Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I expected FANGIRL to be fun, exuberant, charming. A love letter to the Harry Potter series and the fan culture surrounding it. A book about how terrifying and miserable the first year of college can be, and how change comes for us all. Wrapped up with a satisfying HEA. And it was all of those things. In some ways, FANGIRL is a pure confection of a novel. A crisp, airy meringue of delight. Our protagonist, Cath, writes fanfiction about the 'Simon Snow' series, a thinly veiled twist on Harry Potter. This fictional blockbuster series will have eight books and the eighth book is scheduled for release just as Cath's first year of college draws to a close.

Cath spends all of FANGIRL--all of her freshman year--writing her version of how the Simon Snow series should end. She's racing against the clock, because she has to finish before the real book eight comes out and renders her own work irrelevant. I loved the way that Cath wrestles with her fanfiction; how she defends its originality but feels punctured when her writing professor criticizes her. How she loves the fan culture even though it makes her own work ephemeral.

FANGIRL brought back those years before the Harry Potter series was over and the wait seemed endless but there was always that wonderful anticipation of a new book. Of being inside the phenomenon, experiencing it as it unfolded. We (the fans) all knew something amazing was happening, but we didn't know where it would go or how it would end.

I did wish, however, that FANGIRL had dealt more with what happens when the eighth Simon Snow book DOES come out. It's the end of an era--the series is over, Cath's fic is over. She's ready for something new. That's the moment where all of the experiences she's had in the novel tip her in a new direction. The very last page of FANGIRL is an excerpt from the first page of the first story Cath writes after her fanfic. It feels really momentous, like a sea change. Like payoff.

But I wanted to know why she picked that story, and how she meant to continue. In a way, I felt like the most important part of the conclusion--the 'now what?'--was left off the page.

So this fanfic that Cath's writing is a sort of--I don't know, a symbol of the limbo she's in? A project that she started in high school and can't abandon. The crown jewel of her adolescence. By the time it ends, something else needs to begin. Adulthood, if all goes well.

Which brings me back to Cath's first year of college, which is both ordinary and excruciatingly painful (excruciatingly painful in very ordinary ways, I suppose). She's separating from her father, who's more dependent on his children than he ought to be. Her twin sister, Wren, is tired of being one half of a whole and pushes Cath away out of an understandable but immensely hurtful desire to do her own thing for a while. And that leaves Cath, always the less social/popular/cool one of the pair, struggling to make friends on her own for the first time in her life.

She has a hard time of it. The first half of the book really tugged my heartstrings. Cath's isolation and hurt are sharply drawn. It gets to the point where even her last safe place, her writing, is poisoned. There were moments when I thought to myself, "If I read all of this painful stuff and there's no happy ending, I am going to be so mad."

But there is a happy ending. As well as a really sweet, lovely, so charming romance. And Cath gets to find out, at the end of the day, that she's fine just as she is. Time happens. Change happens. Some of it hurts. But she's good.

Note: I received a free copy of this book through the the Amazon Vine program.

Also note: I follow Rainbow Rowell on Twitter & Tumblr. That's why I requested the book--I like her social media voice quite a bit. This also meant that I'd seen a fair bit of Fangirl fan-art before I started the book, & it turns out they should have come with a spoiler alert. I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn't known what to expect, but I certainly enjoyed it anyhow.

Review: The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith

R. Lee Smith's books are not for everyone. They're full of extreme situations and tend to provoke extreme reactions--maybe you love it, maybe you hate it. This was my sixth R. Lee Smith book, and I'm firmly in the 'love it' camp. But if you're sensitive to sexual violence or violence in general--if you don't like morally grey, slightly terrifying heroes--you're more likely to fall into the 'hate it' camp.

So. The Last Hour of Gann.

It starts with our heroine, Amber, on a dystopian Earth where space travel has just reached the point of being commercialized. Her Earth-life is pretty rough, and the risk of signing onto the first space colony as an indentured worker seems worth the cash reward she'll claim...if she comes back alive.

Well, the space jaunt doesn't go as planned. The ship veers off course and, while the passengers are in stasis, travels for hundreds of years before crashing on Gann. The ship explodes. Most of the passengers die. A rag-tag band of fifty humans find themselves in a survival situation on a wrecked planet where the sun is a smudge in the sky and winter is coming.

