What we're reading: Jan 2016

Welcome to the first of something new we're doing here at Unsung – what we're reading. Just like you, we've always got our nose in something, and we spend a lot of time talking about it.

We'll do this once a month, a few thoughts on what we've got through and maybe what's up next. Let us know what you're reading in the comments as well!


I've made a promise to myself that I'm going to fill some of my significant gaps in 2016. This means you can expect a few confessions in coming months. It also means the first thing I read this year was Crime and Punishment

Man, is that an intense book. It's about drop-out law student, Roskolnikov, who decides to murder an old avaricious pawnbroker for her money. Of course, it doesn't go quite to plan, and his moral and criminal aspects fight it out. Add in various sub-plots around his family, marriages across class boundaries, prostitution, alcoholism and TB, and you have a titanic commentary on the effects of poverty on people.

It's excellent. Harrowing at points, sure - the murder itself is particularly tangible and unfiltered - but so very good. Also, there's this bit at the end where Dostoyevsky kind of foreshadows zombie/plague fiction...

My other read was Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company. Definitely a striking book, and Ballard is a sophisticated prose stylist, but not one I enjoyed. Were it down to his writing alone this would be a delight to read, the lurid descriptions of Shepperton blooming into a bizarre new Eden really capture something. The characters never felt real though, and it felt more like Ballard telling me something than the narrator.


I've also been keeping up with series 2 of Serial, which is fascinating. At the moment it's exploring how massive systems can't handle small details, the system being the US military and the detail being the kidnapped Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.


I have an ongoing obsession with the English civil war and its fallout. It's a fascinating and crucial piece of history that is strangely under-represented in fiction – luckily, there are some decent works out there if you’re willing to dig/go on AbeBooks.

David Caute’s 1961 novel Comrade Jacob focuses on Gerard Winstanley and the mystical proto-communist sect he founded in the years after the fall of the monarchy. His ecstatic religious epiphany on St George’s Hill, Surrey, leads to the creation of the Diggers (many of them ex-soldiers from Cromwell’s army), who take it upon themselves to live collectively and farm the commons on the hill, in a time of great famine, poverty and social unrest.

It's wonderful novel about a tricky subject, exploring religious faith, power, the system of land ownership in England, and how, inevitably, brute force is meted out to those who try and live a different kind of life. (St George’s Hill, incidentally, is now home to stockbroker-belt residences and a private golf course.)

The other novel I read this month was Sarah Perry's The Essex SerpentOut later this summer, the story concerns a group of modern (to the 19th century) Londoners – surgeons, a widowed fossil hunter taken with Darwin’s theories – who congregate on the Essex town of Aldwinter, staying with a local clergyman and his family. The town is plagued by the alleged return of the Essex Serpent, a wyrm believed to be responsible for various mishaps in the area; a dead body washed up in the estuary, a poisoned well, the delayed coming of spring, a breakout of hysteria among schoolgirls. Religious belief, rational science and the continued existence of pre-Christian superstitions both clash and intertwine in an Essex landscape rendered wondrous and sinister. It's a novel about the limits of both faith and science, and how the essential strangeness of the world persists.

In the world of short stories and journals, I've been enjoying the output of The Ghastlingwho's third issue contains some real gems of dark ghostly fiction. I also read Helen Marshall's Gifts for the One who Comes Afteran intriguing and unnerving, if at times uneven, collection that will appeal to fans of Kelly Link and other modern weird fiction writers. 

Finally, 12 years after I said I would read it, I've begun Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It's very good so far; i'll report back after the remaining 900 pages.