Book Review: The One Hundred Nights of Hero, Isabel Greenberg (2016)

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Quite possibly the most beautiful graphic novel I’ve ever read. ALL THE STARS AND MOONS.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for threats of rape.)

They luxuriated sinfully in that most beautiful of all things: The written word.

All those stories you have told, all those wonderful stories…
They are nothing to OUR STORY. People will tell it in years to come…
And they will say, that was a story about Love.
And about two brave girls who wouldn’t take shit from anyone.

Lesson: Men are false. And they can get away with it.
Also, don’t murder your sister, even by accident. Sisters are important.

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, in a land called Early Earth, there lived two star-crossed lovers: Cherry, a fair and lovely young woman from the Empire of Migdal Bavel, and her maid, Hero.

Despite her vaguely masculine name, Hero was a young woman as well – and a servant and runaway, at that – both conditions which conspired against their love. Cherry’s father insisted she marry a man who could provide for her; and so, after dodging his demands for one blissful summer (spent in the arms of Hero, of course), Cherry finally acquiesced. Luckily, Hero was able to accompany Cherry to the castle of her new husband, Jerome, where she stayed on as Cherry’s maid – and her secret lover. Like many of the men in Migdal Bavel, Jerome was a rather dim-witted and arrogant misogynist, you see, so Hero and Cherry were able to outwit him with minimal effort.

And then one day Jerome made a foolish bet with his friend Manfred, a man a little less stupid but a whole lot crueler than himself.

2016-12-28 - 100 Nights of Hero - 0004 [flickr]

If Manfred could seduce his ‘obedient and faithful’ (*snort!*) wife Cherry, then Manfred would win Jerome’s castle. If not, Manfred’s castle would become Jerome’s. Jerome would feign a business trip, giving Manfred a full one hundred days to execute his fiendish plot.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Imprisoned: Drawings from Nazi Concentration Camps, Arturo Benvenuti (2017)

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

#Resist

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, as well as an electronic ARC on Edelweiss.)

Humanity continues to kill, to massacre, to persecute, with increased ruthlessness. Before eyes that are increasingly indifferent, passive. When not complicit. There’s no pity for the elderly, for women, for children. There’s no pity for anyone anymore. Man is wolf to man, today as much as – and more than – yesterday.

The older generations seem to have learned very little; the new ones don’t seem to want to learn any more. Wars continue to sow slaughter. Behind the barbed wire of new concentration camps, it has gone one; humanity has gone on being suppressed.

Most of all, this book aims to be – attempts to be – a contribution to the just “revolt” on behalf of those who feel like they can’t, in spite of everything, resign themselves to a monstrous, terrifying reality. Those who believe they must still and always “resist.”

– Arturo Benvenuti, “Without Words”

Born in 1923, Arturo Benvenuti – poet, painter, researcher, accountant, and banker – was just a young man during World War II. Yet his lack of civil engagement haunted him for decades, and the feelings of guilt and powerlessness – reflected in his poetry – eventually proved the impetus for the KZ Project.

In September of 1979, at the age of fifty-six, Arturo and his wife Marucci loaded up their camper and began what would become a lifelong journey: traveling throughout Europe, visiting former Nazi concentration camps (including Auschwitz, Terezín, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald), and meeting with as many survivors and veterans as he could. He also combed through local history museums, public libraries, and public archives, trying to piece together “visual testimonies” of the camps.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: History Is All You Left Me, Adam Silvera (2017)

Monday, January 16th, 2017

“history is how we get to keep him.”

four out of five stars

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

You’re still alive in alternate universes, Theo, but I live in the real world, where this morning you’re having an open-casket funeral. I know you’re out there, listening. And you should know I’m really pissed because you swore you would never die and yet here we are. It hurts even more because this isn’t the first promise you’ve broken.

I’m a seventeen-year-old grieving his favorite person.

We first meet Griffin Jennings on Monday, November 20th, 2016. It’s been exactly one week since his best friend and ex-boyfriend Theo McIntyre died: drowned in the Pacific Ocean while his new love, Jackson Wright, watched helplessly from the shore. Now Theo’s East Coast/West Coast lives are about to collide – over his casket, no less – as Jackson and Griffin meet for the first time at his funeral. Only things don’t play out exactly how you’d think.

Theo was most of Griffin’s firsts: first date, first kiss, first time, first love. Childhood friends, they came out to each on the L train; weeks later, they came out to their parents, together. (This was a happy scene, the sort of which all LGBTQ kids deserve.) Griffin always knew that he’d have to say goodbye to Theo, who’s one year older/ahead of him in high school – but his early admission to the animation program at Santa Monica College sure upended the timeline. Griff broke up with Theo the day before he left, thinking he’d spare himself the pain of eventually becoming the dumpee – and, just two months later, Theo began seeing Jackson. Drama, heartbreak, passive-aggressive sniping, and betrayal ensue.

We’ve all been there before. Except Theo ups and dies before any of it can be resolved, and Griffin and Jackson (not to mention Wade, the third member of the Manhattan squad) are left to sort through the detritus of a life too shortly lived.

To complicate matters further, Griffin suffers from OCD – mostly manifested in directions (left is good) and numbers (odd is bad) – which is getting progressively worse in Theo’s absence and death.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own, Veronica Chambers, ed. (2017)

Friday, January 13th, 2017

A bittersweet love letter to the outgoing FLOTUS.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of racism and misogyny.)

