A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY by Becky Chambers

a prayer for the crown-shy by becky chambersRenowned tea monk Sibling Dex and wayfaring robot Splendid Speckled Mosscap have come out of the wilderness of Panga. Putting their search for fulfillment on hold, Sibling Dex accompanies the eager and inquisitive robot on its mission to find out what exactly, if anything, humanity needs. To that end they hit the road, stopping at the various and radiantly diverse human communities of the moon and taking with grace and gratitude the experiences and lessons they each have to offer.

○○○

A Psalm for the Wild-Built was my favorite read of last year, what with its gentle, quiet story about two lost souls trying to understand one another as well as themselves speaking to this particular lost soul in a way few other stories have. It’s no surprise that its follow-up, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, was my most anticipated read this year. I’m not great with series, usually, often finding them to be a bit too inconsistent for my liking. But it’s a testament to author Becky Chambers’ talent (or rather, perhaps, to my undying love for her writing) that I had absolutely no concerns or anxieties over this book prior to its release — no worries about whether it was going to live up to any expectations my brain may have thought up. Only a certainty I was going to enjoy it immensely. It was more of a feeling than anything, which is, I think, the appropriate approach to the kind of books Chambers writes. 

Part of that assurance was due to the inherent plotless nature of these Monk and Robot stories. Chambers has doubled down on her most common criticism that “nothing happens in her books,” arguing that reading about people simply living life, in all its intricate and complex threads, can be as compelling as any conflict-laden drama.

When I think about my life in the real world that I find most interesting or most captivating, they’re all the most ordinary things. Life is interesting. 

— FanFiAddict, “Author Chat with Becky Chambers” 

Both Psalm and Prayer are slice-of-life in the truest sense of the term — more vignettes than they are full episodes dense with schemes and action. These books feel less like you are reading than you are just having a conversation with a couple of  friends (albeit of the particularly empathetic and reflective sort), but that’s part of their charm and their oh-so-comforting appeal. Your mileage may, of course, vary with this style of storytelling, but I find myself gravitating to these book-shaped warm embraces the older I get and the more weight of the world I feel. 

Which is all a roundabout way of saying I loved reading this book. I loved spending time in its warm solarpunk world. Loved the themes it explores of listening to what your body and your spirit need, and how that may or may not relate to your perceived purpose in life. 

 ○○○

I finished Psalm last year thinking it was the book I needed to read at that particular moment in my life. I wasn’t expecting this book to do the same, to have my life reflected in such a stark, revealing manner again — but even in that aspect Prayer managed to deliver. I’ve been through a lot these past couple of months, my personal life subjected to much change and upheaval. Most of these developments are for the better, but I still find myself feeling tired and weary and uncertain (not to mention guilty for feeling all of this in the first place). 

They’d spent too much time around tired folks to not recognize the same condition in themself. They were running up against a wall, and it didn’t matter whether they understood where the wall had come from, or what it was made of. The only way to get through it was to stop trying, for a while.

This prayer, like the psalm before it, is another reminder (and a promise): Whatever it is you’re going through is valid, and doesn’t need to be justified, to neither anyone nor yourself, and that it’s okay —  and vital and necessary — to just give your boisterous brain and rattled, anxious body a damn break sometimes.

You don’t have to have a reason to be tired. You don’t have to earn rest or comfort. You’re allowed to just be.

○○○

These books mean a hell of a lot to me, so you can imagine my sadness upon learning that Chambers has no imminent plans to continue writing further Monk and Robot books, choosing to focus on other creative projects. Although I supposed it was to be expected, endings being such a prominent theme in Prayer. There’s Mosscap grappling with its own mortality after a piece of its body breaks down and it struggles over the ethics of having it repaired or replaced. Most poignantly, in the final chapters, we see the robot admit to not wanting to reach the final destination of its tour with the monk, fearing it would mean the end — of their travels together; of their talks; of their companionship. Sibling Dex feels very much the same. Neither of them wants their time together to come to a close. Neither did I. Indeed, when the ending did finally arrive in such a breviloquent manner, it caught me so much by surprise that my immediate reaction was just to sob. I simply wasn’t ready. I adore so, so many things about these books, but these two characters are the true gift Chambers has given us. I miss them already.

