India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world. And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf. But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf. Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness. When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next. This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.
Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning. She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too. Mental illness runs in her family. She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying. This is due to her schizophrenia. Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself. The reader is just along for this ride. And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride. Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness. Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.
Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages. This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):
All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking. Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)
The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness. Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life. This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express. It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence. They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds. Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.
Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)
There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character. Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian. She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people. People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life. Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition. She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery. The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir. Eva Canning is bisexual. It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous. However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way. Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous. What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way. Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.
The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened. The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book. The final third, though, takes an odd turn. Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions. That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful. However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe. I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted. It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life. Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function. I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened. The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.
The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar. There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going. Her voice is perfect for Imp. She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years. She sounds like the 20-something woman she is. I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print. Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.
Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal. The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan. Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically. Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.
4 out of 5 stars
A chance meeting between orphaned British writer, Stephen, and American soldier, Dustin, leads to a passionate love affair in England. But when Dustin chooses to go back home to his small Southern town to care for his mentally challenged brother, Stephen is left behind, sending letters that are never answered. He finally decides to follow Dustin home and arrives only to discover that Dustin is no more.
This is my second read by Brandon Shire. The first, The Value Of Rain (review), blew me way with its passionate, multi-generational family drama featuring a gay main character. I was thus eager to accept a second arc from Shire, and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed.
There are some commonalities in the stories. Both feature a gay man who grew up in an unaccepting family and show the impact that has on their lives. But that’s where the similarities cease. Listening To Dust is really about a gay man who grew up with an accepting and loving grandmother trying to come to terms with who his lover is and was and how his lover’s family affects and affected him. This book is really more about what it is to love someone who suffers from deep childhood wounds. The difficult path that is to follow and how many pitfalls exist in it. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of Stephen’s voice, I still respected his experiences and the difficult situations he found himself in. I also appreciated seeing the far-reaching impact lack of love and family acceptance has. It doesn’t just affect the people raised in that family.
The writing is again gorgeous. Even now I can feel the hot dustiness of Dustin’s hometown and also the comforting cool greenery of Stephen’s grandmother’s French cottage. Shire elicits both place and emotions so powerfully that it is impossible not to be moved by the story.
I also really enjoyed the various commentary throughout the book on love, words, and actions. What love is, what it does, and whether words or actions are worth more.
So I guess we were both right, and both wrong about actions and words. Like the two of us, one is empty without the other. (location 1014)
The sex scenes manage to be steamy and emotional. What I might call literary sex scenes. When I read them, I felt them in my knees.
Even now I can feel the heat from your palm as you cupped the back of my head and pulled my lips those last few inches, how you opened your body and begged me with your soul. (location 1726)
So what held me back from 5 stars? As previously stated, I wasn’t a huge fan of Stephen’s voice, although I respected his experiences. He sometimes grated on me a bit. I’m not sure if it was his slight Britishisms or how much he got hung up in his own head but he sometimes irritated me in a way that kept me from getting completely engrossed in the story. But this is a small thing, really, when compared to the story as a whole and the beautiful writing.
Overall, this is a book that sweeps the reader away to multiple, disparate places to explore both love and the far-reaching affects of a harsh family life. It should appeal to any who enjoy a heart-breaking contemporary GLBTQ romance.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Note: 10% of all proceeds donated to LGBT Youth Charities combating homelessness.
Jenna is a high-powered, newly appointed commissioner in San Francisco where she lives with her wife and their dog. Life is good, and Jenna tries not to think too much about her rough childhood and teen years growing up in Florida. But a phone call comes in. Her first love, Del, has died diving at lemon reef at the young age of 30. The mutual friend invites Jenna to the funeral, but when she arrives in Florida, she discovers that there’s more to it than that. Del’s mother, Pascale, wants her help in getting custody of Del’s daughter, Khila, instead of her father, Talon, who Pascale insists must have murdered Del.
This book was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster to read, which of course is a sign of a good book.
