Heartwood 10:3 – The Literary Sphere

The impetus for today’s post is the similarities between books by two writers from two different continents; one young and living in Paris, the other an Argentine, recently deceased. Things kind of snowball from there.

Our Riches by Algerian author Kaouther Adimi, now living in Paris, is a love letter of a novel to the real-life Algiers bookseller and publisher Edmond Charlot who opened Les Vraies Richesses (Our True Wealth) in 1935. The multi-award-winning book jumps backward and forward in time from the 1930s to the present day. It interweaves Charlot’s journal entries about the bookstore and his publishing projects, historic footnotes to WWII and French-Algerian postwar tensions, and chapters about a young man sent by the bookstore’s new owner to clear it out so he can convert it into a bakery.

There’s an almost documentary feel to much of the writing, and indeed Adimi provides a list of sources and a note of thanks to several of Charlot’s literary friends for sharing stories (the Wikipedia page on Charlot confirms the factual nature of many of the elements found in the novel). Charlot’s journal entries offer up a lot of detail about the world of the publisher/bookseller, and a treasure trove of encounters with famous authors such as Albert Camus, André Gide, Philippe Soupault, and many others. These very short notes about his everyday projects and challenges resonate with a trilogy of books by Ricardo Piglia in which he also chronicles his book-world pursuits (I’ve written about Piglia previously here).
The Diaries of Emilio Renzi include the occasional lengthier piece of creative writing, but mostly they are composed of brief journal entries that begin with the alter-ego narrator’s first encounter with books, and his ongoing obsessions with reading and writing, including his long-term involvement in the bustling Buenos Aires publishing world in the mid-20th century (he mentions “temples of used bookstores,” but did not appear to work in one). In the course of these entries he engages with such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Manuel Puig, and notes the influence of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Raymond Chandler on his own writing. He also provides insights into writers such as Tolstoy, Cervantes, and Kafka, and many, many others. In a style similar to Adimi’s novel, Piglia’s books also record the pressures, frenzy, intellectual stimulation, and financial challenges of working in literary publishing while also recording details of the frequent political strife in Argentina at that time. The third volume of the trilogy is scheduled to be released this October.

These books will have the most appeal for world-literature bibliophiles but they have also caused me to reflect on the interrelated spheres of writing, publishing, bookselling, and libraries. A number of well-known authors have opened bookstores, which strikes me as a very generous way of embracing the literary community. Sylvia Beach, founder of the Paris bookstore and lending library, Shakespeare and Co., famously brought James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses into the world, and Lawrence Ferlighetti’s publishing/bookselling enterprise, City Lights, made waves when it published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956, and went on to publish the work of other Beat writers along with many other authors up to the present day. More recently, in the book-saturated sliver of the internet where I tend to lurk, there was quite a bit of enthusiasm when Deep Vellum opened its Dallas-based bookstore and started publishing some phenomenal literature in translation (including the Trilogy of Memory by Sergio Pitol which shares similar literary enthusiasms as those found in Piglia’s Diaries and Adimi’s book). In Adimi’s novel, Charlot’s bookstore, Les Vraies Richesses, also served as a lending library to students who didn’t have enough money to buy books; for a local lending library example, check out Seattle’s own Folio (though you won’t be able to visit while we’re in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic). And now a number of bookstores offer print-on-demand publishing options for local authors, including Bellingham’s Village Books, and at least one public library is doing the same.

Are you aware of other real-world literary bookstore/publishing ventures or related hybrids? Share them in the comments. In the meantime, as a lover of good books, why not rub elbows with Charlot or Renzi or Pitol, and reflect upon the riches of world literature?

(And if you love bookstores, now would be a good time to show your support. Find local independent bookstores in your community at IndieBound, or consider making a purchase at a Black-owned, independent bookstore.)

The Summer of Jordi Perez

Normally, I would tell you to take novels about romance and shove them, but I enjoyed The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding so much that I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. My normal stance is: stuff falling in love, stuff romance, and stuff soul mates, but this novel caught me off guard.

