Reading Suggestions: International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day!  And I have some reading suggestions.

I know what you’re thinking: dude, nobody cares about your stupid opinion.  I know!  But I’m going to do it anyway.

Of course, there are certainly obvious books to read for International Women’s Day.  Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks.  Girls to the Front, by Sara Marcus.  Cunt, by Inga Muscio.  There are many amazing books on the topics of intersectional feminism.  But I’m not going to write about those books.  Feminism and feminist theory are very important, of course, but I don’t have the breadth of knowledge required to make a list of must-reads in that area.  Instead, I’m going to write about really awesome, amazing books that happen to have awesome, amazing female authors.

For instance,

Anything by C. V. Hunt

C. V. Hunt is, according to her website, “the author of several unpopular books.”

Hunt is also an entertaining, transgressive, hilarious author of dark fantasy and horror.  Some of my favorites include Ritualistic Human Sacrifice and Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, both of which will make you laugh and cringe and wince.

You can pick up Hunt’s books in paperback, kindle, and even audiobook.  If you’re into it, you can also pre-order her upcoming work, Home is Where the Horror Is.

Something in the Potato Room by Heather Cousins

Do you like prose-poetry?  Do you appreciate beautiful language?  A fan of dark subject matter?  Heather Cousins wrote the book for you.

Something in the Potato Room is a beautiful book, brilliantly written, about deeply unsettling subject matter.  The line between fact and fantasy blurs and quivers in this gorgeous, liminal work.  Relatable and harrowing with an exquisite sense of language, Something in the Potato Room reaches into the dark recesses of the human spirit to find the exact spot where decay blooms into life again.  Or…something like that…

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through the Woods is a collection of short faerie tales bundled up with striking illustrations and gorgeous graphic layout.  Creepy, haunting, and even heart-warming, Through the Woods collects emotionally diverse and fascinating stories.

I can’t get these stories out of my head.  Sometimes, out of nowhere, maybe on a subway platform or just walking down the street, I’ll get the lyrical lines of “Cold Hands” stuck in my head.  They’re so good.  So bloody good.  Of course, this isn’t the only work Emily Carroll has been involved with and her site will give you an idea about the breadth of her other work.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Get in Trouble is another collection–this time of short stories.  Kelly Link has been hailed as a bold and brilliant voice in contemporary fantasy and sci-fi–for good reason, too!  These stories are intelligent, charming, and moving.  Her excellent prose and storytelling skills really shine in this award-winning collection, and I personally had a fantastic time reading it.  Link’s ability to examine tropes and genres in fresh and interesting ways is virtually unmatched.  If you haven’t given Link’s works a read, yet, I highly recommend you do…and what better place to start than this cool collection of short stories?

The Listeners by Leni Zumas

If you’re looking for something a little more ‘literary,’ The Listeners is for you.  Leni Zumas’ use of language shows an expert command of English and a willingness to commit to heightened and experimental styles.  Zumas’ sentences are razor-edged and cunning.  Though it uses references and metaphor from the genre world, The Listeners takes place very much in an unmagical reality.  Dripping with meaty imagery, cut wide with sharp and razored prose, and bleeding with emotional turmoil, the book is a brutal crime scene of real-life.  The plot is a bit weak, but the characters are deep deep deep and the language is to die for.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

It’s a thriller.  A supernatural thriller?  Who knows!  Night Film plays with concepts of belief and faith, and makes extensive use of the subjective nature of ‘reality’ and ‘fact.’  The beauty of Marisha Pessl’s work is in the storytelling, her ability to play games with what is known and what is unknown, and how thin the line between.  The charming, enrapturing characters help, too.  A spiral of madness and a thriller well worth reading, I recommend picking up Night Film in any of its various forms immediately.

Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra

If you’re a fan of close-to-life fictionalized accounts, Gonzo Girl is fantastic.  Pietra was an assistant to Hunter S. Thompson for, well, long enough, and her time in this role serves as the prime inspiration behind this wild, crazy ride.  It follows a newbie editor out of NYC as she’s pulled into the orbit of a madman writer out in the middle of chaotic, drug-fueled nowhere.

Cheryl Della Pietra has also been a magazine editor and short story writer.

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray is a lovely writer.  Her stories are hilarious, personal, deep, cutting, jarring, and dark.  Is that too many adjectives?  Too bad!  They’re all accurate.  And Gutshot is an amazing collection of her work.  More than once, I winced.  Many times, I cackled.  I didn’t cry at any point, but there were definitely very poignant moments.  I highly recommend checking out her work, and particularly picking up this gem of a collection.  Hey, if the New York Times says it’s “bizarre and darkly funny,” who am I to disagree?

Did You Get All That?  Good.

This is just a short list, of course.  I didn’t have anything by Octavia Butler!  And Octavia Butler is a brilliant author.  Kindred is a famous, amazing work!  And it has a graphic novel adaptation.

I also left off several amazing female-oriented collections, such as Sisters of the Revolution (a collection of female-authored spec-fiction works) or She Walks in Shadows (a collection of female-authored Lovecraftian works).  These collections showcase an incredible range and breadth of talented authors, and I don’t think I can finish this blog entry without mentioning them.

And I shouldn’t exeunt stage left without giving a shout out to my favorite guilty pleasure series… My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by Diana Rowland, is perfect beach-reading in my opinion.

