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:

###

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!)

Book Review: Foul Is Fair (Foul Is Fair #1) by Hannah Capin (2020)

Tuesday, February 4th, 2020

Mean Girls + Kill Bill + The Craft

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape and domestic abuse, as well as murder and suicide.)

I said, I spat, I swore: You picked the wrong girl.
They did.
They had to.
It could only be me.
Not the first—
—but the last, the last, the last.
They picked the right girl.

“We’ll be the witches they don’t believe in until it’s too late.”

Elle, Mads, Summer, and Jenny: young, wealthy, powerful, privileged. The quartet of besties rules their LA social circle: “We were middle school six months early, wearing our shiny new crowns before anyone else knew a monarchy was coming.” They are as ruthless as they are rich. Summer ruins starry-eyed boys for fun; Jenny can kill with her saccharine sweetness. Mads is the daughter of a crime boss who taught her and Elle to defend themselves when Mads came out as trans and was bullied at school. Ride or die? They coined the term, bitches.

When they crash a party at St. Andrew’s Preparatory School to celebrate Elle’s sweet sixteen, the golden boys on the lacrosse team separate Elle from her pack, like so many wolves on the hunt. Duncan, king/captain, singles Elle out for slaughter; his younger brother, Malcolm, slips Rohypnol into her drink; and Porter guards the door while teammates Duncan, Duffy, Connor, and Banks take turns raping her. Duffy’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Piper witnesses the assault, but does nothing to stop it.

Elle arises from the ashes like a phoenix transformed: she is the same hard, cruel girl she was, but more. Now she is Jade with the razor-sharp claws, hair shorn and colored REVENGE black, eyes obscured by contacts that match her new name. She promptly enrolls in St. Andrew’s Prep and vows to get her bloody satisfaction before the week is out, before her bruises (and their scratch marks) have a chance to heal. Jade and her coven hatch a plan to take the golden boys (and one flock girl) down, all at the hand of one of their own.

Foul Is Fair is wild and audacious, in the best way possible. I almost passed on it, because Jade and her crew seem like characters I’d otherwise loathe: part of the 1%, kids who use their parents’ influence to get away with all sorts of transgressions, including bloody murder. (Think: the Drumpf kids, but with more panache and intelligence.)

But I do love me a good rape revenge story, and this one is in a class of its own: Kill Bill (which is of course I Spit On Your Grave + Bruce Lee) meets Mean Girls meets The Craft. Plus, for all her casual cruelty, the objects of Jade’s malice usually have it coming, for one reason or another. She is an avenging angel, if a fallen one at that. (Summer, though – Summer I wonder about. Spin-off, please? And a sequel for Lilia, I feel like that chick could be going places.)

I also found myself falling in like with the parents, again in spite of myself. I mean, these are some pretty terrible people: Jenny’s dad is a sleazy defense attorney who gets paid to victim-blame girls like Elle, and did I mention that Mads’s dad is a literal organized crime boss? Yet, despite their many flaws, these adults support their kids unconditionally – and not just monetarily, e.g., by buying their way out of trouble. Instead of putting a hit out on his daughter’s tormentors, Mads’s dad taught her how to fight…and then didn’t bat an eye when Elle casually mentioned that they were going to kill the bullies, not just kick their asses. Ditto Elle’s parents when, upon learning of their daughter’s assault, were content enough to let Elle handle it, her way. Murder heavily implied.

Is Foul Is Fair in any way, shape, or form believable? Nah. Unlike with Lisa Lutz’s The Swallows – another recent book tackling rape culture and sexual assault in an insular and privileged high school community – I can’t with a straight face insist that I can picture this playing out outside of the big (or little) screen. And that’s okay! Foul Is Fair is a deliciously savage rape revenge fantasy. One hundred percent, complete and total escapism and wish fulfillment.

I mean, if we can’t get justice in the real world, we deserve to see it with compounded, payday loan-esque interest in the fictional realm, right? (Trust me, patriarchy, you’re still getting the better end of the deal.)

(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 Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (2020)

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

This isn’t a love story.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for sexual harassment, rape, pedophilia, child abuse, drug use, and suicide.)

Fiona Apple was raped when she was twelve years old. I remember her talking about it in interviews back when I was twelve years old. She spoke about it so openly, the r-word coming out of her as though it were the same as any other. It happened outside her apartment; the whole time the man did what he did, she could hear her dog barking through the door. I remember crying over that detail while hugging our old shepherd dog, hot tears that I buried into his fur. I had no reason to care about rape then—I was a lucky kid, safe and securely loved—but that story hit me hard. Somehow I sensed what was coming for me even then. Really, though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grow up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.

“I tortured him,” I say. “I don’t think you understand how much I contributed to everything. His whole life descended into hell because of me.”

“He was a grown man and you were fifteen,” she says. “What could you have possibly done to torture him?”

For a moment I’m speechless, unable to come up with an answer besides, I walked into his classroom. I existed. I was born.

“I just feel . . .” I press the heels of my hands into my thighs. “I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know?” My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. “I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.”

At the height of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault shitstorm, I was living in a rural area in the midwest: a swath of deep blood red in an already overwhelmingly red state. Guns, God, and (when it suits them) small government. The kind of place where everyone just assumes that everyone else agrees with them, on all the things, all the time. (Spoiler alert: I never did. A year out, I’ve found that I miss the weather; the politics, not so much.)

Anyway, I was visiting with a neighbor and the television just happened to be on, and the reporter just happened to be talking about Weinstein. The neighbor, an older conservative lady, could have chosen to ignore the news; she didn’t. Instead, she reacted with what was, to me at least, unexpected vehemence – directed not at Weinstein, but his accusers. (I guess Weinstein’s white male privilege trumped his liberal Hollywood elite status in her calculations.) Cue the rape apologism: Why did the women wait so long to come forward? If he was so bad, why did everyone continue to work with him? If true, how could this behavior continue for so long, unchecked? Etc., etc., etc.

Naturally, I disagreed, and the conversion quickly morphed into a larger discussion of sexual harassment and abuse. Come to find out, when she was a teenager – back in, oh, the 50s or 60s – she worked stocking shelves at a small, family-owned grocery store. Her boss was a creepy ass motherfucker who used to sexually harass his female employees. Among other things, he’d insist on stuffing her wages into her jeans pocket himself. If she wanted to get paid what she was owed, she had to acquiesce to being groped and fondled (read: sexually assaulted) by a man who was likely twice her age or older. Nice.

Yet even as she acknowledged that this behavior was unacceptable, she denied that she was a victim (or survivor, or what have you; the issue was not terminology), or that sexual harassment, assault, and rape are widespread problems. It was infuriating, but I also saw a disturbing logic in it: no one wants to be a victim; to be a victim is to be weak, vulnerable, and exposed. Why identify with the prey when you can side with the predator – and, in so doing, perhaps absorb some of his strength and power, make it your own? Of course THOSE WOMEN are lying; the alternative means that they are victims, and if they are victims, perhaps that makes me one too?

This is what played through my mind, on an endless loop, as I devoured My Dark Vanessa. Yes, devoured: though it is an impossibly difficult book to read, Russell’s writing – compassionate, insightful, shrewd AF – makes it go down just a bit easier. This might just be one of the “best” (read: most observant) fictional books on rape that I’ve ever read. (Sadly, I have read quite a few.)

Vanessa Wye is just fifteen when she meets her longtime abuser, Jacob Strane. At the beginning, he is simply her English teacher: a bespectacled middle-aged (forty-two, to be exact) employee at the private Browick School in Norumbega, Maine. She’s a sophomore who’s interested in poetry; he’s a pedophile who quickly confesses that he’s going to “ruin” her. Thus begins a seventeen-year “relationship” (scare quotes because it’s more accurately described as long-term abuse, even if the narrator resists seeing it this way) between the two.

The story is told by Vanessa, in two timelines: now, which is 2017, as Strane stands accused of sexual assault by multiple former students; and then, at the beginning of the school year in 2000. The story slowly progresses from both points, exploring the sexual abuse and its fallout, eventually converging in the here and now. (Interestingly, in the Acknowledgements, Russell says that the book took her eighteen years to write, which is roughly the timeline of My Dark Vanessa.)

Strane’s selection of Vanessa is hardly random: she’s shy, unsure of herself, a bit of a loner. She had a falling out with her best (and only) friend and roommate, Jenny, near the end of last semester, and she hasn’t yet recovered from the loss. She isn’t particularly close to her parents, and they live a few hours away from the school anyway. Strane doesn’t need to separate her from the herd, as she already stands apart (though he does excel at driving wedges too).

Though she has, through necessity, romanticized the abuse – both in real time, as it was happening, as well as retrospectively – it’s pretty easy for an outsider to see what’s going on. Strane grooms Vanessa, pushes an ever-expanding series of boundaries, and gaslights, stalks, threatens, and otherwise manipulates her. When he’s on the precipice of exposure, Strane has no qualms about throwing Vanessa under the bus – a move that smacks of premeditation.

Yet he has made Vanessa so utterly dependent on him – for attention, approval, and affection – that she cannot move on: not when she leaves Browick for home and public school; not when she reaches legal adulthood and goes off to college; and not as an adult. Strane has, as he promised, “ruined” her. (Though, thankfully, not beyond repair.) As Vanessa so desperately admits to her therapist, she needs for this to be a love story, because the alternative is too horrible to imagine.

Despite her protestations that she is not a victim, that what Strane did to her was not rape, we can see the toll the abuse has taken on Vanessa: again, both then and now. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of abuse will see the signs; for example, how Vanessa freezes up and dissociates from herself during the assaults. As a young adult and adult, she acts out sexually, engages in risky behaviors, and uses alcohol and drugs to cope. She very clearly suffers from PTSD. All of which belies her insistence that she was an equal and willing partner.

(In fact, statutory rape is not the only instance of assault Vanessa is subjected to by Strane; there are multiple scenes in which she either does not voice her consent, actively says no, cries in fear and pain, and/or is inebriated to the point that she loses consciousness.)

Russell does an excellent job of exposing Strane – and, by extension, all rapists – for what they are: misogynists who get off on subjugating women and girls. Rather than existing in a vacuum, they are symptom of a larger problem: a culture that makes excuses for powerful men (or any man), that dismisses and trivializes and denies sexual harassment and assault, and that hates women. Strane is but one in a long line of weak, pathetic men who are deserving of nothing but our scorn. His ultimate fate proves more than he deserves (and isn’t that always the way in this world?).

As for Vanessa, she can admittedly be frustrating at times. And, while it can be tempting to blame her for her obstinance (particularly when she attacks Strane’s other victims), mostly I just felt sorry for her: how do you even begin to heal when you cannot admit that you were even wronged? Russell gets mad points for portraying what could be, in the wrong hands, an unrelateable or even unlikable character, and infusing her with depth and nuance to further understanding and foster compassion. As far as psychological studies go, Vanessa Wye is a tour de force.

