The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

This short novel thoroughly creeped me the hell out. It’s been a few years since I’ve read anything that maintains this level of unease throughout. It’s not intended to be outright scary, instead it maintains an eerie tone (think VanderMeer’s Annihilation) and punctuates it with some genuine goosebump moments that snuck up on me. The narrative plays the POV characters’ relationship woes (something we can relate to) against a supernatural backdrop (something we cannot). Juxtaposing the relatable with the unrelatable works so well here, and serves to pull the unrelatable closer until it feels solid, foundational, and within the realm of possibility.

This narrative tactic also got me heavily invested in the characters and their troubled relationship; rooting for them to find a way out of their situation together; to come out the other side a more entwined, singular team. They’re two people who in a misguided attempt to navigate up out of a downwardly spiraling situation, inadvertently ensnare themselves into another, accelerated, more deadly one. I love the way that these events escalated, and built on one another. The way that they dealt with that escalation also felt incredibly like actual human behavior.

Julie and James settle into a house in a small town outside the city where they met. The move—prompted by James’s penchant for gambling, his inability to keep his impulses in check—is quick and seamless; both Julie and James are happy to leave behind their usual haunts and start afresh. But this house, which sits between ocean and forest, has plans for the unsuspecting couple. As Julie and James try to settle into their home and their relationship, the house and its surrounding terrain become the locus of increasingly strange happenings. The architecture—claustrophobic, riddled with hidden rooms within rooms—becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains are animated on the wall—contracting, expanding—and map themselves onto Julie’s body in the form of bruises; mold spores taint the water that James pours from the sink. Together the couple embark on a panicked search for the source of their mutual torment, a journey that mires them in the history of their peculiar neighbors and the mysterious residents who lived in the house before Julia and James.

Written in creepy, potent prose, The Grip of It is an enthralling, psychologically intense novel that deals in questions of home: how we make it and how it in turn makes us, mapping itself onto bodies and the relationships we cherish.

Jac JemcThe story found its way to a terrific resolution. I imagine it’s difficult to end a haunted house novel in a way that is satisfying to the reader, but doesn’t undercut the creepy tone — that built it in the first place — with too much clarity. Do you completely explain the haunting and lose all the mystery, or do you leave it entirely unknown by ending in an ambiguous manner? The finale of The Grip of It finds that perfect middle point between these two extremes, balancing resolution/irresolution to both fulfill my deeply rooted desire for closure as a reader, and keep the eeriness fully at play.

We’ve all got that old lizard brain resting below our rational one, nearly all that it understands is fear, and it love a good poking. Logically, I know none of these supernatural events are real or even remotely possible, but my lizard brain doesn’t care about logic, it likes being afraid. It wallows in the macabre, and thrives in the unknown terrors that might lurk in the shadows residing just at the periphery of my vision. I mostly read this right before going to bed, and I found myself double checking silhouettes in my bedroom as I lay there, imagining how the strange sensation of seeing my wife’s face, but not recognizing her, would feel; finding patterns where none exist, and missing patterns previously obvious. The whole affair put me on edge.

The prose is clean, the chapters short, and the pacing tight. You could even read it in a single sitting if you wanted, and it’s engaging enough that the decision to do so might end up outside your control. It might just happen, you looking at the clock afterward and wondering where the time disappeared to.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas

Finishing this magnificent novel was a bittersweet affair. Sweet because it was a powerful joy to read; experiencing what a writer that possesses such a mastery of her craft can do with words, continually in awe at the bravery of this story, and how she approached it. Bitter because I’ve lived with her character Joan Ashby these past couple weeks, judged her a little unfairly at times, learned as she did, gotten to know her well as she grew and adapted, and now we are forced to part ways because the book is done. She’s such an interesting creation, and I want to keep her around a little longer. Most especially, I want to read the rest of her stories, and novels that she wrote during her life inside of this book. I’d be 100% okay if Wolas chose to write and publish them eventually.

Cherise WolasThis is Cherise Wolas’ debut as a novelist, but it is so well formed you would never think it her first published novel. It has none of the usual shortcomings that early efforts often do. I’m thinking she has always written. She is obviously very practiced, and a remarkably skilled storyteller to have put together something this comprehensive. If this book doesn’t get shortlisted for several big awards next year, I’d be shocked at the injustice. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins more than a few of them.

