Susan reviews A City Inside by Tillie Walden

A City Inside by Tillie Walden

Tillie Walden’s A City Inside is a short surreal book about a young woman growing into herself again and again.

As you’d expect from me reviewing Tillie Walden’s work, the art is beautiful; the protagonist’s various homes are especially well done, and the way that the art manages to tinge even the protagonist’s happier moments with melancholy is pleasingly visual. As with i love this part, the more surreal parts of the narrative are left for the reader to interpret as they will; the narrative is framed as someone telling the protagonist her own past and future, so the reader can take its accuracy and melancholy and hope as they will. And I did find it hopeful – even when the narrative takes the protagonist into an isolated city of herself, there is an underlying message of hope – it gifts her the hope of finding a place and a version of herself that she can live in and with, a future that she hasn’t seen yet and might not be able to, and that has value all of its own.

I found A City Inside to be a beautiful exploration of the different ways you can try for what you want (or what you think you should want), and the irreparable ways that these things sometimes contradict each other. I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

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 writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

The Half-Light Makes for a Clearer View: Genevra Littlejohn reviews On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

I’m writing this from inside of a curious space. About a week ago I stood up into a cabinet and gave myself a concussion, which I then immediately exacerbated by doing Chinese lion dance in four shows for a local production of The Nutcracker. So my life for a few days was cut harshly between periods of bright light and motion, and periods of sleep. Being awake has felt like one of those dreams where I’m just a little late to everything. Being asleep has felt like falling into a well. And then Winter Storm Diego hit my part of Virginia, and everything, everything stopped. My little house in the woods got fifteen inches of snow over as many hours, and since we’re a quarter of a mile from the closest paved road, gone was every possible excuse for getting up and doing things. In previous winters over the five years I’ve lived here, this is when I would read. I’d cover the available space in the tiny living room with quilts and pillows, hunker down with some snow snacks, and only get up to find another book.

But. Concussion. Trying to sit and read a novel proved…problematic. It’s been dreamlike and odd, the quick-slow jittery passage of time, the way that things don’t seem to stick right in my memory.

And then. Somehow, by chance, I found this lyrical, poetic, beautiful treasure-box of a graphic novel.

There are a lot of things to read in the world. I could do a review here every single day for months on end and not run out of my TBR list. That’s what I’m telling myself, when I’m asking how I never heard about On A Sunbeam until now, even though it started serializing as a webcomic a couple of years ago. Named for a Belle and Sebastian song, On A Sunbeam is set in a future so far from ours that its technology is more or less unrecognizable, though people are still more or less the same. It takes place after human expansion into deep space, and after–like a bacterial bloom dying back from lack of resources–the collapse of civilizations. People traveled so far into the dark that they weren’t able to come home again, and the most distant of them have sat for generations, just barely getting by. Barely daring to hope for rescue, because who would come for them? And there are some old colonies that don’t want any contact with anyone else, like the people of The Staircase, a settlement on the edge of known space mostly mentioned in legends and ghost stories.

But all of that, all of that seems very far away from the protagonist, a young girl named Mia. Her story is split raggedly between two timelines: the one where she’s a student at a boarding school-cum-space colony, and the one a few years later where she works with a team of antiquity restorers/maybe something more to mend abandoned colonies and architecture that has long since fallen into ruin. It’s an interesting juxtaposition; the story is pulled like a rope between this girl with great potential and very few aspirations, stumbling through life, causing trouble, and the older, quieter version of herself who spends her days cleaning up after the consequences of others’ centuries-old mistakes.

The first three quarters of the comic are colored largely in shades of Payne’s Grey and in oranges. I thought at first that this was just a pretty sort of contrast in the minimalist style so popular to indie comics and webcomics these days, but about halfway through, I remembered all at once those distant high school lessons about redshift and the Doppler Effect, how speed and distance turn what you see from red to blue. The past looks different than it really is. The future can’t be seen clearly, even if we think we’re sure what is going to happen. And like the narrative, we’re pulled taut between those two points, looking forward and back but pinned to the inescapable Now.

