Ages and ages ago, Rebecca reviewed a funny romance novel called Love for the Cold-Blooded, which peeked behind the scenes of life as a super-villain’s sidekick. That story felt so fresh because it subverted the ubiquitous hero/villain tension by making the heroes seem kind of dumb and the villains seem reasonable, if perhaps a little dramatic. It also featured a surprisingly sweet romance. If you’re interested in a book that flips the traditional script on superheroes but with a very different feeling, Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots avoids all the sweet predictability of a romance.

In Hench, Anna Tromedlov (even she knows this name is a little silly) is a data analyst scraping by doing temp jobs for small-time villains. She’s not overly ambitious or too concerned with the morality of her work, until she becomes collateral damage when a hero sweeps in to save the day. As she recovers from a serious injury that no one will admit was caused by a “good guy,” she becomes obsessed with the damage that heroes can do. She starts applying her intellect and skills to the problem, and she gets drawn right into the heart of the hero/villain conflict. What seemed like just an ethically-dubious desk job is suddenly a much more dangerous proposition.

I appreciated that Anna was never overly concerned with whether she was fighting on the right side or not–her alliances are clear from the beginning. Rather, she has to figure out just how much she’s willing to put into her job, what allegiance we owe to the people we follow and what we expect from them in exchange, and how all her villain-izing will impact the rest of her life.

There is a lot of overlap between this story and The Boys on Amazon, which is a good, interesting show addressing some of these same issues. I do like The Boys, but I also find it grosser than I can handle at times, and awfully overloaded with a bunch of loud white guys. I think the fact that Hench is a book (so I can skim over some of the grosser stuff) and is the internal story of a smart, take-no-shit woman (who also has no patience for overbearing dudes), made it more compelling and enjoyable for me.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Darkly-funny villain adventure

You might also like: This is a tough one, because Hench has such a specific voice. But a few other books that put a twist on some traditional situations/tropes include Sign Here by Claudia Lux, Vampire Weekend by Mike Chen, and Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson.

Woman, Eating

By Claire Kohda

Uh, this novel is very strange. It’s a dark, often melancholy, coming of age story, as Lydia, a sheltered 23-year-old, is on her own for the first time after placing her mother in a care home. She’s awkward and shy, trying to find herself in her internship at an art gallery and her studio at a young artists’ collective. She’s also a vampire.

But still a very, very young vampire, who is struggling with her identity, as well as to ethically source blood in London. For the majority of the book she is starving (thus the title), and obsessed with human food she can’t digest. This wouldn’t be a great book for anyone with any sort of eating disorder. In fact, there are a few different content warnings (sexual assault, imagined animal harm), and I read a lot of the book in a state of low-level dread.

But I also read the book in rare complete focus because the writing is just so beautiful. It is very literary – most of the narrative is Lydia’s thoughts and feelings, and they could sometimes be exasperatingly self-indulgent in a very accurate 23-year-old way. But the backcover blurbs weren’t wrong when they raved about a completely new perspective on vampire mythos. Once I started reading each night, I only put the book down again at the end of each of the three parts that divide the relatively short book (227 pages).

The end, too, is a viscerally joyous release of all the built-up tension that truly fulfills Lydia’s coming of age. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I enjoyed the experience of reading this throughout, but I’m very glad that I did nonetheless.

Let Us Do The Best That We Can, by Cawein and Heller

Let Us Do The Best That We Can
Written by Madison Cawein
Illustrated by Helen West Heller

I bought this book for $8 in an online auction, sight-unseen, because the pictures looked really cool. And then I saw it in person and it’s adorable! Physically, it’s 5”x6.5”x0.25” and in not great shape, but uses thick paper to make up for the fact that it’s only 10 pages long — 5 verses of a poem and 5 wood cut illustrations – plus a handful of opening and closing pages.

The illustrations are beautiful woodcuts. It’s going to join Gods’ Man in my small collection of beautiful old illustrated novels.

The poetry is… sweet. It feels like something out of one of the red bound Children’s Hour books. It’s lovely and motivational about doing the best one can and being happy regardless of the results because you did the best you can. The message is how everything will work out in the end if you just do your best. It strikes me as an excellent poem for children.

I just have to remember that it was written at the beginning of the first world war. This is the innocent version of Ayn Rand’s dream world: everyone does their individual best and it’s enough.

In today’s economic climate of corruption, stock prices before product quality, and massive corporations setting employees against one another, the impact of this poem feels more like propaganda against taking the larger view or addressing systemic inequalities and injustices. And, frankly, I suspect that there was both similar propaganda and the need for it in the early 1900s, as well.

But it still is a sweet poem about enjoying the pleasure and pride of a job well worked and I do appreciate that. Plus, just physically adorable as a book. This publisher was like: yes, I will publish a beautiful little book with ten pages!

Between Jobs

By W. R. Gingell

This is the first in a series that is weird, funny, and not always so tightly plotted, but I’m popping them like potato chips! I’m already on the third, after reading the first two over a couple of days each. They are narrated by a teenage girl who is most likely borderline psychotic (or at the very least deeply dissociative) after her parents are murdered. She’s been squatting in her parents’ house trying to support herself, when a neighbor is murdered just outside the house and three very strange men move in to investigate.

They turn out to be two fae and a vampire, and they grudgingly agree to keep our narrator as a pet of sorts, much to her glee. Clearly this premise has the potential to be deeply troubling and problematic, but our narrator is just so happy with the situation and the supernatural beings just so bemused that it is instead the precise type of light and absurd book I’m feeling right now. It also reminded me strongly of this tumblr post:

So far, our narrator is pleased as punch to be a pet, but the relationships are slowly evolving over the books, so I look forward to the changing dynamics among them all. That said, as I hinted above, sometimes the plot takes second place to the very amusing characters and setting, and I wasn’t sure I fully grasped the final solution of the mystery at the end of the first book, but I also didn’t particularly care, I was enjoying it so much!

Kickstarter comics

As the year at work started off with a cascading series of problems, I have been in a bit of a reading slump , not able to focus on reading and getting distracted even from stories that I’m actively enjoying. I’ve started a number of books and haven’t completed any of them, and it’s definitely me rather than any judgement on the books. Hopefully I’ll get back to those later and be able to enjoy them when I’m in the right mindset.

But one of the things I enjoy doing is browsing the comics section of Kickstarter. There’s always a wild array of possibilities there with stories that couldn’t or wouldn’t or just haven’t found a way into mainstream graphic novel publishing, at least not in the US. I semi-regularly support the stories that catch my eye and then just wait to see what shows up as a surprise gift to myself however many months later.

Last week while I was moping around not able to read anything much, one of the projects I supported was fulfilled and I received a package that contained two thin volumes that were each short enough that I could just sit down and read them in one go:

Cotton Tales, Volumes 1 & 2
by Jessica Cioffi, AKA Loputyn

These beautiful books full of ethereal images tell a gothic story of a boy who has woken from an injury with no memories in a mansion that’s haunted by a ghost and there are a huge number of rabbits that only he can see. The world has magic in it, but it’s unclear what is real to that world and what isn’t. And everyone he meets has ulterior motives and hidden histories.

It’s a fairy tale story with a simplicity that let me read and enjoy it within a day and break my streak of unfinished books. I’m also looking forward to seeing if there is an eventual volume 3, although volume 2 does end with a satisfying conclusion even as it sets up for the next stage of events. Volume 1 ended with much more uncertainty so I’m glad I got these both at once.

Having enjoyed these books so much, reminded me of another Kickstarter comic that I’d received some time back and then never got around to completely reading:

Elements of Fire
edited by Taneka Stotts

This more hefty book is a limited-palette graphic novel (black, white, and red) anthology of 23 stories with lengths ranging between two to sixteen pages each. The first couple of stories reminded me of why I hadn’t completed this before: they weren’t bad, just not to my taste: one high fantasy and one overly twee. But this time I persevered and I am so grateful that I did because the third story blew my mind! It was so good and so beautiful both visually and conceptually. And then there were twenty more stories!

With any anthology there are going to be better and worse stories but this is really an amazing collection. I loved more stories than I didn’t and now I’m a bit embarrassed for having set it down for so long. The artists made some amazing and fascinating choices with how to use the restricted palette to best effect, and created vast and complex worlds in just a few pages each.

