Serena’s Review: “The Starless Sea”

43575115._sy475_Book: “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues–a bee, a key, and a sword–that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library, hidden far below the surface of the earth.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians–it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also those who are intent on its destruction.

Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly-soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose–in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

Review: I had to do a double-take when I saw this book pop up on Edelweiss+. I was like, “I know that author! But…but is she finally publishing something new??” It’s been several years since “The Night Circus” was published. Long enough that I look fondly at the book on my shelf but hadn’t really thought to check up again on what the author was doing. This is not a complaint about the time taken between books. Some authors can pump them out seemingly one after another. But as it stands, Morgenstern can take all the time she wants if it means we keep seeing books like “The Night Circus” and now the wonder that is “The Starless Sea.”

Once upon a time there was a book. And in that book were stories. And in those stories were characters reading books. Too, there were doors. And through those doors more books, and characters reading those books. The story winds in and out, but this one begins with Zachary, a college graduate who once saw a door but chose not to open it. A simple moment, seemingly, until he discovers that same moment described in detail in a book he discovers in the library while conducting research. But his is only one among many stories contained with this book’s pages. And as he searches for answers, he finds that through that door that he didn’t take are a million other doors just waiting to be opened.

Books, authors, and readers have a strange, self-celebrating relationship. Readers love books. Some readers love them so much that they go out and write their own. Often about how much they love books. Other readers find those books and gain all the more pleasure from reading a book about characters who love reading books. And some readers go on to be librarians who like nothing more than stocking their shelves with books, especially those books that wax poetic about a love for reading, libraries, and, of course, books themselves. It’s all very “snake eating its own tail,” but in the best of ways possible. All of this to say: “The Starless Sea” is one of the most beautiful love letters to stories and books that I have ever read.

The book starts off slowly, with several seemingly unconnected stories coming one after another to the point that the reader may start to question whether they are reading a collection of tales or a novel. But soon enough Zachary’s story starts to come together and the pieces oh, so slowly begin to fall into place. It takes the entire book to get a full picture of what Morgenstern has accomplished here, which makes it all the more challenging to review. This is a nested-doll of a story and even now I feel that I might have missed some clues here and there.

The world itself is intricate, lush, and a bit spooky around the edges. Like Hogwarts is to many of us, the Starless Sea and its vast libraries are to readers. What reader doesn’t wish to live Zachary’s story? To open a door and find oneself part of a story? And if not that, I want to go there just to cozy up with the millions of books and the hundreds of cats wandering around (I mean, honestly, it’s like she wrote this book for me). There are details galore and half of the fun is simply wandering into the next scene alongside Zachary to see what marvels lay beneath the next. There are just enough strings holding it all together to make it feel connected and approachable. But I was still caught off guard again and again by the directions the story took in its many twists and turns.

There are two love stories at the heart of this book. One, a love that spans centuries, a story that keeps looking for its ending. And the other is Zachary’s. Each is beautiful in its way, one highlighting the testament of love over time and the other the connections that can be formed more quickly but still inspire the greatest of undertakings on each other’s behalf. Each was lovely in its own way, though given Zachary’s role in this book, his stood out all the more.

Like “The Night Circus,” this book highlights just how well-matched Morgenstern’s creativity is with her stylistic writing. In another author’s hands, some of these scenes could have come off as pretentious or grandiose, but her simple, yet delicate, manner of laying down words on a page makes them seem like just more magic to be discovered. As I said, the book builds slowly, and even towards the end when the action begins to pick up, Morgenstern still devotes a decent amount of page time to her descriptive settings and poetic observations. Readers who enjoyed her previous book will be pleased to see her talents put to work in another such story. Those looking for a faster-paced story might struggle a bit, however.

So close to the end of the year and with my “Top 10” on the mind, this was an instant winner for me. I think I would even go so far as to say that I preferred this book to “The Night Circus.” In many ways, that book now seems as if it was a primer, or simply Morgenstern testing the water, as she prepared for the tour de force that is “The Starless Sea.”

