What I read in August and September

Whoops, I missed a month again. I did do plenty of reading though, mainly thanks to several long plane trips. But look, if you’re after books that will see you through spooky season, there’s a couple of horror novels on this list that are definitely worth checking out (and to be fair, a couple that aren’t). Read on…

The Good House by Tananarieve Due (7/10)

This is horror that builds. The book and the terror get off to a slow start, offering only a sense of unease that creeps along in your peripheral vision, darting out of site every time you turn to try and fix your gaze on it. Then, like a good jump scare in a horror film, it’s on you front and centre, all at once. The true power of horror is how it uses supernatural fears to explore the very real things that disquiet us—broken family, tragedy, grief—and this book does it masterfully with plenty of the supernatural type of horror besides. I found the very end to be unsatisfying, but it also felt disjointed from the overall story, so it didn’t change my enjoyment of the rest.

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz (8/10)

I  found this to be a really well-crafted thriller. I see some reviews complaining that they figured out where things were leading before the reveals, but I think that’s the sign of a well-plotted story. Sometimes a big, out-of-nowhere twist means that the author didn’t create something that follows logically from the plot they wrote, and that wasn’t the case here. You can realise where a story is going and still enjoy the ride, and that was certainly true here. Cleverly written, a lot of fun references that were just the right amount of literary pretentious for the protagonist, and a thoroughly unputdownable read.

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay (6/10)

This is an entertaining but not terribly innovative horror novel. A possession story, it relies on all the usual tropes and, despite lampshading them a bit with the metafictional horror blog lampooning the pseudo-documentary that follows the family through their trials and tribulations, does really do anything new or particularly interesting with them. The dual-POV of the events — as they happen and as the rest of the world saw them in the docuseries — is interesting in parts where they differ, but repetitive in others where they align. The book’s biggest strength is the character of Merry, the 8-year-old girl whose sister is believed to be possessed. Both as a child and when we meet her again 15 years later, she is well-written and fully-realised, and the author doesn’t fall into the trap of making a young child far to precocious in order to get his points across, he saves her more thoughtful analysis of the situation for her later years in a way that works really well. Not my favourite novel, but strong enough that I’ll pick up more of the author’s work.

The White Road by Sarah Lotz (5/10)

Caves and Mount Everest, two of my favourite rabbit holes to go down and freak myself out reading about in non-fiction, so I was intrigued by this horror/thriller that combined the two. While it definitely had some gripping moments, particularly in the caving section, which offered a good feeling of claustrophobia as the protagonist wriggled deeper into the cave system, I found the writing fairly convoluted overall, and so the creeping feeling didn’t linger as much as I would have liked.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu (5/10)

I think this would have worked better as an entirely fictionalised story. While I was intrigued by the idea of historical fiction based on a real happening twisted to include horror elements, I found it ended up taking me out of the story too frequently. A completely invented group of characters going through the same trials would have been more successful for me. However, still some good creeping moments of tension and an interesting concept overall.

Billy Summers by Stephen King (7/10)

Man, this is a good one. There’s nothing fresh or new in it, really, and yet somehow it still works. King takes a classic conceit — “criminal takes on one last job that’ll let him get out of the game,” fills it with every single trope you’d expect to see, and makes it a thrill to read from start to finish. Billy Summers is a great antihero of a protagonist; he’s an antihero through and through, a fairly unquestionably bad person even when he’s knocking off other objectively worse people, and yet there’s something so compelling about his most morally grey-bordering-on-good moments that makes you want to root for him regardless. While his (non-sexual-but-almost-sexual) relationship with the much younger female lead gave me a bit of the ick (which, in fairness, it was supposed to), as the story went on I really appreciated the complexity given to her character. A solid crime novel, a solid journey novel, a solid “one last job” novel, good tropes done great throughout.

