Archive: August 2019

Book Review: Sparrowhawk (Sparrowhawk #1-5) by Delilah S. Dawson & Matias Basla (2019)

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

It’s an exaggerated shoulder shrug from me…

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Artemisia – “Art” for short – is the illegitimate daughter of a British Naval Captain and one of the indigenous women he colonized and enslaved. After her birth, Captain Grey kidnapped Artemisia and brought her back to his home in Victorian England, where she was begrudgingly “accepted” into the family. (As a servant, natch.) When Art’s half-sister Elizabeth is killed just before she’s to be wed to a Duke, thus snatching the Greys from the jaws of poverty, Mrs. Grey insists that Artemisia be auctioned off in Elizabeth’s place. It’s either agree to her stepmom’s demands, or see her younger sister Caroline given to a seventy-year-old Baronet. It’s kind of like Cinderella, except mom doesn’t give a shit about her biological daughters, either.

And then Artemisia’s problems go from bad to worse when she’s pulled into another realm by none other than the Faerie Queen herself. In turn, the Queen assumes Artemisia’s visage, with the intent of conquering earth. The only way that Art can get back to her world is by killing Faerie creatures to grow her own power and glamor. Can she slay the beast by becoming one herself? Does she even want to save earth, when her one good memory of it has been stripped away?

The “teen Victorian fairy fight club” descriptor is what really piqued my interest, but the actual story falls way short of this. Some of the finer plot points, like Warren’s relationship to Art, the significance of the flower, and just which memory Crispin traded Art for, are hecka confusing. I’m still not 100% sure I know what was going on there. The action only half kept my interest, at best. While there are quite a few fight scenes, the match-ups are uneven and so the battles are over before they even begin. (Fight Club? More like Rambo.)

Honestly, the only redeeming things are a) the artwork, which is moody and gorgeous and b) the ending, which is just deliciously perfect in a Twilight Zone kind of way.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

tweets for 2019-08-22

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

tweets for 2019-08-21

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

tweets for 2019-08-20

Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

Book Review: No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant (2019)

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

Starts slowly, builds into something real, and then ends abruptly and with no resolution.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and racism.)

Raised in Portland, Oregon, cartoonist Hazel Newlevant was homeschooled by their* parents (for hippie reasons, not religious ones), resulting in a somewhat sheltered childhood. When they were seventeen, they got a summer job removing English ivy and other invasive plants from the local parks and forests. The youth “No Ivy League” project immersed Newlevant in the high school experience they’d been missing (or slimmed down, summer vaca version of it, anyway). This is Newlevant’s memoir, in graphic novel format, of these formative months.

As Newlevant works alongside at-risk youths, most of them black and brown, Newlevant becomes increasingly aware of their own privilege – and, by extension, that of all the home-schooling families that make up their social circle. (The scene where Newlevant asks a friend if he knows any black home schoolers is a light bulb moment.) After a co-worker’s inappropriate comments to Newlevant result in his dismissal – never mind a similar incident, directed at a black girl, which went unpunished – Newlevant begins the long and never ending process of unpacking their own privilege.

No Ivy League carries the promise of a powerful narrative of allyship, but it never quite reaches its potential. Perhaps this is because I read an early ARC, which I suspect wasn’t 100% finished. When some of the panels started lapsing into rough sketches instead of polished illustrations, I initially thought it intentional, as if to convey mental distress. Yet the last few pages are obviously not done, and the story ends rather abruptly, without any real resolution.

Newlevant’s parents’ admission that their decision to homeschool was a direct response to integration isn’t really followed up on; like, was there ever a confrontation or discussion about it? Likewise, the parallel video contest and #HomeschoolingSoWhite plot lines seemed certain to converge – like, maybe Newlevant uses the win of the former to help educate, protest, or raise awareness of the latter – but nope. Everything just kind of…trails off.

On the plus side: there’s some vegan rep, so yay for that!

* Newlevant’s preferred pronouns are they/them.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

tweets for 2019-08-19

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

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Monday, August 19th, 2019

tweets for 2019-08-17

Sunday, August 18th, 2019

tweets for 2019-08-16

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Book Review: Dahlia Black by Keith Thomas (2019)

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Like World War Z, but with aliens!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence and mental health issues, including suicide.)

