Review: A Taste of Honey, Rose Lerner

Note: I received a review copy of A Taste of Honey from the author. This did not influence the contents of my review.

If you’ve ever asked me for feminist romance novel recommendations, I’ve probably enthusiastically pushed Rose Lerner on you. Consider this me doing so again. A Taste of Honey is the latest installment in her Lively St. Lemeston series, which focuses on middle and lower-class folks in a small British town in Regency England. As with most romance series, you don’t need to have read the others to enjoy this one. Be prepared now for me to overuse the words delightful and charming, and if you notice a sentence in which I use neither one, just assume they were implied.

A Taste of Honey

Our protagonists are Robert Moon, the proprietor of a Lively St. Lemeston confectionery perpetually on the edge of financial ruin, and his shop-girl, Betsy Piper. She has pined after him for years, but he won’t make a move; he is waiting to achieve financial security before asking her to marry him, because he doesn’t want to drag a wife into bankruptcy with him. When the confectionery receives a massive order — twenty-five pounds — it could be the chance they’ve both been waiting for. A week-long frenzy of baking and banging ensues.

I mean: WHAT A DELIGHT. Protagonists managing a shared project is one of my favorite things, and Rose Lerner brings her customary acuity to Robert and Betsy, both of whom manage well enough when they’re negotiating sex with each other, but who also both need to learn a few things about recognizing and asking for what they want emotionally. Their shared project is the exactly-correct level of stressful, as Mrs. Lovejoy is rude to Betsy, flirtatious with Robert, and constantly swinging by unexpectedly to make expensive last-minute changes to her order.

Also featured: Extravagant, mouth-watering descriptions of yummy Regency-era desserts, which given Rose Lerner’s attention to detail I feel confident are period-accurate.

Also also featured: Butt stuff. Which is CRAZY because the day before I read A Taste of Honey, I was talking to my friend Ira about how M/F romance novels almost never have butt stuff.

And I cannot emphasize enough how sweet and dear this book is. Viz:

“It’s only that you’ll have to show me what to do.” His ears were hot. “You, erm–you might not be a virgin, but I be.” He’d been busy. And shy.

“Oh.”

Was it a disappointed ‘oh’? “But I learn quick,” he added hastily. “It can’t be much trickier than a good pie crust.”

I MEAN COME ON.

A Taste of Honey is a delectable treat that will please the palates of the romance expert and the romance newbie alike. You should rush right out and gobble it up as soon as possible. (Full disclosure, I was going to say the romance gourmet but I couldn’t think of a parallel word that meant newbie but with food. I regret nothing.)

Review: Thick as Thieves, Megan Whalen Turner

What a world we live in, friends. Long, long, long ago I read the four books in Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, and I hella loved them. Almost a decade later (okay, seven years, but still), Thick as Thieves, the mythical fifth Queen’s Thief book has arrived, and it did not disappoint.1

If you haven’t read the Queen’s Thief books, I advise you to walk away from this post straight away and read them. The Thief is the first one. It is fine. The Queen of Attolia is the second one. It is an infinity of fire emojis. Get on it.

Anyway, so this one. Nahuseresh, formerly the Mede ambassador to Attolia, who was so magnificently put in his place by Attolia in The Queen of Attolia, had this secretary called Kamet who helped him escape from Attolia. In Thick as Thieves, Gen sends an Attolian soldier to help Kamet escape from the Mede, an event which — fortunately for Kamet — coincides with Nahuseresh’s untimely death by poisoning. A road trip ensues.

If you can bear a very minor spoiler that even I, a woman notoriously bad at guessing spoilers, was able to guess, the Attolian solder Gen sends is Costis. When I figured this out (I swear it’s not much of a spoiler, it’s very guessable very early), I nearly died of delight. The King of Attolia is my favorite of the three books, partly because we get to see how the hell Gen and Irene live their life now, but largely because of Costis, the sweetest cinnamon roll maybe in any book ever. What with Costis being a major character and the whole book being about a road trip, there was just no chance that I wouldn’t love Thick as Thieves.

Thick as Thieves bears the closest resemblance to the first book in this series, The Thief. Kamet and Costis travel widely through Mede, constantly in lowkey or highkey peril, as often as not dirty and wounded and uncomfortable and complaining. But of course, Turner has advanced tremendously as a writer since twenty years ago when this series began (itals bc I can’t believe how long this series has been happening, not bc I’m mad at Megan Whalen Turner about anything), and she’s better than ever at conveying everything that happens between the lines of dialogue these characters are actually saying to each other.

