This was my 100th book of 2018, and it couldn't have been a better choice. In fact, it might be my favorite book of 2018 so far.
Some books just really hit you in your heart.
This book, it was more like the heart, gut, throat, chest—a full body knockout.
Karen E. Bender’s stories in this new collection are something different, something necessary for our fragile, tumultuous social and political landscape. She begins in small moments in the lives of her characters and crafts emotional, compelling stories that draw you in, until finally you realize the whole story has been about something much larger the whole time.
A woman struggling to find her way and keep herself afloat goes on three interviews, but her interviewers are all stuck in their own loops of self-misery and can’t see beyond the haze of their own problems, however large or small, and it bleeds across the interviews in an unexpected way.
A girl stuck going to Hebrew school twice a week worries about divide between her Hebrew school self and who she is with her friends at her public school, while in the background, violent crimes are perpetrated against people of her faith in other countries.
In the one genre story set in a dystopian/futuristic landscape, a woman who is lucky to have a job in the diminishing market reads complaints from and awards monetary compensation to people who dislike their jobs but are unable to leave due to restrictions from the government. She is given a promotion, but the complaints take on a darker edge and she struggles to understand the reason behind it all.
Each story is startlingly simple, full of those everyday occurrences that make life both mundane and unique. From simple interactions between strangers in an elevator or on a plane, to the longer narratives, there is a simple clarity, a pure brilliance as Bender turns a light—fiercely—on what is really going on, what really matters.
More than just casting our reflection back at us, these stories dig to the center of socio-political issues in a way that is innately human. You can't help but to feel at the very minimum the unsettling, like walking on uneven ground in the dark, that the stories bring up in your gut. There is something wrong here, I kept thinking, but how can I fix it?
Yes—how do we fix it? Are we, as a country fixable? We are good at commenting on the problems that we see, but are we ready to dig to the root of the problem, to get in there and really clean up the mess we've created?
What will it take?
Reading books like this remind me why writing and reading is so important. Fiction has a voice, and it has something to say, something we should all be listening to.
Huge, expansive and never-ending thanks to Counterpoint Press for putting an ARC of this book in my hands to read and review. It is definitely one I will be recommending to everyone. This book is out in November.
A gorgeous, unnerving, and supremely masterful novel.
". . . to plunge a viewer into a state of terror meant to take away their compass, their tools for navigating the world, and to replace it with a compass that told a different kind of truth. The trick was ensuring the viewer was so consumed by fright that they didn't even notice this exchange was being made; it was a secret transaction between their imagination and the film, and when they left the theater, those new truths would go with them, swimming like eels under the skin."
In a slim package, van den Berg delves into a wealth of topics, each one adding another layer to the narrative. The layers interact, conflict, and entangle to create something altogether spellbinding, a phantasmagoria of grief, marriage and relationships, travel, horror tropes, film, memory and the psyche, and ultimately, the search for self.
The writing is so easy to get wrapped up in, and even though it is a slim book under 200 pages, it took me almost a week to get through it because I was so invested in reading every word; sometimes I read sentences multiple times. The author writes with such precision and strength of voice that it was easy to sink into the story, while at the same time, I was constantly finding wonderful sentences that I needed to mark to revisit later.
The story doesn't go where I thought it would at all, it is a much more quiet and introspective examination of the self, the past, and how one's own life can be unrecognizable and completely familiar all at once. But it is perfect, and I very much enjoyed every minute of Clare's journey. It is in the space in between what we know and what we don't know that true exploration begins. But most people are too afraid to go there because maybe that's where the monsters live too.
"Horror films had taught her that a person could will a thing into existence, but once it was outside their consciousness, the consciousness that had been busily inventing simultaneous possibilities, it became a force unto itself, ferocious and uncontrollable."
While I can't say that this is a horror novel, perhaps it could be horror-adjacent. The references to horror movies and elements of horror analysis throughout prove that van den Berg is knowledgable about the genre, and they are more than just lip service to fans. Concepts from horror, like the final girl, play an integral part of Clare's journey, in both how she begins to see the world through a different lens and how she begins to see herself—past and present—through different eyes even as she spirals downward.
I think horror readers who are into literary fiction will quite enjoy this. It has the dreamlike propulsiveness of Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, but with more narrative flow, like Neil Gaiman's psychologically dreamlike and haunting The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
My thanks to FSG for sending me a finished copy of this book to read and review.
