Book Review: The Escape Manual for Introverts by Katie Vaz (2019)

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

When in doubt, blame your doggo.

three out of five stars

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

So maybe you’re an introvert or maybe you have social anxiety, or maybe you struggle with both, like me (yay! not.). Either way, Katie Vaz has got your back. The Escape Manual for Introverts is a tongue-in-cheek-but-not-really compendium of excuses you can use to wiggle out of all manner of social situations. Vaz’s guide runs the gamut, from the mundane (“I have plans/something on the stove/mono!”) to the creative (suggesting unpopular activities) to the truly absurd (arrange your own kidnapping; invest in a jet pack).

As a card-carrying Animal Person, I can attest that I’ve tried all of the pet-related excuses, with increasing levels of success as my furkids age and require more intensive levels of care. It may seem crass to fall back on my dog’s dementia and seizures this way, but hey, I figure that both Finnick and I have earned it.

The Escape Manual for Introverts is humorous but also not: if you can’t laugh at yourself [insert punchline here]; and yet sometimes you just want to collapse into the bottom of a dog pile and be smothered to death by fur and slobber. It’s a cute enough gimmick that only goes so far.

I noticed on the about the author page that Vaz (aka Twyla from Schitt’s Creek) also writes greeting cards, and I bet some of these comics might work better in that shorter, one-two punch format.

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

Book Review: We Are Here Forever by Michelle Gish (2019)

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

I for one welcome our adorable purple successors.

four out of five stars

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

King, Poppy, Jingle, and Pot are adorable, floofy purple quadrupeds who live and play in the detritus of human society. Their planet is curiously devoid of humans and pigs alike, yet evidence of our past existence abounds…and most of it tastes delicious. Puramuses – as we once called our good-natured friends – will eat literally anything, from pink flowers to mysterious glowing orbs and more boring things, like lightbulbs and spoons.

Luckily we humans left a ton of stuff for them to devour.

Told in four acts, We Are Here Forever follows multiple generations of the Puramus as they adapt to life on this new planet. Watch as King sends his sons Pot, Box, and Bowl on a quest to find him a new flarg, or as he fends off an attack from a neighboring village. Get to know aspiring poet Jingle as she searches for the meaning of art. And follow PuffPuff and Bubble on their respective journeys, which may shed a light on what happened to their ancestors’ human friends.

The apocalypse has never been so snuggable.

We Are Here Forever started out (like most great things do) as a webcomic of the same name (which I managed to miss, like I usually do). There’s some new content in the book, and also some comics that didn’t make the cut, so definitely read them both if you enjoy one or the other.

If it seems like a silly-cute idea for a comic, it is; but it works, and works spectacularly. These squishy purple herbivores are surprisingly relatable, whether trying to assemble some Ikea bookshelves, suffering a crippling bout of anxiety, or bemoaning the lack of pigs to pet.

If I ever met a Puramus IRL, I would hug them gently, even if it meant my certain death.

(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: Dr. Horrible (Second Edition) by Zack Whedon, Joss Whedon, Joëlle Jones, & Jim Rugg (2019)

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

Not much by way of new content…

three out of five stars

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

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a three-part musical comedy-drama series that was written by Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen and released online in 2008. It stars Nathan Fillion as the do-gooding but self-aggrandizing hero, Captain Hammer; Neil Patrick Harris as his Nice Guy ™, wanna-be nemesis, Dr. Evil; and Felicia Day as the kind-hearted but down-on-her-luck Penny, who’s caught between the two. It’s a sometimes-silly, maybe-feminist send-up of the superhero trope, though in light of recent events I do feel a little weird applying that term to anything Joss Whedon has touched (“feminist,” not “superhero”). The web series reportedly earned Whedon more money than the first Avengers movie, and spawned several comic books.

Chances are, if you’re reading this review, then you already know all this, but a little refresher never hurt.

So the first edition of this trade paperback, Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories, collected the original one-shot comic book (“Dr. Horrible”), the three digital comics from MySpace Dark Horse Presents (“Captain Hammer: Be Like Me!,” “Moist: Humidity Rising,” and “Penny: Keep Your Head Up”), and featured an all-new story about the Evil League of Evil (“The Evil League of Evil”). The second edition contains all of the above, as well as the comic “Best Friends Forever,” released last year for the show’s tenth anniversary. The only really “new” material to speak of is the original script for “Best Friends Forever,” which is underwhelming at best.

If you don’t already own any of the Dr. Horrible comic books, sure, this is the one to get. But if you’ve been buying them all along, there’s no reason to drop more money on the second edition.

As far as the *actual* content goes, the only comic in the bunch I didn’t really care for is “Moist: Humidity Rising.” “Captain Hammer: Be Like Me!” is fun enough, and who can object to more Nathan Fillion, if even in cartoon form? “The Evil League of Evil” is a comedy of errors, and “Penny: Keep Your Head Up” was relatable AF. “Best Friends Forever,” in which Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible form a weird and unlikely friendship thanks to some nefarious goings-on, is probably my favorite of the bunch.

I gave the first edition 4/5 stars when I read it way back in the day. I guess I was just disappointed that the new edition didn’t really add anything to the canon.

(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: Under The Moon: A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle & Isaac Goodhart (2019)

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Appreciate this origin story for Catwoman, absolutely adore the artwork.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads. Trigger warning for domestic violence, child and animal abuse, suicide, self-harm, misogyny, and homophobia.)

Fifteen-year-old Selina Kyle isn’t entirely sure when her life went so terribly off track. Was it the day her father abandoned the family? Or perhaps the first time her mom brought home a scuzzy rando from the bar she waits at? Probably the derail can be traced back to the day Dernell set foot in their house…or the day he didn’t leave, like so many before him.

But then, if Dernell hadn’t come into her life, Selina never would have become Catwoman. (Errr, Catgirl.)

When her mom’s abusive misogynist boyfriend Dernell unleashes his rage on Cinder, Selina’s newly adopted kitty (a stray, like her), Selina realizes that one of them has to go: and, sadly, her mom’s already chosen Dernell. Selina drops out of Gotham High and lives on the streets, stealing what she needs and trying to help others when she can.

Her thieving skills are taken to new (literal) heights when she meets Ojo, a street kid with a penchant for parkour and complicated heists, and falls in with him and his adopted family. As they plot to steal a rare book from a high-tech mansion, a monster called the Growler prowls the streets of Gotham, and the youngest member of their group – a mute girl they call Briar Rose – searches for her long-lost brother.

Catwoman is one of my favorite anti-heroes, and Under The Moon: A Catwoman Tale does her justice. Selina/Catgirl is a likable – if prickly – character, whose primary flaw seems to be that she cares too damn much, especially about the marginalized and oppressed. I appreciate that Myracle acknowledges the link between domestic violence and animal abuse, and love that Cinder’s death is the catalyst behind Selina’s transformation into Catgirl…even as I dreaded those inevitable panels. (My heart swells to see women sticking up for animals, yo.)

