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Katie’s Book Corner (November 2021)

The year may be steamrolling toward its conclusion but two months remain to check off a few more books on your 2021 TBR list. November’s Book Corner is comprised of five novels where young women are thrust into different power dynamics. Included are a few of 2021s most anticipated YA fantasy titles about women with extraordinary abilities. Authors Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Tiffany D. Jackson both released new books this year. I’ve been reading their entire oeuvres, so this list also features two of their previous works. All books below are ones you will feel compelled to read in one sitting. Carve out time instead of turkeys this November to read these propulsive novels.

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Page Count: 392

(CW: Violence, Torture, Gore, Murder, Rape, Sex, Misogyny, Femicide)

Epic sci-fi meets East Asian historical fantasy in the striking debut novel from Xiran Jay Zhao. Their book, Iron Widow, shines a fictional light on China’s only female empress. Set in the future, Huaxia, Cina faces threats from alien attackers. To battle the aliens, the Chinese people created mecha suits called Chrysalises. While the Chrysalises can transform into powerful legendary creatures, they can only be piloted through a psychic link between a male pilot and a chosen woman who will most likely die as a result. Zetian lost her sister after a devastating battle inside a Chrysalis with a popular male fighter. Now, Zetian lusts for revenge. She plans to murder the co-pilot who sacrificed her sister by signing up for battle herself. Although her plan succeeds, Zetian discovers her unheard-of, female psychic link power can murder male Chrysalis co-pilots. Xetian becomes the Iron Widow and makes stunning discoveries about the truth behind the Chrysalis piloting system.

Iron Widow bears similarities to the incredible Pacific Rim (2013) film, so readers can expect a dynamic and high-stakes novel. Xiran Jay Zhao’s comprehensively imagined sci-fi world with glaring subtexts about gender dynamics shapes Iron Widow into one of those books you start and can’t pull your eyes away from until the cliffhanger conclusion. Zhao offers a narrative packed with discussions about sociopolitical issues, gender roles, and fluid sexuality, filtered through the voice of their intelligent, brash, ruthless protagonist. If there’s one book you want to read before the year ends, strap yourself into the Chrysalis cockpit along with Zetian in Iron Widow.

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Genre: Historical Fiction / Romance / Fantasy / Magical Realism
Page Count: 297

(CW: Misogyny, Sex, Abuse, Emotional Distress)

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s beautiful writing style breathes glamour and magic into the pages of her historical fantasy novel, The Beautiful Ones. Socialites and Victorian-era erudite women account for the citizenry in the marbled city of Loisail. Raised in the rural valley, Nina clashes with her Loisail cousin’s scheming wife, Valérie Beaulieu. Nina possesses the rare ability of telekinesis, already making her an outsider in Valérie’s high-brow realm of the beautiful ones. When the talented telekinetic performer returns to Loisail in hopes of reconnecting with his long-lost love Valérie, he attracts the attention of Nina instead. Scandal, jealous romances, and Nina’s resisting compliance upends the sterilized world Valérie holds in high esteem.

In The Beautiful Ones, the world is infused with magical realism. A heightened sense of reality permeates each page, weaving together gossamer threads of history and enchantment. All of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s oeuvre, beyond the extraordinary Mexican Gothic, deserves acclaim. Slowly bleeding secrets stain the folded napkins placed delicately on the laps of the high class in The Beautiful Ones.

Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray
Genre: YA Fantasy
Page Count: 492

(CW: Physical/Verbal Abuse, Blood, Death, Drug Use, Murder, Misogyny, Sex, Slavery, Violence)

A YA fantasy destined for a big-screen adaptation, Ayana Gray’s Beasts of Prey ensnares its characters and readers alike in a jungle writhing with danger. Sixteen-year-old Kofi and her mother tend to the mythical beasts inside the infamous Night Zoo. One night, chaos erupts inside the zoo, and Kofi exhibits a strange display of magical powers that tames the most legendary creature in the jungle. She strikes a deal with her barbaric master at the Night Zoo: Capture the notorious beast, the Shetani, return it to him, and he will resolve her remaining debts. Kofi’s hunt entwines her with warrior hunter Ekon when they realize their interests align. The two ally as they embark into the Greater Jungle where beasts of prey await them. 

Ayana Gray artfully incorporates Pan-African folklore in this series opener where a young girl indentured to a zoo and a rising warrior unite against threats and peril both inside and beyond the physical realm. This debut vibrates with intricate worldbuilding without sacrificing the crucial main character development. Gray balances the dual POVs of two characters whose traits and flaws clearly establish their motivations. Beasts of Prey is a visceral and gorgeously written narrative. Readers will want to hunt down information about the next book in the series as soon as they finish reading this debut.

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
Genre: YA Fiction / Crime
Page Count: 394

(CW: Prison, Abuse, Murder, Death of an Infant, Violence, Burning, Sex, Teen Pregnancy)

The goddess of beauty and words, Tiffany D. Jackson, continually pens bestseller after bestseller. Jackson’s debut novel, Allegedly, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, proves she has always been a brilliant wordsmith. Allegedly is a YA crime novel sprinkled with elements out of a psychological thriller. Opening on a discussion about the mentally disturbed little girl from the eerie 1956 horror film The Bad Seed, a researcher evaluates the mindset of the alleged baby killer, Mary B. Addison. Now 16, the Black teen lives in a group home seven years after serving juvenile time for the murder of a white baby. But a conviction doesn’t necessarily mean Mary was at fault. Or was she? When Mary herself becomes pregnant, she must try to mend her relationship with the only witness to her alleged crime if she wants to keep her baby: her own mother.

Tiffany D. Jackson books are known for ripping your heart open with a knife without any needle and thread to sew yourself back together. I have now read all of Jackson’s body of work, and she fired emotional bullets from day one with this debut. Allegedly combines fictional written interviews, journalistic articles, and an unreliable narrative POV that leaves your head spinning until the staggering conclusion.

The Bones of Ruin by Sarah Raughley
Genre: YA Fantasy / Historical Fiction
Page Count: 478

(CW: Violence, Gore, Torture, Exploitation, Murder, Abuse of Power)

The Bones of Ruin may not be marketed as horror, but teeth-chattering moments definitely chew their way into Sarah Raughley’s newest supernatural novel. Set in Victorian London in the 19th century, African tightrope dancer Iris performs her high-wire act for ogling colonial spectators. But Iris has a secret: She cannot physically die. When she falls off the tightrope one night, her body crashes to the ground in front of dozens of onlookers. Her body pieces itself back together, but memories of a past Iris has all but forgotten still cloud her brain. Then, she meets Adam Temple. With Adam’s help, Iris extricates paranormal secrets about her lost memories. A member of the Enlightenment Committee, Adam also informs Iris how she may provide assistance to the defensive force to combat the other Committee members who believe the world is ending — who want to handpick who lives and who dies.

Mystique achieved through Sarah Raughley’s rhythmic prose carries this book forward along the tightrope of intrigue. Readers will be enthralled by the lived-in setting of 1800s London and the magic throbbing through Iris’s veins. As Ruaghley steadily lifts the curtain of mystery behind Iris’s origins, the Committee’s threat of world devastation broils like a bubbling cauldron in the background. Experience the wonder The Bones of Ruin holds within its astounding pages.

Young Adult literature keeps reeling me back into reading, five and a half years out of high school. I remember the thrill I felt knowing a few days off of school in the month of November would be spent speed-reading as many YA fantasy or V.E. Schwab novels as possible. That nostalgia itches my brain this time of year. This is my first holiday season without school or college courses. You know how I’ll be spending my free time! I encourage you to also escape the chaos of this season with one of these mind-transporting novels.

