SERPENTINE by Philip Pullman

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

โ€” Philip Pullmanโ €

I began this year by reading Philip Pullmanโ€™s ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜š๐˜ฆ๐˜ค๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ต ๐˜Š๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ธ๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ, so I only thought it fitting that I would end it by reading yet another of his fantastic expeditions into human nature. ๐‘บ๐’†๐’“๐’‘๐’†๐’๐’•๐’Š๐’๐’† is a brief excursion into Lyraโ€™s world, and actually acts as a sort of thematic prequel to ๐˜Š๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ธ๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ, the second entry in ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜‰๐˜ฐ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฌ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜‹๐˜ถ๐˜ด๐˜ต series. โ €

๐‘บ๐’†๐’“๐’‘๐’†๐’๐’•๐’Š๐’๐’† tells a small, intimate story in which Lyra Belacqua joins some colleagues at an archaeological site that happens to be near the home of a past acquaintance โ€” someone who just might be able to answer some of the many burning questions Lyra has been carrying ever since the events related in ๐˜๐˜ช๐˜ด ๐˜‹๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ฌ ๐˜”๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ด. She and her dรฆmon, Pan, have been growing apart in the aftermath of these earlier exploits, a predicament they canโ€™t seem to be able to solve, causing them both great emotional turmoil. Lyra, true to her curious nature, is determined to decipher this dilemma. She gets some clarification by the end of this novella, but the relationship between humans and their inner-selves is something that will preoccupy Lyra well into her adulthood. Indeed this concern forms the central theme in ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜š๐˜ฆ๐˜ค๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ต ๐˜Š๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ธ๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ (and, I suspect, ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜‰๐˜ฐ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฌ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜‹๐˜ถ๐˜ด๐˜ต as a whole).โ €

I was well into my twenties when I first read ๐˜๐˜ช๐˜ด ๐˜‹๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ฌ ๐˜”๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ด, but the series still ended up being acutely formative. It’s a story that spoke to me on a host of different levels (not least of which a spiritual one) and even though I’ve never sat down and revisited the novels, they still, to this day, live rent-free in my head and heart.โ €

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

Which is a roundabout way of saying that each return visit to Pullmanโ€™s world has felt like coming home. Like visiting old friends. Like gaining some fresh, new insightโ€” however small โ€” into what it means to be human and alive. And the experience of reading ๐‘บ๐’†๐’“๐’‘๐’†๐’๐’•๐’Š๐’๐’† was no different.