Which brings me to my next point: Thick as Thieves is gay as hell. My sister texted me a little way into reading it to be like “Kamet sure is talking about Costis’s muscles a lot,” and my friends, truer words were never spoken. The whole structure of the story is romantic, from the forced proximity of the road trip to the tending each other’s wounds to the looming Big Lie that threatens their ?friendship? happily-ever-after. While it would have been nice to have a female protagonist for a change (especially given how fucking great the queens of Eddis and Attolia are and thus how confident I feel that MWT could give us the greatest female protagonist of our time), a queer road trip story was pretty terrific too.

Have you read Thick as Thieves yet? Did you find it to be substantially gay? Will you be requesting Queen’s Thief fic this Yuletide?

  1. Except in one small way, i.e., it would have been nice to have a lady narrator for once. Five books in, the all-male points of view are starting to feel a trifle pointed.

Review: Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine

Note: I received this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect the content of my review. The book is just so honestly extraordinarily good.

Before I read Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine’s last book before Testosterone Rex, I thought that I had a pretty good grip on what it would contain, given that I already agreed with her arguments; and then when I actually did read it, it blew my mind straight out of the back of my skull and onto the wall behind me, and that was five years ago and I’ve been tucking splattery bits of brain back into my head ever since.

Testosterone Rex

Well wouldn’t you know it, here we are five years older and I made the exact same mistake when I was picking up Testosterone Rex. I thought, “I already agree with Cordelia Fine, and I’ve read a book by her about gender and science. I undoubtedly know what this book is going to be!” But then my reading experience was as follows:

YES. MY MIND WAS FRESHLY BLOWN. BLOWN ANEW.

Whereas Delusions of Gender focused on brains primarily and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female, Testosterone Rex is about evolutionary biology and development and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female. I loved this book so much I couldn’t shut up about it even to the person I bought it for for her birthday and desperately needed to conceal it from until birthday day arrived. I kept starting to tell her awesome things I learned from the book and then awkwardly pretending to lose my train of thought.

Okay, so what are some of the gendered science narrative that Cordelia Fine is countering in this book? (I hear you ask.) Pretty much everything that suggests men are this way and women are that way and it is always immutably so due to having evolved that way. Men have a greater penchant for risk! A disinterest in monogamy!

A desire to acquire showy possessions and high status in order to attract women! A lesser ability to nurture and feel empathy!

All because of evolution and testosterone!

Let’s take just one example, the claim that men are more prone to risk-taking than women. If you’d asked me ahead of reading Testosterone Rex whether this claim was true, I’d have said that yes the science showed men are bigger risk-takers but that no it wasn’t an inherent biological thing but was instead about socialization. If you’d pressed a little bit, I might have been able to come up with one of the points Fine makes, which is that surveys of risky behaviors likely tend to focus on areas that are traditionally male-dominated (due, again, to socialization) such as sports betting, fast motorcycle riding, or major financial investments.

Fine does go deep on the question of the gendered assumptions inherent in how we assess risk, pointing out complication after complication for the idea that men take risks and women tend not to. For instance, pregnancy is twenty times more likely to result in death than skydiving,1 yet women do it all the time. Or here’s another thing: Women do perceive the world as being inherently riskier than men perceive it as being, but this disparity disappears when you control for ethnicity.

Society seemed a significantly safer place to white males than it did to all other groups, including nonwhite men. What on first inspection seemed like a sex difference was actually a difference between white males and everyone else.

IT IS ALMOST AS IF SOCIETAL ROLES ARE IMPORTANT DETERMINANTS OF BEHAVIORS AND ATTITUDES.

Here’s something else I didn’t know: When you divide risks into categories by type (one study Fine cites broke it out into gambling, financial, health, recreational, social, and ethical risks), there’s no correlation between a high level of risk-taking in one domain with a high level of risk taking in the others (see also).

To see the problem this creates for the idea of risk taking as an essential masculine trait, ask yourself which group are the “real” men, or show a properly evolved masculine psychology: the skydivers, or the traders? . . . . The pure, unadulterated daredevil no doubt exists, but such individuals are statistical exceptions to the general rule that people are fascinatingly idiosyncratic and multifaceted when it comes to risk.

