Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Verdict: it’s good. It’s upsetting. It’s a good one-evening read. It’s definitely made the cut into my mini-collection if Slim Books by Spooky Sisters.

From left to right: a watercolor painting of a cat on a postcard my gram sent me for my birthday, a plaster cast of a hand flipping the bird that I bought from a local artists President’s Day sale 2017, The Grownup by Gillian Flynn, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

It’s Halloween

I did my celebrating on Saturday, but it’s nice to acknowledge the actual day. I dressed up as a haunted porcelain doll. I love things that require makeup but I can just wear normal clothes.

This is a good wig. I don’t have enough excuses to use it.
I really nailed the crazy eyes look here, I think

I’ll also take any excuse to bust out the pearls.

Halloween means the first snow of the season. This just about tracks for what I grew up with in Denver, but my first October in Chicago, back in 2014, all of my coworkers assured me that snow on Halloween was early for Chicago. It almost feels like the generally accepted standards for season and climate are changing on us. 🤔

Someone should probably look into that.

My windshield when I got in the car this morning.
The view from the window next to my desk in the office around 2:0o p.m. CST
Glad I’m not trick-or-treating in this weather.

This is my first Chicago winter without an ass load of hair, so we’ll see how that goes. I’m slightly apprehensive and trying to reconcile with the fact that I’m a hat person now.

Observe my lack of hair

Did a tarot card pull this morning. Seemed appropriate for the date. Came up with the Three of Pentacles, which speaks to diligence, hard work, industriousness, and hints that the fruits of your labor will pay off if you stick with it. I’d say that this bodes well for the upcoming marathon that is NaNoWriMo.

Three of Pentacles from the Linestrider deck. This actually might be my favorite card in the whole thing. I heart ravens

Speaking of NaNoWriMo I’ve set some concrete goals

  • Write a cumulative 50k words between the 4 projects that I’m working on (2 short novels and 2 short stories)
  • Complete one of the short stories (hopefully a second or third draft – ready to shop around to friends for feedback)
  • Complete first draft of one of the short novels (rough “discovery writing” draft, not fit for human eyes yet)

I will probably update throughout November, but whether it’s a daily update or just a frazzled braindump at the end is TBD.

Seeking some advice: I have had select songs from the hit musical Cabaret stuck in my head for days and it’s driving me slowly up a wall. Good songs, but not uninterrupted for hours and hours on end. I love Liza, but not that much. How do you get weapons grade earworms out of your head? I will try almost anything at this point.

Anyway, I’m going to celebrate this snowy Halloween in the best way I know how. With a spooky bath bomb (courtesy of Bathomet ), some tawny port, and a spooky novel that seems short enough that I can finish it in one sitting. I’ll report back on how I like it. October has been a dismal reading month for me, so I’d love to knock one out in the cozy Halloween spirit.

10 year tawny port, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, and a skull shaped grey bath bomb. I would have gotten amontillado instead of port to be seasonally thematic, but sherry is so hit or miss. I’d want my fav specialty liquor store to recommend one to me, but that was pretty far out of my way and I wanted to get home before sunset because I didn’t want to run into any Spooky Halloween Ghosts on the way home 👻

Unfocused Check In

I have had a very slow reading month this month, which is really weird since October is usually a record setting month for me each year. Don’t know what’s up with that.

Actually, I do know what’s up with that. When I’m not writing I’m binging early 2000s anime like my life depends on it. Each time I try to pick up a book I read a few pages and it just slides off my brain like a wet, slick goop. I’m hoping I snap out of this funk soon. Probably need to read a graphic novel or something to just reset.

I’ve been taking a writing workshop that’s a ton of fun, and now I’m prepping for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriM0). I’ll probably be posting frustrated updates re: NaNo throughout the month of November on this blog, so get hype for that.

I feel bad that this little blog is largely abandoned. I like having this space and need to come back to it more often. I’ve picked Twitter back up a bit and have noticed that my engagement with blogs is inversely proportional to my time on Twitter, so that maybe tells me something valuable. Definitely worth thinking about as we approach the 2020 election season.

