Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022

Wow, wow, wow, I’ve had a lot going on recently, last quarter I was fretting about not having enough reading to make a post, now I have… almost too much. That is because I’ve picked up a number of epistolary substack stories being done like Dracula Daily and I took an online course on Tolkien and the Ancient World! So, for this quarter I’m going to be breaking things up a little differently as well as sticking this under a read more.

A pile of books and papers. The bottom later is the D&D books "Ghosts of Saltmarsh" and "Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft," only the titles can be seen. The middle layer is, from left to right, "A Rainbow Thread," "Jews in Old China" and "Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation" volume 2. The top layer, from left to right is "Tolkien: On Fairy-stories," Deborah Sabo's article on archaeology and history in Tolkien, and "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Continue reading “Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022”

Star Wars: The High Republic, There is no Fear by Cavan Scott and Ario Anindito

A comic panel, we see Keeve Trennis' hand extended to a young boy. She says, "Thanks. Can you hold this?" The boy replies, "You mean it?" Keeve answers, "Sure, I do. Can't keep it floating up there all day, can I?" The Snapchat caption reads, "Fuck yes. Getting to hold a lightsaber is a baller (and effective) way to console an upset child. It would 100% work on me."
I’m just saying, this is everything I would have wanted as a child.

I have found the Star Wars extended universe a fascinating place since childhood. I read every Star Wars book our library had and then I created my own Stars Wars encyclopedia out of the information contained within — the result of having access to a computer, but limited connection to the internet. The official Star Wars universe has changed a lot since then, and the new tie-in books don’t really interest me, so I thought, why not check out the comics. I picked up “There is no Fear” at my local comic shop primarily because it was volume one of a trade paperback. It promised good art and the beginning of a story and that was all I needed.

“There is no Fear” takes place during the High Republic, before any Skywalker nonsense, and follows Keeve Trennis as she becomes a new Jedi. It’s a good place to go if you are like me and wanting to avoid any of the canon-fuckery caused by the sequel trilogy. “There is no Fear” does a really good job of introducing you to new characters and helping you fall in love with them, which is a credit to both good writing and compelling art. I was deeply invested in Ceret and Terec from the moment of their introduction.

A comic panel. Two identical humanoids stand facing each other, they are bald and their skin is stark white, and both of them are fairly beat up. The one on the left, Terec, is holding out a deactivated lightsaber and the one on the right, Ceret, is reaching for it. Terec says, "Here" as he holds out the lightsaber. Ceret replies, "Terec... the things we have seen. that the drengir did to us." Terec answers, "That is in the past, Ceret. Now we are whole once more--" The Snapchat caption reads, "I am so glad my boys are okay" followed by the crying emoji.

The only place I really felt like I was missing something was in references to a “great disaster,” and just generally how the Jedi had reached the point of launching a space station outpost in the Outer Rim. I feel like there are probably storylines that precede “There is no Fear” that I’m going to have to seek out to get those answers. That’s more-or-less how comics work though, you pick a starting point and then, in reading, you find where you want to go next to learn more, and this story is a super interesting one that brings a lot of new and exciting things to the greater Star Wars universe. It’s definitely going to be one I pick up as it continues weekly (it also doesn’t help that volume one ends on a cliffhanger that I must find out the resolution to).

The story feels, to me, very much like a classic EU Jedi story, where the emphasis is that, above all, the Jedi help, though that is something that provides resolution and conflict alike as characters struggle with being, maybe not human, but people with complex emotions. All of the characters, even the side characters, are incredibly well presented both in terms of writing and art. I greatly enjoyed the expressiveness given to the alien faces. I won’t spoil too much about the new antagonists introduced by this story, but I will say that they are a particular flavor of eldritch abomination that I greatly enjoy. It’s a similar kind of horror as found in “Bountiful Garden,” so if that interested you, this may too, though as this is Star Wars, it’s going to have more action alongside the creeping eldritch horror.

As always, I highly recommend going to your local comic shop to buy comics, and the book’s retail page even has a comic store locator option right there.

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Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

“Solomon Gursky” is an unexpectedly weird book, but one I would highly recommend to anyone with a taste for unique Franklin expedition fiction. As a novel, “Solomon Gursky” is part Franklin mystery, part Jewish family drama, and part critique of capitalist dynasty families. A lot of effort has been put into portraying the expedition accurately — Richler cites “Frozen in Time” by Owen Beattie as a primary influence — and a good number of the deviations (of which are many) don’t feel accidental, they feel intentional as part of building this alternate history where two Jewish conmen manage to finagle positions on the Franklin expedition.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky Was Here" reading, "There was another problem. Neither Ephraim Gursky nor Izzy Garber was listed in the muster books of the Erebus of the Terror (available at Admiralty Records, Public Records Office). The Snapchat caption reads, "Fucking fantastic." End ID.

