Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She's Dead (ToadWitch #1) by Christiana Miller

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It's Mara's birthday and according to her tarot card reading things aren't going to go well for her. Proving that Mara's skills are top notch, it's not long before Mara finds herself banned from Beverly Hills, unemployed and facing homelessness after being evicted from her LA apartment. Luckily for Mara, she inherits a home when her Aunt Tilly dies. Unfortunately for Mara, this house is haunted by a very pissed off Aunt Tilly, who's certain that Mara doesn't have the sense God gave cabbage and not at all pleased that Mara is responsible for her death. Is anything going to go right for Mara this year?

As you might have guessed from the cover, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She's Dead is paranormal chick lit. It's not meant to be serious whatsoever and in fact never takes itself seriously.  Miller tries to infuse her book with humour, through awkward situations and back and for conversations between Mara, our protagonist and her GBFF Gus. Unfortunately, most of it is problematic as hell, thereby sucking out whatever humor was possible.

For all of Mara's string of bad luck, she's actually had a pretty good life.  Mara lived in an apartment in LA with a pool for well below market value thanks to the kindness of her gay landlord.  Normally I wouldn't mention the sexuality of someone's landlord but Miller goes to great lengths to establish that Lenny is gay and is only kicking Mara out of her apartment in order to get laid by Manuel. Apparently, Manuel's family has a problem with Mara's witchcraft but no problem with his sexuality. Yeah, these kind of bigots tend to hate everyone who doesn't conform to their belief system, not just pagans. Of course, Mara feels betrayed by Lenny because he chose a hot young lover over her. Lenny is not only gay he's flamboyantly so. Lenny even blames Mara for her eviction because of her unwillingness to hide her religious practice.
"Honey, we live in a Moral Majority word. Flaunt your religious beliefs and sexual preferences at your own peril. It's something we boys have known for centuries. Done is one." 
Given than Lenny is only a minor character, his homophobic representation is bad but could potentially have been overlooked; however Miller doubles down with her portrayal of Gus.  Gus is downright sassy and seems to spend a good portion of life listening to Mara whine and pretty much being at her beck and call. Every damn thing about Gus is fabulous, including of course his attire. Apparently, "Gus is more fond of skirts than any woman" Mara has ever known. Mara of course is largely celibate but not Gus who always seems to be fucking someone, which mystifies Mara.  
"How the hell do you find dates so fast? It takes me months."
"My secret club. It's a whole, incestuous, underground network that we don't let you fag hags in on. A place for us who shine like a veritable sun to share our boy toys . And our Viagara".
Do you see what happened there? Mara, as well as the other straight characters don't engage in promiscuous sex whereas, the gay characters are either constantly having sex or allowing sex to take over so much of their lives that they make major decision based on whether or not they are getting laid. 

Along with being Mara's personal cheerleader and general support, Gus is also super bitchy.  Yes, yet another trope. When one of Gus's numerous lovers decided to cheat, Gus curses him to have hives.
"Maybe I did mix a little pennyroyal in the massage lotion. He deserved it, I caught him in a hot clinch with that curvy tranny singer over at the Queen Mary, when he thought I was in the john."
I have to pause now to talk about the slur "tranny".  Putting that word into the mouth of a gay character does not suddenly make it not a slur. Throughout Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She's Dead, Miller uses the words "faghag, as well as queer".  All of these terms are clearly problematic because they're homophobic and putting these words into the mouth of gay characters doesn't suddenly make it okay. It further doesn't help that Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She's dead, is written by a straight woman.

The other two LGBT characters in this story are James I and his lover Matthew Gilardi.  For the most part, James's greatest sin is being a lecher. Yep, another gay man who sleeps around.  Matthew however is power hungry to the point where he has no problem murdering his own daughter because she is pregnant with the King's bastard.  So in short, we have evil gay, lecherous gay, catty and flamboyant gay and it's all celebrated with slurs. Yeah for inclusion everyone.

