Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka

Bullet Train is a thriller with a dark comedy edge, about a train full of killers battling to make it to the end of the line. On the train from Tokyo to Morioka is Kimura, a man hunting revenge on a sadistic schoolboy, Satoshi, who threw his son off a roof and is also on the train. Unbeknownst to them, also on the train are killer duo Tangerine and Lemon, tasked with delivering a suitcase and a kidnapped son back to a famed gangster, and unlucky assassin Nanao, who is on a job to steal the suitcase. What unfolds as the train travels between the stations is a complicated web of double crossing, confusion, and violence.

This is a book with the vibe of darkly comic action film, especially with elements like the unluckiness of Nanao and constant assumption that Satoshi, aka The Prince, is an innocent schoolboy (he has the vibe of Five from Umbrella Academy), which makes it an enjoyable thriller about immoral people battling to survive. The narrative cuts between the main characters, sometimes jumping minutes back in time to give multiple perspectives, and this also gives it a cinematic feel. Despite being a long book, it is fast-paced with twists and tension leaving you wonder what could happen next and not sure who you should root for.

A ‘locked train’ thriller about killers fighting for their lives and a suitcase, Bullet Train is gripping book for fans of thrillers that don’t quite take themselves too seriously and the kinds of films where gangsters and shady types find themselves all accidentally up against each other. It’s not something I’d usually pick out to read, but I’m glad I did (on a whim because I’ve read some Japanese novels recently).

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out is a fusion of memoir and cultural history as Jeremy Atherton Lin charts the gay bars he’s visited, their importance in his life, and the wider history of gay bars as spaces in cities like London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Split into sections that broadly cover different locations that he’s lived or gone out in, the book looks back both through a personal lens and a historical one, thinking not only about gay bars as a place, but also about the cultural around them and how ‘gay culture’ has evolved.

Starting this book, I expected more of a history of gay bars, but the subtitle is important: it’s more about that personal ‘why’ and how places impact a person. Jeremy Atherton Lin weaves his life throughout, notably a romance that starts on a night in Soho and reflects on being a mixed-race man in gay spaces. The memoir element is enjoyable, giving a sense of being out with him in these places and bringing together a topic that otherwise might seem disparate (so the focus is on the gay bars that he’s been to, not all the ‘best’ examples, whatever that could be). There’s something great about people’s personal experiences with LGBTQ spaces, like you or a friend are describing how places have been important to you, or you’ve met someone in a bar explaining the history to you.

It’s a weird time to be reading a book like this, when people haven’t been able to go out in a long time mostly, and that adds to the yearning sense of losing history as many gay bars close. There’s a good underlying criticality and reflection about some of the issues around gay bars, from race to what rules spaces impose, but ultimately it is about one person (well, at many points, two) and their experiences in gay bars, and that gives it a lot of heart.

The Favour by Laura Vaughan

The Favour is a novel about lies and secrets, and someone trying to grasp back the life they thought they should have. Ada Howell lost her father and his Welsh country house when she was thirteen, and her mother moved them to a less fancy existence in Brockley. After a failed Oxford interview cuts off one route of getting back into the rarified world she longs for, Ada has a stroke of luck: her bohemian godmother gifts her money for a modernised grand tour, an art history trip round Italy with others who can afford the price. On the trip, Ada tries to bind herself to her fellow students, desperate to become part of their lives, and a death gives her the perfect opportunity, but perhaps she wasn’t quite keeping the secrets she thought she was.

This is your classic ‘trying to be part of the rich people’ type novel, in which someone tries to reinvent themselves to become part of a group, but their hold isn’t steady. What I found distinctive about it was how vividly Ada is characterised—I found her annoying very quickly, so obsessed with seeming a bit posher than she was, and that worked well—and her voice is created. There were a few moments when I found the narrative voice odious in Ada’s thoughts on class, which was needed to show how desperately she wanted to ‘return’ to the societal position she felt she had before her author adoptive father died. That element—the fact it wasn’t her thinking she wanted to improve her ‘position’ in terms of class and wealth, but that she needed to return to it—made The Favour different to other books about people trying to fall in with the wealthy elite.

The narrative, however, was pretty typical, down to the kinds of secrets revealed (without spoilers, a twist near the end is very typical of the ‘rarified elite do something bad’ genre, especially as a way of making the foolish protagonist realise things were more intense than they realised) and the pacing, which follows them on the Italian trip and then speeds through later years using various gatherings to move things forward. The atmosphere, especially whilst the characters were in Italy, was well done, and again some of this was Ada’s narrative voice, which captured the way she was trying to present the trip and her frustrations when things didn’t quite work as she wanted. Strangely, I found this narrative voice and the fact Ada was often unlikable made me enjoy the book more, despite finding the narrative predictable.

