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.
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 bones of the story are deceptively simple—a fast-acting, rabies-like virus is rampaging through Massachusetts, infecting mammals, humans included, at a terrifying rate. The main characters are two women, a pediatrician and her extremely pregnant friend. The friend has been bitten by an infected man, and may be infected herself. We follow the two of them over the course of just a few frantic hours as they navigate the chaos of a town overwhelmed by a catastrophic emergency.
What Tremblay does with this setup is breathtaking. Imagine being aboard a runaway freight train heading for a cliff, knowing with painful certainty that the end is coming but being powerless to stop it, knowing that people we have come to know are on that train and we can’t save them. That is what reading Survivor Song is like. The novel starts at breakneck speed and then accelerates, and keeps accelerating, twisting you up tighter and tighter. By the end of the book I felt wrung out, both physically and emotionally.
Given the thrill ride he’s built here, Tremblay doesn’t sacrifice nuance, he doesn’t sacrifice fully-realized, characters that you feel deeply for. There are meditations on the nature of friendship that are surprising in their depth. And even though the book deals with an event that is effecting a lot of people, it is sometimes startlingly intimate.
The science here is terrifying in its believability. With the current state of the world, Survivor Song feels not just plausible, but prescient. In that way it reminded me of Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, one of my favorite reads of 2019. This novel could bookend that one.
One final thing. There is a chapter in Survivor Song, an interlude. Without giving anything away, I think this chapter features some of the finest writing Tremblay has done—it reaches a sustained emotional resonance, a horrible inevitability, that will rip your heart out. It just about broke me.
My son ( a high school English teacher) and I share a love, maybe even an obsession, for genre fiction—horror, fantasy, science fiction. This love extends to movies as well as books, and not always the highest quality of movies. There’s a lot to appreciate in even the cheesiest of 70s and 80s slasher movies and all the tropes associated with them. Movies like Scream and Cabin In the Woods got a lot of mileage out of unkillable killers, horny teenagers, and of course, final girls.
Which brings us to this indie gem of a poetry book, I Am Not Your Final Girl. I recently turned 60, and my son gave me this slim, unassuming volume as a perfect birthday gift. Holland does something amazing here. She takes what in other hands could have been a whacky idea—write a series of poems celebrating the final girls (and some who didn’t make it) of movies from throughout history—and invests the poems with so much heart, pain, triumph, tragedy, inspiration, and most of all humanity, that I read through it twice in the same evening.
Each poem is dedicated to a specific final girl, from a specific movie. If you’re imaging that the poems are just retellings of the movies, think again. Holland uses the characters for jumping off points, for heartfelt meditations on sexuality, feminism, violence, sorrow and redemption. Some of the poems are triumphant, some overwhelmingly sad. Many of them are revelations. Holland demands new evaluations of even the slashiest of slasher movies.
Whether you’re a fan of slasher films or not, and you’ll probably get even more out of it if you are, get yourself a copy of I Am Not Your Final Girl. Do it for yourself. Do it for Laurie Strode.
Friends, family members, and probably a good number of perfect strangers, know that I read a lot, and their first question (actually their second question, the first is usually what are you reading now?) tends to be who’s your favorite author? My answer to that question has changed over the years, but nowadays, more often than not, I say Joe Lansdale.
Lansdale writes a little bit (actually a lot) of everything—horror, crime fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, you name it. He does it all well, and with the Hap & Leonard books, he’s writing the most consistently entertaining ongoing series currently in existence.
All of this is to say that I was tickled ten shades of pink to be able to read Big Lizard, a new novel he wrote with his son Keith. Big Lizard is available for pre-order now (https://subterraneanpress.com/big-lizard) from Subterranean Press, and will be published in October. Jump on the bandwagon now, kids, this one’s a keeper! If you’ve read Lansdale’s Drive-In novels, he’s playing in the same sandbox here. Much like those novels, this is balls to the wall, gonzo storytelling at its finest. It features a rag-tag group of heroes, including an overweight security guard, a talking chicken with an eye patch, and a teenage tech genius who lives in an abandoned Noah’s Ark replica. Oh yeah, the security guard metamorphosizes into the Big Lizard of the title. There’s a deadly supernatural ritual that goes horribly wrong, and some interdimensional travel into the literal fires of hell. Also, lots of fried chicken and biscuits.
Did I mention the giant, homicidal chicken? There’s a giant, homicidal chicken, who turns out to be Big Lizard’s nemesis. Because, what Big Lizard also is, is a super hero origin story, and every super hero needs a nemesis. The Lansdale team delivers in every way here. Big Lizard is laugh-out-loud funny, profane, and brimming with cartoony violence. It’s also brimming with startlingly original language. Both men have a gift for describing what should be indescribable.
Do yourself a favor, and pre-order this novel now. You’ll be glad you did.
I read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers a couple of years ago. I went in blind, knowing only that it generally fell into the category of space opera, and that it had good word of mouth. That good word of mouth didn’t begin to prepare me for the delights of this novel. Chambers gave me a fully realized spacefaring future, then layered in quirky, fully realized characters, highly developed yet believable tech, a captivating story, and one more thing that catapulted it into the stratosphere: the best, most humane AI I have ever read.
As it turned out, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was actually the first in the Wayfarer series. A Closed and Common Orbit, the second book in the series, is, if anything, even better. It follows a couple of characters from the first novel as they make their way through an adventure planet side, while simultaneously taking us through the harrowing childhood of one of those characters.
