Bunny- Mona Awad

Bunny was a brilliant beach read!

“Innovative.

Experimental.

Performance based.

Intertextual.

SO intertextual.

Basically: a hybrid.

A hybrid: That most obscure of academic beasts. What you call something when you just don’t know what you’re doing anymore.”

Mona Awad’s Bunny is so this! I am not sure if I should call it horror, or comedy, or dark comedy, or just plain weird literary insanity…

Set at an elite New England grad school, Bunny zeroes in on the Lit department, where the poets are losers, and the very richest and most beautiful of creative writers are a part of a clique known as the Bunnies. The Bunnies call each other Bunny, and are each beautiful and sickeningly sweet as cupcakes- as a matter of fact, they mostly look and smell like cupcakes, too. You might see a bit of Heathers or Plastics in these ladies.

I love you, Bunny!

But one of the members of their writing group is emphatically NOT a Bunny- Samantha Heather Mackey, or Smackie, as her friend Ava calls her. Ava “would never eat a lavender cupcake that tasted like perfume or wear a perfume that made her smell like a cupcake. She would never wear lip balm for cosmetic purposes. She would never wear it unless her lips were seriously, seriously chapped.” Samantha is a scholarship student, and she and Ava find the Bunnies group hugs and fake voices detestable. 

Down the rabbit hole…

That is, until the day they invite her to one of their Smut Salons. Where they make her special drinks and recite weirdly erotic passages. And then ask her to bring them a bunny. A real one. All of a sudden, Samantha is seeing rabbits everywhere. Are they talking to her?

The Bunnies invite Samantha to one of their own private “Workshops,” which Samantha thinks will be about writing. They do end up creating, but it is definitely not literature. They are creating their own hybrids, their own darlings. And you know….sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

The deeper Samantha gets into the world of the Bunnies, the more the edges of reality begin to blur- is she drugged? Are these things even happening? 

This book is simply genius! Even if you have never taken part in a creative writing class, Awad drowns you in the process- exposing the very depths of creation and the gut-wrenching birthing process that writers go through to bring forth a finished work. I was more than amused to discover that she and I went to the same private grad school in Denver! While we didn’t exactly have a cave to work in, I know how close-knit English departments can be. And how lonely school can be in a new place where you don’t know anyone. This book is about all of that: friendships, loneliness, creation, the agency of womanhood, and most of all: cute lil bunnies!

There aren’t enough stars to give to this, so of course I’m giving it all 5! It was dark & delicious, and oh so funny- I was literally laughing out loud so often my friends were questioning my sanity. But then again, so was I.

Black Leopard Red Wolf- Marlon James

“What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.”

This is the essence of the epic African fantasy Black Leopard Red Wolf- storytelling. We are thrust into a story already in progress. Our main character & narrator, Tracker, is being questioned. We’re not sure why, but he appears to be in some sort of prison situation, with an inquisitor. Thus, the story begins.

Tracker has a nose. This is known. His nose takes him across many lands, and he meets at least 4 pages worth of people (all listed in the front so you can keep track!) I did mention that this is epic, right? After running from his homeland and his own very dysfunctional family, Tracker finds himself in a new land with a new kind of family. Here he meets Leopard, a shape-shifter who becomes both his best friend and deepest annoyance.

“The Leopard says too many things that slip off him like water does oil, but sticks to me like a stain. Truth, there are times I feel like I should wash him out. I am always happy to see him, but never sad when he is gone.”

They are both approached with a quest to find a boy. They are accompanied by a group of equally strange characters- a witch, a giant, a slaver, a mercenary, and others over the miles.

The quest takes Tracker to the very depths of himself- it breaks him down to nothing. This story is as much about self-discovery as anything else. The way Tracker’s people think about sexuality lies in the physical- a man becomes a man when they cut out the female through circumcision, and a woman becomes a woman when they cut out the man through clitorectomy. However, Tracker was never circumcised, so he remains both. It makes me think of the Native American’s Two Spirits. As his story begins, Tracker feels strong and manly, but he is brought down by events, he is made to empathize with the female in himself. He is forced to face his own nature, in a sense.  

