Book Review: Claw the System: Poems from the Cat Uprising by Francesco Marciuliano (2018)

Friday, December 7th, 2018

Welcome to the Catnip Cabal

three out of five stars

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

THE PRESS

There is nothing more important
Than the press
There is nothing more indispensable
Than the press
There is nothing we need more right now
Than the press
Of my paw
Against the lips
Of anyone spewing hatred
Right after that paw has been in the litter box

MENTAL HEALTH DAY

When you can’t lift your head up
When you can’t raise your hopes up
When you can’t get yourself up
To face another day
Remember
You can still bring your leg up
And lick yourself down there
For like hours if you want
Because you have to take care of yourself
Before you can take on this world

The cats are fed up with our bullshit – and, in addition to silly Halloween costumes, tasteless kibble, and sleeping past 3AM, I’ve got to believe that the 2016 election has a little something to do with it. Normally felines would not deign to involve themselves in something as crass as human politics, but come on! The death of democracy and all that jazz. Plus where are they going to get their cat dancers and laser pointers if Drumpf starts a trade war with China, hmmm?

The clues are sometimes subtle, but look closely and you’ll see ’em. With chapter headings like Recognize, Resist, Revolt, and Rebuild, and poems celebrating the “press” and advocating for mental health days, these cats are obviously #withher. They dislike voter disenfranchisement almost as much they hate your best friend’s handsy toddler.

So this is a cute idea that gets stale about halfway through the book. Unsurprisingly, my favorites were the more radical poems in the bunch. Some are straight-up meme-worthy; the rest are good for a chuckle or two, hence the middling rating. The cat photos range from adorable to downright fierce.

Should you find yourself guffawing at the very idea of feline resistance, you owe it to yourself to read Jason Hribal’s Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance.

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

Book Review: The Many Deaths of Scott Koblish by Scott Koblish (2018)

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

Not for the chronically anxious.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

— 2.5 stars —

The Many Deaths of Scott Koblish is exactly what it sounds like: the author’s weird and varied imaginings of how he might meet his end. The scenarios range from the mundane-yet-tragic (being buried in an avalanche; dying in a festive house fire) to the more bizarre and outlandish (being kidnapped by aliens only to die in a fiery wreck when the US government shoots your flying saucer down; being murdered in the night by your daughter’s adorable stuffed teddy bear). My personal favorites are those that involve nonhuman animals getting revenge (such as the kangaroo boxer who stomps his human opponent to death. down with animal fighting!). There are no fewer than five instances of cats sending an unsuspecting Scott Koblish plummeting out a window to his death.

It’s a cute enough idea, if not terribly memorable. Well, unless you’re scared of clowns, alligators, or dying in unclean undies. Then some of these panels just might keep you awake at night. No death by sheer embarrassment, though, so I’m safe! :)

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

Book Review: How to Be Successful without Hurting Men’s Feelings by Sarah Cooper (2018)

Friday, November 30th, 2018

“Conclusion: Be Threatening”

four out of five stars

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

This book is not for men. And the title has little to do with how we make men feel. Instead, it’s about how we think we make men feel and how we are consumed by trying to make them feel a certain way or avoid feeling a certain way, as if that should be our number one concern.

So how do you be successful without hurting men’s feelings? You don’t. You be successful whether men’s feelings are hurt or not, because really that’s up to them, not you.

How to Be Successful without Hurting Men’s Feelings is, sadly, just as at home in 2018 as it would have been twenty-seven years ago, during the Anita Hill hearings. That thought fills me with rage – a potent expression of which is sarcasm. Luckily, How to Be Successful has that in spades.

With chapters on Communication (“How to Talk Like a Man but Still Be Seen as a Woman”), Ambition (“How to Advance Your Career Without Shoving It in Everyone’s Face”), and Leadership (“Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women”) How to Be Successful is a satirical guide to getting ahead in the corporate environment.

Most of the advice is directed at women, though a few chapters have a more gender-neutral, almost Dilbert-esque feel (minus the general assholery of Scott Adams); see, e.g., the chapter on “authenticity.” There are even some fun interactive elements, like blank pages for doodling out a mansplaining sesh; a choose-your-own-adventure chapter (would you rather: be liked or be successful?); and Men’s Achievement Stickers for allies (get in while the bar’s low, guys!).

Probably the most relevant chapter is that on harassment, namely, “How to Be Harassed Without Hurting His Career.” This one definitely pushes the book over the “would be funny if it wasn’t so damn depressing” line. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll blame the patriarchy.

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

Book Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (2018)

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

This is the alt history Confederacy story you’re looking for.

four out of five stars

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

The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land. Only we forgot the names that went with that power we brought over here. Since Haiti got free, though, those gods were coming back, she’d said, across the waters, all the way from Lafrik. Now here’s two of them in a bordello in New Orleans. Who knows what that means.

The year is 1884, and the Union is still divided. In this alternate steampunk version of American history, the Union and Confederacy called a truce after eight years of war, in the Armistice of Third Antietam. Any states not already a part of the Union were abandoned, its enslaved citizens left to perish in bondage. As if the reality of slavery wasn’t (isn’t) horrific enough, Clark throws in an especially chilling detail, reminiscent of the Sunken Place: slave owners dose their human chattel with a drug called drapeto vapor, which zombifies them into compliance.

