Book Review: Luisa: Now and Then by Carole Maurel (2018)

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018

Letters to My Teenage Self Meets Freaky Friday

four out of five stars

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

When the book’s synopsis says that an adult Luisa “encounters” her fifteen-year-old self, I just assumed this meeting would be more metaphorical than anything else: Luisa rediscovers her old diaries, perhaps, or pens a letter to her younger self (a la Dear Teen Me). But this encounter is more literal – and science fictiony – than that.

One evening, on her way back from a friend’s house, young Luisa falls asleep on the bus – only to awaken seventeen years later, in 2013. All the technological wonders that surround her (cell phones! twitter! wi-fi! mp3 players!) pale in comparison to the chance meeting she has with her adult self … but not in a good way.

Whereas teenage Luisa dreamed of becoming a fine art photographer, adult Luisa specializes in porn – food porn, that is. (Nothing wrong with a good quiche, okay.) She lives in small apartment in Paris, bequeathed to Luisa by her estranged Aunt Aurelia, with whom she shares more in common than she can possibly know. She’s still single, flitting from one unsatisfying hetero relationship to another. Worst of all – to her teenage self, at least – Luisa never kept in touch with her first love: a girl named Lucy, who was the target of bullies and Luisa’s mother’s scorn alike.

As the two versions of the same woman begin to morph into one another in Freaky Friday-esque fashion, Luisa must confront her fears – and her family’s homophobia – in order to … what? Integrate her selves? Find her way home? Prevent the bloody apocalypse?

If I’m not always sure what’s happening in Luisa: Now and Then, at least I can say that it’s a touching, fun, and compassionate ride. The message about reconciling your present life with your past dreams is universal, and Luisa’s struggle to accept – if not define – her sexuality is handled with care, nuance, and love. Recommended for LGBTQ adults and teens, of course, and more generally everyone whose life didn’t go exactly as planned.

(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: Chimera: Book One – The Righteous and the Lost by Tyler Ellis (2018)

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

A promising start to a new series.

three out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

Reminiscent of Firefly and Saga, Chimera follows the exploits of a rag-tag group of space traveling misfits. There’s Alice, the captain, who was the war-hungry Emperor-God’s champion in a previous life; her brother Charlie, who went AWOL from the rebel coalition; Russell, a three-eyed, telekinetic, wolflike alien; and Wex, the crew’s translator, who just so happens to look like an iguana. Their latest heist? Retrieve an artifact called the “chimera” – and use the funds to get the heck out of the ‘verse, and the holy war that’s tearing it apart.

Based on the cover – specifically, its minimalist, playing-it-oh-so-close-to-the-vest artwork – I wasn’t sure what to expect from Chimera, or whether I really wanted to bother with it at all. I’m glad I did, because the artwork is stunning. Seriously, the cover doesn’t begin to do it justice. The world building is easily the best part of Chimera, from the desolate desert landscape to the plethora of wonderful and imaginative aliens.

Less shiny is the actual story line, which I sometimes found muddled and confusing. There are so many different factions to keep track of, and their relationships to one another aren’t always clear. The true nature of the titular “chimera” remains a mystery throughout most of the book, and even when we get more information on it, it’s alternately referred to as both a piece of tech and a planet, which is hecka confusing.

You know the old admonition to “show, don’t tell”? It’s the exact opposite with Chimera.

Additionally, the first book feels incomplete; it ends before the story arc can be wrapped up, and as a result is deeply unsatisfying.

Still, I regret nothing. The Righteous and the Lost is a promising start to a new series, and I look forward to the next installment. Maybe the inevitable re-read will even improve my grasp of the first 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: Spectacle (Menagerie #2) by Rachel Vincent (2017)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Missing that certain indefinable something that made MENAGERIE so special.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and forced abortion.)

“This one isn’t like the others,” the woman—his wife?—said, and the sharp edge in her voice could have cut glass.

“I’m like them in every way that matters,” I insisted.

I frowned, studying the dryad. She looked different from when they’d taken her the afternoon before, but I couldn’t…

Her hair. She’d had several beautiful whitish blooms blossoming in her hair.

Now those blossoms were gone.

One of the other ladies knelt next to her and laid a hand on Magnolia’s shoulder, but the nymph turned on her, teeth gnashing. Mossy-green eyes flashed beneath the tiny woody tendrils growing in place of her eyelashes.

“Oh…” Simra breathed, and I turned to her with a questioning look. “They got rid of it.”

“It?”

“The baby.”

“She was pregnant?” I whispered, horrified. “Vandekamp ended it?”

“His wife. She won’t let the ‘monsters’ breed.”

The only thing I could imagine worse than being forced to end the pregnancy was how Magnolia might have gotten pregnant in the first place.

When Menagerie debuted in 2015, I devoured an early copy faster and with more passion than a piping hot bowl of Daiya cheese sauce. It alternately had me squealing in delight, pumping my fist in the air, and squirming in my seat as if a whole mess of fire ants had set up residence there. More than anything, Menagerie inspired a jaw-dropping sense of disbelief: am I really reading what I think I’m reading here? I then went on to spend most of the next five days writing one of my most epic reviews ever. (Rivaled only by my treatise on The Female of The Species.)

