March Reading Roundup

Legitimate reason for not updating the blog: My second child Nina was born at the end of January and I haven’t found much time for writing about books. Though I have still been reading when I can, so without further preamble, here is my Readasaurus Recs:

Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth (2018, One)

A gritty ‘western’ set in the Australian outback in 1885, Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth didn’t seem my cup of tea at first (based on blurb and cover) but what’s inside is an absolutely incredible, powerful revenge story which takes on the difficult, horrifying subject of the genocide of Australia’s native people at the hands of white invaders.

Teen brothers Tommy and Billy come home from an afternoon swim to find their family murdered, the weapon of a former employee – a black farmhand – left at the scene. So begins a queasy and bloody tale of “revenge”, with the Queensland Native Police enlisted to hunt the local Aboriginal population down.

As the above indicates, this is not an easy read despite Howarth’s brilliant writing, which captures the deathly heat of the outback and puts you right there. Complicity is a huge part of this story, with protagonist Tommy serving as the uneasy conscience. The racist language and attitudes – and the atrocious actions which these lead to – of the white characters is presented unflinchingly, as such a tough subject demands. If ever a reminder is needed of where the dehumanising language often spouted by our own politicians and pundits in the UK can lead, this is a good one.

Howarth’s characters and their motivations – importantly, the black police officers complicit in the murder of other native people – are complex and nuanced, ensuring the book never slips into an exploitative thriller.

Read this, but make sure you’re in the right headspace first.

Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2021, Contraband)

Another mind-game puzzle of a book by the author of 2016’s Booker shortlisted His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet, sees 1960’s psychiatry and counterculture put under a warped lens of metafiction and satire. As in his other books which also affect a playful postmodernism despite the serious and even grim subject matter, the ultimate question for the reader seems to be: What is real and what is not?

Told through a collection of diary entries and biographical interludes, an unnamed young woman takes on celebrity ‘Untherapist’ Collins Braithwaite, who she blames for her sister Veronica’s suicide. She begins to visit him under an assumed identity and everything unravels from there.

As with his previous works, the story is framed in a supposedly real-life scenario where the author, GMB, is handed the woman’s journals after becoming interested in Braithwaite (you’ll be forgiven for Googling to see if he’s a real person or not) – an abrasive, grandiose egotist who Burnet has immense fun writing.

The effect of all this is a layering of fictions which make you doubt the motivation and reliability of all involved. I’ve been at an event where Burnet was speaking, sat just metres away from the guy, and I’m honestly no longer sure if he is actually real or not.

Cracking read though.

The Queen of the High Fields by Rhiannon A Grist (2022, Luna Press)

Rhiannon A Grist is one the best short story writers in the UK SFFH scene for my money, so I was really excited to hear last year that she would be putting out a novella with Luna Press – and it is finally here! Moreover, The Queen of the High Fields did not disappoint.

Two teenage misfits, Carys and Hazard, set out to take over the mythical High Fields and create their own world away from the pressures of society. Carys returns to the High Fields after ten years away where Hazard has become a Goddess.

Mixing contemporary weird nature horror with ancient Welsh myth, Grist has come up with something unique and compelling. I’ve written more extensively about this book for an upcoming issue of Shoreline of Infinity so I’ll leave it at this: Go read it!

The Nakedness of the Fathers by Samuel Tongue (2022, Broken Sleep Books)

I’ve enjoyed Samuel Tongue’s poetry since I heard him read his Fish Counter poem on DTNT on Subcity Radio a few years ago. His latest collection is inspired by quiet, intimate moments and activities – religion in daily rituals, museum visits, exercise, playing computer games, sometimes circling around some feeling of impending disaster.

I don’t read or write enough about poems to explain well what it is I like about one, or why sometimes certain words jump out at me, or pull at me, except to vaguely say it vibes with something in me, so I’ll just quote some of my favourite lines:

“Keep running, / keep running, you gorgeous time machines.” (‘Treadmill’)

“we play with the oldest clichés: time is against us / and the road is unforgiving as hell.” (‘Outrun’)

“Local high street or out-of-town mega-marts, they are churches, / like beached whales are churches.” (‘Supermarket Sonnet’)

“you worship in the heat with us, scars whitened, / pain knocking at every joint but there, still the slow / crank of blood in swollen veins and life’s thin sweat, / beading and being allowed to run.” (‘Sauna’)

(Also, as always after I read a great book of poetry, I promise here to read more poetry!!)

Currently Reading:

I have two books on the go at the moment. The first is The Second Cut by Louise Welsh (2022, Canongate), the long-awaited sequel to her debut novel, The Cutting Room. Grumpy auctioneer and reluctant detective Rilke is back in trouble when a friend/punter dies unexpectedly, leaving behind a large stash of GHB. The first book stunned me with its sleazy, Gothic depiction of Glasgow (which I had yet to see in fiction at that time personally) and its reversal of common crime fic tropes which made it feel fresh and subversive. Can the sequel do the same?

The second book is (shock!) more poetry: Dante’s Divine Trilogy by Alasdair Gray (2022, Canongate). A new edition of The Divine Comedy “Englished in very free verse” (according to the pencil-sketched title sheet inside the cover) by the legendary Scots writer, artist, and poet Alasdair Grey. So far, I’ve already seen him fit the word ‘Stramash’ into this new translation of the 14th century Italian epic and I think it’s what Dante would have wanted.

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