I also really enjoyed how the early-aughts setting grounded the story in my own childhood; the bits about Fiona Apple really connected with me, and I outright snorted when Vanessa (in her inner monologue only, natch) derided Strane for being the stupid one for not knowing who Britney Spears is (rather than Vanessa, for deigning to listen to that pop culture garbage). This all brought me back to my own teen years, and not always in a good way. We all have stories: “It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grow up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.”

(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: Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark by Lucia Peters (2019)

Tuesday, January 21st, 2020

Spice up your SPN viewing party with a game of Sara Sarita!

four out of five stars

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

Flashlights. Darkened rooms. The chanting of names, of mantras, of mysterious incantations. Giggles in the dark – some out of bravery, others out of bravado. Dares. Challenges. Ghosts.

You might be familiar with them: the kinds of games you play at sleepovers, around the campfire, or on the playground – more rituals than games, really – meant to summon spirits, communicate with supernatural beings, or otherwise connect with a realm beyond our own. You may have learned these games from your older friends or siblings, or out of books found in dusty and forgotten corners of the library – books like this one, perhaps. You might not be convinced the games will actually work, believing them to be simply stories or urban legends – but when you play, you hope all the same that this time, maybe something will happen. You’ll fall into a trance. You’ll defy the laws of nature. You’ll look into a mirror and see not your own reflection, but the shape of someone … or something … else.

In Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark, Lucia Peters shares twenty-four spooky games you can play at your next sleepover, Halloween party, or Supernatural viewing party – the options are endless. Each game includes a brief history about its origins, along with step-by-step instructions, a list of materials, additional warnings (open flames + mild scares = a fire risk, for obvious reasons), risk level, and objectives and rewards.

The games are roughly divided into different categories, including:

Party Games
– Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board
– The Answer Man
– The Picture Game
– The Games of One Hundred Ghost Stories, or Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai

Summoning Spirits
– Bloody Mary
– Blue Baby, Baby Blue
– Lady Spades
– The Hosting Game

High-Stakes Hide-and-Seek
– The Midnight Game
– Hide-and-Seek Alone, or Hitori Kakurenbo
– The Bath Game, or Daruma-san
– The Candles Game

Long, Strange Trips
– The Doors of Your Mind
– The Elevator Game
– Closet to Another World
– The Black Telephone Game

Contacting the Other Side
– The Closet Game
– Musical Chairs Alone
– The Corner Game
– The Sister, Sister Game, or Sara Sarita

Games of Knowledge
– The Red Book Game
– The Compass Game
– The Fortune Game
– The Playing Card Game

Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark is a really handsome gift book, with red-edged pages; an attractive, embossed black, red, and white cover; and matching interior artwork. Some of the instructions could be a little clearer, but overall they’re easy enough to follow. I would’ve liked more detailed background on some of the games, but the book does have a short list of resources at the end.

My only complaint – and forgive me while I show my age here – is that the type is teeny tiny and very difficult to read. It’s eight point, tops. Maybe spring for the ebook so you can adjust the font size and read along in the dark to boot?

(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 Living (Warm Bodies #3) by Isaac Marion (2018)

Tuesday, January 14th, 2020

This is the Warm Bodies ending we deserve.

five out of five stars

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

We are ten thousand generations of humans and millions more of simpler things, a vast history of lives and experiences condensed like an ocean of oil, growing deeper and more refined with each new moment of beauty. We want to ignite. We want to be heat and light. After billions of years, we are running out of patience.

“What we had before is what burned the world down. I’m ready for a whole new everything.”

“Chairs on the ceiling,” Tomsen adds. “An otter for president.”

Gebre looks at us for a moment, then tosses up his hands and turns back to his husband. “Well. Okay.”

Gael erupts with laughter. “You’re out of touch with the youth, old man.”

“I might even agree with them,” Gebre says with a shrug, “but they’re hardly representative of the general population.”

“We might be someday,” Julie says. “Maybe sooner than you think.”

“How do we make a better world without giving up a single piece of the old one? We don’t. We can’t. That’s a fucking stupid question.”

“No way around it, zombies are magic.”

Warm Bodies is a personal favorite of mine; if not in the top ten, then definitely the top twenty. (Hey, the likes of Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler = stiff competition!) Until I met R. and Julie, never did I imagine that a book about the undead could be so beautiful and poetic. Romantic, even, and in a revolutionary, universal heartbeat kind of way.

The Burning World proved a letdown (albeit a teeny tiny one), as Marion traded some of the ardor for action adventure; it felt almost like an intermission between the more important stuff. In all fairness, bridging the gap between the beginning and end of a trilogy is HARD, and the second book in the series is still filled with its share of beautiful, transformative moments. (I challenge you to find a more tragically exquisite scene than when Nora’s patient, Mrs. A, pulls herself from the pit of the plague, only to succumb to her injuries after enjoying a few brief moments of her newfound humanity.)

I’m not gonna lie: I was nervous as heck to read The Living (especially right after the dumpster fire that was Fury, the series conclusion to another one of my faves, Menagerie).

Thankfully, The Living is a harmonious marriage of the previous two books: it’s got the race-against-time action-adventure chops of The Burning World, with all of the humor, heart, and humanity that made me fall head over heels for Warm Bodies.

The Living picks up immediately after the events of The Burning World, as R., Julie, Nora, Marcus, and (Huntress!) Tomsen flee an imploding NYC. What ensues is a road trip across the United States – including an especially precarious and trippy (as in LSD) journey through the Midwaste – as they try to beat Axiom to Post; save their kids from being assimilated into Axiom’s military-industrial complex; continue to spread the Gleam to the Dead and Nearly Living; and confront their pasts.

For Julie, this means finding her Nearly Living mother before she dies a second time; for Nora, it means confronting – and perhaps forgiving – memories she’s tried long and hard to repress; and for R., it involves a trip to the basement, and bringing his crimes against humanity – as both the head of the Burners and the heir to the Atvist megacorp – to light. And they’re all chasing Tomsen’s white whale, BABL, hoping to bring it crashing down, thus opening the lines of communication to humanity.

One of the delights of The Living is watching R. grow and evolve – and with it, his relationship with Julie. There’s this wonderful scene where Julie confesses that what first drew her to R. was his distinct lack of a background or baggage. He was a blank canvas on which she could project whatever she needed. Slowly, though, he has become full-fledged person – imperfections and all. R. didn’t have much of a choice when he devoured Perry; he was just following the plague’s biological imperative. But the towns that were consumed at his behest as a Burner, and the humans devoured by the machine that was Axiom? Those were R.’s doing. How could that young man grow into the monosyllabic zombie that Julie fell in love with? How can she reconcile the man she loves with the person he once was? How can he?

We also learn more about the nature of the plague; in general terms, it’s an allegory for the times we live in now, and one that’s perhaps more apt today than when the series began. The plague is forced unity and conformity; it is greed and pessimism. It is Axiom (Amazon, Blackwater, Purdue Pharma; Bethany Christian Services, CoreCivic, Wells Fargo): objectifying, tabulating, assimilating, corporatizing, mechanizing, consuming, regurgitating, and reassembling humans, nonhumans, and the natural world. It is apathy and stagnation; bigotry and tyranny. The only way through it? Love – and otter presidents.

The loveliest part of The Living, far and away, is the Library: a subconscious, supernatural, subatomic collective consciousness. A vast, limitless record of everyone and everything that ever has been, and ever will be. Though it has a longstanding policy of steering clear of human affairs, the state of the world has become such that the Library can no longer bear silent witness. This burning world, so desolate yet still so full of potential, needs a nudge. A bit of wisdom. A tiny miracle.

And the so Library whispers, cajoles, and calls out to our protagonists. Well, the older ones; the younger ones, Joan and Alex and Sprout and Addis – they can flit in and out of the stacks at will. They are able to sip and guzzle from the Library’s incomprehensible stores of knowledge whenever they like. Perhaps they can even use this wisdom to bend the laws of reality. They are the next generation; our future.

I hope they don’t mind, but I’m going to pocket a small piece of the Library, and slip it into my own weird, godless magpie version of “religion, not quite a.” There it will rest on the shelves alongside Octavia E. Butlers’s Parables duology; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials; Carl Sagan’s starstuff; Aaron Freeman’s essay, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral”; and pieces of Light from Other Stars and The Psychology of Time Travel, by Erika Swyler and Kate Mascarenhas, respectively, and among other things.

It’s strange and perhaps a bit confusing, but also as magnificent as all get out. Just roll with it and you’ll have an extraordinary time, I promise.

Also awesome and compelling and worth a mention: Nora’s reunion with Addis; Nora + Marcus; Tomsen vs. BABL; The Suggestible Universe; Paul Bark (sounds an awful lot like Paul Blart!); Gael + Gebre; random philosophical debates with strangers in dive bars; and the feeling you get when a ghost smiles at you.

Gleam on.

(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: Fury (Menagerie #3) by Rachel Vincent (2018)

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020

The series that started with a roar goes out with a weak, acquiescent whimper.

two 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, pregnancy, and birth. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

“I cry foul. Humankind doesn’t deserve a sword and shield. Or even a plastic spork. Not after everything they’ve done to us. You should be fighting for us.”

If Menagerie – the first book in this trilogy – was a 2020 Democratic Presidential hopeful, it would be Bernie Sanders. Fury, on the other hand? More of a Joe Biden. Pete Buttigieg, at best.

Look. I absolutely loved, cherished, and adored Menagerie. Reading it was a rapturous moment for me, and for reasons that something like 97% of my fellow readers just won’t get. While the plight of the cryptids in this parallel universe created by Rachel Vincent has several obvious and unmistakable corollaries in our world – the treatment of Muslims in post-9/11 America, the demonization of brown immigrants, especially (but not exclusively!) under a Drumpf presidency – at the time I argued that the most obvious one was also the most apt: simply put, “Menagerie reads like a thinly veiled animal rights revenge fantasy.” Was that Vincent’s intention? Probably not, especially given how the later books played out. Like Oreos, Menagerie was accidentally vegan. But that doesn’t make it any less delicious.

My main gripe with its follow-up, Spectacle, wasn’t that Vincent walked back the animal-friendly undertones, but rather that she failed to tread any new ground. By swapping the site of Delilah’s enslavement and oppression from Metzger’s Menagerie (a struggling traveling circus) to the Savage Spectacle (a place where cryptids are rented out for basically anything, from canned hunts to rape), it seemed like she meant to up the stakes:

Establishments like the Savage Spectacle were whispered about in hushed, fearful tones from behind the bars of Metzger’s Menagerie. They were the boogie men that Metzger used to keep his captives in line: act up, and you’ll end up at a place even worse than here. But is it? Really?