I’ve seen the tintype photographs from inside the Confederacy. Shadowy pictures of fields and factories filled with laboring dark bodies, their faces almost all covered up in big black gas masks, breathing in that drapeto vapor. It make it so the slaves don’t want to fight no more, don’t want to do much of nothing. Just work. Thinking about their faces, so blank and empty, makes me go cold inside.

Against this backdrop we meet a plucky AF heroine, thirteen-year-old Creeper (given name Jacqueline). Orphaned three years prior when her mother died of yellow fever, Creeper lives in the nooks and crannies of Les Grand Murs, the Great Wall that surrounds free New Orleans, protecting it from the superstorms that plague the coast – ever since the Haitians let loose a supernatural weapon called The Black God’s Drums in order to drive Napoleon and the French from their country.

While hiding in her alcove, scoping out some potential marks, Creeper overhears a plot to deliver a Haitian scientist to the Confederacy. Supposedly this Dr. Duval has found a way to recreate The Black God’s Drums, thus unleashing the power of the Gods here on earth once again. With such a powerful weapon in their hands, the Confederacy could actually win the war. Now it’s up to a tween pickpocket, an airship captain named Ann-Marie St. Augustine (previously her mother’s paramour), a pair of renegade nuns, and a feral child descended from plantation owners to foil the plot and save the day.

And oh, let’s not forget the two sister-wife goddesses (or pieces of goddesses, rather) that have attached themselves to Creeper and Ann-Marie.

The Black God’s Drums is amazing, and my only complaint is that we don’t get to spend more time in the spectacularly captivating world Clark has created here. While Creeper shines (I’m a sucker for girls disguised as boys), every single character is multi-dimensional and engaging. I really love the interplay between Creeper and Ann-Marie – and their goddesses, Oya and Oshun. The relationship between Ann-Marie and Rose adds another layer to an already complex situation. And Sisters Agnès and Eunice are all kinds of awesome.

Clark paints a colorful and vibrant picture of 1884 New Orleans, from the mixed-race and gay-friendly bordello Shá Rouj to the crumbling plantations claimed by the swamps. The alternate history is fascinating, though it’s frustrating that we don’t learn more about the circumstances leading up to (and fallout of) the treaty; I really, really hope that The Black God’s Drums won’t be the only glimpse we get into this ‘verse. The titular Black God’s Drums, particularly how Clark weaves it into Haitian history, is just the icing on the cake.

I need more. Maybe a twenty-something Jacqueline, now a college graduate and bonafide member of the Midnight Robber, helping Ann-Marie and the rest of the crew to take down the Confederacy for good? Bonus points if guerilla fighter Harriet Tubman makes a cameo. Not to typecast her, but Aisha Hinds has to play Tubman in the film version. (She’s just too perfect, once you see the monologue episode of Underground you won’t ever be able to picture anyone else as Minty.)

And yes, this needs to be a movie like yesterday. Get on this, Hollywood.

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

Book Review: Watersnakes by Antonio Sandoval (2018)

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

A swing and a near-miss.

three out of five stars

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

Mila is swimming in the forest when she meets a mysterious girl named Agnes. By way of introduction, the mischievous Agnes shouts “water snake!,” causing Mila to jump from the water in fright. For her part, Mila is inexplicably drawn to Agnes’s teeth. If this all sounds weird, welcome to the world of Watersnakes.

Turns out Agnes has been dead for eleven years. Within her resides a black octopus/the former king of the sea. Her teeth are his warriors, determined to restore their ruler to his throne. I’d be worried that I’m dropping spoilers right and left here, if the book’s synopsis hadn’t already spilled the beans.

I wanted to fall in love with Watersnakes – I mean, just look at that friggin’ cover! – but alas, it is a swing and a miss.

Pros: The artwork. MY GODS, the artwork. It’s apologetically weird and occasionally surreal and grotesque, but always in the most beautiful way. It also contains one of my favorite horror tropes – SHE’S BEEN DEAD FOR YEARS!!! – and the LGBTQ elements immediately captured my interest, but…

Cons: The plot is terribly, frustratingly underdeveloped at best, and downright confusing at times. Worse: the FF romance is undermined by a kinda-sorta case of mistaken identity (no want!). Worst: When “picnic hunting” – i.e., dressing in papier-mâché animal masks and robbing an unsuspecting family of their picnic snacks – Mila pinches the ass of (read: sexually assaults) a fellow teen girl. I shit you not, I did about a dozen double takes, damn near certain I had misread the panel. (I didn’t.) Gross.

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

Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

If you liked Dexter

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for domestic violence, child abuse, and rape.)

“Femi makes three, you know. Three, and they label you a serial killer.”

My phone lights up and I glance at it. Ayoola. It is the third time she has called, but I am not in the mood to talk to her. Maybe she is reaching out because she has sent another man to his grave prematurely, or maybe she wants to know if I can buy eggs on the way home. Either way, I’m not picking up.

The first time her sister Ayoola killed a man, Korede was certain that it was in self-defense. The third time around, Korede has her doubts. But, when summoned to the scene of the crime, Korede dutifully helps Ayoola scour the blood from the carpet and dispose of the body – because that’s what big sisters do, right? Take care of their younger siblings…even if they just so happen to be knife-wielding sociopaths.

