Book Review: All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell (2018)

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

“‘Peace, love and empathy,’ Annabelle murmurs, and then we fade away.”

four out of five stars

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

“All my life, people have told me what to do or taken what’s mine. The same is true for you! We’ve been raised among pirates who call themselves gentlemen. And I’m ready to turn the tables. I’m ready to take what’s mine and maybe a few things that aren’t.”

(“The Sweet Trade” by Natalie C. Parker)

We lived. We survived to whisper our names to each other even if we could not yet confess them to anyone else.

(“Roja” by Anna-Marie McLemore)

Anna-Marie McLemore. Malinda Lo. Sara Farizan. Dahlia Adler. Mackenzi Lee. If the lovely and delightful concept of All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages wasn’t enough to have me drooling over this book, the list of authors attached to the project would have easily sealed the deal.

Though they all fall under the heading of historical fiction (fwiw, as someone who was herself a young adult during Y2K, it’s hard for me to think of a story set in 1999 as “historical”), the seventeen short stories found here stretch across a variety of genres: fantasy, fairy tale retellings, romance, etc. This can sometimes make for a jarring transition between stories, but for the most part their LGBTQ protagonists bind them together almost seamlessly.

Anthologies tend by their very nature to be at least a little uneven, but All Out is consistently enjoyable, if not downright awesome. The lowest rating I gave any one story is a three, and these are few and far between. Most of my notes are downright gushy; two stories merited a “fucking amazing!” (“Molly’s Lips” and “Every Shade of Red”); there was one “pure magic” (“Healing Rosa”); and of “The Inferno & The Butterfly” I said simply “great” (I think I was struck speechless tbh).

What I like best – other than the exquisite storytelling and abundance of imagination – is the sheer breadth of diversity. There are F/F and M/M romances, to be sure; but also trans protagonists and heroes, a fair amount of crossdressing (both as a means of subterfuge and as self-expression), and even one or two asexual characters. Some of these teens know very well who they are and are totally comfortable with it, thank you very much; while others are still in the process of learning and becoming. And there are teens from a variety of time periods, nations, cultures, and racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Picking favorites is hard! But Elliott Wake’s “Every Shade of Red” – a retelling of Robin Hood wherein Robin is a trans boy, given name Lady Marian, who is running away from a forced marriage – stands out in particular. The ending is both heartbreaking but also brimming the promise of adventures yet to come; I can only hope that it’s the first part of an ongoing series. I’d settle for the written word, but this is a story that belongs on screen.

I also fell in love with “Molly’s Lips” by Dahlia Adler. Two besties fall in love – or rather, find the courage to profess their love for one another – in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. I’m a huge Nirvana fan, and Annabelle’s revelation by linear notes was pure magic. It also reminded me of how much poorer the world is without Kurt here. Especially now, when we need all the little sparks we can get.

Anna-Marie McLemore’s writing is as beautiful and enchanting as always; inspired by the life of Leonarda Emilia, “Roja” is the story of two fierce and indomitable star-crossed lovers. (“Known to history as la Carambada, Leonarda wore men’s clothing, but became notorious for revealing her breasts to the powerful men she’d just robbed as she rode off.” How rad is that?)

And “Healing Rosa” had me cursing the stars that we have to wait so long for We Set the Dark on Fire, the debut novel from Tehlor Kay Mejia.

There are so many more wonderful stories, too many to mention. Best just pick up a copy of All Out and see for yourself.

 

Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (El Bajío, México, 1870) – 5/5
The Sweet Trade by Natalie C. Parker (Virginia Colony, 1717) – 4/5
And They Don’t Kiss at the End by Nilah Magruder (Maryland, 1976) – 3.5/5
Burnt Umber by Mackenzi Lee (Amsterdam, 1638) – 5/5
The Dresser & The Chambermaid by Robin Talley (Kensington Palace, September 1726) – 3.5/5
New Year by Malinda Lo (San Francisco—January 21, 1955) – 4/5
Molly’s Lips by Dahlia Adler (Seattle—April 10, 1994) – 5/5
The Coven by Kate Scelsa (Paris, 1924) – 3/5
Every Shade of Red by Elliott Wake (England, Late Fourteenth Century) – 5/5
Willows by Scott Tracey (Southwyck Bay, Massachusetts, 1732) – 3/5
The Girl With the Blue Lantern by Tess Sharpe (Northern California, 1849) – 3.5/5
The Secret Life of a Teenage Boy by Alex Sanchez (Tidewater, Virginia, 1969) – 5/5
Walking After Midnight by Kody Keplinger (Upstate New York, 1952) – 4/5
The End of the World As We Know It by Sara Farizan (Massachusetts, 1999) – 4/5
Three Witches by Tessa Gratton (Kingdom of Castile, 1519) – 3.5/5
The Inferno & The Butterfly by Shaun David Hutchinson (London, 1839) – 5/5
Healing Rosa by Tehlor Kay Mejia (Luna County, New Mexico, 1933) – 5/5

 

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

Mini-Review: Petra by Marianna Coppo (2018)

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

#Petra2020

four out of five stars

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

Petra is a giant, magnificent boulder: home to villages, witness to millennia of evolution, immobile and indestructible.

