Neil Gaiman’s fairy tale about childhood, magic, memory, and forgetting
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
A man returns to his childhood home and feels compelled to visit the farmhouse at the end of his street. While there, he remembers the first time he visited the farm as a seven-year-old, when he met his friend 11-year-old Lettie Hempstead, along with her mother and grandmother, and went on an errand that brought back something horrible.
- Neil Gaiman in his element, writing about all the things he does best: magic, myth, wonder mixed with terror, childhood, and the melancholy of adulthood.
- Doesn’t pull its punches, feeling genuinely dark and horrifying but without crossing the line into gratuitous violence or edginess.
- Combines all of the flavors of terror unique to childhood: fear of monsters, fear of getting in trouble, fear of loneliness and abandonment, and the sinking feeling that you’ve done something wrong that you can never take back.
- Feels epic and weighty in scope while remaining a focused, concise story — it feels exactly as big as it needs to be.
- You only realize after the fact that there is a non-magical explanation for everything; the story as presented seems so much more matter-of-fact and more real than any attempt to explain what really must’ve happened.
- A little bit too vague for the sake of maintaining a sense of mystery. This is absolutely not a book about the “rules” of magic, and is instead meant to evoke feelings and the sense of impossibly ancient forces at work. That said, I still wish that there had been more of a sense of structure to what was going on, instead of characters constantly speaking in riddles.
This is Neil Gaiman doing what he does best, and it’s one of his most satisfying books. He has a talent for writing about childhood and magic that conveys the full weight and melancholy of adulthood, but with a sense that as grown-ups, magic is only mostly dead to us, not entirely.
A brilliant combination of genre fiction, supernatural horror, and real-life horror
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
In 1954, African American veteran Atticus Turner returns to his hometown of Chicago on a summons from his estranged father. When he arrives and discovers his father has gone missing, the trail leads to a small town in New England. Atticus sets off on a road trip with his uncle and a childhood friend, eventually getting pulled into the machinations of a centuries-old cabal of wizards trying to perform a ritual to summon eldritch powers and bring about the apocalypse.
Mild spoiler warning below about the format of the book, which surprised me and ended up being one of my favorite things about it.
- Clever, funny, genuinely horrific, with characters that you can’t help but root for even when they’re being abrasive.
- Somehow has all the fun readability of pulp and genre fiction, and illustrations and accounts of the tragedies and injustices of living in the US in the Jim Crow era. The sci-fi/supernatural horror and historical fiction aspects of the book inform each other and are perfectly intertwined, without sacrificing any of the fun of one or any of the weight of the other.
- The characters are smart, capable, and possibly most surprising, sci-fi and astronomy nerds. It feels like one of the most pernicious stereotypes in popular media that African Americans aren’t interested in the kinds of nerdy stuff that tends to be depicted as only appealing to white males. Even “nice racism” tends to suggest that black men and women are just too cool to be interested in science fiction or horror, which is, of course, complete bullshit. (And yet, when I saw “Tightrope” for the first time, I still found myself surprised that someone as cool and drop-dead gorgeous as Janelle Monáe made a three-album concept series inspired by Afrofuturism and casting herself as an android).
- Because of the above, all of the characters are matter-of-fact and practical when faced with supernatural horrors, making the story work as horror and action/adventure as they find a way out.
- The format was such a wonderful surprise: the initial story is relatively quickly resolved, and then the book becomes more of an anthology of inter-related stories, each focused on a different main character. This allows the book to have sweeping changes in subject and tone — ghost story, sci-fi fantasy, supernatural heist story, body horror — all of which feel as if they’re part of the same story but never slowing down the pace.
- Each story brilliantly acts as a parable/illustration of the injustices African Americans faced in the Jim Crow era: redlining, sundown towns, needing the Green Book to travel safely, the Tulsa riots, etc. It refuses to obfuscate or sugar-coat any of these topics, but it also never feels too heavy-handed. The topic is always given a supernatural twist, where the reality of life in the US is often at least as harrowing as whatever cosmic horror the gang is faced with this week.
