Lockdown Reading Roundup 1

Well, this is shite, isn’t it? But there’s no way around it, lockdown must go on until it’s safe to do otherwise, which could be some time yet. So if you’re wanting to kill some time reading, why not have a look at one of these?

(And if you do see something you like, check your local independent bookshop’s website – many are still operating online and doing deliveries. Ditto for the indie publishers.)

missing personMissing Person by Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019)

Missing Person, the latest novel by mystery and horror author Sarah Lotz, is an addictive ode to true crime, following a group of web sleuths as they try to uncover the fate of an unidentified body from the mid-90s known as “The Boy in the Dress”. If you’re obsessed with Netflix shows like Mindhunter and Don’t F**k With Cats or enjoyed the absolutely excellent I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara from 2018, you’re going to love this.

Lotz nails the sleuthing side of things, bringing together a rag tag group of misfits who are obsessed with trying to solve cold cases using the power of crowd-sourcing, carefully showing the hold their ‘hobby’ has over them and their worries about where the line is between seeking righteous justice and seedy voyeurism. To help balance this, we get a personal look at how it feels to be the family member of a missing person looking for closure through one of the main characters, Shaun.

The flip side of the coin is Pete, a killer who is waylaying the investigation by getting personally involved in it – the perils of the internet, the theme of whether somebody is every truly who they say they are recurs throughout. We get to know Pete well, a villain as complicated and well-drawn as the story’s heroes. Character is one of Lotz’s great strengths. She really understands the often contradictory impulses that drive people, exposing strengths and flaws in equal measure.

I reviewed Lotz’s Everest ghost story The White Road a while back (which you can still read here) and had the wonderful opportunity to read at an event with her at Granite Noir earlier in the year.

ack-ack macaqueAck-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell (Solaris, 2012)

An alternate future where the UK and France are united, zeppelins fly in the sky, and an intelligent, cigar-chomping monkey is freed from VR enslavement and is on the hunt for revenge. Ack-Ack Macaque is the first book in Gareth L. Powell’s trilogy about the hard-drinking, former knife-fighting macaque (which bagged him a BSFA award for best novel) and it’s crazier and more fun than, well, a barrel of monkeys.

As well as Ack-Ack, we follow former journalist Vicky Valois, whose brain has been stuffed with augments after an accident, giving her limited superhuman powers of strength and agility as well as being able to sort through her mind as if it were a computer. She is on the trail of a vicious killer, her murdered ex-husband living inside her mind as a digital ghost.

As you may be able to tell from the above, Powell really cuts loose, bringing together a hybrid of cyber and steam punk stylings and writing with swashbuckling confidence, the pace ripping along. It really would make a terrific comic.

The bad guys are a bit moustache-twirling and their ploy zany – that said, wannabe Nazis armed with guns are currently storming US government buildings demanding the sacrifice of society’s vulnerable to COVID-19 so they can get haircuts, so it’s probably not really fair to say Powell’s death cultists are too far-fetched in current times. But it is a shame the arch-villain gets so little time on the page, especially considering their relationship to one of the main characters.

Still, I’m excited at the prospect of two more Ack-Ack adventures!

cocooncocoon by Russell Jones (Tapsalteerie, 2020)

cocoon, the latest collection from the UK’s first ever pet poet laureate (and deputy editor of Scotland’s excellent SFF magazine Shoreline of Infinity) Russell Jones is a brilliant book of poetry combining fantasy, sci-fi, and folktales with childhood memories of first love and bereavement. Heartfelt, clever, and funny in a bitter-sweet way, cocoon, in its most sublime moments, makes the ordinary magical and the magical ordinary.

There are layers to unfold here but Jones is not deliberately obscure for the sake of complexity. Every word feels as if it’s been chosen carefully and many of the poems deserve to be read aloud to get the full impression.

Beautiful illustrations (by some names familiar to regular readers of the above-mentioned Shoreline of Infinity, including Caroline Grebbell and Mark Toner) bring out the words in vivid and playful fashion, which provided some the book’s highlights for me: ‘Apples for Grandma’ and ‘An Official Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse’, both wonderful!

I also loved the visual poems (forgive me if I’m using incorrect terms, I don’t read much poetry, though this book has me determined to rectify that) like ‘Kintsugi’, where the words are arranged into the shape of an ornament, a crack of white space running down the middle.

cocoon is published by Tapsalteerie, an independent publisher based in Aberdeenshire, my own stomping ground. Find them here.

extra teeth issue oneExtra Teeth Issue One (2019)

Issue One of Extra Teeth, a brand new Scottish literary magazine edited by Heather Parry, arrived after a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign with an astounding list of top Scottish authors, such as Janice Galloway, Martin McInnes, and Kirsty Logan as well as a host of fresh voices.

Being a fan of McInnes’s strange, post-modern mystery novel Infinite Ground (reviewed here), I was eager to get stuck into whatever weirdness he’d conjured up for the magazine – and wasn’t disappointed. ‘Two Men Coming Towards Me with Knives’ traces the second-by-second, slo-mo, miniscule texture and detail of the narrator’s thoughts as – like the title suggests – two men armed with knives approach.

Logan (who I had the privilege of sharing a TOC with in Monstrous Regiment Emerald) is also on top form. Talk of her story ‘Pig Tale’, about a woman’s erotic obsession with a local butcher, is likely to keep copies of this first issue selling for a long time to come. Despite the subject matter, dipping into a kind of body horror, Logan’s prose has the air of a fairy tale, which suits the twisty (curly?) ending.

Other favourites were ‘Thank God in the Acknowledgements’ by Jess Brough – two students are determined to get their dissertations handed in on time while the world literally ends around them – and ‘Competing Before the King’ by Leila Aboulela – a wonderful slice of magical realism about childhood rivalries. ‘Through Ceilings and Walls’ by Camilla Grudova follows a nameless narrator to a remote house where something strange is going on, evoking mystery and horror in a way that put me in mind of Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer and also Infinite Ground a little. All of this is wrapped in a stylish, bold design by Maria Stoian.

Issue Two has sadly been postponed because of the ongoing lockdown, but readers can still pre-order it, or sign up for a yearly subscription. Copies of Issue One are currently still being shipped from the Extra Teeth website.

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