But when Ayoola sets her sights on Tade Otumu, a kind and handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works as a nurse, Korede is forced to choose sides. Will she save the object of her unrequited love, or stick by Ayoola’s side? Things get even crazier when “the patient in room 313” – a comatose man to whom Korede thought it would be safe to spill her guts – unexpectedly wakes up. What does he remember of her bizarre confessions, if anything? And just what is the story behind Ayoola’s weapon of choice?

At first glance, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a gender- and race-bent version of Dexter, set in Lagos, Nigera, and told from sister Deb’s POV. AND I AM SO HERE FOR IT. My Sister has a similar dark and twisted sense of humor that’s simply delightful. Like, Korede ought to do stand-up on her nights off.

Yet while the murdery stuff does propel the plot forward, at its core My Sister is a story about family (but then, so too is Dexter). This is a story about how surviving trauma and coming up and out of a horrific situation can bond people together for life. Doubly so if they already share the bond of sisterhood. Heaven help the dudebro who tries to get between them.

If you liked Dexter (and especially if you loathed the series finale!), or even if you’re just looking for something a little unconventional and weird, definitely give My Sister, the Serial Killer a try. It’s got short, punchy chapters (I was not surprised to read that Braithwaite was shortlisted as a top-ten spoken-word artist in the Eko Poetry Slam; each chapter feels a bit like a self-contained poem or stream-of-consciousness) and a wickedly clever vibe. This might just go down as one of my favorites of 2018.

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

Book Review: Super Chill: A Year of Living Anxiously by Adam Ellis (2018)

Friday, November 16th, 2018

Shout out to the socially anxious and chronically depressed.

four out of five stars

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

Super Chill: A Year of Living Anxiously is a collection of autobiographical comics by Adam Ellis who – like me – struggles with anxiety, depression, and (I assume) IBS. (Spoiler alert: there is digestive upset of some nature.) Reading it is like looking in a mirror, for better or worse – except, mercifully, I do not suffer from dick cling.

Not all of the comics deal with mental health issues; there’s also a mix of the weirdly specific (Ellis’s brief obsession with healing crystals) and the wildly absurd (memory foam pillows that make you relive your worst moments each night). But my favorites, unsurprisingly, involve SAD and social anxiety.

Oh, and there be cats.

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

Book Review: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah (2018)

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

I had such high hopes for this one!

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape.)

When I got to the Panah, I was unused to the sight of women’s bodies not swollen and distorted by pregnancy. It seemed wrong, at first, as if something was missing. It took me months to realize that a woman’s stomach wasn’t always convex; that its default state was not always filled with another being.

DNF at 59%, because life is too short to spend time on books that just aren’t doing it for you.

Set in the kind-of distant future, Before She Sleeps imagines a world wherein women are a scarce commodity. Nuclear war and climate change have drastically altered the landscape of South West Asia (and, indeed, the world), while a gender-specific virus has wiped out a majority of its female citizens. In the resulting chaos and power vacuum, an authoritarian order known as the Authority seized control.

Within the borders of Green City, life is strictly regimented – for everyone, but women especially. Women are not allowed to: work outside the home, keep journals, choose their own husbands (or number thereof), or use contraception, obtain abortions, or engage in family planning of any sort. They are required to maintain public profiles, so that men can shop for them online like so many consumer goods (unlike laptops, though, women cannot be bought or sold – only the Perpetuation Bureau can assign a Wife a new Husband); undergo rigorous and routine physical exams, including fertility monitoring; and accept as many Husbands – and pregnancies – as the Bureau deems fit.

It’s the inverse of fundamentalist Mormons, yet somehow women get the short end of the stick in this arrangement too (shocking, that!). Ostensibly, women are precious cargo to be treated with care and respect: in Green City, “it [is] a capital crime to hit or abuse a woman.” However, rape is a de facto part of the marriage system, as women are not permitted to choose their partners, nor deny them “life-giving” sex. After all, that is a woman’s sole purpose in society: to bear as many children as possible.

Yet girls and women still find ways to resist. Some children hide messages for each other, illicit forms of communication in a society where females are given precious little opportunity to interact with one another. On the more extreme end are the runaways, the fugitives, the disappeared women. Some of these women find their way to the Panah, a refuge located in a long-forgotten underground bunker on the outskirts of town. There they work as escorts, but instead of sex, they deal in emotional intimacy, something sorely lacking in these modern, dystopian marriages. Within this backdrop, we meet Lin, the niece of one of the Panah’s founders; Sabine, who escaped an early marriage arranged by her own father; and Rupa, who longs to return to society, despite the miseries it rained down upon her as a girl.

Before She Sleeps sounds like it should be right up my alley: I love dystopias, doubly so if they have a feminist bent, and I am a total Margaret Atwood fangirl. (Comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale never fail to reel me in.) This seemed like a slam dunk. And, while I adore the concept, the actual execution left much to be desired. For lack of a more eloquent way of putting it, Before She Sleeps just didn’t do it for me.

Each chapter alternates between a different character’s perspective. This was all fine and good when it was just Lin, Sabine, and Rupa – but once Shah tossed in a few of Green City’s male denizens mid-book, it got to be a little too much for me. Moreover, I never really got a sense of each character’s distinct personality; the overall writing style felt pretty uniform across chapters. Oftentimes the character’s physical reactions felt overdone to the point of a bad B movie script. When imagining how some scenes might play out, all I could picture were comically terrible improv actors. Cringe-worthy doesn’t begin to describe it.

