Who is Worthy of Survival at the End of the World? On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

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I want to preface this with that I read this for my Bi Book Club and it turns out the bisexual character is a supporting one, not the main one. So I will focus this review on that relationship.

This was a really good look into who gets to survive the apocalypse. It follows the story of a young autistic girl, Denise, doing everything she can to help her family live while still dealing with her sensory issues and working through her social behaviors. It makes you question the value put on humanity when the only thing valued is productivity and how much you can offer.

As Denise navigates the end of the world as they know it with a mother who struggles with substance abuse, she seeks to find her sister, Iris, lost amid the chaos. Iris is a bisexual transgender woman who, for the first half of the book, appears mostly in flashbacks as Denise remembers key points of her childhood.

Even as the world unravels due to natural disasters, Denise always remembers her sister and her role in getting Denise to where she is now. Memories show that when Iris first began recognizing herself as a girl and wanted to transition, she trusted her sister Denise as her first confidante. As children, they played a game where she “pretended to be a girl.” Duyvis presents a nuanced dynamic, as Denise struggles at first to understand this because often with autism, she has difficulty grasping concepts that are not literal. But as Iris gets older and explains what it means to be a transgender person, Denise comes to accept her sibling as her sister.

Iris gravitated toward a queer community in their home city in Amsterdam that she invited Denise to join and take part in to help her make friends. It’s this very community Iris sought to help and protect when the meteor hit Earth, leaving her separated from her mother and sister. While many people got to leave on generation ships to populate another planet, most were left behind to live on a destroyed Earth. Iris knew her community would be among the majority left behind.

Iris’s efforts to help the queer community rebuild and prepare for survival through mutual aid are a reflection of Denise’s struggle to make herself “useful” so she can be accepted aboard a generation ship. Iris recognized early on as a transgender individual on hormones, she wouldn’t qualify as a priority to bring on board a generation ship. She knew that others like her would get left behind and so she chose to stay and help them.

On the surface, this novel is a slow-build apocalypse, but look a little deeper and you will find it’s more about who is deemed worthy of survival.

Murder by Crowdfunding: Crowded Vol. 1 by Christopher Sebela et al.

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The Crowded comic book series tells the satirical story of a dystopian world not too far in the future where the gig economy has become unhinged. In this world, everything has a price, including putting out hits on someone’s life through an app called Reapr. Anyone can be a target and anyone can crowdfund a kill, and loopholes in technology laws make it easy to get away with it while law enforcement and government officials look the other way.

Following the antics of Charlie, the hit in question, and her hired protector, Vita, the story unfolds into outrageous mayhem. It all seems so farfetched, yet in light of our reality, perhaps it’s not too far off target. Live streamers become famous for their Reapr kills and their followers can become patrons of their feeds for exclusive content and other rewards.

The vibrant and oversaturated artwork lends itself well to the story and characters. It creates a sense of inauthenticity and fabrication that makes everyone so fake. It feels fitting that the story takes place in Los Angeles, infamous for being filled with disingenuous people. It also adds to the fast-paced action as Charlie and Vita fight their way out of sticky situations (caused by Charlie’s reckless choices).

Neither Charlie nor Vita are likable characters, but Charlie especially makes it hard to root for her as a heroine. Despite her constant careless behavior and terrible treatment of others, including her bodyguard Vita, she has moments of humanity and vulnerability that make you not want to give up on her. But much like Vita, you also can’t trust her. Their bickering dynamic points the story toward these two possibly getting together. However, the shared moments in this first volume feel forced, so it doesn’t seem like that relationship has been earned yet.

Charlie is openly and unapologetically bisexual. She has no problem talking about her many conquests, man and woman alike. There’s even a sequence at a club called Bifurious where the artwork is entirely done in “bisexual lighting” in case it hasn’t been made clear until then. She flirts shamelessly with Vita, which Vita doesn’t directly engage in at first, but she doesn’t discourage it either.

Vita is revealed to have had an ex-girlfriend in the police force, making her solidly sapphic. However, it hasn’t been made clear or stated outright that she is a lesbian. As the story progresses, she gets close to Charlie, and it’s hard to tell if she flirts with her client to gain her trust or if she genuinely likes her.

