The City Beneath by Melody Johnson (Night Blood #1)


24660103As a journalist, Cassidy DiRocco thought she had seen every depraved thing New York City’s underbelly had to offer. But while covering what appears to be a vicious animal attack, she finds herself drawn into a world she never knew existed. Her exposé makes her the target of the handsome yet brutal Dominic Lysander, the Master Vampire of New York City, who has no problem silencing her to keep his coven’s secrets safe…

But Dominic offers Cassidy another option: ally. He reveals she is a night blood, a being with powers of her own, including the ability to become a vampire. As the body count escalates, Cassidy is caught in the middle of a vampire rebellion. Dominic insists she can help him stop the coming war, but wary of his intentions, Cassidy enlists the help of the charming Ian Walker, a fellow night blood. As the battle between vampires takes over the city, Cassidy will have to tap into her newfound powers and decide where to place her trust…


When life gets crazy I unabashedly escape by searching my e-library for paranormal romance.  Stand aside, real world problems, there are vampires to rein in and maybe even fall in love with!

The City Beneath is successful in that it’s a quick read that helped me forget my worries, but the world doesn’t hold up as well as it should.

The good:

  • Cassidy has realistic baggage and is as strong as she can be, considering the circumstances.
  • Dominic is alpha without being an asshole, and has a history that will probably be covered in future books.
  • Cassidy doesn’t let Dominic pull the wool over her eyes.  She participates in his plans only after she’s taken all angles into account and called out any bullshit.  How I love a heroine that thinks.
  • The characterization is strong and the plot never loses its speed.

The not-so-good:

  • Cassidy is treated as a human pin cushion.  For all her smarts she ends up getting used as bait.  A lot.  She calls Dominic out on this, which makes it nearly tolerable, but the “powers of her own” outlined in the jacket copy are scant, indeed.
  • While the book takes place in Brooklyn I never felt like I was there, or even in a major East coast city.  It could take place in any large city, really.
  • Hand in hand with that, the world building is weak.  Certain elements are well-covered (vampire care and feeding) and others are neatly ignored (anything more than 10 feet away from the heroine).  While I liked the characters there’s not enough of a world here to make me want to go back.
  • There’s not a love triangle, but more of a trust triangle that’s set up early on.  Part way through one corner of the triangle does something unforgivable, but the heroine keeps working with him anyway.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.
  • Cassidy is a reporter but sometimes she acts like a police detective.  In the past she was shot while backing up a police officer… but why the hell was a reporter back up for a police officer?!

While The City Beneath was diverting I won’t be reading the sequel.  It does make me want to get back into paranormal and urban fantasy, though….

Committed by Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson


29955558Psychiatrists Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson offer a thought-provoking and engaging account of the controversy surrounding involuntary psychiatric care in the United States. They bring the issue to life with first-hand accounts from patients, clinicians, advocates, and opponents. Looking at practices such as seclusion and restraint, involuntary medication, and involuntary electroconvulsive therapy–all within the context of civil rights–Miller and Hanson illuminate the personal consequences of these controversial practices through voices of people who have been helped by the treatment they had as well as those who have been traumatized by it.

The authors explore the question of whether involuntary treatment has a role in preventing violence, suicide, and mass murder. They delve into the controversial use of court-ordered outpatient treatment at its best and at its worst. Finally, they examine innovative solutions–mental health court, crisis intervention training, and pretrial diversion–that are intended to expand access to care while diverting people who have serious mental illness out of the cycle of repeated hospitalization and incarceration. They also assess what psychiatry knows about the prediction of violence and the limitations of laws designed to protect the public.


Involuntary care is a a minefield of ethical conundrums.  How do you decide who needs treatment?  What if the patient calmly refuses it?  Will the treatment itself be more traumatizing than beneficial?  How can you ethically hold people against their will?  And when is it okay to let them go?

Miller and Hanson cover as many points of view as humanly possible, from pro-involuntary treatment groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness to anti-anything-psychiatry groups like Scientology.  (Yes, they managed to interview a Scientologist for this book.  It’s kind of amazing.)  There are all kinds of opinions between the extremes that are also covered – those who would rather see outpatient commitment instead of inpatient, for example, and people who want to help patients recover with or without medication.  They also speak with professionals that are involved in the civil commitment process, from judges and lawyers to police officers and ER doctors.

