Done! I challenged myself to read all five nominees for best novel in the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 within a month and I officially finished them. Here are the links and names of the five novels I read for this challenge:
- The Bone Mother by David Demchuk
- Ill Will by Dan Chaon
- The Changeling by Victor LaValle
- The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun
- The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
I enjoyed all these works very much and I’m glad I took on this little project for a few weeks. Looking at some numbers and stats, my instinct says the winner will be The Changeling by Victor LaValle. My personal favourite was The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge. The Bone Mother sent me on an adventure looking at really cool Romanian photographs from a hundred years ago. The Hole was the first Korean book I’ve read in translation, so that was something new for me. Ill Will tested my ability to solve a mystery and interact with text presented in a new and interesting way, and forced me to learn about Satanic cults in the United States. Each one of these books brought something very different to this challenge. Of course, I have been wrong many times before, and all I can say is that I’m very excited to see who they will select as this year’s winner. There’s nothing as pleasant as making wrong predictions on the internet! All I can say is that whoever they choose there is no wrong choice here. The 2017 Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented on Sunday, July 15, 2018, at Readercon 29, Conference on Imaginative Literature, in Quincy, Massachusetts. If you have been following this with me, or reading my reviews for this challenge thank you very much for sticking with me and for your time!
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge is the last novel I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards Nominees. I think I accidentally saved the best for last because this was my favourite out of the bunch. What La Farge did with this work is really impressive because he had to work with one of the most controversial figures in Science Fiction history and somehow he examines possibilities without glorifying any of the negatives in H.P. Lovecraft. Only three years ago the figure of Lovecraft was removed by the Locus Fantasy Awards so it’s a difficult topic to work with so shortly after. Reading this novel was like peeling layers and layers on a dark flower and finding something new each time. Like a cubist artist, La Farge holds H.P. Lovecraft and the persona of this mysterious figure, but looks at it from every possible angle, considering each perspective. For one, this story isn’t really about H.P Lovecraft, it’s about a woman who is in love with a man who was passionate about a particular aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s life. This hierarchy of perspectives creates a distance between all that one may find problematic with Lovecraft. Each character being slightly flawed and a little unreliable still preserves the mystery. Allow me to explain a little of the plot and I will try to be less cryptic. The story follows Marina who is herself a psychiatrist. Her husband Charlie was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons and one day simply vanished. The last thing we know is that he was by the edge of the lake. In trying to find out more about her husband Marina finds that Charlie was doing passionate research work on H.P. Lovecraft, in particular focusing on his sexuality, and if maybe he might have had a homosexual relationship with a young fan by the name of Robert Barlow. His lead was finding a Lovecraft diary also known in this novel as The Erotonomicon (playing on the Necronomicon). It was kind of interesting to consider that at the time H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘clues’ or proof trail of being homosexual might have been hidden by publishers or friends to ‘preserve’ his integrity whilst the racist and xenophobic parts of his biography were unashamedly left in, whereas today it would be exactly the reverse. I am a big fan of acknowledging that no one is good or bad, but a dynamic character with flaws and qualities alike and that the path to rehabilitation and education can help anyone no matter what they said or did in the past. Lovecraft did a lot of good for fantasy and sparked a series of subgenres. He was very unhappy and died in extreme poverty. I have always tried to keep that in mind, and La Farge just reminded me how interesting Lovecraft was and it’s making me want to go read the Necronomicon again.
Because the main narrator is involved in a mystery trying to find out more about her own husband, because Charlie himself is psychologically unstable (which automatically makes him an unreliable narrator), and because the ‘findings’ about Lovecraft have been filtered, hidden, and ‘rumoured’ the whole novel preserves an overall tone of suspense and eerie mystery. Even Charlie’s disappearance is something straight out of a Cthulhu story. No one is one hundred percent reliable, and no one has a definite answer on Lovecraft, which leaves the reader of The Night Ocean alone, left to come up with answers by connecting the dots. Also, Marina trying to understand Charlie, and him explaining Lovecraft to her in flashbacks/memories, and her learning more about him as we go along, we are introduced to bits of biography about Lovecraft, including the parts which make him a controversial figure. Like I said, this novel was very dynamic and it is presented in such a way that reminds me of a cubist painting. It is no small feat, and La Farge has succeeded immensely (in my humble opinion). This was a very difficult task and his writing is absolutely amazing. The way the story is told, the diverse cast of characters, the new parts of Lovecraft’s life to be explored, the incorporation of a female narrator to guide the story forward are just a few aspects of what makes this story so good. I also have to slip in that I was hooked on Charlie the moment he said he procrastinated by watching Lost…something I’m obsessed with. There goes my bias.
