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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
Anyway.โ €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
Culinary history! Cooking competitions! Historical festivals! Victorian ghosts? Sherlock Holmes?? Bartitsu??? Mysteries! โ €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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

THE LEAK by Kate Reed Petty, Andrea Bell

the leak - kate reed petty, andrea bellWhen Ruth Keller (precocious, intrepid journalist, 12 years old) stumbles upon a strange substance floating in the waters of the local lake while fishing with a friend, her reporter instincts take over. Suspecting it to be some sort of toxic waste, she sets out to investigate its possible origins, steadily sharing her findings with the subscribers of her newsletter (the ๐™ฒ๐š˜๐š˜๐™พ๐™พ๐š˜๐™พ๐™พ๐™พ๐™ป๐šœ๐™ป๐šŽ๐š๐š๐šŽ๐š›). Thanks to the instruction and insight of Sara, her brother’s new girlfriend who also happens to be an intern at the ๐˜•๐˜ฆ๐˜ธ ๐˜ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ฌ ๐˜›๐˜ช๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด), Ruth’s coverage soon starts to get wider attention, bringing with it a slew of obstacles that only make the young journalist’s increasingly dogged pursuit even more complicated. The budding reporter of Twin Oaks is nothing if not determined, however, and is willing to do whatever it takes to leak out the truth and expose those who obscure it.โ €

If you’re still looking for a relevant read for this year’s Earth Day, you really can’t do better than picking up ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ณ๐’†๐’‚๐’Œ. Writer Kate Reed Petty and artist Andrea Bell have produced a truly excellent middle grade graphic novel that deals with a small town’s water crisis analogous to the very real calamity that has been plaguing the Michigan city of Flint for nearly a decade now, and the book is, naturally, dedicated to the people living there.

The bureaucratic nonsense that enables the human rights violation in Flint is too needlessly complex for a single comic to untangle, but the spirit of the city’s local leaders, community organizers โ€” and, of course the persistent journalists โ€” whose work helped put this emergency on a national stage is honored in this work through characters who are similarly willing to stand up and rage against the machine that allows injustices like this to happen in the first place. The Leakย reminds us that voices and stories have power. And it shows us how enough people using their voices to yell out their stories can, if they are loud enough, if they are true enough, change a town. Or a city. Or the world.

One of my favorite reads of 2021 so far. Not only due to Petty’s wonderful writing, but also because of Bell’s artwork, which I ๐˜ญ๐˜ฐ๐˜ท๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ. I saw it as a mix between Kayla Miller’s style in her ๐˜Š๐˜ญ๐˜ช๐˜ค๐˜ฌ books and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s simplified, practically chibi illustrations in ๐˜š๐˜ฆ๐˜ค๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ๐˜ด. So good.

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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ€”โ €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
Even today, the immigrant from Krypton challenges us to follow his example more fully and more perfectly.โ €
โ €
We have to meet this challenge.โ €
โ €
After all, though our yesterdays may be different, we all share the same tomorrow.

โ€”โ €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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 €
โ €
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.

NORTON JUSTER

05 the phantom tollbooth“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that.”

Thoroughly saddened to read the news of Norton Juster’s passing. The Chuck Jones-helmed film adaptation of ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ท๐’‰๐’‚๐’๐’•๐’๐’Ž ๐‘ป๐’๐’๐’๐’ƒ๐’๐’๐’•๐’‰ was a staple of my childhood, but I actually came to the novel in my early twenties, where it proceeded to blow my mind with it’s manic, unadulterated imagination and, of course, all the mischievous, marvelous wordplay. It quickly became a favorite and forever changed the way I thought of children’s literature. If you haven’t read this understated masterpiece, I highly recommend you do so.โ €

Rest easy, Milo.