There are also quite a few info dumps – which, it must be said, isn’t always a mood killer for me, but here they often popped up in weird and awkward places. To wit: As Reuben races across town to retrieve his illicit mistress’s illegal girl, passed out unconscious in the street and maybe dying of who knows what, his thoughts randomly wander to … how he became one of the most powerful men in Green City? I mean, seriously! More likely that train of thought would go something like this: “OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT FUCK WHAT AM I GONNA DO WE ARE SO FUCKED OH SHIT PLEASE DON’T LET THERE BE A RED LIGHT OH FUCK ME FUCK THIS FUCK EVERYTHING I AM TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT I NEED A VACATION.”

So, yeah, file this one in the “devastating disappointment” drawer. Bummer!

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

Book Review: Please Don’t Grab My P#$$y: A Rhyming Presidential Guide by Julia Young & Matt Harkins (2018)

Friday, November 9th, 2018

Would be funny if it wasn’t so damn depressing.

four out of five stars

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

This is a list of things you can grab
And yes, I’m gonna sound pushy
For once in your life, listen up
DON’T EVER FUCKING GRAB MY PUSSY

In this picture book-for-adults, NYC-based comedians Julia Young and Matt Harkins combine irreverent poetry with powerful illustrations by Laura Collins to call out Drumpf for his long and shameless history of sexual assault, rape, and general harassment of women.

Their cheeky and sometimes weird sense of humor disarms the reader, all while imparting an important message about consent: namely, DON’T EVER FUCKING GRAB MY PUSSY!. Instead, they provide a handy list of things Drumpf can grab instead: his golf putter, the remote control, his favorite shade of crayon – Caucasian, natch. Tragically, none of these suggestions involve a live wire or the testicles of a very angry and untethered grizzly bear.

To be perfectly honest, some of the euphemisms the authors employ for vagina threw me off; certainly these sound made up, I thought. But I googled a few and, sure enough, they are all slang variations of pussy. (*shaking head*) Although I must admit a certain affection for “dildo hotel.”

Please Don’t Grab My P#$$y: A Rhyming Presidential Guide is good for a chuckle or two, tempered by the odd dry heave and stifled sob; it would be so much funnier if our current reality wasn’t so damn depressing. (The painting of Hillary being sworn in cut like a katana to the heart.) Still, it’s a necessary and dynamic piece of activism.

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

Book Review: Someone I Used to Know by Patty Blount (2018)

Tuesday, November 6th, 2018

Smashing the patriarchy, one Pinterest board at a time!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape, obviously.)

“Ms. Lawrence,” he says, taking off his glasses. “I understand how you feel—”
“Really?” I snap back. “How did you get over your rape?”

“The reason men like Ariel Castro and Elliot Rodger and Aaron Persky exist is because men like us never called them out on their bullshit the first time they showed it.”

THEN: Ashley Lawrence and her older brother Derek used to be BFFs. Until they weren’t. But even all Derek’s conventionally crappy older brother behavior – ditching his younger sister, giving her a mean-spirited nickname, and just generally shunning her at school – couldn’t foreshadow his reaction when Ashley is at first sexually harassed, and then raped by his football teammate Victor Patton as part of a “team-building” scavenger hunt. When called to testify, Derek partakes in the same rape culture that paved the way for Vic’s violation of Ashley: He dismisses the scavenger hunt as “just a game,” and says that he doesn’t think Vic should be punished too harshly. For raping his fourteen-year-old sister. Needless to say, the rape and its aftermath cause something of a rift in the Lawrence family.

Told from Ashley and Derek’s alternating perspectives, in a series of then/now flashbacks and present-day narration, Someone I Used to Know explores how toxic masculinity, the idolatry of the high school football team, and rape culture more broadly contributed to Ashley’s rape, and shaped the community’s reaction to the resulting trial, Victor’s conviction, and the (short-lived) cancellation of the football program.

NOW: It’s been two years since Vic raped Ashley at homecoming; much has changed, but also not. Bellford High School is about to re-institute the football program, and Victor is getting out of prison after serving just sixteen months of a paltry two-year sentence. The Lawrence’s marriage is on the brink of collapse, as mom and dad both have different ideas of how to deal with Ashley and Derek’s feud, for lack of a better term.

For me, this was one of the more interesting (and frustrating! parents, gawd!) parts of the story, since I have a younger brother I haven’t spoken to in twenty years or so. The rift has nothing to do with sexual assault, thankfully, just him generally behaving like a dick. It was illuminating to see the effect it had on the senior Lawrences, though I was disappointed that mom and dad didn’t more firmly come down on Ashley’s side, given the circumstances.

Ashley is an amazing, take-no-shit protagonist who turns to activism to deal with her trauma: with the help of Sebastian, the only truly “nice guy” on the football team, she starts a club called Bengals Against Rape, and challenges her community to “Raise the BAR” when it comes to their treatment of girls and women. Likewise, Derek – now in self-exile at college in Long Island, hundreds of miles from home – joins Guys Against Rape, where he’s disgusted to be just one of six men at the first meeting.

