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Thursday, May 7, 2020

'Something New' and 'Kid Gloves' by Lucy Knisley


Lucy was another single girl in New York City, traversing the dating world and her own heartbreak, when her ex-boyrfriend John swings into town for a visit, with a special box hidden in his toiletry kit. This is a story about suddenly finding yourself completely ecstatic while also being completely at sea. Traversing the foreign world of wedding planning, Lucy and John will face family drama, gender stereotypes, and giant fluffy dresses on the way down the aisle. (First Second Books, 2016)


If you work hard enough, if you want it enough, if you’re smart and talented and “good enough,” you can do anything.

Except get pregnant.

Her whole life, Lucy Knisley wanted to be a mother. But when it was finally the perfect time, conceiving turned out to be harder than anything she’d ever attempted. Fertility problems were followed by miscarriages, and her eventual successful pregnancy plagued by health issues, up to a dramatic, near-death experience during labor and delivery.

This moving, hilarious, and surprisingly informative memoir not only follows Lucy’s personal transition into motherhood but also illustrates the history and science of reproductive health from all angles, including curious facts and inspiring (and notorious) figures in medicine and midwifery. Whether you’ve got kids, want them, or want nothing to do with them, there’s something in this graphic memoir to open your mind and heart.

‘Something New’ is the 2016 graphic novel memoir by Lucy Knisley, and ‘Kid Gloves’ is her 2019 one.

I’ve loved Lucy Knisley’s graphic-novels and social-media ever since she came out to Melbourne for our Writer’s Festival in 2013, and I purchased a copy of ‘Relish’. After that, I followed Lucy across all channels and heartily enjoyed the glimpses into her growing life that she afforded fans and followers.

‘Something New’ is the story of how Knisley and her husband John, got married – but like all of her autobiographical work, it delves deeper than just the surface-level recounting of events and milestones. Knisley really mines her emotional and personal journey, and in ‘Something New’ she starts like a new friend would, by filling readers in on all the background stuff they should know before launching into the through-line – like the fact that she and John were broken up kind of unofficially, when he proposed.

The graphic-novel maps her and John’s up and down relationship, and the point at which they decided to tie the knot. From there the focus is on how they went about managing their ‘wedding fever’ and planning what can be one of the biggest expenses in young people’s lives … but Knisley being an artist and a proudly bisexual woman, also delves into her discomfort with many of the heteronormative (or outright bonkers) traditions of wedding and marriage, the uncomfortable franchise of nuptials; so the book becomes a longer-view of how she and John go about building a future life together through the microcosm of this one event and how they make it more personal and significant *to them*.

‘Kid Gloves’ is the book I was really looking forward to, if only because in 2016 on her social-media channels (and since then) Knisley has spoken candidly of how close she came to dying while giving birth to her and John’s first child, Pal (not his real name, but a nickname for ‘Palindrome’ for his unique birth date). Knisley suffered preeclampsia and lost a lot of blood, they put her in an induced coma and while Pal was perfectly healthy, the birth left Knisley with a few ongoing health-problems. So I always knew ‘Kid Gloves’ would be a tough but vital read within the ‘series’ of Knisely’s memoir graphics. And it is, whoo boy.

I cried a lot reading ‘Kid Gloves’ – for both Knisley’s personal story, but also for how she links her journey of motherhood (through two miscarriages, depression, and then a near-death birthing experience) to wider societal and medical realities for women. She delves into the fact that women’s bodies and childbirth in particular were for so long misunderstood, shamed, and abused by the health profession, and largely because it was entirely made up of men and with religious bents. And it’s not much better in America now – without universal healthcare, and a system that largely undermines and lets black women die at a much higher rate and for entirely preventable reasons (as a snapshot; ‘The U.S. maternal mortality rate has more than doubled from 10.3 per 100,000 live births in 1991 to 23.8 in 2014.’ Compared to; ‘The maternal mortality rate in Australia in 2017 was 6 deaths per 100,000 women giving birth.’ That’s *insane* that that’s the American maternal mortality rate, and it’s climbing every year.)

Knisley manages to link a lot of past and current medical failures when it comes to women’s bodies, to a much deeper denial of women’s experiences and proper education of their bodies starting from a young age. It’s really profound, and very moving.

And then of course it was Knisley’s personal journey; her openness about her miscarriages and the depression they threw her into, the battle she was undergoing with her body – both in wanting to get pregnant, when she did finally and was violently ill, and then the ultimate betrayal of it nearly killing her (and within all that; the guilty, self-hate and trauma that’s increased by societal guilt and pressure … oh, the way she interweaves all of this is catharsis on so many levels.)

