Mary Mann Hamilton lived through it all on the frontier of the Mississippi Delta. Later in life, with the encouragement of a family friend, she wrote her story down in Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman and entered it into a contest for publication. Thankfully, despite losing the contest the transcript eventually made its way to publication.
American history is presented undiluted by the lens of the modern historian or reimagined into a more relatable tale, where disease strikes once, neighbors aren’t constantly trying to swindle and cheat each other and children don’t make sport of shooting at escaped convicts. Hamilton presents her life in a very manner of fact fashion, to the point where her arduous daily tasks almost seem manageable. Whether it is cooking breakfast for an entire tree-felling labor camp, tending to infirm family members, keeping her head and that of her children above the rising flood waters or convincing her husband to indulge in his vice only in the privacy of their home, Mary Hamilton details an intense tale of another time.
Her direct style is a clear result of the frontier life that left no time for woolgathering or money to indulge in extravagances. It makes for a fascinating, unrelenting read you won't be able to put down. If you enjoyed either of the novels One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus or The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, you should consider checking out this memoir.
As the turn of the 20th century neared, many London newspapers hawked the frenetic belief madness, criminality and disease plagued the lower classes more so than at any other time in history, thus endangering not only the future of the Kingdom but of the human race. When young Robert Coombes stabbed his sleeping mother to death and hired an addled-minded adult to help pawn the family’s belongings, no newspaper missed the opportunity to horrify the nation. Compounding the natural repulsion of matricide, Robert, his younger brother and their self-selected guardian enjoyed games of Cowboys and Indians in the backyard while Emily Coombes’ corpse rotted away in the upstairs bedroom. Kate Summerscale unwinds the facts and lies twisted into the half-truths printed at the time in The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer.
Throughout the trial, much was made about how the lowbrow “penny dreadfuls” Robert read had influenced him, and the possibility that the shape of his head or the size of his brain might have affected his emotional state. Little attention was paid to the home environment or family unit. The science of the day deemed Robert to be insane at the time he committed the act. Summerscale follows Robert out of the Holloway Jail to the aptly named Murder’s Paradise at the Broadmoor Asylum, through his release and emigration to Australia, into the trenches of War World I and to an almost cosmic final purpose.
Bereaved fans of Ann Rule and anyone not so patiently waiting for the perpetually in development theatrical version of The Devil in the White City will enjoy this page-turner.
It isn’t unusual for readers to have special books, favorites kept close to our hearts which entertain, inspire and, sometimes, offer an escape. In Ann Hood’s newest novel, The Book That Matters Most, a mother and daughter both seek refuge in the world of the written word.
Ava Tucker’s life is falling apart. Her loving husband just left her for a ridiculous woman known as the yarn bomber, her father has dementia and her wild child daughter Maggie is incommunicado while supposedly in Italy on a college semester abroad program. A coveted spot in the neighborhood library’s book club opens up and even that goes sour; Ava tries to impress the group by blurting out that the author of her book choice has agreed to visit the club, when in reality she has no idea if the woman is even alive. Mother and daughter are both struggling; as Ava deals with the unraveling of life as she knows it, Maggie’s ditched her school program and instead is descending into heroin addiction while being “kept” by an older married man in Paris, who is both alienating her from her family and facilitating her drug abuse.
The book club’s theme is, actually, the book that matters most. Most members choose hoary classics like The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice, but Ava’s choice, From Clare to Here, is an obscure title gifted to her as a child after a tragedy ripped her family apart and is a title she reread incessantly for comfort. As Hood alternates telling the stories of Ava and Maggie, she gradually reveals the secret of the real “book that matters most” and its pivotal role in the Tucker family. To explore more books about books, try Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop or The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler.
Magnus “Steps” Craig uses his secret tracking abilities to locate the missing in Spencer Kope’s debut novel Collecting the Dead. Steps is one member of an elite three-man Special Tracking Unit of the FBI. He has a kind of sixth sense; he can see the substance of a person, something he calls “shine” — a colorful glow which every person leaves behind. His ability is known to only three people: his father, the director of the FBI and his partner, Special Agent Jimmy Donovan.
