TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE by Becky Chambers

1Every time I’ve picked up a book by Becky Chambers I have ended up loving it. And every time after I’m done reading I sit down and try to get my thoughts out on the page. And every single time I fail to do so. ⠀

I guess it’s because her stories emotionally resonate with me so dang much. I’ve always had a hard time talking about my feelings (hi I am a Leo), and Becky Chambers stories, for me, are all feelings. Things happen, to be sure, and sometimes there is even some sort conflict. But there’s never what you might call a “traditional plot.” In these stories things happen because… life. That’s what life is. ⠀

That the characters Chambers writes about happen to lead such interesting and human lives is part of the appeal for me. ⠀

And I use the term “human” very deliberately. Because even though Chambers work is full of capital-A Alien creatures and complex concepts, at their core they are some of the more human stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across. There are always at least a couple of scenes that move me to tears, and that was also the case with To Be Taught… (One act affected me so much that I startled my girlfriend by suddenly turning to her, eyes watering up. She asked me what was wrong, and I couldn’t quite say, so I just told her the entire storyline up until that point. It seemed the only sensible thing.)⠀

“Hopepunk” is the term that’s being floated around for the newish type of science fiction that proposes a more optimistic outlook for humanity. Chambers’ books are more than representative of this blossoming genre, with the sort of narratives that may not entirely thrill your more spirited storytelling sensibilities, but which will instead, if fortunate, nourish your soul. ⠀

More than welcome in these divisive, cynical times.

THRAWN: TREASON by Timothy Zahn

2December is for Star Wars.⠀

I really enjoyed Zahn’s return to his iconic character in the first book of this series. Getting a story from the point of view of a character that essentially boils down to “Sherlock Holmes but uh even more alien” makes for some fun reading.⠀

I enjoyed the second entry, Alliances, a fair deal more. Telling that story in alternating chapters first with Thrawn and Vader and then with Thrawn and Anakin made for a really dynamic story, and I enjoyed how their interactions were written. We all know Vader’s story. But we also know that Vader and Anakin are two distinct personalities, and Zahn did a great job highlighting that. We also got a fun romp of a storyline with Padmé who is still to this day in the canon, severely underutilized. ⠀

Which all makes Treason feels slightly disappointing. It’s still an interesting and fun read. It just feels inconsequential to the story at large. (Some spoilers ahead here.) It takes place in a single week, before he and Ezra and a bunch of space whales take a hyperspace jaunt to who knows where, and knowing that robs this story of any dramatic tension. It was also a little too military SF for me, which is a genre I don’t particularly enjoy. That military aspect has always been there (Thrawn is a Grand Admiral in an Empire, after all), but, at least with the two previous stories, I felt like it was more of a background element, a method Thrawn embraced in order to get what he wants. Here, that facet is brought to the foreground, and Thrawn himself is the one drawn back to the shadows.⠀

There were still some things I really liked. Eli Vanto was a character I particularly enjoyed, and it was nice to catch up with him. Admiral Ar’alani and Commodore Faro are just badasses, and I hope we get more of them in the future. And I liked the bureaucratic and whiny Ronan, this story’s miniature version of Director Krennic. He has one of the most prevalent roles in the story, so it’s a good thing that his arc is also one of the more interesting. ⠀

Not as good as the last two books. Still fun. That feels as much a part of Star Wars as anything else. ⠀



December is for Star Wars. Between this and The Mandalorian (which I’ve been really loving), it’s been nice to wade back into the waters of a galaxy far, far away, before taking the full plunge next week with The Rise of Skywalker. I already have my tickets. I hope you do, as well.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie

3My girlfriend and I saw Knives Out last night and had an absolute blast with it. The fact that I’ve been in a murder mystery sort of mood anyway, and had started reading Agatha Christie’s most well-known Poirot novel a couple of days prior only added to my enjoyment, too, I’m sure.⠀

