THE WOODS ARE ALWAYS WATCHING by Stephanie Perkins โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

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 โ€” 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 pairโ€™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 friendsโ€ฆ.

โ—‹

Like most people (at least those who regularly watched Vlogbrothers circa 2009) I first learned of Stephanie Perkins due to ๐˜ˆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฏ๐˜ข ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ค๐˜ฉ ๐˜’๐˜ช๐˜ด๐˜ด, a gentle gem of a romance novel that kicked off a series of similarly sentimental stories. Romance became Perkinโ€™s brand, and so โ€” like most people โ€” I was surprised when she suddenly dropped her slasher throwback of a novel ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ’๐˜ด ๐˜š๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ ๐˜๐˜ฏ๐˜ด๐˜ช๐˜ฅ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ณ ๐˜๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ด๐˜ฆ (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 didnโ€™t really mind โ€” thereโ€™s no genre thatโ€™s as cannibalistic as horror, after all, constantly feeding off of its own self. Itโ€™s part of the appeal. So I liked it enough that when ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘พ๐’๐’๐’…๐’” ๐‘จ๐’“๐’† ๐‘จ๐’๐’˜๐’‚๐’š๐’” ๐‘พ๐’‚๐’•๐’„๐’‰๐’Š๐’๐’ˆ, a spiritual sequel of sorts, was announced, I awaited it with anticipation.

It didnโ€™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 bookโ€™s final half.

I went into ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ž๐˜ฐ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฅ๐˜ด 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 โ€” 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.

๐—ฆ๐—ผ๐—บ๐—ฒ ๐˜€๐—ฝ๐—ผ๐—ถ๐—น๐—ฒ๐—ฟ๐˜€ ๐—ฎ๐—ต๐—ฒ๐—ฎ๐—ฑ

So I admit to being initially disappointed when it turned out to be the latter.ย  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 itโ€™s terrifyingly telling that their story could have been set literally anywhere else โ€” with men in elevators or subway cars or quiet streets โ€” and depressingly little would change in the way of details.ย 

Two girls walk into the woods, Josie thought. But the story wasnโ€™t a fairy tale. They hadnโ€™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 wasnโ€™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 โ€” kids, in other words, a fact that makes their ordeal all the more harrowing, as you canโ€™t help but hope they make it through the dark forest and into the light.

๐—–๐—ผ๐—ป๐˜๐—ฒ๐—ป๐˜ ๐˜„๐—ฎ๐—ฟ๐—ป๐—ถ๐—ป๐—ด ๐—ณ๐—ผ๐—ฟ ๐—บ๐—ฒ๐—ป๐˜๐—ถ๐—ผ๐—ป๐˜€ ๐—ผ๐—ณ ๐—ฟ๐—ฎ๐—ฝ๐—ฒ ๐—ฎ๐—ป๐—ฑ ๐˜๐—ผ๐—ฟ๐˜๐˜‚๐—ฟ๐—ฒ, ๐˜€๐˜๐—ฎ๐—น๐—ธ๐—ถ๐—ป๐—ด, ๐—ฎ๐—ป๐—ฑ ๐˜€๐—ผ๐—บ๐—ฒ ๐—ด๐—ฟ๐—ฎ๐—ฝ๐—ต๐—ถ๐—ฐ ๐—ฑ๐—ฒ๐˜€๐—ฐ๐—ฟ๐—ถ๐—ฝ๐˜๐—ถ๐—ผ๐—ป๐˜€ ๐—ผ๐—ณ ๐—ด๐—ผ๐—ฟ๐—ฒ.

A SEASON WITH THE WITCH by J.W. Ocker โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

blog - a season with the witch by j.w. ockerI started J.W. Ocker’s ๐‘จ ๐‘บ๐’†๐’‚๐’”๐’๐’ ๐’˜๐’Š๐’•๐’‰ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘พ๐’Š๐’•๐’„๐’‰ 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 โ€” 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 โ€” 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 โ€” 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 ๐˜š๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ด๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ, 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 ๐˜ˆ ๐˜š๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ด๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ ๐˜ธ๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ฉ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ž๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ค๐˜ฉ most definitely met its goal.

