Halloweekend Reading! 5 Under-the-Radar Books to Make You Shiver

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Fun fact: Halloween originated in Ireland as the festival of Samhain, where the line between the world of the living and the dead is thinnest.

As a lover of all things dark, spooky, gothic, mysterious, and eerie, you can get why this hoilday is my scene. Especially when it comes to books. If you don’t have a creepy reading list for this weekend, never fear. I am here to help with books you may not have thought of. And give you nightmares. Let’s begin.

1. HANGSAMAN by Shirley Jackson

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Now, you know Shirley. She wrote The Lottery” and a lot of other books that probably freaked you out. This title is one of her lesser known works, but is so FOR SHAME. First of all, it’s based on real experiences of Jackson herself AND the real-life disappearance of a college student in the 1940s. The main character, Natalie, goes to college to escape the pressures of her controlling family and winds up involved in some dark stuff. It’s not a book that’s very committed to reality, so you’ll have to judge for yourself which of the unsettling events are real. You’ll also be deeply unsettled. Enjoy.

2. THE FALL by BETHANY GRIFFIN

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This was my favorite book of 2014. THE FALL is smart, dark retelling of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe, told from the perspective of the ill-fated Madeline Usher. If you’re anything like me that’s all you need to know and you’re already on your way out the door to procure a copy.

3. THE CORN MAIDEN AND OTHER NIGHTMARES by Joyce Carol Oates

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Joyce Carol Oates is a legend, but sometimes I feel her horror writing doesn’t get enough credit. This collection is amazing. First of all, anything involving children and corn is creepy. I read this a few years ago and still vividly remember specific lines from these stories, which range from one about children conducting a strange ritual to one about trepanning to one about seriously messed up twins. Lots of good stuff to creep you out and have you fliching as you turn the page. Perfect for those nights you want to light some candles and read creepy stories out loud in the dark to your roommates and family to freak them out. Wait, no one else does that? Just me?

4. SERVANTS OF THE STORM by Delilah S. Dawson

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FIRST OF ALL THE COVER OF THIS IS FREAKY AS HELL. The longer you look the worse it gets. This is some Samara level creepy. This is the kind of book I recommend if you love spooky atmosphere. It’s set in Savannah after the city has been devastated by a hurricane, leaving the city prey to rot, disease, and demons. The main plot is about a girl trying to determine if her best friend (thought drowned in the storm) is still alive. There were some things about this book I didn’t love, but a grimy, haunted Savannah, already the most haunted city in the US in real life, is totally worth the ride.

 5. BLACK CHALK by Christopher J. Yates

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This is an under the radar read for those of you who like to get your chills from the psychological. Six best friends at Oxford University play “The Game” – a silly competition of childish dares. Slowly, however, The Game escalates into something horrible. Fourteen years later, the consequences of The Game rear their head, and the players must meet again for a final round. “Who knows better than your best friends what would break you?”

Enjoy the terror, folks! And have a safe and happy Halloween!

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10 Books on My Summer TBR

Memorial Day weekend is upon us, officially kicking off the start of summer. The internet is flooded with summer reading lists at the moment and I’ve got a pretty hefty one myself, with a mix of old and new. I know I’m always curious what other people are planning to throw in their beach bags or lay out with by the pool, so I thought I’d share ten books that I’m planning to crack open in the sunshine – and maybe get some recommendations from you guys!

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1. THE GIRLS by Emma Cline (Random House, June 2016) – Surprising no one, this is on my list (and everyone else’s). Coming of age loosely inspired by followers of Charles Manson with a dash of California desolation. All that heat getting to a young girl’s head. Who doesn’t like a nice, dark summer read? It’s definitely one of the hottest releases of the season, and something I’ll be snagging up as soon as it pubs.

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2. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE by (Perennial Classics, 2009 re-issue, original pub 1933) – I’m planning to dip into some lesser known classics this summer, and this slim little number is at the top of the list. First of all, the cover (a re-issue from Harper superbly done) is awesome. The novel is about a progressive female teacher at a girls’ school in Scotland who endeavors to groom her female students into her ideal, while the girls clamor for her favor. I’d actually never heard of this book until I found it on a list of books under 200 pages worth reading, and now I can’t wait to check it out.

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3. I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson (Dial, 2014) – I still haven’t gotten around to this 2014 big release from the author of The Sky is Everywhere about a a pair of fraternal twins dealing with love and growing up, so I’m planning to read it this summer. I tend to take a bunch of YA books with me on vacations and trips, rather than adult books, so perhaps I’ll bust this baby out for a long weekend read. Nelson is known to be a contemporary YA powerhouse, and this book is supposed to require a lot of tissues. Can’t wait to be sniffling into my pool towel. Side note: the paperback cover (the version I own) is gorgeous, though the hardcover one above is also eye catching.

