CHRISTMAS READS 🎄 2021

krampus confidential by kyle sullivanThank goodness for fantastic middle grade novels. December has been a little rough to say the least, so the escapism these books provide has been a welcome relief. ⠀

Krampus Confidential by Kyle Sullivan follows amateur sleuths Ruprecht (a Krampus) and Marley (a ghost, natch) as they take on a case brought to them by a particularly terrified elf. Hijinks ensue, and Ruprecht soon finds himself on the sights of both the Tinseltown police and the festive city’s surprisingly seedy underbelly. ⠀

This is a charming, clever story full to the brim with imaginative concepts and waggish, witty wordplay (the Christmas puns — they are copious). Artist Derek Sullivan supplies a lot of the atmosphere through his illustrations, which are liberally dispersed throughout the book. I really like his style, and brought to mind the work of Mary GrandPré. Thoroughly enjoyed this hazy fable. Had a tremendous amount of fun with it.⠀

the christmasaurus by tom fletcherTom Fletcher’s The Christmasaurus is another highly imaginative beast, following the magical misadventures of a dinosaur born in the North Pole and his budding friendship with a lonely boy. Like Confidential, it is full of fanciful notions and whimsical wordplay. It turned out to be a bit much for me, though. One of my notes fusses over the sheer amount of alliteration scattered throughout, which given my usual enthusiasm for assonance, says rather a lot. But the book does skew terribly young, so it’s also simply a matter of not connecting with the story enough. I bet this would make a fantastic read-aloud.⠀

I did really enjoy some of the characterization. William is a lovely protagonist, wistful and kind without coming off as mawkish. He is a wheelchair user, and Fletcher did an admirable job depicting that aspect in a mindful, unassuming sort of way. I also liked artist Shane Devries’ depiction of Santa here, jubilant and gloriously fat, sporting stylish shaved sides as well as a man bun adorned with pins made out of frost. It’s a totally extravagant look and I was very into it.⠀

Always got to appreciate the books that shine so bright they help guide you out of the doldrums.

PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke

piranesi-by-susanna-clarkePiranesi was the very last book I read in 2020. I finished it thinking that it was probably the best thing I read in the entire year, but that I needed time to dwell on it before I could say for certain.⠀

I think two weeks is more than ample time. It’s not only the best book I read last year, but it’s also simply one of the best I’ve read in, I don’t know, the last decade? Susanna Clarke just writes the kind of stories I love reading the most: full of wizardry and wordplay and whimsy and wistfulness. Fairy tales, in other words, in their purest, most primal form. ⠀

Alan Moore, the comic book writer and actual honest-to-goodness magician, often writes about art as being true, literal magic, a notion that has always stuck with me:⠀

Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness. The very language about magic seems to be talking as much about writing or art as it is about supernatural events. A “grimoire,” for example, “the book of spells,” is simply a fancy way of saying “grammar.” Indeed, to “cast a spell,” is simply, “to spell.” To manipulate words. To change people’s consciousness.

It’s an interpretation I love, because while I don’t really believe in actual, wave-thy-wand magic, I sure as hell believe in the power of art.⠀

Which is all really to say, for what seems the hundredth time, that I think Susanna Clarke is a true mage, and I will read any spell she chuses to cast on the world.

SEVEN DAYS OF US by Francesca Hornak

seven-days-of-us-by-francesca-hornak

I was going to attempt to do one of my overly verbose, wordplay-filled summaries for this novel, as they are turning out to be one of my very favorite things to write, but I found that the publisher’s copy is actually pretty perfect as on its own, particularly in capturing the frantic, frenetic tone of the story. It goes:

It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. She’s just returned from treating an epidemic abroad and has been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.

For the next seven days, the Birches are locked down, cut off from the rest of humanity, and forced into each other’s orbits. Younger, unabashedly frivolous daughter Phoebe is fixated on her upcoming wedding, while Olivia deals with the culture shock of first-world problems.

