Below are all the books I read July-September of this year; the first twenty or so reviews a bit more in-depth (whether because they are thoughtful and nuanced or I just tend to ramble idiotically, you can decide) and everything that follows is just some brief thoughts on each book. Hopefully, you will either find something that you’ve been curious about or that will pique your interest!
I had this blog post ready to go last week, but in double-checking my Goodreads stats, I discovered an extra nine books that I had forgotten to include here. I didn’t feel like writing reviews for these stragglers (though some of them are definitely deserving!) but I did go back and add them to the various sections below.
Jo Nesbo’s The Night Housewas a quick, fun read that had a YA haunted monster house vibe…until it abruptly didn’t, and it cycles through a few of those “…until it didn’t” iterations throughout the story. It was the sort of read that you munch cold pizza and guzzle icy diet cokes with on summer vacation while inhaling as many trashy paperback novels as your part-time babysitting money will buy from the musty beachside bookstore in your town with the amazing horror selection. In this story, 14-year-old Richard goes to live with his aunt and uncle after his parents have died in a tragic fire. Coming from a big city to a small town, Richard is lonely and bored on top of grieving the loss of his mom and dad, and is angrily acting out by bullying his classmates…who then begin disappearing in ways that he can’t even begin to explain to the authorities (because they are getting sucked into telephone booths and being turned into cicadas and other such horrifying things.) These disappearances also involve a house deep in the woods and a mentally unstable black magic-wielding individual, and the whole thing feels like maybe the whole town has gone a little nuts, or else the whole thing is happening in Richard’s head. or maybe, could it be that all of these things are true at once?
The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi Anisa is a 35-year-old translator getting along in a somewhat privileged and rather aimless way, translating Bollywood films and living on her family’s money when she learns of an institute called The Centre where one may learn a language in the span of ten days through some sort of very hush-hush, esoteric immersive technique. Dissatisfied with her life, and bored and frustrated with her lackluster relationship with Adam (from whom she learned of The Centre), she commits to spending a week at The Centre, figuring that learning a European language like German will lead to her becoming the serious translator she’s always wanted to be. The whole place has a weird vibe, it’s all very creepy A24 energy, lots of meditation and seclusion, but hey, the meals are tasty and top-notch, so it’s not all bad. Nothing’s clicking language-wise until Anisa suddenly realizes she’s absorbing the lessons, and five days in, she understands every word of German; it’s wild! Outside The Centre, she goes on to translate a book that hadn’t previously been translated from German into English and makes a small name for herself and realizes that even as she’s become a more “serious” translator, she’s neither satisfied nor happy, and goes back to The Centre for more lessons. As she undergoes this immersion for the second time, she is becoming more friendly with the woman who manages the place, Shiba, an individual who, culturally, and perhaps in many other ways, Anisa has much in common with. And Shiba. as it turns out, is eager to share The Centre’s secrets. But is Anisa really ready to hear it? There are a lot of ideas to engage and negotiate with in this book, in exploring these characters’ relationships with each other, in how they treat language, but also in terms of feminism and friendships, class and conformity, power and consumption. I think what I found most interesting is how this author doesn’t give you a clear answer about anything, at the end, of course, in the treatment of the “big reveal” but also just in how mutable a character Anisa is. She’s really a cipher. I did not know what to make of her at all! And I really loved that.
At the End of Every Day by Arianna Reiche I am not sure if this is a book that rewards your patience or punishes it… and if I’m honest, it was a bit of a slog to get through, but then again, I can’t stop thinking about it or talking about it. This is one of those books where the author seems to have had a lot of different ideas; this could have been many separate stories, but somehow they all came together in a deep dive into the minutiae of behind-the-scenes amusement park engineering and separately, neon glass crafting? As well as old-world superstitions and modern-day celebrity worship, but not just that, really, how cults and religions are built around these things, and not just cults and religions but maybe entire experiences like movies and theme parks that shape generations and entire cultures? And there’s something about twins and doppelgangers and echoes, and oh yeah, L.A. is burning, and what if it’s not just L.A. –is there even a world outside at ALL anymore? This book is getting a lot of low reviews, and many folks are saying, “I don’t have the patience for this,” but people. You gotta. I need someone else to talk about this with. Have the patience. It’s not rewarded in the end, not really. But I think it the reward comes somewhere beyond that in some other story. I don’t know what I mean by that, but that’s why we keep reading, I guess. I’m still giving this book five stars. Don’t ask me to explain it.
Beholder by Ryan La Sala Did Ryan La Sala scour my brain for all my favorite stuff and weave it all into an electrifyingly imaginative horror adventure just for me? Threads linking the sublime nature of art and beauty, weird occult practices and secret power struggles at the heart of the elite art world, the startling and tragic connections between what we create and what we destroy, hallucinatory wallpaper (!!), and how beauty too dreadful to behold could be lurking behind any and every mirror–or, perhaps, inside the person gazing into its surface.
Midnight Showing by Megan ShepherdTake all of the bonkers ideas and concepts in Malice House – a horror/fantasy/thriller with an MC who, in the process of clearing out her estranged father’s house after his death, encounters more and more increasingly weird stuff and is eventually led along a horrific journey ending with the knowledge she is of a lineage whose artistic talents, either writing or art, brings monsters to life…and then drop this story in LA with creepy movie sets and haunted films and Hollywood urban legends and even more weird magic, murder and mayhem. Very into this series, wherever it heads next!
Let Him In by William Friend The atmosphere in this book of a father handling the tragic loss of his wife and the monstrous manifestations of his twin daughters’ grief was utterly exquisite. Combine the timeless melancholy and *extremely British* autumnal glooms of The Haunting of Julia (even the sunny scenes in this book felt remarkably bleak) with the “creeping dread in dark corners of a broken home at midnight” factor of Hereditary, and it made for a book that I couldn’t put down—an absolute stunner of a story.
The Clinic by Cate Quinnis one of those books that you can see it happening on screen in your mind’s eye, a story that seemed like it would be wildly popular as a ridiculously fun, twisty, and binge-able murder mystery series on Netflix. Strung-out Meg works undercover at a casino in L.A., catching cheaters, loan sharks, and related nogoodniks. Upon learning that her famous, manipulative rockstar twin had died after having checked into a remote, luxurious rehab facility and that the death is being passed off as a suicide, Meg decides to check herself in and investigate, believing that her selfish narcissist sister would never do such a thing. Also, Meg is in desperate need of a detox herself. The story unfolds both through Meg’s perspective and Cara’s, an individual who manages the facility and prides herself on the orderliness and beauty of the resort…and with whom Meg immediately butts heard. Meg learns the stories of the other residents, all of whom could be suspects, as well as the shady tactics of the clinic’s head psychologist and doctor, all the while Meg is struggling with her own addiction and finding herself quite against her nature, making friends and becoming vulnerable. I understand that the author struggled with addiction and has her own experience to draw from in terms of rehab and what may go on there, but I oftentimes found myself struggling with the book’s explanations of trauma and addiction and how it talked about sociopathy. From an outsider’s POV, I don’t know how much I can comment on it, but some of it felt a little irresponsible. Then again, this book was pretty absurd overall, so maybe I am overthinking it. Still–it was one of those compulsive, impossible-to-put-down reads, so maybe just don’t get caught up in the details.
The Heiress by Rachel Hawkins spins and churns with secrets and scandal, centering on the wealthy McTavish family and its notorious matriarch, Ruby, who was kidnapped as a child and miraculously returned to her family only to grow up and develop an infamous reputation for very different reasons than her childhood disappearance (she was widowed four times over!) The story takes place in past and present timelines, spilling through a dead woman’s lips in the form of revelatory letters from Ruby about her storied life as well as the current circumstances of Ruby’s adopted, estranged son Camden. Camden wants nothing to do with his family, but his wife Jules is weirdly obsessed with getting Camden back into the familial fold despite his reluctance to reconnect with his shady relatives and tragic legacy…and, of course, claim his sizeable inheritance. Although Camden and Jules are clearly devoted to each other, you learn that they are both withholding secrets from each other and while that would seem like the worst time to reconnect with your despicable cousins in their creepy old mansion and attempt to stake your claim on the whole den of vipers, we probably wouldn’t have much of a story if they didn’t, right? And it was a pretty twisty, captivating story too, right up til the end, which I thought was exceedingly clever.
Ripe by Sarah Rose Etterwas a panic attack on speed. This story, both all-too anxiously, heartbreakingly real, and yet vaguely, weirdly magical realist, follows Cassie from the cruelly competitive environment of her Silicon Valley tech/marketing job to her home life, which includes toxic, terrible friends, an occasional lover that technically belongs to someone else, and a long-distance relationship with her parents that does more harm than good. And while we follow Cassie, so too does the ever-expanding black hole that’s accompanied her for her whole life. Cassie’s loneliness and desolation –and that of the city she lives in–are captured in the author’s lush, dreamy prose and passages in which I forgot for a moment that I was reading about profoundly unhappy characters who deeply hate themselves. At this story’s heart is the question, “How does anyone bear themselves?” And the end shows us, in the starkest manner possible, that they simply don’t.
The Trap by Catherine Ryan Howard Told from multiple points of view, The Trap explores the circumstances of three missing women in Dublin and the people who are resolved to find them and/or decipher the mystery of their disappearance. There is Lucy, the sister of Nikki, who had gone missing the year before and whose life is on hold, unraveling with the unknowing. There is Angela, a civilian working in the Missing Persons Unit who hasn’t yet passed her physical but is determined to prove her worth, and, unexpectedly, the killer himself, who shares their history of urges and crimes. Though I found the premise and the individual stories intriguing, as the story unfolded and the twists were revealed, it felt like the story fell apart with the decisions and behaviors of the characters not making much sense at all. I had a lot of fun with and quite enjoyed Run Time and 56 Days by this same author, but I’m not so much a fan of this title.
In Delicate Condition by Danielle Valentine, Anna, an actress approaching middle age who has finally secured the role that’s put her on the map, is desperate to have a baby with her husband Dex. She has undergone several painful rounds of IVF to achieve this dream and finally becomes pregnant. For what should be a joyous time, however, the pregnancy is immediately fraught. Everything feels “off”, Anna is experiencing much more pain and discomfort than is normal, and there are strange and unsettling occurrences happening around her. It seems that externally, someone–perhaps a stalker?– does not want her to have this baby, and internally, the baby seems…well, rather monstrous. In this twisty, creepy thriller, nothing is quite as it seems for either Anna or those of us following along …is someone threatening Anna and her unborn child? Or trying to warn her of the danger posed by what she carries inside her? I kept shuffling this one to the bottom of my TBR pile, and shame on me for that because it’s intense and atmospheric and SO GOOD. CW: lots of pregnancy body horror and scenes of miscarriage.
The Followers by Bradeigh Godfrey As irritating as I find social media influencers, I am also hopelessly fascinated by them, so I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing them as characters in mysteries, thrillers, and horror novels. At their best, we’ll get to see their humanity and a peek behind the “highlights reel” of their life, and at worst, well…perhaps they’ll get what they deserve. Mommy influencer Molly Sullivan is more or less a good egg and in the former category, and we read of her struggling to find like-minded friends in a new town and balancing a new marriage to a Scott, a private, introverted fellow, with sharing her life on social media, maintaining engagement with her followers and making good in her promise to always let them in on her authentic life journey. Meanwhile, she does make a new friend. A young woman named Liv, who is temporarily living locally to Molly and who thinks that Molly’s husband is actually the man who killed her sister and kidnapped her niece over a decade ago. As Molly and Liv’s friendship deepens, Liv is increasingly convinced that she has tracked down the right man…but then, who is the stranger creepily sneaking around and watching all of them? I don’t love romance mixed into my thrillers and there is a lot of that in this one but it’s not shoehorned in or handled sloppily, so it’s tolerable in a story that’s fast-paced and a lot of fun.
Never Whistle At Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology From the beautiful cover art to the exciting line-up of authors and the enthusiastic forward by beloved contemporary master of horror Stephen Graham Jones, I had high expectations of this right from the start–and I was not disappointed. Never Whistle at Night is an outstanding gathering of eerie stories that speak to an expansive range of indigenous experiences, exploring the darker aspects of their history and culture. This felt like a thoughtfully–even lovingly–curated collection of tales involving both everyday, mundane horrors of colonialism, identity, and power dynamics as well as fantastically supernatural curses, creatures, and monsters–the monsters calling from both within the house and outside in the darkness. Though there were some offerings I liked more than others, I enjoyed almost every single one of them, with a good handful of them I would have liked to have seen in longer form because they were just that incredible. But I say “almost every single one” because there was one that bored me stiff after a few pages, and I gave up. That story aside (and who knows, I may give it another try), this was a phenomenal anthology.
The One That Got Away With Murder by Trish LundyWhat are the chances of becoming involved with not one–but two– suspected murderers when you’ve transferred to a new school to run away from your own checkered past and all its demons? Lauren and her mother move to the idyllic-seeming town of Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, after a fiery incident that leaves her a mentally and emotionally scarred social pariah. Things aren’t looking so great in her new school, either, when Lauren’s classmates and soccer teammates begin avoiding her and harassing her when they realize she’s hooked up with local-rich-boy-with-a-bad-reputation Robbie Crestmont. Folks in the town blame Robbie for the death of his girlfriend, and funny enough, Robbie’s brother Trevor also has a relatively recently deceased girlfriend himself. In desperately trying to unravel the mystery of the murders and the family at the heart of them, Lauren is also tangled in the guilt and grief from her own past–which may be blinding her to dangers that are much closer to her than she can even conceive. I read this propulsive thriller pulsing with secrets and twists over the course of a single evening, and it was a great time all the way through.
Green Fuse Burning by Tiffany Morris Struggling with grief after the death of her father and coming to terms with the unsaid but inevitable dissolution-in-progress of her current relationship, artist Rita is primed for my favorite horror subgenre of a story: “artist goes off to create in seclusion; weird shit ensues.” Spending a week at an isolated lake local to where her father grew up, Rita takes advantage of her girlfriend having forged her application–and having won– an artist’s residency complete with a creepy cabin in the woods, with some local folks behaving weirdly, as an extra treat. Rita begins to experience strange visions/hallucinations and possible instances of lost time or what might seem to be out-of-body experiences, and her resulting artworks reflect both her mood, the atmosphere, and her either literal or metaphorical (both? neither? not sure what was going on, really) journeys and experiences while exploring the land and the lake around the cabin. Morris’ writing is breathtakingly gorgeous, from the descriptions of the landscape to the artful essays detailing each painting, in the voice of an art critic. Overall, I’m not sure I completely loved the story but I definitely appreciated the lens of beauty, terror, and decay that it was written through
Mary: An Awakening of Terror by Nat Cassidy This is a title that had been languishing in my TBR pile for a year or so, and man I really slept on it. Turns out that middle-aged, menopausal Mary is probably my all-time favorite character and I am sorry I waited so long to get to it! Hot flashes are one thing, but grotesque hallucinations, losing time, and homicidal urges? Mary’s pretty sure something’s not quite right but of course, her doctor just pooh-poohs her concerns. I know I haven’t said much but don’t want to say anything else and risk having said too much! This book is gross and fun and you might think “What business does a man have writing about a middle-aged woman?” I thought that, too. Make sure you read the Afterword.
Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones by Hettie Judah. Have you ever gazed into a stone and wondered as to the stories it stores? The powers it possesses? In her fascinating book, Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones, Hettie Judah explores the hidden history of these lithic marvels, from their role in ancient cultures to their modern-day influences and uses. An absolute feast for the senses, the book itself feels very much like a collector’s treasure hoarded wunderkammer of mythic and mysterious curiosities. It is split into six sections (Stones and Power, Sacred Stones, Stones and Stories, Stone Technology, Shapes in Stone, and Living Stones), and each section reveals a chapter devoted to unearthing an individual stone with imaginative, artful descriptions and a pretty wild, or wildly fascinating story connected to each stone. It’s a stunningly presented and designed book, with color-coordinated pictures and beautiful illustrations by artist Nicky Pasterfield for each stone, evoking the charming pictures in old geological and scientific publications. Referencing science, history, chemistry, physics, literature, philosophy, and pop culture, Lapidarium is an extravagantly storied chamber of stones, the next best thing to having a secret sparkling cache of curios at your fingertips. Writing with humor, compassion, and wit (I cackled out loud more times than I can count), Hettie leads us sure-footedly on our craggy journey down a glittering path of 60 mineralogical eccentricities, ancient souvenirs of deep-Earth drama, and travelogues that cross the strata of time as well as space. I wrote an in-depth review of this book here on the blog earlier this summer.
Rabbit Hole by Kate Brody The older I get the more I devour stories about the messy lives of 20-somethings who seem to be perpetually teetering on the brink, or maybe perpetually trapped in free-fall. Wildly careening out of control, numbing with sex, drugs, and dangerous, stupid scenarios, it seems like they never quite hit bottom, yet it’s always too late to stop from tipping over the edge. They fixate and fuck up and fail spectacularly–out of school, jobs, relationships–they can’t seem to get a grip on the messiness of their lives and it spirals ever further into chaos over the course of the story. I might be so obsessed with these characters because, in my late teens and early twenties, my life was practical and predictable; I held down jobs while attending school and paying rent. I didn’t always get it perfect and my family had its own issues, but my life looked nothing like these books. Then again, my sister did not disappear and eventually become an unsolved cold case, and my father did not die by suicide, consumed by grief and guilt, ten years later. That’s a lot of loss and trauma, and that is what our main character Teddy is grappling with. Teddy begins to piece things together from Reddit threads and accounts she finds on her father’s computer, she falls into an uneasy friendship with an amateur internet sleuth, and becomes involved in a fraught relationship with an older man that she suspects had something to do with her sister’s disappearance. Her job performance as a teacher at a local private school becomes more and more erratic and her life is basically going to shit –and she’s not doing anything to stop it. It’s such an uncomfortable, unrelenting study of a grieving person that it feels almost exploitative in a morbidly fascinated “I can’t look away from this train wreck” kind of way. It wraps up confusingly and abruptly, and I am a little embarrassed to say that toward the end I had no idea what was going on. It’s not that it seemed all that complicated or twisty, and yet I still couldn’t really figure out what was happening. Up until that point though, I couldn’t tear myself away.
The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell A young mother and her boyfriend go missing in an English village after partying with some friends. A year later, a writer moves into town and is drawn into the mystery thanks to some strange clues left on her property. This was a thoroughly engrossing story, I’m learning that you simply cannot go wrong with a Lisa Jewell novel.
The Family Game by Catherine Steadman Novelist Harriet Reed is finally getting to meet her fiance’s wealthy family and soon realizes that there’s gonna be a lot of weird and dangerous hoops to jump through if she wants to be part of the clan.
The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley A group of friends get together at an isolated hunting lodge during a winter storm, and the usual secrets and murders ensue. Lucy Foley’s always fun with multiple POVs and timelines that shift from the recent past to the heart-pounding present, and there’s usually never a dull moment.
I Didn’t Do It by Jaime Lynn Hendricks A murder at a mystery/thriller writer’s convention! Could anything be tackier or more sensational? If you think you know from the get-go what’s going on, you’re probably right.
The Vanishing Hour by Serafina Nova GlassAfter a horrifyingly traumatic experience, Grace has sequestered herself away from the world working at a small, coastal town bed and breakfast. As the season comes to an end for the summer, she is startled by a last-minute guest who brings with him the very kind of trouble she’s been trying to run away from. This is the second or third thing I have read from this author and while they all seem wildly implausible, they’re so well-written, I don’t care. (How are nit-picky details in a thriller more implausible than say, ghosts or vampires? Shut up!) On A Quiet Streetx
The Last Word by Taylor Adams Even more implausible (but fun as hell so who cares) was this book about a woman staying at an isolated beach house who becomes the target of a stalker after she has written a negative review about a really terrible horror novel…and the author doesn’t much care for her opinion.
Wonder Woman: Ars HistoriaThis story of how the goddesses of Mount Olympus were just fed up with men, and how the Amazons subsequently came to be, was breathtakingly gorgeous and a powerfully moving read.
Night Fever by Ed Brubaker This was a noir-type story of a middle-aged traveling salesman who gets caught up in a nightlife-fever dream of brutality and debauchery on one of his business trips abroad. A “shining the light on the violence within men’s hearts” series of vignettes.
SUPERDOOM by Melissa Broder I did not love these poems nearly as much as I loved the title of the book. There was an unholy number of instances of the word “cock.” I like my poetry dickless, honestly. Dick-free poetry only. No thank you and good day.
Small Crimes by Andrea Jurjević An intimate wander through the horror and beauty in early 90s Croatia during the war, and then later in America, after the war. Raw and rich with hope amidst ugliness and despair, dark with the scraped and scabby wit of a perpetually open wound, this collection affected me and resonated with me much more than the one above.
The Hocus-Pocus of the Universe by Laura Gilpin Unfortunately, I think the devastating two-headed calf poem gave me higher expectations than this book could ever deliver on. At this point to make such a reference is sort of low-hanging fruit, but there was definitely a Rupi Kaur-like quality to several of the poems, a bland vapidity that was so on-the-nose that nothing actually meant anything, everything felt shallow and empty. I was disappointed to discover that, because again–that two-headed cafe poem! I cry if I even think about it! The rest of the collection gave me nothing to think about at all. That feels like a really horrible thing to write. Let’s chalk it up to an instance of over-inflated expectations.
Lone Women by Victor LaValle Adelaide is an isolated homesteader making a new life for herself out west, and her story is one of monstrous secrets and terrible burdens and dark pasts, and there is an aspect of it that reminds me in a way of a book that I desperately want to mention, but I feel like if I do, that will somehow spoil a little something about both books. I’ll just say the book that springs to mind is by Terry Pratchett. If you’ve read both and somehow are reading my mind and the connections I am making, please tell me! At any rate, never has a story drawn me in with such immediacy and immersed me so quickly and completely.
Weyward by Emilia HartI had been putting off reading this for the longest time. The reason is that I kept seeing on friends book lists, and these are friends that I associate with Fantasy with a capital “F.” Which is all well and good for visual art and cinema, but as an adult, I like my fantasy a little more low-key, sneaking into the lives of regular people who are firmly rooted in my world. It turns out Weyward is more witchy than fantastical, following the lives of three women across multiple genergarions who are born with mysterious gifts, and who are either learning of, accepting, or dealing with the consequences of their remarkable powers. It’s a really lovely book, and if you dream of living in a lonesome little cottage with a garden just outside your window, where you hear lashes of rain in the springtime and birdsong in the summer, you will love this book as much as I did. As I am the last one in the world to read it, I am probably preaching to the choir here.
Camp Damascus by Chuck Tingle This is an unfair assessment, but I’ve never read Chuck Tingle’s books, only giggled at their silly titles. I was surprised at how…lucid… this story of conversion therapy via demonic possession was. I realize “lucid” is a very low bar for reading material.
We Spread by Iain Reid You never know what you’re going to get with Iain Reid but at least I didn’t want to hurl this particular book about an unsettling elder-care home and its appalling secrets into the sea, like I did with I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I’m afraid the title “We Spread” somewhat hints at the mystery, but even recognizing that, there’s still about about the story that I didn’t quite get.