This was my first time reading this story, although I have seen — and thoroughly liked — Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation a couple of times. What surprised me reading the original work is just how cold and calculating Poirot is with this particular case. I’ve read only a handful of the Poirot books, but just enough of them to know that he can be quite the fierce and impassioned character when the mood strikes. Going solely by Branagh’s interpretation (as well as David Suchet’s, which I have not seen, but have heard enough about), you are led to believe that this is Poirot’s hardest, most trying case, and so I went into the book expecting a Poirot full of righteous anger. And then by the time you get to the end you realize that, actually, this is all pretty damn standard for him. He even explicitly comments on it, at one point.⠀

Which I think is pretty damn great. As much as I can appreciate the Shakespearean drama of the modern adaptations, there’s something brilliant about this ridiculous, charming little man just relentlessly plowing through everyone’s nonsense to get to the truth. And at the end of it all, leave the resolution entirely in the hands of somebody else. Mainly, the reader. “I cannot judge this,” indeed.⠀

Anyway go see Knives Out if you love Agatha Christie stories and also straight up spoofs of Agatha Christie stories like Clue. It’s too good.

JANE STEELE by Lyndsay Faye

4I am, for the most part, very much a mood reader. At least until this time of year rolls around, where I become a seasonal reader. Hallowe’en, as we all know, is for horror. December, at least personally, is for science fiction (blame Star Wars books). I’ve never quite been able to figure out what November is for, though.⠀

At least not until a few weeks ago after I finished reading Agatha Christie’s Mystery of the Blue Train. November, I had decided, was for murder. ⠀

Which is why Jane Steele seemed like the best thing to pick up. “Reader, I murdered him,” is a strong enough line to hook anyone and, reader, it hooked me. ⠀

It’s all about the voice. I had read and loved Faye’s Dust and Shadow, her Sherlock Holmes affair, years ago, and the thing that struck me the most about it was how much it nailed the tone and atmosphere of those stories. Her Watson didn’t read like pastiche or homage. It read like Watson. ⠀

I felt similarly after reading this book. This is a Jane Eyre re-telling of sorts, and while I haven’t read that particular classic and so couldn’t tell you if Faye nails that baroque Brontë voice, I can definitely attest to the fact that this story achieves a pitch-perfect Gothic tone, bursting with delicious, melodramatic, murderous undertones.⠀

And although I ultimately enjoyed reading this book (it consists of well-realized, charming characters that positively sing), I did find that the story slowed considerably during the middle, leading to an ending that, while mostly satisfying, also felt a little disconnected to the story we were promised at the beginning. The first handful of chapters crackled with an energy that I found missing from the rest of the book, and I just thought that was a little disappointing.⠀

I still enjoyed reading the hell out of this book, however. It’s a wild ride. I can’t wait to hear the voice Lyndsay Faye captures next.

LOOK BOTH WAYS by Jason Reynolds

5I only got into Jason Reynolds’ work this year, when I picked up Miles Morales: Spider-Man, a superhero story that has less to do with flashy superpowers and more with the everyday heroism of a brown kid living in Modern America.⠀

I liked it enough to learn more about the guy, looking up speeches and talks. What started out as a bookish crush (Reynolds is an effortless, stylish speaker) quickly turned into a deep admiration as I learned more about the message he is trying to convey with his books, the service he wants to provide with his writing. ⠀

That’s all I think about when I’m writing these books. I’m the lead talker. That’s my job. My responsibility is to look out in the crowd and say, “Where y’all from? What’s your crew? What’s your name?” And to put those names, those neighborhoods, those feelings in a book.⠀

We don’t value how important it is for young people just to see themselves.