Definitely read this book if you love H.P. Lovecraft, mystery, science fiction, the macabre, steampunkish speculative fiction, and gothic atmospheres/settings. I mean…this is a Shirley Jackson Award nominee…so you already know.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle is the fourth book I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 nominees. If I had to put my money down, based on what I’ve read so far and looking at its stats, I would say that this book has the strongest chance to be the winner. That said, I have not finished all five yet (still have one left). Also, The Changeling has just won the 2018 Locus Award for Best Horror novel.
This novel has “two starts” but for good reason. The first is Apollo Kagwa’s parents’ love story and the beginnings of Apollo. Apollo is mixed and from a low-income family. His father mysteriously disappears but continues to appear to Apollo in dreams/nightmares. Apollo grows up and becomes very involved in dealing/collecting/selling rare books and is himself an avid reader. As things progress he too falls in love (the second start) with Emma and together they have a baby boy. At this point the novel takes a term from slightly creepy and mysterious to supernatural stellar writing. I liked the way the Goodreads synopsis puts it without spoilers: “Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined.” That…is putting it mildly. This novel is a roller-coaster ride, and it somehow does it by creeping up on you. You start slowly and you’re being fed one odd thing at a time, until you find yourself so deep you forget how you got here in the first place. I had to consult the synopsis because by the end I wasn’t sure what would be considered a spoiler.
What I particularly loved about LaValle’s writing was the way he brought the dark fairy tale to the city: New York. As a passionate Lore fan and reading these kinds of stories with supernatural elements, I can’t help but notice they are almost always set in an isolated town, in a rural part of a very abandoned state, or in some very small place with few inhabitants. Dropping this dark fairy tale in New York while simultaneously poking at the very contemporary “here and now” elements of parenting, social networks, and media is something that I never considered could come together so well in one cohesive narrative. LaValle challenges the spaces one thought of as ‘safe’ due to their bright lights and overpopulation and turns this concept it on its head. Parallel to these writing techniques, unstable setting, and atmosphere LaValle still places at this novel’s core the essence of what makes us human in exploring our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to family, love, parenting, and how our origins, or ‘where we come from’ or the literal ghosts of our past can influence our present. I really enjoyed this book, and even though it took me a lot longer to read this one than the others it was worth the effort. I recommend this if you like Aaron Mahnke’s Lore and Cabinet of Curiosities, dark fairy tales, gothic atmospheres, and of course…Shirley Jackson.
In the month of February I began my month by reading five poetry books, four of which I wrapped up individually here. The fifth I will feature as an independent book review in the near future. These are the novels I read and/or listened to in the month of February:
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
3.5-4. Mary Yellen is a 23 year old who lives on a peaceful farm when her mom dies. She is forced to move in with her aunt Patience and terrifying uncle Joss Merlyn at Jamaica Inn (which is a real 18th century Inn, made famous by this novel– the structure still stands). Jamaica Inn has a bad reputation mainly because Joss Merlyn hosts evenings with pirates and bad company. Mary stays at the Inn for her aunt. What follows midway through the novel is a romance with an unexpected character (won’t spoil it). The atmosphere of this novel is very Gothic, mainly due to the night time pirates and the fog-covered moors by which the Inn is surrounded.
Du Maurier is an excellent storyteller. Her descriptions, the atmosphere, character depth, and language uses are absolutely flawless. I will definitely read Rebecca in the near future. What I did not enjoy was that Jamaica Inn (published 1936) tried very hard to sound like Wuthering Heights (1847). The two works are almost 90 years apart and I think Du Maurier could have really accomplished more in her novel if she would have used the tools and writing techniques developed in that time for an atmosphere suitable for her contemporary audience (we’re even past the Jazz age at this point). In addition, the romance which begins half-way through the novel feels very forced. The relationship is not developed nor explored and feels unnecessary, which is why the second part of the novel really lacks substance and the narrative takes several directions after the half way point. This is a shame because it really takes away from the great atmosphere built in the first half. I would recommend this novel to anyone who likes Gothic novels, and pirates! Also I would count this novel as straddling the line of a “classic” and “mainstream literature from that time.” It’s not too heavy but it’s well written. I will definitely read more by this author.
