Book – Dr. John Montague, eager to find incontrovertible proof of the supernatural, has invited a few guests to stay with him in the notorious Hill House for the summer. Luke, heir to the property, owns it but has never lived there; Theodora, the professor’s assistant, expects the whole thing to be a nice vacation. And Eleanor Vance, who has spent the past eleven years nursing her ailing mother, is finally free and hoping for some kind of adventure. She was not expecting the kind of adventure that Hill House has to offer.
The Haunting of Hill House is, quite simply, the best haunted house story ever written. (That’s not just my opinion – it’s been adapted twice to film, excellently in 1963 and somewhat less well in 1999, and Stephen King cites it as influential on The Shining.) The horror is subtle and omnipresent, but it never comes out into the light for you to see clearly (and be disappointed by). The characters are certainly of their time, contemporary with the book’s publication date of 1959, but they’re all fascinating, well-rounded people. Well – well-rounded characters, certainly, but Eleanor at least is not a particularly stable person. It’s her insecurities, combined with the house’s malevolent influence, that make this book so unforgettably chilling.
Book – Dr. Faraday is a respectable country physician, but he keeps his childhood a secret – his mother was a maid at Hundreds Hall, home of the ancient and established Ayres family. And now that the new maid of the household is his patient, he’s even more reluctant to let it be known where he came from. But the Ayreses – widowed Mrs. Ayres, her spinster daughter Caroline, and her son Roderick – have much more to worry about than their friend the doctor’s history. Strange things are happening at Hundreds Hall, things that are putting a strain on the well-being of the family. Dr. Faraday is convinced that it’s only the effects of living in an old and decrepit house, but the family is sure there’s something more sinister going on.
The Little Stranger takes its time getting where it’s going; this is no fast-paced thriller. Rather, you have plenty of time to get to know Dr. Faraday, Mrs. Ayres, Caroline, Roddy, and Hundreds Hall itself. It’s the kind of haunted house story where you’re never quite sure who’s right and what’s really happening – although it helps to remember that the narrator, Dr. Farraday, has his own biases that may be getting in his way and ours. This is the perfect novel for a cup of tea and a gloomy October afternoon.
Book – In a lilac wood lives a unicorn who has heard a rumor that she is the last of her kind. Although unicorns are solitary creatures, she does not like the thought of being the last, so she sets off on a quest to find the rest of them. Along the way she meets a witch running a questionable carnival, a slightly (but not entirely) inept magician, a band of outlaws and their long-suffering cook, and (of course) a prince.
Reading The Last Unicorn is like reading your favorite fairy tale for the first time. It’s a tremendously deep, rich fantasy story that is nothing at all like Tolkien, but contains all of those things that made you like fantasy stories when you were small – talking animals, wizards, an evil king, true love, and, of course, unicorns. When I was a kid, I wore out the local video store’s VHS copy of the movie, which is not only gorgeously animated but is a remarkably faithful adaptation. (The singing, well, the less said about Mia Farrow’s duet with Jeff Bridges, the better.) This is the book I always turn to when I want to feel good about the world.
Book – Alice Sheldon was one of the most remarkable science fiction writers of the sixties and seventies. Uninterested in once again being The Woman in a man’s world, she wrote under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. entirely anonymously until 1977, at which point several people who had praised the masculinity of her writing were very embarrassed.
Personally, I don’t see how people couldn’t see she was a woman. “The Women Men Don’t See” is a story that could be comfortably classified as women’s fiction, even with the aliens, and “The Screwfly Solution” is a science-fictional horror story of women’s fears. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” is a response to the feminist utopia novels popular at the time.
Every story in this collection (admittedly a best-of collection, but it represents a huge proportion of her short fiction overall) is outstanding. Many of them will linger on in your memory, cropping up in conversation when you’re talking to people who’ve never heard of Tiptree before. That’s all right – you’ll get to introduce them.
Book – I don’t know what it is about Allie Brosh’s style that is so deeply hilarious. Is it the choppy storytelling, half-illustrated and half in prose? Is it the expressions on the faces of her MSPaint-drawn characters? Is it the stories themselves? Or is it a combination of all three that so regularly leaves me giggling helplessly for minutes at a time?
I first discovered Hyperbole and a Half as a webcomic in 2010, when it was still being updated semi-regularly. Then Brosh took a long hiatus due to a bad bout of depression, and then she came back with two outstanding comics about it (both of which are included in the book). There are a few other extras in the book as well, stories that were never published on the website, so ideally you should read both: once you’ve polished off Hyperoble and a Half, head over to the website and work your way through the archives. It’ll be fun, I promise.
