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Katie’s Book Corner (September 2021)

Wake me up, because September is beginning. September segues into Fall, as well as everyone’s favorite spooky season month. If you’re looking to summon the chilled winds and spiced flavors of autumn ambiance, look no further. Three books on September’s Book Corner fall into the paranormal or thriller categories. In addition, a magic-infused YA fantasy novel entertains a bona fide mystery, writhing with twists. Last on the list, deep-dive into the history of a sneaky comic book character who always electrifies stories from her stints in the shadows. Enjoy the seasonal change September brings with my top five reading recommendations this month.

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim
Genre: YA Fantasy
Page Count: 464

(CW: Mild Violence, Distressing Familial Relations)

Retellings are popular in YA literature, spinning gold from the already shimmering threads of stories penned by other writers. Elizabeth Lim approaches the YA retelling genre in the fantasy vein. Six Crimson Cranes draws from a lesser-known literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen entitled “The Wild Swans.” Like Anderson’s tale, Six Crimson Cranes follows the story of a princess fated to undo a curse cast upon her brothers. Shiori, sole princess of Kiata’s land, discovers magic, a dragon, and a terrible secret about her once-adoring stepmother. After Shiori’s six brothers are turned into cranes and Shiori is sentenced to muteness, she embarks on a mission to reverse her brother’s curse and overcome a looming evil.

Fairytales capture our imaginations as children. Stories of stolen children and villains conquered as a consequence of their own fatal flaws delighted our minds as we sat snuggled up under knitted blankets on winter nights, our eyes shining with awe. It’s no wonder readers are drawn to fairytale retellings as adults. We crave the unsettled magic still rattling in our bones from youth, and retellings bring this nostalgia to the surface in grand displays of light. Lim’s prose and story beats in Six Crimson Cranes casts its own enchanting spell on readers. Uncover the fantastical mysteries awaiting your inner child inside the effervescent pacing of this book.

Rebel Robin by A.R. Carpetta
Genre: YA LGBTQ+ Fiction / Paranormal / Media Tie-In
Page Count: 311

(CW: Mild Mentions of Violence, Homophobia, Sexism)

Stranger Things fans are some of the most patient people in the world besides the Barry or Venture Brothers audiences. Ever since the pandemic, filming the highly anticipated fourth season of the show has taken longer than anyone expected. If you’ve already dissected that Season 4 trailer until your eyes burned looking for clues, divert your attention over to this Stranger Things media tie-in novel.

Rebel Robin by A.R. Carpetta offers a backstory about Robin Buckley from the third season of the show. Incorporating story seeds proffered from Season 3, Rebel Robin takes us back in time to Robin’s high school years with Steve Harrington, her crush Tammy, and run-ins with familiar faces in Hawkins. Robin struggles with her feelings about her “hippie” parents and her friends in this novel. She’s a band kid who doesn’t fit in and decides she wants to flee to Europe during the summer. Life in Hawkins doesn’t feel like a life at all to Robin, so traveling far away is the only way to have real life experiences, right?

Rebel Robin is the highest rated Stranger Things tie-in books on Goodreads for a good reason. Carpetta’s writing nails Robin’s voice, intertwining 80’s culture with Stranger Things lore immaculately. The novel also explores Robin’s sexuality as she comes to terms with confused feelings and self-deprecation because of her outsider status. Canon Stranger Things paranormal events lurk in the background, coinciding with Robin’s personal narrative cleverly. Experience memories about the uncomfortable frights of high school side by side with a fan-favorite breakout character in this novel while you wait endlessly for Season 4.

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
Genre: Adult Horror / Suspense / Paranormal Thriller
Page Count: 521

(CW: Terror, Violence, Sex, Gore, Homophobia, Slurs)

If you’ve never read a Stephen King novel (like me) because his writing style doesn’t personally appeal to you, I’d recommend The Book of Accidents instead. A teeth-chattering, paranormal horror story, author Chuck Wendig triumphs in horrifying readers with this 500-page novel. The Book of Accidents evokes an unsettling atmosphere in the first chapter, never releasing the tension until the book’s denouement. Nathan, Maddie, and their off-kilter son Oliver move to Nathan’s old childhood home in the shadowy woods after Nathan’s abusive father passes away. Soon after, all three encounter the supernatural. A former serial killer and town legends cloud the Graves’ perception of reality and folklore. Ghostly apparitions, demons from the past, and untrustworthy strangers cross paths with the Graves family, irrevocably altering their fate. 

There are certain books you don’t read at night; The Book of Accidents is one of them. I’ve kept the synopsis vague because horror books like Wendig’s novel are ones best appreciated going in with as little information as possible. Because of the length, the novel suffers from a few slow spots. Regardless, Wendig’s short chapters and chilling prose command your attention. Can’t wait for spooky season already? Scare yourself by reading The Book of Accidents.

The Turnout by Megan Abbott
Genre: Adult Thriller / Psychological Fiction / Mystery / Suspense
Page Count: 351

(CW: Sex, Abuse, Rape, Implied Sex With Minors, Violence, Gore, Eroticism)

From the outside, the dance world appears glamorous. Picturesque dancers don pointe shoes over cracked feet and glistening costumes on stage, performing shocking feats with their bodies, necks elongated like swans. Ballet is one of the most rigorous forms of dance. Every movement, every hand placement, every breath relies on calculated precision in their execution. Megan Abbott’s The Turnout reveals ballet’s sinister side in a slow-burn, gothic-style drama. As opposed to singularly focusing on the children dancing, competing against one another for the coveted role of Clara in The Nutcracker, Abbott’s protagonists are the dance teachers. Sisters Dara and Marie Durant own and teach at their deceased mother’s crumbling ballet studio. When a space heater ignites a fire, Dara and her husband Charlie hire a seedy contractor to restore the former glory of Studio B. Old family conflicts and the contractor’s presence create fissures in Dara’s immaculately crafted existence. But amid boiling controversy, The Nutcracker showcase must go on.

The Turnout is dark, eroticism charging the narrative with descriptions that will make you squirm. Disturbing power dynamics and sexuality swirl around the story like a never ending pirouette. As a general warning, The Turnout depicts uncomfortable scenes and descriptions of sex, rape, and even child molestation. I was a ballet dancer for only a few years as a child. Fictionalized stories about dance like Abbott’s function as both a warning and a showcase of what real dancers endure on quests for perfection.

The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale by Tim Hanley
Genre: Comics & Graphic Novels Literary Criticism
Page Count:
304

(CW: Sex, Sexism, Misogyny)

Originally donning a literal cat head and titled simply, “The Cat,” the illustrious Catwoman made her comic debut in Batman (1940) #1. Catwoman was a pioneer, a female character appearing as one of the original Batman villains who could actually escape the Dark Knight while also exhibiting morally grey character traits. Tim Hanley’s The Many Lives of Catwoman charts Selina Kyle’s history in both comic and media canon.

Hanley examines many iterations of Catwoman, showing how she exists outside of the typical cultural framework expected in villains, heroes, and as a female. Eartha Kitt and Michelle Pfeiffer’s on screen Catwoman portrayals broke barriers and perpetuated interest in the character. Unfortunately, Catwoman’s character was also susceptible to harmful, derogatory sexualization by male comic creators. Thankfully, she is gradually clawing her way out of to this day with Ram V and his artist redefining the feline fatale in the current Catwoman (2019- ) comic run. Hanley explores The Cat in-depth in his well-researched book to inform both well-versed and unfamiliar readers entertainingly.

Prepare yourself for horror and spine-tingling mystery novels when I return from another month of reading in October. Stranger things are on the horizon. I will emerge from the (hopefully) settled smoke here in NorCal next month, with five more reading recommendations.

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After the Ink Dries: A Review

CW: This review contains mentions of sexual assault. After the Ink Dries contains the following topics: Sexual assault, harsh language, suicidal ideation and suicide.

“Does a devastating event require a certain definition for it to be considered world-altering to the person it happened to?”

