The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires
by Grady Hendrix

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I am not sure what the appropriate gesture is to make toward the family of the woman who bit off your ear, but if you felt absolutely compelled, I certainly wouldn’t take food.”

Grace Cavanaugh to Patricia Campbell, p. 62


It’s the early 90s in South Carolina, and Patricia Campbell is a housewife with two kids in a nice neighborhood. Along with a number of other local ladies, she is a member of a book club that meets monthly. Their husbands think it’s a Bible Study group. Really, they read a lot of true crime. And if there’s one thing those books have taught her, it’s that you probably shouldn’t trust the good-looking man who comes to town in a tinted-window van and ever-shifting accounts of his past. Especially if he claims to have a health condition that means he absolutely can’t go out in the sun, so you only ever see him after nightfall. And really, really especially if children start disappearing.

No one’s going to believe a bunch of book club ladies who say a vampire has moved in down the street. They’re going to have to take care of this themselves.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a thriller with a core of steel magnolia feminism and 90s nostalgia. It was the perfect Halloween read for me, particularly since I recently finished a re-read of Dracula (by way of the Audible version with Simon Vance, Alan Cumming, and Tim Curry). There was at least one oh-I-see-what-you-did-there moment for me before the Big Reveal.

I used to be a big horror reader as a teen, then became the wimpiest wimp to ever wimp as an adult. Even I couldn’t resist this book, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

Content warnings for racism (both the racism and the classism of the time and place figure in the book, not uncritically), harm to children, harm to animals, and violence of a variety of kinds.

Source: Checked out from my public library – I downloaded a NetGalley copy months ago but didn’t get around to reading it until the book hit the shelves in print.

Challenges: Read Harder 2020 Task 22: A horror book published by an indie press



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The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

The Time Machine

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. His grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated.

Chapter 1: Introduction

So begins Wells’s classic “scientific romance”, published serially in The New Review in 1895 (and in revised novella editions after that). Over drinks with some gentlemen friends, including the narrator, the unnamed adventurer shares his theories on the nature of time as a fourth dimension in which one can travel. His friends are skeptical, even after seeing a demonstration using a model he has constructed.

For my own part, I was particularly preoccupied with the trick of the model. That I remember discussing with the Medical Man, whom I met on Friday at the Linnaean. He said he had seen a similar thing at Tübingen, and laid considerable stress on the blowing-out of the candle. But how he trick was done he could not explain.

Chapter 3: The Time Traveller Returns

A week later, the narrator is again at the Time Traveller’s home for another dinner party. The Time Traveller appears after his guests have arrived, and the details of his adventure form the main narrative. He has gone hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where he encountered the Eloi and the Morlocks, apparently the two strains of humanity left at that time.

The Eloi are small, delicate, and child-like. They spend their days playing in the sunshine, picking flowers, and eating fruit. They do no work, the genders appear nearly identical, and there is little difference between the children and the adults. They sleep in groups in large structures. They seem to be unafraid, in the way of those who have never encountered anything of which to be afraid.

“Seem to be unafraid,” because the Time Traveller eventually learns that the Eloi are scared of the dark. They stay away from shadows and refuse to venture out at night. After nightfall, the Morlocks – pale, large-eyed, and ape-like – come out their underground tunnels, and they are on the hunt.

Now, indeed, I seemed in a worse case than before. Hitherto, except during my night’s anguish at the loss of the Time Machine, I had felt a sustaining hope of ultimate escape, but that hope was staggered by these new discoveries. Hitherto I had merely thought myself impeded by the childish simplicity of the little people, and by some unknown forces which I had only to understand to overcome; but there was an altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks — a something inhuman and malign. Instinctively I loathed them.

Chapter 10: When the Night Came

My first encounter with The Time Machine was with a Moby Classics illustrated abridged edition when I was in elementary school. I mostly remember the Morlocks being very, very creepy and scary. Having read the full text, I still think the Morlocks are very, very creepy, but also very sad. As a child, the life of the Eloi was appealing: play all day and eat lots of fruit. Aside from, you know, the terror of what might happen at night, it looked ideal. As an adult reader, I was struck by the horror of the exact circumstances under which the Time Traveller meets Weena. (No details, because I’m still glad it came as a surprise to me.)

The entire vision of the future of humanity presented here is disturbing. There is the vacuous beauty left above ground and the terrifying existence below. No wonder the Time Traveller was delighted to find himself back at his own table. And yet, he clearly still has questions. He clearly still wants to explore. So, maybe, he even still has hope.

The narrator asks us to deny the implications of the narrative he has just recorded. It is a striking way of ending this little puzzle of a book, an appeal that seems to throw into doubt everything that we have just read. What a perverse start to a literary career!

Roger Luckhurst, Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition

For this reading, I borrowed the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Time Machine from the library. The supporting material is excellent. The “Chronology of H. G. Wells” includes significant personal events and world events, as well as noting the publication of various influential works, giving context on multiple levels. The expanded version of the chapter “The Further Vision” is included as an appendix, as are two scientific essays published by Wells in 1891 and 1893.