The art is gorgeous and moody, mostly rendered in shades of blue and purple, which vibes perfectly with the tone and plot of the book.

For some reason, I thought this was a self-contained story. Yet the Growler storyline leaves us dangling, and Rosie’s future remains uncertain (hello, sketchy cult-like organization). I hope this is an ongoing series because I need to know what happens next.

(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: Wilder Girls by Rory Power (2019)

Tuesday, July 9th, 2019

Feminist horror, yes please and thank you, may I have some more?

four out of five stars

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

The Tox didn’t just happen to us. It happened to everything. […]

The way it happened is that the woods got it first. That’s what I think, anyway. Even before the wilderness reached inside us, it was seeping into the earth. The trees were growing taller, new saplings springing up faster than they had any right to. And it was fine; it was nothing worth noticing, until I looked out the window and couldn’t see the Raxter I knew anymore. That morning two girls tore each other’s hair out over breakfast with an animal viciousness, and by afternoon the Tox had hit us.

“We’ve been studying them,” Paretta says, crouching down in front of me. “The irises, and the blue crabs too. All of this is something we’re calling the Raxter Phenomenon.”

A phenomenon. Not a sickness, not a disease. It burns through my heart—that’s the word I’ve been looking for—but there’s something about the way she says it. The name too familiar, too easy on her tongue.

“Did they teach you about Raxter Blues at school?” she asks. “About what makes them special?”

I nod.

You mean the lungs

“And the gills,” Paretta says. “It’s pretty amazing, right? So it can survive anywhere. And I think it’s pretty amazing, too, that you girls are part of it now.”

Part of it. The way our bodies alter and bend. The way our fingers darken just before we die, pure black spreading up to our knuckles.

I think I have been a problem all my life. Here I am where problems go. First Raxter and now here, and I have always been heading here, haven’t I, haven’t I. Too bright and too bored and something missing, or perhaps something too much there.

The several hundred tweens and teens who attend the Raxter School for Girls run the gamut. Some, like Hetty Chapin, were admitted on scholarship when her father, a Navy man, was stationed at nearby Camp Nash. Others are warehoused there by parents who didn’t know how to deal with them; this would describe Hetty’s bestie Byatt. And then there’s Reese, the third point in this particular triumvirate (just one of many cliques at Raxter), who grew up on the island and whose father, Mr. Harker, works as a groundskeeper and general caretaker at Raxter.

Aside from the occasional tour group, he’s also the only cis man to walk Raxter Island on the regular. (That we know of! Dun dun duuuun!)

Raxter was already home to several biological anomolies – the Raxter irises, which bloom all year long; and the Blues, crabs that sport both gills and lungs for all-terrain survival – so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the Tox hit, altering the landscape of Raxter in ways both horrifying and wondrous. The flora took over, transforming Raxter into a forested backdrop from so many Grimm fairy tales. The nonhuman inhabitants grew to monstrous sizes. Predators became vicious and unpredictable, and even herbivores like deers sprouted canines better suited to ripping flesh from bones than leaves from trees.

And the girls.

The girls were either reclaimed or transformed by the wild, depending on your point of view; made a part of Raxter’s savage, shifting ecosystem, or else metamorphosed into something new. Something better. By which I mean something better suited to its environment; something with more favorable odds of survival. Their old environment or new one, you ask? Both. Neither. All of the above.

When the Tox hit, it changed everyone, though not in the same ways. One of Hetty’s eyes fused shut. Byatt grew a second spine and, eventually, her voice became a weapon capable of inflicting great violence. Reese’s skin turned silver and scaly, one of her hands grew lizard claws, and her hair took on an ethereal aura. Some girls grew teeth inside of them and coughed them up at night; one started to feel a second heartbeat in her chest. Blisters, boils, bruises, sores, scars. Webbed fingers and gills. No one bothers to hide their anomalies anymore; what’s the point?

Most of the adults dropped dead, save for Ms. Welch and the Headmistress. Mr. Harker started acting erratic and then disappeared into the woods. Some of the girls succumbed as well; the rest live in constant dread of the next flare-up.

Raxter Island is under quarantine; the school, already surrounded by an imposing iron fence, has become a prison/sick ward. Already isolated, internet service to Raxter was cut off pretty quickly. The regular supply drops help, but it seems that there’s never enough food to go around. Camp Nash, along with the Navy and CDC, implores the girls to stay alive and wait for help to come.

But it’s been a year and a half. How long can they hold on?

Spoiler alert: not much longer. When Byatt falls ill – by which I mean extremely ill, sicker than the others and in such bad shape that she cannot get around on her own – and is sent up to the super-secretive infirmary wing of the school, it sets in motion a chain of events that will bring everything to a head. Everyone at Raxter misses someone, or something. The question becomes, to what depths are they willing to sink to get it?

Wilder Girls is such a great story – true, edge-of-your-seat, white-knuckle reading. The characters are complex and compelling; the dynamics between Hetty-Byatt and Hetty-Reese and Hetty-Byatt-Reese are fascinating, and there’s a really lovely f/f romance in here to boot. The atmosphere is sufficiently spooky and the adults make for great villains (or antiheroes, again depending on your POV). The writing is a thing of beauty, and the subversive feminist elements really make the story shimmer and sparkle (and assail you with painful insights). This is a memorable piece of feminist horror with a dystopian twist, and I can’t wait to see what Power does next.

Honestly, the only downside (and reason for the four-star rating) is the ending, which leaves things a little open-ended for me. Then again, wrapping things up with a shiny red bow would have felt cheap and dishonest, so there’s that.

I won’t say more for fear of spoiling things (it’s really best to go in cold I think), but the hype is real. Badass ladies (and male allies), you want to read this 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: A Book For Sad Pets by Kristin Tipping (2019)

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

brb gonna go walk my doggo and give him all the treats and belly rubs okay

four out of five stars

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

Hey.

Tell me I’m pretty.

Tell me I’m smart.

Tell me I am of value to someone.

Please, tell me I’ll be alright.

I really don’t know what to make of A Book For Sad Pets.*

If the mere thought of your furred, feathered, or scaled family member in pain – physical, mental, emotional, you name it – is like a knife to the heart, then A Book For Sad Pets is murder by fourteen stabs. (I counted.)

If, on the other hand, you think nothing of buying a designer dog to specs, like she’s a new Ford pickup or a set of custom kitchen cabinets; crow about how your dog is a member of the family…who you keep chained outside 24/7; or dump your senior doggo off at the pound because his incontinence is too much of an inconvenience for you – then this book is meant for you, even if odds are 99.9999% that you’ll dismiss it as sentimental librul snowflake nonsense.

I guess maybe the best audience is children, whose minds are still malleable and open to some compassionate guidance?

I fall into the first camp (obvs) and, while it depressed the h*ck out of me, it’s also a welcome reminder to put down my iPad/Kindle/keyboard/comic book every now and again and show my remaining nonhuman family members just how much I love and cherish them.