– Cassie Gustafson; After the Ink Dries

Stories about sexual assault are difficult to read. Real survivors of sexual assault are forced to live with the mental and physical repercussions of the incidents for the rest of their lives. Those who share their stories and those who never find the voice to air personal secrets for public scrutiny are both survivors deserving of love, care, and understanding. 

Fictional novels discussing mental health or assault issues of women help offer those silenced a voice. Writers like Laurie Halse Anderson have been educating readers with novels about a variety of issues women face. In 2019, Anderson wrote about her own experience with sexual assault in her harrowing poetic memoir, Shout. Most significantly, her novel turned movie Speak tells the story of a teenager who survived a rape, and the aftermath of coping with the horrifying assault while facing ridicule by her school peers. 

Enter Cassie Gustafson’s debut 2021 novel, After the Ink Dries. Comic creator Emma Vieceli illustrates 16 pages in Gustafson’s book in sequential art style. After the Ink Dries feels influenced by Anderson’s Speak, but takes a different approach to presenting the narrative. Gustafson employs a dual POV narrative — and one of these speakers is a male assaulter.

In After the Ink Dries, sixteen-year-old Erica Walker wakes up half-naked on a strange bed, hungover and covered in Sharpie. Her underwear and half her clothes are missing. One beloved black boot is missing. Observing herself, she comes to a gut-punching realization: A group of boys at the house party the night before wrote messages — and their names — all over her body. Erica escapes the house still full of teenage boys, memories blurring as she drives herself back home. All she remembers is the thrill she felt the day before when her crush, Thomas, hung out with her at the party that night. Unfortunately, Thomas was also present in the house with the other boys. Erica can’t find Thomas’s name before she scrubs the Sharpie and derogatory slurs from her skin in the shower. Still, she is left to wonder: Was she raped? And was Thomas, her music-loving, sweet, lacrosse-playing crush, involved in the assault? 

Before the assault, Erica had been an aspiring webcomic artist. She created an empowered female superhero as an alter ego named Erica Strange, assisted by her bat sidekick Sparky. Privately, she used art and writing as a personal diary on a hidden webpage. As the suspense builds and Erica begins fitting missing pieces of the night together, Erica Strange’s story parallels the thematic tension occurring in Erica’s real life. Viecelli excels in pacing the graphic novel scenes through analogous panel work and character designs. Gustafson’s idea to include visuals pays off in dividends. Through Viecelli’s always stellar art, readers glean further insights into Erica’s personality and thought process. We see Erica how she is perceived, how she thinks she is perceived, and how she wishes she was perceived with the inclusion of Erica Strange illustrations. Erica tries to cope with the trauma of her assault, and the art charts her emotional route.

Art by Emma Vieceli from After the Ink Dries (2021; Gustafson, Cassie)

By giving Thomas his own chapters and characterization, Gustafson dispenses a voice to an abuser. Now, with Thomas, his part in Erica’s bodily marking and possible assault is unclear. Alcohol and drunkenness skews everyone’s recollection of that Night. Thomas is portrayed as a “good guy.” He faces emotional abuse from his lawyer father about his music career, in turn only perpetuating Thomas’s drive to succeed. Throughout the book, Erica and Thomas remember the highs involved in their blossoming relationship prior to the Night. Thomas finds solace in writing lyrics, making music, and giving Erica tokens of his affection. I believe Gustafson’s point in writing Thomas’s POV is this: Thomas shows how anyone, any male, regardless of their character, is capable of sexual assault. Gustafson shows how Thomas grapples with guilt and uncertainty, not wanting to face the idea that, yes, he had something to do with Erica’s harassment. He convinces himself of his innocence because he could never have anything to do with something so vile.

Gustafson deconstructs toxic masculinity and victim shaming in Thomas’s chapters blisteringly. Yet, Thomas still feels somewhat underdeveloped, with his short chapters cutting into Erica’s narrative at a few odd times. This is my one criticism of the book, but the Thomas chapters are important.

After the Ink Dries combines dual first-person-point-of-views, prose, poetry, and illustrations, to detail Erica’s heartbreaking story. I’ve been reading Laurie Halse Anderson novels since high school, and heavy topical books are stories I feel compelled to read. I strive to gain a deeper understanding about mental illness, sexual assault, and other harsh topics I may or may not have experienced myself. After the Ink Dries will definitely trigger readers. Thus, this book should be read with caution.

Personally, I read Gustafson’s novel in one sitting. She possesses an innate ability in her writing. Through experimental writing styles and comic pages, Gustafson provides an engaging, authentic voice to survivors of sexual assault. Verisimilitude abounds in Gustafson’s detailed prose. 

Art by Emma Vieceli from After the Ink Dries (2021; Gustafson, Cassie)

I don’t usually “rate” books, but if I had to, After the Ink Dries receives and deserves 5 full stars. My attention was stalwart until the final page. I can’t wait to read Cassie Gustafson’s next novel releasing in 2022, The Secrets We Keep. Confront the horrors of real issues women endure by picking up a copy of After the Ink Dries.

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Deadbox #1: A Horror Story About Belonging & Unwritten Futures

“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

― Søren Kierkegaard

Do you love horror? Stories about being trapped in a god-forsaken small town with a myriad of colorful characters? Vault Comics? New or old Vault Comics horror fans will be fighting to obtain a copy of Deadbox #1. Okay, maybe only Captain Kirk-worthy wrestling match battles should ensue, but you get the idea.

Credit: Mark Russell/Benjamin Tiesma/Vladimir Popov/AndWorld (Vault Comics)

Mark Russell makes his foray into the horror genre as the writer of Deadbox #1. The creative team for Vault Comics’ new five-issue miniseries also includes illustrator Benjamin Tiesma, colorist Vladimir Popov, letterer Jim Campbell, and Vault superstar, designer Tim Daniel. 

This review begins with a quote from Danish philosopher Søren Aabye Kierkegaard about internalized pain accrued from yearning for a future that will never come to fruition. I question society’s general cognitive dissonance and memory lapse every day now. Lately, a meme that has been circulating, known as “My Fall Plans vs. The Delta Variant” (humorously?) tries to show how the latest COVID-19 variant has nullified people’s autumn event schedule. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here wondering who had Fall plans in the first place during this unceasing pandemic? The future may not be written in stone, but mapping out plans for the final months of this year never seemed like a viable option (for me, anyway) based on current events, COVID, and distrust. I’m not here at all to criticize individuals’ sadness over another holiday season contaminated by a deadly virus. Personally, my expectations lowered a year and a half ago and I haven’t felt hopeful about the future in a long time. 

Needless to say, Kierkegaard’s words hit home, particularly considering the throbbing ache — those privileged to even consider a more agreeable future — are currently collectively experiencing.

If you were to list all the intriguing themes in Deadbox, you might line them up side-by-side inside a crimson media vending machine. Would you like to check out “Kierkegaard & Existential Philosophy”? Does “Belonging & Meaning” suit your cinematic tastes? Can you palate the sweeping epic horror movie, “I Had to Give Up My Future and Stay in a Shitty Town I Hate Because I Have Too Much Empathy to Leave My Dying Dad Behind For College?” Here’s a personal favorite: “Life Sucks XVIII: Movies Are Escapism.” Grab some popcorn, because you’re about to read a comic seething with philosophizing, fright, and relatability. 

Deadbox #1 features an ominous DVD rental machine called a Deadbox and a self-delayed college student who imagines an unrepressed future outside of her rural town, Lost Turkey. Penny’s desperation for a future beyond her reach drives the slow-burn pace in Deadbox. She longs for more — for a life beyond interacting with backwards-thinking townspeople at the convenience store she works at and halting her college plans in order to care for her sickly father. 

Credit: Mark Russell/Benjamin Tiesma/Vladimir Popov/AndWorld (Vault Comics)

Immediately, Deadbox asserts its first issue thesis: Where do any of us truly belong?