Jason Reynolds: 2018 National Book Festival


His stories are all about being seen.⠀

And I think I’ve seen enough of Jason Reynolds to say that he is one of the most empathic writers working today.⠀

It’s a trait that’s on full display in Look Both Ways, his latest release. A collection of ten stories about different groups of kids on their walk home from school, and everything that happens to them during the way. ⠀

That walk, Reynolds believes, is one of the few experiences kids have where they can feel some sense of autonomy over themselves. Where they can tell and shape stories in their own way, on their own terms. ⠀

One of the things I admire about Reynolds is his ability to effortlessly slip into different — often conflicting — points of view. The characters are as compelling as they are numerous, their stories distinct, each carrying their own flavor and texture. They still interconnect, however, as the lives of these kids weave in and out of each other’s in their own chaotic, impactful fashion.⠀

The amount of topics covered in these ten short stories is truly staggering, and could be overwhelming were it not for the fact that Reynolds has one of the most casual, welcoming narrative voices in literature right now. A voice that can talk about boogers and bullying in the same breath and sincerity. But the one theme all the stories ultimately go back to is about being seen.

Every character we meet fits more or less into an archetype: the shy girl, the loner kid, the jock, the nerd, the knuckleheads and the bullies. And Reynolds will tell you their stories. He will tell you why that girl is so shy. He will tell you what that bully’s home life is like. He will tell you how that jock got that black eye. ⠀

He will not tell you everything, though. He won’t fully explain or excuse their actions. But he will tell you just enough for you to be able to look past the label and start seeing them as people.⠀

All he wants to do is make sure somebody else bears witness to his story. That’s all. I can’t do anything for him in that moment. He just wants me to know that this story is his, and that it’s true, and that somebody out of his space can hear it and can take it back into the world.

Shut up and Write with Author Jason Reynolds


Because seeing is important. But it’s only ever the first step towards understanding someone else’s story. To do so you must, of course, look both ways, and then cross the threshold.

THE OKAY WITCH by Emma Steinkellner

theokaywitchI began my Hallowe’en reading as gently as possible with Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks. I’d figured I’d finish it the same way, and Emma Steinkellner’s The Okay Witch seemed liked the perfect — and perfectly pleasant — bookend.

This middle grade graphic novel tells the story of Moth Hush (the best name), an upbeat but lonely teenage outcast growing up in a small, tight-knit colonial town, who, shortly after turning thirteen, finds out she comes from a long line of witches. Her mother has eschewed magic, however, and is unwilling to talk to Moth about witchcraft, preferring to leave history behind. This is, of course, not acceptable to our teenage protagonist, who is only too eager to find out more about the thing that might make her feel like she belongs. Her exploration into the past mostly spells out trouble, though, and soon stirs up old grudges and grievances.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is my favorite Studio Ghibli movie (and also, if we’re being honest, probably my favorite film full stop). I love pretty much everything about: from the story to the setting to the oh-so-lovable characters. It’s a movie that perfectly showcases the kind of everyday, commonplace courage that Miyazaki is so fond of portraying. I got major Kiki vibes from The Okay Witch and that was the main reason I picked it up. And there are similarities, to be sure: they are both endearing and intensely charming stories about young women trying to figure out where they fit in the world. The Okay Witch does its own thing with the premise though, and tells an effective story about prejudice — and, indeed, pride — with characters who deal with the haunted past in varying ways: the townsfolk, who hold it to the highest regard; the witches, who endured years of bigotry and persecution, and understandably wish to leave it all behind; Moth’s mother, Calendula (another best name), who believes in change above all.

And then there is Moth, prepared to push the bad aside, yearning to embrace the good, and perfectly willing to build a better world out of it all. And, like Kiki — one of her literary predecessors — she’s got the kind of courage to deliver it to us, too.

WE SOLD OUR SOULS by Grady Hendrix

soldoursoulsI’ve been reading a lot of stories lately that are more fun than scary, more spooky than horrifying. Which is usually what I prefer. When I pick up a book, I’m looking for a certain mood and atmosphere rather than anything more visceral. As we get closer to Hallowe’en, though, I start feel that it itch for proper horror, waiting eagerly to be scratched. That’s when I turn to Grady Hendrix, a writer that I know will, like any decent UPS worker, always deliver.