Since then, I’ve read it several more times, including on audiobook, which incidentally spawned one of my favorite video recordings of one of my favorite rescue dogs, Mags (she of The Hunger Games fame; her son’s name is Finnick).

When the sequel was finally (!) released into the wild, I promptly requested an ARC on NetGalley…and then proceeded to sit on it for more than a year. I was just so scared to touch the damn thing! While Menagerie was most likely meant as an allegory for the treatment of Muslims (and brown people as a whole) after 9/11, it was impossible for me not to read it as a story about animal rights, however unintentional. (In the vegan community, we call this “accidentally vegan,” like Oreos. Yum!)

Every mistreatment of the cryptids in Delilah’s world – both the humanoid and more “bestial” ones – has an obvious and devastating corollary here in the real world, in our interactions with nonhuman animals. From forced impregnation to the separation of parents and children; the exhibition of animals in zoos and circuses; vivisection, including for the most trivial of reasons, like developing new household cleaners; physical punishment under the guise of training; and even crush videos and bestiality. And while we dismiss these atrocities since they’re “only animals,” Vincent nails the crux of the issue in Menagerie: it’s not intelligence that counts, or DNA, or one’s physical approximation to humans. The only thing that matters is sentience: a being’s ability to feel pain (or joy) and suffer.

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? – Jeremy Bentham

The cryptids in Menagerie are indeed sentient – as are the billions of nonhuman animals we enslave, torture, and kill every year. It’s impossible not to draw parallels.

And yet. Given that I’m 99.9% positive these parallels were unplanned, I worried that Vincent would walk them back in the sequel; undo some of the amazing arguments put forth in Menagerie. And so I hemmed and hawed and put Spectacle on the back burner until I could stand the suspense no further.

The good news is that my fears were largely unfounded. While the moral and philosophical underpinnings of Delilah’s furiae – so eloquently (though not imperfectly) laid out in Menagerie – remain mostly unstated in Spectacle, they are not challenged in any way. Delilah and her compatriots are the victims: victims of a cruel and inhumane society that dehumanizes, objectifies, and others them. Because humans are afraid. Because it elevates them. Because they can. Because there is a profit to be made by doing so.

The bad news? Spectacle is just an okay book. Entertaining enough, sure, but nowhere near as revolutionary as Menagerie.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Any Man by Amber Tamblyn (2018)

Friday, June 29th, 2018

A Searing Indictment of Rape Culture

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape, including the rape of children and nonhuman animals, as well as victim blaming, transphobia, suicide, PTSD, anorexia, self-injury, and more.)

It’s a pain … it’s a cellular pain now, okay? It’s not a memory, it lives in me like a heart.

Ten years ago, I was having a beer with a friend after work and a few hours later, I was violently assaulted and left for dead behind a dumpster. No, worse—I was left for living. My assaulter wanted me to live through what I had experienced. It was a gesture of torture, a most excruciating gift.

She was just a normal woman.
She had brown hair and brown eyes.
She wasn’t pretty. She wasn’t ugly.
She wasn’t really old but she wasn’t young either. She was just a normal woman.

When I first read the synopsis for Any Man, I was skeptical. Best case scenario, I thought it might be a well-meaning – but ultimately doomed – attempt to foster empathy for survivors of rape by switching up the genders: making the perpetrator a woman, and her victims men. I say doomed because, let’s face it: the same misogynist stereotypes that blame and shame women also silence male victims. If women are the weaker sex, how frail must a man be to be physically overpowered by a woman? How can a woman “rape” a man when intercourse hinges on his arousal? (Assuming a pretty narrow definition of rape or sexual assault, this.) If men are DTF 24/7, how can one possibly be raped? And so on and so forth.

Worst case scenario, I worried that Maude – the “serial female rapist who preys on men” – would be reduced to a femi-Nazi caricature, a bitter, man-hating harpy who attacks and emasculates random men, perhaps as a misguided form of revenge for past trauma. Maybe she’d even inspire her own fan club or copycat vigilante group. And while there are echos of this misogynist cutout in the public’s reaction to Maude, I think we’re meant to see it as ridiculous, even horrifying. Because, at the core of Tamblyn’s writing lives a sense of compassion for Maude’s victims – and, by extension, all victims/survivors – as well as a keen and incisive understanding of the trauma they’ve experienced.

Honestly, when I realized that Amber Tamblyn was the author, that’s the moment I decided to take a chance on Any Man. Her feminist cred earned her the benefit of the doubt; if anyone could do this story justice, I thought (hoped) it might be her. And Tamblyn does not disappoint: this is easily one of the “best” books I’ve read this year. Acerbic, witty, and as shrewd as it is painful to read. Any Man is not an easy book to read, or even one that’s particularly enjoyable (though there are some odd, unexpected moments of levity, such as Tamblyn’s imagined Twitter celeb reactions), but it’s powerful and memorable and really goddamn important.

Beginning with Donald Ellis of Watertown, New York, Any Man follows the wake of devastation that a female serial rapist – who the police will eventually dub Maude, after her OkCupid profile – leaves in her wake. The narrative takes place over a period of ten years, as Maude’s victim count grows from one to two to five (undoubtedly much higher since the majority of rapes go unreported, for the very reasons explored here). She operates mainly in the Northeastern United States (as far as we know), and her complete and utter lack of a pattern makes her especially difficult to catch.

