Friday, December 17, 2021

Reading My Way Out of the Darkness, by Josh Stallings


View from my desk

Winter is classically a time to celebrate the belief that regardless of the long cold nights, spring will come again. I take it on faith that the hardest days will ultimately end and better ones are coming if I keep holding on. I don’t mean to fly in the face of “seasonal joy,” but for many of us, myself included, these holidays bring up a cocktail of joy and pain. It’s raining on my mountain, snow is coming in this afternoon. I haven’t spoken to my younger son in almost five years. Last time I saw him he had been homeless, and was in the hospital. I don’t know where he is now. I hope he is warm. I hope he is with people who bring him love and joy. I miss the hell out of him.

Simultaneously, my older son is in a good place. Last Saturday we went and saw Ghostbusters Afterlife. We laughed so loud that if there had been more than five patrons in the theater we might have been asked to leave. Next week my brother, his amazing wife and a couple of their offspring are joining us. As always, my life is a mixed bag. It’s been this way as far back as I have memories. I was a child of huge feelings. Raging and laughing in turn. Tears at heartbreak and joy at the simple love of a dog. 

In this uncertain world I can always count on a good book. Being inside someone else's written world, gives me the needed perspective to see my own life clearer. Sometimes it just gives me a much needed break. 

In that spirit I’d like to share some of the books that helped me get through, and even enjoy parts of this last year.  

 We Begin at The End, by Chris Whitaker

This book gutted me. It broke my heart, and ultimately put it back together only better. It is a feel good book, if you’re willing to travel the rough road it takes to get there. 13 year old Duchess calls herself an outlaw, she’ll do anything to protect her little brother. She continually makes life hard on herself. But she’s brave, and unforgettable. Chris Whitaker has created a mythical yet real version of California’s coast and the wilds of Montana. He also created a book that must not be passed up.

Boy from County Hell, by Thomas Pluck

I read this in both draft and finished novel form, and loved it from the get. Pluck takes a hard look at American slave culture as it has mutated and shaped Louisiana’s prison system. He writes characters with humanity and morality, some at least; he’s also willing to write unrepentantly vile characters. This book is part social novel, part mystic bayou poetry, and full of non-stoppable action. If you loved James Lee Burke’s latest work, you’ll love Boy from County Hell.

The Southland, Johnny Shaw

This is the story of three unauthorized Mexican immigrants living in Los Angeles. Shaw paints these characters with strength and dignity and true humanity. They stumble and fall and keep going. In our sound-bite, blip-news world it is easy to lump these women into one monolithic group. Shaw make you see the individuals. People trying to get from one end of the day to the next, sometimes with grace, others stumbling but forever fighting to make things better. This is a hell of a book. 

Children of Chicago, by Cynthia Pelayo

Is it a grim fairy tale, or a gritty police procedural? A crime novel or a horror novel? It’s all of the above and more. She slips in current and historical facts about Chicago that make the city itself a vibrant character. Pelayo has written a multiple genre novel that delivers regardless of what expectations you bring to it. Confession, I don’t read horror. Full stop. Okay I didn’t. I did completely dig Gabino Iglesias’ Coyote Songs, but I figured it was crime, freaky, but still crime. Funny, I rail against genre constraints and prejudices. “Good writing is good writing.” But Children of Chicago uncovered my own prejudice against horror and made me give it up. I’ll read whatever Cynthia Pelayo writes next, regardless of where it shows up in the bookstore’s filing system. 



The Invisible Mountain, by Caroline De Robertis

A multi generational love letter to Uruguay. It follows a mother, a daughter, and a grand daughter through their lives. A country through growth, fascist repression, revolution. It is a huge sweeping canvas that always feels small and personal. Take a vacation to warmer days among these amazing women.

Suicide Souls, Penni Jones

A coming of death ghost story? Love story? It’s a feminist novel hidden inside an afterlife thriller that is also funny — like Tim Burton meets the Coen brothers to tell you a ghost story funny. And at the core of this wild tale are people I cared deeply about, and that is what kept me turning pages too late into the night, to discover how their afterlife would turn out.

Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem, Gary Phillips

Think, Raiders of the Lost Ark, with a Black cast, set in Harlem and starring Mathew Henson, a real life Black explorer. Pure fun. Enchanting and exciting as hell. Yes you’ll learn some history, but you won’t know you’re learning it. This is a page ripping gas of a book.

Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas, by Roberto Lovato

This is a late entry, I finished it a few nights ago. Non-fiction. I was reading it as research for a book I’m working on, and it took my breath away. Roberto Lovato connects the dots between El Salvador’s 1932 La Matanza ("The Massacre”) a mass murder of indigenous people, and the creation of MS13. Like David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Unforgetting’s strength is in the human story telling. We bounce between three stories, Lovato’s father growing up in El Salvador, Lovato growing up in San Francisco, and Lovato as an adult reporter returning to El Salvador.

It is a brilliant humanizing novel that won’t let you ever hear, “MS13, the most dangerous gang in the world,” without understanding these gangster’s humanity and the US government’s complicity in its creation.



Three of these books were edited by Chantelle Aimée Osman and published by Agora/Polis, (Chantelle edited and published Tricky.) Most of the others were written by friends. I can’t help it if I’m surrounded by brilliant writers, just lucky I guess.


(Shameless self promotion)

Library Journal named TRICKY one of the ten best Crime Fiction books of 2021



Catriona McPherson said...

Phew. Just in the nick of time, as I was about to run out of reading (not). But thank you for these marvelous suggestions.

Ann said...

What Catriona said. And much love and merry Christmas to you and Dylan and the critters

Thomas Pluck said...

Thank you for your help with the book, Josh, and for including me in such fine company (yourself included). And thanks for the great reading, I need to pick these up! They sound fantastic. I'm glad someone got you into horror. It's like any other genre, the great stuff is great. The average, average. If you pick up the wrong one first, it's easy to be turned against it.

Susan C Shea said...

I wonder, if someone were to do a graphic mapping the overlaps in our recommendations, we’d get a picture of genres? I tend toward softer stories, you to the harder stuff, but I already see touch points with two of your recommendations and you noted one of mine you want to read. My guess is we don’t get locked into narrow lanes, which makes us better writers.