Book Reviews, books

Summer Is for Comics

Earlier this month, NPR released the results of their summer comics and graphic novel poll.

I could honestly die a happy woman because My Favorite Thing Is Monsters made the list, along with Through the Woods and Bitch Planet.  But it’s me, so obviously I have thoughts about the list and some favorites that didn’t make the cut.

In somewhat particular order, here is my addendum of 12 favorite graphic novels I love just as much, whether they receive NPR recognition or not:

  1. Asterios Polyp (David Mazzucchelli)
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    The tragic story of a pretentious professor of architecture whose designs have never been built.  Somehow he still manages to be sympathetic and human if not especially likeable. With the added bonus of beautiful illustrations, ghosts of dead twins, and more parallels to Greek mythology than you can shake a stick at.
  2. Berlin (Jason Lutes)
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    Not least because I’ve been waiting for vol 3 for 9 years.  NINE.  (In his latest interview, Lutes claimed the last volume should be out next year, but I’ll believe it when I see it.)  Striking black-and-white illustrations with keen attention to period detail combine with memorable characters to create a compelling story.  Silvia the communist street brawler is my favorite (of course).
  3. Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (Mary and Bryan Talbot)
    Dotter of Her Father's Eyes
    Scholar Mary Talbot and her cartoonist husband tell a story that works as both a biographical portrait of Joyce and personal memoir.  Talbot draws parallels to Joyce’s troubled relationship with his daughter and her own difficult relationship with her father, a renowned Joycean scholar.
  4. Ethel & Ernest (Raymond Briggs)
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    Though The Snowman is his most famous work, this biography of Briggs’s parents is my favorite of his works.  Ethel and Ernest seem to be the only unchanging fixtures as time passes in 20th century London.  This quiet portrait of everyday life for a middle class London family is fascinating and exactly the kind of history I love to read about.
  5. Giant Days (John Allison)
    Giant Days #19
    Funny and touching story about a group of friends navigating their way through university.  Be warned this gets way too real at times as the characters face disappointment, failure, and some steep learning curves on the way to adulthood…but at the end of the day, the characters’ relationships are there to help them bounce back.
  6. The Fade Out (Ed Brubaker)
    23093372This 1940s noir-style story of murder and the seedy underbelly of Hollywood glam makes this so far up my street it’s not even funny.  The story begins with the murder of an actress, but of course we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface on the shady goings-on underneath the glitz of show business.
  7. Super Spy, Mind MGMT, and pretty much anything else by Matt Kindt
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    His illustrations and inking are gorgeous, and things are never as they seem in his work. Frequently his stories revolve around tough ladies in espionage dealing with a gritty, unglamorous reality—my favorite kind.
  8. Widdershins (Kate Ashwin)
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    Magic in a Regency England setting with a series of sarcastic badass ladies and appropriately incompetent men!  This webcomic is such a delight to read and is all free online.
  9. The Green River Killer (Jonathan Case)
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    I was reluctant to pick this up because I find a lot of true crime stories sleazy and just badly written. Case avoids sensationalizing the story here (as much as possible), taking time to examine the investigation and its toll on the police force.  I would add The New Deal and anything else by Case as well—I have yet to read a book of his I haven’t enjoyed.
  10. Shutter (Joe Keatinge)
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    This is mostly here because I adore the talking cat alarm clock that keeps our protagonist company and I really need one of my own.  Also noteworthy are the LGBTQ characters and their story lines in this fast-paced comic whose many twists and turns will keep you guessing.
  11. Princeless:  Raven the Pirate Princess (Jeremy Whitley)
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    Though I haven’t kept up with this series, volume 1 is hilarious and makes a deliberate effort to represent women of color, multiple sexual orientations, and various body types.  The commentary here is smart and so relevant…plus who would turn down a story about an all-female pirate crew?
  12. Alabaster: Wolves (Caitlin Kiernan)
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    An albino teen is guided by angels to destroy vampires, demons, and all sorts of sinister creatures in the swamps of an eerily empty South Carolina.  Things get interesting right away as our protagonist begins to doubt her guardian angel and is drawn to a girl who may be something other than she appears.  Vol 1 is a compelling mixture of action and eerie silences in a decidedly Southern Gothic tradition.