Late August/Early September Reads

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

I had a ton of fun reading this while on vacation visiting my sister in New York. We were together for eight days, which is a lot of time to fill, so we spent a good chunk of the week reading near one another and not talking, which is really the ideal way to spend a vacation.

I’ve seen this novel billed online as “The Stand for the Trump Era” and while I usually roll my eyes at the “X but Y” formula for marketing books, this one pretty well nails it. I loved this book. Sometimes I’m not totally sold on books that have a ton of different perspectives since some come out less well developed than others, but the length of the novel is an advantage here, since each perspective character is given a lot of breathing room. I really grew to care about the cast, and I genuinely did not see some of the twists coming, which is pretty rare for me.

This book is physically very large. Definitely not a comfortable read for airplanes or public transit. If you do a lot of reading on the go, this might be a good candidate to pick up as an ebook.

First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones

Did you read the Harry Dresden novels and think “I want this, but with a lady grim reaper instead of a dude wizard”? This is the book for you.

This falls into the category of “I know this book isn’t good, but the audiobook keeps me entertained while I’m driving or doing the dishes.”
Which is one of my favorite categories of book. Definitely going to continue with the series, at least for a little while.

Beware that when I say this is just like the Dresden series, I really mean it. Complete with dorky sense of humor that doesn’t always land, and somewhat less than enlightened comments when it comes to race, religion, gender, sexuality, body type, and ability. The Dresden Files series makes up for it by being narrated by James Marsters. This lacks that redeeming factor. But I’m still enjoying it.

Perfect guilty pleasure read that I know most of my friends and family would hate. 3/5 star

Doll Bones by Holly Black

I don’t read enough middle grade! This was a delight.

Of course, Holly Black is one of the best middle grade and young adult authors active today, so it’s no surprise that this was great. She does a great job of capturing the anxiety and alienation of growing up, especially when you don’t want to.

This is a quick horror/adventure book about a tight knit group of friends who go on a quest to bury a doll and also fix their fracturing friendship. This would make a great present for the precocious elementary school kids in your life.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong was in the tournament of books a couple years ago and received a lot of critical acclaim, especially considering it’s a debut novel. I wish I had more to say about it than I do. I don’t understand the hype.

I liked Goodbye, Vitamin fine. It was a touching narrative about dealing with an ailing loved one, and some moments were genuinely moving. But I’m not going to remember anything about this book three months from now. I can already feel it sliding out of my brain as smoothly as it poured in.

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

I finished this short story collection last night and dear god, this book is a FORCE.

Set on the backdrop of post-dictatorship Argentina, this collection of short stories explores everything from negligent pollution to femicide to poverty and drug use to the horrors of simply being a teenager. Each story has a creeping dread in the background, an uneasy feeling emanating from somewhere just off screen. And Megan McDowell’s translation and end note are excellent.

This is Enriquez’s first collection translated into English, and I hope after the critical reception this received we’ll see more from her.

Maximum Fun Benefits

So I give what many would consider an unreasonable amount of money to the Maximum Fun Network every month. I started giving a few years ago and my pledge just keeps creeping up and up because I get a lot of hours of entertainment out of them and figure I might as well, you know?

So anyway. I give at the level where I belong to their Culture Club, where I get random cultural picks from MaxFun employees mailed to me every month.

The first month of this I got volumes one and two of the comic Saga, which is fantastic but I already own. So if you would like these volumes please let me know in the comments and I will get them to you.

The next month I got tea tree infused cinnamon flavored mouthwash and a jigsaw puzzle.

This month I received DVDs for the first season of Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

So I guess what I’m saying is that if you wanna get drunk on mouthwash and do a puzzle while watching Space Ghost, I’m ur dude.

July/August Reads Part 1

July was a slow month where I spent a lot of time on the couch watching Try Guys videos because it was too hot out to be alive, so I didn’t get as much reading done as I wanted. So I decided to combine my July and August reads into a single blog post.

Then I proceeded to have a fairly good August, so I guess I’ll be doing two parts after all to avoid this getting too long. /shrug

Educated by Tara Westover

It’s hard to describe how much I loved this memoir. I laughed. I cried. The whole gamut of emotions. I’m still thinking about it a month and a half later.

