Hell of a Book by Jason Mott

Hell of a Book is a novel about, well, it’s a novel about an author on a book tour for his new book, which everyone agrees is a hell of a book, but he’s not quite sure what it’s about or if all the people are real. Only he can see The Kid, a Black boy who might be the one recently shot by the police, or might not be, but as the interviews pile up and he sees The Kid more and more, maybe he’ll have to work out just which stories are being told.

This is a difficult book to talk about without giving away too much, as a lot of it is built around narrative uncertainty and what the narrator says or doesn’t say at any one point. It’s an innovative style which is used to play with the reader whilst also addressing issues of race, police brutality, and which stories Black creatives are encouraged to tell (or told is marketable). At times it is absurd and funny, at other times unreal and clever, and then it is also powerful and sad, a sign of how stories keep repeating and cycles keep being perpetuated.

The style of this book might not be for everyone, but I found it incisive and witty, and a clever way to ask questions about the publishing industry itself whilst also looking at existing in America whilst Black. I’m not going to end my review with an obvious play on the title, but instead I’ll think about the fact that the way the title is used throughout the book does feel like a comment on how it might be described by people who haven’t really read it in the future, as it is undoubtedly a book that is going to be talked about.

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake is a romantic comedy about a bisexual single mum who goes on a TV baking competition for the money, and meets two men who seem interested in her—but they’re fellow competitors. Rosaline Palmer can never live up to her parents’ standards, having dropped out of university to raise her daughter, Amelie, and now working in a high street stationery shop. When her baking skills get her onto ‘Bake Expectations, a beloved TV baking show, she’s desperate for the prize money, but didn’t expect to also meet new people and explore what she really wants in her future.

Romance isn’t really a genre I read much of, but I read Hall’s earlier Boyfriend Material, which I enjoyed, so I thought I’d give this one a go. Actually I enjoyed how much of this book was focused around Rosaline’s journey, and the romance part is only one element of that, though I can imagine some readers might’ve wanted more dramatic romance. Without spoiling anything about the plot, I will say that I very quickly hated a character who later turned out to be awful, making me vindicated but also relieved, and also meaning that I did find some of the earlier part of the book quite frustrating. However, I loved Rosaline’s interactions with her daughter, and also I liked a lot of the other members of the supporting cast (though, as with real Bake Off, I did forget who the early on contestants were completely).

One thing I particularly liked about this book was the bisexual protagonist, who has on-page relationships with men and mentions past relationships with women, and also the importance to Rosaline of ensuring her daughter knows about who she might love. Misconceptions (or, at least, bad assumptions) about bisexuality do come back later on for a more serious bit of the narrative, but in general, it’s something about Rosaline that is important, but not her only character trait. She’s a flawed protagonist, with a privileged upbringing that does make her a snob (at best) at times, but also a real sense of love for her daughter and banter with her ex-turned-best-friend Lauren.

I found Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake an engaging and funny read, though as can often be true with romcoms, the character revealed later on to be less than nice was obnoxious to me from the start, which did make it harder to enjoy it at times. The level of detail and structure of the baking show worked nicely for me as someone who does watch Bake Off, but I also liked that it did question some of the stereotypes and classism that can be found in the whole baking show brand, as well. I know I laughed out loud at some of the jokes, though the one that really sticks with me is the fact that cookery shows have to call Bailey’s ‘irish cream’ and undoubtedly that’s hard to remember when you’re a contestant on something—that’s the kind of detail I enjoyed.

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So

Afterparties is a collection of short stories, some interlinked, about Cambodian Americans in California, and the complexities of lives as second or third generation immigrants whose families still bear the weight of genocide. From the opening story, ‘Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts’, which follows a woman and her daughters keeping a donut shop open overnight, to the closing one, a mother’s reflection on how she told her son that she had survived a school shooting as a teacher, the collection is varied and yet feels like a whole, looking at the same themes and occasionally visiting characters who played smaller roles in other stories.

I tend to prefer short story collections that connect in some way, and this one, with longer stories and a sense of continuity, was very much in that category. It explores the impact of genocide and identity on Cambodian American life, giving specific perspectives but also broader ones about immigration (especially expectations and whether or not someone lives up to them) and sexuality and the intersection of both of those. For such a personal collection, the narrators of the stories do vary quite a lot, which I enjoyed, and there’s a real dark comedy edge throughout the stories.

