Book Review: RUTTING SEASON by Mandeliene Smith

Rutting Season is a collection of nine stories that are as earthy, animal, and at times brutal as the title would imply. My favorite stories included “Mercy,” about a widow keeping vigil over her favorite horse after her carelessness puts the horse’s life in danger, and “The Someday Cat,” about a mother who begins selling her children for cash, and the toddler daughter who fears that she’s next to be sold. Mandeliene Smith writes ferociously and vulnerably; this is short fiction, not personal writing, and yet each story is imbued with personal, vital urgency. I didn’t always love this collection while I was reading it–I think Smith writes awkwardly about race, and I think the quality of the stories included here varies–but now that I’m a few days removed from it, I admire Smith’s style and choice of subjects more and more. This book is brave.

You can read my full review of Rutting Season below.


Rutting Season Cover
cover description: A mustard yellow background has a cutout in the shape of a hand that features a nature illustration of a pink flower and a yellow bird.

Rutting Season: Stories by Mandeliene Smith

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  • publisher: Scribner (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 12, 2019
  • length: 240 pages

Randall wasn’t their father, or even their stepfather, and they couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about his problems with the police or anyone else, but it just so happened that Danny and Amber were both at the house when the SUV from the sheriff’s office drove up, and by the time they realized there was going to be trouble, Randall had already bolted the door and taken out a gun.

–from “Siege” in Rutting Season by Mandeliene Smith

Do you ever catch yourself being way too hard on something or someone, just because it (or they) remind you too much of yourself? I cannot tell a lie: I was initially going to eviscerate this book, because at times, it irritated me like an insult.

Rutting Season is Mandeliene Smith’s debut short story collection, and in it, she explores raw pain with obsessive intensity. Much of it is pain that’s incredibly familiar to me: abusive homes, the messy and literally visceral experience of living on a farm, mental illness, violence.

Because it felt so familiar, Rutting Season cut me to the bone, and it scrambled my ability to comprehend or evaluate it. I think my conclusion is that it’s mostly an excellent book. But I hope you’ll forgive me if this review takes a roundabout path to that destination.

First, the things about Rutting Season that genuinely grated me, that I wasn’t necessarily oversensitized to:

  1. The way Smith writes about race, especially her physical descriptions of Black characters,
  2. The unevenness of the collection.

I admire when white authors make the decision to write outside their comfort zone. I’ve been chewing over Toni Morrison’s admonition to not write what you know all week: “Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through.

And I think that advice applies very much to Rutting Season, where Smith is making clear choices to write outside what she knows.

Unfortunately, I think some of those choices undercut her otherwise interesting Black characters. In my least favorite story of the collection, “What It Takes,” Black high school students menace white high school students, including the white protagonist, a teenage pot dealer. I think the point of the story is that the white students’ perception is wrong–that what they perceive as “menace” is justifiable racial tension. But it’s so close to the line that I think you could read it either way. Subtle fiction is important, but I get nervous when white people write about race so subtly that it becomes a game of Schrödinger’s racism.

In a later story that I otherwise loved very much, “The Someday Cat,” a Black character is literally described as “chocolate.” Which, almost more than it is annoyingly fetishizing and racist, is simply a tired description of dark skin.

But for that story, too, there’s a Racism Loophole™: it’s told from the perspective of a white toddler whom we already know loves chocolate and who probably has never seen a Black person in her life, who might genuinely describe a Black person as “chocolate.” Schrödinger’s racism.

The third story that is significantly about race, “You the Animal,” is the most successful at being about race, I think. Where “The Someday Cat” is told from the perspective of a neglected toddler being removed from her home by two Black social workers, “You the Animal” is the same story told from the perspective of one of the social workers. It’s an interesting exploration of what happens when people who were abused as children encounter abuse as adults, and while I didn’t think it was the strongest in the collection, it was still thought-provoking.

The unevenness question is so closely tied to the race question that I think it’s hard to separate them. When Smith is writing about white people–as in “Mercy,” where a new widow struggles to hold her farm together in the face of her own exhaustion and grief, as in the title story “Rutting Season,” where a potential act of workplace violence is dissected from three angles, as in “Siege,” when three siblings separated by their mother’s death come together during a terrifying threat of gun violence–the collection is extraordinary. When she’s not, the stories falter a bit.

