Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt

Proof copy of Tell Me I'm Worthless with yellow text on a black background and yellow tissue paper with a red stamp saying 'worthless'.

Tell Me I’m Worthless is a gothic horror novel in which the haunted house is fascism and nobody is safe. Alice, Ila, and Hannah once went to the abandoned house in the city that backs onto the woods, the one nobody goes near, and only two of them made it back. Three years later, Alice is haunted by the trauma of what happened and by a man in a poster covering a stain she can’t bear to see, and Ila has gone down a gender critical path to deal with what she saw. Maybe all that Alice and Ila can do is reunite, despite hating each other, and return to the house to confront it and what happened to Hannah and them.

From hearing about this book and hearing the author read an extract of it at an event, I knew I needed to read it. Tell Me I’m Worthless is horrifying and unyielding trans horror, a darkly, strangely hilarious exploration of trauma, complicity, and the creeping rise of fascism, and a clever take on the haunted house genre. It’s also quite difficult to describe as it leaves you breathless and disoriented, having just gone through the onslaught of facing up to truths about radicalisation, extremism, and what people might think with someone (or something) allowing it.

One of my favourite elements of it was the treatment of the gothic, especially the haunted house, and the combination of it with the political and the social. In this way, the book follows on in tradition of the gothic novel, and it particularly reminds me of the images of the old ruined house around the time of the French Revolution and how these were used in gothic novels, often preying on prejudice around ideas of degeneracy and irrational thought. The house is a place and a character, a manifestation of English fascism, but it is also inside each of them, and some of the horror comes from the fact that it isn’t just inside the house that is dangerous. Indeed, the very category of safety is questioned, looking at how safety for one person often comes at the expense of less safety for another, one house must be destroyed to make space for another, etc, and that fits in so well with the two (human) protagonists and how they reflect and distill each other.

The book also updates the horror genre in delightful ways (and utterly horrific ones), with the unforgettable use of ‘the old racist singer in the poster is haunting you’ as a new version of ‘the eyes in the painting are following you around’. Horror writing is maybe the genre I’ve enjoyed the longest, and this was the literary poetry horror I didn’t know I needed, with sharp jibes at culture mixed in with skin-crawling and brutal moments that show us that maybe the real horror was inside us all along. The entwining of gender and horror was crucial too, with both gender and the haunted house being about context and place, always morphing but always there.

There’s plenty more to be discussed about Tell Me I’m Worthless, but it’s better just to say preorder it, read it, pay attention to the content warnings at the start, and use it to see how horror can expose the real world through the supernatural and make you scared of a poster. It feels like a rusty nail through the head, but somehow in a good way.

Very Authentic Person by Kat Sinclair

As ever, my poetry reviews can be boiled down to ‘nice words here’s my faves’, but anywhere, here are said faves in my review of Kat Sinclair’s poetry collection Very Authentic Person:

Very good poems: I loved the combination of personal and political and pop cultural and public transport and little references, and the thinking about poetry but not in a self indulgent way. My favourite words were “I am floppy disk years old” and “But I’m really getting there with the rainbow paintbrush / this meritocratic omelette, all the good names being taken / when all of our pets have pets” (because I am predictable about old computer stuff in poetry) and I enjoyed all the little references but also the sounds of the poems too.

The Appendix: Transmasculine Joy in a Transphobic Culture by Liam Konemann

The Appendix cover: a yellow background with a silver Doc Martens boot with laces in the pink, blue and white colours of the trans flag

The Appendix is a book about a personal response to transphobia in the media and trying to focus on joy despite this hostility. Part of the 404 Ink ‘Inklings’ series that take a big idea in a pocket-sized format, it is almost a mini-memoir, a snapshot of Liam Konemann reacting to media transphobia, navigating being a gay trans man today, and thinking about his and others’ futures.

Though I preordered this as one of the Inklings series, I have to take a moment to say I would’ve definitely judged it by its cover and picked it up regardless of topic, as someone who has been wearing Doc Martens since they were 15 (now I’m wondering if there’s a future Inkling on shoes as personal identity). It is also just a really beautifully designed cover.

Anyway, to the inside of the book. Konemann starts with his previous version of ‘The Appendix’: noting down transphobia in the media that he came across in day-to-day life, without looking for it. The rules he created meant he couldn’t go searching for something he saw people hinting about online, which is maybe an under-appreciated way of getting caught up reading hostile content because you want to understand what people are whispering about on Twitter, but even with limits, the list of course grew and grew. When his mental health was affected, he started questioning doing this, and whether energy is better directed towards joy and beauty, and this kind of transformation of being trapped reading online hate into moving past that to focusing on the real and the present feels like an important message to be sharing.

