Tag: book review

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 www.rachelzarrow.com

Book Review: Alice Anderson’s “Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away”

By: Kaia Gallagher

In Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away, Alice Anderson proves she is a survivor no matter what life throws at her. Her memoir recounts a decade-long battle to protect her three children from a vengeful, violence-prone ex-husband. The courts provide little help, encouraging family reunification rather than assuring the safety of an abused spouse.

Anderson is no stranger to hardship. Early in her writing career, she recounted her determination to overcome her father’s sexual abuse in an award-winning book of poetry. Human Nature is a harrowing description of a young girl’s fight for a future despite a childhood filled with incest and violence. It won the 1994 Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Emerging Writers.

Despite her early success as a poet and international fashion model, Anderson is haunted by her past: “Something about [being a model] made me feel used up, consumed, like I was the little girl my father gobbled up all over again, his sexual abuse consuming in a drunken, hungry rage all the best parts of me until I was nothing, but a pretty, performing doll.” She becomes ripe for a relationship with Liam, her ex-husband whom she sees as someone trying equally hard to escape his family demons. Her spiral down into acquiescence is gradual, with an ever-tightening noose that threatens to erase not only Anderson’s very identity but also her life.

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Book Review: Rich Ferguson’s “New Jersey Me”

By Jenny Hayesnew-jersey-me-cover

Rich Ferguson’s debut novel New Jersey Me is a coming-of-age tale set in an intriguingly dysfunctional ‘80s South Jersey town. The narrator, Mark, has a chaotic home life. His mother moved out of the house when he was fifteen, leaving him alone with his dad, a tough-talking, somewhat shady police chief, and the good things in his life are few and far between. He and his best friend Jimmy are even convinced they’re cursed by a “pet jinx” that causes all animals in their care to meet a premature demise. The two teens spend most of their time listening to music, getting wasted, and trying to have as good of a time as they can in Blackwater, a town Mark describes as “just strip malls, gun shops, radiation, and funeral homes.”

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Book Review: Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air”

By Joelyn Suarez

whenbreathbecomesairHope is not the typical remedy that doctors prescribe for medical illnesses, yet it is exactly what neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi turns to when he is confronted with stage IV lung cancer. But what good is hope when all other scientific evidence points to an imminent end? Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air is about learning how to face death head on, while examining what it means to be alive. His definition of hope is not one that is unrealistic, or based on some miraculous intervention, but the very real possibility of leading a fulfilled life despite the amount of time one has left.

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