Honestly, it’s a wonder that I managed to get my hands on this book when I did. I heard about it from a few “out this week” blog posts from other book bloggers (thank you!!), and as of today, the book’s only a week old. I put it on hold on the Kindle library, and it came in surprisingly quick, to my relief! I was super excited by the sci-fi premise, and in most of the relevant aspects, it absolutely delivered!
The method of space travel that 17-year-old Jessica Mathers is familiar with isn’t the kind you’d expect. In for the process to work, teleportation is a crucial step—the body that you’re in on Earth isn’t the same one that goes to space. But either way, after six years of waiting to reunite with her scientist parents on a faraway exoplanet, Jessica is going to space.
But when she wakes up, she’s alone in the wreckage of the ship that was supposed to carry her and the crew, stranded on an alien planet. The walls of the wreck are covered in the evidence of something sinister, and her parents are nowhere in sight. And a teleported clone of herself may be the only person she can trust—and the only person for miles around on this planet.
TW/CW: sci-fi violence, blood, murder, body horror, loss of loved ones
tread lightly – this review contains some spoilers!
Sci-fi that references old(er) poetry is an incredibly niche demographic, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t squarely in the middle of it. You got me there.
This book kind of came out of the blue for me—I forgot that Matthew J. Kirby existed after reading a few of his books in middle school (sorry), so Star Splitter was more of a left-field pick for me. But despite its flaws, it was a fascinating and gripping read—certainly a better addition to the world of YA sci-fi!
Hard sci-fi is hard to nail down for a young adult book; astrophysics and quantum mechanics are hard for anybody to understand, but I can speak for myself as an (older) teenager and a longtime YA when I say that it might be even harder to understand for a younger-skewing audience. Not to insult anybody’s intelligence—I’m fully including myself in there, in all my new English major glory. But Kirby hit the near-perfect balance with explaining the mechanics of teleportation, and how it factored into space travel. It wasn’t explained like it was being explained to a child, but it didn’t dump all of the information in an unceremonious chunk of jargon, either. And it’s a super fascinating concept to boot—it adds a layer of suspense to an already suspenseful book, there’s significant ramifications for most everything about the world that Kirby sets up, and there’s an existential aspect too. It’s all great there.
The story itself held a lot of water for me as well! There was so much to pick apart in it‚ from Jessica’s existential conflict about interacting with her own clone (HUH) and her own body to the mystery of what happened to the DS Theseus and its inhabitants. (Also, loved that we had a spaceship called Theseus. I’m assuming it’s a nod to the Ship of Theseus, but it also works on another level when you consider what happened with the crew. I won’t spoil anything about that in particular.) Kirby’s writing consistently kept all of that afloat, juggling two different timelines with suspense unfolding in both of them. His descriptions of the landscape of Hades (Mr. Kirby really likes his Greek mythology, huh?) were also nothing short of lovely—I’m a sucker for any kind of alien planet exploration, and Star Splitter, for the most part, adequately scratched that itch.
I say “for the most part” because, as much as I loved it, there were so many parts that seemed too important that were just left out of the final conflict. The sideplot about the ruins of an alien city with a giant pile of ground sloth-looking skeletons???? Bioluminescence everywhere?? BEING PURSUED BY AN UNSEEN ALIEN IN THE SHADOWS??? That was my favorite part of the whole novel, but we really didn’t get any resolution to it. It felt like such a crime that we never got to see where that thread led, given how much it was foreshadowed and otherwise built up. I get that it wasn’t necessarily the main conflict, but Kirby gave it a similar amount of weight to the main conflict, so it felt like it was in need of a more satisfying conclusion than “Jessica got out of the city ruins somewhat unscathed.” I NEED MORE. GIVE THE PEOPLE (ME) WHAT THEY WANT.
I feel like this happened a lot with Star Splitter for me—aside from the main conflict, there were so many fascinating and inventive things going on with the world that felt so creative, but were just tossed aside as afterthoughts once they were explained. The fauna on Hades? Mt. Ida? QUANTUM GHOSTS? I was just taken aback by so many parts of the plot, only to have them scrapped in favor of the main conflict, which I…halfway understand. All this is to say that said main conflict was excellent, but I just wanted more. It wasn’t like Star Splitter was an exceedingly long novel either—320 pages leaves some room to explore at least a few other aspects of the world, I think. That’s why I’m *officially* putting my rating at 3.75 instead of the full 4 stars—there was so much creative stuff to chew on, but not enough of it was expanded upon. I’ll be needing a sequel, please and thank you. 🏻
All in all, an inventive and fascinating sci-fi novel that presented a plethora of creative aspects to fill up the plot, but still left me wanting in some places. 3.75 stars, rounded up to 4!
As of now, it looks like Star Splitter is a standalone, but Matthew J. Kirby is the author of several other books for children and young adults, including the Dark Gravity Sequence (The Arctic Code, Island of the Sun, and The Rogue World), The Clockwork Three, A Taste for Monsters, and many others.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!
As some of you may know, April is Autism Acceptance Month here in the U.S.! I don’t think I’ve highlighted a book list for the occasion, but in my ongoing quest for disability rep in general, I’ve come across many great books with Autistic protagonists and stories. If you’re looking to diversify your reading, it’s always important to uplift every kind of marginalized voice, and disability rep in general often gets left in the dust. So I’ve compiled a list of books by Autistic (with one exception—the author is still neurodivergent, just not Autistic) for this month.
NOTE: some of the older books on this list may still use the term Asperger’s, but in recent years, the term has since been renamed to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the DSM-5, in part because of its association with Hans Asperger, who was involved with Nazism. Some people still use the term, but it is still important to acknowledge the history behind the term.
Enjoy these book recs!
THE BOOKISH MUTANT’S BOOKS FOR AUTISM ACCEPTANCE MONTH
An Unkindness of Ghosts – Rivers Solomon: (Adult, Sci-fi) the raw, unforgettable story of a colony ship structured like the Antebellum South, and one woman’s quest to change things for the better. | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I was in a fantasy mood recently, so I decided to pick up The Spear Cuts Through Water after hearing some rave reviews from other bloggers. The gorgeous cover only added to the sell. But in the end, this novel ended up being a major disappointment—a murky, 500+ page slog that was only enjoyable for fleeting moments. I really need to stop setting myself up for disappointment with all these overly long high fantasy books…
The Emperor of the Moon Throne has terrorized the land of the Strangled Throat for centuries, aided by his three reckless sons, aptly dubbed The Terrors. But like everything else that he has seized, the Emperor’s power comes from an age-old moon god who has been locked under the palace against her will. But a god is not meant to be kept in captivity.
