books

REVIEW: “Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown” by Anaïs Mitchell

Hadestown is one of my favorite musicals from the last few years. It moved me in a way that many musicals fail to do. I found the whole thing utterly captivating and gorgeous. It’s one of those rare musicals where the entirety of the show is delivered through its music and lyrics. Sure, the staging plays a large part in the deliverance of the story, but there is no spoken dialogue. Everything that’s said on stage comes from the music – all of which came from the mind of Anaïs Mitchell. And that’s what makes Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown so appealing. It’s widely known how difficult writing musicals is. So, when it was announced that a book exploring the lyrics of Hadestown was due to be published, along with extensive commentary from Mitchell, I was immediately curious to see what all she’d talk about in the book. And, man, if you’re looking for insight into how composers and lyricists craft musical, this is the book for you. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

In this book, Anaïs Mitchell takes readers inside her more than decade’s-long process of building the musical from the ground up—detailing her inspiration, breaking down the lyrics, and opening up the process of creation that gave birth to Hadestown. Fans and newcomers alike will love this deeply thoughtful, revealing look at how the songs from “the underground” evolved, and became the songs we sing again and again.

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REVIEW: “The Crossroads at Midnight” by Abby Howard

Something about the late summer/early autumn months makes me crave spooky stories. There’s nothing better than curling up and reading a scary story or watching a scary movie on an early autumn afternoon. It’s a nostalgic feeling for me and I am constantly on the lookout for new and unique spooky stories to read. So, naturally, I adored Abby Howard’s The Crossroads at Midnight, a graphic novel collecting five short stories. Feeling both classic and contemporary, it’s the perfect fix for horror-lovers looking for something new to sink their teeth into. Plus, the artwork is gorgeous. (5 out of 5 wands.) 

(NOTE: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher and Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are my own.) 

The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard
An old woman living alone on the edge of a bog gets an unexpected — and unsettling — visitor, throwing her quiet life into a long-buried mystery. An isolated backwoods family stumbles into good fortune for a time with a monstrous discovery in the lake behind their house, but that time is running short. And a misfit little girl, struggling to make friends, meets an understanding soul one day at the beach: but why will he only play with her alone at night? All these lonely souls — and more — have reached out into the darkness, not knowing what they might find.

Around the dark edges of reality lurk unknown beings with unknowable intentions — ordinary objects can become cursed possessions, entities who seem like friends can become monstrous, and those who seem monstrous can become the truest companions. In this collection of evocative, unnerving slice-of-life horror, five stories explore what happens when one is desperate enough to seek solace in the unnatural, and what might be waiting for us at the Crossroads at Midnight.

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REVIEW: “The Last Halloween: Children” by Abby Howard

Halloween is right around the corner, which means now is the perfect time to find some new and interesting spooky tales. Some of my favorite spooky stories are those aimed at younger audiences. I love a good horror movie or novel, but so often those stories aimed at adults go into such extreme corners of horror that they just aren’t fun. This isn’t the case with horror stories aimed at younger audiences. These stories rely on creating scary atmospheres and balance their spooks with clever ideas and a sense of fun. This is exactly what the first book of Abby Howard’s webcomic, The Last Halloween, does. The Last Halloween is in the same vein as many classic spooky stories. It balances interesting and unique characters, scares, and a sense of adventure, spinning an atmospheric tale that is as addicting as it is fun. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher and Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are my own. Additionally, there may be mild spoilers ahead.)

The Last Halloween: Children by Abby Howard
It’s a lonely Halloween night for ten-year-old Mona. While everyone else is out having a ghoulishly good time, she’s stuck inside without so much as a scary movie to watch. Just when she figures this evening can’t get much worse, a giant monster appears in her living room, proving her very, very wrong. Running for her life, Mona quickly sees that she’s not alone; trick-or-treating’s been canceled due to monster invasion! A barrier keeping billions of monsters at bay has broken and the horrific hordes have descended upon humanity, wreaking bloody havoc everywhere they stomp, slither, or squish. She may not be equipped for it, but it’s up to Mona to save the world with a team of fellow weirdos by her side. Perhaps they will succeed. Or perhaps this will be . . . The Last Halloween.

