My Thoughts on “The Dark Archive” by Megan Rosenbloom

A few months ago I picked up The Dark Archive by Megan Rosenbloom. I’m a big fan of morbid medical histories, and when I saw its lovely cover I knew I had to borrow it from my local library. Like any good nonfiction book, it taught me things and got me thinking.

This book is a deep dive into the curious study of books bound in human skin or “anthropodermic bibliopegy.” It’s a fascinating book that goes into the methodology of distinguishing real human skin books from other animal leather books, the history of how these books came about, and the eccentric characters who made and collected them.

 What really resonates with me as a librarian and history nerd are the discussions around the ethics of preserving or destroying such controversial material. I fall into the camp of thinking all history is worth preserving. Destroying what we find distasteful is the same as trying to destroy the past. We can’t reckon with things that we no longer have evidence for. This is especially important to me a black woman living in these United States.

Human skin books bring up uncomfortable questions for the medical profession. Most collectors were physicians in the 19th century who also provided the material leather from the corpses they managed to (ahem) acquire. In most of these cases, they were deceased patients or cadavers dug up by the local resurrectionist through unsavory means. These bodies are often unnamed, forever unknown. Their DNA was processed and scraped out of what remained of them. But still they remain, these nameless people immortalized against their will, their skin viewed as simple material to increase the value of their own collection. Their value remains in the illicit nature of these acquisitions, not the life they lived or who they were.

I like books that make me think. Medical history and its adjacent studies tend to do it for me. They make me question how things are.

If you want a good history lesson on this morbid medical topic, I say you should definitely give this one a read.

The May Book Review: From Couple’s Chicken to Supernatural Support Groups

To Have and To Hoax (Martha Waters)

As I admitted before in this post, I’ve completely fallen head over heels for the romance genre (or, more importantly, I’m much less ashamed to admit to being so). I started the month of May with finishing Martha Water’s To Have and To Hoax.

 It’s a book I had on my radar for a few months while looking into other romance books to read. I already had a few in my basket, so I put this on my TBR. This month, I finally picked it up.

The premise immediately fascinated me. Lady Violet Grey and Lord Audley James, the two leads of this story were the perfect couple when they married. But then a bad argument occurred, and we meet the couple again 5 years later who live in a frosty cohabitation under the same roof. The ice is broken when after Lord James falls off his horse and Violet rushes to his side, he tells her she really shouldn’t have been concerned. To give him a taste of his own medicine, she fakes an illness and shenanigans ensue.

The story ended up being a novel length game of chicken between the two. The lies and scenarios get more outrageous, and I loved every minute of it. It was a light, laugh out loud read with a lot of heart. It was just the thing I needed.

Evvie Drake Starts Over (Linda Holmes)

This book and I have been dancing around each other for a few years. When I was a bookseller a few years ago, it was one of the book club picks. I know that I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it didn’t seem like my cup of tea. But it ended up being May’s pick for my local book group so it feels like destiny.

 Evvie Drake Starts Over is about the titular Evvie Drake who, a year after her husband’s sudden death, is still trying to navigate her life as a widow in a town where everyone knows her. She takes in Dean Tenney, a former baseball player suffering the case of the yips (or the sudden inability to pitch after so long doing so) as a tenant in an apartment she has in her huge home. The two grow closer as the story goes on as they both find ways of healing and starting over (hence the title).

I was half-right in my initial assessment. I would’ve never picked this book up on my own and I probably wouldn’t have finished it if it wasn’t for the book group. The start of it was slow, bordering on meandering for me. That isn’t to say it isn’t a good book. It’s a very cozy read with characters that are quirky and flawed. The dialogue especially made these characters seem real and made me chuckle a few times.

This book is so unlike the books I count among my faves but I appreciate it for what it is. It’s a very cozy blanket of a book.

Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free (Sarah Weinman)

I try to read one nonfiction book every month (maybe even more when I really get in the mood). Scoundrel was last month’s.

