Björk photographed by Jurgen Teller, 1993

I did it! I read hit my 200-book goal in 2023! As a matter of fact, I read 220 books. I do not feel the need to ever do that again. Especially since in the last month of the year my iPad died and I was reading on my PHONE. If my eyes were bad before, they are a million times worse now!

I did, however, learn that I have more time available during the day to sneak in some reading than I previously took advantage of. I am already someone who wakes up ultra-early to read while it is still dark and quiet, so I couldn’t really improve upon that. Technically, I don’t really “break” for lunch; I generally just inhale my food while continuing to work. I know a lot of you already know this, but if you’re new here, I do have a day job that’s pretty consuming and which has absolutely nothing to do with anything you will ever read about here. Anyway, instead of hoovering up my salad and checking emails, I began opening a book during my lunch. It definitely helped with my reading progress, and it also helped with my indigestion, ha! I am not someone who likes to read in bed, but I did start bringing my books with me during my little foot baths. I also listened to way more audiobooks this year than I ever had previously. On an evening when I might typically knit while watching a supernatural murder mystery or someone on YouTube making dinner for themselves, instead, I listened to lots and lots of audiobooks.

I also got very back into poetry this year, and while I read a lot of poetry that left me feeling pretty “meh,” I also read some stunningly beautiful collections–and the great thing is, these are pretty quick to get through. I’ve taken to keeping a stack of 4-5 poet’s collections on my desk, and throughout the course of the day, when things are a bit slow or during a particularly tedious conference call, I’d read a few pages. It adds up! This is also how I read a lot of nonfiction this year. It is also how I read drafts of things I was asked to blurb or share commentary or critiques on. For some reason I can concentrate so much better on my reading when I am actually supposed to be doing something else, heh heh.

And lastly, if I was not enjoying what I was reading, I learned to get way less precious about DNFing it. I didn’t want to waste my time with something that was rubbing me the wrong way, or grossing me out, or just generally not tickling my fancy. Life is too short. If you don’t like it, move on to something else that you like more. No sense in torturing yourself because something was positively reviewed and you feel like you “should” like it, or because everything else is reading it right now. Nope. Read what you like. If you don’t like it, maybe it is meant for someone else, and that is ok.

As in the past reading updates, I have not written reviews for everything I’ve read–it was just too much, and if I expected that magnitude of dedication of myself, I’d probably never have written a single word about any of it.  Below there are 25+ reviews of the things I have read during this last quarter of the year, and everything else that I read is at least listed, linked to, grouped by category, and asterisked if I really enjoyed it.

Björk photographed by Jurgen Teller, 1993

You Know What You Did by K.T. Nguyen While I enjoyed this book to varying degrees, I am having a terrible time with the process of revisiting and gathering my thoughts for a review. The themes of Intergenerational trauma and mental illness in this one may hit a little too close to home for some readers. It did for me. Annie appears to living a beautiful life–one worthy of being featured as a magazine spread, as evidenced by the journalist who is visiting to get some accompanying photos the piece. A gorgeous home, a handsome, doting husband, and an art practice that while not yet a flourishing career, may be poised to take off. However, Annie’s mother just died and theirs was a terribly complicated relationship. Things begin to unravel for Annie soon after her mother’s death; neuroses, once under control, are resurfacing to a debilitating degree, and what’s even more terrifying is that people around Annie are starting to die. I found Annie difficult to empathize with. Grief can cloud your thinking, and compounded with mental illness it’s a combination not conducive to making great decisions, but I more and more began to find Annie’s choices mind-bogglingly frustrating to the extent that the story became physically painful to read. Of course, I am coming into this book with my own experiences and I know that’s not entirely fair to the story. YMMV. (reviewed copy provided by NetGalley)

Where He Can’t Find You by Darcy Coates Abby and Hope’s father disappeared several years back and their mom hasn’t been quite right ever since. It’s safe to say almost everyone who lives in Doubtful has suffered a similar tragedy, whether it’s a family member or friend, most residents of this haunted town know someone who has been taken by The Stitcher. Or worse, who has been returned by The Stitcher, chopped and mangled and sewn back together, hideously mutilated and utterly unrecognizable. More often than not, these grotesquely damaged corpses are missing several parts. Abby and Hope aren’t alone, though; along with loyal friends Rhys, Riya, Connor, and Jen, the new girl who refuses to believe in town conspiracies or things that go bump in the night–they comprise The Jackrabbits. A jackrabbit never drops its guard, it’s always ready to run–and run fast. And most importantly, it survives. And then Hope gets taken. From her bedroom, in the middle of the night, without a sound. Desperate to find her sister and to find answers, Abby will stop at nothing to get Hope back–and her friends are with her every step of the way. I shared a few more thoughts on this one for 31 Days of Horror if you’d like to read more.

