Mini-Reviews: Listen to Your Heart + From Twinkle, with Love

MiniIt’s nearly the end of the year and I am never more grateful for mini-reviews. I’m feeling something akin to senioritis during these last couple of months of the year and find myself relying on the mini-review more than ever. I’m seriously contemplating only writing mini-reviews for the rest of 2018. On the other hand, I don’t want to get used to it and then struggle with full reviews when January comes around. This week I have two very fun contemporary reads to share with you. Both are from gifted storytellers that would both make my list of contemporary authors to reach for when you need a pick me up. Hope you enjoy. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Listen to Your Heart
Author: Kasie West
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Publisher: Point
Release Date: May 29th 2018 

      “Talking to other people isn’t Kate Bailey’s favorite activity. She’d much rather be out on the lake, soaking up the solitude and sunshine. So when her best friend, Alana, convinces Kate to join their high school’s podcast, Kate is not expecting to be chosen as the host. Now she’ll have to answer calls and give advice on the air? Impossible.
      But to Kate’s surprise, she turns out to be pretty good at the hosting gig. Then the podcast gets in a call from an anonymous guy, asking for advice about his unnamed crush. Kate is pretty sure that the caller is gorgeous Diego Martinez, and even surer that the girl in question is Alana. Kate is excited for her friend … until Kate herself starts to develop feelings for Diego. Suddenly, Kate finds that while doling out wisdom to others may be easy, asking for help is tougher than it looks, and following your own advice is even harder.
      Kasie West’s adorable story of secrets, love, and friendship is sure to win over hearts everywhere.”

swirl (2)

“I put my hand on my forehead and groaned. Maybe the best thing to come out of this would be that I’d be fired.”

Listen to Your Heart is a great addition to Kasie West’s already impressive collection of YA contemporary novels. West is known for her lighthearted and fun books and Listen to Your Heart is no exception. Kate is the last person who would choose to be in the spotlight, but when an elective class lands her in one of the seats as cohost for her school’s advice podcast, that’s exactly where she ends up. Kate is forced out of her comfort zone, but discovers that she may have a knack for this kind of thing after all. I loved that this novel included a lot of different and unusual family dynamics. Kate and her family run a marina and as a result, she has cousins and aunts and uncles always in and out of her house at any given time. One of my criticisms of West’s novels has always been that I never felt like I got to know the love interests quite as much as the protagonists. But in Listen to Your Heart, West takes her time developing Kate’s love interest and aside from the protagonist, Diego felt like the most developed character. I really liked the chemistry between these two characters and aside from P.S. I Like You, this might be my favorite pairing of hers. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about the relationship dynamics in this one (slight spoiler alert ahead: Kate ends up developing a crush on her best friend’s crush, but I think West does a good job of keeping Kate and Alana’s relationship intact while also allowing Kate to very organically develop feelings for Diego). Overall, I really enjoyed this latest West novel and it reminded me that a quick, laid-back read can be just as satisfying as a more dense novel.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: From Twinkle, with Love
Author: Sandhya Menon
Series: N/A
Pages: 330
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: May 22nd 2018

      “Aspiring filmmaker and wallflower Twinkle Mehra has stories she wants to tell and universes she wants to explore, if only the world would listen. So when fellow film geek Sahil Roy approaches her to direct a movie for the upcoming Summer Festival, Twinkle is all over it. The chance to publicly showcase her voice as a director? Dream come true. The fact that it gets her closer to her longtime crush, Neil Roy—a.k.a. Sahil’s twin brother? Dream come true x 2.
      When mystery man ‘N’ begins emailing her, Twinkle is sure it’s Neil, finally ready to begin their happily-ever-after. The only slightly inconvenient problem is that, in the course of movie-making, she’s fallen madly in love with the irresistibly adorkable Sahil.
      Twinkle soon realizes that resistance is futile: The romance she’s got is not the one she’s scripted. But will it be enough?
      Told through the letters Twinkle writes to her favorite female filmmakers, From Twinkle, with Love navigates big truths about friendship, family, and the unexpected places love can find you.”

swirl (2)

      “The more I think about it, the more I wonder if my mother and I are related at all. I bet I was dropped on her doorstep, like Harry Potter, and she just hasn’t figured out how to tell me yet.
      I walk off to my room to look for my lightning bolt scar. Because that is the only way any of this makes sense.”

