CLOWN IN A CORNFIELD 2: FRENDO LIVES by Adam Cesare — 🎃

clown in a cornfield 2 - frendo lives by adam cesare

In the kitchen of the house that should not be there, Osseous builds a sandwich. Resting on top of the icebox, picking at a bowl full of grains, Calcifer keeps them company.

The crow considers his companion. “Hey, Oz,” he says, between morsels. “Can I ask you something?”

By all means.”

How do you—” Calcifer pauses, thinking of a polite way to ask. As with most things in his life, he opts for the most direct route. “How do you eat?”

Ah,” says the skeletal librarian, with a tilt of the cranium. “That’s a bit too personal, I fear.”

Calcifer croaks. “Yeah, I guessed.”

The man stumbles in, then. He hasn’t been seen out of his chambers for days now. His beard is longer and wilder and the dark hair on his head sticks out in every which way. He opens a cabinet, taking out a handful of containers and jars before asking Osseous to pass a couple slices of bread. He makes a hasty, haphazard sandwich that he promptly scarfs down.

Clowns,” the man mumbles, mid-bite. “It’s probably going to be clowns. Two tales with them in a row. Can’t be coincidence. Best be on the lookout.”

Calcifer looks up from his bowl with interest, hoping either of them will elaborate, but the man offers nothing further and Osseous simply nods in understanding. Frustratingly, they have yet to take a bite of their sandwich — it sits whole on a plate in front of them. The librarian enjoys their meals in private.

The man makes another hurried sandwich before taking his leave, going back up the stairs, back into the deeper gloom of the house.

What was that all about, then?” Calcifer asks.

The month wanes and the veil withers along with it,” offers the Keeper.

Osseous. Please. Talk prose.”

Those in the Dark Beyond cannot yet pass,” Osseous says. “But the door is ajar enough that some of their appetent power is able to slip through, furiously intent on stopping those who work to prevent their arrival.”

Stop us how, though?” asks the crow. Calcifer isn’t quite sure when he started to consider himself part of us, but he doesn’t particularly care to question it, either.

These forces can take form, often particular to the craft they seek to crush. Those sent to hunt Readers may take the shapes of certain elements from the stories being engaged.”

So,” the crow says, nodding upwards, “because he’s reading about maniac killer clowns we could, at some point, be stalked by maniac killer clowns ourselves.”

That’s a little reductive,” says Osseous. “But yes, in essence.”

Calcifer sighs, covering his head with a wing. “Please tell me you’re joking, Osseous.”

I fear not, friend.”

Yeah, I guessed.”

I retire to my meal,” Osseous says, picking up their plate. “There are mechanisms in place against attacks here,” the Keeper adds, pausing at the threshold. “I wouldn’t dwell on it too deeply.”

Sure, sure,” Calcifer says, distracted. He’s looking out the kitchen window, not sure whether the shapes he now sees are real or the product of a stimulated imagination instead. He fluffs up and shakes his feathers. Bowl in beak, he flies out of the kitchen.

And so when the tall, gaunt figures with red eyes and clawed hands step out from behind the trees and start trudging towards the house, Calcifer doesn’t see.

Thrilling and thought-provoking in equal measure. Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives, much like the first novel, is a cultural commentary as much as it is a horror story. That first book was written and released right in the middle of the MAGA era, and its story of prejudice and generational conflict was very much a direct reaction to — and reflection of — that particular point in time. Frendo Lives was released a mere two years later, to a landscape that, for better or for worse, has irrevocably changed. It’s a strange and baffling new world, but one that Cesare once again manages to deftly navigate with a story about the malleability of truth, media manipulation, and the dangers of mob mentality. These are stories where the true horror comes, not from preternatural bogeymen or relentless murderers, but from social conduct instead. That there is also a murderous figure in a crumbling clown costume at the center of them is really just set dressing.⠀

But it’s this vestigial villainous visage from the first book that illustrates one of the more interesting things this novel does, in that it has it become an image and an idea around which a cult is formed. It’s a frightening notion, and the fact that it feels somehow entirely plausible and realistic is nothing if not disturbing and really says a hell of a lot about our current cultural climate. (That this cult is largely composed of ignorant, ill-informed “fake news” fools only adds to the realism.) (Cesare is not subtle, and neither am I.)