I think what attracted me to this novel was the gay aspect. I’m not gay (well, maybe a little gay) but love is love is love and though I’m loathe to use the words “heartwarming” this one sucker punched me right in that empty space in my chest I usually save for Cheetos and horror movies. Abby is a plus-sized girl who is deeply in love with fashion. She applies to an indie fashion store for the summer before her senior year and gets the internship along with another girl from her high school named Jordi who she thinks might have been in one of her classes.

Abby came out a little while ago and has never had a girlfriend, never been in love. She’s had a couple of heart-breaking crushes (straight girls who find boyfriends and leave her in the dark), but no one has shown an interest in her. As body positive as she is in her blog about fashion, she believes that no girl could ever fall in love with her (I hear you girl; as a chubby chick, I have my doubts too) and she can’t see a future with a girl who would ever fall in love with her. That is until she finds herself competing for the job at the indie dress shop with Jordi Perez. But does Jordi even like girls? Should Abby even bother nurturing a crush on her?

At home, Abby’s mother is becoming famous for her healthy vegan recipes and ends up going onto local talk shows all while making her daughter feel bad about herself for being overweight. She lets slip one time to Abby that she would be so much prettier if she lost weight and Abby hasn’t been able to forgive her. In her plus size fashion blog, Abby never posts pictures of herself. While she’s body positive, she’s still uncomfortable showing herself.

When Jordi starts showing an interest in her, Abby is slow to believe it. After all, Jordi is tiny and a talented photographer, and Abby’s competing against her for a job at the dress store. But Jordi is into Abby and they both find themselves falling in love and spending time together. Jordi is a bit of a bad ass although the moniker of “Juvenile criminal” is a bit misplaced. She wanted to take a picture of a fire and ended up burning the lawn of an abandoned house. Both Abby and Jordi are aware that they’re competing for the same job, but that doesn’t stop them from falling in love. Ah, youth. If only I could find a way to legally suck it out of them and inject it into my bitter old heart.

Abby’s been spending time with Jax over the summer, a boy from school who she used to see as a spoiled brat with a McMansion and nice ride. He asked her to be his wingman (or wingwoman) as he tried to pick up girls and to help him out with one of his father’s inventions which happens to be an app rating the various burger joints in town. She learns that Jax isn’t quite the “bro” she thought he was and finds herself enjoying his company. Abby’s mother thinks she’s dating Jax, even though Abby came out to her parents several months ago. Abby’s mother seems to think if she lost weight and got skinny, she
might enjoy being straight.

Not so. Abby’s wildly in love with Jordi even though the prospect of them both being up for the same job in the fall is weighing on her. Abby’s job in the store is to be a social media presence and boost the popularity of the store while Jordi is tasked with being the photographer. Everything is going perfectly until Jordi does the unspeakable during her first photography show at an art gallery. Will Abby forgive her transgressions? Will Abby get over herself? Will Abby begin to see herself as more than a plus size girl? Will Abby believe that she is worth loving and being in love with?

For fans of books such as Dumplin and She’s Come Undone, The Summer of Jordi Perez offers everything: first love (that wild and nauseating feeling of handing your heart to another person), self-acceptance, and trying to accept how others see you (and accept that they’re going to see you a certain way that is totally out of your control). Get ready for an emotional roller coaster and if you have PTSD from being a teenager, take this novel slowly. I had a panic attack while Abby was trying to figure out if Jordi had feelings for her or not. I went all the way back to being 16 and almost didn’t make it back to my 43-year-old self.

Read this and then go forgive your mother for not loving you like you wanted her to. She tried her best. Please remember she’s human and lived an entire life before you were born. And now, go live your life how you want it to be. You’ll thank me later.

Heartwood 10:2 – The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany’s name has been coming up in all the right places for years now, so I finally grabbed this thin title to give his work a try. The Einstein Intersection is mostly a retelling of the Orpheus myth, but it also includes a chapter that is reminiscent of the hunting of the Minotaur, and much of the latter part of the book is something of a futuristic western, where the cowboys ride and mobilize a group of dragons. Many other allusions swirl and mix in the book to tell tales that don’t quite sync up with their origins, but that are different and tell of difference.

