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

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

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

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

Okay BYYYYEEEEEE!

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

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

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

Superheroing with a curfew.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

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

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018

Letters to My Teenage Self Meets Freaky Friday

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

A promising start to a new series.

three out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

As dazzling as the cover!

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

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

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Spectacle, Vol. 1 by Megan Rose Gedris (2018)

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

Engaging premise and setting, but a deeply unsatisfying ending.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC through NetGalley. Trigger warning for ableist language directed at the circus “freaks”.)

Twin sisters Anna and Kat are performers in the Samson Brothers Circus: Anna tells fortunes, while Kat is a knife-thrower. Whereas Kat’s talents are all too real, Anna is a fraud. Well, kind of: while Anna tells the rubes what they want to hear, she can predict the future and decipher the past with the help of her self-made conjecture engine. It’s kind of slow and not very flashy, so – like Anna – it mostly stays in the background.

When the circus’s train is stalled out in the middle of the desert, Kat turns up dead, stabbed in the back with her own knives. Not wanting to alarm the other performs, circus owner Jebediah Tetanus (how’s that for an evocative name?) tasks Anna with solving the murder in secret. But things go from bad to worse when a series of tragedies beset the circus, including Tetanus’s own arrest at the hands of the corrupt deputy sheriff. Not to mention Kat’s lingering spirit, which flits in and out of Anna’s body to hide from pursuing demons.

So I really wanted to love Spectacle – and some of the elements here are great – but there’s a lot going on. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that very little is resolved by the end of chapter five. Usually I expect that a TPB has a self-contained story arc, but Book One of Spectacle feels more like the first two-thirds of a story. The ending – in which one of the roustabouts suddenly sprouts a rhino horn – is deeply unsatisfying, to say the least.

The art wasn’t initially my favorite – so many blockheads! – but it grew on me pretty quickly. I enjoyed the setting, which is some time in the mid (?) 1800s (?). This makes for some great old timey humor, such as when the circus doc diagnoses Anna with hysteria and prescribes coffee. With a side of heroin.

The story features a cast of pretty fascinating women characters, from Flora the would-be fat lady/current snake charmer to Lucy Chen, a clown who did it all for love. I really hope that my suspicions about the source of the weirdness between Anna and the bearded lady pan out; a cute F/F romance makes every story better, okay. I wish that we’d seen more of Eve and Lynn, the conjoined twins; there’s a lot of ableist yet era-appropriate language thrown their way, and I want desperately for the story challenges this as the plot unfolds. The collision between science and the supernatural also holds some promise going forward.

P.S. WHAT GIVES WITH THE PICKLES!?!

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

Book Review: I Really Didn’t Think This Through: Tales from My So-Called Adult Life by Beth Evans (2018)

Friday, May 11th, 2018

Needs more illustrations!

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for mental health issues, including self-harm.)

I hadn’t heard of Instagram artist Beth Evans before picking up a copy of her new book, I Really Didn’t Think This Through: Tales from My So-Called Adult Life – but now I’m seriously considering creating an Instagram account, just so I can follow her.

In the vein of Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half and the Sarah’s Scribbles series by Sarah Andersen, Evans pokes fun at what it means to be an “adult” in the modern era. Unlike Brosh and Andersen, Evans’s book is heavy on text and light on illustrations. Equal parts self-help and humorous confessional, with a few illustrations peppered throughout to drive certain points home, Evans explores the travails and (occasional) triumphs of everyday existence, from her struggles with anxiety, depression, and self-harm, to the weird world of casual dating and the challenges of self-love and body positivity. Somehow Evans manages to stay positive even through the tears. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll laugh while crying. There’s a lot of relatable stuff in here.

That said, I thought the illustrations were by far the book’s strongest point, and there just aren’t enough of them! The anecdotes were amusing enough; the advice, solid of not ground-breaking – but art is truly where Evans shines. Can we get an honest-to-goodness graphic novel or comic book 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: The Ghost, The Owl by Franco and Sara Richard (2018)

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Buy it for the artwork.

four out of five stars

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

One night, the ghost of a young girl appears in a swamp; only the animals are able to see – and communicate with – her. While the residents of the swamp have a strict policy against interfering in the affairs of humans, an owl named Aldus breaks with tradition and attempts to help the ghost girl find out who she is, where she comes from, and – most importantly – why her soul continues to hang around. As it turns out, the girl’s fate is entwined with the owl’s own, as their journey takes them to a whimsical little cottage where both spent their youths.

