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

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

A powerful look at Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems by Dominique Christina (2019)

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

“fine. new hell, whatever.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence inflicted on black bodies, including rape and medical experimentation.)

this bruise ain’t no girl
she gone
she never gon be again
she too much a ghost even
for burial

when he left
seem like he stayed
like i kept
some of it
like i ain’t
have no other way

and now Betsey say
i expecting

how you translate
a bludgeonin to
a birth?

you tell me how
i’m suposed to
do that –

a baby.
from the mud pile…
a baby…

one more
thing i don’t know
how to carry.

i say:
what you make a dem stars?
he say:

they just like us. sizzlin dead.

— 4.5 stars —

Like his homeland, the man widely regarded as “the father of modern gynecology” built his wealth and success on the bodies of slaves. Specifically, enslaved black women who suffered debilitating complications from childbirth.

J. Marion Sims is credited with a number of advancements in the field of gynecology: He developed a precursor to the modern speculum, using a spoon and complicated series of mirrors. He built the first women’s hospital in his backyard in Montgomery, Alabama, despite his reported disgust with women’s anatomy. (He wrote in his autobiography, “if there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis.”) Most famously, he developed a way of repairing vesicovaginal fistula.

Vesicovaginal fistula is caused during childbirth “when the woman’s bladder, cervix, and vagina become trapped between the fetal skull and the woman’s pelvis, cutting off blood flow and leading to tissue death. The necrotic tissue later sloughs off, leaving a hole. Following this injury, as urine forms, it leaks out of the vaginal opening, leading to a form of incontinence.” Similarly, rectovaginal fistula can cause fecal incontinence; Sims explored treatment for this condition as well.*

And he did it all on the backs of the most vulnerable: enslaved black women.

Over a period of four years, Sims experimented on twelve female slaves who suffered complications from childbirth. He subjected each woman to multiple surgeries without the benefit of anesthesia (though some were given opium post-op). Sometimes he had an audience; on other occasions, the women themselves had to assist in Sims’s procedures. Many were brought to him by their “owners,” seeking to recoup their “investments.” Sims purchased one woman outright so that he could experiment on her. Only three of these women’s names resisted burial under the weight of history: Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, all of whom suffered from fistula. Sims violated Anarcha thirteen times before he declared her a success.

In Anarcha Speaks, poet/activist/educator – and mother – Dominique Christina attempts to reconstruct Anarcha’s life, imagining the events that might have landed her on Sims’s doorstep/operating table/torture chamber. Sims doesn’t even make an appearance until halfway through the book, giving us a chance to get to know Anarcha as a person, and not “just” the ill-fated woman in that horrifying Robert Thom painting. After this, Christina occasionally alternates their perspectives: slave/patient and doctor/”massa.” I’m not sure I loved this convention: I think perhaps the story would have been more powerful coming from Anarcha and Anarcha alone; and besides, history is overflowing with the perspectives of privileged white men – do we really need to hear more? On the other hand, Sims’s POV gives necessary context on how doctors/society regarded black women – and their pain.

Anarcha Speaks is powerful, raw, and visceral. I don’t always love poetry because I don’t usually “get” it, but Christina’s prose cuts to bone. I can’t exactly call Anarcha Speaks an enjoyable read, but it’s a necessary one, and skillfully done. This tiny little powerhouse of a tome would equally be at home on a history syllabus or in a class on medical ethics as in a creative writing course.

* He also experimented on children and babies, in an attempt to treat trismus nascentium; these interventions were met with a hundred percent fatality rate, which he blamed on the mothers (all black). Naturally.

(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 Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (2019)

Friday, April 26th, 2019

A haunting contemplation on love, death, and destiny.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape and mental health issues.)

“The funny thing is, the other time travelers—I’m thinking of Teddy Avedon in particular, he’s been showing me the ropes—they keep telling me that it’s green to be so excited. They mean I’m being gauche. Teddy says I’ll get used to seeing dead people. But I think he’s wrong. Whenever I visit my father, the trees in his garden are young again, and so is he. I will never take that for granted.”

Two women, who’d already witnessed each other’s deaths, married on the first day of spring. […]

Entertainments followed: fifty-five Angharads danced a ballet.

It’s 1967 and time travel is about to become a reality – thanks to four brilliant young women.

The laboratory, in Cumbria, was home to four young scientists. Margaret was a baroness turned cosmologist. Lucille had come from the Toxteth slums to make radio waves travel faster than light. Grace—who never gave the same account of her history twice—was an expert in the behavior of matter. And the last was Barbara: the baby of the group, hair so fair it was nearly white, ruddy-cheeked and naively wholesome. She specialized in nuclear fission.

Among other things, their invention will make it more difficult for society to deny them their accomplishments:

And because time travellers appear again and again as the years go by—long past their natural lifespan—it would be harder to write these women out of history. They would be visible, for all to see.

Yet, shortly after traveling forward an hour into the future (time travel being possible only between points in which the infrastructure exists which, for the purpose of this story, is between 1967 and 2267 … mysterious!), Barbara – Bee for short – suffers a breakdown on live TV and is promptly institutionalized. It’s later theorized that the disruptions in daylight triggered a bipolar episode in Bee, who was already predisposed. Nevertheless, Bee is ostracized from the burgeoning Time Travel Enclave, largely at funder Margaret’s behest.