“I who thought he had his hatchets and his cunning, will one day be grabbed and tossed and thrown in with shit, and beaten and destroyed. I am the one who will need saving, and it’s not that someone will come and save me, or that nobody will, but that I will need saving, and walking forth in the world in the shape and step of a man meant nothing.”

This is BRUTAL, and it is how he becomes the “Red Wolf” of the title. 

When Tracker is able to overcome this, to come out the other end, and eventually love another man, we see the truth of his growth. That is the true quest here.

Mind you, while he is making his way towards this, SO MUCH HAPPENS! There are lightning people, mermaids, sad giants (don’t call him giant!), the smell of many butt cracks, witches, 19 doors, and lots of magic. I can’t even describe it, so I won’t try. 

I will say that I know that many people put so many trigger warnings on this book, or were unwilling to read it due to rape scenes. I believe those scenes to be vital to the story; we are talking about a violent and wild land full of wild men and animals. Women are usually the victims of this violence, and James explores the fact that they are not the only victims. 

Also, this book is long, and while I enjoyed it, I also felt that I really had to push myself through the end. There were just so many characters to keep track of and so much going on, I wanted to give up several times. The reason I didn’t was the devotion to beautiful language I found throughout. I may have been juggling too many characters, or sometimes dragging my feet a bit, but it was truly gorgeous. So I give it 4 solid stars!

“Word is divine wish, they say. Word is invisible to all but the gods. So when woman or man write words, they dare to look at the divine. Oh, what power.”

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein- Kiersten White

Deliciously dark retelling!

“Words and stories were tools to elicit the desired reactions in others, and I was an expert craftswoman.”

Such is how we meet Elizabeth Lavenza, young friend and “caretaker” of Victor Frankenstein. Kiersten White has written a fascinating retelling of the classic story, from the point of view of Victor’s young wife. In Frankenstein, Elizabeth was little more than set dressing, a beautiful angel, and nothing more. White dedicates her version of the story to “everyone made to feel like a side character in their own story.”

In Shelley’s version, things don’t turn out so well for Elizabeth…

In this version, Elizabeth is indeed a beautiful angel, but she is of her own making. She is an orphan, and she comes to the Frankenstein family as a child, someone to help temper Victor’s unusual tempers. Her “caretaker” was terrible to her, and she had lived her early life poor, hungry, and beaten down, so she saw opportunity in the Frankenstein home. She was quick to make herself into whatever she needed to be to be a part of this wealthy home. She became Victor’s Elizabeth, letting her own self recede into the background. Victor’s needs are many, and he needs help controlling his violent emotions, as he often falls int “fevers.” His morbid curiosity is also something his Elizabeth must help him keep under wraps. Even as a child, he had a habit of wanting to see what lies beneath the surface, of wanting to learn what death means & if it can be conquered.

Oh, this is so deliciously gothic! The women of the gothic have been doing this for all time- it even has a critical name; professional feminism. Women who, knowing the constraints of the time, use their assets (beauty, softness, femininity) to get what they want. (I will soon be doing an entire blog post on this- it’s one of my favorite things about the gothic novel!) Anyways, Elizabeth does this so very perfectly. She becomes exactly what Victor desires. She wears only white for him, she protects him from the outside world, and she calms him when his rages bubble to the surface. But what about what Elizabeth wants?

As the story unfurls, Victor has gone away to school in Ingolstadt and Elizabeth is worried that her place in the Frankenstein home is in jeopardy without him to take care of. The younger children already have a nanny- her best friend Justine. So when Victor’s father goes away for a while, Elizabeth convinces Justine to go with her to look for Victor. They haven’t heard anything from Victor in more than a year. On the search, Elizabeth begins to learn more about Victor’s disturbing studies, and eventually she finds his laboratory. And his creation.

Yeah, not this monster- I’ll never understand why they made him look like this! The one in Penny Dreadful is my fave!

What follows is the story we know- but with some twists! The wedding night doesn’t go exactly as it does in Frankenstein. White takes Elizabeth on a journey towards self-realization, as she learns how to become her own Elizabeth and not Victor’s Elizabeth. I really enjoyed this story- it was perfectly dark and tinged with madness. It’s a character study in obsession, both Victor’s and Elizabeth’s. The first half does drag a bit, but I listened to it, and the fantastic narration got me through it easily. The action in the second half easily makes up for it.

