Book Review: GUN LOVE by Jennifer Clement

Gun Love, about a mother and daughter who live in their car in a Florida trailer park and the “gun love” and trafficking they get tangled up in, is always dark but never heavy; Jennifer Clement’s prose is so gentle and beautiful that I’m convinced she could write a textbook about the most awful subjects imaginable and it would still be a joy to read. Gun Love has the close-focus, raw feel of an indie movie–in fact, it has a lot in common topically and tonally with 2017’s The Florida Project–but it’s never brutal or tortured. It’s an “issue book” that’s actually enjoyable to read–and what an enormous accomplishment that is, especially when the issue (America’s toxic relationship with guns) is so fraught and urgent.

You can read my full review below.


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Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

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  • publisher: Hogarth Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: March 6, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $25.00

My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.

My mother was so sweet, her hands were always birthday-party sticky. Her breath held the five flavors of Life Savers candy.

And she knew all the love songs that are a university for love. She knew “Slowly Walk Close to Me,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and all the I’ll-kill-you-if-you-leave-me songs.

But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd.

Gun Love, page 1

There’s a corner that stories written in the first person get backed into, and it’s that in the real world, most people don’t articulate their thoughts very well. First person stories need to sound authentic–you can’t sock-puppet haunting, lyrical prose from someone who wouldn’t speak and think in haunting, lyrical ways–but stories also need to be well-written, and those goals are sometimes at odds.

Gun Love is written in the first person from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl, Pearl France, who’s been raised all her life in a car parked in a decaying trailer park. She’s malnourished and tiny for her age; she’s being slowly poisoned by the dump behind the park and the Raid her mother sprays every night to keep the mosquitos down. School is a joke with no bearing on her life, and she doesn’t even have a proper birth certificate. Worst of all, her mother has fallen in love with Eli, a man with a deep undercurrent of trouble that Pearl senses from the start.

Pearl has every right to hate her life and never see the beauty in it. What’s amazing about Gun Love, however, is that it’s a book very deeply concerned with beauty, even in the most difficult of places. Pearl’s voice is as haunting and lyrical as they come, but it somehow rings completely true.

A frequent complaint I have on this blog is that some books revel in darkness and grittiness in ways that are tortuous to read. The events of Gun Love are shocking and horrible–unsurprisingly, it’s thick with gun violence–but Clement’s touch is so light that I never found myself dragged down by it. In one scene, a pair of conjoined alligator twins are found in the river near the trailer park. Reporters and gawkers rush into the trailer park to take in their beauty and strangeness; then, overnight, someone shoots the twins to pieces with a machine gun. It’s a senseless and yet understandable act. In Gun Love, beauty and death entwine in intoxicating and original ways that you can’t look away from–you don’t even want to look away.

It helps that every single character in the novel is fascinating and empathetic, even the murderous ones. My particular favorites were Mr. Brodsky, an aging Jewish foster parent who takes in “shoots,” children whose biological parents have been murdered, and Noelle, an autistic 30-year-old woman who loves Barbie dolls and speaks mostly in fortune cookie quotes. If Clement were less skilled, these people might have come off like pathetic caricatures of poverty and desperation. Instead, they are vibrant, resilient, and full of agency, lovable even when they do unforgivable things.

Over the course of the novel, Pearl hardens and freezes as her mother softens and melts, a testament to how hard it is to grow up at all, much less to grow up in circumstances so literally toxic. (Gun Love definitely has YA crossover appeal.) The mother/daughter relationship in this book reminded me of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, though the mothers in question couldn’t be more different. The through-line of violence traveling through generations is powerful and adds even more depth to the novel.

Another favorite through-line of mine was Selena Quintanilla’s murder. A Mexican couple at the trailer park traffic in guns (as do most of their white neighbors) but they also idolize Selena and mourn her murder daily, especially the wife, Corazón. It’s a taut irony that drives the narrative home without feeling overdone.

In Gun Love, guns are Pandora’s box–its characters can’t live with them yet can’t live without them; they can’t live with the hatred and suffering they dole out yet also can’t live without the power and joy they bring, too. This novel is a nuanced and empathetic gift. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.