Fast forward fifty-plus years. Bee marries, has a child, is widowed, has a grandchild. She shies away from the spotlight and largely abandons her scientific pursuits. She lives a cozy, contented life in a cottage by the sea, kept company by her garden, her doggos, and her granddaughter Ruby. She is, in a way, written out of history (despicably, by another woman).

That is, until the day she finds an origami rabbit on her front step. Inside is in inquest notice, dated five months in the future, into the death of an unidentified woman in her 80s. Afraid that Bee will soon be murdered – multiple gunshot wounds, her body discovered in the locked basement boiler room of a toy museum by a volunteer – Ruby launches a covert investigation into the Conclave’s other three founders. Meanwhile, Bee tries to get back into the Conclave’s good graces.

The Psychology of Time Travel jumps back and forth in time – from the invention of time travel in 1967; to last half of 2018, in the months leading up to the murder; to the crime’s fallout, in 2019 – and is told through multiple perspectives: Bee, Margaret, Grace, Lucille, and Ruby, naturally; Odette, the young graduate student who makes the gruesome discovery; Ginger, Ruby’s sometimes-lover; Angharad, an astronaut who joins the Conclave after Bee’s ousting; and Siobhan, a psychologist from the 22nd century. Every. Single. Narrator. is a woman, which is such a refreshing and surprising delight, I can’t even.

Sometimes stories told in this way can prove difficult to follow but, once I got used to the rhythm, I became lost in the tale. It’s a little bit mystery, a lot of geeky good science fiction, and – perhaps above all else – a surprisingly philosophical exploration of how time travel might affect us: the travelers specifically, and society more generally. Mascarenhas’s vision might surprise you.

This is an exceptionally difficult book for me to review, but probably not for the reasons you might think. I read it while one of my beloved puppers – fifteen years young! – was dying…though I did not realize it at the time. She’d been struggling with dementia for about ten months, which was difficult to watch; but I thought we had at least a few more months together. Sadly, O-Ren was euthanized at home five days after I finished The Psychology of Time Travel: she was refusing to eat or drink, and her nighttime pacing became more frantic, even as her energy waned and she could no longer do laps around the house without falling, repeatedly. Most likely she also had a brain tumor, like her friend Mags, who passed away just four months before – on Thanksgiving, no less. One of my final memories of Rennie will be pacing around the house with her while reading The Psychology of Time Travel on my Kindle. Needless to say, this review was written in tears.

Point being, it’s been a rough few years for me. In just under six years, I lost six dogs, a grandmother, and my husband. I had to sell my house and move back home. My last remaining doggo is thirteen-and-a-half and I’m waiting on a neurology consult to see if Finnick might have a brain tumor as well. I don’t know what I’m going to do when he leaves me, too. Some days these dogs are the only thing that keeps me going. In this context, I found The Psychology of Time Travel’s meditations on death especially appealing.

This book is called The PSYCHOLOGY of Time Travel for a reason: turns out that time travel can really fuck a person up.

When you’re a time traveler, the people you love die, and you carry on seeing them, so their death stops making a difference to you. The only death that will ever change things is your own.

This idea is both amazing and terrifying. To think that your loved one will forever exist during a certain period in time, even if they do not exist at this particular moment, and that you can visit them at the drop of a hat, is…wonderful. Magnificent. Liberating. I would give anything to be able to do that. To bump crooked noses with Peedee, or smell Ralphie’s musk, or rub Kaylee’s piggy belly. To talk to Shane or go on a hike with Mags. To once again toss a tennis ball around with little puppy Rennie.

Yet, as we soon learn, this mutability of death is a double-edged sword. Time travelers become cruel. Hardened. Some of this is in the management, sure, but even the “good” ones struggle with doing what’s right – why not, when you can put that weight on your silver self’s shoulders?

The Psychology of Time Travel is a thoughtful contemplation on love, loss, and – yes – destiny. Another pitfall of already knowing the future? Subjugating your will in order to choose the path that you think your life is “supposed” to take: seeing the future makes it so. But who’s to say the future cannot be changed?

So, yes, time travel is a magical experience – but took much knowledge can become a prison of its own.

The time travel also lends itself well to all sorts of neat little details, from the slang (“For instance—intercourse with one’s future self was called forecasting. Intercourse with one’s past self was a legacy fuck.”) to the scenes featuring multiple versions of the same character (see also: slang). You never know just when or how some characters’ lives will intersect, and the guessing makes for a really enjoyable experience.

(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 Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit in by Ayser Salman (2019)

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

Probably should have held out for the audiobook…

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for xenophobia, Islamophobia, and violence against women.)

Ayser Salman spent the first three years of her life in Baghdad, Iraq – until her parents, both pharmacists, fled the “dictatorial regime of what was about to become Saddam Hussein’s Iraq” for the frigid climes of Columbus, Ohio. This would be the first of many moves: Along with her younger brother Zaid and a new sister, Lameace, Ayser and her family moved again when she was eight (Lexington, Kentucky), and again a year and a half later – this time to Saudi Arabia, where Ayser would attend an all-girls’ school. The Salmans found their way back to Lexington in time for Ayser’s junior year of high school: “a time of proms, underage drinking, and lots of teenage hormones.” Upon graduation, Ayser attended the University of Kentucky and, after a brief stint as a local news producer, the graduate film program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Now in her 40s, Ayser is a comedy writer, editor, and producer.

