Zoe's Staff Picks

Here are some books I like!

The Only Good Indians Cover Image
$26.99
ISBN: 9781982136451
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Gallery / Saga Press - July 14th, 2020

ATTN: THE DOG DIES IN THIS ONE. DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE SENSITIVE TO ANIMAL DEATH AND/OR HARM.

While I consider myself a fan of literary horror, I am deeply critical of and generally outright dislike a number of horror tropes and traps. Most horror can either be categorized as entertaining fluff or a disturbing window into the author's mind: for instance, Grady Hendrix's Horrorstor is difficult to criticize because of its sheer lack of substance; meanwhile, on the other side of the Hendrix-o-meter (Hendrixscale?), his treatment of the characters in The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires not only betrays how little he thinks of mothers and motherhood in general (his own mother explicitly included!), but also includes unecessary and tasteless graphic sexual assault as well as a dollop of uncomfortable black-people-die-first-and-also-accomplish-nothing racism. 

I'm mentioning Southern Book Club only as an outstanding example of bad horror, as it is by no means the only one of its kind; in fact, the items above are endemic to the genre, especially installments written by men.

All this preamble is to explain why, in the weeks leading up to The Only Good Indians' publication, I was excited about but prepared to be disappointed by Stephen Graham Jones' writing.

Oh, man, was I wrong. I was so, so wonderfully wrong. Jones doesn't make a single misstep in Only Good Indians. Every character is necessarily, sloppily human, wonderfully individual, and directed by their own sense of internal logic, so much so that when they start doing stupid horror movie stuff we know exactly how and why we've been shuttled to where we are. There's no moment of why the hell would you do that, just dread and the knowlege that tragedy is inevitable. It's no surprise - we're handed the title from the get-go, and the novel opens with an awful death - but it doesn't make it any easier when the worst comes to pass. Sometimes horror is about watching awful people get their comuppance, and that's just fine, but these are not disposable characters. These are characters we are hopeful for. 

Jones does all this without wasting a single word. Everything is critical, and everything leads forward. This novel is a perfect cyclical thread, beginning end beginning, death and rebirth. It is so satisfying. I went into it with middling expectations, but it turns out The Only Good Indians is everything I ever wanted in a horror novel. I liked it so much I didn't even mind the extended basketball practice scenes. That's how good it was! I paid attention to the basketball, and later on it paid off, because that's what character actions do in this novel!!! Mr. Jones, I adore you. Please write more horror. 


A Children's Bible: A Novel Cover Image
$25.95
ISBN: 9781324005032
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - May 12th, 2020

This is a straight-up retelling of Revelations, with many of the crucial ingredients thrown in directly: floods! plagues! sacrificial lamb! actual angels (and maybe even God?)! It's a lot of fun, but it's Not That Deep. I'm not sure Lydia Millet is aware of this - occasionally she relies on a grandiosity that isn't really there, as in the JESUS = SCIENCE conversation on page 143, at which point pretty much everyone's going yes, Lydia, we get it, science and God can coexist, thank you. It's an allegorical retelling - and a good one! - but it isn't subtle. 

What it does have is a spot-on collection of lively young adult characters, who act like the horrible modern children they are meant to be as opposed to the precocious little Heidi clones you see so often in poorly-written family dramas. Children are terrible, and mean, and often think they're far smarter than they actually are; Millet walks the line between the careless cruelty of youth and actual amorality very, very well.     

I had a great time reading A Children's Bible. It's a fun, jaunty apocalypse romp, and may or may not be exactly what you need right now in quarantine (depending on where your head's at). A note: the rich do inherit the earth, as it turns out. Quelle surprise.       


Bunny: A Novel Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9780525559757
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Penguin Books - June 9th, 2020

Oh, Bunny. What to say about Bunny. 

I made the critical mistake of skipping over this novel when I first saw it because I misinterpreted it as yet another 'struggling young writer finds place in the world' almost-autobiography, which we have far too many of to begin with.

This book is not that. This book is what Donna Tartt might write if she were a sixteen year old punk wiccan.