Curiously, this cult concept also represents the weakest aspect of the book. While I appreciate its verisimilitude, the odious group only amounts to a couple of lackluster action set pieces — especially when compared to those in the first novel, which was brimming with harrowing spectacle. I also had an issue with the plot seemingly not knowing what to do with its protagonists, who spend much of the story reacting exasperatedly to it instead of driving it forward. It’s very odd. I like their general characterization, and the way they deal with their shared trauma reads true for the most part, but having them be basically blasé towards all the chaos around them took a lot of the edge out. At no point did I feel like the main cast was in any real danger — again in sharp contrast to the first novel, where literally every single character felt up for grabs.

Still though, this was interesting and a lot of fun. Cesare continues to slice at social tensions with gleeful, surgical precision, and I’m more than willing to continue bearing witness to his procedures.

EMPTY SMILES by Katherine Arden — 🎃

empty smiles by katherine arden

Somewhere beyond the woods you know, in a room deep inside a house that should not be there, someone is cackling.

“There’s a noise I wouldn’t want to hear every day,” says Calcifer the crow, his dark, shiny feathers bristling at the noise. He’s settled on a ledge by a window. Heavy raindrops splatter against it, and the glass panes rattle, occasionally, when hit by sudden gusts of wind.

I suppose I wouldn’t want to, either,” says Osseous. The librarian is sitting in a plump, somewhat shabby-looking armchair, reading a book. Their bony hands hold a steaming cup. They look quite comfortable.

What’s he even reading up there?”

The librarian looks at the ceiling, inclining their head to the side as if in contemplation. If the librarian had eyes, their crow companion figures, they would be closed right now. But the librarian has no eyes, not in any biological sense. Has had none for millennia, now. “Currently,” they say, “a passage about a young boy being dragged into the darkness by malevolent forces.”

Calcifer simply stares.

Fret not,” the librarian adds, as if reading his mind. “He should be leaving by the end of the month.”

Should?” asks Calcifer, nettled at the prospect of a longer stay.

These sorts of things take time, sometimes.”

Calcifer picks at his feathers. It realizes that it is getting hungry and resolves to think of what to have for supper soon. “Listen,” he says, before getting too distracted, “what exactly are we doing here?”

I apologize,” Osseous says. “I forget you have not been here long. Have not been present for the Darkening of the Year.” They put their book and beverage on a table by the chair. “I assume you know of The Things in the Vicious Void? Of Those That Dwell in the Dark?”

Of course I know the Maleficent Monarchs, Osseous,” the crow scoffs. “I live in the middle of a forest, not under a rock.” He thinks then of the particularly fat, juicy insects that can often be found under stones and fallen logs in the surrounding woods. He really is getting rather hungry. “Anyway, what do They have to do with anything?”

The librarian stares at the crow for a beat, skeletal fingers steepled. “The Veil thins during the Turning of the Year, Calcifer,” they say. “Passage between worlds is possible. Things can get in. Things can get out. And when the Things come out of the Dark—”

“— it’s all over,” Calcifer completes the refrain. He shudders.

There are rituals, of course,” Osseous continues. “All throughout the hallow month, certain individuals practice their certain crafts, play their certain parts. There are those who, for unknowable reasons, work to pave the way for Their coming. And there are those who work to prevent the way from ever being opened.”

Calcifer casts a suspicious eye towards the ceiling. “So he…”

Strives to keep the way shut,” the librarian assures. “As do I, in point of fact.”

I don’t think I get it,” the crow says, flapping its wings. He’s hungry and thus growing increasingly impatient. “You’re just a librarian, and this is a weird, creepy library in the middle of the woods. And he’s just… just some strange guy.”

