My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell ~ Review

vanessa
My Dark Vanessa
by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: March 10, 2020

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of RoomMy Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

ratingfive

My Dark Vanessa successfully walks a very delicate balance, managing to fully embody the mind of a teenage girl romanticizing her relationship with a grown man without straying into the territory of the narrative itself endorsing that mindset. Vanessa, like most 15-year-olds, believes herself to be wise beyond her years. The novel, which takes place in two timelines 17 years apart, delves into Vanessa’s experience with her teacher while she was still in the thick of it, as well as her much more complicated feelings about it years down the line.

I can imagine that a lot of readers will find Vanessa difficult to love, and I honestly think this is a testament to how well she is written. This is such a raw exploration of the ways trauma can impact a person, and that’s not always easy to look at. Spiraling into depression can leave people dealing with substance abuse, feeling too emotionally drained to do something as simple as washing the dishes, and lashing out at people who don’t deserve it. Vanessa is defensive and angry and messy, and she has every right to be these things. If she’d grown up without any of these qualities, it may have been a feel-good story about overcoming adversity, but it would not have felt real.

The incorporation of the #metoo movement could have easily felt like a cheap attempt to make the novel feel timely, but it was incorporated into the book so extremely well and brought up uncomfortable questions about speaking up. In the face of a worldwide movement bringing down predators like Harvey Weinstein, what does this mean for victims who cannot or will not speak up, especially for those who live with the knowledge that the person who victimized them went on to do it to others? Do we place an unfair sense of culpability on the shoulders of women and girls dealing with the aftermath of a trauma?

My Dark Vanessa is such a solid exploration of all the nuance that can come with topics as sensitive as consent, agency, and sexual assault. Please be aware, however, this can be an extremely difficult book to read. Content warning for graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.buy

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Review – Vox, by Christina Dalcher

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Vox
by Christina Dalcher

Genre: Dystopian

Length: 326 Pages

Release date: August 21, 2018

Publisher: Berkley

Synopsis:

Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial—this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice

rating

three

I wonder what the other women do. How they cope. Do they still find something to enjoy? Do they love their husbands in the same way? Do they hate them, just a little bit?

Vox is a dystopian novel in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale which blends the personal and the political. Set in an America which has been taken over by hyper-conservative extremists, women are no longer allowed to work, and they are forced to wear word counters which administer painful electric shocks if they go over their allotted 100 daily words.

I originally reviewed this book not long after starting my blog, and my reading habits have changed a lot since then; I think a lot of that has to do with twice monthly book club meetings and getting into the habit of engaging with the media I consume on a deeper level in order to discuss it. I don’t normally revisit books I’ve already reviewed, but when Vox was chosen as this month’s book, I knew before picking it up that my feelings would be a lot different this time, and I thought it may be interesting to talk about.

The biggest issue I have upon rereading Vox is simply that so many aspects of it seem to be under-developed, most glaringly some of the world building aspects. When you write a dystopia set in the near future, you’re asking a lot from your readers in terms of suspension of disbelief, and it needs to be backed up with a solid sense in the text of how we got there.

Comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale are inevitable with a novel like this, and I think this is one thing that separates them. THT got us to a dystopia really rapidly, but it took a terrorist attack that took out much of the United States’ leadership in one fell swoop to do it. In the face of that level of chaos, it’s easy to see how things could go very wrong, very quickly. Having read Vox twice now, I still don’t feel I have a good grasp of how things descended to the point of half the population receiving electric shocks for the “crime” of using more than 100 words per day.

A lot of the characters feel similarly underdeveloped. While we’re very limited in terms of development for female characters aside from the  protagonist due to the 100 words per day limit, there seems to be little excuse for how one-dimensional the male characters feel. This makes it very difficult to feel emotionally invested in any of the story.

I’ve laid out a lot of criticism here, but there truly were aspects of this novel that I enjoyed. The story was paced well, and it was easy to tear through the whole thing because I needed to see what happened next. On a certain level, I think the novel would have worked better if it were more geared towards the mystery/suspense genre, vs. the piece of feminist dystopian literature that it tries and fails to be.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read Vox? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
What’s your favorite novel with feminist themes? Let’s discuss!

