Traum/A is a collection of experimental poetry that explores an alphabet of trauma and living with it, taking different forms of poetry and visual work to push the limits of meaning and what a poet might share or not share. There’s some clever uses of form to talk about trauma (‘Trauma Porn [Inverted]’ might be my favourite because it so effectively makes its point) and a real range of formats on the page (for example, the typography of ‘Notice’, found poem ‘EMDR’, and the disintegrating power of central poem ‘there is a hole in the centre of everything’). The range and structure of the collection really reflects the many forms and experiences of trauma and the complexity of the brain, using disintegration and experiment to make visceral poetry, and each poem feels fresh and different within a collection that is very much a complete whole.
Tag: book review
The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr
The Sleeping Car Porter is a historical novel set in 1929 about a gay Black sleeping car porter. Baxter works on the cross-country train in Canada as a porter whilst he saves enough money for dentistry school. He relies on the tips from white passengers, who he must appease whatever they want, whilst trying to work with the sleep deprivation that comes as part of the porter job. When a mudslide strands the train, the drama of the passengers and of the postcard of two men that Baxter found on the train and has been storing in his pocket will come to a head.
This is a novel that can be slow to get going and it takes a moment to get into the style of the book, especially as it opens on a different train to the main narrative is going to be set on. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would like the book, as I was interested by the blurb and the specific historical moment in terms of the porters, race, and sexuality, but the book didn’t seem to live up to it. However, as the book progressed, and particularly as you got to know both Baxter and the other passengers on the train more, it became more gripping, with the passengers’ dramas providing low level intrigue alongside the stresses of Baxter’s situation: needing to make enough money, fear of being fired or being imprisoned, and lack of sleep causing hallucinations.
The insight into the world of railway porters at this time (and after the novel ends there’s a list of references showing the research that went into the novel) is fascinating, particularly their labour conditions and the unpredictability of not knowing what the passengers might report them for, all whilst hardly able to get any sleep for days. For Baxter, dealing not only with the work and the power of the white passengers over him, but also having to hide his sexuality at all costs, you see how precarious his existence is. The ridiculousness of the spiritualist character and the seances provides a different tone to the serious despair of Baxter’s existence, showing the disconnect between the well-off passengers and the porters.
The Sleeping Car Porter wasn’t a book I got into immediately, but by the end I was invested in the narrative and the claustrophobic world you get to see on the train. It’s a fairly short book, not packed with endless detail like some historical novels, and brings Black queer history to the forefront to tell the story of a man trying to make it to his dream.
Bored Gay Werewolf by Tony Santorella
Bored Gay Werewolf is a novel about an aimless guy who happens to be a werewolf and what happens when he meets someone trying to create what seems to be a start-up for werewolves. Brian works at a restaurant, spends his time drinking with his coworkers Nik and Darby or having Grindr hookups, and doesn’t deal well with his monthly transitions into a wolf. When he meets Tyler, who seems to have everything sorted out and is also a werewolf, maybe it is the chance Brian needs to get his life on track. Tyler’s plan for the The Pack (™) includes getting Brian in shape and in control, but it seems that Tyler’s business plans might go further than that, and meanwhile, Brian is drifting away from his friends and his previous self.
The title of this book is such a hilarious draw to read it, and it really gets across the tone, which is partly satirical, partly fun, and partly a sincere look at queer community and finding your people. I love books that integrate some kind of mythological creature into an everyday modern world and this one is a pretty funny way of doing it, exploring toxic masculinity within hustle culture and within ideas of werewolves at once (and it’s not just the name Tyler that offers hints of Fight Club). The plot turns from a slower paced slacker falls into something unexpected to a faster pace by the end, with at least one twist I didn’t see coming. I did expect the ending to be less uplifting yet ridiculous and maybe more satirical or dark, but to be honest, I think the ending does suit the book generally (and seems to set up for a potential sequel).
If we’re going through each part of the title, then the werewolf element is well-covered and fun, it’s got some classic slacker protagonist stuff, and then there’s the depiction of Brian being gay and of queerness in general, which really makes this book enjoyable. There’s lots of interesting parts of the book exploring queerness, like excessive heterosexuality of the people Brian meets through Tyler (and the ways in which Brian has to navigate the gender and sexual stereotypes that arise when he’s around these people) and the various jokes about coming out as a werewolf, and it was nice to see a non-binary friend character in adult fiction who, yes, is a bit notably quirky, but is also a rounded person.
