Sassy, No Spoilers: Nothing to See Here

book reviews, contemporary, fiction

I first heard of Kevin Wilson when The Family Fang came out, and I was slightly incensed by the whole idea; it seemed, to me, a cheap attempt at a Wes-Anderson-meets-JD-Salinger-knock-off story. The reviews were all over the place, and I kind of let the author slip through the cracks. I don’t know–maybe I was too busy doing whatever I was doing in 2011 when it was released: working at Whole Foods, and trying to get boys to buy me fancy drinks. It was a strange time, okay?

So anyway, fast forward to 2020 and I keep seeing Nothing to See Here glaring at me from my library shelf. It’s my fault that it is glaring at me, as I keep choosing this book as one of the face-outs, trying to convince people to check it out. And they do. And then they tell me how “weird” the book is. Like, quirky-weird, fire-children, weird.

I love weird.

So, I breezed through this short book in a few days, loving the story of two “fire children” as metaphors for wealthy, political families trying to ignore (see also: hide) their misdeeds (see also: children from a previous marriage, pawned off onto the unwitting “governess”). It was funny, a little sad, and wildly entertaining. This book does a great job burying a Big Social Statement wrapped-up inside a tidy little funny package (see also: Helen Ellis’s Eating the Cheshire Cat), and I do love a clever plot.

I also felt slightly smug (as I basically have for the past few months, considering what a dumpster fire 2020 is turning out to be) for the fact that I am gleefully childless. This book added another mark to that tally.

I’ll keep this review short and sweet, just like the book, and recommend for:

  • Wes Anderson fans (yeah, yeah)
  • Someone needing a lighter read, perhaps as a break between All Those Damn Thrillers
  • Gleefully childless people. Also parents that find themselves calling their kids “little demons”
  • Those wishing for a summer read that:
    • Doesn’t involve a murder
    • Isn’t totally mindless and might just pass the Bechdel test
    • Actually has a moral to the story
  • Anyone that ever went as a scholarship kid to anywhere

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Sassy, No Spoilers: Beach Read

Uncategorized

Romance novelist meets literary novelist? Love? Okay…

So, Romance really isn’t my jam. Call me a cynic, a curmudgeon. I don’t really enjoy “contemporary love stories” unless they were written by Nora Ephron (or are Bridget Jones, my guilty pleasure read), and anything else falls short (change my mind?).

BUT.

I’m also one of those people that enjoys “seeing what all the fuss is about” with popular books (see: Twilight, Where the Crawdads Sing) so that I can complain about how overrated they are, but intelligently and with bodies of evidence backing up my loathing (see: Twilight, Where the Crawdads Sing). The only book I couldn’t get through (or past a sentence, actually), was the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, in which case I might point to a lengthy Target receipt and boldly state that it was better penned.

I’m nowhere near a beach. So I Googled images of nice beaches at work.

Anyway, everyone in the Book of the Month community was losing their minds over Beach Read, as a light-hearted, fun Romance for “the rest of us,” the skeptical snobs who turn up their noses at Danielle Steel and Nicholas Sparks. (Guilty.)

And reader. I was disappointed. I found myself eye-rolling and skimming through many of the mushy-gushy scenes because it was just so over the top as to be pure fantasy. I felt the author was coming from a good place, but I just found the protagonist weak and not as full of venom as the dust-jacket copy promised (and for someone who clearly understands the mechanics of a novel, as she wrote them into the book very clearly for the two “writers,” the promise of the premise was a huge letdown).

So what’s it about, anyway?

A woman (and popular Romance writer), reeling from the sudden death of her father, inherits his beach house that he shared with his secret lover. And who lives next door? None other than the protagonist’s enemy from college. Another writer. A literary one. Trouble ensues, they end up making a bet that the other can’t write a novel in the same genre. Sexual tension builds, of course, which comes with its own set of problems.

I got through it, and I can see the appeal. And I really don’t enjoy negative reviews, so instead I will note the good things about this novel.