The long subtitle tells you all you really need to know about this book but let me affix some names. In the 1960s, National Review founder, William F. Buckley Jr. begins a decades long correspondence with New Jersey death row inmate, Edgar Smith, who was convicted for the 1957 murder of Victoria Zielinski. During Smith’s time on death row, he worked to get himself a college education and expressed himself so eloquently in his letters that Buckley believed he couldn’t be responsible for the murder. After bringing him into contact with a Knopf book editor which brought on a passionate affair through letters.

This was a very bingeable history. The weaving of the correspondence in the narrative to make a cohesive story of this relationship makes it very engaging. Highly recommended if you’re into true crime!

We Are All Completely Fine (Daryl Gregory)

This is a quirky little horror novel.

A therapist brings together a group of people who endured supernatural trauma. Among their ranks is a retired monster hunter, a celebrity by way of being partially eaten by cannibals, and a maybe mass arsonist. Beneath the horror trimmings, this is a story about finding connection through similar experience. You can never predict what happens when volatile elements come together in one setting, but I loved the end result of this.

I don’t want to say too much more about this because it is a truly a book worth experiencing blind. And it’s a quick read too. No more than 200 pages.

My Thoughts on “Laziness Does Not Exist” by Dr. Devon Price

What I’m doing is probably antithetical to the book’s thesis statement of not trying to wring every ounce of productivity/work out of every experience to feed the social media machine, but I wanted to share my thoughts. And by practicing self-compassion, I needn’t worry over this point.

Laziness Does Not Exist shifted my perspective on laziness. When I first read the title, I was skeptical. Shelved firmly in the personal development section of my library’s Dewey Decimal system (158.1 if you’re at all curious), my initial observation on first reading the title was that this would be another screed on how to kick unproductive habits in the teeth. That laziness was a lie with a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps emphasis.

I see some value in these books–talks, podcasts, what have you–but I’m also burnt out on the hustle lifestyle that this media tends to advocate for.

But the book does the exact opposite.

Though I tell myself that my constant need to strive is a symptom of America’s unique capitalism, I still find myself criticizing my perceived lack of productivity. Sometimes after work, I veg out and watch Youtube all the while thinking I could be reading or writing or making better use of my time. I’ve bought in. I thought laziness was bad.

Price makes the argument that laziness is necessary. It’s our body’s way of regulating our mental exhaustion and clueing us into impending burnout. Ignoring these signals only hurts you in the long run and could also bleed into your physical health. Rather than combat it to be more productive, they argue that laziness should be embraced. We shouldn’t feel guilty if we take a whole day to sleep in our beds or do nothing but watch movies.

Admittingly, the book can be repetitive and could benefit from being more concise in its points. I often found the author made the same point over and over again in different portions of the same chapter. The first few especially were a bit difficult to get through but Price sprinkles in enough anecdotes to make it engaging.

I’m very happy I picked up this book.

Like A Love Story

Like A Love Story by Abdi Nazemian is a beautiful and brutal love letter to what it meant to be a gay teen in the 1980s. The book tells passionately the ecstasy of first love, the discovery of one’s own identity, the fear of illness, and the rage and activism in the face of systemic injustice and indifference. The story was addictive, heartbreaking, and full of hope all at once.

But what is Like a Love Stoy, exactly?

It starts with Reza. Reza is an Iranian immigrant from Toronto by way of Tehran. He and his mother move to New York to settle in with their new stepfamily. Along with all these changes, he knows that he’s gay and he struggles against it. It’s 19899 and all he can see in his future is informed by images of sickness and death brought on by the AIDs crisis in the news. He fears death and is sure that being true to himself will kill him.

Upon entering his new school he befriends Judy, an aspiring fashion designer. When she meets Reza, she’s head over heels for him. Art is Judy’s best friend and the only openly gay person in the school. Reza is both entranced and fearful of his feelings towards him. 

Both Judy and Art are involved in the local ACT UP organization headed by Judy’s uncle, Stephan. They both look up to him and anxious of the remaining time they have with him since he’s slowly succumbing to AIDs. 