Each story is unique — Stotts did an amazing job of curating a wild diversity with this collection that went above and beyond the stated intent of diversity in having all creators of color. It really shows a diversity of cultures and styles and approaches to the art of graphic novels.

While they all very good, my favorites — the ones where the stories and the art combined to touch my heart — were:

  • Cactus Flower by Sara Duvall
  • Pulse by Der-Shing Helmer
  • Hearth by Jaid Mandas and Marisa Han
  • Preta by Chloe Chan and Nina Matsumoto
  • Meta Helmet by Deshan Tennekoon and Isuri Merenchi Hewage
  • Caldera by Jemma Salume and Taneka Stotts
  • Firestom by Melanie Ujimori and Chan Chau
  • Home is Where the Hearth Is by Veronica Agarwal

I highly recommend this anthology to any and everyone to see which stories and images touch them. Because all of the stories are skillfully written and drawn: after that it’s a matter of personal preference.

This anthology also really presses home why I browse Kickstarter so much more often than I step into any comic bookstore anymore. A good comic book store will have an “Other” section in addition to their Marvel and DC, but they necessarily cater to the masses in a way that Kickstarter doesn’t have to. Plus each comic is a unique creation of love by an artist rather than a business decision by a corporation, so even when they wind up not to my taste (which happens sometimes), I never regret supporting them.

It was also wonderful to sit down with some books and actually read them, cover to cover, and have a sense of completion that I’ve been missing in the last couple of months.

The Prisoner

By B. A. Paris

I’m not even sure how to review this book, quite frankly. I definitely enjoyed it, but it was listed sort of vaguely as psychological thriller, and while it is that, it also read as decidedly YA. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing!

Well, not all the way, at least. The characters are two-dimensional enough that I kept waiting for a reveal beneath the surface that never came. However, a plot switcheroo halfway through the book reminded me strongly of Gone Girl, only as it would be written for children. It’s not a sophisticated book, so the switch didn’t come as a total shock, but it was still very satisfying, which I think represents the book well.

This would be an amazing book for a young teen or precocious tween, who feels ready for adult books but should still be somewhat eased into them. There are a number of tricks and schemes that weren’t the most subtle, but I still really enjoyed them, just in a sort of bemused way. There is no sex (though some non-specific mention of sexual assault in the past), no drug use, or even much swearing. There is violence, as befits a mystery and psych thriller, but not gruesomely described. I would have loved it and felt so mature if I’d read it at 14 or 15! (I was not a precocious tween.)

Once I had a clearer realization of the proper audience for the book, I enjoyed it even more and stopped looking for hidden meanings or nuance that wasn’t there. That said, I was pleasantly surprised that the author gave serious attention to the protagonist’s trauma response, instead of brushing it aside or romanticizing it, which I’d half expected.

Lavender House

By Lev AC Rosen

This mystery novel had shown up on several recommendation lists over the last few months, and it is well justified! Rosen beautifully takes the noir sensibility, which imbues generalized disenfranchisement, and applies it very directly and acutely to the LGBT community in 1950s San Francisco. It becomes a somewhat pointed critique of noir in general, I think, by contrasting what has typically been a general mental oppressiveness in the great noir writers like Chandler and Hammett, with actual systemic and malicious oppression against specific people.

Traditional noir characters sense a true darkness in the world that the general populace ignores or is blind to. In Lavender House, the gay characters only wish they had the option to ignore the ugliness of the world, instead of having it thrust upon them if they drop their defenses for a second. While San Francisco was just starting to be a budding haven for gay people, so there were more underground clubs and the like, the whole of the United States remained very dangerous.

Our protagonist, Levander “Andy” Mills is as aware of this anyone else. As a (closely closeted) gay cop, he is both threatened and the threat, and straddling that line, can trust no one. Before the start of the novel, however, he was discovered in a club raid, kicked off the force, and all but run out of town. He is getting drunk in a bar before throwing himself into the Bay, when Pearl comes to ask him to investigate the suspicious death of her wife. Pearl is the surviving matriarch of the Lavender House, where the now deceased scion of a wealthy soap family created a home where a handful of gay couples can live freely, while showing a much different face to the outside world.

