I came to Trail of Lightning (Book 1 of The Sixth World) totally blind. By that I mean I knew virtually nothing about it, except that several folks whose opinion I respect kept telling me to read it. I can take a hint, and they were right, of course. This novel kept surprising me, over and over, page after page.
Here’s what I mean about surprises. It feels like gritty contemporary fantasy at first, set in the American southwest, but then Roanhorse throws a curveball. It turns out Trail of Lightning is set in the future after cataclysmic flooding has changed the world, and life, forever. So, this is first-rate dystopian fiction, the direct result of climate change. But Roanhorse is never didactic, never burdens the reader with pages of info dump and unneeded historical background. She’s too good for that. Instead, she drops the reader headlong into the story and tells us to hang on tight, trusting us to understand what led to this point from context, and it works brilliantly.
Trail of Lightning is set in Dinétah, the former Navajo reservation, a place now walled off from the flooded zones and the rest of civilization that still clings to life. The gods, monsters, and heroes of Native American myth and legend now walk the earth, interacting with the people, causing havoc. Dinétah is a hard, lawless place, and not all the monsters have supernatural origins—some of the worst are of the human variety. Roanhorse’s world-building is exceptional, because it feels organic. She expertly blends the myths and legends into her post apocalyptic world, and makes it all work together. There is fierce imagination at work here.
If Roanhorse excels at anything even more than world-building, it’s her characters. Maggie Hoskie, the monster hunting main character, is a marvel, a hard-ass killer with supernatural powers, flawed but heroic in spite of herself. Setting off on the trail of a missing girl, Maggie finds herself in over her head, confronted by evil both human and monstrous. There are good people who help her along the way, and gods and monsters who want her dead. Roanhorse makes them all, humans and gods in particular, achingly real. The action is non-stop, the violence balletic, the stakes high, and the consequences all too real.
I loved Trail of Lightning, and have already recommended it to several friends. Book 2 of The Sixth World, Storm of Locusts, is available now, and already added to my TBR stack.
Have you ever read a book and thought, “I think (insert name here) would really like this, but then again, there’s that one scene…” Yep, me too. There are a handful of novels that I truly love, that I have read more than once, but that I think twice before recommending for one reason or another. I’m not talking about your run of the mill, pulpy sex and violence extravaganzas you can find on the paperback spinner racks in used bookstores. I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of those, believe me. The novels I’m talking about are a much rarer breed—these are books I treasure, and love to give as gifts or as heartfelt recommendations, but always carefully consider the recipient first.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
BLOOD SPORT by Robert F. Jones No, this has nothing to do with the Van Damme movie. Don’t be silly. Blood Sport, most days if I’m asked, is my favorite novel of all time. It concerns a father and son canoe trip down a mythical river that starts in upstate New York and ends in China, a river where Tarpon swim and Mastodons still forage along the shores. There’s lots of hunting and fishing, and because Jones spent decades as an outdoor writer for Field and Stream, he gets all that exactly right. Don’t think, however, that this is a straightforward outdoor novel. Blood Sport is a hallucinogenic fever dream, with moments of magic realism that wouldn’t be out of place in a South American novel. So Dave, you may be asking yourself, why would you hesitate to suggest this to another reader? Glad you asked! Blood Sport is awash in relentless violence, graphic sex, and some straight up repellant misogyny and racism that isn’t surprising given the characters and setting, but is ugly nonetheless. If you can stomach all that, this is a novel as grand and mythic as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or James Dickey’s Deliverance, with a wonderful cast of amoral characters. Ratnose, the leader of a group of bandits that the father and son tangle with, is, to my mind, one of the finest fictional villain creations in all of American literature. I first read this novel as a teenager, and then read it again the same week. The only other book I’ve done that with was The Martian Chronicles. When my son was a young teen he found it on our bookshelf, and badly wanted to read it, but I kept putting him off, for the above reasons. Finally, when he was 15, he and I went on a father/son canoe trip on the French River in Canada, and I brought it along for him to read. It was the perfect time. Also, as an aside, this would make one hell of a movie. Also also, Robert Carlisle should play Ratnose.
EXQUISITE CORPSE by Poppy Z. Brite (Billy Martin) I can count on, maybe, one hand the number of people I’ve recommended Exquisite Corpse to, for easily justifiable reasons. This story of dueling cannibalistic serial killers murdering their way through the gay underground in New Orleans is filled, even overfilled, with lovingly described scenes of utter depravity, gut-wrenching violence, and disturbing sex. It’s also one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read. Brite’s language is rapturous, even when what he’s describing is far, far beyond the pale. I hope I’m being clear here. Brite leaves nothing to the imagination. His gaze is unflinching, and you will be disturbed. Exquisite Corpse is horrific, and often hard to read, but it’s one of the singular achievements in horror fiction.
SANTA STEPS OUT by Robert Devereaux If I tell you that the main characters in Santa Steps Out are Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, will you question my sanity for including this novel here? Read it, and then let’s talk. In Devereaux’s phantasmagoria of off the wall, blood-soaked violence and startlingly explicit sex, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are the modern incarnations of horny gods. Santa is Pan, Tooth Fairy eats teeth and defecates coins, and the Easter Bunny, most disturbing of all, is a sad and creepy voyeur. Devereaux’s imagination is unmatched, and he goes places no sane author has ever had the nerve to travel. Not only that, he does it gleefully, with an unfettered joy that’s infectious, even when writing about the most appalling things. Santa Steps Out has two sequels, Santa Claus Conquers the Homophobes and Santa Clause Saves the World, but the first novel is unparalleled in its truly insane literary magic.
A FEAST UNKNOWN, IMAGE OF THE BEAST, and BLOWN, by Philip José Farmer Farmer is one of the true grandmasters of science fiction, justly celebrated for his Riverworld series, and the many other works that would eventually win him three Hugo Awards. These three novels, however, published in the late sixties and often grouped together, are something else again. All three are drenched, literally drenched, in explicit violence and even more explicit sex. They are also a whole lot of fun to read. A Feast Unknown is a pop culture adventure fantasy, accent on adventure, with Tarzan and Doc Savage as the main characters (by the way, they’re brothers, and their father is Jack the Ripper). There’s plenty of bloodshed and the ripping of body parts, and plenty of acrobatic sex that defies both logic and gravity. Image of the Beast and Blown, its sequel, are mashups of detective fiction and horror, centered on a group of brutal, supernatural killers. There’s a gut churning snuff film, violent creature sex, and, for some reason, Forrest J. Ackerman, the real life editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, as a character. Farmer is quite knowingly pushing all the buttons with these three novels, and having a whale of a time doing it.
There you have it, six great novels for you to read…if you dare.
Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a stand-alone urban fantasy by Seanan McGuire, which, honestly, should be all you need to know to pick it up immediately. It’s a ghost story, with witches as well, and that, too, should get you interested. It’s set on the streets of New York City that tourists never visit, and in the corn fields of Kentucky, places McGuire clearly has an affinity for.
All that is reason enough to read this slim, somber novella, but there is so much more here. Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a meditation on grief and loss, on the reasons people, alive and otherwise, choose to keep on going even when those reasons seem inadequate. McGuire examines what makes a family, a community—the feeling of belonging that comes from love and the emotional devastation that comes from betrayal.
Jenna blames herself for her sister’s death in New York City, and when she too dies before her time, her ghost leaves small town Kentucky and takes up residence in the city, working at the suicide hotline, trying to atone, trying to give purpose to her continued quasi existence. It’s a life, of a sort. She has friends, mostly among the other ghosts who haunt Manhattan.
But then those ghosts begin disappearing without a trace, and it’s up to Jenna, with the help of a couple of those friends, to find out why.
McGuire does some intricate world-building here. Ghosts, whether alive or not, have a certain amount of time here on earth, and they can both give and take that time to and from living people. Witches, on the other hand, or able to imprison ghosts in mirrors, and then use them to extend their own lives, or the lives of others.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here. McGuire has always had a true gift for giving fantasy settings and situations internally consistent underpinnings that make her stories sing, as much as her gorgeous language and evocative storytelling. Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a poignant, beautiful story very much worth reading.
During the 1970s, I was navigating my teen years and immersing myself in the world of science fiction. I was learning as I went, both reading new fiction as it was released and working my way backwards through the classics. And I remember being delighted to discover that two of my favorite authors had secret identities of a sort.
In 1967, James Tiptree, Jr. burst onto the science fiction scene, and for the next ten or so years wrote short stories of such imagination and fierce intelligence, psychological complexity and a rare humanity, that few authors have managed to equal that output. The stories—Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death, The Screwfly Solution, Houston, Houston, Do You Read, The Women Men Don’t See, The Girl Who Was Plugged In, The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats, and many others—were shockingly original. Hard science fiction that was also humanistic and emotionally astute, and forthrightly dealt with gender and sexuality. Tiptree, Jr. wrote a couple of novels as well, but it’s the short stories that won awards, and are true classics of science fiction.