Finna by Nino Cipri This was a quick little read about navigating codependent relationships and the messy breakups that sometimes follow…which is even worse if you have to work together. Even worse than that, when interdimensional wormholes open up at the IKEA-esque superstore where you’re both employed. Very queer, weird, anti-capitalist fun.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix I loved Patricia, a gracious southern housewife whose family kind of sucks but who finds connection and kindred spirits in the women in her community and their unexpected book club. An interesting new element is introduced to the neighborhood in the form of James, a charmer under whose thrall the majoirty of the town eventually succumbs. Patricia begins to suspect terrible things about James and this is where the book becomes massively uncomfortable for me. The gaslighting is off the charts, the community’s treatment of Patricia–even from her friends– and the way her husband and children behaved toward her, made me nearly physically ill. And these next issues are not typical of a Grady Hendrix story (at least not that I can recollect) but I hated the male gaze-y way the characters were handled; I am referring to scenes with both Slick and Patricia’s daughter, after their individual assaults. And even the fact that there were instances of sexual assault at all–I found pretty shocking. Not shocking for horror. Not shocking for horror written by a man. But shocking to have read it in this author’s books. It made me sad if I’m being honest. I expect all manner of marvelous, freaky ridiculousness from Grady Hendrix. But I don’t expect this.
The Watchers by A.M. Shine This tale of a remote forest, the people who become trapped there, and the sinister inhabitants of its ancient realms is intense and creepy, but the writing is a bit weird. For example: our main character for reasons that sort of make sense as they relate to the story, gets lost in the forest with a parrot. The author frequently refers to it as “the yellow one”–not “the bird,” not “the parrot,” not even by its name. It’s one of those things that becomes stupid and annoying after a while and you’re just like, “WHY? and it begins to affect your overall enjoyment of the story. That twist at the end, though!
LITERARY FICTION (not trying to be pretentious here, but really didn’t know how to categorize these)
Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura Middle-schooler Kokoro is shy and struggling and has not been to class in quite some time. Her classmates are bullying her, and what begins as anxiety and fear about going back to school becomes a phobia about even leaving the house at all. Her parents are frustrated and are seeking out alternative schooling options, but for the time being, they allow Kokoro to stay home while they work during the day. One afternoon, a portal appears in her bedroom mirror, and she enters to find herself in a castle …where six other kids her age have apparently found their way as well. They learn they have some interesting things in common and were summoned for a reason, but they only piece it all together over the course of getting to know each other and becoming friends. I loved this magical, heartwarming story, and guess what! It’s a movie, too!
The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya Two musicians connect, and briefly share a profoundly close friendship; fame, envy, self-doubt, and the internet ruins everything
The Guest by Emma Cline Alex is a hot mess express, pretending to be someone she isn’t at every turn, grifting and scamming her way through the Hamptons. I read this in an afternoon and was stressed out every second.
All-Night Pharmacy by Ruth Madievsky See above Rabbit Hole review re: chaotic 20-somethings and their messed-up, violent, strung-out, sexy lives. Sprinkle in complicated siblings, magical realism, mysticism, and a more satisfying (although maybe the slightest bit cheesy?) ending.
Maddalena and the Dark by Julia Fine An atmospheric, dark academia(esque) fairy-tale (sorta) about the budding friendship between Maddalena, the daughter of a wealthy Venetian family, and Luisa, an orphan at the Pieta, where girls are schooled in the musical arts. At turns devoted to each other and obsessed with each other, the shifting power dynamics and feverish desire between the two will be the undoing of one of them. Which is all to say…ooof, I hope you never have a friend like Maddalena.
I did not finish the following books. In the majority of these instances, I didn’t even make it a quarter of the way through. In a typical reading year, I might have been a bit more forgiving of plots that did not immediately hook me in, or whatever other various issues I had, but for these purposes, I figured I just didn’t have time to dick around if I am trying to reach a goal.
The Witcher this was gross and rapey, I’ll just watch the shows and play the games
The Force of Such Beauty Barbara Bourland this was taking to long to go anywhere; life is short and who knows how much time I have left
The Handyman Method under no circumstances will I partake in the tedium and existential angst of a long, boring trip to Home Depot
Everything the Darkness Eats sorry Eric LaRocca, I could not get into this at all
At the start of September I was pretty bummed because Florida Septembers are not super magical. I don’t know what it’s like where you’re at, but in Florida, autumn really seems to dither and dilly-dally and lollygag and all those funny old-fashioned words that mean something’s taking too effing long!
So I just did all the autumn things I love anyhow, to make myself feel better and perhaps summon some autumn feels while I was at it… and I thought it might be fun to film them along the way for a MONTAGE. Who doesn’t love a montage? So yeah, here’s 3 weeks of homebody autumnal stuff distilled into about 5 minutes worth of video.
My videos aren’t like the top quality or whatever, but I have fun making them, so I hope you will give it a watch! And as per usual, everything mentioned in the video can be found below.
When visiting a natural history museum, do you make a beeline for the glittering treasures of the gem and mineral rooms? Is Splendor your favorite board game because you love hoarding the jewels like a greedy dragon, and truly you don’t give a fart about the mechanics and strategies of gem mines, trade routes, or gaining wealthy patrons? Is that too niche a reference? Are you still with me?
Have you ever gazed into a stone and wondered as to the stories it stores? The powers it possesses? In her fascinating book, Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones, Hettie Judah explores the hidden history of these lithic marvels, from their role in ancient cultures to their modern-day influences and uses.
An absolute feast for the senses, the book itself feels very much like a collector’s treasure hoarded wunderkammer of mythic and mysterious curiosities. It is split into six sections (Stones and Power, Sacred Stones, Stones and Stories, Stone Technology, Shapes in Stone, and Living Stones), and each section reveals a chapter devoted to unearthing an individual stone with imaginative, artful descriptions and a pretty wild, or wildly fascinating story connected to each stone.
It’s a stunningly presented and designed book, with color-coordinated pictures and beautiful illustrations by artist Nicky Pasterfield for each stone, evoking the charming pictures in old geological and scientific publications.
Referencing science, history, chemistry, physics, literature, philosophy, and pop culture, Lapidarium is an extravagantly storied chamber of stones, the next best thing to having a secret sparkling cache of curios at your fingertips. Writing with humor, compassion, and wit (I cackled out loud more times than I can count), Hettie leads us sure-footedly on our craggy journey down a glittering path of 60 mineralogical eccentricities, ancient souvenirs of deep-Earth drama, and travelogues that cross the strata of time as well as space.
Amongst these essays exploring how human culture has formed stone and, conversely, the roles stone has played in forming human culture, one will read of the Meat-Shaped Stone of Taiwan, a piece of banded jasper that resembles a tender piece of mouth-watering braised pork belly, There is the soap opera melodrama of Pele’s Hair, golden strands of volcanic glass, spun into hair-fine threads by volcanic gasses and blown across the landscape. And not to mention the hysterical metaphysical WTFery of angel-appointed wife swaps in the chapter of alchemist and astrologer John Dee’s smoky quartz cairngorm, as well as, the mystical modern-day TikTik moldavite craze vibing amongst those of the witchy-psychic persuasion. I cannot even tell you how many times I paused in my reading to open a new Google tab and research, thinking, “holy fake crystal skulls/malachite caskets/pyroclastic flow rap lyrics! I gotta learn more about this!”
From the elegance of emerald moons to humble fossilized feces, from violent lunar origin stories to simple earthen pigments, Lapidarium is richly abundant with interesting facts, poignant stories, and weird anecdotes about stones. And though I read this book straight through from start to finish, this is absolutely the sort of bibliomantic tome that one might flip through at random, choosing a chapter based on mood or whim: learn a weird rock fact, let it lodge in your brain like a wayward pebble in your shoe, and allow it to guide your energies for the day.
After finishing Lapidarium, I realized I could have happily spent loads more time in the terrestrial spectacle of those enigmatic realms, but once you get to the acknowledgments, that’s pretty much the end of the line (I read them all, anyway!) Not yet ready to leave this post-book mental space now lit crystalline and glittering with the fruits of the earth thanks to Hettie’s heady prose, I thought I might ask the author and art historian a few questions–which she kindly answered for me, below.
Unquiet Things: I’m curious whether you started this book with a favorite gem or stone in mind, but after your research and writing, you perhaps had some markedly different favorites.
Hettie Judah:I guess when I started, I was thinking more in terms of stone objects and artefacts – I’d probably have told you my favourite stone was a black opal from Lightning Ridge in Australia. In working on the book I became more interested in the way stone forms not only landscape, but the cultural expression that has played out within that landscape – whether that’s the standing stones of Avebury and Stonehenge, most of which are huge sarsens that used to lie around that landscape like flocks of sheep, or the marble of Paros and Naxos that established a specific aesthetic for temple building in Ancient Greece. When people ask me my favourite stone I usually tell them it’s the limestone under the Yorkshire Dales, a beloved piece of the British landscape – beauty of a different order to that of a ruby or moonstone.
Unquiet Things: In the vein of your research, what was one of the most surprising or strangest things you learned while digging into mineralogical science, history, legend, and lore?
Hettie Judah: The quest for the mythic philosopher’s stone crops up in a few different stories in the book. Alchemists got up to some pungent activities – Paracelsus suggested you could grow a human being by ‘placing’ semen in a flask, then burying the flask in a pile of warm horse manure and, after a set period, feeding it with a specially treated form of blood. The alchemical language of proto-chemistry was very much one of sexual intercourse – the male element reacting with the female element to produce a new substance – some of the language we use today still derives from these ideas. We talk about finding a crystal in a rock ‘matrix’ – as though the plain old ‘mother rock’ had given birth to a gemstone.
I love the legend of the Indian Valley of the Diamonds, said to be an inaccessible crevasse, the floor of which glittered with gemstones. Diamonds are lipophilic – they stick to fat. So the legend went that gem hunters would lob pieces of fatty raw lamb into the valley, and eagles would swoop down to pick them up and fly back up to their nests with gems embedded in the fat. The eagles would eat the meat, leaving the diamonds, which the gem hunters later retrieved. The legend was so well established that the symbol for India on European maps used to be the eagles carrying diamonds up from the valley.
Unquiet Things: There were many times I found myself giggling at a playful turn of phrase or peculiar fact while reading; there’s nothing I appreciate so much as learning and laughing at the same time. Looking back, is there a particularly weird or wacky excerpt, sentence, or even an entire paragraph that you find yourself thinking, “Well, I never imagined that was a thing I’d write about rocks!”
Hettie Judah: The early 19th-century geologist and theologian William Buckland was a magnificent source of wild stories – he was zoophagous, and apparently attempted to eat his way through the animal kingdom (and once authoritatively identified bat dung by taste). He was also fascinated by coprolites – petrified poo – and commissioned a decorative pietra dura tabletop to be made from his collection of fossilised fish turds.
I was determined to get kryptonite into the book – how can you have a collection of stories about stones without one on kryptonite? My editor was adamant that I couldn’t include it because it wasn’t ‘real’. So finding a great story about moldavite – basically ‘real’ kryptonite – was such a gift. I really enjoyed writing that one.
Overall, in every facet, Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones is a brilliant must-have for anyone who has ever been fascinated by stones, either as a child or as an adult today. And as it happens…I have an extra copy of Lapidarium and am happy to share it with one reader of this blog post.
Not that I believe you need any convincing at this point, but …
💎 If you love stones, then this book is a treasure trove of information about all sorts of stones, from their scientific properties to their cultural significance.
💎 If you’re interested in history, then you’ll love learning about the role that stones have played in human cultures throughout the ages.
💎If you’re looking for a book that will transport you to far-off lands, Hettie’s stories will take you to the mountains of Appalachia, the beaches of South Wales, the caves of Mexico, Russian palaces, and Brazilian churches–and everywhere between and beyond.
💎 If you’re longing for writing that will make you think, you will enjoy pondering the author’s explorations of the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of stones, and our relationship to the natural world.
If you would like to win this copy of Lapidarium, please leave a comment in today’s blog post with your favorite stone or “rock fact,” and I will choose one winner from amongst those comments on Friday, August 18th. Due to shipping costs, this giveaway is limited to US readers only.
[THE GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED AND THE WINNERS–DARLA AND HAYLEY– HAVE BEEN CONTACTED. THANK YOU EVERYONE FOR READING AND SHARING.]
Summer is rough for me. Always has been. I know it is for a lot of people. From mid-June until late August, I feel like the human equivalent of a rotten, infected belly button, and the mere act of existing feels like an enormous effort.
As we’re getting into the part of the year when the seasonal ennui really gets its grip on me, I’ll let you know that this installment of Stacked is very half-assed. Why bother at all, you might wonder? I’m wondering that as well. But if I don’t follow through on at least something, I will feel like an even lousier rotten belly button, so here we are. While I’ll make sure to share all the titles of everything I read from April through June of 2023, not all of those books will get a review.
Here’s where I try to explain my process, how some of these things have reviews, and some don’t, even though some of them might actually have been more exciting or compelling reads. I try to be diligent about recording my thoughts pretty quickly when I finish a book I’ve read for NetGalley (I don’t want my rating to go down, hee hee!), and so once I’ve written it for Netgalley, I just put it in a draft here to hang out on the blog. But library books or items from my personal collection that there’s no urgency to review right away? If they are exceptionally blah, I’ll forget them in a day or two. And if conditions are right, like, say, I’m hot and tired and miserable? I’m apt to be forgetting the really good ones, too. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of Netgalley ARCS in this blog post, though it’s possible some of those ARCS are published now.
You might wonder how I grow my “To-Read” lists or where I get my recommendations. I was going to start that sentence, “People often ask me…” but that’s a total lie. No one ever asks me that. Sadie Hartmann has loads of horror suggestions over on Instagram, and on YouTube, Elizabeth has tons of thrillers and horror reviews at Reading Wryly, and Jen Campbell’s channel brims with lists of speculative and literary fiction as well as poetry.
When I was in elementary school, in the sixth grade, I was a bookworm. Are you shocked?? I hope you were sitting down for that! I never really thought of myself as a nerd, though. Until popular mean girl Mary Josenhans told my sister (also named Mary), “Your sister reads ALL the time. She’s a NERD.” First of all, I don’t know why sixth-grade Mary J. was talking to my fourth-grade sister. Stay in your lane, kid! Secondly, she said “nerd” like it was gross, dirty, or bad. Like it was something to be ashamed of. Like my sister should have been ashamed of me.
I don’t think my sister ever was, but from that day forward, I harbored a fierce, fiery hatred in my heart for Mary J., for trying to make my sister feel something ugly about me. It was worse than making me feel directly bad about myself, see? And those feelings of shame and ugliness and uncoolness were wrapped up for me in nerdery and book wormery for the longest time. Not that it ever stopped me from reading or loving the things that I loved, but it sure put the kibosh on ever getting a sense of feeling …”cool” for loving any of it at all?
(Also, for the longest time, I dreamed about walking up to Mary J. and straight up punching her in her mean, stupid face.)
But yesterday, while exchanging book recommendations via Instagram DMs with one of the very coolest humans I know, it occurred to me…wait a second. This person is COOL AS HELL. And we are talking about books. One of my favorite things in the world. We are having a cool conversation about a cool thing. AM I A COOL PEOPLE???
Oh, fuck off, Mary Josenhans. Go read a book.
Linghun by Ai Jiang The grieving families who inhabit the neighborhood of HOME will go to unspeakable lengths for the opportunity to move into houses which *may* possibly be haunted by their loved ones. That’s what Wenqi’s parents are hoping for, the chance to connect with the spirit of their son, Wenqi’s older brother. Wenqi herself, as do many characters in this story, suffers from heartbreaking neglect– her parents and the other mourners are so obsessed with communicating with the dead and those they’ve lost, that they’ve nothing left to give the living. An aching meditation on the unclimbable mountain, the unhealable wound of grief, and how the melancholy of loss makes for dolorous ghosts among the living, Linghun will surely haunt my heart for some time to come.
This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno is another book about grief and loss, but this one gets really freaky, glitchy, and hallucinatory. Thiago tells us of his late wife Vera, her funeral, the day she died, the life they shared, the…haunted, or possibly possessed, or possibly interdimensional cosmic horror entangled smart home device Vera ordered and installed before her tragic demise. Anyway. Grief fucks you up.
A Good House For Children by Kate Collins is a spooky, spellbinding contemporary gothic haunted house story, following Orla, a former artist/current mother who acquiesces to her husband’s wishes that the family pick up and move to a grand old house in a small village by the sea. The villagers hint at the house being “bad,” and a string of deeply unsettling things begin to occur in past and present timelines. A feminist ghost story with a haunted house where time isn’t quite fixed or linear, A Good House For Children is gorgeously creepy with many marvelously cozy elements, and the writing was lovely & soothing like the author also writes about knitting & baking in their spare time.
Looking Glass Sound by Catriona Ward Looking Glass Sound lulls you with the setting and circumstances of a coming-of-age experience that takes place among three friends over the course of an ill-fated summer in the late 80s. It’s one of those stories that softly strangles with a fraught, undefined sense of doom and vague, looming dread that has nothing to do with horror but rather the sweetly unbearable, eerily desperate poignancy of the passage of time, how hope and youth and friendship and loyalty will never feel the same again after you cross a certain threshold. It becomes a kind of fever dream, turned around and bewildering, where the people and their stories keep changing, moving, slipping from your grasp; nothing’s as you thought, and maybe you never properly understood the stakes of the story to begin with–or even whose story it really was. Circuitous and labyrinthine in its leading one towards and away from the truth, depending on whose truth it was, Looking Glass Sound left me with the most breathtakingly frustrating and beautiful ache in my heart, and honestly, it’s all I could want in a book by Catriona Ward.
Spin a Black Yarn; Novellas by Josh MalermanIt’s not enough to say this collection of stories was “weird.” I read a lot of weird stuff. I genuinely can’t say, story or theme-wise, if this collection was any more or less weird than anything else. I guess I mean to say it was a bit weird in tone and consistency. These five stories were at turns sinister and suspenseful, with two tales that actually elicited a proper goose-fleshed shiver, but then two other stories were a bit of a slog. The good: a nice balance of haunted house eerieness, cosmic horror mental deterioration, and creepy deathbed confessions. The not-as-good: a horrible couple gets what they deserve, and Russian brothers avenge the murder of their sibling. This last story read almost like something by Dostoevsky, with all the suffering, nihilism, intensity, and tedium I recall from Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov. I will always read a new title from Josh Malerman. Will I always love them? Probably not. And I can’t say that I loved this one, but the three stories I enjoyed in this collection were particularly good.
No Child Of Mine by Nichelle Giraldes I typically enjoy ghost stories with haunted houses and family curses, but this story of a couple’s unraveling after moving into a new house and learning of their unplanned pregnancy really missed the mark for me. It wasn’t the dual timeline element; I really enjoyed learning of Essie and Sanjay’s relationship in the present day, as well as Ana and Isabel’s beautiful bond in the past; it wasn’t the slow-burn pacing, I can appreciate taking the time to thoughtfully build a story up. No, I think what was missing is that the circumstances which connected these two couples across time was a more complicated situation than the author ultimately addressed, and I think the whys and hows of it even occurring at all needed more exploring. I get that the mystery of the paranormal should leave something up to the reader’s imagination, but I think, as a reader, I needed just a little bit more to work with.
The Sight by Melanie Golding Faith has grown up in the Harrington Carnival and loves her life with the performers–but they haven’t always loved her family back. A strain of divinatory curse seems to afflict some of the women in her clan, and the rest of the circus seems to think having death-predicting soothsayers hanging around is extremely bad luck and probably not great for business. Her grandmother Daisy was more or less banished when she spoke of a tragedy she foresaw, and Faith, having acquired the same “gift” as a child, has experienced similar visions –and their consequences in terms of being ostracized from her carnival friends and family. Now a pariah with no income, Faith must find a way to pay for her terminally ill mother’s home care, and along with her best friend Betsy, they hatch a scheme to capitalize on Faith’s gift. But what happens when in one of her “Oracle of Death” visions, it is Faith herself who is seen wielding the knife responsible for a stranger’s death? This is a fairly straightforward thriller with a hint of the supernatural and a twisty bit that I will admit I saw coming about 3/4 of the way through, and I won’t say what it’s about or who it pertains to, but if you’re paying attention to what’s there in front of you–and maybe what’s not actually there–it will fall into place for you as well. I thought this was a fairly compulsive read weaving together ideas of fate and destiny, family and tradition, and death and loss.
The Stranger Upstairs by Lisa MatlinSocial media influencer and self-help author/therapist Sarah Slade thinks she’s hit upon a great idea–buy a notorious murder house, make renovations while documenting the whole thing and hopefully getting lots of likes and follows along the way, and then sell the restored home for a tidy profit. Right away, things seem a little weird; her husband barely wants to sleep in the house, no one local wants to do any work on the place, not only do the neighbors refuse to interact with them, but someone is actively trying to drive them away with threatening notes and dead rats, and even Sarah’s cat, Reaper, is acting off. The house, however, is the least of Sarah’s problems. The glossy social media facade hides a failing marriage, a past scarred by secrets, and, as it turns out, a host of mental, emotional, and pathological personality issues; Sarah is not the person her clients and employers believe her to be and for all of these reasons and more, she is probably not the best choice for providing anyone any therapy or counseling. As we watch as Sarah becomes ensnared in the house’s grip, we wonder if it’s the house itself or Sarah’s spiraling mental decline (and if you’ve read enough haunted house books in the past decade, you may have some other theories.) I enjoyed this story for its atmosphere and tension, and I loved the bones of the story itself. I even loved the *idea* of Sarah. I am not sure that I loved how the character herself was handled, especially all the wine-drinking. Far be it from me to say how characters suffering with substance abuse issues should be written, but something about Sarah’s drinking feels sloppily approached. Then again, alcoholism is kind of a sloppy thing to deal with (my family is full of them, so I feel like I can comment on this somewhat.) And this could just be a me-problem. But I found those portions of the book very uncomfortable to read. Otherwise, The Stranger Upstairs was pretty solid.
Dark Corners by Megan GoldinSo a lot of this murdery thriller following a true-crime podcaster took place around Daytona Beach. And as a more or less lifelong resident of the place (I moved away last year), I was curious to see if they could convey the true and utter nastiness and skeeziness of the shitty little town I grew up in. I don’t want to give the author too much of a hard time or focus on the wrong thing here. but a major plot point was an “influencer convention” that was being held at a hotel in Daytona, and the main character was unable to find a room anywhere because there were IT, energy, and medical conferences being held in town at the same time, and all of the hotels were full. Yeah…no. No one will ever have an IT, energy, medical, OR influencer convention in Daytona Beach, FL. Bikeweek? Sure. NASCAR? Of course. Anything that requires a few more IQ points is most assuredly not going to happen in Daytona. And the influencer convention would have to take place somewhere much more glamorous than the sandy cesspool of Daytona could offer. All that aside, the story of this podcaster getting pulled in by the FBI to find a missing influencer was compelling enough to tear through it in a few days, and I will say that reading about social media influencers is a lot of fun, like reading about rich people is always a hoot. It’s a trip to see how the other half lives. And technically, while I found the writing and the language to be pretty plain and simple, no bells or whistles, the pieces of the story came together in a satisfying way in the end.
