Book Review: Superman Smashes The Klan by Gene Luen Yang & Gurihiru (2020)

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

The Hero We Need

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Obvious trigger warning for racist violence.)

The year is 1946, and the Lee family – mom, dad, Roberta, and Tommy – has just moved from Chinatown to Metropolis, so that Mr. Lee can begin a new job as Chief Bacteriologist of the Health Department. Gregarious and handsome, Tommy fits right in, easily slipping into the spot of star pitcher at the Unity House. An aspiring journalist with a stomach made of jelly,* Roberta – birth name Lan-Shin – is immediately homesick for Chinatown, where she didn’t feel like such a “weirdo”.

And then her family is targeted by the local chapter of the Clan of the Fiery Red Cross, which lights a cross on the Lee’s front lawn and attempts to fire bomb their house. The Allies may have won World War II, and Superman literally just crushed the Nazi supersoldier Atom Man, but racism is still alive and thriving – and firmly entrenched in Metropolis’s social institutions.

Luckily, the Lees live right across the street from cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (who is obviously and adorably smitten with Roberta), and Superman and Lois Lane are pursuing the case, each in their own ways.

I’ve really been enjoying DC’s YA imprint, but Superman Smashes The Klan takes things to the next level. Based on a sixteen-part radio show that aired in 1946 called “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”**, the story expertly dovetails Roberta’s journey with that of her idol, Superman. At this point in his story, Clark Kent is thirty-something and has only been superheroing for ten years. As a kid growing up in Smallville, his differences were a source of shame: they marked him as different, a freak, nonhuman. Demonic, even. And so he learned to suppress and ignore his powers. It wasn’t until a circus tent that he, the Kents, and Lana Lang were sitting under caught fire that Clark used his super strength for good. After that, Mrs. Kent sewed Clark his iconic red cape and Superman was born.

Yet, even as Superman, Clark hides pieces of himself: he has super strength and super speed, yes, but he runs along phone lines rather than flying, because defying gravity would give him away as not entirely of this world. And his ruse works, a little too well: the story’s big bad, a grand Scorpion of the Klan, proudly claims Superman as the best of what the white race has to offer; irrefutable evidence of white superiority.

An honest-to-goodness alien from another world, created by two first-generation Jewish immigrants, Superman has always functioned as a stand-in for marginalized groups: refugees and immigrants of various races, religions, and ethnicities (depending on which group is currently being scapegoated). Superman is as American as apple pie and AK-47s, and he’s a legit alien. Yang masterfully underscores this aspect of Superman’s identity by enmeshing his story with Roberta’s. Both of these “weirdos” learn to embrace their differences, because it’s what makes them – and, indeed, the world – so damn special.

Yang’s story is also deeply steeped in history, in ways I wouldn’t have fully appreciated without reading his essay “Superman and Me” (it appears in pieces in the single issues, and as a whole in the TP). I especially loved the showdown between the scorpion and grand wizard, as the two clashed over the Clan’s true purpose.

This piece, in particular, seems especially relevant today.

* Roberta’s “gurgly stomach” is a mood.

** “To avoid getting sued by an organization that was legally recognized in several states, the show’s writers created a stand-in organization called The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” Yang explains in “Superman and Me.”

(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 Lost Carnival: A Dick Grayson Graphic Novel by Michael Moreci, Sas Milledge & Phil Hester (2020)

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

The Night Circus meets Romeo and Juliet, in the YA DC ‘verse.

four out of five stars

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

DC’s new line of YA and middle-grade graphic novels provide an excellent entry point into the publisher’s extensive catalog, and The Lost Carnival: A Dick Grayson Graphic Novel is no exception. I love comic books, but mostly stick to newer series/those based on other media I already love (think: Pretty Deadly / Firefly), since DC and Marvel’s decades-long history can be intimidating. (Where to start!?) Luckily, these are standalone stories that don’t require a whole lot of knowledge about the characters going in.

Here, Dick Grayson – the Robin to Bruce Wayne’s Batman – is a teenager living in modern day America. In keeping with the character’s original backstory, Dick comes from a family of acrobats; along with his parents, the Flying Graysons spend their summers traveling and performing with Haly’s Circus. Unlike the original incarnation, his parents are not mowed down by the mafia.

Rather, Dick is feeling somewhat alienated: bored by days that seem to blend into one another; unchallenged by the Flying Graysons’ predictable routine; and longing for a “normal” childhood. As if that’s not enough, the very fate of the circus rests on the Graysons’ (admittedly well-toned) shoulders: the circus is hemorrhaging customers, most notably to The Lost Carnival, a decadent affair that somewhat mysteriously threw down its stakes right across the way from Haly’s, seemingly overnight.

As tensions rise between the competing groups of carnies, Dick finds himself caught in the middle, torn between his family and the enthralling Luciana. Unlike his BFF Willow’s magic, Luciana’s powers seem to be the real (read: supernatural) deal: when her uncle calls forth menacing, Swamp Thing-like creatures, it’s up to Luciana to prevent them from escaping. The deeper Dick and Willow dive into the world of The Lost Carnival, the more bizarre things get. Can teenage love really conquer all? (Spoiler alert: No. No, it can’t.)

This is a really fun and surprisingly sweet story that’s an intoxicating blend of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Romeo and Juliet, and the DC ‘verse, with a YA spin. Even though the plot proved somewhat predictable, it’s still a fun ride. Dick is interesting enough, but it’s the supporting characters that really captured my imagination: Luciana, Willow, Quinn, and the employees at The Lost Carnival. And the carnival itself, naturally, which is all kind of magical and mystifying.

I devoured an ARC, so I’m not entirely sure what the finished art will look like – but what I saw was lovely indeed. The colors mostly alternate between a moody blue and glitzy gold-ish, occasionally coming together for that extra pop. Dick is a cutie, and the rep here is great. (You’ve got to love that there are not one, but two families of POC magicians.)

(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: Last Girls by Demetra Brodsky (2020)

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

“Our end will bring our beginning to light.”

three out of five stars

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

When I reminisce about the pieces of art I’ve left behind over the years, I get pensive. I could have taken them, but I chose to leave them behind, in places we lived, in art rooms at different schools. Never signed, but as an artistic Honey Was Here trail.

If we were living in a different time, she’d be the first of us weirds to be tried as a witch. Birdie would be next, for failure to cooperate with the magistrates. And then me, because with my sisters persecuted I would straight up lose my mind.

Sixteen-year-old Honey Juniper and her two younger sisters – Birdie and Blue, collectively known at Elkwood High as “the weird sisters” – are preppers. Along with a handful of other families, they live on a secret compound in the backwoods of Washington State. Dieter Ackerman’s acolytes hide in plain sight: bartering and selling homemade goods in the small town of Elkwood, attending nearby Elkwood High School, pretending to live in the mobile home park they use for extra storage.

Though the Juniper sisters have moved five times in ten years, it’s starting to look like the Nest might be their final home…at least, until Dieter’s increasingly risky and erratic behavior, coupled with Alice Juniper’s social climbing, proves to be their undoing.

I expected to enjoy Last Girls so much more than I did. I mean, doomsday preppers! Badass sisters with pouty lips and wild hairdos! Forbidden love/lust! Sick presidential burns! Cultish stuff galore! A freaking peregrine falcon! Alas, it was not meant to be.

I think my main gripe is that there’s just too much going on here. A story about three sisters caught in a doomed doomsday prepper group (lol, see what I did there?) is interesting enough on its own. The culture of paranoia would make for a rather gripping psychological thriller; throw in some teenage hormones a la Remy and Honey, and you’ve got yourself one rousing tale. But on top of a prepper cult engaged in some sketchy terrorist activities and maybe under investigation by the authorities, we also have a triple kidnapping and some random psychic shit thrown in to make things extra weird, I guess.

To be fair, Blue’s prophecies are obvious throwbacks to Shakespeare’s witches – as are the sisters, collectively – as well as Cassandra of Greek mythology. Even so, it’s all just too much.