Not a book for people who enjoy likeable characters, The Favour is a decently immersive book that, as it is being marketed, does have a Talented Mr Ripley vibe, and fits well with other novels about someone trying desperately to break into a rich, rarified world. Ada’s fraud and justifications draw you in, and those who don’t usually read any books with the ‘group of elite friends involved in something dark’ vibe might find the story less predictable.

Queer edited by Frank Wynne

Queer is an anthology of, as its subtitle states, ‘LGBTQ writing from Ancient Times to Yesterday’, with a range of poetry and prose starting with Homer and Sappho and ending with current writers. Frank Wynne has collected together works from authors with various experiences and identities, originally written in different languages, and these are complete or in extract, with short biographical notes about the author before each one. In the introduction Wynne gives the criteria for inclusion: the authors had to be LGBTQ and the texts had to be addressing gender and/or sexuality in some way.

The anthology is an impressive endeavour, particularly in the range of (mostly post-20th century) translated texts alongside those written in English. As Wynne discusses in the introduction, there’s no way of being definitive, but the range given by the translations was refreshing. The book starts with a lot of familiar touchstones (Homer on Achilles, Sappho, David and Jonathan, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Anne Lister’s diaries), which are useful for people exploring LGBTQ literature from a more introductory viewpoint but not so exciting otherwise, so it was good that it quickly moved into a more diverse range of writers. It was a chance to read some writers I’d heard of but not read, and discover others for the first time.

My main issue with the anthology is the context given for the authors and their works. I found the biographical notes gave some useful details, but there was no context given for the piece(s) in the book. The contents notes when the given text is ‘from’ a larger work, but the section for the author does even use the word ‘from’, never mind giving context about what is happening in the wider work or how the poems or short story might fit into the author’s writing more generally. For example, I went into reading the Radclyffe Hall story assuming it was an excerpt from The Well of Loneliness (which I’ve read) as that was the only text mentioned in the biographical note, but then realised it wasn’t. Maybe some people prefer texts out of context, but personally, I needed to know if I was reading a short story or an except from when I started reading, to know if I needed to ‘catch up’ or not.

One thing I would’ve liked (other than more context) would’ve been some excerpts from plays; Wynne states in the introduction that these aren’t included because they’re meant to be spoken (as song lyrics aren’t because they should be sung), but I think that reading plays can be very important, especially for getting to experience the works of LGBTQ writers regardless of your circumstances for getting to the theatre. However, the anthology already has a lot in it, so I suppose space was an issue as well.

This collection is a really useful way to experience a lot of LGBTQ writing at once, and it’s nice to have a range of more recent writers in there. It’s particularly useful for discovering new writers and I can see how it would be good to flick through, see what you felt like reading, and then go away to discover more of that writer’s work. As someone who doesn’t often feel like reading short stories I enjoyed the chance to read some by authors I’ve read novels by, and to discover some new poets as well, though the earlier (mostly pre-20th century) part is perhaps more useful to people who’ve not already tried to read as much of the classic literature that isn’t so straight and cis already.

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner

Nightshift is a novel about obsession and chasing a life that might not really exist. Meggie has a humdrum day job in an office, a boyfriend who wants to move in together, and is trying to do a literature degree, but when she meets mysterious Sabine at work, she starts to want something else. Changing her hours to the night shift as Sabine does, Meggie tries to adjust to the new world, with a different set of coworkers and a chance to get closer to Sabine, but will she find herself or keep losing things?

Ladner puts a slightly different spin on the ‘female obsession that may or may not be friendship and/or sexual’ story, using the concept of the night shift, a slightly otherworldly London, and two main characters not from England. The novel, though short, moves through different phases, from Meggie’s initial need to get closer to distant Sabine, then throwing away elements of her past life, and then what happens as Meggie tries to live this new night life. There’s a vague framing device looking back with hindsight which brings the conclusion to the book, but doesn’t answer every question, which suits the narrative’s style. The atmosphere created works well, at times drug-fuelled and occasionally moving quickly over some of the more self-destructive moments, but with a lingering melancholy especially by the ending.

What let down the book a bit for me was the fact it was very predictable and felt too similar to other books in which a young woman becomes obsessed with another woman. It was refreshing that Nightshift went further to explore sexuality and Meggie’s attraction to Sabine, as often that element is left unspoken or as something that awkwardly comes up once and is then passed over, but the general narrative arc felt all too expected and a lot of the later ‘revelations’ about Sabine just felt like staples of the subgenre.

An enjoyable short read with a dark current underneath, Nightshift is another voice in the conversation about female friendship, sexuality, and obsession, but doesn’t really add anything new to it. There’s some interesting thoughts to be had around the way it presents London as the setting for the story, with different areas suggesting different things, and it’s a novel that’ll probably appeal most to people who like both the obsession element and novels that comment on London itself.

