brighter than the sun by daniel alemanPublisher’s summary:

Every morning, sixteen-year-old Sol wakes up at the break of dawn in her hometown of Tijuana, Mexico and makes the trip across the border to go to school in the United States. Though the commute is exhausting, this is the best way to achieve her dream: becoming the first person in her family to go to college.

 When her family’s restaurant starts struggling, Sol must find a part-time job in San Diego to help her dad put food on the table and pay the bills. But her complicated school and work schedules on the US side of the border mean moving in with her best friend and leaving her family behind. 

With her life divided by an international border, Sol must come to terms with the loneliness she hides, the pressure she feels to succeed for her family, and the fact that the future she once dreamt of is starting to seem unattainable. Mostly, she’ll have to grapple with a secret she’s kept even from herself: that maybe she’s relieved to have escaped her difficult home life, and a part of her may never want to return.


Not at all my standard fare. In these days of stress and anxiety, I tend to lean towards stories that deal with either comforting subject matter, or that provide pure, unbridled escapism. Things which realistic fiction doesn’t really concern itself with much. I recognize their importance, though, and an excerpt of this novel was compelling enough to make me want to pick this up.

Daniel Aleman’s Brighter Than the Sun is a hard-but-heartwarming read about a young woman carrying entirely too many burdens and responsibilities on her shoulders. Protagonist Sol, true to her name, is really the shining star in this book. Resilient and vulnerable, her efforts to provide for her family while still being a rock and an anchor to them are often difficult to witness. But Sol’s journey is ultimately one of identity, of finding peace and stillness within herself in spite of all the chaos that surrounds her external life, and, as someone who has never had to confront the choices and conflicts this character comes across with, this aspect of the story is what resonated with me the most. 

A major recurring theme is that Sol feels like two different people: she lives in Mexico with her struggling family, but goes to school and works across the border in California*, leading a hectic, harried life, but one with friends and — she feels — more opportunities. In one world she feels restrained, and in the other she feels like she could grow. And then there’s her name: Soledad — Spanish for “solitude.” Not wanting to be defined by this isolating feeling, she decides to go by Sol instead, a nickname that begins as an aspiration but then quickly becomes an elusive ideal.

Sol’s attempts to consolidate these different aspects of herself form the crux of the story, and make it a wholly compelling one. You want her family to be better off, yes, but you also want Sol to realize and embrace all of her strength and potential. To live up to her chosen name and nature — and to then overcome it, to rise even higher and shine brighter than—

* Before picking up this novel I was entirely ignorant about transborder students. Reading about this particular aspect of the immigrant experience was fascinating and eye-opening.

AIR by Monica Roe

air by monica roeTwelve-year-old Emmie is an entrepreneurial daredevil. Along with her best friend, Ale, they’ve started an online business selling crafting supplies, with the purpose of raising money for their respective goals and passions: Ale for better beekeeping gear for her apicultural dreams; Emmie for a new decked out, reinforced wheelchair, the better to withstand her WCMX ambitions. Emmie says she was born for speed, what with having a father who was also an avid extreme sports athlete, and a mother who never told her to hold back. The tight knit community of her small town is used to Emmie’s antics, and they only become an issue when her school’s new principal, a stickler for rules and regulations, treats her like she’s made of matchsticks. A situation that is only made worse when Emmie, in part due to the school’s outdated facilities, takes a spill and breaks her wheelchair while attempting a trick she’s done hundreds of times before. Instead of updating the accessibility issues of the building, the school provides her with an aide that Emmie does not want and definitely doesn’t think she needs. Worse, the optics-obsessed principal and his staff decide to form a fundraiser to get Emmie her new, tricked-out set of wheels. Emmie knows she should be grateful, but part of her feels that these decisions made for her supposed benefit are being made without her involvement — that her choices have been taken away from her. And so she takes matters into her own hands, determined to show the school — and her town, and her grieving dad — that she knows exactly what she wants and needs and, more importantly, how to get it on her own.