Russell’s dialogue launches readers into rumination from Deadbox’s opening pages. The narrator waxes philosophical, correlating America’s obsession with “patriotism” and land ownership while questioning the affinity for belonging. Caption boxes with Jim Campell’s typeface aesthetic emulating formal document lettering hover over Benjamin Tiesma and colorist Vladimir Popov’s images of a dusty, rural landscape. Tiesma illustrates Lost Turkey with dark shadows and rough linework. Here, readers immediately gain familiarity with the town. All touchstones of American rural existence appear from varying angles in a noteworthy, four-panel grid composition: A man holds a gun in his lap, a police officer cruises along the road, a dog leashed to an American flag barks loudly, and a storefront bears posters reading “Enlist” and Christian cross imagery. From there, we are pulled into the darkness looming in Penny’s isolated world. The transition works seamlessly as colors dim further, shadows linger longer, and lines feel more weighted. 

Credit: Mark Russell/Benjamin Tiesma/Vladimir Popov/AndWorld (Vault Comics)

Visual horror awaits readers, but plenty of fright is present as we learn about Penny’s depressing existence in the dual narrative comic issue. How many of us can relate to Penny’s plight? When your head is contemplating a future pulsing with possibility and your body is trapped in a place restricting your sense of personhood, your heart ascribes both physical and psychological pain to yourself. Because of this, we retreat within ourselves. People seek comfort in many forms. One such form of shelter is physical media. 

Deadbox points to film as escapism, where we can take solace in watching a fictional story casting characters in situations we either feel relieved in not having to endure or find a piece of ourselves within. In Deadbox #1, the latter statement manifests itself all too tangibly. The films in the Lost Turkey Deadbox aren’t found anywhere else because they are a reflection of the watchers’ own lives. Duality runs through the Kierkegaard-influenced comic in both theme and artistry. Without spoiling too much, the Deadbox movie Penny dares to watch exhibits dramatic parallels to the comics’ opening cogitation and an adroit sci-fi artistic look. Binaries exist in immensely well-executed form in this 10/10 comic.

Credit: Mark Russell/Benjamin Tiesma/Vladimir Popov/AndWorld (Vault Comics)

If there is any criticism to be had, I would argue Deadbox #1 boasts a highly elevated script you may need to re-read to gain a fuller understanding. However, you’ll probably end up flipping through the comic pages again anyway because the art and story are incredible. Gleaning additional analogs in the process acts as a bonus. 

There’s no renting like a DVD rental box when comics are involved. You need to have your money in hand when bursting into your comic shop on September 1st to buy a copy of Deadbox #1.

Mark Russell makes his foray into the horror genre as the writer of Deadbox #1. The creative team for Vault Comics’ new five-issue miniseries, Deadbox, also includes illustrator Benjamin Tiesma, colorist Vladimir Popov, letterer Jim Campbell, and Vault superstar, designer Tim Daniel. 

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Comics

Do You Believe In Magic? A Review of Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

Reading certain comics feels like being carried through an idyllic temporal plane infused with magic. You’re swept away — mentally, emotionally, and physically — by merging landscapes of words and illustrations, upending the paradigm of expectancy. Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2 from Titan Comics courses with this wondrous magical essence. 

The second and concluding expanded issue in the Coming Home saga opens during a snowball fight between Max and Chloe. It’s evident these are the Max and Chloe from their original universe timeline. Aged up a few years since Max sacrificed Arcadia Bay to save Chloe from death, the two lovers laugh with contentment, joke about Max’s cosmic, time-rewinding powers, and share a kiss under the blissful sky dotted white with falling snow.

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

A reconnected Max and Chloe seems like magic, right? Of course, all magic comes with a price, and this ethereal moment was too good to be true, to my utter dismay.

Oh, how this comic plays with reader emotions. 

Strands of happiness are quickly snipped as both Max and Chloe realize the reality — or rather un-reality — of their presence together. Max heartbreakingly awakens from the glorious dream, and our hearts break along with her. Unfortunately, a rude awakening snaps her back into the universe across the transect where Chloe is currently dating and accompanying a living Rachel Amber on her Shakespeare theatrical tour. Life Is Strange can’t possibly wrap up all the fraying and loose narrative ends in the first three pages. However, the scenes offer a foreshadowing in dream form; a twisted, ethereal glimpse of hope for our reality-stranded women.

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

Emma Viecelli, artist Claudia Leonardi, colorist Andrea Izzo, and letterers Jimmy Bentacort and Richard Starkings sprinkle moments teeming with thematic significance throughout the rivulets in Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2. Tonal anticipation paces the story magnetically, carrying readers downstream toward Max and Chloe’s enchanting ending. As I said, this issue is overflowing with hypnotic beauty, bristling inside and waiting to erupt like a rabbit from a magician’s hat. 

In the Life Is Strange: Before the Storm prequel video game, audiences were introduced to Blackwell student and roleplaying aficionado, Steph Gingrich. During Episode Two, “Brave New World” Steph compliments Chloe’s new hair and comments, “Sometimes you’ve just gotta do something new.” Additionally, Steph is also a confirmed major character in the new Life Is Strange: True Colors video game releasing September 9th.

How coincidental that, not only does Max discover a new time-controlling power in Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2, but Steph also makes a crucial appearance in this comic issue! Sometimes, you’ve just gotta do something new to change destiny’s course. Max and Chloe’s fate is irrevocably altered after encounters with newness, and Max’s new manipulative ability she dubs “pocket time.” 

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

How can I describe this issue without spoiling major events? How can I accurately put into words the extreme empathy and emotional catharsis rolling into this issue like a storm?

Let me say one thing: All creators in this book combine forces with the entire power of the transect to create a few of the most stunningly poignant comic pages I’ve ever had the honor to lay eyes upon. A blue butterfly floats through the panels, sun-glittered light speckling its color-revolving wings. Max watches in the forefront of a black background transforming behind her, dialogue hauntingly predicting the narrative’s metamorphosing forecast. These scenes occur midway through the issue where a normal-sized issue would end on a natural cliffhanger. Since pandemic delays forced two double-sized issues into containing the Coming Home arc, readers are lucky to receive an immediate answer to this butterfly scene. Ultimately, the climaxing moment halfway into Coming Home functions as one of the story’s final catalysts. 

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

The butterfly transitioning pages reverberate in my thoughts, even days after reading. I could almost breathe a sigh of hesitant relief watching Max and Chloe break through their encasing chrysalises and stretch their captured wings back toward one another. The payoff to this moment over the last fifteen Life Is Strange comic issues was worth every anguishing ebb and flow. Life Is Strange has always balanced character-driven emotional resonance with well-placed story beat conflicts. Here, emotion and storylines collide, equal parts miraculous and calamitous in its implications. God, this comic series is good.

Both struggles regarding experiencing grief and managing grief have heavily saturated the thematic material in Life Is Strange. How does one relieve themselves of a self-imposed guilt for supposedly causing their own grief while shuttering the blinds to the unvarnished truth?

Max receives clarity from an unexpected stranger. A woman tells her how she too has lost people, and we must give ourselves permission to mourn, channeling that loss in order to preserve their memory. In essence, this issue allows Max to relieve herself from feelings of selfishness over her grief involved with separation from Chloe. Selfish grief is encouraged because Max — and all of humanity — have valid feelings. Thank you, Life Is Strange for reminding us all of a valuable lesson. 

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

In a present day where grief, loss of loved ones, and separation is more relevant than ever, Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2 shines truths like a magical beacon cutting through the clamor of a storm. If there was ever a time to read Life Is Strange, the time is now. Do yourself a favor and pick up this issue — and the entire series before the final arc this year — today. You deserve a little magic in your life.

