Two Child-in-Peril Books

I don’t usually like child in peril/child suffering/missing child fiction. As a parent, I find them too disturbing. For some reason, two of the books that I read in October were weird missing/suffering child thrillers. I still found them overly disturbing, but there was enough weirdness in them to keep my curiously reading while I cringed. Here are a couple mini reviews for those who can handle such books:

Title: The Last House on Needless Street
Author: Catriona Ward
Genre: Unreliable Narrator Weirdness
Pages: 352
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

If you like unreliable narrators and can handle disturbing/abusive content, this is the book for you. There are multiple first person POV narrators (including a talking, Bible-reading cat) and some third person limited omniscient narration. It’s the kind of story where you spend a lot of it trying to figure out what is going on with dawning horror and some barely believable twists. A lot of it has been done before, but the author does it very well (even if her self-important afterward is a bit overblown).

Title: The Changeling
Author: Victor LaValle
Genre: Magical Realism/Fairytale Mess
Pages: 448
Rating: 1.5 out of 5

I picked this up in spite of the “missing child” plot because I enjoyed LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, and this book won multiple awards and rave reviews. Unfortunately, I thought the book was an absolute mess. It’s one of those “magical realism” things where “magical realism” is an excuse for incoherent worldbuilding, illogical character behavior, and plot coming in a distant second to preachy ideology. Parts were compelling, but it felt like three largely unrelated stories smashed clumsily together with an eye on portraying big important themes (importance of family, difficulty of being a black woman, dangers of white males and social media) rather than on presenting a coherent narrative.

Two More for the Book Challenges

Life is still pretty chaotic at our house, but I’ve finished another book for each of the two reading challenges I’m doing this year. First, for the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge I completed this book for the Classics Short Story Collection category:

Title: An Obsession with Death and Dying: Volume 1
Author: Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish, George Hopley)
Genre: Classic Pulp Fiction
Pages: 335
Rating: 4 of 5

Cornell Woolrich falls into my second tier of Pulp crime/detective fiction authors. He’s no Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but still worth reading if you enjoy the genre. Woolrich knows how to crank up and maintain suspense, even if his endings tend to be either painfully predictable or so out of left field that they barely make sense.

This collection in honor of his 50th “death-day” pulls together 10 of his stories that have the word death or die in the title. It’s a mixed bag, that gives a pretty good feel for what Woolrich is capable of. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of classic pulp detectives.

The second book I’m reviewing is from my list for The Official TBR Pile Challenge. This book has been hanging out on my TBR pile for a couple years since Amazon insistently recommended it because of my interest in weird/cosmic horror fiction:

Title: The Twenty Days of Turin
Author: Giorgio De Maria
Translator: Ramon Glazov
Genre: Weird Fiction / Satire
Pages: 224
Rating: 4 of 5

Since I’m not up on 1970’s Italian political history, I doubt that I caught all of the satirical nuances in this Italian novel that recounts a “mass psychosis” tragedy in Turin (as researched and retold by our intrepid narrator). That said, it still works as a creepy piece of weirdness with themes of voyeurism, paranoia, insomnia, uncaring powers, and more.

It became clear to me what was going on fairly early in the book (intentionally on the author’s part, I think). However, the characters’ unwillingness or inability to do anything about it or even acknowledge it is what provided a lot of the disturbing atmosphere. Also, I’m not quite sure what the author intended “the library” to represent in his original context, but it came across as a prescient warning against some of the darker aspects of social media. I’m really not sure what else I can describe without starting to give things away, but if you’re in the mood for something strange and paranoid check this out.

Two Strange Classics

I finished one more book in each of the two reading challenges that I’m doing this year. Both are classics and both left me with a bit of that “What did I just read?” feeling. From The Official TBR Pile Challenge I read this collection of classic short stories:

Title: The Overcoat and Other Stories
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Genre: Classic Russian Weirdness
Pages: 144
Rating: 2 of 5

I have read a couple other books by Gogol (Dead Souls and Taras Bulba) and enjoyed them well enough (if enjoy is the right word for appreciating the bleakness that is Russian literature)….this collection, not so much.

Gogol’s work is generally oddly satirical, and in these stories he cranked up the odd part to the max. A couple of them crossed the line into completely surreal nonsense territory which just isn’t my samovar of tea.

Add to this the fact that Gogol is a Russian-speaking (albeit Ukrainian-born) author who frequently pokes fun at Ukraine (which he mostly calls “Little Russia”) and it just wasn’t a good time to be reading this. I have friends in Ukraine who are now refugees and others who spent weeks hiding in their house for fear of being robbed and/or shot by the Russian occupiers, so a Russian-speaker poking fun at Ukrainian culture is the last thing that I wanted to read, even if he is doing it with some level of fondness.