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REVIEW: “Tenet – The Complete Screenplay” by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s films are always a bit hit-or-miss for me. When they work, I enjoy his dramatic tendencies and his sense of scale and spectacle. But when they don’t work, they really don’t work. To this day, Inception remains one of those films that I can watch repeatedly without growing bored. But I haven’t liked a Nolan film since The Dark Knight Rises. It’s with this level of trepidation that I approached Tenet. With movie theaters in my state closed for the foreseeable future, I can’t see the film anytime soon. But I can read its recently published screenplay. Based on the writing, alone, Tenet is weak. It’s devoid of any meaningful characters, hampered with a premise that never fully makes sense, and reads less like a film and more like a collection of loosely related set pieces. (2 out of 5 wands) 

(NOTE: There are mild spoilers for Tenet ahead. Read at your own risk.)

Tenet: The Complete Screenplay (written by Christopher Nolan)
Tenet is a global thriller whose action stretches across time zones, and stars Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington. The film displays Nolan’s preoccupations, especially how Time can shift from one moment to the next.

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REVIEW: “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” by Christopher Paolini

I never read The Inheritance Cycle as a kid. I tried reading Eragon a few times and I made it partway through the film, but it was never something I could get into. I’m very picky about what kinds of fantasy books I like – the higher the fantasy and the more complex the world, the less likely I am to like it. Which is exactly what happened with Christopher Paolini’s beloved books. It was a classic case of it’s me not them. In that context, I was unsure what to expect when approaching To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, Paolini’s first book for adults, and his first foray into science fiction. While I love a lot of sci-fi, would I like this? Would this novel connect with me in the way I wanted his others to? In short: yes. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a masterclass in genre storytelling. Intricately plotted, stuffed with multidimensional and endearing characters, and filled with enough action to make Hollywood jealous, it is a thrill from start to finish. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: I won an advance copy of this book from BookishFirst. All reactions are my own. Additionally, there may be mild spoilers.)

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move.

As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human.

While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope . . .

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REVIEW: “They Threw Us Away” by Daniel Kraus

I have lots of fond memories of reading middle-grade horror books as a kid. There’s just something so fun about those stories. These authors get to play around with scary ideas but can’t go too far with them. It’s like sitting around a campfire and hearing a scary story – it’s not necessarily scary, but it’s kind of creepy and it stays with you for a while after you’ve read it. The best children’s horror books are like that – Coraline, Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, etc. It’s with this context that I approached They Threw Us Away. I am a fan of Daniel Kraus’s work; he’s written some of my favorite books over the last few years and I was very excited to see what he’d do with a story aimed at a younger audience. In some ways, he did exactly what I expected him to do, delivering a story that mixes scarier elements with more adventure-filled ones. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the book and I think it’s gonna be a big hit with its target audience. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: There may be minor spoilers for They Threw Us Away. You have been warned. Additionally, I was given an ARC by the publisher in exchange for a fair review.)

They Threw Us Away (written by Daniel Kraus, illustrated by Rovina Cai)
Buddy wakes up in the middle of a garbage dump, filled with a certain awareness: he’s a teddy bear; he spent time at a Store waiting for his future to begin; and he is meant for the loving arms of a child. Now he knows one more thing: Something has gone terribly wrong.

Soon he finds other discarded teddies―Horace, Sugar, Sunny, and Reginald. Though they aren’t sure how their luck soured, they all agree that they need to get back to the Store if they’re ever to fulfill their destinies. So, they embark on a perilous trek across the dump and into the outer world. With ravenous rats, screeching gulls, and a menacing world in front of them, the teddies will need to overcome insurmountable challenges to find their way home.

