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October is apparently the only month publishers can release horror novels. It's a weird phenomenon but I also know that readers up their horror consumption by A LOT during October as well and that is fine but also can I recommend y'all just try reading horror year round? It totally works and is fun and that way I don't have to sit around waiting for all the horror to come out within a few weeks of each other.
(If you are not a horror reader because you are a scaredy cat, I understand. But also I was once one of you and turns out that most horror novels are not actually all that scary! I have been creeped out a few times, but it takes a lot to do that. Many of them are just working in the genre's tropes rather than really scaring you. I always try to note when I review horror if it's actually scary and if so, how. I am happy to give you some entry-level horror if you would like it.)
Happily, though, this week has one of my favorite horrors of 2021, in the subgenre of "cosmic horror." It's a tricky subgenre because it has been so heavily dominated by our problematic pal Lovecraft and for a long time everything was just being Lovecraftian and honestly I found it super annoying. You can do cosmic horror without being Lovecraftian! In fact, I encourage it! If you're unfamiliar, cosmic horror really means that it is not just a monster but basically the whole universe that is somehow out to get you. There is some overarching, unknowable power that has its sights set on you and it's pretty scary because how do you escape the whole universe? Cosmic can also be done in a small scale, I think Kathe Koja's The Cipher qualifies as cosmic because it totally has those vibes even though almost the whole novel takes place in one building. Cosmic horror at its best is a real mind fuck because it's trying to change the way you view everything, that your small way of looking at your life and the world was foolishly puny. It is not so much about scary as being genuinely unsettling. I dig it.
And that brings me to this week's new release This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno. The cover gives some very cosmic vibes so I had a hunch we'd be going that way but this one does start off with a genuinely creepy first third that could have been a whole novel on its own. Basically the question is not just what if your apartment was haunted but what if your apartment being haunted also meant that your Alexa was haunted? Have you ever considered how truly horrifying it would be for your Alexa to be able to operate under the hand of some malevolent force? (I have, this is why I do not have any of them in my house, thank you very much.)
What really makes this novel stand out is the way Moreno uses horror as a metaphor for grief. Our protagonist Thiago, a Mexican-American man living in Chicago, has just lost his wife in a freak accident. Grief is bound up with everything that happens along the way. Some of this will give you some familiar Pet Sematary vibes but a lot of it feels very fresh. This is what some would call "literary" horror and I reject that label but if you think you are too fancy of a reader for horror, then this is absolutely one you should try. If you think fancy books are not your style, I would say also give this one a try. That's the beauty of a book with lovely prose that also has a great plot. Everyone can enjoy together.
Unless you have an Alexa. Then maybe it's going to scare you too much. Although actually that may be good because do you really want one of them in your house subject to these kinds of malevolent forces? I don't think so.
Content warnings for this one include gore and bad things happen not only to people but to pets.
If you are a cosmic horror fan and looking for an under the radar pick, I highly recommend The Rim of Morning by William Sloane, a reissue from NYRB Classics that is cosmic horror + noir with kind of Shirley Jackson vibes.
Also out this week is Tales from the Café by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, translated by Geoffrey Trousselot. This is the second book in a series, the first was Before the Coffee Gets Cold. I would recommend starting with the first book to see if it's for you. This is such a quirkly little series, each book is a set of vignettes all set around the same premise, that this little coffee shop can let you time travel. There are a set of strict conditions around it (which will be explained to you until you can recite them back yourself) and because there are so many rules it's not the kind of thing just anyone would do. You can only sit in this particular chair and you can only travel to that same spot in this same shop, and you have to leave before the coffee that sent you back in time gets cold.
At its heart these books are weepies, they pour on the emotions. They are about regret and love. They get a little bit into the intricacies of time travel but mostly just to the extent that you can't do anything that will change the future. There are a lot of people who go to see a now-dead friend or relative one last time. Each story has a real emotional wallop to deliver. For some readers this will feel eye-rolly, but if you can embrace the concept they can feel quite cozy.
What I've Been Reading
(For this section, you'll have this nice book card at the beginning of each review. If a title is not yet released, I'll note the release date. Otherwise it's a book you can already get. These are generally the same as the reviews I post on Goodreads and can be a little lengthy so feel free to just scroll down to whatever interests you!)
Release date: Jan 11, 2022.
Shelves: Speculative, Historical, Queer, Author of Color
A big ambitious novel about family rifts, love with and without passion, inheritances, and Hawai'i. Told in three parts that take place in three different times (early 1900's, 1990's, and then from 2050's through 2090's) and possibly in three totally different universes, with recurring character names and themes, there are shades of Cloud Atlas. But this isn't a puzzle, at its heart it is three stories of connecting and failing to connect with the ones you love and the ones you don't quite love enough.