The Library Is Endless

I suppose that’s a good enough start.  I still feel as if I’ve left out a virtual library of brilliant work, but that’s bound to happen with a list like this.  Anyway, this has been a list of works by some of my favorite female authors, in no particular order, with no particular organization.  Just off the top of my head.

I didn’t even get to do shout-outs to my favorite short story writers whose longer works I haven’t read yet.  But maybe we’ll save that for another list.

In the meantime, I think I’ve put together a really nice starter-list for anyone seeking a good book.

Go forth and read!

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Resident Evil 7 : Review

Why would an author write a Resident Evil 7 review?  It’s a video game, after all.

Because this author plays a lot of video games.  More on that in the near future.

(Also because I have access to a blog platform and the absurdist millennial belief that anyone cares a spit about my banal thoughts.)

The TL;DR version of this review is as follows: purchase this game.  If you’re a fan of the franchise (which I’m not, really) or a fan of survival horror (which I am), you’ll love it.  I might recommend waiting for a sale (I didn’t), since it comes in a bit short for its price point.

Alright, now for the long version.

Selling Point 1 : You’re Not Helpless.

I’m pretty sick of helplessness as a game mechanic.  If a game is only scary because the player is helpless, it’s secretly not a very scary game.  Anything can be scary if it’s done in low light with tense music and ALSO YOU’RE HELPLESS.  This entire trend is even more absurd because, very often, the player character is walking around an environment often littered with weapons.  Look, Outlast scared the shit out of me, despite having some of the most eye-rollingly ‘shock’ moments in gaming history, but at a certain point I started rooting for the monsters.  The player character may be a journalist, but he’s a journalist walking through halls full of possible improvisational tools!  Pick something up!

People and, by extension, fictional characters, have a tendency to create tools and even weaponry with pretty much whatever is at hand.  They don’t call it ‘The Stone Age’ for fun, they call it that because the tools and weapons were made from stone.  Human beings are so desperate for tools and weapons that we literally made them out of stone.  But apparently our frightened avatars in modern horror games are too busy panting from terror to stop for a second and gather tools.

[/rant]

Resident Evil 7 assumes your character wants to make and use tools and weapons.  That assumption changes everything.  The environment is littered with resources, from big fuck-you-up guns to various chemicals and herbs to garden tools.  It creates a more interesting dynamic than helplessness.  Holding an ax gives you a sense of possibility, of strength.  Swinging it gives you a sense of power.  Whacking it into someone’s neck in a moment of desperate terror gives you an inch of control.  Turning around to find the corpse mysteriously missing…

One of my favorite horror games ever was FEAR (and its sequel, FEAR 2.)  It armed me from the start.  The game handed its player a series of awesome, fuck-you-up guns.  And then it peeled away the frail veneer of your confidence and dropped you into a situation far beyond your depth.  Resident Evil 7 does something quite similar.

Selling Point 2 : A Dreadful Sense of Intimacy

The primary setting of RE7 is a sprawling plantation estate in rural Louisiana.  It’s a family’s property.  A fucked up family, but a family nonetheless.  And the banality of that fact, the familiarity of a house’s interior, serves to create an unsettling intimacy.  Family photographs, sports paraphernalia, book shelves, kids’ trophies, etc… the details of a family history are all there.  There are even receipts and passive-aggressive sticky notes.  And the player is pressured by game mechanics and curiosity to check everything, to look into every corner, to experience as thoroughly as possible this maddening juxtaposition of the familiar and the grotesque.

Perhaps this is what I like most about the game: the minimal scope.  You are a lone human maneuvering through a minuscule slice of the globe.  The massive, overarching lore of the franchise is missing.  The vast scale of backstory is unimportant.  This is a game about the protagonist and the antagonists and very little else.

Franchises tend to bloat.  Scale expands and exposition piles up.  This game, ‘reboot’ or not, solves that problem with a sharp, indifferent knife.  It delivers what it needs: a tightly-focused story.

Selling Point 3 : Something For Everyone

Horror is lush with sub-genres.  RE7 does its best to tap as many as possible.

Supernatural horror is immediately dangled in front of our faces.  Body horror is omnipresent.  Sci-fi horror is the franchise staple.  RE7 even incorporates moments of splatterpunk and, of course, general action-horror.  Oh, I almost forgot, there’s a whole SAW-inspired puzzle-solving section, too.  Not to mention shades of Chainsaw Massacre throughout…chainsaw very much included.  Which also reminds me that southern gothic archetypes and references are everywhere in RE7.  There are also cosmic horror references, though that particular sub-genre doesn’t make any real appearances in the game proper.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s something for everyone.  And though the run-and-hide mode of helplessness horror isn’t an expressed requirement of the game, running and hiding is often the wisest course of action.  So they’ve got that, too, if you like it.

One might worry that the ‘dash of everything’ approach might overclutter the game, but it doesn’t.  It provides different levels to the gameplay and, what’s more, always seems in service to the story.

Selling Point 4 : Sadistic Antagonists

I saw an article online lamenting the ugly gameplay necessity of key gathering, narratively lampshaded with the idea that the antagonists want to make it hard for you to escape.  The article pointed out that the antagonists didn’t bother reinforcing the walls, blocking the doors, or bricking up the windows.  I imagined that such measures would take away some of the ‘fun’ for the antagonists.  As much as they claim they don’t want to chase anyone down anymore, they seem to get a wicked joy out of doing just that.  If they made it too hard to escape, they’d lose the ecstasy of chasing down the desperately hopeful escapees and butchering them!

