Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions

Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions by Andy Warner is an evocative story about one man’s experience battling mental illness and uncertainty whilst living in the middle of the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Beirut, Lebanon. Pulling from both personal memory and historic fact, Warner pieces together the everyday and the revolutionary in a thorough and thought-provoking memoir.

Andy Warner traveled to Beirut to study literature in 2005. He broke up with his girlfriend and was completely miserable, despite living in a city that has rebuilt itself after years of upset and war and is a glowing source of potential in the Middle East. He befriended a small group of mainly LGBTQ+ expats and students who showed him around the city and took him to all the trendy spots. They were having a great time smoking, drinking, and imbibing in a variety of illicit substances, but slowly shards of unrest and unhappiness in the city began to break. Meanwhile, Andy himself is going through the beginnings of a mental breakdown. Protests continue, the city divides, and Andy spirals deeper and deeper into his own mind.

Warner’s storytelling is powerful. He brings to light the physicality of mental illness by including his own experiences and feelings. He describes his breakdown as it felt to him and how his body and mind reacted to it. His ability to illustrate thoughts and feelings that are already abstract is excellent. The illustrations are clear and concise with just enough reality imbued within to remind the reader that these are real events with real historical figures. The use of illustrated maps is also helpful during the explanation of the Syrian Civil War and the events that happened prior to Andy’s arrival in the city. Overall, Warner’s use of real-life experience in regards to his own experiences with the revolution and mental illness paired with his simple yet eye-catching illustrations makes this graphic novel particularly powerful.

Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions is appropriate for readers 16+ due to explicit drug use and sexual situations. Those interested in the history of the Arab Spring in particular will find this an interesting and informative read as it describes events as they were to those on the ground and living in the city of Beirut. It is enjoyable to readers of Erin William’s Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame and Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir.

Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions
By Andy Warner
ISBN: 9781250165978
St. Martin’s Press, 2020

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Gay, Bisexual, Queer

Given Volume 1

As a subgenre of manga, boys love (or yaoi) has a wide spectrum of content. It is (mostly) romantic in nature, although there are industry-wide issues in portrayals of consent and LGBTQ+ representation. Some titles are chaste romances, some are sexually explicit. Plot quality varies widely, as does the art. But once in a while, a gem emerges from the genre that layers a well done plot, great character development, and beautiful artwork in a compelling romance that feels real. Given is one of those gems.

In Given, artist and writer Natsuki Kizu tells the story of the members of a band by the same name. High schooler Mafuyu, a quiet, withdrawn, young man carries around an expensive Gibson guitar that he doesn’t know how to play. When he meets classmate Uenoyama, a naturally gifted musician, he begs Uenoyama to teach him. Although Ueonyama is a brilliant guitarist, he balks. As his skill and experience has grown, his inspiration and interest have faded—and not only in music, but other activities he loves. But this strange boy is determined and relentless. Something about him drives Uenoyama to take him to a band practice where he introduces Mafuyu to his older bandmates. Laid-back bassist, Haruki and playboy drummer Akihiko are in college.

Mafuyu, whose withdrawn personality is hiding deep, emotional secrets, throws himself into learning the guitar and even gets a part time job, in order to earn money for his new hobby. Uenoyama becomes more and more fascinated by the shy boy. Uenoyama’s interest in music starts to return. But when he hears Mafuyu’s voice sing a melody, it sparks a fire of inspiration and he begs him to join the band. By watching Mafuyu’s talent bloom, Uenoyama rediscovers his love for music, and possibly for Mafuyu. There is unresolved sexual tension between the older band members so this series has a lot of room to branch out with the drama.

The musical instruments are rendered beautifully, and there is a lot of gorgeous action in the music scenes. The only thing this story lacks is sound. Fortunately, the series has been made into an anime series with a soulful soundtrack to match the dramatic story line.

This first volume of Given is off to a great start. It’s published by Viz Media’s boy love imprint, SuBLime, and on an ever-growing list of titles, this one ranks very high. I am careful about recommending boys’ love titles for teens but Given is similar to I Hear the Sunspot, with it’s sweet, romantic story line. It’s less explicit than SuBLime’s slice-of-life, college story, Escape Journey. It’s rated for older teens (16+) and is a great acquisition for a YA or adult manga collection. With the success of the television anime, a sequel theatrical film release featuring the older characters will be released later this year by a new boys love studio, Blue Lynx.