Delany writes in a crisp style that moves the action along, but that also displays a more reflective nature. The chapters are preceded with epigraphs (often several) from diverse figures including James Joyce, Bob Dylan, the Marquis de Sade, Sartre, Ruskin, Yeats, Andrew Marvell, and even a snippet from a Pepsi commercial. Lo Lobey, the Orpheus character, is ready to track down Kid Death (modeled on Billy the Kid) to get Friza back from the dead (Kid Death says he took her life). Lobey has telepathic powers that allow him to hear music and words in other people’s heads, and Friza has telekinetic powers (as does Kid Death). Instead of a lyre, Lobey has a machete that has a flute built into it with twenty perforations which he covers with his fingers and his especially long toes (it’s more like he has four arms at times). The characters in this story are the successors to humans who are long since gone and whose cities are now buried in sand.

The action at the end of the book picks up speed as the dragon wranglers bring the herd into Branning-at-sea, a huge urban metropolis, where Green-eye, a mute fellow wrangler, is recognized as some kind of prince, maybe even the prince of peace. I found the conclusion to be open-ended and a bit challenging to follow  Perhaps the best way to think about this book is suggested by a conversation between Lobey and a character named Spider who emphasizes the importance of Gödel’s theorems that any closed mathematical system has an infinite number of truths that elude our grasp. Delany has taken several well-known myths or narratives and transformed them, remixed them, moved them into the future, made them difficult to recognize, and by doing so has created a kind of composite myth of his own. There’s no way I can adequately summarize it other than to encourage you to read the book and see for yourself just what he has done.

A plus for Neil Gaiman fans is the introduction he wrote to this Wesleyan edition in 1997, back when he was mostly known for his comic book series The Sandman.

These Witches Don’t Burn

It’s hard enough to be a teenager without the added baggage of being a member of an ancient family full of witches. Add to that the fact that these teen witches sometimes must wear a ring that binds their powers and dark magic showing up in town, and you have something that would give any Salem Witch Trials survivor vivid flashbacks. Welcome to the world of These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling.

Hannah is from a family of elemental witches in Salem, Massachusetts. They harness the power of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. A handful of other families are ancient lineage witches, but they all have to keep it a secret and cannot risk exposing their lifestyle to the Regs (kind of like Muggles: regular people who don’t know that witchcraft actually exists). Witches can be excommunicated from their covens for showing their magic in front of Regs.

Teen witches must go to classes and if they’re caught abusing their powers, they have to wear a binding ring that nixes any use of witchcraft. Hannah broke up with her girlfriend Veronica a few months before. Veronica, from another family of witches, continuously inserts herself into Hannah’s life trying to make up with her, but Hannah doesn’t want to go backwards. She wants to move on with her life, become more adept at magic, work her part time job at the Fly By Night Cauldron selling witchcraft paraphernalia (her boss is a practicing Wiccan and Tarot card reader; she’s not a real witch but she has excellent senses) and just live a fairly normal life.

But months before while vacationing in New York, a deadly magical being known as a Blood Witch tried to attack Hannah and now there are signs that a blood witch in in town. But who is it? Is it the emo kid who keeps coming into the magic shop to buy hexes against his bullies? Is it the new detective in town who is always suspicious that Hannah seems to be around whenever something bad happens? Gemma, Hannah’s best friend and a reg, hooks her up with a new ballerina in her troupe. Could it be her? Something is targeting everyone Hannah loves, putting their lives in danger and soon they will do anything to kill them.

Fast-paced and original, These Witches Don’t Burn will satisfy your need for fantasy, lgbtq+ characters, and strong family bonds.

Night Train

Parts of Night Train by David Quantick really scared me… in that “this-has-got-to-be-a-dream-why-can’t-I-wake-up” kind of way. Other times I just felt claustrophobic. Maybe that’s because it’s how the main character feels when she wakes up alone in a moving train car.

Her name is Garland – according to the name tag on her jumpsuit. But she doesn’t remember anything. There is no way off the train, it just keeps speeding along. The windows won’t break, and there are no escape hatches.

