Book Review: THE RED by Tiffany Reisz

The Red is a stand-alone erotic novel that follows a year in the life of Mona St. James, who swears to do anything to save her late mother’s art gallery from bankruptcy–but when a mysterious stranger offers to purchase a year of sexual carte blanche in exchange for a million dollars’ worth of priceless art, Mona’s definition of “anything” is put to the test. In The Red, Tiffany Reisz has created a near-flawless piece of erotic fantasy that dances right up to the edge of taboo while still maintaining a wickedly funny (and sexy) highbrow sensibility.

Read my full review below–and be aware that because The Red is a work of erotica, my review might get a little, er…spicy. I’ll do my best to keep it PG-13.


9781537217765.jpg

The Red by Tiffany Reisz

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: 8th Circle Press
  • publication date: May 7, 2017
  • isbn (trade paperback): 978-1537217765
  • length: 248 pages

I delight in fiction that mixes the highbrow and lowbrow, but I’ve never encountered a novel quite as cleverly subversive as The Red. If you’ve ever wanted a book where Manet and Picasso are referenced as often as the protagonist’s c**t, then this is it.

The novel’s premise is more daydream than reality: Mona St. James is a stunningly beautiful art gallery proprietor whose mother’s slow decline and death have driven the gallery–known as The Red–to the brink of bankruptcy. In the first few pages, all seems lost, but of course it is not; the tension serves only to ensure that when the dashing, British, and fabulously wealthy Malcolm sets foot in the gallery late one night, there’s no doubt as to whether or not Mona will agree to his offer to make her his “whore.”

Brooding BDSM billionaires are a dime-a-dozen in the post-Fifty Shades erotic landscape, but The Red gets to the heart of why the archetype is so appealing: with unlimited money comes unlimited safety as well as wish-fulfillment: safety from debt, safety from crummy jobs and unpleasant tasks, safety to follow our dreams.

Reisz mines every drop of erotic power from dynamics of safety and un-safety, whether it’s physical, financial, emotional, or all three. Malcolm is unfailingly caring toward Mona, meaning the sex can get rougher without seeming abusive or exploitative; when Malcolm beats Mona 100 times with a riding crop, it is foreplay for the most tenderly consensual sex scene I’ve ever read, and when he “auctions” Mona off to an audience of strange men, the act feels soul-searching instead of foul.

Why is playing at sexual submission and subservience so erotic, The Red seems to ask, when real-world oppression and chattel slavery are unquestionably horrifying? Of course, this question is secondary to the searingly hot sex that encompasses most of the novel, but its subtle presence ratchets up the tension.

The only false note here–and it’s a very minor one–is the way that The Red’s paranormal element concludes, which is speedily. The paranormal element came as a surprise to me to begin with, so the incomplete-seeming resolution gave me mild whiplash. That said, I can’t feel too jilted, as I do think Reisz was wise to keep the plot to a minimum and the sex to a maximum. On one hand, I was left with a few unanswered questions; on the other, I was rewarded with a novel so tightly strung that even a paragraph or two of extra detail might have spoiled the tension.

Guilt and shame characterize the American relationship to the erotic, but The Red pulls the ultimate magic trick, transforming these forbidden desires into a potent exploration of the human heart. This novel is a marvel. 5/5 stars.


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

Friday Bookbag, 1.12.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.


9781101906118The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I don’t know why the idea of this book–an allegorical story of sexism, violation, and self-denial about a Korean woman who decides to become a vegetarian–captured me so intensely, but ever since its appearance on nearly every “best of 2016” list out there, I’ve been dying to read it. I managed to snag one of my library’s e-book copies, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Kang’s devastating world–during the daytime with the lights on, of course.

Bonus: The Vegetarian’s English-language translator, Deborah Smith, has an excellent essay in the LA Review of Books this week titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation.”

9780307476074Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Goodreads | Amazon Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: Hiking is such a healing, cleansing activity for me that I can’t wait to read this memoir built on that exact premise: When Cheryl Strayed lost everything, she embarked on a solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail–one of the most brutal hiking trails in America. Though this book has been a smash success for years (especially after the release of the movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon), I’ve never read it. As of this Friday morning, the Kindle e-book is on sale for $3.99, if it sounds like your cup of tea.

9780812988024The Girls by Emma Cline

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: The Girls was another Kindle e-book on deep sale this morning, but I’ll admit this was more of an impulse purchase than Wild, which I’ve had in my sights for awhile.