Mister Magic by Kiersten White Is there anything weirder and eerier than a childhood mystery recalled through an adult lens? Something you may have done or experienced or been a part of that, in retrospect, as an older person, just seems so surreal and farfetched and bonkers that there’s no way that could have happened, you must have dreamed it or imagined it? That’s how a swath of internet users of a certain age feel about an eccentric show called Mister Magic that mysteriously disappeared from the airwaves many years ago and which, strangely, one can now find no evidence of having existed. There are no producers, transcripts, camera people, or records of the show online–the blog posts and message boards even speculating about it seem to vanish without a trace. But the child stars who were at the heart of the show are quite real and are being gathered together for a podcast interview, which may, in fact, be heralding a reboot of the show. Once reunited, the characters start to feel pieces of themselves clicking back into place, it feels like being home–but at the same time, something strange is happening, and the reconnecting that’s happening is more than just lonely adults reunited with old friends. Wounds are being reopened, and traumas are surfacing. There is so much from their past with this tv program that has been repressed or that they never realized the truth of, to begin with, and there is more at stake with the reboot than they could possibly know. The author seems to be exorcizing some intensely personal demons with the book–which once you think about the locale and start putting pieces together, you guess it before the story gets there. But whether you relate to or have experiences with that kind of trauma or not, this was a great read, and I tore through it in less than a day.
Maeve Fly by CJ Leede Oh my god. Imagine a love letter to Los Angeles, written by a savage, sociopathic Weetzie Bat; a Takashi Miike film inspired by a series of Lana del Rey songs; a main character who is a Disney Princess channeling Patrick Bateman. Imagine there is also a reference to “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” in these pages. You guys–the perfect book really does exist.
All the Dead Lie Down by Kyrie McCauley I really connected with our main character Marin. Always anxious, with a perpetual pit of dread in her belly, constantly fretting at how things can go wrong, a permanent state of caution and worry. And a perfect foil to Evie, the beautiful eldest sister to the girls Marin has been charged with nannying after her mother has died, and she has accepted an invitation to live with the Lovelace family at their secluded New England estate. Evie is bold and brash, and beautiful, and Marin is instantly intrigued. But the sisters are hiding something, and strange, unsettling things are happening in the old home and on the spacious, increasingly spooky grounds, and as Marin and Evie’s romance blossoms, a sinister decay deepens. I didn’t realize this was YA before I read it, but I found it to be the perfect balance of cozy-creepy atmosphere and charming love story, with some delightfully disturbing surprises.
Bluebeard’s Castle by Anna Biller So you take the Bluebeard story and give it a contemporary setting by way of a heroine obsessed with gothic romance tropes and 1950s Hollywood glamour and wrap it up in Anna Biller’s exquisitely packaged campy ambiance that borders on satire (but is it satire, or is it a very genuine homage?) as well as her very specific feminist philosophies revolving around catering to the male gaze and misogyny as a form of agency and empowerment, throw in some sketchy ghosts, family trauma, toxic friendships, terribly chic fashion, and salacious food porn and you have this head-scratcher of a book that you can’t seem to put down even though you find this brand of feminism too uncomfortable to either contemplate or participate in.
The Chateau by Jaclyn Goldis Four friends convene for a girl’s trip at a luxurious French estate, the ancestral home of grande dame Seraphine, who has called the women together for reasons of her own. There are tensions between the group from the start, and it’s not an entirely comfortable visit, despite the opulent accommodations. A shocking murder delays Seraphine’s revelations, however, and the four work mostly separately and against each other to unravel the mystery of the brutal crime–and why they were summoned to the chateau in the first place. Much in the way of secret, scandal, drama, and tragedy tangles these women together, and they’re not the most likable bunch, so it’s tough to know who to root for with these unpleasant characters. Despite that, this is definitely the sort of summertime twisty suspense r that I’m always happy to find and immerse myself in over the course of a June or July evening.
You Can Trust Me by Wendy Heard I had such a good time with this one! At first, as the story and the characters were being built up, I didn’t quite know where things were headed. Summer and Leo are two kindred spirits who found each other at just the right time in their lives. Summer is unbearably lonely having lived off the grid, with virtually no identity for her entire life, and gets by on her clever thievery and pickpocketing skills. Leo is a young woman who experiences a terrible tragedy, leaves home and winds up desperately panhandling in the streets of L.A. Their paths crossed, Summer took Leo under her wing, and they now live a free-spirited, nomadic lifestyle, stealing from clueless strangers and scamming bored rich men. And then, having come upon what she thought was a major score, Leo unknowingly targets the wrong billionaire and disappears somewhere on his luxurious private island. Frantic to reunite with her one true friend, Summer uses every trick up her sleeve to scam her way onto the island during an investor’s retreat so that she can get to the bottom of everything and bring Leo home safely. Despite being a somewhat twisty thriller, I loved how the themes of friendship, found family, and long-term effects of grief and loss were woven into the fabric of this story, and overall, I thought it was a really good time (which I always feel weird saying about murdery books, but eh, you like what you like.)
The Only One Left by Riley Sager The anticipation for a new Riley Sager book is exciting and nearly overwhelming. The plots, usually consisting of a woman realizing she’s in a strange/perilous/weird/haunted situation and trying to get to the bottom of things while staying alive, are the sorts of tales, written in Sager’s relatable (but never “basic”) voice and propulsive storylines, that immediately hook you and leave you breathlessly tearing through the pages. And then you get about 3/4 of the way through the book and realize, “Huh. Riley Sager’s done it again. I’m gonna hate how this ends, aren’t I?” The Only One Left, the story of a 30-something caregiver with a troubled past put in charge of caring for an old woman long suspected of murdering her entire family in an enormous crumbling cliffside mansion, is another one to add to the list. The stories sail along so thrillingly and adroitly, you can’t imagine how they’ll be wrapped up in a clever bow at the end…and that’s the thing. They never are. They always go off the rails in the most head-scratchingly unsatisfying way. This one plays out the same way. I know reviews are for readers, not authors, but Riley Sager, if you ever read this–I do actually love your books quite a bit, and I will be chomping at the bit to read every single new one you write. I don’t love how most of them end, but honestly, that’s a minor complaint. If I’ve enjoyed the journey–and I always do, Riley Sager– the ending isn’t the most important thing.
My Darling Girl by Jennifer McMahon If you’ve been looking for the Hallmark Christmas movie cozy-times version of an “is it family trauma or is it demonic possession?” horror novel, Jennifer McMahon’s My Darling Girl is everything you’ve been pining for. And you might think I’m saying that in a snarky, sneery way, but you know what? I am totally not. My advice? Save this for December when the wooly socks, hot chocolate, and twinkle lights come out of storage, and have a good time with it.
Her Little Flowers by Shannon Morgan Prickly middle-aged loner Francine lives with her occasional lodgers and her full-time ghosts in the relative isolation of her family’s crumbling estate. She spends her days tending her garden, immersing herself in herbal lore and the language of flowers, and silently communing with the various spirits on her property. Francine’s sister Madeline comes home to stay for a spell after the death of her 7th (!!) husband, and with Madeline’s arrival–which happens to coincide with the arrival of a handsome new lodger– there is no small amount of sudden and terrifying upheaval. Francine’s small world, kept so quiet and well-guarded, explodes around her in a whirlwind of long-kept secrets, terrible tragedies, and ghostly heartbreak. I found this story to initially be a bit meandering, but it picked up near the final chapters, and near the end, I was weeping uncontrollably.
The Fetishist by Katherine Min This book was an unexpected jolt, a startling “zjzjzjzzttt!!” metal fork to the socket of my reader’s soul. I had no idea what it was meant to be about other than a philandering Asian fetishist of a mediocre white man–but really, that’s just dumb Daniel, and that’s not even the whole of him, and he’s not even the half of it. There’s dazzling, dizzyingly passionate, and talented Alma, the love of his life, but whose orbit he felt eclipsed by; brittle desperate Emi whose affections he spurned; and furious, grief-stricken Kyoko–Emi’s daughter, hell-bent on vengeance, for she is convinced her mother died by suicide after Daniel ended their affair. Tackling themes of classism, racism, colonialism, and exploitation, as well as of regret, revenge, and redemption, and motifs of art and music and beauty, and language and imagery that is at turns bleak and playful (a passage in which comatose Alma, her coma toes, coma tossed comes to mind, hee!) these characters are full of surprises and The Fetishist is a singular and extraordinary book.
Malice House by Megan Shepherd Bamboozles and bonkers! I began reading this book because I thought it was one thing but it veered in a weird and wild direction and has become something else entirely! Is there a specific term/phrase/genre for the kind of book where everything goes along all normal-like, and then the story just veers sharply and becomes super weird and crazy? I am not talking about speculative fiction or magical realism. Have you read this book? Can you talk to me about what I’m getting at here. I also thought it was kind of funny that the character name-dropped Kelly Link (well, she mentioned Get in Trouble) and Victor LaValle.
Station Eleven by Emily Saint John Mandel People, patterns, the passage of time. Humanity, the interconnectedness of it all, this beautiful, lonely planet. This story is not at all what I thought it was going to be.
Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan A suburban neighborhood turns against a new family in a series of flashbacks and have never had a book make me feel so distressed and uncomfortable.
The Wanderers by Chuck Wendig in which I finally read a Chuck Wendig book and learn I am perhaps not a Chuck Wendig fan. Was this the wrong book to start with? It left a horrible taste in my mouth.
Carmilla: The First Vampire by Amy Chu this was an interesting adaption of Sheridan Le Fanu’s story, but is it weird to say that I wish that beautiful sofa had featured more prominently in the plot?
The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling was my first DNF of the year. I had to read 74 titles before I found one I couldn’t force myself to read; that should give you an idea of how patient I can be. I had my suspicions about it but gave it a go anyway. It turns out that I truly hate love stories. I got about a quarter through the book when I realized I was just wasting my time and could/should be reading something I enjoyed. Shortly thereafter, I had to do the same with The Quiet Stillness of Empty Houses by L.V. Russell (which sounds like something I should have enjoyed from the title, so I’m still a little sad about that one.)
Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire A really beautiful YA (?) thriller (?) about a school for children who tumble through doorways or portals to fantasy lands but who are cast back into the real world and who are now unmoored and adrift. The boarders at the school begin dying in brutal ways, and they must solve the mystery of what’s happening. I think this is a series?
Baby Teeth by Zoje StagePsychopathic Hannah terrorizes her mother because she wants her papa all to herself. It was an interesting premise, but I found Hannahs’s machinations remarkably sophisticated for a seven-year-old? I think I might have really enjoyed this book anyway.
Such Pretty Flowers by K.L. Cerra In investigating her brother’s gruesome death, Holly cozies up to (and with) his shady girlfriend Maura, a florist, who lives in an amazingly atmospheric gothic apartment, which was almost a character itself. And that’s…all I remember. I really loved the idea of that apartment, though.
The Island by Adrian McKinty Against her better judgment Heather, a young, new stepmother, goes on a side trip with her bratty stepkids and her husband to a remote Australian island, and not long into their jaunt, they meet a strange pair of brothers, part of the larger clan that owns the island, and a terrible tragedy occurs. Poor choices and bad decisions worsen things, and Heather and her family soon realize they may not make it off the island alive. I had a weird time with this book. Half the time, Heather annoyed me, I thought every time she opened her mouth, she made the situation worse, and yet she really was a great character, and this book had some unexpectedly beautiful writing, far more gorgeous than you’d think a story like this might have called for.
…again, just because I don’t have anything to say about these books doesn’t mean they weren’t good, or even great (looking at you, The Marigold!) My head’s just not in it at this point. Anyway, that’s it for this quarter!
What was your first brush with the fantastical? For me, and undoubtedly for many, it was a naughty little rabbit in a blue jacket stealing Mr. McGregor’s veggies. For others, it may have been a maddening and enigmatic cat teasing a girl lost in Wonderland and who disappeared, leaving only a grin. Or, for an unfortunate few, it may have been lions, tigers, bears, and OMFG, ARE THOSE FLYING MONKEYS? A terrifying squadron of soaring simians swooping down from the sky to snatch up unsuspecting little dogs and haunting nightmares for many years to come!
Though our grown-up appetites for fantasy creatures may have evolved beyond those of adorably floppy-eared childhood friends and expanded to include all manner of beasts with wings and horns, tails, and scales, we can’t deny that friendly or scary, naughty or nice, these creatures sparked our imaginations, populated our dreams and built the foundation for future stories and adventures. These small creatures were the gateway – or the guardians at the gate – to the magical critters and beasties that populate the fantasy media we consume as adults.
Today I am sharing a few of my favorite spreads from the Creatures Great and Small chapter of my forthcoming book. In these pages, you will find some old favorites, some older works that you may not have seen before, and loads of fantastical art from brilliant contemporary artists, too!
Thank you to these wonderful artists for permitting me to include their magical creatures in my little art book, and I do hope that -if you are not already familiar with them–you will peruse their accounts and websites and come to adore their creations as much as I do!
And I cannot wait to share more such fantastical art and artists in the upcoming days! In the meantime, you can pre-order The Art of Fantasy wherever books are sold, and I hope that you do! As you hear all the time from every author friend, preorders are incredibly helpful & so on and so forth.
So kindly do so, or perhaps consider sharing this post or tagging a like-minded friend with a penchant for art, fantasy, and all things marvelous and magical. Thank you!
Did you watch Darryl Hannah in Splash at a young age and dream for the next decade of diving into the ocean and magically becoming a mermaid with a sparkly orange tale? Did you regale your siblings with stories about fairy kingdoms and unicorn friends and revel in the imaginary worlds you created? Did you long to soar on a luck dragon, visit the Gelflings on the planet Thra, or envision yourself friends with a Fraggle? Were you a little weirdo who sat alone at recess or in the lunchroom, totally oblivious to what was going on around you, lost to the imaginative realms of immersive library books? Did you obsessively read pages and pages of D&D handbooks and manuals, familiarizing yourself with all kinds of monsters and spells and silently cursing yourself for being so shy and squirrelly because you’d love to actually have fantastical adventures with like-minded companions?
That was me! I did those things! (Or, in the case of Dungeons and Dragons, I never really did the actual thing, but that’s okay, RPGs are too much for this introvert!) I lost myself in fantasy via colorful fairytale picture books when I was younger; as a pre-teen, I grew into epic novels of the sword and sorcery variety, action-packed comic books, gritty contemporary folklore and fables, bizarre speculative fiction and weird tales, and of course, vast cinematic otherworlds –and whole other galaxies! – the fabulous and fantastic writ large on the big screen. And let’s not forget how I became a MtG enthusiast in my mid-30s!
I have been slipping into the other worlds of my imagination for as long as I can remember. It’s my favorite getaway, my default move. In short: I can’t help it! There is something irresistible about the imaginary, the uncharted and the unknown, worlds full of magic and mythical creatures, epic journeys across otherworldly landscapes filled with secrets and treasures. And I bet you’ve let me blather on about this for several paragraphs before busting out with I KNOW SARAH! I KNOW BECAUSE I DO THIS TOO! Well, okay, jeez.
So where is it that you disappear when you set reality aside, become entangled in a web of daydreams or lost in your own little world, and vanish into the fantastical landscape of your imagination? How are these far-flung realms of all that is incredible and unreal portrayed in the canvas of your mind? I don’t know about you, but I’d never be able to translate these highly imaginative but weirdly nebulous visions in my brain into some sort of tangible art form, but lucky for us, artists have explored imaginary worlds and fantastical creatures for centuries, expressing the mystical and mythical via various marvelous mediums.
Our most madcap adventures and extraordinary flights of fancy – the impossible stuff of daydreams and reverie – this is the fabulous realm of fantasy, and the spectrum of fantastic art is an abundant, richly diverse wonderland to explore. Artists throughout history have offered us myriads, multitudes, and multiverses of fantastical visions.
And I, in 2023, am pleased to announce that my forthcoming book, The Art of Fantasy: A Visual Sourcebook Of All That Is Unreal, is brimming with these irresistible artistic impulses…and it is available for preorder today!
Okay, so I’ll be honest with you. There are a lot of commercial enterprises tied up with fantastical art, some of them very big deal Intellectual Property, copyright, or franchise type of things, and so many artists/galleries/estates associated with these works are too big to notice lowly me or be particularly interested in contributing to my book. This made acquiring many of the works you might expect to see in a book like this pretty challenging; just look to my references in the first paragraph for an example or two of things I might have liked to have, but it was an utter impossibility*.
But you know what? Even with these struggles and issues, we were able to include SO! MANY! amazing artists and incredible works! I’m so unbelievably grateful for every single one of these creators, and there aren’t words enough to express my thanks. Some are beloved old favorites to soothe your soul, some I guarantee will be exciting new treats and surprises to thrill your eyeballs, and several for me personally– total dreams come true!
*I’m mentioning the absence of specific works or artists because I foresee a lot of fantasy-nerd-bros coming at me, hollering, “You forgot x/y/z!” and no, bro, I probably didn’t. Also, don’t be a bully; we’re all nerds here, we know better.
Anyway, here it is! Due out into this terrestrial realm on September 12, 2023, The Art of Fantasy is the third installment in my “Art in the Margins” series, along with The Art of the Occult and The Art of Darkness. I hope you will consider pre-ordering a copy today or, you know, sometime! And please check back here at Unquiet Things over the next few months for some sneak peeks, previews, and extra goodies!
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 WinningI 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 MichallonIt’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.
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.”
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?”
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.
I first officially learned of Argentinian artist Hector Garrido when attempting to figure out the artist of the livid, crimson-shrouded book cover with an aggressive succubus hollering at a raven under a bright, glowing full moon. “Hey, bird! Fuck you, bird!” is what I imagine that she’s shouting for reasons of her own, none of my business, probably.
I had originally seen it posted on someone’s Instagram, and those images are more annoying to grab for reverse image search purposes, but not impossible, so I found it (on Will Erickson’s blog, of course!) and here we are–it’s Hector Garrido!
…and it turns out that I have been enjoying Garrido’s art for YEARS without realizing it.
Of course, the Nancy Drew mystery books that I read when I was much younger were the hardback editions with a more dated look from an earlier era and a different artist, but a few years later, when I was 9 or 10 or so, I definitely recall finding the newer paperbacks in the library and being gobsmacked that you were allowed to update and change the way the characters in these books looked! But a pretty, intrepid young detective creeping up a cobwebby dark staircase is dreamy to my eye rendered by any artist’s hand, and I got used to the changes and even found myself getting excited to see various artistic interpretations of the stories and series that I love–and I remain thrilled to this day.
Another book I was surprised to see displaying the work of Hector Garrido was The Ghost Belonged to Me, by Richard Peck, one of the eerie Blossom Culp stories I loved as a child. I’ve written before of another one in this series, Ghosts I Have Been with cover art by Rowena Morrill, and I’m always so tickled when my search for a cover artist inevitably leads me back to these beloved tales and characters.
Garrido also did a lot of G.I. Joe art, but eh. Not interested in that. I know, I know, iconic formative stuff for lots of folks! Just not my bag. However, he also did covers for several of the Avon Satanic Gothic titles in the 70s and that most definitely would have been my little ten-year-old jam!
Sadly, while looking into his life and work, I only learned today that Hector Garrido passed away in 2020. In his own words, here’s a bio on this prolific artist of the lurid and lovely, baleful and beautiful.
“As a young artist I immigrated to the United States. I was professionally active here beginning in the 1950s. Beginning around 2000, I went into semi-retirement, painting devotional subjects. I am now retired.
I am best known to fans of GI Joe and for such book series such as The Three Investigators (I painted all the Crimebusters covers), Danny Dunn, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Destroyer (Remo Williams), and the Baroness.
My original artwork for GI Joe was featured on the 1980s-era merchandise packaging. For book publishers, I painted the covers of numerous sci-fi, (gothic) romance, and thriller/horror books. Perhaps most notably in the horror genre, I painted the iconic covers for TM Wright’s “Strange Seed”/”Children” series. I was also a Time Magazine cover artist, and my 1969 cover, “Astronauts” is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.”
You’ll find several albums of original paintings in Garrido’s flickr account, and here is a list at ISFDB of much, much more cover art that he was responsible for– though I don’t believe it to be at all comprehensive.
Below I’ve shared some of my favorites among the gothic romance covers he did, brimming with ghostly damsels and their requisite candelabras, haunted castles looming and leering, and ridiculously sumptuous with atmosphere and tension.
If you read a book and write a review for it and share that review on the internet, but then those websites with your reviews close down or rebrand, and your work disappears… did it even happen?
This is something I’ve been struggling with for a while, and being a stubborn so-n-so, I have tediously scraped archive.org for my past work and have managed to compile over 100 book reviews – almost 25K worth of writing! See below for an absolutely massive collection of book reviews, originally posted between 2016-2020. They’re all out of order, chronologically, and I wouldn’t suggest you read this straight through, anyway. It’s a lot. There’s not a human person on Earth with that kind of attention span! Maybe just bookmark it to peruse at your leisure when you need a random recommendation. Maybe skim through and pick out a few things for your Goodreads list. Maybe you find a review that you vehemently disagree with and leave me a comment telling me so!
Do with this as you will!
Darkly: Blackness and America’s Gothic Soul by Leila Taylor Darkly was an illuminating, insightful read that gave me pause with every sentence. Part personal memoir, part cultural critique, part valuable history lesson, Taylor meditates on the Black experience and gothic culture through a collection of observations on music, film, art, philosophy, architecture, decay, and violence– and through these observations invites us to more closely analyze and question the aesthetics of those dark things we hold dear.
Something that struck me, in particular, is where Taylor asserts that: “goth is above all privileging the imagination over reason, choosing the fanciful over the pragmatic, forgoing restraint for excess,” and she further comments on the privilege of this frivolity and how this ostentatiousness is typically seen as a sentiment only for white people. That Blacks must be ever vigilant (due to the very justified paranoia that they can’t afford distraction) and therefore there’s this sense of gravitas or this sense of pride that they’re supposed to keep up and aren’t allowed strangeness or bizarreness. In this interview she brings up the phrase that gets tossed around, “What kind of White nonsense is that?” and further posits the often unasked question, that ”how is it that white people are allowed nonsense, but somehow Black people are not?”
The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. Eh. It’s a mystery-thriller from Ruth Ware. A journalist goes on a bespoke, luxury cruise, thinks she hears someone being thrown overboard in the next cabin and investigates the incident after being told there was no one actually staying in that cabin. You either like this sort of thing, or you don’t. I don’t think Ware’s efforts are necessary staples of the genre, but they are pretty fun whodunits, why-dunits, and maybe-even-youdunits. Like…I’d pay full price for them at an airport bookshop, but I’d leave it on my seat for the next passenger because I don’t see the need to make it a permanent addition to my bookshelf.
I think what I exceptionally don’t love are her characters, which typically seem to be people with messy lives that are in some fashion or another, either slowly or spectacularly, going to shit. Which hey, that could be any of us. I can’t be too judgy, I guess. But these individuals are annoyingly reckless and irresponsible (or at least they seem so to me, but I can be a little stodgy sometimes, and also maybe I see something in them that makes me feel very uncomfortable about how carelessly I behaved in my twenties) and there’s something …disagreeable about them that makes me not very sympathetic to whatever corpse-ridden mess they find themselves in. However. I’m on my library’s waitlist for the new title from this author so what do I know, anyway?