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Katie’s Book Corner (August 2021)

It’s hard to believe, but August has crept around again. 2021 ends in less than half a year. Summer might be my favorite season, but every August, I’m ready to fast forward to October and the holiday season. This past month, I returned to reading fantasy novels. In high school, YA fantasy series were my go-to reads (An Ember in the Ashes, Legend, Shadow and Bone, The Maze Runner books, anyone?). The fantasy genre can feel harrowing for readers, what with all the glorious maps, languages, magic systems, and ongoing cliffhangers. Luckily, I’m recommending three accessible fantasy novels: A fantasy/sci-fi anthology collection, the first book in a trilogy, and a stand-alone adult book.

If fantasy isn’t your jam, scroll down to the final two contemporary books on this list. Escape into a mystical world this August with this edition of Katie’s Book Corner! All titles here are available through most local libraries, digitally through Kindle, or physically at your favorite bookshop.

The Tangleroot Palace: Stories by Marjorie Liu
Genre: Adult Fantasy / Science Fiction / Anthology
Page Count: 253

The Tangleroot Palace: Stories: Liu, Marjorie: 9781616963521: Amazon.com:  Books

(CW: Death, Murder, Violence, Gore)

Comic fans; imagine I’m wildly swinging this book around in front of your face screaming, “Do you know who wrote this? Marjorie Liu! Yes, that Marjorie Liu!” In reality, I am shy and would never be so bold. But my sentiment remains: Acclaimed Monstress comic writer Marjorie Liu compiled and edited a collection of old short stories in this gorgeous anthology. The Tangleroot Palace: Stories bears a cover illustrated by Sana Takeda, artist of Monstress. If you’ve read Monstress at all, you’ll recognize Liu’s sapphic, gory, sensual, magic-infused storytelling immediately.

Fantasy stories starring strong women seem to be Liu’s forte in this anthology like “Sympathy for the Bones,” “The Briar and the Rose,” and the eponymous “The Tangleroot Palace.” Sci-fi sentiments occur intriguingly in the tall tale about a man who literally wants to become Superman villain, Lex Luthor, in “The Last Dignity of Man.”

The Tangleroot Palace: Stories ripples with riveting characters, lore, and profundity. Each prose piece is self-contained and relatively short for individuals who don’t want to spend hours reading a single story. Although, “The Tangleroot Palace” is a full-length novella. Still, be prepared for the formidable desire to devour multiple stories in one sitting. See what lush horrors are gnashing their teeth through these pages. When you’re finished, go read Monstress (because everyone should read Monstress).

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Page Count: 585

(CW: Violence, Gore, Death, Homophobia, Execution, Forced Drug Use, Misogyny)

Joining the recent ranks of fantasy tales inspired by and set in India, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri kicks off the Burning Kingdoms trilogy. Transport yourself into a world where misogynistic, power-hungry men rule, but feminist, kickass women attempt to wrench control away from these narcissists. The Jasmine Throne opens on a horrifying ritual: The sacrificial “purification” of women. Princess Malini refuses to stand beside her sisters as their burning flesh melts away in front of the solemn nation of Paraijatdvipa. Thus, her dictator brother takes the throne. He vilifies and imprisons Malini in a temple known for once containing magical waters for her remaining days.

Meanwhile, Priya, a simple maidservant in the palace once purified by the temples’ magic-imbuing deathless waters, fights for the conquered nation of Ahiranya. A rot is spreading through Ahiranya, and Priya remains nearly powerless to stop its murderous infection alone. Princess Malini, weakened by drugging in her captivity, accidentally discovers Priya’s powers. Then, their fates intertwine, and they plan to burn the empire — and its male rulers — down, together. 

The Jasmine Throne clocks in at nearly 600 pages, but each word casts an invigorating spell on readers. Tasha Suri’s prose weaves a surreal story of women and their battle for autonomy. At the novel’s midpoint, a slight lull and “insta-love” romance does impede the narrative flow, but you’ll be starstruck as Malini and Priya’s love story propels the high-stakes action. If you prefer an Indian fantasy book in the YA genre, try the stellar Princess and the Pea retelling, Sisters of the Snake.

The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid
Genre: Adult Fantasy / Jewish Fiction
Page Count: 432

(CW: Genocide, Murder, Death, Gore, Torture, Self Harm, Abuse, Child Abuse, Animal Death, Amputation, Antisemitism)

Lately, I’ve noticed an influx of recent book releases with the word “Wolf” in the title. The Wolf and the Woodsman may be one of those novels, but this adult fantasy roots itself in dark themes beyond a love story or Red Riding Hood retelling.

Ava Reid sends readers on a gritty journey with protagonist Évike. Isolated and rebuked, due to her lack of visceral powers and tainted bloodline, Évike feels outcast within her pagan village nestled in the forest. In the city, the tyrannical king requires advantages if he is to gain the upper hand against the warring kingdoms. He sends his bodyguard entourage, the Woodsman, to collect a seer from the women residing in Évike’s village. However, they send the powerless Évike in place of a true seer along with the barbarous woodsman. Évike must fight for survival and ally with the mysterious Woodsman leader after attacks and the kingdoms’ bloodthirsty prince plans an uprising.

Written by a Jewish author, The Wolf and the Woodsman presents themes about the atrocities of genocide and violence involved in any facet of nation-building. Reid’s poetic language does not mask the horrific topics inside this book. Instead, it works to juxtapose good with evil, purity of heart with self-righteous intentions, and roles of the oppressor versus the oppressed. Descriptions of torture, abuse, and ethnic cleansing sharply pierce through the novel’s lilting prose like thorns adorning a rose. Reading The Wolf and the Woodsman promises an uptick in intellectual acuity.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Music Fiction
Page Count: 368

(CW: Death, Trauma, Racism, Racial Slurs, White Supremacy, Abuse, Infidelity)

If you’ve never read an interview style oral history novel, start with The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. Author Dawnie Walton tells a fictional story about a ’70s rock duo who never existed. Written from the perspective of a magazine editor-in-chief with an intent to pen a tell-all book about music sensations Opal Jewel and Nev Charles, Opal & Nev compiles fictional interviews and editor’s interludes.

Aural Magazine editor Sunny Shelton is the daughter of the drummer Opal Jewel had a brief affair with in the ’70s. With an Opal and Nev reunion tour quickly approaching, Sunny seeks out biographical information from Opal, Nev, and their interconnected circle to complete her book in tandem with the tour. Through these interviews, Sunny learns how white British musician Nev came to form a dazzling Afro-Punk duo with Black Southern woman Opal. Surprisingly, Sunny gains more information than she bargained for — facts containing the ability to uproot the tour, Opal and Nevs’ relationship, and Sunny’s book deal.

The oral history format may initially pose stylistic challenges in Opal & Nev, but ultimately lulls you into a sense of reading a real biography or watching a documentary. Parts of the book show characters digressing for long periods of time, but I urge you to follow through the slow areas. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev boasts charismatic and distinct voices throughout. Additionally, the novel scathingly critiques topics such as racism, emotional abuse in the music industry, and the dangers of nostalgia for the glamorized ’70s music scene.

Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood by Danny Trejo
Genre: Autobiography / Memoir
Page Count: 276

(CW: Prison, Drug Abuse, Alcohol Abuse, Infidelity, Gangs, Sex, Rape, Violence, Murder, Gore)

Who watched Spy Kids dozens of times growing up in the 2000’s? Oh, not just me? If you’ve even once seen the gem that is Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids, you’re aware of Danny Trejo. More specifically, Spy Kids (2001) first introduced readers to the Cortez siblings’ Uncle Machete. Conceptualized by Rodriguez long before Spy Kids, Trejo and the movie director decided on softly establishing Trejo’s “Machete” character in the children’s film. Nearly ten years later, the same Machete character slashed his way onto the big screen in a rated-R movie duology. But who was Danny Trejo before he became the infamous Machete? What is the life story behind the actor who has been murdered more times on screen than any other actor in history? 