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REVIEW: “Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia Part One” by Steven Moffat and Jay

I enjoyed BBC’s Sherlock when it aired. Like any long-running show, it had its ups and downs; its good parts and its bad ones. While the last season of the show may not have been great, its earlier brilliance was not erased. In fact, I believe the show peaked in its second season. Those three episodes were Sherlock working on all cylinders. This is what interested me in this manga adaptation of the season’s first episode, A Scandal in Belgravia. Adapted and illustrated by Jay, this volume adapts the first half of the episode. As an adaptation, it’s fine. The artwork is neat and much of the episode’s wit is retained, but some of the show’s charm and visual flair are lost in translation. (4 out of 5 wands.)

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia Part One (written by Steven Moffat, adapted and illustrated by Jay)
Fresh from confronting Moriarty in the end of The Great Game, Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman) are called to save the royal family from blackmail at the hands of Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), a dominatrix known as “The Woman”. Adler pulls Sherlock into a complex web of mysteries involving the CIA and the MOD, with secrets that could threaten to threaten international security and topple the monarchy.

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REVIEW: “LaGuardia” by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford

I’m always on the lookout for new comics. I don’t follow the industry particularly closely, so a lot of titles slipped my attention. But I kept hearing about Nnedi Okorafor’s LaGuardia. It was part of Dark Horse Comics’ Berger Books imprint, a line of titles spearheaded by Karen Berger of Vertigo Comics fame – an editor whose work I’ve adored. It was a sci-fi comic that imagined an alternate Earth where aliens had integrated themselves among humanity – a premise that’s right up my alley. And it just won Eisner and Hugo Awards. So, I finally read it. And, man, it’s good. While I wish it was a bit longer, LaGuardia is a superb read. Featuring gorgeous artwork and intriguing world-building, it’s reflective of our current societal problems and a wildly captivating read. (4 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: This review may contain spoilers.)

LaGuardia (written by Nnedi Okorafor, illustrated by Tana Ford)
In an alternate world where aliens have integrated with society, pregnant Nigerian-American doctor Future Nwafor Chukwuebuka has just smuggled an illegal alien plant named Letme Live through LaGuardia International and Interstellar Airport…and that’s not the only thing she’s hiding.

She and Letme become part of a community of human and alien immigrants; but as their crusade for equality continues and the birth of her child nears, Future—and her entire world—begins to change.

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REVIEW: “Auxiliary: London 2039” by Jon Richter

I’m always game to try an indie sci-fi book. Independently published books are always a bit of a gamble; sometimes they’re great; other times they’re not so great. But often you can find a great diamond in the rough by reading an independently published sci-fi novel. So, when the publishers of Auxiliary: London 2039 reached out to me and asked if I would like to review the book, I thought it was worth a read. It sounded reminiscent of Blade Runner and Altered Carbon, two stories I’ve enjoyed to a reasonable extent, so I thought it was worth a shot. And, having read the book, it’s not a bad read but it’s not a great read either. It’s perfectly fine, with a suitable mystery, well-written prose, and solid pacing, but it’s also not particularly original, and it feels like something you’ve read before. (3.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: A copy of the novel was provided by the publisher in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are my own. Additionally, there may be spoilers ahead.) 

Auxiliary: London 2039 by Jon Richter
In a time where AI drives every car, cooks every meal, and plans every second of human life in London, a police detective named Carl Dremmler catches a murder suspect red-handed. The investigation seems open and shut, but the tech-wary detective can’t help but believe the accused’s bizarre story: that his robotic arm committed the grisly crime, not him. As Dremmler pursues the truth, he must question everyone he thinks he knows and face down every terror 2039 has to offer.

It’s not that Auxiliary is bad, far from it. It’s an intriguing mystery that is well-executed and frequently enjoyable. It’s filled with multi-dimensional characters, fascinating ideas, and great action scenes. So, what’s the problem, then? The problem is that much of the novel feels very familiar – so familiar that is often distracting. Now, to be fair, a story being familiar isn’t inherently a bad thing. Lots of sci-fi builds off of the ideas of other stories. The problem for me was that there just weren’t enough new elements in the story. Instead, it just felt like a remix of old ideas and new technology.

