Book Update – March/April 2023

A Short Film About Disappointment by Joshua Mattson

Here’s the premise: Film critic Noah Body writes and uploads his reviews on a widely ignored content aggregator in the near future. He is a wannabe director who is forced to watch the worst movies knowing zero people are reading his work. Noah starts including details of his complicated & spite-filled personal life in these reviews. Through eighty movie reviews, we follow Body’s life and how it falls apart around him. That sounds really good, right? It’s a shame that this book is a nearly unreadable piece of crap. I loved the premise, but the final product was a brutal slog. One of the most significant issues is that the chapters aren’t movie reviews. The main character is not fun to read. I love having unreliable narrators or a challenging protagonist, but Body is just pretentious in a way that I derived no humor from. I checked on Goodreads, and this one has a lot of people listing it as DNF (Did Not Finish). I certainly felt like dropping it pretty early on. If I could give this review a title, it would be “A Long Book That Led to Disappointment.”

The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper

A much more enjoyable read, this is a cosmic horror story set in New York City circa 1990. Monique, a transwoman, discovers her girlfriend Donna has vanished without a trace. They are both homeless after several backlashes occur against them due to their gender/sexuality. Monique has heard about a shambling monster with talons that hunts homeless people in the city and is convinced this creature has taken Donna. The beast emerges one night, and Monique follows it to a secret lair where a cult prepares to offer themselves up to The Worm, their god. This is a wild & trippy store that has some entertaining mind-bending concepts. We learn the Worm extends across the entirety of the universe’s existence and is unmoored in time, unlike us. The ending is a wild psychedelic ride that matches the grotesque descent into the earth’s bowels.

Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever: Stories by Justin Taylor

Everything is a short story collection with definite highlights and dull spots. Here were some highlights for me:

  • “In My Heart, I Am Already Gone”: First person narrative about a young guy and his relationship with his aunt, uncle, and cousin. There were good ideas here, but it still felt like a fragment.
  • “The New Life”: a coming-of-age story about a guy’s friendship with a dude he grew up with. Has an interesting eerie ending; it does feel like a fully realized piece. 
  • “Tennessee”: the story of a man who has moved back in with his parents and younger brother. They are Jewish, and it deals with their interpersonal situation while being in a religious minority in Tennessee.
  • “Somewhere I Have Heard This Before”: another coming-of-age type story and also about a boy’s relationship with extended family; this was the point where I started to wonder if Taylor wanted to fuck one of his cousins…
  • “What Was Once All Yours”: Probably my favorite in the collection, a guy gets his girlfriend pregnant and travels out of state for an abortion; the guy’s best friend is in love with the guy’s girlfriend. The most complete & realized of the shorts, in my opinion. 

Even the stories I liked I wasn’t very wowed by. It’s not a complete waste of time reading this collection, but there are far better debut contemporary short story collections.

They Were Here Before Us: A Novella in Pieces/ Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes by Eric LaRocca

Eric LaRocca has been quite the darling among the Horror BookTok circle for the last year and a half. I Read his novella, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, around the time I first heard of it, and I had been waiting to pick up these newer volumes with more stories. I was even impressed with LaRocca’s recent inclusion in Ellen Datlow’s annual horror best of. However, I did not enjoy either of these books. They exist somewhere between short stories & novellas but are so lacking in structure or direction that my brain checked out quickly. The way certain books get hyped on TikTok is detrimental to the authors and the readers. LaRocca seems to have opened up his desk drawer of random bits & bobs after publishers came to him asking for more. They saw all the posts about his breakout work. The thing is, nothing else LaRocca has published is nearly as strong as Things *yet*. Given time and revision, he might have another great one in him or even a whole collection. If we look at the LaRocca TikTok breakout publishing timeline, it starts in 2021 with Things. There have been five novellas/short story collections since then. Now I know it is within the realm of possibility for someone to suddenly become inspired and thus prolific, but reading these two left me incredibly lukewarm. I didn’t enjoy them and may wait a while before revisiting this author’s work.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

I have not read a lot of Philip K. Dick books. Before this, it was just Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. I really like what I have read, but with Dick, each book has a lot of ideas, so you don’t necessarily feel like diving back in right away. This is another winner set in the distant future of 1992. Some humans have evolved to have extrasensory perception, and these abilities get them hired as part of corporate espionage. The other bit of technology essential to the story is cryogenics used on people who are in the process of dying, allowing people to communicate with their passing souls in businesses called moratoriums. Joe Chip works for a prudence org that specializes in using people whose abilities cancel out other ESPers. Chip is introduced to Pat Conley, a young woman who can cancel out precognitives but not in the standard ways. Instead, she can chemically alter events from the past, causing the precog’s prediction to be nullified as impossible. Then, there’s an ambush on Chip’s people, which leads to a spiraling nightmare. Are they alive? Are they dead? Are they merely figures in someone else’s dream? Strong elements of Lynchian storytelling here, a book that completely unsettles you when you reach the end.

Scanlines by Todd Keisling

This is a solid r/nosleep-style horror novella that I enjoyed. In the late 1990s, Robby and his friends secretly downloaded porn on the basement computer. After opening a file they assume will feature Jenna Jameson, they instead find news footage of a press conference from 1987. Charged with corruption, Congressman Ben Hardy takes to the podium and blows his brains out on live local news. This footage haunts them as each boy has nightmares and then begins to see Hardy’s mangled face before them in their waking lives. I don’t think anything here will blow a regular horror reader’s mind, it feels a few steps up from young adult horror, but it’s not bad. Just okay. This is another one getting some hype on BookTok at the moment. I don’t think it is as disturbed and “fucked up” as they make it out to be.

Roll For Initiative by Jaime Formato

One of two middle-grade books I read for my reviews over at The Reading Circle. Riley Henderson is a middle-schooler whose doting older brother has moved across the country to begin college. Her mom is working more hours than ever, leaving Riley alone most of the time. Now a bus rider, she meets Lucy, a very outgoing Black girl interested in learning about tabletop games. Riley regularly played in her brother’s group, so she attempts to become a DM. Two more girls join on until they have a regular group that meets weekly in their apartment’s laundry room. Many slice-of-life obstacles occur, mainly centered around failing grades and adults’ inability to see girls as independent & capable young people. It’s a side of geek culture I find annoying when thirtysomething+ adults do it, but with kids, it’s great. A nice piece of realistic fiction that also appeals to kids who are into the hobby.

This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up this middle-grade graphic novel, but I loved it. The easiest way to describe it is in the Over The Garden Wall genre. Ben’s small town holds an Autumn Equinox Festival every year, culminating with the people sending paper lanterns down the rushing river. Ben and his friends hop on their bikes with the vow that they won’t turn back until the lanterns reach the sea. Well, that doesn’t go as expected, and Ben ends up paired with Nathaniel, an awkward but sweet boy. They find themselves lost in a forest, crossing paths with a kindly Fisherbear. He tells them the lanterns turn into fish before they swim away through the sky and become stars in the night. Following guidance from the Fisherbear takes the boys through a series of silly, scary, and exciting encounters. In the same way, Over the Garden Wall was a piece of magic-realism that you couldn’t predict, that felt unanchored at any particular period of history; this Was Our Pact is overflowing with those same sensibilities. I don’t often read a middle-grade novel where I am disappointed to see it end, but I wanted to spend more time in this strange world. 


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