As Andrew sequesters himself in his study writing scathing restaurant reviews and remembering his glory days as a war correspondent, Emma hides a secret that will turn the whole family upside down.

In close proximity, not much can stay hidden for long, and as revelations and long-held tensions come to light, nothing is more shocking than the unexpected guest who’s about to arrive….

I mean, come on.  I suppose it does also make it sound like a Lifetime and/or Hallmark movie, but, unremarkable and problematic as they may be (must they all center around white, upper-middle class people and their problems, in this the year of our Lord 2020), you kind of have to admit that they seemed to have cracked a hell of an alluring formula. Why else would my mother audiences keep coming back for more? 

But that’s the vibe I got from Francesca Hornak’s Seven Days of Us. And while I may not generally be a fan of  the tried and true trope of melodrama stemming from people not communicating clearly with one another, I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy the hell out of it in this telenovela of a novel. Admittedly, my interest in it only began about the midway point, finding the first half’s set-up and exposition excessive to the point of being tedious. The nearer the story got to Christmas however, the more all the secrets and pent up tension from the preceding pages threatened to explode. The outcome of which was the bookish equivalent of not being able to look away from a trainwreck. I was surprised to find myself gasping and harshly whispering out things like “ⁿᵒ” and “ᵖˡᵉᵃˢᵉ ᵈᵒⁿ’ᵗ” and “ᵒʰ ᵍᵒᵒᵈ ᵍᵒᵈ ʷʰʸ” so often. It was pretty great.

Much of that enjoyment was a direct result of Hornak’s remarkable job at writing this bevy of fastidious, slightly unlikeable characters. You may not wish to spend some time with them in real life, but you can certainly, assuredly, relate and empathize with every single one of them. We might not be going through many of their specific set of issues (Olivia labeling them first world problems is spot on for the most part), but we know how family can be a battleground almost as often as it is a haven. It’s another time-tested trope — one that rings particularly true in this time of quarantine and lockdowns. 

It’s a little wild to think that this stay-at-home angle was probably the one aspect of the novel the author must have thought not many readers would find relatable. Why would she? This book was first published in 2017, after all. Back when we were all still taking the act of being able to go outside your house and mingling with other people who are not immediately related to you totally and utterly for granted. Ha ha ha who would have ever thought.

SERPENTINE by Philip Pullman

serpentine-by-philip-pullmanWhen it comes to human affairs, a billion invisible filaments connect us to our own pasts, as well as to the most remote things we can imagine; and I hope that, above all, these books are about being alive and being human.⠀

— Philip Pullman⠀

I began this year by reading Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, so I only thought it fitting that I would end it by reading yet another of his fantastic expeditions into human nature. Serpentine is a brief excursion into Lyra’s world, and actually acts as a sort of thematic prequel to Commonwealth, the second entry in The Book of Dust series. ⠀

Serpentine tells a small, intimate story in which Lyra Belacqua joins some colleagues at an archaeological site that happens to be near the home of a past acquaintance — someone who just might be able to answer some of the many burning questions Lyra has been carrying ever since the events related in His Dark Materials. She and her dæmon, Pan, have been growing apart in the aftermath of these earlier exploits, a predicament they can’t seem to be able to solve, causing them both great emotional turmoil. Lyra, true to her curious nature, is determined to decipher this dilemma. She gets some clarification by the end of this novella, but the relationship between humans and their inner-selves is something that will preoccupy Lyra well into her adulthood. Indeed this concern forms the central theme in The Secret Commonwealth (and, I suspect, The Book of Dust as a whole).⠀

I was well into my twenties when I first read His Dark Materials, but the series still ended up being acutely formative. It’s a story that spoke to me on a host of different levels (not least of which a spiritual one) and even though I’ve never sat down and revisited the novels, they still, to this day, live rent-free in my head and heart.⠀

This makes every subsequent glimpse into this world feel like a privilege and a homecoming. There’s something intensely warm and comforting about these novels — probably due to the fact that despite them being mostly dark, serious tomes of the fantastic, they are also some of the most human books out there.⠀

Which is a roundabout way of saying that each return visit to Pullman’s world has felt like coming home. Like visiting old friends. Like gaining some fresh, new insight— however small — into what it means to be human and alive. And the experience of reading Serpentine was no different.

