THE DEVIL’S DETECTIVE by Simon Kurt Unsworth

28 the devil's detectiveOne of my favorite short stories is “Murder Mysteries,” by Neil Gaiman. It is, like a title says, a murder mystery, told in the same manner and style as countless murder mysteries before it. But it is unique in the sense that it is set in Heaven, where an angel is tasked with finding out the culprit behind Creation’s very first murder (or “Wrong Thing,” as it is called in the story, because there is no word for this particular cruel act among the Heavenly Host). It is a favorite not only because the conceit is exceedingly clever, but because the world (for a lack of a better word) it creates is just as ingenious and fascinating. Heaven is an actual city, gleaming and perfect. Its citizens, the angels — equally gleaming and perfect — are portrayed as workers, defined by their roles. The whole of Creation is being constructed inside a factory-like building, aspects of it discussed and decided by committee and delegated to teams of ethereal employees. It allows Gaiman play with the conventions of the gritty genre while still writing about shining, perfect beings. Seeing writers play around like that in stories is always fun.⠀

It’s a story I was reminded of countless times while making my way through The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth. In many ways it reads like a distorted, perverse reflection of Gaiman’s seraphic murder mystery. And Upside Down version, as it were. Which is nothing if not appropriate, I think: as above, so below, and so forth.⠀

In The Devil’s Detective Hell also takes the form of a city, one populated by humans and demons alike. The former are given bleak tasks and roles to perform, while the latter, predictably, torture and torment them. It is a dreadful place, although not in the way you might initially imagine it. Because Unsworth has wrought a version of Hell that represents the scariest thing he could possible conceive: a bottomless pit of bureaucracy. Hell’s “operations” are overseen by a board of demons, with most of their work being relegated through a middleman, even. There are bars and brothels; offices and housing complexes. Trains and cabs are used to get around. The modern world as the underworld — or vice versa. There are even detectives, a thankless job in Hell if there ever was one.⠀

This novel follows such a person, our unfortunately named protagonist Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men, the infernal analogue to the sleuthing occupation.⠀

Hell is hosting angels, there to attend a slew of meetings where the parties of both Heaven and Hell perform a long-established practice of trading souls. The arrival of these heavenly beings coincides with a string of particularly horrific murders. Something is killing the humans of Hell, in a manner so gruesome that their very souls are released forcibly from their bodies, manifesting in a blinding blue light that dissipates in the accursed atmosphere. An atrocity that Fool and his team are sent to investigate.

(In Unsworth’s Hell, those condemned to it are reincarnated into a new body, carrying no knowledge of their previous life other than they have sinned and are now paying for it. It makes sense in a sadistic sort of way: how much more oppressive would Hell’s suffering feel were you still alive, after all?)⠀

Author Michael Chabon once said that detectives are great protagonists in mysteries because they have inherent access to every layer of society, from the proletariat to the elite. They can knock on any door. In gritty murder mysteries, these sleuthhounds often act as our guide through the more disreputable side of life. The Virgil to our Dante. In The Devil’s Detective, Fool gets to fill both roles of The Divine Comedy. He is the guide through this strange, twisted world, sure, but he himself is dragged along a journey through circles of Hell he never even fathomed.⠀

I’m focusing on the worldbuilding because it is this book’s strongest aspect. Unsworth writes a very vivid, markedly macabre setting and does a great job establishing a some semblance of logic to an inherently illogical place. There are rules in Hell, Fool repeatedly states throughout the story, they may make no sense, and they may get broken constantly, but there are rules just the same. It’s an engaging environment, and the sections where Fool just explores different districts of the city, searching for clues and answers, talking with characters of varying shapes and forms (the most curious of which being the Man of Plants and Flowers, a former human who has somehow transformed himself into, well, flowers and plants, and has spread himself throughout the city), were the ones that interested me the most. The world piqued my morbid curiosity, and I wanted to know more. It’s a rich backdrop, one that should easily lend itself to strong, solid plots.⠀

