2023 First Quarter Stacked
Despite the fact that my first read of the year was a major, super gross dud, I’ve read so many amazing books during the first few months of 2023! I almost didn’t want to include that crappy one in this list; I’d rather not review “bad” books (believe it or not, I like to say nice things!), but because it was actually the first book I chose to read this year, I do feel an obligation to disclose that yes I read it and to share my few thoughts.
So how am I doing with my goal to read 200 books in 2023? I’d say it’s going along pretty well–I have read, in total, 55 books in this first January-March quarter. Everything counts, from wordy novels to audiobooks to single-issue comics. And it’s a lot to get to, let alone write about afterward, so I’m not reviewing everything I read. For posterity’s sake, I am at least listing all of the titles below, and if it affected me enough to write about, or maybe more importantly, if I remembered it well enough to write about, you’ll find a review for it.
Gothic by Phillip Francassi Were you a young horror fan in the 80s? Did you cut your teeth on stories full of misogyny and the male gaze and jam-packed with sexual violence? Do you long for times when stories were just, you know, a lot rapey-er? If so, Philip Fracassi’s story of an ancient evil lurking in a cursed desk and the washed-up horror author who falls prey to its thrall is definitely going to tickle your disgusting fancy, you disgusting piece of shit. Crawl back into your hole and read this gross, awful book, I guess.
The Spite House by Johnny Compton Eric and his two daughters, Dessa and Stacy, are on the run, skipping from town to town, taking odd and dangerous jobs, and generally just evading…something. Eric finds a situation that could mean a lucrative payout for him, thus ensuring the safety and security of his girls, even though this strange situation is anything but safe or secure. He has applied to live for a time in a possibly haunted house…a spite house. Which I had never even heard of until I read this story, but look them up; they’re a thing. His employer? An old woman who has a vested interest in the property for reasons of her own, reasons which hinge on his findings. I found myself rooting for the family and compelled by the story, which, while I don’t think I have read anything quite like this story, it wasn’t really breaking any new ground, either. Not quite “just another haunted house story,” but …close enough.(
Burn the Negative by Josh Winning I do have a soft spot in my heart for horror novels about fictional horror movies, and Burn the Negative is twisty-plotted and swiftly paced, with compelling, and cinematic elements as if it were already an actual movie itself! Laura, a former child actor renowned for her role in a cult fan-favorite but “cursed” horror film where tragedy befell almost everyone involved, has escaped her life of traumatized childhood stardom and now makes her living as a journalist in England. As luck would have it, though, she is sent on assignment back to LA to cover a reboot of the scary movie that made her famous. And once again, people start dying in horrific ways that correspond with the script. I read Burn the Negative while also reading Jeannette McCurdie’s I’m Glad My Mom died. There were so many interesting parallels with regard to the horrors of child stardom, especially the mentally unstable mothers obsessed with Hollywood fame, celebrity, and perfection. Growing up in that kind of environment is horror story enough, never mind the murders and the slasher villain and the various supernatural/haunted/thriller aspects. But with this story, you get all of the above, and it’s a pretty intense ride.
Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno Garcia. Fans of Gemma File’s Experimental Film or Archive 81 on Netflix will love this one! In 1993 Mexico City, Montserrat is an audio editor deeply obsessed with old movies and horror films. She’s tough as nails and suffers no fools…except for her lifelong pal, Tristán, a film industry veteran himself with a soap career that has all but dried up, as well as a massive man-baby who is incredibly self-involved and all said, a pretty terrible friend. You spend most of this book wanting to punch him in his stupid face. Tristán and Montserrat become friendly with an old-timer who lives in Tristán’s building, the elusive but once-famous director, Abel Urueta. Abel draws them in with his Golden Age stories, and a general air of mystery that hints at the occult, and then convinces them both to assist him with a weird little project that involves dubbing strange lines over an unfinished old film. What ensues magic, menace, and mayhem in equal measures. I enjoyed the heck out of this romp, except for the final few pages. I won’t elaborate, but when you get there yourself, you’ll probably (?) understand and agree.
In Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang our unnamed narrator (which becomes a more and more interesting choice the further into the story we delve) is a former musician of formidable talent, who has abandoned her passion for the piano after her beloved parents are in a terrible accident. The story opens as she is struggling in NYC, living in a cruddy basement apartment with crappy roommates, barely eking out a living, let alone earning enough money to pay for her parent’s rehab facility. She is then offered the opportunity to work at Holistik, a boutique selling wildly coveted, expensive–and perhaps experimental– products and services to beauty, age, and wellness-obsessed celebrities. The story is a beautiful meditation on grief, and family, and beauty itself. And while it skewers the cult of beauty in a surreal and, I might even say satirical way –it also it feels utterly, gorgeously sincere. The writing is lyrical but it doesn’t veer purple. And the story is at turns beautiful, horribly grotesque, and very sad. If you like the imaginative strangeness of Mona Awad’s books, the crusty, bodily grossness of Otessa Moshfegh, or if you enjoyed the weirdness and WTFery of A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan then you may dig this one. Magical realism, alternate reality, speculative fiction? I don’t know what you call these stories, but if you gravitate toward books like this, Natural Beauty will be a favorite.
The Woods Are Waiting by Katherine Greene. I was pretty excited about this book; theoretically, it sounded like a great idea, and initially, I thought it ticked all of my boxes: the superstitious and isolated small town, the sinister traditions and local legends involving evil entities, basically all of the folk horror kind of stuff that I usually love. But getting through this story was a struggle and a slog. I didn’t enjoy getting to know the characters, and it didn’t help that the perspective kept switching between them. I couldn’t muster any interest in a single one of them or what they were going through. And the plot itself just moved so agonizingly slow. I found myself switching out to another book to reenergize my brain, and more and more frequently, I found that I dreaded the thought of even switching back to The Woods Are Waiting. Eventually, I stopped trying, and so I imagine this book will probably remain unfinished.
Dead of Winter by Darcy Coates grips you from page one with an intensity that may not allow you to catch your breath again before turning the final page. In this story, a group of strangers is traveling via a private tour to a remote resort in the snowy wilderness when they are stalled along their journey by a felled tree across the road. The book opens with our main character Christa and her fiance Kiernan attempting to find their way back to the bus after taking a short hike to stretch their legs after the long ride. Lost in the rough weather and whiteout conditions, they become separated, and next thing you know, Christa topples off a ledge and is buried under the snow. She awakes, injured, in a cabin, surrounded by the other passengers on the bus. As the story unfolds, we learn just enough about the other characters in the claustrophobic confines of the cabin to realize that no one is trustworthy and may, in fact, be rather treacherous–which they discover as, one by one, members of the group are each brutally murdered. Are these strangers really strangers to one another, or are they brought together by design? What is it that ties them all together, and will any of them remain alive to learn the truth? Caveat: while I did enjoy the story, I did piece together what was happening pretty early on. I don’t know if it’s because the twist was fairly obvious, or if I’ve read enough of these stories to look for the clues, but the clues–they are there. Even so, I was riveted from beginning to end.
Graveyard of Lost Children by Katrina Monroe. Part mystery/horror/psychological drama with themes of intergenerational trauma and the various things you can thank your family for–such as a genetic propensity for mental illness or inherited curses and the likelihood that your baby will be swapped for a changeling–and told from two different mother/daughter perspectives and timelines, Graveyard of Lost Children is an eerie, unsettling story of motherhood, madness, and myth. It was a bit of a slow burn, which isn’t always a bad thing, but the pacing felt a little weird, picking up and quite suddenly zooming toward an ending. An ending that felt strangely frustrating. (But if I’ve enjoyed the journey, a sour ending isn’t a huge deterrent for me, and I did find it a very hard book to put down once I got started–for what it’s worth!)