Such is the rabid sadism of our front-and-center antagonists.  Quite early in the game, during my second playthrough, I discovered myself gravely wounded by my pursuer.  Instead of finishing the job, he set a healing kit down on the floor and cooed at me to use it.  Once I’d patched myself up, he even gave me a headstart before coming after me again.  So, in my mind, the key hunting has nothing to do with making it difficult for me to leave; it has everything to do with providing the antagonists with entertainment.

These batshit crazy sadists provide the main antagonism.  Hordes of faceless monsters provide secondary, supporting antagonism (the ‘nameless goon’ variety, mostly.)  And then, behind it all, there lurks a vast, faintly-inhuman force (oh, wait, I guess those cosmic horror references make some sense after all).  Each layer of antagonism serves a purpose both to story and to gameplay.  The front-and-center villains are charmingly psychotic and extremely terrifying.  The nameless goons provide tense, strategic combat.  And the terrible intelligence behind the whole show creates a layer of moral and intellectual questions the game would otherwise lack.  It’s quite an exquisite array of enemies.

The Downside : It’s a Bit Pricey.

Currently, the game goes for $59.99, not including DLCs or soundtrack.  My first playthrough took 10 hours, my second took 7.  There’s an in-game achievement for managing it down to 4.  Though it’s a bit replayable, if only for the sheer moodiness and the awesome realization of its setting, replayability isn’t its prime directive.  I’ll certainly be prancing through it a third time, but I’m a particular sort of person.  In the main, I doubt most people will go through it more than twice.  So what that settles down to is that the base game provides, say, 10-20 hours of gameplay for a ~$60 price tag.  No thanks.

It was worth it, for me, because I love the genre and I’m utterly sick of helplessness horror.  I’ve played through twice and will be playing a third time at least.  I enjoy the game from a gameplay perspective and from a horror theory perspective.  I also sprang for the DLCs, not yet available for PC, which I hear add significant replayability–but we’re not discussing the DLCs, are we?  No.  We’re discussing the cost of the base game.  And the cost of the base game, unless you’re a weirdo  like me, is simply too high.

But I guarantee it’ll be on sale in the near future.  So if you’re the patient sort, you’re in luck.

Final Thoughts

RE7 provides an excellent experience.  It’s nerve-wracking, unsettling, frightening, and fun.  In my original 10-hour playthrough, I sweated and panicked through the first 2 hours like a man on the edge.  For the few hours after that, my mood shifted between anxiety and joy.  Anxiety at every door, every corridor, and every corner; joy at my increasing competence at solving my dilemmas.  Most of the last hour was spent in full action mode, all sound and fury and laughter.  It was an incredible emotional journey.

In my second playthrough, I was more confident.  My relatively eased anxiety allowed me to appreciate the setting and the art of the game more deeply.  The narrative flow, the peaks and valleys of fear throughout the story, etc.  It was during my second playthrough that I really fell in love with the game.

So, yes, it’s an exquisite game, an excellent bit of interactive horror media, and a decently written (if also unevenly written) story.  My only dismay is at the price tag, a number I think is a bit high for people less fanatical about their devotion to horror media and video games than I am.  But I suppose that’s for them to decide.

 

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My “Best Books of 2016” List

I’ll get this out of the way.  These are just books I read this year: a collection of fiction from various genres as well as a dash of non-fiction.  Were they published in 2016?  Likely not.  But they’re great books and they deserve more attention (and sales).  In any case, this is my list of the best books of 2016…insofar that I read them all in 2016.

 

#5: The Listeners, by Leni Zumas


The Listeners
contains some of my favorite prose from this year.  As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, “Zumas has razored into existence a beautiful grotesquery of the English language.”  It’s a tangled tale, a literary experiment, and a horrorshow of a ride.  It does occasionally veer into over-heightened prose, and the ending leaves something to be desired, but it’s a gorgeous work of sharp and painful art and worth every minute I spent reading it.

You can get it at Amazon.com and I recommend that you do.

 

#4: Ritualistic Human Sacrifice, by C. V. Hunt


C. V. Hunt continues to be one of my favorite authors of dark fiction.  Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is a great example of why: it’s a wild, insane ride that rushes by at a rollercoaster speed and has little regard for what is or isn’t socially acceptable.  It’s grotesque, horrific, and hilariously transgressive.  I was, by turns, laughing, grimacing, and shuddering.  Hunt has perfectly balanced horror with humor…provided you have a particularly dark and transgressive kind of humor.

Pick it up at Amazon.com and buckle up, because it’s a bumpy ride.

 

#3: Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, by A. J. Somerset


Non-fiction.  A moderate view of gun culture in the United States and Canada.  Arms is a dissection of cultural mores, historical trends, media, and even ballistic science–all in the service of trying to find sanity in a maddening debate.  Deeply informative and incredibly well-researched.

I always post links to buy things on Amazon.com because I assume that’s where the majority of people reading this will do their shopping.

 

#2: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle


Man…this was an amazing novella.  Just amazing.  Victor LaValle is an incredibly talented author.  He’s an amazing linguist, a dazzling player of the English instrument, with punched-up and tight-wound prose that is at once haltingly beautiful and rapid-fire.  If you haven’t read The Devil in Silver, for example, you should do that immediately.  In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle’s talent with prose is heightened and practiced and a perfect homage to Lovecraft’s work.  Where Lovecraft’s paragraphs tended to bloat, however, LaValle trims off all the fat and leaves nothing unnecessary.