Skin by Kerry Andrew

Skin is a multi-layered novel about a hunt for a lost father, set in the ponds at Hampstead Heath and in Irish loughs. In London in 1985, Matty’s father Joe disappears, and nobody will explain what happened. Over the summer, Matty searches for Joe at the Men’s Pond, where Joe may have been last seen, and discovers the freedom of the water. Fourteen years later, Matty travels around Ireland in a campervan, wild swimming in loughs and trying to follow up a lead that might unravel the secrets of the past.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Skin, but picked it up as I’d read Andrew’s previous novel, Swansong, and I found myself enjoying this one more. Matty is a compelling character (with a few too relatable elements that were well-written, but going into would be giving away too much about the book’s twists, which at least some readers won’t expect) with a believable lack of direction and compulsion to find out what happened to Joe. The motif around wild swimming, identity, and body was nicely done, and as someone who has never had an urgent to swim outdoors before, it did make me almost want to give it a go (despite the endless drowning imagery). The narrative has some twists and turns, with elements of other genres coming in at times, and it was woven together well to make a complex story. I was glad the ending wasn’t as bleak as it could’ve been, perhaps due to connecting with Matty as a character, and I felt the novel balances the literary, folklore elements with the character-driven narrative well.

Skin turned out to be a book I didn’t know I needed but I did, one which combines loss, journeys, gender, sexuality, and water in inventive ways. I’m not usually a fan of books where a character goes off into the Irish wilderness to look for something, but in this case I’ll make an exception, and I found the scenes at the Hampstead Heath ponds really evocative. Matty is likely to stay with me for a while.

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I’ve Been is a tense YA novel about a seventeen-year-old ex-con artist who gets stuck in the middle of a bank robbery with her ex-boyfriend and her new girlfriend. For twelve years, Nora had to live a life of deception, as her con artist mother needed her to play the part when tricking criminal men—until her mum felt for one of these men. Then, Nora had to use her skills to escape, and since then, she’s been living as close to a normal life as possible. After a charity event, she meets with new girlfriend Iris ex-boyfriend and now best friend Wes to deposit the money raised, but suddenly, a man pulls a gun, and they’re in the middle of a heist. In such a dangerous situation, can Nora keep all her secrets, even as she puts her skills to the test?

I didn’t know what to expect going into the book, but it turned out to be immediately gripping and multifaceted. On the one hand, it plays out like a classic thriller as Nora tries to outsmart the bank robbers to allow her and her friends to escape, but with constant flashbacks to her past as the many different girls of the title. On another level, it’s a novel that looks at trauma, what makes people who they are, and building your own family, going deeper than you might expect from the blurb. Nora has, expectedly from the concept, had a terrible life in many ways, and has had to try and rebuild things with the help of therapy, her sister, and finding friends. Both Wes and Iris have their own traumatic lives, and Iris especially is given chances to prove her ability to be useful in sticky situations, as well as being a character with a chronic illness (endometriosis).

Surprisingly, the love triangle element is actually much more of a found family situation, with the tension at the start being down to Wes not knowing the two of them were secretly together rather than him pining to have Nora back, and it’s nice to have Nora’s bisexuality acknowledged but not made a big deal of. Due to the mostly very condensed settings of the action in the ‘present’ of the novel (which until near the end is entirely over a few hours during the robbery), it may seem like a lot of information comes out at once, but it suits the genre, and in general the book feels like it looks beyond the action and thriller elements to actually consider the impact of things like Nora’s childhood and some of the pace of revealing secrets during the heist.

Engrossing, sharp, and readable, The Girls I’ve Been was refreshing and more complex than expected, combining the enjoyable larger than life elements of a thriller (like quite how good at cons Nora is) with a look at the trauma of being a child crime prodigy type figure that has horrific things happen to them and that they have to do. It’s certainly for the upper end of the young adult age group (and plenty of adults too), and it’ll be interesting to see the film that’s being made of it, because the book really drew me in.

Duck Feet by Ely Percy

Duck Feet is an episodic novel that follows the life of Kirsty Campbell as she goes from first to sixth year at school at Renfrew Grammar. From what it’s like moving up to ‘big’ school and adjusting to making new friends and seeing how old ones might have changed to dealing with relationships, pregnancy, and more, the book covers a whole range of things that happen in the lives of teenagers, all from the distinctive perspective of Kirsty, a pretty regular girl who likes swimming and gets annoyed at her younger sister.

Reading this book feels like a throwback not just to being at secondary school, but also to reading books about secondary school that put actual experiences at the forefront, which you don’t tend to get in many books, especially not ones that aren’t aimed at people currently at school. The cast of characters felt realistic, especially the way in which Kirsty’s friendships and who she spent most time with changed, sometimes without a real reason, and the way each chapter was a distinct episode helped this, feeling almost anecdotal but also showing how quickly things can change focus when you’re a teenager. Details like the fact that the band they all loved when they were young breaks up and then isn’t really mentioned again worked well to really get across that feeling of growing up and working out who you are, and having to cast off some things in that process.

