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Matt Hickey

When Matt Hickey was a boy, he found reading unbearable and had to convince himself he was reading about vampires to finish any book at all. Sometimes, this still does the trick. Now he's a librarian at the Loch Raven Branch and spends his time as you might expect: drawing, practicing ukulele and hunting the Goatman of Prince George's County. 

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Matt H.

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

posted by: May 22, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for My Favorite Thing Is MonstersIt’s surprising when a debut book is a masterpiece, but here we are. My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris arrives perfect and out of nowhere. A graphic novel about a werewolf girl investigating a murder in 1960’s Chicago, it’s a new classic, reminiscent of other identity-driven comics such as Fun Home, Maus and Persepolis. Maybe Swamp Thing too.

 

The story begins in a tiny Chicago apartment, where 10-year-old Karen Reyes has turned into a werewolf. Or at least she thinks she has. Whether Karen’s werewolfism is real or metaphorical is left up to the reader, but one thing’s for sure: Karen loves her monsters. She sees them everywhere. Her upstairs neighbor looks as wrinkled as an Egyptian mummy. Her classmate’s facial scars resemble Frankenstein’s monster. And when she tries to imagine what he looks like, her absent father takes the shape of the Invisible Man.

 

Karen’s gothic imagination draws her into the murder investigation of her upstairs neighbor, Anka, a Holocaust survivor with a mysterious past. But along the way, her detective story turns into an investigation of identity. Karen is beginning to realize that she is a lesbian, and as she encounters other people that society regards as outsiders, she begins to understand the difficulties that she is going to face. It might sound sad, but make no mistake: Karen is tough as nails, and her identification with monsters is never portrayed as any kind of self-loathing. Remember, to a certain kind of kid, being a monster is the coolest thing in the world! Monsters don’t want acceptance. They’re empowered and interesting and full of stories. Monsters are the ones worth listening to.

 

It’s hard to imagine a richer book coming out this year. My Favorite Thing is Monsters feels like an accumulation of lifelong obsessions: horror movies, art history, EC comics, Holocaust narratives and a childhood spent in Civil Rights-era Chicago. Somehow Ferris has brought them all together into a page-turning murder mystery. Who knows how.


 
 

Universal Harvester

posted by: May 15, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for Universal HarvesterPrimarily known as a musician, John Darnielle has hidden his literary chops in plain sight through his narratively dense lyrics in The Mountain Goats and a consistently sharp-witted presence on Twitter. But after the success of his first novel Wolf in White Van, Darnielle has announced himself as an impressive novelist in his own right.

 

Darnielle’s new novel Universal Harvester introduces us to a strange mystery surrounding a video rental store. Jeremy is a 22-year-old sales clerk at the Video Hut who appears to be riding the clock on his days, avoiding commitments toward a career or college, but this rudderless existence masks a deep hurt caused by the recent death of his mother in a car accident. Now, his existence revolves around the shared comfort of quiet frozen dinners with his father and little else. This routine gets upset when customers begin complaining to Jeremy about strange scenes appearing in the rentals. Disturbing footage of people tied up in sheds and masked individuals abusing their captives, spliced randomly into harmless fair like She’s All That. Jeremy’s investigation into these crimes finds him pulled into the orbit of strange rituals and bizarre organizations, ultimately leading to a confrontation with the trauma he’s been avoiding.

 

Set in the '90s (as you probably guessed by VHS being back in style), the novel is written in clean and precise prose that is endlessly inventive. One of the neatest inventions of the novel is the narrator, a mysterious party with a secret to hide. They seem strangely omniscient, speculating about alternate paths and choices the characters could have made, while dropping sinister hints about their involvement in the story. It gives the novel a sense of impending tragedy that elevates its most languid moments. Pop-culture obsessives will enjoy the deluge of references to film and '90s ephemera, but fans of white-knuckle thrillers like Gone Girl will find themselves pulled in by the mounting suspense of Darnielle’s narrative.