The whole book is like that. Wherever Fine encounters a simple, intuitive-seeming precept that would seem to explain gendered difference, she massively complicates the picture. Gender won’t account for the difference, genes and hormones give an incomplete picture, and every word in the original precept was miserably inexact to begin with. Watching Fine take these gendered claims painstakingly, methodically, devastatingly to pieces should rank among the great works of art that humanity has ever produced.

One of the chapters in Testosterone Rex begins thus:

Sometimes these days I’m introduced to people as an academic who wrote a book about how the brains of men and women aren’t that different. Disappointingly, the wide range of reactions to this brief biography has yet to include You must be Cordelia Fine! Would you sign this copy of your book that I carry around with me?

That would be me. That would be my response. I would also probably burst into tears and propose marriage. Y’all, for real, buy a copy of this book. Buy a box set of this and Delusions of Gender. Buy twelve. Distribute them to your loved ones. Absolutely everyone in the world should read it. You’ll thank me later.

  1. Not anywhere in the world. Pregnancy in America.

Review: Monstress, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

I’m going to start keeping records on how many books that bloggers scream about for one million years before I get around to reading them, and then when I finally do read them, it’s like “Well I should have done this a while ago.” Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s book Monstress, which in my defense has been checked out steadily from my library since the trade paperback came out (but I didn’t put a hold on it so it’s still my own fault), is one of those.

Monstress

You see that cover? Every page of Monstress is of equivalent, if not greater, beauty to that cover. Sana Takeda’s art is beautiful and dreamy and gives this work of fantasy an extraordinarily epic feel. The detail on every page is incredible, her characters feel lived-in, and with all of that, she doesn’t elide the brutality our main character, Maika, both faces and dispenses in just about every issue. I was hard-pressed not to screen-cap every page for y’all, because the art is just that gorgeous.

Monstress has received a huge amount of attention, deservedly, for the art, but the writing is also wonderful. I was warned repeatedly that Monstress was quite violent, and it is, in the manner of a lot of the secondary world fantasy I’ve encountered in my life. At the same time, it’s — can I say really fun? Is that glib? Our protagonist, Maika, is fighting against something evil that lives inside her, all the while trying to escape the many forces in her world that will stop at nothing to find her; and yes, that’s a recipe for violence and mayhem in secondary world fantasy. Maika is searching for answers about her own past and her mother’s, and she has a thing many people want and she is a thing many people want, and she has to find the answers before the bad guys find her. So when I say fun, I mean that this is a familiar type of story, which I enjoy, and it’s wonderful to see it played out so skillfully, with such superb worldbuilding, with end-of-issue surprises that make me gasp yet still feel completely earned, and with characters whose arcs over the course of the series I’m excited for.

LOOK AT THIS ADORABLE FOX GIRL MAIKA TRAVELS WITH

Marjorie Liu has said that she has deliberately written a book of only women — and as soon as she said it, I was like, “…Oh yeah. Oh hey. There are no men in this book.” Not actually zero, but very, very few. The soldiers are women, the slaves are women, the witches are women. It’s part of what makes this story so incredible, because what we see are a multiplicity of women with different ideas and motives and values — you know, a whole bunch of women portrayed as full people. Many of them women of color. In a comic written by two women of color. Doesn’t it make your heart grow three sizes? It does mine.

AND SERIOUSLY, THIS ART.

Particularly when you remember that Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda do not share a language and have to communicate with each other via a translator, this is an extraordinary marriage of the vision of art and writing. I love this comic to shreds and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Review: Boy Erased, Garrard Conley

You know how sometimes you feel that you’ve become inured to the world’s cruelty, and you realize that consuming the news every day and hearing about humankind’s fundamental inhumanity has turned you into a person who doesn’t flinch at each successive news story that comes on Morning Edition, and yes, sure, that’s good and necessary for your own mental health, but on the other hand, are you possibly becoming a robot person incapable of empathy because, like, what kind of human isn’t shattered anew every time they hear about what’s going on in Syria?

You know that feeling?