Her victims range in age from ten to sixty-four; they are married, or single; they have children, or not; they are white, or biracial; one is an openly gay celebrity, while another is a trans man. Maude may initiate contact with the victims weeks before the encounter, or ambush them entirely. Her choice of weapons and method of attack vary wildly. One thing each attack seems to share in common is its unique depravity. (THIS BOOK COMES WITH A STRONG TRIGGER WARNING.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Secret Loves of Geeks edited by Hope Nicholson (2018)

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

As dazzling as the cover!

four out of five stars

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

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I enjoyed The Secret Loves of Geeks even more than its predecessor, The Secret Loves of Geek Girls.

I had Geek Girls on pre-order, something I rarely do (unless there’s a can’t-miss deal involved), in no small part because Margaret Atwood’s name was attached to the project. (FAVORITE.) The day the book arrived, I pounced on it, but my enthusiasm quickly waned when I realized that the “secret loves” referenced in the title were actual interpersonal relationships and not, as I assumed, guilty pleasures. I was seriously soured on relationships at that point. Well, relationships not involving dogs, anyway.

As a recent widow, I’m still not very keen on the topic (feeling hecka cynical over here), but the breadth of diversity found in The Secret Loves of Geeks won me over. (Also it probably helped that my expectations were adjusted accordingly.) In a mix of personal essays and comics, the contributors share their own stories and anecdotes (and even the occasional piece of advice) about love, in all its triumphs and tragedies. Most of the stories are about romantic love, yes, but platonic love and familial love and love of fictional ‘verses also represent. There are coming out stories, and stories about grief and loss. Comics about trans headcanons and essays about how Buffy’s journey parallels that of the author, a trans woman.

It’s hard to point to a favorite or two; by the time I finished the anthology, I realized that I’d starred at least half of the pieces! There were only a smattering I didn’t care for, and just two I skimmed through or skipped altogether.

Levi Hastings’s “So Say We All” kind of broke me, and not just because I’m grieving too. I think the ghost dog is what set me over the edge.

“Trolling for Lesbos” by Gabby Rivera is also great, and boasts the best title of the bunch. America just jumped to the top of my wishlist.

Ivan Salazar’s “The Walter Mercado Effect” is as informative as it is touching and entertaining, and Gwen Benaway’s “Being the Slayer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Burden of Trans Girlhood” slayed me (sorry not sorry).

But what is more feminine than fighting for your humanity? Men have their humanity handed to them. It’s preordained. Women are the ones who fight to make our way and work to have our partners respect us. People praise the sweet girl but they never acknowledge the bitch who gets shit done. So here’s to Buffy, a complex and powerful woman in a world of paper-thin girls. You’re my inspiration.

Some of the artists – Hope Nicholson, Margaret Atwood (duh!), Valentine De Landro, Amy Chu, Gabby Rivera – were already on my radar, but The Secret Loves of Geeks gave me a whole new roster to explore. Definitely a good thing.

(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: Scout’s Heaven by Bibi Dumon Tak & Annemarie van Haeringen (2018)

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

Lovely in its simplicity.

four out of five stars

(Full disclose: I received a free copy of this book for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.)

— 3.5 stars —

It is raining the day Scout takes her last breath.

Little Brother peppers his family with questions: Where has Scout gone, if she’s no longer here? Does it rain above the clouds? Who will feed Scout? Will she have a sea to splash in and other animals to chase? They answer his questions as best they know how and, after burying Scout, coax him to sleep.

The next day, they wake to an impossibly sunny sky. (When you’re in the throes of grief, everything good and pure and beautiful seems a personal affront.)

…and the sound of Scout’s barking, coming from way up high.

Scout’s Heaven is a simple yet elegant book about loss and grief for dog lovers young and old. The whimsical illustrations nicely complement the story, which is more understated here than in similar books I’ve read. With books about “pet” loss, I measure stars in tears shed, and I didn’t bawl nearly as hard as I normally do. But maybe this is a good thing, especially when trying to explain death to kids.

The vague references to Heaven definitely give the book a religious bent, but as an atheist I appreciated it just the same. The message could easily be tweaked to fit with my own favorite imagery, that of the souls of the ghosts in His Dark Materials breaking apart like so many champagne bubbles as they leave the land of the dead and join their daemons in the living world. Particles breaking apart and then coming back together to create new and wonderful creatures. Scout may be in the ground, but she’s everywhere else, too: in the air and sky, the sycamore tree that shades your bedroom window and the squirrel that calls it home. Listen closely, and you can hear her voice.

(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: Tell Me Lies by Carola Lovering (2018)

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

Mostly underwhelming.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. This review contains vague spoilery stuff.)

He will always come back for more, Lucy. He won’t give it up until he has to. Dr. Wattenbarger’s words resounded in my head—he had meant them as a warning; I savored them as hope.

Faced with the prospect of seeing her ex Stephen at her best friend Bree’s upcoming wedding*, twenty-five-year old Lucy Albright recalls their tumultuous – nay, toxic – relationship. This is a story about two shitty people and their shitty on-again, off-again courtship. Told in alternating perspectives, so we can get the full, skin-crawling experiencing of bouncing around in a sociopath’s head. (Said sociopath would be Stephen, and no, you will not find yourself rooting for him, a la Season Five Dexter.)