In 1977, the whole world turned towards the stars. We wanted to believe there was intelligent life somewhere out there. And we hoped that if we could reach them, maybe they’d reach back. Voyager 1, this satellite dish with bristling antenna, was a message in a bottle. Our way of letting the galaxy know we existed. That we were out here if anyone wanted to find us.

Over the next forty years, the probe flew past Jupiter and Saturn before it drifted into the void, swallowed up by a silent universe. Or so we thought . . .

Truth is, our message didn’t go unheard.

The universe reached back and changed everything. Not with war or an invasion but with a whisper. Almost overnight, all that we knew transformed.

And I saw it happen.

I am not an incubator, but my head has become an executable.

On October 17, 2023, a rouge astronomer named Dahlia Mitchell unwittingly picks up a signal originating from farthest reaches of space. Rather than the sound of a dying star or an errant transmission from the breakroom microwave, Dahlia and her colleagues quickly realize that this signal is intentional, complex, and was most likely purposefully directed at earth by the members of an intelligent species. The signal is dubbed the “Pulse Code,” owing to its similarity to a computer code as opposed to, say, an attempt at communication or contact.

Before the president and her cabinet can formulate an action plan, the Pulse begins working its nerdy magic. Once received, the Pulse got right down to business, altering the brains of roughly 30% of the earth’s population. Initially, those affected experienced visual and auditory hallucinations. They saw, heard, felt, and tasted things others couldn’t, from electromagnetic radiation and ultraviolet colors, to the ultrasonic songs of mice and insects, and gravitational waves. One woman was able to taste things with her fingers, like a fly. Many claimed to be able to see ghosts.

Before long the Elevated, as they would be known, manifested enhanced cognitive abilities; they could “calculate new forms of mathematics, develop innovative computer algorithms, uncover unseen biological processes, and create unimaginable works of art.”

In the end, they simply vanished – pulled, perhaps, into that other dimension they saw, overlaid on top of our own. Yet many – as much as 15% of the infected, by some accounts – succumbed to the changes prior to the Finality, their bodies too weak to withstand the demands placed on them.

In a scant five years, the global population dropped from 7.7 billion to 2.5 billion. In addition to the 3 billion people killed or disappeared by the Ascendant – aka our alien overlords – billions more were murdered in the resulting violence and chaos.

Now it’s five years on, and a reporter named Keith Thomas is trying to make sense of the Pulse Code. Disclosure: How One Woman’s Discovery Led to the Greatest Event in Human History is the result. Thomas weaves together original interviews with historical documents, police transcripts, diary entries, and illicit files in order to deconstruct the Pulse and its aftermath.

So this is a really fun read, and comparisons to World War Z are spot on. I enjoy the change of pace that faux nonfiction books constructed of various files offer, and Dahlia Black is no exception. It’s kind of like World War Z in this way, but with aliens! Or like Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files trilogy, but with a whimper instead of a bang. (The latter has giant weaponized alien robots, so there’s that.)

I had a lot of, um, fun following Thomas on this ride, as he imagines what a world suddenly devoid of more than half its population might look like. (“Fun” in scare quotes because many of the events outlined here are downright horrifying, particularly because they have happened in the past and will no doubt replicate themselves in the future.) Just take the reference to deepfakes – which I just learned about on an episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee a few short months ago – used four years from now to foment mob violence against the Elevated.

There’s also a great conspiracy theory subplot that adds another layer of intrigue and general gruesomeness to the story. (Yes, I’m talking about the girl with two spinal columns.)

Dahlia Black is a great summer read that would also make a great summer blockbuster. Just don’t do it like Brad Pitt’s World War Z, okay. That shit was disappointing.

P.S. I also await the comic book adaptation.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

tweets for 2019-08-15

Friday, August 16th, 2019

tweets for 2019-08-14

Thursday, August 15th, 2019
  • RT @ACLU: FACT: Nearly one-quarter of employees in the United States work for an employer that has a contract with the federal government.… ->
  • RT @KailiJoy: Everyone who said not to worry about Hobby Lobby because it was "just" about birth control can kindly fuck right off again, t… ->
  • RT @RonHogan: Dogs should not to risk their lives because Americans are too selfish and insecure to enact same gun control policies. https:… ->
  • RT @bestfriends: The "Check Me Out" program @LexingtonHumane is keep adoptable dogs happy while they wait for their perfect family in #Kent->
  • RT @DavidKlion: Ben Shapiro endorses low-wage workers collectively agreeing to withhold their labor unless employers agree to pay them a li… ->
  • (More below the fold…)

tweets for 2019-08-13

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Book Review: The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (2019)

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

“In a perfect world, they wouldn’t need to fight. That’s not the world I live in.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review though Netgalley. Trigger warning for misogyny, homophobia, sexual assault, and suicide.)