All this moving around – not to mention rotating schools even when the family stayed put – could be enough to make anyone feel alienated. An outsider. A fish out of water. Or, in Ayser’s words, at wrong end of the table. Add to this the fact that Ayser was a brown Muslim girl in predominantly white Christian spaces. (Or, during her time in Saudi Arabia – the one period in her childhood when Ayser felt like she belonged – a somewhat liberal Westerner in a conservative Arab country.) After years of trying to blend in, disappear even, it wasn’t until her 30s and 40s that Ayser embraced her differences.

The Wrong End of the Table is a series of short essays and vignettes about Ayser’s experiences: being an immigrant (usually the only immigrant) trying to navigate the treacherous waters of elementary and high school; maintaining a social life (especially with boys) under the watchful eyes of her parents; grappling with depression and anxiety in adulthood; embracing her Muslim identity and becoming more politically active in the wake of 9/11 (and, later, during a Drumpf presidency); and dating in her 40s.

I think I most enjoyed Ayser’s stories about her childhood in Columbus and Lexington, particularly as her Western sensibilities collided with her parents’ old school ways. For example, there’s the time a well-meaning boy at school gave Ayser a quarter:

My father walks in and Mom shoves the quarter in his face.
MOM: Talk to your daughter. A boy gave her this!
Dad takes a moment to put on his bifocals and studies the offending item.
DAD: Does he think you’re cheap?
My mother looks at me, satisfied.
DAD: He should have given you a silver dollar!
Now, Mom is disgusted with me, the quarter, and Dad.

The accounts of the Salmans’ time in Saudi Arabia are a little more harrowing; for instance, Ayser recounts the story of a classmate who tried for three years to escape her father’s custody and return to her mother in the States. That’s not to say that Ayser doesn’t mine these reservoirs for humor, either; to wit: Ayser’s very first time setting foot on Saudi Arabian soil:

We put our bags through the x-ray machine, and they were transported to a separate table where airport officials opened and searched them. This was before the age of prohibited liquids, so I couldn’t imagine what they would find that the x-ray hadn’t detected. A man wearing the traditional thawb and an official airport worker jacket eached into my bag, grabbed my Teen Beat magazine, and began combing through. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he tossed it in the trash behind him.

“Wait!” I protested as my mother nudged me to be quiet. The man shook his head and said, “Haram.”

Next, he found the loose magazine photos I had saved of Valerie Bertinelli lounging by a pool—I liked her hair in that picture and wanted to get mine styled in the same way. Nope. “Haram,” he said as he crumpled it up and tossed it aside.

Finally, he got to my prized diary, a small pink book with a lock secured on it to hide all my nine-year-old secrets. On the cover was a picture of a cartoon boy and girl smooching, similar to what you’d find on a Hallmark card. Mr. Haram studied it for a few minutes as if he were debating asking me to unlock it.

In Arabic, my mother said, “For children. She’s just a child.” That seemed to appease him. He put my diary back into my bag, but not before taking a sharpie and scribbling out the image of the boy and girl kissing on the cover.

I can only imagine my ten-year-old horror at having my diary manhandled and then defaced by a strange man.

As someone who’s found herself newly single in her (early) 40s, I also enjoyed Ayser’s many (many) anecdotes about disastrous dates and failed relationships. (Can you even with that Charlie!?)

In the forward, Reza Aslan discusses the importance of memoirs written by Muslim Americans to help shape the narrative about what it means to be “Americans who happen to come from Muslim backgrounds”; to combat the stereotypes and misinformation that have blossomed after 9/11 and the red hats’ hate-fueled Islamophobia. With increased visibility comes the potential to get it so very, tragically wrong; books like The Wrong End of the Table help push back. The value in this cannot be understated.

Yet, like so many humorous memories (Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn; Jenn Kirkman’s I Know What I’m Doing and Other Lies I Tell Myself; Tina Fey’s Bossypants; Amy Poehler’s Yes Please), The Wrong End of the Table seems like it’s better suited for the audiobook format. Like, I only chuckled a handful of times while reading TWEOTB, but I’m pretty certain I would have been guffawing had I been listening to Ayser tell these stories out loud. And that’s usually the case: the narrator-slash-comedian’s inflections, embellishments, emphases, verbal quirks – all add a certain something to the retelling that you just can’t get from the written word. I would’ve loved to have heard Ayser’s impressions of her parents, as just one for instance.

So if you have the opportunity to read the audiobook, take it! Trust me, they make commutes/dog walks/house cleaning/yard work go so much faster.

(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: Window Horses by Ann Marie Fleming (2017)

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Now I have to see the movie!

four out of five stars

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

Window Horses is the graphic novelization of a 2016 animated film of the same name, written by Ann Marie Fleming and starring Sandra Oh (with what I can only assume is a brief cameo by Ellen Page, at least judging from the book). The story’s protagonist is a young biracial woman named Rosie Ming. Born to a Chinese-Canadian mother and an Iranian refugee father, Rosie was left in the care of her maternal grandparents after her father abandoned his family and her mother died in a tragic accident.