I also felt like many of the characters, including Honey and her sisters, could have been fleshed out more. The Juniper sisters feel more like a collection of quirks and eccentricities than honest-to-goodness people. And the secondary characters? Ugh. Caricatures, mostly: Magda is the jealous scorned wife; Annalise, the power-hungry second child; Dieter, the erratic messiah. Even Alice Juniper is elusive at best, and it’s her actions that set this whole story in motion.

There’s an exhilarating seed of a story here that sadly never fully blooms. I’m sure Blue would have something especially prescient to say here.

(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: Eat, and Love Yourself by Sweeney Boo & Lilian Klepakowsky (2020)

Friday, April 24th, 2020

The artwork is marvelous, but the story *just* misses the mark.

three out of five stars

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

It would be kind to say that Mindy’s stuck in a rut. At twenty-seven, she’s deferred college to the point that she now feels too old for it. She works long hours as a barrista and barely socializes. Her best/only friend Shaé is both sweet and loyal; unfortunately, she also has a long track record of saying exactly the wrong thing when it comes to Mindy’s weight, which has been a sore point her entire life.

Mindy’s struggled with disordered eating since she was a kid, including binge eating following by purging. She has painfully low self-esteem and body dysmorphia, which holds her back in life: from making friends, dating, trying to achieve her goals, and making the most of her one wild and precious life.

Until, one late night/early morning, Mindy happens upon a weird, hippy dippy, New Agey candy bar at her local bodega, and picks it up on a whim. “Eat and Love Yourself,” it entreats her. With each bite, Mindy is transported, ghost-like, to a memory from her childhood. In each scene, her “food issues” command a large presence.

In flashbacks, she witnesses her well-meaning but oblivious parents arguing over her eating habits; a young Mindy keeping a food journal; a teenage Mindy blowing off a cute guy at school, because he couldn’t possibly like her; and much worse.

Thankfully, adult Mindy is much kinder to her young self; with the help of “Eat and Love Yourself” (man, why couldn’t you be dark chocolate instead of milk!?), Mindy takes a tentative step on the path to self-acceptance and healing.

I wanted to love Eat, and Love Yourself – I cannot tell you how much! – but I just feel like there’s a piece missing. The story ends abruptly, at a point that literally had me protesting, “Wait, that was it!?” I can’t even say that the ending is hopeful, since it feels incomplete: has Mindy made peace with her body? I’m not 100% sold.

Plus there’s this really odd multiple-Mindys sequence in the very first pages that I thought would be explained (or at least referenced!) at end, but no such luck. I guess we’re just to take it as a (day)dream sequence? Personally, I find my original interpretation – Mindy starts some radical body acceptance movement, becoming an overnight sensation, and so everyone starts copying her unique style – much more satisfying.

That said, that artwork is gorgeous – as in comma, drop dead. Mindy is freaking adorable, with her bopping teal ponytail and geekalicious oversized owl glasses. I just wanted to give her a smushy hug and then borrow her combat boots indefinitely.

There’s a lot in the story that did hit home with me, especially all the underhanded comments from mom and dad that gradually eroded Mindy’s self-esteem.

Eat, and Love Yourself is a welcome contribution to the literature on eating disorders, self-esteem, and the beauty industrial complex, but it could have been so much more. I mean, magical chocolate bars! What a great idea!

(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: We Are All His Creatures: Tales of P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman by Deborah Noyes (2020)

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

This could have been spectacular.

three out of five stars

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

“Never is the joke on you, my boy. Remember that. The power is yours. Count your worth in coins.”

As an afterthought, he added, “Your parents certainly do.”

“We have very few pictures of any of us.” She lifted one of the many cabinet cards of General Tom Thumb. “Papa always liked them better.”

The subtitle of We Are All His Creatures: Tales of P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman is a bit misleading, as the eleven loosely connected short stories gathered in these pages are only marginally about PT Barnum. Rather, Noyes concerns herself with the people trapped in Barnum’s orbit, and imagines how his actions might have affected them.

Naturally, this is a pretty complicated subject: while Barnum arguably created gainful (and even profitable) means of employment for disabled folks who, in some cases, were considered “burdens” on their families, his exhibits leaned into racist, sexist, and albeist tropes, thus perpetuating the bigotry that drove many of Barnum’s performers into his arms. Though he was an outspoken abolitionist later in life, Barnum quite literally built his career on the back of Joice Heth, an elderly African-American slave who Barnum purchased and exhibited as “the 161-year-old nursing mammy of George Washington.” He even exploited Heth in death, offering her body up for a public, for-pay autopsy to “prove” her age and authenticity.

Given this, I expected that Noyes would elevate the voices of the performers who both prospered and suffered under Barnum’s thumb. Instead, there’s a mix of perspectives here: while some stories are told from the POV of performers (or their friends and family), the majority of the narrators – 6/11 – are Barnum’s female family members. The stories cross a nearly fifty-year time span and often occur at crucial (and tragic) moments in Barnum’s timeline:

The Mermaid (1842)
Caroline, the eldest of the Barnum girls, is itching to see her father’s newest acquisition: the Feejee mermaid, being displayed several floors above the family’s living quarters in the American Museum. Since daddy has precious little time for her, she’s determined to take matters into her own hands.

The Mysterious Arm (1842)
Young Charlie Stratton, who will eventually come to be known as General Tom Thumb, has just been recruited by PT Barnum. As he stays at the Museum, training for his upcoming European tour, Charlie befriends the Barnum sisters – including baby Frances and her older sister Helen.

Returning a Bloom to Its Bud (1845)
Charity Barnum, long-suffering wife of PT Barnum, pregnant with her fourth child and grieving the loss of her third, reflects on her life as she sets sail for the States after eight months spent touring Europe with her husband and his performers.

Beside Myself (1851)
When young Josephine agreed to tour the county with her childhood friend Jenny Lind, aka the “Swedish Nightingale,” she had no idea that it would mean losing herself – or the man that she loves.

We Will Always Be Sisters (1852)
Helen, now a young woman living on her father’s estate in Connecticut (Iranistan), is haunted by the ghost of her baby sister Frances – and by her older sister Caroline’s upcoming nuptials.

The Fairy Wedding (1863)
Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, inadvertently finds that his visit to the White House is set to coincide with the visit of Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren Stratton, as part of their three-year “honeymoon” tour, stopping in DC at Mary Todd’s request. Angry with his parents’ insistence that he not take up arms against the Confederacy, and still grieving the loss of his younger brother Willie, Robert’s disgust with the affair forces him to confront his relationship with his parents, as well as his own humanity (or lack thereof).

An Extraordinary Specimen of Magnified Humanity (1865)
It’s just another day for Anna Swan, a giantess from Nova Scotia who left her job as a teacher to join Barnum’s troupe: brunch with her friend Lavinia Warren Stratton, a lecture or two, and bedtime. And then a fire ravages the American Museum, killing most of Barnum’s nonhuman menagerie, nearly trapping Anna in its flames, and displacing them all.

The Bearded Lady’s Son (1868)
Sixteen-year-old Jack is the illegitimate son of a bearded lady who just landed a spot in Barnum’s roster. Trouble is, they’ve got to keep his existence a secret – Barnum can’t risk any whiff of impropriety in a show that struggles to avoid the margins. So Jack spends his days sketching the animals in Barnum’s menagerie…animals who, once again, are about to stoke the (literal) fire of Barnum’s vanity.

It’s Not Humbug If You Believe It (1869)
On the eve of William Mumler’s trial for fraud – at which her own father, none other than PT Barnum, is set to testify for the prosecution – Pauline commissions Mumler to take a spirit self-portrait of her. She hides it in a book in her father’s library, where it will sit for more than twenty years.

