Book Review: Bird Brain: Comics About Mental Health, Starring Pigeons by Chuck Mullin (2019)

Tuesday, December 10th, 2019

OMG Sharon, can you not?

four out of five stars

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

Bird Brain is yet another collection of comics dealing with the unholy trifecta – anxiety, depression, and general social awkwardness – in a decade that seems to have seen an explosion of them. And I’m totally here for it! (Anxiety and depression, my companions since childhood. If only my dog friends could live as long as you!) A millennial Londoner, Chuck Mullin explores her seemingly never-ending battle with anxiety and depression with humor, self-awareness, and a shit ton of ice cream.

The comics in these here pages tackle a range of mental health issues, from the ups and downs of medication, to self-care, to finding moments of victory wherever you can.

Why pigeons? She loves them, even though most people don’t. They’re an unfairly maligned species, and I am down with embracing that vibe. Pigeons are survivors, yo!

The strips are divided into three categories – “Bad Times,” “Relationships,” and “Positivity” – with a personal essay introducing each. The essays are engaging and relatable AF (as much as I don’t want them to be, damn you to hell anxiety!), though I didn’t love them so much when they pop out at you from between random comics as well. Like, the artwork pretty much speaks for itself, no additional explanations necessary; and sticking more essays in between the comics really interrupts the flow. But I guess you don’t have to read them, or can skip theb and come back later. The pigeons won’t judge (unless your name is Sharon).

(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: Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker & Wendy Xu (2019)

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

A sweet, character-driven fantasy story.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for intended parallels to homophobic violence, child abuse, and homelessness in the LGBTQ community.)

A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.

Teenager Nova Huang has a pretty full life: an apprentice witch, she’s employed part-time at the family magic shop-slash-bookstore, Black Cat Books, and also does plenty of volunteer work in her New England community. Though her parents are literal ghosts, having died in a tragic accident when Nova was a child, her Nanas take good care of her (and, being a witch and all, she gets to visit with the ‘rents on special occasions). There’s also her bestie Tat; the two might not always see eye-to-eye – Tat’s a scientist-in-training who has precious little patience for the inexplicable nature of magic – but they make it work.

When Nova ventures into the woods surrounding their town – recently bedeviled by spooky green lights and a seemingly rabid wild horse – she’s unexpectedly reminded of what’s been missing. There she stumbles upon her childhood friend Tam Lang, battling the creature solo. Tam and their family just up and left one day, no warning or explanation. Turns out that Tam’s a werewolf, their step-father is in cahoots with a devil-worshiping cult, and Tam’s werewolf magic might be the end of us all.

That is, unless Nova, Tam, Tat, and the Nanas can harness the magic of family and sisterhood to thwart their plans. And maybe even save a demon in the process? (WHAAAAAT!)

Mooncakes is a super-sweet graphic novel that’s brimming with heart, humor, and some pretty awesome characters. Tam is nonbinary, in case it wasn’t already apparent, and Tam and Nova make an adorable couple.

The Nanas are great (though I couldn’t tell if both are Nova’s biological grandmothers, i.e., both maternal and paternal, or if they are a F/F couple), and so is Tat, especially the playful back-and-forth she has with her extended/adopted witch family.

The plot is serviceable, I guess, though not terribly suspenseful; if I had to, I’d describe Mooncakes as more of a character-driven story. The rest just feels like an excuse to bring Nova and Tam together, which is why I’m giving it three stars instead of four.

That said, I do quite love the little plot twist with the horse demon. Down with the kyriarchy!

I also really appreciate what the artists are trying to do vis-à-vis Tam’s homelessness; though it’s given a supernatural cause in this story, Tam’s plight does parallel and draw attention to the increased risk of homelessness faced by LGBTQ youths.