“Please, please tell me that you will always think of me.”
——————————

* Especially the Goldy panel. It seems pretty tragic, as though Goldy’s people view their dogs as interchangeable, but I’ll be damned if they aren’t also thinking of Goldy 1 and Goldy 2, as Goldy 3 implores. SOMEONE TELL ME HOW TO FEEL ABOUT THIS, PLEASE I AM BEGGING YOU. THE GOLDIES FOR REAL HAUNTING MY DREAMS.

(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: Autocomplete: The Book by Justin Hook (2019)

Friday, June 28th, 2019

A perfect mix of humor and pathos.

four out of five stars

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

So you know the deal: every time you type a search term into your browser, be it Google or Yahoo or Jeeves or whatever (who are we kidding, Google), the algorithm makes a valiant attempt to predict what you’re going to type before you type it. You know, autocomplete. This guess is based, in part, on what its millions of other users are searching for, providing a window into the soul of humanity – for better, worse, and everything in between.

Honestly, flip the book open to any random page and it’s likely to be relevant to your life in some way, shape, or form. “should i tell my dad … he has dementia”? Check. I’ve asked myself that question probably three times so far this week, and it’s only Monday. (The most disturbing suggestion? “should i tell my dad … i’m sexually attracted to him?”) “can you sell your … eggs?” Yup, thought about that one too. (And my brother actually sold his soul, to a second-grade classmate. We still laugh about that one. I think he got five cents.) “is america … a free country?” If you’re googling that one, I think you already know the answer.

Autocomplete: The Book is a rather disconcerting mix of humor and pathos, absurdity and earnestness, light-hearted fun and life-or-death seriousness. It’s hard to look away, like a car accident or an oompa loompa presidency. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wish you’d had the foresight to pitch this idea to a publisher.

(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: Minus by Lisa Naffziger (2019)

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

One of the worst comic books I’ve ever read.

one out of five stars

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

The plot for Minus struck me as interesting enough: Beck and her paranoid, home-schooling dad are on a road trip to the University of Chicago, where Beck has just been accepted. She runs into a convenience store at a rest stop to use the bathroom and, when she comes out, the place is ransacked; the clerk, shot dead; and her father Gil, vanished (along with the car and her cell phone). Now, alone in the middle of nowhere, this kinda-sorta naive young woman has to figure out just WTF to do.

Sadly, this is just a giant train wreck of a story:

* The rest of the plot? Totally predictable. You know that Gil abducted Beck pretty much from the get-go. It’s like a badly written episode of Law & Order: SVU. There is no mystery in this mystery. In fact, it’s really damn boring.

* Despite finding out that Gil kidnapped her from a loving home, Beck stubbornly sticks by his side. While this may very well be an accurate portrayal of the trauma abducted children experience, Naffziger’s treatment of it is hideous, and reads like a celebration of Stockholm Syndrome. The adults around Beck kind of protest lightly (by which I mean in a panel or two), but nowhere do we see her getting counseling or, I don’t know, being exposed to a counter-narrative from her (still totally alive, sane, and free) bio mom, Nadia. In fact, the final scenes show Beck visiting Captor Dad in prison, proclaiming “You’re more of a dad than my biological father will ever be.”

Well yeah (maybe probably not), but that’s because Gil didn’t give him the chance to be a dad, don’t you think?

* And let’s talk about Bio Dad, Howie Waskello, Naperville cop-turned-vigilante. The dude who, according to Naffziger, supposedly occupies a rung somewhere under “child-snatching recluse.” Dude only went on a Roaring Rampage after his daughter vanished, was presumed dead, and then resurfaced on Facebook a decade later. Pre-kidnapping, he seems to be a nice enough dad, doting on his daughter and taking her to the mall for a shopping spree on her birthday. It’s only after the trauma that he snaps. And can you blame him?

Granted, I can see why Beck wouldn’t be too keen on having a relationship with Bio Dad, given the additional trauma he inflicted on her as part of the “rescue” – but c’mon. This really deserves a more nuanced take than “bio dad bad, captor dad good,” don’t you think?

* Add to this Becks’s ethnicity, and this is where things get especially dicey. She’s brown-skinned, as is Nadia. Howie looks a little less so. I read mother and daughter – and possibly father, too (anyone have a read on the surname Waskello?) – as Native American. If so, this book just got a lot grosser, casting a person of color as the Big Bad, even when pitted against the literal white devil who stole his daughter.

Either way, I find it significant that the only other (obvious) character of color – Nadia, whose resemblance to Becks is striking – is relegated to the background, and is only allocated a line or two in passing.

* The characters’ connections to one another are totally improbable. Everyone Becks bumps into is related to by two degrees or less, sometimes quite literally. Is Naperville really that small a town?

* This just feels like nitpicking at this point, but the art was not my jam at all.

The only redeeming point is the Beck reference early on. This sounds like an exaggeration, but I can assure you it is not.

(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: All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil (2019)

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

This DNF hurt like h*ck.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and drug use.)

After the death of her grandmother Loretta, seventeen-year-old Xochi finds herself in San Francisco, alone, on the run, and down to her last few bucks. And then she somewhat serendipitously has a platonic meet-cute with Pallas, a precocious twelve-year-old who also just so happens to be the heir to a rock royalty family. Faster than you can say “content warning,” Xochi is installed in their storybook Victorian mansion as Pal’s governess. In an attempt to cheer Pallas up one evening, the pair accidentally conjure two demons in Pal’s claw-foot bathtub – demons who trace a path of destruction through Xochi’s troubled past.

I really thought I’d love All of Us with Wings. I mean, it’s an #OwnVoices rape revenge story with LGBTQ elements, ferchrissakes! And “Gilman Street,” Ruiz Keil’s contribution to the YA romance anthology Color Outside the Lines, is a thing of punk rock beauty and wonder.

Sadly, Wings lacks the magic and energy of “Gilman Street.” The writing feels choppy and uneven, and the story is veeeerrry slooooow to get started. By the time I DNF’ed at the 59% mark, Xochi’s demon children had only committed one murder, and the only being consciously aware of their presence is Peasblossom the cat. (In theory, I love that Ruiz Keil humanizes the cat by giving him a voice, but here the multiple perspectives really don’t add anything to the story.)

What we do get is a shit ton of Xochi lusting after Pal’s dad Leviticus, who is eleven years her senior (and whose only notable personality trait seems to be that he’s a rock star). Actually, that’s not so much the problem as is Lev’s lusting after Xochi – and then acting on said lust, even though he knows it’s wrong for multiple reasons. There are some gross, rape culture dynamics going on here (adult man/teenage girl; employer/employee; 1%/impoverished high school dropout), which are only exacerbated by the fact that I don’t know whether Ruiz Keil means for us to be rooting for them as a couple.

