Category Archives: Review

Book Review: ‘Nothing But Blackened Teeth’ by Cassandra Khaw

Earlier this year, we read Cassandra Khaw’s horror fairy tale These Deathless Bones as part of our short story club Lite Reads (you can find the selection post here and the review post here). I was a big fan of this creepy fairytale story and decided that it couldn’t be the only thing I read from the author. When I got the chance to obtain a review copy of Khaw’s upcoming novella Nothing But Blackened Teeth, I jumped at it. The phenomenally chilling cover, featuring an Ohaguro-Bettari, was definitely an incentive as well, something that probably would have drawn my eye enough to read it without a familiarity with the author.

Published by Tor Nightfire, Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw was released in October 2021. This twisted spin on a haunted house tale takes modern horror-loving twenty-somethings and has them staying in a Heian-era mansion, lured by tales of gory deaths and gruesome ghosts.

The story begins with Cat and her friends arriving at the creepy and decrepit manor so that two of the friends can marry one another, fulfilling one of their childhood dreams of being married in a haunted house. The ghost that is said to live in this remote historic site was said to be a bride herself. Cat and her friends deal with intense personal drama that predates this visit, and that drama serves as almost a distraction for both the characters and the reader until the house and its centuries-old occupants begin to reveal their true natures. As the horror intensifies in a steady build, the story explores race, sexuality, mental illness, the perils of friendship, horror tropes, and Japanese folklore.

While I was drawn to Nothing But Blackened Teeth for the haunted house and Japanese folklore, one of the things that most pulled me in once I had started it is the way that it explored horror tropes. I love horror that gets a little meta, and consider things like Scream and The Cabin In The Woods to be among my favourite horror movies, so reading the ways the characters began to analyse their situation compared to horror stories and tropes they were familiar with really pulled me in. Each of the characters was aware of a role they were expected to play within the story, and they had assumptions about who would live or die depending on those roles. Survivability odds improve with whiteness and decrease with queerness and although Cat is our narrator she is never assumed to be the protagonist by the characters in the story because she is Asian, bisexual, and struggles with mental illness. The characters are from Malaysia, like the author, and only one of them is white, so it was interesting to see whiteness decentred while it still played a role when the characters were calculating who might survive. I think it was especially interesting to see the assumptions the characters made based on tropes and expectations, followed by the ways the story subverted each of those expectations.

The actual haunted house aspect of the story was interesting and creepy. Khaw has a real gift for descriptive language, and the imagery they evoke is stunning. The language falls somewhere between poetry and brutal reality, and it’s hard not to feel like you’re surrounded by ghosts and demons and spirits. I felt like the house might crawl off the page along with the Ohaguro-Bettari and trap me forever, and it’s a great feeling to have while reading horror. Most of my notes and highlighted passages by the end were just my own endless admiration of the descriptive words. I definitely had to google a few Japanese folklore terms as I read, since it’s definitely not an area I’ve spent much time with, but it felt very immersive and it was worth the extra effort to understand all of it. Despite the focus on the supernatural for much of the story, human nature takes over and adds a horror all its own, which adds a unique dimension to the story as well, lending a sense of reality amid the ghostly chaos.

Overall, I feel like Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw was a fascinating and fun story that I couldn’t help but become engrossed in. It blended a lot of my favourite horror fiction elements to create something that felt unique and fresh. I personally recommend checking it out (content warnings at the bottom for those who want or need them). It was one of my own most anticipated reads of the year, and I was definitely a satisfied reader when I got to it. I’ll definitely be exploring more of the author’s work when I have the chance, especially since I enjoyed These Deathless Bones so much as well (which perhaps remains my favourite of the two, but it’s a close call either way).

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw is available for purchase now. It is also available as an audiobook. I received an advanced readers’ copy of this book through NetGalley, which I voluntarily read and reviewed. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Content warnings: graphic violence, mental illness and related ableism, institutionalization, self-harm, mentions of suicide, mild fatshaming, violence against women.

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An Ode to The Paper Bag Princess

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko was an indelible part of my childhood. As a Canadian, the works of both the author and illustrator were easy to come across, and I read both prolifically. Robert Munsch stories were some of the first ones I ever read aloud in front of friends and classmates. They were the ones I laughed at and felt for and remembered whenever anyone asked me what my favourite books were. I still love many of these books to this day, and I keep an omnibus collection on my shelf. But none of these other stories ever impacted me the way The Paper Bag Princess did.

