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One of NPR’s Best Books of 2018!!!

One of McNally Jackson Bookstore’s Favorite Books of 2018!!

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them
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Exploding Appendix


SKETCHTASY

”If there’s any justice in this world, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Sketchtasy will become the definitive novel of life in Boston, reducing all those sad Southie boy ballads to ether. Sketchtasy is one of those rare things—a literary novel with energy. It’s the story of Alexa and her group of friends, playing and partying and thinking and reading and working and organizing through mid-’90s Boston. Sycamore is a master of stream of consciousness narrative voice. In lesser hands, this style can lose focus and circle around itself but in Sycamore’s novel, it drums straight through to the end, a sure shot. Sketchtasy slyly trades 1990s nostalgia for a complicated queer narrative that is mesmerizing and heartbreaking all at once.”
—Kaitlyn Greenidge, The Millions

Sycamore paints an unsparing and unsentimental portrait of survival in a homophobic era, and her writing is beyond beautiful. Sketchtasy is a powerful firecracker of a novel; it's not just one of the best books of the year, it's an instant classic of queer literature.”
—Michael Schaub, NPR Books

“Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s barreling new novel Sketchtasy (Arsenal Pulp) sets itself in mid-1990s Boston, following 21-year-old Alexa, a debauched, worldly-wise, and dyed-haired queen, as she navigates her world in a decidedly uptight and change-averse city. It’s a window into a gay culture growing in the cold shadow of AIDS, and explores, with a throttling sense of ecstasy and desperation, a search for place, for connection, for understanding, for finding the way with friends who become family. Sycamore’s prose is a living thing, hot in the hands, and moves fast. It reveals a recent past in the city, with nostalgic flourishes (episodes at the long-gone Other Side Cafe, communal living in Dorchester, coke scares in the Combat Zone) while also holding up a mirror to Boston’s provincialism and fear.”
—Nina MacLaughlin, Boston Globe

"Caught between revelry and despair, the gay community of ’90s Boston struggles to confront the AIDS crisis in this heart-rending novel... [Sketchtasy] is an excellent novel bolstered by its complex protagonist."
Publishers Weekly

“Descending into Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s writing is like diving into a lake and submerging yourself into a more authentically emotional world. Sketchtasy (Arsenal Pulp Press), Sycamore’s third novel, takes us to Boston in 1995, where Alexa, a twenty-one-year-old queen, is waiting for her soup and arguing with another queen about the empty activism of the AIDS ribbon... The conversational stakes are high, and this isn’t just a hypothetical debate for Alexa, who recently left her activist community in San Francisco for Boston to focus her attention on confronting her father, who sexually abused her as a child. Whenever her friend Melissa brings up the idea that AIDS is a government conspiracy, Alexa finds herself cornered with an incest flashback. If we ever needed an illustration of how the body is invaded and systemic neglect is utilized as a form of oppression within families and the state, we’ve got one here… This isn’t the ’90s era for which we currently pine nostalgic and seek to emulate in literature and fashion, but one where desire is wrapped up with death and where the horror of the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton administrations went largely unchecked by mainstream public outcry.  The prose unveils like a spiraling phone message from someone you love, moving at the timeless pace of a high you keep rolling through to prevent crashing… Alexa loses friends to Christian cults, to the private boundaries people set up for themselves in AA meetings, to death. By depicting friendships that come and go, Sycamore reminds us that other people’s shame often rides higher than our own needs… “And I say: We’re brought up to hate ourselves, and we can go beyond that.” Maybe this is the ending to strive for in a world that continually asks us to feel and acknowledge less.  Sketchtasy makes it clear that you won’t find liberation by looking away from the pain. Let’s go ahead and see all of it.
—Corinne Manning, BOMB Magazine

“As stupefying and white-hot as the drugs coursing through Alexa’s veins, Sycamore’s latest is a love letter to and a formal complaint about the glitter and horror of the 1990s.”
—Courtney Eathorne, Booklist

Sketchtasy is a breakneck spree through a cultural moment, scratching off the patina of nostalgia to show how urgently relevant it still is. If you've heard her read, you know Sycamore's voice is one in a zillion. She’s at her very best here.”
—Dave Wheeler, Shelf Awareness

"Fast-paced, introspective, thoughtful, and wryly funny, Sketchtasy is one of the stand-out novels of the fall."
Flavorwire

