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.)

Danika reviews Stone Fruit by Lee Lai

Stone Fruit cover

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This is a graphic novel that follows Bron and Ray and their complicated relationship to each other and their families. Ray’s sister is an overstretched single mother, and Ray offered to step in and take care of her niece twice a week. 6-year-old Nessie adores spending time with them, especially since Aunt Bron is the most fun to play with. They go wild together, tearing through the woods looking for a silver hound, which is perpetually just out of reach, making up songs as they go. The primal state they all sink into on these adventures is shown in the illustration style, where they transform into monstrous figures.

Panels from Stone Fruit

Outside of these adventures, though, Bron and Ray are struggling. Bron is dealing with mental health difficulties, which causes her to distance herself from Ray. Ray reacts by feeling insecure and needy, trying to reach out for reassurance. Unsurprisingly, this becomes a downward spiral. I found this difficult to read–in fact, I almost put this down in the first part, because it felt so achingly sad and personal. I’m glad I pushed through it, though, because this is a beautiful exploration of messy, complicated relationships, whether familial or romantic.

Bron decides to go back home to face her past. Her family is religious, and they don’t approve or understand her being queer and trans. She begins making connections with her teenage sister, finding similarities she was previously unaware of–but still struggling to overcome the barriers between them. Meanwhile, Ray starts conversations with her sister, finding ways to communicate that aren’t constant arguments (her sister doesn’t approve of Bron).

The strength of this graphic novel was the same reason I had trouble getting into it: it’s painfully relatable. It’s about the messiness of everyday queerness. Ray and Bron tried to build an ideal life together, but they couldn’t outrun the underlying issues of living in a transphobic heterosexist world, especially when they formed the foundation of your early life. There are no easy answers, just humans tentatively reaching out to each other, finding both hurt and comfort.

Danika reviews Space Battle Lunchtime Volume 3 by Natalie Riess

Space Battle Lunchtime Vol 3Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I adored the first two volumes of Space Battle Lunchtime. It’s an all-ages graphic novel of a cooking competition(!) in space(!!) with a cute F/F romance (!!!) What more could you want? The first two volumes felt like two halves of a whole story. It finished with a happily ever after that made me sigh contentedly when I closed it. I wanted more, sure, but it had wrapped up. I accepted that this was a precious gem of a self-contained two volume story.

And then! I randomly stumbled on a third volume! I didn’t know this was coming out! As someone who obsessively tracks new sapphic book releases, this was a shock to me. How could I have missed that this was getting a sequel at all, never mind one that was already out? I could hardly believe my luck.

This volume has everything I loved from the first two. There’s no baking competition this time–instead, Peony is baking for a fancy jubilee hosted by a space empress! It’s crucial that everything goes perfectly. Of course, that’s not what happens. In fact, the empress is poisoned, and now it’s a murder(-ish) mystery! This is a fun little puzzle set on a spaceship that is part plant.

I also really enjoyed Peony and Neptunia’s developing relationship. We get a glimpse into Neptunia’s past that explains why she’s so guarded and secretive. There is no drama here, though; they continue to be a happy, adorable couple.

If you are looking for a cute, cozy, comforting queer read, I can’t recommend Space Battle Lunchtime enough. Will this be the real final volume? I can’t find any information on there being a volume 4, but there was also 3 years between volumes 2 and 3, so that’s not saying much. Whether this is a charming epilogue to the original story or the beginning of an ongoing series, I am a big fan.

Zoe reviews Don’t Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Don't Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

Don’t Go Without Me is a triptych of comics written and illustrated by Spanish-American artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell which deal with ‘love, loss, and connection.’ Valero-O’Connell is best known for her graphic novel collaboration Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me with Mariko Tamaki, a book about a teenage lesbian and her experience in a toxic relationship. Don’t Go Without Me has fantastic premises with achingly familiar emotional experiences at their core. Her art style is iconic, something that is best described as ‘dreamy.’ She also uses panels in increasingly creative ways–they almost become visual line breaks in her comic poetry. Valero-O’Connell thrives in weird worlds, where every inch of space is filled with bits of plants or sky or people, creating a holistic experience for the reader.

