Category: Book Review (Page 1 of 5)

Book Review: Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera

by Daniela Z. Montes

In a time filled with terms like “fake news,” when it can be hard to tell what’s true, Liliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams reminds us to be aware of the rhetoric that shapes our society and to be mindful of its effect on us.

The novel is less about a dystopian government oppressing people than it is about the citizens realizing that they are being oppressed. The reader goes through this journey with Nalah, otherwise known as Chief Rocka, the leader of one of the baddest gangs in Mega City, Las Mal Criadas.

Throughout the novel, Rivera’s diction, syntax, and use of Spanish delve the reader deeper into this Latinx-run world. Early in the novel, Nalah’s second in command, Truck, says: “Remember the time Manos threw a malasuerte into [the training camp] dorms. It was raining, and them young girls ran out screaming when the malasuerte blew up.” The use of Spanish, “incorrect” English syntax, slang, and advanced vocabulary in the novel adds a layer of representation that will make some readers feel at home. The Spanish not only helps establish the world, but every once in a while it, adds comedy. For example, when the LMC comes across another gang, Las Muñeca’s Locas, whose members dress like baby dolls, Nalah thinks to herself that the crying babies need a “big pao pao.”

The book’s first-person point of view brings the reader into Nalah’s mind, allowing Rivera to show Nalah’s unyielding admiration and loyalty to Déesee, the leader of Mega City. Nalah adores this woman so much that she has tattooed freckles on her face to look more like her. When Déesee asks Nalah to gather intel on a gang that threatens the way Mega City lives, Nalah immediately says yes. The prize is the fulfillment of Nalah’s dream to live with Déesee in the luxurious Mega Towers.

Unlike other dystopian heroines, Nalah does not see the suffering around her; in fact, she does not acknowledge her own suffering. She assures herself that everything she does is for the good of herself and her girls. Her unquestioning belief in the system is in character: Nalah heads one of the top gangs in the city, so it makes sense that her privilege blinds her. She revels in the way society is run and she loves that women are in charge. Early on she thinks: “the male gaze is dead.” Rivera drives this point home when the girls go to Luna Club, a “boydega” or nightclub, where girls can get a hot bath and be entertained by papi chulos who fulfill their fantasies.

With the exception of the papis, the other men in the city have tattooed brands on their arms to show which gang they are allied with. Some of these brands are done willfully, but others are placed on men who are caught out after curfew and do not have a brand on their arm. Men must cross the street or keep their eyes averted when they see a woman. Anyone who is not in a gang works in sueño factories with the exception of Déesee’s chosen few, those who live with her in Mega Towers. Sueño tablets (dream tablets) are used in the novel as currency and they are highly addictive. They dissolve on the tongue, giving the user  beautiful dreams. The markers for sueño addiction are grey skin and blue lips and if the addiction goes untreated the user wastes away to nothing.

Mega City is not only oppressive of men, but also to members of the LGBTQ+ community. During their journey, Nalah and her crew encounter a gay couple. It is during this exchange that Nalah begins to understand her privilege:

“Why did you leave Mega?”
My tone is full of anger. Why do these two get to share a home while I kill myself to get in the Towers?
He is scared. He should be.
“I didn’t want to be a papi,” he says. “I also didn’t want to hide how I felt for him”
“Déesee doesn’t care who you love. Only that you put in the work.”
He pauses. He is nervous I will hurt them. I can. His partner enters the room with a bag of fruit.
“This might be true for you, for women,” he says. “Not for us.”

Nalah is jealous that these men have their own house, their love, everything they can dream of outside of the city. She wants luxury and comfort, but she believes the only way to reach her dream is through violence. More than anything, Nalah struggles with the idea that happiness can be found outside the city – away from Déesee. Her revelations continue to the end of the novel: “Since I left Los Bohios, situations that never crossed my mind are being shown to me in a different light. It is unbearable. I prefer ignorance.” Nalah is forced to face her privilege over and over, forced to see the rhetoric that has kept her down when she thought it was elevating her. It’s hard for her to face these revelations because she has been blinded by her dream her entire life. She thinks she is the alpha, when in fact she is nothing but a pawn.

