The Coldest Touch by Isabel Sterling

The Coldest Touch is a tale of a vampire and a Death Oracle who are also just seventeen year olds trying to make peace with who they are. After her brother dies in an accident, Elise has a curse: whenever she touches someone, she sees their death. When Claire, a vampire masquerading as a high school student, turns up to help Elise master her powers on behalf of the mysterious Veil, Elise is at first sceptical, but things turn out to be more complicated, as she predicts her teacher’s violent death, and Elise must work out if she really trusts Claire.

Yes, this is a ‘vampire and a human fall for each other and meet in a high school setting’ novel, but it also knows it is one, making the odd Twilight joke and, even better, actually addressing the fact that the vampire, Claire, is stuck as a seventeen year old. In addition to that, it covers ideas of non-straight or non-cis vampires getting to exist in times that have different views than when they were human, and the complexity of a vampire wishing they were human but also liking now being in the modern age. The love story element of the book is woven into the plot, not the driving force behind why things are happening as the narrative is happening because of Elise’s powers, and that was satisfying if not what I expected from the cover which presents it as more of a vampire/mortal school romance rather than a tale of paranormal politics and navigating your own potential.

The book is told from both Claire and Elise’s points of view, which works well to both unfold the plot and show their characters whilst keeping the reader understanding what is going on. At first it took a little while to get into, but I found myself gripped by the story and the growing trust between Elise and Claire, and I was glad that it has a standalone narrative even though it feels like there could be more stories set in the world.

The Coldest Touch is a fun story that combines vampires, strange powers, a paranormal organisation, and two girls falling in love despite all this. It has the epic sense of vampire lore and history that is enjoyable in vampire book series, but also some interesting exploration of paranormal (both vampire and otherwise) existence in terms of purpose and self. I’d definitely read more about the queer vampires and their lives as taking the often more implicit sexuality and gender questions in vampire stories and considering the realities of that is very interesting.

The Fell by Sarah Moss

The Fell is a novel about lockdown, kindness, and survival, as a single mum goes for a walk and doesn’t come back. It’s November 2020 and Kate and her son Matt are self-isolating, but Kate is going stir crazy, unable to handle staying inside, so surreptitiously sets off into their Peak District surroundings. Her clinically vulnerable neighbour Alice spots her go, and soon Alice and Matt are wondering where Kate is, and a rescue operation is underway.

I’ve read Sarah Moss’ previous novels Summerwater and Ghost Wall, and in some ways this one is similar to Summerwater in that it is looking at a particular present moment in Britain, exploring it through multiple perspectives and the natural landscape. However, what is perhaps most notable about The Fell is that it is a COVID novel, or whatever you want to call it, and is very specifically set in November 2020. I don’t know if I’ve read a book that’s set so recently but so specifically at the same time, with a sense that at least initial readers will remember that time and what you could and couldn’t do. That is a lot of the focus of the book, around four different characters’ perspectives on lockdown and what their lives are like: Kate who can’t handle being stuck inside, Alice who is vulnerable but is privileged in other ways and yet lonely, Matt who is having to deal with being stuck inside with his mum, and Rob, a mountain rescue volunteer whose daughter is staying with him that weekend. The plot is quite straightforward, as it mostly focuses on the characters’ interior lives, and what will happen to Kate.

This is the first COVID novel I’ve read, so it possible benefited from that, and I felt that Moss does a very good job of exploring the characters’ attempts to keep going through the lockdown and what happens when that all comes together in this one night. The atmosphere will probably make it hard to read for some people, really bringing back memories of being stuck inside and a lot of blame floating around, but it works well in this case, with Moss’ style of getting inside characters’ thoughts effective at increasing tension whilst building up a picture of their mental states during lockdown. I’m not sure if it’s all that enjoyable to read a book so carefully set during a specific part of the pandemic in England, but it is pulled off well.

I found The Fell an intriguing read, partly because I’ve not seen many fictional representations of daily life in the pandemic yet so it felt fairly fresh, or at least rehashing things I remembered. The simmering tension and writing style were similar to Moss’ other novels, so fans of her work will probably like this one, though it’s worth going into it expecting it to be about lockdown and COVID so you don’t go into it expecting escapism from the present.

Seesaw by Timothy Ogene

Seesaw is a novel about a Nigerian writer whose failing novel is discovered by a white American woman who suggests he apply to the William Blake Program for Emerging Writers in Boston. Frank leaves Port Jumbo for America, where it becomes apparent he is expected to be an ‘African’ writer and talk about post-colonialism, and Frank doesn’t want to be the stereotype, but being expelled turns out to be quite helpful for a writing career.

The book is both a satire of literary culture and what is expected of authors, and the story of a somewhat lost man finding direction. It is told with hindsight, and the pacing wasn’t quite what I expected, but I liked the parts that paralleled Frank’s experiences with what he later uses in his reinvigorated career commenting on America. There was also some good light-hearted mockery of academic and literary language and how it can both mean nothing and specific things. Because Frank was the narrator, a lot of the book was more focused on what he did and saw than these elements, and for me I would’ve preferred more of them.