I noticed, this past couple years, that there’s been a tremendous wave of cosmic horror authors trying to work to confront and combat Lovecraft’s misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism…of all these efforts, I believe LaValle’s was the most successful.

Purchase it on Amazon.com literally as soon as you can.

 

#1: The Nameless Dark, by T. E. Grau


T. E. Grau’s story collection The Nameless Dark is everything I like about cosmic horror and most things I like about fiction in general.  Grau’s prose is lyrical and rich and extremely readable.  The stories cross genres and time periods and Grau is easily at home in all of them, weaving haunting and sometimes horrifying tales with believable (if not necessarily always likable) characters and doing it all with some of the most gorgeous prose I’ve ever happened upon.  Thrilling, harrowing, and entrancing, these tales are worth a very close read.  Perhaps several.

Pick it up at Amazon.com.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan

Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link

Welcome to Nightvale
, by Joseph Fink

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My “Best Books of 2015” List

I know, I know, I’ve been a very bad/inactive blogger recently.  I promise this is just a temporary setback while I do background work for The New American Apocalypse and a top-secret Oceanrest project.

Since I don’t have a new American Apocalypse post, and not much in the way of public news for a No Grave sequel or Oceanrest progress, today’s post will deal with something non-fictional.  That is: the wonderful world of words!

I read a lot.  Not as much as, say, an acquisitions editor for a publishing house, but quite a bit compared to a normal human.  I think I put down 50-60 books in 2015 and I had some very clear favorites.  I’d like to take this time to recommend some of them to all of you.

NOTE: not all of these books were published/released in 2015; few of them were, in fact, but 2015 is the year I read them and, dammit, I’m not going to let something as silly as linear chronology deter me from recommending that everyone in the world read them.

Something in the Potato Room, by Heather Cousins.
Prose/Poetry, Experimental, Creepy in an Immediately Personal Way.  69 pages.
Those of you who have run into me in the real world (AKA “the outernet”) have undoubtedly already heard me suggest this book.  Because it’s amazing.  Heather Cousins’ work gets under your skin and grows there like a fungus.  Much like the titular thing in the potato room, the book is something one happens upon in a dark, dusty moment, something that becomes morbidly fascinating, something inexplicably beautiful even in its ugliness.  Rooted in the rich internal life of a depressed woman with a love of antique medical devices, Something in the Potato Room uses exquisite language, surreal prose, and strange illustrations to lure us down a dark basement staircase, where we find beauty and horror both sprouting from the cracked, unfinished floor.
Pick it up at Amazon.com.

The Visible Filth, by Nathan Ballingrud.
Prose, Novella, Full of Inescapable Cosmic Dread.  64 pages.
Another example of an author who just understands how to use language.  Darkness drips from these words.  Black mold grows across them.  Something awful lurks beneath.  The story, itself, feels neo-Lovecraftian–it deals with something that feels bigger than us, and darker, something simultaneously beyond us and within us.  Every step the narrator takes into the filthy world he uncovers oozes with dread.  One almost wants to yell “run away!” but, then, it doesn’t seem possible that the poor bastard would get very far, if he did…
Pick it up at Amazon.com.

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero.
Prose, Novel, Creepy in a Haunted House Way.  353 pages.
Edgar Cantero is a goddamned brilliant wordsmith.  From the moment I opened the book, I was envious of his command of language.  Every single word feels purposeful.  Every sentence is the way it is because it couldn’t be any other way.  The characters are wonderful–easy to get attached to.  The Supernatural Enhancements strikes an amazing balance between the morbid and the mundane, between fear and fun.  Between hope and haunting.  The world mythos was excellently crafted, the characters well fleshed-out, and the plot delightfully tangled.  And right from the start, one gets the feeling that this inherited property is something just a little more complicated than a normal haunted house…as is the narration style.  Find out for yourself.
Pick it up at Amazon.com.  Seriously.

The Peripheral, by William Gibson.
Prose, Novel, a Deeply Intelligent Sci-Fi Conspiracy Thriller.  496 pages.
I was sold on this novel as soon as I heard “by William Gibs–” (I assumed there could only be one person with the approximate name, thus didn’t require the last syllable).  What can I say about Mr. Gibson that I haven’t already said?  As always, there’s the incredible trick of showing us that what we think of as normal is incredibly bizarre, while simultaneously showing that what we think of as bizarre will eventually seem incredibly normal.  The narrative characters are complex (thus, in typical Gibsonian fashion, deeply troubled), interesting, and, of course, caught up in machinations they can’t completely comprehend.  A wonderful sci-fi tale and also a rather harrowing commentary on the state of the modern world.  And, of course, a stage for bizarre technologies and screwed-up characters to play around on.
Pick it up at Amazon.com.