The story in The Ghost, The Owl is pretty simple; bare-bones, even. It’s enough to keep the action moving forward, but not much else. For example, I really wanted to learn more about Jessica, and the angry and entitled man pursuing her. This subplot feels like the outline of a fairy tale – the beautiful, kind young maiden and the evil, boorish lord/prince/king/baron – calling out for more depth and complexity.

But the artwork? To say that it’s breathtaking feels grossly inadequate. The style, the colors, the lines and angles – it’s simply enchanting. The owls in particular call to mind the Great Owl from The Secret of NIMH – a childhood favorite – and the dark tone and assorted swamp creatures are evocative of The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. The fire scenes – with red licks of flame and black swirls of smoke – are especially beautiful. Many of the pages struck me speechless, and the eyes of the owl and the crow – burnt amber and fiery red – will haunt me.

Honestly, this is one of the most gorgeous books I’ve ever picked up.

(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: Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition by Julia Kaye (2018)

Friday, May 4th, 2018

Lovely and heartfelt.

four out of five stars

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

Growing up, artist Julia Kaye didn’t know she was trans. While she felt a certain, low-level sense of discomfort with her own body, it wasn’t until she was twenty-four – when she stumbled upon a website where users documented their transitions – that she identified the source of her gender dysphoria. And it would take another two years before she was comfortable enough to come out to her friends and family and begin her transition. A near-daily diary in graphic novel format, Super Late Bloomer documents the first six months of her transition, from May through October of 2016.

Super Late Bloomer very much feels like the fabulously queer cousin of a Sarah’s Scribbles collection. The visual style is similar (princess eyes and puddle of flesh = pure joy!), yet still its own; and Kaye’s social awkwardness and anxiety feels familiar to me, even if the source is something that I can only try to understand. Kaye documents the tiny triumphs and devastations that marked her path along the way.

The bad: misgendering; being outed by well-meaning but clueless family members; post-laser stubble; friends who suddenly make themselves scarce.

The good: being complimented by other women; finding a dress that fits; accepting parents; looking in the mirror and seeing your true self stare back.

At turns funny, sarcastic, and bittersweet, Super Late Bloomer is essential reading for humans in this word.

(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: Manfried the Man by Caitlin Major & Kelly Bastow (2018)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

Better in small doses, maybe? (Check out the tumblr.)

three out of five stars

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

We’re trying to get volunteers to take part in the annual man count so we can keep track of all the stray men in the neighborhood.

If he’s only been missing a day he’s probably just holed up somewhere nearby. Men like to find small spaces and hide out.

Not all men though. Some men like the open space.

No not all men, obviously.

Steve Catson is kind of a fuck up. His apartment is a shithole, he hates his job at a call center, and he doesn’t have m/any real friends. He’s at that age when his peers are growing up, marrying, and having kittens of their own – but Steve is chronically single, socially awkward, and quite possibly depressed. The only bright spot in Steve’s life is his pet man, a chubby little ginger number not-so-creatively named Manfried. So when Manfried goes missing – thanks to Steve’s own carelessness, no less – Steve is beside himself with grief, panic, and self-loathing. Yet in his search for his beloved man, Steve might find even more than he could have hoped for.

I really dug the absurdist vibe of Manfried the Man, but I think the idea would have been better served by a series of self-contained strips as opposed to a singular narrative. I love those “if humans acted like dogs/cats” videos that occasionally make the rounds, and Manfried is very much in this vein. However, I didn’t find the storyline terribly interesting, and Steve is just plain irritating. I empathized with him initially – I too struggle with anxiety and depression, and sometimes feel like I’m just not doing right by my furry friends – but by story’s end I wanted to throttle the guy. Blaming your man’s escape on someone else, pffft. If I’d done that I’d be begging random strangers for a tongue lashing to feed the guilt.

Anyway, Manfried has its cute moments (#NotAllMen ftw; naked little men running around with their naked little twigs and berries), but overall I found it kind of meh. I do wish the whole “cones of shame for men” thing would catch on, though.

(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: Puerto Rico Strong edited by Hazel Newlevant, Desiree Rodriguez & Marco Lopez (2018)

Friday, April 27th, 2018

Wonderful idea, so-so execution.

three out of five stars

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

Spurred by the Drumpf administration’s shameful response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, not to mention the misinformed and callous attitudes of so many mainland American citizens, writers, editors, and artists came together to create a comics anthology to support disaster relief on the island. The proceeds from Puerto Rico Strong will benefit UNIDOS Disaster Relief & Recovery Program to Support Puerto Rico – and the many #ownvoices contributions will hopefully combat the dangerous and often racist beliefs about PR and those who call the island home.