For the first time, actor, sobriety counselor, owner of Trejo’s Tacos, and former prison inmate Danny Trejo recounts incidents during his past in his memoir, Trejo. Employing a tone of self-reflection, Trejo describes life as a drug dealer, heroin addict, and inmate in multiple California prisons. Trejo depicts his lowest points in unflinching, raw detail to the point you can physically feel the extent of his pain and regret. Yet, Danny Trejo is a success story. Finding a personal view of religion aided Trejo’s darkened spirit, helping him overcome his acquired ideals of misogynistic “machismo” and propensity for violence. Redemption reigns in Trejo’s memoir. Once a drug-addicted young man looking to spend the rest of his days locked up inside the horrendous prison system, Trejo unclamped his own shackles, now helping guide troubled youth onto their own path of redemption. 

Danny Trejo reclaims his life, authentically baring his soul to readers. Trejo fosters heuristic thinking for any reader. In Trejo, Danny Trejo proves how tragedy and fixed mindsets from the past aren’t necessary when defining your future.

Concluding this column each month always poses difficulties for me, because I could talk about and recommend books for an infinite amount of words! I leave you with my heart poured into this text on your screen to make your own judgements about whether these novels pique your interest. If you feel like none of these titles make you want to dip your toes in the tide-drenched summer sand, I am prepared to volley an arsenal of other novels in your direction via Twitter. Stay hydrated, and stay reading.

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The Me You Love In The Dark #1: A Chilling Meditation On Creativity

What is a creative’s worst nightmare? Answers: Stifling creativity. Writer’s block. The inability to put pen to paper, paintbrush to canvas, or words to music.

When our boundless imaginations suddenly feel inhibited, creatives become desperate for inspiration. Thus, we embark on an enterprise. We search for stimulus, innovation, philosophy; any resource to grease the jammed cogs in our brains and stop ourselves from succumbing to self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. Often, a suppressed creative seeks influence from not something, but someone. A muse, of some sorts, is the eloquent (or pretentious) term when discussing a person serving as the inspiring drive for an artist. 

What if that muse takes the form of a nightmare personified? What then, is the worst nightmare of a creative: A lack of inspiration or an inspiring force itself?

The Me You Love in the Dark #1

Dredged up from the harrowing, ingenious minds of Skottie Young and artist Jorge Corona, comes a new five issue horror miniseries published through Image Comics, The Me You Love in the Dark. Colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu and letterer Nate Piekos join Young and Corona on this creative endeavor to visibly summon a tale about a burgeoning artist and her spectral bogeyman muse. Pull the covers over your head because you’re about to feel sharpened prickles of dread.

If you partake in any type of creative feat, you can identify with protagonist Ro Meadows. The first issue of The Me You Love in the Dark perfectly distills the frustration, desire for isolation, and self-deprecation all artists endure at one point or another. A tangible threat lingers around the edges of this comic issue, but the real horror stems from feeling the brunt of Ro’s oscillating emotions during her creative block all too viscerally. Ironically, I put off writing this review because of writer’s block. Reading Ro’s story challenged me because I saw myself reflected back at me through Ro. Therein lies the shrouded, textual horror of The Me You Love in the Dark. How do you circumvent feelings of your own frightening inadequacy when you’re witnessing a visible depiction of those feelings? True nightmares lie within these pages — especially for creatives.

Unable to conjure any meaningful art, Ro retreats from the city to a remote mansion. Like any suffocated creative, seclusion and a change of scenery often marks an appropriate course of action to redress the creative thought process. Self-affirmations and repetitive actions become tantamount to Ro’s journey inside this looming house. 

The Me You Love in the Dark #1

Through wide-frame shots angled above and behind Ro, Jorge Corona’s illustrations construct a haunting atmosphere. Panels cut like camera cuts on a film as Ro does simple tasks before sitting down before her unpainted canvas. The scenes linger on Ro, creating a sense of us watching Ro battling sterile imagination in real time. Ro herself believes the house to be haunted by a ghost. Repeatedly, she calls out to the phantom for help. Watching an intimate portrait of Ro’s life, her words float out in silence to no one but us, the distant yet present reader. The visual effects of this art style chilled me, fabricating a singular thought before the comics’ end: Am I the haunting presence Ro is speaking to? 

Lighting, creeping shadows, and colors distinguishing the setting sun bring subtext and meaning to the surface in The Me You Love in the Dark #1. Waning sunlight peers through the slatted window in front of Ro when she works while dark shadows hovering in staircases behind Ro implicate the horror of an undiscovered apparition waiting to make itself known. Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s coloring leans on solid primary hues intermixed with oil-paint reminiscent shading, delineating sources of diaphanous light. Illustratively, the light and dark dichotomy parallels the tonal uneasiness beating underneath Skottie Young’s sparse dialogue. Chiefly, light and dark are intertwined, a marriage between trepidation and curiosity; horror and love. 

The Me You Love in the Dark #1

Anyone who reads my reviews knows about my adoration for SFX. Nate Piekos charges Ro’s general dialogue with an off-kilter, widely-kerned typeface screaming “struggling artist bereft of purpose if she cannot create art.” Similarly, Piekos’s SFX work slingshots those ideals as Ro’s exasperation increases. During charged moments where, to talk about them would spoil the most vertigo-inducing instances in the comic, Piekos’s SFX coalesces with Corona and Beaulieu’s art in an erupting symphony of unbridled terror and emotional ferocity. 

Life is unpredictable. We have days where inspiration caresses our very soul, trickling down from a barely perceptible thought in our cognitive awareness to the restless bones in our fingertips. Other times, we creatives cannot attach an idea to our mind, even with a leech. Muses become vital for some people to the point of obsession. The Me You Love in the Dark piqued my interest because of its meditation on these topics. Will Ro’s muse transfix her to the point of obsession? Will Ro create art, not worthwhile to others, but meaningful to herself? Ro may not feel inspired, but this provocative comic has already inspired my own storytelling and artistic sensibilities.

When your dreams come to fruition, the worst aspects of those dreams can also manifest. Clarity of mind evolves from a need to a requirement to placate these unprecedented events accompanying success. The Me You Love in the Dark #1 is a comic about waiting for artistic lightning to strike. Alternatively, you’ll be the one struck by undulating waves of emotion, cresting until the comics’ final, hair-raising scene.

Don’t get left in the dark: The Me You Love in the Dark is guaranteed to burst into the limelight and leave an indelible mark on the comic scene.

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Shadecraft #5 Exudes Emotion and Concludes A Momentous Story Arc

After enduring a life living in the shadows of her brother, family trauma, and wavering self-regard, Zadie Lu wrests mental and tangible control back from the shadows. Shadecraft received an unprecedented reader response over the past few months. Still, most comic readers I personally interact with seemed unaware Shadecraft existed. With issue #5 acting as a first arc ending point and sending the series on a brief hiatus, new readers can discover Shadecraft and read a completed storyline. Shadecraft #5 is written by Joe Henderson, illustrated by Lee Garbett, colored by Antonio Fabela, and letttered by Simon Bowland.

Shadecraft #5 brings all the threads and unresolved plot points full circle in the conclusion of arc one. Each issue blended relatability with gravitas naturally, and this issue magnifies reader resonance with aplomb. Garbett and Fabela’s grand illustrations delineating the fantasy horror genre fuse together poignantly with intimate scenes dissecting Henderson’s family drama thematic dialogue throughout the series. Shadecraft #5 climaxes with flying colors, fusing the elements that strengthened this comic series together in persuasive symbiosis. Finally, readers feel the full effect of Zadie’s emotion as she battles for her brother’s life alongside her mother.

Henderson writes organic dialogue in Shadecraft conveying the inner turmoil of the comics’ teenaged protagonist particularly well. Even during a final issue expansive battle, Zadie retains her wit and sarcasm-laced speech. In Shadecraft #5, Zadie still speaks like a teenager, teetering on the precipice of not fully understanding the confusing emotions encapsulated in the adolescent experience.