The first, titular story follows a lesbian couple who cross to a parallel dimension and lose each other. The main character trades stories and facts about her girlfriend, Almendra, with the magical and strange residents of this other world for clues about her location, unwittingly trading away the memories associated with Almendra. The search shows off Valero-O’Connell’s character and world building skills as the main character plunges through high class parties attended by four-eyed suit-wearing men and skeleton heads and sphinxes and more. Every background character is unique and intriguing. The art is so complex and interesting that I wanted to read the whole thing again focused solely on the illustration

“What is Left” has another strange but compelling premise. In this story, a new fuel has been developed for spaceships– memory. A human donor can power engines through the brain waves generated by memories. The story follows one of the passengers, who, after an explosion, finds herself within the memory core next to the dreamer. She watches the dreamer’s life play out with no ability to communicate, struck by the knowledge that the dreamer is likely already dead. While the pages do contain a lot of sad content, it never comes off as depressing. It always feels more like a celebration of the negative emotions rather than a pity party.

The third and final story in this book, “Con Temor, Con Ternura” involves a town on the ocean, where a giant slumbers away. No one knows exactly how it got there, why it’s there, or when it will wake. The devout followers of the giant have calculated turtle migration patterns and sea levels and have determined that the giant will wake tomorrow, though no one knows whether it will kill them all or save them. Not everyone thinks it will wake, but people prepare for it nonetheless, with a huge day of feasting and partying. This is more of an ensemble piece, but the only characters that recur is an old lesbian couple, who represent love and how we reflect on it. It’s a deeply thrilling, emotional treatise on ‘what would you do if the world was ending,’ and, of course, it made me cry.

Rosemary Valero-O’Connell proves once again that she is a master of comic storytelling, visually and textually. Almost all of her stories contain, if not explicit lesbian characters, queer themes, and they all speak to some deep emotion inside of us. This comic was originally Kickstarted and published by the comics subscription service ShortBox, and I was so excited to get my hands on it. Valero-O’Connell’s work always hits and always hits hard, and I recommend this to literally anyone. Everyone deserves to read this wonderful masterpiece.

Zoe reviews Body Music by Julie Maroh

Body Music by Julie Maroh

Body Music is a graphic novel translated from French, written and drawn by nonbinary lesbian artist Julie Maroh, best known for their book Blue is the Warmest Color.

It’s a series of short 5-10 page vignettes about love and desire between different people in Montreal neighborhoods. The vignettes are connected by theme and location only. The book is packed with representation–there are queer people, straight people, polyamorous people, people of color, people with disabilities, trans people, and people of all ages. The variety of the characters and situations present images of all forms of love, from healthy long-term relationships to unhealthy long-term relationships, fuck buddies to polyamory to missed connections. Sometimes sexy, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, these stories reflect that there is no singular experience of love. One person confesses their romantic feelings to their partners, a mother and a son reminisce about her dead husband, two lesbians run into a straight man with a fetish, a couple relives their first meeting at a gay bar, among others.

For a series of themed vignettes, each is unique. The writing and art style shift each chapter, enough that it doesn’t feel like there were any repeats. I feel like ‘balance’ is the keyword for this book, which uses text and image in such a way that neither feels overbearing. Moments where one fails or suffers are counteracted by an abundance of the other. Simpler stories were augmented by engaging visuals and layouts. In moments where the art didn’t have as strong a grasp on me as a reader, a poetic monologue drew me back in.

Like many collections of short stories, there are some hits and there are some misses. Sometimes the vignettes are too short to do anything other than provide a second long snapshot, which can be unsatisfying. Because there is so little context to each story, it can take a couple of pages for the reader to understand what is going on. However, these are the minority. Most stories are either engaging or poignant, and I appreciated the balance between the two.

Not every chapter has something miraculous or revealing to say, which made the chapters that did hit that much harder. One vignette about a man waiting impatiently for his partner to come back from a dinner with his ex is simply funny and entertaining. Then, two chapters later, Maroh describes the effect a terminal illness has on a relationship. It communicates both the monotony and the sacredness of our everyday lives and loves. I feel like a lot of romances or books on love tend to veer toward one or the other, so having a space where love was portrayed as both casual and revered was refreshing.