The first half of the book is about how the survivors cope. How they band together. How they cling to lies that give them hope. And how they pick one person to soak up all their frustrations. A scapegoat who, by absorbing all that anger, greases the wheels for everyone else.

That person is Amber.

Amber knows she's never going to be the favorite. She knows she's abrasive, foul-mouthed, a bit of a downer. She tries to compensate: to do more than her fair share of work, and ask for less than her fair share of the comforts. She tries and tries and tries. It doesn't matter.

I don't think I've ever read a better portrayal of what it's like to be disliked. The itchy rage. How swallowing her resentment, letting it simmer silently beneath the surface, makes everyone hate Amber more--because they can sense it, and it's not fun.

The other survivors are caricatures. They reminded me at times of whack-a-moles. Bumbling from one delusion to another, telling themselves ridiculous stories until reality intervenes and they have to retreat and reformulate. Then they pop up again, just as crazy as before.

But it didn't matter that the other survivors are caricatures, because Amber is so real. I don't know about you, but every time I've been in a small, isolated group it divided this way. I've been part of the in group, sincerely hating the odd man out. I've been the odd man out. It's horrible, and Amber's awareness of the others--the way they become a sort of barrage, a pelting, a trial--rang absolutely true to me.

So these humans are slowly dying in an alien wilderness when (about 20% of the way through) they discover that they've crashed into a planet with sentient, humanoid life-forms. Lizard-men, or dinosaurs, to be exact.

Of course, we've known about the lizard people all along, because we've been following our hero, Meoraq, from the beginning. He's a warrior-priest in a world where there's nothing better than to be a warrior-priest. In exchange for traveling from city to city engaging in gladiatorial battles-to-the-death, he gets to enjoy all the luxuries his medieval-esque world has to offer: hospitality, material goods, and women.

His encounters with women are brief, highly structured, and mutually unsatisfying. The women are forced (by family, by low status, by barrenness) to accept the advances of a stranger. And Meoraq--the stranger in question--believes he's doing God's work.

He doesn't like it. He doesn't like a lot of things about the way his society is organized. But he's a warrior-priest and he believes that God wants things exactly as they are. So he doesn't ask questions. He just performs his role to the best of his ability.

When Meoraq meets the human survivors, he's on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Xi’Matezh. He believes that God put them in his path as a test, so he takes up the job of teaching them to survive on Gann.

As it happens, however, only Amber is interested in learning to survive on Gann. Only Amber has faced up to the fact that they're never, ever getting back to Earth. So Amber is the only human who latches on to Meoraq. She learns his language, and anything he'll teach her about his world.

The others prefer to wait for Meoraq to feed them. And then complain that maybe he hasn't done a good enough job. And then joke about how he's ugly and probably stupid, more like a dog than a person.

That's how the romance starts. Amber and Meoraq are thrown together, each for their separate reasons shouldering the thankless--truly thankless--task of keeping the human survivors alive.

Meoraq discovers that despite a lifetime of being told that the pinnacle of feminine perfection lies in silence and obedience, really, what he prefers is a foul-mouthed, disrespectful woman who knows her own mind. And he eventually--conveniently?--comes to the conclusion that God sent Amber to him as a wife.

Amber, who's spent her entire life caring for other people, finds in Meoraq someone who will care for her. When Amber is sick, Meoraq tends her. When she's exhausted, he picks up the slack--or pushes her to dig into her reserves.

Normally I'm not a fan when heroines turn weepy, but with Amber it was beautiful. We've seen how tough she can be. We know that she can suck it up, adapt and make-do. We know she'd keep on keepin' on, if she had to. When she finally lets down her guard, it was such a relief. I knew how much she had bottled inside. I knew how much she had to trust Meoraq before she could uncork that bottle and face her own emotions.

Anyway. Lots of stuff happens and I don't want to spoil any more than I already have. Amber and Meoraq find one another, and then they're tested. Personally, I preferred the first half to the second half--I thought it was tighter and more natural. But I was glued to the page from beginning to end, and I found the conclusion satisfying.

One thing I like about R. Lee Smith's books is that she often sets up a kind of culture clash. The collision highlights where each faction has gone wrong, sickened or failed. That's exactly what happens in The Last Hour of Gann. Meoraq's world is medieval-esque. Amber's is modern. Both are broken.

The question is whether Amber and Meoraq, seeing the best in one another, can change anyone else.