All Elephants Are Tragic (1889)
As the family gathers at the Barnum property in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to witness the demolition of the Waveport cottage to make way for the Marina house – Barnum’s gift to his second, much-younger wife Nancy – the newest, arguably most vilified member of the Barnums reflects on her fifteen years with PT Barnum, his daughters, and their children.

What Makes You Think We Want You Here? (1891)
Told from the perspective of Barnie – really named Helen after her mother, and then renamed by Barnum once he became estranged from Helen the elder – the Barnums have gathered at the deathbed of the family’s larger-than-life patriarch: to say goodbye, and to reminisce.

While the writing is skilled enough, and some of the stories engaging (the recurring theme of fire is especially compelling), the overall result just fell flat for me. I feel like this is something I should have enjoyed, thoroughly, and yet…and yet. With few exceptions, it’s weirdly boring and lacking in emotion.

I was disappointed that Noyes didn’t focus exclusively on the performers, even though not all of their narratives proved all that memorable.

Centering the women in Barnum’s life might also have worked out well, but mostly it felt like the stories didn’t go much of anywhere.

Honestly, I think the most eloquent writing manifests in Noyes’s narratives surrounding the nonhuman exhibits who suffered and died agonizing deaths in the multiple fires that destroyed Barnum’s museums over the years. For example, in “An Extraordinary Specimen of Magnified Humanity” Anna Swan bears witness to the deaths of countless animals – snakes, cats, moneys – even as she fights to overcome her shock-induced paralysis and save herself:

She sailed and swayed over the sea of hats in the street, yet another audience, a uniform mass applauding with joy, it seemed, such joy — as much because some kind soul had released the birds from the aviary upstairs, and almost as one they burst from a corresponding window, a wheeling, feathered blur: parrots, cockatoos, mockingbirds, hummingbirds, vultures, and eagles, even the great, stiff, clumsy condor. The crowd in the street seemed to sway with them as they flapped free, and for the instant Anna floated on air as her rescue crew paused to take in the sight, and for the merest instant she felt it, too, swaying there, the beauty of the moment.

Also heart wrenching is the tale of Jumbo the elephant, purchased from the London Zoo to tour in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, who sacrificed himself in a railway collision to save the life of a young calf. For his heroics, his corpse is dismembered and put on display by Barnum, exploited as a commodity even in death as “the Double Jumbo.” (Talk about a callback!) In “All Elephants Are Tragic,” second wife and “interloper” Nancy Fish considers her husband’s oh so brief mourning period and his shameful treatment of a “friend”:

As another of her husband’s British “acquisitions,” Nancy identified with Jumbo. […]

A year after the loss of Jumbo, the circus’s Winter Quarters in Bridgeport, the biggest animal training ground in the world, was leveled by fire, killing most of the animals. All Nancy remembered of that night was that poor Gracie the elephant had tried to swim to safety … making it all the way to the lighthouse before she sank under the waves. All elephants were tragic, it seemed to Nancy, captives stolen from their homes and made to perform against their wild natures.

THIS. This is the content I came here for. Immerse me in a chapter written from the perspective of one of Barnum’s nonhuman performers, the most long-suffering of them all. The fishes and monkeys forcibly joined to make the Feejee Mermaid (posthumously, obvs) perhaps, or the white whales boiled to death in their tank. Maybe Helen’s cranky old cat, banished to the Museum by Charity, never to be seen again.

Give me an act of nonhuman rebellion, or a whisper of feminist solidarity between h. sapiens and the furred and feathered creatures: for we are all their (read: the capitalist patriarchy’s) creatures.

(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: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo (2020)

Friday, April 17th, 2020

Diagnosis: Murder

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for misogyny and violence against women, including sexual assault.)

The girls stowed away repulsive, frightening experiences with males deep in their hearts without even realising it themselves.

Jiyoung was standing in the middle of a labyrinth. Conscientiously and calmly, she was searching for a way out that didn’t exist to begin with.

Jiyoung did not feel good as she checked ‘NO’ with her own hand. The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.

Kim Jiyoung lives in a small apartment on the outskirts of Seoul with her husband, Jung Daehyun, and her baby daughter Jung Jiwon. A middle child who grew up in a working class family, Jiyoung attended university and landed a job at a small marketing agency after graduation. One of just a handful of women, she enjoyed her work well enough but quit after just a few years to have and raise Jiwon.

About a year after Jiwon’s birth, Jiyoung started exhibiting strange symptoms: she would “become” other people. Always women, always known to her, both living and dead: for example, her own mother, Oh Misook, or Cha Seungyeon, a mutual college friend of both Jiyoung and Daehyun who died in childbirth. Alarmed, Daehyun sought the help of a psychiatrist; Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is presented as the doctor’s case study of Jiyoung.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is basically a laundry list of the misogynist slights that Korean women – and especially Korean mothers – are subjected to, both historically and in contemporary society. (Ditto: women who dare to live and breathe and exist in any patriarchal society. As someone born and raised in the United States, I found roughly 97.8% of Jiyoung’s experiences easily translatable across cultures.) Even as I explain the plot this way, it seems like Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 should make for a fairly tedious read; and yet, it’s anything but.

As Jiyoung’s psychiatrist traces a path through her early childhood, high school and university years, marriage, and motherhood, we’re forced to bear witness as a young girl’s spirit is beaten down, degraded, and eroded – just like her mother’s and grandmother’s before her – while, as outsiders looking in, we are powerless to stop it. We are watching a murder: psychological, emotional, psychic, spiritual. A death by a million cuts: some tiny, others not so much. Intergenerational trauma galore.

There are the “smaller” microaggressions, such as how the boys are always allowed to go first: served the first (and best) portions of food at home, or permitted to do their presentations first at school. Then there’s the bigger stuff: gender discrimination in hiring and pay; limited career opportunities and pink collar jobs; sex-selective abortion; the indoctrination into rape culture, starting in elementary school; sexual harassment and assault; the pressure to have children; and the simultaneous idolization and vilification of stay-at-home moms.

When Jiyoung finally “snaps,” you’ll wonder why it took so long. Her adoption of other personas isn’t the disease, but rather a symptom: of a society that dismisses, denigrates, devalues, and outright hates women. Only by becoming other women can she challenge the status quo. They function as Jiyoung’s protectors, when Jiyoung is barred from protecting herself. (Sometimes.)

I hate to quote Alyssa’s father, because he is 110% one of the pricks this story is about, but when the gif fits…
——————————

The coup de grace is the psychiatrist’s personal notes at the end, wherein he recounts his own wife’s struggles, thus positioning himself as the rare male beast, better suited to understanding Jiyoung’s predicament than most. Mansplaining meets “not all men,” while completely and utterly failing to help either beleaguered woman. It’s enough to make you wonder why Jiyoung didn’t opt for a female psychiatrist … but only if you missed the entire point of the book.

(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: That Can Be Arranged: A Muslim Love Story by Huda Fahmy (2020)

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020

An inspired follow up to Yes, I’m Hot in This.

four out of five stars

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

I adored cartoonist Huda Fahmy’s debut book, 2018’s Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab. In it, she challenges and straight up slays the bald-faced bigotry and racist, sexist, and Islamophobic microaggressions hurled her way. (As a Muslim WOC living in Amurica, sadly there is little shortage of such.)

In many ways, That Can Be Arranged: A Muslim Love Story feels like a natural progression: her husband and BFF Gehad is a frequent character in her comics (as is his ubiquitous red shirt), and of course her readers are dying to know how those two crazy (read: delightfully nerdy!) kids got together.

Huda and Gehad’s was an arranged marriage – but, as you’ll see, arranged marriages (not to be confused with forced marriages) take many forms. In her parents’ case, this meant marrying after just a single meeting – and divorcing many years later.

Huda, by contrast, spent several years trying to get matched with a suitable man. After turning down her only suitor (who turned out to be a stalkery sociopath), she spotted her dream dude by chance at an Islamic studies conference and promptly fell head over heels (all at the ripe old age of twenty-four – the horror!). She appealed to Sheik Z (aka Doctor Love), also in attendance, for relationship advice; it was Qadar (destiny) when he set Huda and Gehad up.