I’m Keeper of Tales, Calcifer,” Osseous says. They glance at the ceiling. “He’s Reader. Listener. Devourer. Those are our roles.”

But to do what?”

Tell tales,” says the Keeper, simply. “Share stories to keep the darkness at bay.”

I got a threshold, Osseous,” says Calcifer, through gritted beak, “I got a threshold for the nonsense I’ll take.”

Osseous gets up from their chair and walks over to the nearest bookcase. They run their thin fingers across the spines of the countless books there. “Not nonsense, friend,” they say. “Magic. Old magic. Perhaps the oldest there is. Brought forth in the earlier ages of the world when folk gathered around campfires in the night, telling tales of warning and of warding. Of healing and heeding. What we do is in that same spirit and tradition.” They gesture to the many volumes that surround the room, that indeed cover the entirety of the house — this old, strange, boundless library deep in the woods. “We share stories. We shine the light. We stave off the dark.”

Calcifer hops from one leg to the other. “So to keep it all from ending,” he says, “some weirdo has to enjoy stories about kids being tormented.”

I wouldn’t put it quite like that,” Osseous says. “I would say that there are fewer things more powerful than stories of children fighting back against wickedness.” They tilt their cranium to the side — the contemplative motion again. “And he’s a Reader. They are intrinsically enthusiastic about stories. They cannot help but revel in the telling.”

Oh ho ho,” again comes the man’s voice from somewhere up in the house. “All these kids are going to get eaten.”

Silence for a spell. “He may just also be an odd, morbid man,” Osseous says, with a shrug of bone shoulders. “I confess I’m not quite sure.”

Later, the man comes down from his chambers. He finds the crow resting on a windowsill, chittering contentedly after having enjoyed a particularly long, drawn-out meal. Their skeletal companion sits, as usual, on the armchair, a large tome in their hands. Both of them look up once he enters the room. The man’s eyes are slightly damp, and there is a satisfied smile etched on his face. He is holding a book against his chest. He walks over to a circular table in the middle of the room, on which many other volumes already rest. Slowly, almost reverently, he places his book on top of a pile. He gives them both a slight nod before retiring back upstairs.

Keeper and crow look at one another. “I believe the children have defeated the darkness,” Osseous says.

Calcifer caws.

Outside, for the moment, the night is quiet and still.

Atmosphere in abundance. It’s the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces quartet. The overarching story by itself is fun and fittingly frightening, but it’s the exemplary quality of the writing that lifts up these features. I’m glad to see that Empty Smiles, the fourth and final book in the series, is no different in this regard. Indeed, Arden pulled out all the veritable stops for this one, almost overwhelming the reader with a steady stream of spooky set pieces and an incessantly ominous tone throughout, making this the most thrilling entry of the series.

Admittedly, I was worried over having clowns as the main monsters, thinking they were too obvious and cliché (they really are a penny a dozen in the genre), but Arden’s jesters manage to distinguish themselves by being, in equal measure, both alarmingly menacing and overly goofy (which somehow only added to their threat). Many of the scenes in which they were featured were unnerving and chillingly creepy. I thought they shone in all their ghoulish glory. (Also, there’s a giant skeleton in clown makeup crawling over roofs at one point. There are middle grade horror writers and then there is Katherine Arden.)

Again, much like my previous experience with this series, I had a tremendous amount of fun reading Empty Smiles. It has a frenetic pace that rip-roaringly carries you, much like a rollercoaster you would find in a carnival like the one at the center of this story, all the way to the end.

Unfortunately, it’s that ending that prompted my only real gripe: it felt entirely too abrupt. After all the harrowing ordeals we’ve experienced along with Ollie and her friends, it would have been nice and befitting to get a bit more in the way of closure, rather than the “hand-wavey” sort of conclusion that we got. But I guess if there ever were characters desperately in need of a break, it was the ones in this story.