In their foreword, Maroh writes “The image of the heterosexual, monogamous, white, handsome couple, with their toothpaste smiles for all eternity, stands in the collective unconscious as the ideal portrait of love. But where are the other realities? And where is mine?” This book is incredibly important to me as a younger queer person. Mainstream media doesn’t have very nuanced depictions of both casual and serious queer love, and I haven’t gotten to a point in my life where I am having a lot of those experiences myself.

This is actually my second or third time reading this book. I first read it when I was about 17, and now, at 19, different chapters resonate with me more. When I was younger, it gave me hope for my future. Now, it’s fulfilling to recognize a few of my own varied experiences within the pages.

I tend to give away books pretty soon after I finish them, but this one has a permanent place on my shelf. It doesn’t even get loaned out. Body Music is a dynamic graphic novel with great representation and high re-read value, and it is an experience I recommend to everyone.

Susan reviews Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki

Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is EXCELLENT. It follows Freddy, a mixed-race high-school girl as she gets dumped by the titular Laura Dean for the third time, and it ripples throughout her friendship group.

I’m not gonna lie, I did spend a lot of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me yelling first that Freddy deserved better, and then that Freddy’s friends deserved better. The narrative does such a good job of showing why Freddy keeps going back to Laura Dean; she’s magnetic and charming, despite her casual disregard for everything about Freddy that doesn’t involve her. But also the art is fantastic for showing how Freddy’s life revolves around Laura Dean when they’re together (especially in its use of one colour versus the standard black and white art), at the expense of her friends! So even as I admired the story’s craftmanship in how it showed the relationships and the characters’ reactions to them, I was shrieking on twitter about how they made me feel!

Freddy’s narration is witty and sweet – I especially liked her observation that her being able to be humiliated and broken up with in public like her hetero friends is progress, because as a reviewer I feel called out – and the gimmick of writing to an advice column feels simultaneously nostalgic for the YA stories I was reading as a teenager, and as an excellent way to justify both the narrative and the final conclusion that Freddy comes to about her relationship.

(We all saw Laura Dean’s reaction coming, right? And cheered for Freddy doing what she needed to?)

I appreciated it showing that someone can be not right for you even though you love them, and the advice Freddy gets feels simultaneously kind and realistic. And I like that there was so much importance on Freddy’s friends, who all clearly had their own stories going on that intersected with Freddy’s! It worked, especially for Doodle’s storyline, which broke my heart for her.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is excellent, and if you want something that feels realistically messy and contemporary, with a strong current of friendship running through, definitely pick it up!

[Caution warning: cheating]

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.

Sash S reviews Don’t Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Don't Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

“Two lovers get separated on a night out in a parallel dimension. A ship that runs on memories malfunctions in the dead of space. A giant prophesised to wake from its centuries-long slumber beneath the sea.”

This graphic novel is a delightful triptych of stories, all queer, all exploring themes of love and loss in various sci-fi/fantasy settings. I pledged for this particular version in Valero-O’Connell’s recent Kickstarter and I could not be happier with such a gorgeous quality book.

Art-wise, the book is so beautiful. Each story is coloured in a different pastel shade and emphasised with well-chosen line weights and deep blue, almost black shading. The art style is soft and easy on the eyes, but with tons of visual interest as the creator quite literally draws us into three otherworldly settings. Machinery and florals alike are depicted with tons of intricate detail, making each page a work of art in its own right.

Don't Go Without Me page

The stories themselves are simple, yet well-told. The pacing is great, with the particulars of each setting slowly unfolded in a way that doesn’t leave the reader drowning in exposition. There’s also just enough left unsaid that you can’t help but let your imagination stretch out to what the rest of the world might entail – particularly so with the open-ended nature of the final story. A shout-out to “What Was Left,” previously published as a stand-alone comic, for literally bringing tears to my eyes with such a dreamy, romantic concept turned to tragedy, then acceptance, then hope. Each romance is strongly defined, each character is someone you can root for, each character dynamic is compelling and unique.

It’s hard to write too much about short stories, especially ones where half the experience is visual. But if you like graphic novels (or even if you don’t, really, give this a shot!) and you want to read more stories about queer women that are also about love and loss and mystery and community and dozens of other things, you couldn’t go wrong with this book.

