When I read The House On the Cerulean Sea - the story of an orphanage for unusual children, including the Antichrist who loves 50s rock and roll and helping in the kitchen, and goes by Lucy - prior to its release in March I adored everything about it and couldn't wait until it came out so I could tell people this was the book they needed. Then ... well we all know what happened in March. But now in a worn and wearying August perhaps we need it even more. A gentle and optimistic fantasy which also has no illusions about the cruelty inherent in both humans and the bureaucracies we create, that knows we combat darkness with love, a wicked and knowing sense of humor, bravery in the face of the unkindness of others, and disobedience. I adore this book, I bet you will, too.
Saidiya Hartman's Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is itself a wayward and beautiful experiment in history. Telling the stories of disparate young, black women in the first generations after slavery with both an investigator’s eye for detail and a friend’s deep love. Actresses, servants, day workers, prisoners, straight, gay, and otherwise, victims of systems created to destroy them, victors over those same systems. Exhaustive research into these mostly unsung lives is paired with a writing style that is intimate, poetic, and far from the comfortable role of a mere observer. It has been years since I have read something so original yet confident.
I've read a lot of books. Probably more than you can imagine. Probably more than I can imagine, and certainly more than I can remember. So now I find myself reading many books about books and the people who love them too much. The Library of the Unwritten is one of the most enjoyable. Claire is Hell's librarian, in charge of books that have never been finished - those whose authors have died, moved on, or just given up. One day, as will happen, the hero of one of these unwritten stories escapes at the same time that a portion of the Devil's Bible ends up in heaven. There are misunderstandings, cases of mistaken identity, and eventually, as one might expect, all hell breaks loose. I liked it a lot.
From the author of the deliciously bonkers The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, The Devil and the Dark Water shares little with its predecessor other than shelf space in the mystery section. And a variety of fascinating, if untrustworthy characters. And a plot that will keep you up nights wondering what the hell is going on. And a series of revelations that leave you astonished, in a good way. And wit, humor, a gift for writing in period without making the story stiff or airless, layers of motivations, and…
Ok, I guess they have a great deal in common, while still managing to be wildly different. So when you need that book to get you through a long, cold night, The Devil and The Dark Water is what you want.
This is Shakespeare by Emma Smith, based on her podcast series, is the perfect antidote to dry, overtly esoteric, or old fashioned views of Shakespeare, his work, and the universality of his plays. Smith is engaging and witty, a scholar of and for the modern world in recognizing the audience’s vital role in understanding his work. As she says, “It’s we, and our varied engagement, that make Shakespeare: it’s not nothing that the first collected edition of his plays … addressed itself ‘to the great variety of readers’. Literary criticism is rarely this fun.
Ninth House is YA sensation Leigh Bardugo’s first foray into adult fantasy – although I would argue that the Six of Crows and The Crooked Kingdom were adult fantasy just featuring teen characters. We all know Yale’s famous ‘secret’ societies are filed with the children of the rich and powerful, soon to be rich and powerful themselves. But what if there were things even darker and more magical than fancy keggers, spankings, and networking going on behind those closed doors? What if the powers that be have actual powers that keep them on top and the rest of us...well, you know where? Great, sinister fun from a new master of the genre.
Trouble the Saints is more than just an alternate history, magical realist crime story of Harlem in the 40s. Though for me that would be enough. In the post-Civil War era, some People of Color find themselves gifted, or perhaps cursed, with magic that flows through their hands – each power is different, and some, like the knife skills of Phyllis LeBlanc, are both deadly and useful to the white establishment – both criminal and civil.
Jess Kidd taps into the sly wit, Celtic mystery, repressive Catholicism, and common eccentricity of 1970s Ireland in her brilliant debut, Himself. Handsome Mahony, too charming by half and looking for answers about his long-lost mother disrupts life in the small town of Mulderrig. His quest is both aided and hampered by a cast including ghosts, the local priest, a retired actress, bitter farmers, steady drunks, and any number of women who may be in love with him. The mystery is intriguing, but the true joy is Kidd’s beautiful, exuberant way with language. Be it in the service of dialogue or description, every page is an embarrassment of riches.
In native Oak Parker Kibblesmith everyone’s (or maybe just my) favorite epic villain/god/anti-hero finally has a scribe worthy of his complexity, sense of humor, and chaotic absurdity.
