Depression and Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim

I picked up this book after seeing the Meonicorn’s lovely own voices review (check it out!) and watching Benaim perform what I think is the best poem, “Explaining My Depression to My Mother”.  Stop reading and take three minutes to watch – it’s amazing and has over six million views to prove it:

If you have ever experienced depression or anxiety or know someone who has these poems will speak to you, as they get right to the core of the experience.

at the grocery store i practice trying to make myself feel good by pretending i am a regular person buying her groceries & not a very sad person trying to distract herself from crying.

If you don’t know anyone with depression or anxiety the poems will open your eyes to what it’s like for you brain to go off in a direction you don’t like but are powerless to change.

36070215& this is why i have a hard time talking about my anxieties / not the big heavy anxieties / but the small ones / the ones that change my earrings / & chip at my general level of self-esteem / the ones that gorge on celery & watermelon after a heavy weekend / crying quietly / standing in line / behind you / the girl you’re pretending not to notice

In addition to these poems about mental health there are others about love, loneliness, abandonment, and memory.  With a couple of exceptions they don’t feel as strong but I’m having trouble pinpointing why.  Is it a personal thing, that they don’t speak to my lived experience? (Which seems silly, because I have loved boys who haven’t loved me back.)  Is it that the images aren’t as memorable or striking?  Or is my newbie poetry spidey sense picking up that they’re just not as “good”?  I’m not sure.

While this all sounds melancholy the poems aren’t fatalistic.  You sense that the author is working to understand herself and why things happen, all on the bedrock conviction that she will get through it.

i will let dance parties be the hospitals i heal in

if i need more help i will let the medication help me
i forgive my body for being a machine after all

A great read for anyone who has dipped their toes in these dark waters if only to know that:

i am not alone
because i feel alone

 

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Darkest Flame by Donna Grant (Dark Kings #1)

18169912Denae Lacroix is a beautiful MI5 agent on a deadly mission. Sent to the Scottish Highlands to spy on the mysterious Dreagan Industries, she discovers too late that she’s been set up—as human bait. She is an irresistible lure for a man who has not seen or touched a woman for centuries. He is a man with a destiny—and a desire—that could destroy them both…

It’s been twelve hundred years since Kellan has walked among humans—and there’s no denying the erotically charged attraction he feels for Denae. But as a Dragon King, he is sworn to protect his secrets. Yet the closer he gets to this smart, ravishing woman, the more her life is in danger. All it takes is one reckless kiss to unleash a flood of desire, the fury of dragons…and the fiercest enemy of all.

Review:

Trigger warning for assault.

The world has been overwhelming in a holy-crap-they’re-doing-what-now way, and at times like this I turn to romance.  And not just any romance but over the top, steamy, fantastical romance, the crazier the better.  When I’m like this I’m willing to forgive almost anything.  Instalove?  Go for it!  Poor characterization?  Whatever, bring on a pinball plot!  I’m actually more likely to knock a book for not being crazy enough. (Exhibit A: that time a cop went undercover as a slave on a BDSM planet and fell in love with an alien was a bit too tame.)

This book, though, I can’t forgive, because the heroine is sexually assaulted by the bad guy in front of the hero.  She’s tied up, stripped naked, and forced to orgasm against her will.

Oh, hell no.

She does have the feelings you would expect after being assaulted, so a point for that, but as soon as the coast is clear she and the hero have sex to clear her system or something.  Gah.

After that all of the other faults grated, including those I was inclined to overlook – instalust, bad phonetic renditions of accents, a fae deus ex machina, and three HEA couples even though this is book one (??) come immediately to mind.  Ugh.

Why Darkest Flame is so highly rated on Goodreads I do not know.  Stay far away, even if you’re in the mood for some crazy.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden (Winternight Trilogy #2)

34050917The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Review:

I was worried this wouldn’t be as good as The Bear and the Nightingale but you know what? I think I like this one better.