I am not married, nor do I have kids. I, in fact, have always known that I never want to be married and never want to have kids – Knisley acknowledges and cheers this choice amongst women too, there’s absolutely no shame. But I still loved and connected to these books, as I do all of Knisley’s stories. Yeah, it’s that I just like *her* and think she’s ace, but it’s more than that – she’s a gifted storyteller, somebody who can weave the personal amongst the political and societal and that’s very hard to do in such a warm and compelling way. But Lucy Knisley does it, every damn time.


Thursday, April 23, 2020

‘A Heart So Fierce and Broken’ Curseworkers #2 by Brigid Kemmerer

From the BLURB:

In the sequel to New York Times bestselling A Curse So Dark and Lonely, Brigid Kemmerer returns to the world of Emberfall in a lush fantasy where friends become foes and love blooms in the darkest of places.

Find the heir, win the crown.

The curse is finally broken, but Prince Rhen of Emberfall faces darker troubles still. Rumors circulate that he is not the true heir and that forbidden magic has been unleashed in Emberfall. Although Rhen has Harper by his side, his guardsman Grey is missing, leaving more questions than answers.

Win the crown, save the kingdom.

Grey may be the heir, but he doesn't want anyone to know his secret. On the run since he destroyed Lilith, he has no desire to challenge Rhen--until Karis Luran once again threatens to take Emberfall by force. Her own daughter Lia Mara sees the flaws in her mother's violent plan, but can she convince Grey to stand against Rhen, even for the good of Emberfall?

The heart-pounding, compulsively readable saga continues as loyalties are tested and new love blooms in a kingdom on the brink of war.

‘A Heart So Fierce and Broken’ is the 2020 second book in Brigid Kemmerer’s ‘Cursebreakers’ series – that will have a third book out in 2021, ‘A Vow So Bold and Deadly.’

So; much as it had the traditional problems of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (I don’t want to use the term “Stockholm syndrome” because – surprise sexism alert! – it has a really awful genesis and no grounding in science, which is something I literally learnt yesterday!) I really loved first book ‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’. I actually loved first book so much, that when I began reading ‘A Heart So Fierce and Broken’ I was a little bit bummed to realise that this second book is no longer using Rhen and Harper’s alternative POVs, but instead we have King’s guardsman Grey (and recent revelatory heir to the throne of Emberfell) and newcomer Lia Mara, daughter to the rival Syhl Shallow Kingdom as the new protagonists.

Harper and Rhen appear briefly at the start and awfully, in a totally new set-up for their character’s trajectories but then we go off and follow Grey and Lia Mara on their journey to escape increasingly terrible soon-to-be King Rhen and the royal legacies Grey doesn’t want, and Lia Mara has been denied as the first-born daughter who is not the chosen Queen successor.

I was really worried when I started this book that I wouldn’t be able to get into it, and then that’d be all the steam gone out of my sudden reading-surge pulling me out of my slump. But then somebody on Instagram encouraged me that they had enjoyed this second book more than the first, so I put aside my curiosity about what Rhen and Harper were getting up to and actually found myself getting caught up in the on-the-run story of Grey, Lia Mara and co. and the romance that slowly develops between this reluctant usurper and overlooked Princess.

I think the ultimate strength of Kemmerer’s book is that it doesn’t feel like filler, it actually all feels like it’s winding towards a fabulous cliffhanger to then launch us into a really complex third book, ‘A Vow So Bold and Deadly’. And I’ve gotta say – the cliffhanger in ‘Fierce and Broken’ is even better than the one at the end of ‘Dark and Lonely’, and I already thought that was pretty genius.

Third book is coming 2021 (so far AWAY!) and I am really looking forward to whose POV we’ll be getting (my hope and assumption is Rhen and Grey, and if that’s the case I’d actually be super keen to read a little flip in the typical fairytale-retelling that sees the princes and men pull focus and have to learn love and risk-avoidance at a time of potential war.)  

I am so enamoured of the ‘Cursebreakers’ series and what Kemmerer is doing here, with considerable skill and flair. This feels like the freshest take on fairytales that I’ve read in a long while, and a lot of that comes from the gender-flipping and playing that she’s working with and just generally the fact that she’s an A++ storyteller. I cannot wait for Book No. 3 – 2021 has never felt so far away with the way 2020 is going, but I can be patient and in the meantime I might go back and re-read Kemmerer’s ‘Elementals’ series just to keep this ball rolling!