KINDRED SPIRITS + THE PRINCE AND THE TROLL by Rainbow Rowell

46 rainbow rowellHey so speaking of โ€” did you know Rainbow Rowell once wrote a Star Wars story? Well, Star Wars-adjacent, at any rate. For World Book Day a couple of years ago she came out with a short little story about a group of fans waiting in line for the premiere of ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ค๐˜ฆ ๐˜ˆ๐˜ธ๐˜ข๐˜ฌ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ด. I read it a short while after the story came out and, like a lot of Rowellโ€™s work, I pretty much loved it. Hereโ€™s a short review from an old blog:โ €
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๐™ธ ๐š•๐š˜๐šŸ๐šŽ ๐š๐šŠ๐š’๐š—๐š‹๐š˜๐š  ๐š๐š˜๐š ๐šŽ๐š•๐š•. ๐™ธ ๐š•๐š˜๐šŸ๐šŽ ๐š‘๐šŽ๐š› ๐šš๐šž๐š’๐š›๐š”๐šข ๐šŠ๐š—๐š ๐šŒ๐š•๐šŽ๐šŸ๐šŽ๐š› ๐šŠ๐š—๐š ๐š™๐šŠ๐šœ๐šœ๐š’๐š˜๐š—๐šŠ๐š๐šŽ ๐š ๐š›๐š’๐š๐š’๐š—๐š (๐š’๐š ๐š๐š‘๐šŽ๐š›๐šŽ ๐š ๐šŠ๐šœ ๐šŠ ๐š‹๐š˜๐š˜๐š” ๐šŽ๐šš๐šž๐š’๐šŸ๐šŠ๐š•๐šŽ๐š—๐š ๐š๐š˜ ๐˜Ž๐˜ช๐˜ญ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ ๐˜Ž๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ญ๐˜ด, ๐š’๐š ๐š ๐š˜๐šž๐š•๐š ๐š‹๐šŽ ๐šŠ ๐š๐š˜๐š ๐šŽ๐š•๐š• ๐š‹๐š˜๐š˜๐š”). ๐™ธ ๐š•๐š˜๐šŸ๐šŽ ๐š‘๐šŽ๐š› ๐šŠ๐š–๐šŠ๐šฃ๐š’๐š—๐š ๐šŠ๐š—๐š ๐šž๐š—๐šŒ๐šŠ๐š—๐š—๐šข ๐šŠ๐š‹๐š’๐š•๐š’๐š๐šข ๐š๐š˜ ๐š–๐šŠ๐š”๐šŽ ๐šข๐š˜๐šž ๐š๐šŠ๐š•๐š• ๐š๐š˜๐š› ๐šŠ ๐šŒ๐š‘๐šŠ๐š›๐šŠ๐šŒ๐š๐šŽ๐š› ๐š’๐š— ๐šŠ๐š•๐š–๐š˜๐šœ๐š ๐š—๐š˜ ๐š๐š’๐š–๐šŽ ๐šŠ๐š ๐šŠ๐š•๐š•.โ €
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๐šƒ๐š‘๐š’๐šœ ๐šœ๐šŠ๐š–๐šŽ ๐š๐šŠ๐š•๐šŽ๐š—๐š ๐š’๐šœ ๐š‹๐š›๐š’๐š•๐š•๐š’๐šŠ๐š—๐š๐š•๐šข ๐šœ๐š‘๐š˜๐š ๐šŒ๐šŠ๐šœ๐šŽ๐š ๐š’๐š— ๐‘ฒ๐’Š๐’๐’…๐’“๐’†๐’… ๐‘บ๐’‘๐’Š๐’“๐’Š๐’•๐’”, ๐šŠ ๐š—๐š˜๐šŸ๐šŽ๐š•๐š•๐šŠ ๐š๐š‘๐šŠ๐š, ๐š˜๐šŸ๐šŽ๐š› ๐š๐š‘๐šŽ ๐šŒ๐š˜๐šž๐š›๐šœ๐šŽ ๐š˜๐š ๐šœ๐š’๐šก๐š๐šข-๐š๐š ๐š˜ ๐š™๐šŠ๐š๐šŽ๐šœ, ๐š–๐šŠ๐š—๐šŠ๐š๐šŽ๐šœ ๐š๐š˜ ๐š‘๐šŠ๐šŸ๐šŽ ๐š–๐š˜๐š›๐šŽ ๐šŒ๐š‘๐šŠ๐š›๐šŠ๐šŒ๐š๐šŽ๐š› ๐š๐šŽ๐šŸ๐šŽ๐š•๐š˜๐š™๐š–๐šŽ๐š—๐š ๐š๐š‘๐šŠ๐š— ๐š–๐š˜๐šœ๐š ๐šœ๐š™๐š›๐šŠ๐š ๐š•๐š’๐š—๐š, ๐š‹๐š›๐š’๐šŒ๐š”-๐šœ๐š’๐šฃ๐šŽ๐š ๐š—๐š˜๐šŸ๐šŽ๐š•๐šœ. ๐™ธ๐šโ€™๐šœ ๐šŠ๐š— ๐šž๐š—๐š๐šŠ๐š’๐š› ๐š๐š’๐š๐š, ๐š›๐šŽ๐šŠ๐š•๐š•๐šข.โ €
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๐šƒ๐š‘๐š’๐šœ ๐š’๐šœ ๐šŠ ๐šœ๐š๐š˜๐š›๐šข ๐šŠ๐š‹๐š˜๐šž๐š ๐š๐š‘๐š›๐šŽ๐šŽ ๐š‚๐š๐šŠ๐š› ๐š†๐šŠ๐š›๐šœ ๐š๐šŽ๐šŽ๐š”๐šœ ๐šŒ๐šŠ๐š–๐š™๐š’๐š—๐š ๐š˜๐šž๐š ๐š’๐š— ๐šŠ ๐š๐šŽ๐šœ๐š˜๐š•๐šŠ๐š๐šŽ ๐š•๐š’๐š—๐šŽ ๐š’๐š— ๐š๐š›๐š˜๐š—๐š ๐š˜๐š ๐šŠ๐š— ๐™พ๐š–๐šŠ๐š‘๐šŠ ๐š๐š‘๐šŽ๐šŠ๐š๐šŽ๐š› ๐š๐š˜๐š› ๐š๐š‘๐šŽ ๐š™๐š›๐šŽ๐š–๐š’๐šŽ๐š›๐šŽ ๐š˜๐š ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ค๐˜ฆ ๐˜ˆ๐˜ธ๐˜ข๐˜ฌ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ด. ๐™ธ๐š ๐š’๐šœ ๐š•๐š˜๐šŸ๐šŽ๐š•๐šข, ๐šŠ๐š—๐š ๐š’๐š ๐š’๐šœ ๐šŒ๐š‘๐šŠ๐š›๐š–๐š’๐š—๐š, ๐šŠ๐š—๐š ๐š’๐š ๐š’๐šœ ๐šœ๐š˜ ๐š ๐š˜๐š—๐š๐šŽ๐š›๐š๐šž๐š•. ๐™ธ ๐š๐š’๐š—๐š’๐šœ๐š‘๐šŽ๐š ๐š๐š‘๐šŽ ๐šœ๐š๐š˜๐š›๐šข ๐š’๐š— ๐š˜๐š—๐šŽ ๐šœ๐š’๐š๐š๐š’๐š—๐š, ๐š๐šŽ๐šœ๐š™๐šŽ๐š›๐šŠ๐š๐šŽ๐š•๐šข ๐š ๐š’๐šœ๐š‘๐š’๐š—๐š ๐š๐š‘๐šŽ๐š›๐šŽ ๐š ๐šŠ๐šœ ๐šŠ ๐š๐šž๐š•๐š•-๐š•๐šŽ๐š—๐š๐š๐š‘ ๐š—๐š˜๐šŸ๐šŽ๐š• ๐š๐šŽ๐šŠ๐š๐šž๐š›๐š’๐š—๐š ๐š๐š‘๐šŽ๐šœ๐šŽ ๐šŒ๐š‘๐šŠ๐š›๐šŠ๐šŒ๐š๐šŽ๐š›๐šœ ๐š๐š‘๐šŠ๐š ๐™ธ ๐šŒ๐š˜๐šž๐š•๐š ๐š’๐š–๐š–๐šŽ๐š๐š’๐šŠ๐š๐šŽ๐š•๐šข ๐š™๐š’๐šŒ๐š” ๐šž๐š™. ๐™ท๐šŽ๐šŠ๐š›๐š๐š ๐šŠ๐š›๐š–๐š’๐š—๐š ๐šŠ๐š—๐š ๐š‹๐šŽ๐šŠ๐šž๐š๐š’๐š๐šž๐š•.โ €
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Like every December since the first film in the sequel trilogy came out, Star Wars has been on my mind a lot, which is why I decided to revisit the slim volume. I enjoyed it just as much this time around, appreciating especially how it captures the eager, edgy excitement a lot of fans of the saga felt in the run-up of the release of TFA. You know, before the dark times. Before the ๐˜‹๐˜ช๐˜ด๐˜ค๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ณ๐˜ด๐˜ฆ. This does tragically make the story act somewhat like a time capsule, however, portraying as it does a facet of fandom that seems quaint and innocent considering the meaningless gatekeeping and toxic rhetoric that is so maddeningly prevalent these days. Alas. โ €
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You and I can still enjoy things, though. Itโ€™ll be our secret. โ €
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Shortly after finishing the novella, I was made aware of a series of fairy tale retellings a bunch of prominent authors were doing for the Amazon Original Stories initiative. Rowell was one of these writers, contributing ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ท๐’“๐’Š๐’๐’„๐’† ๐’‚๐’๐’… ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ป๐’“๐’๐’๐’, an odd little tale that doesnโ€™t seem to be an interpretation of any one fable in particular but instead plays with the troll-under-the-bridge narrative. The story seems to be a blend of Rowellโ€™s realistic contemporary style and the dark whimsy found in her fantasy fiction. This makes it a bit disjointed but it works for the most part. The aforementioned gift is once more in full display here as I also finished this peculiar yarn wanting to know more about the two protagonists, and about the world in specific, which appears to be a sort of post-climate apocalypse mythical land (that, you know, still has Starbucks). Also because once I read that title I just ๐˜ฌ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ๐˜ธ Rowell would make them fall in love with each other and that I would buy it hook, line, sinker โ€” and, reader, I ๐˜ฅ๐˜ช๐˜ฅ.