When the remains of yet another murdered woman are discovered, Magnus recognizes the shine left by the perpetrator from a previous crime. He also discovers the murderer’s trademark at both scenes — the mark of a sad face. At the same time, a killer known as Leonardo, who Magnus has been tracking for several years, has resurfaced and is taunting him. While desperately digging for a clue that will lead him to Leonardo, the case of the Sad Face Killer intensifies. The team identifies 11 potential victims — all missing women who fit the same scenario. While Magnus draws on all of his exceptional skills, he struggles with the pressure and guilt of knowing he is the only one who can save the next victim before it’s too late.
Author Spencer Kope is a professional crime analyst and his background provides strong authenticity. Kope’s debut novel introduces a sympathetic hero in a unique storyline. Fans of Walt Longmire, Jack Reacher and Charlie Parker will find Collecting the Dead a deeply satisfying read.
Meet Sabrina Spellman. She’s the new girl at school, dealing with the typical problems of dating, peer pressure and trying to get a part in the school play. But now that she’s turning 16, she faces an even more important rite of passage — signing her name in the Devil’s book. Wait, what? Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and illustrator Robert Hack embraces historical depictions of witchcraft, goat sacrifices and all, in its depiction of the usually jolly witch from Archie Comics. So ’90s nostalgists beware: This Sabrina resembles Melissa Joan Hart about as much as Melissa Joan Hart resembles Black Phillip from the film The Witch.
This companion series to the similarly horrific Afterlife with Archie is just as satisfying but more subtle and psychological, with allusions to Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury in place of Sam Raimi and George Romero. But both series deserve to be read if for no other reason than they’re the only horror stories that you can read and witness the characters being traumatized or mutilated, and then go and can revisit with the original Archie and his gang getting ice cream and having a swell time as a chaser in the Archie Superstar series.
This collection also includes a reprint of the original Madam Satan series from the ’40s in which the title character seduces men and kills them with a kiss, while an angelic monk on a donkey attempts to thwart her from leading men away from the path of righteousness. It really is something. You’d think an old man on a donkey isn’t quite the hard sell that a supernaturally attractive bride of Satan is, but you’d be surprised.
If you tore through Netflix’s Stranger Things as quickly as I did and are craving more nostalgia-inducing science fiction, look no further than Paper Girls. Created by an all-star team including Brian K. Vaughan of Saga fame and Cliff Chiang, the artist behind Wonder Woman, Paper Girls is a coming-of-age story that reads like the twisted result of a partnership between John Hughes and John Carpenter.
Four preteen newspaper delivery girls trying to make their rounds early the morning after Halloween are met with hurdles in the form of costumed bullies, overbearing local police and mysterious masked figures with secrets aplenty. Those familiar with Vaughan’s work will recognize his signature oddball brand of science fiction here; the truly bizarre is interwoven with the ordinary in a way that brings out the best in both. The interactions between the paper girls and the surreal and strange characters they meet result in some of the snappiest dialogue I’ve ever read; this pre-teen gang genuinely feel like they fell right out of your favorite '80s movie and into this book.
Cliff Chiang reunites with colorist Matt Wilson here to create a truly dreamy nostalgic landscape. The almost flat pastel colors lend an ethereal air to the whole book; even the scenes that are grounded in reality have a certain otherworldliness to them that is well suited for the tone of the book.
Grab yourself a Crystal Pepsi, put on John Carpenter’s Lost Themes and prepare to get weird.
A tale of human trafficking and refugees masquerades convincingly as an L.A. noir thriller in Dr. Knox, the latest novel from Shamus Award-winning author Peter Spiegelman. In three previous books featuring banker-turned-detective John March, Spiegelman pretty much created the genre of “Wall Street noir.” Now, he takes that same grim sensibility and applies it to Dr. Adam Knox, a man whose apparent death wish is constantly at war with his desire to save the world. These conflicting goals lead to lots of trouble, not only for Knox, but for his employees and the few friends he has.
In Dr. Knox, a woman fleeing Russian mobsters leaves her little boy at Knox’s shabby clinic in L.A.’s Skid Row. Rather than turn the child over to Social Services, Knox becomes convinced he can save both child and mother. He sets out to do so with the help of his buddy Ben Sutter, a former Special Forces operative. The vibe between these two was very reminiscent of the relationship between Robert Parker's detective, Spenser, and his sidekick, Hawk.
Like that master of L.A. noir, Raymond Chandler, Spiegelman keeps much of the real story bobbing just below the surface throughout this tale. As Knox searches for the boy’s missing mother and runs afoul of mobsters and corrupt American business tycoons, readers get unsettling glimpses into Knox’s own messy backstory. It becomes clear that while the doctor’s heart is in the right place, his penchant for self-destruction could hurt the very people he seeks to help.
