THE DEVIL’S DETECTIVE by Simon Kurt Unsworth

the-devil's-detective-by-simon-kurt-unsworthOne of my favorite short stories is “Murder Mysteries,” by Neil Gaiman. It is, like a title says, a murder mystery, told in the same manner and style as countless murder mysteries before it. But it is unique in the sense that it is set in Heaven, where an angel is tasked with finding out the culprit behind Creation’s very first murder (or “Wrong Thing,” as it is called in the story, because there is no word for this particular cruel act among the Heavenly Host). It is a favorite not only because the conceit is exceedingly clever, but because the world (for a lack of a better word) it creates is just as ingenious and fascinating. Heaven is an actual city, gleaming and perfect. Its citizens, the angels — equally gleaming and perfect — are portrayed as workers, defined by their roles. The whole of the cosmos is being constructed inside a factory-like building, aspects of it discussed and decided by committee and delegated to teams of ethereal employees. It allows Gaiman play with the conventions of the gritty genre while still writing about shining, perfect beings. Seeing writers play around like that in stories is always fun.⠀

It’s a story I was reminded of countless times while making my way through The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth. In many ways it reads like a distorted, perverse reflection of Gaiman’s seraphic murder mystery. And Upside Down version, as it were. Which is nothing if not appropriate, I think: as above, so below, and so forth.⠀

In The Devil’s Detective Hell also takes the form of a city, one populated by humans and demons alike. The former are given bleak tasks and roles to perform, while the latter, predictably, torture and torment them. It is a dreadful place, although not in the way you might initially imagine it. Because Unsworth has wrought a version of Hell that represents the scariest thing he could possible conceive: a bottomless pit of bureaucracy. Hell’s “operations” are overseen by a board of demons, with most of their work being relegated through a middleman, even. There are bars and brothels; offices and housing complexes. Trains and cabs are used to get around. The modern world as the underworld — or vice versa. There are even detectives, a thankless job in Hell if there ever was one.⠀

This novel follows such a person, our unfortunately named protagonist Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men, the infernal analogue to the sleuthing occupation.⠀

Hell is hosting angels, there to attend a slew of meetings where the parties of both Heaven and Hell perform a long-established practice of trading souls. The arrival of these heavenly beings coincides with a string of particularly horrific murders. Something is killing the humans of Hell, in a manner so gruesome that their very souls are released forcibly from their bodies, manifesting in a blinding blue light that dissipates in the accursed atmosphere. An atrocity that Fool and his team are sent to investigate.

(In Unsworth’s Hell, those condemned to it are reincarnated into a new body, carrying no knowledge of their previous life other than they have sinned and are now paying for it. It makes sense in a sadistic sort of way: how much more oppressive would Hell’s suffering feel were you still alive, after all?)⠀

Author Michael Chabon once said that detectives are great protagonists in mysteries because they have inherent access to every layer of society, from the proletariat to the elite. They can knock on any door. In gritty murder mysteries, these sleuthhounds often act as our guide through the more disreputable side of life. The Virgil to our Dante. In The Devil’s Detective, Fool gets to fill both roles of The Divine Comedy. He is the guide through this strange, twisted world, sure, but he himself is dragged along a journey through circles of Hell he never even fathomed.⠀

I’m focusing on the worldbuilding because it is this book’s strongest aspect. Unsworth writes a very vivid, markedly macabre setting and does a great job establishing some semblance of logic to an inherently illogical place. There are rules in Hell, Fool repeatedly states throughout the story, they may not make sense, and they may get broken constantly, but there are rules just the same. It’s an engaging environment, and the sections where Fool just explores different districts of the city, searching for clues and answers, talking with characters of varying shapes and forms (the most curious of which being the Man of Plants and Flowers, a former human who has somehow transformed himself into, well, flowers and plants, and has spread himself throughout the city), were the ones that interested me the most. The world piqued my morbid curiosity, and I wanted to know more. It’s a rich backdrop, one that should easily lend itself to strong, solid plots.⠀

Which makes it that much more of shame that we don’t exactly get one here. There’s enough to maintain your interest throughout the book’s four hundred and so pages, but the mystery at the center of it all is a little lacking. I suppose it’s maybe because I’m not the most perceptive of readers, but one of the reasons I enjoy mystery stories so much is that I hardly ever figure them out before they are done, and I love being pleasantly surprised. I figured out the who-and-whydunit in The Devil’s Detective a couple chapters in, which meant that I read the rest of the book hoping that I was wrong because it seemed so obvious. It didn’t help that the resolution came accompanied with a lackluster final confrontation, in which our main character spends a lot of time being disoriented to the point of not being able to properly tell what is going on around him. The ending proper just sort of peters out, leaving the characters and the story hanging off the proverbial cliff, awaiting a second book to continue their tale. It was a little underwhelming, to say the least. ⠀