LEGENDS & LATTES by Travis Baldree

legends and lattes by travis baldreeViv is tired of the mercenary lifestyle. She’s undoubtedly good at it: not only does she have the intimidating, formidable build of her orc lineage, but also brains enough to pick and choose jobs and crews well. Enough that she’s still hale and flush, at any rate. But still: she finds herself bored, wishing for other things. And so, after one last job, she simply quits. Leaving behind the wild frontiers for the comforts of the city, she plans to open a shop serving one of the strangest, most pleasurable drinks she has come across in her adventures: coffee.

○○○

In an exhaustive piece about the publishing process, author Travis Baldree wrote about some of the themes he wanted to explore in his debut novel:

You aren’t stuck doing what you’ve always done. It’s never too late to start again. People are as important to your life as what you decide to do. It’s valuable (and sometimes very hard) to make room in your life for things that aren’t work. People are at heart good, often when you least expect it.

The result would be Legends & Lattes, a kind and compassionate story about starting over; about building peace and purpose; and about finding your family. A novel that is indeed, as many other reviews suggest, the equivalent of a warm drink in the middle of a hectic day.

I loved pretty much everything about this novel: from its wonderful cozy setting (which, despite Baldree’s purposefully minimal world-building, is still immediately familiar) to the way it explores the above-mentioned themes with exceeding empathy and compassion. But it’s the characters and their interactions that truly shine. Viv is a great protagonist, confident and able but still haunted by bouts of worry and apprehension. Tandri is a refreshing take on the succubus, their innate seductive abilities portrayed from an emotional angle rather than the standard sensual slant. Her rapport with Viv is lovely, and makes you want to see their budding romance flourish. Thimble has rightly become everyone’s favorite (he is, after all, the best), but Cal, the imperturbable hob-of-all-trades, is probably the one I’d like to hang out with the most. Even the quote unquote antagonists of the story get their due, with seemingly one-dimensional stock characters revealed to have surprising-but-welcome layers.

Things don’t have to stay as what they started out as.

Comparisons will no doubt be made to the late Terry Pratchett, that guiding light of feel-good fantasy, and while his influence is certainly evident here (the citizens of Thune would very much feel at home in Ankh-Morpork), what Baldree’s humane approach kept bringing to mind was actually the science fiction work of Becky Chambers. A Psalm for the Wild-Built, her meditative ode to slow living (and a book I’ve not stopped thinking/talking about ever since I first read it around this time last year) would be the obvious choice, also being a story about new beginnings and caffeinated drinks, but Legends & Lattes bears more in common with her Wayfarers series, largely plotless books about disparate characters coming together, forming familial bonds, and just… living life.

Which isn’t to say this book is completely lacking in plot. The cover may promise a story with low stakes, but, while there is certainly no world-ending crisis to overcome, there is still drama, mostly in the form of aspects of Viv’s past resurfacing to threaten her present lifestyle. There’s a veritable action set-piece, even, full of all the tension and turmoil that entails. Again, no doomsday scenarios of which to speak, but the stakes are solidly at a medium.

But Legends & Lattes is, at its heart, a gentle, quiet, reflective story, and I will return to it for those qualities. One of my favorite reads of the year.

Glancing around, Viv decided that she was extremely proud of the shop’s interior. It felt modern and forward-thinking, but also cozy and welcoming. The combined aromas of hot cinnamon, ground coffee, and sweet cardamom intoxicated her, and as she brewed and smiled and served and chatted, a deep contentment welled up. It was a glowing warmth she’d never experienced before, and she liked it. She liked it a great deal.

PARADISE CLUB by Tim Meyer — 🏝

paradise club by tim meyerHundreds of lucky winners are taken to a remote island where they will be treated to a weeklong stay at the Paradise Club, one of the world’s most exclusive and luxurious resorts, all-expenses paid. The only compromise is that they are to be veritably cut off from society, their phones taken from right as they step out of the ferry. But that’s a small price to pay for a stay in paradise, isn’t it?

