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  • Jeff Somers 1:00 pm on 2019/10/23 Permalink
    Tags: , , , master of horror, , pet semetary, rankings, , spooky season, ,   

    Stephen King’s Scariest Stories, Ranked 

    Stephen King has evolved into one of literature’s most complex cases: once more or less the only horror writer everyone in the country had read, he’s evolved into a subtle master of letters who moves nimbly between literary, fantasy, mystery, horror, and books that combine all of the above. But to this day, he’s still a master of scaring readers—and even his non-horror books pack in plenty of chilling moments. Below, we rank the ten most frightening King books ever.

    10. Gerald’s Game
    This underrated gem from the 1990s plays a weird trick: initially, the sordid sex game that initiates the plot, wherein a woman named Jessie, caught in a troubled marriage, is stranded in a remote cabin, handcuffed to the bed, after her husband has a fatal heart attack in the middle of a kinky experiment, promises titillation. Soon, the story swerves into what seems like a one of survival and emotional reckoning—and then dives into darker territory involving a seriously frightening encounter with a starving dog and a disturbing entity Jessie calls the Space Cowboy. As Jessie’s mental state deteriorates, King makes her desperation and sense of mounting doom visceral, and her powerlessness makes it almost excruciating.

    Most blood-curdling moment: While the moment Jessie degloves herself (which means just what you think it does) to escape the handcuffs is total body horror, we’d have to vote for the much quieter moment when the dog first enters the house and sees Jessie’s husband’s corpse as a potential feast.

    9The Dark Half
    The Dark Half regularly shows up in lists of King’s most underrated works. The premise—a famous writer finds an evil character of his own creation comes to life and launch a murder spree—doesn’t seem all that terrifying at first blush, but it’s what King does with it that makes this book scary. Exploring themes of sanity, creativity, and the creeping suspicion that we all have a dark half that might enjoy a little bloodletting, The Dark Half is both a creepy-as-heck horror story and an insightful commentary on how little control we have over our subconsciousness. King cleverly makes the evil dude, George Stark, so over-the-top so as to be comical, obscuring the fact that real horror is coming from inside the main character all along.

    Most blood-curdling moment: When author Thad engages in an “automatic writing” experiment and his hand goes rogue and stabs him. The idea of your body being under someone else’s control is terrifying.

    8. 1922 (from Full Dark, No Stars)
    1922 is a truly horrifying story of greed, emotional collapse, and the various ways a person can be punished for their crimes. Willfred, a farmer, manipulates his own son into helping murder his wife in order to gain her land and preserve the value of his own—and begins having seriously disturbing premonitions and run-ins with vicious rats almost immediately afterward. Every step Willfred takes on his way to rock-bottom feels inevitable, and that inevitability is part of the scariness. There’s something uniquely terrifying about being trapped in a fate you chose for yourself, and also something very satisfying in watching Willfred pay and pay and pay for his crimes—with his family, with his own body, then with the land he killed for, and finally with his life.

    Most blood-curdling moment: Since 1922 is all about the slow boil of fear, naturally it’s the ending, when Willfred gets what’s coming to him. Haunted and ruined, he thinks has a plan for when the rats come, but nothing is as it seems.

    7. Salem’s Lot
    King’s love for old-school horror has never been a secret, and in Salem’s Lot he indulges in a classic authorial “what if” experiment, wondering what would happen if Dracula showed up in a small town in 20th-century America. This is one of King’s most straightforward stories, and it’s scary precisely because King doesn’t try to spice up the vampire myth with new twists. Instead, he mines terror by exploring how the vampiric “infection” would race like fire along familial and friend connections, taking advantage of our closest relationships to turn us into literal monsters.

    Most blood-curdling moment: Two words: Infant vampire.

    6. Misery
    Misery proves King can absolutely terrify you without involving any sort of supernatural element. The key to horror in many ways is control—we all labor under the illusion that we’re in charge of our own lives. Shatter that illusion,and horror follows. Obsessive fan Annie Wilkes is terrifying because she’s so unshakably certain of her righteousness when she takes Paul Sheldon, the author of her favorite novels, prisoner after chancing on him in the wake of a terrible car accident—but also because of how completely she establishes complete control over Paul. Completely at her mercy, Paul soon discovers that the only way to survive is to play along with her insanity.

    Most blood-curdling moment: When Paul breaks the rules, Annie decides he has to be punished, so she does something to his body to make sure he can never run away again. Literally.

    5. The Stand
    The Stand is the very definition of literary sprawl, and by the end of the story it’s become a postapocalyptic epic about two groups attempting to rebuild society, one on the side of good and one in thrall to Randall Flagg, a supernatural evil presence. It’s easy to forget that the first part of the mammoth novel, in which the superbug called Captains Trips decimates the world in the most disgusting way possible, is absolutely horrifying. Anyone who can read the first part of The Stand without freaking out every time they hear someone cough in a crowded room has ice water in their veins.

    Most blood-curdling moment: Larry Underwood’s trek through a pitch-black Lincoln Tunnel filled with rotting corpses and… other things is terrifying.

    4. IT
    Clowns.

    Oh, do we need to say more? Clowns are so inherently terrifying it’s difficult to understand how they became linked with children and harmless fun, and King makes serious hay by having his eternal, malignant force of evil in the town of Derry take on the form of Pennywise the Clown in order to lure children into its power. The true horror of the novel is how It turns the innocence and joy of childhood against us, weaponizing the imaginations and goodness of kids. The way It sneaks up on the kids, luring them into situations where they’re isolated and then turning their fears and insecurities against them, just curdles the blood.

