BOOK REVIEW: The Gold Persimmon by Lindsay Merbaum

The Gold PersimmonThe Gold Persimmon by Lindsay Merbaum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This book consists of two stories with the common connection of being set in strange hotels. The first story is split between parts one and three (of three.) This allows part one to tell a story that feels like straightforward realism (while part three is where the story gets a bit trippy and where – in that trippiness – the reader may see connections between the two stories that may or may not be intended.) It’s the story of Cly, an employee of a fancy hotel [The Gold Persimmon] that specializes in serving a grieving clientele, and her love affair with a regular guest, Edith, who is a physician. The strangest thing in this story is that Cly is probably the most attached to her job of any low-level hotel employee in the history of low-level hotel employees.

The second story’s protagonist, Jaime, is an aspiring writer of nonbinary gender identification who is about to take a job in another hotel, a Japanese-style love hotel. [For the unfamiliar, that means a place with themed rooms where people come for short-term stays to get their freak on – think: dungeon, subway train interior, etc.] This story gets weird almost immediately as a fog descends over the city leaving only a few employees and customers trapped together inside the hotel. This is a much more engaging story than the other. The few people in the hotel inexplicably go all “Lord of the Flies,” and the reader can’t be sure whether it’s descent into madness from whatever fog has enveloped the hotel, or whether they are mostly unstable from the start.

It’s extremely difficult to write surreal- / madness-based stories that aren’t distractingly unclear about what – if anything – is real. I felt this story suffered from two difficulties. First, Jaime’s internal monologue sways radically from what seems like extreme paranoia to very reasonable states, but we don’t know the character enough to have a baseline. Second, many of analogies used in describing events read a bit clunky, causing one to need to re-read to try to make sense of whether what is said is what is actually being seen or whether it’s just a confusing metaphor.

That said, I was engaged throughout the story, and found it compelling enough to need to keep reading. I’d say if you don’t mind some ambiguity and experimentation in writing, you’ll enjoy this book. If not, not.

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BOOK REVIEW: Maria Llovet’s Eros/Psyche by Maria Llovet

Maria Llovet's Eros/PsycheMaria Llovet’s Eros/Psyche by Maria Llovet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This story takes place at a all-girl boarding school called “The Rose.” It’s a strange place with something vaguely supernatural about it, including: we see no faculty or staff – only students, and, also, it appears to teach witchcraft or some sort of herbal potion-based artform. And the students are eliminated one by one – as in a reality tv show in which the low-scoring student (or disobedient / disorderly students) must leave, at least that’s what we are led to believe. The bulk of the story revolves around just two characters, Sara [a new student] and Silje [a veteran.] Few of the other girls have much in the way of speaking roles or story relevance. That’s part of a minimalist motif that’s used to generate a stark feel. There’s a lot of textless frames, and most frames show a simple scene that is often more reflective than active.

The story consists of a slow-burn budding romance of the two main characters. The sparse approach leaves some story elements inexplicit or ambiguous, and that means that varied readers may have a broader than usual range of interpretations. The sparsity may generate feelings of desolate melancholy for which I suspect the author was aiming, but it also might create a sort of emotional disconnect from the book. I kind of fluctuated between the two as I read.

At the end of the story, I found it satisfying – if simple, but during the read I frequently wondered where it was going and / or what I was missing. It’s essentially a romance set in an all-girl and sadder-feeling Hogwarts.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Escaping 1939 Prague, Joe Kavalier moves in with family in Brooklyn, becoming fast friends with his younger cousin, Sam Clay. Combining their talents, Joe as artist and Sam as writer, the young men create a number of popular comic book characters. For those unfamiliar with comic book history, a major stream running through this story involves the trials of “work for hire.” Because of the nature of comic book publishing, creative types tended to work on salary (giving the publisher all rights to whatever was created – e.g. TV shows, toys, etc.) Because of this, the creators of some of the most lucrative characters and stories received little credit or financial reward (relative to the profits.) While these artists / authors didn’t lose their shirt if a title failed, there’s something offensive about Corporations (or actors) shoveling in money from a franchise while the creator lives a dank suburban existence.