Overall, this first volume is a fun and zany read. And the plot twist at the end (which I won’t spoil here) left me wanting to find out what happens next.

Content warning: extreme violence

Teen Witches Cover Up a Murder: When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey

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Alexis and her five friends share a secret—they all have magic powers. On prom night, Alexis’s magic goes wrong and a boy ends up dead. Now, the six teens have to keep this a secret as they try to make things right. Bonds are tested in ways they never thought could happen.

The friend group dynamic helps keep Sarah Gailey’s When We Were Magic rooted in reality. Alexis as a main character can be frustrating, even considering this is a young adult novel, so teenagers are bound not to make the smartest decisions. However, it’s all balanced by the relationships between the friends within the group. Every girl has a unique relationship with one another, making for fascinating tension, push and pull.

It’s also nice to see such a diverse cast of characters representing identities such as adoptee, mixed race, Muslim, lesbian, nonbinary and more. Even with an ensemble cast of six characters, Gailey does a deft job of developing each enough to ensure no one falls by the wayside. Each girl has a distinctive personality, and they’re all strong personalities, which is part of what makes their friendship dynamic so fun.

Their magic powers also highlight the dynamic of the friends and each one’s personality. Each girl seems to have a specialty, like Alexis has a connection with animals—dogs and canines, mostly. Iris seems to have taken on the role of a pseudo-leader, as she appears to be the most powerful, or at least the one with the most control of her magic. She’s the one who studies it closely, trying to unravel the mysteries of their powers.

That’s an interesting point in the world-building for this book. It’s never clear the origins of their magic and why they have it. You just jump straight into the middle of the narrative where they all already know they have magic and they found each other.

TRIGGER WARNING: BLOOD AND GORE

For those who do not stomach the macabre well, this part of the book may make you feel squeamish. When Alexis accidentally kills Josh, it’s a pretty nasty sight. The subsequent magic that happens as each friend tends to his different body parts also causes the stomach to turn. It’s rather amazing how well these teenagers handle such a traumatic experience as they try to “put him back together,” so to speak.

END OF TRIGGER WARNING

Although Alexis and her friends appear to treat Josh’s death with nonchalance as they attempt to fix things, it’s clear there are consequences to this magic. There’s added pressure when another student outside their coven discovers their secret and threatens to turn them in to the police for having something to do with the disappearance of Josh.

Of course, all the while, regular teen drama unfolds and causes more tension. In fact, it becomes clear that this mundane drama was the catalyst for the magical catastrophe. Alexis is clearly in love with her best friend Roya; everyone is sick of them dancing around each other. But it also brings about more nuance to Alexis and her sexuality.

Even though Alexis is adopted by two fathers who are clearly in a queer marriage, she still hasn’t come out to them or her friends. She hasn’t even come out to herself because she isn’t sure if bisexual is the right word for what she is. She knows she’s queer but is still questioning what that means to her. When she finally does come out, it’s more of an, “I thought everyone already knew,” situation.

I won’t spoil how it ends, but I will say it was not what I expected. I don’t think I was disappointed by the ending, but I don’t feel that it was satisfactory after all the stakes and investment the reader puts into it. I still really enjoyed it, though, especially the audiobook version narrated by Amanda Dolan. This perhaps added another layer of depth than reading it in a physical copy would have. I still think it was worth the read, even if the ending left me wanting.

Trigger warnings: body horror, blood and gore

Stuck Between Too Much and Not Enough: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

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Etta Sinclair is a bisexual teenager living with an eating disorder in the middle of Nebraska. She is also Black, comes from a high-income family, attends a private school and is a former ballerina. Everything about her makes her exist outside the boundaries set forth by society. Even within the lesbian community in their small town she’s on the outs for “not being queer enough.”

This is a coming-of-age story in which the main character, Etta, struggles with defining herself and embracing every aspect of her identity because she doesn’t fit into any neat boxes. Even her eating disorder is medically labeled “not otherwise specified” (where the book title comes from), because her BMI doesn’t qualify her as anorexic.

