Lucky’s Girl by William Holloway

I reviewed this book for LibraryThing Early Reviewer’s Program.

To begin, I must admit that this is NOT my genre. But, I have received many books through LibraryThing which are not my genre and still been able to give them honest, favorable reviews, if unenthusiastic. So, when I got a horror novel, I was prepared to maybe not appreciate the content, but still be able to appreciate the writing (if it proved appreciable).

But, this is not a horror novel, this is torture porn. I was sick at reading it. And, worst of all, the writing was NOT good, so there was really nothing that saved it for me. This only gets a half star because I do have to give some sort of number of stars for it to be counted in the review average.

First, the trigger warnings, for those who are considering reading the novel. You REALLY should know what you’re getting into. So, here goes: rape, gang rape, statutory rape, other coerced sexual acts, incest, child grooming, juvenile sexual activity, violent sex, emotional manipulation, cult behavior, mind control, racism (specifically toward Native Americans and Koreans), sexism, murder, bestiality, ‘devil’ worship, live evisceration of people, live evisceration of animals, torture of people and animals, cultural appropriation. These are the ones I remember. Honestly, I wish I didn’t. Every time I thought the author had written content as sick as it could get, he added on another layer. That did not contribute to the piece, though it seemed to be the goal. So, the goal was accomplished, but be aware that acknowledging that the author’s goal is accomplished is not the same as me complimenting the completion of it. I think it a dreadful SHAME that might have been the goal in the first place.

Now, as I said, the content was NOT my thing. If that’s what does if for you, now you know this is a book for you. BUT, when it comes to the writing, I was sadly disappointed as well. Repetitive descriptors become repetitive scenes. I literally could jump forward two pages and Lucky would be repeating the same things in practically the same wording and the scene would not have moved on at all. There were supposed to be several narrative voices – chapters came from many perspectives – but they weren’t distinct. I often had to double check context to figure out who was talking because the voices were all of the same vein. The characters were static, all the character arcs were small circles: if there was progression at all, there was always a retreat to the original status. There was racism and cultural appropriation, there were seriously harmful attitudes about women all over the manuscript (including that old gem, “she asked for it” TIME AND TIME again), and there was NO COUNTERPOINT. While I truly believe that this book is NOT indicative of the author’s predilections and inclinations (because, hello jail time if it were an indication), there was no narrative or character counterpoint. I’m not talking about moralizing or the perfect character – I understand this is intended to be a horror novel. But you can have people in a horror novel with a different flavor of horror than racist and sexist a**holes. And because there was no balance of character viewpoint, it made Lucky’s onanistic DRECK that much harder to read. And the plot suffered because of this static state of the characters’ arcs and attitudes: it literally had nowhere to go. Yes, there was a story, but it very one note and predictable. The most unpredictable part of the story was what new horrific act would the author come up with to add into an otherwise boring plot. This story relied on sensationalized violence to carry interest, not good story or character work.

As a side note: I question, seriously, the choice of title. The multitude of characters referred to as “Lucky’s girl” in the narrative are also the characters with the LEAST agency in the narrative and therefore are the least interesting characters. If this is the focus of the narrative, it only serves to make the book even MORE disappointing as all we do, when focused on these women, is look for something – ANYTHING – interesting.

I was prepared to try something new and give it a shot. I went in hoping to find a book to enjoy from a genre I don’t typically read. Instead, I found a poorly written book that had such terrible content that I cannot imagine picking up another horror novel at this point. “I know a slaughterhouse when I see one,” and I have NO DESIRE to step foot in one again.

F (sensationalized content in exchange for plot, lack of character arc, repetitive writing

The Obelisk Trap by Margaret Pearce

I received this book through Library Thing’s Early Review program. It is truly the first book I read from there that I wholly and completely could not enjoy. It was very disappointing. So, be warned, this exceptionally long review is about addressing the issues in the text.