The book is framed by a man named Moses Berger and his efforts to write a biography of the deceased Solomon Gursky, it’s something of an obsession, actually. This framing allows for the mysteries and secrets hidden by the Gursky family to unravel over the course of the book as we bounce between the points of view of various Gursky family members (there’s a helpful family tree in the front of the book); Moses himself; epistolary elements such as diaries and telegrams; and a variety of other important players. The same stories get told in different ways depending on who is doing the telling, which is very fun, and it’s done in such away that it never feels repetitive. Every time I got a detail that clarified a previous mystery or teased an answer I was vibrating with excitement. If you enjoy piecing together mysteries as you read you will find “Solomon Gursky” very satisfying.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'You shouldn't have lied at the trial' 'We owed Solomon everything.' 'You did it to save your own skin.' 'Why bring that up now, after all these years?' 'Find Bert Smith. Make it up to him. Promise me that.' 'I promise.'" The Snapchat caption reads, "There are so many moving pieces to this Solomon mystery and they're laid out so masterfully. I am yelling!!!" End ID.

While the Gursky family is Jewish and Judaism is important to the story, on the surface several characters could be read as anti-semitic stereotypes. For example, Ephraim Gursky is a notorious conman, and brothers Bernard, Solomon and Morrie establish themselves as capitalist alcohol barons who get their start selling bootleg alcohol during prohibition. Few of the characters in this book can be considered “good,” but from a Jewish author it becomes “these are complicated, difficult and sometimes awful people who are Jewish” rather than offensive stereotypes. A gentile author could not pull this book off, at all.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "Sammy 'Red' Levine, out of Toledo, was stricktly Orthodox: he was never without a yarmulke and didn't murder on the Sabbath." The Snapchat caption reads, "Because Shabbat is clearly the only time murder is unacceptable." End ID.

Anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia come up throughout the book, from various characters and in a range of opinions. However, not every instance of prejudice can be explained as only coming from the characters. Two of the biggest issues I had were the portrayal of the Inuit, which runs stereotypical more often than not, and the existence of Lieutenant Norton — replacing one of the Erebus lieutenants — a minor character who is portrayed as a crossdresser, which was almost interesting when it was first teased, with a penchant for violence. Some of his actions could have been chalked up to lead poisoning etc. but it didn’t really land in my opinion.

The one thing I will say about Richler creating Franklin expedition OCs is that it doesn’t drag the names of real historical people through the mud, which is more than can be said of “The Terror” author Dan Simmons. Frankly, I saw a surprising amount of similarities between certain aspects of “Solomon Gursky” and “The Terror,” which made me wonder if Dimmons hadn’t read “Solomon Gursky” at some point. Unfortunately, any influence, if it is there at all, is limited to the all of the worst bits with none of the redeeming qualities of Richler’s writing.

I went into “Solomon Gursky” utterly blind, I knew “Jew on the Franklin expedition” as a premise and that was it, and it certainly is that, but it’s so much more too. Everything matters. “Solomon Gursky” is a big book with lots of characters and plots that are masterfully woven together. There are surprises around every corner, including the borderline magical realism presence of ravens as motif and harbinger, and a group of Jewish Inuit.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'Does it haunt your dreams?' the interviewer asked. 'Molly?' 'Cannibalism.' 'Well, I'lll tell ya, it kind of puts you off your prime rib. Like, you know, it's so good and sweet. Hardly any gristle.'" The Snapchat caption is three Rolling on the Floor Laughing emojis. End ID.
And of course it wouldn’t be a book about the Franklin expedition without cannibalism.

Some final warnings: Sex scenes, which are occasionally detailed in a way that make you wonder if the author didn’t have a fetish; plenty of nudity, both male and female; and some mentions of rape and suicide, but nothing explicit.

As I stated before, “Solomon Gursky” reaches some very weird depths, and is not without its share of problems, but I enjoyed it immensely and now I need everyone else to go read it so that I have someone to talk to about this frankly beautiful piece of insanity. The book seems to be out of print, but can be found from most used booksellers.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'Can you arrange for me to go through the Solomon Gursky file or not?' 'Yeah sure.' But the file had been stolen. The large manila envelope in the library was empty. And when Moses dragged out the old newspapers that dealt with the trials, he discovered that somebody had cut out the relevant stories with a razor blade. He was hooked." The Snapchat caption reads, "Hot damn, i'd be hooked too." End ID.

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School for Extraterrestrial Girls: Girl on Fire by Jeremy Whitley and Jamie Noguchi

[Image ID: A panel of Tara, a 15 year old Black girl, adjusting a bracelet on her wrist. The text boxes of internal monologue read: "I eve have this bracelet. I'm not really sure how it works, but my parents say it's vital to my health to keep it on. So, I do. It's important to do as you're told." The Snapchat caption reads "That's not sus at all." End ID]

To start with a quick summary: Tara Smith was raised with her identity as a an alien hidden from her, a tall task considering she is a species of lizard that catches on fire. A morning of missed “allergy” meds and a cracked “health” bracelet leads to her powers emerging and The Government getting involved. All is not lost, however, as aliens are normal apparently, they just stay hidden from the every day human for reasons. Tara can just go to a school, where she will learn how to control her powers, simple right? Wrong. This is high school, nothing is simple or easy about high school.