As she tries to keep her head down and make herself smaller in every way possible, her former friend group bullies her mercilessly for having dated a guy. The story delves deep into biphobia coming from all sides, from Etta’s mother’s discomfort to even Etta’s own internalized biphobia at times. Throughout the story, there are so many times that Etta is told she is too much or not enough in some way. Her mother encourages her to relax her hair instead of wearing braids so that she looks “less urban.” She quit ballet because the instructor had told her to lose weight, threatening her mental health and exacerbating her eating disorder.

But she starts to come more into her own when she makes friends with another girl in her recovery group, Bianca, who introduces her to her brother James and their friend Mason. Together, they practice for auditions for a musical theater program, reigniting Etta’s passion for ballet. Etta evolves from a sarcastic teen who uses humor as a defense mechanism to a genuinely enthusiastic individual who no longer needs to please everyone around her. She becomes comfortable with herself and, by the end, loses a lot of shame around taking up space.

Etta is the kind of character that could have been annoying by being overly sarcastic and thinking she knows everything. But Moskowitz adds nuance and depth by including Etta’s inner monologues that reveal her insecurities and true joy when trying to seem cool outside. It makes her feel like a real person that we can all relate to on some level.

The biggest issue, in my opinion, was the ending. It felt so abrupt and almost seemed to end mid-thought. The sentence it ends on is complete, but from how fast Etta’s thoughts move throughout the whole novel, it feels like it came to a screeching halt at the end. Other than that, it’s an overall heartfelt story that makes the reader feel joy, sorrow, frustration and hope.

Content warnings: d-slur, eating disorder, anorexia, binge eating, biphobia (including from other queer people), and bullying

A Thrilling Serial Killer Suspense Novel: The Final Child by Fran Dorricott

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Content warnings: child abuse, child death, trauma

Back in the 90s, a serial killer known as the Father kidnapped and murdered children, always siblings. Only one survived: Jillian, who became Erin, and she just wanted to forget the whole thing. But Harriett, whose cousins were among the Father’s victims, still needed to untangle the mystery that broke her family so many years ago. Together, the two start to pull at the threads that never made sense, bring back Erin’s memories of what happened the fateful night she survived, and learn who has returned to take up the mantle of the Father.

Harriett channels her obsession through the book she writes about the victims. Rather than focus on the serial killer and the pain he caused, she chooses to uplift the stories and memories of the children whom he murdered. Through her perspective, Dorricott presents commentary on our culture’s macabre obsession with true crime. More often than not, true crime junkies focus on the pain, horror and criminal rather than the victims or survivors.

Dorricott creates thrilling suspense as she drops clues about who the Father is and how Erin survived. There are enough clues to lead the reader in the right direction and figure out at least part of the mystery. But there’s enough doubt to leave you wondering what actually happened until the very end.

It’s interesting to see how Erin starts out hiding within her new identity, choosing to distance herself from “little Jilly” who survived. As the story unfolds and she starts to remember the trauma, she embraces her past as Jillian and uses that to propel her forward into becoming a new Erin.

Harriett and Erin grow closer, creating a trauma bond that starts to turn into a sort of romantic relationship. I say sort of romantic because as events unfold, Harriett drops details that indicate she is on the ace/aro spectrum. She talks about how she had “never thought of being with anybody, never mind a girl like Erin.” However, something about the relationship never felt organic, so it fell flat. It almost felt like they should have grown a close friendship rather than a romance.

Overall, this is a strong thriller, but the romantic subplot let it down.

LA as a Not-So-Urban Jungle: Undergrowth by Chel Hylott and Chelsea Lim

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Seventeen-year-old Mariam finds herself surviving a Los Angeles that has been overrun by a magic jungle of horror. Along the way, she meets a group of other survivors, and together they become a family. But Mariam has her secrets. She magically heals and cannot die thanks to a deal with the devil her father made on her behalf. And the jungle they find themselves in has been caused by her father as well. She must learn to put her faith in others and earn their trust in return to undo the mess he made.