Shipped by Angie Hockman (6/10)

There were moments in this book that were so flirty and fun — the snorkeling scene! the kayaking jealousy/misunderstanding! — and the setting was so good, but too much of it relied on the sorts of miscommunications and manufactured dramas that can make some romance novels feel like slogs. And the everything involving the job/work was a bit…… like, sorry, but girl, you are actually kind of a bad employee — you admit you’re not interested in your job or even the job you’re gunning for, and you think it’s appropriate to bring your sister on an important work trip with some handwaved explanation about how you need a Gen Z perspective? Okay. That said, Graeme was a delight, a lot of the side characters were delights, and seriously, that setting, I would read about for another hundred chapters.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (7/10)

There’s such an authenticity to this novel, both in its characters and its setting. Based on the author’s grandfather, one of the protagonists of this novel — which at times feels like two books in one but blends wonderfully as the stories intertwine — is the night watchman of the title, who works at the local factory and fights against Native oppression, while the other is a young woman who goes on a journey to find her missing sister in the city. Erdrich immerses you in these characters and their community, richly describing every detail until you can smell the air and taste the river water. There’s a sense of magical realism to the novel, but the characters and their stories feel so very real.

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London (5/10)

I really don’t know what to think of this one. I’ve never seen an episode of The Bachelor but my sense is that the ‘Main Squeeze’ takeoff was accurate both in its format and in the fact that the contestants mostly suck. I liked the concept — a blogger/influencer becomes the show’s first plus-size bachelorette, with the intention of showing positive fat representation on TV and boosting her career, but with no intention of actually falling in love (until…) but — and let me say that I hesitate to criticise here because I’m not fat, but reading other reviews it seems like I’m echoing what others say as far as the representation — it felt more like the author played more into stereotypes than anything else. When Bea orders groceries, it’s all junk food (and that’s cool, everyone loves junk food! But it’s a totally unnecessary detail). There’s an extended scene where she frets about wearing a bikini (understandable, most people do, but it gets sooo much more “screen time” than the scenes where she feels like she looks like a bombshell). On another note, I also wasn’t really sold on the final romance.

That said, there were things I really liked about the book! I did like Bea a lot as a character, she was super fun and relatable, and every time they described her outfits I could picture the gorgeous looks (with some tweaking, this would make a great movie with an amazing wardrobe). A few of the male contestants were lovely, and I did enjoy reading about the “dates” and other episodes of the show. If it wasn’t such a quick and fast-moving read, I might have liked it less, but overall it was pretty fun.

The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All by Josh Ritter (audiobook) (7/10)

A sweeping tale of murder, revenge, and lumberjacks, this coming-of-age story slash tall tale is a profane, clever delight. Perhaps I’m biased because I’ll read or listen to anything Josh Ritter writes, but he has such a knack for storytelling, with all the details of his characters fleshing them out on the page until you can picture them sidling up to a bar in some small frontier town or stalking through the forest on a mission for violence toward the trees or each other. And the atmosphere, you feel as though all your senses are being put to use through his descriptions of the setting. Not quite as seamless a transition from his songwriting as his first novel, but still a very entertaining read.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (10/10)

My favourite stories are the ones where all the characters are very stubborn and generally the architects of their own unhappiness but maybe there’s hope for them after all, so naturally, I loved this. Keenly observational, acerbic, sometimes frustrating, often emotional, reading Sally Rooney’s novels feels so personal to me that it sometimes makes me feel like she is digging around in my own brain, pulling out all the discomforting thoughts and rearranging them into much more articulate sentences than I could ever form myself. Possibly her best work yet.

After the Silence by Louise O’Neill (6/10)

The inspiration for this novel feels obvious — a murder in a small, remote area of West Cork, the prime suspect an English outsider who proclaims his innocence but revels in the attention, and remains in the area despite the suspicions and unhappiness of the locals, a documentary crew who comes some years later to dig up the past and attempt to find answers… however, instead of focusing on the suspect, the protagonist of the novel is instead his wife (who is native to the island but treated with equal suspicion by her neighbours due to her involvement with the suspect). The exploration of abuse in its various forms is more of the focus than the murder mystery itself (which, unlike Sophie’s murder, is resolved by the end of the story, although not to anyone but the reader and the perpetrators), and although a bit heavy-handed at times was mostly very effective and powerful.

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