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A Year of Books: January

A new year and with it a lot of exciting new books for me to read!


The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue De Connick and Valentine De Landro

My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame

How to Invent Everything by Ryan North

Heavy Vinyl by Carly Usdin and Nina Vakueva



The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill


This is a feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid which really captures the dark and disturbing aspects of fairytales. Gaia was named so because her mother was fascinated by the world above the waves. Gaia’s father despised it, and all humans, and renamed Gaia ‘Muirgen’ after her mother disappeared. All her life she has been told that her mother abandoned her and her sisters, in favour of the surface where she surely died, trapped by fisherman’s nets. Despite this, Gaia is equally fascinated by the world above and is desperately awaiting her fifteenth birthday, the day on which she will be allowed to swim to the surface and see it for herself. On that day, she witnesses a shipwreck and rescues a young man from the bloodthirsty Rusalkas who circle sinking ships.


Gaia’s father is the king, a tyrannical ruler who pitches his daughters against each other in competition for the one thing for which women are valued; beauty. Gaia is the most beautiful of them, with a remarkable singing voice, both being traits her father prizes. To escape from her betrothal to an abusive man, and to find the young man she saved, she seeks out the Sea Witch.


The Sea Witch, Ceto, is a misunderstood villain. She is a body-positive, sex-positive witch who cuts out Gaia’s tongue, all the while hoping Gaia will find her voice again and, this time, appreciate it. Ceto is an enjoyable character and provides a much-needed bit of rage and passion in a novel where, for the most part, the female characters are very submissive. On land, Gaia’s new legs are agony whenever she walks. Not only are they painful, her feet bleed every night. Yet, she can’t let anyone know the pain she feels. She bears it without any outside indication. There’s a strong message here about the way women are expected to deal with their pain and their struggles silently.


What hits hard about this book is the fact that Gaia has internalized the misogyny her father and society poured upon her. It’s painful and frustrating to read Gaia’s slowly-emerging regrets, her justifications, the way in which she treats other women ‒as either inconsequential or a threat‒, and the way she continues to hope that love can come from diminishing herself. That said, this is a hopeful novel. The impression I was left with was that sometimes strength can be found despite, or perhaps because of, hardship.



Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue De Connick and Valentine De Landro


I can’t believe I waited this long to read this. I’m just glad it’s finally in my life. Put it this way, I finished the first volume and immediately went out to buy the second one. It’s a comic about a society which imprisons ‘non-compliant’ women on another planet, nicknamed ‘Bitch Planet’. Women can be sent there for a variety of crimes, including ‘aesthetic violations’ and being transgender, as well as actual crimes.


The vibe is sinister 50s satire. The art sparks, but is grotesque at the same time. I wasn’t sure it was a style I would enjoy at first, but it grew on me and it suits the tone of the comic perfectly. The tone of the whole thing took me a moment to get used to, but after a short period of adjustment, I loved it. The chirpy-but-disturbing magazine pages that intersperse chapters add a whole other level of creepy, while still adding a bit of humour (albeit dark humour).


The second volume opens with the transgender women in their own separate sector. It’s a powerful opening sequence particularly at the moment when transphobes are getting more vocal and more aggressive. At the end of the collected volume, there’s also a discussion with De Connick and De Landro about this opening and the amount of thought that went into it. What made me happiest was that they actually got trans women to give their opinion. More people should make use of sensitivity readers. Unfortunately, the people who think they don’t need them are usually the people who needs them most.


Anyway, I can’t believe I hadn’t got around to reading this until just now. It’s been out for a few years and has won a number of a number of awards in that time.



My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame


This is the first manga I have ever read. My lovely husband gave it to me for Christmas and it was exactly the kind of adorable, heart-warming story I needed in the depths of winter. Yaichi is a single dad, raising his young daughter, Kana. Yaichi’s twin brother has recently died and his bereaved husband, a Canadian named Mike, has come to Tokyo to explore his husband’s past. Mike is sweet, polite and friendly, despite Yaichi’s obvious discomfort with his presence. When Yaichi’s brother, Ryoji, came out as gay, the two drifted apart and lost contact. Now, with Mike’s arrival, Yaichi has to confront his unconscious homophobia and his assumptions about his brother.


It’s really a lovely story and I’m looking forward to the next instalment. Yaichi begins to see Mike, and extension the memory of his brother, through his daughter’s eyes. With gay marriage still not legal in Japan and a taboo in many ways, My Brother’s Husband gives a unique view on the effect of Western society on Japanese gay culture. It also looks closely at “non-aggressive homophobia”; casual prejudice born more from ignorance and discomfort than conscious malevolence. It’s adorable, heart-rending in places and very addictive to read.



How to Invent Everything by Ryan North


I picked this up because I’d already read one of North’s other books, Romeo and/or Juliet. It’s an excellent choose-your-own-adventure style novel based on Romeo and Juliet, except funnier and wackier. I heartily recommend that one as well. How to Invent Everything is totally different in subject matter but it has the same light-hearted tone and the same sense of humour. While ostensibly non-fiction, the factual information it contains is framed within the idea that reader is a time-traveller who has become stuck in the past and the novel itself is their guide to create a comfortable society that provides everything they need to survive. And to remind the time-traveller that the makers of the FC3000 time machine bear no responsibility for your current predicament or for any ‘alleged’ faults with the machine itself.


It’s surprisingly fun, packed with amusing flow-charts and full of interesting facts, most of which conclude that actually humans aren’t all that great. They’re okay, but let’s not get too cocky shall we? One of my favourites was the fact that vitamin C was discovered and forgotten seven times before it stuck, due to ‘bad communication and bad science’.


This has been a really enjoyable book to dip in and out of and I think makes an informative reference book for writing. There are lots of tidbits of information that I read and thought would make interesting details. And it helps that the text isn’t at all dry.



Heavy Vinyl by Carly Usdin and Nina Vakueva


Another comic that I kept meaning to read. It has a similar vibe to Lumberjanes and Giant Days, except this one is set in a record store called ‘Vinyl Desintation’, in the basement of which the employees have set up a ‘secret teen girl vigilante fight club’. The new girl, Chris, is trying to find herself through music, trying very hard to be as cool as the other girls who work at the store, and trying to woo her crush and co-worker, Maggie.


When a member of a rock band booked to play at the record store disappears, it’s up to the whole Vinyl Destination crew to find her. It’s light-hearted and full of puns, while also being diverse in representation and thoroughly sweet. And also full of punching, leading to one of my favourite lines; ‘Have you ever punched anyone... for justice?’


I do wish my teenage years had been this cool.

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© 2018 by Anouchka Harris