    Most blood-curdling moment: When the Losers are going through the history of Derry and find Pennywise in all the photos… and then the photos start to move.

    3. Most of Skeleton Crew
    If there’s a more terrifying collection of short stories in existence, we haven’t read it. Skeleton Crew is Stephen King at 11 on a scale of least to most terrifying. The standout stories are “The Jaunt,” which takes a deceptively simple sci-fi premise and turns it into a white-haired horror that makes sleep almost impossible, and “Survivor Type,” which imagines a premise that’s terrifying in and of itself (being stranded on a deserted island without food) and cranks up the horror bit by bit—horror that’s twice as effective because you can easily imagine yourself in the same situation, and making the same awful mistakes.

    Most blood-curdling moment: “It’s longer than you think, Dad! Longer than you think!

    2. The Shining
    The Shining has been so thoroughly out-shined by Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation the novel’s reputation sometimes suffers as a result—people seem to forget that the original story had a different focus, but one just as scary. King plays with themes of alcoholism, insanity, and the possibility that we all have evil inside us, as well as the idea that all that stands between us and that evil are the restraints placed against us by society. Jack’s descent into madness is frightening because you can see yourself in his enraged, unhappy resentment, and because King does such a good job of making the Overlook Hotel both an evil and an inescapable presence.

    Most blood-curdling moment: The scene where Danny is attacked by the topiary animals shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s a white-knuckle sequence that establishes the Overlook’s malevolence beyond any doubt.

    1. Pet Sematary
    Pretty much everyone names Pet Sematary as King’s scariest (including the author himself). Part of it is the primal nature of the scares, centered on loved ones coming back from death wrong. Part of it is the emotional side—the relatable desire of the characters to bring someone back, no matter the cost. And part of it is King’s choices of victims: a beloved cat and a darling little boy, both of whom come back in the same bodies, but with vastly different spirits. Everyone knows loss, and everyone knows what they’d do to reverse the worst of those losses. And everyone knows the price would be terrible. King plugs into all of that expertly, engineering a truly horrifying novel.

    Most blood-curdling moment: “A cold hand fell on Louis’ shoulder. Rachel’s voice was grating, full of dirt. ‛Darling,’ it said.” It’s the “darling” that gets you.

    What’s on your personal list of King’s scariest books?

    The post Stephen King’s Scariest Stories, Ranked appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 7:00 pm on 2019/01/28 Permalink
    Tags: cat's eye, , , , , oryx and crake, rankings, , the testament   

    A Definitive Ranking of the Novels of Margaret Atwood 

    With the continuing success of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation and the unexpected announcement of a sequel novel (The Testaments, coming in September 2019), interest in Margaret Atwood’s work is at a fever pitch. And while that dystopian tale will undoubtedly be the book that defines Margaret Atwood’s life, she has written many more works of note—all of them worth exploring. If you’re a new reader looking to jump into her extensive backlist, here is how we’d rank them, from the merely very good to the absolutely essential.

    Bodily Harm (1981)
    Atwood beautifully writes this story of a journalist who travels on assignment to a Caribbean island on the brink of revolution. With lush and elegant prose, it’s a pleasure to read. So why do we place it at the bottom of Atwood’s oeuvre? Rennie, the protagonist, isn’t so much a character with agency as a vessel into which Atwood pours cruelty, making for an occasionally frustrating reading experience. This is likely purposeful, given the prevalent themes of power and emotional addiction, but if the novel is a successful experiment, Rennie’s apparent powerlessness to avoid her own worst possible fates mutes the impact.

    Life Before Man (1979)
    Once again, Atwood delivers a book that is gorgeous and affecting in its language, but peopled with characters who seem to do things only because the author’s purpose requires it. Elizabeth is the director of a museum in Toronto, her husband Nate makes useless wooden toys; they’re living by outdated and outmoded concepts of relationships and emotion, and the stress starts to show when Nate commences a new affair with Lesje, Elizabeth’s colleague. Elizabeth retaliates by seducing Lesje’s own significant other. The story of their corrosive, destructive affairs is claustrophobic, dry to the point of desiccation, and, like Bodily Harm, probably exactly what Atwood wished to achieve. It’s also depressing as heck.

    Surfacing (1972)
    Atwood’s second novel never names its narrator, a fact that underscores her bleak, featureless depression. The prose is as sharp as ever, and the other characters we encounter as the narrator searches for her missing father—the arrogant and self-impressed David; his wife Anna, who bends over backwards to support his delusions despite her unhappiness; Joe, the silent, insecure potter—form a fascinating, dysfunctional group. The mystery of what’s happened to the narrator’s father is also interesting, for all its inevitable tragedy. The blankness of the narrator makes her a bit of a closed book, even as she descends into madness and desperation while searching for her father.

    The Edible Woman (1969)
    Atwood’s debut earns points for an intriguing and affecting premise. It’s the story of Marian, who is so immersed in an orderly, consumerist life as a market researcher. Marian is involved with dull-as-paint Peter, and, scandalized by the sexual and emotional behavior of her friends, begins to disassociate, viewing her physical body as a separate entity from herself. She then begins to imbue the food she encounters with human qualities, and finds herself unable to eat—until a final act of symbolic self-cannibalism. It’s all a bit messy and overcooked, but Atwood’s deft work portraying a personality in the act of dissolving is first-rate.

