Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (2018)

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

This is the CONFEDERATE we need and deserve.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racism and misogyny, including sexual violence.)

The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me. I guess it should have been obvious to everyone right then that I wasn’t going to have a normal life.

It was the midwife that tried to do me in. Truth be told, it wasn’t really her fault. What else is a good Christian woman going to do when a Negro comes flying out from between the legs of the richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky?

An Attendant’s job is simple: keep her charge from being killed by the dead, and her virtue from being compromised by potential suitors. It is a task easier said than done.

Every time I sit down and attempt to write this review, three things jump to mind. (Reviewing books I so thoroughly enjoyed? HARD. I never feel like I can do the writing justice.)

1. This is the Civil War-era alternate history series HBO should be throwing money at, mkay. BY THE BOATLOADS.

2. This tweet by the author, posted as I was elbow-deep in her Confederate zombie viscera.

3. THAT COVER.

Okay, now on to the review!

Jane McKeene was born on a plantation just a few days before the end of the Civil War. Only, in this timeline, the war didn’t end in a victory for either side. Rather, the North and South were forced to band together to fight a new threat – the zombies that started rising from the ruins of their battlefields.

While slavery as it was is no longer technically permissible, African-American and Native American children are conscripted to fight the dead. Middle schoolers are sent to boarding schools, where they receive training in weaponry, fighting techniques, and – in the more hoity toity institutions – proper manners and grooming. After graduation, they’re free to seek employment guarding upper-crust white folks, though they’re treated like servants, at best.

At least, this is the case up North: Jane is in training at the elite Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. The zombies that wander the desolate and mostly-abandoned landscape between settlements make communication difficult, and there’s no guessing what conditions are like for Attendants down south or out west. But when Jane and a friend stumble into a conspiracy involving the Mayor, the staff of Miss Preston’s, and Baltimore’s richest citizens, they’re kidnapped and sent to a small, dusty new outpost in Missouri, where time seems to have slipped (or been forced) backwards and Attendants are seen as disposable objects at best.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Sci-Fu by Yehudi Mercado (2018)

Friday, March 30th, 2018

’80s Nostalgia Like Whoah

four out of five stars

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

Thirteen-year-old Wax wants to be the best DJ in the world – but little does he know that the very fate of “Planet Brooklyn” will rely on his skills. It’s 1980-something, and young Wax is recording a song for his crush, the aptly named Pirate Polly, when he inadvertently answers an intergalactic challenge. Wax, his crew, his entire block – all are transported to a planet called Discopia, where Wax must best a giant robot named Choo Choo and his crew, the Five Deadly Dangers, in order to save everyone he loves.

There’s so much to love here, I don’t even know where to start. Sci-Fu is such a fun mashup of all things ’80s: Wax’s training montages with mentor Kabuki Snowman are like the bizarro sci-fi version of The Karate Kid, and the style left me yearning for a Fresh Prince marathon. Between Teddy Backspin (read: Ruxpin) and the Transformer-esque Choo Choo, there are a fair number of elements that could feel like rip-offs, at least in lesser-skilled hands. But Mercado walks the line between homage and pinching with ease. If you lived through the ’80s, you’re all but guaranteed to be in on the joke.

Oh, and there’s an ’80s hip-hop playlist at the end! How cool is that?

And the cast! Wax is adorable and sweet in that way that makes you want to bake him a batch of cookies and pinch his little chipmunk cheeks. His little sister D is like the animated version of Diane from Black(ish), which is to say that she’s as smart as she is diabolical, and you most definitely want to keep her happy and on your side. Pirate Polly is rad AF, and I kind of love that Mercado never bothers to explain the eye patch and nickname (which came first? Is the patch functional or decorative? Is she a distant relation of One-eyed Willie maybe?) The Ultimate Showdown with the Boom Box of Doom is one of my favorite scenes, for obvious reasons.

I also adored Uncle Rashaad, who owns an ice cream truck and speaks in ice cream flavored expletives. The back story for why Wax and D are living with him is pretty great too. I really hope we meet the ‘rents in a later installment of the series. There’s some serious superhero potential there too.

Sci-Fu is definitely on the bizarre side, but if you can embrace the weirdness, you will have a good time.

(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: Herding Cats (Sarah’s Scribbles #3) by Sarah Andersen (2018)

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Amazing, as always.

five out of five stars

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

Sarah Andersen is my favorite, and Herding Cats – the third in her Sarah’s Scribbles series – does not disappoint. Her trademark adorable line drawings, self-deprecating humor, and wry wit are all present and accounted for. While Sarah’s observations run the gamut, from popular trends to personal apocalypses, Herding Cats is all about the three As: anxiety, animals, and art. Err, make that four: can’t forget about adulting, filed under “things that are impossible and threaten to break me on the daily.” (I feel you, girl. I’ve cried three times and counting, just today.)

The last section includes advice to aspiring artists, punctuated by pithy comic strips for the rest of us. I was not bored.

Some of the comics I remembered from her twitter feed, but many were new, or at least new-to-me. Nearly are all instant classics. But since I can’t very well post the entire book, here are the top five.

In sum: Buy this book. Buy it meow.