The Drift by CJ Tudor is a book I finished in the course of a day. I began it with my morning coffee, devoured it on my lunch break, and read desperately late into the evening, keeping me up way past my bedtime because I was so keen on discovering what it was all leading up to. An addictive, adrenaline-filled story of three separate groups of people suffering dire circumstances and carnage while trying to reach a place called the Retreat in the midst of a horrifying viral outbreak. This uniquely structured story was brutal, twisty, and intense, and it blew the top of my head right off!
The Puzzle Master by Danielle Trussoni There were so many interesting facets to The Puzzle Master— history and lore, mysticism and technology, puzzles and porcelain, and creepy antique dolls (my favorite thing in the world!) — that I don’t even know where to begin. So I’ll start by saying that if you like the idea of this particularly esoteric combination of ideas, entangled in a thriller, interwoven with the supernatural, you’ll enjoy this story. Mike, a man with an exceedingly rare medical condition involving patterns and puzzles, experiences a strangely deep and profound connection with Jess, a woman serving prison time for murder, and they are drawn into an ancient–and dangerous– mystery. Aside from the romantic aspect of the story, which I never love in any story, this was right up my alley and a great deal of fun. If you are not a fan of purple prose or a flowery turn of phrase, you’ll appreciate the direct, uncomplicated tone and writing style here. I found this a bit weird because I recall Trussoni’s The Ancestor being a bit more descriptive, with more ornate prose and poetic language. But The Puzzle Master reads more like a fast-paced, pulpy mid-century men’s adventure story. I’ll have to read more from this author to get a more complete sense of their range, I suppose.
White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link is everything I love about dreams, fairytales, and stories told by imaginative misfits and oddballs, shaken, stirred, and served up with a twist and a flourish in a teacup spilling with the wildest, most wondrous nonsense. These are tales you think you know–ballads, lore, bedtime stories you barely remember– but turned inside out and upside down and unraveled and zigzag-patchwork-rebound until they are all but unrecognizable…and yet they still sing to something familiar in your blood. The twists, turns, and surprises are bizarre, sure–but they also feel beautifully and exquisitely inevitable. Kelly Link dreams up the weirdest of cozy, comfort reading, and I guess that’s where all my analogies of teacups and stitched quilts come from; these stories are pretty bonkers and follow only the logic of dreams…but for daydreamers, woolgatherers, stargazers–that’s our sweet spot, our safe space, our favorite place to be.
The Quiet Tenant by Clémence Michallon It’s unfair to say you wanted “more” from a book when you can’t articulate what “more” means or how that would look. But I wanted more from this story of trauma, survival, reclaiming one’s power, and most terrifyingly, the invisible power one exerts over generally sensible people simply by presenting a handsome, “good” and “normal” face to the world. At first blush, this was a riveting read. Multiple narrators: all of the women close to Aidan, a charming family man/pillar of the community/twisted serial killer–his captive “Rachel,” a woman he has kidnapped and inexplicably kept alive in a shed for the last five years; Cecelia, his teenage daughter who seemingly adores him; his new girlfriend Emily who obsesses about him constantly, and the myriad voices from beyond the grave of all women he has murdered. Strangely, we don’t hear the voice of his dead wife, which is a shame because I would have loved to have heard her POV. Early in the story, the setting shifts as Rachels goes from being chained up in a shed to being locked in a room in a new house, more-or-less in plain sight; Aidan has explained to his daughter that they have a tenant living with him. I found myself really rooting for “Rachel,” who has endured so much and is doing what she can to survive, to make it out of a hopeless situation alive and intact. (Along these lines, there is much in the way of sexual violence that is only hinted at in these pages, for which I was grateful. I found absolutely nothing gratuitous about any of it.) It’s hinted that Cecelia has secrets of her own, but that is maddeningly something that is never explored. And we don’t get much internal life, if any, from Aidan, so we have no idea what is driving these violent urges; we never learn the “why” of it. And on one hand, that’s fine–that’s often how it is in real life, too. We may never know what causes humans to act like monsters. But I feel these things–the dead wife’s POV, the daughter’s secrets, the killer’s motives, and backstory (even just a hint at something!)–might be the missing elements that would have made this story stronger and more impactful for me.