The second book that I read was this modern classic for the Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic category at the Back to the Classics 2020 Challenge:

Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsay
Genre: Classic Australian Weirdness
Pages: 225
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I hope that this author thanked her editor for convincing her to drop the final chapter and leave the mystery at the heart of the story open-ended. As it stands, this reads like a bleak Unsolved Mysteries true-crime docudrama.

Three teenage girls and a teacher disappear on a school picnic in the Australian brush, and we get front row seats to the effect it has on their posh boarding school and the surrounding community. Along the way we get a few weird clues about what happened to the missing people with mysterious asides from the author, but the story cuts off with a mass of loose ends. The fact that we don’t get a nice, neat wrap-up puts the focus on well-written characters in heartbreaking situations and makes it the haunting modern classic that it is.

An attached essay gives the gist of the original ending which has since been found. It seems like weirdness just for the sake of weirdness that sucks any reality out of the rest of the book. I would advise against reading it (or a summary of it). Just let the loose ends haunt you…

Two Weird Reads

Title: Area X – The Southern Reach Trilogy
(includes Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Trippy Weirdness
Pages: 608
Rating: 4 of 5

There is a fine line between “fascinatingly weird” and “trippy to the point of being incomprehensible.” Jeff VanderMeer balances right on that line. His mind-bending blend of Lovecraftian elements, Area 51/Men-in-Black style conspiracy, and alien landscape exploration makes for a disorienting reading experience. This guy knows how to write weird fiction! If you need your stories wrapped up in a nice little bow, this is not for you, but I think that there are enough answers and hints for a satisfying reading experience that will keep you pondering long after you finish.

Title: Entropy in Bloom
Author: Jeremy Robert Johnson
Genre: Gross, Angry Weirdness
Pages: 280
Rating: 2 of 5

Amazon insistently recommended this book based on my reading of Lovecraftian cosmic horror…stupid Amazon! There were some memorable stories in here, but they relied mostly on gross and morally shocking elements for their punch, rather than anything particularly Lovecraftian. Mostly it felt like the author was morally outraged about something (President George W., reality TV, straight-edge macho culture, addiction, etc.) and decided to write a shocking story that pushed it to a weird and horrifying extreme, including plenty of profanity and sexuality. Overall, I can see how some people would really like this, but it was just too angry and gross (viscerally and morally) for me.

Rabbit Rabbit

Rabbits: A Novel by [Terry Miles]

Title: Rabbits
Author: Terry Miles
Genre: Ready Player One wannabe Sci-Fi
Pages: 423
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: June 8, 2021
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book is a pretty close approximation to what you would get if Franz Kafka took a break from writing The Trial and tried to rip off Ready Player One (with way fewer 80’s pop culture references) but then got bored and abruptly ended it.

The plot centers around a nebulous “game” (informally known as rabbits) played in the real world. No one is supposed to talk about the game. No one is sure what the prize is, who runs it, or if they are actually even playing it. Oh, and just for good measure, people sometimes die or disappear while playing. Playing involves spotting seeming coincidences and subtle links that lead you to clues in a process which repeats until ????!

Our hero, a less than mentally and emotionally well-adjusted individual known simply as K, become involved in trying to fix the most recent iteration of the game, and it’s hard to say much more without spoilers. It’s all pretty trippy as ideas thrown around include the Mandela effect, the multiverse, quantum computing, obsession, conspiracy, mental and emotional trauma, and much more.

If the author had managed a halfway satisfactory ending I probably would have given the book 4 stars. I rather enjoyed the weirdness of it all (in spite of fairly flat unappealing characters and an F-bomb every couple pages), but the ending felt completely rushed. It explained very little and left myriad loose ends. It’s probably supposed to feel “mysterious” and “open ended,” but to me it just felt incomplete (and possibly a bit lazy on the author’s part). Obviously, your experience may vary, so don’t let me discourage you if this sounds like your sort of weirdness.

Several Series Started

This year I have started reading/listening through a few different series and trilogies. I don’t plan on reviewing every book because that can get a bit repetitive and/or spoilery, so I’ll be doing a big overall review as I finish each series or trilogy. That said, here is my current impression of each one (picture is of the first book in each series):

A Dead Djinn in Cairo: A Tor.Com Original by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Series: Fatma el-Sha’arawi
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Alternate History / Detective
Read: 2 of 3 (first 2 are novellas)

This alternate history features a fascinating early 20th century Cairo transformed by constant contact with the world of the djinn. There are elements of magic, steampunk, and liberal politics. The author has a tendency to be a little bit preachy, but it doesn’t generally come at the expense of a good detective story. I am looking forward to reading the first full-length novel in the series.