While rape in the form of sexual trafficking is rampant at the Spectacle, rape also occurred at Metzger’s: he forced “exhibits” to breed so that he could sell their offspring. Instead of forced abortion, as at Spectacle, Metzger’s had forced pregnancy and birth. Captives were not intentionally murdered at the carnival, but they were neglected and sometimes shipped off to places where they would be killed, such as research institutions or game preserves.

Is it really possible to rank oppressions?

I feel like Spectacle is Vincent’s attempt to up the ante, to create a world more shocking and appalling than even Metzger’s. And I don’t think that’s possible, because again: how do you compare atrocities? It’s all terrible and horrifying and makes anyone with an ounce of humanity not want to live on this planet anymore.

Fury, on the other hand, represents a serious (and seriously disappointing) deviation from the much more radical and subversive Menagerie. Also, very little happens. Something like 75% of the book involves the main characters hiding out in a remote cabin, or sitting in their cars drinking slushees for the free incognito wifi. I shit you not.

Fury picks up nine months after Delilah & Co.’s escape from the Savage Spectacle. After they disabled Vandekamp’s ability-inhibiting shock collars and high-tailed it out of there, the government bombed the facility. The unlucky cryptids and abusive guards trapped inside were written off as collateral damage. On the upside, they have no idea how many cryptids survived – and escaped. They do suspect that Delilah and Gallagher are out there, BUT they remain blissfully unaware of Delilah’s pregnancy. Which is pushing ten months and might end with her demise at the chubby little hands of a fear dearg baby.

Delilah, Gallagher, Lenore, Zyanya, Claudio, Genni, Rommily, and Eryx are all hiding out in an off-grid cabin in the deep woods outside of DC. Lenore sirens people into giving them cash monies to survive, and she and Delilah – the most human-looking of the group – go into town once a week to check the news feeds. They mean to be searching for the missing members of their group – Lenore’s husband, Rommily’s sisters, Zyanya’s brother and children – but it’s hard to get anything done when you’re a notorious fugitive.

And then a spate of mass murders whips everyone into a frenzy. Teachers kill students, nurses kill patients, police kill civilians, soldiers kill everything that moves. Some begin to fear that this is the beginning of a second reaping. Cryptids are scapegoated all over again. Though it seems that things can’t get worse for nonhumans, the bottom drops even lower: checkpoints are set up, with orders to shoot loose cryptids on sight.

And then things really go off the rails when Delilah wakes up one morning covered in blood and grime. It seems she killed someone in her sleep; but with two badasses taking up space in her body – the furiae and her fetus – it’s anyone’s guess who the murderer is…or why the victims’ faces all look eerily similar in death. One thing we do know: she can’t stop won’t stop.

All this plays out against the backdrop of the first Reaping in 1986, as told from the POV of fourteen-year-old Rebecca Essig, one of the few kids who was lucky enough to survive the mass slaughter by virtue of having other plans that night. She was at a slumber party, only to skip out early and find two of her three younger siblings dead, and her parents covered in blood. Eventually, the government would take her six-year-old sister Erica – really a changeling, or surrogate – into custody, never to be seen again. Rebecca’s story centers on her search for the real Erica, and converges with Delilah’s in unexpected (and often confusing) ways.

*** So here is where the book goes terribly wrong (and where the SPOILERS start). ***

It turns out that, of the hundreds of thousands of surrogates that the government rounded up in 1986, five or six thousand survived. They have been kept in a Guantanamo-like facility, under the control of Vandekamp’s collars, presumably for research and interrogation. However, when Delilah and her friends disabled the collars, they disabled the whole lot of them, allowing the surrogates to escape.

Now in their mid-thirties, the surrogates aim to kickstart a second Reaping, this time by turning authority figures against the very people they should be protecting and serving. Hence: teachers vs. students, nurses vs. patients, cops and soldiers vs. civilians. I think – hope! – you can see where I’m going with this.

This plot like leads to some pretty cringe-worthy exchanges between the MCs. To wit:

“Authority figures.” My voice hardly carried any sound. “Instead of parents. The surrogates could be using authority figures this time. Anyone we’re supposed to be able to trust to protect us.”

“And now—maybe—they’ve found a new way to get to us,” Lenore said. “To make us suspicious of the people we should trust the most.”

and:

“They’ll keep feasting on our pain and chaos for as long as possible. They’ll keep turning teacher against student, nurse against patient, soldier against civilian. Stealing trust and security from us. Making us fear the very people who should protect us.”

Soldiers and cops, really? “People we should trust the most”? You can tell that a white person wrote this, the privilege is blinding. And in a story that’s ostensibly about the othering and oppression of marginalized communities, to boot. Like, I’m a middle-class white lady and even I get nervous around people with guns who can use them with near impunity. Crazy, that.

Put another way: anyone who’s paying even the slightest bit attention is already suspicious of militarized authority figures like soldiers and the police.

The ending, though? OMG, the ending. I can’t even with this appeasing centrist bullshit.

Because Delilah is tangentially responsible for the escape of the surrogates, the furiae has taken it upon herself to send out a sort of homing signal, luring all the escapees to Delilah’s doorstep. Once they meet, the furiae assumes control of Delilah’s body and straight-up slays them; there is no self-inflicted poetic justice here. (Hence the sleep-killing.) But killing them one at a time is a slow process, so Delilah hatches a plan to get thousands of them in one place and induce mass slaughter – with a human audience, so that they can see that we’re all on the same team. Gross, vomit, no want.

“I cry foul. Humankind doesn’t deserve a sword and shield. Or even a plastic spork. Not after everything they’ve done to us. You should be fighting for us.”

“Lenore, I’m not choosing humankind over cryptids. This isn’t us versus them. The surrogates are the enemy. And the only way humankind will ever understand that is if we show them that the rest of us are all on the same side.”

Uh, but you’re not. And this won’t work. Let me tell you why.

In the wake of 9/11, many Muslims denounced the actions of the hijackers; 6,024 self-identified American Muslims fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, fourteen of whom were killed overseas. Yet none of this has stopped countless right-wing politicians and commentators from condemning, vilifying, and marginalizing all 1.8 billion Muslims in the world because of the actions of a few. (Meanwhile, domestic terrorism largely remains the purview of white men, and yet you rarely hear calls for white men everywhere to disavow John Timothy Earnest or James Alex Fields Jr., lest they be guilty by association.)

Immigrants have a lower incarceration rate than natural-born citizens, yet the facts don’t stop 45 from saying things like “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Hell, some immigrants even put their bodies on the line by serving in the military, only to be deported once they return home. “Same team” my ass.

I could go on but this is depressing.

Bigotry is born of fear, sure; and this fear is often misplaced. But this assumes that people are open to education and growth, and often it’s just the opposite (deplorables in the house!). Bigotry is stubborn and entrenched, y’all. Sometimes people are just fucking horrible. Also consider that oppression is profitable. We’re not afraid of most nonhuman animals, yet we continue to exploit them; and, in this AU, cryptids are a big busine$$. Circuses and carnivals, research facilities, controlled hunts, unpaid labor, rape and forced birth, exotic meats, the military-industrial complex. Political capital and mobilizing the base. Humans have so very much to gain by keeping this system of dehumanization and oppression going.

Delilah’s sacrifice, the denouement of this story, is more tragic than noble. Menagerie had me hoping for total animal liberation: nothing more, nothing less. What we got was some half-assed, “hearts and minds,” if we cut off a limb for them, maybe they will deign to acknowledge the basic humanity in us, bullshit.

As far as I’m concerned, her story begins and ends with Menagerie. Spectacle is just kind of meh, while Fury is legit a slap in the face to everyone who rooted for Delilah and her adopted family of cryptids (and, by extension, the marginalized populations they represent in our own world).

Additional quibbles:

Gallagher’s only method of communication seems to be growling.

I do not like that he and Delilah hooked up; it feels like a really gross and icky taboo violation, and besides, can’t men and women ever “just” be friends (or champion and cause, as it were)?

Finally, Eryx. Oh, poor sweet Eryx. You and Rommily deserved so much better. We all did.

/rant

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

2019 Book Memories Challenge

Thursday, January 2nd, 2020


 

I think this particular reading challenge ceased being A THING years ago, but I enjoy it, so let’s do this!

Below you’ll find my favorite quotes from all the books I inhaled in 2019. “Quotes” is a bit generous, seeing as I didn’t always exercise discipline with the copy and paste buttons; some of these are more like excerpts. And that’s okay! The only rule is that THERE ARE NO RULES. I mean, that’s about where we’re at now, right?

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Spoilers and trigger warnings abound, so proceed with caution.

 

  1. Everything Grows by Aimee Herman (2019)

    Last night, Aggie said that we are onions. Always unpeeling, making people and ourselves cry as we unwrap. I have so many more layers, James. I feel like I’m just starting to unravel and see what has been hiding in me. What was hiding in you? Were there things you were afraid to unwrap?

    I feel like your mother is a warm hug wrapped up inside a human being.

    “Audre Lorde said something really beautiful about that,” Flor said. “A different book than what you’re reading. I’ll have to give to you. She talked about the words we don’t yet have and the power of what happens when we find them.”
    “So how do I find my words?”
    “Keep reading. Keep searching. You and your words will find one another,” Flor said.

    “You’re lucky. You don’t have to make some grand announcements that you’re straight. Everyone just assumes it already.”

    “I became a woman at the Freehold Raceway Mall. Can my life get any more humiliating?”

    “Dear Kurt,” Aggie paused. “What does it feel like to be gone but still able to speak? Even in your death, you make music. We rip up old flannels to remember you, but all we really need to do is press play. Sew thread into each square and knit them together as you scream ‘Pennyroyal Tea.’ Watch as shirts turn into a blanket to remind us how to stay warm as you call out ‘Lithium’ and you came as you are. There is no such thing as a separation of deaths. I believe we all head into the same place, floating and filling up the air with our memories. Say hello to my mother, please. Tell James he had more friends than he ever knew. I’ll keep playing your music to keep you down here as you sing along above me.”