What came next was a chaperoned courtship (involving some of the funniest panels in the book; to wit: Huda’s mom eavesdropping on their Pokemon debate), meeting the ‘rents, setting a date, the kitab (signing of the marriage contract) and, finally, the walima.

Like Yes, I’m Hot in This, That Can Be Arranged dispels a lot of misconceptions that non-Muslims might have about arranged marriages. For example, while their courtship was governed my myriad rules, Huda and Gehad had he final say in whether to do the thing (again: arranged, not forced). I especially loved how she compared her own experiences to Jane Austen, giving many Western readers a reference point to relate.

I can’t wait to see what Huda does next. (Me, I’m rooting for the cat hotel!)

(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: Don’t Panic!: How to Manage Your Finances—and Financial Anxieties—During and After Coronavirus by Christine Ibbotson (2020)

Friday, April 10th, 2020

Not Terribly Helpful – or Reassuring

two out of five stars

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

I hate to start a review – any review – on such a negative note, BUT. Let me just say that it’s incredibly difficult to take someone seriously when they spout dumbfuck shit like this.

I am pleased to see that governments are stepping up in this crisis to protect workers as well as business owners.

The last thing anyone wants is to have families become homeless.

And, my personal favorite:

This pandemic is not being taken lightly by anyone.

I’m pretty sure that Ibbotson is Canadian, which – let’s be honest – makes her lumping the Canadian, UK, and US governments together all the worse. Trudeau might be taking this pandemic seriously, but you don’t exactly have to be a news junkie to see that the same can’t be said of 45, who has continued to ignore, minimize, and deny the threat of COVID-19; held ventilators and PPE hostage in a petty vendetta against the Democratic governors of blue states; and used this global tragedy to enrich himself and his cronies.

Just three days ago he was bragging about smashing models at a coronavirus briefing.

So, yeah. I understand that you’re trying to stay upbeat and positive so as to not further stoke the flames, but could we just dispense with the niceties for the foreseeable future? Pretending like politicians or bankers give a flying fuck about the homeless or working poor does nothing for your credibility, okay.

With that out of the way, I wish I could say that the advice offered in Don’t Panic!: How to Manage Your Finances—and Financial Anxieties—During and After Coronavirus proved helpful – especially given the foul mood it put me in – but alas, it’s kind of a mixed bag.

My meager investments, inherited from my late husband*, have taken a beating in the last six weeks, and I was hoping for some advice on protecting (and growing) what I have left in a volatile market. While there are a few general suggestions for managing your portfolio (Ibbotson seems partial to real estate, and there’s a solid emphasis on reorganizing your debt while interest rates are low), very little seems specially tailored to the current situation.

Rather than focusing exclusively on the unique situation unfolding even now, there’s a lot of general advice: on budgeting and saving money; planning for your retirement; and estate planning. It feels like she’s trying to cover way too much in so few pages – really, what amounts to a booklet – and so she doesn’t really do justice to any of the topics she addresses.

For example, the section on reducing costs is laughably brief; Ibbotson suggests cutting back on what we spend on our pets by not buying them expensive toys. Idk about you, but one of my biggest – and most unpredictable – monthly expenditures is vet bills. An easy way to save some money is by purchasing medications online (Chewy is my favorite, but Allivet is good too) or at human pharmacies; the markup at a veterinarian’s office is mind-boggling. Additionally, you can often – but not always! – save a ton by opting for the human versions of OTC supplements. The Costco brand glucosamine/chondroitin costs me about $25 for a one-year supply – a fraction of what just one bag of glucosamine/chondroitin dog chews will run you. (Always have your vet review the ingredients, and double check that they haven’t changed when replenishing your supply!)

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Inhalers are expensive, y’all! Months of searching, and the cheapest I’ve been able to source Lemmy’s Flovent inhaler in the US is $275. I found the exact same inhaler going for ~$500 on my old veterinarian’s online store.
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Returning to an earlier point, it’s probably unfair to expect a book to adequately address a crisis that’s still developing. By their very nature, books are usually static and not easily updated. To that end, I’d recommend finding one or two reliable investment sites and following them religiously. (You can find Ibbotson at Ask the Money Lady, askthemoneylady.ca.) Don’t Panic! just isn’t worth the $4.95 investment.

* Yeah, you read that right: inherited. When he set up the accounts, he neglected to add my name as a joint owner or even a beneficiary, so the assets had to go through his estate before I could claim them. Minus the 6% MO state law mandated I pay the lawyer that I was legally required to hire. Fun, right! Pro tip: always list a beneficiary (TOD) on your accounts, if possible.

(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: Long Story Short: 100 Classic Books in Three Panels by Lisa Brown (2020)

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

A cheeky idea with mixed results.

three out of five stars

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

Long Story Short: 100 Classic Books in Three Panels is pretty much what it sounds like, with two (admittedly nitpicky) differences: 1) the comics are anywhere from one to six panels; and 2) some of these are not what you (if you are of the snobby literary persuasion) would call “classics.”

Yes, there are the usual suspects: Shakespeare and Poe; Don Quixote and Madame Bovary; To Kill a Mockingbird and Pride and Prejudice. But you’ll also find some more contemporary works (The Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), as well as books not uncommonly derided as “lowbrow” or “pedestrian” (Carrie, Twilight).*

This is a really clever concept that’s rather hit-or-miss in execution. The collection’s success really hinges on its reader’s familiarity with the books being parodied and, c’mon, who – outside of an English lit major – has read so many of these old and stuffy books? (Moby Dick, ugh.) Or, if you haven’t yet read some of these titles but plan to, the spoilers are all but guaranteed to ruin your life.

Still, there are some pretty fun comics here. In no particular order, I loved the Bible, by a bunch of anonymous, long-dead dudes; “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson (“Let’s all get together and kill Mrs. Hutchinson.”); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (“You can love someone and still be racist.”); Charlotte’s Web by EB White (“WRITERS make the best of friends. And then they DIE.”); and, of course, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (“DON’T. EAT. MEAT.”). And Carrie = words to live by.

I really think Brown could’ve done better with both The Handmaid’s Tale and Lolita, though. Reducing Atwood’s message to “IT IS HARD TO BE A WOMAN” seems pretty simplistic, even for this project; any distillation that doesn’t contain the word “patriarchy” or “theocracy” is way off the mark. And the Lolita strip just feels icky. Like, it’s a story about a pedophile rapist; no need to romanticize it with phrases like “fire of my loins” and “sin of my soul.” This makes child rape seem, like, complicated and existential when it’s just more of the same misogyny we all know and hate. KISS.

* fwiw, I hope the scare quotes adequately telegraph my disgust. Stephen King is one of my auto-reads!

(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: War and Peas: Funny Comics for Dirty Lovers by Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich (2020)

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020

“That was when I knew I had a problem.”

four out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

Like nearly every collection of comics I discover on NetGalley, War and Peas began as a webcomic that I’d never heard of, but will now follow religiously.

A little bit morbid and a whole lot weird, War and Peas features four-panel comics that are loosely related, with a recurring cast of characters. There’s no-nonsense scientist and her sentient robot, who’s not-so-secretly in love with her; a rad feminist dog who keeps finding himself back at the pound, for myriad reasons; a gay couple, both named Bob; a straight couple that meets when the dude bends over to pick up a lucky penny, only to split his pants down the backside; an old timey couple who lost their son, sold into indentured servitude, in an industrial accident and comes back as a ghost; and a slutty witch and her vampire paramour. Most at least merit a grin, while a few actually had me guffawing.

Naturally, I am partial to those strips with dogs, robots, and patriarchy smashing (not mutually exclusive).