With From Twinkle, with Love, Sandhya Menon delivers another laugh-out-loud YA contemporary with a protagonist that is sure to steal the hearts of readers. Twinkle Mehra dreams of becoming a filmmaker, of one day making a name for herself, of changing the world one film at a time. But the reality is Twinkle feels like a nobody at her high school, surrounded by more affluent kids and cast aside by her best friend, being overlooked is unfortunately what Twinkle is good at. But when Sahil Roy approaches her asking to collaborate on a film project, Twinkle is convinced this is a huge breakout opportunity and it might even mean getting Sahil’s twin brother Neil to notice her. Twinkle soon learns the ups and downs of being in charge of a large project and how that power can change even the best of people. I immediately fell in love with Twinkle’s voice. She’s youthful and optimistic and made me laugh almost at every turn. Her relationship with Sahil was delightful and not just because of all the awkwardness between them. These two characters were their best selves when they were around each other. I loved that we got those small glimpses into Sahil’s POV through texts and blog posts because it really helped to round out his character. As much as I adored the romance in this one, I was really invested in Twinkle’s strained relationship with her best friend Maddie. I don’t often see friendships-on-the-rocks in novels and really appreciated how well Menon conveyed that a broken friendship can be just as heartbreaking as a romantic relationship gone awry. If you’re looking for a novel that will make you smile and root for characters even when they make terrible decisions, From Twinkle, with Love is the book for you.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Advertisements

The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw

Title: The Wicked Deep
Author: Shea Ernshaw
Series: N/A
Pages: 308
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: March 6th 2018

      “Welcome to the cursed town of Sparrow…
      Where, two centuries ago, three sisters were sentenced to death for witchery. Stones were tied to their ankles and they were drowned in the deep waters surrounding the town.
      Now, for a brief time each summer, the sisters return, stealing the bodies of three weak-hearted girls so that they may seek their revenge, luring boys into the harbor and pulling them under.
      Like many locals, seventeen-year-old Penny Talbot has accepted the fate of the town. But this year, on the eve of the sisters’ return, a boy named Bo Carter arrives; unaware of the danger he has just stumbled into.
      Mistrust and lies spread quickly through the salty, rain-soaked streets. The townspeople turn against one another. Penny and Bo suspect each other of hiding secrets. And death comes swiftly to those who cannot resist the call of the sisters.
      But only Penny sees what others cannot. And she will be forced to choose: save Bo, or save herself.”

swirl (2)

“Once a Swan sister has whispered into your ear, promised the touch of her skin, you can’t resist her. She will lure you into the water then pull you under until the life spills out of you.”

When the town of Sparrow drowned the Swan sisters, convinced they were witches, they set upon themselves a curse that has plagued the small town for two centuries. Penny Talbot hasn’t had a normal life since her father disappeared three summers ago, but in a place like Sparrow, it’s hard for anyone to have a normal life. Each year the Swan sisters return, inhabiting the bodies of young women and lure young men to their deaths. Every year the families of Sparrow are devastated by the loss of their sons, but are powerless to stop it. When Bo, an outsider, wanders into Sparrow with no knowledge of the town curse, Penny befriends him despite the warnings in her head. But soon the sisters begin their killing spree and Penny becomes desperate to keep Bo from danger, but secrets from both their pass threaten not only their new bond, but their lives.

Shea Ernshaw’s The Wicked Deep beguiles with its eerie setting, transporting readers to a place where the town’s transgressions are a tourist attraction to outsiders, but an inescapable curse upon generations of inhabitants. The most interesting part of this book is by far the town itself. Not only its history of executing young women suspected of witchcraft, but how it has both embraced and feared the consequences of its actions. The young people of Sparrow throw parties when the summer solstice rolls around perhaps because most of them don’t quite believe in the curse. But it’s enough to keep many of them away from the water where it’s said the sisters claim their host bodies and where their victims are eventually led to drown. It isn’t surprising that this uncertain and deadly time brings about a level of paranoia. Just because the town’s curse hasn’t been broken doesn’t mean it can’t be and for a few desperate individuals hunting down the sisters and killing them before they can do more harm is the only way to stop them. But with no way of knowing who has been possessed, the town becomes the center of a witch hunt and history often repeats itself.

