Book Review: Aquicorn Cove by Katie O’Neill (2018)

Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

Oh, the mixed feelings!

three out of five stars

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

After her mother perished in a tragic boating accident, Lana’s father moved them out of the idyllic seaside town they called home and into the city. Now they’re back, if only for a few days, to help the community recover from an especially devastating storm. Yet when she rescues a sick young aquicorn (think: a cross between a seahorse and a unicorn) from a tide pool and nurses her back to health, Lana’s mission ripples outward until it becomes monumental in scope. Not only must she confront the unacknowledged grief and depression that assailed her after the loss of her mother – indeed, everything she’d ever known – she must also save the aquicorn’s home, under assault from climate change, pollution, and overfishing.

So there are lots of things I loved about Aquicorn Cove: The artwork is super-adorable, the aquicorns especially (and unsurprisingly). I appreciate the breadth of diversity when it comes to Aquicorn Cove’s citizens: not only do we see a variety of skin tones, but there’s a refreshing range of body types too, from tiny little old ladies (who are still getting it done, okay), to aunt Mae, who is big and beefy and has the kind of biceps I’d kill for. There’s even an implied same-sex romance between Mae and Aure, the queen (keeper? guardian?) of Aquicorn Cove. I ship it.

While I liked the environmentally friendly vibe, as well as the message that not a single one of us is too small to make a difference, the story lost me in its treatment of its smallest creatures: the fishes. There’s a clear divide between the aquicorns (flashy, majestic, kind, unique) and the fishes (food, natural resource), even though both are someones, not somethings. Whereas I doubt Lana would even dream of killing and eating an aquicorn, somehow it’s just fine to do this to someone who’s “just” a salmon (or whatever). In a word, it’s speciesist.

Granted, Lana’s people are perhaps indigenous to the island, and that’s a conversation worth having. That said, I don’t think it’s helpful to feed kids self-serving pap about how food animals “sacrifice” themselves for you. Most animals, when faced with death, fight to survive – just like human animals. So please just don’t try to romanticize their deaths, or make them appear complicit. They do not exist for your pleasure or convenience.

In summary, Aquicorn Cove is a pretty adorable book, though vegan parents might be better off skipping it entirely. There’s just too much to unpack.

(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 Many Deaths of Scott Koblish by Scott Koblish (2018)

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

Not for the chronically anxious.

two out of five stars

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

— 2.5 stars —

The Many Deaths of Scott Koblish is exactly what it sounds like: the author’s weird and varied imaginings of how he might meet his end. The scenarios range from the mundane-yet-tragic (being buried in an avalanche; dying in a festive house fire) to the more bizarre and outlandish (being kidnapped by aliens only to die in a fiery wreck when the US government shoots your flying saucer down; being murdered in the night by your daughter’s adorable stuffed teddy bear). My personal favorites are those that involve nonhuman animals getting revenge (such as the kangaroo boxer who stomps his human opponent to death. down with animal fighting!). There are no fewer than five instances of cats sending an unsuspecting Scott Koblish plummeting out a window to his death.

It’s a cute enough idea, if not terribly memorable. Well, unless you’re scared of clowns, alligators, or dying in unclean undies. Then some of these panels just might keep you awake at night. No death by sheer embarrassment, though, so I’m safe! :)

(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: Watersnakes by Antonio Sandoval (2018)

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

A swing and a near-miss.

three out of five stars

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

Mila is swimming in the forest when she meets a mysterious girl named Agnes. By way of introduction, the mischievous Agnes shouts “water snake!,” causing Mila to jump from the water in fright. For her part, Mila is inexplicably drawn to Agnes’s teeth. If this all sounds weird, welcome to the world of Watersnakes.

Turns out Agnes has been dead for eleven years. Within her resides a black octopus/the former king of the sea. Her teeth are his warriors, determined to restore their ruler to his throne. I’d be worried that I’m dropping spoilers right and left here, if the book’s synopsis hadn’t already spilled the beans.

I wanted to fall in love with Watersnakes – I mean, just look at that friggin’ cover! – but alas, it is a swing and a miss.