Or is she an egg, temporary protector of a fire-breathing dragon or a dapper baby penguin?

Or perhaps she is an island, a lush tropical paradise unto herself?

Maybe she’s all of the above, at various points in her life, to different people?

Petra is a sweet, whimsical, and empowering picture book about self-identity and discovery. The smiley little rock known as Petra is forever in the process of becoming, learning new and wonderful things about herself. She rolls with the punches, always looking on the bright side of things:

What will I be tomorrow?
Who knows?
Well, no need to worry.
I’m a rock, and this is how I roll.

Coppo’s illustrations are just the right mix of silly and sweet. If I stumbled upon Petra while out hiking, I’d bring her home too.

(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: Black Comix Returns by John Jennings and Damian Duffy (2018)

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

Meet your new TBR list!

five out of five stars

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

New to the world of comic books? Want to diversify your reading list? Looking for some STUNNING art by African-American creators? You’ve come to the right place: Black Comix Returns is collection of illustrations, comic strips, and essays by black artists.

Tbh, when I cracked this open, I was expecting to find an anthology of sorts, maybe a sampling of stories from up-and-and coming graphic novelists. This is almost as good, though: while we only get the briefest glimpse into the imaginations of each of the ninety-three artists featured in these here pages, nearly every two-page spread will leave you wanting more. Many of the illustrations are simply breathtaking, and the series descriptions had me adding titles to my Amazon wishlist like it was going out of style. The cover, easily one of the most jaw-dropping I’ve ever seen, is just a taste of the visual delights you can expect to find inside.

Additionally, the essays interspersed throughout give an added layer of context, exploring what it’s like to be an artist – and fan – in an overwhelmingly white (male) industry. Black Comix Returns isn’t necessarily the sort of book you read cover-to-cover, but do yourself a favor and make sure you hit all the essays.

I read Black Comix Returns as a pdf, but I’m sure it makes one helluva coffee table book. According to its Goodreads listing, the first title – Black Comix, which has since gone out of print – is somewhat of a collector’s item on ebay. The $29.99 list price of Black Comix Returns seems like a steal in comparison.

(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: Bingo Love by Tee Franklin & Jenn St-Onge (2018)

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

Pretty much the perfect Valentine’s Day read!

four out of five stars

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

Hazel and Mari met at a church bingo game in 1963. The girls became fast friends and, four years later, their friendship blossomed into something more. Before they’d had a chance to exchange even a handful of kisses, though, their secret was discovered, and the girls were forcibly separated by their families. Mari was sent to live down South, and both girls were forced to marry men chosen for them by their relatives.

Forty-eight years, eight children, and many grandchildren later, another chance meeting reunites the star-crossed lovers, giving each of them a second shot at happiness.

Bingo Love is such an achingly sweet and beautiful story, and I kind of love that its major imprint release is on Valentine’s Day. It made me laugh and cry – sometimes at the same time – and I’m not ashamed to say that the ending had me ugly crying onto my cat. The conclusion loops back into the beginning in a way that’s pure magic. (I actually had an a-hah! lightbulb moment when I realized what Franklin had done.)

The art is fantastically gorgeous, too: the colors, the outfits, the different styles of the times. Hazel and Mari are both fabulous AF: Hazel, with her oversized Iris Apfel glasses; Mari, with that bitchin’, DGAF white streak in her hair. This book oozes style, and it’s only fitting that Hazel takes the fashion world by storm for her second act.

Really my only complaint is that the dialogue sometimes feels stilted; unnatural, even … but don’t let this stop you from falling in love with the world Franklin and St-Onge built here. Bingo Love is a story that’s positively brimming with heart. Not to mention compassion and diversity. More, please.

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

Book Review: Pestilence, Volume 1 by Frank Tieri and Oleg Okunev (2018)

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

I’d almost rather have a zombie chew my nose off than read this again.

one out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and misogyny. This review contains spoilers.)

DNF at 75%.

The year is 1347, and the Black Death is sweeping through Eurasia. Sent to dispatch a rogue crusader in a distant kingdom, a regimen of the Church’s army known as the Fiat Lux is summoned to the Vatican to rescue the Pope. Instead they are unwittingly drawn into a vast conspiracy involving zombies, religious dogma, and Jesus and Lucifer.

On the surface, Pestilence is a pretty cool idea: what if the Black Plague was actually a zombie outbreak? The plot line is surprisingly boring, though, and I only really cared about one character, who’s killed off just as he becomes interesting.

