December Staff Picks

My wife, Jenna, and I are huge fans of the show Monk. Not only is the first of our therapy rabbits named Trudy, after Detective Adrian Monk’s deceased wife, but the original show was a gateway for me to destigmatize the conversation around my OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). I felt awkward when I’d spend up to fifteen minutes locking a door, checking the oven or light switches before leaving, or trying to step away from an ATM. Before I went on medication, it would sometimes take up to an hour to lock up before leaving for the day.

The original Monk series mirrored the daily work that went into addressing my mental health, and watching the show was a guide post for us to see a famous detective evolving as he put the work in through therapy and solving cases. Needless to say, we were extremely excited about Mr. Monk’s Last Case dropping on Peacock.

In the original run of the show, Tony Shalhoub brought care and compassion to the lead character of this mystery/dramedy which ran on the USA Network for eight seasons. Over the years, viewers witnessed Monk move towards two goals—getting reinstated into the police force and solving his wife’s murder. The original series had an emotional and satisfying ending to both of these accomplishments along with Monk’s character growth.

The tv movie brought back original characters and also introduced the reality of COVID-19. Specifically, how the pandemic set back Monk’s progress in therapy and how the world became a little more aligned with Monk’s mindset. Mr. Monk’s Last Case also went deeper into mental health than the original series, addressing the importance of having a purpose in life as part of the therapeutic process. Especially since COVID-19 and other events have taken away Monk’s purpose. This tv movie explored Monk finding a way to function in society and choosing to engage with others to achieve this goal. I do wish to put a trigger warning as Monk does face suicidal ideation, but i’m recommending Mr. Monk’s Last Case also because of how it deals with suicide awareness. This tv movie is not so much Adrian Monk’s last case, but the next chapter in his life.

Cecil Janecek

Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Lonely Castle in the Mirror ends in a way that feels perfectly inevitable, and yet the novel still managed to surprise me. Mizsuki Tsujimura masterfully keeps the reader on edge, questioning whether this is a heartwarming coming of age story or a fantastical horror. In the novel, seven teens—who’ve all stopped going to school for one reason or another—are chosen by the Wolf Queen to search for the Wishing Key, which will grant one of them a single miracle. Even if they choose not to search for it, they’ll still have access to the castle for one year as a respite from the “real world.” But if they break the Wolf Queen’s one rule—never enter the castle after 5 p.m.—they’ll be eaten.

As the teens’ lives get more complicated and strange coincidences continue to connect them, they begin to question the Wolf Queen’s motivations and their realities. I, too, began to worry that the book would employ my least favorite trope: at the end of the adventure, everyone would forget and return to their normal lives as if nothing had happened. But no! The Wolf Queen’s secrets gutted me to tears and the found family among these seven traumatized teens connected them in ways I never anticipated, but found completely satisfying by the end.

JP Legarte

Alan Wake II

As writers, I don’t think we would deny the power words hold, but what if the stories we wrote manifested in our environment and altered reality? Enter Alan Wake II, a survival horror game where FBI agent Saga Anderson arrives in a small town called Bright Falls to investigate a ritualistic murder and finds pages of a manuscript titled Return that detail events as they happen—a manuscript written by the titular character, Alan Wake, stuck in an alternate dimension named the Dark Place for the past thirteen years.

Throughout the game, you can alternate between both characters, leading to situations where progressing through one character’s chapter fills in the blanks of the other. As Anderson, you traverse the isolated alcoves of Bright Falls and the vast forest of Cauldron Lake; and as Wake, you navigate a twisted version of New York. These locations were symmetric blends of beauty and eeriness, magnified when monsters—the Taken and Fadeouts—constantly haunt the characters and when, at times, the monsters are the characters’ own fears.

Anderson and Wake are certainly not defenseless against the Taken and Fadeouts. Players can obtain numerous weapons, such as a shotgun, a crossbow, and a flare gun. However, they are ineffective on their own, which brings me to one of my favorite parts of the combat system. Equally important are the batteries for flashlights as well as hand flares, both used to diffuse the shadows and darkness protecting the Taken and Fadeouts. This mechanic emphasizes the importance of resources in the characters’ limited inventories. Heightening the combat is the claustrophobic feeling when multiple monsters attack at locations where there is not much room to maneuver, offering a challenging yet rewarding fight against darkness with light, metaphorically and literally.

Alan Wake II is a horror story that brings you to the edge of your seat as you contend with supernatural scares and shifting realities. There’s even a musical sequence in one of Wake’s chapters that was an absolute masterpiece in mixed visuals, sound, and—yes—combat. If you’re still not convinced, consider the game’s accolades at The Game Awards 2023: Best Art Direction, Best Narrative, and Best Game Direction. Rest assured, I’ll soon be replaying the game through its rendition of New Game Plus titled The Final Draft, falling down the familiar yet changed rabbit hole with Anderson and Wake all over again.

