#CBR9 Review #13

Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele

I’m always looking for intersections between academic writing and popular culture, and so, when I saw that my library had added Queer: A Graphic History to its new graphic novel shelf, I was instantly intrigued. My journey to LGBT+ allyship has been a long and winding road, and I didn’t get any queer theory in my collegiate career until graduate school. What Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele do is unpack the idea of “queer” as a cultural and intellectual concept and help explain the ideology behind it.

Queer is less a history of LGBT+ individuals and civil rights and more a history of queer theory. This distinction matters, because it tackles much of the theory and ideology I studied in graduate school. This is not to say that non-academics can’t access it, but I found the title to be a bit misleading and had to recalibrate my expectations. You learn about key terms in queer theory, as well as activists, theorists, and cultural icons that helped us to understand our notions of queerness in a variety of forms.

If you’re taking a queer theory course or would like to know more about aspects of queerness, this book is a pretty good guide. It breaks down complicated and often jargon-filled theorists like Judith Butler in a way that helps you understand them. This is the kind of book that would work well for an undergrad intro to theory course. The illustrations and layout are neat and pleasing to the eye, as well. While this isn’t the best or most approachable popular cultural introduction to queerness, it’s still an interesting and informative read.

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#CBR9 Review #12

Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve been going through a Glamourist Histories withdrawal. I’ve been wishing that the series wasn’t over, even though I was really happy with the way Mary Robinette Kowal wrapped it up. I did a library search to see what else I could read and happily, there are a few things left that I had not yet uncovered. I decided to start with a novella, Forest of Memory. It’s a short, tense, and captivating read, and you see where Kowal’s fantasy and sci-fi roots take hold.

In a world where technology has overtaken natural life, Katya scavenges antiques and goods form the old world to keep people’s nostalgia alive. On her bike out of the city, she suddenly loses contact with her AI and is kidnapped by a strange man in the forest. Forced to become his guest, she bears witness to his sedating of the deer for what she suspects are nefarious means. Katya tells her story to an unnamed audience in an attempt to persuade them of her honesty. We get a sense of the story being told both in the present and after the fact.

This is an unusual little book with a lot of postmodern twists and turns. The book turns on itself and becomes meta-cognitive, which is interesting and thought-provoking. You become immersed in the world that Kowal creates and you hope that the book is just a little bit longer. One thing that I did wonder about was the number of typos in the novel. I do know that Katya was typing up her story, so I was curious if maybe the typos and crossed-out words were intentional. They were distracting and pulled me out of the story at first, though. So I don’t know if the “authenticity” worked entirely for me. That said, do check this book out. It’s a fast and enjoyable read.

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#CBR9 Review #11

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Last year, I read Room for the first time and never forgot the experience. I was curious to see how Emma Donoghue’s other works would stack up. When I saw her latest book, The Wonder, on my library’s new books shelf, I thought that I’d give it a try. I’ll have to read a different book, because The Wonder was a mixed bag and very different than Room.

Lib Wright is an English nurse who was mentored by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. She’s now been hired by an Irish diocese to observe a young girl who has not eaten in four months and appears hale and hearty nevertheless. Lib’s job is to see if there is a farce at play or a miracle. As she gets to know Anna, her parents, and the village, she is forced to uncover her own biases and religious doubts. Many secrets emerge, and she is forced to use her nurse’s training to care for her patient and make a drastic decision.

This was a truly interesting philosophical struggle that got weighed down by too many soapy plot points. There were tons of secrets and tons of reveals. I couldn’t keep track. What kept this from being a two-star book for me was the way Donoghue brought the time period to life. She’s a good writer, but Lib is not as compelling a first-person narrator as Jack from Room was. As I said in my Goodreads review, the simplicity of Room allows Donoghue to explore a deep question that she has no canvas for in The Wonder. The ending severely cheapens the theological questions and criticisms of the institutional church, particularly regarding child abuse or potentially toxic religious practice. I decided this book deserved a 3 instead of a 2, because these ideas do come into play, as well as the archetype of the holy fool, even if the execution just did not come off in the end.
Read Room instead.

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#CBR9 Review #10

Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

I’m a picky science fiction reader, but that doesn’t mean I’m against it. And if you throw a sci-fi or fantasy novel at me and say anything “Jane Austen,” chances are I’m going to read it. See: Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories and Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars books. I was scanning my library’s new science fiction and fantasy books, when David D. Levine’s Arabella of Mars appeared and had the tagline of “would have amused Jane Austen” attached to it. Obviously, I picked it up.

Reader, I enjoyed it so thoroughly.

Arabella Ashby was raised by a family colonizing Mars in the Regency era. As a teenager, Arabella connects more with Mars, farm cultivation, and combat than the fine arts of young ladies, much to her mother’s dismay. Upon her return to England, a series of family tragedies forces her back to Mars, where she must save the family enterprise and her brother’s life. She gains passage onto a ship as a young man and gains the favor of the enigmatic captain when she works with automatons. Yet her journey is only beginning when she arrives on Mars.