I think that sometimes there’s a default assumption that all help is helpful as long as intentions are “good.” But plenty of clear feedback from within the disability community begs to differ. At its heart, Air is a story about community and accessibility — and how hard it can be to change long standing assumptions, especially within one’s own largely loving community, and how hard it can be to speak up for oneself in the face of well-intentioned ableism.

— Monica Roe,  in an interview

Air by Monica Roe was just a lovely, lovely read. Started it in  a somewhat gloomy afternoon and got so into it I literally flew through the whole thing — something that I’ve done only a handful of other times. A fun, lively book about disability rights, and the importance of agency in the lives of kids. Emmie is a wonderful protagonist: strong-willed, determined, and definitely not above being a bit of a huge jerk. The supporting cast is just as charming, in particular an old woman Emmie meets through her online business and with whom she strikes up a friendship. Known only as AK_SalmonGranny, she also uses a wheelchair, and spends the story dispensing valuable and delightfully direct and irreverent advice to our protagonist. She’s great.

I had no knowledge of WCMX as a sport until reading this book. I have since then looked up videos online and encourage you to do the same. Athletes in general are an amazing lot, but the people who do extreme sports are the ones that truly astound me. Human beings are awesome.

Also, as an aside: Air reminded me so much of the movies about extreme sports that were seemingly everywhere during my childhood in the nineties, specifically the early Disney Channel Original Movies. Brink!, in particular, kept coming to mind. Which I guess is why I pictured a present-day Eric von Detten as Emmie’s dad here. Which means, of course, that I am old. Always and forever a soul skater, though, brah.


from the desk of zoe washington by janae marksImmediately after her twelfth birthday, budding baking big shot Zoe Washington stumbles upon a letter from her father. She’s conflicted about this for various reasons. For one, she’s never received any sort of communication from him before. They have no real relationship of which to speak, him having been out of the picture even before she was born. Indeed, considering the fact that he is currently in jail for murder, Zoe’s not entirely sure she wants any sort of relationship with him. Still,  she knows precious little about her father, since her mother has all but forbidden the subject. Curiosity wins her over and she ends up replying, starting a series of correspondence that will upend everything Zoe thought she knew about her estranged father.


From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks is a quick and lovely read about a seriously heavy topic. The fact that it also happens to be about the baking dreams of a twelve-year-old girl and that it doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the more somber theme of wrongful incarceration is yet another testament to the versatility of children’s fiction, as well as the resilience of its target audience, who can — and should — read about weighty, complicated issues.  

There’s a lot to like here, starting with Zoe herself. The book is told from her point-of-view, and she has a playful, sagacious voice. The letters between her and her father, Marcus, are as charming as they are heartbreaking. She also has an inquisitive nature, which shines in the more mystery-inspired sections of the story. Given the themes here, adults obviously play a large part, and I like that they are portrayed in a reasonable and realistic manner, rather than the bumbling, oblivious way that is still the norm in a lot of children’s fiction. A great read, overall.


these fleeting shadows by kate alice marshallPublisher’s summary: 

Helen Vaughan doesn’t know why she and her mother left their ancestral home at Harrowstone Hall, called Harrow, or why they haven’t spoken to their extended family since. So when her grandfather dies, she’s shocked to learn that he has left everything — the house, the grounds, and the money — to her. The inheritance comes with one condition: she must stay on the grounds of Harrow for one full year, or she’ll be left with nothing.

There is more at stake than money. For as long as she can remember, Harrow has haunted Helen’s dreams — and now those dreams have become a waking nightmare. Helen knows that if she is going to survive the year, she needs to uncover the secrets of Harrow. Why is the house built like a labyrinth? What is digging the holes that appear in the woods each night? And why does the house itself seem to be making her sick?

With each twisted revelation, Helen questions what she knows about Harrow, her family, and even herself. She no longer wonders if she wants to leave…but if she can.


Well, this was damn good.⠀

Buddy read this with my main spooky pal (and soon to be published author), Ally Russell, and I’m happy to say we both dug it a hell of a lot. Which is only slightly surprising, considering we both went into this book with wildly different assumptions: Ally thought this was a middle grade affair; I thought it was a new adult sort of deal. Both of us thought it was a murder mystery with hints of horror. It took a couple of chapters for us to realize that, actually, this is a YA horror story, and that — ha ha!— we were both bamboozled by blurbs. (Whoever wrote this was Knives Out meets The Haunting of Hill House: you are a sick and twisted person.)