Boy Erased, Garrard Conley’s memoir of his time in gay conversion “therapy” a decade ago, is so fucking shredding that while reading it I experienced the thought “so then this election season has not beaten out of me the capacity to feel.” Consider this paragraph your content note for some stuff: Conley was raped at college and subsequently outed (by his rapist) to his parents, after which he went to a gay conversion therapy clinic for treatment. Boy Erased is about all of those three things. So if any of them are baseline hard for you to read about, be aware going in that Conley portrays the pain of all them with extraordinary vividness. Which makes his talents as a writer obvious, but it also means that this book can be really, really hard to read.

Boy Erased

“You are not selling this book very well considering you gave it five stars,” says the attentive reader, so let me get to selling this book well. Boy Erased made me feel desperately raw and sincere the way you do when you’re in high school and you haven’t yet realized how unoriginal and simplistic your passion for Justice is. That isn’t to say that Conley is simplistic. He isn’t, and part of the reason this book is so shredding to read is that Conley does not ignore or minimize his parents’ genuine pain at learning their only son is gay. Here he is talking with his mother (almost a decade later) about the pamphlet she brought home for the gay conversion organization he attended.

I will force myself to hear her side of the story, listen for her voice amid the buzzing of harmful memories I thought I’d buried for good.

“His eyes [the boy on the pamphlet’s] were so sad,” she’ll say. “They were calling out to me.”

“Take your time,” I’ll say.

“I wanted to save the boy in that picture. I wanted to save you. But I didn’t know how.”

Both of these things are true: Conley’s parents love him (the sinner) desperately and utterly, and Conley’s parents’ beliefs (hate the sin) are killing him. He thinks frequently of suicide and goes on punitive diets (500 calories a day) to force his body to do what he wants it to do. It’s genuinely fucking devastating to know that this type of slavish commitment to the morals of thinkers who lived thousands of damn years ago continue to destroy (literally and figuratively) the lives of queer children and adults.

I had learned by now that there was a cumulative effect to beauty. If people already saw something as beautiful, the object of their affection would continue to receive all possible praise and attention. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein, my new favorite poet, quipped. Naming something beautiful made it so. . . .

Naming something ugly had a similar effect. The sound of my mother’s vomiting the night she drove me home had taught me that lesson better than anything else ever had. I was gay, had been named as such, a fact that, once ingested, had to be immediately expelled.

Boy Erased is rarely leavened with lighter notes, so I do recommend having something fluffy on hand to read when you’re finished. Conley perfectly captures his past self’s despair in these years when he was trying to reconcile his faith and his identity. It’s a painful and wonderful book.

Look, not to wear my heart on my sleeve for too much longer, but let’s build a better and kinder and more deliberate world for the next generation, okay? The next generation of kids should have better than what we had. Let’s make that happen. Vote on Tuesday.

Review: Everfair, Nisi Shawl

Note: I received an e-galley of Everfair from the publisher for review consideration.

The genesis of Nisi Shawl’s debut novel Everfair was the author’s bafflement that she had never gotten into steampunk, and her theory that the reason for this is steampunk’s uncomfortable connections with colonialism. Everfair, therefore, creates an alternate version of Congolese history in which white and black Europeans and Americans purchase land in the Congo to create a small country called Everfair. The residents of Everfair develop steam technology that allows them, in alliance with the indigenous king of the Everfair territory, to chase out King Leopold’s forces. Everfair follows the creation and development of this country over the course of thirty years.

Everfair

Oh gosh. Ohhhhhh gosh. Please hold while I lie on the floor and catch my breath over the greatness of this book. Oh, where to begin. How shall I count the ways in which Everfair won my heart? I looooooved this book. It’s wonderful on its own merits, and it also made me feel excited for the ever-expanding (I hope) globalism of contemporary fantasy.1 Shawl writes from multiple viewpoints in a way that extends compassion to every character, but gives nobody a pass on their blind spots. The project of nation-building inevitably includes casualties, and Shawl never shies away from that truth, even when her characters do.

(Did you read The Just City? Did you like The Just City? This is kind of like that! But with more dirigibles, and in nineteenth-century Congo.)

