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

Friday, May 4th, 2018

Lovely and heartfelt.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 27th, 2018

Wonderful idea, so-so execution.

three out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Off to a promising start!

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 stars.

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

Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (2018)

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

This is the CONFEDERATE we need and deserve.

four out of five stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. THAT COVER.

Okay, now on to the review!

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

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

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

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Sci-Fu by Yehudi Mercado (2018)

Friday, March 30th, 2018

’80s Nostalgia Like Whoah

four out of five stars

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

Thirteen-year-old Wax wants to be the best DJ in the world – but little does he know that the very fate of “Planet Brooklyn” will rely on his skills. It’s 1980-something, and young Wax is recording a song for his crush, the aptly named Pirate Polly, when he inadvertently answers an intergalactic challenge. Wax, his crew, his entire block – all are transported to a planet called Discopia, where Wax must best a giant robot named Choo Choo and his crew, the Five Deadly Dangers, in order to save everyone he loves.

There’s so much to love here, I don’t even know where to start. Sci-Fu is such a fun mashup of all things ’80s: Wax’s training montages with mentor Kabuki Snowman are like the bizarro sci-fi version of The Karate Kid, and the style left me yearning for a Fresh Prince marathon. Between Teddy Backspin (read: Ruxpin) and the Transformer-esque Choo Choo, there are a fair number of elements that could feel like rip-offs, at least in lesser-skilled hands. But Mercado walks the line between homage and pinching with ease. If you lived through the ’80s, you’re all but guaranteed to be in on the joke.

Oh, and there’s an ’80s hip-hop playlist at the end! How cool is that?

And the cast! Wax is adorable and sweet in that way that makes you want to bake him a batch of cookies and pinch his little chipmunk cheeks. His little sister D is like the animated version of Diane from Black(ish), which is to say that she’s as smart as she is diabolical, and you most definitely want to keep her happy and on your side. Pirate Polly is rad AF, and I kind of love that Mercado never bothers to explain the eye patch and nickname (which came first? Is the patch functional or decorative? Is she a distant relation of One-eyed Willie maybe?) The Ultimate Showdown with the Boom Box of Doom is one of my favorite scenes, for obvious reasons.

I also adored Uncle Rashaad, who owns an ice cream truck and speaks in ice cream flavored expletives. The back story for why Wax and D are living with him is pretty great too. I really hope we meet the ‘rents in a later installment of the series. There’s some serious superhero potential there too.

Sci-Fu is definitely on the bizarre side, but if you can embrace the weirdness, you will have a good time.

(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: Archival Quality by Ivy Noelle Weir & Steenz (2018)

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

Sometimes you root for the ghost.

four out of five stars

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

Celeste Walden has fallen on hard times. She’s struggled with anxiety and depression for most of her life, and a recent breakdown cost Cel her dream job as a librarian. So when she lands a position as live-in, night shift archivist at the mysterious Logan Museum, it seems too good to be true. And it is: before long, Cel begins to lose time and wake up in strange places. She pulls away from her long-time boyfriend, Kyle, and her already-strained relationship with her mother continues to fray. She dreams of a sad, hurt girl who roams the museum’s grounds.

Cel fears she’s losing her mind again – that is, until she sees the face of the sad girl, staring back at her from one of the photographs in the museum’s collections. Celine is real, and her ghost is stuck in the museum, calling out to Cel for help. But why? And can Cel convince her co-workers, librarian Holly and curator Abayomi “Aba” Abiola, that Celine is real?

There’s so much to love here. Archival Quality is a great mashup of supernatural ghost story, historical fiction, and semi-autobiographical memoir. There’s intrigue, villainy, self-introspection, greed, and a haunting set in a spooky museum that used to be a terrifying asylum. As a former psych student who also has anxiety and depression, I found the mental health aspect both engaging and compassionately done. The history of psychiatry – steeped in racism, misogyny, and ableism – is equally parts fascinating and horrifying, and makes compelling fodder for a ghost story. The setting of a museum/library is pretty great too, and is sure to tickle the fancy of all the bookworms out there. (C’mon, who doesn’t dream of roaming a library after dark?)

Perhaps my favorite part, though, is the cast, which is fun and interesting and diverse as heck – but in a way that feels natural and organic. I fell in love with Holly – fabulous wardrobe and bitchin’ purple-and-blue hair – from panel one, and her girlfriend Gina has an ace up her sleeve too. Aba is an enigmatic and ultimately sympathetic character. The only person I didn’t much care for is Kyle (good riddance!), who clearly cares for Cel but comes off as a bit of a nag (for lack of a better word).

