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Archive for July, 2021

Book Review: Safe In My Arms by Sara Shepard

Image of a digital book cover. A fence with a yellow backpack hanging on it. the title of the book is superimposed over it in a different shade of yellow.

Summary:
Three women whose children attend an elite preschool in coastal California find their lives intertwined when they all receive threatening notes in their children’s backpacks.

Review:
Sara Shepard is most famous for writing Pretty Little Liars, the series the hit tv show is based upon. In Pretty Little Liars the threat is text messages. Here it’s old school notes. Only this time, it’s the moms twisted into secrets and lies.

The three moms are at the center of the book, and I only actually liked one. Andrea is a trans woman who moved to California to be able to transition and live openly, away from her elite and judgmental family. Now, I will note I am a cis woman, and I would like to hear what a trans woman thinks of the representation, but I thought Andrea was written very well. I appreciated the realism of having to deal with some transphobia in her family but also being warmly welcomed by the other two women – both as a friend and as a woman. The author’s note at the end makes it clear she sought out a sensitivity reader for Andrea, and I could tell. If only the same efforts had been made for the other two women….

Lauren is struggling with postpartum rage (a symptom tied to postpartum depression). I just felt she was quite two-dimensional, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about her.

Ronnie is a topless maid, formerly a stripper, who moved here from Pennsylvania with her daughter. It at first appears she did so to get away from an abusive man. I can’t talk about Ronnie without revealing a slight spoiler (it’s revealed about 1/3 of the way into the book), so be warned.

Ronnie’s “daughter” is actually her niece. Her sister was in a relationship with an abusive man and was addicted to something. It’s vaguely explained as drugs. Ronnie, after a violent fight with her sister’s significant other that ends with her discovering her sister wounded on the floor, takes the baby and runs with her. She never follows up to see if her sister is ok. No, no, she just steals her daughter, changes her daughter’s name, and decides her daughter is better off with her anyway. I just simply could not empathize with the child abductor here. Ronnie had other options to help her niece. She had never even tried anything else (beyond living with her sister to “protect” her). I’m ok with a book featuring a less than ideal character. I’m not ok with the whole tone of the book being that I should empathize with her or that what she did was a mistake.

Because that’s the thing. The book kind of wraps up with the message that all moms make mistakes and it’s ok to not be perfect. I mean, sure, within reason. But there’s it’s ok to not be perfect and then there’s you’re only in the mom club because you stole someone else’s child.

Also as someone who cares about addiction and recovery, I found the depiction of Ronnie’s sister Vanessa to be heartless. She isn’t given the same chance and possibility to recover and change and learn from her mistakes as the other mom’s. In fact, the whole “moms don’t have to be perfect” scene features the moms describing all the reasons their children make them drink alcohol. The hypocrisy of this scene sickened me.

Contemporary books are approaching the pandemic in a variety of ways. This one chose to set the story “post-pandemic.” I’m fine with that optimistic choice, and I understand why it was made. But the strange thing is it mostly seems to acknowledge the impacts of the pandemic as purely economic – there’s a lot of talk about economic challenges from when we all stayed home but almost zero mention of anything else. I think there was one mention of face masks? This is set in California. There was way more impact than just economic. It rubbed me the wrong way how it made it out to be all about economic issues, and also how things just immediately snapped back to normal. If one wants a normal contemporary book, fine, just don’t acknowledge the pandemic at all then. Include an author’s note that this is for escapism and move on. Don’t acknowledge it as an economic downturn like 2008 and nothing much else…..

Beyond this, the actual main issue going on at the school was interesting and twisty. I had my suspicions early on, but I still enjoyed the twists. What really saved the book for me, though, was Andrea. We need more positive trans rep in psychological thrillers, and Andrea was very well-done.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 304 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Image of a digital book cover. A yellow sky with an orange sun. In front of this on the rise of a hill is an army on horses with one leader in front. The title of the book is She who Became the Sun.

Summary:
In China in 1345, a little peasant girl barely surviving a famine hears her brother will have a great fate but she is fated to nothingness. When their father dies and her brother chooses to die with him, she lays claim to his fate, going to a monastery and pretending to be a boy for survival. When she grows up, she finds herself pursuing her brother’s great fate and clashing repeatedly with Ouyang – a man who survived an order to kill his entire male line by being forcibly turned into a eunuch. As the Mongols and the Nanren clash for dominance in China, Ouyang and the person known as Zhu Chongba find their fates clashing.

