My Ten Favorite Fiction Reads from 2019

Most everyone (as far as I’ve seen) throws up their top lists in December, but I’ve never been able to get it together to be able to do it before January — so here I am. In 2019, I read a total of 55 books, many of which were great reads. Here are the ten fiction books that stood out to me over the course of the year. I’ll be talking about my favorite poetry books in a separate post.

 

The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

In the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, the future looks bleak, with the city in a state of decay, cracked streets lined with broken bottles and the skyline lined with factories left to rust.  Having graduated from high school, Phoebe and her best friend Jacqueline make plans to escape — but then the girls in their neighborhood begin to change, their “bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.” No one understands what’s happening, not the girl’s parents, the doctors, or the government men. Faced with loosing her best friend, Phoebe desperately struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens.

The body horror of the girl’s transformations is counterbalanced by the horror of how the people in the city treat them, with Phoebe at the center, caught between the two. At times this book is unsettling, and at times it is touchingly beautiful, with the relationships between the girls at the center. This was a book I clutched to by chest as soon as I was done reading. (Full review.)

 

Rolling in the Deep / Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Rolling in the Deep / Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

If you’ve been longing for a book about terrifying, blood thirsty mermaids, then   the novella Rolling in the Deep and the full-length novel Into the Drowning Deep are the books for you.*

In Rolling in the Deep, a crew of filmmakers and scientists on the ship Atargatis set out on a journey to the middle of the ocean to film a “documentary” examining the possible existence of mermaids — something no one on the team believes in. What they discover is so much more horrifying than they expected.

Into the Drowning Deep follows a number of years after the events of the first book. A new and more thoroughly outfitted team is of scientists, security guards, hunters, and filmmakers is assembled with the primarily aim of finding out the truth of what happened to the Atargatis. For all their focus on defense, none of them are fully prepared for the terrible dangers they encounter.

While Rolling in the Deep plays feels more like horror comedy, using a found footage style to express the absurd horrors that befall the crew, Into the Drowning Deep is straightforwardly thrilling and, at times, legitimately terrifying. There were moments reading Drowning Deep in which I was too scared to keep reading, but also too compelled to put the book down. Paired together, these two volumes can make anyway wary of the shadowy ocean depths and what they might be hiding.

*Yes, technically, this is cheating, since it’s two separate books, but the first one is a novella that you can easily read through in an hour or two, and they’re part of the same series, so they really go together — and, besides,  it’s my blog, so I do what I want. 😉 

 

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Following her mother’s death, Mary Jekyll is left alone and penniless. Seeking a way to keep herself afloat, she dives into her father’s mysterious past and discovers that Edward Hyde, a murder and her father’s former friend, may be still be alive. With the hope of a substantial reward, she pursues the breadcrumbs before her and discovers other young women who are tied to a deep and dangerous mystery.

Many stories have taken up the task of retelling classic horror and scoff stories, from Frankenstein to Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Using a witty and fun style, Goss brings these stories together, centering them on clever, intelligent, and strong women, who find in each other a makeshift family. With two more books in the trilogy, I’m looking forward to reading more of these adventures.

 

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Casiopea Tun works as a servant in her grandfather’s household, dreaming of a life beyond its oppressive walls. When she opens a chest and accidentally releases the Mayan god of death, Casiopea is bound by blood and bone to help the god regain his throne or meet her own death. Their journey carries them across the states of Mexico in the 1920s — offering up a charming adventure, full of magic and danger, humor and romance. Another fantastic read from Moreno-Garcia.

 

The Houseguest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila

The Houseguest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila

Amparo Dávila is considered to be vital and foundational figure in Mexican horror. Appearing in English for the first time, her short stories examine the social conditions of women in Mexico under the guise of chilling tales. Whether it’s women faced with the threat of a terrifying houseguest, an unsettling breakfast conversation, or the oppression of a family secrete, these tales offer a subdued beauty that calls forth the underlying tensions and terrors of daily life. (Full review.)

 

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

When an illness decimates a large percentage of the human population, a bleak world is left behind. Children are nonexistent, women are rare, and many of the men who are left rove around in gangs claiming the few women still alive as slaves. An unnamed woman protects herself by pretending to be a male and roaming from place to place, looking for food and safe shelter in which to survive. When she encounters others, particularly women, she issues what little help she can in the form of medical care and contraceptives to prevent pregnancies that could be life threatening.

Apocalyptic stories can be bleak, presenting the worst side of humanity — and The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is no exception. However, the book doesn’t dwell there alone. For all the awful things that happen, there are people who show compassion, try to help, or at the very least try not to do harm. Ultimately, this story carries the slender thread of hope through its pages, moving me to tears several times.