In the end, I can’t help but love these books. They’ve set a standard, becoming what I point to as an example of what horror written for kids should ideally read and — perhaps more importantly — feel like. I look forward to revisiting them in seasons to come.

PUMPKINHEADS by Rainbow Rowell, Faith Erin Hicks — 🎃

pumpkinheads by rainbow rowell, faith erin hicksDeep within the wild, windswept woods, a man is walking. Bearded and bedraggled, his layered clothing ragged and torn in places, all indicative of a long and arduous journey. Still, the man’s pace is steadfast, his steps sure. He is walking towards a certain light.

Back in the house, the librarian searches for a book.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this far into the house before,” says Calcifer. It is perched on a bony shoulder. They have both traveled a long way.

“The house is as old and vast as tales are in the history of the world and the reckoning of time.”

“What?”

“The house is very large, yes.”

“Right.”

Osseous pulls out a thin volume from a shelf, making a satisfied noise. The book looks somewhat new, an odd thing given the other offerings of the house, which include tomes that may or may not be older than the known universe. It boasts a colorful cover that almost seems to blaze in the dim surroundings. It features two figures — a man and a woman — lying comfortably in a field.

“What’s that one about, then?” asks Calcifer.

“Love and friendship, mostly,” says Osseous, grabbing the lamp on the table and walking once more out of the room. “About missed moments and seized opportunities. The ever-changing seasons of life. About endings and beginnings.”

“Doesn’t sound all that gloom and doom, to be honest,” says Calcifer, taking flight once more.

“No, it’s decidedly not. But it’s never a bad thing to have a little light against the approaching darkness.”

“I guess.”

Lamp held up, the two figures make their way back through the shadows.

At the far end of the house, there is a knock at the door.

The librarian hands the man a cup of something warm. The man has cleaned up somewhat, but still looks tired and threadbare. “Thank you, Oz,” the man says. He nods his head towards the crow resting on its usual spot at the top of the bookcase. “So he’s new.”

“To you, maybe,” mutters the crow.

“What’s your name?”

“Calcifer.”

“Lucifer?”

Calcifer,” corrects Osseous.

“Can I call you Cal?”

“Hell no.”

The man shrugs. An awkward silence ensues.

“Well, I’ve never been one for small talk,” says the man, standing up. “Lead the way, Oz,” he says, gesturing at the librarian. “I want to see Josie and Deja.”

What can I say about this book that I haven’t already said before? This is my fourth year reading Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks, and I love it just as much as I did when I first picked it up back in 2019 — if not more so. ⠀

I decided to take my time with it on this occasion, the better to appreciate the art of illustrator Faith Erin Hicks and colorist Sarah Stern. They each put so much care and effort into depicting this, as Rowell and Hicks describe it, fictional “Disneyland of pumpkin patches,” that it’s the integral part of the story’s charm. The tacky signage. The whimsical food stands. The characters running around the background who, instead of being vaguely depicted stand-ins, as is the norm in comics, are drawn to look like actual, authentic people. It all helps to make this world feel lived-in and real. Like a place with stories that continue long after the final pages of this book.⠀

Which of course leads me, inevitably, to once again voice my deep and abiding desire for the Christmas sequel hinted at the end of this graphic novel to become an actual, proper thing. I need it. You need it. The world certainly needs it. Give us more Deja and Josie.