Fast food worker by day, Francophile by – who are we kidding, 24/7 – Rosie keeps her poetry a secret. That is, until she’s invited to a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran. Having self-published but one book of poetry, Rosie has no idea how the festival’s organizers discovered her. Though she’s nervous to travel to her father’s homeland – she’s never even been outside of Canada, for pete’s sake – and is plagued by imposter syndrome, Rosie knows that this is an opportunity she simply can’t pass up. Little does she know how truly life-changing the trip will be.

Window Horses is a sweet and heartfelt story: about the bonds of family and community, the stupid and even selfish things we sometimes do for love, and the power of words and poetry, with a little bit of a history/civics lesson thrown in, to boot. The art – primarily done by Kevin Langdale, with poems illustrated by a variety of other artists – is stunning. I especially loved how the breadth of different contributors and styles played off the poetry, adding extra depth and nuance.

The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way? Dietmar, or rather Mehrnaz’s insistence that he’s only rude to Rosie because “that is the way some young men are…,” you know, when they like a girl. Boys will be boys and all that nonsense. Blecht.

(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 Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing by DaMaris B. Hill (2019)

Tuesday, February 12th, 2019

“How many ways did you write women? How many ways did you right women?”

three out of five stars

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

The afflicted pray for healing—just as hungry people pray for bread, but when has God ever sent bread? In my recollection of the scriptures, God has always sent a woman.

bound

verb

simple past tense and past participle of bind.

adjective

tied; in bonds: a bound prisoner.

made fast as if by a band or bond: She is bound to her family.

secured within a cover, as a book.

under a legal or moral obligation: He is bound by the terms of the contract.

destined; sure; certain: It is bound to happen.

determined or resolved: He is bound to go.

Pathology . constipated.

Mathematics . (of a vector) having a specified initial point as well as magnitude and direction.

held with another element, substance, or material in chemical or physical union.

(of a linguistic form) occurring only in combination with other forms, as most affixes.

From Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland, Ida B. Wells to Eartha Kitt, Grace Jones to Assata Shakur, A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing is DaMaris B. Hill’s “love letter to women who have been denied their humanity.”

In its most obvious sense, these women are bound in a very real, tangible way: those shackled by the chains of slavery, or imprisoned in jail (often, as we’ll see, for defending themselves against physical abuse and sexual assault). But to be bound can also be a positive thing, an expression of love: to be bound to one’s ancestors, connected to one’s friends and family, accountable to one’s community. Here, Hill celebrates women who have been bound in both respects, sometimes simultaneously.

Poetry is a deeply personal and intimate form of communion, and it’s pretty hit-or-miss for me. I know what I like, even if I have no idea why I like it. And, sadly, as much as I was looking forward to A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing (I mean, THAT COVER!), most of the poems just didn’t do it for me.

First, the pros: Hill introduced me to a number of badass women I’d never heard of before, and whom I’d love to learn more about. I love the concept of the collection, and the way it’s laid out, with photos, biographies, and poems inspired by the subjects.

But the cons: I just had a ton of trouble getting into the poems themselves. Likewise, the short biographies of the women featured often seem incomplete, and are sometimes downright confusing. The most obvious example to come to mind is Joan Little, who is listed as born in 1953 with an “unknown” date of death. Wikipedia lists her as still alive, so…that’s weird. At the very least, it requires further explanation, right?

Poetry is hardly in my wheelhouse, though, and judging from the other reviews, I’m in the minority here, so don’t let my experiences dissuade you. Roxane Gay blurbed it, so.

(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 People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams (2019)

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019

Filled with peoples, worlds, futures, and acts of rebellion that you won’t soon forget.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against a variety of marginalized groups.)

You are the amen of my family, and I am the in the beginning of yours. This story is the prayer, or one of them. This story says you can live through anything and that when it is time to go, when the entire world goes dark, then you go together, holding on to one another’s hands, and you whisper the memory of birds and bees and the names of those you loved. When it is not time to go, though, this story says you rise.

– “Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Wall to keep the empire safe: strrrrrong empire, empire with mightiest military in the world, empire made of blood and theft, human and land. Before the wall was even finished the empire began to strip rights, silence certain people, keep others sparking in their skins of distrust. But most of the inhabitants paid attention to other things, shiny things, scandals. It would pass, hadn’t it always? White folks had short memories.

– “The Wall” by Lizz Huerta

Y’all, the first baby born to the Federation of Free Peoples was gonna be one incredible brown-ass baby.

– “O.1” by Gabby Rivera

— 4.5 stars —

Seanan McGuire is an insta-read for me – but, even without her name attached to this project, A People’s Future of the United States is still a book I would have pounced on. With its riff on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, plethora of diverse contributors, and focus on futures that might be – at a time when the present is so damn depressing – there’s no way I could pass it up. And, rather than offer an escape from the now, the stories here challenge the reader to follow this thread to its possible conclusions; to imagine what this world could become, for better or worse; and to rise up, resist, and perhaps steer it to a better, more humane place.

