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In the summer of 2019, I read Wanderers (an amazing book) when it was still fiction.  In it, Chuck Wendig weaves a sprawling story filled with plagues and politics that was eerily prescient for the events that would hit us in 2020.  Thankfully, I was able to enjoy this book from the safety of precedented times. I’m never sure I can responsibility recommend it during The Unprecedence.

But maybe I still can. Since the pandemic began, many folks have flocked to apocalypse and plague fiction.  Some surely sought it out for solace (the fictional folks have it worse than us, right?  RIGHT?).  Others sought it out for the pain, much like when we push on a bruise to see if it still hurts.  Perhaps still others searched for answers in the fiction; maybe there are some helpful hints to be mined to help survive the reality we’re living in. There are likely many reasons I can’t even fathom because fear and trauma makes us humans unpredictable.

Whatever the reason(s), these stories have continued to be very popular, in a time when it feels like we’re living through our own version of the Apocalypse.  For those looking for stories of the END of things, for stories of the After-times, for stories of humans fucking everything up, comics offer us many Apocalypses to explore (not even including the actual Marvel character of Apocalypse. If you are looking for him, the X-men comics are the place to go).  Here are some of my recent favorites:

Marvel’s Dark Ages is a new limited series about what happens when the Marvel Universe is unmade.   There is an enemy buried with the earth.  An enemy that that the Avengers, the X-men, and every other superhero known on Earth cannot defeat. Not Thor, not Iron Man, not Dr. Strange, not even Wanda. The heroes have incredibly and thoroughly lost.  And as a result, the Earth is left dark.  What now? I adored the first issue of this comic and can’t wait to see where it goes.

What happens if fictional superheroes and villains come to life and battle it out in the real world?  In Cross Over, what happens is total destruction.  That is, until a superhero creates a dome over the city of Denver, Colorado.  Anyone outside or inside are trapped.  The dome keeps people out and supers in.  Or does it?  This comic is extremely meta and very funny.

Eve grew up in a virtual reality simulation, unaware that she was really trapped in a pod until it was her turn to save the world.  When it finally is her time, she wakes up to a planet of zombies and a flooded landscape.  Alone except for her robot protector (disguised as a teddy bear) she must find the clues to save the world and the few remaining people left. This comic keeps you guessing and has a lot of important (timely) messages about environmental issues.

In Bubble, based on the podcast of the same name, Earth overrun with aliens.  Humans live in Fairhaven, a bubble set up to keep them isolated from the monsters.  But the monsters still get in, with concerning (and surprising) regularity.  So monster-hunters are in high demand.  Kids who grew up outside the bubble are enlisted to use their hard-earned survival skills to help the community.  They sign up for an Uber-esque social media app.  Hilariously funny and a great social commentary about social media, capitalism and government corruption.

In We Live the Earth is overrun by a group of genetically-modified, psychedelically-colored animals.  Humans can’t survive anymore and their extinction is a matter of time.   A select group of children are given a bracelet that allows them access to the ships escaping the Earth.  But they need to make it safely to the extraction point.  Tala needs to get her brother Hototo there no matter what (and there is a lot of What to be dealt with).  The art is this comic is beautiful, vibrant, and creepy. 

In Skyward the Earth has lost a significant portion of its gravity.  The rich have figured out ways around this using their money and their power, while the poor must squeak by as best they can.  There is a real danger of flying off into the atmosphere, but Willa doesn’t care.  She’s fearless and reckless and fierce.  She has never really known gravity.  But then she stumbles upon some inconvenient truths about how the low-gravity happened and how it (maybe?) can be fixed.  So she has to leave her home and survive obstacles (like giant bugs) to find the truth.   Giant bugs. I’m not sure what else I need to say.

Like in many other dystopian stories, in Origins humans have created their own extinction; human technology evolved into a tech-virus that kills or corrupts all living beings and replaces them with a networked AI.  It’s been 1,000 years and the only survivors are androids and one human – David.  But who is he and why is he the only one left? Even he doesn’t know, but he needs to find out before the AI finds him.  The art in this comic is as unnerving as the story. 