Chambers is firing on all cylinders here. The environments are richer and more complex, the stakes higher, the space opera aspects of the story a ridiculous amount of fun. We are introduced to a wider, more varied assortment of alien civilizations, and each one is fully realized.
The journey Chambers began with AI in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is amplified here. She writes AI characters that are just as real, and just as humane, as the humans and alien lifeforms that populate the novel. A Closed and Common Orbit has a lot to say about the nature of sentience, about what makes someone who they are. Chambers writes with warmth and confidence, but also with a questioning intelligence, about family structures, friendships, and gender roles. All this, and a rollicking nail-biter of a story.
In case it’s not obvious, I loved this novel! The third book in the series, a stand-alone called Record of a Spaceborn Few, is already on my TBR stack.
Grady Hendrix is the author of several well-received horror/comedy hybrid novels, including My Best Friend’s Exorcism, We Sold Our Souls, and the recent The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. I first got to know him through Paperbacks from Hell, his deep dive into the glorious world of 70s and 80s paperback horror fiction, for which we share a profound love.
I have a confession, which is that, despite having been told for years that Hendrix is the real deal, Horrorstör is the first of his novels I’ve read. I’ve had it on my TBR stack for a while, and my son kept telling me how much I would love it, but there are just so many damn books in the world, and so little time. Finally, I read that Horrorstör had been optioned for a movie, so I pulled the trigger. I’m so glad I did!
Horrorstör takes place over the course of one night in an Orsk Furniture Superstore in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Orsk is patterned after Ikea, right down to the individual room settings and the nearly pathological design of the path through the store. The morning shift has been arriving to unexplained nightly damage—broken furniture, smashed glasswork, disruptions in the pristine store layout. In order to solve this riddle and get the store back on track, three store employees (and two other employees with their own agenda) stay the night to discover just what’s going on.
The novel begins as a relatively light-hearted romp. Hendrix has an easy way with humor, as he allows it to occur naturally from the characters we meet, and the situations they find themselves in. It’s not forced. He takes his time, letting us get to know, and mostly like, these people. They’re three dimensional, not stock, cardboard characters. Then darkness, and madness, descends, and let me tell you, Hendrix can write the hell out of all-out horror. Once he starts twisting the screws, shit gets real. He has a masterful sense of pacing as he puts these characters I’ve come to identify with through the wringer. This is scary stuff.
That’s the basic set-up, but it’s not what makes this such a memorable novel. See, Hendrix is either one helluva researcher, or he’s spent a lot of time in Ikea, because his attention to detail, his sense of place, the specificity he brings to the story, is what puts this book over the top. Horrorstör looks and feels like an Ikea catalog, from the shape of the book, to the illustrations that pepper the pages and become increasingly macabre the deeper you delve. He puts you in the store with such a solid, concrete reality, that when the supernatural mayhem begins twisting and shredding that reality, it’s that much more jarring. Everything about Horrorstör, every little detail in book design, adds a richness to the novel.
On a personal note, when I say Hendrix gets the details right, that extends to the Cleveland setting. As a Cleveland native and fan, I get annoyed when writers are sloppy about describing my city. Hendrix is dead on. I could hop in my car and drive to the Orsk store.
Horrorstör was published in 2014, and I’m sorry it took me this long to read it. Get it now, before the movie comes out, and be prepared to be thoroughly frightened, and thoroughly entertained.
I first discovered Charlie Jane Anders through her work as editor-in-chief of io9.com, one of my favorite websites. I found her to be at all times smart, thoughtful and passionate. When I started reading her short fiction, all three of those descriptors also applied there (her story “6 Months, 3 Days” won a Hugo), with the addition of an unfettered imagination. I loved Ander’s first novel, All the Birds in the Sky. Many others did, as well—it won a Nebula, and was a Hugo finalist.
I think her new novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, is even better.
The novel is set on a planet called January, where the straggling remnants of a generation ship from Earth landed long ago. January is a tidally locked world, with a permanent day side and night side. Humans live in two ancient, decaying, politically-at-odds cities, both clinging desperately to the only habitable area along the sliver of twilight between day and night. Outside the cities are dangers untold, including a blood-thirsty race of monsters that may not be what they seem.
Anders excels at world-building and creating fully realized, believable characters. Each city has a history, a complex web of politics and culture that instantly drew me in. The main human characters are equally complex and compelling, their relationships and friendships in constant flux, their joys, heartbreaks, loves, and terrors fascinating to follow. I felt for, and at times rooted for, each of them in turn. There’s palace intrigue, death-defying action, big set pieces, and small, achingly real moments.
Notice I said the main human characters. Where I think The City in the Middle of the Night really ignites, where I think it just may become a new classic, is in its description of an alien race that shares the planet. Talk about world-building. This is world-building on a grand scale that brought to mind, for me at least, Dune, or perhaps The Left Hand of Darkness. Anders treats us to an entire, densely thought-out, thoroughly alien civilization, describing, in an organic way, their technology, their culture, their art forms.
This is bravura writing, and I can’t wait to see where Anders takes us next. Which, speaking of, The City in the Middle of the Night ends on an open-ended note that makes me hope she returns to January sometime in the future.