Given Volume 1
By Natsuki Kizu
ISBN: 9781974711826
SuBLime, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 16+
Series Reading Order: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Given_(manga) (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Japanese Gay

Lonesome Era

Camden is just like many teens: smart, but unmotivated, sounding out his morals, and crushing on his best friend. As such, he’s willing to go along with Jeremiah’s schemes, even as those schemes get more dangerous and Camden is usually the one left to deal with the consequences. But in the end, that’s what friends do, and growing up is learning how to navigate weird situations. The kids are all right.

Lonesome Era is an incredibly nostalgic feeling coming of age story. It’s set in the 90s in a Midwest town, and while this is marketed towards young adult readers, I feel like adult readers will understand the nostalgia of reading this more than teens, because it reflects a different landscape of adolescence than we have now (yes of course there are still many similarities, but this is before cell phones and social media, says this old person reviewer). There’s even something nostalgic about the book itself, because it’s small enough that it feels like reading a comic strip out of a newspaper or a flip book.

There’s a certain innocence to the art style that is reminiscent of classic cartoons and comics that adds to the feeling of nostalgia, especially since the art is all rendered in black and white and not full color like many Western comics. However, the art is still very effective at conveying the emotion of each scene and establishing distinct landscapes, despite being simple lines and basic shading.

In terms of red flags, there are several instances of drug and alcohol use, pretty consistent use of curse words, and occasional slurs. Considering this is a story about two teens trying to find their identities, it’s not terribly surprising they try several tactics, including using words considered taboo and actions equally taboo, but when paired with the art style it can be a little jarring at first. However, since it does use slurs it can be a difficult book for some readers to get through.

As a physical object, Lonesome Era is an unusual size, at only seven inches tall and about the same in length, but thankfully is a fairly thick book so it won’t just fall off the sides of bookshelves or disappear in a book drop. The shape also makes it ideal for readers who want to feel that they’re making quick progress of a book, since it doesn’t take long to get through a set of pages.

In a lot of ways, this kind of story is much-needed because, yes, there’s a character who comes out, but it’s only part of the story and part of a still-evolving identity for that character. It doesn’t feel like just a story about coming out, and it’s not a situation where everything is terrible for that character; life is confusing, and so much happens that it can be hard to process everything. But he finds a way, just like we all do. There’s something very everyman about these characters that’s incredibly effective. I would recommend this book for people still trying to get into reading comics, especially those who like the kind of dark humor of shows like Adventure Time.

Lonesome Era
By Jon Allen
ISBN: 9781945820380
Iron Circus Comics, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution

Nonfiction comics continue to emerge as an important genre. They are particularly valuable for tackling history, where the words and images are able to combine to compellingly tell the succinct micro-stories and vignettes that comprise larger historical truths. Characters that might not get a lot of description or development can still feel fully fleshed out, thanks to strong character design and the human emotions good comics convey so well. Stories and characters are the keys to remembering historical facts, and this makes nonfiction comics strong additions to school and public libraries alike. In that vein, The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution is a good, if not momentous, addition to the genre.

Just from its title, it’s obvious that this book’s subject matter is going to appeal to a wide variety of kids and teens. It’s a surprisingly ambitious book, too, cutting much deeper into electronics’ history than a lay reader might expect. Not content to simply talk about Donkey Kong, author Jonathan Hennessey delves into Information Science by way of Alan Turing and the Manhattan Project. He also broadens the definition of video games impressively, discussing early cathode ray tube projects and games that only existed in code form before talking about early forms of computer-based Tic-Tac-Toe and chess. Only after laying this firm foundation does Hennessey discuss more familiar early computer games like Space War and Pong. He also does a good job placing technical innovations into a historical context, not just telling games’ stories, but placing them into real and complex worlds.

There are some downsides to this approach. The results are sometimes scattershot, with apparently major characters disappearing into the ether without warning. It also makes it hard to deliver a compelling narrative that feels cohesive instead of a collection of similarly themed stories. Titles like Fred van Lente’s Comic Book History of Comics have managed to pull off this difficult task, but Hennessey is less successful here.