But extraordinary is still a word I’m comfortable applying to much of Rutting Season.

What moved me most about Smith’s writing is its vulnerability, almost fragility, underneath a hard, ferocious surface. It’s a literary crème brûlée. She makes messy, risky choices and sticks to her guns. (Perhaps a poor choice of words given how much this book condemns gun violence.)

I was struck by how reminiscent the first story, “Mercy,” is of Alice Munro. Like so many Munro stories, “Mercy” is domestic and terrible all at once. It’s at its Munro-iest when its protagonist, Pam, hesitates for a split second before calling the vet for her sick horse because the vet constantly patronizes her and she doesn’t want to deal with it. You’re frustrated with her and understand her deeply all at once.

But Rutting Season is not knockoff Munro. Smith demonstrates that most in “The Someday Cat,” which felt wholly unique in its execution. A story about a woman who literally begins selling her children in order to appease her terrible boyfriend and afford groceries could easily tip into a melodramatic pantomime of extreme abuse and poverty rather than feel like something real that crackles with electric terror. But it does crackle. I had a white knuckle grip on my copy of the book while I read. It reminded me so vividly of some of the things I saw growing up in a desperately poor area that I had to take a breather after finishing.

Rutting Season feels a little like staring at the sun. The premises of Smith’s stories are so bright and ambitious that it’s hard to get a handle on why they work (or even if they work). But there’s no denying their power.

It feels strange to write this about a literary short story collection rather than a horror novel, but it feels right anyway: only read Rutting Season if you dare. ★★★★☆

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

Book Review: KNOCK WOOD by Jennifer Militello

This is a poet’s memoir, both literally and stylistically. Knock Wood is Jennifer Militello’s first book of not-poetry, after three critically acclaimed and award-winning poetry collections. It begins with Militello reflecting on a “knock on wood” that was, unluckily, actually a knock on a surface that wasn’t wood. From there, the memoir blooms out into everything she believes was touched by that ill luck knock, from an uncle’s death three years before to a crumbling marriage to an arrest for theft to an aunt’s suicide attempt and mental illness.

Knock Wood is full of revelatory, quotable gorgeousness, and it’s surprisingly easy to read given its time-warping experimental format. (The lightning-fast 144-page length helps, too.) I enjoyed it very much, with one significant reservation: Militello consistently treats disability and fatness as grotesque. I still recommend this book, but I want to arm readers with that knowledge going in so that they’re not so unpleasantly caught off guard by it as I was.

You can read my full review below.


Knock Wood Cover
cover description: the outline of a scraggly tree is burnt into a woodgrain background.

Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello

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  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: August 13, 2019
  • length: 144 pages

I don’t want to remember. Memory is the bush in the yard that we keep cutting down as it keeps growing back. I don’t know what species it is. It is the kind that has berries you can’t eat. Bird berries, my mother used to call them. Red and round and smooth. Now I tell my daughter, don’t eat them. They’ll make you sick.

–from Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello*

Knock Wood asks you to take a leap of faith. Its opening scene, in which Jennifer Militello describes an ill-fated knock on wood on an airplane to London in 2016, is extremely idiosyncratic, almost a parody of the mannerisms of creative nonfiction. Militello recounts reading “a Murakami novel about an uncle with cancer,”* knocking on wood (which turns out to be plastic or metal, something not-wood), and then suddenly realizing that this unlucky knock caused the death of her uncle three years before.

It’s a leap, and for a couple of pages, I held my breath, wondering if I was going to be stuck reading something painfully strained and false for the duration of this memoir, Militello’s first book of prose after three books of poetry.

Luckily, I wasn’t stuck: in fact, I was gripped before the first chapter had even ended, when a description of a hide being tanned sent deep shivers down my spine.

It’s not a chronological or even fully comprehensible memoir. It’s a deeply intuitive experience, like literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder or, to a lesser extent, much of Annie Dillard’s work. Knock Wood is a memoir held together by déjà vu.

