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Joyce Carol Oates Getty 2.jpg

The Pajiba March 2023 Book Recommendations Superpost!

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | March 31, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | March 31, 2023 |

Joyce Carol Oates Getty 2.jpg

Come join us for yet another monthly books chat!

Babysitter by Joyce Carol Oates

The highly prolific Pulitzer-shortlisted author (and prized Twitter shitposter) Joyce Carol Oates is a writer whose work I am dishearteningly unfamiliar with. Aside from Blonde, I’d been unexposed to her hefty back-catalogue, which veers between horror, family drama, crime, and short story. Her latest novel, Babysitter, turned up in my local library, and a bad cold left me in need of something substantial to read while feeling sorry for myself. It wasn’t an easy or fun novel, but it did fully expose to me just why Oates is such a big deal in the literary world.

Set in 1970s Detroit, the book primarily follows a dissatisfied housewife who begins an affair with a mysterious man who seems more interested in using her as a punching bag than having a lover. As she descends further into delusion about her “relationship”, the city becomes a hotbed of fear as a child-killer known as Babysitter rampages through the streets.

Oates is an astute writer, and a merciless one at that. Much like Blonde, Babysitter is a novel of intense ferocity, one that doesn’t hold back in its examination of the darkest and prickliest of issues. Our main protagonist (there are multiple points-of-view throughout) is a woman trapped by the circumstances of her era but she’s also a middle-class white person in a city ravaged by racial tensions. The serial killer is assumed to be Black because he targets white kids, and this paranoia leads to a horrific mistake regarding our ‘heroine’ later on. Oates is unflinching, intensely detailed in her prose, often dedicating several pages to a tiny moment in a character’s inner life. It should feel overladen but it doesn’t, not when she’s so concerned with dissecting the concept of evil and how it breeds across generations. It might be a while before I pick up another Oates book (they’re all very long!) but Babysitter certainly won’t be my last foray into her work.

Whisper of the Seals by Roxanne Bouchard

Detective Joaquin Morales, stationed in the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec, is looking forward to getting away from it all now that he’s finally signed his divorce papers. Friends have dragged him along on a ski cruise to take his mind off things, even as he considers the mistakes of his past and his tentative feelings for fisheries officer Simone Lord. She, meanwhile, has been stationed at the last minute on a trawler ship braving the terrible weather for a seal hunt. The men onboard don’t want her there, and it soon becomes clear that her life is in danger.

Roxanne Bouchard is one of my favourite crime writers, the more elegiac and bleak alternative to my beloved Louise Penny. Her works, translated from French by David Warriner, are often languidly paced, stripped of the cozy qualities one often craves from this brand of small-town crime fiction. Her detective is depressed but not tortured, a lonely man forced into further isolation thanks to the location of his work. The locals are suspicious of outsiders but never romantic about their own often-difficult lives. Simone is stuck on a boat surrounded by misogynists, drug addicts, ‘well-meaning’ men, and the overall danger of life at sea. For most of the book, the narrative focus is on her and the slowly unfolding truth of her situation, and the tension is often unbearable. Bouchard’s series isn’t one with much levity, and Whisper of the Seals is no exception, but the ways it slowly unfolds to reveal its bleak conclusion is the work of a truly talented writer.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

The work of Dr. Annick Swenson has long been shrouded in secrecy, even from her employers. Nestled in the midst of the Brazilian Rio Negro, she is developing a drug that could extend women’s ability to have children well into their old age. Frustrated with the lack of news on her research, her funders sent a researcher to investigate. Now, he’s reported dead and it’s up to Marina Singh, a former student of Dr. Swenson, to fly to South America and uncover the truth for herself.

I initially picked up State of Wonder because its plot reminded me of one of my absolute favourite novels, The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. That book details an abusive scientist’s work among a Micronesian tribe who hold the key to immortality. The two titles share connective tissue, but where Yanagihara was more concerned with dissecting a sociopath, Patchett offers a riff on Heart of Darkness with a focus on the feminine. Marina, mired by her own personal and professional troubles, descends into the jungle looking less for answers than a brief escape from her own world. The Amazon initially seems like a place where the rules of society don’t apply, but she soon finds herself experiencing the truth of a location where the fingerprints of colonialism remain firmly on display, particularly through the involvement of Dr. Swenson, a strict but committed scientist who harbours mixed feelings about her own research. I appreciated the dark shades this book teased out, particularly in terms of Marina and Dr. Swenson’s frequently conflicting views over outsider intervention in the matters of the indigenous people whose lives they’ve infringed upon. It doesn’t quite live up to the dizzying peaks of my favourite book, but I was thoroughly engaged in State of Wonder nonetheless.

Midnight Duet by Jen Comfort

There are few things I will instantly put my money down for without a second thought. Weird re-imaginings of The Phantom of the Opera are one of them. Long-time Pajiba book nerds will be aware of my Phantom shelf, which is adorned with retellings of Gaston Leroux’s book (and, of course, the musical.) So, when I saw Midnight Duel cross my Twitter timeline, I had to have it. Is it good? That’s the wrong question to ask here. Is it bananas and just as weird as half the Phantom books on that shelf? Oh hell yes.

Midnight Duet features a gender-swapped central pair, with our Phantom, now Erika, being a former Broadway diva who was scarred during a performance of Les Misérables and now lives in a rundown opera house in Paris, Nevada. Christof is a hot, leather-clad German glam rocker who is totally not inspired by MÃ¥neskin. He wants a cool haunted location to record his band’s new album. She needs money to save her business. You know what happens next.

A lot of Phantom retellings are knowingly silly. It’s not the easiest story to update to a modern setting for obvious reasons. Apparently, it’s not so easy these days to run an incel murder basement from your local arts venue. So, Midnight Duet is, of course, extremely daft. Self-aware in its daftness but still. You’re either with it or you’re not, and I’ve read enough of these books to be with it, although every time I see a romantic hero in leather pants and eyeliner, I can’t help but think of early-2000s fanon Draco Malfoy. Look, I’ve read worse Phantom retellings, and it’s nice to have a new one on my shelf!