Review: A Distant Soil – The Gathering

4/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes and Noble

A Distant Soil: The Gathering by Colleen Doran is a fantastic and beautiful space opera in comic format. “The Gathering”, in particular, is a graphic novel compilation of the first 13 issues of the late 80s/early 90s era of her comic (still ongoing, though after a long hiatus, so currently up to issue 42). Doran came up with the story when she was twelve, and originally published the early issues when still in high school. 

I chose this book for the #readproud June challenge Wild Card category because I know that most of the people I know aren’t familiar with it, and I wanted to bring it to a larger audience. Having last read it in my teenage years I was looking forward to revisiting it!

Teen siblings Liana and Jason are psychics, being experimented on by a terrible government agency; when they finally break out, they imagine they’ll finally be free—but their powers came from their alien heritage, and two warring alien factions take advantage of their being out in the open to snap them up, one each, to try to use in their political striving. Jason is captured by the evil Hierarchy; Liana, the protagonist, ends up being rescued by a pair of alien rebels (and lovers, both male) who are hoping to overthrow the Hierarchy. Since Liana seems to be the next Avatar—in other words, super-powered psychic—of their people, she seems like the best place to start a rebellion. If you liked “Jupiter Ascending”, I imagine you’ll love this early take on a similar idea!

A Distant Soil is notable for a lot of things—it’s one of the first US graphic novels created solely by a female writer/artist, and also one of the earliest comics to feature openly gay characters (Rieken and D’mer, the pair of aliens who are trying to overthrow the Hierarchy), as well as presenting them as the romantic leads. The art is lovely (and improves drastically across the series as well, which one would expect as the artist aged and gained more practice; she actually redid the first 300 pages a few years after starting) and the characters are treated with sensitivity and love. The cast includes quite a few poc, as well (including D’mer, and three of the major secondary characters). In general it’s a book with a lot of inclusion in it.

It’s also just a lot of fun. The characters are entertaining, the storyline is wide-sweeping and epic, and the villains are genuinely threatening. With a intense and quick-developing story, it still takes time to develop its leads. You pick up bits of their tastes throughout, and see a lot of their personalities—rather than focusing solely on the plot, you get plenty of scenes of, for example, Rieken getting distracted by new disguises to pass as human, and see D’mer’s relentless teasing of him. It wants to tell its story, but not without making us come to love the cast first.

The problem with this volume is primarily in its subtitle, “the gathering”. The main story of the Ovanian Hierarchy, the Avatar and the Resistance, and the confused half-alien children is compelling and strong. However, this volume also includes a large amount of Rieken and D’mer trying to find people willing to help them, and this large number of wacky secondary characters occasionally feels like a distraction from the main story. It even includes an Arthurian mythological character, Sir Galahad, who falls through a space-time rip. I assume they all will have skills that will come into play later, but it does read very much like a Getting The Team Together arc. Regardless, I’d say it’s well worth getting through the actual gathering part of the Gathering for the rest of the content within.

I haven’t reread the rest of the volumes yet, but previously I owned vols 1-3 and I see now there’s a volume four out now—that’s something I’m going to have to grab, because now that I’ve come this far in my rereading, I don’t want to stop!

Review: Half Bad

4.5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Half Bad by Sally Green is a dark and evocative take on the YA hidden magical world genre.

I should note up front that I picked this book (the first of a trilogy) at random off a list of Gay YA, so that informs my reading and my review, although to my uninformed understanding, the queer content is developed more later in the series.

Witches hide themselves among normal people—or fains, as they call them—but have a very real, very dangerous, very regulated society. There are White Witches and there are Black Witches, and these aren’t in terms of how they choose to use their magic but is genetic, and informs the sort of gifts they have available to them. Nathan, the protagonist, is a child at the time this story starts—and is half-Black, half-White, the son of the worst Black Witch, Marcus. Hated, tortured, and being kept and trained in the hopes he’ll lure in and/or kill his father, Nathan has little love for the society of White Witches, but he’s left with little choice but complying with them. For one thing, they keep him in a cage. For another, if he isn’t able to get three gifts and a drink of blood on his seventeenth birthday, he’ll die.

The writing style in Half Bad is incredible. I was uncertain, at first, when I was dropped right into a second person POV, but the use of second person is limited, and the connotations of it, of Nathan telling things to himself because he is lonely (and alone) and needs to remind himself to focus on who he is in the midst of what he’s going through… it blew me away. I was glad that the main book was first person instead, though, and the writing was beautiful there too. Strong, evocative text.

