MMGM and #IMWAYR: The Moth Keeper, In Limbo, and more!
Hey everyone! Another week means, you guessed it, more books!
Today's post is exclusively graphic novels (which is probably unsurprising, if you've been to my blog before). I raced through The Golden Hour and In Limbo on the same day, then spent the week slowly savoring The Moth Keeper.
So let's dive in!
The Golden Hour
I was so excited to read this story, and there were things about it that I really loved—but unfortunately, there were other things about it that I wasn't as much of a fan of.
Let's start with the good! I simply can't name a book that has this particular mix of topics—rural life, photography, trauma response, middle school, and LGBTQ+ representation. And seeing all this packed into a graphic novel was even more intriguing for me!
And Niki Smith, creator of The Deep & Dark Blue, uses these topics as a reason to create some truly incredible art—from luscious wide-open landscapes coated in the colors of sunset, to startling black-and-white images that show readers what it is like to experience a panic attack. Some illustrations reminded me of Tillie Walden (like in Are You Listening?), which is undoubtedly a compliment.
The Golden Hour also shines when it comes to Manuel's dynamic with Sebastian and Caysha—their friendship is full of humor and kindness, and a heartwarming middle-school romance also begins to bloom. I especially love how Sebastian learns to support Manuel through his experience of anxiety, and how Manuel works hard to ensure that he supports Sebastian in return.
I had mixed feelings about the act of gun violence that Manuel bears witness to. Obviously, gun violence is a huge threat in schools as is—and I did notice that this particular incident is not some kind of mass shooting, but actually what appears to be intimate partner violence (something that is unfortunately far too common and rarely discussed). Some of the early flashbacks to the incident are definitely intense, but not unreasonable—but I felt the choice to begin pretty much every chapter with some sort of flashback or panic attack felt gratuitous after a while, like Manuel's experience was being used as a plot device. And I also feel like this story doesn't do a good job of supporting students who do fear mass shootings and still have to go to school every day, because there's no real resolution on this front.
And then some other aspects of the story veered further toward chaos. The ending did not work well for me, because although the characters' emotions were as pitch-perfect as ever, the choices characters made were unjustifiable, even when you account for their age or how they were feeling. I found myself cringing at what Manuel ends up doing, and his mother's reaction is just not believable.
Also, I feel like a lot of plot threads were left open when the story concluded—the final moments with Manuel, Sebastian, and Caysha were sweet but not stellar, and Manuel never really made much progress with his PTSD symptoms.
Finally, this is not necessarily a critique, but Manuel's therapist in this story was terrible. (It's not a critique because many terrible therapists exist, so maybe this is realistic—although I wish someone would have realized by the end that the therapist was terrible.) We see her in two sessions, and the first session consists of her asking exclusively closed-ended questions and sharing way too much of her own opinion about how Manuel should live his life, rather than working to build rapport with him. Then the second session was nonsensical—Manuel and his mom have a discussion that shouldn't happen in therapy, and a plot hole appears for good measure. And then the therapist never appears again—no wonder Manuel's symptoms never improve.
So yeah. I really wanted to like this story, and there really is a lot to like (even if it doesn't sound like it from my ranting). Ultimately, though, I don't think The Golden Hour succeeds at its mission.
The Moth Keeper
Whoa. I know I'm always like this—excited about practically every book—but when books are as exciting as this one, what else is there to do?
I discuss below in my review of In Limbo (which I read before this book) how reading a book is an act of trust. And throughout this book, as my hopes climbed and climbed and my heart warmed and warmed, I had moments of panic—what if K. O'Neill couldn't keep the momentum going? What if the book's ending was flat?
But I reminded myself to trust O'Neill. They'd earned it, hadn't they? With every prior page.
And my trust was warranted. This book ended as strongly as it began.
This story's setting feels alive. O'Neill writes in an afterword that they were inspired by the landscapes of New Zealand, where they live, and I guess I'll need to add New Zealand to my bucket list. Not only are the plants and animals, cliffs and skies rendered in breathtaking, tender illustrations, but the night village where Anya and her found family live is practically luminous with compassion, cooperation, and tradition. From carefully written village fables that we actually get to read, to unwritten details of housing and textiles and medicines, this book creates a truly real society without overwhelming readers in distracting details. In this way, it reminds me of The Witch Boy and its sequels by Molly Knox Ostertag, only the worldbuilding that is ultimately created is totally different.
But an entrancing setting is far from the only draw of this book. The plot is clear, yet it shimmers with emotion and wisdom. I don't want to say exactly what the theme is as I see it, but I will say that Anya has a truly beautiful realization at the end of the story—one I connected with personally, in terms of some of the mistakes I've made myself in the last few months. I'm amazed at how O'Neill never loses sight of what they're trying to say with The Moth Keeper, yet they can also layer in countless details and complexities that mirror real life—self-esteem, trauma (with no content warnings necessary), and even a fear of the dark. And the parallels—oh my word, all these different complexities weave parallels like an entire tapestry. It's a beautiful balance between a clear ending that doesn't frustrate readers, and hidden details that give the audience something to turn over and contemplate themselves.