Barack and Michelle Obama served this country for two terms as President and First Lady of the United States of America. Imagine that. America shaped in the image of a black man—with a black woman by his side. Even after eight years of watching them daily in the press, the fact that the most powerful man in the world is a Black man is still breathtaking to me. The fact that he goes home to a tight-knit, loving family headed by a Black woman is soul-stirring. That woman is Michelle. Michelle! That name now carries a whole world of meaning. And a whole world of memory. And a whole world of a magic.

(“Preface,” Ava Duvernay)

Thank you, Michelle, for showing a generation of women, including me and my daughter, what it means to dwell in possibility.

(“Acknowledgements,” Veronica Chambers)

For all of my adult life – the entire time I’ve been paying attention to politics, really – I’ve vastly preferred our president’s wives over their husbands: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and now Michelle Obama. (The same will probably hold true of Melania, but it’s an impossibly low bar, okay.) No matter their political allegiances, the FLOTUSes (FLOTI?) tend to be a least a shade more progressive than their men, especially when it comes to “women’s issues” like reproductive freedom. Not that they’re allowed to voice these views: American prefers its First Ladies be seen, not heard, functioning as little more than their husbands’ appendages or cheerleaders. “Stepford Wives-in-Chief,” Tiffany Dufu puts it. Remember how viciously then-FLOTUS Hillary was shot down for daring to advance health care reform?

Michelle Obama is in a league of her own, though. Like many Americans, I was captivated with her from Day 1. I loved that she refused to play the role of the bland, devoted wife; a blank canvas onto which Americans/voters could project their versions of ideal femininity. She spoke of Barack like he was a regular guy, rather than an up-and-coming rockstar politician. Yet it was evident that these two crazy kids were deeply in love. She (and her family) was a lightning rod for every bit of racist and sexist excrement the right could throw at her, yet Michelle handled it with grace and finesse. We watched as Lady O. – and her style – evolved from first to second term; she went from high-power lawyer to high-fashion mom, as described by Tanisha C. Ford (“She Slays”). She had fun, was comfortable in her skin, and was perfectly imperfect.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden (2017)

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and child abuse.)

“What happened?” she asked.

“My fish are gone! Some durak from the village must have come and …”

But Vasya was not listening. She had run to the very brink of the river.

“It’s not yours!” she shouted. “Give it back!” Kolya thought he heard an odd note in the splash of the water, as though it was making a reply. Vasya stamped her foot. “Now!” she yelled. “Catch your own fish!” A deep groan came up from the depths, as of rocks grinding together, and then the basket came flying out of nowhere to hit Vasya in the chest and knock her backward. Instinctively, she clutched it, and turned a grin on her brother.

“A prophecy then, sea-maiden.”

“Why do you call me that?” she whispered.

The bannik drifted up to the bench beside her. His beard was the curling steam. “Because you have your great-grandfather’s eyes. Now hear me. You will ride to where earth meets sky. You will be born three times: once of illusions, once of flesh, and once of spirit. You will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, weep for a nightingale, and die by your own choosing.”

Marina, thought Pyotr. You left me this mad girl, and I love her well. She is braver and wilder than any of my sons. But what good is that in a woman? I swore I’d keep her safe, but how can I save her from herself?

Vasilisa Petrovna is born to a lord and a princess, on the edge of the Russian wilderness, many centuries ago. She comes on the tail of the first howling winds of November, and her mother Marina leaves the earth shortly thereafter. Vasya is raised by her four older siblings – Kolya, Sasha, Olga, and Alyosha – and her mother’s aging nurse, Dunya. And, to a lesser extent, her father Pyotr Vladimirovich: every time Pyotr looks into the face of his screeching child, he sees the ghost of his dead wife. So mostly he avoids dealing with her too much.

With time, Vasya grows wild and bold, just like Marina intended. She can see creatures that others cannot, the chyerty of the old religion: The domovoi, household-spirits who guard the home; the vodianoy in the river and the twig-man in the trees; the vazila, who are one with the horses; the rusalka, the polevik, and the dvornik. Vasya feeds them with bread and friendship; she fortifies their strength and, in return, they teach her their secrets: how to talk to animals, swim like a fish, and climb trees like no human child should be able to.

Marina’s mother, you see, had the gift of second sight. While Marina had only a little of her mother’s gifts, she knew that Vasya would have even more. Much more. A prophecy told her as much. Yet in a Rus’ caught between the old religion and Christianity, Vasya’s neighbors whisper that she’s a witch who cavorts with demons. The arrival of Father Konstantin only deepens the rift between worlds, as do the snow, fire, and famine that follow swiftly on his heels. Though she just wants to keep her family and her village safe, Vasya will soon find herself caught in the middle of a struggle between two ancient forces.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (2017)

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Stories about survival; stories we need now more than ever.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for domestic violence, child abuse, and rape.)

There once was a man. There is always some man.

You too have always been popular. I have seen the evidence in your childhood bedroom, meticulously preserved by your mother. Even now, you have packs of men following you, willing to make you their strange god. That is the only thing about you that scares me.

“I want a boy who will bring me a baby arm.”

“Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

Difficult Women brings together twenty-one short stories by Roxane Gay, all of which have previously been published elsewhere (or multiple elsewheres), most in slightly different forms and some under different titles. (I included the TOC at the bottom of this review; alternate titles are listed last, in parentheses.) However, the publications are so varied that it’s unlikely that you’ve seen, read, and/or own them all.