(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: Archival Quality by Ivy Noelle Weir & Steenz (2018)

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

Sometimes you root for the ghost.

four out of five stars

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

Celeste Walden has fallen on hard times. She’s struggled with anxiety and depression for most of her life, and a recent breakdown cost Cel her dream job as a librarian. So when she lands a position as live-in, night shift archivist at the mysterious Logan Museum, it seems too good to be true. And it is: before long, Cel begins to lose time and wake up in strange places. She pulls away from her long-time boyfriend, Kyle, and her already-strained relationship with her mother continues to fray. She dreams of a sad, hurt girl who roams the museum’s grounds.

Cel fears she’s losing her mind again – that is, until she sees the face of the sad girl, staring back at her from one of the photographs in the museum’s collections. Celine is real, and her ghost is stuck in the museum, calling out to Cel for help. But why? And can Cel convince her co-workers, librarian Holly and curator Abayomi “Aba” Abiola, that Celine is real?

There’s so much to love here. Archival Quality is a great mashup of supernatural ghost story, historical fiction, and semi-autobiographical memoir. There’s intrigue, villainy, self-introspection, greed, and a haunting set in a spooky museum that used to be a terrifying asylum. As a former psych student who also has anxiety and depression, I found the mental health aspect both engaging and compassionately done. The history of psychiatry – steeped in racism, misogyny, and ableism – is equally parts fascinating and horrifying, and makes compelling fodder for a ghost story. The setting of a museum/library is pretty great too, and is sure to tickle the fancy of all the bookworms out there. (C’mon, who doesn’t dream of roaming a library after dark?)

Perhaps my favorite part, though, is the cast, which is fun and interesting and diverse as heck – but in a way that feels natural and organic. I fell in love with Holly – fabulous wardrobe and bitchin’ purple-and-blue hair – from panel one, and her girlfriend Gina has an ace up her sleeve too. Aba is an enigmatic and ultimately sympathetic character. The only person I didn’t much care for is Kyle (good riddance!), who clearly cares for Cel but comes off as a bit of a nag (for lack of a better word).

Cel, though: Cel is awesome. I see a bit of myself in her struggle, and found hope in her ending. She’s just one cool broad.

Read it if you like: books and libraries; ghosts; revenge; research; museums of oddities; nefarious white guys getting their due.

(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 Guide for Murdered Children by Sarah Sparrow (2018)

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Somewhere, A Unicorn Is Crying

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including the rape, torture, and murder of children.)

For the children, when your time is done, it is VERY important to THANK YOUR LANDLORD—they’ve been such CARING roommates!!! Remember, without THEM, you would never have been able to have your moment of balance. For the landlords, when YOUR time is done, THANK your BODY!!! (For the wonderful times it provided.) NEVER FORGET that it gave you so much more time than your child-tenants had! And THANK the FRIENDS and FAMILY that you LOVED . . . and thank this beautiful BLUE EARTH. — from “The End” (the Guidebook)

— 2.5 stars —

Something strange and awesome is happening in the small town of Saggerty Falls, Michigan – and in towns both large and small all over the world (presumably). The spirits of murdered children (“tenants”) are returning to this beautiful blue earth, temporarily inhabiting the bodies of recently deceased adults (“landlords”) in order to exact revenge (the “moment of balance”) on their killers. They are guided through this adventure by a psychic mentor (“porter”) – in this case, one Annie Ballendine, a former teacher who was institutionalized after she began to hear voices. Annie was rescued and trained by Jasper, the porter before her; and, as her cancer returns, Annie knows that the time is nearing for her pass the baton to her successor. But how will she find this person, while also dealing with the “haywire” events that presage a Porter’s passing?

Depending on how compassionately the narrative is crafted, rape revenge stories are some of my favorites (quite possibly because rape carries so few consequences for the perpetrators here in the real world. Fiction is often much more satisfying.) Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species has become the gold standard for me; Alex Craft is the ultimate antihero, and the book does an exemplary job deconstructing rape culture. I envisioned the titular murdered children as miniature Dexter Morgans-in-training, crammed into the meatsuits of unsuspecting (but ultimately game) adult humans. Like Alex, but with even more personal vendettas. Maybe even with a splash of Chucky from Child’s Play in there somewhere. In other words, horrible and magnificent. Yes, my expectations for this one were through the proverbial roof.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Pierce Brown’s Red Rising: Sons of Ares by Pierce Brown, Rik Hoskin, & Eli Powell (2018)

Friday, March 16th, 2018

Satisfying, though not as grand a story as I expected.

four out of five stars

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

Fitchner au Barca is a goblin among Gold Gods. In a world that places a premium on physical perfection, he is short, scrappy, and ugly. But he’s also a survivor, one who makes it through the Passage even though he was sent there as a sacrificial lamb. He weathers the Institute by swallowing his pride and aligning himself with the leader of a rival house. But his loyalty goes unrewarded: rather than serve by his friend Arturius’s side, Fitchner is forced to sell his contract after graduation. He’s sent to a terraforming colony on Triton, where he falls in love with a lowly Red named Bryn. The rest, as they say, is history.

Based on the Red Rising trilogy, Sons of Ares gives us a little glimpse of proctor/terrorist/freedom fighter Fitchner’s backstory: his time at the Institute, his relationship with Bryn, the birth of Sevro, and the injustice that would prove the seed of the rebel group Sons of Ares.