WHISPER IN THE DARK by Joseph Bruchac โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

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.โ €

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

๐‘พ๐’‰๐’Š๐’”๐’‘๐’†๐’“ ๐’Š๐’ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ซ๐’‚๐’“๐’Œ 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 โ€” 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 ษช แด€แด สœแด‡ส€แด‡ 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 โ€” and, crucially, the stories she’s shared with them โ€” 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; sheโ€™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 โ€” the good girl makes it. But Bruchac did ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ต. To someone’s ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฆ๐˜ต. 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 wasnโ€™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 โ€” 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.

โ—‹

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 โ€” ๐ŸŽƒ

Iโ€™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 houseโ€™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 whoโ€™s followed my feed this summer. It is my current favorite genre. Vampires are my favorite monsters. It was a no brainer.

๐˜๐˜ข๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜บ ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ค๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ถ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ฏ๐˜ช๐˜จ๐˜ฉ๐˜ต, ๐˜ฃ๐˜ถ๐˜ต ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜บ ๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ด๐˜ฐ ๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ท๐˜ฆ ๐˜ณ๐˜ถ๐˜ญ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด โ€” ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ช๐˜จ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ช๐˜ค ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ค๐˜ณ๐˜บ๐˜ฑ๐˜ต๐˜ช๐˜ค ๐˜ข๐˜ด ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜บ ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜บ ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ.  ๐˜‘๐˜ถ๐˜ฅ๐˜จ๐˜ฆ ๐˜‹๐˜ฆ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ช๐˜ด ๐˜ข ๐˜ท๐˜ข๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ค๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜จ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ธ๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ฉ ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ง๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ค๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜จ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด๐˜ฆ ๐˜ท๐˜ข๐˜จ๐˜ถ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ณ๐˜ถ๐˜ญ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด. ๐˜‘๐˜ถ๐˜ฅ๐˜จ๐˜ฆ ๐˜‹๐˜ฆ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜ฆ๐˜น๐˜ข๐˜ค๐˜ต๐˜ญ๐˜บ ๐˜ธ๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ต ๐˜ฉ๐˜ช๐˜ด ๐˜ฏ๐˜ข๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ ๐˜ช๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ญ๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ด.

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 wasnโ€™t aiming to write showy whodunnits as much as he just wanted to have fun with the tropes and conventions of vampire stories โ€” and he very clearly does. (My favorite gag: each and every single vampire prefacing the word โ€œwineโ€ 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 โ€” just not exactly what I expected. 

Still, these stories are very much fun, and I particularly recommend it to fans of ๐˜ž๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ต ๐˜ž๐˜ฆ ๐˜‹๐˜ฐ ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜š๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ฅ๐˜ฐ๐˜ธ๐˜ด, as Jonathan, Judge Deeโ€™s milquetoast human companion, reads like a cross between Guillermo, that showโ€™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 Bookโ€™s website. My favorite is โ€œJudge Dee and the Poisoner of Montmartre,โ€ mostly due to the brazen ludicrousness of its plot. (These stories have excellent grandiloquent titles, which I appreciate, naturally.)

A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT by Becky Chambers

a psalm for the wild-built by becky chambers - blogThere were robots in the communities of Panga once. But, shortly before a total environmental collapse, they gained sentience and chose to go into the wilderness, leaving the humans to their own devices. People, for their part, respected this decision, and resolved instead to pull their home back from the brink. They began to live in harmony with nature, rather than impose their industrial will upon it. This resulted, eventually, inevitably, into a veritable Utopia where people prosper alongside nature.

Humans will still be humans, however, and in a perfect world there will still be sadness and anxiety and dissatisfaction. Which is how we find Sibling Dex, a gardener monk. They live a good, decent life in Panga’s only city. But Dex still feels tired: the city is beautiful but stifling; their work is honorable but unfulfilling. Dex finds themself craving stillness and solitude. And so, like countless humans before them, they pack up their life and hit the road. Settling on becoming a tea monk, Dex will travel through Panga’s communities, offering a service that is considered more therapeutic than indulgent in this society.

And so Sibling Dex soon establishes a routine. Restlessness soon rears its eager head once more, though. Feeling exasperated and balking at the concept of once again changing vocations and rebuilding their life, Dex decides on something a little more drastic and abandons it instead. They go off grid, as it were, heading into the wild towards an abandoned hermitage, ostensibly to find a species of cricket believed to be extinct (an obsession and metaphor Dex holds throughout the story), but in reality looking for some sort of enlightenment. Some path towards happiness.