There are some overarching Big Plot things going on, but they happen mostly in the background of the story, though that’s not to say they aren’t important or don’t impact it. This is primarily a story about acceptance, finding friends, and learning to love yourself, and also everyone is an alien. It’s pretty great. It takes a step beyond your traditional high school story, grappling with difficult topics and loss in various forms and allowing the characters to be messy. It is absolutely a funny and heartfelt story, but mistakes are make and their repercussions born out. This messiness feels important in an age where I’ve been seeing increasingly black-and-white takes about media.

Image ID: A comic panel of Agent Stone, an older butch woman in a suit, leading Tara, who is now green skinned and lizard like in appearance, through a hallway. Agent Stone's first speech bubble reads: "And as silly as this part is, our treaties with other worlds mandate that in a closed environment like this, we're not allowed to have co-ed housing, so..." Tara interrupts with: "Wait, alien races also freak out about the gender binary?" To which Stone replies, "Binary? There's one very conservative race out there with seven different genders. But that is a headache for another time. Now, let me introduce you to--" The Snapchat caption reads: "I'm wheezing. This is so fantastic. I was not expecting anything like this to be touched on at all." End ID.}

Furthermore, there is something very queer about loving the monstrous and learning to love yourself when your perception of yourself is monstrous. As a queer person I found it very appealing as a coming of age story because of how the story dealt with perceptions of monstrosity and the self as monstrous. I don’t know if the intention was there to use aliens as a queer allegory, but the story as a whole certainly doesn’t shy away from queerness.

For example, our lead agent, Agent Stone, is very classically butch, and we also learn from Agent Stone that the reason the schools are split into boys and girls schools isn’t because of some gender binary hang up on the part of aliens, it’s because of the treaties they have with various governments, on Earth and elsewhere, which makes so much sense it’s hilarious. To cap it all off, one girl who Tara makes friends with, soap opera obsessed Kat, is very much rooting for Tara to fall in love with another friend Misako.

Image ID: Tara, Kat and Summer are standing in a hallway, all wearing simple grey and white school uniforms. Kat, an orange cat-like alien is saying: "Next weel on interstellar BFFs. Will Tara finally be reunited with her one true love?" Tara interjects with: "I told you, Kat. We're just friends." Kat replies, "This is my fan fiction, you stay out of it!" Summer, a dark skinned girl with long pink hair and an undercut, is laughing next to them with a speech bubble that says "Ha ha ha ha." The Snapchat caption reads, "There's nothing wrong with a bit of friend fiction XD." End ID.

“Girl on Fire” manages to do so many things in such a limited amount of space and it does all of those things well. I am eagerly awaiting volume two, which is slated to come out in October 2023.

Right now, you can order volume one here and pre-order volume two here.

If you enjoy what I do and would like to see more, please consider buying me a Kofi or supporting me on Patreon

Spring 2022 Behind-the-Scenes Reading

[Image ID: A pile of books spread out on a desk. On the bottom, from left to right, there is the trade paperback of "The Trial of Magneto" and a single issue "Xena: Warrior Princess" comic. On top, from left to right, there is "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett, "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out and Empire in the New Work in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom–and Revenge" by Edward Kritzler" and "Dracula" by Bram Stoker. End ID]

For March to May, I began making a concerted effort to chip away at the pile of books that have been sitting on my dresser for far too many months, two of those books can be seen in the above image and with any luck there will be four more gracing next quarters list.

Finished:

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett- An excellent read. I already loved the movie and the Sam Spade radio drama, so it was sort of a guarantee that I was going to love the book too. Some older books you have to take with a very large grain of salt, but this, though it was clearly dated, really didn’t have too much to complain about. Even Joel Cairo’s homosexuality wasn’t as offensively written as I thought it might be. Was it stereotypical? Yes. Is Cairo a criminal? Also yes. But Hammett also gave Cairo a boyfriend who wasn’t the same sort of gay stereotype, you don’t even really know he’s gay until he’s revealed as Cairo’s boyfriend at the end, which was surprising and also kinda cool, in my opinion. 

I knew Cairo’s textual queerness had been cut from the film, but I was surprised at how much I unironically enjoyed how he was portrayed in the book. I would have loved him even if I wasn’t already a simp for Peter Lorre. It almost makes up for Hammett’s insistence on describing women as “erect.”