Worse still is the dialogue. If I had a dollar for every time “cocksucker” or “cunt” makes an appearance, I could buy an entire case of Daiya cheese. (At the 5% case discount, yes, but still: that shit is expensive!) I don’t have a problem with swearing, but here it’s pathetically overdone, as if it was written by a couple of ten-year-old boys who just discovered the f-word. There’s also some pretty gratuitous female nudity [side eye], as well as a full-page pillage-and-rape panel that’s both wholly unnecessary and obnoxiously insensitive [lighting this book on fire].

(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!)

Book Review: Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History and Politics edited by Hazel Newlevant, Whit Taylor, and O.K. Fox (2018)

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

#shoutyourabortion, now in graphic novel format!

four out of five stars

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

In the editor’s note, Hazel Newlevant explains the genesis of Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History and Politics:

Comics for Choice was sparked by my outrage at the clinic closures and suffocating restrictions on abortion rights in states like Texas. It is not enough for abortion to remain technically legal; it is a moral imperative for abortion care to be accessible to all who need and want it. The right to abortion is the right to bodily autonomy, and to determine one’s own life path. When our 45th president was elected, and the future of abortion rights seemed more uncertain than ever, I couldn’t wait any longer. The very next morning, my co-editors and I set the wheels in motion to create the book you now read.

The result is, sadly, both relevant and timely; in the words of badass old broads everywhere, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.”

The anthology brings together more than sixty contributors – including women (and some trans and nonbinary folks) who have had abortions; women who were born after their mothers chose to terminate a previous pregnancy; reproductive rights advocates; clinic escorts; abortion doulas; and other feminist activists – to share their stories about abortion. Comics for Choice aims to destigmatize abortion, birth control, and family planning (but mostly abortion) by sharing personal stories from those who have undergone the procedure, as well as historical context, scientific information, and (in an especially touching piece by Jennifer Camper and Katie Fricas) a memorial to those murdered by anti-choice terrorists in the United States.

Like many anthologies, collection is somewhat uneven. Unlike most anthologies, the breadth of voices is also the book’s greatest advantage: if nothing else, Comics for Choice underscores the fact that abortion cuts across myriad lines – race, class, politics, sexuality, even gender. One in four women will undergo an abortion at least once in her lifetime; countless others will be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term due to unequal access. Comics for Choice gives people from divergent backgrounds the chance to share their stories, sometimes pairing artists with regular folks to better convey their experiences. Representation matters, and the editors have taken care to make this mantra the backbone of Comics for Choice.

As for my favorites, one piece that stands out – and will probably haunt my dreams throughout the Trump presidency – would have to be “Horror Stories” (as in “Do It Yourself Abortion Horror Stories”) by Jennifer Camper. Simple yet horrifyingly effective, the one-page comic portrays fourteen methods of DIY abortion with stark and chilling brevity. Dr. Cynthia Greenlee and Jaz Malone’s portrait of Dorothy Brown, Tennessee’s fist black woman legislator (“They Called Her Dr. D”), follows “Horror Stories” and provides a nice, fist-pumping counterpoint.

Mick Moran shares her experiences as an abortion doula in “Bearing Witness,” which had me convinced that abortion doulas must make the best, most empathetic friends ever. The last comic, Vreni’s “Nothing Feels Real (an abortion diary)” is also one of the most powerful contributions, offering an intimate look at funding, undergoing, and recovering from a surgical abortion.

Perhaps the most surprising piece, for me, was “Abortion Trials.” Based on transcripts of abortion trials from the post-WWII era, Rickie Solinger and Rachael Morrill explore how women were routinely slut-shamed and demonized – “thoroughly degraded and humiliated” – often for public entertainment, and when they were not necessarily the ones on trial. In many cases, it was their doctor’s own defense attorney dishing out the abuse.

Comics for Choice isn’t always an easy read, but it’s a necessary one – and a much-needed addition to the swell of women’s voices that continues to rise into 2017 and beyond.

(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 Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (2018)

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride—or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia—the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances—one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

Jen Wang is a cartoonist and illustrator currently living in Los Angeles. Her works have appeared in the Adventure Time comics and LA Magazine. She recently illustrated Tom Angleberger’s Fake Mustache. Her graphic novels Koko Be Good and In Real Life (with author Cory Doctorow) were published by First Second. jenwang.net

 

Like a lot of people, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Jen Wang’s YA graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker. Also like a lot of hopefuls, I was turned down for a digital copy on NetGalley. So imagine my excitement when I was invited to participate in the blog tour! (Schedule here.) Happy dances galore.