It’s on this road that they stumble upon Splendid Speckled Mosscap, a wild-built robot that has volunteered to essentially check up on the humans and surmise what they need. To that end, it joins Sibling Dex on their journey, engaging in increasingly philosophical conversations that run the gamut of human (and robot) nature along the way.

โ—‹

I have revisited a lot of books in my life. Like most readers, I have perennial favorites that I return to time and again for comfort and the warmth of familiarity. Even so, I can’t recall a time when I’ve picked a book back up so soon after finishing it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about ๐‘จ ๐‘ท๐’”๐’‚๐’๐’Ž ๐’‡๐’๐’“ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘พ๐’Š๐’๐’…-๐‘ฉ๐’–๐’Š๐’๐’•, the latest from Becky Chambers, which is why, barely a day after I first finished it, I found myself starting the story once more. Which should speak volumes as to how much this short novel affected me.

I’m used to having an emotional connection to Chambers’ particularly charming brand of science fiction. Her books have always filled me with warmth and light. The stories may be about alien beings and life in outer space, but they are primarily about capital-F Feelings, written in poetic prose that sings as it burrows itself into my cold, hollow heart. But ๐˜—๐˜ด๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ฎ in particular not only managed to wedge itself into that ramshackle muscle, but proceeded to fill it with enough of its sacred song to restore the damn thing back to beating life.

It’s the timing of it all. Stories have a tendency to find you when you need them most. So it was with ๐˜—๐˜ด๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ฎ, speaking as it did to so many things that have taken up space in my brain this past pandemic year: ecology and environment; stillness and solitude; sorrow and stress; productivity and purpose. I saw myself in this story, and more importantly I felt understood by it. It spoke to me, and its voice, like that of a psalm (or a prayer, or a promise), was one of encouragement and reassurance:

The world may be broken, but it might still be mended. You may be hurting, but you could still be healed. You may be lost, but you can always be found again and again and again.

THE TRULY DEVIOUS TRILOGY by Maureen Johnson

truly devious trilogy - maureen johnson

My murder mystery midsummer truly reached a zenith with the completion of Maureen Johnson’s ๐‘ป๐’“๐’–๐’๐’š ๐‘ซ๐’†๐’—๐’Š๐’๐’–๐’” trilogy. I had first read โ€” and thoroughly enjoyed โ€” the first entry last year, and I finished it feeling something I had not felt toward a series in quite some time: an eagerness to get to the sequel straightaway.

Despite my excitement, that did not happen. It’s that same old story: other books got in the way. But the news for the ๐˜’๐˜ฏ๐˜ช๐˜ท๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜–๐˜ถ๐˜ต follow-up that began to come out out in May once again sparked my interest in the genre (the original film did the same โ€” hence me picking up ๐˜›๐˜ณ๐˜ถ๐˜ญ๐˜บ ๐˜‹๐˜ฆ๐˜ท๐˜ช๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ด in the first place).

Anyway.

If you’ve followed my Instagram stories at all during these past few months then you already have an idea of how much fun I’ve had reading these books. They hit many of my targets: quirky, clever characters who are as ridiculous as they are resourceful; snug, well-thought out settings; atmosphere in abundance. All aspects that pretty much guarantee my enjoyment. I also admired the way Johnson was able to combine the tense, thrilling facets of true crime narratives with the more classic and considerably more chill vibes of the mystery genre.

Mainly though, I loved how, with the character of Stevie (our tenacious protagonist), Johnson explored the matter of anxiety with a perspective that can only come from intimate, immediate experience with the disorder: candid and sincere, but so full of empathy.

Mental health is health, and health is always a situation in flux. Many, many people have anxiety and depression, or other issues. Itโ€™s just a part of life for them. For me, anxiety has been an issue, and the way I have worked with it is to accept it as a part of me. I do stuff with it. Itโ€™s just there.

โ€” Maureen Johnson

If I had anything in the way of criticism is that the conclusion did leave a bit to be desired. This may seem like a crucial misstep, but Johnson’s writing is so damn clever and compelling that it more than makes up for it. But in any case, it was the journey that made the whole experience worthwhile for me, and I will readily trail along in whatever other jaunts Johnson decides to send her stalwart sleuth next.