For those unfamiliar with the story or who haven’t read it in too long to recall, The Paperbag Princess is the story of a princess named Elizabeth whose castle is burned down and her fiance Ronald stolen by a fierce dragon. With her clothes burned up, Elizabeth dons a paper bag, the only thing she could find that wasn’t burned beyond use, and goes after the dragon to rescue Ronald. When she arrives, Elizabeth uses her smarts to wear out the dragon until he collapses from sheer exhaustion, and she rescues Ronald. Rather than being grateful, the prince criticises Elizabeth’s appearance and tells her to return when she looks like a real princess. She informs him that he is a bum and she dances off into the sunset alone.

Originally published in 1980, The Paper Bag Princess was released when my mother was only seven years old. She doesn’t recall when she first read it, but she remembers being deeply empowered by it, thinking that it was about time that a girl got to be a hero. She was a young girl in the days of the Wonder Woman and Bionic Woman TV series, and women as action heroes really spoke to her. The Paper Bag Princess empowered her through her childhood and into adulthood. The story is one of her favourites to this day, and she even has a tattoo of Elizabeth that she had my artistically inclined brother design for her.

I don’t remember the first time I read it, but I spoke to my mother to get the facts straight. I was about two or three years old, and we read regularly. I was a voracious reader from a young age, and eager for a constant stream of new stories before I had the skills to read a book myself. It would have been the nineties, and I was very into anything deemed girl power, so when my mum told me that The Paper Bag Princess was about girl power, I was sold. I confess it wasn’t my favourite Munsch story at the time. While the story is fantastic, it isn’t necessarily his funniest, and I was very into his books for how funny they were. Regardless, I did love the story itself, and I took its girl power messages to heart. Apparently, the very same day that we read the story, my father scolded me for doing something trivial like leaving my toys out, and I informed him that he was a blowhard dragon and I was a princess and so I would always win against him, much to his extreme confusion. My insistence that I was the princess of the story was surely only fueled by the fact that my name is also Elizabeth.

As I have aged into adulthood, I find much more to love about the story than I did as a small girl. The Paper Bag Princess shows us that we can use our wits to win, that all monsters can be defeated, we can achieve anything regardless of how we look and dress, and we never have to tolerate cruel words from the person who is supposed to care about us most. These lessons remain relevant today, and they transcend generations.

I recently received a copy of the fortieth-anniversary edition of The Paper Bag Princess from Annick Press through Netgalley. I am so excited to see that there’s a new edition of the book to bring to new generations of Elizabeths (whether that is the name of the children reading it or not). All children, regardless of gender, can learn the vital messages the story offers up, whether it be from Elizabeth’s triumphs, or from the failures of Ronald and the dragon alike.

This new edition of the story offers up two introductory pieces, one from Chelsea Clinton and one from Francesca Segal, and an afterword from Ann and Robert Munsch.  The afterword is perhaps my favourite addition, offering insight into how the story came to be–including a tale of performances of the story that invited eager dads to play the dragon that reminded me of my own dad. The introductory pieces offer up some deeply relatable passages about the ways in which The Paper Bag Princess has impacted generations, especially generations of girls. I do really wish that these introductions had steered away from the cisnormative boy/girl dichotomy, particularly the firm gender roles of girls learning from Elizabeth and boys learning from Ronald, but there’s still something to be gleaned from them.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko is one of those irresistible picture books that is easy to see why it has been beloved for forty years. It’s the kind of book that belongs in any complete children’s collection. I hope that this new edition allows for the newest generations to gain even more from its store of wisdom and allows for the chance for kids to hopefully find in it a story that helps them love reading.

Book Review: ‘The Midwinter Witch’ by Molly Knox Ostertag

Since I reviewed both The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch, it seems only appropriate that I share with you my thoughts on The Midwinter Witch, which is the conclusion to the series (to the best of my knowledge).

The Midwinter Witch by Molly Knox Ostertag follows Aster, the first boy witch in his family where girls are witches and boys are typically shifters. He’s ready to show off his newfound powers to his extended family at a family reunion of sorts that features a magical competition he intends to enter as a witch. Aster’s friend Ariel, who was abandoned by her family and is being trained as a witch by Aster’s family after the disastrous results of her magic going without instruction (in the previous book), is ready to come to this reunion with the family, although she feels like an outsider. After following Aster and his friends through the previous two books, I was excited to see where their story might lead in the conclusion to the trilogy and Ostertag really delivered on that for me.

