The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean

The Apparition Phase is a ghost story set in the 1970s which looks at the blurred lines between rational explanation and supernatural happenings. Tim and Abi are precocious twins obsessed with the macabre and strange, who see themselves as cleverer than everyone else at their dull suburban school. They decide to fake a ghost photo and test it on a girl from school, but what they don’t realise is that doing so is setting off something larger, something that will become entangled in their lives as their teenage years go on, and which leads Tim to become mixed up with a strange haunted manor in Suffolk.

Maclean combines a depressing early 70s suburban landscape with an old, supposedly haunted house to create a ghost story that also looks at trauma and escape. Tim’s narrative voice has a classic ghost story hindsight, and the narrative goes in a different direction to what I was expecting from the blurb, moving from weird adolescents to growing older amidst tragedy to ghost hunting and experiments. The characters who appear a bit later into the novel at the old house are an interesting collection, though it felt that from Tim’s perspective you never really got beyond hints of their stories.

The atmosphere of this novel is effective, an example of using a kind of listless 70s landscape to explore the supernatural, growing up, and trauma (70s British gothic should be a genre by now, if it isn’t already). There’s a good balance between actual malevolent spirits and what is realistic troubles from non-supernatural life, making it a book less focusing on jumpy scares than a lingering sense of bleakness. This probably made it an unintentionally good read for the week before Halloween at a time when there’s plenty of real life horrors going on.

Poor by Caleb Femi

Poor is a collection of poetry and photography exploring a Peckham estate and what it is like to grow up as Black boy surrounded by concrete. It is a powerful, fast-paced collection split into sections and broken up with photographs taken by Femi to illustrate the estate and the people found throughout the poems.

So many of the poems have really memorable lines and turns of phrase, witty and cutting deep to the truth of reality on topics like class, race, and gentrification. The ongoing theme of the impact of concrete and the design of estates is really interesting, whether in found poetry or through a clever look at the make up of concrete. 

Reading Poor, you get a real sense of the importance of the world you grow up in, the good, the bad, and the mythologising. It is a brilliantly written collection that feels immediate and emotional and explores how where you live can live and breathe too.

White Tears / Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad

White Tears Brown Scars is a look at white feminism and its impact upon women of colour, from stereotypes of non-white women throughout history to the modern impact in the workplace and media. Combining the history of colonialism globally with specific examples particularly from Black and Indigenous women, Hamad exposes the ways in which feminism contributes to white supremacy and upholds racist power structures, and discusses the need for white women to actually understand and act upon intersectionality, by being aware of the inability to separate race and gender (and, as Hamad points out, class too).

This is a powerful and insightful book, that covers a lot of ground and uses a broadly global range of examples with some focus on Australia and the US at times. Hamad starts by looking at pervasive stereotypes about different groups of women of colour and how these have been created as a kind of binary with white womanhood, and then moves on to look in more depth at the actions and ideas of white womanhood, particularly the idea of ‘white tears’, or when white women react to criticism by people of colour by crying. It’s a concept I’ve read about in other places, but the in-depth focus is interesting and incisive, giving material examples of the effects upon women of colour this can have, for example in the workplace.

An important book for thinking about intersectionality (and then practically acting on those principles), White Tears Brown Scars focuses on an area of white supremacy that a lot of white people might not have considered much, and gives depth and history to an issue—white women’s tears—that has been discussed online (including by Hamad) in recent years. Drawing on a lot of previous work in the broader areas around colonialism, white supremacy, and stereotypes, the book will hopefully push people—especially white feminists—towards more that has been written on these topics as well, and, mostly importantly, to emphasise that change needs to happen.

The System / The Tangled Web We Weave by James Ball

This book, published as The Tangled Web We Weave in the US and The System in the UK, is a look at the internet and how it works, from its inception and the physical infrastructure that makes it work to the companies and money that control many of the platforms and interactions we have with the web. Ball outlines how the internet is a result of decisions, market forces, and government actions, and concludes by looking at the action that can be taken to try and change it to ensure it works for the vast majority, not the few who control it.

Ball provides a useful summary, in different chapters, of different areas of the system that is the internet, starting with its origins and then looking at the physical cables and service providers, then at the tech industry and possibilities of government and other surveillance. The book is designed for complete beginners to reading about these areas, trying to avoid using jargon that isn’t explained and not going into technical depth. This makes it particularly useful for people either looking at the internet from more of a social science viewpoint but wanting to know how it works, or for people who want to know more of the history and issues surrounding the internet and how it is controlled.

