I don’t read enough graphic novels. There, I said it. I swore at the end of 2020 that I would add more graphic novels to my TBR pile, and here it is July and I’ve just now read my first of the year.
Luckily, it’s Sensor, by the amazing Junji Ito.
Sensor is horror on a cosmic scale. It may start in a small Japanese village, but it grows and expands to encompass the entire universe, a cold, chaotic place where entire planets are destroyed, and entire civilizations die in agony. That small village is nestled in the shadow of Mount Sengoku, a volcano that erupted 60 years ago, destroying the town. The volcano buried the town, leaving few survivors, and in doing so buried dark secrets.
When a young woman wanders into the village, she notices something strange—golden, hair-like volcanic glass fibers rain down on the streets, the buildings, the people of the city, and the people welcome it. They also welcome the girl, and say they’ve been expecting her.
Then things get really weird.
Sensor is a feast for the eyes and the mind, with a story that twists and turns as it pulls various characters into the orbit of the mysterious young woman. You may find yourself, as I did, flipping back through the pages, looking for connections, putting pieces of the puzzle together.
Ito is a master artist, carrying the story along on the strength of his exquisite pen work. He fills each panel with dense texture and detail. When the horror comes, and believe me it comes, it is truly horrific. Ito has an unflinching eye for nightmarish imagery, for transforming the human body into something squirming, pulsing, oozing, unrecognizable. He can also render scenes of astonishing beauty. He’s not a one trick pony by any means.
Sensor releases on August 17, 2021. Dive in, and let yourself be transported into other worlds by Ito’s golden hairs. You may not be the same when you return.
There are a lot of great writers out there. Writers who can stir your soul with the elegance of their descriptions, dazzle you with wordplay and imagination, quicken your pulse and heart in equal measure, blindside you with sudden laughter or even more sudden tears, make you shake your head in wonder at their perfect dialogue, write a fight or battle scene so vivid that you feel every punch and explosion, scare you so bad that you sleep with the lights on.
Joe Lansdale can and does do all those things. But he has something that rare even among the very best writers—he’s a natural born storyteller. A couple pages into a Lansdale novel, and you’re sitting around a campfire on a dark summer night somewhere in East Texas, listening to magic being conjured from the smoke, or parked on a barstool in Nagadoches, throwing back a beer while a master spins a yarn.
When I tell you the Moon Lake is Lansdale operating at the height of his considerable powers, that’s really saying something. This one is special.
Moon Lake has all the hallmarks of classic Lansdale. A small East Texas town lost, along with its secrets, beneath the dark surface of Moon Lake—at least until a drought once again brings those secrets to light. a stubborn man who comes back to that Lake looking for answers to a question that’s been plaguing him for years…why did his dad try to kill them both by driving into the lake when he was thirteen years old? There’s a hard-nosed, in-your-face meditation on class and race, on haves and have nots, on the corrupting, amoral influence of power. There’s small town politics and small town life, and Lansdale writes both with a knowing eye for detail.
Because this is Lansdale, the characters, both the good guys and the bad, are complex, thoughtful creations. They have back stories. There’s a real sense of history here, which makes sense, as Moon Lake spans years. Also because this is Lansdale, we’re treated to a breakneck plot, action that will indeed quicken your pulse, and scenes to veer hard towards straight-up horror.
Some of the dialogue and descriptive passages are laugh out loud funny. Lansdale has a gift for down-home, yet creative language that hums and gallops. He even throws a little forbidden love into the mix, and makes it sweet and tender.
The Hap and Leonard books will always be my favorite of Lansdale’s works, ever since I found a used copy of Mucho Mojo at Half Price Books. (On that same trip I discovered Shella, my first Andrew Vachss novel. That was a first-class shopping trip.) But Moon Lake is right up there for me, on the same shelf with The Bottoms, The Thicket, Edge of Dark Water, and Jane Goes North.
I’m happy to see that Moon Lake is getting a lot of much-deserved positive press. Joe Lansdale his ownself is a national treasure. If he ever makes his way to Cleveland, I owe him a whole keg of beer for the years of reading pleasure he’s given me.