My main issue with anthologies is that they tend to be uneven – but A People’s History of the United States is as close to uniformly awesome as you can get without being pure perfection. There are a few stories that I just found okay, and one that I skipped altogether. But most of the rest? Took my breath away.

For whatever reason (the first bit of the synopsis maybe?), I came to the table expecting visions of future utopias: suggestions for how we can fix this broken planet we call home. And while there are a few budding socialist Edens to be found here – Hugh Howey’s “No Algorithms in the World” springs to mind – most are of the dystopian variety. And that’s both okay and, let’s be honest, totally realistic. The good thing is that, within every story lurks a glimmer of hope. Sometimes it’s tenuous and fragile, but it’s there, waiting to be nurtured into fruition. My heart, you guys? Swelled so much that it felt fit to burst clear out of my chest. Some of these yarns are that darn shiny.

There are way too many to discuss them all, but here goes.

“Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley is as strange as it is lovely. Half the time I was not entirely sure what I was reading, but I was sure I wanted more. In this far-off future dystopia, words are power (though “Knowledge [isn’t] enough.”), a power that’s been chained by the powers that be. Paper is outlawed, so Librarians like the Needle tattoo the stories of the world on their very skin: “manuscripts from authors like Octavia the Empress and Ursula Major.” (Tell me you didn’t feel those chills.) In the end – or the beginning, rather – these stories become a superpower of sorts, smoke let loose on the battleground. The first of many revolutions.

Sam J. Miller explores “the place of sex in a broader strategy of political resistance” in “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right.” Forced to seek anonymous, illicit sex in back alleys and swampy underpasses (Homosexuality? Illegal. Along with a laundry list of other identities and interests.), Caul finds himself in a parallel world at the moment of orgasm: “A place where what we do matters.” And so this tool of the state – he who installs phone cloners up and down the streets of NY, to help the government better surveil its residents – comes to realize that he can be used to dismantle it. (And tell me your heart didn’t sink down into the depths of your belly the day that Prince became contraband.)

In “Riverbed,” Omar El Akkad revisits the site of a mass human rights abuse on its fiftieth anniversary. After a group of suicide bombers attacked a US sporting event with massive casualties, Khadija Singh’s family was rounded up and taken to a detention center, ‘for their own protection.’ (Never mind that they are Sikh, and not Muslim. In her father’s words, Americans are “brittle with privilege.”) It was only after he escaped that her brother was murdered. On the eve of the unveiling of a gaudy new museum to ‘commemorate’ the tragedy, Dr. Singh returns to the property to retrieve her brother’s meager belongings, so that no part of him might remain in the place of his captivity.

Justina Ireland’s “Calendar Girls” is a biting look at a world in which contraception, made illegal (while boner pills thrive!), is dealt on street corners like cocaine or heroin. After being orphaned by a forced pregnancy that killed her mom, Alyssa goes to work for the Matriarchs, selling condoms to young women and her local patrolman (already father of nine) alike. There’s an arrest, and a shakedown involving a hypocritical Senator (founder of the Abstinence League!) who wants an abortion for his pregnant, unwed teen daughter (See: ‘The only moral abortion is my abortion.’), and a double-cross to save the day.

Also nestled under the “utopia” umbrella is “O.1” by Gabby Rivera, in which a plague called IMBALANCE (“a sentient bacterium that preyed on white-supremacist greed”) killed the 1% and left most of the rest of the population sterile. That is, until a couple named Mala and Orion Lafayette-Santana manage to conceive Baby 0.1 – and the personal quickly becomes the object of public consumption as the the Federation of Free Peoples rallies around this new life. When Mala, Orion, and their birth worker Deviana Ortiz go missing from their home in North Philly, panic – and a massive manhunt – ensues. Told from their alternating perspectives, “O.1” is a story of hope and resilience. This might be the only time I’ve wished for biological warfare, okay. Team Imbalance all the way.

N. K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” is simply brilliant: I mean, drug-sniffing, made-that-way racist dragons, sated with collard greens and hot sauce, domesticated with love and affection, and then turned against their (common) oppressors? What’s not to love about that?

Ditto: the aforementioned “No Algorithms in the World,” in which Hugh Howey imagines what society with a guaranteed basic income might look like, from both sides of the generational divide.

In “The Referendum,” Lesley Nneka Arimah reminds us why we should always listen to black women.

And Tananarive Due’s “Attachment Disorder” is an epic tale distilled into short story form that will leave you wanting more.

I’m certain I’m overlooking a few favorites, but this is a pretty good start. If you like smart speculative fiction, told by a diverse group of voices, with a strong foundation in the here and now, A People’s Future of the United States is a slam dunk.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab by Huda Fahmy (2018)

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

Brilliant.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for Islamophobia, racism, and sexism.)

Cartoonist, educator, and former law student Huda Fahmy was born and raised in Michigan – but this doesn’t stop strangers from asking her where she’s really from, or commenting on the exoticism of her (midwestern) accent. Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab is a collection of her webcomics – originally seen on Instagram* – which deal with the racist, sexist, and xenophobic microaggressions she struggles with on the daily, as a Muslim WOC living in Drumpf’s America. (Spoiler alert: things were pretty shitty pre-2016 too.)