Cel, though: Cel is awesome. I see a bit of myself in her struggle, and found hope in her ending. She’s just one cool broad.

Read it if you like: books and libraries; ghosts; revenge; research; museums of oddities; nefarious white guys getting their due.

(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: Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings (Kim Reaper #1-4) by Sarah Graley (2018)

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

Freaping adorable!

four out of five stars

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

Becka is totally crushing on the goth girl at school, black-clad, purple-haired Kim. What Becka doesn’t know – that is, until she inadvertently follows Kim through a portal and interrupts a cat reaping* – is that Kim wields a scythe and is the only human reaper in employ down in hell. Can their budding romance survive Kim’s super-intense, yet just part-time job? How about a buff cat guy high on energy drinks? One of the girls’ death-dates? A zombie apocalypse? Yes, this all transpires in a mere 114 pages, and it is as weird and wonderful as it sounds.

Kim Reaper is, in a word, freaping adorable. Okay, that’s two, but Kim would excuse me. Becka and Kim make a cute as heck couple, and the bizarre obstacles that inexplicably pop up in their path will just have you rooting for them all the more. I mean, two cute girls? One of them a reaper? Crushing on each other, kicking ass, reaping souls? What’s not to love?!?

Also, some of the over-the-top emotional panels are reminiscent of the Sarah’s Scribbles series, which only ups its cool quotient imho.

The only odd thing is that the writing feels a little young – like tweeny – even though the girls – err, women – are in university. It has the vibe of a middle grade story with a YA/New Adult cast.

* Bonus points for imparting a sort of personhood to nonhuman animals, even though it probably wasn’t meant as a political statement or anything.

(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: 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!)

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: I Wore My Blackest Hair by Carlina Duan (2017)

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

Poems of Loneliness, Loss, and Defiance

three out of five stars

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

I was her American
daughter, my tongue
my hardest muscle
forced to swallow
a muddy alphabet.
(“FRACTIONS, 1974”)

in Japan,
I meet a white-haired woman who
tells me her name means moon.
But I am crescent now, she says.
Soon I will disappear.
(“YEARS”)

when
a boy plumps his lip on your throat
and asks you to say something dirty
in CHINESE, you flip the sheets
and bite down, tasting trouble
and rage. in the kitchen, alone,
you devour a pickle. your white
classmate sees you. does not.
white men claim you. do not.
you are small, fierce, and evil: with
two palms and a chest. there are
boxes made for you to check.
Chinese /
American. Chinese / American.
your mom calls. she tells you to stop
writing about race. You could get
shot, she says. so you yank your hair
into a knot at the back of your neck.
so you cinch your belt tight
at the waist.
(“YOUR MOM TELLS YOU TO STOP WRITING ABOUT RACE”)

beware of the
Chink: how it bites.
(“WHAT YOU LOOKIN’ AT, CHINK?”)

#####

— 3.5 stars —

Loneliness, grief, identity, alienation, illness, love, sex, rage, immigration, culture: the poems in I Wore My Blackest Hair glide and dance and sprint (and sometimes chomp their way) all over the map, but what they all (or mostly) share in common is an almost stubborn sense of defiance. These are stories about confronting mortality, navigating interpersonal strife, and pushing back against racist microaggressions while holding tight to one’s will to keep on keeping on.

I’ve only recently started to read more poetry; my reticence stems from the fact that I don’t always “get” the stuff. I think I got the gist of each piece, even if some (okay, a fair amount) of the imagery Duan employs went over my head. Even so, it was lovely just the same. And where it wasn’t, it’s because it wasn’t meant to be. Some of my favorites include “MORNING COMES, I AM SHINY WITH IT,” “CALUMET,” “FRACTIONS, 1974,” “MOON PULL,” “I WANT MY BOOKS BACK,” and (so much yes!) “YOUR MOM TELLS YOU TO STOP WRITING ABOUT RACE.”

Incidentally, I did notice a certain pattern of repetition over time that I found a little…distracting, I guess? Certain images pop up time and again – corn and boiled eggs; pink mouths and straining muscles; hair, both head and body – almost to the point of obsession.

If I enjoyed a poet’s work, I usually look them up on YouTube afterwards; hearing them perform the same pieces is often even more powerful and moving. I couldn’t find too many videos of Carlina Duan, but this reading of “Twelve Years Old” is both stirring – and representative of the poems in I Wore My Blackest Hair.

