Giant Spider & Me #1 – Kikori Morino

Giant Spider CoverFull Title: Giant Spider & Me: A Post-Apocalyptic Tale Vol. 1
Series: Giant Spider & Me, #1
First Published: February, 2018
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Manga
Contributors: Kikori Morino (author, illustrator); Adrienne Beck (translator); Ysabet Reinhardt MacFarlane (adaptation); Jennifer Skarupa (lettering, retouch); Nicky Lim (cover designer)
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Nagi is a twelve-year-old girl living alone on a mountain. Asa is a giant spider. They meet and spend their days cooking and getting to know each other.

This is the first book in a manga trilogy. The interior is black and white, with a colour cover and title page. Though it’s a post-apocalyptic setting, this is one where nature has taken over rather than being destroyed. Lush vegetation has covered the remains of the old world. That feel is enhanced by the watercolour artwork.

There is a slice-of-life focus to the main story, with activities such as cooking, harvesting food and caring for the house. There is some threat from humans and a brief fight scene with a wild dog, though none of this is graphic and issues are quickly resolved (apart from the cliffhanger at the end of the book, though that is quickly resolved in the next book).

Initially, Nagi sees Asa as a human replacement, but soon realises that Asa is their own thing and can’t be expected to fit human expectations. This is shown in direct ways, such as Nagi considering that she needs to learn about what it means to be Asa. It’s also shown indirectly, such as referring to Asa with gender-neutral they, rather than trying to make the spider fit a human gender role.

Asa isn’t like a typical spider in some ways, as they have teeth and chew food to eat. They use two tentacle-like appendages to manipulate things. They also understand basic instructions. It’s uncertain where Asa comes from, but the leaves growing on them makes them seem very much part of the post-apocalyptic world.

Cooking is a big part of the book. Each chapter has a recipe, which Nagi shows in detail (with help from Asa). The ingredients are summarised at the end of the recipe. I chose the first recipe to try, which was chewy pumpkin dumplings.

Pumpkin Dumplings

Image Caption: Four pumpkin dumplings on a white plate with a purple cloth underneath. The dumplings have an outer wrapping of dough, which is light brown from frying. They’re flattened and roundish in shape, with dough folds visible on the top.

In general, I felt the instructions were easy to follow, though it did help to write them out rather than trying to use the original book. Later recipes have fewer timings included compared to the first one, so some cooking experience is helpful.

The choices in the recipe helped bring out the flavour. It was a good idea to steam the pumpkin initially and using sesame oil to fry the dumplings gave extra flavour to the dough. However, there weren’t any extra seasonings in the filling, so I did change things a bit. I split the filling in half and kept half plain (like the original recipe) and added ginger to the other half. Then I fed them to my family.

Unfortunately, sweet pumpkin just wasn’t really our thing, even with added ginger. I did have fun trying it and it’s clearly a recipe written from experience. It’s really just down to personal food tastes.

I enjoyed this book. It’s quiet and gentle. It focuses on food and friendship. Asa the spider is adorable, giant teeth and all. This was exactly what I needed, so I’m glad I read it.

Fillius Glint – Ditrie Marie Bowie

Fillius Glint CoverFirst Published: 31st January, 2017
Genre: Science Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A universe is attacked by hackers who want to destroy it. Meanwhile in the universe, three people find some magical colouring pencils.

There are four viewpoint characters and a frame story. The frame is a family where the children are growing universes. When hackers attack the home network, Nancy loses most of her universes. The one that remains is where most of the story takes place.

Fillius has quite a bit of viewpoint time, showing the lead up to the main story events. He was raised in the gender-neutral religion of Zorda. Everyone uses Spivak pronouns, which is briefly explained at the start of the book. People with breasts bind them. The aim is to be as genderless as possible, in honour of the deity. I had issues believing all this, because the Zords are very binary for a gender-neutral cultural group. When they do gendered things, it is based on where they would be assigned in a binary society. So if they would be assigned female at birth, they might wear a dress or makeup. They also have names to indicate that, just with a letter cut off the end, rather than using truly gender-neutral naming conventions (Clar/Clara, Nor/Nora, Belind/Belinda).

