B-

Mooncakes

by Suzanne Walker
October 15, 2019 · Lion Forge
Graphic NovelLGBTQIAYoung Adult

This YA graphic novel is very sweet and perfect for fall. I’m not sure that much about it will stay with me, but it was a good use of a leisurely autumn lunch break.

Mooncakes tells the story of Nova, a teen witch, and her childhood friend Tam, a werewolf, who is back in town after a several-year absence. Tam is trying to defeat a local demon who has possessed a horse (unlike most of the rest of this book, the six-legged demon horse is truly nightmare fuel). Nova finds Tam, and Nova and her family take Tam in to help them harness their wolf powers and defeat the demon.

Mooncakes gets a giant thumbs up from me for atmosphere. Everything about this book screams COZY FALL: witchcraft, a magic-filled bookstore, benevolent ghosts, the mid-autumn festival (hence the titular mooncakes), Halloween decorations, adorable and Very Good black cats, and vivid outdoor scenes—Mooncakes basically fills up a “fall trope” bingo board all by itself!

Three black cats yowl and scratch at a closed bedroom door.
Truly they are Very Good black cats.

The colors of this graphic novel are gorgeous. It is clear that a lot of care went into developing the palette, which manages to be both consistent and to transmit the mood of each scene perfectly. I could practically feel the chill, clear fall air and dreamy moonlight of autumn looking at the landscape scenes. I’m not sure if the book is expressly set in New England, but boy-o did it make me miss New England falls!!

Nova and Tam walk down a hill under a beautiful autumn sunset.
Anyone wanna go apple picking?

In addition to giving me all of those pumpkin spice feels, another thing I enjoyed about this graphic novel is its matter-of-course approach to diversity. Nova and Tam are both Chinese-American, Nova’s maternal grandmothers (one Jewish and one Chinese) are in a loving queer domestic partnership, Nova wears hearing aids, and Tam is nonbinary and uses they-them pronouns. All of these facets of identity are presented as integral parts of the characters, but not as anything that needs to be explained or justified to the reader.

That doesn’t mean there’s never any identity-related friction. For example, Nova expresses some frustration that others are insensitive about her hearing, and Tam does have to correct one of the Nanas initially about using the correct pronouns for them. But identity is not really a source of conflict.

Given how few nonbinary characters there are in media in general, and especially in media aimed at younger readers, Tam was a particularly refreshing character for me. Tam’s gender is treated the same as their were-wolfiness (is that a word?); it just is, and to question it would be to deny a visceral reality. There’s no struggling with or questioning gender identity. (Not that there’s not a place for those narratives. There absolutely is, but it’s nice to have a nonbinary character who can be pretty much only concerned with non-gender related things, like harnessing wolf magic and defeating demon horses).

Besides these two (admittedly big) strengths, Mooncakes’ characters and plot did not otherwise inspire strong feelings in me. This may be partly because this book is clearly aimed at a teen audience, and I would say a below-16 audience. That does not mean adults won’t enjoy it, but a lot of the major elements of the book, like the interpersonal relationships and conflicts, lack a little bit of meat.

The relationships in this book are fairly one-note. Because that one note is “sweet and supportive,” I still enjoyed them, but they weren’t especially compelling. There is very little conflict between the major characters. There’s not even the kind of conflict that occurs when you love someone and are concerned that their behavior is reckless/bone-headed/careless/etc. And since various characters seem to be withholding information and/or engaging in what seems to be wildly dangerous magical shenanigans throughout the book, this was a little strange. Because the overriding relationship paradigm seems to be enveloping each other in fluffy clouds of unconditional support and love, no one seems to particularly accountable to anyone else for their actions. This prevented me from feeling fully grounded in the characters.

For example, the Grandmas suss out (and say to each other) very early on that they believe Tam is keeping some secrets from them about the demon horse of nightmares, but their reaction is pretty much “I guess they’ll tell us when they’re ready?” Given that there is Evil Afoot and Tam is clearly romantically involved with Nova, this level of nonchalance about something that could theoretically really hurt Nova strained credulity.