CONTENTS

I WORE MY BLACKEST HAIR
PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE
WHAT YOU LOOKIN’ AT, CHINK?
WHEN I BOILED THE CORN
AMENORRHEA
WHEN ALL YOU WANT
CALUMET
WHAT I’VE LOST
MORNING COMES, I AM SHINY WITH IT
EAST ANN
LITTLE SISTER, AMERICAN GIRL
GAME BOY ADVANCE
LATCHKEY
BELIEF IT IS NOT ENOUGH
FRACTIONS, 1974
YOUR MOM TELLS YOU TO STOP WRITING ABOUT RACE
I WASN’T JOKING
AUBADE FOR ANGEL ISLAND, CHINA COVE
EVERYTHING’S A FLY
AT THE SUSHI RESTAURANT HE CALLS HIMSELF A GRINGO
ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN • GENERATION 1
USIS • ANGEL ISLAND, CALIFORNIA • GENERATION 0
MOON PULL
I RUN AND I RUN AND I
THEN I WOKE UP IN YOUR BED
SEVERED
HERE I GO, TORCHING
HEY, MAN
SHUT DOWN
AT THE PARTY
PACKING LUNCH ON ANN STREET
AND WHEN
I WANT MY BOOKS BACK
ZODIAC
YEARS
PICKING RASPBERRIES WITH ADAM
PLEDGE 2.0, TRIBE, ZOO

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

(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: Into the Drowning Deep (Rolling in the Deep #1) by Mira Grant (2017)

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

No one does mermaids like Mira Grant.

four out of five stars

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

Did you really think we were the apex predators of the world?

“You still chasing mermaids, Vic?” he asked.
“I’ve never been chasing mermaids,” she said. “I’ve only ever been chasing Anne.”

I’m a huge Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire fan, and her mermaid stories are among my favorites. (Zombies are grrrrrrate, but no one does mermaids quite like Mira Grant.) When I saw the prequel to Into the Drowning Deep, a novella called Rolling in the Deep, I snatched it up…but, being a mere 123 pages long, it just left me wanting more: more science (fiction), more killer mermaids, more heart-stopping suspense, more blood and gore and viscera. Somewhere in between a short story and a full-length book, it lacked the crisp concision of the former and the delicious, drawn out horror of the latter.

Enter: Into the Drowning Deep, which is exactly what I was craving. Pro tip: read Rolling in the Deep as if it was a prologue to Into the Drowning Deep. It’ll feel so much more satisfying that way.

In 2015, the Atargatis set off on a scientific expedition to the Mariana Trench. Ostensibly, their mission was to find evidence of mermaids. Really, though, they were there to film a mockumentary on behalf of their employer, an entertainment network called Imagine (think: SyFy). The hoax quickly turned into a bloodbath when they discovered what they were/weren’t looking for.

The Atargatis was found six weeks later, floating several hundred miles off course, completely devoid of human occupants. The only clue as to what became of her two hundred crew and passengers was a smashed up control room and shaky film footage showing what looked like – but couldn’t possibly be – a mermaid attack.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: peluda by Melissa Lozada-Oliva (2017)

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

poems that bristle and bite

five out of five stars

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

mami does not understand why you like holes
in your shoes, in your tights, in your gloves.
what did you want to seep through, brown girl
with bangs? a song not written about you?
really, you were being a seamstress
just like your abuela in the living room making
skirts out of curtains, just making adjustments,
just making holes in places your new skin
was supposed to be.

(“Ode to Brown Girls With Bangs”)

i don’t know if i feel in love
feel beautiful
or just feel
maybe we all need some rest

(“Self-Portrait With Historical Moments”)

I was so excited about this book that I did something I rarely do – namely, brave Adobe Digital Editions to read an ARC. (It is forever crashing my machine, okay.) Lately I’ve been digging poetry more and more and, between the book’s stunning cover and the rave early reviews, I just knew I’d love peluda. And I did! I mean, I do!

Growing up, I always felt weird and awkward and hairy – hairier than most of the other girls around me, anyway, the popular ones in particular. Okay, so maybe I’m one of the white girls Lozada-Oliva writes about in “Yosra Strings Off My Mustache Two Days After the Election in a Harvard Square Bathroom” –

the ones who don’t shave
for political reasons, the ones who took
an entire election cycle to grow
out a tuft of armpit hair

– which is to say my Italian-German self is only “hairy” when held up to modern beauty standards, e.g., not terribly hairy at all. Maybe I can’t really relate. Even so. I adored all of the twenty-one poems that make up peluda just the same.