- Slow reading for me, as several parts made me so angry that I had to put the book down for a while. This might be specific to people like me who are super-sensitive to reading about injustices, having never been the target of them ourselves.
- Encounters with the real over-the-top eldritch horrors are wrapped up fairly quickly, which does avoid overly long and drawn-out descriptions of the indescribable, but also feels a bit anti-climactic.
- If you’re vindictive like me, you kind of want to see the bad guys made to suffer a bit more.
I absolutely loved this book. While it sometimes made me so angry that I had to put it down for a couple of days, the anger at the injustices just make the victories feel much more satisfying. I’m even more eager to watch the TV series now, especially knowing that the novel was originally conceived as a TV pitch.
Kal Penn’s memoir about his experiences as an Indian American actor in Hollywood and as a member of the Obama administration
You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn
Kalpen Modi writes about his upbringing as a member of an immigrant Indian family in New Jersey, his path to becoming an actor, his time on the Obama campaign and in the Obama administration, and his career afterwards.
I really dislike memoirs, so I was predisposed to dislike this book. I’ve got an irrationally low tolerance for hearing someone talk about themselves at length, and I feel as if it takes an extraordinarily good storyteller or an extraordinarily interesting life to overcome my impression of narcissism. So instead of the usual “Pros” and “Cons” I’ll just make a list of observations about the book.
- Frequently goes from being toothless to dismissive without ever coming across as gossipy, and full of bizarrely specific details. All of that made it seem more like Kal Penn fan fiction than a memoir.
- It was interesting to see Modi describe his community in New Jersey as being diverse and intersectional instead of insular, since I’ve rarely seen immigrant communities depicted in the media and when they are, they’re almost always shown to be some kind of homogenous monolith that strives to keep to itself. Modi writes more about bar and bat mitzvahs than Indian ceremonies.
- The book was written with a ton of gratitude and respect for his parents for working so hard to give him a stable life where an uncertain career in acting could be possible.
- Has a much-needed reminder that being recognizable or even famous doesn’t always equate to being rich. He says that Harold & Kumar gave him a ton of notoriety but didn’t provide a runway beyond a half year.
- Generally, he talks a good bit about financial insecurity and having trouble finding work, but also seems to have a stability that I would’ve been very envious of in my college years and 20s.
- His description of the Obama campaign and the election was vivid enough to make me nostalgic about that time and the feeling of hopefulness that came with it. His respect for the Obamas and key people in the administration is evident every time he writes about them.
- Goes into absolutely no detail about being gay, the process of coming out, any discrimination he’s faced because of his sexuality, none of it. Almost all of the book treats it as a total non-issue. The chapter about his fiancé is all about NASCAR, to the point that it feels like he’s deliberately refusing to discuss it. Obviously, people can choose to be private and choose what they want to write about. But this book taught me the names of his middle-school classmates and that he has a tree-nut allergy, but nothing about his experiences that I might actually be able to relate to. It’s especially jarring when he’s talking about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or marriage equality while seemingly refusing to talk about them as things that might affect him personally.
- The next-to-last chapter ends the book on a sour note, insisting that the fate of his series Sunnyside was due to systemic racism and a lack of support and promotion from NBC. Obviously, I don’t know the real story, but one thing I do know is that I’ve had a crush on Kal Penn ever since he was on How I Met Your Mother, if not earlier, and the trailer and the pitch still couldn’t get me interested in the series. It seems like working in TV for 20 years would have given plenty of examples of how sometimes stuff just doesn’t work.