The plot structure is incredibly complex and engaging without ever being confusing. There is the mystery of Del’s death, but also (for the reader) the mystery of why and how Del and Jenna’s romance ended tragically, as it is evident it did. In addition there is the powerful emotions of a first love and first romance for a pair of teens who must grow up too fast thanks to the rough circumstances they find themselves in. Silverman handles the past reminisces intermingled with the current mystery and discoveries quite eloquently. I found myself admiring her talent in plot structuring throughout.
There are no easy answers in this book, and no one is easily demonized, including Talon. Every single character has flaws and good qualities. Del stands up for her siblings but won’t stand up for her love of Jenna. Jenna loves people but can sometimes get too caught up in her own world and her own needs. Pascale was an alcoholic when Del was in highschool but successfully quits in order to be able to spend time with her granddaughter. Del’s sister Nicole breaks a lot of laws (including breaking and entering and prostitution), but she is fiercely loyal and stands up for those she loves. The complexity of the characters and the situation is part of what makes it such an emotional read. There’s no one to easily blame for the problems these women find themselves in. I think this complexity points to Silverman’s experience both as a counselor and a lawyer. She clearly understands human psychology and how problems are not always black and white but can be very gray.
The writing is lovely and fills in the framing of the plot and the characters. There are lines that just totally grab you.
Because minds do blow and hearts do break. Those are not just sayings. And wolves and roaches are not the only creatures that chew off their legs to get out of traps—human beings do that, too. (location 3058)
I also really enjoyed that while Jenna’s coming out story (told in flash-backs and reminiscing) is rather typical, Del’s is much more complex. She is bi but is uncomfortable with the fact that she likes women too. She doesn’t want people to know, doesn’t say a thing about it to her sisters, denies it even. But we find out later that there were other ways in which it was clear she did identify as bi and part of the community. I won’t say how, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. But I found this complexity interesting. It shows how for Jenna she had to push and come out because there was no other option. Del could sometimes pass but not always and clearly it was a struggle for her throughout her whole life. This shows an understanding of what it is to be bi that I honestly was not expecting, as it is hard to find that in novels.
There were, unfortunately, a couple of things that didn’t quite live up to the rest of the book. There were a few passages that weren’t as well-written or well-edited that detracted from the overall beauty of the book. For instance, there is a scene in which a character points a flashlight at a floor but the narrator calls it the ground. Things like that that are periodically clunky. I’m sure this will improve with time, though, as this is Silverman’s first work of fiction.
I also was disappointed that we didn’t get to see very much at all in regards to how this whole drama of the first love’s mysterious death impacted Jenna’s relationship with her wife. I was hoping this would be at least touched upon in the last chapter, but instead we just see Madison show up with Jenna for the funeral. Since I had come to care for Jenna, I wanted to know how such a dramatic, emotional event would affect her new life and marriage with Madison. It seems obvious to me that such an incident would at least lead to a few discussions and maybe difficult moments between a married couple. I wanted to see that and not seeing it made Madison and Jenna’s marriage to her feel more like a prop than an actual element of Jenna’s life.
Overall, though, this is a unique work of GLBTQ lit. Its themes of reconciling with your past, coming out, being queer, and first love are all beautifully told within a plot that keeps the reader invested and interested. I highly recommend it to GLBTQ readers, but also to anyone with an interest in stories addressing the complexity of human relationships and the long-reaching impact of first loves.
4 out of 5 stars
The Septembers are all 29 years old now and spread out all over the globe. Bee is expending her energy biking up and down the hills of San Francisco while Eric works as a lawyer. Carmen has a recurring role on a tv show filming in NYC and is engaged to Jones, an ABC producer. Lena teaches art at RISD and lives a quiet life in her studio apartment, except for the one day a week she practices Greek with an elderly woman. Tibby took off to Australia with Brian months ago, and everyone else is in limbo waiting for her to get back. They all feel a bit disconnected until Tibby sends Bee, Carmen, and Lena tickets to come to Greece for a reunion. What they find when they arrive is not what anyone expected.