The Unfortunates were born without any luck into a world of chaos created by the powers of Good Luck and Bad Luck.  In their world Luck is a resource that can be measured and hoarded and distributed.  But the Unfortunates never have any Luck. These five kids have been training for years so that they can be unleashed directly into the chaos to restore everything to normal.  Except without luck, there is quantifiably no chance they will succeed.  But they try anyway. After having read issue #3, I’m still not sure I know what’s going on, but I’m invested. Artie and his Unfortunate friends are the ultimate underdogs. They literally can’t win.

What to do if the entire MULTIVERSE is at stake? Well, in Commanders in Crisis, you steal the best of the best from other multiverses to help. Until they figure out that something weird is afoot and they stop helping. And what if Empathy itself is murdered, what then? This comic will make your head spin a bit, but in a good way.  Like a glass to many of champagne. It’s silly, it’s raunchy, it’s sexy it’s snarky. Thoroughly enjoyable.

For those of us who are crowd-averse introverts, or those of us still lurking on the sidelines because of the pandemic, Pride may look a little quieter this year. And that’s ok, there are still many ways to celebrate besides parades and parties. In my experience, the best way to be with people without actually being with people is definitely to indulge in some really good books. So whether you are a proud member of the community or a supportive ally, here is a list of 30 LGBTQIA+ books to celebrate Pride Month.

Comics and Graphic Novels

  • Joyride (volumes 1-3) by Jackson Lanzing (teen)
  • Valor (volumes 1&2) by Fairylogue Press (teen)
  • Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer (teen)
  • Paper Girls (volumes 1-6) by Brian K. Vaughan (teen)
  • Fence (volumes 1-3) by C.S. Pacat (teen)
  • Always Human by Ari North (teen)
  • Isola (volumes 1&2) by Brenden Fletcher (*adult*)
  • Commanders in Crisis (volume 1) by Steve Orlando (*adult*)
  • Heathen (volumes 1-3) by Natasha Alterici (*adult*)

Memoirs and Essays

  • Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough
  • One Life by Megan Rapinoe
  • We are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
  • Here For It by R. Eric Thomas
  • Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno

Young Adult Fiction

  • Cemetery boys by Aiden Thomas
  • Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe (series) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
  • Call Down The Hawk (series) by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust
  • Every Heart a Doorway Every Heart A Doorway (series) by Seanan McGuire
  • Shades of Magic (series) by V.E. Scwab

Adult Fiction

  • Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
  • The Sleeper And The Spindle by Neil Gaiman
  • The Ruthless Lady’s Guide To Wizardry by C. M. Waggoner
  • This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone
  • The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  • Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey

Middle Grade Fiction

  • The Tea Dragon Society (series) by K. O’Neill
  • Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo
  • Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
  • Princess Princess Ever After by K. O’Neill

This week, Arkansas became the first state in the U.S. to ban trans-affirming healthcare for transgender youth.  This bill, not yet signed into law, succeeded in the state legislature despite the Endocrine Society, Child Mind Institute, and the American Psychological Association all supporting affirming care for transgender youth.  Even worse, it appears that 2021 is shaping up to an aggressively anti-trans year; 28 states have anti-trans bills on their legislative agendas. 

But the fact is that the need for social acceptance and affirming healthcare is vital to the continued mental and physical health of all transgender folks, young and old alike.  Current statistics on transgender youth are particularly devastating.

(Source:  The Trevor Project

Which makes International Transgender Day of Visibility (3/31) this year more important than ever.  Lost in the all the anti-trans rhetoric and policy are the stories of actual trans people, people who are harmed most directly by these bigoted and harmful policies. It is their lives at stake but we aren’t able to hear their stories because representation of trans people (both real and fictional) is not yet commonplace in media. And support for trans creators is still sorely lacking. 

Reading, to me, has always been the easiest way to to learn about people who are different than I am. Stories, both real and fiction, are the easiest place to learn about someone else’s life – to follow along with their sorrows and triumphs, their success and their challenges. By diversifying our bookshelves and expanding our worldview to include trans experiences, we can cultivate much-needed empathy to help us combat the bigotry and discrimination that we are seeing (and have been seeing) play out in our politics.  Empathy and acceptance start with awareness and understanding. There is no better way to understand someone than to read their story. So here are some of my favorite books about trans people and by trans people.

