Book Review: INCENDIARY GIRLS by Kodi Scheer

Incendiary Girls is a literary short story collection that stays firmly in the realm of magical realism. Kodi Scheer is excellent at incorporating the magical elements, but despite the magic, Incendiary Girls is boring. Its stories are gruesome and uncomfortable with little emotional payoff; characters are bitter and selfish without having the necessary quality of “interesting.” Some of the imagery comes off as blatantly bigoted, and it’s not clear to me if Kodi Scheer was intending to critique those images or if she’s just blandly perpetuating them.

I don’t mind difficult stories as long as I feel changed at the end, but all I felt at the end of Incendiary Girls was annoyed. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t like this collection at all, and at times I even actively loathed it.

You can read my full review below.


Incendiary Girls Cover
cover description: a white Arabian horse against a stark black background.

Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer

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  • publisher: New Harvest (an imprint of Amazon Publishing)
  • publication date: April 2014
  • length: 208 pages

Incendiary Girls is a tight spiral of a short story collection, eleven stories that all circle the same handful of themes and motifs: medicine, death, sex, motherhood, and intercultural and interracial relationships. None of the stories are technically linked, but all contain small nods to the others. All take place in a universe of magical realism: there’s always least one bizarre and impossible element always in play, and it’s always treated with complete seriousness.

It’s an intriguing structure that gives Incendiary Girls a cohesive, distinctive feel. The problem is that the stories themselves don’t work.

I found ten of the eleven stories here to be irredeemably gruesome, tacky, confusing, and often tone-deaf. Body horror abounds: dissection, graphically described tumors, and melting skin are all par for the course. It’s not something I would mind if there were meaning or at least entertainment in all the suffering, but I rarely found it. Character arcs barely budge. The dark humor doesn’t land. It comes off like a stodgy slasher film. (Is there anything worse than a stodgy slasher film?)

More disturbingly, the collection is steeped in creepy racism and other bigotry (in dialogue, first-person monologue, and even third-person narration), and it was unclear to me if Kodi Scheer was deliberately writing about bigots or if she simply didn’t realize it was bigotry at all.

There are are ways to write about racists without a whole story coming off as racist. Scheer just never pulls it off cleanly.

In “Transplant,” a blonde, pale woman gets a heart transplant, and her skin and hair literally get darker and thicker in the aftermath. She suddenly decides to convert to Islam and speculates about whether or not her donor heart came from someone Muslim. Then her body rejects the heart and she goes back to being blonde and sort of atheist. The whole thing is dripping with orientalism, and again, I can’t tell if it’s a critique of orientalism or the real deal. Hmm.

Tied for the two most bafflingly offensive stories were “When a Camel Breaks Your Heart,” about a white American woman dating an Arab Muslim man who’s embarrassed to bring her home–he then literally turns into a camel, whom she sends to a zoo–and “Primal Son,” about a couple struggling to conceive who try to adopt an infant from China and but then miraculously conceive and have a monkey for a baby. They end up moving to Tanzania after. You know, in Africa. Because they’re monkeys now?

HMMMMMMMMM.

I sincerely hope that I’m misreading all of this and that Scheer is actually trying to say something nuanced and complicated. I’m being sincere when I say that is my sincere hope! I’m desperate for more complicated and messy narratives around race and desire, and I absolutely don’t think there’s only one correct way to write about those topics.

But the optics here are…bad. There’s no challenge to characters’ bigotry, no pushback on unsavory ideas. It’s plausibly deniable Schrödinger’s racism that’s even more grating to me than an openly racist narrative would be. It’s all just ambiguous enough to make me feel like I’m overreacting by calling it racist.

But I’m officially going to come down on the side of calling this book racist. If your points about racism are so subtle that a racist reader might still enjoy your story comfortably, then I think you’ve failed both morally and technically as a writer.

I will allow that Scheer has an admirable grip on when to use magical realism: i.e., when real world imagery isn’t as effective at conveying an emotion or experience as magical imagery would be. I liked the use of magic in Incendiary Girls. That’s difficult to do and I admire that. It’s just the how part of using magical realism where I feel she’s slipped.