Graphic Novel – Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley are spending the summer at Lumberjanes scout camp, officially known Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. In addition to earning badges like the Up All Night Badge and the Pungeon Master Badge (earned for being especially pun-ny), they’re discovering that something is very, very wrong in these woods. The three-eyed foxes might have been their first clue. Or the bearwoman. Or the creepily well-behaved boys of the scout camp next door…
This comic is just really fun. The girls are all tough and interesting, each in their own way (although I admit to being partial to Ripley, a half-feral kid younger than most of the others), and their counselors display a laudable degree of common sense in the face of all these supernatural shenanigans. It’s gotten an outstanding critical reception, too – originally slated for just an 8-issue miniseries, Lumberjanes will continue as an ongoing comic series and has already won two Eisner awards and been optioned for a movie
Book – Paula hasn’t been back to Haven Woods, the idyllic suburb where she grew up, since she was sixteen. That summer she found out she was pregnant, her boyfriend died in a terrible accident, her father died in a car crash, and her mother sent her away, so in spite of the good memories she’s got plenty of reasons not to come home. Until one day she gets a call from her mother’s old friend Izzy, saying Paula’s mom is in the hospital and won’t she please come see her. Paula and her fifteen-year-old daughter Rowan don’t have much of a life in the city, so it’s not like they’re giving up much to go live in Haven Woods until Paula’s mom is back on her feet. But Haven Woods has more going on than Paula ever suspected, and Izzy has her own reasons for wanting Paula – and Rowan – to stay forever.
This book was just a lot of fun to read. Although nominally a horror novel, Moloney doesn’t mess around with making you guess at what’s going on – plenty of scenes from Izzy’s point of view at the beginning of the novel clue you in right away that these are bad, old-fashioned Devil-worshiping witches that Paula’s going up against, ignorant though she is. Aside from the supernatural elements, though, The Thirteen is also a story about the powerful bonds between women – mothers, daughters, friends – and the ways you can never entirely escape your own childhood. Like Moloney’s other novels, including her haunted-house story The Dwelling, I think this would make a great movie.
Book – The world is coming to an end but Essun’s world ended three days ago, when she came home to find that her husband had beaten their three-year-old son to death when he discovered the boy was an orogene, one who has a supernatural power over the shaking of the earth. An orogene girl is picked up by a Guardian to be taken somewhere she can learn to use her powers, rather than be lynched by her community. Syenite, a young trained orogene, travels to a coastal city to fulfill more than one assignment given to her by her mysterious handlers. These three stories converge in fascinating and unexpected ways through N.K. Jemisin’s new series debut, The Fifth Season.
Some people might be put off by Essun’s part of the story, which is told in second person, the narrator speaking to “you” who is also Essun. I’ve definitely read poorly done second-person stories, but this is not one of them: in Jemisin’s careful hands, these sections are full of raw, immediate emotion. After a couple of pages I forgot about the pronouns and fell into Essun’s life and world completely.
This is a rough book, to be sure. All of the main characters are of a despised magic-using minority, and Jemisin writes painfully well about the bigotry and oppression they suffer. But they’re all strong, powerful, compelling characters, and to watch them refuse to be cowed by the experience is wonderful. It also features some of the best fantasy worldbuilding I’ve ever seen, with a fully-developed world with thousands of years of history so very different from our own but so believable as well. Jemisin’s already racked up a number of awards for her Dreamblood and Inheritance series, and she’s bound to pick up some more for this one.
Book – At the turn of the seventeenth century, Will Shakespeare was one of a number of popular playwrights, hacking out a living in London’s theaters and competing for patrons, but he wasn’t considered the very best. What happened, then, to turn this one early modern writer into The Bard, the greatest genius of English literature?
I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare ever since I got out of high school and had a chance to read and see the plays for fun instead of for the test, but Lynch offers an entirely new perspective. Shakespeare’s exalted position, he argues, is as much an accident of history as anything; there were plenty of other writers not only of Shakespeare’s time but of many others who could have taken the same place, but didn’t. He traces the history of Shakespeare’s afterlife through the Restoration (when plays written for the last kings of England were brought back to the stage following the English Civil War) and the following centuries where, it seemed, Shakespeare just kept getting more famous for being famous. It didn’t hurt that he was also a great writer, but that definitely wasn’t all that was going on.
This would be a fun book for anyone interested in English history, the nature of fame, and of course for anyone who’s ever seen a Shakespeare play and wondered what all the fuss was about.
Book – Why do we group some species of animals together, to say these are more like each other than they are like something else? And how do we know we’re right? Carol K. Yoon, a biologist turned science writer, argues that the “right” way to classify things depends on what we’re organizing them for, and in this case, the scientifically “right” way may actually be entirely wrong for the rest of us. Naming Nature is structured around the idea of the umwelt, the natural human sense of the living world around us. Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, worked almost entirely out of his own well-developed umwelt.
Unfortunately, the umwelt does not match up at all with the distinctions important to science – the evolutionary history of species. So the history of modern taxonomy has been a history of ever-more precise definitions of evolutionary relationships which are also ever-more distant from the way humans actually see the world. (For instance: scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as fish, as a category.) Yoon concludes that, given that humans seem to be more and more disconnected from the natural world, we should leave scientific taxonomy to science and re-take folk taxonomy for the rest of us. For most people fish exist, and unless you’re a scientist that’s all that matters.