THE VISITOR by Sergio Gomez

45 the visitorIn the proverbial middle of nowhere a group of travelers wait out a severe snowstorm inside of a diner. Inside they find warmth and food and drink and casual conversation. Most of them quickly develop the quick camaraderie commonly found between people sharing in a particular, peculiar experience. They are hopeful the rough weather will disperse before long, allowing them to continue their particular journeys. โ €
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A fellow traveler will soon be trying to join them, however, one with less than benevolent intentions in mind โ€” and the group will quickly realize that there are far more dangerous things outside than the miserable elements.โ €
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You know, Iโ€™ve never really associated the holiday season with horror. Dwell on it enough and it does begin to make a perverse sort of sense, though. Fiction centered around the holidays (and around Christmas especially) is brimming with stories about disparate groups of people finding themselves stuck in an isolated, often claustrophobic setting, after all, and that is as traditional a horror set-up as you can get. Why ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฐ๐˜ต just throw a monster into the mix?โ €
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The monster in ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ฝ๐’Š๐’”๐’Š๐’•๐’๐’“, a novella by Sergio Gomez, arrives in the shape of an alien, coming to terrorize our protagonists. Despite the otherworldly antagonist and the wintry setting however, this story is less ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜จ than it is ๐˜—๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ, as we quickly find out this creature wants to join in on the Yautja fun by trying to hunt down our core characters one by one.โ €
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This being a brief sojourn of a story, my only expectation was to have a good time โ€” a prospect that was indeed met. Gomez has written a tight tale that boasts a breakneck pace, while also somehow finding the space to develop the characters enough that we can recognize and sympathize with their plight. Not an easy thing to do in less than a hundred pages, but Gomez did a creditable job with the material.โ €
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If there is one thing I found lacking was the monster itself, especially in terms of its appearance. Gomez keeps it understandably vague, but the impression that we can glean from the details he ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด drop ends up beingโ€ฆ a tiny bit goofy. This is disappointing seeing as how the cover depicts what looks like a traditional Grey alien, which is an image that has always haunted and disturbed me (hullo, my name is Rick, and Whitley Strieberโ€™s ๐˜Š๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฎ๐˜ถ๐˜ฏ๐˜ช๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read). I would have found the story much more effective and unsettling if we got the same spindly extraterrestrial inside the story itself. But I confess that this is more of a personal preference than it is ๐˜ข๐˜ค๐˜ต๐˜ถ๐˜ข๐˜ญ criticism.โ €
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๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ฝ๐’Š๐’”๐’Š๐’•๐’๐’“ is a fun and bloody ride that makes for some excellent holiday reading.