Now, Voyager

Have you heard of Now, Voyager? It's a classic Bette Davis film from 1942. I learned about it for the first time at a writing seminar, which highlighted the interplay between Bette Davis' personal growth story and her romance. It took almost two years to work its way to the top of my Netflix queue, but now I've seen it I thought it was awful. So, apologies to all who love it. And also: beware spoilers. If you want to see the movie with fresh eyes, look away and come back later.

Our protagonist is Charlotte, an adult woman who lives with her tyrannical mother. The mother constantly criticizes Charlotte, forces her to wear dowdy clothes and forbids beauty treatments that might enhance Charlotte's appearance.

We come to understand that Charlotte's mother is terrified of being alone, and that she keeps Charlotte under her thumb -- unhappy, unmarried -- to keep her close. But Charlotte is miserable, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The breakdown provokes an intervention. Charlotte is shipped off to a sanatarium, but a good sanatarium. A wonderful, caring doctor gives her just what she needs: a safe space, a room of her own, time. Charlotte blossoms. Of course, the movie communicates this via a makeover, when she loses lots of weight and trashes her spectacles in order to emerge from her cocoon a beautiful, Bette Davis butterfly.

When Charlotte's stay at the sanatarium ends, the doctor arranges for her to take a long cruise to South America. That's where she meets Jerry Durance (Paul Henreid), and where the movie starts to go wrong for me.

Jerry is a married man. That doesn't stop him from flirting with Charlotte, who's quite  vulnerable. She feels like a sham, like her transformation is skin deep, and occasionally reverts to the damaged, worthless-feeling 'maiden aunt' she'd believed herself to be for so long. So...that's red flag #1. Married guy who hits on vulnerable woman? Not cool.

But Jerry is pretty sweet. He sticks by Charlotte even after she reveals that she's been at the sanatarium, and tells her about his own troubles. You see, poor Jerry is stuck with an awful shrew of a wife, whom he stands by only to be near his beloved daughter, Tina. That's red flag #2: married guy who blames all his problems on his wife, and doesn't really want to be with her, but he has no choice, see?

Then Jerry shows Charlotte a family photo, and we get our first taste of red flag #3: Tina reminds Charlotte of herself. So, yeah, #3: our hero is hitting on an adult version of his own daughter.

Eventually, alas, the cruise ends and Charlotte has to go home. She leaves total-winner Jerry and reunites with her mother, who disapproves of Charlotte's progress. Mother wants Charlotte to get back into the dowdy clothes, to let her eyebrows grow furry, to live, once again, at her mother's beck and call. Charlotte stands her ground. She settles further into her new identity while continuing to honor and care for her mother. It's wonderful.

Now, you could view Now, Voyager as a movie about Charlotte's personal growth, vis a vis  her relationship with her mother. You could read her romance as secondary, proof that Charlotte is attractive but not needy, capable of forming relationships and choosing to maintain her hard-won independence.

That's probably the best way to see the movie. But not, I think, the most correct way.

We never meet Jerry's wife. But the movie reminds us, again and again, that Jerry's wife and Charlotte's mother are alike. Both are oppressive, tyrannical killjoys. Charlotte's mother stood in the way of romance for Charlotte in the past; Jerry's wife stands between Jerry and Charlotte in the present.

So all of our aggression toward Jerry's absent wife is redirected to Charlotte's mother. She's a double villain, a flesh and blood oppressor but also an effigy. And she reflects back her own qualities onto the wife we never meet: she's an old crone, no longer a sexual being. Our dislike of Charlotte's mother absolves Charlotte & Jerry of guilt.

Just when we expect Jerry's wife to die, to clear the way for a happily ever after, Charlotte's mother dies instead. That frees Charlotte, now a wealthy woman to pursue her own goals. She decides to invest in the sanatarium where she healed. She plans a visit, and soon takes a young girl under her wing -- a girl that reminds her very much of herself.

Tina. You guessed that the girl is Tina, right? Jerry's daughter? Because Jerry was so impressed by Charlotte's transformation that he sent his daughter there. Because he, too, really sees the similarities between them. And wants to enhance them.

Charlotte and Tina grow close. So close that Charlotte invites Tina to call her by a pet name. The very same pet name that Jerry chose for her, back on the cruise. Which is gross.

