Every month, I try to read at least one fiction book and one book on the craft of writing. I know it doesn't sound like a lot for a writer, but I take my time when I read and I like to let the story simmer in my mind, like I wrote about in this blog post. I take notes while I read, mark interesting passages, and ramble about the story to my partner, who may or may not be listening.
All of this extra work serves two purposes: gathering techniques I can use in my own writing and organizing my thoughts in preparation for a book analysis. Although I'd love to write an analysis of every book I read, most of them don't warrant such a time-consuming project because they aren't good or bad enough to bother dissecting, or I feel like I've learned everything I need to know just by reading—and you can too.
But I still want to share these books with you (particularly my fiction reads), so I've written reviews of this quarter's books that you can use to determine whether or not you want to read them too. I've included loglines of the stories so you can pick up the books before reading the reviews if they sound enticing.
Enjoy, and beware of spoilers!
A 2021 LGBTQ thriller about a man who cheats on his boyfriend at a bathhouse and ends up a serial killer's next victim.
Bath Haus by P.J. Vernon has a brilliant concept but tragically poor execution. Oliver, an addict in recovery, is in a rocky relationship with Nathan, a trauma surgeon and obnoxiously rich older man. Tired of the boring sex in his relationship—which doesn’t match the passion he felt with his abusive ex—Oliver goes to a gay bathhouse, where he is assaulted by what turns out to be a serial killer. The book chronicles Oliver’s attempt to hide his infidelity from Nathan while helping the police find his assaulter.
The style of this book frustrated me with its constant use of fragments. Instead of adding urgency to a scene, it felt like I was driving on an unpaved road in a car with no suspension. We learn about Oliver’s horrible ex in order to set up a red herring at the end of the book, but with nothing for the ex to do when he shows up, the character is left scratching his head as chaos unfolds. There is a reasonable amount of foreshadowing and I was able to predict every twist, which would have been fine if I actually cared about any of the characters. Oliver makes bad decisions on page one, and Nathan is an asshole from his first scene. I wanted to like Oliver, I really did, but I couldn’t connect with him due to his total lack of a character arc. He felt the same to me at the beginning of the story as he did at the end.
The story’s pacing is odd. The book switches between Nathan’s and Oliver’s POVs and the story never pauses to breathe. Nathan devolves into a man-child in what feels like a week, and half the book is spent trying to repair water damage in their house or find their lost dog. Only at the end of the book do things get tense, and the story is so rushed that I hardly knew what was going on. Chapters were incredibly short, bouncing between the two characters, and in the span of a few pages I found myself questioning who the final killer would be due to a few ominous sentences, but I was proved right in the end and I felt nothing but boredom as I turned the last page.
As much as I’d love to recommend this book, I just can’t. The concept is intriguing, to say the least, and maybe there’s another story about a bathhouse murderer out there that executes this idea with more dread and precision. I’ll keep my eye out.
A 2017 dark contemporary novel about a teenage girl who suffers incestuous abuse at the hands of her doomsday-prepper father.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent is an intimate and disturbing look into the life of Turtle, a teenage girl who is being raised by her off-the-grid, gun-loving, apocalypse-prepping father, Martin. She is routinely tortured by Martin through means of marksmanship and sexual assault, and the details are such that it will leave even the biggest horror fans squeamish.
Though written in omniscient third-person, the book has an incredible voice for both Martin and Turtle, and they are easily distinguished from the other characters by dialogue alone. Turtle’s internal dialogue is shaped so strongly by her father’s misogyny that she struggles to call herself anything but insults, and she looks down on other girls with strings of “fuck you”s in her mind. She is desperate to be like them, but she knows she can’t—all because of her father’s chokehold. She hates how much she loves him.
The book is bursting with vivid descriptions of Northern Californian flora and fauna, and I felt immersed in the redwood forests as I read, covered in all manner of little bugs and seeds and leaves. Where the book fell flat for me was its terrible teenage dialogue—every time one of the boys spoke, it felt like a sixty-year-old man was inhabiting their body, and it was as annoying as it was funny. Luckily, those scenes did not make up the whole book.
