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What We’re Reading: December Round-Up

2016 December 1
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What We're ReadingToday’s What We’re Reading features our staff picks for December. Perhaps you’re looking for gift ideas for a reader in your life, or maybe you’re looking for unique inspiration for your own holiday wish list. Whatever your gift desires, there is something here for many different types of readers. We’ve gathered a superhero comic book collection, a unique handmade, letterpressed book of poems, a thriller featuring a potential female psychopath, and a collection of over 40 writers and artists from Minneapolis. Happy reading and gift-giving, folks.

young-avengersYoung Avengers by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and friends (Marvel Comics, 2013-2014)
Reviewed by Aaron

Young Avengers is every teen self-discovery road movie. There’s the rich kid (Hawkeye), the transfer student (Marvel Boy), the orphan (Hulkling), the surprisingly normal one (Wiccan), the rough one (Ms. America Chavez), the nerd (Prodigy), and the troublemaker (Loki). There are pop culture references, smooching, and vengeful exes. There is a pounding drive to keep away from parents. But it’s not ’cause parents just don’t understand. No, it’s because parents are A COSMIC HORROR INVADING FROM A FASCISTLY PURE PRISON DIMENSION.

Young Avengers is every superhero vs. cosmic horror comic. There is an evil dystopia dimension. There is a beautiful utopia dimension. One would not exist without the other. Everyone has a chance to see what they’d become if they gave in to their base impulses, but they’re equally haunted by their good and selfless actions. Their travel is literally powered by imagination, and love literally saves the day. Also: aliens, time travel, magic, lasers.

Young Avengers is a dance mix with 16 tracks. It’s not subtle, and it revels in its lack of subtlety. It runs from lo-fi to hi-fi and back again, and it mixes oldies with pop chart-toppers. It’s a karaoke cover of Marvel Comics, and it’s better than the original version.

(Young Avengers came out as 15 individual issues and has been collected in three trade paperbacks: Style > Substance, Alternative Cultures, and Mic-Drop at the Edge of Time and Space.)

heidevery-blest-thing-seeing-eye by Heid E. Erdrich (MN Center for Book Arts, Winter 2016)
Previewed by Wren

If you’re looking for a unique holiday gift for an art and/or poetry fan in your life, this is a great option. The Minnesota Center for Book Arts annually selects a Winter Book, and every-blest-thing-seeing-eye by Erdrich is this year’s 2016 pick. It’s a new collection of poems, focusing on art and the viewing of artespecially from the perspective of an Ojibwe poet as a curator. The book itself is a work of art, being handmade and letterpress printed. It was designed by Jeff Rathermel and Todd Thyberg, with illustrations by Jim Denomie, Aza Erdrich, Eric Gansworth, Dyani Whitehawk, Louise Erdrich, Andrea Carlson and Jonathan Thunder.

If you’d like to see the book in person (and get it signed by Erdrich), there is a Winter Book celebration at 7 p.m. on Dec. 10 at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

mysisterrosacoverMy Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier (Soho Teen, November 2016)
Reviewed by Cassidy

I pre-ordered this book way back in May, after hearing Larbalestier speak on a panel about “writing killer women” at a feminist sci-fi and fantasy convention. Larbalestier mentioned the extensive research she had done on female psychopaths and serial killers for her upcoming book, and I was instantly hooked. My Sister Rosa focuses on seventeen-year-old Che Taylor, who is convinced that his ten-year-old sister is a dangerous psychopath. In between calculus, boxing classes, and maybe getting his first-ever girlfriend, Che must figure out how to stop Rosa before she gets someone hurt—or worse. A hybrid thriller and coming-of-age story, this book draws its power from scares that look inward, not outward. It’s an intensely psychological book that will leave you reeling for days after.

intoInto: Minneapolis  (Into Quarterly, December 2016)
Previewed by Wren

As a bit of a disclaimer, I’ve been working with the creators of Into Quarterly through my day job at The Loft Literary Center. The Loft and Into Quarterly are co-hosting the launch party for Into: Minneapolis on Fri, Dec 9 at 7 pm (at the Loft). That said, I am falling madly in love with this publication and its work. Into Quarterly is a “city-inspired literary and arts journal.” The founders visit different cities, search out writers and artists to contribute work that serves as a time-capsule portrait of their city, and publish this diverse work in a sleek, beautifully designed book. The Minneapolis edition is full of top-notch writers: Danez Smith, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Bao Phi, Matt Rasmussen, Kao Kalia Yang, Sarah Stonich, and so many more. The launch event will feature readings from the book, and a panel discussion between selected writers and visual artists about how the idea of “home” affects their work and identity. Consider it another unique gift idea for those who love Minneapolis, art, and words.