So she escapes. Aided by Jun, a disgraced palace guard, and Keema, a warrior from a distant, mysterious land, she sets off on a journey to find her freedom. But the Moon Throne will not let go of her so easily…
TW/CW: ableism, cannibalism, child abuse, murder, body horror, substance abuse, mentions of sexual assault (off-page), torture, loss of loved ones
This is one of those instances where I feel like I’ve read a completely different book than all of the 5-star reviewers. I really wanted to like it—and there were a few things that I did like—but ultimately, it felt like a 20-minute prog-rock song in book form: well-written, but so unneccesarily convoluted and full of itself that it became insufferable.
Before I go on my tirade, I will acknowledge that there were some wonderful, very bold and skilled parts of this novel. Jimenez’s writing had moments of being both beautiful and insightful—there were a few anchors to pull me through the slog, and his prose had moments of being incredible. 2nd person is always a bold choice, but unlike other aspects of this novel, it was executed very well, succeeding at being both immersive and fresh without feeling like it was bold just for the sake of being so.
“Bold” is generally I word that I could ascribe to most of this book. A lot of it was written in a fresh, nontraditional way, and I appreciated its execution in some sections. But a lot of it just felt like showing off—having unconventional chapter breaks and an infuriating structure just for Jimenez to show that he was capable of doing so. Most of these ended up being to the novel’s detriment. The random “chapter” breaks (there really weren’t any chapters in this book?), which mostly just ended up being sized-up font that was, essentially, what should have just the first sentence of the paragraph. And since they were all just first sentences of the paragraph, there were 2-3 of these breaks per page. POVs got switched without warning and without explanation, making the reading experience overcomplicated where it could’ve been an easy fix. It just felt like it was biting itself in the foot in the name of art—it could have been a beautiful story, if it wasn’t so intent on showing off how “different” it was.
As a result, so much of this novel got lost. Even though I was fairly lost trying to discern whose POV is it this time, I did notice one thing while reading The Spear Cuts Through Water—where’d the worldbuilding go? Other than the vague notion of a fantasy world (gods and goddesses, some talking animals/spirits, etc.), I had no idea of the layout of the world, the regions of the world, any kind of cultural cues or conventions, any kind of magic system…it just wasn’t there. At all. The same goes for the characters—they were all but cardboard, moved around like pawns for seemingly no reason. (I get that they were under oath by the Moon God, but the point still stands. They didn’t need to be that stiff.) Other than the reveal about Keema, nothing compelled me about either of them, or any of the other passing side characters. This novel was just so intent on chasing itself in circles that it forgot the essential elements that a novel needs.
All in all, a fantasy with great potential, but that ended up losing itself under layers of attempts to be daring and new. 2 stars.
The Spear Cuts Through Water is a standalone, but Simon Jimenez is also the author of The Vanished Birds.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!
It’s finally here! The moment that I’ve been patiently waiting for…
After I discovered Phoebe Bridgers back in early 2020 (before it all went wrong), my boygenius revelation came soon after (right around when it really all went wrong). Not only was it my gateway to Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, but it stood out as a representation of so many things—a critique of the pedestals we tend to reserve only for male artists, the way the music industry often lumps together “women in indie rock” simply because of their gender, and the magic that happens when three incredibly talented queer women get together and make music. Their self-titled EP, released in 2018, seemed to be the beginning and end of their relationship, but they secretly reformed and came together to release their first full-length album this March. And the results are simply magical, full of different highs and lows, but emotional and heartrending all the way through—in the best way.
Enjoy this album review!
THE RECORD – BOYGENIUS (album review)
Release date: March 31, 2023 (Interscope records)
TRACK 1: “Without You Without Them” – 8.5/10
never underestimate the power of an intro 🥲
If the record encapsulates the friendship of Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus, then this song is the perfect summation of that thesis. boygenius have made me so emotional over a cappella, somehow—their harmonies, pioneered in this case by Lucy Dacus, rise in perfect tandem, as each one thanks their parents, and their parents before them (“who would I be/without you, without them?”)—for the opportunities that brought them together as friends, by a cosmic miracle, and relishing in the quiet moments opening up to one another. Already a hard-hitter, and we’re barely even a minute into the album…
TRACK 2: “$20” – 9/10
Mama told me that it don’t run on wishes, but that I should have fun,
Pushing the flowers that come up
Into the front of a shotgun…
Rocketing from the quiet moments to a supersonic pace, “$20” remains one of my favorite songs on the album, even after everything else came out. Every lyric is delivered like a punch while grinning, each member’s voice coalescing and pulling apart at just the right moments, fading in and out of sync in perfect deliberation. Everything erupts with Phoebe Bridgers’ final scream, which remains one of the highlights of this album, where all of the pent up energy in this song bubbles to the top and fades out just as quickly. HAAAAAAAGH I STILL CAN’T STOP LISTENING IT’S BEEN LIKE 2 MONTHS
TRACK 3: “Emily I’m Sorry” – 8/10
This was my least favorite of the singles, but it’s still a beautiful heartbreaker of a song—like much of Phoebe Bridgers’ work, the instrumentation (which I still love, especially when everything seems to dissolve at 1:46) takes a backseat to her air-light, heartstring-tugging voice, and lets her shine. It just feels less cohesive as a supergroup—I get that all of the members had their songs that they wrote on their own, but this feels more like a Phoebe Bridgers single that just happens to feature Baker and Dacus than a boygenius song. It’s worked with some of the other songs in that style, but I feel like this would’ve worked better as just Phoebe Bridgers.
TRACK 4: “True Blue” – 8.5/10
And it feels good to be known so well
I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself…
boygenius, “True Blue”
Hooooooooowhee, we’re back to Lucy Dacus throwing her whole fist into my chest and tugging at the heartstrings, huh? Is that what we’re doing?
Although (almost) nothing compares to the meteoric ecstasy of “$20,” “True Blue” is still a steadfast favorite of mine on this album. It’s a case study of how perfect the harmonies of these three are for each other. The way that Baker and Bridgers chime in on the bridge always makes my heart sing, as though they were somehow predestined to have this pairing of differently gorgeous voices, all joining hands in another ode to their mutual friendship.
TRACK 5: “Cool About It” – 9.5/10
But we don’t have to talk about it,
I can walk you home and practice method acting,
I’ll pretend that being with you doesn’t feel like drowning…
boygenius, “Cool About It”
This one rapidly rose to become my favorite on the album, and I’ve had it on repeat ever since. boygenius is versatile in the way that they organize songs together—sometimes it works with all of them singing at once, as in “$20,” but neatly-sectioned songs like this one, where each of the members gets their time in the spotlight, works just as well as the other. And this one’s the shining highlight of the album, a Simon & Garfunkel-inspired, introspective reflection on the complicated feelings of confronting people who were once prominent in your life—not being able to deny their toxicity, but grappling with not being able to outwardly show it. Each facet of their lyricism shines—Baker’s ability to dig directly into the emotional core of these feelings and making it look easy, Dacus’ dry but solemn display of wit, and Bridgers’ vulnerable confessions steeped in glistening stars. I have nothing but love for this song.
