This collection of microreviews is a little more eclectic than usual. But these books, which range from history to YA to literary fiction and beyond, share a common thread: the way they ask readers to see the world in new ways. These books offer fresh perspectives through reinvention and retelling, but also by simply narrating from points of view that are rarely heard or respected. This month’s books include a stunning queer retelling of the Peter Pan myth, a genre-bending memoir-cum-historical-treatise on slave revolts, a graphic novel for kids that tackles chronic illness, race, and Latinx culture, and much more. In each story, we are asked to reconsider our old ways of knowing, and make space for new narratives.
GHOSTS by RAINA TELGEMEIER
GENRE: YA/GRAPHIC NOVEL | GRAPHIX 2016 | REVIEWED BY CLAUDINE MINNINI
Raina Telgemeier’s “Ghosts” is a graphic novel for kids that tells the story of sisters Catrina and Maya and their family as they relocate to the coast of Northern California. Maya, who has cystic fibrosis, a degenerative disease, will be able to breathe better in the sea air. When they move to Bahia de la Luna, where the sun is said not to shine often, Catrina, also known as Cat, says, “Ew, I’d rather die!” She says this not because the sun doesn’t shine but because she will miss her friends and she can’t help resent Maya for being the reason her family has to move.
While they share a meal of tamales with their new neighbors, the other family’s son, Carlos, talks about meeting ghosts during Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), and Cat is not impressed. Carlos explains the mission at the top of the hill is “basically a doorway to the spirit world.”
As Cat’s fear of ghosts grows so does her lasting resentment toward Maya, whose health condition seems to worsen as she adopts Cat’s new friends as her own.
Can Catrina come to terms with her friends and family in this world and the spirit world? Will she accept Carlos as her friend and Maya as her loving sister, who happens to have a degenerative disease?
Raina Telgemeier creates a bridge between the real and the magical in this 2016 graphic novel. Her detailed pictures make the story of these characters come to life seamlessly. She creates space not only for her real-life characters, but for the ghosts that inhabit the terrain. Her characters’ expressions lifted me into the story and then again into Telgemeier’s imaginative world of ghosts, who visit during the Day of the Dead. “Ghosts” is a sweet, charming tale told in the voice of a girl who is finding her place in the world.
Why We Love It: Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels may be for young adults, but they take on serious themes like chronic illness, race, and culture. They are also accessible for middle schoolers at a variety of reading levels. Telgemeier’s books speak to the complexity of what it’s like to be a kid today.
CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by SAYAKA MURATA
GENRE: LITERARY FICTION | GROVE PRESS 2019 | REVIEWED BY ROBERT DRINKWATER
Sayaka Murata’s book Convenience Store Woman is a Japanese novel that follows Keiko, a woman in her mid-thirties who has worked part-time at the same convenience store for the past eighteen years. Keiko is content with her life as it is. She feels as though she is a member of society when she works at the convenience store. The familiarity and feeling of belonging bring her comfort. Her friends and family, on the other hand, are critical of her life. Throughout the story, Keiko is asked when or if she plans on getting married, why she still works at the convenience store, and is often criticized for the way she lives her life.
Though Murata doesn’t outwardly identify Keiko as autistic, many neurodivergent critics have identified with Keiko’s narrative voice. Her difficulty with communication, specific interests and habits, and difficulty understanding social cues may feel familiar to those on the autism spectrum. Keiko is pressured into being “normal” by those around her (by finding a husband and a “proper” career). Working at the convenience store is a way for her to conform and feel as though she is a part of society. It is the one place where people don’t treat her as though she needs to be “fixed”.
It was refreshing to see a neurodivergent character face issues like finding a place in society. In the end, readers begin to wonder if a “normal” life is truly as valuable as everyone else seems to think, as Keiko struggles to understand why everyone around her is so unhappy about her life, despite her being content with it.
Keiko was a wonderful character to follow from start to finish. Murata provides a thought-provoking social commentary about trying to be “normal” in a society where you’re seen as abnormal.
Why We Love It: Keiko is a unique narrator who challenges the capitalistic culture around her–and whom many neurodivergent readers and critics have rallied around. This novel makes you reconsider your own contentment–and how much of it is driven by the expectations of others.
TINK AND WENDY by KELLY ANN JACOBSON
GENRE: YA/TEEN | THREE ROOMS PRESS 2021 | REVIEWED BY REBECCA VALLEY
In this atmospheric queer retelling of Peter Pan set in wintry upstate New York, Kelly Ann Jacobson tackles more than just romance–she also takes on big themes like grief, the pain of lost childhood innocence, and the myriad ways we hurt the people we love.
This short YA novel focuses most of its attention on Tink, who spends her days moping around the old Darling house, hungover and tending to the graves of Peter Pan and Wendy Darling. Jacobson propels readers through the book by only revealing the mysterious circumstances of Peter and Wendy’s deaths at the end—but that doesn’t mean we miss out on a vivid portrayal of Tink’s love, and her grief. Emotional scenes from upstate New York are interspersed with bits of Neverland history, which slowly reveal the not-always-idyllic qualities of the land of eternal youth.
Though Tink is our protagonist, Jacobson paints a unique portrait of Peter Pan in this retelling. Peter is not just the adventurous, playful boy of the Disney adaptation. He is also dangerous, irresponsible, and often selfish. By portraying Peter’s boyishness beside Wendy’s steadfast maturity, Jacobson subtly critiques patriarchy and the way that boys are given the privilege of prolonged naivete—while girls are shackled with the fallout of their irresponsible behavior.
