The Girl and the Goddess by Nikita Gill

The Girl and the Goddess is a novel in (mostly) verse that tells the story of a girl growing up in India, discovering herself, and finding support from gods and goddesses. It tells the story of Paro, a girl who is born in Kashmir, moves with her parents to Delhi, learns how being female changes things when her brother is born, and looks for friends and love as a teenager and into adulthood. Along the way, stories and Hindu mythology teach her how to deal with the light and darkness in her life: trauma, sexuality, and the legacy of colonial rule. 

Gill combines poetry, prose, and illustrations to tell Paro’s story, and the result is a book that is compulsive and readable, bringing different fragments of Paro’s life and also interweaving the stories that inspire and comfort her, as gods and goddesses appear to her. It has a great cast of characters and the format gives you real insight into Paro’s thoughts, particularly by having poems that are ‘written’ by Paro and thinking about what we create and when writing about something isn’t easy. The pieces covering her working out her bisexuality and then telling stories from Hindu mythology that show that sexuality and gender aren’t as rigid as might seem are particularly powerful, but the whole book is emotional and compelling.

There’s a lot of great novels in verse coming out at the moment, and The Girl and the Goddess  shows how the form can be used to think about storytelling and mythology whilst also telling a hard hitting coming-of-age tale. I read it as an ebook which worked well, but I imagine the hard copy looks particularly good with the illustrations. I’d heard of Nikita Gill but not read any of her writing before, and from this I’ll definitely be reading more.

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Red Pill is a novel about an author caught in an existential crisis of the modern alt-right, Trump age, and about how we treat the past and present. The unnamed protagonist leaves his wife and daughter in New York to take up a residency at the Deuter Centre in Berlin, where he plans to write his next book about lyric poetry. However, the Centre’s rules and atmosphere aren’t the retreat he expected, and he ends up flouting the rules, mostly to watch a violent cop show in his room. A chance encounter with the creator of the show at a Berlin party shows him that the world isn’t a liberal bubble, and the grip he had on his own sanity starts to slip as the other man’s ideas get into his head.

From the title, I’d expected something more focused on the alt-right, but actually it isn’t until quite far into the novel that alt-right internet culture comes in, and the earlier parts of the novel are more concerned with the protagonist’s creativity, a sense of history around both ideas and Berlin itself, and about rules and surveillance. There’s a lot about the Enlightenment and specific thinkers which I didn’t know much about, but having watched YouTube videos about debunking alt-right ideas at least gave me background on some of those points. Many of the ideas in the novel are more ideas than parts of the plot, but that is the point, and the protagonist is caught up trying and failing to connect ideas, and then later trapped in ideas. As I’d expected from having read White Tears, the atmosphere created in the novel is tense and strange, trying to get across the mental state of the often unreliable protagonist, and the tension is more in this atmosphere than the plot.

Red Pill is both what I expected and not, an unreliable trip down a rabbit hole of different ideas about the self, humanity, and the future, and a look at the world on the brink of Trump’s presidency. As someone interested in Romanticism, Berlin, and internet culture, the ideas were gripping and threw up questions about trying to find meaning, both in the novel and life.

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Pizza Girl is the story of a pregnant pizza delivery girl who becomes obsessed with a woman she delivers pizzas to. The protagonist is eighteen, lives with her mother and overly doting boyfriend, and works delivering pizzas whilst avoiding thinking about the future, whether that’s her baby or what she’s going to do beyond each day. When Jenny, a mother whose son demands pickle-covered pizzas, orders from the pizza shop, the protagonist becomes obsessed with delivering their weekly pizza and seeing Jenny, but this doesn’t bring her stability either.

This book has a similar feel to other modern novels with a young, lost protagonist who makes questionable choices and obsesses over a particular thing or person. In Pizza Girl, this is used to look at young pregnancy, grief, and living in denial of your worries and future, and it makes for a gripping novel that has a sense of drifting through just as the main character drifts through her life. You have to watch as she cuts everyone out of her life and feelings, falls down the rabbit hole of obsession with a married woman who is constantly moving house, and thinks about the death of her father and the bad side of him. Not a huge amount happens, but that’s the point in many ways, and it feels like a well-crafted narrative.

Unexpectedly moving, Pizza Girl will appeal to fans of books like My Year of Rest and Relaxation where you watch a flawed protagonist deal (or fail to deal) with their life, but with an underlying look at the problems they face.

So Hormonal, edited by Emily Horgan & Zachary Dickson

So Hormonal is a collection of essays about hormones and the varied roles they play in people’s lives. With essays covering periods, menopause, transition, steroid use, and fertility amongst other things, there’s a wide range of topics covered, with personal anecdotes and reflection alongside highlighting key information about health conditions and experiences. Each of the 36 essays ends with a suggestion for following it up, either with reading or websites for charities and support groups, giving people action to take if motivated by the content of the writing.