(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 Black Mage by Daniel Barnes & DJ Kirkland (2019)

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

Surprisingly fun for a comic book about racism and the KKK.

four out of five stars

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

When teenager Tom Token is accepted into the historically all-white boarding school St. Ivory Academy as part of its “Magical Minority Initiative,” he’s understandably skeptical. Sure, the facilities are state of the art, and the education can’t be beat, but at what cost? His melanin-challenged classmates assail him with aggressions both micro and – in the case of the Headmaster’s rich jock son Bryce – physical. Tom’s pet bird, Jim the crow, is even injured in the crossfire (though happily not beyond magical repair).

But race relations at St. Ivory are far worse than Tom could imagine (or maybe not: the Headmaster’s robe bears a suspicious resemblance to a KKK hood). When he receives an anonymous tip that he’s not the first black mage to walk St. Ivory’s halls, Tom embarks on a journey to find out what happened to his predecessors. With the help of the ghosts of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and do-gooder fellow classmate/student liaison Lindsay Whitehorn, can Tom get justice for the other black mages sacrificed to keep St. Ivory afloat – or will he, too, be fed to the racist machine?

The synopsis describes The Black Mage as “The School for Good and Evil meets Dread Nation,” but I got a ton of Harry Potter vibes. I half expected Barnes to swap the race of one of the more minor characters halfway through the narrative, a la Lavender Brown. It just feels right, given Barnes’s sense of humor (and I mean that in the most awesome way possible).

Some readers will undoubtedly describe the book’s racial politics as heavy-handed – and the references are pretty numerous and not terribly subtle – but I think it’s done in a clever and engaging way: rather cheeky with a “I said what I said” kind of energy. The comic is remarkably fun for a book about racial violence, which I suspect is the point: disarm your audience with charming artwork, plucky sidekicks, and a plethora of pop culture references so that they absorb the message before they can say “Riddikulus!”.

(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 Avant-Guards, Volume 1 by Carly Usdin & Noah Hayes (2019)

Friday, September 6th, 2019

*heart-eyes emoji*

five out of five stars

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

After losing her basketball scholarship at state, Charlie Bravo (yes, she’s heard that one before) is a new transfer at the Georgia O’Keeffe College of Arts and Subtle Dramatics (“where everything is open to interpretation!”). Even though she’s vowed to steer clear of team sports, her stubbornness is no match for Olivia, an adorably plucky overachiever who managed to build a women’s basketball league, herself, from scratch. The only thing standing in Liv’s way is Charlie, by which I mean that the Avant-Guards are short just one player, and Liv has decided that Charlie is that woman.

It doesn’t hurt that Charlie is H-O-T and Liv would like nothing more than to mash their faces together in a very non-platonic way.

Sports are not normally my thing, but I do love a) intrepid heroines; b) storylines that celebrate female friendship and elevate it over rivalry; c) worlds populated by diverse peoples, especially when some of them are queer women of color; d) f/f romances; and e) black girl magic. The Avant-Guards has all of the above, in spades, as well as hoop-shooting, curvaceous witches; an on-campus coven; a pretty sexy nonbinary character named Jay; and bucket of rainbow confetti.

This is the sweetest, most adorable and wholesome book I’ve read in quite some time, and I mean that in the best way possible. The Avant-Guards is literally brimming with heart emojis. And the art is just perfect, cute and so very complementary to the story and characters. (You might say it’s an, erm, slam dunk.) Every. Single. Panel. saw me ooh-ing, ahh-ing, and sqee-ing in delight. (And, save for the doggos, I am not the squee-ing type.)

And this was all before the impromptu dog adoption event at half-time in the inaugural game! If I wasn’t already I goner by then.

(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: Stay by Lewis Trondheim & Hubert Chevillard (2019)

Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

A story about grief and loss that’s curiously devoid of emotion.

two out of five stars

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

Fabienne and her fiancé Roland are on the first day of a week-long vacation abroad when he’s killed in a freak accident – decapitated (and rather cleanly, mind you) by an errant metal sign on a windy day. (I know.) In a haze of denial and trauma, Fabienne decides to continue on with the meticulously planned itinerary Roland made for them, rather than accompany his body back home. She blows off his brother Alan and misses the funeral. She goes to the beach, dines alone, and gazes apathetically at happy couples and celebrating families.