This is actually rather surprising to me, since the stories – published over a span of ~5 years – gel so well together. It really feels like each one was written specifically with this anthology in mind. The collection’s namesake, “Difficult Women,” perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the whole. Like the short story, this is book about loose women and frigid women; difficult women and crazy women; mothers and wives, daughters and dead girls. Women who have faced the unspeakable – rape and sexual assault; miscarriages or the death of a child; abuse and self-harm; alcoholism and alienation – and come out the other side. Not unscathed, but alive. These are stories of survival.

Usually I find anthologies to be somewhat uneven, but not so here. Every story grabs you by the heart and threatens to squeeze until it pops, right there in your chest cavity. Gay’s writing is raw and naked; grim, yet somehow, impossibly, imbued with hope. While some are straight-up contemporary, other tales are a strange, surreal mix of the real and unreal: In “I Am a Knife,” a woman fantasizes about cutting her twin’s fetus out of her body and transferring it to her own, the way she once did with the heart of a drunk driver who collided with their car, nearly killing her sister.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Love and First Sight, Josh Sundquist (2017)

Friday, January 6th, 2017

Not as bad as I’d feared – but not as good as I’d hoped.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

A door swings open, dinging a bell. I recognize the next sound: the deliberate but controlled steps, treading gently, as if she’s trying not to leave footprints. I’ve never seen a footprint, of course, but my understanding is that the harder you press, the more of an impression you leave behind.

Sixteen-year-old Will Porter has attended boarding schools and summer camps for blind and visually impaired kids his whole life – but now it’s time to go mainstream. Will wants to finish out his high school career in his hometown of Toano, Kansas – even if it’s over the vociferous objections of his over-stressed helicopter mom. Unfortunately, Will’s first day in public school is a bit of a disaster: he gropes a random girl in the stairwell, makes a fellow classmate cry, and plops down on yet another student’s lap in the caf.

But Will quickly finds his niche in Toano High School. He takes a shining to journalism, where the teacher – Mrs. Everbrook – treats him like every other student. He partners up with and eventually befriends Cecily, whose knack for photography complements Will’s way with words. He falls in with Nick, Ion, and Whitford who, along with Cecily, represent the entirety of Toano High’s academic quiz team. Will even convinces Cecily to try out for the morning announcer cohosting gig, despite her obvious – and inexplicable – reluctance.

And then, just a few months into the semester, Will’s mom drops a bombshell in his lap. At the hospital where his father works, there’s an experimental surgery to “cure” blindness that’s accepting applicants. The operation is a two-stage process: a retinal stem cell transplant, followed by a corneal transplant within two weeks. Even if it’s successful, the surgery comes with a whole bunch of risks: Will’s body could reject the new corneas, while the immunosuppressant drugs will leave him susceptible to common illnesses such as the flu. If the new eyes “take,” Will will have to rewire his brain to properly perceive and process all the unfamiliar, overwhelming visual input. It’s not as simple as waking up and being able to see; rather, Will will have to learn how to perform this new task that his eyes and brain have never done before.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: The Killer in Me, Margot Harrison (2016)

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

Meh.

three out of five stars

Seventeen-year-old Nina Barrows knows all about the Thief. She’s intimately familiar with his hunting methods: how he stalks and kills at random, how he disposes of his victims’ bodies in an abandoned mine in the deepest, most desolate part of a desert.

Now, for the first time, Nina has the chance to do something about the serial killer that no one else knows exists. With the help of her former best friend, Warren, she tracks the Thief two thousand miles, to his home turf—the deserts of New Mexico.

But the man she meets there seems nothing like the brutal sociopath with whom she’s had a disturbing connection her whole life. To anyone else, Dylan Shadwell is exactly what he appears to be: a young veteran committed to his girlfriend and her young daughter. As Nina spends more time with him, she begins to doubt the truth she once held as certain: Dylan Shadwell is the Thief. She even starts to wonder . . . what if there is no Thief?

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

DNF at 64%.

Honestly, I just found this book underwhelming. Perhaps my boredom was mainly due to the curse of misplaced expectations: I pictured an antihero in the vein of Alex Craft, but what we get is an indecisive, somewhat timid, and blandly average teenage girl. You know, except for the serial killer whose mind she shares when dreaming.

Making matters worse is the introduction of Nina’s childhood friend/teenage drug dealer, Warren. The story is told from their alternating perspectives, even though Warren really doesn’t add much to the narrative. He has even less of a personality than Nina, and there’s absolutely zero chemistry between the two (though I assume they hook up by the end of the book).

He’s also the one who tries to rationalize Nina’s visions, leading to scene after tedious scene of self-doubt. This also gives rise to some weird plot stuff; for example, even though there’s never been any question in Nina’s mind that her connection to Dylan only goes one way, she sets up a series of tests to see if she can trick him into acknowledging her existence. Like, why though? They…don’t prove anything?

Anyway, the book isn’t terrible; I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough about anyone to finish it. I think if you shaved 100 pages off you’d have a much more tense and compelling psychological thriller.

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

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, Wesley Lowery (2016)

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

A crucial look at the birth of the Movement for Black Lives.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of racism and violence.)

It wasn’t until hours later that our arrest began to sink in. I’d arrived in Ferguson two days earlier thinking I’d be there for just a couple of days. I’d write a feature or two, and then I’d go back to DC and to writing about politics. But as I paced the carpeted floor of my hotel room in downtown St. Louis that night, it became clear that I wasn’t escaping Ferguson anytime soon.

Resident after resident had told more stories of being profiled, of feeling harassed. These protests, they insisted, were not just about Mike Brown. What was clear, from the first day, was that residents of Ferguson, and all who had traveled there to join them, had no trust in, and virtually no relationship with, the police. The police, in turn, seemed to exhibit next to no humanity toward the pained residents they were charged with protecting.