If it were just about the unfair lives of comic book creators, the book would be interesting — but not 600+ pages interesting. What makes this a compelling story is that each of the titular characters has a darker challenge with which to deal. For Joe, it is an obsession with bringing as much of his family to safety as he can, and coping with his rage against the Nazis. For Sam, it is the fact that he is a closeted and conflicted gay man in 1940’s and 50’s America. The driving question is whether the two men will be able to avail themselves of the tripartite support network (themselves, plus Rosa – Joe’s girlfriend,) or whether either (or both) will self-destruct because of an inability to do so.

This is a well-crafted novel and I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Embodied ed. by Wendy Chin-Tanner & Tyler Chin-Tanner

Embodied: An Intersectional Comics Poetry AnthologyEmbodied: An Intersectional Comics Poetry Anthology by Wendy Chin-Tanner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 18, 2021

This is a poetry anthology in graphic novel form. All of the poems offer a feminine perspective, some considering the feminine in conjunction with other issues (race – e.g. “Red Woman;” or gender – e.g. “Gender Studies.”) As one might expect of an anthology, the poetic and artistic styles vary considerably from one entry to the next. That said, the 23 poems are predominantly short (most written or excerpted to fit one page) free verse poems that focus heavily on human experiences that are either unique to womanhood (e.g. motherhood) or for with the feminine perspective is quite distinctive (e.g. migration, war, etc.) While the artistic styles are quite varied, they are of a range one would see as a reader of graphic novels — some rough, some cartoonish, and some elaborate.

While the anthologized works all conform to a common feminist motif, there is quite a variety of topics and tones across the various pieces. The most widespread topic is that of motherhood, though from various perspectives (i.e. new mother, mother-to-be, prospective mother, a daughter’s relationship with mother, etc.) and attitudes. There are visceral entries that deal in various traumas – e.g. “Speak-House” (deals with the question of whether one speaks of trauma of living in a war zone freely) or “University Toxic” (which describes an incident of sexual harassment.) Love and relationships is another recurring theme (e.g. “To the Cherry Blossoms on 16th and Wharton” and “Drown.”) Other topics touched upon include menopause and wicca / witchcraft. [On a related note: While it does have a serious side, “Capitalism Ruins Everything, Even Witch Craft” is probably the most humorous of the poems, dealing with the issue of how quickly spiritual practices that propose to eschew materialism become the most outlandishly materialistic domains of all.]

The included artistic styles reflect realism (e.g. “Good Bones,”) surrealism (e.g. “Rubble Girls” and “Gender Studies.”) My favorite artwork of the book was in “Half Girl, Then Elegy.” Its panels are vivid, evocative, and beautifully rendered. (It’s also one of my favorite poems of the collection.) That said, favorites are very personal, and your view may vary. “Settlement” (which deals with immigration) is another of the more attractively illustrated works, as well as being quite an intense poem.

There aren’t a lot of poetry collections that employ graphic novel style illustration. Besides making the anthology more aesthetically pleasing, this approach offers a couple of other benefits. The most obvious is that the illustrations offer another reader’s (the illustrator(s)) perception of the poem — presumably a take on the poem that came about via discussion with the poet. [Note: this might not be seen as a benefit to all readers. Some might want to take the poem in without being subject to the interpretation of another. A nice feature of this book is that each poem is presented in text form after the illustrated version, giving the reader an opportunity to take the poem in without being flavored by a third-party perspective. Thus, one can read the poem straight first, and then go back and take in the illustrated edition (granted it would be a more awkward reading experience,) but it would let one compare one’s own picture of the poem with that of another.] A less apparent benefit is that it makes it easier to influence the pacing and pausing of reading. Dramatic use of white space for just this purpose has been used by poets for a long time, but building the textboxes around the art can make pacing changes all the more apparent.

There is a study guide and sketch art included as ancillary material. The former consists of a few questions about each poem that might be used by a book club or the like.

I thought this was a splendid collection of poems, and the art all worked – whether it was simple and chaotic or stunningly beautiful. I’d recommend readers of poetry check this anthology out, particularly if one likes the idea of merging the graphic and poetic arts.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kill a Man by Steve Orlando

Kill A ManKill A Man by Steve Orlando
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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James Bellyi is a closeted gay mixed martial arts fighter in contention for the middleweight belt. Amid the pre-fight smack talk, Bellyi is outed by his opponent, the man who current holds the title. The dropping of this bomb throws Bellyi’s career into disarray, his gym quietly drops him, the fight promoter overturns Bellyi’s previous fight, saying that he cheated under the referee’s nose, the organization – name “EFC” for legal reasons, I presume – fearing that much of its fanbase is not ready for a gay champion.

