The Arena of the Unwell by Liam Konemann

The Arena of the Unwell is a novel about a music-loving guy in London who is drawn into a toxic relationship with two older guys in the music scene. Noah is twenty-two, works in a record shop (when he can force himself to be awake there), spends his nights at gigs and pubs, and is coming to the end of his allocated therapy sessions. After he and his friend Mairead go to a secret comeback gig by their favourite band Smiling Politely, Noah runs into Dylan, a bartender he’s wanted to approach for ages. Soon, Noah is drawn into the complicated relationship between Dylan and his flatmate Fraser, and as everything else falls apart around him, Noah is drawn into a co-dependent world, all as Smiling Politely prepare to release their first album in years.

I really enjoyed Konemann’s non-fiction book The Appendix, but I was particularly drawn to this book from the premise, particularly the promise of it being suffused with a grimy indie music scene, and that did not disappoint. Though the actual band in the book are at arms’ length, as we see them through interviews and news coverage as Noah would, the book feels deeply part of the music world, and in how important to basically all elements of Noah’s life this is, from work to fun to friends to love. The offhand comments and jokes (like Mairead’s girlfriend and Noah’s coworker Jenny having been an emo) really build up a picture, and one that makes you both want to be at a gig and really not, seeing as Noah isn’t exactly using music in a healthy way a lot of the time.

The book is told from Noah’s first person perspective, with the previously mentioned press snippets about Smiling Politely intercut (I very much enjoyed that these were often cut off like real news sites if you weren’t a paying member). As a lot of the book is about mental health and a toxic relationship, it can be intense, but also funny. The relationships between Noah, Fraser, and Dylan are really well depicted, with the reader able to feel each cutting moment and see how they were hurting each other. I really enjoy books that do co-dependent, messed up relationships well, and this is a great example, and being from Noah’s perspective meant you saw how much he started to ignore everyone else when he really needed them.

A really notable element of the book is the depiction of queerness in the indie scene, whether that’s Noah trying to navigate the fact all the bands are singing about women they think wronged them, his repeated belief that he can’t fit into any gay world because he doesn’t fit in, or the hints of how the music scene shown has more space for guys who are apparently straight but maybe down for something with a guy than actual queer people. Queerness is just part of the novel, and that feels refreshing and not something I’ve seen in this kind of genre (though, admittedly, I’m not sure what kind of genre it is—music scene novel?).

A coming of age novel for people who like or came of age themselves deeply into music, The Arena of the Unwell spirals the reader into not only sticky floors and spilt pints, but a hard-to-put-down toxic relationship amidst the realities of NHS cuts for mental health services. It puts you on the streets of Camden and leaves you with a sense of what might have changed or stayed the same since the earlier heyday of indie bands.

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

Vladimir is a novel about desire, consent, and the academic world, as an English professor deals with accusations against her husband whilst becoming obsessed with a younger academic. When an academic power couple are left with their reputations waning after he is accused of relationships with his students, and she sticks by him because they’ve always had an agreement in terms of relationships with others, the situation already seems complex. But when the narrator, a woman getting older and hoping to write another book, becomes obsessed with Vladimir, the new academic in the department, everything gets even more complicated.

Though the title suggests the book is about Vladimir and the narrator’s obsession, the book is more about her in general, as she tries to work out her life now, managing desire and relationships, and coming to terms with who people see her as. There’s a lot of toxic relationships and flawed characters, especially the narrator who is displayed with all her unlikeable thoughts as well as more understandable ones, but these don’t quite go where you might expect, which is a notable point about the novel: it doesn’t go where it seems to be heading.

I liked how the characters are pretty unlikeable, and very pretentious (there’s a ridiculous scene in which the narrator gives Vladimir praise about his novel basically as a list of playing to his ego), though it took a moment to get used to that. The book is trying to say things about consent and desire, and I don’t know how well it does that, but I thought the characterisation was clever and I liked how it seemed like it would veer into another genre, but actually returned firmly to the literary novel about the messy world of desire.

Packed with literary references and set in an academic world, Vladimir will perhaps appeal to some people more than others, but it’s an interesting version of the ‘academic has been sleeping with his students’ novel, seeing as it’s mostly about his wife who doesn’t really care about that. 