Easily 4 Stars! I look forward to more work from White.

Coyote Songs- Gabino Iglesias

This was both a cover & bookstagram inspired purchase!

“Resolve was a fickle beast. Vengeance was a capricious lover. Anger was a planet covered in water that simultaneously obeyed the pull of too many whimsical moons. Pain was an unstable variable in a secret equation written in a language that never existed. Confidence was a fragile thing dangling over a sea of crushing teeth by a thread of shadow tied to a beam of hope.”

I am not sure what I can add to all the amazing reviews out there of this exquisitely original book, but I will try to put my thoughts into words. After I finished, I took a few days to think about it before writing this, mostly to think about what I had read.

This is a truly beautiful and mournful book. Above you get just a taste of the amazing lyricism of Iglesias’s writing, but if you are looking for a beam of hope, my friends, you should probably look elsewhere. Because here is the realm of Santa Muerte. La frontera- the frontier- the border. And it is just as horrifying as you think it is.

Death reigns at the border…

Iglesias writes in what many others are calling a “mosaic” style, by writing individual stories and weaving them together into one big picture. Some of the people in these stories don’t even have names; we have no names for the coyote or the mother or la bruja (the witch.) Even though the other three have names- Pedrito, Jamie, & Alma- I’m not sure that it matters, because they could be anyone in this godforsaken land.

Each piece of this mosiac gives the reader a glimpse into the horrors that lie in wait around the border: a young boy whose father was killed by militia, a coyote who strives to bring children over, the ghost of a woman who died while trying to cross over, a young mixed race performance artist who wants to make a statement. Every story is filled with blood & fear. The opening story made me gasp aloud.I felt some kind of connection with every single character in the book, but most of all with La Bruja, the witch. I felt like her chapters float through the book, intertwining the others. And her language is the most lyrical of all; the quote above is from her.

I applaud Iglesias for writing a story so current, so raw. He weaves together not only the individual stories, but also multiple genres. He calls it a “barrio noir,” but I felt as if I was reading a mix of horror and magical realism, with the grit of the noir as well. And all of this expertly done.

I can only give one small criticism, and it is primarily a criticism of myself. I wish I knew more Spanish. I live in Colorado and it would be WAY more useful than the freaking French I took so many years of. Anyways, this book switches from Spanish to English frequently and very smoothly. Often, I either understood, or just got enough from context and my limited Spanish to just keep reading. But there were many times I had to stop and translate, and that made what should have been a very quick read significantly longer. But I am not saying at all that it would be better if the Spanish wasn’t there, because I don’t think it would be. It just hindered my own personal experience. Due to this, I give it 4 Stars, because even with that distraction, it was just amazing!

Experimental Film-Gemma Files

“Given everything that’d happened…wouldn’t anybody have stopped short and said to themselves: holy shit, it’s like I’m in some kind of horror movie, here?

“In its purest form, done right, watching an experimental film is the closest you can come to dreaming another person’s dreams. Which is why to watch one is, essentially, to invite another person into your head, hoping you emerge haunted.”

What I loved most about this novel is the visual descriptions. Because this is a book about film, Files has to make the reader see the story. She does an absolutely brilliant job at this; I could feel the brightness, my eyes tearing up, the glare off the screen.

It’s been compared often to House of Leaves and Night Film, and I think those comparisons, in some ways, are apt. They are all “found footage” books, describing uncovered films. The act of describing a movie puts the reader at a certain distance that the author must bridge with language. Like we are at another remove from the subject of the book by our very inability to actually see it. The author must be our eyes.

In order to do that, the author must be a stellar storyteller, and Files is certainly that, “we’re storytelling creatures. Give us a bunch of seemingly random images and we will try to organize them into a linear progression.” That’s what this book is about- trying to find the story behind some random images found in an experimental film.