I joined Twitter for several reasons—to build an online presence should a potential agent be looking for that, to follow and network with other writers and artists, and to chat about the things I love, mostly books, with like-minded folks. It’s this last part that I’ve really enjoyed, as I’ve made some genuine online friends. And it’s thanks to one of them, @SheenaLouiseF, that I added The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker to my TRB pile. Thanks, Sheena, this is a good one!
The Bone Ships is a grand, swashbuckling adventure, high fantasy with a bit of grimdark mixed in for enriching texture. Also dragons. Did I mention there are dragons?
The novel is set within the seagoing civilization of the Hundred Isles, a place where ships are built not from wood, but from the bones of long-extinct dragons. The citizens of the Hundred Isles have also been involved in an ongoing war with another kingdom across the water, and unfortunately, those bones have become more and more scarce, hampering the war effort.
That is, until rumors of a living dragon reach the ears of those in power… This sets off an exciting and dangerous quest filled with heart-stopping action. Barker writes sea battles the way Joe Abercrombie writes land battles, and I consider that absurdly high praise. Better yet, the colorful characters that fill The Bone Ships, particularly Lucky Meas and Joron, are flesh and blood creations who grow and change, who have real character arcs.
As good as the plotting, action, and characters are in The Bone Ships, however, where Barker really excels is in world building. This is a complex, thoroughly well thought out world. Barker has worked out the social structures and politics of the Hundred Isles in stunning detail, both on land and sea. The technology at play, especially the weaponry, is well explained and believable.
Barker’s language use is playful and intriguing—he invents new words for things that not only make sense, but are identifiable by context clues, so it’s never confusing. He also flips gender bias with abandon. Rather than captains, there are shipwives, and women are integral parts of every ship’s crew. Ships are called he, not she. There’s a lot of sly, witty commentary here. There’s also magic, of a sort, and Barker again makes it believable within the world he’s created.
The Bone Ships is the first in The Tide Child Trilogy, and book two, Call of the Bone Ships, is also available. Do yourself a favor, and dive into the world of the Hundred Isles.
Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic was a revelation to me, a dark, strange brew of Lovecraftian cosmic horror set in a rotting mansion deep in the Mexican jungle. That novel, filled with deadly family secrets, sentient mold, and dread, introduced me to a writer of rare skill, with an amazing gift for thrilling storytelling and vibrant language.
While most of Mexican Gothic was set in that house of horrors, the beginning took place in glittering Mexico City. Moreno-Garcia’s descriptions made me want to read more set in that place, which happily brings me to Certain Dark Things. It is, indeed, set completely within the walls of Mexico City.
Yes, I said walls. In the alternative history of Certain Dark Things, Mexico City is a walled city-state, and perhaps more importantly to the story, a supposed vampire-free zone. Vampires have existed throughout history, and have been known to humans for years. They are shunned and feared in some places, and have formed an uneasy alliance in others. Moreno-Garcia has done some complex world-building here, with ten different, distinct species of vampires, each with their own history, strengths, and weaknesses.
If that last sentence makes this novel sound dry, CertainDark Things is anything but. Moreno-Garcia calls it neon noire, and that description is apt. This is a gritty no-holds-barred crime novel ripe with cops, gangsters, and drug lords, but many of the players happen to be vampires. Atl, a young female vampire of Aztec descent is hiding out in Mexico City, on the run from ruthless narco vampires and trying to get to South America. She’s tough and formidable, beholden only to her dog, a genetically enhanced doberman. That is, until she develops uneasy, unwanted feelings for Domingo, a street kid who falls under her sway.
Certain Dark Things is violent, bloody, relentless, and completely satisfying. Atl is a wonderful protagonist. I found myself rooting for her, even when things seemed hopeless. I love the passion and inventiveness Moreno-Garcia brings to her writing. She’s undoubtably having a great time writing this world to life, and it shows. This is a novel with real bite.
This is a reissue of a novel first published in 2016, and this new edition will be released September 7th, 2021. Certain Dark Things is very much worthy of pre-order.