Discovering that being a king is boring, Loki is ready to fight against his fate – forever the evil antagonist to Thor’s protagonist – and create a future for himself that will involve less dying and more hope, he sets out to become a hero. Being Loki, no one is more surprised than he is to find he maybe has a knack of it…
I love movies. Love them. Obsess over them, even. And I am much the same with true crime. Which is probably the reason I was drawn to Pretty as a Picture and its marvelous film editor turned amateur sleuth, main character Marissa Dahl. When, in need of a job and a break from her complicated personal life, she is hired to replace the recently fired editor on a film based on a famous unsolved murder, the passion project of a famously difficult and brilliant director she is on a plane faster than you can say per diem. Marissa couldn't care less who done it - until the crimes of the past start to endanger her future. Or, that's what it would say on the poster...
"When I was seven I found a door. I suspect I should capitalize that word, so you understand I'm not talking about your garden-or common- variety of door..."
Thus begins Alix Harrow's story of books, adventure, love, race, and the real truths behind what seems to be the world. This is the perfect chilly night's read for any adult who hasn't given up on finding the book to open those Doors.
The first volume of Stephen Fry's Greek Myths - Mythos - was my favorite book of last year. At once erudite, gossipy, deeply researched and great fun, it showed us the lofty, yet so often clay-footed, acts of the gods, stories that we are still retelling these thousands of years later. Now the humans have their turn in the spotlight. Heracles and his trials, Odyssesus and his long journey home, Jason and the various and sundry Argonauts and even a few ladies, like speedy Atalanta and beautiful, unlucky Psyche, are just few of the heroes we meet in this witty, affectionate book.
I'm going to keep this short and sweet. Cinder is the first book in The Lunar Chronicles, which retell fairytales as an ongoing science fiction adventure, each featuring a heroic girl. This is not your grandmother's glass slipper story. Cinder is a gifted mechanic and a cyborg with a robotic foot that her cheap and nasty stepmother has been unwilling to pay to replace since she was a child. There is a handsome prince to be rescued, a robot best friend, and intrigue galore. This is YA adventure at its most delightful.
The Game of Kings, the first book in the legendary Lymond Chronicles, is a historical novel filled with characters that read like people from another time and NOT modern characters in fancy dress. It is baroque and strange, rudely comic and yet deeply scholarly, filled with violence and introspection. All of which is also true of the titular character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, who is trickster, victim, victimizer, chameleon, rogue, hero, villain, unforgettable, and sometimes unforgivable. While exciting and filled with adventure, the Chronicles also reward deeper reading. So much so that for decades before the internet, fans would publish journals and monographs with their theories about everything - seriously everything - in these books. Start something epic. Read The Game of Kings.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a radiant writer who isn't afraid of putting the 'ick' in Gothic. Socialite Noemi is called away from the sophistication of 1950s Mexico City when her delicate, recently married cousin Catalina begs her to come to save her from life in husband's family's crumbling mansion in the mountains. Once there she discovers that the relentlessly Anglo Doyles are harboring secrets and scandals that quickly plunge the brave and resolute Noemi into a waking nightmare.
I am not at all embarrassed to report that when I saw some of Ross Thomas’s work has finally been reprinted I became stupidly excited. His work should never have gone out of print in the first place. Twenty-five irreplaceable books that are entertaining, stylish, and powerful. If you are new to Thomas Briarpatch - the story of a man trying to find the murderer of his sister, a homicide detective in Texas – is a perfect place to start. Exciting from the first page, this story of corruption and family features a tough but never callous hero and action that never flags.
Ever since I took D'aulaire's Greek Myths out of the library as a child - and hid it so I wouldn't have to return it in what would be a Hermes approved move - I have been a sucker for these stories. It is no surprise that Stephen Fry feels the same way, albeit it in a more erudite and hilarious way. These retellings of the lives of the arrogant gods and their human lovers, dupes, and victims, are wonderfully funny, delightfully footnoted, and perfect for anyone from a classics scholar to someone who can't tell the difference between Ganymede and Gaea. This beautiful volume would make a perfect gift for someone you think is special. So do what Apollo would do and buy one for you.