I have had more interest in my reading of this than any other galley I've read in ages, so let me get right to one very important piece of reader service: this is not A Little Life. You shouldn't expect it to be, really. Yanagihara's previous novel, The People in the Trees is not much like A Little Life and To Paradise is not much like either of them. There are some recurring elements in her work (a particular interest in relationships between gay men, in nontraditional family structures, and here we get a lot of scientific research like we did in her first novel) but this is not a trauma fest, it is not about abuse, and I don't think it's even a tearjerker. So if you are looking for a repeat of that experience, this is not the place to go. And that is fine. Yanagihara gets to write what she wants, and she's certainly written something interesting. Actually this will be the easiest of the three to recommend since the previous two have some really awful plot elements around child abuse that meant I could never wholeheartedly recommend them to a wide variety of readers.
I also want to note that if you are a reader who likes to fully understand the world your characters live in and wants all their plot lines fully resolved, you are going to have a tough time with this one. In the first story I never had a full grasp on the geography and politics of the time, but you don't really need it. In the third story you get a lot more detail but it's given slowly, and through an epistolary device. (I do have to say that while there are many things I loved about this book, the epistolary element was not one of them, it felt more contrived than the other pieces of the book.) You are never going to get a whole lot of detail about how these three stories are connected. You are going to have to be okay with ambiguities to have a good experience with this book.
This is almost three separate novels, really. And it's impressive that I enjoyed all three of them, though I think the first may be my favorite. It's a gay Wharton-esque look at David, who comes from a very wealthy and prestigious family run by his grandfather. He entertains a new suitor, Charles, an older man and a widower, who is new money but stable. He also becomes smitten with Edward, who shares his passions and interests, except that he's penniless. In the second novel we follow two other Davids, a father and a son, from a family with royal blood in Hawai'i. The son is living in New York with his boyfriend Charles, an older and much more well off man. David the son is somewhat aimless but he is starting to realize that maybe what he gets from Charles isn't all that he wants. David the father is in an institution with a serious illness, his section told as a monologue, is spoken as if to his son, reflecting on the ways he didn't live up to his duties as a father. And finally, in the third section, we follow another grandparent Charles and his granddaughter Charlie, set in the future in a world where several successive pandemics and climate change have their New York almost unrecognizable.
Other character names recur--so many Nathaniels and Peters and Edens--as does a house in Washington Square. Many characters are Hawaiian (Hawaiian independence and activism around it are a major element) and most characters are gay. In this novel there are more gay marriages than straight ones, which I don't know that I've ever encountered in any other book. And yet, as much as there are similarities, there are also differences. Characters push back against their family legacies, but there is a drastic difference between a legacy of vast wealth and power our first David has compared to the Hawaiian David's legacy that has dwindled to almost nothing when the United States annexed Hawai'i as a state. (David is the only white protagonist, the others are all of at least some Hawai'ian, or other AAPI descent.) The more I think about it, the more recurrences I find, and yet the stories are all very different, both in the prose, in the structure, and in the characters themselves.
I enjoyed this book very much, and yet I did find myself wondering at the end what I was meant to take away from it. This is certainly something Yanagihara could anticipate given the way she's chosen to end each of the three sections. There are unanswered questions, there are things we want to know that we don't get to find out. It's so purposeful that I want to ask her what the purpose is.
I do not undertake a 700+ page book lightly, it's the longest book I've read in recent memory. And it did take me almost two weeks to read it. But I was always happy to sit down to it, I was able to be immersed in the characters and each separate story. I am still ready to read anything Yanagihara writes.
Shelves: Horror, Audiobooks
I watch a lot of horror movies and read a lot of horror novels but there's usually a pretty wide gulf between the two. The novels are not as scary and rarely as gory. Well, except for this one. (Although I'm not sure I'd call this scary as much as horrific.) This is so absolutely ruthless, right up there with any slasher I've seen in the movies, I truly applaud it.
Set in rural Pine Cone, Alabama in the 60's, our protagonist Sarah has a coveted yet dismal job working on the assembly line of the rifle factory. Married young, she is stuck living with her absolutely terrible mother-in-law Jo, who sets in motion a chain of horrific events when she passes along an amulet to someone in the community that she has a grudge against. Much death ensues and once she realizes what is happening it's up to Sarah to try and stop it.
I have been going through McDowell's horror novels, I am almost done and I'm truly sad about it. I have enjoyed them all so much. He didn't get his due. (See also, another horror novelist and screenwriter who died in the AIDS epidemic, Thomas Tryon.) I can't believe this is his debut, it's already got his style down, it is so assured.