I had a lot of fun with this book, which is like hustle culture werewolf Fight Club but the protagonist has some friends. It’s not what you’d expect from a werewolf novel and that makes it an enjoyable read, even if the ending is perhaps a little too easily resolved. Definitely one where the wild title and cover actually deliver a suitably fun book.
Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang
Yellowface is a novel about literary plagarism, diversity, and the cutthroat world of publishing, as a white woman steals the unfinished manuscript of her dead friend. Juniper ‘June’ Hayward is a struggling writer jealous of the success of her sometime friend Athena Liu, who she went to college with. Athena is the next big thing, with a Netflix deal and hype for whatever she writes next, but she’s very secretive. When June is there when Athena dies after showing her the manuscript of her next novel, June takes the book and makes it her own. But when she finds runaway success, she is plagued by people questioning if she should have written that story and if it is even her book in the first place.
From the summary, you immediately know this is going to be a book about literary drama, and as the book at points highlights, this will particularly appeal to the minority who do spend a lot of time on Twitter caring about said drama. The book is from June’s perspective, which is a clever way to give the reader a perspective that is often unlikeable, and Kuang builds up an almost parodic portrait of her, with a whole host of “red flags” that give the reader insight into June’s attitudes about things. This means that the book is really not for people who want a likeable voice or character in a novel, and the satirical tone makes it not really about real characters at all, but figures that can stand in for ideas and viewpoints.
The plot is as you’d expect: success, and then things get complicated and messy. There’s lots about both the realities of publishing (snide comments about book boxes and giveaways) and then about book Twitter drama and how a lot of this drama doesn’t have any proof (even if, like in the book, it is actually true). The ending was a little inconclusive and lacked a hard-hitting final image that would underline the satirical point, but I did like that it kept things messy.
The whole book feels full of reality, but also is painted as an exaggerated version of what it is attacking (presumably most authors called out for things haven’t actually stolen whole manuscripts off dead people), and I liked the outrageousness of it and how meta it felt, though it will be interesting to see if that works for people who aren’t interested in internet drama about books. I’ve seen reviews pointing out that it is too close to the author and real drama, but as I’ve not read any of Kuang’s other books or have seen this drama, I can’t comment on that. It’s always going to be a book that perhaps hits differently for people depending on whether you know much about book drama or not and if you know much about Kuang’s own online persona and other books, and that may bring different readings of it.
Yellowface takes the world of online book drama and turns it into a darkly comic satire that reflects a lot of reality. It will probably divide people, particularly as it is full of in-jokes and unlikeable characters, but it is a fun rollercoaster of a book.
The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw
The Salt Grows Heavy is a horror novella about a mermaid and a plague doctor who end up in a strange village where children are hunted, harvested, and remade. A mermaid who was mutilated by her husband is now freed from him and travelling with a genderless plague doctor, when they find children hunting another child. What they uncover is three strange surgeons, known as ‘saints’, who have the power to cut people up and put them back together, and the children seem doomed for this to happen forever, unless the mermaid and the plague doctor can disrupt the cycle.
I wouldn’t normally necessarily go for a mermaid story, even a horror one, but having read Khaw’s earlier novella Nothing But Blackened Teeth I was intrigued by this one. There’s some The Little Mermaid vibes in it, though it’s really the central relationship and the story with the village that are most memorable, rather than the mermaid elements. The relationship between the mermaid and the plague doctor was my favourite part of the book, both with similarities in their pasts and their existence, and by the end, closely bonded despite the horror. The prose is filled with imagery and it might be an acquired taste, particularly as being a novella means that little is explained, but I quite liked how alongside the body horror you end up with something quite weird and unusual, sometimes even confusing.
Though it is pretty disorienting at times, The Salt Grows Heavy is also a good example of how the length of a novella can be good for horror, removing the need to really go into detail about how and why and rather focus on weird body horror and some strange characters. The dreamlike fantasy vibe of it wasn’t what I’d usually enjoy, but I did like the character of the plague doctor and the weird horror of the story.