    Lady Oracle (1976)
    Atwood’s third novel finally sees her having a bit of fun, while retaining the incisive prose that has always defined her work. She explores themes similar to those of her first two novels, but sans the heaviness or the seriousness. Joan Foster had a miserable childhood that continues to afflict her adulthood, until she finds her calling as a writer, and uses trendy automatic writing techniques to craft a cultish bestseller. There’s a lot here: body shaming, blackmail, a sexless marriage, and an identity crises that culminates in the main character faking their death. We’re still in the early days of her impressive career, but there’s a lot to love in this book, as Atwood finally cuts loose a little.

    The Robber Bride (1993)
    This is a divisive book among Atwood acolytes. On the one hand, it’s a deft examination of female friendships and gender relationships, and it features the absolutely brilliant character Zenia, who is either a sociopathic man-eater and world-class frenemy, or a self-actualized heroine, or something else entirely. But the brilliance of the novel is also its weakest point for some: while Zenia is a breathtaking inversion of the unreliable narrator (this is a woman who fakes her own death, then shows up years later without a care and straight-facedly offers several ridiculous explanations about where she’s been), she’s also slippery and inscrutable as a result. In other words, you either buy into this one wholesale, or you bounce right off of it. (Incidentally, we bought in.)

    Hag-Seed (2016)
    The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a fascinating experiment in bringing the Bard’s work into a new era. Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest leans so hard into the meta there’s no room for anything else. Felix Phillips—her Prospero—is the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, until he is pushed out by a scheming, extremely clever underling. Philips lands in a job at the local correctional facility, where he concocts a byzantine revenge plot while literally putting on a production of The Tempest. It’s the sort of literary gesture only someone of Atwood’s stature could pull off. The artificiality of it all gives the affair the flavor of an intellectual experiment, but the clever bits make it well worth reading anyway.

    Cat’s Eye (1988)
    We move into the Atwood top 10 with this diamond-sharp exploration of childhood friendship, bullying, and feminism—a dark sort of proto-Mean Girls. Successful artist Elaine returns home for a retrospective of her paintings, and sinks into a reverie of her childhood and adolescence, a time when she was mercilessly bullied by a trio of girls she’d thought were her friends. As young Elaine descends into and then claws her way out of victimhood, she gains the upper hand over her chief tormentor and enjoys being just as mean, while in adulthood, she begins to see things a bit more clearly than she might like. It’s a story just about everyone can relate to in some way, balancing thematic resonance with narrative drive.

    The Heart Goes Last (2015)
    This is a quietly over-the-top novel, and as a result, it isn’t universally loved. In a dystopian future where society has lost control of law and order, a young couple grows tired of scraping by on tips and low-wage jobs, living in their car, and under threat by the gangs of criminals that rule the streets. They see an advertisement for a community where they would be guaranteed a job and a home, in exchange for spending every other month in prison while someone else occupies their house. All goes well until they begin to obsess over the “alternates” who live in the house when they’re behind bars. This is a caustic look at modern life through a dark funhouse mirror, very funny, and very smart.

    MaddAddam (2013)
    Ranking books in a series is a bit odd, especially in this case, where we’re approaching the tale out of order, so you may want to skip ahead if you aren’t caught up on Atwood’s dystopian sci-fi trilogy that begins with Oryx and Crake and continues in The Year of the Flood. MaddAddam ties those books’ parallel storylines together, as Ren, Toby, and Jimmy unite with other survivors and launch a project to rebuild civilization with the help of the Crakers, while being menaced by a criminal gang of Painball veterans. While it’s a great story that concludes the series in strong fashion, this trilogy-ender understandably lacks a bit of the surprise of the first two.

    Oryx and Crake (2003)
    See above (and four entries below). The dystopian vision Atwood crafts here is arguably darker and more horrifying than the one in The Handmaid’s Tale; the state of pre-apocalypse society is grim, dominated by violent and pornographic entertainment, where gated compounds protect the elite from the outside world. It’s a society ruled by immensely powerful biotech corporations that values technical capability above all else and casually create life in order to experiment on it. That the end of the world is triggered through pharmaceuticals isn’t an accident, and neither is the surprisingly emotional and elegiac tone of the post-apocalypse sections tat follow a man named Snowball—formerly Jimmy—who watches over the genetically engineered, near-human Crakers as he seeks to fulfill a promise to the man who destroyed the world.

    The Penelopiad (2005)
    Atwood’s other literary reimagining is more successful than Hag-Seed. Giving Odysseus’ wife Penelope—and her 12 maids—a voice in their ultimately tragic fate is a genius move, and the book fits perfectly within Atwood’s thematic body of work. It’s narrated by Penelope, speaking from Hades in the modern day. She tells her side of the story of her relationship with Odysseus, and her chapters alternate with chapters from the maids’ points of view; the maids haunt Odysseus and Penelope in Hades, and why wouldn’t they—they’re the ones who executed by Odysseus for doing exactly as they were told, and attempted to help Penelope avoid being forced into marriage after her husband was presumed dead. Lively, sharp, and still blisteringly current, this  twist on an ancient story redefines it utterly.

    Alias Grace (1996)
    In this historical mystery (based on a true story of a 19th century woman accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and mistress), Atwood plays with reader expectations and point-of-view so masterfully. the book can be enjoyed on many levels: as mystery, as romance, as history viewed through a feminist lens. In the end, Atwood plays that trick of giving you all the information but denying you a concrete conclusion—you simply don’t know, by the end, what truths lie at the heart of Grace, nor what really happened to her, nor what she did. But it doesn’t matter, because the what and when was never the point. This is a story about the shifting of identity—those thrust upon us, those we choose for ourselves—depending on who ‛s telling the tale, and who’s listening.