I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

I Kissed Shara Wheeler is a young adult romcom with a mystery, as the school rebel hunts down the missing perfect girl just before graduation. Chloe moved from California to Alabama with her mums, and started Willowgrove Christian Academy, where she’s built up a reputation for herself as someone with perfect grades and a rebellious attitude. A month before graduation, the principle’s daughter Shara Wheeler kisses Chloe, then disappears. As Chloe tries to work out where Shara is, she finds other people on the same course: Shara’s boyfriend, Smith, and her bad boy neighbour, Rory. Together the unlikely alliance try to follow Shara’s clues, but maybe Chloe will also start to discover things about the town and the people in it.

A lot of people will be excited to read this new book by Casey McQuiston, aimed at a slightly younger audience than before, and looking at the weirdness of the end of school alongside the lives of queer teenagers in rural America. From the start, you are thrown into the mystery of where Shara has gone, building up a picture of Chloe’s life and those around her. Chloe is a difficult protagonist at times, incredibly frustrating especially when she’s completely ignoring her friends, but also clearly someone who does care about others when it comes down to it. I did feel like she would be drawn into Shara’s clues though, as you did get that sense from her, though there were some parts in the middle where the whole mystery element seemed to be drawn out (and then, somehow, it got resolved a long way before the end of the book). Chloe’s insistence that everything is due to her wanting to be valedictorian properly, not by default, feels like a classic romcom trope, and in general the book has a level of self-denial that I think a lot of people will find relatable.

There’s a lot of characters to keep track of, but by the end, I felt like a lot of the main and side characters were distinctive, though a few (particularly Benjy and Ash) didn’t feel like they got enough airtime in the mix, perhaps the danger with such a large cast. I particularly liked Smith and Rory’s storylines, looking at what happens when people grow apart as teenagers for no real reason, and I found the resolution very sweet. I liked Georgia too, though again, due to Chloe’s ignoring her for a large chunk of the book, you didn’t see as much of her as you might’ve. In general, one of the ways the book shines is in depicting a lot of different kinds of teenagers, and having them grow to realise their differences aren’t as different as they feel, which brings a nice atmosphere to the ending.

Having not grown up in America, I might not understand everything in the depiction of high school, and this specific kind of Christian high school in particular, but I did really like the ‘end of school’ feel and the distinctive characters in the book. It’s a fun romcom that shows how queerness in small towns comes in many different ways and sometimes people aren’t quite what you think. I stayed up too late reading it, which I think I would’ve done if it had existed when I was an actual teenager too, and that’s really how I judge what is an enjoyable romantic comedy novel.

When Other People Saw Us, They Saw the Dead ed. by Lauren T. Davila

When Other People Saw Us, They Saw the Dead is a collection of gothic stories by BIPOC writers, exploring ghosts, witches, death, curses, and dreams amongst other things. As the title might suggest, a lot of the stories deal with death in some way, from ghosts and memories to legacies and escape. Some of the stories explore colonisation and gentrification, self and belonging, and all the while there’s a sense of considering who gets to tell gothic stories.

Some of my personal favourites were: ‘The Mountain Air’, a strange tale of a trip to a cabin that gets weird; ‘We Have Always Lived in the Projects’, an unsettling look at gentrification (with a fantastic title); the very real horror of ‘Headmaster’; and ‘The Candlemaker’s Daughter’, which tells a familiar story in a different way. I enjoyed that the stories varied in length but were generally on the shorter side, meaning there was lots of variation and they were generally tight and concise. It’s a great collection for diving into atmospheric stories and exploring a range of modern gothic set across various places and time periods.

Solo Dance by Li Kotomi

Solo Dance is a novel about a Taiwanese lesbian in Japan, struggling to find hope in her life whilst working an office job and dealing with mental health issues. The protagonist is in her late twenties, reinvented and renamed herself when she moved to Japan after university in Taiwan, and lives a double life: in the office, everyone is talking about marriage and children and their position in the company, whereas she also goes to gay clubs and meets other lesbians online. The narrative moves between her present and her past as she searches for belonging, thinks about queer literature, and faces everyday homophobia.

Translated from Japanese, this short novel is a sad one, occasionally bittersweet, with the protagonist’s trauma and mental health playing a crucial part in the book, and sexual assault and suicide part of the narrative. Despite this, there’s also beauty, both that she finds in the world and in her interests, especially in her connection with literature. I hadn’t heard of most of the books and writers referenced in Solo Dance, so I’m excited to explore those too, especially Qiu Miaojin who plays a vital part in the protagonist’s construction of herself. The experiences of queer people in different countries is an underlying theme, explored through the protagonist’s experiences and her travels, and the people she meets, and I found this a powerful part of the book.