I wanted to love this collection more than I did. It’s a great idea to support an admirable cause, and I love that so many of the artists are of Puerto Rican descent. Yet, as is the case with many anthologies, the comics are uneven, both in terms of the storytelling as well as the artwork. I have no desire to single anyone out, but some of the art is simply terrible; in one particular strip, the humans resemble lumpy potatoes with misshapen biceps the size of their equally misshapen heads. Many of the comics feel short; too short to cover any given topic in anything but the most shallow and perfunctory way. More often than not I came away from a piece feeling as though there was so much more to be said.

I feel like I learned quite a bit from Puerto Rico Strong, yet considering my starting point this isn’t a huge compliment. Like many white readers (probably), I don’t remember learning much, if anything, about Puerto Rico in my high school American History class. (For shame!)

My favorite comics were those that explored Puerto Rican history, from coercive sterilization (“La Operación” and “The Puerto Rican Birth Control Trials,” both by Ally Schwed), to the institution of the Jones Act of 1917 and the racist military drafting policies that soon followed (“Macondo, Puerto Rico” by Javier Morillo and Dan Méndez Moore), and the history and religion of the Taíno Indians (the island’s native Arawak inhabitants). There’s also some pretty neat sci-fi that imagines the place Puerto Rico might occupy in humanity’s future, fifty or more years down the road (see, e.g. “Pasitos Grandes,” by Tristan J. Tarwater and Cynthia Santos).

(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: Box of Bones #1 by Ayize Jama-Everett & John Jennings (2018)

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Off to a promising start!

four out of five stars

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

I very rarely read single issues of comic books, let alone review them, for one simple fact: I just don’t have the patience to wait for the next issue in the series! Much like TV shows, I’d rather wait until the entire series has come out and then binge them all at once. But when the fledgling issue of Box of Bones popped up on NetGalley, I just couldn’t resist.

Luckily, the story in this first issue is somewhat self-contained. While we’re introduced to the concept of the main plot, most of the action takes place in the form of a flashback.

UC Berkeley student Lindsay Ford’s research into the appearance of “spectral creatures” at key moments in Black American (North and South) history has landed her in front of the faculty, arguing for the viability of her project. When asked if there’s a personal reason behind her academic interests, Lindsay remembers a story told to her by her grandfather. As teenagers, Jim and his friend Gauge were brutally attacked – beaten nearly unconscious and, in Gauge’s case, raped – by a gang of racist white classmates. Gauge turns to her mother’s “New Orleans voodoo” – in the form of a box of bones to which the practitioner must sacrifice her soul – to unleash her revenge.

While I do enjoy a good rape revenge story – because, let’s be honest, the world of fiction is pretty much the only time abusive men are held accountable for their actions – rape is also overused as a plot device. Gauge’s violation takes place off-screen, but it still comes like a punch to the gut, especially since it looks for a hot second like she might escape. Revenge comes quickly and is satisfying as heck. So I guess my feelings are mixed on this one.

Otherwise the story is engaging enough; a solid start to what looks like a promising series. Overall I enjoyed the artwork; though the monster has an over-the-top, gonzo feel to it, I quickly found myself digging the style.

I especially like how it changes and morphs with each “victim.” (Scare quotes because some of those peeps totally had it coming.)

3.5 stars.

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

Book Review: My Boyfriend Is a Bear by Pamela Ribon & Cat Farris (2018)

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

MRRRHHNH. (That’s Bear for “Coming in for a hug.”)

five out of five stars

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

I honestly didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did.

I mean, I don’t know what I expected, other than it seemed like a cute idea that could very well fail spectacularly. At the end of the day, I picked it up because I really, really wanted to use this video in a review.

Nora stumbles into a 500-pound American black bear while camping with one of her many d-bag boyfriends. When Bear is later driven from his forest home by wildfires, he finds Nora thanks to a discarded issue of Bust. (Nice touch! Eff off, Ben!) Against all odds, these crazy kids fall in love and make a go of it. But will Bear’s looming hibernation rip them apart, if society doesn’t break their spirits first?

