Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou

Disorientation is a satirical campus novel that explores the academic world of authenticity, race, and power, as a student uncovers a secret about a canonical poet. Ingrid Yang is close to the end of her PhD on the Chinese American poet Xiao-Wen Chou, but she’s finding it hard to be inspired to write anything, especially as she doesn’t really care about her topic. A discovery in the poet’s archive leads her down the path of a mystery that might give her something interesting to write about, but it goes deeper than that, and Ingrid is forced, with the help of her best friend Eunice, to confront herself, her white boyfriend, and people across campus, as the place becomes a battleground for Ingrid’s discovery.

This is a classic biting campus novel that takes a fresh perspective, looking not only at who gets to call authenticity in literature and academia, but at one woman’s grappling with her own relationship to her identity and relationships to others. Ingrid is thrown from her safe existence with her mundane boyfriend to a life filled with harder morality and questions, and the book takes the reader through her journey in a satisfying way, with more of a character-focus than some satirical books can have. A lot of big topics are covered, most notably race, tokenism, and fetishisation of cultures, but also ideas of what free speech in universities means and even kinds of radicalisation, in both alt-right and incel communities. The conceit of the book might be satirical, but a lot of what is shows is very real.

I found this a funny and sharp novel, written in an engaging way, that shows the complexity and, yes, the disorientating experience of a character learning more about white institutions and what they uphold and protect, whilst she also tries to navigate what this means for her own work and love life.

Stargazer by Laurie Petrou

Stargazer is a novel about obsession, envy, and friendship, as two girls are drawn closely together only to find that things might not be so perfect between them. Diana has always lived next door to famous fashion designer Marianne Taylor and her family, including her daughter Aurelle, but Diana has stayed away, hiding from her bully older brother. When finally Diana and Aurelle get to know each other, they quickly become close friends, and in the summer of 1995, they set off to the same college, a small place for art and athletics in the woods. There, they’re known by their bond and for their liking for drug-fuelled adventures, but as Diana’s artistic prowess becomes well-known, a wedge starts to be driven between them.

This is a classic set-up for a book, with a close friendship between two girls finding themselves, built not only on each other’s company but also on envy and a desire for something else. Early on, it is clear that Diana and Aurelle want elements of each other’s life, and the book explores the issues of this being the basis for a friendship, with an underlying toxic resentment that the characters don’t discuss. The book doesn’t have a huge amount of plot and the pace for much of the book is quite slow. I spent quite a lot of the book trying to guess when something actually dramatic was going to happen, picking up clues from the vibe and genre that it was likely to, but I did like the ending, which is quite quick in comparison to the rest of the book but leaves you with a sense that the unnerving underlying elements have come out.

The comparison between The Secret History in the blurb will draw people in (it’s why I wanted to read it), and at the end of the book that author gives thanks to Tartt’s book, making it clear this one was very much inspired by it. In fact, Stargazer felt to me like The Secret History crossed with The Talented Mr Ripley, particularly as the two protagonists used each other’s name occasionally (and with other elements that it would be spoilers to go into). A key difference between these other books, especially The Secret History, and Stargazer is that the latter is told using third person narration to see both of their perspectives (and, infrequently, a couple of other characters’ perspectives) so you don’t get as much of an unreliable narrator-created sense of the situation. Stargazer also focuses a lot more on the backstory and build-up to more dramatic events, rather than the aftermath.

The world of the book is dreamlike, echoing the amount of drugs that the characters take, and highly privileged, with another notable element of the book as opposed to others in the same kind of sub-genre being that both protagonists are rich and, despite what they respectively might think, belong in the same world. This means it tells a different kind of story to one about envy or obsession from a place of lesser power or position: rather, Stargazer explores not seeing what you’ve got and building versions of reality that suit what you see. It also looks at ideas of art and what can or should be used in art, which is an interesting thread, though feels less important in the book than the interpersonal relationships.

Stargazer is an enjoyable read that uses a “dark academia” type vibe to explore, as quite a look of books have recently, the darker sides of female friendship and how such bonds can be toxic. It does feel quite predictable, a homage to The Secret History that doesn’t have similar narration or plot twists (but does have a 90s setting), and there’s more it could’ve explored, but fans of the atmosphere will probably like it.

Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova

Children of Paradise is a novel about the strange world of an ageing cinema and the people who work there. The protagonist moves to a new city and applies for a job at the Paradise, an old cinema, where she has to deal with popcorn spills, horrible toilets, and getting used to the weird coworkers who won’t talk to her. When she’s finally invited to socialise with and get to know the other employees, she discovers the secrets of the run-down cinema, from what they do with lost property to rumours of a secret second screen. But it isn’t just the haunting corridors that loom, but also the thread of corporate takeover.

This book draws you into a surreal world, full of eerie moments and the realities of customer service drudgery. Told in the first person, it has an atmosphere that is mostly realistic, but with lingering moments of unreality, and you never quite know if the Paradise holds more secrets than it seems. The sense of place in the cinema is very visceral, not only the faded glamour but the rituals, the employee drug taking and the rats and the gone-off snacks, and it paints quite a picture of the horrors both of run-down decadence and soulless corporate takeover that still doesn’t actually make the place any less in disrepair.

Displaying both eerie location-based horror and customer service hell, Children of Paradise is an atmospheric novel suffused with film history that shows how the past and present might coexist or clash, all in the space of a single cinema. It’s gripping and perfect for anyone who likes unnerving stories in which a place is one of the characters.

A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers

A Certain Hunger is the story of a food critic with a taste for murdering her lovers who has decided to tell her story. Dorothy Daniels has tasted it all, but from her prison cell in a maximum security prison, she can’t do much but imagine the delectable food she used to eat. Her confession isn’t just a story of the men she killed, but of the food she ate and her wealth of opinions, as you don’t just stop being a critic.

Hilariously gory and wild, this book has a distinctive tone, building up Dorothy’s ridiculous critic voice as she tells her story, weaving through lovers, meals, and deaths towards the point at which it all caught up with her. The style is full of overwrought, satirical detail, particularly about food, which, despite the killing, is probably the thing that makes it most worthy of the comparisons with American Psycho: this book, too, combines the voice of a killer with that of a snob with highly precise opinions. The food elements are intertwined with the killing—to say too much more would give spoilers—and the book is all purposefully overdone in a fun way, with a great subplot of the changes in food writing impacting Dorothy’s career.

By the end, it becomes subtly more apparent why the confession is being told, though the book follows the predictable narrative of getting caught and being sent to prison with only a slight twist right at the end that isn’t really a twist. The book is, in some ways, more of a vibe, as the actual story is almost secondary to the atmosphere and narrative voice, as a woman who knows what she wants (good food, good sex, not to answer to anyone else) indulges her tastes.

If you like self-satisfied murderer narrators, campy gore, and/or food writing, this novel brings a lot to the table, and is a fun, satirical look at a privileged and pretentious world that still seems to love the food it describes.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a novel about video games, and friendship, and ultimately about kinds of love and what it takes to create things. Sam and Sadie meet in a hospital in 1987 and bond over Super Mario, but then their friendship falls apart. Years later, both at college, they run into each other in a train station. Immediately they know they must be friends again, and they start working to make a game together, along with Sam’s roommate Marx. Together, they create a game and find success, but as they attempt to build upon this and make more, it is clear that the real world isn’t as perfectly designed as a game one.

This is an intriguing book, especially for anyone who likes gaming. From the opening, it is clear that the world of video games is very much intertwined with it, as well as being the narrative as the protagonists work to make games, and it’s fun to have those references within it, as it has a real sense of gaming history. There’s a lot of description of making games and what they put into the games, and some interesting exploration of things like gender and sexuality within the gaming world, and ideas of cultural appropriation in games. A section later in the book is written as a game (for a reason that becomes clear) and that felt like something a bit different and fresh, though at first it might feel like a sudden departure from the narrative.

Other than games, the book is particularly centred around friendship and love, and different kinds of relationships. In particular, there’s Sam and Sadie’s dynamic, which the book examines a lot and even looks into some of their moments of miscommunication, showing how things aren’t as simple when they aren’t scripted in a game. The focus on the love within friendship is very important, and especially when it can also be tempestuous and blurred between business partners and friends. Marx is also a great character, bringing out how there’s often other people’s work behind big creative partnerships, but also showing a quietly purposeful kind of friendship between him and Sam.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (on a side note, I really enjoyed when the title was explained, both for the reference and why it is relevant) is a surprising book, a novel that focuses on video games and creating art, but also on friendship above all else, and the work that goes into friendships as well as creating video games. The narrative voice is distinctive, filled with detail and prescient comments, and might not be for everyone, but the content and worlds the book explores feel fresh, a different take on nostalgia and building on the past.