As I mentioned, I don’t like memoirs, so it says a lot about the readability of the book that I finished it at all. I saw it at a queer book fair last weekend, and I was surprised to see it on the shelf, since I had no idea that Kal Penn was “dating dudes” as he describes it. It turned out to be a humorous but infuriating account of how people of color are treated in the entertainment industry, and a bit of nostalgia for the days when you could actually feel good and hopeful about a Democratic presidential candidate. I just guess congratulations are in order to Kal Penn for being the one person in America to come out in the early 2000s and have it be a completely uninteresting non-issue.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigate a widespread conspiracy in a story so scandalous it had to be withheld from publishing for a century
The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
One of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson’s later adventures, in which a seemingly straightforward crime involving an American gang leads the detectives to a dark conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of the British government, and gets Holmes arrested and imprisoned for murder!
- As with Horowitz’s James Bond books, this does an excellent job of suggesting Arthur Conan Doyle’s style, but with a more modern story.
- Captures the serialized feel of some of the original Holmes mysteries, where seemingly self-contained cases could balloon into longer, more complicated sagas.
- Cleverly explains how a “missing” Sherlock Holmes story was published in the 21st century, by saying that Watson found the whole affair so scandalous he insisted it not be made public for 100 years.
- Feels like a “fair” mystery, with clues that are made clear throughout and reward the reader for careful observation.
- Matches the feel of the original stories without being too obvious an impression.
- So much of it was so familiar that I strongly suspect I’ve read this book already, but completely forgot about it.
- Filled with so much exposition, or just recounting events that happened elsewhere, that it all feels a step or two removed from any actual action.
- Takes the character of Mycroft Holmes, who’s described as “stout” by Arthur Conan Doyle, and goes to such lengths to describe him as morbidly obese that it can’t help but come across as fatphobia on Horowitz’s part.
A solid but somewhat forgettable Sherlock Holmes mystery. There’s enough of an update to give the story a modern feel despite its fitting completely within the existing canon, but there’s not enough novel in it to make it feel as fresh as something like the Sherlock BBC series. Anthony Horowitz’s books are completely and dependably readable, and he was the perfect author to trust with the characters.
Erin Kelly’s mystery/thriller novel inspired by real-life puzzle books and the treasure hunters obsessed with decoding them
The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly
The Golden Bones was a hugely popular art book filled with paintings giving clues to the locations of tiny, jeweled bones buried all across England. The book brought fame and wealth to the artist, but a lifetime of paranoia to his daughter Nell, who’s been stalked, threatened, and attacked by the hunt’s obsessive fans. Now, on the book’s 50th anniversary, there’s a plan to create a modern version of the treasure hunt, launched with a publicity stunt revealing the final bone that had never been found. When the launch goes awry, it ties the family to an actual murder and puts Nell and her family in jeopardy once again.
- Brilliant concept, building off the real-world existence of Masquerade and, as the author describes it, “the human impulse to uncover secrets”
- Once it gets moving, it’s extremely compelling. I was up until 3 AM reading it last night, and couldn’t wait until bedtime tonight and had to finish it this morning.
- Juggles enough complications and revelations and escalations to make it feel as if everything is just on the edge of collapse, but without feeling too overwhelming.
- Does a good job capturing the style and tone of treasure-hunt and ARG message boards — everyone referring to each other by online handle, and the mix of people fully invested in the subject along those who are perpetually angry at the artists
- Pitch-perfect depiction of an egomaniacal asshole who is incessantly making cutting remarks, undermining everyone around him and passing it off as affection.
- One of the major revelations is astonishingly well done. You immediately have to turn back and read an earlier chapter, to see that all the clues were there all along.
- The depiction of an egomaniacal asshole was vivid enough to reawaken low-grade anxiety about people like that I’ve met in real life.
- Kind of a stumbling start to the book, as there’s a ton of necessary context that needs to be established, and it all gets thrown together in a bewildering mess of names and events.
- I just plain don’t like the main character; she’s self-righteous and a hypocrite. People kept pointing out she was being insufferable, and they were right, and she ignored them. There I said it.