I mentioned a secret identity, but in this case it’s more of a double life, because in 1977 it was revealed that James Tiptree, Jr. was actually a 61 year old woman named Alice Sheldon. Sheldon had a fascinating life, traveling the world with her parents as a child, reaching the rank of Major in the United States Army Air Forces where she worked in intelligence, and eventually achieving a doctorate in experimental psychology. She also attended art school, and had careers in art and graphic design.
Partly to protect her academic reputation, Sheldon used the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. when her science fiction began to be published. Although she never appeared in public at conventions, she was a prolific letter writer, and corresponded with fans and other SF authors, always as Tiptree. She fooled them all. In fact, when rumors circulated that Tiptree may in fact be a woman, the science fiction writer Robert Silverberg (who’s had his own issues lately with misogyny and sexism) wrote that, “It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing”.
Sheldon continued writing after her identity was revealed, sometimes as Raccoona Sheldon, but was never quite as successful. She suffered from debilitating depression, and in 1987 shot her husband and herself in a murder/suicide. Sheldon’s legacy continues to this day, as the James Tiptree, Jr. award is annually given to works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore our understanding of gender.
Paul Linebarger was a US Army officer, a noted East Asian scholar, and an expert, an expert in psychological warfare, advisor to President John F. Kennedy, and godson to Sun Yat-sen. He wrote the definitive textbook, Psychological Warfare.
Meanwhile, under the name Cordwainer Smith, he wrote a series of loosely interconnected short stories and one novel concerning The Instrumentality of Mankind. The stories—Scanners Live In Vain, The Game of Rat and Dragon, A Planet Named Shayol, The Ballad of Lost C’Mell, and many, many others—are so strange and wondrous, so overflowing with unique characters and imaginative settings, that no one, before or since, has written quite like Smith.
Smith died in 1966 at the age of just 53. He left behind an amazing body of work that sadly, I think, doesn’t get read as much today. That’s partly why I’m writing this post. I hope, if you’re reading this, you might be inspired to pick up one of Smith’s story collections and take a deep dive into his world. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
What pulls me into a book, keeps me up late into the night, turning pages? Glad you asked, but it’s not a simple answer. Plot, characters, setting, language, style, they absolutely all play a part. But more and more, the thing I find myself most drawn to, is voice. The sometimes shy, sometimes in your face, sometimes poetic and sometimes plain-spoken way an author chooses to narrate a story.
Some writers have a voice so idiosyncratic, so stylistically singular, that you can recognize them within just a few sentences. I’m thinking of writers as varied as Cormac McCarthy, R.A. Lafferty, Andrew Vachss, and Joe Lansdale. Then there are the chameleons. Writers who vary their voice to suit each book, who disappear into their characters.
For me, Stephen King is one of the very best at this, and Later, his newest novel, is a masterclass in voice.
Later is written in first person, as an adult looks back on events from his childhood that would forever transform his life. King is attempting a highwire act here, writing as an adult telling a story through the eyes of a child, and he pulls it off flawlessly. In lesser hands this could be a disaster, the voice bouncing back and forth and never settling into that perfect groove. King nails it. Jamie, the narrator of the story, is likable, smart, and engaging. He just feels right.
Jamie tells us more than once that this is a horror story, and he’s right, at least in part. Jamie has a special talent, a dark ability, that puts him in harm’s way and forces him into making decisions no child should have to make. He comes face to face with with death in ways that would be harrowing even for adults, let along a young kid. His innocence hangs in the balance. And because Later comes to us from the Hard Case Crime imprint, much like King’s earlier novel Joyland, there are morally compromised characters, law enforcement, and violent crime involved. There’s also a twisted family secret that caught me by surprise, and rocks the final quarter of the novel.
If that was all I had gotten from Later, I would have been satisfied, but King, as he often does, adds multiple layers to his story. Jamie’s mom is a literary agent, and King takes us into that world like the insider he is, and shows us how the sausage gets made. Later is set during the economic downturn, and King details the challenges it brought to the publishing world. I enjoyed those parts of the novel as much as the scary stuff. King has always been good at showing professionals being professional, doing the work. Jamie’s mom is a great character—tough, flinty, and damn good at her job. She’s no saint, in fact she’s one of those morally compromised characters I mentioned earlier, but her love for Jamie is unquestionable.
Later is not one of King’s epics. It’s a lean, propulsive crime novel, like all the Hard Case Crime novels. I absolutely loved it.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic has all the hallmarks of classic gothic literature—a beautiful young woman in peril, an ancient, crumbling mansion, a family consumed by sordid, murderous secrets, an imperious, controlling family matriarch, a handsome but coldly calculating villain, and a pallid young man who may or may not step up and do the right thing.
Moreno-Garcia may be playing in the gothic sandbox, but she’s not interested in using the same old toys. Instead of windswept English moors and white cliffs above crashing waves, she sets her novel in the lush, humid Mexico of the 1950s.
Noemi, Mexican Gothic’s heroine, is no shy shrinking violet. She may be young, but she’s smart, inquisitive, well-educated, stylish and confident. After a brief beginning in glittering, cosmopolitan Mexico City, Noemi is dispatched by her father to a small mountain mining town deep in rural Mexico. They’ve received a disturbing letter from Noemi’s cousin, who was swept away to the mining town after marrying a mysterious Englishman.
I won’t spoil for you the delights of what follows, but be prepared—this is a pure gothic horror thrill ride that will keep you awake and reading long past your bedtime.
Moreno-Garcia writes like a dream, or in this case a fever dream. Her powers of description and language use are formidable and her imagination is wildly unfettered. Mexican Gothic veers from traditional gothic to gothic horror to a kind of cosmic horror drenched in decay and rot. No matter how wild the story gets, and believe me when I tell you it gets truly wild, it never goes off the rails. Moreno-Garcia is always firmly in control of her art.
I live in a suburban Cape Cod rather than a creepy jungle mansion, but Mexican Gothic had me searching the dark corners of my home for suspicious signs of possibly sentient mold. I can’t think of higher praise.
The Echo Wife is, on paper at least, a science fiction novel. It deals with advanced cloning technology that does not currently exist (as far as I know, anyway, although you never can tell what’s happening in some secret underground lab). Gailey plays with science concepts like a virtuoso. Their fictional technological innovations are well thought out and believable. Parts of the novel are set in a science lab, and their description of the inner workings of the lab feels authentic, like a peek behind the curtain.
Here’s the funny part, though—the science fictional aspects of The Echo Wife, as enthralling as they are, are just a small part of what makes this such an exceptional novel. The novel’s plot, a piano wire-taut, expertly crafted thriller involving a particularly twisted extra marital affair, divorce, and multiple murders, rushes inexorably toward its conclusion with consummate skill, but again, that’s still not my favorite thing about The Echo Wife.
At its heart this is a novel about relationships, between husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters, bosses and employees. It’s about the damage we do to each other in the name of love and hate and power and control. It’s about ethics, morality, and the difference between what’s right and what’s right for you. Gailey navigates these troubled relationships, the hostility and outright abuse, with an honesty and pain that feels like the truth. Gailey writes about domestic trauma with unflinching intimacy. The Echo Wife is written in first person, and Gailey’s main character, Evelyn, is one of the most complex, compelling characters I’ve met in a long time. As written, she’s brilliant, formidable, and not particularly likable, which I think she’d be the first to admit. Her narration is uncompromising in its dissection of the novel’s characters, but that includes herself as well. Martine, Evelyn’s mirror image, is a brave, heartbreaking creation that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. Evelyn’s husband, the villain of the novel, may be a monster, but Gailey is too good a writer to make him one-dimensional.
I always read the acknowledgement pages at the back of the book, but I know some folks don’t. Do yourself a favor, and be sure to read them here. Gailey’s forthright honesty brought surprised tears to me eyes.
Gailey has become one of my favorite authors over the past few years. This ranks with their very best work. With any luck I’ll read other novels this year that I enjoy as much as The Echo Wife. I’m not sure I’ll read another one as important.
I first discovered what I would much later hear described as cosmic horror in junior high, when I bought a battered copy of At The Mountains of Madness and Other Stores from a flea market bookseller. At that time I was still working my way alphabetically through my local library’s science fiction and fantasy section, and I hadn’t gotten to the L’s yet, so I had not read any Lovecraft. (By the way, this turned out to be a good way to immerse myself in a genre I had grown to love. By the Time I hit high school, I had read everything in the section, and I knew what types of stories, and which authors, I liked, and which I didn’t. But, I digress.) (Okay, another digression. As I read more deeply in later years, I began to see the caustic, damaging side of Lovecraft’s writing, and I appreciate all the authors who called it out and made me aware.)