Like, it’s understandable that Xochi has complicated relationships with older men considering her past experiences, but Lev’s actions are simply inexcusable. In all fairness, it’s possible that the demon spawn will target him later in the story, I just couldn’t bring myself to read that far.

Anyway, it pains me to give this book so few stars, especially since I seem to be in the minority (serious case of fomo over here), but it is what it is.

(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: Pirate Queen: The Legend of Grace O’Malley by Tony Lee & Sam Hart (2019)

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

A Portrait of an Ambivalent Freedom Fighter

three out of five stars

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

Born to a fierce chieftan in western Ireland named Eoghan “Black Oak” O’Malley, Grace O’Malley went on to become a legend and folk hero in her own right. The Pirate Queen, as she would later be called, grew up in the 1530s and 40s, at a time when England, under King Henry VIII (and later Queen Elizabeth I), began its Tudor conquest of Ireland. She eschewed traditional women’s pursuits – marriage, motherhood, needlework – in favor of swordplay and sailing. Nevertheless, at sixteen she married Donal O’Flaherty and bore him three children, thus uniting the families politically.

It was only after Donal’s murder at the hands of a rival family – an ambush masterminded by the British – that Grace took up arms. Her success, especially at sea, chipped away at Britain’s power. In retribution – and also several failed attempts to assassinate Grace – British forces murdered a number of people close to her: her father; a shipwrecked sailor she took as a lover; her second husband, “Iron Richard” Burke; and her oldest son, Owen. Rather than cow Grace, this only fueled her quest for revenge. Despite years of battle, piracy, espionage, and hostage-taking, Grace likely lived to the ripe old age of 73, dying of natural causes (the exact year and location of her death is a matter of dispute).

Pirate Queen: The Legend of Grace O’Malley is a portrait of a reluctant freedom fighter: a mother who’s desperate to protect her children; a wife and daughter who wants revenge against her family’s tormentors; an Irish noblewoman who wishes nothing but peace for her country. I find it rather curious that the book’s synopsis describes Grace thusly – “Grace spent her life wishing to join the fight to keep Henry VIII’s armies from invading her homeland of Ireland — only to be told again and again that the battlefield is no place for a woman.” – when, in fact, she spends much of the narrative trying to avoid fighting. Certainly, Grace doesn’t want to be conscripted into women’s work, but neither does she revel in the bloodshed that seems to follow her on both land and sea. Or at least Tony Lee’s Grace doesn’t want this: my knowledge on the topic isn’t broad enough to have an opinion either way.

After reading Pirate Queen, I feel slightly more informed than I was going in, but overall the details are a little more bare-bones than I was hoping for. In particular, I would have like a deeper dive on Grace’s motivations; the story seems to say one thing, while the synopsis says another. The art is serviceable, though not really my style.

(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: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (2019)

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

“The Midwich cuckoos have nothing on us.”

four out of five stars

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

Reaching into her pocket, she produces a handful of coal dust streaked with glints of silver. The coal came from a mine where a disaster claimed the life of over a hundred men; the silver, melted down from the jewelry of a woman whose husband had choked the life from her body before bedding his mistress in her marital bed. It’s a subtle, complex thing, is alchemy.

History is an equation. It can be changed under the right circumstances. It should be terrifying, but it’s really just wonderful, because it means so many of their mistakes have been curated ones, deemed necessary by themselves in the future.

Everything is perfect. Everything is doomed.

Roger Middleton and Dodger Cheswich are two extraordinary human beings…first and foremost, because they aren’t really human beings after all. Not entirely. The identical-on-the-inside, fraternal-on-the-outside twins were created in an underground lab, by a human who also isn’t quite human.

An alchemical construct like them, James Reed was the crowning achievement of his maker, Asphodel Baker, arguably the greatest alchemist of her time, and a wildly successful children’s author to boot. That is, until Reed murdered Baker in his pursuit of the Impossible City, “the alchemical apex which waited at the peak of all human knowledge and potential.” To Reed, Roger and Dodger are just one more brick in the improbable road.

The latest in a long line of experiments (all with cutesy rhyming names: Erin and Darren, Seth and Beth, etc.), Roger and Dodger were made to embody the Doctrine of Ethos. Roger was given the power of language; Dodger, mathematics. Separately, the two are geniuses; together, they have the power to rewrite the fabric of the universe. Which is why, as babies, Roger and Dodger are separated: placed in different adoptive homes on opposite sides of the country. Yet, try as Reed might to keep them apart, the two always find their way back to one another, linked as they are by a psychic connection.

Can Roger and Dodger forgive each other for repeated trespasses, manifest their powers, and defeat Reed’s forces before he discovers the secret of their subjugation – or abandons them in favor of a pair that’s easier to control?

This is their story. This is the story of the world.

Middlegame is … well, it’s wild. I love Seanan McGuire, and have come to expect the unexpected from her, but Middlegame is unlike anything I’ve ever read before – for better and worse. I lean towards science fiction over fantasy, and so this might be the first book I’ve read wherein alchemy is a driving force of the story. (I dug it! The Hand of Glory, whoah. There are truly gruesome bits in here.)

But the stuff about the Doctrine of Ethos proved a little more difficult to wrap my head around. One word that seems to pop up in nearly every review of Middlegame is “ambitious,” and for good reason. Often, and especially in the first quarter or third of the book, I found myself getting stuck up in the philosophical underpinnings of the story and, yuck, who wants that. (I took Philosophy 101 my first semester in college and suffice it to say, it was not as fun as I’d hoped.) Once I learned to just let go and let the action carry me along, I had a much more enjoyable time of it. I guess you can take as little or as much from the narrative as you want.

The chapters jump back and forth in time, which can be a little confusing if you’re not paying attention, but I loved it. Time travel is my jam, and it comes in many forms in Middlegame. Roger and Dodger have a really interesting, complex relationship that evolves and changes over decades, and I am so here for that. (Though I thank the gods that McGuire didn’t have them hook up, like another closely bonded sibling pair of hers who shall remain nameless.) And yay for guinea pigs gone rogue! Roger and Dodger are not the only embodiments who yearn for freedom, and the shifting loyalties and conflicting goals keep everyone on their toes.

Middlegame is a must for Seanan McGuire fans, and for those who like their sci-fi and fantasy with particularly wibbly wobbly time-y wimey stuff. The only rule here is that THERE ARE NO RULES!

(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: Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (2019)

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

A raw and unflinching memoir with moments of humor.

four out of five stars

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

In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. Now, Gender Queer is here. Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears. Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity–what it means and how to think about it–for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.

Gender Queer is a raw, honest, and often funny exploration of sexuality and gender identity, written by non-binary, gender queer cartoonist Maia Kobabe. Assigned female at birth, this memoir recounts Kobabe’s journey to understand and define eirself. Why, for example, is e drawn to gay M/M porn when all of em closest intimate relationships are with women? Which pronouns best fit? Is e doing a disservice to eir students by staying in the closet? And just how can e write realistically smutty fanfic when e’s never been kissed?