My coming of age, reading wise, happened throughout the 70s. That’s when I went from discovering The Martian Chronicles and I, Robot during the same week in my junior high library to becoming the hardcore science fiction and fantasy fan I’ve been ever since. A lot of the authors responsible for my lifelong journey are relatively household names, at least for folks who read within the genre. I’m thinking about golden age writers like Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Sturgeon, Bester, Farmer, and Pohl (to name just a few off the top of my head). And the “new wave” writers who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s, like Ellison, Silverberg, Malzberg, Dick, Russ, and Tiptree, Jr.
But a couple of the authors that really set my imagination ablaze, that solidified my love for the genre, don’t get talked about much these days. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t really matter. I’m sure someone will read these two names and say, “Hey, that’s my favorite writer!” That would make me ridiculously happy, because these are authors I truly love.
R.A. LAFFERTY Neil Gaiman once said that, for a while at least, Lafferty was the best short story writer in the world. I couldn’t agree more. His stories, many of which I read as I worked my way through the Orbit anthology series, are whimsically strange, wonderfully quirky, and all-together incandescent. I can tell a Lafferty story, even one I haven’t read before, within one or two sentences. He takes complex ideas, outrageous but humane characters, and startlingly original language, and whips it all together into something that should never work, but always does. He also wrote a bunch of excellent science fiction novels, some historical novels, and one of the finest books about Native American life I’ve ever read, Okla Hannali. But it’s his short stories—shaggy dog folk tales, darkly comic, undefinable—that should be remembered and celebrated.
TOM REAMY If R.A. Lafferty isn’t as well know as he should be, Tom Reamy really isn’t as well known as he should be. Like many other great writers, Reamy started out in fandom, including editing a well-regarded fanzine that made the final Hugo ballot more than once. When he started writing fiction, the stories came fast and excellent—he sold his first two on the same day. Altogether, Reamy wrote just thirteen stories and one novel. The stories—Twilla, San Diego Lightfoot Sue, The Detweiler Boy, Beyond the Cleft, and the others—are darkly imaginative, the literary stepchildren of Harlan Ellison by way of Ray Bradbury. Speaking of Bradbury, Reamy’s debut novel, Blind Voices, concerns a sinister traveling circus traveling through 1920s rural Kansas. It’s a richly imagined work that pairs nicely with Something Wicked This Way Comes. Sadly, Reamy died from a heart attack at just 42, which at least partly explains why more folks don’t know about him. Search his stories out, he’s that good.
Because I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and because a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers struggle to contain their imaginations to just one volume of work, I have read, and continue to read, quite a few book series. It could be worse, actually. I don’t read much epic, heroic fantasy, where series often seem to run into double digits.
And, for the sake of this post, I’m only going to mention series that are on-going, with new books still to come. If not, this would be a very different list, with trilogies like The Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials, and series like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels.
In keeping with this narrow focus, here are a few of the on-going book series I love. In some cases, I’m all caught up and waiting impatiently for the next book. For some of these, I’ve started the series recently and have a wonderful backlog to work my way through.
WAYWARD CHILDREN, OCTOBER DAYE and INCRYPTID, all by SEANAN MCGUIRE The only thing more impressive than McGuire’s prolificness (Is that a word? If not, I’m going with it anyway.) is her talent. Her Wayward Children novellas have redefined portal fantasy. The story of what happens to children when they come back from fantasy worlds, each book is a perfect gem of lyrical storytelling, unfettered imagination, and sometimes heartbreak. There are currently five books in the series, with a new one coming this year. The October Daye novels are urban fantasy at its best, set in a beautifully realized San Francisco, at the intersection between the human and fairy worlds. October herself is a private investigator with one foot in each camp. I’ve read the first four of the twelve novels so far published, and I can’t wait to read more. The InCryptid novels are also urban fantasy, and concern a family of cryptozoologists, who for generations have been trained to keep the peace between humans and cryptids, the mythological creatures who live secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, among us. I recently read the very first novel in the series, Discount Armageddon, so I have at least four more to go to get caught up.
HAP AND LEONARD by JOE LANSDALE Hap and Leonard are best friends and running buddies. They’re not exactly criminals, although they sometimes stomp all over the line, and they’re not exactly lawmen, although they work as private investigators in later novels. Through twelve novels, several novellas and a bunch of short stories, Hap and Leonard cruise the backroads of East Texas, getting into scrapes and raising hell. The books are violent, scatalogical, and uproariously funny as long as you’re not easily offended. There are also three seasons of an excellent Hap and Leonard TV series now available on Netflix.
SANDMAN SLIM by RICHARD KADREY Sandman Slim is part human, part demon, and all badass. This series is set in a Los Angeles alive with all manner of monsters, angels and demons, with detours to heaven, hell, and all points in between. Kadrey has a real gift for magic and mayhem, and he backs it up with a deep knowledge of religious mythology. Stark (Sandman Slim) is a deeply flawed and altogether original character, and his cast of supporting characters are all equally engaging. The next Sandman Slim novel debuts this year.
These are just a few of the series that make me happy. You really can’t go wrong with any of them!
I first became aware of Cassandra Khaw and her novel The Last Supper Before Ragnarok on Twitter, where folks whose opinion I respect, many of them authors, raved about it. Turns out they were absolutely right!
One thing, though, right off the bat. Reading this novel was a sometimes disorienting experience for me. I felt like I was dropped into the middle of the story, and there were things I had to puzzle out, connections I had to make, character motivations I had to work to understand. As it turns out, that’s on me, because The Last Supper Before Ragnarok is actually the third novel in a trilogy, Gods & Monsters. I’m generally (okay, always) a stickler for reading a series in order, so I have no idea how I missed this. I blame my Kindle, where I tend to skip over the stuff I’d probably notice on a book cover.
