Book Review: THE HOT ONE by Carolyn Murnick

I’m still recovering from surgery, which means my reviewing and reading pace has gone way down while I relax and nap. (Lots of naps!) I’m in the mood to catch up with older releases I’ve missed over the past few years, and that’s why it feels like the perfect time to review The Hot One, a memoir that’s been near the top of my TBR list since it first came out in 2017.

The Hot One, dramatically subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is about the murder of writer and editor Carolyn Murnick’s childhood best friend, Ashley, who was the victim of a serial killer in the early 2000s. It’s also about the ways our adult selves diverge from our child and adolescent ones, and especially all the ways women are limited by one-dimensional definitions (for example, “the hot one” vs. “the smart one”).

The premise is powerful and The Hot One’s first third is excellent, but the book soon fizzles into what I found to be boring, confusing navel gazing. You can read my full review below.


The Hot One Cover

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder by Carolyn Murnick

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018
  • length: 272 pages (paperback)

In the courtroom I had seen in a new way what it looks like when a life is cut off at twenty-two. All the messy baby fat of emotional immaturity still stuck on you for eternity, paraded out for everyone to see.

–from The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick

A woman’s murder is never just her murder: it’s a stage for social commentary and catharsis, too. Usually it’s men drawing the conclusions, but in the true crime memoir The Hot One, it’s the victim’s female friend, Carolyn Murnick. Murnick uses the murder of her childhood friend Ashley as a jumping off point for big ideas about friendship, men, women, girls, the criminal justice system (kind of), journalism, sex, sex work, drugs, and most of all, herself.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot? It is, at least for Murnick. Her intense emotion is palpable and her courage in writing about this experience is admirable. But on the page, The Hot One feels remarkably understuffed. It’s simultaneously airy and swampy, overly personal and too broadly political, very dry and also too messy.

The memoir does crackle along nicely in its first third, in which Murnick details her friendship with Ashley and its tragic end. Murnick and Ashley were not close at the time of Ashley’s murder, and this is the best part of the book, although it is of course the worst part for Murnick. She is angry at herself for abandoning Ashley; she is angry at Ashley for abandoning her; she is angry at the fact of the murder for destroying any chance at reconciliation. That’s compelling stuff.

Crucially, it’s compelling stuff that also has a linear narrative. Murnick and Ashley become inseparable; they drift apart; the murder happens. It’s an arc.

It’s when that arc transitions into Murnick’s solo journey to come to terms with the murder that The Hot One becomes a voyeuristic-feeling slog, like you’re overhearing a stranger’s rambling therapy session rather than reading words assembled for publication. It’s told out of order, but not very effectively. I don’t mind piecing things together for myself, but it would be nice if it felt like I had the whole puzzle rather than odd parts.

I have the utmost respect for what Murnick has been through, and I want to be clear that in no way do I think the actions or emotions she describes in The Hot One are unseemly or wrong. I just think that they’re her actions and emotions, deeply private and inaccessible to me, and that unfortunately, The Hot One gives me little reason or opportunity to get invested in them. When Murnick is writing about Ashley, her prose shines. When she’s writing about herself, it just thuds. Unfortunately, this book is mostly her writing about herself.

The Hot One hammers certain points home again and again: that Ashley did sex work, that she was hot and flirty and confident, that she was slut-shamed and a drug user and living a double life, and that her murder was left unsolved for years partially because of all those things. (It was assumed she was killed by a jilted lover or that she had gotten tangled up in drugs or trafficking.) These things are stated and restated so many times that I found myself just skimming over them whenever they reappeared.

But The Hot One then leaves other points desperately unclear. There are weird interludes in the book where Murnick visits with astrology-obsessed friends who talk about how serial killers are often thwarted water signs. She visits a guy who’d once gone on a date with Ashley, and almost ends up sleeping with him herself, until he reveals himself to be kind of a cad. She’s asked to testify after tons of writing about how she was afraid to testify…and then we get barely any details about that testimony or what it felt like.

It’s not that these events are “wrong” or “unbelievable.” Again, nothing about Murnick’s experiences could be wrong or unbelievable in this traumatic context. It’s that the way she transcribes them for readers is murky, and worse, boring. I went from loving the book in its first chapters to loathing it by its midpoint, simply because I couldn’t understand what was going on or why it was relevant.