Which makes it that much more of shame that we don’t exactly get one here. There’s enough to maintain your interest throughout the book’s four hundred and so pages, but the mystery at the center of it all is a little lacking. I suppose it’s maybe because I’m not the most perceptive of readers, but one of the reasons I enjoy mystery stories so much is that I hardly ever figure them out before they are done, and I love being pleasantly surprised. I figured out the who-and-whydunit in The Devil’s Detective a couple chapters in, which meant that I read the rest of the book hoping that I was wrong because it seemed so obvious. It didn’t help that the resolution came accompanied with a lackluster final confrontation, in which our main character spends a lot of time being disoriented to the point of not being able to properly tell what is going on around him. The ending proper just sort of peters out, leaving the characters and the story hanging off the proverbial cliff, awaiting a second book to continue their tale. It was a little underwhelming, to say the least. ⠀

Still, I appreciated the excellent worldbuilding, and also the way the novel explores its central theme, which revolves around hope.⠀

At the beginning of the story, Fool receives a feather from the wings of one of the angels. The feather gives off a bright glow that never dulls, and gives Fool comfort and clarity. He keeps it close to him for the remainder of the story, embracing its light in moments of difficulty and distress. Hope is the thing with feathers, etc. ⠀

Hope is a double-edged sword in the world of The Devil’s Detective. At several points in the novel Fool bemoans the futility of it all. Why bother investigating horrific acts in Hell, when Hell will never cease to be a place in which horrific acts are the norm? Why bother standing outside the building in which the meetings between Heaven and Hell are held, waiting to become one of the souls chosen to be freed from torment? Fool is told plainly at one point that Hell lets its humans have some semblance of hope because it makes the ensuing torment that much more terrible. Shades of Gaiman, again: In an issue of The Sandman where protagonist Dream visits that universe’s version of Hell, Lucifer asks him what can hope serve in such a place. To which Dream replies, “What power would Hell have if those imprisoned here would not be able to dream of Heaven?” Why bother with anything at all?⠀

But hope also begets change. The feather acts as a catalyst for Fool. Against his better judgement, he starts to imagine a different way of life in Hell. He begins to feel hope. And the condemned humans, inspired by his acts, follow suit.⠀

And so The Devil’s Detective ends with change, both with Fool as a person and Hell as place, a change that happened because Fool and the people of Hell, despite their cruel circumstances, chose to go on, in the hopes that things will, eventually, get better. Which is all any of us can do, in the end, whether we’re living through hell or not. A fool’s hope indeed.

THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY: APOCALYPSE SUITE by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá

27 the umbrella academyMy partner and I have been enjoying the Netflix adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, the comic book series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá. It’s a fun ride, the show, reveling in its chaotic, irreverent energy. We’re it. And it finally made me want to pick up the source material, which I had been aware of for ages but never really felt compelled to read.⠀

The show and the comic are definitely different beasts, though, similar only in the way they both embrace the extravagant essence of the story. The show is bolstered up by the performances of its actors, who clearly seem to be having fun with their roles. The comic takes delight in the sheer fact that it is a comic, convoluted connotations and all.⠀

It goes like this:

In an inexplicable worldwide event, forty-three extraordinary children were spontaneously born by women who’d previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Millionaire inventor Reginald Hargreeves adopted seven of the children; when asked why, his only explanation was, “To save the world.”

These seven children form The Umbrella Academy, a dysfunctional family of superheroes with bizarre powers. Their first adventure at the age of ten pits them against an erratic and deadly Eiffel Tower, piloted by the fearsome zombie-robot Gustave Eiffel. Nearly a decade later, the team disbands, but when Hargreeves unexpectedly dies, these disgruntled siblings reunite just in time to save the world once again.

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This was Gerard Way’s first mainstream comics project and his enthusiasm for the medium is apparent in the way he wholeheartedly embraces its inherent anarchic nature. There’s no gentle, gradual introduction to the world and the characters that fill it. You’re simply thrown into the deep end, and are expected to keep up. The Eiffel Tower is attacking Paris! The Umbrella Academy is coming! There’s a monkey! Now we’re in space! Back on Earth! In the future!⠀

It’s fun, if a little disjointed. You definitely get the sense that Way is heavily inspired by the Grant Morrison’s earlier, more psychedelic work — and, honestly, who could blame him? The similarities here are mostly superficial, though: we get the liveliness and playfulness, but lack the compassionate core that drives most of Morrison’s work. It’s a cold story. Still — Way’s talent is evident (Morrison would eventually take him under his wing of sorts) so perhaps the series only gets better in its subsequent volumes.