Gonzo Girl, by Cheryl Della Pietra.
Prose, Novel, Gonzo Fiction, A Wild Ride.  272 pages.
Cheryl Della Pietra was Hunter S. Thompson’s assistant.  Gonzo Girl is a fictionalized account of the madness involved with that job.  Pietra does incredible work, here: fast-paced prose, hilarious observations, incisive writing, and enough literary edge to cut yourself open on.  Of course, then there’s Thompson, and the issue of all Art Celebs–the mythologizing, the love-them-or-hate-them black-and-white perspective people look at them through, the constant deification or demonization…which Pietra destroys entirely, instead painting a nakedly human portrait of someone who is, by turns, amazing, disappointing, hilarious, frightening, genius, and fool.  Problematic.  Honest.  The man being eaten by the myth, gnashing his teeth in turn at those who crowd around him.  Gonzo Girl is a ride, an adventure, an examination, a warning given with a wink, and a hell of a book.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.

Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, by C. V. Hunt.
Prose, Short Story Collection, Horrifying and Hilarious.  134 pages.
C. V. Hunt is the Devil.  Dark, clever, and hilarious; able to show someone terrible things and leave them laughing about it, afterwards.  I loved this book so much I’ve already written a full-length review about it.  Baby Hater alone is worth the cover cost.  This is a book for people who laugh at shock.  A book for the twisted humors among us who think a well-executed joke about necrophilia should be considered art.  And, considering how hard it is to come up with a well-executed necrophilia joke, I’m prone to agree.  Behold: art.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.  Thank me later.

She Walks in Shadows, Edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles
Prose, Short Story Anthology Collection, Dark Prose, Lovecraftian Horror.  312 pages.
I was extremely excited when the Kickstarter campaign launched for this book.  I was also, as usual, extremely broke.  But by the time it came out, I’d scraped together enough money to get a copy, and it proved to be one of my best decisions of the year.  She Walks in Shadows collects Lovecraftian horror from a series of authors who have absolutely excelled at their task.  Rich language, eldritch beings, strange events…they scavenged the best parts of Lovecraft like hungry ghouls.  Their words are amazing.  They drip with alchemy.  They pulse with darkness.  A black undertow surges beneath these tales, dragging the reader to a sinkhole littered with human bones.  A pure, bleak delight.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.  Do it!

Gutshot, by Amelia Gray.
Prose, Short Story Collection, Literary Aberration, Incisive, Hilarious, Creepy.  224 pages.
A selection of words that come to mind when I think about Gutshot: visceral, flensing, uncoiling, intense, kinked, growing, coupling, uncoupling, thrumming, shut away, locked up, gagged, freed.  Like C. V. Hunt, Gray has an ability to adorn grotesquery with humor.  The content is certainly not for the weak of stomach.  Still, there were many moments of laughter I stumbled upon amidst the squishy warmth of Gutshot‘s cultural autopsy, and that kept my mood afloat.  Gutshot plays fast and loose with tone and genre, as well.  Some stories stuck to horrifying realism, while others ventured into the patently absurd.  Somehow, when stitched together, they all make a strange kind of sense…a Frankenstein monster of literary genres.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.

Through the Woods, by Emily Carroll.
Graphic Short Story Collection, Fun and Creepy.  208 pages.
Fairy tales.  Forests.  Unexpected twists.  Haunting writing, stylish animation.  There’s very little to dislike about Through the Woods…unless you’re someone who’s overly concerned with happy endings.  These are the stories one might tell a child if one wanted to scar the poor thing.  Or turn it into a future horror author.  Same thing, really.  In any case, the Carroll collection is an exquisite one–both visually and in terms of the text.  After reading through it, myself, I can no longer shake the momentary shudder that comes upon me whenever I hear someone complain about “cold hands.”  And, of course, I’ll never forget that “the Wolf only needs enough luck to find you once.”
Pick it up on Amazon.com.  Immediately.

My Work Is Not Yet Done, by Thomas Ligotti.
Prose, Novella (and 2 short stories), Creepy, Dark as Hell.  192 pages.
I’m not really a huge fan of Ligotti.  Now that I’ve said that, I’ll have to spend the rest of my life hiding from the horror-genre-literati.  But it’s true.  That being said, I am a huge fan of this specific work.  The prose maintains Ligotti’s beautiful vocabulary, but without being weighed down by it.  It clips along at quite a good pace, actually.  And, being written by Ligotti, you can count on it being about as dark as darkness gets.  Told from the point of view of a depressed, neurotic office worker on the razor’s edge, My Work Is Not Yet Done is a nihilistic cosmic horror story the modern 9-to-5er needs.  Part terror, part dread, and part cubicle revenge fantasy, My Work Is Not Yet Done is a wild ride under grim black stars.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.

The Cipher, by Kathe Koja.
Prose, Novel, Creepy, Sexy, Vile.  356 pages.
Koja’s prose is absolutely electric.  Dark, grimy, steamy, sexy, seedy, horrifying and ecstatic–every paragraph is a trip.  These aren’t your normal pages, dear readers, these are pages pulped from filth excreted from an oozing pit.  Sex, drugs, art, and an infinite darkness eating us all — what more could you ask for?  The book does lag a bit in the middle, where it feels almost like a novella forced to novel proportions, but it’s a sin worth forgiving.
Pick it up on Amazon.com.

Yeah, that’s right, 11 books.  Not 10.  11.  Even my cold, awful heart couldn’t get me to cut one of them loose.  So, there–enjoy the bizarre, the dark, the hilarious.  The best books I read in 2015 without a doubt.  And links for you all to purchase them online.

Of course, no post would be complete with a plug for No Reflection and No Grave!  And, I should mention, “A Man Wakes Up Any Morning,” from Sanitarium Magazine #38.

