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When I Arrived At The Castle

I am a fan of Emily Carroll’s past work Through The Woods. This new graphic novel is very reminiscent of her earlier horror-inspired short stories, but this longer story is more adult with a lesbian erotica angle. 

A feline young woman arrives at the castle ready to do battle with the Countess, who appears to be a beautiful vampire. But she immediately falls under her spell and becomes more of a guest, than a warrior. Her passiveness makes the vampire despise her and toy with her. She is escorted to a corridor of red doors, where fairytale-esqe experiences await her. After a few frightening scenes behind the doors, the feline is ready to attack the vampire. Their erotic but macabre embraces end in an ambiguous manner.

Carroll’s art is rendered in only black, white and red to great effect. Few panels are used, instead, the art flows dreamlike from one image to the next. Some illustrations include intricate details, making the pictures sensual and Gothic-like. The red splash pages that included the text of the fairytales were striking. 

I came away from the story feeling it was atmospheric and unsettling, but with little in the way of plot. The dreamy aspect of it had some appeal, yet I felt dissatisfied with the story afterward. I don’t mind open-ended conclusions, but it needs to make sense. While seductive with lovely art, this story left me wanting.

-Nancy

Heathen: Volumes Two and Three

Heathen is a three-volume series that gives readers a fresh take on Viking mythology with a welcome LGBTQ+ storyline. Aydis is a young Viking woman warrior who has recently been outcast by her tribe for she was caught kissing another woman and did not renounce her feelings like the other young woman did to save face.  Aydis wishes to take her destiny into her own hands, so she seeks Brynhild, a former Valkyrie banished by Godking Odin for disobeying him and gets mixed up in some additional adventures. I read the first volume a year ago, and have been looking forward to how the author and illustrator Natasha Alerici would wrap the trilogy up.

Volume Two:

This middle volume of the planned trilogy has young Viking Aydis trying to reach Heimdall, which is the magical entrance to the land of the Gods. She enlists a ship of female sailors to take her northward into unfamiliar waters along with a trio of man-eating mermaids. On parallel journeys, recently released Valkrie Brynhild is struggling with the price of her freedom and Freyja, the decedent Goddess of Love, is feuding with the God-King Odin. All three women are set to converge soon, and hopefully throw over the patriarchy together.

Alterici’s art has improved since volume one. Inked in black and white with a few sepia and blush overwashes and black gutters, it captured the iciness of the Northlands. Backgrounds remain minimal, but she captures a diverse cast well. I also liked how she introduced some complexity into Aydis’s story, in which she was very naive about a choice she made and when it backfired and someone else was hurt, she was called out on it.

Volume Three:

Aydis is now at the entrance to Heimdall, when she is attacked by two giant trolls. During her captivity with them, they reveal that their mother has been kidnapped by Odin and she agrees to go in and try to help her escape. While this is happening Brynhild happens upon the former village of Aydis and is there to help when an invading army attacks. This standoff also throws in Freyja, the female ship crew from the last book, Aydis’s father in addition to her former love. So long as we are including everyone, we get the mythical wolves Skull and Hati, plus Saga the horse in the narrative too. There is a final wrap-up up with Aydis, the goddesses and Odin in a feel-good bow. But the troll mother thread was completely forgotten with no resolution!

In real life, Alterici had some health issues with hand pain, so she employed Ashley Woods as the artist for this last volume, and it took some getting used to, although she tried to emulate the established style. She also utilized another letterer, for it had been Rachel Deering for the first two volumes but used Morgan Martinez in this last book. The muted color palette continued along with minimal to no background in the panels.

I have to admit, this last volume really let me down. In addition to the artist changing, the plot fell apart. I’m sure Alterici was fond of many of her background characters, but the way they were all shoved in for no purpose was off-putting. And the huge gap of not wrapping up the troll storyline showed a lack of editing and judgment. But as a whole, I still think very fondly of this series, for I liked the character of Aydis and the idea of fighting back against the patriarchy. I hope to read more from Alterici in the future as she offered a fresh voice and a needed diversity.

-Nancy

The Low, Low Woods

The Low, Low Woods is an atmospheric and surreal horror story set in the dying coal town of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania.