As I usually do, I have to note that this contains some problematic content, though it's also pretty typical of the time. This book in particular has real issues with body image and uses a fat person's body as a cue that they are evil. (And it should really know better because it notes at one point that being fat is not the same as being evil but ah well.) This one is actually much better on race than some of his others, McDowell always has a deep understanding of the rules of the midcentury South around the way white and Black people are allowed to interact, the social etiquette they set for themselves and each other. The Black characters exist here just as fully as the white ones... at least until they are horrifically slaughtered with the same casual tone as the white people.
I am not kidding when I say this is quite gruesome, it has a higher body count than any slasher I can think of off hand. And it does not shy away from details. Nor does it shy away from including small children dead in its wake. I enjoyed the way McDowell hopped around from Sarah to whoever the amulet had its eye on next. He invests you quickly in these new characters, which is particularly nasty given that they are all about to meet a horrible end within a few pages.
McDowell does write about villains who are so villainous they are almost impossible to comprehend. And Jo certainly qualifies. Sometimes in a slasher it can be confusing why these particular people are being chosen, but Jo wants to take down the whole town, and we see exactly why. Jo has no redeeming qualities and Sarah has no negative ones, in that sense it lacks some depth. But I enjoyed the journey through Pine Cone and everyone else in it that I didn't really mind so much.
I did the audio and Julia Whelan was the reader. Sometimes I think she's a great fit for things and other times I don't care for her, but this was one of the good ones. Her accents are there but not distracting, and she can do a really wide variety of voices and keep the narration pretty set, which works well with McDowell's straightforward prose.
Release Date: Jan 25, 2022
Shelves: Horror, Sci-Fi
I really want more Sci-Fi-Horror mashups, and this started great but lost steam.
The Small Crew of Blue Collar Space People Find Something Scary trope is the biggest in SF/H so it's not surprising but for a long time it's used to quite strong effect. The author notes at the end her obsession with the Titanic and you can totally see it as our protagonists explore a luxury spaceliner that disappeared years before, only to find a gruesome scene. And they can't shake the feeling that something is Wrong.
The book is at its best when it's most like many things you've seen before. But the choppy middle section and final climax throw out the eerie vibes we started with and it's like we fast-forwarded from Alien vibes to Aliens vibes without finishing the first story. Claire's motivations become fuzzier and her decisions aren't making much sense, though neither are anyone else's. The prose and the scenes get clunky, and it doesn't have much by way of scares or surprises at the end and I generally want at least one of those if not both.
I don't know exactly how this went so off for me but I ended on around 2 stars after feeling like we were at 3.5 at the start.
Release Date: Jan 11, 2022
Shelves: Crime/Mystery, In Translation, Thriller, Author of Color
(Used the publisher page for this because Goodreads right now doesn't have the US edition metadata.)
A twisty, labyrinthine revenge story where nothing is quite as it seems. It's best to go in cold, I'll just say that at the beginning we follow a man who has just given up his own identity to be someone else, only to find that maybe that other person isn't who he anticipated.
This reminded me of those mediocre twisty psychological thriller movies that used to come out all the time in that it relies heavily on the idea that a psychiatrist can exercise deliberate control over someone's mind through a variety of methods. It's not a belief that really holds true anymore, but the novel still works because it's one of those folding in on itself, what is actually happening stories rather than something we are supposed to accept as realism. And yet, like other stories using these devices (you all likely know ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, for example) it is able to say a lot about the lingering effects of trauma and the human desire for revenge and reinvention. Weirdly because of the devices Nakamura uses, this lets us have a narrative where characters are not always sure who they are and what is happening without being really problematic around mental health, which you really wouldn't expect given how much mental health is the center of the story.
This is drastically different from Nakamura's last novel to be translated, CULT X. It's short and very limited in scale. It plays with perspective using a boldness that you don't see often. For a while it's quite disorienting, and even when it eventually becomes more clear what is going on it still seems to float a bit above reality. (Some of this may also have been the formatting of my e-galley, which didn't make it easy to tell when there were breaks in the narrative.)
I am never quite all the way buying what Nakamura is selling when he gets philosophical, but I also find the questions he's considering to be unusual and his point of view unique. There is often a layer of misogyny in his stories and it's here as well, the revenge stories here are almost always rooted in stories of violence against women and girls. It's clear that's part of what Nakamura wants to examine but he never takes us very far past the point of view of the men doing the damage, which always keeps him a bit at a distance for me.
Content warnings here around sexual violence, incest, bullying, and mostly around really bad behavior by medical professionals, specifically psychiatrists and therapists.
I promise not all of these will have so many reviews, but to be totally clear I am on track to read about 200 books this year so my pace is about 3-4 a week. Some weeks it is 1 and others it is 6 so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Thanks again for subscribing and I will be back again next week to talk at you about books.