The Best I Read in 2018

So many books to choose from, and yet so few. I’ve boiled it down to the top 20 contenders that continue to haunt and astound me long past their finales, with what I found to like so much about them. This list is somewhat biased towards darker genres, but that’s me. I should note that these books did not necessarily come out in 2018, that’s just when I read them for the first time. I haven’t reviewed some of these yet, or don’t plan to soon.

20. #NotYourPrincess by Various Authors
Genre – Nonfiction / Poetry

I was fortunate enough to be one of the first to read this book before it was published, and I have to say it’s about damned time they brought more Native American writing into the mainstream, especially as beautiful as these women’s imaginations have proven to be.

19. Blue Bird by Magda Ayuk
Genre – Poetry

An unexpected independent gem that stands out in a sea of other modern poetry with the same topics, just because it’s written with so much heart and passion.
[Read my full review of this book here.]

18. Bittersweet Symphony by Rebecca McNutt
Genre – Fiction

A writer friend of mine wrote this book, but that’s not why I’m adding it to the list. It is a genuinely great novel with wonderfully quirky characters, and that shows a very personal facet of the 9/11 tragedy.
[Read my full review of this book here.]

17. Claudine by Riyoko Ikeda
Genre – Romance

Ahead of its day with its themes of gender dysphoria and female masculinity, and a rare example of romance that I can actually ingest without repercussions. Ikeda’s characters are so elegant, and Claudine is incredibly tragic.

16. A Midsummer’s Equation by Keigo Higashino
Genre – Mystery

This was my first solidly good read of the year. Despite having a sharp twist to it, this is a comfortably oceanic, gradual and intelligent sort of mystery that is a nice break from the bleak thrillers I’m used to seeing.
[Read my full review of this book here.]

15. Darkness Visible by William Golding
Genre – Fiction

Golding is one of my favourite writers, and this book is… it’s something else. I thought Lord of the Flies (which also made this list) was difficult to dissect, but I was wrong. Darkness Visible outdoes LotF as far as Golding’s signature primal, almost abstract exploration of the human psyche, though it did not quite speak to me as much. I highly recommend, as I feel Darkness gets quite overlooked in favour of LotF.

14. A Hundred Tales of Karma by Natsuhiko Kyogoku
Genre – Horror / Paranormal

Kyogoku is a phenomenal author with a… not-so-phenomenal track record as far as English translations of his work. Fortunately, his most famous series, Kōsetsu Hyaku Monogatari did not meet the fate of his other translated works – it’s still in print, for one thing. If you like Japanese horror and urban legends spanning centuries, this’ll be one for you. It also has an offbeat but pretty enjoyable anime adaptation. Continue reading “The Best I Read in 2018”

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Book Review – Zerostrata by Andersen Prunty

★★★★★ 5 Stars

Genre: Bizarro / Fantasy
Publication Date: September 3rd, 2008
Publisher: Eraserhead Press

“That wasn’t what I wanted. That wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t want to be a kid again. I just wanted to be in Zerostrata. I just wanted to look out over things, from that height, with virtually nothing holding me back from the world around me.”

Zerostrata is a story of innocent wonder, things falling apart and being mended. This is the kind of book that cuddles up to your heart and brain and presses out all the decay and sadness, if just for a precious while. It’s the strangest of soul-searching adventures.

The magnificent “Zerostrata” is only a treehouse, precariously perched in the tallest tree in town, in the yard of Hansel Nothing’s childhood home. It’s a moldy old deathtrap, but it’s Hansel’s favourite moldy old deathtrap, and when he returns to his mother’s strange, sad house from the mystery of the abyss and sees that things are in the same shambles they always were, Hansel turns to Zerostrata for comfort. One night in Zerostrata, he looks through the window onto the flesh of the world below and sees a girl running naked on the street – her name is Gretel.

I suppose you’d think this makes it a retelling, wouldn’t you? But I don’t exactly know what to call this book. Zerostrata can’t be bothered trying to squeeze into labels, it just is what it is and it’s beautiful. It’s a little living melancholy wearing a fairytale mask, but there’s a bittersweet realism about the characters even when they’re climbing to the moon and warping reality. Continue reading “Book Review – Zerostrata by Andersen Prunty”

Book Review – Slices by Scott Cole

★★★★★ 5 Stars

Full Title: Slices – Tales of Bizarro and Absurdist Horror
Genre: Bizarro / Short Stories
Publication Date: July 16th, 2017
Publisher: Black T-Shirt Books

“There are moments in life when ideas are shifted, priorities get rearranged, and entire worldviews flip upside down. This was one of those moments. Everything I had known up to that point suddenly changed with a taste of my own arm.”

Slices plays amongst delirium and absurdity as a child of their species, in their world without borders between real and false. This book has optical nerves and wild hands collecting nightmares out of the little corners forgotten out of fear. It reshapes them and sautés them until a breathing buffet table of dreams is all that’s left for you. It is a collection that makes you smile, even if it uses a needle and thread to make sure that you do.

Quality over quantity wins every time. Slices is not a heavy piece for a regular or even an unleaded book-glutton, at a bit over 100 pages, but so much original idea and care has been put into every story that when it’s like finding a rare bird dead on the road when it ends so suddenly.

