Hard to believe a month has gone already. I’ve got that usual question hanging over me, what did I do with my time? Looking back though, there was a lot of reading… Curiously, it seems I also accidentally created a themed collection.
I started with Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni. This was a coming-of-age story set in the Philippines and, as publishers And Other Stories say, is ‘about criminality under the guise of progress, freedom or the illusion of it’. There’s a strong sense of a fading world in this book, a nobility to the characters as they come to wisdom, and deal with the threat of urban development which became more relevant as my month went on.
From a real archipelago I moved on to Christopher Priest’s The Dream Archipelago. This collection of linked stories are set on an archipelago that’s been at war for longer than anyone can remember. There’s no nostalgia here though, instead an entirely compelling journey into the landscape and the weird. Poets in war zones, synaesthesia as a weapon, whores with filed teeth, obsession, lust and awful parasites all feature. It’s inherently lyrical psychosexual journey, beguiling and really very good.
Next was Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. Whilst definitely aimed at younger readers this was full of Bradbury’s typical elegance, and some gorgeous illustrations. It’s about a group of boys being taken on a journey through Halloween’s history – all the way back to pre-history in fact – by Mr Moundshroud. This is one I’ll be passing on to future children because it lifts the veil on the contemporary ideas of Halloween and also deals with death head on. No horror or warnings here, the boys are at peace with Moundshroud and everything he represents.
From that historical journey I moved on to Leah Moore and John Reppion’s Albion, which reboots lost characters of British comics. It’s perhaps overshadowed by her father’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, but I still enjoyed it. The message of preservation remains relevant, along with reclaiming the strange. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe in ascendance it’s good to remember some of the roots are strange, and harder to rationalise morally.
Finally I read Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London by Gareth E. Rees (published by Gary under another alias). This collected fiction and narrative non-fiction is a paean to the urban-rural borderlands that are the Hackney Marshes. The stories range from witty anecdotes of dog walking to time-travelling Victorians and downright creepy weirdness. It made me laugh out loud (a rare thing for a book) and was shot through with that familiar strangeness that Londoners will immediately recognise.
So I make that History and Archipelago, Landscape Weird Archipelago, Historical Folklore, Historical Weird and finally Historical Landscape Weird. It feels like a neat month.
This month I’ve had the pleasure of returning to the fantastic, melancholy world of Lodellan and its surrounding areas, first explored by Angela Slatter in Sourdough and now expanded in this follow-up collection, The Bitterwood Bible and other Recountings. These stories are dark, adult takes on folklore, set in a world that feels both mythic and grounded in an earthly, bloody, reality. Each tale is impeccably realised in itself, but this works as a proper collection – characters, locations and objects (such as the Bitterwood Bible itself) all interweave throughout the book creating a very impressive whole, greater than the sum of its parts.
Slatter is one of my very favourite writers of fantastic fiction, and these books are essential for anyone interested in the genre. Luckily Tartarus Press had the good sense to release both Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible in paperback editions so you can still get hold of them without breaking the bank.
A novel that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this month is The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. Set in a near-future/alternative present Britain, this story of rewilding grey wolves in the remote parts of Cumbria, against a backdrop of successful Scottish independence and political upheaval, really grabbed me (it helps that I am, shall we say, pro-Monbiot).
I’m wary of novels attempting to be too voguish when it comes to current affairs, but Hall gets this just right. This isn’t an issues-novel, though the issues are there. It’s not a novel with wolves and rewilding as fashionable window-dressing. It works as a complete package. Highly recommended for anyone interested in unsentimental UK landscape fiction (unless you think re-introducing wolves to the UK heralds the end of days.)
Other than that I’ve mainly been reading submissions on my Kindle, delving into the Hookland writer’s bible researching Starfall Common, and watching all of Judd Apatow’s Love on Netflix whilst ill in bed.