The Witch Elm by Tana FrenchIf Ruth Ware is the “eh it’s ok” of the psychological crime thriller authors, then I would venture to say that Tana French is one of the luminaries of the genre. What I enjoy most, I think, about French’s stories, is that neither the plots nor the perspectives/point of view take a predictable course, the characters don’t know each other or themselves very well, and even the detectives can’t necessarily be trusted. In The Witch Elm, Toby is a carefree, #blessed sort who doesn’t have to try very hard at anything and things just generally turn out okay for him with no effort on his part. Until…they don’t turn out very okay at all, after a home break-in, during which he is beaten to within an inch of his life. Struggling to recover from his injuries with the realization that he might never be quite the same again, he and his inexplicably rock-solid girlfriend move into his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. During an extended-family visit, a skull is discovered in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden and as the mystery deepens over the course of the investigation, Toby begins to consider the possibility that his past may not be exactly the way he remembers it.
The girlfriend was so weirdly loyal that I was halfway expecting/hoping for her to have somehow orchestrated the whole home invasion incident AND have been responsible for the decades-old murder, but that’s just my imagination running away with me, and I guess thank goodness no one is counting on me to solve any crime. I enjoyed the heck out of this story, and it’s interesting to note that the plot is inspired by a real-life tragic and grisly unsolved crime.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia I am not sure what I can say about this highly-acclaimed book that hasn’t been said. I mean it’s on everyone’s “best of 2020” lists for a very good reason. In 1950’s Mexico, a well-to-do young woman travels to an isolated estate to investigate her cousin’s frantic claims that her new husband is trying to kill her. A glamorous heroine who is tough, smart, and funny; the creeping decay and dread of an ancestral home in which resides some truly detestable and disgusting characters, disturbing dreams, ghosts that walk through walls, and a wonderfully interesting and super gross twist on the mechanics of the familiar haunted house trope. What’s not to like?
Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due In a similar “most likely to have all the things I like” vein, these engaging short stories by Tananarive Due tick every box for what I want in a summer read. (I think I read this in September, so that still counts, as far as I am concerned!) A vast spectrum of supernatural business, characters that I care about, masterful writing that is emotive and nuanced but not super dense or difficult. It’s got everything!
Dark Archives by Megan Rosenbloom Medical historian and biblio-adventurer Megan Rosenbloom’s investigation of books bound in human skin doesn’t just reveal details about the anthropodermic books, or the collectors who greedily hoarded them, or the craftspeople who created them; she passionately and humanely explores the people these books used to be. Along the way we learn of gentleman doctors in their mahogany-shelved libraries, flaunting strange collections; the gruesome and clandestine theatrics of midnight corpse-thieving grave robbers, midwives to royalty, 19th-century highwaymen in their final hours, poets and paupers, murderers and scientists–but as full as this book is of characters, Dark Archives provides an emotional examination that renders these pages, and I am quoting from The LA Times here, “…surprisingly intersectional, touching on gender, race, socioeconomics, and the Western medical establishment’s colonialist mindset.”
Malorie by Josh Malerman. A Bird Box sequel exists. I read it. It was fine. Fast-paced, intense. It felt like it was missing something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on (maybe an extra 50 pages?) Maybe a bit rushed, sort a “direct to video” vibe. Also, like it was literally written for the screen. I finished it in the span of an afternoon, so I can’t say it didn’t keep my interest, but there are probably more interesting entries on this list. See directly below.
Bunny by Bunny Awad The less I say about this one, the better. It’s wild. One of the most imaginative things I have ever read. Dark and funny and wicked and perfect, and the setting is one with which I’ve developed a fair bit of a fixation. I have a peculiar fondness for characters deeply involved in high-level educational pursuits, especially in niche or obscure areas of study. I think it’s because I lived at home and worked crazy-stupid hours at a fast food restaurant while I attended community college classes–most of which I only showed up for half of the time because I have immense anxiety when it comes to classroom settings.
My failure to properly fulfill what I guess has been beaten into my brain as a sort of “All-American scholastic obligation” has led to a deep sense of shame about my lack of credentials* but has over time cultivated a deep and abiding fascination with the whole university experience– especially the weird sort of bubble that students who live on campus, who do not have to work to support themselves, and who are consumed with their research and studies, seem to exist in. Anyway, I did say I wasn’t going to divulge much about this book, and I did not! I mostly talked about myself! A bunch of Goodreads reviewers apparently thought it was too weird and it broke their poor, dumb brains, but if you revel in stories that elicit gleeful hisses of “whaaaaat the fuuuuuuck?!” then I am certain you will enjoy the bizarre delights of this wonderfully demented little gem.
*Which is not to say I am regretful about my lack of education in this context; I 100% do not wish to be saddled with decades of student debt, but I’ll admit to a certain insecurity about my lowly associates degree that took me the better part of ten years to obtain.
Where The Wild Ladies Are by Aoko MatsudaThe stories in this collection are loosely based on traditional Japanese tales of yokai, the ghosts and monsters that figure prominently in the country’s folklore. At turns clever, tender, and empowering, and brimming with strange wonders coexisting with mundane, everyday scenarios, Where The Wild Ladies Are is a lighthearted and whimsical-bordering-on-absurdist exploration of these classic stories and the supernatural beings that cavort amongst them, through a contemporary, feminist lens.
Spectral Evidence by Trista Edwards I haven’t read much in the way of poetry recently…or any poetry in these last ten or eleven months at all, come to think of it. And if there was any year that we needed a breath of the poetic and sublime to transcend this timeline, even for the space of a moment or two–it is now.
I received this volume of poems and illustrations a few months ago, and I am working my way through the collection, each line aquiver with a predestined sadness, the tragedy of an unavoidable outcome that you’re determined to see through. These poems evoke the foreknowledge of the moment when everything changes, but how you keep marching toward it, and somehow even returning to it. To look backward on your innocence and forward toward your annihilation. How you can’t have it both ways, except when you can.
The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear on Film by Matt GlasbyThough I’m a life-long fiend for all things horror, my love for the genre does tend to wax and wane. Sometimes I become a bit unplugged, only to dive back in with a voracious ferocity that’s probably a bit alarming from an outsider’s perspective. Matt Glasby’s The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear on Film, and has marvelously rekindled my love for all things horrid, haunting, and harrowing. Glasby examines some of the most frightening films created and explores with us what it is exactly, that makes them so scary. Which sounds like it might be a dry, scholarly affair, but it’s not even a bit! The analysis is tightly written, wryly humorous, and exceptionally insightful, and, coupled with the spare elegance of the striking black and white artwork—I’m utterly immersed and enthralled and I haven’t been able to put it down.
Foe by Ian Reid I can’t even believe that I read another book by this author. I was SO MAD when I finished I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, I wanted to throw it into the sea. But I am a fool and also a bit of a masochist, and when I saw that Reid had published a new title, I thought “why not?” This time, though, I went into it prepared, knowing that nothing is quite what it seems and that things may get twisty…
Junior and his wife, Hen live a sedate, solitary life on their farm, far from others. Just the two of them and their chickens. We learn that keeping livestock has been banned; through this and a few other subtle details, we realize that some things have happened and that the world Junior and Hen are living in is a little bit different than the one we inhabit.
A stranger unexpectedly shows up at their doorstep one evening to inform them that Junior has been selected to travel far away; in fact, he may be going into space to begin the installation of a new settlement. Hen does not seem especially unsettled or surprised by this shocking news. But this is not all. We later learn that to reduce the trauma of having an absent spouse, Hen will be provided with a replacement–someone who, while not exactly Junior, will be nearly indistinguishable from him–to keep her company, while he is away.
I went into this story knowing that I need to pay attention to what’s NOT being said, but also, to take exactly what is being said very, very literally. I don’t know if these tactics spoiled my feelings about the ending or not because I figured out exactly where the story was going long before it got there. Regardless, this is a riveting, immersive read and a tense, intrusive, and not entirely comfortable exploration of the intricacies of relationships and human nature/human consciousness. Again, I can’t believe I am even saying this… but I am insisting that you absolutely must read Foe.
What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna-Attishais an account of the Flint water crisis by is the relentless physician who stood up to those in power in order to address a gross environmental injustice and save the city she loved. Dr. Hanna-Attisha writes compellingly, compassionately, and with such an intensity, that you feel like you’re there in the trenches with her, just trying to get somebody, anybody, to pay attention to her urgent findings of the elevated levels of lead in her tiny patients’ bloodstreams…
Alongside What The Eyes Don’t See, I read Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp, and this, too, is a wonderfully gripping, engaging book–but in a very different way. Flint’s inhabitants, especially the children, need lead-free water for all kinds of important health and developmental reasons; that is a book about water, the vital role that it plays in our lives, and the unconscionable negligence on the part of the government to keep it safe. Floating Gold, however, follows one man’s obsessions and adventures concerning ambergris, a kind of disgusting substance that is basically impacted dung, forcefully expelled from a sperm whale and used at one time to flavor rich people’s food or as a component in posh fragrances. Ambergris is an astoundingly expensive ingredient, sometimes costing more per ounce than gold, and an element in certain luxury items for people who, I imagine, would never have to worry about lead in their water. That’s probably a sweeping generalization, but in comparing these two books–both about stuff happening in water, both fascinating and informative, yet in the end so very different–it’s a conclusion that I couldn’t ignore.
Adrift: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea by Tami Oldham Ashcraft I guess the inadvertent theme for this month was “water”? I saw the trailer for this film maybe half a dozen times earlier this year, and although my interest was slightly piqued by this story of love and loss and survival at sea, ultimately, I knew it was nothing I would ever sit and watch in a theatre. I probably wouldn’t even watch it if it was on Netflix and I didn’t have to leave the house. Movies like this (romance? adventure?) are generally not my cuppa. When I found out it was based on a book (originally titled Red Sky In Mourning), ah–well, that’s a different story, so to speak. It’s weird, but I’m totally okay with spending two days reading what I wouldn’t even consider spending two hours watching. Tami, an adventurous young woman and experienced sailor, meets and falls in love with Richard, an equally spirited, thrill-seeking guy. They set out from Tahiti to deliver a yacht to San Diego, and two weeks into their journey they find themselves in the midst of a catastrophic hurricane, during which Tami is knocked out while down below deck, and Richard is swept overboard. From there on it’s a 41-day day of survival, in a crippled boat, out in the middle of the Pacific ocean. With a whole bunch of flashback scenes to spice things up, because being stranded alone doesn’t actually make for exciting reading, I guess. Now, the movie trailer would have you believe certain things that you immediately find out are not true at all, if you are reading the story in the book. That’s all I’m going to say about that, because maybe you want to read this or watch the film, and I don’t want to spoil it entirely. I feel like an asshole after reading the glowing reviews; I can’t deny the author’s vast courage and resourcefulness, but I’m a picky reader, and something about the author’s tone and the way she told the story just…annoyed me. I think this book could have benefitted from a ghostwriter.
How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals Sy Montgomery Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and author with a great passion for animals and the world around us, whose words and voice and tone, unlike Tami Oldham Ashcraft above, I quite enjoy. I suppose that’s a little unfair; Tami Oldham Ashcraft was a sailor with a tremendous story to tell, but who, as far as I know, is not actually a writer; conversely, making words say things to connect with people is how Sy Montgomery earns a living. I guess she had better be good at it! In How To Be A Good Creature, she reflects upon thirteen animals, both of the commonplace and exotic variety, who affected her life in profound and surprising ways. It’s a very charming book, and while not exactly revelatory in the information it puts forth regarding the various creatures, it’s written very personally with a lot of heart, there are some lovely illustrations, and overall, it’s just a wonderfully sweet book. I do think this would be a perfect hexmas holiday gift for that dear animal-lover on your list.
Calypso by David Sedaris I discovered David Sedaris from the BPAL forums at just precisely the right time in my life. I was newly released from a two-week stay at, well, I don’t know what they call it in New Jersey– but in Florida, where I grew up, we always referred to it as the 1400 ward…or, I suppose, it is better known as “Behavioral Services”. Over a decade later, I still haven’t decided how I feel about calling it my reason for being there a “suicide attempt”, although from a certain perspective…or any perspective, really…I am not sure what else you could call it. At any rate, I was home again. And just as sad, and lonely, and miserable as before I left. The one thing getting me through the joyless gloom of my days were online interactions with my friends on the one forum on the internet that I felt most comfortable frequenting. I would often lose myself in various random threads on this online space for weird perfume oil enthusiasts , and in doing so, I found solace in various recommendations of the titles that some of these similarly bookish folks were currently reading. I checked out a few David Sedaris books from the library, and quite all at once, a great love–instant and utterly electrifying–was born. On so many levels I identified with his absurd stories of his deeply fucked up family and his bitter, clever, eccentric humor, and I can’t deny that laughing until I thought I might pee myself felt loads better than crying until I was hoarse and wishing I were dead. Calypso, his latest offering, is more of that same perverse intimacy and sardonic wit and biting observations (some so stark and cruel that you feel guilty for laughing, but you can’t help yourself), as he reflects on aging and mortality…and feeding tumors to turtles.
Angels of Music by Kim Newman. Kim Newman (Anno Dracula, etc.) is an author who I’ve been meaning to read for years now, but never got around to it until Angels of Music was thrust upon me by a well-meaning friend at a holiday party last month. Newman writes a heady brew of horror, crime, fantasy noir, and this title in particular combines a measure of each of these fantastical elements–imagine if you will, a Victorian Charlie’s Angels, as masterminded by The Phantom of the Opera. Written serial-style, the book comprises five separate adventures with a revolving door of familiar faces as the titular Angels–we spend time with such noted characters as Lady Snowblood, Eliza Doolittle, and Irene Adler as the Phantom’s team of elite female agents who repeatedly save Paris from diabolical masterminds. If it sounds ridiculous, well, it is, just a little. But you’ll be having too much fun with it to care.
Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny I am somewhat ashamed to say I have never been keen on reading non-fiction. Books are a means of escape for me, and I don’t fancy an escape to real-world problems, thank you very much. But I’m realizing more and more that our current social and political climate does not call for once-upon-a-times and fairy tales, and so I intend to fortify my knowledge and educate myself accordingly. Unspeakable Things is an excellent place to start: intensely personal and somewhat autobiographical, Penny writes unapologetically on gender and power and love and feminism in vivid, witty, com/passionate language; a cry for awareness, a challenge, and a call to arms, Unspeakable Things is a powerfully vital manifesto, and though not always a comfortable read, it should prove to be not too painful for non-fiction phobes.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu, a thrillingly creepy supernatural re-telling of that Donner Party business, peopled with vividly imagined characters, gripping, chaotic drama, and a gorgeously ghastly atmosphere of pervasive fear. And now I’m pretty sure that now you can’t convince me that this author’s vision of those terrible events aren’t exactly how it did happen those many years ago.
Experimental Film, by Gemma Files my friend Sonya mentioned this book some time ago, and I knew right away it was something I’d enjoy…and I did! A deeply strange but excellent story, a sort of pseudo-documentary, rich in history and myth and weird technical details, about a mystery many decades old and how it begins to seep into the life of the woman obsessed with it.
Final Girls by Riley Sagerthis was trashy vacation reading, hinging on that old “final girls” chestnut–you know, the girl who survived the brutal massacre, the grisly killing, the violent murders &etc., and which picks back up in the happily ever after, when these women, who have suffered these different experiences and have been trying to live out their lives normally, meet up and seem to be targeted again by a mysterious killer. It was a fun read for a while and then it began to annoy and anger me, probably because it shifted from dumb fun to just…stupid foolishness. I’ve never seen a protagonist make so many poor choices in the course of a story! Also it felt like some sort of weird cautionary tale about too much xanax– which, as someone who is too highly strung for xanax to have any effect on…I really just can’t take that seriously.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell Haunted, isolated mansions; unreliable, possibly unstable narrators; terrifying works of art that may or may not be possessed by evil spirits; paranoid villagers; secret diaries; creepy children–this book ticked all of my weirdo boxes, and I have to tell you, provided some of the most tense, edge-of-my-seat reading in recent years.
Kabiyo: The Supernatural Cats Of Japan by Zack Davisson. I adored Davisson’s previous book, Yurei: The Japanese Ghost, an exploration of the various ghosts found in Japanese culture, conveyed via warm, relatable anecdotes, deep research, and translations of many centuries’ worth of Japanese ghost stories. It was a pleasure to read, and felt like sitting for coffee with an old friend who had the most wonderful tales to tell. Kabiyo: The Supernatural Cats Of Japan, while just as fascinatingly informative and even more sumptuously illustrated, seemed dry in comparison and lacking in that lovely warmth that so captivated me previously. A worthwhile read for the data and the sublimely absurd imagery, but of the two, I’d recommend Yurei over Kabiyo.
The Terror by Dan Simmons I started watching this nautical horror period piece about a legendary arctic expedition on AMC, and was immediately hooked, but was hesitant to read the actual book because the only other thing I’d read by Dan Simmons–Carrion Comfort–was pretty gross and left a bad taste in my mouth. Also because The Terror is approximately one million pages long. This is not to say I’m intimidated by a hefty tome, but I’ve got stacks and stacks of neglected reading materials, so I’m always a little hesitant to commit to a title whose heft could effectively bludgeon to death a circus strong man. I was additionally a little concerned that I’d be assaulted with all sorts of dry information about ships and sails and jibs and hulls and whatnot, and eh, I don’t need to know all that, do I? Don’t bore me with details! Well, I needn’t have worried; there were loads of details, but somehow they were all fascinating; perhaps because this was a masterfully crafted tale, and each piece of it seemed equally as important as the other. The descriptions of the character’s perceptions of the unknowable geography of the region where they’ve become trapped reminds me of many things that I love about my favorite Algernon Blackwood tales, the terror of being alone and out of your depth in a vast and unknown landscape, how alien, dangerous and even malevolent nature can seem when you’re out in the middle of it and floundering. There is monster in this story, but I feel that it takes a back seat to the monstrous acts of cruelty which emerge amongst members of the crew, and even to the fiendishly brutal terrain itself. Now that I’ve finished the book, I am even more excited to revisit the program and see where it goes.
Little by Edward Carey When Goodreads first recommended this title to me, I thought, “haven’t I already read this book?” But I was getting Little by Edward Carey confused with Little, Big by John Crowley, which I read several years ago and which I enjoyed much more. These stories aren’t terribly similar, though, so maybe you should just read them both and take them on their own merits and then decide for yourself. Little is one of those books that I am glad I didn’t know much about beforehand. It follows the life of young Marie (“Little”, as she comes to be called) a small, pinched and peculiar-looking orphan, who comes to be the ward of an equally odd and eccentric wax maker. The story chronicles their life together in Revolutionary Paris as Marie makes her way through a life that is never easy, and quite frequently pretty awful. Perhaps as soon as you read these sentences, you’ll hone in on a telling detail, and begin to build a picture for yourself of the trajectory of this story and who Marie is meant to be, but somehow–maybe because I am a dummy–it didn’t even dawn on me where things were headed. Reading about characters who can’t ever seem to catch a break is not the sort of story I can comfortably classify as “enjoyable”, and yet, I do think I enjoyed the book overall. (I still think I liked “Little, Big” better though!)
Becoming by Michelle ObamaI didn’t finish this title, but not because it wasn’t excellent. This is mainly due to the fact that I was like, number eight hundred on the list at our local library of people waiting for our amazing former FLOTUS’s book, and I was only allotted two weeks to read it. This was a title that I definitely could not return late, as I didn’t want to delay someone else’s enjoyment of it! I’ll be honest with you, I was weepy before I even got all the way through the introduction. Just to know that I was alive and on this planet at the same time as this tremendously strong, beautiful woman and her equally incredible husband, is an extraordinary feeling–and even now it excites and inspires me. I loved this book for the opportunity to learn much, much more about Michelle Obama: her childhood and family life, her college years and early career before she met her husband; her fierce intelligence and her wonderful sense of humor; her compassion and drive to do more and better for her daughters, her community, and the world at large; her strength and resilience, and even her quirks and flaws and shortcomings. She writes in the loveliest, friendliest conversational tone; you almost feel like are are both sharing space in the same room as she is sharing her life story directly with you. I desperately wish that I could have finished the book; I just kept telling myself, “…just make it to the part where Barack Obama becomes President!” and I did. And then I cried some more before sliding it through the library’s after-hours drop-off box.
The King Of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany is one of the five specific books I was designated to read from my 2019 reading challenge. It was a bit of a slog. The kingdom of Erl is lacking in magic. The king sends his son, the prince, to Elfland to procure the Elf King’s daughter as a bride, and to then bring magic into the lands of men. The Prince kidnaps the Princess, marries her, and they produce a son. Despite the fact that he was tasked with finding a mythical, magical wife, and that’s exactly what he got, he soon grows exasperated and embarrassed that his enchanted elfin bride can’t get used to the ways of men, or act normal like all the other boring human peasant-muggles in their backwater little town. The Prince gets huffy and impatient with his wife on several occasions because of her inability to acclimate and in trying to shame and control her, just generally plays the part of the mediocre, privileged, white male that he truly is. The princess, sensing that her husband might be an utter moron who doesn’t actually even know what he wants, leaves both him and their son behind, and runs back home to Elfland and her father. The Prince then spends the rest of the story wandering the countryside, searching for the border to Elfland so that he can get her back. UGH. This was a tiresome story, and it took me 5 years to read it. However, if you can stick it out, the last twenty pages or so are totally worth it, when the awesome witch Ziroonderel tells off a bunch of doddering old farts and marvelous magics starts to creep into the land, whether anyone wants it there or not.
You by Caroline Kepnes When my sister messaged me to share that she was watching a certain show on netflix and she wanted me to watch it as well, so that we could hate all of the horrible characters together…of course I was on board in an instant, as hating awful people with someone you love is one of life’s great bonding experiences. I inhaled it, despite the fact that her request came with trigger warnings and content warnings: it was a show about a psychotic/sociopathic (??) stalker, and she was worried that because of some past issues and trauma I have dealt with, it might not be a great watch for my overall mental health. Which…it was not at all, by any means, healthy for me to watch, but hating on these awful characters was so much fun that it completely trumped caring for my emotional well-being, and I watched it anyway.
(The main character, by the way, is played by Penn Badgley–Dan from Gossip Girl–the setting is somewhere in NYC, and the characters are all frivolous and ridiculous, so the whole time I watched, I just kept expecting smug voiceover narration from Kristen Bell in her Gossip Girl voice, along with extravagant, utterly luxurious brunch spreads.)
I soon realized that this dumb show was based on a book, and so of course, I had to subject myself to even more if it. I read it in the course of an afternoon, and it was equally as trashy and silly as the show. The plot, for me, was a little scary because while it sounds like this stalker is really over the top and goes to a lot of trouble regarding the object of his obsession (hacking her email and social media accounts, breaking into her home, pretending to be someone else online so that he can get information on her from her friends, etc.) and it sounds like these are really outlandish things that are a lot of work, and who has that kind of time, right? No one really does that, right? I’m here to tell you, I know one person who did. And they did it to me. So if you think this is happening to you–don’t worry if you sound crazy or paranoid. People actually do this crazy, fucked-up shit. Sometimes, in my darkest, loneliest moments, I worry that it still may be happening, even now. But…I still devoured this stupid book anyhow. Aside from the fact that sometimes it’s lovely to lose your afternoon to stupid enjoyment, I am at the point in my life where I don’t want to ignore the things that scare me. I know this was a work of fiction, but maybe it’s smarter to know your enemy, than to stick your head under the sand and pretend this stuff doesn’t happen.