TRACK 6: “Not Strong Enough” – 7/10
Strangely, this was one of my least favorites of the album—the lyrics remain incredible (and the music video is so sweet 🥲), but there’s a country-pop twang to this one that doesn’t quite hook me all the way. There’s no denying how wonderful the ending is as Lucy Dacus builds up the bridge—”always an angel/never a god,” which all comes crashing together as we get another fantastic Phoebe scream.
TRACK 7: “Revolution 0” – 7/10
Though this one doesn’t hit me as hard as some of the others, Phoebe’s soft introspection truly shines on this song. The barely audible strings and the fluttering, dissolving synths make for an atmospheric song that feels like the musical equivalent of watching the sunrise on a crisp, winter morning. I can practically feel my breath fogging out before me, just as all three of their voices seem to gently drift into the air.
TRACK 8: “Leonard Cohen” – 6.5/10
Though Lucy Dacus’ lyrics are still funny and tender at the same time, this song feels oddly disjointed to me. Dacus’ voice comes in at a sudden, weirdly-placed time, and it doesn’t seem like it’s no purpose. Again: lovely lyrics, but the song never quite picks itself up from that initial, rocky start. I hate to say it, but maybe it’s for the best that it’s so short.
TRACK 9: “Satanist” – 8.5/10
(do I get something for being the 666th like on the lyric video for a song called “Satanist”?)
(STOP TRYING TO AUTOCORRECT CRED TO CREDIT SHUT UP SHUT UP)
One of my favorites after the singles, “Satanist” is proof that the neatly-sectioned format of letting each member sing a verse is a perfect way to let them all shine through! With Julien Baker’s witty lyrics and punchy guitars all the way through, it’s just a lovely chunk of indie rock all the way through. The ending, though drastically different, is just as wonderful, with all of their harmonies rising up like bonfire smoke into the night sky.
TRACK 10: “We’re In Love” – 8.5/10
If you rewrite your life,
May I still play a part?
boygenius, “We’re In Love”
Ow, did Lucy Dacus just get saddled with all dealing all of the emotional damage on this album? Does she just have a huge paddle that she’s just musically whapping us with? If that’s the case, “We’re In Love” was what knocked me off my feet for good…ouchie
Nearly 5 minutes long, “We’re In Love” presents Lucy Dacus and company ruminating on the nature of their shared friendship once more, reflecting on inside jokes and quiet moments spent together, and loving every inch of each other despite their flaws. Even outside of their cosmically aligned harmonies, it’s clear that boygenius have struck something truly special with their friendship, a connection that has allowed them to grow and produce no shortage of beautiful, creative works, and get to know each other better through it. It’s gorgeous…get out the tissues.
TRACK 11: “Anti-Curse” – 8/10
Turning back to the more fast-paced side of “Satanist,” “Anti-Curse” has Julien Baker letting loose once more. Though I enjoyed some of Baker’s other tracks more, it still has that raw vulnerability that endeared her to me when I first became a fan, but with the expansion of her more vast, Little Oblivions sound that gives everything even more weight. It feels like the whole song is painted in the same colors as the album color, with sunsets, breaking waves, and the taste of salt in your mouth.
TRACK 12: “Letter To An Old Poet” – 8.5/10
I wanna be happy, I’m ready
To walk into my room without looking for you,
I’ll go up to the top of our building,
And I’ll think of my dog when I see the full moon.
I can’t feel it yet,
But I am waiting…
boygenius, “Letter To An Old Poet”
Oh, so I see they let Phoebe Bridgers have this one tearjerker, and she took the opportunity and RAN with it? YOW.
I can’t think of a more fitting closer for the record. The whole song acts as a sister song to “Me & My Dog,” off of their self-titled EP, a reconciliation not only with the complications of a past relationship, but of a desire to heal oneself, move on, grow, and confront the truth. It’s clearly personal to Phoebe, but it feels like a collective healing call for all of them, a promise that the past is the past, but that we are all different people than who we once were. Every re-worked lyric acts as proof of change, a renewed mindset, and of hope that the future will be better while stargazing. Gah. Beautiful end to a beautiful album…
I averaged out all of the ratings for each track, and it came out to aboutan 8.1! I’m so glad that they decided to make a whole album—through all of the highs and lows, it displays their talents as individual musicians and as a collective creative force, and I’ll never get sick of their heavenly harmonies. And above all, it stands as a tribute to queer friendship, and every kind of love that we share, no matter the feelings that we associate with it. I’m sure it’ll be one of my favorite records of this year, without contest.
Since this is an album review, consider the entirety of the record to be today’s song.
That’s it for this album review! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!
As some of you may know, last week (March 20-27) was when the #TransRightsReadathon was hosted in response to a dangerous increase in anti-trans legislation across the U.S. Created by Simi Kern, the goal of the readathon was to give the spotlight to as many trans books and authors as possible to bring them awareness and support in light of the rampant transphobia across the country and beyond. It’s been frightening and heartbreaking to see what’s happening in other states, and I want to support my trans siblings in any way possible. So I’ve decided to include shorter reviews of all of the trans books I read this week—all of which were good!
For as long as they can remember, Aaron and Oliver have only ever had each other. In a small town with few queer teenagers, let alone young trans men, they’ve shared milestones like coming out as trans, buying the right binders–and falling for each other.
But just as their relationship has started to blossom, Aaron moves away. Feeling adrift, separated from the one person who understands them, they seek solace in digging deep into the annals of America’s past. When they discover the story of two Revolutionary War soldiers who they believe to have been trans man in love, they’re inspired to pay tribute to these soldiers by adopting their names–Aaron and Oliver. As they learn, they delve further into unwritten queer stories, and they discover the transformative power of reclaiming one’s place in history.
TW/CW: transphobia, dysphoria, misgendering/deadnaming, homophobia, off-page sexual assault, religious bigotry
Novels in verse always get me when they’re done well, and A Million Quiet Revolutions was no exception. The story of Aaron and Oliver is one that was essential to be told, and it resulted in a beautifully poignant piece of verse!
The growing relationship between Oliver and Aaron felt so genuine, and the combination of pseudo-epistolary format (oh god, that sounded pretentious…) with verse emphasized the way that their relationship transcended barriers of both place and time. The interweaving of the past with the present gave me an insight into a queer part of history that I’m almost embarrassed that I didn’t consider until reading this—better late than never, I suppose. Their voices both leapt off the page, and the easy flow of Gow’s verse made the reading experience feel effortless, drifting like wind—good poetry, to me, doesn’t quite feel like poetry; the rhythm remains, but it doesn’t feel like going line by line in such a rote way.