The line weight and panel structure reminded me a lot of the early days of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1980’s Nausicaa manga. On A Sunbeam has the same sort of dreamlight vagueness to some of its figures and landscapes, a knobbly intricacy to its plants and architecture. Even the edges of the panels waver, mirage-like. Things swim into focus and out as if with the attention of the protagonist, and scenes that in a more action-oriented comic might be very close to the viewer are instead distant and hazy as with memory, as much concerned with the landscape as with the characters living in it. Because you never can clearly remember everything about your first love, can you? Even if you write it down event by event, there are always going to be things that dissolve into the dim red past. You can’t hold tightly enough to ensure that nothing escapes.

The characters have complicated relationships and love each other deeply, but all the same every one of them has stories they don’t tell the others. Every time you describe something, scientists say these days, you’re changing your memory of it. It might be that to preserve something flawlessly, it must never be spoken aloud. Or maybe it’s just about self-protection, because if you like the way she looks at you right now, why damage that fragile connection by showing her the darkest places you’ve had to walk? But, as everything has a flipside, if you don’t share anything, if you’re never truly seen, can you be sure they love you?

This review is not purposefully vague. I could give you a cold recital of events, chapter by chapter, but that would be as lifeless as a sparrow dissection, and this work deserves much better treatment than that. It has a dream’s motion to it, inexorable but winding. There’s nothing extra, nothing that could be cut away, but it doesn’t feel spare or thin. The world is never explained with any clarity (why do the spaceships all look like koi, and how do they travel so quickly? Why isn’t there a single male character? What’s the political power structure of the human universe?) and simultaneously, it’s not necessary. This is a love story, and a story about finding family in unexpected places, and it’s enough to know that all the science and history exists at all in the world. We don’t need to see it, because it’s not what we’re focusing on.

As I read, I kept being reminded of a sonnet I memorized a decade ago, Against Entropy by Mike Ford. There’s a bit in it that goes:

The universe winds down. That’s how it’s made.
But memory is everything to lose;
although some of the colors have to fade,
do not believe you’ll get the chance to choose.

There are things we get to choose, and things we don’t. We get to choose how to respond to a given situation; we don’t get to choose how others will respond. We don’t get to choose the consequences for the things we do. We don’t get to choose to make the world hold still until we’re good and ready to move forward. We don’t get to choose what we remember, and what our minds leave behind. Mia, exhausted, says “Sometimes I just wish…everything would slow down…I fuck things up, or everything turns sour, and it just rushes by me. And I’ll take a second to catch my breath… But by then it’s too late. Everything… everything is gone.” She’s young, and she’s still learning what should be held on to, and what should be let go. She is constantly deciding between wakefulness and sleep, between flying and falling. But this deftly-crafted story isn’t going to let her, or the reader, hit the ground too hard.

Final rating: Five out of five stars. I’m buying multiple copies to give as Christmas presents, because this is the most enjoyable graphic novel I’ve read all year.

CONTENT WARNINGS (spoilers!):

There is no sexual violence in this work. There is no parental abuse in this work. There is no partner-to-partner domestic abuse in this book (there are a couple of arguments, but they are not abusive, just snarly). There is no male-against-female violence in this book.
Some school bullying, both physical and emotional, but not extreme.
Death of a mentor.
Automobile accident (non-lethal).
PG-13 bloody violence (less than a video game, but against a protagonist).
Attempted lynching (unsuccessful).

Mars reviews We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour cover

Not to be dramatic, but we need to start this review with a common understanding stated outright: this novel is beautiful. The prose, the imagery, the point. All of it, beautiful.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour front and back cover spread

I found this short novel by completely ignoring the adage about books and their covers, and I am so glad for it. The gorgeous cover illustration depicts a girl standing on her dorm bed, arm raised, covering her eyes from an unseen sun as she stares out over a dark shore. Snow falls around her.

She faces away from us and her world is a stark contrast of pink surveying an empty blue landscape and a black sky. As she stands among her messy belongings in rumpled pajamas, everything about this girl seems lonely. What is she looking for? If we think about the usual mental association of college as a community space where privacy might well not exist, the juxtaposition is even more jarring. In this context, what does it mean that this girl stands staring out at one of the loneliest sights one can know: the empty horizon?

This cover is the perfect illustration for the story of Marin, a college freshman who is briefly entertaining Mabel, a beloved and estranged figure from a life that she used to know. From Marin’s perspective, we cover the three days over her winter break that she shares with Mabel in what sounds like the emptiest, loneliest dorm ever, and which she calls “home”. Without revealing too much, Marin is haunted by the ghost of her grandfather’s passing, and all the weight that carries for a traumatized girl who is struggling to understand who she is against the broken foundation of who she thought she was.