Such Sharp Teeth by Rachel Harrison
Such Sharp Teeth is a novel about a woman who returns to her hometown to help her pregnant sister, only to get bitten by a werewolf. Rory moves back from New York City to stay with her pregnant twin sister, Scarlett, even though she wishes she was far away from the past. When she runs into the guy who had a crush on her in high school, Ian, things could be looking up, but then she hits something with her car, and she’s attacked. When she wakes up, she feels different, and it starts to become clear that she is changing into someone else, someone who transforms once a month.
This is a book I’d describe as a werewolf novel, as it doesn’t really fit any other genre: there’s hints of horror, romance, and comedy, plus exploration of trauma and anger and body horror. Told from Rory’s first person perspective, it moves between a narrative of becoming a werewolf and trying to reconcile your previous life with what you can do now, and a story of returning to your hometown, facing the past, and reconnecting with people. The clever thing is that the way these are entwined, particularly around the twins’ respective experiences with werewolfism and pregnancy, works really well, focusing on what happens when your body doesn’t feel the same any more and you are facing a future very different to what you first imagined.
The characters are fun, the book combines humour with a look at trauma, anger, and relief, and it doesn’t shy away from the body horror elements of both being a werewolf and childbirth. Such Sharp Teeth shows that you can create a gripping book that’s hard to put down which explores a lot of powerful stuff whilst also being a fun werewolf comedy and love story. I love books that put supernatural creatures in a really normal setting and explore what it means to deal with that, and this book does it well.
Termush by Sven Holm
Termush is a novella from 1967 that tells the story of rich survivors after a disaster, living in a luxury hotel with special radiation shelters. The narrator, one of the guests, tells the story of what happens after they emerge from the shelters after the disaster to live in the hotel, with management keeping watch, security men and doctors and servants keeping them safe and well, and other guests arguing about what to do. As survivors from outside of Termush keep coming, hoping for shelter and medical treatment, the wealthy residents must decide what to do about them.
This dystopian novella published by Faber Editions with a new introduction by Jeff VanderMeer, which explores the book’s themes and how it fits into 20th century dystopian fiction, as well as its relevance to the modern day. In fact, the modern relevance of the novella is almost on the nose, with radiation fear replaced by virus fear, and the fact that there is a lack of technology in the book due to the time period (and the fact it isn’t written as something far in the future, but focuses more on the human reality) makes it feel more timeless anyway. It isn’t necessarily the most different dystopia by now, as there’s been so many and lots that explore similar questions, but it is unnerving how true it still feels.
As VanderMeer says in the introduction, it does feel like somewhere between other, cosier 20th century ‘after the disaster’ type dystopias and J.G. Ballard type dystopias in which people turn on each other and morality and capitalism are thrown into the spotlight. Termush doesn’t let you forget that the narrator and the other residents are wealthy and paid to be survivors, and some of them care mostly about maintaining this status of privilege against other survivors who want to be let in. It is easy to see how this questions the mindset of the wealthy even without a presumably nuclear disaster, and how systems are designed to allow people to keep themselves privileged over others’ need.
As a novella, the book is tight and gripping, not focusing on claustrophobic mundanity but a dreamlike quality, in which the narrator combines facts about bad things happening with dreams and visions. It feels like a good companion to a lot of the recent ‘rich people isolate themselves’ fiction like Glass Onion and The Menu, but Termush is also a classic dystopia that doesn’t quite let you know what happened, but allows you to imagine a similar scenario for any horrifying apocalypse.
Patricia Wants To Cuddle by Samantha Allen
Patricia Wants To Cuddle is a horror comedy novel in which dating show contestants find themselves on a remote island and don’t get the season finale they were expecting. Renee is one of four contestants left on The Catch, a TV dating show, but she’s really pretty apathetic towards Jeremy, the man whose attentions they are meant to be competing for. The other three contestants—a Christian good girl, an influencer, and a model—seem determined though, fighting to win even as they start seeing a strange figure on the island, known for being a queer haven, that they are staying on to film the next episode.
