There are days when you need an impeccably illustrated magic school story to escape reality.* During the first week of January, when we in the DC area had a surfeit of snow days, I picked up and very much enjoyed Manu, Kelly Fernández's middle grade fantasy graphic novel. Manu is a magic school story with a twist. The twist? It’s set at an all-girls religious school with a mix of nuns, saints, and brujería, drawing on the author’s Dominican heritage, culture, and folklore. Oh, and it features a delightful, trouble-magnet heroine.

manu by kelly fernández book cover
Manu is always getting into trouble. The headmistress at school believes Manu has the potential to help people with her magic, but Manu would rather have fun than fit in. The other students claim she's secretly a demon and that she was raised by wolves. Manu doesn't care what people say about her… until an argument with her best friend Josefina ends with Manu getting cursed so she can't control her magic.

Manu is determined to break the curse and prove she's the best witchling at school. But great power comes at a cost, and it may be a price Manu isn't able to pay!

Manu – short for Manuela – always seems to attract trouble. Her magic is too strong, she’s using it for the wrong reasons (according to Mother Dolores, the headmistress), and she doesn’t really care about being kind and obedient, like her friend Josefina and the rest of the girls. Her idea of a good time is contravening the school’s rules, exploring the area around school, and practicing magic. When something “goes wrong” with her magic, Manu finds herself more of an outcast than usual, and, as one does, creates a small cataclysm. In Manu, author-illustrator Fernández integrates themes of identity, true friendship, and expectations vs. reality in a heartwarming and hilarious whole.


Manu is, more than anything else, a lot of FUN. It has magic and magic-gone-wrong, supernatural beasts with their own agendas, true friendship, and a mysterious origin story that takes the whole of the book to unravel. Readers in the target age group will love the trouble Manu gets into (and only sometimes gets out of!) and recognize the chaos and in-groups/outcast feeling of the school. It also will appeal for its setting and world-building. Fernández’s combination of brujería (witchcraft) with religious education is authentic to Dominican culture and will be familiar to those from many other Caribbean and Latin American backgrounds as well. Meanwhile, that mixture will likely seem unique and interesting to those with no previous exposure to it and draw them further into the story to find out what happens in the end.


Let’s go back to that true friendship bit I mentioned earlier. While Manu grew up at the school, her friend Josefina only started attending once she manifested her powers. Despite vastly different backgrounds, these two have a fast friendship: it has survived ups, downs, and Manu-created disasters. I think you could read their friendship as queer, but there is nothing overt – only a kiss on the cheek on the final pages. I’ll be interested to see if Fernández continues Manu’s adventures in a series and develops this hint any further.


Now onto the art! Fernández uses rounded black lines to delineate her characters and create the background and setting, combined with pastel brights (note: not a real art term) that are evocative of how bright sunlight can wash out vivid colors. Something like 98% of the book is illustrated in small sequential panels (3-6 per page), with the very occasional full-page image. The effect? A fun story told at almost breakneck pace: Manu keeps having (mis)adventures, and the next crisis is just around the corner/page.


In all, Manu is a delightful middle grade fantasy about figuring out who you are and how you fit in the world, complete with magic-gone-wild and exploding mangoes (read the book to find out more!).


Recommended for: fans of fantastical graphic novels for the middle grade set – anyone who liked Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy series is sure to love Manu, and those interested in diversifying their graphic novel collection with characters of color and Caribbean settings.


*Reality = Teaching at a real high school during the pandemic, no magic included.


Fine print: I received an ARC of this title for review consideration from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

wake: the hidden history of women-led slave revolts

While I was in Las Vegas this last week with my sister, we chatted about our most recent reads, and which ones stood out weeks and months after the reading. For me, one of those reads was Dr. Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez's graphic novel memoir-slash-academic history Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. I picked this title up at my local library after seeing it mentioned in a newsletter from the publisher, and found it haunting and important.

wake: the hidden history of women-led slave revolts by rebecca hall, illustrated by hugo martinez
Women warriors planned and led revolts on slave ships during the Middle Passage. They fought their enslavers throughout the Americas. And then they were erased from history.

Wake tells the “riveting” (Angela Y. Davis) story of Dr. Rebecca Hall, a historian, granddaughter of slaves, and a woman haunted by the legacy of slavery. The accepted history of slave revolts has always told her that enslaved women took a back seat. But Rebecca decides to look deeper, and her journey takes her through old court records, slave ship captain’s logs, crumbling correspondence, and even the forensic evidence from the bones of enslaved women from the “negro burying ground” uncovered in Manhattan. She finds women warriors everywhere.

Using a “remarkable blend of passion and fact, action and reflection” (NPR), Rebecca constructs the likely pasts of Adono and Alele, women rebels who fought for freedom during the Middle Passage, as well as the stories of women who led slave revolts in Colonial New York. We also follow Rebecca’s own story as the legacy of slavery shapes her life, both during her time as a successful attorney and later as a historian seeking the past that haunts her.