I’m really not sure what to make of Tell Me Lies; it’s readable enough, though I can’t exactly call it enjoyable. Lucy is an awful person, and not in relation to Stephen. I’ve had shitty boyfriends, too, and I know all too well what it’s like to know that you’re making bad decisions, even as you make them, and commit wholeheartedly anyway. No, Lucy was terrible well before she met Stephen.

That Unforgivable Thing her mom CJ did? The one that’s teased to death and not revealed until nearly halfway into the story? It was a betrayal of Lucy’s dad and had absolutely zero to do with Lucy herself. Lucy at least acknowledges him as a fellow aggrieved party, but his suffering mostly takes a backseat to hers. It’s silly and selfish and hella immature, especially as Lucy falls back on it time and again as the reason her life went so off track. More than once I wanted to backhand her across the face while yelling “Not everything is about you!”

It gets worse as Lucy becomes enmeshed with the (probably?) emotionally abusive (manipulative, certainly) Stephen during college. The low point comes when Lucy skips her fifteen-year-old dog Hickory’s final days and euthanasia in order to meet Stephen’s family. Not at his suggestion, either; she doesn’t so much as mention it to him. Whatever shred of sympathy I felt for Lucy evaporated in that moment.

And then there’s Stephen, who was involved in a manslaughter or hit and run or whatever you want to call it, and is never punished for his role in a girl’s death, even as it kinda-sorta-but-not-really comes to light. Okay, so he wasn’t accepted to his first round of law school picks, boo hoo. How about some jail time to go with that bruised sense of white male entitlement?

While this is all too believable, it’s also deeply unsatisfying; sometimes it seems like fiction is the only universe in which men are held to account for their violence and misogyny. That Stephen is not feels like a bit of a betrayal in itself.

Basically I just couldn’t with anyone or anything.

* Though it’s wholly unclear why Stephen is even invited, let alone allowed to bring a plus one. He and Evan weren’t particularly close in college, and certainly not tight enough that Bree would feel forced to make her bestie revisit that part of her past.

(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: Only Human (Themis Files #3) by Sylvain Neuvel (2018)

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Yokits!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains spoilers for the previous two books in the trilogy)

You think the world ch … changed while you were gone? It hasn’t. This is who we are.

What does a man’s life amount to? What does the life of a thousand, a billion? What is an ant’s life worth? I see now that the answer is irrelevant. It’s the question that matters. Should the ant let itself die, crushed under the weight of its own insignificance? Or should it live, fight giants, and build magnificent cities underground? What do I choose?

It was always you, Rose. Just you. This is your movie. The rest of us are just extras in it.

When last we visited the world of the Themis Files – a world in which the discovery of an alien robot/spaceship/war machine upended humanity, in ways both good and bad (but, let’s face it, mostly bad because humans gonna human) – physicist Rose Franklin, linguist-turned-pilot Vincent Couture, ten-year-old orphan Eva Reyes, and EDC head General Eugene Govender were on board Themis, celebrating their unlikely victory against alien invaders, when the ship powered up and transported them … somewhere else.

The quartet have spent the last nine years living in limbo on the alien planet Esat Ekt – “Home of the Ekt,” the builders of Themis and unfortunate contributors to humanity’s gene pool. Due to their strict moral philosophy of non-interference in the evolutionary paths of other species, and well as regional political BS, the Ekt cannot decide whether to send the accidental guests home, as aliens – or make them stay, as part-Ekt citizens.

It was this very philosophy of non-interference that led the Ekt to attack earth in Waking Gods, releasing a toxic gas that killed millions. What the Ekt meant as a surgical strike against their own people quickly snowballed, since the original twenty-four Ekt visitors couldn’t keep it in their pants, so to speak. The mass casualties sent shock waves through both planets: the earth of today performs mandatory blood tests on its citizens; anyone deemed to have “too much” alien DNA is rounded up and put in camps, even executed. Meanwhile, the fiasco has led to civil unrest on Ekt, with the h. sapiens guests/prisoners serving as a constant, painful reminder of the Ekt’s epic fuckup. Something’s gotta give.

Only Human is a pretty solid end to a series that I’ve really enjoyed. Like its predecessors, the story is told via a series of interviews, journal entries, and the like, in both flashbacks (to Rose et al.’s time on Ekt) and real-time. As you can probably gather from this sentence, Rose, Vincent, and Eva have managed to find their way back to Earth, which is now in possession of not one but two alien robots. In a post-9/11 climate of paranoia and fear, this is very much Not A Good Thing. The parallels Neuvel makes to our current political climate are inescapable, and I had to wonder how much of the story he wrote before/after the 2016 election (or if he altered the narrative at all later). The ultimate view he posits of humanity is both grim, but also cautiously hopeful.

I really enjoyed getting to know teenage Eva, and to see Vincent as a father. The father-daughter conflict seemed a little over the top at times, but Eva’s narrative is really compelling: a “freak” who saw visions on Earth, Eva is more or less “normal” – if a bit of an alien curiosity-slash-celebrity – on Ekt. Vincent is pretty insistent that he wants Eva to have a “normal” life – but to her, Ekt is it. So you can imagine her angst at being forced to leave by dear old dad. (I was pretty peeved with him until the final chapters.)