Still, I appreciated the excellent worldbuilding, and also the way the novel explores its central theme, which revolves around hope.⠀

At the beginning of the story, Fool receives a feather from the wings of one of the angels. The feather gives off a bright glow that never dulls, and gives Fool comfort and clarity. He keeps it close to him for the remainder of the story, embracing its light in moments of difficulty and distress. Hope is the thing with feathers, etc. ⠀

Hope is a double-edged sword in the world of The Devil’s Detective. At several points in the novel Fool bemoans the futility of it all. Why bother investigating horrific acts in Hell, when Hell will never cease to be a place in which horrific acts are the norm? Why bother standing outside the building in which the meetings between Heaven and Hell are held, waiting to become one of the souls chosen to be freed from torment? Fool is told plainly at one point that Hell lets its humans have some semblance of hope because it makes the ensuing torment that much more terrible. Shades of Gaiman, again: In an issue of The Sandman where protagonist Dream visits that universe’s version of Hell, Lucifer asks him what can hope serve in such a place. To which Dream replies, “What power would Hell have if those imprisoned here would not be able to dream of Heaven?” Why bother with anything at all?⠀

But hope also begets change. The feather acts as a catalyst for Fool. Against his better judgement, he starts to imagine a different way of life in Hell. He begins to feel hope. And the condemned humans, inspired by his acts, follow suit.⠀

And so The Devil’s Detective ends with change, both with Fool as a person and Hell as place, a change that happened because Fool and the people of Hell, despite their cruel circumstances, chose to go on, in the hopes that things will, eventually, get better. Which is all any of us can do, in the end, whether we’re living through hell or not. A fool’s hope indeed.

THE GIRLS OF SUMMER PART II

26 summer graphic novels

I read both Click and its sequel Camp, one right after the other, pretty much in a single sitting. It’s something I rarely do, even with other graphic novels, which I tend to read through fairly quickly. Which should help show just how much I enjoyed them. One of the things I’m always on the lookout for in middle grade books — and especially in middle grade graphic novels — are elements that remind me of the stories I used to love as a kid. This charming — so charming —series by Kayla Miller about a young girl trying to find a place in the world gave me major Pepper Ann and Doug vibes, both of which were some of my favorite animated series, so of course I dug these books as well. I probably enjoyed Camp just a tad more, but only because I love stories with remote, singular settings.

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Lucy Knisley’s Stepping Stones didn’t remind me of anything in particular except for other Lucy Knisley books. Which is a good thing because I am a fan. Knisley is not only a great artist, but also probably one of the strongest memoirists working today. Skills that she brought out in full force for this book about a young city girl moving to the country with her mother and her new stepfather. Stepping Stones was advertised as Knisley’s first work of fiction, and when I finished it I was left feeling very impressed, thinking that as far as first steps go, this was a particularly skillful stride — but then in the back matter of the book Knisley writes of how the story is heavily inspired by her own childhood experiences. Which is sort of a cheat! At the end of the day, though, I won’t begrudge an artist for drawing from the well of a rich, storied life. Especially when it results in work of this quality. It’s still an impressive and auspicious debut, and I enjoyed reading it immensely. (Stepping Stones is supposed to be the first in a planned series, too, and I look forward to reading these future entries.)

THE GIRLS OF SUMMER

25 summer reads - the girls of summerLike most of the internet I really enjoyed Netflix’s adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club. I thought it was utterly charming and clever. Timely and relevant, too: this is a kid’s show that handled a trans story better than most recent adult shows.⠀

Unlike most of the internet, however, I never read any of the books. (I didn’t read as a kid but even if I did I probably would have thought they were “girl books” and never picked them up, because this was the nineties and we were all ridiculous). The show didn’t exactly make me want to read one of the books now, but after I finished it I watched The Claudia Kishi Club documentary and that did it. It featured a bunch of cool people excitedly talking about their favorite childhood books and the power of representation and look infectious enthusiasm will always do it for me.⠀

I picked Baby-sitters on Board! mostly because it takes place on a cruise ship and I just find stories set on modes of transportation appealing. Also: Florida (which we all agree is terrible but it is also my second home). Like the show it was cute and charming, although not half as clever (but I’m not going to hold that against it). The story takes place around the same time I first visited Florida/Disney World too and it just brought all those memories back, which is nice. Nostalgia, man — always gets this reader.