If you liked the slow set up and epic scale of the first book you may be disappointed, as there isn’t as much here.  Instead we have Vasya off on an adventure, seeing new places and meeting all kinds of people.  Even so Arden reintroduces us to characters in a gentle, non-jarring way, making it easy to follow the story even if you’ve forgotten who is who.

While some parts made me cringe – Vasya is young and makes her share of foolish mistakes – they’re in character and part of her development.  The only regrettable part for me is when she runs headlong into danger near the end.  I get the reason, and in a twisted way it was a smart thing to do, but it was a little too close to heroine bait/meaningless self-sacrifice for my liking.

Morozko is my favorite character and we get a lot of time with him here.  Everyone else, from Vasya’s siblings on down to servants is fleshed out and well characterized.

There’s no slump in Arden’s sophomore effort and I eagerly await the last book of the trilogy.

Beast by Judith Ivory

1130878An exquisite American heiress, Louise Vandermeer is beautiful, brilliant…and bored—which is why she has agreed to a daring adventure: to travel across the ocean to marry an aristocrat abroad. Rumor has it her intended is a hideous cad—a grim prospect that propels her into a passionate, reckless affair with a compelling stranger she never sees in the light of day.

Though scarred by a childhood illness, Charles d’Harcourt has successfully wooed Europe’s most sophisticated beauties. For a lark, he contrived to travel incognito on his own fiancée’s ship—and seduce the young chit in utter darkness. But the rake’s prank backfired. It was he who was smitten—while the hot-tempered Lulu, now his wife, loves only her shipboard lover, unaware it was d’Harcourt all the time! And Charles will never have her heart—unless he can open her eyes to the prince who hides within.

Review:

I’ve been wanting to try some older romances so I went through NPR’s 100 Swoon-worthy Romances list and dug in.  This book caught my eye immediately – the “beauty and the beast” trope is a favorite – so I dug in.

The good:

  • I love flipped expectations and here the beast is temporarily turned upside down.  Louise first meets Charles in shadowy corridors and staterooms, where he plays up a fake exotic angle (more on this later) and seduces her by word and deed.  Only when they meet for “real” she’s put off by his not-so-great looks and the usual fairy tale storyline kicks in.
  • While set at the dawn of the Edwardian era Louise lives as big a life as she can.  Before the novel starts she slipped away from her parents to go gambling in Montreal, and later she pursues her interests even though they’re not the most “ladylike”. Rock on.
  • Louise learned French to a high level in the classroom and her ability, mistakes, and frustrations are superbly portrayed.  She misses words in conversation, she doesn’t know any slang, and her formal speech, while perfect for parties and introductions to society, drives Charles nuts.

    “Tu, tu. Use it”, he said, encouraging the intimate verb construction.  The language used between lovers and friends.

    “I don’t know those conjugations.  My instructor thought they were too intimate.”

    As someone who uses her second, learned language in everyday life it feels all too real and true.

  • I didn’t know a thing about ambergris going in and now my head is full of the stinky stuff.  It’s fascinating.

The questionable:

  • Like it says in the synopsis, Louise gets intimate with her husband thinking he’s someone else entirely.  If this affair-but-not-an-affair isn’t your thing stay away.
  • One of the ways Charles hides his identity is by pretending he’s a Muslim man from Northern Africa, as there are some people by that description on the ship.  It makes him Other and exotic and Louise gobbles it up, often daydreaming about “her pasha”.  On one hand it’s troublesome, and I would rather it wasn’t in the book at all, but Ivory tries to be fair.

    “You must hate the Arabs for that.”

    He shrugged. “Oh, Arabs, Moors, Frenchmen” – he laughed – “Americans. We’re all about the same, good ones, bad ones.”

    Exotic dark-skinned heroes are no stranger to romance (just search for sheikh on Goodreads) and this muddied my already complicated thoughts on the issue.

