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

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

The future is queer AF!

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

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

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Flocks by L. Nichols (2018)

Friday, September 14th, 2018

A touching and whimsically-illustrated memoir about growing up trans and Southern Baptist.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for homophobia, depression, self-harm, and eating disorders.)

L. Nichols was born in Louisiana (some time in the mid-to-late-1970s, if the rad TMNT reference is any indication!) and assigned female (“Laura”) at birth. Raised in a conservative Southern Baptist community, L. always felt different; an outcast, a freak, a sinner.

Throughout his childhood and teen years, L. tried to suppress his attraction to girls – and was further confounded by the occasional crushes he developed on boys. While he enjoyed some parts of the church experience – the emphasis on faith, the sense of fellowship, and the feeling that there are things bigger than oneself – his church’s virulent homophobia and adherence to rigid gender roles alienated L. and led to isolation, depression, and self-harm.

But whereas L.’s community failed him on one front, it succeeded on another: despite his being labeled “female,” L.’s family and teachers encouraged him to pursue his love of science and technology, culminating in a Master’s degree from the MIT Media Lab. It was during his college years that L. pinpointed the reason for the animosity he felt toward his body, and decided to transition.

Flocks is L.’s memoir, told in graphic novel format. The vehicle through which L. chooses to tell his story perfectly encapsulates the many contradictions in his life: while STEM majors aren’t typically considered artsy or creative, L. is indeed a talented artist. His sad little rag doll depiction of himself is at once whimsical and rather heartbreaking (doubly so when we witness stuffing fall out of self-inflicted cuts on his legs). Given all he’s been through, L.’s upbeat, optimistic attitude is downright uplifting. (And I typically consider myself an Oscar the Grouch type, so that’s quite a compliment coming from my neck of the dump.)

While the main thrust of the story is L.’s burgeoning sexuality and exploration of his gender identity, he tackles a number of other serious topics as well: his parents’ acrimonious divorce; the pressure of choosing a major and settling on a career path, post-graduation; polyamory; eating disorders; self-harm; depression; binge drinking; an appreciation of nature and the natural world; and the impact of community and in-group/out-group identity on one’s sense of self.

It’s an engaging, beautiful story, in both form and content. There’s a little bit of repetition of themes and ideas early on (and not between chapters, i.e. to string them together, but within the same chapters), which does detract from the story. Even so, it’s a must-read, and not just because it’s more or less a one of a kind story, at least at this point in time. (Dear publishers, please give us more of this! Kay thanks bye.)

(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: Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly (2018)

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

Anger is a Gift

four out of five stars

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

Ask yourself, why would a society deny girls and women, from cradle to grave, the right to feel, express, and leverage anger and be respected when we do? Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all of our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what “is” and what “ought” to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility. Anger warns us viscerally of violation, threat, and insult. By effectively severing anger from “good womanhood,” we choose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.

Anger is usually about saying “no” in a world where women are conditioned to say almost anything but “no.”

Because the truth is that anger isn’t what gets in our way—it is our way. All we have to do is own it.

— 3.5 stars —

After nearly ten years of marriage, and more than fifteen years together, my husband suddenly and unexpectedly passed away last year – leaving me a widow at the ripe old age of thirty-eight. The grief and shock quickly gave way to anger; in the process of reconciling his estate, I discovered secrets he’d been hiding from me. These were like a steady drip-drip-drip of awfulness that continued to pummel me in the weeks and months following his death.

My aunt – one of the relatives who came out for an extended stay as part of “Kelly Duty,” and who had a front seat to the dumpster fire that my life had become – said something that will always stick with me, and not in a good way. She was reading some paranormal/urban fantasy book at the time, and apparently the MC was not a fan of anger. She proceeded to give me this long speech about how anger poisons you from the inside out, and the only way to move on is through forgiveness. I’m sure she meant well, but the whole thing came off as insensitive, clueless, even manipulative. (I’m already feeling powerless, like I have zero control over anything in my life; now I don’t even get to decide how I feel about things?) I was still in the thick of things then, with bad news coming at me on the daily. Even a year and a half on, I am absolutely seething with anger.