THE MURDER ON THE LINKS by Agatha Christie

IMG_9119Disappointed at the severe lack of golf-related hijinks in this, but other than that Agatha Christieโ€™s ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ด๐’–๐’“๐’…๐’†๐’“ ๐’๐’ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ณ๐’Š๐’๐’Œ๐’” is an utterly fun and thoroughly twisty ride.โ €
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I’ve been working my way through the Poirot novels out of order, picking up whichever one happens to catch my fancy at the time. It wasn’t until I read the back matter that I realized that this particular book was only the second entry in Poirot’s mysteries, and, having read a couple of the later novels, I was just impressed with how much of a complete character he seemed even this early on. One would assume that in a long-running series such as this one the defining characteristics of the protagonists would emerge gradually and organically over time. But Poirot seems clearly defined from the outset. The reliance on psychology over physical evidence to solve crimes; the emphasis on using oneโ€™s โ€œlittle grey cellsโ€; the general air of outlandish grandiosity and pompousness. It was all there from the start. Good show, Christie.โ €
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A fun fact about me is that my godfather was an amateur golf player and used to take me out to play when I was a kid. I had my own set of small golf clubs and everything. It was adorable. I inherited his regular-sized clubs after he passed on. They’ve all regrettably been lost or thrown away through the years due to my own carelessness, but I still have one huge driver that I keep in my room. It has the name “Big Bertha” engraved on it. I’m convinced she would make an excellent weapon in a murder mystery. Someone get on that. My gift to you. โ €
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Also yes I one hundred percent read this after watching ๐˜’๐˜ฏ๐˜ช๐˜ท๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜–๐˜ถ๐˜ต for the hundredth time.

ALICE FLECK’S RECIPES FOR DISASTER by Rachelle Delaney

alice fleck's recipes for disaster - rachelle delaneyAlice Fleck has two main loves in her life: her father and food. Her dad is a culinary historian and cooking is how they bond and connect. They recreate dishes of ages past for fun. When they are not in the kitchen, they are watching their favorite cooking competition show, or reading dusty cookbooks full of esoteric recipes and gastronomic facts. They have a routine, and Alice has settled into it comfortably.โ €
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Until her father’s new girlfriend shuffles into their lives and proceeds to shake everything up. Alice has trouble adjusting to sharing her father’s attention with a veritable stranger โ€” an irritation that is only aggravated when Hana, the new love interest, signs Alice and her dad up to compete in the latest season of ๐˜Š๐˜ถ๐˜ญ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜บ ๐˜Š๐˜ฉ๐˜ณ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ช๐˜ค๐˜ญ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด, their favorite show, taking place in a nearby fancy estate (which also happens to be hosting a Victorian festival).โ €
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Cooking in a competitive environment is more than enough change for the Fleck’s. Once they arrive, though, they are further distressed to find that the wholesome, good-natured cooking show they both know and love has been completely overhauled, now styled as yet another cutthroat cooking competition, judged by an infamous chef known for his biting, ruthless remarks.โ €
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The contest is soon underway, but a series of consecutive mishaps with the competitors leads Alice and her newfound friends โ€” budding detective Henry Oh and spirit enthusiast Octavia Sapphire โ€” to suspect sabotage, and take it upon themselves to solve the perfidious plot before it threatens to ruin not only the show itself, but potentially Alice’s relationship with her dad.โ €
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Culinary history! Cooking competitions! Historical festivals! Victorian ghosts? Sherlock Holmes?? Bartitsu??? Mysteries! โ €
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If all that sounds like a lot โ€” it’s because it sort of is! Mixing just one or two of those elements would have been enough to cook up a fun middle grade adventure, but author Rachelle Delaney daringly decided to go big or go home and opted to just throw every single thing into the broiling pot.โ €
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It’s a move that would easily overwhelm any other story โ€” and indeed if there is one criticism I can give this book is that the first half, which introduces most of these pieces almost all at once, feels a bit overstuffed โ€” but, like any decent chef, Delaney manages to make something delightful out of all these seemingly incompatible ingredients. ๐‘จ๐’๐’Š๐’„๐’† ๐‘ญ๐’๐’†๐’„๐’Œ’๐’” ๐‘น๐’†๐’„๐’Š๐’‘๐’†๐’” ๐’‡๐’๐’“ ๐‘ซ๐’Š๐’”๐’‚๐’”๐’•๐’†๐’“ is a charming concoction, full of clever, charismatic characters, and I had a blast reading it.

