What We're Reading – January


Ok, I read a lot this month…

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

There’s something very timely about this book, for sure. The dying earth setting, mages reviled and relied upon in equal measure as the earth tears itself apart, city states vying for economic independence, always ready to lock the gates and weather the storm. It’s not an entirely optimistic set of motifs, but certainly relevant.

Jemisin handles a complex structure well, so The Fifth Season feels mostly concerned about the development of its three narrators, rather than pushing through the narrative. The inherently small world leads for an inescapable claustrophobia to things, making for a fraught book and haunted characters. Most of all it brought to mind Earthsea, with its islands, the blessing-curse duality of magic, the black protagonists, the inescapably of consequences. This is a good thing.

Lucifer by Mike Carey

With thanks to Hackney Libraries, I read Lucifer over Christmas. Aside from the obvious debts to The Sandman in terms of setting, it’s interesting to see how Carey develops Gaiman’s techniques. The disparate storylines, concerning immortals and mortals alike across creation gradually weaving together you see in the first half of the series is classic Sandman. But later the refrain of creations bears fruit, as does the tide of war. The sense of rehearsals and echoes is effective.

Perhaps it’s because The Sandman hinges on relationships, Dream and Death most prominently, whereas Lucifer hinges on places and principles, immobile points (often in threes). It has more of the grand sweep of epic fantasy and less of the delirious swirl of its progenitor, focusing on a strand of creation rather than the plurality. It’s good stuff, and a heady hit for anyone who wants more of The Sandman.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This is one of those stories that’s power comes from its brevity. A novella, split into three parts, it follows a woman called Yeong-hye who decides to become a vegetarian. A simple enough idea, but one that proves too much for the men in her life. Han Kang writes with a masterful grasp of imagery and language, and the first two sections make for compelling and disturbing reading. Whilst the final act is perhaps a bit weaker, it’s an excellent book with a lot to say about objectification, seeking solutions for our own faults in others, and how we risk turning relationships into solipsistic and abusive things.


Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson

A core teaching texts for the human sciences, Imagined Communities isn’t a light read. It breaks down the origins and causes of nationalism and has a most compelling argument. Interestingly, Anderson argues its roots lie with Martin Luther, the vernacularisation of learning and print capitalism. Yep, books. That allowed the administrative framework for empires, with all the woes they entailed, and the resulting backlashes – he cites the independence movements of the Latin American colonies as the tipping point – depending on a sense of national identity. After that comes the map, the census and museum, which codifies and classifies everything, and you have a framework for nationalism. That’s just scratching the surface though, a fascinating book.

The Straight-Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky

Noir in a secondary world fantasy? That’s a surprisingly unusual thing. Sure, urban fantasy noir abounds, and affectionate sendups – Pratchett’s city watch, anyone? – but straight-down-the-line takes seem more at home in science fiction. Polansky's debut is true to the form: it's gritty, pierces from the seedy underbelly to the pristine heights, has false leads, a femme fatale and everything you need, told in an authentic voice, as well as magic and monsters. It doesn't necessarily invigorate the tropes, but it does show fantasy noir works just fine.

The Good Immigrant

This collection of essays on race and identity in the UK is essential reading for 2017. If reading is the path to empathy, consider this book a sat nav. What particularly struck me was how many pieces were centred around language, terminology, definitions. The idea of systemic racism exists in these essays, where the focus for many writers is how they define themselves then their identity includes many things. And why they have to define themselves; whose benefit is it for after all? 

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison

Second of the Kefahuchi Tract novels, this will make sense if you haven’t read Light first, but you really should read Light first anyway, because it’s ace. Nova Swing fits in that subset of weird literature that echoes Roadside Picnic, with a heavy dose of noir sentiment. As with Jeff Noon’s Vurt and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach, you have an unknowable area encroaching on reality, and we reveal ourselves by how we relate to it.

What’s striking here is the evolution of the idea from the bewilderment seen from characters in the Strugatskys’ take, to the sophistication of those in VanderMeer’s. Harrison’s sit in the middle, weary and familiar with that which they don’t understand. It’s a melancholic novel about the inertia of our lives, the paths we set ourselves on, and is a strikingly different book from Light. As always with Harrison, highly recommended.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

A lean, but punchy book, this one. Reading in 2017, there’s something nostalgic about the world which Matheson ends here, so there’s a sense of the time capsule to this story. A man isolated with a few records, an apparently inexhaustible supply of whiskey and frozen meat, and his grief. As with all the books that last, it’s that human core that stands out here, as Neville struggles to survive in, and make sense of, a world that wants to destroy him.For me, it gets to the core of what vampire stories are really about, reconciling our fear of death with the mortal part of humanity. It gives us a way to look death in the eye. It has a particularly strong last line as well, which only really impacts if you read the whole book first – so no skipping ahead.

