Book Reviews, books

Checking out the Book: Done with You, Reality

As a librarian and bibliophile, I fully endorse supporting authors by purchasing their work. However, as an overly cautious and quite stingy person, I also wholly believe in checking out the book from the library first. Otherwise, if you’re anything like me, you will unconsciously put a LOT of pressure on a $20 or $30 book to be the next great novel rather than simply enjoying it (unless it was on the $2 bargain shelves). And you may or may not just let that book sit on the shelf anywhere from a year until the rest of your life.

As such, most of my recent reads are library books. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed lately–mostly because they offer an escape from our reality in some way.

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Title

The Downstairs Girl

Author

Stacey Lee

Format

Book

Review

I would have absolutely devoured this as a teen since it’s the stuff of which my dreams were made. Set in 1890s Atlanta, Lee tells the story of Jo Kuan, a Chinese-American teen with a talent for styling the hair and hats of many a Southern belle. When she loses her job without cause (aka racism), Jo is forced to work as a lady’s maid once again for , a particularly ill-tempered belle. However, Jo pursues her passions by secretly writing an advice column for a local paper, while seeking the truth about the identity of her parents, who left her in the care of the elderly (and aptly named) Old Gin.

I love Jo’s snarky humor in her advice column, as well as the many characters and stories intersecting here. There are certainly unlikeable characters aplenty, but Lee is reluctant to dismiss them or their concerns, peeling back their identities to reveal barriers created by race, nationality, poverty, gender, and sexual orientation (yes, even you, white Southern dudes of the 1800s).  I especially enjoy the relationships Jo shares with friends Robby and Noemi, whose experiences depict the lives of African-American workers in the Reconstruction South.

Recommended for…

My period drama lovers who enjoy social critique (so, like, all period drama lovers).

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Title

The Memoirs of Lady Trent

Author

Marie Brennan

Format

Book

Review

What’s your vision of the year 5658? Robots? Flying cars? A landscape devastated by climate change? Marie Brennan’s version of the future looks a lot more like the past than present, as reflected by the Victorian-inspired memoirs of naturalist and adventurer Isabella Camhurst. Fascinated by dragons at an early age, Isabella is off exploring the species in distant lands as soon as she can ditch the high society of a thinly veiled England (aka Scirland).

If this sounds cringey and insensitive re: colonialism, Brennan is very aware of England’s sordid past, and the misdeeds (i.e. genocide) of its explorers. She vividly brings to life the cultures represented here–West Africa, Polynesia, Eastern Europe–while her self-aware heroine recognizes her limits as a cultural observer.

Recommended for…

My period drama lovers who appreciate an escapist fantasy. And for my fellow readers reluctant to commit to a five book series, the lack of major cliffhangers makes this one easy to pick up for a book or two (or complete the series, as I’m planning to do).

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Title

Herakles

Author

Edouard Cour

Format

Graphic novel

Review

Just in case your only experience with the legend of Herakles is the Disney film, prepare to be disillusioned. Rather than a lesson in perseverance, the life of Herakles is yet another tale underscoring the degree to which mortals are merely the playthings of the gods. Through trial after trial, Herakles works to prove himself worthy of god status, but all he seems capable of is embroiling himself more deeply into trouble and invoking the wrath of the gods. I guess he gets a nice lion pelt out of all this, at least.

Herakles is often blindly vengeful and stupid, but it’s nevertheless difficult not to feel for him.  He seems to be so little in control of his life that you can’t really blame him for pursuing an endless series of trials in vain. That’s life, eh? No wonder the Abrahamic faiths took over from here…the legend of Herakles is too bleak even to come from the mind of Nietzsche.

Recommended for…

People sick to death of toxic masculinity. Also kids who have to take a course in the Classics and want to skip to the interesting bits.

What are you reading, library book or no?

Header photo by Devon Divine on Unsplash

a person sits on a bench reading next to a stand that contains 15 cubes filled with books
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)
    4070095
    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)
    438068
    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)
    402252
    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
    589072
    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)
    18710780
    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)
    Green River Killer
    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)
    23093369
    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)
    28434612
    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)
    16136945
    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
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.

a woman with an afro poses in a martial arts defensive position

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.

a woman with several pads and wires on her face proclaims "...And you bastards ain't never gonna break me"

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.

an advertisement for a large foam hand with the middle finger sticking up reads "We've got your spirit fingers right here"
Book Reviews

Through the Woods Book Review, or: We Need to Talk About Carroll

I’ve decided to do another book review and you can’t stop me. Not sure if I’ve mentioned on this blog my love for graphic novels/comics/picture books…whatever you want to call them. I love the art and design and that they feel like watching a silent film. Also a disproportionate number of graphic novelists seem to enjoy telling creepy, dark, surreal stories, though perhaps these types of stories magically find me no matter the format. Creepy book of the week is Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods.

cover art

It’s a collection of short stories, all of which I would describe as dark fairy tales taking place in different historical periods. These are stories about things lurking in the woods, dysfunctional relationships, ghosts, madness, betrayal, and murder. Unlike many fairy tales we tell to children, no one is going to help in the end and, in fact, other people are most likely actively plotting to destroy you. Assuming, of course, that they are actually human.  (So…realistic fiction, essentially.)

Most of the stories are quite short, and Carroll teases us with some details but ultimately leaves a lot of ambiguity. What is great is that the stories continue to surprise even with the building sense of dread and inevitability. I basically love all of the drawings, but the best/eeriest are black, white, and red. There are several images that will haunt my dreams.

My favorite is the last story, but even the fucking epilogue I love, and when the fuck can you ever say you love an epilogue? The last story is the longest, and I felt I could really sink my teeth into it. It follows Bell, a young woman in the 1920s whose mother has recently passed away. After her year at boarding school ends, she goes to stay with her brother and his fiancée in the country. Bell would like to stay inside and read all summer, but her brother is intolerably cheerful and outdoorsy, encouraging her to spend time outside and to get to know his fiancée. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bell discovers the fiancée has a much darker secret than a cupboard full of overdue library books. All I’m going to say is that you will probably shrink in terror from the next flapper you see (if you regularly encounter flappers).

The only disappointing thing is how quickly you can get through this book, and Carroll doesn’t have any other collections of her work, and she is apparently busy being a Twitter goddess. Sample tweets: “next time I sit down to read another Classic Must-Read Horror Book by a dude, I’m just going to save myself the trouble & do anything else.” Also “let me guess, is there a sexy evil woman in it? how about a shrew? fellas, if that was scary I’d scream every time I looked in the mirror.” We get it, Emily Carroll. You’re really cool and probably an interesting person to talk to. Get back to work. EDIT: Emily Carroll does have quite a few comics you can read for free on her site:  http://www.emcarroll.com/ Girl apparently just picked up some Eisner Awards for Through the Woods and her short story “When the Darkness Presses.”

Before I go, I’m not fucking kidding. Haunting my dreams (and wait until you see what happens to those teeth):

red spaghetti-like strands emerge from a woman's nose, mouth, and from behind her eyeballs
UGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGH.

Carroll’s stories, most of which are about young women encountering sinister, otherworldly creatures, remind me a lot of Libba Bray’s novels, and I would follow that woman into battle. As the epilogue reminds us, “you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…but the WOLF…the WOLF only needs enough luck to find you ONCE.” Through the Woods is like that too: full of fragments, stories, and images that are beautifully disquieting. Disquietingly beautiful?  All of the above.  Yes.