    The Blind Assassin (2000)
    This Booker Prize-winner is Atwood’s most structurally complex work. It’s a book about a book, which in turn contains a third book. That’s an oversimplification, of course; it’s one of those slow-building tales that allows you to think you know what’s going on until it becomes obvious you don’t, as the reveals begin landing and you realize you’ve been woefully, terribly wrong about everything. As it begins, it is 1945, and a woman named Laura is dead, possibly by her own hand.Decades later, her sister Iris recalls the childhood they shared, and of the dark events that have befallen their family. Woven into this history is the text of a lurid sci-fi novel (ostensibly penned by Laura) about a killer on a far-distant planet. At the heart of these nesting narratives is the relationship between Laura and Iris, and how it is shaped by both the men who abuse and ruin them, and the lies they tell in order to keep their heads above water. The end result is one of Atwood’s most challenging, spectacular successes.

    The Year of the Flood (2009)
    Oryx and Crake ends on an organic note that feels final, which made the appearance of a sequel seem surprising—at first. But then, so much of Atwood’s most explicitly speculative universe was left unexplored at the end of one book that the second feels, in retrospect, inevitable. Atwood’s return trip into the apocalypse focuses on the poor of the rapidly-declining future, exploring religion, friendship, and catastrophe with a sure-handedness and comfort the belies the fact that this world was already familiar to Atwood when she started. The Year of the Flood crystallizes the themes she shaped in the first book, taking the kinds of chances only possible in a sequel. As a result, it also packs more of an emotional punch than the concluding volume, and shoots to near the very top of her impressive bibliography.

    The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
    Deservedly, Atwood’s greatest work is also her most famous. Its feminist themes and exploration of a truly misogynistic society are horrifyingly relevant some three decades after it was first published. The secret is that Atwood doesn’t paint a simplistic picture of a society in which women have been reclassified as more or less breeding property; she explores how both sexes support and contribute to a horrifying vision of oppression. Yes, it is clearly the men who have reshaped the world in order to strip women of all political, economic, and legal power, but the women of the Republic of Gilead are often willing, cruel participants in the subjugation of the Handmaids who are forced to bear their children. In crafting this bleak future, Atwood doesn’t forget the fundamentals, either; it’s a story peopled with characters you care about, and stakes that devastate.

    Our hopes for The Testaments are high. Where do you think it’ll land on this ranking?

    The post A Definitive Ranking of the Novels of Margaret Atwood appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2018/09/19 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , rankings, ,   

    Every Megan Abbott Book, Ranked 

    Megan Abbott is having a Moment. With the publication of her ninth novel, Give Me Your Hand, comes the realization that this brilliant author has flown under the radar for too long, and it’s time we all caught up. Abbott hasn’t really written a bad book yet, but we have our own ideas about where you should start. Below, we rank the novels, leaving the best for last. Disagree? Tell us in the comments..

    The Fever
    Abbott’s assured 2014 novel tells the tale of a sleepy town whose teenage girls suddenly start suffering a mysterious illness. As thrillers go, it’s low key but tense: on one hand, Abbott easily crafts a creepy, sexually-charged atmosphere and populates it with true-to-life characters struggling with teen sexuality from every pained perspective—and then ramps up the paranoia and horror by stages. On the other hand, if you’re looking for action, or an explosive conclusion that burns off all the high-pressure unease the novel generates, well, that’s not what the author is going for here.

    You Will Know Me
    This story of a young gymnast with Olympic aspirations and a dread of her growing bosom, the obsessively supportive parents who have given up everything to push their daughter forward, and the isolated, suffocating world of gymnasts, is great. The unlikeable characters are reliably fascinating and well-rendered, and the setting and sense of dread is palpable. While the book is offered up as a mystery, however, Abbott is absolutely disinterested in that aspect of the story. Said mystery, involving the death of teen boy, isn’t much of one, and readers paying the slightest attention will know exactly what happened shortly after the body’s discovered. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t fantastic—but it does mean those looking for shocking twists should start elsewhere.

    Die a Little
    Abbott’s first published novel follows a schoolteacher in postwar L.A. who begins to suspect her policeman brother’s new wife is on the sketchy side, and it’s about as great a debut novel as you can hope for. If Die a Little isn’t as polished, tight, or spellbinding as Abbott’s later work, its subversion of traditional noir gender roles and other tropes is delightful fun, if a bit on-the-nose—something else Abbott got better at as time went on. It’s still a definite must-read, if only to see how a very good writer slowly evolves into a tremendous one.

    Bury Me Deep
    Based on a true story, Abbott’s 2009 novel (nominated for an Anthony Award) is an immersive, slow burn telling the story of Marion Seeley, whose husband, a doctor, leaves her in Phoenix so he can go to Mexico for work and to kick his drug habit. Marion falls in with a group of other women and meets Joe Lanigan, who seduces her—and then, things go really, really badly for everyone involved. Abbott takes her time with the pacing of this one; the first 80 percent of the book, finds her wallowing in her own gorgeous writing and the increasingly unbearable tension of the story. The final act is therefore an exhilarating explosion that feels oh so good, even as it highlights how slow the buildup was.

