Reading Roundup December 2021

You there, boy! What day is it!?

Unbelievably, it is very nearly Christmas Day again. I remember when it used to feel like forever between Christmases, now they seem to come around with alarming frequency. To try and push back against the ever-draining sands of time, here are a few un-Christmassy book recs:

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis (2021 [2018], Pushkin Press)

2021 winner of the International Booker Prize and rightly so. At Night All Blood Is Black is a masterpiece in a slim volume, an existential rumination on the horrors of war told through visceral prose and the unforgettable voice of Alfa, a Senegalese soldier fighting for the French army during the Great War.

When his closest friend, his “more than brother” Mademba, is killed on the battlefield, Alfa begins to change, to lose his grip, to go from pretending to be savage to scare the enemy (the French had the Senegalese soldiers charge onto the battlefield with machetes, critique of this racism being an inherent part of Diop’s tale) to really being savage, finding freedom in the depths of his rage and growing mania.

There isn’t a sentence here that isn’t striking, that isn’t in its perfect place. Anna Moschovakis has done a brilliant job with the translation, and Diop has created a book that should be talked about for a long time to come – I can picture people still writing essays about it well into the next century. A book that isn’t just over when you read the last page, At Night is something special. You can feel it as you read.

The Wilds by Russell Jones and Aimee Lockwood (2021, Tapsalteerie)

This is a graphic poem, or graphic novel poem, maybe? That is to say, it’s a sequence of nature poems by Russell Jones fully illustrated in the style of a comic by Aimee Lockwood. Call it what you will, it’s a stunning work of beauty – words and pictures.

The Wilds is about grief told through the experience of a girl who has just lost her mother and runs off to be in nature. The book is intended for both children and adults.

Having lost my father as a child, it makes me glad to see this topic being tackled in a book for young people and I found it to be very moving, both positive but realistic about the nature of loss and the entirely natural feelings of sadness and hopelessness that come with it – Jones and Lockwood don’t condescend or dumb down for a younger audience.

I would have been too young for it back when my dad died (I was only 5) but I wish a book like this had existed when I got a bit older and started having to deal with the confusing emotions I had about it. My own son turned three recently and it’s been weighing on my mind again. I keep thinking about my dad’s death from different points of view. First for me and my siblings as children who lost a parent, then for my mother who lost her partner, her love, then for my grandparents who lost a son, then for my father who lost everything and knew he would before it happened.

These things can never be completely figured out or overcome, but there is comfort in this book, comfort in sharing.

(Sorry, this was supposed to be about the book but now it’s just about me. Writers, eh?)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2016, Serpent’s Tail)

I went looking for Gothic and I found it:

In 1893, after the death of her abusive husband, Cora Seaborne is enjoying her freedom. She moves away from London to a village in Essex, where she hopes to discover the scientific truth behind a mythical monster called the Essex Serpent – which has lately been swallowing up sheep and drunks and children.

While there, she strikes up a friendship and maybe more with local reverend and family-man, William – a firm serpent-denier – and the ups and downs of their stormy, challenging relationship is what drives the story forward.

Cora is a wonderfully drawn character, complex and flawed but not in any stereotypical way, allowed to be angry, flighty, honest, caring. She – and the other characters – live and breathe. Perry takes apart the tropes of 19th century literature, particularly with regards to women and sexuality (often continued in contemporary historical fiction set in that era under the guise of ‘accuracy’), and conjures up something with truth and heart.  

Currently reading: Out of the Darkness edited by Dan Coxon (2021, Unsung Stories)

I backed this on Kickstarter earlier this year for a couple of reasons.

One: It was being published by Unsung Stories, who put out a couple of my favourite SF books from the last couple of years (Vicki Jarrett’s Always North and Rym Kechacha’s Dark River), and I was sure a horror short story anthology with their stamp on it would be top notch.

Two: A couple of names on the line-up jumped out at me – Tim Major and Laura Mauro, two of my favourite SFF/horror authors. I’ve had the pleasure of appearing in anthologies with Tim previously and know how good his writing is, and I interviewed Laura for Cymera Festival during the summer after devouring her short story collection Sing Your Sadness Deep and her wonderful new novella On the Shoulders of Otava – one of my favourites this year.

So far, the anthology has not disappointed. The theme is mental illness – certainly on the pulse of current times and with all royalties and fees going to the charity Together For Mental Wellbeing – and it’s brilliant to see authors take this on through the warped, darkened lens of the uncanny. What is particularly surprising is the spark of hope found in some of these pieces when dealing with anxiety, depression, OCD, and more. Timely and necessary work, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it.

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