- Not really a “con,” so much as mismanaged expectations on my part: the book is only barely interested in the puzzle-hunt nature of the premise, and is much more of a “Tiny Secret Whispers”-style family drama.
This wasn’t the book that I wanted or expected it to be, but it was surprisingly good at being what it is. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a “can’t put it down” thriller, and this one definitely qualifies. It’s gripping even though there’s very little action or suspense; it’s all plot developments moving everything constantly forward.
This new graphic novel is an anthology of five comic horror stories, ostensibly for kids but actually for me
Eerie Tales from the School of Screams by Graham Annable
Children in a classroom are called on by their teacher to deliver an EERIE story to the rest of the class, and we get to see five of them play out.
I worked with Graham at LucasArts and Telltale, but I would think his stuff is brilliant anyway.
- More of the creepy-funny feel of the Grickle animated short films he’s been making for years, but on paper.
- Suitable for kids — Or maybe more accurate to say that it’s aimed at kids but suitable for adults? I don’t care! — but there’s little sense of anything being watered down. This feels like the creepy stories real kids would tell each other.
- Graham is a master of expressions and poses; even after years of being a fan, I’m impressed by how he can get across a full-on mood and complete state of mind for a character by changing the position of a line by a fraction of a millimeter.
- The anthology format is great; it calls back to kids’ horror shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? as well as adult horror anthologies, but also carries through the entire framing story.
- “The Face in the Forest” is my favorite of the stories, and it manages to be horrific and heartwarming at the same time.
- I love how it feels old-fashioned and modern at the same time; it feels like it’s not trying to be anything else.
- I read it too fast, so I’m only an hour from getting it in the mail and I already want the sequel.
- I’d been hoping for Principal Skeleton.
I loved it. I wish I’d had comics like this when I was younger, “younger” including “in my forties.” If you’re a fan of Graham’s creepy-funny animated horror shorts, then this is a no-brainer. If you’re not a fan of them, then what is wrong with you?
Anthony Horowitz’s mystery adventure set immediately after Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis fell to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls
Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
A Pinkerton detective arrives in Europe shortly after the climax of the story “The Final Problem,” in which Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty had fallen to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls. There, he meets a Detective Inspector from Scotland Yard who appears to be as brilliant a detective as Holmes himself. The two return to England to track down the mysterious American who’d replaced Moriarty as the mastermind of all crime in London.
Every bit as engaging readable as everything else I’ve read from Horowitz. Much like his entries in the new James Bond series, you get the sense that Horowitz either loves these classic characters and the worlds of their adventures, or else he’s astonishingly good at faking it. He doesn’t try to ape Arthur Conan Doyle’s style (at least for long), but instead captures the tone and mood of the original stories while giving them a more modern and action-oriented plot.
Difficult to say anything about it without spoiling one aspect of it or another. The famous moments of deduction here don’t land as well as they did in the original stories. The central mystery — or at least, what I’m assuming is the central mystery — isn’t particularly satisfying, since there aren’t enough suspects to make it that interesting.
Anthony Horowitz continues to be one of the most dependable authors of interesting and engaging logic puzzle mysteries, frequently with some meta-aspect that makes them especially fascinating. Moriarty was a fun read, but I have to admit that it might be the least satisfying mystery novel that I’ve read by Horowitz. But then, I’ve never been that much of a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, either.
A Hercule Poirot mystery from 1969 that will form the basis of the next movie, inexplicably
Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie
When a teenage girl is murdered at a Hallowe’en Party, one of the guests calls on her old friend Hercule Poirot to help solve the case. Finding the killer will require Poirot to interview everyone in the small town even tangentially related to the party, as well as looking into several unsolved murders in the town’s history.