Above all, the message of this novel in verse is one that’s so important, especially in a time where the narrative of LGBTQ+ people being trendy and new is being pushed so often—queer people have always been here, and we will always be here. Aaron and Oliver’s journey of researching their trans namesakes—cross-dressing soldiers in the Revolutionary War—was one that’s so necessary for understanding our own roots. The key to belonging is realizing that you have always been a part of history, no matter how many pains historians have taken to ignore or deliberately erase the queerness and transness that has always been there. For me, that’s why A Million Quiet Revolutions is such an important read.
Brimming with history and rich verse, A Million Quiet Revolutions is an ode to discovering your own roots, and finding solace in hidden histories. 4 stars!
In this queer contemporary YA mystery, a nonbinary teen with autism realizes they must not only solve a 30-year-old mystery but also face the demons lurking in their past in order to live a satisfying life.
Sam Sylvester’s not overly optimistic about their recent move to the small town of Astoria, Oregon after a traumatic experience in their last home in the rural Midwest.
Yet Sam’s life seems to be on the upswing after meeting several new friends and a potential love interest in Shep, the pretty neighbor. However, Sam can’t seem to let go of what might have been, and is drawn to investigate the death of a teenage boy in 1980s Astoria. Sam’s convinced he was murdered–especially since Sam’s investigation seems to resurrect some ghosts in the town.
Threatening notes and figures hidden in shadows begin to disrupt Sam’s life. Yet Sam continues to search for the truth. When Sam discovers that they may be closer to a killer than previously known, Sam has a difficult decision to make. Would they risk their new life for a half-lived one?
My ultimate hope was that this book would be as well-crafted as its cover, and for the most part, it lived up to my expectations! The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester deftly toes the line between a coming-of-age story and a decades-old mystery, buoyed by a diverse and lovable cast.
Sam Sylvester has a batch some of the most diverse representation I’ve seen in a realistic fiction/mystery novel in a while—aside from having a nonbinary, asexual, and Autistic protagonist (more neurodivergent protagonists, please!!), there were so many different characters that were incredibly intersectional—queer, POC, and disabled characters all across the board, and not just the teen characters too! All of these identities were woven so well into the story, and I loved the journey of self-acceptance and reckoning that Sam experiences throughout the novel as they unravel the mystery of the boy who died in their room 30 years ago.
That being said, although I liked most every aspect of this novel, this really feels like a novel that’s going to date itself. I enjoyed a handful of the references (always extra points for David Bowie), but a lot of the more recent ones—the references to Tumblr, Gen Z slang, internet culture, and a Steven Universe gag every other page, read as very hackneyed and stilted. As authentic as the rest of Sam Sylvester was, those parts dragged down what would have otherwise been powerful and realistic dialogue. Most of the writing did its job and did it well, but the attempt to ground it in the present day only ended up making a novel that’s going to date itself far quicker than it was probably intended to.
Despite that, I’d say that Sam Sylvester is still a must-read—for the excellent representation, for the mystery, and for the coming-of-age story. 3.75 stars, rounded up to 4!
The author of the “vivid and urgent…important and timely” (The New York Times BookReview) debut The Map of Salt and Stars returns with this remarkably moving and lyrical novel following three generations of Syrian Americans who are linked by a mysterious species of bird and the truths they carry close to their hearts.
Five years after a suspicious fire killed his ornithologist mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. As his grandmother’s sole caretaker, he spends his days cooped up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood masjid, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who also happens to be his longtime crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria.
One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She famously and mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. In fact, Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s—and his grandmother’s—in ways he never could have expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. Realizing that he isn’t and has never been alone, he has the courage to officially claim a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare.
As unprecedented numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the New York City skies, Nadir enlists the help of his family and friends to unravel what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. Following his mother’s ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along.
TW/CW: transphobia, xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, miscarriage, grief, sexual assault, animal death, loss of a parent
I didn’t go into The Thirty Names of Night with any expectations, but I was stunned by the writing! This novel is one of the best magical realism novels I’ve read in recent years, with writing as rich as a tapestry and a story that’s just as well-woven.
Joukhadar’s writing style was the star of Thirty Names; this is the first of his novels that I’ve read, but he has such a unique talent for finding unlikely comparisons and weaving them into the richest, most obvious but out-of-sight metaphors imaginable. I would never have compared the gray sky on a foggy day to the color of a kitchen knife, and somehow, it was right in front of me. His talent for metaphor suited the emotional depth of this story, as well as the almost fantastical element of the birds in New York—I will never claim to be the expert on him, but if there was any story that was suited for Joukhadar to tell, it’s this one.
That writing also made the emotional core of this story possible. There’s so much to Thirty Names: gender identity, grief, heritage, family, and the body itself, but all of it was handled with such grace and aplomb that made the story feel really, truly real. I might’ve even passed the aspect of the birds by as something that could feasibly happen with how this story was written. Every part of this novel is deeply moving, raw and beautiful, and the prose flows as smoothly as air over a bird’s wings.
All in all, a beautiful, literary tale of connections—to family, to gender, and to the world around us at large. 4.25 stars!
“If you control our sleep, then you can own our dreams…And from there, it’s easy to control our entire lives.”
From the brilliant mind of Charlie Jane Anders (“A master absurdist”—New York Times; “Virtuoso”—NPR) comes a new novel of Kafkaesque futurism. Set on a planet that has fully definitive, never-changing zones of day and night, with ensuing extreme climates of endless, frigid darkness and blinding, relentless light, humankind has somehow continued apace—though the perils outside the built cities are rife with danger as much as the streets below.
But in a world where time means only what the ruling government proclaims, and the levels of light available are artificially imposed to great consequence, lost souls and disappeared bodies are shadow-bound and savage, and as common as grains of sand. And one such pariah, sacrificed to the night, but borne up by time and a mysterious bond with an enigmatic beast, will rise to take on the entire planet–before it can crumble beneath the weight of human existence.
TW/CW: animal attack/animal death, police brutality, body horror
Alright, so the only explicitly stated Latinx characters, specifically of Mexican ancestry, are named…Carlos and Maria? So most everybody else gets semi-unique names, but not them? It’s like Cho Chang all over again…[LOUD INCORRECT BUZZER}
If I hadn’t read Victories Greater Than Death beforehand, I would’ve been more suspicious, but it seems like Anders has gotten a lot better with diversity on that front, but…still iffy. Just saying.
That aside, The City in the Middle of the Night was one of the more inventive dystopias that I’ve read recently, but it fell victim to very convoluted writing. It’s obvious from every page that Anders put so, so much work into creating a fleshed-out world with an equally fleshed-out history—that was a riotous success on her part. The premise of society being divided by a tidally-locked planet felt eerily feasible, and I absolutely ADORED all of the alien life forms on the night side of January—the Gelet were obviously my favorites, but I would’ve liked to have seen more creatures. ALWAYS MORE CREATURES.
However, Anders’ writing choices ended up making parts of The City in the Middle of the Night something of a struggle. The story itself ended up being rather convoluted and tangled, and I found myself getting lost and confused about wait, which side of the planet are we on again? Why are we here in the first place? The additions of a boatload of characters that ended up having very little consequence to the plot at large didn’t help either. This story had the potential to be incredible, but it ended up getting so lost in itself that it became an ordeal to figure out where I was.