Ferguson would birth a movement and set the nation on a course for a still-ongoing public hearing on race that stretched far past the killing of unarmed residents—from daily policing to Confederate imagery to respectability politics to cultural appropriation. The social justice movement spawned from Mike Brown’s blood would force city after city to grapple with its own fraught histories of race and policing. As protests propelled by tweets and hashtags spread under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” and with cell phone and body camera video shining new light on the way police interact with minority communities, America was forced to consider that not everyone marching in the streets could be wrong. Even if Mike Brown’s own questionable choices sealed his fate, did Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland all deserve to die?

Journalist Wesley Lowery had just moved from the Boston Globe to the Washington Post when the shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson rocked Ferguson, Missouri – and then the world. Though he had his heart set on covering politics, Lowery was quickly dispatched to Ferguson, where his arrest just two days into the protests drew national attention. Along with Ryan Reilly from the Huffington Post, Lowery was escorted out of a local McDonald’s where he’d been working; despite the officers’ smug attitudes (“Oh, you’ll be charged with a whole lot of things.”), Lowery spent just twenty minutes in a Ferguson holding cell before being released.

What began as a short business trip snowballed into Lowery’s new beat, covering law enforcement and justice. Once Lowery and his colleagues started paying attention, they found cases of police brutality, excessive force, and corruption cropping up all over the country. Some weeks, the young reporter barely had time to catch his breath in between assignments, so frequent are police shootings. (According to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, police fatally shoot roughly 1,000 civilians per year. Local police departments are not required to record these numbers, nor is there a federal database to track them.) Lowery and his team would eventually win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their coverage of police shootings.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Red-Blooded American Male: Photographs, Robert Trachtenberg (2016)

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Cheesecake Galore!

five out of five stars

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

If I could give this book ten stars, I’d still complain that ten isn’t enough, that the rating scale is rigged and/or incapable of handling a title of this magnitude. Red-Blooded American Male: Photographs IS THAT GOOD.

2016-11-29 - Red-Blooded American Male - 0004 [flickr]

I mean, just take a gander at that cover. Will Arnett! In fishnets! And black combat boots! Squeezed into a slinky dress and splayed on a swanky couch, looking all emo! Like some random dude just mansplained how the backlash against Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot is really about authenticity and faithfulness to the source material, not sexism and misogyny, you silly girl you! Or maybe it was some diatribe about Gamergate and journalistic integrity. It doesn’t really matter, because he stopped listening several drinks ago. Mind: blown, but in the worst way possible.

Red-Blooded American Male is a collection of photographer/filmmaker Robert Trachtenberg’s (mostly) celebrity photography, from 1994 to the present day. There are actors, singers, athletes, entrepreneurs, chefs, models – even a few children, paired with the occasional woman and/or dog. (Meryl Streep arm wrestling Tommy Lee Jones is a definite keeper.) I was only familiar with, like, half of them; many I’d never heard of. Some none of us will have; for example, little Caleb Ivison, whose mom traded some editing work for Trachtenberg for a photo shoot of her kids. Anyway, consider my interest sufficiently piqued. (This only applies to the 18-and-over crowd, obvs.)

Spoiler alert: not all of Trachtenberg’s subjects are American. (I’m down with bending the rules for some of the guys, but Justin Bieber? Really? Throw in a Ryan Reynolds doing his Deadpool shtick and maybe we’ll call it even.)

2016-12-18 - Red-Blooded American Male - 0007 [flickr]

The photos are uniformly stunning, with a mix of black-and-white and full-color images. At 10″x13″, the book is nice and big, and so are the photos; each one occupies at least a full page, with some spanning two. Each image deftly captures the personality of its subject, with a fun and eclectic mix of tongue-in-cheek sexy/cheesecake; goofy and playful; sophisticated and classy; dark and moody (Jimmy Fallon legit looks ready to jump; someone make sure he’s okay, yes?); and straight-up bananarama bonkers.

2016-12-18 - Red-Blooded American Male - 0008 [flickr]

Many of the photos are accompanied by a brief description of how the shoot went down; these tend to be super-funny and greatly enhanced my appreciation of the artwork. See, e.g., Janes Van Der Beek’s “Tush,” “More Tush,” and “Even More Tush”; or how Bryan Fuller’s nighttime routine is meant to “restor[e] sensations first felt in the womb.” I found myself nursing an intense sense of disappointment when a photo – especially a favorite, or of an actor or celebrity I fancy – went un-commented upon. But I guess the way to look at it is, maybe these stories were meh and would have turned us off, so better to omit them altogether?

My favorites include Judd Apatow, with his cheeseburger baby bump;

2016-12-18 - Red-Blooded American Male - 0010 [flickr]

a fierce Jimmy Kimmel cosplaying as Daenerys Targaryen; Bryan Fuller, with his moisturizing gloves and dog pile;

2016-12-18 - Red-Blooded American Male - 0002 [flickr]

Bryan Cranston being moody AF; the recreation of Herb Ritts’s iconic 1989 naked supermodel huddle, done with the cast of Jackass; Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, from way back when they were on Comedy Central, naturally; the morning after Bob Saget’s drug-fueled romp with a furry; Kevin Hart being pulled along the beach by a Great Dane/small pony;

2016-12-18 - Red-Blooded American Male - 0005 [flickr]

the acid trip-like John Leguizamo montage; and Denis Leary feeding a…barnyard full of Chihuahuas?