Illustrated beautifully in black and white, Wake will take its place alongside classics of the graphic novel genre, like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. This story of a personal and national legacy is a powerful reminder that while the past is gone, we still live in its wake.

In Wake, Dr. Hall weaves together the process of historical discovery – detailing time spent in archives, attempting to cross-reference what fragments of source documents still exist, and the frustrations of accessing both – with the riveting histories of women-led slave revolts both on the Atlantic and in America. She combines a clear (and fascinating!) approach to the historical record with interpretation of what may have happened in the gaps – the untold stories – and her own experiences in academia as a Black woman investigating the horrific acts and legacies of slavery. Then she mixes in what she knows about her own ancestry. The resulting narrative is a fascinating intertwining of research and personal memoir that speaks directly to today’s issues of police brutality, protest, and white supremacy. 

“While the past is gone, we still live in its wake.”

What stood out most? I loved the insider's view of how anyone can go about “finding” women’s history. We are often told (or simply assume) that women were not instrumental in history because they are not mentioned in the historical record. But Hall breaks down that fallacy beautifully, showing that if you know how to search, if you look in the absences and margins, and dig, you can indeed find histories of women who changed the world, even in the driest and most difficult of documents. Her topic, of course, is women who led slave revolts. She refused to accept that it was always men who led slave revolts, and she was able to find evidence to support her hunch. 

One of the moments when I felt the most indignant about the content of this book (which after all would not exist without the inhumanity and banal evil of slavery) was when Dr. Hall was turned away from the archive at Lloyd’s of London. This former insurer of slave ship cargo (and now, just plain bank & insurer) cared (cares?) more about protecting its reputation than about the truth of the historical record. On their website they now claim to have taken responsibility and apologize for their part in the transatlantic slave trade in the wake of the George Floyd protests, but Hall points out that they care about profit and reputation than possibly connecting people who were forcibly stripped of their histories, culture, and lives with (any) closure. Hall is right to call them out, and I could feel the intensity of the moment when she recounted being escorted out of the Lloyd’s building by security deep in my chest. What cowards! 

Beyond the electrifying content, much of the success of a graphic novel depends on the interconnection of text and art. Hall and Martínez are a talented team – this story jumps off the page and into the light. The no-nonsense, realistic art style, in black pen on white background, puts the emphasis of the book on the very important content. That isn’t to say the art is neglected, no! There are feelings that are too much for words, and Martínez skillfully illustrates emotional, fraught, and frustrating moments so that the reader feels as if they are in them with the women of the story. The dust jacket is also gorgeous – with embossed layers, interesting fonts and illustration, and vivid color. 

In all, Wake is a powerful, instructive, and merciless look at the way history is made, recorded, found, and interpreted, and it is at the same time a very personal, familial story and a call to action. I felt deeply moved by this work, and I hope many will read and learn from it. 

Recommended for: fans of historical nonfiction and graphic novel memoirs, anyone interested in books that tie-in history and current issues for young readers (Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, for instance), and those looking for beautifully-constructed narratives that challenge them as readers, and challenge accepted history!

a psalm for the wild-built

Thursday, December 30, 2021 | | 1 comments
One of the most soothing reads I picked up in recent months? Becky Chambers’ novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the first in the Monk and Robot series. I almost didn’t read it myself (I bought it to gift to my Dad for Christmas, as he liked the first Murderbot book, is a big gardener), but the siren song of knowing what a book is about before I gift it was too strong to resist. Plus Tor novellas are notoriously readable, and Psalm was no exception. It’s an affirming, emotional cup of tea, and may be just the balm you need in these chaotic times. 

a psalm for the wild-built by becky chambers book cover
It's been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of "what do people need?" is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.

They're going to need to ask it a lot.

Becky Chambers's new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the story of Dex, a non-binary devotee of the god of small comforts, who retrains as a tea monk (doesn’t that sound like a lovely vocation?). In doing so, they learn a lot about themselves (and humanity) – but still have a deep yearning to leave behind the expectations and responsibilities of society. They live in a post-apocalyptic utopia on Panga, where humans have mostly figured themselves out and live in harmony with the natural world. However, the echoes of a different era – a machine- and robot-centric era, where humans were NOT kind to the planet or each other, linger on in the margins. When Dex meets the first robot anyone has had contact with in hundreds of years, a different kind of communion begins. 

I hadn’t read Becky Chambers’ work before picking up this novella, but in truth, you don’t need to. It’s the start of a new series and an excellent introduction to her character-driven sci-fi sensibility and subtle emotion-filled writing style. I loved this novella quite a lot (for reasons I’ll get into in just a bit), and afterward I picked up The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, her sci-fi debut from several years ago, and finished it almost in one gulp. Chambers has a talent for writing heart-truths, and this novella is no exception. In Psalm Chambers also plays with and muses on ideas of climate collapse and climate justice, robot/AI intelligence, and the value and definitions of vocation and personhood. 