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Katie’s Book Corner (October 2021)

We as a culture have genuinely embraced the colloquialism “spooky season” to define the thrills dealt by the month of October, and the term never stops bringing a smile to my face. We’re here, friends. We have unlocked passageway through the iron gates guarding the haunted house bearing the banner “Halloween” and traipse carefully up to the chills awaiting inside. Spooky month has arrived in full force, so I’ve prepared a list of five supernatural reading recommendations to read with the lights out. Tales of witches, vampires, ghosts, and secret societies comprise this October reading list. Read at your own peril…

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Genre: Supernatural Thriller / Occult Fiction / Paranormal Fantasy
Page Count: 496

(CW: Death, Graphic Violence, Gore, Cadavers, Murder, Mental Health, Rape, Drug Use, Suicide, Self-Harm)

Leigh Bardugo, the bestselling queen of YA fantasy, debuted with an adult paranormal, occult-ridden book about secret societies in 2019. The first novel in the Alex Stern series, Ninth House, features the titular Alex Stern as she navigates the mysterious happenings within Yale University’s secret societies. A high school dropout from Los Angeles and the survivor of a homicide, the anger-fueled Alex moves halfway across the country to attend Yale on scholarship at age twenty. Alex isn’t offered a full ride by her benefactors because of her academic history, though. For Alex, her attendance at one of the most prestigious schools in the country relies on her supernatural abilities to track down who among Yale’s secret societies are involved in resurrecting a dangerous forbidden magic. After her beloved mentor Darlington goes missing and a young woman is murdered on campus, the stakes are raised for Alex, the fracturing societies, and the accidental victims who get in their way.

Ninth House assuredly earns its “adult” and “occult” label in the fiction genre. Grotesque descriptions of the dead, dissecting cadavers, and general stomach-churning events construct a tale not for the weak of heart. Apart from the universally beloved Six of Crows duology, Ninth House may be Bardugo’s best written work thus far in her writing career. If you were a fan of Shadow and Bone back during the trilogy’s original release, you’ve witnessed the evolution of Bardugo’s craft. Ninth House is a remarkable, chilling, atmospheric read with a brash main character whose backstory will tug on your heartstrings. October should be the month you read Ninth House for the first time. Then, you’ll be forced to hungrily anticipate the release of the next book and fawn over Darlington with the rest of us fans. 

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride
Genre: YA Horror / Ghost Fiction / Coming of Age Fiction
Page Count: 256

(CW: Death, Violence, Gore, Depression, Mental Health)

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride is her debut novel-in-verse and it crackles with electric, haunting energy in every stanza. Readers instantly enter Moth’s headspace, as she relates her grief through poetic verses. After losing her mother, father, and brother in a car accident and living with an aunt who cannot cope with Moth’s detached behavior, Moth drifts through days like a de-winged butterfly. Her sadness and survivor’s guilt consumes her every waking hour. All passion she once had for the freeing grace found in dance has dissipated into the graveyard with her deceased family. Buoyed only by the strength of her spiritual connection with her long-dead grandfather and ancestors through Hoodoo, Moth’s scars mark a tangible reminder of all she’s lost in the carnivorous universe. Then, one day, she meets a Navajo boy named Sani. A road trip searching for roots and ancestors intertwines their lives and changes everything.

Amber McBride exhibits mastery over the poetic verse form. Me (Moth) presents the idea of tethers, whether it be a connection between past and present, ghosts and the living, or youth and ancestry. McBride embraces the supernatural in terms of how Black Americans can find solace in rootwork and Hoodoo, and how Native Americans can discover identity through convening with the spiritual realm. This is a novel where each stanza slowly builds on one another. Carefully crafted diction conveys emotion as the words float and pop like bubbles, guiding readers through history with care. Me (Moth) crafts an artfully layered world where reading feels akin to tiptoeing through shattered glass until you reach the unpredictable, astonishing conclusion.

The Witch Haven by Sasha Peyton Smith
Genre: YA Witches Fantasy / Historical / Paranormal
Page Count: 448

(CW: Violence, Gore, Sorcery, Abuse, Sexual Predatory Behavior, Misogyny)

There’s nothing like a tale of witch-y goodness to set the Halloween season atmosphere. Sasha Peyton Smith makes her writing debut with the YA fantasy novel, The Witch Haven. Set in 1911 New York City, seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell dully lives out her days as a seamstress. Grief over her brother’s unsolved murder creates a hollow sense of hopelessness in Frances. When a sexual predator tries to attack her, Frances fends for her life–except she doesn’t know how she inadvertently caused a pair of scissors to end up in the man’s neck without ever touching him. News of the incident begins to spread, and Frances is technically guilty of murder. But a pair of disguised witches rescue Frances. Frances is whisked away to a school for witches called Haxahaven, where she learns about her true identity. Haxahaven still can’t protect the powerful witch from men with malicious intents and a boy who walks her dreams with secrets about her brother’s murder.

The Witch Haven thematically examines a time period where feminism was a rising whisper, and the word “witch” should only be uttered through whispers behind a locked room in the dark. Smith flawlessly interweaves magic into a story based on America’s muddied relationship with women’s rights, including the rights nearly non-existent for women of color or indigenous women in the early 1900s. The Witch Haven spills enchanting tendrils of magic over a compelling mystery narrative. Enter into a realm of spells and sorcery this October with Smith’s mesmerizing novel.

The Between by Tananarive Due
Genre: Black Horror / Occult / Supernatural / Psychological Fiction
Page Count: 288

(CW: Frightening/Disturbing Images, Violence, Gore, Sex, Infidelity, Suicidal Ideation, Racism, Racist Slurs)

An amalgam of psychological horror, magical realism, and the supernatural distorts reality in The Between. In The Between, African-American man Hilton James remembers his grandmother dying–twice. During his adulthood, he’s had trouble reconciling the memories of his grandmother lying dead on the kitchen floor, only to mysteriously rise up later as if nothing ever happened and then die a final death rescuing Hilton from drowning in the ocean. Thirty years after the incident, Hilton lives with his two children and his wife, the only African-American elected judge in Florida. A therapist helped ease his nightmares about his grandmother through hypnosis years prior. When his wife, Dede, receives horrifically racist, life-threatening letters, Hilton’s nightmares return in full force. Bizarre dreams begin manifesting in his head until Hilton believes he is actively living through events that never occurred. Reality warps until Hilton’s life is no longer recognizable, and his obsession to hunt down the man threatening his family drives further consumes his mind.

Written in 1995, this debut novel was only the beginning of Tananarive Due’s successful career as an author. The Between works as a stunning portrait of a man who shoulders guilt over his grandmother’s death to the point of questioning his own place in life. Although mental health has slowly begun the social process of de-stigmatization, individuals living with mental disorders for most of history were forced to either seclude their disorders or quietly seek out therapists in secret. Due deftly presents an ambiguous narrative that even breaches the science-fiction realm at one point. Still, talking to medical health professionals about psychological disorders is treated respectfully. The Between is a suspenseful horror novel with sociological and psychological thematic elements to probe your own psyche.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Genre: Vampire Horror / Dark Paranormal Fantasy / Hispanic Fiction
Page Count: 272

(CW: Violence, Blood, Gore,

Vampires were all the rage back in the 2010s Twilight-obsessed era of literature and fandom. Although it is a shame how Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s neon-noir vampire horror novel, Certain Dark Things, got swept under the rug in 2016, the new Tor Nightfire imprint from Tor Books revived the novel for readers to re-discover now in 2021. Certain Dark Things features a cast of damaged individuals, all struggling to outrun the wounds of their past and survive in vampire-riddled Mexico City. When Domingo, a street kid with an abusive past, meets the intoxicating Tlahuihpochtlin vampire Atl, he enters into her dangerous modes of existence. Vampire clans throughout Mexico City clash, and everyone is hunting someone else. They are all out for blood.

