Book Review: Space Boy, Volume 6 by Stephen McCranie (2020)

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

The one where we finally discover Oliver’s flavor!

three out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

A long-running weekly comic on WEBTOON, Stephen McCranie’s Space Boy is teased as “A sci-fi drama of a high school aged girl who belongs in a different time, a boy possessed by emptiness as deep as space, an alien artifact, mysterious murder, and a love that crosses light years.”

The MC is Amy, a sixteen-year-old girl who’s pretty normal except for the fact that she’s an unwitting time traveler. Born on a mining colony, her family was forced to return to earth when her father lost his job. Since it’s a thirty-year journey, Amy and the ‘rents were cryogenically frozen for the trip: hence the “girl out of time.”

The family settles in Kokomo City, where Amy enrolls in South Pines Academy. Though she misses her BFF Jemmah (now old enough to be Amy’s mom; could this be the “love that crosses light years”?), she soon finds her own new social circles: football star David, his girlfriend Cassie, and their friends Zeph, Meisha, Maki, Logan, and Howard; and the school’s agriculture club, which includes fellow crossover Meisha, and Tamara and Shafer.

And then there is Oliver, the mysterious, silver-haired boy who does not seem to have a flavor. (Amy has synesthesia and “tastes” peoples’ personalities.) Though her friends think he’s trouble with a capital T, Amy gravitates to Oliver, and vice versa. But for reasons not yet revealed, Oliver’s very existence is classified – and their continued friendship endangers Amy’s life. Enter: the alien artifact and mysterious murder.

Volume 6 collects episodes 76 through 92 of the WEBTOON comic, originally published between 8/24/16 and 12/15/16 (yes, the trade paperbacks are very far behind! Do yourself a favor and create a WEBTOON account so you can stay up to date.)

One thing I don’t love about the trade paperbacks is that the plot seems to progress at a snail’s pace, and Volume 6 is no exception; 256 pages and we’re still not done with Spirit Week! Still, this is an enjoyable and bittersweet collection.

Volume 6 sees Oliver continue to distance himself from Amy, while fissures deepen among some of Amy’s friends. Amy gets to experience her first snowfall – and snow day! – for which mom thankfully yet temporarily lifts her grounding (that’s a whole ‘nother story). Amy finally discovers Oliver’s flavor (orange with hints of cinnamon, brimming with passion and vibrancy and life – the complete opposite of Nothing) – revealed, oddly enough, as he’s beating the piss out of a bully. Before she can even begin to process, Oliver and his foster dad Dr. Kim vanish, just as mysteriously as they arrived.

The agriculture club’s baby chicks make a quick cameo, as part of Tamara’s efforts to lift the spirits of a mopey Amy. My feelings about the ag club are something of a roller coaster: initially I was overjoyed that Amy made the connection between the soft, floofy, sentient creatures she was loving on and the chicken salad sammie on her plate, and vowed to go vegetarian. This quickly crumbled when she got an accidental mouthful of bacon on Oliver’s sandwich and decreed that it was fine, so long as the agriculture club doesn’t start raising baby piggies. Speciesist much?

And the very existence of animal agriculture so far in the future feels like a disappointing lack of imagination of the artist’s part. When I first started reading Space Boy, I thought it had to be at least 30 years in the future, to allow for Amy’s travel. Probably more like 100+ given all the new tech. But when Amy starts researching the Arno and its mission to reach the alien artifact, we learn that the year is actually 3355: The Arno launched in 3051, and was supposed to reach the artifact in 300 years – which, for Amy, was 4 years ago. 3051 + 300 + 4 = 3355.

So you’re telling me that it’s more than a thousand years in the future and we don’t have synthetic or lab-grown meat yet? That we’re still breeding and raising sentient creatures to be slaughtered for food? That our morals have evolved so little? Gross, dude. If this is the future, I hope humanity burns itself out well before 3355.

But yeah, baby chicks are hella cute.

(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 Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp & Manuel Preitano (2020)

Thursday, March 19th, 2020

A thoughtful and engaging origin story for Barbara Gordon/Oracle.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for medical abuse. Caution: this review contains vague spoilers.)

Teenager Barbara Gordon – daughter of police commissioner James Gordon and hacker extraordinaire – is running toward the scene of a crime when she’s shot and paralyzed from the waist down. Six weeks into her recovery, Commissioner Gordon sends his daughter to the Arkham Center for Independence, where she’ll undergo physical and mental rehabilitation. Ghosted by her longtime friend Benjamin, Barbara is reluctant to get too close to anyone – everyone leaves you in the end, after all. Luckily, fellow classmates Yeong, Issy, and Jena refuse to let Barbara be, and an unexpected mystery further helps draw Barbara out of her shell.