Rating 10: A love letter to stories and books that makes you wish for nothing more than to visit the Starless Sea yourself.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Starless Sea” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Books with Underground Setting” and “Scifi/Fantasy for when you are feeling down.”

Find “The Starless Sea” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”

22733729Book: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

Publishing Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, July 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.

Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.

Review:  One of my librarian friends recommended this book a few years ago, so I had dutifully added it to my TBR list. And there it sat. But recently I was finding myself in the mood of a sci fi read, realizing I hadn’t read and reviewed a book in that genre for quite a while, and while browsing, there it was! I was able to nab an audiobook copy from the library, and I was off!

Rosemary is running from her past. And what better place to forget where she came from than a ship that travels to the outer reaches of space itself. Staffed by an odd assortment of crew made up of a diverse species and peoples, Rosemary soon learns that life on this ship is not like ordinary space travel. There is more danger to be sure, but she also finds that through these adventures and close calls, the bonds that form between this oddball family can be stronger than anything she’s known before.

I’ll admit to having a hard time with this book, but it’s for a reason that is pretty new to me. For all that every book is different and each reading experience offers something new, I can definitely point to some typical things that throw me out of a story: nonsense characters, love triangles, predictable plots trying to be pretentious. But this was a new one for me. This book was just too…nice. Obviously, with a complaint like that, there are also a lot of pros to talk about, too, so let me cover those first before trying to explain myself.

First things first, the story largely depends on its cast of characters that make up the crew. I appreciated the diversity that the author brought to this group. Not only did she create original alien species who are all physically unique from humans, but they each had distinct cultures with differing approaches to communication, relationships, food, and many other aspects of life. One of the more interesting aspects of the book was exploring the ins and outs of each of these distinct characters and learning more about how their species differs from humanity. Several of them were simply entertaining, with quippy dialogue and fun interactions. However, these fun characters did ultimately end up washing out Rosemary herself. She quickly felt more like the readers point of entrance into the story and very little else.

The problems with the “niceness” start here, too. In some ways, this book reminds me of what “Star Trek” set out to do: to show an idealized future where most of humanity’s internal conflict has been set to rest and exploration and understanding are the sole mission. Here, while humanity as a whole does not have its act together, the crew largely does. It’s a weird thing to complain about, but there simply wasn’t enough conflict. I don’t need tons of drama or in-fighting or anything, but the story seemed to lack tension.

The crew fly in and out of a variety of adventures, and while some aspects of these were thrilling enough on their own, the crew’s seemingly perfect “woke” attitude about it all became almost tiring. It was hard to continue to read them all as fully realized characters when there were very few, if any, flaws in sight. This leaves the characters with very few emotional arcs of their own. The quippy-ness, while fun at the beginning, quickly began to feel cutesy and disingenuous.

This book has been compared to “Firefly” and I would add “Star Trek” to that mix. But what both of those shows got right was that these tight knit families of crew members were pulled together in spite of their ongoing flaws, not because they simply didn’t have any. Like I said, it’s a weird complaint. In the end, I guess I was just looking for a bit more of a serious sci-fi read and this one was too light for my own taste. Readers who want a fun, beach-read-style sci-fi story might enjoy this more.

Rating 6: While fun enough at times, there simply wasn’t enough real conflict or tension to really sink my teeth into the book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” is on these Goodreads lists: “Optimistic Space Scifi” and “Alien Diplomacy and Interspecies Friendship.”

Find “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me”

29981020._sx318_Book: “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell.

Publishing Info: First Second Books, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Laura Dean, the most popular girl in high school, was Frederica Riley’s dream girl: charming, confident, and SO cute. There’s just one problem: Laura Dean is maybe not the greatest girlfriend.

Reeling from her latest break up, Freddy’s best friend, Doodle, introduces her to the Seek-Her, a mysterious medium, who leaves Freddy some cryptic parting words: break up with her. But Laura Dean keeps coming back, and as their relationship spirals further out of her control, Freddy has to wonder if it’s really Laura Dean that’s the problem. Maybe it’s Freddy, who is rapidly losing her friends, including Doodle, who needs her now more than ever. Fortunately for Freddy, there are new friends, and the insight of advice columnists like Anna Vice to help her through being a teenager in love.

Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell bring to life a sweet and spirited tale of young love that asks us to consider what happens when we ditch the toxic relationships we crave to embrace the healthy ones we need.

Review: Teenage love is rough. True, I married my high school sweetheart and we haven’t really had any rough patches, then or now, but hey, I had my fair share of awkward pining and heartbreak before all that. While romance isn’t really a go to genre for me, when I do read it I like seeing how the love story aspects of a book portray romance and relationships, especially when a book is Young Adult. This brings me to “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, a YA graphic novel about the tumultuousness of a teenage romance. I’ve always found Tamaki to be honest and realistic when it comes to her books, and therefore I was very interested in seeing what she was going to do with the story of Freddy and Laura, two teenage girls who keep falling in and out of a relationship.

Like her other stories, Tamaki really knows how to capture realistic and relatable teenage voices. Just about every character in “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” feels like a real teenager, both in how they act in situations and how they don’t always understand how their actions affect other people. Freddy is our protagonist, the lovelorn girlfriend of the fickle and manipulative Laura. When we meet her Freddy has had her heart broken by Laura once again, and is seeking advice from an online advice columnist. Freddy is absolutely being taken advantage of, but at the same time she is so caught up in her own miserable love life she isn’t able to see what is going on with her other, more loyal friends. She is both someone you can’t help but root for, as well as someone you want to shake for being so self absorbed. As a character she’s very well conceived, and her flaws and moments of unlikability make her an even stronger protagonist than I was expecting. Her relationship with Laura is toxic at its heart, as Laura’s interest is only in Freddy when it’s convenient to herself, and because of this you both feel pity for Freddy, as well as frustration. But that was one of the stand out themes of this book, in that toxic relationships, be it between teens or adults, romantic or platonic, don’t only affect those in said relationships, and how we can blind ourselves to the people we become while inside of them. But even if Freddy makes mistakes and can be hard to like at times, she doesn’t compare to Laura, who is just the worst. We don’t really get to see THAT much of Laura when all is said and done, as she flits in and out of Freddy’s life in fickle and self absorbed ways, but you definitely know the kind of person she is even in these moments. Tamaki is great at portraying how cruel and mean Laura is without going into heavy handed monologues or speeches, as well as how the toll it takes on Freddy ripples across her other relationships. It’s a great example of showing and not telling, something that is sometimes lost in books written for teens.

I also really liked that this book is very sapphic and LGBTQIA+ in it’s themes. Many of the characters, from Freddy and Laura to their friends groups, are LGBTQIA+, and the normalcy of it all is very evident from the get go. While sometimes these themes did fall more into a telling vs showing trap (a couple of kind of shoe horned in bits of dialogue that didn’t quite fit popped up here and there), I really liked that all of these characters were true to themselves and the majority of the conflict had nothing to do with their identities. Along with this, I liked that this exact normalcy made it so that Laura Dean could be a genuinely terrible person, and that it would be next to impossible to say that she is that way because of her sexual orientation, a them that is sometimes still seen in fiction stories, regrettably. This book also tackles other, harder issues that YA books aren’t always comfortable tackling in empathetic ways. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say that there is a side storyline involving abortion that did a really good job of not stigmatizing the procedure or the choice of having one. 

Finally, I really really loved the artwork in this book. It has a muted and subtle quality to it, with some manga-esque traits that still felt unique to the artist, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. I also liked that while it’s mostly in black and white, there are little splashes of a soft pink throughout the story. It really made the images pop.

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“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is a bittersweet and hopeful look at the ups and downs of teenage relationships. If you haven’t checked out anything by Mariko Tamaki yet, I would say that this would be a good place to start.

Rating 8: A bittersweet story about the ups and downs of teenage romance, “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” hits you in the feels when it comes to love and toxic relationships.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lesbian Teen Fiction”, and “Sapphic Graphic”.