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

44 from a certain pov - empireThe first volume of ๐˜๐˜ณ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ ๐˜ข ๐˜Š๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ต๐˜ข๐˜ช๐˜ฏ ๐˜—๐˜ฐ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜ต ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ธ was a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one. ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ค๐˜ฆ ๐˜ˆ๐˜ธ๐˜ข๐˜ฌ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ด had, well, awakened a long-dormant excitement for Star Wars, pushing me down a nostalgic-tinged rabbit hole that led me to things like ๐˜š๐˜ต๐˜ข๐˜ณ ๐˜ž๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ด ๐˜™๐˜ฆ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ๐˜ญ๐˜ด (which still stands as my favorite piece of new SW media) and, eventually, inevitably, to the books. Up to that point, in the aftermath of the Disney acquisition most of the stories had to do, naturally, with the new sequel trilogy of films, broadening the narrative and developing certain key characters. Occasionally some of the books dropped dealt with characters and events from bygone eras, but for the most part the expanded universe focused on the ๐˜ค๐˜ถ๐˜ณ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ต. And then ๐˜๐˜ณ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ ๐˜ข ๐˜Š๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ต๐˜ข๐˜ช๐˜ฏ ๐˜—๐˜ฐ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜ต ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ธ suddenly arrived, an anthology featuring a wide array of writers telling the stories of dozens of peripheral characters from the film that started it all. Itโ€™s an idea that perfectly embodies this franchiseโ€™s most charming, playful notion: that ๐˜ฆ๐˜ท๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜บ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ has a tale that needs to be told; that ๐˜ฆ๐˜ท๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜บ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ has an important role to play in this far-away galaxy. โ €
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I ate it all up. The collection somehow managed to satisfy my nostalgic yen while also injecting some much needed, much welcomed fresh ideas to this familiar universe: from boasting a more diverse cast of characters (people of color! a touch of queer representation!) to playing with styles and genres. There was a lot of emphasis on lighthearted humor, of course, but a lot of the stories also packed quite the emotional punch. It was a wild ride, and definitely one of my favorite reads the year it came out. It made me hope they would continue this concept with the rest of films. And so when this volume, telling the story of ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜Œ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ ๐˜š๐˜ต๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ฌ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜‰๐˜ข๐˜ค๐˜ฌ, was announced I was nothing if not thrilled.โ €
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Which just makes it all the more the shame that ๐‘ญ๐’“๐’๐’Ž ๐’‚ ๐‘ช๐’†๐’“๐’•๐’‚๐’Š๐’ ๐‘ท๐’๐’Š๐’๐’• ๐’๐’‡ ๐‘ฝ๐’Š๐’†๐’˜: ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ฌ๐’Ž๐’‘๐’Š๐’“๐’† ๐‘บ๐’•๐’“๐’Š๐’Œ๐’†๐’” ๐‘ฉ๐’‚๐’„๐’Œ mostly disappointed me. It still boasts a broad battalion of authors, many of whom have written works Iโ€™ve enjoyed in the past, who do an admirable job with the material given while also continuing to ramp up the diversity aspect established in the first volume. Really, the ingredients that made me love the previous collection are all here, itโ€™s just that, somehow, the recipe doesnโ€™t particularly work with the story ๐˜Œ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ is trying to tell. โ €
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It makes sense โ€” the first film introduced us to a vast cast of characters, giving the stories a wider area in which to play and let loose. In contrast, ๐˜Œ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฑ๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฆโ€™s story is smaller in scale, and much more personal, concentrating less on the galaxy at large and more on the trials and tribulations of our protagonists. This leaves the authors of this collection to either focus on a scattering of minor characters or create new ones whole cloth. In any other context, this would be a freeing conceit; here, though, it just ends up making the collection feel helter-skelter. Add to that the fact that most of the stories are mostly irreverent in nature, focusing on the humorous, slightly ridiculous side of the saga, seemingly eschewing the poignancy found in much of the first volume in favor of knowing winks at the audience. And while you will never find me stating that camp has no place in the Star Wars universe (itโ€™s been there from the start, etched into its genetic makeup), I do think that, much like with the Force, there needs to be a balance. โ €
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But before I feel too bad about being a bit harsh on this volume, I want to make note of the stories that ๐˜ฅ๐˜ช๐˜ฅ end up leaving a big impression on me, of which there were a handful:โ €
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Django Wexlerโ€™s โ€œAmara Kelโ€™s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably)โ€ and Mackenzi Leeโ€™s โ€œThere Is Always Anotherโ€ feature the sort of clever cheek that ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด work for me, where humor is used to ground all these fanciful figures. The opening line in Leeโ€™s story in particular will stand as one of the funniest in all of Star Wars. โ €
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Jim Zubโ€™s โ€œThe First Lessonโ€ and Lydia Kangโ€™s โ€œRight-Hand Manโ€ in contrast, delve deep into the pathos of some of these mythical characters, and they were the stories I feel actually added some more substance to the story being told in the film. โ €
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And finally, Austin Walkerโ€™s โ€œNo Time for Poetryโ€ and Alexander Freedโ€™s โ€œThe Man Who Built Cloud Cityโ€ both tell the type of story I currently enjoy the most in this universe, narratives which โ€” much like my other two favorites, ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜”๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ข๐˜ฏ and ๐˜™๐˜ฆ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ๐˜ญ๐˜ด โ€” manage to perfectly blend that mix of earnestness and enthusiasm that made Star Wars so damn precious and exceptional in the first place.โ €
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Iโ€™ve mentioned it before but it bears repeating: disappointment is as much an integral part of being a Star Wars fan as the feeling of delight. And if there is anything to living in this post-Disney supersaturated world is that, for the foreseeable future at least, we can be certain there will soon be something else to anticipate, anyway.