The story itself is interesting; while there isn’t much new here, it does at least flesh out Fitchner’s past for us. That said, and especially considering Brown’s intro, I half-expected the roots of the Sons of Ares to go deeper, for the tale of the rebellion to be a little grander and far-reaching. Fitcher might have been the match that lit the spark, but I’d love to know more about the many men and women who provided the kindling and accelerant leading up to Bryn’s murder. Certainly he couldn’t have done this all on his own? It takes a village … over many generations.

It feels more like Fitchner’s memoir than a people’s history of the uprising, if that makes any sense.

Sons of Ares is constructed as a standalone story, but most likely fans of the series will enjoy it most: newbies might find it difficult to get fully invested in the characters, given the sheer scope of Brown’s universe and the comparably short length of the comic.

3 stars for non-fans, 4 for Howlers.

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

Book Review: Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings (Kim Reaper #1-4) by Sarah Graley (2018)

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

Freaping adorable!

four out of five stars

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

Becka is totally crushing on the goth girl at school, black-clad, purple-haired Kim. What Becka doesn’t know – that is, until she inadvertently follows Kim through a portal and interrupts a cat reaping* – is that Kim wields a scythe and is the only human reaper in employ down in hell. Can their budding romance survive Kim’s super-intense, yet just part-time job? How about a buff cat guy high on energy drinks? One of the girls’ death-dates? A zombie apocalypse? Yes, this all transpires in a mere 114 pages, and it is as weird and wonderful as it sounds.

Kim Reaper is, in a word, freaping adorable. Okay, that’s two, but Kim would excuse me. Becka and Kim make a cute as heck couple, and the bizarre obstacles that inexplicably pop up in their path will just have you rooting for them all the more. I mean, two cute girls? One of them a reaper? Crushing on each other, kicking ass, reaping souls? What’s not to love?!?

Also, some of the over-the-top emotional panels are reminiscent of the Sarah’s Scribbles series, which only ups its cool quotient imho.

The only odd thing is that the writing feels a little young – like tweeny – even though the girls – err, women – are in university. It has the vibe of a middle grade story with a YA/New Adult cast.

* Bonus points for imparting a sort of personhood to nonhuman animals, even though it probably wasn’t meant as a political statement or anything.

(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: Burger by Carol J. Adams (2018)

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

A Burger is in the Eye of the Beholder

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for allusions to violence against women, and actual violence against nonhuman animals.)

Toward the end of a very long evening in which Harold and Kumar overcome a variety of obstacles in their pursuit of a White Castle hamburger, Kumar makes a speech about the meaning of immigration to the United States. In his telling, hamburgers form the heart of being a citizen of the United States.

“So you think this is just about the burgers, huh? Let me tell you, it’s about far more than that. Our parents came to this country, escaping persecution, poverty, and hunger. Hunger, Harold. They were very, very hungry. They wanted to live in a land that treated them as equals, a land filled with hamburger stands. And not just one type of hamburger, okay? Hundreds of types with different sizes, toppings, and condiments. That land was America. America, Harold! America! Now, this is about achieving what our parents set out for. This is about the pursuit of happiness. This night . . . is about the American dream.”

The symbolism of the hamburger may seem fixed (equal to the entire United States), yet Kumar did not consume White Castle hamburgers in the movie scenes. The actor who plays Kumar, Kal Penn (Kalpen Suresh Modi) is a vegetarian and ate veggie burgers. Ten years before White Castle introduced a vegetarian slider to its customers, they custom-made veggie sliders for Penn to consume as Kumar.

Why do the history and technologies of violence central to the hamburger remain unacknowledged? The violence could be invoked as a reminder of masculine identity and conservatism, something [Michael] Pollan himself celebrates when he goes boar hunting. It could also have been claimed as part of the human identity.

True, the bovine is more pacific and in general less dangerous than a carnivore; killing a bovine might be seen as a less virile activity than killing carnivores. Still, a narrative of violence might have been developed to celebrate hamburger eating. The question becomes not how do we understand the violence at the heart of the hamburger, but why isn’t the hamburger celebrated for the violence at its heart?

Published by Bloomsbury, Object Lessons “is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” I was both surprised and a little exhilarated to see that the author of Burger, the latest addition to the series, is none other than ecofeminist Carol J. Adams, she of The Sexual Politics of Meat fame. If anyone could restore the absent referent – the 32.5 million+ cows slaughtered annually in the U.S. alone – to a conversation about hamburgers, it would be her.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Witch Doesn’t Burn in this One (Women are some kind of magic #2) by Amanda Lovelace (2018)

Monday, March 5th, 2018

“warning II: no mercy ahead.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence against women.)

misogyny
/m ‘säj ne/
noun
1: the power-driven hatred of women.
2: just the way things are.

misandry
/mi ‘ sandre/
noun
1: the reactionary, self-preserving hatred of men.
2: somehow this is going too far.

our
very being

is considered
an inconvenience,

our bodies
vacant homes

wrapped in layers
of yellow tape,

our legs
double doors

for one man
(& one man only)

to pry open so
he can invade us

& set down his
furniture,

never once
asking us

how we feel
about the curtains.

– they love us empty, empty, empty.

in this novel
the woman protagonist

claims she’s not like
those other girls,

not because she finds
their femininity

to be an insult or
a weakness, no—

it’s
because

she knows
all women have

their own unique
magic

that cannot be
replicated by her

or any other
woman.