This book may be hard to read if you can’t stomach dark scenarios. Nathan is beaten, emotionally and physically abused, and some scenes in the book are certainly tantamount to torture; Nathan has self-healing magic and advantage is taken of this. But the writing itself doesn’t turn it into “agony porn”, imho; there’s no sense of delighting in it so much as just presenting it. And although the book’s dark, and Nathan’s anger and distress and longing to be loved is transparent on each page, it feels hopeful as well. There are people who love him, and he is trying to seize his chances, and he does feel like the moments of happiness are worth living for.

If I had to pick something to be critical about, it’d be that we as the readers are sympathetic to Nathan and we know what he’s gone through, so his explosions of anger are easy for us to dismiss. It’s hard to see sometimes what other people like Gabriel or Annalise see in him, based only on their onscreen interactions. Since it’s so thoroughly in Nathan’s POV, I’m willing to buy the assertion that (for example) Gabriel loves him, but their interactions haven’t yet shown us what in Nathan he does love; Gabriel is an enigma. On the other hand, with two more books (and several ebook short stories) to go, that may well be answered in the future.

And probably that means it’ll be answered for me quite shortly—I went out and bought Half Wild right after I finished reading Half Bad!

Review: Style

4/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Style by Chelsea Cameron is a super-cute teen romance where sexy cheerleader meets cute nerd—frenemies to lovers style!

Stella is the hot cheerleader and ice queen. She’s the master of the resting bitch face and keeps everyone at arm’s length. Kyle is a nerd with big glasses, hair up in a bun, and a limp. The two have totally different social circles and no interest in each other—until one day, they start to notice each other and then can’t seem to stop noticing. This would probably be something they could ignore until they’re assigned to work together in AP English. From there, it’s a fast and furious rush into love and sexual awakenings, the tangled confusion of coming out to family and friends, trying to find terms for yourself and your relationship, all mixed with teenage concerns like what’s ok to do in your parents’ house and how you can juggle a relationship and upcoming college plans.

Style was a very nostalgic read for me, because I came out at fourteen and was the nerdy teen with big glasses and a limp myself. I found myself relating to Kyle quite a bit and reflecting back on my own life while reading. It makes it hard to leave an objective review on the content in a lot of ways, but it makes it even more important to me that this exists. I know the author, in her acknowledgements, talked about how important this was to her to write and be able to reflect and honour her own realizations, and it was a story for her—but it felt, too, like it was a story for me. I think a lot of people will probably feel that way.

Personal attachment aside—the writing is strong, the narration is sharp, and it’s a fun and uplifting read. The turns of phrase often had me laughing out loud, and beyond that, it’s an optimistic book. It believes in the best of people and does its best to uplift the characters, their relationships, and their choices—without undercutting their fear.

One thing I did trip over while reading was that it alternates POVs and both are first-person POVs, but both have very, very similar sassy-teen-girl narrative voices. The POV is labelled whenever it switches, but I automatically skip over chapter headers when reading things in one sitting, so I’d sometimes get half a page into a new POV before it clicked that we switched, and it was occasionally difficult to remember who had what thought (though their lives are different enough that the events were easy to distinguish).

Very cute story, very fun, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more ladies in love from this author!

Review: Ash

4.5/5 stars. Buy at Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Ash by Malinda Lo is an nontraditional take on Cinderella that mixes fairy tales with tales of the fair folk.

When she is twelve, Ash’s mother passes away, and her father remarries; the step-mother brings with her her two children and a dismissal of the Old Ways. So when her father gets sick, nobody takes steps to ward off the fair folk, just bring in physicians who bleed him. He dies, and the step-mother takes Ash from her home and her mother’s grave to a house on the other side of the woods, where she is slowly forced to become a servant to pay her father’s debts. A familiar story?

Perhaps, but less familiar: she starts to see a strange man, with skin as white as snow and clothes and hair to match, who she recognizes as one of the fair folk. She longs to go with him and leave this wretched world behind, as the years pass, but he says she is not ready. He gives her a beautiful cloak, which she hides, and a medallion, and nothing more than hope that someday she might vanish entirely to go to their kingdom. Even though she knows in the stories of the fairy folk, humans who go lose time and humanity, become nothing more than servants—it is better than what she has here.

