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 - having read it prior to its release in March 2020, 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 this worn and wearying time, 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.
High school senior, Native American, and 80s slasher film expert Jade Daniels would have to take a few steps up to even be an outcast in her hometown of Proofrock, Idaho. But when the gentrification and the town's dark past seems to be leading to a night of violence, Jade is the only one who sees what is coming and she plans to find a Final Girl to do something about it. Author Stephen Graham Jones is a master of modern horror, and the broken but unbowed Jade is his masterpiece.
I really didn't want to like this book. I certainly didn't want to love it. A combination of three things I am deeply sick of in fiction - it is historical, based on the life of a real person, and both set in and written about New York. Sadly I must report that not only is The Great Mistake beautifully written, intelligent, and thoughtful, it is also revelatory about how New York became the city we know and are constantly influenced by, but rights a great wrong by introducing us to an unfairly forgotten genius of the 19th century.
Base Notes by Lara Elena Donnelly dances along the fine line that separates mystery from horror as we share the thoughts, and what passes for the feelings, of Vic, an impoverished craft perfumer who finds a terrible but highly profitable alternate revenue stream. Despite my being a jaded, old reader there are times I find a book that gives a short, sharp shock to my brain and this is one of the sharpest. Like a cocktail tossed in your face by a beautiful creature, Base Notes is an icy, messy, visceral thrill.
Nostalgia and sentimentality are among the most dangerous enemies of history. When applied to American's National memory of World War II, they have created a toxic fog that has allowed us to jump into war after war, hoping to return to a mythic and mostly imaginary golden era when our country was unified in our desire to defeat evil. In Looking for the Good War, West Point literature professor Elizabeth D. Samet offers a cultural study more than a military one, that brilliantly forces the reader to recognize how deeply damaging to the Greatest Generation, and those generations that have come after, our hagiography of them has turned out to be.
Shy, sensible, and not especially clever, Princess Marra chose the convent and needlework over marriage or adventure. But when her sister suffers at the hands of the abusive Prince she is forced to marry Marra is prepared to do the impossible - make a cloak out of nettles, a dog out of bones, capture moonlight in jar - and travel with the improbable - a woman who commands cemetaries, a trying not to be evil fairy godmother, a demon-possessed chicken, a man who should be dead, and that dog made out of bones - to find a way to save her. T Kingsolver balances fear with whimsey, honesty with heart, and magic with importance of a good cup of tea, and leaves you with a well-earned smile.
Award-winning journalist and former Chicago Tribune writer Dawn Turner's Three Girls from Bronzeville is memoir that reads like a series of interconnected short stories about race, the lives of black women, the neighborhood and family that helped her achieve so much, and the racism and urban decay of a legendary African - American neighborhood that contributed to the early death of her much beloved sister, and the painful-yet-hopeful life of her childhood best friend. These three women's lives, and those of the women around them, are vivid and told with both grace and painful honesty, and not to be forgotten.
January Cole is the head of security at a luxury hotel connected to a major airport, which should be a cushy job for a former special agent forced to leave the field due to health problems. Except the airport is the embarkation point for time travelers, the hotel is where they rest before and after their trips, and her health problem is that she is slightly unmoored in time because of her long career spent protecting the past from the present. Now, with the hotel hosting a group of billionaires looking privatize time travel, her time slips and her grief over the death of her girlfriend getting worse, and a bunch of infant dinosaurs running around the lobby, January has to solve a murder that may be a prelude to the end of history as well as the future, and maybe free will, too. It’s a wild ride, and you should take it.
Gage Chandler is a true crime author who has just moved into a house where a nightmarish crime took place decades before. Hoping to write about those events, he instead comes to doubt everything he knows about his work and himself. Devil House looks like a horror novel, but it isn’t. The description sounds like it might be a mystery, but it’s not. Though horrific crimes are the framework around which the story is formed, author John Darnielle – singer-songwriter for The Mountain Goats –uses his elegant, yet heartbreakingly honest prose to look at why we are obsessed with true crime, the nature of truth, and to question which stories, as well as whose stories, we consider worth telling.
Clementine, the gender non-conforming titular character of The Perfume Thief, is at 72 retired from her roguish ways and trying to survive the Nazi occupation of Paris, making personalized scents for sex workers and singers and protecting her small, found family. When a troubled diva asks her help in recovering a family diary filled both personal secrets and recipes for legendary perfumes, the elegant, gently melancholy Clem finds herself playing a dangerous game with a member of the Abwehr while also reconciling her own past. Decadent and mysterious, this is my runner up for book of the year.