Whereas the bulk of the story feels authentic and believable – depressingly so – Derek’s sudden discovery that RAPE CULTURE IS REAL! and complete 180 from rape apologist to #1 DEFENDER OF WOMEN FOR ALL TIME! strained my credulity a bit. That said, I understand the need to end things on a somewhat hopeful note, and the one Blount struck isn’t too far out there. And, to be fair, Blount is quick to point out Derek’s flaws, which cannot be wholly and immediately covered up by his good intentions. More so, we all have work to do, a concept that’s adeptly illustrated by this one really great brainstorming scene between Ashley and Sebastian (where the latter reminds the former that not all rape victims are female, and it’s important to acknowledge them too).

In sum, Someone I Used to Know is a pretty great – by which I mean insightful and illuminating, if damn depressing – exploration of rape culture, from “innocuous” and ubiquitous “sex sells” advertising to rape “jokes” and “jokey” rape threats; from sexual harassment to rape apologism, and everything in between. What Vic did to Ashley definitely falls on the more extreme end of the spectrum, but the various and sundry “smaller” slights that came before and after are all part and parcel of a culture that enables and excuses violence against women.

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

Book Review: Slothilda: Living the Sloth Life by Dante Fabiero (2018)

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

Celebrating the inner sloth in all of us!

four out of five stars

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

Slothilda is an everywoman: She’s addicted to her phone, laptop, and the internet. She naps hard and snacks harder. She loves carbs and is an A+ procrastinator. Her beautifully curvaceous behind is a mirror image of that of her dog, Peanut. (A corgi, natch!) And, oh yeah: Slothilda is a sloth. (fwiw I think she more closely resembles a hamster, but it’s all good.)

With sections on fitness, food, work, money, home, lifestyle, and fur baby, Dante Fabiero pays homage to his inner sloth, and celebrates the sloth that lives in all of us. (I have to assume, if only for my own self-esteem.) Slothilda is a heroine that’s both super-adorable and relatable AF.

I mean, I wasn’t exactly shocked to discover how closely my diet and work habits parallel those of a sloth, but some of the strips are weirdly specific. (Hours spent hunting for a valid online coupon code to save a measly coupla bucks, hello!)

My only complaint is this: In the ARC, the captions appear as text separate from the illustrations, giving the comics an odd and disjointed feeling. I’m sure this will be corrected in the final version.

Oh, and Peanut should totes be renamed Cheddar. That is the only acceptable name for a corgi.

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

Book Review: Emotions Explained with Buff Dudes: Owlturd Comix by Andrew Tsyaston (2018)

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

If you loved Sarah’s Scribbles

four out of five stars

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

I hate to compare this to Sarah’s Scribbles, mostly because I compare everything to Sarah’s Scribbles. (What can I say? It’s my benchmark for socially awkward, relatable AF irreverent humor!) But Andrew Tsyaston feels like Sarah Andersen’s equally weird and self-conscious west coast guy cousin. Same unfortunate wavelength (thanks God’s broken salt shaker!), different genders. But in color!

So as you can probably gather, Tsyaston tackles a number of mental health issues through his cartoons (most prominently social anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem) as well as topics especially though not exclusively relevant to millennials (technology, student debt, the death of facts). The titular BUFF DUDES are a) totes nude but b) actually the antagonists of Tsyaston’s stories; see, e.g. Life. The result is both hilarious and crushing, and will leave you feeling marginally better about this effed up plane of existence we call the human experience. Shen might be a white dude (I mean, I think?), but you’ll see bits of yourself reflected back in the funhouse mirror that is his soul.

In summary, Owlturd Comix is great, and I look forward to devouring many more of them. And now I shall leave you with just a few of my favorites.

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

Book Review: Quiver by Julia Watts (2018)

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

You say helpmeet, I say handmaid.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for misogyny, homophobia, and domestic violence.)

Mr. Hazlett’s getting worked up, too. A vein in his forehead bulges disturbingly. “In a Christian home, the man is like God, and his wife is the holy church.”

Dad laughs out loud. Maybe a little too loud. “So you get to be a deity, and she just gets to be a building?”

I don’t know what shocks me more—my grandmother cursing or hearing her say I have the right to choose what to do with my life.

— 4.5 stars —

Liberty Hazlett is the oldest of six children. Well, seven counting the baby on the way. Nine with the two angel babies that died in utero. Each child is named after a Christian virtue: Justice, Patience, Faith, Valor, Charity. They live in rural Tennessee, where father James has his own small business (Hazlett and Sons Pest Control), and mother Becky homeschools them. The kids (the girls in particular) have little contact with the outside world, and their everyday lives are strictly regulated. (For real: they’re allowed ten minutes for a shower, as “it’s not good to stay in the bathroom too long because it leads to temptation”).

Libby and her family are part of the Quiverfull movement: a Christian patriarchy that doesn’t practice any form of birth control, including so-called “natural family planning.” (Think: the Duggars.) Rather, they “trust the Lord” to give them as many children as he desires/thinks they can handle – each of which is to become an arrow in the Lord’s quiver, a Christian soldier in His army, hence the sect’s (read: cult’s) name.