Also as it turns out, it didn’t really matter, because I loved this book. What’s it about? Glad you asked! A ragtag group—a quasi-immortal chef who keeps dying but can’t stay dead, a god killer, a snake woman assassin, and a prophet, along with the entire internet personified as a young woman—road trip in search of the father gods, the ancient deities, in order to stop ragnarok. Apocalyptic mayhem, and several meals, ensue.
The real star here is Khaw’s prose. Thrilling, muscular, violent and anarchic, her language shimmers and shouts. There are laugh-out-loud moments of humor that punctuate the propulsive plot, and quietly heartbreaking moments as well. The Last Supper Before Ragnarok travels some of the same ground as Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece American Gods, but it definitely does not suffer in comparison. This novel could not be different in outcome or execution. Khaw is a writer of uncompromising skill, and she’s distilling real magic here.
I wish I had read this trilogy in correct order, but make no mistake, the first two novels will be heading to the top of my TBR pile.
There are a lot of novels I’ve discovered, either by accident at the suggestion of others, that I think deserve a wider audience. Give these books a read, and give them some love!
LIVES OF THE MONSTER DOGS by Kirsten Bakis I found a used paperback copy of this in a little bookstore in Greenwich Village, and was intrigued enough by the cover to take it home. Best decision ever. As it turned out, this was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, so it’s not exactly unknown, but I never hear it mentioned. Isolated deep in a forest compound, a cruel but brilliant surgeon creates a race of monster dogs. Through Island of Dr. Moreau style experimentation, surgical butchery, and genetic engineering, the dogs gain human intelligence, the ability to speak and walk on their hind legs, even prosthetic hands. When the dogs overthrow their masters and make their way to New York City, they are at first the talk of the town. And then they are not. This entire novel is steeped in an at times unbearable melancholy, yet I couldn’t put it down. A true original.
THE DOLPHIN PEOPLE by Torsten Krol A group of Germans near the end of World War II, enroute to a remote jungle outpost, crash land in the Amazon jungle and are taken in by a stone-age tribe. Whatever you think happens next based on that beginning, I guarantee you are wrong. This is the damnedest fever dream of a book, chock full of hallucinatory passages, nazi proselytizing, and a bravura sequence involving genital surgery that had me shaking my head in wonder. Pure, unadulterated lunacy of the finest kind. Look, just read this book and see for yourself.
TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan The very first piece of fiction by Margo Lanagan that I read was the short story “Singing My Sister Down“. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this and go find it online, I’ll be here when you get back. It’s a revelation. Lanagan has several collections of short stories, all of them excellent. Her novel The Brides of Rollrock Island is a stunning take on the selkie myth. But I digress. Tender Morsels tells the story of a young woman (a girl, really) who escapes her brutal life in a small village by living in her own personal fantasy world, where evil can’t reach her. That’s the bare bones, but it doesn’t come close to describing the wonders Lanagan achieves here. She writes about tough subjects like rape, abortion, and even quasi-beastiality in the heightened, evocative language of fairytales, walking a tightrope I think few authors could pull off. Lanagan is one of our very best writers, and Tender Morsels is one of my favorite novels ever.
DR. RAT by Willaim Kotzwinkle In some circles, William Kotzwinkle may be best known as the author of the E.T. novelization. For others, it’s his novel The Fan Man, or his short story collection Elephant Bangs Train. Not me. For my money, his best work, his crowning glory, is the batshit crazy Dr. Rat, the story of the world-wide uprising of animals against humans, narrated by an insane laboratory rat. Part sustained howl against animal experimentation and the subjugation of animals by people, part war story as whales, elephants, and all the creatures of the wild go on the attack, and all of it filtered through Dr. Rat’s extraordinarily skewed intelligence. One of the best examples of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever read. There are moments here where Kotzwinkle’s language is positively incandescent.
Seanan McGuire is so prolific, and so good, that it’s downright intimidating. She writes fantasy, science fiction, and horror (and for all I know tractor manuals) with equal excellence, under both her name and Mira Grant. Her fantasy work is audaciously imaginative, her science fiction grounded in solid, believable science, and her horror terrifying.
McGuire has several ongoing series (did I mention she’s prolific?), all of them excellent. The October Daye novels are urban fantasy at its best, set in a San Francisco where the lands of Fairy and humans intersect in exciting and delightful ways. The Wayward Children books are, in my opinion, the new yardstick against which all portal fantasies will be judged. And the InCryptid novels, of which Discount Armageddon is the first, are a whole other species of urban fantasy.
Discount Armageddon introduces us to Verity Price and her family of cryptozoologists, who for generations have been trained to keep the peace between humans and cryptids, the mythological creatures (some would say monsters) who live secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, among us. Verity is a fascinating badass—traveling the rooftops of New York City in her strip club cocktail waitress uniform, bristling with weapons, sarcasm always at the ready. Did I mention that in addition to monster protecting/fighting, Verity is a competitive ballroom dancer?
Meanwhile, New York’s cryptids are disappearing at an alarming rate, and Verity must figure out why. Her life becomes even more complicated when a member of The Covenant of Saint George arrives in town. The life mission of The Covenant is to eradicate every cryptid in existence, which puts him on a collision path with Verity. Mayhem ensues.