Dreams play a big role in Dealing with Dreams. On the one hand, Nalah is plagued by recurring dreams of the sister who abandoned her. On the other, she is addicted to her dream of reaching Mega Towers. She has sold this dream to her crew and it serves as their motivation throughout the novel. She has gotten them hooked on the idea the same way Déesee got Nalah hooked on the idea of the Towers. To live in the Towers is to truly be special, just like Déesee. They would have a bed, real food, and be in Déesee’s inner circle. Nalah looks down on sueño addicts, but the irony of her situation is lost on her. Just like they do anything to chase their high, she is willing to sacrifice anything to reach her dream.

Ultimately, Nalah has to dismantle the rhetoric that made her who she is and piece herself back together in her own image. It is a struggle we all face.

Daniela Z.  Montes is a current contributor to The Coachella Review. She received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of California – Riverside, Palm Desert Low-Residency Program. She was The Coachella Reviews former Social Media Manager. Daniela received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California – Santa Barbara, where she received an honorable mention in the Kieth E. Vineyard Honorary Scholarship Short Story Contest.

Book Review: The Flight Portfolio

by: Rachel Zarrow

How do you assign a price to a human life? Are some lives worth more than others? In a world that is on the verge of collapse, do the rules of the living apply? In her second novel, The Flight Portfolio, Julie Orringer explores these questions.

The Flight Portfolio is a riveting fictional story of a real person, Varian Fry. In the novel, Varian, an American journalist, works for the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) evacuating artists and intellectuals from Europe during the second World War. Stationed in Marseilles, skirting the Vichy regime, and back-channeling money and visas around the ever-nearing threat of the Nazis, Varian is responsible for the safety of thousands. The novel unfolds as a race against the clock. How long until Varian is forced out of France or worse, incarcerated? How many lives can he save in that time? How much longer will there be funding for his work paying bribes and forging escape routes? How long until he returns to his wife in New York? And how much more time will he have in the arms of his lover Elliot Grant?

This last question is the sucker punch of the novel. In Marseilles, Varian reconnects with his former lover, a man he knew at Harvard twelve years earlier. Now married to a woman, a part of Varian still belongs to Grant, and their encounter in France reopens the floodgates of their highly charged romance. “How like him, Varian thought, to show up out of nowhere after an eon, still in possession of Varian’s inmost self” (15). Varian marvels at the command Grant has over him:

How could this person evoke in Varian a series of feelings so uncontrollable as to seem a threat to his sanity….Under the present circumstances, and considering the weight of responsibility he bore, how could he find himself thrilled like a plucked string at the prospect of meeting Grant at the Vieux Port? (69-70)

Though he is a man with a very serious mission, Varian finds himself suffering from an affliction that has plagued many before him: lovesickness. Varian fears that an affair of this emotional magnitude with this particular man is different than the “occasional adventure on the side” (111) that he’d had in the past. “[H]ow was he to be honest with [his wife] about Grant, when Grant’s presence was still a matter of consternation and confusion?” (111).

Throughout the novel, we follow Varian on two major emotional and moral dilemmas: his affair with Grant and the excruciating nature of his work. For every person Varian helps, there is someone else who gets left behind. Plagued by guilt, doubt, and a “bad gut” (103), Varian leads readers through impossible decisions.

Varian and Grant’s relationship grows fragile and tenuous as more questions arise. What will happen when they’re back in New York? Will he (Varian) or won’t he leave his wife? As Varian and Grant begin to question their future, Varian is plagued by doubt. First, a colleague, Miriam, and then Grant, question the nature of Varian’s work. Miriam asks, “Don’t you think it’s rather silly? And not just silly, wrong-headed, or maybe wrong-hearted….to decide whether someone lives or dies?…Don’t you think a middling artist deserves a chance as much as a great one does?” (195). When Varian replies that the names on the list mean something, Miriam says, “Everybody means something to someone” (198). This line of moral questioning around Varian’s work increases his doubt in his work and in himself.