Somehow, Jerry isn't freaked out when he finds out that his ex-mistress has taken a very active interest in mothering his daughter. And he doesn't sue the sanatarium, which has permitted Charlotte to assume the role of a nurse without doing any of the training.

For a while, Charlotte and Jerry conduct their relationship though Tina. She passes messages between them, adorably unaware that her father & her substitute mother are in love. When Charlotte and Jerry finally reunite, Tina crosses the distance between them, radiant in her own make-over scene. Tina in her new dress, spectacles gone, echoes the scene when we first saw Charlotte fresh from her cocoon on the cruise, on the verge of meeting Jerry.

Charlotte and Jerry fight over whether or not Charlotte gets to keep Tina -- the absent wife doesn't object, allowing Tina to serve as the glue that binds Charlotte and Jerry, making them a family in fact if not in name.

So, really, it's a movie about adultery and incest. The wife/mother is evil. A post-menopausal crone stands in for both, allowing us to guiltlessly root for the adulterous couple. The daughter and the heroine are collapsed; they bloom under the care of the father/lover.

And the father/lover, Jerry, is a total creep! He's a manipulative jerk, and he pulls one douche move after another. First he hits on Charlotte when she's vulnerable. Then he gets her drunk and canoodles with her. He sends her flowers to keep his memory alive after they break up, but when he visits Boston, where she lives, he doesn't make contact for months. When she gets engaged, slipping out of his grasp, Jerry stages a dramatic exit -- making sure to tell her which train station he's calling from, for maximum disruptive potential. Plus, you know, he's married with kids.

Now, Voyager started strong but ended up not working for me at all. I hated Jerry. I found Tina's role creepy. And while I rooted for Charlotte, I wished she'd ended up anywhere else.

On Plotting, and Movies

So I've been plotting out my new novel -- working title The Last Man On Earth. I've had a general idea what it's going to be about for months, and I've finally begun to hammer those general notions into a specific, step-by-step progression of scenes. And I've been watching a few movies. I streamed a couple of Isabelle Huppert movies, because my goal for the new heroine is to craft a character that Isabelle Huppert could play. She might be my favorite actress ever, partly because she plays such complicated, often savage roles -- she's played Medea, the child killer, and Madame Bovary. She played the titular protagonist of The Piano Teacher, whose uptight, cultivated facade hides a core of unhinged savagery, a nymphomaniac nun in Amateur, a matriarch and murderess in Merci pour le chocolat.

So I watched two movies last weekend:

White Material, about a white family driven off of their coffee plantation in the midst of a civil war in an unnamed African state. Huppert runs the plantation with her ex-husband, his father, and their son. The ex-husband has an exit plan; the son is very much the product of his upbringing, which is to say he's a nightmare; the father is too old to change; Huppert's character digs in and refuses to flee. She is unashamed and unafraid, when she ought to be both.

I really liked White Material. I think it's worth a watch. Not a fun movie, but a good one. It's a very tightly focused film, very controlled. While the pacing felt leisurely, in retrospect the movie doesn't contain a single wasted moment. The militia converges on the plantation, the family self-destructs, and it all leads to a final climactic scene.

And then Special Practice/Ni Tete Ni Queue, in which Huppert plays a prostitute who hires herself out to a psychoanalyst. The movie parallels their two professions, suggesting a host of similarities. The role is ideal for Huppert, who has the opportunity to dress up in various costumes, to wield a knife, to indulge in hysterics, and to smoke pensively on her balcony.

My verdict? Eh. Whatever. Huppert is always worth watching, but the movie meanders. While it has a point, the story is tissue-thin, the resolution is weak, and the ending abrupt.

I watched those two more or less 'for research' - to help wrap my mind around this new character that I'm creating. But I also watched a couple of movies for fun. Namely:

Beasts of the Southern Wild, about a young girl, Hushpuppy, growing up in the Louisiana bayou. I guess I'd call it a coming of age story, though Hushpuppy is much too young for it. But she has no choice in the matter -- the arrival of a massive storm in the bayou forces change on her community, while personal devastation leaves Hushpuppy with only one way forward: to rise up on her own two feet.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is part fantasy. Hushpuppy is young enough that she doesn't differentiate entirely between the life of her imagination and the real world. Events are reinterpreted in her mind as fantastical happenings or take on mythic overtones. But the touch of pure fantasy doesn't keep this movie from feeling grounded, authentic, and real.