Hallowe’en Season 2022

halloween hostsSomewhere deep beyond the woods you know there stands a house that should not be there. Winds whip and whirl around it, surrounding the peculiar structure in a vortex of dead leaves and twigs and other things. The shutters clang against their windows. The house is entirely dark, save for a single flickering light in the topmost room. Inside the house that should not be there, someone is reading. ⠀

The emaciated figure looks up from its book. It turns its head towards the window, looking out into a dark, restless night. It gets up from the chair, filling the room with a dry, clacking noise. To the side, the crow that was perched on top of an old bookcase rustles its feathers at the sound, its meditative reverie broken. It turns one baleful eye towards the skeletal figure now standing in front of the window, against the darkness.⠀

“Can you feel that, friend Calcifer?” it asks, its voice barely above a whisper.⠀

“Can I feel what, Osseous?” asks the crow, somewhat testily. It had been thinking about the particularly satisfying breakfast it had earlier in the morning, and it didn’t appreciate the interruption.⠀

“The Changing,” Osseous says. “The Turning. The Darkening of the Year.”⠀

The crow makes a small croaking noise before flapping towards the window. It pecks against the glass once, twice, thrice before looking out. “Seems to be arriving earlier and earlier each year,” it says. “Are you sure?”⠀

“Oh yes,” says Osseous, long dead, keeper of this vast grave, this library of secrets and mysteries and horrors. “I can feel it in my bones.” ⠀

And its orbits light up then, shining like beacons in the night, welcoming whatever wanders within.

“It is coming.”

🎃

(Click the pumpkin above to browse through all the 2022 Hallowe’en Season posts.)

THE GHOUL NEXT DOOR by Cullen Bunn, Cat Farris

the ghoul next door by cullen bunn, cat farrisMiddle schoolers Marshall and Grey are walking to school one morning, history projects in hand. Marshall, practical and prudent, has drawn up a poster of Sally-Bea Hurst who, after being accused as a witch, fled Salem to Ander’s Landing, the small New England town they call home. Grey, inquisitive and imaginative, has made an elaborate scale model of the local cemetery, a place that fascinates him and which, much to his best friend’s chagrin, often cuts through as a shortcut to their school. Marshall, ever cautious, opts to go the long way around this time, leaving Grey to walk the graveyard by himself. Distractedly comparing his work to the somber surroundings, Grey trips, his project flying out of his hands and landing at the bottom of what turns out to be a freshly dug grave. His mind jumps to grave robbers at once, and so, wanting to get away, he quickly goes to retrieve his project — only to see it being snatched up by a clawed hand. 

Shortly after, Grey starts to get nightly visits from the strange, hissing figure, who seems to be more interested in leaving him lurid, macabre gifts than actually hurting him. Grey and ghoul soon form an unlikely bond that threatens to drag them both down into the deep, dark dwellings of the dead.

○○○

The Ghoul Next Door was a tremendously fun read. Equal parts charming and creepy. It’s a balance writer Cullen Bunn knows how to strike well, since he employed a similar tone in Harrow County, an excellent horror comic full to the brim with southern congeniality to go along with its southern gothic spooks. Harrow County is, of course, aimed at an adult audience, so it is decidedly more mature and macabre than this middle grade affair, although that’s not to say the horror aspect of this story was held back in any way. Ghoul Next Door is full of striking, spine-chilling imagery, especially so in its opening segments, which brought to mind other deliciously spooky stories such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and more recent efforts like Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces series. Artist Cat Farris does amazing work here, her whimsical, watercolor illustrations making for a clever contrast to the story’s peculiar proceedings, as well as affording it some seriously spectacular atmosphere (her splash pages in particular are beautiful and wonderfully detailed).

It’s an atmosphere I wish could have been carried through to the end, since the final act drops much of the story’s initial spookiness in favor of a more adventurous tone. Still, the ghoulish world that Cunn and Farris have fashioned is fascinating, and I would gladly return to visit its colorful caverns down the line. (There is a sequel that also boasts a playful title — Up to No Ghoul — and it involves vampires. Of course I’ll come back.)

HORRORSTÖR by Grady Hendrix

horrostör by grady hendrixAmy Porter feels directionless and unfulfilled. Currently living out her existence in the retail purgatory that is ORSK — a big-box furniture store and a flagrant IKEA knockoff — that barely pays her enough to make rent, she wishes for better things. Her aspirations aren’t unreasonable: she’d be grateful for a whatever desk job in a whatever office.