A comic novel about a writer going in a strange journey to and around America, Seesaw is a light read that still delves into cultural difference and what diversity in literature really means, albeit in a satirical way.

Blue Skinned Gods by SJ Sindu

Blue-Skinned Gods is a novel about belief and growing up, as a boy treated as a god looks to the reality of the world. Living in an ashram in India, Kalki was born blue, and his father controls his life, leading towards the trials that will prove him an avatar of Vishnu. However, as he grows up, Kalki begins to realise that his father is keeping secrets from him, and when he finally discovers the truth about his life, it is time to discover who he really is.

The narrative is told through Kalki looking back, with most of the story focused on him growing up, and it gives a very vivid picture of someone treated as a childgod and having to deal with the fact that might all be a lie. The later part of the book, set in America, has a faster pace, with the ending more of a fresh start than an ending, and Kalki as the narrator does give some earlier hints about what he does later on. In this way, it is very much a coming of age type story, though quite different to many of them because it is focused around ideas of belief as well as self, and how to handle realising you cannot actually heal people despite being told you can.

There’s a lot about sexuality and gender woven into the story, mostly as subplots and explorations of fluidity and self, and it’s especially interesting to see how Kalki relates gender and sexuality to Hindu stories, using stories as a source of acceptance both of himself and others. In general, the depiction of someone’s beliefs being challenged in various ways, and how people adapt to that, is a key part of the book, especially relating it to storytelling. Whether it’s the lies used to present someone as a god or the stories we tell to make sense of things, stories and fiction run throughout the narrative.

I found this an engrossing book that perhaps could’ve gone on a little longer so the later part didn’t feel to get a lot less time than the earlier part, though the whirlwind sense of the ending does fit with Kalki’s experiences. 

The End: Surviving the World Through Imagined Disasters by Katie Goh

Part of 404 Ink’s Inklings series, The End is a look at disasters in fiction, how they work, and why we return to them, whether in times of crisis or not. Katie Goh starts with her own fears of apocalypse in the introduction and then explores four kinds of disasters in fiction—pandemic, climate, extraterrestrial, and social—to see what these stories say about us and consider why they work (or don’t work, in some cases).

This book is a fascinating chance to think about why ‘the end of the world’ is such a feature in fiction and why it matters what kinds of things the story is saying about the apocalypse. Though it’s about disaster fiction, especially films and books, The End also feels like it is sharing tools for critiquing disaster fiction and what we get from it, and thinking about using these stories as ways of presenting brighter futures rather than falling back on the same old narratives. I particularly enjoyed the part that questions superhero films and where they can go when the stakes are always to save the world/universe/etc, in contrast to films that use these kinds of stakes and disasters to tell more interesting stories.

As warned at the start of the book and maybe obvious from the premise, The End is a book full of spoilers about various kinds of ‘ends’ in fiction, exploring what stories are told and why they might be popular. By necessity it covers the COVID-19 pandemic, but also emphasises that these stories (and seeming apocalypses) have been going on for much, much longer, and what our current disaster fiction ‘go-to’ stories are might say a lot about us. I enjoyed its accessible style and combination of ideas and analysis of media within a small space, making for a very readable book that will definitely come to mind when I consume disaster media in the future.

Youngman: Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan

Youngman is a selection of the diaries of Lou Sullivan, gay trans man and activist, from the age of 10 until his death aged 39. They are placed in chronological order, separated into where he lived but otherwise without interruption, and the book reads as a first-hand account of Sullivan’s life, particularly around sex, love, and fighting to live the life he wanted.

Particularly powerful are the things Sullivan says that sound obvious and straightforward now, but at the time were radical and vital for changing the ways in which trans people related to gender and sexuality and were seen by other people. His exploration and affirmation of being a gay trans man, and the importance of being a gay man amongst men, come out (pun intended) particularly well through this selection, and his insights could be useful to people who don’t really understand how gender and sexuality can be deeply entwined, but also one doesn’t necessarily mean something about the other. Even with the sadness of Sullivan’s death, this is a deeply celebratory book, showing a man fighting to live on his terms and enjoying sex and community throughout his life, and the diary excerpts create an intimate picture that a lot of people will get something from.

Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles

Deep Wheel Orcadia is unlike anything I’ve read before, a sci-fi novel in verse about home, belonging, and place written in the Orkney dialect with an English translation. The plot follows the meeting of Astrid, who returns to the titular space station after art school on Mars, and Darling, who is fleeing her past and has ended up in the far off reaches of space, but also a cast of characters across Orcadia as they try to keep apace with the changes around them.

I found the form ideal for the setting and narrative, with the verse and the sci-fi combining well to make the world-building concise and leaving plenty of ambiguity in this glimpse into the world of the space station. The short poems, occasionally getting longer to play out a big scene, move quickly between characters and situations and I found the pacing a lot more suited to me than a lot of sci-fi, leaving me wanting more rather than feeling like I’d been told too much. There’s probably a lot of different ways to read the book with its dual text, and though I settled into reading each page first in the Orkney and then English, I could imagine trying out different ways in the future.