The result is usually cutting, often depressing, and yet (amazingly) always hilarious. Fahmy possesses a sense of humor that’s equally wicked and witty. She’ll have you lol-ing even as you die a little inside. People can be assholes, but Fahmy has discovered the secret recipe for making assholaid. (Erm, chocolate milkshakes? Idk.)

Don’t be a Small-Minded Susan, read this book! Pay special attention to Chapter 6: It Never Hurts to Hope, for some examples of allyship (and just plain human kindness) in action.

* Maybe this will be the straw that finally makes me create an account?

(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: To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel by Fred Fordham & Harper Lee (2018)

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

A faithful adaptation, for better or worse.

three out of four stars

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

My feelings on this are conflicted and messy:

– How do you judge an adaptation of an existing work: on its own merits, or in its faithfulness to the source material? On the latter point, Fred Fordham’s adaptation is a definite success. His graphic novel adaptation is loyal to both the plot and tone of Harper Lee’s classic, and even plays on the nostalgia of the 1962 movie. Comic book Atticus is a dead ringer for Gregory Peck, and the Finch kids resemble their respective actors as well.

– My first experience with To Kill a Mockingbird was as a tween, well before I had to tools and knowledge to identify its more problematic aspects, chiefly the novel’s inherent racism. Revisiting the story as an adult, in a different format, was…jarring. Some of the racism is plainly evident, e.g., is it ever okay for a white writer to use the n-word, even if historically accurate? And isn’t it kind of gross for a story about Jim Crow racism and the lynching of a black man to center white voices? But there are so many layers to unpack, including liberal hero Atticus Finch’s racism. (If he existed today, Atticus might be one of people pleading for “civility” from both sides. Yuck.) I found myself cringing as much as tearing up.

And that’s kind of the crux of the matter, right? No doubt To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel will evoke all sorts of nostalgia (coupled with an irrational desire to protect and defend a cherished piece of one’s childhood), especially in white Americans; but don’t let that prevent you from engaging with the book critically.

fwiw, I’d love to see a reimagining of Harper Lee’s story told from Calpurnia or Helen Robinson’s perspective.

(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 God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (2018)

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

This is the alt history Confederacy story you’re looking for.

four out of five stars

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

The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land. Only we forgot the names that went with that power we brought over here. Since Haiti got free, though, those gods were coming back, she’d said, across the waters, all the way from Lafrik. Now here’s two of them in a bordello in New Orleans. Who knows what that means.

The year is 1884, and the Union is still divided. In this alternate steampunk version of American history, the Union and Confederacy called a truce after eight years of war, in the Armistice of Third Antietam. Any states not already a part of the Union were abandoned, its enslaved citizens left to perish in bondage. As if the reality of slavery wasn’t (isn’t) horrific enough, Clark throws in an especially chilling detail, reminiscent of the Sunken Place: slave owners dose their human chattel with a drug called drapeto vapor, which zombifies them into compliance.

I’ve seen the tintype photographs from inside the Confederacy. Shadowy pictures of fields and factories filled with laboring dark bodies, their faces almost all covered up in big black gas masks, breathing in that drapeto vapor. It make it so the slaves don’t want to fight no more, don’t want to do much of nothing. Just work. Thinking about their faces, so blank and empty, makes me go cold inside.

Against this backdrop we meet a plucky AF heroine, thirteen-year-old Creeper (given name Jacqueline). Orphaned three years prior when her mother died of yellow fever, Creeper lives in the nooks and crannies of Les Grand Murs, the Great Wall that surrounds free New Orleans, protecting it from the superstorms that plague the coast – ever since the Haitians let loose a supernatural weapon called The Black God’s Drums in order to drive Napoleon and the French from their country.

While hiding in her alcove, scoping out some potential marks, Creeper overhears a plot to deliver a Haitian scientist to the Confederacy. Supposedly this Dr. Duval has found a way to recreate The Black God’s Drums, thus unleashing the power of the Gods here on earth once again. With such a powerful weapon in their hands, the Confederacy could actually win the war. Now it’s up to a tween pickpocket, an airship captain named Ann-Marie St. Augustine (previously her mother’s paramour), a pair of renegade nuns, and a feral child descended from plantation owners to foil the plot and save the day.

And oh, let’s not forget the two sister-wife goddesses (or pieces of goddesses, rather) that have attached themselves to Creeper and Ann-Marie.

The Black God’s Drums is amazing, and my only complaint is that we don’t get to spend more time in the spectacularly captivating world Clark has created here. While Creeper shines (I’m a sucker for girls disguised as boys), every single character is multi-dimensional and engaging. I really love the interplay between Creeper and Ann-Marie – and their goddesses, Oya and Oshun. The relationship between Ann-Marie and Rose adds another layer to an already complex situation. And Sisters Agnès and Eunice are all kinds of awesome.

Clark paints a colorful and vibrant picture of 1884 New Orleans, from the mixed-race and gay-friendly bordello Shá Rouj to the crumbling plantations claimed by the swamps. The alternate history is fascinating, though it’s frustrating that we don’t learn more about the circumstances leading up to (and fallout of) the treaty; I really, really hope that The Black God’s Drums won’t be the only glimpse we get into this ‘verse. The titular Black God’s Drums, particularly how Clark weaves it into Haitian history, is just the icing on the cake.