I also think Murnick’s reaches for political relevance are clumsy, especially with the new afterword in the paperback addition, which tries to tie the memoir to the #MeToo movement and to Murnick’s pregnancy. Her points about the ways girls both are defined and define themselves with narrow concepts like “the hot one” or “the smart one” are spot on, because they’re based in her experience. Her points about, say, the male gaze are…less spot on, since they veer wildly between talking about men’s literal gaze and the feminist concept of the male gaze without clearly distinguishing the two. Lots of other feminist concepts get similarly bungled, and the courtroom and criminal justice sections are frustratingly thin.

Like Emma Cline did in her (fictional) book about murder, The Girls, Murnick seems determined to draw wide conclusions from one narrow experience when the narrow experience is actually more compelling on its own. And as in The Girls, Murnick writes about the experiences of upper/upper middle class white girls without really acknowledging that many other kinds of girls exist, with many other archetypes than just “the smart one” or “the hot one” working against them.

The Hot One is of course different from The Girls, because Murnick is writing about her own experience. Yet it’s almost worse, in a way, since The Hot One has plenty of room for interesting research that could have filled those gaps, whereas The Girls was confined to a tighter narrative structure.

Murnick has published several excellent essays about her experience, including one that’s a condensed excerpt from this book, which is what motivated me to buy my own copy. In short form, her points are salient and gripping. But spun out into a whole book, they fizzle. It’s terribly disappointing considering how much I adored that excerpt.

The Hot One is a promising new kind of true crime memoir: one that turns its voyeuristic gaze on its author and her baggage, rather than on all the gory, salacious details of the crime. I just wish it had actually delivered on that promise. ★★☆☆☆

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of The Hot One and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

The Girls was a massive critical and commercial success upon its release in 2016, and it hardly needs my voice chiming in on its behalf. Still, I wanted to write about this historical novel–set in late ’60s California, loosely based on the Manson Family and their infamous murders–because it stirred up such a complex array of emotions in me. With Cline’s prose being so luminous that it practically burned into the back of my eyelids, and The Girls‘s electric premise, I should have absolutely loved this novelinstead I only liked it. As its title implies, The Girls is a lovely novel about girlhood, but I have serious reservations about its myopic focus and the liberties Cline takes with historical events. Despite the novel’s raw power, its plot curdles instead of coheres.

You can read my full review below.


9780812988024

The Girls by Emma Cline

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Penguin Random House
  • publication date: 2016 (hardcover) and 2017 (paperback)
  • length: 368 pages (paperback)

It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless, formless summer. The Haight populated with white-garbed Process members handing out their oat-colored pamphlets, the jasmine along the roads that year blooming particularly heady and full. Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too–you could be some moon creature, chiffon over the lamp shades, on a kitchen cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.

But all that was happening somewhere else, not in Petaluma…

–from The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls stars one girl, Evie, who is fourteen years old. Her parents have recently divorced; she lives in her mother’s mansion in Petaluma and is acting out against her mother’s boyfriends, though you quickly get the impression that her strife with her mother runs much deeper than the divorce and new beaus: Evie is ignored and smothered by her nervous mother in turns, never quite in the Goldilocks zone of affection. Her father lives in a distant apartment with his former secretary (and new lover), rarely seen. On top of all that, Evie’s best (and seemingly only) friend spurns her. It seems things can’t get worse.

Except they can. It’s the summer of 1969, Evie is terribly lonely, and that’s when she falls in with the girls. Plural. The Manson ones.

Or they would be the Manson ones, if Cline hadn’t created a somewhat scrambled analogue of the infamous cult “family” for this novel. The Girls‘s cult leader is Russell, not Charles. The Family has a run-in with an apparently famous musician named Mitch, but his band goes conspicuously unnamed (it was actually Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). They’re in San Francisco, not Los Angeles. Cline creates four composite victims here in place of at least eight real ones.

I’m being pedantic here, I know. But I list these details because Cline is working with the freaking Manson murders here, literally one of the best-known crimes in American history. I wish that Cline had either fudged more details or fewer, because the way she writes about the summer of 1969 in this novel left me cross-eyed, like my glasses weren’t on right. The Girls‘s historical details are always distractingly in the middle distance, even as Cline gets the muggy, dizzy vibe of the thing just right.

It’s unfortunate, a little like if an Investigation Discovery reenactment was suddenly given the auteur treatment. (No disrespect meant to ID, but we all know those reenactments are the pits.) Cline is a gifted auteur, and I loved to watch her work, but I could never forget I was watching her work. The Girls never feels real, too much art and too little life. It’s good art, but it can’t escape an uncanny valley.

If you know nothing to very little about the Manson murders, then this critique is pointless. Go in and love this novel, because there’s an awful lot to love. But I don’t even know that much about the murders–most of what I know comes from Stuff You Should Know’s twopart podcast about them that was released last year–and it was still a strong enough dissonance to bother me. Your mileage may vary.