It was probably these misconceptions that made Kate Alice Marshall’s These Fleeting Shadows feel slow for me at the beginning (I wanted a murder mystery, what can I tell you). Eventually, though, the story managed to hook me with all its fascinating intrigue and, most crucially, its impeccable atmosphere (Marshall can set a mean mood). I finished the book sure that it will end up being one of my favorite reads of this year. 

Shadows is also part of that growing, provocative trend of Lovecraftian revisionism, subverting the often racist and misogynistic tropes that plague the subgenre by spinning eldritch yarns from the perspective of its most marginalized characters. Our heroine in this instance is Helen, a young woman who, due to the machinations of her most manipulative family, doesn’t feel at all in control of her life. Helen’s story is about reclaiming autonomy, of getting back her very sense of self. Her journey is harrowing, and at times difficult to witness, but that only helps make the explosive denouement that much more cathartic.⠀

These Fleeting Shadows is truly a wild, wild ride. I’m fairly sure it’s the only book I’ve read where the tone changes constantly — and often suddenly — but still manages to work for the story. There’s a certain chaotic thread that runs throughout, and the way the book is written complements it exceedingly well. Brava, Marshall.⠀

Very much recommended.


born to be posthumous by mark deryEdward Gorey is someone who is in my pantheon of personal icons, so Mark Dery’s exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) biography of this somber cypher of  a man definitely made for some fascinating company these past couple of weeks.

Written in the affected and often ornate style of its subject, Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey is chock-full of fascinating and gossipy anecdotes, and a myriad of quotations from people who belonged in circles that Gorey, being the consummate loner, was never really an intimate part of, but frequented enough to leave a lasting, singular impression, like a particularly epigrammatic, histrionic spectre.

[Gorey] asked some friends to move everything out of his apartment (“because I was already back up here on the Cape”) but had neglected to tell them about the mummy’s head gathering dust in the closet. “It didn’t occur to me to say, ‘And don’t forget the mummy’s head'” As it happened, they didn’t notice the mysterious object swaddled in brown paper on the top shelf. The super, however, did. “I got a call from a detective at some precinct or other who said, ‘Mr. Gorey, we’ve discovered a head in your closet,’ and I said, ‘Oh for god’s sake.'” 

Posthumous is not a perfect biography by any means. It could have done with some more thorough editing, since Dery has a tendency to repeat himself. He also devotes far too much time and space speculating about Gorey’s sexuality, a fruitless endeavour if there ever was one, as Gorey’s life — much like work —  defied any real categorization. As Dery himself notes in the introduction, Gorey  “was inscrutable because he didn’t want to be scruted.” Gorey was famously evasive when it came to questions about his sexuality (as indeed, to questions about his personal life in general), often providing vague, demurring answers. The closest he ever came to admitting anything was in an 1980 interview for Boston Magazine. When asked directly, he responded, “I suppose I’m gay.” A declaration that is then, in typical Gorey mercurialness, immediately followed up with, “But I don’t identify with it much.” Dery seems to take issue with these sorts of statements, making the argument that they come from a privileged position and that they actually prevent Gorey from being properly considered as an important and prominent queer icon. It’s a fair assessment, and I’d allow that a more concrete answer would certainly add another interesting perspective from which to look at the life and work of the artist. But I don’t really see the point in making the “sure he says he’s this here but was he really” type of speculation Dery repeatedly insists on doing. Especially when Gorey’s declarations, while admittedly glib, seem to be fairly definitive. (For whatever it’s worth, Gorey was most definitely queer, and also assuredly asexual.) Ultimately, though, as fashion writer Guy Trebay is quoted as saying near the end of Posthumous, remarking on the futility of sexual speculation, Gorey was “far queerer than queer.”

Gorey didn’t fit neatly into philosophical binaries: goth or Golden Girls fan? “Genuine eccentric” or (his words) “a bit of a put on”? Unaffectedly who he was or, as he once confided, “not real at all, just a fake persona”? Commercial illustrator or fine artist? Children’s book author or confirmed pedophobe who found children “quite frequently not terribly likeable”? 