This is a fast-paced, exhilarating, and often very funny romp of a novel. The characters, both human and cryptid, are well-developed. We get to meet several other members of the Price family, each of them a badass in their own right. McGuire has done some first-class world building here—always believable, no matter how outlandish. This was the first InCryptid novel that I’ve read. I’m thrilled that there are now a bunch of books in the series, because I’m ready to dive back into this world.
Here are the bare bones: Two female time-traveling agents, Red and Blue, from the opposing sides of a war raging across time and space. They are, each of them, the very best at what they do, traveling up and down a vast complexity of multiple timelines, altering events both mind-bogglingly large and infinitesimally small. They commit the wholesale slaughter of entire armies, then change the path of a single wandering monk. Both are playing an unfathomably long game that stretches across thousands of years.
If you read the above description, you might mistake this novella for rather old-fashioned, hard science fiction, something that could have been written by Heinlein, or maybe Bester.
Nope. This is a different and much wilder animal.
See, as they work the timelines, braiding and unbraiding events, the agents become aware of each other. They begin to leave notes, letters, for each other to find, at first taunting, then showing a certain grudging respect for each other’s skill, and finally, haltingly, love. This Is How You Lose the Time War becomes, at least in part, an epistolary novella, and the most unusual, ravishing love story I’ve ever read.
Take, for instance, those letters I mentioned. Yes, some are written by quill, in longhand. But some take forms by turn whimsical and scarifying—in birds, in seeds, in lava flows, in words that can be ingested into the body.
What sets this novella apart, and one of the reasons I think it was recently nominated for a Hugo, is the language. El-Mohtar and Gladstone are working in rarified air here. The words leap and dance off the page, incandescent, intoxicating, alive. There were moments here where I was a little adrift, not exactly sure what I was reading, and I never gave a damn. I just went with the flow of the story, let it wash over me, and came out the other side.
Whatever I say, I can’t possibly do This Is How You Lose the Time War justice. Just read it, fall in love with Red and Blue, and get lost in the best possible way.
Portal fantasy is a well-loved trope in the literature of the fantastic. The basic idea—a person (or persons), almost always a child, is transported to another world through some sort of magical door, or mirror, or rabbit hole— has been around forever. From the Alice books to The Chronicles of Narnia, from Howl’s Moving Castle to Peter Pan, from The Wizard of Oz to Cat Valente’s Fairyland books, from Percy Jackson to Akata Witch, portal fantasies exist because they provide such a useful entry point, such a sturdy scaffold on which to construct a magical world.
To all of those books, even your most treasured, I say make room. Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, of which Come Tumbling Down is the fifth entry, has set a new standard in portal fantasies. The first novel, Every Heart a Doorway, asked an intriguing question—what happens to all those children when they return from magical worlds. In that novel we were introduced to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, the place those children end up when their parents don’t know how to deal with them, and to several of the kids now trying to make their way through our drab, disappointing world after having left the magic behind.
Through the subsequent novels—Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, In An Absent Dream, and now Come Tumbling Down—we visit some of those worlds and see them through the eyes of characters we’ve come to know and care for. The stories are by turns funny and heartbreaking, whimsical and terrifying, and always deeply humane. McGuire has a true gift for thoughtful inclusion. Even in the most outlandish of circumstances, her wayward children are all fully realized characters, their virtues balanced by flaws, their pain and yearning always deeply felt. McGuire’s world building is rigorously thought out. Even her nonsense worlds make internal sense.
I realize that this review of Come Tumbling Down hasn’t really talked about the novel much. That’s okay. You should know that it 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.
If a very few years McGuire has become one of my favorite writers. She’s nominated for several Hugo awards this year, including one for In An Absent Dream. Her novel Middle Game, also nominated, was one of my favorite books of 2019. McGuire is prolific, and has several series ongoing, but don’t be afraid to dive right in. The Wayward Children series is a great place to start.
Anyone who reads this blog regularly has probably realized that I read mostly genre stuff, specifically science fiction, fantasy and horror. Once in a while, however, I don’t mind a good, taut thriller. Karin Slaughter’s The Last Widow is part thriller, part police procedural, and an altogether fun, sometimes nerve-wracking read.
The Last Widow concerns a terrorist attack, an off-the-grid white supremacist group, kidnapping, and an undercover government agent. Slaughter does a lot of things really well here. She seems to have a deep knowledge of how law enforcement works on both the local and national level, from city police to government agencies including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the CDC. Everything she details rings true. Grudging cooperation, inter-agency squabbles, heroics and bone-deep weariness, it’s all there.
The terrorists’ plan, particularly given the current state of the world, is relevant and terrifyingly plausible.
One final thing I’d like to mention is pacing. Slaughter does something I found extremely effective, almost cinematic. Bear with me as I digress here. Did you ever notice when watching Goodfellas that in the final quarter of the movie, as Henry Hill’s life unravels, the pacing accelerates, the scenes are shorter, choppier? Slaughter’s chapters in The Last Widow start out long and dense, and then get shorter, punchier, almost breathless, toward the end. It works like gangbusters.
Another round of favorite opening lines. Some of these are long, some very short, but all of them not only draw you in and make you want to keep reading, but tell you what kind of book it’s going to be.
THE PRINCESS BRIDE, WILLIAM GOLDMAN:
This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
CARRIE, STEPHEN KING:
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow.
THE MARTIAN, ANDY WEIR:
I’m pretty much fucked.
