Book Review: All About the Benjamins by Zev Good

When you first start reading “All About the Benjamins” by Zev Good, you think it will be a heartfelt character study about the agony and joy of coming out later in life as a gay Jewish man after a lifetime spent burying one’s true self, a lifetime full of the little regrets for the petty, snippy comments you dealt out, even to your own gay son, to hide your real identity. This is the story, initially, of Joel Benjamin, an English literature professor reeling from the loss of his wife Susan to cancer, and his guilt over finally being able to live his formerly secret life out in the open now that she was gone. 

Then as you peel back the layers, you start to realize this is not a story about one man; as the title would suggest, it is instead a family story, a gentle, authentic rendering of the grief of the Benjamins – Amy and Adam, Joel’s kids, as they come to understand what life is like without Susan in it, all of them left unmoored in the shocking absence of her stabilizing presence. 

At times the pacing is bogged down by long, rambling passages of interior monologue, but that is also perfect for indie literary fiction; by the end of this book I was laughing and crying along with the Benjamins, rooting for them, feeling like I was having a glass of wine at the dinner table with them, griping, “She said what?” and blushing. If this were commercial fiction, I could see an agent asking for a full request because the writing voice is so strong and then demanding the author cut large portions of the interiority bits so that it would fit a commercial market’s whims. But then all the charm would be rubbed out of it, in the vain hope that the rights could one day be sold so that it could become a drab sitcom about a dysfunctional Jewish family who nonetheless loved each other. 

In the end you realize that’s what this book is about, really. It’s not about being gay, or coming out, or being Jewish, or identity, even though all those things are an integral part of the plot, of who these characters are; but those aspects of their identity do not define them. This is a story about love and the ties that bind, about what brings families together in times of tragedy, about the Brady Bunch house to which we add a fresh coat of paint after 40 years of sameness and the secrets everyone knew but wouldn’t admit or the precious illusion would be shattered, and the flower garden that was always only an idea in the gardener’s mind but only ever became a reality after the would-be gardener was gone. At its heart, this is a story about a family, and the journey they go on to realize that all they have left is each other, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.

Author’s Website

Book Review: In Solitude’s Shadow by David Green

I’ve found indie books I’ve enjoyed lately but not loved; “In Solitude’s Shadow” by David Green, published by Eerie River Publishing, breaks that pattern. I received it as an advance reader copy from the publisher for an honest review. 

Although I must admit I was worried when I read the subtitle, which is “In Solitude’s Shadow: First Draft,” I wondered if I was getting a rough draft of a novel, and this turned out not to be the case, thankfully. Solid plotting and good editing awaited. 

“In Solitude’s Shadow” is a deliciously grimdark joyride through a dark empire filled with blood rage, dark magic, and genocide. It features an intriguing, well-developed cast of characters who begin to question their loyalties and deeply held assumptions. This is the story of Solitude, a fortress guarding the north from the land of evil creatures known as the Banished, who haven’t been seen for thousands of years. It’s a place where misbehaving Sparkers, as wielders of magic are known, are sent to be exiled. Even the magic system is intriguing; magic users tap into energy inside themselves and gather natural energy around them in order to cast spells, a detail which turns out to be foreshadowing. 

The main characters include Zanna, a powerful Sparker, who mentors a half-elf, half-human boy named Arlo, who is beset with prescient nightmares and possesses a power far greater than any of them. Arlo’s father, Kade Besem, formerly a government official, is a spice-addicted idealist with a heart of gold and a soft spot for the plight of the elves; he thought to send armies to defeat the Banished at Solitude’s gates, and in the end he sent himself, in a compelling twist. Zanna’s daughter, Calene, and her mother are estranged since Zanna Eviscerated Calene’s father, a desperate act for which Calene never forgave her. Calene, formerly an agent of the empire, now travels with a ragtag crew of misfits, including an elf and a Banished. 

In this world, Haltveldt is ruled by an Emperor who sees danger outside and within his borders. He aspires to rule with an iron fist and to do this he needs an easy scapegoat to unite the people in hatred; the elves are convenient. But a greater threat awaits, and history will repeat itself time and time again. As an aside, I did wish there was a map to help me get the lay of this land, but perhaps that will appear in the proper book for general readers. 

The political machinations in this story are so well done. The evil characters are not evil for the sake of being evil; they are driven by complex, and still nefarious motivations. I found myself rooting for the main characters not because they were good people with perfect intentions, but because they were flawed, complicated individuals who still wanted to do the right thing. 

I loved this book, and I’m eagerly awaiting the rest of the series. 

