Sunday, October 31, 2021

NOTHING BUT BLACKENED TEETH, Cassandra Khaw's eerie group-ghostie tale


NOTHING BUT BLACKENED TEETH
CASSANDRA KHAW

Nightfire Books
$10.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Cassandra Khaw's Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists.

A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.

It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.

But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.

And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: No one gets do-overs in life. The one thing Horror teaches us, firmly and finally, is that single adamantine truth...that final, fierce fact that trumps them all.

When privileged and pretty people want to play, they go mad. They have no reason to consider consequences and no desire to moderate their demands on the Universe's supply of goodwill. There's nothing to say that a destination/theme wedding, a haunted-house horror wedding for five, couldn't be just lovely.

Except, of course, common sense.

As the events of the day unfold, as the people whose lives were compressed into a block of being by the exigencies of education and privilege come unstuck, their masks reveal the real cracks in their faces. Then the masks fall off. Then the faces fall off. This is a horror novella about the awfulness of unslakable appetites, and the enduring pain of never, ever having Enough. Being enough. Finding enough.

Author Khaw has used the silences of screaming people to make this dread-soaked, foregone-conclusion-led, story into a fable for our use. You can find anything in it. You're going to try, so don't bother to front. Looking for a climate-change metaphor? The ancient house with the dead people in its walls. Looking for a religious metaphor? The Forces of Evil animating one of the young people to perform uncharacteristic acts. Revenge fantasy? Dude!

Slasher fans: You have a new talent to follow. Author Khaw understands why we love to see the world end in a welter of blood. Go down the dark alley leading up to the ancient haunted mansion with the moldy old books falling apart in its library.

Go on. You know you want to.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

A NEW ROBERT AICKMAN DELIGHT, a newly published novel not seen until after his death


GO BACK AT ONCE
ROBERT AICKMAN

And Other Stories (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$17.95 trade paper, available 11 January 2022

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A gloriously eccentric fantasy by the ‘most profound writer of what we call horror stories.’ Peter Straub

Completed by Robert Aickman in 1975, but unpublished in his lifetime and never before widely available, Go Back at Once is a delicious, delirious comic fantasy about the joys and terrors experienced by two young women seeking to escape the degradations of our technological and conformist age by fleeing to a chaotic, poet-ruled utopia.

Snobbish yet humane, reactionary yet camp, strait-laced yet queer, old-fashioned yet radical, Go Back at Once reveals Robert Aickman as a master not only of the ‘strange story’, but a satirist deserving of a place alongside the mischievous and venomous greats of the inter-war canon: Firbank, Compton-Burnett, Waugh, Powell.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I'm quite sure a lot of people will not like this book very much.

Sad, but inevitable; Aickman's work, when outside the unsettling norm of it, is quite an ask. You're going to meet Types, not characters, ones whose existence is actual, but susceptible to change in the century since the story...here based on the Free State of Fiume...is set. There are the expected players, if you've been reading British literature a long time, or are enamored of E.F. Benson or Ronald Firbank. There are the stock situations, eg the defended virtue of one of the leads. There is a tone of facetious, in fact malicious, judgment of those who express any notion of Idealism or Utopian thought.

Am I putting you off? I don't mean to; I want, though, there to be no misunderstanding about the book you're going to read: This is not ghost-story unease-inducing Aickman; this is sharply observant, unsparingly opinionated Aickman. It's not like we don't see this Aickman in his other works (or in his life, just read about how viciously he treated his co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association!); but this novel, centered on Cressida and Vivien as they leave school and move in with Vivienne's Aunt Agnes the free-spirited divorcée, shoves the mean-girl pedal to the floor.

The bitchiness of Aickman's observations is *epic* and unsparing and unerring. His trademark ambiguity is largely absent, in that he's unambiguously making the most savage sport of the people on these pages. It does become rather one-note as time passes in their company. If that note is to one's taste, that's all right. If it isn't, stop reading immediately because it won't change.

I was deeply enmeshed in this story despite its waspish tone. I am, perhaps, a touch on the waspish side, so I empathized with Aickman's desire to bat away the cigarette smoke of Fame and Adulation that surround those whose life-choices make no sense seen face-on. The Great Revolutionaries whose Ideas are Noble, but whose grasp of governance and finance is wanting, are a dime a dozen. D'Annunzio, whose life makes excellent reading, clearly fell into that category. (Though I think the judgment of modern people that he's a stalking goat for fascism is a great deal too harsh.) His treatment here, at the very end of the story, was hilarious if savage. No less savage was Aickman's invented future for Vivien and Cressida, whose identities I am not familiar enough with the literati of the period to tease out...though I hoped for Ivy Compton-Burnett and that Jourdain woman, they're entirely too old...a descent into what was a marriage in all but name, without a single sexual suggestion being made by the author.

Given his own repressed gayness, that can't come as a surprise. Merely being married to a woman (called "Ray" for heavens' sake!) for seventeen years didn't prevent him from being (discreetly!) known to have had liaisons with like-minded men. It was the way of that world, that time. It shows up in this story with lots of queer-coding, the way "foreign" people simply appear naked or are...touchy-feely, shall we say. Given that he died in 1981, one would've thought he'd've made a bit better peace with his gayness; this, however, did not occur. I suspect that he'd be a closet case even had he been born in 1964 not 1914. Some people just are.

One of the great pleasures of this kind of story is its structure. It reminded me a great deal of Candide, shorter journeys but just as much to-in and fro-ing where we are. There's also a lot of wetness, dunkings in the sea, raining, all the cold, clammy feels that brings up; lots of clothes-being-changed, shared, in general a sense of the instability of each character's presentation of self that Voltaire gloried in. Also Candidely is the sexual innocence of the young leads, their almost preternatural resistance to (and embattled saving of in one case) losing their innocent insensitivity to the Charybdis-level undercurrents flowing around them.

It won't be for everyone, but those it's for will batten upon its high-calorie low-nutrition richness.

Monday, October 25, 2021

THE INISHOWEN MYSTERIES, book three of the four to date starring Ben O'Keeffe


THE WELL OF ICE
ANDREA CARTER
(Inishowen Mysteries #3)
Oceanview Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.49 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A cold—and terrifying—Christmas holiday on the Inishowen Peninsula

December in Glendara, Inishowen, and solicitor Benedicta 'Ben' O'Keeffe is working flat out before the holidays. But on a trip to Dublin to visit her parents, she runs into Luke Kirby—the man who killed her sister—freshly released from jail. On the surface he appears remorseful, conciliatory even, but his comment as she walks away makes her realise he is as foul as ever.

Back in Glendara, there is chaos. The Oak pub has burned down and Carole Kearney, the Oak's barmaid, has gone missing. And then, while walking the dog up Sliabh Sneacht, Ben and her partner, Sergeant Tom Molloy, make a gruesome discovery: a body lying face down in the snow.

Who is behind this vicious attack on Glendara and its residents? Ben tries to find answers, but is she the one in danger?

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I don't know how the heck I didn't get book two of this series! I thought I had it and it wasn't until I was writing these reviews that I realized it wasn't here. Quite peeved with myself for being so careless...there are things that happened in book two, Treacherous Strand, that form the basis of the mystery in this entry. Author Carter quite competently fills me in, I'm not left wondering what the devil's up or why, but I'd've enjoyed getting here the old-fashioned way.

Don't make my mistake! But let it be said that I'm not in any way feeling deprived in my enjoyment of this book's plot, characters, or action.

The story isn't a straight-forward one: there are threads that tie things together that we aren't so much tipped to, but whose...wrongness...is a clear indicator that your inner sleuth should be engaged in this read at all times. The relationships among the good burghers of Glendara are not the uncomplicated "rural places are full of the salt of the earth charming lovely folk" types. There's adultery, but ya know what that's no biggie; there's bigamy, and that IS a biggie; then there's bastardy, and this ancient uncrime becomes the weight on the loom of Disaster's tapestry.

As is expected, too, the law-enforcement officer and the sleuth are challenged as a couple. Their own trust issues, springing from different places but with similar power, are foregrounded by every development in the several awful, violent crimes. It can't be helped. When each person is in a position of community trust, a couple is going to be hard put to fulfill their required roles at every turn—frequently starting from the internal question "what is my actual appropriate role right now?" No one can always get it right, and with all the best intentions, getting something catastrophically wrong is inevitable.