After Garland travels through a few cars she meets Banks, a different kind of ‘person.’ Banks has no memory of his life before the train either, but he’s been there for quite a while. Garland convinces him they must get to the front of the train and stop it. As they travel together from car to car to car, they find that each one is completely different, and surprising.

I found myself holding my breath as they opened each door, especially since some of the doors locked behind them. Sometimes Banks and Garland come across a situation that brings a glimmer of remembrance about their actual selves, and we realize that their trip to the front of the train is a fight with their own personal issues.

This is a must read because there are moments in our lives when we realize that things are perceived differently from what they really are. I kept thinking “what would I do if this were me?” So, come join the adventure as Garland and Banks make their way to the front of the train, and see for yourself how it ends!

Patty the Vampire Slayer

In The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix, Campbell loves her husband and children, but she thought she’d be living a bigger life than running errands all day, cleaning the entire house, doing loads of laundry, and cooking gourmet meals for her less than appreciative family every night. Oh, and on top of all that, her elderly mother-in-law, in the grips of dementia (the poor soul has almost forgotten how to eat) moves in and Patricia has another person to look after.

Campbell has given up her career as a nurse, married a very ambitious (and now often distant) doctor, and makes herself nearly insane by being part of a book club where execution is the preferred method of shaming if you haven’t read the assigned book. It’s at one of these horrible book club meetings that a smaller faction of women who don’t want to read ‘Books of the Western World’ come together to form their own book club. The new book club includes four other Southern housewives: Slick, Kitty, Maryellen, and Grace.

The new club reads true-crime novels with titles like Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs and Buried Dreams: Inside the Mind of John Wayne Gacy. They also choose more well known titles like The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, and the oddly chosen Bridges of Madison County because one of the club members thinks the main character is a serial killer who drifts around the country killing housewives. The book club is the only exciting thing in Patricia’s dull life of driving her two children to after school events, packing lunches, and getting no support from a husband who spends most of his days at the office.

One evening, with the thrill of a book club meeting still fizzling through her, Patricia sees that her son Blue hasn’t taken the garbage bins to the end of the driveway. She can’t really blame him since the cans are stored at the side of the house and it’s pitch black and a little scary there once night falls. So she heaves a sigh only a mother can sigh and begins to drag the garbage bins down the driveway. But a noise catches her attention: the slurping, gulping, crunching sound of something being eaten.

In the shadows she sees her neighbor from down the block, Mrs. Savage, a mean old biddy not much beloved by the neighbors. Mrs. Savage is down on her haunches behind the cans with a raccoon stuffed in her mouth. She disembowels the dead animal while growling at Patricia who is backing away from the old lady and is about to make a run for it when the old woman pounces and tears off Patricia’s ear lobe. The cops and an ambulance come and take both Patricia and the old lady to the hospital.

Patricia is patched up and sent home. The next day she hears that Mrs. Savage has died from some sort of blood poisoning. There’s evidence of intravenous drug use on the on woman’s inner thighs, injection holes that have pierced her skin. Patricia knows that Mrs. Savage has a nephew living with her and acting as her caretaker. Like any Southern woman worth her weight would do, Patricia decides she needs to take a consolation casserole over to the grieving man.

When she gets to Mrs. Savage’s house, she sees it’s completely closed up and the blinds are drawn even though it’s a scorching hot day. When no one answers the door, Patricia lets herself in and begins to search the house for the nephew. She finds him lying in a bedroom. She can tell he’s not breathing. Her old nursing skills kick in and she immediately begins to give him CPR. His skin is cold and dry and she’s positive he’s dead until he sits up with a gasp.

This is her introduction to James Harris, a seemingly shy and artistic man with a hint of appealing strangeness to him. The sunlight hurts him and makes him fatigued. He seems helpless in both his grief over his aunt and whatever ailment haunts him. She decides James Harris is going to be her friend (perhaps more?) and helps him get settled as a real resident of the town: setting up a bank account and going to pay his power and water bills because he can’t bear to be out in the light. He drives a white van (the kind that you expect to see ‘Free Candy Inside’ written on the side) with windows that are heavily tinted to dim any light from getting in.

