Book Review: Year of the Monkey

By Briana Weeger

In the first days and weeks of 2020, the season for past reflections and future resolutions is upon us—if you’re into that sort of thing. In Patti Smith’s newest memoir Year of the Monkey, the writer, photographer, and musician takes a surreal look at her life in 2016, the year of the trickster monkey in Chinese zodiac. But Smith doesn’t seem to be a fan of New Year’s resolutions. Instead, in a tumultuous political and personal landscape, Smith is beautifully open to the lessons, connections, and hidden meanings within dreams that the year offers her. Her writing is a surreal mix of fiction and nonfiction as she contemplates what is real and attempts to absorb the absurd truths of living and dying.

Book Review: Dear Twin

By Sarah Sheppeck

Are you Asian? Queer? Mixed race? A twin? No? Then Addie Tsai’s debut novel Dear Twin isn’t for you—emphasis intentional.

Don’t misunderstand—there’s broader appeal in this narrative, which also tackles the less niche topics of interpersonal relationships, individuality, and abuse, both emotional and physical. But it’s clear that in this deeply personal young adult novel, fictionalized in part from the bones of her own memoir, Tsai hopes to reach certain young adults—those who identify at a core level with her pansexual, Asian-and-white, daughter-of-a-first-gen-immigrant narrator, Poppy, who can add the additional hyphenate of “identical twin” to her list of particular identities. In fact, Poppy isn’t just a twin, but a mirror twin, meaning that she and her sister Lola (short for Lolita—there are layers to that) have matching-but-opposite physical traits, like a birthmark that appears on the left side of Poppy’s face but the right side of Lola’s.

Book Review: The Butterfly Girl

By Laurie Rockenbeck

The Butterfly Girl, Rene Denfeld’s second offering in her Naomi Cottle series, explores what it is to be lost versus invisible in a gritty thriller set in Portland’s Skid Row. Denfeld does a masterful job creating a compelling narrative by alternating views between two main characters—Naomi and Celia.

Naomi Cottle was once a lost child, and her work as a private investigator is focused on finding other children. She comes to Portland to search for her sister and has vowed not to take on any other cases until she finds her.

Celia is a twelve-year-old girl who has run from an abusive home.  It is through Celia’s eyes that Denfeld shows the starkest separation of the two worlds in which these characters live. Naomi is part of what Celia thinks of as day people as opposed to those who live and die on Skid Row. When Celia first encounters Naomi, it is with the same suspicion and loathing she holds for all day people:

The woman clearly did not belong here, not in these days of sea creatures washed up onshore. What happened in the night was meant to stay secret–like what had happened with her step-dad, Teddy. Celia had made the mistake of telling. She had found out that the people of the day don’t want to know what happened in the night.

Book Review: Nothing to See Here

By Collin Mitchell

Breaking the mold is a difficult thing to do and no one captures the difficulty of this hardship better than Lillian Breaker, the consciously wayward protagonist in Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Nothing to See Here.

As a teenager, Lillian is ambitious enough to get into the exclusive Iron Mountain, “a fancy girl’s school hidden on a mountain in the middle of nowhere,” but at twenty-eight she’s living in her mom’s attic, working two grocery store jobs, and smoking a lot of weed. So, what’s her problem? Her best (and rich and beautiful and scheming) friend, Madison Billings. If this novel isn’t about fate and class, family, the haves and the have-nots, then it’s about friendship and its exploitive little schemes.

Book Review: All This Could Be Yours

By Jenny Hayes Jami Attenberg’s novel All This Could Be Yours takes place largely over a single day, a day which Victor Tuchman—a pretty terrible man— spends mostly unconscious and near death in a New Orleans hospital. The book bounces around between the points of view of the family members and various others who come into the scene—sometimes only tangentially—near the end of Victor’s life. This structure gives the book a loose, kaleidoscopic feeling, with a consistent narrative tone that keeps it feeling cohesive; the prose is clear and rhythmic, conveying each character’s point of view while occasionally interjecting its…

Book Review: Know My Name

By Rachel Zarrow

Know My Name by Chanel Miller (Viking, 2019) is the untold story of the person who the world came to know as Emily Doe, the victim of a widely reported 2015 sexual assault on Stanford’s campus. Though Know My Name is a memoir, the book is many other things—a victim’s manifesto, a story of love and loss, and a close examination of the broken systems that protect perpetrators and betray victims. Chanel Miller, the woman we meet in the pages of this book is many things too. She’s an activist, a victim, a writer, an artist, a comedian, a daughter, a sister,  a visionary, and more.

Book Review: Family of Origin

By Amy Reardon

Leave it to the generation that enjoyed a privilege and abundance fueled by post-WWII government subsidies to close the door behind them, handing their children an earth destroyed by greed, a democracy gone off the rails, and crushing student debt. Leave it then to a mind like CJ Hauser’s to capture what happens next: how the children abandoned in a dry well must set to work building for themselves a stairway of hope before they can climb out and face the serious work of healing the planet.

Book Review: A Girl Goes Into The Forest

By Anjali Becker

The title story of Peg Pursell’s new collection of short fiction, A Girl Goes into the Forest (Dzanc Books, 2019), opens with an unnamed girl following a male figure into the forest, “moving in the direction where perhaps she imagined the rest of her life waited. So ready for something to happen.” The “old secret cottage” they were evidently aiming for has long since collapsed, so they spend the night on the hard ground. Toward the end of the short piece, the girl thinks that eventually, “It might turn summer and she’d have survived the season.” The girl has ventured beyond whatever home she might have known and is searching for something, although what exactly that is, beyond survival, is unclear, both to her and to us. What is clear is that the stories to come will explore the emotions that drove so many young girls in the fairy tales of old to leave their safe little hamlets and to venture out into the forest of the unknown.

Book Review: Your House Will Pay

By Collin Mitchell

Ripples from the past resurface in Steph Cha’s new novel, Your House Will Pay.

At the time of the writing of this review, veteran journalist K. Connie Kang had recently died after writing about the Korean community for the the Los Angeles Times. Kang gave voice to the Koreatown community affected by the riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Journalists like Kang are burdened with adhering to the idea of truth, while the creative writer can entreat memory and personal experience in finding a truth that fits within the framework of their own grief. It’s these personal stories, the prejudiced tales told within families, that Steph Cha explores in her new novel, Your House Will Pay. Through the frame of early ‘90s race-tinged LA and our current grapple with race politics and police brutality, Cha ably depicts greater Los Angeles as it is: a melded body of bedroom communities, sun-bleached strip malls, and liquor stores threaded together by a dozen distinct cultures and a violent history. It’s in this context that the book examines the idea of transgressing the familial stories we think define us and finding a part of ourselves that can separate from the past. As one character observes: “This is when shit gets permanent. The choices you make are gonna stick, they’re going to follow you.”

Book Review: Very Nice

by Leanne Phillips

Marcy Dermansky’s new novel, Very Nice, starts out with a simple enough premise. Nineteen-year-old Rachel has a crush on her creative writing professor, Zahid Azzam, a one-hit wonder of a novelist who has been skating on the success of his only book for years. When Zahid impulsively confides to Rachel that he’s had a bad day, she impulsively kisses him. But the plot gains in complexity from there. Anyone who’s seen The Wife knows that crushes on creative writing professors don’t end well, and there are red flags that Rachel chooses to ignore. Rachel’s passion for Zahid seems lukewarm at best, and Rachel is a bit taken aback when he calls their kiss “very nice”—during the semester, he had crossed out all of the verys in her short story.