It reminded me of the way that a particular formation of clouds transports me back to summer camp every time I see it. I don’t have a distinct memory of seeing those clouds while I was actually at camp; I have no idea why the link is so strong, but it is. Militello moved me from memory to disparate memory in the same way: it didn’t make sense if I stopped to think about it, but it definitely felt right.

Militello spends a lot of time with the monstrous and chilling, the pulsing and bleeding, the ghostly and the all-too-embodied. This is mostly a good and interesting thing, but it leads me to my one, very serious criticism of Knock Wood: Militello’s dehumanizing treatment of disabled and fat bodies.

Much of this memoir revolves around Militello’s aunt Kathy, who was a model until severe mental illness struck. Over and over, Militello equates Kathy’s illness with ugliness and repulsiveness. Kathy is at first described as an elegant, slim, suicidal woman in a houndstooth coat. After treatment and medication, she becomes a breathless fat monster in tacky clothes one size (or more) too small.

There are plenty of ways to write about physical transformation that aren’t nearly so judgmental and cruel. Not only is this lazy writing, it’s a lazy reflection of a widespread belief that I find infinitely more monstrous than mental illness or fatness could ever be: that it is better to die beautiful than live to become undesirable.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder seven years ago, and it very nearly killed me. I refused to take my medication, because antipsychotic drugs (along with many other types of medication for mental illness) cause weight gain, and I refused–refused–to be fat, for fear I would become exactly the kind of object of pity and scorn that Militello paints here.

Eventually I did take my meds. Eventually I did become fat. I wore clothes that were too small. I have a double chin. I sweat easily. The hair on my face grows in oddly. And yet my life is still worth living! Imagine that.

That Militello leans so much on the same tired, insulting tropes of the grotesque in a memoir that is otherwise so gorgeous, humble, and insightful feels like a slap in the face.

This book was well worth reading, and Militello is a tremendously gifted nonfiction writer. Her words will be reverberating with me for some time. But some of the words she invokes are powerful for all the wrong reasons. ★★★★☆

Knock Wood hits stores and your favorite online retailers tomorrow, August 13th.

* Please note that all quotes in this review come from an ARC, which is an uncorrected proof. Quotes may appear differently in the final version.

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

Book Review: THAT TIME I LOVED YOU by Carrianne Leung

In ten linked stories that function almost as a novel, Carrianne Leung writes with a simple directness that belies the depth and power of her themes. That Time I Loved You is entirely set in one suburban neighborhood in Scarborough, Canada. It has a recurring cast of characters, but its central character is a Chinese Canadian middle schooler, June. June is the narrator of three stories and appears as a watchful presence in the rest. The action kicks off with a series of suicides of parents in the neighborhood, which send the surviving adults (and especially their kids) into a tizzy of fear and gossip.

Suburbia is a common setting for literary fiction, but Leung really makes it something special here. Her writing reminded me of Celeste Ng’s, another writer who understands that suburbs are more complex–in race, class, gender, sexual, and family dynamics–than your stereotypical snooty WASPs and manicured lawns. At times I wished she had been a little more ambitious with her straight-ahead prose, but overall, I thought this quiet, lovely collection was well worth my time.

You can read my full review below.


That Time I Loved You Cover
cover description: An illustration of rows and rows of similar houses with different colored roofs separated by solid dark blue bars.

That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

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  • publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company)
  • publication date: February 26, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

1979: This was the year the parents in my neighborhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade 6. Elsewhere in the world, big things were happening. McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides.

–from “Grass” in That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

I recently tried to re-read The Virgin Suicides, a novel I read and failed to understand or connect with when I was about 14. Unfortunately I found it just as opaque and slippery the second time around, and set it aside without finishing.

That Time I Loved You, Carrianne Leung’s first short story collection, is worth comparing to The Virgin Suicides in more ways than one. First, it’s about a series of suicides; second, it’s about 1970s-1980s suburbia and how hard it is to grow up. But where Jeffrey Eugenides took a highly stylized, metaphorical approach to those themes–too stylized and too metaphorical, in my opinion–Leung’s style is so direct and realistic it almost reads like memoir. (Leung did in fact grow up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where That Time I Loved You is set.)

Perhaps a better comparison is Celeste Ng’s hit novel Little Fires Everywhere, which I loved, and which is soon to be made into a Hulu TV series. If you loved that, you’ll also find a lot to love in this.