    The End of Everything
    This story of a 13-year old girl, Lizzie, whose best friend suddenly disappears, is so much more than a mystery—the revelation of what happened comes fairly early in the story, and isn’t too surprising. It is more a deep-dive into the girl’s unreliable, confused psyche. Abbott infuses Lizzie with vigilance, confusion, and dark secrets, then layers on a serious lack of reliability—Lizzie doesn’t always seem to be totally in control of her own narrative. Lizzie’s voice is what makes this book so incredible. Spending time with her is almost overwhelming—she’s a brilliant character, and a narrative device that you’ll really love. But you’ll be happy, too, to see the back of her at its end.

    Give Me Your Hand
    Abbott’s newest book, about two brilliant girls who pushed each other to achieve back in high school and fell out over a terrible confession, only to be forced together professionally years later, loads all the author’s weapons into one powerful vehicle, which then proceeds to run you over. There’s the exploration of dark, twisted teen girl relationships. There’s the slow boil of inarticulate rage that results in horrific violence. The careful study of small, claustrophobic groups. The entertaining rendering of characters who are, at best, unlikeable. At this point, the top four Abbott novels approach a kind of singularity of excellence, so feel free to consider this on equal footing with the three that follow.

    Dare Me
    Dare Me is probably the book that woke most people up to Abbott, and for good reason. Set in the world of teenage cheerleading, it explores the “Mean Girls” dynamic with a story packed with the sort of ruthless twists and subversions that are Abbott’s hallmark—asking the simple question, what happens when the Regina George of your group gets demoted? If you’ve read any of Abbott’s books, you know the answer involves murderous rage, and the way former Queen Bee Beth reacts when her loyal sidekick Addy becomes enamored with the cool new cheerleading coach is a compelling study of sociopathic teen girl angst. At the same time, Abbott smartly positions the cheerleading team as being disdained by the rest of the school—they’re not the popular girls, because cheerleading, despite its demanding athletic standard, is seen as silly. Dare Me is an drum-tight book that captures the true terror of being a teenage girl.

    The Song is You
    If you’re only familiar with Abbott’s more recent novels set in contemporary times, get thee to her classic noir The Song is You, which seems so old-fashioned at first blush, it’s easy to miss its electrifying subversions. Set in Golden Age Hollywood, it’s got all the boozy, jazzy earmarks of a period piece, aping the bleak mood and dark style of the time. At first glance, the gender roles he characters fall into seem traditional as well—the protagonist is a man, a “fixer” for the film studios when scandals arise, and he’s haunted by his involvement in covering up the disappearance of a young starlet. Dig deeper, and you find Abbott knows exactly what she’s doing, and what tropes she’s playing with. The end result is an Ellroy-esque twister that revels in the debauchery of old Hollywood, but does so with razor-sharp purpose.

    Queenpin
    Abbott’s third novel is nearly perfect (it won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original). It’s another red meat dive into noir, telling the story of a girl who’s adopted by the titular Queenpin of the criminal underground, Gloria Denton, who teaches her everything she knows about the rackets—and then falls for precisely the wrong man. As the unnamed narrator and her mentor slowly circle each as their respective roles change, the violence and tension of the story ratchets up as if a supercomputer was tasked with crafting the perfect thriller plotline, even as Abbott explores and interrogates gender roles and classic tropes with a modern, gimlet eye. Even if you think you don’t enjoy hardboiled-style stories, check out Queenpin—there’s so much more going on aside from the whiskey, cigarettes, and gunplay.

    What Abbott novel left you breathless?

    The post Every Megan Abbott Book, Ranked appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2018/09/19 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , rankings, ,   

    Every Megan Abbott Book, Ranked 

    Megan Abbott is having a Moment. With the publication of her ninth novel, Give Me Your Hand, comes the realization that this brilliant author has flown under the radar for too long, and it’s time we all caught up. Abbott hasn’t really written a bad book yet, but we have our own ideas about where you should start. Below, we rank the novels, leaving the best for last. Disagree? Tell us in the comments..

    The Fever
    Abbott’s assured 2014 novel tells the tale of a sleepy town whose teenage girls suddenly start suffering a mysterious illness. As thrillers go, it’s low key but tense: on one hand, Abbott easily crafts a creepy, sexually-charged atmosphere and populates it with true-to-life characters struggling with teen sexuality from every pained perspective—and then ramps up the paranoia and horror by stages. On the other hand, if you’re looking for action, or an explosive conclusion that burns off all the high-pressure unease the novel generates, well, that’s not what the author is going for here.

    You Will Know Me
    This story of a young gymnast with Olympic aspirations and a dread of her growing bosom, the obsessively supportive parents who have given up everything to push their daughter forward, and the isolated, suffocating world of gymnasts, is great. The unlikeable characters are reliably fascinating and well-rendered, and the setting and sense of dread is palpable. While the book is offered up as a mystery, however, Abbott is absolutely disinterested in that aspect of the story. Said mystery, involving the death of teen boy, isn’t much of one, and readers paying the slightest attention will know exactly what happened shortly after the body’s discovered. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t fantastic—but it does mean those looking for shocking twists should start elsewhere.

    Die a Little
    Abbott’s first published novel follows a schoolteacher in postwar L.A. who begins to suspect her policeman brother’s new wife is on the sketchy side, and it’s about as great a debut novel as you can hope for. If Die a Little isn’t as polished, tight, or spellbinding as Abbott’s later work, its subversion of traditional noir gender roles and other tropes is delightful fun, if a bit on-the-nose—something else Abbott got better at as time went on. It’s still a definite must-read, if only to see how a very good writer slowly evolves into a tremendous one.

