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 immanently 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.

PATINA by Jason Reynolds

patina-by-jason-reynoldsAnother pickup from this past weekend. I had read Ghost, the first entry in the Track series by personal fave Jason Reynolds a couple of years ago, and it more or less blew me away. So it’s nothing but a shame that it took me so long to get to its follow-up, Patina, because I ended up loving and appreciating this story even more.

Ghost is an explosive story, literally beginning and ending with shots going off. Patina, in comparison, is a much quieter story, dealing as it does with the many routines and responsibilities of its title character. It’s a subdued tone that belies deeper, heavier themes, though. Still waters run deep, etcetera.

Reynolds’ dedication reads, “For those who’ve been passed the baton too young.” Patina is the story of a young Black girl forced to grow up entirely too soon. After the sudden death of her father, and after her mother’s increasingly degenerating diabetes takes away her legs, Patina “Patty” Jones, all of twelve, feels it’s up to her to pick up the pieces of their upended life. So she assumes responsibilities of the household, making sure her mother is taken care of and especially looking after her baby sister, Maddy. Unable to suitably take care of her daughters, the girl’s mother arranges for them to move in with her doting brother-in-law and his wife, which eases the burden some, but Patina remains convinced that the load is hers to carry alone. It’s a weight that is slowly but surely suffocating our protagonist. And so, like Castle Crenshaw before her, she uses running as an outlet and escape.

That’s kinda what running was to me. A way to shut people up. A way to… I guess, sometimes even shut myself up. Just turn it all off. Leave everything, all the hurting stuff, the unregular stuff that seemed so regular to me, in the dust.

This is only the second entry in this series, but it’s clear that one of the central themes in the Track books is about recognizing and dealing with trauma, using the act of running as a metaphor (the act of which, as Reynolds has previously stated, is your body dealing with physical trauma). It’s a symbolism that in Reynolds’ clever and poetic hands goes the distance. (The novel’s main conflict has to do with Patina’s reluctance to share her responsibilities and accept help from other people… while at the same time training for a relay race, which is all about relying and trusting your fellow runners.)

Ultimately what makes this story so compelling is that we’ve all had a Patina (or multiple Patinas) in our lives. They are our mothers and our sisters; our partners and our friends. Practical women who find themselves carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Women who, far too often, go uncelebrated and unrecognized. Patina recognizes, and it celebrates.

Compassionate and wonderful. Jason Reynolds never fails to impress.

BLACK BOY JOY by Various

black-boy-joy-by-variousRead this over the weekend and it was, as the cover promises, an absolute joy. A wonderful collection of stories celebrating Black boyhood written by some of today’s most captivating authors. Some I was already familiar with — my main dude Jason Reynolds; fantasy darling P. Djèlí Clark — for most, though, this was my first experience with their work, but I will definitely be checking out more of their stuff from now on.

Honestly, most of the stories delivered, but some standouts:

  • “There’s Going to Be a Fight In the Cafeteria on Friday and You Better Not Bring Batman” by Lamar Giles, which read exactly like an episode of Craig of the Creek and was just one of the most wholesome things I’ve ever read. (Also for having the absolute best title in the collection.)
  • “The Legendary Lawrence Cobbler” by Julian Winters, for some lovely bit of queer representation.
  • “First-Day Fly” by Jason Reynolds, for having the collection’s perhaps most simplistic story (a kid getting ready for his first day back to school) be also its most playful in terms of style (it’s written in the second person).
  • “Coping” by Tochi Onyebuchi, for being the skateboarding story of my dreams. Also one of the first effective pieces of fiction I’ve read that deals with the pandemic.
  • “The Gender Reveal” by George M. Johnson, for bringing the nonbinary rep and also the tears.⠀
  • “Our Dill” by Justin A. Reynolds, for being the funniest of the lot.⠀
  • “Percival and the Jab” by P. Djèlí Clark, for bringing Jumbies back into my life and leaving me wanting more.⠀

These stories are framed by vignettes written by Kwame Mbalia, the collection’s editor. They follow a griot (a West African storyteller and musician, here presented as a sort of wizard, because that’s what artists are) and his young apprentice as they travel through worlds collecting joy, which they store in a massive jar, to be used for later. They succeed, needless to say. Black Boy Joy is a beautiful collection.