THE HOBBIT, J.R.R. TOLKIEN:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
GOOD OMENS, TERRY PRATCHETT & NEIL GAIMAN:
It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one. The angel of the Eastern Gate put his wings over his head to shield himself from the first drops.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ARTHUR C. CLARKE:
Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.
A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, DOUGLAS ADAMS:
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, JOHN KENNEDY TOOLE:
A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.
THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS, JOHN CONNELLY
Once upon a time – for that is how all stories should begin – there was a boy who lost his mother.
My son, Eric, is a third year high school English teacher. He wrote this as part of his final capstone project in college, just before starting full time student teaching. I think of this as his teaching manifesto. I asked him if I could share this, and I also asked him to write a followup on how it’s going, now that he’s been teaching for a few years.
Not Just Old, Dead White Men:
Adding Contemporary Young Adult Literature to the Secondary Curriculum
When one thinks of the traditional novels read in high school, many come to mind. From The Scarlet Letter, to The Great Gatsby, to the works of Shakespeare, students across the country are reading texts written before most of their teachers were born. In fact, often before their grandparents were born. While these texts have provided important themes and subject matter, many students have difficulty both comprehending and connecting with these canonical pieces of literature. Because of this, students are not learning to the best of their abilities. They are getting lost and frustrated in the writings of old, dead white men, instead of opening their minds with texts they can identify with. I believe that instead of strictly teaching these canonical texts, one should incorporate young adult fiction into the curriculum.
Young adult literature looks very different from canonical pieces. Many works of classic literature look very similar, with the exception of writers like Joyce and Pynchon, but those writers are not typically read in high school. Young adult literature today, on the other hand, covers an incredibly varied number of formats, and often traffics in genres like science fiction and fantasy. Some contemporary young adult literature has nothing to do with genre at all, not an alien civilization or dystopia in sight, but the difference is, the story is set in today’s world, with characters the students can relate to. And if the characters are not like them, they are at least their contemporaries. Students can easily identify with the novels, and with characters who are like them, more so than with canonical texts. This leads to students actually reading the assigned books, and learning more.
When one reads a canonical piece, the formatting is often essentially the same. There will be a narrator telling their story, set in some historical setting. There is nothing really unique about them. For the most part, these classic texts look the same to today’s student readers. This is in sharp contrast to what is currently popular. As an example, take the novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, written by Ransom Riggs. The novel is built around vintage photos that both catch the eye and propel the story forward. This helps the student identify the plot and themes. As James Serafini says, “Using storyboards to simultaneously display images from a novel allows readers to focus on the images and design features necessary to construct meanings.” This method of writing works to engage the student with the text. A student connects with this kind of writing more than a canonical piece. Samantha Beatty, an eighth grade teacher at Wellston Middle School, in Wellston, Ohio, teaches this novel. She says, “Miss Peregrine’s is a text that is very popular at this age, and is something that my students really enjoy reading. The students connect with the text and its themes, allowing an excellent learning environment.” Because the students connect with the text so well, learning is not only easier, but it makes it fun, and fun translates to reading more. That is one of the most important facets of adding young adult literature to the curriculum.
I mentioned that young adult literature looks very different from canonical texts. Books like The Hunger Games trilogy, or the Divergent series, present dystopian worlds that are clearly offshoots of our own. At the time of this writing, six out of the top ten novels on the NY Times Young Adult Bestseller List use dystopias as their settings. This is not just escapist literature. These novels, and many like them, use the dystopian setting to talk about important things like the corruptive threat of power, the role of media in society, the danger of totalitarianism, even religion. All in a palatable way that should be included in the curriculum. Instead of trying to jam something like The Great Gatsby down student’s throats, a book set in a world few of today’s teenagers can identify with (unless those teenagers live in Beverly Hills), including a novel that students can connect with helps them learn better.
Traditionally, guys like reading novels about guys, and many girls like reading novels about other girls. One issue that canonical texts face is that many of them are strictly geared towards the young men in the classroom. Many of these novels are written by men, about men, and for men. Even when the writers are women, the results are often the same. Very few canonical pieces feature a female character that young girls can look up to, and identify with. Novels like The Scarlet Letter and Jane Eyre feature a female lead character whom many consider to be weak; not exactly a role model for today. Without a lead character to identify with, many young girl students lose touch with the novel. However, young adult literature is a place where many young girls can find a character to look up to, to emulate. Hermione, Katniss, Tris, Eleanor; these characters are all powerful young women who make excellent role models for students, male or female. For teenage readers without good role models at home, they may turn to fiction to find their heroes. This is almost impossible to find in canonical pieces, so incorporating young adult literature into the curriculum fills an important role.
Why should one include young adult literature into the curriculum? Well, at one Chicago high school, “Student’s don’t audibly groan when they whip out their books at the start of English class” (Eldeib). Many students have trouble connecting to canonical texts, either because of the language it is written in, or the content. Young adult literature can change all of that, as many of the themes are the same as canonical texts. Young adult literature “Can be just as complex as classic canon, but can be more accessible and relatable” (Connors). This is an important point made by Connors, as it shows that young adult literature should be fully encompassed inside the realm of traditional texts. It is important that teachers instill upon their students that reading is important. Some believe that “The THAT of teenagers reading is more important than the WHAT” (Gibbons). In this day and age, with computers and iPhones and the internet, with videogames ever more popular, literacy is something that slips through the cracks sometimes. Young adult literature can help increase literacy. Instead of high school students just reading The Scarlet Letter, full of purple prose, moralizing, and what people today would call slut shaming, you can pair it with Jennifer Mathieu’s The Truth about Alice. This novel covers the same themes as The Scarlet Letter, but in a much more accessible way. Reading a young adult literature take on a canonical piece, specifically pairing them together, gets students interested and able to identify with both novels.