See you soon.

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Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, by C. V. Hunt

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Dark.  Grim.  Hilarious.

Misery and Death and Everything Depressing is a short story collection by C. V. Hunt, whose uncanny talent of weaving dark humor with bleak plots and tormented characters gives even the grimmest tale a smirk.  For horror fans, the stories The Quarry and No Room for a Child will surely satisfy, combining genre tropes with excellent characterization and strong descriptions.  More literary fans will find Human Contact as a strange, skin-crawling examination of isolation and loneliness in the modern age–similar to Last Woman on Earth, a meditation on the same with quite a different ending, though perhaps the weaker of the two stories.

The strongest story, however, is Baby Hater.  It holds the perfect combination of humor, extreme human behavior, and a plot that unfurls into a beautiful tapestry.  I couldn’t stop laughing, chuckles and full-on guffaws teased from my lips by a bleak, sadistic narrator who, as the title suggests, isn’t a fan of children.  Of course, who really is?  The story only gets more amusing and still darker as the narrator’s original plan begins to slide sideways, running right up to a very satisfying climax.

The first and last stories in the collection are, in my opinion, the weakest.  The punchline of the first (To Say Mother Teresa Was Shocked When She Woke Up In Hell Would Be An Understatement) falls a little flat, the title possibly being the strongest point of the piece.  The last story (The Last Entry) is fine, but compared to the rest of the stories in the piece seems like a poor choice to end on.

All in all, Misery and Death and Everything Depressing is a stellar collection of stories.  Baby Hater alone is worth the purchase.  I consider the other stories as bonus material at this price ($2.99 for the e-book as I write this).  If I’d known ahead of time how good these stories were going to be, I’d have shelled out the extra $7 for the paperback.  C. V. Hunt has created some amazing work, here.  You should buy it.

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The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

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This book was in my top 5 list before I even finished reading it.  The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero, is charming, creepy, thrilling, and amazingly well-crafted.  If you feel the need to continue reading my opinions and insights, by all means do, but I actually recommend leaving now and just picking up a copy.

The book is a haunted house book.  No, wait, that’s not quite right.  It’s a book about dreams and visions and pseudo-science and murder most foul, and it takes place in a haunted house.  Also, there’s a secret society.  There’s a number of plot threads and interesting asides woven into the tapestry of the novel, but somehow they never seem to confuse each other or run amok, instead falling into a balance and clarity that many authors would struggle to achieve between so many things.  Everything in the plot supports everything else.  It’s delightful.  By the turning of the last page, you’ll realize that none of it was accidental and all of it was necessary.  There’s no fat to be trimmed.  It all makes sense at the end.

But the plot isn’t the best reason to read the book.  The characters are much better.  The prime narrator, A., is a curious, studious gent with a smirking sense of humor who is one of the more lovable narrators I’ve read in some time.  Quite the stand-up guy, on the whole.  Niamh is an energetic, frenetic partner who, though mute, has rather a lot to say.  I was utterly charmed.  Rarely do I worry for characters in fictional works, which has proven utilitarian in the current climate of literature and television, in which even seemingly essential characters are pruned regularly…but these guys had me tensely clutching the book, white-knuckled, holding my breath and sending out a silent plea to the author “no!  Please don’t!” which I consider a tremendous statement to their strengths.

All of this is delivered through diary entries, letters, security camera feeds, a home video camera, excerpts of magazine articles, faxes, etc… throwing out usual narrative delivery for other modes.  At first this comes off as a little “gimmicky,” but after a couple pages I stopped noticing entirely.  Many reviewers have related the delivery to that of House of Leaves, but I wouldn’t make that comparison per se.  House of Leaves is more of a serious-minded work, firstly, and secondly it requires you to rotate and twist the book, to read things in mirrors, etc… whereas The Supernatural Enhancements asks only that you keep reading, and has about as many visual elements/illustrations as Nos4a2.  Maybe a couple more.  And though there are cryptograms, ciphers, and puzzles…all of them are entirely optional, and most are solved for you by the narrators.  Except for the very first one.

My final note on the book is also perhaps the most important: Edgar Cantero writes great prose.  It is a difficult task to try to meld the poetic dread of Lovecraft with the pacing demands of a modern novel, but Mr. Cantero pulls it off marvelously.  His word usage is brilliant.  His choice in descriptors, metaphors, etc… are amazing and occasionally even stunning.  The rhythm of the writing is entrancing.  In terms of sheer aesthetics, in terms of quality prose…I should use the word “astonishing.”  Read the book if for no other reason than to experience what Edgar Cantero can do with the English language.

Now go.  We’re done here.

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The Peripheral by William Gibson (Review)

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Today, we’re going to review The Peripheral, by William Gibson.  I think we can probably begin with the TL;DR version of this review: go out and buy this book now.  If you’re a fan of neo-noir, cyber-thrillers, cyberpunk, or general sci-fi, you should already own it.  If you’re not really a genre-fan, but you have an appreciation for watching well-crafted characters unpack their struggles in the wake of a difficult plot, you should also buy it.