[T]he way a night out becomes an adventure and then a story and then a novel. In this case, a queer novel also, one aimed right at us, a novel that tell us stories about us as a way of asking us to imagine a bigger and better world, something that we can call our own within this one. Sketchstasy is a call to reject the norms dictated to us by those who would never care about us but insist on telling us how to live — or die — as a way of obtaining the approval that will never come. It’s also a call to reject even the imitation of those norms. As a writer, over three novels, a memoir and five anthologies, Sycamore is someone who has always wanted revolution more than acceptance, and dreams that maybe that could be the best party of all. And this novel is her grand masked ball.
—Alexander Chee, Electric Lit

Today, media representation of (some) queer lives has become almost routine; rare is the new television show that doesn’t at least give lip service to having LGBTQ+ characters with real plots. But at times, I still find myself jonesing for that thing I never had growing up: a book that felt like it accurately showed the weird, queer ‘90s that I came of age in, full of lost kids on the outskirts of gender and sexuality going to clubs in shitty neighborhoods, always fearless and always afraid. When I read Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s latest novel, Sketchtasy, the shock of recognition was almost as pleasurable as the book itself.”
—Hugh Ryan, them

Simultaneously wrestling with personal identity and the AIDS epidemic, narrator Alexa spins away from her detested middle-class origins, dizzy and unbalanced in her new freedom. In bursts of imagistic prose, Sycamore evokes drug-fueled nightlife, emotional instablility and glimmers of hope. While her kaleidoscopic prose and graphic approach to sex have been flatteringly compared to writing by John Rechy, William Burroughs and Dennis Cooper, those assessments leave all of these queer writers lumped together on the margins of mainstream literature. Though she might resist the idea, Sycamore also deserves to be considered alongside the more heralded likes of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. The energy of her writing and specificity of her sociocultural observations make her a similarly vivid chronicler of American subcultures.”
—Jim Gladstone, Passport Magazine

“In Sketchtasy each party presents a new hope. Alexa and her friends get dolled up, drugs arrive, followed by moments of euphoria. But when they all get up the next day, alienation and loss haunt them…This cycle of hope and fatigue is what Sketchtasy is all about… When you start reading Sketchtasy, you don’t know how high the stakes are in this cycle of attempts to escape a hostile culture. It’s not just the fatigue of decorating and departing a series of living spaces as a young queer displaced by gentrification. Alexa’s friends are dying all around her, of addiction and AIDS. Alexa’s efforts to escape an oppressive culture and economic system seem glamorous until you see exactly what she’s up against.”
—Sarah Galvin, City Arts

“The dead will always be with us, and the living will keep fucking themselves up because of it. Sketchtasy is a merry-go-round of drugs and sex and gossip and sex and drugs. I recommend reading it in long sittings, so the breathless sentences clamber into your brain all at once, like a party that is tipping over into a riot. Alexa is young and on fire and she never allows herself to stop, and she demands nothing less of her readers… Sycamore has always been a passionate and keen-eyed chronicler of the life and death of American cities, but here she’s doing the best work of her life, and for good reason: she’s writing for her life. With Sketchtasy, she’s an avenging angel.”
—Paul Constant, Seattle Review of Books

Lyrical and radical, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new novel Sketchtasy throbs with a deep house vibe that brilliantly mixes scathing critique with vulnerability and joy. Shimmering with ‘90s queer club life, Sketchtasy celebrates queer strategies for survival while throwing glittery shade at nostalgia.”
—Jennifer Natalya Fink, Lambda Literary

Every sentence in Sketchtasy is a living thing, fierce and funny and a little bit dangerous—a voice made of coke dust and club lights, cut with crackling insight. I was completely addicted to the story of Alexa's search for connection, set in the gritty Boston nightclub scene in the ‘90s. Nobody writes like Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore—most writers wouldn't dare try.
—Julie Buntin, author of Marlena

I thought it was impossible that Sycamore could get any better, but Sketchtasy is a vivid masterpiece that rivals the likes of Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. It’s dangerous, hilarious, scary and trancendentally beautiful. Sycamore’s prose is so searing, you might want to read it with sunglasses.
—Jake Shears, singer and author of Boys Keep Swinging

Reading this was like a night of stealing other people's drinks, or a much-needed slap to the face, or a little of both. Bold, glittering, wise, fun, the novel as found poem alive in the mouth of this truth-telling queen, making her way through a wasteland of other people's lies (and a few of her own), and looking for something near paradise. Follow her and live.
—Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night

If Sketchtasy doesn't become a classic, we are doomed. Mattilda has such complete command of craft here that she is able to evoke experience, rather than simply describe it… A lesson in how to write, how to remember, how to grapple with history.
—Sarah Schulman, author of Conflict Is Not Abuse