Book Review: The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: Expanded Edition, edited by Hope Nicholson (2016)

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

A Love Letter to Geek Girls, Young and Old

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape.)

You know where God lives and God is in paint and ink and pencil and the page: you fell in love and became that love. Transformed, like in a fairy tale. A girl who became a wolf, focused and hungry for only one thing: story.

You never stopped hunting stories. Little wolf, persistent but timid, prowling shelves and stacks; anywhere there were books, that was the forest you claimed. You found a frontier in your school library, rushing inside every morning with exquisite relief because books were home, books were where you were most alive, books were places you could pretend you were brave. Books were walls against everything that frightened you.

– “Ghost,” Marjorie Liu

The Brontë sisters had such lady boners for the Duke of Wellington that they wrote hundreds of pages of fanfiction about the guy.

– “How Fanfiction Made Me Gay,” J. M. Frey

Any project with Margaret Atwood’s name attached is an instabuy for me, so there was no doubt that I’d preorder a copy of the new and expanded edition of The Secret Loves of Geek Girls. (My only question is, where the heck was I when the Kickstarter was open?)

While Atwood’s quartet of four-panel comics is cute and super-relatable, it’s actually not the highlight of the anthology (surprise!). Nope, that honor would have to go to Marjorie Liu’s essay “Ghost,” which is simply breathtaking, threatening to unspool your soul till its innermost bits are laid bare – and then stitch and crimp you back together, stronger and bolder than before. (And all in the space of four and a half pages, at that.) Of course, being a sucker for pop culture criticism, Laura Neubert’s “They Bury You in White” and Megan Kearney’s “Regards to the Golbin King” are close ties for second place.

A mix of short nonfiction and comics (“They Bury You in White” and “Regards to the Golbin King” both fall into this category), the many and varied contributions to The Secret Loves of Geek Girls tackle a wide range of topics, from falling in love with fictional characters to navigating the perils and pitfalls of dating, both on- and offline; exploring and defining one’s sexuality in the pre- and post-digital age; surviving and thriving after a divorce; bonding over shared passions; and the perks of platonic relationships and girly gossip.

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Book Review: The One Hundred Nights of Hero, Isabel Greenberg (2016)

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Quite possibly the most beautiful graphic novel I’ve ever read. ALL THE STARS AND MOONS.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for threats of rape.)

They luxuriated sinfully in that most beautiful of all things: The written word.

All those stories you have told, all those wonderful stories…
They are nothing to OUR STORY. People will tell it in years to come…
And they will say, that was a story about Love.
And about two brave girls who wouldn’t take shit from anyone.

Lesson: Men are false. And they can get away with it.
Also, don’t murder your sister, even by accident. Sisters are important.

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, in a land called Early Earth, there lived two star-crossed lovers: Cherry, a fair and lovely young woman from the Empire of Migdal Bavel, and her maid, Hero.

Despite her vaguely masculine name, Hero was a young woman as well – and a servant and runaway, at that – both conditions which conspired against their love. Cherry’s father insisted she marry a man who could provide for her; and so, after dodging his demands for one blissful summer (spent in the arms of Hero, of course), Cherry finally acquiesced. Luckily, Hero was able to accompany Cherry to the castle of her new husband, Jerome, where she stayed on as Cherry’s maid – and her secret lover. Like many of the men in Migdal Bavel, Jerome was a rather dim-witted and arrogant misogynist, you see, so Hero and Cherry were able to outwit him with minimal effort.

And then one day Jerome made a foolish bet with his friend Manfred, a man a little less stupid but a whole lot crueler than himself.

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If Manfred could seduce his ‘obedient and faithful’ (*snort!*) wife Cherry, then Manfred would win Jerome’s castle. If not, Manfred’s castle would become Jerome’s. Jerome would feign a business trip, giving Manfred a full one hundred days to execute his fiendish plot.

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Book Review: Becoming Unbecoming, Una (2016)

Friday, November 25th, 2016

Raw, powerful, necessary.

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape.)

Canon Gordon Croney, vicar of Leeds, considers police-controlled houses of prostitution to be impractical. “I know it’s an easy answer, but I believe it could make the problem worse,” he said.

“If prostitutes came under police protection, then it could make a psychopath like the Ripper prey on innocent women.”

So many popular cultural monuments to Sutcliffe have been built by men. Perhaps it’s easier to see it as just another story, if you don’t belong to the group of people the Ripper wanted to kill?

So what’s the truth?
Maybe it’s something like this:

Ordinary men are capable of extraordinary violence.
Women and girls are neither virgins nor whores.

None of it is funny.

Between 1969 and 1981, Peter Sutcliffe – who would eventually become known as the Yorkshire Ripper – attacked at least twenty women, killing thirteen of them. He primarily targeted sex workers, either because he was conned by a prostitute and her pimp – or because God commanded him to. (When caught, he pled not guilty due to diminished capacity, on account of a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s currently serving a life sentence.) However, not all of his victims were sex workers; the investigators’ inability to reconcile this inconsistency is perhaps one of many reasons they bungled the investigation, for example, by ignoring important evidence from an eyewitness who survived, 14-year-old Tracy Browne. Sutcliffe was caught in January 1981 – after he was brought in for driving with false license plates. The police had interviewed him nine times at that point, and had countless “photofits” bearing his image in their files.