Rating: *****

Danika reviews Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Stage Dreams by Melanie GillmanI love Melanie Gillman’s art. The use pencil crayons, and the detail is incredible. I always spend half the time reading their books just admiring landscapes. In Stage Dreams, Grace is in a stage coach, on the run. The coach is being driven through an area that’s being haunted by the Ghost Hawk, a supernatural giant hawk that swoops down on carriages and robs them! When Grace’s coach is targeted, she discovers that the Ghost Hawk is, in fact, Flor: a Latina woman who robs coaches, with her (regular-sized) pet hawk–not the story stagecoach drivers like to tell about the experience!

When the stagecoach fails to produce any worthwhile goods, Flor takes Grace instead, in the hopes of getting some ransom money from her family. Her plan falls apart when she finds out that Grace is trans and is running away from her family. Instead, the two end up hatching a plan together to pull of another heist–one that could set them both up for life.

This is a short, snappy story: I got to the end and felt like I must have skipped something, it was over so fast. Once I considered the book as a whole, though, I had to admit that it told a complete story. I just wasn’t willing for it to be over yet! My favourite part was a surprise at the end: Gillman includes endnotes that explain the historical context of many of things on the page, including their research about trans historical figures at the time. It added a lot of depth.

Although I would have liked for this to be a little longer, I really enjoyed the art, characters, and historical context. Westerns are not usually my genre, but I was sucked into this story. Definitely pick it up for a quick, engaging read with a diversity characters not often seen in this setting.

Susan reviews On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

On a Sunbeam by Tillie WaldenTillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam is a beautiful f/f science fantasy graphic novel that started life as a webcomic. The first half is split between Our Protagonist, Mia’s, present, where she’s part of a crew that restores old buildings IN SPACE, and her time at boarding school where she has a fledgling romance building with the sweet-but-unusual Grace. The second half shifts up a gear into Perilous Adventure as the crew of the Sunbeam go looking for closure.

I’ve mentioned how much I like Tillie Walden’s art before, and On a Sunbeam keeps up the tradition. I love her use of colour and space, and the way her art carries so much of the world building and storytelling. Everyone lives on tiny chunks of land in space and spaceships are fish, it’s never explained, and I am quite happy to roll with that because it looks really cool! (Please recommend me more stories where space is treated like the sea, I’m always here for them.) There is a real sense of history and age to the buildings that Mia and the Sunbeam’s crew work on, and different architecture across the galaxy. Plus, Tillie Walden’s use of limited palettes across the entire story means that it’s always clear what time you’re in and which characters you should be expecting.

I was so fond of all of the characters – they all felt realistically complicated and had tangled relationships with each other, and I love them? And they all have their own things going on, or their own secrets in their pasts, and I like that! Especially the non-binary non-verbal badass, who is an actual force of nature. (As fair warning: for the most part, everyone’s really respectful of Elliot’s pronouns and not speaking, but there is one minor character who doesn’t even try, despite how upfront Jules is about making sure people know. She does get dressed down for it, and only has maybe three scenes total, but it is a factor.)

Spoilers in the next paragraph!

There’s something so realistic in the way that Mia talks about her life after Grace – it went on as normal, and the way she talks about that is refreshing and warming. Yes, there is life after whatever dramatic events happen to you, and sometimes they are ridiculously normal and boring! And the way the story opens up in the second half is like a magic trick; the Staircase comes across as a weird space full of culture and dangers that are completely alien to everyone. A lot of it went unexplained, but I thought that worked with the style of the story itself. We get bits and pieces from Mia’s memories of Grace, and from Elliot. It’s very character focused, even in the section that’s most full of action and drama, which means that we get the pieces of information most relevant to the characters, rather than getting all of it in chunks. And the ending is so hopeful, to me. I appreciated that Mia and Grace don’t fall straight into each other’s arms; they’ve grown into different people, and now they’ve got an opportunity to work out who the other one is!

End spoilers!

And because I’m me, I would like to take a second to wail about the families in On a Sunbeam! There are families of origin, families of choice, families who love each other and drive each other up the wall and will do whatever it takes for their family! It’s delightful and sweet, even with all of the drama and peril.

Basically, I adored On A Sunbeam in all its weird space-fish glory, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

[Caution warning: bullying, misgendering]

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.