Surrounded by a makeshift family of surrealist artists and colleagues in Marseilles, an unfamiliar place that “smelled of diesel fuel and cardamom and wet gutters, of tobacco and women’s perfume” (9), Varian disconnects from his life in New York. “The outline of his life, once as firm as if inked, had become obscured” (103). His sense of disconnection increases along with his understanding of what is at stake in Europe, something that was not clear to many Americans at the time. Having traveled through Spain on his way to Marseille, Varian knows the effects of the war, “the decimated buildings, roofs blown open to the sun…children walking near-naked in the streets, begging for bread” (95).

Every day, in the hotel where Varian has set up his makeshift office, refugees vie for a meeting with him, forming a line that snakes down the hallway. Varian and his colleagues must determine who to help and in what order, following commands from the ERC, including a mission to rescue specific artists and intellectuals based on a list. The names on this list are both real artists (e.g. Marc Chagall, Max Ernst) and creations of Orringer’s imagination (“Lev Silberman”).

This blending of historical and imagined characters is an example of how Orringer wields her command of this particular sub-genre of historical fiction, sometimes referred to as “fictional biography.” In this form, the author often writes a novel based on a real person but elaborates with the freedom and abandon of a fiction writer. Any reader would be remiss to judge this book as a biography and should instead read it as a work of fiction. In The Flight Portfolio, Orringer blends not only fact with fiction, but also characteristics of many sub-genres of fiction: war novel, thriller, romance, and historical fiction.

In The Flight Portfolio, Orringer creates a world so riddled with moral gray areas that black and white no longer exist, all the while painting sensory details with the care of one of the artists she describes. With painstaking attention to detail and immaculate prose, Orringer invites the reader to ask herself the most difficult questions, including: What would I do?

Rachel Zarrow writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various outlets including The Atlantic, BUST, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is working on her first novel and screenplay. She lives in San Francisco. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @rachroobear and at

Book Review: Sing to It by Amy Hempel

By David Holloway

Sing to It: New Stories is the first new work from Amy Hempel in a decade.

The first thing to notice in this collection is the variety of story lengths and tempos. Of the fifteen stories in Sing to It, ten are less than two pages long. Modest of plot, names and setting, the title story is only one page long. But “Cloudland,” the last in the collection—more a novella than a story—runs for sixty-two pages. The reader might imagine the briefer stories to be a sign of the times, a nod to flash fiction. But it’s more likely to be a choice of substance, not form, from a genius of succinct narrative. Throughout this collection, and especially in these shortest pieces, the haiku-like prose is condensed and concentrated. Intense and sparse, there is a bleached and stripped quality to Hempel’s writing. Her narrators, reluctant to yield up their secrets, force us to read between the lines. The reader is left, generally, with a lot of work to do.

Febrile and restive, the characters in these stories seem to want to savor their emptiness. They take themselves apart and don’t always put the pieces back together. “Four Calls in the Last Half Hour,” for example, is a single paragraph running to about two pages, a wrenching stream of consciousness from another unnamed narrator, tormented by an impossible relationship:

But the one with one hundred percent won’t compromise and soon the eager apprentice just gives up, haunted by images of what could have been if the other had just been flexible. Which he can’t be, because he’s inflexible and doesn’t have to be, because he feels he has it all already and doesn’t get lonely the way we do, so why trade self-sufficiency for company. 

The stories in Sing to It are about the things we hide behind, the nuances of emotional pain. Rendered here is a disconcerting world of love, loss, longing, and regret, where there is little embellishment or flourish, and even less comfort. Thematically, the stories mainly consider the relationships of the characters to their past and the dislocations of love amongst lovers, mothers, and daughters. Several stories confront the relationship between humans and animals.

“The Quiet Car” is two pages of disconnection around the end of a relationship. “The Second Seating” is about a meal held to honour the memory of a deceased friend. “The Orphan Lamb” addresses the brutality of animal death and butchery. And “A Full-Service Animal Shelter” is a polemic against animal cruelty; an intense work, even a rant, in which each paragraph begins with a variation of the phrase “They knew us as the ones.”