I love horror movies. I was in my teens for the grindhouse movies of the 70s, in my twenties for the slashers of the 80s. My friends and I worked our way methodically through the horror section of our local indy video rental store (and a special shoutout to the late, lamented B-Ware Video in Lakewood, Ohio, an entire store devoted to horror, horror adjacent, and just plain weird videos). All of this is to say that I feel like I know at least a little bit about slasher films—at least I thought I did, before reading My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones. I was wrong.
Jade Daniels is the town outcast of the tiny mountain lake town of Proofrock. She exists on the margins—the margins of her abusive family, the margins of her high school, the margins of life. The only thing keeping her from disappearing completely, and it’s touch and go, is her love, no, her obsession, with slasher films. Jade looks at life, at everything, through the prism of her beloved slashers. She believes fervently in the hard and fast rules they are guided by, in the life lessons they teach. She clings to them like a lifeline. The trope of The Final Girl is real to her.
Proofrock, and the lake it’s built around, Indian Lake, has seen more than its share of tragedy and murder, both depressingly human and supernatural. So it’s not a far stretch for Jade to see a new slasher cycle playing out in real time, and to seek a final girl (it can’t be her, she’s not worthy) she can impart her wisdom to, in the hopes of stopping the mayhem to come. Jones makes Proofrock, Indian Lake, and the people who live there feel achingly real. It feels lived in. We get to know them all, so that when bad things start to happen, it hits hard.
Where Jones truly excels, however, is in Jade’s voice. She narrates the story in a breathless, compulsively readable stream of description, snark, and above all slasher history. Everything that happens, every scene, has an antecedent in the slashers, and Jade is happy to expound at length. Her knowledge (Jone’s knowledge) is encyclopedic and endlessly entertaining. With Jade, Jones has created one of my favorite characters of all time. She uses slasher films as a way to keep the world at arm’s length, as armor against being hurt. The thing is, she’s also using it to hide. Behind the slashers, behind the dyed hair, combat boots, petty crime, and universal fuck you to the world, is, I think, a girl yearning for love and acceptance. She wants to belong, just on her terms. Jade is so achingly real, and so heartbreaking, that My Heart Is a Chainsaw is sometimes painful to read, but the story is so compelling that you won’t be able to put it down. The final quarter of the novel moves with unrelenting fury toward an ending so surprising, yet so perfectly right, that I can’t imagine it ending any other way.
One other thing. For the one teacher Jade seems to actually like, her history teacher, she has written a series of papers the define and explain slasher films, a real history of the genre as seen through her eyes. Those treatises are sprinkled throughout My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and I found myself looking forward to each one. Through them, we get a crash course in slashers, but perhaps more importantly, we get to know Jade better.
I only discovered Jones a couple of years ago, but he’s quickly become one of my favorite horror writers. Hell, one of my favorite writers, period. After Mongrels, The Only Good Indians, and now My Heart Is a Chainsaw, he has confirmed his position as one of the very best in the field. Jones writes with heart, passion, and a brutal lyricality of language and voice that is always distinct, and always just right for the story he’s telling. My Heart Is a Chainsaw debuts on August 31, 2021. Pre-order it today, and be prepared to fall in love with Jade.
Mark Watney, the hero of Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, famously said that the only way he could save himself from being marooned on Mars was too, “science the shit out of the problem.” The Martian, a vastly entertaining novel, was in many ways a throwback to classic, golden age science fiction, when SF was often written by actual scientists, and the heroes wore lab coats. Weir never glossed over the science Watney used—he showed his work, in detail, without it ever being boring. He made the science exciting.
Mark Watney has nothing on Ryland Grace, the hero of Weir’s new novel, Project Hail Mary.
Grace wakes up on a spaceship next to two long-dead crew mates, his only companions the robotic arms that have been caring for him. He doesn’t know who he is, doesn’t even know his own name, but he does know science. As he explores the ship, his memories begin to slowly trickle in as flashbacks that show him, and the reader, how he got to where he is—on a desperate, hail mary mission to save humanity, to save the planet Earth itself.
Weir intercuts between what’s happening on the ship and the flashback scenes, until the two eventually come together. Even more than with The Martian, Project Hail Mary is packed wall to wall with science and math, but if that sounds boring to you, then you don’t know Weir. This novel is a rollicking thrill ride, and the science only adds to the excitement. It never feels as if Weir is showing off. Everything is integral to the plot and moves the story forward at a propulsive rate.
