Recommended reading: White Is for Witching

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At this time of year, when the leaves are changing colors and there is a little nip in the air, it’s only natural that we start craving ghost stories. With that in mind, here is a recommendation for you: White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi.

Miranda Silver is the ultimate goth girl, pale with jet black hair, waif-thin due to an eating disorder that compels her to eat chalk–she could have stepped from the pages of an Edward Gorey book. She has a rather creepy relationship with her twin brother, Eliot. Her mother was recently violently killed, leading to Miranda having a mental breakdown, and her father is lost in his own dream world of grief. Despite all this, Miranda is accepted to Cambridge, where she meets and eventually becomes lovers with a refreshingly normal girl named Ore. Oh yes, Miranda also lives in a malevolent, conscious house that harbors the spirits of her female ancestors and greedily wants her as well. She probably should have known better than to bring Ore home.

This is quite a strange book, very slippery, difficult to nail down what the story is exactly. The writing slips almost without delineation between different narrators and different times. The effect is hallucinatory, dreamlike. Like a funhouse in a carnival, the haunted house here is full of illusions, shifting its interior space in order to confuse and ensnare its occupants–it is conscious; it is acting; it is not just a figment of a mentally disturbed mind.

I have seen this book compared to one of my favorite ghost stories, The Haunting of Hill House, and I have no doubt that Jackson inspired Oyeyemi. Hill House too was ambiguous; it also wondered whether houses could be alive, whether they could want someone and act accordingly. I think Jackson’s novel is the cleaner story, but Oyeyemi here plays with Jackson’s ideas with interesting results.

Recommended Reading: Three creepy reads for October

October always gets me in the mood to give myself the creeps. I’ve been behind in posting book recommendations lately, so here are three recs for the price of one, all guaranteed to make you shiver.

First up is The Three by South African writer Sarah Lotz. Four planes crash simultaneously in different parts of the world, three children survive and behave strangely afterward, and conspiracy theories run rampant, including a cult of Christians who believe this event signals the End Times. This book has an interesting structure: a nonfiction book-within-a-book made up of interviews, newspaper articles, chat logs, and the like that gradually unfolds the aftermath of Black Thursday, as it quickly comes to be called. This story is rife with ambiguity: Is there really something off about the surviving children, or are folks just going nuts and trying to make sense of a senseless coincidence? A very readable thriller, and different enough from the norm to keep my attention.

Next we have Broken Monsters by another South African writer, Lauren Beukes, but appropriately set in Detroit. A young boy is found murdered with the top half of his body attached to the legs of a fawn, kicking off a hunt for a serial killer-avantgarde artist who is definitely operating outside of the mainstream. Beukes tells the story from several points of view and takes her time showing the connections between  the characters, so it may take a while to get immersed, but stick with it. This is not just a police procedural about an investigation into a string of bizarre murders; it’s also an examination of urban decay and, I think, literal decay between the edges of our reality and other places. Broken Monsters is the written equivalent of all those now-famous haunting photographs of the abandoned, decaying city.

Finally, there is Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, set near Detroit in suburban Michigan. (See how I made all those neat connections between the books–fun, right?) Suddenly, people who see mysterious creatures inexplicably turn violent and attack one another or themselves, so everyone who survives must barricade themselves indoors and not open their eyes outside. First of all, the premise for this book is ridiculous, but when reading horror, we must accept the ridiculous. Malerman handles this by not making the story at all about the “creatures” but instead about the effects of having to avoid seeing them. Since this is a horror story, not a survival story, Malerman glosses over the niceties of staying alive in such an environment. As a result, he keeps the tension high and the pace quick, offering several genuinely creepy moments, and the story works on that level as long as the reader doesn’t get overly concerned about the details.

If you have any creepy books to recommend, please tell me about them. Enjoy fall!

The insomnia machine…

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Here’s a great piece on insomnia by Pagan Kennedy in the New York Times. I think insomnia is a condition that is very much misunderstood, especially in terms of how debilitating it is. There is nothing to bring on a bout of black depression like a few nights of no sleep. On my insomniac days, I have the brain function of a zombie, except I crave sugar and carbs instead of brains. Need that cheap energy. I’m going to try the headphone hack described here and see if it helps. Maybe an audio version of Middlemarch will finally be the cure for my insomnia!

Recommended Reading: The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad

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Former Indian Army Captain Ranjit Singh, after being court-martialed for a mission gone terribly wrong, is self-exiled to Massachusetts with his family. He is barely scraping by on Martha’s Vineyard, working as the winter caretaker for the rich summer residents of the island, when a chain of events gets his family picked up by Homeland Security and puts Ranjit on the run for his life. The Caretaker is a well-told conspiracy story with an intriguing hero and an interesting glimpse of Indian culture.

Recommended Reading: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

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The Gap of Time  by Jeanette Winterson is a retelling of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, part of a series of contemporary retellings of Shakespeare by literary authors. Winterson just rolls with the absurdity of her source material, inserting a completely appropriate sense of magical realism into the contemporary time and setting by employing a series of fairy tale-esque locales, including a fantastic video game about angels. I thoroughly enjoyed this quick read, including the little endnote on the theme of forgiveness, and I’m looking forward to checking out more books in the series from Hogarth Shakespeare.

Ursula K. Le Guin, our greatest living science fiction writer…

Here’s a great piece about Ursula K. Le Guin being published by Library of America. She’s a feisty old broad, and I mean that in the most affectionate way.

Some thoughts about immersion and book abandonment…

In lieu of a reading recommendation this week, I offer some unfocused thoughts about book abandonment. Many readers seem to think that it is a virtue to finish every book they start, even if they aren’t enjoying it. I used to think so myself, but as I have gotten older and more aware that time is getting shorter, I’m less willing to spend that time on a book that’s not doing it for me. I know my reading speed by now, I know how long it takes me to finish the average book, and I value those hours highly.

I highly advocate giving up on books–especially fiction–that aren’t doing it for you. It may be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time or for the wrong reader. I abandoned two books just this week, one in which I gotten about halfway and one in which I was a little over fifty pages in. (I confess that I did read the last chapters of both, just to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake; I wasn’t.)

The one thing I ask of from my fiction reading is immersion. I read because I want to explore other worlds of the imagination; I want to be taken away from this one, at least for a short while. Nothing does this for me like reading, but sometimes finding the book that does the trick is difficult.

There is no one quality that guarantees immersion. Chuck Wendig offers up twenty-five reasons why he stops reading books here, and all of these have something to do with preventing immersion. Little things can do it: an overload of errors; wooden dialogue; a singsong or monotonous style; overuse of one-sentence paragraphs. More often, it’s bigger issues. I’m not seeing anything new. The characters don’t come across as real people. The story is being told to me, instead of being shown in scenes that I can imagine in my head. The world of the story doesn’t come alive for me. I don’t feel like anything real is at stake in the story.

And there’s no predicting which books will end up being immersive. That’s why I always try to give a book at least fifty to a hundred pages to reel me in. (That’s about one reading session.) That seems fair. But if after that, I’m asking myself why I’m reading the book or, worse, looking for excuses not to read, I feel no guilt in putting the book down and picking up another.