All three books in this middle-grade graphic novel fantasy trilogy have a cute and sweet tone that is highlighted by the fun and vibrant illustrations. While being fun and lighthearted, the stories manage to take on difficult subjects with a deeper lesson to learn. The Midwinter Witch is far from an exception. I think it may be even more of what makes the series what it is.

So much of this story is a clear metaphor for LGBTQ+ identities and lives. One thing that I most respect about this is that Ostertag clearly features queer characters (like Aster’s friend Charlie, who has two dads and what seems to be a same-gender crush), but it’s the magical elements of the story that represent LGBTQ+ struggles. LGBTQ+ characters are allowed to simply exist without their existence being questioned, but those struggles are still represented. The Midwinter Witch deals with these themes perhaps the most heavily, although the entire trilogy revolves around these themes. We see Aster decide to show off his magic skills at the competition, until his mother speaks to him about it, suggesting it would be a bad idea. The reasons she gives are ones that folks in the queer community have heard a thousand times from friends and family who mean well but don’t really understand at all. People aren’t ready for that yet, they’re going to be cruel to you if you do it, it might be better if you give them more time, and so on. Aster is devastated, but his friends talk him into doing it anyway, reminding him that there may be younger witch boys and shifter girls who may feel empowered to see a witch boy competing in front of everybody.

The Midwinter Witch also takes on a found family narrative in ways that the previous books did not. Family is important throughout the Witch Boy trilogy, and this is largely because Aster is from a huge, supportive family. They don’t always make things easy on him, and sometimes they cause a lot of drama and problems, but mostly they love and support each other. We get a look into even more of Aster’s extended family, which adds to the complicated nature of family. We also get our first look into Ariel’s biological family, and we get more of a look into the ways Ariel relates to the concept of family as a result. The Midwinter Witch shares a hard lesson: sometimes people will hurt us because they have our best interests at heart and don’t know what other path to take, sometimes they hurt us because they have their own interests at heart and don’t truly care who they hurt along the way, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. I think this is a powerful lesson, and the story illustrates this in a way where we get to see the power of having a loving family, but also the power of finding a loving family. So many LGBTQ+ folks have to rely on finding a family instead of being able to stick with what they’re born with, and this was a lovely representation of that, especially since we got to see multiple outcomes through all the characters present.

I’ve truly loved getting to read The Witch Boy trilogy. The characters are fun and sweet and relatable. The fantasy elements are lighthearted, easy to follow, and easier to get sucked into. The illustrations are lively, vibrant, and easy to follow on the page. The Midwinter Witch offers up exactly what I loved about the first two books, and it expands upon some of the biggest ideas presented throughout the series, like family, choice, pride, queer identity, and friendship. As far as I know, it’s the conclusion to the series, and it’s a good one. Although I wouldn’t object to seeing the characters again, this story offers up a finale that feels good and that makes me feel okay about saying goodbye to the characters.

I would definitely recommend The Midwinter Witch, although it’s worth noting that the series should definitely be read in order. The trilogy is one that has brought me great joy, and I can’t imagine how wonderful it would have been to read it as a middle-grader. After this irresistibly charming series, I look forward to seeing what else Molly Knox Ostertag will do in the future.

Book Review: A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability by A. Andrews

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Limerence Press, an imprint of the comic publisher Oni Press, has been publishing sex education graphic novels on a variety of subjects. They published the Oh Joy Sex Toy sex-ed comic Drawn to Sex: The Basics (which I reviewed previously). Limerence has recently been publishing the Quick & Easy Guide books, which have been wonderful resources, including A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson and A Quick & Easy Guide to Queer & Trans Identities by Mady G and J.R. Zuckerberg. These books are short graphic nonfiction introductions to important subjects, and they manage to give a great overview of their titular topics. The latest in the series is A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability by A. Andrews, which I was able to obtain an advance copy through NetGalley to review for you today.

As a disabled person who has sex, sex and disability are a permanently linked pair of subjects for me. Disability is a permanently linked subject to most things for me, and it can be hard to find books that factor it in, whether we’re talking about disability and everyday activities (especially in a way that isn’t condescending and from the perspective of abled people) or the way ableism impacts disabled people, even in activist communities. Additionally, sex education books tend to avoid any disability-specific discussions, and I certainly never heard a word about sex and disability in a sex ed classroom. I am so excited to have the opportunity to read a book like A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability, especially from the perspective of a disabled person!