You can read my full review below (spoiler alert: it is gushing), but for now let’s talk about the theme of the blog tour: my favorite panel. My top fave is actually a huge spoiler, so instead I’ll go with a close runner-up, which is a little safer. Here, Sebastian and Frances are discussing Lady Crystallia’s debut at a beauty pageant, where she absolutely slays. Depressed over having to hide a piece of his identity from his parents and subjects – and desperately unhappy at the mounting pressure to marry – Sebastian laments his powerlessness … a feeling that only abates when he’s allowed to embrace his true self:

More than anything, this one image perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the The Prince and the Dressmaker: we’re at our most free, our most powerful, when we’re able to be our authentic selves, and share this person with the world. Luckily for Sebastian (and us!), he’s able to do just that. Bring some tissue, people, you will need it.

 

I love everything about this book!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Thanks, First Second Books!)

Young seamstress Frances is toiling away in relative obscurity when a bold ballgown design catches the eye of a mysterious patron. Before she can say “silk chiffon” three times fast, Frances is whisked away to the royal mansion, to serve as the personal seamstress of the visiting Crown Prince of Belgium, sixteen-year-old Sebastian … who sometimes moonlights as Lady Crystallia, a trend-setting, red-haired beauty.

Fearing that his passion will alienate him from his parents and future subjects, Sebastian swears Frances to secrecy. But as Lady Crystallia’s daring outfits attract more and more accolades – and scrutiny – Frances must weigh her professional ambitions against her growing friendship with Sebastian. On his end, Sebastian is under increasing pressure from the King and Queen to marry and produce an heir. But how can love flourish when part of Sebastian’s very identity is confined to the shadows?

I know it’s only January, but The Prince and the Dressmaker is destined to become one of my favorite reads of the year. The art is enchanting; the story, heartwarming; and the denouement actually elicited a very loud gasp from me. Frances and Sebastian are compelling characters, and I found myself rooting for them both, even as their desires pulled them in opposite directions.

It seems like I’ve been hearing a lot (generally speaking) about well-meaning but ultimately harmful LGBTQ stories featuring tragic characters or endings. The Prince and the Dressmaker couldn’t be further from this. While Sebastian’s outlook seems awfully dire for a moment there, ultimately he triumphs. The ending is lovely, heartwarming, and uplifting. We need more of this. SO MUCH MORE. Queer kids need to feel that more awaits them than just doom and gloom. They need hope. Also, parents and friends like the King and Queen, Frances, and Emile wouldn’t hurt, either.

I also love how Jen Wang played with different tropes and twisted gender roles into big ole messy knots. With the appearance of Lady Sophia Rohan on page four, Wang thumbs her nose at gender roles and stereotyping. The portrayal of the cross-dressing Prince Sebastian is both compassionate and exhilarating; when he confides in Frances that “It’s weird, I don’t feel like Prince Sebastian could lead a nation into battle, but Lady Crystallia could,” my heart darn near swelled out of my chest.

But my favorite scene belongs to the King: Papa Bear, dressed as a majestic woodland creature, coming to his son’s defense. Sarah Palin ain’t got nothing on this guy.

(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: Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems by Ntozake Shange (2017)

Monday, January 29th, 2018

“i am more dangerous than noreiga”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

all things are possible
but aint no colored magician in her right mind
gonna make you white
i mean
this is blk magic
you lookin at
(“my father is a retired magician”)

i haveta turn my television down sometimes cuz
i cant stand to have white people/ shout at me/
(“from okra to greens”)

we need a god who bleeds now
whose wounds are not the end of anything
(“we need a god who bleeds now”)

Wild Beauty falls into that weird, nebulous category of “poems I’m not sure I completely understand, but am mostly smitten with anyway.” A mix of new and previously published poetry from Ntozake Shange, Wild Beauty is enchanting and seductive and, occasionally, raw AF. Shange explores wide-ranging issues, including race, gender, sexuality, love, the military-industrial complex, the police state, the process of creating art, and the centrality of music in her life. As is par for the course with poetry, I wasn’t convinced that I was always picking up what Shange put down, but I was happy to come along for the ride anyway. Well, more or less: it’s true that I did skim a few of the pieces, but these were few and far between.

Among my favorites are “my father is a retired magician”; “toussaint”; “live oak”; “irrepressibly bronze, beautiful & mine”; “rise up fallen fighters”; “7 tequilas gone”; “the stage goes to darkness”; “crooked woman”; “about atlanta”; “who needs a heart”; and “pages for a friend.” I fear that “crack annie” will stick with forever, though not in a good way; the poem is written from the pov of a mother who facilitates the rape of her seven-year-old daughter in exchange for drugs, and it is simply haunting. “ode to orlando” is as well, though in a more melancholy (as opposed to nauseating) way. Written in the days after the Pulse nightclub shooting, Shange reflects on how the tragedy did – and could have – impacted her own family. (Shange’s daughter is gay and has in fact been to the club.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Black Genealogy: Poems by Kiki Petrosino and Lauren Haldeman (2017)

Friday, January 26th, 2018

A haunting cry across the chasms of time and injustice.