This does not in any way mean that I wasn't shouting "ARE YOU MENTAL DO NOT DO THAT" at my Kindle on multiple occasions. I honestly wanted to find the place on the map, book a flight, and go hand out some ass-chewings. Luckily for me I can tell you Author Carter really did make these places up.

While there's no story without some characters (plural) making bad decisions, the sheer obliviousness to the stakes of inaction that each and every one of them demonstrated at various times frightened me. Decisions to act in foolish ways are always easier to fix than failures to act in appropriate and timely ways. "Least said soonest mended" is NOT THE WAY FORWARD with criminals. Worrying about someone's feelings when there is a murderer in the vicinity is stupid. Blurt it out, fix it later! And even if you can't *at least they're alive*!

There are people no longer alive at the end of this book but, in the approved fashion for cozies, they are not people I myownself mind being dead. Not one little bit. Though, to be honest, the conclusion of this entry in the series does not include a vital piece of confirmation that suspicious ol' series-mystery consumer me seriously feels the lack of. The story is one of those that contains a credible motive for the resolution by discussion, but this feature could easily become a bug if it takes place every book.

What I'll delight in seeing more of is the way the community of Glendara continues to be willing and able to face down its dissension, hurts, and divisions. What I'll anticipate...not for much longer, Oceanview Publishing brings out Murder at Greysbridge on the second of November!...is learning how the huge sea-change, the La-Palma-landslide tsunami-level surprise plays out in this modern-world-problems involving series. I'm always happiest when reading books that don't cocoon the characters away from reality without reasonable care being taken to explain why they should be. I'm extra happy that Author Carter decided not to do that at all in this series.

Yes, I wish I'd read book two before this and am annoyed with myself that I carelessly failed to check the series list before starting this one. No, I'm not at all saddened by the way I was brought up to speed. And most of all, I'm so happy I got to read Andrea Carter's Inishowen series. Seek it out in paper, download a digital copy, read them in order!, but definitely read them soon.

Friday, October 22, 2021

THE INISHOWEN MYSTERIES, first of the five to date starring Ben O'Keeffe


DEATH AT WHITEWATER CHURCH
ANDREA CARTER
(Inishowen Mysteries #1)
Oceanview Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A missing groom—a deconsecrated church—a hidden crypt—a skeleton wrapped in a blanket

When a skeleton is discovered in the hidden crypt of a deconsecrated church, everyone is convinced the bones must be those of Conor Devitt, a local man who went missing on his wedding day six years previously. But the postmortem reveals otherwise.

Solicitor Benedicta “Ben” O’Keeffe is acting for the owners of the church, and although an unwelcome face from her past makes her reluctant to get involved, when Conor’s brother dies in strange circumstances shortly after coming to see her, she finds herself drawn in to the mystery. Whose is the skeleton in the crypt and how did it get there? Is Conor Devitt still alive, and if so, is there a link? What happened on the morning of his wedding to make him disappear?

Negotiating between the official investigation—headed up by the handsome but surly Sergeant Tom Molloy—and obstructive locals with secrets of their own, Ben unravels layers of personal and political history to get to the truth of what happened six years before.

TELEVISION ADAPTATION ON THE WAY!

Death at Whitewater Church is the first in a series of Ben O’Keeffe mysteries set on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, Ireland.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: A terrific series-starting book, also an excellent publishing debut. Author Carter is a talented writer and was well-served in her editor. The flourishes rhetorical were agreeable:
Being an outsider in a town where most people have spent their whole lives is not the easiest way to live. Sometimes, in my darker moments, I felt as if my role here was limited to that of an observer and facilitator for other people. That my own life was a sort of half-life, as if I didn’t really count because no one knew my “people.” But I have my reasons for being here.

Pretty, also useful, also informative. A good writer takes that kind of direction from a good editor..."make the infodump into a confession!" resounds to a truly wickedly attuned writer like Author Carter is.

There are many twists and turns in Ben's trip through Whitewater's past. Her beautiful world of small-town solicitor worries, conveyances and wills and the like, is completely upended by the toothy rocks she's clung to while getting herself out of the North Atlantic after one of her truly daft February swims. Her local knowledge makes the stakes of learning her new community's older secrets all the more poignant and relevant.

I'll offer a mild criticism here: There is very little sense of the Love Interest's appeal. He's a blank canvas with some sketch-lines showing what he can possibly be. Even the moments that are the most intimate between Ben and Tom, before the fire and after the wine, aren't so much said as reported in the past tense.

It's a minor whinge. It niggled slightly and I noticed it, so I bring it up. But the *important* bit is the crimes that were and are committed in this small town. It's quite the surprise as to who's been bad and why. I found the resolution quite unimpeachably witnessed and for reasons I was completely sure were logical. The resolution fit the facts, and the way it's told to us is well within my suspension of disbelief.

Bravo, Author Carter, for making this series-starting novel a career-starting one as well.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

NORTH, an immigration tale we all need & OH WILLIAM!, the third Amgash-based tale of Lucy Barton & Co.


NORTH
BRAD KESSLER

The Overlook Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A powerfully moving novel about the intertwined lives of a Vermont monk, a Somali refugee, and an Afghan war veteran by the author of the acclaimed memoir Goat Song

As a late spring blizzard brews, Brother Christopher, a cloistered monk at Blue Mountain Monastery in Vermont, rushes to tend to his Ida Red and Northern Spy apple trees in advance of the unseasonal snowstorm. When the storm lands a young Somali refugee, Sahro Abdi Muse, at the monastery, Christopher is pulled back into the world as his life intersects with Sahro’s and that of an Afghan war veteran in surprising and revealing ways.

North traces the epic journey of Sahro from her home in Somalia to South America, along the migrant route through Central America and Mexico, to New York City, and finally, her dangerous attempt to continue north to safety in Canada. It also compellingly traces the inner journeys of Brother Christopher, questioning his future in a world where the monastery way of life is waning, and of veteran Teddy Fletcher, seeking a way to make peace with his past.

Written in Brad Kessler’s sharp, beautiful, and observant prose, and grounded in the author’s own corner of Vermont, where there is a Carthusian monastery, a vibrant community of Somali asylum seekers, and a hole left after a disproportionate number of Vermont soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, North gives voice to these invisible communities, delivering a story of human connection in a time of displacement.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I'm sure you're looking askance at three stars as opposed to the fours and fives all around it. It was my Goodreads friend Sarah-Hope's five-star warble of delight that brought into focus my dissatisfaction with this well-written read.

A book about the refugee experience is, of necessity, a book in motion, a book of change and danger. There is a lot of literary precedent for this structure, from the original picaresque Don Quixote to the eternal shame-making escape narrative Twelve Years a Slave, on through West with the Night's risky but voluntary peregrinations, In Patagonia's curiosity-propelled diggings. But the issue with North is that this structure crashes into the wildly different voyages of Father Christopher (also the name of the Catholic saint, patron of travelers) to contemplation's deepest coves and Sahro's fear- and death-driven flight.

While I'm in the greatest possible sympathy with this novel's aims, I am not convinced that Author Kessler handled this crash with a convincing direction for these two characters to meet as opposed to collide. The core relationship of these people wasn't made into a meeting of like minds, but a compassionate man offering charity to a desperate woman in terrifying danger that she need not have suffered in a properly ordered US.

So while I read the book without pain (Author Kessler does craft a handsome image...Father Christopher "...reached the rise, his shoulders relaxed. In the warmth of the morning he saw the slopes white with blossoms. The apples carpeted in blooms," after a tense and fearful bout of worry about a freeze), I was left feeling that the travels inwards and outwards weren't brought to the same place at the same pitch of emotion. It meant I felt that I was led, steered, pushed, nudged; I wanted to feel that, after all the movement, I was somewhere I hadn't been before...but there was only more travel ahead.

All US royalties are to be donated to a refugee-aiding charity. Please factor that into your Holiday purchasing plans.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


OH WILLIAM!
ELIZABETH STROUT

Random House
$27.00 hardcover, $14.99 ebook editions, available now

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK FOR 2021!