Over on her Facebook page, Lozada-Oliva describes peluda as “my yellow chapbook about my hairy latina feels,” which seems as apt a description as any. Lozada-Oliva tackles such weighty topics as beauty, assimilation, racist microaggressions, sex, shame, depression/metal health stigma, alienation, George Zimmerman, and, yes, body hair: clumps and heads and volumes and rivers of hair. Melissa’s Guatemalan immigrant mother Josefina was/is a beautician, so her schooling started early. Her words radiate with ferocity and hunger and wit that doesn’t cut so much as claw and devour.

There’s so much to love here, but one piece really stands out: “Wolf Girl Suite,” which is really a story told in five acts. With all the elements of a feminist horror flick, I am aching to see this one adapted for the screen. Coming to a theater near you, Halloween 2021?

“Ode to Brown Girls With Bangs,” “You Use Your Hands So Much When You Talk,” “You Know How to Say Arroz con Polla but Not What You Are,” “What If My Last Name Got a Bikini Wax, Too,” and “We Play Would You Rather at the Galentine’s Day Party” are other favorites too. But they’re all pretty great.

fyi, there are a number of videos of Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s spoken word poetry up on YouTube, and it’s even more powerful in person. Lozada-Oliva’s delivery is sometimes surprisingly funny, with a dark sense of humor that isn’t always – plainly? – evident in written form (at least not to me, anyhow). Here are just two that grabbed me by the amygdala and refuse to let go.

 

Table of Contents

Origin Regimen
Maybe She’s Born With It, Maybe She Got Up Early
Ode to Brown Girls With Bangs
Lip / Stain / Must / Ache
I’m Sorry, I Thought You Were Your Mother
You Use Your Hands So Much When You Talk
AKA What Would Jessica Jones Do?
You Know How to Say Arroz con Polla but Not What You Are
My Hair Stays on Your Pillow Like a Question Mark
What If My Last Name Got a Bikini Wax, Too
The Women in My Family Are Bitches
I Shave My Sister’s Back Before Prom
We Play Would You Rather at the Galentine’s Day Party
Wolf Girl Suite
It’s Funny the Things That Stick With You
Mami Says Have You Been Crying
Self-Portrait With Historical Moments
Light Brown Noise
I’m So Ready
House Call
Yosra Strings Off My Mustache Two Days After the Election in a Harvard Square Bathroom

 

(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 Hollow Girl by Hillary Monahan (2017)

Friday, October 13th, 2017

A shrewd interrogation of rape culture – now with dark magic!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including sexual harassment, stalking, and rape.)

“The single most important thing to know about magic is that there is always a price. Making the impossible possible is difficult, as it should be, so I must weigh results against what I am willing to pay. It is never a gratuitous thing. This makes some people—people like Silas—disbelievers. They see my unwillingness to perform on command as a sign that the magic is untrue. Let them drown in their ignorance. When it is time for them to know a witch’s wrath, they will know it—and there will be no mistaking it.”

Seventeen-year-old Bethan Jones is a diddicoy: born to a Romany mother and a gadjo father, she was left in the care of her caravan’s wise woman, Drina, after the death of her mother Eira during childbirth. Her apprenticeship under the drabarni should have kept her safe – and might have, under other circumstances. But the chieftain’s son, Silas, has set his sights on Bethan. Silas is spoiled, entitled, and cruel; a dangerous powderkeg of toxic masculinity and male privilege that his father Wen (himself a recovering teenage bully) lacks the fortitude to extinguish.

So it’s no surprise when Silas’s sexual harassment and stalking of Bethan escalates to rape. Silas and his four cronies ambush Bethan and her would-be beau, Martyn, on the way home from market. The assault leaves Bethan physically and psychologically scarred – and desperate to save Martyn, who’s left for dead after the attack. With the help of Gran and her dark magic, Bethan just might be able to resurrect Martyn, while exacting revenge on her assailants too. She has three days to collect a finger, an eye, a nose, a tooth, and an ear from the five boys. What becomes of them after the harvest is entirely up to Bethan.

I was super-excited when I first heard of The Hollow Girl. Lately I’m really into rape revenge stories; as I said in my review of A Guide for Murdered Children, if done right, rape revenge stories can provide a satisfying outlet/alternative to real life, where rape is more likely to be excused and minimized than punished and condemned. Throw in the supernatural twist and diverse cast of characters, and I’m sold.

(More below the fold…)