(Matt Wesolowski, Dan Davies, T.Kingfisher, Iain Banks)
Apologies for the fortnightly rhythm of these newsletters lately. It's for a good reason - I sold my novel to a publisher last week, and so a lot of my time at the moment is taken up with making the edits required to get it into publishable form - but I don't love the bi-weekly approach.
Here's what I'm reading at the moment...
Deity - Matt Wesolowski
Where, when and why I bought it: I bought this on a 99p deal on Kindle. Wesolowski's writing is always entertaining - his Six Stories books are my go-to 'palate cleansers' between meatier novels - and this had a giant, creepy stag skull on the front. It was a no-brainer.
What it's about: It's about Zack Crystal, the biggest star in the world, who died in a house fire amid a swirl of sinister rumours - and Scott King, the podcaster investigating his death in six separate episodes.
What it's really about: Celebrities, and how they sell their fans a seductive, insubstantial dream. Perhaps because they sold it to themselves first.
What it's like to read: Honestly, a little disappointing. I really like Matt Wesolowski, but this didn't feel like his best. The horror elements felt underpowered, and although the pieces of the plot ultimately slot into place in an undeniably satisfying fashion, it rarely felt essential.
That could be because Zack Crystal himself is such a remote figure in this story (by design) - or it could be because I'd recently read In Plain Sight, a true story whose protagonist acts in many of the same ways as Crystal, and the truth felt far stranger than fiction. By all means read Wesolowski, but I wouldn't start here.
In Plain Sight - Dan Davies
Where, when and why I bought it: Another 99p Kindle deal - I'd not have bought this otherwise. I'd heard about Davies's book when it first came out, and was staggered by the work he'd done to uncover Savile's extraordinary network of corrupt cops and bodyguards. This came up on sale at just the point I needed it (as research for my next novel), but I still hesitated before buying it, for obvious reasons.
What it's about: It's about Jimmy Savile, and how he managed to convince the British public that he was a harmless eccentric with a good heart while simultaneously committing an unbelievably widespread campaign of abuse.
What it's really about: It's about how a sociopath built himself a twisted moral framework to justify his monstrous activities - and it's about how his deliberate myth-making succeeded in dazzling and disorientating anyone who tried to get close to him.
What it's like to read: Gripping, and frequently jaw-dropping. I was on the fence about buying this - really, who wants to spend time reading about something so absolutely grim? - but Davies's account doesn't dwell too far on the details of Savile's crimes, with a lot of chapters focussing instead on his rise to power in the nightclubs of Leeds and how he carved out his niche as a charity fundraiser.
Davies is an incredibly astute reader of Savile's character, and the scenes when he travels with an ageing Savile on a cruise are fascinating - Savile still reeling off his surreal patter the whole trip as though on autopilot. Of course, that's not to say there aren't disturbing sections - one chapter, 'Your Porter Hurt Me', includes a witness statement given by one of Savile's young victims in its entirety, and is one of the most truly horrible things I've ever read.
For that reason, I'd not recommend it to everyone - but as a study in how one man built a personality cult, it is pretty unparalleled.
The Hollow Places - T. Kingfisher
Where, when and why I bought it: on Kindle, but not for 99p. I read T. Kingfisher's excellent novel The Twisted Ones last year and it scared me out of my wits - more so than any other novel I've read in the past year or two. It scared me so much at one point that I threw the book across the room in sheer terror. So when I saw she'd written another horror novel, I didn't hesitate.
What it's about: It's about a museum filled with cultural oddities, Bigfoot memorabilia and bad taxidermy, and the strange hole that appears in its wall. Carrot, the narrator, and her plucky gay barista sidekick Simon from the coffee shop next door, step through it into 'evil Narnia'. In there are - bad things.
What it's really about: Honestly, I have no idea. And I don't really care either.
What it's like to read: It's really fun - my wife commented that it feels a lot like an R.L. Stine novel for grown-ups, and that's a great description (although Kingfisher is a much better writer than Stine). The platonic back-and-forth between Carrot and Simon is genuinely funny, and they're both likeable characters who behave in believable ways - "let's try and approach this in the manner of people who don't die in the first ten minutes of a horror film, shall we?" Simon says at one point, suggesting he’s done his homework at least.
It's nowhere near as scary as The Twisted Ones, although certain scenes definitely instil a kind of creeping horror that lingers long after you've put the book down. The book's plot also kind of reminded me of Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation - although it's worth saying, again, that I like Kingfisher's writing more than I like Vandermeer's too.
I’m three-quarters of the way through and still don't have a clue how it's going to end, though, which is nice.
The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
Where, when and why I bought it: At least fifteen years ago - I think probably when I was seventeen or eighteen, and starting to buy 'proper' novels.
Who would have recommended something so grim to me, and why? Not a clue. Maybe it's because I was reading Wuthering Heights for A-level and this was described as 'modern Gothic'. Anyway, I found my old copy on the shelf at my parents' house when I went to visit a week or so ago.
What it's about: It's about a sociopathic teenager on a remote Scottish island, whose even more unhinged brother (Eric) has escaped from prison and is making his way back home. The protagonist routinely deploys a series of bizarre rituals to assist in his decisions, including using the wasp factory of the title.
What it's really about: it's about toxic, performative masculinity, and how it turns men into monsters.
What it's like to read: it’s gloriously entertaining, and rather horrible. There's a gleeful madness to the whole book, which is what makes it bearable (even when the protagonist is, say, flinging guinea pigs into the marsh with his catapult to drown them) - and it's mostly extremely funny, if you can get onto its wavelength.
It's telling that the publishers chose to include a series of Banks' worst reviews in the pull-quotes - which cry about how repugnant the book is, and how the publishers should be ashamed of themselves - as the moral outrage around it suggests that at the time many reviewers thought certain topics unfit for novels. Compared to much recent fiction, it feels positively tame, and there's such a clear thematic justification for all the novel's excesses those first reviews now seem kind of hysterical.
That's not to say you'll enjoy it - but I certainly did. Actually, I think it's a minor masterpiece.
Until next time,