A useful starting point or general overview for anyone interested in the internet and how it works and is used, this book is an accessible option hopefully likely to inspire further reading or action, particularly as Ball concludes with a call for change, for fighting for tech companies actually paying the taxes they should and not being allowed to use unfair labour conditions as well as for better treatment of people’s data. What probably is needed next is more accessible information on how this might happen, but it is important that books like this, aimed at people not necessarily up to date on these tech issues, are published.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Earthlings is a dark novel about what it takes to survive and how to rebel as an outsider in Japanese society, with black comedy and shocking scenes that will likely divide readers. The book opens with eleven-year-old Natsuki, who believes she can do magic thanks to the help of a hedgehog toy from another planet and spends her summers with her cousin Yuu, who believes that he’s an alien who will one day find a spaceship and leave Earth. Underneath, the realities of their lives, including mental, physical, and sexual abuse, linger, and the cousins are parted. When Natsuki grows up, she lives in a marriage of convenience, trying to hide her past trauma, but she and her husband seek to escape what they call the Factory, or the regimented society expecting people to become good workers and have children, and to leave this behind, they are reunited with Yuu, to take whatever steps are necessary.

This is a novel about trauma, but not necessarily in a redemptive way: instead, it is a look at surviving trauma and defying societal norms in ways which may seem shocking, horrifying, or ridiculous. Murata uses this to make the book deeply uncomfortable at times, which works well to get across how hard it is for Natsuki to survive and escape in different ways, and this is tempered with a kind of black comedy, particularly around the ways the main characters frame themselves as magical or alien, especially as the novel builds to its conclusion. Particularly the earlier chapters around Natsuki’s childhood can be difficult to read due to the abuse she faces and the ways her coping mechanisms and trauma are framed (the later part of the book has more body horror than abuse), so it’s definitely a book for people to go into aware of some of the content warnings.

Gripping and horrifying in ways similar to other novels, Earthlings cleverly combines the fantastical with the terrible to explore effects of childhood trauma and the desire to escape from the society you see yourself trapped in. It’s not a light read, but it has a feeling of a cult favourite, whilst also looking at the complexity of mental health and survival.

The Girl and the Goddess by Nikita Gill

The Girl and the Goddess is a novel in (mostly) verse that tells the story of a girl growing up in India, discovering herself, and finding support from gods and goddesses. It tells the story of Paro, a girl who is born in Kashmir, moves with her parents to Delhi, learns how being female changes things when her brother is born, and looks for friends and love as a teenager and into adulthood. Along the way, stories and Hindu mythology teach her how to deal with the light and darkness in her life: trauma, sexuality, and the legacy of colonial rule. 

Gill combines poetry, prose, and illustrations to tell Paro’s story, and the result is a book that is compulsive and readable, bringing different fragments of Paro’s life and also interweaving the stories that inspire and comfort her, as gods and goddesses appear to her. It has a great cast of characters and the format gives you real insight into Paro’s thoughts, particularly by having poems that are ‘written’ by Paro and thinking about what we create and when writing about something isn’t easy. The pieces covering her working out her bisexuality and then telling stories from Hindu mythology that show that sexuality and gender aren’t as rigid as might seem are particularly powerful, but the whole book is emotional and compelling.

There’s a lot of great novels in verse coming out at the moment, and The Girl and the Goddess  shows how the form can be used to think about storytelling and mythology whilst also telling a hard hitting coming-of-age tale. I read it as an ebook which worked well, but I imagine the hard copy looks particularly good with the illustrations. I’d heard of Nikita Gill but not read any of her writing before, and from this I’ll definitely be reading more.

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Red Pill is a novel about an author caught in an existential crisis of the modern alt-right, Trump age, and about how we treat the past and present. The unnamed protagonist leaves his wife and daughter in New York to take up a residency at the Deuter Centre in Berlin, where he plans to write his next book about lyric poetry. However, the Centre’s rules and atmosphere aren’t the retreat he expected, and he ends up flouting the rules, mostly to watch a violent cop show in his room. A chance encounter with the creator of the show at a Berlin party shows him that the world isn’t a liberal bubble, and the grip he had on his own sanity starts to slip as the other man’s ideas get into his head.

From the title, I’d expected something more focused on the alt-right, but actually it isn’t until quite far into the novel that alt-right internet culture comes in, and the earlier parts of the novel are more concerned with the protagonist’s creativity, a sense of history around both ideas and Berlin itself, and about rules and surveillance. There’s a lot about the Enlightenment and specific thinkers which I didn’t know much about, but having watched YouTube videos about debunking alt-right ideas at least gave me background on some of those points. Many of the ideas in the novel are more ideas than parts of the plot, but that is the point, and the protagonist is caught up trying and failing to connect ideas, and then later trapped in ideas. As I’d expected from having read White Tears, the atmosphere created in the novel is tense and strange, trying to get across the mental state of the often unreliable protagonist, and the tension is more in this atmosphere than the plot.

