The rest of my beloved cohorts were traveling over the past month, seeing and doing all kinds of awesome things, so it’s just me and my book stack with you here today, for this month’s Stacked feature. It is summertime for sure in the south and during this time of sweltering humidity and clockwork afternoon thunderstorms I ramp up my reading about 1000%. In the month of June alone I have finished 9 books! I can’t say if, on average, that’s a big deal for folks who read as much as we all do…but it’s certainly about twice as many as I usually manage in a span of thirty days. The downside to this increase in titles crossed off my list is that I remember very little of what I have read. Oh, well. Life is all about trade-offs, I suppose.
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, (see Sonya’s review from March of last year)I 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??)