I love a short story collection that shows cohesion even though the stories are all distinctly separate, living in their own dark worlds. DeMeester's short tales have that kind of versatility, where they are interested in unpacking similar themes but never follow the same fanged rabbit down the same twisted hole twice.
Many of these stories, some just a page or two, some closer to twenty pages, center around the idea of transformation, of the liminal quality of the body and the different ways it might be consumed, broken, corrupted, or altered. Sometimes this is a triumphant change, sometimes it is unwanted.
That liminality, that disorienting threshold to transformation that DeMeester has mastered in these stories, often seemed a metaphor for how women's bodies and selves are not quite theirs to inhabit but rather the world's to use or enact violence upon. Here, women take control, becoming the ones who inhabit, who consume, who enact violence.
I loved the intense darkness of the stories and the startling (though strangely beautiful) descriptions of body horror were quite effective. The book is not overtly terrifying, but is unsettling and carries a certain dread that weighs you down as you read—very intense and wonderful.
I definitely recommend this unique collection. I can't wait to read her novel, Beneath!
I wouldn’t say it’s the end of the world—yet.
But there is certainly something about our current state of social and political affairs that puts us in a bit of an apocalyptic state of mind, am I right or am I right?
Whatever way it actually comes when it happens (my money is on nuclear warfare if mother nature doesn’t get fed up with us first), it seems like fiction has taken on the apocalypse from almost every angle imaginable. At least that’s what I thought before I read Peng Shepherd’s uniquely imaginative debut novel The Book of M.
In this narrative, the world begins ending when people start losing their shadows. It turns out that the shadow is in some way connected to memory and without it, we forget everything, and I do mean everything. It’s not just our memories about our past and our families and how to tie our shoes. It’s things like that animals don’t talk, that statues don’t get up and rove around, that lakes can’t appear and reappear on their own. And if you can’t remember the way things are supposed to work, things aren’t fixed anymore and it turns out that just about anything is possible.
The narrative switches between a few different characters, but the main thrust follows a couple, Max and Ory, who are separated. They each have their own journeys through the post-apocalyptic landscape, trying to find each other, a place to live, something stable, and just trying to understand who they are in this new world.
This book is about memory and how it is a part of our self-landscape. Does it really make us who we are? Do our thoughts, recollections, hopes, dreams, everything that resides within our heads—does that make up the whole of our being, our essence?
When there aren’t any of those functions left, can we really be the same people? Or perhaps on an even more fundamental level, are we even people anymore? And even further, what might restore our humanity?
I really enjoyed this book. It is imaginative, fast-paced, and beautifully written. It goes global, looking at people from different places in the world, different backgrounds, orientations, ethnicities—many walks of life are represented, and I really appreciated that.
It is also a lot of different kinds of stories rolled up into one, so it’s hard to pin it down as one type of tale. Yes, it’s post-apocalyptic, but it’s also an adventure tale, a love story, a philosophical quandary. It’s got action, flashbacks, history, fantasy, and even a surprising ending that made my heart drop out of my body.
I really recommend this book. I can’t wait to see what’s next from this author.
My thanks to William Morrow/Harper Collins for sending me this book to read and review.
To misquote Rocky Dennis: These things are a drag: dust in my hair, holes in my shoes, no money in my pocket, and having to write a bad book review.
But I cannot recommend this book.
It is a fairly average size book, just under 300 pages, but the main crux of the synopsis doesn't happen until a third of the way through the book. That is strike one for me. 100 pages of set-up is way too many pages, especially for something as simple as this.
The writing style is a classic and painful example of telling instead of showing, so much so that I felt like I was reading something written as an early attempt for creative writing 101 in college. On and on the narrator finds ways to rehash the information that is blatantly obvious and could have been shown with a little bit of finessing.
It was clear that Veronica was not a reliable narrator, that things were not quite as they appeared to be from her perspective. To be honest, I am getting a little tired of the unreliable female narrator trope. The other characters felt flimsy and underdeveloped. I didn't understand their motivation for helping Veronica or being involved with her throughout.
What I really disliked the most is that this book doesn't give you a chance to figure it out. There is no possible way for the reader to completely solve the mystery of this book, which I really consider a failure.
