Octopus Nest: an all-time favorite short story

Note: this post contains Bookshop.org affiliate links. Each book sold via these links my pays me a 10% commission, and gives a matching 10% to independent bookstores.

“The Octopus Nest” by Sophie Hannah, from her collection of short stories entitled “The Fantastic Book of Everyone’s Secrets,” is one of my all-time favorite shorts. I won’t spoil anything as you should go into this completely cold, save the opening paragraph. Tell me this doesn’t pull you right in:

It was the night I had hoped never to see: the front door wide open, Becky, our sitter, leaning out into the darkness as if straining to break free of the doorway’s bright rectangle, her eyes wide with urgency. When she saw our car, she ran out into the drive, then stopped suddenly, arms at her sides, looking at the pavement. Wondering what she would say to us, how she would say it.

OK, wow. Grab it.

My Bookshop storefront is live

Want to buy books online and support indie booksellers at the same time? What if you could do that, support this site AND thumb your nose at that space-faring billionaire all at once? I have good news for you, dear reader. You can.

I’m trilled to be a Bookshop.org Affiliate. Bookshop.org lets you shop for books from home while providing financial support to independent bookstores and people who love them, like me. Specifically, for each book sold through my Bookshop Storefront, Bookshop.org pays me a 10% commission, and gives a matching 10% to independent bookstores.

You-know-who is the Empire. We are the Rebel Alliance.

I’ll continually add books that I’ve read, reviewed, and enjoyed. Buy a copy for yourself, your book-loving friends, or even use my storefront as a jumping-off point whenever you go shopping for a great read (just bookmark this right here).

I’ll keep reading, reviewing, and recommending great books. You keep adding to your library, and together we’ll help keep those great indie shops afloat. Check it out right here. And may the Force be with you.

Teen love: A House at the Bottom of a Lake

Note: this post contains Amazon affiliate links.

Show of hands: whose first date was spent exploring a haunted house at the bottom of a lake? No takers I see. Then let’s live vicariously through the James and Amelia, the teenaged main characters of A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman.

This brief novella (114 pages) gets right to the point when 17-year-old James asks Amelia, also 17, on a date. The pair borrow his uncle’s canoe and enjoy a typical day on the water until a previously hidden tunnel brings them to an adjacent lake they’d never seen before. Even more incredible is the two-story house just beneath its surface. Unable to resist exploring the frightening yet exhilarating mystery, the teens dive in and find everything in the house is intact: rugs, books, paintings, a coatrack that stands upright, unmoved by currents. They return home, take scuba lessons (off camera as it were) and return to the watery treasure again and again, their infatuation growing with each dive.

Malerman (who’s previous book Bird Box had people falling down and hurting themselves for fun) creates a cozy snapshot of a summer shared by two young adults experiencing the thrills and anxieties of their first real relationship. In fact, the house is a metaphor for exactly that: it’s intoxicating yet scary. Familiar yet completely foreign. The kids soon become overwhelmed not by the house itself, but their fascination with it.

The book is categorized as horror and while there are some moody, atmospheric scenes, it’s not scary. Dresses float around the sunken house as if worn by unseen occupants, and Amelia has a startling experience while looking into a mirror. These scenes and others like them foster a creepy vibe and that’s all they’re meant to do.

As a novella A House at the Bottom of a Lake is very much a snapshot of a larger story, so there’s not a lot of “how” or “why” (the kids even adopt the mantra, “Don’t ask how or why”). We don’t see the kids take scuba lessons or learn where their equipment came from. They start spending days at a time at the house, and there’s no mention of their parents’ concern over their disappearance. They eat, and I wonder where the food comes from. You can quibble over details like this, but it’s best to let them go and sink into the story.

The ending. I won’t spoil anything but it’s divisive. I’ll let you read it yourself.

A House at the Bottom of a Lake can be read in a sitting and that’s how I’d advise reading it, letting yourself sink into memories of that first special someone.

Witches, Golden Remedy, and All’s Well that Ends Well


Note: this review contains Amazon Affiliate links.

Author Mona Awad’s All’s Well features protagonist Miranda Fitch, a drama professor who suffers from chronic pain yet is determined to stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, a “problem play” that Professor Fitch describes as “…neither a tragedy nor a comedy, something in between.” She could also be describing Awad’s novel, which is funny, dark, at times frustrating and confounding.

The story begins with Miranda, an untenured assistant professor at a small New England college. The school’s theatre department, such that it is, has dwindled to two people, Miranda and her friend Grace (“the bitches of the English Department,” Miranda calls them). Miranda is hell bent on having her largely untalented students put on All’s Well that End Well. The mutinous students, however, want the more accessible Macbeth as the semester’s production. While Miranda floats through a haze of pain killers, white wine, and full-body pain, her students await her in the theatre. And wait. And wait. Again.

It’s only after Miranda meets a trio of mysterious, unnamed doctors in the local bar that she (and we) get respite from her pain. In a bit of surreal magic that will feel familiar to those who read Awad’s 2019 novel Bunny, the trio — reminiscent of the witches in Macbeth — offer a pair of gifts. For Miranda, the ability to physically pass her pain on to others. To the school, a large endowment. All they ask for in exchange is “…a really good show.” Specifically, a production of All’s Well that Ends Well.