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Gabriel Bá does the art and will get no complaints from me. I love his work and style in general, and here he channels Mike Mignola — another favorite artist — at his most playful. The book just looks effortlessly cool. And as much as I enjoy the show I do wish it had implemented more of the comic’s aesthetic. Bá’s designs are just more fun, especially in the case of Luther (known mostly as Spaceboy in the comics), because the rubber suit of the show just doesn’t work at all, a fact I never fail to mention anytime the character walks on screen.⠀

(Speaking of the art: they got the inimitable James Jean to do the covers, which is always an excellent idea.)

Comics!

THE GIRLS OF SUMMER PART II

26 summer graphic novels

I read both Click and its sequel Camp, one right after the other, pretty much in a single sitting. It’s something I rarely do, even with other graphic novels, which I tend to read through fairly quickly. Which should help show just how much I enjoyed them. One of the things I’m always on the lookout for in middle grade books — and especially in middle grade graphic novels — are elements that remind me of the stories I used to love as a kid. This charming — so charming —series by Kayla Miller about a young girl trying to find a place in the world gave me major Pepper Ann and Doug vibes, both of which were some of my favorite animated series, so of course I dug these books as well. I probably enjoyed Camp just a tad more, but only because I love stories with remote, singular settings.


Lucy Knisley’s Stepping Stones didn’t remind me of anything in particular except for other Lucy Knisley books. Which is a good thing because I am a fan. Knisley is not only a great artist, but also probably one of the strongest memoirists working today. Skills that she brought out in full force for this book about a young city girl moving to the country with her mother and her new stepfather. Stepping Stones was advertised as Knisley’s first work of fiction, and when I finished it I was left feeling very impressed, thinking that as far as first steps go, this was a particularly skillful stride — but then in the back matter of the book Knisley writes of how the story is heavily inspired by her own childhood experiences. Which is sort of a cheat! At the end of the day, though, I won’t begrudge an artist for drawing from the well of a rich, storied life. Especially when it results in work of this quality. It’s still an impressive and auspicious debut, and I enjoyed reading it immensely. (Stepping Stones is supposed to be the first in a planned series, too, and I look forward to reading these future entries.)

THE GIRLS OF SUMMER

25 summer reads - the girls of summerLike most of the internet I really enjoyed Netflix’s adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club. I thought it was utterly charming and clever. Timely and relevant, too: this is a kid’s show that handled a trans story better than most recent adult shows.⠀

Unlike most of the internet, however, I never read any of the books. (I didn’t read as a kid but even if I did I probably would have thought they were “girl books” and never picked them up, because this was the nineties and we were all ridiculous). The show didn’t exactly make me want to read one of the books now, but after I finished it I watched The Claudia Kishi Club documentary and that did it. It featured a bunch of cool people excitedly talking about their favorite childhood books and the power of representation and look infectious enthusiasm will always do it for me.⠀

I picked Baby-sitters on Board! mostly because it takes place on a cruise ship and I just find stories set on modes of transportation appealing. Also: Florida (which we all agree is terrible but it is also my second home). Like the show it was cute and charming, although not half as clever (but I’m not going to hold that against it). The story takes place around the same time I first visited Florida/Disney World too and it just brought all those memories back, which is nice. Nostalgia, man — always gets this reader.

Anyway Claudia Kishi is the best pass it on.⠀


The First Rule of Punk was just a gem. It starts as your typical new-kid-at-school-feels-like-an-outcast-until-she-finds-other-misfits kind of story. But then it quickly veers into and-then-they-form-a-ranchero-style-punk-band territory, and it becomes much more new and fun. It’s also the only book I’m aware of that uses zines as part of its format. Main character Malú’s energetic and cathartic collages are an integral part of the story (being her main method of expression) and author Celia C. Pérez did a great job incorporating them in. They were my favorite aspect of this middle grade novel.⠀

(Just realized that Florida also features in this book. All about themed reading here at ricardo reading.)

ANTI-RACIST READS

24-anti-racism

Reading. Learning. Growing.

There was a tweet making the rounds back when the BLM protests first started up, mocking the history books North American and colonized students have been indoctrinated with since time immemorial. It went: “Slavery was bad but then Lincoln fixed it! Then, segregation was also bad but Malcolm X didn’t need to be so mean about it. But MLK went on a big walk and fixed racism! The last racist left killed him but then he went to jail the end.”

Which is to say I probably learned more about BIPOC history and race relations from these two books (both of which are aimed at younger audiences) than I ever did in any history or social studies class. Which is only slightly wild, to say the least.