At sixteen years old, Libby is barreling towards marriageable age. This means wedding a virtuous Christian man of her father’s choosing; accepting her husband as the head of the household; and obeying him in all matters, from sex to finances to child rearing…even what opinions she should adopt on any given topic under the Heavens. It also means churning out children like a baby factory, until her body wears out. Only, pray as she might, Libby doesn’t want this life for herself. She knows it’s sinful, but she has two eyes and a fully functioning brain, and she can see the toll it’s taking on her mother.

Zo Forrester and her family – younger brother Owen and parents Jen and Todd – just moved into “the old Dobbins place” next door. Life in Knoxville was wearing them all down, so they traded it in for a simpler existence in the country. Todd traded in his nursing job for one at the department of health, and Jen homeschools the kids and does some weaving on the side.

The Hazletts might define Zo as an uppity young heathen woman, but Zo’s gender identity is more complicated than all that: she’s gender fluid.

Being a lesbian was really important to Hadley, and she wanted me to say I was one, too. But if I said I was a lesbian, I’d be saying I was a 100 percent girl who only liked other 100 percent girls, and I couldn’t say that. Sometimes I feel like a boy in lipstick. Sometimes I feel like a girl with a bulge in her jeans. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I have a gender—that the body that contains my personality is no more significant than the jar that holds the peanut butter. I’m fine with all of this, but Hadley wasn’t.

In contrast to the “tragic queer” narratives that dominate fiction (yes, LGBTQ folks face higher levels of violence across the board, and it’s important to explore this – but we need uplifting, happy stories, too!), the Forresters are incredibly accepting of both their kids. They’re also super-progressive and open-minded, basically the exact opposite of Lord James, so much so that I wish they could retroactively and imaginarily adopt me.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Lil’ Donnie Volume 1: Executive Privilege by Mike Norton (2018)

Friday, October 19th, 2018

449 Days in The Bad Place

four out of five stars

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

I will say about Lil’ Donnie Volume 1: Executive Privilege what I say of all humorous/satirical books about 45: it’d be funny if it wasn’t so damned depressing. A collection of the first 125 strips of Mike Norton’s webcomic of the same name, Volume 1 spans the time of Drumpf’s inauguration through April 13, 2018.

Norton’s art is spot-on; somehow he manages to make a revolving door of white men all immediately recognizable and distinct (something not always easily accomplished in comics). My favorites are Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, depicted here as a cursed apple-doll puppet. John Bolton’s ‘stache merging with Drumpf’s comb-over in nuclear ecstasy is a solid runner-up.

Norton’s wit is similarly biting, although I must admit that some of the earliest strips had me scratching my head and consulting ye ole google. With catastrophes breaking on the daily, it’s hard to remember what fresh hell transpired last month, let alone last year.

I look forward to reading the inevitable Toad-inspired strip.

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

Book Review: Zenobia by Morten Dürr & Lars Horneman (2018)

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

A powerful piece of activism.

four out of five stars

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

One day, young Amina’s parents leave her home alone, ostensibly while they travel to the market. This is kind of a Big Deal because they haven’t had much to eat lately. But when they fail to return, Amina must summon the courage of Zenobia – a warrior woman and queen of the Palmyrene Empire, who once ruled over Syria and is now widely considered a national hero – to help her traverse her war-torn homeland and make it to safety.

Zenobia provides a window into the Syrian war and resulting refugee crisis through the eyes of a child. The result is deeply personal and moving. The narration is sparse and the illustrations, simple, sometimes rendered in just two tones of a single color. This allows Amina’s experiences take center stage.

The ending is rather jarring and deeply unsatisfying. I’ve been trying hard to shake the hollow feeling settling deep in my bones since finishing the book several hours ago. But perhaps that’s the point: there is no happy ending, at least not yet. And though I consider Zenobia a powerful piece of activism, it’s hard to imagine that it will soften hearts and change minds in this deeply divided and hateful political landscape.

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

Book Review: The Book of Onions: Comics to Make You Cry Laughing and Cry Crying by Jake Thompson (2018)

Friday, October 12th, 2018

Embrace It, Jack

four out of five stars

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

This is not a cookbook, although a book of onion-based delicacies does sound amazing. Rather, The Book of Onions is a collection of strips from the webcomic Jake Likes Onions by by Jake Thompson. Drawn in black and white with a four-panel convention, Thompson’s comics often veer toward the absurd and bizarre, with a wickedly dark sense of humor. They’re a little reminiscent of The Far Side, but more obscene (mostly in a good way). The never did get me crying quite like a fat, juicy onion, but they were good for a chuckle or two, and some of the especially bleak ones just may haunt my nightmares. (Jack, I’m looking at you.)

If you don’t follow Jake on twitter, what are you waiting for?

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

Book Review: Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels (2018)

Monday, October 8th, 2018

Welcome to the anti-Clone Club.

five out of five stars

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

Despite being an interracial couple who married in the ’70s, Molly and Hank Nonnar have built a pretty charmed life together. Dr. Manuela Nonnar is a scientist (geneticist?) at the top of her field, while Hank continues the legacy left him by his father, a franchise based on a popular black superhero named Slane. Though they have no children of their own, the couple acts as surrogate parents to their niece Del, who likes play researcher in Molly’s backyard. (Yay girls in STEM!) Then a fateful meeting between Hank and Dr. Victoria Teel upends their world and calls everything they thought they knew into question.