And I’ll add, in a small and self-justifying voice, that I think Cline’s composite artistry also damages the plot. It leaves Evie’s moves feeling a little too planned, leaves her feeling always in the right place and never quite under her own power, meaning that even when I knew she was in danger, the danger never compelled me. (This novel is not very long, but took me two whole weeks to get through. It’s not a slog, just somewhat impenetrable. I could only give it short bursts of my time before losing interest.)

After all that, let me talk about what The Girls gets right, because there’s an awful lot that it gets right. I promise.

First, The Girls gets girls right, and in that way, the novel’s unreality almost works in its favor. Girls are girls, whether it’s 1969 or now, most of their challenges the same. The novel’s framing device is that Evie, now an adult, is staying at an old friend’s beach house when that friend’s college-age son and his girlfriend Tasha stop by. The menacing gender dynamics Evie witnesses between the boyfriend and Tasha take her right back to 1969, when those same forces pushed her into the cult and kept her there. She narrates the story from there, with brief interludes from the present throughout.

I had a (positive) visceral reaction to the way Cline writes about Evie’s loss of innocence, and the observed loss of innocence of other girls, especially Tasha’s. Evie’s circumstances are extraordinary, and yet her arc is terribly mundane and familiar. At one point, she observes that young girls know instinctively that they are objects to be judged, that whatever opinion they have of themselves is subservient to the opinions of others (i.e., men). It’s such a simple observation and yet it hit me like a heart attack. I shivered. It was otherworldly in its potency, sort of like the “Cool Girl” speech in Gone Girl.

Which leads me to the second, perhaps best thing The Girls gets right: the prose. It’s so good I got a high of sorts. I re-read some pages many times just to marvel at them. Cline writes with a manic intensity that is just right for this material. Every scene was supercharged with detail and energy, especially the ones at the cult ranch. Green potatoes foraged from dumpsters, musty girls’ clothes shared from a trash bag, and the scumminess of an unmaintained pool all take on intense significance here. The drugged-up eyes of the other girls at the compound are at one point described as “bright berries.” That lingers.

There’s a constant contrast between the innocence of Evie’s whitewashed Petaluma life, which she hates, and the drugged-up depravity of the cult’s lifestyle, which she also hates, but models herself after anyway. It’s a contrast that becomes interestingly muddled as the novel goes on, less of a choice between two things than an inevitability. She moves from the first to the second as if there’s no way to move, as if growing up were the same as decaying.

And like Evie, I’m left of two minds here. I like the experience of having read The Girls. I love that its images and observations are now bouncing around my mind. But I can’t get over the fuzzy, somewhat numb experience of actually reading it. It’s long stretches of nothing punctuated with mind-blowing moments. On one hand, I admire The Girls’s single-mindedness, and on the other, I feel a little cheated by it. Focus does not require myopia, and yet in its focus on the girls, this novel feels myopic.

It’s worth noting, to that point, that this book does not mention race at all. To my understanding every single character in it is white. The more I think about it, the weirder that is. Evie certainly lives a fairly wealthy, spoiled, insulated life in Petaluma, but it’s 1969 in California. Near San Francisco. Near Oakland! It seems odd that there isn’t even a throwaway mention of race, especially given that the real Manson murders were considered by the lead prosecutor as attempts to frame the Black Panthers and spark a race war. (Some people today think that isn’t true, but it’s still such a huge part of the case that it’s strange to leave it out entirely, even in its made-up version.)

I’m white, and the narrative of white girlhood that Cline presents here resonated powerfully with me, but it’s very much a story of white girlhood. No novel needs to include every human experience (or even most of them), but in the case of The Girls, it feels like yet another important detail elided or muddled to suit the story’s ends. It makes the scaffolding of this novel feel too visible, though I love the structure beneath.

The Girls is a powerful experience. (A real trip, if you will.) I recommend it, and am glad I own it, since I’ll likely revisit it again. I just wish Cline had channeled its raw, cathartic energy into something that flowed just a little better, felt just a little more well-thought-out. Moment by moment, The Girls is astonishingly good, but its connective tissue falters. ★★★★☆

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of The Girls and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: SADIE by Courtney Summers

Sadie is a high-concept novel with a gritty punch. 19-year-old Sadie’s younger sister is murdered in a small town, and then Sadie herself disappears. A true crime podcast investigates the crime. (Or is it crimes?) Sadie feels both meta and granular, delightful and discomfiting, a story that uplifts forgotten teen girls without ever sinking into naïveté or blasé go, girl! empowerment. Courtney Summers’s prose is blistering and urgent, her tenterhooks-plotting a tour-de-force. This book is unforgettable.