A Haunting On the Hill by Elizabeth Hand Holly is a struggling playwright who has been awarded a grant, and, being in the area and happening upon the expansive opulence of Hill House, she immediately falls under its spell. She becomes convinced that it would be a grand idea to rent it out for a few weeks and invite a group of her actors and collaborators to work on her current project together. The intimate gathering, sequestered away from the bothers of the world for a time, would afford everyone the opportunity to appreciate the material and put their own spin on it and sink into their roles, etc. Once ensconced in its oppressive walls, the group begins to realize that the space is not as luxurious as it might have initially appeared. Rooms are dimly lit, dusty, and damp. There are more rooms and twisting hallways than would seem possible, and it is easy to become lost, alone, and open to the awful energies of the place. All of the members of the troupe begin to encounter varying degrees of strange and terrifying weirdness inside Hill House but because of their various agendas and commitments, they each have their own reasons for looking the other way (or in some cases, leaning into it) and seeing it through. This is another one I reviewed for 31 Days of Horror, if you want more details.

The Dead Take A Train by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey I’d found the previous title from Cassandra Khaw that I’d read (Nothing But Blackened Teeth) a bit off-putting. In that story, five friends convene to have some pre-wedding adventures at a purported haunted castle– but I have never in my years of reading been subjected to a group of friends who hated each other more. The Dead Take A Train, for all its bombastic horror and gore, ruthless demons and repulsive gods…is actually a tale of love and friendship? I liked that. I found the writing lush and disgusting and completely over the top –which is very much my thing!– and the story itself, that of self-destructive demon hunter/supernatural-squasher Julie attempting to prevent a cosmic-horror-end-of-the-world scenario and save her friends in the middle of New York’s gritty, magical underbelly–was an absolute hoot. It reminded me a bit of the post-apocalyptic demon-punk romp of Simon Drax’s A Very Fast Descent Into Hell!

Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror by Jordan Peele Exploring “not only the terror of the supernatural but the chilling reality of injustice that haunts our nation,” this was an outstanding collection wherein almost every story was so good that I wish it could have been expanded on for a full-novel experience. What I find interesting in these gatherings of tales across cultures, is seeing what it is that scares me (the end-of-the-world ones are particularly freaky) as opposed to something that while perhaps fascinating, doesn’t seem all that frightening–because it comes from a part of the world so wholly different from what I know. Even as I am writing those words, I realize that is some privileged white lady shit. I am not unaware. Three exceptionally memorable ones in that sort of personally-scary-for-me apocalyptic vein are Invasion of the Baby Snatchers, which is as outlandish and otherworldly as you might imagine, and both “Flicker” and “Pressure,” which begin as mundane little tales but are –absolutely– not. (reviewed copy provided by NetGalley)

Godzilla: The Half-Century War by James Stokoe Ývan surprised me with a copy of this Godzilla story about a soldier who spends the entirety of his career tangled in kaiju conflict, up to and including the very last seconds of his life. Bold, exciting, and unexpectedly poignant, I sped through this excellent graphic novel in an afternoon.

Where Monsters Lie by Kyle Starks and Piotr Kowalski (Illustrator) If you’ve ever wondered where slashers shack up between murder sprees, well, you probably would not have envisioned them as a coterie of killers relaxing in a gated community–complete with an HOA and monthly meetings. This short, vicious collection of issues 1-4 comprises those dysfunctional group dynamics, the story of a kid who can’t seem to escape them despite his best attempts, and the agent that’s been training to hunt them since the slaughter of his own family when he was a child. Be forewarned–this experience really does put the “graphic” in graphic novel, but it was SO much good(bad/awful/murderous) fun!

The Keeper by Tananarive Due When it comes to a Tananarive Due story, I know I’m always in for a treat that’s going to tug at my heartstrings before straight up ripping my heart out of my chest –and The Keeper with its proliferation of childhood fears and trauma does just that. Aisha’s parents are killed in a car crash and shortly after moving in with her elderly grandmother, the ailing woman’s health takes a rapid decline.  Before dying, she calls forth a dark spirit to protect her granddaughter…or is this entity actually an ancient curse?