CHILLING EFFECT by Valerie Valdes

43 chilling effectEva-Benita Caridad Larsen y Coipel de Innocente โ€” Eva, for short โ€” captain of ๐˜“๐˜ข ๐˜š๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ข ๐˜•๐˜ฆ๐˜จ๐˜ณ๐˜ข, is tired. She’s led a rough life, one riddled with tragedies and mistakes that she would soon like to forget. She’s doing a decent job at it, too, with having cut ties with most of her family and concentrating on growing her mostly legal shipping business. Helping her in this endeavor is a capable, crackpot crew that is beginning to feel like a sort of family. Sheโ€™s even considering starting a new relationship. Eva Innocente’s past seems to be staying well behind her, where it belongs.โ €
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Right up until it catches back up with her in the form of the shadowy, mob-like organization known as The Fridge, who Eva learns are holding her younger sister, Mari, captive. With the threat of harm coming to her sister lest she comply, the captain of ๐˜“๐˜ข ๐˜š๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ข ๐˜•๐˜ฆ๐˜จ๐˜ณ๐˜ข is coerced into doing increasingly dangerous and bizarre tasks for the secretive faction, all while trying to keep her close-knit crew in the dark as to the origins of these odd jobs, a deceit that soon begins to unravel, bringing back all the tension and drama Eva has tried so hard to evade all these years.โ €
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What you definitely wonโ€™t get from that synopsis though is just how funny and irreverent ๐‘ช๐’‰๐’Š๐’๐’๐’Š๐’๐’ˆ ๐‘ฌ๐’‡๐’‡๐’†๐’„๐’•, the debut novel from Valerie Valdes, actually is. The book starts out fun and light, a tone that, thanks to characters who are instantly compelling, it manages to keep even as the tension and melodrama ramps up like a proper telenovela. Like many science fiction romps, ๐‘ช๐’‰๐’Š๐’๐’๐’Š๐’๐’ˆ ๐‘ฌ๐’‡๐’‡๐’†๐’„๐’• deals with a diverse, ragtag group of people traveling the universe and getting into trouble โ€” a classic, well-established trope present in many personal favorites such as ๐˜Š๐˜ฐ๐˜ธ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฐ๐˜บ ๐˜‰๐˜ฆ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฑ, ๐˜๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ง๐˜ญ๐˜บ, and most recently Becky Chambersโ€™ excellent ๐˜ž๐˜ข๐˜บ๐˜ง๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ด series, to which, at least in the beginning, my brain kept comparing this novel to โ€” you might say this novel is the delightfully vulgar, foul-mouthed cousin.โ €
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Which brings me to the dialogue, an area in which Valdes excels. Main character Evaโ€™s rhetoric in particular was a stand-out for me, packed as it is with shrewd Spanglish witticisms that I couldnโ€™t help but appreciate: there are particular phrases (and insults and profanities) that I have never come across in a work of fiction before. It made me feel seen in a way I did not expect. It was great.โ €
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The first half of the novel is episodic in nature, which is another aspect of the plucky crew trope that I highly enjoy. Unfortunately though as the vignettes gradually connected with the overarching storyline, the picaresque plot began to feel repetitive and drawn out, and it made the last half of the book a bit of a slog to get through.โ €
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Ultimately it was the characters and the clever, sharp writing that compelled me to finish the space opera telenovela, and I wouldnโ€™t mind traveling the galaxy and getting into trouble with these bunch of misfits again.