One thing I was struck by is just how open-minded Kobabe’s family is – even if they sometimes stumble. (But then so do we all, as e points out. On that note, I’m not even 100% sure I’m using the Spivak pronouns correctly, despite consulting the chart on Wiki. I apologize in advance.) The panel where Kobabe’s cousin’s wife Faith thanks Kobabe for the email about eir’s pronouns, and says how blessed she is to be part of this wonderful family, moved me to tears. This is how it should be. We need more positive coming out stories like this.

That’s not to suggest it was all rainbows and wet puppy noses. Kobabe’s account of going to the gynecologist for a Pap smear is harrowing. I hate it as a cisgender woman with social anxiety issues (but no genital-related dysphoria); I can only imagine how terrifying that trip was/is for Kobabe.

I was also surprised by how much I related to some of Kobabe’s experiences, like not wanting breasts (I too have had the cancer fantasy); hiding my period; and being discomfited by women’s underwear.

Gender Queer is a vital read, just for the section on pronouns alone.

(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: This Place: 150 Years Retold by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, et al. (2019)

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

A powerful look at Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racist violence against Indigenous peoples, including colonialism, kidnapping, forced assimilation, and land theft.)

Though the body of post-apocalyptic Indigenous literature is much smaller than I’d like (Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice and the 2016 scifi anthology Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time are the only two that spring immediately to mind), in my own experience, one observation seems to cut across them all: that, for Native Americans and Indigenous peoples, the apocalypse has already happened – is happening – in the form of colonialism. For them, “post-apocalyptic” is not sub-genre of science fiction, or an escape from the banality of everyday life, or even a warning of what could happen, if we continue down our current path. Rather, “post-apocalyptic” describes their current reality, their lives, their struggles, their continued resistance. No matter how many times I encounter it, it’s a statement that always bowls me over.

While This Place: 150 Years Retold is not really a science fiction anthology (“kitaskînaw 2350” by Chelsea Vowel notwithstanding), it’s hard not to view the comics in this collection from an apocalyptic lens.

The ten comics featured in This Place explore various historical figures and events in Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective: from Sniper Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow, who served in WWI, killed 378 enemy soldiers and captured 300 more, and went on to become the most decorated Indigenous soldier in Canadian history…only to be repeatedly denied loans after the war (“Peggy” by David A. Robertson and Natasha Donovan), to a fictionalized account of a mother’s stand against CA’s kidnapping of Indigenous children, spurred in part by the young boy she failed to save when she was in foster care herself (“Nimkii” by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Ryan Howe, Jen Storm, and Donovan Yaciuk).

While both the artwork and storytelling is a little uneven (par for the course in anthologies), for the most part I found this a pretty solid collection of historical graphic stories. The result is fierce, cutting, and sorely needed. I hope this lands in high school syllabuses on both sides of the border.

(tbh, a grounding in Canadian history is a plus, but by no means necessary.)

(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: This Land is My Land: A Graphic History of Big Dreams, Micronations, and Other Self-Made States by Andy Warner & Sofie Louise Dam (2019)

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

I want to go where the vegan lesbians are.

three out of five stars

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

A community founded in upstate New York in 1848 and based on a radical reimagining of society, marriage and child rearing…

…ended up being one of the world’s largest purveyors of cutlery and tableware.

Written by Andy Warner and illustrated by Sofie Louise Dam, This Land is My Land highlights thirty self-made or experimental communities, loosely falling into one of the following categories:
1 – Intentional communities: “Groups of people who chose to radically remake their social structures.”
2 – Micronations: “Brief histories of the tiny, unrecognized nations of the world.”
3 – Failed utopias: “The bigger the experiment, the harder it falls.”
4 – Visionary environments: “Stories of wonderful and bizarre places where individuals make their visions reality.”
5 – Strange dreams: “Proposals, plans, and schemes, never brought to pass.”

Before visions of radical utopias start swimming through your head (they sure did mine), know that the places featured here range from large-scale art projects created by a single individual (Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in India; Ra Paulette’s Caves in New Mexico; Nevada’s Thunder Mountain Monument); to large, sprawling – if unusual – homes, again built for a single person or family (Freedom Cove, off the coast of Vancouver; Arizona Mystery Castle); to honest-to-goodness intentional communities and communes – one of them even traveling (The Van Dykes).

Among my favorites are the communities and nations created by people seeking to escape oppression and persecution. Chief among these is Libertatia, a city-state established in a bay in Madagascar by a French pirate and a Dominican priest in the 1600s. The crew of the Victoire made a habit of attacking slaving ships, freeing the kidnapped human cargo, and then splitting the bounty equally between all. Newly freed slaves were welcome to join the crew if they desired. Libertatia became their permanent, democratic, anti-authoritarian settlement. At least, if you believe the 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates; there is no physical evidence of the colony’s existence today. (I want to believe.)

Sadly, many of these larger communities were either established as tax havens (libertarians seem to be especially egregious offenders here) or as a means for the founders (men, always) to rape and traffic women and children. (You’ll never look at Oneida flatware the same way again. And I was rooting for you up until the child rape, Noyes.) I really would have loved to have seen more positive examples, but there you go. People suck more than they don’t.

One cool thing: of those sites still in existence, many are open to tourists. The Arizona Mystery Castle seems like a pretty rad vacation destination (but not in the summer, obvs).

(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: Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler (2019)

Friday, May 10th, 2019

“Behind every brilliant woman is her doubly brilliant mother.”

five out of five stars

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

She knew them by their light, the gentle differences—Amit’s warm, yellowish brown, Evgeni who glowed like a pearl, Louisa who was brighter than all of them. Nedda would know them anywhere; if she lost their shapes, she’d recognize their light.

They would likely die. It was why they were childless, unwed. Freedom of sacrifice. It was a shame that only three people would ever again be in the same room as Evgeni when he sang. Only three people would know that Singh ate with his pinkie out. That Marcanta pulled hairs from her eyebrows when frustrated. Children would know their names, and drive on roads named Sokolov or Papas. Children would know their ship, Chawla, and who she’d hauled. A little girl somewhere would rattle off everything she’d read about them, and with it everything she knew about space and time, about light.

“I got a boat too. It’s not real big, just enough to take a few people out, that’s all.”

“What’d you name it?”

Flux Capacitor.”

Doc Brown’s a better name.”

“Yeah, but boats are women.”

“Everything’s a woman. Cars, boats, houses. Anywhere that’s safe or takes you somewhere better is a woman,” she said.

“So, Chawla is a woman?”

“Obviously.” She opened her eye to find him staring.

Her father’s machine was as much hope and wish as it was metal and glass.

In the present day – her present, our future – Nedda Papas has achieved everything she’s dreamed of. As one quarter of the crew of Chawla, Nedda is humanity’s last best chance. Climate change has wrought havoc on earth: rising sea levels have disappeared entire islands and shrunk continents, hunger fueled by drought is the new normal, and wildfires plague what little land is left. The planet is beyond saving; now flight is the only long-term option.

