PATINA by Jason Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compassionate and wonderful. Jason Reynolds never fails to impress.

BLACK BOY JOY by Various

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

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

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

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

INTO THE DARK by Claudia Gray

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

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

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

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

But still, the story felt a little lacking.

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

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

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

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

FINLAY DONOVAN IS KILLING IT by Elle Cosimano

blog - 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.

○○○

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

blog - bags (or a story thereof) by patrick mchale, gavin fullerton, whitney cogar

Here’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….

○○○

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.

THE WOODS ARE ALWAYS WATCHING by Stephanie Perkins — 🎃

blog - the woods are always watching by stephanie perkinsJosie and Neena are best friends about to graduate high school and heading off in different directions — or Neena is, at least. Josie enrolled in a city college and will stay at home, while Neena is bound for glamorous California. Feeling a mix of melancholy and resentment the pair plan a getaway hiking through the local North Carolina mountains, in the hopes the adventure will create meaningful, unforgettable memories before they part ways.

Their plans are quickly unraveled, however, as both environment and emotions seem to be working against them. Neither of them have any worthwhile outdoors experience, and so they are soon overwhelmed by the elements. Adding to that is the pair’s pent up personal drama, which comes to a head on their very first night where bitter words are shared in the dark. Not wanting to abandon what could be their last ever exploit together, they continue their trek through the woods in stubborn, stony silence. On their last day they decide to follow a blaze path, informal trails created by amateur hikers that make guideposts out of trees through marks and other signs. A sudden downpour makes them lose their way, and then tragedy strikes when Josie falls through a sinkhole and suffers a particularly gruesome injury. Neena is reluctant to leave her friend alone, but with no phone service and night quickly falling, she decides to brave the forest in search of help. But the watchful woods seem to have other plans for the pair of friends….

○○○

Like most people (at least those who regularly watched Vlogbrothers circa 2009) I first learned of Stephanie Perkins due to 𝘈𝘯𝘯𝘢 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘍𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘩 𝘒𝘪𝘴𝘴, a gentle gem of a romance novel that kicked off a series of similarly sentimental stories. Romance became Perkin’s brand, and so — like most people — I was surprised when she suddenly dropped her slasher throwback of a novel 𝘛𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦’𝘴 𝘚𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘐𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘥𝘦 𝘠𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘏𝘰𝘶𝘴𝘦 (which just got the adaptation treatment over on Netflix) a couple of years ago. It seemed like such a turn. But I was already a fan of her writing, and it came out just around spooky season, so I gave it a shot. I dug it a great deal. I remember Perkins getting a lot of flak for that novel for being derivative and full of stereotypes. I could see where the criticism came from, but I didn’t really mind — there’s no genre that’s as cannibalistic as horror, after all, constantly feeding off of its own self. It’s part of the appeal. So I liked it enough that when 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝑾𝒐𝒐𝒅𝒔 𝑨𝒓𝒆 𝑨𝒍𝒘𝒂𝒚𝒔 𝑾𝒂𝒕𝒄𝒉𝒊𝒏𝒈, a spiritual sequel of sorts, was announced, I awaited it with anticipation.

It didn’t disappoint, although I suspect it will get a lot of the same kind of criticism as its predecessor did. But once more, I did not mind. I enjoyed this ticking time bomb of a novel, which starts off slow, almost hesitantly, ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels before finally releasing it in a cannonade of catastrophe and catharsis during the book’s final half.

I went into 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘰𝘰𝘥𝘴 fairly cold, which turned out to both harm and help my reading experience. I knew only that it was a horror story set somewhere in the Appalachians, which is honestly enough description for me to be certain that I will be thoroughly freaked out, as that particular mountain system fascinates me as much as it fills me with dread — blame it on assumptions and stereotypes shaped by years of macabre media consumption. I did not know what form the antagonistic force was going to take: if it was going to be a supernatural specter, or a more realistic, grit-and-grime menace. For the first hundred pages the text made it seem like either one could have been likely.