The ACI is as creepy as it is opulent; at night, the halls echo with cryptic sounds and the shadows of residents who have long since disappeared. Jena, teller of ghost stories whispered in the wee hours of the night, begs Barbara for help finding her missing twin brother. Dr. Maxwell insists that Michael died in the fire that severely injured his sister, and that Jena’s mind is too fragile to accept the truth. Though she’s reluctant to get sucked into another mystery, Jenna’s sudden disappearance tips her hand. Friends are precious, and she’s not about to let another one slip through her fingers. Before you can say “Birds of Prey,” Barbara is brain-deep in a corporate conspiracy that involves child trafficking and human experimentation.

I’m really digging this new DC YA series; if anything, it provides a handy entry point into the DC ‘verse for newbies like myself. (I love comics, but the decades-long history of so many DC and Marvel characters can prove overwhelming. Mostly I just stick to newer series, like Sex Criminals, Pretty Deadly, Bitch Planet, and the like.) I was lucky enough to review Shadow of the Batgirl (in which an older Barbara Gordon plays a role as Cassandra Cain’s boss/mentor), and The Oracle Code lives up the expectations set by its predecessor.

The storyline is engaging enough, but it’s really the characters who stand out here. YA author Marieke Nijkamp – who identifies as queer, non-binary, and disabled – writes Barbara, Yeong, Issy, and Jena with compassion and care. There’s a great exchange between the eeeevil scientists and the margnalized teens in which the teens challenge their doctors’ assessment of them as “broken” people in need of “fixing.” (Is there a white savior analog that can be applied to the ableds? If so, this is a prime example of IT.) Hopefully you’ll also catch how the doctors try to gaslight Barbara when she starts sniffing around, insisting that she believe them instead of her own two eyes and ginormous brain.

Barbara’s squad – as well as the residents and staff at ACI – is diverse as heck and thus reflective of reality, which I appreciate. And the brief few panels of wheelchair basketball are great.

And now I shall go back to counting the days until Superman Smashes the Klan (Gene Luen Yang) and Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed (Laurie Halse Anderson) hit the shelves!

(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: Gudetama: Love for the Lazy by Wook-Jin Clark (2020)

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

“Likes: Sleeping, Chilling, Eating”

three out of five stars

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

So, I’m not gonna lie: I’d never heard of the Sanrio character Gudetama before this title popped up on NetGalley. But how could I turn down love advice from a lazy, grumpy, chubby egg (alternately hard boiled and fried, it seems) with a butt that just won’t quit?

While Gudetma is unexpectedly adorable, the rest of the artwork just isn’t my bag. There’s just something about human faces without noses that turns me off. But it is colorful and skillfully executed, so I’ll give Clark that.

The advice is more of a mixed bag; some of the comics fall flat, while others are amusing or relatable or both. I especially liked the “phases of a break up” maze – someone should make that into a Candyland-esque board game. Preferably with more swearing and cards that let you binge real live junk food.

(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: Parable of the Sower by Damian Duffy, John Jennings, & Octavia E. Butler (2020)

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

A spectacular reincarnation of Octavia E. Butler’s masterpiece.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, ABRAMS Books. Trigger warning for violence, including rape. Click on the images to embiggen.)

I’ve been staring at a blank screen for upwards of fifteen minutes, trying to figure out how best to summarize the first half of (what I consider to be) Octavia E. Butler’s magnum opus, the Parables duology. In the interest of expediency, I’ll just lift the synopsis from my review of the original:

###

Lauren Olamina isn’t like the other kids in her neighborhood, a walled-off city block in Robledo, just twenty miles outside of Los Angeles. Born to a drug-addicted mother, Lauren is afflicted with hyperempathy – the ability to share in the pain and pleasure of others, whether she wants to or not. This makes her an especially easy target for bullies – brother Keith used to make her bleed for fun when they were younger – so Lauren’s weakness is a carefully guarded secret, one shared only with her family. In this crumbling world, a near-future dystopia that’s all to easy to imagine, humans already devour their own: literally as well as figuratively. Lauren won’t make herself an easy meal.