Okay, here’s the thing. What I’ve described to you so far is basically the first third of the novel, because at about that point Weir throws us a planet-sized curveball. Project Hail Mary becomes a very different, and even better, story. Nope, I’m not going to give it away—that would be a disservice to you as a reader. Suffice to say that while the path it takes is surely unexpected, the novel becomes deeper, more meaningful. Weir hits surprisingly emotional notes, and nice touches of humor as well, while still ratcheting up the tension. He’s a natural storyteller.
Project Hail Mary was released on May 4th, and this is one you should not miss. Much like The Martian, it’s going to make a helluva movie.
It’s been 12 years, and as many books, and now we’ve come to this—King Bullet, the final novel in Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim saga. I approached this with excitement, because hey, it’s a new Sandman Slim novel, but also trepidation and a tinge of sadness, because hey, it’s the last Sandman Slim novel. Bittersweet mixed emotions, I guess I’m saying.
If like me you’ve been along for the ride from the very beginning, and a lot of you have, then you’ll be happy to know that the whole gang’s here for this one. Stark of course, but also Candy, Alessa, Janet, Fuck Hollywood, Kasabian, Allegra, Carlos, Brigitte, Samael and Mr. Muninn. Even Mustang Sally and Flicker are there to lend a helping hand. Old friends who are no longer alive, particularly Alice and Vidocq, are very much missed. Kadrey excels at creating characters who feel real, whether human or not.
Like every novel in the series, the plot of King Bullet moves like a freight train. L.A. is on fire, on the verge of collapsing, consumed by an epidemic turning the locals to raving maniacs and worse (I now know what the word autophagia means. Kinda wish I didn’t.). People are afraid to go out, and masked up when they do. Sound familiar? On top of that, there’s a new gang in town reeking havoc, the Shoggots, and their leader, the mysterious King Bullet, may be more than Stark can handle. Naturally, though, the odds don’t matter when Stark’s friends, and his city, are threatened, so he dives head first into the chaos, na’at and black blade in hand. Kadrey’s villains are always over the top, and King Bullet is one of his best, a nihilistic, supernatural killer with a score to settle with Stark.
There’s wall to wall action here, but Kadrey also gives the novel room to breathe, allowing Stark moments of much needed introspection. Caught between his new love for Janet and his still smoldering love for Candy, Stark is at a crossroads. He spends much of the novel surrounded by his friends, but in many ways he’s never been more alone. King Bullet and the epidemic would almost be a welcome distraction if only they weren’t threatening everything he cares about in the world.
After reading the last Sandman Slim novel, Ballistic Kiss, my son and I made a bet about where Stark and another character would be at the end of the series. I’m not saying what the two of us thought, but I am saying that I now owe him $20.
King Bullet releases on August 17, 2021. If you’re already a fan, you know the drill…pre-order it now. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, time to get reading. You have some catching up to do.
If Cassandra Khaw’s novel The All-Consuming World was a straightforward science fiction novel, that would be exciting enough. The plot—the ragtag, damaged remnants of a group or women mercenaries, once feared throughout the universe, reunite to save one of their members who may still be alive after their last, failed mission decades before—has all the hallmarks of a classic space opera, and is as satisfying as can be.
As it turns out, however, Khaw has so much more up her immensely talented sleeve, because this is one of the most challenging, exhilarating, and downright breathtaking works of science fiction I’ve read in a long time. She uses language like no one else. I’ve been trying to think of apt comparisons, and the closest I’ve come is Tamsyn Muir, author of the Locked Tomb Trilogy, and maybe Felix C. Gotschalk, a science fiction writer from the 1970s, but Khaw is very much doing her own thing. She wields words like some kind of mad wizard—dense, spiralling across paragraphs, always surprising. Khaw writes violence and action set pieces with an anarchic, joyful abandon, and bruising emotional scenes with a devastating tenderness.
If Khaw’s language elevates The All-Consuming World, her ideas send it into the stratosphere. Immortality through cloning. Extreme, extravagant body modification, both hardware and software. Ruthless, highly evolved AI. Sentient spaceships, even a sentient planet. Human consciousness running roughshod through computer networks. Khaw takes ideas that other authors may build entire novels around, and sprays them across every page, like shot from a shotgun.
