Book Update – January/February 2023

American War by Omar El-Akkad

Would we ever be told that the United States is in a civil war, or would the government & media simply keep acting like everything was okay? My survey of things back home leads me to believe the current civil war has been raging for years. However, it would never be fought on battlefields like the war in the 1860s. Instead, it is a war akin to the ramp-up of the Troubles in Ireland or the Years of Lead in Italy. When it all explodes, it will be messy and fractious; violence is and will continue to be intra-state, urban vs. suburban vs. rural. Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar El-Akkad has penned his first novel about a second American war using metafiction, where articles & documents from this parallel reality are used between chapters following a critical figure in the collapse.

Sarat Chestnut is a climate refugee whose family is pushed out of Louisiana as the war spreads. The Chestnuts end up in a refugee camp on the border of Mississippi and Tennessee. The narrative keeps following Sarat as the war tears apart her family and warps her mind. Eventually, as a young adult, she joins a specific cell that wants to assassinate an essential leader in the nation’s new capital Columbus, Ohio. El-Akkad paints a fascinating, realistically complicated world. However, it fell pretty flat until the book’s last quarter. After a stay in a Guantanamo-styled prison where Florida used to be before the ocean levels rose, Sarat dramatically changes due to the trauma she endured. That was the part of the book that made me feel something. The rest feels too driven by the author’s journalistic background rather than an engaging narrative. 

The Best Horror of the Year Volume 14 (2022) Edited by Ellen Datlow

Ellen Datlow is a treasure in the horror community, having been the editor on all 14 volumes of this series plus many different themed collections of horror & dark fantasy for over thirty years. Every year, she reads through hundreds of pieces of new horror fiction and compiles the best here. Not only that, she provides brief blurb reviews of every single horror novel, short story collection, anthology, and nonfiction works about the genre that came out for the respective year. So basically, if you want to get into horror, just pick up one of these collections, and you will have a hundred different things to explore. Here are some highlights from Volume 14:

“Caker’s Man” by Matthew Holness – Holness is better known to many as Garth Marenghi. This short is pure horror, told from a man’s perspective reflecting on the terrifying neighbor across the street from his childhood. Such a wonderfully grotesque story with a genuinely evil antagonist.

“The Offering” by Michael Marshall Smith – a couple and their teenage son find the Copenhagen AirBnB they booked was not what they imagined. There’s also some family drama coming to the surface. It all culminates in a heart-sinking tragic finale. Gnomes may be involved. 

“Dancing Sober in the Dust” by Steve Toase – in the vein of Clive Barker’s sensual horror, this is from the perspective of a crazed researcher who has become obsessed with the sadistic costumes made by a husband/wife performance art team. However, there is a mysterious missing costume that the narrator discovers he is destined to make. 

“The Strathantine Imps” by Steve Duffy – a clear homage to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Dark, psychological. It’s about two orphaned children and their uncle, who keeps the company of creepy people.

“All Those Lost Days” by Brian Evenson – Evenson is always a win for me. This is about a man whose brother vanished on an amusement park ride when they were children. The nature of what was happening behind the scenes of the ride reveals a shocking horror.

“Three Sisters Bog” by Eoin Murphy – a father and son are searching for their dog who has run into the property of a trio of witchy sisters. The sense of dread this story cultivates is so good. We know they will cross paths with these gorgons, and when they do, it is satisfyingly horrific. 

“Poor Butcher-Bird” by Gemma Files – it’s a vampire story but not at all how you expect. A young woman has infiltrated a strange punkish cult. They keep a severed head that can still look around but can’t speak. There’s a ritual involving bathing in blood. It ends on an incredibly satisfying & gory note.

“I’ll Be Gone By Then” by Eric LaRocca – LaRocca has made a name for himself in horror very quickly, with help from BookTok. Like his other stories, this is not supernatural but boldly psychological, centered around one person becoming exhausted with their elderly, invalid parent. 

“Tiptoe” by Laird Barron – Barron is the master and, this year, experienced a medical emergency that left him in the hospital for five weeks. He’s back home now but has a long road to recovery. This short story showcases everything I love about his writing. It feels like a blend of different genres and leaves you with an ambiguous but shocking ending. 

Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh

This was my first encounter with the writing of Otessa Moshfegh, and I loved it. I was reminded of Jackie Ess’s Darryl, another novel with a profoundly strong character voice. Eileen is a twenty-four-year-old woman living in an area of 1960s Massachusetts. She works in a juvenile detention center for young men, mostly doing paperwork. Her home life is incredibly depressing, focused on her angry, hateful alcoholic father. Eileen is obsessed with scatological subjects and picking apart her own body. Most of the book is just letting her ponder a whole host of topics, getting her twisted perspective. No one really knows these things about Eileen as she doesn’t speak them out loud. 