Warning: here there be spoilers. I try very hard not to spoil books in my reviews, but in order to thoroughly address the pervasive racism and sexism in this manuscript, I need to back it up with examples from the text. These examples do give away important plot points. If you do not wish to be spoiled, this paragraph is sufficient. I rated the book so poorly because of persistent sexism and racism. I truly believe that to read a book to a child with those issues is to pour poison into their minds. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book.

A note regarding intentions: I actually believe this author did not try to be sexist or racist. Many of the problems in this manuscript are the background sexist and racist tropes that I myself have had to train out of my brain after a lifetime of society feeding me and teaching me to believe this crap. Regardless of intention, it is still wrong and should NOT be allowed to survive uncontested, or survive period.

Should you still be hanging around, I would like to say that I wanted to like this book. It was the first middle grade book I had seen in the Early Review batches that sounded interesting to me. I think part of my visceral anger while reading was the fact that these expectations were so greatly disappointed. I’ve waited to review until I could speak calmly, or as calmly as I am able.

Basic plot: Charlie is trapped in a magical place called The Place of No Name with his sister, Billie, and Uncle William. They must escape before Billie is discovered to be a girl, as all young girls are killed immediately upon arrival.

Now that that’s out of the way, the text was appalling. Racism and sexism abounded and it was completely unacceptable.

The sexism was especially hurtful because the author dedicated the book to her daughter, “the daughter who could do anything better than most of the boys in the district and still can.” From the dedication, I got the feeling her daughter had been teased about being a tomboy, so I appreciate that the author tried to write an inspiring narrative wherein the female was a hero.

She failed.

Billie, the sister of the narrator, is first described as bossy; ugly for a girl, but alright for a boy; and embarrassingly sporty. All of these are common insults thrown at girls to shut them up and shut them down. Had they come from her brother and he later said he was wrong, they would have been barely acceptable, but instead, the narrative continues to say that Billie – who is is outspoken, but never bossy – is too smart for her own good. I think my least favorite descriptor was, “She has an intellect so sharp she’s going to cut herself one day.” Not one other character is told being intelligent is dangerous.

Billie is forced to pass as male to survive. I don’t appreciate the implication that sporty, tomboy-ish girls would be better served to be boys. I would much rather imply, or outright state, that a diversity in what is socially acceptably masculine and feminine would be the far better solution.

Eventually, Billie does manage to be the hero, but it’s not because of her intelligence or athletic skills or anything that she has any control over. She is established as smart, but isn’t allowed to use them to save the day. It is the two “scientist” males who figure out the solution and then choose to mind rape her (at best) and potentially sacrifice her life WITHOUT HER KNOWLEDGE OR CONSENT. And all of this would be SLIGHTLY okay if what made Billie special had anything to do with a special talent or skill she had required. But no. Billie manages to be the hero because she’s – wait for it – a girl. Something in her specifically female biology doesn’t allow the alien parasite to live. She literally saves the day because of girl cooties. And can I note: scientifically, any parasite that can survive in the human biosex male body can survive in the biosex female body. Perhaps they can BETTER survive in one sex or the other (if testosterone or estrogen are significant factors in the survival of the parasite), perhaps, but this is laughably bad science AND plot. Making her “girlness” the saving factor is sexist. Women are not innately magic – they are human beings with skills and abilities. To WASTE an intelligent, problem-solving female character like this is practically criminal.

Also, out of a predominately male cast, the secondary villain is the only other named female character. And she’s the villain because she’s trying to protect a man, not for personal reasons. There is a primary villain, but his villainy is framed as a instinctual desire for survival, as something understandable, if not acceptable.

Now, for the racism. As another reviewer noted, the native inhabitants of the village are referred to collectively as “the blacks.” This is not okay. There are plenty of other descriptors for the villagers that aren’t race-based. Also, black is used as an unnecessary descriptor. There is only one doctor in the whole of The Place of No Name, but rather than being referred to as “the doctor,” he is referred to as “the black doctor.” Him being black makes literally NO DIFFERENCE to his skills as a doctor, it had already been established that he was black, and there was no other doctor from which to differentiate him. It was ridiculous and unnecessary.

