Today, I’m reviewing two books I read at the end of March. Both of them deal with feminist themes:
- All the Bad Apples by Moïra Fowley-Doyle is a feminist exploration of Irish history and folklore through the history of a specific family, and it especially focuses on reproductive justice and the crimes of the Catholic church;
- The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed is an intersectional look at rape culture and what it means to be a young woman in today’s America.
All the Bad Apples has everything you should expect from a Moïra Fowley-Doyle novel: beautiful atmosphere, blurred lines between the magical and the ordinary, and queer characters. At the same time, it’s so much darker and angrier than usual.
All the Bad Apples felt like the bookish equivalent of a scream.
You might think this is a story about a lesbian who has a very traditional, catholic father and goes to a traditional catholic school as she grapples with her older sister’s suicide and what might be a family curse, discovering her family’s history in the process. It is, and yet it’s not.
All the Bad Apples is a story about the crimes of the catholic church, a story about the women whose truths are still buried and untold, a story about Irish history from the point of view of those who are always erased. It’s a story about how necessary the separation between church and state is, about how we shouldn’t take our victories against bigotry and patriarchal systems for granted.
This book made me realize is that I’m kind of tired of reading about Americans’ problems. I don’t live in Ireland, but for various reasons, what they went through is much more similar to my country’s problems. Reading about European countries from a modern European point of view is so refreshing, and I’m glad this book exists.
This also meant that for me this book was a lot more horrifying to read than usual. And even if you don’t know what it means to deal with catholic fundamentalism, I recommend reading the content warnings at the end of this review.
So, why not a higher rating? Because – and this has happened with the other novel I’ve read by this author too – by the end of the book, I felt like I didn’t know any of the characters.
Deena is a lesbian, her best friend is a bisexual and biracial black boy, she meets a girl who is also queer during this novel, and there’s the beginning of what could be a romance. I always want to get invested in Fowley-Doyle’s mostly-queer found families, but I never manage, and – mostly in the second half – the parts about history took over the book, so that the present storyline started to feel stagnant.
(It still surprised me, though. I would have never seen any of that coming.)
On the historical parts: I loved their message and the point they were making, they just weren’t that interesting to read. The problem with multi-generational stories is that I often struggle to get invested in anything historical and with so many characters, but that’s more on me that on the book.
I would recommend All the Bad Apples to all of those who enjoy Leslye Walton’s novels and liked the inter-generational aspect of The Astonishing Color of After.
My rating: ★★★
Content warnings for the present storyline: homophobia (challenged, and mostly at the beginning, but it’s there right from the first chapter), frequent mentions of what is rumored to be a suicide, controlling parent, bullying
Trigger warnings for the parts about family history: incestuous rape (implied), rape of a minor (implied), institutionalization, physical, emotional and religious abuse (mostly told, not shown), one of the main characters’ ancestors got burned alive for being gay (“a witch”; again, told not shown), and we’re also told about forced pregnancies, abortion, mothers separated from their babies, death of a baby, suicide, a lot of misogyny and bigotry.
[I hope I haven’t missed anything but there was a lot.]
The Nowhere Girls, or Why Good Intentions and a Good Message Don’t Make a Good Book: A Novel
I could start by saying that this is possibly the most heavy-handed thing I’ve ever read. And it’s true. But I feel like I can forgive some of that if I do agree with the message and think it’s really important, especially if the book is aimed to younger readers. Since these two things are true, I won’t hold it against this book. It’s a story about rape culture and women fighting back that at least attempts at being intersectional, and I really appreciated that, and I honestly think books like these can have a positive impact.
However, I also think this book tried to do too many things at the same time, and ended up neglecting some aspects it really shouldn’t have, and I will hold that against it. If you don’t have the space or the ability to give certain topics the page time they deserve, you do not put them in your story for shock value or token points.
→ Casually mentioning that a side character is basically being forced to pray her sexual orientation away will make me completely uninterested in the following romantic development of the main couples.
You could say that this is a novel about young women, and these are things that can and do happen to young women. However, mentioning it casually, like that, and never bringing it up again? I have a problem with that. My opinion about things like these is that you only write them into your story if they add something to it, only if it’s really necessary. You know, the same exact thing we say about rape in fiction.
→ When I started this book, I thought “I found a character who has sensory issues in a book that isn’t a trashfire about it!” and as it turns out, I spoke too soon
Let’s talk about Erin DeLillo, one of the three narrators, who is an autistic girl who has sensory issues and loves marine biology. I have sensory issues and love marine biology, and Erin DeLillo felt like the uncanny valley of representation: so similar, that the parts that aren’t are jarring.
(And I don’t mean that in the way “she’s interested in romance and I’m not” or “she loves organizing and I couldn’t care less”. That doesn’t really matter.)
This book gets a lot of things right. It gets what it means to be “the crazy one”, the one who leaves a crowded room screaming for no apparent reason, who is that sensitive to sounds and smells.
It also gets some major things wrong. Erin is forced by her mother to follow a very specific (vegan, I think?) diet. This would be fine if Erin had chosen it, but she hasn’t, her mother wants her to do that because she thinks it would make Erin less weird. This is never really dealt with. And it’s horrifying. Not only for the “I want to change you” aspect, but also for something that is really glaring to me: you should never encourage a person with sensory issues to restrict their diet (unless, of course, there are allergies involved).
Having sensory issues means that you already can’t eat many foods because their texture is that repulsive on a physical level. Erin never struggles with an even more restrictive diet, and that felt… fake to me. Sensory issues don’t disappear when they’re not convenient for the plot anymore, which seemed to happen multiple times in this book.
(Also, the marine biology infodumps? Disappointing, that’s all stuff you can find out in a matter of seconds with google.)
Another thing: I often didn’t like the way this book talked about romance – as a goal, as something everyone wants, as something that is so essential that not having it is sad.
And the romance storylines themselves? They were so lackluster. Even the f/f one.
Maybe I could have at least enjoyed some aspects of this book more if I had read it in English. Sadly, I haven’t, and if you’re thinking about picking up the Italian edition, don’t.
Things that happen in the Italian edition of this book:
- → “people of color” becomes “black people”. The person who is talking is a Mexican girl and she’s talking about her family.
- → “I don’t like my food to touch” (oh, I have that problem too) becomes “I don’t like to touch my food” (that really would be concerning)
- → there’s the word “gasteropodo” in it. I feel like crying. (For non-Italians: the singular of Gasteropodi is “gasteropode”)
- → it misgenders a trans character at some point, while the English version doesn’t (at least, not there)
- →the writing is all-around terrible.
So: great message, solid overarching plotline about women supporting each other, and so many details that took me out of the story continuously.
My rating: ★★¼