– the plot twist we’ve all been waiting for.

It pains me that I didn’t love this book more than I did.

I credit Lovelace’s first collection, The Princess Saves Herself in this One, with reigniting my love of poetry. Accessible and invigorating, it showed me that I could both enjoy – and understand – modern poetry. Based on the strength of the first book, and the fairy tale promise of the follow-up’s title, my expectations were really quite high. Maybe unfairly so.

If you read The Princess Saves Herself in this One, many of the pieces here will feel familiar to you; this is not necessarily a bad thing. Lovelace’s words have the same fierce intersectional feminist spark that drew me to Princess. There’s a lot to love here – but there’s also quite a bit of repetition. I was also hoping for a more obvious connection between the poems and fairy tale villains; maybe a retelling here or there. Mostly though the poems just draw on imagery of witchcraft and witch hunts. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, especially given the current backlash against the #MeToo campaign. I was just hoping for something … more.

That said, there are some really wonderful and memorable poems within these here pages. The topics are timely AF, and I love that Lovelace takes care to embrace all women under the banner of sisterhood (say it with me: all women are authentic). If you love women and love poetry, The Witch Doesn’t Burn in this One is still a pretty solid pick, and I look forward to the next title in the “Women are some kind of magic,” The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in this One.

(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 Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell (2018)

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

“‘Peace, love and empathy,’ Annabelle murmurs, and then we fade away.”

four out of five stars

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

“All my life, people have told me what to do or taken what’s mine. The same is true for you! We’ve been raised among pirates who call themselves gentlemen. And I’m ready to turn the tables. I’m ready to take what’s mine and maybe a few things that aren’t.”

(“The Sweet Trade” by Natalie C. Parker)

We lived. We survived to whisper our names to each other even if we could not yet confess them to anyone else.

(“Roja” by Anna-Marie McLemore)

Anna-Marie McLemore. Malinda Lo. Sara Farizan. Dahlia Adler. Mackenzi Lee. If the lovely and delightful concept of All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages wasn’t enough to have me drooling over this book, the list of authors attached to the project would have easily sealed the deal.

Though they all fall under the heading of historical fiction (fwiw, as someone who was herself a young adult during Y2K, it’s hard for me to think of a story set in 1999 as “historical”), the seventeen short stories found here stretch across a variety of genres: fantasy, fairy tale retellings, romance, etc. This can sometimes make for a jarring transition between stories, but for the most part their LGBTQ protagonists bind them together almost seamlessly.

Anthologies tend by their very nature to be at least a little uneven, but All Out is consistently enjoyable, if not downright awesome. The lowest rating I gave any one story is a three, and these are few and far between. Most of my notes are downright gushy; two stories merited a “fucking amazing!” (“Molly’s Lips” and “Every Shade of Red”); there was one “pure magic” (“Healing Rosa”); and of “The Inferno & The Butterfly” I said simply “great” (I think I was struck speechless tbh).

What I like best – other than the exquisite storytelling and abundance of imagination – is the sheer breadth of diversity. There are F/F and M/M romances, to be sure; but also trans protagonists and heroes, a fair amount of crossdressing (both as a means of subterfuge and as self-expression), and even one or two asexual characters. Some of these teens know very well who they are and are totally comfortable with it, thank you very much; while others are still in the process of learning and becoming. And there are teens from a variety of time periods, nations, cultures, and racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Picking favorites is hard! But Elliott Wake’s “Every Shade of Red” – a retelling of Robin Hood wherein Robin is a trans boy, given name Lady Marian, who is running away from a forced marriage – stands out in particular. The ending is both heartbreaking but also brimming the promise of adventures yet to come; I can only hope that it’s the first part of an ongoing series. I’d settle for the written word, but this is a story that belongs on screen.

I also fell in love with “Molly’s Lips” by Dahlia Adler. Two besties fall in love – or rather, find the courage to profess their love for one another – in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. I’m a huge Nirvana fan, and Annabelle’s revelation by linear notes was pure magic. It also reminded me of how much poorer the world is without Kurt here. Especially now, when we need all the little sparks we can get.

Anna-Marie McLemore’s writing is as beautiful and enchanting as always; inspired by the life of Leonarda Emilia, “Roja” is the story of two fierce and indomitable star-crossed lovers. (“Known to history as la Carambada, Leonarda wore men’s clothing, but became notorious for revealing her breasts to the powerful men she’d just robbed as she rode off.” How rad is that?)

And “Healing Rosa” had me cursing the stars that we have to wait so long for We Set the Dark on Fire, the debut novel from Tehlor Kay Mejia.

There are so many more wonderful stories, too many to mention. Best just pick up a copy of All Out and see for yourself.

