Ayesha is thrilled to be part of her cousin’s baraat, but same-sex marriage is not legal in India, and the party is confronted by riders on horseback who block their path and spray the group with icy water. The brides and their guests are a lively procession of jewel tones and golden yellows, while the protesters are less detailed, with hulking black horses that dwarf the revelers. Heartbroken to see her didis sad, Ayesha summons her courage to stand up for love against hate.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (December 23, 2020)
The Innkeeper’s Daughter is a Cinderella-tinted Regency romance that brings orphaned Eliza Broad into the life of a gentleman spy, Sir Henry March. As the two hunt down a high-bred serial rapist, they form a tender bond that is tested by the social mores of the British upper class.
Although Eliza is demoralized, debauched, and bedraggled when she escapes her wicked stepfather, Henry is fast to see her potential. They come from different worlds and have disparate interests—Eliza wants her mother’s inn back, and Henry seeks a traitor who sold the Crown’s military secrets—but the two find that their purposes are intertwined. Soon, Eliza is elevated to Henry’s lavish world of ballrooms and gowns, and Henry sneaks into the underworld that Eliza escaped, complete with sex traffickers, sadists, and victimized virgins.
Eliza’s awakening to her sexuality and the nobility’s opulent lifestyle is tender and authentic; she recognizes beauty around her, first seen “in the glow-worms under the oak tree and in a summer meadow,” now found in “the human body itself … an instrument to express joy, sorrow, and harmony.” She is enamored with Henry’s charm and with the luxury that he offers, including intricate clothes, meals, and furnishings, which are bookends to the couple’s explicit sexual explorations.
Eliza’s status as an outsider is concealed as she helps Henry track down the traitor, and if this novel lacks anything, it is a nuanced exploration of her inequity. While she is Henry’s equal in courage, her youth, poverty, inexperience, and powerlessness put her at a disadvantage. However, Eliza refuses to be a plaything, and her frequent self-assertions make her a modern, plucky, and appealing heroine.
The Innkeeper’s Daughter is a sumptuous, sensual Regency romance that teases the senses and recalls the golden age of romance novels.
CLAIRE FOSTER (December 23, 2020)
The Graphic Novel, Book 1
The first part of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction work is adapted in the faithful, dazzling graphic novel Dune.
Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, whose father, Duke Leto Atreides, has just been awarded ministry of the desolate planet Arrakis, where water is scarce and giant sandworms roam the desert landscape. Arrakis is valuable because of the spice found there, and the planet’s previous owners, the Harkonnens, are looking to reclaim it. A traitor within Leto’s ranks leads to Paul and his mother Jessica, a witch of the Bene Gesserit order, escaping into the desert, seeking shelter with the Fremen, a group of natives known for their independence and self-sufficiency.
The story features Shakespearean-level intrigue and drama, as well as religious, political, and environmental themes, and the book’s uncompressed pace allows for their full realization. Characters’ inner thoughts, shown in captions and distinguished by different colored backgrounds for clarity, are a prominent feature. They offer remarkable intimacy and depth despite the large cast of characters, while incredible art delivers the strong sense of place that makes Arrakis such a fascinating and complete world. Each member of the large cast is always recognizable, and the action is clear, but the exquisite color and richness of details, as of the flow of fabrics and the depiction of distinct textures, raise the book to another level.
The core of what made Dune a great science fiction novel has been preserved, and to it are added vibrant visuals in Dune: The Graphic Novel, Book 1—a resoundingly successful adaptation.
PETER DABBENE (December 23, 2020)
The short stories of Eugen Bacon’s The Road to Woop Woop contort in the audience’s imagination because of their original imagery, unique turns of phrase, and refreshing, diverse cast.
In the speculative story “A Maji Maji Chronicle,” shapeshifters travel millennia—a reversal of colonization. Atrocities dot their journey of retribution and enlightenment, and a new ruler comes to see absolute power as a taint. In the title entry, a couple on vacation has a tense ride before their car crash; the specter of the boyfriend disappearing limb by limb, even as he continues to drive, makes his girlfriend wonder about her sanity.
Opening with a nanny’s bizarre drowning, “A Nursery Rhyme” adds a unique twist to classic tales about unstoppable, evil children; elsewhere, a button, which is presented as a birthday gift, shows life in five-second glimpses and becomes a curse. “Being Marcus” is a beautiful, lyrical, and contemporary reimagining of Greek myths; in it, Brutus experiences a sympathetic, humorous reincarnation as a lonely fitness trainer.
Flash fiction features into the collection, which whittles big ideas down to their essence. Clear, surprising language brings to mind images of eyes that scream and lips as ribbon bows. Gripping descriptions—“One elder bore wrinkles as numerous as the tales of the dead”—are vibrant in detailing otherwise unimaginable worlds. Each challenging story seems to end before its time, leaving ample opportunity for post-reading analysis.
Rife with social commentary, the book includes features of the real world and a population as diverse as the collection itself. Smart, ambitious, and daring, The Road to Woop Woop is masterful in combining science fiction with reality, resulting in an unforgettable storytelling experience.
TANISHA RULE (December 23, 2020)
Saving a Mine Wars Battlefield from King Coal
When history professor Charles B. Keeney committed to help preserve an important West Virginia landmark, the decision had implications for his job and his privacy; he knew the activism could take a toll in the long term. All of this is recounted in his memoir, The Road to Blair Mountain.
Blair Mountain was the site of a deadly 1921 showdown. Thousands of union coal miners marched south from the state capitol to help imprisoned, striking miners and their starving families. They were greeted by local police with machine guns. It was the largest labor uprising in American history—Keeney dubs it “labor’s Gettysburg”—but is now near forgotten because industrialists, politicians, and the mine guard system controlled the historical narrative.
Keeney, the great grandson of Blair Mountain battle leader Frank Keeney, names the parallels between the original labor fight and the contemporary fight to save the mountain from being mined. The book documents how Kenney’s rural, grassroots group used focused tools and strategies, as well as local and national alliances, to achieve wins against the powerful and entrenched fossil fuel industry and the political and social culture that supports it. Detailed and assured, this account serves as a guide for other small nonprofits to emulate when they’re pitted against well-financed corporate and political opponents.
Interesting sociological aspects of West Virginia culture, including its religiosity and sports, arise in the narrative alongside illuminating analyses of the subcultures of environmental activism and the planning and organization of grassroots events. In total, The Road to Blair Mountain articulates a thoughtful alternative vision for Appalachia’s future—one that supports its heritage of coal mining and labor history and also seeks a more sustainable, diverse, and decentralized economy.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (December 23, 2020)