My Boyfriend Is a Bear is weird and adorable and just straight-up delightful. I know I’m supposed to read it as an allegory about overcoming differences both large and small in relationships, but you know what? It’s also a cuddly AF romance story about a lady and a bear. Says the girl who claims as her soulmate a snaggle-toothed, marshmallow-bellied rat terrier (now nearly five years dead, and whom she thinks of on the daily) and once referred to her first-adopted dog as “her other boyfriend ™.” Dogs > people. Probably bears > people, too. All nonhuman animals > people, who are we kidding.

As much as My Boyfriend Is a Bear had me laughing – and it was like whoah – it also has its fair share of sad moments, especially as Bear’s hibernation approaches. That last act was filled with snot-flinging ugly crying. But the end? Pure magic.

This is one that’s earned a permanent place on my nightstand, right on top of Hyperbole and a Half and the Sarah’s Scribbles collections. Along with Nicole Georges’s Fetch, it’s a book I’ll turn to every now and then, when I need a good, hysterical cry.

Basically My Boyfriend Is a Bear is the best thing ever. Or at least since the proud tradition of bears wearing tees without pants.

(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: Firebug by Johnnie Christmas (2018)

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

Three stars for the amazing artwork.

three out of five stars

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

The artwork in Firebug is as lovely as the story is confusing.

Like, I’m not sure I have a good enough handle on the plot to offer even the briefest of summaries. There are so many warring factions that it’s hard to know who we’re supposed to root for most of the time.

At first, it seems clear-cut: the Cult of the Goddess is holding a Goddess captive and crushing the rebels who dare to challenge their (unjustly seized) religious authority. But wait, no: the High Priestess keeps the temperamental Goddess sedated so that her histrionics won’t trigger a volcanic eruption, killing us all.

And the forest spirits are bad, a gauntlet for our heroes to cross on the way to Azar. But no really, they’re the city’s protectors, from none other than Keegan, the new Goddess, and our story’s protagonist.

Throw in the Volcano Goddess’s sister, the Goddess of Water, and I am positively flummoxed. I really wanted to root for her, if only because her fish body is in the “so ugly it’s cute” territory.

Chalk this one up to good idea/poor execution. Three stars for the art, because it truly is stunning. I also loved the “Gospel According to Amina” vignettes, which evoked memories of Octavia Butler’s Parables duology.

(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: War Mother by Fred Van Lente, Stephen Segovia, & Tomás Giorello (2018)

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Works well as a standalone story.

three out of five stars

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

It’s the 41st century, and humanity – at least that which remains on earth – has evolved into something different: cyborgs, trogs, scavs, and urbanites. Deep within the unforgiving jungle, small enclaves of survivors exist, eking out a precarious living. The citizens of the Grove are among the luckiest. A former research facility, the Grove is a sentient settlement that’s largely self-sufficient. Controlled by the chieftain/consciousness Sylvan, the Grove manufactures most of what its citizens need: food, clothing, tech. Ana – the tribe’s War Mother – scavenges the rest.

In accordance with the Grove’s maxim – “Bring back nothing living” – Ana was bred to be barren, her body a hostile host to all potential biological invaders, from bacteria to fetuses. This rule served the Grove well – that is, until the day Ana returned with a young orphan boy she rescued from trogs. The resulting conflict ended in Sylvan’s death. Without its mind, the Grove began to wither and die.

When a millennia-old signal from a refuge called the Montana reaches the Grove, Ana sets out to see whether it’s habitable. With her AI gun Flaco at her side, the War Mother just might lead her people to safety – or ruin.

I didn’t realize it when I downloaded this title, but War Mother is an offshoot of another series, 4001 A.D. Luckily, it works well as a standalone story. Van Lente does a good job of laying out the plot for us noobs. It’s a compelling enough story, and the artwork complements the gritty, post-apocalyptic feel nicely. I love the scenes with Ana and Flaco, which is no surprise, because AI rights is an interest of mine.

On the downside, I thought the subplot with Ana and her husband Ignacio was a distraction at best, and a cliché at worst (women who can’t/don’t have children aren’t real women and so it’s only natural for their husbands to cheat on them. Add in the fact that she’s a badass warrior woman, i.e. not suitably feminine, and … vomit. I’m with Max, Ignacio is by no means a worthy “mate” for her.)

Also the descriptions of the future tech often sounded totally made up, like words that are supposed to sound all scientific and impressive but don’t really say much of anything. For all I know, though, they’re a callback to more detailed explanations in 4001 A.D. and I’m being a total idgit right now.

(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: 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!)