RAINA TELGEMEIER: AN APPRECIATION

04 raina booksSo it’s been a minute! I’ve been mostly MIA lately, dealing with tedious adulthood type stuff. The sort that requires entirely too much of my energy and attention. And although thankfully none of that has really stopped me from reading, it’s been definitely draining any desire to sit down and write anything of note. Tragic, I know.โ €
โ €
It’s also caused me quite a fair bit of stress! Which is probably why I’ve resorted to picking up a bunch of middle grade books these past few weeks. They’ve long been a comfort read for me, so of course they’ve helped with winding down and staving off concerns.โ €
โ €
It’s sort of funny, then, that the first few books I went to were Raina Telgemeier’s graphic memoirs, which are all about the peculiar anxieties of childhood. โ €
โ €
I started reading Telgemeier’s work only a couple of years ago, but she quickly turned into one of my favorite authors. She writes the types of books I wish my younger self would have been able to read, which is something I say about every excellent modern middle grade book I read these days but it happens to be particularly true in the case of these graphic novels: they may me about incredibly specific events that happened to a white girl growing up in the West Coast during the late eighties and early nineties, but I still manage to see my life reflected in these pages. Still see the same childhood concerns and the adolescent angst that I went through as an anxious brown kid growing up in the Caribbean in the nineties. They make me feel seen in a way, and that brings me comfort. โ €
โ €
Stories, you guys โ€” the way they work never fails to amaze and astound me.โ €
โ €
Anyway.โ €
โ €
I got my copy of ๐˜Ž๐˜ถ๐˜ต๐˜ด right when it was released so of course there’s no Eisner Award sticker on the cover. Telgemier is an unstoppable talent, though, so if you purchase the book today it will be there.

THE FIRE NEVER GOES OUT by Noelle Stevenson

03 the fire never goes outReading Noelle Stevenson’s ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ญ๐’Š๐’“๐’† ๐‘ต๐’†๐’—๐’†๐’“ ๐‘ฎ๐’๐’†๐’” ๐‘ถ๐’–๐’• was a cathartic affair. I picked it up during a particularly demanding week, emotionally speaking, in my life, and found a lot of the emotions I was experiencing at the time (good, bad, unseemly) echoed in this book. It helped give many of these messy feeling some semblance of shape and form, which in turn made me feel less like a vulnerable blob just floating in the void.โ €
โ €
It was also a slightly surreal experience in the sense that this book is essentially a candid glance behind the curtains of a career and life of someone whose work has provided you with a great deal of amusement and delight over many years and, despite knowing that compassionate and lively art can come from grief and hardship, seeing it depicted in such a frank and vulnerable manner can still be somewhat of a shock to the system. The raw, intimate vignettes collected in this volume are as surprising and startling as they are engaging and illuminating.โ €
โ €
๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘ญ๐’Š๐’“๐’† ๐‘ต๐’†๐’—๐’†๐’“ ๐‘ฎ๐’๐’†๐’” ๐‘ถ๐’–๐’• is a portrait, and a work in progress at that, in the truest sense of the term. It’s honestly been a privilege to watch Stevenson’s work grow all these years, and hope I get to see it evolve even further.โ €
โ €
โ €
๐˜๐—ฟ๐—ถ๐—ด๐—ด๐—ฒ๐—ฟ ๐˜„๐—ฎ๐—ฟ๐—ป๐—ถ๐—ป๐—ด๐˜€: ๐˜€๐—ฒ๐—น๐—ณ-๐—ต๐—ฎ๐—ฟ๐—บ, ๐—ฏ๐—ผ๐—ฑ๐˜† ๐—ถ๐—บ๐—ฎ๐—ด๐—ฒ ๐—ถ๐˜€๐˜€๐˜‚๐—ฒ๐˜€, ๐—บ๐—ฒ๐—ป๐˜๐—ฎ๐—น ๐—ต๐—ฒ๐—ฎ๐—น๐˜๐—ต ๐—ฑ๐—ถ๐˜€๐—ฐ๐˜‚๐˜€๐˜€๐—ถ๐—ผ๐—ป๐˜€, ๐—ต๐—ผ๐—บ๐—ผ๐—ฝ๐—ต๐—ผ๐—ฏ๐—ถ๐—ฎ, ๐—ฟ๐—ฒ๐—น๐—ถ๐—ด๐—ถ๐—ผ๐˜‚๐˜€ ๐—ฐ๐—ผ๐—ป๐˜๐—ฒ๐—ป๐˜, ๐—บ๐—ฎ๐˜€๐˜€ ๐˜€๐—ต๐—ผ๐—ผ๐˜๐—ถ๐—ป๐—ด ๐—บ๐—ฒ๐—ป๐˜๐—ถ๐—ผ๐—ป