This is no light read, with a pretty depressing plot and tackling a lot of serious issues, but I found it engrossing and read it quickly, especially drawn in by the protagonist’s use of literature to explore self and culture and the exploration of queer life for an outsider in a country. 

When We Fell Apart by Soon Wiley

When We Fell Apart is a novel about belonging and family, as a Korean-American man in Seoul tries to find out the truth about his Korean girlfriend’s suicide. Min grew up in California with an American father and Korean mother, but has moved to Seoul to try and search for something intangible. When he met Yu-jin, a university student with a powerful father, their relationship seemed perfect, but when she suddenly takes her own life, Min ends up on a trail to work out the truth, discovering that he didn’t know Yu-jin as well as he thought.

This is a layered book, set up like a murder mystery, but really about the multitudes within people and how they appear different to different people. Each chapter alternates between Min’s present point of view and Yu-jin’s in the past, showing Yu-jin’s journey from small town to Seoul, and her discovery of more than that path her parents set out for her. Her relationship with her roommate So-ra is particularly important, and seeing glimpses of the ways that Yu-jin puts up different barriers and acts with different people highlights her longing for yet inability to do and be exactly as she wants. Min stays fairly mysterious, even more of an outsider in the city and discovering he wasn’t even really aware of everything going on in his relationship, but also making friends with Yu-jin’s Japanese roommate. 

The main characters all show different kinds of outsiders in Seoul, also depicting a lot of the city with an outsider’s perspective as well, and the book explores ideas of how people manage being an outsider and where cultures do or don’t have room for it. The narrative unfolds slowly, less of a fast paced mystery than a slow unfolding of layers. It would have been quite different if it was just from Min’s perspective, more focused on a mystery of power and secrets, but the inclusion of Yu-jin’s point of view as well makes for more of a melancholic tone, seeing a character find joys beyond her family’s plans and expectations, but not know how to include them in her future. The characters’ relationship to time, particularly to thinking about present and future, brings out something interesting, with Seoul seeming to represent a present for both Min and Yu-jin that they don’t quite seem to see beyond.

When We Fell Apart is a slow burn kind of mystery that focuses on character relationships and perspectives, more of a literary look at outsiders in Seoul than the thriller-esque pursuit of the truth suggested in some ways by the blurb. It builds up an intriguing picture of characters who seem to purposefully only see things in certain ways and their ties to each other.

Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin

Tell Me An Ending is a novel about erasing memories, getting them back, and what memory means for grief and identity. Memory clinic Nepenthe has been deleting specific memories for clients for a while now, for clients both knowing and who forget even having the procedure done. Suddenly, these unknowing clients are getting emails saying they are entitled to reinstate a memory they had deleted if they want. The novel follows Mei, William, Oscar, and Finn, all affected by memory deletion, and Noor, who works at the clinic, as they explore their own pasts and the reality of Nepenthe.

The concept of this book is fairly similar to other stories—it in fact references the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind quite a bit—but it explores different circumstances, especially traumatic ones, and the reasons behind people keeping or deleting memories. The chapters move between different characters, with a lot of focus on Noor who works at the clinic and is trying to work out what her boss has been up to, whilst dealing with a heartbreak that is intricately tied up with her job. The Nepenthe side of things, as found out through Noor, is fairly interesting, but quite straightforward, with unsurprising twists. The other characters, who we see trying to deal with their current lives and also decide if they want their memory back, allow the novel to cover other ground, particularly around what people do with traumatic memories, or different kinds of memories that might impact our lives.

The book is quite long and can be slow at times, though also some of the characters you wish you could delve a bit more into, as a lot of the book is taken up with what they are doing. In particular, Oscar and William’s stories both pose interesting questions about trauma and memory, whereas Mei’s narrative is more around parental influence and what kind of troubles actually need deleting, or actually need other kinds of support and autonomy. The other story, with Finn and his wife, was a bit slow and didn’t really go anywhere, not quite exploring enough at the end to counterbalance with the other characters.

A near-future dystopia that focuses particularly on the importance of memories, but also considers if deleting various kinds of memories is actually the best option, Tell Me An Ending is an enjoyable read, though it did drag a bit for me. 

