to read about the author nearly getting herself killed, and later almost abducted by a serial murderer/rapist (170), but juxtaposed with her dreams, the whole story created sympathy in me. This is a woman who was broken as a girl, and she has no idea how to fix it.

IMG_20160202_112945459

I definitely had a lot I wanted to remember as I was reading so I could talk about it later.

Almost all of PHD to Ph.D. is written in various dialects. I love the authenticity this adds to the story. For instance, the black community in Cleveland makes fun of people who aren’t from the city, and readers get a great dose of dialect: “Dat county ass nigga got dem big ass white wall tires, dat funny ass cucaracha horn and got da nerve to have air shocks on that raggedy ass green car. Dat’s a country muthafucka right dere” (20). Some people in the book use more slang that others; not every sentence is written like the previous example. Remember, Richardson’s mother is Jamaican: “Mi ago kill yuh. Yuh nuh want nuttin from life? Before I mek a dutty nigga ruin yah life, mi will kill yuh mi-self and walk downtown and tell the dyam police is mi kill yuh” (75). Richarson’s grad school advisor, also a black woman, tells her, “You have to stay in da library. You have to know the field like the back of your hand. Knowwhatumsayin? You cain’t sing upon dis Ph.D. You have to read, write and research up on dis bad boy” (233). By getting how people talk and think in those people’s own words, Richardson gives voices to those who are often told they’re wrong. Black folks in the book, from the educated to the illiterate, have a voice they’re told is “wrong” because it doesn’t sound white.

Getting back into college after drugs and turning tricks happens quickly; in fact, I have to comb through my memory to remember how she got herself clean, into support groups, and to Cleveland State University. Everything about Richardson as a girl and later prostitute made me a compulsive reader. I couldn’t put this book down! But everything about school seems rushed and not as clearly thought out. Indeed, she goes to college on page 192, but the book is only 251 total pages. Things start out interestingly; Richardson is told she needs a lot of help with her writing and is sent to the writing center. The professors and tutors are all white, and they can’t figure out what to make of this black woman’s voice, which is especially insulting because her first paper is about her own neighborhood. The tutor keeps asking, “Whadidya mean to say here?” (197). Richardson writes, “I looked her dead in the eyes and said, ‘I meant what I said'” (197). There’s a great exchange here; basically, the tutor has her own nasally Midwestern sound, but she gets to judge the author because Richardson doesn’t sound white. This is a fantastic, enlightening scene.

The rest of the college section is rushed, though. She flies through her bachelors, masters, and PhD. She gets a teaching job at a university. She moves to another university. She studies the value of black voices and argues they are not “incorrect” or “wrong,” that closed-minded white tutors and professors “didn’t see who we were or where we came from as an important part of the educational process” (201). I wanted to know so much more here. There isn’t nearly as much detail or specific anecdotes told about her time in school as there was from when she was a prostitute.

This is the biggest flaw of the book. I wish there were two books: one for the first part of her life, and one for the transition into school and the process of earning degrees. I wanted to read about her encounters with teachers, peers, tutors, and even her co-workers and students when she starts to teach. There are a couple of instances, but not nearly enough. After Richardson gets that first college paper back with a D, she talks to another student, a black man who is also older. He says, “This chump don’t know nothin about Black folks. I was using Manchild in the Promised Land as my model, and he was trippin, crossin out every other word! These lil tutors in here, too. Please! I ain’t even worried about it, sis. I got a wife and a family. My wife takes classes at night. We just need they little degrees so we can do what we got to do to take care of ourselves. Knowwhatumsayin?” (200). I love this encounter! It’s as if Richardson and this man are in on a secret about some “system” or “game” that is college.

Despite its too-speedy ending, I highly recommend PHD to Ph.D. You can read more about the book and Dr. E on her website.

Elaine Richardson

Dr. Richardson did sing a bit at the conference I attended. She also writes poetry and studies hip hop with her students.

Favorite Novels of 2015

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Novels: that fantastic art form that builds a world, sucks you in, and keeps you there for hundreds of pages as you get to know characters, settings, and live a huge narrative arc with many mini stories going on around it. Unlike short stories, you don’t have to use multiple re-entry points because you become part of the story (if it’s told well enough). In 2015 I read fewer novels that what is typical for me, but there were five that really stood out!