KINDRED SPIRITS + THE PRINCE AND THE TROLL by Rainbow Rowell

46 rainbow rowellHey so speaking of — did you know Rainbow Rowell once wrote a Star Wars story? Well, Star Wars-adjacent, at any rate. For World Book Day a couple of years ago she came out with a short little story about a group of fans waiting in line for the premiere of The Force Awakens. I read it a short while after the story came out and, like a lot of Rowell’s work, I pretty much loved it. Here’s a short review from an old blog:⠀

I love Rainbow Rowell. I love her quirky and clever and passionate writing (if there was a book equivalent to Gilmore Girls, it would be a Rowell book). I love her amazing and uncanny ability to make you fall for a character in almost no time at all.

This same talent is brilliantly showcased in Kindred Spirits, a slim novella that, over the course of sixty-two pages, manages to have more character development than most sprawling, brick-sized novels.

It’s an unfair gift, really.

This is a story about three Star Wars geeks camping out in desolate line in front of an Omaha theater for the premiere of The Force Awakens. It is lovely, and it is charming, and it is so wonderful. I finished the story in one sitting, desperately wishing there was a full-length novel featuring these characters that I could immediately pick up. Heartwarming and beautiful.

Like every December since the first film in the sequel trilogy came out, Star Wars has been on my mind a lot, which is why I decided to revisit the slim volume. I enjoyed it just as much this time around, appreciating especially how it captures the eager, edgy excitement a lot of fans of the saga felt in the run-up of the release of TFA. You know — before the dark times. Before the Discourse. This does tragically make the story act somewhat like a time capsule, however, portraying as it does a facet of fandom that seems quaint and innocent considering the meaningless gatekeeping and toxic rhetoric that is so maddeningly prevalent these days. Alas. ⠀

You and I can still enjoy things, though. It’ll be our secret. ⠀

○○○⠀

Shortly after finishing the novella, I was made aware of a series of fairy tale retellings a bunch of prominent authors were doing for the Amazon Original Stories initiative. Rowell was one of these writers, contributing The Prince and the Troll, an odd little tale that doesn’t seem to be an interpretation of any one fable in particular but instead plays with the troll-under-the-bridge narrative. The story seems to be a blend of Rowell’s realistic contemporary style and the dark whimsy found in her fantasy fiction. This makes it a bit disjointed but it works for the most part. The aforementioned gift is once more in full display here as I also finished this peculiar yarn wanting to know more about the two protagonists, and about the world in specific, which appears to be a sort of post-climate apocalypse mythical land (that, you know, still has Starbucks). Also because once I read that title I just knew Rowell would make them fall in love with each other and that I would buy it hook, line, sinker — and, reader, I did.

THE VISITOR by Sergio Gomez

the-visitor-by-sergio-gomezIn the proverbial middle of nowhere a group of travelers wait out a severe snowstorm inside of a diner. Inside they find warmth and food and drink and casual conversation. Most of them quickly develop the quick camaraderie commonly found between people sharing in a particular, peculiar experience. They are hopeful the rough weather will disperse before long, allowing them to continue their particular journeys. ⠀

A fellow traveler will soon be trying to join them, however, one with less than benevolent intentions in mind — and the group will quickly realize that there are far more dangerous things outside than the miserable elements.⠀

You know, I’ve never really associated the holiday season with horror. Dwell on it enough and it does begin to make a perverse sort of sense, though. Fiction centered around the holidays (and around Christmas especially) is brimming with stories about disparate groups of people finding themselves stuck in an isolated, often claustrophobic setting, after all, and that is as traditional a horror set-up as you can get. Why not just throw a monster into the mix?⠀