The Girls is (I think?) a novel about the Manson cult, but that’s not even the top draw for me: more importantly, it seems like a novel about female friendship and the costs of getting sucked into a bad, bad crowd. It’s set in California in the late ’60s, one of my very favorite settings, since hippie California’s truth is even stranger than its fiction. I’m looking forward to diving in.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE FALL OF LISA BELLOW by Susan Perabo

Susan Perabo has written a difficult novel–and I’m still unsure how I feel about it. The Fall of Lisa Bellow is the story of two middle schoolers’ encounter with an armed robber, but it’s also a novel about a marriage, dentistry, and cliques. The novel packs a punch but manages to also feel unsatisfying; Perabo uncovers remarkable truths of the human spirit while also leaving them utterly unresolved. My reaction to each page ranged wildly from speechless awe to eye rolls: really? I am sure of one thing, though: I can’t get this book out of my head.

Bear all that in mind when you read my full review, below.


9781476761466

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: March 14, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-4767-6146-6
  • length: 352 pages

Mass shootings and kidnappings of beautiful white girls both loom large in the American imagination; Perabo relies on this inherent tension in The Fall of Lisa Bellow, though her masked gunman never actually fires a shot. Rather, as two middle school rivals lie terrified and facedown on the floor of a Deli Barn (a stand-in for Subway, as best I can tell), the reader realizes that this story isn’t about the gunman at all. It’s about the tension between the girl he chooses to take with him and the one he leaves behind.

The one he takes is Lisa Bellow, a middle school queen bee both loved and loathed by the student body. The one he leaves is Meredith Oliver, an awkward, quiet girl who is neither popular nor unpopular, but aspires to more. When Lisa is taken, Meredith becomes the new ringleader of Lisa’s clique, and unbeknownst to everyone else, Meredith also develops a strange psychic connection to Lisa, able to “see” and even participate in her new life with her kidnapper (and rapist).

Despite the novel’s riveting premise, the plot crawls along with agonizing slowness, invested in spooling and unspooling the dozens of ways the tragedy could have been altered or prevented–basically, if you’re expecting a literary thriller in the mode of Gillian Flynn, you won’t get it. While Perabo’s language is gorgeous and her eye for tension keen, the novel seems to actively deny readers any sort of catharsis, and it left me exhausted, confused, and surprisingly cold.

PSA: The next part of this review could be considered a spoiler, so if you care about that, you can stop reading here–I hope I’ve already made my complicated feelings clear. But they’ll be clearer if you read on.

The reader is eventually left with the conclusion that Meredith’s “connection” to Lisa might be–in fact, probably is–a one-sided way to understand a traumatic event, and not a psychic connection at all. It’s a revelation that’s both brilliant and cheap, believable and anticlimactic. Of course a bright and imaginative middle-schooler would forge that kind of bond with a girl she still feels guilty about hating. Of course.

It makes for terrible reading regardless, and left me asking: How else was I lied to? It’s the confusion of an unreliable narrator with none of the interest or excitement that the device usually supplies.

Spoilers over!

Compounding my feeling that Perabo doesn’t know quite what she wants to achieve with this novel is the array of side characters and subplots that range from only mildly compelling to outright annoying.

Meredith’s mother, Claire, is also a central character; the novel is told in close-focus third-person, alternating between them. We explore Claire’s complicated marriage, her complicated feelings about her son’s (Meredith brother’s) eye injury that will keep him from a once-inevitable career in baseball, her complicated feelings toward being a dentist, her complicated feelings toward her mother’s death and her stepmother, her complicated feelings toward an almost-affair she had 20 years ago, and her complicated feelings toward Lisa Bellow’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks mother, Colleen Bellow.

It’s all just complicated, something I would normally consider a good thing as opposed to flat clichés, but paired with Perabo’s stubborn refusal to satisfyingly conclude any of these subplots, it’s maddening. This novel has one of the most ridiculously inconclusive conclusions I’ve ever experienced, and it made me angry I’d wasted my time with it.

Sure, there are good times along the way–but The Fall of Lisa Bellow ends on a note so bitterly pointless that it poisons my memory of the rest. 3/5 stars.

P.S. While I’m here, let me also say that this novel commits a cardinal sin: it names the race of the few characters of color, but doesn’t explicitly denote the white characters. It’s sloppy craft that worsened the feeling of un-resolution.