How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perchd bryant simmons

by D. Bryant Simmons (read our interview here)

How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is set mostly in the 1970s and is about Belinda (“Pecan”), a girl with a daddy who raised her right and loved her so, but when a Ricky comes into her town, things get messy. Pecan’s daddy doesn’t really seem to like Ricky, but he can’t say too much about it, as he has a heart attack and dies within the first few pages. Ricky and Pecan get married and move to Chicago where Ricky trains as a boxer and Pecan starts having babies. Girl after girl is born, and Ricky really wants a boy. He appears to hold this against Pecan, but that’s not surprising; Ricky has a temper on him and fists trained to hit. For several years, Ricky’s Aunt Clara lives with the family, and she is often able to keep Ricky from knocking the crap out of Pecan by threatening him with a cast iron skillet. But one night, when Pecan goes dancing with her girlfriends after Aunt Clara tells her she has to, Pecan meets an honorable man.

Overall, How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is novel that is able to capture many characters and render them in a realistic tone that makes it pleasurable to read in addition to the challenging topics readers will face.

Read the full review here!


Our OrbitOur Orbit

by Anesa Miller

Our Orbit, self-published in 2014 by Anesa Miller, is a novel about a family of fundamentalist Christians that gets broken up when the mother dies in a car accident and the father is taken to prison. The novel is set shortly after the Oklahoma City Bombing (circa 1994 or 1995). Although one son is already married at 20, the three younger children–Josh at 18, Rachelle at 13, and Miriam at 8–must discover new lives in the aftermath.

Our Orbit is a compelling story altogether. Without telling any spoilers, I will say that many characters have events in their pasts that could cripple them in the present, so I was constantly looking for the second shoe to drop on all these unsuspecting people. Looking for the moments when information bombs could drop was a lot of fun, though Miller doesn’t let the plot become contrived; some bombs are more like small splats, and others aren’t bombs at all. Definitely a recommended read.

Read the full review here!


GagGag

by Melissa Unger

Gag starts out with a simple idea: Peter, a native of Brooklyn, stopped eating 15 years ago. How does he fit into a society that often schedules its activities around eating? His solution is to head to Paris, the food capitol of the world. On the plane ride over, he meets Dallas, a large red-headed Texan man who will challenge Peter’s very notions of what is truth, what is reality—even when Peter doesn’t, or even can’t, believe what he’s hearing.

Gag is a story about trust and secrets, but it’s delivered in a way that seems more about the absurd and metaphor. There are a number of comma splices throughout the book, but if you overlook those, you will enjoy this curious story. So much of what’s great about this book would spoil the story if I discussed it further, so check it for yourself.

Read the full review here!


saintsSaints in the Shadows

by Alana Cash (read our interview here)

Alana Cash’s self-published novel Saints in the Shadows (2014) follows Maud, a 24-year-old woman living in New York City. Maud is from New Orleans, but left when life didn’t make sense after the death of her father. Once Maud feels confident in her job as a waitress at a ludicrously expensive restaurant, she gets her own apartment, which is where she meets her eccentric neighbor from Hungary, Lina,  who works as a psychic using the pseudonym Madam Budska. Lina decides that Maud shows talent for reading people, and that’s all being a psychic is: just listening and looking. When Lina goes away for a week for “the big reveal,” she convinces Maud to meet with her clients in her absence.

I highly recommend Saints in the Shadows for it’s smooth organization, memorable characters, and its ability to make me a believer/non-believer. I really enjoyed this read!

Read the full review here!


santas little helperSanta’s Little Helper

by H.D. Gordon (read our interview here)

Santa’s Little Helper, a Christmas-themed horror novel by H.D. Gordon, is about the size of most Stephen King tales. At close to 400 pages, Gordon writes the stories of four children, all age five: Manny, Mikey, Emily, and Benny. Benny’s story is shared with his four-year-old brother, Tuck, so, really, there are five children total. Each child’s home receives a mysterious white box with no return address. Inside is an elf—quite possibly an Elf on the Shelf doll, though Gordon doesn’t outright say this—and a book describing how the elf is “Santa’s Little Helper,” a companion to watch children for Santa come Christmastime. But Satan’s—sorry, Santa’s—Little Helper isn’t what he seems. This elf is out to murder, and readers learn that this elf is an evil demon that sometimes appears in different forms, and has in the past…

Santa’s Little Help is a fun, scary book that I would recommend to fans of horror by authors like Stephen King because the pacing is a bit slower than modern consumers want (think about how most American horror movies don’t even reach 90 minutes), but it’s a scary-good time!