All in all, an inventively-conceived dystopia that excelled in worldbuilding but floundered in its writing. 3.25 stars.
Tell me what you think! Did you participate in the #TransRightsReadathon, and if so, what books did you read? What do you think of these books?Let me know in the comments!
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!
The Shape of Water has been my all-time favorite movie for several years now—I’m looking over my shoulder at the poster above my bed as I’m writing this. I had the novelization on my TBR for a few years, but only got around to it recently, probably for fear of it not living up to the film. I had no idea that it was a dual release with the film, but after reading it, the novelization of The Shape of Water struggled to live up to the poetic poignance of the film.
Visionary storyteller Guillermo del Toro and celebrated author Daniel Kraus combine their estimable talent in this haunting, heartbreaking love story.
The Shape of Water is set in Cold War-era Baltimore at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, which has recently received its most sensitive asset ever: an amphibious man captured in the Amazon. What unfolds is a stirring romance between the asset and one of the janitors on staff, a mute woman who uses sign language to communicate with the creature.
Developed from the ground up as a bold two-tiered release—one story interpreted by two artists in the independent mediums of literature and film — The Shape of Water weaves together fantasy, horror, and romance to create a tale that is equally gripping on the page and on the big screen.
TW/CW: racism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, misogyny, sexual harassment/assault, blood, gore, murder, animal death, loss of loved ones
The Shape of Water is a movie that’s touched my heart in a way that I doubt any other will. In summation, the film is a testament to the marginalized experience—any kind of marginalized or othered group—and self-love and acceptance. Guillermo del Toro is a storyteller without parallel, and maybe that’s why I was so hesitant to pick up the novelization for so long. I had no idea that it was a dual release with the film, but either way, my fears ended up being confirmed—Daniel Kraus’ novelization is faithful in the barest, structural way, but largely failed to capture the heart of the film’s message.
I’m not familiar with Daniel Kraus’ other novels, but even a quick scan on Goodreads tells me that he’s a frequent collaborator with Guillermo del Toro, which, after reading this, frankly surprises me. Del Toro’s storytelling, from this film to Pan’s Labyrinth and the most recent Pinnochio, has a consistently strong emotional core, something that anchors the fantastical elements to our most core human experiences. And somehow, Kraus chose to adapt this novel in the most flat, checklist-like way possible. Yes, all of the beats of the film were there, as well as some bonus content. But thanks to Kraus’ dry writing, the emotional core—what made the story so deeply impactful in the first place—apparently flew straight over his head.
Now, before I get into my major gripes, I will say this—the novelization picks up far more at the halfway point. The chapters that Kraus writes from the perspective of The Asset were an unmistakable highlight, charming, dreamlike, and refreshingly strange compared to most of the other perspectives. I almost find myself wishing that the scene with Bob Hoffstetler and The Asset made it to the film. And the very climactic events in the third act were dealt with the appropriate amount of weight, and the pace picked up significantly, unlike the steady pace of the movie. And as much as I love the dance scene, I completely get the decision to nix it from the novel—out of all of the scenes to translate from screen to page, that would be at the top of the page.
With that out of the way, I was bothered by how much emphasis Kraus places on the antagonist, Strickland. There were some fascinating scenes that never made it to the film of the process of him capturing The Asset in the South American rainforest; they were interesting additions, and although I liked them in general, it mostly ended up being Strickland being incredibly racist. It’s painfully on brand for his character, but beyond that, it seemed like his character got the most page time out of the whole cast. He is the main villain, sure, but given that this story is about the marginalized experience and he is the predatory antithesis to what the film stands for, the decision didn’t leave the best taste in my mouth.
My other main issue was how Kraus wrote the character of Elisa Esposito. For the most part, Kraus was somewhat faithful to her personality, but there were multiple instances where the descriptions of her were incredibly concerning. On several occasions, she is described as “childlike” and “[like] a kindergartener” in scenes where she is struggling to communicate her needs—for those of you who have not seen this film, Elisa is mute, and she uses ASL to communicate. It’s already offensive on the front that Elisa is such a treasured character to me, but Kraus seems to, once again, miss the message of the film by a mile, and ends up right smack in the middle of the all-too-common trope of infantilizing disabled people—especially disabled women. Elisa is in no way “childlike” for trying to communicate her needs—she is a grown woman, and she is frustrated by the struggle to communicate with her abled peers in a world that is not built for her. Let me say it again: Elisa Esposito is a grown woman. Even though Kraus was somewhat respectful in some of his other descriptions of her, but these instances all but negated everything else that he had established in the adaptation.
All in all, a structurally faithful, occasionally beautiful, but often frustrating adaptation of a film that will forever have the prime spot in my heart. 3 stars from a peeved Guillermo del Toro fan. Just watch the movie instead.
The Shape of Water is a standalone, as the film is, but Daniel Kraus has also collaborated with Guillermo del Toro on the novel Trollhunters. Kraus is also the author of The Life and Death of Zebulon Finch, The Teddies Saga, and several other books for all ages.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!
Happy Wednesday, bibliophiles, and more importantly, Happy International Women’s Day!
Aside from that, the month of March in the U.S. is Women’s History Month! These past few years have been tumultuous for women here in the U.S. and elsewhere, with the attacks on bodily autonomy being some of the most violent in recent years. But despite it all, we cannot lose hope—by lifting each other up, we can foster an environment that respects women as equals. And as I’ve always said, literature is resistance: it isn’t just real-life heroes that can inspire us to incite change—fictional heroines can have just the same effect. So for the occasion, I’ve gathered even more feminist YA book recommendations.
Though this book was far from perfect, I think it’s still worth it to put on this list; the writing and romance weren’t great, but Follow Your Arrow has plenty of timely discussions around bisexuality and how we treat queer women.
Although this list was intended to be just for YA and fiction, I’d be remiss if I made a post about feminism and didn’t include this book. The Trouble With White Women presents a view on feminism that is necessary for moving past simply white feminism, and presents the feminist movement through those on the margins, such as Frances Harper, Pauli Murray, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. It’s seriously one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in ages—on any subject matter.
TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK! What did you think of the books on this list? What are your favorite feminist YA books? Let me know in the comments!
That’s it for this list of recommendations! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!
Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles! I refuse to believe that February is almost over…
I didn’t know that Ashley Woodfolk had come out with a new book until very recently, and I ended up picking it up more on a whim than anything. But Nothing Burns as Bright as You quickly became my favorite read of this month, and easily the best of Woodfolk’s work that I’ve read. Raw, visceral, and consistently powerful, Woodfolk’s prose is great, but her poetry is something else entirely.