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Series: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-fi
Read: 1 of 6 (mostly novella-length).

Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its massive collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment. I’m only one book in so I’m not sure where the overall story-arc is going to go, but watching Murderbot navigating the world of humans and their schemes has proved entertaining so far.

The Big Sleep: A Novel (Philip Marlowe series Book 1) by [Raymond Chandler, Richard Amsel Movie Tie-In Cover]

Series: Philip Marlowe
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Read: 2 of 7 (rereading)

Hardboiled detective fiction from the 1920’s-50’s is my go-to escapist genre, and Raymond Chandler is top tier (equaled only by Dashiell Hammett). His Philip Marlowe is smart (even making occasional literary allusions), tough, and snarky but actually a pretty nice guy. You do have to be able to cringe and then overlook some product-of-its-era prejudice/slurs to enjoy the genre.

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]

Series: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Lovecraftian Weird / Humor / Satire
Read: 2 of 3

I haven’t ever listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), so I don’t know how the books compare. These books give me weirdness overload. They have their funny moments but there is so much random strangeness (and occasional preachiness) that I’m having a hard time working up the motivation to read the final book.

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher (The Witcher Saga Book 1) by [Andrzej Sapkowski]

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark-ish Fantasy
Read: 5 of 8

The first two books in the series are short story collections with a strong monster-hunter, fairytale-retelling vibe. Once the series actually kicks off, it has more of a Glen Cook Grimdark feel: heavy on the political machinations and reveling in moral ambiguity. There’s more profanity & explicit content than I really care for, but not enough to make me quit the series. I’m listening to these as audible audiobooks, and the narrator is excellent with voices and accents…but why oh why does he keep changing how he pronounces Dandelion’s name?!

Weirdness Overload

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]Title: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Humorous Dystopian Weird Fiction + Urban Fantasy
Pages: 407
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book reads like the unholy spawn of Douglas Adams and H. P. Lovecraft that was left on its own to watch untold hours of The Twilight Zone. Its quirky turn of phrase, foreboding Southwestern US setting, and mysterious dark forces (eldritch, dystopian, and librarian) come together in one of the strangest things I have read outside of a Franz Kafka novel.

In one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, a paragraph ends with the completely irrelevant observation: “A magician wandered along the beach, but no one needed him.” Welcome to Night Vale is loaded with this sort of weird little digression. Some of them may be references to characters and events from the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (which I have never listened to), but mostly they form a tapestry of weirdness against which the bizarre, bordering-on-farcical action occurs.

Characters include angels who are all named Erika [though no one is allowed to believe in angels so forget I said that], a teenage shapeshifter and his mother, and an eternally 19-year-old pawn shop clerk. I don’t know how to describe the plot without spoilers other than to say that it involves trying to figure out what is going on with a strange man who triggers a strange occurrence (though how anything can be considered strange in Night Vale is beyond me). Amid all the weirdness and witty phrases, it explores serious themes of growing up, family relationships, etc.

Overall, it was an entertaining read with its share of wit and wisdom, but it took me longer than usual to get through because I could only take it in small doses. There is so much random weirdness purely for the sake of being random and weird that I needed frequent breaks from the silliness of it all. I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series and/or check out the podcast at some point, but right now I’m all weirded out.

Grownup Gwendy

Title: Gwendy’s Magic Feather
Author: Richard Chizmar
Pages: “330” (probably half that when use of white space is taken into account)
Genre: Horror/Weird/Mystery/Family Drama
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The first Gwendy book, a novella in which Chizmar collaborated with Stephen King, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. I originally said this about it:

This short book falls more into the “weird” category than actual horror. It could be seen as a sort of twist on the story of Pandora’s Box…only this box comes with sinister buttons (especially the big black one) and a couple nice levers. This isn’t high action and doesn’t provide nice neat answers at the end, but it’s an excellent example of “the weird.”

Chizmar’s solo effort at expanding the Gwendiverse was disappointing in comparison. The titular “magic feather” has very little part in the story. Instead, we’re treated to another round of Gwendy inexplicably receiving the magic button box and indecisively dithering about whether or not she should use it…but only after 1/4 of the book catches us up on what Gwendy has been doing with her life over the last couple decades.