Pros: The artwork. MY GODS, the artwork. It’s apologetically weird and occasionally surreal and grotesque, but always in the most beautiful way. It also contains one of my favorite horror tropes – SHE’S BEEN DEAD FOR YEARS!!! – and the LGBTQ elements immediately captured my interest, but…

Cons: The plot is terribly, frustratingly underdeveloped at best, and downright confusing at times. Worse: the FF romance is undermined by a kinda-sorta case of mistaken identity (no want!). Worst: When “picnic hunting” – i.e., dressing in papier-mâché animal masks and robbing an unsuspecting family of their picnic snacks – Mila pinches the ass of (read: sexually assaults) a fellow teen girl. I shit you not, I did about a dozen double takes, damn near certain I had misread the panel. (I didn’t.) Gross.

(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 Chill: A Year of Living Anxiously by Adam Ellis (2018)

Friday, November 16th, 2018

Shout out to the socially anxious and chronically depressed.

four out of five stars

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

Super Chill: A Year of Living Anxiously is a collection of autobiographical comics by Adam Ellis who – like me – struggles with anxiety, depression, and (I assume) IBS. (Spoiler alert: there is digestive upset of some nature.) Reading it is like looking in a mirror, for better or worse – except, mercifully, I do not suffer from dick cling.

Not all of the comics deal with mental health issues; there’s also a mix of the weirdly specific (Ellis’s brief obsession with healing crystals) and the wildly absurd (memory foam pillows that make you relive your worst moments each night). But my favorites, unsurprisingly, involve SAD and social anxiety.

Oh, and there be cats.

(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: Slothilda: Living the Sloth Life by Dante Fabiero (2018)

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

Celebrating the inner sloth in all of us!

four out of five stars

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

Slothilda is an everywoman: She’s addicted to her phone, laptop, and the internet. She naps hard and snacks harder. She loves carbs and is an A+ procrastinator. Her beautifully curvaceous behind is a mirror image of that of her dog, Peanut. (A corgi, natch!) And, oh yeah: Slothilda is a sloth. (fwiw I think she more closely resembles a hamster, but it’s all good.)

With sections on fitness, food, work, money, home, lifestyle, and fur baby, Dante Fabiero pays homage to his inner sloth, and celebrates the sloth that lives in all of us. (I have to assume, if only for my own self-esteem.) Slothilda is a heroine that’s both super-adorable and relatable AF.

I mean, I wasn’t exactly shocked to discover how closely my diet and work habits parallel those of a sloth, but some of the strips are weirdly specific. (Hours spent hunting for a valid online coupon code to save a measly coupla bucks, hello!)

My only complaint is this: In the ARC, the captions appear as text separate from the illustrations, giving the comics an odd and disjointed feeling. I’m sure this will be corrected in the final version.

Oh, and Peanut should totes be renamed Cheddar. That is the only acceptable name for a corgi.

(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: Emotions Explained with Buff Dudes: Owlturd Comix by Andrew Tsyaston (2018)

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

If you loved Sarah’s Scribbles

four out of five stars

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

I hate to compare this to Sarah’s Scribbles, mostly because I compare everything to Sarah’s Scribbles. (What can I say? It’s my benchmark for socially awkward, relatable AF irreverent humor!) But Andrew Tsyaston feels like Sarah Andersen’s equally weird and self-conscious west coast guy cousin. Same unfortunate wavelength (thanks God’s broken salt shaker!), different genders. But in color!

So as you can probably gather, Tsyaston tackles a number of mental health issues through his cartoons (most prominently social anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem) as well as topics especially though not exclusively relevant to millennials (technology, student debt, the death of facts). The titular BUFF DUDES are a) totes nude but b) actually the antagonists of Tsyaston’s stories; see, e.g. Life. The result is both hilarious and crushing, and will leave you feeling marginally better about this effed up plane of existence we call the human experience. Shen might be a white dude (I mean, I think?), but you’ll see bits of yourself reflected back in the funhouse mirror that is his soul.

In summary, Owlturd Comix is great, and I look forward to devouring many more of them. And now I shall leave you with just a few of my favorites.

(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: Lil’ Donnie Volume 1: Executive Privilege by Mike Norton (2018)

Friday, October 19th, 2018

449 Days in The Bad Place

four out of five stars

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

I will say about Lil’ Donnie Volume 1: Executive Privilege what I say of all humorous/satirical books about 45: it’d be funny if it wasn’t so damned depressing. A collection of the first 125 strips of Mike Norton’s webcomic of the same name, Volume 1 spans the time of Drumpf’s inauguration through April 13, 2018.