Read the full review here!


In 2016, the first novel I’ll be reviewing, and one I’m very excited for, is Lindsay Starck‘s debut, Noah’s Wife (Penguin, Jan. 2016). Here’s the synopsis from the publisher:

When young minister Noah and his dutiful wife arrive at their new post in the hills, they find a gray and wet little town where it’s been raining for as long as anyone can remember. Noah’s wife is determined to help her husband revive this soggy congregation, but soon finds her efforts thwarted by her eccentric new neighbors, among them an idiom-wielding Italian hardware store owner, a towering town matriarch, and a lovelorn zookeeper determined to stand by his charges. Overwhelmed, Noah’s wife fails to realize that Noah, too, is battling his own internal crisis.
 
Soon, the river waters rise, flooding the streets of the town and driving scores of wild animals out of the once-renowned zoo. As the water swallows up the houses, the telephone poles, and the single highway out of town, Noah, his wife, and the townspeople must confront not only the savage forces of nature but also the fragile ties that bind them to one another.

noahswife

 

Blood of a Stone

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Blood of a StoneTitle: Blood of a Stone

Author: Jeanne Lyet Gassman (previously interviewed at Grab The Lapels)

Publisher: Tuscany Press, January 2015

Blood of a Stone is a novel set during the “Jesus movement,” or the rise of Jesus as a prophet. Yet, the novel is told from the point of view of a Gentile named Demetrios, who was sold into slavery when he was 18. After killing his master, Demetrios and fellow slave Elazar pretend to be regular guys and set out to start a business with money they’ve stolen from their dead master. But when Demetrios’s secret past as a slave and murderer is threatened, he will travel all over Palestine to murder the one who could expose him: Jesus. Although I experienced some confusion about how much time passed and there was a lack of suspense in some plot points, Blood of a Stone is a highly descriptive novel that can change your vision of violence.

Many of Lyet Gassman’s descriptions are fierce, inciting shivers and repulsion. Demetrios is forced to kill his master, Marcus, because he is being whipped to death:

“How many times did Marcus strike him? Twenty? Thirty? Demetrios lost count. Blood blisters burst into streams. Strips of cloth and raw skin caught in the leather strap; a faint red mist clouded the air.”

I’ve seen people whipped in movies, so I’m always getting a fictitious version, of course, but it seems like being whipped causes little red lines. Here, though, Lyet Gassman gives me more heady images to hang onto: blood blisters, red mist, and skin actually being caught in the whip. Such images are not ones I’ve fathomed before, leaving me speechless in the face of extreme violence.

After Demetrios has decided he must stop Jesus from exposing his secrets, Demetrios follows the prophet with the plan to murder Jesus as soon as the man is alone. Instead, Demetrios sees a woman–a leper–appear just as’s about to attack with a dagger. She, too, has followed Jesus, but with the request to be healed. Again, Lyet Gassman crafts descriptions that are strong enough to cause a physical reaction in the reader:

“Oblivious to her deformity, Jesus never even glanced at her stumps, but reached out instead for the veil that shrouded her features….Tragically, her face, too, had been ravaged. Her skin was pitted and marked by former scars, like a sloping pasture eroded by rainfall. Her lips, disfigured by a missing flap of flesh, were twisted into a perpetual snarl. When she attempted to smile, she exposed decaying teeth set in putrid, infected gums.”

One visceral fear of my own is the possibility of losing a limb, and this lady is falling apart, so I had quite a strong reaction. Even that word–“flap”–disturbed me.

It becomes obvious that things are pretty dangerous, and the hope of excellent medical treatment isn’t even an option. After an attack by bandits leaves one character near death, Lyet Gassman gives those vivid, horrifying descriptions again:

“When Demetrios leaned close, he noticed the pupil was dilated; the eye focused on a place high above Demetrios’s shoulder. Demetrious waved the flies away from [name omitted]’s face. A large purple bruise swelled across [name omitted]’s right cheek. Clots of dried blood blackened the flesh around his nose….The back of [name omitted]’s skull was soft, pulpy and [the] blood soaked through Demetrios’s clothes.”