You guys. You guys. This book shattered me. I am not a crier, and I actually had tears fall while reading this book. I read it in one day. I could not put it down. As someone who grew up with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I found the sudden jump forward in age (we used to be about the same age, and now they are older than me) a bit disconcerting and unexpected, but nowhere near as unexpected as the rest of the book.
I complained to anyone who would listen at the beginning that I hated it. That I hated what Brashares was doing, and omg why would she do this. But as the story progressed, she swept me along, and suddenly I realized that yes this is tougher by far than the earlier books. It’s not the light girl power read the first or even the second one was. But it shouldn’t be. They’re 29. They’re older. Their problems should be bigger and more adult, and the lessons here hurt more to read because they’re tougher ones to learn. It’s precisely the direction the books should have taken. The girls change and, dare I say it, actually grow the fuck up unlike a certain other foursome that have a tv show.
I won’t tell you what made the book so powerful, because that’d spoil it. But I will tell you, my fellow fans, to push past the first quarter of the book where you’re angry and want to throw it across the room in a Carmen-like rage. Give Brashares the chance she earned with the first three to gradually show you what she’s doing. It’s an emotional journey that’s well worth taken. Fans might be frustrated at first, but those who stick it out and love the series for what it really is will love this entry. I don’t doubt it at all. Plus, Brashares hinted that there might be still more to come.
5 out of 5 stars
A gruesome murder has thrown a British county up-in-arms, and Leo Curtice finds himself the attorney randomly assigned to defend the murderer–a 12 year old boy who killed and sexually assaulted an 11 year old girl. He finds himself seeking to understand what would make a 12 year old kill and finding more empathy for the boy than those around him think is allowable. Meanwhile, threats start coming in against his own family, including his 15 year old daughter.
This is a ripped from the headlines style novel that falls far short of others in its genre. Apparently, Britain has a real problem with child murderers. The thing is, though, when you’re writing a ripped from the headlines type story, your fictional version needs to bring something to the table that the real life stories and newspaper articles can’t or don’t. Room by Emma Donoghue is an excellent example of this. Telling the story from the perspective of the boy raised in the room his kidnapped mother is held hostage in was a truly unique and mind-blowing way to get a new perspective on the rash of kidnappings and hostage situations in the US. This story, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of a defense attorney, which is almost exactly what you would get in the press. There is nothing new or fresh. Curtice sympathizes with the boy killer, but that is not true fresh perspective.
It’s also problematic when you google about child murderers in Britain and the stories that come up are far more fascinating than the novel you just read. Stories like Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, two ten year olds who tortured and murdered a two year old. Or Mary Bell an eleven year old who killed and tortured other children without remorse. In contrast our story here is about a twelve year old boy who hits on an eleven year old, is rebuffed, and proceeds to knock her down, bludgeon her, and assault her with a stick. Horrible? Yes. But with far more motive than two ten year olds abducting and killing a two year old. See the difference? The true to life stories push us to question and understand human development and behavior. The fake one seems rather easily written off as a vicious twelve year old who can’t handle the word no from a girl he likes. It’s as if the author was trying to play off of a phenomenon in Britain but missed the crux of what makes it so fascinating. Twelve is hardly a youth in the way that ten is.
Then there is the whole side-plot about Curtice’s daughter. From the beginning of the book you think she was murdered eventually somehow in some connection with the case. Wanting to find out how this occurred is what keeps the reader interested and the plot moving in spite of the problems addressed earlier. This, though, is ultimately a red herring of a plot point. The daughter was a runaway. Yes, the father didn’t know it at first, but she just ran away because of all the stress from the case. That’s it. As a reader, it felt like Lelic played a dirty trick on me, and I really didn’t like that.
Ultimately, Lelic tried to write a ripped from the headlines style story akin to Room, but he failed on all of the points that made Room such a hit. There is no unique viewpoint, no valid suspense, no daring willingness to take things even further in fiction than they went in real life. The book is a disappointment.
2 out of 5 stars