Tara Westover was “homeschooled” by her parents, Mormon fundamentalists who were heavily influenced by Ruby Ridge and tried to live largely outside the influence of mainstream society and especially government. Her memoir is painful and beautiful and I cannot wait to see what Westover does next because this was absolutely breathtaking.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinso

I’ve been working on trying to read genre fiction written by women and nonbinary people that have been nominated for several awards, and Brown Girl in the Ring is up there as one of the most nominated genre novels of the last 20 years.

I listened to Brown Girl in the Ring on audio and while I mostly enjoyed the story, I enjoyed it despite the narration, not because of it. The narrator did a lot of dialect work that I found distracting and just didn’t click with me. It felt almost cartoonish at times.

It was really interesting to read a novel that’s centered on Afro-Caribbean folklore. I really enjoyed that. But each chapter began with a lyric from a children’s song or repeated phrases from children’s stories, and again, I found it distracting and it kicked me out of the narrative. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much in print. I’m excited to pick up more of Nalo Hopkinson’s work, just maybe in a different medium next time.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

It feels a little wrong to say that I like anything that I’ve read by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’ve read several stories from her collection Homesick for Another World and now I’ve listened to this. Her shtick, as far as I can tell, is writing about gross people who do gross things and are unapologetic about it. This sounds like a complaint. It’s not. Moshfegh’s writing is incredibly visceral and engrossing, but it can be a lot to handle. I definitely have to be in a particular mood for Moshfegh, but when I’m in that mood it’s pretty incredible.

I think this is probably a good place to start with her work. It’s compelling, and it doesn’t quite rise to the level of disturbing and offputting that her short stories do. If you like this, there’s a good chance you’ll like her other work. If not, then you’ve learned something valuable about yourself, and books that you might not want to read in the future.

One of the best things about this novel is the impending sense of dread that builds throughout the narrative. You know something is about to go horribly wrong, but you have no idea what. It’s very well done and I thought the pacing and oppressive mood were masterfully crafted.

It also takes place in the dead of winter and would be a great read for inclement weather this winter. I don’t know that I liked it as much during the summer as I might have during, say, a November snowstorm.

Things to do When You’re Goth in the Country & Other Stories by Chavisa Woods

This collection is pure Midwest Gothic through and through. I especially loved the stories “Zombie” and “Take the Way Home That Leads Back to Sullivan Street.” Each of the stories is unapologetically queer and the collection as a whole deals with familiar ideas and themes of the Midwest (isolation, class disparity, incarceration, limited opportunities leading young men into the military, coming home, being an outsider, etc) in fresh, occasionally heartrending ways.

I often have trouble with short story collections – I rarely connect evenly with all the stories equally; they can feel uneven. I had the same issue here. Some of the stories just didn’t grab me, but overall the collection really worked for me.

An aside: I was reading this while at the brunch place a couple blocks from my apartment and the waiter invited himself to sit down on the bench next to me, take the book out of my hands, start flipping through it, and quizzing me on my literary credentials, because books are just “so much deeper than, like, TV, you know?” No, I don’t know. Also, he saw the story title “Zombie” and was like, “ah, genre fiction” in that smug knowing way some guys have, despite “Zombie” being perhaps the least genre inflected story in the collection. I have not been back to that brunch place since, which is a shame because their cinnamon rolls are very good.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

My sister and I listened to this on a road trip moving her stuff from Atlanta to Syracuse at the conclusion of her summer internship. This is a solid courtroom drama that centers on the explosion of a hyperbaric chamber used to pressurize patients and deliver them pure oxygen, billed as a treatment for things ranging from infertility to autism. The explosion resulted in two deaths, and the main action of the story takes place a year afterward, during the trial of a mother of one of the children in treatment for autism, for supposedly causing the explosion with a lit cigarette near the oxygen tanks.

I honestly don’t think I’ll remember much about this novel a couple months from now. It was interesting, but it’s not going to stick with me, and I definitely feel like it took its sweet time getting around to the point. It’s probably best consumed in a binge over a couple of days, because there are a lot of perspectives to keep track of and everyone is lying at some point or another, often even to themselves. I think it would be difficult to follow if you read it over the course of a couple weeks by reading one chapter at a time.