At some point this clearly not quite right tourist catches the eye of a local shop owner, the eccentric but mostly kind-hearted Paco. (I say mostly because he tosses a jar of his own pee on a loud-mouthed but obviously neglected dog, so there’s that.) He tries to cheer her up with homemade meals and picnics, but is almost painfully slow on the uptake: even though he collects scrapbooks of unusual deaths, it isn’t until he spots a text on her cell phone that he puts two and two together.

Fabienne blows Paco off, and then they make up. Eventually Fabienne seems to achieve some sort of inner peace or resolution; she finishes the vacation and heads home.

And…that’s it.

As a new-ish widow myself, my interest in this comic book is self evident. It also seemed like a delightfully weird story. Unfortunately, I just didn’t feel any sort of emotional connection to Fabienne. The story is flat, detached, dispassionate. There are no feels to be felt. Everything – or rather nothing – happens, and that’s that.

(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: Sparrowhawk (Sparrowhawk #1-5) by Delilah S. Dawson & Matias Basla (2019)

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

It’s an exaggerated shoulder shrug from me…

three out of five stars

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

Artemisia – “Art” for short – is the illegitimate daughter of a British Naval Captain and one of the indigenous women he colonized and enslaved. After her birth, Captain Grey kidnapped Artemisia and brought her back to his home in Victorian England, where she was begrudgingly “accepted” into the family. (As a servant, natch.) When Art’s half-sister Elizabeth is killed just before she’s to be wed to a Duke, thus snatching the Greys from the jaws of poverty, Mrs. Grey insists that Artemisia be auctioned off in Elizabeth’s place. It’s either agree to her stepmom’s demands, or see her younger sister Caroline given to a seventy-year-old Baronet. It’s kind of like Cinderella, except mom doesn’t give a shit about her biological daughters, either.

And then Artemisia’s problems go from bad to worse when she’s pulled into another realm by none other than the Faerie Queen herself. In turn, the Queen assumes Artemisia’s visage, with the intent of conquering earth. The only way that Art can get back to her world is by killing Faerie creatures to grow her own power and glamor. Can she slay the beast by becoming one herself? Does she even want to save earth, when her one good memory of it has been stripped away?

The “teen Victorian fairy fight club” descriptor is what really piqued my interest, but the actual story falls way short of this. Some of the finer plot points, like Warren’s relationship to Art, the significance of the flower, and just which memory Crispin traded Art for, are hecka confusing. I’m still not 100% sure I know what was going on there. The action only half kept my interest, at best. While there are quite a few fight scenes, the match-ups are uneven and so the battles are over before they even begin. (Fight Club? More like Rambo.)

Honestly, the only redeeming things are a) the artwork, which is moody and gorgeous and b) the ending, which is just deliciously perfect in a Twilight Zone kind of way.

(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: No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant (2019)

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

Starts slowly, builds into something real, and then ends abruptly and with no resolution.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and racism.)

Raised in Portland, Oregon, cartoonist Hazel Newlevant was homeschooled by their* parents (for hippie reasons, not religious ones), resulting in a somewhat sheltered childhood. When they were seventeen, they got a summer job removing English ivy and other invasive plants from the local parks and forests. The youth “No Ivy League” project immersed Newlevant in the high school experience they’d been missing (or slimmed down, summer vaca version of it, anyway). This is Newlevant’s memoir, in graphic novel format, of these formative months.

As Newlevant works alongside at-risk youths, most of them black and brown, Newlevant becomes increasingly aware of their own privilege – and, by extension, that of all the home-schooling families that make up their social circle. (The scene where Newlevant asks a friend if he knows any black home schoolers is a light bulb moment.) After a co-worker’s inappropriate comments to Newlevant result in his dismissal – never mind a similar incident, directed at a black girl, which went unpunished – Newlevant begins the long and never ending process of unpacking their own privilege.