five out of five stars

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

You want to know who owned us & where.
But when you type, your searches return no results.
Slavery was grown folks’ business, then old folks’.
We saw no reason to hum Old Master’s name
to our grandchildren, or point out his overgrown gates
but you want to know who owned us & where
we got free. You keep typing our names into oblongs
of digital white. You plant a unicode tree & climb up
into grown folks’ business. You know old folks
don’t want you rummaging here, so you pile sweet jam
in your prettiest dish. You light candles & pray:
Tell me who owned you & where
I might find your graves.
Little child, we’re at rest
in the acres we purchased. Those days of
slavery were old folks’ business. The grown folks
buried us deep. Only a few of our names survive.
We left you that much, sudden glints in the grass.
The rest is grown folks’ business we say. Yet
you still want to know. Who owned us? Where?

In Black Genealogy: Poems, Kiki Petrosino explores her attempts to name and locate her ancestors – a matter made all the more complicated and frustrating for the descendants of slaves. Dehumanized, objectified, and stripped of their personhood, scant records exist to reaffirm the individuality, the bonds, the very humanity and being of kidnapped, trafficked, and enslaved humans. Of her search, Petrosino laments: “For a whole page, instead of talking about H, Old Master counts his glass decanters from France.” And so her journey is arduous, frustrating – at times, even harrowing.

In the second half of the book, Petrosino’s ancestors answer her call. They are angry, amused, loving: everything you imagine an aged great-grandmother to be. They cry out to her across the chasms of time and injustice, both delighting in and envying her living, breathing body.

Bookending and separating these two pieces are several untitled comics, visual adaptations of Petrosino’s poems by illustrator Lauren Haldeman. Petrosino is haunted by a Confederate reenactor, and his Cheshire cat-like like grin.

The three parts of the book – Petrosino’s prose, her ancestors’ poetry, and Haldeman’s drawings – work wonderfully together. While I do love the poems best, the various components complement each other in a way that I can only describe as masterful. The result is alternately beautiful, sorrowful, and downright chilling, as with this more-than-vaguely threatening exchange Petrosino shares with the soldier:

The essays – okay, more like modestly-sized paragraphs – in Part I are sometimes confusing but, to be fair, I think this is supposed to echo the journey of Black Genealogy: the reader’s experience is meant to mirror that of the author.

A strong 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary.

Read it with: Octavia Butler’s Kindred. For some reason, the illustrations really reminded me of the graphic novel adaptation. I blame it on the lingering, sinister grin.

(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: Elsewhere, Volume 1 by Jay Faerber, Sumeyye Kesgin, and Ron Riley (2018)

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

What happened to Amelia Earhart?

four out of five stars

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

This a fun, quick read. A more outlandish piece of alternative history told in graphic novel format, Elsewhere explores the mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart. When she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had to bail from their plane due to do engine trouble, they jumped right into a space-time portal that transported them to an alien world. Amelia is rescued by a ragtag team of freedom fighters and quickly drawn into their cause, as the groups’ missions converge. Together with another stranded earthling named D.B., Amelia and her allies storm the fortress of despot Lord Kragen in search of their friends.

The result is entertaining, if not terribly substantive. What Elsewhere lacks in plot depth and character development, it mostly makes up for with a cheeky sense of humor – not to mention a plot twist that maybe kinda sorta hinges on male entitlement and misogyny. (Whether it’s intentionally or accidentally feminist is anyone’s guess.) The artwork is stellar, and Amelia makes for a delightfully plucky protagonist. Overall Volume 1 lays the foundation for what could be a really great series.

3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 a) because I’m a generous reviewer and b) to make up for the book’s current middling 3.18 stars on Goodreads.

(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: Grrl Scouts: Magic Socks by Jim Mahfood (2017)

Friday, January 19th, 2018

Hard pass.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for sexist and racist language, as well as rape jokes/threats.)

DNF around 33%.

This is my first exposure to the Grrl Scouts series, and it quickly became apparent that my expectations were way off base. Instead of a rad girl gang of feminist besties, kicking ass and taking all the things, what I got was a rather disjointed story about a bunch of women treating each other like shit, sometimes – but not always – in the pursuit of a pair of cursed extraterrestrial socks.

The artwork is easily the book’s best feature; raw and unpolished, it has a street graffiti feel to it. I loved it even when it veered from weird into straight-up confusing (e.g., the fight scenes).

The general plot line isn’t even that bad, or at least going on what I read of it. The dialogue tries a little hard to be uber-hip and campy, but it’s at least good for a laugh now and again. What I didn’t love – what caused me to throw in the towel – was the constant use of racist and sexist slurs (cunt, twat, the n-word), as well as the odd rape joke/threat. It’s like Mahfood tried his best to be as “un-PC” as possible. What a rebel! Gag.