The Amulet by Michael McDowell Good lord. There is no one, NO ONE who writes Southern small-town nastiness like Michael McDowell. Sarah Howell finds herself trapped in a nightmare. Her husband, Dean, had a rifle blow up in his face during a training exercise before he shipped out to Vietnam. He’s been horribly disfigured (the extent of which we never even find out, he’s swaddled in bandages like a mummy through the entirety of the book) and more or less left a living corpse. Sarah is forced to care for him, while also enduring the scorn of her hateful mother-in-law, Jo. Jo is truly one of the most awful fictional characters you will ever encounter. Dean’s friend Larry pays a visit, hoping that he is doing the right thing by stopping in, but is feeling terribly guilty and uncomfortable about being there. Larry was unable to secure a job for Dean at the rifle factory in town, which led to Dean ending up in the army. Jo has a laundry list of grievances about everything in general, but she especially blames the town for her son’s circumstances, and Larry in particular. Jo sends him away with an unusual amulet to take home as a gift for his wife Rachel. That night Larry and Rachel’s house burns down, with them and their three children inside. The amulet inexplicably passes from one hand to the next, wreaking havoc and leaving extraordinary carnage in its wake. Not even a quarter of the way through the book, the undertaker is running out of coffins! And no one is safe–while it may have started with someone linked to Dean’s accident, it doesn’t limit itself to locals with those sorts of ties…a poor woman passing through town with her husband gets her throat torn out by her own hogs when the amulet makes its way into her possession. Sarah begins seeing a connection in the string of bizarre deaths and becomes convinced that somehow, the trinket is involved. As the body count rises, Sarah realizes that she must somehow stop the amulet before it’s too late. But how can she defeat an evil she can’t understand or even hands on–especially when no one believes her?

I literally exclaimed OOOOOOF aloud when I finished this book. GOOD LORD.

Björk photographed by Jurgen Teller, 1993

 

Nowhere Like Home by Sara Shepard Toxic friendships, lying liars, and murderous stalkers with far-fetched, convoluted schemes for vengeance–does this sound eerily, excitingly familiar, and quite possibly AWESOME to fans of Pretty Little Liars who were hoping for an adult version of all that nonsense where if one person told the truth, even once, the whole story would fall apart? Throw in cults, communes, and kidnappings and it sounds like you’d have a winner, right? And you more or less do with this story of intense friendships and women trying to either fit in or find family …and how it can all go so very wrong. Told from multiple perspectives in past/present timelines, we are introduced to Rhiannon and Lenna whose friendship burned fast and bright and fizzled unexpectedly when Rhiannon disappeared. Enter Gillian, whose social anxiety keeps her on the outside looking in, until she catches Lenna vulnerable after Rhiannon’s disappearance. And then Sadie, Gillian’s roommate, who Gillian describes to Lenna and all of her social media followers as unstable to the point of becoming threatening…but is it Gillian who is actually the problem? Fast forward to a few years later, Lenna is married with a child, desperately unhappy and haunted by a mysterious incident. Rhiannon resurfaces and invites her for a visit to a serene desert commune, where she will have a chance to recalibrate and spend some time with like-minded women. Or …is there an ulterior motive to Rhiannon’s timely reappearance in Lenna’s life? Why did Rhiannon disappear in the first place? Whatever happened to Gillian? What sorts of weird shenanigans are going on at this isolated commune? Will anyone ever utter one true thing, clear the air, or fess up to anything? Eventually yes, but unfortunately, the book doesn’t quite stick the landing. Still, it’s so much fun getting there. (reviewed copy provided by NetGalley)

Come Closer by Sara Gran Amanda, seemingly living a relatively happy life, finds her world slowly unraveling as she starts to hear strange noises, begins losing time, and then…things get much, much worse. Gran masterfully builds a sense of dread and paranoia, leaving the us questioning not only the reality Amanda experiences but also the very fabric of own own. The subtle horror lies in the insidious way Amanda’s agency is stripped away, replaced by a dark entity that feeds on her desires and vulnerabilities. Come Closer invites readers to grapple with an unsettling blend of horror and humor, showcasing Gran’s ability to craft a narrative that is as darkly entertaining as it is psychologically unnerving.

Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison Vesper, the exiled and estranged daughter, reluctantly returns home, only to find herself thrust back into the chaotic whirlwind of her family’s dynamics. A dysfunctional family reunion with a gleefully infernal twist, where long-buried grievances and unspoken truths fester beneath the surface of a seemingly ordinary gathering.

Good Bad Girl by Alice Feeney is a skillfully crafted mystery that weaves a web of secrets and betrayal amidst the seemingly idyllic setting of a nursing home. Twenty years after a baby is stolen from a stroller, a resident is found murdered, setting in motion a chain of events that threaten to unravel the carefully constructed lives of those involved. As they delve deeper into the investigation, they uncover a tangled web of lies and hidden agendas, forcing them to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves and those they thought they knew.