Stamped is a book I’ve been looking forward to since it was first announced. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s original tome is on my wishlist, and I will get around to it someday, but I confess to being more than a little bit intimidated by it. Heavy books about heavy subjects! There’s certain mental preparation I have to do before I am able to tackle them. But I was familiar with Jason Reynolds’ work enough to be certain that his own adaption for younger readers— or remix, as they call it — would be perhaps a bit more approachable, full of language that is as playful as it is thoughtful; as lyrical as it is meaningful. Which is essentially Jason Reynolds’ trademark style. And that is what we get here: an imminently readable, fiercely empathetic, endlessly illuminating history lesson. A handful of passages even made my eyes well up. Don’t pass up on this book.

On July 2, 1826, Jefferson seemed to be fighting to stay alive. The eighty-three-year-old awoke before dawn on July 4 and called out for his house servants. The enslaved Black faces gathered around his bed. They were probably his final sight, and he gave them his final words. He had been a segregationist at times, an assimilationist at other times—usually both in the same act—but he never quite made it to being antiracist. He knew slavery was wrong, but not wrong enough to free his own slaves. He knew as a child that Black people were people, but never fully treated them as such. Saw them as “friends” but never saw them. He knew the freedom to live was fair, but not the freedom to live in America. The America built on their backs. He knew that all men are created equal. He wrote it. But couldn’t rewrite his own racist ideas. And the irony in that is that now his life had come full circle. In his earliest childhood memory and in his final lucid moment, Thomas Jefferson lay there dying—death being the ultimate equalizer—in the comfort of slavery. Surrounded by a comfort those slaves never felt.


Whereas Stamped is concerned with the past and how it shaped our present, Tiffany Jewell’s This Book is Anti-Racist is more interested with how our current reality can shape our immediate future. And while Anti-Racist briefly talks about past events that led us to now, it is a thoroughly modern book. The amount of timely, relevant topics Jewell manages to cover in such a short amount of space (this book is less than 200 pages long) is truly staggering: activism (both true and performative); the internet’s influence on social discourse; internalized and institutionalized racism; prejudice and bias; identity and class. Jewell does more with these topics than a dozen hot take articles put together, and does so with grace, patience, and righteous outrage. Do not pass up on this book, either.

We have been conditioned to the bias of whiteness. We can undo this. People play a big role in keeping racism going. If we do not work to recognize our prejudices, we remain a part of the problem. When we become aware of our biases and our role in racism, then we can begin to understand how we are a part of a system that is much bigger than us.

My own education growing up may have been lacking, but I’m just glad that kids these days have access to books of this caliber, that discuss issues so often suppressed or actively ignored. Books that tell them — us — how things were, and how they are, and how they could be. Books that remind them — us — to keep growing, and learning, and reading.

BOOKED by Kwame Alexander

20-bookedWell, hello there.⠀

Thing’s are a bit overwhelming, aren’t they? At least more so than they were before, and they already pretty dang whelming. I’ve certainly been feeling it, which is why I’ve been more or less neglecting this blog. I’m still reading, but haven’t felt enough creative energy for writing out my thoughts, much less for taking and editing pictures. I’ll get back on it soon enough, I expect.⠀

In the meantime: read more books by Black authors. The current discourse focuses mostly on non-fiction and understandably so: one of the many things the BLM movement has taught us is that most of us have so much to learn, still. Non-fiction works are crucial. But I am a firm believer in the power of fiction to help us see the world through the eyes of people who are not you, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of reading it, too. Stories are, after all, the ultimate empathy engine.⠀

Kwame Alexander’s Booked is a particularly lovely example. I finished it back in April, and I liked it so much I read it again before the month was out. It’s about Nick Hall, a smart young Black kid who lives and breathes soccer, and how he deals with having his world turned upside-down after some turmoil erupts in his home life. Helping him deal with this is an eccentric, decidedly uncool, hip hop loving librarian who is constantly giving Nick books he thinks will help. I loved the emphasis of words in the story, too: Nick’s overbearing father is a linguistics professor with “chronic verbomania.” So much so that he has written a book of obscure words that he makes his son read every day. Nick resents this, of course, but he also very clearly loves words, as he is constantly using them in sly, clever ways. It’s a novel written in verse, which I had never read before, and I found the experience highly enjoyable. It’s very specifically a book about language, and about how words can hurt us just as much as they can heal us. Which is something we all need to be reminded of from time to time. ⠀

It also happened to round up the trifecta of sports books I was picking up at the time. That was another fun little reading detour for me.