There’s a strong sense of setting here that feels a lot like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The lush descriptions of an LA gone to hell under a horrific jungle and the introduction of Mariam as a tough-as-nails type make it an intriguing story and give it a strong start. Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold.

Mariam tries to keep herself emotionally distant to avoid the pain of loss but ends up getting attached to a rag-tag found family. But she still tries to hold her secrets, and that ends up hurting them. At every turn in the story when Mariam is given a chance to be honest, she chooses to lie and continues to create a rift between herself and her new family. She never seems to learn that taking this route causes more pain and danger, and so it doesn’t feel like she undergoes a major character arc.

Additionally, the pacing happens too fast to feel like her attachments are believable. Her crush on Camila quickly evolves into a deep connection between the two girls, but it doesn’t seem organic. Despite this, the relationship that starts to blossom between them is sweet, and it adds a sense of levity to the apocalyptic situation.

Throughout the novel, the author sprinkles details about Mariam’s cultural heritage, with tidbits like talking about her Ramadan dinners and the names she calls her family by. Readers can appreciate the subtle way Mariam’s background comes to light, giving her some depth without overexplaining everything.

There is also a transgender character, Hana, whose identity is revealed in a moment when her hair has to be cut because of lice. It adds another interesting layer to the story without turning into a teaching moment. The author writes many of these character revelations well, showing representations of body dysmorphia and disability in the middle of the end of the world.

As the novel ends, it all happens rather fast and feels like it gets tied up in a neat bow, considering the situation. There is a lack of satisfaction with so many unanswered questions about the world itself. It’s never discussed exactly how long the jungle apocalypse occurred until the very end. The story never shows how the world outside of LA coped or reacted to the events outside of a few glimmers of a military scene at the beginning.

Overall, none of the characters have much development, especially not Mariam or her dad, the villain. But it does get a happily ever after for her and Camila, and it was a fun adventure.

The Original Sapphic Vampire: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

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A young girl, Laura, becomes haunted by a figure in a dream that preys on her. Ten years later, that girl, Carmilla, shows up at her home and claims to know her from the dream as well. They become fast friends, but Carmilla holds a dark secret: she is a vampire who is slowly draining Laura’s life away. An old family friend, who coincidentally had a daughter who met the same cruel fate, comes to the rescue, and all is well in the end.

In this day and age, there’s nothing groundbreaking about Carmilla. But it’s easy to see how it could have caused such a scandal when it was published. By modern standards, it’s eroticism leaves something to be desired. But in a time when the glimpse of a clavicle would be enough to set anyone off, it certainly tells a provocative story.

Throughout the story, Laura speaks of a mesmerizing attraction to Carmilla mixed with revulsion.

“I was conscious of a love growing into adoration and also of abhorrence.”

These feelings of repulsion mixed with a curious desire are highly indicative of the nature of internalized homophobia. It’s a feeling many queer people are familiar with when they grow up in an anti-queer environment that tells them their very existence is a monstrosity.

Knowing that Carmilla is coded as sapphic, her entrance into the story also conveys a stereotypical belief about queer people. As she sneaks into Laura’s bed at night to bite her when she is a child, it can be interpreted that Carmilla is a predatory pedophile. It would be easy to write this off as a sentiment of the times, but unfortunately, it’s a belief still strongly held to this day by homophobic people.

There is no denying how erotic and sexual in nature Carmilla’s feelings are for Laura. With romantic language like, “But to die as lovers may—to die together, so that they may live together,” and “I have been in love with no one, and never shall…unless it should be with you,” Le Fanu makes certain there is no room for misinterpreting Carmilla’s affections.

Carmilla as a sapphic character is further villainized with signs of a mental health disorder, making it seem as if all queer desires are simply a symptom of unwellness, which in turn makes mental health issues seem evil. Laura describes an incident with Carmilla, “It was the first time, also, I had seen her exhibit anything like a temper. Both passed away like a summer cloud.” The sudden mood swings she undergoes between pleasant and angry could be interpreted by modern standards as bipolar disorder.