Written in verse, Nothing Burns follows two unnamed girls, best friends who slowly but surely realize that they’ve become something more. But when one’s actions begin to toe the line of their relationship, their love—and their lives—fall in jeopardy. The foundation that once sustained their relationship has begun to crumble, but whether it can be glued back together will be decided in the blink of an eye.
TW/CW: racism, homophobia (some religious homophobia), substance abuse, sexual harassment
I kind of love the feeling when a book you just picked up on a whim hits you harder than you ever could have anticipated. I just thought “oh, it’s Ashley Woodfolk, I liked her last book, what could go wrong,” and the next thing I know, I’m highlighting every other line on my Kindle. Nothing Burns as Bright as You is just that powerful, a poignant story of the complexities of a toxic relationship.
Woodfolk’s prose is already excellent, as evidenced in When You Were Everything and several of her short stories, but her poetry hits a note so resonant that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Every line is nothing short of genius—clever and observant, but nothing short of raw and painful. Nothing Burns as Bright as You is a heart laid bare for all to see, unflinching in the complicated, nuanced realities it depicts.
It would be easy to romanticize the events of Nothing Burns as Bright as You, but Woodfolk knew exactly how to avoid it; it’s a story about falling so hard in love that you lose yourself, but it’s also about coming to terms with loving somebody who drags you through the mud, who breaks you down even when they promise to love you. Setting fire to a dumpster outside of a high school is the perfect set-up for a coming-of-age romance, but a coming-of-age romance this isn’t…and is. The emphasis should be on the coming-of-age part; it’s about learning to heal from somebody that you thought loved you, and grappling with the fact that love isn’t black and white, and like a fire, it can give you warmth, but also consume you to the point of no return.
Even when both of the protagonists went unnamed, their personalities and stories shone through in every page. Despite the fact that it made writing my summary here a little tricky, the character study is vibrant enough that you don’t need names to tell each character apart—their clashing personalities come through in every relentlessly beautiful line. It’s so important to tell more inclusive love stories, but the reality is that not everything is quite so neat and simple—sapphic love isn’t always sunshine and roses. We need our stories of queer Black girls falling in love, but we need our stories of queer Black girls growing from complicated, toxic relationships almost just as much.
All in all, a startlingly raw and beautiful story of the complexities of queer love and being with somebody to the point of danger. 4.5 stars!
Nothing Burns as Bright as You is a standalone, but Ashley Woodfolk is also the author of When You Were Everything and The Beauty That Remains, and has also contributed short stories to collections such as Blackout, A Phoenix Must First Burn, and several others.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!
I’m always up for diverse anthologies, and the fact that this one focused on both sci-fi/fantasy stories and geek/nerd culture from a Black lens was an instant sell for me! There were a few authors that I was familiar with and liked in here—Jordan Ifueko, Roseanne A. Brown, and Leah Johnson, to name a few—so that helped its case too. But as with any anthology, there were hits and misses, but there were still a fair amount of gems within Cool. Awkward. Black.
A multi-genre YA anthology of bestselling, critically acclaimed Black authors challenging the concept of the geek, featuring contributions from Amerie, Kalynn Bayron, Terry J. Benton-Walker, Roseanne A. Brown, Elise Bryant, Tracy Deonn, Desiree S. Evans, Isaac Fitzsimons, Lamar Giles, Jordan Ifueko, Leah Johnson, Amanda Joy, Kwame Mbalia, Tochi Onyebuchi, Shari B. Pennant, K. Arsenault Rivera, Julian Winters, and Ibi Zoboi.
A girl who believes in UFOs; a boy who might have finally found his Prince Charming; a hopeful performer who dreams of being cast in her school’s production of The Sound of Music; a misunderstood magician of sorts with a power she doesn’t quite understand.
These plotlines and many more compose the eclectic stories found within the pages of this dynamic, exciting, and expansive collection featuring exclusively Black characters. From contemporary to historical, fantasy to sci-fi, magical to realistic, and with contributions from a powerhouse list of self-proclaimed geeks and bestselling, award-winning authors, this life-affirming anthology celebrates and redefines the many facets of Blackness and geekiness–both in the real world and those imagined.
TW/CW: racism, misogyny, religion-based bigotry
Cool. Awkward. Black. was hit or miss as a whole, but above all, there were a few fantastic stories in the bunch, and I loved the spotlight on Black sci/fi fantasy, as well as geek culture. With all Black protagonists, many of which are queer and/or disabled, it’s a breath of fresh air, even if not every story was a hit for me.
Since this is an anthology, I’ll do shorter reviews of each story in chronological order.
“Our Joy, Our Power” – Julian Winters (⭐️⭐️⭐️.5)
I was expecting to not be a fan of this one after not being a fan of Running With Lions, but this was a surprisingly sweet story! With a tender, queer romance at a comic con and some great commentary on the racism within cosplay culture, this was a great start to the anthology. I’m not sure if it’s enough for me to give Winters’ novels another chance, but I certainly enjoyed it.
“The Book Club” – Shari B. Pennant (⭐️⭐️.5)
I felt obligated to like this one as a former book club president, but this one was a letdown. The concept of this one was interesting enough—a girl finds a book that seems to speak to her when she picks it up, and is then invited to a secret society of magic wielders in the guise of a book club—but the prose veered onto the cheesy side more often than not. I wish we’d gotten a little bit more context around the Society (and…okay, maybe the name was vague on purpose, but I would’ve liked a name more interesting than just “The Society”) and more of what their magic entailed other than the Evil Magician™️ that Must Be Defeated.
“Nina Evans, In the Round” – Kalynn Bayron (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
This one was an unexpected highlight of the anthology! Again, my expectations were rather low after how much of a sore disappointment Cinderella is Dead was for me, but I loved this story of a Black girl determined to get the role of Maria in her high school’s production of The Sound of Music. Her story of determination was a powerful and timely one, and I loved the poignant themes of Nina breaking the mold and never surrendering.
“Earth is Ghetto” – Ibi Zoboi (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Even without the fantastic title, “Earth is Ghetto” is undoubtedly one of the best stories in this anthology! It follows Ingrid, a Haitian immigrant, who witnesses First Contact, and upon speaking to the aliens and wishing to go to their planet, realizes that they harbor many of the same prejudices as humans back on Earth. It’s witty, it’s timely, and it’s unflinchingly questioning of the norms upon which both we and the aliens built our societies. I loved the hopeful ending as well; it’s hard to get this kind of ultimatum that Ingrid has to make across in such a short story, but Zoboi managed to do all that and subvert the usual tropes and endings that go along with it. Great stuff.
“Initiative Check” – K. Arsenault Rivera (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
This was the first time I’d ever heard of K. Arsenault Rivera, and this was a decent story, I’d say. The whole story comprises a group of friends and their Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and although I wasn’t as big of a fan of the campaign aspect of it, I loved the subtle, tender chemistry that Rivera created between her larger cast of characters. A nice, sweet story, but nothing that changed my life.