I found that I did like cosmic horror, with its old, powerful gods, mysterious cults, indescribable monsters, and books that lead to madness. Movies like Evil Dead, and more recently novels like Lovecraft Country and The Fisherman, have kept my love for the sub-genre alive.
The Worm and His Kings is the first novel by Hailey Piper I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last. It tells the story of a cloaked, taloned monster who is snatching homeless people off the street, and a woman who goes searching for her missing girlfriend and winds up in a subterranean world filled with nightmarish creatures from another world, and human cultists waiting for the reemergence of an elder god, the Worm.
There’s much more to the story, but I don’t want to give too much away. This is a slender book with no filler. Piper ratchets up the tension and keeps it there, and the story moves along with frightening intensity.
Piper takes some of the basic tenets of cosmic horror and twists them in new and surprising ways. The biggest thing to me is that she grounds her cosmic horror in the more familiar horrors of modern day life. Her main characters are homeless, living in the darkest recesses of New York City, cast off by society because they dare to be different. She deals with sexual orientation and transgender issues with compassion and understanding. There’s a kind of desperate, heartbreaking love story here, and tenacious bravery that’s as inspiring as it is ultimately hopeless.
As I said, Piper begins her story with gritty realism, but the deeper in we travel, the wider the scope. As it nears its terrible, inevitable conclusion, The Worm and His Kings catapults across space and time in truly transcendent ways.
The Worm and His Kings deserves a spot on the shelf among the very best of cosmic horror.
I’ve come to the realization that I don’t read enough indie fiction. The reasons are clear enough, and have nothing to do with the quality of indie work. The thing is, I have a long list of must-read authors, many of whom are prolific, and only so much reading time. That doesn’t leave a lot of slots open in my TBR stack. Still, I decided that this year I need to make more of an effort to include indie reads, and I’m starting with Nocturnal Blood by Villimey Mist. I discovered Mist where I discover many authors, on Twitter. She’s a passionate member of the writing and horror communities, and I had heard good things about this novel, the first of a planned trilogy.
Nocturnal Blood is a vampire novel with two young adult women as the protagonists, and part of it takes place in the Pacific Northwest, but if your thoughts immediately wandered to Twilight, back it up. There are no broody sparkle boys, no swooning, no star-crossed lovers, no werewolves thrown into the mix. This is a lean, gritty tale of survival, as Leia, a human, and Sophie, a vampire, road trip from Anchorage to south of Seattle as they flee from a group of vampires out for revenge. Leia and Sophie were friends once, before Sophie was turned, and their fragile new friendship is tested along the way by one brutal encounter after another.
One of the things I liked best about this novel is that Mist does not hold back. There are several violent set pieces that are drenched in blood, gore, and severed body parts. Sophie is a badass predator from the beginning, but Leia, a meek, mild, woman hamstrung by OCD and anxiety, finds hidden reserves of strength, emerging from each bloodbath stronger and more determined to survive.
Mist also is not afraid to tweak her vampire lore, adding her own twists. She does a nice job of world-building, creating a vampire society that’s well thought out and internally consistent. She’s built a big sandbox to play in in future novels. Speaking of which, the second novel in the trilogy, Nocturnal Farm, is available now.
I am absolutely delighted when an author catches me by surprise. With The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, V.E. Schwab has done more than that—she’s left me positively gobsmacked.
The bare bones of this novel are simple enough. A young woman name Addie LaRue, living in a small French village in 1714, yearns to escape the constricted life she’s meant to live, a life delineated by the borders of her village, and makes a bargain with a dark entity—she can live forever, but will be immediately forgotten by every person she meets. Pause for a moment, and think about the ramifications of that.
What follows is a tour de force that spans centuries, across war-torn Europe and Prohibition America, through revolutions both military and cultural. Addie doesn’t just have a front row seat, she’s in the thick of it, whether starving on the docks of Paris, helping the French resistance, drinking in a Chicago speakeasy, or making her way through present day New York.
If this makes The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue seem like a literary version of Forrest Gump, then I’m doing a poor job of explaining it. This is a meditation on life itself, on what makes a life well lived, and a life worth living. Schwab has important things to say about the nature of art, and most all, about the nature of love. Because above all, this novel is a ravishing love story, or, depending on your point of view, two ravishing love stories. Some readers may say a love triangle, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Schwab examines love from every angle—as an overwhelming force, as comfort, as a game, as conflict, as strategy, as a desperate cry for help, and even as a masquerade for hate. Schwab has interesting things to say about vengeance, as well.
Schwab’s language throughout the novel is incandescent. She writes with artful assurance, spinning glorious webs of story at will. There are three different chapters in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (no, I won’t tell you which ones) that I immediately went back and read through again, both because of the breathtaking language Schwab employs, and because I wanted to figure out just how she pulls off her magic.
With Addie, Schwab has created one of the most utterly original characters in modern fiction. She is a creature of fierce will and determination, and if her story is often heartbreaking, it is just as often triumphant.
Although I know Schwab by reputation, I had only read one of her novels previously to this one, This Savage Song, which I absolutely loved, by the way. I blame the extraordinary number of books in the world for the fact that I haven’t yet read A Darker Shade of Magic or any of her other celebrated novels. I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve let an author of this rare talent escape me, but I plan on fixing that. It may only be early February, but my guess is, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue will end up being one of my favorite reads of the year.
If you’ve dipped your toes into this blog once or twice, you may be aware that Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children is one of my very favorite ongoing series. These are portal fantasies that belong on the same shelf with older classics of the genre like Alice and Chronicles of Narnia, and newer, soon to be classics like the Fairyland series and The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
Each book in the series is a perfect combination of bravura storytelling, gorgeous, evocative language, truly original settings, and characters you will never forget. Across the Green Grass Fields is the sixth Wayward Children book, and while it shares all the above attributes, it differs from the others in that is a completely stand alone story, with all new characters. The other novels revolve, to greater or lesser extent, around Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, and share a rotating cast of characters who appear in various volumes.
Across the Green Grass Fields tells the story of a young girl named Regan. Regan has parents who love her but don’t always understand what she’s going through, a toxic best friend, and a secret she’s not sure how to deal with. Regan takes solace in her love of horses; it’s only when she’s riding that she can be herself.
It should come as no surprise that Regan’s door, when it comes, with Be Sure as always scrawled above, takes her to the Hooflands, a world filled with centaurs, unicorns, kelpies, and other magical hoofed creatures. What happens next you’ll have to discover for yourself, but because this is McGuire, know that she has profound things to say about friendship and family, about what it is exactly that makes someone a person. There’s a quest, but the journey is equally important to the final confrontation. Regan learns that heroism can have many definitions, and heroes don’t always look like heroes.
I somehow knew that the ending to this novel, when it came, would be bittersweet. It was also exactly right.
I hope, at some point, McGuire takes us back to Hoofland. And I hope she continues to write Wayward Children books for years to come.
Although Stephen Graham Jones has written, by my count…umm…a lot of books, I just discovered him last year via word of mouth (word of Twitter, actually). My first was Mongrels, a white trash, southern, coming-of-age werewolf novel filled with mayhem, humor, and a wholly original werewolf mythology. Then came The Only Good Indians, a horror tour de force, fiercely original, uncompromising, and easily one of my favorite novels of the year.
Now comes Night of the Mannequins, a short and deeply satisfying read about—okay, here’s the thing, this novel did not go where I thought it was going to go, one of my favorite things about it. But that means that I don’t want to really tell you what it’s about, because that would ruin the surprise. It’s about small town teenagers, a mannequin, and an innocent prank gone bad, and that’s all you’re getting. Most importantly, Night of the Mannequins is a stellar example of an unreliable narrator. I mean, Tell Tale Heart level. Seriously.
What I want to talk about instead is voice. For me, voice is what separates good, even great, writers from the writers who redefine the genres they write in. Jones is one of those writers, and he’s not a one trick pony. What I mean is, his voice varies from novel to novel, and is always perfectly calibrated to that novel. Mongrels felt like it was written in a double-wide parked somewhere in deep Texas, the words dipped in blood and fryer grease. The Only Good Indians is steeped in Native American myth and lore, with long stretches of dialogue that feel organic and real. The horror, including some first class body horror, is visceral and disturbing, and the character’s lives feel true and lived in.
Night of the Mannequins is narrated by a snarky, smart-assed teenage boy, and like those other novels, Jones nails the voice. No matter how extreme the story gets, and it gets pretty extreme, Sawyer never seems like anything other than what he is, a teenage boy making some unfortunate decisions. By grounding the novel in a believable teenage reality, Night of the Mannequins is that much more disturbing.