On my first read, it gave the impression that being non-binary was a sham and that no one was really non-binary. On a second read, I can see it might be intended to show Fillius’s issues. He decides he’s a man based on his genitals. He starts misgendering other Zords. Everything he sees is filtered through this perspective. It’s also possible the names are due to more recent converts altering their names. However, this is the first introduction to anyone non-binary in the book, and the only time the Zords are shown living in a community, so I remained uncomfortable with it even after seeing it in the context of the full story.

Fortunately, the other viewpoint characters are more interesting and don’t fall into this as much. Their story happens in the present in the universe, as each of them picks up a magic crayon.

Luiz is recovering from breaking up with his girlfriend by taking a lot of drugs. He’s also in trouble with a business associate. I liked that his story deals with issues facing people of ethnic minorities in a majority culture.

Calliya is a shaman who lives alone in the forest and has control over elements. This introduces another religion and culture. I also liked how it highlights the ridiculousness of some of the worldbuilding, such as the trees with tacos growing on them. I could imagine a child growing a universe like this.

Nor is a Zord living outside of a Zord community. Unlike the Zords in Fillius’s sections, it’s clear Nor really is non-binary. Ey faces issues like gendered changing rooms. Ey competes in a sport that splits people by weight class, rather than gender, to avoid some of those issues. Nor is very honest and open, to the point that when things get weird, ey just tells eir coach plainly what’s going on, magic crayons and all. There is some misgendering of Nor by the others initially, particularly from Luiz, but this is something that self-corrects. It’s rare to have characters get it wrong, realise they were wrong, and start getting it right, without being told to do that.

Once I got past Fillius’s initial sections, I did enjoy the book overall. The setup and plot are unique. The protagonists contrasted well with each other. It presents a world that’s fanciful, yet also complicated in a realistic way, with different cultures and how they interact. The main weakness was the Zords, because outside of Nor, it didn’t hold together for me as a gender-neutral society.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

Book Launch: Werecockroach – Science Fantasy Novella

It’s launch day for my new novella! Werecockroach is a tale of aliens and werecockroaches. I’ll talk a little bit about the book, including a few story notes with background on some of the themes. But first, here are some quick links if you want to skip all that. The book is available at Amazon US, Amazon UK and Smashwords. Other retailers are listed on the official book page. The page also has links to cover merchandise and a brief content guide.

 

Book Description

Rin moves into a new flat on the day the aliens arrive. Their new flatmates are laid-back Sanjay and conspiracy theorist Pete. It doesn’t take long to notice some oddities about the pair, like hoarding cardboard and hissing at people when they’re angry. Something strange is going on, but it’s not all due to the aliens.

The book also includes a bonus short story, from the perspective of one of the supporting characters from the novella.

 Werecockroach  Cover

 

On Cockroaches

The idea for the book came from having hissing cockroaches as pets. One of the biggest misconceptions when people find out about my pets is that they’re like the cockroaches that invade people’s kitchens. There are a lot of different species of cockroaches. Hissers aren’t one of the ones that people will see in their homes (outside of being pets).

They’re from the forests of Madagascar and eat things that have fallen to the forest floor. Pet cockroaches are fed mainly on fruit and vegetables, with a little meat protein here and there. They don’t smell strongly, they don’t fly, and they tame easily. All round, they’re very hardy and easy to keep.

They hiss in various different ways. The one people typical know is the loud disturbance hiss, but they make a number of other hisses. A common one is a soft hiss that accompanies normal daily activities. They’ll sometimes hiss to themselves and sometimes they’ll hiss back and forth with another cockroach. Some are more vocal than others. I’ve had some that hardly ever hiss to some that hiss softly for most of the time they’re awake.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt from keeping them is how much personality they have. Each cockroach is different. They like different foods and they react in different ways. They learn and remember, which is why they soon get to know that I’m not a dangerous predator who wants to eat them. They’re funny little critters, and if they could turn into humans, I’d be happy to invite them round for tea.

 

On Identity and Time

The characters in the novella share aspects of my identity, though it doesn’t mean that they have identical life experiences. One thing I had to consider was how age would change things. When I was younger, being androgynous was the only way that I’d heard to describe being non-binary, long before I’d ever heard the term non-binary. It also wasn’t uncommon for anyone who didn’t quite fit in a gay/straight divide to end up in the bisexual community, so that was primarily how I described myself when I was younger, rather than aromantic and asexual.

