I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg To be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on July 28, 2020 my rating: ★★★★ (4 stars) Goodreads avg: 4.49 (as of 2020-07-13) disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. Quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears presents a collection of women on the verge, trying to grasp what’s left of life: grieving, divorced, and hyperaware, searching, vulnerable, and unhinged, they exist in a world that deviates from our own only when you look too close. With remarkable control and transcendent talent, van den Berg dissolves, in the words of the narrator of “Slumberland,” “that border between magic and annihilation,” and further establishes herself as a defining fiction writer of our time.
It may be the first work I’ve read by Laura van den Berg, but this collection absolutely gutted me. Almost every story was devastating to some extent, often in ways I wasn’t expecting. The stories all feel properly connected and seem like they are occurring in the same universe, happening to similar people. van den Berg allows the women she writes to be flawed human beings and doesn’t pull any punches. They do and think bad things, but they’re always sympathetic — and fascinating to read about. There’s a lot of commentary on grief, trauma, and gender, and I urge readers to tread lightly and to look up content warnings if necessary. I’ve included an incomplete list below. On the whole, I was incredibly impressed by this collection and will be looking to read more of van den Berg’s work.
-Last Night, 3.5 stars -Slumberland, 5 stars -Hill of Hell, 4 stars -Cult of Mary, 2 stars -Lizards, 4 stars -The Pitch, 4 stars -Volcano House, 3.5 stars -Friends, 4 stars -Karolina, 4 stars -Your Second Wife, 4 stars -I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, 3.5 stars
average: 3.77 stars, rounded up to 4
content warnings: sexual assault; loss of a loved one; domestic abuse; mass shootings; miscarriages; kidnapping; attempted suicide.
In a matter of weeks, Massachusetts has been overrun by an insidious rabies-like virus that is spread by saliva. But unlike rabies, the disease has a terrifyingly short incubation period of an hour or less. Those infected quickly lose their minds and are driven to bite and infect as many others as they can before they inevitably succumb. Hospitals are inundated with the sick and dying, and hysteria has taken hold. To try to limit its spread, the commonwealth is under quarantine and curfew. But society is breaking down and the government’s emergency protocols are faltering.
Dr. Ramola “Rams” Sherman, a soft-spoken pediatrician in her mid-thirties, receives a frantic phone call from Natalie, a friend who is eight months pregnant. Natalie’s husband has been killed—viciously attacked by an infected neighbor—and in a failed attempt to save him, Natalie, too, was bitten. Natalie’s only chance of survival is to get to a hospital as quickly as possible to receive a rabies vaccine. The clock is ticking for her and for her unborn child.
Natalie’s fight for life becomes a desperate odyssey as she and Rams make their way through a hostile landscape filled with dangers beyond their worst nightmares—terrifying, strange, and sometimes deadly challenges that push them to the brink.
There are elephants at the Southwick Zoo maybe thirty miles west, and Natalie hopes those fuckers are on lockdown.
My introduction to Paul Tremblay was A Head Full of Ghosts, which I absolutely adored. I’ve since read two more of his horror novels, and his newest short story collection; my experiences with the 3 varied slightly but I’m still a fan of Tremblay’s. I was particularly looking forward to this novel because I have a rabies phobia and could not imagine many things more terrifying than a super rabies epidemic. To read this during a worldwide pandemic was even more compelling.
Tremblay really hit it out of the park with this one. I picked my copy up as soon as I got home from the bookstore and literally didn’t put it down until I hit the last page. The entire story takes place in the span of just a few hours and there is such an urgency to it that I couldn’t imagine going to bed without finishing it.
This is really a twist on the traditional zombie story; those who are bitten by a carrier of the super rabies experience symptoms within an hour, compared to the traditional weeks one has with rabies as we know it. This means the virus in this story is spread remarkably quickly, leading those infected to become extremely violent and uncontainable. While the story itself is certainly action-packed, I found the ‘zombie’ story itself secondary to the characters. This is far more a story about the friendship between two women, and the lengths one will go to in order to save a loved one than it is a story about zombies.
