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.

HALLOWEEN PARTY by R.L. Stine — 🎃

blog - halloween party by r.l. stineThey all received the same black-bordered envelope. Inside was an invitation to a Hallowe’en party to be thrown by Justine, the newest new girl at Shadyside High. She and her uncle have just moved into their old family mansion at the end of Fear Street, and what better setting for an All Hallows’ Eve celebration? Couple Terry and Niki are among the invited, but quickly begin to question the motives behind the bash. Why have only nine people been invited? And why invite a group of people who barely share anything in common with one another? They go to the party, regardless, hoping to get some answers. They get more than they bargained for when the body of a fellow reveler turns up with a carving knife sticking straight out of his chest….

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I honestly could not think of a better way to finish off the spook season than with a Fear Street book. And what could be more fitting than going for the one titled Halloween Party?

This is technically my first proper Fear Street! I started reading the series this summer, as part of my whole Summer Spooks deal, but none of the books I read were actually 𝘴𝘦𝘵 on the titular street. This one most definitely is, though, and it’s a whole different vibe.

I had a lot of fun with it. It’s trashy and schlocky and totally appropriate for the day. It also surprised me by including a fair bit of deaf representation. In a young adult book! From the ‘90s! It’s not perfect, needless to say, but still — you go, Stine. Niki is a certified badass of a character. 

Hallowe’en has long been my favorite time for reading, and I always have a blast delving into the spookier side of my library. It’s sad that the season has come to an end, but as Niki points out towards the end of the party: “It’s always Halloween on Fear Street.”  ⠀

𝕳𝖆𝖑𝖑𝖔𝖜𝖊’𝖊𝖓 𝖎𝖘 𝖊𝖙𝖊𝖗𝖓𝖆𝖑, in other words. 

I hope you all have a good one.

PUMPKINHEADS by Rainbow Rowell, Faith Erin Hicks — 🎃

blog - pumpkinheads by rainbow rowell, faith erin hicksAnother Hallowe’en. Another year of reading this graphic novel. Another year of me gushing about this book. You probably know the drill by now.

This is my third year reading Pumpkinheads, the exceedingly charming graphic novel by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks (with colors by Sarah Stern). The last couple of times I’ve picked it up at the very start of the Hallowe’en season, feeling its lighthearted tone and quintessentially fall vibes made for a perfect way to kick off October. This time around I opted to wait until the end of the month, for no reason other than that is when the story is set and it felt right. As the weeks passed, I found myself anxious to fall back into it, but it was absolutely worth the wait. Reading this graphic novel feels like a homecoming now. Like catching up with friends you haven’t seen in over a year. 

Josie and Deja, our preposterously beautiful protagonists, certainly feel like friends. I always finish this story wanting to read more about them. Rowell ends the story hinting at a Christmas reunion, and hopefully that’s more than a throwaway line and is actually in the cards because that’s something I would desperately want.

The autumn ambiance artists Hicks and Stern have illustrated define the season for me now. The images and colors they conjured up are what I see whenever I think of this time of year. Quite the feat seeing as how I live in a place with no proper fall.

Lastly, this book just makes me cry, dudes. “October means you,” never fails to hit me like a bag of bricks. 

Pumpkinheads is not remotely spooky. It’s all heart and mush and feelings, instead — notions not traditionally associated with the autumn months. But it means October to me, still.

THE CARDBOARD KINGDOM: ROAR OF THE BEAST by Chad Sell, Various — 🎃

blog - the cardboard kingdom - roar of the beast by chad sell, variousThe Cardboard Kingdom tells the stories of a group of particularly creative kids in a suburban neighborhood and the worlds, communities, and identities they create using nothing but copious amounts of cardboard and their intense imaginations.

Roar of the Beast, the second volume of the budding graphic novel series, finds the youths gearing up for Hallowe’en, adding extra flair to their already elaborate costumes and constructions. Multiple sightings of a monstrous creature creeping around the community puts the kids on edge, however, as does the fact that one of their own is being targeted by teenage bullies. The combination of events threatens to not only ruin their holiday, but also tear the kingdom they’ve worked so hard to build asunder.