 

Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (El Bajío, México, 1870) – 5/5
The Sweet Trade by Natalie C. Parker (Virginia Colony, 1717) – 4/5
And They Don’t Kiss at the End by Nilah Magruder (Maryland, 1976) – 3.5/5
Burnt Umber by Mackenzi Lee (Amsterdam, 1638) – 5/5
The Dresser & The Chambermaid by Robin Talley (Kensington Palace, September 1726) – 3.5/5
New Year by Malinda Lo (San Francisco—January 21, 1955) – 4/5
Molly’s Lips by Dahlia Adler (Seattle—April 10, 1994) – 5/5
The Coven by Kate Scelsa (Paris, 1924) – 3/5
Every Shade of Red by Elliott Wake (England, Late Fourteenth Century) – 5/5
Willows by Scott Tracey (Southwyck Bay, Massachusetts, 1732) – 3/5
The Girl With the Blue Lantern by Tess Sharpe (Northern California, 1849) – 3.5/5
The Secret Life of a Teenage Boy by Alex Sanchez (Tidewater, Virginia, 1969) – 5/5
Walking After Midnight by Kody Keplinger (Upstate New York, 1952) – 4/5
The End of the World As We Know It by Sara Farizan (Massachusetts, 1999) – 4/5
Three Witches by Tessa Gratton (Kingdom of Castile, 1519) – 3.5/5
The Inferno & The Butterfly by Shaun David Hutchinson (London, 1839) – 5/5
Healing Rosa by Tehlor Kay Mejia (Luna County, New Mexico, 1933) – 5/5

 

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

Mini-Review: Petra by Marianna Coppo (2018)

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

#Petra2020

four out of five stars

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

Petra is a giant, magnificent boulder: home to villages, witness to millennia of evolution, immobile and indestructible.

Or is she an egg, temporary protector of a fire-breathing dragon or a dapper baby penguin?

Or perhaps she is an island, a lush tropical paradise unto herself?

Maybe she’s all of the above, at various points in her life, to different people?

Petra is a sweet, whimsical, and empowering picture book about self-identity and discovery. The smiley little rock known as Petra is forever in the process of becoming, learning new and wonderful things about herself. She rolls with the punches, always looking on the bright side of things:

What will I be tomorrow?
Who knows?
Well, no need to worry.
I’m a rock, and this is how I roll.

Coppo’s illustrations are just the right mix of silly and sweet. If I stumbled upon Petra while out hiking, I’d bring her home 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: Black Comix Returns by John Jennings and Damian Duffy (2018)

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

Meet your new TBR list!

five out of five stars

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

New to the world of comic books? Want to diversify your reading list? Looking for some STUNNING art by African-American creators? You’ve come to the right place: Black Comix Returns is collection of illustrations, comic strips, and essays by black artists.

Tbh, when I cracked this open, I was expecting to find an anthology of sorts, maybe a sampling of stories from up-and-and coming graphic novelists. This is almost as good, though: while we only get the briefest glimpse into the imaginations of each of the ninety-three artists featured in these here pages, nearly every two-page spread will leave you wanting more. Many of the illustrations are simply breathtaking, and the series descriptions had me adding titles to my Amazon wishlist like it was going out of style. The cover, easily one of the most jaw-dropping I’ve ever seen, is just a taste of the visual delights you can expect to find inside.

Additionally, the essays interspersed throughout give an added layer of context, exploring what it’s like to be an artist – and fan – in an overwhelmingly white (male) industry. Black Comix Returns isn’t necessarily the sort of book you read cover-to-cover, but do yourself a favor and make sure you hit all the essays.

I read Black Comix Returns as a pdf, but I’m sure it makes one helluva coffee table book. According to its Goodreads listing, the first title – Black Comix, which has since gone out of print – is somewhat of a collector’s item on ebay. The $29.99 list price of Black Comix Returns seems like a steal in comparison.

(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: Bingo Love by Tee Franklin & Jenn St-Onge (2018)

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

Pretty much the perfect Valentine’s Day read!

four out of five stars

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

Hazel and Mari met at a church bingo game in 1963. The girls became fast friends and, four years later, their friendship blossomed into something more. Before they’d had a chance to exchange even a handful of kisses, though, their secret was discovered, and the girls were forcibly separated by their families. Mari was sent to live down South, and both girls were forced to marry men chosen for them by their relatives.

Forty-eight years, eight children, and many grandchildren later, another chance meeting reunites the star-crossed lovers, giving each of them a second shot at happiness.

Bingo Love is such an achingly sweet and beautiful story, and I kind of love that its major imprint release is on Valentine’s Day. It made me laugh and cry – sometimes at the same time – and I’m not ashamed to say that the ending had me ugly crying onto my cat. The conclusion loops back into the beginning in a way that’s pure magic. (I actually had an a-hah! lightbulb moment when I realized what Franklin had done.)

The art is fantastically gorgeous, too: the colors, the outfits, the different styles of the times. Hazel and Mari are both fabulous AF: Hazel, with her oversized Iris Apfel glasses; Mari, with that bitchin’, DGAF white streak in her hair. This book oozes style, and it’s only fitting that Hazel takes the fashion world by storm for her second act.

Really my only complaint is that the dialogue sometimes feels stilted; unnatural, even … but don’t let this stop you from falling in love with the world Franklin and St-Onge built here. Bingo Love is a story that’s positively brimming with heart. Not to mention compassion and diversity. More, please.

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

Book Review: Pestilence, Volume 1 by Frank Tieri and Oleg Okunev (2018)

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

I’d almost rather have a zombie chew my nose off than read this again.

one out of five stars

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

DNF at 75%.

The year is 1347, and the Black Death is sweeping through Eurasia. Sent to dispatch a rogue crusader in a distant kingdom, a regimen of the Church’s army known as the Fiat Lux is summoned to the Vatican to rescue the Pope. Instead they are unwittingly drawn into a vast conspiracy involving zombies, religious dogma, and Jesus and Lucifer.