Anyway, I didn’t know quite how to answer her at the time – probably I didn’t even have the energy for a rebuttal, and just let it go – but today, I am highly tempted to send her a copy of Soraya Chemaly’s book (possibly in conjunction with Mark Oshiro’s Anger Is a Gift, from which I borrowed the title for this review). Except I can’t hardly afford it, which is the source of some of my anger. This isn’t unusual, either, as I’ve learned from reading Rage Becomes Her: poverty, powerlessness, and a lack of authority are all associated with unexpressed anger. My continued rumination? Also par for the course.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers (2018)

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

Serial + The Girls, with a pinch of Vigilante = Sadie

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women and children, including rape.)

I’m going to kill a man.

I’m going to steal the light from his eyes. I want to watch it go out. You aren’t supposed to answer violence with more violence but sometimes I think violence is the only answer. It’s no less than he did to Mattie, so it’s no less than he deserves.

I don’t expect it to bring her back. It won’t bring her back.

It’s not about finding peace. There will never be peace.

I’m not under any illusions about how little of me will be left after I do this one thing. But imagine having to live every day knowing the person who killed your sister is breathing the air she can’t, filling his lungs with it, tasting its sweetness. Imagine him knowing the steady weight of the earth under his feet while her body is buried six feet below it.

This is the furthest I’ve been from anything that I know.

My eyes burn, and tears slip down my cheeks and I can’t even imagine how pathetic I look. Girl with a busted face, torn-up arm, begging for the opportunity to save other girls. Why do I have to beg for that?

Nineteen-year-old Sadie Hunter has had a pretty effed up life. Born to a young, single mom with multiple addictions (alcohol, cocaine, heroin) and a rotating roster of enabling boyfriends, Sadie grew up in a trailer park in the small, struggling town of Cold Creek, Colorado. (Population: eight hundred.) She developed a stutter at a young age, but her mother Claire never sought treatment; consequently, Sadie was bullied, isolated, and shamed for it, for most of her life.

Claire’s own mother, Irene, died of breast cancer when Claire was only nineteen herself; Sadie’s striking physical resemblance to Irene was just one of many reasons why Claire had trouble bonding with her daughter. Younger sister Mattie Southern (she got the matrilineal surname; Sadie did not – telling, that) arrived six years later, and Sadie tried her best to be Mattie’s mother and father. When Claire ran out on her and Mattie, Sadie dropped out of high school to support her family. She was only sixteen.

After two years of limping along, with no small support from May Beth Foster – manager of the trailer park and their deceased grandmother’s best friend – Mattie disappeared. Her body was found three days later in an apple orchard several miles outside of town. Nine months later, Sadie too goes missing; her car is found thousands of miles away, in a town called Farfield. When the local police write Sadie off as just another runaway, May Beth reaches out to West McCray, journalist and host of the podcast Always Out There, for help.

Told in the alternating perspectives of Sadie (as she tracks down her sister’s killer) and West (in the form of his investigative podcast, The Girls, as he retraces Sadie’s steps, now three months cold), we embark on a Serial-type mystery that’s also a biting interrogation of rape culture, class, and misogyny.

I mean, I guess you could shelve Sadie under “mystery,” but it’s so much more than that. In a way, it’s a mystery within a mystery: who killed Mattie, and what happened to Sadie? Sadie already knows the answer to the former, and it’s revealed probably halfway into the story. The bigger question is what became of Sadie when she reached the end of her journey – and this is a blank we readers are left to fill in ourselves. In this way, the ending is a tease, but also a blessing: realistically, Sadie’s fate was likely not a happy one. And yet, by leaving things as she does, Summers allows us to hope, to dream, to retain our faith in a flawed young woman who wanted nothing than to save other girls like herself.

Sadie is also stark and uncompromising look at rape culture, much in the vein of All the Rage. Summers’s writing is at once beautiful and cutting; she dissects all manner of sexist tropes and stereotypes, from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the idea that men are only truly capable of grasping women’s humanity when they have a daughter of their own to care about and fear for and worry over. (Claire’s confrontation with West? Pure cathartic bliss.)