I mention age (and maturity) specifically, as it's related to my least favorite parts of the novel: while the writing is excellent and pointedly cutting, its attitude occasionally strikes me as quite juvenile. Much of this can be blamed on the main character's puerile and one-dimensional misconceptions about herself and her peers, but other parts - the strange proto-misogynist well this book tumbles down in its remaining quarter, specifically - don't gel with Awad's overall skill and accuracy. The conclusion left me torn between vague distaste (at the mechanism and moral) and overwhelming awe at Awad's daring talent (the set up! the cyclical nature!).

What is left is this: Awad is a brilliant author with true talent who perhaps has some growing to do. This book is flawed, but its good aspects more than make up for its missteps. If you want pitch-black college clique witchery, this is the book. Give it a chance. Approach it with an open mind, and one free of spoilers. See where it takes you.       

 


The Seep Cover Image
$25.00
ISBN: 9781641290869
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Soho Press - January 21st, 2020

As a wretched pessimist I don't generally enjoy feel-good stories of humanity's innate goodness, but this one is original and sincere enough that it gets a rare pass from me. Trina, the novel's main character, is quite simply a kind person, and her desire to help buoys the story along in a sea of oddity.  

The premise is simple: superior aliens invade. Humans are judged incapable of handling their own affairs, and are assimilated into the protective sphere known as the Seep, a collective that uses its extraworldly science to rebuild life, matter, emotion, and behavior. The Seep is not meant to be a collar (but we know how those things go, in the tumultuous adolescent eye of rebellious humans). It is also not a full-on colonialization, but it is certainly an occupancy, if a mostly peaceful one.  

We never quite get a full picture of what the Seep is capable of, nor do we learn its science. Our characters, as members of the human species, are terminal laymen, and so naturally the story focuses on the immediate social effects of the invasion. These are - surprise! - generally agreed to be positive. There is no more waste, no more pain. No political discord or interpersonal cruelty can pass through the all-comprehending, ever-empathetic membrane of the Seep. 

But some of us - many of us - find purpose and inspiration in struggle, and right away Trina loses her place without it. Where is she meant to belong, now that identity is meaningless? How are we meant to make meaning out of our individual lives when everything is immediate? What is life without suffering? The novel brings these - and other huge questions - to a very satisfying conclusion. If you're a fan of 'social' science fiction a la Octavia Butler and NK Jemisin, I would very much recommend this novel to you. 


The Majesties: A Novel Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9781982115500
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Atria Books - January 21st, 2020

This novel was marketed as a thriller, and it sort of is, but the bulk of the story is spent nose-deep in the personal buisness of an ultra-wealthy family of elites who use their status to do terrible, irrisponsible, catty things. They are dazzlingly awful. They are careless and spiteful and casually cruel.

And: the novel opens with all of them dying.

That isn't a spoiler, by the way. It's how Tsao ropes you in right from the start, and this knowlege colors every other interaction in the novel with spiteful catharsis; regardless of how awfully these people are treating each other (and anyone else who happens to wander into their lives), we know they are all going to die. Oh, sweet, sweet vengeance. 

That is not to say that I didn't enjoy my time with these characters. I loved every selfish, vain, petty moment. If Tiffany Tsao wrote several more novels following this family and their extended generations of unpleasant children I would be thrilled.

(But she can't. Because they are dead.)

If you, too, love unrepentant awfulness in your characters, The Majesties is the book for you. 


Grass Cover Image
By Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, Janet Hong (Translated by)
$29.95
ISBN: 9781770463622
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Drawn and Quarterly - August 27th, 2019

Keum Suk Gendry-Kim utilizes her considerable biographical and artistic skill to give voice to the painful story of Lee Ok-Sun, a sex slave (or, euphemistically, 'comfort woman') kidnaped under the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Gendry-Kim's stark, inky artwork perfectly frames her conflicted relationship with Lee, whose status as a heavily politicized figure and history as a sex slave makes her simultaneously outcast and honored celebrity.  