The lack of depth extends to the romance between Nova and Tam. Again, it was charming and adorable, but there was little-to-no buildup. We just know they were friends, Tam comes back, and BAM! insta-relationship. The romance is not a source of any conflict (or even suspense) at all.

Nova and Tam are both dynamic in that they do grow and change. Nova needs to feel comfortable expanding her horizons beyond her familiar, safe home, and Tam needs to feel like they can return to the home they have abandoned. But it doesn’t feel like they grow and change together. I don’t think the overall story or character arcs would feel any different if they had just remained close friends, which to me is a sure sign that the romance was underdeveloped.

The conflicts were similarly loosely rendered. Good and evil are entirely one-dimensional, and the primary conflict surrounding the defeat of the demon horse can be boiled down to “good witches vs. bad witches.” The motivations of the primary antagonists were not clear other than a generalized desire to do evil. By the time I reached the climax, I didn’t really care that much because the stakes had become so broad that they did not feel real. I was definitely reading for the WITCHY FALL VIBES and not because I was invested in the defeat of the antagonists.

The most interesting conflict in the book by far is between Nova and her parents, who, though dead, can come back to visit as ghosts. They have thoughts about the direction of Nova’s life as a witch and what steps she should be taking to become an adult. It is clear that they are motivated by love and concern, but this does not lessen or erase Nova’s hurt and confusion. This argument felt real and intense in a way most of the rest of the book did not. Unfortunately, it was maybe 5% of the entire book. I would have liked to see more complicated interpersonal dynamics like this one throughout Mooncakes.

As is probably clear from this review, this book shines not in its broad architecture, which is a mite flimsy, but in its small moments. While I was not mesmerized by the plot, I kept finding myself legitimately delighted and smiling at a magical panel or an absurd pun. (Side note: if you like puns, you will not be dissatisfied with the quality Pun Content in this book).

Magical forest creatures surround Tam in wolf form.
Why yes, I would like to perform cute aggression on these extremely squishable magical forest beings!

While I don’t think I’ll be ruminating overmuch on this graphic novel, with its autumnal aura and an approach to representation that feels almost effortless, I was momentarily enchanted by Mooncakes. My recommendation: buy it for the tween/early-teen reader in your life…and then borrow it from them!

A

Monster, She Wrote

by Lisa Kroger
September 17, 2019 · Quirk Books
Graphic NovelLGBTQIAScience Fiction/FantasyYoung Adult

Never in my life have I made grabby hands as ferocious as the ones I made when I saw Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction. This book describes the life and work of women in speculative fiction starting with Margaret Cavendish and ending with Jewelle Gomez (and shorter mentions of many others). This is out just in time for you to make your Halloween reading list and since it mentions some movie adaptations you can get your viewing schedule lined up too. In my opinion we should all get October off and sit around reading and watching scary things under blankies with our cocoa and/or pumpkin spice lattes. I may start a petition. Anyway, this book will get you all set up for many autumns to come.

The book is organized into subgenre sections, more or less chronologically, with titles like “The Women Who Wrote the Pulps” and “Haunting the Home.” Within each section are short (2 – 3 page) chapters about individual author, including a biography, a recommendation of what to read first by said author, and recommendations of other authors to try if you like the work of the chapter’s subject. The writing is clear and conversational, and includes a surprising amount of information in such a small space. There’s also a glossary and a list of suggested reading. The list of women is diverse and covers many different kinds of horror and speculative fiction, so there should be something here for everyone.

I can’t emphasize enough how well this collection hits the sweet spot of fun (Quotes! Illustrations! Anecdotes! Humor!) and informative. I will be using this book as a resource frequently. There are well known authors here (such as Octavia Butler and Mary Shelley) and some less well-known that I have to go find now (such as Pauline E. Hopkins and Everill Worrell).