If I had a complaint with Everfair, it’s that I wasn’t entirely ready for the way it makes large jumps in time and place. The chapters are short, which at first made it challenging for me to settle in comfortably to the point of view and time period of each one, and successive chapters are frequently set months ahead of the chapters that came before. This is doable — you have to pay attention to the chapter headings that let you know where and when the action is happening — but it was a little difficult for me to adjust to, right at first. It also gives rise to the kind of situation where one chapter will see the characters debating a heavily contentious issue of serious strategic significance, and the next will find you six months on, with that whole problem resolved and in the past.

However, Nisi Shawl is careful to catch you up to what’s happening, in ways that almost never feel like visits from the exposition fairy, and the benefit of this type of writing is that we truly get to see the growth and changes in Everfair over a course of decades. At first, there’s a degree of unity among the residents of Everfair: The most important thing for African, East Asian, European, and American Everfairians2 alike is to save as many people from King Leopold’s brutal rubber trade as possible, and ultimately to drive the Belgians out of the Congo.

But what truly made my heart sing3 was the second half, in which the priorities, loyalties, and demands of the different groups of stakeholders begin to conflict with each other. Shawl is respectful of everyone, laying out as fairly as possible the feelings and claims of the indigenous people of Everfair and its colonizers. She doesn’t try to find silver bullets for the problems in the world she’s created: Yes, the settlers were vital to driving out the Belgians; and yes, they shed blood and made their homes in Everfair; and still, the land belongs first and primarily not to Daisy Albin of England or Martha Hunter of America, but to King Mwenda and his people.

With all of this, Shawl brings her book to a conclusion that might be argued to be slightly too neat. When, after all, did competing land claims ever settle themselves bloodlessly? But there’s something revolutionary about a story of African colonialism in which opposing interests are able to find a peaceful middle ground.

I’ve been crazy psyched about this book — which really seems to cater to 100% of my interests — since December of last year, and it did not disappoint. Everfair! Read it and come back and squee with me!

  1. I dunno, maybe that’s grandiose to say? It’s not like I think Everfair is going to usher in some sea-change in the way we write fantasy. Just, wow, this book.
  2. That is not a demonym the book uses.
  3. This whole book made my heart sing.

The Other Slavery, Andrés Reséndez

I was going to start this post about The Other Slavery by making a really grim joke about Ir*sh sl*very (asterisked out so Nazi bros don’t find my blog), but then I just got hugely sad about living in a world where that’s still a lie people perpetuate instead of talking about real actual slavery. So instead I’ll start by saying that Andrés Reséndez has produced what feels to me like a monumental work of American history, delving deep into archival records to uncover the hidden story of American enslavement of indigenous people.

The Other Slavery

Reséndez argues that while disease certainly played a role in the decimation of Indian populations in America, it was far from the primary factor. Rather, colonizing powers systematically enslaved American Indians from the earliest days of Spanish power in the Americas. Because Spain outlawed Indian slavery in the sixteenth century, however, Spanish governments in America concealed their enslavement of Indians behind a variety of smoke screens, from debt peonage to trumped-up criminal charges and disproportionate sentencing.

Their methods achieved mixed success in concealing ongoing Indian slavery from the Spanish rulers, but were phenomenally successful in concealing it archivally. Until you know what you’re looking for, it can be hard to spot in the records that what’s going on is the systematic and deliberate destruction of Indian populations, languages, and economic power through enslavement, forced assimilation, and relocation.

Pretty much the definition of genocide. In case you forgot what this country was founded on. And of course none of this stopped as the southwestern and western territories came under American jurisdiction (perish the thought).

Another section [of the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850] established the “apprenticeship” of Indian minors. Any white person who wished to employ an Indian child could present himself before a justice of the peace accompanied by the “parents or friends” of the minor in question, and after showing that this was a voluntary transaction, the petitioner would get custody of the child and control “the earnings of such minor until he or she obtained the age of majority” (fifteen for girls and eighteen for boys).1

The Other Slavery makes for some grim reading, but it’s incredibly important to know exactly how widespread and insidious these forms of slavery were. Built on the rhetoric of a civilizing mission, enslavement of native peoples lasted throughout the colonization of the continent and well into the establishment of America as a quote-unquote free nation. If the colonizing powers or, later, the United State Congress blocked one avenue of acquiring slaves, slavers would find another way to maintain their access to forced labor.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I would love to see its conclusions incorporated into future high school history curricula, because this is nothing I was ever taught, and I should have been.

  1. There’s an endnote here that’s even worse: This law was later expanded so the white person’s custody lasted into the child’s twenties.