Anthony Veasna So died before this collection could be released, something which the reader is introduced to at the start of the book. It’s hard to review Afterparties without mentioning this, but it’s also sad that it becomes the focus on what is a great collection that explores identity, family, and queerness.

Test Signal ed. by Nathan Connolly

Test Signal is an anthology of contemporary writing from the North of England, spanning a range of genres and styles, in a collaboration between Dead Ink and Bloomsbury. As the introduction makes clear, this is not an anthology looking at ideas of ‘the North’, but one containing work by writers based in the North, meaning that it has a wide range of themes and topics within.

The introduction also raises the point that not every piece in the book may be to a reader’s liking, especially as there is no unifying genre or theme, but actually, as someone who finds that a lot with most anthologies and even collections by the same author, I found this anthology had a lot of pieces of writing that really drew me in. The second piece, ‘Making Monsters’, was unusual and intriguing, the third, ‘Birdie in the Big Smoke’, told a strangely emotional story of a trip to London, and then the fourth, ‘Angel of the North’, was a powerful look at grief and moving on told by an author (Kit Fan) whose recent novel Diamond Hill I really enjoyed. These three pieces really engaged me with their variety, emotion, and sense of being a complete story.

The rest of the anthology continued to have plenty of pieces I enjoyed (I actually read most of it on a train back to the North from East Anglia, which felt very fitting). I liked the innovative formats of ‘How You Find Yourself’ and ‘Asylum Decision’ and the stories of ‘Wabbit’ and ‘Not My Usual Practice’ in particular. There was a lot of slightly uncanny looks at things, or exploration of lives outside of what might usually be represented in literature set in England (read: mostly in London).

The only thing I did think, as someone who writes and reads poetry, was that it would be good to have an anthology like this, without theme and acting as a showcase of both establishing and emerging writers, that also included some poetry within it, especially seeing as some of the prose was more experimental. 

Test Signal is an invigorating anthology that is weird and clever, giving space to explore writing from a range of perspectives and proving that the literary world is not just centred around London (though probably a lot of people picking up this anthology will already know that). I found it an ideal book to read on a train (especially up the east coast maybe) as the stories are short and engrossing, so maybe one for summer travelling.

Gunk Baby by Jamie Marina Lau

Gunk Baby is a book about consumerism, capitalism, and class, as an ear-cleaning shop is opened in a shopping centre being taken over by a minimalist chain. Leen is twenty-four and just opening an ear-cleaning and massage shop in a shopping centre in Par Mars, a suburban land of housing estates. At the same time she meets Jean Paul, a disaffected guy working in a pharmacy who is obsessed with an online forum, and finds herself drawn into a community of people fighting back against consumerism and the managers in the shopping centres who they see as controlling it.

The vibe of Gunk Baby is if Fight Club was focused on the IKEA/Project Mayhem stuff and was also about a Chinese woman using her mother’s advice that Westerners love healing rituals. As with other books about disaffection and what is brewing underneath, not a huge amount happens for a lot of the book, other than Leen occasionally having clients, being involved with the anti-capitalist community, and getting closer to a guy who works in the chain minimalist shop that is taking over. However, it still has a lot of biting commentary running underneath, all cleverly brought together with the aesthetic of shopping centres, drugs, and whether to embrace or reject conformity.

You can almost hear strains of muzak and see the inside of a shopping centre at all times as you read this novel—that’s how well the atmosphere is created, a kind of hazy slightly unreal world whether or not the characters are actually inside one. It has a lot to say about orientalism and capitalism, and comes together in a satisfying way that you foresee, but that feels like the point. Gunk Baby is the sort of book that’ll be recommended if you like various ‘cult classics’, but it also feels fresh and clever.

First Comes Love by Tom Rasmussen

First Comes Love is an exploration of modern marriage, not-marriage, and everything in between, considering how it relates to sexuality and class and gender and what marriage really means to people. Tom Rasmussen considers their own relationship, what it’s like going to weddings as a non-binary person, and how various queer (and straight) friends and acquaintances relate or don’t relate to marriage, as the book takes a journey through what marriage might be currently and whether it is all it’s cracked up to be.

