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Most recent 📚📦 comes courtesy of 𝐍𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐖𝐨𝐫𝐦𝐬! Was quite excited to finally get this.⠀

For those who don’t know: Night Worms is a monthly subscription package with a heavily-curated focus on horror books and other genre-related goodies.⠀

Horror is not my main thing, although I do have a deep appreciation for it, especially around the Hallowe’en season, as my Instagram feed can attest. But Night Worms has been on my radar for a while now, mostly due to other bookish people being subscribed to it. I would see all the unboxings, and the stuff looked not only top notch, but fun, which I always value in horror. ⠀

Fun was what led me to finally make a purchase. Like most other subscription services, they do themes, and the one for this package (June’s) was “The Boys of Summer,” a phrase that instantly invoked the kind of horror that I generally gravitate towards — stories like Stephen King’s “The Body” / Stand by Me, The Goonies, and, of course, Stranger Things. Dark coming-of-age tales tinged with nostalgia and whimsy.⠀

Which is totally the vibe the contents of this package seem to capture. Would you just look at that tea packaging?⠀

You can check them out on their website or over on Instagram (their account is a lot of fun).

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.

 

DEAD VOICES by Katherine Arden

 

dead voicesI’ve read enough middle grade horror to know that a lot of the books within the genre are mostly harmless, spooky fun. There are a lot of conspicuous exceptions, of course, but for every Coraline there are at least a hundred Goosebumps (and, look, I love Goosebumps as much as the next reader, but let’s be real — it’s mostly goofy and schlocky fun).

Katherine Arden’s books fall more towards the Gaiman-end of the spectrum. There’s still no “real” horror here, but what Arden does deliver — and in abundance — is atmosphere. Which is fine by me: the spooky stories I find most effective are those defined by ambiance rather than terror — and Dead Voices has ambiance to spare. Arden’s language is beautiful, her descriptions chilling and commanding. There are passages here so vivid that I could almost feel the New England cold down in my bones (which is — as I mentioned in my previous review for Pumpkinheads — quite the feat when you consider I live on a Caribbean island in the midst of one of its hottest years on record).

A follow-up to last year’s excellent Small SpacesDead Voices see our main trio — principal protagonist Olivia, stoic and reliable Brian, and bubbly-but-insecure Coco — and their respective parents on their way to a skiing trip to a local Vermont mountain. They are soon overwhelmed by a particularly strong snowstorm however, and find themselves stuck inside in the vast and newly renovated lodge in which the are making their stay.

Arden has mentioned in interviews that one of the main inspirations for this story is The Shining, which should give you some idea of what is to come.

As I mentioned above, mood and setting are what sets this story apart, but it also features charming, believable, and resourceful characters, and it’s very easy to root and feel for them. Particularly great is Ollie’s father, Roger, who had a small part in Small Spaces but a much expanded role in this book. A widower trying his best to raise a daughter as a single parent. A cook and lover of puns. Someone trying to kindle a relationship with someone new while still grieving an old flame. His is a realistic, rounded, and sympathetic portrayal, and a welcome breath of fresh air in a genre where parents are mostly absent and absent-minded.

Lyrical and atmospheric, Dead Voices is much more than a worthy sequel, and a great Hallowe’en read.

 

PUMPKINHEADS by Rainbow Rowell, Faith Erin Hicks

pumpkinheads

Rainbow Rowell has made me cry. Yet again. I’ve read enough of her work for this to be expected, but everything about Pumpkinheads — her first graphic novel with the inimitable Faith Erin Hicks — sounded to me like it was just going to be a cute, fun romp.

And it was, you know? Pumpkinheads is the story of Josiah and Deja, two high school seniors who’ve spent the last couple of years working at their local pumpkin patch every Fall. Theirs is a seasonal friendship, but the bond they develop is strong and they consider themselves best friends. This is their last season working together, and once it wraps up they will both, for the last time, go their separate ways, towards college and new lives. So Deja is determined to have their last day (their last Hallowe’en together) be an adventure. “Friends,” she says at one point, “don’t let friends live small lives.”

Pumpkinheads is charming and adorable and the most fun, gentle read. As are most of Rowell’s stories. And like most of Rowell’s stories, it isn’t just any of those things. There’s always more. And there’s a lot of heart and soul in this graphic novel. A lot of true things about friendship and relationships and what it means to leave people and places behind. And quite a lot of Autumn. This is probably the most Fall book I’ve ever read. I could feel it wrapped around me like a light sweater, could practically smell the crisp October air. Quite the feat considering I live in Puerto Rico, and have never actually come across a proper, Midwestern Fall.

All of this is beautifully conveyed by Faith Erin Hicks’s beautiful, beautiful artwork. She’s drawn up a gorgeous and warm, welcoming world into which I desperately want to jump.

Hicks deserves a lot of recognition in terms of the story, too. The book’s back matter includes a conversation between the authors which makes note of the fact that the script Hicks received from Rowell was more screenplay-like in nature, lacking a lot of the beat-by-beat description that is usually found in most comic book scripts, and it was up to her to break down the panels and figure out the pacing of the story. A job she did marvelously — this is a fulfilling but very brisk read. (“There is a lot of skill,” Hicks says, “behind a ‘quick read.'”)

Hicks ends the same conversation with the following: “In the beginning, you’re trying to get to know them, who they are and how best to draw them so their personalities come through, visually. And by the time you’ve drawn the last page in their graphic novel, these characters are your best friends.” This is, of course, in reference to the drawing process, but it also perfectly encapsulates the experience of reading the story of these characters. You pretty much like Josie and Deja from the get-go, but you love them by the end. And then you understand, quite perfectly, just why they are so loathe to say good bye to their pumpkin patch.

I loved this book.