๐šŽ๐™ฐ๐š๐™ฒ ๐š™๐š›๐š˜๐šŸ๐š’๐š๐šŽ๐š ๐š‹๐šข ๐™ฟ๐šŽ๐š—๐š๐šž๐š’๐š— ๐š๐šŠ๐š—๐š๐š˜๐š– ๐™ท๐š˜๐šž๐šœ๐šŽ ๐™ฒ๐šŠ๐š—๐šŠ๐š๐šŠ ๐šŸ๐š’๐šŠ ๐™ฝ๐šŽ๐š๐™ถ๐šŠ๐š•๐š•๐šŽ๐šข

SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN by Gene Luen Yang, Gurihiru

superman smashes the klan - gene luen yang, gurihiruThe Lee family has just made the move from Chinatown to the surrounding suburbs of Metropolis thanks to the patriarch’s new job at the cityโ€™s health department. Teenager Roberta has difficulty acclimating to their new surroundings, but her older brother, Tommy, seems to be thriving in the new home, making fast friends with the locals and even trying out for the community center’s baseball team. Tommy shines at the practice, and that gets him on the bad side of a fellow player who storms off the lot in a jealous fit. Later that night, the Lees wake up to find a wooden cross burning out in their front yard, and they realize that old prejudices have come knocking on their door. The Clan of the Fiery Cross, a white supremacist hate group, soon takes credit for the loathsome act, which not only gets intrepid reporter Lois Lane involved, but the famous Superman as well. The group’s influence turns out to run deep, however, and manages to exhibit enough resources to cause even the Superman considerable trouble, notably through the use of mysterious green rocks that seem to weaken the Metropolis Man of Tomorrow…. โ €
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๐‘บ๐’–๐’‘๐’†๐’“๐’Ž๐’‚๐’ ๐‘บ๐’Ž๐’‚๐’”๐’‰๐’†๐’” ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ฒ๐’๐’‚๐’, written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Gurihiru, is an important book. It was one already when it was first serialized a couple of years ago, highlighting as it does moments of U.S. history that are either glossed over in contemporary conversation or just plainly, actively suppressed, whitewashed into obscurity. It resonated with an audience that was growing increasingly aware of the prejudice and injustice that is so deeply rooted in Western culture and which, thanks in part to the heated, hateful rhetoric of modern politics, was gaining enough momentum and stimulation to aggressively push itself into the public eye once more. Readers saw movements like Black Lives Matter and similar social justice organizations reflected within. โ €

In a lot of ways I’m kind of sad that [Superman Smashes the Klan] hit like this. A story from 1946 shouldn’t be as relevant as it is.

โ€” Gene Luen Yangโ €

Fast forward only a year, and the recent, disturbing onrush of heinous, cowardly attacks against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have now given the story a renewed relevance, and an alarmingly greater sense of urgency. โ €
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The range of topics Yang manages to pack into this relatively slim volume is wide and impressive indeed: racism (both outer and inner); classism; identity; code-switching. These are all themes you’ll find within the pages of this book, and they are handled with prudence and proficiency (Yang is nothing if not a master storyteller). But what engaged me the most was the story’s exploration of identity, because of how well it tied to both the Lee family and to the character of Superman himself. A running motif throughout the book has to do with the characters constantly concealing facets of themselves in order to fit in and blend with the world around them. Roberta and Tommy’s father chides his wife for speaking Cantonese around their children, prefering to immerse them in an English-speaking world, an edict that extends even to their traditional names (๐˜™๐˜ฐ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ต๐˜ข rather than ๐˜“๐˜ข๐˜ฏ-๐˜š๐˜ฉ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ). Tommy, to his sister’s chagrin, constantly cracks jokes about their race with the locals in the hopes of being more readily accepted. Superman himself โ€” who is, lest we forget, an immigrant โ€” holds back on his own powers and represses his extraterrestrial identity, fearing the response of the public were they to find out. Not calling attention to one’s self is often an intrinsic part of the immigrant experience, something that Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, being the sons of European Jewish emigrants who also changed their names once they reached the States (from Shusterowich and Segalovich, respectively), would have understood, as they, consciously or not, imbued their creation with the same concerns in mind.โ €
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Itโ€™s why so many writers over the years โ€” from contemporary ones like Yang and Grant Morrison, to those from way back in the forties who wrote the original radio play on which Smashes the Klanย was loosely based (a fact that surprised me to no end) โ€” have often depicted Superman as the ultimate defender of the disenfranchised and the oppressed: because he’s someone who can easily imagine what being powerless would feel like, and has the power to do something about it.โ €

I’m guessing that the Superman writers knew on a visceral level, three years out from WWII’s end, that pursuing a peaceful future in America requires tolerance โ€” the willingness to respect, be good neighbors to, and invest in those who do not look like us or live like us.