Red Pill is both what I expected and not, an unreliable trip down a rabbit hole of different ideas about the self, humanity, and the future, and a look at the world on the brink of Trump’s presidency. As someone interested in Romanticism, Berlin, and internet culture, the ideas were gripping and threw up questions about trying to find meaning, both in the novel and life.

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Pizza Girl is the story of a pregnant pizza delivery girl who becomes obsessed with a woman she delivers pizzas to. The protagonist is eighteen, lives with her mother and overly doting boyfriend, and works delivering pizzas whilst avoiding thinking about the future, whether that’s her baby or what she’s going to do beyond each day. When Jenny, a mother whose son demands pickle-covered pizzas, orders from the pizza shop, the protagonist becomes obsessed with delivering their weekly pizza and seeing Jenny, but this doesn’t bring her stability either.

This book has a similar feel to other modern novels with a young, lost protagonist who makes questionable choices and obsesses over a particular thing or person. In Pizza Girl, this is used to look at young pregnancy, grief, and living in denial of your worries and future, and it makes for a gripping novel that has a sense of drifting through just as the main character drifts through her life. You have to watch as she cuts everyone out of her life and feelings, falls down the rabbit hole of obsession with a married woman who is constantly moving house, and thinks about the death of her father and the bad side of him. Not a huge amount happens, but that’s the point in many ways, and it feels like a well-crafted narrative.

Unexpectedly moving, Pizza Girl will appeal to fans of books like My Year of Rest and Relaxation where you watch a flawed protagonist deal (or fail to deal) with their life, but with an underlying look at the problems they face.

So Hormonal, edited by Emily Horgan & Zachary Dickson

So Hormonal is a collection of essays about hormones and the varied roles they play in people’s lives. With essays covering periods, menopause, transition, steroid use, and fertility amongst other things, there’s a wide range of topics covered, with personal anecdotes and reflection alongside highlighting key information about health conditions and experiences. Each of the 36 essays ends with a suggestion for following it up, either with reading or websites for charities and support groups, giving people action to take if motivated by the content of the writing.

This is a gripping collection that provides insight into a huge range of issues and realities, forcing you to reflect on bodies, medical care, and how we understand ourselves. It’s hard to pick certain ones to highlight, but there was some particularly enlightening looks at comorbidity of conditions affected by or affecting hormones and on the complexities of things that some people might think are simple. The essays around the complexity for trans men and non-binary people when accessing healthcare for gynaecological problems were also interesting, and it was good to see essays on hormones not just written by or focusing on cis women. Some of the essays also challenge particular ideas, for example around ‘teenage hormones’ or steroid use, which are good chances for readers to reflect on their own assumptions.

There are a lot of essays in So Hormonal, a lot more than I was expecting, and this brought welcome variety and the chance for a wide selection of voices—I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any shorter. It’s the sort of book you want to recommend and lend to other people seeing as it is both insightful and will contain essays that different people will find relatable in different ways. The inclusion of further information at the end of each essay makes it a starting point rather than the final answer, and it’s good to have collections like this coming out.

(So Hormonal can be bought from the Monstrous Regiment website)

The London Dream: Migration and the Mythology of the City by Chris McMillan

The London Dream is a look at the mythology around London as a city and the dreams of success that people have for living there. McMillan looks at a range of jobs and dreams and the ways in which myths have been structured to bring people to London, to contribute to its economy and to its ‘cool’ status, and how these use certain versions of capitalism and precarious work. Various Londoners have been interviewed and their experiences sit alongside the analysis of the image of ‘cool capitalism’ and how the labour of precariously employed and badly paid people keeps the cool, creative image of London going.

This is an engrossing book, not because the symbiotic relationship between the ‘cool’ image of London, which comes with dreams of making it big, and the underpaid, not-officially-employed labour that is needed to make London this way is a revelation, but because McMillan lays out these ideas in a clear, interesting way and combines them with the real stories of people who believe London is their place to be, but have also had to deal with many of its downsides. What feels particularly important is the fact the book covers both the dreams of aspiring creative types trying to break into industries due to the opportunities in London and the dreams of people looking to do often service industry jobs to support themselves and their families, and both groups have ‘migrated’ to London in some way from somewhere else, on the hope of work and experiences. The history of London in these areas is charted at relevant points, but the book feels very focused on the present, a kind of warning about the labour and personal realities of the dream of the big city.

As someone who did move to London for a couple of years and found some of the content very relatable (I worked alongside aspiring and out-of-work actors in hospitality), The London Dream was particularly satisfying, as a kind of proof that the image of London isn’t all it is cracked up to be. The book’s specific focus on particular areas of labour, notably the gig economy and the creative industries, means that it leaves you wanting more of a look at other broader and more specific issues, to tear down the ‘London dream’ and leave behind a reality where things could be better for thousands of people living in the city.