The monster in The Visitor, a novella by Sergio Gomez, arrives in the shape of an alien, coming to terrorize our protagonists. Despite the otherworldly antagonist and the wintry setting however, this story is less The Thing than it is Predator, as we quickly find out this creature wants to join in on the Yautja fun by trying to hunt down our core characters one by one.⠀

This being a brief sojourn of a story, my only expectation was to have a good time — a prospect that was indeed met. Gomez has written a tight tale that boasts a breakneck pace, while also somehow finding the space to develop the characters enough that we can recognize and sympathize with their plight. Not an easy thing to do in less than a hundred pages, but Gomez did a creditable job with the material.⠀

If there is one thing I found lacking was the monster itself, especially in terms of its appearance. Gomez keeps it understandably vague, but the impression that we can glean from the details he does drop ends up being… a tiny bit goofy. This is disappointing seeing as how the cover depicts what looks like a traditional Grey alien, which is an image that has always haunted and disturbed me (hullo, my name is Rick, and Whitley Strieber’s Communion is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read). I would have found the story much more effective and unsettling if we got the same spindly extraterrestrial inside the story itself. But I confess that this is more of a personal preference than it is actual criticism.⠀

The Visitor is a fun and bloody ride that makes for some excellent holiday reading.

FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK by Various

from-a-certain-point-of-view---the-empire-strikes-back-by-variousThe first volume of From a Certain Point of View was a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one. The Force Awakens had, well, awakened a long-dormant excitement for Star Wars within, pushing me down a nostalgic-tinged rabbit hole that led me to things like Star Wars Rebels (which still stands as my favorite piece of new SW media) and, eventually, inevitably, to the books. Up to that point in the aftermath of the Disney acquisition most of the stories had to do, naturally, with the new sequel trilogy of films, broadening the narrative and developing certain key characters. Occasionally some of the books dropped dealt with characters and events from bygone eras, but for the most part the expanded universe focused on the current. And then From a Certain Point of View suddenly arrived, an anthology featuring a wide array of writers telling the stories of dozens of peripheral characters from the film that started it all. It’s an idea that perfectly embodies this franchise’s most charming, playful notion: that everyone has a tale that needs to be told; that everyone has an important role to play in this far-away galaxy.

I ate it all up. The collection somehow managed to satisfy my nostalgic yen while also injecting some much needed, much welcomed fresh ideas to this familiar universe: from boasting a more diverse cast of characters (people of color! a touch of queer representation!) to playing with styles and genres. There was a lot of emphasis on lighthearted humor, of course, but a lot of the stories also packed quite the emotional punch. It was a wild ride, and definitely one of my favorite reads the year it came out. It made me hope they would continue with the concept, giving the rest of the films the same treatment. And so when this volume telling the story of The Empire Strikes Back was announced I was nothing if not thrilled.

Which just makes it all the more the shame that From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back mostly disappointed me. It still boasts a broad battalion of authors — many of whom have written works I’ve enjoyed in the past — who do an admirable job with the material given while also continuing to ramp up the diversity aspect established in the first volume. Really, the ingredients that made me love the previous collection are all here, it’s just that, somehow, the recipe doesn’t particularly work with the story Empire ultimately told.

It makes sense. The first film introduced us to a vast cast of characters, giving the stories a wider area in which to play and let loose. In contrast, Empire’s story is smaller in scale and much more personal, concentrating less on the galaxy at large and more on the trials and tribulations of our protagonists. This leaves the authors of this collection to either focus on a scattering of minor characters or create new ones whole cloth. In any other context this would be a freeing conceit; here, though, it just ends up making the collection feel helter-skelter. Add to that the fact that quite a few of the stories are irreverent in nature, focusing on the humorous, slightly ridiculous side of the saga, eschewing the poignancy found in much of the first volume in favor of knowing winks at the audience. And while you will never find me stating that camp has no place in the Star Wars universe (it’s been there from the start, etched into its genetic makeup), I do think that, much like with the Force, there needs to be a balance.