A 2021 NPR BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR!

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The Pulitzer Prize-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author traces the enduring bond between a divorced couple in a poignant novel about love, loss, and the family secrets that can erupt and bewilder us at any point in life.

Through her careful words and reverberating silences (The New York Times), Elizabeth Strout has long captured readers' hearts with her spare, exquisite insights on family, relationships, and loss. And never has her perfect attunement to the human condition (Hilary Mantel) been so evident as in these pages, as Strout's iconic heroine Lucy Barton, of My Name Is Lucy Barton, recounts her complex, tender relationship with William, her first husband—and longtime, on-again-off-again friend and confidant. Recalling their college years, through the birth of their daughters, the painful dissolution of their marriage, and the lives they built with other people, Strout weaves a portrait, stunning in its subtlety, of a decades-long partnership.

A masterful exploration of human empathy, Oh William! captures the joy and pain of watching children grow up and start families of their own; of discovering family secrets, late in life, that rearrange everything we think we know about those closest to us; and the way people live and love, despite the variety of obstacles we face in doing so. And at the heart of this story is the unforgettable, indomitable voice of Lucy Barton, who once again offers a profound, lasting reflection on the very nature of existence. This is the way of life, Lucy says. The many things we do not know until it is too late.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I, alone among US adults 49-64, did not like Olive Kitteridge. I was lukewarm about My Name is Lucy Barton, but I didn't find it intolerably tedious. I truly can't think what made me ask Random House for a DRC of this book, but ask I did and they, unaccountably, said yes.

I'm really rather glad they did.

Lucy Barton is greatly more to my taste than Olive ever was. Amgash, her terrible isolated childhood, her absolutely clueless bumblings through parenthood, childhood's memories, learning to be Other with her mother, her *her*ness, rubbed me the right way as opposed to Olive's sandpaper-on-a-sore-tooth effect on me.

This story comes to me when I am Lucy's age, and I am also taking stock of my many pasts. William, father of Lucy's two daughters, wasn't the right husband for her nor was she the right wife for him. (Two more failed or failing marriages later, no one seems to be.) But they're friends. And as anyone who's ever been married or long-term-coupled will tell you, that's the thing that lasts. Their continued use of Button, her nickname from William, and Pillie, his nickname from her, is signaling this is a friendship for life. What her divorce stemmed from was, I suspect she is now coming to realize, a misunderstanding of what their true connection was.

But why, after decades apart, are we back in the position of hearing about William? Because the crisis in his life, learning an unwelcome truth about his own mother (whose relationship to Lucy was always cordial, if fraught on Lucy's side), and realizing that at seventy-one he is not going to Make It Right without trying (for once!), draws him right back to his heart-stealing first wife. She, whose second marriage was so very happy until he died on her, won't ever say No to Pillie. (Skip over the divorce bit.)

What transpires in this book was that rare and precious thing: Self discovery. Pillie and Button don't have all the time in the world, and they don't have a lot to lose as a result. Their relationship-long ability to connect in honesty (which is also why she left their marriage) is, at this late date, the most precious and unbelievably rare gift each has to give; the gift that each is now grateful to receive.

Lucy's old. She's had time to marinate in her failures. And she *still* obsesses about surfaces and appearances! Such a little thing, her snarky asides about what others are wearing and who can't make a decent speech; but so instantly relatable. Her life-long isolation and Otherness, relics of the childhood she survived, are never going to be gone, finished, dealt with. And that knowledge is how she can relate to William, how she can find her way to being his friend...he's got the issues she's got, just from other causes. Where Lucy was made to feel invisible, William was made to feel he could only be BIG. It comes to the same thing in the end: Are you going to leave a hole in the world when you leave it?
Grief is such a—oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.
–and–
I have always thought that if there was a big corkboard and on that board was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me.

I feel invisible, is what I mean. But I mean it in the deepest way. It is very hard to explain. And I cannot explain it except to say—oh, I don’t know what to say! Truly, it is as if I do not exist, I guess is the closest thing I can say. I mean I do not exist in the world. It could be as simple as the fact that we had no mirrors in our house when I was growing up except for a very small one high above the bathroom sink. I really do not know what I mean, except to say that on some very fundamental level, I feel invisible in the world.

These two people, these old friends, are groping towards the sense of life as it was lived being, when all is said and done, okay. Not great, not awful, okay. And the grief of that, the waste of "okay" to the world, is what they're learning to shrug off.

Eight decades on Earth and growing up never stops. If you're lucky. Pillie and Button are lucky. So are you and I, if we go with them.

Does my rating now seem mingy to you? I suspect it might. I'm not being unkind when I say there is a chemistry between writer and reader that I do not feel with Author Strout. Her phrase-making is often crazy-making for me. Her dithering women make me so so so so glad I'm gay. There are, of course, men who dither but thankfully I scare them off. I spent this whole book wanting to shout at Lucy, "GET TO THE POINT!!" when the point was that she doesn't. That made the read much more of a chore than a pleasure. But the story Lucy lived with her friend William, the story they're still living, was so very touching and moving and deeply agreeable to me that I powered through my desire to enact domestic violence upon her as she dithered and divagated and wittered *deep breath* Okay. Enough about that.

So there's the missing star-and-a-half. On the cutting-room floor, shall we say. But I want to be clear about this: Of the three books by Author Strout that I've read, this is head-and-shoulders above the rest and is the only one I will say, "read this, you will like it," about. It can be read as a stand-alone. It is better read after My Name is Lucy Barton, though. If you've already read Lucy Barton, you should trot right over to the bookery you prefer to patronize to get this before the COVID shortages make it impossible. Or, like me, get it on Kindle/e-reader.

But do get it.

Monday, October 18, 2021

AN EVENING WITH CLAIRE, the end of innocence from a Russian master & BEAUTY SALON, a pandemic tale from a Mexican auteur


AN EVENING WITH CLAIRE
GAITO GAZDANOV
(tr. Bryan Karetnyk)
Pushkin Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$18.00 trade paper, available 19 October 2021

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Two old friends meet nightly in Paris, trading conversational barbs and dancing around submerged feelings. Throughout the ten years of their separation, thoughts of Claire lingered persistently in Kolya’s mind. As the imagined romance finally becomes real, Kolya is thrown into recollections of formative moments from his youth in Russia, from his solitary early years through military school and service in the White Army in the Civil War, all leading to this union with                                                          Claire.

The first novel by the celebrated Russian master Gaito Gazdanov, An Evening with Claire is a lyrical, finely crafted portrait of a lost innocence and a vanished era.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: While there is some lovely language in this short read, I did not end up thinking it was Deathless Prose.
These first, carefree years of life at the gymnasium were only rarely aggravated by those emotional crises from which I suffered so greatly but in which I nonetheless found an agonizing satisfaction. I lived happily—if one can live happily when a persistent shadow floats behind one’s shoulders. Death was never far away, and the abyss into which my imagination plunged me seemed to belong to it.

High school's like that. The highs are empyrean; the lows abyssal. Claire gets a whole lot fewer lines than an evening should hold. I was reminded of the Doobie Brothers' 1977 hit song, "What A Fool Believes", which covers the same territory in three minutes, forty-seven seconds.

Blasphemy to the literary, I know, but really I'll listen to the song again (and it was never one of my favorites) before I'll re-read this history lesson with straight-boy crush object posed in front of it. The entire Russian Civil War—one of history's major social paroxysms!—took place with a sleepwalking Kolya (Claire's fanboy) apparently numb to it. But of course he is...he is superior to the victims. (Where he got that idea, and what it's based on, must've been in a part of the read I didn't get in my DRC.) So, Claire of the title barely shows her face; the narrator's a numbed-out zombie or a sociopathic prick; and the story's too long for the récit it could've quite successfully been and too detached to work as a novel.

I'll see myself out.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


BEAUTY SALON
MARIO BELLATIN
(tr. David Shook)
Deep Vellum
$14.95 trade paper, available 19 October 2021

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Mario Bellatin’s earth-shattering allegory of plague that brought him to his cult status as auteur of Latin America's most singular literary vision, in a brand-new translation by poet and translator Shook.

Mario Bellatin’s complex dreamscape, offered here in a brand-new translation, presents a timely allegorical portrait of the body and society in decay, victim to inscrutable pandemic.