And god, some of the pieces of this were prophetic as hell. At one point we meet a group of right wingers who insist that the virus is biowarfare unleashed by foreign countries — or by our own government, as a means of pushing vaccines. I’m sure some people will see these as caricatures but I honestly felt like I was seeing some of my relatives portrayed on the page. Even more: the panic and anger and fear of healthcare workers given insufficient training and even more insufficient PPE had me grimacing in sympathy, knowing that this was the case in my own country just a couple months ago.
Like I said above, the characters are really what made this for me. Rams, one of the POV characters, is a British biracial self-identified asexual woman (who I also read as aromantic). Natalie is a pregnant spitfire of a woman. I loved their relationship and felt like Tremblay did an incredible job of portraying what felt like a very real friendship. I was also delighted and surprised by the appearance of two characters from Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. While the two are not at all plot-dependent, I think one would struggle to connect with these characters and would find a specific interlude to be much less emotionally impactful if one had not read Disappearance. The discussions in this book also spoil some of the events in Disappearance, so I would highly recommend reading that first if it’s on your TBR!
Anyway, yeah, I just loved this book. I’m so impressed with Tremblay and am really looking forward to seeing whatever he puts out next!
content warnings: violence against animals and humans; animal [and human] death; gore; racism and xenophobia (challenged on page); death of a loved one.
“Starting to think communism is better than being dead.”
This was certainly, uh, a novel. This was my last read of the Hugo noms for this year and while I absolutely agree with its inclusion on the list, I can’t say I particularly loved this book. The nonlinear timeline is extremely confusing, in part because this is first person narration and the MC also has no idea what’s going on. It’s also just a confusing concept, period. The lack of linearity and large-ish cast also made it difficult to keep characters straight.
I did find a great deal of it to be compelling enough to keep me glued to my kindle, but also hit some spots where I was ready for us to wrap things up. I’m also not a huge fan of war narratives and felt like it hit a point where Hurley was hitting me over the head with her messages; on the other hand, a lot of the fascist elements were frighteningly timely. There was some interesting stuff done with gender, but I just didn’t get why it was handled the way it was; it would have been far more interesting to have a gender neutral MC than to wait until the final act to reveal the MC’s gender.
I guess I’m just not fully convinced by this one. I’ll definitely be recommending it to hard sci-fi fans and those who like war stories, but it wasn’t a big hit for me.
I buddy read this with Hadeer, who enjoyed it and wrote a much more thorough review than I did. Go check hers out!
This is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s stories, which I have not read. Lovecraft himself is infamously racist, so LaValle’s retelling is a commentary on racism. What I found myself most struck by was how some of the explicitly racist bits could have been pulled straight out of today’s world even though the story takes place some 100 years ago. I found myself absolutely horrified by one scene, only to immediately see how it is paralleled by stories in the news today. But while I appreciated LaValle’s commentary, I couldn’t connect to the character’s or the story itself and had a difficult time feeling invested in the novella. I’ll still be recommending it to others, and am glad to see most people have enjoyed it more than I did.
Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power To be published by Delacorte Press on July 7, 2020 my rating: ★★★★ (4) Goodreads avg: 4.13 (as of 2020-06-22) disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. Quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.
Okay, I really liked this. While I enjoyed Power’s debut, Wilder Girls, I feel like she really hit her stride here. I found myself drawn into Burn Our Bodies Down almost immediately. Margot came to life for me right away and I was so invested in her story and where it would go. The mystery was soo twisted and I was constantly on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next. And I was absolutely wrong at every turn. My only problem was really some inconsistencies I’m sure will be ironed out in the final copy.
I never got good at recognizing attraction in other girls–it took me long enough to recognize it in myself, and even longer to say “lesbian,” without blushing.
I also love the queer rep in this; the main character is a lesbian and while there is no romance she has that little “do I want to be friends with her or do I want to kiss her” struggle that I think most wlw experience when they meet another woman they’re drawn to. I’m glad a romance wasn’t shoehorned in here; I feel like it would have been out of place in the story considering what’s going on.