Some spooky horror stuff: The Siren And The Specter by Jonathan Janz was a lurid, layered haunted house/ghost story, and that particular flavor of sleazy and deranged reading that used to titillate the heck out of me when I was about eleven years old. I would stock up on the cheap horror paperbacks with the craziest covers from the local used bookstore, stories that aroused feelings of both repulsion and obsession that I’ve never since recaptured until reading this book; Kill Creek by Scott Thomas is another haunted house tale, one in which a handful of modern masters of the horror genre are invited to stay for an evening for some sort of internet publicity stunt, and the usual sort of thing ensues. That’s a really lame review; I don’t actually remember it all that well, but I mention it because I hear Showtime is picking it up, so if you’re into this sort of thing, you may want to give it a read before it airs! I devoured In The House In The Dark Of The Woods by Laird Hunt over the course of an afternoon from a flight back from NYC; this witchy woodland fever dream of a tale, set in colonial New England, is utterly immersive and twisty and strange, and I loved every moment of it. And if you like twisty and strange, When I Arrived At The Castle by Emily Carroll is a deliciously eerie, magnificently illustrated, Gothic horror fairy tale nightmare-poem with the twisty and strange dialed waaay up.
We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix I wish I could have read Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls when I was 15 and heavy metal was the only thing my weird, lonely heart understood. But time doesn’t work like that, so here I am now, reading a horror-enveloped love-letter to heavy metal music at 42 years of age, and damn if it didn’t throb & thrum my heart in the same thunderous, fearsome ways. I’m a little biased, I suppose. I have loved just about everything Grady Hendrix has ever written; and while know I can always count on him for ridiculous hilarity (even and especially when it comes to horror), what I was not expecting was something so incredibly heartfelt. The story: decades after her rock-n-roll band was on the cusp of their “the big break”, main character Kris Pulaski is barely scraping by, toiling away at her dismal hotel job, and definitely not playing her heart out with the music she loves anymore. What happened that night, that strange distressing night so long ago, when the band was teetering on the brink of greatness? What pervasive evil has insinuated itself into the lives of her former bandmates and is pursuing her to the brink of madness? We Sold Our Souls is a thrilling extravaganza celebrating the enormous power of music, as well as a bleak reckoning with the consequences of “selling out”…and possibly losing your soul in the process.
Meddling Kids by Edward Cantero A tongue-in-cheek horror-comedy mixture of Lovecraftian cosmic horror and Scooby Dooian hijinx, this was a quick, silly read that I couldn’t totally find myself immersed in because I had a real problem with the author’s specific use of similes and metaphors. Which, I KNOW, I can’t pick on someone else’s writing (or editor, I guess) when I am not exactly sure that I even know the difference between the two, but I found the author’s use of wink-wink nudge-nudge pop culture-y type comparisons and analogies awfully irritating and gross, and every time I encountered one it took me just a little bit more out of a story that I might have otherwise enjoyed. Or maybe not, and here’s my second issue with the book. This story is full of references; it’s definitely meant for the horror geek who delights in their knowledge, but whereas the heavy metal mentions and allusions in We Sold Our Souls just felt…right…all this bludgeoning me over the head with teen detective references and genre nostalgia sort of felt like the neckbeardy masturbatory nonsense of Ready Player One. OK–maybe not THAT bad (I really loathed Ready Player One) but it was getting close to that sort of twaddle. And yet, all of my unkind complaints aside, it was sort of a fun story along the lines of “the old team coming together to solve one last mystery!” and all of the twists and turns along the way. So, I guess I don’t …totally…not recommend it?
The People In The Castle: Selected Strange Stories by Joan Aiken –I have been meaning to read this Joan Aiken collection since June of 2016, when I had allotted it, among others, for my summer reading stack. Of course in 2016 I was still catching up on my 2014 reading, so it stands to reason that I’m just now getting around to inhaling this marvelous book of tales. It’s got an intro from Kelly Link, whose brilliant, peculiar writings I love all too well, and if that doesn’t sell you right off the bat, I will tell you that when I read the first story in The People In The Castle, I thought, “ah, so then, this is sort of a cross between Roald Dahl and Leonora Carrington!” In further exploration, however, I found that Aiken’s imaginings are not the sometimes frustratingly surreal flights of fancy that Carrington composed but rather earthier, more practical things. More realistic? No, I would not say that at all, and thank goodness! There are ghost puppies and exotic magics and infernal orchestras galore–but they are experienced by people very much like you and I, living out their lives–people with families, with work situations, people with hopes and dreams, and minute, daily dramas. There’s a subtle but really wonderful humor present in these stories, which prompted the Roald Dahl comparison, but where I think his stories sometimes have awful and unhappy (but kinda funny) things happening to people (and granted, they are sometimes awful and unhappy people) there is a tinge of something sly and dark in his narratives that I don’t find at all in the selections I have read by Aiken. Instead, the tone seems to me one of bright, lively, and benevolence, and coupled with that enchanting thread of dream logic that runs throughout these stories, sometimes glinting brightly, sometimes so faint that it’s but a winking phantom gleam–it is likely these are gentle, magical romps that you could read to children. Except, in several of these vignettes, I will admit, I felt that there was something going on that I didn’t quite understand…something of some importance that lay just beyond my grasp. That, too, is part of their charm, and who better than a child to perceive this and yet still be totally okay with it? Sometimes not everything makes sense. And most times, that’s where the magic lies.
The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski After reading this book of delirious interludes I’ve begun to think of Jenny Diski as Joan Aiken’s spiky, sexy, cynical cousin; Diski’s stories are not the gentle, magical romps from Aiken’s magical realist bag of tricks, but rather feel like more adult enchantments, strange pleasures and dreams, denied or deferred, or which at the very least frequently don’t manifest as hoped or planned. Short Dark Oracles by Sara Levine is a wonderfully clever collection of playful, self-aware, and charmingly awkward story/fables. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander isa heart-wrenching alternative history of devastating rage, radioactivity, and elephant song, is a compact story that is by no means a quick or easily forgotten read. And The Taiga Syndromeby Cristina River Garza follows an ex-detective’s feverish, poetic quest to find a woman who has run away from her husband to the forbidding boreal forests of the taiga, and who may or may not want to be found.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson.Because I am a contrarian (and also because I had zero interest in organizing or de-cluttering) I have been ignoring Marie Kondo and her KonMari madness for years. I like my stuff, thank you very much, and I really have no wish to get rid of it. (“Likes her stuff, and does not like change”– I will give you one guess as to my sun sign!) I recall, though, when this book was released a few years back, I was vaguely intrigued …by the name, at the very least. If I had to choose between the two, which is a tad unfair because I haven’t read the KonMari one, I would point you instead to this 80-something year old woman’s infinitely practical and wonderfully charming thoughts on a sensible way to deal with your possessions as you approach your later years. Less about “sparking joy” than it is, “do I really want my family to have to take care of this shit while they are grieving after my passing?” I related to and internalized her ideas immediately. After having dealt with the deaths of my mother and my grandparents, I have more experience than I would like with cleaning up the messy remnants of someone’s life, while at the same time, having to reconcile myself to the fact that they are no longer around to ask, “hey, what do you want me to do with this stuff?” Knowing what I know know, having gone through that process myself–I would never do that to someone. It’s too much to ask, don’t you think? Read this book. Get your shit together. And then get rid of it.
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach. I am super late to the writings and ruminations of Mary Roach and I am cursing myself for wasting so much time. She writes in that murky intersection of the disgusting, the taboo, and the intensely fascinating, and sheds her unique light on what she uncovers there. I’m just going to say it: Mary Roach is the kind of writer I aspire to be, or at least I would, if I wished to put any real effort into my writing and I wasn’t so afraid of failure. Her boundless curiosity, sly humor, shrewd understanding of her subject matter, along with the clever, cunning language she employs in conveying the information she has uprooted, has endeared her to me in a way that I am not certain that any other author ever has. If there is a question to be asked, no matter how weird, or gross, or unthinkable–she is going to dive in and get an answer for it. I have a keen admiration for journalists and writers, who, when interviewing a subject, can simultaneously digest the answers provided by the subjects of their queries, and race to make connections with these responses and from them to extrapolate parallel lines of intriguing query–and in doing so, suss out further explanations and implications and answers that you might not have even expected (or wanted!) For example, from Gulp, a book exploring our bodies’ mechanism of eating, digestion, and elimination, how can you not admire this exchange between Roach and Betty Corson? Corson is a Beano staff member who shared with Roach a few details on the kind of people who called the Beano Hotline– for various problems of a gassy and flatulent nature–and which led to the following exchange:
“Why not just avoid legumes? Some people can’t, said Corson. I challenged her to provide a single instance of a human being forced to eat beans. She came back with “refried-bean tasters.” They exist and they have called the hotline. Can you imagine?”
Refried bean tasters! They exist! Of the numerous tidbits of information contained in this book, like so many pieces of corn that pass through your digestive system to wind up…well…you know where…this bean info is actually one of the least disgusting you’ll learn about, but oh, man. Stick around for the rest of the journey. It’s a wild ride.
I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist I am not sure if I should call this horror, or mystery, or what, but I Am Behind You is a surreal, thrilling story that begins on a perplexing and preposterous morning as campers in their caravans awaken to realize, with sinking stomachs and mounting terror, that where they awoke is not quite the same place as where they fell asleep. Packed with uncanny atmosphere, high tension, and characters haunted by more than just their current circumstances, I Am Behind You shows us a place where nightmares are real, events have no explanation, and places no longer exist. What does one do in such a disturbing situation? That’s where the idea gets interesting, while we inhabit each character’s perspective as they struggle with their eerie predicament. If you like a straight-forward, clear-cut ending, you may find this a frustrating read, but apparently this is the first in a trilogy, so perhaps more answers are forthcoming!
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi if you enjoy stories like Pachinko, an epic, sprawling saga about Korean immigrants living in Japan between 1910 and now, then I think it is safe to say you will enjoy Homegoing as well. A breathtaking, emotional, multi-generational tale of a family split between Africa and America, this is a story rich and throbbing with both compassion and misery, and characters who desperately, fiercely live and love in the fleeting glimpses we see of them, in these chapter-long vignettes where time and history, politics, history, and gender interplay. A tale that plays out over many lifetimes and is o doubt is inspired in part, by the question asked by one of the book’s 20th century descendants:
“You must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story, too.”
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed SaadawiVictim or villain? Truth or tall-tale? It is never completely one or the other. “Isn’t life a blend of things that are plausible and others that are hard to believe?” muses Mahmoud, a journalist caught up in a story he cannot reconcile in his wildest imaginings, and yet one in which he is living every day. Frankenstein in Baghdad, a modern, satirical adaptation of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, is a novel of contradictions and gray areas and what it means to be human (or not-quite-human) living in this contradictory world and navigating these gray, uncertain spaces. One of the book blurbs mentions “the terrible logic of violence and vengeance” and this perfectly encapsulates the unrelenting everyday horrors of a rubble-strewn city in the midst of war, as well as the monstrous creation borne of that violence, now stalking its midnight streets and a exacting brutal revenge.
Washington Black by Esi EdugyanYoung George Washington Black, “Wash,” a slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is taken somewhat under the wing of a new master’s eccentric brother, Christopher. A tragedy occurs, one for which Wash will surely be blamed, and both he and Christopher (or, “Titch”, as his family calls him), escape via Titch’s experimental hot-air balloon contraption. Thus begins a series of world-spanning journeys for a pair whose paths and fates would seem linked at this point, but for Wash, the endeavors are tinged with confusion, desolation, and despair, as he comes to realize that Titch, the only person he has left in this world, would appear to be trying to escape from him. Wash, sometimes doomed and despondent, sometimes emboldened and blazing with spirit, continues to endure, to strive, to propel himself forward–whether as part of forging a future life for himself, or to find Titch again, and demand the answers that plague him, from the past that shaped and formed him–maybe both. I couldn’t put this book down. It was agonizingly beautiful and soul-crushing and exhilarating. It was exhausting. I can’t recommend it enough.
Giant Days Volume 9 If you’re not already reading about the university adventures of chums Esther, Susan, and Daisy, then I envy you immensely the experience of discovering these delightful characters and their adventures as they navigate friendship and love and responsibility, while trying to pass their college courses, find housing and jobs, and figure how who they are and what they want their lives to be.
It’s difficult for me to talk about Giant Days without getting all choked up and emotional–these characters are the labor of love of John Allison, the artist who created Scary Go Round, the first web comic I was to ever discover, back in 2003 or so, and whose works as they grew and changed and evolved, are actually only web comics I still read. Described as “postmodern Brit horror”, Scary Go Round follows the hapless denizens of Tackleford, a fictional British town beset by all manner of supernatural activity including, but not limited to: zombies, space owls, the devil, and portals to other dimensions. Though Scary Go Round ended in 2009 [note: it periodically picks back up again!] a few of Allison’s beloved characters moved on to Bad Machinery, which picks up in Tackleford 3 years later. The focus is on an entirely new cast of sleuthing schoolchildren attending Griswald’s Grammar School, whose well-intentioned energies may cause more problems than the mysteries they solve – but they throw themselves into it all with much vigor and aplomb.
It is from these stories that Esther, Susan, and Daisy emerge, and I am only telling you all of this because you have so much to look forward to reading, between the ongoing Giant Days series, and the previous two web comics! Marked by clever, peculiar dialogue, absurdist humor, dotty characters (and delightful fashions), Giant Days is so much fun, and I want you to come back to me right here and tell me how much you love it, after you get started.
Re-reading some haunted house books! The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was an imperative re-read and a palette cleanser after my experience with the Netflix series. I did not love the show for many reasons but most of which because all of Jackson’s elegant, powerful symbolism was reduced to “easter egg” status. I won’t spoil it for anyone who loved it, or who hasn’t yet seen it, so that’s enough of that. And if I am going to read of Hill House, then of course I must re-read Richard Matheson’s pulpy, lurid Hell House for comparison.
At first glance, they are somewhat similar–a small group of people, mostly strangers to each other, congregate for research purposes in houses known for their haunted histories. But Jackson and Matheson’s treatments of this spooky trope are so very different, and I really urge you to read them side by side for the differences in tone and language, the whos and whys of the characters and how they interact and relate to each other (or not), and to see how each story evolves and diverges. Interesting to note, if you are not already aware: Richard Matheson is also the author of I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, A Stir Of Echoes, and the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet”.
666 by Jay Ansonand The Manse by Lisa Cantrellwere two used finds that I picked up while visiting Phantasm Comics in New Hope, PA. Lured in by their ridiculous covers, I devoured both on the flight home; In 666, our main characters, a married couple, arrive home from vacation to find that a new house has somewhat mysteriously appeared more or less across the street from their own home. We learn from vague visions and various forays into the house that this structure is evil because it was built from various pieces of diabolical or horrific materials throughout history? (i.e. pieces of torture devices, stones from notorious dungeous, nails from the cross Jesus was all got up on, etc.) I’m probably oversimplifying, and this is already a dumb book to begin with. Anyway, this house reappears and disappears over the years after inciting its inhabitants to dreadful violence. Somehow the devil is involved. The devil is a realtor? Or a house flipper? I don’t know. One amazon reviewer enthuses, “Every christian should read this book”. OKAY THEN!
In The Manse, some self-important small town JCs (junior chamber of commerce members) decorate a local historical space–an old house owned by two doddering spinsters tucked away in a local ALF– every year for Halloween and make enough money from their haunted house doings to keep the old place afloat for another year. But! The house is apparently situated over a portal to hell and feeds on the fear generated by these annual Halloween shenanigans, and by its 13th year, its saved enough fear-bucks to do something big. But…what exactly? I am not sure. Hell’s grand opening, with lots of samples, like a Saturday afternoon at Costco, maybe? I feel like these vintage paperbacks are always sketchy on the details of whatever the titular Big Bad is actually trying to accomplish. The Manse, much like 666, is awfully silly, but the cover art of a demonic jack-o-lantern intensely nomming on a cobwebby banister is actually pretty great.
Paradise Rot by Jenny Hval Norwegian multidisciplinary artist Jenny Hval has written a surreal debut novel full of gross words that you may have issues with if you can’t handle moist ooze, bubbles of spit, sticky crotches, or other goo-soaked situations or similes. If you’re all good with mucus, rot and pus, blood, spores, and urine, well, then. You’re in for a treat. In Paradise Rot we follow Jo, an overseas student studying in a foreign country, anxious and adrift in her new surroundings. After a week’s worth of fruitless and frustrating searching for housing, she answers an ad for a roommate for what we find out is actually a converted warehouse with a strange inhabitant, who has been living there alone. “In a house with no walls, shared with a woman who has no boundaries,” Jo experiences a soporific, psychedelic sexual awakening as her surroundings decay and fall apart around her.
Hungry Ghosts by Anthony Bourdain I, sadly, became more a fan of Anthony Bourdain posthumously, and it really began, if I am being honest, when I learned that he had cooked up this illustrated collection of eerie food tales steeped in Japanese folklore and legend. The book opens with the story of a Russian oligarch who, in the middle of his dinner party, invites the chefs working in his kitchen to play a version of 100 candles, or Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, a Japanese Edo-period parlour game in which brave samurai would try to one-up each other with terrifying tales of ghosts, demons, and unspeakable beings. In this version, however, it is the chefs who share these dark and gruesome tales about food and hunger, with each story taking inspiration from the many horrors found in Japanese mythology. “ Generally speaking, I always want more from these types of anthologies than they are able to deliver, but this one was a lot of fun, and more successful than most. Recommended if you liked Zac Davisson’s Yurei: The Japanese Ghost.
Junji Ito’s Frankenstein I’m not sure how much I really need to try and sell you on this one. If you like Junji Ito, then you know you need his grotesquely illustrated Frankenstein for your collection. And if you dig Mary Shelly’s gothic classic, Frankenstein, then you probably want to see this bizarre Japanese illustrator’s take on the beloved tale. Bonus: Frankenstein only takes up half of this hefty tome–the other half features the many misadventures of Oshikiri, a high school student who lives in a decaying mansion connected to a haunted, parallel world. Oh, you’ve not heard of my favorite illustrator, Junji Ito? Have a read of “The Enigma of Amigara Fault“, a story which I think is pretty representative of the tales he likes to tPostell, rife with themes of body horror, obsession, helplessness, and mystery– and I guarantee you’ll be able to gauge for yourself right away if his work is something you’ll enjoy. Also, Junji Ito, can you pretty please illustrate an edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray ? I haven’t read it yet, and yours is the version with which I wish to initiate myself! (Don’t give me a hard time! I’ll read it one day! It’s on the list.)
Bad Gateway by Simon Hanselmann Ooooof. When you strip away the spiteful laughter and the uncomfortable chuckles of the previous Megg & Mogg books (one of which, Megahex, I have written about previously–don’t get me wrong, I adored it, and I laughed at that one, too) you’re left with the bare bones of depression and mental illness and addiction and self-harm and a bleak, unblinking gaze at your trauma and terrible behaviors. Where do you go once you’ve hit the bottom of the bottom? If anyone could fall further, it’s this gang, and yet, I am hopeful that is not the case. CW: everything.
A Hawk In The Woods by Carrie LabenRecommended as a “best of 2019….so far” by Jack over at Bad Books For Bad People,A Hawk In The Woods was described as a “Lovecraftian sister road trip,” and OK, yes please–sign me up! Abby and Martha are twins from a weird family with weird powers and are desperately headed to the family cabin after Abby breaks Martha out of prison. Are Abby’s reasons for rescuing her sister entirely unselfish? Absolutely not. As we follow the trajectory of their journey, the timelines slips from past to present and we get a glimpse of the reasons they each wound up where they did in life, and where that path will ultimately lead them. There was so much about this story to love: the sister’s relationship, the creepy family backstory, the powers that the twins possess (Abby uses people’s energies to bend those individuals to her will, and Martha can fold time) and the only complaint I have sort of spoils an important aspect of the story, so I’ll keep mum on that point. Just…pay attention to who the characters are, and what you think you know about them. Things can get a little confusing.
The Poison Thread by Laura Purcell. I won this book in a GoodReads giveaway! I swear I get emails from GoodReads every other day about how this, that, or the other book on my to-read list is now available and they are giving away 50 copies of it, or something like that. And honestly, you won’t catch me entering a lot of random internet giveaways, but it just seems like sooner or later between the frequency of them and the amount of stuff they give away, you are going to win something from GoodReads– so why not? Seriously, just enter them every chance you get; you’re bound to luck out at some point. The Poison Thread (aka The Corset; I am not sure why they changed the title) is the second book I have read by Laura Purcell and I was so very excited about it because I thoroughly enjoyed the first I’d read by her, The Silent Companions, a book which genuinely freaked me out . In The Poison Thread, the narrative is split between two women in Victorian England; Dorothea, a wealthy heiress, and Ruth, an impoverished seamstress imprisoned for the murder of her mistress. After the death of her mother, who contracted a bit of religious mania before her slightly suspect passing, Dorothea, or “Dotty” begins visiting women in prison, among other acts of charity– and I’m not quite sure if it’s to honor her late mother’s legacy or an excuse to practice her newfound fascination with phrenology. This seems an odd, throwaway theme in the greater scheme of this tale–I think you could swap in and substitute any faddish psychoanalytical nonsense from the era and it probably would not have made much difference to the story. Dotty becomes singularly obsessed with Ruth, who believes she has killed via transference of her malice and rage through the power of needlework. This is perhaps more “gothic suspense” than “gothic ghost story”, although that thread of the supernatural does lurk throughout, even it if may only be in Ruth’s mind. But it’s an utterly riveting and twisty novel and I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know. If you’ve read neither The Silent Companions nor The Poison Thread, grab them both as we head into September and I assure you that they will make incredible early autumn reads.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wangis a book that I started earlier in the spring and finished in May and I’m still not certain how to even begin to tackle the material. I feel funny saying that I “enjoyed” a book that personally chronicles a woman’s exhausting experience with psychosis and a perpetually shifting reality, but in truth, I did tremendously enjoy it. Or, rather, it feels more human to say I enjoyed learning more about what it is to live with schizophrenia, a diagnosis that has always both intrigued and terrified me in equal measure, I suppose, because of the streak of mental illness that runs through my own family. Intimate, candid, and immediately compelling, these vivid, tangled essays provided perspectives into both chronic and mental illness and insights that were surprising, terrifying, but also wonderfully illuminating, sometimes even quite empowering.