Celebrity culture has always been peculiar to me. When an artist I admire dies I am sad for the art that they will not live to create but I rarely see it as a personal loss. But when Anthony Bourdain - who I was fortunate to do a book signing with when Kitchen Confidential first came out - died it felt like I had lost a friend. A brilliant, funny, honest friend who seemed like the coolest person you'd ever know, but who cared too much about too many things to actually be cool. In this oral biography those closest to Bourdain, all still clearly reeling from his suicide, pull a corner of the curtain back on the private, shy, often difficult, often hurting man hiding behind his fearless public persona.
Maybe because of long car trips spent reading cheap, black jacketed 80s paperbacks I tend to associate horror novels almost as much with summer as I do with fall. Chuck Wendig's Book of Accidents has all of the scares and suspense of the best of those books, with a modern, multiverse spin, and group of characters whose fates you genuinely care about. And really, it was just a lot of messed up fun.
There are books that are hard to describe in a pithy, grab 'em quick way. Within These Wicked Walls is one of those books. Inspired by Jane Eyre, informed by Ethiopian culture, and possessed of one of the best, most emotionally and intellectually complex YA heroines I have ever read, this is a story of where curses are metaphors for colonialism and unresolved history, love can have a scarred face or taste like chocolate, and parents are not always who or what they appear to be.
Things I love and find comforting : English country houses filled with secrets, magic systems that have rules, opposites attracting (and more than merely attracting), brilliant, difficult characters, hedge mazes, fast and furious badinage, thrashable villains, fantasy stories written for adults, and the Arts and Crafts movement. Things that A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske is chock-full of? All of the above.
Gothic: An Illustrated History is a physically beautiful book, the sort of thing that would look perfect on a shelf in cobweb bedecked Victorian parlor or on Dracula's coffee table. But it is far more than that. Author Roger Luckhurst, a professor of modern English at the University of London, takes us on a winding path through history, fiction, and other arts to show how the idea of the Gothic has evolved from a misnamed architectural style, to a school of writing, then filmmaking, finally becoming its own aesthetic. Luckhurst's net is cast wide and he wears his academic credentials proudly, but his detailed and exhaustively researched and illustrated work is nevertheless terrifically entertaining. A perfect gift for anyone who wears black until they find something darker.
After Aaron Decker's wife is killed trying to stop a shooting, he finds out that she has been living a secret life. At first thinking she was unfaithful, he discovers what she told him about her past was a lie, as well and that rather hiding an affair she was hiding her decades long hunt for her sister's murderer. Grief-stricken, and haunted by his wife both literally and figuratively, Aaron's determined quest to finish her work leads him into the broken heart of the American night.
Ronald Malfi's Come With Me dances gracefully, even leisurely, across the borderline between horror and mystery, never stopping, never letting the reader stop, until it reaches a perfectly inescapable end.
It took me until almost the end of 2021 to find my book of the year. Not that I haven't read a large number of brilliant books this year, but for me none of them spoke to the feeling of living in this year - the chaos and the boredom that have gone hand in unloveable hand. Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past by the rather wonderfully named Merlin Coverley with its evocation of all of the futures that we have been denied and the pasts that we cannot be reconciled with has been that book for me.
Set in a world that isn't quite ours, The Death of Jane Lawrence is a twisting, metaphysical Gothic novel of magic, mathematics, blood, shame and the possibility of self-forgiveness. Sensible, awkward, unromantic Jane - who loves numbers and certainty of accounting ledgers - arranges a marriage of convenience for herself rather than going into society. The dedicated, work-obsessed Dr. Lawrence seems the perfect choice. Though he does have a few peculiar requirements for their life together, such as she must never spend a night in his crumbling, ancient manor house... Soon, however, circumstances force her to do just that and before long Jane finds herself taking extreme measures, going to the edge of madness, death, and worse, to save her new husband and herself.
Full disclosure, I am not a Harry Potter fan and never have been. Maybe I was too old and too jaded when they first came out, but the stories of chosen ones and grade school students in peril didn’t speak to me. But I love the idea of a magic school. Vita Nostra offers a very cynical, very harsh, very, very Russian view of what a place like that would be in the real world.
The Institute of Special Technologies is not a place for children. It is barely a place for the exceptional college students that are talented and unfortunate enough to be forced to enter its halls where they will be remade in something’s image.