DRAGON HOOPS by Gene Luen Yang

19-dragon-hoopsAt the beginning of this book, Gene Luen Yang, high school teacher and acclaimed author of graphic novels, is worried that he has no more stories to tell. He’s felt a hole in his life since his last book was released, and that was over six years ago, but he’s unable to find a story that just grabs his heart and runs away with it.⠀

Until he starts hearing the excitement in the hallways of Bishop O’Dowd High School. Their basketball team, the Dragons, is set to go to State and is causing quite the stir. Yang does not follow basketball so he has no idea what this means, but the hold it has on other people fascinates him, and he starts to think there might be a story there. He’s hesitant at first — the computer science teacher and comic book guy writing about sports of all things? But he feels the hook in his heart and so, tentatively, he takes the first step.⠀

Dragon Hoops is the true story about a basketball team overcoming all manner of odds on their way to becoming champions. It’s about the people that make up the team, and their stories. And its about the rich history of the game they play.⠀

A game in which, when I first picked up this book, I had next to no interest in, it having gone away in the aftermath Space Jam and Michael Jordan’s second retirement. Which, for me at least, made Yang the perfect audience surrogate: he begins his journey caring not much for the game but for the stories it generates. He ends it, not exactly a superfan, but as someone who now appreciates basketball and its deep cultural importance.⠀

Which perfectly mirrored my own journey with Dragon Hoops. There’s a reason why after finishing the book I: read Phil Bildner’s A Whole New Ballgame; have been keeping up with The Last Dance documentary miniseries on ESPN; bought Kwame Alexander’s Crossover; and, yes, re-watched Space Jam (still a masterpiece).⠀Like Yang, I haven’t become suddenly a superfan — I don’t think I’ll sit down and follow every single game once they start back up again — but I am definitely more interested in it, and appreciative of its history, and of its cultural impact.⠀

There’s just so many things Dragon Hoops does right for me. On the surface it’s just your typical tale of a team on its way towards victory. It’s a story we’ve seen countless times before. But the difference, as always, is in the telling:⠀

19-dragon-hoops-2It’s a story about basketball, but it’s also a perfectly accurate portrayal about the agony and joy of writing. We get to see Yang as he tries to write the story while the actual story unfolds. We see him struggle with what to add and what to omit as the action plays out in front of him. He talks with the people he’s portraying about how they should be depicted, and we see the changes in the art during these conversations. He even addresses the reader at one point. Which is one of the advantages of this being a graphic novel: these are all things you can pull off in comics that you can’t easily do in other mediums. And by this point in his career, Yang has such a handle on sequential storytelling that he takes full advantage of the form here.⠀(The art, despite all the times the author disparages it as inadequate in the book, is wonderful. Yang’s form is clean and clear, and it translates surprisingly well into the dynamic basketball scenes.)


It’s also a story about stories. A handful of chapters are focused on key members of the team. Preceding their stories however, we get a short history lesson on the game of basketball, which are fun and fairly informative: we learn why the game of basketball became so popular with minority communities and in the inner cities; we learn that women have always been playing the game pretty much since its inception; we learn the myriad ways different people took steps to take the game forward; and we learn many other things besides. The most interesting and impressive thing Yang does with these brief classes, however, is showing how their lessons are still relevant to the life of the individual being discussed in the chapter, thus creating a direct link between the past and the present. It’s very effective and probably my favorite thing this book does.⠀

19-dragon-hoops-3Tying all this together is the recurring image of stepping forward. Each and every person in this book, author included, is facing a set of challenges, varied as the people themselves: trying to win a basketball game; trying to decide whether or not to take a job offer; forming new friendships; balancing relationships; prejudice (in all its infuriating forms); how to best tell a story. And the thread that runs through each and every person facing these obstacles, from the past to the present, no matter how uncertain or how scared they were, is that they took a step forward. They stepped into the court. After all, how else are you going to know what happens unless you play the game?⠀

Dragon Hoops is a wonderful delight, and probably Gene Luen Yang’s best, most ambitious work to date. I see myself revisiting often (indeed, I’ve already read it twice).