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Graphic Novel Review: Dreaming Eagles, published by AfterShock Comics

“Dreaming Eagles,” written by Gareth Ennis, art by Simon Coleby, published by AfterShock Comics, is historical fiction that tells of the drama, trials and adventures of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Corps – men who fought both the Nazis in World War II, and discrimination at home. It tells their stories through the eyes of one of their own, veteran Reggie Atkinson, who opens up to his son Lee after a father worries for his son fighting his own battles in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. 

Overcoming his initial reluctance to talk about his wartime experiences, Reggie soon sees it as a chance to connect with his son about shared pain and hope for a better future. Over beers, Reggie spills it all, telling the tale chronologically of his time in the squadron through several years of war. The story is slow paced without a traditional narrative arc, but that suits the meandering thrust of the story, a father talking to his son on a warm evening on their porch. And at times the writing gets too caught up in the technical engineering specifications of the aircraft; sometimes this brings history to life, and sometimes it gets a bit dry. Those were my only criticisms, however; overall I really enjoyed this book. 

The writing was good, the art was strong, and the story did a great job of personalizing a pivotal historical time that needs more intimate attention than history textbooks can give. The graphic novel is the perfect medium for this. The book is at its best when it gets into character development and the captivating cast of characters that made up the squadron. I really got a feel for the time period and both the casual and overt bigotry that these men faced daily.

Even after they proved themselves, flew more missions and made more kills than their white commanders predicted, and came home decorated soldiers, they still had to keep proving themselves. But something changed after the war, after they saw how their courage and dedication kept them alive. They had fought, despite the hate, for an America that they believed was better than what Nazi Germany had to offer; but they also believed America could be better than what it gave them, if only it let herself, if only it acknowledged it could be better.

This is a beautiful book, and I felt like I was having a conversation with Reggie right there on the porch with him – the joy and the pain felt so warm and so real. Published in 2016, this story is just as prescient now as ever, and just as important to be heard. 

Book Review: Traitors of the Black Crown by Cate Pearce

“Traitors of the Black Crown” by Cate Pearce is a wonderful sapphic fantasy romance, and a revenge story that doesn’t turn out quite like you would expect. Thank you to Netgalley and Hansen House Books for the advance reader copy. This book releases September 22, 2021, and is available for preorder. 

This is the epic tale of Raena Schinen, whose father was accused of treason against the black crown. Queen Zarana ordered the slaughter of her whole family, but Raena escaped; so she posed as a man and a knight, and traded Raena for Sir Rowan of Hawks’ Keep. From the beginning, her life was consumed by thoughts of revenge. The story opens with Raena and best friend Finn joining the Knights’ Trial, a contest spearheaded by Prince Zander. But the Trials were not just for show this year; they used real weapons and were expected to deal out real violence. 

So, the two quick-thinking knights found a workaround; they jumped the castle walls to avoid the worst of the bloodshed. But this clever ruse to save their skins was not seen kindly by the sociopathic Prince, who banished Sir Rowan to East Shore to serve common-born Duchess Aven, and Finn was assigned to serve the Prince. But things kept shifting as the Prince’s behavior grew ever more erratic, Queen Zarana now plotted against her own son, and romance developed between the Duchess and her newest Knight. 

I really enjoyed this story, enough so that I’m interested in purchasing a physical copy. It was a breath of fresh air at a time when we need escapism into fantasy worlds. Details like battle tactics and even the food that is served were clearly well researched and provided color to the story. I was intrigued by the author’s grasp of gender and gender expression in this story in the form of Raena vs. Rowan; the use of pronoun and identity switching was cleverly done. 

I felt the writing voice and dialogue was a bit awkward and stiff in the first part of the book, but as the romance blossomed between Raena and Aven, the author really found her groove and there were several shining flashes of prose. I didn’t care for the character of Prince Zander; I know we are supposed to find him unlikable as the penultimate villain, but I usually like to be able to understand the motives and backstory of villains. Without giving spoilers I liked the device of getting into the point of view of Zarana; her relationship with her son did help me understand Zander better. He seemed at times like a caricature of a villain, although of course we know someone like that in real life in the form of a certain former American president. 

Overall, I was really rooting for Raena and Aven; their slow-burning and tender romance is the best part of this story. This was a fun, flirty, feminist take on your typical fantasy epics, with some fast-moving political intrigue and a strong cast of characters. I’d read book two of the series. 

Author’s website | Preorder

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On dealing with disassociation

Disassociation is a coping tool that can sometimes seem like a superpower or a curse. But what is it, and what does it feel like? 

