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Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerly Nahm

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
by David Connerly Nahm
Two Dollar Radio (2014)
201 pages
Link to Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky in LFPL’s collection
Link to titles by David Connerly Nahm in LFPL’s collection

“Leah fell asleep outside the night after her brother disappeared, outside to get away from the sounds inside, and she saw two little girls in brilliant calico dresses walk from the garage and climb up the maple tree. They didn’t come down, not that she saw. The night was silent. The stars were silent. The grass was silent. The world was empty.” Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky

Once in a while you come across a wild, profound, terrifying, beautiful book that reminds you of the ways in which literature is such a beautiful art form. Then, sometimes, you look up the author and find that once upon a time they dropped a book like this and it’s also their only work to date, which makes the mind reel. Did creating this story with its intricate narrative consume all the literary energy they had to give? Was it the work of years, and maybe they’re crafting another such book right now? Or did they just wake up one day with an idea for a completely devastating novel, release it into the world, and decide they were done? David Connerly Nahm wrote his only full-length novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky in 2014, and he has a minimal online presence excepting an interview or podcast guest spot, a rarity in the social media age. This was a disappointment to me only in the sense that it didn’t take long into my reading to realize this novel was a work of art, and once I’d finished the rollercoaster of dramatic intrigue stretching through the course of Ancient Oceans, I immediately wanted another ride.

Nahm employs suspense incredibly well to keep readers hooked throughout a very poetic novel that, lacking sufficient levels of ghostly intrigue, may have gone over a lot of peoples’ heads. (Honestly, if you prefer a straight-to-the-point storytelling style with no additional commentary or complex themes, this still might not be the book for you.) But Nahm knits together a stream of consciousness style and third person perspective in his book that creates an eerie, almost out-of-body narrative voice to tell the story of Leah, a woman whose entire life as it exists in the present of the book was defined by a traumatic event in her childhood, the disappearance of her little brother Jacob. It is through Leah’s perspective that we’re shown the rural Kentucky town of Crow Station (heavily influenced by Danville, Kentucky) and the people who live there, many of whom Leah has known her entire life. This cast of personalities fills out Crow Station’s tableau of those who, in the course of the book’s two acts, live, alternately carve out joy or succumb to cruelty, struggle for survival financially and philosophically and leave their mark on the ever-shrinking pocket of Kentucky in which they are fated to live and die and leave behind their stories to haunt generations to come, and even the land itself.

A deep understanding of folkloric themes is obvious in Nahm’s narrative as he employs both the suspense of gradually uncovering the truth of Jacob’s loss and elements of ghost stories throughout the book to engage readers and to suggest the possibility of the supernatural as a running theme. From Leah’s childhood remembrances of local ghost stories to the way the actions of one generation can define not just their life but linger in the experiences of their children, heritage and memory are explored by Nahm as he gradually strips away layers of forgotten or misremembered events in the rural, underfunded and fading town to bring some of the threads of the plot to light, while raising even more questions about others.

Ancients Oceans parallels ghost stories – and specifically, regionally, the concept of haints – with themes of being haunted by the past, the choices and events that constitute a life. As the novel progresses, early references to random snapshots of events that initially felt poetic in purpose are revealed as moments in the lives of the orbiting side characters. And throughout, courtesy of the guilty memories of a very unreliable narrator, readers find themselves trying to solve the unsolved mystery of what really happened to seven-year-old Jacob Shepherd, but also, in what form and for what purpose has he perhaps returned?

Nahm drew from his own life experiences for his portrayal of rural Kentucky, as well as different scenes and snippets of dialogue throughout the book. In an interview leading up to its release he said “While I remember myself as a kind older brother—though maybe a touch dictatorial—to this day I am sometimes filled with an ill-feeling when I abruptly remember some long past misdeed: A time I wrestled my brother and hurt him on purpose because I was mad or when I failed to stand up for my sisters when they were teased in a playground. It is this inability to let these things go that informed Leah and Jacob’s relationship—or, more accurately, her memory of their relationship.” These added layers make the novel deeply personal and honestly, more than a little vulnerable in a way that I as a reader physically sensed. As an older sister who, being a child herself, occasionally picked at her younger sibling and resented being followed around, Leah’s guilty memories of her childhood relationship with her brother – including her occasional bullying – definitely stung. Readers are often presented with unflattering anecdotes of ways she was unkind to him prior to his disappearance, what some would call typical sibling behavior that became magnified in her memory once he was gone. In a climactic scene, Leah, the quintessential unreliable narrator, discloses a new and crucial piece of information to readers who have spent the last couple of hundred pages learning every detail about her life and may have assumed that, having been inside her mind, there was nothing left for her to hide. 