A. Andrews begins the book with a brief introduction of who they are and a brief introduction of the subject at hand. Right away, they manage to address the exact reasons I was drawn to this book, specifically that sex education books about disability are far from common, and the ways that can harm disabled people and give the impression that disabled people can’t or shouldn’t have sex. I definitely appreciate that as a reader I’m going into this book with the same intent the author had in writing it essentially. After these introductions, we explore definitions of disability and the ways these can be both limited and broad, the ways these can impact our lives (including how others see us), and even the ways disability intersects with other forms of marginalisation. This is also the point where they note that the book focuses specifically on physical disability and accessibility needs related to sex, which seems like a sensible focus for a book under seventy pages.

After the initial introductory ideas, Andrews transitions into a section that is essentially myth-busting. Disabled people are attractive, can be queer, are interested in sex, and have sex. I hate that a section like this is even necessary, but it is, and I respect them for not ignoring it. Negative attitudes regarding sex and disability are so steeped in our society that essentially most people, abled and disabled alike, end up holding these attitudes, which contribute to serious self-esteem issues for disabled people. Parts of this section honestly feel a bit like a pep talk to remind disabled readers that we’re sexy and we can have sex, but I mean that it in the nicest way possible. It’s genuinely a good and necessary reminder.

The section of the book focused on communication is perhaps my favourite part of the book. Not only do they emphasise the importance of communicating with your partner, even if that may sound nervewracking, they also emphasise the importance of communicating with yourself. There’s a number of things they give you to consider and do on your own before bringing a partner into the mix, and they even include an activity sheet with questions about what you do and don’t want as part of your sex life in multiple capacities and the things you may need help with. There’s also really helpful advice for abled people in this section about what you should/shouldn’t say to a disabled partner or potential partner.

The conversation on communication transitions really smoothly into a self-care plan with the reminder that while some people might be awful and ableist about their rejection, we still need to accept a no for what it is. That doesn’t mean we can’t look after ourselves when a rejection is rough though, so the self-care plan goes over some of the ways we can do that. The self-care plan moves into some ideas regarding physical care, such as working with your personal care attendant if you have one or discussing your sexual health and safety with your doctor (which is important regardless of whether you’re disabled!).

At around the halfway point, we get into the physical aspects of actually having sex while disabled, which I probably found to be the most informative section (in the sense that I probably personally learned the most from this). They manage to kick it off by covering a broad variety of preparation concerns that relate to sex while disabled, such as incontinence, lubricants, irritation risks, protection, allergies to common materials (like latex), and setting up the space in advance to make everything more accessible without having to worry about extra steps once you’re in the heat of it. It’s all incredibly practical information, and some of it includes things I hadn’t put a lot of thought into before. The preparation shifts over to positioning, and it packs a ton of information in here as well. Some of this information is incredibly important for able-bodied partners to be aware of when having sex with someone who uses mobility devices, like not moving someone out of a wheelchair without consent and the knowledge of how to do it safely or not moving a mobility device where the person who needs it can’t reach it. Some of the information is practical for both abled and disabled partners, such as changing positions to accommodate bodies of different sizes and shapes or using props (like wedges) to increase access and comfort and decrease pain.

There’s a small section on sex toys, which delighted me as I love talking and reading about sex toys. They address the stigma surrounding sex toys to start, which I think is really fair, especially since many disabled folks in particular feel pressure about not being able to do it ourselves. Not only do we look at different types of sex toys, but we look at the ways they can be particularly useful for disabled people (like what might increase sensation for those who have it in limited supply or how remote and digitally operated vibrators can make physical access easier), which is something I almost never see in sex toy discussions. It even covers different harness types for those who might struggle to use traditional ones, and it took me forever to find any resources that talked about this before reading this book.

Before the book comes to its conclusion, Andrews covers a few specific disability concerns that often require accommodations during sex, like spasticity, chronic pain, and fatigue. They allow this to lead naturally into aftercare, both physical and emotional.