One evening, James comes over to Patricia’s house while the family is having dinner. Patricia’s mother-in-law, Mary, is having a particularly bad night and takes one look at James and starts babbling about a picture she has of him. Her behavior is excused because of her waning mental faculties. Soon, however, Patricia begins to think James Harris is something sinister with his cagey, secretive ways, the fact that he doesn’t go out during the day much, and his creepy van.

She starts to hear stories about children in town disappearing only to return as ghosts of themselves and eventually committing suicide. Not much has been done about it because it’s in the ‘bad part of town’ where most of the people of color live (remember, this is the early 90s in the South). Mrs. Greene who lives in that part of town and who is Mary’s nurse, tells Patricia about the missing children and how they come back.

Curious, Patricia decides to go there and investigate. She finds a very familiar creepy white van in the woods and what she sees happening in the back is something she can’t explain to herself, let alone to anyone else: James Harris with a monster’s face leaning over the prone body of a little girl. Patricia thought he might have been a serial killer but what she sees in the van is a creature from the depths of myth and folklore.

Patricia tries to tell her book club all about it, but they think she’s nuts and let her know they won’t put up with her crazy stories and theories about James Harris, who has become an upstanding citizen and businessman in town. So Patricia decides to go it alone, to get proof that he is indeed a monster that needs to be destroyed. But even crippling James Harris on her own is more than she’s capable of and in the end, it seems like he will continue snatching small children while charming the town and the book club members husbands. That is, until another book club member witnesses something and they band together to take this creature down.

If you like funny horror novels that are just a damn pleasure to read from beginning to end, pick up Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. You’ll laugh, get scared sh**less, laugh again, and find yourself cheering on a group of somewhat cliched Southern belles whose only worries up until that point had been packing lunches every day and making sure their kids make it to swimming practice on time. Much like blood on the lips of a vampire’s mouth, this book will stick with you for a long time. For God sake, go download it and get to reading!!

Comics Wherever, Whenever

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Did someone say dinner?

I realize I’m not breaking any news by saying it’s been a strange few weeks, but man…it’s been a strange few weeks! If you’re like me, staying home may have seemed like a fun idea for the first forty-five minutes. Then began the fidgeting, the laps around the living room, the trips to the snack cabinet, all while scolding the dog that 2 p.m. is not dinnertime. Even removed from the stressful headlines and creeping anxiety, long days at home are not easy for me! If you, like me, might be looking for an escape, then let me lead you to the wonderful world of Hoopla’s digital comics and graphic novels. 

Margo wrote a wonderful introduction to Hoopla last week, and while the streaming tv and music are great, it’s the comics where I get my money’s worth – a pretty easy task since the service is FREE with my library card! If you’ve never read digital comics, it is definitely a process that takes some getting used to. If you have one available, I’d suggest using a tablet or computer instead of your phone. One really nice feature that Hoopla offers is the ability to zoom in on individual cells of a comic, allowing an easier reading experience, albeit sometimes at the expense of the big picture. To activate the zoom, simply click once with your mouse on a computer, or tap the screen twice on a phone or tablet. 

Wondering where to begin? I get it! There is an almost-overwhelming number of titles to choose from, and you can’t really go wrong. But if you do want some suggestions, here are some old favorites and recent titles I’ve enjoyed.

New Kid by Jerry Craft
Well, this one feels like cheating. New Kid is an incredible read and a slam dunk recommendation for readers of all ages. The main character is endearing and relatable, his experiences are profound and enlightening, and Craft’s artwork and storytelling are skillful and moving. It is no wonder that New Kid was the first graphic novel to ever win the Newbery Medal

This incredible book follows Jordan, a young black seventh grader attending a new school, a private academy where he will be surrounded by wealthier classmates and be one of the few students of color. As Jordan struggles to adjust and adapt to this new environment and the ways that his identity and family background affect his treatment, he also has to contend with the more traditional new-school experiences: making friends, dealing with teachers and parents who might mean well, but sometimes don’t get it. In a clever bit of storytelling, Craft features Jordan’s sketches within this book, allowing the reader to see more directly how Jordan’s treatment by others makes him feel. 