When the EFC finds itself in a bind because losing an injured headliner threatens to bleed the interest out of its upcoming event, they are forced to give Bellyi another shot to work back to a title-fight. With no one in his corner – literally — Bellyi manages a victory, but he knows he’ll need a coach to succeed in the title fight against the man who publicly outed him.

This is where things get interesting. Bellyi’s father, DJ Bellyi, had died due to fight-related injuries when James was still a boy. DJ Bellyi had been trying to stigmatize his opponent, Xavier Mayne, with anti-gay slurs, in part to get Mayne of his game and in part — we learn — because the senior Bellyi was genuinely a homophobic bigot. However, instead of knocking Mayne off his game, what DJ succeeded in doing was throwing a legendarily powerful striker into a seething rage.

While James Bellyi always despised Mayne for killing his father, when he finds himself facing a title fight without “a corner” and with all odds against him, Bellyi decides to pursue Mayne as a coach. Reluctantly, Mayne agrees. This creates overlapping stories between James and Mayne, and the core question is whether the younger generation can learn from what the previous generation went through. We learn that Mayne was traumatized by DJ Bellyi’s death. It’s also about whether and – if so – how the world has changed on a societal level in the intervening years.

I found this book to have an intriguing premise. It’s a simple story. It may seem like I gave it all away in the review, but reading the back-cover blurb gives a reader at least as much insight into the key story elements as did my description. There’s not a lot by way of extra layers. So, its more about whether the details of the story (e.g. the characters’ interactions) resonate with the reader than whether the reader will find some huge unexpected twist. The art is easy enough to follow. The artist uses different color palettes to differentiate different blocks of panels, I believe this is for the purpose of establishing emotional tone (but, perhaps, I misunderstood what was meant to be conveyed and it’s more about differentiating scenes.)

I enjoyed this book, and if you like fight stories you’ll likely enjoy it. It’s like “Rocky” but with the underdog status being less by way of being from down-and-out circumstance and more based in bigotry.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen, Vol. 1Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The protagonist is a lesbian Norse warrior, Aydis, who is living in exile in the wilderness. After she was discovered making out with a girlfriend, two unappealing fates were offered: marriage (to a man) or death. Her father, recognizing that neither of those options was acceptable to his daughter or himself, pretends to accept the death sentence, but instead of killing Aydis he helps with her escape. The story is set in a period in between the heyday of Norse Mythology and modernity. The story refers back to mythological events (and since many of those characters are immortal it includes a few of them,) but it’s during a time when Christianity is spreading in the region and some of the old ways have been forgotten or dismissed by many.

The four issues contained in this book follow a quest that involves Aydis going to rescue a Valkyrie named Brynhild who was long ago imprisoned on a mountain in a circle of fire for defying Odin. Then – once Brynhild is freed –the quest continues in order to keep the rescue from being reversed and becoming meaninglessness. [Brynhild must be married to a mortal to escape imprisonment, but since that means she must repeatedly see her mortal spouses die only to go back to her prison. Aydis intends to see this reversed.]

I found the writing engaging and action gripping. While I’m no expert on art, I was able to follow the action in the panels and found it stylistically interesting and distinct – though I couldn’t tell you anything about what that style is.

My primary criticism revolves around my own preference for a volume having a self-contained satisfying narrative arc. This volume had plenty of great action and relatable character objectives. Admittedly, this is a tough standard for work that is by its nature serialized. However, at the end of the book one feels the set up for the continuation of the story (the cliffhanger) much more intensely than one feels there was any kind of conclusion and resolution. For readers who are predominantly series readers, this may not be a problem, but as one who reads one book at a time, I need to feel that something was resolved over the course of the story.

I think the book was bold and successful in turning conventions on its head. The primary convention under attack is the distressed damsel – a helpless character who needs a man to come along to rescue her. The book also takes the social issue of persecution based on sexual preference in a scene within Brynhild’s parallel (but intersecting?) quest.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read. If you like the story idea and tend to read in series, then this is a great volume to pick up. If you’re not sure you want to be drawn into another series, you may decide to exercise more caution.

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