A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME by Phil Bildner

18-a-whole-new-ballgameMason “Rip” Irving and Blake “Red” Daniels think they know exactly what to expect from fifth grade. They know their principal, Ms. Darling (real name) is going to stand at the entrance to greet all the students. They know that Ms. Hamburger (real name) is going to be their homeroom teacher. And, most importantly, they know they can finally try out for the district’s basketball team.⠀

But when they arrive at school nobody is there to greet them out in front. When they get to their homeroom they find, not Ms. Hamburger, but a young, long-haired, tattooed teacher called Mr. Acevedo.⠀

More changes await the two best friend that will turn their precious little world upside down, and especially so for Red, who thrives on order and routine. But they have one another. And they will soon find that every challenge comes with the opportunity for new allies as well.⠀

—⠀

Middle grade books do so much. Not only do they have to be breezy, fun reads in order to sustain the attention of kids who live in a world of extremely loud and incredibly constant distraction, but they often have to do so while exploring some serious, sensitive issues — without losing that sense of playfulness and optimism we tend to associate with childhood.⠀

It’s a lot to handle. We’re currently living through a sort of Renaissance in children’s literature, though, so there’s no shortage of books that manage to carry this weight — and Phil Bildner’s A Whole New Ballgame is certainly among these.⠀

It’s a simple story told with a lot of heart, with wonderfully realized characters. Rip and Red are charming and endearing and immediately likable. Their relationship is the heart of the book and its portrayal is fittingly heartwarming. Even side characters with limited roles like Avery and Rip’s mother are given their fair share of story. And of course you can’t help but root for Mr. Acevedo right from the get-go, an idealist who stands in for those modern educators who prioritize dynamic and fun learning methods, tailored to their student’s needs, rather than relying on the rigid and often outdated practices that hinder our current educational system, especially so in the Western world.⠀

Which is one of those serious subjects that creep in: the boy’s school doesn’t look the way they expected it to because of severe cuts in their district’s budget, something that happens all too often in the real world, as any teacher can surely discuss at length.⠀

Another interesting aspect of this book is in its depiction of disability. Avery is a wheelchair user who, rather than being treated as a one-dimensional character, as the trope tends to do, gets a fair amount of depth. Some of her experiences are discussed at length in a charming and amusing manner. (She even gets to be a bit of a jerk). And then there’s Red himself, who is on the autism spectrum. He struggles a bit with all the changes going on around him, but he’s portrayed as a tenacious and clever character. And luckily his best friend Rip offers plenty of support and encouragement, as does Mr. Acevedo and a handful of other teachers. I thought author Phil Bildner, a former teacher himself, did an admirable job with their depiction. ⠀

Middle grade books do so much. A Whole New Ballgame is certainly no exception.⠀

Oh and there’s a decent amount of basketball in here, too, as the title suggests. Like most books involving sports, though, it’s a metaphor. Because what’s life after sudden change if not a whole new….⠀

Well, you know.⠀

GET A LIFE, CHLOE BROWN by Talia Hibbert

get-a-life-chloe-brown-remakeGet a Life, Chloe Brown begins with the titular character getting almost run over by a car, a sudden brush with death that, combined with a number of other issues she’s been dealing with, compel Chloe to, as the cover exclaims, get a LIFE. Type A person that she is, Chloe goes about this by making a list of the things she believes constitute a full, well-rounded life. The entries ranging from the momentous (move out of parent’s house; travel the world) to the positively frivolous (enjoy a drunken night out; have meaningless sex).⠀

It’s a pretty great beginning.

Chloe immediately begins checking off items by moving into her own flat in London, in a building managed by our other protagonist and inevitable love interest, Red — tall, literally ginger my god Hibbert, and handsome — a former painter who has withdrawn from the art world. Their relationship starts off, in classic rom-com fashion, as positively hostile: Chloe finds him an uncouth oaf; Red finds her a spoiled, standoffish brat. A series of mishaps and circumstances soon lead both characters to come together, however, with Chloe agreeing to build Red a website that will hopefully rekindle interest in his neglected art career, and Red helping Chloe get through her Get a Life list.⠀

It’s a pretty great set-up. You do worry for a moment that their frenemy dynamic might end up overstaying its welcome, but, refreshingly, it begins to break down and evolve only a couple of chapters in, as the stimulating chemistry between Chloe and Red softens their respective distant and defensive exteriors. Which is when they realize they’re also helping one another in entirely unexpected ways.⠀