Penny has never quite gotten over how her town treated her father. As an outsider, he was never fully embraced and when he disappeared, Sparrow found little time to care. For the last three years it has been Penny who maintains the lighthouse on the little island just outside of Sparrow. Her mother is no more than a shadow of her old self and with no other occupants on the island, Penny feels both its isolation and comfort at once. Bo, who carries his own losses close to his chest becomes a kind of mirror for Penny. Their connection represents the part of herself that longs to escape Sparrow, but which inevitably knows Sparrow is both her beginning and end. Bo is a tricky character to really get a handle on. Ernshaw relies on belated reveals to shock the reader and while I will say I enjoyed most of her twists, this method made Bo’s character in particular feel inconsistent. What we discover later didn’t mesh well with the Bo we meet at the beginning. I felt little sympathy for him and found myself actively rooting against him at times. The ending as a result of all the plot twists also didn’t sit well with me and kind of left me feeling that Penny really got the short end of the stick in the end.

Shea Ernshaw’s The Wicked Deep is atmospheric and eerie. The mystery of the town’s curse and romance between Penny and Bo will have many readers enthralled. The ending however left a bad aftertaste in my mouth.

3/5

★★★

Mini Reviews: Sadie + A Room Away From the Wolves

MiniIn October, I did my best to pick up as many thrillers/mystery novels as I could. I usually go for more horror-themed novels during this time of year, but I heard such great things about the following two books, I just had to check them out myself. I read Sadie, but after hearing everyone praise the audio book, I kind of regret not listening to it. Maybe sometime in the future, I’ll at least check out the podcasts the publisher made available to readers. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Sadie
Author: Courtney Summers
Series: N/A
Pages: 311
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Release Date: September 4th 2018 

      “Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.
      But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.
      When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.”

swirl (2)

“I live in a place that’s only good for leaving, is all that needs to be said about it, and I don’t let myself look back. Doesn’t matter if I want to, it’s just better that I don’t.”

Courtney Summer’s Sadie cleverly alternates between two timelines. In the first, Sadie Hunter’s little sister Mattie has been murdered and although the police have run out of leads, she hasn’t. She’s determined to find the person responsible and make them pay. A year after Mattie’s death West McCray, radio personality who focuses on small towns, receives a phone call from May Beth Foster, the girls’ surrogate grandmother. Sadie’s been missing for months and she’s hoping that he may be the one person out there who cares enough to look for her. As Sadie moves from one town to another, in search of her sister’s killer, she leaves behind a trail of blood and uncovered secrets. As a reader you’re drawn into Sadie’s story, her traumatic past and the rage that bubbles underneath every decision she makes. She’s never been an open person and Mattie has been her whole life since the day she was born. When their mother left them years ago, it was Sadie who picked up the pieces, but the girls’ relationship hasn’t always been easy, especially when they have such stark views of their mother. For Sadie, Claire Southern has never been the kind of mother she needed her to be. Her alcoholism, drug addiction, and compulsory need to always have a good-for-nothing man in her life, has made it impossible for Sadie to not resent her. But for Mattie, Claire was her mother and whatever flaws she might have had, she never questioned her mother’s love for her. Though Sadie and West’s timelines are separated by months, Summers has a way of writing that makes it feel like West is only two steps behind Sadie. So in the moments where Sadie is in real danger, you can’t help but hope West can be fast enough in his search to help her before it’s too late. Sadie is not a pleasant story, it’s incredibly violent and heartbreaking. It has a lot of triggering content, mostly due to with mentions of sexual abuse of children, but if you can handle the heavy-heartedness of the story, Summer’s has written a compulsory mystery that will leave you contemplating Sadie and her story long after you close the book.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: A Room Away From the Wolves
Author: Nova Ren Suma
Series: N/A
Pages: 315
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Release Date: September 4th 2018