The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater

The first part of this post will not contain spoilers for The Raven King, or indeed for any book in this series. I will clearly mark the end of the non-spoiler-y part of the post, so that you can bail before I start shrieking about specific, spoilery things. I mainly want to tell you what I love so much about this book and this series.

The Raven King

The Raven Cycle is about figuring out how to be a person. Or more specifically, how to be a person when your world as it stands is not — is nowhere near — enough. One of our protagonists, Richard Campbell Gansey III,1 is looking for a Welsh king. Everyone else — Adam Parrish, who’s trying to be someone different; and Ronan Lynch, who’s looking for true things in a world full of liars; and Blue Sargent, the only non-psychic in a house full of psychics, who desperately wants something more — finds “looking for a Welsh king” to be a viable means of also searching for what they do want, so they are along for the ride. Mostly what they are all looking for is How To Be.

(how to be free, how to be happy, how to be a friend, how to make your life matter)

That they are sometimes phenomenally bad at these things makes it all the more satisfying as, over the course of the series, they get better and better at being who they want to become. Compare, for instance, the chats about relationships Adam and Blue have in The Dream Thieves versus in The Raven King. Compare the way Gansey is with Blue the first time they meet to the way he is with her — well, any time else, really, I just wanted to remind you of that whole President Cell Phone snafu because it remains one of my favorite scenes in the series. The lovely thing is that Adam and Blue and Gansey are fully themselves in all the versions of all these conversations; they are just getting better at it as they go along, in a lovely organic way.

It’s funny that I started with a spoiler warning, because in fact one of my favorite things about these books is how unspoilable they are. Or conversely how eminently disappointing it would be to go into them spoiled. Maggie Stiefvater’s maybe-best trick as a writer is that she always tells you the spoilers herself, probably more than once, but when the big reveal arrives, you’re still surprised, because she told you what was going on, but you were too distracted by something else she was doing at the same time.

(It makes rereading fun! You reread and you’re like “Oh she told me this exact information in Chapter 4.” “Oh, Ronan has been saying this all along and nobody was paying any attention.”)

Also, there’s magic and creepy trees. If magic and creepy trees are things that interest you. Or Latin. Or Tarot cards.

ONWARD TO THE SPOILERS.

Are you ready now? For spoilers?

Okay. Here they come. In no particular order.

NUMBER ONE. I cannot, and it is unfair for you to expect me to, handle a situation in an already emotional book in which a character I love walks into a creepy forest to meet his own death. You know perfectly well that gives me Harry Potter flashbacks. I had to put the book down for a minute because I couldn’t face the possibility of Gansey being alone when he died, even though I knew from previous visions that at least Blue was going to be there with him.

NUMBER TWO. I love it that Glendower was dead, and there was no favor, and the search brought them to a dead (ha ha ha) end. Mostly because I’m nihilistic that way, but also because it wasn’t ever really about Glendower in the first place (see above). It was about these people and their friendship and what they were growing into. Even Ronan knows that Gansey could have found Glendower any time he wanted, if he’d wanted to. It actually was the journey, and not the destination, that mattered.

NUMBER THREE. Everything about everything relating to Blue and Gansey, and Adam and Ronan, was perfect in every way. But my favorite thing, probably, was this:

He said, “I thought this was a night for truth.”

“Ronan kissed me,” Adam said immediately. The words had clearly been queued up. He gazed studiously into the front yard. When Gansey didn’t immediately say anything, Adam added, “I also kissed him.”

I don’t know why that amuses me so much. It’s just such an Adam thing to add, while he is talking to Gansey about, basically, how best to be careful of Ronan and what to do about it all.

Relatedly, I love Adam the best. My Myers-Briggs personality type is INTJ, which if you take a gander at a few of those “Which Harry Potter/Star Wars/Marvel Universe character are you?” Myers-Briggs charts, you will find is the personality type of mainly fictional psychopaths and life-ruiners. So it was nice to have such an exceptionally INTJ-y INTJ character like Adam to who was neither a psychopath nor a life-ruiner.2

NUMBER FOUR if I may make one tiny criticism. I am not sure we and the other characters had enough time to deal with their losses. Gansey is dead for like two seconds before they bring him back to life, and even though I find the manner in which he is brought back to life quite satisfying, I would have liked that emotional beat to matter a little more and a little longer. Like maybe if Henry Cheng hadn’t been there for it? And if they’d had to take Gansey home and once they got home he said the thing about them being magicians?