TRULY DEVIOUS by Maureen Johnson

truly deviousStephanie โ€œStevieโ€ Bell leads a life of crime โ€” studying every aspect of it, at any rate. Most of her free time is spent reading old case reports or listening to true crime podcasts. She wants nothing more in life than to find a body in the library.โ €
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She writes as much in her application letter to the Ellingham Academy, a boarding school that focuses on unorthodox learning, basing itself on its founderโ€™s philosophy of play as the best method for gaining knowledge. The grounds also happen to be the site of a particularly heinous crime committed back in the early days of the institute that was never suitably, satisfyingly solved. Itโ€™s a cold case Stevie has long been obsessed with and is certain she can crack.โ €
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She is soon admitted into Ellingham, but before she even gets close to thawing the famous case, however, she gets her primary wish granted when she stumbles upon the body of a fellow schoolmate. The victim appears to have been murdered in a theatrical fashion not that dissimilar to the ones carried out all those years ago in the school by someone calling themselves Truly Devious, and this โ€” along with other ominous coincidences โ€” leads Stevie to believe the incidents are somehow connected, and that there is still much of the old mystery to uncover.
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Maureen Johnson’s ๐‘ป๐’“๐’–๐’๐’š ๐‘ซ๐’†๐’—๐’Š๐’๐’–๐’” is a riveting, utterly captivating read. A curious and effective mix between a classic Agatha Christie-style mystery and the more modern trend of true crime accounts โ€” podcasts, in specific. Indeed, much of this book reads like a podcast transcript, which does a lot to help ground the story.โ €
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A foundation that is much needed given the fact that Johnson populates the story with a cast of truly eccentric characters โ€” think a Poirot mystery but with the residents of Stars Hollow running around. Curiously itโ€™s the characters that prove to be both the bookโ€™s strength and weakness. One the one hand, the cast is wonderfully diverse, and Johnson has done an admirable job in terms of representation (cute queer representation! realistic portrayals of mental health issues!); on the other hand, they all have somewhat flat, one-note personalities: they are introduced at a certain level, dynamically speaking, and they rarely waver from it moving forward. In any other case these sort of hollow personalities would have been detrimental to the story, but Johnson writes such funny, witty dialogue for them (she essentially turns them into walking memes) that I can forgive it here. Murder mysteries are not traditionally known for fully-drawn, well-developed characters, at any rate; they deal with more flamboyant figures, the better to contrast with macabre misdeeds.โ €
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But my favorite aspect of this novel is definitely the recounting of the Ellingham case, a narrative that is immediately arresting. Alternating between the chapters set in the modern day, the events are laid out through various forms: from website articles, to interview transcripts, to what seem to be passages of a nonfiction book (perhaps Stevieโ€™s own report of the matter โ€” the novel never explicitly states who is writing these). Johnson shows a deep understanding of the true crime genre with these entries, and they add an authentic air to the entire affair.โ €
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๐‘ป๐’“๐’–๐’๐’š ๐‘ซ๐’†๐’—๐’Š๐’๐’–๐’” is the first book in a series, naturally, and while I have had a hard time getting into sequels lately, Iโ€™ll be damned if this didnโ€™t make me want to immediately pick up the next one.

