Threats (Review)

“You lose everything you love in the order in which you love it.”

Amelia Gray’s novel Threats is as unnerving and threatening as the title suggests. Threats is like a strange and uneven puzzle where you find a new piece when you didn’t know you were missing any. As information is revealed, falsified, reconsidered and reformulated, we readjust as readers within short spans of time and space.

A basic synopsis:

On a winter night,Franny walks out of the house where her and her husband, David, live wearing nothing but her pajamas. She freezes to death with a handful of berries in her fist and even more in her stomach. David has trouble coping after her death and is continually visited by police and therapists who claim to have his best interests at heart. He is an ex-dentist and his narrative voice often flashes back to past events.

Shortly after Franny’s death, David has a number of out of body experiences where he sees the situation through the eyes of other characters. This helped to ground me in a narrative where nothing was certain.

Franny’s death doesn’t come as a great shock to him. What shocks him is the threatening notes he finds left around the house after her death. For example: CURL UP ON MY LAP. LET ME BRUSH YOUR HAIR WITH MY FINGERS. I AM SINGING YOU A LULLABY. I AM TESTING FOR STRUCTURAL WEAKNESS IN YOUR SKULL or I WILL LOCK YOU IN A ROOM MUCH LIKE YOUR OWN UNTIL IT BEGINS TO FILL WITH WATER. Other threats involve nails through feet, poison, and other forms of torture. David also discovers a horde of journalists outside his house, all curious about the his wife he may have killed, but most shocking to David is that one of the journalists has moved into his garage. The lines between fact and fiction are blurred so that David doesn’t know what/who is real and what/who isn’t. The one thing we know for sure is that the notes are real. One of Franny’s old work friends finds a note addressed to herself in a coffee cup.

Overall, this book is unsettling and narratively unique. If you want a read with a strong sense of plot and pace, this novel may not be for you. If you’re interested in long unstable character study, this book might be perfect.

Hemlock at Milk Press Books

I have a new poem up at Spilt Milk (Milk Press Books, the press of the Poetry Society of New York).

The piece is loosely based on the story of Mary Webster, one of the better known women to be executed in the Salem Witch Trials. It is said that Mary was hung from a tree for hours and until they were sure she was dead, then she climbed down from the tree and survived, which is how she got the nick-name “Half-Hanged Mary” Margaret Atwood wrote an incredible poem titled by Mary’s nickname.

Here’s mine:

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The Honey Farm (review)

When I picked up The Honey Farm, I was instantly drawn in by the beautiful botanical cover. When I read the description, I was even more excited; there aren’t many things that I find more fascinating than bees and plagues.

The first character we are introduced to is named Cynthia. She owns an isolated honey farm that is experiencing unprecedented drought and thus a drop in honey production and sales. She puts out a call for helpers in the form of a poster to try and boost production for the summer. Her helpers will receive free room and board on the condition that they work on the farm. Cynthia presents the farm as an artists’ colony, attracting a very specific type of helper. This cryptic invitation mirrors Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House in that the invitees are given very little information, yet feel drawn to the farm like bees to the hive. The two characters that are given the most attention are Sylvia and Ibrahim (bring on the biblical references) who are both young and trying to get away from their stifling families. Sylvia and Ibrahim begin a romantic relationship while the helpers slowly abandon the farm one by one. First, because of bloody water shooting from the pipes, then a hoard of frogs descending on the house, until each of the biblical plagues and pestilences are fulfilled.

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“Everything dies. And we have to learn to love the world anyway.”

I gave The Honey Farm three out of five for a few reasons. While the writing was strong and the premise was interesting, the plot and the handling of characters let me down in part two. I have an issue with the unwell woman trope being used so ubiquitously in literature. I am all for monstrous women, horrid women, and nasty women, but I prefer my female villains to be completely in control of their monstrosity. It’s so much more interesting when their primary characteristic isn’t that their unbalanced. I recently heard Phillip Gourevitch talk at the Banff Centre. He said that there is a real lack of villainy in literary fiction and far too many one-dimensional ‘bad guys.’ This is where my real issue with The Honey Farm lies. The ‘bad guy’ trait in this case is the fact that Cynthia just wants a baby too much. She’s a queer woman living alone (I feel like I need to unpack this more, especially in the LGBTQ+ context). Cynthia lost her own child in circumstances that are never quite made clear and she keeps Sylvia and Ibrahim at her farm even after all of the others have left. I feel that most of her actions are ultimately discredited because of her overwhelming desire for a baby and her mental instability. Not to mention, there was a ton of gas-lighting from both Cynthia and Ibrahim that felt a little too normalized to me.