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Book Rec ~ Salt Slow, by Julia Armfield

Salt Slow
by Julia Armfield

Coming October 8, 2019

This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.

From the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018, salt slow is an extraordinary collection of short stories that are sure to dazzle and shock.

 

I rated this book 4.5/5 stars. The writing is visceral, magical, and sometimes horrifying. You can read my full review over at The Girly Book Club’s website!

❤️ Jenna

Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, by Donna Freitas (Review)

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Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention
by Donna Freitas

Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: August 13, 2019

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Synopsis: 

Donna Freitas has lived two lives. In one life, she is a well-published author and respected scholar who has traveled around the country speaking about Title IX, consent, religion, and sex on college campuses. In the other, she is a victim, a woman who suffered and suffers still because she was stalked by her graduate professor for more than two years.

As a doctoral candidate, Freitas loved asking big questions, challenging established theories and sinking her teeth into sacred texts. She felt at home in the library, and safe in the book-lined offices of scholars whom she admired. But during her first year, one particular scholar became obsessed with Freitas’ academic enthusiasm. He filled her student mailbox with letters and articles. He lurked on the sidewalk outside her apartment. He called daily and left nagging voicemails. He befriended her mother, and made himself comfortable in her family’s home. He wouldn’t go away. While his attraction was not overtly sexual, it was undeniably inappropriate, and most importantly–unwanted.

In Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, Donna Freitas delivers a forensic examination of the years she spent stalked by her professor, and uses her nightmarish experience to examine the ways in which we stigmatize, debate, and attempt to understand consent today.

rating

four

My thanks to Little, Brown and Company for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Consent was a difficult read in some respects; it was difficult to see the author recount her trauma, but more than that, it was difficult to think about the excuses she internally made for her stalker before things escalated out of control. Most women have been there, with varying degrees of severity. (Maybe he doesn’t realize he’s being inappropriate? Maybe I’m being overly sensitive and he’s not actually being inappropriate at all? Maybe I said/did/wore something that made him think this behavior would be welcome?)

This memoir is a an engrossing exploration of blurry lines of consent and the harassers who rely on plausible deniability to get away with their behavior. Donna Freitas was an enthusiastic student who loved getting to know her professors. This is probably part of why it took her a while to see that her abuser’s intentions were less than innocent. But a large part of this was probably also due to the professor’s intentionally chipping away at boundaries slowly, so as to acclimate his target to his attentions. By the time things escalated to the point that Freitas felt the need to get outside help, she’d already been in over her head for quite some time. The memoir does an excellent job of illuminating the process abusers of all sorts often use on those they target; things start small and often escalate slowly, all while the victim is questioning whether they’re crazy to feel uncomfortable at every step.

While this was at times an emotionally taxing read, I definitely recommend it to fans of memoirs and feminist works. The author’s exploration of consent, gaslighting, trauma, and institutions that shield powerful men from consequences are all important and timely.

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Whisper Network, by Chandler Baker (Review)


Whisper Network
by Chandler Baker

Genre: Fiction, Mystery

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: July 2, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

Four women learn their boss (a man who’s always been surrounded by rumors about how he treats women) is next in line to be CEO—what will happen when they decide enough is enough?

Sloane, Ardie, Grace, and Rosalita are four women who have worked at Truviv, Inc., for years. The sudden death of Truviv’s CEO means their boss, Ames, will likely take over the entire company. Ames is a complicated man, a man they’ve all known for a long time, a man who’s always been surrounded by…whispers. Whispers that have always been ignored by those in charge. But the world has changed, and the women are watching Ames’s latest promotion differently. This time, they’ve decided enough is enough.

Sloane and her colleagues set in motion a catastrophic shift within every floor and department of the Truviv offices. All four women’s lives—as women, colleagues, mothers, wives, friends, even adversaries—will change dramatically as a result.