We were innocent enough to think that our lives were what we thought they were, that if we placed all of the facts about ourselves together they’d form an image that made sense – that looked like us when we looked in the mirror, that looked like our living rooms and our kitchens and the people who raised us – instead of revealing all the things we didn’t know (128).

We follow her flashbacks and dissociations to piece together the mystery of what has torn this girl apart and, crucially, how she can come back together again. What does it mean to go through a tragedy that destroys you? What does it mean when you are changed deeply and immutably, but still need to go on living your life like everything is normal?

In this coming-of-age novel, LaCour heartachingly captures the paradox of such an experience; one in which a unique loneliness begets an almost overwhelming internal expansiveness. While the main character Marin’s queerness is not centered in this story, it is a real and present facet of her; and if you are like me, Marin’s relatability will make you itch to give this little starfish a hug.

A side note on the illustration: while this beautiful book jacket was done by Adams Carvalho, I was originally attracted to it because I was reminded of the unique style of queer author and illustrator Tillie Walden, whose webcomic “On a Sunbeam” touched my soul, and about which I will need to dedicate a future review.

Susan reviews Spinning by Tillie Walden

Spinning is a graphic memoir by Tillie Walden about the ten years she spent as a competitive figure skater. It’s beautiful and compelling, but in some ways it’s a hard read.

Everything I know about skating I picked up from Yuri!!! On Ice fandom, so I couldn’t speak to how accurate it is, but her explanations of how figure skating, jumps, and synchronised skating works are fascinating. Especially because she does touch on the explicit feminine coding and potential toxicity of enforcing that on kids! But learning how different moves are structured and how much work goes in is fascinating! Especially because while it structures and shapes Tillie Walden’s life throughout Spinning, it’s not the only thing going on.

The narrative is very narrow in its focus – it’s very deeply into Tillie Walden’s experiences and feelings in a way that works well with the structure of the narrative. The afterword specifically says that it was deliberate; it was about “sharing a feeling” rather than the specific events, and it is definitely successful at that. It frees her from doing a linear chronology, and lets her group events by feeling or what makes sense, which means that it’s more of a coherent story despite being a memoir.

The specific events swing between hopeful and exciting to bleak within the space of pages – the demands of skating and Tillie Walden’s coping strategies to deal with exhaustion and despair are really well depicted. The bleakness and monotony of her feelings towards skating are really well contrasted with her feelings for art and music as her interests change and move; the fun she has with her friends and the validation she gets from winning contrast with her feelings of fear. Her relationship and and coming out also come under this, but neither of which go well so brace yourselves for on-page homophobia. The way that Tillie Walden talks about her first relationship bringing her fear as well as everything else young love is supposed to bring is heartbreaking.

Tillie Walden’s regrets – that her bully left the school before she found the courage to stand up for herself; that she wasn’t a better friend, that quitting skating was so anticlimactic – were all completely understandable and relatable, and the way the art conveyed them made me feel for her. The art is great, and it has a lot of the things that I loved about “i love this part” – it has a limited pallet of dark blue, grey, and yellow, which was used to great effect to convey the mood without words. I especially love the way that she’ll give a quiet moment an entire page to itself to let its emotional weight rest, especially because most of the book has a very regular page structure.

Spinning is a really interesting, emotional, and compelling memoir that works really well with the art to tell its story. It also left me completely emotionally drained by the time I was done with it, which is a recommendation if that’s what you’re in the mood for!

Caution warning: sexual assault, homophobia, bullying.

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 writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.


Susan reviews "i love this part" by Tillie Walden

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i love this part is a graphic novel by Tillie Walden, which effectively serves as snapshots of the romance and relationship between two American schoolgirls. It was described to me as a sweet queer romance… Which is half right.