Elements of feminism and malevolence come into play, as two young women El and Vee realize something is terribly wrong in their town. Years ago a fire moved underground into the coal mines, forcing their closures and gutting an already fragile economy. In addition, women began to exhibit strange episodes in which they were losing large portions of their memory. When this seems to happen to the two friends on an evening at the movies, they want answers. Readers then discover there is already a layer of magic, as a strange deer/human hybrid is sighted, skinned men are hiding in the woods, and there are rabbits everywhere with human eyes. There is somewhat of a Paper Girls vibe in this story, further supported that El and Vee ride their bikes everywhere, but late in the story the narrative takes a sharp and confusing turn. A witch who is trying to combat the cruelty of the men in the region, as previous sexual assaults are implied in the story but not seen, but her spells don’t always work the way she intended. The remainder of the story is the young women trying to give agency back to the women affected by the dark magic.

The illustrations by artist Dani are dark with a color palette using a lot of black and red. The panels are varied, often with a large picture with smaller ones layered on top with black gutters. But the lines can be imprecise and lacking details. For example, El who is a larger woman is often drawn blocky. But I did appreciate that the various characters were given a diverse look. There was a lot of dialogue and information given in text boxes, with a small font that made reading challenging.

I have read a previous short story, Blur,  by the author Carmen Maria Machado through LeVar Burton Reads, and she is known for her LGTBQ+ storylines in the horror genre. While this story wasn’t exactly to my liking, I like how Hill House Comics is using a variety of authors to reach different audiences. I was pleased to receive an advance copy through NetGalley and I plan on reading more of this label’s graphic novels!

-Nancy

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is a coming of age story with a welcoming and needed look at teen romance with a same-sex couple.

Freddy and Laura’s relationship is as normal (and toxic) as any other teen relationship might be; readers will immediately spot Laura’s selfish and callous treatment of Freddy and will be hoping that Freddy has enough strength to break it off for good. I believe teens can learn from this narrative on how to recognize an unhealthy relationship dynamic, and also how to be a better friend to people who truly do care. The narrative also included an in-depth look at Freddy’s friendships and her burgeoning interest in the larger LGBTQ+ community. There is also a very adult decision that one character needs to make, and I was impressed at how it is so respectfully addressed.

The artwork by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell was lovely with a greyscale and soft pink color palette. Her backgrounds are minimalist, but then you’d be treated to an ornate panel where she added much detail to a garden or to the medium’s home. Valero-O’Connell drew Freddy, Laura and the rest of their friends and family in a slightly anime-like style, which was an inviting and charming look for the graphic novel. The illustrations also had a running motif of stuffed animals of Freddy’s that gave their insights, which balanced some of the angst and heavy-hitting topics.

As I said in my earlier Bloom review, I do want to share one problem I had with that cover and this one too- if you were to take a quick glance without opening the book, you would think that the couple was of mixed sexes and I think that is a disservice to the storyline found within. I felt like the publishers weren’t being bold enough with their covers to show what the narrative was truly going to be about, and I found that disappointing. In fact, I was so confused when I first picked up this book that I thought Freddy was Laura and kept looking for the boy from the cover I assumed was Freddy.

I had the pleasure of reading this novel and Bloom for a Tournament of Books that I participated in with other teen librarians. While I pushed Bloom through to the next bracket, this graphic novel deserves the rave reviews and book awards it has already earned.

-Nancy

Bloom

Bloom is a lovely coming-of-age graphic novel with welcome LGBTQ+ representation. Ari, a recent high school grad, is chafing at working at his family’s bakery until he meets Hector, a young man who accepts a job at the bakery, so Ari can move to the city with his bandmates.

This graphic novel has a similar storyline to the more popular Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, although it came out first and the genders are flipped. Author Kevin Panetta told a story that felt softer and gentler, with family playing a large part in Ari’s summer journey. I was rooting for the slow-burn romance with Hector to develop as Ari slowly came to realize that his attitude needed to change and Hector’s kindness and stability were exactly what he needed. Ari also needed to come to terms with a toxic friend whom he always gave a pass to, and learn that he was allowed to outgrow his prior dreams and make decisions that were best for him and not just go along with the group. This character-driven story showcased a healthy romance, once Ari owned up to his mistakes, and a strong family dynamic. Diversity among his friends and an after high school graduation timeline was also welcome.