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean by Edward Kritzler – This is an interesting look at the history of Sephardic Jews in the “New World” as they fled the Spanish Inquisition and how they used piracy to move against against the Spanish and secure their freedom from persecution in the New World. Ranging in period from 1492 to 1675, the book is incredibly thorough both in providing the stories of the Jews (who were openly practicing) and conversos (who were not) in Portugal, Spain, Holland, Brazil and Jamaica as well as providing the surrounding context, which was incredibly helpful for me who is decidedly not familiar with this period of history. 

There is also the tantalizing mystery of Columbus’ Jamaican gold mine and some documents unearthed that hint at its possible existence. That said, the author does a decent job of separating speculation and conjecture from what we can prove as fact, reminding us that tracking the history of conversos can be difficult as they were often intentionally trying to obscure their ancestry. The one thing I will say is that Kritzler does tend to conflate privateering and piracy, but it is a fascinating read regardless.

Xena: Warrior Princes, issue #0 – I picked this up on a whim at my local comic shop because it was the only Xena comic there and it was an issue 0, which I assumed would either be a one-shot or the start of a story. I was half-right. There is a one shot story in this issue: “The Temple of the Dragon God,” written by Aaron Lopresti, which is a short, fun Xena story featuring zombies and a soul stealing dragon. The second half of the issue, however, was part three of the story “Theft of the Young Lovelies,” written by Robert Trebor. I do not know what a “part three” is doing in an issue 0, but it’s not a particularly good story anyway (uncomfortably heterosexual with racistly drawn villains). 

“The Temple of the Dragon God” is by far the better story, and any heterosexuality is forced and unwanted as it should be, though Xena is unfortunately not exempt from 90s comic artists deciding to draw women tits and ass first with limited regard to anatomy and physics. I will say that it is somewhat mitigated by the fact that they are very clearly drawing Lucy Lawless and therefore can’t get away with Rob Liefeld-level art crimes. 

The Trial of Magneto written by Leah Williams – First off, I refuse to acknowledge the “Wanda and Pietro aren’t mutants” retcon. There’s no reason Wanda’s abilities with magic can’t be influenced or part of her mutation. Barring that, this was actually a really great self-contained story and it gave Wanda the catharsis and healing that she has desperately needed for a very long time, although, ironically, the five issues the story covers revolve around her death. While it does play off other storylines, you don’t necessarily need to have read them in full, though certainly being aware of them and/or knowing the gist of them is helpful.

I also really love that we got to see Hope, another telepath, being highly critical of Xavier’s messing around in other people’s heads, comparing his manipulation of Magneto’s mind while he is unconscious to torture. I love a good in-universe calling out of Charles Xavier. 

In Progress:

Sealed with Honey by the Magpie Artists’ Ensemble – Continues to be a delight. We got our first extra, non-letter bits, including pressed flowers and a “sketch” by our Parisian artist Gabriel, which was done as a print by the incomparable Marlowe Lune, who is providing all the artwork for the story. 

Dracula by Bram Stoker – I have read “Dracula” many times. It’s one of my favorite books, but I, like so many, have signed up for Dracula Daily, which emails you the novel chronologically based on the novel’s epistolary structure. It started on May 3rd and has been sending out a chapter/section every day there is journal entry or letter in the book. The novel isn’t written wholly chronologically, so this is a fun new way of experiencing the novel if you’ve read it before and also an easily digestible way to experience the novel for the first time. 

You can still sign up as it will be running until November, and all the previous entries are archived on the Dracula Daily website for easy catch up!

Different Loving edited by Gloria G. Brame, William D. Brame and Jon Jacobs We’re back on the kink research train. I feel like this book is probably going to stay down here for a while as I read it alongside other books, since it’s rather chunky and also, based on past experience, I find that reading books that are predominantly interview compilations can be a slog to read cover to cover with no breaks.

I’m a couple chapters in now and I really appreciate that they have paired the interviews with additional context and discussion. Chapter two in particular was right up my alley with a discussion of early sexology and how that has influenced modern views on sex and what is deemed “perverse.”

No progress has been made with The Wild Beyond the Witchlight due to our game being on hold, but I hope that will change soon.

Queer Art & Artists? Yes, Please!

Happy Pride Month!

For Pride month, I decided I wanted to branch out and do something about queer art instead of queer books, prompted by my love of the cover art for “Uncommon Charm.” Below is a small list of some of my favorite queer artists whose work I have followed for a good while.

Artist #1: St. Marlowe Lune

Marlowe is the artist behind the cover art for this months book, “Uncommon Charm!” I have followed their work for many years and am simply in love with their style, which is frequently history and folklore inspired. They also provided the art for the fantastic epistolary story project, “Sealed with Honey,” which is set in the 19th century. Their own projects include “Lo Conteureuse,” a collection of queer and trans fairy tale stories; “Anise & the Devil,” a graphic novel inspired by the fairy tale “Vasilissa the Fair”; and the Merry Blackbird Postcard Society, where you can get original art postcards sent to you on a quarterly or monthly basis. I am a quarterly backer for MBPS and I really cannot emphasize enough how much fun it is, each shipment, in addition to the postcard, you get access to digital behind the scenes things and a curated playlist that fits that month’s theme. Very fun, highly recommend.