No Ivy League carries the promise of a powerful narrative of allyship, but it never quite reaches its potential. Perhaps this is because I read an early ARC, which I suspect wasn’t 100% finished. When some of the panels started lapsing into rough sketches instead of polished illustrations, I initially thought it intentional, as if to convey mental distress. Yet the last few pages are obviously not done, and the story ends rather abruptly, without any real resolution.

Newlevant’s parents’ admission that their decision to homeschool was a direct response to integration isn’t really followed up on; like, was there ever a confrontation or discussion about it? Likewise, the parallel video contest and #HomeschoolingSoWhite plot lines seemed certain to converge – like, maybe Newlevant uses the win of the former to help educate, protest, or raise awareness of the latter – but nope. Everything just kind of…trails off.

On the plus side: there’s some vegan rep, so yay for that!

* Newlevant’s preferred pronouns are they/them.

(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: Irena, Book One: Wartime Ghetto by Jean-David Morvan, Séverine Tréfouël, & David Evrard (2019)

Friday, August 9th, 2019

A book we need now more than ever.

four out of five stars

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

Irena Sendlerowa (maiden name Krzyżanowska) was born on February 10, 1910 in Warsaw, Poland. Shew grew up in nearby Otwock, which was home to a large Jewish community. Her father Stanisław was a physician who treated everyone, regardless of their ethnicity or ability to pay. He contracted typhus in the line of duty, and died when Irena was just seven. Despite being raised by a single mother, Irena attended college, studying law and literature at the University of Warsaw. She was a socialist who was outspoken in support of her Jewish classmates. Identified as a leftist, she was denied employment in the Warsaw school system.

Instead, Irena was working for the Social Welfare Department when Germany invaded Poland. Here she was uniquely positioned to provide help to Poland’s most marginalized citizens. Irena’s department was allowed access to the Warsaw Ghetto, ostensibly to conduct sanitary inspections and help prevent the outbreak and spread of epidemics. Here she leveraged her position to make life a little more bearable for the ghetto’s 4,000 Jewish residents, by smuggling in food, clothing, and medicine – with the help of a large and ever-expanding group of family, friends, and colleagues, of course.

Irena also began smuggling out people, including dozens of children and babies, which she placed in a network of foster homes, orphanages, and religious sanctuaries. She diligently recorded the given name, fake name, and new address of each child, so that they could be reunited with their families after the war was over. In order to avoid incriminating herself in the event of a search – and making it easier for the Gestapo to find the missing children – Irena placed the names in jars, which she buried. Sadly, while her records survived the war, most of their would-be recipients did not. A majority of the children Irena and her network rescued – up to 2,500, by some estimates – were orphaned.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of Irena’s story is that she was captured, interrogated, and sentenced to death in 1943. Despite repeated torture, she did not name her co-conspirators or the people they rescued. She escaped when the Żegota, a Polish resistance organization with which she’d been working, bribed a German guard. Instead of giving up or fleeing the country, Irena resumed her subversive activities, albeit under an assumed name and new occupation: Klara Dąbrowska, nurse. Irena died of natural causes in 2008; she was 98 years old.

Irena, Book One: Wartime Ghetto covers the events through Irena’s capture by and escape from the Gestapo. To describe it as “powerful” is a gross understatement. It’s a force, though not quite like Irena. I imagine very few things could come that close. (Later in life, Irena rarely gave interviews, and vehemently insisted that she hated the word “hero” and did not consider herself one. If she wasn’t, then they simply don’t exist.)

While rooted firmly in fact, the narrative does contain some fictional and downright fantastical elements. For example, Morvan identifies the murder of a young boy by a sadistic SS officer as the impetus for Irena’s human smuggling; yet Wiki says that she began her operations when some friends were trapped on the Jewish side of the wall.

Still, some of the more surreal embellishments, like the ghosts (of Nethanial and the other murdered Jews, as well as Irena’s father, always guiding her towards what’s right) and Nethanial’s loyal and prescient dog, are inspired and will bring you to tears.

Irena’s Children just moved higher on my TBR list; and, imho, a desire to learn more is usually a pretty good indicator of a comic book or tv show’s success.