From explaining how the traditions of the shokunin artisans helped to create Japan’s mighty toy industry, to the roles that manga, anime, videogame etiquette, and isolation have played in creating our troubled on-line world, Matt Alt’s book on Japanese pop-culture’s transcendent role in the world is both excellent anthropology and deeply entertaining. This a required read for anyone who’s ever sung karaoke, worn headphones in public, played a handheld game, bought Hello Kitty ANYTHING, or simply enjoyed a giant robot battle (in other words, nearly everybody).
Maoao – a young, brilliant, wildly brave herbalist – is forced out of her already precarious life in the Red Light district of the capitol after she is kidnapped and sold by slavers to be a menial servant in the palace of the Emperor. When her knowledge of poisons saves the life of an imperial heir, and her intelligence catches the knowing eye of the beautiful and clever Sir Jinshi, she finds herself in the official position of food taster and the unofficial position of detective amongst the consorts and servants of court in this funny, delightful manga based on the light novel series of the same name.
Originally published in 1967 with a psychedelic cover and provocative title, The Black Arts by historian Richard Cavendish is still one of best books the legacy and survival of occult practices, particularly those in the West. While Cavendish does eventually get around to things like curses and Devil worship, the bulk of this deeply informed, entertainingly written, and surprisingly even handed work touches on less sinister subjects such as astrology and the Kabbalah, as well as examining the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of the human fascination with all things supernatural.
The Chalk Circle Man is the jumping off point for one of the best mystery series I have ever read. Fred Vargas’s day job is as an archeologist specializing in the city of Paris, and her side-gig is writing the vastly entertaining, esoteric, sometimes frightening, often funny Adamsberg police procedurals, which are deeply informed by the forgotten moments of history she has uncovered. The unorthodox, charming-yet-impossible Commissaire Adamsberg leads a group of misfit cops who are given the weird cases that their fellow officers can’t or won’t solve, even as they bumble through their own messy lives.
While I love just about every book from Otto Penzler Presents American Mystery Classics, but I was especially excited to see them reprinting Eight Faces at Three by Craig Rice. Rice was the first mystery writer featured on the cover of Time magazine, but is now largely forgotten. Eight Faces is the first book in her witty, booze-soaked, Chicago set John J. Malone mysteries, and a perfect delight for anyone craving an old style whodunit.
There are so many choices facing the young and magically inclined when the time comes to attend school. Hogwarts is quaint, to be kind. Brakebills is marvelous, for grad school, and if you are open to a lot of interdimensional travel. Nobody actually wants to go to the Institute for Special Technologies. And then there is Scholomance. If you want to be certain to graduate with the highest level of survival skills, and the sort of friendships that can only be forged a foxhole, what school could be better than one that is trying to kill you? Really, really trying? Join the current trying to survive graduation class in Naomi (Spinning Silver) Novik's new, wildly entertaining series.
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.
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.
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is one of the most bonkers yet brilliant mysteries I have ever read. Or maybe it is one of the most bonkers yet brilliant time-travel stories I have ever read. Or possibly it is one of the most bonkers yet brilliant science fiction novels I have ever read. Or perhaps it is one of the most ... Ok, you get the idea. Or you don't. But if you love a twisty, old school mystery AND are open to something like you have never read before, you should get this book.
The Ultimate Evil seems to be a book in which a tenacious investigative reporter goes where the authorities are afraid to tread in the interest of revealing a darker secret behind the Son of Sam killings than we ever dreamed. And while Maury Terry is a compelling writer who does raise some interesting questions about the plausibility of Berkowitz acting alone, what this book is actually about is obsession. The writer's obsession with a murderer, a city, a cult, a conspiracy, and a truth that even he, when it was too late, realized probably didn't exist at all.
From its opening lines Silvia (Mexican Gothic) Moreno-Garcia's The Beautiful Ones introduces us to world where society is as dangerous as any wilderness : "Hector was like a castaway who had washed up on a room of velvet curtains and marble floors. The revelers might as well have been wild animals ready to tear off a chunk of flesh," This love story, told with the trappings of historical fiction while taking place in a world that is not-quite ours, has grace, scandal, swooning romance, and vicious cruelty, told in exquisite language. I cared deeply about conflicted Hector, awkward yet magnificent Nina, and even the ice-hearted yet trapped Valerie, and I think you will, too.