I also came to love Mr. Burns – something I wouldn’t have thought possible in books one or two – and kind of teared up at the surprise twist ending. Slow clap on that one.

Someone needs to stop giving these war criminals government jobs though, smh. #StillNotReadyForThemis

(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: Atar Gull (Long Courrier) by Fabien Nury & Brüno (2016)

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Like, glacially so.

three out of five stars

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

Based on a novel of the same name, penned by the French writer Eugène Sue and published in 1831, Atar Gull is a story of revenge – of the “dish best served cold” variety. Taken prisoner by Taroo, chief of the Great Namaquas, Atar Gull finds himself on a slave ship bound for the West Indies. During the voyage, the Catherine is attacked and ultimately boarded by a band of ruthless pirates, led by Captain Brulart. A ruse, a sacrifice, and a ship chase later, Atar Gull is one of the few surviving captives when the vessel finally docks in Jamaica. Here, he’s sold to plantation owner Tom Will; part of a lot of “Negroes and Negresses” to serve as a dowry for his daughter Jenny.

While all these horrors are certainly just cause for what comes later (or some of it, anyway), the breaking point comes when Atar Gull learns the fate of his father, the chief of the Little Namaquas before him. If the previous pages didn’t completely dispel with the myth of the “benevolent slaveowner” (an oxymoron if ever there was one), then certainly this calculating and heartless scheme will do the trick.

Gazing upon his father’s lifeless face, Atar Gull hatches a plan of revenge that’s slow to unravel, yet destroys everything in its path.

Usually I love revenge stories that center members of oppressed groups as anti-/heroes, but my feelings were a little more conflicted here. It’s hard to root for Atar Gull without restraint, since so many innocents suffer under his wrath: Will’s human captives and nonhuman chattel chief among them. Consequently, Atar Gull’s revenge felt a little empty and … unsatisfying. The final panels, though? Chilling AF.

(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: Spectacle, Vol. 1 by Megan Rose Gedris (2018)

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

Engaging premise and setting, but a deeply unsatisfying ending.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC through NetGalley. Trigger warning for ableist language directed at the circus “freaks”.)

Twin sisters Anna and Kat are performers in the Samson Brothers Circus: Anna tells fortunes, while Kat is a knife-thrower. Whereas Kat’s talents are all too real, Anna is a fraud. Well, kind of: while Anna tells the rubes what they want to hear, she can predict the future and decipher the past with the help of her self-made conjecture engine. It’s kind of slow and not very flashy, so – like Anna – it mostly stays in the background.

When the circus’s train is stalled out in the middle of the desert, Kat turns up dead, stabbed in the back with her own knives. Not wanting to alarm the other performs, circus owner Jebediah Tetanus (how’s that for an evocative name?) tasks Anna with solving the murder in secret. But things go from bad to worse when a series of tragedies beset the circus, including Tetanus’s own arrest at the hands of the corrupt deputy sheriff. Not to mention Kat’s lingering spirit, which flits in and out of Anna’s body to hide from pursuing demons.

So I really wanted to love Spectacle – and some of the elements here are great – but there’s a lot going on. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that very little is resolved by the end of chapter five. Usually I expect that a TPB has a self-contained story arc, but Book One of Spectacle feels more like the first two-thirds of a story. The ending – in which one of the roustabouts suddenly sprouts a rhino horn – is deeply unsatisfying, to say the least.

The art wasn’t initially my favorite – so many blockheads! – but it grew on me pretty quickly. I enjoyed the setting, which is some time in the mid (?) 1800s (?). This makes for some great old timey humor, such as when the circus doc diagnoses Anna with hysteria and prescribes coffee. With a side of heroin.

The story features a cast of pretty fascinating women characters, from Flora the would-be fat lady/current snake charmer to Lucy Chen, a clown who did it all for love. I really hope that my suspicions about the source of the weirdness between Anna and the bearded lady pan out; a cute F/F romance makes every story better, okay. I wish that we’d seen more of Eve and Lynn, the conjoined twins; there’s a lot of ableist yet era-appropriate language thrown their way, and I want desperately for the story challenges this as the plot unfolds. The collision between science and the supernatural also holds some promise going forward.

P.S. WHAT GIVES WITH THE PICKLES!?!

(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 Year of the Introvert: A Journal of Daily Inspiration for the Inwardly Inclined by Michaela Chung (2018)

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Not a daily journal per se.

three out of five stars

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

I picked The Year of the Introvert up expecting to find a guided journal, but what I got is a little different. While there are some journal prompts here, they typically come at the end of a week or so of inspirational passages. In addition to these “Reflection Questions,” each month features a “Monthly Gratitude Moment” and themed “Celebration.” The result is an eclectic mashup of diary, self-help, and inspo calendar. Which is awesome if that’s what you’re looking for, but I wanted something with a little less text and a little more white space to explore my own thoughts and feelings.

One of the things that really rubbed me the wrong way is the author’s propensity to talk about herself. A LOT. Like, I thought a journal was supposed to be about me, and not someone else, right? Looking at her body of work, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; Chung has made a career out of her introversion – which is great! – but one thing self-help gurus like to do is pontificate about themselves and how awesome they’re doing, so.