For their 40th anniversary,* the couple decides to make a substantial investment in a company called Via; in exchange, they’ll be the first to undergo Via’s experimental “genetic purification” procedure. It promises to make them stronger, smarter, faster, healthier, and more long-lived than any human before them. And it does, in a way.

Molly and Hank wake up seven months later in bodies that have seemingly aged ten years. Instead of being changed, they have been cloned. And their clones are half-formed “monsters”: aborted (er, “canceled”) during the 10th week of development, Manuela and Henry (as their counterparts are christened) resemble baked potatoes with cured ham for limbs (in technical terms). But they are “better” than the source material in every other way, blessed with superhuman strength and intellectual prowess that surpasses that of their creators.

Yet there’s only room in the world for one Molly and Hank. Will it be the “source material” that Dr. Kallose intended to destroy upon the successful completion of the project, or the “monsters” that are a sentient success, yet are too aesthetically displeasing to ever present in public?

Upgrade Soul might just be one of the most bizarre, horrifying, and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, graphic novel or otherwise. It raises a myriad of deliciously thorny questions: What makes you you? Is a person more than the sum of their parts? How much are we shaped by our environments? Our bodies? What is normality, and who gets to define it?

Plus it delights in a wicked sense of humor while doing so, particularly in the forms of Molly and Hank 2.0.

The plot’s pretty compelling, and the artwork, appropriately crude and weird – but in an oddly moving way. There were a few holes, though; for example, it was never entirely clear to me what Molly and Hank expected of the procedure (e.g., did they know that their “original” bodies were destined for the incinerator?). Also: an already creepy story gets even freakier with the additional of an incest subplot, which is kind of left dangling, much to this reader’s dismay. (You can’t just drop a bomb like that and walk away, mkay.) And just why did Manuela do what she did?

Still, Upgrade Soul is one of the better graphic novels I’ve read in recent memory: a legit page-turner that both entertains and challenges. If you dig sci-fi, you owe to yourself to add it to your TBR list.

* It’s right there on page 47 of my ARC, no matter what the synopsis says.

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

Book Review: Bald Knobber by Robert Sergel (2018)

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

Not so much about the Bald Knobbers as a struggling middle-schooler.

two out of five stars

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

Named for the bald knob summit on which the group formed, the Bald Knobbers was a vigilante group that operated in the Ozarks in the wake of the Civil War. Being a border state, Missouri “was hard hit by neighbor against neighbor bushwhacker fighting.” (h/t to wikipedia for this paragraph.) After the war’s end, the violence continued, with law enforcement either powerless to – or disinterested in – stopping it. The Bald Knobbers – largely Republicans who sided with the Union Army – ostensibly formed to bring marauding gangs to justice. This led to the birth of opposition groups, the rather uncreatively named anti-Bald Knobbers. The original Taney County chapter was ultimately forced to disband when the Missouri Governor became involved due to escalating violence.

Sergel uses this chapter in history – presented in the form of a book report given by our middle-school protagonist Cole – as a backdrop for Cole’s own personal problems. His divorced parents loathe one another, and have no qualms about fighting – and fighting dirty – in front of their only child. Cole is the target of a local bully named Sam and, when he fights back, he finds that the relief is only temporary. Everything comes to a head in a shocking twist that could either be an act of unspeakable cruelty … or a tragic accident.

Honestly, I was hoping to learn more about the Bald Knobbers than we actually do. The parallels that Cole finds between their lives and his feel superficial and a bit contrived – especially since the book mostly ignores the group’s enforcement of religious mores, of which there is nothing heroic. (There is a mention of whipping “drunkards and loose women,” a term the teacher scolds Cole for using, but that’s about it.) Curiously, there’s also no mention of slavery, Reconstruction, or the Bald Knobbers’ political alliances. I am not fond of Civil War discussions that don’t include the words “slavery” the bare minimum of once.

Cole also comes to the conclusion that violence is never the solution; rather, violence always begets more violence. This, um, in a book at least tangentially about the Civil War. Tell me, were we going to work that one out with politely worded missives and caramel-loaded candy-grams?

Otherwise, the art is nice to look at; the black and white color scheme feels clean and simple, and helps to underscore the book’s tone. I just wish the story had shown more depth and nuance.

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

Book Review: Open Earth by Sarah Mirk, Eva Cabrera, & Claudia Aguirre (2018)

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

The future is queer AF!

four out of five stars

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

Out of the ruins of old Earth blossoms a new culture that’s open, sexually liberated, and queer AF!

Twenty-year-old Rigo is an alien, of sorts: a human being born in space. Of Earth, but not from Earth. Rigo and her peers are generation of pioneers: space, political, social, sexual. The California‘s motto – “Serve the Greater Good” – is applicable to all areas of life on the ship, including the bunks. Among the tweens, teens, and young adults, monogamy is seen as taboo: it encourages social isolation and jealousy and works against peak genetic variation. “Friends with benefits” kinda sorta goes without saying; same-sex couplings aren’t just tolerated, but accepted without question; and polyamory is the norm. Even the ‘rents are a little kinky!

So when Rigo begins feeling a little too drawn to Carver, her queer and geeky lab mate, she’s reluctant to give voice to these feelings for fear of being ostracized. Not to mention, coming as out conventional and old school, like her scientist parents. What’s a curvy, pansexual, polyamorous refugee girl to do?