While the book can’t cover everything (as the author even notes, as it is quick and easy), a lot of ground is covered in an incredibly small amount of overall space. A. Andrews does a truly admirable job of tackling sex and disability in a way that is accessible for both abled and disabled people. Most of the basics are touched on in a way that is quick and easy but also incredibly helpful. As a disabled person who has sex I felt seen, and I kind of wish this had been available a few years ago when I first began to really need accommodations. Honestly though, even if a younger me didn’t get to benefit from this, current me actually learned a lot that will be helpful for my current health, any future complications, and any future sexual interactions with other disabled people.

Overall, I basically loved everything about A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability by A. Andrews. I was so excited about what this book could offer, and it did not disappoint. As much as I would love to read a similar but lengthier book on the subject, this is a wonderful introduction. The subjects covered are broad and surprisingly feel pretty thorough, the art style is easy on the eyes, the layout is easy to follow, and the whole tone is just incredibly welcoming, funny, understanding, sympathetic, and relatable. I would highly recommend this book to basically everyone, but especially other disabled folks, anyone having sex with disabled folks, and anyone interested in sex education or disability studies.

Book Review: ‘The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story’ by Marie Kondo, Illustrated by Yuko Uramoto

 

Throughout 2019, I’ve managed to read and review both The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, and now I am happy to say I have read The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story, and I am ready to share my thoughts on it. This also happens to be the very first time I’ve read any manga (I’m very behind on that front), but I don’t intend it to be my last.

I originally started to read Marie Kondo out of a sense of pettiness towards the online bookish community who felt a sense of outrage that on her show she suggested that her clients get rid of many of their books, and the revelation that she personally only kept about thirty books. Fortunately for me, the backlash led me to her books, which I probably never would have read otherwise. I was delighted by Life-Changing Magic, and I enjoyed Spark Joy just as much, so it was time for me to read Life-Changing Manga. This is also just following Marie Kondo’s announcement that she will be releasing two more books, including the confirmation of one of them being a picture book called Kiki & Jax: The Life-Changing Magic of Friendship.

The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up (illustrated by Yuko Uramoto, and translated to English from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano, the same translator from KonMari’s other books) takes all of the KonMari lessons you expect, and it puts them into a narrative comic. Rather than providing the information in a straightforward instructional fashion with additional anecdotes, this is shaped like a story. Chiaki realises her home is a mess and her life is a mess, and she contacts KonMari for tidying lessons. The story follows Chiaki’s personal journey, as well as the information KonMari teaches during her lessons.

Next to KonMari’s other two books, there are definitely pros and cons to reading the manga instead. If you are a very visual person, you will get more out of the manga (or Spark Joy) than Life-Changing Magic. I think one of the most beneficial aspects is really getting to see the method in play. Rather than just being told how to tidy, you get to witness someone’s journey, see how they do it, and experience the changes in their life along the way.  If you find it easier to learn through storytelling than just receiving the information point-blank, you will definitely find this to be the most comfortable read. While none of the books are challenging to read, this one is the most accessible, and could feasibly be more comfortable for young adult readers as well. I think the one drawback is that you get much less information overall, with the book being shorter with less text, so many of the smaller points are set aside to allow the story to be front and centre. That said, Life-Changing Manga still offers up all of the most important points, with none of the most vital details missing, so if you aren’t looking for finer points then you will still find this book to be helpful and enjoyable.

Chiaki is a really relatable character whose whole life is a mess, and it’s genuinely touching to see her journey and the ways tidying impacts her life (and the happy ending is very satisfying). I like that the story of Chiaki getting her life together and experiencing interest in a new romance actually manages to be pleasurable and sweet to read on its own, without factoring in any practical information. There’s a really great sense of humour, and you really get to appreciate Marie Kondo’s sense of self-awareness as she pokes fun at the image of herself as a cleaning fairy. Yuko Uramoto offers up some truly adorable illustrations that fit the story nicely, illustrate the methods of tidying very clearly, and accentuate both the practical and fun sides of this book, while also capturing KonMari’s spirit really well. Cathy Hirano provides clear and concise translations as always, making the book an accessible read.

Overall, I genuinely enjoyed reading The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up. I feel like it’s something that would work incredibly well for folks who aren’t sure that a book on tidying would be interesting to them, as this expands into an enjoyable story. As far as this book as a companion read goes, I feel like I really enjoyed it as a story in its own right, and it helped to drive home the most important points from KonMari’s other books. It probably wasn’t my favourite of the three, but I think it’s easy to recommend to those who enjoy the other books as well as to those who are hesitant to read the other books. I definitely look forward to reading Marie Kondo’s future book releases.