Things, of course, turn out too good to be true. The would-be vacationers soon learn that the island is to be the stage for the Skirmish: a game that pits the world’s most bloodthirsty killers against all the innocent, unsuspecting tourists.

Paradise Club is a fun little summer slasher that could have been great if all the interesting (and interestingly eldritch) twists and turns the story took amounted to anything other than the most abrupt of finales. An ending that makes sense only after you read the author’s note which talks about how the book came to be written, but as its own stand-alone thing, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Especially considering that this only needed an additional chapter or two to have a more satisfactory denouement.

As it stands, it’s still an enjoyable read. I appreciate how Meyer wastes no time with the story, the plot of which is up and running almost as soon as we’re on the island and have met a handful of its victims visitors. He hooks you quickly as a reader, and keeps your attention by featuring an increasingly outrageous cast of killers who do their dirty, morbid deeds in increasingly outrageous, barbaric acts. This is one unflinchingly gory book, so fair warning to those of you who like your horror with a little less blood and guts.

BIGFOOT BEACH by Kristopher Rufty — 🏝

bigfoot beach by kristopher ruftyWell this was certainly a wild something something.

Delivering exactly what it says on the tin, Kristopher Rufty’s Bigfoot Beach is a gory (so gory), over-the-top (so over-the-top) summer slasher that happens to feature a colossal cryptid in lieu of a murderous maniac.

While I can certainly see the appeal for these kinds of stories, at the end of the day it just wasn’t for me. Despite its characters being considerably more fleshed out than in the standard Syfy creature feature fare, it never rose above its schlocky horror movie premise enough for me to fully engage with it. I had a lot of issues with it, mostly in terms of the writing and plotting, which is fine and serviceable for most of the book but then would go on these truly baffling tangents (mostly of the sexual kind, which I understand often comes with the territory in these types of stories, but it kept popping up in sequences where it had no business popping up — for instance, having a character who has just witnessed an old friend being torn apart immediately ogle a woman’s behind for a paragraph or two).

Still, Rufty does have a knack for going all out with the action set-pieces here, which are fun and ludicrous and chockfull of imaginative, gruesome kills and honestly sometimes that’s all you really want out of a monster book.

CAMP OF NO RETURN by J.H. Reynolds — 🏝

camp of no return by j.h. reynoldsFirmly following the paths forged by Goosebumps so long ago, Camp of No Return, the fourth entry in J.H. Reynolds’ Monsterstreet series, is a short read that packs more wild twists and turns than most books twice its size.

Harper is among the lucky kids chosen to attend Camp Moon Lake, a legendary, exclusive and secretive summer getaway. She’s looking forward to getting away from her parents, who may be getting a divorce*, but also because the camp boasts every attraction and activity a kid could dream of — suggesting more a theme park than a campground. But once they get there the campers are met with a thick fog that envelopes the campus, and Harper, along with pop culture enthusiast and spooky storyteller Brodie, will soon find that there is something far more sinister hidden under the gloom.

This is the first of this series that I’ve picked up, because summer vibes, so I can’t speak as to the quality of the other books (which, luckily, seem to be standalone stories and can be read out of order), but Camp of No Return is a goofy, fun, simple tale that, while it breaks no new ground, it proudly holds up the tradition established by Goosebumps and all the other middle grade horror series that haunted the nineties. It’s evident just how much of a blast Reynolds had writing this, and his enthusiasm is infectious. It’s meant to be read in short, quick bursts late into the night, like a story being told around a campfire. Which is exactly how I went about it.

* Curiously, the second camp-themed book I’ve picked up that features a protagonist with parents going through divorce.

CAMP MURDERFACE by Josh Berk, Saundra Mitchell — 🏝

camp murderface by josh berk, saundra mitchellCamp Murderface follows Corryn Quinn and Tez Jones as they are heading to Camp Sweetwater for the summer. Enthusiastically, at first: Corryn wants to put some distance between her and her soon-to-be-divorced parents; Tez wants a break from his overbearing, overprotective parents. Their enthusiasm soon evaporates into the ether, though, as they quickly find that the macabre myths surrounding the camp may be more than true.