We Sold Our Souls is the story of Kris Pulaski, a former rock star living out her middle age in a dreary and dull existence as a night clerk in a cheap chain hotel. Kris was the lead guitarist in Dürt Würk, a nineties metal ensemble that never quite made it, thanks to the machinations of lead singer, Terry Hunt, who, at the expense of the rest of the group, went on to fame and superstardom. After meeting with another down-on-his-luck bandmate, Kris soon finds out the true circumstances behind Hunt’s meteoric rise — he met the devils at a crossroads, and sold the souls of his friends. Fueled by rage and a desperate desire to just understand why, she lights out towards Hellstock ’19, a festival headlined by Hunt that will ostensibly serve as his farewell show, only Kris is certain there are fare more depraved designs at hand.

This is a novel with a recognizable enough premise to be sure, but as the saying goes, still waters run deep, and the sheer amount of themes explored in this novel is enough to take one’s breath away: social class and poverty; conspiracies and mainstream mores; sexism and misogyny; fandom and toxic tendencies; art and commercialism. It is epic and overwhelming in scope, but much like his legendary namesake, Hendrix plays these themes on his guitar with a skillful, experienced hand.

Which bring us to the music.

I always get a kick out of a stories that make me appreciate a subject matter or a subculture in which I hold next-to-no interest. I’m not very into hardcore rock music. I like some songs and bands but, despite my uncle’s best efforts, I’m just not anywhere close to being a metalhead, nor do I have any interest to be. But I’ll be damned if this novel didn’t have me nodding along to the music it was making me hear in my head.

Kris put her fingers on the second fret, strummed, and while the string was still vibrating, before she could think, Kris slid her hand down to the fifth fret, flicked the strings twice, then instantly slid her hand to the seventh fret and strummed it twice, and she wasn’t stopping, her wrist ached but she dragged it down to ten, then twelve, racing to keep up with the riff she heard inside her head, the riff she’d listened to on Sabbath’s second album over and over again, the riff she played in her head as she walked to McNutt’s, as she sat in algebra class, as she lay in bed at night. The riff that said they all underestimated her, they didn’t know what she had inside, they didn’t know that she could destroy them all.

And suddenly, for one moment, “Iron Man” was in the basement. She played it to an audience of no one, but it had sounded exactly the same as it did on the album. The music vibrated in every atom of her being. You could cut her open and look at her through a microscope and Kris Pulaski would be “Iron Man” all the way down to her DNA.

It speaks a lot as to Hendrix’s writing. This heavy metal horror novel is written with such earnestness and fervor that not only do you hear the music being described in the page, it makes you feel it as well. Which is the most important thing: music means nothing without listener, just as story means nothing without the reader. We must feel what the character feels. In this particular instance, we must hear what the character hears as well. It’s a rough tune, but the message behind it is as sweet as anything.

The blues were about the pain and struggle of living inside Black Iron Mountain. Metal showed you a door.

I first became familiar with Hendrix’s work a couple of years ago with his New Wave throwback My Best Friend’s Exorcism, a book I started because of a Stranger Things-induced eighties binge, and finished with a fierce love for the story it told and the characters within it. My experience with this book was similar: I expected it to be good and to enjoy it, but the premise wasn’t one that initially grabbed me. I finished loving it, wholly and completely. Loving the story’s message of hope in defiance of all the horrific, hopeless things that happen within it. Loving what it had to say about the importance of creativity and art, and how the human soul truly resides within those concepts.

“Souls are the best part of us,” JD said from the shadows. “Our passions, our dreams. We sell them and lose our creativity, our songs, our spark. We can no longer imagine anything bigger than what’s in front of our faces, we can no longer dream of a better world than Black Iron Mountain.

At the end, though, what I loved most about We Sold Our Souls was Kris, our indomitable, vulnerable, metal-as-all-hell protagonist — the woman with the axe and the iron will. “A girl with a guitar never has to apologize for anything,” is a constant refrain throughout the novel. Kris embodies that conceit perfectly, and I already miss reading about her.