This is a gripping collection that provides insight into a huge range of issues and realities, forcing you to reflect on bodies, medical care, and how we understand ourselves. It’s hard to pick certain ones to highlight, but there was some particularly enlightening looks at comorbidity of conditions affected by or affecting hormones and on the complexities of things that some people might think are simple. The essays around the complexity for trans men and non-binary people when accessing healthcare for gynaecological problems were also interesting, and it was good to see essays on hormones not just written by or focusing on cis women. Some of the essays also challenge particular ideas, for example around ‘teenage hormones’ or steroid use, which are good chances for readers to reflect on their own assumptions.

There are a lot of essays in So Hormonal, a lot more than I was expecting, and this brought welcome variety and the chance for a wide selection of voices—I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any shorter. It’s the sort of book you want to recommend and lend to other people seeing as it is both insightful and will contain essays that different people will find relatable in different ways. The inclusion of further information at the end of each essay makes it a starting point rather than the final answer, and it’s good to have collections like this coming out.

(So Hormonal can be bought from the Monstrous Regiment website)

The London Dream: Migration and the Mythology of the City by Chris McMillan

The London Dream is a look at the mythology around London as a city and the dreams of success that people have for living there. McMillan looks at a range of jobs and dreams and the ways in which myths have been structured to bring people to London, to contribute to its economy and to its ‘cool’ status, and how these use certain versions of capitalism and precarious work. Various Londoners have been interviewed and their experiences sit alongside the analysis of the image of ‘cool capitalism’ and how the labour of precariously employed and badly paid people keeps the cool, creative image of London going.

This is an engrossing book, not because the symbiotic relationship between the ‘cool’ image of London, which comes with dreams of making it big, and the underpaid, not-officially-employed labour that is needed to make London this way is a revelation, but because McMillan lays out these ideas in a clear, interesting way and combines them with the real stories of people who believe London is their place to be, but have also had to deal with many of its downsides. What feels particularly important is the fact the book covers both the dreams of aspiring creative types trying to break into industries due to the opportunities in London and the dreams of people looking to do often service industry jobs to support themselves and their families, and both groups have ‘migrated’ to London in some way from somewhere else, on the hope of work and experiences. The history of London in these areas is charted at relevant points, but the book feels very focused on the present, a kind of warning about the labour and personal realities of the dream of the big city.

As someone who did move to London for a couple of years and found some of the content very relatable (I worked alongside aspiring and out-of-work actors in hospitality), The London Dream was particularly satisfying, as a kind of proof that the image of London isn’t all it is cracked up to be. The book’s specific focus on particular areas of labour, notably the gig economy and the creative industries, means that it leaves you wanting more of a look at other broader and more specific issues, to tear down the ‘London dream’ and leave behind a reality where things could be better for thousands of people living in the city.

The Invention of Sound by Chuck Palahniuk

The Invention of Sound is, as expected from Palahniuk, a dark story of a dangerous scream, a desperate father searching for his missing daughter, and a foley artist using more than effects. Foster  Gates’ daughter went missing years ago, and he still clings to the thought he can find the truth, at his support group and on the dark web. Mitzi Ives is a famed foley artist with a difference, known for creating the screams needed for Hollywood films, but this comes at a price: the screamer’s life. When Foster hears a scream that sounds like his daughter’s, their paths are set to collide, but at the same time Mitzi is losing control, and has created a scream with larger power than expected.

I haven’t read any of Palahniuk’s books in a while (apart from a reread of Fight Club), mostly having read them during a teenage love of reading stuff with shock value like him and Bret Easton Ellis, and I found this one gripping and readable, with a sharply honed narrative. The twists and horror of the novel worked well (a foley artist that uses real death screams is a great concept, but even more so when it’s a reluctant family business) and, without wanting to give anything away, Foster’s story is tied in nicely. The opening was confusing, which tends to be the case with any Palahniuk novel, but this one felt easier to get into quickly and figure out what you needed to know, and the short length kept it sharp and distinctly not sweet.

This is a great Palahniuk novel, with a lot of elements that might be expected—fame, violence, questions over what is real or not, and some dark topics—but without becoming too horrific. It all comes together in a satisfying way and has a sense of control and precision. And finally, it seems silly to put this in a review of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, but obviously, this isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

Summerwater is a short novel exploring the people at a Scottish cabin park on a single day, with simmering tensions amidst the wet weather. There’s various families and children, cooped up indoors; an old couple thinking about the past; a young couple unaware of how each other are feeling; and, as noticed by everyone else, a woman and her daughter who some of the others don’t think fits in. As the narrative moves between the perspective of different people and the day goes on, the question is, what will happen by nighttime?