In a large, unnamed city, a strange, highly infectious disease begins to spread, afflicting its victims with an excruciating descent toward death, particularly unsparing in its assault of those on society's margins. Spurned by their loved ones and denied treatment by hospitals, the sick are left to die on the streets until a beauty salon owner, whose previous caretaking experience extended only to the exotic fish tanks scattered among his workstations, opens his doors as a refuge. In the ramshackle Morgue, victim to persecution and violence, he accompanies his male guests as they suffer through the lifeless anticipation of certain death, eventually leaving the wistful narrator in complete, ill-fated isolation.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: AIDS was my first plague. Unnameable for most of its first five years of blazing, horrible death, when a name was agreed upon it gave us something to fight. A name is more than a label. It is a badge, a target, a focus.

A badge is also, as the Holocaust taught us, a symbolic sentence of death.

That's what this short prose poem is here to remind us. It's eleven years old in English. It's a quietly bitter, carefully outraged indictment of the fear and loathing that queers with AIDS faced when there was no hope, no treatment, no medical possibility of a future.
It's no longer just my acquaintances with the sickness advancing through their bodies. The majority are now strangers who have no place to go. If it weren't for this place, their only alternative would be to perish in the street.
–and–
Now I have to run the Mortuary. To provide a bed and a bowl of soup to the victims whose bodies have already been ravaged by the disease. And I alone must do it.

Our narrator in this bitter récit is a nameless drag queen/retired beauty salonista whose own life is ending from the disease. She makes her world starkly plain in those sentences, showing that her life lived in service is ending in service. She's been a whore, she's been a beauty maven, and now she's tending to the last needs of those, like her, whose bodies aren't bodies any more:
I ask myself {as lovers come to the Mortuary's door seeking the dying} what moves those poor creatures to search for the sick. And why come in? Only to find themselves before someone who is no longer a person. Someone who, besides the space they take up, is nothing but a simple carrier for sickness.
–and–
{The Mortuary's inhabitants} become so mired in their lethargy that it's often no longer even possible for them to ask how they're doing. This is the ideal condition for doing my work. It's how I avoid getting involved with any one of them in particular, which makes my labors more expeditious.

Heartless? Or disheartened? One young lad gave our narrator a reason to be glad, for a moment, that he was alive. The disease ended the way the disease always does:
We took up collections to purchase his medicines, which were exceedingly expensive. It was all useless. The conclusion was simple. The sickness has no cure. All our efforts were no more than vain attempts to appease our consciences. ... Because of that experience, I made the decision that if there was no cure, the best outcome was a quick death, in the best possible conditions for the suffering.

That, my olds, is what we call "dissociation." And as a survival strategy, during a plague, there's not a better one to be found.

In the end, of course, there's no hope to be found in this bleak little bagatelle. There's nothing to mitigate the agony of knowing you're going to die, and it's going to suck, and then there's the Great Unknown. What is Death? Where do we go when we die?

Folks...that's a question for the privileged. The living. The dying aren't worried about it near as much as one thinks they will be. They're worried about stuff they didn't do or say or couldn't do or say or wanted to do or say. They aren't all that worried about The After, but they do get worried about The Ending. Suffering preoccupies the suffering. The sense of "let it just be over" is quite, quite common.

Bellatín knows this. He's not giving anyone great death scenes here. He's not exploring the living's worries about Death. The closest we come is when our beautiful psychopomp has a huge bonfire of all his vanities, the dresses and the gewgaws and gimcracks of his life spent on the make for sex:
The more I sang, the more clearly I remembered new songs. It kept growing, the sensation that I was entering, bit by bit, the memories they evoked. Slowly, the fire burned out, until it was nothing but a slight wisp of smoke rising from the charred remains.


That, in the end, is pretty much all we have. A wisp of smoke, a singed satin hem, a moment of song snatched from a toxic conflagration of things not worth taking, of stuff we are ready to leave behind.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

#The1976Club: WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME by Marge Piercy...well titled indeed ***SPOILERS***


WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME
MARGE PIERCY

Ballantine Books
$13.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Hailed as a classic of speculative fiction, Marge Piercy’s landmark novel is a transformative vision of two futures—and what it takes to will one or the other into reality. Harrowing and prescient, Woman on the Edge of Time speaks to a new generation on whom these choices weigh more heavily than ever before.

Connie Ramos is a Mexican American woman living on the streets of New York. Once ambitious and proud, she has lost her child, her husband, her dignity—and now they want to take her sanity. After being unjustly committed to a mental institution, Connie is contacted by an envoy from the year 2137, who shows her a time of sexual and racial equality, environmental purity, and unprecedented self-actualization. But Connie also bears witness to another potential outcome: a society of grotesque exploitation in which the barrier between person and commodity has finally been eroded. One will become our world. And Connie herself may strike the decisive blow.

THIS READ WAS PART OF A LOOSE BLOGGER READ-A-THON CALLED THE 1976 CLUB. THERE ARE SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING BELOW.

My Review
: I began this read eager to know why I've owned several editions of this book over the decades...one from my bookstore-having sister in the Seventies, one from my Manhattan years in the later Eighties, a British one from the Aughties...but never remember reading it! And now that I've read it again, I remember why I don't remember.

What a disappointment.

The ending just...isn't. The sense of resolution, of the fit between story and ending, is unsatisfying to me. And it took over sixty pages to get there.

You know from the publisher's synopsis that Connie Ramos, our third-person-limited PoV character, is a mental patient. It's the 1970s and psychopharmacology wasn't as advanced as it is now (I'd argue it's still roughly where surgery was in the pre-Lister 1840s). Much that is wrong with Connie is situational, and it's utterly unsurprising. She's "treated" by the standards of the day, which is to say confined and contained and circumscribed so she can't act out her acute agony. She's in need of psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; she gets diagnosed as schizophrenic and the full machinery of experimental psychology gets to work on her.

But are they wrong? She claims she's been to the year 2137. And the world is....

Off we go! Luciente reaches her to show her a beautiful, granola-and-grown-out-hair Seventies egalitarian-hippie-commune future that I loved. "Gender" roles? Umm...what is per (their all-purpose pronoun, love that!) talking about, Luciente? Sex is biological...what is gender role? Part of the false dichotomies we've left behind.... What *wasn't* left behind was the of-the-time disrespect for sex work and workers, equating them to slaves. Reductive, shown to be inaccurate, but very feminist-70s. What isn't left behind is the disrespect of the future for the past. Luciente and all per people in Mattapoisett seem to know less than a US grade-school child about their own history. Connie says things that dumbfound these folk regularly...did all the books and digital records get destroyed? Then find a way to tell me so! (Goodness knows Author Piercy isn't afraid of infodumps.)

What I mostly didn't love was the way Connie, my PoV!, didn't look around and note things! But...well...this is a story about an abused and frankly impoverished and ethnically othered, therefore expendable, woman. All of those things are still stigmas, but they were a great deal moreso in the Seventies, and as Luciente's world (is Mattapoisett a Utopia, really, because war and societal conflict still exist there and then) bleeds into her own reality the Seventies Bellevue staff become less and less empathetic, more and more afraid of and for her, and act with more controlling behavior. It wasn't a joyride for Connie before but, as the life with Luciente recedes and Connie becomes mired in the mental hospital's horrors, the way she copes is...awful.

The aforementioned sixty-plus pages. I didn't like 'em. I did, however, recognize 'em. The months I spent in a locked ward in 2014 were a real eye-opener for me, and this might be why I didn't much enjoy the ending. My roommates were schizophrenic men. I had a really strong introduction to the hopelessness of schizophrenia and its utterly ineffective treatments. I think a big part of my getting my own brain back under my control was my sense of deep, abiding gratitude that I don't have *that* problem.

But does Connie? Is that really what's going on here? In her records, which we see, it says her intelligence is "Average" and is this detailed, consistent fantasy really something a person of average intelligence could come up with? It was here that I began to think the ending, besides just not being to my taste, actually missed a trick. What occurs isn't unrealistic. What it is, though, is without nuance. It asserts that Reality Is Reality. That's what we've just spent over three hundred pages interrogating! Taking that tack over quite an extended ending is...well...why not keep the interrogation, is Connie mad? is Connie telling us the truth? is Connie ever going "home"? going, that is, back to Mattapoisett. Instead the story ends with a THUD. And that wasn't at all on my Bingo card.

