February 2022 Reading Round Up: This and That

This year, my resolution is to rest more, which is why we’re truly easing into 2022. In our first round-up of the year, we’ve got a little of this and a little of that—a true hodge-podge to appease our sleepy winter brains. From high fantasy to graphic essays, we’ve got something for everyone this month.

the wolf of Oren yaro by K.S. Villoso

GENRE: fantasy | orbit 2020 | REVIEWED BY angela gualtieri

The opening of K. S. Villoso’s novel, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, immediately introduces us to the brutal protagonist, Queen Talyien of Jin-Sayeng: “They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me” (1). Although Talyien’s infamous reputation suggests that violence and bloodlust guide her judgement, the queen’s love for her son and estranged husband are her true guiding force. When she receives her husband’s invitation to visit a foreign land in hopes of reconciliation, Talyien jumps at the chance for peace, not just for her nation, but also for her heart. This fateful decision leads her down a lonely path of betrayal and strife as Talyien must fight her way back home.

This book’s strongest element is Villoso’s exploration of Talyien’s internal struggle with the difficulty of balancing her various roles and the costs those roles enact on her: “You could not be queen and wife and queen and mother at the same time. There were always sacrifices to be make, and none of us can be more than one person. Something had to give” (316). Tempered by society’s rules, Talyien’s constant war between her head and her heart flies off the page, resonating deeply with the reader. Her motivation to do the right thing for her people, her family, and especially her son drives every decision she makes, fully fleshing out her character.

I highly recommend this book for readers new to the adult fantasy genre or those looking for non-Western settings.

Why We Love It: This fantasy novel is great for adults looking to dive into the genre, especially if you love a strong female protagonist and a book that steps away from Western tropes.

frank: sonnets by diane seuss

GENRE: poetry | graywolf press 2021 | REVIEWED BY t. simmons

Tapping into the collective through brutally honest and authentic personal narratives–almost upsettingly frank–the poems from Diane Seuss’ latest collection, Frank: Sonnets, are bunched over the surface tension of detached drunkenness. It’s all cut with dizzying jumps from here to there and back again. Seuss has masterful control.

If there is a key to unlocking this collection, it might be in the sixteenth poem where Seuss concedes that poetry “is not a language” but something else. That “something else is the bride who can’t be factored / down even to her flesh and bones.” Seuss answers a riddle with another riddle. In this way, the tumblers in her verses resist being picked. Each is delivered in a “voice / like baby teeth in a dryer drum.”  Her poems are unsolvable, but each potentiality coaxes the reader to try.

We turn again and again to water–a bay, and beauty. Seussian landscapes are beautiful, but none are pretty. Surprise and even shock recur with wave-like regularity. Witness: “tears stuck to her cheeks like leeches or jewels.”

Also peppering “the something else” of her poetry are a bouquet of references, from the Velvet Underground to Hall and Oates; from St. Vincent de Paul to I Love Lucy.

On the one hand deeply spiritual and on the other intensely wretched, Seuss unbolts language from its moorings and sets us adrift. She presents poetry of astonishing worth. She is crisp and ablaze and afloat. Seuss must be read. Now. And all at once.

Why We Love It: Seuss’s poems are always surprising and inventive. This is poetry at it’s finest.

my heart is a chainsaw by stephen graham jones

GENRE: horror/thriller | gallery/saga press 2021 | REVIEWED BY robert drinkwater

If you are a fan of slasher movies, Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart is a Chainsaw is the perfect book. This novel follows Jade, a half Native American girl who is obsessed with horror movies. When bodies start piling up in her small Idahoan town, she begins to suspect that there is a slasher on the loose. Everyone thinks Jade is just a weird loner girl with a vivid imagination, but is convinced she knows who the “final girl” in this real-life movie will be–and she makes it her mission to train that girl to defeat the slasher. 

As a fan of slasher movies myself, I really enjoyed the references to so many classics, like Scream, Friday The 13th, Sleepaway Camp, and more. Jade has seen them all. She knows the tropes, and what it takes to be a final girl. That’s why she knows the new girl, Letha, will be the final girl in this real-life horror. As a reader, it was a great experience to see the slow-burning tension,  as Jade tries to find out more about this mysterious killer, all while trying to prepare Letha for her inevitable showdown with the slasher. 

This book feels like a tribute to fans of the horror genre. For the first two-thirds, it’s a slow burn, where readers get to know Jade as someone much more complex than just a slasher-flick fan. As Jade slowly unravels the history of her small town, along with the identity of the killer, Jade’s past unravels before us, too. That depth makes it so much more satisfying when we get to see her past trauma connect with the present in the gory, fast-paced finale. 

Why We Love It: Stephen Graham Jones is a master of the horror genre, and his novels feature complex Native American protagonists that never disappoint.

seek you: a journey through american loneliness by kristen radtke

GENRE: graphic essay | pantheon 2021 | REVIEWED BY rebecca valley

I first fell in love with Kristen Radtke’s latest graphic essay Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness because it is beautiful. Muted illustrations and blocks of color give life to brief bursts of text so poignant that they can often stand-alone—as in the third section of a chapter called “Listen,” which shows a floundering, pale foot in dark water beside the lines: “Loneliness feels to me like being underwater, fumbling against a muted world in which the sound of your own body is loud against the quiet of everything else.” But this book is more than a series of profound and lovingly illustrated moments. It’s a thoughtful exploration of an epidemic that plagues all of us; an epidemic we are too ashamed, too careful to talk about.

From neuroscience to home décor to the symbol of the American cowboy, Radtke is like a documentarian, diving into the many ways we isolate ourselves, and each other. And she does it with a delicate touch. She reminds us that loneliness is natural, is universal—and that life is an ongoing dance between the desire for peace and quiet and the desire for connection. As she writes: “How quickly…my annoyance at the proximity of other people turns into tenderness.”  

When I read Seek You in the doldrums of December, it felt like a lifeline. You can get lost in the graphic form, as you would a film—and yet, it’s quieter. This is a private book about a private thing we all experience, with varying degrees of pleasure and pain. But Radtke’s vulnerability makes space for each of us speak through the depths of our loneliness. And for that, we should all be grateful.

Why We Love It: The graphic essay form is stunning and accessible, and the content will make you feel a little less alone.

Want to review a book for our next round-up? Head to our submissions page for more information and to see a list of titles we’d love to cover

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