Oh, and I don’t usually offer content warnings, since everyone’s triggers are different, but Sadie has some big ones, so:

Content warning: Sadie has graphic scenes of child abuse, rape, molestation, and pedophilia. If those are triggers for you, I’d recommend leaving this book on the shelf.

You can read my full review below.


Sadie Cover.jpg

Sadie by Courtney Summers

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Wednesday Books
  • publication date: September 4, 2018
  • length: 320 pages
  • cover price: $17.99

Restless teenage girls, reckless teenage girls. Teenage girls and their inevitable drama. Sadie had survived a terrible loss, and with very little effort on my part, I dismissed it. Her. I wanted a story that felt fresh, new and exciting and what about a missing teenage girl was that?

We’ve heard this story before.

–from Sadie by Courtney Summers

The first thing that struck me about Sadie was its intense sense of reality: how perfectly I could hear each line of dialogue, picture each setting, hunger for a luscious slice of apple pie, tremble with icy fear at memories that weren’t even mine. I don’t always read for reality–in fact, I often avoid it–but when a fiction author is so gifted at capturing the real world on the page, as Courtney Summers is here, magic happens. Reality becomes as vivid as CGI, as immersive as a first-person video game. Background becomes foreground. You learn the world all over again, like you fell through the looking glass last night as you slept.

Sadie is no fantasy, but reading it is fantastic.

Sadie’s lived her whole life in Cold Creek, a small town rich in natural beauty and poor in just about everything else. A high school dropout who lived for her younger sister, Mattie, Sadie’s world flies to pieces when Mattie is brutally murdered, the killer never caught. And then Sadie disappears, too.

Frustrated with local police’s tepid reaction, Sadie and Mattie’s grandmother calls in a true crime podcaster to investigate, and that’s when the novel begins: Sadie is told in alternating perspectives between the fictional podcast’s transcripts and Sadie’s own first-person narration. We’re always one step ahead of the podcast, trailing Sadie as she flees Cold Creek and seeks vigilante justice against a mysterious abuser. (Perhaps killer.)

But it soon becomes clear that Sadie isn’t telling us everything, even when she’s the one doing the telling. The tension between podcast and girl is a perfect deployment of unreliable narrators: ones that work in service of the story as well as in service of Sadie-the-novel’s brutal meta-commentary on the disposability and forgettability of girls and women.

This novel just…seethes. That’s the word that was on my tongue the whole time I read. I found that weirdly soothing, though. It was nice to be met with the same kind of feminist fury I’ve been feeling my whole life. Sadie‘s violence is relentless, but in it, I found tenderness, too. There’s tenderness in telling the truth.

Again, Sadie is fiction. But it’s remarkable how much it feels like it’s not.

So many stories of sexual and sex-based violence, especially pedophilia-related ones, are either innocence-lost stories or stories of facile revenge. They’re binary stories of either dis- or re-empowerment that place the onus of said empowerment on each girl and woman in isolation.

Meanwhile, Sadie, despite the fact that it’s named for one girl, never loses sight that Sadie is one of many girls. She’s never in isolation. You know from the first page that even if Sadie’s story ends happily (a big question mark!), hers is only one story. It would be her happy ending, not a happy ending. There are so many more. And that makes the novel burn much hotter and brighter.

It’s hard to overstate or overhype the skill Summers displays here. When half your novel is a podcast transcript, having an ear for pitch-perfect dialogue is mission critical; she nails it. (Sadie has a stutter, another detail that could have sent the dialogue awry, but it’s written flawlessly.) It’s almost hard to single out particular things Summers gets right because everything is so damn right, from characterization to plotting to her creative decisions around Sadie‘s risky, courageous ending.

I loved this book. It was the first I read in 2019, so I’m hoping that means something: for the quality of the books I’ll read this year, and also for my hopes for a world where Sadie might feel less urgent, less sharp, less real. It got 2019 off on a feminist, furious foot.

Someday I hope the message of this book will feel obsolete, but I’m certain its remarkable craft and storytelling never will be. ★★★★★

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Sadie and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: CROSS HER HEART by Sarah Pinborough

In Cross Her Heart, Lisa is a mother and career woman who’s just starting to open up after decades-old trauma she refuses to speak about. Ava is Lisa’s daughter, a frustrated teen who’s desperate to get some independence from her smothering mother. And Marilyn is Lisa’s best friend and coworker, a kind, generous woman who seems to have it all. Of course, this novel is a thriller, which means all of them are hiding secrets that threaten to tear them apart.

