Since I’m running out of things to post about for the time being unless I delve into holidays of the past again, I thought I’d write about what I’ve been reading since lockdown started in March (I know we’re not officially in lockdown now, but I’m still not going out very much, so I’m going to count things I’ve read recently too). I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I tend to average two books a week, which didn’t change significantly in lockdown, since let’s be honest, I didn’t really go out that much before coronavirus was a thing either. I might not have been reading much more than usual, but what had changed was that since I was no longer able to get books from the library, I was either re-reading things I already owned or buying everything I read, so was reading a lot more things that had been on my to-read list for a long time rather than just picking up whatever the library had that looked interesting. I read slightly more fiction than non-fiction (26 vs 16), and I’m not going to make you sit through reviews of all those books, so I’m just picking out some of the more memorable ones to highlight here.
You would think that with all the scary real-life stuff going on, I would want to read something more cheerful than horror stories, but honestly, horror is my favourite genre, and I love being creeped out by a scary story, so in a weird way, I do find horror kind of comforting. At any rate, I tend to prefer things more on the spooky, unsettling side of the genre – ghost stories, yes please! – because body horror generally makes me feel sick; however, I’m ok with straight-up gore if it’s not done in a torturey way (e.g. I love The Evil Dead, but refuse to watch Hostel or anything of that ilk). Grady Hendrix has been one of my favourite horror writers since I read Horrorstor (which is about a haunted IKEA-esque furniture store, and the book itself looks like an IKEA catalogue, which is really fun), so I was very excited to read The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, which just came out a few months ago, and it did not disappoint. Most of the horror in the book actually comes from the racism and misogyny ever present in the background of the story, which is set in Charleston in the late 1980s-early ’90s, and though there was a pretty graphic dismemberment scene towards the end, I’m not really bothered by that if it’s happening to an evil supernatural being instead of a living person, as it was here (the lynching scene earlier in the book was much more difficult to read). I think this is my favourite of Hendrix’s books so far.
I also read We Sold Our Souls, which is an older book of his that I hadn’t read yet, about a heavy metal band with a member that literally sells the band’s souls to achieve fame. It wasn’t quite as good as TSBCGtSV, but I still found myself speeding through it to find out what would happen to Kris, the book’s protagonist, since I could relate to her experiences of growing up in the Rust Belt and being the only girl in a rock band (punk rock, in my case) – I wanted to see if she would get her revenge against the singer of her former band!
I also LOVE short story anthologies, and I’ve been gradually working my way through everything edited by Ellen Datlow, who seems to churn out a couple every year, each with a different horror-related theme. I’m freaked out by most things in the sea anyway, so I thought The Devil and the Deep would really give me the chills, and I wasn’t totally wrong. I find all anthologies to be a mixed bag by their very nature, and this was no exception, with probably more weak stories than strong ones, but there was still enough good ones here to hold my attention.
His Hideous Heart is technically YA, and when I saw that it contained thirteen of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories re-imagined by modern authors along with Poe’s original stories, I had to have it. If I had one minor quibble, it was in the way the book was arranged – all of the modern stories were at the front, and all of Poe’s were at the back, but I would have preferred if each Poe story was right before or after its reinterpretation, because I read them that way so I could see how the reinterpretation compared to the original (and I can’t imagine I’m the only person to do that), and it got a bit annoying to keep flipping back and forth. There was definitely a strong LGBTQ theme running through the whole book, which really put a new spin on Poe’s work. Honestly, some of these were surprisingly frightening for a YA book, especially the story about the girl who was abducted and tortured by a serial killer obsessed with the Spanish Inquisition, so I definitely think this was plenty scary for adults too!
I was sent The Silent Companions by a book subscription service I thought I’d try out (end result: not impressed, especially since they only sent two of the three months I paid for. I understand there may have been some confusion because they stopped orders for a while when lockdown started, but I did email them about it after they started shipping again, and never got a response. I should probably follow that up), and I cannot lie, the titular silent companions, which are life-size full-length portraits painted on upstanding wooden panels, really freaked me out, so much so that I dreaded having to get up to pee in the middle of the night for a week or so after in case I saw one of them gliding towards me (despite not owning any, because the characters in the book didn’t know they owned any either until one just appeared). However, the glaring historical inaccuracy that was one of the main plot points of the book really pissed me off (spoiler alert: it has to do with how witches were executed in early modern England, which regular readers will know is a real bugbear of mine) and ultimately soured me on the whole thing.