Graphic Novels

One place where trans characters seem to abound, especially for younger readers, is graphic novels set in fantasy settings.  Books like The Witch Boy series by Molly Ostertag deal with themes of identity and acceptance and can be read as allegories for transness.  But many others have explicit trans themes and characters.  The themes of love and self-discovery, identity and acceptance run throughout all of the books listed below. They are a great way to introduce younger readers (and their parents!) to trans characters.

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh is the story of a (gender non-conforming) girl named Snapdragon and her best friend Lu, a transgender girl. Snap’s other best friend is Jacks, the local witch, who teaches her magic.  Every character in this book is quirky, authentic and endearing.

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker, Wendy Xu (Illustrator) follows the story of Nova, a teenage witch, and her best friend (and childhood crush) Tam, a nonbinary werewolf.  Together they fight evil magic.  This story and its heroes are enchanting (pun intended). 

Girl Haven by Lilah Sturges, Meaghan Carter (Illustrator)  Ash and his new friends from the Pride Club at school jokingly use a spell from Ash’s mom’s “imaginary” spellbook to travel to a land where only girls are allowed.   Except that it’s not imaginary and they actually end up in the magical land of Koretris.  They all do, including Ash, and he doesn’t know how that’s possible.  Because he’s a boy.  Or is he?

Lumberjanes Series by Lilah Sturges and polterink (Illustrator) This series of original graphic novels follows the characters from the Lumberjanes comics on crazy magical adventures at summer camp.  The gang includes Jo, a transgender girl and Barney, a nonbinary camper who joins the team from the boy’s camp.

Other Graphic Novels for younger readers include Witchy by Ariel Slamet Ries, and the Moonstruck comics by Grace Ellis, Shae Beagle (Artist), Kate Leth (Artist)

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Zone OneI love big words.  I have a solid vocabulary, built on the foundation of obsessive reading since childhood.  I rarely have to stop and look up words while reading.  Although we have dictionaries all over the house, my husband instead often chooses to yell at me  “what does X mean?” while he’s reading.  But to me there’s a limit, a line between being well-read and being pompous.  Which is not to say I don’t enjoy the impossibly big words too.  It’s just that they’re too special for everyday usage.  Like using Grandma’s fancy china for Sunday dinner, when you take them out everyone’s a little bit stiff and uncomfortable.  And let’s face it, they usually come out when company is over and you’re trying to impress someone.

I can’t tell you what word of Zone One first hit a discordant note for me.  I think instead it was the general rhythm that felt clunky and ponderous to me.  I do remember a vague jarring feeling after the first few pages.  It’s the feeling that I would get (I imagine) if I saw a Shakespearean actor starring in a romantic comedy.  I was uneasy.  I was confused.  I thought this was a zombie story.

I don’t mean to imply that zombie stories aren’t smart.  Or that smart people don’t read them.  Clearly I’m a thinking person and I love zombie apocalyptic mayhem.  But with this book I kept thinking what is going on here?  We’re busting out the china and we don’t even have visitors coming.  When on page 75 defenestration was thrown out there (pun intended), I audibly groaned.  Who says that in pre-apocalyptic society?  Besides overly literate teenagers having fun placing it in casual conversation.  Are we assuming a higher level of erudition in the masses surviving zombie slaughter?  We shouldn’t.  My guess is the dudes slinging dead zombie bodies out windows would be saying “later motherfuckers!”  On that same page came the words (also regarding the defenestration of zombie corpses)  “. . .splashing him with ichor and grue.”  So hard on the heels of defenestration, these words almost did me in.  If I hadn’t just read a review in the New Yorker about Magic Mike XXL, I would have thought the world was ending.  Clearly there are no boundaries for the highly articulate.

There is no doubt that Mr. Whitehead is a clever writer.  Sadly, his subtle, snarky asides reminded me of a precocious child screaming for attention in a room full of adults. I do not like precocious children.  He wants us to see how clever he his.   Which, being the contrary person I am, makes me want to ignore him entirely.