Overall, this was an interesting read that I would take with a grain of salt. You may get tired of the biblical imagery, but you’ll learn a whole lot about bees.

 

 

Speak (Review)

THE FIRST TEN LIES THEY TELL YOU IN HIGH SCHOOL
1. We are here to help you.
2. You will have enough time to get to your class before the bell rings.
3. The dress code will be enforced.
4. No smoking is allowed on school grounds.
5. Our football team will win the championship this year.
6. We expect more of you here.
7. Guidance counselors are always available to listen.
8. Your schedule was created with your needs in mind.
9. Your locker combination is private.
10. These will be the years you will look back on fondly.


Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak was published nineteen years ago but it’s still a book we need to read today. Speak isn’t the only text that addresses sexual assault and harassment and not everyone will relate to it or the story of a young white girl’s trauma, but it certainly opens up a discussion in a demographic that is fully engaged in the #MeToo movement. Here’s a reading list for the #MeToo era that is intersectional and features multifaceted trauma narratives.

As much as I wish we didn’t need writing about sexual assault, young readers have more lived experience with sexual assault and harassment than we’d like to think. I had the privilege of working with grade eight students in ELA on my practicum this year. Each month, they have a period in which they go to the library and select new books for free reading time. Most students picked up John Green or The Hunger Games, but I saw four girls each checking out a copy of Speak and rapidly flipping through the pages. I’d already read the book and was surprised to see that they’d chosen four tattered copies of a book that was older than they were (that being said, another girl picked up Les Misérables for fun reading).

The next day, I chatted with the girls and mentioned that I’d read and loved the book. Testing the waters, I asked them if they knew what it was about. They said that it was about in a girl in high school who was unpopular because she called the police at the last party of the summer. I reread the book over spring break to refresh my memory and found it infinitely more difficult to get through this time around. The writing was still accessible, but I connected with the content in a different way than I did when I was fifteen. When the students and I discussed it after spring break, they weren’t shocked by the content. In fact, they’d each known someone that this had happened to.

 


“I have survived. I am here. Confused, screwed up, but here. So, how can I find my way? Is there a chain saw of the soul, an ax I can take to my memories or fears?” 


 

Within the first few pages, Melinda’s voice is set so strongly (like in the above list) even though she doesn’t have any dialogue. She seems to be incapable of speaking further than grunts of agreement or dissent. By the end of the novel, we realize that Melinda was raped at the party and called the police, but found herself unable to speak when she picked up the phone which led to the police investigating and shutting down the party.

This isn’t a feel good book where Melinda’s friends rally around to support her through her trauma. Her first attempt at disclosure is shut down, she has to see her rapist at school every day and is physically confronted by him on multiple occasions (not to mention the silencing she imposes on herself as the result of a system that believes victims are lying until proven otherwise). I wish this book weren’t such an accurate depiction of the treatment of survivors, but it is. Anderson presents a complex and honest account of her own experiences with sexual assault and managed to bring these conversations forward before they had cultural cachet.

This book is definitely worth a read when you’ve got the capacity to process it. There’s also a beautiful graphic novel edition that came out this year and some interesting commentary from the author about the #MeToo movement.

Review: Her Body and Other Parties

I have heard all the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them…


If I had to summarize Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection in one word, it would be haunting. I’ve never read anything like most of these stories, which is really exciting as a big reader (my fellow big readers can attest to this feeling). Her stories are imaginative and diverse across subjects, but she always connects back to the female body. The female body is presented as the site of erasure, manipulation, motherhood, sexuality, and abuse to name a few examples.

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Photo by Eshani Surya

The collection opens with one of her most popular pieces, The Husband Stitch, which was widely read and shared over social media earlier this year. Her story brought awareness of a medical practice to the mainstream when it had otherwise been erased. The ‘husband stitch’ refers to a practice where husbands/doctors either request or suggest a tightening of the women’s anatomy after the birth of a child (if you want to read more click here). This story sets the tone for the rest of the collection as a fairy tale, horror, Gothic-esque assemblage. There are plagues, dead rabbits, and overall strange happenings. My favourite piece in the collection is called “Inventory”. The narrator provides a list of her sexual partners and context to those sexual encounters during the slow spread of a plague.

Machado has also been nominated for a Shirley Jackson award in three categories (Novelette, Short Fiction, and Single-author collection). I would recommend this collection to anyone who feels like they need some more surrealist female/queer fiction in their lives (which should really be all of us).