Ren reviews Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

This novel was a delight. I’m a big fan of Welcome to Night Vale, and so I was over the moon to discover that creator Joseph Fink had written a book about a trucker in search of her missing-presumed-dead wife. I expected dark wit. I expected oddities galore. I expected to laugh. And while I did experience all of those things while reading this book, it quickly revealed itself to be much more than a lighthearted stroll through the Sci-Fi Woods.

Keisha Taylor is looking for her wife, Alice. Alice – as the title suggests – is not dead. She works for an organization that kills mostly-boneless creatures called Thistle Men, who hunt gleefully in the name of Terrible Freedom. Believing that the Thistle Men may use Keisha as a weapon against her, Alice leads Keisha to believe that she’s dead (for her own good, of course). Keisha is pretty mad when she figures this all out.

It’s a cliché to be sure, but the rest of the book is so good, I was able to let it slide.

Keisha meets her first Thistle Man in a diner. He attacks a man in broad daylight, takes a bite out of him, and no one – Keisha aside – seems to find this strange. When she picks up a teenage hitchhiker named Sylvia (who has own tragic backstory involving the Thistle Men), the two of them band together to unravel the mystery of the creatures and put an end to them. There is a war going on in plain sight, and only a select few can see it. Androgynous oracles watch from the corners. A shadowy woman whispers in ears and urges acts of violence. The book burns slowly and paints a nightmare of Things That Go Bump in the Night; along the way, it threads in painful themes of entitlement and unfounded hatred that send the reader’s mind sharply back into the worst parts of our present world.

This was a system of violence and laws that protected Thistle from the likes of her, five foot three, a gash down her chest, and a constant fear she wouldn’t recognize a heart attack if it came because it would feel like her panic attacks.

Keisha’s anxiety is another point of note. The story is told mostly through her perspective, and she is honest and frank about the many ways in which her anxiety affects her. She holds conversations with strangers – both dangerous and otherwise – in a manner which appears outwardly calm despite the fact that internally, she’s fighting (fighting to breathe and fighting to stay still and fighting to maintain her grip on the façade of normal). Even the bad guys can’t understand how they can look her in the eye and not see fear. And Keisha’s answer simple.

You’ve got me really wrong, Officer Whatever. I’m always afraid. Life makes me afraid. And if I’m already afraid of life, then what are you?

There are several books – many of them reviewed on this site – to which I owe a debt, because they aided in my unlearning in regards to being queer. They gave me strong, funny women in stable relationships with strong, funny women. They introduced me to the concept of chosen families. And as a child who always found it easiest to relate to fictional characters, I saw people living happy lives and realised queerness was not synonymous with limitation. An ache in my chest eased – an ache I had been carrying for so long, I had no memory of its appearance. It was liberating, and the way Keisha’s anxiety is written in this book is the closest I have come to feeling anything akin to that since.

She considered that anxiety was irrational, and listening to it was like listening to a child. It’s not that they are never right. It’s that the correct info is mixed in with a lot of imaginary things, and, like a child, anxiety can’t tell the difference between the two.

She was always afraid but she did what she needed to do.

Make me more afraid. I’m not afraid of feeling afraid. Make me more afraid.

Oftentimes the anxiety hinders her, but in this story of cannibal Thistle Men and government conspiracies and First Evils, there are times when it makes her powerful. Keisha’s anxiety is as much a part of her as her physical body, and she learns it can occasionally be used as a weapon. The ending comes and goes without Keisha’s anxiety being ‘cured,’ for which I am appreciative.

This book is full of twists and turns, and it offers monsters, action, a sprinkling of romance and a great deal of heart.

Kelley O’Brien reviews Camp Rewind by Meghan O’Brien

I’ve been excited to read Meghan O’Brien’s Camp Rewind since I first read the synopsis last year. A book about two women of color dealing with very real and contemporary problems like social anxiety and online harassment and misogyny? Sign me right up!

Despite my excitement for the book, it somehow got pushed back due to my own real world problems. But when I found that I had a few Audible credits to use up, I grabbed the chance to listen to a good book.

It’s been a while since I’ve listen to a book because I’ve lost some of my hearing and can only listen in quiet rooms. However, I had a really great experience listening to Camp Rewind and might just give it another listen again soon.

Alice Wu and Rosa Salazar meet at the titular Camp Rewind, a camp for adults who want to unwind for the weekend. However, the heroines both have other reasons for being there. Alice has extreme social anxiety and wishes to expand her social circle, so she applies for camp at her therapist’s request. Rosa, however, just wants to forget who she is for a little while after publishing an article about a video game that some men took offence to and decided to ruin her life over. The two meet and connect right away, entering into a “what happens at camp stays at camp” sort of relationship. Soon, they must deal with feelings that weren’t supposed to happen.

I should probably warn that this book contains a lot of sex. It’s all very well-written and didn’t feel out of place to me, especially given the way O’Brien describes their connection and Alice’s desire to finally be with a woman and her finally coming out as a lesbian.

There is also a lot of pot smoking and mentions of rape threats and other threats of violence against women, though I don’t recall it going into too much detail.

Alice and Rosa fall for each other very quickly in the novel, which might be a genuine concern for some. However, it felt organic to me. They were exactly what the other needed. Not that they needed to be in a relationship to grow as people, but that they needed someone to support them and be there for them, something they each lacked in their lives.

As someone with anxiety, I can honestly say that O’Brien does a great job crafting a mentally ill character. Alice never overcomes her anxiety. It’s always still there, even when she’s pushing herself to be braver, to do things that scare her because she wants to help or to be with Rosa. The relationship doesn’t magically cure Alice of being mentally ill. She still has her bad days and is a work in progress.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is O’Brien’s feminist critique of online harassment, particularly towards women in gaming and the men who disagree with and subsequently harass them. She doesn’t get too preachy about her opinion of them. She doesn’t have to, letting it show through Rosa’s character and the growth she experiences as someone who lets herself believe she isn’t worthy of love and affection to someone that embraces it.

If you enjoy books about characters who are allowed the room to grow and develop, books about women of color who are given agency, books with delightful side characters, and books with feminist themes, I highly recommend giving Camp Rewind a shot.