Much to my eternal regret, it's summer.
I'm sitting balefully in my office hiding from the blazing death ball in the sky, surrounded by pro-summer propaganda, terrified to go outside lest I erupt in flames. Once a goth, always a goth, somewhere deep inside, and I want some nice meaty books to read, so I rounded up a list of anti-beach reads for all of us, although if you want to take them to some hot, sandy, water-infested hell, be my guest. Just don't spill your ridiculous fruity drink all over them, because that is an offense to Proper Beverages and the printed word.
1. Stiletto, Daniel O'Malley
If you haven't read The Rook, the prequel to Stiletto, don't panic. You have two options: Go ahead and read Stiletto anyway, because it's a great standalone, or pick up both books and glut yourself on them while lounging on your fainting couch with a box of bonbons.
Stiletto is about the secret Secret Service in Britain: The organization responsible for handling all the weirdness that washes up, starting with its members, who all have strange supernatural powers. Some of which are really disgusting. This book is hilarious, but it's also creepy and kind of gross in all of the best possible ways, and it's quintessentially, deeply, intensely British. You can look forward to things like giant flesh cubes, surgery in hotel bathrooms, and extreme body modification. You're going to love it.
2. The Reactive, Masande Ntshanga
Set in South Africa, The Reactive is a deeply unsettling novel revolving around the life of an HIV+ character grappling with the death of his brother. It's a book that demands attention and focus from the reader, and it's not neat, clean, or easy to explain. It takes place during a period of social and political tumult that mirrors that mental turmoil of the lead character, and it makes for an extremely sharp, challenging read.
Let's be clear, here: This is not a book about a fast-paced, compelling plot. It's a character study, an emotional journey, and right from the opening line, it's a brutal indictment.
3. Infomocracy, Malka Older
Did you love Brazil? You're probably going to like Infomocracy, which is a dystopian tech-driven hellscape in true cyberpunk tradition. Good science fiction delves not just into explorations of technology and the limits of human innovation, but the political implications of same, and Infomocracy does that extremely deftly.
It's a vision of a future in which 100,000 electors decide the fate of the world, electing a world government so closely tied with corporations that it can be difficult to untangle the two. Basically, this is what will happen when Google decides to completely dispatch with its "don't be evil" figleaf and just go for it.
4. The Girls, Emma Cline
For all you serial killer lovers out there, here's yet another fictionalization of the Manson murders, but what really intrigues me about it is what it doesn't show. Cline edges closer and closer to the abyss in The Girls, but doesn't go all in on Manson's darkest, most violent, most awful elements — in a sense, even as the book toys with the idea of horror, it also slightly idealizes it. If you know the real-world story well, that makes this book all the more unsettling, as it firmly captures an innocence and a deliberate refusal to engage with the truth.
It presents a dragonfly in amber, a woman caught up forever in the moments of her girlhood when she felt like she mattered, as the center of attention and discussion. That makes for a stark picture and one that feels oddly real — even if the high point of her life is one of unspeakable violence, it still represents a pinnacle that she'll always, oddly, miss.
5. The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera
I absolutely adore noir, and this dark, moody piece set in Mexico during a time of plague and strife is a fantastic entry in the genre. The Transmigration of Bodies makes for an incredible read from a Mexican author you should definitely have your eye on.
It has a note of the surreal, with sparse, clean language that sketches out rough scenes and pushes the reader to fill in the details. The plot revolves around a mysterious man called the Redeemer, one of the few people willing to venture out into a crime-torn world to recover, or exchange, the bodies of the dead. It's slightly queer (in multiple senses of the world), insistently intense, and it lingers long after you wrap up this novella.
6. Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn
Don't be fooled by the title of this novel, set in Jamaica and written by a native of Kingston. Here Comes the Sun may superficially carry the gloss of a tropical idyll, but it quickly gets to the rot below the surface in a country with tremendous class and racial tensions. It's an unflinching look at things those in power would prefer to keep under the surface, and it pairs sharp social commentary with brilliant writing.
Here Comes the Sun delves not just into race and class, but also into queerness as it explores multiple generations of Jamaican women, their struggles, and cataclysmic events. Dennis-Benn's language is also highly evocative, with luscious descriptions of sensations and settings.
7. Each Vagabond by Name, Margo Orlando Littell
I particularly enjoy books that explore small town life, especially when they push at the tensions of tiny towns instead of idealizing them. Each Vagabond by Name is set in Appalachia, and it explores what happens when a small town is confronted with the boundaries of the real world as a band of runaways settles on the margins of town.
Residents become divided over what to do, even as the runaways bring up the complicated pasts that some people are wrestling with. This book is a slow burn; it takes a while for Littell to set things up and put them in motion, so you're going to have to muster some patience, but the payoff is worth it.
Photo: Josué Goge/Creative Commons