Sent to colonize another planet in a galaxy far, far away, Nedda will never again set foot on earth. And she’s okay with that – it’s for the greater good, after all, and doesn’t she owe her species at least that much, anyway? But when cost-cutting and politicking threatens Chawla’s success, Nedda must revisit her past in order to salvage our future.

It was 1986 when Nedda’s world imploded: first, with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; and again with Theo Pappas’s magnum opus, the Crucible.

Light from Other Stars unfolds in two parallel narratives: aboard the Chawla, and in January/February 1986, when Nedda is eleven years old.

Middle-schooler Nedda lives Easter, Florida, in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center. She and her professor father Theo – newly laid off from NASA after the latest round of budget cuts – are inseparable, whether devising and executing experiments or trying to spot Halley’s Comet shoot across the night sky. Her relationship with mother Betheen is a little frostier, but not necessarily for lack of mutual interests: Beth is a chemist. But her (women’s) work is undervalued, because of course it is. It also doesn’t help that Betheen has been drowning in grief for most of young Nedda’s life. But spoilers!

Theo has suffered from psoriatic arthritis since childhood, and the joint pain and inflammation makes his work difficult (as does the markedly inferior resources at Haverstone College). Ostensibly, this is the impetus behind his crowning achievement, the Crucible, a machine that can slow down, stop, or even reverse time (and thus heal all manner of physical injuries) by manipulating entropy. (Swyler includes a fair amount of background on the science, only a fraction of which I can claim to understand, and I have no idea how sound it is. But I didn’t find these bits boring or excessive, fwiw.)

Theo’s machine is a success, in a manner of speaking, but things go sideways, because of course they do. When Crucible threatens to devour all of Easter (including Nedda’s best friend Denny), it’s up to Nedda and Betheen to save the day.

Judy Resnik, Sally Ride, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Ed White – Nedda’s heroes have always been astronauts. WWJD – What would Judy do?

As much as I loved Swyler’s previous novel, The Book of Speculation, I think she managed to outdo herself with Light from Other Stars. It is beautiful and magical and excruciating in the best way. I am writing this review weeks after turning the last page, tears coursing down my face anew. (Okay, that makes my ugly crying sound a lot prettier than it is. A spectacle, I am making one.)

A big part of this are the passages on death and dying and the afterlife. I’m an atheist, and don’t generally envy people their religious beliefs … that is, unless it’s the comfort that the grieving can find in stories about heaven (or reincarnation, or what have you). Some days I’d give anything to believe that I’ll be reunited with my deceased love ones, eventually. But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, even when it’s convenient, and so I go scavenging for secular comfort wherever I can find it, like a sad, lonely little heathen magpie.

I find it in all sorts of places (but mostly books, to no one’s surprise): Aaron Freeman’s essay, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.” The passages in The Subtle Knife where Lyra and Will lead the ghosts out of the world of the dead. The entire science-based religion created by Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parables duology. Add to that Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts. (Carl Sagan’s quote about starstuff! I knew I was forgetting something!) There’s some truly breathtaking stuff in here. This is a wonderfully godless book; a wonderful book for the godless. I’ll hold it close to my heart and cherish it, always.

(I want desperately to include some excerpts here, but spoilers!)

Light from Other Stars is also fiercely feminist, even if the ferocity sometimes comes in a whisper instead of a shout. It’s a story about fathers and daughters and fathers and sons … but also, especially, about mothers and daughters and mothers and sons. Nedda’s relationship with Theo is as magnificent as it is tenuous, but her bond with Betheen is all the more wonderful for its complexity, for the way it grows and strengthens and changes – and holds fast even across the vast chasm of space. Nedda’s evolving perception of her mother as she discovers what Betheen is capable of is a revelation. I wonder if they ever perfected that champagne cake together?

Last but not least, it’s a joy to watch as these two narratives come together, often in unexpected ways (Amadeus, I’m looking at you).

Swyler’s writing is exquisite and will pummel you right in the feels. I really hope Netflix picks this one up for a screenplay or miniseries. I need to see what time made liquid looks like, stat.

(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: Everything Grows by Aimee Herman (2019)

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

A story about growing up, coming out, and finding the words to speak your truth.

four out of five stars

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

Dear James,

I fell asleep clutching your notebook. We sit in classrooms for years and years. Same faces. But we have no idea what we are all swallowing deep, deep inside us. Why were you writing to me, James? Me? And why did you choose me to bully? Do we hate the people we recognize ourselves in? I mean, parts of ourselves that we can’t exactly be?

“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.

“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.”

Fifteen-year-old Eleanor Fromme is hanging at her* best friend Dara’s house when she hears that a fellow classmate committed suicide. Her immediate reaction is to run home and chop off her beautiful blonde curls.

Things are complicated, and not just because James was her bully (what’s the “right” way to feel when someone you hated and feared dies by suicide?). El’s mom Shirley (as El now calls her) attempted the year before, and wound up institutionalized for a brief period. Though Shirley is doing better now – going to group therapy, making friends, even dating again – Eleanor cannot beat back the fear that she’ll try again.

Somewhat serendipitously, James’s mom Helaine ends up in Eleanor’s suicide support group. This, along with her new look (or rather, the reactions it elicits in others), impending puberty, and a journal assignment from her English teacher Ms. Raimondo, opens up the metaphorical floodgates in Eleanor. As she writes letters to her bully, Eleanor discovers that he was also writing to her – giving her the courage to do what he couldn’t: come out. But even as Eleanor self-identifies as a lesbian, she still feels like that word doesn’t quite fit: “It’s like I’m a meal on a menu with the wrong name. My ingredients make it seem like I’m one dish when really, I swear I’m another.”

Luckily, El is surrounded by a pretty wonderful support system: her parents are loving and open-minded; she has a great mentor in her mom’s best friend Flor, an out lesbian; and a chance meeting (and subsequent friendship) with Reigh, a trans woman, helps expand El’s concept of queerness. Whereas Dara turns out to be a pretty shitty friend, El finds a kindred spirit in Aggie, unabashed feminist and she of the glorious braid. Helaine even takes El under her wing, showering her with the love and acceptance meant for James.

There’s so much to love about Everything Grows. As a child of the ’90s, I dug all the “historical” references. Everything Grows takes place in the 1993-1994 school year, the ending coinciding with the death of Kurt Cobain. Not gonna lie: Aggie’s letter had me in tears. Pretty much all of the music that El and James are into is on my ipod.

I love the abortion conversation, and that Planned Parenthood got a mention.

I love that Aggie is a vegetarian (and El is totally nonjudgmental and accommodating of it), and that there is an ex-boyfriend known as Vegetarian Todd.

I love all the women, from Gret to Flor to Helaine to Reigh to Shirley, and especially how supportive they are of each other, and of El.

I love that Helaine is not a stereotype.

I love that El is an atheist.