There is a ton of information but it never gets overwhelming.  The narrative is loosely hung on the cases of two patients, one who had a positive experience with involuntary care and one who was traumatized by her time at the hospital.  Though interviews with these patients, their families and doctors, and peeks at their medical charts, we see how forced care could be the best or worst thing to happen to someone.  Their journey is covered from being picked up by police or brought in by a family member, through civil commitment trials and treatment, to how they were determined to be fit for release.

Laws widely vary across the United States and their differences are an illustrative example of what policies seem to work and which should be rethought. As a result Committed gives you a framework of possibilities that you can use to examine the laws that affect you, no matter where you live.

The thing that strikes me most about this book is the care and consideration that went into it.  Miller and Hanson, psychiatrists, never deride anyone for their views. They sat across the table from people who think their profession is basically evil and held a civil, thoughtful conversation. If there’s an outrageous factual error they’ll mention it in passing with research to back them up, but otherwise everyone is allowed to say their piece exactly as they’d like in a non-confrontational environment. Mad props.

They’re also forthcoming about the circumstances surrounding their reporting.  Getting an inpatient unit to agree to Miller observing was harder than they thought, and they are upfront with the fact that the only hospital that would agree has one of the best psychiatric departments in the country.  And try as they might they couldn’t get anyone to talk about guns and mental illness on the record.

Doctors, [the gun club representative] noted, are seen by gun owners as an extension of the government. …people were happy to engage in casual conversation, but before they would speak in depth, they wanted reassurance that we were not in favor of gun control, regardless of whether that was relevant to the topic of the book.

Any time I thought there might be a hole in the reporting or an odd circumstance it was covered in this thorough, thoughtful manner. The authors have earned all of my respect.

Committed is a must read for anyone whose job brings them in contact with people with psychiatric illness as well as anyone with an interest in civil rights.  And if you’re curious about how mental hospitals work (aren’t we all?) it’s a fascinating look at this “hidden world, open only to those who are in enough despair to gain admittance”.

Thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

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9827786 Shrink Rap by Dinah Miller, Annette Hanson, and Steven Roy Daviss

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize


27971013Morayo Da Silva, a cosmopolitan Nigerian woman, lives in hip San Francisco. On the cusp of seventy-five, she is in good health and makes the most of it, enjoying road trips in her vintage Porsche, chatting to strangers, and recollecting characters from her favourite novels. Then she has a fall and her independence crumbles. Without the support of family, she relies on friends and chance encounters. As Morayo recounts her story, moving seamlessly between past and present, we meet Dawud, a charming Palestinian shopkeeper, Sage, a feisty, homeless Grateful Dead devotee, and Antonio, the poet whom Morayo desired more than her ambassador husband.

A subtle story about ageing, friendship and loss, this is also a nuanced study of the erotic yearnings of an older woman.


When I grow old I would love to be like Morayo – living on her own but not lonely, with a history but not tied too tightly to her past.  It’s her birthday, a time she does something “new and daring”, and this year it’s going to be getting a tattoo.  (Last year she went scuba diving.)  But Morayo suffers a fall and things change quickly for her.

The narrator shifts from chapter to chapter, letting us observe characters from both inside and without.  It’s a nice device but doesn’t stretch the novel form as much as I was hoping from a Goldsmiths candidate.  The value here is that the subject matter – a combination of aging, friendship, and race – is rarely covered this well.  Morayo is Nigerian, but she’s been living in the US for decades so it’s not an “immigrant narrative”.  Yes, she’s old, but there’s more to the story than watching her memory fade.  The people in Morayo’s neighborhood are diverse and lovingly developed despite the low page count.  If Manyika wrote a modern Tales of the City following these characters I would gobble it up.

While Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is very good I think its comparatively tame structure may put it behind other books on the shortlist. Even so I’m glad it’s here – recognizing work by people of color matters and it’s a full, satisfying read.

You may also enjoy:

30163589  The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

Martin John by Anakana Schofield

Shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize


25074204Martin John is not keen on P words. He isolates P words from the newspapers into long lists. For you, so you know he’s kept busy, so you don’t have to worry he might be beside you or following you or thinking about your body parts. So you don’t have to worry about what else he has been thinking about.

From Anakana Schofield, the brilliant and unconventional author of Malarky, comes a dark, humorous and uncomfortable novel circuiting through the minds, motivations, and preoccupations of a character many women have experienced, but few up until now, have understood quite so well. The result confirms Schofield as one of the bravest and most innovative authors at work in English today.


