Tag: Leni Leanne Phillips

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: The Witches Are Coming

by Leni Leanne Phillips

The Witches Are Coming is a collection of essays by Lindy West, some brand new, and some previously published in various online and print magazines and updated for the book. West has been around for a long time. Her work has been featured in publications like The New York Times, The Guardian, and Jezebel. As I read The Witches Are Coming, I recognized a couple of the essays, having read them when they were originally published, but I’ll admit West’s name didn’t become familiar to me until I binge-watched Season One of Shrill, a Hulu original television series starring SNL’s Aidy Bryant. I was impressed and intrigued enough to look up Shrill’s writers, including West, the author of the memoir which inspired the television show. When I read that West had a new collection of essays, The Witches Are Coming, I got my hands on a copy as quickly as I could.

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Book Review: Olive, Again

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Elizabeth Strout’s third novel, Olive Kitteridge[1], was published in 2008 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. In 2015, the book was adapted into an award-winning miniseries with Frances McDormand playing the title role of Olive, a character who seems to have been written with McDormand in mind. Readers and viewers alike were delighted by the character of Olive. Now, Olive Kitteridge returns in Strout’s seventh and most recent novel, Olive, Again[2]. Imagine my delight to find that this new book is an even more engaging, moving, and meaningful read than the original.

Strout had no trouble letting go of Olive after Olive Kitteridge. In fact, in the ten years since she wrote Olive Kitteridge, Strout had moved on to other things, including writing three more novels. She had no plans to write about Olive again. In a recent interview with Maris Kreizman for The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Strout said: “I never intended to write a sequel, but she just showed up again. She’s Olive and she has to be contended with. A few years ago I had the weekend to myself, and I went to a cafe to sit. All of a sudden I just saw Olive driving into the marina as an older woman, and I thought, ‘Uh oh. Here we go.’”

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TCR Talks With Catherine Ryan Hyde

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Twenty years ago, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel Pay it Forward became an international best seller. [1] The following year, the film adaptation debuted at number four at the box office its opening weekend. The book also spawned a social movement promoting kindness, optimism, and faith in humankind. Hyde has since published thirty-six books, including a young readers’ edition of Pay it Forward, two dozen novels, and a book of travel photography based on gratitude. Her most recent novel, Have You Seen Luis Velez?, was published in May of this year.[2] A new novel, Stay, will be released on December 3, 2019.[3]

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Book Review: Very Nice

by Leni 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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TCR Talks With Lyz Lenz

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Author Lyz Lenz’s marriage ended after the 2016 presidential election. Lenz voted for Hillary Clinton, and her husband voted for Donald Trump, and although this wasn’t the reason for the divorce, it was a catalyst after years of signs that Lenz and her husband were different people.

Lenz’s first book, God Land,[1] is part investigative journalism and part memoir. A resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lenz writes about Middle America and how it is changing, particularly with respect to faith and church. At the same time, the book tells the story of Lenz’s life after divorce and her own journey as a feminist and a woman of faith.

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Book Review: Mostly Dead Things

by Leni Leanne Phillips

“How we slice the skin: Carefully, that’s a given.” So opens Mostly Dead Things, Kristen Arnett’s debut novel about Jessa-Lynn Morton, a grieving taxidermist living out a less-than-satisfying life with her dysfunctional extended family in Florida. I’m a sucker for a killer opening line, a killer opening scene, and I knew right away that I was in for something special.  As the novel opens, we watch as narrator Jessa-Lynn Morton recalls her father teaching her taxidermy in his workshop. The scene is vivid and engaging. Right away, we begin to see what Jessa has been willing to do, ignore, and give up, all in an attempt to preserve or create the life she imagines for herself.

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