Sadie, Mattie, Claire, May Beth, Marlee – Summers has populated Sadie with a cast of complex, nuanced women characters. Sadie rather reminds me of a more realistic version of Alex Craft, the protagonist in Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species. (Let’s face it, we can’t all be cold and calculating feminist serial killers.) Her relationships with Mattie, Claire, and May Beth are fascinating in their messiness. I love how Summers challenges our assumptions by allowing various characters to offer their own versions of oft-told stories at the 11th hour, long after our own impressions of them have begun to harden.

If you’ve never read a Courtney Summers book, you owe it to yourself to correct that ASAP. My first was All the Rage (amazing!), and with Sadie she’s fast becoming a favorite author of mine. I wouldn’t quite call Sadie a rape revenge story, but it’s a pretty fine distinction, and if you “enjoy” that subgenre as much as I, Sadie is a good choice on this front too.

(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: Sheets by Brenna Thummler (2018)

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

A ghost story set in a laundromat. Cheeky!

three out of five stars

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

Ever since the death of her mother in a tragic swimming accident, highschooler Marjorie Glatt has been floating through life, much like a ghost: wispy, invisible, barely clinging to this plane of existence. With Mr. Glatt suffering from clinical depression, Marj is left to look after her younger brother Owen, and run the family laundromat after school, pretty much solo. As if that isn’t bad enough, the neighborhood baddie Nigel Saubertuck is gunning for the Glatt family property, so he can turn it into a five-start resort and yoga spa.

A ghost infestation – by a sweet if bumbling middle schooler named Wendell – brings things to a head. When Wendell’s antics threaten to cost Marjorie her home and livelihood, can he bring the denizens of his ghost town together to help a mortal damsel in distress?

Sheets is … kind of weird and expected, especially since I couldn’t always guess where the plot was headed. This was refreshing; less so was the artwork’s sometimes confusing nature. If I couldn’t anticipate the plot, I had even more trouble figuring out what transpired in certain panels. Even so, I mostly enjoyed the overall style of the art; the buildings, ghosts, and towns are quite charming. The people, on the other hand, kind of icked me out. There’s just something a little off about the faces.

Sheets is an unusual little story that’s great for fans of Houdini; people who like ghost stories of the friendly variety; and perhaps kids who are grieving the loss of a parent. Also misfits and outsiders of all stripes. (But save it for October, if you can: this is definitely a Halloween read!)

(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 Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

“I felt it here,” I say.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and assault, misogyny, child abuse, and homophobia.)

And I knew then what I’d known since my period came:
my body was trouble. I had to pray the trouble out
of the body God gave me. My body was the problem.
And I didn’t want any of those boys to be the ones to solve it.
I wanted to forget I had this body at all.

(“The Last Fifteen-Year-Old”)

Ms. Galiano asks about the themes and presentation style
but instead of raising my hand I press it against my heart
and will the chills on my arms to smooth out.

It was just a poem, Xiomara, I think.

But it felt more like a gift.

(“Spoken Word”)

Because so many of the poems tonight
felt a little like our own stories.
Like we saw and were seen.
And how crazy would it be
if I did that for someone else?

(“Invitation”)

Some people find novels written in verse gimmicky, but I adore them. I love poetry, but don’t always “get” it, which can be frustrating. (Or, to quote the Poet X: “I don’t always understand every line / but love the pictures being painted behind my eyelids.”) But the poems in verse novels are usually more straight forward and easier to grasp. Plus there’s something about the departure from more traditional narrative structures that just pulls me in. A novel written in verse is just what I need, every once in awhile. And The Poet X might be my favorite to date.

To say that fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista lives in a strict Catholic household is an understatement. She and her twin, Xavier (but whom X mostly refers to as “Twin” in a way that’s super-endearing) were “miracle babies,” of a sort, born when their Dominican parents were already “old” and had given up on a family. Mami and Papi’s was an arranged marriage; Altagracia would have preferred to marry God instead of the philanderer she ended up with. But she looks at Xavier and Xiomara as her reward for the misery she’s endured.