  1. It reminded me of a lot of relationships in my 20s, and the stupid things I did that makes me cringe now. Personal! Growth!
  2. The man’s name is Gus, which is my dog’s name, though I do not think my Gus cares.
  3. It was a nice brain break away from all the thrillers I’ve been terrifying myself with.
  4. It broadened my horizons in a genre I don’t normally read.

And there you go. While it wasn’t necessarily my cup of coffee, I’ll recommend BR to:

  • Romance enthusiasts with a positive outlook on love, not a skeptical one for those of us ruined by reading too many Stephen King/Chuck Palahniuk/Flannery O’Connor stories.
  • People on a beach (though there’s a huge lack of actually being on the beach in this book?).
  • Book clubs looking for something that won’t make everyone blush TOO terribly.
  • Someone that needs a flippin’ break from too many scary books in a row.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Sassy, No Spoilers: Home Before Dark

book of the month selection, book reviews, fiction, scary

Abandoned haunted houses? Mysterious deaths? Creepy interior decorating? Yes, please.

Riley Sager is definitely one of the “buzziest” authors in the Book of the Month bubble. I’m most certainly the type of person that will read an author’s book just to see “what all the dang fuss is about,” and Sager has quickly tumbled into that category for me.

The thing I love most about Sager is that he clearly takes things he loves and puts his owns spin on it: Lock Every Door was a nod to Rosemary’s Baby/Ira Levin; Final Girls was perhaps a nod to 80s teen slasher flicks; and Home Before Dark is The Amityville Horror.

I’m here for this.

I, too, love writing my obsessions into my work, so it’s glaringly obvious to me when an author writes to something in which they clearly are passionate about. I think it goes without saying that you’d have to care a lot about famously haunted houses in order to write your fictional account of a family that survived a terrifyingly haunted house. Which is exactly what Home Before Dark is about. (Oddly enough, the title really has nothing to do with the book. I also argue this with Lock Every Door.)

Okay y’all. I’m a chicken. I don’t do “scary” very well–particularly the scary that involves:

  1. Vengeful ghosts
  2. Children (they are always the ones that see the shit first!)
  3. Possessions
  4. Haunted houses of any kind, really

So let it be known: I was nervous about this one. For good reason: Sager is really good at writing scenes filled with creepy suspense that keeps readers on their toes, throwing twists at you left and right, and wrapping things up with a bow (albeit, a bloody bow, but still).

The protagonist, Maggie (my sister’s name, but I doubt I could convince her to read this book, she’s as much of a chicken as I am), inherits the house she and her family fled decades ago, and which made her writer-father famous for his take on what happened in the house. Convinced her parents were full of crap (because ghosts are, like, totally not real, right?), Mags has to face the creepy house and uncover all the deep, dark secrets buried in those walls.

Some people have said this book isn’t scary at all. I disagree, perhaps because my imagination loves to run wild when the lights go out. I was essentially haunting myself with the visions of the ghosts in this book, and it gave me the creeps. Now that I’ve fully recovered (I recommend lights on for at least three nights with this one), I can move on to another Sager book.

If you’re a big chicken but love Riley Sager, this one might be your favorite. Be a chicken, but go forth. Be brave. And maybe read some David Sedaris before bedtime, to laugh those ghosts away.

I recommend this book for fans of:

  • Every haunted house book/movie ever made, particularly The Amityville Horror and The Conjuring*
  • Shirley Jackson in general
  • All those HGTV shows, because you really want to see a show about interior decorators taking on haunted houses (10/10 would watch this)
  • Antiques
  • Small towns

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

*Full disclosure: I went on a first date to this movie, got so scared I made us leave halfway through. Did not have another date with this guy ever again, can’t say I blame him.

Sassy, No Spoilers: Happy & You Know It

book of the month selection, book reviews, contemporary, fiction

Playgroups gone wrong? Wellness-obsessed influencer moms? Yes, please.

Confession time.

I manage two small libraries, and one of my duties is children’s programming–specifically, preschool storytime.