I even love El’s reaction to her changing body, since I could see so much of myself in it. (I’m not trans, but I too suffered the indignity of family members hounding me to wear a bra. Period, no want.)

Sometimes the language felt a little off: too formal, too childish, and – on the other extreme – too dirty for a teenage girl. (Gah, to be as bold a at sixteen as T’nea. To be that bold at forty!)

Overall, though, Everything Grows is a sweet and moving read about a young person growing up, coming out, and trying to find the right words to speak their truth. The awesome soundtrack is just a bonus.

* I struggled with what pronouns I should use in this review, ultimately settling on “she” and “her” since it’s how El thinks of herself throughout most of the story.

(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: Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems by Dominique Christina (2019)

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

“fine. new hell, whatever.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence inflicted on black bodies, including rape and medical experimentation.)

this bruise ain’t no girl
she gone
she never gon be again
she too much a ghost even
for burial

when he left
seem like he stayed
like i kept
some of it
like i ain’t
have no other way

and now Betsey say
i expecting

how you translate
a bludgeonin to
a birth?

you tell me how
i’m suposed to
do that –

a baby.
from the mud pile…
a baby…

one more
thing i don’t know
how to carry.

i say:
what you make a dem stars?
he say:

they just like us. sizzlin dead.

— 4.5 stars —

Like his homeland, the man widely regarded as “the father of modern gynecology” built his wealth and success on the bodies of slaves. Specifically, enslaved black women who suffered debilitating complications from childbirth.

J. Marion Sims is credited with a number of advancements in the field of gynecology: He developed a precursor to the modern speculum, using a spoon and complicated series of mirrors. He built the first women’s hospital in his backyard in Montgomery, Alabama, despite his reported disgust with women’s anatomy. (He wrote in his autobiography, “if there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis.”) Most famously, he developed a way of repairing vesicovaginal fistula.

Vesicovaginal fistula is caused during childbirth “when the woman’s bladder, cervix, and vagina become trapped between the fetal skull and the woman’s pelvis, cutting off blood flow and leading to tissue death. The necrotic tissue later sloughs off, leaving a hole. Following this injury, as urine forms, it leaks out of the vaginal opening, leading to a form of incontinence.” Similarly, rectovaginal fistula can cause fecal incontinence; Sims explored treatment for this condition as well.*

And he did it all on the backs of the most vulnerable: enslaved black women.

Over a period of four years, Sims experimented on twelve female slaves who suffered complications from childbirth. He subjected each woman to multiple surgeries without the benefit of anesthesia (though some were given opium post-op). Sometimes he had an audience; on other occasions, the women themselves had to assist in Sims’s procedures. Many were brought to him by their “owners,” seeking to recoup their “investments.” Sims purchased one woman outright so that he could experiment on her. Only three of these women’s names resisted burial under the weight of history: Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, all of whom suffered from fistula. Sims violated Anarcha thirteen times before he declared her a success.

In Anarcha Speaks, poet/activist/educator – and mother – Dominique Christina attempts to reconstruct Anarcha’s life, imagining the events that might have landed her on Sims’s doorstep/operating table/torture chamber. Sims doesn’t even make an appearance until halfway through the book, giving us a chance to get to know Anarcha as a person, and not “just” the ill-fated woman in that horrifying Robert Thom painting. After this, Christina occasionally alternates their perspectives: slave/patient and doctor/”massa.” I’m not sure I loved this convention: I think perhaps the story would have been more powerful coming from Anarcha and Anarcha alone; and besides, history is overflowing with the perspectives of privileged white men – do we really need to hear more? On the other hand, Sims’s POV gives necessary context on how doctors/society regarded black women – and their pain.

Anarcha Speaks is powerful, raw, and visceral. I don’t always love poetry because I don’t usually “get” it, but Christina’s prose cuts to bone. I can’t exactly call Anarcha Speaks an enjoyable read, but it’s a necessary one, and skillfully done. This tiny little powerhouse of a tome would equally be at home on a history syllabus or in a class on medical ethics as in a creative writing course.

* He also experimented on children and babies, in an attempt to treat trismus nascentium; these interventions were met with a hundred percent fatality rate, which he blamed on the mothers (all black). Naturally.

(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 Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (2019)

Friday, April 26th, 2019

A haunting contemplation on love, death, and destiny.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape and mental health issues.)

“The funny thing is, the other time travelers—I’m thinking of Teddy Avedon in particular, he’s been showing me the ropes—they keep telling me that it’s green to be so excited. They mean I’m being gauche. Teddy says I’ll get used to seeing dead people. But I think he’s wrong. Whenever I visit my father, the trees in his garden are young again, and so is he. I will never take that for granted.”

Two women, who’d already witnessed each other’s deaths, married on the first day of spring. […]

Entertainments followed: fifty-five Angharads danced a ballet.

It’s 1967 and time travel is about to become a reality – thanks to four brilliant young women.

The laboratory, in Cumbria, was home to four young scientists. Margaret was a baroness turned cosmologist. Lucille had come from the Toxteth slums to make radio waves travel faster than light. Grace—who never gave the same account of her history twice—was an expert in the behavior of matter. And the last was Barbara: the baby of the group, hair so fair it was nearly white, ruddy-cheeked and naively wholesome. She specialized in nuclear fission.

Among other things, their invention will make it more difficult for society to deny them their accomplishments:

And because time travellers appear again and again as the years go by—long past their natural lifespan—it would be harder to write these women out of history. They would be visible, for all to see.

Yet, shortly after traveling forward an hour into the future (time travel being possible only between points in which the infrastructure exists which, for the purpose of this story, is between 1967 and 2267 … mysterious!), Barbara – Bee for short – suffers a breakdown on live TV and is promptly institutionalized. It’s later theorized that the disruptions in daylight triggered a bipolar episode in Bee, who was already predisposed. Nevertheless, Bee is ostracized from the burgeoning Time Travel Enclave, largely at funder Margaret’s behest.

Fast forward fifty-plus years. Bee marries, has a child, is widowed, has a grandchild. She shies away from the spotlight and largely abandons her scientific pursuits. She lives a cozy, contented life in a cottage by the sea, kept company by her garden, her doggos, and her granddaughter Ruby. She is, in a way, written out of history (despicably, by another woman).

That is, until the day she finds an origami rabbit on her front step. Inside is in inquest notice, dated five months in the future, into the death of an unidentified woman in her 80s. Afraid that Bee will soon be murdered – multiple gunshot wounds, her body discovered in the locked basement boiler room of a toy museum by a volunteer – Ruby launches a covert investigation into the Conclave’s other three founders. Meanwhile, Bee tries to get back into the Conclave’s good graces.