On the surface, Pestilence is a pretty cool idea: what if the Black Plague was actually a zombie outbreak? The plot line is surprisingly boring, though, and I only really cared about one character, who’s killed off just as he becomes interesting.

Worse still is the dialogue. If I had a dollar for every time “cocksucker” or “cunt” makes an appearance, I could buy an entire case of Daiya cheese. (At the 5% case discount, yes, but still: that shit is expensive!) I don’t have a problem with swearing, but here it’s pathetically overdone, as if it was written by a couple of ten-year-old boys who just discovered the f-word. There’s also some pretty gratuitous female nudity [side eye], as well as a full-page pillage-and-rape panel that’s both wholly unnecessary and obnoxiously insensitive [lighting this book on fire].

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery (New Edition) by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece (2017)

Friday, February 9th, 2018

“Assimilation as Revolution.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racist violence, including depictions of lynchings.)

Zane Pinchback is a real-life superhero. But instead of a cape and leotard, he wears a suit and carries a hot comb and notebook. A light-skinned black man, Zane is an investigative journalist whose alter ego “Incognegro” pens a regular column at the New Holland Herald. Able to pass as white, Zane bears witness to crimes against African-Americans, including the wave of lynchings that swept the south after the Civil War.

Tired of toiling away in obscurity, Zane is ready to retire Incognegro for good. That is, until his editor assigns him a case that he cannot walk away from. A white woman – a prostitute with gang connections – was found dead and dismembered in Tupelo, Mississippi. A sheriff’s deputy has gone missing. And an angry mob is ready to pin it all on her boyfriend/partner, Alfonso – a man Zane knows well. It’s up to Incognegro to figure out who really killed Michaela Mathers … before another innocent man’s life is violently ended.

Loosely inspired by the life of Walter Francis White, who worked for the NAACP as an investigator and went on to lead the organization for 24 years,Incognegro is a must read. The artwork is brilliant; the murder mystery, compelling; and the historical fiction aspect of the book, both educational and heartrending. I found the blend of fact and fiction quite masterful; the whodunit plot line distracts a little from the horrors of racist violence, making those scenes a little easier to process. (“Distract” doesn’t quite feel like the right word – since the different threads of the story are so intimately linked – but it’s the best I can do.)

Though Incognegro is primarily about racism – the social construction of race; white supremacist groups then and now; racist violence at the turn of the century, and how that informs contemporary culture – Mat Johnson also explores gender and sexism. I’ll admit, when Zane patronizingly admonishes his friend Mildred that “darling, this is not really a discussion for a lady,” I bristled. Visibly, I’m sure. While certainly appropriate for the age, I was rather annoyed that Johnson let this sexism stand unchallenged. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see it called out explicitly in the discussion guide. Better still is the murder mystery’s big reveal, which includes one of my favorite plot twists of all time.

And the closing panels? Pure perfection.

Originally published in 2008, this 10th anniversary edition includes a forward from the author, as well as reading group/discussion guide and sketchbook. Following the book’s re-release is a prequel titled Renaissance. If it’s half as good as the original, I need it like yesterday. I can only hope that this is the start of a regular series.

(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: Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History and Politics edited by Hazel Newlevant, Whit Taylor, and O.K. Fox (2018)

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

#shoutyourabortion, now in graphic novel format!

four out of five stars

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

In the editor’s note, Hazel Newlevant explains the genesis of Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History and Politics:

Comics for Choice was sparked by my outrage at the clinic closures and suffocating restrictions on abortion rights in states like Texas. It is not enough for abortion to remain technically legal; it is a moral imperative for abortion care to be accessible to all who need and want it. The right to abortion is the right to bodily autonomy, and to determine one’s own life path. When our 45th president was elected, and the future of abortion rights seemed more uncertain than ever, I couldn’t wait any longer. The very next morning, my co-editors and I set the wheels in motion to create the book you now read.

The result is, sadly, both relevant and timely; in the words of badass old broads everywhere, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.”

The anthology brings together more than sixty contributors – including women (and some trans and nonbinary folks) who have had abortions; women who were born after their mothers chose to terminate a previous pregnancy; reproductive rights advocates; clinic escorts; abortion doulas; and other feminist activists – to share their stories about abortion. Comics for Choice aims to destigmatize abortion, birth control, and family planning (but mostly abortion) by sharing personal stories from those who have undergone the procedure, as well as historical context, scientific information, and (in an especially touching piece by Jennifer Camper and Katie Fricas) a memorial to those murdered by anti-choice terrorists in the United States.

Like many anthologies, collection is somewhat uneven. Unlike most anthologies, the breadth of voices is also the book’s greatest advantage: if nothing else, Comics for Choice underscores the fact that abortion cuts across myriad lines – race, class, politics, sexuality, even gender. One in four women will undergo an abortion at least once in her lifetime; countless others will be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term due to unequal access. Comics for Choice gives people from divergent backgrounds the chance to share their stories, sometimes pairing artists with regular folks to better convey their experiences. Representation matters, and the editors have taken care to make this mantra the backbone of Comics for Choice.