I do not particularly care for this duty. Pre-COVID, I performed two storytimes per week, which largely involved me reading picture books, singing songs horribly off-key, and doing many things called “freeze dances.” Sometimes shakers go into full effect. I have taken more than one giant Lego to the head.

Reader, let it be known. I prefer dogs and vacations over children; it’s purely a fault within my own DNA, I assure you. I’d rather wax poetic about adult books all day, but alas, this is not within the wheelhouse of my job.

But I sure do love complaining about it, reader. Which is why I was tickled when I discovered Happy & You Know It as a BOTM pick. I branched out from my usual dark fiction picks to indulge my inner Sex and the City lover (she is very real).

The protagonist has just been kicked out of her band, right before they blow up and become hugely famous. She needs a job, so she gets one as a playgroup musician for the New York City elite, where she meets women that have lives she can only dream about.

But of course, not all is as it seems. Some real scandalous shit goes down, y’all. The wellness-loving mamas are kind of a mess. And it’s so fun to watch the bizarre story unravel, all while not having to worry about ghosts and jump scares (yeah, I’ve been reading a lot of Riley Sager and Stephen King lately).

This one is quick, and may be a little confusing because it is told in third person from many perspectives (which I found a bit jarring, actually), so pay attention!

I recommend Happy & You Know It if you:

  • Like Sex and the City, especially around the time Miranda has her baby
  • Enjoyed The Nanny Diaries
  • Need a break from binge-reading all those thrillers and scary books, you wild babe, you
  • You have a job that forces you to perform for children, and enjoy seeing other people suffer this, too 😉

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Sassy, No Spoilers: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

book reviews, Classics

Shirley Jackson, my resident Queen Weirdo

When I heard that Elizabeth Moss was portraying Shirley Jackson in a fictionalized biopic of the author’s strange and reclusive life, I had to watch it immediately (sorry, boyfriend)…especially considering I had just breezed through what may be her best book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Y’all.

Let’s talk about how some scary books aren’t surface-scary at all, but instead get underneath your skin like a splinter and make it so that you can’t think about anything else for a while. That pretty much sums up the body of Jackson’s work: characters that are unsettling, possibly murderous, but you root for them anyway.

In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, we get a first-person perspective of an 18-year-old woman that we probably can’t trust, “Meerkat,” but she sure is sassy (like, hides in the woods, loves poisonous mushrooms, maybe a low-key witch, sassy). Her family life is bizarre and tragic, and you will want to discover why.

There are no shocking twists that a casual thriller fan couldn’t figure out pretty quickly, but hot darn, it’s a fun ride. The characters reminded me a lot of the Southern gothic tales of Flannery O’Connor (my #1 literary babe), and I feel like Jackson used a lot of her real-life experiences to plant the seeds of darkness in this novel’s characters.

And the fun part of this book? You’ll recognize a LOT of this story in Shirley. It’s like Easter eggs, but for classic horror fans. They do not disappoint.

Since it’s a short read (and easily found for free through the Libby app to send to your reading device!), I’ll just say read it. Watch Elizabeth Moss make you uncomfortable in Shirley.

I recommend this book for….

  • Fans of The Haunting of Hill House or The Lottery
  • People that just finished reading Home Before Dark, the new Riley Sager (the house will be eerily similar)
  • Cat lovers
  • Haunted house lovers
  • Someone obsessed with their own siblings (yeah, is that real? I want it to be)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Sassy, No Spoilers: Lock Every Door

book of the month selection, book reviews

Housesitting for a cursed replica of the Dakota? Creepy wallpaper? Yes, please.

Let’s talk about Satan’s spawn. No, I don’t mean Donald Trump (that’s a whole different review and would be way more bleak than this one).

I mean Rosemary’s Baby. If you read Ira Levin’s book (that one and Stepford Wives) and was obsessed with it like I was (I mean, it’s a thinly-veiled satire about women’s rights? Yes, thank you)—then you’ll appreciate the nod (and dedication on the first page) that Riley Sager gives to Levin in Lock Every Door.