As if her hyperempathy isn’t alienating enough, Lauren has another secret, one that she only shares with her diary. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Lauren no longer believes in her father’s god. Instead, she’s cultivating her own system of belief – Earthseed:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Lauren gathers these verses into a book that she comes to think of as “The Books of the Living.” Her new religion? Earthseed. Its destination? The stars.

Parable of the Sower is Lauren’s journal (of a sort). Begun on the eve of her 15th birthday and concluding more than three years later, through her diary we witness the collapse of Lauren’s fragile world. In a country wracked by poverty, climate change, mass unemployment, homelessness, drug abuse, class warfare, and unspeakable violence, Lauren’s small community is a fortress of sorts. Though they’re far from well-off, the diverse neighborhood manages to produce enough food and goods (and occasionally for-pay labor) to sustain itself. The residents put personal animosity aside to protect and care for one another: rotating night watches keep would-be thieves at bay; when one resident’s garage catches fire, everyone becomes a firefighter; and Lauren’s step-mom Cory schools the neighborhood kids in her own home, since it’s too dangerous to venture outside the walls.

It’s not much, but it’s home. But even at the tender age of 15, Lauren can see it unraveling: “We’ll be moved, all right. It’s just a matter of when, by whom, and in how many pieces.”

After a series of blows – the disappearance of Lauren’s father; several successful infiltrations by thieves; a fire that claims all but one member of its household – Lauren’s community finally falls. Drugged out on “pyro,” a group of painted arsonists torch the neighborhood, killing and raping its residents. Lauren is just one of three to escape. Along with Zahra – the youngest of Richard Moss’s wives – and fellow teenager Harry, they hit the road in search of water and work. A safe place to pitch their (proverbial) tent. And, for Lauren, a safe haven in which to establish the very first Earthseed community.

###

Butler is one of my all-time favorite authors, second only to Margaret Atwood (who, admittedly, often suffers from some pretty glaring blind spots when it comes to race; see, e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale); and her Parables duology occupies a special, even vital, place in my heart.

So when I heard that Damian Duffy and John Jennings were working on a graphic novel adaptation, I did an ecstatic happy dance in my seat, and wondered at its progress at least once a week for the next nine months or so. If it was just half as good as their treatment of Kindred, I reasoned, I could die a happy fangirl.

As it turns out? Parable of the Sower is every bit as good as Kindred. Which is to say, not quite as good as the source material, but pretty damn close.

The artwork is gorgeous, and quite similar in style to that found in Kindred. The dull browns and beiges evoke the dreary hopelessness of Lauren’s world, and are juxtaposed with pages of vibrant (yet often threatening) reds and oranges, and moody, atmospheric blues.

The narrative text appears on ruled paper, expertly calling up images of Lauren’s journal, the birth place of Earthseed.

I love how Lauren’s style evolves with time as she adapts her appearance to the world around her: when she and her friends hit the road, Lauren chops all her hair off so that she can pass as a man.

As for the plot, Duffy manages to distill Butler’s wisdom from a 350-odd page book to a much shorter graphic novel with ease. It’s been a few years since I’ve read Parables, but I didn’t spot any significant changes to the plot or message. (Though some of the verses of Earthseed might have migrated from Talents to Sower. To wit: “In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix first must burn,” the latter portion of which will grace an upcoming science fiction anthology edited by Patrice Caldwell and featuring “16 stories of Black Girl Magic, resistance, and hope.” I CANNOT WAIT.)

While I am indeed a sucker for feminist dystopian fiction, it’s Lauren’s science-based religion that really resonates with me. I feel like we’re kindred spirits in this way. I’m an atheist who understands that, sometimes, being an atheist sucks. It can be harsh and hurtful and bleak. Religion offers comfort in the face of adversity and loss. Saying goodbye to someone you love is painful; saying goodbye for forever is downright crushing. Sometimes I wish I believed in the afterlife, in a Good Place and a Bad Place, or in karma and reincarnation. I wish I had hope that I’d see my lost loved ones again.

But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, and so I stitch together my own little safety blanket of quasi-religious truths. Lauren’s Books of the Living plays a pretty hefty role, as does Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (especially the scenes where Lyra and Will lead the despairing spirits from the World of the Dead so that they can reunite with their daemons in the natural world).

There’s Carl Sagan’s starstuff and Aaron Freeman’s “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.”

The collective consciousness known simply as the Library in Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies trilogy, and Griffin’s ideas about alternate universes in Adam Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me.

Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts, given life and form and structure by Erika Swyler in Light from Other Stars.

The wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff in Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel, and the implications this mutability of death holds for the grieving.

