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review 2017-04-16 16:50
The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik
The River at Night - Erica Ferencik

A compulsively readable survival thriller ala Deliverance and The Descent that is begging to be adapted into a show or film. It features a group of friends in their late 30s, all women, who don't regularly see one another in their day to day lives but who take periodic, adventurous vacations away from it all. On this vacation their fearless leader, Pia, has arranged for them to raft a river in Maine, one that is virtually "undiscovered," according to their young, male guide. Read "undiscovered" as in the middle of nowhere, no cell phone coverage, and no help nearby. You see where this is going.

 

Disaster strikes during the trip, and the group is forced to make tough decisions and survive a dangerous situation that only gets more dangerous. The strain heightens tensions and reveals cracks in the group, and everyone loses their shit in a way specific to each character. Our narrator is Winifred (Win or Wini), clearly the least brave of her friends, a woman who's recently lost her husband (divorce/separation) and younger, deaf brother. She's lonely, at sea in her life but without the impetus to make changes and be happier.

 

All the women bring their own baggage, but it's Pia's need to be "off the grid," be authentic, whatever that means, that brings them to the river. Besides Win's relatable narration, the adventure, and some very cool descriptions of their environment, the book's refusal to say, simply, that nature is better and civilization is corrupt is a favorite aspect of the story.

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review 2017-02-05 17:54
American Housewife, by Helen Ellis
American Housewife: Stories - Helen Ellis

My first thoroughly enjoyable read of the year. Despite never having been a housewife (or wife, period) myself, I felt like this short story collection's ideal audience. There are plenty of films and books that cover similar ground--the details, drudgery, absurdity, and even darkness of being a housewife--but Ellis manages to make the content fresh through voice and form.

 

All the stories made me laugh out loud or grin sardonically, from the first, brief portrait of a modern housewife, to the email exchange between two passive aggressive--and then just aggressive--ladies occupying the same building (my favorite), to the Dumpster Diving with the Stars reality show. Some stories, like the first, are flash fiction and read like prose poems to me. Others are fuller, like the ending story about contemporary novel writing in the age of sponsorship and social media. In that story and others, the horror of aspects of our culture becomes real.

 

Satisfying and sharp-tongued (without looking down on its characters), this collection completely won me over from the start.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-01-14 17:03
The Unseen World, by Liz Moore
The Unseen World: A Novel - Liz Moore

From the Tournament of Books longlist.

 

Some thoughts on this book are going to entail spoilers (which I'll mark), but I'll first say this was a unique story and point of view: a girl raised and schooled at home by her peculiar, computer scientist father in the '80s is forced from that bubble when he begins exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's. Some elements were a surprise, others predictable but mostly worthwhile anyway, as the father's identity comes into question and Ada, his daughter, seeks answers. The book is written in chunks, some taking place in the recent present, a bit in her father's past, a bit in the future, but mostly in the 1980s when Ada becomes a teenager.

 

Non-spoilery elements I enjoyed:

I liked Ada, named after Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, and Liston, her father's lab mate and later Ada's guardian. This novel acknowledges the role women play and have always played in computer science.

 

I liked how David's choices in raising Ada stem from the personal; in the beginning, before David's history is revealed, these choices could feel like poor ones, not abusive but perhaps selfish. Ada does not associate with peers; she has no friends and knows only adults that her father works with. She observes Liston's boys from afar and only learns of popular culture via Liston and other lab workers. Despite this, Ada still develops the insecurities that go with teenagehood, but on top of that she has insecurities about her insecurities, like she's letting her father down by wanting the things she wants because she should be above them.

 

My favorite moments in the story are when Ada first begins attending Catholic school after being unofficially homeschooled by David her whole life. Interacting with her father and adults at the lab, Ada is used to being treated as an adult herself, with worthwhile things to say and contribute to their research. On her first day of school, she's immediately assumed to be misbehaving or incapable. This says a lot about how we treat children in the education system, whether public or private. I wish we saw more of Ada at school and her transition to making friends. I also wonder how she did academically and what she thought of the work, given that she's likely operating at above grade level.

 

Non-spoilery elements I wasn't crazy about:

Liston's sons William and Matty felt somewhat generic as characters, fulfilling roles in Ada's growth, versus Gregory, who is fleshed out (though we don't see how exactly he becomes like his mother). Besides Liston, the other lab folk also feel indistinguishable until the end when a few are more strongly differentiated.

 

Though the mystery and reveal of David's identity is done well, at times it feels like there are too many pieces of the puzzle (the code, the locked filing cabinet, the computer program, the photos...).