As ever with Hempel, there is that narrative voice that manages, at once, to be both shredded and luscious; saying little but saying a lot. Watch it unfurl, from the first phrases of these stories:

I wasn’t the only friend Syd’s married man hit on the time he came to see her at the beach. (“I Stay with Sid”)

That reminds me of when I knew a romance was over. I had not seen this fellow in a while, but he suggested we meet up at the train station and take the Acela somewhere, so I thought we’d have several hours to catch up. And then at the station, we boarded and he led me to our seats in the Quiet Car.  (“Quiet Car”)

The three of us were taken with the vodka fizz made with elderflower and basil so we stayed on and had the raw kale salad and heirloom tomatoes with medallions of halloumi. (“The Second Seating.”)

But it has to be said that some of the stories, and the shortest ones in particular, almost implode into the void of their sparsity. They seem starved of oxygen, and thus at times are not accomplished organically. Inspired by a piece of installation art in North Carolina, “The Doll Tornado,” for example, struggles to connect its meaning to the civil-rights movement. “The Correct Grip” relates two phone calls that follow a violent attack on the narrator, then swerves onto the nature of rescue, involving dogs, and ends in a discussion of the correct grip to use when holding a leash.

Is this an example of a strength becoming a weakness? Hempel’s ability to compress meaning is plain. But it may be overdone in these vignettes, these fragments of stories in which the reader has too little to work with. It feels, in places, like a wireframe instead of a skeleton, and very little like a body.

No wonder, then, that Sing to It lights up in the longer stories. It’s not because the narrative voice changes from its usual level of brevity and concentration. It’s because there is space for a little more objective meaning to engage the reader, for the work to be more fully accomplished.

“Greed” is my favourite. It’s told from the point of view of a wife about her husband’s barely concealed affair with a glamorous older, married woman. Behold the impassive observations of the wife, who has been recording the lovers’ trysts using a camera she has hidden in the matrimonial bedroom:

Together, they lacked fear, I thought, to the extent that she told him to bring me to dinner at her house. With her husband. Really, this was the most startling thing I had heard on playback. Just before the invitation, she told him she would not go to bed with the two of us. My husband was the one to suggest it. As though the two of us had talked it over, as if this were something I wanted. I heard her say, “I have to be the queen bee.” Saw her say it. 

“The Chicane” treats a woman’s quest for closure when she meets an actor who once seduced her suicidal aunt. More elaborate of plot and location than the others, it’s another narrative that I found myself invested in, an odd late plot choice notwithstanding.

But for most readers, “Cloudland” will be the standout story. The narrative, which emerges in a fragmented, circling way, centers on a disgraced school teacher who has fled to Florida to start again as a home care worker. Alone, haunted and reflective, the woman relentlessly shreds herself about a choice she made many years ago which intrudes upon her daily routine and is then reignited by the publication of a book.

But even “Cloudland,” it has to be said, falls victim somewhat to excessive fragmentation. An array of images and snippets (which feel selectively borrowed from the author’s personal history), the story shifts back and forth with the sparsest of details to anchor our understanding. This works, in many ways, because it matches the protagonist’s wrenching point of view. But the narrative is barely sustained sometimes, a dilemma which is both emblematic of Hempel’s skill and symptomatic of the struggle that attends some of the stories in Sing to It.



David Holloway is a current student in the MFA program run by the University of California, Riverside, majoring in long form fiction and screenwriting. He is at work on a novel and a screenplay and writes reviews of literary fiction as a hobby. In past lives, David has been an attorney, a record label executive, and a band manager, and now works as a management consultant. An Australian national and an international citizen, David holds Economics and Law degrees and an MBA. He lives in Singapore with his wife and two children.

Book Review: Norco ’80 by Peter Houlahan

By David M. Olsen

We just got our asses kicked, didn’t we?” Deputy Andy Delgado says to Deputy Rolf Parkes while in the hospital after an eye surgery to remove bullet shrapnel. This exchange, found in the new book Norco 80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History by Peter Houlahan, captures the sentiments universally shared by the police after their forces were eviscerated by five masked and heavily armed men in the wake of a botched bank robbery in Norco, California in 1980. Norco is an expertly rendered accounting of these events that reads like a crime thriller and courtroom drama, with all the brutal gravity of a true story. This is true crime at its best.