What We’re Reading: Clancy of the Undertow

2016 November 17
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clancyClancy of the Undertow 
by Christopher Currie (Text Publishing, December 2016)

Like any other closeted teenage lesbian whose favorite hobby is chasing frogs with the local nature club, Clancy Underhill knows a bit about being an outsider. But everything goes from bad to worse when her dad, a construction worker, is involved in—and maybe the cause of—an accident that kills Barwen High School’s power couple. Clancy’s family is ostracized. Poorly-spelled graffiti accusing her dad of being a “MURDRER” appears on their garage overnight. Even Clancy’s after-school job, working at a make-up kiosk at the mall, suffers when customers refuse to buy anything from the child of an alleged killer.

There are bright spots, though: a new girl in nature club, Nancy, who hasn’t even been in town long enough to know to hate Clancy (and who knows that rhyming names = instant BFFs). Angus, Clancy’s slacker and conspiracy theorist older brother (whose biggest aspiration in life is to catch live video footage of Barwen’s version of Bigfoot), starts to be a little less of a jerkwad. And the gorgeous, unattainable Sasha Strickland is maybe (just maybe) showing an interest.

There’s a lot packed into the 280 pages of this book, to say the least, but it never crosses over into the realm of the contrived and overdramatic; it’s a complicated book because being a teenager is, well, complicated. From her home life to extracurriculars to friends and more, Clancy’s world feels three-dimensional in a way that many YA novels fall short of. It’s visceral and complex and so, so, so real (especially to anyone who knows what it feels like to be capital-D Different in a small town). Like many contemporary/”literary” novels, the plot is less intense than that of its sci-fi or fantasy counterparts, but Currie’s writing makes the stakes just as high and just as engaging. Clancy getting asked out on a maybe-date by Sasha Strickland is just as exciting as it would be if she was learning sorcery, or plotting to overthrow the Queen of England.

Another highlight of this book (though, if I’m being honest, the book is so good the whole thing could be considered a highlight) is Clancy’s narration. She’s bitterly sarcastic, surprisingly perceptive, and kind of an asshole in the way that many teenagers are. Here’s a sample paragraphs taken from Clancy and Sasha’s first maybe-date at a roadside diner:

We’re sitting there with matching milkshakes, Sasha and me. Somehow, things aren’t going like I always thought they would. Firstly, she invited me, when in fact our first date was meant to be the result of a concerted campaign I’d waged to convince her of my attractiveness/worth. Secondly, we’re sitting face to face under twenty-four-hour fluorescents, with the unromantic buzz of air-con in our ears and endless flabby wedges of seated trucker’s arsecrack as our view.

I’ve often walked past Sasha’s mum’s travel agency, where she works, even though I never went in. Hoping for a quick glimpse as I went past, a fleeting view of her profile: white blouse, blue scarf, spidery telephone headset.

Now I have her all to myself it’s almost too much. There’s no more mystery.

I’ve never thought about what her voice would really sound like, or how she’d have a tiny pimple beside her nose or how she’d spin a milkshake container a quarter-turn every few seconds like if she didn’t it would disappear.

But then she smiles, and I go all warm, and I forget any doubts that this is the right thing to be doing.

Okay, so that’s more than a paragraph, but that’s the thing about Currie’s writing: it’s addictive. I couldn’t stop reading it any more than I could stop at eating just a single Pringle.