Some of her advice is kind of eye-rollingly obnoxious, too. If I had extra cash on hand, I wouldn’t go hiding it in places I might never find it again. Putting a five in my coat pocket is a good way to turn it into wet scrap paper, okay. I need it in my checking account anyhow because BILLS. (Yes, I am rolling my eyes as I write this.)

(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: I Really Didn’t Think This Through: Tales from My So-Called Adult Life by Beth Evans (2018)

Friday, May 11th, 2018

Needs more illustrations!

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for mental health issues, including self-harm.)

I hadn’t heard of Instagram artist Beth Evans before picking up a copy of her new book, I Really Didn’t Think This Through: Tales from My So-Called Adult Life – but now I’m seriously considering creating an Instagram account, just so I can follow her.

In the vein of Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half and the Sarah’s Scribbles series by Sarah Andersen, Evans pokes fun at what it means to be an “adult” in the modern era. Unlike Brosh and Andersen, Evans’s book is heavy on text and light on illustrations. Equal parts self-help and humorous confessional, with a few illustrations peppered throughout to drive certain points home, Evans explores the travails and (occasional) triumphs of everyday existence, from her struggles with anxiety, depression, and self-harm, to the weird world of casual dating and the challenges of self-love and body positivity. Somehow Evans manages to stay positive even through the tears. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll laugh while crying. There’s a lot of relatable stuff in here.

That said, I thought the illustrations were by far the book’s strongest point, and there just aren’t enough of them! The anecdotes were amusing enough; the advice, solid of not ground-breaking – but art is truly where Evans shines. Can we get an honest-to-goodness graphic novel or comic book please?

(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 Ghost, The Owl by Franco and Sara Richard (2018)

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Buy it for the artwork.

four out of five stars

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

One night, the ghost of a young girl appears in a swamp; only the animals are able to see – and communicate with – her. While the residents of the swamp have a strict policy against interfering in the affairs of humans, an owl named Aldus breaks with tradition and attempts to help the ghost girl find out who she is, where she comes from, and – most importantly – why her soul continues to hang around. As it turns out, the girl’s fate is entwined with the owl’s own, as their journey takes them to a whimsical little cottage where both spent their youths.

The story in The Ghost, The Owl is pretty simple; bare-bones, even. It’s enough to keep the action moving forward, but not much else. For example, I really wanted to learn more about Jessica, and the angry and entitled man pursuing her. This subplot feels like the outline of a fairy tale – the beautiful, kind young maiden and the evil, boorish lord/prince/king/baron – calling out for more depth and complexity.

But the artwork? To say that it’s breathtaking feels grossly inadequate. The style, the colors, the lines and angles – it’s simply enchanting. The owls in particular call to mind the Great Owl from The Secret of NIMH – a childhood favorite – and the dark tone and assorted swamp creatures are evocative of The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. The fire scenes – with red licks of flame and black swirls of smoke – are especially beautiful. Many of the pages struck me speechless, and the eyes of the owl and the crow – burnt amber and fiery red – will haunt me.

Honestly, this is one of the most gorgeous books I’ve ever picked up.

(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 Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition by Julia Kaye (2018)

Friday, May 4th, 2018

Lovely and heartfelt.

four out of five stars

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

Growing up, artist Julia Kaye didn’t know she was trans. While she felt a certain, low-level sense of discomfort with her own body, it wasn’t until she was twenty-four – when she stumbled upon a website where users documented their transitions – that she identified the source of her gender dysphoria. And it would take another two years before she was comfortable enough to come out to her friends and family and begin her transition. A near-daily diary in graphic novel format, Super Late Bloomer documents the first six months of her transition, from May through October of 2016.

Super Late Bloomer very much feels like the fabulously queer cousin of a Sarah’s Scribbles collection. The visual style is similar (princess eyes and puddle of flesh = pure joy!), yet still its own; and Kaye’s social awkwardness and anxiety feels familiar to me, even if the source is something that I can only try to understand. Kaye documents the tiny triumphs and devastations that marked her path along the way.

The bad: misgendering; being outed by well-meaning but clueless family members; post-laser stubble; friends who suddenly make themselves scarce.

The good: being complimented by other women; finding a dress that fits; accepting parents; looking in the mirror and seeing your true self stare back.

At turns funny, sarcastic, and bittersweet, Super Late Bloomer is essential reading for humans in this word.

(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: Manfried the Man by Caitlin Major & Kelly Bastow (2018)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

Better in small doses, maybe? (Check out the tumblr.)

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Goodreads.)

We’re trying to get volunteers to take part in the annual man count so we can keep track of all the stray men in the neighborhood.

If he’s only been missing a day he’s probably just holed up somewhere nearby. Men like to find small spaces and hide out.

Not all men though. Some men like the open space.

No not all men, obviously.

Steve Catson is kind of a fuck up. His apartment is a shithole, he hates his job at a call center, and he doesn’t have m/any real friends. He’s at that age when his peers are growing up, marrying, and having kittens of their own – but Steve is chronically single, socially awkward, and quite possibly depressed. The only bright spot in Steve’s life is his pet man, a chubby little ginger number not-so-creatively named Manfried. So when Manfried goes missing – thanks to Steve’s own carelessness, no less – Steve is beside himself with grief, panic, and self-loathing. Yet in his search for his beloved man, Steve might find even more than he could have hoped for.