Like Ng, Leung intimately understands suburbs, not as narrative devices or places to be derided by people who live in the city, but as real places. Her characters are not icy, repressed blondes; they’re a far more diverse group of mainly immigrants: Chinese, Jamaican, Portuguese, Italian. The sex these people have doesn’t feel like a defilement of the American Dream (not least because they’re Canadian); it feels like the sex that real people have. The growing up that June and her friends must do doesn’t happen in some single cathartic moment that’s a statement about the loss of innocence; instead, it happens in a series of tiny, dizzying forward shifts, the way growing up actually felt for me (and, I imagine, the way it felt for most people).

Leung’s suburbia, in other words, resembles the majority of suburbs in which my family and friends have lived. It’s set in 1979 and the very early 1980s, but it felt especially representative of what suburbs look like today, after gentrification and the reverse white flight that has pushed marginalized people back out to the suburbs.

That Time I Loved You‘s suicides feel equally real. They’re the catalyst for the book, but they’re also surprisingly quiet and small. In fact, the most notable thing about them is how un-notable they become to the surviving neighbors. I was concerned that this book would be difficult for me to read given my own history of mental health problems, but luckily Leung treats the subject with great respect and compassion.

That Time I Loved You functions well as a short story collection, but its structure is just close enough to a novel that I’d still recommend it to people who don’t usually like short story collections. That it’s anchored by one memorable character, June, makes it much easier to follow than a typical collection. It’s roughly chronological and takes place all in the same location; events that happen in one story affect the others.

That That Time I Loved You is so realistic helps, too. As much as I like current trends in reality-blurring short fiction, it’s nice to take a break and read a book that doesn’t feature extended dream sequences, hallucinations, or other long jaunts away from the recognizable world.

But as much as I liked having straightforward stories, I did wish that Leung had ventured beyond straightforward prose. Leung is exceptionally talented at developing characters and plot, but her writing style is very simple–which on one hand was kind of a welcome rest for my brain (I’ve done a lot of reading for work and pleasure recently), and on the other left me somewhat unsatisfied, like a meal that tasted good but came in too small a portion. Oh well.

There wasn’t a single story here that I didn’t like, but my favorites were “Fences,” about an Italian American woman struggling to conceive a child with a husband she doesn’t really love, “Sweets,” about June’s grandmother who becomes a surprising ally to one of June’s genderqueer friends, and the final, titular story, “That Time I Loved You,” which is a tour de force culmination of all the stories that came before.

That Time I Loved You is light on its feet despite its serious subject matter, but it never feels insubstantial. It’s a great example of how diverse in form and style short story collections can be–and it’s welcome that its characters are so diverse, too. This book will stay with me. ★★★★☆

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My copy of That Time I Loved You came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END by Adam Silvera

What if you knew what day you would die? How would you feel? What would you spend your last hours doing? They Both Die at the End takes place in a world where everyone gets a phone call the day they will die, giving them time to say goodbyes, plan their own funerals, and cram in as much life as they can. Two strangers, Mateo and Rufus, get their call on the same day. They meet on an app designed for “Deckers” (people who’ve received their call) and take off on an adventure across New York City.

For a book that spoils its ending right in the title, They Both Die at the End is surprisingly gripping. It’s a tearjerker that never feels manipulative or hokey. I occasionally found its shifting perspectives hard to follow (chapters alternate between Mateo, Rufus, and a few side characters), but overall I enjoyed this book very much. If you enjoy sad but ultimately hopeful stories along the lines of Netflix’s Russian Doll, you’ll love They Both Die at the End.

You can read my full review below.


9780062457790
cover description: An illustration of silhouetted figures walking side by side along a pier in New York City. It’s nighttime, the sky is dark blue, and the moon and stars are bright.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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  • publisher: HarperTeen (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: September 5, 2017
  • length: 384 pages

Everything has come full circle between my mother and me. She died the day I was born and now I’ll be buried next to her. Reunion.

–from They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Awhile back I tweeted about how “four star” books often mean more to me than many “five star” books, because the little bit I don’t love about them gets under my skin, irritates me, and keeps the book on my mind. The grit makes them unforgettable.