(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: Three-Fifths a Man: A Graphic History of the African American Experience by Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colón (2018)

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Essential Reading

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review from the publisher, Hill & Wang.)

– 4.5 stars –

This is actually the second graphic novel by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón that I’ve read in as many weeks – though it didn’t quite register until I was several chapters in. I won a copy of their previous book, The Torture Report: A Graphic Adaptation, in a Goodreads giveaway; and, while I ultimately recommended it, this was due more to the book’s Very Important subject matter than its successful execution. Heavy on text and with a flow that proved hard to follow, The Torture Report was a bit of a slog.

While Three-Fifths a Man: A Graphic History of the African American Experience is similar in style and form to The Torture Report, the narration is infinitely more succinct, engaging, and intuitive. I can count on one hand the number of times I got lost between panels; and, though this still isn’t ideal, it’s a huge improvement over The Torture Report, which led me astray on nearly every page. The chronology also makes more sense, with fewer time jumps; when Jacobson and Colón do flit back and forth in time, it’s in a way that feels natural and doesn’t confuse the reader or disrupt the narrative.

Don’t get me wrong: Three-Fifths a Man is still pretty heavy on text, but given the breadth of the topic, it never feels tedious or repetitive. This sits in stark contrast to The Torture Report, where everything after the first third of the book felt like a bad case of déjà vu.

The title perfectly encapsulates the content of Three-Fifths a Man: from the beginning of African slavery in the so-called “New World” to the birth of the Movement for Black Lives, this is a graphic history of the African American experience. Jacobson and Colón cover a pretty stunning range of events in a mere 179 pages, including but not limited to the trans-Atlantic slave trade; the Civil War; Reconstruction; the rise of the KKK and other white nationalist hate groups; Jim Crow; WWI and the great migration; the Depression and FDR’s The New Deal; WWII, and the (gradual) opening of the US military to black soldiers; the rise of the Dixiecrats; the New Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era; Reagan’s War on Drugs and the advent of the New Jim Crow; the beating of Rodney King and the focus on police brutality and racism; and ending with the election of our first black president, Barack Hussein Obama (and I absolutely do not include his middle name as an insult here).

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Cry Your Way Home by Damien Angelica Walters (2018)

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

Walters is at her best when she’s playing Frankenstein with fairy tale tropes.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence against women and suicide.)

Once upon a time there was a monster. This is how they tell you the story starts. This is a lie.
(“Tooth, Tongue, and Claw “)

Don’t be fooled by the breadcrumbs in the forest. This is not a fairy tale.
(“A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take”)

You won’t catch me in my underwear. I sleep in my fucking coveralls.
(“The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter”)

Between the oft-quoted “Once upon a time there was a monster…” line (reproduced above; I just couldn’t help myself!), and the deliciously dark story titles, I was practically frothing at the mouth to read an early copy of Cry Your Way Home. Alas, this collection of short stories – an eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale retellings, and the stray piece of contemporary fiction, all bound by a fierce undercurrent of feminism running throughout – is more of a mixed bag than I’d hoped. There are a few gems here, but also a good many underwhelming and ultimately forgettable stories, too.

The collection opens on a strong note with “Tooth, Tongue, and Claw,” easily my favorite of the bunch. A mix of Beauty and the Beast and The Handmaid’s Tale (or perhaps “The Lottery”), the story ends with a surprising twist that’s as satisfying as it is lurid. A mashup of various fairy tales/spin on the entire genre, “A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take” is equal parts beautiful, chilling, and cautionary. While I think Walters is at her best when writing in this wheelhouse, I also quite enjoyed some of her science fiction; “The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter,” “Take a Walk in the Night, My Love,” and “The Floating Girls: A Documentary” are all worth a read or two or three.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Babyteeth, Volume 1 by Donny Cates and Garry Brown (2017)

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

“I Was a Teenage Apocalypse”

four out of five stars

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

Sadie Ritter is sixteen, pregnant by some d-bag, and hiding it from everyone but her older sister, Heather. As if that’s not enough to deal with, her newborn baby boy Clark (after Superman! I legit snorted at that one.) is either a demon spawn, or the future King (of what, we don’t know, seeing as Volume 1 cuts out so quickly). In just the first few weeks of motherhood, Sadie’s had to contend with a mohawked assassin, a demon racoon unwittingly summoned from a hell dimension by her son, an honest-to-goodness warlock, and two warring factions of mysterious Illuminati-type fanatics who want to destroy/worship little bloodsucker Clark. A mother’s work is never done, amirite?

Babyteeth is … a lot of fun. It’s got a dark, cheeky sense of humor that gets you laughing at unexpected moments, and I loved the pop culture references – everything from Buffy to REM – which are sprinkled throughout in just the right amount. I mean, just check out the single issue titles!: “Another Hellmouth to Feed”; “I Was a Teenage Apocalypse”. (They’ll age well, I expect.)