I know I haven’t given you a lot to go on. Just get it, okay? You won’t be sorry.
When I was looking back through my notes to write my reading year in review, I wasn’t surprised to discover that I read more books by Joe Lansdale in 2020 than any other author. Lansdale is so prolific, and his work is of such a high quality, that his new books immediately go to the top of my TBR stack. So I was happy to start 2021 with what I knew would be a high point, Jane Goes North.
Jane Goes North is a cross-country road trip novel. Think Thelma and Louise, but without the murder, at least at first, and instead of two glamorous Hollywood actresses, we have two rode hard, put away wet white trash women from East Texas. Jane has lost her job, and her car has given up the ghost, but her uppity little sister is getting married in Boston, and dammit, Jane wants to attend the wedding, more out of spite than anything else. Henry is a one-eyed, weight lifting woman with more than one chip on her shoulder, and with even less prospects than Jane, but she’s heading north for reasons of her own, so the two for an uneasy alliance and hit the road.
As Jane and Henry travel, they meet a colorful assortment of characters, get into scrapes both minor and life threatening, and slowly, painfully, in ways that feel both honest and earned, form a grudging friendship.
This is Lansdale hitting on all cylinders. None of the characters we meet seem like cardboard cutouts dropped into the story strictly to be roadblocks in Jane and Henry’s path. Each one feels real, organic, like they belong. Lansdale has always had a gift for creating believable characters, even those who are just passing through. Jane Goes North is often riotously funny, with dialogue that’s both smart and smart-assed.
This being Lansdale, though, it’s not all humor. Jane and Henry (and eventually a faded but still ass-kicking country singer named Cheryl) face heart-stopping danger, with more than one dead body as a result. This is one of Lansdale’s other substantial gifts—the man writes action set-pieces as good as anyone today. He’s a natural born storyteller, and reading Jane Goes North at times feels as though you’re sitting around a campfire with a beer in your hand, listening to a thrilling tale recounted by a master who has you in the palm of his hand.
One final note. The ending of this novel caught me by surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did, and it also, just maybe, put a lump in my throat.
I’m not what you would call organized when it comes to choosing what book to read next. My TBR stack changes with the day, with what catches my eye when I look at the bookshelf or swipe through my Kindle. It can change immediately when something new by one of my favorite authors debuts, or when someone I trust suggests something. In this particular case, my last read of 2020 happened because my son, a high school English teacher with just about the same taste in books as me, told me that I would absolutely love The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
Thanks, Eric, because damn if you weren’t right. This might be my favorite novel of the year.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a portal fantasy that ranks with the very best of that genre (from older classics like The Chronicles of Narnia to new classics like Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series). It’s also a heart stopping adventure, and a towering love story that spans multiple worlds. It tells the story of January Scaller, a young woman in the early 1900s who finds a mysterious door, and an even more mysterious book, that draws her into a story that will change her life completely.
I don’t want to say anything more about the plot, as one of the joys of The Ten Thousand Doors of January is following the wondrous twists and turns of Harrow’s novel. Suffice to say that I was enthralled from beginning to end. Harrow is a first-rate storyteller. She creates characters who, whether you love them or hate them, are fully realized and complex. There are good people who are also deeply flawed, and downright evil people who believe in their hearts that they are doing the right thing. Those characters populate worlds both familiar and strange, and it’s here that Harrow’s use of language is fully on display. She’s an unparalleled stylist. I found myself rereading passages, not just for the sheer joy of it, but to see if I could figure out just how she was pulling off her word magic.
The other touchstone that guides The Ten Thousand Doors of January is family, both the ones we’re born into and the ones we create for ourselves. Harrow is at her best here, digging deep into the various relationships that give the novel its heart. There are moments of true love and true sorrow, and it all rings true.
One other thing. Harrow has the mechanics of her story worked out beautifully, the science behind doorways, her version of portals, perfectly believable. As I was reading the novel, I found myself looking out of the corner of my eye, hoping to find my own doorway, and my own adventure.
In what was by just about any measure a shit-filled dumpster fire of a year, the year which shall not be named yielded a few positives. I wrote and drew more than I have in quite a while. It’s amazing how much more free time one has when there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. My wife and I both kept our jobs, so we were spared the financial hardship so many others have felt. My three young adult children have weathered the pandemic with humor and sanity intact, for which I will be forever grateful.
And I read some absolutely amazing books!
Let’s break it down by the numbers:
26—The number of books I will have read by the end of the year. I usually read between 25 and 30 books per year, so this is about average. I know a lot of folks found it hard to concentrate on reading with the shit-storm swirling around us, but I took solace and comfort in the escape books provided me.
10—The number of books I read by authors new to me. This surprised me. I have so many favorite authors that they often take up the majority of my reading time, so I’m happy to see that I branched out this year. Even better, a couple of those authors have become new favorites.
3—The most books I read by a single author. The fact that it was Joe Lansdale was not a surprise at all, as he’s a national treasure. Those books were Big Lizard, More Better Deals, and Of Mice and Minestrone.
2—The number of poetry books I read. I don’t read enough poetry, so I need to work on that, but I thoroughly enjoyed both I Am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland and Bloodhound by Marie Casey.
22—The number of books I read this year that fall under the umbrella of science fiction fantasy, or horror. For that matter, the other four novels are crime fiction, so also genre. Hey, I like what I like.
And now, my favorite reads of the year:
Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias. (My review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/01/31/book-review-coyote-songs/) A mosaic novel, Coyote Song follows the lives of several characters, some living and some not so much, who live on either side of the America/Mexico border, La Frontera. The book is set on the bleeding edge of right now, with border patrols, shocking violence, political upheaval, human trafficking, child stealing and murder. There are monsters here, both supernatural and human. This novel stayed with me for a long time.
Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay. (My review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/07/16/book-review-survivor-song-by-paul-tremblay/) A novel about a deadly pandemic, in the midst of a pandemic, with so much heart and humanity, not to mention heart-stopping terror, that’s it’s actually cathartic. In the space of just a few years, Paul Tremblay has become one of my favorite horror authors. Check that, one of my favorite authors, period. After Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, The Cabin at the End of the World, and his short story collection Growing Things and Other Stories, Tremblay is one of the few writers whose new work immediately goes to the top of my TBR pile. Survivor Song might be his best novel yet, and that’s saying something.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. (My review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/07/30/book-review-the-only-good-indians-by-stephen-graham-jones/) The Only Good Indians is emotionally devastating, harrowing, sometimes gut-wrenching, with moments of body horror that are delightfully disturbing. The violence doesn’t just include humans, but animals as well, and it’s just as sad and painful. Jones excels at pacing, at ratcheting up tension to a nearly unbearable level and then sustaining it. Even in the quietest moments of the novel, whispered conversations under the stars, the tension is always there, waiting to spring. It’s exhilarating, if you can bear it.
Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire. (My review here: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/04/10/book-review-come-tumbling-down-by-seanan-mcguire/) Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, of which Come Tumbling Down is the fifth entry, has set a new standard in portal fantasies. Come Tumbling Down continues the story of twins Jack and Jill, who we’ve already met in Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones. You should also know that Come Tumbling Down is just as satisfying. My suggestion is that you read all the Wayward Children books, in order preferably, as each one does build, sometimes in subtle ways, on the last.
One final note—I’m currently a third of the way through what will be my last read of 2020, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. If it finishes up the way it’s started, this would be at the top of my favorites list.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you may have noticed that Seanan McGuire is one of my favorite authors. Writing as both herself and Mira Grant, her Wayward Children, Incryptid, October Daye, and Newsflesh series, her non-series novels like Into the Drowning Deep and Middle Game—they are all different, and they all hit different pleasure centers in the brain. Her work ranges from ravishingly lyrical, to terrifying, to loose and funny, and sometimes all of it as once.
Dying With Her Cheer Pants On—Stories of the Fighting Pumpkins is, for the most part McGuire at her loosest and funniest. It’s a classic fix-up novel, made up of several previously published short stories and some new ones, along with excellent between-story material that explains and amplifies the book’s mythology. And because this is Seanan McGuire, that mythology is well-thought-out, internally consistent, creative and a helluva lot of fun.
The Fighting Pumpkins are the cheerleaders of Johnson’s Crossing High School, and as such, they are tasked not only with promoting school spirit and cheering for the Fighting Pumpkins football team, like most cheer squads, but also with keeping monsters, demons, student-eating zombies, and Cthuluesque otherworldly chaos at bay. See, the thing is, Fighting Pumpkin cheer squads have, for a hundred years, been the only thing standing between the town of Johnson’s Crossing and supernatural destruction. In McGuire’s world, school spirit is more than spirit bows and pep rallies, it’s a protective shield. If this sounds potentially dangerous for the cheerleaders, that’s putting it mildly. Over the decades, many, if not most, cheer squads have not survived to graduation. Even more devastating, when this happens the townspeople are fit with a sort of collective amnesia. The cheerleaders are forgotten, even by their own families.