This is an easily immersive novel, that moves quickly between each character, only giving you each person’s perspective once. It paints a picture of the similarities and differences between people’s mindsets and the way that they all watch each other out of their patio doors, like nosy neighbours but temporary. There’s sharp moments of exposure about modern Britain, from xenophobia to environmental concerns, and a sense of privilege amongst the less-than-ideal holidays the characters are having.

Summerwater is a kind of study of the contemporary moment from within a Scottish holiday park, showing lingering judgement and prejudice under the surface. Similarly to Moss’ previous novel Ghost Wall, it takes a group of people outside of their usual setting, with a distinct nature backdrop, and observes what happens when they come together.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

The Death of Vivek Oji is a powerful novel about how the child parents think they know might not be the child they really have, focusing on the childhood, adolescence, and death of Vivek Oji. In Nigeria, a mother finds her only child dead on her doorstep, wrapped in material, and desperately wants to know what happened to them. Mixed in with this story of that of Vivek’s upbringing, showing how finding who you truly are may mean keeping secrets from your family, and that love, gender, and sexuality aren’t always simple.

Having read and enjoyed both of their previous novels, Freshwater and Pet, I knew I needed to read Emezi’s new book, and it didn’t disappoint, being a story of identity, personal relationships, and how people’s lives were affected by one person. The exploration of identity and secrets is combined with elements of social commentary, around what is spoken and unspoken and how people find community, but the main focus is on Vivek, and on the impact that someone’s life and death can have. This is important, as despite the title the book doesn’t have a huge amount of Vivek’s point of view, but instead uses others’ perspectives to get across the different ways of seeing people and the complexity of self in relation to other people.

This is a gripping novel that told an entrancing story, and though the title is about death, the book is also about life, about living as yourself, finding people to be around, and the complexity of emotion.

Underground, Monroe, & The Mamalogues: Three Plays by Lisa B. Thompson

Underground, Monroe, & The Mamalogues is a collection of three plays by playwright and scholar Lisa B. Thompson that cover a range of topics and themes, including protest, motherhood, migration, trauma, and the black middle class. Underground features two old friends discussing politics and protest in the post-Obama era, with a tension lying underneath. Monroe is a 20th century period play that looks at the impact of a lynching on a family and dreams of leaving 1940s Louisiana. And The Mamalogues features three black middle class single mothers sharing stories at a support group, thinking about their children’s lives from birth to leaving home.

This is an engrossing selection of plays that are quite different, but all look at the black middle class (which is what Thompson works on) and different elements of race, gender, and respectability. Underground is the most gripping, a play that draws you into one evening when two old friends find themselves back together in a snowstorm discussing the best methods for bringing about change and their thoughts on radical politics. Kyle and Mason are complex characters and their viewpoints become particularly charged and important given current Black Lives Matter protests and action. The Mamalogues also focuses on a single discussion in a single point in time, and really considers the intersection of race and class, but is also funny and frank. Even reading both of these plays gives a real sense of the dialogues happening, but it would be great to see them performed.

Monroe is different again, a play that spans a period of time just after the lynching of Cherry’s brother, and looks at the dream of migrating away from Louisiana to somewhere that might be better. The historical setting and greater number of characters onstage makes it feel more traditional, but it also has a lot of ambiguity. All three plays have detailed notes on performance, including suggested playlists, so this copy would be useful for those studying theatre, but the plays are accessible and enjoyable so this text shouldn’t be confined only to academic reading. All three plays are relevant to current discussions, but in particular Underground is vital reading for thinking about radical politics and race, as well as being a great, tense play.

True Story by Kate Reed Petty

True Story is a surprising and inventive novel that blends genres and conventions to look at how we tell stories and what the truth is. One night during high school, Alice was driven home from a party by two boys. She was drunk and passed out, and doesn’t remember what happened, but the rumours say a lot, despite what the boys tell the police. One of their friends, Nick, hears a different version of the story. And as both Alice and Nick get older, and deal with abusive relationships, addition, and other challenges, the truth of that night stays hidden, until it finally seems like it is going to come out.

The structure and narrative of True Story are impressive: it blends a novel, thriller and horror and drama, with screenplay and college essay, as different chunks of time are told from Alice and Nick’s points of view. At first, this seems like it could be a bit of a gimmick, but it is only later that it starts to make sense why the novel is written like this. The book is visceral—particularly around abusive relationships and addition—and tense, playing around with the heart-racing genres of horror and thriller whilst ultimately telling a story of how to tell a story. The different elements are weaved together well and the ending was unexpected.

This is a dark novel that touches on some intense subjects and looks at contemporary questions of how women and men are treated, but also has a playful edge that messes around with genre and possibly has an underlying message about not underestimating genre fiction.