Anyway Claudia Kishi is the best pass it on.⠀

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The First Rule of Punk was just a gem. It starts as your typical new-kid-at-school-feels-like-an-outcast-until-she-finds-other-misfits kind of story. But then it quickly veers into and-then-they-form-a-ranchero-style-punk-band territory, and it becomes much more new and fun. It’s also the only book I’m aware of that uses zines as part of its format. Main character Malú’s energetic and cathartic collages are an integral part of the story (being her main method of expression) and author Celia C. Pérez did a great job incorporating them in. They were my favorite aspect of this middle grade novel.⠀

(Just realized that Florida also features in this book. All about themed reading here at ricardo reading.)

ANTI-RACIST READS

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Reading. Learning. Growing.

There was a tweet making the rounds back when the BLM protests first started up, mocking the history books North American and colonized students have been indoctrinated with since time immemorial. It went: “Slavery was bad but then Lincoln fixed it! Then, segregation was also bad but Malcolm X didn’t need to be so mean about it. But MLK went on a big walk and fixed racism! The last racist left killed him but then he went to jail the end.”

Which is to say I probably learned more about BIPOC history and race relations from these two books (both of which are aimed at younger audiences) than I ever did in any history or social studies class. Which is only slightly wild, to say the least.

Stamped is a book I’ve been looking forward to since it was first announced. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s original tome is on my wishlist, and I will get around to it someday, but I confess to being more than a little bit intimidated by it. Heavy books about heavy subjects! There’s certain mental preparation I have to do before I am able to tackle them. But I was familiar with Jason Reynolds’ work enough to be certain that his own adaption for younger readers— or remix, as they call it — would be perhaps a bit more approachable, full of language that is as playful as it is thoughtful; as lyrical as it is meaningful. Which is essentially Jason Reynolds’ trademark style. And that is what we get here: an immanently readable, fiercely empathetic, endlessly illuminating history lesson. A handful of passages even made my eyes well up. Don’t pass up on this book.

On July 2, 1826, Jefferson seemed to be fighting to stay alive. The eighty-three-year-old awoke before dawn on July 4 and called out for his house servants. The enslaved Black faces gathered around his bed. They were probably his final sight, and he gave them his final words. He had been a segregationist at times, an assimilationist at other times—usually both in the same act—but he never quite made it to being antiracist. He knew slavery was wrong, but not wrong enough to free his own slaves. He knew as a child that Black people were people, but never fully treated them as such. Saw them as “friends” but never saw them. He knew the freedom to live was fair, but not the freedom to live in America. The America built on their backs. He knew that all men are created equal. He wrote it. But couldn’t rewrite his own racist ideas. And the irony in that is that now his life had come full circle. In his earliest childhood memory and in his final lucid moment, Thomas Jefferson lay there dying—death being the ultimate equalizer—in the comfort of slavery. Surrounded by a comfort those slaves never felt.

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Whereas Stamped is concerned with the past and how it shaped our present, Tiffany Jewell’s This Book is Anti-Racist is more interested with how our current reality can shape our immediate future. And while Anti-Racist briefly talks about past events that led us to now, it is a thoroughly modern book. The amount of timely, relevant topics Jewell manages to cover in such a short amount of space (this book is less than 200 pages long) is truly staggering: activism (both true and performative); the internet’s influence on social discourse; internalized and institutionalized racism; prejudice and bias; identity and class. Jewell does more with these topics than a dozen hot take articles put together, and does so with grace, patience, and righteous outrage. Do not pass up on this book, either.

We have been conditioned to the bias of whiteness. We can undo this. People play a big role in keeping racism going. If we do not work to recognize our prejudices, we remain a part of the problem. When we become aware of our biases and our role in racism, then we can begin to understand how we are a part of a system that is much bigger than us.

My own education growing up may have been lacking, but I’m just glad that kids these days have access to books of this caliber, that discuss issues so often suppressed or actively ignored. Books that tell them — us — how things were, and how they are, and how they could be. Books that remind them — us — to keep growing, and learning, and reading.

READALIKES: MAD MEN

I rewatched the entirety of Mad Men a couple months ago. Because what better thing to do during lockdown than spend seven seasons with characters full of angst and ennui?

As is my wont, whenever I immerse myself into a show or film, I always get the urge to seek out some readalikes — books that, in my mind at least, share similarities with whatever it is I’m watching. My criteria for this is a little loose and ambiguous, admittedly: sometimes I look for similar moods and themes; oftentimes it’s just a matter of aesthetics. The last time I did this with Mad Men I ended up reading Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything — books that read the part. This time around I thought it’d be fun to explore books that looked the part.

So I went with comics, of course. The ones I went with were perhaps not as deep and brooding as Mad Men, but they were certainly as stylish.

They were also mostly about murder, which is surprisingly common with stories set during this time, which makes me wonder what is about this certain period of American culture that fits so well with crime dramas and murder mysteries and thrillers? Is it the Hitchcock influence or is it that everyone was seemingly so repressed in those days that the thought of someone snapping only made one go, “well that was inevitable”?