Ever since reading Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and Velvet Was the Night, I’ve found myself lusting for more of the dizzying inebriation I feel when drinking down her words like red wine through a snifter. Certain Dark Things certainly fulfills this longing. Moreno Garcia’s prose unwraps the story like an elastic bandage wrap after an accident. Readers meet Atl, Domingo, Ana, and Nick in media res, with bites of pain and trauma already taken out of them. From there, Moreno Garcia slowly unveils an intricate world teeming with vampiric lore, ravaged familial ties, and grotesque imagery in regards to a few blood-hungry characters. I left the book synopsis short so readers can freshly taste the bitter tang of mystery inside Certain Dark Things without spoilers.

Could you sink your teeth into more spooky supernatural novels or thrilling mysteries? Since this month hosts the horror holiday of the West, here are some additional recommendations for the brave:

  • My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
  • White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson
  • Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Slewfoot by Brom
  • The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
  • The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
  • Revelator by Daryl Gregory
  • Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney
  • The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell
  • Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff
  • The House of Ashes by Stuart Neville
  • Lakesedge by Lyndall Clipstone
  • Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson

For even more spookiness, check out my September Book Corner, the “Horror / Mystery / Thriller” section of my National Book Lover’s Day reading recs, and the GateCrashers retrospective piece on Stephen King. A wonderous world of haunts and haints are amassing between the pages of these sensory spooky books. It’s up to you read…if you dare. Happy Halloween!

Featured image by Brandie Brimfield. Shop her Etsy store here.

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White Smoke Review

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices…to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill…and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own—for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

– Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone. Season 1, Episode 22: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” 1960.)

Acclaimed writer Tiffany D. Jackson ventures into the horror genre with her YA novel, White Smoke from HarperCollins. White Smoke combines elements of classic ghost horror movies, The Twilight Zone, and psychological horror. Welcome to Maple Street, where the monsters of the past and present are due to incite terror in White Smoke.

The Twilight Zone: The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street | 25YL
The Twilight Zone. Season 1, Episode 22: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” 1960. Writer; Rod Serling. Dir; Ronald Winston. CBS.

Marigold Anderson and her recently blended family are uprooted from their home in Carmel, California to Maplewood, a small section of Cedarwood in a town resembling Detroit, Michigan. A drug addiction cost Mari her reputation as a track star, her enrollment in high school, and almost cost her life. After her mother’s recent marriage to a white man and his tyrannical daughter, coupled with PTSD, anxiety, a rehab stint, and suffering without a weed supply anymore, moving into a formidable house in the middle of the country only worsens Mari’s mental health. 

The cost of Mari’s rehab from drugs financially crippled their family. When Mari’s mother is offered a free home from a new artist’s residency program, she takes the deal that seems almost too good to be true. Their new home may seem like a dream, but the abandoned houses surrounding the Maple Street residence gives Mari and her family a sense of unease. When items start going missing and Mari begins seeing ghosts in the house, her terror only amplifies. 

A fresh start isn’t going to fix Mari’s problems–especially if she’s living in a haunted house.

“‘We stopped to ask for directions, but no one’s ever heard of this Maple Street.’ ‘Really? Who’d you ask?’ He chuckles and points behind us. ‘Your neighbors.'”

White Smoke

White Smoke is the type of book that drifts through your mind like smoke, clouding your thoughts and winding its way around your consciousness. Jackson’s writing is intoxicating. You find yourself inhaling her words, blowing puffs of air outward when chilling scenes frighten you to the core. White Smoke pulses with atmosphere, a luring vision of horror reeling you in as the monsters grow nearer. 

It’s hard to believe White Smoke is Jackson’s first “horror” novel because she nails every story beat and knows how to mount tension while creating nuance in the branching storylines. However, if you’ve read any of Jackson’s other novels, you already know she is a master of suspense. Jackson takes the monstrous themes of abusive men, systemic racism, oppression, addiction, gentrification, and unfounded allegations from her other works (Grown, Allegedly, Monday’s Not Coming) and expertly entwines these topics into White Smoke. Jaw-dropping plot twists and immersive mysteries are not surprising when it comes to Tiffany D. Jackson’s writing. Like her other novels, White Smoke breaks her characters apart — and breaks readers’ hearts.

The beautiful Tiffany Jackson holds a copy of White Smoke. (Instagram: @writeinbk)

If you want to read a chilling psychological horror novel this October, start with White Smoke. The novel beats like a fluttering heart, with terror creeping around the edges. White Smoke is an essential commentary on men and monsters, the power of wealth, the dangers of addiction, and the internal prejudices that can tear a town apart. If you’re a fan of The Twilight Zone, the parallels to “The Monsters on Maple Street” episode become evident in startling ways.

Tiffany D. Jackson, please don’t stop tearing your readers’ minds apart with incredible novels like White Smoke.

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Katie’s Book Corner (September 2021)

Wake me up, because September is beginning. September segues into Fall, as well as everyone’s favorite spooky season month. If you’re looking to summon the chilled winds and spiced flavors of autumn ambiance, look no further. Three books on September’s Book Corner fall into the paranormal or thriller categories. In addition, a magic-infused YA fantasy novel entertains a bona fide mystery, writhing with twists. Last on the list, deep-dive into the history of a sneaky comic book character who always electrifies stories from her stints in the shadows. Enjoy the seasonal change September brings with my top five reading recommendations this month.

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim
Genre: YA Fantasy
Page Count: 464

(CW: Mild Violence, Distressing Familial Relations)

Retellings are popular in YA literature, spinning gold from the already shimmering threads of stories penned by other writers. Elizabeth Lim approaches the YA retelling genre in the fantasy vein. Six Crimson Cranes draws from a lesser-known literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen entitled “The Wild Swans.” Like Anderson’s tale, Six Crimson Cranes follows the story of a princess fated to undo a curse cast upon her brothers. Shiori, sole princess of Kiata’s land, discovers magic, a dragon, and a terrible secret about her once-adoring stepmother. After Shiori’s six brothers are turned into cranes and Shiori is sentenced to muteness, she embarks on a mission to reverse her brother’s curse and overcome a looming evil.

Fairytales capture our imaginations as children. Stories of stolen children and villains conquered as a consequence of their own fatal flaws delighted our minds as we sat snuggled up under knitted blankets on winter nights, our eyes shining with awe. It’s no wonder readers are drawn to fairytale retellings as adults. We crave the unsettled magic still rattling in our bones from youth, and retellings bring this nostalgia to the surface in grand displays of light. Lim’s prose and story beats in Six Crimson Cranes casts its own enchanting spell on readers. Uncover the fantastical mysteries awaiting your inner child inside the effervescent pacing of this book.

Rebel Robin by A.R. Carpetta
Genre: YA LGBTQ+ Fiction / Paranormal / Media Tie-In
Page Count: 311

(CW: Mild Mentions of Violence, Homophobia, Sexism)

Stranger Things fans are some of the most patient people in the world besides the Barry or Venture Brothers audiences. Ever since the pandemic, filming the highly anticipated fourth season of the show has taken longer than anyone expected. If you’ve already dissected that Season 4 trailer until your eyes burned looking for clues, divert your attention over to this Stranger Things media tie-in novel.

Rebel Robin by A.R. Carpetta offers a backstory about Robin Buckley from the third season of the show. Incorporating story seeds proffered from Season 3, Rebel Robin takes us back in time to Robin’s high school years with Steve Harrington, her crush Tammy, and run-ins with familiar faces in Hawkins. Robin struggles with her feelings about her “hippie” parents and her friends in this novel. She’s a band kid who doesn’t fit in and decides she wants to flee to Europe during the summer. Life in Hawkins doesn’t feel like a life at all to Robin, so traveling far away is the only way to have real life experiences, right?

