Reprieve by James Han Mattson

Reprieve is a novel that combines horror with an exploration of people and social dynamics, as an unlikely group try to compete in a full contact haunted house escape room. In 1997, four contestants take part in Quigley House, a controversial full contact horror experience that you must make it through collecting red envelopes and not shouting the safe word, ‘reprieve’. However, in the final cell, a man breaks in and kills one of the contestants. Combining the stories of some of the people there that night—an employee who encouraged her cousin to take part, a hotel manager drawn down a questionable path, and a gay international student looking for belonging—with testimony, it turns out that who is to blame might be more complex.

I was drawn into this novel by the distinctive, bright cover and the blurb, which sounded unique and intriguing, and it did not disappoint. From the start, which opens with a transcript about what happened that night, you have questions, but the book doesn’t focus just on exactly what occurred, but sets up the backstory of some of the main characters, exploring their lives and motivations that led them to being at Quigley House that night. In particular, Kendra, a teenager who loves horror, has just been uprooted to Nebraska, and feels out of place in a majority white area but has her cousin to rely on, and Jaidee, a Thai student who goes to college in Nebraska to look for his former English teacher who he has a crush on, had intriguing stories, exploring not just choices and motivations, but race and fitting in.

The combination of the tension of the horror side of the book, as snippets are given of the team working through the cells of Quigley House, and the exploration of the characters, especially around racism and fetishisation which comes out through Kendra, Jaidee, and Leonard’s stories in different ways, works very well, making a complex yet gripping novel that shows that horror as a genre isn’t so simple. There’s some interesting questioning of horror tropes too, and around the representation of non-white people in horror, especially black characters being killed, and what this might mean for black horror fans.

In general, the book doesn’t shy away from depicting uncomfortable situations, not in terms of horror (though some people might find the Quigley House scenes scary), but things like culpability when a man’s downward spiral becomes manipulated by someone else, or when someone tries so hard to be white. What’s clever is that the horror house elements almost become a reprieve (yep…) from the complexity of the lives of the characters, because jump scares would be easier to unpick than racism, prejudice, and complicity.

To quickly summarise Reprieve, I’d go for ‘come for the full contact haunted escape room, stay for the complex social commentary’. It’s impressive how well crafted this book is in terms of structure and the ways the characters connect, though fans of straight ‘horror’ might be disappointed at the lack of twists and turns. 

Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian

Never Saw Me Coming is a thriller set on a college campus, as a girl plotting to kill someone finds herself in danger when a string of murders occur. Chloe is a first year student who looks normal, likes parties, and is taking premed classes, but she’s also part of a secret clinical study of young psychopaths run by the psychology department. She’s also plotting to kill Will Bachman, another student at the college. However, when other people—rumoured to also be part of the study—start being murdered, Chloe might also be under threat, and she might have to try and find some allies in the other study participants.

I was drawn in by the campus setting, and it works well by giving a typical backdrop to a very atypical situation. The book is split into chapters, either narrated by Chloe or third person narration focused on a few of the other characters, which feels typical of this kind of thriller, especially when you’re not sure who to trust as everyone is manipulative or lying in some way. This structure occasionally gives some nice payoffs too, and insight into how the characters view each other. The actual plotlines are quite straightforward, but they are gripping and a bit of ‘true crime podcast’ type vibe to them (I assume, I don’t do true crime podcasts).

I will say that I can’t appraise the “psychopath” stuff or anything said about the study or those involved as I don’t know anything about psychology, but it did feel like it did the serial killer thriller thing of making a lot of bold pronouncements about types of people (and occasional stereotypes about mental health). The study is, for a lot of the plot, more of a conceit than something that is looked at in depth, however, and mostly it’s an escapist campus thriller with some antihero characters.

As ever, I find it hard to read a thriller with this kind of American setting without mentioning Point Horror, and as I loved the ‘Nightmare Hall’ books back in the day, I was hoping on an up-to-date, possibly a bit less trashy update to those, and Never Saw Me Coming did deliver on that, as a book that plays on the stereotypical college girl with Chloe and also goes for rich frat boys as well. Not necessarily a nuanced book, but a ridiculous serial killer thriller with a college setting.

The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye

The Transgender Issue is an insightful book that reclaims the term ‘the transgender issue’ to explore what it means to be trans in Britain today, how we got here, and where we can go from here. Each chapter explores a different area of life, considering work, healthcare, the prison system, and community, and builds towards a call for solidarity and a focus on trans liberation, rather than rehashing the same ‘debates’ in the media.

I’ve heard so much about this book even before it’s out, and there’s a reason why: it is a well-explained and engaging deep dive into trans life in Britain, focusing both on politics and theory and on practical action and everyday realities. Faye considers both issues that impact beyond trans people to other marginalised people and issues specific to trans women, trans men, or non-binary people to draw out the importance of solidarity across issues whilst still paying attention to the specific needs of particular people, for example trans people of colour or sex workers.

The dual focus on uncovering the present and past of trans life and on the vital nature of solidarity and trans liberation for the present and future makes The Transgender Issue a powerful book that is for trans and cis people alike. It will open up the eyes of many people to look beyond the ‘debates’ popularised in the media and think about the practical and political work we can do for the future to make life better for everyone.

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.