- Has the confidence of the books written after Christie had proven herself and met with great success, where she was free to be a little experimental with style and pacing instead of purely focused on plot
- Character-driven, with a little less emphasis placed on Poirot and his eccentricities, in favor of letting the other characters assert their personalities
- Written in 1969, so parts of it feel jarringly contemporary. It’s fascinating to read an Agatha Christie novel expecting England in the 30s or 40s, and instead see characters complaining about how computers are ruining everything
- Felt oddly like Christie’s heart wasn’t in the murder mystery; it feels as if she were really wanting to write a novel about these characters and their relationships, but was obligated to have a mystery running through it
- The clues do eventually all come together, although it’s not in a particularly satisfying way. The feeling is less “a-HA!” and more “Okay, sure, I guess.”
- Everybody is surprisingly cruel about the murder victim and nonchalant about the killings
- More an observation than a “con,” but it was weird to see characters in an Agatha Christie openly talking about the possibility that it was a sex crime, or that the murder involved pedophilia and sexual assault. It’s unfair and condescending to Christie, but I always think of her work as being strictly G-rated-but-with-murders
Not one of Agatha Christie’s best, but I thought it was an interesting reminder that she was still cranking out these mysteries in my lifetime. The fact that turns out to be the central hook is compelling, even if the book itself is more pleasant than interesting — that makes it easier to see why it was the basis for a loose adaptation in the upcoming movie.
Getting accused of murder is one of the best things to happen to Anthony Horowitz’s writing!
The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz
Book 4 in the Hawthorne and Horowitz Investigate series
After the events of A Line to Kill, Anthony Horowitz’s reluctant partnership with irascible detective Daniel Hawthorne is complete, and Horowitz is free to pursue a lifelong dream: having one of his plays produced in London’s West End. But when someone is violently murdered after the play’s opening night, Horowitz is the prime suspect. His only hope is that Hawthorne can find the true killer and clear his name within 48 hours.
- Completely engaging, even among Horowitz’s consistently entertaining and readable mystery novels
- The revelation that I consider to be “the twist” — the real reason someone framed Horowitz for murder — was really cleverly done. I never guessed the truth at all, but the clues were all there for the observant reader.
- Does a great job of juggling lots of sub-plots and individual character intrigue, which serve as kind of a “consolation prize” for piecing together the minor stories, even if you don’t figure out the central mystery.
- Great balance between good, old-fashioned murder mystery and the meta-gimmick that serves as the premise of the entire series. There’s just enough of the real world to remind the reader that this is ostensibly non-fiction, but not so much that it overwhelms or distracts from the rest of the mystery.
- Feels like Horowitz has perfectly hit his stride with this series. There are very few of the weird shifts in tone that were in the other books — descriptions of a violent crime scene, a character’s unexpected homophobia, which were presumably included to make the novel read more like true crime.
- The case against Horowitz isn’t at all convincing, and I had a hard time believing any prosecutor would ever be willing to take it to court. This undercut the tension and honestly made the book feel slightly juvenile.
- Horowitz has settled on the characterization of himself in this book as being famous and successful enough to be frequently recognized but never respected. I should be used to it by now, but it still comes across as more artificial and a bit annoying instead of self-effacing and charming. (On the other hand, if he’d just gone with “best-selling author with long-running book and TV series” would probably be insufferable).
- Hawthorne is a little less unlikeable in this one, but I still find the character too irritating to be at all interesting.
The most consistently entertaining and engaging book of the series so far. It doesn’t have the weird novelty of the first book, but it also doesn’t have the strange shifts in tone. I’m clearly hooked on this series, even if I only like or care about one of the main characters.
Mary Roach applies her wry takes on uncomfortable topics to the subject of human sexuality and sex research, and the results are hilarious
Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
Roach takes an at-times-uncomfortably close look at the various ways that scientists have tried to understand and improve the sex lives of humans.
- Roach’s comedic timing is at its absolute height here. Overly dry (no pun intended) or uncomfortable passages (ibid) are split up perfectly with an odd or humorous digression, or a well-placed footnote.
- Full-to-bursting (so to speak) with clever double entendres, and even a lament that some terms have no good synonyms or room for double entendres.