William Gibson writes fantastic characters.  The sci-fi genre is full of massive space-operas and overwrought narratives, often putting the characters in the backseat to the setting or just throwing fifty one-dimensional cut-outs at the reader.  Historically, weak characters have been a go-to criticism for genre fiction.  William Gibson doesn’t have those, or, at the least, has so few of them as to be statistically unimportant to the books he writes.  Ever since Neuromancer, I have loved the intriguing and often subtle ways he reveals his characters inner-stories, whether it’s as simple as when a character excuses herself to the restroom or as complicated as the web of lies they tell to distance themselves from an alienating world, it all comes off as believably human and poignantly deep.  The Peripheral continues this trend.  The characters are unfolded and unpacked in wonderful ways, stunning ways.  Their relationships, simple or complex, are revealed and spotlit in admirable, potent prose.  One of the less-subtle examples:

The protector had a thin white elastic cord.  She pulled it on, settled the eye-shaped steel cups over her eyes, and sat in pitch darkness, while Macon positioned the soft tips of the thing’s legs on her shoulders.  “When do you start printing?” she asked him.

“Printing the circuitry already.  Do this headset stuff tonight.  We pitch an all-nighter, might have it together tomorrow.  Now hold really still.  Don’t talk.”

Something began to tick around the ring-shaped track, headed to the right.  She pictured the stuff in Conner’s yard, humped over with morning glory vines, and imagined him never joining the Marines.  Failing the medical, for something harmless but never noticed before.  So that he’d stayed here, found some unfunny way to make a living, met a girl, gotten married.  Not to her, definitely, or to Shaylene either, but somebody.  Maybe from Clanton.  Had kids.  And his wife getting all the morning glory cleared away, and everything hauled off, and planting grass for a real front yard.  But she couldn’t make it stick, couldn’t quite believe it, and she wished she could.

And then the laser was right behind her head, still softly clicking, and then beside her left ear, and when it was back around the front, it quit clicking.  Macon lifted it away and removed the eye shield.

The stuff in his yard was still there.

The cast is full of dynamic and intriguing characters, from the more intrinsically relatable Flynne and Netherton, to the increasingly alien, such as Lowbeer or Daedra.  And, of course, the entire gamut in between.  Watching these people unpack before you, interact with each other, act and react to their changing world, and struggle to exist on their own terms was a reward all on its own, but Gibson also offers us a stellar setting and complexly believable plotline.

Gibson, for anyone who is somehow unaware, has always had a reputation for interpreting the cultural meaning and narrative trajectory of our technology.  This book continues that reputation.  The two examined settings are in the 2030’s and 2100’s, and somehow it all seems to make sense, with most of the technology from both eras traceable back to our current one.  The culture makes sense.  The stepping stones seem easily visible from where we currently stand, as if this technology should be available ten years from now, and maybe less if you’re a big fan of Raymond Kurzweil.  Of course, that makes sense considering one of Gibson’s better-known quotations:

I’m not trying to predict the future.  I am trying to use science fiction to somewhat understand an unthinkable present.

It works.  Through the lens of the setting and plot, we’re challenged to consider our technological culture, and the society  built around it.  Of course, there’s also The Jackpot…but I won’t spoil that for you, since you’ll be reading about it soon.

The plot couldn’t exist without the setting, the technological culture of the setting, the strange way it all makes sense to today.  Again, I shan’t spoil it for you, but I will say that the complexity of it all is the sort of complexity you’d expect to come out of a machine with so many moving parts and so much data.  It’s tightly paced, woven around the characters seamlessly, and incredibly intriguing.  The ending isn’t your typical thriller-ending, either, which I appreciated.  It’s much more believable than your typical high-octane series of reveals and action sequences.

I will say that it begins, as these things often do, with a witness to a murder.  Except, at the time, she isn’t aware she’s a witness, or even that it’s a murder.  Part of the reason for that is that the crime happens somewhere around seventy years in the future, and she was just playing a video game.  After that, things build up, revealing decisions made for personal, political, social, and economic reasons that begin to spiral out of control, and at the center of the intrigue…a broke freelancer in 2030, and a washed-up publicist in 2100.

Worth every minute.

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The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking
(You can click on the picture to buy it.)

The Art of Asking (by Amanda Palmer) is a very transformative read.  Or, at least, it was for me.  I have always been one of those types of people who has trouble asking for things, or being vulnerable, or opening up in any way that doesn’t involve art (acting and/or writing, in my particular case).  This book broke me down a little bit, made me question myself and the way I go about things, and opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities that I hadn’t been open to, before.  I highly recommend it for any artist or, hell, just any human, really.  As much as Amanda Palmer has to say about art and money and internet economics, it all pales in comparison to what she has to say about just being a human being.  (Buy the damned book.)

Amanda is a very conversational writer.  At times I forgot I was actually reading a book.  I felt like I was being spoken to, that I was involved in a give-and-take, that I was listening to someone spill the beans on their life and their philosophies and their hopes and triumphs and downfalls and…but, of course, that’s just a part of how Amanda Palmer interacts with her audience.  She’s phenomenal at it.  (And it’s a part of the aforementioned philosophy, which after reading the book I was certain was something I wanted to revisit in my own life.)  The writing is engaging precisely because it doesn’t feel like writing.  Having read a number of memoirs in the last year, I have to say that the memoir portion of this book was the most engaging auto-biographical reading I’ve done to date.  I felt like I was being entrusted with something, something with eye contact and authenticity and vulnerability, and I think perhaps I was…in a distant, artistic kind of way.  On that count alone I recommend this book.  The words, much like Amanda’s voice, seem to clasp you by the face and pull you in and whisper “Me, too.”

