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What are we up to? 12/16/2022

As the year winds to a close I inevitably fall waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyy behind on timely posts. So that must mean it’s time for some capsule reviews!

Long Live the Pumpkin Queen – Shea Ernshaw
Shortly after her wedding to Jack Skellington, Sally is overwhelmed by her new duties as Pumpkin Queen. Seeking to find solace she retreats to the grove of doors where she stumbles across a broken door hidden in the bramble. She opens it and sees nothing, but neglects to close the door inadvertently releasing the Sandman. Soon all of Halloween Town is asleep except for Sally. Unable to wake her friends, Sally looks for help in the other Holiday Towns.

With the fantastic tagline “The nightmare didn’t end after Christmas…”, this sequel to Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is told from Sally’s perspective and takes several twists and turns you won’t see coming. This is a darker story than the original movie, but Ernshaw has a lot of fun with her descriptions and stays true to the characters.

Sally makes for a winning heroine, given much more autonomy than she had in the movie. With the focus firmly on her, we get a better idea of why she loves Jack, as well as the life she lived before the events of the movie. Never do we forget that Sally is a living doll and her own inner life is very much based on that fact.

As are many of the twists in the story. This is well worth picking up for fans of the movie and I would love to see a sequel come to the screen based on Long Live the Pumpkin Queen. Hey Disney, take a break from over-saturating the MCU and get on this!

The Half-Life of Valery K – Natasha Pulley
I have been on a Natasha Pulley kick all year after discovering the brilliant The Kingdoms. The Half-Life of Valery K is fiction based on an actual place. The place is City 40, a top-secret Soviet reactor and radiation testing center. City 40 was only recently declassified and much of what went on there is still shrouded in mystery. This is a complex story with even more complicated characters inhabiting it.

Valery Kolkhanov of the title is sent to City 40 to finish out the remainder of his 10-year prison sentence. His crime? He’s an academic who studied in Berlin. This is the Soviet Union in 1963, paranoia is at an all-time high, and soon Valery discovers the radiation levels around City 40 are far too high to be anything but remnants of an explosion. The novel is tense and fraught, with an unlikely romance at the center between the fractured Valery and the stern KBG agent in charge of City 40 security, Sekhov.

This story is different from Pulley’s previous novels. The story itself and the details Pulley sprinkles throughout are what really make it great. She sells the grinding, matter-of-fact oppression of Soviet life in a way that I think most westerners now have either forgotten or just never were exposed to.

House of Hunger – Alexis Henderson
Think Dickens meets gothic horror in a fantasy setting. The nobles of the north believe drinking blood is a tonic to heal many ailments, also they just enjoy the taste. To supply that blood they turn to young women who are promised to retire lavishly when their service is over after 7 years. Marion escapes life in the slums to join the House of Hunger and a twisted sisterhood with her fellow bloodmaids and the enigmatic Countess Liset Bathory.

The premise is excellent as is the world-building. Unfortunately, the last act feels rushed after the reveal of a late story twist. Where the similarly structured Mexican Gothic by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia found an even more thrilling gear in its finale, Henderson sets up her endgame and resolves it almost immediately.

This robs the novel of building tension and feels like a lost opportunity to unleash the long hinted-at mayhem. House of Hunger is worth reading for its twist on Dracula and the legend of Elizabeth Bathory. Just lower your expectations from the hype.

Limitless (Disney+)

This National Geographic limited docuseries stars Chris Hemsworth as he investigates various ways to extend the human lifespan. The series was created by Darren Aronofsky and visually is one of the more impressive series of the year. In each of the six episodes, Chris is faced with a challenge he must overcome highlighting one of the ways to extend life.

For instance, the first episode deals with stress and how engaging in stressful physical activities can actually benefit us. So Chris Hemsworth is tasked with taking a walk on a crane platform seventy stories off the ground. In another on fasting, Chris is challenged to perform a four-day fast. Along the way Chris, and the viewer, learn from experts in their field explaining physiologically how and why the techniques they are advocating work.

Chris Hemsworth makes for a charming host and does a nice job bursting the superhero bubble showing just how much hard work and discipline goes into his Marvel-ready physique. His family members including his wife Elsa Pataky and brothers Liam and Luke Hemsworth also are featured from time to time on the limited series. Limitless is an entertaining show that goes to surprising places, getting surprisingly serious and introspective by the finale.

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