Author Piercy's prose is adequate.
“Never in your life have you been helpless—under somebody’s heel. You never lived where your enemies held power over you, power to run your life or wipe it out. You can’t understand. That’s how come you stand there feeding me empty slogans!”

Luciente bowed her head. “You crit me justly, Connie. Forgive me. I’ll try to see your situation more clearly and make less loud noises in your ears.”
–and–
“Only in us do the dead live. Water flows downhill through us. The sun cools in our bones. We are joined with all living in one singing web of energy. In us live the dead who made us. In us live the children unborn. Breathing each other’s air, drinking each other’s water, eating each other’s flesh, we grow like a tree from the earth.”
–and–
Every day was a lesson in how starved the eyes could grow for hue, for reds and golds; how starved the ears could grow for conga drums, for the blare of traffic, for dogs barking, for the baseball games chattering from TVs, for voices talking flatly, conversationally, with rising excitement in Spanish, for children playing in the streets, the Puerto Rican children whose voices sounded faster, harder, than Chicano Spanish, as if there were more metal in their throats.

Never that I saw did it get better than that, and those are peaks that I've chosen. They're good, they're good, before someone says I'm saying otherwise. What they aren't is...tingly. That feeling you get when someone writes something that spears you with its sounds and feelings. I never got that in this read...and I'm pretty sure most others didn't either. What I saw praised, when I read the reviews others had written of the book after I finished my own read, was the ideas Author Piercy presented for the future, the cold analysis of the present...but not the prose. It's fine! It's not awkward, or lumpen; it's...fine.

But that's all it is. And that, I think, is my best summation of this read: It was fine, it had much to recommend it, but its heights weren't all that high and its lows weren't low.

It was fine.

Friday, October 15, 2021

A TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD YEAR: Hundreds of Stories on the Pandemic by Teachers, Students & Parents by Six-Word Memoirs


A TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD YEAR: Hundreds of Stories on the Pandemic by Teachers, Students & Parents by Six-Word Memoirs
LARRY SMITH, ed.

Six-Word Memoir (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$13.99 tree book, $2.99 ebook editions, available 15 October 2021

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The tenth book in the Six-Word Memoir series tells the story of a world we never expected to be in and can’t stop talking about. Told through the lens of students, teachers, and parents around the world, A Terrible, Horrible, No Good Year offers hundreds of inspirational, playful, and profound takes on life during the pandemic. For some, this book will be a window. For others, a mirror of their own experience. For all of us, A Terrible, Horrible, No Good Year is a time capsule to be read, shared, and discussed and is certain to prompt friends, family, and neighbors to ask each other: “What’s your six-word pandemic story?”

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: November 2006...a date that should live in...whatever the opposite of "infamy" is...that's when Larry Smith started SixWordMemoir.com, and unleashed the haiku poet in every English-speaker's soul. My own first one: "Not quite what I had planned" submitted on Twitter in 2013.

Six words doesn't leave room for prolixity and overdramatization. It's what makes the idea so irresistible. It's what makes the original challenge, issued legendarily to Ernest Hemingway, to tell a six-word story (his, if you need refreshing, was "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn") so deeply memorable. We're creatures of story and we love to immerse ourselves in language. When we take a short, sharp plunge into the Otherness of others, we're happy, happy souls. As witness to this truth, the collection I'm reviewing is the tenth brought into print! This is like that delicious, anonymous, yet public confessional, PostSecret. It's similarly public, it's more concise, and it's possibly even more revealing...but it's all part of the same urge, the need I know so many feel to unburden themselves, to celebrate their milestones, and to be seen and heard where it feels safe, especially when it doesn't feel safe to be any of those things in their community.

So here we are in a pandemic. Over a year without anything like normalcy. I guess it's no surprise to anyone that there were some feelings that needed to be bled out, and SixWordMemoir was exactly the right tool to lance the thing. The choice to direct this collection at educators, students, and parents trapped in the nightmare of too much togetherness plus too little social contact was inevitable and also genius. I read these wondering how the hell I would even begin to cope with kids, job, spouse, house, and the free-floating anxiety of not knowing what the hell was happening and how soon it would kill someone I love!

For a measly $2.99 on your Kindle, get one for yourself. But if you want to give a paper copy to someone special, ORDER NOW! (And the tree book would be great because illustrations are just *better* on a paper page.)

Some SixWordMemoirs to show you what I mean:

Six feet never felt so far. — Ava Russ, 15
A young woman whose entire adolescence was interrupted by this awful event makes her private pain part of a national conversation. I admire her. I know many, many young people will relate to her.
It goes over your nose, pal. — Stina Perkins
Yes. Yes, it does.
Getting handle on pandemic. Need lid. — Krystyna Fedosejevs
Budding philosopher. Also comedian. Needs job.
For sale: prom dress, never worn. — Caroline Richardson, 19
Extra poignance points for emulating the Hemingway original. Brava. Now go get your MFA.
How can emptiness feel so heavy? — Lincoln H.
Turning friends to strangers...all alone. — Chelsea P.
Not happy. Not sad. Just empty. — Tristan N.

These are all culled from the same elementary school. No one ever gets to tell me how kids aren't ready for the way the real world works, or that they don't have the skills to process the adult world. This gives those lies their brightest exit sign.


I was very touched by the essays written by teachers and other education professionals. They're not long, maybe 500 words at most, but they pack a wallop in their palpable grief and frustration at not being able to do what they love doing. One librarian here in New York shared that their students were able to come together to have Zoom sessions (and may I just say that Zoom has earned my undying gratitude for keeping me in touch with my Young Gentleman Caller on the regular?) with writers and poets after reading their work. One such writer was Luke Dani Blue, whose story about a trans person crossing the country (Canada, one presumes, as they're based in Alberta) by Greyhound bus elicited this question from a student:
"You and your characters seem to thrive and dream of uncertain circumstances because they hold so much possibility, yet very often in life we are disappointed and miscalculate the trajectory of our new paths. What would you say is your margin of error when it comes to dream versus actual trajectory?"
Blue was so stunned by the question, all they could say was, "Woah, I feel so seen by that question. I'm going to have to think about that one."

Yes, "seen" is the right word for it. Seen, seen through, seen off, seen! Seen indeed. Teenagers are, and we forget this at our societal peril, adults without perspective or impulse control. Their intelligence will never be sharper. Their training in how to use it is all we have left to offer them...and this goddamned plague means we can not offer it to them in the same, personal way. But, and this is the reason I bring it up, permaybehaps this new, screen-intermediated way will offer the young learners some advantages. I doubt that question would've come out of the asker's mouth with that level of fluency. A chance to think about it, try different ways of phrasing it, probably made that the best question it could possibly be.

So there's a hopeful side to this misery after all....
Now I'm a barber. Who knew? — John Tehan
Golden lining. Career opportunity? Probably not.
Masks protect us from farts, too! — Ruby Bryan
Special Ed teacher whose kids are profoundly disabled. But still kids...farts are hilarious to kids.
Numbers rose, but SUN did too. — Paloma Lenz
Yes. It did indeed. And it rose a little higher for me today. Thanks, Paloma, although we'll never meet you've made an old, disabled stranger a lot happier than he was before he read your words.


That, in a nutshell, is the magic of the internet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

NEVER SILENT: ACT UP and My Life in Activism, an essential memoir about AIDS


NEVER SILENT: ACT UP and My Life in Activism
PETER STALEY
(Foreword by Anderson Cooper)
Chicago Review Press
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The previously untold stories of the life of the leading subject in David France’s How To Survive A Plague, Peter Staley, including his continuing activism

In 1987, somebody shoved a flyer into the hand of Peter Staley: massive AIDS demonstration, it announced. After four years on Wall Street as a closeted gay man, Staley was familiar with the homophobia common on trading floors. He also knew that he was not beyond the reach of HIV, having recently been diagnosed with AIDS-Related Complex.