And that might stay that way until she meets the head of the royal hunt, a lovely huntress who helps teach her to ride whenever she can sneak away, who lures Ash in ways she’s unfamiliar with. As the Prince starts to hold events to choose a bride, Ash gets more chances to see the huntress—but has more to lose, as well, with her step-family right there as well, who could spot her and ruin her hopes. And the only way to really get what she wants is to take advantage of a fairy’s wishes, but those will come with a price…

I read a lot of fairy tales, and a lot of the ones about fairies kidnapping people, and this took one and melded it with the other quite seamlessly. The prose was beautiful and the way Ash was torn between her two interests was built up beautifully.

The only place that I didn’t quite feel was that we never got a good glimpse of what the huntress saw in Ash. We saw a lot of good traits in Ash ourselves, but the reason behind the huntress’s feelings were left somewhat mysterious. That’s not unusual in fairy tales, so it didn’t throw me, but I’d have liked to understand more about what was going on there.  As well, the resolution of the central conflict worked for me, but I’d liked to have seen more of it; it felt, in some ways, like it worked up to the climax and then skipped to the denouement and I never quite got a glimpse of the peak.

But even so, I loved the book and how it came together, and I loved the composition of the narration. Really a beautiful read.

Review: The Manny Files

5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

The Manny Files by Christian Burch  is a delightful middle-school adventure that brings the feels big time.

Nine-year-old Keats has two older sisters and one younger one. With that many kids in the family, their parents regularly hire nannies to take care of them. Keats hasn’t enjoyed this much. The always-female nannies dote on his sisters and ignore him. So when their newest nanny is a man—or Manny, as he insists they call him—he’s pretty excited. Even more so when the Manny brings adventure to them every day! The Manny’s personal motto is “be interesting” and he makes every day fun for Keats by playing loud 80s music, actually eating off the floor if it’s “so clean you can eat off it”, or wearing funny costumes. But Lulu, Keats’ preteen sister, is embarrassed by these hijinks and keeps a book of ‘evidence’ of why she thinks that the Manny isn’t a good babysitter. Keats has every reason to worry that she’ll take it to their parents to get the Manny fired!

The Manny Files is really a fun read. The author has a knack for writing from a child’s perspective; the digressions in the text feel very genuine to conversations with children that age, but never goes so far away that it makes the narrative confusing. Keats’ feelings are genuine and relatable, from being bullied to being afraid to go off the high jump and beyond. His reactions are shown instead of told, and Keats feels like a very genuine person.

This book is often laugh-out-loud funny even to the adult reader, and I frequently paused to read bits out loud to my fiancee. But that doesn’t make it irreverent. The serious moments are treated with gravity by both Keats and the narrator, and there was a part in the book—I won’t spoil you—where I had to put my kindle down and take a ten minute break because I’d started to cry.

You care about Keats, but you care about the adults in his life too, and his siblings, and of course the Manny. I had been a little worried before starting about reading a book with a gay character who’s most defined by his exuberance and flamboyance, but the book solved my doubts. The Manny is a real person, performing his job which involves being larger than life, but his relationship with Uncle Max (which is hardly a secret to the adult readers when you read them together) is genuine, and we see hints of old hurts and tired experiences in his own life that inform how he reacts to the kids’ experiences.

I was very interested in Keats’ changing relationship with his bully, and how we got to see Keats develop empathy. I’m often also wary of the “the bully has a hard life and you just need to be nice to them” stories (as someone who was bullied as a kid myself), but this particular bully’s moods and neediness did come through loud and clear.

I know there’s a sequel and I’m looking forward to reading it soon. I hope too that there will be more books in this series even before I get to read Hit the Road, Manny; that’s how charmed I was by this story!

Review: The Second Mango

4.5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Prizm Books

The Second Mango (Mangoverse #1) by Shira Glassman is a delightful lesbian young adult fantasy with a charming sense of adventure.

Shulamit is the young queen of Perach, and is not exactly happy with her situation. She likes ladies and can’t digest wheat or fowl, both things the servants around her can’t or won’t accept as something normal to work around (taking them instead as signs that she’s desperate for attention). After her lover runs away with no explanation and her loving father has tragically died, she’s left frustrated—in multiple senses of the word. Which results in her sneaking out to a bawdy house, which results in her getting kidnapped, which results in her getting rescued by the travelling mercenary Riv—secretly Rivka, a woman hiding her identity to avoid prejudices against women as warriors. Impulsively, Shulamit hires Rivka to be her bodyguard on a quest to go find another woman-loving-woman in return for being offered position as guard captain, so they’re off on an adventure that will bring them face-to-face with thieves, evil wizards, and surprises from both their pasts.