Luckily, the current cheer squad has a few things going for it, namely that most of the cheerleaders aren’t totally, completely human. Jude, the squad leader, is half vampire (her mom, the vampire half, was a squad leader many decades ago); Heather was dead, at least for awhile; Marti is strong enough to support an entire inverted pyramid; Colleen is master of the mysterious Fighting Pumpkins rule book; even one of the J.V. girls is technically a demigod. Together this team is ready to face whatever monstrous entity comes their way.
The most important word in that last sentence is together. Dying With Her Cheer Pants On may be a sometimes thrilling, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny novel, but it’s also a poignant testament to the power of friendship and teamwork. McGuire has important things to say about family, both the ones we’re born into and the ones we form out of circumstance, love, or necessity. The book made me snort more than once, but it also choked me up.
I want to call specific attention to one story in particular, Turn the Year Around. Coming midway through the book, this long story was a standout for me, with a melancholy autumnal feeling that hit me hard.
I try to keep up with what Seanan McGuire is working on, but Dying With Her Cheer Pants On snuck up on me. I absolutely loved it.
Stephen King excels at…well, just about everything. But for me, there are two things he often does that makes him one of my favorite writers. First, he take a single, often simple idea and examine all the ramifications of it, look at it from all sides. And second, he brings small towns, both the people and the place, to evocative life. Not just the idyllic, kids playing on the town square, young couples strolling Main Street while eating ice cream cones scenes, but also the evil and rot underneath, the dark undercurrents roiling beneath sunny skies. Richard Chizmar, King’s co-author on the first novel and the sole author on the second, shares those attributes with King, writing seamlessly with King on Gwendy’s Button Box, and continuing the story in Gwendy’s Magic Feather with deep skill and confidence.
Gwendy’s Button Box puts a modern spin on the Pandora’s box myth, as a mysterious stranger gifts young tween Gwendy with a magic box—a box capable of making her life better in immeasurable ways, but also capable of causing world-wide disaster and misery. King and Chizmar take this single, simple idea and gallop away with it, making it a complex meditation on morality. Gwendy is a richly sympathetic character, and we the readers feel her exhileration at the twists and turns her life takes, but also the confusion and pain when she makes potentially catastrophic decisions. All the while she and the box circle each other like prize fighters, and the fact that Gwendy never knows what the box wants from her, and the mysterious stranger gives her no guidance outside of assuring her that she’s the right person to have the box, gives the novel its power and intensity.
Meanwhile, all of this takes place against the background of small town Castle Rock life, with a gallery of other characters who feel absolutely real. The authors also drop Easter eggs from other King novels set in Castle Rock, and you’ll find yourself smiling as you discover them.
Gwendy experiences tragic loss in the course of Gwendy’s Button Box, but in the end proves that the mysterious stranger was right—she’s a more that capable steward of the box.
Gwendy is gratefully relieved of the box at the end of Gwendy’s Button Box. In Gwendy’s Magic Feather, Gwendy is a thriving thirty-seven year old best-selling author, and now congresswoman, when the mysterious stranger, and the box, comes back into her life. If anything, the stakes are even higher given Gwendy’s position, but for me the novel truly hits its stride when Gwendy leaves Washington D.C. for Castle Rock. Back in familiar territory, Chizmar spins a captivating story, and I enjoyed Gwendy’s Magic Feather just as much as the first novel.
Both Gwendy novels are quick, comfortable reads. You fall into their easy rhythms like being enveloped by a favorite quilt. This is not a knock at all. I love comfort reads, and both novels abundantly qualify. I read recently that a third Gwendy novel is on the way, and that’s news to be celebrated. Beautifully work, gentleman.
I originally planned to write this for Thanksgiving, but I was on a tight deadline for a short story I wanted to submit, and, well, better late than never (I hope).
So. I became a reader the first week of seventh grade when I walked into the school library and discovered the small science fiction section. That day I took home The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Once I exhausted all the SF in the school library (with roughly 200 Andre Norton novels) I graduated to my local library, which had a much more robust science fiction section. Over the course of several years I read them all, alphabetically, starting at the top left and working my way right and down. Just about all my first, favorite authors came from this time in my life.
In high school and college I branched out, discovering Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Tom Disch, John Irving and Tom Robbins (see, I don’t only read genre), and many others.
I continued to read many of these authors through my adult years, and still do. To this list I added a bunch more go-to writers whose work I cherish and will always read: Joe Lansdale, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Richard Kadrey, Andrew Vachss, Dorothy Allison, Katherine Dunn, Thomas Harris, Michael Chabon, Robert F. Jones.
The point of all this, and I do have one, is that as I read over the list of books I’ve read this year (yes, I keep track, I’ve kept track since 1996—don’t judge), I realized that many of the authors on the list are ones I discovered fairly recently, over the past few years. These are the writers who are now firmly on that go-to list, the ones I tell others about. These are the new (to me) authors I am thankful for:
SEANAN McGUIRE— The first novel I read by her was Every Heart a Doorway, and it was a revelation. Happily, she is so prolific that it will take me years just to read through her back catalog, not to mention each new novel.
CHUCK WENDIG—I discovered Wendig first through his website and on Twitter. I was thrilled to realize that his fiction is just as original, just as satisfying. Wanderers is a stone cold masterpiece.
PAUL TREMBLAY—Quite simply, the finest new horror writer working today. Head Full of Ghosts was Tremblay throwing down the gauntlet.
TAMSYN MUIR—I struggle even to describe Muir’s writing style, which is as incandescent as it is challenging. Read Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, and marvel. I see a pile of Hugos and Nebulas in her future.
SARAH GAILEY—Gailey’s literary output has been so varied, and of such an insanely high level, that it’s a little intimidating. Westerns with hippos!
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES—I’ve only read two of his novels so far, Mongrels and The Only Good Indians, but that was enough to make me a permanent, passionate fan. Like McGuire, he’s got a large back catalog for me to enjoy.
GABINO IGLESIAS—Another author I discovered first on Twitter. With Coyote Songs, Iglesias invented a new genre, barrio noir, that is both harrowing and captivating.
CHARLIE JANE ANDERS—Science fiction that sings. All The Birds In The Sky is unlike anything else out there, complex, exciting and full of heart.
JOE ABERCROMBIE—The premier writer of epic grimdark fantasy. Abercrombie writes battle scenes better than anyone else today.
In this challenging, maddening year, I am thankful that when I feel like howling into the void, there are always these writers, and many others, there to take me somewhere else, at least for awhile.
Harrow the Ninth is the second novel in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy, following Gideon the Ninth, and I need to get this out of the way first thing—if you haven’t read Gideon yet, go do that first, I’ll wait (and here’s my review of Gideon if you’re interested: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/02/27/book-review-gideon-the-ninth-by-tamsyn-muir/). Everything that happens in Harrow is directly related to what happens in Gideon, and honestly, I think Harrow would be a tough read if you tried to tackle it first.
Assuming you’ve now read Gideon (welcome back to the blog!) you know that Muir is a writer of rare and miraculous skills. Harrow the Ninth continues the story started in the first novel, and if anything, the plot is even wilder, more convoluted, more open to multiple interpretations, with more layers of reality. Harrowhark Nonagesimus is the main character here—she joins a small group of god-like Lyctors, and God himself, as they prepare to face Resurrection Beasts, revenants of dead planets intent on annihilating them. She’s ascended to Lyctorhood as well, but she’s a broken, incomplete Lyctor, and to top it off, one of the other Lyctors keeps trying to kill her.
Sound confusing? It is, truthfully, and for me that’s part of this novel’s immense charm, because the plot is in part a vehicle for Muir’s marvelously inventive language, her high-wire act of storytelling. She alternates chapters detailing Harrow’s present-day story, written expertly in second person, with flashbacks to scenes from Gideon written in third person, but those scenes do not match up with the original story. Are they distorted memories, or something more complicated, more insidious?
As in Gideon, Muir uses words and phrases like her own personal playthings. Her language is dense, scintillating, intense, downright baroque at times. She mixes necromantic bone, blood, and spirit magic with hard science fictional concepts, presents an arresting and wholly original concept of an afterlife, introduces dead characters who may be alive and living characters who may be dead, and invites us to consider deeply serious meditations on the concepts of self, sacrifice, and grief. If I’m making this sound like reading Harrow the Ninth is too much work, it’s far from it. This novel is a rollicking good time, often uproariously funny, with thrilling action set pieces, and imagination to burn. The dialogue, as in Gideon, is often snarky, profane and utterly contemporary. None of this should work, yet it all works, beautifully.
