Annual Best Books

Top Five Books 2016

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson – Horror

“Oh Constance, we are so happy.”

I love Shirley Jackson, and this is her best work. Two sisters and their very ill uncle live alone in an old mansion, the only survivors of an arsenic poisoning that killed most of their extended family. The sisters are tormented by the townsfolk and a money-hungry distant relative who upsets their quiet, routine life. This story, intimately tied to Jackson’s own agoraphobia, is a character study of two women who are both trapped and secured by their home.

Both Merricat and Constance are surprisingly likable; two vivid women who just want to be left alone to their traditions, garden, and kitchen. Merricat, the narrator, is gleeful and odd; Constance is a pure rendition of the domestic woman. Both are also completely unhinged, stuck in an endless game of ‘house’ that is stained by the horrors in their past. As the reader is drawn deeper into their lives and the unspoken understanding that shapes how they interact with one another and outsiders, we are forced to reconcile what we know about the women with how we feel about them and their role in their own tenuous reality.

This story is not about discovering who killed Merricat and Constance’s family, or why the women treat outsiders the way they do, or why Constance never leaves the property. This is a story about the implications of that knowledge, both on the remaining characters and the reader themselves. I’ve never known characters to be so convincingly and disturbingly wrought.

This book reminded me that we are all, to some degree, pretending. We are phenomenally smart and sensitive creatures capable of tricking ourselves; maybe we pretend we love our jobs, our friends, our bodies– maybe we pretend that evil isn’t sitting across the table, that we are safe if we stay quiet, that there is nothing we want outside our walls. This book will give you two characters; I think that only one of these characters is pretending. Maybe where you are in your life determines which character you identify most with?

Recommended for those like like horror that creeps gently up your spine. Utterly unsettling.

Scent Notes: Warm milk, charred wood, and sugared blackberries.

 

14990Spook! Science Tackles the Afterlife
Mary Roach – NonFiction

“I had to fight the urge to push back my chair and start screaming: STAND BACK! ALL OF YOU! I’VE GOT AN ARTHUR FINDLAY BOX CUTTER! Instead, I quietly excused myself and went to the bar, to commune with spirits I know how to relate to.”

Mary Roach is something of a rockstar in my mind. I am always delighted by her books, and desperately jealous of her very cool life. In Spook, Roach tries to find scientific proof of the existence of the human soul or an afterlife. She takes the reader on a romp through reincarnation investigations, ectoplasm extrusion, spirit photography, ghosts on tape recorders, and massive scales used to weigh people at the moment of death. If you’re looking for highly scientific information, you’ll find there isn’t much of any- Roach, by necessity of her subject, spends most of her time talking to believers, not scientists. The few scientists she does talk to are either immediately suspect in her mind, or have no evidence for a spirit or soul. For those readers without much knowledge in these subjects, Roach does an excellent job of giving the historical overview to keep you grounded and detail to keep you delighted.

I have a particular affinity for the history of belief in ghosts; much of what Roach explores in this book will be at least slightly familiar to anybody who has studied Spiritualism, mediums, or the Victorian era obsession with the afterlife. One thing I hadn’t been familiar with was the concept of infrasound, a frequency of noise that we cannot consciously hear, but causes an increase in stress. I was delighted to learn that a tiger’s roar contains sound at this frequency. There are so many good tidbits of history, sociology, anthropology, and science in Mary Roach’s books.

Unfortunately, the author’s voice comes off a bit too sarcastic and closed-minded in sections of Spook!, and I didn’t appreciate when she poked fun at her subjects. Punching down is never a good look. Not a book for your friend who believes in ghosts and seances. However, most of Roach’s personal interjections keep the subject light and moving along, making this a really fast and fun nonfiction read.

Scent Notes: Cloying incense, drafty stone hospitals, and damp cheesecloth.

halfworld2-744656Half World
Hiromi Goto – YA Fantasy Horror

“To be able to bring change into a fixed world, [she] thought. There is power in that.”

Melanie Tamaki is a teen girl whose mother, Fumiko, has always been a ghost. When Fumiko disappears from earth, Melanie follows her to Half World, a purgatory-like spirit world that has been thrown into unending turmoil. Melanie must use helpful spirits of her elders and her own determination to find and save her mother from Mr. Glueskin, a kingpin monster who terrorizes the spirits of Half World.

Half World, the place, is a rotten jumbled city of monstrous spirits going about their mundane life. The monster descriptions range from the wacky to the utterly horrifying- most reminded me of the claymation monsters from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, acting as waiters, bellhops, shopkeepers in a grayscale world. Goto does an excellent job with the place and character descriptions. Everything felt cohesive and very clear in the authors head, and Goto transmits so much imagery in such a short little book.

Mr. Glueskin is disgusting, a horror of a YA villain, and his torture of the other tormented spirits is disturbing. I wouldn’t give this book to a twelve year old, is what I’m getting at. Perhaps the best part of this story is that everyone, including Melanie’s parents and Mr. Glueskin himself, are all nuanced shades of good and bad. Melanie is one of my favorite YA protagonists of this year, because she is neither particularly talented, smart, or likable; but her determination, her love for her family, and her compassion for monsters allows her to become a heroine. An excellent read for teenagers and anyone looking for some youth-friendly horror from with very non-Western cultural symbols.

