Danika reviews When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll

When I Arrived at the Castle cover

I loved Emily Carroll’s previous book, Through the Woods, which is an unsettling and beautiful horror graphic novel, so I was excited to pick up her next book. When I found out it was a sapphic vampire horror erotica graphic novel, though, I couldn’t believe my luck.

Emily Carroll’s art style is gorgeous and compelling, and the black, white, and red colour scheme works so well in this. The story has a haunting, almost fairy tale feel that slips into the dreamlike. Do I completely understand what happened? No. But I was enthralled by this gory and sexy story. I really want to read more queer horror erotica. This, like Fist of the Spider Woman edited by Amber Dawn, is equal parts erotic and disturbing. There is plenty of gore and blood, but it’s juxtaposed with the sexiness, which just heightens that feeling of unease.

Caroll is a master of page design, and almost every spread is arranged differently: the view through a keyhole, an all-text page telling a story, a coffin illuminated in a ray of light. I’d want them framed and on my wall if there wasn’t the nightmare factor.

a page from When I Arrived at the Castle, showing two figures in the doorway of a room filled with two stories of red doors. The text reads: "Doors. Like a nest of ravenous baby birds, their mouths yawning from floor to ceiling. And I a worm, dangling from her beak."

I read this in October (I’m… a bit behind in reviews), and made for a perfect Halloween themed read, but for those of you who like to get creeped out all year round, definitely add this to your TBR.

This seems to be out of print, unfortunately, and pretty difficult to get your hands on. My library had it, luckily, but hopefully it gets reprinted soon, because I would love a copy for my permanent collection.

Til reviews Artie and the Wolf Moon by Olivia Stephens

Artie and the Wolf Moon cover

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Artie and the Wolf Moon is a graphic novel about middle schooler Artie, a budding photographer who discovers that her mom is a werewolf. Artie is a lonely kid. She’s one of the few students of color at her school, and she’s bullied by some of her classmates. When she shows signs that she, too, is a werewolf, her mom takes her to a whole community of wolves.

The book follows Artie’s development as a werewolf, learning her history both of her family and of werewolves in the United States, as well as her personal growth as she gains confidence, navigates new non-werewolf friendships, and falls blushing and stammering into a romance with her new friend Maya. It’s a tightly woven narrative with strong plot and character elements throughout, and it explores themes of community, grief, and growing up.

A good graphic novel strikes just the right balance between too much character content and too much action, and I thought Artie and the Wolf Moon absolutely nailed it. Artie stood out as an impulsive, stubborn, curious girl. She discovers the werewolves’ world as readers do. Scenes with Maya’s family and community overrun with a sense of acceptance and community. I felt how much happier Artie was, and werewolf shifting and lore felt like family activities–especially the way Artie was included even before she learned to control her shifting. There was a sense of adventure and even peril, but those felt secondary to a story about belonging.

The artwork suited the story well. The center of the story is Artie and her newfound community, and the images reflect that. Stephens creates simple backgrounds, setting the stage but focusing on the characters. I found it effective, especially with creating atmosphere. Werewolf-ness was represented by bright red lines, while vampires were jagged shadows. It gave the supernatural elements an otherworldly feeling.

This is a coming-of-age story, and Artie and Maya’s romance has the feeling of a first love: hesitant and shy and marked by a lot of blushing, and it develops over quiet moments they share. Their relationship is defined by this shared time and closeness. When Maya chooses to spend time with Artie alone, they climb a tree together in the sweetest single panel I have seen, possibly ever. It feels sincere, tender, and just right for a story about identity and belonging. It was soft and lovely. This is exactly the content I came here for.

The werewolves’ story ties into Black history in the United States. Mine is an outsider’s perspective here, but it’s an important part of the book and excluding it from the review would be disingenuous. The Mother Werewolf fled enslavement, and with Black werewolves and white vampires, generational conflicts between the two parallel racial violence and discrimination. One incident that stands out involves vampires forcing a werewolf family out of town. This is a scene that, portrayed in films, would have ensured one of the white characters stepped into an especially bright patch to be given identity, a particularly harsh contrast given how films’ lighting already favors lighter-skinned actors. Stephens chose to portray this scene without making the vampires more than blurred phantoms, no personhood for those mired in hate. When historical elements of violent discrimination were included, they kept the narrative centered on Black characters.

Artie and the Wolf Moon is a standout. Plot and exploration of this new world complement character growth, with each aspect given space to breathe. I appreciated moments when Artie was allowed to be frustrated or annoyed, not because the story needed it but because that’s part of growing up; I appreciated moments where characters are thrust into situations they’re not ready for because the story demands more. Supernatural elements are grounded in a palpable community setting. I enjoyed so much about reading this book.