So why did I finish the book?  Well for one, I’m also stubborn besides contrary. It amounts to a very petulant attitude of You think you’re more clever than me?  I’ll show you.  And also, as I kept reading I found out just how clever Mr. Whitehead really is.  When he’s not trying to show off, his legitimate brilliance eked out.  The following paragraph made me stop and say out loud “Now THAT is good writing!”:

“Parenthood made grown-ups unpredictable.  They hesitated at the key moment out of consideration for their kid’s abilities or safety, they were paranoid he wanted to rape or eat their offspring, they slowed him down with their baby steps or kept him distracted as he pondered their erraticism. . .The parents were dangerous because they didn’t want your precious supplies.  They possessed the valuables, and it hobbled their reasoning.”

THAT is what I want to think about when I think about zombies.  I want the humanization of a world filled with unhumans.  Tell me what it’s like to live with the undead and survivors.  No fancy words required.

Finally, begrudgingly I came to really like this book. I may even read it again, defenestration, ichor and all.   By the end I was satisfied with story.  It was simple and rang true.

“The world wasn’t ending:  it had ended and now they were in a new place.  They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before.”

We spend much time writing about the books we’re reading here, and little time about how awesome books are in general (and that’s a good thing — no one would want to read that all year round). But Christmas got me thinking about it so I wanted to give thanks to books.

My Christmas morning was full of books. Here’s what I found under the tree, along with a stocking full of an unconscionable amount of candy:

I also gave folks loads of books and indie self-published comics because they would like them, it would help keep bookstores and writers and artists going in these trying times, and because it’s fun. I can’t think of a better Christmas day then one where we are all sprawled out on the couch or living room floor reading our presents while the snow falls outside. That’s how Christmas was when I was a kid and how it still is today — for that day at least I’m only having an adventure, not just reading when I can on the subway or before I fall asleep at night. Books are awesome. So is getting them as gifts.

Here’s a beautiful video via the New York Times book blog that captures everything I just wrote in a much more eloquent way. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

I’ve never had any interest in novel-writing. I’m more of a script guy (comics, screenplays, little notes directing me to write something later that I never will) and I’ve always bristled when people ask me when my first novel will be finished upon learning that I’m a writer. A novel is a very specific art form with many rules and traditions. It’s not simply the default setting for writers.

Then my friend Melissa signed up for National Novel Writing Month last year and it sounded like too much fun. The premise? You just write 50,000 words in 30 days. They don’t have to be polished or good or even (I’m assuming) very novel-like. It’s a writing exercise, really — the kind that reminds you what it was like when you were a kid and writing was as simple as looking out the window in the morning and writing about the snow coming down until you got bored. Writing should be, as Neil Gaiman put it, making stuff up in your head and then writing it down. National Novel Writing Month is basically a hammer to break the emergency glass and get back to that. I’m looking forward to it.

The race began today and I’ve got a few words in the bank. You can check out my progress in the little gadget at left and on the NaNoWriMo site. And you should do it, too! Sign up here.

You too, Jessica! Write a novel!

Book CoverFull disclosure:  I read Marley and Me (hey, it has a dog on the cover doesn’t it?) and I enjoyed the book immensely.  I laughed at all the funny parts, cringed when required and even cried at the end (come on, you knew it was coming!).  I’ve read that Walking with Ollie is Britain’s answer to Marley and I agree with that in many ways. I also think that both men adore and love their dogs and any judgments that follow are solely in their roles as responsible dog owners, not as good people.

I have four rescue animals – two cats and two dogs.  They are all wonderful creatures, affectionate and loving.  They don’t know they are supposed to be thankful that I rescued them and often act quite cavalier about their living situation (they are, plain and simply, spoiled).  Three of them have stable personalities with no issues that need managing. 

One of them doesn’t. 