Needless to say, my TBR list has now grown to an unmanageable length thanks to all of the titles include on NPR’s list (including Blacksad, a noir about a black cat PI?!?!?).  What are you reading this summer?

Cover photo by Laetitia Buscaylet on Unsplash
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Book Reviews, books

Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

Speak

Louisa Hall

336 pages

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Speak is a science-fiction novel featuring artificial intelligence, totalitarian responses to uncannily lifelike AI, and computer prodigies, but its focus (like all sci-fi that I can think of, frankly) is on humans and humanity.  Hall explores humanity by weaving several different storylines together.  I admit I’m a sucker for novels in which seemingly separate stories come together, and much of the force driving this novel forward comes from piecing together where the connections are.  Refreshingly, I found all of the stories compelling and never felt the urge to skip through any of the sections.

We follow the history of the human search for meaning through time, beginning with Mary, a young Puritan dreading the life she will have with a new husband in the New World.  Mary’s narration is possibly my favorite as it’s full of energy, intelligence, and overconfidence in her understanding of the world.

A close second is the fictionalized letters of Alan Turing, which reveal his brilliance and isolation.  Hall perfectly balances the tragic elements of his life with his energy and wit.

Hall smoothly transitions us into the sci-fi elements of the story, beginning with a scientist hoping to reconnect with his wife.  His wife, on the other hand, is much more interested in speaking with the AI he helped develop than saving their marriage.

We jump farther forward in time to hear from a scientist and inventor imprisoned for life for his role in creating extremely lifelike AI that served as companions for children, which have since been banned.  However, after this type of AI is banned, an entire generation is left with physical and emotional illnesses, unable to form meaningful connections with humans.

Like virtually every other work tackling AI, Speak considers what it means to be human if we can create machines that can replace the appearance, interaction, and emotional work that humans perform.  Does AI make us more or less human?  And can we consider AI itself human?

There is a certain amount of sadness to the stories told here, but this novel is more of an exploration than a tragedy.  All of the consequences the characters suffer, no matter how terrible, ultimately arise from curiosity and the need for understanding.  If anything the tragedy lies in the number of characters who inevitably make themselves unknowable and unknowing in their search for a connection.

I’d call this sci-fi with an emphasis on language and a haunting/hopeful tone.  For fans of Margaret Atwood and weirdly Colum McCann?  Beautiful prose, you guys.

The Rating:

5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Book Reviews, books

Book Review: The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of the Gods

Unlike 75% of series I’ve started reading, I actually finished this one!  Thoughts on books 2 and 3 of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy follow.  Warning:  there are some spoilers.

The Broken Kingdoms

N.K. Jemisin

Total pages:  432

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When we left Yeine in book 1 of the series, there had been some major challenges to the structures of power in both the god and mortal realms.

One of the mortals making sense of the events of book 1 is Oree, a blind artist who sells her goods in the literal lower level of the capital (in a brilliant move, Jemisin has the Arameri section of the capital literally float above everyone else).

This story is more of a mystery as Oree attempts to figure out why, as a mortal, she is in possession of some god-like abilities as well as who is responsible for a series of godling murders in the city.

Oree is cool, but not anywhere near as cool as Yeine.  Additionally, the god who gets the most attention in this volume is Itempas, that unyielding asshole who killed his sister and enslaved his brother.  You might think that after being stripped of his powers, banished, and forced to prove his worthiness as of the end of book 1, that Itempas might be a more sympathetic character.  But nooooooooooooooooooooo, he’s still a dick and does nothing to earn the kindness Oree shows him.  There’s also a rather heartbreaking murder that might make you uncharitably think Itempas should have died instead, even though that’s not how murders work.

Overall, this one feels like a bit of a repeat of book 1 but with less interesting characters, and a mystery that is solved too early.  Add to this a surprise baby plus the fact that I just cannot stand Itempas, and I really didn’t enjoy this one.