Rampant conjecture aside, Dery truly shines when it comes to analyzing and discussing Gorey’s diverse variety of work, looking at much it from the lens of movements and philosophical schools of thought like Surrealism, Dada, and Taoism, all of which Gorey actively dabbled in throughout his life. They are also all topics that involve many complex and enigmatic ideas, but Dery does a commendable job at getting them across clearly. (Posthumous may be a hefty tome of a biography, but it is also an eminently readable one.) Dery’s admiration for Gorey is particularly palpable in these segments, which made for some of the most enjoyable parts in this book.

In the end, Born to Be Posthumous is a fascinating deep dive into the life of one of the most fascinating and brilliant literary eccentrics of the twentieth century. Or whatever.

LESS by Andrew Sean Greer

less by andrew sean greerArthur Less is concerned. About getting older, for one (his fiftieth birthday is fast approaching). About his stalled career (he has written one moderately successful novel, but has been unable to sell anything else). About love, most of all (a past flame is dying while a more recent one is moving on). And so when he receives an invitation to the wedding of his most recent ex, he just decides to run away. In true chaotic and novel fashion, he does this by accepting each and every invitation to a talk, interview, conference, teaching position he has been offered over the past year. His hasty, haphazard plan ends up taking him around the world — literally. But while Arthur Less will find that, however far from home he may be, his worries and anxieties that have caused his life and career to stagnate, are never really far behind, and somewhere along the way, he will have to find the courage to finally face them.


First read of the new year! It was fine! That was my reaction immediately after finishing Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. Just… this is fine. At best, I thought it was a clever, charming little book; at worst, I wondered just how this managed to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction because it seemed — as the title suggests — such a small and slight story. Not really an auspicious start to my reading year, to say the least.

But it’s a week later and I reflect back on the story and go through my notes, I find myself responding much more warmly to it. (That happens with books sometimes. Some stories just need a little space.) I rather liked a lot of the acerbic humor and dry wit of the book (courtesy of the novel’s mysterious narrator), with the first half of the book boasting the kind of carefree, irreverent tone that I just really enjoy reading. 

“As with almost every sunset, but with this one in particular: shut the fuck up.” 

And actually the reason I was so initially underwhelmed after finishing the book mostly had to do with the fact that it abandons this tone towards the end, in favor of a much more contemplative, maudlin mood. Which is fine and lovely, but not what I wanted out of the novel.

What I responded to the most was the novel’s protagonist, who, appropriately, turns out to be the book’s saving grace. Less is an absurd, lovely mass of anxiety and contradictions who has, as one character points out, “bumbled through every moment and been a fool; you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path” but who still manages, somehow, someway, to come out the other side relatively unscathed and, indeed, somehow, someway, better than before. As someone who inadvertently wanders and wonders through life in a similar fashion, I found Arthur Less highly relatable. I wanted him to emerge from his trials and tribulations, not victorious, but enlightened. He’s the sort of character who, while frustrating and ridiculous (again: highly relatable), you can’t help but cheer on.

So while it may initially ring hollow and superficial, Less is actually less that, and more of a modest and understated meditation on love and lust and loss; on writing and wandering; on anxiety and acceptance. It turns out to be well worth your while.

(And maybe it’s an auspicious start to my reading year after all.)


2022 has truly been the definition of a roller coaster year. It began with the ending of a relationship and the beginning of a move to my own place. Halfway through the year I caught the dreaded Plague after avoiding it for so long. Then at the end I got sick with something the tests assure me wasn’t the Plague but it certainly knocked me out like it, making me miss a large part of the holidays with my friends and family. Add to that my general constant struggle with anxiety and… well, it’s been a lot. I don’t need to tell you it’s been a lot. You know it’s been a lot.

How I managed to read close to a hundred books along the way is honestly a mystery to me. I try to not put much stock in challenges or numbers. I use my Goodreads Challenge not as a challenge but, because I am a ridiculous person, as a memento mori instead, plugging into it whatever age I’m going to be that year. It’s not that hard to meet — I’m not that old yet. But I would be lying if I didn’t like looking at those large numbers. That I didn’t like feeling like I Read A Lot Of Books.