How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix. Don’t get me wrong; I always love a Grady Hendrix story. This one is about squabbling adult siblings left to deal with their recently deceased parents’ haunted and/or possessed home, and it was fine. And that synopsis isn’t exactly accurate, but to be any more specific would be giving too much away. Grady Hendrix is a funny guy, so it made me laugh (“Christian puppet ministries”? That alone is comedy gold, never mind the haunted taxidermied squirrel nativity!) And he knows how to craft emotionally compelling relationships and storylines, so the unresolved sibling dynamic and their finally-maybe connecting and coming to terms with each other made me cry, as well. It had some tense moments and pretty horrific imagery; it even grossed me out in some of the more brutal/gory scenes. And it had one of my FAVORITE spooky tropes. But it wasn’t very …scary? Then again, for me, Grady Hendrix falls more on the horror-comedy side of things, so I don’t know what I expected. And come to think of it, what has really scared me lately, horror novel-wise? I can’t think of a single title. So why am I expecting miracles from Grady Hendrix? That seems unfair. Maybe I didn’t want a scarier story. Maybe I don’t know what I want. How to Sell a Haunted House had a lot going for it, it was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it while I was reading it– but after the fact, it’s left me a little lackluster. But you know what? Don’t listen to me. I think, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if I loved the story solely for the duration of time that I read and immediately forgot it or if I adore it just as intensely decades later and can recite it word for word. I just love that this book even exists and that Grady Hendrix is here writing this weirdness in the same world that I happen to be living in.
What Have We Done by Alex Finlay Four friends, foster kids who bonded over trauma and secrets, are now being targeted as adults. Who can they trust, and how far-reaching are the ties of loyalty and friendship? Again, this was fine.
A Flicker In the Dark by Stacy Willingham Like The Quiet Tenant, a Flicker in the Dark is built around the theme of fathers and monsters and a placid facade masking the darkness and violence within. But you could almost say that A Flicker in the Dark begins where The Quiet Tenant ends. Chloe’s father is in prison for the murder of six teenage girls; the disappearances and murders occurred when she was a child, and ultimately, she was the one responsible for her father’s capture. As an adult, she has channeled all of her trauma and PTSD into her occupation as a successful psychologist, and she’s engaged to a handsome guy she’s wildly in love with. Things seem to be going well on the surface, but obviously, there are still a lot of unresolved issues, and she’s been self-medicating her guilt and paranoia for a long time–so when teenage girls start to go missing again, with a pattern very similar to her father’s crimes, it becomes immediately apparent how fragile a grasp she really has on her own life. For the most part, I enjoyed the story and its unexpected twists, but I found myself increasingly frustrated with Chloe and her decisions, and I literally started to hate her as she navigated her way through the unfolding drama.
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo. I utterly inhaled this book over the course of a day, but unfortunately, that was almost two months ago now, and I barely remember it. I suppose you might typically think of a smart, successful professor killing shitty dudes on campus as “unhinged,” but I don’t think I even once thought Scarlett was unhinged. Brilliant? Yes! Hilarious? Oh my gosh, for sure. Did I have to suspend some disbelief if I thought too much about how she got away with all of these murders for all of those years? Absolutely, but details, details. Whatever! I wanted a whole series of books about this snarky, beautiful vigilante taking out the male trash of the world! But in lieu of a more in-depth review (I remember how amazing the story made me feel, I had a smile that nearly split my face in two all through the reading of it, but at this point, I recall very few details), I will instead endeavor to find and read and immerse myself in more of Layne Fargo’s writing.
Rock, Paper, Scissors by Alice Feeney I’ll be honest with you, I don’t remember this one. There was a husband and a wife and a remote getaway and a twist that I thought was really stupid
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard It’s funny, I found this mystery involving gruesome murders, a grizzled detective, and a young eccentric cadet Edgar Allan Poe pretty lackluster, and for some reason I blame myself. Anyone else read this?
The Sensitive Plant by Percy Bysshe Shelley, with Illustrations by Charles Robinson. A fairytale-poem with gorgeous, distinctive artwork that I wrote more about here.