A warning right off the top – this book includes sexual… let’s call them non-consensual incidents.  Non-violent but disturbing.

This book is hard to review, mostly because I don’t want to ruin it for you.  The best part of the reading experience for me was discovering things as I went along – who Martin John is, what exactly is running through his head, and how he relates to other characters.  How smart the unconventional structure is, and how it leads to interesting places.  How the writing is perfect for what it needs to do – super close third person in some parts, very meta in others, but always connected and part of the whole.

Rules have already been broken in this book.  The index told us about refrains, not rules.  There was no mention of rules early on.  Martin John will not like this.

One thing you should know, though, is that this is an unsettling read.  Being in Martin John’s head can be disconcerting, and he does things that are unsavory.  We may be told about them in oblique ways but they are there.

You should know the things he does and doesn’t appreciate, if we are going to carry on with this.  If not – well, hang up now, as the operator would say.

That’s aggressive, but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.

There is much to admire but I still have quibbles.  I could have cut the second quarter of the book with no ill effects.  The subject area veers towards my field of work, so much so that at times I felt like I was at the office.  As a result I can’t say Martin John was a happy, fast read… but it was a deep, intriguing, meaningful read.

This is the first book I’ve read from this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist and it’s exactly what I was hoping to discover – a novel that pushes the boundaries of the form.  The voice is amazing and the structure is engaging, perfect for the subject matter.  It’s more than worthy for the shortlist but I’ll have to read a few more titles to see how it stacks up against the competition.  Onward!

Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell


19967171Just two months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Judy Melinek began her training as a New York City forensic pathologist. With her husband T.J. and their toddler Daniel holding down the home front, Judy threw herself into the fascinating world of death investigation—performing autopsies, investigating death scenes, counseling grieving relatives. Working Stiff chronicles Judy’s two years of training, taking readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the Big Apple, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.

Lively, action-packed, and loaded with mordant wit, Working Stiff offers a firsthand account of daily life in one of America’s most arduous professions, and the unexpected challenges of shuttling between the domains of the living and the dead. The body never lies—and through the murders, accidents, and suicides that land on her table, Dr. Melinek lays bare the truth behind the glamorized depictions of autopsy work on shows like CSI and Law & Order to reveal the secret story of the real morgue.


My favorite part of Law and Order is when the detectives visit the morgue.  “See these marks around the neck?”, the medical examiner asks.

“Yeah,” the grizzly cop says, “from hanging himself.”

“If he hung himself they’d go upwards behind the ears, but these marks go straight back.  He was strangled.”

Stunned silence.

“You’ve got yourself a homicide.”

I love that!  The courtrooms and stuff are good too, but the medical evidence is where it’s at.  If you agree you’ll love Working Stiff.

Melinek goes through her training and most memorable cases as a medical examiner in New York City.  She started her career as a surgeon but found 130 hour work weeks unsustainable (luckily there are limits on that now), and forensic pathology was a way to keep her scalpel and do good.

“There are no emergency autopsies,” another resident pointed out to me.  “Your patients never complain.  They don’t page you during dinner.  And they’ll still be dead tomorrow.”

Cutting open dead bodies is by definition gruesome but the gore is never played up for gore’s sake.  A medical examiner has to master both the medical/legal language surrounding death and common sense explanations to use with families, and Melinek does a great job keeping everything intelligible.

I wrote the cause of death as “anoxic encephalopathy due to loss of consciousness of undetermined etiology.”  This translates as “lack of oxygen to the brain from fuck-if-I-know.”

That being said if you already know your spleen from your pancreas you’ll feel even more at home.

The stories progress from training through routine autopsies, homicides, and finally the teased terrorist attacks and plane crash.  It’s not linear but the order eases the reader into forensics, showing how each situation is handled.  And there’s so much cool stuff!  Injuries that only show up after a day has passed, how to figure out which stab wound came first, pinning down someone’s age thanks to a single rib bone.

Melinek co-wrote this book with her husband and you do get the feel that there are two hands at work, with Melinek writing up the cases and Mitchell adding the connective tissue that hold them together.  It was never enough to take me out of the story, but it was there.  And fair warning – she talks about her father’s suicide at length, so beware if that’s something you’d rather not read.

A wonderful read for medical geeks and anyone who perks up when Law and Order heads to the morgue.