Artist #2: Fliff Gahris

Fliff is an Ohio-based illustrator and jewelry-maker who made a name for themself pre-pandemic on the convention circuit under the name Studio Fliff. They have recently rebranded their store under the name Eight Tides and have returned to in person selling at local markets as well as rebooting their online store. In addition to prints, they specialize in sticker and vinyl decal designs, laser-cut wood pins, resin earrings, wire wrapped rings, embroidered patches and more. Their newest products include a mushroom person keychain and a set of pride potion bottle stickers. I am personally, very deeply in love with every single food themed item they have (the Summer and Pink Magic sticker packs have some really good ones).

Their online store selection is currently a touch limited due to the recent reboot following its move from Etsy, but it is ever growing and Fliff is presently open for commissions as well, if you want to head over to their website and check out their gallery.

Artist #3: Greer Stothers

Perhaps best known in internet spheres for their cats, Pangur and Grim, and their fantastic enamel pins, of which I own just… so many, Greer is an accomplished illustrator who specializes in risograph illustration and has done work for museums, books, magazines and a variety of other projects, such as a limited edition risograph print and set of enamel pins for The Magnus Archives podcast. They are also currently working on a flower breeding game called Normal Orchid Game. You can find prints, pins and other merch at their shop. Some of my favorite items include the fantastical fetus pins and the responsible pest pins. The current available pin preorders are memento mori pins featuring extinct flowers and animals and animal pins based on various poems, including Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, a personal favorite of mine.

Artist #4: Erik/Abprallen

Abprallen is probably my favorite place to go for queer pins, both badges and enamel pins alike. After I got my first set of pins, I kind of forgot about the store for a bit, until I saw a Tumblr post about the kickstarter for the first set of pastel goth pride pins in 2020. I immediately backed and have been an avid follower ever since, jumping on the kickstarter for the second set of pastel goth pride pins the same day it went live. The trans pride pins from both sets are some of, if not the best trans pride pins I’ve ever seen. There’s a particular sort of vicious euphoria in them that really speaks to me and how I experience my own gender. My favorite pins are Sorry You’re Cis, Get Well Soon, Trans Healthcare, Now! and Heteronormativity is a Plague. If pins aren’t your jam, the designs are now available as stickers and shirts too.

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Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien & Kat Weaver

Image ID: The cover of the novella Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver. It shows A young man and a young woman framed by an large house with  figures in several rooms. The art is in a very classically 1920s style. The snapchat caption reads, "Fucking look at that cover art." End ID

I knew I had to read “Uncommon Charm” the moment I saw it. For one, it’s a set in the 1920s, a fantastic era; two, there is a Jewish character; three, it was a gothic comedy that promised ghosts; and four, the cover art is by one of my all time favorite artists. I didn’t initially expect the magic to be, like, real magic, I’d assumed that “magician” meant stage magician, but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Image ID: A snap of the text reading "'What did you see?' 'A woman,' Simon said, startled into answering. 'Not your mother, but tall and blonde. A bit, er, bony. And bleeding.' 'Oh, well. I should have expected you'd be a medium. Come along!' I bounded up the stairs. 'The ghosts will wait.'" The snapchat caption reads: So it IS real magic. End ID.

I absolutely adore the way the book treats magic. It’s delightfully mundane, which is admittedly, a weird thing to say, but it feels accurate. The drama isn’t necessarily magical in nature; magic is baked into the world, it’s part of the norm and treated as such, which I love as world building. The drama primarily comes from interpersonal relationships, both past and present, and is only enhanced, not driven, by magic. Our narrator, young socialite Julia, is grappling not only with her relationship with her mother, but with her relationships with the Koldunov family, and newcomer to the household, Simon. Simon is himself grappling with feeling out of place as the illegitimate son of the Koldunov patriarch in addition to his newfound magical ability. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'Have you consulted a rabbi about your magic?' 'A few,' Simon said. 'Their opinions differed.'" The snapchat captain reads: "Of course." End ID.

At 16 Julia’s curiosity and enthusiasm really is what drives the plot, as she is our main narrator. I love, so very much, the particular flavor of unreliable narrator that Julia is, in that she’s not so much completely unreliable, but rather, she is running through the world as a headstrong teenager who wants to believe that she’s on the right foot with everything. It’s a very classically teenager style of moving through the world, trying to find the answer to a mystery that isn’t quite the dramatic mystery that you thought. Her point of view is also perfect to keep the right balance between gothic and comic.

