What I'm Reading Lately: #RIPX Reviews

October 21, 2015

All book covers courtesy of Goodreads.
The R.I.P. X Challenge, hosted by The Estella Society, has had me devouring all of the spooky, mysterious fiction I could get my hands on in September and October. I successfully completed their Peril the First challenge this month, and I wanted to share some thoughts on the books that helped get me there.

A quick note: the challenge runs until Halloween, so if you've a hankering for some darker reads, jump right in—Peril the Third requires you to read just a single book that qualifies as R.I.P. lit!

What Strange Creatures, by Emily Arsenault

Theresa Battle—and the rest of her family, for that matter—is used to disappointment. She's been working on earning her PhD for the last seven years; her thesis subject, the Christian mystic Margery Kempe, has seen her through a marriage, a divorce and the acquisition of a brood of pets. Theresa loves her brother, Jeff, but they never can seem to have a serious conversation... which makes his recent arrest for the murder of his girlfriend all the more difficult to deal with. Jeff claims he didn't do it, but, as his resolve weakens and the evidence against him mounts, Theresa decides to take his fate into her own hands.

This was a perfectly fine mystery-thriller. I could relate to Theresa, for better (love of animals, loyalty to those she loves and a curious mind) and for worse (obsessive, awkward and quite a bit defeatist). I admired, if not fully believed, the lengths she went to to attempt to clear her brother's name. Unfortunately, many of the other characters felt flat or were fleshed-out only to the bare minimum, but this may say more about my typical genre preferences than the book itself. I would have to read more mysteries before I could decide for sure. The pace and length felt just right, but I had no idea where the plot was going for the first three-quarters of it and was less than impressed by the ending.

Although it didn't knock my socks off, I would recommend this to those who love a literary-leaning page-turner, especially one featuring a vibrant misfit of a protagonist.

Ring, by Koji Suzuki

I'm going to share a few spoiler-y tidbits ahead, so for those who haven't seen the films and might like to read the book, you can skip this one.

Kazuyuki Asakawa is a news reporter who stumbles upon a strange pattern across several seemingly unrelated deaths. His digging leads him to a hotel where he finds the infamous videotape; he and his friend Ryuji race against a death sentence to discover the secret behind the curse.

We all know about The Ring, right? Watch this videotape and die in seven days? Great. The American film was based on the 1998 Japanese movie, Ringu (I really don't know what's up with the music in this trailer), which found its roots in the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki.

The novel reads much more like a procedural than the horror story the films morphed it into; there's a lot of interviewing family members, rifling around in archive rooms, and traveling undercover in the hopes of finding clues. Lurking under the dry and procedural tone of the writing—which may also be due in part to the translation—is pure, unbridled rage, made all the more potent when the story behind the videotape is revealed. The ending was also excellent; I'm probably exposing myself as the morbid, vindictive weirdo that I am, but I love when there aren't easy ways out. Finding the solution and living happily ever after often isn't how life works, and I like it when books acknowledge that.

On the minus side, this book is crazy sexist. Again, some of this could be due to translation or cultural differences, but, in fewer than 300 pages, we get bizarre attitudes about sex and virginity, a main character that's a self-admitted serial rapist (but still gets plenty of page time), and an antagonist that could be read as nothing more than a pissed-off, vengeful woman. We later find out she has ambiguous genitalia, adding another troubling layer to her ruthless characterization. Women and intersex individuals get intensely short shrift here, and that always gets my jimmies rustled.

The Fever, by Megan Abbott

Things seem to be going well for Deenie Nash. Her mom might have left her in Dryden, but she still has her devoted father and older brother Eli, one of the star hockey players at the high school Deenie began attending last year. She has her two best friends, Gabby and Lise, and it looks like they might be finally becoming friends on their own, too. There's even a guy in the picture, if in a way Deenie isn't sure she understands yet. Everything changes when a mysterious illness strikes Lise and begins taking down other female students at the school with her. Suspicions whirl—could it be the HPV vaccine, or the fluorescent bacteria in the lake? Deenie doesn't know, but she does know she is not about to let Lise go without finding out.

This book falls solidly in the YA category, which isn't my usual bag, but I would definitely read more from Abbott. She perfectly captures the feeling of being a high school girl in the mid 2000s and later: on the verge of womanhood but so often still a child, simultaneously yearning for intimacy but afraid (with good reason) to trust, and suffocated by social expectations and the knowledge that your every move will find its way onto the cell phones of the whole student body. She also nailed the hormone-fueled obsession, the kind that makes us helpless and reckless in the name of what we think might be love. Abbott manages to balance Deenie's everyday life, interesting enough on its own, with the twisty mystery of just what is striking down the young women in Dryden.

Those who are fans of reading about young female friendship, splintered but resilient families, and darned-good mysteries to boot had best not miss this one.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks

Lauren and I buddy-read this during the Readathon, and her tweet to me about the ending basically sums it up.
Frank Cauldhame is sixteen years old, homeschooled by his eccentric father and given fairly free rein of the Scottish island they call home. He spends his time building "sacrifice poles" (read: sharpened sticks mounted with animal heads), reflecting on his three familicides and wondering when his older brother Eric, a recent escapee from the psychiatric hospital, will show up at their house.

If you haven't figured it out yet, this book is weird. There isn't a lot of plot to be found, but that's not the point; Banks is painting a portrait of a deeply disturbed teenager. I don't know that I've ever read more scenes of animal cruelty in one sitting; it was disgusting and infuriating, but the eerie and darkly humorous quality of Banks's writing and the sheer oddity that was Frank's character kept me reading. His is a life steeped in ritual, both of the everyday and awful variety; he'll wax on about his adventures at the pub each Saturday and, in the next breath, detail his extensive (extensive) strategies for murdering insects. I never quite knew when to trust what he was saying, particularly because much of it was horrible, obsessively methodical and, at times, even mystical. For a similar protagonist, think Patrick Bateman of American Psycho.

Much like with What Strange Creatures, I did not know what the story was leading up to... and then the last 15 pages happened. It's hard to talk about why I feel so uncertain about this one without revealing a major spoiler, but if you'd like to chat, let me know and we can do it away from the eyes of innocents.

If you're into excellent writing, want to dive into a consciousness ruled by meticulousness and madness, and don't mind some creatures getting maimed along the way, I would give this a try. Maybe you can explain the ending to me and Lauren.

Are you participating in R.I.P. X? Read anything especially creepy, crawly or baffling lately?

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