There are a lot of layers in this book. The narrative itself alternates between Reza’s, Judy’s and Art’s point of view. There’s an intimacy to their experience conveyed through the prose. This makes certain points in the narrative visceral and uncomfortable. You feel keenly the emotions of each of these characters and I would argue that that’s where the beating heart of this story rests. The rawness I often felt sat with me in a very good way. 

With that said, it’s an admittingly heavy read. Dark parts of recent history are discussed and shown in all their ugliness. Not just AIDs itself but the indifference shown by the public and the powers that be. The characters in one way or another confront this ugliness but even here, there are signs of cautious hope. It’s a history that needs to be seen. Not just the disease itself but the struggle to bring awareness. It shined a light on an organization that I was only aware of vaguely and has inspired me to look deeper into the history. 

I personally think this is a must-read not just for people who’d like a thoughtful teen romance but readers looking for an inspiring story about identity and a history lesson in LGBTQA activism. It’s for these reasons and more that I loved this book.  

Where You Can Find the Book

Goodreads

Indiebound (Hardcover) // Indiebound (Paperback)

Or your local library! Hey, that’s where I found my copy 🙂

The Gurkha and The Lord of Tuesday

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday is a book you can immediately sink your teeth into. It starts in a melting mountain peak. The djinn king, Melek Ahmar, slowly blinks to life in a tired withered state as he tries to figure out how long he’s been asleep. His brash and arrogant voice is made humorous by how little he actually knows about his environment.

The story is told from two perspectives. His and the “sheriff” of Kathmandu, Hamilcar Pande when the Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday wander into his town. Pande is a more earnest character who’s rather content in the world he lives in. He doesn’t have much to do since serious crime isn’t really an issue for the city. He has the authority to work as Karma’s feet on the ground.

The story is the two circling each other. The former causing chaos while the other investigates them. We meet a whole cast of interesting characters throughout the story.

Layered on top of this is a science fiction story. The setting is a distant future ruled by micro-climates and human augmentation which does away with sickness and injury. We see conflict between magic and technology. The book also shows a world of what would happen when placed in what looks like a utopia. People are assigned value based on their good deeds. And even the zeroes in this society want for nothing. I found this world fascinating especially as it goes into what can make people happy there and is it possible to live in true contentment.

But even though the book touches these themes, it’s never weighed down by them. The story is about power, vengeance, and accountability. Despite all that, it still keeps i light and fun and that’s by the strength of its characters.

It’s also a quick read. No more than 170 pages and it goes by so fast. It you’re the least bit curious, you should pick it up.

My Rating:

Why I Love the Dread Nation Series

The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me.

That’s the line that begins this series and I fell hook, line and sinker.

I’m ashamed to admit that it took me way too long to jump onto the Dread Nation train. I first saw the cover at the Barnes & Noble I worked at last year but didn’t give much thought to it. It was a stocking shift at 7 in the morning so my brain was caffeine deprived and stupid. Besides, I tend to be late on most hype trains anyway.

I officially picked up this book last year, my steps inadvertently guided by a blog post by P. Djeli Clark, author of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (which I also loved by the way!).

Dread Nation is a fantastic book that centers black people in history. When it comes to most fiction (or history, for that matter) that discusses black people in the antebellum period up to the 20th century, they’re usually brutalized under slavery. Those stories are important to tell but sometimes a girl needs a little variety in her historical fiction. 

The Dread Nation universe is revisionist history. Dead people rise up from the ground in the midst of civil war and disrupt life as people know it. Society has to adapt to meet this undead threat. Slavery, as a formal institution, started to fall in place and was replaced with new schools to train black and Indian children to fight against the dead. Most of these children are taken away from their homes when they are around 12 years of age. Girls are raised as Attendants to protect white ladies against the dead and also protect their honor in these trying times.