Le Fanu creates a fascinating tension between science and superstition. The characters in Carmilla often talk about being learned, understanding the true spread of illness, and pride themselves on their logic. However, faced with the truth of an immortal being who has taken on several names over the centuries (all of which are just anagrams), it’s hard to cope with the idea that perhaps certain superstitions are real.

Overall as a story, it’s a bit underwhelming. There is a great deal of buildup to reveal Carmilla’s true identity only to have it done and over so quickly in the end. As the General arrives to tell his tale of woe to his friends, Laura, and her father, they come to realize Carmilla for the villain she is. And just like that, with barely a fight, she is vanquished, and everyone goes on about their lives. It’s totally anticlimactic.

However, it’s still amazing to see how the legendary vampire and lore surrounding it persists. One of the things that stood out was how all the characters are constantly stating Carmilla’s unnatural beauty and how attracted they feel to it. This is a quality shared by many vampire stories even today. The folklore of the vampire is just as immortal as the being itself.

A Celebration of Unlikable Women: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

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This is a fascinating collection of stories about messy, flawed people. This book definitely challenged me to think about how I “relate” to characters that are not meant to be particularly good people. Specifically, women who aren’t written as likable.

The women in these stories aren’t broken down into simple saints and sinners. They’re just imperfect human beings. No one is good or bad, they are just, as Eleanor Shellstrop would put it, medium people. I appreciated the boundaries Gay pushes in how we think and relate to women and female characters.

In “Water, All Its Weight,” the story follows a woman named Bianca who at first appearance seems what the world considers normal. Soon though, it showcases her life unfolding with a series of rain clouds and water spots that appear to follow her everywhere. This metaphor shows how depression and mental illness make a woman hard to deal with.

The titular story “Difficult Women” takes on a taxonomical approach. Gay lays out the various types of difficult women that exist, from Loose Women and who they look up to — “never her mother” — to Frigid Women and how they became that way. Each category unveils the constant impossible dichotomies expected of women.

“Baby Arm,” tells the story of a woman who seems to take joy and pleasure out of pain, a topic often considered taboo. But Gay tells it in such a mundane way, it makes scenes like rough sex and fight club sound like a Tuesday night grocery run. What’s most interesting though is that the main character never reveals her name, but her two lovers, a man named Gus and a woman named Tate, do. There’s a sort of self-dehumanization that happens with a character who gets off on violence and inappropriate behavior.

In a collection of stories about women told from the perspective of women characters, “Requiem for a Heart” stands out. It’s the story of a stone thrower who takes on a glass wife and has glass children. Everything about their lives is told from his perspective, emphasizing how the male gaze often shapes the narrative of a woman’s life. In this story, the stone thrower is also portrayed as having a mistress, a flesh and blood woman who he handles more recklessly. Although he loves his glass wife, with her he has to be more careful and sees everything. It shows how no matter how “perfect” a woman may be, she will still be held responsible for his careless behavior, as it’s this perceived fragility that makes the man turn his desires toward another.

Not every story in this collection features sapphic or queer characters, but several do. Although, it’s hard to say when none of the characters ever plainly state their sexuality, as that is not the point in these stories. But even when it’s not the focus, there are hints of sapphic desire from a few of the women in these stories, like in “In the Event of My Father’s Death,” where the main character shows admiration for her father’s mistress.

Gay knows how to weave metaphors in a fantastical way that never feels magical or paranormal, but the imagery certainly dips into the genre of speculative fiction. She goes back and forth between subtle moments that make you dig for the message and blatantly shouts, “Yes, this is a feminist story!”

If you’re interested in more of Roxane Gay’s writing, you can also check out Danika’s review and my review of her memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.

A Bisexual Historical Horror Retelling: Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste

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This is a fascinating story about the trauma inflicted on women by violent men. It’s told from the point of view of women in classic novels who were tossed to the side by literary history: Lucy from Dracula and Bertha, a.k.a. the Mad Woman in the Attic, from Jane Eyre.

Lucy and Bee enjoy their daily ritual. They spend their evenings at the local drive-in theater and then go home to clean up the decay. Meanwhile, Dracula’s ashes that Lucy keeps in various urns haunt and taunt her, trying to get her to become a monster like him. This is less a retelling and more a rewriting of classic characters.