This is a highly enjoyable tale. There are just some times when you want a rollicking good adventure story, and this one delivers. Arabella is feisty and enterprising without being a Mary Sue, and I appreciated it. I’m looking forward to seeing what Levine can do next. He has plenty of room to build this intriguing and steampunk-ish world. If you like Regency or steampunk writing, Jane Austen, or Jules Verne, you’ll probably enjoy this book as much as I did. 4.5 stars.

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#CBR9 Review #9

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

I follow the new literary fiction releases as much as I can, and last year, Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers made it on a LOT of lists. I quickly put in a library hold, because I figured that so many people giving it raves would not steer me wrong.

Oh, man. This book just did not grab me at all, and in fact, I’m puzzled why so many liberal-minded friends and critics raved about it. I mean, I grew up a pro-life Christian, and am still a practicing Christian and *I* thought this book was terribly ham-fisted.

Here’s the premise: Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey get twisted into each other’s lives over the period of eight years with a secret Nadia carries. Aubrey’s absent mother, Nadia’s dead mother (from suicide), and Luke’s overbearing pastor’s wife mother, all influence their children’s lives, even if only one is a major player. The first-person plural voice features largely with a chorus of mothers from The Upper Room, the church where all these individuals converge.

The premise was fantastic, and the voice of the mothers as a sort of Greek chorus was original and innovative. But the writing was just not subtle at all. It swept away the mother-daughter relationships, already neglected in so much of literature, and focused firmly on the love triangle, which was neither interesting nor fulfilling. And we have to talk about the abortion regret, you guys. A character in the book gets an abortion at 17, because, you know, she’s 17, not marrying the guy, and going to college. She spends the next ten years obsessing over the baby and his phantom growth. I get experiencing regret and remorse and thinking about what-ifs. But considering the character’s ambition and drive, it just didn’t make sense. At all. What could have been a truly interesting and nuanced story read like a pro-life movement pamphlet. So far, this is my disappointment of 2017 (reading-wise. Politically, it’s been a garbage dumpster fire of bad news, but that’s another topic for another time).

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#CBR9 Review #8

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

I’m a huge fan of Toni Morrison, which is no secret around these parts. I’ve read all but Song of Solomon, but I had found it a paperback copy at Goodwill. I never know how a Morrison novel will turn out, but this one is absolutely in the top half of her oeuvre. Hooray! I’m glad I invested in the purchased copy, for sure. I am looking forward to unpacking the novel and revisiting it (maybe teaching it) in the years to come.

It’s always hard to summarize a Morrison novel, because there is always so much going on. In short: Milkman Dead was born when a local man committed suicide by flying off the roof of a building. He spends his life under the shadow of a family history: his father, Macon Dead, lost his father young and became estranged from his younger sister, so his father’s tight control over his business and family causes repression and rebellion. Milkman discovers his aunt Pilate and quickly falls in with his cousins Reba and Hagar, the latter of whom forms a sexual attachment to him. Milkman is thus haunted by a past and heritage of which he knows little, a present which inhibits him, and a future that is void of anything familiar.

As with every Morrison novel, there is a lot of setup that takes a while to settle in. Song of Solomon requires patience to see it through. But the last fifty pages are incredibly lovely, with many threads coming together at once to develop a rich family heritage replete with symbolism from the early parts of the novel. The ending is shocking, abrupt, and open-ended. I told The Chancellor that it reminded me of the end of Darren Aronofsky’s film The Wrestler, in that you *think* you can predict what happens, but there are many possibilities. I won’t say any more about this, but it’s brilliantly executed. I will say that this is not the best introduction to Morrison (I would say Beloved or The Bluest Eye, as two more mainstream texts, would probably be a bit more accessible), but it’s a must-read if you are a fan of any of her other work. 4.5 stars.


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#CBR9 Review #7

Ms. Marvel, Volume 2: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

My library accidentally gave me a hardcover edition that included the first two volumes of Ms. Marvel, so I got to read the second volume right away. Hooray! I hate waiting for more books in a series, though I got greedy with my library and am going to have to wait on more of Ms. Marvel’s adventures for the moment. Ahem. Library struggles are real.

Kamala, as Ms. Marvel, has been working on how to figure out her powers, just as she tries to keep her new life secret, maintain a balance at home and school, and try to keep her personal identity separate from her Ms. Marvel identity. As you can imagine, it’s not smooth sailing. Her best friend Nakia is suspicious, and Kamala is struggling to contain her superpowers at the wrong moments. Meanwhile, a villain has emerged and is kidnapping young adults and harnessing their energy for new machines that will wreak havoc upon New Jersey. Can Ms. Marvel stop them? And can she harness the power of Lockjaw, her bulldog mentor (no, really, he is a bulldog)?

This volume felt especially like a love letter to Millennials. I’m an older Millennial, and I’ve been doing my part the last few years to speak out on behalf of my generation and my youngest sister’s generation coming up. Kamala is an endearing and relatable protagonist, and the way she energizes her generation is touching. Right now, it feels like art echoing life. My generation is gearing up for the fight of its life, and we’re in it until the bitter end. Looking forward to seeing what comes next (both in the comics and in life, though the latter is scaring me kind of a lot right now).

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