“If only you had listened to us,” they tell us on page one, “none of this would have happened.”

ratingfour

My thanks to Flatiron Books for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

When I saw Whisper Network described as essentially a mystery novel for the #metoo era, I was super intrigued but also a little wary. I think with books that seem very timely, there’s always the risk that they’ll come across opportunistic and insincere. Not so with Whisper Network, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise of a novel.

An undercurrent of whispers in the corporate world comes to a head when the sudden death of Truviv’s CEO leaves one infamously badly behaved higher up in the company poised to take over. The story takes place mainly in one timeline as tension is mounting, with hints at the disaster to come shown in the form of police interviews after the fact. (Think Big Little Lies style snippets, giving you tiny bits of information at at a time.)

Of the four main characters mentioned in the synopsis, Sloane and Roselita seemed to be the best developed. I think the sheer number of POV characters is part of what kept this from hitting a full five stars for me. I understand why the author made the choices she did, as she was trying to weave together a lot of secrets and personal histories, so this may be down to my own personal taste, as I generally like spending more time in a novel with one or two characters in order to really understand them. I would have liked a bit more focus on Sloane and Roselita, but your mileage may vary.

As a woman in a professional setting, there was something kind of cathartic about this novel, particularly certain sections which were written somewhat aside from the main narrative, and read almost like a plea directly to the reader, such as the following passage:

So when we said that we would prefer not to have to asked to smile on top of working, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to hear a comment about the length of our skirt, we meant that: we would like to of our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to have someone try to touch us in our office, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs. Please.

Every woman with a job, particularly those of us with already relatively high-stress jobs, can feel this in her bones. The frustration of having so much to deal with at work… and then having someone else’s inappropriate behavior thrown on top of it like the cherry on top of the sundae is just too real.

Baker has written several books prior to Whisper Network, but appears to have focused on the young adult genre. I think she’s starting to find her groove with her latest novel and I hope she comes out with more adult fiction in the future!

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It’s International Women’s Day!

Happy International Women’s Day, bookworms!

International Women’s Day is a day devoted to the women who have fought for women’s rights throughout history. In celebration of the holiday, I wanted to dedicate today’s post to some women who inspire me.

So let’s get right into it! In no particular order….

Malala Yousafzai

Malala’s fight for girls’ education worldwide speaks for itself. She almost paid the ultimate price for her activism, and it only made her more intent on achieving her goals. She said it best herself: “Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book.” If you haven’t read her memoir, I Am MalalaI highly recommend you check it out, even if you’re not really a memoir person.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

AOC made history as the youngest woman ever elected to congress, and her status as a newcomer has never made her hesitate to speak out in her new role. She went from bartender to congresswoman with a largely grassroots campaign and has since been a thorn in the side of government officials who are bought and paid for by large corporations. Here’s hoping she has a long political career ahead of her.

Katherine Johnson

After the release of Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson probably needs no introduction. Johnson worked for NASA and was instrumental in the development of successful space travel. She did all this while dealing with marginalization as a black woman entering a largely white male dominated work force in the 1950’s.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr is best known as an actress, but in recent years efforts have been made to bring to light the work she did in developing spread spectrum technology.  She did this in hopes of contributing to the US war effort in WWII, as it would provide a means of sending “unjammable” signals to missiles. The US government, unfortunately,  was not interested in her work… until the patent rant out, that is. Today, Lammar’s work provides the basis for a huge variety of wireless communication, from Wi-Fi to GPS and Bluetooth.

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a feminist writer who has been remarkably candid about her experience as a rape victim and body issues. If you’re not familiar with her work, I highly recommend her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, and her memoir, Hunger. (Gay has also written a bit of fiction, but admittedly I’m much more familiar with her nonfiction.)

Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher is obviously best known for her role as Princess Leia General Leia Organa, but that’s not why I love her. Fisher spent a great deal of her life speaking candidly about her struggles with mental health. The role such a high profile celebrity can have in reducing stigma around such issues is so important. No one is obligated to feel comfortable speaking about such struggles publicly, but I can’t say enough about how much it means to me that there have been people like Carrie who did.