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

Book Review: ORPHAN MONSTER SPY by Matt Killeen

It’s hard to think of a novel I’ve read recently that seems more destined to make the leap into film than this one. Orphan Monster Spy–about a blonde and blue-eyed Jewish girl who becomes a spy at a Nazi boarding school after her mother’s murder in 1939–is a thrilling, risky, messy, wonderful firecracker of a novel. Dialogue is a weak point, and sometimes the novel’s little nods to the rise of Naziism in the U.S. today threatened to pull me out of this ostensibly historical fiction. But I can’t be too harsh–Matt Killeen works magic on every page, and Orphan Monster Spy is unlike anything else I’ve read. It’s technically YA, but I’d recommend it for anyone who loves taut, cinematic thrillers in the vein of Atomic Blonde (a.k.a. The Coldest City) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

You can read my full review below.


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Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

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  • publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: March 20, 2018
  • length: 432 pages
  • cover price: $18.99

Finally, the car came to a stop. With difficulty, Sarah opened her eyes, blinked to clear her vision, and looked up from her hiding place in the footwell. Her mother was slumped in the driver’s seat, her head against the top of the steering wheel. She was gazing through the spokes to where Sarah crouched. Her mother’s eyes were almost the same, wide and pretty. Her pupils were so big Sarah could nearly see herself in them. But now they seemed dull. Her mother was no longer in there.

Orphan Monster Spy, page 1

Sometimes one book makes me fall in love with all books all over again. Orphan Monster Spy is that kind of book, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s a damn good read. Its almost unbearable tension and sadness is balanced with humor and small victories that had me pumping my fist as much as I was biting my nails.

15-year-old Sarah doesn’t keep kosher or go to synagogue, and she even has a “good Aryan” Gentile father, but she can’t erase her mother’s Jewish heritage. Trapped in the Jewish ghettos of Berlin and Vienna in the 1930s, blonde and blue-eyed Sarah and her actress mother are targets of the increasingly hostile Nazi government. When they try to make a run for the Swiss border in 1939, just before Germany invades Poland, Sarah’s mother is brutally murdered, and Sarah finds herself on the run.

That’s where the book opens, and from there, the plot moves at the speed of light. Sarah saves an enigmatic British spy from suspicious Nazis, and in turn, he protects her, employs her, and places her undercover at an elite Nazi boarding school where she must befriend the daughter of a scientist building a “grapefruit bomb” (nuclear weapon) that could level whole cities in minutes.

The setup is quick and direct, leaving plenty of time to dig deep into Sarah’s character (fascinating) and life at the Nazi boarding school (even more fascinating). The high-stakes final act, in particular, is breathtaking.

I love the breadth and depth of YA novels that exist now, more than existed even a few years ago when I was a teen. (I’m only 23!) I don’t read much YA anymore, but I picked this one up because I like WWII history and literary-ish thrillers. Boy, was I not disappointed. I was shocked at how much depth and historical detail Killeen managed to cram into this book without compromising the taut, gritty narrative. It’s a YA book that feels perfectly YA (as I define it: young protagonist, fast pace), but it’s unique and edgy enough that I’d also recommend it to someone who thinks they’re above YA. (Like myself, sort of.)

A couple of things don’t ring so true, though.

One, Killeen does the thing I hate in multilingual novels: he has characters say things in their native language (mostly German, here) and then has them immediately “repeat it” in English. It doesn’t make any sense and I wish authors would either only use words that I could pick up through context clues or would just use the English versions. I know it’s set in Germany; I don’t need to be constantly yanked out of the story by something that feels like the author being clever instead of being authentic to the characters.

Two, speaking of being authentic, this book is at times heavy-handed with its social commentary at the expense of its characters. I struggled with how to phrase this criticism because Orphan Monster Spy’s subject matter is inherently timely and social justice-y and I don’t want to ding it for that. That’s part of why I chose to read it, after all, and I wish more stories faced anti-Semitism and oppression as head-on as this one does. Still, there are times where it’s so blatant it practically breaks the fourth wall.

For example, in one conversation with Elsa, the Nazi scientist’s daughter whom Sarah is tasked with befriending, Elsa lets slip that America is full of Nazis. Sarah, deep in character as another good Nazi girl, reminds Elsa that America is not to be trusted. Elsa just laughs and tells her that American Nazis are even more dangerous than German ones because they have to hide their true colors.

I mean, I can’t fault Killeen’s accuracy on that count, but it’s such a transparent aside that it felt like it had been sung out by the gospel Greek chorus from Hercules(It certainly doesn’t feel like natural conversation.)

In the end, though, this book is so dazzlingly ambitious, smart, and compulsively readable that those things barely impacted my enjoyment of it.

Orphan Monster Spy is a desperate book for desperate times; its mission statement–take down Nazis, get revenge, survive–shouldn’t feel so relevant in 2018, but it does. For those tired of fighting the good fight, this book is a heady infusion of entertainment, energy, and pure steel. 4/5 stars.