Overall, this book is soooo good and I’ll definitely be recommending it in the future!
content warnings: Fire. Emotional abuse by a parent, including gaslighting. Familial and generational abuse. Body horror, some gore, blood (lighter, relative to Wilder Girls). Death. On page character death. Child/infant death (takes place off page but implied violence – pages 301 and 308 in the print ARC). Off-page gun violence. Emesis (mention of vomiting). (I removed one cw that I felt was a spoiler, but you can click the link for a more comprehensive list from the author that she will be updating as she receives feedback!)
My first read for Transathon! Anna-Marie McLemore is nonbinary and one of the main characters is a trans boy whose pronouns are both she/her and he/him.
While I enjoyed this, I wish I had liked it more! I thought that it was trying to do a little too much at once and subsequently ended up a bit scattered. The characters and their relationships really made the read worth it, but I was mainly confused about the magical realism element and felt like the ‘rules’ were kind of arbitrary. I also never felt a real sense of danger and thus wasn’t too invested in the swan aspect of the storyline. I definitely felt a lot could have been cut out of this to make it more enthralling. As a sidenote, I really liked the menstruation rep! Roja has heavy, painful periods and I appreciated their inclusion, although it also felt a bit heavy-handed at times.
She became something else entirely, something so radiant and wild and fierce that a single world could not contain her, and she was obliged to find others.
I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the story here. For me, this was a page-turner but I know others have found it slow and I agree that the pacing lagged in some areas. The characters were fun to read but largely felt one-dimensional; I felt like I should have cared more about the side characters than I did and while I liked the story of January’s parents, I wasn’t really drawn to them as people. But the concept made up for it and the twists really got me. I read this as a YA fantasy and I believe the MC is in her late teens for the bulk of the book, but the author has said it was written for an adult audience, just for the record!
Roberta spends her life trying not to take up space. At almost thirty, she is adrift and alienated from life. Stuck in a mindless job and reluctant to pursue her passion for food, she suppresses her appetite and recedes to the corners of rooms. But when she meets Stevie, a spirited and effervescent artist, their intense friendship sparks a change in Roberta, a shift in her desire for more.
Together, they invent the Supper Club, a transgressive and joyous collective of women who gather to celebrate, rather than admonish, their hungers. They gather after dark and feast until they are sick; they break into private buildings and leave carnage in their wake; they embrace their changing bodies; they stop apologizing. For these women, each extraordinary yet unfulfilled, the club is a way to explore, discover, and push the boundaries of the space they take up in the world.
Yet as the club expands, growing both in size and rebellion, Roberta is forced to reconcile herself to the desire and vulnerabilities of the body–and the past she has worked so hard to repress. Devastatingly perceptive and savagely funny, Supper Club is an essential coming-of-age story for our times.
Watching programs on cannibalism, reading horror stories about lovers devoured, reports of people searching the Internet for someone to eat them, I’d think: I get it. My whole life was the push/pull of appetite: wanting to consume but also to be consumed.
This is one of those books that strikes me as being similar to The Pisces in that it will probably be very divisive. The characters are messy and not necessarily enjoyable to read. But I’ve grown to love reading about messy women and Supper Club was no exception. I found Lara Williams’ writing style enthralling. She writes quite simply, but I felt a great depth of emotion while reading this. She was able to describe the most inane of interactions in a way that made me incredibly anxious. This novel also contains far more character examination than plot; Roberta is really trying to figure out who she is and how to make herself happy.
There is a lot to be said in this book about trauma as well as various forms of abuse or toxicity. The majority of Roberta’s relationships contain one or both of these, but it’s difficult for her to see that just as it’s difficult for many survivors of abuse. I did struggle with trying to figure out whether or not Roberta is queer, as one of her toxic ‘relationships’ is with a queer woman, but by the end I was pretty convinced she was straight and that this was just a seriously codependent friendship. There’s also a trans woman in this book who is misgendered when the narrator recounts her childhood and her discovery of the lgbtq community, as a heads up to any trans folks who may read this.
Overall, I found this was very much a worthwhile experience for me. I really enjoyed Supper Club and appreciate how Williams was able to write such a chaotic and messy book while still holding my attention fully. I do think a lot of people will dislike the ending, but I found it to be a satisfying finish to the book. Pick this up if you liked The Pisces. Don’t pick this up if you hated The Pisces, dislike reading about women who are constantly making poor life choices, and/or can’t stand detailed descriptions of food, drink, and emesis.
content warnings: on-page sexual assault; fatphobia; detailed descriptions of food; on-page self-harm; misgendering; emesis
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders Published by Tor Books on February 12, 2019 my rating: ★★★ Goodreads avg: 3.56 (as of 2020-06-29) Spoiler-free review
Would you give up everything to change the world?