—⠀

I don’t tend to pick up many romance novels, although I quite like the few that I have read. The works of Rainbow Rowell and Stephanie Perkins quickly come to mind. But while their novels are certainly full of love and all its clutter, they tend to slant more towards the emotional side of the romantic spectrum. Chloe Brown decidedly leans toward the other end. The physical end. Whereas a lot of stories with romantic plots often leave you wanting to shout “would you just kiss already” at the stubborn, exasperating characters, Chloe Brown simply skips all that noise and just goes straight into the more risqué aspects of courtship. I was surprised but amused by how quickly — and frankly how often — the book got down to this sort of business. There are enough steamy scenes to fill up several saunas.

Which isn’t to say there’s no emotion to be found in this novel. Meaningless sex may be an item on Chloe’s list, but, as she also realizes, things aren’t always so straightforward, and people often carry their emotional baggage with them. Our main characters being no different.⠀

Chloe, for one thing, lives with fibromyalgia, and while she’s developed a myriad of methods to manage it, emotionally, it’s taken a toll. As is often the case with invisible illnesses, non-disabled people struggle to sympathize with those who deal with them. They can get, as Chloe puts it at one point, “bored with lists and rain checks and careful coping mechanisms.” And, sometimes, they leave. Which is where we find Chloe at the beginning: determined and resolute, but lonely.⠀

We find Red in a like manner. Dealing with his own trust issues stemming from the fallout of a particularly ruinous relationship that left him feeling adrift and uncertain about his life. That this former partner was, like Chloe, affluent, only adds to his inner turmoil, his more modest background having been a constant issue before.⠀

How Chloe and Red deal with these knotty circumstances is nothing if not compelling. How they support one another is, frankly, adorable. How they fall for one another is just thoroughly sweet and, indeed, quite sexy. The development of their relationship might seem a little rushed, but it’s believable, and you quickly root for them.

I’m doing it for you because that’s how people should behave; they should fill in each other’s gaps.

Mental health and chronic illness. Class conflict. Toxic relationships and their aftermaths. These are all complicated subjects that can prove too much for any single story to handle, but Chloe Brown does so with thoughtfulness and tact, and it’s what impressed me the most about this “kissing book.”⠀

They are also subjects that can weigh down a story, casting a somber shadow over even the most lighthearted of comedies. Chloe Brown avoids this hazard by boasting a small but well-realized and obscenely charismatic cast of characters. Because not only do both protagonists read as real, actual people, the side characters do as well. Chloe’s family in particular plays a substantial supporting — and supportive — role: Gigi, her glamorous, flamboyant grandmother (who my brain immediately envisioned as British Eartha Kitt, much to my delight) dutifully doles out wisdom and guidance with wit and candor to spare; and her two enigmatic and energetic younger sisters, Dani and Eve, routinely drop by her flat to check in on her well-being — and to also discuss the latest, greatest gossip, usually concerning Red. (The sisters were hilarious and fun to read, and I’m glad to see that Hibbert is going to tell their story in future installments.)

Talia Hibbert’s author biography states that she writes “sexy and diverse” stories. And she certainly delivers on both fronts with Get a Life, Chloe Brown. I want to make special note of the diversity aspect, though: Because while I don’t know much about the romance genre, I’m willing to bet that characters like Chloe (a self-assured, Black, fat, nerdy, disabled woman who is regularly revered over her beauty), or even like Red (whose constantly cheerful and confident demeanor belies intense insecurity), are not so readily found within it, simply due to the fact that they are few and far between in most other types of stories as well. Which is, of course, a shame. Representation is important, and fiction is always in need of other voices, and other lives.

Representation […] means accepting, then celebrating, the fact that difference is normal. To do that, we have to carve out space for the voices of marginalized people, because underrepresentation can’t be fixed unless you actively do the work.

— Talia Hibbert, in an interview

So I’m glad Hibbert is out there, actively doing the work, and that she’s using her voice to share Chloe Brown’s life with us.

We would do well to listen. That’s part of the work too.