Jack McGowan’s art similarly struggles in telling video games’ stories. While McGowan is a decent visual storyteller and uses the fun device of peppering the past with popular and obscure video game characters, his artwork has a peculiar industrial flavor. Video game history contains a multitude of geeky white guys, and he struggles to differentiate between them. He’s drawing historical figures as well, and as a result his artwork sometimes falls into the same uncanny valley that licensed titles such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer run into when artists portray well-known actors in comic book situations. The results are sometimes distracting.

The Comic Book Story of Video Games doesn’t represent the pinnacle of history comics, but it’s still a worthy purchase. Its subject is bound to draw in readers and it demonstrates a real command of its topic. It’s not as funny or compelling as it could be, but few books are. This title is a good purchase for public and school libraries, and while its approach to history is wide-but-shallow, it could also find a home in many academic libraries as well. It is smart and exhaustively researched, and explores even the tiniest nooks of video game history. There’s nothing objectionable about this subject matter, but it’s unlikely to grab younger readers. The target audience for this book is probably Teens, but many adults will enjoy reading this book as well.

The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution
By Jonathan Hennessey
Art by Jack McGowan
ISBN: 9780399578908
Ten Speed Press, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

Finder: Deluxe Edition, vols. 5-8

The first rule of Ayano Yamane’s Boy’s Love manga series, Finder, is that intrepid photojournalist Takaba Akihito always finds himself in peril. The series centers around Akihito and the domineering leader of a Japanese crime syndicate, Asami Ryuichi, and their dark, twisted relationship.

Volume 5, Naked Truth, wraps up the cliffhanger of the Macao story arc from volumes 3 and 4, after Akahito is kidnapped and held in sexual captivity by Asami’s nemesis, Fei Long Liu. Asami and Fei Long reach a detente aboard Liu’s luxury casino ship, with the Chinese gangster agreeing to exchange Akihito for a valuable stolen casino deed. The trade is interrupted by a Russian gangster, Mikhail Arbotov. While the fifth volume of the series is devoted to resolving the plot, the next two volumes are lighter on content and build a slender bridge to what may prove to be the series finale, involving a new, mysterious villain that will threaten to destroy not only Asami and Akihito, but Fei Long and Mikhail as well.

Volumes 6 and 7 focus more on Akihito as his career becomes as exciting and dangerous as his personal life. His professional path crosses some of Asami’s enemies and allies, and the younger man knows he’ll eventually have to choose where his loyalty lies. Neither choice is a safe bet. His adventures (and misadventures) lead to a lot of soul searching about where he stands with Asami and whether he can maintain a relationship with him.

This series is seventeen years old and sticks closely to BL tropes and to its core strategy of “when in doubt, put Akihito in danger.” Ayano’s art work is solid and consistently good. But the plot gets tangled as allies turn on Asami and past enemies become allies. The series’ longevity is a testament to its creator and fans. A lot of manga artists pen thank you notes in their books for fans, but Ayano’s long missives reveal her emotional ties to the characters and the real joy she gets in creating the art. She also often apologizes for the time between chapters. (Although the chapters are serialized bi-monthly in Be-Boy Gold magazine, the tankobon volumes include a lot of bonus material that adds work for the artist.)

The time between volume releases averages a year and a half in the U.S. Although the wait between volumes 8 and the recently released volume 9 was an agonizing two and a half years, due, in part, to a change in publisher. The new publisher released volume 8 and then re-released the entire series in deluxe editions with updated English translations before releasing volume 9.

Besides the long wait times between volumes, another issue I have with the entire series is that the amount of plot in each volume varies wildly. Volume 5 stays on point with high action and only one side story—that of Asami and Akahito recovering from their ordeal at a tropical resort. Volume 6 and 7 both cram a lot of complex plot points into much shorter chapters, filling the rest of the book with excessive side stories and in one, a short that barely involves the two main characters at all. Volume 8 returns to the focused plot, with a lot of action sequences that set up another cliffhanger as Akihito is kidnapped (again) and sexually assaulted (again), only to be rescued by Asami. Then the lovers are attacked by unknown assailants in Asami’s penthouse and barely escape with their lives. It also includes only two side short stories, one involving Akihito investigating a drug dealer. He samples the wares (an unnamed aphrodisiac) and visits Asami in his office, with interesting results. And in the next, Asami surprises Akihito on his birthday.