I didn’t love everything about They Both Die at the End and that, somehow, makes it even more special to me.

They Both Die at the End is about two teen boys, Mateo and Rufus, who live very different lives in New York City until they get a call telling them they won’t live to see the next day at all. 17-year-old foster kid Rufus beats up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to within an inch of his life: he receives the jarring phone call mid-beating, and suddenly decides that he has more important stuff to accomplish than petty revenge.

Mateo, on the other hand, is a meek 18-year-old whose mother died in childbirth and whose dad is in a coma. He’s put off all his dreams till adulthood, and then the phone call tells him he won’t have an adulthood, sending him straight into an existential crisis.

Both boys turn to an app designed to connect people living their last day–called “Deckers”–to each other, giving them one last friend to spend their last hours with. Mateo and Rufus become each other’s last friend, and maybe more.

Mateo and Rufus are wonderful characters. So many teen boys in YA are either tortured tough guys or dreamy princes, with little room for the real world in between, but Rufus and Mateo felt so real that I wouldn’t be surprised if I met them on the street.

Rufus can be angry and violent, but he’s also gentle and thoughtful when it counts. He’s out as bisexual, and everyone in his life accepts it, which is a nice change to read about. Plenty of non-tortured, non-repressed bisexual teen boys exist, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read about one in YA.

Mateo is shy and weak in some ways, but portrayed as ultimately incredibly kind and loving, the kind of person who would literally give the shoes off his feet to someone experiencing homelessness.

Their friends, too, are richly drawn anti-caricatures. I particularly loved Mateo’s best friend Lidia, a Colombian American teen mom. She’s smart and ambitious and loves her kid, Penny, more than anything in the world.

The large cast of great characters has a downside, though: perspective-jumping that had me losing the plot more than once. Mateo and Rufus’s chapters are told in the first person, and we get third-person chapters from side characters. I didn’t mind the jumping between Mateo and Rufus, but it became difficult to keep track once other subplots were introduced, some of which are critical to understanding the ending. It was frustrating to get to the ending and feel like I was missing its full effect because I couldn’t keep the details straight.

That’s my only complaint, but it’s a major one. Fortunately, the rest of this book is so darn good that it didn’t ruin my enjoyment.

Adam Silvera does a great job envisioning what a near future world would be like where everyone knew when they would die. Details include cruel social media trolls trawling death day-related Instagram tags, an “ultimate one night stand” dating app named Necro, and a spate of expensive, weaksauce businesses looking to exploit people’s last-minute desire to try things like skydiving. All of it felt extremely believable and interesting.

If you don’t like sci-fi, the sci-fi elements of this novel are subtle enough that you’ll probably enjoy this book anyway–but if you do like sci-fi, there’s plenty of thought-provoking speculative material to sink your teeth into.

It didn’t surprise me that I cried at multiple points while reading They Both Die at the End; the sadness is right there in the title. It did surprise me that those tears felt so spontaneous and natural every time. I knew I was reading a tearjerker of a book, but in the end, my tears didn’t feel so much jerked as earned. This book is so, so tender and loving, like a warm, sturdy hug when you’re grieving. It’s healing. Kudos to you, Adam Silvera; you’re a miracle-worker.

I don’t know when I’m going to die, but even if my last day ended up being tomorrow, I’d still be glad I took the time to read They Both Die at the End. ★★★★☆

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I purchased my own copy of They Both Die at the End and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: BABY TEETH by Zoje Stage

In Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage makes both motherhood and daughterhood terrifying, or perhaps just lays bare the terror that’s been there all along. Alternating between the perspectives of mute, violent 7-year-old Hanna and her chronically ill stay-at-home mother, Suzette, Baby Teeth is a deeply unsettling and hauntingly realistic horror story. Stage’s writing style is crisp, creepy, and compulsively readable; I can already tell that all its haunting little details have worked themselves deep into my psyche. I loved this book, even if it’s going to have me sleeping with a night light on for the foreseeable future.

You can read my full review below.


Baby Teeth Cover
cover description: A shattered red lollipop against a cream-colored background.