The native population is described as having “fine features” that are so atypical for black people that a TRAINED SCIENTIST says “They look almost Caucasian except for their colour.” This is RIDICULOUS. And to have it come out of the mouth a scientist is especially offensive. The diversity of the human species, both in feature and in color, not only allows for fine-featured black people, but demands that they MUST exist. There are naturally blonde black people, and naturally broad-featured white people. It seems this author has never really looked at a black person, but rather dismissed them all as a group fitting into a narrow visual and cultural stereotype.

Speaking of cultural stereotypes, the native population is distinctly less advanced than the city built by the white people who have been trapped in The Place of No Name (I bet you anything it has a name in the native language, more on that in a moment) for a significantly lesser time period. The natives bring coal they have mined to the white people in exchange for food that should be freely available and goods that are utterly impractical in a place where survival is key. It smacks of slavery and white dominance.

The native peoples have learned English, but the English speaking white population has never – in hundreds of years – bothered to learn the natives’ language because “it’s just too hard.” This is a common tactic used to force non-English speaking peoples to learn English in American society today, I can’t speak for Australian society. And yet society still characterizes people who don’t speak English as stupid or lazy, as if society is not guilty of those crimes ten times over.

The Traveler, the ruler of The Place of No Name, is white. Remember, The Traveler is an alien parasite that chooses a host body, wears it out, and then travels into a new one. He sits as king over the villagers – he’s apparently been terrorizing them for centuries. And yet, he himself is not black. It seems that as soon as white people began stumbling into The Place of No Name, The Traveler deemed them more fit hosts and has slowly been picking off the best and healthiest of the white population, despite the fact that the native populations have shown themselves to be more resourceful and adaptable.

Billie is a white savior. That trope should be banned for all time.

A little note: the doctor who lives among the natives is the ONE black person I can find in the manuscript who traveled from our world to the The Place of No Name. It is heavily implied that he is the one who taught the natives everything they know (I call BS). This is Western Supremacy/Colonialism in action. The fact that the doctor is not white does not change that colonialism is based in racism and this counts as a racist stereotype.

There was more. This is a sampling of things I found deeply disturbing. More disturbing is that so many harmful stereotypes and actively poisonous attitudes made it past an editor and beta readers. I would hope that someone along the line might have noticed and said something, but if they did, they were not heeded. The writing is grammatically passable and not entirely uninteresting, but that cannot save a manuscript steeped in thoroughly toxic attitudes.

F (rampant sexism, racism, and poor plot devices)

[><] & [::]

A wound no soul should bear.

I love a good book.  I especially love a book that kicks my butt and hands it back to me, along with a few things to think about.  There is no better kind of book.

But, admittedly, there is a subset of these books that I used to avoid: those that tackled the issue of race.  Part of me did not because there is something in me that just cannot understand the mindset of one who thinks themselves superior because of the color of their skin.  It’s utterly ridiculous.  Part of me avoided the issue because the books themselves showed a side of mankind that I would, admittedly, like to pretend didn’t exist at all.  These books depicted all the terrible things a man–of any color–is capable of.

I read stories and books here and there throughout school when I was made to.  I did not absorb them well, and whenever I had the choice, I choiced out of them.  Then, in college, I read The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt.  It was exactly the kind of  book that I didn’t want to read.  It reminded me of everything I hated about American history: the justifications, the rationalizations, the blatant mistreatment of anyone perceived as “different” when–in fact–it was the “ruling class” that was different.  I hated every moment of reading that book.  I still didn’t  understand the attitude.  I became physically sick at the bigotry and violence.  It was a well-written book.  The Marrow of Tradition is what one of my professors calls “a book that should never be read for the first time.”

Thankfully, when book buy-back came around some months later, I immediately balked at selling my copy of Marrow.  There was another that I should have kept (The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells), but at least this one I knew to be a keeper.  The experience, so dreadful during it, had turned into a life-changing one in retrospect.  I still didn’t understand the attitudes, I still felt ill at the violence, but I knew myself better.  I had come to understand.  So I kept the book, and began looking for others like it.