Scent Notes: Wet moss and lichen, bird seed, and stale glue paste.

stationeleven

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel
Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

“But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments: This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.”

Station Eleven’s interwoven stories of strangers who live, and sometimes die, beyond the end of the world are deeply dark and beautiful. The humanity Mandel delivers is quiet, evocative, and haunting. As the reader travels back and forth through time, these stories of survival center on the persistence of art, kindness, and heroic optimism. This book is full of moments that have stuck with me almost a year after reading; the beauty of Mandel’s writing can’t be over hyped.

I won’t get into many details, because this book is one of the biggest delights in reading I’ve ever experienced, and I’d like for others to discover it at their own pace. Station Eleven is both sweet and sad, and elicited nostalgia for the world I still live in. I appreciate the term “pastoral science fiction” over post-apocalyptic; Mandel has emphasized quiet resilience rather than the terror and chaos that usually accompanies an extinction-level pandemic. This end-of-the-world story is an existential and cathartic exploration of humanity, and I’d recommend it to absolutely anyone.

Scent Notes: fresh snow fallen on a silent city street, a peeled orange in a wooden bowl, musty velvet curtains
51-hoamc12l-_sl300_

The Sudden Appearance of Hope
Claire North
Science Fiction

“If you forget the joy of this day, then what joy you give to others will also be forgotten, and your life has no consequence, no meaning, no worth. I am a shadow, blasted away by the sun, a meaningless occlusion of light that fades with the day.”

Hope is a woman who cannot be remembered the moment she leaves a person’s short-term consciousness. She can’t hold a job or go to a restaurant. She also can’t be caught. Hope survives by tricking people, stealing things, and selling secrets. She keeps herself sane by memorizing facts, obsessing over people who are trying to remember her, and keeping online penpals. Is how people perceive you really all that defines you as a person? Hope rebels against and succumbs to this idea multiple times throughout her journey as she uncovers a devious experiment hidden behind a social currency App called Perfection, volunteers for brainwashing at the hands of a Judi Dench criminal mastermind, and seduces the French detective who has been trying to catch the jewel thief he can’t remember.

I found Hope to be wonderfully wrought. On the surface she is a stoic criminal without the baggage of others’ memory or judgement to weigh down her morality. But Hope struggles. If you don’t enjoy reading a bunch of navel-gazing from a very cool but very conflicted modern woman, you’re probably not going to dig all the internal monologuing. I was delighted by Hope, and saw a lot of my own personal concerns reflecting in her.

It’s a simple enough plot device at the center of Claire North’s book, but the way that she uses this idea to explore what it means to be a person and a part of society is brilliant. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a dense book, exploring ideas of identity, morality, social capital, trust, and memory against a backdrop of international capers, crippling loneliness, and modern technology.

Scent Notes: perfume lingering in an empty motel room, the sulfur of a smoke bomb, blood and champagne soaked carpets

 

Good/Bad

515p0zbgtul_sy344_bo1204203200Grasshopper Jungle
Andrew Smith – YA Science Fiction

“History provides a compelling argument that every scientist who tinkers around with unstoppable shit needs a reliable flamethrower.”

The Good: This is a book about family history, the end of the world, survivalist cults, and how cool and confusing it is to be a horny teenage boy. Austin, the main character, is mostly likable as he makes interesting observations about being a teen in Iowa and accidentally starting the end of the world. Occasionally Austin thinks about other people, but mostly he thinks about himself and who he wants to have sex with (his girlfriend or his best friend, mostly but not exclusively). There is a lot of bursting and throbbing in this book-in Austin’s pants, and more frequently when 6 foot tall mantises explode out of infected townspeople’s corpses. The monsters are awesome, the introduction plausible, the town full of interesting enough characters and vivid locations. Austin’s voice was annoying teen and brilliant young man at different occasions.

The Bad: I think this is the first YA I have read with a bi protagonist. I can’t gauge if Smith handled this topic with the authenticity it deserves, but most reviews seem to suggest he did- to which I say: excellent. Unfortunately, Smith totally did wrong by Shann, Austin’s girlfriend. She is woefully underdeveloped, grouchy, jealous, and dull, especially in comparison to her counterpart Robby, who is a brilliant and brave dreamboat. Like…would anybody pick Shann over Robby? I tried not to focus too much on Shann (and the women in this book in general) but she’s always moping around getting treated badly, forcing me to remember that for all that Smith loves Austin and Robby, it seems he knows nothing about teen girls or how they might be involved in an adventure besides being a disappointed mom figure. Which raises a question for me: why have Shann at all?

Despite this issue Smith seems to have writing female characters, Grasshopper Jungle was a fun read full of sequences that stuck vividly in my head. I was reminded how the YA genre can give us unbridled joy through the eyes of young narrators-people with brilliance, curiosity, and bravery unhindered by whatever it is that makes adult so dour and gritty. This book definitely captures the smelly, confusing, awesome life of a modern teenage boy.

Recommended for readers looking to have a fun gross time, tentatively recommended for readers seeking a bi protagonist. Very much not recommended for people skwiked out by lots of bodily fluids, hard ons, and boobs.

Scent Notes: Teenage BO and cheap cigarette smoke, dry summer grasses, blood and semen spilled on hot pavement