2016-12-18 - Red-Blooded American Male - 0006 [flickr]

I don’t know what’s going on there, but I want in. (I’m a crazy dog lady, can you tell?)

Oh, and Jeff Garlin on the treadmill in the middle of the forest? Strangely endearing, if only because I could imagine Murray Goldberg doing something stubbornly nonsensical like that. (Dear ABC, please publish his attempt at scrapbooking on the internets. TIA!)

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner sharing an embrace is hecka sweet, though I found myself wishing it was Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian Mckellen. Those two are my OTP of elderly white guys.

2016-12-18 - Red-Blooded American Male - 0011 [flickr]

Okay, so they’re all kind of awesome. YOU NEED THIS BOOK. Get it, now! Then go buy a copy for your elderly grandmother / recently divorced mom / college aged, still-figuring-himself-out younger brother / amateur photographer aunt. Basically anyone and everyone, male or female, gay or straight, genderqueer or pansexual. It’s silly, it’s sexy, and it’s even a little subversive. David Bowie would be right at home here.

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

Audiobook Review: Afterward, Jennifer Mathieu (2016)

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

A surprisingly gentle story about trauma, recovery – and finding support in the most unexpected of places.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape/childhood sexual abuse.)

Caroline

Maybe it’s Jason McGinty’s weed or my own desperate, clawing attempt to try to do something to help Dylan, but I get an idea. The beginning of one, anyway. Something hazy and weird and probably screwed up.

Ethan

Groovy notices the brush in my hand and flips over, squirming in excitement. His tail even wags. I’d have to be a pretty big asshole not to brush this dog right now.

Eleven-year-old Ethan Jorgenson is out riding his bike one warm Texas afternoon when a car runs him off the road. Before he can even process what’s happening, Ethan finds himself crammed on the floor of a truck, surrounded by cigarette butts and Snickers wrappers, a gun pressed to his head. For the next four years, Ethan is held captive by a middle-aged man named Martin Gulliver.

Though Ethan’s abduction is big news in Dove Lake, the police have zero leads to go on. That is, until Marty snatches another boy, eleven-year-old Dylan Anderson, meant to be Ethan’s “replacement.” Shortly before he went missing, Dylan’s neighbor noticed the boy walking around outside, alone – which is unusual, since Dylan has low-functioning autism and never goes out unsupervised. Around the same time, she spotted an unfamiliar black pickup truck with severe damage to the rear bumper. The police traced the vehicle to Marty’s workplace in Houston, a hundred miles away; when they approached him, he slipped out the back of the restaurant and shot himself in the head. When they searched Gulliver’s apartment, they were shocked to find not one, but two missing boys: Dylan and Ethan.

This story is about what happens afterward: the slow and painful recovery that comes after an unimaginable trauma.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book, Mel Elliott (2016)

Friday, December 16th, 2016

A little on the plain side.

three out of five stars

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

Like many ’80s kids, my first encounter with David Bowie was the 1986 film Labyrinth. Along with Heathers and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I devoured it over and over on a loop; one year, I even dressed as Jareth for Halloween. (Or tried to, anyway. My makeup game wasn’t exactly on point.) Whereas the vast majority of my childhood favorites haven’t held up so well over the years, Labyrinth is one of the notable exceptions.

As I grew older, I also became immersed in Bowie’s music, thanks to my dad. It wasn’t until I became an adult, though, that I began to fully appreciate Bowie’s influence on pop culture, whether by challenging gender norms, offering a more fluid vision of sexuality, or confronting racism in the music industry. Bowie’s death at the beginning of the year is just one of many catastrophes that would make 2016 one of the worst years in recent memory.

Mel Elliott’s David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book celebrates Bowie’s life, in all its weird glam glory. Though I’m not totally sold on the adult coloring book phenomenon – who’s got the time? – I decided to give it a try because, hey, David Bowie!

2016-11-16 - David Bowie Coloring Book - 0004 [flickr]

While I love the idea, the execution is rather so-so. Each layout features a scene from Bowie’s life on the right, accompanied by a brief summary on the left. So far so good, except: the lettering on the text is quite large and hollowed out, so that you can color it in. While this works for maybe one layout or two, the design starts to feel repetitive after awhile. Additionally, there’s very rarely a background design – either on the text-side or the portrait-side – giving the book a rather plain and un-Bowie-like feel.

I would’ve liked to have seen more variation in the presentation of the text; for example, using a regular, solid, twelve-point font in some areas would have allowed the author to go into greater biographical detail. Or just expand on the artwork. Coloring in block letters gets pretty boring after awhile. Compared to previous coloring books I’ve tried, this one’s definitely on the simple and uncomplicated side.

2016-11-16 - David Bowie Coloring Book - 0003 [flickr]

As for the retrospective, I’d assumed that it would focus primarily on Bowie’s music – but this is mostly overshadowed by his fashion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it really just depends on your expectations and preferences.

Bottom line: the overall design isn’t really my bag, but that doesn’t mean that other Bowie fans won’t like it.

2016-11-16 - David Bowie Coloring Book - 0006 [flickr]

2016-11-16 - David Bowie Coloring Book - 0001 [flickr]

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

DNF Review: Kill the Next One, Frederico Axat (2016)

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Not for me.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Obvious trigger warning for suicide and other forms of violence, including animal abuse.)

Ted McKay was about to put a bullet through his brain when the doorbell rang. Insistently. He paused. He couldn’t press the trigger when he had someone waiting at the front door.

DNF at 58%.

Recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, thirty-seven-year-old Ted McKay has decided to end things on his own terms. He plans his suicide meticulously: he draws up a will, settles his affairs, and sends his wife Holly to her parents’ home in Florida for the week, begging out at the last minute “for work.” He locks his office door and leaves a note on the outside, so that his daughters Cindy and Nadine won’t accidentally barge in and be the ones to discover his corpse.

He’s poised to pull the trigger when an insistent knocking upends his resolve. It’s a smarmy-looking lawyer named Justin Lynch who – somehow, improbably – knows what Ted’s about to do. He doesn’t aim to talk Ted out if it, but rather has a better way. And so Ted’s recruited into a sort of suicide daisy chain. The price of admission? Assassinate one Edward Blaine, a well-known d-bag who murdered his girlfriend, but got off “on a technicality.” (Really the forensic team bungled the job, but you say tomato….) Then Ted just has to kill a fellow suicidal member, and it’s his turn. With his death disguised as a hit or perhaps a robbery gone wrong, Holly and the girls are spared the pain of knowing that Ted chose to kill himself. It’s a win-win!

Only not so much, since things aren’t exactly what they seem.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea, Ben Clanton (2016)

Monday, December 12th, 2016

2016-10-14 - Narwhal Unicorn of the Sea - 0003 [flickr]

Come for the narwhals, stay for the under-the-sea waffle parties.

four out of five stars

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

Good thing that waffle is a kung fu master!

Every time I pick up Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea, I picture Season Eight Leslie Knope reading it to her triplets before bed.

I mean, there are waffles! With a strawberry sidekick! Fighting robots! And they also know how to party!

null

2016-10-15 - Narwhal Unicorn of the Sea - 0001 [flickr]

I’m 99.9998% certain that Narwhal the narwhal is Leslie Knope’s daemon in an alternate universe. (That pinprick of doubt? Stems from the shocking lack of waffle toppings. Like, where’s the whipped cream? The chocolate sauce? The gorram sprinkles?!)

So, like, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of a graphic novel for kids. As it turns out, it feels a lot like a picture book, but with panels like a comic book. It’s definitely meant for younger readers, but that’s okay! Adults can still enjoy it too. It’s silly and weird, but also hecka cute and kind of a fun distraction. And don’t we all deserve a little escapism after the dumpster fire that has been 2016?

2016-10-15 - Narwhal Unicorn of the Sea - 0002 [flickr]

The book’s comprised of five short stories that follow a narwhal named Narwhal who’s found himself in strange waters. He befriends a perplexed little jellyfish; forms his own pod, with the help of shark, blowfish, and octopus; shares his favorite book (don’t get the pages wet!); throws a super-awesome party; and celebrates all things waffle-related.

2016-10-15 - Narwhal Unicorn of the Sea - 0003 [flickr]

In summary:

2016-10-15 - Narwhal Unicorn of the Sea - 0012 [flickr]

(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: Forever in My Heart: A Grief Journal, Tanya Carroll Richardson (2016)

Friday, December 9th, 2016

Probably fair to categorize this grief journal as “nondenominational Christian with a New Age vibe.”

three out of five stars

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

In a little over three years, I lost four rescue dogs (out of seven) and a grandmother (just two!). Needless to say, this decade is not getting off to the greatest start. When I saw a copy of Tanya Carroll Richardson’s Forever in My Heart: A Grief Journal up for grabs on Goodreads, I threw my name in the hat. I’m addicted to guided journals, and this one seemed especially timely for me. Even though it’s clearly meant for humans, I thought that maybe – with a few tweaks and a generous amount of creative interpretation – I could adapt it for use it for my forever dog/soul mate/daemon Kaylee.

Forever in My Heart is very thorough and detailed, which I didn’t entirely expect; so many of the guided journals I’ve tried are vague bordering on terse. Each page is packed with several (between two and four) prompts; some sentences have multiple fill-in-the-blanks, so it’s hard to give an accurate count. You’re provided with a few lines to answer; the exact number kind of depends on the nature of the prompt.

2016-10-06 - Forever in My Heart - 0004 [flickr]

A few of my favorite prompts:

– A funny memory of you I recently laughed about with someone
– I think of you especially during this time of day because
– I had this really crazy, silly dream about you since you passed on
– Your passing inspired me to make some positive changes in my life, like
– A book I read or a TV show I saw since you died that reminded me of you
– My favorite way you used to show me you love me

The journal is a good size, 8 3/4″ x 5 3/4″. Anything smaller and it can be difficult to write in. (Think: the thick, mass market paperback-sized design preferred by PotterStyle.) The lines are maybe a tick larger than college ruled; big enough to work with, but not large enough that they waste space. The paper isn’t super-thick, but it’s substantial enough that a standard ballpoint pen isn’t likely to bleed through.

2016-10-06 - Forever in My Heart - 0007 [flickr]

The journal is a little more religious than I anticipated, given the book’s synopsis on Goodreads. I think it’d be fair to call it nondenominational Christian with a New Age vibe; there are lots of references to heaven, prayer, spirits, and angels. I’m an atheist, so this isn’t really my jam, but I’m used to overlooking and compartmentalizing. Books on death and dying tend to have some degree of religiosity built in, so.

Even so, this one really gave me a workout: There’s a whole chapter called “You are forever in my heart…but you are also in Heaven, and I am trusting that’s where you’re meant to be.” Contrast this with the previous chapter, “You are forever in my heart…and that’s why I can still feel you here with me,” which I vastly prefer. (Also, all the angel talk? Totally caught me off guard.)