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○ The first volume of The Cardboard Kingdom was one of the best books I read last year, so its follow-up was naturally highly anticipated. I pre-ordered it knowing nothing about it, but you can imagine, I’m sure, the joy I felt finding out it was not only Fall themed but centered around Hallowe’en, as well. Chad Sell and Company: delivering delights.
○ Sell’s spectacular artwork was a highlight in the first volume, and continues to be still.
○ There is wholesome queer rep here! Always lovely to see, especially in middle grade offerings.
○ A lot more focus on Alice the Alchemist, a morbid little creep of a character. She’s a favorite. So much fun.
○ The kids end up squaring off against The Teens, naturally. The set piece  feels straight out of an ‘80s movie and I am here for it.
○ This book is a lot of fun. A lot more streamlined than the first book, which was more a collection of interconnected short stories (illustrated by Sell and written by various authors) rather than a straight, linear plot. I prefer the anthological approach, but this was a great effort.
○ As per last time, I appreciate the work Sell and his collaborators put into making these stories as inclusive and diverse as they could possibly be. This is a Hallowe’en romp, but it is also a quiet, careful exploration of mental health, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Heady, heavy themes that are handled in such a way that they don’t weigh down the story’s pulpy foundation.
○ Ultimately, I hope these creators continue to bring out hopeful narratives like this, because the kids of the world need and deserve them.

“THE LITTLE WITCH” by M. Rickert — 🎃

blog - the little witch by m. rickertA lonely old woman befriends a trick-or-treater who doesn’t seem to age….

And that’s about as much as I can tell you by way of summary, so as not to spoil this spellbinding short story. 

I loved reading “The Little Witch, even though I’m not entirely sure I understood it as a whole. In any case, author M. Rickert’s prose is beautiful enough to make up for any discombobulation one may feel. I found the way she wrote scenery particularly breathtaking, with vivid, poetic descriptions of natural landscapes that were nothing if not transportive. Her characterization was also a stand-out, managing as she did to break my heart multiple times in just a scant number of pages (indeed, most of my notes are some variation of oh my god).

“The Little Witch” is a weird, mystifying, at times surprisingly unsettling little story about two witchy, weary souls finding one another and feeling less lonely in the world. It captures the melancholy, ephemeral nature of the autumnal season better than anything I’ve read so far this year. I adored it, utterly, and encourage you to take the time to read it before the month is out. The story can be found on Tor’s website.

ATTACK OF THE JACK-O’-LANTERNS by R.L. Stine — 🎃

Twelve-year-old Drew Brockman loves Hallowe’en. Too bad it keeps getting ruined by local bullies, Tabby and Lee, whose idea of a perfect All Hallows’ Eve consists of playing mean-spirited pranks on Drew and her friends. Drew vows that this Hallowe’en will be different, though, having spent the better part of the year coming up with the perfect trick to play on the tween tormentors — one that involves her friends, twins Shane and Shana, dressing up as particularly ghastly pumpkin-headed figures. The siblings seem to get too into their spooky roles, however, and the joke quickly gets out of hand, threatening to ruin yet another Hallowe’en. Only this time Drew fears that it may be for good….

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It’s not a proper spooky season in this house until I pick up a Goosebumps book or two. It’s one of the traditions I look forward to the most. I never read the books as a kid, but I did watch some of the show, and so I consider these precious, goofy books time capsules, allowing me a brief glimpse back to a time for which I am exceedingly, embarrassingly nostalgic. I am a ‘90s kid, what can I tell you?

I’m still working my way through the series (should read more than a couple a year, maybe), so I’ve only read a handful of the books. Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns did not turn out to be a favorite, but it is a very solid entry. The characters are annoying as anything, sure, but in that charming ha-ha-all-kids-are-maniacs kind of way that Stine is so good at portraying. It’s set on Hallowe’en. It features pumpkin-headed monsters. I don’t need much to enjoy some Goosebumps

One of the episodes of the TV show I remember the most was called “Awesome Ants” (curiously not adapted from any book of the original series, but from a later short story instead). It featured a memorable and preposterous ending that had — uhh spoilers I guess — an entire suburban neighborhood enclosed in glass, with gigantic ants towering over the new human vivarium. It stuck with me because it played into some of my more particular anxieties: of being perpetually stuck in a singular space; of being intensely creeped out by North American suburbs consisting of countless identically bland houses. The climax of Jack-O’-Lanterns involves a similar setting and situation, and I appreciated the skeeved-out feeling it gave me. 

I watched the television adaptation of this for the first time last year and it was perfectly terrible.