      “Bina has never forgotten the time she and her mother ran away from home. Her mother promised they would hitchhike to the city to escape Bina’s cruel father and start over. But before they could even leave town, Bina had a new stepfather and two new stepsisters, and a humming sense of betrayal pulling apart the bond with her mother—a bond Bina thought was unbreakable.
      Eight years later, after too many lies and with trouble on her heels, Bina finds herself on the side of the road again, the city of her dreams calling for her. She has an old suitcase, a fresh black eye, and a room waiting for her at Catherine House, a young women’s residence in Greenwich Village with a tragic history, a vow of confidentiality, and dark, magical secrets. There, Bina is drawn to her enigmatic downstairs neighbor Monet, a girl who is equal parts intriguing and dangerous. As Bina’s lease begins to run out, and nightmare and memory get tangled, she will be forced to face the terrible truth of why she’s come to Catherine House and what it will take for her to leave…”

swirl (2)

“I hear myself cry out and stand to take it, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. The girls have grown countless arms in the dark. The trees themselves have joined in. I can’t fight them off, can’t keep them away”

Nova Ren Suma is one of those authors whose books I go into thinking I’m going to enjoy them more than I actually do. I love how strange and eerie her stories are, but always find them more than a little confusing. A Room Away From the Wolves is beautifully written with an interesting protagonist at its center, but I found myself scratching my head more than once trying to figure out exactly what was going on. When Bina is basically thrown out of her own home, she goes to the only place that makes sense to her: Catherine House, where her mother once sought refuge. But almost immediately upon her arrival, she notices something strange about the place and the other young women who are renting rooms. Part ghost story and part mystery, A Room Away From the Wolves, like its protagonist, keeps its secrets close, revealing only a little at a time. Although I enjoyed the writing in this one, I’m still left with a lot of questions. Bina isn’t the most reliable narrator, but I was still hoping to get a full picture of what her life was like before she leaves her home. There are a few flashbacks, but I often felt that Nova Ren Suma was only giving us a few pieces of a puzzle and we as readers have to accept that we’ll never see the full picture. I did like how atmospheric this one was. There are a few creepy scenes that made me sit up in my seat, but I wanted a more complete understanding of who Bina was and wanted to know more about the mysteries of Catherine House.

Rating: 3/5

★★★

ARC Review: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao

Title: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
Author: Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress, #2
Pages: 384
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: November 6th 2018
*I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review*

      “This fairy tale retelling lives in a mystical world inspired by the Far East, where the Dragon Lord and the Serpent God battle for control of the earthly realm; it is here that the flawed heroine of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns finally meets her match. An epic fantasy finale to the Rise of the Empress novels.
      Princess Jade has grown up in exile, hidden away in a monastery while her stepmother, the ruthless Xifeng, rules as Empress of Feng Lu. But the empire is in distress and its people are sinking into poverty and despair. Even though Jade doesn’t want the crown, she knows she is the only one who can dethrone the Empress and set the world right. Ready to reclaim her place as rightful heir, Jade embarks on a quest to raise the Dragon Lords and defeat Xifeng and the Serpent God once and for all. But will the same darkness that took Xifeng take Jade, too? Or will she find the strength within to save herself, her friends, and her empire?
      Set in an East Asian-inspired fantasy world filled with breathtaking pain and beauty, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is filled with dazzling magic, powerful prose, and characters readers won’t soon forget.”

swirl (2)

Julie C. Dao concludes her Rise of the Empress duology with Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. Filled with enchanting storytelling and a likable cast of characters, this companion novel is sure to please fans of the first book. In Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, readers witnessed the downfall of the protagonist Xifeng as she embraced the darkness within. In this follow-up novel, years have passed since Xifeng has become Empress. The empire has suffered under a cruel regime and many of the people have become restless. When Jade, the heir to the Empire, is summoned back home by her stepmother Xifeng, she discovers that evil can take many forms. Xifeng is not the doting wife and stepmother she pretends to be and when Jade uncovers the truth about how Xifeng has been able to hold on to power, she is forced to flee. In order to save her people and regain her rightful place as heir, Jade will have to journey far and overcome challenges meant to crush even the strongest of people.