The unavoidable point of tension and confrontation in that scene and an ending that can be interpreted any number of ways almost require the reader to sit in judgment on Leah and decide whether or not to absolve her of her childhood sins. I personally found myself poring over different aspects of Leah’s story and I still have no concrete answers, but while I’m sure Nahm knows the truth of what was factual or imagined in his narrative, the potential for conversation and dissection of the events of the story make this the perfect book club book, in my opinion. I could discuss it for ages, and unfortunately for the people in my life who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, I will most likely be doing so for the foreseeable future.

I would recommend Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky to fans of Kentucky authors, Southern Gothic themes, family-centric dramas, and books you’re still thinking about in the car on the way to work the next day.

– Review by SarahMain Library

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

This is my ultimate favorite read for the entirety of 2021. And a lot of great books debuted in 2021.

The Final Girl Support Group explores a world in which the events in our most famous slasher films really took place before being optioned for media production. The survivors of several bloody massacres – the titular “final girls”, per the movie trope of one lone girl surviving a horror story – are left to find their way in a world where everyone knows what they lived through, and though many consider them a strange kind of celebrity, others would just as soon see their killers finish them off. Some of these girls, now women, have managed to capitalize on their fame and dictate the terms of their own lives years after the slaughters they all lived through, owning their strength. Others are barely hanging on, destructive coping mechanisms and constant fear haunting their every step.

Lynnette Tarkington is in the latter group. She lives like a ghost, as off-the-grid as possible, her apartment transformed into a panic room and with only two personal attachments: her houseplant Fine – short for “Final Plant” – and a ragtag therapy group made up of other final girls and the psychiatrist who assembled them all, Dr. Carol. The members are fierce and bitter survivors as likely to devolve into low-blow verbal warfare as to help each other actually heal. They’re in no shape to band together when the heart of their group, Adrienne King, is suddenly found murdered. Like falling dominos, outside threats in the form of leaked secrets, misinformation, and physical attacks begin to target each member of the group at once, stalking and isolating them. Lynnette finds herself fighting to survive once more as she is left to untangle the web of a psychotic mastermind, with few resources and fading credibility in the eyes of the public and the other final girls. Every contingency plan she’s made may not be enough to save her from a bloody fate this time.

Grady Hendrix’s stories are unique, twisted, highly energetic works anchored by characters who have what two-dimensional horror flick protagonists typically lack: emotional depth that grips the reader and renders them unable to put down the books and abandon the characters, because the only thing scarier than what’s stalking them in the dark is the thought of not knowing how it all ends. Within a week of finishing this book I was lucky enough to get my hands on and finish all of his other novels, and I’m now a diehard fan. I don’t normally go in for horror novels and can’t watch scary movies at all, but the premise of The Final Girl Support Group was just self-aware and campy enough that it seriously intrigued me. I won’t lie, there were moments and a handful of scenes throughout that I did find disturbing and scary (so horror-intolerants, beware…) because Hendrix is very good at his genre. But in the end the plot had the addictive elements of a fast-paced thriller and hooked me so hard I had to see it through. In my opinion sleeping with the hallway lights on for a couple of nights was more than worth an incredible story.

I knew that if Hendrix was really faithful to major horror tropes, certain character archetypes nodded to in the story (the single Black character in a group, the one gay character, the prima donna, the jock, the junkie, etc.) were likely doomed to meet a bad and/or gratuitous end, and to some extent he does play off some of those clichés. But he also uses each character’s varied circumstances to explore different themes about death so that for the characters who are killed, it’s the start of their conversation in several ways, not the end, because he puts in the work to flesh out each and every one far beyond the two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs slasher flicks often reduce characters to. When someone dies, in what ways do they live on? Is the strength of one’s legacy enough to triumph over death from beyond the grave? Which is preferable, a sudden, violent death or a slow and wasting one at the natural end of a life, and is there really a difference in the level of horror each invokes?

I wouldn’t host one book discussion group about this novel: I’d have to host a series of them to have enough time to discuss the nuances Hendrix gets down to his elbows in, even places where he could just as easily have left details unexplored or played them off as a gimmick. But this author is an artist when it comes to literary examination of the human experience: it would be obvious in any genre he chose as his canvas, but in my opinion we’re lucky he happens to prefer such a clever and fun one.