๐–๐–†๐–‘๐–‘๐–”๐–œ๐–Š’๐–Š๐–“ ๐–Ž๐–˜ ๐–Š๐–™๐–Š๐–—๐–“๐–†๐–‘

October is my best reading month. I’m a very seasonal, themed-oriented reader, and Hallowe’en, more than any other holiday, lends itself to these qualities pretty perfectly.ย  I cut loose and read books that are a bit more fun than my usual fare, which makes it really easy to pick up book after book after book, something that I definitely don’t do in any other month of the year.

This particular Hallowe’en, however, felt a little off. It was to be expected considering, well, everything, but I guess I was just confident the holiday would lift my spirits up. It did during the harrowing aftermath of Hurricane Marรญa, after all. But as tragic as that event was, this pandemic is obviously so much worse and I foolishly ended up underestimating just how much it would affect my mood.

Add to that the fact that I decided to go all in on my bookstragram for Hallowe’en, wanting to put out pictures and reviews on a more or less consistent manner throughout the month. I succeeded, too, and I’m happy and proud I did it, but it was draining, and that sucked a bit of the fun out of it a bit.

I still ended up having a tremendous amount of fun, though, and I read a lot of damn fine books. I’m sad to see the spooky season go, but we all know that โ„Œ๐”ž๐”ฉ๐”ฉ๐”ฌ๐”ด๐”ข’๐”ข๐”ซ ๐”ฆ๐”ฐ ๐”ข๐”ฑ๐”ข๐”ฏ๐”ซ๐”ž๐”ฉ anyway. Continue reading “๐–๐–†๐–‘๐–‘๐–”๐–œ๐–Š’๐–Š๐–“ ๐–Ž๐–˜ ๐–Š๐–™๐–Š๐–—๐–“๐–†๐–‘”

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 โ€” equally gleaming and perfect โ€” 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.โ €
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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.โ €
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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 โ€” or vice versa. There are even detectives, a thankless job in Hell if there ever was one.โ €
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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.โ €
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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.
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(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?)โ €
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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.โ €
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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.โ €
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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. โ €
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Still, I appreciated the excellent worldbuilding, and also the way the novel explores its central theme, which revolves around hope.โ €
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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. โ €
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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, โ€œWhat power would Hell have if those imprisoned here would not be able to dream of Heaven?โ€ Why bother with anything at all?โ €
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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.โ €
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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 Bรก

27 the umbrella academyMy partner and I have been enjoying the Netflix adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, the comic book seriesย by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bรก. 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.โ €
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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.โ €

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.

2020-09-12 10_49_05.158This 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!โ €
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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 โ€” 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 โ€” 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 Bรก does the art and will get no complaints from me. I love his work and style in general, and here he channels Mike Mignola โ€” another favorite artist โ€” 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. Bรก’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.โ €
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(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 โ€” and especially in middle grade graphic novels โ€” are elements that remind me of the stories I used to love as a kid. This charming โ€” so charming โ€”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 โ€” 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.)