In “Primal Son,” for example, I’m not objecting wholesale to an allegory for infertility in which a woman gives birth to a monkey. I’m objecting to the total obliviousness involved in having a white-seeming couple give birth to a monkey and then slowly turn into monkeys themselves, culminating in them moving to Africa.

In the story “Ex-Utero,” which takes place in a hospital, a man with congenital adrenal hyperplasia–a very real intersex condition–discovers that he’s pregnant and begs for an emergency abortion. This is juxtaposed with rolling power blackouts and treated as a sign of the end of the world.

I don’t inherently object to a magical realist story about a “pregnant man”; I do object to a story that dehumanizes a character with a real life condition, treating him more like a freak show cadaver than a person. He’s not even a main character with agency or an inner life–the protagonist of “Ex-Utero” is instead a competitive, striving female doctor doing her residency, who delights in watching the man be cut open for the abortion.

Compounding the moral muddiness, a lot of the writing in Incendiary Girls is simply not good. Clichés abound. Dialogue thuds. Cheap twist endings come out of nowhere. There are a few beautiful sentences and emotional revelations here, but they’re buried by the crud.

The one story in Incendiary Girls that did fully work for me was called “No Monsters Here.” It’s about a woman with OCD who’s raising her daughter alone while her husband is working as a medic in the Middle East. She slowly discovers his body parts lying around the house and desperately tries to hide them in a linen closet so she doesn’t disturb her daughter; she realizes her husband must be missing or dead, and frantically tries to come to terms with that fact.

“No Monsters Here” is an urgent, palpable, desperate-feeling story about mental illness, loss, motherhood, and legacy. The imagery of the body parts fit the subject material perfectly. It didn’t wander off on strange and offensive tangents. It was well-written and haunting and I enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, it made up only one-eleventh of this book. ★☆


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

Friday Bookbag, 10.19.18

FridayBookbag

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

Since it’s been so long since a Friday Bookbag (er…that was in early August, to be exact), this will be a loosey-goosey, mega-stuffed, big ol’ omnibus post full of the books that have come and gone from my possession over the past couple months. No time to waste. Let’s dive in!


Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

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Sabrina and Corina Coverthe premise: Sabrina and Corina is Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection of short stories, centered on Indigenous Latina women living in the American West. Her characters include mothers and daughters, sex workers and prisoners, ancestors and descendants.

why I’m excited: Sabrina and Corina doesn’t release until April 2019, but I was lucky enough to be approved for a review copy on Netgalley. I’m so excited for this one that it makes my fingertips tingle. I love the innovation and beauty happening in the short story collection space right now: it seems that more collections are being published by major presses than there have been in a long time. I’m thrilled that this one (with that gorgeous cover!) gets to see the light of day in mainstream publishing. Fajardo-Anstine is working with familiar short story themes of family, legacy, and death, but she populates them with settings and characters that feel fresh and timely in this climate. I just can’t wait for April, when you’ll all get to dive into this one with me. (It’s currently available for pre-order.)

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

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34357122the premise: Khai has been training from birth to protect the Princess Zariya, in a world where gods walk among humans and magic reigns. When a secret and a dark god threaten to upend his world, Khai must journey to the ends of the earth, deep beneath starless skies, to save himself and Zariya both.

why I’m excited: I did a Ballyhoo about this one way back in May and I’m excited to say that I finally got to the top of the library waiting list for it. Jacqueline Carey is one of the most thrilling authors working in fantasy today: she transforms familiar fantasy tropes (fantasy, fated mates, broody warriors, fierce yet vulnerable princesses) into powerhouses of storytelling that rip my heart out of my chest and stomp on it. I’m a die-hard fan of her Kushiel novels and I can’t wait to lose myself in this new world of hers.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

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Just Kids Coverthe premise: Just Kids is rock legend Patti Smith’s memoir of her storied relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, beginning with her sickly, dreamy childhood in New Jersey and continuing with her bohemian years in New York City as an artist and poet crossing paths with legends from Janis Joplin to Bob Dylan to Lou Reed.

why I’m excited: This one feels like cheating to include, since I’ve read it so many times before, including for the most recent time last week (when I bought an e-book copy, which is why I’ve included it). It’s a memoir that has profoundly shaped my life: it’s hard not to feel inspired and awed by Smith’s work as an artist. Just Kids could so easily have been a self-hagiography–and frankly, Patti Smith has earned such an indulgence–but it’s not. It’s a slim, modest book that’s at its heart a love story, sometimes romantic and sometimes powerfully platonic, between her and Mapplethorpe. What a gift to get a peek into a New York arts scene that’s long since vanished, and what a gift that Smith is a talented enough writer to make that peek a work of literature instead of a mere voyeuristic exercise.

Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer

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Incendiary Girls Coverthe premise: Like Sabrina and Corina, Incendiary Girls is a short story collection that feels uniquely able to exist because of the short story renaissance. Incendiary Girls is a madcap, magical, humorous romp through modern life, with characters ranging from a woman whose mother has been reincarnated as a Thoroughbred mare to an unorthodox angel.

why I’m excited: I’m wary of short story collections that seem self-consciously irreverent, and this one’s wacky advertised premises definitely come across that way. But there’s something about it that captured me. Maybe it’s that cover, which is gloriously understated even as the stories seem like they’re anything but. Maybe it’s that it seems that Scheer’s characters are mostly women, a quality I always seek out in my fiction. Either way, I took a chance on it, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether or not it pays off.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

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American Street Coverthe premise: American Street is a YA novel about a Haitian teenager, Fabiola Touissant, who finds herself uprooted with her family to harsh Detroit. She struggles to find her footing, but just as it seems she might finally do so, she faces a choice that could shatter everything.

why I’m excited: This book is an instant YA classic. It’s universally beloved by the book-tweeters I follow (shameless self-plug that I am also a book-tweeter) and I’m so excited to finally get the chance to read it. American Street seems to have everything I want in a contemporary YA story: a protagonist making the best of a bad situation, an identity crisis, a sharp look at the problems real teens face all over the world. (And a gorgeous cover, too.) Love, love, love.

We Were Mothers by Katie Sise

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We Were Mothers coverthe premise: In a picturesque, repressed, tight-knit suburban town, two families become entangled in a web of secrets around one daughter’s illicit encounter and another’s disappearance.

why I’m excited: Consider this yet another fix for my twisty-turny, Gone Girl-esque thriller habit. I’ll be honest: this one sounds like Big Little Lies-lite to me (and also like a less thoughtful version of Little Fires Everywhere), and I’m pretty sure I won’t love it…but like I said, it’s a fix. I love this kind of book, so I’ll reserve official judgment on its seemingly derivative elements till I read it.

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

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On the Edge of Gone Coverthe premise: A comet is scheduled to hit the earth in 2035. Denise, her sister, and her mother Iris are on their way to a temporary shelter in Amsterdam, but then Iris disappears and Denise’s drug-addicted mother seems in no hurry to reach the shelter. Luckily, Denise receives another opportunity to survive: to leave earth on a ship that will colonize other worlds after the comet hits. There’s just one catch: everyone on board must have a useful skill, but Denise is autistic, which she fears will disqualify her from a new life among the stars.

why I’m excited: Literally everything about this premise excites me. An imminent societal collapse that isn’t a grim-dark moral on how crappy humanity is, a setting in Amsterdam (more YA set in other countries that isn’t an “issue novel” about those countries, please), and an autistic protagonist who seems to have a great deal of agency. It’s interesting sci-fi with something to say about the world that feels fresh. Love. Can’t wait to start turning the pages of this one.

The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

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Girl with the Red Balloon Coverthe premise: Try reading that title and looking at that cover without humming “99 Luftballons” to yourself–you can’t. And just like the song, The Girl with the Red Balloon’s story hails from a divided Berlin. 16-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally warps to East Berlin in 1988, a city about to (almost literally) shatter. She falls in with the Balloonmakers, a secretive guild who use magic and balloons to help people escape over the wall. But it soon becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to manipulate history, putting Ellie at the center of a battle for the future.

why I’m excited: I can’t believe how untapped the Berlin Wall is as a setting for fiction, especially YA. It’s hard to imagine a more potent real-life event to set a story in. It feels more relevant today than ever, and it also serves as a potent metaphor for the battles over identity and selfhood that teenagers face every day. The Girl with the Red Balloon strikes me as genuinely innovative and interesting, a YA like no other I can think of. How wonderful.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!