In any case, I definitely consider it a genre (let’s call it Mid-Century Madness), and comics seem to do it better than almost anything else. And hardly any comic does it better than Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels (written under the Richard Stark pseudonym), which follow the eponymous lead across heists, murderous plots, and other criminal activities. I had read — and deeply enjoyed — the first two books in the series, but this was my first time reading through all four volumes (Cooke sadly passed away before working on any more). Westlake’s Parker novels were famously cold, bare-boned affairs, featuring stark prose (hence the pen name) and simple, straightforward plots.

There’s a famous scene from the 1967 film Point Blank, one of the first adaptations of the the Parker stories. It features lead Lee Marvin walking down a hallway with deadly purpose. There’s no music playing, just the metronome-like sound of his steady footsteps, meant to evoke the relentless nature of the character. He sounds unstoppable — a bullet out of a gun.

It’s a rhythm that Cooke translated beautifully into comic book form. Throughout the books he uses wide panels, with little to no dialogue. And this, combined Cooke’s sleek and sharp artwork, evokes a sense of speed. Like Westlake’s original novels, these books are meant to be read quickly. There’s no real story development and certainly no character growth. As with any decent heist: you get in, you get out. The end. Like a bullet out of a gun.

Visually this is the most Mad Men-looking of the bunch, mostly due to Cooke’s general retro aesthetic, but also because Parker comes from the same squared-jawed, handsomely generic mold as Don Draper.

I read all four volumes in the series and had a blast with each one. The third volume, The Score, might just be my favorite, though.

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Lady Killer, written by Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich and illustrated by Jones herself, follows Josie Schuller, a seemingly perfect homemaker in a seemingly picture-perfect sixties household, who also happens to moonlight as a professional assassin. Hijinks ensue. (The series was pitched as “Betty Draper meets Hannibal,” but I think it’s more accurate to think of it as “Midge Maisel meets John Wick.”) This is essentially a dark comedy — emphasis on dark (morbid humor abound). Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich’s writing is perfectly sly and tongue-in-cheek and pairs well with Jones’ art, which manages to evoke the commercial art of the era while still retaining that modern edge.

There are only two volumes so far. I enjoyed the second one a lot more, mostly because it ramps up its lounge aesthetic.

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On the more serious end of the spectrum we have The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, who pretty much have the crime corner of comics covered. This series owes a lot more to Old Hollywood lore and the visual flair of film noir than it does the sleek aesthetics of the mid-fifties. True to conventions, it tells the story of the tragic murder of a rising starlet. Unlike Parker and Lady Killer, this is played as straight as it could be, which is probably why I didn’t vibe with is as much. Brubaker’s writing is great, and Phillips’ art is fantastic, but it just didn’t speak to me as much as the rest of these readalikes so I don’t think I’ll be continuing it.

DRAGON HOOPS by Gene Luen Yang

dragon-hoops-by-gene-luen-yangAt the beginning of this book, Gene Luen Yang, high school teacher and acclaimed author of graphic novels, is worried that he has no more stories to tell. He’s felt a hole in his life since his last book was released, and that was over six years ago, but he’s unable to find a story that just grabs his heart and runs away with it.⠀

Until he starts hearing the excitement in the hallways of Bishop O’Dowd High School. Their basketball team, the Dragons, is set to go to State and is causing quite the stir. Yang does not follow basketball so he has no idea what this means, but the hold it has on other people fascinates him, and he starts to think there might be a story there. He’s hesitant at first — the computer science teacher and comic book guy writing about sports of all things? But he feels the hook in his heart and so, tentatively, he takes the first step.⠀

Dragon Hoops is the true story about a basketball team overcoming all manner of odds on their way to becoming champions. It’s about the people that make up the team, and their stories. And its about the rich history of the game they play.⠀

A game in which, when I first picked up this book, I had next to no interest in, it having gone away in the aftermath Space Jam and Michael Jordan’s second retirement. Which, for me at least, made Yang the perfect audience surrogate: he begins his journey caring not much for the game but for the stories it generates. He ends it, not exactly a superfan, but as someone who now appreciates basketball and its deep cultural importance.⠀

Which perfectly mirrored my own journey with Dragon Hoops. There’s a reason why after finishing the book I: read Phil Bildner’s A Whole New Ballgame; have been keeping up with The Last Dance documentary miniseries on ESPN; bought Kwame Alexander’s Crossover; and, yes, re-watched Space Jam (still a masterpiece).⠀Like Yang, I haven’t become suddenly a superfan — I don’t think I’ll sit down and follow every single game once they start back up again — but I am definitely more interested in it, and appreciative of its history, and of its cultural impact.⠀