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'I thought you wanted me otherwise occupied whilst you and Simon vexed divine powers we frail mortals wot not of. I didn't realize this was a—a conspiracy to teach me the importance of hard work and practice.' She offered me a cryptic smile. 'And no magic was necessary.' 'Muv!'" The snapchat caption reads, "That's parents for you" followed by the joy emoji. End ID

Something else I adored was the reorienting of the world that happens, both literally and metaphorically. On one side, we have the physical effects of Simon’s magic where he unintentional alters the world around him and Julia coming to terms with some heavy truths about the world and the people around her. On the other side, there is the wonderful development of Simon’s perspective on magical philosophy and how it blends with his Jewish beliefs. I will admit to feeling a touch nervous that his Jewishness would get lost behind Julia’s narration, but it very much didn’t, and I loved that by the end, Simon has invited both Julia and her mother to join him for Passover. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "'I've made a decision,' he said. 'I am looking forward to having you at our seder.' 'As you should, but Muv will ask all sorts of questions,' I warned. 'She's wise, you're wicked, the other two I don't know—it's a joke, Jules, I'll explain it tomorrow.'" The snapchat captain reads, "Yes yes yes yes," with the first "Yes" very drawn out. End ID.

Last, but not least, “Uncommon Charm” is decidedly and unashamedly queer. Julia explicitly notes herself to be queer and it is strongly implied for Simon as well as for a handful of other characters. The queerness is exists with a confidence in the way the characters interact with the world in relationships of all sorts, though the focus is on the friendly and familial more than the romantic. 

Image ID: An image of the text, which reads, "Our homosexual proclivities were one thing Jos and I had in common, at any rate, though he knew I wasn't necessarily opposed to boys." The snapchat caption reads, "Nice nice nice." End ID.

If a 1920s gothic comedy deeply influenced by Jewish and queer experience seems up your alley, then “Uncommon Charm” is the book for you. 

If you enjoy what I do and would like to see more, please consider buying me a Kofi or supporting me on Patreon

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

[Image ID: The cover of Janelle Monáe's "The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer" Janelle Monáe is front and center as Jane dressed as a Torch as she is in "Dirty Computer - An Emotion Picture." The Snapchat caption reads: "Fully forgot I preordered this XD" End ID]

“The Memory Librarian” is a fantastic dive back into the world of Janelle Monáe’s 2018 concept album “Dirty Computer.” In addition to giving us more of Jane, Zen and Ché, we get to see what the rest of the world is like, from impoverished children to the people at the very top who monitor society. If it’s been a while since you last watched “Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture,” I highly recommend doing so before jumping in to read to refresh yourself on the world. Now let’s look at the stories:

The Memory Librarian feat. Alaya Dawn Johnson: This story introduces us to Seshet, the director librarian of Little Delta, who wanted to better the world through her work within the system of New Dawn, but not in the typical sense that New Dawn wants to better the world. A Black woman, with a number of opinions and feature that could  see her labeled a dirty computer, she keeps her eyes away from areas known to be congregating spaces for dirty computers as she monitors the memories of people in the city and this story sees her juggling her personal desires with the careful line she has to tread with her superiors. 

[Image ID: A snap of the text. The highlighted segment reads "Well, don't they fucking know? Is it possible that they haven't even realized? What has she done, wise Seshet, compassionate Seshet, even while precarious in power? She has not looked." The Snapchat captions reads: "The rebellion of not watching in a surveillance state" End ID]

This story introduces us to the system of New Dawn that is in place and digs into an idea introduced in “Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture” of things that get caught up in memory collectors that aren’t memories, like dreams. 

Nevermind feat. Danny Lore: Here we meet Jane and Zen again and learn what they (and Ché) have been up to. Jane and Zen are living at the Pynk Hotel (as seen in “Pynk”) while also helping to rescue others from New Dawn. Jane shares the protagonist with a nonbinary individual named Neer, and we see, through the events of the story and an attack on the hotel, the importance of fighting for radical acceptance as well as showcasing, incredibly cleverly, how willing exclusionists are to get chummy with the oppressor, but also how important it is to show compassion to people who maybe are only reacting out of ignorance or lack of options. 

On that note, this story introduces us to blushounds, genetically augmented humans who can smell emotions. Used by New Dawn to track dissidents, they are themselves victims of New Dawn as we learned from one of them, Bat, who goes on to stay and heal at the Pynk Hotel. 

Save Changes feat. Yohanca Delgado: This story follows the daughters of Diana Morel, a woman who had rebelled and been caught alongside Jane, but had been caught and unable to escape the same way. Now she’s not fully there, canning Twinkies in Windex, and under the care of her daughters, because, apparently, something went wrong in her cleaning. Her daughters also have to deal with the stigma of being related to a noted rebel. 

[Image ID: A snap of the text. The highlighted portion reads: "...the promise of a fresh start at school had shriveled up on Amber's first day at City College, when one by one, each of her professors made her sit in the front row of each class and read a statement from New Dawn, informing her classmates who she was and warning them that any decision to fraternize with her was one they made at their own risk." The snapchat caption is a row of four grimace emojis. End ID]

This story also asks us, what if you had a single opportunity to change the past? While this is a sci-fi world overall, there are specific moments of magic throughout. It’s not explained it just is. In this story, it’s a stone that purports to be able to turn back time passed down to Amber by their father before he died. 