KIM HUNT: What’s it like to be a woman in a metal band? Do you face any problems when you’re touring? Is it harder to get fans to respect you? And what about the image of women metal portrays? Do you think heavy metal creates positive role models for women?

KRIS PULASKI: I don’t know about all that. I just want to play.

— 101.7 WFNX, “FNX Weekends”
March 23, 1994

THE OWLS HAVE COME TO TAKE US AWAY by Ronald L. Smith

owls have come to take us awayThis book disappointed me, but only because the premise and its astounding cover created expectations (and its rad title) so high that they couldn’t possibly be be met.

You see, as much as I enjoy books about proper spooky things like ghosts and ghouls, the stories that terrify me the most are ones about aliens. And that’s primarily because I’m not much of a believer in the supernatural. I don’t think scary monsters and sprites actually exist. Extraterrestrial life, though? Um, yeah. And extraterrestrial life paying us visits? Well… still not much of a believer there, either, but it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. And if there is even a small chance… well, that creates enough of a suspension of disbelief in me to be able to generate a good and proper scare.

It’s the implication of it all, I think. Either these things are actually happening in real life, or they are happening entirely in people’s heads. Your opinion may differ, but it’s the latter possibility that I find most disquieting. Monsters from outer space are peculiar in that regard. Because, in the general opinion at least, the people who witness and believe in them tend to be considered… not mentally well. Ghosts and demons? Well, obviously you are in need of spiritual help. Aliens? You probably need medication. It’s a little unfair, and more than a little problematic, and that’s an aspect that is explored in Ronald L. Smith’s The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away, the story of Simon, a biracial boy growing up in a military base, whose main preoccupation in life happens to be aliens — Gray aliens, to be specific (a fear that originates with Whitley Strieber’s book Communion, which I can identify with as that book also absolutely terrified me). It’s a worry that erupts into full-blown fear while on a camping trip with his parents, where he goes through an experience that he believes to be an actual alien abduction.

Belief is the key term here. His parents — a doting and overly-concerned mother and an emotionally distant, callous father — soon find out, quickly assume the problem to be a psychological one, and he is promptly sent to be checked out by a doctor. And this constitutes the main conflict of the story: did this all happened to Simon in real life, or was it all inside his head?

Does it matter either way?

It’s an interesting and promising premise, but one with which, unfortunately, Smith doesn’t really do a whole lot. There are a lot of themes to be discussed within it, ranging from the importance of mental health awareness all the way up to toxic masculinity and its effect on young men. These topics are touched upon in the story, but only — frustratingly — on the most superficial of levels.

And I get it — this is a middle grade novel, which can present a number of restrictions: from the way you write about certain topics, to just how much you can discuss them without losing the interest of the younger audience. Writing about serious subjects well in children’s fiction demands a delicate balance, but it’s one I’ve seen struck successfully before, and often enough to not feel let down when coming across a story that doesn’t seem entirely willing to make the effort.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t any redeeming qualities in the story. Smith’s writing is economical and immediate. And while I don’t think he delved into the themes as much as he could have, he does allow us to view them through a more traditionally fantastical lens, with a story-within-a-story that is ostensibly being written by Simon, excerpts of which are peppered throughout the novel, and the writing for it is lavish and lofty and impressive. The metaphoric meaning behind it is not entirely subtle, but I found it to be an effective device, and these extracts were my favorite part of the story. I wouldn’t mind if Ronald L. Smith pulled a Rainbow Rowell and built an entire book around this nested narrative.

Smith also writes characters that are honest and compelling. His protagonist, especially. It’s easy to love and feel for Simon, who spends most of this story smothered and trodden — by the adults around him, by the aliens he believes are invading his life. In the end, Simon is just someone who wants to be seen and heard. Someone who just wants validation. The story gives it to him, and I can’t fault it for doing so. Because kids like Simon need spaces to breathe — spaces where they can just simply exist — and they deserve more stories that can provide that for them.