Jade is just shy of eighteen years old. Having spent the majority of her life in a monastery, Jade’s understanding of the world has been limited. Though she has grown up far from the luxuries befitting her rank, her ignorance is a privilege in itself. Jade has always wanted to forget who she really is, to make vows and become a monk. When she arrives in the Imperial City and sees how much her people are suffering, she is forced to confront the world she’s spent her whole life hiding from. I loved that Jade’s journey isn’t just an outward one, that she must reflect on who she’s been and who she will choose to be. For people like Xifeng, who only see others as pawns in their own story, having friends and family is an easy way to be manipulated. For Jade, the allies she surrounds herself with become her greatest strength. From her surrogate grandmother Amah, who raised her when she was cast aside, to Amah’s granddaughter Wren, who exhibits a very different form of strength than Jade, these relationships are what keep Jade from being entice by the same kind of temptations that Xifeng has fallen prey to. The strongest influences in Jade’s life have always been women, including the mother she lost at such a young age and are the reason Jade, while not necessarily the strongest or bravest character, is able to challenge someone as powerful as Xifeng.

Xifeng is one of my favorite literary characters because she is allowed to want power for power’s sake. While I would never personally side with Xifeng, at the end of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, I could not help but root for her just a little. The biggest challenge with this novel was shifting my own perspective. Seeing Xifeng not just as a ambitious young woman who did everything in her power to get what she wanted, but as an antagonist to Jade, a woman who took her mother’s place and who has continued to poison the people in order to hold on to power. One of my favorite elements of the novel was the importance of folktales. Jade grew up hearing Amah tell her stories and though she didn’t fully appreciate what Amah was trying to teach her, these tales become the building blocks of Jade’s journey.

If you’re looking for a unique take on fairytale retellings, Julie C. Dao’s Rise of the Empress duology is a must. She’s written a vibrant world with characters you can both love and love to hate.

4/5

★★★★

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Title: Pride
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: September 18th 2018

      “Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable.
      When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.
      But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon, Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape, or lose it all.
      In a timely update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, critically acclaimed author Ibi Zoboi skillfully balances cultural identity, class, and gentrification against the heady magic of first love in her vibrant reimagining of this beloved classic.”

swirl (2)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up. But it’s not just the junky stuff they’ll get rid of. People can be thrown away too, like last night’s trash left out on sidewalks or pushed to the edge of wherever broken things go. What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first built out of love..”

Ibi Zoboi’s Pride reimagines Jane Austen’s classic in the modern world, making the story feel both familiar and new. Zuri Benitez is supposed to spend the summer before her senior year hanging out with her older sister Janae, back from her first year away at college. But Zuri’s summer takes an unexpected turn when the Darcys move in across the street and her sister develops a growing interest in the older Darcy son, Ainsley. Not exactly an ideal situation when Zuri can’t stand his judgmental brother Darius. With their fancy clothes, fancy parties, and fancy house Zuri can’t help but be wary of the Darcys. After all, rich people do not move into neighborhoods like hers without hoping to improve it and Zuri knows that means everyone who’s been there, even for generations, eventually gets pushed out.

Ibi Zoboi writes with a lot of heart and while a lot of Pride and Prejudice retellings focus heavily on the romance, Pride finds its stride with family and community at its center. Zuri is proud of where she comes from, she never pretends to be anything different than who she is, and is deeply protective of the people in her community. So while to many Bushwick might look a little run down with their dilapidated buildings and a little too loud with their block parties, Bushwick is always foremost Zuri’s home. I loved how much personality this community had, how it felt from the very beginning like a family rather than just a place you happen to live, and it wasn’t hard to see why Zuri loved it so much. We rarely talk about world building when it comes to contemporaries, but it’s an aspect that I’d love to see given more care in the genre. I want to get to know the characters, but I also want to see where they come from and how this has shaped the people they’ve become. This is very much what you get with Zoboi’s Pride. I really like that both American Street, Zoboi’s debut, and this novel have a subtle spiritual element to them. Zuri’s relationship to the character Madrina gives Zoboi an opportunity to bring Santería, a religion I hardly see explored in YA lit,  to life and added depth both to Pride’s characters and its world.