“When I look at what the editors have written about us, I have to wonder how they see us. Do you know what I mean?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Like, are we even human?”

“I would cut off the penis of any man who talk about me like this,” said my mother, as she gazed down at a score sheet. “You know what I would like to see? A bad-blowjob contest. That would teach them.”

Gemma and Mel, who had seemed so lost, suddenly looked up at Mom like she was their new queen.

I remember the first time I saw them. They were walking down the hall together. Bald, proud, angry. The boys didn’t laugh when they saw them. They’d never been quieter. You could feel their fear. The girls didn’t look like girls anymore. They looked like warriors.

Come to think of it, Witt herself was like an inkblot test. Everyone saw something different.

Forced to leave her previous job at “plummy” Warren Prep after a male student-turned-stalker secretly videotaped her engaged in a totally adult, totally consensual sex act, Alex Witt finds herself teaching English lit (well, creative writing) at second-tier Stonebridge Academy (though she draws the line at fencing). Given all the slut shaming and unearned scrutiny that she’s already weathered, it’s no surprise that Alex keeps to herself, playing house in an abandoned cottage in the forest and only doing the bare minimum, course-wise. However, all this changes when an anonymous, introductory writing assignment – something of a tradition in her classes – elicits some strange responses.

Repeated references to the Darkroom (and a shared distaste for BJs) compel Witt to dig deeper – as do the cryptic notes left in her cabin; the rumors half-whispered by fellow faculty and staff; and a seemingly nonconsenual sex act Witt witnesses in the bathhouse. As Witt and the teenage girls/warriors she inspires turn over the rock that is Stonebridge Academy, exposing the rape culture that lurks underneath, the so-called “gender war” escalates, ultimately leaving two dead in its wake.

So here’s the deal. Is the plot of The Swallows a little outlandish? Maybe. Not in substance, but perhaps scope. The Ten, the Darkroom, the Dulcinea award? Totally believable. The victim blaming, rape apologism, and institutional cover-up of sexual assault? Abso-fucking-tootly. Granted, the lack of adult supervision is a bit shocking at times, and the extent to which the conflict escalates here can generously be described as unusual. But is it unheard of? Spare a thought (and perhaps a triumphant fist pump) for the Greek woman who doused a British man’s genitals in liquor and then set them on fire after he sexually assaulted her in a bar. Suddenly jalapeño blowjobs and Molotov cocktails don’t seem so ridiculous.

If anything, the heights (or depths, depending on your POV) the swallows go to enact their revenge is a cautionary tale: this is what happens when adults, when those in charge, when our authorities and institutions and culture fail to take misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape seriously. When the marginalized are forced to find their own justice, outside of the bounds of the law and cultural norms. When those who are taught to silence their voices, to tamp down their righteous anger, finally explode like so many powder kegs. Things get really fucking ugly. In this way, The Swallows is wildly successful.

It feels really reductive to call this a tale about “gender wars,” though. This is a fight against rape culture, full stop. Some of the girls lean in to the misogyny, while some of the guys work to subvert it. You do what you’ve got to: to survive, or to sleep at night.

Also, The Swallows is a damn engaging story. Lutz’s writing is feminist and empowering but also makes for a great, twisty, edge-of-your-seat thriller. The characters – even the sleazy ones; see, e.g., Finn Ford and Leonard Witt – are interesting and multidimensional. Alex is pretty rad but her mother Nastya is in a whole ‘nother stratosphere of badassery. The scenes where Witt creates – and then Nastya revises – the “blowchart” are exquisite.

I’m even a little tempted to get my own axe tattoo.

Of all the characters in The Swallows, Nastya is most deserving of her own spinoff story.

I also loved the multiple POVs: Lutz tells the story from the alternating perspectives of Alex Witt (the instigator), Gemma Russo (the resistance fighter), Norman Crowley (the defector), and Mr. Ford (the editors, all grown up), sometimes revisiting a specific event from different perspectives. This technique adds depth and nuance to the narrative…but mostly it’s just cool AF, such as when the girls shave their heads. The differently-gendered reactions to the unveiling straight up gave me goosebumps.