Rebel Robin is the highest rated Stranger Things tie-in books on Goodreads for a good reason. Carpetta’s writing nails Robin’s voice, intertwining 80’s culture with Stranger Things lore immaculately. The novel also explores Robin’s sexuality as she comes to terms with confused feelings and self-deprecation because of her outsider status. Canon Stranger Things paranormal events lurk in the background, coinciding with Robin’s personal narrative cleverly. Experience memories about the uncomfortable frights of high school side by side with a fan-favorite breakout character in this novel while you wait endlessly for Season 4.

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
Genre: Adult Horror / Suspense / Paranormal Thriller
Page Count: 521

(CW: Terror, Violence, Sex, Gore, Homophobia, Slurs)

If you’ve never read a Stephen King novel (like me) because his writing style doesn’t personally appeal to you, I’d recommend The Book of Accidents instead. A teeth-chattering, paranormal horror story, author Chuck Wendig triumphs in horrifying readers with this 500-page novel. The Book of Accidents evokes an unsettling atmosphere in the first chapter, never releasing the tension until the book’s denouement. Nathan, Maddie, and their off-kilter son Oliver move to Nathan’s old childhood home in the shadowy woods after Nathan’s abusive father passes away. Soon after, all three encounter the supernatural. A former serial killer and town legends cloud the Graves’ perception of reality and folklore. Ghostly apparitions, demons from the past, and untrustworthy strangers cross paths with the Graves family, irrevocably altering their fate. 

There are certain books you don’t read at night; The Book of Accidents is one of them. I’ve kept the synopsis vague because horror books like Wendig’s novel are ones best appreciated going in with as little information as possible. Because of the length, the novel suffers from a few slow spots. Regardless, Wendig’s short chapters and chilling prose command your attention. Can’t wait for spooky season already? Scare yourself by reading The Book of Accidents.

The Turnout by Megan Abbott
Genre: Adult Thriller / Psychological Fiction / Mystery / Suspense
Page Count: 351

(CW: Sex, Abuse, Rape, Implied Sex With Minors, Violence, Gore, Eroticism)

From the outside, the dance world appears glamorous. Picturesque dancers don pointe shoes over cracked feet and glistening costumes on stage, performing shocking feats with their bodies, necks elongated like swans. Ballet is one of the most rigorous forms of dance. Every movement, every hand placement, every breath relies on calculated precision in their execution. Megan Abbott’s The Turnout reveals ballet’s sinister side in a slow-burn, gothic-style drama. As opposed to singularly focusing on the children dancing, competing against one another for the coveted role of Clara in The Nutcracker, Abbott’s protagonists are the dance teachers. Sisters Dara and Marie Durant own and teach at their deceased mother’s crumbling ballet studio. When a space heater ignites a fire, Dara and her husband Charlie hire a seedy contractor to restore the former glory of Studio B. Old family conflicts and the contractor’s presence create fissures in Dara’s immaculately crafted existence. But amid boiling controversy, The Nutcracker showcase must go on.

The Turnout is dark, eroticism charging the narrative with descriptions that will make you squirm. Disturbing power dynamics and sexuality swirl around the story like a never ending pirouette. As a general warning, The Turnout depicts uncomfortable scenes and descriptions of sex, rape, and even child molestation. I was a ballet dancer for only a few years as a child. Fictionalized stories about dance like Abbott’s function as both a warning and a showcase of what real dancers endure on quests for perfection.

The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale by Tim Hanley
Genre: Comics & Graphic Novels Literary Criticism
Page Count:

(CW: Sex, Sexism, Misogyny)

Originally donning a literal cat head and titled simply, “The Cat,” the illustrious Catwoman made her comic debut in Batman (1940) #1. Catwoman was a pioneer, a female character appearing as one of the original Batman villains who could actually escape the Dark Knight while also exhibiting morally grey character traits. Tim Hanley’s The Many Lives of Catwoman charts Selina Kyle’s history in both comic and media canon.

Hanley examines many iterations of Catwoman, showing how she exists outside of the typical cultural framework expected in villains, heroes, and as a female. Eartha Kitt and Michelle Pfeiffer’s on screen Catwoman portrayals broke barriers and perpetuated interest in the character. Unfortunately, Catwoman’s character was also susceptible to harmful, derogatory sexualization by male comic creators. Thankfully, she is gradually clawing her way out of to this day with Ram V and his artist redefining the feline fatale in the current Catwoman (2019- ) comic run. Hanley explores The Cat in-depth in his well-researched book to inform both well-versed and unfamiliar readers entertainingly.

Prepare yourself for horror and spine-tingling mystery novels when I return from another month of reading in October. Stranger things are on the horizon. I will emerge from the (hopefully) settled smoke here in NorCal next month, with five more reading recommendations.

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After the Ink Dries: A Review

CW: This review contains mentions of sexual assault. After the Ink Dries contains the following topics: Sexual assault, harsh language, suicidal ideation and suicide.

“Does a devastating event require a certain definition for it to be considered world-altering to the person it happened to?”

– Cassie Gustafson; After the Ink Dries

Stories about sexual assault are difficult to read. Real survivors of sexual assault are forced to live with the mental and physical repercussions of the incidents for the rest of their lives. Those who share their stories and those who never find the voice to air personal secrets for public scrutiny are both survivors deserving of love, care, and understanding. 

Fictional novels discussing mental health or assault issues of women help offer those silenced a voice. Writers like Laurie Halse Anderson have been educating readers with novels about a variety of issues women face. In 2019, Anderson wrote about her own experience with sexual assault in her harrowing poetic memoir, Shout. Most significantly, her novel turned movie Speak tells the story of a teenager who survived a rape, and the aftermath of coping with the horrifying assault while facing ridicule by her school peers. 

Enter Cassie Gustafson’s debut 2021 novel, After the Ink Dries. Comic creator Emma Vieceli illustrates 16 pages in Gustafson’s book in sequential art style. After the Ink Dries feels influenced by Anderson’s Speak, but takes a different approach to presenting the narrative. Gustafson employs a dual POV narrative — and one of these speakers is a male assaulter.

In After the Ink Dries, sixteen-year-old Erica Walker wakes up half-naked on a strange bed, hungover and covered in Sharpie. Her underwear and half her clothes are missing. One beloved black boot is missing. Observing herself, she comes to a gut-punching realization: A group of boys at the house party the night before wrote messages — and their names — all over her body. Erica escapes the house still full of teenage boys, memories blurring as she drives herself back home. All she remembers is the thrill she felt the day before when her crush, Thomas, hung out with her at the party that night. Unfortunately, Thomas was also present in the house with the other boys. Erica can’t find Thomas’s name before she scrubs the Sharpie and derogatory slurs from her skin in the shower. Still, she is left to wonder: Was she raped? And was Thomas, her music-loving, sweet, lacrosse-playing crush, involved in the assault? 

Before the assault, Erica had been an aspiring webcomic artist. She created an empowered female superhero as an alter ego named Erica Strange, assisted by her bat sidekick Sparky. Privately, she used art and writing as a personal diary on a hidden webpage. As the suspense builds and Erica begins fitting missing pieces of the night together, Erica Strange’s story parallels the thematic tension occurring in Erica’s real life. Viecelli excels in pacing the graphic novel scenes through analogous panel work and character designs. Gustafson’s idea to include visuals pays off in dividends. Through Viecelli’s always stellar art, readers glean further insights into Erica’s personality and thought process. We see Erica how she is perceived, how she thinks she is perceived, and how she wishes she was perceived with the inclusion of Erica Strange illustrations. Erica tries to cope with the trauma of her assault, and the art charts her emotional route.