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

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  • publisher: St. Martin’s Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: July 17, 2018
  • length: 320 pages

She had tried, as a little girl, to express what was within her. But it came out like marbles. Nonsense. Babbling. Disappointing even to her own ears. She’d practiced, alone in her room, but the bugs fell from her mouth, frighteningly alive, scampering over her skin and bedclothes. She flicked them away. Watched them escape under her closed door. Words, ever unreliable, were no one’s friend.

–from Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

I went into Baby Teeth expecting some kind of substitute Gillian Flynn-inspired horror, yet another novel that would temporarily fill the Gone Girl and Sharp Objects-shaped hole in my heart without ever really capturing the pulse of what makes those novels great. Boy, was I wrong: Baby Teeth is a potent and terrifying experience all its own, no pale comparisons to Flynn needed.

In Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage efficiently winds up an unsettling conflict between a mother and her young daughter–Suzette and Hanna, respectively–in a chapter or two, and then spends the next 300 or so pages toying with the reader. This novel gave me a literal feeling of queasiness. First Suzette has the upper hand, then Hanna; vicious acts of violence are immediately undercut by devastating emotional vulnerabilities.

There’s nowhere safe to place your sympathies. In the end, no one has the upper hand here but Stage.

My favorite part of Baby Teeth is its specificity: Suzette is a Jewish interior designer who feels alienated from her religious and ethnic heritage because of her abusive mother. Suzette’s husband and Hanna’s father, Alex, is a Swedish architect who loves fika and holidays. (There is a significant amount of Swedish in this book, little of it directly translated.) We get all kinds of believable detail about this family’s home, food, clothes, and rituals, meaning that when those rituals inevitably fall apart, we’re just as disturbed and unmoored as the characters are.

I especially loved how health and illness were handled. Suzette has Crohn’s disease, and lives in terror of flares, surgeries, fistulas, and colostomy bags; even though my chronic illnesses are different, Stage captures the fear and uncertainty of chronic illness just right. When mental illness and intellectual disabilities enter the novel in significant ways, Stage zeroes in on what’s scary about those things without piling on stigma. (In fact, much of the horror in this novel springs directly from the stigma and institutionalization its characters experience.)

Choosing to tell this story from a dual perspective was risky, especially when one of those perspectives is that of a mute 7-year-old. Lucky for us, Stage makes it look effortless. Each voice is distinct; all the needling ways Suzette and Hanna get under each other’s skin are incredibly discomfiting since they’re so believable. No dramatic pea soup vomiting here: just the dynamics that are inherent to parent/child relationships, ever so slightly dialed up to the “chilling” setting.

Suzette is so terrified of being a bad mother (just like her own bad, abusive mother) that it brings out the bad mother in her. Even if you’re not a parent, who can’t identify with that helpless feeling of failure? And who can’t identify with being afraid of your own creation, biological or otherwise?

Meanwhile, Hanna becomes the cuckoo in Suzette and Alex’s marriage, determined to push out Suzette and get her (clueless, trusting) father’s love all to herself. She may go to desperate lengths to do so, but that hunger for love feels universal.

I did find Baby Teeth‘s third act a little overlong and understuffed, and its ending was not quite as conclusive as I wanted it to be. But that’s hardly a dealbreaker in a novel that’s otherwise so electrifyingly good.

In a novel this scary, you expect monsters. But it’s much more frightening–and satisfying–that ultimately, there are none. ★★★★☆

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

Book Review: THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

Paula McLain’s bestselling 2011 novel explores Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, to Hadley Richardson. Told from Hadley’s perspective, it narrates their courtship, marriage, and eventually Hemingway’s affair in Paris that drove the two apart. It’s a gorgeous and melancholy novel and I enjoyed it a lot, even though I wish it reckoned a little more deeply with Hemingway’s toxic legacy and his (to me) inexcusable treatment of Hadley.

For anyone who missed it during its first round of critical acclaim, I highly recommend The Paris Wife for historical fiction lovers. You can read my full review below.


The Paris Wife Cover
cover description: A woman in a blue dress sits at a café table with a man in a gray suit.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

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  • publisher: Ballantine Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: hardcover in 2011, paperback in 2012
  • length: 368 pages

It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking. I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to. He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him. But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me. And return when he wanted to.