โ€” Gene Luen Yang

Itโ€™s important to remember that Superman is, and always has been, a warrior for social justice.

Superman_American_599fc05023f332.03698933โ €โ €
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As it often happens with stories that reflect the trying times of the real world, one wishes things were different: that the events depicted in the pages of these books are just things of the past, human failures that we outgrew and overcame and which bear no resemblance to the reality of today. Sadly, we live in no such world. Which is why we still need these types of books: to reflect our current condition, yes, but also to distort and transform it, to allow us to see what could be. These stories are hope, distilled. โ €
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๐‘บ๐’–๐’‘๐’†๐’“๐’Ž๐’‚๐’ ๐‘บ๐’Ž๐’‚๐’”๐’‰๐’†๐’” ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ฒ๐’๐’‚๐’ is then ultimately a book full of hope. As well it should be. It’s a Superman book, after all.โ €
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This also means that, despite the weighty subjects this story touches upon, this isn’t a heavy-handed book at all. Again, this is a Superman book, and it contains all the colorful, flashy fun that this implies. Yang has a wonderful take on the character, writing an earnest Boy Scout figure of endless charm in such a way that somehow never veers into schmaltzy overbearing territory. The rest of the cast are distinguished as well, in particular Roberta, who acts as our daring protagonist. Her role in the radio play was relegated to a single line in a single episode that didnโ€™t even bother to give her a name โ€” here, she gets a spectacular stand-out scene where she gets to call out Superman for endangering those around him by inhibiting his own abilities. Itโ€™s one of the crucial, central acts of the book, and one that also happens to fit so well with the overall Man of Steel mythos (which is yet another thing Yang handles wonderfully well here).โ €
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In terms of art, I love the work that Gurihiru, the Japanese design team consisting of penciller Chifuyu Sasaki and colorist Naoko Kawano, did here. They brought an anime aesthetic that’s not usually found in the world of Western superhero comics, but that lends itself wonderfully to a Superman story. They have produced a beautiful, beautiful physical object.โ €
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The book ends with “Superman and Me”, an essay by Yang that connects various threads of history: that of Superman and the original โ€œClan of the Fiery Crossโ€ radio play; of anti-Asian racism in the United States; of the author’s own experience with prejudice. The result is a deeply compelling read that not only enriches and puts into greater context the fictional story that precedes it, but it’s also strong enough to stand as its own invaluable history lesson. Yang ends the personal piece with the following appeal:โ €

Superman is one of our nation’s โ€” and the world’s โ€” most enduring icons. He seems to have always been there, and he’s not going away anytime soon. Ever since defending a Chinese American family in 1946, he’s stood for tolerance, justice, and hope.โ €
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Even today, the immigrant from Krypton challenges us to follow his example more fully and more perfectly.โ €
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We have to meet this challenge.โ €
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After all, though our yesterdays may be different, we all share the same tomorrow.

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In the spirit of a tomorrow full of tolerance, justice, and hope, Iโ€™ve compiled a small list of relevant resources that I encourage you all to check out.โ €

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by Gabrielle Zevin

06 the storied life of aj fikry๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘บ๐’•๐’๐’“๐’Š๐’†๐’… ๐‘ณ๐’Š๐’‡๐’† ๐’๐’‡ ๐‘จ.๐‘ฑ. ๐‘ญ๐’Š๐’Œ๐’“๐’š by Gabrielle Zevin is a maudlin, overly sentimental affair with a contrived, predictable plot riddled with clichรฉs and tropes that it embraces rather than trying to subvert. At times it is so full of melodrama that it reads like the bookish equivalent of a film that is trying its very best to bait an Oscar.โ €
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And good grief did I buy into it hook, line, and sentimental sinker like a sucker. Did I love every single page of it all.โ €
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Every description of this book makes it sound insufferable, but Zevin โ€” much like she does to her characters โ€” pulls the rug out from under us by positively filling it up to the brim with a charming, endearing and painfully human cast that you fall in love with almost immediately. I loved the experience of reading this story, and can easily see myself revisiting over the years.