𝗦𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝘀𝗽𝗼𝗶𝗹𝗲𝗿𝘀 𝗮𝗵𝗲𝗮𝗱

So I admit to being initially disappointed when it turned out to be the latter.  As the book went on, though, with Perkins packing on the terror and trepidation, I understood the kind of story she was aiming to tell: a heightened version of what far too many women suffer through at the hands of men, the sort of experiences that are the root of very real fears and anxieties they can experience while among us. Josie and Neena are stalked and threatened by men in the woods here, but it’s terrifyingly telling that their story could have been set literally anywhere else — with men in elevators or subway cars or quiet streets — and depressingly little would change in the way of details. 

Two girls walk into the woods, Josie thought. But the story wasn’t a fairy tale. They hadn’t dropped a trail of bread crumbs, discovered a gingerbread cottage with sugar-paned windows, or shoved an old witch into a flaming stove. Nor was it a ghost story, traded in whispers around smoky campfires. It wasn’t even an urban legend. Their story was flesh and bone. Urgent and real.

Perkins offers up a tight, tense thriller of survival, with two protagonists who feel real: smart and resourceful but also obnoxious bordering on unlikeable — kids, in other words, a fact that makes their ordeal all the more harrowing, as you can’t help but hope they make it through the dark forest and into the light.

𝗖𝗼𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗻𝘁 𝘄𝗮𝗿𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀 𝗼𝗳 𝗿𝗮𝗽𝗲 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘁𝗼𝗿𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲, 𝘀𝘁𝗮𝗹𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴, 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘀𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝗴𝗿𝗮𝗽𝗵𝗶𝗰 𝗱𝗲𝘀𝗰𝗿𝗶𝗽𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀 𝗼𝗳 𝗴𝗼𝗿𝗲.

A SEASON WITH THE WITCH by J.W. Ocker — 🎃

blog - a season with the witch by j.w. ockerI started J.W. Ocker’s 𝑨 𝑺𝒆𝒂𝒔𝒐𝒏 𝒘𝒊𝒕𝒉 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑾𝒊𝒕𝒄𝒉 late in September, wanting to get into the spirit of the season a little earlier this year. I finished it on a gray, gusty evening a couple of days into October, and honestly I couldn’t have asked for a better atmosphere (marred slightly by the fact that I was getting over a cold). It really is the perfect read to set the stage for Hallowe’en — Ocker’s enthusiasm for the holiday is infectious, and you can’t help but be swept up by the magical pandemonium he chronicles in this spookiest of travelogues. 

This is a book about Salem, naturally. About the charm and chaos and contradictions that constitute the Witch City. To write it, Ocker and his family spent an entire October experiencing the haunted holiday along with Salem and its other guests. It’s an excellent, enviable premise, and Ocker makes the most of it, venturing out into the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets of downtown Salem during the days before retreating back to a rented house or, more often than not, a themed restaurant or bar (wherein he would imbibe concoctions with names like “Candy Corntini” and “Satan’s Cider”) in the evenings to collect and record his thoughts. The result is a loving nocturne to both a city and the holiday that, for better or for worse, it has come to embody.

The book is as much a history primer as it is a travel guide, with the first handful of chapters dedicated to Salem in the Puritan era — particularly focusing, of course, on the infamous Witch Trials. Specifically Ocker tries to figure out just why an event that was, in comparison to other similar inquisitions of the time, relatively inconsequential, and that most of which didn’t even happen in Salem proper but rather in the surrounding vicinities, came to shape the identity and soul of a single place so thoroughly — not to mention latch itself so fervently to our collective unconscious that the mere appearance of the word “witch” makes one think of Salem. It’s as close to a central theme as this book has, and Ocker tries to offer up different conclusions by interviewing, through the lens of this thesis, several individuals with varying ties to the city. We never really get a definitive answer, though, but the point is that maybe there isn’t one. Cities are made of inconsistencies and complexities as much as they are made of brick and mortar.

It’s a duality and discrepancy those who hold up Salem as a haven for Hallowe’en have to contend with, and which constitutes one of my favorite aspects of the book. A real tragedy happened there, minor or not, and viewpoints differ as to whether adding a weighty layer of morbid celebration counts as disgrace, or if it’s yet another example of human resilience against adversity. Of people, as Stephen King once wrote, dancing in defiance of the dark. Ocker favors the latter:

Everything in the entire world is founded on tragedy. Our country, every country. There’s not a society on the planet that doesn’t have ancient tragedies clawing at its back. The past is a giant corpse. But life isn’t a perpetual state of regret and mourning over those tragedies, it’s taking those tragedies, giving them their due in proportion, learning from them (or not), working to prevent them from happening again (or not), and then we all party because we only have to many holidays in our lives.