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

Book Review: THE CURSE OF THE BOYFRIEND SWEATER: ESSAYS ON CRAFTING by Alanna Okun

This book’s subtitle may be Essays on Crafting, but The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is actually a work of tender autobiography through which crafting is strung like taut yarn. Alanna Okun intersperses longer, introspective essays on anxiety, dating, friendship, and family with shorter, humorous lists like “The Best Places to Knit, Ranked” and “Words They Need to Invent for Crafters”; her writing is wry and sentimental by turns and always charming, but the problem is myopia: Okun seems less concerned with crafting’s place in the world than she does with its place in her own life, and it makes the book feel insubstantial, undercutting Okun’s own thesis that crafting is an incisive opportunity for self-invention and reinvention. I look forward to seeing what Okun does next with (hopefully) sharper subject matter–her writing style is truly lovely–but I’ll admit to being disappointed with this book.

You can read my full review below.


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The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun

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  • publisher: Flatiron Books (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 20, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $24.99

But these “soft” things do matter. What we put in and on and around our bodies is important, and so are the things we create. They’re a series of choices we get to make when we may not be able to choose much else: our jobs, our loves and losses, our place in the world. And so maybe in some accidental way, those sad-sack sitcom jokes about knitting contain a grain of truth: making things an certainly help you navigate when the outside world gets to be too much. The difference is, we’ve chosen to do it.

–The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting, page 19

It’s much harder to be kind than it is to be mean, and that’s why I love kind books, especially kind memoirs. I find myself being preemptively snide towards myself and others all the time, hiding my lumpy softnesses (crying at every movie; loving down-home country music; many others) in favor of a more uniform and boring hardness. I like books that remind me that that’s a limiting way to be.

But in abundant kindness, you do risk naïveté. I think it’s a risk worth taking, but there will always be times that kindness just…thuds, and this is one of them.

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting is a very kind, sweet book, but it’s also painfully naïve. Alanna Okun strikes on a great many truths (especially about what it means to grow up and invent yourself), but she also generalizes where I think she shouldn’t and doesn’t personalize where I think she should.

First, this book is even more niche in practice than the premise suggests. There’s a significant, passionate swath of the population that’s interested in crafting (I’m one of them, obviously), but The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater isn’t about crafting so much as it’s about Okun’s relationship to crafting.

Okun comes from an upper middle class background: she does write with self-awareness about her comfy upbringing in New England (complete with a beach house), her time at a small liberal arts college, her life in the New York publishing business, and the amount of money she spends on yarn, but it’s not quite enough self-awareness for her points to land. When she writes about all her half-finished projects, I could relate, but it also made me cringe to think of all that money in unknitted yarn at the bottom of her closet.

And then I felt bad for cringing, because if there’s something I dislike more than people talking blithely about money and privilege, it’s people pretending they don’t have it. I’m also from an upper-middle class background, and I also start lots of expensive projects without finishing them, but the amount of time Okun spends writing about it felt tone-deaf, even though it wasn’t quite tone-deaf, because she doesn’t justify it or revel in it.

All those conflicting feelings were an ugly catch-22 that tied my brain in knots and really impacted my enjoyment of the book.

If you aren’t a knitter or crocheter, you might not realize how expensive quality yarn is, and the answer is really, really expensive–like $20-40 a skein, minimum. (You usually need multiple skeins for a project, too.) I mention that because I think Okun had an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what that means. Like Okun, I love to craft (I prefer sewing, but I knit too), and there’s a real dissonance between how people talk about crafting (a resourceful DIY skill!) and how it actually plays out (thanks to outsourcing, it’s far more expensive to make your own clothes than it is to just buy them at Forever 21).

But instead of essays on crafting’s semi-anachronistic place in the modern world (a once-survival skill that’s fast becoming a rich-people pastime), or really, essays on much of anything that spills beyond the boundary of Okun’s life and social circle, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is chock-full of essays about things that are much smaller. Okun proposes that the soft and personal things matter, and I agree, but I think she undermines herself by keeping such a myopic focus. If this collection had been more ambitious, it could have been really great; instead, it feels deflated.

