Five-Star Horrors of February 2020

In February, I listened to two audiobooks that ended up being very timely and appropriate: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, which is a sprawling epic about a pandemic, and The Shining by Stephen King, which is about going crazy while locked inside for months. I loved them both, even if I was oftentimes unsettled by the news out of China while I listened to Wanderers…

At least I can say that I finished a few pretty substantial books in the month of February before everything went off the rails in March. Several of them were even some of my favorites this year so far.


⭐️⭐️

Skullcrack City by Jeremy Robert Johnson

I picked up this book because I thought it might scratch the same itch as Robert Brockway’s Vicious Circuit trilogy. It’s definitely weird and occasionally a bit gruesome, but where Brockway’s books are bizarre, scary and hilarious in equal measures, Skullcrack City was just unpleasant.

It also took me more than three months to finish. That isn’t always a knock against a book, but it’s oftentimes a sign that it didn’t capture my attention. The basic premise is this: Doyle works in a bank rooting out corruption and fraud. When he starts taking a dangerous drug in inadvisable quantities because he thinks it will help him uncover a sinister conspiracy, he catches the attention of inter-dimensional eldritch horrors and mutated atrocities that want to eat his brain.

Doyle finds himself in absurd, awful situations, bouncing around from one atrocity to another until things go definitely, irrevocably bad for him. I hate saying that a main character is unlikable or unsympathetic, because it really is a horrible cliche, but there was nothing about Doyle that made me root for him. There were also several instances of transphobia (Doyle cross-dresses to steal money) and it threw me right out of the story every time.

Note: The Kindle version of this book is no longer available for purchase, and the paperback seems to be wildly out of print, so I guess I read it just in time?

DISLIKED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

This is a massive book that easily kept me hooked for all of its 30+ hours. That said, listening to it during the onset of the Coronavirus outbreak was especially unsettling.

My impression of Wendig is that he writes in a few registers; the foul mouthed grit of his Miriam Black series, and his more mainstream techno-thrillers, like this one. This felt like the sort of post apocalyptic epic that Stephen King might write, although it also felt like it could sit comfortably next to Michael Crichton on a good day.

In my experience, if I spend this much time with a nice long book, I tend to love it, and it’s very rare that I find an exception to that rule. Wanderers is no different. The characters are compelling, the mystery is engaging, and the near-future (or maybe now present?) horror of it all makes it feel that much more relevant. Highly recommended if you can stand to listen to a long story about a pandemic in this day and age.

LOVED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Yamada-Kun and the Seven Witches, Volume 13 by Miki Yoshikawa

In this volume, Yamada and his friends discover more about the new batch of witches. To be honest, the volumes are starting to blend together in my mind, but I do know that I’m still enjoying reading them.

At this point it’s likely that I’ll continue reading until I finish the series. I think I’m maybe only halfway through!

REALLY LIKED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith

This was a nice little cozy mystery about a Swedish detective trying to solve a series of strange, minor crimes. Nobody gets seriously hurt, nothing really gruesome happens, and all of the mysteries are interwoven with details about the main character’s love life and his anxious dog.

This was a good palate-cleanser after the world-ending story of Wanderers. I’ve never read anything else by McCall Smith, but I could definitely see myself picking up another one of his books if he tends to write in this register.

REALLY LIKED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️

Interspecies Reviewers, Volume 1 by Amahara

Ah, yes, another horny manga. This one is about fantasy characters reviewing brothels populated with different magical creatures. It’s funny and naughty but ultimately a bit slight.

I mostly picked it up and read it because I heard the anime adaptation was a bit controversial and I was curious about the series.

Not sure how much I’ll read of this if it’s ultimately just a one-joke premise about variations between sex workers.

LIKED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️

Pandora’s Eyes by Milo Manara

There isn’t much to this story about a young girl who discovers that her real father is actually a criminal.

The best part of any Manara book is his art, which is both distinctive and immediately recognizable. At least from that perspective, this book is still up to his excellent standards.

However, I think his stories work best when there is a bit of a twist to the premise, so this more realistic story wasn’t quite as interesting as some of his other work.

LIKED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This book is a mind-blowing modernization of the epistolary novel, told in alternating (love) letters between two enemy combatants on opposite sides of an endless war.

The slow-burn progression from mutual hate to deep, unquenchable passion simmering between the lines of every letter gives this book an aching, sensual power.

It’s also a short read filled with incredibly detailed world-building that hints at unseen vastness just beyond the page. Easily one of the best books I’ve read in years.

LOVED IT


⭐️⭐️

Golden Dogs, Volume 1 by Stephen Desberg

The mastermind of a group of thieves recruits a young French prostitute to his cause. I don’t really remember much about this book. I do know that I didn’t particularly like the characters and the story didn’t grab me. Too bad, because I like heist stories, especially ones that play with a historical setting.

DISLIKED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

I picked up this book because I loved the cover and it had a rave from Karen Russell on the front. Luckily, those both ended up being excellent criteria for selecting a book to read.

One morning, Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the family taxidermy shop and discovers her father, dead by suicide. She does what she feels is her duty and cleans up the mess, but it isn’t long before her family falls apart around her, and she barely has the fortitude to keep her own life from going off the rails.

At its heart, this is a family story about broken people trying to learn how to relate to each other through their grief, but it’s also hilarious and weird and angry. Jessa-Lynn had a doomed love affair with her brother’s wife (her long-time best friend) and struggles to find a healthy relationship in the wake of her disappearance. Jessa-Lynn’s mother responds to her husbands suicide by turning his taxidermy into pornographic tableaus.

This book feels very specific to the weirdness of Florida (or at least the Florida in my mind), and I’m always a sucker for stories that get just a little bit weird while still feeling realistic.

LOVED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Shining by Stephen King

Somehow there are still a few Stephen King classics that I’ve never read. I read a lot of his books when I was in high school, but there are still gaps in my experience. IT was one of them, and The Shining was another. I started to read this a few years back but never finished it for whatever reason, but I’m glad I finally dove back in and got it done.

It’s especially fascinating reading this after seeing the Stanley Kubrick movie version so many times. It’s well-known that King isn’t a fan of the movie, but when you read the book, it’s easy to see why he has problems with the adaptation. Despite the fact that the Kubrick film is a modern masterpiece, it isn’t really faithful to the book in a few key ways.

First off, the movie version of Jack Torrance seems crazy almost from the start. Jack Nicholson was perfectly cast for the raving mad version of the character, but he never really seems like he’s got things under control. In the book, Jack is an alcoholic with an anger problem, but you at least understand where he’s coming from and know that he feels guilt about his past actions. His transformation into a murderous psychopath is much more of a slow burn.

I haven’t seen the movie in a few years, but I feel like it downplays his alcoholism, whereas it’s one of the driving factors of Jack’s problems in the book. When he drinks, he lashes out and does stupid things, and when we meet him, he’s struggling to get his worst impulses under control.

The book also does a better job of characterizing Wendy Torrance and giving her an inner life. In the movie, she only really exists to react in horror to Jack’s behavior.

Overall, the book is tight and tense and perfectly paced. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. I’ll have to think about what book I’ll read by King next.

LOVED IT

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