As for my favorites, one piece that stands out – and will probably haunt my dreams throughout the Trump presidency – would have to be “Horror Stories” (as in “Do It Yourself Abortion Horror Stories”) by Jennifer Camper. Simple yet horrifyingly effective, the one-page comic portrays fourteen methods of DIY abortion with stark and chilling brevity. Dr. Cynthia Greenlee and Jaz Malone’s portrait of Dorothy Brown, Tennessee’s fist black woman legislator (“They Called Her Dr. D”), follows “Horror Stories” and provides a nice, fist-pumping counterpoint.

Mick Moran shares her experiences as an abortion doula in “Bearing Witness,” which had me convinced that abortion doulas must make the best, most empathetic friends ever. The last comic, Vreni’s “Nothing Feels Real (an abortion diary)” is also one of the most powerful contributions, offering an intimate look at funding, undergoing, and recovering from a surgical abortion.

Perhaps the most surprising piece, for me, was “Abortion Trials.” Based on transcripts of abortion trials from the post-WWII era, Rickie Solinger and Rachael Morrill explore how women were routinely slut-shamed and demonized – “thoroughly degraded and humiliated” – often for public entertainment, and when they were not necessarily the ones on trial. In many cases, it was their doctor’s own defense attorney dishing out the abuse.

Comics for Choice isn’t always an easy read, but it’s a necessary one – and a much-needed addition to the swell of women’s voices that continues to rise into 2017 and beyond.

(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 Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (2018)

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride—or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia—the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances—one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

Jen Wang is a cartoonist and illustrator currently living in Los Angeles. Her works have appeared in the Adventure Time comics and LA Magazine. She recently illustrated Tom Angleberger’s Fake Mustache. Her graphic novels Koko Be Good and In Real Life (with author Cory Doctorow) were published by First Second. jenwang.net

 

Like a lot of people, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Jen Wang’s YA graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker. Also like a lot of hopefuls, I was turned down for a digital copy on NetGalley. So imagine my excitement when I was invited to participate in the blog tour! (Schedule here.) Happy dances galore.

You can read my full review below (spoiler alert: it is gushing), but for now let’s talk about the theme of the blog tour: my favorite panel. My top fave is actually a huge spoiler, so instead I’ll go with a close runner-up, which is a little safer. Here, Sebastian and Frances are discussing Lady Crystallia’s debut at a beauty pageant, where she absolutely slays. Depressed over having to hide a piece of his identity from his parents and subjects – and desperately unhappy at the mounting pressure to marry – Sebastian laments his powerlessness … a feeling that only abates when he’s allowed to embrace his true self:

More than anything, this one image perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the The Prince and the Dressmaker: we’re at our most free, our most powerful, when we’re able to be our authentic selves, and share this person with the world. Luckily for Sebastian (and us!), he’s able to do just that. Bring some tissue, people, you will need it.

 

I love everything about this book!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Thanks, First Second Books!)

Young seamstress Frances is toiling away in relative obscurity when a bold ballgown design catches the eye of a mysterious patron. Before she can say “silk chiffon” three times fast, Frances is whisked away to the royal mansion, to serve as the personal seamstress of the visiting Crown Prince of Belgium, sixteen-year-old Sebastian … who sometimes moonlights as Lady Crystallia, a trend-setting, red-haired beauty.

Fearing that his passion will alienate him from his parents and future subjects, Sebastian swears Frances to secrecy. But as Lady Crystallia’s daring outfits attract more and more accolades – and scrutiny – Frances must weigh her professional ambitions against her growing friendship with Sebastian. On his end, Sebastian is under increasing pressure from the King and Queen to marry and produce an heir. But how can love flourish when part of Sebastian’s very identity is confined to the shadows?

I know it’s only January, but The Prince and the Dressmaker is destined to become one of my favorite reads of the year. The art is enchanting; the story, heartwarming; and the denouement actually elicited a very loud gasp from me. Frances and Sebastian are compelling characters, and I found myself rooting for them both, even as their desires pulled them in opposite directions.

It seems like I’ve been hearing a lot (generally speaking) about well-meaning but ultimately harmful LGBTQ stories featuring tragic characters or endings. The Prince and the Dressmaker couldn’t be further from this. While Sebastian’s outlook seems awfully dire for a moment there, ultimately he triumphs. The ending is lovely, heartwarming, and uplifting. We need more of this. SO MUCH MORE. Queer kids need to feel that more awaits them than just doom and gloom. They need hope. Also, parents and friends like the King and Queen, Frances, and Emile wouldn’t hurt, either.

I also love how Jen Wang played with different tropes and twisted gender roles into big ole messy knots. With the appearance of Lady Sophia Rohan on page four, Wang thumbs her nose at gender roles and stereotyping. The portrayal of the cross-dressing Prince Sebastian is both compassionate and exhilarating; when he confides in Frances that “It’s weird, I don’t feel like Prince Sebastian could lead a nation into battle, but Lady Crystallia could,” my heart darn near swelled out of my chest.

But my favorite scene belongs to the King: Papa Bear, dressed as a majestic woodland creature, coming to his son’s defense. Sarah Palin ain’t got nothing on this guy.