The exploration of gender and love in this world was a real highlight, and I also liked the fact that a lot of the story was about a character returning from the “big city” (aka Mars) to their childhood home and perhaps looking for inspiration that won’t come. There’s a lot of stuff in Deep Wheel Orcadia that feels timeless, and in general it is a book that transcends things. I want to think more about Astrid and Darling and I’ll undoubtedly be rereading this a few times and probably picking up more and more each time.

Stay Another Day by Juno Dawson

Stay Another Day is a Christmas-set romcom in which three siblings find themselves back together in their family home, but things can’t just go as expected. Twins Fern and Rowan are home from their respective unis for Christmas, with Fern bringing her boyfriend to meet the family and Rowan’s best friend Syd along so they’re not alone for the holiday. Younger sister Willow’s eating disorder means she dreads Christmas, and the siblings’ parents seem to be hiding something. When Rowan recognises Fern’s boyfriend, it becomes even more clear that Christmas will not be a quiet affair for the McAllisters.

A cosy Christmas story that still tackles big issues like eating disorders, mental health, and the impacts of bullying, this book was exactly what I expected from Juno Dawson. It’s lighter than books like Clean and Wonderland, but it still has the zinger lines, messed up characters, and frank discussion of stuff that actually affects people alongside the Christmas drama and cute moments. The chapters move between the three siblings’ perspectives as secrets are told, feelings are dealt with, and the holiday season keeps happening regardless. There’s a nice narrative style for doing Christmas Day as well, which cleverly averts it from being the sort of Christmas story where the actual day is ruined by the drama.

In terms of the characters, there’s a lot to enjoy, with Rowan, the overdramatic gay brother who has put up too much of a shield to protect himself, and his best friend Syd, non-binary and dealing with a lot personally yet still full of sympathy for Rowan and for Willow, immediately standing out. I also really liked Willow and I feel there could definitely be a sequel that focuses on her and what she does next. Another key part of the book is the exploration of Fern’s boyfriend Thom’s bisexuality, which feels especially important as the book isn’t about him coming to terms with it, which has already happened, but about his life now and also partly about how other people react to it.

Stay Another Day gripped me from the start, with Dawson combining her trademark wit in the light of serious subjects with family drama and Christmas tropes like being stuck in a broken down car in the snow. It’s a fun read that becomes hard to put down and I could definitely imagine accidentally staying up too late reading this around Christmas. It’s ideal for fans of Juno Dawson’s books or anyone who wants a slightly more real and varied festive romcom.

Lemon by Kwon Yeo-sun

Lemon is a Korean literary mystery novella about the impact one murdered teenager has on others around her, as the aftermath is shown from three perspectives. Around the World Cup of 2002, Hae-on was murdered, and the case was never solved. Her sister, her classmate, and her friend all feel the impact of her death in the following years, but it’s clear it holds a different place in each of their lives.

The novella is told in short sections in which you have to work out who is talking from context, and I liked the twisty, not always clear nature of the narrative, with some of the later sections shedding more light on what came before. The mystery at the heart of the book is interesting, but perhaps more interesting is the importance of class and how different characters are treated, especially as Hae-on’s sister discovers more about the boy who was originally accused of the murder.

This book is a fleeting thing, showing the aftermath of the murder of a high school student and the different perspectives people can have on one person. I liked the fragmentary structure and atmosphere and the novella tells a gripping story that leaves you thinking.

Under The Whispering Door by TJ Klune

Under the Whispering Door is a novel about death and love, as a man who was a self-assured workaholic in life gets a chance in death to explore more of who he could be. When Wallace Price meets a Reaper whilst watching his own funeral, he’s taken to a strange tea shop, Charon’s Crossing, where ferryman Hugo helps souls cross over once they’ve died. Rather than making peace, Wallace finds himself with more purpose, new friends, and even falling in love.

This book combines some more philosophical exploration of death and grief with some witty banter and forming of friendships. The plotline is quite predictable, though it was relieving to have a (slight spoiler) happy ending as I found myself invested in the characters (and, indeed, staying up too late to finish it). Hugo in particular is an interesting character, and not an almighty wise one, but someone trying to help people however he can. As someone who drinks a lot of tea I also liked the tea element of the plot, so though maybe the whole ‘the perfect tea for everyone’ thing is a bit twee.

The concept of someone who wasn’t so good in their life getting a chance to consider this in death is a classic one, and obviously this brings comparisons with The Good Place, though in this case there’s less about morality and more about dealing with death. This is explored through some side characters in different ways, though in the protagonists there’s more about protecting others and getting the chance to improve things even after your death.

Surprisingly considering the subject matter, I found this a light read with romance and friendship, but also an interesting fantasy-type premise. It’s more about human connection than deep philosophical ideas about death, but it explores interesting concepts and has a fun family dynamic too.