Traditionally, resources such as SparkNotes, CliffsNotes, and No-Fear Shakespeare have been the bane of the teacher’s existence. These resources allow students to take the easy way out, and not actually read the texts that are assigned. They just read the shortened version, try to pass the quiz or test, crank out a paper, and forget about it completely. One of the best parts of teaching a contemporary young adult novel is that often a SparkNotes has not been created for it yet. As Connors says, “…Used to promote close reading, which is considered essential for standardized tests”. Because the students do not have anywhere to go for answers but the text, they will be forced, at first through necessity but later through their own wanting, to closely examine the text. Students will have “discussions… [that] are an essential part of what happens within our classrooms nearly every day” (Roberts). Having full class, or small group discussions about the text opens students’ minds to what others think, and makes them really explore the text on their own accord. Using young adult literature truly opens new doors to students.
Some feel that the current Common Core Exemplar Novels are dated. In fact, a survey done by S. Wolk, as quoted by Rybakova, says that, “Of the top ten books read in secondary schools nationwide, Shakespearian plays make up 30%, and of the top texts, one was written by a White woman; all other texts were written by White males. The most recent book that students read out of the canon is To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960”. It has been 56 years since the latest novel was added to the canon. The world has changed by leaps and bounds in that time, and yet, the literature students read in school hasn’t. That is an issue; this is why young adult literature should be supplementing these texts. How are students expected to identify with characters and events that were written decades before they were born? The literature taught in classrooms needs to change with the students, not be held rigidly in place. A changing of the guard needs to happen, at least partly.
I am not saying that canonical pieces should be completely replaced, quite the opposite in fact. Young adult literature should be taught in conjunction with canonical texts. Many canonical pieces are part of the Common Core Exemplar lists, because of their importance as pieces of literature, and their importance to society. However, many young adult texts cover the same themes, in a more modern way that is relatable to teenagers. Look at The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. Catcher is a classic novel, read in junior English classes across the country. Its main theme, of the struggle of growing up, and the loss of innocence, is still extremely applicable to students everywhere. However, it was written in 1951, when the world was very different than it is today. Holden Caulfield’s big loss of innocence in the novel is seeing the F-word written on a wall. However, in this day and age, that word is regularly said even in elementary school playgrounds across the country. The standards are different now than when Catcher was written. For those students who have trouble identifying with Holden Caulfield, there is a very suitable companion novel. The perfect novel to pair with The Catcher in the Rye is Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It takes the very same themes of growing up and the loss of innocence, but makes it more relevant for students. These novels are perfect to pair together, and can be used for close reading, and comparative essays. Pairing these two texts is an excellent way of blending the canon with the new.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most famous novels of all time, has themes that transcend time, and is still exceedingly relevant today. Racism is sadly alive and well; this is one novel that has aged well. But even To Kill a Mockingbird has a contemporary pairing. Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, is about a young African-American teenager on trial for felony murder. The novel focuses on racism in modern day New York. Monster is something that students can really relate to, as the main character is a teenager, instead of a young girl, like Scout. This pairing does an excellent job of combining the canon with the new, and is something that helps students learn.
Another pairing that should be done is the classic 1984, by George Orwell, with the newer Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. The conversation about government surveillance is currently at a fever pitch, with the San Bernardino shooter’s phone unlocking case dominating headlines. 1984 has never been more relevant. At the same time, Little Brother encompasses all that 1984 does, but it does so on the bleeding edge of technology, using words and ideas teenagers live with every day. Using both of these novels, in conjunction with current informative and non-fiction news articles, would make for an excellent unit that once again blends the canon with young adult literature, while keeping it relevant and interesting for students.
Chadwick and Grassie recommend first picking a theme, such as civil disobedience, and then finding both a canonical text and a contemporary piece to accompany it. In the case of civil disobedience, a classic work is Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which is a common text to read. However, instead of just reading that, one could accompany it with any of Cesar Chavez’s speeches. Chavez also offers an ethnic approach. Additionally, one could use any number of speeches from the Black Lives Matter movement, to give civil disobedience even more of a current twist.
As has been said before, the canon should not be replaced; only supplemented. While some students really do enjoy the classics, many others have a difficult time getting into these novels. Fisher outlines several techniques that are very useful in teaching these difficult canon texts. The first is that modeling is a fantastic technique to help students learn.
Students need to hear their teachers thinking aloud about complex texts. These events should provide them an opportunity to witness how another person works to understand the text. Importantly, teachers have to understand what made the text complex if they are going to effectively model aspects of text complexity. For example, if the sentence structure contributed to the complexity, then the teacher needs to model how she works to make sense of those sentences.
By modeling and using think aloud, students observe the proper way to dig into a difficult text. This method is extremely helpful for those students who are visual/auditory learners. Modeling is an excellent way to help students with difficult texts. Another technique is annotating. Fisher says that by color-coding as one underlines or circling words and phrases one doesn’t understand, or which appear to be key points, is very helpful (Fisher). A combination of modeling and annotating is one of the best ways to help students attack a text, and are great methods to use when using a difficult text.