Savanna Ganucheau’s artwork has a tri-color palette, in black and white with a blue-green color wash used throughout which evocatively signified the Maryland seaside town that the Kyrkos Family Bakery was located in. The panels flowed well and included several two-page splash pages set in the bakery that wordlessly showed Ari and Hector falling in love. Occasional anime-type drawings were utilized to show strong emotions. That a recipe for sourdough rolls and a playlist were included at the end was a delightful way to conclude this engaging story.

I do want to share one problem I had with the cover- if you were to take a quick glance without opening the book, you would think that the couple was of mixed sexes and I think that is a disservice to the storyline found within. I felt like the publisher wasn’t being bold enough with the cover to show what the narrative was truly going to be about, and I found that disappointing. But, I found Bloom the stronger of the two similarly themed books, for it includes a lovely ode to family and different perspectives, which I think teens need to see during this time of transition when their friends take on more importance, yet their family is still a big part of their lives.

-Nancy

Guest Post on 2020 YASF Tournament of Books

As the Head of Teen Services at my library, I attend a networking group with other librarians who work with teens in the Chicagoland suburb area. For several years the YASF (Young Adult Services Forum) group has had a yearly Tournament of Books for YA novels, and this is my fourth year participating by writing reviews for their blog So like YA know

This year I was assigned graphic novels Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up WIth Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. Both books have gained impressive followings, rave reviews, and book awards due to their positive and true-to-life representation of LGBTQ+ life. You can see in the graphic what book I choose to move on in the tournament, but click here and find out WHY!

-Nancy

Heathen

Heathen was this month’s selection from the Goodreads group  I Read Comic Books as this month’s topic was own voices. At first, I wondered if the author, Natasha Alterici, was a half-naked woman Viking, but no, she is lesbian and we are given a fresh take on Viking mythology with a welcome LGBTQ+ storyline.

Aydis is a young Viking woman warrior who has recently been outcast by her tribe for she was caught kissing another woman and did not renounce her feelings like the other young woman did to save face. Her father was told to give her two choices- death or marriage, and her father knows she has the skills to survive on her own, so he lies and tells the villagers she is dead. Aydis wishes to take her destiny into her own hands, so she seeks Brynhild, a former Valkyrie banished by Godking Odin for disobeying him, and forced to marry any mortal who can free her from a magical mountain. Already the parallels are clear-  women are being punished by the patriarchy for going against their wishes of what they feel is proper.

A short interlude introduces us to Skull (aka as Sköll) and Hati who are two wolves from Norse mythology that are forever trying to eat the Sun and Moon. At first, their inclusion in the story seemed odd, but as the story progressed there was also Aydis’s talking horse Saga and the trickster God Ruadan who appeared as a bull. All of this contributed to the world-building of this fantasy-based Viking tale, in addition to Aydis’s journey to Odin’s decadent castle with the Goddess Freyja.

The art, also by Alterici,  really grew on me. Inked in black and white with a few sepia and blush overwashes and black gutters, it captured the iciness of the Northlands. The ladies were often very scantily clad lithe beauties, and I being a practical lass, wondered wouldn’t they be cold or more battle-worn? Then it dawned on me that guys aren’t the only ones that can admire the female form! While not a lot of background is drawn into the panels, it lent itself to a more character-driven story.

A fan of Brian Wood’s Viking series Northlanders, this similarily themed graphic novel was lighter with more of a mythology angle. I found it extremely appealing, and plan to read volume two that just came out of the planned three-volume series.

-Nancy

Alterici, Natasha & Rachel Deering. Heathen. 2017.

My Brother’s Husband: Volume Two

My Brother’s Husband concludes in a beautifully written two book series about preconceived notions about the LGBTQ+ community and how to fight those prejudices.

Author and illustrator Gengoroh Tagame is a well known openly gay Japanese artist whose previous manga series are extremely adult orientated. Tagame typically writes gay erotic manga, but in this case he decided to write an all ages book written to combat prejudices against gay culture. He succeeds brilliantly.

In the first volume, we first meet Yaichi, a divorced dad to daughter Kana. He receives a visit from Mike, a hulking Canadian, who was married to Yaichi’s twin brother Ryoji. Ryoji has recently died, and Mike wants to meet his family and see where his husband had grown up. Kana is absolutely shocked to meet him, for first of all she didn’t even know her father had a brother as the twins were estranged, and secondly she did not know men could marry.