Breaking everything down by sub-genre is helpful because the book includes historical context for what was “in” at any given time and why. Recent trends involve revisiting old ideas and giving them feminist and racially inclusive perspectives (ie, Lovecraftian stories and serial killers). I especially enjoyed the section on “Paperback Horror,” which refers to all those chapter books that haunted my middle school library. Hello there V.C. Andrews. It’s been a minute.

A warning: This is a short book but it will send you running for Wikipedia so prepare for time suckage. Whatever you do, don’t think to yourself, “You know, I never did read My Sweet Audrina, I’m just going to look up the plot on Wikipedia. You’ll spend the next hour going “Wait, then he slept with who?” and “Why don’t they just get a bannister for crying out loud?” Then at night you’ll be trying to sleep and instead thinking, “Yeah, a bannister would have solved EVERYTHING.”

This is a reference book, but a very light one in tone and also physically (it’s not large). I recommend it for people who have an interest in women’s history, women authors, and the history of genre fiction.

I’d also recommend it to people who “don’t like horror,” only because this book will familiarize the reader with the incredibly wide variety of horror and “weird” fiction out there. For the longest time I said I didn’t read horror and then I realized that I was reading certain types of horror avidly and often but labelling it as something else. In exploring the horror genre, I began to find a kind of feminism that I also found in romance, another female-dominated genre.

For those willing to expand their horizons, this book will show you where to start, and for those who already enjoy horror, this book will add to your to-be-read pile. As the author states in the introduction, which frames horror as “a transgressive genre:”

In any era, women become accustomed to entering unfamiliar spaces, including territory that they’ve been told not to enter. When writing is an off-limits act, writing one’s story becomes a form of rebellion and taking back power.

The Rec League - heart shaped chocolate resting on the edge of a very old bookThis is a purely selfish post inspired by a lot of squeeing I’ve been doing with my fellow reviewers over the spooky season.

Which books speak to your inner (or outer) goth, whether it appeals to your 16-year-old self  just going through a phase or your adult witchy aesthetic?

Amanda: Obviously Gideon the Ninth and Wicked Saints.

Elyse: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Claudia: I’m going to be a little wide of the mark perhaps but go with my favorite Anne Stuart: The Devil’s Waltz. Perhaps not gothic per se but definitely dark. Starchy heroine undone by brooding hero. Superb first half and great banter and sexual tension. And for “soft goth” or Gothic elements, The Matrimonial Advertisement by Mimi Matthews ( A | BN | K | AB ). Marriage-of-convenience story featuring scarred hero, secrets, and cliffs!

The Devil’s Waltz
A | BN | K

Elyse: The Dark Affair by Maire Claremont

Amanda: Would you suggest the Hester Fox, Elyse?

Elyse: Yes! Eve Silver too.

Catherine: Maybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie? ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) It’s a Turn of the Screw retelling, so creepy and haunted, but maybe not quite goth.

Ooh, or the Demon’s Lexicon series by Sarah Rees Brennan ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) Dark broody hot demon with very funny dialogue…and yes, there is a romance in the end. You do have to wade through some dark and scary times to get there though. It’s a dystopia with evil magicians and lots of snark, basically.

His Hideous Heart
A | BN | K | AB

Aarya: I actually think one of my current reads fits then. His Hideous Heart (edited by Dahlia Adler) is a YA anthology of Edgar Allen Poe retellings. It’s creepy as hell and very, very good. It’s slow-going because I can only handle so much darkness, so I keep on taking weeklong breaks after each story.

Holly Black has a bunch of books that may fit, but The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is my top pick. Also anything by Mira Grant.

For some reason, this prompt keeps making me think of movies and I can’t get The Addams Family out of my head. I would love a romance that made me feel as goth as The Addams Family!

Amanda: Wednesday Addams was who I aspired to be; I feel that sentiment.