None of This is True by Lisa Jewell Alix, a successful podcaster, becomes enthralled by the captivating story of Josie, a woman whose life seems too perfect to be true. As their connection deepens, Alix finds herself drawn into a web of inconsistencies and contradictions. Jewell expertly builds suspense, slowly revealing the cracks in Josie’s carefully constructed facade. Despite a nagging sense of unease, Alix chooses to overlook the weirdness, continuing their association despite Josie’s increasingly uncomfortable and unhinged behavior –and this line of thought process on Alix’s part really stuck with me in relation to this–“I overrode my instincts when I said yes.” A stark reminder of the trouble we can invite into our lives when we prioritize social graces over listening to our intuition. As Alix delves deeper into Josie’s world, the lines between reality and fabrication blur, leading to a series of chilling revelations that will leave you questioning everything you thought you knew.

Thorn Hedge by T. Kingfisher A grumpy toad with the biggest heart and a lovely peach of a knight with a gentle soul meet in a prickly twist of a familiar fairy tale curse. I have adored every single thing I have read by this author; I find her particular blend of delicious wit, whimsy, and weirdness the perfect recipe for something that will resonate with me on every level.

The Haunting of Velkwood by Gwendolyn Kiste The Velkwood Vicinity, a once-ordinary suburban cul-de-sac, now stands shrouded in a sinister veil, its inhabitants forever trapped as ghostly echoes of their former lives. Twenty years ago, Talitha Velkwood, along with her two childhood friends, inexplicably escaped the nightmarish fate that engulfed their town. Now, haunted by fragmented memories and an overwhelming sense of loss, Talitha finds herself drawn back to the site of the tragedy, lured by the promise of answers and a chance to finally confront the demons of her past. (reviewed copy provided by NetGalley)

The Deep by Nick Cutter plunged me into the abyssal depths of terror, both literally and metaphorically. Eight miles beneath the surface, where darkness reigns and pressure crushes, a research team unearths a substance that unlocks primal fears. As sanity unravels and the lines between reality and nightmare blur, the crew’s fight for survival becomes a descent into the very heart of horror. In the midst of the escalating terror, I found myself so engrossed, so utterly swept away by the story, that I literally forgot to breathe.

The Whispers by Audrey Audrain A Desperate Housewives-esque affair, focusing on fractured friendships amidst the gilded cages of suburbia, at the center of which lies a troubled and comatose young man –and the individual who may be responsible for the accident.

The Reformatory by Tananarive Due Set in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s, the narrative delves into the horrific nightmare of the Gracetown School for Boys, a notorious reform school shrouded in a legacy of brutality and injustice. Through the eyes of young Marvin, wrongfully imprisoned for a petty offense, we witness the unimaginable horrors inflicted upon the boys within these walls. Due’s prose is both poignant and unflinching, exposing the raw pain and trauma endured by these victims while simultaneously weaving chilling supernatural elements that whisper of a past unwilling to be buried. The ghosts of Gracetown are more than spectral figures; they are the embodiment of systemic racism and the enduring legacy of cruelty, resonating with a chillingly familiar truth. I can’t even look at the cover of a Tananarive Due book without weeping, and The Reformatory was no exception.

The Invited by Jennifer McMahon A chilling tale of haunted land and the enduring pull of the past. In the seemingly tranquil Vermont countryside, Helen and Nate embark on the dream of building their own home, unaware of the dark history buried beneath the soil. As construction progresses, whispers of the deceased residents become increasingly insistent, blurring the lines between past and present, a haunting that extends beyond the spectral, echoing unresolved trauma and the weight of generations past demanding to be acknowledged and finally laid to rest.  I don’t think this was my favorite of this author’s offerings, and I kind of love/hated one of the twists–it’s always a bummer when a favorite character isn’t quite what they seem, and not in a good way.

Starter Villain by John Scalzi Charlie, a recently divorced substitute teacher, inherits his estranged uncle’s unconventional business: supervillainy.  Thrust into a world of lasers, talking cats, and unionized dolphins, Charlie embarks on a journey of self-discovery amidst the absurdity. Humor and intrigue simmer –dangerously, delightfully!–beneath the surface of a dormant volcano in a remote island lair.  Themes of morality, responsibility, and the intricacies of family, remind us that sometimes, even the most unconventional legacies can hold unexpected possibilities for redemption.