My copy of The Fall of Lisa Bellow came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Short Story Roundup, 1.10.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.


A Few Nondescript Adventures of Some Consequence” by Maya Jewell Zeller

  • genre: beats me–but the closest fit is probably magical realism.
  • publication: Booth
  • date: November 3, 2017
  • why I loved it: This story is off the wall and I’m still not sure I understand it, but Zeller’s wordplay grabbed me on an intuitive and deeply enjoyable level regardless. “Office Girl” and “University Hero” embark on a kooky love affair that concludes in a surprisingly affecting manner.

Ghost Boyfriend” by Larissa Pham

  • genre: a blend of magical realism, realistic fiction, and allegory.
  • publication: Triangle House Review
  • date: late 2017 (in Triangle House Review’s inaugural issue)
  • why I loved it: A friend’s dead boyfriend rises from the grave, inserting major drama into the lives of a trio of artists. It’s a big concept, but Pham’s attention to small sensory details–whether it’s the way a penis looks in boxers, the taste of stale beer, or the soft green of pine needles–is what truly elevates this story.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Friday Bookbag, 1.5.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I ran a little wild in the nonfiction and memoir section of the Kindle Store this week and have an abundance of riches to share, so my descriptions of each book will be more abbreviated than they’ve been in previous weeks.

Ready? Let’s dive in.


9781492649359The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This real-life story of the factory workers who were poisoned by the glow-in-the-dark radium paint used to paint the faces of watches is almost too sad and bizarre to believed. I find radioactivity fascinating and would be interested in this book for that alone, but as a bonus, this book has also received rave reviews.

9781250080547The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: In a culture that has a difficult relationship with sex to begin with, sexual crimes and abuse become even more difficult to unpack. Marzano-Lesnevich’s memoir contrasts her own horrifying history of being sexually abused by a family member with that of a man whose murder of a child was sexually motivated. This book has received less critical adoration than some of the others I bought this week, but I’m intrigued by its blend of true crime and raw memoir.

9780544786769This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love Gabourey Sidibe’s particular brand of carefree style and her amazing sense of humor. I’m not usually interested in celebrity memoirs, but Sidibe isn’t an ordinary super-rich, disconnected celebrity. Best-known for her Oscar-nominated role in Precious, Sidibe has also appeared on American Horror Story: Coven, Difficult People, and Empire. She’s one of the celebrities I’d most like to meet in real life, and I’m hoping this memoir is just as down-to-earth as I’ve found her online presence and acting to be.

9781616204624Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This was my biggest impulse-buy of the shopping spree. Who knows if this book will turn out to be as compelling as its eye-catching cover, but I love good science writing and I’ll admit that I’m curious as to why cannibalism is such an intensely repulsive taboo. The line between “animal” and “human” has always seemed disconcertingly thin to me, and it looks like this book will explore that quite a bit.

9780062422910My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward: A Memoir by Mark Lukach

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I’ve experienced a week-long stay in a psych ward myself, and I absolutely love memoirs about psych wards, as painful as they can be to read. I know that my own experience of mental illness has been devastating–although my health has improved a lot since that week five years ago–and I’m intrigued about the perspective Mark Lukach has as the spouse of someone with severe mental illness. I’m sure that this is going to be a heart-wrenching read for me, but I hope it will be a healing one, too.

9780062379290The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love food, I love history, and I especially love Southern food and Southern history. What a treat for me that this book includes all of that. Twitty explores the unique forces that have shaped African American cuisine in the Deep South, from slavery to African heritage to religion. I’ll have to keep snacks on hand while reading, because I can guarantee that this book will make me hungry. Its goal of tracing African American lineage in the South reminds me a lot of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a novel I adored, so I’m excited for that element as well.

9780062362599Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love Roxane Gay’s Twitter and used to obsessively read her short stories available online, but I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read any of her books. Bad Feminist, her collection of essays, has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I’m planning to finally tackle it this month–but I’m actually more excited about this memoir, which unpacks her history of disordered eating. I’ve struggled with guilt about my weight for years and am looking forward to reading a book by another fat person about the complexities of the experience.