Then, just a few weeks ago, my little brother recommended Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad to me.  He said that it was much what I was looking for in this blog and gave me a very sketched outline of the plot.  I knew, just from that bare sentence, that this was going to be one of those books I described in the beginning.   It surely was, as evidenced by the fact that I was tempted to SparkNotes the book earlier last week.  Once again, the attitudes were something my brain rejected before I could even really think about why they were there, the moving was slow because of the depravities I didn’t want to face.  Ultimately, it was just not the sort of book I would have ever read on my own even two years ago.  It was a difficult read now, but I’m beginning to learn.  Running from history doesn’t help anything; the past doesn’t go away just because I don’t like it. Much like The Marrow of Tradition in my Senior year of college and Myths of Light by Joseph Campbell for my first book this year: the experience wasn’t enjoyable, but it was good.

I think the way I feel about these books that make me  feel so raw inside is expressed perfectly by a quote from the book itself:

[We spoke in] common everyday words–the familiar, vague sounds exchanged on everyday waking life.  But what of that?  They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares.

This is the terrible power of words: everyday language can terrorize and horrify as well as, if not better, than any grand language. After all, it’s every day routine that we expect no trouble from, so we expect no trouble from our common words.

One of the things I loved best about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was the consistent inconsistencies.  The frame of the novella is a sailor listening to the yarn of another sailor, Marlow.  But, Marlow is the true narrator and it is his story in first person that takes up most of the pages.  However, as is often the fault in oral storytelling, Marlow will wander into the weeds quite a bit, then come back around (or be brought back ’round) to his story.  Also, in his eagerness, he’ll skip ahead several hours  or days in his timeline, only to go back and try to fill in the details he missed.   This can be confusing at times, but this is storytelling at it’s truest!  I was raised by a storyteller, whose father before him was the grand ruling storyteller.  I would often find myself sitting by my grandfather’s side at family gatherings, listening to stories I had heard a hundred times, but never the same way twice.  Especially as Grandpa got older, he would wander farther in his vein before making it back to his story.  Sometimes, he never did.  I almost heard his voice narrating this, as he was an old sailor himself.

Something that absolutely amazed me was how respectful Marlow was of the indigenous peoples in the Congo.  His language was a product of the time.  Racial slurs that I would never hear nowadays peppered his speech, though not regularly.  However, his actions were respectful and–in many ways–in awe of the men who were there long before he and his company.  Also, he was universally horrified by the treatment of the natives at the hands of his fellow white compatriots.  He attempted, in small ways that would have been ever so significant then, to advocate for them.  It was a difficult thing to watch Marlow give up the fight to protect the memory of the wasted man named Kurtz.

Kurtz is despicable.  The few lines that the reader gets to read of his treatise on the treatment of the natives are horrific.  The worst is the line where he advocates mock deification of the whites to the superstitious and unexposed tribes.  He encourages those explorers who follow to subject these tribes to fear-mongering through self-proclaimed apotheosis!  This infuriates me.  In order to keep order in his divine dominion, rather than use knobs for his finials on his fence posts, Kurtz used shrunken heads.  He badgered whites into this religious fervor and observance with threats of physical harm or death.  He was the worst kind of despicable.

And yet, there is a part of him the reader is meant to sympathize with.  He is being cheated of that which he was given by the natives by his company.  He says, quite plaintively to Marlow, “All I want is justice.”  There is a sense there is something owed to the man, as the company stranded him and expected him to maintain all human civility without companionship for months.  Yes, there was certainly harm done to Kurtz and his depravity may not even be entirely his fault.

This is certainly the conclusion Marlow comes to.  He’s forced to bear the burden of Kurtz’s poison and horror on his own.  All the others around him were either killed or so horrified by him that they had not stopped to think that there may still be a man behind that horror.  Alone, Marlow is left to tie up the loose ends of this poisonous memory.  And, at the last, when he is given a chance to tell the truth, he spares  Kurtz’s intended the horror and takes it all on his own.  The heart of darkness in this book was far less Kurtz’s, but the one given to Marlow to bear.

It was a difficult read, a good read.  I may not yet fully be ready to face what is there, but I am beginning to understand.