Find “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Kiss Number 8”

22612920Book: “Kiss Number 8” by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second Books, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Amanda can’t figure out what’s so exciting about kissing. It’s just a lot of teeth clanking, germ swapping, closing of eyes so you can’t see that godzilla-sized zit just inches from your own hormonal monstrosity. All of her seven kisses had been horrible in different ways, but nothing compared to the awfulness that followed Kiss Number Eight. An exploration of sexuality, family, and faith, Kiss Number Eight is a coming-of-age tale filled with humor and hope.

Review: It may seem like I’m doing a LOT of graphic novels lately, but in my defense I neglected this format a lot this summer. This occurred to me when I was requesting books for a teen graphic novel display, and one of the books I stumbled upon was “Kiss Number 8” by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw. After requesting it for work, I requested it for myself. I hadn’t looked too much into it when I requested it; I knew that it had LGBTQIA+ themes, and I knew that it was about a teen girl figuring out her sexuality. But what I didn’t expect was how emotional “Kiss Number 8” was going to be, and how hard it would be to read at times because of the themes.

And to note, I will have to address some vague spoilers in this review to fully discuss my opinions. I’ll do my best to keep it general.

“Kiss Number 8” takes place in 2004, a time that doesn’t seem to distant to me but is actually fifteen years ago. As I was reading this book, it served as a reminder of how many things have changed in terms of societies views on sexuality, and yet how far we still have to go. Amanda is written as a pretty typical teenage girl of this time and place, and up until this point she can count on a number of things: she has a fantastic relationship with her father, she has a tempestuous relationship with her mother, and her best friends Cat and Laura are always going to be there for her, even if they don’t particularly like each other. You get a great glimpse into Amanda’s life through snippets of scenes, and by the time the main plots start to kick in you already know who she is and what her reality is. Venable does a good job of showing rather than telling when it comes to how Amanda feels about those in her life, especially her growing infatuation with Cat, whose care free and somewhat selfish personality is apparent to everyone BUT Amanda. I also liked the slow unraveling and reveal of the other main plot line: a mysterious phone call to her father, and a mysterious letter that he tries to hide from her. Venable does a really good job of making the reader think it’s going to be one thing, but then piece by piece shows that it’s something completely different, something that connects to Amanda’s present emotional situation with Cat and goes even further back into how people have to hide their identities from others.

I also thought that Venable did a good job of portraying realistic, and at times very flawed, characters. As I mentioned earlier, Amanda is a pretty normal teenage girl, but along with that comes a cruel streak towards those who care about her, especially her mother and Laura. She makes bad decisions in moments of great emotion, and it ends up hurting people, who in turn react poorly and hurt her back. But you never get the sense that she is a bad person when she does these things, rather that she is in a great deal of pain and dealing with confusion about herself and a life she thought she had all sorted out. The fallout from these choices always felt real, and sometimes that meant that it was painful to read. But again, Amanda doesn’t ever come off as a bad person, just a person who is still learning. In fact, most of the characters are given a certain amount of grace when they screw up, and aren’t painted as being one dimensional or cardboard cut outs of tropes…. Even when they don’t necessarily deserve it. Because to me, with how some of the characters did end up reacting to Amanda’s identity, and the identities of others within the story, I didn’t want them to be given a pass, realistic or not. Not when they caused to much pain.

And that is a good segue into difficult moments that I had with “Kiss Number 8”, specifically with how a number of the characters were when it comes to LGBT issues. There is a LOT of homophobia and transphobia in this book, and while it’s all written within the context of the story, and doesn’t feel like it’s excused or glossed over, it could still be triggering for readers who are in those communities. While Amanda was a lived experience of learning about herself and her sexuality, I feel like the ball was dropped a bit more with the trans characters in the narrative. They were more used as lessons for Amanda to learn, and their voices and experiences were put in the context of a cis girl realizing that they too are human beings who deserve respect and dignity. That isn’t to say that I thought Venable was malicious in her portrayal, but it does show that we still have a ways to go when it comes to how trans characters are portrayed within the stories we read. That said, I am a cis straight woman, so if my assessment is off kilter to anyone please do let me know. I, too, am still learning.