I’m glad I read this, it was fun, but it’s definitely a 3/5 stars kind of book. Fine. Certainly not a knockout.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

I found this book on Libby while commiserating with my sister about my cancelled flight and lamenting the fact that we chose the slowest restaurant in all of New York state to get lunch. I had to make an unexpected drive from Syracuse to Chicago, so instead of finishing up the book I was reading on a quick afternoon flight, I needed to find a compelling audiobook to distract me from the fact that I was pissed about having to drive a huge rental car for twelve hours and would need to take an unexpected day off of work to accommodate the travel.

(It’s fine, my boss was very understanding. I was still miffed at the inconvenience)

In this thriller a young tarot reader is menaced by a loan shark and completely broke. She receives a letter that indicates she might be entitled to some inheritance from her recently deceased grandmother. She’s pretty sure that the letter has gone to the wrong person, but she’s desperate, and hey. What’s a little light fraud between strangers?

This is an excellent road trip book. It’s engaging, and even if you see some of the bits coming, it’s still rewarding watching them play out. The narrator was good, and it has a ~14 hour runtime, so listening to it on 1.5x means it fit pretty perfectly into my impromptu trip. If you’ve liked Ruth Ware’s previous works, you’ll probably like this. If you haven’t read her previous works, think of your typical clockwork mystery with a limited cast and shady old women with secrets, and you’ve got this book. It’s a thumbs up from me.

I’ll get back to you all at the beginning of September with the rest of my August reads!

A tip for traveling cross country alone

Sunday was incredibly trying. I was supposed to fly back to Chicago from Syracuse, but due to severe thunderstorms in Chicago, a ton of flights were grounded. And because I cheaped out and went with Frontier, they would be unable to get me on a replacement flight until Tuesday, which was less than ideal seeing as how I needed to get back to work.

So, I did the only thing i could think of at the time. I rented a car and started driving back. I got a late start since I was supposed to be on a mid-afternoon flight. If I had known I’d be driving, I would have started much earlier.

I’ve driven through Ohio a bunch of times this year and decided to stop at around 9:30 at a Super 8 just west of Cleveland, since I thought I had a good handle on how long it would take me to get from Cleveland to Chicago given reasonable traffic conditions.

I know this is sounding like a lot of background. “Where is my travel tip?” I hear you asking.

Always. Always always always latch the deadbolt and security latch on your motel door, friends.

At 12:57 AM an angry drunk couple started aggressively rattling my door handle and talking about how bullshit the hotel keys were, throwing themselves at m door trying to get it open. It turns out that the spacey kid at the desk gave them a key to my room (153) instead of the vacant room across the parking lot (135).

I knew it was 12:57 AM because the man’s slurred yelling woke me up, and in my panicked haze I realized that I needed to alert them that the room was already occupied. So I shouted “This is already a room!” three times and made some truly horrific groaning noises, and went back to sleep.

If I hadn’t had the security latch in place it might have turned into a much more dangerous situation. As it was, I was merely miffed that two days in a row were not going as planned, and I went to sleep dreaming of cuddling with my kitties.

June Reading

Bit of a slower month this month. June really passed me by without me noticing.

Escaping From Houdini by Kerri Maniscalco

Escaping From Houdini is the third installment in the Stalking Jack the Ripper series, one of the most popular properties of James Patterson’s Little, Brown imprint, jimmy patterson. These YA murder mysteries center on an ahead-of-her-time(TM) young woman, Audrey Rose, studying mortuary sciences and forensic medicine from her eccentric uncle alongside her snarky love interest, Thomas. She runs up against social stigma, since these are not very womanly professions. Also, we hear roughly once a book about how Audrey Rose is 1/4 Indian, but honestly it’s a cop out and doesn’t come into play. She is treated as white for all but one sentence per installment, to the point where it feels a bit odd that this is a part of her backstory. It’s like Maniscalco decided to take a stab at representation and then just went nowhere with it. The supposed feminism of the books is superficial and anachronistic, and the books do little to grapple with the realities of the era. Audrey Rose rejects the trappings of Victorian femininity without examining the underlying social causes or the interiority of other women in the fiction. It’s Cool Girl fiction, but with a protagonist who is also a crime solving mortician.