    Bury Me Deep
    Based on a true story, Abbott’s 2009 novel (nominated for an Anthony Award) is an immersive, slow burn telling the story of Marion Seeley, whose husband, a doctor, leaves her in Phoenix so he can go to Mexico for work and to kick his drug habit. Marion falls in with a group of other women and meets Joe Lanigan, who seduces her—and then, things go really, really badly for everyone involved. Abbott takes her time with the pacing of this one; the first 80 percent of the book, finds her wallowing in her own gorgeous writing and the increasingly unbearable tension of the story. The final act is therefore an exhilarating explosion that feels oh so good, even as it highlights how slow the buildup was.

    The End of Everything
    This story of a 13-year old girl, Lizzie, whose best friend suddenly disappears, is so much more than a mystery—the revelation of what happened comes fairly early in the story, and isn’t too surprising. It is more a deep-dive into the girl’s unreliable, confused psyche. Abbott infuses Lizzie with vigilance, confusion, and dark secrets, then layers on a serious lack of reliability—Lizzie doesn’t always seem to be totally in control of her own narrative. Lizzie’s voice is what makes this book so incredible. Spending time with her is almost overwhelming—she’s a brilliant character, and a narrative device that you’ll really love. But you’ll be happy, too, to see the back of her at its end.

    Give Me Your Hand
    Abbott’s newest book, about two brilliant girls who pushed each other to achieve back in high school and fell out over a terrible confession, only to be forced together professionally years later, loads all the author’s weapons into one powerful vehicle, which then proceeds to run you over. There’s the exploration of dark, twisted teen girl relationships. There’s the slow boil of inarticulate rage that results in horrific violence. The careful study of small, claustrophobic groups. The entertaining rendering of characters who are, at best, unlikeable. At this point, the top four Abbott novels approach a kind of singularity of excellence, so feel free to consider this on equal footing with the three that follow.

    Dare Me
    Dare Me is probably the book that woke most people up to Abbott, and for good reason. Set in the world of teenage cheerleading, it explores the “Mean Girls” dynamic with a story packed with the sort of ruthless twists and subversions that are Abbott’s hallmark—asking the simple question, what happens when the Regina George of your group gets demoted? If you’ve read any of Abbott’s books, you know the answer involves murderous rage, and the way former Queen Bee Beth reacts when her loyal sidekick Addy becomes enamored with the cool new cheerleading coach is a compelling study of sociopathic teen girl angst. At the same time, Abbott smartly positions the cheerleading team as being disdained by the rest of the school—they’re not the popular girls, because cheerleading, despite its demanding athletic standard, is seen as silly. Dare Me is an drum-tight book that captures the true terror of being a teenage girl.

    The Song is You
    If you’re only familiar with Abbott’s more recent novels set in contemporary times, get thee to her classic noir The Song is You, which seems so old-fashioned at first blush, it’s easy to miss its electrifying subversions. Set in Golden Age Hollywood, it’s got all the boozy, jazzy earmarks of a period piece, aping the bleak mood and dark style of the time. At first glance, the gender roles he characters fall into seem traditional as well—the protagonist is a man, a “fixer” for the film studios when scandals arise, and he’s haunted by his involvement in covering up the disappearance of a young starlet. Dig deeper, and you find Abbott knows exactly what she’s doing, and what tropes she’s playing with. The end result is an Ellroy-esque twister that revels in the debauchery of old Hollywood, but does so with razor-sharp purpose.

    Queenpin
    Abbott’s third novel is nearly perfect (it won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original). It’s another red meat dive into noir, telling the story of a girl who’s adopted by the titular Queenpin of the criminal underground, Gloria Denton, who teaches her everything she knows about the rackets—and then falls for precisely the wrong man. As the unnamed narrator and her mentor slowly circle each as their respective roles change, the violence and tension of the story ratchets up as if a supercomputer was tasked with crafting the perfect thriller plotline, even as Abbott explores and interrogates gender roles and classic tropes with a modern, gimlet eye. Even if you think you don’t enjoy hardboiled-style stories, check out Queenpin—there’s so much more going on aside from the whiskey, cigarettes, and gunplay.

    What Abbott novel left you breathless?

    The post Every Megan Abbott Book, Ranked appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2018/08/16 Permalink
    Tags: , Breaking the first rule, , diary, , , , rankings, survivor   

    Chuck Palahniuk’s Novels, Ranked 

    Chuck Palahniuk is a difficult writer to discuss; even among his fans, there’s great disagreement about which of his books are classics and which are less essential.

    A writer in possession of a unique and distinct style, a man unafraid of diving down some pretty dark rabbit holes (there have been reports of fainting spells at his live readings), Palahniuk can be a an acquired taste; often your opinion of his works depends on where you start reading them. Here, then is our own assessment of all of his books, starting with the must-reads and proceeding from there.

    Fight Club
    Some contrarians will downgrade Fight Club simply because it’s the most famous and most accessible book he’s written, thanks largely to the accomplished film adaptation. If you set aside its pop culture cachet (and the indelible image of Brad Pitt’s abs) and look at it simply as a novel full of ideas, it’s easily Palahniuk’s cleanest, sharpest, and most compelling. The idea of disaffected young men forming underground fight clubs to scream out their repressed rage remains perfectly plausible, and the trick the author pulls off with his unreliable narrator is one of his most successful twists. The end result is a book that’s as tight and near-perfect as … well, Brad Pitt’s abs.