I spent two weeks in the psych ward immediately following a suicide attempt when I was 28 years old; my memories of that time are a collection of amorphous moments of cloudy despair alternating with slices of razor-sharp fury and crystalline focus. I was not experiencing a psychotic break; I wasn’t hallucinating, my reality wasn’t (exactly) fracturing–my experience was not even close to that of the author’s, but I wasn’t myself while I was there. I had a very hard time finding my way back. In the course of these writings, the author shared some things that helped her when she felt herself starting to slip, and I feel that had I access to such ideas, they might also have helped me. When she starts to feel the onset of what she describes as a sort of psychic detachment, “episodes that preclude psychosis, or even mild psychosis–the episodes in which I must tread carefully to keep myself where I am,” she implements small, symbolic systems of defense or spiritual safeguards that have a connection to the “sacred arts”. The solace granted by these practices is not through the beliefs accompanying them, but rather the actions they recommend. “To say this prayer–burn this candle–perform this ritual–create this salt or honey jar–is to have something to do when it seems nothing can be done.” If the delusions come to call, she has a ribbon she will tie around her ankle: “If I must live with a slippery mind,” she muses as the last essay concludes, “I want to know how to tether it, too.”
The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert. I like books in which people spend time thinking about things; especially when it’s the writers themselves thinking about things, and even more so when those things being pondered are related to their craft. They are the kinds of conversations and connections and observations that I’d like to share with people, if I weren’t so self-conscious about sharing (or having an opinion or talking to people at all…) and so instead I read about these internal conversations in the form of brilliantly inquisitive and obsessive essays, written by other people. Even on the subjects and anecdotes I related to or connected with, though, it was on the level, I felt, of a lower life form. Elisa Gabbert writes like the accomplished, sophisticated interesting-in-all-ways person that I wish I was, and I felt like I was an amoeba trying to relate to some sort of higher being, complete with halo and wings. Even if I thought I was relating exactly to a particular thought, was I really? Would I even know, middling mediocre hack that I am? The more I read, the more unsure of myself I grew…and yet, I could not stop reading. Elisa Gabbert, I am sure that you are a very nice person and it was not your intent that I feel this way. I loved this book, even though I did not love the way I felt about myself when I read it.
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblinis apparently “far too bewildering” for one reviewer on Amazon and if that’s not your thing, then you may want to skip this slim book of surreal, unsettling stories. To be fair to the stories, though, I think this reviewer might have had a very low tolerance for the bizarre. There are no happy endings (and very few happy beginnings or middles) and really, several stories don’t even quite have a proper ending, happy or otherwise– rather just an abrupt stopping point or a vague notion that the story may continue forever, whether or not we are still present and reading. Many of the tales are dark and violent, brutal and heartbreaking, but the one I loved was not particularly shocking or tragic. It involved the theme of familial bonds: one adult brother’s bemused and at times perplexed recounting of another brother’s depression, in the midst of a family that seems to be thriving and in which everyone else appears to be hunky-dory. I don’t think I’m remembering it exactly as I read it, but at one point, in a brief and sudden flash, the successful brother, at a family barbecue full of mirth and merriment, experiences an unexpected moment of (was it sadness? anxiety? maybe more of a nothingness? A nothingness that might last forever? I can’t recall) but I remember feeling… vindicated, and a bit vindictive, when my first thought was “so then…now you know how it feels.” I’m neither a masterful enough reader nor writer to say if that was a bit of subtlety on the part of the author, or if she aggressively smacked us over the head with the notion, but I felt what I felt, and I loved that profound punctuation in what was otherwise one of the more reserved, not particularly ambitious feeling stories in the collection. It elevated it somehow, to something extraordinary.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Sometimes I like to read trashy books. And when there are obscenely rich people in the story, spending their money in stupidly extravagant ways, that is the maybe best kind of trash. It’s particularly good for in-flight reading. I usually leave these books in the lodgings I stayed at, for someone else’s trashy enjoyment. You can find my copy of Crazy Rich Asians in the bar of The Rosemary hotel in L.A.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones I first read Stephen Graham Jones (Mapping The Interior) in September of 2017–again, during a hurricane! It’s become a bit of a tradition, I guess. I was under the impression at the time that he was a new author and that was his debut novel, but I couldn’t have been more wrong; he’s a very prolific writer and has been at it for quite a while now. Mongrels is a surreal werewolf coming-of-age tale; it’s violent and beautiful and brimming with odd moments of absurdity and heartbreaking tenderness and tragedy. It is one of my top ten…no, make that one of my top five favorite books of all time.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. In seeing initial reviews about the brilliant structuring of this vulnerable, spellbinding memoir of abuse, I grew wary, worrying that it might in some way be above my intellectual paygrade. And though it is framed through the analysis of popular horror tropes and footnoted with scholarly snippets regarding folk & fairytale motifs, I needn’t have worried–trauma transcends literary conventions.
I read In The Dream House compulsively; that is to say I dreaded every single word of it, but I inhaled them heedlessly and headlong, not unlike watching a scary movie through the shadowed, in-between slants of our joined fingers as we hold our trembling hands before our eyes. In the story of someone else’s hindsight we re-experience our own humiliations and hurts, our own abuse and trauma, and that too I dreaded. But I craved it, as well. Sometimes I doubt what happened to me, and I seek out these types of memoirs. I want to see my trauma appear large as life in someone else’s story. In a painful grip, or a hateful word, a whispered threat. An unwanted touch, a violation of self that transcends the physical act to such an extent that you almost feel you need to scrub your very soul of it.
I don’t want these things to have happened to someone else. Never ever, not in a million years. But when confronted with someone else’s story, I encounter mine, and I am glad that I am not alone. I don’t want to look. I can’t look away. In the Dream House is a book you dare not look away from.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. Is it possible to both fall in love with a book and want to pretend that you never read it? That it had never been written? That the idea never even existed in the author’s mind? That line of thought is somewhat in keeping, I suppose, with the premise of this quiet, surrealist dystopian drama: on an unnamed island, things and objects are disappearing. The characters wake up one day, and, for example, fruit has disappeared. I don’t think the fruit literally disappears, but rather the idea of fruit. When a disappearance happens, and the villagers become aware of it, they just take all the fruit and dump it in the river. By the end of the day, fruit has ceased to be, even in their memory. The Memory Police ceaselessly monitor the inhabitants of the island and ensure that what has disappeared remains forgotten.
A feeling of dread is pervasive throughout the entirety of the novel, and yet it never seems tense–the islanders seem resigned to the disappearances in a frustratingly apathetic, good-natured, “oh well!” sort of way. There are those among them, though, who don’t forget. It is through their dismay and anxiety regarding the disappearances (what happens when, say, body parts start disappearing?) and fear of the Memory Police (who arrest non-compliant citizens in the middle of the night, and no one knows what happens to these friends and neighbors) that we experience these concerns. We can’t rely on the protagonist for this–she’s too passive for reflection or much in the way of active resistance, even as her career is brought to a close by the disappearance of books (she was a novelist), even as her own limbs begin to disappear. The Memory Police presents such an upsetting concept that I cannot contemplate it overlong. Not that of state control–which ok, that’s pretty bad, I get that– but of the absence of memory. Words like “terrifying”, or “haunting”, or “sad”, just don’t cut it. This book is upsetting. I wish I hadn’t read it. But oh my god, how glad I am that I can’t forget it.
Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson was a wildly inventive, wonderfully clever, deeply philosophical gem that I am going to be pondering for a very long time, and though it’s a few weeks too early to make any “best-of” declarations (and I’ve got loads more reading to do before December 31st) I think it is safe to say that Frankisstein is going to be near the top of that list. The parallel, temporally fluid stories of both Mary Shelley, dreaming up and penning the tale of her infamous monster, and Ry, a young transgender doctor in modern Britain, who meets and falls in love with Victor Stein, a professor and professional TED talker on the future of AI–and I’ll say no more. I think this is a book you best dive into knowing little, forming your own musings and reflections. I will add, though, this: at some point in the story, Victor softly asks of Ry “…have we met before?” And with that, I experienced the most spendidly delicious shiver, the echoes of which I can still feel when I think on it now.
Body Horror: Capitalism, Fear, Misogyny, Jokes by Anne Elizabeth Moore. It sounds a little childish to call someone a “great thinker” (I used to call my grandmother a “good cooker,” for example. When I was five. ) but these essays on the “gore of contemporary American culture and politics” in relation to the female experience are surely written by someone of capable great–no, make that brilliant–thought. She draws fascinating parallels and somehow ends up connecting concepts such as Standard Time and the time that the unwell need as opposed to the healthy; the choice not to bear children, the cultural imperative to reproduce, and the gendered imbalance of intellectual property rights, and the plight of Cambodian garment workers, a heartrending piece of writing that requires no connection to anything else at all.
I loved how Moore’s writing lends to meandering ruminations–nothing so difficult to follow as “stream of consciousness,” but there’s also nothing at all resembling a rigid structure framing these words. They’re more a disciplined ramble, perhaps with some surprising jumps that she makes in terms of logic and connections, but they are not in the least unbelievable. Moore is an excellent guide through her thoughts, disparate as they may appear at first, and you can see how to got to where she went with each topic. Body Horror was full of uncomfortable, painful ideas and truths, but was it was also powerfully edifying and felt vital and fierce.
Ration by Cody T Luff Full disclosure: Ration was sent to me as a review copy. I don’t regularly receive review copies of things, but I love that someone came across a story or an author that I might be into and was keen to send it my way. That level of thoughtfulness in these kinds of sometimes rote-feeling PR endeavors means a great deal to me, and so one might be forgiven for being under the impression that because of this I was predisposed to think highly of the book, but truly–I had no expectations! Expectations or no, I was incredibly impressed. Described as a “women-led Dystopian piece about surviving in a hunger-regulated society” Ration was a tense, gut-twistingly visceral tale that was heavy and harrowing, and emotionally difficult to read (in the way that The Handmaid’s Tale is heavy and hard to read) but at the same time, thoroughly compelling. I could imagine Ration as a gripping miniseries–the characters and their interactions really were that wonderfully and terribly, vivid–and I could have spent a great deal more time in their bleak, ravaged world. I look forward to reading more by Cody T. Luff and I expect that Ration is going to be on several “best of” lists for the year. It certainly will be on mine.
Fake Like Me by Barbara BourlandA thriller set in the art world and a “love letter to the labour of artmaking,” Fake Like Me was a fantastic read that I tore through in one day and a story that hit so many of my sweet spots. I am a super boring person with a 9-5(ish) job because I crave security and stability and routine–but I am intensely fascinated with artistic creatives who live bohemian, unconventional, vagabond lifestyles. I would like to do this! But I am shy and squirrelly and don’t want to have crazy artist parties and I also like a steady income! Fake Like Me combines a thrillingly immersive examination of the lives and deaths of a handful of intertwined fictional artists, along with something that Sonya has mentioned before here in Stacked at Haute Macabre–their preferred genre of books is “non-fictiony fiction,” where the author “went down some kind of research hole that utterly fascinated them but, because they are a fiction writer and not, say, a journalist, turned their up-all-night discoveries into a story.” If any of this sounds like a good time to you, I think you’re going to love the arty insights and perspectives found in Fake Like Me. Also, don’t be put off by the name, which makes it sounds like it’s going to be a really fluffy read. It’s not.
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer was a fractured, fragmented, timeshifting story of dissolving, surreal, decidedly-non-linear layers that I hesitate to even call a “story”. If you are familiar with VanderMeer’s writing, up the strangeness and beauty and WTF factors by ten or twenty or one hundred, and that’s Dead Astronauts for you. It was brutal and heart-rending and utterly confounding, and it eluded me at every turn. At no point did I get a clear sense of what was happening to whom or how or where or why, But. I also left every page that I turned damp with my tears. Something inside me understood something about these allies and their journey and their pain, and when it ended, I wept quietly for a few minutes, thinking, “but…I didn’t want this to end.”
Stephen King Project update: I have read The Dead Zone by Stephen King, which, if I am being honest, I had actually thought it was a collection of short stories before I checked it out of the library. A guy gets a few head injuries, goes into a four-year coma, and wakes up with premonitory psychic abilities. This book felt like old-school Stephen King to me, because I guess it is super old Stephen King thoughts and insights and stories. When I contrast it against something like The Outsider, which is much more recent, well…The Outsider feels like it was written for television. Some sort of essential Stephen King weirdness just…isn’t there. I am almost tempted to say there’s something simplistic and Dean Koontzian about it (sorry Dean Koontz fans, I am not amongst your ranks.) I don’t want to say it feels “dumbed down” because I don’t know that I’d ever considered Stephen King’s writing particularly nuanced! I mean…nuance and complexity… that’s not why we all fell in love with him when we were eleven years old, right? I don’t know if it’s the stories themselves, or the way the stories are told, but there was something missing for me. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on this, my fellow Stephen King fan-friends. If you haven’t read The Outsider, maybe take a pass and watch the series instead, which is moodier, gloomier, more beguiling and much better than it has any right to be. Oh, and I also read Gwendy’s Button Box which I think was kind of fun and probably way more appropriate eleven-year-old-us, even though we wouldn’t have appreciated why until we became the old farts we are now.
A River Of Stars, Yosano Akiko. This is my go-to, treasured book of beloved poetry. I tell anyone that if they really want to know my heart, my secret heart, full of hopes and fears and loves and longings that I can never hope to properly express, then you must read these tanka and long-form poems by Yosano Akiko, a goddess of poetry and the embodiment of early-twentieth-century Japanese romanticism and feminism.
And now you must ask whether I’ve written new songs. I am the mythic koto with twenty-five strings, but without a bridge for sound.
Salt Is For Curing, Sonya Vatomsky. I loved this book before I loved its author, our very own Sonya Vatomsky. But like, only a few days before I loved them, because it was a head-over-heels affair with both book and human that all happened very fast, and now I can’t imagine my life without either! In reading Salt Is For Curing, it took all that I had not to devour this uncanny collection of spooky delights in one greedy instant. I feared that to do so, to ingest all of these potent magics– a fanciful combination of myths, metaphorical recipes, and cheeky spellwork– at once, would give me a terribly heartsick sort of heartburn and yet leave me with the very worst sort of emptiness, knowing there is no more to be had. I drew it out for as long as I could stand, and I unexpectedly found myself gorgeously stuffed full. But knowing both Sonya– and their writings– is to have a heart filled to the brim with weird magics 24/7. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sometimes A Wild God, Tom Hirons & Rima Stime. This small, unassuming booklet, brimming with beautifully potent imagery, was a surprise gift from a friend, and a really quite marvelous collaboration which flung open doors of wonder deep within my heart, doors that had been closed firmly shut for such a very long time. I’ll say no more. I wish for you to be surprised, too.
The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I didn’t think I could possibly love this mythic story more than Madeline Miller’s gorgeous retelling of the sorceress Circe’s tale…but I don’t mind being wrong. In The Song Of Achilles, the awkward and exiled Patroclus develops a hesitant friendship with the achingly beautiful Achilles, the glory-fated half-mortal prince. Miller’s heart-rendingly gorgeous account of their somewhat mismatched but intensely passionate companionship just utterly rips you in two, because you already know where their story is headed, and it’s nowhere good. Oooof. 10/10 tortured princes; I would read this story a thousand times over again, and cry myself sick, each and every time.
China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan.The second in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, this book was pure, dumb escapism. I love reading about unimaginably rich people spending their money in staggeringly stupid ways and the inanities and absurdities that ensue. This is especially good stuff if you enjoy haute couture-designer label-name dropping + head-to-toe outfit descriptions as part of that foolishness. Which I do!
Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun. This book about Gen X existential angst was a real bummer, but there were so many relatable bits, not the least of which is that it’s always comforting, I guess, to read about people’s thoughts on my so-called disaffected and directionless generation–and yet, we’re the generation of women that was raised “have it all.” Calhoun has conducted over 200 interviews for the book and looks into data such as housing costs, HR trends, credit card debt averages, and divorce data and finds that most of us are exhausted, terrified about money, under-employed, and overwhelmed.
Some of the conversation in the book makes me feel like an outsider, looking in: I am not and have never been married, I do not have children, and I am not struggling to get ahead in a corporate career. I am not experiencing the same difficulties that these groups of people experience, although there are some similarities and overlap. In spite of that, there were some insights that deeply resonated with me. The author posits that we have been raised to believe that if we don’t care about everything, we are squandering opportunity, and this leads to a lot of pressure and potentially a lot of shame. We take basically good ideas and turn them into something with which to self-flagellate. (OMG do I relate to this.) She also discusses how we were set up to be in denial about what we go through as women; in entering the workplace fighting to be equal, we have had to quell what makes us different and how that affects us on such a level that we can’t even talk about it. And these silent anxieties? They are exacerbated by what we see on the internet, and we can’t look away. She notes that nothing seems to stimulate the economy like women feeling bad about themselves. She doesn’t remember our mothers looking like a million bucks when they were 40, so what the hell are we making ourselves nuts for?
I don’t think there are any real solutions offered within these pages, though. And while I am not sure that you’ll feel better after having read this book, I guarantee that you will feel seen.
Keepsakes, a series of short horror stories/comics about the strange and horrifying artifacts found by two siblings their late father’s creepy basement was something I read early this year (though I think I Kickstarted it last year) and which is exactly the sort of thing that is right up my alley. I fell in love with horror comics when I was six or seven years old, and discovered an old stash of Creepy magazines belonging to one of my super weird uncles. This sparked in me that bizarre and conflicted feeling of fascination/repulsion that is the hallmark of so many of my obsessions and enthusiasms, to this very day! Keepsakes, written by G.A. Alexander, is actually the creation of our dear Sonya’s husband, and I’m too shy to tell him how much I enjoyed it– so I am hoping that he will stumble upon my review here, and know this to be true.
The art and stories within the lurid pages of Keepsakes took me right back to that moment in time, frozen indelibly in my memory because it is just that formative for me: sitting cross-legged on my uncle’s dusty childhood bedroom floor, idly playing with monstrous rubber toy dinosaurs, when I questingly reached into what I thought was another toybox… and discovered within something else, altogether. My grandmother–my father’s mother–was an odd bird and kept her son’s rooms in the same state they grew up in, long after they moved out. Toys and everything! But what I found in that box, in those brittle, crinkly pages, were neither toys nor typical remnants of childhood playtime. Wracked with shivers and shakes which mystifyingly morphed into chills and thrills, I wrapped myself in a musty afghan, crawled into a corner with my back facing the wall (naturally, so that I could see anything that might have tried to creep up behind me) and utterly devoured scores of Creepy magazines that rainy, eerie afternoon. Keepsakes conjured in me those same shivers and thrills, that same sense of I can’t look/TELL ME MORE!
Many years later, I confessed this story to that particular uncle. To this day, every time we see each other, he presents me with an old Creepy magazine.
The Gunslinger by Stephen King I knew going into this one that it was not going to be my cup of tea, and I mostly wasn’t wrong, but I will admit that after a certain point I was drawn in despite myself.
Roland Deschain, last of the gunslingers, is following the enigmatic, malevolent Man In Black across a brutal desert. There are some bloody and terrible skirmishes and a small companion is met along the way. If I don’t seem all that jazzed in my description, I guess that’s because I never really got drawn into the story, or felt much of anything for the characters moving along in it.
The world in which this pursuit takes place seems very different from our own, and yet there seem to be some strange similarities…and I think that’s what I found most compelling. I want to learn more about the stage upon which this story plays out.
Everyone who seems to love this series of books goes on and on about the world-building, so I feel like there must be…something there? I’m hopeful that I will find out, as I have made it my mandate to read all of Stephen King’s books, so I’d be reading the next in the series whether I wanted to or not.
Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen GLAAD Award-winning journalist, Samantha Allen, embarks on a road trip across America–her motto, “something gay every day”–to chronicle the unique experience of being queer in conservative communities. A memoir that is part travelogue and part recent history of queer America, Allen makes pit stops at drag shows, political rallies, and hubs of queer life across the heartland, and she introduces us to scores of extraordinary LGBT people working for change.
If I have a critique, it’s that she does spend some time attacking liberal coastal enclaves, those places that we might typically consider queer oases–San Francisco, New York City, etc.– as being too big, too expensive, too crowded, etc…and listen, I get it. I don’t really love those places either, for the same reasons. But something about hearing it over and over in the context of this book rubbed me the wrong way. But that is a very tiny complaint. I listened to Real Queer America on audiobook, as read by the author, and hearing in her thoughts and observations in Allen’s own warm, endearing voice added another wonderful dimension to what was already a profoundly insightful, informative, and moving series of essays.
Light Magic For Dark Times by Lisa Marie BasileIt has been a very long time since I have read a book like this. I read books about witchcraft and witches quite frequently. Spellwork and ritual is often a focus of the fiction I consume. But a practical guide of spellcraft and magical rituals for the purpose of performing, myself? I haven’t had anything like this in my possession, since…gosh. Maybe since I was sixteen years old, and at the risk of sounding dismissive (sorry!) I don’t a recollection of those books or authors presenting me with anything particularly smart or compelling. As a teenager… would I have even recognized it if they did? I don’t mean to make generalizations, but teenagers now seem loads smarter than they did back when I was that age. Or maybe I was just a dumb teenager.
At any rate, I think it’s unfair to review a book by talking about what it’s not. I don’t feel comfortable making comparisons like that, but I did want to give some background as to the last time I held in my hands a spellbook. Lisa Marie Basile’s Light Magic For Dark Times surprised me on every level. It’s relatable and sincere and compassionate, and as a terribly self-conscious person, I love that Lisa Marie’s book never makes me feel cheesy for reading it. It elevates beautiful sentiments in practical ways, it tackles ugliness in a welcoming, accepting manner, and it feels like sage, loving, advice from the depths of a wise, vibrant heart.
I am particularly appreciative that she delves into practices for confronting feelings of grief, rituals for trauma, meditations for getting one’s self comfortable with the idea of death; none of these things are fun to think about but they are so important to contemplate, to meet with, and to work through. There are also spells of celebration and creation, of self-love and of shadow work. This is such a beautiful little book of magical exercises for times of darkness and of light, and even the strange, liminal, grey areas in between. I am grateful that this book exists as a resource and I am certain that I will find myself reaching for it over and over again as I experience these shades and shadows, these light and dark times, in my own life.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde Hoo boy. How embarrassing to admit that until I was 43 years old, I had never read Oscar Wilde’s classic work The Picture of Dorian Gray! I received my copy of the book from a friend who has taught the book in the past, and so I was extremely privileged to find his notes and observations bookmarked over the course of the story. Of course, this makes it very difficult not to parrot his sentiments at you now, and so I will refrain from doing so, save to note this: “…his novel is one of pleasurable language, a triumph of aesthetics over literary realism.” AND HOW. I am pretty sure that Wilde wrote this story solely so that he could spend two chapters alone waxing ecstatic about embroidery and gemstones.
I think most folks know the plot and the themes involved, so I won’t give a synopsis, but I am left with a few questions. Dorian Gray is referenced by someone (I can’t recall which character) as being “bad as bad.” And yet we don’t seem privy to much in the way of his horrid exploits. I suppose if we fill in the blanks we’ll come up with what is personally most abhorrent to us, a “bad as bad” scenario that Wilde left up to the minds of the readers to concoct. I am also dreadfully curious as to what Gray is holding over Allen Campbell’s head; what did Gray’s corrupt influence incite Campbell to have done, or take part in, could be used as blackmail in that later scene? Details, man! Again, I suppose there is some elegance in the mystery of these things, but prefer them spelled out for me.