And then there are maxims like these.

While Parable of the Sower is a grim story, all the more so for its prescience, it is not one without hope: like a phoenix from the ashes, Lauren rises from the rubble that was her home and introduces her fellow survivors and refugees to a new way of thinking, believing, and being. A spirituality that celebrates harmony with the natural world, rather than a system of dominance and destruction. A journey rooted in truth, yet propelled upward by visions of something better. Earthseed is lovely and brimming with promise, and I hope it takes root (though not among the stars – not until humanity can be entrusted with its own home planet, anyway).

(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: Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn & Nicole Goux (2020)

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Find out how Cassandra Cain got her wings.

four out of five stars

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

— 3.5 stars —

Let me preface this review by saying that, although I love comic books, I mostly stick to one-offs, new series, or adaptations of stories I love in other mediums. DC and Marvel, with their long-running series, can be rather intimidating – where’s the best place to jump in? But I simply could not resist DC’s new line of YA graphic novels, penned by some of my YA favorites.

Anyway, that’s just a roundabout way of saying that I come into this with little background about the characters, save for what I’ve picked up from tv and movie and pop culture in general.

Shadow of the Batgirl focuses on Cassandra Cain, daughter of notorious crime kingpin and all-around baddie, David Cain. Raised by dad and trained to be an assassin, Cassandra goes rogue when she tries – and fails – to kill a man. With his (would be) dying breath, her mark whispers a single word that plucks a long-buried chord of empathy in Cassandra: “daughter.” Terrified of what punishment surely awaits, Cassandra seeks refuge in the stacks of the Gotham Public Library.

There, Cassandra learns to speak, read, and write – by spying on the kids’ storytime lessons held by librarian Barbara Gordon and, later, volunteering as her intern. Barbara has developed an app called Oracle to help her track the recent crime wave in Gotham, while Cassandra helps her investigate Batgirl’s exploits…and mysterious disappearance. She cultivates a found family there in the stacks: delightfully nerdy and welcoming Barbara; Jacqueline “Jackie” Fujikawa Yoneyama, she of impeccable style and delicious noodles; and Erik, a romantic at heart who wants to be seen as more than just a jock.

Cassandra wants desperately to be something other her father’s weapon, to forge her own path in life and, perhaps, fight for the people and city she loves, just as Batgirl did. But how can she keep everyone safe when her father is wreaking havoc across the city?

Shadow of the Batgirl is an enjoyable and heartwarming origin story for Cassandra Cain/ Batgirl/ Kasumi/ Black Bat/ Orphan. Written by Sarah Kuhn – who also pens the popular Heroine Complex series – the Asian rep in this story is great. In addition to Cassandra, there’s also the awesomely flamboyant Jackie, as well as Blasian jock with a heart of gold Erik, with whom Cassandra strikes up a tentative friendship – and romance (which is no less sweet for its inevitability). I really love these two together – and Cassandra with anyone, really – since she has an endearing, socially awkward Bones thing going on.

I mostly liked the artwork, too; my only complaint is that Cassandra looks awfully young in some panels – others, not – giving it a bit of an uneven feeling. Barbara is adorable, with her oversized glasses, and Jackie is a legit badass who I’d love to have as an adopted grandmother. Erik is swoon-worthy, natch, and the scenes where he and Cassandra geek out over books are the best.

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

Tuesday, December 10th, 2019

OMG Sharon, can you not?

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

A sweet, character-driven fantasy story.

three out of five stars

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

A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Black Mage by Daniel Barnes & DJ Kirkland (2019)

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Avant-Guards, Volume 1 by Carly Usdin & Noah Hayes (2019)

Friday, September 6th, 2019

*heart-eyes emoji*

five out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

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

two out of five stars

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

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

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

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

And…that’s it.

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

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

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

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

It’s an exaggerated shoulder shrug from me…

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant (2019)

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

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

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Newlevant’s preferred pronouns are they/them.

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

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

Friday, August 9th, 2019

A book we need now more than ever.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Escape Manual for Introverts by Katie Vaz (2019)

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

When in doubt, blame your doggo.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

I for one welcome our adorable purple successors.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

The apocalypse has never been so snuggable.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

Not much by way of new content…

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

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

four out of five stars

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

Hey.

Tell me I’m pretty.

Tell me I’m smart.

Tell me I am of value to someone.

Please, tell me I’ll be alright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Minus by Lisa Naffziger (2019)

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

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

one out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

A Portrait of an Ambivalent Freedom Fighter

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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