Shadecraft #5

Yet, Henderson doubles down on showcasing Zadie’s morphing characteristics in this issue. Shaped by the tension and trauma from her brother’s accident, Zadie undergoes exponential character growth. She flourishes, initially cast in the dim light of an entropic state of existence to finally reversing her fate. Henderson portrays Zadie relatably. Here, readers breathe a sigh of relief as Zadie learns to purge the overshadowing self-deprecation and lack of confidence she displayed during the series’ opening issues.

Shadecraft’s art taps into the solidifying roots of Henderson’s script. Garbett draws characters with a stylized look, leaning on dense inks and expressive demeanors. Shadecraft #5 peels back the clouded layers congesting the characters’ guarded emotions. There’s weight in a subtle raise of the eyebrows or demure smile that carries sentiment between mother and daughter in this issue. 

Shadecraft binds readers up in magic and shadows, bolstered by Fabela’s color work. The comic combines a darkly vibrant pastel color palette with a kind of leaking watercolor appearance. Whenever Zadie commands the shadows through Shadecraft, the tendrils and ghostly, oil-hued shapes discharge a moody aesthetic. Issue #5 crosses the threshold of reigning in the shadows, letting Garbett and Fabela fill entire splash pages to emphasize Shadecraft’s potential for destruction.

Shadecraft #5

Simon Bowland’s lettering further cleaves the light and dark theme in Shadecraft #5. The white speech bubbles accommodating crisp, descending words deeply contrast the shoved together letters of Zadie’s brother against a black background. A slight difference in kerning proves seminal in channeling the tone of trapped fear Zadie’s brother suffers as a renegade shadow. 

As usual, Shadecraft #5 sustains its effort to impact readers with shock. A detailed plot summary would have given away these surprises, both broad and small-scale. Keeping major story beats shockwaves undisclosed will pay off for readers who find themselves curious about Shadecraft after reading this review. If the first issue feels minorly predictable, readers will assuredly never anticipate those last page cliffhangers that left me slack-jawed every month. 

This fifth issue wraps up loose ends well while seeding in hints of later storylines, patiently biding their time in the shadows. Although no major cliffhanger awaits at Shadecraft #5’s conclusion, revelations about Zadie’s mom enkindle emotional potency, and worrisome questions arise concerning the physical and mental toll using Shadecraft abilities produces. The epic battle is fought, and tensions between Zadie and her exploitative enemies come to a head. Yet, Henderson and the creative team evidence that Zadie’s skirmishes encompassed in her Shadecraft power are far from over. Shadecraft humorously teaches lessons about family and forgiveness in an intoxicating supernatural narrative that will leave you side-eyeing your own shadow.

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Syphon #1 Emphasizes The Value Of Empathy

Empathy and humility should not be mutually exclusive. Instead, a humble mindset broadens one’s capacity to understand another, if your intentions are rooted in compassion. Syphon #1 from Image’s Top Cow imprint introduces a protagonist, Sylas, who already demonstrates both empathy and humility in his everyday life. An urban fantasy miniseries roping in some noir aesthetic flair, Syphon #1 is the first of three issues about an empowered empath. Syphon was conceived by comic book documentarian Patrick Meaney, co-written by Mohsen Ashraf, illustrated by Jeff Edwards, and colored by John Kalisz.

Syphon protagonist Sylas is a New York City EMT in his 20s, saving lives and easing pain-riddled victims through calming words of affirmation. He is an everyday hero, exhibiting heroic characteristics right from the story’s start. Due to the nature of his day job as a first responder, Sylas possesses natural empathy and sensitivity concerning peoples’ well being. A patient frantic over the loss of his finger in the back of the ambulance offers to repay Sylas’s alleviating conversation after the trip, but Sylas never demands nor expects repayment to come to fruition. Critically, Syphon #1 presents Sylas as genuine in his empathy. It’s this kind of humility that deems Sylas worthy of transcending his emphatic personality trait. Thus, Sylas’s transformation into a supernatural empath feels like a logical event. 

Syphon #1

Flashbacks reveal how Sylas is not without flaws, because he is still human, after all. Through a horrifying sequence of panels rotating to emulate a car flipping upside down and the fiery aftermath of a car crash, readers learn of Sylas’s involvement in the accident. Subtle uses of dialogue evidence a former drinking problem Sylas works hard to curb. Unassuming dialogue interspersed within the story exposition chiefly allow readers to assume an interconnectedness between the two crises. Rescue from a good Samaritan during the crash turns out to be an inciting incident for Sylas. Because someone saved him out of empathy, he dedicated his life to helping others survive accidents by becoming an EMT. The story is touching and formative of Sylas’s character. Additionally, this brief page provides a vital example of how human flaws can provoke immolation, but out of destruction comes an impetus for change and rebirth. 

Sylas eventually receives power to not only sense other’s pain but also siphon pain from these suffering individuals. A paranormal encounter with a woman spirit introduced in Syphon #1’s opening pages grants Sylas a sight to visibly witness pain, extract the burden from a person, and thrust the weight on himself instead. Therefore, Sylas’s life takes yet another direction leveraged by his core propensity for empathy. Balance then behooves his actions. Syphon #1 posits a question extremely relevant to our current society: How do you carry another’s pain and heal their adversity without succumbing to the intense agony of that pain yourself? 

Syphon #1

All the themes in Syphon #1, visceral empathy, engaging with others’ viewpoints devoid of a personal agenda, and mitigating another’s’ misery without letting their burdens induce a schism inside your own psyche are splendidly displayed. Co-writers Patrick Meaney and Mohsen Ashraf pack Syphon with a gripping showcase of the human experience and a unique supernatural aspect. The beginning pages revealing ancient origins and multiple users collectively involved in the “siphoning” power come across somewhat nebulously on a first read through. However, the supernatural circumstances are interspersed through the narrative coherently, elaborating sporadically instead of opening with a mountain of exposition.

Syphon #1

Beyond the veritable fantasy, Meaney and Mohsen write a sublime character I could read an entire novel about. Quick pacing is inevitable in a three issue miniseries. Their ability to make me care deeply about Sylas and proffer enough backstory for a full-scale analysis in one issue is astounding. 

Let’s talk about the phenomenal art in Syphon #1. Whenever magic and siphoning powers takes centerstage, readers are blessed with vibrantly cinematic illustrations, illuminating light sparkling in popping technicolor on the pages. Illustrator Jeff Edwards and colorist John Kalisz create a synthesis of electrifying imagery. Adorned by Kalisz’s kaleidoscope of vivid violet and vermillion hues, Edwards’ experimental renderings of siphoning power usage lash out over panel gutters or explode over double splash pages. 

Additionally, colors and shapes within speech bubbles supplement the supernatural atmosphere Syphon. Speech bubbles in the magic realm take on a loose congealing form against an orange tinted background. The imagery swells with a phosphorus glow, reinforcing the theme of pain and the magic-adjacent red color palette.

Syphon #1

Novelist Mohsin Hamid says that “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” Perceptible through Syphon #1’s narrative, branches of this theme are exemplified by the comics’ artistry. Characters in Syphon are drawn with correct anatomy and proportions, but Edwards distorts true reality. Combining a semi-realistic art style with flairs of impressionism reflects echoes of realism. Moreover, we can identify with the characters’ resemblance to ourselves, easily empathizing with those echoing parallels of pain they endure. 

Lately, empathy appears to manifest less and less. People adopt numbness or indifference toward overwhelming tragedy occurring daily, as opposed to responding empathetically. Largely, this emotional barrier is due to the simple fact that the human mind is incapable of processing the amount of information contained in a single day news cycle. Syphon #1 empowers an already empathetic protagonist with an empathy-driven skill. This beautifully-drawn first issue is elevated by topical thematic material. Syphon portends an ambivalent future for Sylas, but I am eager to see how learning balance will tectonically shape his destiny. Balance, empathy, and humility should function as touchstones of our own lives as well.