The Kingdom of Gods

Total pages:  613

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Shifting perspective yet again, we get our first book in the series narrated entirely by a godling, Sieh.  If you pick up this series, you will immediately recognize Sieh as the trickster figure of the gods.  He frequently adopts the form of a child and maintains a playful innocence, though he has certainly caused as much death and destruction as any of his other godling siblings.  Unfortunately, Sieh’s appearance means a lot of really disturbing things happened to him while he and the other godlings were enslaved.  So, rather interestingly, Sieh is perhaps the only god in fiction who is a survivor of sexual abuse.

As book 3 opens, Sieh has bonded with Arameri siblings and sworn enemies Shahar and Deka.  Remember how the Arameri are the ruling class who enslaved the gods in book 1?  Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah.  I think what’s most annoying about this book is how unclear the timeline is; it’s definitely been some time since the events of book 1, but I could never figure out how much time has passed.

Anyway, as Sieh makes a vow to be to be Shahar and Deka’s bff, he suddenly loses control over his own actions and his status as a godling.  As a mortal, Sieh now must contend with aging and the possibility of his own death.  He also gets betrayed by every.  Single.  Mortal.  In this book.  Yet is still completely blindsided every time it happens.

The biggest takeaway for me here is that you can be a centuries-old god and still not understand people.  I feel you, Sieh.

Will Sieh regain his immortality?  What’s up with someone murdering Arameri?  Could this be connected to Sieh’s mortality?  And, of course, will he sleep with one sibling, two, or none of the above?  Will you care or will it take all of your willpower not to cross out all of the parts with Shahar and Deka?

As a whole, I found the plot of this one more confusing than the first 2 and just didn’t care about Shahar or Deka at all.  The character who I found most intriguing was Oree’s daughter, Glee, who unfortunately is a somewhat minor character.  It makes me upset she wasn’t the focus of book 2 instead of Oree, or had her own book at some point in this series.  I can dream.

Assorted Thoughts:

Yeine isn’t nearly as present in volumes 2 and 3 of this trilogy, which is one of the biggest reasons I didn’t enjoy the other 2 books nearly as much.  Same goes for Nahadoth.  And though there isn’t a character without flaws in this series (which is a strength for sure), it was still disappointing to see them make bad and even cruel decisions, especially in book 2.  Additionally, there are really no good alternatives to get attached to—none of the other mortals are that interesting, and don’t even get me started on Itempas.

Perhaps what pissed me off most is that Itempas never really seems to earn his redemption.  His essential nature doesn’t change because he’s a god…but I feel even gods shouldn’t be allowed to be such giant assholes.  How does he still have followers???

However, I will say this series is truly original and completely subverts expectations.  One of the big themes is the cyclical nature of everything, which is reflected in Jemisin leaving a lot unresolved.  You will either appreciate that or it will drive you slowly insane.  Or both.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I LOVE the first book and definitely recommend.  I think it stands up well on its own, though you will probably be left wanting more Yeine/Nahadoth.  Sorry, but you won’t find it in the sequels.

Book Reviews, books

Book Review: Brighton Rock

I almost bought a copy of this novel in Brighton, which would have been perfect, but I hated the cover.  Apparently it’s a thing to have cartoony characters on the cover of this novel, which makes no sense because, in true Graham Greene fashion, the closest it comes to humor is bitterness.

There are some spoilers in this review…but this novel is nearly 80 years old and has been made into 2 different movies.  At a certain point you might want to just accept you’re never going to read it.

Brighton Rock

Graham Greene

Total pages:  247

Important note:  this is connected to another Graham Greene novel, A Gun for Sale.  However, I maintain it’s really not necessary to read the other one before this.  But who knows, I could be missing information that would bring new meaning to my reading of Brighton Rock.

Other note:  Brighton rock does not refer to a geological formation (as I believed for a really long time), but a candy stick you can buy in every.  Single.  Shop in Brighton.  The stick reads “Brighton rock” on both ends and all the way through.