(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: Put Your Feelings Here: A Creative DBT Journal for Teens with Intense Emotions by Lisa M. Schab (2020)

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

Not just for teens!

five out of five stars

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

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a form of psychotherapy that “combines standard cognitive-behavioral techniques for emotion regulation and reality-testing with concepts of distress tolerance, acceptance, and mindful awareness largely derived from contemplative meditative practice.” While it originated with efforts to treat borderline personality disorder, evidence suggests “that DBT can be useful in treating mood disorders, suicidal ideation, and for change in behavioral patterns such as self-harm, and substance abuse.”

In Put Your Feelings Here, social worker Lisa M. Schab distills DBT concepts into a guided journal. The exercises help users identify unhelpful or distressing thoughts and emotions, work through them, changing what they can – and accepting what they cannot. The result feels a lot like a fusion of CBT and mindfulness, and not in a bad way.

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I’m not a therapist, or a teen with intense emotions, so I can’t really say how well Put Your Feelings Here works as DIY DBT. However, it is a pretty thoughtful and stimulating journal, with exercises like “What beliefs about nature/religion/spirituality/the purpose of life/a higher power give you comfort?” and “Intense emotions can hurt. You don’t need more pain. List 10 things you could do to be kind to yourself instead of hurting yourself more.”

Though it’s directed at teens (and obviously so, what with prompts like ‘turn your OMG into LOL’ and instructions to design your emotions like an app) my 41-year-old self found many of the prompts stimulating.

The journal features a moderate amount of artwork, which is is cute, complements the exercises nicely, and definitely gets the creative juices flowing. Most of the prompts have ample room to record your responses, though a handful of the pages could benefit from more white space.

Also, this might seem like a minor thing, but as a lifetime journaler: I loooove the lay-flat binding, which makes it so much easier to actually write in journals, as intended. It’s the small details, okay.

(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: Space Boy, Volume 6 by Stephen McCranie (2020)

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

The one where we finally discover Oliver’s flavor!

three out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

A long-running weekly comic on WEBTOON, Stephen McCranie’s Space Boy is teased as “A sci-fi drama of a high school aged girl who belongs in a different time, a boy possessed by emptiness as deep as space, an alien artifact, mysterious murder, and a love that crosses light years.”

The MC is Amy, a sixteen-year-old girl who’s pretty normal except for the fact that she’s an unwitting time traveler. Born on a mining colony, her family was forced to return to earth when her father lost his job. Since it’s a thirty-year journey, Amy and the ‘rents were cryogenically frozen for the trip: hence the “girl out of time.”

The family settles in Kokomo City, where Amy enrolls in South Pines Academy. Though she misses her BFF Jemmah (now old enough to be Amy’s mom; could this be the “love that crosses light years”?), she soon finds her own new social circles: football star David, his girlfriend Cassie, and their friends Zeph, Meisha, Maki, Logan, and Howard; and the school’s agriculture club, which includes fellow crossover Meisha, and Tamara and Shafer.

And then there is Oliver, the mysterious, silver-haired boy who does not seem to have a flavor. (Amy has synesthesia and “tastes” peoples’ personalities.) Though her friends think he’s trouble with a capital T, Amy gravitates to Oliver, and vice versa. But for reasons not yet revealed, Oliver’s very existence is classified – and their continued friendship endangers Amy’s life. Enter: the alien artifact and mysterious murder.

Volume 6 collects episodes 76 through 92 of the WEBTOON comic, originally published between 8/24/16 and 12/15/16 (yes, the trade paperbacks are very far behind! Do yourself a favor and create a WEBTOON account so you can stay up to date.)

One thing I don’t love about the trade paperbacks is that the plot seems to progress at a snail’s pace, and Volume 6 is no exception; 256 pages and we’re still not done with Spirit Week! Still, this is an enjoyable and bittersweet collection.

Volume 6 sees Oliver continue to distance himself from Amy, while fissures deepen among some of Amy’s friends. Amy gets to experience her first snowfall – and snow day! – for which mom thankfully yet temporarily lifts her grounding (that’s a whole ‘nother story). Amy finally discovers Oliver’s flavor (orange with hints of cinnamon, brimming with passion and vibrancy and life – the complete opposite of Nothing) – revealed, oddly enough, as he’s beating the piss out of a bully. Before she can even begin to process, Oliver and his foster dad Dr. Kim vanish, just as mysteriously as they arrived.

The agriculture club’s baby chicks make a quick cameo, as part of Tamara’s efforts to lift the spirits of a mopey Amy. My feelings about the ag club are something of a roller coaster: initially I was overjoyed that Amy made the connection between the soft, floofy, sentient creatures she was loving on and the chicken salad sammie on her plate, and vowed to go vegetarian. This quickly crumbled when she got an accidental mouthful of bacon on Oliver’s sandwich and decreed that it was fine, so long as the agriculture club doesn’t start raising baby piggies. Speciesist much?

And the very existence of animal agriculture so far in the future feels like a disappointing lack of imagination of the artist’s part. When I first started reading Space Boy, I thought it had to be at least 30 years in the future, to allow for Amy’s travel. Probably more like 100+ given all the new tech. But when Amy starts researching the Arno and its mission to reach the alien artifact, we learn that the year is actually 3355: The Arno launched in 3051, and was supposed to reach the artifact in 300 years – which, for Amy, was 4 years ago. 3051 + 300 + 4 = 3355.

So you’re telling me that it’s more than a thousand years in the future and we don’t have synthetic or lab-grown meat yet? That we’re still breeding and raising sentient creatures to be slaughtered for food? That our morals have evolved so little? Gross, dude. If this is the future, I hope humanity burns itself out well before 3355.

But yeah, baby chicks are hella cute.

(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 Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp & Manuel Preitano (2020)

Thursday, March 19th, 2020

A thoughtful and engaging origin story for Barbara Gordon/Oracle.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for medical abuse. Caution: this review contains vague spoilers.)

Teenager Barbara Gordon – daughter of police commissioner James Gordon and hacker extraordinaire – is running toward the scene of a crime when she’s shot and paralyzed from the waist down. Six weeks into her recovery, Commissioner Gordon sends his daughter to the Arkham Center for Independence, where she’ll undergo physical and mental rehabilitation. Ghosted by her longtime friend Benjamin, Barbara is reluctant to get too close to anyone – everyone leaves you in the end, after all. Luckily, fellow classmates Yeong, Issy, and Jena refuse to let Barbara be, and an unexpected mystery further helps draw Barbara out of her shell.

The ACI is as creepy as it is opulent; at night, the halls echo with cryptic sounds and the shadows of residents who have long since disappeared. Jena, teller of ghost stories whispered in the wee hours of the night, begs Barbara for help finding her missing twin brother. Dr. Maxwell insists that Michael died in the fire that severely injured his sister, and that Jena’s mind is too fragile to accept the truth. Though she’s reluctant to get sucked into another mystery, Jenna’s sudden disappearance tips her hand. Friends are precious, and she’s not about to let another one slip through her fingers. Before you can say “Birds of Prey,” Barbara is brain-deep in a corporate conspiracy that involves child trafficking and human experimentation.

I’m really digging this new DC YA series; if anything, it provides a handy entry point into the DC ‘verse for newbies like myself. (I love comics, but the decades-long history of so many DC and Marvel characters can prove overwhelming. Mostly I just stick to newer series, like Sex Criminals, Pretty Deadly, Bitch Planet, and the like.) I was lucky enough to review Shadow of the Batgirl (in which an older Barbara Gordon plays a role as Cassandra Cain’s boss/mentor), and The Oracle Code lives up the expectations set by its predecessor.

The storyline is engaging enough, but it’s really the characters who stand out here. YA author Marieke Nijkamp – who identifies as queer, non-binary, and disabled – writes Barbara, Yeong, Issy, and Jena with compassion and care. There’s a great exchange between the eeeevil scientists and the margnalized teens in which the teens challenge their doctors’ assessment of them as “broken” people in need of “fixing.” (Is there a white savior analog that can be applied to the ableds? If so, this is a prime example of IT.) Hopefully you’ll also catch how the doctors try to gaslight Barbara when she starts sniffing around, insisting that she believe them instead of her own two eyes and ginormous brain.