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Comics

Powers And Relationships Transect In ‘Life Is Strange: Coming Home #1’

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #1 begins the penultimate arc in the Life Is Strange comic series. Shocking revelations will gratify fans reading this double-sized issue. Simmering with multiverse developments, Coming Home procures long-anticipated answers to questions posed throughout the series. The comic saga has been lauded as a stellar story bridging gaps between the first and second Life Is Strange video games. Therefore, it comes at no surprise that the latest comic installment continues demonstrating an acute understanding of the Life Is Strange universe — and characters Max Caulfield and Chloe Price.

In Max and Chloe’s original universe timeline where Max sacrificed Arcadia Bay to save Chloe and the two fell in love, reality-phaser Tristan fights for a way to cross back into Max’s new timeline. Pixie, drummer for the traveling band “High Seas”, finally confronts herself, Tristan, and the original Chloe about her own connection to the transect. Pixie’s powers were hinted at during the last Life Is Strange comic arc. In Coming Home #1, Pixie reveals herself as able to see alternate possibilities during an event. This revelation contains extreme ramifications for Tristan and emphasizes Pixie’s role in both realities. 

On the alternate side of the temporal divide, Chloe’s anger toward Max persists. While exploring Carlsbad Canyons with Chloe’s girlfriend Rachel Amber and Rachel’s theatre troupe, Max tries to make amends for recklessly rewinding time without telling Chloe and casting Tristan out of this timeline in the process. Rachel Amber eventually forces Max and Chloe to apologize to one another in a heartfelt conversation that releases the tension between the friends.

Meanwhile, original timeline Chloe, Pixie, and Tristan realize Chloe’s existence in each reality serves as the navigating source for reality-jumping. Tristan locates the Chloe in the “living Rachel Amber” string. Their joyous reunion steers the group back on to their original mission to reunite Max with her Chloe in the Arcadia Bay universe after two years of their split across the transect. In order to achieve their goals, Max and Tristan must work together and teach the new timeline’s Pixie how to hone her powers. But a fortune teller foretells an incoming storm heralding a new beginning. New beginnings aren’t unfamiliar to Chloe and Max, and unfortunately, neither are storms. These actions will have consequences.

The Life Is Strange comic series consistently excels in voice, characterization, and genuine depictions of emotion. Emma Viecelli’s artist background obviously aids her storytelling skills. Coming Home #1 showcases Viecelli’s aptitude for both story direction and pacing. Previously, I felt that the last arc dragged somewhat. Now, in retrospect, I am more appreciative of the slower pacing and expansive character work Viecelli displayed in Vol. 4. Every event and hint at Pixie’s burgeoning powers climaxes in Coming Home #1. Truly, I am astonished at Viecelli’s ability to write so contextually. All the prior foreshadowing about Pixie and Tristan’s connection, as well as Chloe’s duality in both strings emboldens the payoffs of Life Is Strange’s butterfly effect theme. 

Illustrator Claudia Leonardi and colorist Andrea Izzo also return to saturate Coming Home #1 with a gorgeous, down-to-earth ambiance. Throughout the whole comic series, coloring and outfit designs prevail as paramount in timeline delineations. Similar color palettes in Coming Home can make distinguishments a little tricky. Still, the original timeline maintains a darker, looser aesthetic separating visuals from the vivid color choices in Max’s alternate universe.

Sentimentality runs high in Coming Home #1. Tears are shed, friendships are stitched back together, and astonishment threads through the issue. Leonardi draws emotion realistically with cartoonish stylism that only adds to the comics’ visible appeal. Tender moments where Max bows her head in defeat or closes her eyes with hands crossed across her chest permit reverberate with emotion. Leonardi positions faces closely in panels and often repeats images with slight alterations. Accented by Izzo’s muted colors, panels hosting close-framed profiles communicate the precise instance characters’ internal friction unspools. 

Letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt buoy the saccharine ambiance. Font sizes inside speech bubbles are reduced every time Chloe trails off, overwhelmed with sadness from missing Max. Whenever Chloe and Max share a scene, eye contact or an aversion thereof disseminates either tension or adoration respectively. Essentially, Izzo matches eye colors to their video game counterparts. Shining mixtures of blue hues make Max and Chloe’s pupils particularly expressive. Leonardi and Izzo translate the video games’ signature quiet beauty through thoughtful artistry. 

Despite the combination of two issues into one oversized single issue, Coming Home #1 never feels tediously long. Due attention is given to Pixie, who has thus far been a background character, as she struggles to comprehend her powers. Winks at a possible love interest for Tristan add character dimensions. Even the two-page backup introducing Alex Chen, protagonist for the upcoming Life Is Strange: True Colors video game, acts as a welcome addition to the issue. The page where Max clutches Chloe’s letter to her chest as Tristan stresses the unbreakable tether between Max and Chloe is a moment readers needed as soon as possible.

Max and Chloe have been separated for over a dozen issues now. The gravity of actions taken here don’t trend toward a reconnection within this fourth arc. Nevertheless, Coming Home #1 pushes its characters and their abilities to the limit. This installment drives the story forward with a renewed vigor, insinuating the retooling of loose narrative threads sooner rather than later. Ghosts of the past transect the crisscrossing strings of the present in Coming Home #1. All that’s left is to ride the waves while an impending storm catapults Max home in the final Life Is Strange issues.

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Books

Katie’s Book Corner (July 2021)

Summer solstice somehow only officially began two weeks ago. Where I live, summer heat starts around April and ends in September — if I’m lucky. Thankfully, my precious books are here to help me cope with the summers’ triple digit days. July’s Book Corner recommendations accidentally includes a theme: History! Travel back in time to the 1920s with a Great Gatsby retelling, or witness a cat’s exploits during 1500s Italy. Read a romance novel about a teenager who can see a relationship’s past — and future. Two nonfiction books portray unvarnished truths about facets of American history. Additionally, July’s list includes a bonus book that imagines an origin story for a famous sci-fi character. Whether you’re reading digitally from Kindle or online library apps, or you enjoy ruminating in the crisp scent of physical pages, crank up the air conditioner and journey through history with these books during July.

1. The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
Genre: Adult Fiction / Historical Fantasy
Page Count: 272

(CW: Sex, Murder, Racism, Trauma)

In the economically prosperous Western era of the “Roaring 20s,” New Yorkers relished the “a little party never killed nobody” mindset. Unfortunately, everyone knows the murderous conclusion to the party deity, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Nghi Vo untangles the tale of The Great Gatsby and constructs a luminous retelling that transcends the source material. The Chosen and the Beautiful is a prose novel, fashioned from the exact plot framework of Fitzgerald’s literary novel. Vo’s novel still takes place in the 1920s Jazz Era on Long Island. Now though, the protagonist is background player Jordan Baker. Vo reinvents the overlooked character, molding Jordan’s story to reflect an equally swept aside experience. As the events of the original Gatsby novel play out, Vietnamese woman Jordan Baker forges her own identity. Alongside the glittering spectacle of Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby’s forbidden love story, Jordan undergoes her own magical transformation in the summer of 1927 as a bisexual immigrant who also possesses a bit of real magic. 

Sometimes, you read a book and it transports your every sense inside its pages. When reading The Chosen and the Beautiful, inhale deeply. Don’t be scared to breathe in the whirlwinds of emotion that will sweep you away. Throughout the magic imbued in this novel’s pages, you will nearly smell the piercing tang of a 1920s New York summer, dripping with sweat, thrills, and a romance fated for heartbreaking disaster. Prepare for a spellbinding read that may just dance its way up to the top of your all-time favorite books list with The Chosen and the Beautiful.

2. Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice by Yusef Salaam
Genre: Nonfiction Autobiography / Self Improvement
Page Count: 304

(CW: Racism, Trauma, Abuse, Police Brutality)

In 1989, fifteen-year-old Yusef Salaam was apprehended, arrested, and ultimately imprisoned with four other teenagers in the Central Park jogger case. Crucified by the media, the Central Park Five — now essentially renamed The Exonerated Five — remained wrongfully incarcerated for seven years after a trial ruled them guilty of the brutal assault and rape of Patricia Ellen Meili. Yusef Salaam was one of those five. Since his release, Salaam has worked tirelessly as a motivational speaker, justice seeker, and prison reform activist. Salaam’s Better, Not Bitter is his memoir. The book serves the dual function of recounting his inspiring tale of finding purpose during his unfathomable experience and underscoring the overarching need for American prison reform. Here, Salaam writes about his life growing up, his family’s unrelenting desire for justice, and discovering spirituality behind prison walls.