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Exhibit A

Our story follows the leader of a 1930s Brighton gang in the aftermath of a murder.  Pinkie Brown is a cold, ruthless 18-year-old psychopath whose grey eyes give “an effect of heartlessness like an old man’s in which human feeling has died.”  (God damn, Graham Greene.)  Following the murder of his gang leader, Pinkie is in charge of those loyal enough to remain, and his first order of business is vengeance.

Pinkie’s target is Fred Hale, a man who betrayed the gang leader in some way, presumably (I can’t claim I understand how gangs work at all).  Just before Fred’s murder (spoiler, but I don’t think Fred even makes it to page 30), he encounters the easy-going Ida, whose bosom is described in virtually every chapter.  When Fred disappears, Ida is extremely suspicious and refuses to rest until she discovers the truth about what’s happened.

As Ida pursues Pinkie, Pinkie pursues Rose, a teenager who unknowingly holds a key piece of evidence that could implicate Pinkie in murder.  Even though the idea of romance is utterly repellent to Pinkie and he sees the traditional path of marriage and children as a slow death, he convinces Rose he loves her in order to dissuade her from talking to anyone about what she knows.  Is he willing to sacrifice his “bitter virginity” (whatever the fuck that means), his freedom, and even his eternal soul in order to keep Rose quiet?

Like basically every other Graham Greene novel ever written, this one is highly critical of the Catholic Church.  Pinkie and Rose are both Catholic, in contrast with Ida, who isn’t religious but spiritual and has a few weird superstitions about ghosts and Ouija boards.  As a child, Pinkie wanted to be a priest, and Greene draws parallels between his contempt for the rest of humanity, indifference to suffering, and disdain of sex and romantic love with the Catholic Church.  Greene also prods quite a bit at the two Catholic characters’ willingness to sin despite the promise of eternal damnation, going so far as to say “a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone” (246).  (Ha ha, since this isn’t an English paper, I can end this paragraph with a quote and refuse to offer any explanation whatsoever!)

For some reason I didn’t get into his the first time around I tried it, but I LOVED it this time.  It’s outrageously cynical, and the only novel I can think of in which a candy tourists buy in Brighton is used as a metaphor for the inescapability of human nature.

Fair warning that you’ll have to deal with a reasonable amount of dated ‘30s slang that feels made up, esp. re:  women.  (Both “buer” and “polony” get thrown around A LOT and I still don’t fully understand what either means.  I just kept thinking of Polonius from Hamlet and also Thelonious Monk every time someone used the word “polony.”)

The end also gets a bit melodramatic, and it’s hard not to imagine physically throwing Rose.  She’s an idiot.  Most frustrating is that Ida, the only likeable character, gets quite a lot of focus at the beginning of the novel, but then Pinkie receives more and more attention.  I was so excited when I thought (however briefly) this was actually a female-centric Greene novel.

My favorite quote is also a good test of whether you might enjoy this one or find it too dark and cynical:  “That was what happened to a man in the end: the stuffy room, the wakeful children, the Saturday night movements from the other bed. Was there no escape––anywhere––for anyone? It was worth murdering a world” (92).  Chills, you guys.

5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The Spectator’s review on the back of the book says of Greene, “Entertaining he may always be; comforting, never,” which I think is the most accurate description of his novels I’ve ever read.  (And at the same time seems a bit like backhanded praise and also possibly written by Yoda?)  I can’t think of another writer quite like Greene; perhaps Cormac McCarthy in terms of bleakness?  John Le Carré in terms of suspense and a darker take on spying (as in The Quiet American)?  William Golding for shared views on human nature?  He’s not quite like any other writer I can think of, which is why I love him so much.

Btw, there’s apparently a 1947 film version that scandalized the nation for being too violent, which I cannot WAIT to see.

Book Reviews, books

Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Since Invasion of the Tearling was such a letdown, I’ve been searching for another fantasy series to get lost in.  Say hello to book 1 of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

N.K. Jemisin

Total pages:  425

Btw, I exercise more caution about spoiling books than movies, but there are still a reasonable number of spoilers here.

