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I’ve been in the thick of it lately with deadlines on various projects and intensely fretting about that horrid hurricane that whirled in over Labor Day weekend, and which really disrupted life for a bit– but in the end, we weren’t as badly affected in Florida as we had been in the past.
All of my excuses aside, here’s a list of books read or that I am reading– but in the spirit of full disclosure, I have finished only one of them.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones I feel like we offer a bunch of somewhat incestuous recommendations around here. Oftentimes I will find myself writing about a book that Maika or Sonya or Sam has already read and raved about or vice versa, and round and round it goes from month to month. I mean, that’s okay, though, right? If you’ve seen a book mentioned twice, let alone three or four times, by someone with similar tastes and whose opinion you halfway trust, you’ve got to reckon it’s pretty decent, you know? Anyway, I know Maika wrote about Mongrels just last month, but it is 100% worth mentioning again. 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. Don’t wait for a third mention of Mongrels in a future installment of Stacked–just grab it and devour it now.
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 film-maker 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 (Unfinished) 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 (Unfinished) 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.
The Poison Thread by Laura Purcell — I wanted to like this book so much more than I did, yet I still found it to be a gripping read. That’s actually quite frustrating. It’s one thing to dislike a book (for whatever reason) and decide to put it down. It’s another when you’re actively annoyed, but still can’t tear yourself away from the story.
Last year I read and reviewed Laura Purcell’s debut novel, The Silent Companions. I’d hoped this second book would be as impressively creepy, but, while still Gothic in genre, The Poison Thread is not that sort of story. This isn’t a haunted place/person story or, strictly speaking, a work of horror either. While there are horrific elements to it, The Poison Thread feels like a combination of Gothic lit, true crime, and Dickensian polemicist storytelling. There are characters in this story based on real people and a truly horrible crime that they committed, and Purcell was definitely interested in educating us about the horrors of indentured servitude in the world of Victorian dressmaking. If any of that sounds like I’m disappointed, I’m not. At least, not with that. The concept of Ruth, a teenager who’s seen no end of trauma and misfortune in her young life, becoming a seamstress who believes she can kill people by thinking murderous thoughts as she sews their clothing is lurid literary gold.
My gripe with this book is about how my enjoyment of the story was frequently interrupted by the other main character’s obsession with phrenology. If that element had been left out and Dorothea/Dotty, a wealthy young heiress, had simply wished to work one-on-one with criminals in effort to help improve their moral characters, not to get her fingers on their crania, I would’ve devoured this brutal and creepy tale with vigor. Instead I kept hitting phrenological speed bumps every time Dotty started to fantasize about the bumps, seams, and furrows on people’s skulls OR just sat in her bedroom literally fondling her secret prized possession, a real human skull.
Maybe it’s my fault and I should’ve hushed my 21st-century perspective, but I don’t think so. I’m well aware that an interest in phrenology is a perfectly apposite character trait for this period, but this particular depiction undermined Dotty’s otherwise earnest character. Her oft vocalized desire to get her probing fingers onto peoples’ heads and feel around their contours ran completely counter to the tone of the rest of the book. It pulled me out of the story every time. It made me groan inwardly every time we switched from Ruth’s narration as the murderous seamstress back to Dotty’s privileged, yet sincere perspective. It felt comedic to me, which would’ve been fine had it been intended as such, but I know it wasn’t. In the midst of a terrifically suspenseful tale, Dotty felt silly and I couldn’t take her seriously. I’m sorry, Dotty.
However, the fact that I was repeatedly exasperated yet STILL couldn’t put this book down is a testament to Purcell’s craft as a weaver of dark and lurid tales. Also, I did rather love the ending. I just wish I could’ve enjoyed this particular story more as a whole.
Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones — After so thoroughly enjoying Mongrels last month, I realized that I already had another Stephen Graham Jones book waiting in my stacks. This decidedly creepy and poignant novella was a brisk, atmospheric read and indication that I definitely need to seek out some of Jones’s short fiction collections. And soon.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter — These stories… What’s to say about Angela Carter that hasn’t been said already? The most important thing I can say is that these enchanting, empowering, bewitching stories deserve to be revisited regularly. In fact, I feel like there’s a room in my head where “The Lady of the House of Love” is being read aloud continually. She can be found just a short distance down the hall from ongoing readings of Carmilla.
Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1) by Seanan McGuire — I have one complaint about this book, and perhaps it’s unfair to start a review that way, but here it is: I wish this book had been twice as long as it was. I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time in this world. Good thing this book is the first of an ongoing series.