“This place is cursed,” he says, not looking at me. He stares deep into the distance. I waggle my eyebrows. “Look on the bright side. Curse is just another word for magic,” I say.

Reading Josh Berk and Saundra Mitchell’s foray into the world of middle grade horror was just an absolute blast. Like most of my favorite middle grade novels, it reminded me of the stories I consumed (and was consumed by) in my childhood, while simultaneously feeling thoroughly modern, with witty, whip-smart characters, and incredibly vivid, chilling imagery. Corryn and Tez shine as protagonists, and their budding friendship is one of the most realistically realized portrayals I’ve read in recent memory. It helps that both Berk and Mitchell are great at writing kids: Corryn and Tez read like real, actual preteens — down to being entirely too clever and perceptive for their own good at times.

But I must make special note of the imagery mentioned above. Mitchell and Berk write brilliantly eerie visuals, with some passages being striking enough that they would not feel out of place in, say, one of the more particularly lurid entries in the Fear Street series.

The nurse stands in front of the sink, frighteningly still. She hunches over it, her shoulder blades so sharp that they look like broken wings. And that’s not all that’s wrong with her. Her hair is loose and wet. It hangs heavily around her head. Dark, wet beads slip from her hair onto the floor, all the way around her.

Drip-drip-drip-drip-drip.

The drops puddle on the floor around her feet, forming a dark lake. Too dark to be water. It’s not water. It’s deep red. It’s—

Excellent, creepy goodness all around. Summer Spooks is off to a great start.

THE STITCHERS by Lorien Lawrence — 🏝

the stitchers by lorien lawrenceThe Stitchers, the first book in the Fright Watch series by the magnificently-named Lorien Lawrence, follows Quinn and Mike, two young friends investigating their eerie, sinister neighbors (the ones with the unusual, unsettling habits and the plastic-looking skin) and other odd goings-on about their town on the cusp of summer.* An imminently readable book, thanks to Lawrence’s excellent pacing, but mostly to her keen eye for vivid, creepy imagery and the book is peppered with great visuals: from a severed hand floating along in a pond, to the elderly antagonists lifelessly staring at our main characters through the windows of their houses (I mean).

Mostly, though, I liked the characters. Quinn and Mike have great chemistry, both as friends and potential love interests (another commendation for the writing here: I am not a fan of main characters being automatically romantic, but Lawrence comes about their budding relationship in a gradual and believable manner). I liked how Quinn had friends outside of the plot, and how true their interactions felt (there are hints of jealousy and frustration towards Quinn’s friendship with Mike, but they never cast her aside). Quinn’s mother, the perpetually busy but caring single mother, is another character who felt wholly real. But it’s Grandma Jane who is the natural standout, being the kind of witchy grandmother we all wish we could have.

Unfortunately the villains themselves are little more than sketches, virtually lacking discernible traits outside their interactions with Bea, who, as the leader of their nefarious little group, gets the most developed personality, but even then it’s not enough to truly distinguish her as an exceptional baddie. But they’re established enough to serve their purpose.

All in all, Stitchers is a really fun, creepy story told with a lot of heart and enthusiasm. Eager to see what else this series has in store.

* Summer Spooks prelude!

GOLDENEYE by Matthew Parker

goldeneye by matthew parkerI had known that Bond author Ian Fleming had built himself a retreat in the beaches of Jamaica. I had even seen pictures. But it took this random video appearing on my YouTube suggestions of a James Bond enthusiast giving a tour of the place — the spectacularly-named Goldeneye — to pique my interest. It’s a beautiful, Spartan abode — the sort of place you imagine yourself creating without having the real world butting in. Which was, more or less, the purpose.

But I had mixed feelings about the place watching that video. Yes, it’s aesthetically gorgeous — a veritable paradise. But it was also built by a self-proclaimed British imperialist, on a cliff overlooking a beach that the property claims as private property. As someone from Puerto Rico, where one of the pressing issues is the illegal purchasing of our public beaches by corporate entities, the intrinsic idea of Goldeneye feels inherently problematic.

Still, I was intrigued by it all. And when that same video mentioned Goldeneye, a book all about the history of the famed estate and its famous proprietor, my piqued interest led me to immediately purchase it.