There’s just so many things Dragon Hoops does right for me. On the surface it’s just your typical tale of a team on its way towards victory. It’s a story we’ve seen countless times before. But the difference, as always, is in the telling:⠀

19-dragon-hoops-2It’s a story about basketball, but it’s also a perfectly accurate portrayal about the agony and joy of writing. We get to see Yang as he tries to write the story while the actual story unfolds. We see him struggle with what to add and what to omit as the action plays out in front of him. He talks with the people he’s portraying about how they should be depicted, and we see the changes in the art during these conversations. He even addresses the reader at one point. Which is one of the advantages of this being a graphic novel: these are all things you can pull off in comics that you can’t easily do in other mediums. And by this point in his career, Yang has such a handle on sequential storytelling that he takes full advantage of the form here.⠀(The art, despite all the times the author disparages it as inadequate in the book, is wonderful. Yang’s form is clean and clear, and it translates surprisingly well into the dynamic basketball scenes.)


It’s also a story about stories. A handful of chapters are focused on key members of the team. Preceding their stories however, we get a short history lesson on the game of basketball, which are fun and fairly informative: we learn why the game of basketball became so popular with minority communities and in the inner cities; we learn that women have always been playing the game pretty much since its inception; we learn the myriad ways different people took steps to take the game forward; and we learn many other things besides. The most interesting and impressive thing Yang does with these brief classes, however, is showing how their lessons are still relevant to the life of the individual being discussed in the chapter, thus creating a direct link between the past and the present. It’s very effective and probably my favorite thing this book does.⠀

19-dragon-hoops-3Tying all this together is the recurring image of stepping forward. Each and every person in this book, author included, is facing a set of challenges, varied as the people themselves: trying to win a basketball game; trying to decide whether or not to take a job offer; forming new friendships; balancing relationships; prejudice (in all its infuriating forms); how to best tell a story. And the thread that runs through each and every person facing these obstacles, from the past to the present, no matter how uncertain or how scared they were, is that they took a step forward. They stepped into the court. After all, how else are you going to know what happens unless you play the game?⠀

Dragon Hoops is a wonderful delight, and probably Gene Luen Yang’s best, most ambitious work to date. I see myself revisiting often (indeed, I’ve already read it twice).

A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME by Phil Bildner

a-whole-new-ballgame-by-phil-bildnerMason “Rip” Irving and Blake “Red” Daniels think they know exactly what to expect from fifth grade. They know their principal, Ms. Darling (real name) is going to stand at the entrance to greet all the students. They know that Ms. Hamburger (real name) is going to be their homeroom teacher. And, most importantly, they know they can finally try out for the district’s basketball team.⠀

But when they arrive at school nobody is there to greet them out in front. When they get to their homeroom they find, not Ms. Hamburger, but a young, long-haired, tattooed teacher called Mr. Acevedo.⠀

More changes await the two best friend that will turn their precious little world upside down, and especially so for Red, who thrives on order and routine. But they have one another. And they will soon find that every challenge comes with the opportunity for new allies as well.⠀

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Middle grade books do so much. Not only do they have to be breezy, fun reads in order to sustain the attention of kids who live in a world of extremely loud and incredibly constant distraction, but they often have to do so while exploring some serious, sensitive issues — without losing that sense of playfulness and optimism we tend to associate with childhood.⠀

It’s a lot to handle. We’re currently living through a sort of Renaissance in children’s literature, though, so there’s no shortage of books that manage to carry this weight — and Phil Bildner’s A Whole New Ballgame is certainly among these.⠀

It’s a simple story told with a lot of heart, with wonderfully realized characters. Rip and Red are charming and endearing and immediately likable. Their relationship is the heart of the book and its portrayal is fittingly heartwarming. Even side characters with limited roles like Avery and Rip’s mother are given their fair share of story. And of course you can’t help but root for Mr. Acevedo right from the get-go, an idealist who stands in for those modern educators who prioritize dynamic and fun learning methods, tailored to their student’s needs, rather than relying on the rigid and often outdated practices that hinder our current educational system, especially so in the Western world.⠀

Which is one of those serious subjects that creep in: the boy’s school doesn’t look the way they expected it to because of severe cuts in their district’s budget, something that happens all too often in the real world, as any teacher can surely discuss at length.⠀

Another interesting aspect of this book is in its depiction of disability. Avery is a wheelchair user who, rather than being treated as a one-dimensional character, as the trope tends to do, gets a fair amount of depth. Some of her experiences are discussed at length in a charming and amusing manner. (She even gets to be a bit of a jerk). And then there’s Red himself, who is on the autism spectrum. He struggles a bit with all the changes going on around him, but he’s portrayed as a tenacious and clever character. And luckily his best friend Rip offers plenty of support and encouragement, as does Mr. Acevedo and a handful of other teachers. I thought author Phil Bildner, a former teacher himself, did an admirable job with their depiction. ⠀