This novel is not an easy read. From the very beginning, Lee's life is studded with constant tragedy, and even long after the war has come to a close, she continues to question her happiness. However, hers is a critical piece of history, and one prime minister Abe Shinzo (who continues to refuse to aknowledge the suffering of Korean citizens under a despotic Japanese occupation) would rather we forget. Non-combatants are often overlooked in the drama of war, and this is a tragedy and indignity to their memories.  


The Migration Cover Image
$18.95
ISBN: 9780735272620
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Random House Canada - March 5th, 2019

There is certainly no dearth of "humanity v plague" novels available on the market; however, The Migration - presented, as it is, as a "plague" novel - strays enough from the path to linger in new, thoughtful territory. Unlike novels such as World War Z, Fire-us, The Fireman, and countless others, The Migration is less centered on the struggle between humanity and plague but rather the fraught relationship between the two. It's in part a reminder that these novels - while largely fantastic in their pathology - are based on calamities that have truly shaped the flow of history and the evolution of nations. Marshall's imagined infection is transformative rather than destructive in a more literal fashion, but the similarities are clear.

While this is not strictly a horror novel, it's a valuable read for veterans of the horror genre.         


Staff Pick Badge
Cats Are a Liquid Cover Image
By Rebecca Donnelly, Misa Saburi (Illustrator)
$17.99
ISBN: 9781250206596
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) - October 8th, 2019

I love this absolutely adorable picture book. It's a fun introduction to a pretty simple scientific concept - liquid conforms to whatever container it's put into - paired with a quick and bouncy story and art so cute I can hardly stand it (you might even find a cat that looks just like yours hiding somewhere in the pages!!). There's also a recipe for oobleck included in the back, an experiment any child will enjoy.    


Staff Pick Badge
See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey into Kim Jong Un's North Korea Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9780316509145
Availability: Usually Arrives to Store in 1-5 Days
Published: Hachette Books - May 28th, 2019

Stories of life in North Korea are so often exaggerated and sensationalized that it's difficult for insiders and outsiders alike to decide what's fact and what's fiction, especially when each and every story is centered in a national narrative that changes on a whim. Survivors' stories are valuable, but when survival begets fame and becomes someone's livelihood - as in the case of Yeonmi Park, whose autobiography famously vacillates in content between talk circuit, stage, and written record - mistakes are inevitably made, and shock value is prioritized over truth. 

I am far more intrigued by the stories that, by nature, are the most difficult to extract - that is, those of people who still live in the "hermit nation". Who are they? What are their daily lives like? Where do they find contentment?

This book doesn't thoroughly answer those questions - it's narrated by a foreigner, who lawfully can't conduct interviews with average citizens - but Jeppesen's observations serve as a window into that world, however small. It ranks up there with Barbara Demick's Nothing To Envy in its empathy, insight, and attention to detail.

As borders continue to thin, I can only hope more books like this are written.         


The Disaster Tourist Cover Image
By Yun Ko-Eun, Lizzie Buehler (Translator)
$16.95
ISBN: 9781640094161
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Counterpoint LLC - August 4th, 2020

When you read a lot of translated fiction, you begin to see patterns crop up. In this case, The Disaster Tourist fell back on common Korean-to-English phrasing problems, where the tone comes off as straightforward, stiff, and formal. This works in some places (and for some characters) and not others, and I feel in this case it's a case of careless translation rather than the fault of the original author.  

It isn't all bad - I wouldn't be recommending this novel if it was. In the beginning the stilted speech works for our heroine, Yona, who is a bloodless corporate type. (It's only later, as Yona undergoes a change in character, that the language starts to grate - it feels like a lost opportunity to play around with the severity of the text.) 

Actually, I most enjoyed the time we spent with Yona in her original, corporate setting, watching how she deals (or doesn't) with upset customers, upper management, and widespread assault. When we reach the island itself, where we spend the bulk of our time, Yun Ko-Eun doesn't hand us much inside or outside the resort. I suppose this is a reflection of the character, but again, isn't Yona is meant to change? Yona is most intersting when she's interacting with other characters - it gives us a wider scope with which to view her and the setting - but her conversations wane in significance as the novel goes on. Her lover, Luck, feels especially insignificant, as do most all the other islanders, who we only see in periphery.