I say “we” get respite from Miranda’s pain because that’s exactly how it feels. By having Miranda be the story’s narrator, Awad puts us in intimate proximity to the pain that occupies her protagonist’s body and her time. Having cost Miranda her career (it started when she fell off of a stage while performing Helen in All’s Well That Ends Well), her friendships, and her marriage, Miranda’s pain is front-and-center for the first hundred pages and it’s quite claustrophobic and uncomfortable. When she finally found relief so did I, and that’s a point of the book: we don’t want to look at female pain. We want it to go away so that we can feel better. If I’m being honest, by “we” I mean “men.”

Miranda sees one physical therapist after another, all male (four of whom are named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They bend, twist, crack and placate with their “bro good looks” and “blue polo shirts.” At one point, Miranda is given a video to watch which features an animated, anthropomorphized brain who subtly describes that often times, pain only exists in our heads.

Things get surreal from here and the book‘s conclusion has left some scratching their heads. If you’re put off by the bizarre and a book whose climax requires interpretation, you might find All’s Well frustrating. I do feel the book could be a little shorter and Miranda’s descriptions of her pain can feel relentless, but that’s a point the story is trying to make, I believe. You want to look away; don’t. You want to be free of this; no.

Awad’s writing is beautiful and witty. I found myself re-reading sentences just for the pleasure of them. For example, Miranda describes the actress in a medication ad thusly: “…she attempts a face of what I presume to be her invisible suffering. Her brow furrows as though she’s about to take a difficult shit or else have a furious but forgettable orgasm.”

I thoroughly enjoyed All’s Well (and Bunny). I’m quite looking forward to what Awad writes next.

Oops new books

This morning I visited two of my favorite book stores and walked out with two new books.

First, I grabbed All’s Well by Mona Awad from the Brewster Book Store. This title was just published on August 3rd and follows Bunny, which is one of my favorite books of 2021 so far. From the jacket:

…a darkly funny novel about a theatre professor suffering chronic pain who, in the process of staging a troubled production of Shakespeare’s most maligned play, suddenly and miraculously recovers.

If it’s “darkly funny” in the way that Bunny was, I’m sure I’ll love it.

Next I visited The Sea Howl Book Shop to pick up For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing. I’m just now realizing I’ve read four books this year in an academic setting. It’s a theme I didn’t even realize was happening. I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm for For Your Own Good online and I’m eager to star it. From the jacket:

Teddy really can’t be bothered with a few mysterious deaths on campus that’re looking more and more like murder or the student digging a little too deep into Teddy’s personal life. His main focus is pushing these kids to their full academic potential.  

All he wants is for his colleagues—and the endlessly meddlesome parents—to stay out of his way. If not, well, they’ll get what they deserve.

Murder on campus. Yes, please. I’ll let you know what I think of these after I finish The Maidens. My TBR list is growing.

Greek tragedy, murder: The Maidens is my next book

Note: this post contains an Amazon Affiliate link.

A New England university, a secret society, murder and a mystery to solve. I’m excited to read The Maidens by Alex Michaelides as my next book.

I’m on a real thriller kick recently, and The Maidens sounds like a great one:

Edward Fosca is a murderer. Of this Mariana is certain. But Fosca is untouchable. A handsome and charismatic Greek Tragedy professor at Cambridge University, Fosca is adored by staff and students alike—particularly by the members of a secret society of female students known as The Maidens.

I’ll let you know how it goes, of course. Expect a review in a few weeks (or sooner, depending on how quickly I get through it).

David Sparks releases Markdown Field Guide

David Sparks over at Macsparky has released another fantastic iPad book. This time it’s Markdown he’s after and the Markdown Field Guide looks like a stellar book on the topic. David co-authored this release with Eddie Smith of Practically Efficient.

I’ve been writing in Markdown for years but I know I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. I’m eager to have David and Eddie show me the rest. Go and get Markdown from the iBookstore now.

How book stores foster ebook sales

bordersclosedA post by Dennis Johnson for Melville House bemoans the mass closings of Barnes and Noble (B&N) stores across the US. Within the last 30 days or so, Johnson points out, B&N locations in Los AngelesSan FranciscoPhiladelphiaWashington, DCSeattleChicagoDallas (two), Austin, and Manhattan have shut down. Ebook sales likely had a significant role in B&N’s decision to close those locations, which is interesting as brick-and-mortar book stores foster ebook sales.

The practice of “showrooming” — seeing a thing before buying it — affects buying behavior. Specifically, customers are more likely to buy an ebook after seeing its physical counterpart in a store. David Streitfeld noted this behavior for the New York Times in December 2012, in reference to the shutdown of Borders:

“Another, more counterintuitive possibility is that the 2011 demise of Borders, the second-biggest chain, dealt a surprising blow to the e-book industry. Readers could no longer see what they wanted to go home and order. ‘The print industry has been aiding and assisting the e-book industry since the beginning,’ said [Michael Norris, a Simba Information analyst who follows the publishing industry].”

Another survey suggested that 40% of the people who buy books online looked at them in a bookstore first.

Ebooks might become my “old man sticking point.” The appeal of a toting a library on a device the size of a magazine isn’t lost on me, but I’d rather read a paper book any day.

2012 Holiday Gift Guide: Books

I fell in love with reading at 13 when I bought Stephen King’s Thinner with my paper route money. Today I read several books per year, and listen to just as many in audio format. Here are several books that caught my attention this year, including comics, fiction and non-fiction. You’re sure to find something for at least one book lover on your list below.

Continue reading →