The word 'Dickensian' gets bandied about in book reviews with the same alarming and incorrect frequency as 'Kafkaesque.' So it pains me to use it here, but Fiona (Elmet) Mozley's Hot Stew actually is Dickensian : a rollicking, bawdy, tragicomedy of London, specifically Soho, centered around the fate of one of its last brothels. Filled with sex workers and gentrifiers, millionaires and the unhomed, actors and thugs, lovers and enemies, it is a story that is intensely modern but that would still be familiar to Charles or any denizen of any great city past or present.
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.
As a right-handed bookseller of Oak Park I wholeheartedly support the left-handed booksellers of London in their efforts to protect reality, sell books, refuse gender conformity, engage in some necessary violence, explore their fashion options, and, of course, have a restorative cup of tea or two, all in grand, dramatic 1980s style.
Genie Lo is 16, smart, hard-working, obsessed with getting into the college of her choice, and strong. Really strong. Champion volleyball player and intervening in muggings strong. But when a handsome, seriously vain new student from China - who may or may not be the legendary Monkey King - shows up at her school making some pretty weird claims she finds out she is even stronger than she knows. Demon beating strong. Defying the gods strong. Maybe even saving the world strong
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.
Every fifteen years or so since his death in 1968 a publisher reprints Cornell Woolrich’s amazing, noir novels, hoping to that he will finally have the wide-readership and respect that he deserves as one of the forgotten masters of that dark subgenre.
Alas, other than adding a handful of new readers to his devoted cult following it never seems to work.
If you are going to dip into the ink-dark well of his stories magnificent, oft-filmed, ripped off, and referenced The Bride Wore Black is the perfect place to start getting your hands dirty.
The Hollow Places is T. Kingfisher's second horror novel after the terrifying The Twisted Ones and she is in no way having a sophmore slump. It takes real skill to write a book in first person where it is clear the writer has survived whatever terrible things have happened and STILL leave you terrified for them. If the book's setting in a place called The Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy, and the warning Pray They Are Hungry, are not enough to lure you in then I don't know what more I can say to convince you.
One of the best horror novels of 2020 - a year where very real dread made even the most frightning book seem like a relief - by one of the best genre and experimental writers of our time. On the surface this is a story of supernatural revenge, and though that story is both uncanny and heartbreaking, it is as much about family and Native American legacies of pain and endurance, and deciding what to honor and what to leave behind. Though thoroughly entertaining, it is the people and not the spirits in this book that will haunt you long after you finish the last page.
I love books based on fairy tales. Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird on the face of it - with its 1950s New York setting and unflinching examination both racial and gender identies - seems very abstract from it's origins in Snow White. But the tolls that beauty as a survival tool and the lies that people are forced to tell to survive, are at the heart of both stories. Boy, Snow, Bird is imaginative, raw, and as delicious and dangerous as any poisoned apple.
I first read The Woman Warrior : Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts when I was twelve and though I loved it I certainly wasn't ready for it. Over the years I think I have reread it and its companion - China Men - any number of times. Hong Kingston's blend of memoir, mythology, burning anger, calm understanding, and deep intimacy speaks the truth with out needing to prove itself through facts and figures, days and dates. It is a truth written in blood and bone.
"Of that day I have two photographs and, of course, my memories." With that lovely sentence we are introduced to the slightly melancholy, slightly ironic, always kind voice of Binh, the cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during some of the famous reign in Paris. Monique Truong tells his story, as well as that of his "Mesdames", and of a time and a place and the importance of food in this carefully engineered, deeply enjoyable first novel.
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.
Red Shift is a novel of the passage of time and the solidity of place as well as a sort of coming of age story that was inspired disparately by the fairy tale Tam Lin, a family legend of the English Civil War, and a piece of graffiti reading, "Not really now not anymore." Ghostly and strange without being a ghost story, it follows the fates of three young, troubled men living centuries apart, bound to each other by their experiences on lonely outcropping of Mow Cop and their discoveries of a stone axe head. This is not a kind book, but sometimes we need the sharp shock of unkindness to wake us up, and Red Shift left me very awake and full of wondering.
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.
There should be nothing that could improve on the hilarious delight that is Douglas Adams' The Hitchhikers's Guide to the Galaxy, but Chris Riddell's whimsically weird illustrations are an excellent bonus. This is the perfect edition to introduce a younger reader to the importance of always knowing where your towel is.
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 fruebd Jacob, who saved her from dying and is, by the way, 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.