I have nothing but good things to say about Crenshaw’s artwork. The characters are cartoony and fun, and their designs remind me of other popular teen graphic works like “Drama” and “This One Summer”, but the style is still unique and feels new and fresh. And even with the more ‘cartoony’ drawings, the emotional weight of the various situations still came through loud and clear.

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Uncomfortable and clunky aspects aside, I enjoyed “Kiss Number 8”. It’s an honest and emotional book that kept me reading, and reminded me that there is still so much progress to be made, even if we’ve come so far.

Rating 8: A bittersweet and emotional story about finding one’s identity, “Kiss Number 8” has complex characters and relevant themes. We’ve come so far with stories like this, but we still have a ways to go.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Kiss Number 8” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lesbian Teen Fiction”, and “Sapphic Graphic”.

Find “Kiss Number 8” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bloom”

29225589._sx318_Book: “Bloom” by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, February 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Now that high school is over, Ari is dying to move to the big city with his ultra-hip band―if he can just persuade his dad to let him quit his job at their struggling family bakery. Though he loved working there as a kid, Ari cannot fathom a life wasting away over rising dough and hot ovens. But while interviewing candidates for his replacement, Ari meets Hector, an easygoing guy who loves baking as much as Ari wants to escape it. As they become closer over batches of bread, love is ready to bloom . . . that is, if Ari doesn’t ruin everything.

Writer Kevin Panetta and artist Savanna Ganucheau concoct a delicious recipe of intricately illustrated baking scenes and blushing young love, in which the choices we make can have terrible consequences, but the people who love us can help us grow.

Review: We’re getting near the end of summer (kind of?), and on the hot days sometimes you just need to have a cute, sweet, comfort read that you can enjoy in the sun… or air conditioning in my case. I saw “Bloom” by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau on a display at the library I was working at, and decided to pick it up on a whim. It had been a bit since I’d read a one shot graphic novel, and the look of it and the summer feeling the cover gave me stood out to me. I hadn’t heard of “Bloom” until I picked it up, and after reading it I wish I’d found it sooner. I really, really enjoyed “Bloom”!

The story involves two young adults who are both looking for some self discovery and paths for their future. Ari is determined to move away from his home and his family bakery to become a music star with his friends, while Hector is trying to wrap up his late grandmother’s affairs and move on from a needy relationship. While they are both starkly different, you can’t help but love both of them for what they are. Ari is over emotional and a little bit self centered, but also wrapped up in insecurities about those around him. You understand why he wants to go out and make his own life, but can’t help but feel for his parents, who want him to join the family bakery business. Panetta did a really good job of showing how people can be torn between by their individual dreams, and their familial expectations. Ari is complex and at times very frustrating, but he also is a character I think a lot of people can see themselves in. Hector, too, is a fascinating character, as while he isn’t as conflicted as Ari, he has his own insecurities, but is better at navigating them. That said, I liked the foil that he played, as his kindness and patience has led him to troubles in the past because of his compassion and empathy for people. I loved them both for who they were, and I loved seeing them interact with each other. The side characters were a bit more hit or miss for me. On the one hand you have Ari’s parents, who I really liked. Ari’s father was the strict and singleminded parent you tend to see in stories like this, who could have easily fallen into the box of being the ‘out of touch parent who doesn’t care about what their kid wants’. But instead, Panetta does a fantastic job of showing complexities there, and his worries and fears regarding his business, his livelihood, and his relationship with his son were definitely well defined, and brought tears to my eyes. Ari’s mother was a bit more of the supportive parent of the two parent dynamic, but I also liked that she had moments of stepping out of that box too and being stern and realistic. But while Ari’s parents were great and spot on, I thought that Ari’s and Hector’s friend groups were a little two dimensional. They tended to check off a lot of trope boxes (the aggressively quirky, the jerk, the snarky, etc), and while I didn’t mind seeing them I didn’t really get much interesting from them.