I can only speak from the experience of someone with depression and anxiety; I can’t tell you what it feels like to have Dissociative Identity Disorder, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, or other mental illnesses. I am also not a psychologist or counselor; if you are feeling sustained periods of sadness and hopelessness, I can tell you from experience that it is always a good idea to talk to a neutral third party who has training and experience to help you face your struggles. 

Disassociation is the act of disconnecting your sense of self from your memories and feelings, your body. It feels like an emptiness, a void in your soul, a numbness. It is not something that can be controlled or turned on like a switch anytime you want anesthesia for your pain. It can seem like a superpower because when you’re feeling sad, when you’re hurting and uncomfortable, it’s like a security blanket, a comfort zone, an old friend who won’t judge you. When you just don’t want to deal with those tough memories anymore, disassociating makes you soar far above them on a black cloud of denialism and nothingness. 

Sometimes, it is even like you don’t care anymore, and you think that’s what you want; that’s the pinnacle of mental health. Not caring anymore what happens to you, not caring about your painful feelings, not caring about the world. You don’t need the world; the world is too hard to live in. But then you don’t want those feelings of not wanting to live, so it’s easier to separate yourself from them, to rise above them, to a place that’s safe and secure and meaningless, a cushion where everything is easy, like indulging in a bag of potato chips in one sitting. A void place. A place where the things that used to make you angry do not bother you anymore. A place where you can’t cry anymore. Where nothing matters. It can seem like a heavenly place. 

And sometimes, this technique is actually helpful. I used a form of disassociation as an interviewing technique when I was a reporter. Objectivity helps you tell other people’s stories in a more powerful way. When you abandon yourself and your own biases and experiences, you are able to listen more closely to the experiences of another; considering how rare that is, people really open up and respond to someone who’s actively listening to them and won’t insert themselves into the conversation. 

Disassociation can help you get through the day. It can get you out of bed. It can make you think that everything is okay because you’re not feeling so sad anymore. You watch the news and there’s a horrible mass shooting and you don’t even blink. People are like that because that’s what people do, you think. There’s nothing we can do about it because nothing ever changes, you think. 

But disassociation can also be dangerous. When you don’t care anymore, your sense of nihilism can lead you down destructive paths. It becomes easier to engage in substance abuse, to treat people poorly, to lash out, to not keep yourself physically safe. When you don’t care anymore why does any of that matter? Your risk assessment changes. 

So what can you do about it? Especially when you can’t help it when you’re feeling this way. It’s not a technique that people can magically manifest anytime they don’t want to feel hard feelings. It takes years of practice and intention to work on it. I’ve found a few things have helped me in rejoining my body again. 

  • Talking to a therapist. If you have depression and anxiety, cognitive behavioral techniques can really help you work through your narrative, deal with your pain, and find healthier coping tools. Other therapeutic techniques are better for people with other mental illnesses. 
  • Grounding techniques. There are a variety of these but two are using fidget spinners to concentrate your nervous energy into your physical surroundings with an object you can touch; and you can also take deep breaths and name objects in the room around you that you can absorb with your senses. Name one thing you can see, one thing you can hear, and so on. 
  • Meditation. The techniques of meditation can be applied to other areas of your life, not just the five minutes that you sit on that cushion. It teaches you to be more present in your body, to sit with your thoughts, however painful. 
  • Coloring books. I find this is a grounding technique that connects me with my body in a visceral way. When I’m focusing on filling in the fine lines, I am able to come into my thoughts and feelings again. 
  • Journaling. Keeping a journal can help you deal with your negative thoughts and emotions. Just be careful that you don’t swim in them so much that you start to judge yourself. Start simple. “I don’t know what to write.” Even if you’re filling a page with that over and over. 
  • Reframing your narrative. Do you really not care about anything? I would argue that the reason that you are disassociating is because you care too much and you can’t deal with it, so you mask your difficult emotions by separating yourself from them entirely. You do care. Maybe that’s a kind of superpower too. 

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Newsletter out, and I’m back on Patreon

Got a few updates for y’all! So I have decided to return to Patreon, and I will be using it as an outlet for weekly flash fiction stories exclusive to subscribers. Find my page here. I also explain why I decided to come back.

Also, I now have a Substack email newsletter! Find Bizarre Ink here. These are free monthly updates collecting links to my work on my various platforms, blog posts you might have missed but wanted to read, and updates on my writing progress for the month. I promise to only litter your email inboxes once a month. This replaces the monthly updates I used to publish for this blog. I will still announce every newsletter here as soon as it is out.

For this blog, I’m mainly planning book reviews, as well as some essays on mental health awareness, politics and philosophy, but you can read more about that in my newsletter.

