J. A. Mensah
Hardcover $24.95 (288pp)
J. A. Mensah’s Castles from Cobwebs is a haunting coming-of-age tale.
Imani is a Ghanaian orphan who was left on a castle incline in Northumbria. Picked up by the reverend mother of a convent, Imani is raised there, experiencing estrangement and racism. At nineteen, a phone call about her mother’s funeral takes her to Ghana to discover her roots and background. Later, she ends up in Rochester, New York, for a study abroad year.
The novel is divided into three sections, each spotlighting its colorful setting. The racism that Imani faces growing up in an all-white convent is juxtaposed with African folk tales. But in Ghana, she still feels displaced: it seems like she does not belong to any one place.
Imani’s spiritual companion, Amarie, is part shadow and part ghost, and disappears when Imani is in Ghana. Through this device, the novel plumbs the lines between faith and reality, good and evil. While the narrative doesn’t resolve who Amarie is, or why she comes and goes, these elisions mirror Imani’s cobwebbed origin story, which is impossible to complete once her biological mother dies.
Mensah’s prose is gorgeous and lyrical, conjuring crystalline images of Northumbria, Accra, and a Ghanaian village, all while showing how fractured and untethered Imani feels without clear biological and geographical ties. Strong women abound, playing the roles of an adopted mother, a biological mother, an aunt, and an elder. They are flawed role models from whom Imani learns fragments of her biological mother’s story, as well as about the nature of friendship and love between women.
When Imani returns to Northumbria, a reckoning imbued with nostalgia allows her to deal with abandonment, and to gain a redemptive sense of home and belonging. Mensah’s storytelling skills make for an atmospheric, poignant, and bold novel that explores uncharted territory.
ELAINE CHIEW (April 27, 2022)
In India Swift’s graphic novel The Girl and the Glim, a cosmic battle between the forces of light and darkness plays out as a girl seeks to adapt to life in a new town.
On Bridgette’s embarrassing first day at her new school, she’s laughed at for struggling to reach the chalkboard, and a bully locks her in a storage room. Climbing out the window, she enters a magical wooded realm presided over by a bear-like monster; she is chased away by mutant spiders. Then she’s followed home by a luminescent fluffball whom only she can see. Like an imaginary friend, the “glim” accompanies her as she tries to befriend her troubled classmates.
An initial palette of muted blue, pink, and purple reveals Bridgette’s melancholy outlook. Brighter daydream sequences picture her saying just the right thing to be perceived of as cool. The book then broadens its spectrum to mirror the expansion of Bridgette’s world: her visit to the enchanted forest; her budding friendships with Marla and Sylvia. Bridgette’s attempts to take Polaroids of the glim are a charming echo of ghost photography.
The glim is a mischievous sprite who helps Bridgette enact creative solutions to her setbacks. There’s a neat dichotomy between its benevolence and the clinging gloom of the spidery “glums,” which plague Marla as she worries about the outcome of her father’s surgery, resulting in an allegory about anxiety and loneliness. Whether the enemies are literal monsters or figurative ones is left open to interpretation: the book’s ending paves the way for this to launch a comics series.
Bullying and the pressure to get good grades are central themes in The Girl and the Glim, a fantasy adventure that’s ripe for Pixar-style animation treatment.
REBECCA FOSTER (June 6, 2022)
Cool tones of rippling waves and weathered wood contrast with patches of orange and pink in the splashy illustrations of this story about working together and never giving up. Gus wants to swim and refuses to accept his best friend Bean’s assertion that “bulldogs can’t swim.” He remains undaunted through multiple attempts—and rescues from Bean. A little ingenuity helps Gus accomplish his goal while readers glean a subtle message on water safety.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (April 27, 2022)
A woman’s obsession with a forgotten poet leads to life-changing personal and historical discoveries in Shola von Reinhold’s novel LOTE.
Mathilda finagles her way into the lives of others and lives off of their largess until circumstances force her to move on. After one such escape, she signs up for a bizarre artists’ residency that brings her to a forgotten town where Hermia Druitt, a poet whom Mathilda is fixated on, lived nearly a century before. The more Mathilda learns about this elusive figure, the closer she comes to finding what she has been searching for all these years.
Mathilda is a shiftless, restless queer woman who forever has one foot in another world. Her dreaminess, combined with lengthy discussions and speculations about art and philosophy, results in an almost hallucinatory atmosphere. Her life is ruled by her obsessions with various Black and queer historical figures. Obscure yet fabulous Hermia, in particular, proves so inspiring that Mathilda and a revolving coterie of friends take ever-increasing risks to retrieve her life from the shadowy corners of history.
Mathilda dives headlong into her investigation, desperate to unearth the truth. As relayed through flashbacks, Hermia and others like her dealt with the fear of rejection every day, even as they remained determined to live and love and create in their own ways. In the end, Mathilda’s quest highlights an unsettling truth: white European and Black European artistic works are more closely linked than some may suspect—and the achievements of the famous and beloved are all too often built on the efforts of those whom they dismiss as worthless.
LOTE is a novel about the nature of art and about who gets to participate in its creation.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (April 27, 2022)
This Poison Heart: Book Two
The sequel to This Poison Heart, Kalynn Bayron’s enchanting fantasy novel This Wicked Fate subverts hero’s journey motifs for a young Black queer woman who is descended from the gods.
Briseis can control plants and is immune to poison, but until learning she is descended from the goddess Hecate and the mythological figure Medea, she thought she had to hide her skills. Now, with her mother’s life hanging in the balance and a month to make things right, Briseis embraces her powers and goes on a quest to restore a missing piece of her heritage. As both allies and enemies follow her, Briseis faces her strange origins and decides how far she will go in the name of family. Briseis is also on a journey of self-discovery, trying to understand her identity, even as she is drawn to a mysterious immortal girl, Marie.
Briseis’s quest takes her to a Gothic mansion and a Greek island; she encounters gods both benevolent and apathetic. Rich in detail, these locations and figures come alive, as do the plants that Briseis encounters: mundane vines, poisonous flowers, and the mythical Absyrtus Heart, a plant that can make any human immortal. But Briseis’s foes are descended from Medea’s vengeful spouse, Jason, and they want the Heart for their own purposes.
The book centers Black characters, and its prose sings. It celebrates the resilience of family, too: Briseis has been adopted, but even as she cherishes her adoptive mothers, she learns to accept and love her biological family. Through it all, Briseis perseveres through her mythic and romantic challenges.
This Wicked Fate is a delightful novel about literal Black Girl Magic, found family, and queer love, with adventures and a satisfying twist on Greek mythology.
JEANA JORGENSEN (June 6, 2022)