For her, the world was divided into two kinds of jobs: those where you had to stand up, and those where you could sit down. If you were standing up, you were paid hourly. If you were sitting down, you were salaried.

But it’s indicative of her present melancholic mindset that she considers relocating to a different ORSK location in another town her only viable prospect. Her transfer application is subject to the whims of Basil, though, her overbearing bore of a supervisor, so she opts to spend her remaining time in the location being as inconspicuous as possible.

A strategy that is immediately undermined by the continual discovery of damaged inventory, among other odd occurrences. Basil suspects someone is squatting on the premises after closing and, determined to find this trespasser, recruits a couple of employees to that end. Amy, despite her best efforts at imperceptibility, is one of the drafted. She’s reluctant, but needing both to stay in Basil’s good graces and the extra money, she agrees, thinking that nothing will come of the search, anyway.

But the figurative hell of the store is made manifest when, instead of a human intruder, they find a vindictive specter determined to make the ORSK partners the latest in its long line of victims.

○○○

Horrorstör was a fun, interesting read. Fun in the sense that it’s more on the playful side of the horror spectrum, full of whimsical, clever devices (my favorite: the promotional material for ORSK furniture pieces that precede every chapter, which begin like regular, mundane ads but get increasingly sinister as the book progresses). Interesting because this is an earlier work of an author I consider a favorite, and it was fascinating to see the foundations being laid out for what would be recurring themes and motifs in his later stories: the resolute and nuanced female lead; the importance of carving out your own space in a cruel and rudderless world; the almost irreverent approach to horror, boasting an almost comedic tone that is disrupted suddenly by moments of shock and terror (mostly involving rats and confined spaces — not a Hendrix book if the protagonist isn’t at one point stuck somewhere with various vermin crawling all over them). It’s a Grady Hendrix novel, through and through, but it’s also very much the work of a writer trying to find his voice. Its seams are visible: the characters have iffy morals and motivations; the themes spelled out rather than demonstrated; the balance between mood and style inconsistent, at times toppling one another.

Still, I enjoyed this for what it was. I like the conceit of a commonplace commercial structure being the passageway for a demonic dimension (capitalism is literally hell, etcetera). Hendrix’s writing is, despite some stumbles, clear and effortless — the man writes compulsively readable books. Amy was a solid protagonist, a direct precursor to all the great women that populate the rest of Hendrix’s output. Also, the book itself is laid out like an IKEA catalog, and that’s just fun.

It’s less polished work, but that’s characteristic of journeyman efforts, and I do wonder if I would have enjoyed this novel a lot more if I had read it sooner. I wish I could have connected more with the story, but mostly I found that it lacked the emotional punch that I’ve come to expect from Hendrix’s books.

EXHALATION by Ted Chiang

exhalation by ted chiangExhalation is quite simply one of the most breathtaking collections I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I’ve admired Chiang’s work for a long time, though I’ve shamefully read little of it until now. This will hopefully change now. It’s certainly reignited an interest in short fiction, which I find myself seeking out more after starting this. 

Which is interesting because one running thought I had throughout my reading of Exhalation was that I wouldn’t really call a lot of its entries stories — at least not in the traditional sense. A good portion of them read more like thought experiments than they do proper narratives. The fact that they explore exceedingly interesting hypotheticals meant that I enjoyed my time with them, although perhaps in a different way than I would, say, something by more traditional fabulists. 

I guess it’s to be expected. Chiang comes from a scientific background, after all, and his approach to stories is less “what if” than it is “how would this work for real.” He takes these speculative realities and, rather than tell us a conventional narrative within, he often opts to define them to us. It works because Chiang is nothing if not a brilliant communicator of ideas. It’s probably why the writer he brought to my mind the most was Carl Sagan, one of the great explainers of our age.

Then, of course, I realized this was just me making unnecessary distinctions. Because what is to elucidate something efficiently and effortlessly if not telling a damn good story, be it fiction or fact? It’s all stories, in the end.