The artwork has a Dickensian quality to it. It wasn’t my favorite at first, but it grew on me. It suits the mood and content of the story perfectly.

As I write this review, supporters of Drumpf’s border policy – which includes ramped up ICE raids across the country this weekend – are splitting hairs over terminology, questioning whether the “dog pounds” along the border qualify as “concentration camps.” I am reminded of that older woman who showed up to a rally for women’s rights bearing a sign that proclaims “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.” I wonder what Irena would do if she lived in Texas or New York or Minnesota in June of 2019.

(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 Escape Manual for Introverts by Katie Vaz (2019)

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

When in doubt, blame your doggo.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

I for one welcome our adorable purple successors.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

The apocalypse has never been so snuggable.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

Not much by way of new content…

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: A Book For Sad Pets by Kristin Tipping (2019)

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

Hey.

Tell me I’m pretty.

Tell me I’m smart.

Tell me I am of value to someone.

Please, tell me I’ll be alright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Minus by Lisa Naffziger (2019)

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

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

one out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

A Portrait of an Ambivalent Freedom Fighter

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

A raw and unflinching memoir with moments of humor.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

A powerful look at Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

I want to go where the vegan lesbians are.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Underfoot, Volume 1: The Mighty Deep by Ben Fisher, Emily S. Whitten, & Michelle Nguyen (2019)

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019

Two words: hamster mercenaries.

three out of five stars

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

The Underfoot is set in the (not-so-?) distant future, in which humans – known to the surviving land mammals as the Giants-That-Were – have been wiped out: either by mass floods, or by earthquakes, or perhaps even by avalanches, depending on who you ask. In our wake, we left behind the results of our scientific cruelty (or generosity, again relative to the teller of the tale): a variety of nonhuman animal species, imbued with superior (again, perspective!) intelligence, capable of using tools and communicating with advanced verbal language. They’re like us, but tiny and furrier!

They’re also like us, for better or worse: they engage in spying, sabotage, and warfare. Which brings us to the “underfoot” (“underfeet”?), i.e., hamsters. The hamster community at the heart of this story lives in a fungus-powered bubble under the water. Believing that the great floods will some day return, they train their pups to swim, (dis)assemble dams, and keep the underwater colony running. They also maintain an elite para-military group called the Hamster Aquatic Mercenaries (H.A.M.), which performs ops for other animal colonies in exchange for IOUs, unspecified favors to be cashed in at a later date.

When we first meet them, the HAMs have just been hired to destroy a damn for … a bunch of skunks? I wasn’t clear on that. Anyway, the structure is threatening to flood their home. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for the HAMs, but their expert traps-hamster recently passed away. It’s time to graduate a young pup early – but are any of them up to the job?

The story is kind of cute, I guess – I mean, who doesn’t love a furry round hamster butt? – though I think it’s probably best suited for younger readers. The animal experimentation angle piqued my interest, but isn’t really explored in depth. Certainly not any intellectual depth, such as the ethics of vivisection. The hamsters idolize humans, even though we left them to rot in cages, so…yeah.

I mean, does Gunther the lobster have any idea what we used to do to his people? And here he is, collecting and guarding our junk in eager anticipation of our return? Yuck.

The ending does hint at more to come, but the story didn’t hold my interest enough to continue.

Beyond this, I just didn’t find the plot (or many subplots) all that compelling. It can be difficult to keep all the hamsters straight (though the artists do an admirable job, for example, through accessorizing and mixing the species up), and many of the action panels are confusing as heck. idk, it just wasn’t what I was gunning for.

Ruby and Mac are adorable though, and I love how the hamsters rescued the cats from the research facility. Interspecies cooperation ftw!

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

Book Review: Safely Endangered Comics by Chris McCoy (2019)

Friday, April 19th, 2019

Poor Pluto

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

If enjoy the work of Reza Farazmand, Alex Norris, Jake Thompson, or Jomny Sun, this one’s a sure thing. Fans of Sarah Andersen and Allie Brosh will probably love it too.

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