The author – who goes by the pseudonym Una – was just entering her teenage years when the attacks escalated. Born in 1965, Una lived in west Yorkshire; her formative years were colored by the hysteria and misogyny whipped up by the killing spree. By the police and in the media, the Ripper’s victims were deemed complicit in their own assaults; what else could women with “loose morals” expect? As his body count grew and came to include “regular” women (and girls), evidence of immorality could be found everywhere: going out drinking at night (with or without your husband), dating outside your race, arguing with a boyfriend.

No one was safe, and that’s kind of the point: Peter Sutcliffe was a misogynist and, to the extent that he targeted sex workers, it was because he felt he could get away with it. And he did, for far too long.

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Nor was the Yorkshire Ripper the only threat facing the women of England in 1977. According to current rape stats for England and Wales, 1 in 5 women aged 16 to 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Only about 15% of victims choose to report; some 90% know their attackers. Furthermore, 31% of young women aged 18 to 24 report having experienced sexual abuse in childhood. The Ripper may have been the face of violence against women in the mid- to late-1970s but, in truth, danger lurked much closer to home.

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Book Review: Snow White: A Graphic Novel, Matt Phelan (2016)

Monday, November 14th, 2016

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Dark and gritty; a unique spin on the original Snow White tale.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, Candlewick.)

My name is Snow White, but my mother didn’t call me that to be funny.
She would say that the snow covers everything and makes the entire world beautiful.

* tick * tick * tick * KILL

I love a good fairy tale retelling, and this one is truly unique. Set in 1920s New York City, Matt Phelan’s Snow White is a gritty comic book adaptation with a decidedly noir spin.

Samantha White is just a child when her mother dies; the two are traipsing through a city landscape blanketed with snow when Mom doubles over coughing. On her kerchief are specks of blood. The year is 1918, and little Snow White is about to lose her mother to the “Spanish Flu.”

Fast-forward ten years. The widower Mr. White, a wealthy stockbroker, is instantly smitten with the newest It Girl, the star of Broadway, the Queen of Follies. They wed, Snow White is shipped off to boarding school, and the family somehow – magically – survives the stock market crash of 1929, which leaves so many of their peers destitute. Everything is okay-ish; that is, until our wicked stepmother receives ominous messages from her husband’s stock market ticker. Before long, Samantha’s father is dead and she’s on the run.

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From the glamour of Broadway to the shanties of Hooverville, Phelan makes excellent use of the setting. Much of the artwork is rendered in shades of black, white, and tan, accentuating the story’s gritty atmosphere and noir influence. Little pops of color, particularly red – the bright, spotty blood on Mom’s handkerchief; the blush on Snow’s cheeks; the drugged apple she accepts from an elderly sidewalk vendor – call attention to important panels and props. The artwork has a rough quality, much like the streets Snow wanders when she is cast out of her childhood home.

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Like the artwork, the dialogue is rather minimalist; yet if you are familiar with the story (and what American isn’t?), you should have no trouble following along. All of the various components – setting, plot, atmosphere, illustrations, and dialogue – work in harmony to deliver a Snow White that’s darker and more firmly rooted in reality than the original. The huntsman is a hired gun; the seven “dwarfs,” a group of homeless street kids. Yet there’s a touch of magical realism in the form of the Queen, linking this tale to its predecessors.

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Book Review: Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation, Miles Hyman (2016)

Monday, October 31st, 2016

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Chilling; Hyman masterfully channels the spirit of the original.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, Hill and Wang.)

No point in changing things now, is there?

First published in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” has held up remarkably well over time; it’s still as chilling and relevant today as it was seven decades ago.

Set in Any Town, USA, the story opens on a sunny June day, as the bustling townspeople prepare for the annual lottery. The very word evokes feelings of hope and luck, piles of money and all the good things the winner might do with her prize. Yet this lottery is much darker and more sinister than all that; entrants don’t sacrifice a dollar to the kitty, but rather their very lives. And, until a revolution overthrows the barbaric, antiquated system, everyone is forced to participate – whether they want to or not.

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I didn’t realize it at first, but this graphic novel adaptation was written by one of Shirley Jackson’s descendants – her grandson, Miles Hyman, who has previously written and illustrated several French-language graphic novels. The result is both skillful and strangely touching; I say “strangely” because, well, it’s a bleak and brutal story.

Yet Hyman masterfully channels the spirit of the original story. The artwork is lovely, yet almost doggedly plain and drab – much like the town, which sees fit to murder one of its own in hopes of a bountiful harvest. There’s a real Leave it to Beaver quality to the story, but with a dash of noir to spice things up. As with the original, the plainness of the setting only heightens the horror that’s to come.

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The story is faithful to the original, though Hyman does add some new scenes to flesh out the history of the Lottery and its mythic box, supposedly built from remains of the very first one. Much of the dialogue is lifted right from the source material, word for word.