Middle grade books do so much. A Whole New Ballgame is certainly no exception.⠀

Oh and there’s a decent amount of basketball in here, too, as the title suggests. Like most books involving sports, though, it’s a metaphor. Because what’s life after sudden change if not a whole new….⠀

Well, you know.⠀

GET A LIFE, CHLOE BROWN by Talia Hibbert

get-a-life,-chloe-brown-by-talia-hibbertGet a Life, Chloe Brown begins with the titular character getting almost run over by a car, a sudden brush with death that, combined with a number of other issues she’s been dealing with, compel Chloe to, as the cover exclaims, get a LIFE. Type A person that she is, Chloe goes about this by making a list of the things she believes constitute a full, well-rounded life. The entries ranging from the momentous (move out of parent’s house; travel the world) to the positively frivolous (enjoy a drunken night out; have meaningless sex).⠀

It’s a pretty great beginning.

Chloe immediately begins checking off items by moving into her own flat in London, in a building managed by our other protagonist and inevitable love interest, Red — tall, literally ginger my god Hibbert, and handsome — a former painter who has withdrawn from the art world. Their relationship starts off, in classic rom-com fashion, as positively hostile: Chloe finds him an uncouth oaf; Red finds her a spoiled, standoffish brat. A series of mishaps and circumstances soon lead both characters to come together, however, with Chloe agreeing to build Red a website that will hopefully rekindle interest in his neglected art career, and Red helping Chloe get through her Get a Life list.⠀

It’s a pretty great set-up. You do worry for a moment that their frenemy dynamic might end up overstaying its welcome, but, refreshingly, it begins to break down and evolve only a couple of chapters in, as the stimulating chemistry between Chloe and Red softens their respective distant and defensive exteriors. Which is when they realize they’re also helping one another in entirely unexpected ways.⠀

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I don’t tend to pick up many romance novels, although I quite like the few that I have read. The works of Rainbow Rowell and Stephanie Perkins quickly come to mind. But while their novels are certainly full of love and all its clutter, they tend to slant more towards the emotional side of the romantic spectrum. Chloe Brown decidedly leans toward the other end. The physical end. Whereas a lot of stories with romantic plots often leave you wanting to shout “would you just kiss already” at the stubborn, exasperating characters, Chloe Brown simply skips all that noise and just goes straight into the more risqué aspects of courtship. I was surprised but amused by how quickly — and frankly how often — the book got down to this sort of business. There are enough steamy scenes to fill up several saunas.

Which isn’t to say there’s no emotion to be found in this novel. Meaningless sex may be an item on Chloe’s list, but, as she also realizes, things aren’t always so straightforward, and people often carry their emotional baggage with them. Our main characters being no different.⠀

Chloe, for one thing, lives with fibromyalgia, and while she’s developed a myriad of methods to manage it, emotionally, it’s taken a toll. As is often the case with invisible illnesses, non-disabled people struggle to sympathize with those who deal with them. They can get, as Chloe puts it at one point, “bored with lists and rain checks and careful coping mechanisms.” And, sometimes, they leave. Which is where we find Chloe at the beginning: determined and resolute, but lonely.⠀

We find Red in a like manner. Dealing with his own trust issues stemming from the fallout of a particularly ruinous relationship that left him feeling adrift and uncertain about his life. That this former partner was, like Chloe, affluent, only adds to his inner turmoil, his more modest background having been a constant issue before.⠀

How Chloe and Red deal with these knotty circumstances is nothing if not compelling. How they support one another is, frankly, adorable. How they fall for one another is just thoroughly sweet and, indeed, quite sexy. The development of their relationship might seem a little rushed, but it’s believable, and you quickly root for them.

I’m doing it for you because that’s how people should behave; they should fill in each other’s gaps.

Mental health and chronic illness. Class conflict. Toxic relationships and their aftermaths. These are all complicated subjects that can prove too much for any single story to handle, but Chloe Brown does so with thoughtfulness and tact, and it’s what impressed me the most about this “kissing book.”⠀

They are also subjects that can weigh down a story, casting a somber shadow over even the most lighthearted of comedies. Chloe Brown avoids this hazard by boasting a small but well-realized and obscenely charismatic cast of characters. Because not only do both protagonists read as real, actual people, the side characters do as well. Chloe’s family in particular plays a substantial supporting — and supportive — role: Gigi, her glamorous, flamboyant grandmother (who my brain immediately envisioned as British Eartha Kitt, much to my delight) dutifully doles out wisdom and guidance with wit and candor to spare; and her two enigmatic and energetic younger sisters, Dani and Eve, routinely drop by her flat to check in on her well-being — and to also discuss the latest, greatest gossip, usually concerning Red. (The sisters were hilarious and fun to read, and I’m glad to see that Hibbert is going to tell their story in future installments.)