The Psychology of Time Travel jumps back and forth in time – from the invention of time travel in 1967; to last half of 2018, in the months leading up to the murder; to the crime’s fallout, in 2019 – and is told through multiple perspectives: Bee, Margaret, Grace, Lucille, and Ruby, naturally; Odette, the young graduate student who makes the gruesome discovery; Ginger, Ruby’s sometimes-lover; Angharad, an astronaut who joins the Conclave after Bee’s ousting; and Siobhan, a psychologist from the 22nd century. Every. Single. Narrator. is a woman, which is such a refreshing and surprising delight, I can’t even.

Sometimes stories told in this way can prove difficult to follow but, once I got used to the rhythm, I became lost in the tale. It’s a little bit mystery, a lot of geeky good science fiction, and – perhaps above all else – a surprisingly philosophical exploration of how time travel might affect us: the travelers specifically, and society more generally. Mascarenhas’s vision might surprise you.

This is an exceptionally difficult book for me to review, but probably not for the reasons you might think. I read it while one of my beloved puppers – fifteen years young! – was dying…though I did not realize it at the time. She’d been struggling with dementia for about ten months, which was difficult to watch; but I thought we had at least a few more months together. Sadly, O-Ren was euthanized at home five days after I finished The Psychology of Time Travel: she was refusing to eat or drink, and her nighttime pacing became more frantic, even as her energy waned and she could no longer do laps around the house without falling, repeatedly. Most likely she also had a brain tumor, like her friend Mags, who passed away just four months before – on Thanksgiving, no less. One of my final memories of Rennie will be pacing around the house with her while reading The Psychology of Time Travel on my Kindle. Needless to say, this review was written in tears.

Point being, it’s been a rough few years for me. In just under six years, I lost six dogs, a grandmother, and my husband. I had to sell my house and move back home. My last remaining doggo is thirteen-and-a-half and I’m waiting on a neurology consult to see if Finnick might have a brain tumor as well. I don’t know what I’m going to do when he leaves me, too. Some days these dogs are the only thing that keeps me going. In this context, I found The Psychology of Time Travel’s meditations on death especially appealing.

This book is called The PSYCHOLOGY of Time Travel for a reason: turns out that time travel can really fuck a person up.

When you’re a time traveler, the people you love die, and you carry on seeing them, so their death stops making a difference to you. The only death that will ever change things is your own.

This idea is both amazing and terrifying. To think that your loved one will forever exist during a certain period in time, even if they do not exist at this particular moment, and that you can visit them at the drop of a hat, is…wonderful. Magnificent. Liberating. I would give anything to be able to do that. To bump crooked noses with Peedee, or smell Ralphie’s musk, or rub Kaylee’s piggy belly. To talk to Shane or go on a hike with Mags. To once again toss a tennis ball around with little puppy Rennie.

Yet, as we soon learn, this mutability of death is a double-edged sword. Time travelers become cruel. Hardened. Some of this is in the management, sure, but even the “good” ones struggle with doing what’s right – why not, when you can put that weight on your silver self’s shoulders?

The Psychology of Time Travel is a thoughtful contemplation on love, loss, and – yes – destiny. Another pitfall of already knowing the future? Subjugating your will in order to choose the path that you think your life is “supposed” to take: seeing the future makes it so. But who’s to say the future cannot be changed?

So, yes, time travel is a magical experience – but took much knowledge can become a prison of its own.

The time travel also lends itself well to all sorts of neat little details, from the slang (“For instance—intercourse with one’s future self was called forecasting. Intercourse with one’s past self was a legacy fuck.”) to the scenes featuring multiple versions of the same character (see also: slang). You never know just when or how some characters’ lives will intersect, and the guessing makes for a really enjoyable experience.

(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: Safely Endangered Comics by Chris McCoy (2019)

Friday, April 19th, 2019

Poor Pluto

four out of five stars

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

UK-based cartoonist Chris McCoy has a weird, absurdist sense of humor, and I am so into it. Whether it’s talking spiders with delusions of grandeur, average Joe narwhals, or planets posting Facebook updates, the strips in Safely Endangered Comics tend toward the bizarre, in the best way possible.

Most of the comics earned at least a chuckle, peppered with a legit guffaw every ten pages are so. I hadn’t heard of McCoy’s webcomic, Safely Endangered, before today, but now it’s on my must-read list.

Naturally, my favorites are any and every panel that features a dog, but there’s plenty of socially awkward, geeky, and downright creepy goodness to choose from.

If enjoy the work of Reza Farazmand, Alex Norris, Jake Thompson, or Jomny Sun, this one’s a sure thing. Fans of Sarah Andersen and Allie Brosh will probably love it 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: The Raven’s Tale by Cat Winters (2019)

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Not one of Winters’s best.

two out of five stars

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

I awaken in the shadows, ravenous for words, hungering for delicacies dripping with dread. My poet in the black frock coat kneels in prayer beneath the windows in the ceiling that bathe his head in a weak winter light, bronzing his brown curls and the back of his neck. He bends his face toward the floorboards, toward the crypt down below him, and I will the spirits of the dead beneath him to whisper a song.

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

— 2.5 stars. DNF at 58%. —

DNFs are never fun, but this one really hurt. Poe was perhaps my first literary crush, and I’ve enjoyed several of Cat Winters’s previous books, so The Raven’s Tale seemed like a slam dunk for me. But when, reclining on the floor of my library, reading about Poe’s angsty teen years, I found my attention wandering to books I’d already devoured sitting right there next to me head, begging for another go, I knew it just wasn’t meant to be. My heart had already moved on, even if my brain was too stubborn to accept it. (That came the next day, when my copy of Sawkill Girls arrived at the public library.)

Whereas most books about Edgar Allan Poe concentrate on his teen years, Winters goes back a little further. Here, Poe is seventeen years old, on the verge of escaping to the University of Virginia, a three day’s drive from his philandering, abusive, and cruel foster father, John Allan. Allan has been pressuring Edgar to forgo his artistic pursuits in favor of something more profitable – and is not above using his wealth as leverage. The son of traveling performers, Edgar longs to fit in with his “high-born” peers. In love with – and secretly engaged to – a young woman named Sarah Elmira Royster, Poe is torn between his muse and his need to belong.

In this case, Poe’s “muse” is a living, breathing creature given corporeal form by Winters. She appears to him as a teenage girl: a girl with hair the color of a raven’s feathers, a girl who drips shadows and leaves footprints of coal, whose eyes burn like embers and who inspires in Poe his most deliciously macabre and grotesque thoughts. But can Edgar learn to nurture that which he fears?

The plot sounds amazing, but in execution it just feels tedious. The first half of the book mostly consists of Eleanor – as Poe christens his muse – chasing Edgar around Virginia like a spurned lover: “Edgar you can’t escape me, this is who you are, why won’t you commit yourself to me!!!!” Meanwhile Edgar just wants to pass for one of the good ole boys. Yawn.

There are some pretty great things here, like Eleanor’s necklace made of molars; Rosalie Poe’s admission that she has a muse (want to know more please); and the similar ‘secret life’ of the Allan family’s slave, Judith (need to know more please). Sadly, though, it just wasn’t enough to keep me going. *emo face*

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