We follow film critic Lois Cairns as she digs into the history of a woman who is possibly Canada’s first female filmmaker- Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb. The subjects of Mrs. Whitcomb’s very experimental films are always the same, the noon witch of Slavic mythology Lady Midday. The myth of Lady Midday itself is one I’ve never heard before, and it’s always a joy for me to learn a new mythology, especially one that can inspire such horror. See, Lady Midday appears at the very moment of noon, “between the minute and the hour,” to tired field workers, asking them questions or distracting them. If they answer wrong….they lose their head to her scythe! She also causes physical distress; she is essentially the personification of heatstroke.

“She who Gives All, who walks behind every row.”

As Cairns begins to learn more about Mrs. Whitcomb, the readers learn more about both of their lives. I read some reviews that were critical of the portions of the book devoted to Cairns’ personal life and relationship with her family, but I found them extremely important, both as character study and as a way to link her to Mrs. Whitcomb. Their lives parallel each other in more and more obvious ways as the novel progresses. They both had sons on the spectrum (of course, Whitcomb wouldn’t have known such a term that long ago), husbands that seem almost ineffectual, and most of all, they both spent time in the presence of Lady Midday.

And that is where it all goes wrong. The Noontime Witch takes over everything in Lois’s life and she becomes obsessed. Her goal is to make a film about it, of course, and she gets some funding for it. An old colleague is also following Lois’s story, putting obstacles in her way at every turn. Lois becomes increasingly more physically ill until she reaches a breaking point.

How many people will she drag into the light with her?

Blinding…

This book is amazing! The characters are all intricately drawn, even the ones from a century ago, and the story moves at a quick pace even with all the detail. And, most of all, it was scary! Not like gore & killers scary, but real disturbing down in your stomach scary. Like the next time I had a migraine, I immediately thought about Lady Midday kind of scary.

That, my friends, is five stars scary!

The Goth Guys: Birth of the Gothic

OK, as soon as I said goth guys, I know you were immediately thinking about this…

Hey girl, it’s Friday, I’m in love…

But really, the men I’ll be talking about today were more like this…

Dandy!

Yeah, I’m talking about the guys in tights and powdered wigs mostly, because these are the men who first wrote the type of novel we now know as the gothic. The beginning of the 18th Century in England was steeped in the Age of Enlightenment, and so the modern novel was born as a morality tale, or a philosophical type of story meant to (yep) enlighten the reader on the pitfalls of evildoing. As the century closed, though, Romanticism was on the rise, and the gothic fit both of these perfectly.

Horace Walpole published the Castle of Otranto in 1764, and he was “fond of mediaval romance and mystery as a dilettante’s diversion” (HP Lovecraft). That was really how most people thought of novels at that time- as a non-academic pursuit. One that is probably better suited for the weak of mind (re: women). Anyways, Castle of Otranto is considered by most to be the first Gothic Novel. It is the story of Prince Manfred and his family- on his son’s wedding day, part of a giant suit of armor falls from the sky and crushes the groom. The remaining family returns to the dreary castle & then Manfred plots to divorce his wife and marry the girl his son was going to marry. Much intrigue and some death follows. Most importantly, it is spooky and there are some clearly supernatural elements.

A few years later, the most popular author writing in this new genre was Ann Radcliffe, who began publishing in 1789. Radcliffe marks the genesis of what some think is a different subgenre of the gothic altogether- the female gothic. It can be useful to note the differences between the masculine & feminine gothic, and it has helped me understand the genre more completely. Of course, I will be covering the ladies in a different post!

So to really understand the difference, I’ll actually use one of Radcliffe’s own definitions. We have to look at the difference between terror and horror. She says that terror is the feeling of dread at the possibility of something frightening. Horror is the feeling of revulsion & disgust at actually seeing that horrible thing.

These are human emotions, apparently! Horror to the left & terror to the right. Not sure I’ve ever made those faces, but…

Terror is the type of feeling that Radcliffe, and generally the female gothic after her, looked to evoke. Never quite showing what was behind the curtain, but building that tension so that we’re afraid to look behind it.