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4. YOU WILL KNOW ME by Megan Abbott (Little Brown, June 2016) – One day, I will probably be banned from singing the praises of Megan Abbott on the internet, but today is not that day. Anyone who knows me knows she’s among my favorite authors and I gobble up everything she writes with relish. Her latest is about a gymnastics prodigy whose world is rocked by a violent death. Girls playing sports + noir vibes + maybe murder? Abbott took on a similar formula with DARE ME and nailed it for me, and she’s only become a better writer since then, so I can’t wait to see her take a stab at this new world. It’s a given that this will land on my shelf and then in my hand when I go to the park to lay in the grass and read it, eating popsicles, probably.

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5. MODERN ROMANCE by Aziz Ansari (Penguin Press, 2015) – Embarrassingly I borrowed this from a friend LAST summer and keep getting sidetracked from it, so I still have it in my TBR pile. I was much more interested in this topic when the book came out, but I love Aziz so I’ll be reading for his humor (and to give my friend her book back!). I also studied some sociology work of Eric Klinenberg (who is vaguely credited here as a co-author? maybe wrote the intro?) in college a lot, so I’ll be interested to see how he factors in. Seems like a good summer nonfiction pick, even if I’m a little late to the party on this one.

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6. INLAND by Kat Rosenfield (Dutton, 2014) – Rosenfield wrote one of my all time fave YA mysteries, AMELIA ANNE IS DEAD AND GONE. I was super excited for this sophomore novel from her, about a girl who has a somewhat sinister connection to the ocean (think: drowning death of her mother, an unexplained illness involving water in the lungs). It’s a dark kind of story that I think has a touch or two of magical realism. It’s another one that kind of slipped through the cracks for me after I bought it, so I’m excited to pick it up in the next couple of months when hopefully I might be close enough to the ocean to really set the scene. Gotta demand reading atmosphere, people!

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7. DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jenny Offill (Knopf, 2014) – This is a book I remember seeing everwhere when it pubbed and it never really caught my eye. About a month ago I was browsing a bookshop and found the paperback edition. I picked it up and flicked through. It seems to play with structure and form which is always something that pique my interest. The story is an emotional portrait of a marriage on the path to ruin. I love paths to ruin! I’m thinking this will be a devour in one sitting kind of book for me. Just goes to show how my reading interests change over the years, and things I wasn’t intrigued by before can all of a sudden become interesting. Also how bookshops are great at encouraging you to pick up things you may have never thought of. Go browse.

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8. SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK (Disney/Hyperion, 2015) – I’m looking forward to representing some middle grade titles as I build my list, so this summer I’m planning to read a bunch of recent releases to broaden my horizons within the age group a bit. This adventure/mystery about a young girl who secretly lives in the basement of a wealthy estate with her maintenance man father definitely sounds up my alley. When children on the estate start disappearing, Serafina and her dad get tangled up in the mystery. I’ve mentioned several times I’m on the look out for MG and YA projects with a father/daughter narrative, so this will be good pick for me, I’m sure!

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9. THE SONNETS AND A LOVER’S COMPLAINT by Willian Shakespeare (Penguin Classics, 2000 reprint) – I’ve been dipping in and out of this collection of the Bard’s sonnets for a while now, and I’m determined to finish it this summer. Like most I studied some of these in school, but I feel like I was dumb then and not good at reading poetry. Now’s a chance to read them as an adult. I will probably read a couple of them a day all summer rather than rushing through. As for a Lover’s Complaint, I honestly don’t know much about it so will be interesting to see what that is!

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10. THE UNEXPECTED EVERYTHING by Morgan Matson (Simon & Schuster, May 2016) – This was a huge May release just in time for summer from one of my favorite YA authors.  Matson is a funny, smart, contemporary queen and her books always have the best premises. I’m very excited for this one about a politician’s daughter whose perfect plans are changed by a scandal. Like Matson’s other books, this seems like a great poolside read that hits that YA sweet spot of readable and well-written. The cover screams summer and also makes me want ice cream and dog friends.

So that’s my summer starting list! I hope to read a lot more than these as well. If you’ve read any let me know in comments or on Twitter what your thoughts were. Also if you have any summer must-reads on your list (old or new), I’d love to hear them 🙂 Feed the TBR pile, people. Happy Memorial Day!

 

 

The Rise of the Restless Girl

One of my favorite authors is Megan Abbott, whose praises I sing daily and loudly. She wrote Dare Me, a noir-ish novel set on a high school cheerleading squad. The standout line from this novel is so delicious – “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”

I’m very drawn to female coming of age stories, probably because I am a female still coming of age in a lot of ways. But also because I think coming of an age as a girl is a tangly process that produces all sorts of interesting stories. It’s a time of great restlessness, and often restlessness leads to trouble. And trouble usually leads to a good story.