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Attending a Reading: Jamel Brinkley’s “A Lucky Man”

By AM Larks

It is almost 11:45 a.m. on a rare sunny day in Berkeley and instead of being outside, I am sitting in the basement lecture hall of Berkeley City College that smells vaguely of feet. My cell phone doesn’t get reception, so I cannot distract myself from my impatience and anxiety. I am anxious because I want to like this panel of authors, because I deeply respect the moderator, and because I need something to write about, to tie into, my review of Jamel Brinkley’s collection A Lucky Man.

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Book Review: Things You Won’t Tell Your Therapist, by Colleen Kearney Rich

By: Felicity Landa

Things You Won’t Tell Your Therapist might appear at first glance as a simple collection of flash fiction, but the breadth of emotion that Colleen Kearney Rich has achieved in her stories is something to be admired. Writers often shy from flash as one of the more difficult formats to capture depth, but Rich runs full force into the form. Rich’s language is cut to the bones, but her details are visceral and real. She steers the reader through her characters’ anxieties, while reminding us of our own. The stories in Rich’s collection are fierce in their simplicity, stolen moments of seemingly quiet lives

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The White Card by Claudia Rankine – A Conversational Review

By: AM Larks & AE Santana

Claudia Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry, two plays, numerous video collaborations, and is the editor of several anthologies. Rankine has won the PEN Open Book Award and the PEN Literary Award, the NAACP Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and was a finalist for the National Book Award for her book Citizen. Rankine is the recipient of the Poets & Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, in addition to other honors and awards.

The White Card by Claudia Rankine is two-scene play that features one black character, Charlotte Cummings, a Yale MFA graduate and a highly successful contemporary artist; and four white characters: Charles Hamilton Spencer, a “well-respected philanthropist” and “lover of contemporary art,” his wife Virginia Compton Spencer, the Spencers’ son Alex Compton-Spencer, an activist who is “deeply involved in current American politics,” and Eric Schmidt, the Spencers’ trusted art dealer. The Spencers invite Charlotte over to dinner in an attempt to convince her to sell her art to them.

The Coachella Review contributors A.E. Santana and A.M. Larks reviewed this play in an interview style with questions, responses, and replies in order to capture the conversation that theater, and specifically The White Card, is meant to evoke.

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Book Review: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, by Michele Filgate

By Nathania Seales Oh


What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About goes beyond the catchy title and delivers a visceral account of maternal relationships that span from childhood memory to adult reckoning. Michele Filgate curates a touching anthology with authors who are not only authentic but often unforgiving as they examine the role their mothers play or have played in their lives. They dissect the mother-and-child dynamic as it currently exists or as expired, while searching for the truth. Stories range from hysterical to heartbreaking, all the while transcending social, cultural, and economic boundaries. Each essay is both unique and universal in detailing the writers’ desire to be loved and understood, just as they also yearn to understand their mothers. They resolve to see their moms as real people—flawed and beautiful, hated and loved.

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Book Review: Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson

By Lindsay Jamieson

New York Times best-selling author Laurie Halse Anderson departs from her beloved YA fiction with Shout, her brilliant new memoir written in verse.

Shout, published in March, 2019, marks the twentieth anniversary of Anderson’s groundbreaking novel, Speak, which told the story of Melinda, a 13-year-old who stops speaking after she’s raped. With Shout, Anderson opens a window into the personal experiences that gave her the insight, empathy, and emotion to conjure Melinda, a protagonist who, as she reveals in Shout, has become a hero (and a moniker) for survivors—men and women—of sexual assault. Anderson, like Melinda, was also raped at 13, and she is an ardent believer that words—spoken, shouted, and written—offer a “bridge to escape” the shame. As the last line of the introduction states: “This is the story of a girl who lost her voice and wrote herself a new one.”

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Book Review: The Houseguest, by Amparo Dávila

By AM Larks

The Houseguest by Amparo Dávila, translated by Audrey Harris & Matthew Gleeson, is a collection of stories so haunting and so tinged with the surreal that it reminds the reader of the pleasure of being scared. Dávila, whose stories feel both timeless and timely, accomplishes this distress by blending well-known horror tropes with real-world details.

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