Vince Darcangelo

GoodReads: The Cipher

The Cipher by Kathe Koja

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this in 2023 was like opening a time capsule. As with many of my favorite books of the early ’90s, it features acerbic humor, feral sexuality, over-stylized prose and a gutter-punk aesthetic that dares the reader to keep turning pages. High-octane body horror.

View all my reviews

Review: Kindred, Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a novel that will hijack your mind, body and spirit for a while. And it will not return them in nice condition.

Seriously, this book will break you.

It begins when Dana, a black woman living in 1976 California, gets transported to a plantation in 1815 Maryland. She saves the life of an impetuous and accident-prone boy, Rufus Weylin, who is the son of the plantation owner. She learns that he will go on to father one of her ancestors, and it’s up to Dana to ensure he survives long enough to sire the child.

Butler’s genius is on display from the opening pages, and Kindred is perhaps her most powerful novel. Understandably, the antebellum south is a dangerous place for Dana, but the nature of her time jumps is unpredictable and equally hazardous. She doesn’t know when she’ll be displaced, or where she’ll be taken to, so when she’s back in 1976, she never leaves her home or drives a car for fear of what might happen.

This is a brilliant move on Butler’s part. Without agency in the present, Dana becomes enslaved in both timelines, simulating the forced relocation and dehumanization of slavery. It’s demoralizing, and to survive, Dana must endure the injustices and humiliations of history.

She remarks, “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”

However, Dana is the perfect foil for the plantation’s owner. She is educated and strong-willed — a writer who “dresses like a man” and is as much a culture shock to the people of the plantation as they are to her.

Kindred is the most horrifying yet pitch perfect novel I’ve ever read. It was impossible to put down, but at the same time I couldn’t wait until it was over. The hardest part to endure, for me, was the banality of it all. The atrocities are accepted as a matter of course, and for all his cruelty and ignorance, the plantation owner, Tom Weylin, is more dispassionate than hateful — at least relative to other slave owners at the time.

“[He] wasn’t the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves,” Dana observes. “He wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper.”

The systemic nature of slavery makes it all the more horrifying. It’s not merely the theft of another’s freedom, but the institutional structure that codifies injustice and the extrajudicial violence that enforces the status quo.

More than four decades after its publication, Kindred remains an unflinching study of America’s greatest shame — and an indictment of a culture still unwilling to reckon with its past.

Review: One’s Company, Ashley Hutson

Reading Ashley Hutson’s debut novel, One’s Company, I was reminded of a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer: “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”

The same goes for Bonnie Lincoln, a twenty-first century Schopenhauer of sorts and the narrator of One’s Company, whose only ask of the world is to leave her be.

I can relate — a lot, actually.

I share Bonnie’s brutally honest view of humanity and her desire to simply be left alone. Also like Bonnie, I grew up in a trailer and my favorite show as a kid was Three’s Company. On a nightly basis, we would eat dinner on TV trays while watching reruns of Jack and Janet, et al.

While for me that is a happy memory, for Bonnie, there is a much darker connection. The show is where she goes to escape from a life of pain. Both of her parents die young and the family that takes her in is murdered during a robbery — in which Bonnie is also assaulted and left for dead.

While in recovery, she watches Three’s Company from start to finish, over and over, and it helps her manage the trauma.

When she wins a hefty jackpot in the lottery, she plans her escape from the “small insults of being alive.” She buys a remote patch of land and — with the discriminating eye of a museum curator — hires a team of contractors and designers to reconstruct the Three’s Company sets as real buildings for her to live in. They recreate Janet’s flower shop, the Regal Beagle, the Roper’s utilitarian flat and  Ralph Furley’s swingin’ bachelor pad.

Most importantly, they build a replica of apartment 201, where the main characters lived and where Bonnie intends to spend the rest of her days living through each season, portraying each of the characters in turn, and adapting her hair and fashion as the role demands.

She goes so far as to set up a labyrinthine network of attorneys, investors and delivery services so that she can never encounter another human being again. All is going well until an epic storm and an unsuspecting trespasser destroy her solitude.

Initially, I found an analog between Hutson’s tale and J.G. Ballard, who often used synthetic, sequestered environments to critique modern society and its attempts to conquer the natural world — particularly through its garish, mid-century architecture.

But the deeper I got into the story, I realized that Hutson took the idea of the manufactured world and inverted it to some degree. Rather than living in a synthetic environment of someone else’s making, Bonnie is in one of her own. With Ballard, the breakdown of society causes the disaster. For Bonnie, the disaster is when society inevitably encroaches on her private world.