Trigger warnings: the book includes instances of racism and bullying

Anke reviews Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

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As we’re moving through autumn, Mooncakes is a warm cup of your favourite beverage in book form. If you are looking for a sweet, cozy and ultimately wholesome graphic novel to light up the darker season, you should turn to this adorable, modern-supernatural and intersectionally queer love story about family, belonging and taming one’s (very literal) demons. 

I’ve been in love with Mooncakes since its webcomic days on tumblr, since before it was published by Oni Press in 2019 in a revised version. Suzanne Walker, co-creator and writer of the story, has been a dear friend of mine since our shared fandom days. What’s stayed constant since then is her ability to completely ace the emotional beats of any story she chooses to tell, so naturally the same is true for Mooncakes. To match Suzanne Walker’s writing, Wendy Xu, illustrator and the other co-creator of Mooncakes, has brought the story to endearing, vibrant life and colour.

The story begins with a reunion: Chinese-American teenage witch Nova Huang, who works at her grandmothers’ café-and-magical-bookshop, encounters her childhood crush Tam Lang in the forest while investigating reports of strange goings-on one autumn night. Not only is Tam a werewolf, they are also fighting a demon designated to possess them by a creepy cult hoping to harness their little-explored but extremely powerful wolf magic. The story that unfolds features help from Nova’s grandmas Qiuli and Nechama (a married couple of Chinese-American and Jewish kickass old lady witches! Yes!), a bunch of black cats, enchanting forest spirits and emotional-support scientist Tatyana.

The sweet, uncomplicated romance between Nova and Tam, whose feelings rekindle as they collaborate to solve Tam’s demon problems, is a delight to watch. After a decade of missing each other, their budding relationship comes as a delightfully warm and sincere emotional backdrop that both heightens the stakes and adds depth to the story. Considering that the comic is rather short at 243 pages (and some bonus content), there is not much room for a complicated plot to top everything off, nor does there need to be. It’s all about the emotional and personal coming-of-age journeys of Nova and Tam, their shared affinity for magic, and how they come into their own during the events of the story. What endears the characters further to the reader is the fact that the intersectional representation that adds so much joy to the story is also intensely personal to the authors. 

In an article at Women Write About Comics, Walker describes Nova as an amalgamation between the two co-creators, explains how the story was always going to be queer, that Nova is bisexual and that Tam is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns (and it’s accepted by everyone in the story, including the creepy cultists). Nova’s hearing loss as a recurring motif of the story is treated with respect and finesse regarding characterization and worldbuilding, just as the comic as a whole expands on existing witch and werewolf lore in interesting ways. Magic, in Mooncakes, has no panacea to offer against disabilities, but they are accommodated rather than bypassed. Workarounds like nonverbal magic and an especially adapted wand let Nova practice witchcraft regardless of her hearing aids, a melding of tradition and innovation that reoccurs throughout the story and finds its echoes in other intersectional moments that always work toward the themes of family and belonging, growing roots and letting go. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Mooncakes concludes with an open but satisfying ending that should delight fanfiction writers everywhere with the potential it offers: Both Nova and Tam take steps into a self-determined adulthood, and we are assured that they will go there together. (end of spoilers)

Susan reviews My Alcoholic Escape From Reality by Nagata Kabi

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality cover

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Nagata Kabi is back with My Alcoholic Escape From Reality! The mangaka behind My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and My Solo Exchange Diary returns with another memoir, this time about being hospitalised for acute pacreatis resulting from her alcoholism.

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality feels a lot more like a diary comic than any of her previous works. The art style hasn’t changed, although the monochrome colour scheme has shifted to orange now, but the manga as a whole feels tonally lighter and more consistent. I assume that this is a side-effect of it being written as one piece rather than a collection, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. Despite the lighter tone, the frankness that she has in her previous books continues here. She is very open about her alcoholism and her depression, neither of which is resolved by the end of the book. She’s not a perfect patient by her own admission – she relapses, she gets angry about the restrictions on her life, she lies to her doctors – and she’s very explicit about her understanding of what would make a satisfying narrative about her experience and how it compares to what she’s living. They way Nagata Kabi personifies and visualises her conditions is more emotive than medical, which works great and stops the entire manga being medical professionals explaining things. There is still a lot of medical details involved – if you, like me, have no idea what pancreatis is, look forward to being educated! But the explanations aren’t overwhelming, which I appreciated.