Cross Her Heart is a well-plotted thrill ride written in no-nonsense, clear prose that’s fun and easy to read even through the twistiest of turns. Unfortunately, I found a few of its tropes grating, and thought it was a tad too long, leaving me liking it but not loving it.

You can read my full review below.


9780062856791

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: September 4, 2018
  • length: 352 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I was lonely for a long time. In some ways, I still am. I try to be kind to lonely people now. I’ve learned that kindness is important. What else is there, really?

Cross Her Heart, page 9*

Cross Her Heart moves at breakneck speed from the very first page, when a mysterious man identified only as Him in the chapter header discovers a note from the woman who’s leaving him. Bitch, he thinks. And with that, Cross Her Heart establishes that this is a story about the cruelty women endure, mostly at the hands of men, but sometimes at the hands of each other.

It alternates between the perspectives of three women (with a few additional perspectives thrown in here and there): mother Lisa, daughter Ava, and Lisa’s best friend Marilyn. Each is obviously holding something back, but Sarah Pinborough manages the withholding deftly, unspooling the plot just fast enough to keep you flipping pages. She writes each perspective in an open, first-person style that feels disarming in a thriller. From that disarmingly open quality comes the thrills.

Pinborough is an eminently talented writer. I was in awe of the lightness of her prose compared with the darkness of her subject matter and the density with which she needs to keep throwing us clues and red herrings. She’s written over 20 books between pen names, so it’s clear she knows what she’s doing. This was one of the first twisty-turny books I’ve ever read where I think I was able to keep a handle on the plot the entire time–that’s a good thing, since being surprised is a good feeling, but being confused is not.

Unfortunately, despite the quality of the writing and the obvious care with which the plot has been drawn, the actual events and characters of Cross Her Heart didn’t grab me, and in some cases, actively pissed me off.

First, Cross Her Heart has a sordid, mushy, nastiness to it. There’s a lot of unpleasant sex, vicious abuse, slimy office drama, incompetent cops, and opportunistic, cruel paparazzi. These details are the spice to a lot of successful thrillers, but in Cross Her Heart they feel not quite repellent nor fun enough to drive the plot. They clunked leadenly across the page, making me feel sad and bored instead of interested.

Cross Her Heart also has a strong bent of female empowerment to it that is at times glorious, but more often struck me as hollow and almost silly. The close female friendship between Lisa and Marilyn veers from cliché to interesting and then back to cliché; Ava is at times a believable teenager who’s understandably struggling to live with her mother’s strange moods, and at times a sullen kid who makes terrible, horror movie, don’t go upstairs, what the hell, are you kidding me!!!!-type decisions.

I think that while Pinborough excels at plot, she’s less good at characterization–at least in this novel–and that results in characters occasionally doing things that are wildly out of character for the sake of the next move in Cross Her Heart’s chess game.

At least the female characters feel at least little bit real, whereas the male characters range from cartoonishly evil to a cartoonishly good-hearted deus ex machina. It’s an intriguing flip from the usual thriller problem of terribly characterized women and just-okay men, but that doesn’t make it good writing.

Next, I’m going to give some very light spoilers in the paragraph below, because they’re important to my lukewarm reaction to this book. Skip if you’d like to go in totally cold.

Most frustratingly of all for me, towards the end of Cross Her Heart, there’s a distinct tone of lesbian panic, which fully spoiled the “girl power” qualities of the book. I’m not going to go into details, but when your gayest character is also the most evil, it’s going to rub me the wrong way. (Looking at you, Disney movies.) It’s not that you can’t have a queer baddie, but Cross Her Heart’s baddie seems to be evil partially because she’s queer and sexually frustrated, which, ugh.

/spoilers.

Lastly, Cross Her Heart is just slightly too long. It could definitely have done with a twist or two edited away; my nominee would be the final reveal, which removed some intriguing moral ambiguity and made it less satisfying. The pages still flew by, but the excessive length made Cross Her Heart‘s flaws more noticeable.

It’s silly to ding a book for following genre conventions; I love thrillers, Cross Her Heart is a thriller, and sordidness is a key element of thrillers. The taboo is part of the thrill. But I was frustrated at the particular sordid buttons Pinborough decided to push here. As competent and enjoyable as Cross Her Heart is, it lacks the spark that makes dirty secrets fun instead of just dirty.