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky


30163589When Leah’s former boss and mentor, Judy, dies in an accident and leaves Leah her most prized possession—a flashy red sports car—the shock forces Leah to reevaluate her whole life. Leah is living in Queens with a husband she doesn’t love and a list of unfulfilled ambitions. Returning to San Francisco to claim the mysterious car she blames for Judy’s death, Leah revisits past lives and loves in several sprawling days colored by sex and sorrow and unexpected delight. Through the voice of Judy, who advises from afar, the surreal nature of grief is made hauntingly evident as Leah is led toward a new sense of freedom.


I love this book.  It sucks you in and keeps you thinking and entertained with the slightest, happy “ooo, what’s this…?” at the back of your mind.  It’s the kind of read that’s perfect for book clubs, that you finish and immediately think, “I need to talk to someone about this!”

The good:

  • The characters are fully realized, interesting, and flawed in the small (and big) ways we all are.
  • Leah is a writer, something that usually puts up red flags for me.  I’ve read too many books where a writer character is a stand in for the author, garnering praise while getting the guy.  But not here.  The depiction is all too realistic – Leah goes to grad school but ends up in a mindless telecommuting job while chipping away at a book.
  • And while we’re on characters they run the gamut.  We have people of different ethnicities, sexualities, working jobs from humble mechanic to entrepreneur  extraordinaire.  Love it.
  • The novel is so grounded that little flights of fancy don’t stretch reality, just nudge it ways that widen your scope and keep you thinking.
  • Dermansky’s prose is simple but plumbs amazing emotional depths.  There’s some nice comic moments, too.  Here’s Leah, at the airport to board a last-minute flight to Judy’s funeral, still shocked dumb by the news.

I looked at my boarding pass to check my seat number.  I was in row 8.  That seemed like a very low number.  I went to the counter.  The woman looked at my ticket and told me that my ticket was first class.  I could board now.

“I am not first class,” I said.

The woman smiled at me.  “It can sometimes be considered a state of mind,” she said.  “But your ticket is first class, so you can board the plane.”

  • When you reach the end there’s just enough stuff left in the air to keep you thinking.  What happened after the last line?  Would so-and-so follow through with what they said they’d do?
  • The story fits the page length to a T and the pacing is impeccable.  I couldn’t put it down… not in the thriller “oh no what’s gonna happen” sense but in the “oh wow, what’s gonna happen” sense.

The not-so-good:

  • I can’t really think of anything to put here.  The Red Car does what it’s set out to do, wonderfully.  It makes me sad that Dermansky only puts out a book every five years or so, but for novels this awesome I will wait.

Thanks to Liveright and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Everything to Me by Simona Taylor


ea3395979891cd8547b1a9b372a93606When she jets down to the Caribbean, Dakota Merrick doesn’t expect to spend the night with Trent Walker at his luxurious island hideaway. The bad blood between the music columnist and the ultra-charming jazz producer vanishes with their first kiss. Dakota’s enchanted by the erotic atmosphere of the world-class resort and the passionate music she and Trent are making together.

Trent knows he shouldn’t trust the ambitious reporter. But living out his most sensual fantasies with Dakota is a temptation no man can refuse. Until a breaking scandal threatens their tropical idyll. Will Dakota choose ambition over a future with him? Or can Trent find the right notes to play a love riff straight into her heart?


Starting off there is so much to like about this book, a romance that takes place in the author’s native Trinidad and Tobago.  Columnist Dakota is there to cover a huge jazz festival where several of Trent’s acts are performing.  When her hotel reservation goes up in smoke he offers her the second bedroom of his cabin at Rapture, the erotic resort he’s staying at (all the normal hotel rooms were booked, natch).  They have a contentious relationship – Dakota broke a story that nearly ruined the career of one of Trent’s starlets, Shanique.

This is all fine.  Things start to go south in the details.

The story Dakota broke is perfectly legit – Shanique’s voice started to go and instead of cancelling or postponing a few dates on her tour she lipsynced to a singer backstage a la Singin’ in the Rain.  That’s a big deal.  That’s a story.  No one can blame you for covering that.

That doesn’t stop Trent from being sore, and the couple has some spirited discussions over dinner, while walking, at the cabin… pretty much all the time.  I didn’t mind it because there’s a lot of emotional stuff for these two to get through if they’re ever going to be a couple.

But then Dakota stopped thinking like a journalist. Upon hearing a newly revitalized Shanique at the festival:

…her story had brought low such a talent, almost destroyed such a star.  She felt rotten.  The standard journalist excuse the people’s right to know, felt hollow and insubstantial.  She hadn’t written that story because of anyone’s right to know.  She’d written it because it would have been a shot in the arm for her career.