I really dug the absurdist vibe of Manfried the Man, but I think the idea would have been better served by a series of self-contained strips as opposed to a singular narrative. I love those “if humans acted like dogs/cats” videos that occasionally make the rounds, and Manfried is very much in this vein. However, I didn’t find the storyline terribly interesting, and Steve is just plain irritating. I empathized with him initially – I too struggle with anxiety and depression, and sometimes feel like I’m just not doing right by my furry friends – but by story’s end I wanted to throttle the guy. Blaming your man’s escape on someone else, pffft. If I’d done that I’d be begging random strangers for a tongue lashing to feed the guilt.

Anyway, Manfried has its cute moments (#NotAllMen ftw; naked little men running around with their naked little twigs and berries), but overall I found it kind of meh. I do wish the whole “cones of shame for men” thing would catch on, though.

(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: Puerto Rico Strong edited by Hazel Newlevant, Desiree Rodriguez & Marco Lopez (2018)

Friday, April 27th, 2018

Wonderful idea, so-so execution.

three out of five stars

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

Spurred by the Drumpf administration’s shameful response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, not to mention the misinformed and callous attitudes of so many mainland American citizens, writers, editors, and artists came together to create a comics anthology to support disaster relief on the island. The proceeds from Puerto Rico Strong will benefit UNIDOS Disaster Relief & Recovery Program to Support Puerto Rico – and the many #ownvoices contributions will hopefully combat the dangerous and often racist beliefs about PR and those who call the island home.

I wanted to love this collection more than I did. It’s a great idea to support an admirable cause, and I love that so many of the artists are of Puerto Rican descent. Yet, as is the case with many anthologies, the comics are uneven, both in terms of the storytelling as well as the artwork. I have no desire to single anyone out, but some of the art is simply terrible; in one particular strip, the humans resemble lumpy potatoes with misshapen biceps the size of their equally misshapen heads. Many of the comics feel short; too short to cover any given topic in anything but the most shallow and perfunctory way. More often than not I came away from a piece feeling as though there was so much more to be said.

I feel like I learned quite a bit from Puerto Rico Strong, yet considering my starting point this isn’t a huge compliment. Like many white readers (probably), I don’t remember learning much, if anything, about Puerto Rico in my high school American History class. (For shame!)

My favorite comics were those that explored Puerto Rican history, from coercive sterilization (“La Operación” and “The Puerto Rican Birth Control Trials,” both by Ally Schwed), to the institution of the Jones Act of 1917 and the racist military drafting policies that soon followed (“Macondo, Puerto Rico” by Javier Morillo and Dan Méndez Moore), and the history and religion of the Taíno Indians (the island’s native Arawak inhabitants). There’s also some pretty neat sci-fi that imagines the place Puerto Rico might occupy in humanity’s future, fifty or more years down the road (see, e.g. “Pasitos Grandes,” by Tristan J. Tarwater and Cynthia Santos).

(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: Box of Bones #1 by Ayize Jama-Everett & John Jennings (2018)

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Off to a promising start!

four out of five stars

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

I very rarely read single issues of comic books, let alone review them, for one simple fact: I just don’t have the patience to wait for the next issue in the series! Much like TV shows, I’d rather wait until the entire series has come out and then binge them all at once. But when the fledgling issue of Box of Bones popped up on NetGalley, I just couldn’t resist.

Luckily, the story in this first issue is somewhat self-contained. While we’re introduced to the concept of the main plot, most of the action takes place in the form of a flashback.

UC Berkeley student Lindsay Ford’s research into the appearance of “spectral creatures” at key moments in Black American (North and South) history has landed her in front of the faculty, arguing for the viability of her project. When asked if there’s a personal reason behind her academic interests, Lindsay remembers a story told to her by her grandfather. As teenagers, Jim and his friend Gauge were brutally attacked – beaten nearly unconscious and, in Gauge’s case, raped – by a gang of racist white classmates. Gauge turns to her mother’s “New Orleans voodoo” – in the form of a box of bones to which the practitioner must sacrifice her soul – to unleash her revenge.

While I do enjoy a good rape revenge story – because, let’s be honest, the world of fiction is pretty much the only time abusive men are held accountable for their actions – rape is also overused as a plot device. Gauge’s violation takes place off-screen, but it still comes like a punch to the gut, especially since it looks for a hot second like she might escape. Revenge comes quickly and is satisfying as heck. So I guess my feelings are mixed on this one.

Otherwise the story is engaging enough; a solid start to what looks like a promising series. Overall I enjoyed the artwork; though the monster has an over-the-top, gonzo feel to it, I quickly found myself digging the style.

I especially like how it changes and morphs with each “victim.” (Scare quotes because some of those peeps totally had it coming.)

3.5 stars.

(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: Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism edited by Danielle Barnhart & Iris Mahan (2018)

Friday, April 20th, 2018

Inclusive, Intersectional, and Feminist AF

four out of five stars

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

I want to believe
I’m a better woman now
that I’m writing poems.
that when I say, poems
I mean another way
to say, revenge.

(Denice Frohman, “Hunger”)

My god understands how slave women plucked pearls
from between their legs rather than see them strung up by the neck.

