9 Jul

The Low, Low Woods  is the brooding and utterly unnerving graphic novel debut by Carmen Maria Machado, an atmospheric and surreal horror story set in the dying coal town of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania. Teenage best friends El and Vee experience strange incidents of missing time and decide to investigate the mystery behind that gap in time and the strange happenings around the community, where time and memories, as well as the women themselves, often go missing. A female-centered queer and diverse cast of characters navigating friendship, grief, rage in the midst of digging for truth in this tale of body horror, hybrid creatures, mysterious portals–in the course of doing so they realize the stories of their town hold more darkness than they could’ve imagined. 

Fangs by Sarah Anderson. It’s not fair to an author to give a starred review hinging on something like “well, I would have given this more stars, but I wish it would have been longer.” I mean, you can see how many pages a thing has before you buy it, you can hold its heft in your hand and get a sense of its length or brevity. And I also no longer base my reviews on what I expected vs. what I got. Not having been familiar with Sarah Anderson’s work, I don’t think I realized it was cutesy-fluffy kind of stuff and that there wasn’t much story there or investment of time. I probably wouldn’t have purchased the book if I had known this. But I got suckered in by the stark glamour of the illustration on that blood-red cover when Amazon suggested that I might like it, and so I threw it in my cart as an impulse purchase. Why did I bother saying any of that? It’s not the book’s fault. I’m just annoyed with myself about it, I guess. This is a charming, light-hearted, slice-of-life, 4-panel peek at the budding romance between a vampire and a werewolf. It’s sweet. It’s fine. It would make a darling gift.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. Ooof. Is there a better phrase than “coming of age” to describe a story about some young people figuring stuff out? I wish there were. (I guess I wish the same about “slice of life,” which I just used above.) Well, these are young people in an artsy-farty high school, there’s shaping and shifting of the power balances between friends and lovers, and there’s the abuse of power by adults who should know better. There are narrators who aren’t telling the whole truth, or maybe it’s the truth as they recall it or as they wish it had happened, and there are other narrators who are furious about this; interesting commentary, I suppose, on who it is that owns a story. This was a complicated read, but I don’t mean dense or heavy or anything like that–rather, I felt complicated things while reading it, and I’m still not sure what my takeaway is. But thanks to some of the extremely, uncomfortably visceral scenes in this book, I never want to have sex again. And my libido is already pretty much non-existent. Thanks, Susan Choi

This summer I read a bunch of mysteries. And I am done feeling weird or ashamed or guilty about it, which then turns into a weird snobbery, like “I DON’T USUALLY read this type of thing, BUT.” Come off it, Sarah. You read it, you liked it. There’s nothing wrong with that.

And so I find myself reading a lot of Ruth Ware over the past year. I think I may have written about her in the last edition of Stacked as well. This time around, it was One By One , which I think you can already tell from the title is an Agatha Christie-style whodunit. A group of start-up company employees are on a retreat at a posh ski lodge and they’re being murdered one by one. The company has developed a social media app that allows you to listen in on the music your friends are listening to, and maybe it’s just me, but that seems like a really dumb and pointless idea. It’s a predictable story but it’s mildly entertaining, so that’s ok.

I also read The Likeness by Tana French, which I believe somewhat picks up where In The Woods left off, but this time the main character is Cassie Maddox, who was Rob’s partner in In The Woods. And I am happy to be done with Rob, so that’s fine by me. In this story, Cassie is called to the scene of a murder where the victim looks almost exactly like her, and if that weren’t eerie enough, the victim possesses ID indicating she was going by the name that Cassie used in a previous undercover operation. Cassie must again go undercover (her first go-round, she was attacked and transferred out of that unit) and gain the trust of a local group of college students to try and figure out who this person was and why was she killed. This sort of puts into Dark Academia territory, which is another aspect of it that I liked. This was definitely a weird, insular group of young people.

I really loved this book. But I’ve found that Tana French is one of my favorite authors of mysteries/thrillers, and so I wasn’t surprised that I loved it. Some reviewers complain that she’s an overly wordy writer (“I get board with details!” notes one Goodreads user. Hee!) But it’s her beautiful prose that makes her stories so wonderfully compelling! And also the fact that in her mysteries, there frequently seems to be a mystery A. and a mystery B. and while the case may get solved, there always seems to be a piece that’s left without clear answers– and I really appreciate that.

