Letter from the Editor:
Greetings! How has August treated you? At the time I’m writing this, I’ve just begun my first semester studying a Master’s in Library and Information Science! All my courses are completely online, so I spent the morning reviewing the syllabi and noting the classes’s modules. Though it will be a fair workload, I’m excited to step back into the role of an active student and delve into the material. Make sure to check out my Slanted Spines YouTube page if you’d like to hear me discuss my thoughts regarding my first semester in grad school!
Because of my enrollment in this program, I felt like I was ravenously reading this August, attempting to plow through all the books I wanted to read before I became inundated in school work again. Not only have I read six books so far this month, but I also read from a wide variety of genres: graphic novel, memoir, horror, science fiction, and fantasy, and several of the books I read are authored by trans and non-binary folks.
In this tenth edition of Bookish Brains, I review Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen, She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, The Natural Mother of the Child by Krys Malcolm Belc, A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan, and A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers. Additionally, I share what I’m currently reading: Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi and Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. And lastly, I list a few books I’d like to read next month and some upcoming September book releases! It’s a jam-packed newsletter full of incredible books, so I hope you enjoy and find something you like!
Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi
I’ve wanted to read this book since I received it on its release earlier this summer, yet part of me also wanted to save it, to savor it. As an added consideration, because I own it, I’ve been letting it sit on my shelf for a bit as I’ve been spending time reading library books (and thus books with “deadlines”). However, because I was reading a lot of trans and non-binary literature this month, I found myself very much in the mood for more of the same, and finally picked up Emezi’s much-anticipated memoir.
Currently, I’m on page 42 and in no rush to finish it–not because I’m not gripped by Emezi’s writing and incredible perspective, but because I don’t want it to end. Comprised of letters to various individuals, this memoir has so far discussed Emezi’s surgeries, their personal struggles throughout publishing, and their writing process. I absolutely adore their bold and poetic voice, which only gains in command, a satisfying and inspiring transition to read.
I would like to finish it this month, but I may continue it into September. For those who are fans of Akwaeke Emezi’s writing and memoir, I highly recommend this already.
Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Though I haven’t read any other novels by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, I was very interested in this one and it’s been on my anticipated summer book release list for several months. Velvet Was the Night takes place in Mexico City during the 1970’s and follows two characters: Elvis, a young man in a gang, and Maite, a woman who gets swept up in her neighbor’s drama. These two, though strangers, share a love of music and an appreciation for vinyl despite the opinions of their comrades and families. And with the Hawks, the group of gangsters to which Elvis belongs, working to silence communists, Maite may accidentally find herself directly in their path to a particularly threatening art student.
This is a book for readers who love a plot and who love a mood. Written in classic noir style, Moreno-Garcia shapes the landscape of this era in a conversational, straightforward tone which connotes the seediness of their circumstances. In Velvet Was the Night, no one can trust one another–wires may be tapped, plants may lurking, and secret agents may be tailing. In this town, every person must do what’s best to save their own hide.
Each chapter seems like it goes by so quickly, and currently I’m on page 130, almost halfway through. It’s a tantalizing slow-burn yet so easy to fall into. I have no idea what’s going to happen–although I’m beginning to form some theories–and I can’t wait to get to the end.
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
- Graphic memoir
- Published 2019
- 239 pages
Every now and then, I remember I have Hoopla on my iPad. At the beginning of the month, I was browsing through Hoopla’s comics options and came across Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, and thus interested, I borrowed and read it in one sitting.
This graphic memoir focuses on Kobabe’s complicated relationship with gender throughout eir life, and how they arrived at e/em/eir pronouns. Through vividly colored illustrations, Kobabe narrates eir childhood and when e first was forced to recognize that e had a particular gender assigned to em, and eir exploration of of self as a young adult.
What first struck me about this graphic memoir was how much I related to Kobabe’s ravenous reading habits, and eir comments on checking out “all the gay books” from the library, which sounded exactly like my adolescence. I also appreciated eir occasional references to other writers’ literary works, such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Patricia Churchland’s Touching a Nerve: The Self As Brain by Patricia Churchland.
Gender Queer provides important insight into gender dysphoria and provides one person’s personal experience to whom I think many readers will tenderly relate. Though I was really moved by this piece, I did feel as though the ending were a bit abrupt and was disappointed when there were no more pages left to read.
I certainly recommend it to anyone who would like to read about eir perspective!
Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen
- Graphic novel (middle grade)
- Published 2019
- 160 pages
Another graphic novel I borrowed and read from Hoopla! I love reading children’s graphic novels because they are so wholesome and delightful. In Pilu of the Woods, Willow is a child who has recently lost her mother and struggles to contain her explosive emotions. Often, she suppresses her feelings by bottling them within herself, which only leads to her subsequent passionate outbursts in moments of high stress. Running away, Willow goes to the woods, where she meets another girl named Pilu who, much like herself, has run away from home. Together, they explore the woods and bond, helping one another each realize something important about how to treat themselves and their emotions.
Not only was this story absolutely lovely, but the illustrations were exquisite. The coloring, the line work, the details of each page blew me away. Moreover, the story concluded immaculately and the “takeaway” was one that readers of all ages can find value and meaning in.
To hear more about my thoughts on Pilu of the Woods and view a peek at the art, check out my review video on my YouTube channel:
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
- Historical fiction fantasy
- Published 2021
- 411 pages
In the mid-1300’s China, a brother and a sister receive their fate: one, greatness, and the other, nothingness. During this period of famine, the sister, though scrappy and inventive, is left to starve, while her father and her brother eat the majority of their dwindling food supplies. But when the brother and sister must choose life or death, the sister asserts her resilience while her brother succumbs to nature, and the girl claims her brother’s destiny of greatness for herself: Zhu the warrior is born.
Starvation having wiped out her village, Zhu’s only prayer of survival rests with the monastery, to which Zhu travels and begs to be admitted. There, Zhu trains to become a monk, pretending to be a male so that she can be taken seriously by all. On her path to greatness, Zhu the warrior monk will be challenged time and time again, and with each obstacle she must rise and prove herself to the gods.
She Who Became the Sun was one of my most anticipated summer book releases, so I was the first person on the holds list at my library! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, as Parker-Chan’s writing was very visceral and immersive, and the morally ambiguous characters were so compelling. In fact, during my own moments of self-doubt, I drew inspiration from Zhu’s bountiful reserve. Though it is placed in the fantasy genre, its fantastical elements are minimal; more than anything, this is a historical war story, based on real historical figures and events from the past. (See Shelley Parker-Chan’s website which discusses this more.)
There will be a follow-up book to this, which I am so excited for! A second book will complement this story nicely, and I hope it is just as strong (and maybe stronger) than this debut. Though I am not typically a fan of war stories, I was quite invested in this tale because it features two gender queer foils and a sapphic relationship–plus, it was just written really well. Wacky pacing aside, this is an incredibly strong work and I recommend it!
The Natural Mother of the Child by Krys Malcolm Belc
- Published 2021
- 287 pages
A Memoir of Non-Binary Parenthood is The Natural Mother of the Child‘s subtitle, and in it, Belc recounts his experiences of carrying his child and caring for his wife’s children. With scanned images and documents juxtaposed among the essays, Belc’s writing navigates his complicated relationship to being pregnant, and how that pregnancy helped him find the courage to transition.
The memoir is divided into areas of different topics, and each has a particular focus, such as his history with his breasts and various words which were introduced the year of his birth–and what feelings and memories those words evoke. During his pregnancy with his son, Belc struggled with his own self-image and internal feelings, but moreover, he had to endure the quizzical gaze of others’ as their confused judgments formed.
Its title is taken from a phrase repeated throughout the legal documents Belc encountered in the process of him and his wife adopting his own son: “the natural mother of the child,” a wording which continued to create discomfort before and during Belc’s transition. Rather, Belc lauds replacement phrases such as “gestational parent,” which offers a more gender neutral term to more accurately broadly encompass natural parents from varying situations.
Because of the format and my interest in Belc’s story, this was a rather quick read for me. I appreciated Belc sharing this very intimate insight with the public, and its value among the literary canon cannot be understated. One of the ideas Belc poses near the end is how his son often feels like he is the only kid he knows whose father gave birth to him; though this situation is not completely unique to Belc and his family, it is less common in many areas, and this memoir serves as a very connecting work of literature for others experiencing non-binary parenthood to see themselves within. I admire Belc for his courage in publishing this and I know that this memoir will be impactful for so many.
A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan
- Horror fiction
- Published 2021
- 320 pages
Last week, I published an in-depth breakdown of A Touch of Jen, which you can view here. I will warn though: it contains heavy spoilers. At the bottom, I share a section entitled “My Review” which does not spoil anything, and for your ease of reading, I will transcribe it after the next paragraph:
The premise of this book is that Remy and Alicia are in relationship and both mutually obsessed with a girl Remy once knew called Jen. They closely follow her social media and have regular discussions about her, as though she is someone they actively hang out with. However, one day when they run into her at an Apple store, everything begins to change.