Barbara’s squad – as well as the residents and staff at ACI – is diverse as heck and thus reflective of reality, which I appreciate. And the brief few panels of wheelchair basketball are great.

And now I shall go back to counting the days until Superman Smashes the Klan (Gene Luen Yang) and Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed (Laurie Halse Anderson) hit the shelves!

(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: Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel (2020)

Tuesday, March 17th, 2020

Only loosely based on the Gypsy Rose Blanchard case (& with a much more satisfying ending!)

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and suicide. This review contains vague spoilers.)

Most people don’t like holding on to anger. They feel it crushing and consuming them, so they let it go. They try to forget the ways they’ve been wronged.

But some of us cannot forget and will never forgive. We keep our axes sharp, ready to grind. We hold pleas for mercy between our teeth like jawbreakers.

They say a grudge is a heavy thing to carry.

Good thing we’re extra strong.

For most of her first eighteen years, Rose Gold Watts was in and out of the hospital, battling a plethora of health problems. Constantly nauseous and unable to eat, she was weak and thin – skeletal, even, weighing just seventy pounds at the age of eighteen. Since her stomach couldn’t tolerate regular foods, Rose Gold got most of her nutrition from a feeding tube that the doctors put in at her mother Patty’s request. Patty insisted on shaving Rose Gold’s head, claiming that her hair would otherwise fall out in clumps, or grow in unevenly. Rose Gold had her own wig collection by the time she was a teenager, along with a wheelchair for those days when she was feeling too unsteady to get around on her own. She suffered from sleep apnea and had a mouth full of yellow, rotten teeth, thanks to the havoc all that bile wrought on her enamel.

Home schooled, Rose Gold had little contact with the outside world; that is, until she convinced Patty to get the internet – “to help with school work” – at the age of sixteen. It was then that she met Phil in a chat room; Phil, who would piece together Rose Gold’s terrible symptoms and unconventional life experiences, and figure out what should have been plain to Rose Gold’s doctors. Namely, that she wasn’t sick at all, but was being poisoned and starved by Patty.

Though Darling Rose Gold is obviously inspired by a recent and rather infamous case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy – the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard by her nineteen-year-old daughter Gypsy Rose, and Gypsy Rose’s online boyfriend, Nicholas Godejohn – the story veers from IRL events in some pretty significant ways: Dee Dee was not tried for her crimes; Gypsy Rose’s bio dad and his new wife are not total asshats; and the real Gypsy Rose, the one rotting away in jail (unjustly, imho), seems much saner and more well-adjusted than the non-murderous but still stone cold Rose Gold of fiction. Which is all fine and good, as long as you know that from jump street. Otherwise you might find yourself offended on the real Gypsy Rose’s behalf – if only initially, before the story’s twist becomes evident. I know I did.

Dammit, I’m trying my best not to give anything away, but it’s exceedingly difficult to review this book without dropping some spoilers! Even if they’re just of the maddeningly vague variety!

Darling Rose Gold is told in two narratives: past tense, in the weeks and years following “Poisonous Patty’s” trial, from Rose Gold’s perspective; and present day, five years later, when Patty is released from prison and is taken in by Rose Gold, in Patty’s POV. It’s evident pretty early on – from the time they pull into the driveway of Patty’s childhood home; or rather, when she has such an extreme, visceral reaction to it – that Rose Gold has a few tricks up her sleeve. Even so, Wrobel manages to sustain the psychological tension and the “will she or won’t she?”/”who’s the real villain here?” suspense throughout the story, escalating things to delicious heights (depths?) with the denouement. This is a much more satisfying tale than its “ripped from the headlines” inspiration.

Rose Gold makes for a compelling protagonist, whether you’re cringing in vicarious embarrassment for her teenage, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt just-sprung-from-a-bunker awkwardness, or rooting for her to get sweet, sweet revenge on her tormentor. Patty is appropriately frustrating, so much so that it’s hard not to root for her demise; I would’ve liked a few more present-day chapters from her perspective, so we revel in her anguish just a bit longer. And Billy, what a freaking tool. I really hope he was roasted and then summarily cancelled by the masses, otherwise he got off a little too easy, with just a few months of panic and suffering.

Also: I hope Rose Gold is able to get those new teeth she always wanted. I have a serious hang up about teeth, and it’s always the dental stuff that haunts me.

Read it if: you devoured The Act, but didn’t want to see Gypsy Rose serve any time for what was clearly a case of self-defense.

(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 Bison by Gaya Wisniewski (2020)

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

A simple yet lovely story about grief and loss.

five out of five stars

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

The unnamed narrator of this tale is just a child when a chance meeting with a bison sparks what will become a lifelong friendship. She first encounters him in a clearing at the edge of the forest, and the fellow youngsters continue to meet there daily – sharing tentative pets, food, and stories – until it’s time for the bison to rejoin his herd in the spring. However, the two find their way back to one another every year, each growing older with the passing years. She misses “her bison” terribly when they are apart, but the thought of seeing him again keeps her going.

Until, one year, she returns to the clearing to find him gone. Gone, but not forgotten: he lives on in her memories, in the beauty of nature, and in the little dance of her heart.

My Bison is a simple yet beautiful story about love and loss, for readers of all ages. The artwork might be a little sophisticated (one might say “dreary”) for younger readers; the color palate begins with black, white and gray, and becomes more vibrant as the story (and the human-animal bond) progresses. The blues add a splash of color yet are somber enough to complement the overall tone of the story.

I had to laugh at the early reviewer who bemoaned this is as another example of “European authors romanticizing dangerous North American creatures,” when clearly the bison is meant to be a stand-in for any loved one who has passed away, human and nonhuman alike. Personally, I can’t read this without thinking of the many doggos I’ve loved and lost. I mean, geez, a bison’s lifespan is only fifteen years, and seeing as he sticks it out until the narrator is a wizened old lady, I don’t think a literal interpretation is really the point.

(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 Companions by Katie M. Flynn (2020)

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

A haunting glimpse into one possible future.

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

four out of five stars

Where I live now is a blank space. I imagine you live somewhere similar. I can fill it with light, with sorrow, drench it in horror, erase it all with an ocean roar. I can fill it with memories, you putting on your sister’s clothes, Lea! I can remember her name—I don’t know why. There are washes of gray nothing where whole years should be, but I remember thinking something bad would happen at that house party.

Standing on the cliffs, holding that shovel in my living teenage hands, the hot feeling of anger. We were just girls—what was I so angry about?

The Companions imagines a future San Francisco that feels all too possible; one shaped in equal measures by disease and capitalism (or are they just one and the same?).

Ravaged by several successive waves of a mysterious and highly contagious virus, the citizens of California are under quarantine. In San Francisco, residents are confined to crowded high rises; children attend school online and socialize in carefully planned and closely supervised play dates in their buildings. The internet is many peoples’ only link to the world outside their tightly sealed towers.

And then there are the companions: when people die, they can opt to have their consciousness downloaded into a semi-immortal body. But this comes at a price: companions are the intellectual property of Metis, the giant megacorp that birthed the companion technology. For a hefty fee, the grotesquely wealthy can remain in the custody of their descendants; the less fortunate belong to Metis, to rent out as it pleases. The bodies used to house the companions’ consciousness run the gamut, from beat-up, trashcan-shaped robots that sport hooks for arms, to lifelike human bodies capable of regenerating skin. Distribution is predictably class-based.

When I read the synopsis for The Companions – a sixteen-year-old murder victim turned first-gen companion goes rogue in order to hunt down her killer – I was hooked (sorry Lilac, no pun intended). However, this plot point primarily serves as a jumping-off point for a much larger story: about technological developments, corporate greed, unintended consequences, and cultural backlash. As much as I wanted to delve into story about robot revenge, I still greatly enjoyed the end result. (Unmet expectations aren’t always a bad thing!)