Even when there are no LGBT characters in a scene, Miller still manages to mess things up. When Mara ends up moving to Wiconsin she meets a local teacher named Paul.  Because Paul is handsome and works out, Mara immediately assumes that he's gay and comes up with the weakest reasoning for this leap.
“Sorry. It’s just… when you said that you were a weight lifter … I just thought… I mean, with the gym addiction and it being so far and all…”
“Only gay guys are interested in staying in shape?”
“Well, yes. I mean, no. It’s just… I’m from Los Angeles. Most men out there are gay. So I’m used to gyms being a place for sexy, sweaty guys to hook up with other sexy, sweaty guys.”
“Welcome to the Heartland. Our stats are a little different here."
People of colour don't fare much better in this story. There are only three characters of colour. The first is Mrs. Lasio, "a heavyset, older Latina woman."  Mrs. Lasio is deeply religious and therefore takes issue with Mara's practice of witchcraft.  We are meant to see Mrs. Lasio as someone who is ridiculously superstitious who actively oppresses Mara. Mrs. Lasio is responsible for Mara's eviction. Of course, Mrs. Lasio gets hers in the end when she is also evicted.

We also have Mama Lua, who is a large Jamaican woman. We are told repeatedly how powerful Mama Lua is. It's Mama Lua who performs a cleansing ceremony on Mara. However Mama Lua is never allowed to develop into a real character and remains a magical servant at best.

I know that I've talked so much about the problematic elements of this story that I haven't really gotten to the plot. Unfortunately, I'm not done with the problematic elements.  Mara is yet another example of an isolated woman. Mara's parents are both dead, though both make a ghostly visitation to warn her away from her stupidity.  Mara doesn't seem to have a relationship with any women with the exception of course of her dead Aunt Tillie. Mara bemoans being a so-called "fag hag" but makes no attempt to befriend women.  So let's see: dead parents (check), no female friends (check) women appear largely as adversaries or minor characters (check). Ding Ding Ding, I do believe we have found yet another trope.

Look, I don't go into chick lit expecting much.  Generally speaking, I hope for a few good laughs and a satisfying end to the story but what I got was one bigoted trope after another, making the story itself almost irrelevant. I couldn't invest in Gus's friendship with Mara because he is such a homophobic trope.  I wasn't pleased when Gus dropped everything once again to help Mara out and even decided to leave LA and move to freaking Wisconsin to be with Mara.

Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She's Dead is three hundred and sixty-eight pages.  It's far too long.  Half the book is about Mara whining about being evicted and trying to decide whether she should move into the home she inherits when Tillie died.  By the time that Miller gets to the meat of the issue, I found I was no longer interested.  Miller must have been aware that she had dragged the story on for too long because her attempts at entertainment rose to rape and disgust in the later half.  Mara's body is taken over by an ancestor, who promptly decides to have sex multiple times and even an orgy. Mara is disgusted that her body is being used this way but still manages to be jealous that her ancestor who has taken over her body seems to be getting more attention with her body. When Lucien invades Mara's body while she's sleeping and she experiences an orgasm, she doesn't see it as the violation that it really is. How can it be rape if the victim orgasms right (yes that's snark)?

The big cliff hanger at the end of this story is that thanks to Lisette taking liberties with Mara's body, Mara is pregnant. This certainly is not enough to draw me in for the second book anytime soon, particularly because I know it will be riddled with homophobia, passive racism and a sprinkle of rape culture/ misogyny for extra seasoning.

All I wanted when I picked up Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She's Dead is a light read to pass away a few summer afternoons with but what I got was the opposite. When the joke is all about marginalised people and their stereotypes, the attempts at humour simply fall flat. I can deal with a protagonist who's a little bit extra and clearly not nearly as smart as they think they are. I can deal with ridiculous situations and plot twists visible a mile away. What I cannot deal with is bigotry wrapped up and served as comedy.  I want the hours back I spent reading this.