Rin wouldn’t have grown up with those experiences. Information has been much more available since the internet, as well as giving people better access to communities. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is a different thing, so the book was partly an exercise in considering how things might have gone differently if I’d been born a little bit later. Would I have chosen agender instead of androgyne to describe my gender? Would I have gone directly to aroace? I won’t ever really know, but it was likely enough to say that’s how it went for Rin.

My experiences of dyslexia (Rin) and sensory processing disorder (Pete) were also influenced by age. There was some awareness of dyslexia when I was younger, though it mostly didn’t go beyond maybe giving someone a bit of extra time in tests. I didn’t know SPD existed until I was well into adulthood. Before that, I was treated as being picky, because no one really acknowledged that those sensory things caused a lot of discomfort and pain.

Hidden hearing loss is probably the most influenced by time, as the studies that identified it were only in the 21st century. Even Rin would have been born before anyone knew about that. But I liked the idea of them knowing what was going on. It would have helped me to know a lot earlier than I did (I was obviously aware that I had tinnitus once I was old enough to realise that not everyone had loud sounds in their ears, but hidden hearing loss was a later thing).

What has stayed about the same is my experience of race, because people react much the same way now as they did when I was younger. Not everything is progress.

The Foxfire Lights – Elizabeth O’Connell

Foxfire Lights CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #2
First Published: 26th August, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem and his brother Hal are called to break another curse. Lord Ransom’s youngest child is sick under strange circumstances.

The setup for this book is very similar to the first in the series. A child is cursed due to events in the family’s past. Jem and Hal have to uncover those events to understand the curse. It’s based on making deals with spirits, which is resolved in a similar way. It also repeats a fair bit of character development, as Hal goes back to not wanting to share his thoughts with Jem. This means there isn’t really any progress on the overall series story of figuring out what happened to Jem and Hal’s father.

There are some areas of improvement. In the first book, only magical disabilities were shown. In this, there is some sickness due to magic, but there’s also a disabled supporting character. Matthew, one of the sons of Lord Ransom, was born with a back injury and is non-neurotypical. There’s the suggestion that he doesn’t feel empathy (rather than just not showing empathy). It’s made very clear this isn’t magical, and a positive future is suggested for him.

Isabella, Lord Ransom’s wife, is from Argentina. She’s not particularly fleshed out as a character. I’d have liked more of her story, even if it wasn’t directly related to the local events.

A character is blinded in one eye towards the end, though it’s late enough that there’s not a lot to say about it in this book.

It isn’t a bad book and will appeal to people who enjoyed the first book. A lot of the things that stood out in the first are apparent here. The world is one where industrial magic is common. The curse breaking provides opportunities for interesting investigations. There’s folklore woven into the narrative. It just feels like it repeats too much from the first book, rather than building on that foundation.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

Hortense and the Shadow – Natalia O’Hara (author), Lauren O’Hara (illustrator)

Hortense and the Shadow CoverFirst Published: 5th October, 2017
Genre: Children’s Fairytale Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Hortense hates her shadow and wants to get rid of it.

I loved the atmosphere of the book. It’s an eerie fairytale, with Hortense living alone in a dark wood, and her shadow as something that can act independently.

There’s a poetic feel and it rhymes in places. Some of the pages have words spread out in artistic ways. This is great for children who love finding words, but could hinder those who struggle. The main thing is to be ready to help struggling readers find their way.

The artwork is intricate in muted tones. The creators were inspired by stories from their Polish grandmother, which particularly shows in the setting. The winters are snowy. The characters wear fur hats and fur-lined clothing. They have black hair and high cheekbones. This is one time where having Eastern European characters as the villains (a group of bandits) actually works, because Hortense is clearly the same ethnicity. It’s not saying that criminals look like this and heroes look like that.

The book has an overall positive message about self (or shadow) acceptance. I appreciated that when Hortense is shouting at her shadow, she doesn’t resort to ableist slurs or similar. It’s a cute book, and will appeal to children who like fairytales with a touch of darkness.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]