I really loved Zuri as a character. She’s independent, unapologetically opinionated, and fiercely protective of her family. While her older sister Janae has taken on the role of a second mother to her sisters, Zuri as the next oldest has become their defender. Though she shakes her head whenever her mother and younger sisters get a little too excited when it comes to gossip or boys, she loves them and has no room in her life for anyone who disrespects them. Zuri has big dreams for herself, to attend Howard University, to travel, but to always come back home and help the community that raised her. She’s a poet at heart and I loved all the poems sprinkled throughout the book. Words are a way for Zuri to work through her feelings and gives her an outlet for her emotions. Darius is a harder character to like. Like Zuri, you feel his disapproval of her family and her neighborhood from day one and you can’t help but feel protective of it. The two characters do not get off to a good start and part of this is Darius’s bad attitude, but another part is Zuri’s instant animosity of anyone rich moving into her neighborhood. For her, Darius and his family represents change–a familiar change that has happened to one too many neighborhoods like hers–the rich move in, soon people are forced out, and the neighborhood eventually becomes unrecognizable. By the end of the novel, I’m not sure I have the best grip on every facet of Darius’s character, but like Zuri, I don’t mind finding out more. 

Ibi Zoboi’s Pride is the kind of retelling I’d like to see more of. It centers a Haitian-Dominican character surrounded by a strong community, allows said character to be both confident and sometimes wrong, and there’s a strong undercurrent of hope present even in the most catastrophic of circumstances.

4/5

★★★★

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Title: Her Body and Other Parties
Author: Carmen Maria Machado
Series: N/A
Pages: 248
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Release Date: October 3rd 2017

      “”In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.
      A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.
      Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious,
Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.”

swirl (2)

“On either side of the road, the white trunks of the trees were illuminated to a degree, the kind of brief visibility provided by a camera’s flash at midnight. I saw a layer or two of trees, and beyond that an opaque blackness that was disturbing to me. Autumn was the worst time to go into the mountains, I thought to myself. To drive into the wilderness when it writhed and gasped for air seemed foolish.”

Carmen Maria Machado takes readers on a strange, yet thought-provoking ride in her short story collection Her Body and Other Parties. Each story features a different nameless female narrator, with one exception, surrounding the theme of female autonomy and both the subtle and conspicuous ways women are stripped of control. Though it is difficult to give a label to these stories, much of them are infused with horror and science-fiction elements. Each of the eight stories were compelling in their own way, but I was taken with how introspective each of Machado’s narrators were. A couple of stories had me scratching my head, trying to understand exactly what the purpose was, but I kept turning the pages regardless, wanting to know the end even if I understood very little.

There are two stories that stand out to me the most in this collection. The first being The Husband Stitch, the opening story and inspiration for the cover art. It tells of a young woman’s sexual awakening, her marriage and the difficult birth of her one and one child. She gives everything of herself to both her husband and son, while trying to protect this one small part of herself. This is physically manifested as a ribbon tied around her neck. Some may recognize this story from In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz, but I assure you, Machado brings her unique voice to the tale. The narrator’s husband becomes fixated on her green ribbon, not because it is in itself a mystery demanding to be unlocked, but because it belongs to this woman and her husband cannot fathom why she should not want to share it with him. Even her son, small as he is, must eventually be warned away from the ribbon. One of my favorite elements of this story is Machado’s inclusion of these interactive annotations at the end of key scenes. For example, this excerpt comes after she is forced to startle her child with a can full of pennies in order to stop him from pulling her ribbon. She ends the scene by saying something has shifted between them and their relationship is never the same.

“(If you are reading this story out loud, prepare a soda can full of pennies. When you arrive at this moment, shake it loudly in the face of the people closest to you. Observe their expressions of startled fear, then betrayal. Notice how they never look at you exactly the same way for the rest of your days.)”

The Resident is another story that ended up being one of my favorites. The story opens with a woman driving to the mountains to take part in a type of retreat for various artists. The narrator makes the trip to a familiar area she used to visit as a Girl Scout. There are hints of a traumatic event that happened in the past and an building tension throughout the story. My favorite aspect of these stories was the horror component. For this story in particular, I loved how eerie the setting was, the dark and strange descriptions, and the foreboding atmosphere. The story, like many of the others, has more of an ambiguous conclusion. It’s a familiar horror trope that I didn’t mind because of how much I enjoyed the journey these stories took me on.

If you’re looking for a short story collection with captivating writing and don’t mind the odd story or two, Her Body and Other Parties is one you should definitely check out. Machado’s storytelling is addictive and I dove into each story with my eyes wide and ready to be taken on an unique ride.

4/5

★★★★