J K Rowling

I’ll be honest and say I have some mixed feelings about this entry, given that Rowling has disappointed me a lot in recent years (and not just because Fantastic Beasts 2 was kind of a travesty) but if I’m being honest, J K Rowling’s influence on my childhood can’t be overstated. I was fully on board the Harry Potter bandwagon the moment the first book came out, and those stories are still near and dear to my heart. Hermione Granger helped me, an awkward, bookish little outcast, to feel like maybe there was nothing wrong with being me, and the underlying messages in the HP books about love and social justice are forever ingrained in my heart.

Thank you so much for reading! What women have inspired you? Let me know in the comments!

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Review – Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by Rebecca Traister


Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
by Rebecca Traister

Genre: Nonfiction, Feminism

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: October 2, 2018

Synopsis: 

From Rebecca Traister, the New York Times bestselling author of All the Single Ladies comes a vital, incisive exploration into the transformative power of female anger and its ability to transcend into a political movement.

In the year 2018, it seems as if women’s anger has suddenly erupted into the public conversation. But long before Pantsuit Nation, before the Women’s March, and before the #MeToo movement, women’s anger was not only politically catalytic—but politically problematic. The story of female fury and its cultural significance demonstrates the long history of bitter resentment that has enshrouded women’s slow rise to political power in America, as well as the ways that anger is received when it comes from women as opposed to when it comes from men.

With eloquence and fervor, Rebecca tracks the history of female anger as political fuel—from suffragettes marching on the White House to office workers vacating their buildings after Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Here Traister explores women’s anger at both men and other women; anger between ideological allies and foes; the varied ways anger is perceived based on its owner; as well as the history of caricaturing and delegitimizing female anger; and the way women’s collective fury has become transformative political fuel—as is most certainly occurring today. She deconstructs society’s (and the media’s) condemnation of female emotion (notably, rage) and the impact of their resulting repercussions.

Highlighting a double standard perpetuated against women by all sexes, and its disastrous, stultifying effect, Traister’s latest is timely and crucial. It offers a glimpse into the galvanizing force of women’s collective anger, which, when harnessed, can change history.

rating

five

On some level, if not intellectual then animal, there has always been an understanding of the power of women’s anger:that as an oppressed majority in the United States, women have long had within them the potential to rise up in fury, to take over a country in which they’ve never really been offered their fair or representative stake. Perhaps the reason that women’s anger is so broadly denigrated–treated as so ugly, so alienating, and so irrational–is because we have known all along that with it came the explosive power to upturn the very systems that have sought to contain it.

This book came onto my radar when the author, Rebecca Traister, appeared on The Daily Show this past November. I’ll embed it here, because I feel like the author does  a much better job of introducing her book than I can.

If I had to sum up this book in as few words as possible, I’d have to say “realistic yet optimistic.” Good and Mad seems to be equally devoted to outlining the struggles of women and as well as the historical and contemporary triumphs. The underlying message is that it’s daunting to try to enact change when the deck is stacked against you, and success is never guaranteed, but history has shown us over and over that it is possible.

Traister’s attention to intersectionality is very thorough, and she makes a point of outlining how race impacts how women experience sexism in varying circumstances throughout the book. This aspect of her writing feels particularly important when she is addressing large-scale protest movements. The 2016 election saw a large surge of white women with no prior experience in protest suddenly scrambling for a way to make our voices heard.

This is a positive thing, but we must also keep in mind that, for the black women who have been embroiled in social justice movements for years, they’re seeing a lot of people who are late to the party. (And before anyone tries to come after me in the comments, no, I’m not implying no white woman attended a protest prior to 2016. I’m a white woman and protested prior to 2016. The point here has to do with overall trends.) It’s amazing to see so many people inspired to become politically involved, but we must be mindful and look to those with actual experience for leadership.

Reading this book in the current political climate is kind of weirdly cathartic. Traister’s points are so well articulated, heartfelt, and unbelievably timely. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

“The old stiff minds must give way. The old selfish minds must go. Obstructive reactionaries must move on. The young are at the gates!”
-Lavinia Dock, “The Young Are At The Gates,” The Suffragist, June 30, 1917.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read Good and Mad? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
What are your GoodReads reading goals this year? Let’s discuss!

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