Speaking of which, and without revealing any spoilers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite character in the entire thing, Dani. It’s rare as a queer reader that I encounter portrayals of butch women at all, let alone one that grabbed my heart like Dani, a member of the group who survived a Friday the 13th-style gauntlet of attacks and is just as much, if not more, of a badass as Lynnette. Lynnette mentions in her analysis of Dani that she already knew she was a lesbian when she experienced her attacks, and in a world that often judges LGBTQIA+ kids as inherently sexual and therefore no longer an innocent child, within a genre where only “innocent” girls who follow the rules and remain “pure” in contrast to their peers’ social behaviors tend to survive to the end of the story, I appreciated that little slice of acknowledgement of queer teens’ worth. The novel doesn’t spare Dani’s trauma: it explores every character’s nuances as their pasts are dug up and used to torment them one by one. But it also gives us a glimpse into this fascinating queer character who we see secondhand through Lynnette as a protector of her friends, a relentless warrior, and a clever and wise soul who loves so hard it nearly consumes her. I’ll be honest, I definitely have a crush on this character.

In my opinion, Lynnette is the perfect narrator for this kind of emotionally driven story – if any of the other “final girls” had been the focus, it would have been a very different story of a few days’ events, likely with a radically different conclusion. Lynnette’s decisions are all informed by fear, and from a first-person POV a reader can’t help but get excited and anxious along with her (which may make this book off-putting to readers who don’t like to get sucked into emotion that intense). Lynnette’s adrenaline is always kicked into high gear, focused on survival at every moment. She feels everything acutely, not just panic and suspicion but affection that borders on codependency; grief that almost swallows her up in despair; curiosity that nearly – literally – kills; and anger that powers her through moments where others might succumb.

The same excessive survival instincts that protect Lynnette also blind her in certain ways: readers may pick up on several details she misses, who she should or shouldn’t trust and even whether she’s chasing red herrings at times. Lynnette is incapable of pausing to examine situations without some level of bias (possibly a nod from the author to ways in which it’s been proven that PTSD, intense anxiety and other stressors can impact one’s brain over lengthy periods of time.) It personally pulled me into the mental space of watching a slasher movie, yelling at the characters on the screen (as if they can hear you) not to go into a dark basement, or to watch out behind them for a hidden killer, which in context of this genre was artfully done.

A breakout star in horror, Hendrix has already had several of his most popular works optioned for television with star-studded production teams. I was thrilled to learn that Charlize Theron will be an executive producer on The Final Girl Support Group TV series, since her portfolio of roles featuring battle-hardened women who have lived through various traumas and bashed their way out the other side had me picturing her as Lynnette in my mind throughout the book. Theron will bring a valuable perspective to the project and help it to fully realize its potential, having been inside the minds of multiple characters who could be profiled alongside this book’s blood-soaked heroines. I highly recommend plowing through as many of Hendrix’s novels as possible before the TV content starts dropping, because it’s all going to be extremely worth it to skip the library waiting list when every horror-tolerant person you know starts devouring this and Hendrix’s other works. I personally am glad to have found this powerful book now, both for the experience of a deeply impactful story…and so that when I sit down to watch the series through my fingers, I know exactly where to close my eyes.

The Final Girl Support Group falls in a niche where not every horror fan may find it terrifying enough to suit them and not every reader of tongue-in-cheek genre parody will find it cerebral or humorous enough. I’m personally unfamiliar with many other works that bring emotion and wit to horror the way this one does, except Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw – another clever, self-aware horror novel from this past summer – and of course Grady Hendrix’s other works. I would certainly recommend The Final Girl Support Group to fans of Charlize Theron films like The Old Guard and Mad Max: Fury Road where warrior women have marked character growth and autonomy amid a backdrop of over the top action and violence. If you enjoyed shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and aren’t put off by slasher movie-level gore, or films such as the Alien franchise (but with the ability to laugh at their own genre), I highly recommend making this your first 2022 read.

– Review by SarahMain Library

Seed by Ania Ahlborn

As we approach “spooky season” I start to crave a good horror novel…one that I can read on the couch in the middle of the day with all the windows wide open and the sun shining, of course. It’s not my usual fare but a coworker recommended Seed to me, Anita Ahlborn’s debut novel set in rural Louisiana, and I was intrigued and in the mood for something supernatural and sinister. I got exactly what I wished for.