  2. A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle (2019)

    Everybody needs books, Molly figured. No matter where they live, how they love, what they believe, whom they want to kill. We all want books.
    (“The Bookstore at the End of America” by Charlie Jane Anders)

    Wall to keep the empire safe: strrrrrong empire, empire with mightiest military in the world, empire made of blood and theft, human and land. Before the wall was even finished the empire began to strip rights, silence certain people, keep others sparking in their skins of distrust. But most of the inhabitants paid attention to other things, shiny things, scandals. It would pass, hadn’t it always? White folks had short memories.
    (“The Wall” by Lizz Huerta)

    The Head Librarian was called the Needle. She’d been memorizing the universe since time’s diaper days, and I never knew her real name. She was, back then, in charge of rare things from all over the world. Her collection included books like the Firfol and the Gutenbib, alongside manuscripts from authors like Octavia the Empress and Ursula Major.
    (“Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley)

    It is crucial to remember that life, when it is long, is full of goodbyes.
    (“Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley)

    You are the amen of my family, and I am the in the beginning of yours. This story is the prayer, or one of them. This story says you can live through anything and that when it is time to go, when the entire world goes dark, then you go together, holding on to one another’s hands, and you whisper the memory of birds and bees and the names of those you loved. When it is not time to go, though, this story says you rise.
    (“Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley)

    This is what I whisper to you now, so that you will carry the story of the library, so that you will know how we made magic and how we made books out of burdens. This is to teach you how to transform loss into literature, and love into a future. It is to teach you how to make a book that will endure burning.
    (“Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley)

    “Oh no,” Sid whispered, an hour later, and handed me his phone. “No,” I said, and shut my eyes. And breathed. Prince had just been added to the Filter, the official government list of artists who could not be listened to. […]
    Prince was pretty much the only music Sid and I adored equally. Prince and Sade, but she’d been Filtered for years, along with every other female singer.
    (“It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right” by Sam J. Miller)

    Nayima imagined what he saw: an old gray-haired black woman with a walking stick, face brittle, eyes bright. This was not the person he had expected to kill him today, if he’d even bothered to imagine that he might die.
    (“Attachment Disorder” by Tananarive Due)

    Y’all, the first baby born to the Federation of Free Peoples was gonna be one incredible brown-ass baby.
    (“O.1” by Gabby Rivera)

    Dragons love them some collard greens, see. Especially with hot sauce.
    (“Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” by N. K. Jemisin)

    Yun exhales, and a burst of flame exits her mouth, making Michael yelp and recoil. she feels the inside of her throat blister from the heat of her fire, and she relishes the sensation, how the pain makes her feel both powerful and alive.
    she should have become a monster a long time ago.
    (“What You Sow” by Kai Cheng Thom )

  3. Whose Boat Is This Boat?: Comments That Don’t Help in the Aftermath of a Hurricane by The Staff of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2018)

  4. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss and E.G. Keller (2018)

  5. The Raven’s Tale by Cat Winters (2019)

    “I just snuck out to leave shoes for the girl, so she won’t keep making these charcoal tracks. I worried she might be your muse.”
    I snort at her assumption and scratch the back of my neck.“I write of romance and epic adventures, Rose. If a muse of mine were to step into the world, it would appear in the elegant form of Calliope, a writing tablet in hand.”
    Rose frowns.“I know what it’s like to be haunted by dark muses, Edgar. My life began in the same manner as yours, remember?”

    “I’m the best part of you, Edgar Poe.”

    “The kindest thing you can do for the dead,” says the young man who requested the kiss, “is to weave their names into art.”

    (More below the fold…)

fuck yeah reading: 2019 books

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

RIP 2019: You totally sucked, but at least I got a ton of reading done.

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I devoured a whopping 184 books this year, because escapism was the name of the game. I’m hoping to go back to school next year, though, so my reading goals for 2020 will be scaled back dramatically (sob).

As per usual, my favorites are marked with an asterisk; as per not usual, there were only a dozen books that earned that honor. Actually, a dozen sounds pretty good, but not when couched as a ratio to total number of books read. Plus, one was a reread, so I’m not sure that counts.

Anyway, if I could only recommend one, it’d probably by The Light from Other Stars by Erica Swyler. It is fierce and magical and mind-bending, and will forever remind me of my sweet girl Rennie. Ditto: Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel, but I said ONE BOOK, so there you go.

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fuck yeah reading: 2019 book list