Now, Radcliffe would say that horror contracts the soul, by absolutely annihilating our ability to respond to the displays of atrocity. That once the curtain is pulled aside, we are essentially frozen, unable to feel. The male gothic doesn’t think that way, and that is how we get to the horror of today! You know how every modern horror movie shows us every damn thing? Usually with overdoses of CGI. That is horror.

One of the things that these “masculine” gothic novels do differently is they are more likely to have unexplained supernatural events. Like a giant suit of armor falling from the sky, or like you’ll see later- bloodsucking vampires and crazed monsters. Those stories came primarily from men(but not always-I would say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is in this category). The ladies tended to explain away the supernatural- like, oh, those noises? That’s just my crazy first wife up in the attic!

So those are the bad boys of the gothic novel! Here is a great list of books to read should you want to sink your teeth into some of these hotties:

Look at those beautiful books!

Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole

Vathek, William Beckford

Vampyre, John Polidori

Caleb Williams, William Godwin (Mary Shelley’s dad)

Carmilla, Sheridan le Fanu (birth of the lesbian vampire?)

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

The Monk, Matthew Lewis (I love this one! It is slow at times, but worth it!)

Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, Marquis de Sade (yes, he had a great deal of influence on the genre)

Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

Turn of the Screw, Henry James

I hope you enjoy these, and keep an eye out for the gothic ladies coming up next.

The Bone Weaver’s Orchard – Sarah Read 3.75 Stars!

Welcome to Old Cross School for Boys!

“. . . It’s like the dust here is made of memory. You could wander in the past for years.”

Sarah Read’s debut novel The Bone Weaver’s Orchard is a fantastically atmospheric horror story. Think gothic with a splash of gore! We meet Charley in 1926 as he travels from his father’s side in Cairo to a new boarding school in England. He knows he is an unusual boy, as he has traveled across continents with jars full of bugs as his only friends. And of course, he finds trouble as soon as he arrives at Old Cross Boarding School. The other boys make fun of his bugs, and he ends up in a fight and getting a caning within the first day.

Charley tries to fit in, and makes one friend, Bowles, and they go about their days. Charley also befriends the school gardener Sam, who works only at the very edges of the school, never going inside. But then the bullies throw a rock at Bowles, injuring him badly, and Charley meets Matron Grace, the nurse. Grace is so sweet & caring, Charley could almost think of her as motherly.

Then, when he should have been in the infirmary, Bowles disappears. The headmaster says he must have run away, but Charley doesn’t think so. He turns his attention to the locked up East Wing, where many of the boys say there are ghosts. Charley begins a search that leads him into the most creepy of hidden chambers and tunnels, and he must question who his friends really are and who he can trust

The twists and turns of this novel are excellent; I didn’t guess them at all, and had a completely different theory midway. And most of all, the setting is just amazing- everything is covered in choking dust and cobwebs, the secret tunnels are in total darkness, there are chambers that are untouched for a generation. It is an ideal gothic haunted house.

I really want to give this 4 stars, but I just can’t. I am giving it 3.75 stars for the following reasons.

It’s a rule, Charley!

First, I am still pretty unsure of Charley’s motivations. Like I said before, this book has many of the trappings of a gothic novel, and one of those is a search for parentage, or a lost inheritance. But usually, that is the main character. Here, we have Sam the gardener who is looking to find out who exactly his mother was, with Charley’s help. So why does Charley care so much to crawl into those little tunnels & face these truly horrifying places? The book speaks a lot about family: the headmaster says, “we are your family now. This institution prides itself on forming the bonds that unite the future of Britain.” And of course, Charley, as a lonely boy so far from his father, should accept this new family. But he literally just met them. I have trouble believing that a 13 year old boy would risk his ass (he got caned SO many times) and eventually his life for virtual strangers.

I googled Bone Weaver spider, & here’s what I got!

Second, what the heck does the title have to do with the book? If you know, seriously tell me. I thought a bone weaver might be a type of spider, because of Charley’s obsession with bugs and all the comparisons to spider webs throughout the book. It’s not. Now Sam works the apple orchard, but that doesn’t seem to be a primary plot point. Anyways, it really distracted me!

Besides these minor distractions, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard was a well-paced, spooky, and fun read. I enjoyed it, and will certainly look for more books by Read.