–from The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Biographical fiction always struggles to reconcile accuracy with art. Too accurate, and it might as well be a biography; too much artistic license, and it feels tawdry. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by The Paris Wife, which strikes exactly the right balance of the two.

The novel spans from Hadley’s childhood through her early 30s, which makes it all the more impressive that it’s never dry or documentary-like. We quickly learn that her father died by suicide; her mother and sister stifle her. She’s a skilled pianist who’s too listless to seek out a career.

She’s in her late 20s, watching life pass her by, when she meets a ferociously charming but troubled Ernest Hemingway on a visit to Chicago. It’s easy to see why sparks fly between them: their relationship is never artist/muse, but rather a mutual life raft for two unhappy people. The problem is that once they’re married, Ernest refuses to stay afloat.

My bias: I loathe the real-life Ernest Hemingway. I think his writing is fine; I find the mythology of him absolutely poisonous, and ultimately, I think The Paris Wife falls right into that trap: McLain doesn’t sugarcoat Hemingway’s bad behavior, but she also never quite lets him take the full force of the blame. His mental illness, his abusive upbringing, and his genius are always there to take the fall. I wish they weren’t.

Meanwhile, McLain’s characterization of Hadley is subtle and lovely. Hadley is traditional, introverted, unfashionable, and serious; she’d rather be a stay-at-home mother than an artist in her own right, which makes her feel guilty and out of place in modish 1920s Paris. Most historical fiction protagonists chafe against the restraints of their time; Hadley, on the other hand, seems to want to move backwards. It’s an intriguing change of pace.

From the beginning, Hadley is all in on her marriage. She is honest, supportive, and vulnerable with Ernest in the way that you absolutely need to be with your spouse in order to make a marriage work. Ernest, on the other hand, always has one foot out. He belittles her, lies to her, spends her trust fund unwisely, is repeatedly unfaithful, and always seems to be looking for a better option. He loves her, but he’s bad at it. Instead of choosing to be better, he sabotages.

The Paris Wife is peppered with occasional short italicized chapters told from Ernest’s perspective, about how sorry and conflicted he is. I can’t help but think that if The Paris Wife were a pure work of fiction, we wouldn’t have gotten those chapters. We would have been content to see the marriage through Hadley’s eyes only, to feel sad that sometimes we fall in love with people who change our lives but are ultimately not good for us, and to get catharsis when the marriage dissolves at the end. (Historical spoiler, I guess.)

Instead we get too much about Ernest, most frustratingly in a stilted epilogue. That’s the trouble with biographical fiction: no matter how much more I wanted of Hadley, the inevitable truth is that the most notable thing about her was always Ernest. It makes sense that McLain always keeps one eye trained on him, but it chafes anyway.

The Paris Wife is terrific: the very best of its category. It’s just funny how a piece of fiction this good can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth about the facts. ★★★★☆

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

Book Review: THE KISS QUOTIENT by Helen Hoang

What is it about fictional faked or arranged relationships that’s so darn charming? Is it the forbidden-ness of the feelings that inevitably pop up? The unbearable sexiness of the fake-but-not-fake kisses–and more? Whatever the root of that charm is, The Kiss Quotient has it in spades. Stella is autistic and a gifted econometrist. She’s not really interested in dating and sex, but decides she might like those things more if she were better at them–so she hires tortured, smoking hot professional escort Michael to teach her. They start falling for each other during their sexy “lessons,” but Stella’s fear of not being enough and Michael’s tragic past threaten to keep them apart.

The Kiss Quotient is fun, funny, adorable, and most importantly, extremely scorchingly sexy. Like…maybe don’t read it in public levels of sexy. It’s a little rough in places–in particular, I think its happily-ever-after wraps up way too fast–but its contagious charm and the awesome chemistry between the two leads more than make up for the few flaws. This is a fantastic romance.

You can read my full review below.


The Kiss Quotient Cover.jpg

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

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  • publisher: Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: June 5, 2018
  • length: 336 pages

Was Philip right? Did she dislike sex because she was bad at it? Would practice really make perfect? What a beguiling concept. Maybe sex was just another interpersonal thing she needed to exert extra efforts on–like casual conversation, eye contact, and etiquette.