The narrative unfolds from the alternating perspectives of a whole host of characters, all of them bound by Lilac’s rebellion:

* There’s Lilac, of course, who wakes in her Rosie the Robot-esque body to find that she’s been requisitioned as the plaything of a teenage girl named Delilah.

* Nikki, Lila’s childhood best friend (and secret crush), whose unknown fate haunts Lilac decades later.

* Red/Mrs. Crozier, the teenage girl who killed Lila in a fit of jealousy, now a lonely and bitter old woman who lives in the Jedediah Smith Elderly Care Facility.

* Cam, one of Red’s caregivers.

* Gabe/Gabrielle, an orphaned street kid in San Francisco who ekes out an existence as a semi-professional thief.

* Diana, one of the scientists who developed Metis’s companion technology.

* Kit, an illegal companion duplicate.

* Rachel, a companion recruited as a mercenary.

* Jakob Sonne, an actor with dangerously independent ideas of his own.

* Mrs. Espera, ex-wife of studio exec Sydney Espera and mother to their adult daughter Isla.

* Rolly, the son of a farmer named James, who turned to disposing of companions for Metis after he lost much of his land after the quarantine.

* Andy, Rolly’s brother, who goes missing for a time when he’s kinda sorta kidnapped by a pair of companions.

While Lilac’s escape from Dahlia’s custody does set subsequent events into motion, the story becomes so much bigger than one person. Lilac’s singular act of rebellion inspires insurrection in others – sometimes with disastrous results. There are bombings and terrorists attacks and recalls. Acts of stunning inhumanity, as well as tiny moments of kindness and bravery.

Despite its somewhat diminutive size, The Companions is an ambitious book: it dares us to contemplate what immortality might look like, given our current sociopolitical climate. How might such a promising technology be twisted against us, made dystopian? How can we stop this happening? Can we, even?

Read it if: you rooted for the Cylons in BSG.

Read it with: Arwen Elys Dayton’s Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful, which is grander in scope yet has a similar vibe.

(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: Gudetama: Love for the Lazy by Wook-Jin Clark (2020)

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

“Likes: Sleeping, Chilling, Eating”

three out of five stars

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

So, I’m not gonna lie: I’d never heard of the Sanrio character Gudetama before this title popped up on NetGalley. But how could I turn down love advice from a lazy, grumpy, chubby egg (alternately hard boiled and fried, it seems) with a butt that just won’t quit?

While Gudetma is unexpectedly adorable, the rest of the artwork just isn’t my bag. There’s just something about human faces without noses that turns me off. But it is colorful and skillfully executed, so I’ll give Clark that.

The advice is more of a mixed bag; some of the comics fall flat, while others are amusing or relatable or both. I especially liked the “phases of a break up” maze – someone should make that into a Candyland-esque board game. Preferably with more swearing and cards that let you binge real live junk food.

(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: Parable of the Sower by Damian Duffy, John Jennings, & Octavia E. Butler (2020)

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

A spectacular reincarnation of Octavia E. Butler’s masterpiece.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, ABRAMS Books. Trigger warning for violence, including rape. Click on the images to embiggen.)

I’ve been staring at a blank screen for upwards of fifteen minutes, trying to figure out how best to summarize the first half of (what I consider to be) Octavia E. Butler’s magnum opus, the Parables duology. In the interest of expediency, I’ll just lift the synopsis from my review of the original:

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Lauren Olamina isn’t like the other kids in her neighborhood, a walled-off city block in Robledo, just twenty miles outside of Los Angeles. Born to a drug-addicted mother, Lauren is afflicted with hyperempathy – the ability to share in the pain and pleasure of others, whether she wants to or not. This makes her an especially easy target for bullies – brother Keith used to make her bleed for fun when they were younger – so Lauren’s weakness is a carefully guarded secret, one shared only with her family. In this crumbling world, a near-future dystopia that’s all to easy to imagine, humans already devour their own: literally as well as figuratively. Lauren won’t make herself an easy meal.

As if her hyperempathy isn’t alienating enough, Lauren has another secret, one that she only shares with her diary. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Lauren no longer believes in her father’s god. Instead, she’s cultivating her own system of belief – Earthseed:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Lauren gathers these verses into a book that she comes to think of as “The Books of the Living.” Her new religion? Earthseed. Its destination? The stars.

Parable of the Sower is Lauren’s journal (of a sort). Begun on the eve of her 15th birthday and concluding more than three years later, through her diary we witness the collapse of Lauren’s fragile world. In a country wracked by poverty, climate change, mass unemployment, homelessness, drug abuse, class warfare, and unspeakable violence, Lauren’s small community is a fortress of sorts. Though they’re far from well-off, the diverse neighborhood manages to produce enough food and goods (and occasionally for-pay labor) to sustain itself. The residents put personal animosity aside to protect and care for one another: rotating night watches keep would-be thieves at bay; when one resident’s garage catches fire, everyone becomes a firefighter; and Lauren’s step-mom Cory schools the neighborhood kids in her own home, since it’s too dangerous to venture outside the walls.

It’s not much, but it’s home. But even at the tender age of 15, Lauren can see it unraveling: “We’ll be moved, all right. It’s just a matter of when, by whom, and in how many pieces.”

After a series of blows – the disappearance of Lauren’s father; several successful infiltrations by thieves; a fire that claims all but one member of its household – Lauren’s community finally falls. Drugged out on “pyro,” a group of painted arsonists torch the neighborhood, killing and raping its residents. Lauren is just one of three to escape. Along with Zahra – the youngest of Richard Moss’s wives – and fellow teenager Harry, they hit the road in search of water and work. A safe place to pitch their (proverbial) tent. And, for Lauren, a safe haven in which to establish the very first Earthseed community.

###

Butler is one of my all-time favorite authors, second only to Margaret Atwood (who, admittedly, often suffers from some pretty glaring blind spots when it comes to race; see, e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale); and her Parables duology occupies a special, even vital, place in my heart.

So when I heard that Damian Duffy and John Jennings were working on a graphic novel adaptation, I did an ecstatic happy dance in my seat, and wondered at its progress at least once a week for the next nine months or so. If it was just half as good as their treatment of Kindred, I reasoned, I could die a happy fangirl.

As it turns out? Parable of the Sower is every bit as good as Kindred. Which is to say, not quite as good as the source material, but pretty damn close.

The artwork is gorgeous, and quite similar in style to that found in Kindred. The dull browns and beiges evoke the dreary hopelessness of Lauren’s world, and are juxtaposed with pages of vibrant (yet often threatening) reds and oranges, and moody, atmospheric blues.

The narrative text appears on ruled paper, expertly calling up images of Lauren’s journal, the birth place of Earthseed.

I love how Lauren’s style evolves with time as she adapts her appearance to the world around her: when she and her friends hit the road, Lauren chops all her hair off so that she can pass as a man.

As for the plot, Duffy manages to distill Butler’s wisdom from a 350-odd page book to a much shorter graphic novel with ease. It’s been a few years since I’ve read Parables, but I didn’t spot any significant changes to the plot or message. (Though some of the verses of Earthseed might have migrated from Talents to Sower. To wit: “In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix first must burn,” the latter portion of which will grace an upcoming science fiction anthology edited by Patrice Caldwell and featuring “16 stories of Black Girl Magic, resistance, and hope.” I CANNOT WAIT.)

While I am indeed a sucker for feminist dystopian fiction, it’s Lauren’s science-based religion that really resonates with me. I feel like we’re kindred spirits in this way. I’m an atheist who understands that, sometimes, being an atheist sucks. It can be harsh and hurtful and bleak. Religion offers comfort in the face of adversity and loss. Saying goodbye to someone you love is painful; saying goodbye for forever is downright crushing. Sometimes I wish I believed in the afterlife, in a Good Place and a Bad Place, or in karma and reincarnation. I wish I had hope that I’d see my lost loved ones again.