But the thing that I learned this reading year is that I really don’t. Yes, I read a lot of books, but I don’t feel like I have much to show for it. I didn’t read many books that blew me away, for one. Most that I read were just okay. Which is perfectly fine — not every book I pick up has to blow me away. I just wish to pick better choices.

It’s the pursuit of comfort, I suppose. I don’t blame myself for going for the familiar and the comfortable, especially not during fickle, precarious times. But a thought I kept coming back to as I reflected on my reading throughout the year was how I read a lot less when I was younger, but how so many of those books form an integral part of my soul now. And how that had less to do with the quality of the books themselves than it did with the quality of the time I spent with them. I didn’t finish a book and immediately jumped on to the next, on that neverending search for serotonin. I finished them, and dwelled on them. Sometimes I even read them again, which I scarcely do these days. I gave them time to become a part of me. This wasn’t a conscious choice on my part. I just didn’t have the resources that I do today, which I guess made me more deliberate with my reading. And much more adventurous, too, as I often went with books that seemed interesting and new and challenging.

Which is all to say that, as far as reading resolutions go for the coming year, this would be the main one: To find some of that magic younger me possessed. To be more deliberate and particular with my reading. To choose quality over quantity, always. 

I believe this in turn would result in better, more thoughtful reviews, too. My poor blog seems to be in a constant state of neglect — not to mention my bookstagram. I always make it a resolution to be better at both, but in particular my website, and that will remain the same for this next year.


I don’t want to give the impression that everything I read this year was a big pile of meh. I still had a lot of fun. Still managed to read some fine books that I hope will form part of my soul in their own way. Some that I have already revisited and plan to do so again. I always make it a point to say that books are my shining beacons of light in this tempestuous world. These were some of my lighthouses in 2022: Continue reading “YEAR IN REVIEW ○ 2022”


krampus-by-bromJesse feels like a loser. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Linda, told him as much before she left, taking their daughter Abigail with her. He needed to get his act together, she begged him. To take his music seriously. To build a better life with his family. But Jesse’s insecurities always manage to get the best of him, and so he fails to progress. Now Linda and Abigail are living with a corrupt cop who has always had it in for Jesse due to some of his somewhat illicit side-hustles. And he’s alone, living in a bleak trailer with a mood to match. To make matters worse, it’s Christmas Eve, and Jesse has nothing to show for it — no gifts to present to his adoring daughter. Jesse feels like a loser, all right. On top of it all, he must also be losing his mind, because he swears he has just seen Santa Claus drop out of the sky and run into his trailer park, and a pack of monsters following behind him.

Krampus feels like a loser. He has been imprisoned under the earth for the better part of a millennia by now, placed there by a traitorous Santa Claus, betrayer and usurper. His false holiday has overtaken the tried-and-true traditions of Yuletide, making the world forget about its old gods and spirits and, indeed, the Yule Lord himself. Full of vengeful rage, he sends his faithful Belsnickels after the jolly old fraud, intent on unleashing the spirit of Yule back into the world, where it rightfully belongs.

Fate will make Jesse and Krampus cross paths, forming the unlikeliest of duos, finding that they need one another to fulfill each of their ambitions.


I didn’t think much of Brom’s Krampus: The Yule Lord, unfortunately. It’s a shame, since Slewfoot was one of my favorite reads this past Hallowe’en season, and in many ways this is very much the proto-version of that book, with all its focus on Pagan traditions and customs, and its fervent criticism of Christianity. In Slewfoot, this angle was compelling because its main character was a woman fighting against Puritan superstition and oppression with the help of the title character, an old forest god that, to the colonists, represents the evils of the natural world. Here, Krampus — basically a more fanatical, whimsical version of Slewfoot — uses his disdain for monotheistic narrow-mindedness to… mostly help a small-time crook get back with his wife and daughter?