I don’t want to share too much of what happens in this book, because it IS so short, but just to give you a sense of the vibes: I was reading it, thinking to myself, “this is soothing, I feel like planning a camping trip and preparing a big thermos of tea.” I was enjoying a novel, optimistic world and an interesting new pantheon of gods. Then all of a sudden I was sobbing and I had to put the book DOWN immediately, and even now, writing this at a remove, thinking of the little bits of wonder and raw feeling it evoked, my eyes are wet and my heart is clenching and I’m thinking: “My god, yes, I needed that. I am undone.” 

PHEW. Yeah so it’s an unassuming emotion-bomb ready to go off (and I mean that in the best possible way). Beware, good luck, I think you’ll adore it. 

“It is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.” 

Recommended for: fans of quiet sci-fi and fantasy (think: All Systems Red and The House in the Cerulean Sea), anyone who likes their reading with a dose of empathy, and for gardeners, tinkerers, and tea drinkers.


Monday, December 27, 2021 | | 0 comments

I have, for the last twelve years or so, been talking about reading Frank Herbert’s famous sci-fi epic Dune. I even mentioned it in a blog post in 2013 as one of my top 10 most intimidating books. I’ve had friends try to convince me to read it, and I meant to read it… I bought myself a paperback copy about four years ago that’s been collecting dust on my bookshelves ever since. What finally made me pick it up? Watching this year’s film adaptation. As someone who hadn’t consumed ANY Dune-related media, the story was new and fresh, and I wanted to see if the book measured up. In many ways it did, but I still have my quibbles. I’m sure the world doesn’t need another Dune book review, but I tapped out my thoughts in the Notes app while reading, and after all this is why I have a book blog – for me!

dune by frank herbert book cover
Set on the desert planet Arrakis,
Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for... 

When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.

Dune is at its core the story of a family under siege – of the members of House Atreides, those who betray them, and the way those betrayals shape the universe as a result. The stage and setting for those betrayals? The desert world of Arrakis, which is a character in its own right. Author Herbert blends mysticism, the hero’s journey, myth and legend, and a deep understanding of ecology and science to create a science fiction masterpiece. It is a story that largely holds up a half century later, and marks it not only as relevant, but interesting, all these years later.


That said, I found that there were several things that the movie edited out or altered to match modern sensibilities, that were a bit of a shock to me as I read the book (as a modern sci-fi reader, and modern reader in general). These included: 1960s and 70s surface-level exoticism of Islam, a white savior narrative, eugenics as a way to create a superior kind of human (white supremacy!!), drug use to transcend consciousness and gain access to a higher plain of awareness and knowledge, a typical and misogynistic sci-fi/fantasy story trope of men with multiple wives while women are held to a different standard, and homosexuality as a stand-in or marker of depravity in a person or leader. There were also words and phrases like terrible purpose, race consciousness, and jihad, all repeated without disambiguation. All of this can be laid at the feet of a narrative “of its time,” but they also may take today’s reader right out of the narrative. Fair warning and all that.


The most interesting bits of Dune were, in no particular order: discussions of “desert power” (a line used to great effect in the film adaptation), Herbert’s commentary on corruption and leadership, and the Missionaria Protectiva (a planned seeding cultures with religious ideas to allow future persons to move freely within the religious frameworks of those worlds). I also appreciated Herbert’s juxtaposition of a practical acceptance of death as part of the life cycle, and common use of spice as a drug that elongates life. Dune had many things to say about beauty and youth, and unfortunately at some points veered into fatphobia.


As for characterization, I appreciated seeing the world of Dune through multiple perspectives, including Lady Jessica’s (Paul Atreides’ mother). At its core, this is a story of the flowering of a young man in the nexus of power, and it is not only a coming-of-age but also a coming-of-the-promised-one narrative. Creating an almost omnipotent main character does have some drawbacks. I say this without irony: men will see themselves in Paul — men who always believe they are the smartest in the room and have the most interesting things to say. And I don’t know if that’s what Herbert expected or wanted to happen, but I can see why this book is so timelessly popular. It has forward-thinking themes and a popular setting and incorporates real science, but what it also has is a Mary Sue sort of hero for boys who feel too smart for the life they are living to project themselves onto.


While this book and its main character are wise, poetic, epic, and stand the test of time, I found that it lacked (for me) a sense of authentic human empathy. The pacing is good, the twists interesting, the characters fully developed, and the emotion flat. I was engaged, but not at the level of wanting things desperately for the characters. The strongest emotion evoked was one of justice at the plan of revenge. I am happier, I think, with more modern books that ask me to emotionally commit to a character with real faults. And that is that.


Non sequitur: I caught myself wondering if Robin McKinley wrote The Blue Sword in part in response to this book? Some similar themes, featuring an imperfect character (a girl doing things!) growing into her own as a leader in a desert landscape.


In all, Dune is an interesting and seminal read, and one I’d recommend to those who like science fiction as well as those who don’t usually go for it (but who liked the recent film!).

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