Rochester and Dracula torture their victims, Lucy and Bee, by calling out from afar. These supernatural, ghostly hauntings act as a symbol of how it feels in reality for victims of trauma. While Lucy is a vampire, Bee is immortal for other reasons caused by Rochester. The story unfolds to show how trauma, no matter how much time passes and in whatever form it comes, lives on.

Kiste offers an interesting twist on vampire lore. Sunlight doesn’t kill them, but it does weaken them into a state of hallucination where they relive their pasts. Vampires also live in homes in a state of decay because it is caused by their own, like power within that seeps into everything they touch; they are death itself.

Like the vampire lore of Dracula, Lucy has the power to mesmerize people and put them under her control. She often does it by accident and feels shame when it occurs. She lives her life without ever feeding on humans, never taking what Dracula always tells her is hers. She constantly fights her monstrous nature, showing how trauma can turn victims into perpetrators of further pain and hurt.

When Jane appears, she is not portrayed as the heroine of her novel, but rather as a victim of Rochester’s manipulation. Although she loves Bee, Rochester still holds power over her. After decades of keeping a low profile and keeping their torturers at bay, the time comes for Lucy and Bee to face Rochester and Dracula.

For so many years, Lucy and Bee lived as companions, but they refused to talk about the horrors they went through. They never really knew each other, and the return of their tormentors forces them to be honest with each other and with themselves. It’s only once this happens they can fight Rochester and Dracula, finally facing their ghosts.

Along the way, the two villains create more victims that Lucy and Bee could not save. The men expect these women to act in their favor and do their dirty work, but the moment Lucy acknowledges their trauma, they become sisters in arms. These men constantly claim to love Lucy, Bee and all the other women they’ve used. They use love to keep excusing their behavior and manipulating their victims.

Throughout the story, Rochester and Dracula’s legacy in pop culture continues to keep Lucy and Bee out of their own narrative. But in the end, the women use that narrative to create a power of their own to defeat their enemies. Lucy and Bee regain control of their narrative and prove that although they each came from a monster, they don’t have to become one.

Perhaps the most salient flaw was the pacing. It moves so slowly that by the time you get to the action, it takes a moment to kick in and realize, “Oh yes we’ve reached the climax of this build-up.” But even so, it’s still an enthralling story. And I quite enjoyed its quiet ending.

What is “Queer Enough?”: Greedy: Notes from a Bisexual Who Wants Too Much by Jen Winston

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In their book of essays, Jen Winston (she/they) covers various topics about her bisexual experience, from the adoption of random behaviors as “bisexual culture” out of a desperation to be seen to the grief of friendships evolving when your best friend becomes a “we.”

Winston talks through internalized biphobia and not feeling queer enough to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Throughout her journey of accepting her bisexuality, they learn that it’s not just an identity, but rather a lens through which to reimagine the world. This speaks to the idea that one’s sexual orientation is about more than just sex. It’s about breaking systems that hold us down and don’t allow us to demand what we deserve.

A few essays, especially toward the end of the collection, begin to show Winston’s journey through gender identity as well. She comes to the realization that much of her identity in womanhood is performative and created based on patriarchal values. Accepting their bisexuality led to an understanding of their gender being on the nonbinary spectrum.

BEGINNING OF TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT

Winston also opens up about instances of rape and sexual assault in essays like “A Girl Called Rhonda,” “The Power Dynamic” and “The Neon Sweater.” She goes into quite a bit of detail about the events, working through the question that many who experience assault do: Is this really rape? The lines of consent feel blurred in different situations because of social conditioning that tells women not to make a fuss. They even discuss how active, verbal consent isn’t nuanced enough because everybody reacts differently to different situations. Not saying no doesn’t mean it’s a yes.

END OF TRIGGER WARNING

One of the most fun essays was a piece written in the fairytale format. Winston tells the story of being attracted to emotionally unavailable men, an issue that stems from a culture of fairytales.

Overall, this is a funny, heart-wrenching and provocative collection of essays.