The Society for Soulless Girls by Laura Steven

The Society for Soulless Girls is a young adult thriller that retells the Jekyll and Hyde story at an exclusive university for the arts with a dark past. The infamous North Tower at Carvell College of Arts is where four students died ten years ago and Carvell closed, but now it is reopening, and Lottie, hockey-playing English student with a desire to investigate what really happened at Carvell, and Alice, goth Philosophy student with some anger issues, are starting there and find themselves put together as roommates, albeit ones with little in common. When Alice finds a book containing a soul-splitting ritual in the library, the cycle seems to be starting again, and Lottie and Alice must get over their differences to try and uncover the truth.

This book is very much aimed at the dark academia market (it even has a character who dresses like the aesthetic, quotes philosophy and literature, and at one point mentions The Secret History), with a focus on actual gothic, supernatural goings on as well as the prestigious yet dark education environment. The perspective of the narrative is split between Lottie and Alice, as their encounters with the secrets of Carvell combine with an enemies-to-lovers romance, and the pace is good, with plenty going on. The tone was a little darker than I expected, which pleasantly surprised me (I hadn’t realised the characters would be 18/19 and starting uni, rather than at school, which again was a pleasant surprise), though some of the writing was less up my street (one character spends an entire scene talking in memes).

The engagement with Jekyll and Hyde was very interesting, with the book really focused on female anger and society’s expectations of outlets for rage, and hinting towards ideas of gothic as ways of expressing repressed and difficult things in society. I liked the slightly sinister reputation of the gothic literature course, which brought a nice side of The Secret History-esque ‘what if you studied something theoretical but for real life’ though wasn’t as prevalent in the book as you might expect. The quoting of philosophy and literature throughout made it ideal for pretentious teenagers (I’m sure I would’ve liked it when I was younger for that) who the genre is clearly ideal for.

Combining a mystery, a romance, and a look at how female rage is treated, The Society for Soulless Girls is a fun thriller that really taps into a bunch of things that I think will appeal to the target audience. It’s one of those young adult books that is perfect for getting audiences intrigued by some of the intellectual and literary ideas within whilst also being genuinely entertaining to read and with enough darkness to at least keep it interesting. 

Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

Briefly, A Delicious Life is a novel about yearning, conventions, and love, as a ghost watches an unusual group come to Mallorca for their health. Frédéric Chopin isn’t well, but is in Mallorca with George Sand and her children in the hope of wellness and a simple life. They take residence in an old monastery, where Blanca, the ghost of a teenage girl who died centuries ago, watches them with interest, and falls in love with George, a woman wearing trousers and shirts and shocking the local people. Winter brings difficult times, and Blanca can only do so much to try and help them alongside her usual attempts to protect the women of the town from the men, whilst Chopin writes songs on a substandard piano.

This is a book that is more than its summary, especially if you boil it down to: a ghost falls in love with George Sand and Chopin is ill. The book is from Blanca’s point of view, through which you see some of the thoughts and histories of the other characters as well as her own brief life, and it is a strangely fascinating viewpoint, this teenage girl who has now seen hundreds of years and has learnt how to manage love and yearning. The picture of this family, two lovers and the children of one of them, is really shown in its complexities through Blanca’s perspective, though you never know if her idea of George is clouded by her sudden love for the woman.

I’m not usually one for historical novels without another selling point, especially not ones about real historical figures, but I love the unique conceit of this one, and it felt almost timeless a lot of the time, possibly thanks to having a narrator who has seen a lot of time. It is fascinating, with a slightly strange ending that changes pace from the rest of the book, but makes sense in terms of the narrative, and especially Blanca’s need to watch every detail of the group. A fresh take on queer history, Briefly, A Delicious Life makes a book about a ghost, living life, and types of love something nuanced and intriguing, and not at all what I might’ve expected.

Before We Were Trans by Kit Heyam

Before We Were Trans is a book that looks at the history of gender through an expansive trans lens, showing that the scope of trans history can be wide and inclusive and that can teach us more about the people left out by certain ideas of gender. Each chapter focuses on a particular theme and acts as a kind of introduction to that area of history, weaving together a few different examples and discussing how thinking about these is important, and many of the chapters look at the overlap between trans history and other histories, particularly the history of sexuality, intersex history, and the history of colonisation.