For the most part, it’s simple and straightforward. The two girls are in love, and spend their days doing homework together or listening to music and playing on their computers and talking about their families and hopes for the future! There are some really interesting style choices here though. For example, the girls aren’t actually named for most of the book; I’ve been calling them Elizabeth and Rae based off a panel showing Elizabeth’s email inbox towards the end, but that might not actually be right. The spelling and capitalisation sometimes becomes text-speak during dialogue in a way that I think is deliberate but can’t be sure of. But the format of the story is what’s really novel; it’s not structured as a traditional comic! It’s a collection of one-page illustrations that tell a story individually and sequentially, and by necessity it’s done slowly and in pieces.

On the topic of the art; it’s pretty good! It’s predominantly monochromatic, with purple or grey washes for colour. The application of colour feels thematic to me — the flashbacks to how Elizabeth and Rae met and grew close are in grey, with more purple creeping in the closer they get to each other. The backgrounds are really well done; whether it’s nature or buildings, the backgrounds are really detailed and well put together. The art does some really cool things with scale as well — when Elizabeth and Rae are happy and together, they’re drawn like giants, doing their homework against the rooftops of buildings and leaning against mountains to listen to music. It read to me as a good visual way of representing how much bigger their emotions make them feel, or possibly how everything that isn’t them seem smaller and less important. (I have to admit, I really enjoy how, despite there being no other people visible when the girls are together — there are people before they get together, but after that they’re a world of two — the art still makes them feel like they’re part of the world; this change of scale and positioning contributes to that.) The way that both girls seem to shrink or the world gets bigger as the story goes on is such a good continuation of this theme. And the use of empty or silent panels (landscapes with no people, or panels of the girls not talking) works well to show time passing and contrast the spaces Elizabeth and Rae filled with each other.

Where the Much of the characterisation is handled in the same way — we learn that Elizabeth is Jewish, for example, and Rae has a stepmother she doesn’t get on with, that both of the girls play music and love instruments — but that information is parcelled out in dribs and drabs. They’re both believable teenage girls! And their love for music is really clear, even though we’re not told what music they listen to; it’s not like The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal where the songs they’re listening to are as important as what’s going on in the page, but music is part of how Elizabeth and Rae bond and relate to each other and show their feelings, and it’s really cute.

But I need to explain that “half right”, don’t I. There will be spoilers from here-on out, I’m afraid, so for anyone who wants to go into the book mostly unspoiled: I have some mixed feelings about this book, based on the second half of it, but everyone lives. Most of it is the very sweet, peaceful story with a cute romance that I was promised! I just don’t think that the last third of it lives up to that.

See, about a third of the way through, cracks start showing in Elizabeth and Rae’s relationship. There are panels where neither of them appear (the time passing that I mentioned earlier), or where they fight about boundaries. There’s a panel where they ask each other “Do you think we’ll ever be able to tell anyone?” and conclude “Probably not,” There are panels of Elizabeth waiting for Rae, asking if she’ll be there soon — and Rae never replying. All of which culminates in Rae breaking up with Elizabeth.

Points to Tillie Walden; the way that she handled the relationship and its ending is wrenching. The panels of them arguing, and the panels of them after the break-up are genuinely affecting and thoughtful. Tillie Walden makes good choices with how she handles it; both girls are clearly broken-hearted, even Rae, and the choice she made to have the pages of them at their happiest while they were together facing the panels where they’re sobbing after they’re broken up is really effective. (Yes, guess where the titlular panel falls.) Plus, everything about it — including Rae sending a mixtape! — rings as plausible to me. But for however well it’s handled, I have two major problems with this. The first is that I am really ready for people to stop trying to sell me on queer romances where the main couple don’t make it to the end for whatever reason. We did our time on that trope, I am ready for it to be laid to rest! The second is why they break up.

See, Rae instigates the break-up because “I’m not… Like you. This — this is wrong.” And even if it’s later clarified a little more (I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you. but im just not ready for this rn” [sic]. And for some reason — perhaps the space of format of the book was a limit — that’s just… Left there. There’s no rebuttal, there’s no exploration, there is just a teenage girl whose internalised homophobia is cutting her heart to ribbons, and the story leaves her there. No matter how well i love this part handles everything else, that is disappointing.

I honestly have difficulty summing up how I feel about this one. On a technical and emotional level, I can’t fault it. The art and the way it handles its characters emotions are pretty good, and I really enjoyed the way it presented the story it was telling! However, the story that it was telling was one that is really familiar to me in its beats and structure, and no matter how well done it is, I’m not sure I need that story again.

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 writing for Hugo-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.