Lincoln the Bardo by George Saunders
4 Stars. In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, Saunders said that he was so moved by a story he heard 20 years ago about Abraham Lincoln holding his dead son’s body in the crypt that it inspired him to take the short story long and write his first novel. With this excerpt from history, Saunders then explored the concept of the Bardo, which is a Tibetan word meaning “in between” or “transition”–the Eastern concept of purgatory. Saunders appropriated the Bardo for this narrative so that if one had any unresolved issues he/she would have to resolve them to move on. Willie Lincoln (the son) is stuck in the Bardo and there are many voices around him of other people from across the ages who are not aware they are dead, or what’s keeping them there.
In content, I couldn’t help but compare this story to Dostoevsky’s ‘short’ story “Bobok” which is about a man walking through a graveyard and overhearing conversations of the dead. Stylistically it reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” I will say, that in this novel Saunders is definitely more focused on style and exploring a very detailed moment (death of Willie) and a very specific concept (consciousness in the Bardo). Academics are going to love this book I’m sure. It’s very “focused” and has room for a lot of discussion. Also if this is ever performed on stage it would have a very Samuel Beckett feel to it.
Personally, I listened to it on audible on a train ride exactly the length of the audiobook. I would STRONGLY recommend the audiobook because Audible got several actors for the different voices and it really comes alive (Nick Offerman is awesome).
All in all, I’m not sure if DURING the experience of listening to it I was intrigued or really into it but after it was done I couldn’t stop thinking about it as a whole. I recommend it to anyone who is into different experimental styles of writing, Beckett, T.S. Eliot, and again strongly recommend it in audio format.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
4.5 Stars. My heart’s a mess right now. At first this book reminded me of The Iron Giant and Coraline with echoes from the Deathly Hallows‘ “The Tale of the Three Brothers” but then it grows into something more, a book about healing, and by the end I just couldn’t believe how well it was crafted. This book was so well written. The book is about a young boy named Conor whose mother is dying of cancer. He is visited by a monster who is also a giant Yew Tree at night (12:07 precisely) and tells him three fairytale-like stories with a highly atmospheric description and a twist. That’s all I can say about the summary without being too spoiler-filled for those who have not read it yet. What is particularly magical about the way this really depressing story is told is the use of language and metaphor (and sometimes allegory). This is a book I would teach and discuss at length. It’s highly memorable and I expect it to haunt me forever. Here are just some lines that stayed with me:
“there is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between” (70).
“And if no one sees you…are you really there at all?” (163).
“But there are harder things than being invisible” (171).
“You must tell the truth or you will never leave this nightmare…you will be trapped here alone for the rest of your life” (204).
A Hermit’s Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages by Andrew Jotischky
4 Stars. I really enjoyed this book. It’s a great non-fiction read. I never thought someone would look into the eating habits of medieval monks and it’s a topic that absolutely fascinates me. Jotischky not only looks at habits and behaviours around food in relation to faith, but also at where each item would be cooked, the kinds of ovens, and sometimes includes recipes as well. He also contrasts monks in various locations and contextualizes eating habits according to what those people would have access to. Overall it’s a very history-heavy text and I would recommend it to anyone interested in history, and the medieval period, or the history of eating/food
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
3 Stars. I can’t tell if it’s because this book has been so hyped up that I came to it expecting more. The IDEA of this novella is fantastic. Teens who have been to different worlds like Wonderland, Underland etc. return to this world and can’t go back so they go to this “school” that’s kind of a rehab facility. It’s mental institution meets fairy tales. It sounds amazing right? The metaphors and allusions are great. Some characters had such potential. The idea is Golden. Even the book cover design is so alluring that you want to pick it up and read it. BUT the way the story is told is absolutely awful. I gave this three stars for the idea. I wish that someone could re-write this because the idea is so good. I’m so angry that such a good idea with such great potential wasn’t given the chance to be fully explored. There is a chance I read it at the wrong time, in the wrong mood, and it piled up on top of the built-up expectation of how good it’s supposed to be. Maybe I’ll re-read this after a while and see if I feel the same way.