Beyond the world-building and addictive narrative voice, Clancy of the Undertow is refreshing in that it’s a book with a queer narrator without being a Queer Book, by which I mean a book that centers on a) coming out, b) homophobia, or c) queer trauma. Are Queer Booksimportant? Totally. But when they’re the only places you see queer characters, it can feel more than a little repetitive and exhausting. Clancy’s identity and her coming out are definitely a large part of this book, but they’re not the stars. The book spends equally as much time developing Clancy’s friendship with Nancy and examining Clancy’s tenuous relationship to her brother Angus and the rest of her family. Clancy’s friendship with Nancy in particular shines. It’s rocky, flawed, and beautifully human. Clancy is so anxious to not be alone that she unknowingly (and sometimes knowingly) sabotages their friendship, over and over again, in a cycle that is all-too-familiar for this former teenage angst queen.

In short, if I could, I would throw free copies of this book from the rooftops just to get them into the hands of every young adult reader in the world. As a young adult novel from an independent Australian publisher, Clancy of the Undertow is going to have to fight for its own space on U.S. bookshelves. But goddammit if I’m not going to be here fighting for it.

What “hidden gems” have you found lately?


What We’re Reading: November Round-Up

2016 November 3
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by Wren

What We're ReadingToday’s What We’re Reading features our staff picks for November. Everything from poetry to graphic novel to surreal worlds to fantasy horror: happy reading, folks!

pachydermePachyderme by Frederik Peeters (SelfMadeHero, 2013)
Reviewed by Aaron

Plot-wise, Pachyderme is hard to describe—it follows Carice Sorrel’s journey through a hospital where her husband is recovering from a car crash. Her trip is interrupted, both by mundane disruptions (other patients, getting lost, spies) and extraordinary (talking corpses, ghost babies, physical doubling). While the unearthly occurrences are disturbing, the real tension in the story comes from the gender and sexual mores of the post-WWII era the story is set in. Carice is planning to divorce her husband, possibly for her youthful piano student, but she’s opposed by the hypersexual Dr. Barrymore who desires her for himself.

Peeters’s brushstrokes are light and flowing, and his coloring is mundane without being flat or bland. His realistic environments—the hospital, Dr. Barrymore’s home, and so on—are invitingly baroque, so when the walls sprout vines or a spy drips out of a pipe like water, the effect isn’t shocking—it’s inviting. The readers are as unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality as the characters.

mievilleThe Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville (Del Ray, Aug 2016)
Previewed by Josh

This month I’m previewing China Miéville’s newest book, The Last Days of New Paris. This is the second pretty short book Miéville has put out recently (the first being This Census-Taker), and, like many of his books, it features a premise that seems, at best, not easy to convey. Surrealist fighters and weird Paris, wars that did and didn’t happen, and something called the “exquisite corpse.” It promises to be a strange and unique piece of fiction, and that’s all I ever hope for from Miéville. His book The Scar is still a favorite of mine, and its predecessor, Perdido Street Station, has one of the all-time greatest openings in fiction. I don’t know if The Last Days of New Paris will live up to those books, but I can at least count on a wild and weird trip.

labyrinthLabyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova (Sourcebooks, 2016)
Reviewed by Cassidy

Halloween has technically come and gone, but it’s not too late to indulge in this incredible spooky read. Labyrinth Lost follows Alex, a teenaged bruja who is the most powerful witch in a generation, as she goes on a quest to save her missing family after a spell goes terribly awry. It’s not quite a horror novel, but a fun fantasy romp that draws from Latin American culture to balance perfectly between the ethereal and the eerie, as Alex and her friends Rishi and Nova traverse the treacherous other realm of Los Lagos. Cordova is the queen of world building; I was daydreaming about the rich imagery she draws in everywhere from the Bone Valle to the Poison Garden for days after. It’s the kind of book you actually want to see as a movie. Cordova also manages to explore common young adult themes—navigating shifting family relationships, friendship, and discovering sexuality—without causing the plot to come shuddering to a halt. The protagonist, Alex, is also bisexual, and I can’t describe how refreshing it was to read a queer book that didn’t revolve around coming out/homophobia/trauma.