Which is basically my main gripe with this book. Jesse’s story, while interesting in a crime drama sort of way, bears no real relevance to Krampus’s plot against Christmas, other than in the most peripheral of ways. And the problem is that, despite this novel’s title, Jesse is very much the main character: he’s the one who gets a proper arc; the one whose journey forms the emotional center of the book. The way the story is constructed, though, ends up as acting like a detriment to both plots: whenever a particular thread is picked up it feels like an interruption of the other, rather than a complementary narrative. It makes the novel seem as if two vastly different books have been forcefully fused together, forming a very oddly-shaped beast. It doesn’t help that the characters themselves comment on this same thing, either, with Jesse forever complaining about Krampus’s obsession being an obstacle for his own objective. Again, it’s a very peculiar choice.

I didn’t hate the book, though. Even if it’s not what you expect going in, you still end up invested in Jesse’s story. And on the more fantastical side of the tale, I found Brom’s Norse take on the whole Christmas mythos fascinating. It’s a little overwrought, but it also makes complete sense to make trickster figures like Santa Claus and Krampus related to the god of mischief himself. Krampus was an interesting character — a monster with a romantic bent. I enjoyed reading his melodramatic rants and outbursts. Really, it’s just a shame that he ends up becoming a supporting character in his own book.

Once again, Brom’s art is stellar, and once again I wish there was much more of it here.

SECURITY by Gina Wohlsdorf

security by gina wohlsdorfThe Manderley Resort is a modern marvel. Designed and built as an exclusive getaway for the glitterati, it boasts only state of the art technology, with a security system to rival those of most governments, the better to ensure the peace and privacy of its pecunious patrons.

The day before the hotel opens for a press preview,  a small group of employees work through the night to make sure things will go smoothly. It’s a stressful enough time for Tessa, the hotel manager, without having her distant foster brother come barging into the resort and her life, dragging along with him their complicated, cluttered history. The rest of the group bring their own convoluted baggage to stir into the pot of the hotel, the pressure of which is sure to come to a head sometime during the night.

Witness to all of this is a seemingly all-knowing, all-seeing presence, tucked away in a secret room on the topmost floor, monitoring all these people that he can watch through Manderley’s myriad of security cameras hidden everywhere throughout the resort. Cameras through which he can watch these domestic dramas play out. Cameras through which he can see the killer in the Michael Myers mask holding the knife that he uses, effortlessly and methodically, to cut through the tension of everybody in the hotel.


Gina Wohlsdorf’s Security is a lot of fun. Pulpy, and very tongue-in-cheek (the killer is literally dressed up as Michael Myers). The plot is inventive and intense. Its narrator — who, with their exceedingly detailed asides that increasingly veer into the abstract and existential, reads like a Stoic spec ops Patrick Bateman — is one of the most interesting I’ve ever read, and really is the star of the book. The reveal behind their identity stands as one of the most genuinely surprising and entertaining twists I’ve come across in recent memory.  I had a blast reading this book.⠀

 But, a couple of weeks after finishing it, it’s the format that has stuck in my mind more than anything else. ⠀

 I first tried reading the ebook version  a couple of years ago, but quickly found the robotic narration tedious. I came across a couple of reviewers that felt similarly, but also how they fared so much better when they picked up an actual, physical copy. So, still interested in the premise, which is great (modern hotel with extremely high tech security becomes a deathtrap), I purchased the paperback version. And I was glad to find that it was, indeed, a much better experience. The particular writing style still took a few chapters to get used to, but, thanks to the design of the book, eventually became immersive rather than tiresome. 

The main stylistic conceit of this slick thriller is that its chapters are meant to represent the many (so many) security cameras hidden throughout the hotel — the story’s sole setting. At times, when things are happening all at once, the paragraphs will rearrange themselves into a grid, as if you’re viewing a multi-monitor setup in a control room. More than an aesthetic, gimmicky choice, it’s actually justified in the story when you slowly learn more about who the narrator is and what they do.

The ebook, though, seemingly eschews all of that, leaving these sections as regularly formatted paragraphs. And while the text itself remains the same, there’s a dynamic that’s lost in the digital translation. There’s something stimulating about your eye moving freely across the grid, knowing you can read the sequences out of order and still be just as informed as if you read them sequentially, if not more so. It’s an element that adds to the tension and thrill of the overall story, and without it feels less immediate and more, as previously mentioned, robotic and mechanical, almost as if you’re reading a Wikipedia entry rather than a proper book.