I’m glad I read Cross Her Heart, but I just didn’t love it. I’d recommend it for people who are true thriller fans, but if your experience with the genre is primarily through crossover authors like Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, you might have a harder time with it.

For all its twists, Cross Her Heart still feels like a train on a straight track. Its thrills come from its breakneck speed and Pinborough’s obvious skill as a conductor, but there’s nothing truly special about the ride. ★★★☆☆


I received a copy of Cross Her Heart from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

*Page numbers and quotes came from my advance reader copy, which is an uncorrected proof. These may be different in the final version of the book.

Book Review: USEFUL PHRASES FOR IMMIGRANTS by May-Lee Chai

I am having another week of feeling Extremely Not Well–it turns out chronic illnesses are, well, chronic! –which means I’m not able to give May-Lee Chai’s newest short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, the full review it deserves. I thought I’d do the next-best thing for this lovely book and write a shorter review instead.

Read it below!


Useful Phrases for Immigrants Cover.jpg

Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-Lee Chai

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Blair (an independent publisher)
  • publication date: October 23, 2018
  • length: 166 pages
  • cover price: $16.95

Like that, he felt a stab of ice shoot through his body. He knew in an instant, less than a heartbeat, his luck could change.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants, page 60, “The Body”

Useful Phrases for Immigrants is a slim and unassuming short story collection with oomph in its aftertaste; quiet but powerful in the way only truly experienced and confident writers can achieve. (Author May-Lee Chai is certainly experienced: Useful Phrases is her tenth book. I’ve previously read and loved her YA novel, Dragon Chica, about a girl struggling to adjust to life as a refugee in the U.S. after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime with her family.)

Chai’s style is both understated and vivid, especially in my favorite stories in the collection, the titular “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” “First Carvel in Beijing,” and “Shouting Means I Love You.” I particularly enjoyed how diverse Chai’s subjects are: nearly all are Chinese and/or Chinese American, and among them are gay and bi people, Taoists and Buddhists and Catholics, Californians and New Yorkers, the poor and middle class, country kids and urban ones, small children and wizened adults. (Most of the characters are women, something I also appreciate.) Rather than hammer home one single point about one single thing, Chai layers her conflicts like ambitious, gorgeous piano chords.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants exemplifies what good literary fiction can do: it broadens your understanding of what it means to feel human, or happy, or sad, or angry, or bitter, or delighted, or victorious, or often, a little of all of those things at once. It does this without feeling cloying or heavy. It’s a cliché of writing advice, but showing really does go farther than telling, and Chai is a master of showing. She doesn’t tell you what to pay attention to in each tableau; she just creates eight beautiful tableaus that you’ll find yourself thinking about for a long time afterwards.

I absolutely loved Useful Phrases for Immigrants. Even if you’re not sure if you’ll like it, at only 166 pages, it’s easy to take a risk on. ★★★★★


My copy of Useful Phrases for Immigrants came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: STARLESS by Jacqueline Carey

Starless is a wildly ambitious fantasy adventure about a world where stars were banished from the sky after conspiring against their sun-and-moons parents, sent to the earth as gods who play games with the lives of the mortals who worship them. A prophecy foretells a devastating apocalypse, but in the Sun-Blessed desert land of Zarkhoum, such doom seems far away: warrior wunderkind Khai is too busy learning to fight to defend the Sun to his Shadow, Princess Zariya, whom he’s never met. Of course the two ultimately end up on a high-stakes quest–this is a Jacqueline Carey novel, after all.

I adored this book for a million reasons, and it’s easily one of my favorites of the year. You can read my full review below.

This review contains spoilers. They are marked so you can skip over them if you want to go in completely cold.


34357122

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble IndieBound

  • publisher: Tor Books
  • publication date: June 12, 2018
  • length: 592 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I was nine years old the first time I tried to kill a man, and although in the end I was glad my attempt failed, I had been looking forward to the opportunity for quite some months.

Starless, page 1

Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before: a fated warrior hooks up with a motley crew to fulfill a prophecy and annihilate an ultimate evil. Just like that’s the plot of a thousand fantasy books before it, it’s basically the plot of Starless. But upon this sturdy scaffolding, Jacqueline Carey builds a fantasy that’s stunningly affecting and unique.

Starless follows Khai, a young and gifted warrior raised in the desert as a fated companion to Princess Zariya. Both born during a lunar eclipse, they are Shadow and Sun, respectively, with an emotional and physical bond no one can break. Starless is a long novel with so many different settings and twists that you’ll feel a different person at the end of it than you were at the beginning.