Review:
This is being marketed as the queer Mulan, and I just have to say that Mulan was already queer. Li Shang Mulan regardless of what gender she is presenting as. But there’s plenty of room for more than one queer ancient China war drama. 🙂

I loved the beginning of this book. The famine and Zhu’s entire time in the monastery just spoke to me. I was engrossed. But then when Zhu leaves the monastery the tone and setting of the book changed, and it worked less for me. To me the beginning of the book is about choosing your own destiny, and the clash of desire and faith. The end of the book is about being the best warlord with your brains instead of brawn, which just was less compelling to me personally. Actually, I think this quote from the book sums up how Zhu is at the end of the book, even though this is actually Zhu describing someone else:

[T]he ferocious, irreligious joy of a man who has willingly cast aside any chance of nirvana for the sake of his attachment to life.

(location 843)

The fantasy elements of this book include that Zhu and some others can see ghosts – hungry ghosts specifically, which is a Buddhist concept. Leaders also have a mandate from heaven, which presents itself as a visible fire they can summon into their hands. Different leaders have fire of different colors. It’s interesting to note that many sides seem to have a real mandate of heaven. Why is an interesting question that I hope the sequel will explore.

The queer elements in the book include both gender and sexuality. Zhu seems to experience some gender dysphoria – this is not presented simply as a cis woman passing as a man. It’s more complex than that. However, I do wish this was explored more deeply. For example, the omniscient narrator refers to Zhu as “she” regardless of how Zhu seems to feel about their gender at any point. Ouyang is a eunuch, and eunuchs fall under the queer umbrella. Ouyang has romantic feelings for another man. It was unclear to me if these feelings were ever consummated. Zhu falls for a woman, and they have sexual relations onscreen. For me, Ouyang’s relationship was a classic queer tragedy. Zhu’s is more complex, and I’m interested to see where it goes in the sequel.

There is a character who loses a limb in this book. The moment of the limb loss is presented as a turning point for this character. It lets them become who they need to be. I felt negatively about this. It read to me as a bit like disability inspiration p*rn. I understand that, for this character, their relationship with their body is complex. But I wish another way had been found to help the character come into their own rather than this.

Overall, I really enjoyed that this fantasy was set in a culture steeped in Buddhism as a nice change of pace for fantasy. Queer characters are central, rather than as tragic sidekicks. The qualms I had did not keep me from enjoying the book as a whole, and I am interested in its sequel. Recommended to fantasy lovers looking for a change or to those who don’t usually read fantasy but might enjoy it for the representation.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 416 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

July 13, 2021 3 comments
Picture of a digital book cover. A red-tinged foggy photo of a black gate into a university campus. The title of the book - They Never Learn - is imposed over the gate in white font.

Summary:
Scarlett Clark is an exceptional English professor. But she’s even better at getting away with murder. Every year, she searches for the worst man at Gorman University and plots his well-deserved demise. But as she’s preparing for her biggest kill yet, the school starts probing into the growing body count on campus. Determined to keep her enemies close, Scarlett insinuates herself into the investigation and charms the woman in charge, Dr. Mina Pierce.

Meanwhile, Gorman student Carly Schiller is just trying to survive her freshman year – and her crush on her roommate, Allison. When Allison is sexually assaulted at a party, Carly becomes obsessed with making the attacker pay.

Review:
This felt like a woman-centered, queer Dexter, and I really enjoyed it.

The book seems straight-forward at first, but midway there is a plot twist that made me make the shocked Pikachu face. From there on, the plot just kept surprising me. In a good way. It’s not exactly what it seems it might be at first.

Although my own ethics don’t agree with revenge seeking, this is just the right mix of campy social commentary and revenge violence to work for me. I was able to view it as a cautionary tale of what could happen if we don’t start working to solve the academia culture that breeds violence against women. There are certain moments when the tide could have been turned if someone, anyone, had listened to the violated women. To me, this is what the takeaway from the book really is supposed to be.

For me, the queer content was delightful. There are multiple bisexual women characters. This means, instead of suffering from tokenism, bisexual characters get to come into full expressions of themselves. The word bisexual is used frequently in the book (or the short version bi). There are even multiple coming out stories present in the book.

I read this in audiobook format, and the narration of both voices was well done. It was easy to tell them apart but also not jarring to switch back and forth. I also thought both actresses did a solid job with accents.

A quick content warning that sexual assault, violence and murder are all described on-screen in this book.

Overall, the plot compelled and surprised me, and the characters were engaging with multiple different bisexual women present. A delightful addition to the thriller genre.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 378 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

Image of a digital book cover. A graveyard is in the background. The book title is laid over it in white, with three red stars, and then the author's name.