Art by Emma Vieceli from After the Ink Dries (2021; Gustafson, Cassie)

By giving Thomas his own chapters and characterization, Gustafson dispenses a voice to an abuser. Now, with Thomas, his part in Erica’s bodily marking and possible assault is unclear. Alcohol and drunkenness skews everyone’s recollection of that Night. Thomas is portrayed as a “good guy.” He faces emotional abuse from his lawyer father about his music career, in turn only perpetuating Thomas’s drive to succeed. Throughout the book, Erica and Thomas remember the highs involved in their blossoming relationship prior to the Night. Thomas finds solace in writing lyrics, making music, and giving Erica tokens of his affection. I believe Gustafson’s point in writing Thomas’s POV is this: Thomas shows how anyone, any male, regardless of their character, is capable of sexual assault. Gustafson shows how Thomas grapples with guilt and uncertainty, not wanting to face the idea that, yes, he had something to do with Erica’s harassment. He convinces himself of his innocence because he could never have anything to do with something so vile.

Gustafson deconstructs toxic masculinity and victim shaming in Thomas’s chapters blisteringly. Yet, Thomas still feels somewhat underdeveloped, with his short chapters cutting into Erica’s narrative at a few odd times. This is my one criticism of the book, but the Thomas chapters are important.

After the Ink Dries combines dual first-person-point-of-views, prose, poetry, and illustrations, to detail Erica’s heartbreaking story. I’ve been reading Laurie Halse Anderson novels since high school, and heavy topical books are stories I feel compelled to read. I strive to gain a deeper understanding about mental illness, sexual assault, and other harsh topics I may or may not have experienced myself. After the Ink Dries will definitely trigger readers. Thus, this book should be read with caution.

Personally, I read Gustafson’s novel in one sitting. She possesses an innate ability in her writing. Through experimental writing styles and comic pages, Gustafson provides an engaging, authentic voice to survivors of sexual assault. Verisimilitude abounds in Gustafson’s detailed prose. 

Art by Emma Vieceli from After the Ink Dries (2021; Gustafson, Cassie)

I don’t usually “rate” books, but if I had to, After the Ink Dries receives and deserves 5 full stars. My attention was stalwart until the final page. I can’t wait to read Cassie Gustafson’s next novel releasing in 2022, The Secrets We Keep. Confront the horrors of real issues women endure by picking up a copy of After the Ink Dries.


Deadbox #1: A Horror Story About Belonging & Unwritten Futures

“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

― Søren Kierkegaard

Do you love horror? Stories about being trapped in a god-forsaken small town with a myriad of colorful characters? Vault Comics? New or old Vault Comics horror fans will be fighting to obtain a copy of Deadbox #1. Okay, maybe only Captain Kirk-worthy wrestling match battles should ensue, but you get the idea.

Credit: Mark Russell/Benjamin Tiesma/Vladimir Popov/AndWorld (Vault Comics)

Mark Russell makes his foray into the horror genre as the writer of Deadbox #1. The creative team for Vault Comics’ new five-issue miniseries also includes illustrator Benjamin Tiesma, colorist Vladimir Popov, letterer Jim Campbell, and Vault superstar, designer Tim Daniel. 

This review begins with a quote from Danish philosopher Søren Aabye Kierkegaard about internalized pain accrued from yearning for a future that will never come to fruition. I question society’s general cognitive dissonance and memory lapse every day now. Lately, a meme that has been circulating, known as “My Fall Plans vs. The Delta Variant” (humorously?) tries to show how the latest COVID-19 variant has nullified people’s autumn event schedule. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here wondering who had Fall plans in the first place during this unceasing pandemic? The future may not be written in stone, but mapping out plans for the final months of this year never seemed like a viable option (for me, anyway) based on current events, COVID, and distrust. I’m not here at all to criticize individuals’ sadness over another holiday season contaminated by a deadly virus. Personally, my expectations lowered a year and a half ago and I haven’t felt hopeful about the future in a long time. 

Needless to say, Kierkegaard’s words hit home, particularly considering the throbbing ache — those privileged to even consider a more agreeable future — are currently collectively experiencing.

If you were to list all the intriguing themes in Deadbox, you might line them up side-by-side inside a crimson media vending machine. Would you like to check out “Kierkegaard & Existential Philosophy”? Does “Belonging & Meaning” suit your cinematic tastes? Can you palate the sweeping epic horror movie, “I Had to Give Up My Future and Stay in a Shitty Town I Hate Because I Have Too Much Empathy to Leave My Dying Dad Behind For College?” Here’s a personal favorite: “Life Sucks XVIII: Movies Are Escapism.” Grab some popcorn, because you’re about to read a comic seething with philosophizing, fright, and relatability. 

Deadbox #1 features an ominous DVD rental machine called a Deadbox and a self-delayed college student who imagines an unrepressed future outside of her rural town, Lost Turkey. Penny’s desperation for a future beyond her reach drives the slow-burn pace in Deadbox. She longs for more — for a life beyond interacting with backwards-thinking townspeople at the convenience store she works at and halting her college plans in order to care for her sickly father. 

Credit: Mark Russell/Benjamin Tiesma/Vladimir Popov/AndWorld (Vault Comics)

Immediately, Deadbox asserts its first issue thesis: Where do any of us truly belong?

Russell’s dialogue launches readers into rumination from Deadbox’s opening pages. The narrator waxes philosophical, correlating America’s obsession with “patriotism” and land ownership while questioning the affinity for belonging. Caption boxes with Jim Campell’s typeface aesthetic emulating formal document lettering hover over Benjamin Tiesma and colorist Vladimir Popov’s images of a dusty, rural landscape. Tiesma illustrates Lost Turkey with dark shadows and rough linework. Here, readers immediately gain familiarity with the town. All touchstones of American rural existence appear from varying angles in a noteworthy, four-panel grid composition: A man holds a gun in his lap, a police officer cruises along the road, a dog leashed to an American flag barks loudly, and a storefront bears posters reading “Enlist” and Christian cross imagery. From there, we are pulled into the darkness looming in Penny’s isolated world. The transition works seamlessly as colors dim further, shadows linger longer, and lines feel more weighted. 

Credit: Mark Russell/Benjamin Tiesma/Vladimir Popov/AndWorld (Vault Comics)

Visual horror awaits readers, but plenty of fright is present as we learn about Penny’s depressing existence in the dual narrative comic issue. How many of us can relate to Penny’s plight? When your head is contemplating a future pulsing with possibility and your body is trapped in a place restricting your sense of personhood, your heart ascribes both physical and psychological pain to yourself. Because of this, we retreat within ourselves. People seek comfort in many forms. One such form of shelter is physical media. 

Deadbox points to film as escapism, where we can take solace in watching a fictional story casting characters in situations we either feel relieved in not having to endure or find a piece of ourselves within. In Deadbox #1, the latter statement manifests itself all too tangibly. The films in the Lost Turkey Deadbox aren’t found anywhere else because they are a reflection of the watchers’ own lives. Duality runs through the Kierkegaard-influenced comic in both theme and artistry. Without spoiling too much, the Deadbox movie Penny dares to watch exhibits dramatic parallels to the comics’ opening cogitation and an adroit sci-fi artistic look. Binaries exist in immensely well-executed form in this 10/10 comic.

Credit: Mark Russell/Benjamin Tiesma/Vladimir Popov/AndWorld (Vault Comics)

If there is any criticism to be had, I would argue Deadbox #1 boasts a highly elevated script you may need to re-read to gain a fuller understanding. However, you’ll probably end up flipping through the comic pages again anyway because the art and story are incredible. Gleaning additional analogs in the process acts as a bonus. 

There’s no renting like a DVD rental box when comics are involved. You need to have your money in hand when bursting into your comic shop on September 1st to buy a copy of Deadbox #1.

Mark Russell makes his foray into the horror genre as the writer of Deadbox #1. The creative team for Vault Comics’ new five-issue miniseries, Deadbox, also includes illustrator Benjamin Tiesma, colorist Vladimir Popov, letterer Jim Campbell, and Vault superstar, designer Tim Daniel. 