So I quite enjoyed the book. Started this one in the middle of February, for obvious reasons, but while I liked what I read, it didn’t manage to hold my attention, and I put it down about halfway through.⠀⠀

Fast forward a couple of years, to March. The world is even more terrifying than usual, and most of us are stuck at home until who knows when. I’ve been doing fine, relatively speaking. In a decent place, mentally speaking. Until last week when 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖌𝖑𝖔𝖔𝖒 finally got me and caused me to spend the following weekend in a depressive daze.⠀

I had been reading a couple of thematically relevant books — mostly non-fiction accounts about humanity overcoming all kinds of calamities and disasters. Books that assured we were going to get through all this. Books that I absolutely refused to read after the anxiety hit. It all felt too real, too unwieldy. I wanted instead to read something as far removed from our current situation as possible. ⠀

Enter Chloe. It did the trick. I managed to crawl out of that dark headspace and into the light and delightful world of this book. I tore through the remaining half in a single, sleepless night.

If I had any real criticism to offer, is that I thought it relied too much on the cliché, at times. And also that it was definitely, maybe, just a tiny bit too melodramatic. But then again I figured that sort of went with the territory. I don’t know! You get swept up. I did.

I you’re looking for something to pick up something that’s light but still compelling in these dark and strange times, though, you could certainly do worse than reading about Chloe Brown’s life.

DEATH WINS A GOLDFISH by Brian Rea

16 death wins a goldfishDeath Wins a Goldfish is a book about living, author Brian Rea writes in the introduction. More specifically, it is a book about Death living.⠀

In the world presented in this story, Death works, like so many of us, in a cubicle farm (in an office full of other grim reapers). He lives for the job, so to speak. He’s been doing it for so long, after all, and without a single pause. But one day he receives a letter from Human Resources informing him of the fact that he has a year’s worth of vacation days accumulated, and that he must make use of them.⠀

So Death takes a holiday. Only he has no idea what to do with all the time that has been given to him. Dedicated as he’s been to his occupation — defined by it, you could say — he never quite managed to build a life outside of it. And so we follow Death along as he tries to figure out how to best go about living.⠀

This is a picture book, although it is decidedly not intended for kids. Not because there’s anything explicit about its illustrations (which are fun and clever and charming in their rushed, scratchy quality), but because it deals with topics relatable mostly to us adults who may or may not feel as if their job occupies too much of their personal identity.⠀

Like Death, I work as an office drone. And while I appreciate the stability and structure that it gives my days, one of its main challenges has always been having some semblance of a life after I clock out at the end of the day. The job is not hard, physically speaking (back pain notwithstanding), but it is certainly mentally draining. When I get home, oftentimes the only thing I want to do is shut off my brain, do nothing but unwind and rest before heading back into the office the next day.⠀

But I don’t want to let myself — my life — get stagnant. So I make routines. I carve out time to work out; to hang out with my partner; to read; to write a little. I try to make the best use of my time as possible.⠀

Not that I’m always successful at it. Some days I don’t even bother with any of that.

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And that’s fine, too. Mileage varies, as it often does. Later on in the introduction, Rea offers a piece of advice given to him by a former mentor: learn when to row your boat, and when to rest your oars. In our current society, however, where hustle culture is so prevalent, constant productivity is placed on such a large pedestal that you can be easily excused for thinking it’s the only path towards having a successful, meaningful life. There are no hobbies — there are only side jobs. There is no downtime — every waking moment is an opportunity to be productive. Your life gains meaning only by putting in the work.⠀

But that path only really leads to burnout. It’s not sustainable. And more importantly, it’s just not how people work. How life works. As with all things, there’s a balance that must be struck: You have to learn when to row. You have to learn when to rest.⠀



Reading this book now, though, in the context of our current situation, was interesting, to say the least. It gave it an unexpected new layer. Those of us whose jobs have been deemed non-essential now find ourselves at home with all this free time suddenly dropped on our laps. It’s a weird situation in which to be, confusing and also somewhat overwhelming. It can even get a little existential: Who are we when something that takes up so much of our lives gets taken away? How do we fill our time when we now have so much of it?⠀

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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us, as Gandalf once said. It’s the theme Death Wins a Goldfish explores, and we could do worse than to emulate its findings. We can’t, of course, currently do all the traveling and outdoor activities Death does in this story (my favorite being the running of the bulls — although I don’t approve of the practice).

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But we can read some books. We can make some art. We can take care of our loved ones (pet fish certainly count). We can rethink our lives and our worldviews. We can look within and work on ourselves.

We can, in other words, work on living, while we’re still able.

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Or we can just rest. That’s as much part of life as anything else.