In the spirit of said balance, I want to make note of the stories that did end up leaving a big impression on me, of which there were a handful:

Django Wexler’s “Amara Kel’s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably)” and Mackenzi Lee’s “There Is Always Another” feature the sort of clever cheek that does work for me, where humor is used to ground all these fanciful figures. The opening line in Lee’s story in particular will stand as one of the funniest in all of Star Wars.

I had hoped that dying would be enough to untangle me from the Skywalker’s family issues.

— Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Force ghost in “There Is Always Another” by Mackenzi Lee

Jim Zub’s “The First Lesson” and Lydia Kang’s “Right-Hand Man” in contrast, delve deep into the pathos of some of these mythical characters, and they were the stories I feel actually added some more substance to the story being told in the film. ⠀

And finally, Austin Walker’s “No Time for Poetry” and Alexander Freed’s “The Man Who Built Cloud City” both tell the type of story I currently enjoy the most in this universe, narratives which — much like my other two favorites, The Mandalorian and Rebels — manage to perfectly blend that mix of earnestness and enthusiasm that made Star Wars so damn precious and exceptional in the first place.

Perhaps it’s not the end at all. Perhaps it’s merely the darkest moment of a triumphant tale — when all is presumed lost, so that victory can be sweeter.

Yathros Condorius in “The Man Who Built Cloud City” by Alexander Freed

I’ve mentioned it before but it bears repeating: disappointment is as much an integral part of being a Star Wars fan as the feeling of delight. And if there is anything to living in this post-Disney supersaturated world is that, for the foreseeable future at least, we can be certain there will soon be something else to anticipate, anyway.

CHILLING EFFECT by Valerie Valdes

chilling-effect-by-valerie-valderEva-Benita Caridad Larsen y Coipel de Innocente — Eva, for short — captain of La Sirena Negra, is tired. She’s led a rough life, one riddled with tragedies and mistakes that she would soon like to forget. She’s doing a decent job at it, too, with having cut ties with most of her family and concentrating on growing her mostly legal shipping business. Helping her in this endeavor is a capable, crackpot crew that is beginning to feel like a sort of family. She’s even considering starting a new relationship. Eva Innocente’s past seems to be staying well behind her, where it belongs.⠀

Right up until it catches back up with her in the form of the shadowy, mob-like organization known as The Fridge, who Eva learns are holding her younger sister, Mari, captive. With the threat of harm coming to her sister lest she comply, the captain of La Sirena Negra is coerced into doing increasingly dangerous and bizarre tasks for the secretive faction, all while trying to keep her close-knit crew in the dark as to the origins of these odd jobs, a deceit that soon begins to unravel, bringing back all the tension and drama Eva has tried so hard to evade all these years.⠀

What you definitely won’t get from that synopsis though is just how funny and irreverent Chilling Effect, the debut novel from Valerie Valdes, actually is. The book starts out fun and light, a tone that, thanks to characters who are instantly compelling, it manages to keep even as the tension and melodrama ramps up like a proper telenovela. Like many science fiction romps, Chilling Effect deals with a diverse, ragtag group of people traveling the universe and getting into trouble — a classic, well-established trope present in many personal favorites such as Cowboy Bebop, Firefly, and most recently Becky Chambers’ excellent Wayfarers series, to which, at least in the beginning, my brain kept comparing this novel to — you might say this novel is the delightfully vulgar, foul-mouthed cousin.⠀

Which brings me to the dialogue, an area in which Valdes excels. Main character Eva’s rhetoric in particular was a stand-out for me, packed as it is with shrewd Spanglish witticisms that I couldn’t help but appreciate: there are particular phrases (and insults and profanities) that I have never come across in a work of fiction before. It made me feel seen in a way I did not expect. It was great.⠀

The first half of the novel is episodic in nature, which is another aspect of the plucky crew trope that I highly enjoy. Unfortunately though as the vignettes gradually connected with the overarching storyline, the picaresque plot began to feel repetitive and drawn out, and it made the last half of the book a bit of a slog to get through.⠀

Ultimately it was the characters and the clever, sharp writing that compelled me to finish the space opera telenovela, and I wouldn’t mind traveling the galaxy and getting into trouble with these bunch of misfits again.

TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE by Becky Chambers

to-be-taught,-if-fortunate-by-becky-chambersEvery time I’ve picked up a book by Becky Chambers I have ended up loving it. And every time after I’m done reading I sit down and try to get my thoughts out on the page. And every single time I fail to do so.

I guess it’s because her stories emotionally resonate with me so dang much. I’ve always had a hard time talking about my feelings (hi I am a Leo), and Becky Chambers stories, for me, are all feelings. Things happen, to be sure, and sometimes there is even some sort conflict. But there’s never what you might call a “traditional plot.” In these stories things happen because… life. That’s what life is. ⠀

That the characters Chambers writes about happen to lead such interesting and human lives is part of the appeal for me. ⠀

And I use the term “human” very deliberately. Because even though Chambers work is full of capital-A Alien creatures and complex concepts, at their core they are some of the more human stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across. There are always at least a couple of scenes that move me to tears, and that was also the case with To Be Taught, If Fortunate. (One scene affected me so much that I startled my partner by suddenly turning to her, eyes watering up. She asked me what was wrong, and I couldn’t quite say, so I just told her the entire storyline up until that point. It seemed the only sensible thing.)⠀

“Hopepunk” is the term that’s being floated around for the newish type of science fiction that proposes a more optimistic outlook for humanity. Chambers’ books are more than representative of this blossoming genre, with the sort of narratives that may not entirely thrill your more spirited storytelling sensibilities, but which will instead, if fortunate, nourish your soul. ⠀

More than welcome in these divisive, cynical times.

THRAWN: TREASON by Timothy Zahn

thrawn---treason-by-timothy-zahnDecember is for Star Wars.⠀

I really enjoyed Zahn’s return to his iconic character in the first book of this series. Getting a story from the point of view of a character that essentially boils down to “Sherlock Holmes but uh even more alien” makes for some fun reading.⠀

I enjoyed the second entry, Alliances, a fair deal more. Telling that story in alternating chapters first with Thrawn and Vader and then with Thrawn and Anakin made for a really dynamic story, and I enjoyed how their interactions were written. We all know Vader’s story. But we also know that Vader and Anakin are two distinct personalities, and Zahn did a great job highlighting that. We also got a fun romp of a storyline with Padmé who is still to this day in the canon, severely underutilized. ⠀

Which all makes Treason feels slightly disappointing. It’s still an interesting and fun read. It just feels inconsequential to the story at large. (Some spoilers ahead here.) It takes place in a single week, before he and Ezra and a bunch of space whales take a hyperspace jaunt to who knows where, and knowing that robs this story of any dramatic tension. It was also a little too military SF for me, which is a genre I don’t particularly enjoy. That military aspect has always been there (Thrawn is a Grand Admiral in an Empire, after all), but, at least with the two previous stories, I felt like it was more of a background element, a method Thrawn embraced in order to get what he wants. Here, that facet is brought to the foreground, and Thrawn himself is the one drawn back to the shadows.⠀

There were still some things I really liked. Eli Vanto was a character I particularly enjoyed, and it was nice to catch up with him. Admiral Ar’alani and Commodore Faro are just badasses, and I hope we get more of them in the future. And I liked the bureaucratic and whiny Ronan, this story’s miniature version of Director Krennic. He has one of the most prevalent roles in the story, so it’s a good thing that his arc is also one of the more interesting. ⠀

Not as good as the last two books. Still fun. That feels as much a part of Star Wars as anything else. ⠀

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December is for Star Wars. Between this and The Mandalorian (which I’ve been really loving), it’s been nice to wade back into the waters of a galaxy far, far away, before taking the full plunge next week with The Rise of Skywalker. I already have my tickets. I hope you do, as well.