Norton’s art is spot-on; somehow he manages to make a revolving door of white men all immediately recognizable and distinct (something not always easily accomplished in comics). My favorites are Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, depicted here as a cursed apple-doll puppet. John Bolton’s ‘stache merging with Drumpf’s comb-over in nuclear ecstasy is a solid runner-up.

Norton’s wit is similarly biting, although I must admit that some of the earliest strips had me scratching my head and consulting ye ole google. With catastrophes breaking on the daily, it’s hard to remember what fresh hell transpired last month, let alone last year.

I look forward to reading the inevitable Toad-inspired strip.

(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: Zenobia by Morten Dürr & Lars Horneman (2018)

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

A powerful piece of activism.

four out of five stars

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

One day, young Amina’s parents leave her home alone, ostensibly while they travel to the market. This is kind of a Big Deal because they haven’t had much to eat lately. But when they fail to return, Amina must summon the courage of Zenobia – a warrior woman and queen of the Palmyrene Empire, who once ruled over Syria and is now widely considered a national hero – to help her traverse her war-torn homeland and make it to safety.

Zenobia provides a window into the Syrian war and resulting refugee crisis through the eyes of a child. The result is deeply personal and moving. The narration is sparse and the illustrations, simple, sometimes rendered in just two tones of a single color. This allows Amina’s experiences take center stage.

The ending is rather jarring and deeply unsatisfying. I’ve been trying hard to shake the hollow feeling settling deep in my bones since finishing the book several hours ago. But perhaps that’s the point: there is no happy ending, at least not yet. And though I consider Zenobia a powerful piece of activism, it’s hard to imagine that it will soften hearts and change minds in this deeply divided and hateful political landscape.

(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 Book of Onions: Comics to Make You Cry Laughing and Cry Crying by Jake Thompson (2018)

Friday, October 12th, 2018

Embrace It, Jack

four out of five stars

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

This is not a cookbook, although a book of onion-based delicacies does sound amazing. Rather, The Book of Onions is a collection of strips from the webcomic Jake Likes Onions by by Jake Thompson. Drawn in black and white with a four-panel convention, Thompson’s comics often veer toward the absurd and bizarre, with a wickedly dark sense of humor. They’re a little reminiscent of The Far Side, but more obscene (mostly in a good way). The never did get me crying quite like a fat, juicy onion, but they were good for a chuckle or two, and some of the especially bleak ones just may haunt my nightmares. (Jack, I’m looking at you.)

If you don’t follow Jake on twitter, what are you waiting for?

(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: Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels (2018)

Monday, October 8th, 2018

Welcome to the anti-Clone Club.

five out of five stars

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

Despite being an interracial couple who married in the ’70s, Molly and Hank Nonnar have built a pretty charmed life together. Dr. Manuela Nonnar is a scientist (geneticist?) at the top of her field, while Hank continues the legacy left him by his father, a franchise based on a popular black superhero named Slane. Though they have no children of their own, the couple acts as surrogate parents to their niece Del, who likes play researcher in Molly’s backyard. (Yay girls in STEM!) Then a fateful meeting between Hank and Dr. Victoria Teel upends their world and calls everything they thought they knew into question.

For their 40th anniversary,* the couple decides to make a substantial investment in a company called Via; in exchange, they’ll be the first to undergo Via’s experimental “genetic purification” procedure. It promises to make them stronger, smarter, faster, healthier, and more long-lived than any human before them. And it does, in a way.

Molly and Hank wake up seven months later in bodies that have seemingly aged ten years. Instead of being changed, they have been cloned. And their clones are half-formed “monsters”: aborted (er, “canceled”) during the 10th week of development, Manuela and Henry (as their counterparts are christened) resemble baked potatoes with cured ham for limbs (in technical terms). But they are “better” than the source material in every other way, blessed with superhuman strength and intellectual prowess that surpasses that of their creators.

Yet there’s only room in the world for one Molly and Hank. Will it be the “source material” that Dr. Kallose intended to destroy upon the successful completion of the project, or the “monsters” that are a sentient success, yet are too aesthetically displeasing to ever present in public?

Upgrade Soul might just be one of the most bizarre, horrifying, and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, graphic novel or otherwise. It raises a myriad of deliciously thorny questions: What makes you you? Is a person more than the sum of their parts? How much are we shaped by our environments? Our bodies? What is normality, and who gets to define it?

Plus it delights in a wicked sense of humor while doing so, particularly in the forms of Molly and Hank 2.0.