That word, “pulpy,” stuck with me as I continued to read. I kept thinking of orange juice, and the soft squishy matter we find in the bottom of our glasses. “Pulpy” indicates that nothing is going to be okay for this dying person, and should Demetrios cradle this person’s head too tightly, I imagine it would crumple into a bloody mess.

One aspect of Blood of a Stone that I didn’t find as compelling was the sense of suspense Lyet Gassman tries to, but doesn’t quite, create. Elazar, the other slave in Marcus’s home, is a Jew, while Demetrios is a Gentile. This doesn’t bother them, but when Elazar hears the King of the Jews has finally come, he decides to part ways with Demetrios. Feeling abandoned, Demetrios tries to retrieve his friend and convince him that following Jesus and abandoning their business as caravan drivers is absurd. During one meeting, though, Demetrios learns some terrible news: Elazar has told Jesus of their crime, that Demetrios killed Marcus and Elazar helped hide the body. Now Demetrios feels threatened. Should Jesus tell the Roman authorities, Demetrios could be killed for his crime. Later, Demetrios discovers that Jesus has raised a man from the dead. Panic sets in: what if Jesus decides to raise Marcus from the dead to seek revenge on his murderer? This is when Demetrios decides: he must kill Jesus. Although I knew this was meant to be an intense moment in the book (and a turning point that will cause Demetrios’s narrative direction to alter), I felt no eagerness to read forward at a speedy pace. I know what’s going to happen: Jesus will be crucified. There was a moment when I wondered if Lyet Gassman would change the story, but quickly dismissed the thought.

There are several attempts to kill Jesus. First, Demetrios follows him to a river where Jesus is speaking to people. The descriptions are good: “Demetrios pressed his palm against his breast to quiet the rapid beating. Again, he touched the hilt of his knife. It, too, vibrated beneath his fingertips. A sting of death waiting to come to life.” Yet, I did not feel a sense of suspense. I patiently waited for something to prevent Demetrios from murdering Jesus, and something did. A second attempt is made later, but Demetrios is interrupted by the leper woman. Once he sees Jesus perform a miracle, Demetrios cannot kill Jesus, for he truly appears to be a prophet.

Palestine in time of jesus

Lyet Gassman includes a man like this in the beginning of the book so you can follow along with the characters’ travels. Demetrios is a slave in Gerasa. He tries to kill Jesus in Jericho. Jews are led from Demetrios’s home in Tiberias to Jerusalem in a caravan. Elazar leaves Demetrios to follow Jesus in Capernaum. Jesus, of course, is from Nazareth.

However, Lyet Gassman does effectively create a suspenseful plot point when Demetrios, having held and watched [name omitted] die due to that pulpy skill, he gets the idea that Jesus can come and bring [name omitted] back from the dead! Here, I got pretty excited. I didn’t like when [name omitted] died and felt pretty bummed, and having Jesus resurrect this person would not too dramatically alter the story of Jesus that we all know.

Another concern I had was with the timeline of Blood of a Stone; I never knew exactly how much time had passed. We’re told that Demetrios is 18 when he becomes a slave, but the novel is so long. I was always cognizant of how slow travel is without cars (and there’s a lot of travel) and how much time would need to pass for Demetrios and Elazar to set up a business. Then, there’s the rise and death of Jesus. By the end of the novel, I had no clue how old Demetrios was, which always bothered me to a small extent.

With many harrowing, bloody scenes that brought to life the violence, Blood of a Stone is a novel that may make you turn away in horror. You may not feel drawn in in a way that has you turning pages at break-neck speed to find out what happens next, but some surprises are in store for the reader. And, I imagine that any Christian would find this novel a fascinating read thanks to its atypical perspective and themes of guilt and forgiveness.

Anya’s Ghost

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Anya’s Ghost

Anyas Ghost cover

Anya’s Ghost (First Second, 2011) is the celebrated graphic novel by Russian-American Vera Brosgol. The book is the story of a teenage girl named Anya, who believes she has trouble fitting in at school. Her mother brought Anya and her little brother from Russia when Anya was five, just before Anya entered public school. Her best friend is Siobhan, an Irish-American girl whom I mistook for a boy for most of the graphic novel. Siobhan has short hair and wears a button up shirt and tie. The images aren’t detailed enough for me to tell just by looking at the girl. The story also focuses on Russian-American student Dima, a highly intelligent runty boy in Anya’s grade. The story is set in the U.S., and so the other students are all represented as American teenagers (i.e. blond, popular, don’t appear to struggle with popularity).