He came to us as a four month old puppy and the first time I took him to the vet (the second day I had him) she said “He’s a bit timid isn’t he?”  I wouldn’t realize her understatement until many months later.  By then I had come to realize the little guy was afraid of the car (he puked once he got in), strange men on the street (or boys past the age of 15 or so), my father (even after he’d known him for months), statues of people, holiday decorations, the vacuum cleaner, nail clippers (the dog version and the human version), baby gates, cats, and inexplicably, the Stop N Shop Peapod truck.   Unlike Ollie, he was not afraid of his owner (me) but he did give Tim the fish eye occasionally, just to make sure he wasn’t up to no good.

When I began reading Ollie, I couldn’t help but remember the despair I felt when I realized my dog was not normal.  I felt that I had failed.  I thought that my first dog attempt was a disaster and it was all my fault (did I make him this way?).  That I couldn’t help this poor creature who was just terrified of the world.  I felt for Mr. Foster, I really did.  I’ve been there. 

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“As much as I admire and value intellectualism and experimentation, I’ve discovered that unless a book has a throbbing heart as well as a sexy brain, I feel like the story is a specimen in a sealed glass jar and not a living, breathing creature I want to take by the hand and talk to for hours on end.”

Myla Goldberg from this Slate article.

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Let’s face it, readers are at least a little bit geeky.  And I don’t mean you Opera Book Club, Joyce Carol Oates, or Nora Roberts fans (I continue to slam them, knowing there is no chance they are reading this right now).  I mean real readers of real books. You know, the kind who read (or write) a book blog. 

That geekiness doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.  I began liking to read because in my early elementary school years the readers were the smart kids.  And I very much wanted to be one of the smart kids, especially when I learned in the 3rd grade what “straight A’s” meant. What started out as purely academic and competitive turned into something more.  I got hooked on all the wonderful stories out there. 

As I got older and being smarter made me less popular I hung onto reading (which, it needs to be said, my peers were dropping it as fast as they could to become “cool” or a reasonable facsimile) because it is a solitary but never lonely activity.  It’s an excuse to be alone with your thoughts and a clearly identifiable activity which doesn’t make you (that) weird.  Parents don’t hound you for reading too much.  You can opt out of the latest innane schoolyard game quietly and without embarrassment by sitting on the grass with a new volume. If you’re home on a Saturday night you’ve always got something to do.

If you’re reading others don’t hang out with you because they think you are too smart for them (and therefore boring) , not necessarily because you’re a loser.   Or they call you “bookish” which sounds suspiciously like a compliment given to less social, but reading kids.  In school the smart kids are somehow allowed more leeway in the social awkwardness category (actually in life, for those of you who have ever met a brilliant but painfully awkward MIT grad).  There’s at least one positive thing about you – usually a way to get homework copied, or the answers on a test.   

Or it’s possible that these are all the reasons I’ve constructed to make my inner geek feel better. 

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{Full disclosure:  I’m a little defensive lately.  My best friend got married in the last of the weddings for this season (what a relief) and we didn’t make it to rehearsal dinner before the “When are you getting married?” questions started.  I’ve mentioned before that reading keeps me sane and my choices this week are no exception.}

I’ve had my anti-bride rant already so I’m moving on to bigger prey.  In a long hot summer filled with wedding after wedding (really it was only three, almost four, but it seemed like exponentially more) I’ve become increasingly frustrated by social expectations being laid at my feet.  Everyone wants to marry me off. 

It still amazes me how rude some people can be.  When are you getting married is not, by any means, an innocuous or polite question.  And yet it’s completely socially acceptable.   Even if we excuse the blatant invasion of privacy there are issues with the semantics.  Firstly there is the “when” of it which implies there is no choice not to – it’s  pretty clear that this is not a question of “if” after all.  Secondly there is the fact that the questioner even has to ask the question, which implies that you’re taking too long (the poor, frustrated souls, I really feel for them).  This questions belongs, along with its sister when are you having kids, to a society where people had no choices in the matter – matrimony and childbirth were inevitable – and frankly, they had nothing better to talk about.  I for one think we’ve moved past that and our social manners should evolve as such.  Unfortunately it appears that I’m in the minority on this one.

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Jessica’s Reading

Jesse’s Reading

Jesse and Jessica are Both Reading

Devin’s Reading