When I found out that Katherine Arden, author of one of my favorite adult fantasy series - The Bear and the Nightingale - was writing a young reader series I was both elated and a little nervous. Would the writer who brought Medieval Russia and her folklore to such stunning life be able to translate her gifts to the modern Midwest for a story of kids versus evil scarecrows? My friends, she was. Small Spaces is deliciously creepy, and Ollie, Coco, and Brian are the perfect, messed up heroes to save the day and their fellow students on a field trip that has gone very, very wrong.
Sir Edward Feathers is a Dickensian character unfortunately living in the all too real world. An eighty-year-old widower and retired barrister trying to live in quiet retirement after a tumultuous life lived across the British Empire in its waning days. Sadly, he is about to learn the truth that the past always finds you. Old Filth (short for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) is the story of a man and the bygone era tha created him. From a sporadically idyllic childhood in Malaya, to the humiliations of trying to adjust to the modern world in Dorset, Edward is at once trying and loveable. If you have not read Jane Gardam Old Filth is a marvelous introduction to a writer who deserves a wider audience.
Born on the unluckiest night of the year, Morrigan Crow gets blamed for everything. Literally. Car accident? Morrigan. You fail a math test? Morrigan. Bad weather? Morrigan. Even her family considers her cursed, and are less than sympathetic that the curse is going to end her life on her eleventh birthday. So when eccentric Jupiter North shows up to whisk her away to the magical and secret city of Nevermoor they are more than happy to see her leave. Now, to secure her place in this refuge, Morrigan has to endure dangerous trials, confounding mysteries, and learn to be part of a real family in this adventurous first book in a terrific series.
Full confession - I didn't love The Night Circus. I found it entertaining and enjoyable, but for whatever reason it did not speak to me in those hypnotic, gorgeous, mysterious, and so seductive tones that it does to its adoring fans.
The Starless Sea, does.
Kris Pulaski used to be a metal god – lead guitarist for Durk Wurk, a band on the edge of fame, until one terrible night, and the sell-out for a solo career by their singer, ended her dreams. Now she is a forgotten almost-legend, working nights at a Best Western and trying to figure out a good reason to get out of bed every day. When strange events start occurring surrounding her former band mate’s fare well tour, Kris starts to wonder if the idea of selling your soul for success is more than just an expression in this dark, conspiracy-wracked ode to rock and roll, the dreams of youth, and the nightmare of modern America.
There are eras that are initimately associated with certain cities - Paris in the 20s is perhaps the most famous. Certainly the 60s and 70s belong to New York. Not the elite world of Truman Capote or Studio 54, but the dirty, cheap, glitter and grime world of Patti Smith, Warhol's muses like Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, Max's Kansas City, Shirley Clarke, Caffe Cino, the Fugs, Blondie, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and The Fillmore East. And less enduringly famous but still fabulous creatures like Lance Loud, Hibiscus, The Magic Tramps, and more than I could ever list here. The Downtown Pop Underground is a learned yet still vastly entertaining history of a 'that time in that place' that helped shape the world to come.
Perhaps you have seen Dare Wright's children's books. If you had, you would remember. They are unforgettable, even if you try to forget. The strange, melancholy, and sometimes sexually creepy black and white images of a beautiful, lonely, blonde doll and the two teddy bears that come to live with her have been a touchstone for female artists from Kim Gordon to Anna Sui. Their creator, model turned photographer Wright lived a lonely life as well, suffocated by a mother who infantilized her and kept her dependent, she nonetheless found a way to tell her story, perhaps without even knowing she was doing so. If you are a fan of Grey Gardens, or of the different kinds of voices found in woman's art, The Secret Life of a Lonely Doll is worth your time.
The Turner family has a relationship with monsters. From father Harry who obsesses over horror books and films until a real life nightmare transforms him into a stranger to those he loves most, to mother Margaret who uses her husband's dreams about nightmares to open a haunted house that is still less haunted than her own family, to son Noah who opens the window one night to find that the monstrous creature he has sensed stalking his family is very real, very dangerous, and wants to be friends.
A Cosmology of Monsters has the key feature missing from so much modern horror - stakes. We come to love and care for, if not always like, the Turners and those around them, so when darkness - human or supernatural - overtakes their fragile lives we feel for them, we cringe for them, we mentally want to hide under the covers for them. We care. And ultimately, is there anything more important in any scary story?