So yes, Ted Chiang is one hell of a teller of tales, and it’s never more evident than in my three favorite pieces in this collection:

  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” reads like a fable straight out of the Arabian Nights with a transtemporal bent about a fabric merchant that stumbles upon a store full of alchemical wonders, one of which is a stone arch that acts as a gateway through time. I was so struck by it that by the time I got to the first of what I was certain must be three tales-within-the-tale I was already exclaiming, “Oh my god.” It reminded me of just how much truly excellent stories excite me. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though: both “Story of Your Life” (the basis for the film Arrival) and “Tower of Babylon,” the only two other stories by Chiang I had read before this collection, elicited the same sort of response. A beautifully complex piece of fiction masterfully told.
  • A few pages into “Exhalation,” the collection’s title story, and I was already utterly fascinated by the world it was creating: one of mechanical brings, very much like humans in thought and behavior, but composed of brass and gold instead of organic material, run artificially by air (which in this story acts as a secular, natural explanation for the soul — a notion that I love). I finished it with tears in my eyes. A beautiful meditation on life and death; our role in the universe and the responsibility we have to know it and explore it. (Also, I really liked picturing the main character as this world’s equivalent to Leonardo da Vinci. Setting up a device to dissect your own brain is a Leo move if I’ve ever heard one.)
  • “Omphalos” is one of the many stories in which Chiang toys with theological themes. It’s set in a world that is very much like our own, but in which Young Earth creationism is factually true. Again, points for Chiang for rendering a belief for which I have no patience for in real life so fascinating and sympathetic. The story proper deals with the discovery of a truly geocentric system, and the religious implications this holds for our characters.

And although it wasn’t one of the stories that connected with me, Chiang’s grasp on narrative is also obvious in “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” which explores the ways in which our ability to recall moments and events perfectly could impact the human psyche. Told in two complementary threads: one set in the near future in which technology that records every single moment of your life is readily available, and about a father struggling with what that means for human relationships; the other set in the distant past, centering on a man learning how to read and write and the ways in which this clashes with his tribe’s oral tradition. 

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they’re the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives: the criteria used for selecting moments were different for each of us, and a reflection of our personalities. Each of us noticed the details that caught our attention and remembered what was important to us, and the narratives we built shaped our personalities in turn.

A wonderful collection of stories, and one I see myself revisiting.

ANGELS & VISITATIONS by Neil Gaiman

angels-and-visitations-by-neil-gaimanSandman’s fault, naturally. ⠀

Angels & Visitations is Gaiman’s first collection, compiling some of his fiction and nonfiction. It’s sort of a proto-version of Smoke & Mirrors, a later collection, although there are some pieces here that weren’t included in that later anthology, so this was my first encounter with them. It was interesting to read, in a retrograde sort of way. Smoke & Mirrors is an all-time favorite, and one of the books I’ve returned to the most, but even though Visitations is pretty much the same beast, it didn’t end up impacting me as much as its later incarnation did. Which was expected, to be fair: this is a much slimmer collection, for one; and it didn’t have the added benefit of being read by a young and impressionable twentysomething.⠀

Still, some of the new-to-me pieces were very intriguing, in particular the short story “Webs,” which brought to mind Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and featured a highly intriguing setting that I wouldn’t mind seeing Gaiman revisit. And of course it was nice to see old favorites again (“Chivalry,” “Troll Bridge,” “Looking for the Girl,” “Murder Mysteries”).⠀

Will definitely give this miscellany points for boasting a cover by the inimitable Dave McKean (always a visual treat) and for including illustrations by some great artists for each of the stories — both elements that were sadly lacking in Mirrors.

A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY by Becky Chambers

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

○○○

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

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

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

— FanFiAddict, “Author Chat with Becky Chambers” 

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

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

 ○○○

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

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

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

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

○○○

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

LEGENDS & LATTES by Travis Baldree

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

○○○

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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