Do You Believe In Magic? A Review of Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

Reading certain comics feels like being carried through an idyllic temporal plane infused with magic. You’re swept away — mentally, emotionally, and physically — by merging landscapes of words and illustrations, upending the paradigm of expectancy. Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2 from Titan Comics courses with this wondrous magical essence. 

The second and concluding expanded issue in the Coming Home saga opens during a snowball fight between Max and Chloe. It’s evident these are the Max and Chloe from their original universe timeline. Aged up a few years since Max sacrificed Arcadia Bay to save Chloe from death, the two lovers laugh with contentment, joke about Max’s cosmic, time-rewinding powers, and share a kiss under the blissful sky dotted white with falling snow.

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

A reconnected Max and Chloe seems like magic, right? Of course, all magic comes with a price, and this ethereal moment was too good to be true, to my utter dismay.

Oh, how this comic plays with reader emotions. 

Strands of happiness are quickly snipped as both Max and Chloe realize the reality — or rather un-reality — of their presence together. Max heartbreakingly awakens from the glorious dream, and our hearts break along with her. Unfortunately, a rude awakening snaps her back into the universe across the transect where Chloe is currently dating and accompanying a living Rachel Amber on her Shakespeare theatrical tour. Life Is Strange can’t possibly wrap up all the fraying and loose narrative ends in the first three pages. However, the scenes offer a foreshadowing in dream form; a twisted, ethereal glimpse of hope for our reality-stranded women.

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

Emma Viecelli, artist Claudia Leonardi, colorist Andrea Izzo, and letterers Jimmy Bentacort and Richard Starkings sprinkle moments teeming with thematic significance throughout the rivulets in Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2. Tonal anticipation paces the story magnetically, carrying readers downstream toward Max and Chloe’s enchanting ending. As I said, this issue is overflowing with hypnotic beauty, bristling inside and waiting to erupt like a rabbit from a magician’s hat. 

In the Life Is Strange: Before the Storm prequel video game, audiences were introduced to Blackwell student and roleplaying aficionado, Steph Gingrich. During Episode Two, “Brave New World” Steph compliments Chloe’s new hair and comments, “Sometimes you’ve just gotta do something new.” Additionally, Steph is also a confirmed major character in the new Life Is Strange: True Colors video game releasing September 9th.

How coincidental that, not only does Max discover a new time-controlling power in Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2, but Steph also makes a crucial appearance in this comic issue! Sometimes, you’ve just gotta do something new to change destiny’s course. Max and Chloe’s fate is irrevocably altered after encounters with newness, and Max’s new manipulative ability she dubs “pocket time.” 

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

How can I describe this issue without spoiling major events? How can I accurately put into words the extreme empathy and emotional catharsis rolling into this issue like a storm?

Let me say one thing: All creators in this book combine forces with the entire power of the transect to create a few of the most stunningly poignant comic pages I’ve ever had the honor to lay eyes upon. A blue butterfly floats through the panels, sun-glittered light speckling its color-revolving wings. Max watches in the forefront of a black background transforming behind her, dialogue hauntingly predicting the narrative’s metamorphosing forecast. These scenes occur midway through the issue where a normal-sized issue would end on a natural cliffhanger. Since pandemic delays forced two double-sized issues into containing the Coming Home arc, readers are lucky to receive an immediate answer to this butterfly scene. Ultimately, the climaxing moment halfway into Coming Home functions as one of the story’s final catalysts. 

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

The butterfly transitioning pages reverberate in my thoughts, even days after reading. I could almost breathe a sigh of hesitant relief watching Max and Chloe break through their encasing chrysalises and stretch their captured wings back toward one another. The payoff to this moment over the last fifteen Life Is Strange comic issues was worth every anguishing ebb and flow. Life Is Strange has always balanced character-driven emotional resonance with well-placed story beat conflicts. Here, emotion and storylines collide, equal parts miraculous and calamitous in its implications. God, this comic series is good.

Both struggles regarding experiencing grief and managing grief have heavily saturated the thematic material in Life Is Strange. How does one relieve themselves of a self-imposed guilt for supposedly causing their own grief while shuttering the blinds to the unvarnished truth?

Max receives clarity from an unexpected stranger. A woman tells her how she too has lost people, and we must give ourselves permission to mourn, channeling that loss in order to preserve their memory. In essence, this issue allows Max to relieve herself from feelings of selfishness over her grief involved with separation from Chloe. Selfish grief is encouraged because Max — and all of humanity — have valid feelings. Thank you, Life Is Strange for reminding us all of a valuable lesson. 

Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2

In a present day where grief, loss of loved ones, and separation is more relevant than ever, Life Is Strange: Coming Home #2 shines truths like a magical beacon cutting through the clamor of a storm. If there was ever a time to read Life Is Strange, the time is now. Do yourself a favor and pick up this issue — and the entire series before the final arc this year — today. You deserve a little magic in your life.

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Katie’s Book Corner (August 2021)

It’s hard to believe, but August has crept around again. 2021 ends in less than half a year. Summer might be my favorite season, but every August, I’m ready to fast forward to October and the holiday season. This past month, I returned to reading fantasy novels. In high school, YA fantasy series were my go-to reads (An Ember in the Ashes, Legend, Shadow and Bone, The Maze Runner books, anyone?). The fantasy genre can feel harrowing for readers, what with all the glorious maps, languages, magic systems, and ongoing cliffhangers. Luckily, I’m recommending three accessible fantasy novels: A fantasy/sci-fi anthology collection, the first book in a trilogy, and a stand-alone adult book.

If fantasy isn’t your jam, scroll down to the final two contemporary books on this list. Escape into a mystical world this August with this edition of Katie’s Book Corner! All titles here are available through most local libraries, digitally through Kindle, or physically at your favorite bookshop.

The Tangleroot Palace: Stories by Marjorie Liu
Genre: Adult Fantasy / Science Fiction / Anthology
Page Count: 253

The Tangleroot Palace: Stories: Liu, Marjorie: 9781616963521:  Books

(CW: Death, Murder, Violence, Gore)

Comic fans; imagine I’m wildly swinging this book around in front of your face screaming, “Do you know who wrote this? Marjorie Liu! Yes, that Marjorie Liu!” In reality, I am shy and would never be so bold. But my sentiment remains: Acclaimed Monstress comic writer Marjorie Liu compiled and edited a collection of old short stories in this gorgeous anthology. The Tangleroot Palace: Stories bears a cover illustrated by Sana Takeda, artist of Monstress. If you’ve read Monstress at all, you’ll recognize Liu’s sapphic, gory, sensual, magic-infused storytelling immediately.

Fantasy stories starring strong women seem to be Liu’s forte in this anthology like “Sympathy for the Bones,” “The Briar and the Rose,” and the eponymous “The Tangleroot Palace.” Sci-fi sentiments occur intriguingly in the tall tale about a man who literally wants to become Superman villain, Lex Luthor, in “The Last Dignity of Man.”

The Tangleroot Palace: Stories ripples with riveting characters, lore, and profundity. Each prose piece is self-contained and relatively short for individuals who don’t want to spend hours reading a single story. Although, “The Tangleroot Palace” is a full-length novella. Still, be prepared for the formidable desire to devour multiple stories in one sitting. See what lush horrors are gnashing their teeth through these pages. When you’re finished, go read Monstress (because everyone should read Monstress).

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Page Count: 585

(CW: Violence, Gore, Death, Homophobia, Execution, Forced Drug Use, Misogyny)

Joining the recent ranks of fantasy tales inspired by and set in India, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri kicks off the Burning Kingdoms trilogy. Transport yourself into a world where misogynistic, power-hungry men rule, but feminist, kickass women attempt to wrench control away from these narcissists. The Jasmine Throne opens on a horrifying ritual: The sacrificial “purification” of women. Princess Malini refuses to stand beside her sisters as their burning flesh melts away in front of the solemn nation of Paraijatdvipa. Thus, her dictator brother takes the throne. He vilifies and imprisons Malini in a temple known for once containing magical waters for her remaining days.