Once, when the world was a ball of fire all of its water—every drop that is now on the earth, from the oceans to your coffee cup—hung in the air above it. Then, for one moment the temperature dropped. Just one degree, most likely, but that was all that was needed. And then it rained for a thousand years, and that rain created the world that we know. I think about that all of the time since first reading Barnett's timeless, yet timely, and deeply lyrical history and meditation on that most romantic form of weather, rain.
We live in a post-Tolkien world now, and I am probably a bad bookseller for saying this, but it is wholly appropriate to judge this book by its cover, as well as the tagline – “The Age of Kings is dead… and I have killed it.”
Promise of Blood is the perfect antidote for any fantasy lover who is sick of Chosen Ones, cod-Medieval settings, ridiculous names that don’t sound like names, made up words for things that don’t need them, sexism, wizards in robes, magic swords, and all of the other trappings of classic High Fantasy. It’s just really good.
Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West isn’t a book you read so much as an experience that you live to tell about. Based on a true story, McCarthy’s gore soaked Western is as beautiful as it is hideous, cursed and blessed with one of the most terrifying villains in modern fiction, and is, in the words of Harold Bloom, “the major esthetic achievement of any living American author.” Nightmarish, epic, and possessed of a great, dark truth, it is a book to never be forgotten.
Ever since a near death experience, Cass has been able to see ghosts. Shhh, her paranormal expert parents don’t know. Not about the accident. Or about the seeing of ghosts. Or about her very best Jacob, who saved her from dying. And is a ghost. None of which makes her less afraid of the dead and what lies behind the Veil – the layer that separates the living from the Other Side. When her parents are hired to film a show about the most haunted sites in the world, Cass’s ability to keep a secret, and keep her family and herself safe, are put to the test.
An outlaw gunslinger races down a deadly road to save a woman he had once abandoned from a terrifying fate...
Unbury Carol is many things, none of them predictable, it is a western set in the Old West of a world that is not quite ours. A horror novel in which the damsel in distress is buried alive and yet somehow remains the strongest character in the story. A strangely touching romance in which the lovers are hardly ever together.
I would like to believe that there is another version of our world, a better version, where lots of things are different, and one of them is that Cornell Woolrich has as active a cult following as Jim Thompson, or is as canonically significant as Raymond Chandler, both writers I admire as well. But alas, that better world is not this one, and despite having had his novels adapted into film by Francois Truffaut and Rainer Fassbinder, you probably haven’t read him. The Otto Penzler Presents Series and I can help you with that by introducing you to one of his best, most sinister, and heartbreaking works – Waltz Into Darkness.
Actually, this recommendation is for the whole Winternight Trilogy. Set in an ancient Russia where the forces of the pagan past and the Orthodox future fight for the souls of the people, while the nation as a whole tries to survive in the face of invasion after invasion. Vasilisa’s family live on the edge of the wilderness, where demons and wizards and forest creatures are still holding on to what little of the world remains to them. When her father remarries to a devout woman from the city, a battle between the forces of the wild and civilization is played out with Vasya and those she loves a pawns in an increasingly dangerous game.
Oh, and there is a magic horse.
The next time you need to mend a broken heart, deal with existential angst, the trauma of midlife (or quarterlife), or just the ordeal of getting out of bed in a world that seems destined to end with a whimper, Viv Groskop suggests that Pushkin, Tolstoy, Ahkmatova will do your spirit and mind more good than a visit to the Personal Growth shelves. I, assuming that Solzhenitsyn might be more than you want to face at the moment, recommend Groskop’s elegant, very funny ruminations on her own journey through the greats of Russian Literature.
Trenchant, witty, and not above pettiness, Sara Wheeler has been visiting Russia for decades, both to improve her Russian and to see the less famous part of the country, especially those places beloved of the great writers of the 19th century. Mud and Stars : Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age is not a love letter to a country, so much as an observation of the love love letters written by those authors. A wonderful escape from both this place and time, that we can all use right now.
A herd of cows possessed by the ghosts of jilted women searching for revenge on their lover. A pensioner allowed to live in a cemetery who stays an awfully long time. A vacation villa where the guests disappear and no one seems to care. Robert Aickman himself described his work as ‘strange stories,’ and he wasn’t wrong. A mid-century, short form genius, Aickman – like many – found his inspiration and the grotesquery of day to day middle class life, especially when it meets with the weird and uncanny aspects of the past. These unsettling gems won’t so much chill your blood as invade it.