Even though The Swallows requires some suspension of disbelief, the need is not terribly great, and that’s what should scare you most. As a reader, as a woman, as a human being.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

tweets for 2019-08-12

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

tweets for 2019-08-11

Monday, August 12th, 2019

tweets for 2019-08-10

Sunday, August 11th, 2019

tweets for 2019-08-09

Saturday, August 10th, 2019

Book Review: Irena, Book One: Wartime Ghetto by Jean-David Morvan, Séverine Tréfouël, & David Evrard (2019)

Friday, August 9th, 2019

A book we need now more than ever.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for anti-Semitic violence.)

Irena Sendlerowa (maiden name Krzyżanowska) was born on February 10, 1910 in Warsaw, Poland. Shew grew up in nearby Otwock, which was home to a large Jewish community. Her father Stanisław was a physician who treated everyone, regardless of their ethnicity or ability to pay. He contracted typhus in the line of duty, and died when Irena was just seven. Despite being raised by a single mother, Irena attended college, studying law and literature at the University of Warsaw. She was a socialist who was outspoken in support of her Jewish classmates. Identified as a leftist, she was denied employment in the Warsaw school system.

Instead, Irena was working for the Social Welfare Department when Germany invaded Poland. Here she was uniquely positioned to provide help to Poland’s most marginalized citizens. Irena’s department was allowed access to the Warsaw Ghetto, ostensibly to conduct sanitary inspections and help prevent the outbreak and spread of epidemics. Here she leveraged her position to make life a little more bearable for the ghetto’s 4,000 Jewish residents, by smuggling in food, clothing, and medicine – with the help of a large and ever-expanding group of family, friends, and colleagues, of course.

Irena also began smuggling out people, including dozens of children and babies, which she placed in a network of foster homes, orphanages, and religious sanctuaries. She diligently recorded the given name, fake name, and new address of each child, so that they could be reunited with their families after the war was over. In order to avoid incriminating herself in the event of a search – and making it easier for the Gestapo to find the missing children – Irena placed the names in jars, which she buried. Sadly, while her records survived the war, most of their would-be recipients did not. A majority of the children Irena and her network rescued – up to 2,500, by some estimates – were orphaned.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of Irena’s story is that she was captured, interrogated, and sentenced to death in 1943. Despite repeated torture, she did not name her co-conspirators or the people they rescued. She escaped when the Żegota, a Polish resistance organization with which she’d been working, bribed a German guard. Instead of giving up or fleeing the country, Irena resumed her subversive activities, albeit under an assumed name and new occupation: Klara Dąbrowska, nurse. Irena died of natural causes in 2008; she was 98 years old.

Irena, Book One: Wartime Ghetto covers the events through Irena’s capture by and escape from the Gestapo. To describe it as “powerful” is a gross understatement. It’s a force, though not quite like Irena. I imagine very few things could come that close. (Later in life, Irena rarely gave interviews, and vehemently insisted that she hated the word “hero” and did not consider herself one. If she wasn’t, then they simply don’t exist.)

While rooted firmly in fact, the narrative does contain some fictional and downright fantastical elements. For example, Morvan identifies the murder of a young boy by a sadistic SS officer as the impetus for Irena’s human smuggling; yet Wiki says that she began her operations when some friends were trapped on the Jewish side of the wall.

Still, some of the more surreal embellishments, like the ghosts (of Nethanial and the other murdered Jews, as well as Irena’s father, always guiding her towards what’s right) and Nethanial’s loyal and prescient dog, are inspired and will bring you to tears.

Irena’s Children just moved higher on my TBR list; and, imho, a desire to learn more is usually a pretty good indicator of a comic book or tv show’s success.

The artwork has a Dickensian quality to it. It wasn’t my favorite at first, but it grew on me. It suits the mood and content of the story perfectly.

As I write this review, supporters of Drumpf’s border policy – which includes ramped up ICE raids across the country this weekend – are splitting hairs over terminology, questioning whether the “dog pounds” along the border qualify as “concentration camps.” I am reminded of that older woman who showed up to a rally for women’s rights bearing a sign that proclaims “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.” I wonder what Irena would do if she lived in Texas or New York or Minnesota in June of 2019.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

tweets for 2019-08-08

Friday, August 9th, 2019