On a personal note, as a non-binary person there were some little relatable moments (that childhood illicit thrill of being seen as a boy, even momentarily; everyone’s reactions to Elliot Page) that were fun, and though personal essays and memoirs don’t need relatable moments to enjoy them, these do fit in with some of what Konemann says in terms of what models he had not only for being a trans man, but also for coming out to people. On the other hand, as Konemann himself notes, this book is his own experience and is not universal, and finding joy, solidarity, and safety is not going to be the same for everyone.

As with the previous Inklings book I read (Love That Journey For Me by Emily Garside), I think the size and length of this series is a real positive, making them easy to sit down and read, and Konemann tackles ideas that could take up a lot more space (and other people have done so) in a concise way through the lens of personal experience and growth. It’s a personal book, but it’s also a chance to reflect (and look at a cool picture of Doc Martens). If The Appendix can make more people do what a lot of trans people on the internet have been calling for, and stop sharing all the transphobic tweets and news stories across everyone’s timelines, giving them more engagement and clicks, and think more about sharing content that will support trans people and further trans joy, then that could be nice.

Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke

Several People Are Typing is a surreal novel told entirely through Slack conversations, as a man finds himself trapped within his company’s Slack workspace. Gerald was working on a spreadsheet when his consciousness became trapped in Slack, and how he can’t get out. His PR colleagues think he’s WFH whilst doing a ‘bit’ and are busy dealing with a crisis around poisoned dog food, his only support comes from his colleague Pradeep looking after his physical body, and it seems Slackbot might be getting some ideas…

I use (and support people using) Slack at work, so the blurb of this book appealed to me, but I was surprised by how gripping and accurately satirical it was, mixing what you should and shouldn’t say on work Slack with absurd concepts (at one point, Gerald becomes a vaporwave-style sunset GIF for a weekend) and maybe even some kind of message you could take away from it about how much of ourselves we might give to work digital tools. At times it’s almost surrealist horror, not only about being trapped in a digital form, but with Lydia who keeps hearing howling and the weird subplot about the dog food fiasco, and in that way it was maybe similar to books like Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstor (horror, but in a fake IKEA) just with less of the horror and more surreal satire.

Before reading Several People Are Typing, I was worried it would be a bit naff or just not work, but actually I found myself gripped by the clever satire of workplace Slack conventions (yes, in-joke emojis actually aren’t so funny) and also enjoyed the absurd narrative that played around with ideas of digital consciousness and what is real or not when working entirely digitally. People who don’t use these kinds of tools for work might find it less funny (and it may not be a book that ages that well as it’s very current moment), but for me this was a well-crafted use of a gimmick that allows you to confront the absurdity of digital life.

Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism by Amelia Horgan

Lost in Work is a highly accessible look at the history of work, the current situation, and how we might escape what capitalism has told us is the only way to live. Horgan explores what work is, how it has a history of harm, and what we might push for in the future to make ‘work’ much less damaging than it currently is.

I’d heard a lot of hype around this book (from Twitter at least) and it lived up to the hype, being strangely gripping for a book about work that I was mostly reading around working from home (reading it whilst tired from work felt very fitting). The chapters are short and combine real world examples and theoretical points with analysis of sources like Marx, Britney Spears, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I particularly liked this blending of material and the way they were all used to elicit points about work, about power relations, and who benefits from work.

Another thing I liked about the book was the fact that the conclusion didn’t try to give a single answer for what needs to happen to ‘fix’ work or change it (or, as Horgan says, ‘denaturalise’ work, making visible the fact that it is not natural and unchanging, but has resulted from historical conditions and power relations), but offers up some of the potential suggestions and considers how a combined and collective approach may be more effective. It’s a good balance between the shrug emoji (or, as the book critiques, just blaming capitalism and acting like there’s nothing to be done) and suggesting that there is one straightforward way forward.

As well as a really interesting book engaging with theory and pop culture as it relates to work, Lost in Work is also a great opportunity to reflect on your own thoughts around work and what they’ve been influenced by, and also wider ideas about things like productivity. Maybe that’s just ironic as I’m choosing to review a book for fun, but still. A thoughtful book with a well-judged tone.

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.