Talia Hibbert’s author biography states that she writes “sexy and diverse” stories. And she certainly delivers on both fronts with Get a Life, Chloe Brown. I want to make special note of the diversity aspect, though: Because while I don’t know much about the romance genre, I’m willing to bet that characters like Chloe (a self-assured, Black, fat, nerdy, disabled woman who is regularly revered over her beauty), or even like Red (whose constantly cheerful and confident demeanor belies intense insecurity), are not so readily found within it, simply due to the fact that they are few and far between in most other types of stories as well. Which is, of course, a shame. Representation is important, and fiction is always in need of other voices, and other lives.

Representation […] means accepting, then celebrating, the fact that difference is normal. To do that, we have to carve out space for the voices of marginalized people, because underrepresentation can’t be fixed unless you actively do the work.

— Talia Hibbert, in an interview

So I’m glad Hibbert is out there, actively doing the work, and that she’s using her voice to share Chloe Brown’s life with us.

We would do well to listen. That’s part of the work too.

○○○

So I quite enjoyed the book. Started this one in the middle of February, for obvious reasons, but while I liked what I read, it didn’t manage to hold my attention, and I put it down about halfway through.⠀⠀

Fast forward a couple of years, to March. The world is even more terrifying than usual, and most of us are stuck at home until who knows when. I’ve been doing fine, relatively speaking. In a decent place, mentally speaking. Until last week when 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖌𝖑𝖔𝖔𝖒 finally got me and caused me to spend the following weekend in a depressive daze.⠀

I had been reading a couple of thematically relevant books — mostly non-fiction accounts about humanity overcoming all kinds of calamities and disasters. Books that assured we were going to get through all this. Books that I absolutely refused to read after the anxiety hit. It all felt too real, too unwieldy. I wanted instead to read something as far removed from our current situation as possible. ⠀

Enter Chloe. It did the trick. I managed to crawl out of that dark headspace and into the light and delightful world of this book. I tore through the remaining half in a single, sleepless night.

If I had any real criticism to offer, is that I thought it relied too much on the cliché, at times. And also that it was definitely, maybe, just a tiny bit too melodramatic. But then again I figured that sort of went with the territory. I don’t know! You get swept up. I did.

I you’re looking for something to pick up something that’s light but still compelling in these dark and strange times, though, you could certainly do worse than reading about Chloe Brown’s life.

DEATH WINS A GOLDFISH by Brian Rea

death-wins-a-goldfish-by-brian-reaDeath Wins a Goldfish is a book about living, author Brian Rea writes in the introduction. More specifically, it is a book about Death living.⠀

In the world presented in this story, Death works, like so many of us, in a cubicle farm (in an office full of other grim reapers). He lives for the job, so to speak. He’s been doing it for so long, after all, and without a single pause. But one day he receives a letter from Human Resources informing him of the fact that he has a year’s worth of vacation days accumulated, and that he must make use of them.⠀

So Death takes a holiday. Only he has no idea what to do with all the time that has been given to him. Dedicated as he’s been to his occupation — defined by it, you could say — he never quite managed to build a life outside of it. And so we follow Death along as he tries to figure out how to best go about living.⠀

This is a picture book, although it is decidedly not intended for kids. Not because there’s anything explicit about its illustrations (which are fun and clever and charming in their rushed, scratchy quality), but because it deals with topics relatable mostly to us adults who may or may not feel as if their job occupies too much of their personal identity.⠀

Like Death, I work as an office drone. And while I appreciate the stability and structure that it gives my days, one of its main challenges has always been having some semblance of a life after I clock out at the end of the day. The job is not hard, physically speaking (back pain notwithstanding), but it is certainly mentally draining. When I get home, oftentimes the only thing I want to do is shut off my brain, do nothing but unwind and rest before heading back into the office the next day.⠀

But I don’t want to let myself — my life — get stagnant. So I make routines. I carve out time to work out; to hang out with my partner; to read; to write a little. I try to make the best use of my time as possible.⠀

Not that I’m always successful at it. Some days I don’t even bother with any of that.