From the opening, you know this is going to be a fun ride. The book combines the perspectives of a range of characters, mostly the four contestants, alongside blog and forum posts and letters, to slowly set up the mysterious story whilst taking a satirical look at TV dating shows, before the horror element suddenly ramps up at the end. The characters’ personalities are purposefully over the top (sometimes making the style of the writing over the top too), but the book really does delve into how reality TV treats its contestants, stars, and crew alongside a wild plot line that offers some satisfyingly queer monster horror. It’s a short book that doesn’t overstay its welcome and could easily be adapted into film or TV, playing up both the comedy and horror.
There always needs to be more queer monster horror, but I didn’t expect adding reality TV to the mix would make such an enjoyable read.
This Is My Body, Given For You by Heather Parry
This Is My Body, Given For You is a collection of short stories that explore body horror and ways in which the body can be changed. The stories combine gothic and gruesome elements, exploring various depths of humanity and finding sources of power from within, sometimes in a monstrous way. The collection opens with a tale about a girl whose menstruation goes awry and ends with a choose your own adventure story about a man and his wife’s choices, and in between that, there’s a real range of topics, but a focus on outsiders, bodies that won’t behave, and bodies that change when people need them to.
I really liked the way this collection is structured, with sections containing one or more stories that have wry summaries of the themes of that section in a way that feels like you are being guided through the book. It also gives a sense of being offered something by the writer, which unnervingly echoes the title. The stories themselves explore a range of bodily transformation and alteration, some of which will make people wince, and a lot of them are very playful, even when they are dark. I particularly enjoyed ‘Husband into Hen’, about a wife’s reaction to her husband waking up as a hen, which tells a great story in a small space and has the kind of surprise final moments that can really make a short story memorable.
This is a great collection for people who enjoy weird stories that play with body horror. I like how it purposefully shifts tone and style, as signalled by the different sections, and sets up reader expectations as you move through the stories, and the final interactive story really embeds the reader as complicit in the spectacle that is the characters’ bodies and selves.
Our Hideous Progeny by C. E. McGill
Our Hideous Progeny is a novel that picks up after Frankenstein, as Victor’s great-niece tries to recreate his work using Victorian palaeontology. Mary was raised by her grandmother, never allowed the Frankenstein name after the death of her father, but with the knowledge that her great-uncle disappeared in the Arctic a long time ago. She’s escaped that now and fights to make a living with her husband in the palaeontological world in London, but they lack money and influence. When Mary uncovers the letters sent back to her family about Victor and his creation, she realises that following in his footsteps may bring her and her husband the discovery they need.
The book doesn’t so much as retell Frankenstein as provide a sequel that explores similar themes, particularly around ambition, pride, and obsession, and draws out some of the complexities of motherhood that can be read from Mary Shelley’s book. It is deeply situated within Victorian London’s scientific life, especially the first parts of the novel, and I appreciated how well it followed on from Shelley’s own interest in the science of the time around when she was writing Frankenstein, updating the stuff around electricity to also consider fossils and changing ideas about life and death. The philosophical ideas within the book also take up some of the elements of Frankenstein, particularly in Mary’s relationship to her own Creature, and this was one of my favourite elements of the book.
The narrative itself is pretty predictable, following an adventure story with a clear villain and some commentary on the lives and freedoms (or lack thereof) of women in the period, and I did expect more twists and turns at the end (in particular, I thought that Mary’s discoveries might end up being used for something more desperate and potentially monstrous), but the conclusion of the novel does seem to leave scope for a sequel, which may be the intention. It perhaps had a bit more historical adventure and a bit less of the ideas (scientific/philosophical/queer/etc) than I would’ve liked as someone who is more of a fan of Frankenstein than historical fiction, but I think that makes it suited to people who enjoy historical novels that explore some ideas of feminism and queerness without necessarily having to have read Frankenstein.
I appreciated that, in the author’s note, McGill says they didn’t enjoy Frankenstein when they first read it as a teenager, but later grew to like it more, as I had a similar experience and feel like it is a book that is sadly pushed upon teenagers who really need more of the scientific and literary history of the time to actually understand why Frankenstein feels slower and more contemplative than what they’ve heard. This book is quite different, with a slow pace at times due to the amount of historical detail, but more of an adventure focus, and something you could read alongside Frankenstein to think about how “retellings” might leave an original work as is and run with its ideas in another way. It also might just convince some people to give Frankenstein another go.
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