What We're Reading - November

George

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris

This is the first of Harris’ books I’ve read, a retelling of the Norse myths from the perspective of the trickster god, Loki. It’s a solid idea, one that recalled my teenage years spent reading The Sandman.

Harris’ Loki is a playful character, an egotistical, inherently flippant and capable antihero. Add in his wanton use of anachronisms and a delivery focused most of all on being pacey and you have a good sense of the effect. As long as you’re not too frustrated by references to him taking showers, and even one use of ‘chillax’, you’ll be ok.

It’s an eminently accessible narrative, which makes for a good primer for those new to the mythology. One that, as I understand it, is fairly true to the original structure. It’s also interesting that it’s so successful today, given the zeitgeist is all about grimdark and Game of Thrones – this is myth-laden high fantasy, strolling between worlds, paragons and the divine. For the new generation whose first encounter of the characters is via Marvel, it’s also a good way to lead people into the basis of reconstructing familiar characters and tropes.

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy by Gabriella Coleman

I’m not sure when, but at some point in 2016 I fell in love with Verso Books; this one really confirmed that for me. Hacker… is an anthropological study of Anonymous and LulzSec undertaken by Coleman whilst she was embedded in their community. This means she has spent years in IRC chat rooms with them, witnessed now famous Ops being planned and has even met various members IRL. She has perhaps more than any other observer of the Anonymous movement.

Given the relatively sparse nature of accurate reportage on Anonymous in the news, this is a detailed and empathetic analysis of its history, identity and differing cultural norms. It’s not entirely impartial (Coleman confesses her own sympathies in the book) but it is fascinating. It’s also hard not to be charmed by an academic referring to subject decisions (flipping and snitching in this case) as a ‘dick move’.

Hacker… provides history, character profiles and an analysis of how and why Anonymous do what they do. How what started as an organised aspect of trolling quickly grew very sophisticated, then became aware of its potential which quickly exploded into efficient Ops like Anonymous involvement in the Arab Spring, Occupy and attacks on major corporations like Sony. It recounts countless hypocrisies and contradictions from all quarters – the most egregious being companies contracted by the US government to catch hackers using the same illegal tactics as the hackers – but stays true to the ideals Anonymous adhere to: because Anonymous act from political and moral standpoints, which are specific and identifiable.

I really recommend this one.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Often cited as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Rebecca is another classic I had missed. It’s about a young girl who marries a widower gentleman from the West Country only to discover everything she does is overshadowed by his dead wife. It includes some wonderful writing, and a particularly crafty structure that has you reassessing characters and themes throughout.

In particular, du Maurier has created a compellingly unstable world for her narrator driven by her anxieties and uncertainties. So many events lead to a fit of nervy introspection and panicked imaginings of disaster. Add in a deft critique of class and a superbly self-obsessed set of aristocrats and you end up with something that is incessantly discomforting to read. For those who have had any experience of acute anxiety, you’ll find much to recognise here.

About the only criticism I can level is that it includes a couple of almost entirely redundant dinner scenes. But really, those are minor details in an otherwise very good book. I’ll have to investigate more of du Maurier’s work in the future.

Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone

This is one of TTA’s short-lived novella series, which I picked up from their stall at FantasyCon this year. Set in a run-down Scottish town, it follows teacher Raym as he tries to give up smoking. So far, so normal, except Raym smokes a lot, he’s pretty unhappy and he keeps being chased around town by the tally-van…

There’s a manic touch to this one, like Something Wicked This Way Comes dialled up to adult. As you might expect things unravel fairly quickly and they’re played with a gruesome sense of farce. There’s a fairly large cast as well, so scenes are snappy and played out with lots of dialogue.

In a rare result for me, I actually felt the ideas needed more space to grow here so I would have preferred things being given room to breathe. Still, it’s an energetic mash of influences, told with verve.


Gary

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My reading this month (submissions aside of course) has been limited, for various reasons. Don't annoy the right-wing online if you want to get some reading done, is my advice. However, two short-story collections have greatly impressed me this month. 

Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie

I picked this up after seeing Irenosen's amazing reading at the last Unsung Live.  

I think it would be easy to apply terms like surreal or magical-realist to this new collection of short fiction, but they don’t feel quite appropriate for these vivid bursts of imagination.

There is a definite influence of Nigerian storytelling here, with the real and the fantastic intermixing in fairly matter-of-fact ways. At the same time Speak Gigantular feels like a very London book. Stories concerning the ghosts of suicides on the Underground, people disappearing in plain sight, loneliness made manifest, all of these things seem born from the city and fused with other storytelling traditions, often to great effect. And as bizarre as some of the pieces get, there is a dark emotional element driving the stories. Mental unravelling, frankly described and sometimes unusual sexual desire, obsession – they all get a look in here.

A few stories didn’t quite work for me, where the writer’s imagination gets away from her. But its clear from reading Speak Gigantular that we’re dealing with a talent, and when the imaginative power is wedded to strong character-led narrative, such as in the wonderful ‘Poco Poco’, then the result is something very special.

Recommended. 

Some Will Not Sleep by Adam Nevill

I’d been meaning to read Adam Nevill for a while. I became aware of this new collection of his short-fiction at Fantasycon back in September, and following reading his excellent horror baker’s dozen in The Quietus (which featured The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley no less) decided to take the plunge. This was the correct decision. 

The best description for these stories is literary horror, though you can claim them for the weird or ‘dark fiction’ if you must; I’m pretty sure it’s all the same thing. 

A few pieces fall into a pulpier category such as ‘What God Hath Wrought?’, an enjoyable mash-up of Westerns and zombie fiction with an apocalyptic religious bent to it. ‘Pig Thing’ and ‘The Original Occupant’ are excellent, though exploring well-trodden themes, in this case the perils of lingering pre-human inhabitants of wild places. 

But the standout pieces for me were the ones that gave me a real ‘what-the-f**k’ moment and moved away from the more obvious horror tropes. ‘Mother’s Milk’ made me feel ill when reading it on the train, and ‘Doll Hands’ and ‘To Forget and to be Forgotten’ supplied a surreal nightmarish quality I’ve found in work by Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco. My personal favourite ‘Yellow Teeth’ managed to mix black absurd comedy, that reminded me of an episode of Inside No. 9, sheer revulsion – I can’t forget the term ‘crispy psoriasis’ – and the sense of something transcendental being achieved. 

An excellent collection, recommended for anyone interested in the current surge in weird fiction or short stories in general.