We already have a pretty good idea of the general function of the button box, so that major fascinating element of the original story is missing. It’s replaced with a hodgepodge of storylines including Gwendy engaging in AIDS activism, being an anti-Trump (though he’s not called Trump and it’s the 90’s) congresswoman, trying to catch a possible serial killer, and dealing with her mother’s cancer. Toward the end the box does demonstrate one new power, but it just feels like an amazingly convenient way to wrap up one of the storylines.

Overall, it felt like this mocking description of Darth Vader from one of the Night at the Museum movies:

Beware the Psychoactive Swamp Powder

Title: Come Back to the Swamp
Author: Laura Morrison
Genre: Weird/Horror?
Pages: 108
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 8/7/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for giving me a free eARC in exchange for a review – this in no way influences the content of the review)

When I saw that the author described herself as having “a bachelor’s degree in applied ecology and environmental science,” I was a bit worried that this novella might turn out to be little more than preachy environmentalist propaganda. Thankfully, that was not the case at all. Environmental issues contribute naturally to the creepy, unsettling plot and there is no heavy-handed attempt to scare or guilt the reader into some sort of activism (though I suppose the whole thing could be an extended metaphor for how you can get sucked into environmental causes).

Our protagonist, Bernice, is a grad student who is doing field working on her ecology degree (by clearing invasive species in Cleary Swamp) when she runs into a crazy old woman who claims to be the swamp…a crazy old woman who might be looking for a successor. What follows includes the pressures of being a grad student, space opera, psychoactive swamp powder, and the implacable will of nature.

The narration is frequently humorous but by the second half there is a continually mounting dread that the author pulls off very well. As with any novella, the low page count leaves some issues unexplored (e.g. what does the scary swamp lady do besides mess with poor Bernice?), but it was a satisfyingly creepy read.

5 Mini-Reviews

I’m on vacation…I have two whole weeks off from having to prepare for Bible studies, sermons, counseling sessions, etc., so my brain has gone into “idle” and refuses to write any full reviews (to say nothing of Grandma’s slow/unreliable internet connection). However, I’ve been reading some interesting stuff so here are five mini-reviews:

Image result for book cover miseryTitle: Misery
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Psychological Horror
Pages: 339
Rating: 4 of 5

Author Paul Sheldon is “rescued” from a car accident by his “number one fan,” and held captive while he is forced to write a sequel to his most recent potboiler. The spectacularly unstable Annie Wilkes demonstrates that psychotic human behavior can be more terrifying than anything supernatural. As is usual with Stephen King, I’m not a fan of the profanity (though Annie uses silly/cutesy faux-curses), but that man can write!

Title: Inferno
Authors: Larry Niven & Jerry Pournell
Genre: Horror / Retelling
Pages: 237
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Allen Carpentier, a sci-fi writer (who is an agnostic), dies in a stupid drunken accident and awakes in what appears to be hell as described by Danté. There, he meets Benito who conducts him through the “nine circles of hell” in an effort to leave the same way Danté did. Along the way, Carpentier tries to figure out “what’s really going on,” sees some clever modern updates to “classic sins,” and explores a theology that is equal parts atheistic “God is a moral monster” argument, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and Rob Bell’s Love Wins. B+ for creativity, D- for theology.

Title: Gwendy’s Button Box
Author: Stephen King & Richard Chizmar
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 180 (with a lot of blank space & illustrations)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This short book falls more into the “weird” category than actual horror. It could be seen as a sort of twist on the story of Pandora’s Box…only this box comes with sinister buttons (especially the big black one) and a couple nice levers. This isn’t high action and doesn’t provide nice neat answers at the end, but it’s an excellent example of “the weird.”

Title: Wayne of Gotham
Author: Tracy Hickman
Genre: Superhero
Pages: 304
Rating: 2 of 5

This story digs into the background of Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father) and dirties him up a bit. I’m only a casual Batman fan so I don’t know how well it fits with “canon” (poorly, I suspect). Continuity/canonicity issues aside, it just wasn’t a very good book; the author obsessively describes Batman’s tech (even in the middle of action scenes), mentions Batman’s advancing age and slowing reflexes every few pages, and somehow manages to make Batman boring.

Title: Trouble Is My Business
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I love noir/hardboiled detective stories, and Chandler is one of the best (only Hammett is on the same level). The four (longish) short stories in this volume all feature his iconic detective, Philip Marlowe. Marlowe doesn’t seem to be as well developed in these stories as in his full length novels (he seems a little less snarky and well-read here), but this is still well worth reading.