The last movie I'll mention is Pitch Perfect, about a pair of rival college a capella groups. This sucker is, in contrast to the other three, very tightly plotted and immensely entertaining. There's the rival-groups plot, with a structure familiar to anyone who's watched a season of Glee -- the underdog must clear the hurdles of two successive competitions to reach the final round where they face off against the more polished, more successful rival in the ultimate sing-off. The protagonist, played by Anna Kendrick, must overcome a series of personal obstacles before she can successfully helm the group and lead them to victory.

This is the movie that got me thinking. Because although Pitch Perfect's plot is by far the most plausible -- these competitions really exist, and college freshmen often do spend that first year on campus struggling to belong and achieve -- it felt the most artificial.

So I got to thinking: tight plotting reads as artificial.

Artificial does not mean bad. The finale of Pitch Perfect is the most satisfying of the lot, because it resolves so many plot threads at once -- it marks the protagonist's social, romantic, familial and artistic victory. It is both deeply nostalgic and fresh. It ends on a musical number and makes you feel great.

But in order to achieve so much in a short period of time, the scenes are compressed. There's no time for chitchat, no tangents. At least half the characters are familiar types that we can understand without much exposition, tweaked a bit for interest, with the glossy appearance of depth rather than real three-dimensionality.

Both White Material and Beasts of the Southern Wild disguise their artificiality. The scenes are longer and less obviously purposeful. They only appear functional in retrospect, when you sit down to dissect the plot. The viewer isn't constantly cued about how far they've come along a familiar story arc, or reminded what conclusion they should be rooting for. The stories feel, as a result, less directed and more surprising. Less artificial, more lifelike.

The dud of the lot, Special Practice/Ni Tete Ni Queue, feels highly artificial and goes nowhere.

Since I am staring down at the bones of my story, unfleshed and undisguised, this struck me as a useful metric. I think part of what readers want from a genre story is, in fact, the artificial feel. The reassurance of being directed, the familiarity of a story arc, the promise of a resolution. Things need to move quickly enough that the reader feels on track.

I think plenty of genre readers appreciate a lean, well-told story that hits its marks and takes its bow. I do, even though that's not not what I write. The take-home point for me is that even if the added elements, the layers, don't feel purposeful, they must be purposeful. There's no room for real excess.

On the other hand, a story that feels real and offers surprises is doing good work, even at the expense of ultra-tight plotting.

Top Ten for 2012

It's year-end list time & I'll contribute with my top ten favorite reads of 2012. Not necessarily published this year, but discovered & loved by me since January 1, 2012. Presented in alphabetical order:

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore - Kristin Cashore is one of those authors who just works for me. Everything she writes, everything about her writing. She's the preacher, I'm the choir. I loved Graceling so much I didn't think Cashore would be able to top it -- but what makes the Seven Kingdoms books so amazing is that she didn't try to hit the same bull's eye over and over again. She built different targets and took fresh aim; Fire and Bitterblue are so different from Graceling and from one another.

Bitterblue is the most ambitious of the three; it's less perfect than Graceling, which plucked every string of my heart and left me in a swoon, but also bigger. It tackles bigger issues in a more nuanced way; it places the heroine in an impossible situation where escape is failure, and her goal is incremental change rather than success.

As an unpublished author, the story of how Bitterblue was written -- outlined with photographs in this post  -- is pretty inspiring.

The Information by James Gleik - An excellent book that shows the extent to which how we think affects what we think; that the methods of communication available to us (speaking; writing; the telegraph; the internet) mold and shape our view of the world, ourselves, everything.

This is another pet subject of mine -- I love thinking about how the medium affects the message (and the messenger), and discussions of how we offload parts of our brain onto the material world -- and this book is the best treatment of it I've run across since a favorite volume that Gleik cites in his first chapter, Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy.

Riveting, entertaining, thought-provoking. Give the first chapter, about African talking drums, a try. It totally hooked me.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant - Hands down the best historical romance I read this year, the best straight-up genre romance I read this year, and then, of course, just plain one of the best books I read this year. I explain why I loved it so much in my review, so I won't go over all the reasons again.

I read the second in Grant's Blackshear Family series, A Gentleman Undone, and admired it on its own but also as a companion piece to A Lady Awakened - the two books are mirror images of one another, stand-alone romances that are nonetheless more satisfying read in combination than in isolation. A good example for other romance writers who want to create series that are more than the sum of their parts.