Jane McKeene is one of these ladies who attends Miss Preston’s school in Baltimore. She hopes to pave her own future with the skills learned at Miss Preston’s and make her way back home to her mother and Aunt Aggie at the Rose Hill plantation. But then the good families in Baltimore start disappearing and things go sour fast and the characters travel Westward Ho!

I won’t spoil too much from the first book. You desperately need to read it for yourself. It has racial commentary, drama, and thrills tied in a nice western package. It immediately takes you into the world of these characters. It’s amazing seriously.

Deathless Divide expands on the story of the first and adds multiple layers of depth to it. There’s the value of friendship in a world that you’re just trying to survive, the follies of science, hubris, and tales of vengeance as the story more fully embraces the westerns the story gives homage to. It still has all the bloody horror and grotesque zombies wondering around but they’re less of a threat sometimes with the things that humans do to each other. 

I can’t express how much I love this series. Please read it.

The Monster of Elendhaven

The Thing didn’t know who he was or where he came from. But in time he knew other things. How to steal, how to blend into the shadows, how to kill easy with the flick of his wrist. A genuine monster who couldn’t be killed. He called himself Johann, the monster of Elendhaven. 

This monster is drawn to the last of an old family, Florian Leikenbloom. He’s a sorcerer with a dark past and darker intentions. Together they seek revenge for the city.

I was first drawn to this book by its cover. I like a good monster story and this book hooked me instantly. It also didn’t disappoint. The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht is a dark fantasy. It was dark, beautiful, and grotesque in all the right ways.

This novella packs so much into its 159 pages. It brings forth a lush fantasy world in Elendhaven, isolated in the north by a churning black sea rife with seals and monsters. It’s a society build up and cursed by industry. A rot fermenting deep in its waters and boiling up in plague. 

The characters were also really enjoyable. I liked how twisted the main characters were and how their darknesses feed off each other. I enjoyed every page.

My only complaint is that I wish this book was longer. I would’ve loved to see more of them and more about its magic systems. 

My Rating:

[Goodreads Summary]:

The city of Elendhaven sulks on the edge of the ocean. Wracked by plague, abandoned by the South, stripped of industry and left to die. But not everything dies so easily. A thing without a name stalks the city, a thing shaped like a man, with a dark heart and long pale fingers yearning to wrap around throats. A monster who cannot die. His frail master sends him out on errands, twisting him with magic, crafting a plan too cruel to name, while the monster’s heart grows fonder and colder and more cunning.

These monsters of Elendhaven will have their revenge on everyone who wronged the city, even if they have to burn the world to do it.

Prosper's Demon

Prosper’s Demons by K. J. Parker is a curious little novella. It got a lot of things right for me.

The narrator is a morally gray exorcist of demons. Demons in this Renaissance-esque landscape possess people and make them do terrible things. Exorcist don’t negotiate. They do what they need to to extract them. It hurts the demons a lot but the results in the death of the possessed. There’s little room for doubt in these matters.

I’m a big fan of an emotionally questionable protagonist. The narrator of this story was witty and uncompromising in his duties. But the narrative seems to challenge him in the character of Prosper of Schanz who’s possession promises to bring some good to the human race. At least in the short term. Seeing him debate this with the spirit proper was some one the highlights of the book. That and his acerbic wit.

But that narrator also hurts the book, strangely enough. The reader is set firmly in his thoughts. The world wasn’t as explored as I would’ve liked and the spirits, Them, are hard to picture. That’s the point to a certain extent but they never really have any narrative weight due to how the narrator talks about Them.

I feel like I would’ve enjoyed the story if we were just one step outside his head. I want to get arm deep in this world but the narrator’s perspective never gives me a chance to relish the detail. I ultimately thought it was an OK book for this reason.

My Rating:

Book Summary:

The unnamed and morally questionable narrator is an exorcist with great follow-through and few doubts. His methods aren’t delicate but they’re undeniably effective: he’ll get the demon out — he just doesn’t particularly care what happens to the person.