    Survivor
    Tender Branson is the last surviving member of the Creedish Death Cult; Creedists went out into the world and performed domestic tasks for people for free, dedicating their lives to service. When the cult’s compound is raided by the authorities, the cultists commit mass suicide—and for years afterwards, the remaining cultists will periodically reveal themselves and commit suicide to join their predecessors. Eventually, Tender is the last remaining Creedist, and he becomes an absurd celebrity as a result—until it’s revealed that the Creedist suicides might not have been suicides at all. Branson dictates his story into the black box of a crashing 747, as Palahniuk delivers another novel with an absurd but compelling high concept, the pages counting down to disaster.

    Lullaby
    The simplicity of this one makes it stand out. A reporter investigating SIDS discovers the existence of a short poem that instantly kills anyone who hears it—or who even has the lines thought at them. The reporter sets off to destroy every copy of the deadly verse, but finds resisting the urge to use its power to kill those who threaten or perhaps simply irritate him nearly impossible, the words pouring out of him before he even knows what he’s doing. If you pause to think about all the people you would have killed today for breaking rules of polite society, it quickly becomes clear how terrifying this idea is—especially because it’s not some distant serial killer doing the evil deeds, but the narrator, making for uncomfortably compelling reading.

    Make Something Up
    Palahniuk is just as good at short fiction as he is at long reads; He works best with a sharp focus, and that’s what short form writing gives him. With stories that delve into squicky areas like child sexuality, teenagers abusing technology to shock themselves into stupors, and the concept of “gay conversion therapy,” Palahniuk explores a strange shared universe where terrible things happen as a matter of course, and where everyone seems to be an expert in something.

    Haunted
    As if recognizing his skill with shorter narratives, Palahniuk pulls off something a lot of novelists have tried at with varying degrees of success—the novel as a collection (or vice versa). A group of aspiring writers take part in a hybrid retreat and reality program, locking themselves in an abandoned theater for three months to write without interruption or distraction. With food supplies limited, one by one the participants decide to make their survival story more compelling by sabotaging things in small ways—ways that slowly combine to turn the experiment into a nightmare. Alternating between the overarching plot and the short stories being written by each participant—including the notorious, faint-inducing “Guts”—Palahniuk’s control of so many distinct voices is breathtaking.

    Invisible Monsters
    While both versions of the author’s debut novel are very good, we’d recommend the slightly rejiggered “remix” edition, as it’s the one Palahniuk wants you to read. Challenging, non-linear, and filled with the sort of gonzo twists that shouldn’t work, this is one book that gets a different reaction from everyone. The story of an attention-obsessed former model obsessed who suffers a disfiguring accident that renders her so ugly she becomes invisible to people—because they don’t like looking at her—it is chaotic and gruesome, but its themes of social invisibility and reinvention are some of the strongest Palahniuk has ever dealt with.

    Choke
    Med school dropout Victor is one of Palahniuk’s least likable and least sympathetic characters, which makes this a book some folks—even Palahniuk’s fans—avoid. But Victor’s pathetic and horrific existence—one part awful job role-playing at a fake historical village, one part awful con jobs pretending to choke in exchange for free meals, one part trolling sex addiction meetings, and one part his trials with his dying, abusive, senile mother—is given a dream of hope when he thinks he might have found evidence there is good in him despite the dinginess of his life. The story meanders a bit, which is why we put it a bit lower in the top 10, but the prose sings, as Victor emerges as a truly original and unforgettable character trapped in a hell of his own devising—an escapist fantasy world he doesn’t realize is worse than his grim reality.

    Bait: Off-Color Stories for You to Color
    Leave it to Palahniuk to subvert the adult coloring book craze the world experienced a few years ago, but here’s the thing—this isn’t a joke. Palahniuk not only takes great care with the coloring book aspect, offering sincere guides to using watercolors and other tips to make your creative efforts as successful as possible, he also offers up some absolutely terrific short stories to go along with the descriptions. This would be a fine collection even without the extracurricular coloring. With the coloring, it’s a phenomenal effort.

    Snuff
    The premise is either going to hook you or horrify you: a pornographic actress at the tail end of her career decides to guarantee her legacy by breaking the record for most sex acts in a single film. With 600 men waiting their turn, the narration whips between a small number of them with stories to tell, as well as the female producer coordinating everyone’s efforts. Secrets are revealed, agendas are pursued, and Palahniuk examines the strange culture and trivia of the adult film industry with his usual relish. The ending is either brilliant or a bit much—we fall on the brilliant side, which is why it’s in the top 10.

    Adjustment Day
    Palahniuk’s newest is a return to form in some ways—not in the sense of overall quality, but in the jittery, pitch black energy that raged in some of his earlier works. This story of an online revolution that brutally transforms society in ways both unexpected and violent, it has the sharp-edged observation of the writer’s best, combined with a cynical view of human nature (the societies that are born from the explosion of class resentment are horrifyingly comical). Palahniuk gloriously explores the boiling frustration of those at the fringes of society being turned against the 1 percent, and the results are exceedingly gripping, even if some of his funny ideas undermine the tension a bit.

    Rant
    Palahniuk’s eighth novel doesn’t get as much attention as some of his other works, which is unfortunate, because it’s a beautifully-flawed look at religion, and how stories get twisted in the retelling. Buster Casey lives in an alternate future where the world has been divided into two curfewed groups—Daytimers and Nighttimers. Buster was one of the worst serial killers of all time, and Palahniuk constructs a faux oral history of the man’s disturbed and disturbing life as he rose from sick kid to mass murderer, wherein Buster evolves into an almost godlike figure, his every move legendary, his every crime somehow more than just a bloody expression of mental illness. It’s a deft trick of a novel undermined somewhat by the unnecessary alternate universe aspect; set in a more realistic world, it would be even more powerful.