Consequently, Mami projects all her dreams of extreme religiosity and life in the nunnery onto her children – her daughter especially. Xiomara’s life is strictly regulated, from who she can associate with (talking to guys is not allowed; forget about dating!) to what she can do with her time outside of school (homework, chores, and church good; social life bad). Punishment includes hours spent kneeling on grains of rice in front of her mother’s altar to the Virgin Mary – or a slap across the face. (There’s actually worse, but giving it away would involve spoiling the plot.)

As tall and formidable as Xavier is small and scrawny, Xiomara has always settled conflicts with her fists, much to her mother’s disapproval. As she grows older, Xiomara’s discontent and disobedience only grow and swell. She challenges Father Sean as he espouses the Church’s more misogynist teachings. She falls far her lab partner, Aman, over a pair of shared earbuds at the smoke park. She commits her increasingly “treacherous” thoughts to paper. And then, when Xiomara joins the poetry club at school and eventually enters a slam contest, she commits the gravest sin of all (in Mami’s estimation, that is): she airs her family’s dirty laundry, in public.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Burning World (Warm Bodies #2) by Isaac Marion (2017)

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

“What can we become?”

four out of five stars

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

For a variety of reasons, some good, most bad, I am famous. I am the first of the Dead to challenge the plague, the one who triggered a change that’s still spreading. I am the disease that cured itself. And I am the monster that kidnapped General Grigio’s daughter and brainwashed her into falling in love with it. I am the demon that lured legions of skeletons to the stadium and caused the deaths of hundreds of soldiers, and that may have personally infected General Grigio and thrown his converting corpse off the stadium roof. I am the reason there are zombies roaming their streets and eyeing their children. I am the reason nothing makes sense.

He thinks goodness must be more than just kindness. It must have a hard frame to hold it together. How can you stitch a wound if you faint at the sight of blood? How can you do good in a world you refuse to see?

Have I missed something? What I just saw was gruesome and tragic, yes, but also beautiful. I saw a woman pull herself out of her grave and climb up to whatever’s next. I saw a woman save her own soul. What did they see?

Several months have passed since the end of Warm Bodies: since an unassuming zombie met a girl, ate her boyfriend’s brain, took her back to his 747 parked at the kinda-sorta abandoned airport to listen to Sinatra records, and accidentally discovered the cure for the plague ravaging humanity. Since that girl took that boy back to her fortified home at CitiStadium to meet her father, leading to his infection and suicide, the invasion (and retreat) of the Boneys, and the dawn of a new era.

Or so that was the hope.

When we catch up with some of the most memorable protagonists in literary history – certainly in zombie fiction, anyway – we find that Julie and R have shacked up in a little fixer-upper in the ‘burbs surrounding the stadium, to help spread the cure beyond their bounds of their enclave. Their success has been halting, at best: the Fleshies, unlike the Boneys, are unimpressed with what Julie and R have to offer.

Meanwhile, Nora has fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. In addition to the Living, Nora ministers to the Dead as they make the slow, laborious journey from Mostly-Dead to Nearlies, and then back to the land of the Living. While the Gleam – remember that yellow glow in Julie’s eyes? – heals “the rot” that eats at the Fleshies, it is powerless to fix the wounds inflicted from without. In R’s words, “Wounds aren’t the plague. […] The damage we do to ourselves is our responsibility.”

Another plague haunts our heroes: doubt. Julie and R don’t know how they conquered the plague, let alone how to replicate the results. R’s return to humanity has proven slow and tedious; he struggles to master Curious George, while his good friend M, much later to the party, can spit out polysyllabic sentences without missing a beat. And since so many of her patients expire on the operating table, mere seconds after rediscovering their long-lost humanity, Nora is understandably careening toward depression and burnout.