On her walk home from school one day, Anya falls into a well and discovers a skeleton is her only company. The skeleton belongs to Emily, a ghost who can only travel a short distance from her remains. After Anya is rescued, she discovers one of Emily’s finger bones got into her backpack, and now Emily is with Anya to stay.

It’s not so bad, though. Emily helps Anya do better in school by cheating on tests and feeding Anya lines to say to a boy after reading his schedule so Anya can “bump into” him. Emily is the best friend Anya’s had in a long time (Siobhan is a testy person who is mad at Anya just as often as she is friendly). But Emily is not exactly what she seems, and Anya may regret her new life with the help of her ghost.

Vera Brosgol inserts reminders that Anya struggles with her differences. When teachers try to call on Anya, they can’t pronounce her name: “Is there a problem, Miss… Br… Bor…” and Anya answers, “Borzakovskaya. No, ma’am.” The image suggests that the teacher isn’t working to learn her students’ names. Again, Anya has been in the U.S. since she was five years old and is now in high school. It’s not as if she entered the school year midway.

Emily points out that the Russian American students should stick together. When Dima is being bullied in the school lunchroom, Anya isn’t surprised; she predicted it when Dima kept answering all the questions earlier in class, which is a total “fobby” move–“fresh off the boat.” Emily asks, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you both Russian?…Well, back when I was alive, your people were your family. You defended each other no matter what.” In this instance, Brosgol reminds readers that even individuals with something important in common can turn on each other in the name of seeming like a normal teenager.

But Anya can’t escape her mother. Whether it’s the greasy food she makes, which Anya hates because she’s worried she’ll get fat, or her mother’s misunderstanding of basic knowledge on the citizenship test, Anya is impatient with her round, bespectacled, independent mother and shows her about as much compassion as she shows Dima.

Russian Food.jpg

Anya wants “normal” food for American teens.

Though the story suggests the point is to get rid of Anya’s ghost, the real challenge is to get rid of all of her that is Russian. Anya tells Emily that she goes to a private school because Dima went there, and his parents wanted Anya to be there to befriend him. She laments, “It’s not fair! I got bullied for years for talking funny, I did my time in ESL, I don’t have an accent!”

Emily is mostly a vehicle to get Anya to experience American kids and see that they don’t have perfect lives, and that she actually fits in rather easily. Anya never realizes that her low self-esteem and anger is what keeps her from befriending the other kids, but the reader can see it happening. I enjoyed following Anya and watching her do regular teenager activities, especially since I’m reading from an adult perspective, one with my teenage years far enough behind me to be wiser, but not so far as to forget what high school was like.

However, Emily seemed pretty useless (other than being that vehicle). Her statements seemed simple and too easy: “Was it something I could have helped with?” Or, “And I think that Sean boy could really like you! You’re much more interesting than that Elizabeth girl.” I never felt like Emily challenged the reader–or Anya–except the part when she noted that Anya wasn’t helping Dima.

It’s possible that Emily is the sweet to Anya’s sour. Anya is upset about her weight, her nationality, her family, and her level of popularity. Really, she seems like a regular grumpy teen who is blaming all her problems on her Russian roots.

Anya Gets Fat.jpg

Anya worries that she will turn into her mother.

Emily is sweet, polite–a good little ghost girl, in contrast. In fact, I kept thinking of the little ghost girls in the animated movie Coraline. The longer Emily stays, though, the more the roles change. Anya is forced to become kinder and more compassionate as Emily demands more of her time on Earth.

The ending of Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost seemed too easy. Anya’s changes were quick, and I felt for sure that if there were a second book that the depressed teen might go back to her sulking ways. The only growth I saw from Anya was when she tells Siobhan that she doesn’t want to share a cigarette because “[she] doesn’t think [she] ever liked it. And it doesn’t look as cool as [she] thought it did.” Perhaps Anya will change her sad attitude with some careful reflection.

In the end, Anya’s Ghost is a speedy read. There are more images than words, so I was able to get through all 221 pages in about an hour. So, even if you feel hesitant about reading this book, you can enjoy it without a huge time commitment.