“I should have known. Escape would not be allowed. There is no escape from other humans, from being human.”

And then things really get weird. This is when you realize that while you thought you were wading in shallow water, Hutson has slowly been guiding you into the deep end and is now holding your head underwater.

I really enjoyed Bonnie’s nihilistic humor. She maintains her comedic tone even as the story gets darker and darker. The book hits its stride when it becomes something of a philosophical argument for solitude and raises questions such as, does an individual have an inherent right to solitude? Why does an individual have to engage with society against their will? And who decided that human interaction was so great anyway?

This is dark comedy done well — and the perfect book for the misanthrope in your life.

Review: The Twilight Zone, Nona Fernandez

One of the most powerful and unsettling films I’ve ever seen is 2018’s La Casa Lobo, an animated nightmare based on the real-life atrocities of the Pinochet regime in Chile. The film brought the horrors of that period to life within the confines of a single building — the viewer felt trapped in the claustrophobic wolf house.

Chilean author, Nona Fernandez, offers a more macro perspective in her equally powerful and hauntingly poetic book, The Twilight Zone.

To call this a work of fiction would be insufficient. It’s a blend of narrative storytelling, including fiction, journalism and memoir, which brings that period to life greater than reportage alone. During Pinochet’s US-backed military junta, beginning in 1973, thousands of people were disappeared, tortured, sexually abused and often killed. The fates of many of those are still unknown. Their deaths have been reduced to statistics.

The book’s narrator — a documentary filmmaker — attempts to restore their voices by speculating on their ultimate fates and showing them as more than numbers or victims. This is a delicate literary maneuver that, if handled poorly, would come off as pandering or even exploitative. However, Fernandez delivers it with such grace that it feels empowering and restorative.

Her master stroke in this novel, though, is the incorporation of popular culture.

One of the challenges of understanding history is context. It’s easy to distance ourselves from historical events and think of them as separate from our own timeline. However, Pinochet’s atrocities are not ancient history. They occured in my lifetime, and Pinochet himself only died in 2006.

Fernandez uses pop culture to drive home that point, starting with the book’s title — although I prefer the untranslated title, La Dimensión Desconocida. It sounds more appropriately menacing when it doesn’t share the name of my all-time favorite television show.

During the memoir sequences, Fernandez spends her afternoons watching reruns of popular American television shows and juxtaposes this with the atrocities that were being perpetrated against her fellow Chileans at that time.

It’s an unnerving contrast, particularly since I was watching those same reruns in that same timeframe. She takes it further by placing us inside the premiere of the narrator’s documentary film about Pinochet. It was relegated to the smallest screen of a multiplex that had dedicated all of its big rooms to superhero movies in varying degrees of high definition.

The narrator and her mother were the only ones in attendance, and they had trouble hearing the documentary over the surround sound explosions and dramatic overtures rattling the walls.

Literally, popular culture was drowning out the voice of Pinochet’s victims. The Twilight Zone is a good reminder to not let popular culture distract us from present-day atrocities. It’s an engrossing, hard-hitting journey into the dark heart of humanity.

Review: The Book of Accidents

Meet the Graves: Nate, a Philadelphia cop; Maddie, an artist; and their teenaged son, Olly, an empath who is a routine target of bullies at his school. When the family has a chance to move to Nate’s rural childhood home, they see it as an opportunity to escape the craziness of the big city.

But they soon learn that rural Pennsylvania is the scariest place of all.

Strange things happen immediately: Maddie’s sculptures begin coming to life. Nate begins seeing the ghost of his abusive father, except slightly different than he was while alive (left-handed, for example).

As for Olly, the change of scenery doesn’t make much difference at first — he’s still a bully magnet. In his darkest moment, though, a one-eyed stranger shows up and chases off two jocks who are trying to drown him. The mysterious stranger introduces himself as Jake, a fellow teenager, who lives by himself, doesn’t go to school and seems to have magical abilities.

With his new friend to protect him, it seems that Olly’s nightmare is over, but in truth, he’s about to sink to depths he never could have imagined.

The Book of Accidents is an entertaining and well-written book. It’s a page-turner with classic horror tropes such as the struggle between good and evil, supernatural entities and the power of underdogs when they’re forced to tap into a strength they didn’t realize they had.

Personally, I like my horror to be on the darker side, so while this was a fun read, I didn’t find it scary or disturbing. I also couldn’t put it down, so I definitely recommend it as a summer read.