The style of the book is academic yet engaging, aimed at a broad audience, and the content is introductory, providing explanations of what and why people and communities can be viewed through a broader lens of trans history but not going deep into each topic, which could be books in themselves. The book sets forward a methodology for doing history, acknowledging at one point the bad reputation of historians in terms of the history of gender difference and the policing that can go on around historical figures, and the title hints towards the fact that differing terminology means that history like this isn’t so simple to chart. At the same time, Heyam makes it clear how important it is that people do this work and see these histories as histories that can be crucial to modern thought and understanding.

As the book is an overview, I was looking forward to using the bibliography to follow up and go deeper, which I will do, though in my electronic proof copy it’s not the easiest to navigate and could have been split into key texts for each chapter to make it more accessible for people wanting to read more. I’m not a historian, so I can’t really comment on the discussion of methodology, but Heyam clearly highlights the book’s limitations, especially as written by a white academic, and the book is useful for thinking about who and how trans histories are told.

There’s a lot of fascinating content in Before We Were Trans, and it sits nicely with other recent non-fiction books on trans life and reality, particularly Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue (which is cited in this book), to consider the ambiguity, policing, and intersectionality of gender and trans history. 

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

Lapvona is a novel about the balance of power, faith, and human connection in a rigid rural society, set in a fictional village. In Lapvona (somewhere probably medieval, possibly in eastern Europe), lives Marek and his father Jude, the shepherd; Ina, a blind midwife and wet nurse with supernatural powers of communication with nature; the lord Villiam who lives high on the hill; and Father Barnabas, who has traded religious for the power of being Villiam’s right hand man. The village is controlled by Villiam’s whims, but when Marek finds himself caught up in Villiam’s world and Lapvona faces drought, the balance of the village changes in different ways.

From the summary, this isn’t the sort of book I would usually pick up, as I’m not a fan of a medieval setting, but I was intrigued to see what Moshfegh would do, and drawn in by the stark cover. This is a complex book, feeling like a literary fable and also a tale of human darkness. It is split into seasons, with the point of view shifting between characters to give an overarching picture of Lapvona, whilst not focusing on too many characters that you get lost. I found it quite easily gripping at the start, despite the setting, and it quickly becomes dark, with characters devoid of sympathy for others and scenes I’m sure some people will find disgusting. This darkness makes it stand out, feeling like a controlled literary portrait of a feudal society and cutthroat decisions people make even when they could be nicer.

In terms of narrative, a few things happen, but it isn’t really plot driven, and I did find the ending felt a bit like ‘oh right, that happened’ rather than a climax. This maybe suits the book, though I was wondering if there was going to be a like a big thing that happened at the end to tie it up (that’s not to say that nothing happens at the end, as that isn’t the case). This is a book that I found pretty good to read, but I’m not entirely sure why, and that weirdness is quite a good place to be (though doesn’t make for the easiest review-writing).

On reflection, I like Lapvona more and more, thinking about its strange atmosphere and hints of supernatural, embracing the dark and the disgusting without trying to see if something big is going to happen to make it all make sense to me. Also, it does give me flashbacks to studying medieval literature, especially the darker ends of it. I’ve only read a couple of Moshfegh’s previous book (liked one, didn’t like the other) and I feel this one may also be divisive, but I think it did well to ensure I wasn’t bored by something I usually wouldn’t be enthralled by.

oh, you thought this was a date?! by C. Russell Price

oh, you thought this was a date?! is a poetry collection exploring the apocalypse through trauma, desire, and the realities of America. The collection is split into sections, each with a quote, dictionary definition, ‘Soundtrack’ and ‘Ritual’, and the book feels like a ritual overall, a chance to speak about brutality and destruction through lyric and song. There’s a lot of music, titles and lyrics, infuses throughout the book and it almost feels like the hazy soundtrack to a wasteland, playing whilst poems explore kinds of apocalypse, trauma, vengeance, and personal histories. At times, in poems like ‘Ars Poetica: We Can Take Our Turn, Singing Them Dirty Rap Songs’ but also through its own structure and tone, it is also a manifesto for poetry that isn’t “fluff”, that does things rather than gently meditate, and that’s a good message to leave with: poetry should have power, and can feel dangerous to those who’d rather it was hidden.