Part-personal memoir/essay and part-discussion of marriage history and interviews with other people, this book provides an interesting look at what marriage might mean to different people, including open marriages, polyamorous relationships, and people who choose not to get married. Written by a non-binary author, the book also looks at the history of equal marriage, what it means, and briefly touches on where it falls down (trans people face huge difficulties with marriage, especially if they want to be seen as the right gender in the eyes of the law when getting married or transition whilst married).

The look at less traditional relationships will probably be a selling point for many people picking up the book (it was for me) and even better than hearing different people’s stories is hearing from Rasmussen about their own thought processes around marriage, and how these thoughts intersect with class and queerness. The book doesn’t have a simple answer about marriage and its pros and cons, or whether it is still necessary (though some of the legal protections might suggests sometimes it is, and other times it gets in the way of other areas of life), and that feels important, perhaps opening some readers’ eyes to really consider what the point of getting married is. The closing chapter is particularly powerful, a consideration of the need for an audience looking at your own relationships and how lockdown changed this, raising the question of if marriage is focused on what other people see, rather than your own private relationship.

If there’s anything I would’ve liked more of, it would’ve been a bit more of a look at asexuality and relationships that wasn’t about someone who married a ghost (there is one other mention of asexuality I think, but partly about the author being confused about it), though as this isn’t something the author personally has experience of I can see how it doesn’t fit so well into their journey.

I’ve never read a book about marriage before (I was drawn to this one by the author and the fact they look at varied ways of being together) and this book doesn’t need you to have thought about it much (or, alternatively, you might’ve thought about marriage a lot): it explores people’s experiences (obviously, it can only fit in so many) and also one person’s journey to consider what marriage might mean to them. Ultimately, it’s a sweet look at how varied relationships can be and an interesting exploration of what marriage is in the modern day.

Love That Journey For Me: The Queer Revolution of Schitt’s Creek by Emily Garside

Seeing as I’m writing this having stayed up too late reading the whole of this book at once, and I was already a big fan of Schitt’s Creek, this review might be a little different to normal. Love That Journey For Me is a bitesize look into TV series Schitt’s Creek, exploring its portrayal of queerness across relationships, fashion, culture, and safety and thinking about the impact of it at its particular point in TV history.

The first book in 404 Ink’s Inklings series, this is a light and yet also deep short book that feels like a real work of love. Garside analyses the character arcs, tropes, and subversions across the six seasons and draws out potential references and the importance of them. For me, one of the best parts was the chapter looking at Cabaret and the role (possible pun unintended) it plays within Schitt’s Creek, as well as how Schitt’s Creek presents a particular production of Cabaret. I also liked the situating of the show within the history of LGBTQ representation on mainstream US/UK TV, really bringing home the point that the show is meant to be a town that doesn’t recreate the prejudices of real life, but shows a different world.

It’s a hard book to put down once you’re reading it, both if you’re a fan of the show and want to think a little more about it and if you like reading things about pop culture where you can really feel the author’s care for the work. Not something I’m used to reading in such a format (the small size really works and I think being readable in one sitting is great), so it’s great to see it published as well.

The Hierarchies by Ros Anderson

The Hierarchies is a novel set in a world divided into humans (Born) and robots (Created), where a doll designed for sex dreams of more. Sylv.ie is an AI robot, a sentient creation designed as a sex doll, who is owned by her Husband and must obey him. From the one room she has, she can see out into the garden, watching the comings and goings of him and his wife and child, and longing to see and experience more. Rebellion may be possible, but what is the price that Sylv.ie will pay for freedom?

Told from Sylv.ie’s point of view, the novel has similarities with other dystopian fiction, but also takes a fresh look on how humanity constructs itself as in opposition to artificial intelligence and what kinds of intelligence and emotion there are. The world it depicts is full of hierarchies, not just the titular ones which are the rules that Sylv.ie must follow, but also human-made systems of power and privilege. The setting doesn’t feel overblown or overwrought, not full of neologisms and references that are never explained, but instead focuses on Sylv.ie’s story and her attempts to navigate both the emotions and the world that she isn’t meant to have. Short chapters compartmentalise the book and along with the narrative voice do give a sense of seeing the world in a different way.