(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: Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems by Ntozake Shange (2017)

Monday, January 29th, 2018

“i am more dangerous than noreiga”

four out of five stars

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

all things are possible
but aint no colored magician in her right mind
gonna make you white
i mean
this is blk magic
you lookin at
(“my father is a retired magician”)

i haveta turn my television down sometimes cuz
i cant stand to have white people/ shout at me/
(“from okra to greens”)

we need a god who bleeds now
whose wounds are not the end of anything
(“we need a god who bleeds now”)

Wild Beauty falls into that weird, nebulous category of “poems I’m not sure I completely understand, but am mostly smitten with anyway.” A mix of new and previously published poetry from Ntozake Shange, Wild Beauty is enchanting and seductive and, occasionally, raw AF. Shange explores wide-ranging issues, including race, gender, sexuality, love, the military-industrial complex, the police state, the process of creating art, and the centrality of music in her life. As is par for the course with poetry, I wasn’t convinced that I was always picking up what Shange put down, but I was happy to come along for the ride anyway. Well, more or less: it’s true that I did skim a few of the pieces, but these were few and far between.

Among my favorites are “my father is a retired magician”; “toussaint”; “live oak”; “irrepressibly bronze, beautiful & mine”; “rise up fallen fighters”; “7 tequilas gone”; “the stage goes to darkness”; “crooked woman”; “about atlanta”; “who needs a heart”; and “pages for a friend.” I fear that “crack annie” will stick with forever, though not in a good way; the poem is written from the pov of a mother who facilitates the rape of her seven-year-old daughter in exchange for drugs, and it is simply haunting. “ode to orlando” is as well, though in a more melancholy (as opposed to nauseating) way. Written in the days after the Pulse nightclub shooting, Shange reflects on how the tragedy did – and could have – impacted her own family. (Shange’s daughter is gay and has in fact been to the club.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Black Genealogy: Poems by Kiki Petrosino and Lauren Haldeman (2017)

Friday, January 26th, 2018

A haunting cry across the chasms of time and injustice.

five out of five stars

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

You want to know who owned us & where.
But when you type, your searches return no results.
Slavery was grown folks’ business, then old folks’.
We saw no reason to hum Old Master’s name
to our grandchildren, or point out his overgrown gates
but you want to know who owned us & where
we got free. You keep typing our names into oblongs
of digital white. You plant a unicode tree & climb up
into grown folks’ business. You know old folks
don’t want you rummaging here, so you pile sweet jam
in your prettiest dish. You light candles & pray:
Tell me who owned you & where
I might find your graves.
Little child, we’re at rest
in the acres we purchased. Those days of
slavery were old folks’ business. The grown folks
buried us deep. Only a few of our names survive.
We left you that much, sudden glints in the grass.
The rest is grown folks’ business we say. Yet
you still want to know. Who owned us? Where?

In Black Genealogy: Poems, Kiki Petrosino explores her attempts to name and locate her ancestors – a matter made all the more complicated and frustrating for the descendants of slaves. Dehumanized, objectified, and stripped of their personhood, scant records exist to reaffirm the individuality, the bonds, the very humanity and being of kidnapped, trafficked, and enslaved humans. Of her search, Petrosino laments: “For a whole page, instead of talking about H, Old Master counts his glass decanters from France.” And so her journey is arduous, frustrating – at times, even harrowing.

In the second half of the book, Petrosino’s ancestors answer her call. They are angry, amused, loving: everything you imagine an aged great-grandmother to be. They cry out to her across the chasms of time and injustice, both delighting in and envying her living, breathing body.

Bookending and separating these two pieces are several untitled comics, visual adaptations of Petrosino’s poems by illustrator Lauren Haldeman. Petrosino is haunted by a Confederate reenactor, and his Cheshire cat-like like grin.

The three parts of the book – Petrosino’s prose, her ancestors’ poetry, and Haldeman’s drawings – work wonderfully together. While I do love the poems best, the various components complement each other in a way that I can only describe as masterful. The result is alternately beautiful, sorrowful, and downright chilling, as with this more-than-vaguely threatening exchange Petrosino shares with the soldier:

The essays – okay, more like modestly-sized paragraphs – in Part I are sometimes confusing but, to be fair, I think this is supposed to echo the journey of Black Genealogy: the reader’s experience is meant to mirror that of the author.

A strong 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary.

Read it with: Octavia Butler’s Kindred. For some reason, the illustrations really reminded me of the graphic novel adaptation. I blame it on the lingering, sinister grin.

(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: Elsewhere, Volume 1 by Jay Faerber, Sumeyye Kesgin, and Ron Riley (2018)

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

What happened to Amelia Earhart?

four out of five stars

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

This a fun, quick read. A more outlandish piece of alternative history told in graphic novel format, Elsewhere explores the mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart. When she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had to bail from their plane due to do engine trouble, they jumped right into a space-time portal that transported them to an alien world. Amelia is rescued by a ragtag team of freedom fighters and quickly drawn into their cause, as the groups’ missions converge. Together with another stranded earthling named D.B., Amelia and her allies storm the fortress of despot Lord Kragen in search of their friends.

The result is entertaining, if not terribly substantive. What Elsewhere lacks in plot depth and character development, it mostly makes up for with a cheeky sense of humor – not to mention a plot twist that maybe kinda sorta hinges on male entitlement and misogyny. (Whether it’s intentionally or accidentally feminist is anyone’s guess.) The artwork is stellar, and Amelia makes for a delightfully plucky protagonist. Overall Volume 1 lays the foundation for what could be a really great series.

3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 a) because I’m a generous reviewer and b) to make up for the book’s current middling 3.18 stars on Goodreads.

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