But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, and so I stitch together my own little safety blanket of quasi-religious truths. Lauren’s Books of the Living plays a pretty hefty role, as does Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (especially the scenes where Lyra and Will lead the despairing spirits from the World of the Dead so that they can reunite with their daemons in the natural world).

There’s Carl Sagan’s starstuff and Aaron Freeman’s “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.”

The collective consciousness known simply as the Library in Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies trilogy, and Griffin’s ideas about alternate universes in Adam Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me.

Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts, given life and form and structure by Erika Swyler in Light from Other Stars.

The wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff in Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel, and the implications this mutability of death holds for the grieving.

And then there are maxims like these.

While Parable of the Sower is a grim story, all the more so for its prescience, it is not one without hope: like a phoenix from the ashes, Lauren rises from the rubble that was her home and introduces her fellow survivors and refugees to a new way of thinking, believing, and being. A spirituality that celebrates harmony with the natural world, rather than a system of dominance and destruction. A journey rooted in truth, yet propelled upward by visions of something better. Earthseed is lovely and brimming with promise, and I hope it takes root (though not among the stars – not until humanity can be entrusted with its own home planet, anyway).

(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: Blood Countess by Lana Popović (2020)

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

“And if I was not deranged before, I have since succumbed.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including physical abuse, sexual assault, and murder.)

But I see it. Just as I see Lord Nádasdy’s hand close around her wrist, the skin paling with the force of his grip. I can see how it hurts her, in the way her smile slides off her face.

For all the gold and silver in her coffers, in some ways the countess is just like me.

A woman, with a man’s cruel hand around her wrist.

And is it truly Ferenc’s abuse, I begin to wonder, watching the corded muscles in Elizabeth’s neck, the wild elation flooding her face with every fall of the switch, that casts her to these abject depths? Or might there be some black vein of malice riving through her, too, nothing at all to do with him?

But that cannot be, it cannot. I could not love someone evil, and yet I love her so dearly, shudder with yearning for her touch.

Anna Darvulia is just thirteen the first time she meets the Countess Elizabeth Báthory. She unwittingly chases her kitten Zsuzsi, freshly rescued from a pack of bloodthirsty boys, in front of her Lady’s wedding procession – and, miraculously, lives to see another day.

Several years will pass before Elizabeth summons Anna to her side – or rather, to the bedside of her secret, illegitimate son Gabor, in the throes of a mysterious illness. Anna, the daughter of the village midwife and a skilled healer in her own right (“witch,” whisper some), diagnoses it as an infected bug bite and delivers Gabor from the jaws of death.

Elizabeth rewards Anna with employment, and enough coin to feed her struggling family – first in the scullery, then as a chambermaid to the Lady herself. Despite the rumors about Elizabeth’s cruel streak, Anna finds herself drawn to Elizabeth – so lovely, captivating, and mischievous. So like Anna herself, tied to an abusive man by the ropes of the patriarchy.

As Anna becomes more entwined with Elizabeth, she begins to see that the woman she loves is indeed the sociopath that everyone speaks about in hushed whispers in shadowy corners. She gets a front-row seat to Elizabeth’s cruelty – like, a literal front seat – yet Anna stubbornly clings to the fantasy that she can fix Elizabeth, pull her back from the edge of depravity; or, failing that, temper her abuse, if only a little. But when Anna realizes that she is as expendable as the rest, she takes drastic action to end Elizabeth’s reign of terror.

Very loosely based on the historical “Countess Dracula,” Blood Countess is not exactly what I expected. For one, the honest-to-goodness, vampiric bloodletting comes pretty late in the story. (In some ways, this almost feels like Elizabeth’s origin story.) The journey there is as much a psychological thriller as a slash-’em-up horror story.

Anna is a fascinating character, and her reactions to Elizabeth – her knee-jerk disbelief of the rumors, coupled with her justifications when she witnesses Elizabeth’s rage for herself – feels a lot like contemporary excuses we make for men who do bad things: “Well, he’s never hurt me personally, so he must be a good guy.” or “He was provoked.” or “But what about all the good he’s done for women.” Like, it was painful at times to witness Anna’s journey to the truth; onto her, I projected the faces of Ghislaine Maxwell, or the women seated at Harvey Weinstein’s table when he was so bravely called out by Kelly Bachman, Zoe Stuckless, and Amber Rollo. Handmaids of the patriarchy, if you will.

If anything, Blood Countess is an amazing case study of how abusers get away with it for so long. Elizabeth’s gender and her (perceived) connections with Anna make it all the more complex and meaty – doubly so with all the red herrings Popović throws down about men behaving badly. Did Ferenc and Mr. Darvulia deserve to die? Probably. But sometimes women (especially rich white women) are terrible too. Elizabeth’s masterful gaslighting of Anna was the icing on the cake.

Popović’s prose is gorgeous and lush and dark and sexy. Horrible yet exquisite. It’s like a rich piece of red velvet cake (decidedly not vegan), topped with not-fake blood icing. Your favorite Halloween candy, with razor blades hidden inside (just like mom warned you about!). Deliciously dreadful.

Come for the historical horror, stay for the doomed F/F, would-be/could-be Thelma & Louise-esque romance.

(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: Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn & Nicole Goux (2020)

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Find out how Cassandra Cain got her wings.

four out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

Let me preface this review by saying that, although I love comic books, I mostly stick to one-offs, new series, or adaptations of stories I love in other mediums. DC and Marvel, with their long-running series, can be rather intimidating – where’s the best place to jump in? But I simply could not resist DC’s new line of YA graphic novels, penned by some of my YA favorites.

Anyway, that’s just a roundabout way of saying that I come into this with little background about the characters, save for what I’ve picked up from tv and movie and pop culture in general.

Shadow of the Batgirl focuses on Cassandra Cain, daughter of notorious crime kingpin and all-around baddie, David Cain. Raised by dad and trained to be an assassin, Cassandra goes rogue when she tries – and fails – to kill a man. With his (would be) dying breath, her mark whispers a single word that plucks a long-buried chord of empathy in Cassandra: “daughter.” Terrified of what punishment surely awaits, Cassandra seeks refuge in the stacks of the Gotham Public Library.

There, Cassandra learns to speak, read, and write – by spying on the kids’ storytime lessons held by librarian Barbara Gordon and, later, volunteering as her intern. Barbara has developed an app called Oracle to help her track the recent crime wave in Gotham, while Cassandra helps her investigate Batgirl’s exploits…and mysterious disappearance. She cultivates a found family there in the stacks: delightfully nerdy and welcoming Barbara; Jacqueline “Jackie” Fujikawa Yoneyama, she of impeccable style and delicious noodles; and Erik, a romantic at heart who wants to be seen as more than just a jock.

Cassandra wants desperately to be something other her father’s weapon, to forge her own path in life and, perhaps, fight for the people and city she loves, just as Batgirl did. But how can she keep everyone safe when her father is wreaking havoc across the city?

Shadow of the Batgirl is an enjoyable and heartwarming origin story for Cassandra Cain/ Batgirl/ Kasumi/ Black Bat/ Orphan. Written by Sarah Kuhn – who also pens the popular Heroine Complex series – the Asian rep in this story is great. In addition to Cassandra, there’s also the awesomely flamboyant Jackie, as well as Blasian jock with a heart of gold Erik, with whom Cassandra strikes up a tentative friendship – and romance (which is no less sweet for its inevitability). I really love these two together – and Cassandra with anyone, really – since she has an endearing, socially awkward Bones thing going on.

I mostly liked the artwork, too; my only complaint is that Cassandra looks awfully young in some panels – others, not – giving it a bit of an uneven feeling. Barbara is adorable, with her oversized glasses, and Jackie is a legit badass who I’d love to have as an adopted grandmother. Erik is swoon-worthy, natch, and the scenes where he and Cassandra geek out over books are the best.

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