Meanwhile, Priya, a simple maidservant in the palace once purified by the temples’ magic-imbuing deathless waters, fights for the conquered nation of Ahiranya. A rot is spreading through Ahiranya, and Priya remains nearly powerless to stop its murderous infection alone. Princess Malini, weakened by drugging in her captivity, accidentally discovers Priya’s powers. Then, their fates intertwine, and they plan to burn the empire — and its male rulers — down, together. 

The Jasmine Throne clocks in at nearly 600 pages, but each word casts an invigorating spell on readers. Tasha Suri’s prose weaves a surreal story of women and their battle for autonomy. At the novel’s midpoint, a slight lull and “insta-love” romance does impede the narrative flow, but you’ll be starstruck as Malini and Priya’s love story propels the high-stakes action. If you prefer an Indian fantasy book in the YA genre, try the stellar Princess and the Pea retelling, Sisters of the Snake.

The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid
Genre: Adult Fantasy / Jewish Fiction
Page Count: 432

(CW: Genocide, Murder, Death, Gore, Torture, Self Harm, Abuse, Child Abuse, Animal Death, Amputation, Antisemitism)

Lately, I’ve noticed an influx of recent book releases with the word “Wolf” in the title. The Wolf and the Woodsman may be one of those novels, but this adult fantasy roots itself in dark themes beyond a love story or Red Riding Hood retelling.

Ava Reid sends readers on a gritty journey with protagonist Évike. Isolated and rebuked, due to her lack of visceral powers and tainted bloodline, Évike feels outcast within her pagan village nestled in the forest. In the city, the tyrannical king requires advantages if he is to gain the upper hand against the warring kingdoms. He sends his bodyguard entourage, the Woodsman, to collect a seer from the women residing in Évike’s village. However, they send the powerless Évike in place of a true seer along with the barbarous woodsman. Évike must fight for survival and ally with the mysterious Woodsman leader after attacks and the kingdoms’ bloodthirsty prince plans an uprising.

Written by a Jewish author, The Wolf and the Woodsman presents themes about the atrocities of genocide and violence involved in any facet of nation-building. Reid’s poetic language does not mask the horrific topics inside this book. Instead, it works to juxtapose good with evil, purity of heart with self-righteous intentions, and roles of the oppressor versus the oppressed. Descriptions of torture, abuse, and ethnic cleansing sharply pierce through the novel’s lilting prose like thorns adorning a rose. Reading The Wolf and the Woodsman promises an uptick in intellectual acuity.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Music Fiction
Page Count: 368

(CW: Death, Trauma, Racism, Racial Slurs, White Supremacy, Abuse, Infidelity)

If you’ve never read an interview style oral history novel, start with The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. Author Dawnie Walton tells a fictional story about a ’70s rock duo who never existed. Written from the perspective of a magazine editor-in-chief with an intent to pen a tell-all book about music sensations Opal Jewel and Nev Charles, Opal & Nev compiles fictional interviews and editor’s interludes.

Aural Magazine editor Sunny Shelton is the daughter of the drummer Opal Jewel had a brief affair with in the ’70s. With an Opal and Nev reunion tour quickly approaching, Sunny seeks out biographical information from Opal, Nev, and their interconnected circle to complete her book in tandem with the tour. Through these interviews, Sunny learns how white British musician Nev came to form a dazzling Afro-Punk duo with Black Southern woman Opal. Surprisingly, Sunny gains more information than she bargained for — facts containing the ability to uproot the tour, Opal and Nevs’ relationship, and Sunny’s book deal.

The oral history format may initially pose stylistic challenges in Opal & Nev, but ultimately lulls you into a sense of reading a real biography or watching a documentary. Parts of the book show characters digressing for long periods of time, but I urge you to follow through the slow areas. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev boasts charismatic and distinct voices throughout. Additionally, the novel scathingly critiques topics such as racism, emotional abuse in the music industry, and the dangers of nostalgia for the glamorized ’70s music scene.

Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood by Danny Trejo
Genre: Autobiography / Memoir
Page Count: 276

(CW: Prison, Drug Abuse, Alcohol Abuse, Infidelity, Gangs, Sex, Rape, Violence, Murder, Gore)

Who watched Spy Kids dozens of times growing up in the 2000’s? Oh, not just me? If you’ve even once seen the gem that is Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids, you’re aware of Danny Trejo. More specifically, Spy Kids (2001) first introduced readers to the Cortez siblings’ Uncle Machete. Conceptualized by Rodriguez long before Spy Kids, Trejo and the movie director decided on softly establishing Trejo’s “Machete” character in the children’s film. Nearly ten years later, the same Machete character slashed his way onto the big screen in a rated-R movie duology. But who was Danny Trejo before he became the infamous Machete? What is the life story behind the actor who has been murdered more times on screen than any other actor in history? 

For the first time, actor, sobriety counselor, owner of Trejo’s Tacos, and former prison inmate Danny Trejo recounts incidents during his past in his memoir, Trejo. Employing a tone of self-reflection, Trejo describes life as a drug dealer, heroin addict, and inmate in multiple California prisons. Trejo depicts his lowest points in unflinching, raw detail to the point you can physically feel the extent of his pain and regret. Yet, Danny Trejo is a success story. Finding a personal view of religion aided Trejo’s darkened spirit, helping him overcome his acquired ideals of misogynistic “machismo” and propensity for violence. Redemption reigns in Trejo’s memoir. Once a drug-addicted young man looking to spend the rest of his days locked up inside the horrendous prison system, Trejo unclamped his own shackles, now helping guide troubled youth onto their own path of redemption. 

Danny Trejo reclaims his life, authentically baring his soul to readers. Trejo fosters heuristic thinking for any reader. In Trejo, Danny Trejo proves how tragedy and fixed mindsets from the past aren’t necessary when defining your future.

Concluding this column each month always poses difficulties for me, because I could talk about and recommend books for an infinite amount of words! I leave you with my heart poured into this text on your screen to make your own judgements about whether these novels pique your interest. If you feel like none of these titles make you want to dip your toes in the tide-drenched summer sand, I am prepared to volley an arsenal of other novels in your direction via Twitter. Stay hydrated, and stay reading.

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The Me You Love In The Dark #1: A Chilling Meditation On Creativity

What is a creative’s worst nightmare? Answers: Stifling creativity. Writer’s block. The inability to put pen to paper, paintbrush to canvas, or words to music.

When our boundless imaginations suddenly feel inhibited, creatives become desperate for inspiration. Thus, we embark on an enterprise. We search for stimulus, innovation, philosophy; any resource to grease the jammed cogs in our brains and stop ourselves from succumbing to self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. Often, a suppressed creative seeks influence from not something, but someone. A muse, of some sorts, is the eloquent (or pretentious) term when discussing a person serving as the inspiring drive for an artist. 

What if that muse takes the form of a nightmare personified? What then, is the worst nightmare of a creative: A lack of inspiration or an inspiring force itself?

The Me You Love in the Dark #1

Dredged up from the harrowing, ingenious minds of Skottie Young and artist Jorge Corona, comes a new five issue horror miniseries published through Image Comics, The Me You Love in the Dark. Colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu and letterer Nate Piekos join Young and Corona on this creative endeavor to visibly summon a tale about a burgeoning artist and her spectral bogeyman muse. Pull the covers over your head because you’re about to feel sharpened prickles of dread.