That’s a good thing, and it’s exactly why I (and I suspect many others) love epic fantasy novels when we might not tolerate such long books in other genres. There’s something so cathartic and pure about that journey from humble to hero, and with characters as lovely, heroic, and complex as Khai and Zariya, it’s an even more satisfying journey than usual.

If you’re already familiar with Carey, it’s probably because of her Kushiel novels. Kushiel’s Dart, the first installment, introduced the world to the unforgettable courtesan-spy Phèdre nó Delauney. I’m a die-hard fan of that series, and I picked up Starless looking for another fix of Carey’s sensual, intricate, unpredictable approach to plotting and world-building.

Kushiel’s Dart is known for being incredibly opulent and erotic, but I think its enduring draw lies in its goodness, almost a purity: despite its kinky, dark elements, it’s full of characters who love and seek to do good with their whole hearts. It’s a series I’ve been turning to a lot in a world that feels increasingly devoid of heroes.

To my surprise (at first worried, then pleasant), Carey takes Starless in a very different direction to Kushiel. Where those books dripped with sex and wealth and desire, Starless’s world is quieter, more stark, and more alien. The gods of Kushiel mostly watch over their own; the gods of Starless are capricious and even cowardly. The map of Kushiel is recognizable; Starless takes place in a holy (and literally starless) archipelago unlike any you’d find in our world.

Carey is clearly fascinated by the relationships between mortals and immortals, and that fascination comes across as just plain weird in Starless where it was more conventional in Kushiel. I think it’s a good kind of weird. Carey is a beloved author at the top of her game who can take big risks. They pay off.

Starless’s world is so intricate that it’s genuinely shocking to me that Carey just…came up with it, as opposed to unearthing it on a sacred tablet somewhere. Her clear inspirations range from the Middle East (complete with “veiled” women, though they veil to honor a fiery goddess and not because of Islam), to northern Europe, to the jungles of Australia and South America. But most of the cultures and histories of Starless have no clear inspiration at all. These details make unforgettable cameos and then disappear, almost as if Carey is showing off the depths of her imagination. I loved it.

Starless is also full of characters who in our world wouldn’t be considered white–there are lots of descriptions of different skin tones and hair textures, and the protagonists are described as “dark-skinned” with dark eyes–which is refreshing.

The descriptor I keep coming back to for Starless is rich: this book is a delicious, perfectly spiced, and filling meal. You don’t know how the chef made it but you can’t stop eating.

Most of all, I loved the attention Carey pays to sex and gender, which is unsurprising after Kushiel’s Dart (a true innovator in fantasy in this area) but still a novelty. What I’d like to talk about is something of a twist, so I’ve placed it behind a spoilers tag:

Highlight to read spoilers:

We find out about 1/5th of the way through the book that Khai was female at birth, but because of his status as a fated Shadow, was raised as a man while training in the desert. This is hidden from him until puberty, when his body starts to change. He ultimately develops a nonbinary identity that’s really nuanced and interesting and that felt completely true to the character.

I’m nonbinary myself and I want to buy this book for every other nonbinary or trans person I know. It’s something that’s integral to the plot and world without feeling like an after-school special “issue,” and the representation meant the world to me.

End spoilers.

There was one thing I didn’t like about Starless: Carey feeds into an unfortunate fantasy trope that grates on me, the one where fatness is equated with greed and weakness. Literally the only characters described as “fat” are portrayed as pathetic tricksters, monsters, and even child rapists. (She throws out weak allusions to other characters with “curves” who aren’t portrayed negatively, but the word “fat” definitely equals “bad” in this novel.) Fatness is not a sign of immorality! As a fat person, I was really disturbed that Carey leans on this when she’s so good at evading stereotype everywhere else. It’s infrequent enough that it didn’t ruin my enjoyment, but I wanted to mention it, since it’s a terrible flaw in an otherwise wonderful book.

Carey’s imagination is full of riches, and her skills as a writer have only strengthened in the many years since Kushiel’s Dart. This novel is an electric testament to what happens when you let fantasy be fantasy: the farther it gets from our own world (and the world of Tolkien-lite), the truer and more riveting it gets. It tugs on heartstrings and cuts right to the bone.