Told in reflection from the 2010s, Eileen lets us know she is leading up to a fateful meeting with a new employee at the prison. However, Moshfegh takes her time getting there, but I never felt like she was stalling. Having a solid understanding of our protagonist’s psychology makes the details of the central narrative hit harder. Eileen constantly talks about getting in the car and driving away, never telling anyone where she has gone. Her fears pull her back, more comfortable in the squalor of the life she knows than the dangers of the world outside her bubble. I was stunned at how incredible this book was, and I plan on reading more of Mosfegh’s work as soon as possible. Eileen has been turned into a film, directed by Wiliam Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) and starring Thomasin McKenzie & Anne Hathaway, that will likely be out in the second half of 2023.

Straight Man by Richard Russo

When I saw Bob Odenkirk was producing and starring in a television adaptation of this Richard Russo novel, I moved it up my TBR list. I’ve never read any Russo before, but I have known of him for decades. The novel centers on William Henry Devereaux Jr., aka Hank, the interim English department chair at the fictional West Central Pennsylvania University. Hank is a curmudgeon, always making sarcastic remarks whenever he gets ticked off. The book opens with his best friend & colleague Teddy rushing Hank home after a nasty incident during a department meeting. Unfortunately, a notebook’s metal spiral gave Hank an impromptu nose piercing when he was struck in the face with it. 

This novel has a relatively simple story but a sprawling cast of characters. His department pressures Hank to get money and confirmation on a full-time chair for the coming year. When a local news crew comes to cover the groundbreaking of a technical skills building on campus, Hank jokingly picks up a goose from the nearby pond and threatens that he will kill one every day until he receives a budget. This sparks a massive controversy on campus as the story is broadcast nationally, and he’s taken seriously. Hank is the type of protagonist you can empathize with but are not meant to want to emulate. He doesn’t do anything irremediably wrong, and the novel’s stakes are reasonably low. Hank is a middle-aged guy realizing he’s middle-aged, and tries to make sense of what that means. He has two adult daughters, one of whom is going through marital difficulties, he has a secretary whose short stories end up being loved by Hank’s agent more than Hank’s own work, and he’s up against a corporate machine taking over the university. Hank Sr., the academic father who left the family when Junior was a teenager, is looming over everything. I found the book hilarious and think Odenkirk is the perfect fit for this character.

In a Lonely Place by Karl Edward Wagner

Karl Edward Wagner’s is a sad story. Born in Knoxville, TN, Wagner set out to become a doctor in the late 1960s but became quickly disillusioned with the medical industry’s focus on reactive rather than preventative care. Instead, he leaned into writing with horror & fantasy being his favorite genres and even edited a massive three-volume Conan the Barbarian which helped restore texts that had been fragmented for decades. Wagner struggled with mental illness and used alcohol to self-medicate. He died in 1994, at age 48, from heart and liver failure due to alcohol. In a Lonely Place is a reprint of a long, out-of-issue first collection of Wagner’s short stories. It’s a solid book that offers a variety of shades & tones of horror. Three of my favorites were:

  • Where the Summer Ends – If you have ever visited the Southeastern United States, then you have come to learn about the menace of kudzu. In this story, kudzu becomes even more menacing, with an entire neighborhood abandoned by people and subsequently consumed by the invasive vine. The protagonist Mercer has befriended a junk trader, one of the few left on the street, and begins to feel like something is watching him from beneath the plants. You will never guess how this one ends. It is wild.
  • Sticks – serving as an inspiration for the first season of True Detective, this is the most purely Lovecraftian of the stories in the book. It follows horror illustrator Colin Leverett as he goes on a trip into the Adirondacks just before he ships out to basic training for World War II. Colin comes upon strange stick sculptures and an old house with dark secrets. The story jumps to after the war, and Colin is haunted by what he saw overseas and what happened in that house. His strange drawings get the attention of a publishing house looking to reissue volumes of a Lovecraft-styled author’s work. But there is so much more happening than the artist realizes.
  • .220 Swift – this is pure pulp fiction of the best kind. Brandon is a mysterious albino man living in the Appalachian Mountains on an anthropology grant. He’s helping out Dr. Kenlaw, another academic passing through that is insistent there are a series of mines dug out by races of people that pre-date the Cherokee. This one gets particularly crazy in its second half and I would be willing to bet that the filmmakers behind The Descent took a little bit of inspiration from this one. It is definitely not the same story and concludes ridiculously. I loved it.