Summary:
In 1968, Bruce Tucker, a Black man, went into Virginia’s top research hospital, the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University) with a head injury, only to have his heart taken out of his body and put into the chest of a white businessman. Covering the inequalities innate in cadaver harvesting through the mismanagement of discovered human remains on university property in the 1990s, journalist Chip Jones explores how organ transplant in the US reveals systemic inequalities and racism, not just in health care, but in other related fields as well.

Review:
Organ transplant science is something that can feel like it’s been around forever, but in fact it’s really still a fairly new form of treatment. The first transplant of any organ was in 1954, and the first heart transplant was in 1967. The Civil Rights Act was in 1964, so at the time this treatment was emerging, segregated health care was still present in the US.

This book first gives context to the inequities seen in organ donation and reception by looking at the topic of where student doctors get cadavers to practice dissection upon. Although currently there is a system in place for the ethical donation of remains for educational use, at the time there was no such system in place. Medical schools turned to grave-robbing – and they preferentially robbed from Black graveyards. Black families called these “night doctors.”

Parents even used the specter of “night doctors” to make their children stay in bed. “You’d better go to sleep,” they’d say, “or the student doctors will get you.”

(loc 3353)

This was also a time period where there was some debate about what counts as death. Legally, until 1968, death was the full cessation of the working of all organs. In 1968, with advancing science, the theory of brain death was proposed. This was partially due to new health care technology that allowed for a machine to keep the organs operating. In tandem, the science of organ transplantation was emerging. The fresher the organ, the better the chances for the transplant to succeed. With the emerging theory of brain death meaning organs were operating but the patient might be able to be considered dead, and I’m sure you can see where this was going.

Bruce Tucker was a blue collar worker. He was hanging out with friends having a few drinks of alcohol on a stone wall. He fell and suffered head trauma. He was brought to the hospital alone. In spite of having his brother’s business card in his pocket, no one called his brother. Police officers were sent to his home to try to find family, but he didn’t live with his brother. At the same time, a white businessman was waiting for a heart transplant at the same hospital.

The early conversations among the surgeons had little to do about his chances for survival but rather concerned using him for another purpose. No one was discussing whether he might recover and be rehabilitated….Men like Tucker, arriving with alcohol on their breath and seemingly no one to claim them were often written off as ‘charity patients.’ They weren’t expected to pay their bills, with the hospital absorbing any expenses.

loc 2064

Jones notes that Tucker thus suffered from what can be termed a social death. Arriving at the hospital with alcohol on his breath meant that he was looked down upon by society, on top of how he was already perceived as a Black man in a Segregated southern hospital. Add to that the fact that the hospital decided he seemed to have no loved ones, and he was viewed as disposable.

Tucker did have loved ones, though, and when his body was sent to the funeral home, the caretaker notified his family that he arrived without a heart. This is when Tucker’s brother started to pursue answers and justice.

The next part of the book deals with the lawsuit that came about and how the court case was ruled. I wasn’t surprised, but was still severely disappointed to see how the hospital and doctors got away with it, and the Tucker family was left without justice. Notably to me is the quote from the prosecuting lawyer,

It doesn’t change the fact that when they took his heart from him he was not dead according to the law. So they broke the law and never would admit it, and that’s what bothered me more than anything else.

(loc 4397)

A clarifying note that the defense team used the argument of brain death, which was not the law at the time. The defense team also organized for as many transplant experts as possible to be in town at the time of the trial. They arranged for a transplant conference that just so happened to coincide with the scheduled trial. The conference was sponsored by Pfizer. The book notes just how much sway having transplant experts on the stand had on the judgment.

What stood out to me in reading this book is how societal inequalities and judgements can and do severely impact the quality of care that a patient might receive. I also was surprised to learn how recently brain death became the standard, and to read about the arguments on both sides of that debate. Brain death is not as clear-cut as I once thought it was.

The author does a good job of making history personal by focusing on Bruce Tucker and his family but also fleshing out with enough surrounding historical details that the complex situation made sense to read about. I do think his epilogue was unnecessary, where he details trying to speak with Bruce Tucker’s son, who did not want to speak to him. I feel that truly leaving Bruce Tucker’s son alone would have entailed simply a note that he did not wish to be interviewed and leaving it at that.

Overall, this is a fascinating and sad read about the history of organ transplants and brain death in the US. Recommended if these topics interest you.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 400 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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