 

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Waking in pain and suffering, Shori has no member of who or what she is. All she knows is that she is wounded, lost, and starving — and all that will sate her hunger is blood. Fledgeling is one of the most fascinating portrays of vampires and vampire society that I’ve read in a long while. Wrapped in a compelling mystery, this novel provides a number of compelling layers to unpack — from the fact that Shori is a 53-year old black vampire who looks like she’s a twelve-year-old girl to considerations like racism, genetic manipulation, familial power structures, polyamorous, just to name a few. It makes for a meaty, fascinating storyline complicated, interesting characters.

 

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Magic in Orïsha is gone, the maji long dead. Only their children remain, marked as outcasts by their silver hair. After a chance encounter with a rogue princess, Zélie learns that magic may return — if Zélie, her brother, and the princess can survive long enough to conduct an ancient ritual. With rich an fascinating world building, Adeyemi presents an epic YA fantasy with multi-layered characters and complex relationships. The second book in the trilogy comes out this year, and I’l definitely be continuing on

 

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

When a strange disease called the Tox strikes an island, the Raxter School for Girls becomes quarantined. The disease twists the people and creatures who are infected with it into strange new forms, making monsters of the wildlife outside of the school fences. The girls are changing, silver scales, seeping wounds, glowing hair, and other odd developments appearing on their bodies. In the face of hunger and near certain death, Hetty and her friends Byatt and Reese band together to survive — no matter what it takes. Wilder Girls is a fantastically told story of body horror, offset by a claustrophobic sense of isolation and complex, intimate relationships between the friends.

 

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Established on a tidally locked planet (in which one side is always facing the sun), the people of Xiosphant live strictly regulated lives determined by circadian rhythms. Stepping out of the rules even a little bit can result in severe punishment, as Sophie learns when she is cast out into the dark beyond the city’s walls and left to die of hypothermia or at the teeth of one of the planet’s vicious wildlife. Instead, she makes an unexpected friend that who could change everything. With wonderfully complex worldbuilding, The City in the Middle of the Night offers interwoven storylines that explore how human beings can become emotionally entangled with other humans in ways that sometimes feel more like a chain than a bond. A strange and beautiful book.

Honorable Mention: Books of Blood, Vol. 1-3 by Clive Barker, because this was a phenomenal collection of disturbingly beautiful horror stories — and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the volumes.

What were your favorite reads from last year?


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New Books in Poetry: The Devil’s Dreamland by Sara Tantlinger

Sara Tantlinger-The Devil's Dreamland

A new episode of the New Books in Poetry podcast is up, in which I get to speak with Sara Tantlinger about her poetry collection, The Devil’s Dreamland.

In The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes (StrangeHouse Books, November 2018), Sara Tantlinger intertwines fact and speculation to examine inner workings of H.H. Holmes, a man who committed ghastly crimes in the late 19th century and who is often credited with being America’s first serial killer. Narratively arranged, these poems offer up an evocative and chilling imagining of life and times of Holmes along with his wives, victims, and accomplices. A profound and fascinating collection for anyone interested in the riveting realm of true crime.

“The building shivers
beneath each curve of my footstep,
my home, my castle
fit for Bluebeard himself,
entwining murder and luxury
like salt and sugar
placed gently on the tongue
where each tiny grain dissolves
in a way blood never will.”

— from “Shades of Wild Plum”

You can listen to the interview here or on the podcast app of your choice.


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Book Love: The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

Description: “It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.

As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why—except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart.

Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens—and her own unwitting role in the transformations—before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.”

My Thoughts: I’ve been hearing about The Rust Maidens for a while now, the book continually recommended by others in my social media feed as a stunning work of horror. Having now read it myself, I can whole heartedly agree with each and every one of these observations.

The story takes on body horror with young women at the center. This seems a natural progression, since, as the book illustrates, young women’s bodies are already not their own. One of the aspects of this book is how the mother’s rule the block, meeting out rules, structures, and punishments for their girls. When one of the girls gets pregnant, it’s the mother’s who decide what to do with her and her baby, regardless of what the girl wants (the boy is also irrelevant in this). So, when the young women’s bodies begin to change, taking on the oily, glass-strewn decay of the city, it goes from seeming to be a strange disease at first to seeming like an act of defiance. All the wrongs quickly become cast onto the shoulders of these girls, who dare to be anything other than the kinds of girls people expect them to be.