  1. Everything Grows by Aimee Herman (2019); reviewed here
  2. A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle (2019); reviewed here
  3. Whose Boat Is This Boat?: Comments That Don’t Help in the Aftermath of a Hurricane by The Staff of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2018)
  4. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss and E.G. Keller (2018) *
  5. The Raven’s Tale by Cat Winters (2019); reviewed here
  6. Red-Blooded American Male: Photographs by Robert Trachtenberg (2016); re-read: originally reviewed here *
  7. Man-Eaters, Volume 1 (#1-4) by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk (2019); reviewed here *
  8. Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand (2018)
  9. A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland by DaMaris B. Hill (2019); reviewed here
  10. Strange Fruit, Volume I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill (2014)
  11. Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani (2017)
  12. Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll (2018)
  13. Wires and Nerve, Volume 1: Wires and Nerve by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate (2017)
  14. Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2019); reviewed here *
  15. Wires and Nerve, Volume 2: Gone Rogue by Marissa Meyer, Stephen Gilpin, and Douglas Holgate (2018)
  16. oh no by Alex Norris (2019); reviewed here
  17. Cretaceous by Tadd Galusha (2019); reviewed here
  18. Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft edited by Tess Sharpe and Jessica Spotswood (2018); reviewed here
  19. The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit in by Ayser Salman (2019); reviewed here
  20. The Outsider by Stephen King / narrated by Will Patton (2018)
  21. Window Horses by Ann Marie Fleming (2017); reviewed here
  22. The Underfoot, Volume 1: The Mighty Deep by Ben Fisher, Emily S. Whitten, and Michelle Nguyen (2019); reviewed here
  23. The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One (Women Are Some Kind of Magic #3) by Amanda Lovelace (2019); reviewed here
  24. This Land Is My Land: A Graphic History of Big Dreams, Micronations, and Other Self-Made States by Andy Warner and Sofie Louise Dam (2019); reviewed here
  25. Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology edited by Hope Nicholson (2016); reviewed here
  26. Fish Girl by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli (2017)
  27. Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince (2014)
  28. Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner (2019); reviewed here
  29. Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil (2016)
  30. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden (2018) *
  31. FTL, Y’all!: Tales From the Age of the $200 Warp Drive edited by C. Spike Trotman (2018)
  32. The Girl Who Married a Skull and Other African Stories, Volume 1 (Cautionary Fables & Fairytales) by Cameron Morris, et al. (2018)
  33. Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems by Dominique Christina (2018); reviewed here
  34. The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks by Max Brooks and Ibraim Roberson (2008)
  35. The Cassandra: A Novel by Sharma Shields (2019); reviewed here
  36. The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell (2012)
  37. Womanthology: Heroic edited by Bonnie Burton, et al. (2012)
  38. Trish Trash #1: Rollergirl of Mars by Jessica Abel (2016)
  39. The End of Summer by Tillie Walden (2017); reviewed here
  40. Shattered Warrior by Sharon Shinn and Molly Ostertag (2017)
  41. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol (2018)
  42. Spinning by Tillie Walden (2017)
  43. The Stillwater Girls by Minka Kent (2019); reviewed here
  44. The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (2019); reviewed here *
  45. Vagrant Queen Volume 1 (Vagrant Queen #1-6) by Magdalene Visaggio, Jason Smith, Harry Saxon, and Zakk Saam (2019); reviewed here
  46. Safely Endangered Comics by Chris McCoy (2019); reviewed here
  47. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (2019); reviewed here
  48. Smut Peddler Presents: Sex Machine (Smut Peddler #4) edited by C. Spike Trotman (2019); reviewed here
  49. Soppy by Philippa Rice (2014)
  50. How to Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t by Lane Moore (2018)
  51. Color Outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna (2019); reviewed here
  52. Family Pets by Pat Shand, Sarah Dill, and Jim Campbell (2015)
  53. The Girl Who Owned a City: The Graphic Novel by O.T. Nelson, Dan Jolley, Joëlle Jones, and Jenn Manley Lee (2012)
  54. Zombies Calling by Faith Erin Hicks (2012)
  55. The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown (2018)
  56. Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash (2015)
  57. Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim (2011)
  58. Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau (2019)
  59. Minus by Lisa Naffziger (2019); reviewed here
  60. This Place: 150 Years Retold by Chelsea Vowel, et al. (2019); reviewed here
  61. Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler (2019); reviewed here *
  62. Nat Turner by Kyle Baker (2008)
  63. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Volume 1 by Emil Ferris (2017)
  64. A Book For Sad Pets by Kristin Tipping (2019); reviewed here
  65. Space Boy Volume 1 (Space Boy #1) by Stephen McCranie (2018)
  66. The Widow (Kate Waters #1) by Fiona Barton / narrated by Hannah Curtis, Nicholas Guy Smith, Mandy Williams, Jayne Entwistle, and Steve West (2016)
  67. Space Boy Volume 2 (Space Boy #2) by Stephen McCranie (2018); reviewed here
  68. Spill Zone (Spill Zone #1) by Scott Westerfeld, Alex Puvilland, and Hilary Sycamore (2017)
  69. The Broken Vow (Spill Zone #2) by Scott Westerfeld, Alex Puvilland, and Hilary Sycamore (2018)
  70. Last Pick (Last Pick #1) by Jason Walz (2018)
  71. Brain Camp by Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan, and Faith Erin Hicks (2012)
  72. i love this part by Tillie Walden (2015)
  73. Everything Is Teeth by Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner (2016); reviewed here
  74. Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge (2011)
  75. Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (2019); reviewed here
  76. Reindeer Boy by Cassandra Jean (2016); reviewed here
  77. Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks (2012)
  78. Habibi by Craig Thompson (2011)
  79. This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel / narrated by Gabra Zackman (2018)
  80. SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (2015)
  81. Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (2008)
  82. The Golden Compass Graphic Novel, Complete Edition by Philip Pullman, Stéphane Melchior-Durand, and Clément Oubrerie (2017) *
  83. The Adventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks (2013)
  84. Camp Midnight by Steven T. Seagle and Jason Katzenstein (2016)
  85. Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll (2015)
  86. Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston (2008)
  87. Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loïc Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, Greg Salsedo, Alexis Siegel (2014)
  88. #WeRateDogs: The Most Hilarious and Adorable Pups You’ve Ever Seen by Matt Nelson (2017)
  89. White Rose by Kip Wilson (2019)
  90. Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart / narrated by Rebecca Soler (2017)
  91. Pirate Queen: The Legend of Grace O’Malley by Tony Lee and Sam Hart (2019); reviewed here
  92. Girls on the Verge by Sharon Biggs Waller (2019)
  93. Life of the Party: Poems by Olivia Gatwood (2019); reviewed here
  94. Glory O Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King / narrated by Christine Lakin (2014)
  95. Flight, Volume 2 edited by Kazu Kibuishi (2007)
  96. All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil (2019); reviewed here
  97. Ask the Passengers by A.S. King / narrated by Devon Sorvari (2012)
  98. The City on the Other Side by Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson (2018)
  99. Sanity & Tallulah (Sanity & Tallulah #1) by Molly Brooks (2018)
  100. Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (2016)
  101. Wilder Girls by Rory Power (2019); reviewed here
  102. The Dry (Aaron Falk #1) by Jane Harper / narrated by Steven Shanahan (2016)
  103. (H)afrocentric Comics: Volumes 1–4 by Juliana “Jewels” Smith, Mike Hampton, and Ronald Nelson (2017); reviewed here
  104. The Black Mage by Daniel Barnes and DJ Kirkland (2019); reviewed here
  105. The Altered History of Willow Sparks by Tara O’Connor (2018)
  106. Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars Omnibus (Trish Trash #1-3) by Jessica Abel (2019)
  107. The Escape Manual for Introverts by Katie Vaz (2019); reviewed here
  108. Sacred Heart by Liz Suburbia (2015); reviewed here
  109. Rise: The Complete Newsflesh Collection (Newsflesh 0.5, 3.1-3.6) by Mira Grant (2016)
  110. The Avant-Guards, Volume 1 (The Avant-Guards #1-6) by Carly Usdin and Noah Hayes (2019); reviewed here
  111. El Deafo by Cece Bell and David Lasky (2014)
  112. The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (2019); reviewed here
  113. Jerusalem: A Family Portrait by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi (2013)
  114. Under The Moon: A Catwoman Tale (DC Ink) by Lauren Myracle and Isaac Goodhart (2019); reviewed here
  115. After the Flood by Kassandra Montag (2019); reviewed here
  116. Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan (2019); reviewed here
  117. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor / Narrated by Adjoa Andoh and Ben Onwukwe (2014)
  118. Dr. Horrible (Second Edition) by Zack Whedon, Joss Whedon, Joëlle Jones, and Jim Rugg (2019); reviewed here
  119. We Are Here Forever by Michelle Gish (2019); reviewed here
  120. Irena Book One: Wartime Ghetto by Jean-David Morvan, Séverine Tréfouël, and David Evrard (2019); reviewed here
  121. No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant (2019); reviewed here
  122. Stay by Lewis Trondheim and Hubert Chevillard (2019); reviewed here
  123. Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt (2019); reviewed here
  124. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby / Narrated by Dan Bittner (2016)
  125. Autocomplete: The Book by Justin Hook (2019); reviewed here
  126. Dahlia Black by Keith Thomas (2019); reviewed here
  127. Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame by Erin Williams (2019); reviewed here
  128. Nuclear Winter, Volume 1 by Caroline Breault (2018)
  129. Nuclear Winter, Volume 2 by Caroline Breault (2019)
  130. It’s a Whole Spiel edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman (2019); reviewed here
  131. Kiss Number 8 by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw (2019) *
  132. The Grace Year by Kim Liggett (2019); reviewed here *
  133. Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn (2015)
  134. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (2019)
  135. Full Throttle by Joe Hill (2019); reviewed here
  136. Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry (2019); reviewed here
  137. Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri (2019); reviewed here
  138. Sparrowhawk (Sparrowhawk #1-5) by Delilah S. Dawson and Matias Basla (2019); reviewed here
  139. A Girl in the Himalayas by David Jesus Vignolli (2018)
  140. The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Renée Nault and Margaret Atwood (2019) *
  141. Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden (2019); reviewed here
  142. The Nameless City (The Nameless City #1) by Faith Erin Hicks (2016)
  143. The Stone Heart (The Nameless City #2) by Faith Erin Hicks (2017)
  144. The Divided Earth (The Nameless City #3) by Faith Erin Hicks (2018)
  145. Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson (2018); reviewed here
  146. You Must Not Miss by Katrina Leno (2019)
  147. Betty Bites Back: Stories to Scare the Patriarchy edited by Mindy McGinnis, Demitria Lunetta, and Kate Karyus Quinn (2019); reviewed here
  148. Little Weirds by Jenny Slate (2019); reviewed here
  149. You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson (2016)
  150. Space Boy Volume 2 (Space Boy #2) by Stephen McCranie (2018); reread: originally reviewed here
  151. Space Boy Volume 3 (Space Boy #3) by Stephen McCranie (2019); reviewed here
  152. Space Boy Volume 4 (Space Boy #4) by Stephen McCranie (2019)
  153. Foul Is Fair (Foul Is Fair #1) by Hannah Capin (2020); review coming soon
  154. Mischling by Affinity Konar / Narrated by Vanessa Johansson (2016)
  155. My Dark Vanessa: A Novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell (2020); review coming soon
  156. This Darkness Mine by Mindy McGinnis / Narrated by Brittany Pressley (2017); reviewed here
  157. Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (2019); reviewed here
  158. Porn & Revolution in the Peaceable Kingdom by Micaela Morrissette (2013)
  159. Clean Room, Volume 1: Immaculate Conception (Clean Room #1-6) by Gail Simone, Jon Davis-Hunt, Quinton Winter, Todd Klein, and Jenny Frison (2016)
  160. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston / Narrated by Jorjeana Marie (2016)
  161. Clean Room, Volume 2: Exile (Clean Room #7-12) by Gail Simone, Jon Davis-Hunt, Quinton Winter, Todd Klein, and Jenny Frison (2017)
  162. Clean Room, Volume 3: Waiting for the Stars to Fall (Clean Room #13-18) by Gail Simone, Walter Giovani, Sanya Anwar, Quinton Winter, Todd Klein, Jenny Frison (2017)
  163. The Forest of Hands and Teeth (The Forest of Hands and Teeth #1) by Carrie Ryan / Narrated by Vane Millon (2009); reviewed here
  164. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (Millennium #5) by David Lagercrantz / Narrated by Simon Vance (2017)
  165. Fury (Menagerie #3) by Rachel Vincent (2018); review coming soon
  166. I Hunt Killers (I Hunt Killers #1) by Barry Lyga / Narrated by Charlie Thurston (2012)
  167. Bird Brain: Comics About Mental Health, Starring Pigeons by Chuck Mullin (2019); reviewed here
  168. Game (I Hunt Killers #2) by Barry Lyga / Narrated by Charlie Thurston (2013)
  169. My Bison by Gaya Wisniewski (2020); review coming soon
  170. The Living (Warm Bodies #3) by Isaac Marion (2018); review coming soon *
  171. Long Story Short: 100 Classic Books in Three Panels by Lisa Brown (2020); review coming soon
  172. Greta and the Giants: inspired by Greta Thunberg’s stand to save the world by Zoe Tucker and Zoe Persico (2019); reviewed here
  173. What I Lick Before Your Face … and Other Haikus By Dogs by Jamie Coleman (2019); reviewed here
  174. Blood of My Blood (I Hunt Killers #3) by Barry Lyga / Narrated by Charlie Thurston (2014)
  175. The Boy on the Bridge (The Girl With All the Gifts #2) by M.R. Carey / Narrated by Finty Williams (2017)
  176. Come See the Living Dryad by Theodora Goss (2017)
  177. Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel (2020); review coming soon
  178. Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark by Lucia Peters (2019); review coming soon
  179. Blood Countess by Lana Popović (2020); review coming soon
  180. War and Peas: Funny Comics for Dirty Lovers by Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich (2020); review coming soon
  181. That Can Be Arranged: A Muslim Love Story by Huda Fahmy (2020); review coming soon
  182. The Companions by Katie M. Flynn (2020); review coming soon
  183. Gudetama: Love for the Lazy by Gaydos Sarah (2020); review coming soon
  184. Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks (2019)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Greta and the Giants by Zoë Tucker & Zoe Persico (2019)

Tuesday, December 17th, 2019

An empowering fable inspired by Greta Thunberg.

five out of five stars

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

Greta is just a child, not much older than this picture book’s intended audience, when the Giants who live near her forest home start to run amok. Though they have always been around, lately they have become greedier and greedier, cutting down the forest’s trees with reckless abandon, building factories that belch smoke into the air, and just generally trampling over the many other creatures who call the forest home.

Desperate, the bears and foxes and squirrels turn to young Greta for help. She is only one person – and a small one, at that – but her stand against the Giants inspires other children to take action as well. Thankfully, this story has a happy ending: easily shamed, the Giants are horrified by their lack of manners and empathy, and quickly move to set things right.

Sadly, the real Greta – Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish girl who serves as inspiration for this fable – is actually mocked, teased, subjected to ableism, and dismissed as “hysterical” by the IRL Giants, who have neither a sense of shame, nor a conscience. But that wouldn’t make for a very uplifting picture book, would it?

That said, the book’s afterward introduces readers to the real Greta, and the myriad of challenges she’s faced. It also includes a list of actions that kids can take, in the here and now, to help make Greta’s dream a reality. (Thankfully, nestled among the suggestions is “eat less meat,” though methinks “go vegan” would be more apt, especially since Greta is. One of us, one of us!)

The artwork in Greta and the Giants is lovely, as is the message. I especially love the diversity of faces – kids of all races, ethnicities, and religions join Greta in her fight, and there’s no understating the importance of representation. This is a great book to help engage younger readers with the world around them, and empower them to take action in their own communities. It shouldn’t be up to them, but we grownups have failed them, miserably.

My only regret? That Esther the Wonder Pig didn’t land a cameo.

(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: Bird Brain: Comics About Mental Health, Starring Pigeons by Chuck Mullin (2019)

Tuesday, December 10th, 2019

OMG Sharon, can you not?

four out of five stars

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

Bird Brain is yet another collection of comics dealing with the unholy trifecta – anxiety, depression, and general social awkwardness – in a decade that seems to have seen an explosion of them. And I’m totally here for it! (Anxiety and depression, my companions since childhood. If only my dog friends could live as long as you!) A millennial Londoner, Chuck Mullin explores her seemingly never-ending battle with anxiety and depression with humor, self-awareness, and a shit ton of ice cream.

The comics in these here pages tackle a range of mental health issues, from the ups and downs of medication, to self-care, to finding moments of victory wherever you can.

Why pigeons? She loves them, even though most people don’t. They’re an unfairly maligned species, and I am down with embracing that vibe. Pigeons are survivors, yo!

The strips are divided into three categories – “Bad Times,” “Relationships,” and “Positivity” – with a personal essay introducing each. The essays are engaging and relatable AF (as much as I don’t want them to be, damn you to hell anxiety!), though I didn’t love them so much when they pop out at you from between random comics as well. Like, the artwork pretty much speaks for itself, no additional explanations necessary; and sticking more essays in between the comics really interrupts the flow. But I guess you don’t have to read them, or can skip theb and come back later. The pigeons won’t judge (unless your name is Sharon).

(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: Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker & Wendy Xu (2019)

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

A sweet, character-driven fantasy story.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for intended parallels to homophobic violence, child abuse, and homelessness in the LGBTQ community.)

A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.