And speaking of plot, I appreciate that some of the clichés I was most afraid of in The Moth Keeper simply never come up. I worried this was going to be one of those stories that wallows in the misery of a character making a terrible mistake and everyone getting upset—but in fact, the story instead basks in its own joy, bringing up the mistake only when necessary, with no foreshadowing or wallowing. And frankly, I don't think framing it as a "mistake" like the synopsis seems to is even helpful—I don't think Anya's even really at fault. But my point is, if you're worrying this is just an anxiety-inducing story of a kid making a bad decision, well, I promise you, it's basically the opposite.
And because this book just can't stop being amazing, I also have to tell you about the characters. I hinted that Anya is rich and complex already—which she is—but all the other characters are amazing too. Estell, Yeolen, Aimoss, Jaellara—so good! The residents of this night village seem to be human-animal hybrids in some way, and they have as many different animal features (fox or rabbit ears, bird beaks) as they do skin tones. Queer-coded characters abound too, but perhaps my favorite part of the abundance of diversity is the exploration of disability. One main character uses a cane and another is albino, and the ways in which their disabilities influence their lived experiences are seamlessly and explicitly worked into the story, without judgment. And although I hate to make a big deal of something that the story automatically accepts, I do think it is so implicitly powerful to have a character with a disability actively being known for taking care of someone else, rather than being taken care of.
If I did the math right, this ended up being the 100th graphic novel I've ever read, and I am honored that this reading milestone was accomplished by The Moth Keeper. K. O'Neill's bio says that "They strive to make books with themes of kindness, inclusiveness, and well-being," and every single one of those things emanates from this book. The Moth Keeper comforted me during a difficult week, while also opening my eyes to new meaning in the world—and it is one of the rare books I kept wanting to think about, even while I wasn't reading it.
So do yourself a favor and find solace in this story (especially the beautiful hardcover edition). You won't regret it.
(A brief note: Deb JJ Lee uses they/them pronouns, but Deb in the story uses she/her pronouns, likely because of the specific timeframe the memoir reflects. I am going to match this pattern in hopes that it reflects Lee's intent.)
I feel like this is a book that some people are going to run away from because of its emotional intensity. But I never felt vulnerable during the afternoon when I read In Limbo. Instead, I felt healed.
Books are an act of trust—an act of mind control. The reader lets someone else carry them through a story that immerses them, and that story might be terrifying or painful. But the reader knows that the speaker is watching over them, and has planned to protect them.
It's hard to express how much it means to be carried through a story—an act of love—by someone who has been to the very bottom of existence, who has felt true fear and endured true pain, and who has climbed back to a place of joy and hope. Reading this book, I felt like Deb JJ Lee was holding me in my palm, with all of my fears and guilt and unlovableness, and saying, "It's going to be okay. I would know."
I'm going to say something. Please don't equate this book with other graphic memoirs. It can be easy to think, "This will be a story of microaggressions and parental pressures and balancing the cultures of two countries—this will be like Messy Roots." And those themes do come up (and Laura Gao, who wrote Messy Roots, is in fact one of sixteen, yes, sixteen people who blurbed this book). But equating this book to others not only lumps entirely different cultures into a single monolith—it's also flat-out wrong. Because I can assure you, whatever stories you might compare this book to, it doesn't compare. There's nothing like In Limbo.
Here's a series of disparate images and topics from this book. Deb, noticing the facial features of other people, with each eye or nose unlike hers slashing through her self-esteem. Deb standing up for herself and pursuing art, something that brings her joy, fulfillment, and a community. Teachers who fail again and again to take care of Deb, confusing her with other students or humiliating her in front of the classroom. Deb's mother spying on Deb, and screaming at her, and ultimately physically attacking her—more than once. CPS's determination that this abuse is not a concern, but rather "normal" for Asian-American families. Deb, fearing her only friends will leave, and losing hope in every single aspect of her life, and ultimately attempting suicide—not for the first time. And Deb's therapist, holding out a hand for Deb while also challenging her to see things in a new way, so she can finally move forward.
So Lee has survived a lot, clearly. And it's their gentleness and skill as a graphic novelist that makes this story meaningful and hopeful. The words on each page read flawlessly, supplementing the illustrations with necessary additions of pain, hope, or dark humor, then disappearing as needed to let the images shine. And the illustrations are simply some of the most gorgeous I've ever seen—their dull, soft blue-gray shade belies the shocking amount of detail in each one, as if some panels are literally photographs. The page layouts are some of the most creative I've ever seen. And the story's ending is a moment of compassion that hits hard.
It's so tempting to make things black-and-white. To sort people into two categories—those who have done wrong, and those who have been wronged. But Lee grabs us by the shoulders and shakes us, asking us to reconsider. They ask us to ponder if their mom, who is physically and verbally abusive, is indeed as evil as we think. They ask us to observe their own mistakes, to recognize that the Deb we know and care about is imperfect, sometimes even unintentionally cruel. And they ask us to forgive Deb—to forgive them—anyway. And perhaps that's the most powerful thing about In Limbo.
That maybe there is no mistake that could make any one of us unworthy.
- a book I thought would be amazing but ended up being disappointing (The Golden Hour),
- a book I worried would be disappointing but ended up being amazing (The Moth Keeper),
- and a book I thought would be amazing and was, in fact, amazing (In Limbo).