Tag: fiction (Page 1 of 6)

Book Review: Don’t Read the Comments

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Don’t Read the Comments is Eric Smith’s fifth young adult novel. Smith heavily integrates popular culture into his fiction, and this novel is no exception. The protagonist, Divya Sharma, is an eighteen-year old celebrity gamer known as “D1V” who supports herself and her mother through corporate sponsorships, free merchandise, and subscribers to her “Glitch” channel (a live game streaming platform). Divya’s current live-stream game of choice is Reclaim the Sun, a universe exploration game the likes of which does not yet exist outside of fiction, but which is vividly described by Smith and in such detail that my kids and grandkids are ready to pre-order it.

The book’s title derives from Divya’s admonition when her mother expresses her concern about the comments posted to Divya’s Glitch channel. “‘Don’t read the comments,’” Divya tells her mother, because as a “girl gamer,” Divya is exposed to trolls who threaten, harass, and objectify her and to commenters who sexualize her and tell her to wear less clothing. Divya’s mother is understandably concerned, but eighteen-year-old Divya thinks she has it under control.

Divya has the moral support of her best friend, Rebekah, who has a secret that makes her more comfortable working behind the scenes editing and uploading videos to D1V’s Glitch channel. Divya and Rebekah are “awesome gamers for girls” (not Smith’s words, the words of some of the more dense commenters). Divya also has the support of the “Angst Armada,” her fans and allies in Reclaim the Sun, so named because in their chats on Divya’s Glitch channel, they vent about school, breakups, and parents.

Enter the Vox Populi, a group of white male gamers who don’t think Divya has earned her place and set out to destroy D1V. Their harassment is initially confined to the game, but it gradually leaks into Divya’s real life, threatening her livelihood and sense of security. While the Vox Populi deny it, their escalating harassment focuses on gender and race. The gaming community’s comments about the Vox Populi’s all-out war against D1V and her Angst Armada run the gamut from supportive to victim blaming, with some saying she deserves what’s happening to her because she put herself out there. Notably, the “[v]ideo game companies stay silent” and reap the benefits of the free publicity.

Aaron, a seventeen-year-old gamer who dreams of a career writing video games, “meets” celebrity gamer D1V on an unclaimed planet in the Reclaim the Sun game when Divya is at her lowest point and trying to rebuild, not only in the game, but in real life. An interesting detail in the novel is that, although Divya’s family is poor, she has a first-class gaming rig and all the best accessories because of her corporate sponsorships. Aaron, though, has had to build his less-than-satisfactory “Frankensteined” gaming rig from parts he finds in the dumpsters at a nearby university, not because his family can’t afford one, but because his mother wants him to become a doctor and doesn’t support his gaming dreams. Divya and Aaron begin to form a friendship, but can Divya trust him? With the anonymity of the internet, Divya can’t be sure that Aaron isn’t one of the Vox Populi.

The tension in the novel mounts as D1V plans to make an appearance as the only woman on an upcoming Gamescon panel: “Harassment in Video Game Culture and Women: A Conversation.” Divya is being pressured by friends and family to cancel her appearance amidst increasingly scary internet threats that she doesn’t belong there. The plot turns on whether D1V will dare show her face at Gamescon, and if she does, how will she deal with the threats of the Vox Populi?

Rebekah is my favorite character in this novel. She’s the epitome of the best friend character, but unlike many one-dimensional best friends who are only there to act as a foil for the protagonist, Rebekah is her own woman with her own backstory. Despite her fears, she faces the world with hair dyed blood orange, a fierce sense of loyalty, and a sassy, take-no-guff demeanor. My favorite experience of the novel was watching Rebekah face her fears and come into her own. She could definitely carry her own story (hint: I’d buy a sequel).

Smith peoples his novel with diverse characters and successfully broaches topics outside his lane with knowledge, insight, and sensitivity, including sexism, misogyny, and gender-based violence. You can tell Smith put the work in to try to get it right. I think an opportunity was missed, though, to give us more about the characters’ cultures and home lives. I imagine there are differences in the way the members of Divya’s Indian household or Aaron’s mixed Honduran and Pakistani family live from the way my white family lives. I would have liked to have seen some of these differences depicted.