Teenager Nova Huang has a pretty full life: an apprentice witch, she’s employed part-time at the family magic shop-slash-bookstore, Black Cat Books, and also does plenty of volunteer work in her New England community. Though her parents are literal ghosts, having died in a tragic accident when Nova was a child, her Nanas take good care of her (and, being a witch and all, she gets to visit with the ‘rents on special occasions). There’s also her bestie Tat; the two might not always see eye-to-eye – Tat’s a scientist-in-training who has precious little patience for the inexplicable nature of magic – but they make it work.

When Nova ventures into the woods surrounding their town – recently bedeviled by spooky green lights and a seemingly rabid wild horse – she’s unexpectedly reminded of what’s been missing. There she stumbles upon her childhood friend Tam Lang, battling the creature solo. Tam and their family just up and left one day, no warning or explanation. Turns out that Tam’s a werewolf, their step-father is in cahoots with a devil-worshiping cult, and Tam’s werewolf magic might be the end of us all.

That is, unless Nova, Tam, Tat, and the Nanas can harness the magic of family and sisterhood to thwart their plans. And maybe even save a demon in the process? (WHAAAAAT!)

Mooncakes is a super-sweet graphic novel that’s brimming with heart, humor, and some pretty awesome characters. Tam is nonbinary, in case it wasn’t already apparent, and Tam and Nova make an adorable couple.

The Nanas are great (though I couldn’t tell if both are Nova’s biological grandmothers, i.e., both maternal and paternal, or if they are a F/F couple), and so is Tat, especially the playful back-and-forth she has with her extended/adopted witch family.

The plot is serviceable, I guess, though not terribly suspenseful; if I had to, I’d describe Mooncakes as more of a character-driven story. The rest just feels like an excuse to bring Nova and Tam together, which is why I’m giving it three stars instead of four.

That said, I do quite love the little plot twist with the horse demon. Down with the kyriarchy!

I also really appreciate what the artists are trying to do vis-à-vis Tam’s homelessness; though it’s given a supernatural cause in this story, Tam’s plight does parallel and draw attention to the increased risk of homelessness faced by LGBTQ youths.

(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: Little Weirds by Jenny Slate (2019)

Tuesday, November 26th, 2019

This book is emotional murder.

four out of five stars

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

I was born in the stacks in the Columbia University Library. I was born in shin-guards on a soccer field on a chilly little Saturday morning in the 1980s and I was too scared to even feel the sting of the ball on the inside of my shoe. I was born during tennis. I was born as a backyard swimming pool and my twin sister is an orange Popsicle and my mother is a bowl of pickles and my father is a hamburger.

(“I Was Born: The List”)

I think, Well, I am so sensitive and I am very fragile but so is everything else, and living with a dangerous amount of sensitivity is sort of what I have to do sometimes, and it is so very much better than living with no gusto at all. And I’d rather live with a tender heart, because that is the key to feeling the beat of all of the other hearts.

(“Kinship”)

There was a time before Patriarchy.

We have a better origin story and it is not widely spoken about but it is the truth.

(“The Code of Hammurabi”)

Y’all. I can’t even tell you how much I wanted to review Little Weirds using nothing but Mona-Lisa Saperstein gifs. Alas, Jenny Slate is nothing like Jean Ralphio’s sister from the same mister, and most of said gifs are totes wrong for this review. But I have to get them out of my system, so. Let’s just dive right in, shall we?

(Note to self: It’s about time for your annual Parks & Rec rewatch. Your emotions are in serious need of fortification.)

Prior to discovering Little Weirds on Edelweiss (at which point I legit let out a little squeal and did a happy happy butt dance on my office chair), my knowledge about actor/comedian Jenny Slate could be summed up thusly: 1) she portrayed Mona-Lisa Saperstein with brilliance and aplomb on one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, Parks & Recreation (for reals, I even dedicated a whole VeganMoFo to it!); 2) she dated everyone’s favorite Chris (Evans, duh!); she’s Jewish; and 4) she’s been at the receiving end of some really gross antisemitism, on account of nos 1-3, i.e., being a Jewish lady who played a Jewish lady and also dated literal Captain America while Jewish, and also because our country is a dumpster fire of white nationalism and toxic masculinity.

I started to type “But I digress…,” and then it hit me that this isn’t a digression at all; Slate does touch upon some of these issues, however tangentially, in Little Weirds. But mostly the subject matter is so very much stranger, ethereal, and curious than this. In a word, weird.

As the synopsis promises, inside this book you will find: The smell of honeysuckle; heartbreak; a French-kissing rabbit; a haunted house; Death; a vagina singing sad old songs; young geraniums in an ancient castle; Birth; a dog who appears in dreams as a spiritual guide; divorce; electromagnetic energy fields; emotional horniness; and the ghost of a sea captain.

You can also look forward to: gossip; an old dog who flits in and out of each essay like a specter, or a faithful friend; a tragic accident involving a deer and a tennis court; emotional emptiness; metaphors galore; whimsy and sorrow; a cage match between optimism and cynicism; aliens; alienation; letters; prophecies, or maybe wishes; being mansplained to death; terminology from the 1920s (“peepers”! I love it!); and a pit (oh, how I want for this to be a throwback to Parks & Rec!).

Basically, I cannot think of a book with a more perfectly fitting title than Little Weirds. This quirky collection of essays is simply enchanting. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and – before you even know what’s happening – you’ll find yourself delving into some deep and scary, long-hidden and even liberating places. Some of these essays are prescient AF, and sneakily so. Like, ending this collection with “I Died: Bronze Tree,” followed by “Dog Paw,” is emotional murder.

I died and I have to move on soon, but I will always be so glad for the life I had with you. The fact is that it is incredibly hard to RIP and I’m just not sure I can get it done. Because what will I be now? I know that we will have new life with new forms and that we won’t be able to love each other like we did the last time. Maybe I am going to be a banana and you will be a car. It just won’t work. I know that. And I’m not one to beg for the impossible, especially as a banana, but I can’t seem to stop reacting to the enormity of the final end of us, sweetheart.

I feel personally attacked.

Little Weirds is the kind of book best devoured in small bites. You’ll find yourself offering the book a permanent, cozy home by your bedside; lovingly bookmarking certain chapters, so that you can return to them after an especially excruciating day, or perhaps those nights when you foresee a challenging week ahead. Kind of like the literary equivalent of keeping Parks & Rec (and The Office, Schitt’s Creek, and The Good Place) on your Netflix list even though you’ve watched them a dozen times by now.

In short, you should give Jenny Slate all your money please.

I did it! I worked a Mona-Lisa gif in organically!

(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: Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri (2019)

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019

“Who knew why straight people did anything, really.”

four out of five stars

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

You and I, we’re twenty feet and more than a hundred years apart.

(“the shape of my name”)

It is easy for him to imagine the worst things. Trying to see exactly what’s in front of him is harder. A plastic container full of living fruit. The streetlight shining through the window. The dangling thread of wool on his suit, the shiny black buttons. His cheap apartment, his silent and spectral roommate, the letter confirming his academic suspension, his infatuation with someone who switches out their gender like it’s an attractive but itchy sweater, his mother’s disappointment, his dwindling savings.

And the one thing he can’t see, can’t imagine: his future. That’s the monster, really, that’s lurking at the corner of this painting.

(“a silly love story”)

Maybe it’s my pitiful lack of imagination, or perhaps it’s just because I’ve written so damn many of these, but I always have the most trouble titling a review. It’s not uncommon for me to just pluck a choice quote from the book I’m reviewing. Here, though? The title pretty much chose itself.

Homesick: Stories is such a gloriously and unapologetically queer collection of short fiction. And it doesn’t feel gimmicky or purposefully overdone, either: the LBGTQ elements are organic, authentic, and fit seamlessly with the content of the stories. Like, they just are. And why not? The author is “queer and nonbinary/transgender” (and “One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which was pretty cool.”).

The writing here is exquisite and magical; every word and turn of phrase feels like it was conjured from the ‘verse using spells and potions. The stories could mostly be described as speculative fiction, with a liberal seasoning of fantasy and scifi throughout. Many of the tales have a surreal, dreamlike quality to them that will throw you for a loop – or twenty.

They didn’t all do it for me – them’s the breaks with anthologies – but even the “worst” of the bunch was entertaining and held my full attention. Really my main complaint, in the event that there is one, is that some of the stories either end abruptly or without a satisfactory conclusion. That said, “the shape of my name” and “before we disperse like star stuff” alone make Homesick a must read.

“a silly love story” – 4/5

There is a poltergeist living in Jeremy’s closet, unspooling the stitching on his ancient suit and stinking everything up with the smell of apricots and dust. There is also a bigender person named Merion haunting his heart, threatening to either break or cultivate it. This is a surprisingly sweet and tender story, and the monster is absolutely not what you expect it to be. (Hint: it’s a thousand times scarier than a mildly annoying ghost.)

“Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!” – 3/5

I got Jane Doe, with Madelyn coming in a close second.

“dead air” – 4/5

Nita’s sociologically influenced art project/”ethnography of the people I fuck” goes off the rails when she falls in love with one of her subjects, a girl named Maddie. Maddie is haunted by her small town past, and before long those ghosts will devour Nita too. “dead air” is creepy and atmospheric, and has a kind of Blair Witch vibe, told as it is via a series of interview transcripts. I just wish I knew wtf was going on (!).

“she hides” – 3/5

After Anjana’s aging parents move into a nursing home, she’s tasked with cleaning out their house. In an otherworldly mirroring of her mom’s deteriorating mental state, the house begins to shrink before Anjana’s eyes. So she takes refuge in the hiding place of her childhood: her parents’ oversized bedroom bureau. “she hides” is beautifully told, yet it didn’t quite do it for me.

“let down, set free” – 3/5

In a letter addressed to her ex-husband, the narrator recounts how she left her old life behind: saddled atop a floating alien tree. An invasive species the government has instructed its citizens to burn, natch.

“the shape of my name” – 5/5 amazing

Originally published as a short story on Tor.com in 2015, “the shape of my name” is one of my favorites of the bunch. Heron was born in the 1950s and assigned female at birth. His mom knew that he’d one day make the transition to male and choose his own name. Not because she’s particularly insightful or progressive when it comes to gender roles and identity, but rather because her family has a time machine and she’s seen the future. Perhaps this is why she chose to live and die in self-exile in the future, abandoning Heron and his father in the present.

I’m sure you were lonely, waiting for me to grow up so you could travel again. You were exiled when you married Dad in 1947, in that feverish period just after the war. It must have been so romantic at first. I’ve seen the letters he wrote during the years he courted you. You’d grown up seeing his name written next to yours, with the date that you’d marry him. When did you start feeling trapped, I wonder? You were caught in a weird net of fate and love and the future and the past. You loved Dad, but your love kept you hostage. You loved me, but you knew that someday I’d transform myself into someone you didn’t recognize.