A bit irreverent, to be sure, but I stand with King and Ocker on this one.

In truth, history is what makes up the bulk of 𝘚𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘰𝘯, and if there’s one gripe with the book is that at times it seems like too much History and not enough Hallowe’en. Which is funny, because we do actually get quite a bit Hallowe’en. Ocker guides us through the myriad of eerie events, creepy celebrations, and dreadful destinations Salem offers not only during the month of October, but often year-round as well. Everything seems joyous and hokey in equal measure, and it is written in such a fond, earnest manner that it led to the Witch City becoming a personal de rigueur destination. There’s a hell of a lot of Hallowe’en in here. But you still end up expecting more, especially based on the promise of the cover. It’s just as well, though. Hallowe’en always feels like too much and also somehow never enough. It’s part of the ephemeral nature of the holiday.

“You can’t fit a city into a book,” Ocker writes in the epilogue. Which is true: cities are unwieldy by nature, and too full of people (beautiful, frustrating, obfuscating people) to be entirely understood. But you can capture a certain feeling, a certain sense of a season. Ocker let us know back in the introduction: Salem is weird. Salem is absurd. Salem is magic. If the intention was to show us just how weird and absurd and magical the Witch City could get, then 𝘈 𝘚𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘰𝘯 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘪𝘵𝘤𝘩 most definitely met its goal.

WHISPER IN THE DARK by Joseph Bruchac — 🎃

blog - whisper in the dark by joseph bruchacJoseph Bruchac is an amazing storyteller. Before picking up his books, I recommend you look up videos of him telling stories before a crowd. Chances are, you’ll end up as captivated as his audience. He’s a genuine teller of tales, and there aren’t many of those around anymore.

They remembered the stories of their people and the history of all that happened to them. They passed it down, not in books but through storytelling.⠀

He also doesn’t hold back when writing scary stories for kids. He’s great.

𝑾𝒉𝒊𝒔𝒑𝒆𝒓 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑫𝒂𝒓𝒌 follows Maddy, a teenager of Narragansett descent, who finds herself being stalked by the Whisperer in the Dark, a vampire-like creature that was the subject of countless tales told by Maddy’s family. The book opens with Maddy picking up a call and hearing nobody on the other end — save for her strangely echoing voice. Having just dreamt of encountering the monster in a cave, she imagines the creature improbably calling her from his underground lair. The image of a voice coming out of a phone and echoing in hollow darkness of cave is a scenario I could have never fathomed but is nonetheless thoroughly creepy.

Strange things begin to happen after that call: for one thing, she finds the words ɪ ᴀᴍ ʜᴇʀᴇ scratched into a door. For another even more horrifying thing, her dog is found under a shed, bleeding profusely from wounds that looked like they had been made by something with a razor-sharp edge. Maddy soon realizes that the Whisperer in the Dark is real and is coming for her. She’s determined to outrun the blood-thirsty demon, and with the help of her friends and family — and, crucially, the stories she’s shared with them — she might just get away with her life.

We Indians know what century we are living in, but we also know how we got here. And we remember the stories created along the way.

Maddy is an excellent protagonist, and Bruchac gives us enough details to make her feel real and easy to root for: she’s an orphan living with a white aunt who she loves but also feels misunderstood by her; she has a warm relationship with her Indian grandmother, and they share a love of stories; she runs track; she’s into horror.

She has enough attributes, in fact, that they make the rest of the small cast of characters feel thinly sketched in comparison. But that’s fine. This is Maddy’s story, after all.

Bruchac, as previously mentioned, doesn’t hold back when writing for children. The descriptions of the Whisperer in the Dark are evocative and horrifying (oh he takes the head off the bodies before drinking the blood okay fine). We get a flashback of the car accident that took Maddy’s parents, and it is chilling in its stark, simple brutality. And did I mention the bit with the dog? Don’t worry — the good girl makes it. But Bruchac did 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵. To someone’s 𝘱𝘦𝘵. He knows children are a little creepy and are all in for this macabre business and he will make no apologies.