INTO THE DARK by Claudia Gray

Publisher’s summary: Padawan Reath Silas is being sent from the cosmopolitan galactic capital of Coruscant to the undeveloped frontier—and he couldn’t be less happy about it. He’d rather stay at the Jedi Temple, studying the archives. But when the ship he’s traveling on is knocked out of hyperspace in a galactic-wide disaster, Reath finds himself at the center of the action. The Jedi and their traveling companions find refuge on what appears to be an abandoned space station. But then strange things start happening, leading the Jedi to investigate the truth behind the mysterious station, a truth that could end in tragedy….

Claudia Gray is my absolute favorite Star Wars writer. From Lost Stars to her Leia books to Master and Apprentice, I have enjoyed her forays into this galaxy far, far away.

Which only makes it more of a shame that I really couldn’t get invested in Into the Dark, her first entry into the High Republic era. 

Don’t get me wrong: Gray continues to be an excellent Star Wars author. She’s included here a bunch of characters that I loved (bookish Padawan! space Matthew McConaughey! a sentient rock!). And Gray continues to write about the Force better than any other author — I highlighted a great many lines from this novel. 

But still, the story felt a little lacking.

It’s a by-product of being part of a multi-platform storytelling project, I suppose. The main story of Star Wars: The High Republic is being told through a trilogy of books, while a slew of stories told through audiobooks, comics, YA and middle grade novels acting more or less as support and supplementary material. And it’s this extra content that seems often to get bogged down by too much continuity noise and baggage that spins out of the primary plot line.

And it’s also because this novel just largely lacked Gray’s opposing outlook angle that is present in most of her works: Lost Stars (literal star-crossed lovers, one of whom is a Rebel, the other an Imperial); Bloodline (Leia, the rebel senator, begrudgingly teaming up with someone who holds an entirely different ideology); Master and Apprentice (Qui-Gon’s mystical approach to the Force at odds with his Padawan’s more pragmatic, traditional take). We find it even in her non-Star Wars work, such as in Defy the Stars (two people on opposing sides of a war fall in love). It’s a technique that Gray particularly excels at, allowing her as it does to better explore the gamut of the tensions and conflicts that make up a proper pulp narrative, making for a more involved and compelling read.

We get hints of that in Into the Dark — Jedi Masters feeling conflicted towards the Order’s austere methods; a Padawan questioning the path laid out by their Master — but it’s not the engine that drives the plot, and I found myself thinking it would be a richer, more substantial story if that were the case.

Regardless, Gray has only been adding great things to Star Wars’ already significant lore, and I hope she gets to do so for a long time. I’ll still be there reading every step along the way.

YEAR IN REVIEW ○ 2021

The best I can say for 2021 is that it was certainly A Year. Entirely too much turmoil for my liking, but we made it through, and that’s not nothing. 

I read a great many books in 2021. More than I ever have previously in my life, in fact. A response, I suppose,  to all the rocky happenings in both the world and my own personal life. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: stories are my bright, shining beacons in the dark. The warm,  warm, safe spaces I seek out when life, the universe, and everything get to be too much. In 2021, things got much too much, and so, naturally, as often as I could, I headed towards the light. Continue reading “YEAR IN REVIEW ○ 2021”

FINLAY DONOVAN IS KILLING IT by Elle Cosimano

finlay-donovan-is-killing-it-by-elle-cosimanoFinlay Donovan’s life is a bit of a mess at the moment. There’s the impending divorce from her cheating husband, for one, an already complicated situation made messier by the threat of a custody battle for their children over Finlay’s fickle finances. An author of romantic thrillers, she’s nearing the end of a contract for a book she has not even begun to write, the advance of which has long been spent, and the bills keep on piling up.

And that’s all before a frantic meeting with her agent leads to Finlay being mistaken for a hit woman by someone willing to pay an absurd amount of money for her presumed services. Finlay initially balks at the offer, but her overwhelming situation leads her to reconsider, setting off an explosive chain reaction that will have the struggling suspense writer live through a veritable thriller full of dead bodies, hidden identities, cops, and the local mafia.

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A particular peeve of mine is when thrillers begin slowly. It just seems contrary to the genre. I’m all for a slow burner of a story, but more often than not I enjoy when these stories embrace their pulp roots and just start with a veritable bang.