 

THERE ARE MONSTERS HERE by Cameron Chaney

monsters hereI’ve been following Cameron Chaney on social media for a while now. At first it was mostly because of his enviable library, but I’ve come to really enjoy the content he puts out. His books reviews are honest, informative, and concise. I like his earnest and infectious excitement for “all things spooky,” as he says in his videos. And I’ve read enough of the work that he reviews to realize that he knows a good story when he comes across one. What I didn’t know was that he could write one as well.

I’m always a bit reluctant to read something written by people who are mostly known for their work in another medium. There’s an ingrained bias that you have to push against — and I was glad that I did so here. Chaney has written an effective gut-punch of a story, full of both heart and horror. It’s a story about a family that is haunted, in every sense of the word, by monsters, and how each member responds to that fact. The story is a compelling one, with characters that feel real and very quickly grow on you, and the threats they face feel menacing and immediate, which is always what you’re looking for in short fiction.

The only real issue that I had was that I felt the writing relied too heavily on metaphor at times. That being said, this is still a compact and concise story, with prose that is clear and sincere, and I wouldn’t hesitate to read this author’s work again.

 

GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeier

ghostsGhosts is the story of sisters Maya and Catrina (Cat) as their family moves to the fictional Northern California town of Bahía de la Luna. The move is spurred not only by their father’s new job, but also because of Maya’s health. She has cystic fibrosis, and the salty air that blows in from the sea, it is thought, might benefit her. The sisters soon discover that the coastal city is host to a large population of ghosts, however, and the story is informed by their individual reactions to this revelation.

This was a bit of a bittersweet read for me as this was the first of Raina Telgemeier’s books that I didn’t just completely and utterly loved. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked it well enough. Like the rest of Telgemeier’s work, it’s a charmer of a read, full of lovely and relatable characters, and bursting at the seams with gorgeous artwork.

And it’s the art that I found most engaging. This is, I believe, Telgemeier’s strongest book in terms of artwork. Given that this story deals with the Day of the Dead this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, seeing as how Mexican culture is such a veritable wellspring of visual inspiration.

Setting is something in which Telgemeier particularly excels at, and Bahía de la Luna (based on the actual Northern California town of Half Moon Bay) is her most realized and beautiful one yet, full of detail and character and atmosphere. She is helped here with colors by Braden Lamb, who delivers with a palette that is somehow both morose and upbeat, which is, again, appropriate for a story dealing with the Day of the Dead.

I don’t celebrate Día de Muertos, so I can’t judge as to whether or not Telgemeier did an admirable job representing the holiday, although the back matter of the book mentions all the research material that Telgemeier went through while producing the book, and it seems fairly cohesive. It also talks about the research done into properly representing cystic fibrosis, something which I believe she did accurately and respectfully. This aspect of the story, however, informs the main issue I had with it, which is Maya’s characterization. Maya begins the story as a great character, quirky and optimistic and full of life. But she very quickly pushed to the sidelines of the story, straight into tropey territory, and spends the latter half of the book mostly as a source of motivation and inspiration for her sister. It’s a decision that rubbed me the wrong way, and left me thinking that maybe the story should have been hers to tell all along, with Cat as the supporting character. Middle grade and young adult novels are still full of differently abled characters whose stories are told by their able-bodied peers, and this is something that we should work harder to change.

That issue aside, I did love how all the elements of the story tied into the theme of breath: ghosts cannot talk unless they are given breath by a living person (usually in the form of a kiss, which is just charming); Maya’s cystic fibrosis makes it difficult for her to breathe, and she needs the aid of medical equipment; Cat herself is dealing with anxiety, which often manifests itself into her being often short of breath; and of course, the wind is forever gusting in from the sea, breathing life into the story.

I’ve completely fallen in love with Raina Telgemeier’s books, regardless of small gripes. She’s doing important work, and I will happily read anything and everything that she puts out.