Duck Feet also looks quite a bit at privilege, class, and perspective, showing how teenagers can be small-minded and pick up things from their environment, but also grow and be more complicated than it might seem. Kirsty is at times innocent or unaware, which felt quite relatable to anyone who spent time at school feeling like people were always referencing stuff they didn’t know about. It was good to see her grow up (the novel is split into three periods of time, up until she leaves school) and her friends deal with things like teenage pregnancy and sexuality, she has to adapt. I completely didn’t expect the ending of the novel, which, without wanting to give any spoilers, works as that is Kirsty’s reaction too. The book is quite long and I didn’t realise something so plot heavy was going to happen near the end!

Being so distinctively set in Scotland in the 2000s (it received a Scots Language publication grant), this is a book that has a real sense of place and realism, and that will draw a lot of people into Kirsty’s world. The use of dialect throughout is such an important feature and I found it easy to get into, though for some people it might take a moment to get used to. Being not too many years younger that the main characters, a lot of the references were relatable to me (those Scooby Doo bands! people caring about Myspace top friends!), which I think was a real highlight of reading it. I wouldn’t want to go back to secondary school, but Duck Feet was a chance to see another experience of it.

(Thanks to Monstrous Regiment for the proof copy – you can preorder Duck Feet on their website!)

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water is a novel about two people falling in and out of love, and the impact of race and how you’re viewed in society. A man and a woman with a lot in common—both black British artists who got scholarships to predominantly white private schools—meet in south-east London. They become friends and, slowly, lovers, but their story is tied up with wider realities of race, masculinity, and fear, and the vulnerability of being known.

This is a tender and incisive novel, written in a distinctively poetic second person style with unnamed main characters. It is full of pop culture references and geographical touch points that make it feel very real, though the writing also has a kind of sweeping unreality as you follow their love story. Most of all, Open Water feels like the story of softness in a hard world, and the complexity of love when you must exist in the wider world, and the elements all come together to make it feel like you got a lot from such a short novel.

Caleb Azumah Nelson takes a story of a young man and woman falling in and out of love and gives it a philosophical, political, and poetic edge that feels insightful and exciting. It’s a book you can read in one sitting and deserves to be a hyped debut novel (you can imagine the TV adaptation too).

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines is a dual narrative gothic novel about a girls school, a curse, and how to tell a horror story, as well as love between women in both the 1900s and the present day. In 1902, Brookhants School for Girls is struck by tragedy, as students Flo and Clara—madly in love and both obsessed with a scandalous memoir of the day—are found dead in the woods after a wasp attack. And then in the present day, Brookhants becomes the set for a film starring a celebrity lesbian actress and a B movie star’s daughter, but the production seems cursed itself.

I had no idea what to expect from this novel, except a vague awareness it had a blurb from Sarah Waters and having read Danforth’s earlier YA book, and as I was reading an ebook, I wasn’t even aware quite how long it was. Plain Bad Heroines opens with a distinctive, opinionated narrator who gives extra comments in the footnotes (the tone quietens down a little as the novel goes on, but not much), moving between the two narratives and the numerous main characters (three in the present day, and a handful in the 1900s) to set up everything. The present day story is deeply linked to the older one, but refreshingly isn’t focused on the characters finding out the secrets of the past; instead, it makes jokes about the popularity of historical lesbian films and looks at the horror tendency to make the actors go through horrific experiences (often in the name of a ‘curse’).

With dual narrative books, it is often the case that you’ll prefer one narrative to the other, and perhaps controversially (seeing as this is marketed as a dated gothic story) I preferred the present day story, following Harper, Audrey, and Merritt as they become the (partly unexpected) focus of the making of an experimental film. Though some of the humour and satire felt a bit forced, it is a classic story of clashing personalities and unnerving happenings combined with some ideas of what is consent on a film set or for celebrity social media. In contrast, the 1900s narrative was more of a feminist gothic tale, blurring the line between curses and jealousy and students gripped by a craze. The two teachers and lovers, Libbie and Alex, have a fully sketched out backstory, but it felt like the narrative could be a bit slow and not really about the girls school after a certain point.

This is two stories combined with a metafictional twist into one book, and whilst it doesn’t always come together, it is bold and fun and does leave you with a lingering sense of buzzing. Instead of just being one book, it seems like many, and though this may leave you wishing you got more of your favourite (I would read another book just watching Harper, Audrey, and Merritt make bad choices), it makes Plain Bad Heroines feel like something a bit different. One not just for fans of gothic horror, and coming with knowing hints of Bret Easton Ellis and some YA elements, this book probably should come with a warning not to read if you’re scared of wasps.