Khaw asks profound questions about what, exactly, is a human being, and when is one no longer truly human. She explores complex webs of gender and sexual orientation with a deft hand and an unflinching eye. And at the center of it all, woven into the fabric of memory, trauma, heroics and betrayal, The All-Consuming World is a love story. Actually, because love is complicated and painful, make that several love stories.
The All-Consuming World will be released on August 17, 2021. Pre-order it now, and prepare yourself for one hell of a ride.
Like a lot of readers, I’m sure, I have a list of go-to authors. These are writers whose new books always zoom to the top of my TBR pile, and whose backlists I’m continually exploring. For me, that means I know for a fact that I will, at a bare minimum, be entertained by what they write, and more likely I will treasure that book and my friends won’t be able to shut me up about it. These are writers who consistently hit triples, and usually hit home runs. Most importantly, writers who have somehow managed to burrow into my brainmeat and figure out exactly what it takes to make my reading pleasure center light up like a Christmas tree.
Chuck Wendig is one of those authors. The guy can write science fiction, dark supernatural thrillers, and post-apocalyptic fiction, all of it breathtakingly good.
With The Book of Accidents, Wendig takes his first stab at straight-up horror, and not surprisingly, he knocks it clean out of the park and into the parking lot.
The Book of Accidents is set in Pennsylvania coal country. Nate and Maddie Graves and their teenage son, Oliver, have moved into the old house where Nate grew up with his abusive father. They’re looking for a fresh start, but instead they find themselves sucked into an ancient battle between good and evil, one with consequences for not only their family, but maybe for the entire world. There’s a monstrous serial killer involved, one who planned to kill 99 little girls, and even more monstrous entities. There are other versions of earth in play, the walls between those realities grown porous. There are other versions of Nate and Maddie and Oliver, as well.
Wendig is keeping a lot of balls in the air here, with a dozen major characters—in fact, multiple versions of some of those characters. And one of the things that makes this novel so special, that makes Wendig such a special writer, is that each of those characters feel real, with lived-in, authentic lives. The Graves family, in particular, is beautifully written. Each of them has something special about them, something supernatural, but those things make them more human, not less. They’ve all experienced devastating trauma, even before the events of the novel, and that trauma also rings with authenticity. Despite everything they’ve been through, and everything they’re going through, this is a family united by love, against all considerable odds.
That realness extends to all the other characters. Most are flawed to greater or lesser extent, and some manage to be heroic despite those flaws. The villains, and make no mistake there is some true, harrowing evil in this book, are never cardboard cutouts. They have backstories, and past trauma of their own. I think that’s one of the themes of The Book of Accidents—that evil creates more evil, and trauma creates more trauma, and it takes effort and heart and love to break that cycle. Love, particularly the familial kind, can be every bit as powerful as evil.
The opening chapters of The Book of Accidents introduce several different story threads, and in lesser hands those threads could have easily tangled. Luckily, Wendig is a master weaver. By the closing moments of the novel, all those threads have been woven together into a tight, cohesive whole. This novel is terrifying and heartbreaking in equal measure, but there is also reason for hope.
One last thing I’d like to talk about here is pacing. Now go with me here—did you ever notice how as the movie Goodfellas hurtles towards the ending, Scorsese changes the pacing. The scenes are shorter, faster, relentless, never allowing the viewer to catch their breath. Wendig does something similar here. Toward the end of the novel, the chapters are shorter. The pacing, always clipping along nicely, speeds up like a runaway mine car, moving at breakneck speed, inexorable. Wendig torques the tension up to an unimaginable degree.
Okay, one last, last thing. Wendig sprinkles Easter eggs, little callouts to various movies, books, and authors, throughout the novel. Paul Tremblay, another go-to author of mine, gets a couple.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones was my favorite horror novel of 2020. My guess is that, when I’m doing this year’s best-of list, The Book of Accidents will occupy that perch for 2021.
The Book of Accidents is available for preorder now, and releases July 20, 2021. Do not miss this one.
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!