The romance and overall plot of this book was very sweet and rewarding. Ari and Hector get closer because of baking, and Panetta focuses as much on the slow burn of the love story as much as he focuses on the intricacies and art of baking. Passion, be it romantic passion of passions for hobbies, are a huge theme in this book, and you can see the passion of a number of characters, and how it drives them, and sometimes makes them forget about the potential consequences of said passions. You can’t help but root for Ari and Hector as their romance slowly blooms and comes to life. And you can’t help but think about the metaphors of baking and the patience that it takes, the time and care it can require, and how sometimes you have to restart when unanticipated problems arise. I loved every panel and every moment, and savored the story as it unfolded. And as I mentioned above, I definitely cried as I was reading it.

The artwork is understated and lovely. I loved the blue hues and the sketches, and how the art not only brings the people to life, but the food as well. The style sometimes looks like sketches that aren’t quite finished (with arrows denoting movement and bare boned sketches occasionally making appearances), but it only added to the charm of the story. Also, the occasional large splash panel would showcase both the people and their emotions, as well as the food that they were making.

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“Bloom” is an adorable and touching summer romance about finding yourself, finding love, and finding your passions. If you want a cute and satisfying love story, look no further than Ari and Hector!

Rating 9: A sweet, emotional, and mouth watering romance that has delightful characters, a lovely romance, and some tasty looking baked goods!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bloom” is included on the Goodreads lists “Pride Month! The Teen Essentials List”, and “Graphic Novels Centered Around Food”.

Find “Bloom” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sawkill Girls”

38139409Book: “The Sawkill Girls” by Claire Legrand

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegan Books, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Beware of the woods and the dark, dank deep.

He’ll follow you home, and he won’t let you sleep.

Who are the Sawkill Girls?

Marion: the new girl. Awkward and plain, steady and dependable. Weighed down by tragedy and hungry for love she’s sure she’ll never find.

Zoey: the pariah. Luckless and lonely, hurting but hiding it. Aching with grief and dreaming of vanished girls. Maybe she’s broken—or maybe everyone else is.

Val: the queen bee. Gorgeous and privileged, ruthless and regal. Words like silk and eyes like knives, a heart made of secrets and a mouth full of lies.

Their stories come together on the island of Sawkill Rock, where gleaming horses graze in rolling pastures and cold waves crash against black cliffs. Where kids whisper the legend of an insidious monster at parties and around campfires.

Where girls have been disappearing for decades, stolen away by a ravenous evil no one has dared to fight… until now.

Review: YA horror is a genre that I have an affection for, even if I find myself usually wanting more from the books that I read. I keep going back because as a teenager I LOVED the horror genre, and I want today’s teen horror fans to find books that will keep them up at night, or at the very least make them look over their shoulders every once in awhile. When I first heard about “The Sawkill Girls” by Claire Legrand, the premise was one that grabbed my attention. A monster on an island snatches up girls, and the only ones who can stop it are other girls who will not be made victims? Hell to the yes, I am THERE! It became all the more of a priority when I started reading more about it, and that it’s a book that has a lot of queer representation in it. We need more queer books, we need more horror for teens, and lord knows we REALLY need more queer horror for teens. So I went in with high expectations for “The Sawkill Girls”, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say high hopes. Hopes that in some ways were meant, but in other ways not.

Female centered horror that isn’t written through the male gaze is hard to come by, but “The Sawkill Girls” does a really good job of achieving just that. Our main characters Marion, Zoey, and Val are all complex and well rounded girls with flaws and strong points, but they never feel like they’re overwrought in their personalities. The most complex, and therefore my favorite, is Val, the privileged town darling whose family has had a deal with the town monster for generations. Val knows that she has to continue the family alliances to The Collector, as it is called, but also has started questioning her fate. It becomes all the more complicated when she falls for Marion, whose sister Charlotte was recently a victim of the monster Val harbors. Val is unlikable and cruel in some ways, but tortured and conflicted in others, and while we usually see this kind of trope in male characters it’s a breath of fresh air to see it in a female one. It’s all the more satisfying because I LOVE this trope and am nowhere near sick of it, though I do agree that women are rarely put into this mold. I’m thrilled that Legrand took it and let Val embody it.