Spoilers below

Wendig does not give us a color-by-numbers haunted house tale. There is a science behind the supernatural. What at first appear to be ghosts turn out to be the product of parallel timelines bleeding over into this one. This creates opportunities for characters to make peace with their pasts through alternate versions of themselves and others.

I found the scenes between Nate and his dead father particularly touching.

There were some structural shortcomings, however. The magical system, for lack of a better term, is never fully understood by either the reader or the characters, giving the ending a deus ex machina feel. And while using a multiverse setting was useful for the plot, it also lowers the stakes for the reader — if there are multiple versions of each character, an individual death isn’t as devastating.

It also negates the freewill that drives a good vs. evil narrative. Is the Graves family good by choice or by chance? If an evil version of them necessarily exists (as it must in a many-worlds reality), is that version truly evil?

At a certain point, I put quantum mechanics aside and just enjoyed the book for what it was: a fun, unique, well-constructed horror novel that probably won’t keep you up at night — but it will keep you reading through to the end.

Review: Plain Bad Heroines

Going in, I knew very little about Plain Bad Heroines. After the holidays, and in the thickest part of winter, I was in the mood for something epic and escapist. At more than 600 pages, Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines seemed like it might be just what I was looking for.

It was exactly that and more.

It put me in mind of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (one of my all-time favorite novels), with its richly layered mysteries and plot twists, and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, due to the fairy tale-esque narration.

There are three narratives driving the story. First, we have the historical storyline concerning a series of odd deaths at a New England boarding school for girls in the early 1900s. Running parallel with that is a modern-day attempt to adapt the tragedy into a horror movie. Meanwhile, the film’s director — clearly a student of auteur theory — has secretly rigged the entire set with hidden cameras and jump scares to incorporate a found-footage element that will blur the line between film and documentary.

As intended, it drives the actors to question their sanity and wonder whether the old boarding school truly is cursed. And if so, was it cursed by the tragedy or had it been hexed long before the school even existed?

Finally, we have the meta narrative, which glues the timelines together with the help of an omniscient, unidentified narrator. The meta narrative weaves in the true story of Mary MacLane, a turn-of-the-century author and feminist whose scandalous 1902 memoir documented her same-sex affairs and is central to the plot.

The use of paratext in the form of footnotes and postscripts further blurs the lines of fact and fiction. I’ve always found footnotes in fiction kind of gimmicky, and, from my days in an MFA program, overdone. But in the postscript, Danforth explains their significance: it’s a nod to the many historical queer narratives that have been lost, destroyed, altered and buried within small-font annotations throughout history. “You can often find us,” she writes, “quite literally, in the margins.”

It adds another layer to an already sad and beautiful tale — a tale perfect for the dark night of winter.

Review: The Cleveland Heights LGBTQ Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Playing Club

Doug Henderson has written an anthem for all the geeks and outcasts from the Rust Belt. His wonderful debut novel transported me back to the early 1990s, when me and my friends would haunt Twice-Loved Books and various used record shops in and around Youngstown.

We went to metal shows all over northeast Ohio, so obviously, I related most to Albert, the chaos agent of Cleveland Heights. He works at a record store, listens to death metal and has a wardrobe consisting of black band T-shirts and jeans.

The action begins when he joins an LGBTQ D&D group who meet every Thursday in the back of a comic shop. He is a welcome addition to all members of the party except Ben, the protagonist. Lacking in nerve and self-confidence (as well as a job or apartment), Ben is flustered by Albert’s intrusion.

He complains to Celeste, the dungeon master, “He’s too good looking to play D&D.”

Behind his objections, of course, is an irrepressible and terrifying attraction. The tension between them drives the novel, fueled by Henderson’s sharp prose and humor.

There is so much I love about this book, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. Henderson certainly laid the foundation for an epic, with a large ensemble cast, including the gamers, a rival vampire role-playing group and some banker bros (including Mooneyham, a member of the campaign who hasn’t yet come out to his coworkers).

Mooneyham is perhaps the most compelling member of the group. While the others are traditional geeks, Mooneyham is an alpha male with locker-room charisma who hides his inner nerd beneath a power suit. He is annoying, but as the novel progresses he shows depth and vulnerability. He is less open about his sexuality because, as he explains, the others were misfits whose reveal was not a huge surprise. When Mooneyham comes out, it will be a bombshell. It might also derail his career.