This second volume continues with the reminder of Mike’s visit, three weeks in all. Yaichi, Kana, and Natsuki (Yaichi’s ex, whom he remains on good terms with) take Mike to an onsen, which is a traditional Japanese hot spring. The four of them have an enjoyable time there together, which makes Yaichi further reflect on his previous ideas of who makes up a family unit.  While he regrets that his relationship with his twin ended so sadly he can go forward teaching his daughter to make better choices than he did.

We get further acceptance when Kana’s teacher calls in Yaichi for a conference regarding Kana’s sharing with her classmates that her gay uncle is visiting. Yaichi schools the teacher on being accepting, which is one of the first times he he is outspoken in public about changing perceptions that are ingrained in Japanese culture. When Mike heads home back to Canada, you know Yaichi and Kana’s life has been changed for the better by his visit. You will be hopeful that this new family will continue their relationship, and they will stay connected.

This quiet slice-of-life manga deftly shows how one family can start to break a cycle, and for those people to then branch out in sharing their awareness and how it could radiate out to others. So I was pleased to find out that these two books was adapted into a three episode Japanese television program, which hopefully gave it a medium for reaching even a larger audience. Kudos to Tagame for showcasing an important message and for changing perceptions in a loving and positive manner!

-Nancy

Bingo Love

Bingo Love is a sweet and heartwarming story about a love story between two women than spans over 60 years.

The story begins in 1963 at a bingo hall, as two thirteen years olds are introduced to one another by their grandmothers. Told from the perspective of Hazel Johnson, a pretty and plump teen, she is immediately attracted to the cool California transplant Mari McCray.

Image result for bingo love

The two girls become inseparable best friends throughout middle and high school, but Hazel (also known as Elle) keeps her feelings to herself. Only when their closeness is looked upon with suspicion from their family, does Hazel first kiss Mari, and finds out the feeling is mutual. Spotted by Mari’s grandmother, the girls are shamed and quickly separated, with each girl being forced into early marriages to save face.

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48 years go by from their separation, and we are given a quick montage of Hazel’s life over the years with her husband James, a veteran of the Vietnam War, and their three children and families. Although Hazel has a deep affection for her husband, and adores her children, the marriage is empty of real love. When Hazel and her daughter and two daughters-in-law head out to their annual Mother’s Day bingo game when across the church hall, Hazel sees Mari for the first time in close to fifty years. Mari spontaneously kisses her in front of everyone, and Hazel’s quiet life is upended.

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Mari and Hazel reconnect and we find out Mari is a lawyer and still married herself with five children, but is willing to divorce her husband immediately for Hazel. While Hazel’s feelings are still as strong as ever for Mari, she is unsure about making such a radical change herself. She eventually does tell James, and we learn there are additional secrets in their marriage, and their lack of sexual life comes into focus as to why.

The conclusion of the story does have Hazel and Mari marrying and their children to coming to terms with their mothers’ new relationship. The two women have several happy years together, but old age is harsh for Mari and their time together is eventually cut short. This bittersweet but realistic ending was poignant, but the last page will make your heart happy.

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The artwork is a joy. It is bright and colorful, and gives a wide representation of skin tones and body types in the black community. I admired the outfits the two women wore through the years, and the backgrounds that included the homes and larger communities were fun to look at.

While I truly enjoyed this story and think it is perfect companion piece to Love is Love (in fact author Tee Franklin contributed a story to the anthology), there are a few missteps in this story. At only 92 pages, it felt unnecessarily rushed in spots, and could have been longer. I believe that their teenage friendship (all we were given was a two page spread) could have been expanded, in addition to Hazel’s later family life. Plus by choosing to center exclusively on Hazel, we had no insight to Mari’s life which left a huge void in the narrative. Hazel experienced almost no fall out from her reveal to her husband, and used terms that a grandmother would not say to explain her coming out. The secret that James referred to (we all can guess what it was at that point) felt like an easy way out of the marriage, and sucked the gravitas out of a story that tried to be realistic as to what women of that era endured.

I was pleased to be able to obtain a digital copy of this graphic novel from Edelweiss for an honest review. Despite my few criticisms of the book, I still believe it is a solid book and want to pick up a print copy and add it to my library’s collection. The diversity shown in the story is much needed and deserves much praise. More books like this please!

-Nancy

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