Her prose is beautiful and flowing, and her characters contain multitudes, especially Ashby as we get to see her create her own characters (some of them writers as well) and bring them to life with flowing prose. Wolas’ ability to write as herself, as her characters, and as her characters’ characters is just breathtaking. The subtle shifts in style as the novel dips into and back out of Ashby’s writing, were handled with grace, and they added some postmodern flair to the whole thing. It’s like a novel that contains a short story collection, and reminds me of reading both at the same time, breaking up the main story with little miniature ones that interject here and there, never taking away from the momentum. It just works.

My favorite part of this is seeing how Ashby learns about herself, and deals with events in her own life through her fiction; through the characters that take on some of the traits of those around her; never directly putting her own life, events, and acquaintances directly into her work, but borrowing bits here and there and reconfiguring them into new dramatic events and characters. It’s refreshing to see the creative process stripped bare and represented accurately like this. Everything is a remix of our influences, and our lives, blown apart and amalgamated. In the latter half of the book, we even start to get a small glimpse into one possible future direction for Ashby, through the fiction that she creates. It’s subtly done and I love it. We see her working things out, coming to terms with traumatic events, and coming out the other side, all part of her process of creation and renewal.

Read this novel. It’s out August 29th from Flatiron Books in the US, and Sept 7th via The Borough Press in the UK.

The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt

The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt

“…voices that insist on being heard, stories that demand to be told, writers who are compelled to show us something new.” is how FSG Originals describes the books they publish, and I would absolutely describe Samantha Hunt’s writing in this way. Her stories are brutal yet beautiful, magical but grounded, sincere, horrific, and essential. Her characters have such unique perspectives on their lives and the events surrounding them; a lot of the time these were perspectives that I’d never fully considered, but instantly empathized with once exposed to them.

Samantha HuntThese are stories I obviously needed to read. Stories about women and men of all walks of life passing through stages of the fantastic and the mundane, learning about themselves and the world(s) around them. While reading this book I was reminded of that old saying about how reading someone’s book is like having a conversation with them, or getting to know them a little better. With Hunt’s writing, it felt like getting to know several different women at the same time. It’s extraordinarily powerful stuff. Seeing things from these many new perspectives was fascinating for me.

There isn’t a bad story in the bunch, but the standouts for me were: The Story Of, All Hands, Love Machine, Wampum, & The Story Of Of. Her prose is tight and expressive. She manages to say so much in so few words, and her writing often dips into the magically realistic, with postmodern sensibilities.

I think it’s past due time for me to pick up her novels, and I’m kicking myself for not paying attention when friends were telling me that I should. Oh well, better late than never!

P.S. I need to sing a few praises for this cover as well. Book designers have really been outdoing themselves this year, and this one is no exception. This cover fully subverted my pattern recognition engine by using it against itself, that is until I plopped it down on my coffee table absentmindedly and accidentally saw it from a different angle as it lay there sideways, smirking at me. Clever clever.

Strange Dogs, by James S.A. Corey

Strange Dogs, by James S.A. Corey

Holy shit. This changes things.

I love that we get these short stories and novellas between the main Expanse novels. If the novels are considered big, pulpy action movies with great characters, then the short stories and novellas in The Expanse are tightly focused character pieces, in smaller stories. But this, this is something special in addition to all that. It stands incredibly well on its own as a self contained story, but in the context of the larger narrative happening in this series, it’s extremely exciting as a taste of things to come. If this is the direction the series is heading, then sign me the hell up!

What always impresses me about The Expanse, is that these guys can seemingly write from any point of view, any perspective, and they completely nail it. They’ve demonstrated this over and over again: A pampered daughter of the richest businessman in the system out for revenge against what she perceives as a wrong orchestrated against her family? They nailed it. An ex Martian Navy pilot who abandoned his wife and turned renegade pilot in an effort to find his true self out among the stars? Yep, they nailed that too. A botanist growing soybeans on Ganymede? A priest presiding over a small congregation on Europa? A washed up detective living in a spun-up ceres station, looking for some sort of salvation? Nailed it with all of ‘em. They’re either extremely empathetic, extremely in tune with the human condition, or extremely creative – probably a combination of all three – because these characters are just too good

James S. A. Corey

 

The narrative in Strange Dogs unfolds through the eyes of another entirely new, unique point of view: Cara, a 10 year old Earther girl living a life on Laconia, a science colony in a remote part of the milky way galaxy. She moved there with her scientist parents when she was very young, and their stay has been made indefinite due to calamitous events unfolding back in the Sol system, and an unexpected arrival of a military presence on Laconia. The things she discovers on Laconia have the weight to potentially change the entire direction this series is heading. Because of that I would say this is the first of the shorter Expanse fiction that may be absolutely essential to read. The others have been incredible, but this one feels like required reading; like a longer than usual prologue to a huge story to follow.