Humanity clings to life on January–a colonized planet divided between permanently frozen darkness on one side, and blazing endless sunshine on the other.
Two cities, built long ago in the meager temperate zone, serve as the last bastions of civilization–but life inside them is just as dangerous as the uninhabitable wastelands outside.
Sophie, a young student from the wrong side of Xiosphant city, is exiled into the dark after being part of a failed revolution. But she survives–with the help of a mysterious savior from beneath the ice.
Burdened with a dangerous, painful secret, Sophie and her ragtag group of exiles face the ultimate challenge–and they are running out of time.
Part of how they make you obey is by making obedience seem peaceful, while resistance is violent. But really, either choice is about violence, one way or another.
This was such a strange book that felt almost needlessly complicated in some aspects. I could tell that Anders was extremely into her world building but I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief for some aspects of it. It reminded me a bit of Amatka: a society filled with unyielding rules. The comparisons largely end there, though.
I never felt strongly connected to any of the characters. Sophie didn’t feel solid enough as a pov character; she never really bypassed concept into full-fledged character for me and I didn’t feel like she had much agency. I struggled similarly with Mouth, who started off as a caricature and morphed into something softer that I didn’t quite understand. I just never felt fully convinced by either of them. The dialogue itself, while largely good, felt stilted in some parts. There were random scenes where I thought, “no one talks like that.”
I really struggled with the message of the story for a bit. It sort of felt like it was trying to push too many storylines together at once. If it was expanded into a series this would have made more sense, but as is it had a kind of claustrophobic feel to it. My mind was constantly dragged in several different directions and I wasn’t really sure what to expect next, but not necessarily in a good way.
I did really admire the way this tackled toxic relationships. Sophie is deeply in love with her best friend Bianca, although seemingly unable to admit it to herself. Bianca is privileged, self-centered, and blind to anything that doesn’t impact her directly. It was frustrating watching Sophie return to Bianca over and over, but it also makes sense in the context of their relationship (until their last meeting — that didn’t make sense to me).
Regardless of my criticisms, this was highly readable and I hope people will still give it a shot. I hit points where I just didn’t want to put the book down because the writing was so compelling and I really wanted to see what would happen next. It’s a good book, but I think cutting down a little would have gone a long way.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi Published by One World on August 13, 2019 my rating: ★★★.5 Goodreads avg: 4.55 (as of 2020-06-27) Spoiler-free review
Ibram X. Kendi’s concept of antiracism reenergizes and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in America—but even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it.
In this book, Kendi weaves an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science, bringing it all together with an engaging personal narrative of his own awakening to antiracism. How to Be an Antiracist is an essential work for anyone who wants to go beyond an awareness of racism to the next step: contributing to the formation of a truly just and equitable society.
The problem of race has always been at its core the problem of power, not the problem of immorality or ignorance.
This book is part memoir, part instruction manual for how to be antiracist, as the title states. The personalized pieces of Kendi’s life help to provide context for the concepts he shares and demonstrates how racism functions in the lived world.
As a White person, there was a lot for me to learn here. While I was familiar with some of the concepts and histories, others were new to me. The experiences Kendi had as well as his internal struggle as a Black man were obviously things I could not relate to and were often things I was not aware of. It was helpful to have this all shown to me so I could better understand what Black people in the US have been dealing with for years.
My only complaint was that it could get pretty repetitive at times. I understand repetition can be helpful in learning new ideas, but it felt more like filler in some parts. I think shortening it a bit, or expanding more on his personal experiences, could have made it a more engaging read and more accessible for some folks. I did also disagree with his assertion that Black people can be racist against White people, but also acknowledge it’s not really my place to speak. I still definitely recommend this and am quite excited to pick up Stamped from the Beginning sometime soon.
I am a White woman and my review is written through that lens. If you are an ownvoices reviewer who would like your review linked here, please let me know!