The Quarry by Iain Banks

Now I love Iain (M.) Banks – he’s a patron saint for anyone who dares to combine ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, after all – which is why I’m telling you not to rush to this one. It’s hard to ignore the parallels, a father dying of cancer at a young age, raging against the dying light, so I say this with respect – it’s just not his best book. It feels like a final statement from him, wearing its Nietzsche on its sleeve, and is undeniably honest – but in being that, as a work, it loses an essential distance from the author. I find myself wandering what his take on In Gratitude would have been, how much of the truth he sacrificed to fit the story.

It’s a vital book, and an unflinching one, and – for better of worse – transparent.  


In December I also read Speak Gigantular by Irenonsen Okojie and Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman. Gary has already told you about Speak Gigantular, so I’ll just add that one of the things that really struck me about Okojie’s collection is the sense of separation, of split bodies and people struggling to reconcile aspects of their identities. She makes it physical and inescapable: animal tails, guilt that lives in your throat, only to escape and live independently, homonculi and more. And Robert Aickman is just as good as everyone says he is.


Wild Life by Molly Gloss

I was alerted to this book after reading this excellent list of novels about wildness and the wilderness in Electric Literature by Steve Himmer.

It would be easy to think that fiction dealing with the rugged outdoors and the wilder aspects of the human being is something of a boys' club – and as such was becoming tiring for me as a reader, before I bothered to look outside of my comfort zone. Big surprise: loads of women write about this stuff.

Wild Life is an unashamedly feminist novel, presented as the diary of single-mother and author in 1900s Oregon churning out pulp fiction to pay the bills. She goes in search of a girl lost in the backwoods, becomes hopelessly lost herself and discovers a still-surviving family of woodland folk: wild men, sasquatch, woodwose, or some combination of all of those archetypes and myths. The narrative is intercut with extracts from history books, Native American folk tales and anthropological accounts as well as the pulp narratives the writer has created, that all frame and add to the main narrative. 

It felt, in both structure and theme, a cousin to Troll: A Love Story by the Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo, using the mythic aspects of a country’s folklore to address issues of wildness, gender myths and the very notion of civilisation. Top stuff. 


Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

Finally I got around to reading this, and all the hype and praise this book received is deserved (I don’t say that very often).

What a strange book it is, as unique as the shape taken by individual grief. For a second I thought the link to Ted Hughes and Crow would come off as pretentious, but it really worked for me. One of the most moving, and ultimately uplifting, books I have ever read. 


Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson’s memoir of growing up in ‘Negroland’ in the 1960s and beyond – the name given to a specific section of educated, middle-class and aspirational African American society – was a real eye opener for me. A world I was dimly aware existed but had never really read about, the book explores a society where the twin issues of race and class are ever present, delving into some very uncomfortable and knotty issues: as any book on this subject should. 


The Lost District and This Spectacular Darkness by Joel Lane

I am now a fully fledged Joel Lane partisan, having fallen in love with From Blue to Black and Where Furnaces Burn. The Lost District isn’t quite as impressive a collection as Where Furnaces Burn – the dystopian sci-fi tinged stories didn’t work for me – but is still a grimly impressive collection of short fiction. Lane excels at what I’ll call Black Country horror of the mundane, stories that would fit into a bleak form of social realism until the fantastic and horrific takes over. It’s at its best where the weirdness is understated and unexplained, such as in the title story where an area important to the personal history of the protagonist has seemingly disappeared from the map. As one story’s narrator says, ‘The past was not biodegradable’. But what if you can no longer find that past? That’s the real horror of the everyday.

I have slowly been going through the posthumously published collection of Joel Lane’s essays from Tartarus Press (wallet-busting but worth it), This Spectacular Darkness. It includes his insightful essays about weird fiction and horror, tackling all your horror favourites from Ramsey Campbell to Thomas Ligotti, as well as extra material such as Nina Allan’s essay on the ‘Blue trilogy’. One for aficionados of the genre, but really worth it if you get a kick out of this stuff like I do. 

I have also been dipping in and out of Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson, a newly published edition of some of her classic tales. I am a Jackson novice, and was pleasantly surprised by the opening story 'The Possibility of Evil', starting off in a humdrum small town fashion and ending up somewhere quite horrid. Equally impressive was 'Louisa, Please Come Home' which takes a story of a runaway girl and takes the story into uncomfortable, and weird, territory. As a fan of the horror of the mundane, these stories are a perfect American example of the form. As the blurb says, there's something nasty in suburbia....

And finally I am making headway with The Year of our War by Steph Swainston, a book I have meant to read since about 2005 when I heard it mentioned in all the discussions about what the hell 'New Weird' meant.

I'd best describe the book as weird literary fantasy, featuring a drug addicted immortal (who happens to be the only person in the world who can fly), a forever-war against some very unpleasant giant insects, and a secondary world that sidesteps many of the dull aspects of contemporary fantasy. It also has a sense of humour, is a bit sweary and is doing unexpected things so far. I might even dare to call it fun.