As one of the longer BL titles out there, Finder (originally titled You’re My Loveprize in Viewfinder, so you can see why it’s been shorted to Finder) rests on aging tropes of the genre—namely non-consensual or, at least, dubiously consensual sex between men. None of the characters identify as gay or bisexual. It contains explicit sex scenes as well as violence and rape. I should point out that there are virtually no female characters in this entire series. This is a man’s world without even a secondary female character. And, like the majority of BL or yaoi titles, it is written and drawn by a woman for a mostly female audience.

That’s probably a lot to unpack, psychologically speaking, but I have chalked up the popularity of the genre up to cultural peculiarities and very specific tastes of the fans (myself included). The popularity of the title speaks for itself, and I do not judge what drives readers’ choices. Does this series belong in a library collection? If you’re curating a well-stocked, or extensive adult manga collection, I would recommend this series. Aside from the explicit content, the plot lines are darker and more complex, with more violence, offering a different type of reading experience than the modern, slice-of-life, or school boy romance. More BL titles are making their way to libraries’ shelves because of increased demand for the material.

The Finder series continues with volume 9, Finder: Beating of My Heart, which was released in October 2019. Volume 10 has been announced in Japan, and, although no release date has been set for an English translation, it’s a safe bet it will see a US release either late 2020, or early 2021. Ayano has one other current series, a fantasy BL titled Crimson Spell. SubLime has released six volumes of that to date.

Finder: Deluxe Edition, vols. 5-8
By Ayano Yamane
vol 5 ISBN: 9781421593098
vol 6 ISBN: 9781421593104
vol 7 ISBN: 9781421593111
vol 8 ISBN: 9781421593128
Publisher Age Rating: 18+

Fourth Generation Head: Tatsuyuki Oyamoto

Tatsuyuki may be the son of a yakuza head and destined to take his place one day, but that doesn’t mean he has an easy time or enjoys his place in life. He fell for a man who left him; now life has no joy and Tatsuyuki just wants things to be normal, like they were before Minori. His father sends him to Fukuoka, to the yakuza branch there, to try and help him get his head back on straight. One night of drinking and partying leads him into the hands (and very strong arms) of a beautiful dark haired boy with glasses and a whole lot of trouble.

Before we talk about anything else in this manga, we need to talk about the fact that Fourth Generation Head covers some difficult topics. There is discussion of sexual abuse of minors, women forced into sex work, and one of the characters chooses to offer sexual favors as a way to repay a debt that borders on abuse. The second topic is only touched on briefly, but the other two are discussed/shown several times in the manga, so that is something to consider before reading or adding to a collection. There is also the usual occasional non-consensual moments often seen in manga of any genre that involves sex, but thankfully these are not frequent and are brief.

That being said, Fourth Generation Head is actually very good and avoids a lot of the stereotypes of the yaoi/boys love(BL) genre. At first, Tatsuyuki and Nozomi’s relationship feels uncomfortable and toxic, but it evolves over the course of the manga into something very sweet and supportive. They embrace their pasts and open up to each other, almost like a slow burn story in reverse. We have the first sex scene starting around page 18, with a short scene a few pages before at a sex work establishment, but the sex gets sweeter and more affectionate, less just lust fulfillment, as the story goes on. Tatsuyuki even seems to go back to accepting his role as the next yakuza head by the end of the story, making his power his own to use as he sees fit.

Fourth Generation Head has fantastic art; it’s clear Scarlet Beriko has worked to refine her style. The panels are never static and there aren’t really any moments of confused action where the reader has trouble understanding what is supposed to be happening. Every character is visually distinct, like Tatsuyuki’s slightly pointed ears and Nozomi’s large, detailed eyes. Even Tatsuyuki’s assistant/caretaker, Mr. Asoda, who we only see a handful of times in the manga, is distinguishable from the generic bodyguards he’s usually accompanied by. Proportions are very distorted in everyone’s bodies, but that’s also very typical of this genre, as it’s done in a way to accentuate hands and torsos/hips.

A side note: the summaries found on sites like Amazon mention that Tatsuyuki is questioning his sexuality, but aside from a brief scene in the beginning, we don’t have extensive agonizing over whether it’s okay or not to be with another man by Tatsuyuki. This is also refreshing, as this is often a trope in yaoi; one character lamenting that they are abnormal or telling their partner that they should be with a woman, often almost any time they have sex. One character does make periodic mention of being like both a man and a woman, or that he doesn’t know what he is, so that might be how Beriko circumvents this particular trope. That character is drawn in corsets and/or skirts in some of the chapter dividing art as well, and it’s unfortunate we don’t get more discussion of this character and gender because otherwise the chapter art could be uncomfortable, given the character’s past.