So I knew I was going to have fun with Elle Cosimano’s Finlay Donovan Is Killing It when, by page ten, we already know not only the status of the protagonist’s relationships but also her occupation, her finances, her ex’s love life, and her mostly harried, hectic lifestyle caring for two tireless toddlers. By the second chapter we’re already well into the whole conceit of the plot. Two chapters after that, we have a dead body, and then we’re off to the criminal races. Cosimano came here to tell a story damn it there’s no time to waste. Pulp roots, I tell you.

The first half of this book is essentially an excellent exhibit of economics and exposition. Finlay is nothing if not a chaotic character, and Cosimano immediately puts us right in that tumultuous headspace by taking us on a whirlwind ride through her protagonist’s bewildering world — the better for us to accept this story’s wild, preposterous premise.

I admit to having a hard time suspending my belief for this narrative, which is my annoying wont for these types of stories — light mysteries/thrillers that aim for exhilaration over veracity. It took a viewing of Knives Out when I was halfway through this novel that, actually, its premise is no less ridiculous and unlikely as the one in that film, which I consider an all-time favorite. That slight change in perspective helped me accept the story for what it was. And honestly, is it really that far-fetched to think that a Type A personality like Finlay would totally go for this type of scheme? “My life is already absurd — might as well go into the assassination business.”

I enjoyed Cosimano’s characterization. She’s consciously dealing with a lot of stock characters — the amateur sleuth and the intrepid companion, the hunky cop, the international villain — but she writes them with enough mettle that they don’t feel too plain or generic. I particularly loved Finlay’s friendship with Vero, her no-nonsense nanny-cum-accountant, which is sweet and touching in its own morbid sort of way. Get you a friend who would help you bury a body, etcetera.

The aforementioned pace does unfortunately dwindle some about halfway through the story, making the middle chapters a bit of a slog to get through. It picks up again once the third act kicks in, although it never really quite regains the momentum of its opening chapters. A shame, but a minor complaint all in all. I had fun with Finlay, and would definitely check out whatever antics she and her crew get into next.

BAGS (OR A STORY THEREOF) by Patrick McHale, Gavin Fullerton, Whitney Cogar

bags-(or-a-story-thereof)-by-patrick-mchale,-gavin-fullerton,-whitney-cogarHere’s a book that I didn’t get to cover on Hallowe’en. Mostly because I forgot. October is kind of a lot.

BAGS (or a story thereof) is the graphic novel adaptation of a short novel written by Patrick McHale, a few years before he started working on Over the Garden Wall. Unable to land animation gigs, he woke up one day and decided to write a novel. He gave himself one week, because he thought that was how it was done. He barely edited. He did his own illustrations. He had it printed and sold it on Etsy for a while. Then came artist Gavin Fullerton who thought it’d be fun to adapt the short work in comic form, to which McHale said, “Sure why not?”

Thusly: BAGS, which tells the story of one John Motts, an everyman sort of figure who, after losing his doted on dog, embarks on a humble odyssey that will take him across his familiar town, the surrounding forests, and beyond, encountering along the way corrupt cops, talking walruses, and, not least, the devil.

This is a surreal take on the hero’s journey. A story that is aware of its own absurdity and indeed relishes and thrives in it. If you’ve ever seen the by-now classic Over the Garden Wall miniseries, the more dreamlike elements of that story can give you a hint of the weirdness that is contained within the bags of this tale. McHale’s writing is at times poignant and poetic, and at others purposefully simplistic and nonsensical. This style is reflected in Fullerton’s own art by contrasting the stark realism of his backgrounds and other characters with John’s distinctly cartoonish veneer, appearing as he does like a mix between Charlie Brown and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan.

The art is further complemented by the contribution of colorist Whitney Cogar, who has also done work on the Garden Wall comics. She gives the book a classic, timeless feel by going with a style that simulates the four color printing process prominently used in the early days of comic books (complete with Ben Day dots).

I liked BAGS quite a bit. Mainly because it felt like nothing else I’ve read in a long while. It’s quirky and offbeat, but also lacking any pretense. It’s totally sincere, which makes it surprisingly moving. It’s hard to hate a lost dog tale, anyway, and this one is no different in that regard.