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!)

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

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

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

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

Engaging premise and setting, but a deeply unsatisfying ending.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 11th, 2018

Needs more illustrations!

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Ghost, The Owl by Franco and Sara Richard (2018)

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Buy it for the artwork.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 4th, 2018

Lovely and heartfelt.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

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

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

No not all men, obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 27th, 2018

Wonderful idea, so-so execution.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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