No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant
In some ways, this quick moving graphic memoir takes the concept of New Kid and throws it into reverse. This book follows Hazel, a 17-year-old home-schooled senior as she embarks on a summer job clearing invasive ivy from a park in Portland, Oregon. Hazel’s life to this point has been rather sheltered and she is not completely prepared for the diverse range of experiences, backgrounds, and identities she encounters among her new co-workers. This frank book does not shy away from uncomfortable encounters in Hazel’s life and while at times her personal growth seems to come a bit too easily, I appreciate the way that Newlevant examines privilege and prejudice in a relatable coming of age story. 

I Am Not Okay with This by Charles Forsman
If you are a Netflix fan you might have stumbled upon a strange, violent, and darkly hilarious new show called I Am Not Okay with This. And if you, like me, found out the show was based on a comic, you might’ve wished you could read it. Great news! This very adult comic is on Hoopla. Truthfully, the black-and-white line-drawn style was not what I was expecting from this story, but I loved it nonetheless. 

Like the TV show, this comic follows a teenaged girl named Sydney as she grapples with her romantic feelings for her best friend, a tense relationship with her mother, the death of her father, experimentation with sex and drugs, and her violent, uncontrollable superpower. You know, the normal teen stuff! This comic is equal parts twisted and delightful and I loved every second I spent with it. 

Dept. H by Matt Kindt & Sharlene Kindt
This is one where I feel like the less I tell you the better. Of all the comics I am writing about, I find the artwork here to be the most gorgeous. Dept. H follows Mia, an investigator who travels to an undersea research station to solve a murder. Things quickly grow….complicated (and deadly!) as her romantic and familial connections to the station and its inhabitants pull her in conflicting directions. This is a taut and surprising comic that crosses genres with ease while building a fascinating world. 

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki & Steve Pugh
Are we in the midst of a Harley Quinnaissance? I think we might be! She has the big DC movie, which I really wish I could watch (release it now!) and the animated tv show on the DC Universe streaming network, which I really wish I could watch (bring it to Hoopla!). Luckily, Breaking Glass provides a delightful YA origin story for Harley. Follow Harley as she makes her way in Gotham City, makes some good friends named Ivy and Joker, and finds a way to save a drag queen’s cabaret from the evils of gentrification. I’ve always been a Marvel person, but Harley might just make me switch sides. 

Rebels: These Free and Independent States by Brian Woods, Andrea Mutti, and Lauren Affe
Let’s move on to some history. This book is actually a follow-up to Rebels: A Well-Regulated Militia, which is unfortunately not available on Hoopla. When the library is able to reopen, find it there! Luckily, both these books work perfectly well as standalones. In this newer collection, Woods tells the story of John Abbott, a young ship builder caught up in the chaos, violence, and politics of the War of 1812. This book might best be considered high drama with a side of history, but it gives fascinating context and vivid color to an oft-forgotten period in US history. 

Simon Says Vol. 1: Nazi Hunter by Andre Frattino and Jesse Lee
Listen, we know not to judge a book by its cover. This time I’m asking you not to judge one by its title. Like Rebels, this comic takes a true piece of history and embellishes, perhaps at times wildly. I don’t know how much in common this comic’s Simon has with the actual Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, so I am assuming it is all fiction. That said, this is a thrilling romp of a noire comic. It follows Simon, a Jewish artist in Germany shortly after the Nuremberg trials. Simon lost his family at the hands of the Nazis and he is now driven by a single task: to take his revenge one Nazi officer at a time. Violent vigilante justice meets unimaginable trauma in a story that feels destined for film or series adaptation. 

Of course, Hoopla doesn’t just have comics, so I also want to highlight the three albums (all on Hoopla!) that I was listening to while I wrote this.