Shulamit is one of my favorite types of characters—High Int, Low Wis, which is to say, perfectly smart but with the common sense of a spoon. She attaches to people quickly, and when she opens her mouth, words fall out. I find her a very charming example of this type, quirky and energetic but not stupid in the slightest. Her companion, Rivka, is slightly older and calmer by nature. She talks less, acts more, though we get to see she was quite a bit reckless when she was younger as well. They balance each other well, and I was willing to buy that the opportunity to settle down in a job that’d still let her see lots of action while guarding someone important would be a compelling argument to go along with Shulamit’s poorly-thought-through plans.

I agree with some of the other reviewers that this reads toward the younger end of the YA scale. I think probably I’d recommend this most for the 12-16 age range, young teen girls looking for heroes like themselves in fiction and wanting to read a cute fluffy adventure at the same time. That was definitely the age that I started reading adult novels to try to find queer characters, while also juggling fluffier younger reads! This would be a perfect antidote to those things I didn’t have when I was young, and I’m excited to think that it exists now.

And there’s a lot to like in this book for adults too, and a lot to recommend. Not only is it a Jewish fantasy world (as opposed to the copious number of Christian-centric fantasy worlds), and has a main character who’s a queen rather than a princess, it also introduces a hero with food sensitivities which, as someone with them myself, I realize I have literally never read. Maybe I’d have a lot less trouble in restaurants if people grew up reading it as a standard! And then on top of that, the adventure is fun and the het pairing is also cute and something I could root for. And there are dragons!

The only thing I looked for and didn’t find in it was a sense of tension; problems were usually solved with the first solution the characters came up with, and there was never any guilt or resentment (justified or not) to deal with when people made mistakes. There are scenes we see the characters’ insecurities, but they aren’t really talked out with the others involved. That said, as much as I would have liked more of a sense of risk, it didn’t bother me; I was in it for a fun read and that’s what I got.

I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of the Mangoverse. More to the point, I’m glad this book exists and I hope teens out there, particularly, snatch it up. Read it like I couldn’t, back then!

Review: Glitterland

5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & NobleRiptide Publishing

Glitterland by Alexis Hall was recommended to me by my friend and fellow author Luna Harlow (whose review of it can be found here), and I am so, so glad I took her up on the rec. Spoilers: I loved it.

Glitterland is the story of stuck-up novelist Ash Winters, post-breakdown and suffering from anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. When he runs into aspiring model and Essex boy, Darian Taylor, who he can only describe with the words glitter pirate, Ash absolutely intends to have no more than a casual hookup with him. But despite himself, Ash finds himself drawn to Darian’s honest good nature, even while he’s ashamed by his awareness of what the people around him, who already think less of him due to his breakdown, will think of him for being with someone so lower-class. And mental illness is no fun ride, either, making him want to ruin his own happiness. But is it possible that being around someone who doesn’t want to fix him—someone who just wants to be there with him through the hard times as well as the good—can help him move forward?

This book had me from page one. I’ve had anxiety attacks before, and the description of how he felt was so horrifically familiar. All kudos to Alexis for being able to describe it so aptly—and everything else besides. The prose in this book is lovely, and the writing feels like what I’d expect from a first-person narrator who is also a literary author.

Beyond that, the character writing is wonderful. Everybody is complicated. Characters frequently say terrible things because they’re hurting; that doesn’t make them terrible, and the narrative doesn’t give them a pass for the terrible things they say even while it understands and empathizes with them. The writing is careful about these things most of the time; for example, one character early on says something unpleasant about bi people, but the narrative itself shows the bi character happy, genuine, and loving, and also shows that the rudeness of the speaker there is rooted in his own current pain.

In a lot of ways, this story is about words. What people say that they don’t mean, what people don’t say that they do, and when it’s time to try to balance that back out again. It’s also about taking responsibility versus acting out of guilt, and admitting culpability versus self-hatred. It’s a book that is very kind to itself and the characters in it while not going easy on the terrible things people can do to each other when upset, guilty, afraid. As I said earlier, it’s also about mental illness, and how hard it can be both on the person with it and those around them… while not blaming them for it, not acting like behavior is immutable, and accepting, too, that sometimes executive dysfunction is part of it. Sometimes sadness happens. Sometimes worse. It treats it as something Ash is living with (and sometimes doesn’t know how to live with), and doesn’t either victimize him for it or hate him for it. It feels very, very genuine.

It’s also really darn cute, which is incredibly impressive when dealing with material as heavy as this book does. I found myself smiling throughout the whole thing, and sometimes sending my fiancee quotes. The characters are charming and the dialogue is witty and it was fun.

Ultimately, it was a book I had faith in to do its best by its characters, and it lived up to that.