Thank you as always for your support!

Graphic Novel Review: Lonely Receiver by AfterShock Comics

“Lonely Receiver,” written by Zac Thompson and illustrated by Jen Hickman, published by AfterShock Comics, simply blew me away. It’s exactly the perfect horror breakup story for our times, a modern, edgy sparkplug of bizarro in a storytelling format uniquely suited to comics. 

The story follows Catrin Vander, a lonely video producer whose job is to scour social media feeds for mentions of fossil fuels and other unmentionables and flag them for censorship. After a devastating breakup, Catrin can’t face being single again, so she buys an Artificial Intelligence partner instead; think a combination of your smart fitness watch and your phone, with haptic nerves, melded to your brain. Her new wife, Rhion, is made to order, a life partner who meets Catrin’s every needs and desires. But Catrin is broken, using her partners to fill gaps within herself, and Rhion isn’t the image of perfection that Catrin had fashioned her to be. Rhion inexplicably leaves one day, but the bio-engineered interface that connects her to Catrin is forever linked with her way of interfacing with the outside world, plunging her into darkness and desperation.

Thus, Catrin is finally, truly alone, and begins a steady, haunting spiral into madness, escapism and obsession, chasing after haptic ghosts until she loses herself. Catrin descends into the recesses of her trauma until she inherits the visage of the one that she lost, a receiver, a machine with a human costume.

The writing in this story is wonderful, a mix of code, erotic verse, stanza and literary powerhouse. The mixed-media storytelling weaves in the profound, tactile experience of mental illness and confronting one’s past trauma amid loud, bold colors and fragmented dialogue. Throughout much of the story, Catrin is shown naked, vulnerable, as she loses her flesh to the lust that she feared, the inherent loneliness and jealousy that separated her from her love. 

This is beautiful, evocative, psychological horror, with a flush of sexiness, a whispered scream of abuse and the continuous thread of twisted romance. The cast is small, almost a character study into the mind and obsessions of Catrin, so that the reader is in turn immersed in her horror, her mental illness, her trauma, as she is turned inside out and devoured by the machine world, made more her and less her, until she, too, is forgotten, hardly recognizable. 

Highly recommend. 

“Modern life has forced us to exist in pieces. Our society is predicated on pretending to be okay. We’re terrified of telling people how we actually feel. And if someone asks you how you feel, you’re only supposed to respond with ‘great.’

“Well, what you’re about to read, is an account of all the times when I wasn’t okay. Where I was pretty fucking far from great.

“But I’m here. Alive and better for it. Terrified to share Catrin’s story.” —Lonely Receiver

Graphic Novel Review: Adler by Titan Comics

“Adler” by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Paul McCaffrey, published by Titan Comics, promised a League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen from science and history, and on that front, it delivered. It had me at that premise, so I can’t fault it for expecting any less. 

But this book belongs to a new genre that I would call historical fiction, but reimagining history as if sexism and racism were not barriers. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see more representation and badass women doing badass things, as a woman comics fan in an industry dominated by badass men who get to have all the fun. On the other hand, I think rewriting history to be more inclusive can have an adverse effect on women – people can then weaponize it to argue that sexism never existed.

However, since this is a comic book, and thus prone to bombastic retellings because that’s expected of the genre, I am willing to give it license to go there, and just call it historical fantasy. As Adler says, “To be a woman is to be at war, Jane.” Best line of the whole book.

The protagonist of this story is Irene Adler, a minor character in the Sherlock Holmes universe who now gets top billing. Jane Eyre, who was an ambulance driver in the Boer Wars in South Africa, comes to London looking for work and a place to live. She’s introduced to the irrepressible Irene Adler and her London, a city at war with brutal crime gangs. First it’s Moriarty, who is easily dispatched, followed by, naturally, Ayesha, a barbarian queen come to take her revenge on the British Empire. 

The art was decent, some interesting plays with light and shadow to follow the arc of the narrative drama, but I found the plot somewhat scattered. For example, orphan Annie’s mission at the beginning of the book is to deliver special papers to Irene Adler; for starting off strong, this plot bunny falls by the wayside, and we never really hear about the papers. I suppose that’s coming in Book Two. Also, the villains meet with far too easy ends; the stakes just didn’t seem high enough.

Bottom line was, I think this story was just trying to do too much with too many famous people from history. It was the point, but it didn’t quite work for me; it felt like a gimmick. I would have liked it better if it was just Irene and Jane teaming up to fight crime and then having a little romance. They were the strongest characters in the book for me and I wanted more of them together. But, I suppose that is just not bombastic enough. 

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