There is an overarching body horror vibe, if you didn’t get that from the bologna arm flanking the cover, but this twists into body humor just as often. I loved the title story “Slices of Me”, about a man who discovers he has no blood but his skin makes rather nice appetizers, as well as “Hole”, and ‘Playtime”. “Multi-Crabs” and “God” poke a razor-nailed finger at the blatant coldness of consumer culture and gimmicky ads, but my real favourite has to be “Violins For Sale”.
“Violins For Sale” reminds me so much of Neverwhere, I think because it captures that same eerie-yet-delightful eldritch stalker feeling that the villains of that novel had, and it’s great. All-in-all, Slices is definitely its own type of meat, but a delicious and rare sort nonetheless.

Book Review – Nothing is Strange by Mike Russell

★★★★★ 5 Stars

Genre: Dark Fantasy / Short Stories
Publication Date: December 31st, 2014
Publisher: StrangeBooks

Nothing is Strange is an illicit, dairy-based love affair between synthetic dreams and the sensors and nerves of your eyes. It is nutritious but decadent written chocolate.
Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to concentrate paper and idea into a human, for this would be the most intriguing one to chat with. But being your typical homunculus, it would probably be flawed somewhere vital and mope about mourning its own existence for always, and wouldn’t want to chat at all.

Nothing is perfect as a short story collection could be. It molds the shapes which only exist in the act of sleep and solidifies them into a theatre of little masterpieces. Nothing is hypnotic, humorous, horrifying, and every other H word that we spit out in haste when we can’t really describe what we feel. It’s truly neapolitan, and not only because one of its stories harbors a serious ice cream fetish.

I stubbornly straddled the fence on this book for awhile even though it kept popping up, and the guilt for that is real. If you’re not sure, just try a small bite. It pretty much becomes a vortex after that, and good luck running free from it.

My particular favourites were “Dunce”, “Escape From the Butcher’s Shop”, “The Living Crown”, “Extraordinary Elsie” and “Stan and Stan”. Interestingly, these all stand out because they challenge the innate fatalism of people. One is not always meant to be what it seems they will at birth, even if everyone they meet says otherwise. Not when there is a whole world waiting out there whose mere touch can change anything.

Book Review – Creep House by Andersen Prunty

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Horror / Short Stories
Publication Date: October 13th, 2014
Publisher: Grindhouse Press

Something is wrong with Twin Springs, Ohio. Something unimaginably dark has burrowed into the atmosphere itself and smothered to death, its phantom filling everything. Darkness looms in the guts of little houses and the bodies of big forests. Creep House is a series of portraits of Twin Springs taken in its bleakest, most secretive corners.

You should kind of take my opinion with a grain of salt on this one, if I’m honest. You might well love it if suspense is your game, for Creep House is a vault full of it.
It’s just that my opinion may have been coloured wrongly by reading Prunty’s offbeat “Hansel & Gretel” remix, Zerostrata immediately beforehand. Ironically, I ended up disliking pieces of Creep House for the same reasons I adored Zerostrata.

Zerostrata had a wandering, bizarro-beautiful sensation to it, but with this same step, Creep House felt rather aimless. A few of the stories that were uneasy were still never scary, nor do they really get resolved in any way.
Prunty is a supernaturally talented writer, no part of this book is poorly written, it’s just a little disappointing fear-wise.

I did really enjoy “The Calming Wood”, “Candy Heart”, and “Running From the Roses”, all creative twists on the vampire and werewolf myths. “Running From the Roses” in particular is a disturbing story about the blood bonds of family becoming tumorous instead of loving.
(Also, the retro Leisure Horror / Zebra-esque cover is awesome. I collect those as a hobby, and I love to see appreciation for them anywhere.)

Book Review – Strange Secrets by Mike Russell

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Short Stories / Fantasy
Publication Date: February 8th, 2018
Publisher: StrangeBooks

Deny and defy, is that really the way to be about death? What does a being become when they die? A flower, perhaps a ghost, or do they unbecome anything at all? Death is secretive and shy, impossible to see but impossible to hide. We don’t talk about it within these walls, in any case.

Strange Secrets is a series of lucid dreams hovering on the line between madness and philosophy, wherever that lies. The whole blossom of it is hard to describe, it doesn’t exactly identify as a genre. Everyone in its pages is escaping the world they know which seems to have warped into an unreality that has, unquestionably, gone strange. It’s quirky and creative and funny while still having an Orwellian creepiness about it – the characters always seem to have their lives constricted by something they don’t understand.

“Death” and “life” are both foul words here. “Change” could be even fouler. To look at them bare is to risk having parts of one’s body melted, or split in two. To look at them is to bring a taboo corpse to life again. To look at them is to win all of the competitions and still fail everything.
But… at least it’s better than the alternative of never knowing the truth, isn’t it?

Personal favourites were “Missing Persons”, a novella-length short about censorship and sugarcoating things we dread, and “Maps”, an ominous and somewhat disturbing short about a boy whose father is an obsessive cartographer. I found the last story, “Forest” to be the low point, it’s a little boring. The rest are wonderful.