Dirty by Megan Hart - Dirty was a revelation to me. It was the first, but not the last, erotic romance I read this year and showed me that erotic romance provides a really different set of narrative possibilities than the mainstream offerings. Dirty contains very explicit sex scenes, it's about the early stages of a relationship, and it closes on a positive note, but Dirty is pretty much never romantic.

It's darker and grittier than most romances, and even at the end the heroine's ability to trust and commit is uncertain. It's also beautifully written.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman - The word that comes to mind when I think of Seraphina is sublime. This YA fantasy is set in a sort of...late-medieval/early-Renaisance world and the heroine is a musician. It's a story about the clash of cultures (dragon vs human, in this case) and all the ugliness of war and prejudice are here, in an unstable peace treaty and everyday acts of violence, but what I remember most is the exquisite, gothic-cathedral perfection of Hartman's pantheon of saints, the way Seraphina is transported by music, the joyful strangeness of her garden of grotesqueries. The prose is exquisite, too, and it contains a very lovely romance.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq - Houellebecq is one of my favorite authors, partly because every one of his books builds on his previous work in such interesting ways. I adored The Possibility of an Island and, perhaps, he couldn't get any more Houellebecquian than he did in that book with its definitive mix of brilliance and guttermouth filth, of pulp and erudition, of critique and fantasy. I call him post-individualist.

In any case, The Map and the Territory went in a different direction - he tackled the myth he's created of himself by making himself a major character & did so with, of all things, a wicked sense of humor. The book is overtly about making art, in isolation and in the spotlight, and about the experience of fame, which he seems to have finally grown comfortable with. It's amazing and thoughtful and way, way less virulently misanthropic than his earlier books (despite the fact that the main characters are still misanthropic loners).

Adrien English series by Josh Lanyon - I love a good mystery/romance series, and I loved Adrien English in particular for the dexterity of Lanyon's writing. I took a photography course back in college, long ago enough that we spent as much time learning to develop pictures in a darkroom as learning to take them. One thing my professor said that's stuck with me is that one indicator of a well-shot black and white picture is that it contains the whole range of shades from pure white to pure black. A lot of writers tend to get stuck on one side of the scale; light and funny or dark and angsty, but Lanyon's books hit every shade on the scale. As a character, the titular hero Adrien is good-natured and witty but also sensitive and frail, and Lanyon's prose can switch gears from invisible to lush at the drop of a hat.

The Adrien English books also pulled m/m (male/male) books out of the ghetto for me, which has led to a whole slew of other wonderful discoveries.

Captive Prince by S.U. Pacat - For example! Captive Prince is not a published book (yet). It is free online fiction and if I had to pick an overall favorite among the books I've read this year, it might win the top slot. It is, hands down, the best enemies-to-lovers romance I have ever read. And enemies-to-lovers is just about my favorite trope.

If you want to know why it's so great, check out this post that the author wrote for Anna Cowan & accept my assurance that the author understands tension because she executes it so perfectly in her books. Or just read Captive Prince. I think the beginning is a little rough but the first two volumes are complete and, by the end, I was book-drunk in a way that doesn't happen all that often anymore.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio - Most of these books arrived on my list thanks to a home-team advantage, as it were. I was already a fan of Cashore's prose and world; of Houellebecq; of mystery/romance series; of enemies-to-lovers; of information theory. Wonder is the exception. It hits none of my buttons. I do not seek out middle-grade books. I do not like 'issue books'. And yet I loved Wonder; it made me cry happy tears and it stunned me as an authorial tour de force.

R.J. Palacio's prose is simple. The chapters are short and straightforward. Really, this is a book for kids. And yet it is ultimately so complex, so nuanced, so open-hearted and generous. It's the multiple points-of-view that made the book for me, along with how effortlessly Auggie holds center stage.

Ember by Bettie Sharpe - And now we arrive at a book that didn't just push all my buttons - it mashed at them with a sledgehammer. It's an Angela Carter-esque erotic retelling of Cinderella that reimagines Cinderella as a black witch, Charming as a cursed prince, and the evil step-mother and step-sisters as cunning prostitutes. It picks up every element you remember from the Disney movie and either inverts, subverts, or perverts it.

It's perfect.