I also really enjoyed the queer representation and themes within this book. Val and Marion have a tentative and complicated (for obvious reasons) romance, but the way that it builds and evolves felt realistic for the story at hand. There were no easy answers once certain things came to light, and while they both have a lot of baggage to overcome the reader does have reason to root for them. I see that as a testament to Legrand’s characterizations of both of them. Zoey, too, has a not as commonly seen romantic angle to her story, though it’s not as much at the forefront; she has deep affection for her ex boyfriend Grayson, but as an asexual she doesn’t think that they could pursue a romantic relationship that would be satisfying to both of them. It’s only recently that we’ve started to see asexuality represented in YA fiction, and I liked that it wasn’t centered as a huge conflict in this story that Zoey would have to ‘overcome’ or compromise on.

On top of that, the female centered friendships and support systems were very much the center of this book, with Marion and Zoey coming together to try and figure out what is happening to the missing girls on the island. As they come into the various strengths and powers that they have, the message is very clear: these girls won’t be victimized, and they are going to take their fates into their own hands. Sometimes this got to be a little overwrought (we get it, three teenage girls fighting a monster when a bunch of men couldn’t get it done is good), but overall I did enjoy the girl power tenacity that was being held up.

That said, this isn’t a horror novel. I say that because “The Sawkill Girls” never really elevated to actual scary territory. Nothing really got my heart racing, and I didn’t have any moments of unease or fear as I read through. I think that it would far more easily fit into the genre of ‘dark fantasy’. It was more ‘this is scary because I am telling you it is’, when I think that it didn’t really make the full leap to terror or horror. Because of this, I ended up feeling a bit disappointed with “The Sawkill Girls”, and I couldn’t fully enjoy it for what it was. I think that teenagers who like fantasy, dark fantasy especially, will absolutely find something to like about this book. But for those teens who are looking to be scared, they will probably walk away feeling dejected that, yet again, their genre didn’t quite get the story that they wanted.

There are lots of things to like about “The Sawkill Girls”. Big thumbs up for the feminist and queer themes, but the horror aspect didn’t work as well as I had been promised it would.

Rating 6: “The Sawkill Girls” has an intriguing premise and some great feminist and queer themes, but ultimately it didn’t quite wow me the way I hoped it would.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sawkill Girls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lesbian/Queer Horror”, and “Asexuals In Fiction”.

Find “The Sawkill Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles”

36686229Book: “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Heavens to Murgatroyd! Hanna-Barbera’s very own Snagglepuss is reimagined in a brand-new series, EXIT STAGE LEFT: THE SNAGGLEPUSS CHRONICLES, by author Mark Russell (THE FLINTSTONES)!

It’s 1953. While the United States is locked in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the gay Southern playwright known as Snagglepuss is the toast of Broadway. But success has made him a target. As he plans for his next hit play, Snagglepuss becomes the focus of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And when powerful forces align to purge show business of its most subversive voices, no one is safe!

Written by Mark Russell, the critically acclaimed mastermind behind the award-winning PREZ VOL. 1 and THE FLINTSTONES, EXIT STAGE LEFT: THE SNAGGLEPUSS CHRONICLES, enters the Hanna-Barbera reimagined universe! Collects issues #1-6.

Review: A special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

Though I feel like I watched a good amount of Hanna-Barbera cartoons as a child, one character that I don’t have specific memories of is Snagglepuss. I remember him existing, and I remember a few of his quirks (like his catch phrase ‘exit, stage left!!’ and his smooth personality), but I don’t think I ever saw a full cartoon with him as the star. But even with my passing familiarity of the character, I still knew that I ABSOLUTELY needed to read “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles”. It’s not exactly an obvious premise: Snagglepuss is a closeted Southern playwright in 1950s New York during the McCarthy Witch Hunts and the Lavender Scare, and finds himself and his friends targeted for their lifestyles. Is this a story I thought I’d see Snagglepuss in? No. Is it one of the best, if not the very best, graphic novels I’ve read this year. Heavens to Murgatoyd, yes.