“Corner Booth” – Leah Johnson (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Following in the footsteps of Johnson’s solid rom-coms, “Corner Booth” was the story of two teens meeting after competing with each other for years over a competitive, Scrabble-like spelling app. I loved the definitions scattered throughout, showing Rose’s knack for strategy and etymology, and I loved the buildup of the enemies/rivals-to-lovers romance blossoming between her and Wes. It’s an adorable addition to the anthology, and a standout without a doubt.
“Betty’s Best Craft” – Elise Bryant (⭐️⭐️⭐️.5)
Elise Bryant perfectly captures the chaos of a high school group project, but I find myself wishing that mine had the romance of this story. Another sweet enemies-to-friends/lovers, Bryant wonderfully weaves in the grudge that Betty’s had against Jhamir for years, and takes that buildup into a blossoming friendship—or maybe something more—on a final project for an African American History class. I’ve only read Bryant’s Happily Ever Afters, but “Betty’s Best Craft” felt the same way—a light, sweet, and artsy romance of second chances.
“The Panel Shows the Girl” – Amanda Joy (⭐️⭐️.5)
I really wanted to like this one, and there was one aspect that I really did like—the discussion around disability and accommodations. Amaya’s struggles with trying to get accommodations for her ADHD was one that I knew all too well, and I’m glad to see that perspective represented. That being said, the rest of the story felt clunky to me; the twist about the drawings coming to life felt shoehorned in and poorly executed, and most of the dialogue felt stilted and corny as well. Shame…
“Spirit-Filled” – Jordan Ifueko (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
I expected nothing less from the author of Raybearer, and “Spirit-Filled” delivered! I loved the discussions around Romilly questioning her faith and the role of women, as well as the suspense built by Romilly’s secret library book locked in the supply closet of her church. Like many of the other short stories in this story, I love how unapologetic it is about questioning authority and systems, and Romilly was a great vehicle for exploring misogyny in some parts of organized religion. Plus, the youth pastor character was appropriately cringey, so that was pretty funny.
“Cole’s Cruise Blues” – Isaac Fitzsimmons (⭐️⭐️⭐️.5)
Although I wasn’t as much of a fan of the writing in this one, it had a wonderful emotional core, and I loved that it featured a trans protagonist! Also, I definitely felt for poor Hailey…man, I feel that 10 year old feel of botching something in front of an audience 😭 I JUST WANNA GIVE THE POOR KID A HUG
“High Strangeness” – Desiree S. Evans (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
More than ever, this story made me yearn for the experience of stargazing in the middle of nowhere with a goth girlfriend…is that too much to ask?
“Catalyst Rising” – Tracy Deonn (⭐️⭐️.5)
Unlike some of the other stories, I went into this story with low expectations, and the low expectations were…met. I wasn’t as blown away by Legendborn as everybody else seemed to be, and this story was more of the same. It felt like a very cliched setup for a fantasy chosen one in the real world, and although I liked the inclusion of Petra’s anxiety, the story as a whole just felt so overdone and exaggerated.
“Requiem of Souls” – Terry J. Benton-Walker (⭐️⭐️⭐️.5)
I LOVED the concept of this one, especially the trio of unique ghosts that follow Rocko around, and Rocko using them to get back at those who have wronged him. The musical aspect was a lot of fun as well, and it added some very Tim Burton-like, campy fun to this story. Plus, although being Gen Z has given me a permanent Minecraft association to the word “creeper,” I loved this story’s monstrous Creeper as well.
“Honor Code” – Kwame Mbalia (⭐️⭐️)
The dialogue felt very stilted for me on this one, and beyond that, it felt more like a comprehensive guide to LARPing and not an actual story. If “Honor Code” leaned more on the present day and not so heavily on the multiple flashbacks, it would’ve held so much more water. This one might be my least favorite story in the collection.
“Drive Time” – Lamar Giles (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Although it wasn’t the most well-written of the collection, I loved the multiple POVs and the nonstop action of “Drive Time.” The writing was more than a little cheesy, but unlike some of the other stories, it felt cheesy for the right reasons—this story is essentially if a botched driver’s test turned into something like Fast & Furious, after all. I appreciate the art of well-placed cheese.
“Wolf Tracks” – Roseanne A. Brown (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Nothing beats werewolves tearing a racist troll to shreds (literally, in this sense), does it? I was super excited to read Brown’s addition to the story, and she delivers every bit of it with humor, heart, and grounding emotion that balances levity with more grounded themes.
“The Hero’s Journey” – Tochi Onyebuchi (⭐️⭐️⭐️.5)
I wasn’t expecting to like this one as much after how disappointing Beasts Made of Night was, but “The Hero’s Journey” perfectly captured writer’s block in a way that I’ve never seen in a short story—or any novel that I can think of. I didn’t expect to be called out with the [INSERT CHARACTER NAME IN BRACKETS], but here we are. Happens to the best of us.
“Abyss” – Amerie (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
I was super impressed by Amerie’s short story in A Phoenix Must First Burn, and her story here was a perfect sendoff for Cool. Awkward. Black. Her character work and descriptions are once again fantastic, and for once, she can make a lack of quotation marks in dialogue an understandable stylistic choice that still makes the story flow. The latter is something that usually gets on my nerves, but Amerie used it greatly to her advantage in “Abyss.”
I averaged out my ratings for each story, and they came out to about a 3.5! I’d say that’s accurate—it was a mixed bag, but there were unexpected gems from both authors that I love and authors that I didn’t like as much previously. Not every one shone, but there were enough fantastic ones in there to make this a wonderful experience. And my ratings aside, I loved the diversity of both the characters and the genres of each story—it’s a very unique collection. 3.5 stars!
Cool. Awkward. Black. is an anthology, and if you click this Goodreads link, you can see all of the previous works of the many authors featured in this collection.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!
I was first introduced to Black Belt Eagle Scout during the early days of quarantine, back in the spring where I was just drinking tea and plastering stickers on my sketchbook before the burnout set in. Black Belt Eagle Scout, the stage name of Katherine Paul (she/they), rarely missed when I listened to their first two albums, Mother of My Children (2017) and At the Party with my Brown Friends (2019) in rapid succession. Her air-light vocals combined with her sucker-punch guitar melodies made me a fan almost instantly, but I longed for more of the latter—I liked At the Party, but I found myself wanting something that leaned into her harder side.
More ended up coming with Paul’s third album, The Land, The Water, the Sky, which Paul said on her Instagram was inspired by “how important the role of connection to my homelands plays within my mental health.” With back-to-back moments of beauty, strength, and the guitars I’ve been wanting from them since At the Party, I might go so far as to say that this is the best Black Belt Eagle Scout album yet.
Enjoy this album review!
THE LAND, THE WATER, THE SKY – BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT (album review)
Release date: February 10, 2023 (Saddle Creek records)
TRACK 1: “My Blood Runs Through This Land” – 8/10
THAT’S how you do an album opener. Take notes, everyone.