Also like Gideon, the last quarter of Harrow the Ninth delivers a whole series of shocking surprises and emotional gut punches.
I have never read anything quite like these novels, and I can’t wait for the third novel in the trilogy. I feel like Muir is an utterly original artist of uncompromising talent.
When I started this blog a couple weeks sly of a year ago, I knew I wanted to talk about three things: Writing, drawing, and reading. The writing and drawing were easy—here’s what I’m writing and have written in the past, and here’s what I’m drawing and have drawn in the past.
The reading part of the blog, however, has been a fun exercise in discovering just what it was going to be about. I’ve written about books, and even song lyrics, that have influenced my life, about my go-to authors over the years, about my favorite opening lines. The part I’ve come to enjoy writing most, however, are reviews of the books I’m currently reading.
There seems to be an ongoing discussion in the Twitterverse on every facet of book reviews. Way more discussion than I expected, truthfully. Some of you folks have definite opinions. Anyway, here are some thoughts on reviewing books, from my perspective.
HOW I CHOOSE THE BOOKS I REVIEW—Here’s the thing. I read, on average, twenty five to thirty books per year. Wish it could be more, but that’s what I have time for. So the books I read are the books I truly want to read. The genres I love most are science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and I read those the most. I don’t take a lot of chances, which means I’m absolutely missing out on some great reads, but it is what it is. I have eight or ten currently-writing authors whose new books I always read, and whose back catalogs I’m working my way through. I have a bunch of other authors I’ve been reading for years, sometimes decades, and if they write something new I’ll read it, and sometimes delve into their back catalogs as well.
DISCOVERING NEW AUTHORS—Okay, look, it’s not like I never read authors new to me. I follow a bunch of favorite authors on Twitter, I read Tor.com and io9 daily, and I belong to a few Facebook groups that talk about books. If a writer I respect suggests an author or book, that carries a lot of weight with me. Over the past couple years I’ve happily discovered newly favorite authors this way, including Chuck Wendig, Paul Tremblay, Seanan McGuire, and Stephen Graham Jones, just to name a few.
HOW I WRITE REVIEWS—I write the kind of reviews I like to read. What this means, most importantly, is I don’t do plot recitations. I talk a little bit about the author and my reading relationship with him or her, maybe how I first discovered them. I mention the barest of bones as far as what the book is about. And then I talk about the things that truly matter to me when reading a book—language, pacing, characters, imagination, setting, description—the things that make a book come alive. Is this the best way to review a book? No idea. Some readers seem to enjoy reading them, and I love writing them, so that’s good enough for me.
BAD REVIEWS—Simple. I don’t write them. At this point in my life I know what I like, and with my limited available reading time, I choose carefully. My track record is pretty good. In just under a year of writing reviews, I think I’ve only read one book that I didn’t care for, and chose not to review. It’s an easy decision for me. Writing is hard work, and I’d rather life an author up than put them down.
And that’s pretty much it. Now, when friends ask me, hey, what are you reading now? I can point them to my blog. Not that I won’t tell them as well, because I’m always happy to talk about books.
I first discovered Gabino Iglesias in the writing community on Twitter. I was immediately impressed with his voice—funny, passionate, sometimes pissed off in the best way, and, above all for a writer still finding his way, incredibly supportive of other writers. He regularly doles out wise advice, and occasionally the much needed exhortation to put ass in seat and get writing.
Then buzz started building, and authors I respect began talking about Iglesias’ novel Coyote Songs. Holy hell they were right. This dark, dangerous border noir, with a delirious mix of incandescent language, bravura storytelling, gritty realism and supernatural horror absolutely blew me away. Iglesias is a writer in complete control of his craft, and there are scenes in Coyote Songs I will never forget, even if I wanted to.
Zero Saints is an earlier Iglesias novel, but the things that inspired me in Coyote Songs are on full display here. The brutal, beautiful language, the harrowing violence, the heady mix of myth, religion, and magic—it’s all here. This short novel follows one young low-level drug dealer trying to survive the mean streets of East Austin after a run-in with a group of heavily-tattooed, possibly demonic gangsters. Zero Saints reads like hardcore crime fiction, but the touches of supernatural horror, while not as pronounced as in Coyote Songs, are very much in evidence. Iglesias’ gallery of characters, from a Russian hitman to a flamboyant cowboy of an enforcer, all the way to a surprisingly human-like dog, are well-developed, quirky individuals. The plot moves at a breakneck pace that never lets up. His descriptions of Austin are far removed from what tourists at SXSW experience, but it feels lived-in and authentic.
Much like with Coyote Songs, I found myself occasionally visiting Google Translate while reading Zero Saints, particularly with some of the prayers to Santa Muerte included in the novel. Iglesias moves fluidly from English to Spanish and back again, but I never lost the meaning or the story. If it’s not clear, I loved this novel!
Most folks, here in the states at least, know the bare bones of the Donner Party story—that a wagon train made up primarily of the Donner and Reed families, on the way to California became trapped by vicious winter weather in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Snow bound, starving, some members eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive.
In The Hunger, Alma Katsu takes the bones of that story and through meticulous, exhaustive research, makes you feel every back-breaking mile. She shows you the camaraderie and hopefulness, at least in the beginning, but then the danger, the extreme discomfort, the fear for the unknown, the gnawing hunger. All of it is made shockingly real. Alma excels at introducing many of the real historical characters that made up the wagon train, mixing them so expertly with characters of her own invention that I found myself repeatedly returning to Wikipedia to learn who was real and who was not. She gives every character, real or not, their time to shine, weaving in their backstories, showing us the friendships that develop along the way, the halting possibility of love, but also the petty jealousies and hate. There are no real heroes, but there are acts of heroism. The villains of the story are multi-faceted, never hackneyed cardboard characters. The Hunger reminds me, in some ways, of Emma Bull’s Territory, in the way Katsu mixes deep historical research with the supernatural. (and if you haven’t read Territory, which combines the very real characters that populated Tombstone, Arizona, with a supernatural undercurrent, please do.)
If Katsu had stopped there, she would have had one hell of a historical novel, brought to life with bravura language and vivid description. But no, she does not stop there. Instead, Katsu takes this already thrilling story and drapes it with a ratty, diseased shroud of supernatural horror. That horror begins to seep into the lives of the settlers early in the novel, and then escalates, unstoppable, suffocating, ratcheting the tension and dread to an unimaginable degree. There are scenes unimaginable brutality, and scenes of quiet terror, and Katsu handles both with aplomb.
The Hunger is first-rate historical horror. I loved this novel!
A confession—I don’t read enough poetry. In truth, I’m a little intimidated by it, which is funny, because I write a bit of it, but there you have it. I’m also not quite sure how to review poetry, as it’s such an intimate, personal thing. At its best, I think poetry is a kind of communion between the writer and the reader, and as such, is review-proof in a way.
Now forget about everything I just said, because Bloodhound, A Poetry Collection, by Marie Casey, is absolutely wonderful. It is intimate, and it is deeply personal. It’s not horror, per se, but much of it is horrific. There are scenes that are reminiscent of body horror, the very words flayed and shredded. As you can imagine from the title, blood is often mentioned. In fact, it binds the pages of this book together. Casey’s language is raw, visceral. Much of the book is centered on relationships, on their dissolution and destruction, on the painful things we do to each other in the name of love and sex.
Casey leaves a lot to the imagination—these poems, some just fragments, few of them named, are open-ended and ripe for interpretation. I absolutely love her imagery, the way she uses language to open and probe emotional wounds.
Bloodhound, A Poetry Collection is not a light read, and may be too much for the faint-hearted. I can tell you that, based on this book, I’ll read anything Casey writes.
I discovered Joe Lansdale and Hap & Leonard at the same time, when I found a battered copy of Bad Chili at my local Half Price Books. I took it home and dove right in, finished it that evening, and headed back to Half Price Books the next day to pick up the other three or four Lansdale novels they had. In the many years since then, I’ve eagerly snapped up each new Hap & Leonard, while simultaneously working my way through Lansdale’s intimidatingly large back catalog. These days, when folks ask me who my favorite author is, I usually answer Lansdale. (On the days I don’t answer Lansdale, I answer Neil Gaiman, but I’d say that’s pretty good company to keep.)
Over the years we’ve gotten to know Hap Collins and Leonard Pine pretty well, watched them settle into middle age. Actually, settle is the wrong word. They’ve entered middle age kicking and screaming, cussing and fighting, and if they’ve reached some level of maturity, it’s been hard-won and doesn’t always stick. They may give a potentially violent situation some thought before engaging (Hap more than Leonard), but they aren’t afraid to fight the good fight if it’s the right thing to do. Hap and Leonard have both found love, and both have lost it.