    Legacy: An Off-Color Novella for You to Color
    Palahniuk’s second stab at an adult coloring book isn’t quite as strong as Bait, in part because it’s a single, novella-length story instead of a collection of shorter works. The story is good: an amoral, bored investment banker named Vincent is informed he’s been left an inheritance that includes, apparently, immortality. Vincent is determined to claim his legacy and live forever, but a group of weird people descend on him seeking to claim eternal life for their own. While interesting and complemented well by the coloring pages, the story lacks the bite you expect from Palahniuk.

    Damned
    Your mileage will vary with Damned, the story of a 13-year old girl named Madison who commits suicide and finds herself in Hell, described as a relentlessly banal space. Madison, whose famous parents ignored her, is put to work doing things like making telemarketing calls during dinnertime, and finds the afterlife to be like being trapped in an awful mall forever. That’s the point Palahniuk is making, of course—evil is banal—but it results in a curiously toothless story, only great in flashes.

    Stranger Than Fiction
    The essays collected here are a mix of magazine assignments and previously unpublished work. What they prove is that Palahniuk is a great writer, and that his main source of inspiration for his often vitriolic view of the world is the world itself—in short, these 100 percent true stories often read just like his fiction, including the bizarre, the upsetting, and the queasily unexpected. The only reason it’s this low on our list is the fact that some of the subjects just aren’t as interesting as his fiction. Still, there’s plenty to love here—if nothing else, Palahniuk’s prose is effortlessly funny, and he finds nuggets of the fascinating even in the most banal subjects.

    Diary
    This novel is an outlier in the Palahniuk oeuvre; while some rank it pretty high, we simply can’t go to there. A hackneyed painter suffers from various mystery illnesses unless she’s painting, and everyone encourages her to work more and more, believing her paintings will save the island she lives on. Her contractor husband lies in a coma, and the rooms he remodeled on the mainland start to disappear. Reality distorts and shifts, but Palahniuk is a little out of his usual element, and it shows; the novel starts off strong, with an eerie atmosphere and effortless sense of dread, but the closer the story gets to revealing its secrets, the more ridiculous it all seems.

    Fugitives and Refugees
    Is it fun to read a travel book about Portland, Oregon penned by Palahniuk? Heck yes it is. Does he make Portland sound deliriously interesting and even a little foreboding and edgy? Sure. There’s nothing wrong with the charming enthusiasm Palahniuk brings to the subject of his hometown, nor the deployment of his trademark passion for exhaustive and interesting detail . It’s a must-read if you’re heading to Portland. The problem is, what if you’re not heading to Portland?

    Pygmy
    Credit where it’s due: Palahniuk is challenging himself with this one. The premise is solid—a group of children are trained to infiltrate the United States as foreign exchange students so they can execute an act of grand terrorism. The problem is the constrained style, a strangled grammar reflecting the narrator’s worldview that renders even simple sentences difficult to parse. Books shouldn’t be downgraded just because they’re difficult reads, and if you’re a Palahniuk super-fan there’s a darkly funny story and character here to savor—but for less die-hard readers, it feels like a missed opportunity.

    Tell-All
    Palahniuk tackles Hollywood with a story told by Hazie Coogan, who cares for a washed-up actress and becomes concerned when a young man seduces her charge—and has already written a memoir about which ends with the actress’ death. Written in the style of old gossip columns and using many of the structures and tropes of old scripts, there’s a lot to like about the narrative and the central character, and Palahniuk never fails to entertain and disturb, often simultaneously. But the plot is a little slight compared to his better works, and while the name-dropping is fascinatingly perverse (you’ll need to Google a lot of people who appear for only a sentence or two) it’s not the most memorable thing he has written.

    Fight Club 2
    Returning to a seminal literary achievement was always going to be a dangerous move, and we sort of wish Palahniuk hadn’t made it, even in the guise of a graphic novel. Set a decade after Tyler Durden was vanquished and kept at bay by pharmaceuticals and therapy, the unnamed narrator of the original—now named Sebastian, in one of many disappointing revelations—can’t satisfy his wife sexually because of the drugs, so she secretly cuts his dose, allowing Tyler to reemerge. Excited yet? By the time Palahniuk appears as himself toward the end to discuss how the story isn’t working, you’ll either see it as genius or desperation.

    Doomed
    Who, exactly, was demanding a sequel to Damned remains a mystery, but teenage snark-machine Madison is back, this time as a ghost banished to purgatory (the big joke is that Earth itself is purgatory), where she haunts her own life and slowly begins to understand that her existence has been shaped and guided by something sinister since the very beginning. Madison winds up shifting the balance of power between heaven and hell, but this one never seems to get off the ground. (There was supposed to be a third installment to the trilogy, but perhaps even in Hell, cooler heads prevailed.)

    Beautiful You
    This novel should work gangbusters: an average girl named Penny finds herself in bed with the world’s greatest lover, a billionaire tech mogul who is working on a new line of pleasure products—which Penny dutifully tests, risking her life as mind-erasing orgasms and sexual comas become common. Penny meets some of his former lovers—all of whom were dumped on day 136 of their affair. The same fate greets Penny on the same day the new line of “personal care” products in released, and men become instantly obsolete as women retreat to their bedrooms for the aforementioned sex comas, etc. There’s a subtlety to this one that is affecting; the problem is, the premise screams out for a good, old-fashioned Palahniuk-ing, leaving us unsatisfied.

    What’s your favorite Chuck Palahniuk novel?

    The post Chuck Palahniuk’s Novels, Ranked appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
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