There are definitely clues here and there that let you know things aren't quite right and when you look back with all the pieces, everything of course makes more sense. But the twist is so far out of left field that it isn't even in the ballpark. It made me feel cheated out of a good reveal. I don't need to solve every book, and I certainly don't, but I like to know that the pieces were there if only I had been paying attention in the right places. This book doesn't have that.
Between weak writing, overused character tropes, and an unsatisfying ending, this one was not for me.
My thanks to Lake Union and JKS Communications for sending me a copy of this book to read and review.
A mix of the thematic hivemind and gothic tones of "The Lottery" with the small town Americana and charismatic villain of Needful Things, this superb book shows that Joan Samson was an amazing talent. We are so lucky to have gotten this book from her before she passed away suddenly from brain cancer soon after its publication in 1976, but I can't help but to wonder what else she might have had in store. Because this book is truly brilliant.
It is hard to just sum this book up as a mix of those two other tales, but it makes for an intriguing tagline. There are definitely traces of both Shirley Jackson and Stephen King in Samson's book. The way she writes about a small farming community and really creates the people who live there reminded me so much of how King is able to craft people (not just characters) within his stories. And the tone of the book, the fairly terse and compact sentences, without much fluff but with intensely clear description and vivid dialogue reminded me fiercely of Jackson and her strange gothic style.
But before you are even five pages in, it is completely clear that Samson created something all her own, completely original, and downright chilling.
I read this book with alternating white-hot rage at Perly, the auctioneer, and intense frustration at the Moores, the main family whose perspective we witness the decay of the town from. The book is engineered to make you feel this way, and also to engender an utter helplessness, because what else are they supposed to do? What other options do they have?
It is timely that this book is coming back into print now, with our social and political situation in its current upheaval. There are plenty of similarities to be seen between Perly's slow and total takeover and our government. The people in charge seem to take and take and take until we have nothing left to give but the unthinkable—to the point that even official channels are either under the spell or simply don't believe that anything like THAT could be happening, not here at least, in the land of the free.
Yes, it is perhaps a little close to home, and the timeless quality of the story definitely resonated with me. But Samson's story is also just powerful on its own literary merit and is a classic in my book.
The Valancourt Books edition has a new introduction by Paperbacks from Hell author Grady Hendrix!
A true stylistic master of the paperback horror novel lost in the stacks for no discernible reason, we are blessed that Valancourt Books is reissuing several of Greenhall's books (and can only hope they get the rights to the rest of his works too).
This book isn't overtly horrific in the sense of a gorefest or lots of crazy action with monsters, psychos, or hauntings (oh my)—instead, it is the type of book that reminds you why horror is great, or rather, what truly makes something scary.
It's that space where you as the reader are held suspended, that tension or hesitation between knowing whether something is based in reality or whether the supernatural has taken over. Greenhall holds the reader in this gap during Elizabeth and doesn't let go.
There are lots of other things to distract you during the course of this novel, slim as it may be. The first being the narrator and titular character herself, a very cold and calculating fourteen-year-old who sees the world in black and white and sees people as little more than the skin they inhabit, the bad habits they possess, and how she might use them to her own advantage.
But not everything is as it seems and there are layers to this story that are certainly not apparent at first reading. It is almost unbelievable how concise Greenhall is, how perfectly he chose his words. He is probably the exact opposite of Stephen King in general writing style—extreme word economy. (No diss to King, who can churn out a short story to perfection, but his novels do tend to run on the long side, if you know what I mean.)
This book delves so deeply into the mind of young Elizabeth—it is astonishing really, and feels so natural, while at the same time superbly unsettling. The strange atmosphere is maintained throughout the novel, and it isn't just the weird coldness of Elizabeth. It is the literary quality of the writing, the unique and unexpected turn of phrase that jolts you, keeping you on your toes, as though the book itself is like a snake poised to strike.
From the author of the delightfully (or debilitatingly, take your pick) disconcerting mindscrew of a book I'm Thinking of Ending Things comes a new brain puzzle.
My recommendation on this book would be to go in knowing as little as possible. Even the jacket synopsis is too much of the story, though they try to be coy about it. So, no summary from me, though I usually do little in the way of that anyway.