Through the various novels and novellas in the series, we readers have been able to follow the twosome through just about their entire adult lives. The one thing missing, except for the occasional stories they would tell, was their early lives. That began to change in 2017 with Blood and Lemonade, a collection of loosely connected short stories that delved into Hap and Leonard’s early years. The book was a revelation, and included their very first meeting, a truly epic night that fits neatly into their wild and wooly mythology.
Now Lansdale has gifted us with OfMice and Minestrone, subtitled Hap and Leonard The Early Years. If anything, this one is even better. Lansdale is one of our very best short story writers, and every story here is a gem. By seeing Hap and Leonard as teenage boys, we’re given an intimate glimpse of the men they will become. OfMice and Minestrone features everything Lansdale is best at, including lovingly described hand to hand combat, real, flesh and blood characters, the best dialogue this side of Elmore Leonard, and sometimes scatological, always laugh out loud humor.
One more treat—Lansdale describes several meals in the course of the book, and his daughter Kasey Lansdale has contributed a bunch of recipes based on those meals. They all sound amazing, and I’m planning on trying several.
For fans of Joe Lansdale, and particularly fans of Hap and Leonard, Of Mice and Minestrone is a must read.
The title of Joe Abercrombie’s Last Argument of Kings was inspired by the words Louis XIV had cast on the cannons of his armies—Ultima Ratio Regum, Latin for “The last argument of kings.” A declaration of war, in other words. Like the first two novels in the epic First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself and Before They are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings is about war, in all its permutations. Battles between massed armies, one-on-one to-the-death clashes, the political machinations that guide the various skirmishes, and finally violent internal battles with characters’ very souls at stake.
If you’ve read the first two novels in the trilogy (and if you haven’t, you really should before reading Last Argument of Kings, as taken together the three books tell a cohesive, continuing story) you’ll be happy, or not so happy as the case may be, to see many returning characters. Logan Ninefingers, the Bloody-Nine; his companions from Before They are Hanged, Bayaz, Ferro, and Jezel dan Luthar; Superior Sand dan Glokta; Ardee West; The Dogman; and many others, all of them traumatized to greater or lesser extent at the beginning of the novel.
I don’t like to do plot recitations—I’m not fond of them myself, and they’re easy enough to find elsewhere. Instead, that list of characters above brings up the first of three things I do want to talk about here, three of the many things that make Abercrombie, to my mind, the preeminent author of grimdark fantasy working today. I’m speaking, of course, about his characters. Love them or hate them, Abercrombie’s characters are fully realized people with deep backstories, deeper flaws, strengths and weaknesses, love and pain. They are prone to self reflection, although not always honest about it. And each and every one has taken a rough and violent road to get where they are now. Abercrombie’s physical descriptions can be brutally devastating, but I think he loves them all.
Next up, world-building. The world of the First Law trilogy is extravagantly imagined. Abercrombie has worked out everything in granular detail. The settings, whether a rocky mountain stronghold or a richly appointed palace, a desolate, forbidding forest or a king’s bedchamber, are lovingly described. The political intrigue, at the national, local, and personal level, feels authentic. It feels right. There is magic in the world of the First Law, and like everything else, Abercrombie’s magic systems are internally consistent and well thought out. Magic in this world has weight and consequences. It’s not to be trifled with.
As mentioned, Last Argument of Kings is about war, about battles large and small, epic and intimate, and this is where Abercrombie truly excels. When describing sweeping, large scale battles, it never feels like he’s just moving chessmen impassionately around a board. You never forget that these are living, breathing, dying people, that these are individuals, not mindless hordes. When it comes to descriptions of hand-to-hand combat, Abercrombie makes you feel every punch, kick and stab. The only other author I know with a comparable gift for the mechanics of fighting, for the raw emotion and sheer physicality, is Joe Lansdale.
Last Argument of Kings is a dense, massive, brutal work of art, and there’s more. Besides the First Law trilogy, there are currently three other books set in the world of the First Law—Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country. A new trilogy is also on the way, with A Little Hatred and The Trouble with Peace already published. So much Abercrombie goodness!
I originally wrote this as a guest post on another blog, but I never posted it here.
The youngest of my three kids, a daughter navigating her junior year of college during this pandemic, is halfway to turning 21 as I write this. Which means we no longer have any teenagers in the family, let alone high school kids. I’m not really sure how that happened.
My wife and I are both readers, and we naturally shared books with all our kids from a young age. But there’s something special, downright sacred and altogether delightful, about sharing the perfect book with your kids when they’re in high school. That’s the age where, if you get lucky and choose wisely, if the stars align, the book and the child will connect in miraculous ways. It’s been my experience, at least, that some books we read in high school become touchstones, favorite texts we reread and treasure. This is not an exact science, every kid is different, and I certainly had some missfires. But when you get it right it’s uniquely satisfying.
Here are some of the books where I got it right.
CRUDDY by Lynda Barry
I said above that every kid is different, and not every book is right for every kid. Cruddy, an illustrated novel, is a case in point. Cruddy is not for the faint of heart. The story of Roberta Rohbeson, who lives in “the cruddy top bedroom of a cruddy rental house on a very cruddy mud road” is filled with horrific violence, rampant drug use, and pain. It’s also one of the most deeply humane, heartbreaking yet surprisingly hilarious, and truly original novels I’ve ever read. If you’ve ever read Barry’s weekly comic strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, then you can already guess that her illustrations enhance the story in brilliant and unexpected ways. For mature older teens.
BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA by Dorothy Allison
Bastard Out of Carolina is basically fictionalized autobiography (her book Two or Three Things I Know for Sure covers the same material in a nonfiction format), and much like Cruddy, it deals with difficult subjects, including child abuse and incest. Set in Greenville, South Carolina in the 1950s, Bastard tells the sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, and always moving story of Bone Boatwright as she navigates adolescence through troubling waters. Bone, a stand-in for Allison, is the kind of rare protagonist you will cry for, howl in rage for, and fall in love with. This book is sometimes hard to read, but Allison’s incandescent language never allows you to look away. Read this, and then read Two or Three Things I Know for Sure to meet the real people behind their fictional counterparts, photos included.
HIS DARK MATERIALS by Philip Pullman
This is my favorite fantasy trilogy of all time (sorry, Lord of the Rings) and I suggest it to pretty much everyone. Maybe you only know it from the not particularly good movie version of the first volume, The Golden Compass, or the better, recent Hulu adaptation. Maybe you’ve only read The Golden Compass, and not the other two volumes, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Here’s the thing—the trilogy gets better as it goes. By the end, it’s a complex examination of morality and religion, all wrapped up in some of the most beautiful fantasy world building ever commited to paper. Every character is memorable, every scene exquisitely rendered. There’s breathtaking adventure and genuine sorrow. Some readers have taken issue with Pullman’s treatment of organized religion, and I’ve seen charges of racism leveled concerning some characters. This is fertile ground for discussion, just one more reason I find the sharing of books so rewarding.
BOY’S LIFE by Robert McCammon
McCammon is known chiefly, I think, as a writer of intelligent thrillers and apocolyptic horror (Swan Song belongs on the same shelf with Stephen King’s The Stand). This is something else entirely—part murder mystery, part the exciting and sometimes dangerous adventures of a twelve year old boy and his friends in small town Alabama in the early 60s. Boy’s Life is infused with a childhood sense of wonder, nicely spiced with moments of magic realism. The reality of southern racism and poverty is not shied away from, but it’s tempered with a genuine but clear-eyed feel for life in that particular time and place. Quite simply, one of the best coming of age novels ever written.
EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire
By the time this novel came along, I only had one child still in high school, my youngest daughter. I handed it to her the moment I finished it. In Every Heart a Doorway, McGuire asks a deceptively simple yet profound question: What happens to all the children who enter portals to other worlds, and then come back? We’re introduced to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, a sanctuary for those children whose parents don’t know how to deal with them, and to several of the kids now trying to make their way through our drab, dissapointing world after having left the magic behind. There are now five novels in the Wayward Children series, each one a small wonder of whimsical, ravishing storytelling.
BLOOD SPORT by Robert F. Jones
This one is a little different. Blood Sport was published in 1972, and a found a battered paperback copy a few years later, when I was in high school. It blew the top of my head clean off. Fast forward to my son’s high school years, and I couldn’t wait to share it with him, but…but, Blood Sport is extreme. It’s the fever-dream story of a father/son canoe trip down a mythological river, chocked full of magic realist imagery and audacious language, but also brutal violence, explicit sex, and some truly squirm-worthy scenes. The time had to be right. When he was sixteen, he and I joined his Scout troup for a father-son canoe trip on the French River delta in Canada, and I felt like the planets had alligned. It was indeed the perfect time.