 

Ada's one of those girls who is attractive, with multiple boys who are interested, but she's unaware of her appeal. It makes sense given her upbringing, but it's a familiar type that's come to drive me nuts. We need more Jane Eyres.

 

In terms of writing style, my one complaint is that sometimes the author tells you what she just showed you or repeats observations (e.g. David is Ada's whole world). She should trust her readers more.

 

SPOILERS below:

 

Returning to an item from above, the revelation of David's queerness and work history in government put his choices in raising Ada in much-needed context. His mistrust of authority, his emphasis on education and thinking for oneself, his near sequestering of Ada, all come to feel less like strictness and eccentricity and more like sane choices.

 

My biggest gripe is the last chapter and epilogue. The former reminds me of Harry Potter's epilogue where we're given a predictable Happily Ever After of the sort some readers like or require; I would have preferred the story end with the section in 2009. The latter is an unnecessary "twist" that suddenly puts the novel in SF territory; it reminded me of the end of the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I can guess the intent--another "child" brought up uniquely, an objective observer to give the story context (e.g. people make mistakes, hurt each other, etc.), but suddenly learning the story's been told by an A.I. is too much of a rug-puller. Still, it wasn't awful enough to sour my enjoyment of the rest.

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review 2016-12-01 21:59
Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff
Lovecraft Country: A Novel - Matt Ruff

Another book with a fantastic premise and strong start that doesn't quite live up to its potential. The novel establishes 1954, post-Korean War, Jim Crow America as Lovecraftian horror for its African American characters.

 

Each chapter/section explores the point of view of a member of the (extended) Turner family and their dealings with some batshit white people who are wizards of a sort. I've seen some readers refer to the book as a collection of short stories rather than a novel, but the stories are too closely connected narratively and chronologically. The upside of the structure is that each member of the family has a moment in the spotlight, a chance to illustrate how living in this time as a black person has shaped the extent to which they can pursue their dreams. The downside is that you may prefer some characters' perspectives than others and feel as if you don't get to know any one character enough. Though the chapters are connected, the novel can also feel disjointed.

 

Another plus is the black SF fans in the book whose love of the genre is complicated by its persistent racism (Lovecraft himself wrote racist material). It is a sort of sweet revenge to put these characters in charge and watch them respond to and take control of the very forces being used to make them tools.

 

(This bit is a tad spoilery, but I've kept it as vague as possible). I struggled with one chapter in which the protagonist is able, through magic, to transform physically into a white person. Predictably, she is treated radically different, even in a northern city like Chicago, where much of the novel is set. However, I feel this chapter plays into the notion that all black people secretly want to be white. It also illustrates something we already know: that white people in America are privileged. The white characters are the ones who need to get woke.

 

Mostly this book made me think about how little has changed in some respects. A few characters in the novel work on something called The Safe Negro Travel Guide whose purpose is to help black people know where safe(r) spaces in the country are while traveling (or conversely, where to steer clear of absolutely). The guide is based on a real thing, The Negro Motorist Green Book. Jim Crow may be over, but as events in the past decades indicate, it is still less safe for a black person to travel or simply be in this country.

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review 2016-09-05 23:44
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer

If you are familiar with Amy Schumer and her comedy, you likely think either the sun shines out of her ass or she's awful. I'm in the former camp. I enjoy her sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, and her stand-up, as well as her movie, Trainwreck (though I admit I have not been crazy about her handling of the Kurt Metzger fiasco, which occurred just as this book was released). If you like Schumer, I can't imagine you wouldn't like The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

 

Written as a series of essays and lists, plus excerpts from her old diaries (with footnotes), accompanied by often hilarious photos, the book is unsurprisingly candid and funny. What did surprise me were the serious bits--still told with humor, except for the chapter on the shooting at a screening of her movie--her relationship with an abusive guy, her non-consensual loss of virginity, her introversion. I hadn't previously read or heard many interviews with her, so these details of her personal life were news to me. She's survived much more than being a woman in the world of comedy and entertainment.

 

My only worry beginning this book was that it would contain too many jokes from her stand-up; that fear is definitely unwarranted. The tone is familiar--and I might just have to listen to the audio book--but the content is fresh. I laughed out loud at least once most chapters, often suddenly from an offhand-feeling quip. I appreciated her vulnerability, but let's be real; if this book weren't funny, I'd be disappointed.

 

Although early on she states that it's not a self-help book, there are still plenty of moments when Schumer writes directly to the reader or otherwise points to the lessons she's learned, or, more accurately, how she gets on with things and lives her life. Most aren't a surprise, at least to me, but she doesn't become preachy and those bits are borne of personal experience.

 

I hope she writes the theoretical future books she mentions. Especially Juggling Dicks. ;)

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