Unfortunately, this storyline fizzles into a missed opportunity. Henderson has built up many interesting characters, but the novel’s brevity doesn’t allow their arcs to fully develop.

And while a common (and often justified) critique of cis-het male authors is that they struggle to create well-rounded female characters, this is not exclusive to straight men. The group’s women, Valerie (cis) and Celeste (trans), have a ton of potential that isn’t realized. I wanted their stories to be more significant.

But ultimately, the book is about Ben and Albert, and their journey is portrayed brilliantly. It’s a strong debut, and I look forward to where Henderson takes us next. Personally, I would like a sequel. I love this group of adventurers and want to spend more time in the geek shops of northeast Ohio.

Review: Blood on the Tracks

In this brilliant debut, Barbara Nickless introduces us to marine-turned-railroad cop Sydney Parnell. Haunted by her time in Iraq (literally, as she routinely sees the ghosts of fallen comrades), she absorbs scotch like vitamin water, steals smokes from lazy cops and pops Dexedrine just to stay balanced.

Oh, and she kills a bunch of skinheads along the way.

Yeah, I love this character.

Sleep is about the only thing Sydney doesn’t do in this relentless thriller, and I haven’t even mentioned her loyal sidekick, Clyde, a Belgian Malinois who has a love of cheeseburgers, his own kevlar vest and, like Sydney, crippling PTSD from the war.

At the outset of Blood on the Tracks, a charity worker is murdered and hideously butchered. All evidence suggests that her fiance, a marine disfigured by an IED in Iraq, is the killer, but Sydney isn’t convinced. While the Denver PD considers the case closed, Sydney and Clyde continue to search for answers, even though it may expose war crimes that would ruin all of their lives — and might get Sydney killed.

What follows is a Nietzschean descent into the abyss of war and its aftermath. And as the body count begins to pile up around her, Sydney has no choice but to commit herself fully to the truth, even though that works against her self-interest.

What I also like about Sydney is that she isn’t the type who will only kill in self-defense. War has taught her that, once committed, it’s kill or be killed. When she and Clyde enter the skinhead compound, the orders are to take no prisoners, leave no survivors.

This is a very satisfying book to read in 2021. When Blood on the Tracks was first published, in 2016, hate crimes were on the rise in America. They reached a 16-year high in 2020, followed by a literal siege on the democratic process in early 2021.

Justice has taken a beating the past five years, so yeah, it’s very cathartic when Sydney bashes in a skinhead’s face with a rock.

Nickless incorporates all the great ingredients of a thriller — the flawed hero, antagonistic relationships, and numerous plot twists. My only critique of Blood on the Tracks is that there is one twist too many — an unexpected turn that feels superfluous, but more importantly, is difficult to reconcile with the rest of the novel.

However, Nickless lays a deep foundation with long-term story arcs that has me excited for whatever comes next.

I also love that Sydney is not a superstar detective or a prized forensics specialist, as we so often encounter in mystery series. She is a misfit who feels right at home with the outsiders who populate the hobo camps. This makes her essential to the story. To channel my old MFA lingo, it’s the story that only Sydney Parnell could tell, which is what draws the reader into her world.

At least it did for me. I’m looking forward to reading further installments of Sydney and Clyde’s adventures.

Review: My Dark Vanessa

When you find yourself audibly yelling at the characters in a book like you’re watching a horror movie, you know you’re reading something special. My Dark Vanessa, the debut novel from Kate Elizabeth Russell, enrages, amuses, perplexes and ultimately batters the reader into despair.

In this challenging and transgressive masterpiece, Vanessa Wye narrates two timelines of her life: one beginning in 2000, when she goes away to boarding school at age 15 and becomes the target of her English teacher’s advances, and 2017, when said teacher, Jacob Strane, is being investigated for sexually assaulting a different student.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the twisting plot and unsettling behavior, what stands out to me is Russell’s handling of the two voices. It’s challenging enough to believably capture the voice of a teenage character, but to also balance that with a more mature voice that is consistent with that of the child is remarkable.

That Russell pulls it off in her debut novel is astounding.

Practically every page has a line that cut into me on some emotional level, whether it was an insight into the pressures young women face; pervasive pop culture that glamorizes statutory rape; the cruel and humiliating treatment dealt to victims of sexual violence; or a personal reckoning with my own youthful behavior.

The latter is why I feel the #MeToo movement has been such a wake-up call to many men. It brought home not only the frequency of sexual harassment and assault, but also introduced many of us to the broader scope of what it is.