One of the threads of My Alcoholic Escape From Reality is creating while dealing with not only serious medical conditions but also guilt about her work. She feels guilt for creating memoir at all, and for enjoying it when she knows how negatively her family feels about her work. (Her compromise seems to have been only involving them in the most surface-level scenes, rather than delving back into her feelings about them.) The realisations she goes through about her work and what it means to her to do that work is lovely to read.

My general recommendation for Nagata Kabi’s memoirs are that they’re good in the same way that Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is good. They are both queer creators using their most raw edges and pain as entertainment, and cast an uncomfortable reflection back on the audience consuming that entertainment (… and the reviewer rating how well they depicted that pain, yes, please enjoy the mental knots I tie myself into). They are both funny and insightful, and that humour only makes their more serious points hit like a train. This ties into the point Nagata Kabi makes about narrative satisfaction – as a story, the most satisfying endings are the ones where she either relapses or recovers, and life isn’t that tidy; instead, it’s a narrative in progress, where she’s trying to be well and at least writing herself a smidge of hope for the future, and I respect that a lot.

If you want an untidy memoir told with Nagata Kabi’s usual bluntness and humour, I’d definitely recommend picking this up.

Content warnings: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation and medical treatment

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn, illustrated by Claire Roe

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

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Madison Jackson started as an intern at The Boston Lede, fetching coffee and grabbing quotes for senior writers. But she finds herself thrust into the spotlight when Dahlia Kennedy, a prominent socialite charged with a gruesome murder, latches onto her. Madison must decide how far she’s willing to go and how much to trust Dahlia to get her shot at becoming an ace reporter.

The story starts strong, pulling the reader in with the mystery. A constant back and forth of whether or not Dahlia actually committed the murder creates a palpable tension that moves the mystery forward. But about halfway through, the push and pull without any clear evolution in sight for the characters becomes tedious. After so much buildup on the mystery, when the truth comes to light, it’s more a relief than satisfying.

While the overall plot falls flat, Dunn does capture the newsroom politics well. It’s the nature of these dynamics that define Madison’s character development throughout the story. She starts as a typical, shy intern and it seems like she’s going to make a name for herself. But the path she takes to do that leads to selfish decisions that hurt others, making her a rather unlikeable character.

Unlikeability in a character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but between her devolving character arc and the tiresome plot, it doesn’t leave much for the reader to root for. Especially because most of the characters are unlikeable. The diversity of supporting characters made the story feel real, but there was very little to like about most of them.

The artwork helps keep the story moving even after the pacing starts to fall short. Vibrant colors make every panel pop on its own. And yet it has a style that still feels very noir, keeping in line with the mystery genre.

Bury the Lede is a solid 3 stars because it did keep me entertained for the most part.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

Shadow Life cover

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Kumiko, a 76-year-old widow, leaves the assisted living facility her adult daughters put her in because it just wasn’t for her. She wants to maintain whatever independence she can for as long as she can. She feels death coming for her, but it’s too soon. So, when death’s shadow tries to take her before her time, Kumiko fights back.

It’s so refreshing to see an older bisexual character. I have not come across many older characters in general, let alone queer ones, but maybe I’m not reading the right books. Regardless, Kumiko is a delightful main character. She’s quirky and saucy in a way that you can see how she charms some people and irritates others.

The story focuses mostly on Kumiko’s battle with the shadow of Death that has come to take her away. But threaded throughout you also get a glimpse of her relationship with her daughters in the present and flashbacks of her time with her husband, who died in a car accident. For anyone who’s dealt with being a caretaker of an older parent or grandparent, it’s easy to understand the daughters’ perspective, seeing how easily frustrated she is by Kumiko. But in telling the story from Kumiko’s point of view, Goto brings a lot of empathy for the parent’s point of view. Kumiko simply wants to live her life, even if she will start needing more help and supervision soon.

As Kumiko battles Death’s shadow, we get a fun cast of characters that include a surly vacuum storekeeper and her sweet neighbor that looks out for her. She is also reunited with her old flame, Alice. It’s here that the story reveals her bisexuality and it’s even revealed to her daughters. Her eldest is taken by surprise but they don’t make a big deal out of her sexuality itself, so much as the fact that she never told them. Kumiko asserts that it wasn’t something she hid, she just never talked about her past relationships.

I’m not usually captivated by black and white comics, but in this case, it works. And most of the graphic novel takes place through the panel artwork with very little dialogue. In fact, there’s one moment that stands out to convey and affirm Kumiko’s identity as a Japanese Canadian woman. There’s a panel that includes dialogue in Japanese characters and provides no translation. It’s a moment where the reader is made an outsider in the way that people marginalized by white, English-speaking cultures are usually othered. Even though I have no idea what words were spoken there, I didn’t need to. It didn’t detract from the overall story.