“the shape of my name” is a magical, innovative, and aching scifi story that weaves time travel with trans issues in a way that’s simply breathtaking. It’s really just a thing of beauty and wonder, particularly in the words Cipri chooses to describe each year in the narrator’s experience. Every jump, every era, has its own distinct feeling and flavor. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it.

“not an ocean, but the sea” – 3/5

A middle-aged cleaning woman named Nadia finds an ocean hidden under her clients’ couch. At just a few pages, this is the shortest of the short stories. No less magical, but I want more!

“presque vu” – 4/5

Everyone in this unnamed town is haunted by something. Clay coughs up keys, usually while fast asleep at night. His neighbor Mari receives vintage postcards. Her boyfriend Finn wakes up with unspooled cassette tapes tangled in his hair. Clay’s ex-lover Joe gets phone calls from a ghost. And the entire community is plagued by wraiths, ethereal creatures who fly overhead and emit radioactive-esque glowing lights. Supposedly “unwinding” a wraith will rid its abuser of their haunting. Cue: some really vile and uncomfortable ugliness.

A lovely and brutal story, “presque vu” ended just a little too abruptly for my tastes.

“before we disperse like star stuff” – 5/5

Two years ago, the discovery of an intelligent nonhuman species – Megalictis ossicarminis, who lived three and a half million years ago, looked like a cross between river otters and wolverines, and were capable of using tools and written language – brought three friends together. There’s Damian Flores, an activist who left academia to pen a popular science book about his discovery; Min-ji Hong, PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Chicago and Damian’s close friend since their high school days at Camp Transcendent; and Ray Walker, a biology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas and Damian’s ex-lover.

Reunited for a documentary the Smithsonian network is shooting, the estranged friends try to work through the aftermath of their fame: Damian’s selling out (and Damian and Ray’s subsequent breakup), Min’s theft of the oracle bones, and the potential reinterment of the ossicarminis’s remains.

While “a long-extinct species of intelligent weasels” is both fascinating and ultimately what sold me on this collection, “before we disperse like star stuff” is as much about relationships as anything: romantic, platonic, societal. It’s about what we owe each other, including our ancestors and neighbors.

(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: Color outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna (2019)

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

“We won tonight because we saved what we love.”

four out of five stars

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

I swarm the stage with the other girls and here is Lourdes, jumping up and down like a circus girl on a pogo stick. She grabs my hand and I jump with her, the mess of our kiss less important than this moment when a tiny powerful woman stands, feet spread wide, and the crowd of boys parts for the shining raging mass of girls.

“GIRLS TO THE FRONT!” she yells again, and she is pure magic.

(“Gilman Street” by Michelle Ruiz Keil)

“Shiva,” he said quietly, “it was one conversation. It doesn’t mean I’ve been programmed.”

What if he doesn’t want to figure shit out?

“Of course you have. We all have. You just don’t notice because the program has been meticulously designed to benefit you.”

(“Five Times Shiva Met Harry” by Sangu Mandanna)

Anna-Marie McLemore and Adam Silvera are two authors on my (relatively short) insta-read list, making Color outside the Lines a no-brainer for me. Though I was emotionally devastated (!) that Adam Silvera’s story was not included in an early ARC of the book, some of the other stories made up for it (okay, almost). In my experience, anthologies tend to be uneven; and, while Color outside the Lines is no exception, I’m happy to report that each story is mildly entertaining at worst.

The overarching theme of the collection is YA fiction about interracial relationships, both opposite-sex and LGBTQ. Some of the stories are contemporary fiction, as I expected, but there’s a nice mix of historical fiction and fantasy as well. There are some happily ever afters here, while other endings will reduce you to a puddle of tears. A few are…frustratingly ambiguous. (To Elsie Chapman’s “The Boy Is,” I say: WHY NOT HAVE THEM BOTH?!? Like for real though, they both sound delightful, and it’s just toasted cheese and a donut, yo!)

Anna-Marie McLemore’s “Turn the Sky to Petals” is achingly beautiful and magical; no surprise there! “Five Times Shiva Met Harry” by editor Sangu Mandanna is as charming as it is brief; I’m really looking forward to reading more from her (The Lost Girl just jumped up a few spots on my TBR list).

Speaking of new-to-me-authors, Michelle Ruiz Keil’s “Gilman Street” is a freaking revelation. Set in 1980s California, and boasting a rad punk vibe, I can only hope “Gilman Street” is just a little taste of what we’re in store for with All of Us with Wings, Ruiz Keil’s upcoming debut novel. Having just been ghosted by her friend Kelly (for her sleazy BF Ben and his racist friends), Tam skips school and heads down to Berkley, where a chance encounter with a badass drummer named Lourdes changes the course of Tam’s life for the better. Spoiler alert: there will be Bikini Kill.

I also quite loved “Giving Up the Ghost” by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas. In this world, kids are gifted Ghost Mentors at the age of nine, to help guide them through adolescence – and life, if they so choose. (A Ghost Mentor is mandatory only until one’s seventeenth birthday, at which time you may opt to have it removed.) Whereas his parents got a Buddhist monk and a cobbler from Mumbai, Sanjiv got stuck with Ching, a bloodthirsty pirate from the nineteenth century. Her advice, among other things? To re-introduce himself to his childhood crush Addy thusly: “Hi, do you remember me? I’m Sanji and we used to try and glue our hands together in preschool so we wouldn’t be separated at the end of the day—wanna bang?” The story’s structure is a countdown to Sanjiv’s birthday. Cue: dramatic tension.

Samira Ahmed’s period piece “The Agony of a Heart’s Wish”, featuring two star-crossed lovers – both victims of British colonialism, circa 1919 – will shred your heart to pieces. Ditto: Lydia Kang’s “Yuna and the Wall,” though in a much happier and more hopeful kind of way. Oh, and Lori M. Lee’s “Starlight and Moondust”? 110% as ethereal as the title would have you believe.

Color outside the Lines is a really fantastic collection, in both concept and execution, and even if romance isn’t normally your thing.

“Turn the Sky to Petals” by Anna-Marie McLemore – 4/5
“What We Love” by Lauren Gibaldi – 3/5
“Giving Up the Ghost” by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas – 5/5
“Your Life Matters” by L.L. McKinney – 3/5
“Starlight and Moondust” by Lori M. Lee – 4/5
“Five Times Shiva Met Harry” by Sangu Mandanna – 4/5
“The Agony of a Heart’s Wish” by Samira Ahmed – 5/5
“The Coward’s Guide to Falling in Love” by Caroline Tung Richmond – 3/5
“Death and the Maiden” by Tara Sim – 4/5
“Faithfull” by Karuna Riazi – 4/5
“Gilman Street” by Michelle Ruiz Keil – 5/5
“The Boy Is” by Elsie Chapman – 3/5
“Sandwiched in Between” by Eric Smith – 3/5
“Yuna and the Wall” by Lydia Kang – 5/5

TK from Danielle Paige and Adam Silvera

(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: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden (2019)

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

Daidi’s bells! What a weird, wickedly funny, and ultimately empathetic ride.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for slavery, mass murder, rape, and animal abuse. This review contains some general spoilers about the world building – so please skip it if you want to read the book with fresh eyes.)

“She?” I ask, eyes wide. Never in all my dizzy dreams had I thought that our beast was something other than a thing, an animate object, a sustainer of life. The idea intrigues me. Scares me some, too.

We are careful, taking only what the other offers, knowing that a connection like this is deeper than either of us can fully comprehend. He reads poetry to my spleen. I tell fairy tales to his bile ducts. The inside of his navel is a vast, unexplored desert. He lounges upon the cushion of my lips. His desires rise, and I pretend not to notice, diving right into the pool of tears caught in the corner of his eye. I don’t make a single splash. And while I swim laps, he hikes across the boundless expanse of my molars, and then I’m climbing up his chest hairs.

We’re curious, playful. Adventuresome. The landscapes of our bodies like the foreign world we orbit. Is this how the beasts communicate with one another? A life without secrets? Becoming intimately familiar with everyone you touch?

“All throughout our history, we sing of two kinds of women … those born into power and those who disrupt power. I intend on being the latter.”

Excavation, extinction, exodus: these are the phases that define humanity’s existence hundreds (thousands?) of years in the future.

Forced to flee a dying earth, humans took to the skies, eking out a rugged existence; searching, in vain, for a habitable planet. Instead, they found the Zenzee: enormous, tentacled animals whose rough hides and bodily secretions allow them to soar through space, as if it was water. Social creatures through and through, they travel in great herds, communicating through touch and flashing lights. Humans being, well, human, we did what we do best: attacked, dominated, conquered, oppressed. Captured, consumed, culled. In short, we made the Zenzee our ships; our homes.

When a new beast is taken, a contingent of workers is sent ahead to make its barely-living zombie carcass habitable (excavation). Its hide is harvested for leather; its flora reshaped into fields; its parasites, harvested for food. Bones are reshaped to provide infrastructure. Every part of the beast is twisted, bent and broken to serve out needs. And what of humanity? We reshape ourselves into parasites.

And we are greedy ones, at that: beasts with a natural lifespan of thousands of years, we deplete within a decade (extinction). Then we simply repeat the cycle again, killing and abandoning one animal after the next (exodus).

So it has been for roughly six hundred and fifty years. But the newest ruler – a young woman named Seske (or Matriling Kaleig; Seske Ashad Nedeema Orshidi Midikoen Ugodon Niosoke Kaleigh if you’re feeling especially stuffy) – is poised to change things. She’s not the only renegade on the ship, though: also working to effect change is Adalla, Seske’s childhood bestie (and soul mate), a lowly beastworker who Seske was forced to shun once she reached marriageable age; Sekse’s betrothed, a man named Doka; and Wheytt, one of the few male Accountacy Guards.

I almost passed on Escaping Exodus. As an ethical vegan (read: vegan for animal rights reasons), the thought of plunging into a make believe world where animals are routinely and brutally oppressed in such a way … let’s just say, it’s not my idea of relaxing escapism. But I also love interrogating pop culture from an animal rights perspective, so there you go. And, y’all, I am so glad I made the leap. Escaping Exodus is a wildly inventive, wickedly funny, twisty turny science fiction story that, at its core, has a giant bleeding heart (both literally and metaphorically). This book is brimming with compassion and examples of humanity at its best.

Escaping Exodus is told from the alternating perspectives of Seske and Adalla, as each girl hovers on the precipice of adulthood. For Seske, this means taking a wife or husband – the first of eight. You see, in order to keep the ship’s population in check, family units are strictly regulated:

“Matris Tendasha made the Rule of Tens that helped to counteract the population explosion after the Great Mending. Ten fingers.” Pai opens his hands and wriggles his long, slender fingers, patinaed with the deepest shade of orange. “Ten persons in the family unit. Three men, six women, and a child shared between them all. Ten for Tendasha.”