This book/series shouldn’t necessarily work. It’s based on a trope that seems so well trod at this point, finding a fresh angle is no mean feat. But Seanan McGuire has done it. She took the idea of a special school for special kids (right? how many of those are there at this point?) and did something wonderfully new with it. What if, instead of schools for witches and wizards, for magicians of various sorts, there was a school for kids who, at some point in their childhoods, vanished through magical doorways. You know the sort, they’re in wardrobes and deep patches of shadow. They’re behind an old appliance in the garage or inside a box in the basement. They’re under the bed or inside just the right gnarled tree. These doorways are everywhere and only just the right children are able to access them, upon which they suddenly find themselves in truly fantastic new worlds.
But here’s the thing, sometimes those kids end up back here – by choice, by force, or by accident – and their experiences in those magical lands have forever altered them, so they don’t fit here anymore – if they ever did. Thank goodness one of those children grew up and founded a school where they can be among the only people who understand what they’ve been through and who also long to rediscover their own magical portals elsewhere – people just like them. Now, having said all that, this concept could still end up feeling trite, but I love how McGuire conceived of such a broad range of possible worlds. There even exists a taxonomy for them that reminds me of D&D character alignment.
This book also does a beautiful job of sharing expressions of queerness in a refreshingly normalizing manner, featuring characters who are asexual, trans, and other queer identities without tokenizing anyone. Even masturbation is normalized, which might seem like an odd thing to mention in a book review, but I was so impressed to encounter mention of self-pleasuring that was meant as neither titillation, joke, or taboo.
TL;DR: It’s not often that I find a new fantasy series that I want to sink my teeth into, but this is one of them. My thanks to lovely Ekho for first recommending the “Wayward Children” series to me. Thank goodness the door to that world is so easy to find.
Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill — I have read almost every single one of Adam Nevill’s books since picking up The Ritual five or six years ago. There’s something really special when that happens — when a loved book becomes a loved author and their catalogue a guarantee of enjoyment. Sure, there will still be favorites and misses, but a trust has been established. They’re an old friend now, and you delight in the themes that subtly work their way into each book, the ideas explored again and again like an unsatisfied itch, the inside joke nudge of familiar names in an otherwise new setting. Apartment 16 is great; of course it is. Of course it is.
Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman — I studied abroad in a small Finnish town during my time at university and was enthralled by the prospect of a slow, brooding tale set in a Finnish convalescent hospital. The book is fine — fine — but several of the Finnish language snippets contained spelling errors which made the ~exotic~ setting feel weirdly contrived. If you want dread in the countryside, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar — The mystery of Dyatlov Pass has long fascinated me but I held off on purchasing this book for ages because I doubted it could teach me anything dozens of articles and podcast episodes hadn’t. It was a mystery, after all, and moreover one decades old; such events aren’t known for their solvability. And initially, I found Dead Mountain a pretty frustrating read. The topic was clearly an obsession for the author, who maxed out his credit cards and abandoned his girlfriend and young child to traipse in the footsteps of some long-dead people from a country he had no ties to. (I think including these facts in the book was supposed to make him… endearing?) Eventually, though, the author stops talking about himself and things get very interesting indeed. Back home after his hike in the Ural Mountains, Eichar systematically goes through all the existing Dyatlov Pass theories and, critically, interrogates subject-matter experts on whether they are valid or nonsense. It’s the most thorough look on what could have happened that I’ve read — and as far as I’m concerned, the guy solves the damn thing.
Withdrawn Traces: Searching for the Truth About Richey Manic by Sara Hawys Roberts and Leon Noakes — This book, written with the help of Richey Edwards’s sister, claims to be about Richey the brother and son rather than “Richey Manic” the musician and, as such, delights in going against established Manics history — including against things Richey himself said in interviews. The picture it paints is of a Richey who hated his band, and who was hated by his band in turn. In fact, it shrinks that part of his life into the smallest space, making a bizarre leap from his childhood to his death with as little attention paid to the Manics as possible. Various theories are needlessly posited, like the possibility he was autistic. Overall it is… very bad. And while I understand the impulse his family may have had to regain some control over the narrative, the end result is something that trashes his legacy rather than reframes it.
Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer — I was a fan of Telfer’s similarly themed column at Jezebel and it’s entirely unsurprising that her book is informative, interesting, and a lot of fun. Particularly pleasing is that Telfer doesn’t just go for the expected — Countess Bathory is here, of course, but so are women whose tales are largely unknown to English-speaking audiences. Loved it.
The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown — Speaking of dread in the countryside, this non-fiction look at the Donner Party is the devastating story of how a series of ego-driven decisions resulted in a tragedy so great it became a household name. Harrowing is right.