Also, and mainly, nobody got a chance to grieve Noah. I guess it’s fine that they never knew he’s the one who saved Gansey — I actually like it when there’s important pieces of the story that important characters never find out — but I’m sad we didn’t see them recognizing that he was gone gone, and having the chance to grieve. And after he was so sweet to Ronan.

NUMBER FIVE, Adam borrows Ronan’s car to go see his family at the end. (I assume his Hondayota finally bit the dust?) That Adam let Ronan lend him a car, and that Ronan let Adam go do this scary feelings thing on his own, says everything about how much these two characters have changed over the course of the books. What a great series.

You may now feel free to squeal at me in the comments about any and all of the books in this series.

  1. I like to call him RG3, even though the overlap between Raven Cycle readers and minor quarterback carers-about is probably not that huge so there are probably very few people who would find this amusing.
  2. My mum doesn’t like Adam. I identify strongly with Adam. Does this mean she doesn’t like me? Who knows.

Comics February Round-Up

Man. If this were any of the last three years, I would have failed at Comics February. But this year is Leap Year, and I am squeezing this post in just under the wire, because I want you to read Genius. And, I mean, I love Comics February as well. Just mainly I cannot understand why Genius hasn’t gotten more (and by “more” I mean “all the”) attention.

Genius, Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman, and Afua Richardson

Shitdamn, this book was good. I’ve had a medium reading year thus far — nothing that I’ve hated (although see below re: puppy), but also nothing that I’ve wanted to shove in the hands of every single person I see. Genius is a book I want to shove at everyone.

Genius

Seventeen-year-old Destiny was born with the military and strategic mind of an Alexander the Great, a Napoleon — but she lives in an area of Los Angeles that is torn apart by unchecked drug violence and police brutality. So (as you would) she unites the gangs and secedes from the country.

If you are thinking “How did they ever get a comic book published that’s about black kids blowing up large swathes of the LAPD?”, you and I are thinking along the same lines, friends. At first I felt uncomfortable with it, but then — revolution against an oppressive power is a staple of our story-telling, and it’s hard to argue that Destiny and her compatriots don’t have a legitimate, revolution-worthy grievance, when LAPD officers (and cops all over the country) can shoot unarmed black folks with no repercussions at all for their employment status, and we’re just all supposed to write it off as the cost of doing (crime-prevention) business.

Afua Richardson’s art is beautiful, the story is ballsy as fuck, and I dearly hope that we can expect another volume of this audacious and brilliant comic (not least because I want to know what comes next for Destiny).

Honor Girl, Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl

A graphic memoir of a summer spent at camp in which Maggie Thrash developed a crush on an older camp counselor. The art was lovely, the writing and characterization were achingly true to what it’s like to be fifteen, but — have we talked about my thing about imbalance of power? I cannot deal with stories about older authority figures developing crushes on their charges. The nineteen-year-old camp counselor, Erin, doesn’t do anything technically not-okay with Maggie, but I just am not comfortable when those boundaries are being nudged. You know what I like in mentor-mentee relationships? NICE CLEAR BOUNDARIES.

(Yes, I did know some girls in high school who were sleeping with our algebra teacher. Why do you ask?)

The Arab of the Future, Riad Sattouf

The Arab of the Future

A comics memoir of growing up in Syria and Libya, with a father who fell under the spell of various dictators’ cults of personality. I warn you now that a puppy gets spiked with a pitchfork and has its head cut off in this comic. I noped on out of there as soon as that happened, but it was late in the book, so. There you go.

The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil, Stephen Collins

Dave lives in a place called Here, where everything is orderly. Across the sea is a place of chaos, called There. One day, the chaos of There starts to assert itself on Dave’s very own very face.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

No, I get it. It’s because you shouldn’t have too many rules. If you have too many rules your life will be boring and hemmed in, and that’s why ladies who like spreadsheets have to learn a Valuable Lesson about Lightening Up and Enjoying Spontaneity in romcoms. I UNDERSTAND THIS PARABLE.

Like, Stephen Collins’s art is beautiful, and his panel structuring is a masterclass, but I read comics for the story too. Did we really need another book in this world with the message “Lighten up, office drones!”?