The art is a little rough for my taste, but the cover gallery in the back is stunning, so probably it’s an intentional stylistic choice. I dug most of the characters, even though there’s not a whole lot in the way of character development, or at least not thus far. The collection does end pretty suddenly, though – I thought the first collection could use at least one more issue to provide a little clarity.

3.7 out of 5 stars? I usually roll my eyes when people get so specific, but this is too good for a mere 3.5, and not quite good enough to merit 4 stars. I’ll definitely pick up Volume 2 when it comes out, but I won’t exactly be popping out of my skull with anticipation until then. (RIP, little chickens. RIP.)

(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: Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant (2017)

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

Goes down like cotton candy.

four out of five stars

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

Just your average polyamorous romance story: a lesbian dominatrix from Oregon and a bisexual cartoonist from New York meet and fall in love, despite their geographic challenges (‘You’ll be my New York girlfriend!’) and other lovers (who, spoiler alert, are wonderfully supportive). It’s a sweet story with eye-popping illustrations (the colors! so sumptuous!) and a healthy, progressive approach to sexuality and dating.

Really my only complaint is that it’s so short. More, please! I need to know how Argent and Hazel handle the long-distance thing! And it would be totally rad to see that dinner party with the lovers and the ex-lovers!

Happily, I just downloaded an anthology of comics about abortion, Comics for Choice, which – and I didn’t realize it at the time – is edited by Newlevant. So that’s a pretty great consolation prize, anyway.

But seriously, Return to Sugar Town? Anyone?

(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: Wild Embers by Nikita Gill (2017)

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

“She is alone. | And oh | how brilliantly she shines.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for allusions to rape and interpersonal violence.)

We are the blood
of the witches
you thought were dead.

We carry witchcraft in our bones
whilst the magic still sings
inside our heads.

When the witch hunters
imprisoned our ancestors
when they tried to burn the magic away.

Someone should have
warned them
that magic cannot be tamed.

Because you cannot burn away
what has always
been aflame.

(“Witch”)

It is the law of the universe
that even ghosts understand
as long as they matter to someone
they still exist and in your heart
they stand.

(“Ghost Story”)

I really wanted to love this collection of poetry more than I did – although this isn’t to suggest that I didn’t enjoy it. Nikita Gill’s poetry is powerful, passionate, and fiercely feminist. With Wild Embers, she fans the flames of rebellion – against a culture so steeped in misogyny and sexism that it’s taken as the norm, the default, the air we breathe – and at a time when we need it, desperately. Whether reimaging sexist fairy tales and myths or challenging abusers – including her own – Gill’s words cut deep, to the bone. They’re also accessible and satisfying, in a way that poetry isn’t always.

Yet she often employs similar imagery and themes, such that the poems start to feel a little repetitive by the final quarter of the book. Less might be more here. Also, I wish she’d taken the idea of giving each part its own unique theme and run with it a little harder. The first section is so clearly about humanity’s relationship to the cosmos, the starstuff that coalesces in our atoms and spirits … and yet, with the exception of parts III and VI (fairy tales and mythology, respectively), she mostly abandons themes (or at least more apparent ones) after so skillfully priming her audience for them.

Overall, though, it’s a valuable collection of poetry, raw and full of hope and resistance.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story by Debbie Tung (2017)

Friday, December 15th, 2017

I could have used this book twenty-five years ago.

four out of five stars

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

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World is a memoir in graphic novel format. Author/illustrator Debbie Tung explores the growing pains of adulthood … made all the more agonizing and confusing by her introversion. As she struggles to maintain a proper level of sociability – first as a graduate student, then as a member of the workforce – Tung wonders what the heck is wrong with her? When she stumbles upon a personality test online one day, it all clicks: she’s not broken, just different.

I have social anxiety; I’m probably an introvert, too. I wasn’t exactly sure how much I’d relate to Tung’s life but, as it turns out, it’s like looking in a mirror. Whether it’s celebrating the cancellation of a much-dreaded get together, lying awake obsessing over an embarrassing episode that transpired years ago, or spending the remainder of the day napping to recuperate from an hour-long appointment, many of these could be scenes from my own life.

Yet these are pretty common manifestations of social discomfort and malaise, especially in the modern era, where technology often circumvents face-to-face interactions. It’s when Tung’s more specific weird quirks hit home that my mind was well and truly blown.

Humiliating parent-teacher meetings about your shyness? Check.

(My sixth-grade teacher actually set me up with another girl, on account of we were both so quiet and friendless. Like can you imagine?)

Fantasizing about eloping in order to avoid the public spectacle of a wedding? Check.

(My husband and I did elope, in Las Vegas. The only witness? The secular priest. My mom tried to send some family along and was super-pissed when I begged off.)

Not being able to make a phone call around other people? Yup, I’m afraid so.

Honestly, it just got freaky deaky after a while. It’s like she cracked my skull open and was crawling around inside my mess of a brain.