9781328663795Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: Okay, so this one’s cheating a little bit…this book was actually my Christmas present to my partner during our annual trip to Barnes & Noble, where we each pick out a book for the other. An account of the relationship between Nazi Germany and drugs, particularly heroin and methamphetamine, this book caused quite a stir when it was initially published in Germany and I can’t wait to read it when she’s finished.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: GOODBYE, VITAMIN by Rachel Khong

Rachel Khong’s novel about a quarter-life-crisis is weird, funny, and sneakily devastating. When 30-something protagonist Ruth returns home after a messy breakup to help care for her father, who has recently developed dementia, she finds that her family is quietly falling apart; in response, Ruth begins to keep an aimless diary of her days that’s full of meditations on the meaning of life, love, and memory. (Also, terrible vegetable puns.) It’s utterly delightful.

Read my full review below.


9781250109163

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Henry Holt and Company (imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: July 11, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-250-10916-3
  • length: 208 pages

I’m wary of “quirky” books, because I often think “quirkiness” is a cover for sloppy craft that tosses random happenstance together and calls it a plot. If you feel the same, I’m sorry to tell you that Goodbye, Vitamin is very California-quirky. (At one point, protagonist Ruth and her best friend Bonnie get paid to seat-fill for the Oscars.) But I’d also like to reassure you that Rachel Khong knows what she’s doing, and that I am deeply in love with this book, and hope you will be, too.

With a title like Goodbye, Vitamin, humor is to be expected; what I didn’t expect was this novel’s absorbing, infectious charm.

The conceit is that Ruth returns home after painful split with her ex-fiancé in order to care for her aging father who has just been diagnosed with dementia. While she also shares meaningful moments with her mother and brother (and a cute grad student named Theo), Goodbye, Vitamin is squarely a father-daughter novel. The perspective flits between Ruth’s first-person and an almost-second-person–you, Ruth’s father–for whom the reader is a sort of proxy.

There is something uniquely frightening about memory loss, and that fear anchors the novel, epitomized by Ruth’s obsessive search for “dementia-fighting” foods like jellyfish, juice shots, and cruciferous vegetables. She knows she’s prolonging the inevitable, but it can’t hurt, right?

Meanwhile, her father leaves scraps of paper for her to find; his own diary of Ruth’s childhood, full of chestnuts like:

Today you asked me what “Dick” meant, and while I was deciding what direction I should take, you said, “Mom said you were one.”

Ruth’s devotion to her father, despite his faults–she quickly discovers that he was a philanderer and alcohol abuser during her years-long period of family avoidance–is deadly serious, lending credibility to the more whimsical plot points, including the creation of a fake class for her father (a former history professor) to “teach,” complete with real grad students.

Sure, I don’t really believe that grad students would devote so much time to the charade, especially when it involves expensive outings to Disneyland, but Khong’s distinctive prose style–which always feels firmly in media res–left me eager to play along.

For every dose of whimsy, there were also painful moments that cut me to the bone. Ruth’s life is perhaps more off the rails than average, but her anger that life has been nothing like she hoped it would be is universally intelligible. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ruth’s relationship with her mother, who is both an aspirational and pitiable figure; a beautiful, competent woman deeply hurt by her husband’s carelessness and by her daughter’s years-long estrangement.

No family is perfect is a truism, but Khong elevates the sentiment with every bizarre particularity of this family–recognizable not for their actions but rather, for the universal harm and humor they enact upon each other.

The novel is short at 208 pages; consider it an infusion of insight as potent as a cabbage juice shot–but far more pleasant.  5/5 stars.


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

Short Story Roundup, 1.3.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.


No Good” by Hala Alyan

  • genre: literary/realistic
  • publication: The Rumpus
  • date: December 2017
  • why I loved it: “No Good” is a snapshot of cruelty and self-destruction that took my breath away. It’s a reminder of the way love can harm as easily as heal, and its fluid, lovely prose will uplift you even as its plot drags you down. Hala Alyan is a poet, both figuratively and literally, and her grasp of language and the human heart is truly inspiring.

The Little Rogue” by Maria Kuznetsova

  • genre: literary/realistic
  • publication: Keyhole Magazine
  • date: Fall 2015
  • why I loved it: Rufina, the failed actress at the center of “The Little Rogue,” is vain, out of touch, and more than a little silly, but in Kuznetsova’s skilled hands, her unlikeability is also her charm. We are all unlikeable in some way, and this story’s skillful blend of love, pity, and lampooning made me feel intensely connected to a character whose life experience is vastly different from my own.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed this week? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!