Roger Luckhurst’s introduction expands on some of the ideas Wells engages with in the novel. Evolutionary theory – both biological and social – was very much in the public consciousness. Would people and society forever march toward perfection, or would both reach a zenith and then inevitably deteriorate? The utopian fiction of Bellamy and Morris get satirical jabs in the Time Traveller’s description of the future. Luckhurst provides pointers to further reading on all of these and more. I appreciated the very helpful and engaging explanatory notes, as well as the fact that the introduction begins with a note that there will be spoilers, so newcomers might want to read it as an afterword, instead.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: Back to the Classics (6: Genre Classic); Classics Club; Read Harder 2020 (#17: A Sci-fi/fantasy novella); Victorian Reading Challenge (January: Journeys & Travels)

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Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Song for a Whale

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Grandpa told a story, I saw it as clearly as if it were happening right there in front of me. His signing hands showed me the whale in an ocean that suddenly went quiet, swimming over there, over there, over there, trying to find the sounds again. Maybe that was why she’d been there on our Gulf of Mexico beach instead of in deep ocean waters where she belonged. Sei whales didn’t swim so close to shore. Only her, on that day.

Iris was named for the whale that beached itself on the day she was born, at her grandmother’s request. After second grade, her family moved to Houston, only able to visit her beloved grandparents once a year. Now 12, Iris misses her grandparents more than ever; after her grandfather passed away, her grandmother lost her spark and spends listless days in a senior housing complex. In her free time, Iris repairs radios that she gets from the junkyard, bringing abandoned antiques back to life. The vibrations from the speakers tell her when her work has been successful. Like her maternal grandparents, Iris was born Deaf.

School has been especially difficult since the move. The only Deaf student in her school, Iris relies on an adult interpreter who accompanies her to classes. He does not come to the cafeteria with her for lunch, leaving her alone to deal with well-meaning but uncomprehending fellow students.

She learns about Blue 55 in Science class. A whale who sings at 55 hertz, much higher than the usual range for whales, he sings into the ocean, but no one understands his song, and he cannot understand anyone else. Iris hatches a plan to record a song for Blue 55 to let him know that he’s not alone in the wide world. Now she just has to find a way to get it to him.

This is a lovely and poignant novel about the loneliness that so many of us feel. There are so many ways to communicate, which is shown so beautifully throughout the book. The desire to reach out and connect with another, to know that one is not alone, underscores the entire story. What tween (or person who has been a tween) has not had trouble understanding and making oneself understood by classmates, friends, and family from time to time?

Kelly is a long-time ASL interpreter, and her respect for Deaf culture shines through. For Iris, hearing or not hearing is not the problem. Her Deafness is just part of her, like hair color or eye color. It’s other people who are flustered or confused by it.

An Author’s Note at the end explains some of the mechanics of whale communication and the story of 52-Blue, also called the Loneliest Whale in the World, on whom Blue 55 is based. A second note on Deafness and Sign Language gives more information about Deaf culture, the development of ASL, and why Kelly made particular narrative choices. Finally, there is an illustration of the ASL for “Song for a Whale”.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: Read Harder 2020 (#21: A book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non))

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Spinning by Tillie Walden

Spinning

Spinning by Tillie Walden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Every rink smells the same.
They look the same, too.”

Tillie Walden begins her graphic memoir with her first visit to an ice rink in some time. Just before she steps on the ice, the narrative jumps back eight years, to an early morning in New Jersey. Walden relates the story of her life as a competitive figure and synchronized skater through her family’s move from New Jersey to Texas, through her transition from public to private school, and through her experiences of friendship, bullying, and first love. As she grows into herself, she eventually quits competitive skating after 12 years.

The artwork is lovely, but the narrative suffers from a lack of focus. The dominant mood is a sort of diffuse sense of disappointment. After the move to Texas in the summer after fifth grade, skating “felt dull and exhausting.” She continues skating until the summer before senior year of high school, though, unable to explain it even to herself. Walden has her first relationship with another girl – after having known since she was five that she was gay – and eventually comes out to her friends and family. She experiences sexual harassment and the ensuing self-doubt that will feel horribly familiar to many readers. Yet, no matter what happens, it all feels muted: the highs aren’t very high, and the lows aren’t very low. Despite literally showing her life on the page, it feels distant. It is all beautiful and cold, sitting a little too perfectly in that ice rink.

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Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: Read Harder 2020 (#4: A Graphic Memoir); Reading Women 2020 (#23: An LGBTQ+ Author)

Reading Challenges 2020

The Reading Challenges haven’t gone so well for me the last two years. But I’ve once again succumbed to the promise of a brand new year and brand new challenges. Here’s what I’ve got lined up for 2020:

  • Back to the Classics is hosted by Books and Chocolate. I read two out of 12 last year (and failed to post about either one). Some of the titles I’ve picked for this year are carry-overs from last year’s list.
  • The Georgian Reading Challenge is hosted by Becky’s Book Reviews. The goal is a minimum of four books – fiction or non-fiction – related to the Georgian era (I’m using the 1714-1830 period – sorry, William IV). I’ve earmarked some possible titles, mostly the same as last year, since I read exactly zero books from the list in 2019.
  • The Victorian Reading Challenge is also hosted by Becky’s Book Reviews, and she’s switched it up with bimonthly themes, plus a year-long bonus theme. I’ve picked some books to match.
  • Classics Club is a multi-year challenge. I have a list of 50 books that I plan to read before the end of 2023. I read two of them in 2019, but I never posted about them. Whoops.
  • Read Harder comes from the fab folks at Book Riot. Some of the 24 tasks are going to be more challenging than others.
  • The Reading Women challenge comes from the Reading Women podcast. It also has 24 tasks, and some of these will definitely be challenging.

How about you? Are you doing any of these challenges? Or different ones?