I have listened to more audiobooks in the last three months than I have in my entire life…and I’ve really been enjoying it! So I think the reason this has been working so well for me is that there are often books I check out from the library– books I’ve really been looking forward to! — except for whatever reason, they get pushed to the bottom of the stack, and I never get around to reading them. They’re books I really want to read…but maybe they’re not as high a priority as other titles. So they continually get returned unread. These are the books that I have been choosing to go with their audio versions, and it’s been working out really well!
Run Time by Catherine Ryan Howard. A struggling actress gets a last-minute offer to star in a horror film in a remote location, and spooky things begin to happen on set that mirror pieces of story in the script.
The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewel A woman learns she has inherited an abandoned flat in a posh neighborhood; she inherits the dark legacy, secrets, and mysteries of the former occupants as well.
The Pallbearer’s Club by Paul Tremblay Two friends and a memoir of the weirdness that happened between them. The weirdness is…really weird.
Stay Awake by Megan Goldin A woman wakes in the back of the taxi with no memory of how she got there. Nothing in her life is as she remembers, and every time she falls asleep, she forgets everything again. Also: murder.
The Maidens by Alex Michaelides A group therapist with a troubled past investigates a string of university student murders at her alma mater; her preoccupation with the past may blind her to what’s really going on.
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott A woman working in a research lab realizes that the new colleague joining the team is a former friend that she learned a chilling secret about in high school
The Honeys by Ryan LaSala At the Aspen Conservancy Summer Academy, Mars endeavors to solve the mystery of his beloved-though-estranged twin’s death by getting close to a group of rich, secretive mean girls known as “The Honeys.”
I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jeannette McCurdy Child actor struggles, fucked up mothers fucking up their kids.
Hide by Kiersten White Deadly hide-and-seek competition in an abandoned amusement park and there’s definitely reasons the chosen contestants are the type of people no one will miss.
Hawk Mountain by Conner Habib The resurfacing of a childhood bully throws the life of a small-town New England man looking for a fresh start into chaos. This book is frustratingly, almost unforgivably tense–and I loved that.
Okay, these are some books I read, and while a few of them were freaking amazing (I noted these with a string of *****), even the thought of trying to talk about why I loved them is exhausting. So what I’ve done is checked my kindle highlight notes and shared passages that either sum up the book for me or else, at least in one instance, I found amusing.
Don’t Fear The Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones: “Listen,” Jade tells her, readjusting herself under Letha’s arm, which is trying to pull Jade’s hair out by the roots, “and I think you of all people will appreciate this. I didn’t come here to die, right?”
Such A Pretty Smile by Kristi De Meester: “They would never understand the inherent trepidation that came as a result of being wrapped in girl flesh.”
The Cloisters by Katy Hays: “That’s the real task of the scholar, to become a necromancer.” ******
A History of Fear by Luke Dumas: “…his likeness having parted company with his face when his head smashed a rock.”
Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica: “Without the sadness, he has nothing left.” ******
The Push by Ashley Audrain: “I don’t want you learning to be like me. But I don’t know how to teach you to be anyone different.” ******
Fairytale by Stephen King: “There’s a dark well in everyone, I think, and it never goes dry. But you drink from it at your peril. That water is poison.”
The following is a list of graphic novels and poetry collections that I read over the last three months; they’re all relatively recent releases (the last 2-3 years or so?) and the graphic novels all fall squarely in the horror genre.
The Night Eaters (She Eats the Night Vol. 1)
The Closet Vol. 1
Killadelphia Vol. 1
The Nice House on the Lake
Joe Hill’s Rain
The Suicide Forest
The Plot Vol. 1
I Walk With Monsters
Homesick Pilots Vols 1 and 2
Dying Is Easy
The Dollhouse Family
House of Slaughter Vol. 1
Under Her Skin – I was suckered in by the cover but I do not recommend this collection
The Book of Gods and Grudges by Jessica Walsh – absolutely recommend this one
The Trees Witness Everything by Victoria Chang – recommend with reservations (get a copy from the library first)
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