That said, there’s a lot here that works. The essays are ordered very skillfully: each one builds on the others, deepening each previous point and adding new ones. Her writing is deceptively simple and then sparkles at unexpected times: the essays meander and then suddenly come together in a few brilliant lines, like a magic trick. I like Okun’s writing at fashion website Racked.com, where she is a senior editor, and since this is her debut, I think she has a lot of room to grow into an author to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting doesn’t seem sure what it wants to be, as if Okun started creating a simple scarf and pivoted suddenly to a sweater. It’s an intimate memoir that strives for more general truths, but doesn’t quite reach them. 3/5 stars.


My copy of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: A QUICK & EASY GUIDE TO THEY/THEM PRONOUNS by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

This short-‘n’-sweet comic book guide to they/them pronouns has two simple goals in mind–to educate people about they/them pronouns, and to encourage the use of gender neutral language in general–and it accomplishes those things breezily and effectively. I’m nonbinary myself, and while none of the information here was new to me, it was presented with admirable precision and concision. I wholeheartedly recommend A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns as a toolbox and source of friendly validation for trans and nonbinary folks and their allies.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns will be released on June 12th, 2018. You can read my full review below.


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A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

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  • publisher: Limerence Press (an imprint of Oni Press)
  • publication date: June 12, 2018
  • length: 64 pages
  • cover price: $7.99

I came out as nonbinary in 2015. I distinctly remember how that felt: how afraid I was, how exhausted I was, but also how hopeful I was that I could finally live out an important part of myself authentically. For months, I pushed at friends and family members to remember. Please don’t call me a woman. Please don’t use “she”; please use “they” instead.

Unfortunately, outside of my very innermost circle, none of it stuck–and between being a busy student and a person with multiple disabilities, I just didn’t have the energy to keep correcting people. My feelings haven’t changed–I’m still a nonbinary person, and I’m happiest when people refer to me using they/them pronouns–but it’s not something that gets acknowledged in my day-to-day life anymore.

That’s why A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is so refreshing: it’s a 64-page comic book that can be read in less than an hour, and its breezy, no-nonsense tone treats a future in which gender-neutral language prevails as a given instead of a distant dream. That’s a much-needed hopeful message for nonbinary people. It’s also a palatable one for the legions of friendly-but-ignorant people who struggle with gender-neutral language, even if they aren’t hostile to it: this book is a cheerleader that says, yes, you too can do it!

In fact, what I appreciated most about the book was that it simply doesn’t acknowledge the bigots. Far too many educational resources about trans and nonbinary people take a sweeping, self-important approach that simply tries to do too much at once. Changing the mind of someone who’s virulently transphobic is maybe impossible, and it’s certainly something that can’t be done in the space of a brief and affable comic book, so the authors choose not to try. The book is clearer and better for it.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns also walks an admirable line of providing information without presenting itself as an unimpeachable authority. It’s quick to offer general definitions and cheat-sheets while also explaining that there are as many ways to be nonbinary as there are nonbinary people. It offers suggestions, like encouraging businesses to train staff to use gender-neutral language (cutting down on erroneous “sirs” and “ma’ams”), without insisting that those suggestions are inherently solutions.

Also, smartly, the book encourages people to err on the side of gender-neutral language not just for the sake of nonbinary people (who are a small but growing slice of the population, after all), but also to create a more equal world where gender matters less in general. It’s an argument I wish more trans and nonbinary advocates would make.

I’m confident that I can attribute all these good qualities to the fact that the book is spearheaded by an actual nonbinary person who uses they/them pronouns: Minneapolis cartoonist Archie Bongiovanni. (You may recognize their work from the Autostraddle Saturday morning cartoon, Grease Bats.) It’s cowritten with their cisgender (non-transgender) male friend, Tristan Jimerson, meaning the book can speak for nonbinary people and allies alike.

Of course, it’s not all perfect: I’m not a huge comics person, and though the comics format makes the book feel breezier and easier to read, I would have preferred plain text. (That’s 100% just because I’m boring, but I figured I’d note it anyway.) The jokes are on the corny side and a few don’t quite land. Most of all, because nonbinary identity tends to be so unique and personal to each individual, there were a few points in the book that rubbed me the wrong way since they didn’t ring quite true for me–a problem that cis readers likely won’t have.

Overall, A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns fills a necessary niche with aplomb. It’s cheap to buy (just $7.99) and quick to read, and I recommend it highly, especially for educational and professional spaces looking to do trainings on this topic or just looking to keep resources on their shelves.

If you’re a nonbinary person looking for validation and a toolbox–or a cis person who’s looking to be a better, more supportive friend to the nonbinary community–this book is for you. 4/5 stars.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is currently available for pre-order and will be released on June 12th, 2018.


I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.