Andy moves into the house in order to investigate, mostly with the idea that he has nothing left to lose at this point, but it opens his mind to a whole different world. And this is what I really loved about the book: it explores the seductive but false appeal of noir and cynicism. It’s a really interesting play on noir – the detective himself has bought into the ideological grimness, but the novel makes the effort to show that his cynicism, though not unfounded, is a blindness of sorts. He expects the worst from people, and while this protects him to a point, he closes himself off so no one can either hurt him or care for him. And then, worst of all, believes that is all there is to life.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book before that did such of a good job of criticizing its genre so validly, while also perfectly exemplifying it. A very minor spoiler: the end is both satisfying and a poignant summary of the overall themes, with a hopefulness that would feel jarring after a traditional noir but feels like the point of the whole book here.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters
by C. S. Lewis

Having enjoyed The Great Divorce and found it extremely thought-provoking and had a casual book club with various members of my family, it was proposed that we read The Screwtape Letters next. It was just as thought provoking, if not more so, although somewhat less enjoyable. It consists of 31 chapters/letters plus one toast, and it’s all told from the perspective of a demon, the titular Screwtape, who is giving advice on how to lure humans into sin.

Despite having been written 80 years ago, it is decidedly timely today, as it addresses the devil’s goal of keeping humans constantly focused on doom scrolling and headlines and thoughtless denigration of anyone who disagrees with you, while avoiding humility, charity, respect, or thoughtful consideration. I felt decidedly called out at various points. I should be better! I will try to be more thoughtful and focused and enjoy the pleasures that are available to me in the present and worry less.

At other points, however, it feels dated in the way that it appears to be arguing about social trends that I’m not even aware of. At one point the devil is recommending that people should stay focused on government policies rather than prayers since those are so much less important and I really hope that Lewis had no expectation of “thoughts and prayers” becoming such a catch phrase for politicians refusing to update policies. As Screwtape presents himself as the arbiter of what is evil, Lewis comes across as an arbiter of what is good, and that is, occasionally, rough. Historians, modern artists, and unions are all mentioned as being misleading to Good Christians.

Lewis definitely takes the opportunity to call out some of his personal most and least favored theologians, placing them either as godly agents or thoroughly controlled by the devils’ temptations to sin. This book also has a nearly Ayn Randian Objectivist perspective on the world: what is Good is very clear and natural and unaffected by different lives, perspectives or understandings. Devils provide temptation and people provide false information but a Good Christian will just know what is right due to God, much the same way that Ayn Rand’s protagonists will know what is right due to Logic, despite any lack of education or resources for either. Peak individualism, despite the differences in both methods and goals.  

I found that I needed to read this book one chapter at a time and take at least a little break between. They were thought provoking and inspiring and occasionally quite funny, but they were also quite dense and more than occasionally rather florid.

This book also made me think that I should get around to reading Lolita, at some point, as the only other book I can think of that has the protagonist/narrator also be the unrepentant villain of the story. I did wonder how many people read this book and think Screwtape is an anti-hero instead. Some of his advice came across as fitting right in with big business and some of my least favorite managers at my job, so it’s not out of the question.

I got a lot out of this book and enjoyed talking about it with Anna as we progressed through, but the book started out strong and then got progressively more wearying as it continued. It’s worth reading, but be prepared to decide what you take seriously. (Note: Cherry-picking what to take seriously is also advice that Screwtape would offer a human and C.S. Lewis specifically rejects when it comes to religious contemplation. So, you know: Enjoy!)

The Screwtape Letters

By C.S. Lewis

Rebecca and I both enjoyed The Great Divorce so much that we decided to read The Screwtape Letters, another Christian fantasy by C.S. Lewis (her review to follow). This novel is a collection of letters from Screwtape, a demon, giving guidance to his nephew on how to corrupt people’s souls. And it comes out of the gate swinging!

“Your business is to fix his attention on the stream [of immediate sense experiences]. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’.” (p. 2!)

C.S. Lewis is scolding me for wasting time on social media from beyond the grave!

“But the best of all is to let him read not science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’. (p. 3)

80 years ago, C.S. Lewis was dunking on do-your-own-research guys!