But how exactly did you practice sex?

–from The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

If you’re blunt, anxious, shy, particular, and/or easily overwhelmed–whether or not you have an autism diagnosis–you’re going to find a lot to love in The Kiss Quotient’s protagonist, Stella Lane.

Stella is a competent, happy 30-something whose life is going swimmingly. She doesn’t need to be fixed and she definitely doesn’t need pity. She’s autistic and thriving, and very good at dealing with the challenges of living in a mostly-allistic world.

There’s just one thing missing: Stella has never really enjoyed dating, kissing, or sex, and she wonders if there’s some way to fix that. Maybe she just needs practice. Luckily, she has plenty of money to hire a male escort to teach her.

That escort is Michael, a secretive, movie-star-levels-of-hot Vietnamese-Swedish guy who practices kendo and dreams of starting his own fashion line. He hates escorting. It’s nothing but a way to turn the good looks he hates into a way to pay for his mother’s expensive medical care.

Until he meets Stella. That’s when Michael starts to actually enjoy sex. He agrees to keep seeing Stella until she’s an expert at sex and relationships. Then they’ll each move on, no strings attached…

Except that’s not how it works out! Of course that’s not how it works out. They develop feeeeeeelings! (And have amazing sex along the way.)

What I loved the most about The Kiss Quotient was its sexiness. It would have been very easy for a romance with an autistic protagonist to be overly chaste and sweet. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with chaste and sweet–it’s just that almost all pop culture about autistic people tends to treat them as childlike and childish, when that’s very much not the case for many autistic adults. I was glad it broke out of that box.

Instead, The Kiss Quotient uses Stella’s particular way of looking at the world to add sexy fuel to the fire. She’s hypersensitive to Michael’s scent, skin-on-skin sensations, and to the taste of mint chocolate chip ice cream shared through a kiss. Loud music at a club stresses her out, but she loves the piano, so she and Michael bond over a Heart and Soul duet. Stella is very particular about comfortable clothes, so Michael introduces her to yoga pants that make her butt look good, and he even sews her a soft new evening dress.

Each of those sensual and tender moments ratchets up the stakes–and the heat. Every single sex scene in The Kiss Quotient easily ranks as one of the best I’ve ever read. Easily. I won’t go into NSFW detail, but if you like steamy romance, you’ll love this.

I’m not autistic, but I do have OCD, and the way it manifests for me means I have a few of the classic characteristics of autism: hypersensitivity, social anxiety, and obsessive thinking in particular. Stella’s way of looking at the world was similar to mine in a way I hardly ever get to read about, and it made me feel seen and cherished as a romance reader.

In addition to Stella’s autism, Michael’s Vietnamese family is also a welcome addition to the romance formula. Michael feels a mixture of protectiveness and pride towards his family–he’s in a similar situation to Carlos in The Proposal to Jasmine Guillory–and like Carlos, he needs to learn to trust that they can take care of themselves, just like he needs to learn to trust his own feelings towards Stella.

The Vietnamese cultural elements of the novel don’t just feel like window-dressing. It’s not just about food, or clothes, or other details that are easy to “research” on Wikipedia. The Kiss Quotient uses Michael’s Vietnamese-ness more to talk about what it means to be part of a big immigrant family, and the benefits and pressures that can come with that. It forwards Michael’s character development in a fascinating way.

In this review so far I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the characters and not a whole lot talking about the writing, and I think that’s because Helen Hoang’s writing style in The Kiss Quotient is very basic. She captures sensory details eloquently, but the dialogue isn’t really anything special. The internal monologues are a little clunky, and the way the novel wraps up happens so quickly and matter-of-factly that I felt a tiny bit cheated. I wanted to roll around in the happily-ever-after, not move briskly on to the brief epilogue.

But those are truly minor quibbles in comparison to all the great stuff Hoang accomplishes here. I will absolutely be reading whatever she does next. (Her next novel, The Bride Testis linked to The Kiss Quotient through a supporting character, and I can’t wait to read it.)

If you’re looking for a romance that runs deep emotionally but is also fun, flirty, and sexy on the surface, it would be hard to do better than The Kiss Quotient. This book rocked. ★★☆

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