Jack Winters has been carrying the burden of something evil and hungry all his life – he’s even gotten the snarling grin that chases him tattooed onto his back – but despite years of silence and his attempts to build a life with his wife Aimee and their two daughters, despite rebuilding his terrified psyche from what he saw as a child and struggling financially in the present to make ends meet for his small family, he’s about to learn he hasn’t outrun anything. On a dark highway traveling home the Winters family experiences a freak accident that brings Jack face to face with his monster…and this time his youngest daughter, Charlie, sees it too. And Charlie begins to change almost immediately, following the Young Child in a Horror Story playbook: her health suffers, she starts acting out, she suddenly knows things she shouldn’t and starts sowing discord, and then violence. Aimee knows something is wrong, but not to what extent, as her youngest starts to stalk the household. And Jack is torn between finally telling Aimee everything about his past and losing her and the girls forever, and realizing that by the time it becomes vital, it’s too late…that it was always too late. Because while Jack remembers the demon that haunts him there’s a lot of details about his flight from his own childhood home that he doesn’t remember, and he is forced to start searching for the truth about his family, his parents and a single, similar escalation of terror they all experienced before in order to have a chance at saving Charlie in the present.

I really liked the Winters family and felt terribly for them, even if you logically know that it’s not always wise to get attached to the characters in horror stories.* Jack worked a tough, physical job for the family he adored and played in a band with his buddies on the side, and he genuinely reminded me of some of the boys that lived in my grandparents’ holler growing up, a little wild and extremely into metal bands and WWE but you knew they were good-hearted. I don’t see a lot of people like that reflected in literature, and I loved it, even if in this case they were being seriously terrorized. We experience some of the more terrifying scenes from Aimee’s perspective while alone with the kids, and I really felt for her as well: in addition to being terrified for/terrorized by her own daughters, we the readers know Jack had been trying hard to conceal his past from her, and so it was obvious to us that she was in no way equipped to deal with Charlie’s sudden, dramatic possession. Ahlborn peppers the book with creepiness, sliding brief scenes and horrifying lines from Charlie into the constant narrative of Jack’s mounting dread, and they’re effective. Her progression from normal little girl to a vessel for unspeakable evil is gradual, until the plot crashes into us – and the Winters family – and you realize along with all of them that there will be no return to innocence.

I’ve read reviews of this book after the fact where readers have surmised that it contains a major theme of how family violence gets passed down in families for one generation after another. As far as I can tell the events of the story happen over the course of a couple of weeks – I found myself assuming Jack had so much more time to figure out how to save his family, right up until the climax of the novel suddenly crashed down on him and us. Additionally, one of the factors that makes the possession and sundering of this family so painful to read is because Jack clearly loved his children, and treated them well, and he and Aimee loved each other and were fighting desperately to hold their family together. There wasn’t a history of violence in Jack’s family as far as we can see and even if there had been, experiencing familial abuse as a child isn’t a guarantee that a person will grow up to be abusive.

So in my opinion, this isn’t a story about the enduring nature of family violence. It’s simply a story about the Devil playing a game wherein he wagers that a parent will murder their possessed child to protect themselves, because even when he loses he wins, and he’s been winning like that for a very long time. And now it’s Jack’s turn to play.

I’d recommend this book to horror fans who appreciate a Southern Gothic set dressing, creepy kids and the slow reveal of a thriller, with a moderate amount of gore and a side of existential dread. As it turns out however, Ania Ahlborn is one of the more prolific horror authors in recent history, and the plots of her books run the gamut of horror tropes from cannibalistic hillbillies to haunted houses to unseen monsters lurking in the woods, so if you’re a horror fan who hasn’t yet heard of Ahlborn, it looks like she writes a little something for everybody…as it were.

*As a side note, I try to flag reviews of books I read where animals experience violence, because that can be a major trigger for a lot of folks. It feels silly in a book where so much haunting and harm comes to humans, including kids, which would theoretically take precedence over animals in a lot of our sympathies, but just in case I’ll put it here anyway: be aware, a dog is hurt during the course of this story.

– Review by SarahMain Library

In Vino Duplicitas by Peter Hellman

For whatever reason I’ve spent most of my life thinking of the true crime genre as play-by-play retellings of gruesome murders and unsolved disappearances, and have only dipped into that section when in the mood for something really spooky. Recently however an account of the Isabella Gardner Museum heist came across my desk, and now to my great delight I have a backlog of thirty-something books on great art and jewel heists, solved and unsolved, ancient and modern. Likely for the same reason Robin Hood movies keep getting made, there’s just something addictive about stories of fabulous thefts, especially ones where the wealthy get a comeuppance (and nobody is really hurt once the insurance companies pay out anyway) that captivates the imagination…if told with that sense of adventure in mind. In Vino Duplicitas, a summation of the greatest wine fraud event in this century, doesn’t disappoint when it comes to a criminally twisted tale or imaginative telling.