If you partake in any type of creative feat, you can identify with protagonist Ro Meadows. The first issue of The Me You Love in the Dark perfectly distills the frustration, desire for isolation, and self-deprecation all artists endure at one point or another. A tangible threat lingers around the edges of this comic issue, but the real horror stems from feeling the brunt of Ro’s oscillating emotions during her creative block all too viscerally. Ironically, I put off writing this review because of writer’s block. Reading Ro’s story challenged me because I saw myself reflected back at me through Ro. Therein lies the shrouded, textual horror of The Me You Love in the Dark. How do you circumvent feelings of your own frightening inadequacy when you’re witnessing a visible depiction of those feelings? True nightmares lie within these pages — especially for creatives.

Unable to conjure any meaningful art, Ro retreats from the city to a remote mansion. Like any suffocated creative, seclusion and a change of scenery often marks an appropriate course of action to redress the creative thought process. Self-affirmations and repetitive actions become tantamount to Ro’s journey inside this looming house. 

The Me You Love in the Dark #1

Through wide-frame shots angled above and behind Ro, Jorge Corona’s illustrations construct a haunting atmosphere. Panels cut like camera cuts on a film as Ro does simple tasks before sitting down before her unpainted canvas. The scenes linger on Ro, creating a sense of us watching Ro battling sterile imagination in real time. Ro herself believes the house to be haunted by a ghost. Repeatedly, she calls out to the phantom for help. Watching an intimate portrait of Ro’s life, her words float out in silence to no one but us, the distant yet present reader. The visual effects of this art style chilled me, fabricating a singular thought before the comics’ end: Am I the haunting presence Ro is speaking to? 

Lighting, creeping shadows, and colors distinguishing the setting sun bring subtext and meaning to the surface in The Me You Love in the Dark #1. Waning sunlight peers through the slatted window in front of Ro when she works while dark shadows hovering in staircases behind Ro implicate the horror of an undiscovered apparition waiting to make itself known. Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s coloring leans on solid primary hues intermixed with oil-paint reminiscent shading, delineating sources of diaphanous light. Illustratively, the light and dark dichotomy parallels the tonal uneasiness beating underneath Skottie Young’s sparse dialogue. Chiefly, light and dark are intertwined, a marriage between trepidation and curiosity; horror and love. 

The Me You Love in the Dark #1

Anyone who reads my reviews knows about my adoration for SFX. Nate Piekos charges Ro’s general dialogue with an off-kilter, widely-kerned typeface screaming “struggling artist bereft of purpose if she cannot create art.” Similarly, Piekos’s SFX work slingshots those ideals as Ro’s exasperation increases. During charged moments where, to talk about them would spoil the most vertigo-inducing instances in the comic, Piekos’s SFX coalesces with Corona and Beaulieu’s art in an erupting symphony of unbridled terror and emotional ferocity. 

Life is unpredictable. We have days where inspiration caresses our very soul, trickling down from a barely perceptible thought in our cognitive awareness to the restless bones in our fingertips. Other times, we creatives cannot attach an idea to our mind, even with a leech. Muses become vital for some people to the point of obsession. The Me You Love in the Dark piqued my interest because of its meditation on these topics. Will Ro’s muse transfix her to the point of obsession? Will Ro create art, not worthwhile to others, but meaningful to herself? Ro may not feel inspired, but this provocative comic has already inspired my own storytelling and artistic sensibilities.

When your dreams come to fruition, the worst aspects of those dreams can also manifest. Clarity of mind evolves from a need to a requirement to placate these unprecedented events accompanying success. The Me You Love in the Dark #1 is a comic about waiting for artistic lightning to strike. Alternatively, you’ll be the one struck by undulating waves of emotion, cresting until the comics’ final, hair-raising scene.

Don’t get left in the dark: The Me You Love in the Dark is guaranteed to burst into the limelight and leave an indelible mark on the comic scene.

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Shadecraft #5 Exudes Emotion and Concludes A Momentous Story Arc

After enduring a life living in the shadows of her brother, family trauma, and wavering self-regard, Zadie Lu wrests mental and tangible control back from the shadows. Shadecraft received an unprecedented reader response over the past few months. Still, most comic readers I personally interact with seemed unaware Shadecraft existed. With issue #5 acting as a first arc ending point and sending the series on a brief hiatus, new readers can discover Shadecraft and read a completed storyline. Shadecraft #5 is written by Joe Henderson, illustrated by Lee Garbett, colored by Antonio Fabela, and letttered by Simon Bowland.

Shadecraft #5 brings all the threads and unresolved plot points full circle in the conclusion of arc one. Each issue blended relatability with gravitas naturally, and this issue magnifies reader resonance with aplomb. Garbett and Fabela’s grand illustrations delineating the fantasy horror genre fuse together poignantly with intimate scenes dissecting Henderson’s family drama thematic dialogue throughout the series. Shadecraft #5 climaxes with flying colors, fusing the elements that strengthened this comic series together in persuasive symbiosis. Finally, readers feel the full effect of Zadie’s emotion as she battles for her brother’s life alongside her mother.

Henderson writes organic dialogue in Shadecraft conveying the inner turmoil of the comics’ teenaged protagonist particularly well. Even during a final issue expansive battle, Zadie retains her wit and sarcasm-laced speech. In Shadecraft #5, Zadie still speaks like a teenager, teetering on the precipice of not fully understanding the confusing emotions encapsulated in the adolescent experience.

Shadecraft #5

Yet, Henderson doubles down on showcasing Zadie’s morphing characteristics in this issue. Shaped by the tension and trauma from her brother’s accident, Zadie undergoes exponential character growth. She flourishes, initially cast in the dim light of an entropic state of existence to finally reversing her fate. Henderson portrays Zadie relatably. Here, readers breathe a sigh of relief as Zadie learns to purge the overshadowing self-deprecation and lack of confidence she displayed during the series’ opening issues.

Shadecraft’s art taps into the solidifying roots of Henderson’s script. Garbett draws characters with a stylized look, leaning on dense inks and expressive demeanors. Shadecraft #5 peels back the clouded layers congesting the characters’ guarded emotions. There’s weight in a subtle raise of the eyebrows or demure smile that carries sentiment between mother and daughter in this issue. 

Shadecraft binds readers up in magic and shadows, bolstered by Fabela’s color work. The comic combines a darkly vibrant pastel color palette with a kind of leaking watercolor appearance. Whenever Zadie commands the shadows through Shadecraft, the tendrils and ghostly, oil-hued shapes discharge a moody aesthetic. Issue #5 crosses the threshold of reigning in the shadows, letting Garbett and Fabela fill entire splash pages to emphasize Shadecraft’s potential for destruction.

Shadecraft #5

Simon Bowland’s lettering further cleaves the light and dark theme in Shadecraft #5. The white speech bubbles accommodating crisp, descending words deeply contrast the shoved together letters of Zadie’s brother against a black background. A slight difference in kerning proves seminal in channeling the tone of trapped fear Zadie’s brother suffers as a renegade shadow. 

As usual, Shadecraft #5 sustains its effort to impact readers with shock. A detailed plot summary would have given away these surprises, both broad and small-scale. Keeping major story beats shockwaves undisclosed will pay off for readers who find themselves curious about Shadecraft after reading this review. If the first issue feels minorly predictable, readers will assuredly never anticipate those last page cliffhangers that left me slack-jawed every month. 

This fifth issue wraps up loose ends well while seeding in hints of later storylines, patiently biding their time in the shadows. Although no major cliffhanger awaits at Shadecraft #5’s conclusion, revelations about Zadie’s mom enkindle emotional potency, and worrisome questions arise concerning the physical and mental toll using Shadecraft abilities produces. The epic battle is fought, and tensions between Zadie and her exploitative enemies come to a head. Yet, Henderson and the creative team evidence that Zadie’s skirmishes encompassed in her Shadecraft power are far from over. Shadecraft humorously teaches lessons about family and forgiveness in an intoxicating supernatural narrative that will leave you side-eyeing your own shadow.