I haven’t read much noir, but I know that Jim Thompson was one of the premier names in the genre and is still a must-read. This was my first time dipping into his work, and wow, it’s some wild, fantastic stuff. The story is told from the perspective of Charlie “Little” Bigger, a hitman that goes against widespread expectations. He’s five feet tall, wears false teeth, and seems sick with tuberculosis. That’s all hidden beneath prosthetics and lifts, though.
Bigger is sent to a town in upstate New York to kill Jake Winroy, a man who ran a horse-betting ring for the mob and has turned rat for the authorities. Winroy just so happens to own a boarding house where Bigger sets up shop and goes about seducing Winroy’s wife while putting on an act of someone interested in the local university. Things go down an increasingly surreal path when Bigger falls for the housekeeper, a young woman with one leg the size of a baby’s. This is such a dark, strange novel going to places I didn’t expect from a 1950s noir (maybe I have a totally wrong perception of the genre?). Entertaining and twisted and a quick read due to Thompson’s mastery of his character’s voice.
This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno
The novel opens with Thiago mourning the death of his wife, Vera. Her death was sudden, caused by a simple accident at a subway station. Thiago begins to believe there’s something more complex happening, and it all started with Itza. Itza is essentially an analog for any current voice-activated devices sold by Apple or Amazon. The couple is woken up in the middle of the night to Itza blasting music and putting on a light show. Then packages start showing up for things they never ordered. Or is this related to their apartment, a place that seems to exude dark energy, where a mysterious door frame appears in the middle of the night, light seeping through the cracks. Author Gus Moreno has penned an engrossing horror novel about grief, loss, and the distance humans put between each other sometimes without realizing it. So much happens here, much of which you will never expect. If you are looking for a horror novel that feels fresh and presents a new voice, there’s a lot here you’ll enjoy.
The Outlaw Album: Stories by Daniel Woodrell
Daniel Woodrell first came across my radar with the film adaptation of his novel Winter’s Bone. The Outlaw Album is the first time I’ve read his work, and I really enjoyed this short story collection. I think the best stories come in the first half of the book; they were the ones that caught my attention the strongest. The collection opens with a strong entry, “The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” a short tale about an Ozark man killing his neighbor, a “carpetbagger” in his mind. The following story, “Uncle,” is told from the POV of a rural woman who lives under the perverse authority of her rapist uncle. It’s a story of a victim defeating their victimizer, and it does not go well for the uncle. My favorite is “Night Stand,” where a man wakes up to find a naked intruder standing over his bed growling. He responds with lethal force, and the fallout when he learns who the man was and why he might have been there create chasms in his community. These aren’t easy to get through but well worth it, a dark exploration of the Ozarks.
The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera
In February, I started a second blog, The Reading Circle, dedicated to sharing great children’s books with parents and teachers. I’d been thinking about doing it since the pandemic started, and I decided to go for it. Part of that blog is reading through recent Middle Grade (ages 8-12) novels and reviewing them. You will likely be surprised if you haven’t read this particular sub-genre of kid-lit lately. The quality of the writing and the complexity of the themes are remarkable. In The Last Cuentista, we follow Petra Peña, a girl who wants to follow in her abuelita’s footsteps and become a storyteller. Unfortunately, that is cut short as Earth is imploding due to climate catastrophe. Petra’s parents, both scientists, secure spots for their family on a space ark with plans to establish humanity on another world. Everyone is put into stasis with special courses programmed to run in their subconscious, preparing the children for the type of scientific work needed when they arrive. Petra is unexpectedly woken up to find the ark has been taken over by the descendants of her caretakers, now obsessed with erasing all traces of Earth. Petra feigns brainwashing but has to act fast before the memory of everything she loves fades forever. I was highly impressed with this novel, a remarkable examination of the type of anti-history thinking coming out of right-wing ideology. This book reminds us that the diversity of our world is one of its greatest strengths.
Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne
Eleven-year-old Josephine is a Caribbean girl having difficulty dealing with her widower father dating. She’s become skilled at driving these women away, much to her dad’s consternation. His only leverage is Josephine’s love of cricket, a sport that she has difficulty playing because she is a girl. A sympathetic teacher helps her get a spot on the school team, and everything seems right. It all changes with the arrival of Mariss, dad’s new girlfriend. Mariss appears to possess a supernatural power over dad, and Josephine suspects she’s dealing with a being out of Caribbean mythology. This was a fun read, reminding me of Bruce Coville’s My Teacher is an Alien books. I love that this tale showcases Black characters and introduces young readers to a new mythology/folklore they may not be familiar with. From what I’ve read, this is the first book in an intended series, but thankfully the first entry is a close-ended story. I like the idea of a Monster of the Week series for kids more than some bloated book series with mid-tier writing (looking in your direction J.K.).
The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo
Kate DiCamillo published her first book in 2000 when I was out of the intended age range. This was the first of her books I’ve ever read, and I was profoundly impressed. The Beatryce Prophecy is an amazingly complex and surprisingly short read about some tremendous ideas. In an unnamed medieval kingdom, a mysterious child shows up at a monastery belonging to the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing during a time of war. She’s found in the stables by Brother Edik and protected by the monastery’s willful goat Answelica. Edik begins to realize he wrote about this girl in a prophecy, the one who is destined to upend the king and establish a new order. Beatryce finds she has stories swirling in her mind, and these stories inform her decisions and open the minds of the people she meets. DiCamillo presents a stunning allegory about how power seeks to suppress stories and imagination because they know it will bring them down. For people to imagine a world they are told is impossible is a powerful thing; to stretch beyond the boundaries of the mundane can begin to create a new world.
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