Finally, on the mystery front, there was Lock Every Door and The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager. First I should note that several times I learn and then forget immediately that Riley Sager is a pen name, and this author is not a woman–this has happened to me with every book by him that I have read. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it does: I typically do not enjoy books wherein a male author has written a female protagonist. (See: boobs bouncing boobily) Is this a little problematic to admit? If so, I’m sorry. However, I don’t detect any issues like that with Sager’s stories, and as a matter of fact, I kind of enjoy the characters moving through his books much more than, say, Ruth Ware’s people as she writes them. In Lock Every Door, a woman gets hired as an apartment-sitter for an empty apartment in a mysterious Manhattan apartment building. I don’t think I am the first to make this comparison, but it’s got a Rosemary’s Baby vibe that I found delightful, even though it didn’t quite head in the same direction. In The Last Time I Lied, an artist is invited back to a summer camp she spent a week in as a teenager, and while she was there, her cabin-mates disappeared. She accepts the invitation in present-time, because she’s got some digging around to do regarding those past events, and as strange things start to happen during her stay, her suspicions mount. Though I didn’t really love his first offering, Final Girls, the more Sager writes, the more impressed I am with his stories. They all seem to involve some sort of horror trope, but they are not exactly horror stories. I think it’s an interesting angle, and it pretty much guarantees I’ll continue reading as he publishes more.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert MacFarlane. I am not sure what I can say about this book that might convince you to read it. I started it a year ago, last July, and I have only just today finished it. I wept a little, as I did. An exploration of the Earth’s underworlds–perilous caves atop impossible cliffs, labyrinthine catacomb crawls, the darkness under our feet through which mycelium tendril, the drop even further below to starless underground rivers, and the unfathomably deep descent into the backward-reaching time machine of ancient ice.

McFarlane writes in melancholic, claustrophobic, prose of transcendent, breathtaking, heart-stopping beauty, and as fascinating as I found his adventures, the relationship he formed with the land he explored, the connections he made with the strange and wonderful people who followed similar passions to dangerous and extreme ends–it’s how he wrote about these experiences that truly captured my heart and brings tears to my eyes even as I type this out.

There’s an exchange between McFarlane and a scientist, and while maybe I am missing the bigger point of everything here, it really sums up…while not exactly the spirit of the book, but rather why I personally love the book so much. When shown some microscopic sediment from the ice that points to the fact that the land a kilometer below the ice used to be a Sahara, McFarlane muses: “They’re beautiful…desert diamonds from the end of the world.” His companion in conversation replies laconically, “I can tell you’re not a scientist.”

Many people confided in me that they didn’t get very far into this book, I think, for precisely the reason I fell so profoundly in love with it. This is a man of words, writing about the science of things explored in deep, dark places, and the deeply philosophical questions and issues that this knowledge points to when brought to light. And while passionate about these issues, not being a scientist himself he grapples with and presents these ideas in inventive and otherworldly language that might be challenging to wind your way around if you’re looking for a book that is a straight, clear path. And, well,  I suppose if this was sold to you as a travel book (as I see it is marketed in some places as such) , in that case, you have every right to be confused and not get very far in. For as much as I enjoyed this book, I sure never want to travel to any of these places. That aside, Underland was truly a descent into the sublime.

Two books that I read over the past two months and I had utterly forgotten about were The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

The Ballad of Black Tom was on a lot of horror-lists in the past few years, and it’s easy to see why. A gripping novella that revisits HP Lovecraft’s particularly xenophobic The Horror of Red Hook but from the point of view of a Black man, it was a nerve-prickling thrill that I read in the course of one evening while cat-sitting at my sister’s house. Here’s a great interview with Lavalle over at NPR where they talk with him about his conflicted feelings for Lovecraft, and which gets more into the story itself.

Wide Sargasso Sea was a book I’d heard of for years but had just never found a compelling reason to read. This came as a recommendation from Rachel Syme on twitter who, whether she’s advising on fragrance or literature, always has some fabulous suggestions, and so when she mentioned it, I thought, ok, maybe now’s the time. This is not a new book and so even giving a synopsis feels a bit silly, but if you are unaware, Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial and feminist prequel to Jane Eyre, describing the backstory to Mr. Rochester’s marriage from the point of view of his wife, a Creole heiress named Antoinette Cosway–whom we know as “Bertha Mason” the madwoman in the attic, the lunatic that is Rochester’s first wife.

I both loved and hated this book. Probably because I knew the fate of this character before I even read the first page. Lush and hazy and brimming with brutality, beauty, and an ever-present sense of dread, this was a story that I found myself wishing over and over would end differently, but it never could. There is a passage in the book describing a red dress: “The scent that came from the dress was very faint at first, then it grew stronger. The smell of vetivert and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees when they are flowering. The smell of the sun and the smell of the rain.”

I don’t know if this perfume exists, but it should. It seems to capture the Antoinette that might have lived with less devastation, tragedy, and madness. An Antoinette who had the opportunity to experience more bright mornings and radiant sunlight. Who might have even been happy.

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