Friday, April 17, 2020

'A Curse So Dark and Lonely' Cursebreakers #1 by Brigid Kemmerer

From the BLURB:

Fall in love, break the curse.

It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.

Nothing has ever been easy for Harper. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she's instead somehow sucked into Rhen's cursed world.

Break the curse, save the kingdom.

A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn't know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what's at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.

‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’ by Brigid Kemmerer is the first book in her young-adult fantasy ‘Cursebreakers’ series that came out in 2019.

I first started reading Kemmerer back in 2012, with her YA ‘Elementals’ series – and since then, she’s just become a YA-force with a slew of contemporary stand-alones, five books in the ‘Elementals’ overall and now the hugely successful ‘Cursebreakers’ series. And with ‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’ you definitely get the feeling that you’re delving into a new world by a seasoned author who absolutely knows her niche and writes to it *exquisitely* well.

Case-in-point is how entertaining and fresh this first ‘Cursebreakers’ is, even through the fact that there have been a *lot* of Fairytale retellings in YA recently and always; from ‘The Lunar Chronicles’ by Marissa Meyer, to the particularly expansive realm of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ retellings specifically (‘Beast’ by Brie Spangler, ‘Cruel Beauty’ by Rosamund Hodge, ‘Hunted’ by Meagan Spooner … there are truly *so* many!). ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is an odd beast (sorry) in particular, because it is a beloved Disney-version but also it is an incredibly problematic fairytale (even knowing that all fairytales are misogynistic cautionary tales designed to keep women in check). The best summary I’ve seen of the specific ‘Beauty and the Beast’ issues comes from YouTuber Lindsay Ellis, and her 2017 video ‘Is Beauty and the Beast About Stockholm Syndrome?’ (SPOILER: kinda yes)

Modern retellings have had to really push a boulder up a mountain to counteract the inherently icky aspects of B&B, and the thing is … they still exist in ‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’ and they are still a problem, but; I still really enjoyed this book regardless, and truly appreciated Kemmerer’s deft hand in this retelling enough to not really care … which could also be linked to my just wanting to fall into a book during pandemic. And this novel 100% achieved a couple nights of taking my mind off the world, so I’m probably feeling disproportionate gratefulness here too, but still – I think this book works!

First of all; there’s a little ‘Enchanted’ (the 2007 film) going on here, in that there’s the magical world of Emberfell lurking behind Washington D.C. where heroine Harper lives a hard life with her brother and dying mother, when she is accidentally abducted by King’s guardsman Grey, and bought to the world of Emberfell which is currently 300-seasons into a curse. Prince Rhen slept with the wrong witchmage and sparked her ire, turning him into a deadly monster at the end of each season until he finds his true love. Grey has been slipping into our world to widen the net of women to bring back to his prince to try and make fall in love with him, and Harper happens to be the unwitting and unlucky latest candidate.

So – yes – abduction still a marker of this series. As is the disgruntled sexy witch who puts a curse on a selfish prince because he dismissed her affections. Kemmerer also somewhat disturbingly introduces a fair amount of suicidal ideation for Prince Rhen, who is truly at the end of his tether when it looks like his 300th woman is even less inclined to love him, more likely she’ll beat him to death with a rusty pipe … yes, there are problems. See the aforementioned Lindsay Ellis video.

But – there’s a lot to admire here too. Harper is a heroine with cerebral palsy, which is represented here – I think – with a lot of tenderness and spunk. Harper undergoes this transformation to warrior princess in a lot of ways, and I appreciated that she pondered her own ability while delivering action and heroism in spades. My real bone to pick is how many times derogatory terms like ‘cripple’ are used; I’d have much preferred incidental diversity in a lot of ways, and I think Harper’s own ability to prove herself to herself would have been more than sufficient.

I also really did love the dynamic of Grey, Rhen and Harper …. And yes; there’s tension here (was it just me though, who thought Rhen and Grey had a little somethin’-somethin’? I thought *that* would have been a great twist to the fairytale!) and the cliffhanger ending happily suggests that this threesome will become an even bigger story in book #2 (which I am starting ASAP!)

Overall; there were problems. Sure. But like I said – Kemmerer has an uncanny ability to write seamlessly and draw readers in, even to somewhat tired tropes and adaptations. She does it again here, and to great effect – I loved it.