Starless is damn near flawless. ★★★★★

Related books you might also enjoy:


My copy of Starless came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: EVENTIDE by Therese Bohman

Eventide follows Karolina Andersson, an art history professor who finds herself in a personal (and possibly, career) rut after a passionless breakup with a long-term partner, Karl Johan. Drifting aimlessly through life in Stockholm, she becomes involved with several old and new flames, along with a good-looking graduate student who promises to have unearthed a secret for his dissertation that could revolutionize the history of Swedish art. It’s a spare, self-contained novel that feels both achingly melancholy and surprisingly light on its feet. I am always charmed by novels that choose a small story to tell and then execute it perfectly; Eventide is such a novel. At times Eventide feels just a little too small, but its precise prose (translated from the original Swedish) and outsize emotional power make it more than worth the read.

You can read my full review below.


9781590518939

Eventide by Therese Bohman (translated by Marlaine Delargy)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Other Press
  • publication date: April 10, 2018 (originally published in Sweden in 2016)
  • length: 208 pages
  • cover price: $15.95

…Karolina liked her new home. It had soon begun to feel like an oasis, a space of her own, maybe somewhere she could make a fresh start, even if that was still some way beyond the horizon. For the moment it was a good location for a period of aimless confusion.

Eventide, page 5

I am struck, frequently, by how few books we have that are really about women. Not just starring women, not just written by women, but about women. It’s not that books about women are inherently better than other kinds of books. I’d just as soon read books that are about dragons, or sword-fighting, or cold-blooded murder, or pirates, or even about men.

It’s just that there are so many women, and so few stories about them, that the artificial scarcity hurts my heart. It boggles my mind. So when I find a book like Eventide, which is an intimate, specific, compassionate, but not sappy novel that is intensely concerned with the woman at its center, I find myself with an abundance of goodwill towards that book, maybe even unfairly.

Luckily, Eventide deserves that goodwill. It’s a tightly crafted, slim novel about an art professor, generically named Karolina Andersson, who is dealing with personal and professional upheaval. She’s good at her job, as far as the reader can tell, but she finds herself romantically adrift and desperately sad about it. She ends a long-term relationship because she knew it wasn’t the right fit, but endlessly despairs that that relationship, flawed as it was, might have been her only shot.

The novel circles this self-pitying drain for nearly its entire duration, but somehow, it rarely feels stale or overdone. In fact, it’s refreshing.

In a less skilled author’s hands, Eventide might only have been one more novel about the “biological clock.” For Bohman, Eventide‘s basic plot is a probing instrument to get at all sorts of unjust truths about society, even a society as supposedly egalitarian as Stockholm, Sweden’s.

The driving force of the plot is that Andersson’s newly assigned Ph.D candidate, Anton Strömberg, has uncovered a startling connection between an obscure female Swedish artist and a male-dominated German arts movement. If this sounds boring and academic, I understand; I’m not sure how to convince you that it’s not boring, other than to say that it isn’t.

Bohman infuses Karolina and Anton’s interactions with a tautness and sexuality that make the art rather secondary. That’s true of all the art history in the book, in fact. For Karolina (and the reader, at least for Eventide‘s duration), the intellectual and the sensual are inseparable.

I dislike when people try and reduce feminism in fiction to feminist characters. Is Katniss Everdeen a feminist character? Is Lizzie Bennett? Hester Prynne? And so on, and so forth. I think a better question is whether or not a novel fully realizes the power structures that women are subjected to. By expecting perfection from our heroines, I fear that we are doing the opposite of feminism.

In contrast, Karolina’s imperfection was the thing I loved most about Eventide, even when I found her to be frustrating, unethical, and claustrophobically self-centered; even when I found her story to be a bit boring and repetitive. This is a novel that understands that there is no right thing to do or say that makes things fair in a profoundly unfair world. Sometimes things go badly, and there’s little morality (or immorality) to it.

Towards the end of the novel, there’s a long meditation on the fact that no one really “deserves” anything, so you might as well strive for what you want. In a lot of fiction and pop culture, this viewpoint (which is hardly unique) comes across as defeatist or greedy; in Eventide, though, it feels different:

If no one deserves anything, that means you are just as entitled to the good things in life as the rival you hate, as the ex-lover you vilify. There is no need to keep hating them or vilifying them or giving them endless mental energy when you can simply ignore them and pursue your own desires. You are not more, or less, moral for doing so.

Eventide suggests that endlessly sorting ourselves into “deserving” and “undeserving” is a trap we can free ourselves from. It’s a message, without being, in the preachy sense, a Message.

Eventide has a small and perfectly balanced center of gravity. It is not a novel that is explosive, glorious, unforgettable, or even vivid. It is simply a little thing done well, modest and purely itself. It’s the person at the party who’s quiet all night, and then says one tiny thing just before leaving that stays with you forever.

In short, Eventide is lovely. ★★★★☆


My copy of Eventide came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.