If it feels like I’m giving away the plot, fear not: this all happens in the first tenth of the book. With the odds already stacked against them, Marion introduces a new, more horrific villain into the mix: a shady private military corporation called the Axiom Group. They have a plan for the United States – North America? The world? – and Uncategorized Dead like R don’t fit into their blueprints. Before Julie and R (and Marcus and Nora? PLEASE DOG MAKE THIS HAPPEN!) can even begin to spread the cure, they must go up against an even crueler and more formidable adversary than the zombie plague: human greed.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Ark Land by Scott A. Ford (2018)

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

Bellyups, and Mountain Mantises, and Gnarles, oh my!

four out of five stars

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

Kairn lives in Ark Land, an alternate (or future?) version of earth. The main point of divergence between our worlds? Well, that would be the alien arks that float above Ark Land. They first arrived nearly a century ago, and starting falling from the sky not long after. Filled with alien lifeforms and tech, the ships became a prime source of revenue for scavengers like Kairn, who strip the arks down to the studs and pawn the debris for cash monies. But pickings are slim, at least out in the moors, where Kairn lives – along with two dogs (Rex is an earthling dog; Bertrand is his extraterrestrial counterpart) and a scrappy robot named Patterson.

When local radio station Ark Peak Radio announces a scavenging contest to coincide with the town’s annual Ark Day, Kairn throws her hat (um, mask?) in the ring. She must outwit fellow scavengers, elude the forests’ hunters, and defeat an entire robot army to win her share of the 4000 coins up for grabs. But little does she know that the contest is part of a conspiracy involving the Ark-worshipping religious order that resides in the mountain – one that could lead to the death of one of her best friends, if not the destruction of the entire planet.

The story in Ark Land is entertaining enough, but it’s the artwork that really shines here. Between the bright and vibrant colors, the occasional throwback ’80s vibes, and the craaaaaazy alien life forms, Ark Land is a visual feast. Everything is just super-imaginative and gorgeous.

It’s hard to tell if this is meant to be the first in an ongoing series; the main story arc is wrapped up tidily enough, but there are so many avenues for further exploration. I really hope to meet with Kairn (and Rex and Bertrand and Patterson!) again, if only because I found her relatable AF, from her video game and candy addiction right down to her fierce loyalty to her nonhuman friends. SUCH a cool protagonist.

Okay BYYYYEEEEEE!

(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: Smash: Trial by Fire by Chris A. Bolton & Kyle Bolton (2018)

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

Superheroing with a curfew.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads.)

Nine-year-old Andrew Ryan worships the local superhero Defender: his bedroom wall sports a Defender poster, he watches Defender’s exploits on television whenever possible (meaning whenever his jerk of an older brother Tommy will let him have the remote), and he has Defender’s official video game. He even goes as Defender for Halloween, even if it is just a homemade costume his mom Helen cobbled together using an old pair of long johns and his grandfather’s WWII goggles. (Punch ALL the Nazis!) But only in his wildest dreams could Andrew imagine fighting crime like his idol.

When Defender’s arch enemy Magus tries to drain Defender’s powers so that he can harness them for his own nefarious purposes, the machine explodes in a not-so-freak accident (it was a prototype, after all) – sending Defender’s powers straight into bystander Andrew’s body. With Defender dead, it’s up to Andy to step up and protect a city left, well, undefended. But how can a nine-year-old defeat bank robbers, robots, and minions, when he already has bullies, a sullen older brother, an absentee dad, piles of homework, and a curfew to deal with?

Smash: Trial by Fire is a cute comic, though not terribly memorable. The story line is engaging, if a little predictable. I think part of the problem, at least for me, is that Smash’s intended audience is quite a bit younger than myself – in the middle-grade range, most likely. The “kids can effect change / but don’t be afraid to accept help” message is simple yet effective.

I really liked the art, which has a retro vibe to it. Defender is your typical square-jawed, muscle-bound gorilla of a man; he feels like a throwback to the superheroes of the ’50s. Sparrowhawk/Smash’s costume has a fun vintage aesthetic. The goggles really make the outfit, and I love how they seem to be following you around from the cover of the book.

Book One also has some unexpected moments of levity – bordering on absurdity – such as when Defender’s contemporary the Wraith explains the circumstances surrounding his retirement to Andrew:

This would probably be a good pick for younger readers who are just starting to get interested in comic books.

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

Book Review: I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina, John Jennings, & Stacey Robinson (2017)

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

“Slavery didn’t end in 1865; it evolved.”

five out of five stars

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

At just fifteen years young, Alfonso Jones has already endured more than any human – child or adult – should have to. Before he was even born, Alfonso’s father was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a taxi fare, a white woman. Alfonso’s mother went into premature labor when the officers investigating the case executed a search warrant on the couple’s apartment, knocking over an altar of candles and starting a fire in the process.