This was the second single to come from The Land, The Water, The Sky, and it stands out as one of the most visceral and sonically heavy tracks from the album. It feels like it’s releasing everything that Paul meant to release, letting it all loose in a storm of some of the best guitar work on the whole album. Contrasting with Paul’s airy vocals, it’s a beautiful juxtaposition that opens the door for new directions on the record.
TRACK 2: “Sedna” – 7.5/10
“Sedna” slowly brings down the momentum of “My Blood Runs Through This Land,” but never diminishes it. Reminiscent of some of Paul’s slower tracks, the steady beat is imbued with electric guitar like strikes of lightning. It’s an anchor for the rest of the record after the explosion of the first track, and it’s a great guiding line for the rest of the songs.
TRACK 3: “Salmon Stinta” – 7/10
“Salmon Stinta” eases us back into the calm, grounding work that has characterized so much of Black Belt Eagle Scout’s work. It holds a little more water than some of her slower tracks on At the Party; with more instrumentation (LOVE the strings and flutes) to give it a larger landscape to work with. I’m not sure how I feel about the vocals from Phil Elverum, though—his voice just felt kind of flat, and since he was repeating the same lyrics as Paul, it didn’t add anything to the song for me.
TRACK 4: “Blue” – 8/10
“Blue” begins The Land, The Water, The Sky’s journey back to soaring heights. Katherine Paul’s voice never ceases to amaze me, but there’s something in the way she sings “and life is overwhelming” that reaches right down into my chest to tug at my heartstrings. Pair that with the powerful combination of guitars and a formidable string section, and you’ve got an instant highlight from the album.
TRACK 5: “On the River” – 7.5/10
Even though I’ve been going on about how much the increased instrumentation elevates Katherine Paul’s voice, it’s great to have a track where their voice is front and center, displaying all of their range, whirling like the breeze around you. It’s the shortest track on the album, but somehow, I don’t find myself wanting more—that’s a good thing, mind you; sometimes, songs are meant to be short, and “On the River” is just the length that it was meant to be.
TRACK 6: “Nobody” – 8.5/10
Nobody sang it for me
Like I wanna sing it to you…
Black Belt Eagle Scout, “Nobody”
I talked a bit about this one in my Sunday Songs for 1/22/23, and as the third single to be released, it was one of the perfect showcases for the album. The bright tones of the guitar shine through, and it’s the perfect slice of indie rock in every sense of the word. But the line “Nobody sang it for me/Like I wanna sing it to you…”…yeah, that gets me. That always gets me. Paul said on instagram that she wrote it about Native American representation and seeing herself in the music industry and beyond, but I think anyone who’s grown up struggling to see themselves represented can relate. Beautiful.
TRACK 7: “Fancy Dance” – 8/10
I have a crystal clear memory of what happened when this song came on the first time I listened to this album all the way through; I was in the dining hall filling my water bottle before breakfast, and for a minute, I got so lost in this song that I didn’t notice that the water was overflowing. Instantly hooking and consistently catchy, this is the Black Belt Eagle Scout that I always wanted to hear more of—loosening up and letting it all out. Absolutely a standout track.
TRACK 8: “Sčičudᶻ(A Narrow Place)” – 7.5/10
I see the way you look at me, dancing
I see the way you love me
Black Belt Eagle Scout, “Sčičudᶻ (A Narrow Place)”
In terms of instrumentation, it’s one of the softer songs on the album, but the power of the lyrics—which Paul explained in an interview with them. was about her identity as a queer, Indigenous woman—cannot be understated. In fact, it feels as though that’s what the relatively light background instrumentation (in contrast to the rest of the album) was meant to do: the deceptively simple-sounding lyrics reveal a much more personal meaning when taken in context with Paul’s identity and the way it’s shaped her experience and her connection to her ancestors and homeland. Continuously beautiful stuff.
TRACK 9: “Treeline” – 7/10
“Treeline” is my least favorite track on the album, but it’s not a bad song by any stretch of the imagination. It brings a sinister, creeping undercurrent to the album with its percussion slowly unraveling in the background, almost like the studio recording of Wilco’s “Via Chicago”, quiet chaos slowly unfolding. I couldn’t help but compare the first notes of Paul’s vocals to the vocal opening of her earlier track “Indians Never Die”—whether or not it’s a callback, I’m not sure, but either way, it’s representational of Paul’s growth as a musician from Mother of My Children to now.
TRACK 10: “Understanding” – 8.5/10
I know it’s wrong to love everyone but myself,
But sometimes I can’t even hold me…
Black Belt Eagle Scout, “Understanding”
One of the shortest tracks on the album, but way up there with the most powerful. “Understanding” is a song that keeps you on your toes—it starts out as any acoustic indie song, but just when you think that the quicker strumming is the fastest it will get, the electric guitars come in with all of the force of a tidal wave. With just one verse of songwriting, it delivers such a powerful message—learning to heal and focus on introspection rather than trying to please everybody else. Leave it to Katherine Paul to deliver such beauty in such a short amount of time with such force.
TRACK 11: “Spaces” – 7.5/10
Strangely, it took a while for this song to grow on me, but it’s easy to see its beauty now. With its sprawling instrumentals and the gentle power of Paul’s voice, it’s the perfect song to bridge to the end of the album. And not only does the music video feature Katherine Paul connecting with their father through art, both of her parents provided backing vocals on the chorus! It’s just so sweet to me…🥲
TRACK 12: “Don’t Give Up” – 9.5/10
And these leaves, they come from people who grow
But we’re to listen, guide us,
I want everyone to know
I don’t give up..
Black Belt Eagle Scout, “Don’t Give Up”
The first single from the album, the last track chronologically, and without a doubt, the best track overall. Black Belt Eagle Scout knows how to save the best for last.
Turning the emotional core of The Land, The Water, The Sky into a rallying cry, this is a song that always makes every positive emotion bubble over inside of me. There’s something so wonderfully empowering about it, Paul’s vocals soaring as she proclaims that “You wanted a second chance at life/Well, you’re alive.” It’s the culmination of everything beautiful on this album, and it’s quickly become my favorite Black Belt Eagle Scout song ever. The fearless outro of “The land/the water/the sky” is the perfect sendoff for a phenomenal album.
I averaged out all of my ratings for each track, and it came out to about a 7.9! We’re not even 2 months into this year, but I’m so glad that we’ve had this beautiful album already. It’s a beautiful tribute to the connections we have—with nature, with our ancestors, with our identities, and out communities—that’s Black Belt Eagle Scout’s best work to date. What a stunning album, seriously.
Since this post is an album review, consider the whole of The Land, The Water, The Sky to be today’s song.
That’s it for this album review! And just like that, we’re a week away from another highly anticipated release—Cracker Island! I’ll be sure to review that soon too. Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!