Young adult literature is not always accepted in every classroom. In fact, some believe that young adult literature has absolutely no place in the English classroom. Gibbons says that “… young adult literature lacks sophistication and literary merit. Teachers in our study indicated that YAL does not have the qualities of canonical texts, and, therefore, will not help students to meet the same curricular objectives”. However, young adult literature can have incredibly complex themes that more than hold up to scrutiny, and are more than able to add value to the curriculum. If one were to look at a novel like The Hunger Games, one could dismiss it immediately as young adult escapism that adds nothing to the conversation. However, on closer examination, strong themes like the power of sacrifice, the importance of standing up for what one believes in, and even civil disobedience in the face of a corrupt government are evident. I think even Thoreau would find something of value in Katniss’ struggle. This contemporary novel has very complex themes that more than hold up under a microscope. Young adult literature has a lot of value in the modern day English Language Arts classroom.
Young adult literature has a lot of value in the classroom, if only teachers are willing to work with it. I recognize this would go against the grain in many school districts, and I do not think it could happen all at once. There are definitely challenges involved. For instance, when considering book pairings, one such pairing I thought of brought up something that should be briefly discussed. Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks with Cruddy by Lynda Barry. Both are heartbreaking and harrowing looks at drug addiction. But Cruddy, while one of the most deeply moving novels I have ever read, is also unsparing in its depiction of drug use, sex and violence. Books like this, and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and even His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman because of the treatment of organized religion, would be wonderful to teach, but could also lead to censorship challenges. In my view, the benefits would be more than worth the risk, but I recognize that this is one more thing a teacher must consider.
Baby steps may be necessary. I look forward to taking those baby steps when I become a teacher, and eventually giant steps, because I believe strongly that this is the best way forward to promote literacy and make fiction relevant to kids today. It makes many themes and ideas accessible to students, and for some it can instill a lifelong love of reading. While the canon has become that for a reason, adding young adult literature to it, not replacing it, is the key to an incredible, and incredibly relevant, ILA curriculum.
Not Just Old, Dead, White Men: Revisited
I wrote the above essay when I was a starry eyed, completely inexperienced 22 year old potential teacher, completing one of the last classes before I student-taught. In the five years since then, I’ve taught at two very different schools, and thought a lot about my ideals as a teacher, specifically relating to literature.
Let’s be honest here: Many English teachers get into the profession because they have both a love of literature, and at the very minimum, a desire to work with high schoolers every day, and help them learn and grow for the future. Graduating college, I knew that I was going to struggle to reach at least some kids with literature, kids who had never picked up a book willingly in their lives. Sadly, that was a takeaway from student teaching. My hope was that teaching more contemporary literature would help these kids embrace reading.
The first school I taught at, fresh out of college, was different than most. It was a boarding school for kids with emotional or behavioral disorders. Each of these students, while mostly of above average intelligence, all had issues that prohibited them from learning well at a traditional school. At this school, educationally, I could teach literally whatever I wanted. I was lucky enough, in my time there, to teach both a science fiction literature class, and a horror in literature and film class, two passions of mine. I was given the freedom to adjust my curriculum as I saw fit, and because of this, most of my students were highly engaged readers. This led to many in depth discussions and analyses during class, and ultimately led to them better understanding the meaning behind the content, the reasons why.
I also taught traditional 12th grade English during my time there, but in that case I had to follow the lead of my co-teacher. My co-teacher was using a very traditional curriculum, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, my students seemed a little lost until we were able to make connections to their world, to build bridges between the novels we read and their lives. Students today almost demand more current curriculum, just to engage them. Something I’ve found to be true so far in my few short years of teaching, is that the more students trust you, and enjoy the content you bring to them, the easier it is to get them to listen. However, not all, or even many, schools allow a teacher to teach whatever they please.
My current school has a very interesting background that affects some of my curriculum. It’s a relatively new school that has only been operating for about nine years. It was originally started by families who came from a biblical cult that has since ceased operation. This means that some topics, even as straightforward as evolution, really anything “slightly controversial” (I once got a small talking to for showing a documentary on Auschwitz while reading Night), are almost completely off limits. For example, I originally wanted to teach The Handmaid’s Tale, which I consider a brilliant work of fiction, as well as a novel that is easily relatable to modern society. That did not go over well. Additionally, my girlfriend, who also teaches at the same school, wanted to teach Monster, which is commonly read in ninth grade. That was also denied, for being too real. For my ninth and tenth grade classes, I am required to stick to the essentials. Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, and the like. I try my best to connect these texts to the modern world for my students, but it isn’t always effective. I have a little more freedom with my upper grades, and I can teach just about whatever I want in AP Lit, but it can be a struggle.
This year, after literal begging from my tenth graders, I convinced my principal to allow me to teach something more modern. We read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, as a companion piece to 1984. In short, I was given the chance to test out my college ideals. This unit was done to great success, as the students had a very easy time identifying with the novel, the themes, the characters, everything. It led to some incredible conversations in class. I was lucky I was able to do something that could really show my students off.
Looking back on everything, I still have a very long way to go to really implement what I want to do. I know it depends on the administration, on the location of the school, and so many other things. I want to stress that in many ways this is a wonderful school to work for. Their academic standards are rigorous, and the students post some of the highest test scores in the state. My students in particular are doing very well. What really matters in this day and age is to get students engaged. And so far, in my very early teaching career, teaching literature that is relevant to the students is one of the easier ways to accomplish it.