I suppose this is less a “review”, and more a “reaction” to the book, but there you go–my thoughts, such as they are. I thoroughly enjoyed both the story and the prose, but this is one that I think I will be turning over in my mind for many years to come, marveling at its myriad charms like the “broken rainbow of the milky opal” amongst Dorian Gray’s dazzling collection. But at this point if you were to ask me what this tale was all about, I could probably only shrug and reply, “eh, vanity problems, I guess? “
As an afterthought, it struck me that Dorian Gray could have used “A Red Rose Ritual For Aging Acceptance” from LisaMarie Basile’s Light Magic For Dark Times, mentioned above.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Unfinished) I am listening to this on audiobook while taking my nightly constitutional. I hate exercising, but I don’t mind walking –and calling it a “constitutional” sounds fancier to my ears instead of, say, a “slog through Florida late summer night soup.” Night Film is sort of like a detective-noir murder mystery-thriller, tinged with hints of cults and black magic and horror elements. The main character gets annoying with his frequent commentary, mostly centered around an ex-wife, about how unknowable and difficult women are–which is strange because this book is written by a woman. Or maybe her portrayal of this male character is some kind of commentary in and of itself. Anyway, a major focus of the book is a reclusive horror filmmaker whose works are so dark and violent they have been banned from theatres and about whom his fans and the general public speculate wildly. I can’t help but envision this director as Dario Argento; Sonya, who previously read this book, imagines it’s David Lynch. I’d be curious if any of you all have read it, and whose face it is that you are superimposing on the mysterious Stanislas Cordova.
Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich I was complaining to a friend about all of this “good vibes only” and “living my best life!” malarkey that I see all over Instagram, and after having vented on my own blog, he recommended Bright-sided to me. I have not yet finished it, and it’s not quite what I expected, but it’s supremely informative from a historical standpoint and for filling in the general bad-attitude layperson about a how the concepts of a positive attitude and relentless optimism got its foothold as a marginal nineteenth-century healing technique and really dug its claws in as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude.
Letters, Dreams, and Other Writings by Remedios Varo( If you require a book of surreal snippets & silliness and other enchanting nonsense; the sort of writing you might reach for to give your eyes and your brain a break from say, larger intense novels, or lots of dry research, this strange, slight tome is just the thing to keep on hand. Utterly brimming with outlandish and imaginative writings, you’ll find dream vignettes, correspondence to strangers, demented recipes, and pseudoscientific satire gleefully sprinkled throughout. Remedios Varo was a wily, magical hoot and this little book is a treasure.
Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker A few friends read this before I got around to it, and at the time I felt so left out of their awestruck conversations revolving around these innovative, imaginative stories, it was starting to rub me a little raw. I wanted in on the Sarah Pinsker magic, too! And when it finally happened, wow. It’s been a few months since I finished the collection, but even now, attempting to pin down a favorite (I do have a clear favorite—“Remembery Day”) I am flooded with rememberies of all the best snippets from these tales. The narwhal car, the clockwork grandma, the dynamics of friendship and tiny murder homes, the mystery at the Sarah Pinsker multiverse Con! I don’t think I’ve given much away with that weird slurry of words I just typed out, but if they don’t pique your interest, I just don’t know what will. Read this book and join us in the Sarah Pinsker 4ever Fan Club.
In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware I don’t know what my problem is. I always refer to books like this with such an air of dismissiveness. That’s a dick move. They’re really popular and there’s a good reason for that–they’re female-centric thrillers which are a little twisty, a little dark, and super compelling and unputdownable. I think I like to think of myself as swanning around and reading inscrutable poetry all day but the truth of the matter is I’m reading books like this and dropping Cheeto crumbs into them just like everyone else. In this one, our reclusive (and probably unreliable) narrator is invited for a weekend away to an English countryside home by an old friend she hasn’t spoken to in years. Secrets and suspense abound, and even though I have only read two Ruth Ware offerings, I can see how the house itself is frequently a large, looming character with a life and personality of its own. I’ve learned to lean into these stories and accept that I might actually love them; there is such a tinge of the gothic to them, and in their day, gothic stories, or “horrid novels” were pretty crazy and considered trashy, too–and literary history has never been able to decide whether they’re any good. Just embrace it, Sarah. You’re no good, horrid trash. Wheee!
The Deep by Alma Katsu Like the last offering I enjoyed by Alma Katsu (The Hunger, above) The Deep is another historical reimagining, which in this instance centers around the voyages of two legendary ships, The Titanic and the Britannic, and their doomed maiden and last voyages, respectively. Recounted in alternating, interwoven timelines, the tale incorporates real-life millionaires embroiled in personal and spiritual drama, with one of the most iconic tragedies in human history–alongside ghostly elements, Irish mythology, ill-fated romance, and once again our old friend, the unreliable narrator, haunted by memories and possible madness.
My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite Slasher, satire and sisterhood tangle and twist together in this taut tale where Korede is a nurse who is used to the sight of blood and cleaning up the stuff, which is great, because her sister Ayoola can’t (won’t?) stop stabbing her boyfriends to death. My favorite part is how lonely, put-upon Korede spills her woes concerning her sister’s murderous activities to a long-term comatose patient…who eventually wakes up.
Into The Water by Paula Hawkins Turns out that this was the summer of murder mysteries, and here’s one more from the author who also wroteThe Girl On The Train. Women in the small British town of Beckford have been drowning since 1679, and Into The Water opens with one more dead body in the murk–Danielle Abbott, a writer and photographer who was working on a coffee-table book about the spot the people of Beckford call the Drowning Pool. I actually really liked this story, even though lots of reviewers weren’t terribly impressed. One of the characters in the book itself actually sums it up brilliantly: “Seriously….how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides and grotesque historical misogynistic drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.”
Beloved by Toni MorrisonI initially read Beloved, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work in 11th grade, and though I believe that young people of high-school age are absolutely capable of grasping serious, weighty material, and all kinds of complex concepts and notions…I also believe that sometimes you just don’t “get” stuff until you’re older. Or at least I think it is fair to say… there are a lot of things you miss.
Inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in late January 1856 by crossing the Ohio River to Ohio, a free state, where captured, she killed her child rather than have her taken back into slavery, Beloved takes this hideously horrific scenario and explores what happens when pain and anguished ghosts from the past assume human form and haunt the present from the earthly side of the veil. It is a brutal story, brilliantly written, and while never “scary” per se, it will both horrify you and give you profound chills. And yet…it has the most beautiful, hopeful ending scene I have ever encountered. I think they should make you sign some sort of contract if you’ve read this in high school. That you’ll vow to read this at least once a decade for the entirety of your existence until you too, depart from this plane.
Why Art? by Eleanor Davis A graphic novel manifesto/guidebook on the power of art and its function in society, Eleanor Davis’ offering is…not at all what I thought I was getting in for. The first part, an instructive treatise on how to categorize art, to include things like size, color, function, etc.–okay. Got it. Playful and insightful and predictable–not in a bad way, but just…sort of what I expected, I guess?
And then, there’s the second part. What WAS that?
It is incredible is what it was. It somehow became a fairytale-esque philosophical parable that I found myself in the middle of before I even realized what the author was doing, and once there, I was utterly captivated. I had gone into this small book expecting something a bit dry and static, and what I got was witty and weirdly action-packed, and just, well… weird. I adored Why Art, and now I am seeking out everything Eleanor Davis has ever had her hands in.
Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan This book is as preposterous as romantic comedy gets but it was honestly the best of the series. I mean…I get that it’s supposed to be satire, but Kwan is too good at it, there’s such a fan-boy gawker-type lens through which the lavish escapades of these Southeast Asian multibillionaires are revealed, I almost can’t believe he’s poking fun at it. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a great deal of fun and a superb escapist read. In the third installment of the Crazy Rich Asians series, there’s less of a focus on the two previous main characters (Rachel and Nick) who I honestly couldn’t stand. But not enough of a spotlight on Kitty Pong, gold-digging former soap actress of questionable origins, who managed to marry her way into the Singapore elite. Kitty is fabulous!! and I want a whole book about centered on her extravagant, petulant nonsense. Has anyone else read this trilogy? Let’s dish in the comments.
Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by by Olga Tokarczuk. Imagine your most eccentric retirement-aged astrology-enthusiast, PETA-supporting, conspiracy-theorist neighbor. You never know what odd belief she’ll express, what strange tales will emerge from her lips, what peculiar perspectives she possesses. Imagine this woman wrote an entire book. About a mess of neighborhood murders. That were being committed by animals!
Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber is a perfect example of a book I’m not recalling very well. The main character’s father was murdered when she was a child. It was a seemingly cut-and-dry case, and a teenage neighbor was convicted of the crime. Her mother, already somewhat unbalanced, goes nuts and runs off to join a cult. Her relationship with her twin, with whom she was once very close, deteriorates. As an adult, she has attempted to construct a life for herself that doesn’t involve her past–in fact, she hasn’t told her boyfriend about any of it, her father’s death or even the fact that she has a twin. She soon learns that an opportunistic podcaster has dredged it all up and has based her new show on the decades-old murder, because she thinks something doesn’t quite add up. Things begin to both fall apart and come together. It was an ok book? I raced through it within 24 hours and must have really liked it, but now I couldn’t really tell you why it was so great.
The Silence Of Ghosts by Jonathan Ayecliffe. I became obsessed with this author a few years ago when I saw a passage from one of his ghost stories quoted in a book of Simon Marsden’s eerie black and white photography. His stories, if recall, were ghostly and on the lurid side, which is just how I like them. The Silence Of Ghosts seemed a bit prim in comparison. Told in diary format, it chronicles the story of a young man who loses his leg in the war and is sent to a crumbling old family estate in the countryside to recover from his wounds. He is kept company by his sweet younger sister, a partially deaf (and wholly doomed) creature, and his new nursemaid Rose…as well as a house full of malicious ghosts. A stilted romance flourishes despite stiff upper lips, the sister contracts a strange sickness, and dark family secrets are finally revealed. I couldn’t help but think they were secrets that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid. This book made me very angry and makes considerably less sense than The Silence Of Ghosts. I am recommending it solely because I feel like I can’t be angry alone and I would like you to be angry too. A woman is in a car with her boyfriend, and they are driving to meet his parents. The meeting is bizarre. Both during the car ride and dinner with the parents there is a great deal of internal narrative detailing how they met and how she’s thinking of breaking things off, in addition to her reflections upon some weird things that have been happening to her lately. The interactions are unnerving, the tension is relentless, and a feeling of impending doom is nearly unbearable…but eventually it devolves into a confused jumble of WTFery. A lot of reviewers laud this book as being brilliant, but I will confess that when I finished it, I kind of wanted to throw it into the sea.
House Of McQueen by Valerie Wallace. Poetry full of beautiful cunning by an exquisite wordsmith, who has taken her inspiration from the late, fabulous Alexander McQueen. Cheeky and twisted, graceful and savage, full of opulence and swagger, these are poems that you can visualize stalking the runway–all dark edged beauty, irreverent silken flourishes, and dazzling brilliance.
Gothic Tales Of Haunted Love: A Comics Anthology by Hope Nicholson. I was beyond excited for this book when I heard of its launch on Kickstarter, with talk of ” fragments of lovers torn apart, ghostly revenge, and horrific deeds”…but somehow, I’m truly regretful to share, most of these stories really didn’t quite meet my expectations and rather missed the mark for me. If this endeavor had been marketed more like The Other Side (a graphic novel anthology of queer paranormal romance) it would have been perfect–and don’t mistake me, I love that the characters in Gothic Tales Of Haunted Love were a diverse spread of all sorts of people and cultures and eras–but I feel like maybe they were really playing fast and loose with what makes a gothic tale a Gothic Tale. Which makes me sound like a rigid traditionalist who doesn’t appreciate deviations from genre “rules” or riffs on a theme. Maybe I don’t like “modern reimaginings” of things? Maybe I’m just super picky? A few tales actually were perfect. Absolutely spot on. A few were meandering, and one or two were just seemed too abstract to work for this concept, at all. I feel terrible that it wasn’t for me, because I’m know it was a passion project with a lot of heart and talent that went into it. Sorry to be a bummer on this one!
The Beauty by Aliyah Whitely There are no more women left. They all died from some weird fungal disease and now the remaining men of this particular settlement sit around campfires at night listening to Nate, our protagonist, spin tales of how wonderful the women were. It’s always great to be appreciated too late, right? Something peculiar begins happening on the graves where the remaining women were buried, and then it takes off from there in what is ultimately a brilliantly orchestrated deconstruction of gender roles. I don’t mean to spoil anything for anyone, but I have to share that this book grossed me out like nothing ever has. I love my mama friends and their wee ones, but I am not the maternal sort and I can’t even deal with the body horrors of pregnancy–which this book has taken to a whole new and disturbing level.
Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman. Having read Malerman’s super freaky and very excellent Bird Box, had high hopes for this one, even though it didn’t initially sound like a winner. Carol Evers has an eerie condition; she dies a lot. But she’s not actually dead, it’s more like a two day long coma-nap, during which time her pulse slows, her skin cools, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think “well, that’s that!” and you’d throw her in a coffin and be done with it. Only two people know of her condition–her best friend, who, coincidentally, just died, and her husband, who it turns out, is kind of a turd. Well, there is one other person who knows about Carol’s strange sleeping sickness: an outlaw she once loved, but who left her because he was a big baby who couldn’t deal with the somber responsibility of loving a dame like Carol. Carol dies yet again, and her husband, tired of living in his wife’s shadow, puts into motion his plan to bury her alive (which he’s apparently been sitting on for a while). Word travels back to the outlaw living on the outskirts of where ever, and he decides that it’s time to do his duty by the woman he still loves and hits the trail to save her. All this wild west stuff was really off-putting at first, but it’s more the weird west than the wild west. An alternate place on a different timeline. I’m not sure how, but somehow that made the setting more palatable for me. I really liked Unbury Carol, but I had a few problems with it. There’s plenty of talk about how “beloved” Carol was in the town and their community, but other than Malerman telling us that over and over, I am not certain that I actually saw any evidence of it in the story, which is always a little annoying. And with all these dudes either trying to murder Carol or save her, it would seem that this is a story in which Carol has very little agency–which isn’t exactly true–but I would have like to have seen much, much more from Carol, who had the potential to be an immensely intriguing and complex character.
Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood by Claire Hoffman. It took me a long time to realize this, and even longer to admit, but I love memoirs about fucked-up families. In the 1980s and 1990s, after her alcoholic father runs off to California and leaves his family with less than $50, the author’s mother whisked both Claire and her brother away to Iowa for peace and enlightenment at Maharishi’s national headquarters for Heaven on Earth. This isolated meditation community is where Claire Hoffman grew up, and while…not a great deal happened there other than lots of gullible folks being scammed out of their money (no world peace was achieved, none of these fanatical meditators actually ever levitated, or “flew”), I found it a vivid, fascinating glimpse into a weird childhood. I read Greetings from Utopia Park for a book club, and the other person in the club (there’s only two of us! it’s a super perfect first foray into book clubs for me) felt like nothing really happened and that the book was “one, long, sad, sigh”. She’s right in that it might seem a little …restrained? If you’re expecting a juicy, unbridled, scandalous “tell-all”, well that’s not what this is, and I think if it were all of those things, maybe I wouldn’t have found it so relatable. I’m not sure how I wasn’t a child who grew up in such a community. My mother was a similar sort of dreamer, and I can’t help but thinking if conditions were right…if she knew how to drive, or if she had met the right weirdos at the right time in her life…that could have been my sisters and I, mediating and eating tofu and living in some sort of crazy utopian trailer park. This reads like the book I would have written if my circumstances were only slightly different.
The Rules Of Magic by Alice Hoffman I have been reading Alice Hoffman since I was 16 or 17 years old, and a co-worker recommended her to me. My first job was a part-time affair, and involved hamburgers and french fries and terrible, greasy, red uniforms. I was “bottom bun”: I squeezed ketchup and mustard in concentric circles onto lukewarm meat patties, and topped each bullseye with precisely three dill pickle slices and a soggy circle of red onion. I then passed my creation on to K., who had the coveted “top bun” position, and would crown my topless sandwich with lettuce, tomato and a dome shaped, glossy brown hamburger bun. K. seemed to me at the time very old, though in retrospect she must have been only in her 50s or so, and, I thought, terribly out of place. I was a teenager, it was my job to have a terrible job. K. was or had been an English teacher, so what the heck was she doing there? (I later found out her husband had been diagnosed with an unnamed disease, and I felt awful for belittling what must have been an extra job to pay for his treatments.) We often talked of books and what we were currently reading. “I think you’d quite like Alice Hoffman,” she offered one afternoon during the lunch rush, shouting to be heard over the hissing crackle of the speakers and a customer’s complicated order. “Really beautiful character studies and lots of magical realism!” I had absolutely no idea what she meant by any of that, but I dutifully found a copy of Turtle Moon at a used bookstore, and caught up at once in the surprisingly beautiful prose, I breathlessly devoured it within 24 hours. And so ever after it has always been with Alice Hoffman’s books, at least until I found myself thinking in recent years, “oh, another new Alice Hoffman title? Let me guess? There’s two sisters, one is maybe dark, the other, no doubt, light. There’s gonna be some mundane sort of magic. Something about birds or beetles or butter. There’s a curse, oh, right, you’re not allowed to fall in love. Sigh. That old chestnut again.” And so too it was with The Rules Of Magic. It’s all there. All familiar, all versions of stories I nearly know by heart after all of these years. And yet, I found my jaded heart opening to these characters again and again, and as their new story unfolded, my cynicism lifted and I was once again rapt and dazzled, hopeful and heartbroken and swept up in their wondrous worlds of magic and birdsong and cursed love. I realize I haven’t told you anything about this new book, but I think, if you’re a fan of Alice Hoffman’s writings, it doesn’t matter. We have learned by now we’ll go where ever she takes us, and fall in love over and over again, every single time. (Also, this is a prequel to Practical Magic and really, do I need to tell you anything else??)
The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman.This was our inaugural selection for a group that a friend and I started over on Good Reads, “Nonfiction For The Senses“– a “virtual book club to indulge in non-fiction books about all things relating to the senses, mostly focusing on the history, lore and science around them, as well as books celebrating obsessions with anything like perfumes, potions, intriguing sounds, textiles and textures, and delicious foods. ” And what a marvelous book to kick things off with! The Royal Art of Poison was absolutely fantastic and rife with fascinating facts and revolting revelations. In this book we examine the deaths of royal personages throughout history and examine the question–was it poison? Or was it just their excessive use of arsenic-based cosmetics, maybe a latent case of tuberculosis, or ghosts in their blood or something? Revealed with a tone of wry wit and gossipy relish, Herman shares with us how folks lived in ye olden days, including the usage of garbagey nonsense medicines, the general lack of knowledge regarding sickness and disease, and the appallingly unhygienic living conditions –“unsanitary” is really an understatement in the extreme. Take a look, for example, at the chapter regarding the palace of Versailles and be glad that all your lazy partner does is miss the toilet a little when he pees. At least he uses a toilet. Hell, at least he pees in the bathroom! Another thing I found kind of hilarious was the lengths to which the monarchy and persons of prominent social standing would go to in order to avoid being poisoned (which is really eye-opening to how shitty a king they must have known they were and how much they deserved poisoning!) But even if their poison sniffing courtiers or the waving of their magical unicorn horns saved them, chances were they’d die from poorly cooked food, diseases and filthy living conditions, medications and cosmetics containing poisons, or doctors using excessive bleeding, purging, and other treatments, anyway. What a time to be alive!
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery. I thought this was a remarkably special book for its enthusiasm on the subject of these beautiful, curious, and yes, oftentimes dangerous creatures, as well as the bounty of information it provided–so I was quite honestly surprised to see that a lot of reviewers thought that it wasn’t “sciency” enough, or that the facts seemed a little thin. (Granted, I read this book not knowing much about octopuses except that have eight arms… so any information at all was news to me.) This is a highly personal account wherein Montgomery shares her journey of studying octopuses, and the sense of wonder and delight she derives from interacting with, and “getting to know” these strange, sentient cephalopods. I suspect there’s probably a great deal of conjecture on the part of the author, though, when it comes to attributing characteristics such as “joy” or “affection” to what might amount to captive beasts of no small amount of intelligence merely responding to a bit of stimulation in an otherwise boring environment. We do, however, see octopuses push people away, pull them closer, tease people, lash out, weaken, die, expand and thrive. Octopuses change shape, change color, express pleasure and loneliness and longing. Do octopuses have a soul? In this regard, it’s an inconclusive read. Who can say? At the very least, as far as I am concerned, they’re off the menu on my future sushi dates.
Philosophy, Pussycats, and Porn by Stoya. I have some thoughts about this series of essays and blog posts from writer, actor, and pornographer Stoya– a personality and human, whom I deeply admire (at least when it comes to her work and writings. I have never met her, and do not know her personally.) However, I’m not sure I can convey my thoughts articulately and in a way that I feel that this book deserves. On one hand, it’s an intensely intimate look at someone’s reflections and ruminations, musings and meditations… and not in any sort of cleaned-up-and-sanitized-for-public-consumption kind of way, either. Several of these essays are close to what I consider stream-of-consciousness writing, in the sense that someone who is trying to work something out for themselves, internally, might scribble down nebulous notions and obscure observations, so that when they see these ideas begin to coalesce in black and white, in front of their eyes, they can say, “aha! That’s what it all means!” Stoya writes on issues regarding pornography, sex work, and sex education as they relate to privacy, censorship, and the media etc., and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a thought process from someone who is deeply involved in these issues and really knows what she’s talking about. On the other hand, some of these writings are almost too intimate, too personal–almost as if they were plucked from a diary and a larger narrative, to now stand alone on a page; secret slices of life, raw, rough, unfinished, and very much out of context for a reader who is on the outside, with a very limited view for which to look in. These are the stories wherein perhaps a first name is mentioned…maybe a friend, a lover, a coworker… and we see a small interaction between Stoya and this individual–a coffee and a smoke, a heady fling, a reconciliation–and I wonder…am I supposed to know who these people are? Does it matter? Why was this specific moment in time, with this specific person, given mention? In her other essays, in which we are allowed to see the inner workings of Stoya debating with herself and sussing out answers on the aforementioned various issues, these shared writings feel like a privilege, almost a peek behind the veil. However, the more personal anecdotes and reminiscences make me feel like a peeping tom, and not in a titillating way, but it’s a rather uncomfortable, left-out feeling, like, “why am I being allowed to witness this?”
House of Women by Sophie Goldstein is a starkly beautiful graphic novel, and a loose adaptation of the 1947 film Black Narcissus, a psychological drama about the emotional tensions of jealousy and lust within a convent of nuns in an isolated valley in the Himalayas. Except that House of Women takes place in the much more foreign environs of what is ostensibly another planet (?) and the “nuns” are attempting to convert the local alien populace. As with most of these stories, it goes about as well as one might expect.