Here are three middle-grade novels I read for my other website, The Reading Circle.

What About Will? by Ellen Hopkins

This middle-grade novel really surprised me with how good it was. Told in verse, this story follows Trace, a twelve-year-old boy whose life is tough at the moment. His older brother Will suffered a severe brain injury while playing football for his high school. Since then, Will’s personality has changed, becoming angrier and meaner towards Trace. The novel opens with Will stealing Trace’s savings from his piggy bank. The boys’ parents have split since the accident. They live with dad while mom has returned to touring with her band. Eventually, Trace realizes his brother is using drugs but doesn’t know what to do. The novel’s structure, as a series of poems, is the perfect way to present this story and delivers an emotionally powerful ending.

Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Bree and her dad have just moved to Florida for his work. She’s excited to get involved at her new school, particularly with the after-school Math club. However, it’s all full when she goes to sign up, and she’s dumped into the swim club. Bree is terrified because she’s never been taught how to swim. She eventually finds a friend in her elderly neighbor Etta who happens to have swum competitively when she was a young girl. This graphic novel uses a seemingly simple story of overcoming your fears to tell the story of Jim Crow and how public swimming pools were demolished when segregation ended. Bree is a Black girl, as are many of her friends at school. Etta is a Black woman who experienced Jim Crow firsthand and can explain that the horrible stereotypes around Black people and swimming are just racist propaganda that hides the truth: access to pools was taken away from Black people. Bree is such a fantastic protagonist, and I found this one to be a really well-paced & enjoyable read.

The Leak by Kate Reed Perry & Andrea Bell

Inspired by the Flint, Michigan, lead crisis, which is still going on after almost a decade, The Leak focuses on the importance of transparency for corporations. Ruth Keller wants nothing more than to be a professional journalist when she grows up. She’s got a great head start, writing up a weekly newsletter she sends out to friends & family. Unfortunately, her school needs the funding for an actual student paper. One day, Ruth discovers strange slime washing up in a man-made lake in her suburban neighborhood. She investigates and begins to uncover a toxic dumping operation that is linked to the growth in illnesses in her community, including the father of her school crush. Ruth has to break many rules, and I love that the novel does not judge her for this. The emphasis is put on the need for truth over adherence to laws. The adults involved in the dumping eventually attempt to smear this little girl, but ultimately she outs them and gets national media attention about the problem. Yet another incredibly impressive book for upper elementary/middle school that is sadly relevant.

The Society of Spectacle by Guy DeBord

You could write volumes on this one, but I will keep it brief. The Society of Spectacle was a work of Marxist critical theory by Guy DeBord, a figure in the 1960s French Situationist movement. The book is composed of theses in the form of 221 aphorisms. DeBord wants to figure out why modern life feels so unsatisfactory and concludes this is due to authentic life being replaced by hollow representations of it. We now live in a state of having rather than being. We feel fulfilled when we have things rather than being a thing. DeBord relates this to the realm of work where so often, people outside of most blue-collar jobs, do work that leaves them feeling disconnected from the world. They sit in offices and do seemingly meaningless actions that have no direct impact on themselves or their communities.

DeBord argues modern humans under capitalism work two jobs. One job is the thing you do for around eight hours a day. The rest of your life is spent on your second job, consumption. As more and more of life is commoditized, you must consume more. You may consume for good reasons (food, housing, clothes, education), but you also consume to maintain a status in the social game you’re caught up in. The spectacle is not images but a social relation to others. Think of how reality television has profoundly influenced how people engage with each other in real life. Haven’t you noticed how many people live their lives projecting a persona that fits into a reality show archetype?

Because everything is commodified, it must constantly be repackaged to create a false sense of novelty. You are, in fact, just getting the same swill your parents & grandparents were fed with a shiny new coat of paint. He points out that plagiarism as a form of inspiration is not wrong; we are inevitably influenced by the input we receive. However, in the establishment’s manner of nostalgia, we have old, broken ideas sold to us as something new & exciting. DeBord points out the idea of the “lonely crowd” wherein an individual can be literally surrounded by people or virtually (the internet), yet everyone is psychologically isolated and feels utterly alone. This is short but dense work to take your time with and let sink in. Once again, it’s another old piece of art that shouldn’t be relevant anymore, but damn, if the people in power hadn’t kept it just as potent as when it was first written.


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