True Biz by Sara Nović

True Biz is a novel about River Valley School for the Deaf, where a new student learns to find her place and the headmistresses struggles to keep the school and her marriage going. Charlie has never been around other deaf people before, but when she transfers to the school, she learns the language that was kept from her, makes new friends, and develops her understanding of Deaf culture. Her new friend Austin deals with the birth of his baby sister, who is hearing, and the school’s headmistress February tries to manage threats about the school’s future whilst keeping her worries from her wife.

I loved Nović’s Girl at War so I wanted to read this one, and I’m very glad I did. Told from the perspectives of a range of characters, mostly the three protagonists with occasional moments from somebody else, and interspersed with information on American Sign Language and Deaf history as Charlie learns it, the book immerses you in the lives of the characters, and as a hearing reader I found I learnt a lot whilst following the characters’ journeys. There’s more of a focus on character, with a coming of age element particularly with Charlie, rather than narrative, with the book more of an episode of the characters’ lives rather than a distinct start and finish.

Charlie’s story was particularly engaging, exploring the development of her anger and sense of her own self as she deals with an implant that doesn’t work as it should and realises what she missed out on by having sign language and Deaf culture kept from her. Her political education comes both from history lessons and from other people, and the book really shows the importance of community and sharing history to fight for your rights. The other main story in the book, February dealing with her aging mother, failing to communicate with her wife, and worrying about the school and students, was also good, though didn’t really come to a particular ending. The other characters had less space in the book, but I liked that there was a range of characters and hints of their stories too.

Emphasising the important of other people and shared culture, True Biz is a character-focused coming of age story that has a powerful message about disability rights and Deaf community.

Glitter by Nicole Seymour

Glitter is, well, a book about glitter, part of the Object Lessons series that explores an everyday object through particular lens. In this one, Nicole Seymour explores the uses of and connotations behind glitter, thinking about its environmental impact, its position as a symbol of frivolity, and ways it is seen as hard to get rid of. She also considers how it has been used in products like glitter pizza and beer, has become a symbol of protest, and is important to depictions of gender and sexuality.

This is the second of the Object Lessons series I’ve read, and I really like how these short non-fiction books take different approaches, sometimes exploring the history of an item or its societal impact, sometimes charting personal histories, and sometimes looking to culture or the future of the item. In Glitter, the titular substance is defended against its haters, whilst acknowledging the environmental impacts of plastic glitter, and also considered in what it can stand in for. 

I particularly liked the way that the book concludes by thinking of glitter as more of a colour or an idea, rather than just a physical item, and how this might allow its rehabilitation in the face of ecological crisis. The fact that ‘glitter’ is sometimes a colour (e.g. as a text colour) reinforces this and I found it a very interesting point. I also enjoyed the tensions between ecological and societal elements, and also the connotations involved with different kinds of aesthetics, and these felt like good frames to view glitter through. Both of the Object Lessons books I’ve read now have felt like reading queer history (and future) through an object and I really like this approach, so I’d definitely read more in the series.

The Odyssey by Lara Williams

The Odyssey is a novel about a woman working on a cruise ship whose avoidance of life and the world on dry land is tested by an employee improvement programme. Ingrid works in rotating roles on a huge cruise ship, where all training comes through her tablet and she might be called up to do almost anything. On her days of shore leave, she gets very drunk wherever they’ve docked. When the ship’s strange captain Keith, who thinks himself some kind of guru, picks her for an employee mentorship, suddenly Ingrid faces up to some memories. At the same time, the ship seems to be falling into disrepair.

I was intrigued by this book as it was pitched as similar to Ballard’s High Rise, which it is in some respects, with the closed off cruise ship gradually decaying, though The Odyssey is much more focused on one person’s mental state than the cruise ship itself. It explores Ingrid’s regimented life on the ship, and her memories of the past, including her husband and her alcoholism, and you watch as she makes various decisions (including having her finger cut off) as she tries to reconcile these. The first person narration feels similar to other books focused on a narrator with a strict regimen who is trying to avoid the past or their lack of a future, though the setting does make this one feel different.

One thing I was disappointed by was the fact that the cruise ship setting isn’t really explored as much as you might expect, especially not as things start to turn weird and twisted. I would’ve liked more of it, whether the Japanese obsession of the captain or what was going on with some of the other employees Ingrid knows, as it is a distinctive and unusual setting for literary fiction.

The Odyssey explores an alcoholic character whose avoidance of their past and future has led them to live a permanent present on a strange cruise ship. The protagonist is interesting and the narrative voice is readable, though as it’s quite short, I felt there could’ve been a bit more of the weirdness.