Open Earth probably isn’t for everyone. There’s not much of a plot, save for Rigo’s attempt to navigate her love life while keeping her self-identity intact. While technically a science fiction comic, the story could take place anywhere. Or maybe not: perhaps it will take nothing less than hundreds of years and millions of miles from our current state of being to embrace such a radical and liberated (dare I say socialist?) ethos.

Anyway, I enjoyed the characters and the society and the general world-building. There’s wonderful representation here, and I’m not just talking gender identity and sexual orientation. I’d love to see additional stories set in this ‘verse, perhaps featuring characters we’ve already met (Rigo’s parents being first on the list!), or those from California’s past or future.

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

Book Review: Grace and Fury (Grace and Fury #1) by Tracy Banghart (2018)

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

A YA Spin on The Handmaid’s Tale Set in 1600s Italia

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape. This review contains very vague spoilers.)

“One evening,” Serina had recited from memory, her recent singing lessons coating her voice with honey, “as the sun eased toward the horizon and the moon rose from its slumber, two birds flew along the path made on the water by the setting sun. They dipped and sagged, their battered wings barely holding them aloft. Every now and then, one would falter and fall toward the water, all strength gone. The other would dive and catch the first on its back, carrying its partner for a time.

“The two birds traveled this way for many leagues, until the path of the sun had faded and the moon’s silver road appeared. The ocean shimmied and danced beneath the birds, intrigued by their obvious love for each other. The ocean had never loved anything so much, to burden its own back with another’s survival. It didn’t understand why the birds didn’t fend for themselves—the stronger leave the weaker and carry on.

“It took the ocean some time to understand that apart, the birds would never have made it so far,” Serina had continued, wrapping an arm around Nomi’s shoulders. “That their love, their sacrifice, gave them both strength. When at last, the two little birds, their bright red and green feathers tarnished from their long journey, could no longer hold themselves free of the endless water, the ocean took pity on them. Rewarding their steadfastness, it pushed land up from its depths—huge, lush hills with fresh, clean water, towering cypress trees, and all the fruits and berries and seeds they could ever desire. The lovebirds alighted in the shady, cool branches of an olive tree, their tired wings wrapping around each other, their beaks tucked into each other’s feathers. And at last, they were able to rest.”

Every aspect of their world, down to Viridia’s prisons, pitted women against each other while men watched.

Serina and Nomi Tessaro are daughters of Viridia – which kind of sucks, since women aren’t valued very highly in their culture. Women are only allowed three vocations: factory workers, servants, or wives. Rarely do they get to choose which. Also on the list of no-nos: reading, disobedience, impertinence, wearing their hair above their shoulders, cutting their hair without the say-so of a man, and engaging in violence, if even as a means of self-defense. Women who break the rules – so-called criminals – are imprisoned on the imposing volcanic island of Mount Ruin.

Serina and Nomi are alike in that they’re both gunning for a way out: Serina hopes to trade her dirty industrial village of Lanos for the rich, opulent city of Bellaqua by becoming one of the Heir’s first three concubines – his Graces. Viridia is a monarchy, presided over by a sort of king called the Superior. The present Superior has two sons, Malachi and his younger brother Asa; at his upcoming twentieth birthday celebration, Malachi will choose his first three Graces. Serina is determined to be one of them. Success will mean that she and Nomi – serving as her handmaiden – will be spared a lifetime of drudgery. Failure is not an option.

Nomi is the younger sister, and also the more rebellious – the Fury to Serina’s Grace. Nomi’s escape – and her downfall, perhaps – lies in the magical worlds that swell and beckon from between the covers of books. When Nomi is tempted by the palazzo’s vast library, things go sideways. Before the sisters can utter a tart retort, Nomi has been chosen as one of Malachi’s Graces, while Serina is condemned to fight and die on Mount Ruin. Both sisters must summon up the other’s strength to survive – and maybe even overthrow the patriarchy.

I love a good feminist yarn, and Grace and Fury doesn’t disappoint. Well, mostly. Initially the tone felt a little on the young end of YA for my taste, but I quickly warmed to each sister’s voice. I feel like the MCs could stand to be a little more fleshed out, but I’m hoping we’ll see this in the sequel. I thought Banghart did a great job with the supporting characters; I want to know more about Oracle and Maris and Helena and Anika – and Val’s parents, too.

I saw the surprise twist coming a mile away, and I bet more astute readers will spot it even sooner. (The clue for me was in the horses. Never trust a dude who abuses animals.) I almost had trouble believing that Nomi fell for the ruse (“It was so obvious now.” No kidding!), but once I sat back and tried to truly imagine myself in her shoes, I can kind of get it. I mean, she’s totally alone, completely out of her element, with no one to trust, and here comes this slithery little serpent telling her what she wants/needs to hear. And I mean, it’s not like she had any better options.

The climax of the story was well worth it; rarely do books compel me to talk (or shout!) back at them, but I was yelling and hand-waving at Serina, as though she could hear me (“Fight him! Challenge him to fight!”). The last scene just leaves so many possibilities open, I cannot wait to see where the story goes.

Also great is Viridia’s entire backstory, which prominently features strong, badass women getting shafted by THE MAN. How many centuries, and how little has changed?

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