Maybe that’s why Phoebe remains untouched by this metamorphosis — she’s already something other than the kind of girl she’s expected to be. We see the story from her point of view — both during the events and long after. All at once, she is both horrified by the changes she sees in her cousin and the other girls, and awed by them, finding a strange beauty in their transformations. She holds so many levels of loss and guilt, feeling she’s made all the wrong choices along the way. I love her as a character, not because she’s perfect — she’s far from that — but because she comes off as so human, housing anger, sorrow, and compassion for the people and community around her.

This story is so touchingly beautiful on so many levels, providing a blend of deep, unsettling horror with human love and hope. I particularly love the way the relationships between these girls changes and evolves over the course of this story. It’s just so, so good. As soon as I read the last page, I clutched the book to my chest and just held it. I’ll be looking for all the things by Kiste in the future.

If you want to get some more insight into Kiste’s process writing The Rust Maidens and her love of horror, the Darkness Dwells podcast has a great interview.


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Women in Horror – Revenge, written and directed by Coralie Fargeat

Revenge, written and directed by Coralie Fargeat

Jen ( played by Matilda Lutz) travels to a remote estate expecting to have some fun with her boyfriend — only to have things go horrifically wrong when his two creepy friends arrive.

Revenge, written and directed by Coralie Fargeat

Generally, I’m a little wary of rape revenge storylines — which tend to be exploitative about the rape itself. But this movie handles the moment in an interesting way. When Jen is about to be assaulted, the other friend walks through the door — the camera follows him as he draws out of the room and closes the door behind him. Essentially, we become witness to his complicity, doing nothing to stop what’s happening and seeing him turn up the noise on the TV to avoid hearing the sounds of the attack. One of the things the movie does really well, in this way, is show how quickly these men closed ranks to protect each other. Even her boyfriend, takes the side of his friends, offering to pay her off instead of help her.

What follows is Jen’s escape into the desert and fight for survival as the three men attempt to hunt her down and silence her. The movie is not perfect, having some logical flaws her and there — but it it extremely tense as it unfolds with some solid surprises, not so much in the what, but the how. With its cool style, slick music, and copious amounts of bloodshed and violence, Revenge is a wicked flick.


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Women in Horror: Things Withered by Susie Moloney

Things Withered by Susie Moloney

Things Withered is a brilliant collection of short horror stories, in which Susie Maloney plays on the anxieties of everyday life to deliver horrifying chills. Whether it’s the need to hold onto a job, unfortunate deaths in the neighborhood, or competition between friends, the drive of each story is grounded in human beings with their own frustrations so that by the time things get really weird, the reader is already on edge.

Take, for example, “The Audit,” in which a young woman faces a growing mountain of paperwork as she attempts to prepare for being audited by the IRS. Taxes are an ordinary kind of fear, but the story manages to build an increasing tension through the escalating mountain of papers that need to be addressed combined with the indifference of the people around her.

In “Petty Zoo,” a mother and her son are stationed in a line of families waiting to get into a mall petting zoo that is more than an hour late from opening. The growing anger and annoyance of the parents, who are caught between their desperation to keep their children happy and their their own desire to leave is the vivid center point — at least until things go terribly, terribly wrong.

Another kind of anxiety is offered up in “Poor David, or, The Possibility of Coincidence in Situations of Multiple Occurrences.” David has the misfortune of finding the dead body of his girlfriend’s aunt, a traumatic experience that’s quickly compounded by the discovery of another body. There is nothing suspicious about these deaths, all due to natural circumstances — and yet it seems to be David’s misfortune to discover them. The story beautifully portrays his escalating anxiety, which makes it difficult for him to function in the world. And yet, it’s also about his relationship with Myra and how the two of them continue to build a life together through this trauma.

“Reclamation on the Forrest Floor” also deals with relationships, in this case between two girlfriend and the brutal outcome of their ongoing competition with each other. The story opens with murder and evolves into a stunningly written body horror as the consequences of that act reveal themselves.

Some of my favorite stories in the collection, are those that features older women as their protagonists. “The Last Living Summer” is a story of three little old ladies in continue on in a beach town that has emptied out since all their neighbors abandoned the place in the face of a strange, unsettling apocalypse. It’s a story with such melancholy beauty.

In “The Neighborhood, or, To the Devil with You,” a woman who has lived on the same block well into her old age relates the history of her neighborhood, which carries a series of tragedies. With it’s meandering style and “times have changed” tone, the story balances between the events being simply the horrifying misfortunes of an ordinary or all part of some larger, sinister design.

On the whole, Things Withers is a phenomenal collection of stories — highly recommended.


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