As far as recommending Fourth Generation Head, I definitely suggest it for libraries that already have a BL collection or are looking to build one out. It’s not just the standard story, and it’s well written and drawn. From what I can tell, this is a one shot story, so there are no further volumes to collect, though there are other stories by Beriko set in the same universe. This makes it easy and hard for collection development, since if this volume is lost there won’t be a volume missing from a series, but readers who enjoy it won’t have a sequel to look forward to.

Fourth Generation Head: Tatsuyuki Oyamoto
By Scarlet Beriko
ISBN: 9781974707102
SuBLime Manga, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Mature

The Adventure Zone, vols. 1-2

High fantasy’s an almost common genre for comics. Great books like Nimona and Rat Queens are sterling examples. Likewise, actual-play Dungeons and Dragons podcasts are a thriving, if not dominant, genre. Critical Role’s cast of talented voice actors have produced years of stirring, funny adventures and the new arrival Dungeons and Daddies is one of 2019’s breakout podcasts. However, there’s never been a comic based on a popular actual-play RPG podcast. Until now.

The Adventure Zone is a two-time New York Times bestseller based on the McElroy family’s (three brothers and their dad) D&D exploits. It chronicles the adventures of warrior Magnus Burnsides, dwarf cleric and #1 Pan Fan Merle Highchurch, and Taako, the elven wizard who was over it all before the adventure began. Written chiefly by Merle’s player and McElroy papa, Clint McElroy, the comic is based on the improvised dialog and player errors that make the podcast comedy gold. Hovering above them all is the game’s Dungeon Master, youngest brother Griffin McElroy, whose unique approach to DMing crafted an inventive and memorable fantasy using the boys’ three idiot adventurers as his foundation.

In the first volume, Here There Be Gerblins, the story starts off with the low-level adventurers beginning a stereotypical RPG quest (in fact, based on the D&D starter kit). They’re soon beset by goblins—er, gerblins?—and travel reluctantly underground on a rescue mission. They spend some time solving problems in the most amusing ways possible, making friends with giant Bugbears and throwing wolves into fires, before getting mixed up in some seriously weird stuff. The uber-plot involves magical artifacts so powerful the boys can’t even hear their names. After the team’s missteps destroy an entire city, they accept a job with the Bureau of Balance, a secret organization in the business of destroying these world-threatening magical objects.

The second volume, Murder on the Rockport Limited, manages to get away from standard fantasy hijinks and fill out the world these weirdos inhabit. With the boys locked on a magical train with a murderer, it’s a kind of locked room mystery where magic prevails over logic. It’s cleverly written and starts to really establish the strangeness of the setting and the high stakes the boys are battling for.

Overall, these are enjoyable books, though probably more enjoyable for fans of the podcast than for readers who don’t already have these characters’ voices stuck in their heads. The books revel in juvenile characters and smart writing, reminiscent of Rat Queens in some ways. Griffin’s head hovers over the heroes, narrating with a voice only they can hear, and as a result the 4th Wall is practically nonexistent. The boys are genuinely funny, though, and it’s fun to see their relationships develop and personalities grow. Interestingly, in spite of the general atmosphere of sophomoric fun, there are moments of tragedy as well, and the heroes’ response is appropriately somber. If you’re thinking a straight, white, all male family game of Dungeons and Dragons might result in an atmosphere of brohomie you’re not wrong, but the comic’s world is actually quite inclusive. There are several queer characters throughout, including Justin McElroy’s Taako. While their sexuality is never the most important thing about any of these characters, there are three significant same-sex couples that will be introduced in future volumes. Based on the podcast, this is a series with its best stories pending, but the comic has started off well. Carey Pietsch’s artwork and storytelling are tremendous assets. She has an eye for detail that helps streamline a chaotic, partially improvised story and a gift for color schemes, visual humor, and expressive characters.