Though The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms begins with a premise so worn in fantasy that you think you know exactly where it’s going, don’t worry–YOU DON’T.

Yeine is our narrator, a young Darr woman of color living in a warrior clan of low prestige in this world order.  She is far removed from the ruling class, the Arameri, who oversee all of the hundred thousand kingdoms.  Though her mother was Arameri, Yeine is deliberately ignored since she is the mixed race product of an Arameri/Darr marriage.  To put things in perspective, it’s not out of the ordinary for the Arameri to go full on Targaryen and marry their own siblings.  Gross.  They’re pretty fucking serious about keeping the bloodline “pure.”  Again, gross.

Also important information about the world in which this trilogy is set:  there are 3 main gods and many godlings, many of which live amongst humans or at least make the occasional appearance to mortals.  The 3 gods ruled together as siblings/lovers (word of caution:  you have to accept or at least acknowledge a lot of incest in this series) until the jealous god Itempas killed his sister Enefa and enslaved his brother Nahadoth.  Now basically all except Itempas and those godlings who sided with him are enslaved as Arameri servants.  It definitely blows to be a god if you’re not even omnipotent.

Anyway, Yeine’s story begins when she is thrust into courtly life as a result of her grandfather, ruler of the Arameri, naming her as one of his heirs.  You’ll note she is one of his heirs—the Arameri are pretty fucked up and conduct a Hunger Games­-style competition for power until only one heir remains.

So based on all of this, you may have several assumptions about where the plot is going (or at least I did).  These assumptions may include:  1.  Yeine will bond with her grandfather and finally feel like she has a real family.  2.  As a bonus, Yeine will get to know her mother better through heartwarming stories about her.  3.  The last heir standing will be Yeine.  All of these assumptions are wrong.

What we get instead is a court intrigue DRAMA, filled with conspiracies, betrayals, and straight-faced lies.  Yeine also has a serious flirtation going on with the Nightlord himself, Nahadoth.  I am basically always going to support a plot involving pursuing a relationship with a dark god because it makes me envision men with a shitload of eyeliner and I’m into that.

Yeine is amazing as a character and narrator, Nahadoth just sounds insanely attractive, and there are a handful of interesting minor characters thrown in too.  Jemisin provides extremely apt social commentary and leaves virtually no stone unturned on issues of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and socioeconomic status.  I loved this one so much I think it could stand on its own (and definitely recommend reading it).

The Rating:

5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Book Reviews, books, Uncategorized

Book Review: Queen of the Tearling/Invasion of the Tearling

I’m combining my review for the first 2 books in Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling series mostly because I can’t distinguish what happened in each one anymore (spoilers for both follow).

Queen of the Tearling (434 pages)

Basic plot follows Kelsea Raleigh, who has just turned 19, which obv means she is old enough to be in charge of a country.  She will be Queen of (you guessed it) the Tearling, one of several kingdoms founded after the Crossing.  Btw, the Crossing (don’t worry—you’ll hear about it A LOT) was William Tear’s big plan to form a utopian society after the present world order collapsed.  Not too much of a stretch, I suppose.

Major complications  to the coronation = everyone wants to kill Kelsea.  List of enemies includes:  her uncle, who wants the throne for himself; the Fetch, a thief/anarchist who happens to be incredibly good-looking; and the seemingly immortal Red Queen, ruler of neighboring Mortmesne.

Luckily, Kelsea has an extremely loyal and competent Queen’s Guard, led by Lazarus, aka the Mace.  What is incredibly irritating is that Lazarus is set up as a sort of father figure to Kelsea even though he’s really the only character I want her to hook up with.  Her “real” love interest is the Fetch, who is annoyingly self-righteous and quite possibly a sociopath.

Kelsea is living with her mother’s legacy, which is pretty awful.  After losing a war with Mortmesne, Kelsea’s mother saved the Tearling by regularly sending a shipment of slaves (made up of citizens of the Tearling) to the Red Queen.  Kelsea honorably does away with this policy, breaking all hell loose.