Timebox feat. Eve L. Ewing and Timbox Altar(ed) feat. Sheree Renée Thomas: I’ve put these two together, even though they aren’t next to each other in the book (they frame “Save Changes”) because they are similar in several ways, while they are opposites in others. 

 In “Timebox” a young couple getting their first apartment together find that time stops when they are in their pantry and a disagreement erupts about how to use it, which also brings to the surfaces differing opinions on activism and community aid based on the class differences they experienced growing up.  Between the disagreements and their own uses of the box, they fall apart and the story ends painfully unresolved with more questions than there are answers. I was genuinely startled when I hit the end and realized there wasn’t any more. 

“Timebox Altar(ed)” on the other hand, revolved around a group of children, living in an incredibly impoverished area, outside of a larger New Dawn-monitored city, mostly forgotten unless someone is flagged to be taken away for cleaning. Stumbling into an abandoned railroad crossing full of junk, they build an ark and, after a kind stranger instructs them on working with intention it turns out that when an individual sits inside the ark, they are transported somewhere that gives them a glimpse of a beautiful, hopeful future and “The Power of Yet.” As the last story in the collection, the message of a healed future ushered in by the youngest generations was a powerful note to end on. 

This is so much longer than I usually go, but I really wanted to talk a bit about each story, because they all have so much to offer, and are incredible as a whole. If you enjoy sci-fi, Afrofuturism and/or urban fantasy, this is definitely a book for you.

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Bountiful Garden by Ivy Noelle Weir with art by Kelly Williams

[Image ID: The five issues of Bountiful Garden splayed out on a bed. The first issue is on top and the only one fully visible and is notable for being a Free Comic Book Day copy. The Snapchat captions reads "Spooky space time." End ID]

“Bountiful Garden” is a horror story about space and terraforming other planets, but not quite in a way you might expect. 

Our cast is a crew of children, most of whom appear to be teenagers at maximum. Jane appears to be the youngest, probably no more than preteen in age. They are woken from cryostasis 10 years early because something has gone wrong with the ship. 

Their mission is make a new planet habitable, they have two engineers, a botanist, an architect, a biologist and a military personnel member. Their ship has been stopped above a planet with no notable human inhabitants but traces of an old civilization, and lots and lots of plants. 

From issue one of the five issues mini-series, you get the impression that something wasn’t quite right with the mission from the outset. They aren’t the first terraforming mission that’s been sent out, and none of the others have ever been heard from again. “The signal’s too weak,” according to the government. Our military boy has complete faith, which makes a lot of sense, but the others aren’t so sure. It’s one of several things that sparks conflict between our crew.

Throughout the story we are teased about the planet, the strange plants growing on it, and the remnants of a religion, as well as about the backstory of the program on Earth that led to these six children being on this expedition. Something I really love was how seamless the backstory about the government program that was woven into the story through the characters. We learn so much about it through short moments of the characters ruminating and discussing why they’re even there. There’s a big pay out involved, but it goes to their parents instead of them, because they aren’t on Earth to collect it. For one person, this will help their parents escape poverty, for another, it inspires bitterness that their parents will be reaping the benefits of their work on an expedition that they were well aware had a high chance of them dying. 

The planet’s backstory is given in a different, but no less skillfully done, way, by the characters picking up clues within the text, glyphs found at ruins, strange dreams, and by clues presented directly to the readers that the characters don’t see. The most notable of these is an extra-textual fragment titled “Recording Found at Site 11A,” which appears at the end of issue four and tells the story of how the strange plants came and essentially terraformed the planet. 

The art really helps the haunting feelings come through too, the characters are so expressive and distinct, and the inkwash style allows it to be dark, yet vibrant at the same time.

Another thing of note that I enjoyed was how diverse the cast was. There was an even split of female and male characters as well as a diverse array of characters of different ethnicities, a breakdown that allowed for deaths without falling into racist and sexist tropes surrounding character death.

All in all, if you like horror, sci-fi and stories of how interpersonal relationships can fracture when people are isolated and trapped, “Bountiful Garden” is the mini series to check out. It’s newly available in trade paperback as of April 6th!  

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Winter 2021/2022 Behind the Scenes Reading

Hello, hello! I have returned with another recommended reading list, this time covering what I read behind the scenes from December 2021 through February 2022. 

Finished: 

SM 101: A Realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman – In progress last time, now finished! This is a really, really excellent introduction to the basics of BDSM. It goes into thorough detail without being overwhelmingly technical and discusses a wide range of practices while also acknowledging that it is only the tip of the iceberg. If this book interests you, there is plenty more reading out there. The back of the book has several lists of organizations, books and other publications where a person could get more information. 