It’s alarming to think of how common the behaviors at the lower end of the sexual violence spectrum were in the 1980s and ’90s — and how many of them, such as leering and catcalling, were expected of young boys as part of our development.

That underlines the importance of My Dark Vanessa. It’s tough to read for both the subject matter and for the way it forces the reader to truly consider how they would react in this situation. It also provides a long-overdue response to Lolita.

Of course, Nabokov’s controversial novel is unavoidable when discussing a book like this, and Russell takes it head on. She writes in the afterward: “I imagined the novel I wished I could have discovered alongside Lolita at fourteen, how it might have felt then to read a book that told her story rather than his.”

Like Russell, I have a complicated relationship with Lolita. It’s one of my favorite novels, but at the same time it is criminally misunderstood. The trope of a “Lolita” as a girl who is sexually aggressive toward older men is a sick distortion.

It speaks volumes about our culture that a novel about raping and kidnapping a twelve-year-old girl has been twisted into a cultural archetype to mean an insatiable teenager who seduces middle-aged men against their will.

That’s exactly why My Dark Vanessa is such an important book.

Even if, like me, you read transgressive fiction quite often, this book will haunt you — not for its salacious content, but for how insidious the sexual violence pervades every interaction in the book. Russell is not aggressive in her return serve of the male gaze. She simply holds a mirror up to it — and what she reflects back is something ugly, something that demands reckoning, that refuses to be ignored.

With Lolita, it is easy to distance oneself from the villain. In My Dark Vanessa, there is no such mercy. No doubt, this is one of the most disturbing and important books I’ve ever read.

Review: The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky

The Broken  Earth Trilogy

N.K. Jemisin

“Just because something is horrible does not make it any less true,” the narrator of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy tells us in the closing pages of her epic tale. This would appear to be the guiding philosophy for the series, which takes an unflinching look at social injustice, environmental destruction and a global economy built on, and reliant upon, exploitation.

Dealing with reality is the only option for Jemisin’s characters, because survivors of a climate apocalypse don’t have the luxury of alternative facts.

Having reviewed the first novel in the series, The Fifth Season, I was going to discuss the second and third installments (The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky) separately, but I was so immersed in this world that I finished Sky before I could even begin to write about Gate.

To briefly summarize, the Broken Earth trilogy follows Essun, a mother with special talents who wants to improve a broken world for her young daughter. She lives in a future where Earth has become a barren, inhospitable planet prone to sudden tectonic cataclysms and unpredictable seasons.

When we first meet Essun, her husband has murdered their infant son and kidnapped their daughter, Nassun. This sends Essun on a quest to rescue her only living child. Both Essun and Nassun are “orogenes” — a race of people who can manipulate the earth’s energy to magical effect, such as quelling or generating earthquakes, or creating protective energy shields.

Orogenes are both feared by the majority (known as “stills”) and necessary to the survival of the community. Therefore, orogenes usually live only as long as they are useful, but as Jemisin writes in Gate, “being useful to others is not the same thing as being equal.”

This results in brutal treatment and ostracization. Being an orogene in the wrong neighborhood can be fatal, and those with little talent are often killed in their youth. Orogenes with advanced skills are sent to special schools akin to the church-run American Indian boarding schools of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This injustice is best encapsulated in the following passage:

“They’re afraid because we exist. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing — so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.”

Jemisin’s writing is moving, inspirational and tackles social issues without being didactic. She is also honest. There is no happy ending tacked on in the final pages. There is no ultimate justice.

There is no way to completely fix a broken world, even if Essun can successfully end the catastrophic “seasons.”

But beyond the social commentary is a thrilling tale of perseverance, adventure and familial bonds. The scenery is vivid and well-crafted, and the magical system is revealed with minimal exposition. I found the community-building aspects more engaging than the battle sequences, but there are no weaknesses to Jemisin’s game — evidenced by the fact that each installment in the series won the Hugo Award for Best Novel from 2016-2018.

The Broken Earth trilogy is an engrossing epic, but it is also a scathing indictment of humanity’s pathological reliance on exploitation in order to prosper. Fittingly, these novels emerged at a time of rising nationalism and white supremacist activity. Jemisin offers a concise description of the fear fueling these movements:

“There are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors… Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.”

We have seen the deadly consequences of this in recent years. The Broken Earth trilogy may not prescribe a sure-fire remedy to this struggle, but it is a piercing battle call to keep up the fight.