This book was written with adult audiences in mind. The profane humor and occasional gore throughout would probably equal a PG-13 rating in a film, but, overall, libraries will probably want to place The Adventure Zone in their adult collections. The book is also violent and rarely takes its violence seriously, so take that into account as well. This is an excellent addition to popular collections in public and academic libraries, especially libraries serving significantly geeky communities. The books synergize well with podcasting discussion groups and classes, and of course are bestsellers likely to reach outside the standard comics audiences. Overall, these first two volumes are winning, and promise a solid future for McElroy Family comics. This is a must-buy for libraries. The volumes do not stand alone, so collecting the entire series is recommended.

The Adventure Zone: Volume 1 and 2
By Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElron
Art by Carey Pietsch
vol 1 ISBN: 9781250153715
vol 2 ISBN: 9781250153708
First Second, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 16+

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Character Traits: Gay

The Magicians: Alice’s Story

Pushing through the dark and tangled woods of upstate New York, a young woman emerges from the thicket into a surprisingly summery day, an expanse of green lawn, and the turreted structure of an imposing building. Some, having read nothing more than the previous sentence, will already suspect that this structure is Brakebills—university for magicians, setting of Lev Grossman’s bestselling novel The Magicians and the TV show of the same name—and they would be right. But while the novel and TV show feature Quentin Coldwater as their protagonist, this graphic novel is told from the point of view of Alice Quinn, prodigious magician and Quentin’s off-again-on-again love interest.

While The Magicians: Alice’s Story covers the same ground as Lev Grossman’s novel, some plot points are condensed and others added to effectively tell the tale from Alice’s perspective. As a reader who hadn’t read the novel nor viewed any of the TV show before reading The Magicians: Alice’s Story, I found the graphic novel perfectly comprehensible without prior knowledge. At the same time, the book never quite escapes the sense of being derived from something larger: whereas the novel bridges the transition between major plot points with a fluid abundance of words and small details, for instance, graphic novel writer Lilah Sturges often opts for “fast-forwarding” through years of time to hit the most significant moments.

Unfortunately, almost all of the moments deemed significant involve Quentin Coldwater and/or his rival Penny, both men. While the earlier parts of the graphic novel add nuance and even entire new plot points to Alice’s story, these dimensional additions fall off as the book progresses until the story boils down to a very limited range of emotions: Alice’s longing for Quentin and her feelings of being caught between Quentin and Penny. Alice is an intriguing person and talented magician mostly sidelined in Grossman’s novel as an object for Quentin to alternately ignore, yearn for, and rail against. It was disappointing to find that she wasn’t given much more room to breathe here, in the version of the story eponymously told from her own point of view.

Despite this drawback, the graphic novel has considerable strong points. While I haven’t yet watched the TV show, the graphic novel makes contributions to the visual telling of the Magicians story in its own right. Illustrator Pius Bak effectively imagines the characters and settings, and renders sometimes complex scenes of battle, magic, and travel through time and space in vibrant and coherent visuals. Close readers of the novel will find little details from the book sprinkled throughout the illustrations, a delightful treasure hunt. The coloring by Dan Jackson is rich, sparkling with iridescent golds and purples and otherworldly blues, and does a good job underlining the difference between the magical, non-magical, and otherworldly settings.

An engrossing accompaniment to The Magicians, Sturges’ graphic novel is unfortunate only in that it doesn’t imagine big enough, choosing to cleave close to the men-centric plot of the canon text rather than investigating the full range of what Alice Quinn might have thought, felt, and experienced throughout the course of her magical journey.

The Magicians: Alice’s Story
By Lilah Sturges
Art by Pius Bak
ISBN: 9781684150212
Archaia, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)

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Creator Highlights: LGBTQIA+ Creator
Related to…: Book to Comic

When I Arrived at the Castle

Recently nominated for the prestigious Harvey Award for 2019 Book of the Year, Emily Carroll’s When I Arrived at the Castle is a tour de force for those who appreciate Gothic horror, lesbian vampires, and stunning illustrations and story lines. Illustrated in black and white and, with an exquisite touch, brilliant reds, the story follows our heroine, an anthropomorphic cat, as she enters the lair of the countess/vampire with the one express desire of causing her demise. The countess/vampire is humanoid in shape, except when she shape shifts into a half-human snake-like creature, but is at all times otherworldly. Upon entering the vampire’s lair, the protagonist is offered a bath which works as a transition into a more horrific setting than she and the reader may have initially imagined. There is a definite undercurrent of the fairy tale world in the tale which involves magic, transformation, and, in turn, grotesque reality. This is all exquisitely managed in very few pages, with numerous full-page illustrations punctuated by pages of full text among the otherwise panel-less comic book format. The pages of full text briefly relate tragic stories of other heroines who met horrific deaths. These pages resemble pages from age-old decorated collections of fairy tales but, in true Carroll style, the background colour is a relentless brilliant red.