The plot’s pretty compelling, and the artwork, appropriately crude and weird – but in an oddly moving way. There were a few holes, though; for example, it was never entirely clear to me what Molly and Hank expected of the procedure (e.g., did they know that their “original” bodies were destined for the incinerator?). Also: an already creepy story gets even freakier with the additional of an incest subplot, which is kind of left dangling, much to this reader’s dismay. (You can’t just drop a bomb like that and walk away, mkay.) And just why did Manuela do what she did?

Still, Upgrade Soul is one of the better graphic novels I’ve read in recent memory: a legit page-turner that both entertains and challenges. If you dig sci-fi, you owe to yourself to add it to your TBR list.

* It’s right there on page 47 of my ARC, no matter what the synopsis says.

(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: Bald Knobber by Robert Sergel (2018)

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

Not so much about the Bald Knobbers as a struggling middle-schooler.

two out of five stars

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

Named for the bald knob summit on which the group formed, the Bald Knobbers was a vigilante group that operated in the Ozarks in the wake of the Civil War. Being a border state, Missouri “was hard hit by neighbor against neighbor bushwhacker fighting.” (h/t to wikipedia for this paragraph.) After the war’s end, the violence continued, with law enforcement either powerless to – or disinterested in – stopping it. The Bald Knobbers – largely Republicans who sided with the Union Army – ostensibly formed to bring marauding gangs to justice. This led to the birth of opposition groups, the rather uncreatively named anti-Bald Knobbers. The original Taney County chapter was ultimately forced to disband when the Missouri Governor became involved due to escalating violence.

Sergel uses this chapter in history – presented in the form of a book report given by our middle-school protagonist Cole – as a backdrop for Cole’s own personal problems. His divorced parents loathe one another, and have no qualms about fighting – and fighting dirty – in front of their only child. Cole is the target of a local bully named Sam and, when he fights back, he finds that the relief is only temporary. Everything comes to a head in a shocking twist that could either be an act of unspeakable cruelty … or a tragic accident.

Honestly, I was hoping to learn more about the Bald Knobbers than we actually do. The parallels that Cole finds between their lives and his feel superficial and a bit contrived – especially since the book mostly ignores the group’s enforcement of religious mores, of which there is nothing heroic. (There is a mention of whipping “drunkards and loose women,” a term the teacher scolds Cole for using, but that’s about it.) Curiously, there’s also no mention of slavery, Reconstruction, or the Bald Knobbers’ political alliances. I am not fond of Civil War discussions that don’t include the words “slavery” the bare minimum of once.

Cole also comes to the conclusion that violence is never the solution; rather, violence always begets more violence. This, um, in a book at least tangentially about the Civil War. Tell me, were we going to work that one out with politely worded missives and caramel-loaded candy-grams?

Otherwise, the art is nice to look at; the black and white color scheme feels clean and simple, and helps to underscore the book’s tone. I just wish the story had shown more depth and nuance.

(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: Open Earth by Sarah Mirk, Eva Cabrera, & Claudia Aguirre (2018)

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

The future is queer AF!

four out of five stars

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

Out of the ruins of old Earth blossoms a new culture that’s open, sexually liberated, and queer AF!

Twenty-year-old Rigo is an alien, of sorts: a human being born in space. Of Earth, but not from Earth. Rigo and her peers are generation of pioneers: space, political, social, sexual. The California‘s motto – “Serve the Greater Good” – is applicable to all areas of life on the ship, including the bunks. Among the tweens, teens, and young adults, monogamy is seen as taboo: it encourages social isolation and jealousy and works against peak genetic variation. “Friends with benefits” kinda sorta goes without saying; same-sex couplings aren’t just tolerated, but accepted without question; and polyamory is the norm. Even the ‘rents are a little kinky!

So when Rigo begins feeling a little too drawn to Carver, her queer and geeky lab mate, she’s reluctant to give voice to these feelings for fear of being ostracized. Not to mention, coming as out conventional and old school, like her scientist parents. What’s a curvy, pansexual, polyamorous refugee girl to do?

Open Earth probably isn’t for everyone. There’s not much of a plot, save for Rigo’s attempt to navigate her love life while keeping her self-identity intact. While technically a science fiction comic, the story could take place anywhere. Or maybe not: perhaps it will take nothing less than hundreds of years and millions of miles from our current state of being to embrace such a radical and liberated (dare I say socialist?) ethos.