A week after the protest, Staley found his way to a packed meeting of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power—ACT UP—in the West Village. It would prove to be the best decision he ever made. ACT UP would change the course of AIDS, pressuring the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, and three administrations to finally respond with research that ultimately saved millions of lives.

Staley, a shrewd strategist with nerves of steel, organized some of the group’s most spectacular actions, from shutting down trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to putting a giant condom over the house of Senator Jesse Helms. Never Silent is the inside story of what brought Staley to ACT UP and the explosive and sometimes painful years to follow—years filled with triumph, humiliation, joy, loss, and persistence.

Never Silent is guaranteed to inspire the activist within all of us.

I RECEIVED MY DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: There is a certain kind of person who becomes a Wall Street "Master of the Universe," in their self-perpetuated self-applied description of their glorious, oversexed, hyper-entitled selves. The Eighties were the moments of national nightmare, both the ones we saw in Wall Street embodied by poor Michael Douglas delivering the "Greed is good" speech that haunts him to this day, and the ones we ignored, eg the S&L crisis whose little brother grew up to become the GFC of the Aughties. There was the moral crisis of the horror of the Reagan Administration's heinous, vile diplomatic disasters and raid on the Social Security Trust Fund. But these are large, generation-spanning structural and systemic disasters, unfolding on time scales not really important to ordinary people.

Then there was the AIDS crisis. Or, as it was at one point called, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. This relates to the fact that the largest, most concentrated population suffering from the awful plague were urban gay men, whose "lifestyle" (how I loathe that term!) was recently, partially, and conditionally destigmatized. It burned through the New York gay-male community, it flared and killed in other gay-friendlier outposts across the country, and it was never a "gay disease" at all. Science, in its slow and ponderous way, had already established that the primary sufferers were Haitian and African heterosexuals by the end of the 1980s; this helped the disease get onto the Federal radar screens not at all.

Enter Peter Staley. Here's a Master of the Universe, a white male with all the privilege that conveyed then. And he's got AIDS-Related Complex. It was, in 1985, a kind of death sentence, a sort of scientific shrugging of the shoulders..."you ain't there yet, but it's where you're headed." And the poisonous priorities of the tax-cutting and faggot-hating "leaders" of the time meant little was being done, and that without much urgency, to discover and research the strange new disease.

This hateful cover, dated July 1985, was the moment I myownself realized why there were so many people I knew dying but not being discussed..."oh, that's them, that's something they get...not me, not my family. Sad, of course, but..." It's that poisonous little "but..." that makes the real source of the problem obvious. "As long as it stays among them, well, who really cares?"

So here's where Peter Staley was in the Eighties. He had an enviable future, one most white men regarded as dream-worthy; he had a fatal disease; and he had a country whose leadership wasn't interested in making his disease's cure or management or even treatment a priority, because by having it, he was Othered.

And he got mad.

Don't piss off the Peter Staleys of this world. They know how the world works, what value symbolism has, whose words will matter to the average person and whose story will move mountains. And, when they get mad, you will hear their voice. Loud and clear. ACT UP...AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power...was born when Staley had had enough of being told he was a dying victim, either of malevolent chance or a vengeful god or even a US government conspiracy to kill Africans. This book, in all its glorious (yet strangely not angry) insiderness, fills in a huge, huge gap in the history of a movement that forced the entire Federal medical-research machinery to create and implement more humane disease-treatment and prevention protocols. Part of that work has, no doubt, saved many many lives in the current COVID pandemic. Drug treatments and vaccine development are where they are, in part, because of a ten-year fight by the brave young men and women of that powerful coterie of angry queers.

The personal stories Staley tells, the intimate truths he reveals about the personal triumphs and sacrifices and battles that attended every step of ACT UP's early years, make the massive organization that it is today feel so much more important to me. Its continued work is very, very different from its genesis because it can be...ACT UP changed because it succeeded, and because it could start fighting for different things in this new millennium. And Staley, while no choirboy in youth or age, has never stopped fighting his demons and the dragons outside himself they light up. His life has had loss and tragedy and deep, dark passages...and he tells us about them honestly. What he doesn't do is score points off people who were once allies and friends. I admire that.

I admire Staley's work even more. ACT UP's safe-sex messages reached me, a Manhattan-resident sexually active queer in the Eighties, and very likely saved my life. The love of my life was an AIDS suffering Bajan wrestler, Bland (which he refused to answer to, "my name is B.J.!" he insisted). He was already diagnosed when we met, so all our sex was the safer sort. I lost him thirty years ago, when he was thirty-four; I miss him still.

But I am HIV-negative, and alive to do so, in no small part because of Peter Staley and the work he and his cohorts did. Thank you for my life, Peter Staley, all the awful and painful and joyous and rewarding moments of it happened because you wouldn't sit down and shut up. So now's your chance to get the story behind why he made the choices he did, what happened and to whom and when. But don't expect the unpleasant grinding noise of axes being honed to killing sharpness. A long life, longer than you ever thought it would be, teaches one the value of letting go of grudges and the futility of settling scores. Despite his own more recent challenges, Staley remains fully aware of grateful for the gift of his life. It is this that I hope our COVID-ridden youngers will absorb and embody. All who read NEVER SILENT: ACT UP and My Life in Activism have a great head start.

Monday, October 11, 2021

FOUR STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES NOVELLAS, New York Times bestselling novelist delivers scares galore



NIGHT OF THE MANNEQUINS 
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
Tor.Com Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 ebook editions, available now

WINNER OF THE 2020 SHIRLEY JACKSON AWARD FOR BEST NOVELLA!
–and–
WINNER OF THE 2020 BRAM STOKER AWARD FOR SUPERIOR ACHIEVEMENT IN LONG FICTION!

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Stephen Graham Jones returns with Night of the Mannequins, a contemporary horror story where a teen prank goes very wrong and all hell breaks loose: is there a supernatural cause, a psychopath on the loose, or both?

My Review: Stephen Graham Jones channels his inner brat, not for the first time, and with his usual success. He even mentions in his Acknowledgments that a bestie of his complimented him on his teen-voice...in such a way that he couldn't quite tell if it was a compliment. Of course it was, those are the best kind.

You don't need a book report from me, read the publisher's synopsis. So while Sawyer is caught in the nightmare of this book's reality, the thing that I loved was how often Author Stephen made my mouth-corners lift and little strangled brays of grudging laughter come out of my throat. I could follow every step of this unfolding tragedy, and there were many because, comme d'habitude, Author Stephen uses this tale to write multiple stories with intersecting messages and lessons that you can totally ignore if you want.

Like the best horror/slasher/ZOMG reads, this book delivers Thoughts on America with its hijinks. I can't abide pointless murdery crap. This is NOT that.

Everything about this read was satisfying. I understand why Sawyer was so screwed up and so scared. I get the point of a smart kid being alienated by the creepy way his world works and how easy it is to find solutions in Fantasyland. After all, religious people do it all the time.

The ending is a kick in the balls, a cry of desperation, a moment of pure need unmet. How much better can a story get?

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


MAPPING THE INTERIOR
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
Tor.com
$3.99 Kindle original, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Mapping the Interior is a horrifying, inward-looking novella from Stephen Graham Jones that Paul Tremblay calls "emotionally raw, disturbing, creepy, and brilliant."

Walking through his own house at night, a fifteen-year-old thinks he sees another person stepping through a doorway. Instead of the people who could be there, his mother or his brother, the figure reminds him of his long-gone father, who died mysteriously before his family left the reservation. When he follows it he discovers his house is bigger and deeper than he knew.

The house is the kind of wrong place where you can lose yourself and find things you'd rather not have. Over the course of a few nights, the boy tries to map out his house in an effort that puts his little brother in the worst danger, and puts him in the position to save them . . . at terrible cost.

My Review: Is this the real life? Or is it just fantasy? (Thank you, Queen, for the eternal ear-worm.) If this is just fantasy, be damned good and grateful you're not able to escape from reality.
To sleepwalk is to be inhabited, yes, but not by something else, so much. What you’re inhabited by, what’s kicking one foot in front of the other, it’s yourself. It doesn’t make sense, but I don’t think it’s under any real compulsion to, finally. If anything, being inhabited by yourself like that, what it tells you is that there’s a real you squirming down inside you, trying all through the day to pull up to the surface, look out. But it can only get that done when your defenses are down. When you’re sleeping.