More bothersome is that some of the prompts sound an awful lot like the well-meaning but insensitive platitudes so often directed at the recently bereaved: “She’s in a better place.” “At least he isn’t suffering anymore.” “She’s with God in Heaven now.” All the mindless sayings that minimize, dismiss, and erase the pain, grief, and loss you’re all but drowning under. (A better opening? “Tell me about him.” Listen, don’t lecture.)

2016-10-06 - Forever in My Heart - 0001 [flickr]

2016-10-06 - Forever in My Heart - 0003 [flickr]

Overall I think the journal’s okay; it’s not what I would have chosen for myself, if I’d been shopping around for one, but it’s not the worst. More religious folks will probably warm up to it more than I did. Probably not the best choice for a beloved nonhuman friend, but I’m gonna make it work.

(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 Supergirls: Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines (Revised and Updated), Mike Madrid (2016)

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Wonder Woman for President

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC through Edelweiss and a finished copy through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

After The Supergirls came out, something interesting happened. I got emails from readers who had no idea that there had been female superheroes in the 1960s, much less in the 1940s.

This is a difficult book for me to review. I’m rather new to the world of comic books, having only gotten into them in the past five years or so. With the exception of Brian Azzarello’s New 52 Wonder Woman, I’ve mostly avoided the long-running superhero titles; the sheer volume is just overwhelming! Like, where to start?

(Incidentally, The Supergirls has convinced me to avoid anything not published in this millennium – again with the exception of Wonder Woman, or at least Wonder Woman as written by William Moulton Marston. The early stuff is almost comically sexist and not worth my time. Well, except for the occasionally bizarro plotline, like when Supergirl falls for her horse Comet. Tina Belcher would approve.)

Instead I mostly gravitate toward more recently created series (Saga, Sex Criminals, Pretty Deadly, Bitch Planet, Monstress) and those based on stories I know and love from other mediums (Firefly/Serenity, Orphan Black, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stephen King’s The Stand and The Dark Tower; I’m damn near jumping out of my skin waiting for Octavia Butler’s Kindred!). My knowledge of most superheroes and villains stems primarily from the big and little screen adaptations; Fox’s animated X-Men series is a childhood favorite.

That said, from my neophyte perspective, The Supergirls seems thorough, meticulously researched, and well-thought out. Madrid’s writing is fun and engaging, though The Supergirls is best digested in small bites: the scope of the topic can be overwhelming at times.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Everything Belongs to the Future, Laurie Penny (2016)

Monday, December 5th, 2016

Entertaining and thought-provoking, this novella left me wanting more. (Sooooo much more!)

five out of five stars

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

“All I wanted was to make something small and bright and good, something that lasted a little while, a little while longer than I did. All I wanted was to push back against the darkness just a little bit. To live in the cracks in capitalism with the people I care about, just for a little while. But it turns out I can’t even have that. And now I just want to burn shit down.”

It’s the turn of the century – the 21st, to be exact – and humanity has finally discovered the fountain of youth. It comes in the form of a little blue pill that will cost you $200 a pop on the black market; a little less, if you’re one of the lucky few who has insurance. Most don’t, as this “weaponization of time” has only exacerbated class inequality.

Only the wealthiest citizens can afford life-extension drugs; regular folks deemed “important to society” – scientists, artists, musicians, the occasional writer – may receive a sponsorship to continue their work, but ultimately they live and age and die at the whim of those more powerful than they. Show a modicum of concern for the working class, and you just might find your sponsorship revoked.

Alex, Nina, Margo, Fidget, and Jasper are a group of artist/activists living in a dilapidated, mouse- and mold-infested flat in the underside of Oxford city. They work day jobs where they can find them, but their real passion is playing at Robin Hood. A few times a week, they load up their food truck with cheese sammies or mystery stews made of reclaimed food, and distribute free meals to Oxford’s neediest citizens. At the bottom of each foodstuff is a happy meal surprise: a little blue pill, most likely stolen. One per person, no second helpings.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Night Voyage: A Magical Adventure and Coloring Book, Daria Song (2016)

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

A Whimsical & Kindhearted Premise, Coupled With Intricate & Stunning Artwork

five out of five stars

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

This is only the second adult coloring book I’ve owned, and I had no idea what to expect from a book billed as an “adventure and coloring book.” As it turns out, The Night Voyage is primarily a coloring book, but with several pages of introductory text to provide some background to the story and fuel your imagination.

It’s the eve of the little girl’s birthday, but sadly she will spend it alone (save for her cat, Phoebe): mom and dad will be away on a business trip. But they left her a huge stack of presents to unwrap, almost by way of apology. Feeling understandably lonely, she fantasizes about sharing her gifts with other kids her age, meeting new people and maybe even making a few friends in the process. Before she knows it, she’s drifted off. That night, with the help of her toy train set (now life-sized), a flock of paper cranes, and her trusty friend Phoebe, the little girl goes on a night voyage, making her daydreams a reality. (Spoiler alert: she wakes up to a giant stack of pancakes. Mom and dad either never left, or just completed the ‘verse’s shortest business trip ever.)

2016-10-06 - The Night Voyage - 0011 [flickr]

Daria Song’s artwork is sumptuous: whimsical and imaginative, and packed with lots of surreal and fun scenes. The drawings are intricate and highly detailed; most likely you’d categorize this as an intermediate to advanced coloring book. There are quite a few tiny little lines and shapes, and a steady hand is a must for some of the scenes.

2016-10-06 - The Night Voyage - 0007 [flickr]

The book is a near-perfect 10″x10″ square, and many of the drawings stretch across two pages, lending them an even grander air.