 


 
 

Shirley Jackson

posted by: April 3, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted LifeAlthough many readers still retain mental scars from Shirley Jackson’s chilling story The Lottery, fewer are familiar with the woman who wrote it. For those readers, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life tells the story of one of America’s most controversial and tragically short-lived authors.

 

Who is Shirley Jackson? Even her fans can’t agree on that. Was she a serious writer of literary fiction such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle? Was she a practicing witch who wrote ghost stories like The Haunting of Hill House? Or was she the musing housewife who wrote humorous essays like Life Among the Savages? This fractured identity would suit one of her characters, who were often women pushed to their mental limits by society. And Jackson was not without her demons. She felt the judgment of others sharply — her two most vocal critics were her mother and her husband, which unfortunately would lead to her agoraphobia late in life. But Franklin’s biography doesn’t make the mistake of confusing Jackson with her characters. Instead, it presents her as a modern master whose talents harnessed, but were not indebted to, her demons.

 

Franklin’s book is not without it’s shades of light. We’re also treated to samples of the cartoons that Jackson drew of herself and others (yet another side of her creativity) and stories of Jackson’s troublemaking sense of humor (she would frequently present herself as a witch to the press and claim to have cast spells on critics of her work). It’s a biography worthy of one of America’s best and most debated writers. And it pairs well with The Lottery: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation, a visual retelling of her most famous story by artist Miles Hyman, Jackson’s grandson.


 
 

Lincoln in the Bardo

posted by: February 8, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for Lincoln in the BardoIn the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln’s youngest son Willie Lincoln was laid to rest. Newspapers from the time report seeing the President visit his son’s crypt in the night to cradle the boy’s body. Departing from this real historical event, Lincoln in the Bardo, MacArthur Fellow George Saunders’ first novel, is a moving journey through the netherworld and a meditation on what it means to love what you cannot hold.

 

In a Georgetown cemetery, the spirit of Willie Lincoln refuses to move on, instead arriving in a strange place called the “Bardo,” a dizzying state between life and death where the dead refuse to believe that they’re dead. There, spirits replay past events and undergo strange transformations in their struggle to cling to the world. The arrival of Willie upends this delicate world, particularly the visits from his father, who is the first living being the dead have seen in years.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo is written in a style unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s narrated by characters who speak in turn like a play, some of whom are from real historical sources such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and some of whom are ghosts. I found myself re-reading the first few chapters, not quite sure of what I was getting into, but once I adjusted to the unusual style, the novel was accessible, fast-paced and binge-worthy.

 

Saunders has created a historical novel that flirts with fantasy and sacrifices, features his readers have come to love. Fans of his comic imagination, Vonnegut-esque inventiveness and blunt sensitivity will find his talents are on full display.

 

Anyone who enjoyed The Underground Railroad’s inventive approach to American history will find much to love, but Lincoln in the Bardo is sure to ensnare adventurous readers of all kinds.

 


 
 

The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo

posted by: January 9, 2017 - 7:00am

The Creepy Case Files of Margot MalooEverything that’s new is scary when you’re a kid. Everyone remembers how hard it is to try new food, make new friends or move to new places. But what if you found out that your new neighbors really were monsters? That’s where Charles finds himself in Drew Weing’s excellent all-ages story The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo.

 

Charles is a conservative kid. Like really conservative. He even has his own conspiracy blog. He hates foreign food, art museums, opera and he especially hates the monster that lives in his closet. No one believes it’s real, but luckily Charles meets someone who does: monster expert Margo Maloo. Together they journey into the troll’s lair, expecting to “take him out,” but in a surprise twist, Margo knows him! His name’s Marcus. He’s actually a pretty cool guy.

 

It turns out that Margo is more of a monster mediator than a monster hunter. This means that sometimes she helps kids get rid of monsters, but more often it’s the other way around. We discover that monsters of the city have their own secret community whose way of life is under constant threat from encroaching humans. As Margo drags Charles along on a number of adventures involving these friendly neighborhood ghosts, goblins and ogres, he learns to be more open-minded toward his new and scary neighbors.