Anyway, I enjoyed the characters and the society and the general world-building. There’s wonderful representation here, and I’m not just talking gender identity and sexual orientation. I’d love to see additional stories set in this ‘verse, perhaps featuring characters we’ve already met (Rigo’s parents being first on the list!), or those from California’s past or future.

(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: Flocks by L. Nichols (2018)

Friday, September 14th, 2018

A touching and whimsically-illustrated memoir about growing up trans and Southern Baptist.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for homophobia, depression, self-harm, and eating disorders.)

L. Nichols was born in Louisiana (some time in the mid-to-late-1970s, if the rad TMNT reference is any indication!) and assigned female (“Laura”) at birth. Raised in a conservative Southern Baptist community, L. always felt different; an outcast, a freak, a sinner.

Throughout his childhood and teen years, L. tried to suppress his attraction to girls – and was further confounded by the occasional crushes he developed on boys. While he enjoyed some parts of the church experience – the emphasis on faith, the sense of fellowship, and the feeling that there are things bigger than oneself – his church’s virulent homophobia and adherence to rigid gender roles alienated L. and led to isolation, depression, and self-harm.

But whereas L.’s community failed him on one front, it succeeded on another: despite his being labeled “female,” L.’s family and teachers encouraged him to pursue his love of science and technology, culminating in a Master’s degree from the MIT Media Lab. It was during his college years that L. pinpointed the reason for the animosity he felt toward his body, and decided to transition.

Flocks is L.’s memoir, told in graphic novel format. The vehicle through which L. chooses to tell his story perfectly encapsulates the many contradictions in his life: while STEM majors aren’t typically considered artsy or creative, L. is indeed a talented artist. His sad little rag doll depiction of himself is at once whimsical and rather heartbreaking (doubly so when we witness stuffing fall out of self-inflicted cuts on his legs). Given all he’s been through, L.’s upbeat, optimistic attitude is downright uplifting. (And I typically consider myself an Oscar the Grouch type, so that’s quite a compliment coming from my neck of the dump.)

While the main thrust of the story is L.’s burgeoning sexuality and exploration of his gender identity, he tackles a number of other serious topics as well: his parents’ acrimonious divorce; the pressure of choosing a major and settling on a career path, post-graduation; polyamory; eating disorders; self-harm; depression; binge drinking; an appreciation of nature and the natural world; and the impact of community and in-group/out-group identity on one’s sense of self.

It’s an engaging, beautiful story, in both form and content. There’s a little bit of repetition of themes and ideas early on (and not between chapters, i.e. to string them together, but within the same chapters), which does detract from the story. Even so, it’s a must-read, and not just because it’s more or less a one of a kind story, at least at this point in time. (Dear publishers, please give us more of this! Kay thanks bye.)

(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: Sheets by Brenna Thummler (2018)

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

A ghost story set in a laundromat. Cheeky!

three out of five stars

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

Ever since the death of her mother in a tragic swimming accident, highschooler Marjorie Glatt has been floating through life, much like a ghost: wispy, invisible, barely clinging to this plane of existence. With Mr. Glatt suffering from clinical depression, Marj is left to look after her younger brother Owen, and run the family laundromat after school, pretty much solo. As if that isn’t bad enough, the neighborhood baddie Nigel Saubertuck is gunning for the Glatt family property, so he can turn it into a five-start resort and yoga spa.

A ghost infestation – by a sweet if bumbling middle schooler named Wendell – brings things to a head. When Wendell’s antics threaten to cost Marjorie her home and livelihood, can he bring the denizens of his ghost town together to help a mortal damsel in distress?

Sheets is … kind of weird and expected, especially since I couldn’t always guess where the plot was headed. This was refreshing; less so was the artwork’s sometimes confusing nature. If I couldn’t anticipate the plot, I had even more trouble figuring out what transpired in certain panels. Even so, I mostly enjoyed the overall style of the art; the buildings, ghosts, and towns are quite charming. The people, on the other hand, kind of icked me out. There’s just something a little off about the faces.

Sheets is an unusual little story that’s great for fans of Houdini; people who like ghost stories of the friendly variety; and perhaps kids who are grieving the loss of a parent. Also misfits and outsiders of all stripes. (But save it for October, if you can: this is definitely a Halloween read!)

(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: 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!)