Content is critical to these kinds of books (read: non-fiction, memoir, essay, etc), and this book has plenty of it.  The Art of Asking is, at once, an exploration of art, artist, audience, philosophy, economics, and memoir.  The content is its honesty and its forthrightness.  The content isn’t a “how to” instructional for crowdfunding or art or expression.  It isn’t a “For Dummies” on Kickstarter, indigogo, or becoming cult-famous.  It’s much more intimate than all of that.  It’s an overflow of experience and opinion, of personal philosophy and personal success and personal failure.  If you’re looking for an educational experience you’ll have to be open to taking it personally, not professionally.  But if that sounds like your bag (and/or if you’re an AFP fan) then the content is 100% for you.

I cried reading this book.  Sometimes out of empathy or sympathy, out of sadness at the state of the world and oh such people in it, and other times out of sheer joy and gratitude.  As I said, it was rather transformational.  I went into this book feeling very grim, unanchored and lost, on the tail end of what I’ll admit was a pretty shit year, isolated and distressed and not knowing what to do about it or who I could turn to for help.  Moreover, I was pretty convinced that there was nearly nobody who would care if I did.  I’m not good at vulnerability.  I’m not good at trust.  Sometimes I’m not even that good at being authentic.  Art is how I’ve always parsed my internal life, but lately I’ve found myself on very shaky footing and questioning if I’ve ever been much good at any of it.  Going into this book, I was doubting the utility and meaning of my existence and the potential for any happiness in my years to come.  Coming out of this book, I have a much firmer grasp on how things got this way, and I’ve been reminded of how exquisitely different I used to feel on these topics.  I feel very much like someone has bent down and reminded me that it’s okay to get hurt and be vulnerable, and that it’s okay to trust people and be disappointed, and that it’s okay to open up to other humans.  A significant part of my 2015 plan involves incremental steps towards doing that, and I feel that I owe a tremendous debt of thanks to Amanda Palmer for being the person who, in some distant way, gave me permission.

So, yes.  Thanks.  Keep being awesome.

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Lauren O’Connell, Demos Vol. 1. (Review)

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Lauren O’Connell is a fantastic folk and country artist with tremendous musical flexibility.  If you haven’t checked her out on YouTube or Bandcamp, you should do yourself a favor and give a little listen.

Demos Vol. 1 is…well, it’s exactly what it’s called.  These are demos, most of them prety lo-fi and straight-up, and that’s something I actually really appreciate in these genres.  If I wanted to listen to highly-produced jam sessions, I probably wouldn’t be listening to a largely acoustic album.  If that’s a sticking point for you, maybe try one of her other albums (Quitters and Covers are the only ones I can rightly vouch for).

Getting over that hump, however, this album is wonderful.  Most of the tracks are l0w-key instrumentation with a heavy focus on lyricism and vocal work, but that’s not to say instrumentation isn’t important and/or doesn’t serve as a tremendous underscore to these powerful songs.  For instance, the lower key instrumentation of “I Would Rather Be Gone” does a great job of filling the song, without detracting from the power of the lyrics and the voice singing them.  That song, by the way, is what initially attracted me to the album — after some recent upheavals in my life, I just couldn’t stop listening to it.  It’s a very honest, authentic piece of work.

The rest of the album turns out to be just as good.  Whether it’s cover work, such as her covers of Neko Case (“Deep Red Bells“) or Neutral Milk Hotel (“Oh Comely“), or her originals (“Bystander” or “I Would Rather Be Gone,” for instance), Lauren O’Connell always comes out sounding real and honest, with an excellent voice for folk and a great command of her audience.  I loved the album.

You can purchase Demos Vol. 1 here, for the low price of only $10 USD (or more!).

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Review: When Paris Went Dark, by Ronald C. Rosbottom

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Facts never tell the entire story. A list of dates, times, characters, and events may lead to some detached kind of awareness, but it falls short of capturing real “truth.” This book, however, details in great depth the daily lives of both Occupier and Occupied. Here, the dry and meaningless facts are joined by memoir, essay, poetry, biography…an in-depth look at the human beings who lived on either side of the conflict. Historical caricature is dismantled to reveal honest humanity, authentic suffering, doubt and anxiety, a full-bodied portrait of people caught in a tense, difficult time.

The presentation is wonderful, the facts spliced perfectly with the human narrative, bringing to light new considerations and perspectives on history. The book is informative and expansive, giving context and meaning to facts that otherwise may seem detached from genuine human experience. It shows the world that was as rich, dubious, and complicated as the world we currently inhabit. It brings in the innumerable shades of gray so often ignored when discussing these trying situations. Several times I was brought to tears by the overwhelming weight of the choices people had to make, and make daily, in those dark days. Facts are easy to swallow and judgments are easy to make from our perspective, now, but this book does an excellent job of reminding you that the facts are only part of the story and that judgments are easy to make when you’re not the one who had to do something.

I picked up this book, at first, to do research for a project I’m working on. I opened the book hoping to get a general idea of the mood of the time, to pick up a few choice details to enhance the realism of my project, and to search for any themes that ran through the reality of the time. Now that I’ve put it down, my perspective on it is very different. I have been crushed and inspired, destroyed and repaired, I have been brought face to face with the humanity of a terrifying and complicated time, and in it I found something closer to the truth of what happened than I’ve ever found, before.

I highly recommend this book to anyone curious about the occupation.

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