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No longer is my go to Snagglepuss reference a throwaway “Simpsons” joke! (source)

The thing about Snagglepuss as a character is that he was written at a time where gay characters were coded into entertainment, and they were usually portrayed as villains, buffoons, or, if people were feeling progressive, tragic victims who couldn’t survive the story if they wanted to be true to themselves. Snagglepuss is fussy, dapper, has a smarmy affectation, and acts ‘flamboyant’, so it’s probably safe to assume he was coded as gay, and meant to be laughed at. So to take this character and to give him this story is a very neat deconstruction of what the character was initially, especially since this story is set within the same general time frame that Snagglepuss first was introduced to the world (if not a little before). Mark Russell, the man responsible for other DC/Hanna-Barbera edginess like his take on “The Flintstones” and “Scooby-Doo”, has given Snagglepuss a similar, dark treatment where people thought darkness couldn’t possibly be found. But darkness there is, as Snagglepuss finds himself caught up in the fear of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, with it’s head Gigi Allen setting her sights on him specifically. Through this backdrop we get to explore and examine the hypocrisy, corruption, prejudice, and rampant fear that had the American Government and people in an uproar. Snagglepuss himself is reluctant to become a symbol of rebellion; on the the contrary he’s perfectly content living his life as a success on Broadway, meeting up with his lover at the Stonewall Inn and basking in his fame as an intellectual elite. What I liked the most about him as our main character is that he is thrust into this role of rebellion, and his complicated feelings about it make him a well rounded character who has his OWN privileges that he hides behind when others can’t. He is a compelling iteration of the original character, and someone who can’t accept how bad things have gotten until it’s too late. 

Other familiar faces pop up in this story, from Hanna-Barbera stallwarts to actual players during the Red and Lavender Scares. We get cameos from the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, and the Rosenbergs, whose execution is one of the darker plot points within this book. At the end of the graphic novel Russell has put together a handy dandy set of notes on various people and moments he includes in the story, and I found that to be very helpful and thoughtful of him (I had never heard of the great Cornfield War between Khruschev and an American farmer. Look it up, it’s hilarious!). On the Hanna-Barbera end, Quick Draw McGraw and Squiddly Diddly play key roles and have their own forms of prejudice to contend with (Quick Draw being a closeted cop on the Stonewall beat and Squiddly being an immigrant), but the stand out is Huckleberry Hound. Huckleberry is Snagglepuss’s childhood best friend, and has become a well known Southern Gothic novelist whose marriage has fallen apart because of his sexuality. They are exact opposites, with Snagglepuss being flitty and carefree and Huckleberry being anxious and depressed. The way that their relationship grows and changes, and how they cope, or don’t cope, is one of the saddest aspects of this book, and the one that had me weeping openly of Hanna-Barbera characters. I never thought I’d see the day. But that just goes to show how excellent Russell is as a writer: he takes two dimensional cartoon characters and breathes life into them, redefining them and bringing relevant social concepts to life through them.

The artistic style that Mike Feehan brings to this story is also incredibly compelling. The characters look realistic, with Snagglepuss absolutely designed like a mountain lion in stature and gait, but not out of place within the real world they are mingling in. The animals are the right amount of anthropomorphized without feeling uncanny or eerie.

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(source: DC Comics)

“Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” feels timely because the rise of paranoia and corruption within our current administration, and the constant Othering of various groups that don’t fit into the mold that they deem as ‘true Americans’. It feels like a warning, and it makes it all the more intense and powerful of a read. But it also feels like you’re reading about familiar friends, and are learning a great deal about them that you never knew, even though they were always like this. It’s ingenious and effective, and I loved every bit of it. And it’s stories like this that make me run back to DC Comics, because this is by and large one of, if not the, best graphic novels I have read in a very long time. I have my issues with DC, but I stand by the fact that I find some of the stories they tell to be incredibly ambitious and outside the box. And, heavens to Murgatroyd, I cannot recommend “Exit Stage Left” enough.

Rating 10: This brilliant and poignant story takes a well known character and gives him depth, heart, and complexity. Snagglepuss and his friends jump off the page in a story that feels as timely as it does foreboding.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” isn’t on many specifically relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it has a place on “My Country, The Enemy”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles” at your library using WorldCat!