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And that’s fine, too. Mileage varies, as it often does. Later on in the introduction, Rea offers a piece of advice given to him by a former mentor: learn when to row your boat, and when to rest your oars. In our current society, however, where hustle culture is so prevalent, constant productivity is placed on such a large pedestal that you can be easily excused for thinking it’s the only path towards having a successful, meaningful life. There are no hobbies — there are only side jobs. There is no downtime — every waking moment is an opportunity to be productive. Your life gains meaning only by putting in the work.⠀

But that path only really leads to burnout. It’s not sustainable. And more importantly, it’s just not how people work. How life works. As with all things, there’s a balance that must be struck: You have to learn when to row. You have to learn when to rest.⠀

○○○

Reading this book now, though, in the context of our current situation, was interesting, to say the least. It gave it an unexpected new layer. Those of us whose jobs have been deemed non-essential now find ourselves at home with all this free time suddenly dropped on our laps. It’s a weird situation in which to be, confusing and also somewhat overwhelming. It can even get a little existential: Who are we when something that takes up so much of our lives gets taken away? How do we fill our time when we now have so much of it?⠀

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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us, as the wizard once said. It’s the theme Death Wins a Goldfish explores, and we could do worse than to emulate its findings. We can’t, of course, currently do all the traveling and outdoor activities Death does in this story (my favorite being the running of the bulls — although I don’t approve of the practice).

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But we can read some books. We can make some art. We can take care of our loved ones (pet fish certainly count). We can rethink our lives and our worldviews. We can look within and work on ourselves.

We can, in other words, work on living, while we’re still able.

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Or we can just rest. That’s as much part of life as anything else.

KEEP GOING by Austin Kleon

15-keep-goingThe world has changed since last I wrote about a week ago, something that feels more uncanny than it does anything else. Needless to say, we’re going through wild, uncertain times, and I can only hope that you are safe, doing your part in flattening the curve.

I have not left my house since Saturday. And Sunday, my office sent out a message saying we would be closed until the end of the month. This is, technically speaking, the first time off I’ve had in over a year, and I wanted to take advantage of it as best I could. I would read all of the books, for one. I would write. I would do this and that and also this.

But, like a lot of others right now, anxiety has gotten the best of me these last couple of days, completely shot my focus, and just making it difficult for me to enjoy the things I generally love.

Which is where Keep Going comes in.

Austin Kleon has made a name for himself writing motivational books about being a more creative person in the modern, digital age. His first book of this kind, Steal Like an Artist, was all about channeling your influences (my nicer way of saying “just straight up steal from your idols”) in order to create something that may not be entirely new and unique, but that is entirely and uniquely yours. Show Your Work! was more business-like in nature, expounding advice and industry knowledge on how to share your stuff with the world and making a space for yourself within it.

Keep Going feels like a natural progression from those themes, but its central message is perhaps less tangible in nature. It is a book about being creative, yes, and it is also full of useful, practical information — but it is also a book that is less interested with the external side of things than it is with the internal. Less concerned with the how than it is the why of making art. Where the first two books deal with the more physical, material aspects of creating art, Keep Going is about what it feels to create said art. Specifically how it feels to create art when things aren’t going that well.

If the past handful of years have shown us anything, it’s that we live in tumultuous times. One glance at any recent headline is enough to fill anyone with dread and dismay. With so many cheerless and complicated things going on in the world it can be easy to feel as if doing anything artful and creative is a trivial endeavor at best, or actively selfish at worst. How can you sit there, frivolously frolicking away while the world crumbles around us?

With Keep Going, however, Austin Kleon reminds us that art is not a gratuitous, self-indulgent thing. That it is important and necessary. And especially so during times of strife, where it acquires even greater significance. “To any creators who feel guilty making art when the house is on fire,” author V.E. Schwab wrote recently, “please remember: you make the doorways out.” And here’s Kleon quoting the late, great Toni Morrison:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.

It should be noted, however, that at no point does this book imply that you have this obligation to be creative in spite of the difficulties around you. Everyone deals with hardship in their own way, after all.

Here’s writer Robin Sloan, in a recent edition of his newsletter:

In 1816, the gloomy “Year Without a Summer,” Mary Shelley stayed indoors at a lakeside hotel; not quarantine, but maybe quarantine-adjacent. There, bored and haunted, she conceived the story that would grow into her novel Frankenstein, the foundation stone of the genre we now call science fiction.

It’s moderately annoying when people invoke work like that, because it feels like the implication is, if you’re not writing Frankenstein what are you even DOING? That’s not what I mean. It’s just that the big, bright examples help us see it clearly: toil in the shadow of calamity will have its day.

Toil in the shadow of calamity WILL have its day.

A crack in everything; that’s how the art gets in.

Keep Going acts more like a permission slip. You can create art, it says, if you want to. If you are able. If you must.

Go easy on yourself and take your time. Worry less about getting things done. Worry more about things worth doing. Worry less about being a great artist. Worry more about being a good human being who makes art. Worry less about making a mark. Worry more about leaving things better than you found them.

The world can only benefit from your contribution, ultimately, if you just keep going.