For starters, Dremmler, our protagonist, is every detective from any pulp novel you’ve ever read. He’s troubled, he’s an alcoholic, he often plays by his own rules, he’s frequently misogynistic, and he even has a tragic backstory. He’s Blade Runner‘s Deckard meets any film noir detective. In fairness, this all seems intentional – the whole novel is a riff on film noir detective stories and even briefly starkly comments on Dremmler’s flaws. The problem is that that’s all it does with the trope. One throwaway gag doesn’t get you off the hook for using such a trope. It felt like there was plenty of room for the novel to try to subvert Dremmler’s characterization, but every time it comes close to doing so, it fails to commit. Now, again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a character like Dremmler. I just have no interest in journeying with such a character in a story that doesn’t seriously examine their flaws in any meaningful way.

The same problems plagued many of the novel’s other elements. They’re all familiar ideas presented in a new context but without any further changes. The newest element of the story is probably the specific technology used – an Alexa-esque AI called TIM, who has access to, and control of, almost every facet of society – but even that just feels like a slight update of the way Androids have been used in earlier cyberpunk stories. The novel tries to put some twists on its ideas through its central mystery – who is behind this seeming malfunction of a TIM-controlled limb, and why – but it never manages to be particularly surprising. There are satisfying twists and turns, but almost all of them are predictable before they happen – even the book’s climax, which tries to shock you at times but merely ends up confirming suspicions you’ve had the whole time. Now, I wouldn’t mind this much on its own, but couple it with the other examples of the novel feeling like an old room with a new coat of paint, and it starts to feel like a pattern. 

However, despite all this, Auxiliary still manages to be a lot of fun. Some of that is down to the fact that even a predictable mystery can still be a fun one but much of it is due to how good Richter’s prose is. It’s a fast-paced novel, and Richter never spends more than more time than he needs to on a scene. He litters the novel with action scenes, constantly propelling the narrative forward. He expertly builds tension in a way that makes you worry for the characters even though you have a good idea of how things will turn out. The book moves so fast there’s never a chance for you to get bored. And even if many of the elements feel very familiar, they’re still competently repackaged in a manner that’s fun to read and enjoyable to experience.

So, at the end of the day, Auxiliary: London 2039 is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a familiar take on familiar ideas but doesn’t bring much new to the table. However, it’s still presented in an easy-to-read, fast-paced, and enjoyable manner. The characters feel developed, if archetypal, and the mystery is well-executed. It makes for a fun read if you’re looking for this kind of thing. It’s enjoyable enough, and if you want something in the same vein as Blade Runner, it’s well worth checking out.

3.5 out of 5 wands.

REVIEW: “The Intergalactic Interloper” by Delas Heras

I love a weird, quirky sci-fi book. There’s just something so inherently fun about weird sci-fi  – it often doesn’t take itself very seriously, freeing the author to let their imaginations run wild. It’s usually a lot of fun and I frequently find myself drawn to these kinds of stories – which is exactly why I ended up reading The Intergalactic Interloper. With a summary promising missing cats and two-headed alien turtles, I was immediately on board. And, having finished the book, it was well worth the read. While light on plot, The Intergalactic interloper is packed with fun and weird ideas and is immensely enjoyable. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: An advanced copy of the book was provided in exchange for a fair review. Additionally, mild spoilers for The Intergalactic Interloper may follow.)

Ollie, a young East Village musician, woke up on the proverbial wrong side of the bed: His cat is missing, he is in trouble with his boss, and his friends all think he has lost his mind. This last one may have something to do with the story he tells them about spying a giant two-headed turtle from outer space on a nearby rooftop. But he swears it’s the truth. Ollie’s bandmate Zara is skeptical, but she still signs on to help him track down his vanished pet. Together they follow a trail of clues that lead them to a bird-watching neighbor, who—spurred on by the ghost of a Civil War colonel—may be out for blood.

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