Not a dumb American: Congo edition

Onward with my Africa reading project! David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett and published by Ecco, has received widespread critical acclaim, and very very well deserved too. If you happen to know anybody in the market for an enormously long history of a failed state, may I recommend pointing them towards Reybrouck? Congo reads nearly like a novel, and Reybrouck heavily privileges African voices in telling the story of the country’s modern history. It’s an excellent, excellent book.

So let’s get to it. Here’s the Democratic Republic of Congo:

I know, I know. It’s very confusing that there are two countries right next to each other, and one of them is called Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the other one is called Republic of the Congo. Which one used to be Zaire? (The DRC.) What does “Brazzaville” even refer to? (The capital of Republic of the Congo. I’ll learn more about it soon.) I know. It’s confusing.

What I learned about the DRC from my book: Some new stuff about Rwanda and the genocide there and how Congo was involved in all that. When the colonial powers were dishing out Germany’s holdings after World War I, they gave Rwanda to Belgium to govern — probably because Belgium was doing such a bang-up job in the neighboring Congo.

Kidding. That’s not why. They weren’t; see below.

Belgium heightened ethnic tensions for most of its time governing Rwanda (they were all about concentrating power in the hands of the Tutsis, because they thought Tutsis were less black than Hutus); the independent Congo was a major player in the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath; and although Rwanda arguably put Laurent Kabila in power in the First Congo War, they did not remain such cozy close allies once Kabila was actually running the country.

Many Rwandans considered Congo to be a country of lazy, chaotic bunglers who cared more about music, dancing, and food than about work, infrastructure, and public order. Many Congolese saw Rwandans as a cold, authoritarian country where plastic bags were banned for reasons of public cleanliness and motorcycle helmets were mandatory, a country of arrogant, pretentious parvenus who looked down on them in contempt.

Wonder if that remains true still now. I am very interested in the stereotypes various countries have about each other.

Definitely true: The Belgian colonial administration was super racist.

The Congolese middle class that emerged in the mid-1900s wanted to have the same rights as the European population in the Congo, including jolly luxuries such as not being at risk of being flogged with a piece of hippopotamus hide if you got convicted of certain crimes. So the Belgian government introduced a thing called the carte d’immatriculation, which was supposedly to extend the same legal rights to Congolese card-holders that Europeans living in the Congo already held by default.

Extremely stringent requirements were posed for obtaining such a card. Those requirements were often humiliating as well. During the period of application, an inspector was allowed to pay surprise visits to the family home, to see whether the candidate and his family lived in a truly civilized fashion. The inspector would look to see that each child had a bed of its own, that the family ate with knives and forks, that the plates were uniform in size and type, and that the toilet was clean.

About two hundred people received these cards. The population of Congo at that time was around fourteen million. Great work, colonialism.

But the most important thing I learned, by far, is this: PAY YOUR ARMY. Never don’t pay your army. The Congolese government did not make the army a financial priority in the early years of independence, and the results were Not. Good. First, the army mutinied. Then, the Belgians freaked about Congolese army guys maybe raping their ladies, so they all left. Belgian civil servants. Belgian transportation workers. Belgian export company owners. Everyone.

(Not everyone. But sort of.)

To put it simply: after one week Congo was without an army; after two weeks it was without an administration. Or, to put it more accurately, it was without the top layers of an administration. Of the 4,878 higher-ranking positions, only three were occupied by Congolese in 1959. Suddenly, people with a simple education now had to assume important roes within the bureaucracy, roles that were often far beyond their ability.

PAY YOUR ARMY.

David van Reybrouck’s marvelous book has spoiled me utterly for the future of my reading project. Does anyone have a particularly excellent history of an African nation to recommend? I can see an argument for doing Rwanda next, while this Congolese context is fresh in my mind. On the other hand, it might be neat to move on to some totally different African nation about which I know nothing. Like Mali. I know literally zero facts about Mali.

P.S. Sorry this post wasn’t funnier. Just, Congo has a sad and difficult history, and the country is in a bad way today. Corruption is everywhere, sexual violence ditto, and although Congo is the most resource-rich country in the world, its people are among the very poorest. It’s hard to make jokes about the history that led to these crappy, crappy outcomes.