 As someone who reads mostly digitally these days this was a good reminder of how format is much more than convenience, and can be used to add depth and verve to a story. 


Clever devices aside, a story is nothing without good writing, and Wohlsdorf does a spectacular job here, elevating what would be a convoluted, run-of-the-mill suspense story with flair and panache.


shirley and jamila's big fall by gillian goerzAfter their summer adventure, friends Shirley Bones (kid detective extraordinaire) and Jamila Waheed (new spunky kid on the block) prepare themselves for the school daze ahead. It turns out to be a busy term, and between all the extracurriculars, the friends find themselves with limited time to hang out together. Jamila in particular struggles to find new friends, being the new kid, until she meets Seena while trying out for the local basketball team. Like her, Seena is of Pakistani descent, and the pair form an instant connection over their shared cultural quirks. Jamila worries that her budding friendship with Seena will affect her relationship with Shirley, since the two couldn’t be any more different. Add to that the fact that Seena seems to be hiding a checkered past….

Seasoned sleuth Shirley Bones has no time for interpersonal drama, though — not when there’s a case to crack. A loathsome sixth-grader by the name of Chuck is known throughout the school as a notorious blackmailer. Possessing a veritable hoard of incriminating pictures, videos, and text messages, he lords over his  classmates, extorting favors in exchange for his presumed silence, lest he ruin their elementary school careers. Bones and Waheed soon make it their mission to take down the crooked character’s coercive enterprise.


I had an absolute blast reading Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer, the first book of this seasonal series, last year. It helped that I picked it up knowing next to nothing about it, other than it involved kid detectives. So I was pleasantly surprised when I realized, halfway through the book, that the series was a Sherlock Holmes reimagining! It’s not overt from the outset (in fact, I don’t think even the blurb mentions it) so I had a lot of fun going back through the story and picking up all the references and homages, most of which seemed obvious in retrospect (the assonance of their names, for one). In a world saturated with interpretations of this world and its characters, this one in particular felt like such a fresh and clever take. I finished it eager to get back into this story.

I’m happy to report that I also had a blast reading the sequel, Shirley and Jamila’s Big Fall, and in fact would say that I liked it a bit more than the first book, if mostly because of the gorgeous autumn setting, which I am always a sucker for. This one is based on “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” a story famous for featuring a villain that was even more revolting than Sherlock’s traditional nemesis, Moriarty. (Fans of BBC’s Sherlock will no doubt remember Lars Mikkelsen’s brilliantly repulsive portrayal of the character in the show’s third season.) Chuck is a great and outrageous juvenile analogue of the character, who, instead of doing the things he does for power and influence, here he’s just an overly privileged, pretentious child who has never been denied a thing in his life. It was a lot of fun to watch his machinations being undone by Bones and company. 

Goerz’s character work is wonderful. The supporting cast in the first book was a highlight, and although I’m sad to see they don’t play a role in this story, the newcomers are also immediately endearing. Seena is the obvious standout, but her family is also a delightful addition. That familial aspect is another thing I admire about these books. Middle grade stories tend to do away with grown-ups in some form or another, but in Shirley and Jamila’s lives, they are not obstacles to overcome, but integral. It’s a nice and lovely change of pace. 

The artwork remains exceptional. Goerz draws people in a simplistic style that’s very reminiscent of Raina Telgemeier’s work, but her characters are a lot more expressive. They are never static — their faces and postures change constantly throughout the pages and panels, lending the story a dynamic feel. But Goerz in particular excels at scenery: her backgrounds are beautiful and incredibly elaborate, positively bursting with fun little details. They are also super cozy, which is only appropriate, given the autumnal setting (the aesthetics of Seena’s family apartment are goals, as the kids would say). I usually fly through graphic novels, but I consciously slowed down while reading this one, the better to appreciate the art.

All in all, another highly enjoyable adventure featuring two intrepid sleuths that are quickly becoming favorites. And I can’t wait to see what surprises Winter has in store for them.