Better, Not Bitter is a formative narrative about transformation. Yusef Salaam writes about identity and purpose with an intimately compelling ardor that will force readers to challenge fixed mindsets. Salaam draws upon his firsthand experiences to discuss the necessity of racial justice in a prison system that sets Black and Brown people up to fail — both inside and outside prison. No matter what your race, identity, or gender, Better, Not Bitter will probe your mind with mentalities you may have never before considered. Better, Not Bitter should be read by anyone and everyone. Salaam stresses how to reconstruct your mind in response toward the false narratives society engenders. You may have to take a few reading breaks when your heart becomes overwhelmed and your eyes fill up with tears. Every sentence in this vital memoir imprints itself on your mind forever.

3. By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution by David Talbot and Margaret Talbot
Genre: Nonfiction Politics and Social Sciences / Democracy
Page Count: 400

By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second  American Revolution: Talbot, David, Talbot, Margaret: 9780062820396:  Amazon.com: Books

(CW: Racism, Murder, Political Conflict, Abortion)

The first American Revolution declared the colonies’ independence, shaping the country into a democratic nation. Unfortunately, this “revolution” was built to serve the elite, white, male landowners. Founded on slavery and committals of genocide against Native American tribes, those promises of freedom quickly rejected ideals they claimed to uphold. By the Light of Burning Dreams surveys key figures and movements in the radical generation of the 1960s “Second American Revolution.” Authors David Talbot and Margaret Talbot use each chapter to disseminate information about specific developments and leaders that fought for real independence for all groups of people. Leaders like Bobby Seale and Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party forged a path for Black Americans to stand up for their basic human rights against armed resistance. The book highlights the inspiring leadership of Craig Rodwell of the Stonewall riot, and feminist civil rights activist Heather Booth. Together, the authors chronicle the history of leaders against the Vietnam War, American labor revolutionaries, and many other critical figures who emboldened the Second American Revolution.

By the Light of Burning Dreams is an example of how to write a captivating history book. Reading this nonfiction narrative can be likened to watching seven short documentaries. Each sort of vignette chapter sheds light on significant moments in history and its important — yet admittedly flawed — leaders, avoiding the dreaded “information dump” reading sensation. You can skip around to chapters about the individuals or movements that most interest you without losing that connecting thematic thread woven throughout. Not only is By the Light of Burning Dreams a social sciences lesson, but the activism and reform exhibited in the American past teaches paralleled ideals that are currently relevant in the present. The book teaches the values of learning, listening, and chiefly, leading.

4. Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Romance / Fantasy
Page Count: 304

(CW: Death, Relationships, Divorce)

Instructions for Dancing is a lovely Young Adult novel about love, friendships, and of course, dancing. Nicola Yoon, author of Everything, Everything and The Sun is Also a Star returns with a new story bristling with swoon-worthy, conventional romance. Protagonist, teenager, and disbeliever of love, Evie Thomas, rejects the notion of “true love” after her father leaves her mother — and their family — for his mistress. Bafflingly for her, Evie’s mother and sister downplay this life-altering event while Evie harbors lingering resentment. One day, love-discouraged Evie receives powers: She can see the beginning and endings of a couple’s relationship whenever they kiss. Her confusing visions, a book titled “Instructions for Dancing”, some encouragement to “just say yes” in life, and a dance competition entangle her with musician and new (hot) tango partner, X. And Evie learns to say “yes” to more than just dance lessons.

Even if you are soft on romance (like me) or the YA genre, I promise that Instructions for Dancing will leave you wishing all romance books were written with such breezy eloquence. Nicola Yoon has written (in my opinion) her best work here. Personally, I loved both books mentioned earlier, but Yoon won over my heart with the strong character voices, pointed dialogue, and narrative driven by verity. Instructions for Dancing actually benefits from the YA trope of first-person dialogue in this case. Thus, we weave our way through a first-person point-of-view of Evie’s most intimate thoughts until suddenly, our eyes reach the last word as our hearts are aching from the final words’ reverberations. You’re liable to read this perfect summer novel in one sitting. Romance is my least favorite genre, yet my eyes were misty after dancing across every word from Yoon’s magical story for three straight hours.

5. Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Genre: Juvenile Historical Fiction / Science Fiction / Fantasy
Page Count: 288

Disclaimer: Da Vinci hardly appears in Da Vinci’s Cat. Although, Da Vinci’s cat has a strong presence in this middle grade novel. Therefore, Da Vinci’s Cat proves an apt title for a timeslip story about 1500s Italian painters and an orange cat named Juno. Catherine Gilbert Murdock blends history and fantasy together, pushing real-life son of the Duke of Mantua, Sir Federico Gonzaga, to the narrative’s forefront. Unfortunately, Pope Julius II holds Frederico as a political hostage in the Vatican to maintain his fathers’ loyalty. Frederico thus spends his days interacting with artists like Raphael and Michaelangelo. One day, enigmatic cat “Juno” magically transforms from a kitten into a full cat after passing through a wardrobe. Equally mysterious, modern art collector Herbert strikes a deal with Frederico to obtain a signed sketch from Raphael. But when Bee, a girl from the present day, is vexed when discovering a painted portrait of herself from Renaissance Rome, she also slips through Da Vinci’s magic cabinet–crossing paths with Frederico. Frederico and Bee’s lives soon become endangered on their missions accompanied by their feline friend.

Honestly, Da Vinci’s Cat made this list primarily based on its inclusion of a cat. The story finds its strength through the chapters narrated by Frederico, but Bee’s character eventually finds a balance between vexing and charming. Middle grade novels can be hit or miss for readers outside the targeted audience range. Here, Catherine Murdock intertwines historical elements rooted in truth with a well-thought-out version of time-traveling inspired by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, culminating in a fascinating narrative. Readers can plausibly believe that the great Leonardo da Vinci crafted an era-jumping wardrobe. If anything, you should read Da Vinci’s Cat for the hilarious rivalry dialogue between 16th Century Italian artists. Then again, this is a light summer read if you just love cat stories.

Bonus Book: Leia, Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Page Count: 291

Amazon.com: Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi Leia, Princess of Alderaan  (Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) (9781484780787): Gray,  Claudia: Books

GateCrashers is celebrating Star Wars during this whole month of July! Although I haven’t read many novels based on the franchise, I’ve consistently visited author Claudia Gray’s YA Star Wars books. I thought about adding the new High Republic title I also read recently, Into the Dark here, but Gray’s Leia: Princess of Alderaan features a teenaged version of my absolute favorite Star Wars character. Gray’s narrative delves into Leia Organa’s duties growing up as a princess and how she navigates life with her adopted parents. When she uncovers secrets about Breha and Bail, Leia’s relationship with her beloved caretakers begins to fracture. Additionally, her undercover excursions unknowingly present the princess as a threat the Empire itself.

Leia has always inspired me with her sharp wit and fierce independence. There’s a strange romance in Leia that felt somewhat unnecessary (especially since Han and Leia later work as the perfect pair.) Nevertheless, Leia: Princess of Alderaan is a page-turner. The novel considers the weight of political responsibilities as a 16-year-old compounded with relationship management thrust upon our beloved Star Wars princess, Leia Organa.

Delight in quenching your literary thirst amidst July’s sweltering heat with these novel novels. If you’re interested in reading more Star Wars literature, GateCrashers is reviewing several novels in the current High Republic era of the book series. Alternatively, you can dive into other Star Wars titles by the mighty Star Wars wordsmith, Claudia Gray. Prepare for five more book recommendations from your fellow book binge-reader next month!