Don’t Read the Comments is a good story with a compelling, contemporary plot that urges the reader forward. This is a novel with heart and intelligent things to say about some very real concerns in the gaming world, a world which is in some small or big way a part of the lives of most of us. The book is recommended for ages approximately 13-18, but I think readers of all ages will enjoy it. After reading the book myself, I bought four copies as gifts for “kids” in my life, ages 12 through 43, who I thought would enjoy it. I liked the book immensely and appreciated the shoutout to Firefly. (Watch for it.)


Leni Leanne Phillips is an MFA candidate in U.C. Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Leanne earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in history from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is a former fiction and poetry editor of Byzantium, Cal Poly’s literary journal. Leanne’s writing has appeared or will appear in The New Times, Tolosa Press, WordFest Anthology, and elsewhere. You can find her at lenileanne.com.

 

Book Review: Barn 8

BY MATT ELLIS

Deb Olin Unferth

Guggenheim Fellow and three-time Pushcart Prize winner Deb Olin Unferth knows that humans are a mess. Somewhere between visions of the ideal world and taking action, even the best-intentioned among us has the capacity to blow it completely. That’s probably why the clear underdog in her ambitious satirical political drama Barn 8 is a chicken named Bwwaauk.

Like with all great hen heist epics, this one starts with a late-night bus ride from New York to Iowa. Fifteen-year-old Janey Flores flies her mother’s coop to meet a father she didn’t know existed and to punish them both for the paternal omission. “She was going to make this man know her, or at least pay for not knowing her.” Her temporary act of teenage angst becomes permanent when tragedy strikes, stranding her in the Midwest, mourning the life she should have had.

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TCR Talks with Garth Greenwell

By Leah Dieterich

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut Book of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards. His new book, Cleanness, picks up where What Belongs to You left off. We follow the same narrator, a gay American ex-pat teaching high school in Bulgaria, through a variety of anonymous sexual experiences as well as a reckoning with love lost. While the book is at times brutal and explicit, it is also unspeakably tender. Many of the interviews Greenwell has done begin with questions about writing sex, an act which he calls “one of our most charged forms of communication,” so I wanted to break new ground and ask first about his love of language, particularly foreign language.

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Book Review: Optic Nerve

By Jackie DesForges

Several years ago I visited the Picasso Museum in Malaga, Spain. At the time, each gallery was arranged by theme rather than chronology, so that as you made your way through, you weren’t seeing Picasso’s works in the order they were —created—you would see a ceramic he created in the 1930s next to a drawing created at the end of his life next to a painting he made in the 1920s, all seemingly random until you realized that they focused on the same theme or subject. María Gainza’s debut novel Optic Nerve reminded me of this museum from the very first page. The story doesn’t proceed chronologically through the narrator’s life, but rather thematically. Beginning each chapter feels like stepping into a new gallery, perhaps especially because the book deals directly with the history of visual art.

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Aperture

By Christina Rauh Fishburne

Look at her go. See the ghost of sinew in those triceps and biceps as the creamy brown silk slides up to her shoulder in retreat. This gown was always her favorite. The one destined only for significant cocktail parties and evenings of general greatness. Observe her form. The strain of her graceful neck, the fluid rise of her arms like a worshipper of the sun, and the determined fan of her fingers spreading to embrace. The line of her shoulders as she rears back in Olympic elegance bent on a clean kill. Note the placement of her feet, small, dainty, shod in beaded open toe kitten heels of soft sole. She does not stand. She does not pose. She plants.

“Stand over there, by the hedge. I’ll take your photograph.”
“Now take your gloves off.”
“I think you might have blinked. Move to the other side, Love. Away from the sun.”
“Let’s have a smile.”

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Book Review: Please See Us

BY LAURIE ROCKENBECK

Caitlin Mullen’s debut novel Please See Us takes genre norms, chews them up, and spits them out into a gripping literary thriller. This ambitious work delves into a myriad of societal issues—trafficking, bullying, motherhood, drug abuse, mental health, inadequate foster systems, and misogyny.

In the prologue, we are introduced to two nameless women lying together as described by a distant omniscient narrator. If this were a movie, it would begin with a long shot of an airplane flying an advertising banner low over a decrepit Atlantic City. The camera would leave the plane as it swoops around to the back of a grungy pay-by-the-hour hotel and focus on the two women who are “laid out like tallies in the stretch of marsh just behind the Sunset Motel.”