But this isn’t to suggest that Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ is unnecessary or redundant; quite the opposite. It introduces the story to a whole new audience, while adding to the mythos of the original.

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If nothing else, Jackson fans should read it for the preface, in which Hyman shares a family ritual involving an ornate Victorian music box, and a childhood spent among artistic luminaries. These memories, told with obvious care and love, made me see the story in a new (dare I say gentler? nostalgic, even?) light.

(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: Pretty Deadly, Volume 2: The Bear, Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Ríos (2016)

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Gorgeous artwork & solid storytelling (though not quite as epic as that in The Shrike).

four out of five stars

I am not a bee, but I am small.
I like to see small things win.

There’s never been a war like him before.

The story arc in Pretty Deadly, Volume 2: The Bear isn’t nearly as epic as that in The Shrike, and I prefer the Wild West setting to WWI. But the storytelling is still pretty solid and, as always, the artwork is some of the loveliest I’ve ever seen in a graphic novel.

The Bear takes place several decades after The Shrike, and Sarah Fields – the BAMF gunslinger whose tears gave life to the savior of humanity – lay in bed dying. Who better to reap her than her old flame Fox? But daughter Verine isn’t ready to let Sarah go yet – not until her brother Cyrus returns home to say his final goodbyes. He’s got until the next full moon; can he make it back from the battlefields of France in time?

Meanwhile, Death’s got a lot on her plate. The Reaper of War’s gone rogue, sending ten thousand people her way every. single. day. The cycle of life and death makes the world go ‘round, but this is out of hand! Sissy sends Deathface Ginny and Big Alice to the Western Front to bring an end to the conflict – by any means necessary.

Like I said, the story is engaging, but a bit of a letdown in comparison to Sissy’s origin story in Volume 1. But it was great to see old friends: Sissy, who’s been tending the garden for several decades and is now a young woman; a (slightly) warmer and fuzzier Fox; Sarah, who lived a long and fruitful life, as evidenced by all the people – “whole damn family and half the territory” – who have gathered at her bedside; Johnny Coyote and Molly Raven; and our unflinchingly creepy narrators/observers, bunny and butterfly.

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Book Review: Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (2016)

Monday, August 15th, 2016

Devastatingly Gorgeous Artwork & Intricate World-Building Make Monstress a Must-Read

five out of five stars

To quote the poets…murder is terribly exhausting.

— 4.5 stars —

I pre-ordered Monstress based on the cover alone; and, the more I learned about it, the more excited I became. A steampunk fantasy set in turn-of-the-century Asia, featuring a diverse cast of mostly-female characters, written and illustrated by two women of color? Sign me up!

As it turns out, Monstress is everything I’d hoped for and then some. The story takes place in 1920s Asia, though you might not know it at first glance: this alternate ‘verse is so very different from our own. Humans are not the only – or even the first – sapients to walk the earth. (To borrow a term from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.) We were preceded by Cats, the children of Ubasti: Multi-tailed, talking creatures, who can wield a weapon as easily as a sarcastic comeback. The immortal Ancients assumed the forms of beasts and, like their Greek cousins, enjoyed toying with humans. It is from such relationships that Arcanic halfbreeds were born: some are human in appearance, while most are not; yet all Arcanics possess great powers, powers which can be extracted from their very bones. Last but not least are the Old Gods, of which precious little is known. Some believe them to be monsters.

While humans and Arcanics coexisted in peace for generations, war broke out for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. An infernal bomb, which rained destruction down upon the city of Constantine, resulted in a stalemate. Now both races live on their respective sides of the wall. Yet the Cumaea – a powerful order of nun-witches that rules the human federation – is intent resurrecting the war and exterminating the Arcanics.

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Book Review: Through the Woods, Emily Carroll (2014)

Monday, July 18th, 2016

“That night Bell’s dreams had teeth.”

five out of five stars

But the worst kind of monster was the burrowing kind.

The sort that crawled into you and made a home there.

My stars, what a lush and gorgeous book!

Let’s start with the artwork, which is just exquisite. The illustrations are quite nice, though it’s the vivid, moody colors that really make the panels pop. Each of the five short stories has its own distinct vibe, which is no small feat. Whereas “Our Neighbor’s House” is drawn in grey, dreary shades – offset only by the occasional blood red – “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold” is more visually striking, with deep blues, rich golds, and (of course) complementary reds when the horror is unleashed. While each story looks a little different, the artwork (especially the way the humans are drawn) is still similar enough that there’s a feeling of continuity; clearly these all belong to the same collection.

Of course this is all topped off by the cover. Not only is the illustration wonderful (the front is awesome; the back, even more so, what with its unexpected pop of blue!), but the cover is textured for a rich, luxurious feeling. And when the sun hits it *just right*, the bumps sparkle and dance and glint like a knife.

And the stories! A hybrid of fairy tales and horror stories, they remind me of the spooky picture books I read as a kid. (In a Dark, Dark Room, anyone?) Creepy and weird and just ambiguous to keep your wondering, well into the wee hours of the night.

Suitable for kiddos, but parents? You’ll want to keep this book for your own.

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

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