Carroll’s countess is seductive with long flowing hair and a curvaceous body accentuated by sensuous lips and bedroom eyes. Her protagonist, on the other hand, is much more robust and familiar, if you discount her cat ears and tail, of course. Ironically, the story reads as a “cat playing with a mouse” scenario, with the roles reversed. The reader is immersed in the seduction, the resistance, and the dangerous game of the trauma and the absolute abuse of power. At the same time, the reader’s imagination must be fully engaged as there is much left to individual interpretation by Carroll’s deft use of text, image, and layout of the page. As in her previous works, Carroll plays with lettering, pacing, mood, atmosphere as we explore the castle along with the feline heroine. There is a mesmerizing five-page sequence where the Countess is being observed through a keyhole which sets the tone, the pacing, and the knowledge of subsequent horror.

There is much to unpack in this slight graphic novel, as it embraces horror, erotica, terror, unease, and ambiguous characters and points-of-view. Highly recommended for an adult audience.

When I Arrived at the Castle
By Emily Carroll
ISBN: 9781927668689
Koyama Press, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

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Character Traits: Lesbian, Gay, Queer Genderqueer
Creator Highlights: LGBTQIA+ Creator

Kiss Number 8

On the opening pages of Kiss Number 8, we are introduced to our protagonist, Amanda, by way of all the kisses she has had in her life. The first seven are male and then kiss eight happens. It is the night of this kiss that changes everything for Amanda. The story quickly backtracks to show how Amanda came to find herself in a car kissing the last person she expected to kiss.

Amanda is a bit of a tomboy. She considers her dad her best friend. They spend every Sunday watching their minor league baseball team and every night watching their favorite TV show or playing video games. Her other best friends are Cat, a beautiful, outgoing classmate who loves going to parties, and good girl Laura, who is the exact opposite of Cat. Life is good for Amanda until one Sunday when her dad gets a phone call in the middle of the baseball game. He is secretive about who is on the other end and blows off Amanda’s questions. This sets her off on a mission to figure out what is going on. At first, Amanda assumes the worst: her dad is cheating on her mom. But as the clues come together and with the help of Laura, Amanda puts the pieces together. I don’t want to spoil the reveal. Although it is not some big twist, I think the story is more fulfilling if you figure it out along with Amanda.

The secret rocks Amanda in several ways, but mostly it becomes a catalyst for her. She begins questioning many parts of her life, mostly her sexuality. The reactions to the secret also show the true selves of many people in her life, including her grandmother, friends, and father. The story is set in 2004, so LGBTQIA+ awareness and tolerance was not as progressive. It’s interesting to see how in such a short time perceptions have changed (although the same reactions obviously happen currently).

Even though Amanda makes many choices that make you want to shake her, you still want to see her happy. You feel for her as she is figuring things out. It’s real and relatable. Every teen has had moments of questioning, whether it is their sexuality or just their sense of self. Amanda never labels herself and I think that is an excellent choice by Venable. It shows that sexuality can be something you don’t completely figure out and that is fine. You can still be happy and fulfilled without labeling yourself.

While Amanda’s story does end on a happy note, it still shows how sometimes your friends are not going to be your friends for life. So many teen novels will include arguments between friends, but normally they all make up in the end. Kiss Number 8 shows Amanda having serious issues with her friends and not all of them become her friend again. I thought this was a unique and normal aspect of friendship to depict—there are some people who are just not meant to be your friends and it is okay to walk away from that.

Most teen novels or graphic novels have a storyline about finding your place and there’s a reason for that. It’s a hallmark of adolescence. Kiss Number 8 is no different. Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw make a great team. Crenshaw’s black and white drawings are expressive and detailed and add so much to Venable’s story.

Kiss Number 8 is a beautiful story about finding your identity, sexuality, and real friends. This would be a great addition to any library and would be especially useful for LGBTQIA+ displays, programs, and awareness.

Kiss Number 8
By Colleen AF Venable
Art by Ellen T Crenshaw
ISBN: 9781596437098
First Second, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18

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Character Traits: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Trans