As a wine journalist and appreciator himself, author Peter Hellman’s talent in explaining a fairly blue-blooded hobby to the everyday reader is evident from page one. He doesn’t just toss names and dates around and expect the reader to understand his context like elite wine collectors: Hellman leverages his experience describing wines and what makes them special to draw the reader in from the preface, before even diving into the story of infamous wine forger Rudy Kurniawan. An immigrant to the United States with an expired student visa and alleged access to a family fortune abroad, Kurniawan began infiltrating the world of wine in the early 2000’s. Armed with easy charm, a naturally talented palate, and enough real rare wines to generously uncork for his friends at every opportunity, he was accepted as a comrade and expert by elite names in predominately older, wealthy, white circles. They saw the passionate young man with a formidable collection of his own who hosted large parties at expensive restaurants (with a notable habit of always having the empty bottles and corks shipped back to his home as “mementos”) as a breath of fresh air, and once accepted by the wine connoisseur boy’s club, Kurniawan exploited their trust in his taste to mix counterfeit rare wines and unload them at auctions in the U.S. and internationally for untold millions of dollars.

Had his reach of his scheme not exceeded its grasp, he might have gone on counterfeiting wines for years longer than he successfully did: his marks found it unthinkable that another hobbyist would be so blasphemous as to violate the integrity of the hobby they loved, but after a point it was also unthinkable that so many bottles of wines thought lost or extinct could suddenly be procured by one person. Once the proprietors of the French wineries Kurniawan specialized in replicating started talking to each other and investigating the source of the “Frankenstein wines,” Kurniawan’s days were numbered and the FBI agents who had been dogging his tracks closed in. The book then recounts how the situation devolved into several millionaire wine collectors suing each other alongside Kurniawan in a legal flurry of betrayal and wounded pride, desperate to make an example out of anyone they could. Even a member of the politically recognizable Koch family was swindled by Kurniawan.

Despite his admissions of the lasting damage Kurniawan dealt the rare wine world and many testimonies from angry hobbyists, Hellman even still seems to hold a note of respect for something about him – perhaps his undeniable palate, perhaps the sheer amount of chaos he sowed, or perhaps like many of us who will read this book, the understanding that sometimes it’s fun to see the underdog triumph over the decadently wealthy, even if that underdog is just a shady little criminal. As the author himself supposes, “…do these folks not bear some responsibility for not doing their due diligence before throwing silly quantities of money at Kurniawan wine? Absent the guile of a consummate con man, they would have held tight to their money and their common sense.” Hellman, who includes his own conversations with Kurniawan during the time he was active among the scores of referenced others who once counted him as friend and confidante, clearly researched his book extensively as a labor of love for years during and after the fallout from Rudy Kurniawan. Using his professional profile as a wine writer the way Kurniawan used his gifted palate, Hellman was able to conduct incredibly candid interviews with almost everyone touched by Kurniawan’s schemes, from legacy winemakers to federal agents to lifelong connoisseurs, everyone who contributed to the book seemingly eager to spill the beans on the fraud that had walked among them.

In Vino Duplicitas is juicy enough as a crime story to stand on its own, but what really made the ride enjoyable for me was Hellman’s passion for the art of wine, a subject I’m generally ignorant of as a fancy hobby for the rich with little impact on me, personally. But Hellman takes us on a leisurely tour through his narrative, pausing at useful intervals to explain the story behind the 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, harvested just after the Germans were driven from France and its label emblazoned with a “V” for “victory”, and to recount the raptures of one of Kurniawan’s mentors after the con man shared with him a 140-year-old Volnay Santenots the man described as, among other things, a “mythical creature”. If a wine is rare or special, Hellman will describe for you in lush detail exactly what it is that makes that wine unforgettable. Hellman takes the reader by the hand and invites them to the lavish dinners at which Kurniawan wooed his marks, gatherings of supposed friends dining in the kind of decadence most of us can only dream of, and as a wine journalist given a glimpse of this world as an outsider himself (a working professional, not there for pleasure), Hellman seems to relate to the reader in that regard. He certainly taught me several things about wine over the course of the story I would otherwise never have picked up. Other writers without a personal interest in the world Hellman crafts for us could not have told the story of Rudy Kurniawan with half as much charm or intrigue.

I would heartily recommend In Vino Duplicitas to any fans of crime or heist television such as Catch Me If You Can or Leverage; to anyone who enjoys the schadenfreude of witnessing extremely bamboozled billionaires; and to anyone who’s always wanted to know more about the exclusive art of wine, perhaps from a helpful friend willing to share with us just what makes wine special enough for some to risk everything for.

– Review by Sarah, Middletown