I read the first book really quickly—characters were interesting, plot was fast-paced, Red Queen was suitably terrifying, and there were several mysteries that kept me guessing.  …Which leads me to book 2…

Invasion of the Tearling (514 pages)

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Kelsea starts becoming such a badass in book 1, which is part of what makes the second book so frustrating.  Not only does it become increasingly clear she is going to make a horrible bargain with the devil (like I think he honestly is a demon), but she also becomes ridiculously obsessed with the Fetch and decides to hook up with someone she isn’t particularly into because he rejects her.  FOR LIKE THE 30TH TIME.  Someone get this girl a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You.  The Fetch is even more of a dickbag in book 2, and not in an “I know it’s wrong, but I like it anyway” type of situation.

Additionally, the plot alternates between Kelsea’s storyline and the introduction of a previously unmentioned pre-Crossing character, Lily.  It’s hard not to feel bad for Lily, who is constantly victimized by a dystopian, Handmaid’s Tale­-type society where women have almost no rights.  However, it’s also really hard to actually like Lily, who remains completely oblivious to the suffering of those around her for a fucking long time.

This book also reminds you that the, ahem, hero who led everyone over in the Crossing thought it was a good strategy to put EVERY doctor and EVERY piece of medical equipment on one fucking ship…that SANK.  Brilliant plan, dude.

Also there’s the big reveal of a time travel thing that doesn’t make a ton of sense.

The Rating: 3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I did at least finish both books, and I will more than likely pick up the last one because I really want to know what happens (erm, mostly to the Mace).

However, I couldn’t help feeling the specifics of the Crossing hadn’t been hammered out before the series was written, making for a rather disjointed story in book 2 with some frankly desperate plot twists.

Book Reviews, books

Book Review: Bitch Planet, Vol. 1

I’m the worst at keeping up with book reviews, but look at me now.  Writing a review…like a month after I read this one.  Which doesn’t reflect my feelings toward this comic/graphic novel/I can never decide which term to use, Bitch Planet, Vol 1:  Extraordinary Machine by Kelley Sue DeConnick.

The premise is the stuff dreams are made of:  in the near future, non-compliant women are sent to a prison planet informally known as Bitch Planet.  You know you’re going to adore all of these characters, don’t you?  You also know your love is doomed.

In the beginning, we follow Marian, a married woman who insists this is all a mistake and her husband will be doing everything in his power to have her released.  There are some great point/counterpoint panels that support everything Marian says…until there’s a sudden dark turn.  Remember this series is called Bitch Planet, ok?

After our dramatic twist, it turns out Kamau is really our protagonist.  In addition to being a gifted fighter, Kamau has some sort of mysterious dark past b/c of course she does.  Her life on Bitch Planet is about to get even more unpleasant since she is framed for murder by the prison guards.  All of this happens because the Bitch Planet execs want Kamau to form a team that will fight to the death against a team formed by the prison.  It’s apparently a Bitch Planet tradition that makes them a lot of money.

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Only the biggest badass ever.

So we’ve got a rigged futuristic football game to the death, which Kamau is pretty reluctant to participate in.  However, several of the other inmates convince her to form a team, which includes my faves Meiko and Penny.

Penny had a particularly difficult childhood—her mother was considered dangerous, and Penny was raised by her grandmother until age 8.  After her grandmother was arrested, Penny became a ward of the state.  In her adult life, Penny remains fiercely loyal to her family and becomes violent when provoked.  Not a reflection of idealized beauty, Penny nevertheless remains full of strength and self-confidence, never letting others define her.  She’s definitely my hero.

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Fucking hero.

It’s not a great idea to get too attached to any of the characters, though, as even the practice game of prisoners vs. guards ends in tragedy for our team.

You know even more shit is going down in volume 2 (which I’ve already pre-ordered).

Rating:  4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I really enjoyed it, but there were times when I wanted to skip ahead to the fake newspaper at the end of each issue called Hey Kids, Patriarchy!  Not because there’s anything wrong with the main story plot but because the biting satire is at its strongest in these issues.

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I think it’s clear what I mean.  Highly disappointing that you can’t actually buy any of the advertised products.