Ultimately, this novel is about grief, guilt, and the slow but sure path to forgiveness. Through Tink, Jacobson explores the ways we punish ourselves for the hurt we’ve caused others—and how that punishment ultimately serves no one. Instead, Jacobson suggests, we can take ownership of the hurt we’ve caused. By telling our stories, fully and honestly, we can heal, and give others the chance to see us and love us more fully.
Why We Love It: This book reinvents the story of Peter Pan to focus on the experiences of queer women–and reveal the toxic masculinity that existed in the tale all along. Along the way, it explores trauma, healing, family, and love.
WAKE: THE HIDDEN HISTORY of WOMEN-LED SLAVE REVOLTS by REBECCA HALL
GENRE: MEMOIR/HISTORY | SIMON AND SCHUSTER 2021 | REVIEWED BY T. SIMMONS
With what she calls “a measured use of historical imagination,” Dr. Hall reconstructs two women-led 18th-century slave revolts. She weaves in a second timeline that reveals her own family’s history. She then intertwines the process of her historical reconstruction by means of a Maus-like back-and-forth flashback technique which explicates her research travails. This is a tricky framework to carry out, but she and comic artist Hugo Martínez make it seem effortless. Moreover, this is a story (or stories) perfectly suited to the medium of a graphic novel.
Hall incisively demonstrates how a historian engages in a close reading of spare texts. She discovers a report of twenty-seven slaves who were tried, convicted, and “condemned, whereof twenty-one were executed, one being a woman with child, her execution by that means suspended.” And she asks herself: “Of the twenty-one sentenced to death, do we read this as ‘one was a woman,’ or do we read it as ‘of the twenty-one condemned, one of the women was pregnant?’”
Reflections in pools and storefront windows reveal the shadows of chattel slavery – anguished men, women, and children, largely silenced by the historical record – even as Hall plods through 21st century London and New York, unearthing archives. Their faces demonstrate what William Faulkner once told us: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Why We Love It: A gripping memoir, an essay on the historian’s craft, and a retelling of two almost unknown women-led slave revolts beckon readers into Hall’s interior world. The book also embarks toward a more empathetic understanding of the true horrors of slavery.
a natural history of transition by callum angus
GENRE: literary fiction/short stories | metonymy press 2021 | REVIEWED BY rebecca valley
In Callum Angus’s transformative collection of short stories, A Natural History of Transition, he writes: “A poet makes science out of everything the scientist ignores.”
And it’s true–at least in Angus’s case. His collection uses deep poetic attention to build more inclusive and celebratory histories for its queer and trans characters. Angus’s stories speak to the multi-faceted nature of queer existence—and make space for experiences that have long been ignored by both scientific and poetic institutions. In this collection, language and image create space for the complexity of gender identity, sexuality, transition, and selfhood. This collection doesn’t focus on the “dysphoria” of gender so much as a beautiful, ever-shifting yearning toward a truer version of the self.
Or, as Angus writes: “Metamorphosis was much quieter than he’d expected.”
In my favorite of these stories, “Winter of Men,” Angus builds a magical, queer history from the real story of the Congregation de Notre Dame in Montreal, and its founding saint Marguerite Bourgeoys. In this story, Angus explores the fluidity of gender, as Marguerite’s nuns shift from male to female with the seasons, finding joy in both versions of themselves. The piece also dives into the beauty of liminality, particularly when it comes to our ideas of ourselves. As the narrator explains: “She wanted the grim in-betweenness of Marguerite. She wanted to know what it would feel like to feel like a man, and look like one, too. Had she always wanted this?”
In all of Angus’s stories, that “grim in-betweenness” is a celebrated space, one that characters move through and linger in. Transition isn’t clear cut for these characters—and neither is gender. Characters become rocks, and swarms of insects—this, too, is transition. This, too, is selfhood.
By lingering in-betweenness, these characters are also creating a world beyond binary. They are freeing themselves (and, in turn, the reader) from the idea that transition is linear—or that transition marks the end of a journey, and not the beginning of it. As Angus shows us, transition is always happening to and around us. Transition is a way of being in the world. And there are, in each moment, infinite paths that we might choose.
Why We Love It: Angus’s book reinvents the idea of transition from the strict binary of Before and After to an eternal becoming–a way of seeing transformation (of gender or otherwise) as part of the daily work of being alive.
exquisite cadavers by meena kandasamy
GENRE: literary fiction | atlantic books 2020 | REVIEWED BY brinda gulati
Meena Kandasamy is perhaps the most poignant philosopher of the Indian existence. She is a flanéur, fascinated by the enclosed spaces she creates that infect her characters. In Exquisite Cadavers, we read Kandasamy as she identifies herself, in the margins of a story, as a writer defending her words–in particular, her discontentment with her last published novel, When I Hit You, bracketed as a “memoir” even after her insistence that it was a novel. Her fictional couple, Maya and Karim, fight with each other, watch films together, and discuss their awful fathers. The story of their marriage is like a slide under a microscope, exposing every flaw within their relationship. But in Exquisite Cadavers the protagonist couple, Maya and Karim must share their space with Kandasamy’s authorial scribblings.
The novel is decidedly more than the story of a marriage. The form breaks conventional boundaries between the author and the reader. Kandasamy invites us into her processes of writing the book by presenting us with two parallel stories, the first one in bigger text as an auto-fictional narrative of the married couple. The other smaller stories – in text size, and not necessarily in importance, are short bursts of Kandasamy’s reality scribbled in the left margins of the pages, separated by a thin line, literally and metaphorically. Ultimately, we have the autonomy to choose which one we follow more closely, as the two stories stitch themselves together silently.
Why We Love It: This innovative novel plays with form, and forces us to reconsider how we read, the role of the author, and how the structure of a book dictates which stories we choose to believe.
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