Prosper of Schanz is a man of science, determined to raise the world’s first philosopher-king, reared according to the purest principles. Too bad he’s demonically possessed.

The Hunger

Though I love reading history, I’ve only occasionally dipped my toe in the realm of historical fiction. I’ve got nothing against the genre. I’m just quicker to pick up a nonfiction book delving into the topic than a fictionalized one.

But The Hunger by Alma Katsu, proved to be quite the treat.

I find the story of the Donner Party fascinating. The Donner Party is the true frontier horror story of a family caravan, hope set on starting anew in California, finding themselves trapped in the wilderness and the terrible winter of 1846-1847. As their supplies dwindle, people start dying of hunger and quickly turn against each other for survival. In the end, they’re forced to cannibalize members of their own party.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. The human eating is a bit overblown in the collective imagination of this history compared to the true horror of being in a situation that you can’t escape. The animal in us lashes out when found in that corner. If you want to learn more, one book I highly recommend is The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis. It’s a near 500 book tome but the history is woven into a rich narrative that’s worth all the paper.

 It’s interesting exploring how Manifest Destiny gets corrupted by greed and how the hope turns in on itself. 

The Hunger by Alma Katsu explores these things and more. She takes a few liberties with the historical account but her choices breathes life into these characters.  Each character is escaping from something. Whether that be a certain situation or a dark secret. They pin their hopes on California to do away with their sins but they quickly realize there’s no escaping them.

There’s also a thrilling supernatural bent to the narrative. I won’t spoil too much but let’s just say there be monsters. I think the most compelling thing I found was how people are so quick to turn on each other and how strife ends being the main reason why most of the cast dies off. 

This was a brilliant horror story, dripping in dread. 

My Rating:

4 stars

[Goodreads Summary]

Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?” 

The Killer Inside Me [Review]

the killer inside me

Lou Ford is a well-liked, affable deputy policeman in a small town in Texas. But beneath this, he carries “The Sickness.”

The Killer Inside Me is a well-paced story that offers an interesting examination into the mind of a killer. Reed is shrewd and calculating and always finds ways to justify what he does to himself.

But personally, I thought we were too much in his head. Not in the “shrink back in the horror of such a wicked mind” sort of way. More in the “I’m somehow really bored by his perspective” kind of way. I found his voice really tiring at times and would’ve loved to see him more reacting to the events that were happening around him. He speculated but we, as the audience, never got to see how it went down until the very end. It was rather predictable to me but predictability wasn’t the issue here. Once I figured out how he was going to get caught, I felt like the rest of the book was a big waiting game. I wanted to enjoy the ride like a story like this should be.

But that’s not the only issue. I know that we’re supposed to feel a bit disgusted yet sympathetic for this character but I couldn’t reach the latter. The reason he kills is always someone’s fault. It’s Conway’s fault, it’s the town’s fault, it’s his father’s fault, he’s crazy. This type of character irks me. I see a man who refuses to accept responsibility for what he’s done. Not that he necessarily had to but soaking in this perspective just rubbed me the wrong way. Lou Reed is not a character that should be enjoyed, admittingly. I should be shocked! I should be angered! I should be sad. But I’m annoyed more than anything.

My Rating: 

2 half star

Book Summary [Goodreads]:
Everyone in the small town of Central City, Texas loves Lou Ford. A deputy sheriff, Lou’s known to the small-time criminals, the real-estate entrepreneurs, and all of his coworkers–the low-lifes, the big-timers, and everyone in-between–as the nicest guy around. He may not be the brightest or the most interesting man in town, but nevertheless, he’s the kind of officer you’re happy to have keeping your streets safe. The sort of man you might even wish your daughter would end up with someday.

But behind the platitudes and glad-handing lurks a monster the likes of which few have seen. An urge that has already claimed multiple lives, and cost Lou his brother Mike, a self-sacrificing construction worker who fell to his death on the job in what was anything but an accident. A murder that Lou is determined to avenge–and if innocent people have to die in the process, well, that’s perfectly all right with him.