Chika Industry Games and Jay Electronica A Written Testimony
They say good things come to those who wait, and these two albums prove it! I’ve been a fan of Chika for a few years, since she started popping up on Instagram ripping incredible freestyles and building a devoted following. Ever since, I’ve been waiting for a proper album and she delivered with Industry Games. Chika is not afraid to go dual threat and crush a hook, but she truly shines as a rapper, bundling incredible lyrical dexterity and clever wordplay with effortless swagger. This is a rising force to be reckoned with. 

On the other hand, I truly have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for Jay Electronica’s debut full length. Twelve years? As an artist, he has been elusive and enigmatic, and at times plain infuriating, so I had no idea what to expect from this album. It turns out he gave us a masterpiece. No one else rhymes quite like he does, and he brought ALL of the heat to this album, building on beautiful production, complexly layered references, and perfect delivery. If all of this doesn’t move the needle for you, JAY-Z also features on nearly every track. 

Overcoats The Fight 
I almost always listen to hip-hop, but when I don’t, I’m probably bopping to Overcoats. This duo makes the perfect blend of electro-pop and indie folk. Harmonized vocals, soaring melodies, and maybe even an occasional hand clap. What are you waiting for?

Saint X

Family. Sisters. An undying bond. We all think we know our families, but do we? Do we really?

I found myself asking these questions and more after reading Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin.

Seven-year-old Claire and her big sister Alison are on a family vacation with their parents to a beautiful Caribbean island resort. Alison is on break during her first year of college.

Of course, Claire idolizes her sister but doesn’t understand her aloofness and flirty behavior. Alison sneaks out at night and asks Claire to cover for her. She would do anything for her sister.

When Alison goes missing the family’s last night of vacation, Claire is put in a tough spot… continue to deny she knows anything or tell them she’s been covering for Alison all along. And when Alison is found dead, she is terrified to admit knowledge of anything.

As the mystery of Alison’s death unfolds, we find out about the people she had contact with: Edwin and Clive (Gogo to his friends) working at the resort, the blond boy from the beach on vacation with his family, the locals at Paulette’s bar where she had sneaked off to almost every night.

Fast forward years in the future, and Claire, now going by Emily, is living and working in New York. One-night, Clive (no longer Gogo) is her taxi driver. This opens a flood of memories for Emily and she decides one way or another that she will learn the truth of Alison’s death.

During her journey she realizes she didn’t really know her sister after all. After months of following and then getting to know Clive, she wonders if she wants to get the answers she was looking for, and if it will change anything.

Saint X is a beautifully written story of sisterly love and abandonment. I really enjoyed the path of Claire’s enlightenment and her realizations concerning herself and her sister.

The Stand in a New Light

I’m surprised I’ve never written a post about Stephen King’s The Stand before. I read it about once a year. Maybe its massive size (just over 1,000 pages) has deterred me from trying to write about it. But there’s no better time than now to write about a book depicting a super flu that wipes out most of the world’s population; leaving behind both good and evil who then must battle it out to save what is left of humanity.

The Stand begins at a government base where a man-made flu breaches a medical lab. In the days following, people begin to come down with the flu. It’s not unusual to hear coughing and sniffling in a movie theater and in the streets. People begin to stay off the streets, quarantining themselves in their homes. What starts off as a seemingly simple flu becomes a pandemic nicknamed Captain Trips. The human population is reduced to almost nothing and the streets and freeways are littered with cars and the bodies of people who tried to flee the cities. The world becomes a wasteland.

But there are pockets of people who are immune to the flu, people who pack a few belongings and set out to find other survivors. As decent people search for each other, people filled with darkness also seek out their kind. Randall Flagg, also known as The Walking Dude, is a god to some, but a demon to others. He gathers the evil ones to him and has a plan for what’s left of the population. The heels of his cowboy boots can be heard clicking down the roads of America as he searches for those with evil tucked away in them. Side note: Randall Flagg pops up in King’s Dark Tower series as well. It’s a cross-over event, like when two of your favorite shows merge.