(Elizabeth Acevdeo, “An Open Letter to the Protestors Outside the Planned Parenthood Near My Job”)

This little grandmother
was ordered to pull down her paintings
because the Rabbi was offended
by her version of Eve: 9 months pregnant,
unbroken & reaching for another apple.

(Ruth Irupé Sanabria, “On Mate & the Work”)

Compiled in response to the 2016 election, Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism features the work of fifty feminist activists; some established poets, other relative newcomers; from all walks of life. The collection is both timely, and depressingly timeless: sexual assault, objectification, interpersonal violence, racism, police brutality, the suppression of women’s voices, disenfranchisement, white supremacy; all are issues that we’ve been fighting for far too long. (Cue the meme, “I Can’t Believe I Still Have To Protest This Fucking Shit.”)

Some of the poems I loved; others, I struggled with; and a small handful I skimmed over altogether. The collection’s greatest strength is its inclusiveness, diversity, and breadth of voices. And yet, Women of Resistance is a little uneven, and I can’t say that I always “got” – or even enjoyed – the poems featured here. (To be fair, poetry isn’t my strong suit, and I’ve been feeling a little burned out on it lately to boot.)

THAT SAID, when a poem resonated with me, it was often a loud and resounding affair. There are some truly astounding pieces of verse in here! In particular I adored the work of Denice Frohman (“Hunger,” “A Woman’s Place”), Kimberley Johnson (“Female”), Jacqueline Jones (“Civil Rights”), Kim Addonizio “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall”), Laura Theobald (“Getting a UTI”), Elizabeth Acevdeo (“An Open Letter to the Protestors Outside the Planned Parenthood Near My Job”), Ada Limón (“Service”), Stacey Waite (“The Four Nights She’s Gone”), Patricia Smith (“What She Thinks as She Waits by the Door”), Ruth Irupé Sanabria (“On Mate & the Work”), Mary Ruefle (“Woodtangle”), Rachel McKibbens (“Shiv”), and Lauren K. Alleyne (“Ode to the Pantsuit”).

Usually I prefer reading ebooks on my Kindle, since it’s easier to highlight text and take notes this way, but this particular book looks its best on an ipad or other full-color device. There are some neat black and white protest photos here and there, and the formatting tends to stay true to the original.

(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 Boyfriend Is a Bear by Pamela Ribon & Cat Farris (2018)

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

MRRRHHNH. (That’s Bear for “Coming in for a hug.”)

five out of five stars

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

I honestly didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did.

I mean, I don’t know what I expected, other than it seemed like a cute idea that could very well fail spectacularly. At the end of the day, I picked it up because I really, really wanted to use this video in a review.

Nora stumbles into a 500-pound American black bear while camping with one of her many d-bag boyfriends. When Bear is later driven from his forest home by wildfires, he finds Nora thanks to a discarded issue of Bust. (Nice touch! Eff off, Ben!) Against all odds, these crazy kids fall in love and make a go of it. But will Bear’s looming hibernation rip them apart, if society doesn’t break their spirits first?

My Boyfriend Is a Bear is weird and adorable and just straight-up delightful. I know I’m supposed to read it as an allegory about overcoming differences both large and small in relationships, but you know what? It’s also a cuddly AF romance story about a lady and a bear. Says the girl who claims as her soulmate a snaggle-toothed, marshmallow-bellied rat terrier (now nearly five years dead, and whom she thinks of on the daily) and once referred to her first-adopted dog as “her other boyfriend ™.” Dogs > people. Probably bears > people, too. All nonhuman animals > people, who are we kidding.

As much as My Boyfriend Is a Bear had me laughing – and it was like whoah – it also has its fair share of sad moments, especially as Bear’s hibernation approaches. That last act was filled with snot-flinging ugly crying. But the end? Pure magic.

This is one that’s earned a permanent place on my nightstand, right on top of Hyperbole and a Half and the Sarah’s Scribbles collections. Along with Nicole Georges’s Fetch, it’s a book I’ll turn to every now and then, when I need a good, hysterical cry.

Basically My Boyfriend Is a Bear is the best thing ever. Or at least since the proud tradition of bears wearing tees without pants.

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

Mini-Review: Firebug by Johnnie Christmas (2018)

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

Three stars for the amazing artwork.

three out of five stars

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

The artwork in Firebug is as lovely as the story is confusing.

Like, I’m not sure I have a good enough handle on the plot to offer even the briefest of summaries. There are so many warring factions that it’s hard to know who we’re supposed to root for most of the time.

At first, it seems clear-cut: the Cult of the Goddess is holding a Goddess captive and crushing the rebels who dare to challenge their (unjustly seized) religious authority. But wait, no: the High Priestess keeps the temperamental Goddess sedated so that her histrionics won’t trigger a volcanic eruption, killing us all.

And the forest spirits are bad, a gauntlet for our heroes to cross on the way to Azar. But no really, they’re the city’s protectors, from none other than Keegan, the new Goddess, and our story’s protagonist.

Throw in the Volcano Goddess’s sister, the Goddess of Water, and I am positively flummoxed. I really wanted to root for her, if only because her fish body is in the “so ugly it’s cute” territory.

Chalk this one up to good idea/poor execution. Three stars for the art, because it truly is stunning. I also loved the “Gospel According to Amina” vignettes, which evoked memories of Octavia Butler’s Parables duology.

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