The contradictory nature of Goldeneye is what author Matthew Parker focuses on, and the book is a surprisingly deep dive not only into Ian Fleming’s own turbulent, hedonistic life, but also the history of Jamaica itself. The book’s central conceit being that the country, as well as Fleming’s own complicated, conflicting attitudes towards it, were ultimately the real driving forces and inspirations for the Bond novels.

It’s an interesting approach, and Parker makes a compelling case for these “comic book thrillers” being reflections, in a funhouse mirror sort of way, of the cultural and social changes happening in Jamaica during the fifties and sixties — at least through the eyes of a dyed-in-the-wool colonialist.

Curiously, I was reminded of Alan Moore’s method when he wrote From Hell, his exhaustively-researched tome of a graphic novel about the Jack the Ripper killings. Moore thought that to convincingly “solve” the Ripper murders, one had to go about it holistically, first “solving” the entire society in which the crime took place. Which is to say that in order for Parker to explain Bond (and by extension Fleming), he must also explain Jamaica. A tall order indeed. Parker does a fair and admirable job, though. There may be many long, winding turns into well-researched, complex colonial history, but it never fully veers into academic text territory. Mostly due to the fact that in-between these history lessons there is, amusingly, a lot of gossip — so much that at times it feels scandalously voyeuristic. It makes for an interesting contrast, needless to say, as well as an exceptionally readable book.

But really, all this is just a rambling way of saying that yes Fleming may have been a magnificent bastard but also yes I would very much want to stay at his groovy bachelor pad for a week or two. Anyone have a few thousand dollars/pounds to spare for this hypocritical critic?

LUGOSI by Koren Shadmi

lugosi by koren shadmi“Now, no one gives two fucks for Bela.”

It’s my most quoted line from the film Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s tenderhearted tribute to the titular figure, and my personal favorite from his body of work. And much like what happens in said movie*, Lugosi takes a once giant, horrific icon of the silver screen and brings him back down to earth, telling a humble tragedy of a proud, tragic soul. It’s a sympathetic portrait of a figure who could easily be portrayed as pathetic, but writer/artist Koren Shadmi’s respect and admiration of the old thespian is palpable. This book does, indeed, gives two fucks for Bela.

I enjoyed this one a bit more than Shadmi’s Rod Serling biography. My issue with that one being that I felt the framing device was a little weak, whereas in this one, while being superficially similar, felt more authentic: I can believe a man suffering from withdrawals in a drug treatment center would be visited by ghosts of his past, especially someone who has led a life as haunted by specters as Lugosi.

Again, the art is the stand-out here. Reproducing the feel and allure of bygone eras seems to be Shadmi’s strong suit, as his depiction of Old Hollywood — like his portrayal of mid-century show business in Twilight Man — shines even in black and white. Also illustrated are a few of iconic scenes from Lugosi’s films, and they were among my favorite sequences in the book — Lugosi had a famously piercing stare, and Shadmi captures it perfectly.

* There’s some debate as to Wood’s treatment of Lugosi. Some, Lugosi’s son among them, feel like Wood exploited the ailing actor at a time when he could not afford to refuse much work, and used his fading stardom to add a bare hint of prestige to otherwise shoddy productions; others, like Burton, think that Wood giving him work when no one else would gave Lugosi some semblance of dignity before he died. Unlike the Burton film, which paints Wood in a benevolent light, this book takes no particular stance.

THE TWILIGHT MAN by Koren Shadmi

the twilight man by koren shadmiIn a mid-century madness phase once again, it seems. But I’ve long admired Rod Serling as a writer and as an advocate for social justice. The man led a fascinating life, one that ran parallel to the rise of a new storytelling medium. The Twilight Man does a decent enough job at telling us the facts in a spirited, straightforward manner with little embellishment save for a framing device consisting of Serling telling his life story to a fellow passenger on a plane — a conceit that gives way to the what must surely be a requisite Twilight Zone style twist that, while adequate, fell a little flat for me.

Really enjoyed the art in this. I’m a big admirer of the sleek, atomic aesthetics of the fifties and sixties, and artist Koren Shadmi did a brilliant job depicting them.