A Review of A Tide Should Be Able to Rise Despite Its Moon by Jessica Bell

When I first received my copy of A Tide Should Be Able to Rise Despite Its Moon by Jessica Bell, I was taken aback by its lightness—its thin pages, unadorned vocabulary, occasional playfulness, and digestible plethora of one-page poems. Despite that, Bell packs so much feeling, admission, and sincerity in the conciseness of this collection without dancing around the messages she desires to communicate. Threading motherhood and everyday life with the string of struggle on a personal and larger level, the character of the boy becomes central, often directly modeled after Bell’s own son, who inspired her to write this assemblage of poetry, her first in almost a decade. As the boy becomes the mother’s world, so too, does the larger world fluctuate to introduce moments of uncertainty and reflection that pervade this collection of untitled poems. 

That intersection of boy and world emerges from the very beginning. The first poem opens with a peaceful image of nature as a one-line stanza: “A breath of earth hides in shallow water.” But then, the breath can’t hide for long, as Bell writes in the following stanza, “A small boy disrupts its peace as he plucks it / from its bed of black sand / to use as a skipping stone.” Already the boy acts as a force of change. As the skipping stone skids across the body of water, the presence of the mother and father introduces itself later in the poem, but not in the physical sense. In fact, Bell writes, “It lands next to a shell / that shimmers with the dreams / of the boy’s mother and father. // They dreamed he would live in the colours / of a rainbow, and smile. // The boy looks up. // The clouds part.” The connection between boy and world and an accompanying shift reappears in the clouds’ response, but in this final moment of innocence, the uncertainty of the dreams sunken in the water (though it shimmers) lasts beyond the end of the poem. This poem sets up the rest of the book well by encompassing what Bell seeks to explore: the seemingly small, in-between moments of life that hold in their gravity the uprooting of change and the lessons that follow.

Take, for example, the poem on page 30, a poem where the boy is not present, but his attitude and perspective are. Bell begins by writing, “Yucca leaf shadows / spread like fingers / across the balcony. // They yearn for sunshine / and stretch their limbs / toward the scorching light.” With the personification of the yucca leaf shadows, a sense of childlike curiosity exists in the way they grow on the balcony and tend toward the light. Bell eventually establishes tension in the second half of the poem when she writes, “In summer the balcony drowns in shadows, / but not human ones. / In winter it longs to be stroked again, / with their feather-like souls. // Sometimes, / I try to cast mine. // But the trees seem confused, / and the dragon flowers hide.” The speaker shows the same attitude of curiosity when she, too, seeks to cast her shadow as if it were a game, almost a tug-of-war with the yucca leaf shadows. This game, however, fades away due to a lesson remembered in the last stanza: “Humans and nature / are not great collaborators.” Such is an example of how Bell sustains the voice of experience amidst change. 

For poems like the aforementioned, risk abounds in the absence of the son, and the poem may feel disconnected from the rest of the collection. Even with the noticeable, sporadic detachment of a select few poems (like one that focuses on writing after drinking red wine), vulnerability blankets each piece. Bell achieves this through simple, clear language that spotlights her reflections and emotions. The potency of this vulnerability and the structure of some of the poems contribute to the feeling that we readers embody the role of a close friend. The simplicity and clarity of the language never wavers, which left me wondering about missed opportunities for experimentation with more complex language and sentence structures to mirror the intricate reflections lying underneath the surface of each moment. This language, then, can lean toward being too safe, familiar—even occasionally cliché—but this simultaneously nurtures the vulnerability and the reality of motherhood and sheer humanity that is the backbone of Bell and this book. After all, who can deny the love evident in the following lines of the poem on page 49: “He turns to face the window, / pressing his cheek / to my breast. / His baby smell a memory. / Or perhaps…not just yet.”

A Tide Should Be Able to Rise Despite Its Moon fully displays a mother’s honest love as it contends with her growing son, a changing world, and her shifting attitudes and beliefs. While the language left me wanting, this collection of poems still proves resonant in its weaving of themes and emotions, which brings me to a reflection on the book’s front cover. The boy, the sun, and the tidal waves are not as separate as I initially thought. All three rise and fall in one way or another, and they keep doing so as time passes, highlighting a type of change that is more patient, alluding to the little moments that build this change. In the poem on page 41, Bell understands this fact when she writes, “How long does it take / to live in the moment? // One second.” The following question might be, “Do we ourselves understand this?”