Badass brujas + spine-tingling demons + the power of friendship = one stellar read

unbearableUnbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin (Coffee House Press, 2016)
Previewed by Wren

I’ll admit: I have a fan-girl crush on Sun Yung Shin. I am ever so thankful for the anthology she edited, A Good Time For the Truth: Race in Minnesota (my review here), and her previous books of poetry (alum H&W contributor Timothy reviewed Rough, and Savage here). Plus, I interact with her semi-regularly through my work at The Loft Literary Center. In every interaction we have, I come away not only learning something new about the world or myself, but also with something substantial to digest, consider, reflect upon. Unbearable Splendor seems to be no different. I heard Sun Yung read a poem from this book at a recent event, and when she introduced the book, she joked that poets can think of this as a poetry book, and prose-lovers can think of it as a book of prose. I haven’t dug into it in full yet, but upon flipping through the pages, I can see how both audiences will be satiated: some pages are covered in prose text, others have formally sparse and poetic lines, and yet others have images. I am someone who thrives on context, and reviews of this book assure me that this is a book rife with context, placing the whole mess of a person’s identity on the pages in beautiful text, and letting that complexity steep in its own kind of beauty. Join me in diving into what poet Ed Bok Lee calls “a dazzling collage of metamorphoses.”

What We’re Reading: October Round-Up

2016 October 6
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What We're ReadingHello, dear readers. Today, we are trying something new. Based off of our audience survey feedback from this most recent summer, we are changing some columns. What We’re Reading will now publish two times a month (instead of four). The first Thursday of the month (today) will be a round-up style of short reviews or previews of books the Hazel & Wren staff are reading or looking forward to. The third Thursday of the month will be a more in-depth review of a single book, as we’ve been doing previously. With the extra space from fewer/more concentrated reviews, we hope to bring in more conversations between writers, editors, publishers, activists, and so much more to The Writing Life and beyond. We welcome feedback (email us here) at any time; and hope you enjoy our column refresh!

ley-linesLey Lines: The Letting Go by Kevin Czap (Czap Books/Grindstone Comics 2016)
Reviewed by Aaron

The Letting Go begins, “Having found fear and control to be the core principles guiding my life, and having no use for masculinity, I discard them both.” What follows is a short but deep meditation on learning to trust and to feel. Czap’s work drips between mundane scenes realistically portrayed (someone playing a guitar or reading a book) to smeary layers of vague abstraction (two symbolic eyes beneath a hair-tangle of cords leading to a cloud with boots on). It’s the closest that comics have felt like poetry for me: a seemingly senseless image slowly accreting sense by repetition, variation, and juxtaposition. Water, tears, clouds, and a pervasive feeling of dampness end in an apocalypse of moisture: someone walks through a deluge of rain and interiority. Is the walker dissolving, or are they finally giving up on fear and control?

The book is a sad, lo-fi B-side to Czap’s earlier Fütchi Perf, and The Letting Go‘s blue-soaked pages are a record of the emotional work someone might have to do to end up in the thumping sherbet wonderland of the Fütchi.


greater_music-front_frame_largeA Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith (Open Letter, October 11, 2016)
Previewed by Wren

Bae Suah is a well-known Korean author with much acclaim in the literary world. Translator Deborah Smith takes on her novel A Greater Music, which follows a Korean writer in Berlin. Memories weave from present-day to the narrator’s time in Berlin three years prior, and between her current on-and-off-again boyfriend Joachim, and her past relationship with a German woman, M. Music, language, and the city itself serve as the backdrop through which the narrator processes these (sometimes tragic) memories and experiences. As a person who is all about context, this sounds like a non-linear narrative that I could really dig into. It’s a personal approach to a narrator, diving deep into her consciousness.

This book officially releases next week; perhaps you’ll join me in jumping into this richly complex narrative?


thrillmeThrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy (Graywolf Press, October 19, 2016)
Previewed by Wren

Now, I’m not a fiction writer myself, but I am still excited about the pending release of this craft-focused book on fiction. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Percy read at local events (that voice!), and am intrigued by his spectrum of work. He also had an interesting conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch on writing craft at the Loft last spring that sparked a lot of thought. All this to say that I can’t wait to hear more about what he has to say on the craft of writing fiction. Through this book of essays, Percy asserts that literary and genre fiction don’t have to be mutually exclusive. He brings his detective’s magnifying glass to character development, plot, suspense-building, and so many other craft elements to examine how contemporary authors are blending these genres to create spell-binding work.

Psst: if you’re local, Percy will be having a launch reading for this book at the Loft on October 26.