The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran is a most excellent blend of all of my favorite things to read about–rare book enthusiasts, forbidden knowledge and people doing desperate things to unlock those arcane secrets, and …detailed descriptions of what people are eating. Lily Albrecht is a writer who hasn’t written in years. She cares for her declining husband, who has an undiagnosable form of dementia, in their remote home in upstate New York while she hunts down rare books for rich buyers to make ends meet. When a rare grimoire promises the granting of your deepest-held desires comes across her radar, Lily follows its siren song e across the globe in desperate pursuit of its power. A heady cocktail of shadows and secrets in which even the strangely mundane thrums with the thrill of the occult, this book was a gritty, intimate rabbit’s hole of delights. A note to those looking for smut–this book is kind of spicy, but not wildly so. There’s lots of sex, but it’s not very interesting sex. (Which is fine with me; I’d rather read about the books and the 10-course meals)

101 Books to Read Before You’re Murdered by Sadie Hartmann. This is exactly what it sounds like, and a really great resource. I actually found a handful of authors I never heard of in Sadie’s lists, and I had both my Goodreads and Libby apps open the entire time I read this so that I could add titles to my “to read” lists and find them to borrow from the library. Sara Gran’s Come Closer (above) was one of these books, and I really really loved it! One thing in particular I loved about Sadie’s approach is that the books she has included are all fairly recently written. We’ve all seen these

Kindle Unlimited has some great collections of 90-minute short stories by familiar, beloved authors, and Goodreads actually counts these as full books, so maybe this is a cheat, but whatever.

In Joe Hill’s The Pram,  secrets in a dilapidated farmhouse blur the lines between grief and macabre secrets. In The Backbone of the World, Stephen Graham Jones treats us to his signature brand of weird wit, weaving a chilling tale of vengeance on the desolate plains with Millie Two Bears facing an unrelenting tide of prairie dogs that seem to possess an almost otherworldly intelligence. In My Evil Mother,  Margaret Atwood cooks up a darkly humorous stew of family dysfunction, where the ingredients include teenage snark, questionable parenting decisions, and a generous helping of the uncanny. I also Ankle Snatcher by Grady Hendrix, In Bloom by Paul Tremblay, The Tiger Came To The Mountains by Silvia Moreno Garcia, Bloody Summer by Carmen Maria Machado, Wildlife by Jeff Vandermeer, and Wehr Wolf by Alma Katsu. Now I just need to remember to cancel by Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Graphic Novels

A Guest in the House by Emily Carroll

Tomie by Junji Ito (I’d never read all the stories before!)


Poetry

Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass by Lana del Rey

Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit by Jen Campbell

The Shining by Dorothea Lasky

Sad Math by Sarah Freilgh *

Without Protection by Gala Mukomolova

Clock Star Rose Spine by Fran Wilde

Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah *

 

Mystery/Thriller

The Resting Place by Camilla Sten

She Started It by Sian Gilbert

The Sanitorium by Sarah Pearce

The Venue by T.J. Payne * (this was ridiculous and fun)

#FashionVictim by Amina Akhtar * (this also was ridiculous and fun)

The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman (I listened to this on audiobook, read by the author, who is also an actor, and it was pretty decent)

The Fury by Alex Michaelides  (this was an ARC and it was…not good. I have to eventually write a review for Netgalley, but I won’t waste your time with it)

 

Horror/Supernatural

The Switch House by Tim Meyer

The Hacienda by Isabel Canas (this tricked me into reading a love story and I’m not sure how I feel about that)

September House by Carissa Orlando * (this was a hoot and I loved it so much)

The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw

Rites of Extinction by Matt Serafini

Schrader’s Chord by Scott Leeds * (this book mentions one of my favorite perfumes! Chanel Sycomore. That has nothing to do with the story, though. Which is also good.)

Nestlings by Nat Cassidy * (Nat Cassidy sure can pen an afterword.)

Nordic Visions: The Best of Nordic Speculative Fiction by John Ajvide Lindqvist; Maria Haskins; Karin Tidbeck

 

Weird/Speculative/Magical Realism

Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova * (I think this weird, crusty little slice of life story was one of my favorites of 2023)

 

Nonfiction

Worlds Beyond Time by Adam Rowe * (read more here)

Death’s Garden Revisited by Loren Rhoads * (full review here)

 

DNF

Midnight is the Darkest Hour by Ashley Winstead 
Goblin
by Josh Malerman (I got 67% of the way through it and I DNFed it anyway; I usually love this author, but Goblin was a slog)
Everything the Darkness Eats by Eric LaRocca (I think I have given up on reading this guy)
Number One Fan (the early mention of a UTI made it too real)
Rouge by Mona Awad (I’ve previously enjoyed her stuff alot but this one felt experimental in a way I didn’t enjoy; probably my biggest letdown of the year)

 

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