Um.  Shanique and her managers were duping people, giving them something other than what they paid for.  That’s a big deal.  People do have a right to know.

Later it becomes clear that Dakota got the story because she was sleeping with a source, one of Trent’s rivals.  And now that she’s with Trent she’s, you know, sleeping with another source.  The tiny shreds of respect I still had for Dakota died right there.

Near the end, due to spoilery things I won’t go into, Dakota makes a job switch that’s supposed to be a step down from columnist – editor of a new and upcoming music magazine.  But that’s a huge step up, making her responsible for many other people’s reporting.  She who has a shaky grasp of journalistic morals has become the guiding compass for an entire publication.  Nope.  Nopenope.

Other things irked but weren’t deal breakers, like having sex in a natural hot spring.  (Don’t do it people, or in hot tubs either.  There’s nasty stuff growing in there.)  I liked reading about the island of Tobago and what life is like there, and felt safe knowing that someone from there was telling the story.  But I just can’t get over the sleeping with sources (twice! with no remorse!) thing.


Why God Is a Woman by Nin Andrews


25607518Why God Is a Woman is a collection of poems written about a magical island where women rule and men are the second sex. It is also the story of a boy who, exiled from the island because he could not abide by its sexist laws, looks back with both nostalgia and bitterness and wonders: Why does God have to be a woman? Celebrated prose poet Nin Andrews creates a world both fantastic and familiar where all the myths, logic, and institutions support the dominance of women.


Jen Campbell defines prose poetry perfectly: instead of watching the movie of a novel it’s like wandering through an art gallery, pausing before each painting to soak up its beauty.  The poems are indeed beautiful, but also so much more – in turns deep and funny and skewering.

What am I doing here? he asked God.  And Why am I so small compared to the sky, so hairless and weak compared to the rest of the animals, so mortal and lost compared to You?  Night after night man raged against God, until at last She grew tired of listening to him.  And so God created orgasms.  After every orgasm, man fell into a sleep, deeper than the sleep of stones.  And God at last was able to gain some peace of mind.  But that was when woman began to complain.

In this world men are said to be descended from angels, and grow wings once they reach puberty.  They sprout from their backs leaving embarrassing trails of blood, and the men use absorbent pads to hide their shame.  Women are said to have risen from the sea and are the elite, the politicians, any one that holds any scrap of power.  By turning gender roles on their head Andrews does more than merely satirize, she shows that binary gender norms are by their nature arbitrary and absurd.

If you need a little more convincing check out Jen’s review on youtube but if not – go. Read.  It’s amazing.

Finding a “Me” Prize

For the past year or so I’ve been trying to find a literary prize I can glom on to. A little corner of the book-ish world where we can read the same books at the same time and have conversations about content and style and merit with some healthy spats thrown in.

I was hoping the Man Booker would be The One but they don’t choose “me” books.  Some promise to be interesting but many look depressing for the sake of being depressing.  I will probably never read A Little Life or Eileen and I’m perfectly fine with that.

Show me the quirky, the groundbreaking, the little-known!  The Best Translated Book Award has introduced me to greatness like Signs Preceding the End of the World but the frantic pace (longlist to winner in five weeks) makes it impossible to keep up.  The Tournament of Books likewise points the way to great reads but without a head start I was ready to throw in the towel.

Then I found The Goldsmiths Prize.yc_um7ap

Established in 2013, its aim is to award fiction that “breaks the mold” and pushes the limits of the novel as a form.  Now this is something I can get behind!  I dare you to watch the judges discuss the shortlist and not be inspired to pick up at least one of the titles. Books that are “brave structurally”, that keep “sliding between varieties of language”, and where “the more you read it the more you realize it’s not [what you thought]”.

…ding ding ding!  It’s like this award was made for me.

So for this first time I’m going to read along with a shortlist and post reviews leading up to the prize.  There are six books and six weeks to read them (see? perfect!):

Martin John by Anakana Schofield
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Transit by Rachel Cusk

Unfortunately two of the six are yet to be published in the US (Transit and Solar Bones) so my effort may not be complete but I’m going to try.  Martin John is already on my e-reader and I’m on the hold list for two more, with hopes that my e-library will pick up the recently published The Lesser Bohemians sooner rather than later.

What catches your eye on the shortlist?  Do you have a favorite literary prize?