Stu Redman becomes the reluctant leader of a group of good people who find a new place to settle and begin life again. But Randall Flagg has appeared to many of them, showing them nightmare visions of the world he wants to create. On the flip side, there’s Mother Abigail, a 108-year-old woman who is tasked with saving the rest of humankind. She needs to gather the good of humanity to her to give them a chance to overcome Randall Flagg. Along the way, a couple of Flagg’s spies have embedded themselves in Stu’s group and wreak havoc. In the end, there can only be an ultimate sacrifice to bring about a new beginning.

With a brilliant and memorable cast of characters, Stephen King’s The Stand is about more than just Good vs. Evil. It’s about the human condition when presented with the end of the world and the luck of an immune system that bucks disease. The Stand is about being alone at the end of the world and then finding people to create a new life. To quote another King book, Doctor Sleep:  We go on, even in the dark. Even when the darkness seems unending. We go on.

Now look, I know this new disease is terrifying and something like The Stand doesn’t seem like fiction right now, but remember this: wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday all the way through twice, stay away from large gatherings, and if you hear the clip-clop of dusty cowboy boots, run the other way. The Walking Dude has found you.

Clean Getaway

I mentioned in a post a few months ago that I was eagerly awaiting Nic Stone’s new book, her first foray into middle grade fiction. The truth, however, was slightly more complicated. I’ve loved all of Stone’s previous novels but working with a new age group is sometimes a precarious journey for writers. Several authors whose work I’ve loved have tried and, in my eye, failed to find a believable voice when making such a switch. I am pleased that, as is often the case, my apprehension was unfounded and unnecessary! Clean Getaway is a sharply written pleasure to read and I have been delighted to put it in the hands of young readers. 

813MVz8pIzLWhen his grandmother swings by and asks eleven-year-old William “Scoob” Lamar if he’d like to join her for a little adventure, he doesn’t think twice. Scoob is desperate to escape his father’s disappointment after a string of poor choices and misunderstandings lead to serious trouble at school. Scoob has always been close to his grandmother, who is often his main refuge from his disciplinarian father, so a trip with her seems like a great distraction from the looming troubles in his life. Things start out pretty well. G’ma won’t tell Scoob where they are headed and he is surprised when he learns that she sold her house to buy an RV, but the open road feels like freedom. 

Over time G’ma reveals that their path, which takes them from Atlanta into Alabama and across the deep south, is also a journey into her own past. This is the same route that she took with her husband, Scoob’s grandfather, shortly before he was arrested and sent to the prison where he would eventually pass away. As they delve deeper into G’ma’s memories, Scoob also becomes alarmed by G’ma’s behavior. She seems both forgetful and suspect – sometimes calling Scoob by the wrong name or forgetting to pay for meals, other times doing things like furtively switching the license plate on her RV. While Scoob’s unease continues to rise, G’ma also seems to be dodging calls from his father, leading Scoob to wonder what is really happening, what G’ma might be hiding, and how this suddenly dramatic road trip might end. 

Stone manages to build the tension over the course of Clean Getaway while also cleverly deepening the mystery of G’ma’s behavior and her past. This book is also incredibly emotionally resonant. Scoob has a loving and warm relationship with his grandmother, but things with his father are far more complicated and I appreciate the care that goes into exploring the nuance of this relationship. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible illustrations that are sprinkled throughout this book, helping bring Scoob and G’ma’s journey to life. 

I also value the way Stone weaves the legacy of racism in America through this story. Scoob’s grandfather was black and his grandmother is white and as he travels with G’ma, Scoob learns how difficult this made their relationship. He also learns about Victor Green’s Green Book, the guide used by many black motorists to safely navigate a hostile country, and observes both the ways that society has changed over time and the unfortunate and toxic ways that it has not. It is no surprise that a writer of Stone’s caliber is able to present these difficult ideas to a young audience in a way that is easy to understand but does not blunt the truth. But what really stood out to me is how deftly Stone connects the past to today. It is striking how close this history is – that a young person like Scoob is only two generations removed from the era of segregation, and that its legacy still manages to persist and cause harm when left unconfronted.  

Scoob, G’ma and their ill-fated journey stayed with me long after I finished this book. As is often the case, this book for young readers is crafted with the empathy, intrigue, and rich character development to make it a moving and instructive read for audiences of all ages.