Many people would break under far less, but Alfonso’s family persevered. Though he mostly only knows his father through letters, Ishmael has worked hard to stay a constant in his son’s life. His mother Cynthia is Alfonso’s champion; through sheer force of will – and Alfonso’s stellar test scores – she was able to gain him admittance to the prestigious Henry Dumas School of the Arts. She and Alfonso moved in with his paternal grandfather, the reverend Velasco Jones, to be closer to his school, and so Alfonso could have a strong male role model in his life.

Alfonso loves playing the trumpet, dreams of portraying Hamlet in his school’s hip-hop production of the play, and works part-time as a bike messenger to save some money to visit his father in Attica. Or so he thinks: just as he’s nearing his goal, Ishmael’s conviction is overturned on DNA evidence. Instead of a ticket, Alfonso goes shopping for a suit for Ishmael’s welcome home party. There, off-duty police officer and Markman’s security guard Pete Whitson mistakes the hanger in Alfonso’s hand for a gun, and shoots him multiple times. Alfonso dies on the scene, as his crush Danetta screams in shock and horror.

When he awakens, Afonso finds himself riding a ghost train, filled with his ancestors and compatriots: other Black Americans who were murdered by police officers. Eleanor Bumpurs. Michael Stewart. Anthony Baez. Amadou Diallo. And, of course, Henry Dumas, for whom Alfonso’s high school is named. Alfonso’s elders guide him through the afterlife, as he checks in on the people who had such a profound impact on his life: his classmates and teachers; his parents and extended family; and, of course, the officer who killed him – and the communities that both defend and condemn Whitson’s actions.

Alfonso and his fellow spirits are destined to ride the ghost train until they find justice, making this a journey without end for so many of them – and giving a new meaning to the chant “No justice, no peace.”

I Am Alfonso Jones is not an easy read, but it’s a necessary one. It touches upon so many of the issues surrounding the Movement for Black Lives: not only excessive force, police brutality, and the shooting of unarmed POC, but also mass incarceration; victim blaming; #NotAllCops; racist media coverage; unequal access to education; the impact of technology on organizing and protest; the generational divide between activists; intersectionality; accountability; the blue wall of silence; the tension between professional nonprofits (read: showboating by outsiders) and local grassroots organizers; and the effects of trauma on survivors, to name a few.

By telling the story through Alfonso’s eyes, Medina provides a unique perspective: we get to put ourselves in the victim’s shoes, as Alfonso bears witness to the myriad ways his friends, family, and society as a whole cope with his murder. Framing this against the backdrop of a hip-hop Hamlet adds another layer of depth and originality.

I Am Alfonso Jones is both a heartbreaking and impassioned call to arms – and an eloquent introduction to the #BlackLivesMatter movement for younger readers. The ending, while especially merciless and unsatisfying, is all too believable and true to life. Medina doesn’t pull any punches or try to sugarcoat things with a shiny, happy resolution.

That said, the story is not entirely without hope: Alfonso lived to see the first Black woman president. We should be so blessed.

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

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018

Letters to My Teenage Self Meets Freaky Friday

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

A promising start to a new series.

three out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

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

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

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

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

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

Still, I regret nothing. The Righteous and the Lost is a promising start to a new series, and I look forward to the next installment. Maybe the inevitable re-read will even improve my grasp of the first book.

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

Book Review: Spectacle (Menagerie #2) by Rachel Vincent (2017)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Missing that certain indefinable something that made MENAGERIE so special.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

Now those blossoms were gone.

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

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

“It?”

“The baby.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Any Man by Amber Tamblyn (2018)

Friday, June 29th, 2018

A Searing Indictment of Rape Culture

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(More below the fold…)

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

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

As dazzling as the cover!

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

Lovely in its simplicity.

four out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

It is raining the day Scout takes her last breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Tell Me Lies by Carola Lovering (2018)

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

Mostly underwhelming.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basically I just couldn’t with anyone or anything.

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Yokits!

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

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

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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