I highly recommend this to anyone who can stomach it. The ending is satisfying, the characters are deep and gut-wrenching, and the prose is a delight. It is the best book I've read in the past year.
A 2017 thriller/mystery about a psychologist whose life detaches from reality after his wife dies and his adopted brother, who allegedly killed their parents, is released from prison.
Ill Will by Dan Chaon is a nonlinear story about a man losing his grip on what he thinks is reality. Dustin’s adopted brother Rusty, who was sentenced to prison for killing their parents and two relatives, is released from prison after nearly thirty years due to DNA evidence that finds him not guilty. While Dustin struggles with this news and receives calls from family members he hasn’t heard from in years, his wife dies of cancer and his son Aaron falls into substance addiction. The only thing keeping him above water is his job as a therapist, where a strange patient named Aqil ropes him into an investigation of a series of murders.
The story makes use of several experimental techniques. First: the story is told in dozens of short scenes, most of them less than a page each. Second: the story jumps back in time and shows us long flashbacks of Dustin’s childhood through the eyes of Kate. Third: many chapters are “normal” as we know them, being medium-length chunks of prose with multiple scenes.
Curiously, some of these "normal" chapters suddenly break into columns where two or more scenes happen at the same time, which you read from top to bottom, turning the pages until the end of the chapter and then flipping back to read another scene. I found these chapters to be confusing in all the right ways, especially as the characters sunk further into the depths of their delusions. Dustin has two experimental techniques to note as well: he breaks into monologue and abruptly ends his thoughts in the middle of a sentence; and he often trails off into nothing while speaking, leaving us to figure out what words were said in between blips of memory. These techniques, along with the columnar scenes, were especially exciting to me and heightened my sense of dread.
While I—and likely many others—spotted the first twist of the story early on, it was still satisfying to see it all play out and even more satisfying to see the second twist, which was sitting under my nose the whole time. The book itself was incredibly easy to read, and even at my slow pace I sped through the book in two weeks. I personally didn’t like the open-ended conclusion, but it didn’t sour my feelings about the rest of the story. For a thriller, I had hoped for it to have a more concrete resolution.
I recommend this book to anyone into hypnosis, satanic panic, and experimental writing techniques. It will keep you hooked from beginning to end.
A 1993 LGBTQ haunted house horror novel about an artist who returns to the house where his father killed the rest of his family on the 20th anniversary of their deaths.
Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite—now known as Billy Martin—is a queer haunted house horror novel that follows Trevor’s obsession with the house where his family was murdered. He returns to the house twenty years after his father killed his mother, brother, and himself, and there he meets Zach, a hacker on the run from the feds. They spark a romance while staying in the decrepit house, and a bad trip on shrooms leads to Trevor and Zach confronting the memories of their abusive families.
I wanted to love this book, but it has several issues that let me down. Most importantly is its use of caricature when referencing Black characters. Its Jamaican character is the most stereotypical rastafarian you’ve ever seen, complete with “ya, mon” and a penchant for cannabis. There is also a substory about police brutality on Black men, where the n-word is used for no good reason. The whole substory is completely unnecessary in itself.
However, the book is thirty years old, and while I’m not happy about the racism, I’m not surprised either. That doesn’t excuse the technical problems in the book, though. This four-hundred-page book wastes at least one hundred of its pages describing the characters getting to the house itself. While its setting descriptions are incredibly detailed, they never stop coming, even in settings that are already described. Several minor characters are given points of view just to explain that they haven’t seen Zach or Trevor recently, or to describe picking Trevor up when he passes out at one point. The meat of the haunted house story doesn’t even start until the last one hundred pages, in some sort of fever dream caused by being on shrooms—which the characters willingly take even though they know it’s a bad idea.
Despite the quality of the writing sentence-by-sentence and the strong character voices, this book is not worth a read.