I wanted to read The Saturday Night Ghost Club because it had great reviews from readers who loved that it accurately re-created the atmosphere of 1980s Niagara Falls, and I am all about late ’80s and early ’90s nostalgia, particularly where spooky things (Halloween in particular) are concerned. Unfortunately, I just didn’t think the writing was very good, and I could see the “twist” ending coming from a mile off, so the nostalgia factor wasn’t quite enough to win me over. There was also something just a little bit icky about two middle aged men forming a “ghost hunting club” with a group of young teenagers that involved them taking said teenagers to isolated locations late at night, so that put me off as well.
Last horror (sort of) books. I am definitely guilty of not making enough effort to read things by authors of colour, so I’ve been using this excellent Twitter thread recommended by Emily of Nightmare Fuel (which is also excellent for horror recommendations – I definitely advise signing up to her newsletters of book reviews if you’re as into horror as I am) to discover some more diverse horror authors than the ones I usually read, which is how I found Water Ghosts (which I also read recently, though I’m not talking about it here because I didn’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other) and indirectly, how I discovered Oyinkan Braithwaite when I had her books recommended to me after adding a load of other horror stories by women of colour to my to-read list. I was totally enticed by the excellent cover, so I had to buy it. I wouldn’t say it’s a horror story as such, because although there are murders, it’s really more a book about toxic family relationships, and I ended up really frustrated with Korede, the main character, for not doing more to overcome her past, though I know that’s much easier said than done, especially if you grew up with an abusive father, as Korede did.
Marcus bought Betty Bites Back for me because he thought it sounded like something I would like (I do go on about the patriarchy a lot), and though I think it was a great concept, most of the stories didn’t quite live up to it (I never need to read the one about scooping out eyeballs again. In fact, I wish I hadn’t even read it the first time. Blech).
Here’s proof that I don’t only read horror! Ruth Ozeki has been one of my favourite authors since I read My Year of Meats back in high school, which I have re-read many times since. Ozeki isn’t hugely prolific, as she has only written three novels to date (I also love A Tale for the Time Being), but I was hoarding this one on my shelves for years, waiting until I needed a treat, and that time was now. All Over Creation is about an elderly couple living on a potato farm in Idaho who are reconciled with their long-estranged daughter Yumi when she reluctantly comes home to care for them after she learns her father is dying, and all the things that happen as a result of Yumi returning, including a group of GMO protestors camping out at the farm. I think this is definitely the weakest of her books, as Yumi wasn’t that likeable, and there was way too much technical stuff about genetically modified crops that felt like straight up propaganda (I guess the same could be said of My Year of Meats and the American meat industry, but I completely agree with Ozeki’s views of the evils of factory farming, so it wasn’t quite as glaring to me in that book), but even a weak Ozeki is still a good read!
I’ve been into Terry Pratchett for years and years and years, and of course had read and loved Good Omens ages ago (before it was cool), but I haven’t started to get into Neil Gaiman in his own right until relatively recently. When I leafed through Neverwhere in the gift shop at the Tate (one of the last times I was in a museum before lockdown!), I knew I had to have it, since I love anything to do with secret bits of London. It’s not on the level of Good Omens or anything, but I enjoyed it well enough, even though the protagonist Richard was super annoying for most of it (why are you whining about wanting to go back to your disgusting sounding flat and your mean fiancee when you’re exploring a magical underground world?) and will look for the sequel when it comes out.
Emma Donaghue is another long-time favourite. I read her short story collection The Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits, about the real-life story of Mary Toft, well before I even moved to the UK, and Room, which is probably her most famous book, really messed me up, but in a good way, if that makes sense. When I heard The Pull of the Stars was coming out, and was about the Great Influenza, I bought it literally the day it was released. It is about a midwife/nurse working on a fever ward for maternity patients during the 1918 pandemic, and there are some very gory passages about women giving birth, but it’s also a lovely story about love and loss, and though the ending felt a bit rushed after the slow build of the relationship between Julia and Bridie in the first three quarters of the book, I really loved it. It made me so angry at what the Catholic Church did to Ireland though. Ugh!
Barbara the Slut is a bit of a fun one to end on, because how could I resist that title? It’s actually a short story collection about a number of different women, including the eponymous Barbara, who actually reclaims the “slut” label after it’s spray painted on her locker in high school and uses it to empower herself and take down a guy spreading nasty rumours about her. This is Holmes’s only book thus far, but I will definitely be hoping for more in the future, because I loved this one as well.
This is certainly not all the fiction I’ve read lately, but I don’t want to drone on and on all day (you’re probably already bored out of your minds), so I’ll leave it there and talk about some non-fiction titles next week!