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Book Review: Untamed Shore

BY MATT ELLIS

In a genre stuffed to the gills with hard-boiled gumshoes and gangsters, serial killers and behavioral shrinks, narcos and narcs, Silvia Moreno-Garcia has cast aside her acclaimed fantasy bona fides to challenge reader expectations by delivering a crime thriller with literary undercurrents.

In her crime thriller debut, Moreno has taken calculated risks in delivering a literary leaning story with a slow crescendo in a genre crowded by over-the-top chases and traumatic brutality.

Untamed Shore is a coming of age story about an eighteen-year-old underemployed guide named Viridiana, who has managed to learn several foreign languages but is uncapable of escaping her isolated Baja California fishing village of Desengaño, a town literally called disillusionment. Rudderless, she feels the growing pressure to follow the Desengañera –tradition—marry young and become the subservient wife.

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Mouth Bucket

By Vanessa Mancos

At night, we must remove our mouths. We leave them in the mouth bucket on the front porch until dawn. The new law that dictates this was put into affect effect after the demonstrations.

The demonstrations: ecstatic airing of our grievances, many small globs into one big one. They did not care for that.

When the mouth buckets arrived to our homes, we had to practice taking our mouths off a few times before we really understood how. It’s tricky, you know. A mouth doesn’t just jump off your face because you ask it to. You have to grab your lips with both hands and sort of twist it around a bit before it slides down with a slimy pop. It does hurt at first, but as with all types of pain, after constant repetition, you forget your discomfort.

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Book Review: Verge

BY DIANA LOVE

Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch’s aptly-named new collection of short stories, is an exhilarating and disquieting experience. Like the verging border of its title, the collection is peopled by characters who live on the edges—of society, of safety, of sanity. The interests and subject matter of this collection upend normal boundaries and expectations. Outcasts and voiceless figures are placed center-stage. We are able to be a part of their experience, their pain, their rage, and their beauty.

Though Yuknavitch has been writing short stories for most of her literary career, this is her first published book curating a collection of such stories. And they are wonderful stories, clearly in conversation with one another, including that handful which have been published previously. Indeed, readers familiar with Yuknavitch’s other work will recognize themes and topics in this collection which mirror those in her novels and nonfiction—the idea of giving voices to voiceless figures, a concern with war and its collateral damage, a concern with damage and with survival in all forms. Her widely-viewed 2016 TED Talk, On The Beauty of Being a Misfit, and her follow-up book The Misfit’s Manifesto, are celebrations of other voices. She has a vested and specific interest in the people and the places who do not sit at the center of the mainstream in any sense of that term, who live in the borders of things.

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TCR Talks with Rene Denfeld

BY FELICITY LANDA

The Butterfly Girl is Rene Denfeld’s second novel in the world of Naomi Cottle, a private investigator who is drawn to cases of missing children. Naomi’s knack for finding these children has earned her the name “The Child Finder,” but her need to pursue them stems from the one cold case in her own life: the missing sister she left behind when she herself escaped captivity as a child. When Naomi sets aside her work to finally find her sister, she meets Celia, a lonely homeless child abandoned to the streets. Celia is running from her abusive stepfather and hiding amongst butterflies, her imagined guardians and the only place she feels safe. Naomi and Celia continue to collide throughout a shocking series of events in Naomi’s search.

Denfeld’s own experience as a homeless teen has led to an incredible life of advocacy, from her career as a public defender helping victims of trafficking, to her life as a foster mother of twenty years. Denfeld is no stranger to the hardships of abandoned children, and she cares for her characters as fiercely as she cares for those off the page who turn to her for aid.

Denfeld has written a tense, page-turning, crime novel that leaves readers feeling connected to her characters and their stories in an intimate way. Naomi and Celia dig through their haunted pasts, even while they uncover the truth of the present. The Butterfly Girl is a book that lingers, alive with hope as much as it is streaked in sorrow. Denfeld and I spoke about the importance of how we fictionalize trauma, the way she discovers her stories, and the beautiful and inspiring life she has led that motivates her writing.

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