 

Inspired by '70s kid lit like Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The Cricket in Times Square, Margo Maloo is an imaginative mystery comic with a strong message of empathy. To stay up to date on Margo’s whereabouts, make sure you follow her faithful assistant Charles F. Thompson on Twitter.


 
 

Ghosts

posted by: December 12, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for GhostsMany readers will be surprised to learn that Raina Telgemeier is one of the most successful graphic novelists working today. Her comics may not be the stuff of spectacular blockbuster movie adaptations, but she has an uncanny eye for the subtleties of school age friendships, romantic relationships and the pain of braces (which hits especially close to home for me). She connects with readers — especially young ones — and this has led to her books outselling popular comics like The Walking Dead or whichever superhero book Marvel or DC are pushing this week. Telgemeier outpaces them with personal, self-contained stories about children and, with her new book Ghosts, Telgemeier has taken yet another step forward as a storyteller. Retaining her signature warmth and breezy humor, her subjects now include death, family illness and ghosts.

 

Ghosts follows a family who’s just moved to Bahía de la Luna, a seaside town whose ocean air is especially good for Maya, the youngest daughter who has cystic fibrosis. But the protagonist of the story is Catrina, Maya’s older teenage sister.

 

Maya is a classic child, silly and wise. She has a peace with the world that’s hard to retain when you become Catrina’s age. But Bahía de la Luna is not your average town, and the girls begin spotting ghosts and real-life spooky, scary skeletons. Maya has questions for the ghosts, but Catrina is terrified of them and the uncomfortable feelings they stir up about her sister’s health. Through many lessons, Catrina will learn that inviting ghosts into her life may be the healthiest thing she can do.

 

Ghosts is the perfect all-ages read, full of beautiful landscapes, cartoonish humor and wisdom. Leave it to Telgemeier to take the heaviest of subject matter and make it jovial.

 


 
 

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

posted by: November 1, 2016 - 7:00am

Chilling Adventures of SabrinaMeet Sabrina Spellman. She’s the new girl at school, dealing with the typical problems of dating, peer pressure and trying to get a part in the school play. But now that she’s turning 16, she faces an even more important rite of passage — signing her name in the Devil’s book. Wait, what? Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and illustrator Robert Hack embraces historical depictions of witchcraft, goat sacrifices and all, in its depiction of the usually jolly witch from Archie Comics. So ’90s nostalgists beware: This Sabrina resembles Melissa Joan Hart about as much as Melissa Joan Hart resembles Black Phillip from the film The Witch.

 

This companion series to the similarly horrific Afterlife with Archie is just as satisfying but more subtle and psychological, with allusions to Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury in place of Sam Raimi and George Romero. But both series deserve to be read if for no other reason than they’re the only horror stories that you can read and witness the characters being traumatized or mutilated, and then go and can revisit with the original Archie and his gang getting ice cream and having a swell time as a chaser in the Archie Superstar series.

 

This collection also includes a reprint of the original Madam Satan series from the ’40s in which the title character seduces men and kills them with a kiss, while an angelic monk on a donkey attempts to thwart her from leading men away from the path of righteousness. It really is something. You’d think an old man on a donkey isn’t quite the hard sell that a supernaturally attractive bride of Satan is, but you’d be surprised.


 
 

A Natural History of Hell

posted by: October 18, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for A Natural History of HellIn Jeffrey Ford’s new collection A Natural History of Hell, there is such a variety of creepiness and at such different comfort levels that I feel I should offer a travel guide to whoever reads this book. Something like:

 

  1. Here lie straight creeps.

  2. Here’s one night’s lost sleep.

  3. If you read this story you’ll only be able to eat bananas, rice and applesauce for a week.

But for those with an appetite and a broad palate for horror, there’s not likely to be a better book this year.