BONUS: THREE RECENT BOOKS THAT ARE GREAT READS FOR HIGH SCHOOLERS
WANDERERS by Chuck Wendig
A big, meaty, doorstop of a novel, with big, meaty ideas. The story of a world-wide pandemic with echoes of The Stand and Swan Song, but very much its own thing. Heroic, flawed, altogether believable characters, and science that seems frightenly prescient.
GIDEON THE NINTH by Tamsyn Muir
I can’t really sum this novel up better than Charles Stross does in his cover blurb: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor! Skeletons!” Just to add—so many skeletons! A gonzo masterpiece.
WHEN WE WERE MAGIC by Sarah Gailey
When We Were Magic revolves around six female friends who all share the ability to do magic, and one boy who is dead, accidently, at the hands of one of those friends. Gailey excels at navigating the complexities of friendship, and her descriptions of how magic works are breathtaking.
As I write this it is Labor Day, 2020, here in Northeast Ohio. Even now, in the midst of a pandemic, we had plans for the day. A little yard word early, then a socially distanced backyard cookout later with my mom and stepdad. Nothing big, but something to look forward too.
Then we woke up to rolling thunder that rattled the windows, lightning that lit up the roiling grey clouds, and slashing rain that refused to let up. By noon there were two ducks swimming in the newly formed pond behind my house. All of our plans, modest though they were, ruined.
And…I don’t care one little bit. We spent the day holed up in our comfy little sunroom, watching the sky light up and listening to the rain beat against the windows. I munched on snacks and drank iced tea (take away my writer’s license if you must, but I’ve never liked coffee).
Mostly, I read. A lot. I usually read at night before bed for the most part, so this daytime reading was luxurious, glorious. I made headway in the enormous, wonderful novel I’m reading now (Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie, review to follow eventually) without worrying about what time it was, what I should be doing rather than reading. It rained, and I read, and it was the best day I’ve had in quite a while.
Through the course of eleven novels and one short story, James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, has been through a lot. The nephilim (half human/half angel) has fought demons in hell’s arena, spent some time as Lucifer himself, and died and been resurrected more than once. Back home in L.A. he’s tangled with ghosts, monsters, and more demons, sparred with God and gods older than that, worked for and against L.A.’s magical underground the Sub Rosa, and dealt with Hollywood scumbags who are sometimes the biggest monsters of all.
Ballistic Kiss, the eleventh novel in the Sandman Slim series, finds Stark at a crossroads, besieged with self doubt and not sure where he now fits in with his circle of friends and loved ones. Besides his usual crew—Candy, his monstrous on-again off-again love; Janet, purveyor of donuts, possible new love; Kasabian, human head on a mechanical body; Vidocq, immoral alchemist; and Carlos, bartender at the Bamboo House of Dolls—Stark must deal with the continuing angelic war in heaven, an infestation of murderous ghosts in L.A.’s Little Cairo neighborhood, and the Zero Lodge, a group of high-stakes adrenaline junkies.
As you may surmise from the above description, Ballistic Kiss, and every Sandman Slim novel, is an anarchic thrill-ride through the streets of L.A., with side-trips to hell and the Room of Thirteen Doors. Kadrey excels at the very many things that make the Sandman Slim books such glorious fun. He writes believable, fully-realized characters, whether they’re fully human or not. His action sequences and descriptions of violence are ballets of mayhem. No matter how crazy the scene, you always know what’s going on. His sense of place is second to none—L.A. is almost a secondary character, lovingly described in all its opulence and and decay.
Kadrey’s world-building started out strong from the beginning, and he’s expanded on it with each novel, from L.A.’s magical underworld to heaven, hell, and places in between. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of christian mythology and angelology, and he uses it to expand his world in surprising and satisfying ways.
It’s almost embarrassing how much I’ve loved all the Sandman Slim novels, and Ballistic Kiss is no exception. If you haven’t read them, now is a good time to get caught up, as Kadrey has announced that the next one will be the last.
Small town East Texas in the 1960s. A Korean War vet car salesman/repo man not afraid to bend, and sometimes break, the law. a curvy blonde femme fatale with an abusive husband. A drive-in, and a pet cemetery with just one actual occupant, a horse. A beautiful Cadillac. Throw in a kidnapping, violent cops, more than one double-cross, and a heaping dollop of sixties era racism, and you have the ingredients for Joe Lansdale’s new, altogether delightful hardboiled crime novel, More Better Deals.
Lansdale plays in just about every genre sandbox—horror, fantasy, western, historical, mashups of all of the above—and does every bit of it exceptionally well. But where I think he truly fires on all cylinders is when he writes about crime and criminals. I’m thinking of novels like The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, Edge of Dark Water, and Cold In July; plus, my personal favorites, the Hap and Leonard books, for my money the most consistently entertaining series being written today. Lansdale’s bad guys are almost never big time masterminds engaged in multi-million dollar heists. His criminals are small town, down on their luck, desperate losers. They may be unrepentant scumbags who revel in evil, but just as often they’re sad flakes caught between a rock and a hard place, who make one too many wrong decisions they can’t walk back.
The characters in More Better Deals for the most part fall somewhere in between those two extremes. They’re all at least a little bit mean, if not downright evil, and they give in to their baser instincts without much arm twisting. They’re good looking, even charming, but the beauty and charm are hiding an ugly darkness, and a bald cynicism. When things go bad, and they damn sure do, every single character decides to go along for the ride.
Two more things I want to mention.
I said at the beginning that More Better Deals has something to say about racism. Lansdale often talks about race and racism, and he always does so in a way that’s straight forward, sometimes painful, always thoughtful, and most of all uncompromising. He may make you uncomfortable, but I think that could say more about you than him. Every bit of this is true in More Better Deals. It gives the novel an added layer of moral complexity that deepens the story.
Lastly, Lansdale is, I humbly suggest, the best writer of dialogue working today. Listening to the rhythms of his characters’ speech is like listening to rough poetry—smart-assed, funny, threatening, and pathetic, sometimes all at once.
Read More Better Deals, and experience the exhilarating enjoyment of a writer at the very top of his game.
I know I’m late to the party, and I have no excuses (except there are just so many books in the world to read, and so little time), but the first novel by Jones I read was Mongrels. Mongrels is a southern gothic white trash werewolf epic distinguished by brilliant storytelling, impeccable pacing, characters who feel lived-in and true, and the reinvention of a sub-genre’s tropes that feels wholly original. Yeah, I liked it. Here’s my review, if you’re interested: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/01/23/book-review-mongrels-by-stephen-graham-jones/
Good news is, I think The Only Good Indians, Jones’ newest, is even better. It’s the story of four best friends, the incident ten years past that ties them together, and the supernatural entity that holds all their fates. The Only Good Indians is emotionally devastating, harrowing, sometimes gut-wrenching, with moments of body horror that are delightfully disturbing. The violence doesn’t just include humans, but animals as well, and it’s just as sad and painful. Jones excels at pacing, at ratcheting up tension to a nearly unbearable level and then sustaining it. Even in the quietest moments of the novel, whispered conversations under the stars, the tension is always there, waiting to spring. It’s exhilarating, if you can bear it.
Nearly every character in the novel is Native American, either Blackfeet or Crow, and the care Jones takes to make them feel achingly, painfully real, to give them not just a back story but a history, even a pre-history, is revelatory. It feels…authentic, I guess is the word I’m looking for. The way they talk, the rhythms of their speech. Where they live, from the reservations they grew up on, and where some still live, to the suburbs where they try to escape to. The familial and friend relationships are tangled and troubled, with love both alive and very much squandered. Much like with Mongrels, the characters and settings feel lived-in. Jones clearly knows and respects his characters, and he doesn’t do them the disservice of making them nobly one-dimensional. They have faults. In many cases they have not treated their loved-ones well. They haven’t treated themselves well. This makes them all the more human, which makes what happens all the more shattering. The supernatural entity, which I’m purposely not describing because discovering it for yourself is part of the fun, likewise feels authentic, it feels organic to the story. Inevitable.
Another thing I want to mention: Jones’ handling of action rivals that of Joe Lansdale and Joe Abercrombie. Whether describing a desperate escape from supernatural horror across the frozen grassland, or a game of basketball with life or death stakes, he makes you feel every drop of sweat, every sharp intake of breath. No matter how complicated the set piece, how many pieces in motion, Jones’ descriptive powers never flag. The Only Good Indians is filled with muscular, visceral, heart-pounding action.
Okay, one more thing. Interspersed throughout the horror, when you least expect it, are moments of well-earned humor. The four friends have the kind of comfortable, easy, smart-assed humor with each other that, once again, feels real. Their conversations were some of my favorite parts of the novel.
The Only Good Indians is getting plenty of laudatory press, all of it richly deserved. Listen to the hype. This is immediately on my short list for best novel of the year.