I’m a sucker for fiction supposedly about that restlessness, when you’re just on the brink of becoming a person and it feels like the world isn’t expanding with you. I have a whole Goodreads shelf called “aimless, dangerous girls” just because I like reading about what happens to young women who tangle with those feelings. The stories I always find most interesting aren’t necessarily when something bad happens to them, or their world pushes against them with restrictions, etc. The ones that I think work the best – and are the most true to life – are when these young women create trouble all on their own. They don’t need to the world to push against them to feel trapped and pushed back; they’ll push back just because.

“Growing up” is a specifically internal experience for women. Women spend a lot more time contemplating themselves – second guessing themselves, gauging their own reactions – was that the right thing to say? Did that sound bitchy? Even dressing yourself is a message that needs to be properly transmitted – is this too flirty? Does this look like I’m trying too hard? Along with this young women also learn to read the reactions of others with alarming sensitivity. Gestures – an arm around the waist vs. shoulder, the narrowing of a brow – and even digital communication – a like on a photo, a period at the end of a text message – are all signs we spent time decoding. Of course, boys wonder about these things, too. But I would argue it’s not with the same intensity as young ladies, whose ears have been taught to perk up for them. Perhaps this is why this time in a girl’s life is such juicy fare for writers – it’s already wrought with hidden meaning and symbolism.

As you go from girl to woman, you become much more aware of yourself. Not just in the way of figuring out who you are (but hopefully that too), but in the way that you’re constantly aware of how the world reacts to you. You sense it intuitively and adjust accordingly. It’s a language we learn subtly, over years and years of girlhood and adolescence. Most women speak this language with such great fluency they don’t even realize they’ve learned it. But there it is, in every step out of the way – every “sorry”, every hesitation to press “send”, every feeling of a lingering eye.

One of the reasons that stories about women who have been socialized to speak this language are so interesting is that they operate within it without really even trying. It’s especially elevated in stories about female friendships or relationships, adding another level on which the characters interact. The result is often distinctly subtle, cerebral stories that feel like they’re brimming with emotion and violence, even in the most mundane situations. A backyard party, a ride in a car, a summer day laying by the pool, track practice. Everything seems sharper and important, just as it did to us then. The code of young women – that hyper-awareness – is there, going unspoken but running deep. And you’ll see time and again characters using that language, flexing it, threatening with it. It’s fascinating.

Maybe this all sounds really abstract. But I remember being a teenage girl and running these calculations in my brain in nearly every interaction – with a boy, with a teacher, with other girls. And I think good writers who write stories about girls on the brink of womanhood (perhaps I’m referring here darker stories on the more mature side, rather than a light YA) understand how those calculations work and use them to create another level of the story, simmering just beneath the surface. And when that simmer rises up, the fun begins.

As I said I have a special place in my heart for characters who eventually give in – to their frustration, to their boredom. I’m thinking of books like Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter or Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman. There’s even Alison DiLaurentis from Pretty Little Liars. Why do I love these girls – girls who lie freely, who provoke, who seek out danger, who don’t listen, who lorde over others, who feel too much, who stay hidden, who never reveal themselves? I’m not the only one – there’s been a rush of such stories either recently or coming soon, much to my delight. The Girls by Emma Cline, How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz, Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor, Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell.

If you take a look at contemporary fiction, seem at the moment to be fascinated by these ladies on the brink of adulthood and destruction. Perhaps it’s because there’s a much-welcome call these days to see more female characters with their own motivations – starting their own fights and causing their own trouble rather than being plucked out of it by a hero. Maybe we’re even starting to be open to female characters who don’t want to be plucked out of trouble, because they’re playing a game that’s about something deep inside themselves, something more. Perhaps because many real now-grown women who are writing and reading felt all these same pressures as a teenager, but never quite broke out beneath them in the way these fictional girls do. Perhaps by reading about them now we’re reclaiming a bit of that youthful rage, going off the deep end, back to that time when everything was white-hot intense and the end of the world in our brains, now from the the safety of the other side. And there’s something all of us – not just girls – can relate to in that, or at least yearn for.

Of course, the great thing is that these restless girls with their “dangerous” boredom are only part of the breadth of what a female character can be. But the fact that they’re getting page time is exciting – whether they grow up to leave all that restlessness behind for a calm, contented life or to become Amy Dunne. Perhaps the most exciting part about reading these coming of age stories about restless girls is that, in these stories, both are still a possibility. Or is that we aren’t quite sure what outcome we’re really wishing for?