So, it’s been a real eye-opening seeing the ever-green traits of humanity that I used to ascribe to the digital age. I initially enjoyed the novelty of it, but the narrative structure of letters leads to far more proselytizing than The Great Divorce, which took a more show-don’t-tell approach. As Screwtape enumerates all things that can lead a person to hell, the path to heaven becomes narrower and harder to define. The reader gets all sorts of negatives (just going through the religious motions will surely lead you to hell, but so too will interrogating your faith too thoroughly), and no positive directions, as far as I can tell.

Of course, this falls in well with the conceit of letters from a demon. Lewis even gives himself a clever and all-encompassing disclaimer in his preface by saying that all demons lie and even have their own bias, so any issues with the letter lie solely with the fictional demonic letter-writer. So, while it’s hard to argue with this, Lewis clearly intends the book for Christian instruction, and for me, at least, this type of negative direction is not so helpful.

After a while, as the ways humans stray kept piling up, I started bracing myself for some ugly prejudice or another to rear its head. However, nothing overt emerged, though Lewis is pretty dismissive of women, when he gives them any thought at all, and it’s probably all for the best that he doesn’t give any thought to anyone non-white, non-Christian, or even non-English. It was hard to escape the feeling of just being constantly scolded, though.

The book contains 31 letters in all, each only being 3-5 pages, and it made me wonder if it was intended to read one letter a day, to allow the reader some time to really think through each one. But Rebecca read that they were originally released in serial on a weekly basis, which is an even better, longer break between each one! It ends with a longer essay, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which Lewis wrote years later, and in which Screwtape is addresses a new graduating class of demonic tempters. In it, Lewis once again expresses a surprisingly current sentiment, though more retrograde with a “kids these days, with their participation trophies” hack.

The Half Life of Valery K

By Natasha Pulley

I really like Natasha Pulley, but man, it feels like she is in a challenge to make her readers root for the most problematic character possible. I had some serious issues with her previous book The Kingdoms, but I think she might have outdone herself this time. (Unlike her other books, The Half Life of Valery K doesn’t include any magical realism and is even based on real events, which makes it worse, quite frankly.)

The protagonist, the titular Valery K, is a radiation scientist in Russia in the 1960s, which simply can’t be anything but problematic given the field of study and time period. When the novel starts, Valery has been in a Siberian work camp for 6 years, and has only survived that long due to some lucky circumstances. The description of the work camp is devastating, especially given how well researched it seems to be. Valery has every expectation of starving to death in the following year when he is released and brought to ‘City 40’ to help study the effects of radiation on the general ecosystem. City 40 is kept in deep secrecy to hide it from the western countries (the US in particular), and once in the city, no one leaves.

Valery quickly befriends the head KGB officer that holds them all there, another strangely sympathetic but deeply problematic character. It is a much more comfortable imprisonment than the work camps, so Valery is content until he discovers deeper secrets that even his very compromised morals cannot accept.

And that gets to the crux of the book – it is all about the evils that people have to accept to survive in impossible situations. And also when people reach a breaking point where they can’t accept any more, and fight back, often becoming evil in their own opposing way. This obviously makes for a very difficult read, and I think I’ll be wrestling with the questions this book raises for a while.

I haven’t read much about the Soviet Union, so this book more than any other I’ve read gave me insight into what the Soviet communist government was trying to achieve as an ideal and some of the ways it failed so badly in practice. Anti-west Soviet propaganda is a pervasive background throughout the novel, with most characters living in constant fear of US bombing, especially after Hiroshima. Soviet citizens would ascribe most unexplained explosions to US bombing, and I realized that I had no idea if the United States had bombed the USSR in the 50s and 60s, and that I likely wouldn’t know.

Though the US is somewhat more sophisticated in how it influences its citizens,* it made me really interrogate the degree to which I’ve bought into western propaganda (the Soviet characters are shocked by the strict gender roles imposed in western cultures, for instance). Awareness is all well and good, but there’s no clear answer for how individual citizens can combat this ideological warfare, which left me feeling a little hopeless about the state of humanity in general.

*I was reminded of a joke I’d heard a while ago: A Russian and an American get on a plane in Moscow and get to talking. The Russian says he works for the Kremlin and he’s on his way to go learn American propaganda techniques.

“What American propaganda techniques?” asks the American. “Exactly,” the Russian replies.