The first thing you need to know about me is that I love creepy, abandoned, or weird buildings with a haunted history. On a real deep, “I will now annoy you with one million facts you did not want to know” level. Perhaps taking the number one spot (maybe in the world?) of creeptastic dwellings would be the infamous Dakota Apartments in New York City. The Dakota has inspired many a book (Rosemary’s Baby called it the Bramford, and a stunning memoir by Wendy Lawless, Chanel Bonfire dives into the life of growing up in the Dakota)—and Lock Every Door nods to the Dakota, but takes place in a near-replica down the street (the Bartholomew).

So, the quick and dirty: girl takes “too good to be true” job housesitting a vacant apartment in the prestigious building. She’s jobless, just found her boyfriend cheating on her, and has no family. This “housesitting” job promises to pay $12,000 for 3 months of living in luxury. Sounds like a dream, right? Well, let’s just say it becomes more like a nightmare. No spoilers.

This book is an especially fun read for people who wonder—what exactly happened here?—when they step inside a creepy old building. And:

  • People who like to research murders/cults/mysterious occurrences before traveling (I know I’m not the only one)
  • Current/former broke af house-sitters (guilty)
  • Fans of gargoyles
  • Lovers of wallpaper (again, guilty)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sassy, No Spoilers: The Guest List

book of the month selection, book reviews, Cults

A wedding on a creepy, former cult locale on an Irish island? A sinister murder? Yes, please.

Okay, full disclosure: I grew up with a wedding-photographer Dad, and my teenage job was to follow him around, schlepping heavy camera equipment and listening to the same speeches every. Single. Weekend. For real; sometimes we’d shoot five weddings in one weekend. People love spending money on giant weddings in the South.

So you could say, I got a little tired of the whole wedding thing, I even wrote about it for a literary journal (republished at Cultural Weekly). Once you hear “I’m just so glad it’s over,” and the same “Love is not…” speech, along with every DJ’s playlist consisting of “Brick House,” “Electric Slide,” and “Celebration.”

Weddings became my Groundhog Day.

So when I picked Lucy Foley’s The Guest List as my Book of the Month selection, I was excited to see what parallels there were between my understanding of weddings, and what that would look like against a creepy, secluded Irish island landscape.

It did not disappoint.

Told in multiple perspectives of the wedding party, TGL makes us feel like maybe we should spare no expense on our weddings, especially if they are to take place on a secluded island with a cult history.

No? Just me? Okay.

Readers have compared this book to Agathie Christie’s cozy mysteries, and I would agree. The story was fun, it was a super quick read, but it left me wanting to know more about the characters–especially the owners of the castle. And the background of the island; if you promise me a creepy history, I want. To. Know. Everything. And I felt that was lacking here.

Still a fun read; I recommend The Guest List for fellow weirdos like me who enjoy:

  • Moidahh mysteries in exotic locales
  • Cult-y implications
  • Weddings gone wrong. Very wrong
  • Books told in multiple viewpoints
  • You’re going on an exotic island vacation and you want to give yourself the creeps

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Sassy, No Spoilers: My Best Friend’s Exorcism

book reviews

Demons, cults, and teenage angst in the 80’s? Yes, please.

Deep in the throngs of editing my cult-based thriller, I decided to pick up books that might lend a helping hand in keeping things ~spooky~ but ~not too spooky~ because I like to sleep with the lights off and not thinking about what might be lurking in the closet (not that there’s much room in there for ghosts, I have a lot of craft supplies in there, sorry, Casper).

I first noticed My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix at my library. I work in a public library; I scan a lot of books every day. I scanned a copy of this one in a transit bin, and instantly gasped, called my coworker over, and Oo’d and Ahh’d, because it has the. Coolest. Cover. I have ever seen. I didn’t check out the book, because it had a hold on it elsewhere (and I wouldn’t cheat y’all like that, library folk do follow rules). And as a rule of thumb, if I think I will like a book, I buy it. (Support! Authors! And! Bookshops!)

