Category: Book Review (Page 1 of 7)

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.

Denfeld does not shy away from the devastating realities of children living on the street.  Yet, she does so in subtle, heartbreaking prose.

Celia had been in the free clinic before. That had been for an STD check. Celia didn’t want to get pregnant or get STDs. She was worried about her period starting because then it would mean she could have a baby, and she already had one–her sister. She had told the doctor all this while filling her pockets with the free condoms, not understanding why his face looked so sad. Day People.

Interestingly, Celia’s life is not entirely bereft of kindness or community. While Celia struggles to find food and a place to sleep at night, she is not alone. Other teens gather in groups, almost like packs for security. During a terrifying encounter, Celia pees her pants. A friend brings her a new pair from the Goodwill bin.

Night had fallen and in the dark he and the other street kids circled Celia so the men in the cars would not see her change. They covered her with their bodies while she stripped and put on the new pants Rich had found. They sang silly songs to her to make her feel better.

Naomi initially sees Celia as a source, someone who might have information she can use to find her sister. She is almost blind to the dangers posed to Celia on a daily basis. In fact, Naomi’s focus on finding her sister makes her incapable of acknowledging the people living, and dying, right in front of her. Naomi acknowledges the multiple murders of young girls and teens, but as each is dead girl is found along the river, she uses her sister as an excuse not to get involved.

When Celia learns Naomi is searching for her younger sister, Celia begins to see Naomi as something more than just another day person. They are both big sisters trying to help their younger sisters. Naomi’s is being held somewhere; Celia’s is living at home with an abusive stepfather.

Naomi’s resolve to distance herself from the current crisis in Portland begins to dissolve when she finally “sees” Celia.

Celia was sitting outside Sisters of Mercy, scratching the bloody bandage around her leg. She had rolled up her jeans so anyone walking by could see the bandage, the blood. She knew what she was doing. She was trying to get attention. See, she wanted to say, I am hurt. Someone care.

But no one did. They walked on by, not even looking at her.

Except for Naomi.

Passages like this are achingly poignant. It is impossible not to recognize the “day person” inside while watching Celia navigate her world. How many people like Celia have we passed on the street?

Once Celia has entered Naomi’s consciousness, Naomi slowly works her way into investigating the murdered girls. That is to say, for the first two-thirds of the book, Denfeld makes sure we know the characters thoroughly. We care about them deeply before the author throws them into mortal peril. The constant foreshadowing keeps us on edge. The more we get to know Celia and Naomi, the more we worry. This slow buildup makes the final third of this book a nail-biting, page-turning thriller.

This story picks up a year after the events of Denfeld’s first novel, The Child Finder. While the stories can be read as stand-alone novels, do yourself a favor and read The Child Finder followed by this one. You will not be disappointed.

Laurie Rockenbeck was raised a Navy brat and moved around a lot as a kid. She lives near Seattle with her family, two cats and a dwindling number of chickens. She graduated with a degree in journalism and quickly learned that writing fiction was a lot more fun. With a grandmother who started every story with: this is a true lie… there is no doubt that story-telling and exaggeration are part of her genetic make-up. Rockenbeck has her private investigation license but prefers writing about made up cases over investigating real ones. Her mystery series features Seattle Police Department’s only trans male homicide detective and a pro-dominatrix turned PI. She is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus.

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.

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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 own.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Book Review: Banshee

By Diana Love

Banshee opens with a moment of bodily violence and tragedy. Not the personal tragedy of Samantha Baxter, sitting in an oncologist’s waiting room, moments from the cancer diagnosis which will unravel her, but the tragedy of a stranger:

The flesh blew off her bones underground. That’s how the waxy anchorman put it; you could feel his lips loving to make the shape of the word blew. The reason they knew? They’d had to exhume her. He sighed, going for horror, but conveying pleasure, maybe not accidentally.

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Book Review: What A Body Remembers

By Laurie Rockenbeck

Karen Stefano’s What A Body Remembers is a timely and moving illustration of how our bodies instinctively tie our senses and memories together. It is a compelling book that reads as much like true crime as it does memoir, while delving into heady topics like trauma, PTSD, and victim blaming. Stefano manages to approach these subjects with a sensitivity that invites the reader to a deeper understanding of the after-effects of trauma while evoking empathy over pity.

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