A twelve year old isn't exactly a kid, isn't a teen yet, can't quite be anything because nothing...literally no thing...is stable, permanent, fully itself in his head. And we all know that Reality is just a shared fantasy. At least, all of us whose lives have changed because impossible, fantastic, unreal things have happened to us.
I figured that’s maybe what had happened to me the night before—my feet had been asleep but I’d walked on them anyway, into some other . . . not plane, I don’t think, but like a shade over, or deeper, or shallower, where I could see more than I could otherwise.
–and–
There was a line of glare in the dead television screen from the lamp and I watched it, blinking as little possible, because as soon as that line of light broke, that was going to mean something had passed between me and it. And, if it came from the right, that meant Dad was done with fixing Dino. And if it came from the left, that meant he was just getting started.

Make no mistake, this story will not leave you unchanged. It might, if you're a particular kind of person, leave you alone with memories you didn't much want to believe were still there. It could, for a different kind of person, be terrifying and strange to mentally see a dead person walking through a room.
Was that I was supposed to do, to save me and Mom? Leave Dino like an offering? Trade him for both of us? None of the cops on my shows would ever do that. Even for the worst criminal. Because of justice. Because of what’s right.
–and–
...he was looking across the room like an animal, right into my soul. His eyes shone, not with light but with a kind of wet darkness. The mouth too—no, the lips. And curling up from them was smoke.

You won't know which you are until you read these hundred-plus pages. Which you need to do.
Because—I had to say it, just to myself—because he’d been feeding on Dino, I was pretty sure. The wet lips. The empty eyes. Dino’s seizures had started before I’d seen Dad walking across the living room, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t been making that trip for three or four weeks already, then, did it?

Still here? Go get this story! Scoot!

(But, no matter what, don't do this:
I’d never smoked—you need your lungs if you dance—but after that night, I kind of understood why Mom always had. It makes you feel like you have some control. You know it’s bad for you, but you’re doing it on purpose, too. You’re breathing that in of your own volition, because you want to.

When you don’t have control of anything else, when a car can just go cartwheeling off into the horizon, then to even have just a little bit of control, it can feel good. Especially if you hold that smoke in for a long time, only let it out bit by bit.)


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


WAIT FOR NIGHT
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
Tor.com
Free! Zilch! No money!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Wait for Night by Stephen Graham Jones is horror story about a day laborer hired to help clean up a flooded creek outside of Boulder, Colorado, who comes across what could be a very valuable find.

THIS IS A TOR.COM FREE-TO-READ FICTION ORIGINAL. FOLLOW THE LINK ABOVE TO READ IT.

My Review:
...I approached the root pan. It was taller than me by half. This tree had been standing for…a hundred years? At least. Meaning this skeleton was older than that by a little bit.

A dollar sign ka-chinged distantly in my head, and when I centered on it the slot machine of my hopes opened, clattering possibility down into my throat.

Greed is a bastard, isn't it. Blood-price to pay for being greedy changes with the era, but the fact is that you're going to pay when you try to make money off the dead.

Chessup, the latest of Author Stephen's inept, greedy fools, pays a heavier price than usual but gets something I think serious readers everywhere long for in return. All the books I could finally read...and Chessup'll watch TV and drink! Such a waste. 

This round goes to Burned Dan. Maybe Julian will have to reckon with Chessup next one. As always, I got so much more from Author Stephen than he had to give. The man's generous like that.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT INDIAN
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES

Saga Press
99¢ Kindle only, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Sharp, searing, with a masterful use of language, Attack of the 50 Foot Indian is a brilliant satire of the portrayal of American Indians from breakout author Stephen Graham Jones.

A Tale of Two Moons.

Every government of every nation debates what to do when a fifty-foot tall man, dressed in a loincloth and dripping from the sea, appears off the Siberian coast. As the American people puzzle over how he came to be and what to do next, the news outlets start calling the titan “Two Moons,” social media abducts him into the memesphere, and the military, well, they have their own action-plan for dealing with threats to what they mistakenly consider their homeland.

With unapologetic honesty and wit, Stephen Graham Jones cuts to the bone of the stereotypes used for American Indians, showcasing his talent as a humorist and as one of our great American writers in this short story.

My Review: I loved it immoderately.
This was important because now his waist and pelvis and smooth upper thighs were heaving into view between the waves: he wasn’t wearing a thobe or board shorts or muslin pants or any kind of brightly colored wrap or grass skirt—he was in what looked to be a… a loincloth?

“So he is Indian,” a conn officer said, rocking with the submarine like he’d just inserted a quarter for this ride.

“Is that okay to say?” a petty officer listening in asked all around.
–and–
Spotters in helicopters were next, and had to work, but the social media outcry about the irony of using helicopters named “Apache” and “Lakota” and “Black Hawk” generated enough public outcry that these spotters were all reluctantly grounded.
*I* wouldn't make that PC joke, and I wouldn't recommend *you* make that other PC joke, but Author Jones? Go to it! I loved reading 'em, and I enjoyed that laugh more for the fact that the Blackfeet author felt he needed to make 'em. Yes, out of our mouths, my whites, they'd be horrible and offensive; out of his, satirical, biting, facetious possibly, but utterly and totally on-brand. Speaking of things white folks didn't ought to say:
“Not the White House, you idiots,” a former Texas Ranger, current congressman, said, slamming his fist down on a control board. “Can’t you see he’s going for the white women?”
And thereby hangs a visual that I won't spoiler for you despite being damn near bustin' to do so. Tears, my olds, tears of howled laughter streaming down my beard.

Included in your 99¢ purchase price is the utterly different in tone and style first chapter of The Only Good Indians, Author Jones's latest true-life horror novel. The chapter is scary enough to make me feel horripilation even thinking about it. Also included is the story of how this tale came to be, which does a whole lot to explain why it is the way it is. I don't think this guy can be, you know, average. I wonder what the cop thought....

Why be bored? Ninety-nine cents from now, you could be chuckle-stuffed and deeply gruntled. The layers of this half-hour of lunacy would delight the most geological sociologist of a killjoy reader. Texts by and about Native Americans aren't exactly rare these days, but texts that celebrate and satirize and scorn the tropes and people they limn are, and therefore are to be sought out and treasured.
...the story was that {the 50-footer} was going to force his great fingers down into the base of a certain holy mountain, grab on hard, and flip the whole thing over, releasing all the salmon or all the buffalo or all the maize and squash and beans, and it would wash across America from sea to shining sea, re-Indianing it up once and for all, the way it always should have been.
Seek no further, here it is.

UNDERNEATH, brutal yet concise true-crime novel about Mother & SHELTER, psychological horror in Australia


UNDERNEATH
LILY HOANG

Red Hen Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Martha Johnson wants to be a good mother and a devoted wife. It’s all she’s ever wanted in life, and she tries her very best, but when her husband threatens to leave her, her desperation reveals only one strategy that can save her family, punish her ungrateful husband, and earn power: murder.

Over a five-year period, Martha Johnson murders her four children, one by one, in order to punish her husband when they argue, but Martha is no ordinary serial killer. She murders her children by using the bulk of her 250-pound body to suffocate them. Unlike other fictionalized true-crime novels, Underneath neither valorizes nor focuses on the specific acts of violence. Instead, it attempts to understand how feelings of powerlessness, the residue of trauma, and the need to find justice in a world that refuses to give a fat body justice finds its only respite through murder.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Disturbing story of disempowerment's most extreme and appalling cost. That it is based on a true story made me feel ill.
...I'm pretty sure this isn't purgatory, either. It's more just like, extension. Continuation. We the murdered continue on, right underneath the living, but we aren't alive anymore. We're just here: bodies, but not bodies, too. So far as I can tell, the living can't see or hear or feel or smell us, but sometimes, if I get close enough to Martha, I swear she can taste me. ... Because we were murdered, this is our punishment.

As one expects from stories published by Red Hen Press's Kate Gale, monadnock of the LA literary publishing scene for {undisclosed} years now, there is a weird and unsettling tension between the lovely language and the sheer awfulness unfolding inside those pretty phrases and unnerving images. Why should the murdered, especially these child-victims, be made to suffer punishment? Discuss amongst yourselves after reading this intensely book-clubbable book.