*pencil pouch, legwarmers, and holy water not included

The author of this book isn’t a novice, but he’s just landed himself a lot of (deserved) attention with The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, Which is sitting in my TBR pile glaring at me as I type this. He also wrote a satirical take on a haunted version of IKEA. I love finding authors that take horror and smash it against humor (True Blood, anyone?), and that’s exactly what Hendrix accomplishes with MBFE.

To stay true to my name, I won’t spoil anything about this book. But I will say, it’s about two best friends in the 80’s who stand by each other…no matter what. What would you do if your best friend suddenly started acting like a total demon? Typical teenagers, amiright? This book is a wild ride through all things nostalgia, exorcists that are super swole for Jesus, and the limitless things we do for best friends.

Judge this book by the cover, I give you library-lady permission, and I also guarantee the song-lyrics-as-chapter-titles will have you jamming John Hughes movie soundtracks for weeks afterwards.

Read this book if you enjoy:

  • E.T. references
  • Stranger Things
  • The entire wild ride that was the True Blood series by Charlaine Harris
  • 80s nostalgia
  • Stories about insanely strong friendships

Also, if you were traumatized by The Exorcist as a child like I was, then this book will make you feel a lot better about it. Legwarmers are optional.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What I learned about: the best-dressed UFO cult ever, Unarius

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Image by PhotoVision from Pixabay

Have you ever noticed how so many cults have come out of California? They pop up and wave around their strange theories like palm trees in the wind. Here, you can be as weird as you want. I’ve certainly enjoyed believing in David Lynch and the ghost that’s lived in my Furby since 1998. We just do us out here.

So while researching cults, I stumbled upon one that doesn’t have a really sad ending (yet, at least, though it really doesn’t seem likely).

Unarius (short for Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science) was founded in 1954 by Earnest and Ruth Norman, labeled as “cosmic visionaries” on the official website. Unarius is pretty wild, y’all. Their headquarters is located in El Cajon, California, just outside of San Diego. They received notoriety as the cult that made low-budget movies that aired on public access tv in the 80s. These “psychodramas” were basically members of the group acting out regrettable previous life experience–as aliens. If John Waters circa 1972 had directed these films, you’d never know the difference.

The whole belief system of Unarius was that—according to Ruth (aka Uriel)—in 2001, 33 spaceships filled with fellow “space brothers” would arrive on Earth and improve humanity. Long story short: that didn’t happen (I really, really wish it did though, we could use the help).

Their Archangel, Uriel/Ruth, had the goal of making everyone believe in the mission of the space bothers, because believing in them would facilitate their arrival. The space brothers were aliens that were supposedly former humans that are more spiritually and scientifically advanced than the rest of us.

The message of Unarius is actually pretty cool, I will give them that. They believed in spiritual healing through past life therapy by creating their low-budget films—and they were pretty good at marketing. They managed to air their films on public access TV across the country. Reportedly they had three feature films, 80 TV shows, and hundreds of self-published books.

My favorite thing about Unarius: the costumes. Uriel LOVED wearing elaborate dresses and wigs. She had rainbow capes, a massive dress with 33 planets that was apparently so heavy, she had to sit down while wearing it.

They also had a Cadillac with a UFO on top that says “Welcome Your Space Brothers,” and I want to see it in person. Really bad.

You can still become a member of Unarius. Since Uriel’s death, and the fact that the aliens didn’t come to hang with us in 2001, they mostly focus on spiritual healing through things I can’t really figure out by reading their website. Typical. They have home education kits on their website (they even have Blu-Ray!), along with some sweet postcards and UFO pins. Their message is actually kind of heartwarming. You’d think people would troll them, hard, on YouTube and the general internet; somehow they don’t.

You do you, Unarius. If only we could all be children of the stars.

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What I learned about: that thing in Waco, TX in 1993

Cults
Monument on Mt. Carmel compound in Waco, TX. Photo by Lorie Shaull

Let’s talk about Seventh-Day Adventists.