This particular installment unsuccessfully attempts to launch a love triangle subplot, but undercuts it at every step by having Audrey Rose reassure us that she would never ever ever give up on Thomas. The crimes are given a fun sense of urgency since the entirety of the book takes place on a trans Atlantic cruise liner, so that’s cool. I know that this series’ entire gimmick is inserting historical figures into the crime narrative, but the whole Houdini subplot was just tiring and could have been lifted entirely without impact.

I’m not going to pretend these books are good. They aren’t. They’re empty calories where people die, you get to read about Victorian autopsies, and a good portion of the narrative is devoted to the love story between Audrey Rose and Thomas. At this point I’m committed to the series and I’ll see it out through the fourth and final installment, but I wouldn’t recommend you pick it up if you already haven’t. This is best consumed as mindless background noise. Enjoyable enough to kill some time or help round out a commute. And I’m not about to pretend that I’m in any way above this kind of potato chip entertainment.

A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files

A Book of Tongues is the first installment of Gemma Files’s Hexslinger series. It’s a Weird West tale that follows a band of outlaws headed up by a disgraced preacher turned cowboy wizard and his sassy gunslinger whoreson boyfriend. They’re being spied on by a Pinkerton trying to collect scientific data on wizards.

I’m a sucker for the Weird West, and I love a narrative with villain protagonists, so I thought this would be totally up my alley. I think I liked this book(question mark). It was compelling and I will likely pick up the next installment to find out what happens.

However, I think there might have just been too much going on. Also, I listened to it as an audio book and I think that made it a little harder to follow than just reading it on the page might have been.

But seriously. This book.

An incomplete list of things featured:

  • outlaws
  • The Civil War
  • wizards
  • oodles of gay sex
  • violence
  • Pinkertons
  • Aztec gods
  • San Fransisco Chinese brothels
  • Native American shamans

It was maybe just one too many concepts thrown in. I’m still sussing out exactly how I feel. I would gladly spend one more book in this world to figure out what happens next, but this is the first of a trilogy and for some reason that fills me with a little dread.

Heads up that characters in this book use racial epithets and hold attitudes that are appropriate to the postbellum West. It’s incredibly uncomfortable, but the horrors of Manifest Destiny and the white settlement of the American West are examined and commented upon within the narrative.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I absolutely loved Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and my best recommendation is to go into it knowing as little as possible before you start. It’s a surprisingly intimate and moving look at life in England from 1910 up through the end of World War II, following the life of Ursula Todd, the middle child of five in an upper middle class English family.

I’ve seen a few friends on Goodreads mention that they couldn’t get past page 50. I will admit that it takes a bit to get into. You really need to spend about 100 pages getting used to what’s going on, and the unconventional flow of the narrative. If you aren’t sold by page 125, then it’s safe to give up. But it does require more of a chance than some books.

While researching subgenres and tags for categorizing this book I learned about the concept of “slipstream” books. From Worlds Without End:

Slipstream deals with “mainstream” themes but contains a speculative element. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a speculative future, for example, but is marketed as a mainstream novel.

The more you know!

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

I decided to read Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country in advance of the HBO series coming out, which I will definitely be watching.

This book goes down quick and it’s a natural choice for a television adaptation. The structure itself is fairly episodic and the action escalates quickly. It does not rely on the typical horror novel structure of building slowly with uncertainty about the provenance of the evil until the last quarter of the narrative. You’re pretty clear on what (or who) the evil is from the start, and each section is a tale of how our main cast outsmarts and outlasts that evil.

Lovecraft Country exists in the universe of novels that take the cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s works and examines the racism and utterly banal human evil underneath it all. Having read a lot of Lovecraft when I was a teen, I love narratives that recontextualize and expand Lovecraft’s universe to better reflect our own.

Lovecraft Country is a great addition to this literary canon. It’s thoughtful, at times funny, and above all entertaining. A must read for readers interested in the modern expansion of Lovecraftian mythos.