Aarya: I also think that The Addams Family is a good example of how goth can be funny and romantic (albeit in a dark way). And Gomez and Morticia are what I aspire in a romantic relationship!

Shana: My goth phase was in college and coincided with my vampire obsession. I’m going to go with Better Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon. Vampire queens, sorority girls, and lots of sexytimes.

Better Off Red
A | BN | K | AB

Lara: I’m going to go hella old-school here: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte ( A | BN | K | G | AB | Au | Scribd ). I read it as a an angst-ridden, intense teenager and it SPOKE to me. I’ve reread it since and while I now realise their relationship is a literal cluster-fuck, the novel is so damn atmospheric!

Charlotte: I was SUPER goth in the teen years. My foundational texts were Interview with the Vampire and the Sandman graphic novels.

I had a Dream the Endless poster on my bedroom wall.

AJ: Well it will surprise no one that I’m HERE FOR THIS

Fiction: anything Neil Gaiman but especially The Graveyard Book, ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) which is The Jungle Book for goths. The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by KJ Charles ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) is very goth and spooky and super queer (containing my favorite trope, “We have to bone because ghosts”).

Sunshine by Robin McKinley, possibly my favorite vampire novel ever.

Graphic novels: The Courtney Crumrin series by Ted Naifeh, starting with Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things ( A | BN ). It’s fun and fantasy-ish but with some genuinely scary moments.

Sunshine
A | BN | K | AB

Non-fiction: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (And Other Lessons from the Crematorium) by Caitlin Doughty ( A | BN | K | G | AB ). The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum ( A | BN | K | G | AB ). Stiff by Mary Roach ( A | BN | K | G | AB ).

I can cut down the list if that’s too many, I just have…a lot of feelings about this.

Sneezy: Grace Draven anything! Well – I guess not all of her work counts as gothic, but her style is so atmospheric. There’s also Brianna Hale’s The Necromancer’s Bride ( A ) for kinky fun times with automatons (that may or may not have been made from dead people.)

Catherine: Oh, Sunshine is a brilliant choice! Seconded!

(Though it has been said that I basically like any book that has baking in it. And this might not be entirely untrue.)

Sneezy: Oh! That reminds me of Shadows. It’s another by Robin McKinley

Susan: I love Sunshine! It’s such a good book

Charlotte: Sunshine. So good.

Ellen: Ooooh I love this! My first thought is the Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop (although all the cws/tws) ( A | BN | K | G | AB ). Also Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace (post-apocalyptic ghost-hunting descent into the underworld story–very creepy folklore) ( A | BN | K | G | AB ). For my fellow pastel goths, the manga series Spell of Desire by Tomu Ohmi ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) has those sweet and creepy vibes. Re: Grace Draven–Master of Crows ( A | BN | K | AB ) is a gothic masterpiece, imo!

Amanda: Last additions are two books I’m current reading! Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) and The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd Jones ( A | BN | K | G | AB ). Clearly my reading brain is in a mood.

Tell us what titles you’d recommend to your goth selves!

To the Editors: For a biography of the novelist E.L. Doctorow (1931–2015) to be published by Scribner, I would be glad and grateful to hear from any of his former students, publishing colleagues or friends, or anyone with reminiscences or with whom he corresponded.
Sandra Day O’Connor’s name isn’t heard often these days—certainly not at the Supreme Court, which she dominated for years from her seat at its ideological center, but where her distinctive brand of center-right pragmatism quickly lost its purchase after her retirement. Her replacement in January 2006 by the hard-right Justice Samuel Alito, nominated by President George W. Bush, has proved to be one of the most consequential seat swaps in modern Supreme Court history. During a panel discussion a decade ago, O’Connor observed with characteristic bluntness that her legacy at the Court was being “dismantled.” How did she feel about that, her interviewer asked. “What would you feel?” O’Connor countered. “I’d be a little bit disappointed. If you think you’ve been helpful, and then it’s dismantled, you think, ‘Oh, dear.’ But life goes on. It’s not always positive.”