As you might expect from a book about what might be termed sex robots, The Hierarchies does contain a fair amount of sex and sexual assault, so it’s worth being aware of that before going into it. I’d say my initial reaction was that it was a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Klara and the Sun, though those comparisons (the latter book I really liked, whereas the former I’m not such a fan of, especially not the style) perhaps simplify this one too much. You can see how it could be a episode of Black Mirror too, and that might be a better comparison, looking at the ways that technology and humanity intertwine and the emotional cost (in this case, the AI emotional cost) of this.

If you like dystopian fiction, this is definitely a book worth reading, and the short chapters made it easy to get through. The plot is straightforward and gripping, focusing on Sylv.ie’s journey to discover the limits on who she can be, and I enjoyed how it pushed at technological questions through an unusual lens.

Variations by Juliet Jacques

Variations is a collection of short stories about trans lives in Britain, exploring experiences from London in the days of Oscar Wilde’s trial to 2010s media and internet culture. The stories are all written in different formats and styles, taking inspiration from real life events and material, and are presented chronologically, though some are retrospective and looking back at the past. 

From a metafictional film script to an academic paper, Jacques finds innovative ways to tell stories and reflect on how trans voices can be heard. Though this is a short story collection, it feels a lot more than that, with everything feeling connected and part of a complex, multi-faceted narrative to explore histories and how they are told. It’s unlike any collection I’ve read before in terms of the format, and I found that so enjoyable that I almost wanted to draw out the reading process, letting anticipation build for what would come next.

The stories themselves are quite visceral, exploring identity and hope, friendship and community, but always with an edge of biting commentary. In particular, the final piece in the book, a trans man explaining his experiences with being in the public eye through a series of blog posts, feels particularly immediate, possibly because I had just seen another modern day article attacking trans people this morning so the ‘history’ was very much part of the present.

It’s hard to pick out favourites from the book, but I’ll have a go. I found the format of the film script for “‘The Twist'” highly effective in telling multiple narratives and showing the tension at play when cis people set about depicting trans people’s lives, even when adapting an apparent memoir. “Standards of Care” uses a more conventional diary format to tell an emotional and touching story of a trans woman from Norfolk finding community and “A Wo/Man of No Importance” stands out through the way it situates its characters amongst the famous figures of the 1890s, looking at ideas of how famed and not-so-famed history can collide.

I had high expectations for Variations, but Jacques’ use of the different formats for the stories and the way it follows broader narratives about trans life in Britain made it surpass those expectations. Often I find short stories even leave me wishing they were longer or not engaged, but these ones felt like they were exactly what they needed to be. It is the variations within it, as the title suggest, that bring the most joy: the multiplicity of voices explored through the characters and formats, and the different ideas and inspiration you can take from these.

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya

Three Rooms is a novel about a young woman looking for stability in 21st century life as she drifts through a transitory year. In autumn 2018 an unnamed narrator moves into a rented room in a shared university house in Oxford, ready to take up a temporary research assistant position, but she spends most of her time scrolling Twitter and watching one of the only people she’s met do things on Instagram. When the contract ends, she finds herself in London, living on someone’s sofa and doing another temporary job at a society magazine. Once again, she feels disconnected, and as politics rolls on in the background, she considers what she can do next.

Told in the first person in a literary style with very few named characters, Three Rooms is the sort of book some people will love and others not get along with. I enjoyed it, with its clever look at privilege, class, and race, and the complications of these as the narrator takes up temporary jobs doing things from a rarified world, straddling the line between having no money and still having the ability to get a temp job at a posh magazine. I also liked the engagement with books, from the stuff about Walter Pater and Instagram to a glib commentary on modern novels which feels like it’s pointing out this book could be classed as another of them.

As it’s set at a very specific time and has a lot of politics and current events run through it, at times you do feel like there’s a bit too much Brexit going on, but that is also important to the general look at the Oxford and London worlds that provide the backdrop for a lot of the people ruling those decisions. As a fleeting first person novel, there aren’t really answers to the issues raised, but more a look at a version of millennial existence.

I have lived in both the locations in the novel in vaguely similar circumstances, which made me drawn into the character and narrative perhaps more than I might’ve been, and there are a lot of little details that bring these locations and the protagonist’s existence to life. Three Rooms presents a clash not only between sides in political issues, but also between ways in which someone can be privileged and not, and between real life and the internet.