That said, this second, revised edition was published in 1998, so contact information has likely changed in the 20+ years since. My general recommendation is, if something in the resources looks interesting, google it, because chances are it may still exist in some form, even the old urls. Other areas of the book impacted are the chapter on meeting people, discussions of internet resources, and HIV/AIDS safety. This revised edition came out right at the advent of online dating and chat rooms, so they aren’t covered in depth, and long before the advent of PrEP and PEP pills for pre- and post-exposure to HIV. 

Eat Prey Love/“Bambi” is Even Bleaker Than You Thought by Kathryn Schulz – This article is a really interesting look at the original “Bambi” story before Disney butchered it, now rediscovered as it entered the public domain this year. It caught my attention because, as I was skimming the article, it mentioned that there was a reading of it that saw the book as an allegory for the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe prior to World War 2 and that was more than enough to get me to read the whole thing. It wasn’t quite enough to get me to pick up an English translation of the book, but it was a fascinating read nonetheless. 

Marauders, issues 26-27, by Gerry Duggan and Marauders: Annual by Steve Orlando – We reach the end of an era with a major team swap. Bobby and Christian are going off for a romantic vacation, Pyro’s got a book tour and a horrible mullet (I still can’t get over Pyro as a romance novelist), and there’s a corporate shake up at Hellfire Trading. That’s said, while I’m sad to see my faves leave the team, I am excited to see that the new team isn’t going to be any less gay, as we’ve got Daken and some dude named Somnus who I’m not familiar with, but is in love with Daken, so I will be continuing to subscribe to the series. 

Harley Quinn The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour issues 4-6 by Tee Franklin – There’s so many wlw y’all, just oodles. On top of Harley and Ivy, these three issues give us Livewire and Nightfall, who are admittedly broken up atm, but still were a thing; Vixen and her girlfriend Elle, who is disabled and has a prosthetic leg; and Peaches, the stripper with vitiligo who gives Harley a lap dance and would really like to give both Harley and Ivy a private show. Anyway, from the queerness to the general diversity of background and side characters, I’m utterly thrilled and sad to see the series end, as I will not be watching the animated series anytime soon. 

Tut-Tut/Why King Tut is Still Fascinating by Casey Cep – An interesting article about the history of King Tut and the field of Egyptology, why King Tut still captures the imagination of people around the world, and how to grapple with the colonialist origins of Egyptology and decolonizing the field today. I would love to read something, article or book, that goes more in depth, because the colonialism inherent in the discovery of Tut’s tomb always horrified me, even as I was interested in learning more about the history. What Carter did to Tut’s mummy always makes my stomach turn.

Close Encounters/A Holocaust Survivor’s Hardboiled Science Fiction by Caleb Crain – I was fascinated by the conceit of Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” when I saw it used as an au setting for a fanfiction and further fascinated when I started reading it properly. It was dark and haunting, which is how I like my science fiction, frankly, and discovering that Lem was a Holocaust survivor made an awful lot of sense in terms of the book’s themes and musing on humanity and this article digs even more into that. This is a really great biographical sketch of Lem and his works and if you have even a passing interest in Lem’s books I’d recommend it. 

In Progress: 

The Wilds Beyond the Witchlight – My players have made it through the first chapter! We have left the Witchlight Carnival and moved into the Feywild, specifically the first splinter realm within Prismeer, Hither. This chapter is more complicated than the first, but is also a bit more guided, which is good for me the DM, because it means that I can actually make proper session plans now. The first chapter was very much a free for all exploration time at a carnival, so there was minimal prep I could do, which drove me a bit bonkers.

Sealed with Honey by the Magpie Artists’ Ensemble – This should have been included with the last list too, but it completely slipped my mind, due, in part, to it’s nontraditional story telling method. “Sealed with Honey” is a completely epistolary queer romance set in the 19th century. Simon Ward and Gabriel Shaw, two young men, one in England and the other in France, strike up a correspondence after an introduction from Simon’s sister. The story is entirely told though letters that get mailed out on a twice monthly basis. The first letters went out late last year and it’s been a delight getting the letters in the mail and seeing new and tantalizing details revealed. 

There’s no way to pick up the story at the moment, but I believe there was talk about offering the story as a bundle once the initial run was completed. Information about the ongoing story can be found on the “Sealed with Honey” Kickstarter page.  

Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance & Submission edited by Gloria G. Brame, William D. Brame and Jon Jacobs – This book is an interview collection about, as the title implies, more BDSM stuff. It’s another older one, so, as with “SM 101,” certain aspects have changed. I’ve only just made it through the introduction though, and it does look promising, but I have had to put the book on hold while I do some other research reading for a short story I’m working on. 

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett – A classic detective novel that I have long wanted to read. I love the movie and I love the old Sam Spade radio drama. I wasn’t prepared to be punched in the face on page four by the line “Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow.” I was expecting some sexism because it’s typical of the genre and of 1929, but this really just sent me.