The artwork is sweet and complements the story nicely; the color scheme is a muted grey, which suits the story’s melancholy feeling. Topics like this can get real dark, real fast (seriously, just read my journal. Or don’t!), and there are some rather depressing panels, but overall it’s pretty gentle and forgiving. It’s clear that Tung has found a place of acceptance and self-love (or at least understanding), which lends the book a hopeful vibe.

Along with Hyperbole and a Half and the Sarah’s Scribbles collections, this is a book that I’ll keep on my bedside table and return to in the future, whenever life feels like it’s just too much. A must read for introverts, the terminally shy, those with social anxiety – and the people who love 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: Helium by Rudy Francisco (2017)

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

Reflections on race, gender, mental illness — and love, naturally!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads.)

Your God stole my God’s identity.
So next time you bend your knees,
next time you bow your head
I want you to tell your God
that my God is looking for him.
(“To the Man Standing on the Corner Holding the Sign That Said ‘God Hates Gays'”)

Once, a friend of a friend asked me
why there aren’t more black people in the X Games
and I said, “You don’t get it.”
Being black is one of the most extreme sports in America.
(“Adrenaline Rush”)

Some days I forget that my skin
is not a panic room.
(“My Honest Poem”)

###

The first poem in Helium, “Water,” took my breath away – and more or less set the tone for the entire volume.

I have a terrible time reviewing poetry; I can’t tell you whether a poem is “good,” technically speaking, only if I liked it. Even then I fear I’m a poor barometer, since I’m as likely to understand it as not.

But Rudy Francisco’s poetry is accessible AF. Also daring, insightful, passionate, and unfiltered. I especially adore the poems that tackle mental illness – which is no surprise, as I struggle with anxiety and depression myself, and thus find this genre incredibly relatable and applicable to my own life.

Many of these pieces appear in Parts I and II; but it’s those poems centered on social justice issues (Part III) that really stunned me speechless. “Adrenaline Rush,” “Rifle II,” “To the Man Standing on the Corner Holding the Sign That Said ‘God Hates Gays'” — these poems will stick with me long after Helium claims its permanent home on my bookshelves. Not that it will stay there indefinitely: this is a book I’m likely to revisit again in the future.

Though Francisco is at his best when writing about social justice issues – toxic masculinity, misogyny, religious intolerance, art as resistance, police brutality, etc. – I cared less for his love poems. Though I suppose it could just be the jaded, 39-year-old widow in me silently screaming, “Please don’t be a love poet!”

I also actively disliked “Complainers” (to paraphrase: if you’ve never had to saw your own arm off with a rusty butterknife, stfu!), which is kind of a bummer: the second-to-last poem in the book, it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

I rarely read physical books anymore – I’m more an ebook kind of gal – but I found the font a little on the small side, and unnecessarily so, since many of the pages are dominated by white space. Borderline hard-to-read for my nearly middle-aged eyes.

These are all fairly minor complaints, though, given the sheer genius and raw emotion embodied in Helium.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: 30 Days to Joy: A One-Month Creative Journal by Waterbrook (2017)

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

Would make a nice gift for Christians.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Blogging for Books.)

I have a bit of an addiction to journals, even though I don’t write nearly as often as I should/mean to. That said, 30 Days to Joy isn’t something I’d normally buy for myself, since it’s explicitly geared towards Christians. So, grain of salt.

As the title implies, 30 Days to Joy is unusual, as far as journals go, in that it’s meant to be completed in a month (although there’s nothing stopping you from taking as long as you want; while each exercise is labeled “Day 1,” “Day 2,” and so on, you could just as easily pencil in the date next to it, if you prefer). Each day features a different prompt that encourages you to reflect on the topic of “joy,” whatever that means to you.

Examples of this include:

* How is joy different from happiness?

* In pencil, write those things that most frequently steal your joy. Next, in a colorful pen or marker, write ways you can choose joy in those situations.

* If joy were a person in your life, who would it be and why?

* Write down and illustrate a quote or Bible verse that brings you joy.

As you can see, the exercises featured are a mix of secular and Christian prompts, with the majority skewed secular. However, most of the quotes peppered throughout the book are explicitly Christian, including a fair number of Bible verses. For this reason, I wouldn’t even assign the more general “New Age” or “spiritual” labels to this book; it’s really just meant for Christians, which is kind of shame, because we could all use more joy in these dark times, don’t you think?

Aesthetically, the book is pleasing to the eye; the interior color theme is red and white, making this a great Christmas gift. The cover has a rich, textured feel, which is undercut a bit by the large white sticker containing copy placed on the back cover.

The dimensions of the book are small, which normally bugs the heck out of me – but the book is thin enough that it’s easy to write in. There’s enough room to respond to each prompt, too.

Great idea, though the execution isn’t for everyone.

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