WHAT LIVES IN THE WOODS by Lindsay Currie — 🎃

blog - what lives in the woods by lindsay currieAspiring writer and Agatha Christie aficionado Ginny Anderson is looking forward to spending her summer break attending a mystery writing workshop with her best friend. Plans swiftly derailed when her dad, who restores old crumbling buildings to their former glory for a living, is hired to renovate the Woodmoor estate, a sprawling manor in the outskirts of Lake Michigan, and wants to bring the family along. The mansion is the subject of many rumors in the neighboring town: of creatures that stalk the surrounding woods; of inhospitable spirits that still haunt the antique abode. Impressionable Ginny finds herself frightened at the prospect of spending her summer in a house of horrors and she wishes she could just go back home, to her friend and her workshop. Her frustration turns out to be greater than her fear though, and,  determined to emulate the heroes written by her personal hero, she sets out to either find enough proof to convince her parents to leave the dreadful place — especially after she encounters a ghastly presence that would very much like the same — or to solve the mystery at Woodmoor once and for all. ⠀

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Lindsay Currie’s What Lives in the Woods was originally going to be a buddy read, chosen because my friend and I were both under the impression that it was going to be a middle grade horror full of forest frights, which was the mood we were after. I began reading it first, though, and quickly found myself frustrated by the fact that this seemed to be very much a haunted house story. Which is fine — love a good haunting — just not what I was expecting. Yes, the back blurb does mention the haunted house element, but look at that cover! At that title! What else are we supposed to think? Not to mention the fact that creepy beings stalking the woods are frequently mentioned in the opening chapters. They are, sadly, a no-show in this spooky story. Maybe they’re being set up for a sequel? I don’t know!⠀

So I was disappointed. Which is tragic because the story taken on its own is actually fairly decent. There’s a historical mystery that’s interesting, even if it’s only really explored during the last few chapters when it could have been the focus from the outset. Currie is excellent at writing tense scenes with unnerving imagery (there’s a particularly good jump scare, and those are very hard to pull off in written form). But again, this is a supernatural mystery more than it is horror, and so those types of scenes end up feeling a little out of place, as if they’re from a different story. 

This may be a classic case of judging a book by its cover, But coming from a design background so I believe that packaging and presentation are important. They provide the context, form the filter through which the content within will be viewed. My expectations were shaped by a display that evokes a certain narrative that is different from the one within, and I just think it only does it a disservice, in the end. Granted this particular criticism is directed more at the publisher, as authors rarely have any say in how their work is marketed. Currie wrote an immanently readable book that I would have enjoyed more under different circumstances.

MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — 🎃

blog - mexican gothic by silvia moreno-garciaI started Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic for Hallowe’en last year. I was enjoying it, too, noting how Moreno-Garcia had the Gothic undertones and atmosphere utterly down. But then I dropped it, and I couldn’t quite tell you why. Well, I could: there was a pandemic going on, sucking the joy out of everything and anything at the drop of a hat. It was — and still is, depressingly — a thing. So I decided to leave it for this next Hallowe’en season, and as it approached, I found myself excited to pick the book back up again. 

You can imagine my disappointment when I found that I did not enjoy it as much as I expected. Which is nothing but a shame as all the elements were still there: Moreno-Garcia’s writing is gorgeous, pitch-perfect in its baroque tone and flowery wordage; the atmosphere — atmosfear — it evokes is palpable and practically seeps from the page; Noemí, our intrepid bon vivant of a heroine with the quick wit and indomitable will, is simply marvelous; its villains are suitably abhorrent, showcasing as they do a grotesque version of white entitlement towards other culture’s religions and lands and bodies; the story’s central theme of colonialism and its ruinous blight of a legacy is one that quite literally hits close to home as someone who lives in an actual modern day colony.

And yet… it didn’t quite connect with me. Perhaps that was because of the above-mentioned epidemic exhaustion; but more likely it was just that the story felt distant, with too many of its true horrors told rather than shown; evils obscured rather than exposed. Moreno-Garcia keeps her protagonist in the literal dark for much of the novel, and at arm’s length from many of the other characters, a detachment the reader feels by extension. A dense fog envelopes High Place, this story’s setting. At times it felt like a similar gloom shrouded this novel, and perhaps it just proved too thick for this particular lector to penetrate.

Whatever the case may have been, Moreno-Garcia’s prowess is undeniable, and I don’t regret reading this weird, visceral, phantasmagoric vision of hers.