What I really enjoyed about Strange Dogs, is that this same story told instead from the perspective of either of her parents, or some other secondary character, might belong more comfortably in the horror genre. But, because we’re seeing events through the youthful eyes of Cara, there is instead a childlike wonder to it all. Her perspective also brings an ambiguity, and slightly unreliable narration to everything, which combines to set a tone of general unease in addition to that wonder.

December, or whenever Persepolis Rising comes out, cannot get here soon enough.

 


The Cruft of Fiction, by David Letzler

The Cruft of Fiction, by David Letzler

Our world has never been more filled with incoherent clutter masquerading as information. It’s present in every corner of our lives today; tomorrow it’ll likely be even worse. The data pool has been so polluted with gibberish that in 2017 we have politicians who can’t seem to agree on what exactly constitutes a fact. Vapid internet-meme culture teaches us to repeat slightly modified nothings to each other, over and over again for internet points redeemable for exactly the same – nothing. We are bombarded with huge amounts of junk data every single day of our lives, and sorting through it to get to the morsels of useful information is becoming a necessary life skill.

How often do you read a headline, skip the article, and read the most popular comment to learn what your opinion should be? I’m guilty of doing that, big time, and I wasn’t even aware of it until someone pointed it out. There is just so much information available to us from every outlet, all competing for our attention – most of it trying to sell us something – that we don’t have near enough time to read it all. So, what do we do? Let’s circle back to that in a sec.

As defined in this book, Cruft is any text in a work of fiction that doesn’t particularly add anything to that work. You could call it “junk text”. When you hear someone complaining about a particular page-count heavy novel as “meandering” or “painfully boring”, they’re most likely complaining about the Cruft of that novel. Instead of merely being extraneous fat that should’ve been trimmed by a more talented editor, Letzler argues that Cruft may have a specific, useful purpose in these mega-novels, and he has well thought-out, very persuasive arguments to back up his thinking.

David LetzlerThe gist of the argument is this: Cruft isn’t necessarily bad. It can be viewed as a tool to help us learn to modulate our attentional faculties. He argues that by reading Cruft containing mega-novels we learn the valuable skill of how to sift pertinent information from the non-important, and this skill can be applied to other areas of our lives; learning when to skim and when to pay attention. After all, mega-novels so often hide bits of useful information buried in a pile of red herrings. If you read enough novels like this, you’re bound to improve picking the useful bits through the clutter. This line of thinking redefines boredom and confusion as features of mega-novels, instead of pejorative descriptors. He also argues that these descriptors often say a lot more about the person doing the describing than the actual novel itself.

I tend to agree, and I love this argument. It’s something I’ve been dancing around for a while, but never really put into words. If you’re a fan of huge, “boring” novels (like I am), then you’ll undoubtedly adore this academic literary criticism deconstructing the inherent value of the most boring parts of those novels. I had to laugh at myself a little while reading it, because there’s something so deliciously postmodern about reading a book all about the most boring parts of boring books. It was always interesting, and to its credit, contained no Cruft of its own. Something that I consider a huge achievement, given the subject matter.

Of course, the argument is not without its own issues, the least of which being that it’s a tad self-serving for a fan of mega-novels to find a way to praise even the most boring parts of them, but Letzler does a wonderful job illustrating these counter arguments right off the bat. I love a good academic approach like this, because when it’s done correctly, the author will spend a good portion of their writing laying out all of the problems with their main thesis, and then work backward from there in order to argue their point more effectively. It adds so much solidity if you can show that you’re already aware of the detractions against your view. He pulls it off marvelously here, and covers absolutely every angle of the concept.

Each chapter is categorically organized according to the different types of extant Cruft commonly found in mega-novels. There are numerous examples and case studies from novels like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666, House of Leaves, J R, and lots of others that are notoriously Cruft heavy. It’s all very well illustrated and argued, and the sections covering the handful of novels discussed that I haven’t read, were often more interesting to me than the ones covering the novels that I have. I’ve always thought that good non-fiction books should introduce the reader to several more books to read, and this one is no exception. My TBR pile has grown, yet again.

So the next time you feel your attention wandering, try to approach your boredom as a feature rather than a failure. Focus in on it and see what it’s telling you. Instead of just reading that headline and skipping to the comments, read the whole article, but try skimming through it; pull the interesting bits forward from the Cruft. You just might be able to train yourself to be a more effective reader.

The Cruft of Fiction is available from University of Nebraska Press.