The not-so-good:

  • The story is split neatly in two with a hot, lusty shipboard part and a wary, hmmm-can-I-ever-like-this-guy part.  Things move quickly while crossing the Atlantic but on land our couple maintains a cautious holding pattern.  There’s also over description in the second half (including what kind of countertops are in a room they spend a few minutes in) and we spend a lot of time wallowing in their repetitive thoughts.
  • In one scene Charles acts completely out of character, flipping the table he and Louise are eating at.  It may have been meant that way – he was so frustrated he did something out of character – but it made me worry for her physical well being. Not cool.
  • Building Louise and Charles’ emotional connection the second time around takes a lot of time and is frustrating, making the ending less satisfying.

All in all Beast has aged well considering it was written twenty years ago.  While the questionable parts still bug me the flipped trope makes for an interesting read.

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bipolar II, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Review:

(First some trigger warnings, especially for suicidal ideation and an attempt, abuse, and eating disorders.)

There is so much to admire here.  Allow me to list the ways:

  • Mailhot puts her story on the page in a way that’s both spare and evocative, simultaneously emotional and unsympathetic.  It’s like she takes the glass form of a memoir, smashes it at her feet, and rearranges it best for her truth, complete with stray debris and blood from her cut hands.
  • The writing is amazing.  Some chapters have an intricate internal logic that I’ll need to revisit to fully appreciate, and the one liners are art.

    I think of you often, but there are still spaces unchanged by you.

    I learned that any power asks you to dedicate your life to its expansion.

    Men objectify me, to such a degree that they forget I eat.  You feed your dog more kindly than you feed me.  That’s men.

  • Some chapters fairly jump off the page – the first is one of these and I was sure I had a five star read in my hands.  The good is blow the roof off amazing so maybe I’m greedy to want that all the way through, but some of the middle essays fell flat for me.  I’m hoping that changes on a reread.
  • The forward and Q&A afterward provide context and helped me build a framework to situate my thoughts.  Skip them at your own peril as they add so much to the work.  I’d also recommend reading Heart Berries in as large gulps as possible.  My own reading was spread over two weeks and feels diluted because of it.

Overall this is an unrelenting, masterfully written work – not my usual fare but I loved it all the same.

Thanks to Counterpoint and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

35297339This is one of those books that I love so much that it’s hard to review.  I’ll start by saying that if you like stories that mess with narrative and structure, if you like your fiction to be a bit out of the box while remaining beautiful, if you like the Goldsmiths Prize – this is the book for you.  Close this tab now and get your hands on it, and come back when you’re finished so we can discuss.

There is so much to discuss.

Asymmetry has two storylines.  In one a young professional falls in love with an award-winning author, and in the other an Iraqi-American PhD student is being held at immigration at Heathrow Airport.  On the surface there’s nothing in common between the two but the connections dawn on you as you read.

It’s delicious, and these connections are my favorite part of the book.  After finishing I immediately went back to my highlights and they took on new meaning.  I would open to a random page and find a line that illuminated the narrative in an entirely different light.  My favorite books are onions, with layers of insight, and Asymmetry is just that, roughly chopped into pieces and tossed in the most beguiling way.

The themes run the gamut from what it means to be an artist to post 9/11 politics to, as you could guess, asymmetries of all sorts.  And the writing!  The dialogue is smart and flowing yet doesn’t strain credibility.

For all his assurances, he himself became gloomy.  Not without pleasure, Alice felt herself being tested by these dramatic circumstances.

“Of course,” she said, “we all have to worry.  I could get cancer. Or tomorrow, in the street, you could be–”

He closed his eyes and held up a hand. “I already know about the bus.”

I love the insights as well, and they’re often laced with humor.

Then, going cheerfully around the room, he would switch off the phone, the fax, the lights, pour himself a glass of chocolate soymilk, and count out a small pile of pills.  “The older you get,” he explained, “the more you have to do before you can go to bed.  I’m up to one hundred things.”

The writing style changes from section to section and while I respect the reason I feel the middle part falls oh-so-slightly flat in comparison with the beginning and end.  That’s my only complaint, though.  It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel.

I can’t wait to reread Asymmetry, and I can’t wait for you guys to read it so we can get in all kinds of discussions about it.  Perfect for those who like the slightly unconventional, book clubs, or anyone that enjoys their mind being gently twisted as they read.  Highly recommended.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.