Reading Roundup February 2021

Lets’ begin with the obligatory, “It’s been ages since I’ve posted any reviews, blah, blah blah….”

It’s been ages since I’ve posted any reviews! I’ve been busy with a couple of my own big writing things and with a toddler on the loose to watch over I’m having to be strict in my priorities. But, as ever, a book or two come along and blow my mind and I feel really enthusiastic to write about them. So without further preamble, here are a few quick reviews of stories I’ve really enjoyed lately:

On the Shoulders of Otava by Laura Mauro (Absinthe Books, 2021)

Picture this: it’s January. A bleak month. It feels like nothing really happens and the weather is shite because you’re in the darkest depths of winter and you live in Scotland. This January, you’re also in lockdown because of a global pandemic. Even less is happening and the weather is still shite. This is the mood I was in when I picked up On the Shoulders of Otava by Laura Mauro – a novella set during the civil war in Finland in 1918, where in addition to the horrors of war and something spooky in the woods turning people mad, the weather is absolutely, unrelentingly, soul-crushingly shite.

And I now feel so much better, because this book is incredible, a perfect wee gem. It follows Siiri, a soldier in the Women’s Guard stationed at a remote village and trudging off to war with her remaining few comrades.

The horror elements of the book are based on Finnish folklore and several old myths are weaved into the narrative by soldiers telling stories to stave off boredom and the cold and hunger. The unnatural brutality of war – humans dislocated from normality through the atrocities and lawlessness of combat – is a perfect background to slip seamlessly into the supernatural, the lights floating in the woods, the shadows of bears that can’t possibly be out and about in the deep snow in the heart of winter.

Mauro’s central characters, Siiri and Ester, have an antagonistic relationship that spirals due to the pressure of the situation. There’s a push and pull that feels totally believable. The way their personalities clash and their differing backgrounds and reasons for joining the Red Guard rub up against each other the wrong way drives the grounded parts of the narrative, again making it less like leaping into the supernatural but more like sinking into it. As Ester – self-centred and malicious but hardy and resolved to fight and die if need be – threatens to cross lines Siiri has drawn for herself, she becomes something almost demonic, like a malevolent sprite, in Siiri’s eyes, tying in brilliantly with the whatever-it-is in the woods turning people so crazy that they have to be put down like animals.

Mauro’s writing is profound without pretension, the present tense giving a poetic flare to short sentences and needled-sharp pinpoints of detail: “Blood in the snow, sparkling like rubies. Fragments of shattered bone. Some of the captured Whites had barely been twenty years old. Just boys, that was all. Just boys playing at being men.”

For me, On the Shoulders of Otava chased away the January blues. I felt energised and excited about reading and writing again after a zombie month. It goes right up there with my favourite snow+bear books: Dendera by Yuya Sato and Always North by Vicki Jarrett. Go read it!

(In the time since starting this post and finishing it, Laura Mauro won TWO British Fantasy Awards – a huge achievement, very well deserved, and conveniently timed to back up the opinions I’ve stated here.)

Xstabeth by David Keenan (White Rabbit, 2020)

There is a record made by an anonymous artist which becomes famous in cult circles for its artistry and purity. Rumours abound about who the performer is – a guitarist who sold his soul to the devil, a mental patient on day release, a famous magician in disguise, and on and on – but Aneliya knows it was really her father, an ageing musician who never quite broke in, gifted one last shot at creating real art. He calls the song, the spirit of it, Xstabeth.

The novel charts Aneliya’s secret affair with her father’s hard-drinking, philosophising musician pal,  her complicated love for her father, and their trip from St Petersburg to St Andrews to watch the golf, always haunted by Xstabeth.

I’ve simplified a lot here. Xstabeth is a contemporary post-modern work. There’s a metafictional layer about the author David W. Keenan, who here in the meta narrative is already dead by suicide, the book you’re holding a reprint of his only novel, a little-known 1992 book called Xstabeth. There are faux academic essays on the novel breaking up Aneliya’s story. There is no punctuation except for the full stop, which is even used in place of commas:

“This is a Russian beach. I said. For sure. It’s still a beach under the stars. I said.”

All this might make it sound like a hard read but it really isn’t. Long paragraphs flow along with a great sense of rhythm and lyricism. There are layers of symbols and meanings to unravel, or not, you could look at it like a puzzle to solve or enjoy it like an abstract painting, your choice.

Either way, what you will find is something you won’t quickly forget: compelling, almost hypnotic, with an otherworldly quality that chimes with the descriptions of the song Xstabeth itself.

(Also, you can now buy Xstabeth t-shirts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen merch for a contemporary lit novel and it’s something I want more of!)

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic Books, 2019)

This one had been on my list for a while but it wasn’t until I watched Oyinkan Braithwaite in conversation with Louise Welsh recently (part of the University of Glasgow’s ongoing Creative Conversations series) that I actually got around to it, because listening to Braithwaite talk about her novel shot it straight to the top of the teetering TBR pile.

Professor Welsh kicked off the event by reading out the opening lines of the novel:

“Ayoola summons me with these words—Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.”

These two sentences comprise the entire first chapter. Incredible. What an opening. I was hooked, I had to read the rest of it. The novel then explores and unravels everything contained in that first chapter as we follow big sister Korede – plain, patient, put-upon, responsible to the point of self-sacrifice –  help younger sister Ayoola – beautiful, carefree, lazy, seemingly without conscience – clean up after the suspicious deaths of a string of boyfriends who are obsessed with her looks but seem to know little else about her.

As the tiny first chapter suggests, Braithwaite is a minimalist writer, every sentence whittled to an incisive point – she said during the Glasgow Uni Zoom talk she is rarely ever asked to cut her work down, with editors more often than not wanting her to expand scenes as she prefers to dive straight into the heart of narrative or dialogue without screeds of set dressing and description. Despite this, I still felt I had a clear picture of the central locations – the house the sisters share with their mother and the hospital where Korede works – and setting of Lagos in Nigeria, particularly through the way she captures the local dialect. 

Despite the subject matter, there’s a deadpan sense of humour with plot twists that manage to be both darkly funny and still tense, set up well so you get that feeling where you almost know what’s about to happen and experience the accompanying dread as you read on towards disaster.

All in, a short, brilliant read and a refreshing take on the serial killer crime novel. It reminded me of Out by Natsuo Kirino, one of my all-time favourites, and I can’t give a much higher compliment than that!

Currently reading: Bear Head by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Head of Zeus, 2021)

This is the sequel to prolific sci-fi author Adrian Tchaikovsky’s excellent 2018 novel Dogs of War about sentient gene-spliced cyborg animals (‘Bioforms’) used to for combat, including dog form Rex and bear form Honey. The sequel sees Honey goes to Mars where gene-spliced cyborg humans are constructing a future city for colonists and are under threat from a sinister, Trumpian political firebrand.

While I’m enjoying it loads (Tchaikovsky never disappoints) I am missing Rex a bit – his voice in the first book was so wonderfully stylised, his inner turmoil at being torn between being a good dog  by serving his master and being objectively bad by following morally wrong instructions was both hilarious and really deep. The absence of such a great character is inevitably felt.


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