Incest...prostitution...child-murder...maternal child abuse...domestic violence...and told through a dead child's point of view. "Is this old man round the bend for good?" I hear y'all thinking, as you read my sentence above about the book being "intensely book-clubbable." No: I'm hoping to make it plain to you that this story is so viscerally real, so eye-wateringly honest about the actual experience of mothering for a not insignificant segment of women, that y'all bougie book clubbers could do with a corrective lens to all the saintly, rise-above-it-all, succeed succeed succeed "women's fiction" guff that gets Oprah'd and Reese'd. Please note that I am not attempting a knock on these book clubs, they are hugely popular for a reason and their choices are not all in one and only one vein...but they are very fond of a certain type of story (described above) and return to books telling it quite often. Don't fix what ain't broken.

I want people to look past the usual and see the raw edges where things have failed and fragmented in different ways. Where the fault lines that exist in much of the world go at a different angle. I include myself in this, as my periodic reviews of *shudder* poetry and *urp* YA stories demonstrate. Successful for me or not, these reads are in areas I'm hell-bent-for-leather not to ignore simply because I so very often find them...unpleasant...to read. As I've said many times, I do not want to die above the neck before I die below it. So I'm out there sayin' "yes" when people offer me the damn things instead of running away like I want to...challenging my prejudices is the only way I know to prevent them from becoming part of the bone structure.

With Underneath, Author Hoang very much did that kind of challenging. We're not innocents, readers all, we've read The Lovely Bones and/or seen its movie. Dead narrators in fiction go a long, long way farther back in time than that. I'm not sure this take on the story she's telling here, a sort of slo-mo In Cold Blood, is one I'd've recommended to her. (I sure as hell wouldn't've recommended using w-bombs.) But when you're fully in the flow of the story you can see why this choice was exactly right, and possibly the only one she could have made. There was no other structure which would've enabled the Bernice-to-Martha-to-Arlene transmission of woman-violence to come clear. It needed an eyewitness whose eyes weren't in the same place they used to be. Like, Earth.

The pace of storytelling...well...I don't exactly know what to tell you. This isn't a novella, but it's not a long book. It doesn't linger on any scene. It simply is Arlene...talking to you. The story seems, in my experience of reading it, to tell itself to you in some peculiar way. Maybe the narrator being a child, who specifically says she's a child but one whose, um, existence after death keeps her learning, is so disorienting that the story becomes more of presence than she is? I can't be sure...but to me, the story was its own narrator, and it called itself Arlene. (If that makes any sense to you, could you explain it to me?) It doesn't repeat itself. It doesn't leave stuff out (for long). It's got a pull like a river's current, not dramatic but inexorable and powerful, like it won't let you go once you're there.

So go with it.

The structural facts of a novel told in vignettes...in discrete story-slices, layered with the sadness that floats under the surface of the ever-expanding skin of mother eating, of child growing, of marriage to a man who loves only what he needs and not what he wants bloating as its death-gases seek escape...is irregular, like the crumb structure of the best bread is. Not for Author Hoang, writing about cake...endless cakes made and eaten, made and eaten, never ever shared...the dense, regular, sweet crumbs left on an unused party-plate. The coarse and unappealing crumbs, food for scavenging ants, of hollow-sounding adulterated loafs of dollar-store bread; these make Martha's and Arlene's lines as they slip and catch and form shapes no one wants to see, just sweep into a trash can or, at best, into a crumb-catcher for possible crushing and reuse after they're fully hardened and useless as food in themselves.

There is a crisis in this world. It's a crisis of unlove. There are so many, many people in the world who are unloved. Who can't love or return love or even conceptualize it. They're incapable of it; they need it the more desperately because of that. But they don't and can't and won't get love. They are love-less. Bernice? Martha? Even, in the end, Arlene...love-less. Love, you see, isn't a word or a fancy chocolate bar, or a birthday card. It's action, investment of time and emotion. And the tragedy, in the ancient sense as well as the modern, of this story is that It. Is. True.

Beautiful sentences telling a dreadful, tragic tale of love, in its absence and its perverse, incomprehensible to normies, twisted shapes. Read this and be very, very glad you are none of these people.

Read this and shudder to your bones: You are all of these people. Happy Spooktober.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


SHELTER
CATHERINE JINKS

Text Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Meg lives alone. Her little house in the bush outside town is the perfect place to hide. This seclusion is one of the reasons she offers to shelter Nerine, a young women escaping an abusive ex-partner. The other is that Meg knows what it’s like to live with the looming threat of a violence at the hands of someone you love.... Nerine is jumpy and her two little girls are frightened. This tells Meg all she needs to know about where they’ve come from, and she’s not all that surprised when Nerine asks her to get hold of a gun. But she knows it’s unnecessary. They’re safe now. Or so Meg thinks… Then she starts to wonder about some little things. A disturbed flyscreen. A tune playing on her windchimes. Has Nerine’s ex tracked them down? Has Meg’s husband turned up to torment her some more? By the time she finds out, it’ll be too late to do anything but run for her life.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Remember the first time the old aphorism, "No good deed goes unpunished," held real, tangible, awful Truth for you? Strap in....

Meg is the kind of friend you hope you'll have in an emergency or crisis. She's been there, she's done what she could, realizes how important the mere fact of showing up is. She'll give you shelter, she'll offer support, she will feed you and listen to you and Be There in the psychological, supportive sense of the words.

That's because she did not get those things when she so badly needed them during her devastatingly abusive marriage.

Nerine and her two daughters are, as we're shown, in a situation where Meg, her home (which she's ever so aptly named "Bolt Hole"), and her way with others are just exactly what they need. In they come; settle they do not. Nerine is in constant motion, constantly talking taking talking about how horrible the girls' father is (right in front of their scared little faces), how bad their lives were, how the courts have...insanely, incomprehensibly...given this vile predatory abuser visitation rights! Can you even imagine! she asks Meg, never waiting for an answer.

Then the nightmare turns real...awful things having been said, there are suddenly weird and unnerving things happening...frightening but, as yet, not violent things...footprints and noises where and when they shouldn't be, and all the time Nerine's talk talk talk about the horrors of the past makes little Analiese and Collette, her very young daughters, scared and jumpy. Meg, a grown woman with an estranged daughter living in England (can't forgive Mum for staying with the awful narcissistic personality disorder-having Dad), empathizes with all three, tries her best to distract and entertain the girls with rural life's many pleasures. Nerine? Nothing changes her focus. She is wound way too tight, experiences all things as threats and blames everything on the violent, awful ex who will, it comes to seem, jump down from a tree onto them with a machete!

As the unnerving stuff escalates into actual violence (CONTENT WARNING: ANIMAL CRUELTY), Meg begins to piece together some very, very strange facts and comes up with a truly frightening picture.

As I read the story, I was genuinely unsettled and disturbed. I can't say I expected the twist, having thought from the get-go there was going to be one. What it was, however, surprised me. Author Jinks deserves big ups for her unnerving choice of an ending. It was not what I'd thought it would be, and made the story that much more appealing to me.

Animal cruelty cost the book a star. I understood why Author Jinks made that choice, and I wasn't inclined to put the book down for good because of it, but it was dreadful and I warn my more sensitive readers (Kathy!) not to consider this tale for their own shelves.

The topic of incest and the crime of rape are factors in this story. They are hot buttons for many. I will say that Auhtor Jinks does not sensationalize them. They aren't dwelt on with ghoulish and repugnant "look! LOOK at how AWFUL men are!" glee. They are presented as facts, and as crimes; they are part of the women's experiences, and are told to us, the readers, as such.

I quite liked the pace set by Author Jinks. We're not in a hurry to get where we're going; there are interesting side characters and the land itself is a character of a sort. That, from my point of view, set the stakes effectively high for Meg, and for the reader. Anything that disrupts this lovely woman's Bolt Hole is a Bad Thing. And boy oh boy, the bad thing is very, very bad indeed. As Spooktober reads go, I think this one is as scary and as nightmarish as they come. Perfect for y'all ghoulies looking for a safe place to be wound up and scared witless!