Many of these stories take place sometime in a Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque past, or other liminal areas where bizarre traditions overtake common sense. The opening story “The Blameless” sets the table, with a couple receiving an invitation to a neighborhood girl’s exorcism. Surprisingly, the couple finds their neighbors celebrating the supposed banishing of a demon with the small-portioned enthusiasm of a bat mitzvah.
 
Elsewhere, Ford ably glides between genre lines. Some of his stories don’t seem like horror at all until he drops the floor out from under you. For instance, in “The Angel Seems,” an angel comes to a small village offering protection. For a while, the story resembles Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” and then it turns and you realize it’s been re-written by Clive Barker.

There are also ghost stories, fantasies with dark wizards and even a story about gun control if monsters aren’t scary enough for you. Ford’s use of imagery and violence is implemented masterfully and tastefully throughout, creating an experience that is less like a horror movie than a nightmare weighted with meaning. Have fun!

 


 
 

The Books of Luke Cage

posted by: October 4, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Little GreenIn the homogenous world of superhero film and television, everyone expected Netflix’s Luke Cage to be exceptional, but no one could have predicted the pure unadulterated joy that is Luke’s barbershop book club discussions with Pop. Luke is the well-read hero we deserve.

 

In the comics, Luke has been a leader of the Avengers, Heroes for Hire and even married Jessica Jones, but what he hasn’t been for 30 plus years is a solo act. So to craft a show around Luke that doesn’t involve Spider-Man, Iron Fist or Jessica Jones dropping by, the creators took inspiration from the world of detective fiction. Here are some of the many books and authors referenced in the new Netflix series.

 

“Donald Goines was a street poet."

 

Pop’s favorite detective hero is Donald Goines’ character Kenyatta, “the best black hero this side of Shaft” who fights to rid the streets of drug dealers and racist cops. Criminal Partners is the first book in the series.

 

“So you’re saying Kenyatta is better than Easy Rawlins?”

 

Easy Rawlins is the humble Vietnam vet who prefers to keep a low profile and get paid under the table while solving crimes in his community. He’s the best detective novel hero period, and I’m proud to claim him as a fellow Houstonian. Little Green by Walter Mosley is the book Luke is seen reading in episode two.

 

“George Pelecanos? Boom.”

 

Pelecanos was a writer for The Wire, a show that Luke Cage shares more than a few similarities (and actors) with. Right as Rain is the first book in his Derek Strange and Terry Quinn detective series, following two detectives fighting systemic racism in the police force.

 

Elsewhere, Chester Himes, Harry Bosch and Dennis Lehane get shout outs. Which books did you spot? Let us know in the comments.


 
 

Hot Dog Taste Test

posted by: August 24, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Hot Dog Taste TestLisa Hanawalt’s new graphic novel Hot Dog Taste Test is a collection of pieces mostly written for the culinary magazine Lucky Peach, but as you probably guessed by the title, Hanawalt’s idea of foodie culture is more casually absurd than you’d expect.

 

Primarily known for co-creating and designing the characters on Bojack Horseman, Hanawalt has proven herself to be a singular cartoonist as well as a humorist. Simultaneously low-brow and fantastically clever, she comes across like a more wizened version of the kid at the back of the classroom. The one you shouldn’t call on if you don’t want her to derail the entire lecture.

 

Through her eyes (and her Dumb Dirty Eyes), the world is a vulgar, illogical place — and just a shade surreal. In lush watercolors, she illustrates a hot dog eating contest that also includes a “best in show” section where hot dogs are led around on leashes by their owners. She also explores millennial insecurities like aging and irresponsibility (“Wow, I’m four times as old as you!” she says to an 8-year-old.), while also totally owning the fact that if she had a time machine all of her historical research would be toilet related.

 

Fans of Bojack Horseman will enjoy her anthropomorphized animal characters like Tuca, Lisa’s socially anxious toucan persona who struggles to prepare dinners that are basically “bananas and ranch,” and others will enjoy her keen eye and wicked sense of humor. Just don’t take her cooking advice. You’ve been warned.


 
 

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