I need more. Maybe a twenty-something Jacqueline, now a college graduate and bonafide member of the Midnight Robber, helping Ann-Marie and the rest of the crew to take down the Confederacy for good? Bonus points if guerilla fighter Harriet Tubman makes a cameo. Not to typecast her, but Aisha Hinds has to play Tubman in the film version. (She’s just too perfect, once you see the monologue episode of Underground you won’t ever be able to picture anyone else as Minty.)

And yes, this needs to be a movie like yesterday. Get on this, Hollywood.

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

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

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

A powerful piece of activism.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: 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: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

“I felt it here,” I say.

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 sexual harassment and assault, misogyny, child abuse, and homophobia.)

And I knew then what I’d known since my period came:
my body was trouble. I had to pray the trouble out
of the body God gave me. My body was the problem.
And I didn’t want any of those boys to be the ones to solve it.
I wanted to forget I had this body at all.

(“The Last Fifteen-Year-Old”)

Ms. Galiano asks about the themes and presentation style
but instead of raising my hand I press it against my heart
and will the chills on my arms to smooth out.

It was just a poem, Xiomara, I think.

But it felt more like a gift.

(“Spoken Word”)

Because so many of the poems tonight
felt a little like our own stories.
Like we saw and were seen.
And how crazy would it be
if I did that for someone else?

(“Invitation”)

Some people find novels written in verse gimmicky, but I adore them. I love poetry, but don’t always “get” it, which can be frustrating. (Or, to quote the Poet X: “I don’t always understand every line / but love the pictures being painted behind my eyelids.”) But the poems in verse novels are usually more straight forward and easier to grasp. Plus there’s something about the departure from more traditional narrative structures that just pulls me in. A novel written in verse is just what I need, every once in awhile. And The Poet X might be my favorite to date.

To say that fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista lives in a strict Catholic household is an understatement. She and her twin, Xavier (but whom X mostly refers to as “Twin” in a way that’s super-endearing) were “miracle babies,” of a sort, born when their Dominican parents were already “old” and had given up on a family. Mami and Papi’s was an arranged marriage; Altagracia would have preferred to marry God instead of the philanderer she ended up with. But she looks at Xavier and Xiomara as her reward for the misery she’s endured.

Consequently, Mami projects all her dreams of extreme religiosity and life in the nunnery onto her children – her daughter especially. Xiomara’s life is strictly regulated, from who she can associate with (talking to guys is not allowed; forget about dating!) to what she can do with her time outside of school (homework, chores, and church good; social life bad). Punishment includes hours spent kneeling on grains of rice in front of her mother’s altar to the Virgin Mary – or a slap across the face. (There’s actually worse, but giving it away would involve spoiling the plot.)

As tall and formidable as Xavier is small and scrawny, Xiomara has always settled conflicts with her fists, much to her mother’s disapproval. As she grows older, Xiomara’s discontent and disobedience only grow and swell. She challenges Father Sean as he espouses the Church’s more misogynist teachings. She falls far her lab partner, Aman, over a pair of shared earbuds at the smoke park. She commits her increasingly “treacherous” thoughts to paper. And then, when Xiomara joins the poetry club at school and eventually enters a slam contest, she commits the gravest sin of all (in Mami’s estimation, that is): she airs her family’s dirty laundry, in public.

(More below the fold…)

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

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Off to a promising start!

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 stars.

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

Book Review: Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism edited by Danielle Barnhart & Iris Mahan (2018)

Friday, April 20th, 2018

Inclusive, Intersectional, and Feminist AF

four out of five stars

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

I want to believe
I’m a better woman now
that I’m writing poems.
that when I say, poems
I mean another way
to say, revenge.

(Denice Frohman, “Hunger”)

My god understands how slave women plucked pearls
from between their legs rather than see them strung up by the neck.

(Elizabeth Acevdeo, “An Open Letter to the Protestors Outside the Planned Parenthood Near My Job”)

This little grandmother
was ordered to pull down her paintings
because the Rabbi was offended
by her version of Eve: 9 months pregnant,
unbroken & reaching for another apple.

(Ruth Irupé Sanabria, “On Mate & the Work”)

Compiled in response to the 2016 election, Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism features the work of fifty feminist activists; some established poets, other relative newcomers; from all walks of life. The collection is both timely, and depressingly timeless: sexual assault, objectification, interpersonal violence, racism, police brutality, the suppression of women’s voices, disenfranchisement, white supremacy; all are issues that we’ve been fighting for far too long. (Cue the meme, “I Can’t Believe I Still Have To Protest This Fucking Shit.”)

Some of the poems I loved; others, I struggled with; and a small handful I skimmed over altogether. The collection’s greatest strength is its inclusiveness, diversity, and breadth of voices. And yet, Women of Resistance is a little uneven, and I can’t say that I always “got” – or even enjoyed – the poems featured here. (To be fair, poetry isn’t my strong suit, and I’ve been feeling a little burned out on it lately to boot.)