No spoilers for how it ends, but all in all, a bewitching tale with fun characters you feel invested in.

Danika reviews The Secret To Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

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Fun Home is one of my favourite books, which will come as a surprise to absolutely no one. It’s a deeply introspective graphic memoir about books, coming out, and lesbian books. What’s not to like? While Fun Home is suffused with literature references, though, Are You My Mother? is equally concerned with psychoanalysis, which was a lot harder for me to relate to. In Bechdel’s newest graphic novel, she examines her life-long love affair with various exercise phases with references to transcendentalists and Buddhism.

There’s something comforting and familiar to me about reading an Alison Bechdel book. Her thoughtful introspection and constant ruminating about how best to live in this world feels like a mind I can relate to. While her previous graphic memoirs focused on her father and her mother, this one takes a long range look at exercise as a coping mechanism through her whole life, separated into decades. As a child, she saw an ad in a comic book that promised the “secret to superhuman strength.” It turned out to only be an inaccessible Jiu Jitsu pamphlet, but she continues to look for this secret her whole life: through running, karate, skiing, cycling, yoga, and more–always in the hopes of escaping the inevitable conclusion that she is interdependent and mortal.

Alongside this journey of physical transformation–always looking for more strength and inexhaustible endurance–Bechdel also goes on a spiritual exploration of the self. She tries to grapple with this question by looking at artists and writers through history, including Jack Kerouac, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Perhaps the appeal of these exercise regiments, though, is that she can track notable changes, while the psychological and spiritual journey feels more like one step forward and two steps back. In one striking panel, Bechdel realizes she only though she’d been dealing well with her father’s death because she hadn’t dealt with it at all; she hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything. She approaches fitness and her work with the same intensity, damaging her body and her relationships in the process.

Aside from following the fitness fads Bechdel has participated in over the years, this is primarily a story about yearning, a striving for transcendence, for finding the secret to living well. It’s about not just physical strength, but also the emotional endurance necessary to be human. It’s about looking for the secret of how to best live–so there’s no real neat conclusion possible. This is a story still in progress.

I didn’t feel the same way about The Secret To Superhuman Strength as Fun Home, but that’s an impossible hurdle to clear. I did connect more to this than Are You My Mother?, despite being as far from a fitness fan as possible. I also appreciated being to able to get a wider scope of Bechdel’s life, including how the publication of her graphic memoirs (especially Fun Home) changed her everyday reality. It’s at times painful to read, because I feel so much sympathy for her, but that just shows how effective it is.

Danika reviews The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

The Legend of Auntie Po cover

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This is a quiet, almost slice-of-life graphic novel about a 13-year-old queer Chinese American girl’s life at a logging camp. Mei is the daughter of the camp cook, and she helps out in the kitchen and spends her free time spinning yarns for the other children in camp–especially about Po Pan Yin, or Auntie Po, a Chinese American matriarchal version of Paul Bunyan. She is best friends with (and obviously has a crush on) Bee, the foreman’s daughter.

In the background, though, is the constant hum of anti-Asian racism. The Chinese workers eat separately from other workers. A sawmill that employed Chinese workers is burned down. Mei is keenly aware that she’s losing something: she no longer prays, she doesn’t know her grandparents, and her Cantonese is rusty. She is caught between traditions she feels disconnected with and an American culture that doesn’t accept her.

Auntie Po is the bridge between them: a blending of cultures and a way of adapting tradition to make it relevant. Not only does Mei tell stories about Auntie Po, she also begins to see her–especially when times get hard. Auntie Poe (and her giant water buffalo Pei Pei) become a source of hope and inspiration for her, and it’s left ambiguous whether or not she’s real.

The foreman claims that Mei and her father are like “family” to him, but Mei’s father knows better than to take him at his word, even if their daughters have grown up together. The story explores friendships across racial and financial differences in both these generations (Bee and Mei as well as their fathers’ relationship) and how fraught these can be. Mei’s father soon finds himself choosing between the man he’s called “family” and his own safety and comfort.

I enjoyed the watercolor illustrations with digital lines art style, and there are some stunning spreads. Pei Pei especially is a delight whenever he makes an appearance. This is a quick read, but there are lots of different aspects to dive into: I think this is a book that could act as a great conversation starter with young readers.

As for the queer content, Mei’s crush on Bee is obvious, and they hold hands and dream about a future together, but this isn’t a romance. It’s the kind of adoring friendship (with occasional blow-ups) you’d expect between 13-year-old girls. Not long ago, this kind of relationship in a kids’ book would likely be dismissed as a close friendship, but the author’s note makes it clear that Mei is queer, and I think we’re finally at a point where queer content doesn’t have to be spelled out to be obvious.