Reid's roundabout way of setting up the story creates an unsettling vibe within the reader right away. You just know there is more to the story than you are getting from the narrator—either there is more than they know or more than they are willing to tell you. Pieces don't quite line up and you become the detective, trying to grab ahold of any detail, any jagged edge that isn't quite right so you can puzzle out the story behind the one that is being told.
It is a unique way to read and one that holds my attention.
The short chapters are also propulsive, keeping you reading, wanting to know what's coming next. Though it's 272 pages, I read the whole thing in one day—it really demands to be read.
Whether you figure out what's going on or not, the tension is still there. I put together the clues and had it pretty well figured out, but that didn't mean I knew where everything was going to end up. It almost made it more tense knowing (or being allllmost sure—because there's always that last little doubt even when you think you know!) because each scene seemed to stack the deck a different way.
This book is a quiet, intense, psychological puzzle of a book. Fan of Reid's first book will definitely be thrilled by this one, but I think Foe is also perhaps a bit more accessible than his debut, so hopefully new fans will flock to it too.
My thanks to Gallery Books/Scout Press for sending the Night Worms advance copies of this one to read and review.
This is one horror collection that no shelf should be without.
I have been hearing a lot of love for this writer and this collection of stories, and it is completely justified. The hype is real, y'all! Go out and buy your copy immediately—no joke.
The stories felt in the tradition of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, with a mix of fairy tale elements like the twist on a poisoned apple story or the tale of princesses stuck in castles, some strangeness that could be read as metaphorical but also worked as great body horror like the one where a woman is giving birth to birds or the one where a group of women hunt for potential victims and peel their skin off to use for themselves.
In these stories, Kiste explores women at the fringes—the outcasts, the strange, the othered. The stories are interested in how these women are seen as outsiders and how they work with the limitations others have put on them and overcome them in one way or another.
I loved how the characters in these stories take action. They are not the stagnant, mopey, unreliable narrator types that are so common in the popular thrillers today. These women are powerful and have clear, strong notions of what they want from the world, even if that notion is not the one that lines up with what everyone else wants. Kiste's character's learn they aren't afraid to take what should have been theirs all along. It's empowering and beautiful while leaning over the edge into strange, fantastical, and frightening.
Sometimes the stories defy logic, sometimes they go to very dark places, but they never failed to impress me with the breadth of their creativity, the beauty of the language, and the sharp insights that are not something you always find in horror fiction.
A beautiful and haunting collection. There is not a weak story in the set. Kiste is an author I'm adding to my instant-buy list.
My thanks to Doubleday for sending free copies of Bad Man to the Night Worms to read and review.
Ben took his little brother, Eric, to the grocery store and turned his back for one minute—he never saw his brother again. Haunted by the guilt and the loss, he is still on the hunt for his brother five years later, and he ends up with a job at the same grocery store where the incident occurred.
A great set-up with interesting motivation, several suspects, ambiguity and small town intrigue, and a killer opening scene. But after Ben gets to the grocery store, that's really where the story stalls out for me. There are long unnecessary scenes spent in the store as Ben learns the ropes of how to be a stock boy. This has nothing to do with the plot and becomes as monotonous as I'm sure restocking the shelves of a grocery store is.
If you treat the book like a mystery and try to figure out whodunnit, it all unravels fairly easily. There are plenty of clues and one scene in particular that stands out. But the conclusion of the book felt jumbled and left me confused. Some things were not well explained, and in fact did not make all that much sense, and after I closed the book, I felt like I was missing something. I think it was just that the ending felt empty, though. That the book never lived up to its promise
I think this feeling came about because much of the middle of the book doesn't seem to be interested in the actual forward motion of the plot. Ben is not a motivated character. Sometimes his actions seem nonsensical, only to draw out the plot rather than to strike at the heart of the matter. I wanted something to happen, but it felt so amorphous and loose, instead of heading somewhere with intent.
I think a shorter book would have been much more effective, cutting out a lot of the middle part, especially the grocery store fluff, the red herrings we never fell for, and the inaction of the lead character. (A little is OK, but a lot is just boring.)
Auerbach has talent as a writer, but this book feels unfinished to me. It needed a stronger edit, and a more conclusive end. I am still interested to try his immensely successful Penpal and will be on the lookout for any future books from him.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.