Having two horror nerds as protagonists is fun and refreshing in a spooky middle grade novel. Bruchac has fun with it, cleverly commenting on his own story and calling out tropes and conventions by using the horror stories that made them so ubiquitous as examples. The book’s title is also similar to that of a novella by H.P. Lovecraft, and he is name-dropped a couple of times. It makes sense: the action takes place in Rhode Island (prime Lovecraft Country), and its themes and atmosphere sometimes veers into the eldritch. The man’s influence on horror runs deep, but I’m still surprised that the story didn’t comment on his terrible, racist views at all. But I understand that maybe this wasn’t the place for it. Still, on a personal note: a Lovecraftian story written by a Native American author would have sent the intolerant wretch into hysterics and I just enjoy that image.

Mostly though, this is a story about stories — why they matter and why we need them not just for entertainment, but for survival. And those are my favorite stories of all.

The book has illustrations by Sally Wern Comport, whose work is just delightful.

○○○

I read my first Bruchac book last year on October 11, which also happened to be Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I ended that review by acknowledging the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women that has been plaguing their communities in North America for decades and continues to do so still. Once again I’m including some links to relevant charities and organizations on my Linktree page, and encourage you to give them a look and help out if you are able.

JUDGE DEE STORIES by Lavie Tidhar — 🎃

I’m a big fan of Red Nose Studio. They often work with Tor Books, producing quirky little masterpieces of paper and wood and string to grace the covers of the publishing house’s offerings. But their covers for this set of vampiric murder mysteries by author Lavie Tidhar is on another level. The artwork is what initially drew me in. The murder mystery angle of the stories is what hooked me. This should surprise no one who’s followed my feed this summer. It is my current favorite genre. Vampires are my favorite monsters. It was a no brainer.

𝘝𝘢𝘮𝘱𝘪𝘳𝘦𝘴 𝘮𝘢𝘺 𝘣𝘦 𝘤𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘯𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵, 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘢𝘭𝘴𝘰 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘳𝘶𝘭𝘦𝘴 — 𝘦𝘯𝘪𝘨𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘤 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘤𝘳𝘺𝘱𝘵𝘪𝘤 𝘢𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘮𝘢𝘺 𝘣𝘦.  𝘑𝘶𝘥𝘨𝘦 𝘋𝘦𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘢 𝘷𝘢𝘮𝘱𝘪𝘳𝘦 𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘨𝘦𝘥 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘦𝘯𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘤𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘴𝘦 𝘷𝘢𝘨𝘶𝘦 𝘳𝘶𝘭𝘦𝘴. 𝘑𝘶𝘥𝘨𝘦 𝘋𝘦𝘦 𝘥𝘰𝘦𝘴 𝘦𝘹𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘭𝘺 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘯𝘢𝘮𝘦 𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘪𝘦𝘴.

So I was a little disappointed to find that the mysteries were, unfortunately, mostly trivial and barely mysterious. But I very much got the sense that Tidhar wasn’t aiming to write showy whodunnits as much as he just wanted to have fun with the tropes and conventions of vampire stories — and he very clearly does. (My favorite gag: each and every single vampire prefacing the word “wine” with dramatic ellipses.) 

These stories read very much like experiments in style, eschewing the often august, Gothic sensibilities associated with the elegant ghouls in favor of clever subversions and playful, outrageous scenarios. Which is totally fine — just not exactly what I expected. 

Still, these stories are very much fun, and I particularly recommend it to fans of 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘞𝘦 𝘋𝘰 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘚𝘩𝘢𝘥𝘰𝘸𝘴, as Jonathan, Judge Dee’s milquetoast human companion, reads like a cross between Guillermo, that show’s similarly long-suffering familiar, and Morty, the pushover from, you know, that other show. The titular character himself reads like an aloof Benedict Cumberbatch. Like I said: fun. You can read all three stories that have been released on Tor’s website. My favorite is “Judge Dee and the Poisoner of Montmartre,” mostly due to the brazen ludicrousness of its plot. (These stories have excellent grandiloquent titles, which I appreciate, naturally.)