Fans of classic noir fiction and old-fashioned “hard-boiled” detective stories should enjoy Dr. Knox.
When we talk about the distant future, we almost always look at it from how our current perspectives will change — what new technologies will emerge, what catastrophes may occur, what discoveries will be made, etcetera. But often we also assume that what we know as true today will still be true in the future.
But what happens if it turns out that what we believe now is proven false in some far-off future?
Chuck Klosterman plays devil’s advocate with that notion in his book But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by examining the idea that what we believe as infallible now will be proven invalid in 100 or 200 or 500 years’ time. Just because we believe it now may not necessarily mean it’s really true. After all, people used to believe that the sun went around the world, among other things. Then the Scientific Revolution happened and our understanding changed. So, Klosterman argues, what’s to say that won’t happen again?
This book is a delightful mind trip, equal parts thought-provoking and entertaining. Klosterman works interviews with various notable scientists, writers and philosophers into the text, posing such questions as “are we right about gravity?” and “do we understand what time is?” as well as “will the NFL and other sports leagues still exist?” and “which artist will define rock’n’roll music for future generations?”. His style of writing and use of humor keep the book from getting too esoteric; Klosterman is just as funny and approachable here as he is in his other works. Just don’t expect any definite answers — But What If We’re Wrong? is largely an exercise in conjecture and speculation.
Because after all, who knows what the future holds?
Dust off your Ouija board, draw a salt circle and prepare to get spooked. The creepiest season of all is upon us, and what better way to celebrate than with six ghastly graphic novels sure to keep you creeped out all month long?
American Vampire follows the often macabre adventures of the immortal bloodsucker Skinner Sweet throughout American history. Look no further for an inventive and twisted take on traditional vampire lore with an ever changing backdrop.
Baltimore is a long-running series that follows the titular character from the horrors of the trenches in WWI to the nightmarish dwelling places of ancient evils, and everywhere in between. This is a masterfully-paced suspense story that just keeps getting better.
Batman: The Doom that Came to Gotham is the only superhero book you’ll find on this list, but its quirky combination of classic Batman characters and the otherworldly horrors of H.P. Lovecraft make for a spooky and surreal read.
The Beauty is a new series that imagines conventional physical perfection as a sexually transmitted disease with horrifying side effects. Dealing equally in body horror and suspense, this is an unsettling story that explores the disturbing lengths to which people will go in the name of beauty.
Colder is the story of Declan Thomas, a man with the incredible ability to cure mental illness in others. What Declan doesn’t realize is that his newfound power draws the attention of unsavory entities that seek to undo his work. Feel free to judge these books by their covers, because the frightening artwork that graces them perfectly suits the stories inside.
Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight is a double feature that pays homage to the outlandish B-movies of years long past. “Bee Vixens from Mars” and “Prison Ship Antares” channel the over-the-top absurdity and low budget charm of grindhouse cinema, even down to the fake posters paired with each story.
In Jeffrey Ford’s new collection A Natural History of Hell, there is such a variety of creepiness and at such different comfort levels that I feel I should offer a travel guide to whoever reads this book. Something like:
Here lie straight creeps.
Here’s one night’s lost sleep.
If you read this story you’ll only be able to eat bananas, rice and applesauce for a week.
But for those with an appetite and a broad palate for horror, there’s not likely to be a better book this year.
Many of these stories take place sometime in a Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque past, or other liminal areas where bizarre traditions overtake common sense. The opening story “The Blameless” sets the table, with a couple receiving an invitation to a neighborhood girl’s exorcism. Surprisingly, the couple finds their neighbors celebrating the supposed banishing of a demon with the small-portioned enthusiasm of a bat mitzvah.
Elsewhere, Ford ably glides between genre lines. Some of his stories don’t seem like horror at all until he drops the floor out from under you. For instance, in “The Angel Seems,” an angel comes to a small village offering protection. For a while, the story resembles Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” and then it turns and you realize it’s been re-written by Clive Barker.
There are also ghost stories, fantasies with dark wizards and even a story about gun control if monsters aren’t scary enough for you. Ford’s use of imagery and violence is implemented masterfully and tastefully throughout, creating an experience that is less like a horror movie than a nightmare weighted with meaning. Have fun!