This is a thoughtful book about a topic of U.S. American history not often written about in middle grade books, and I highly recommend it.

Danika reviews The Girl from the Sea by Molly Ostertag

The Girl from the Sea cover

Way back in 2016, I wrote a post for Book Riot called 5 Lesbian Mermaid Comics You Need to Read where I rounded up sapphic mermaid and selkie comics. There were far too few than I would like, but I was able to find a three page comic story from Molly Ostertag on tumblr about a girl who falls in love with a selkie. Obviously, I was delighted, and so imagine my surprise when I found out that the concept was made into a middle grade graphic novel! I love selkies, I love queer middle grade comics, so I needed to read it ASAP.

This follows Morgan Kwon, a 15 year old with a plan for her life. She’s going to keep her head down until she graduates, and then she’s going to become her authentic self. She just needs to wait it out. Her parents have just divorced, and her brother isn’t taking it well. She has a close group of friends, but she doesn’t feel like she can tell them her secret: that she’s queer.

When she was younger, she played with a selkie. At least, that’s what she remembers–but she’s written it off as her imagination. Then, she almost drowns and is rescued by that same selkie. The next day, Keltie appears on land in human form: something she can only do every 7 years. While they both clearly are romantically interested in each other, Morgan panics that Keltie–with her bluntness, her weird clothing, her unrestrained personality–will out her. But she doesn’t want to walk away, either, so she tries to balance these two lives.

I love the artwork here and the quiet exploration of Morgan’s character. She has to learn to be true to herself and embrace when life doesn’t go to plan–that it’s okay to let things get messy. I can’t wait to get a finished copy in all its glossy, full-colour glory!

I do want to give a clear content warning for nonconsensual outing. (Spoiler: her mom accepts her immediately.)

Sinclair Sexsmith reviews Sunstone by Stjepan Sejic

Sunstone Vol 1

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Kinky lesbian literature is hard to find. So when I hear of one that I haven’t read, and it has a good review or five, or a solid recommendation from a friend, I snap it up.

That’s how I found Sunstone by Stjepan Sejic, who is a Croatian comic book writer and artist, known for many different comic series. Sunstone happens to be the one where dominant-inclined Ally and submissive-inclined Lisa meet online and decide to get together in person, and we follow their sexcapades, their relationship, their falling in love, and their group of friends.

It was, though beautifully drawn, disappointing. Maybe if I wasn’t a nonbinary queer who has been kinky for 25 years and active in the leather and kink communities for 20, I would find this more relatable. It wasn’t that the information was wrong, it just felt like a very superficial sense of what kink is, and mostly just hung sexy kink illustrations around a weak story.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the author, just the title, when I ordered it, but a few chapters into it, I said to my partner, “I think this was written by a man.” And that was the other piece … though the story features two women as main characters and focuses on their sex and kink life together, it all reads as though it is for a male gaze. Both characters have ex-boyfriends, who feature prominently in the story and both sexualize them and think they are somehow responsible for their hotness, and there is just no context of lesbian community, identity, development, connection, lineage, or anything. It’s more like these two women live in a completely heterosexual world and just happen to find themselves compatible and together. In the beginning, they even have their relationship set up where they refer to each other as their “best friend” and think how great it is that her best friend can scratch that D/s itch that she has really wanted to be satiated and explored.

There was some representation of kink culture and community, but it was quite foreign to me — it didn’t feel like anything I’ve seen or witnessed; it read more like a fantasy of a kink community. And while that’s good and fine (for example, I did enjoy The Marketplace series by Laura Antoniou, which is absolutely a fantasy kink world), it just wasn’t clear to me if this was supposed to be a fantasy, or if this is what the author really thinks happen at kink clubs or in kinky lesbian bedrooms.

I also wonder about the cultural differences. I’m not sure English was Sejic’s first language, and sometimes I wonder if part of my critique is because it was in translation and that some of the cultural context didn’t transfer. Or, that coming from a United States leather community context, I just didn’t connect with it because he is referencing other kinds of communities in other places. So it’s possible that the things Lisa and Ally struggle with will still connect with readers, if perhaps you are beginning your journey into BDSM, and there are many sweet moments between them, and dozens of pages of smoldering hot illustrations.

Perhaps I expected too much of Sunstone — and perhaps I expect too much of queer, trans, and kinky literature in general — when I want it to be rooted in some sort of queer community or kink community. Or perhaps I am too self-centered, that I expect the queer and kink communities in books to be communities that I recognize. But either way, I was disappointed in the male gaze in this comic, but still enjoyed the beauty (and fetish) of it very much.