A Touch of Jen was a wildly entertaining reading experience. Though it was off-putting and disturbing at times, I was engrossed in the plot. The narration, which is deceptively straightforward, was a skillful delivery which managed to convey its third-person account with just enough amount of detail and description, balanced with insightful commentary on the characters’ actions, most especially Remy. Morgan has mentioned that she wrote the story with an earnestness which ended up translating into a stoically humorous tone that at times bears a painfully accurate likeness to real life scenarios; indeed, there were moments when I chuckled with how poignantly she characterized the social interactions.
Granted, I am not an avid reader of the horror genre, so perhaps my judgment is ill-informed compared to other readers, but as a mere “light horror reader,” I can say that I did enjoy the book, and that it did not cross the threshold to where I had to put it down in disgust (for reference, I read the preface to The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter and could not read any farther). While at first I found Remy and Alicia to be horrible people, eventually I grew to like them slightly more, and I even came around with Remy, who by the end of the book I still disliked as a person, but by then I came to view his deadpan remarks as hilarious. As a disclaimer, I will say that it is not at all a “diverse” read; for better or worse, it’s a novel about white characters doing white character things, which I don’t say to belittle the book, but for whatever that’s worth to you personally.
Overall, this was a very refreshing page-turner and I think others will also find its odd subject matter just grotesque enough to fascinate, while also finding those sadly all-too-true gems of real life layered within it. After analyzing this book so much in depth, I’ve grown to appreciate it that much more.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
- Science fiction
- Published 2021
- 160 pages
Ah, this is my favorite type of science fiction, and also the type of science fiction I love to write. Also dubbed “A Monk and Robot Book,” this novella follows Sibling Dex, a non-binary traveling tea monk whose profession involves roaming the villages and preparing tea for those in need of emotional and physical encouragement. Though, despite how grateful Sibling Dex is for their role and the gratitude they receive, something in Dex’s life still feels unsatisfied. Thus, Dex crosses into the wild, an area of Panga where humans are highly discouraged from entering. It is in this geography that Dex encounters Splendid Speckled Mosscap, a robot.
Many years ago, robots gained sentience and politely excused themselves from human civilization, retreating to the woods to study nature and explore what it means to be aware of their own life. Having never met a robot before, Dex is shaken–suddenly, and completely unassuming, Dex becomes traveling companions with Mosscap, and the pair converse and learn more about one another along the way.
There is so much to enjoy about this book. For one, Dex’s society’s structure is so peaceful and cooperative. I loved reading about Chambers’ imagined civilization and how it functioned, as well as the delightful and creative nature which bloomed and inhabited the lands. Moreover, Dex and Mosscap are both non-binary protagonists in their own ways, and I love how this was gracefully established without it needing to be its own plot device or conflict. The two characters engaged in insightful conversations which developed well, and in the end, its rather Buddhist contemplation on the beauty of “doing nothing” in life and rejecting the constructed notion that we all must fulfill some grand purpose was refreshing and comforting.
This was my first time reading Becky Chambers, so it was an interesting experience observing her writing style. Though at times the writing was elegant and pensive, sometimes I was jolted by the inclusion of expletives and common phrases such as “hook up,” which may be a characteristic of her writing that many favor, but I found a bit off-putting. It’s not that I take issue with others using swear words in their writing, but rather the execution of it–does it feel natural and in sync with the tone of the book? Mostly, the f-words were uttered by Dex, which maybe means that I wasn’t necessarily in love with Dex’s characterization; though sometimes wise and calm, sometimes Dex came off as immature and dismissive, contradicting my impression of them as a “monk” presence. More than anything, I think Chambers intended Dex to be a very human and relatable person, not so unlike someone who might exist in our world, so I can’t necessarily hold this against her. Ultimately, maybe it would be beneficial for me to give this a reread and gauge whether it still feels awkward to me or not.
Overall, this was a lovely, woodsy, and peaceful story, and I will mentally traverse this book for a long time to come. I think it’s a good novella even for those who don’t frequently read science fiction, and I think many readers will spiritually connect with the characters and their messages.
Run by John Lewis
Summary from Goodreads:
The sequel to the #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel series March—the continuation of the life story of John Lewis and the struggles seen across the United States after the Selma voting rights campaign.
To John Lewis, the civil rights movement came to an end with the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. But that was after more than five years as one of the preeminent figures of the movement, leading sit–in protests and fighting segregation on interstate busways as an original Freedom Rider. It was after becoming chairman of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and being the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. It was after helping organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the ensuing delegate challenge at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. And after coleading the march from Selma to Montgomery on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” All too often, the depiction of history ends with a great victory. But John Lewis knew that victories are just the beginning. In Run: Book One, John Lewis and longtime collaborator Andrew Aydin reteam with Nate Powell—the award–winning illustrator of the March trilogy—and are joined by L. Fury—making an astonishing graphic novel debut—to tell this often overlooked chapter of civil rights history.