- Goes even further than other books to advance the studies she writes about, as she and her husband volunteer for a sex study.
- Mature, modern, and open in a way that I never see, finding the humor and fun in the subject of sex without becoming vulgar or resorting to snickering and lazy gags.
- Matter-of-factly acknowledges differences in orientation and behavior without even a hint of prudishness.
- Contains a detailed description of penis surgery. I cannot overstate how stressful this is. (Roach acknowledges this in a footnote, expressing sympathy for biologically male readers and commenting that she noticed her husband had to read some chapters with his legs crossed).
- Often had me reflexively putting a hand down to protect my business while I was reading.
- Not really a con, but it spends significantly more time on female sexuality than male (at least partly because female sexuality is more complex at both the physical and psychological levels, and because it’s historically been repressed and misunderstood).
My favorite of Mary Roach’s books that I’ve read so far, interesting and exhaustively (literally) researched while also being laugh-out-loud funny.
A six-feet-deep dive into all the various things that can happen to a dead body
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Roach examines the various ways that human cadavers are used, abused, and disposed of, with topics including organ donation, forensics, crash impact testing, medical studies, cannibalism, decomposition, plus the advantages and disadvantages of having your body composted instead of cremated.
- Roach has a masterful sense of comedic timing, knowing exactly when to be funny without coming across as flippant, and personal without making herself the focus of the story.
- Extensively researched, with Roach insisting on going to the source whenever possible, seeing all the gruesome details in person.
- Stays positive throughout, stressing the importance of organ donation and ecological responsibility, and also allowing people dignity and respect.
- Full of information I not only never knew, but never even thought about.
- Frequently made me laugh out loud.
- Absolutely not for the squeamish. Roach tries to lighten the mood when she senses it’s getting too dark or too grisly, but she also doesn’t flinch at all while describing cadavers being opened up, ripped apart, drained, or allowed to rot.
- Uses Mehmet Oz as an expert on the topic of organ transplants, presumably long before most people realized just how much of a shameless prick he is.
- In addition to the gory or grisly descriptions, there are a lot of descriptions of torture, murder, or cannibalism that can upset sensitive readers like myself.
Probably the book that made Roach’s reputation as one of the funniest science writers, and the reputation is well-deserved. I think I would’ve been way too sensitive or squeamish for this material if it hadn’t been for Roach’s confidently funny and often compassionate approach to the subject.
The latest compendium of darkest imaginings from Author, Dreamweaver, Visionary, Plus Actor Garth Marenghi
Garth Marenghi’s TerrorTome by Garth Marenghi (Matthew Holness)
Prolific horror author Nick Steen finds himself compelled to purchase a mysterious, ancient typewriter from a strange antique shop, unwittingly setting off a series of terrifying events which threaten to destroy the entirety of Stalkford.
- In case anyone still believed that Marenghi was only capable of creating characters that were thinly-veiled wish-fulfillment stand-ins for himself, TerrorTome‘s Nick Steen is every bit as original, unique, and vividly-realized a character as Darkplace‘s Rick Dagless.
- Practically three novels in one
- Includes multiple Fright Breaks and a Horrotica section
- Contains Bruford, one of Marenghi’s best side-kicks since Dr. Lucien Sanchez
- Encompasses a multitude of literary styles, with Clive Barker and Stephen King-style horror interpreted in Marenghi’s unique voice
- Readers unfamiliar with Marenghi’s style might be frustrated at the amount of repetition throughout — iterating over and over on the same gag, or repeating the same plot structure (which is lampshaded near the end of the story).
I would’ve been content if TerrorTome had just been Darkplace: The Novel, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the book changing up its structure and opening up into new ideas. Holness impressively commits completely to Garth Marenghi’s voice, making sure that he’s an ever-present character throughout. What impressed me the most was that this feels very much in line with Darkplace, not just as a simple adaptation, but taking the same concept and applying it to literary horror instead of 1990s episodic television.