To understand the depressing, horrible thing that happened in Waco, Texas in 1993, one must know exactly where that crazy mustachio’d guitar-wielding white dude named David Koresh got his ideas.

Actually, let’s back it up further and say that a lot of cults have gotten their ideas from a little religious sect known as the Seventh-day Adventists.

The Seventh-day Adventists (SDA) was founded on the belief that the second coming of Jesus was to be October 22, 1844. Guess what? It didn’t happen. They were super disappointed. So they called it the Great Disappointment. Original, yeah? I think so, too.

Confession time, y’all. I used to work for an SDA corporation (long story, believe me), and it was messed up. It was like pandering to a bizarre circus every day. I wrote articles for them and was frequently reprimanded for using words like “yoga,” “coffee” or once, for including a link to a recipe blog that–heaven help us–had alcoholic beverage recipes on it, too. You’d think I’d sacrificed their next of kin. But the bonus was that I got to leave work at 3:30 on Fridays, because everyone was meant to be indoors before nightfall. Because Saturday was oh-so-holy Sabbath. SDA doesn’t believe in working on Saturdays. At all. Yeah, OK.

The SDA also enjoys releasing propaganda videos about how women shouldn’t be allowed to be in leadership positions (they even use words like “consequences,” oooh, reader, I tremble). Oh, but did I mention: their founder was a woman. Ellen White. That wacky broad. How dare she venture outside of the kitchen to create a whole new religion that didn’t believe in crazy shit like mustard, coffee, or yoga? And don’t even get me started on their weird diets (haystacks, anyone?).

Anyway, a guy named David Koresh (Vernon Wayne Howell) became the leader of the Branch Davidians, a splintered version of the SDA church. Koresh decided it was cool to sleep with underage girls, because, like, God told him it was OK. He convinced the men in this sect that they would have their pick of women in the afterlife, but he alone was burdened with reproducing with as many women in this life as possible. That’s not sketchy at all, right?

A few other fun facts about Koresh and the whole big mess:

  • Koresh tried to be a rock star (failed, just like Charlie Manson, sound familiar?), loved Ted Nugent
  • He went to trial for attempted murder in 1987 (after a really weird situation where another wannabe-cult-leader made a bargain that whoever could bring a former cult member back to life would reign supreme, a-la American Horror Story)
  • He believed everyone in his cult should have weapons and military training
  • Koresh built a compound in Waco that was–you guessed it–the ultimate battleground where he and almost 100 of his followers would perish
  • The Davidians weren’t dummies. Koresh’s right-hand-man was a theologian, and another was an attorney
  • The FBI hid recording devices in a milk delivery for the women and children trapped in the compound. The footage reveals that the Davidians started the lethal fires that day.
  • Apparently the compound had a really nice pool (according to many Google image searches), and I might fall for a place that had such a great pool

Ultimately, we know how this story ends. It ain’t pretty. It’s actually pretty heartbreaking. Koresh had many psychotic rants that were on the radio and TV. The ATF/FBI also really handled the situation poorly, using near-torture tactics to get Koresh to release his followers. The showdown, lasting 51 days, ended when the compound set fire after tear gas launched into the building caught fire. Before that, there was an infamous shootout with the compounders and the ATF.

The sad thing about this ending, is that Koresh created a self-fulfilling prophecy of the end times. He brought the apocalypse to his doorstep. Instead of four horsemen, there were jugheads with guns. Both parties were really to blame, and neither handled it the way they should. It’s a touchy subject for most, and after the limited series aptly titled Waco premiered on the Paramount Network, it’s getting easy to side with the Davidians on this one.

For more resources on the Davidians and the massacre at Waco in 1993, check out the series mentioned above. For brownie points, read the book that it was based on, titled A Place Called Waco: A Surivor’s Story by David Thibodeau.

There’s also a lot of great podcasts out there that have covered the Branch Davidians. My favorite is this one, here.

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