Seske’s is a matriarchal monarchy, and she’s next in line to rule after Matris, one of her six mothers, passes away. As such, her choice of mate is especially important (read: political, calculating, stifling). Yet Seske’s position – her very existence – is but a fluke of nature. Seske was the second child conceived in her family unit, but arrived four months early, thus beating Sisterkin by a hair. By all rights, Seske’s younger sister (“sister” being a slur in this culture), deemed so unimportant that she’s not even granted a name, should be the next ruler. Paradoxically, and by a mere technicality, she should have been killed upon birth, and fed back to the ship. But Matris’s weakness may prove to be Seske’s downfall, as Sisterkin plots against her in the background (I said this was a twisty turner thriller, did I not?).

Meanwhile, a natural talent for sensing the rhythms of the beast’s heart scores Adalla a coveted promotion to caring for the creature’s heart. But life comes at you fast, as Adalla wryly observes, and her grief at losing Seske quickly spirals out of control, eventually landing her in the slums of the boneworkers. Vapors aren’t the only thing whispering through the working class; before she can say “Daidi’s bells!,” Adalla is fomenting her own kind of revolution.

What’s interesting is how each woman arrives at the realization that their society is corrupt, built on the broken backs and brutalized bodies of others, rotting from within. Early in the story, when she’s off getting into mischief as plucky heroines are wont to do, Seske accidentally stumbles upon the womb of “their beast” – and it is not empty. The beast that Matris has chosen for them is pregnant, and the fetus is draining precious resources, further taxing the Zenzee’s already injured body … and hastening another exodus. The workers are trying in vain to kill the fetus. And this is when the young Zenzee reaches out to Seske for help.

Through her interactions with the fetus – and, later, an adult Zenzee – Seske comes to accept that which she already knows, if only subconsciously: the Zenzee are sentient animals. They are capable of feeling pain and suffering; of experiencing joy and happiness. They form bonds and love their children, their mates, their friends. And they are forced to sit back and watch as we capture and colonize their loved ones. Because of the intimate way in which they communicate, they feel their loved ones’ pain as acutely as if it was their own. Their lives predate human existence; yet, as we continue to deplete their herd, they likely will not survive humanity. What gives us the right to put our survival above their own?

Adalla, for her part, comes to epiphany along two parallel roads. Caring for her heart, cutting away murmurs, learning to anticipate an arrhythmic beat: Adalla forms an intimate connection with the beast, which eventually results in her humanizing their would-be vessel. The beast transitions from an “it” to a “her”; a something to a someone. From there, it’s just a short hop to accepting that the animal has her own thoughts, feelings, and desires – not the least of which is the will to live.

The second road reveals yet another crack in the foundation of Adalla’s society. The grisette – colloquially known as a “bucket waif,” for the mindless, repetitive job she performs – assigned to Adalla looks achingly familiar. After some digging, Adalla discovers an especially nasty open secret: in order to excavate a beast as quickly as possible, slave laborers are grown in vats – and then destroyed when their services are no longer needed. (Dissolved into fertilizer for the ship, in an especially grisly scene.) Skilled beastworkers and their husbands are paid a handsome sum to “donate” their eggs and sperm. In a society where siblings are unheard of, Adalla’s “brood sister” is destined to become plant food.

So while the world Drayden imagines here is rife with suffering and oppression, there is hope: in Seske, in Adalla, and in the world they want to rebuild on the ashes of the old one. But complications about, as they always do, and Escaping Exodus has some pretty jarring twists late in the game. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the ending; we certainly didn’t land where I expected. But it’s an ending that’s replete with hope, trust, and empathy, and that’s good enough for me.

I also thought it a bold choice to make Seske’s society a matriarchy. It’s not unusual to think (hope?) that a society ruled by women would be a kinder, more peaceful and equitable one. Yet interrogate this idea further and you’ll see that it rests on some gender essentialist bullshit. As a whole, women are not naturally more compassionate or nurturing than men; rather, these are the traits that society fosters in women. Women can be just as brutal, selfish, and hateful as men. Why wouldn’t Seske’s culture be marked by stark class differences, poverty, inequality, slavery, sexism, and other forms of oppression, when women are in charge … yet still place a premium on stereotypically masculine traits?

Even more interesting, imho, is how Seske’s ship came to adopt a matriarchy. As we discover at the end of the book, hers is but one of seven surviving ships from Earth, each having evolved along separate lines, developing its own unique culture, rule of governance, etc. How did women seize control of her ship? And why are the citizens predominantly (or exclusively) Black? How did b influence a, if at all? I am dying for a prequel!

Social justice and animal friendly plot lines aside, Escaping Exodus is a just a damn good book. The world building is simply breathtaking; crafting a sky-faring creature into a ship is hella inspired (if heartbreaking), and the descriptions of the ship’s interior are fascinating. Seske’s encounters with the Zenzee – arguably more humane than us – are marvelous. These are some of the most beautiful and bizarre passages I’ve ever encountered. Really mind-bending stuff. Think: Octavia E. Butler.

And Drayden’s sense of humor? Truly gross-out wicked. I mean, talk about your body horror! Between Seske tricking her new groom Doka into deflowering a gel puppet, and Seske expelling a Zenzee fetus from her vag, there are plenty of WTF moments that will either make you hysterical-laugh, or else chuck the book across the room in disgust. It’s not for everyone, 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: The Black Mage by Daniel Barnes & DJ Kirkland (2019)

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

Surprisingly fun for a comic book about racism and the KKK.

four out of five stars

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

When teenager Tom Token is accepted into the historically all-white boarding school St. Ivory Academy as part of its “Magical Minority Initiative,” he’s understandably skeptical. Sure, the facilities are state of the art, and the education can’t be beat, but at what cost? His melanin-challenged classmates assail him with aggressions both micro and – in the case of the Headmaster’s rich jock son Bryce – physical. Tom’s pet bird, Jim the crow, is even injured in the crossfire (though happily not beyond magical repair).

But race relations at St. Ivory are far worse than Tom could imagine (or maybe not: the Headmaster’s robe bears a suspicious resemblance to a KKK hood). When he receives an anonymous tip that he’s not the first black mage to walk St. Ivory’s halls, Tom embarks on a journey to find out what happened to his predecessors. With the help of the ghosts of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and do-gooder fellow classmate/student liaison Lindsay Whitehorn, can Tom get justice for the other black mages sacrificed to keep St. Ivory afloat – or will he, too, be fed to the racist machine?

The synopsis describes The Black Mage as “The School for Good and Evil meets Dread Nation,” but I got a ton of Harry Potter vibes. I half expected Barnes to swap the race of one of the more minor characters halfway through the narrative, a la Lavender Brown. It just feels right, given Barnes’s sense of humor (and I mean that in the most awesome way possible).

Some readers will undoubtedly describe the book’s racial politics as heavy-handed – and the references are pretty numerous and not terribly subtle – but I think it’s done in a clever and engaging way: rather cheeky with a “I said what I said” kind of energy. The comic is remarkably fun for a book about racial violence, which I suspect is the point: disarm your audience with charming artwork, plucky sidekicks, and a plethora of pop culture references so that they absorb the message before they can say “Riddikulus!”.

(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: Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry (2019)

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

An important story, but not without its failings.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for homophobic violence, including gay conversion therapy and sexual harassment/assault, and suicide.)

Like Orpheus, I’m going to hell and I’m looking to save the girl I love. Because Orpheus? She’s a girl. A girl who likes girls.

For as long as Raya can remember, it’s just been her and her grandmother. Gram’s husband died in a car accident when she was twenty-seven, leaving her to raise their two-year-old daughter Calli on her own. Calli got pregnant her senior year of high school and ran off to become an actress three years later; Raya hasn’t heard from her since. Raya’s only glimpse of her mom is on tv, where she plays the goddess Aphrodite on daytime soaps. She and Gram are alone together, lonely planets hurtling down parallel orbits of abandonment, each defined by the same absence, the same loss.

Making matters worse is the fact that Raya has to hide her true self: from Grammy, from her friends and classmates, from church, from the small town she begrudgingly calls home. It’s 2004 in Pieria, Texas, and Raya is gay: a girl who likes girls. And this is a time and place where teenagers like her often disappear without a trace.

When Raya and her best (and only) friend Sarah are outed by a (violently homophobic and misogynist) classmate, they’re sent to a gay conversion camp called Friendly Saviors, where things quickly go from bad to worse. At best, the prisoners undergo grueling physical labor, humiliating talk “therapy,” and milder forms of physical torture; at worse, they are drugged and electrocuted into compliance.

Orpheus Girl is not for the faint of heart, and comes with some strong trigger warnings. This is a tragic queer story tempered by a tentatively hopeful ending. Our heroes manage to persevere, though they do not emerge from hell unscathed.

As much as I want to see more shiny happy stories starring queer characters, I suppose you could argue that there’s still a need for the sad and horrifying narratives, to shine a light on the many atrocities happening in there here and now. (And yes, while there has been a state-by-state legislative push again gay conversion therapy, as of this writing gay conversion therapy on minors has been banned in just 18 states, as well as DC and Puerto Rico. According to studies by the UCLA Williams Institute, more than 700,000 LGBTQ people have been subjected to gay conversion therapy, with an estimated 80,000 kids at risk in the future.)

I’m always on the lookout for good books, of any genre, with LGBTQ protagonists, and Orpheus Girl caught my eye both because of the author’s young age, as well as her background in poetry. While the narrative is compelling, Orpheus Girl feels like a debut novel, and not in a good way. There were so many little details that distracted from my enjoyment of the book. To name just one example: Raya is able to lift Hyde’s truck keys on the first try, even though she has zero background in pickpocketing or general thievery. Nor does she possess nerves of steel: when she later manages to steal said truck, she immediately flips it 180 degrees, while still within earshot of the camp. So, yeah, I’m not buying it.

Additionally, the characters lack depth and nuance: aside from their fashion sense, Raya are Sarah aren’t really distinguishable from one another, and Raya’s primary personality trait seems to be “orphan.”

But the thing that bugged me the most is how compressed the timeline is: just three days after she’s sent to prison (I can’t in good conscience call it a camp, let’s be real), Raya’s worried that Grammy has already married her new suitor and moved on. When I say “new,” I mean as in they literally just started dating weeks before Raya was outed. And then we find out, a month later at most, that she totally did! I don’t know about you, but it takes me three months to hang a new poster. WHO MOVES THAT FAST.

Orpheus Girl is an important story, for sure, but if you’re looking for a book that confronts the horrors of gay conversion therapy, you can probably do better. Just off the top of my head, I’d recommend The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

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