2016-10-06 - The Night Voyage - 0013 [flickr]

There’s even a Visual Index at the end – each layout has a name – as well as a cut-out greeting card that you can decorate yourself. I also love the few blank frames scattered throughout the book; you can either sketch in your own favorite people, or cut a photo to fit and paste it in there.

2016-10-06 - The Night Voyage - 0003 [flickr]

The pages are thick and sturdy; you’d really have to use some elbow grease to press through to the other side. The paperback book comes with a dust jacket (look underneath! there’s printing on both sides!), and the naked cover is quite lovely on its own.

The Night Voyage would make a wonderful Secret Santa gift or stocking stuffer, especially for book lovers: You’ve got to love a coloring book that features drawings of book piles inside!

(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: Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing, Lauren Beukes (2016)

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women.)

a is for algebra

“It’s all equations,” she says. “It’s all explainable.” Like we could break down the whole universe into factors and exponents and multiples of x. Like there is no mystery to anything at all.

“Okay, what about love?” I shoot back, irritated at her practicality.

And she ripostes with: “Fine. xx + xy = xxx.”

She has to explain the bit about chromosomes. This is her idea of a dirty joke. Later, I wonder if this was also her idea of a come-on.

(“Alegbra”)

Don’t worry, she repeats, her back to him, laying out things with serrated edges and conducting pads and blunt wrenching teeth. You can’t dehumanize something that isn’t human.

(“Unaccounted”)

Pearl looks back at the protestors. One of the handwritten banners stays with her. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it reads.

(“Slipping”)

I love Lauren Beukes, and I generally dig short stories – especially those belonging to the SF/dystopia genre. So I was pretty psyched to get my hands on an early copy of Slipping, Beukes’s very first collection of short fiction and non-fiction essays. (There’s also 2014’s Pop Tarts and Other Stories, which I’m not counting since it’s comprised of just three short stories – all of which appear here.)

Slipping starts off a little meh; not meh-bad, but meh-disappointing for a writer of this caliber. The titular “Slipping,” told from the POV of a sixteen-year-old girl who was recruited by investors and remade into a bio-engineered athlete after losing both legs in an accident, boasts some wonderful world-building – but the story’s religious aspects ultimately turned me off. Much to my relief, things start to pick up with the fourth story, “Branded” (corporate-sponsored nanotech) and mostly just get better from there.

The fiction generally has a science fiction/dystopian bent, with a few fantasy and contemporary pieces mixed in. There’s even a fairy tale of sorts: a modern-day retelling of “The Princess of the Pea” that’s both a critique of celebrity culture and an ode to female masturbation that (spoiler alert!) is all kinds of awesome. While all are unique and imaginative, a few themes are common across many of the stories: transhumanism, e.g. through technological advancements in prosthetics, nanotech, neuroanatomy, etc.; an erosion of privacy/the rise in the surveillance state; and a rise in corporate control, most notably over our bodies and selves.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Santa’s First Vegan Christmas, Robin Raven & Kara Maria Schunk (2016)

Monday, November 28th, 2016

Have yourself a caring little Christmas / Let your heart be full.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: The author sent me a free e-book in exchange for an honest review.)

Okay, I won’t even try to play. This book legit made me cry.

Dana is spirited little reindeer calf, living free in the Arctic tundra. It’s the night before Christmas, and she and her friends are racing and dancing and frolicking in the snow and ice, having a grand old time. Their celebrations are oh-so-rudely interrupted by the thundering of sleigh bells. It’s Santa, and he’s come to recruit a new reindeer for the team. He sets his sights on sprightly Dana, and no wonder: she’s positively bursting with joy and energy.

But dear old Santa is about to get schooled. Dana balks at the harness Santa tries to throw on her, instead giving him a lesson in kindness, compassion, and respect for all beings.

Santa, look. I know you meant no harm.
You’re just going along with the cultural norm.
But horses pulling carriages, reindeers pulling sleighs?
It’s all got to end. And I mean starting today!

Worry not, young ones! Christmas isn’t doomed, but transformed. Dana agrees to help Santa, but as an equal. They deliver toys to all the world’s boys and girls, but during their annual merry-making spree, Santa and Dana also free captive fishes, birds, and horses; deliver farmed cows, pigs, and chickens to sanctuaries; and break the chains that doom countless backyard dogs to isolated and lonely existences. In a lovely show of solidarity, Santa and Dana also help those humans in need, delivering food to the hungry and cash monies to the impoverished. (It’s a temporary fix, sure, but maybe save Murray Bookchin and The Shock Doctrine for the high school years?)

Santa’s First Vegan Christmas is a must-read holiday story for vegans of all ages. I’m 38 and childfree and, like I said, I was positively bawling by story’s end. Parents are sure to love its message of equality, not to mention the fresh rhymes and consistent ethics. It’s hard to know what to expect of vegan-friendly books – after all, there are as many reasons to go vegan as there are vegans! – but Santa’s First Vegan Christmas checks all the right boxes. Farmed animals, working animals, companion animals, human animals – the inherent worth of all creatures is celebrated. Robin Raven even drops the s-word (as in sentience, silly!).

Robin Raven’s lovely and uplifting story is complemented wonderfully by Kara Maria Schunk’s illustrations. The colors aren’t limited to the traditional holiday palette of green, white, and red, but rather feature a shock of bright oranges, deep purples, and sky blues. The bold mix brings to mind the various images of the Aurora Borealis I’ve marveled at over the years. (And no wonder, given the setting.)

(More below the fold…)