THAT SAID, when a poem resonated with me, it was often a loud and resounding affair. There are some truly astounding pieces of verse in here! In particular I adored the work of Denice Frohman (“Hunger,” “A Woman’s Place”), Kimberley Johnson (“Female”), Jacqueline Jones (“Civil Rights”), Kim Addonizio “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall”), Laura Theobald (“Getting a UTI”), Elizabeth Acevdeo (“An Open Letter to the Protestors Outside the Planned Parenthood Near My Job”), Ada Limón (“Service”), Stacey Waite (“The Four Nights She’s Gone”), Patricia Smith (“What She Thinks as She Waits by the Door”), Ruth Irupé Sanabria (“On Mate & the Work”), Mary Ruefle (“Woodtangle”), Rachel McKibbens (“Shiv”), and Lauren K. Alleyne (“Ode to the Pantsuit”).

Usually I prefer reading ebooks on my Kindle, since it’s easier to highlight text and take notes this way, but this particular book looks its best on an ipad or other full-color device. There are some neat black and white protest photos here and there, and the formatting tends to stay true to the original.

(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: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (2018)

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

This is the CONFEDERATE we need and deserve.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racism and misogyny, including sexual violence.)

The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me. I guess it should have been obvious to everyone right then that I wasn’t going to have a normal life.

It was the midwife that tried to do me in. Truth be told, it wasn’t really her fault. What else is a good Christian woman going to do when a Negro comes flying out from between the legs of the richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky?

An Attendant’s job is simple: keep her charge from being killed by the dead, and her virtue from being compromised by potential suitors. It is a task easier said than done.

Every time I sit down and attempt to write this review, three things jump to mind. (Reviewing books I so thoroughly enjoyed? HARD. I never feel like I can do the writing justice.)

1. This is the Civil War-era alternate history series HBO should be throwing money at, mkay. BY THE BOATLOADS.

2. This tweet by the author, posted as I was elbow-deep in her Confederate zombie viscera.

3. THAT COVER.

Okay, now on to the review!

Jane McKeene was born on a plantation just a few days before the end of the Civil War. Only, in this timeline, the war didn’t end in a victory for either side. Rather, the North and South were forced to band together to fight a new threat – the zombies that started rising from the ruins of their battlefields.

While slavery as it was is no longer technically permissible, African-American and Native American children are conscripted to fight the dead. Middle schoolers are sent to boarding schools, where they receive training in weaponry, fighting techniques, and – in the more hoity toity institutions – proper manners and grooming. After graduation, they’re free to seek employment guarding upper-crust white folks, though they’re treated like servants, at best.

At least, this is the case up North: Jane is in training at the elite Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. The zombies that wander the desolate and mostly-abandoned landscape between settlements make communication difficult, and there’s no guessing what conditions are like for Attendants down south or out west. But when Jane and a friend stumble into a conspiracy involving the Mayor, the staff of Miss Preston’s, and Baltimore’s richest citizens, they’re kidnapped and sent to a small, dusty new outpost in Missouri, where time seems to have slipped (or been forced) backwards and Attendants are seen as disposable objects at best.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery (New Edition) by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece (2017)

Friday, February 9th, 2018

“Assimilation as Revolution.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racist violence, including depictions of lynchings.)

Zane Pinchback is a real-life superhero. But instead of a cape and leotard, he wears a suit and carries a hot comb and notebook. A light-skinned black man, Zane is an investigative journalist whose alter ego “Incognegro” pens a regular column at the New Holland Herald. Able to pass as white, Zane bears witness to crimes against African-Americans, including the wave of lynchings that swept the south after the Civil War.

Tired of toiling away in obscurity, Zane is ready to retire Incognegro for good. That is, until his editor assigns him a case that he cannot walk away from. A white woman – a prostitute with gang connections – was found dead and dismembered in Tupelo, Mississippi. A sheriff’s deputy has gone missing. And an angry mob is ready to pin it all on her boyfriend/partner, Alfonso – a man Zane knows well. It’s up to Incognegro to figure out who really killed Michaela Mathers … before another innocent man’s life is violently ended.

Loosely inspired by the life of Walter Francis White, who worked for the NAACP as an investigator and went on to lead the organization for 24 years,Incognegro is a must read. The artwork is brilliant; the murder mystery, compelling; and the historical fiction aspect of the book, both educational and heartrending. I found the blend of fact and fiction quite masterful; the whodunit plot line distracts a little from the horrors of racist violence, making those scenes a little easier to process. (“Distract” doesn’t quite feel like the right word – since the different threads of the story are so intimately linked – but it’s the best I can do.)

Though Incognegro is primarily about racism – the social construction of race; white supremacist groups then and now; racist violence at the turn of the century, and how that informs contemporary culture – Mat Johnson also explores gender and sexism. I’ll admit, when Zane patronizingly admonishes his friend Mildred that “darling, this is not really a discussion for a lady,” I bristled. Visibly, I’m sure. While certainly appropriate for the age, I was rather annoyed that Johnson let this sexism stand unchallenged. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see it called out explicitly in the discussion guide. Better still is the murder mystery’s big reveal, which includes one of my favorite plot twists of all time.

And the closing panels? Pure perfection.

Originally published in 2008, this 10th anniversary edition includes a forward from the author, as well as reading group/discussion guide and sketchbook. Following the book’s re-release is a prequel titled Renaissance. If it’s half as good as the original, I need it like yesterday. I can only hope that this is the start of a regular series.

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