My biggest criticism after reading the March trilogy earlier this year was that the tone of the ending was very conclusive, as though there was no more work to be done after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. Though I know this isn’t what John Lewis necessarily intended to convey, there was little “call to action” or implication of further work to be done, which is why I’m so glad that this new comic trilogy Run is on its way to being printed. I very much look forward to reading more of Lewis’s insight and I think (and hope) that it will very well complement the previous series.
The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson
Summary from Penguin Random House:
Lonely librarian June Jones has never left the sleepy English village where she grew up. Shy and reclusive, the thirty-year-old would rather spend her time buried in books than venture out into the world. But when her library is threatened with closure, June is forced to emerge from behind the shelves to save the heart of her community and the place that holds the dearest memories of her mother.
Joining a band of eccentric yet dedicated locals in a campaign to keep the library, June opens herself up to other people for the first time since her mother died. It just so happens that her old school friend Alex Chen is back in town and willing to lend a helping hand. The kindhearted lawyer’s feelings for her are obvious to everyone but June, who won’t believe that anyone could ever care for her in that way.
To save the place and the books that mean so much to her, June must finally make some changes to her life. For once, she’s determined not to go down without a fight. And maybe, in fighting for her cherished library, June can save herself, too.
- Genre: Contemporary fiction / Romance
- Release date: August 31, 2021
Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang
Summary from Barnes and Noble:
In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal” and it will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive.
In Chinatown, Qian’s parents labor in sweatshops. Instead of laughing at her jokes, they fight constantly, taking out the stress of their new life on one another. Shunned by her classmates and teachers for her limited English, Qian takes refuge in the library and masters the language through books, coming to think of The Berenstain Bears as her first American friends. And where there is delight to be found, Qian relishes it: her first bite of gloriously greasy pizza, weekly “shopping days,” when Qian finds small treasures in the trash lining Brooklyn’s streets, and a magical Christmas visit to Rockefeller Center—confirmation that the New York City she saw in movies does exist after all
But then Qian’s headstrong Ma Ma collapses, revealing an illness that she has kept secret for months for fear of the cost and scrutiny of a doctor’s visit. As Ba Ba retreats further inward, Qian has little to hold onto beyond his constant refrain: Whatever happens, say that you were born here, that you’ve always lived here.
Inhabiting her childhood perspective with exquisite lyric clarity and unforgettable charm and strength, Qian Julie Wang has penned an essential American story about a family fracturing under the weight of invisibility, and a girl coming of age in the shadows, who never stops seeking the light.
- Genre: Memoir
- Release date: September 7, 2021
No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnball
Summary from Bookshop:
One October morning, Laina gets the news that her brother has been shot and killed by Boston cops. But what looks like a case of police brutality soon reveals something much stranger. Monsters are real. And they want everyone to know it.
As creatures from myth and legend come out of the shadows, seeking safety through visibility, their emergence sets off a chain of seemingly unrelated events. Members of a local werewolf pack are threatened into silence. A professor follows a missing friend’s trail of bread crumbs to a mysterious secret society. And a young boy with unique abilities seeks refuge in a pro-monster organization with secrets of its own. Meanwhile, more people start disappearing, suicides and hate crimes increase, and protests erupt globally, both for and against the monsters.
At the center is a mystery no one thinks to ask: Why now? What has frightened the monsters out of the dark?
The world will soon find out.
- Genre: Science fiction / Magical realism
- Release date: September 7, 2021
Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes by Phoebe Robinson
Summary from Penguin Random House:
So what ARE you getting into, if you choose to buy this book? Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes is my latest and timely essay collection! We’ve all been through a trying time, which is why I wrote something to make you laugh until you pee a little, feel until you want to rage a little, and think until you go back to laughing a little. That means telling you about the embarrassing accident that happened while quarantining with my boyfriend, the ways Black Lives Matter and performative allyship have taken center stage, my mom begrudgingly leaving her house so she could meet Michelle Obama, my decision to not have kids, and everything I’ve learned from running multiple companies (Pro tip: Always have a wig on standby for impromptu Zoom meetings).
No pressure, but by clicking “buy” right now, you get all the laughs I drummed up, and you get to read the first book from my new imprint, Tiny Reparations Books.
- Genre: Essays / Humor
- Release date: September 28, 2021
Thank you for reading! To browse previous issues of Bookish Brains, click here.
To browse book reviews by Slanted Spines, click here.