Circe by Madeline Miller. As someone who spent ages 8-10 obsessed with Greek mythology and constantly daydreamed about what life was like amongst the Olympians both major and minor, as well as the thrilling exploits, intrigues, and adventures of their progeny, I was super excited about Circe when I first heard of the book’s publication… and it took until I was two chapters in to realize that I was not, in fact, reading a story about Cassandra. Not sure how I got them mixed up. Whoops! At any rate, it was a happy mistake, as I would much rather have read an imaginative retelling about the solitary island-dwelling sorceress who turned pervy, plundering sailors into pigs than the seeress cursed to utter prophecies which were true but which no one believed, (and which I’d already read in a book titled Firebrand, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Also, I don’t know about you, but even years later, I am still reeling with regard to hearing the brutal, vicious accounts of abuse that MZB’s daughter suffered at her hands. It’s heartbreaking. It’s always devastating to learn that your hero is, in fact, a monster, isn’t it? Ugh.) At any rate…Circe. Born of the Titan Helios and Oceanid, Perse, Circe is a lonely, willful nymph whose reinterpreted story in the hands of Madeline Miller is a breathtaking, compelling tale, and one of the loveliest things I have read in a very long time.
North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud. I am making a concerted effort to pay more attention to the books languishing on my shelves which I’d bought for the purpose of “summer reading” several summers ago (and subsequent summers, since). So far I am working on purchases from 2015. Shameful! But better late than never! North American Lake Monsters is a collection of short stories the likes of which I am not quite sure I’ve encountered before. There are monsters in some these stories; sometimes the monsters are monsters and sometimes they are just flawed and horrible people. Sometimes, even if there is a monster, it’s just a weird, rotting carcass that has washed up from the lake, but you’re an ex-con whose family is falling apart and you just don’t have time to deal with that kind of thing. Sometimes you’re a kid who has a vampire living under your house who has promised to turn you into an undead bloodsucker, if you keep your promise to invite him into your home. Maybe you’re a drunk and destitute, with no home at all, haunted by the ghost of your hurricane-ravaged city. Or perhaps you’re just an ignorant kid, with a strangely terrible home life, and running with the wrong crowd. These stories are bleak, full of more ruin than redemption, and oftentimes ending before you’ve gotten the sense that they’d even begun. I found this an oddly hypnotic read, which I hesitate to call “enjoyable”, due, I suppose to just the very nature of the stories, but that I found pleasure in reading, nonetheless.
Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay — Not That Bad offers a harrowing, haunting gathering of essays from a diverse range of contributors; the title, a reference to the widespread minimization of sexual abuse and rape culture in a world that is shamefully warped. “I taught myself to be grateful I survived even if survival did not look like much,” writes Gay in the introduction, with regard to her gang rape at age 12. I’ve read almost everything Roxane Gay has written, and yet this anthology she has edited, which contains only an introduction with her own writing, seems like the penultimate Roxane Gay book. The violence and trauma she sustained as a girl threads its way into everything she writes, and this volume of essays from women and men who have experienced sexual assaults, seems like the moment that her career has been leading up from the beginning: the collecting and sharing of these stories by those who have endured a similar trauma. This was an inexpressibly painful read–each and every story, whether or not you can relate to the author’s specific experience, or if a particular writer’s voice or writing style appeals to you, or not–is a gut-wrenching expression of grief and betrayal and survival. I can’t say this is a “good” book, in the common parlance of what might constitute such a thing. But I do know that it is a necessary book. And even if Roxane Gay compiled hundreds more stories, thousands, there still wouldn’t be enough books to collect the pain and rage that those of us who have survived these experiences feel, every day of our lives. But this book is a good start.
My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh –It sounds trite, but I haven’t quite been the same after reading My Year Of Rest and Relaxation…and not in a good way. The main character, a thin, pretty, privileged white woman, has decided that life is just too much–she doesn’t want to do anything, feel anything, be anything–and she comes to the conclusion that the best way to deal with things is to medicate herself into a year long nap. With the help of a hilariously awful psychiatrist and a crazy amount of prescription drugs, she more or less manages to do just this. Moshfegh’s characters are terrifically gross and awful (but sometimes in ways that you shamefacedly identify with–if you have ever wiped a booger on a wall or worn crusty underwear for a week, you know what I mean.) They don’t treat themselves well and they don’t treat the people around them very well, either. After finishing this book I found myself feeling lethargic and apathetic and thinking of hibernation with a great deal of yearning. That could be the nasty appeal of this book, or end-of-summer ennui, or maybe a little bit of both.
Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving An American Obsession by Alice Bolin –This book was much more, and much less than I thought it was going to be. Probably because I bought it as soon I saw Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) tweet about it, and I hadn’t even read the blurbs or description for the book before I Amazon-Primed it. I really thought it was going to be a whole book dissecting and analyzing television shows like True Detective and Twin Peaks ; the dead girl trope and how it is a tableau for predominately men to work out their own issues. And while that was only one chapter in Dead Girls, this book of personal essays tying moments from the author’s own life and experiences into savvy, insightful examinations of books, movies, and songs where women are both troubled and troubling presences was surprisingly more than I bargained for. I could be saying that because in every chapter Bolin references at least four to five books that struck me as “need to reads”; it could be the much-broader-than-expected range of pop cultural criticism it offered; and it very well could be that I am more appreciative than ever when authors write from a place of personal experience, and which Bolin does adeptly, with intelligence, humor, and heart. Also: Ginger Snaps gets a mention, and as we all know, that is the greatest werewolf movie ever made, so I probably would have given this 5 stars for this reason alone.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn –I read this book in the span of three hours. I don’t think I need to tell you about it. If you’re not reading the book or have already read it, you are probably watching the show. (As am I. I am not enjoying it, but I can’t stop.) I find Gillian Flynn’s work awfully compelling and I hate myself for it. I hate myself for hating myself for it. Flynn writes about complicated women—women who have feelings of anger, aggression, and desire. She addresses this in an interview I read recently, how people suggest that she is not a feminist if she writes about women doing bad things. If she writes about unlikable, villainous women. She pushes back at this notion. Why are women writers obligated to have all their female characters be virtuous? Why can’t women be villains, too?
Toil & Trouble by Mairghread Scott and illustrated by Kelly Matthews and Nichole Matthews –After having attended Sleep No More I opined that perhaps I should have made revisiting the story of Macbeth more of a priority before the experience. My friend suggested to me that I should read Toil & Trouble, an exquisitely illustrated re-telling of the tragedy from the witches point of view, instead. We learn of the three weird sisters–Riata, Cait, and Smertae– former mortals who have accepted enormous power and responsibility to protect and defend their Scottish homeland through the ages, and the desperate, diabolical measures they’ll take to ensure this. The notion that the witches are actually the ones working behind the scenes to actively influence the events of the narrative was a perspective that I appreciated the opportunity to have read, and oddly enough, had never given any thought to, until now.
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Ok, so the thing is: I have read a lot of books since late September, which is the last time I shared an installment of Stacked. And I typically try to be very diligent about having an ongoing draft where I either immediately write a review, or at least some notes or impressions after having finished a book. That way, I do it a little bit at a time as the months go by, and eventually, I have a blog post full of book reviews.
This time around…I did not do that. And I don’t remember a lot of the details and finer points of these books and stories. So I will do my best, but some of these may end up being one-sentence reviews. I’m sorry! I’ll do better next time. MAYBE!
Always the First To Die by R.J. Jacobs As a horror fan and a Floridian who has been experiencing hurricanes for most of my life, I found the overall atmosphere for Always the First to Die –a murder mystery homage to horror movies, taking place in the dilapidated decay of a crumbling old hotel in the Florida keys–to be exceptionally thrilling. And overall, I thought it was a pretty solid story, with the widowed Lexi frantically racing down to the Keys, where she swore she would never return, to retrieve her teenage daughter, Quinn, in the aftermath of a hurricane. With a teenager’s disregard for danger and consequences, Quinn had lied to her mother in order to visit and spend time with her estranged horror movie-director grandfather… and possibly participate in the filming of a sequel to his most famous horror (and possibly cursed!) film …because she knew Lexi would never agree to any of it. But now mysterious and terrifying things are happening, which may be tied to a mysterious and terrifying event from the past –and you may discover enough clues in this fast-paced, duel-timeline story to put two and two together and figure out the mystery. But even if you don’t, I think you’ll have a good time with it. And bonus points if you’re reading it after you’ve lost power in the bad weather and wild winds and rains of an early autumn Florida hurricane…which, serendipitously enough, I was! (This review copy was provided by Netgalley)
What Moves The Dead by T. KingfisherI never thought I’d declare a reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher “a hoot,” but here we are. I adored this clever, charming, grotesquerie of a book, and it had one of the most enjoyable and interesting main characters I’ve spent time with in ages. Retired officer Alex Easton rushes to the ancestral home of their old friends Roderick and Madeline Usher after receiving a disturbing letter, to find the mansion and surrounding grounds in an appalling state of moldy, wormy decay. Both Roderick and Madeline are dreadfully, inexplicably unwell, and even the doctor living under their roof can’t pinpoint the cause. What follows is an eerie and frequently fairly gross romp of Alex trying to get to the bottom of what’s eating at their dear old friends, and even though I hesitate to call this book “funny,”–it actually is because Alex is such a jolly person with a big personality and quite frankly I want a whole series of their adventures.
The Cabin At The End Of The World by Paul Tremblay. I actually hollered WHAT THE HELL when I finished this book. I guess I only read it because I saw that the book had been adapted for film, and I’m kind of a snob about seeing a horror films based on a novel, before reading the novel. So I thought, ok, better read this. If you’ve seen the movie trailer then you know the drill: two dads and their daughter are staying at an isolated cabin and a small gang of fanatical strangers break in, hold them hostage and tell them they’ve got to make some important decisions to prevent the end of the world. That’s more or less all there is to the book. I don’t mind an ambiguous ending, but this one was incredibly frustrating. I gotta hand it to Paul Tremblay, though. He really went there. He did the thing you’re not supposed to (expected to? allowed to?) do in these sorts of stories. Bold move, sir. But I still hated the ending.
Spells For Forgetting by Adrienne Young. I think if I had realized how large a part the romance element played in this story, I might not have picked it up or given it a chance. Unsolved murder and ancestral magic in a rather secluded and superstitious community? Absolutely here for it. Angsty romance and unresolved issues between the two main characters, one of whom is just really awful and childish and annoying? Not so much. That said, and to be fair, there were aspects of the book that I really enjoyed: the rich immersion in such an atmospheric, autumnal little town, and I always love the idea of magic and lore passed down through the generations. Taken as a whole, though, considering the characters and the overall story, Spells for Forgetting just didn’t do it for me. (This review copy was provided by Netgalley)
Tell Me I’m Worthless by Allison Rumfitt As much time as I have spent thinking about Tell Me I’m Worthless since I finished reading the book, I’ll admit–I am still not sure what it is, exactly, that I think of it. A haunted house story where the house is a metaphor for England and a particularly English kind of fascism, a horror novel that centers queer and trans characters, and body horror screaming with the physical and psychic violence and trauma that is enacted on Othered bodies, this is a dark, and intense, and deeply unpleasant book. And you should probably read it.
The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz was such an over-the-top treat. The book opens with Alex, a young writer struggling with both the helplessness and impotence of not having written a word in over a year and the fact that she’s lost her best friend, Wren, in a falling out and is feeling hurt and confused by the break. These separate miseries collide in an event early on, where Alex must attend a book launch party for a successful friend–and where she is sure to run into Wren. The night is not entirely a bust, though, because it sets into motion Alex receiving an invite to an exclusive writing retreat held by infamous horror author Roza Vallo at her massive, remote home in the Adirondacks. This could be the impetus Alex needs to unlock her creativity–but there’s a complication. Wren’s going to be there, too. This is the theme for one of my very favorite horror subgenres: artist goes off to create in relative isolation; weird shit happens. And weird shit, it does happen! Between Roza’a unorthodox methods and demands, the almost punitive deadlines the authors are required to meet, the eerie house and its unsettling atmosphere, and even the various attendees of the retreat who may be harboring secrets, tensions are ramped up, everyone’s pushing themselves to their limits, and the slightest accidental remark or mistake may send someone over the edge…but is anything in this house accidental? Or has everything been carefully orchestrated from the very beginning?
Beware the Woman by Megan Abbott I read Beware the Woman in the course of a day. I began in the morning, intrigued by what was meant to be an idyllic trip for Jacy, newly married and pregnant, to visit her husband’s family for the first time. I hung on to every word, as what was a seemingly normal experience of a woman attempting to relax on vacation and get to know her father-in-law–something that should be a pretty mundane, although hopefully nice experience– felt so weirdly off-kilter from the very beginning and slowly became more and more disturbing and steeped in dread. Early into their trip, Jacy’s pregnancy develops complications, and though her regular doctor assures her in a long-distance phone call that these things are a typical occurrence, the town doctor and her father-in-law (who seem suspiciously in cahoots), are treating it very differently. Jacy begins to feel trapped and housebound, she feels increasingly scrutinized and judged–not just in the present moment, but in her past as well, pieces of which are being revealed without her consent. Even her husband seems to be changing in his controlling behaviors and overprotective attitude toward her. I stayed up late into the night, on the edge of my seat, devouring the story so that I could finally learn what was driving the characters and what the mystery was, so in that sense, it was an incredibly compelling story. Once all is revealed, though, I look back and realize that I still don’t know what was driving any of the characters. Not a single one. People are acting in these strange and bewildering ways and doing these concerning things, and I don’t think we ever get a satisfying reason for any of it. For all that build-up, I wanted to be able to attach some reasoning to these people’s actions, and that aspect of the story just wasn’t there for me at all. (This review copy was provided by Netgalley)
All These Subtle Deceits by C.S. Humble This was like Exorcist meets noir detective story, with an on-call, excommunicated exorcist battling demons of his own, etc. I did not love this story or the character relaying it to us. There was a line in the book about some woman’s $300 dye job. First…$300? If she’s lucky. Secondly, “…dye job”? Tell me a man wrote this without telling me a man wrote this, right?
The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton. In a breathless story exploring the dangers of devotion in our favorite sort of dark academic setting, we come to know high-school junior Laura, who, young and vulnerable and full of grand ideas, is obsessed with the very idea of St. Dunstan’s private school and the sorts of experiences she expects to have there, and has convinced her parents to send her to the wind-swept academy. Once there, she becomes fixated upon the intense, fanatical, and quite vicious overachiever Virginia, who leads the school choir and seems to have all of the choir’s members on a short leash. Inducted into the fold–both the choir itself and the circle of “friends” that encompass it– Laura’s world becomes increasingly smaller, wrapped up in the passions and melodramas and rituals of the group, who all bow in deference to Virginia–a leader who is more feared than loved, and who is becoming increasingly more vindictive and unstable. I loved this book and thought that the author captured so well the angst, insecurity, hysteria, and devastation that fuels the days of a teenager without making it feel like an actual YA novel. (Nothing wrong with a YA novel, they’re just not my favorite.)
The Me You Love In The Dark by Skottie Young (Author), Jorge Corona (Artist)Ro seeks solitude, artistic inspiration, and a change in environment to revitalize her practice and retreats for a time from city life to isolated small-town life. The old, creepy house she’s renting provides unexpected companionship that swiftly becomes possessive and terrifying. The art was moody and compelling, but the pacing moved too quickly, and the story could have used a much more sensitive hand.
The Turnout by Megan Abbott. Megan Abbott’s books are a bit hit or miss for me (see Beware the Woman, above), but much to my surprise, I utterly inhaled this story of family secrets and disturbing, propulsive ballerina sister-darkness.
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter. I read my first Karin Slaughter book last autumn, and I was immediately hooked by the wry, nasty, hot-messiness of her stories. In a Karen Slaughter story, people’s lives are fucked up well before their lives are actually in jeopardy. Andy is in her early 30s and is feeling like a loser, having moved back in with her mom and working a part-time, go-nowhere job after art school in New York doesn’t pan out for her. And then: at lunch in a local diner, a shocking moment of violence erupts in an active-shooter nightmare, ending with her mother, her salt of the earth, pillar of the community mother–cooly, casually, killing the gunman. Chaos ensues from there, and Andy learns that her mother has a past, her life as she thought it was is ending and never, in fact, even existed, and that she’s going to have to get her shit together quickly and be just as ruthless and brutal as the woman–now a stranger– who raised her, if she is to figure out how to survive on her own.
Comfort Me With Apples by Cathrynne M. Valente. Strangely, it would be easy to say too much about this brief book (which I think would have been better served as a short story.) I feel that even the vaguest synopsis will give away what the author is trying to do here, but even so, if you’re even marginally on the ball, you will have figured it out in the first few chapters. Sophia is living what, on the surface, appears to be a charmed life in the utopian gated community of Arcadia Gardens. She has a beautiful home, a husband whom she adores, and the most delightful neighbors. Still, something is off, something is being kept from her right from the beginning. Even if Sophia doesn’t yet realize it, we immediately do. And with one small, peculiar discovery, her curiosity is piqued, and her entire world begins to unravel. It’s funny, I thought I wasn’t a big fan of Comfort Me With Apples, but I have found myself turning it over in my head on more than one occasion. I wonder what it was about this story that spoke to me. Let me know if it speaks to you.
The Last Housewife by Ashley WinsteadSo…do you recall that article on The Cut sometime back in early 2022 about the Sarah Lawrence students who were groomed by a dorm mate’s father into his abusive sex cult? I think there’s been a couple of documentaries on it that have either been released or are in the works. Anyway, imagine if the author of In My Dreams I Hold A Knife used that sensational tidbit of news as fodder for a story of her own. I mean, I don’t know that’s what she did, but if you are in any way familiar with the Sarah Lawrence story, I think it will immediately come to mind as you are reading The Last Housewife.
Girl Forgotten by Karin Slaughter. Andy from Pieces of Her became a U.S. Marshall! Her first assignment comes about via her family’s pulling of strings because it is related to stuff or things that happened in the first book. More cults, more abuse, more women in peril. The pacing was weird on this one. I don’t think I was a huge fan of it.
56 Days by Catherine Howard. There are folks out there that apparently don’t want the real-world problems of the global pandemic intruding in on their gruesome murder stories. I hear that was one of the issues that people had with The Glass Onion movie? It’s part of our present reality, and it’s going to be part of our history, and as humans in this world who are living in and experiencing this world… we can’t pretend that these moments never existed… I mean, of course, it’s going to appear in the fictional media we consume. Get real, people. Anyway, in 56 Days, a couple meets up at the start of the pandemic, and, taking advantage of the weird reality they find themselves living in, they decide to move in together as sort of a trial run. By the end of the book –or rather the beginning, as the book opens at the ending– someone is dead. And with plot twists and no one being who they appear to be, we can safely assume the corpse has nothing to do with the Covid virus.
The Tenth Girl by Sara Faring. This book is probably not going to be what you expect. It’s certainly not what I expected…although along the way, I thought I was starting to piece things together. Turns out I had the gist of it, but I had the shape of things all wrong. I don’t even know what I mean by that. You’ll see for yourself, I think. Mavi, fleeing the violent military regime that destroyed her family, seeks asylum in a rare teaching opportunity at a creepy Argentinian finishing school full of tragic history, curses, and an intensely gothic atmosphere. Don’t get used to the spooky atmosphere or the era in which the story takes place (sometime in the 1970s), and don’t get too hung up on what you assume to be the story, either. I think this is the sort of book where you’ve got to be flexible and switch gears and not be too attached to the story you think you’re reading or the genre you believe it to occupy. Ok, I have said enough! I’ll be curious to know what you think about this one.
The Children on the Hilland The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon. I recall enjoying both of these stories to varying degrees but not being quite satisfied with the endings. In The Children on the Hill we spend time between Violet and her brother and their somewhat odd living arrangement with their grandmother, who is a renowned doctor at an innovative mental illness treatment facility in the country, the Hillside Inn. A traumatized young girl, Iris, comes to live with them, and in unraveling the mystery of Iris’ situation, Violet unearths terrible secrets about the Inn, her family, and herself. Many years later, Lizzy Shelley is a monster and cryptid hunter with a reality TV show and podcast to her name; young girls are disappearing around the country, and in the pattern that emerges, Lizzy senses that the predator may be linked to her own past, her family, and the Inn. With The Drowning Kind, I honestly don’t even remember. There is an old family home with a haunted swimming pool that grants wishes …at a price. As the story opens, Jax learns that her twin sister Lexie has drowned in the pool, and in going home to deal with the estate, she discovers that Lexie had been digging into the history of the property and had uncovered some dark secrets.
The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James I can’t recall why I even picked this book up, but maybe it’s because a lot of BookTubers had mentioned it. Now that I am searching my memory, I think several of them had said The Book of Cold Cases would be good for someone who is just starting to explore their interest in mysteries and thrillers. It does have that sort of feel to it in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s not really graphic or violent or twisty or terribly complex–it’s a bit of a light read, I suppose. Shea is an office worker by day and runs a true crime blog in her off-hours, a fixation borne no doubt from her attempted abduction as a child, which resulted in an event that still haunts her. She gets a rare opportunity to interview Beth Greer, a mysterious local woman acquitted of two cold case slayings, and in the repeated meetings at Beth’s mansion, Shea gets the sense that–aside from the fact that she’s alone with a possible murderer– something is desperately wrong in the house. There’s both a supernatural element to this story as well as a romantic subplot, and to be honest, I wasn’t in love with any of it.
White Horse by Erica T. Werth. I think I loved the idea of this haunted-bracelet-as-portal story of a woman uncovering and confronting her past more than I did the actual story itself. I was constantly cheering for the main character, Kari, an urban Indian of Apache and Chickasaw descent and lover of Megadeth and Stephen King–she was so vividly written that she jumped off the page, and I felt her goading me to keep picking up the book and giving it another go. I loved her personal journey as she navigated the creepy things that were happening to her and the history that she was investigating, but still..something about the story didn’t click with me. A lot of people loved this book, though, so this is probably just a me-thing.
Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six by Lisa Unger. Now quite the opposite of Kari in White Horse, I was not cheering for any of the characters in this book. I thought they were all varying degrees of awful. Hannah’s brother appears to be a successful tech bro, and if you’ve read those three words and already decided he’s a piece of shit, you’re right. He’s gathered some of his nearest and dearest for a remote getaway in a luxurious, isolated cabin that has all of the best amenities that you could imagine– because he can afford it, and he thinks that they all deserve it. Because, of course he does. If you’re expecting a wintry sort of atmosphere which I think most might from the title, it’s not that–this is a cabin in Florida, and a hurricane is on the radar. The rental host is weirdly stalkery, their not-entirely-friendly personal chef shares that the property has a creepy backstory, and this friend-group of guests have secrets and darknesses of their own–and then one of them disappears. This is a book with a twist that I thought was intriguing if it had been explored in another way, in another book, and maybe in an entirely different genre. But in this particular story, it fell flat for me.
Such Sharp Teeth by Rachel Harrison and Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. I don’t want to say anything at all about these last two books on my list. Except they’re both feminist horror (though Nightbitch felt a bit more like literary fiction), they’re both darkly humorous in the different author’s voices… and they’re both lycanthropy related. AND they are both in my top three favorites of 2022. Actually, I loved them so much, they tie for no. 2. What is number one? I reviewed it a few months back, but I have been crowing about it ever since to anyone who will listen: Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth.
In 2023, I think these Stacked roundups will be a little bit different in that I will not be reviewing every single book I read. And that is because I plan to read 200 books! Which is…a lot of books …to be talking and writing and thinking about, and that’s way too much work! So the plan is that I will still be doing these quarterly/seasonal collections of reviews, but they will probably just consist of the highlights and standouts. We’ll see. I’ll figure it out when we get there!