"and the waves, of course"

(David Peace, Sarah Moss)

Folks,

Here’s what I’ve been reading this last couple of weeks…


Tokyo Redux - David Peace

Where, when and why I bought it:

I bought this from Waterstones, in hardback, this July. It's even signed by David Peace himself (albeit on a slightly unimpressive sticker). It was actually a birthday present, with a National Book Token, which I found absurdly hard to spend - it seems like they’re now accepted almost nowhere online.

Still, I shouldn’t complain. And Peace is one of the few authors whose books I'll actually buy in hardback - there is nobody who writes prose quite like him. I hesitated for just a moment, as Occupied City, the last book in the Tokyo trilogy, was almost literally unreadable, but fortunately I'd heard this conclusion was good.

What it's about:

Three men connected to the death of President Shimoyama, who was (really) found dead on the Tokyo train tracks in 1949 in circumstances that might have been murder or suicide. It was a crime that preoccupied Japan for years.

What it's really about:

It's about the past, and how the memory of trauma lingers. Specifically it's about the horrors of living in an occupied nation: how it strips away a sense of national identity, and lets all kinds of darkness fester (both in the occupier and the occupied).

What it's like to read:

Initially, it's unexpectedly straightforward. Peace is arguably the greatest chronicler of obsession who’s writing today, and that's reflected in his hypnotically repetitive prose. You may remember I reviewed Red or Dead a while back, the story of Liverpool's legendary manager Bill Shankly, a novel’s whose intense repetition evoked Shankly's habitual approach to life.

That distinctive repetitive Peace writing style isn’t in evidence right away here, which is disorientating. Red or Dead achieved an incredible power through that technique, showing how a man's everyday choices ultimately add up to greatness or defeat, and showing the cumulative power of small things. Elsewhere in his fiction, it serves a different purpose - to show madness, or obsession, or even an individual’s personal rhetoric, as in GB84:

The President had not come to ask for help. He did not want help. He did not need help. The President had not come to beg. He did not want charity. He did not need charity. The President had come only to hold them to their word. To have them keep their promises. Honour their pledges. The president had come only to collect. To collect what was his.

In its early sections, Tokyo Redux seems to pull back from Peace's typical writing style - it feels like a down-the-line noir story, at times on the edge of cliche. But that initial stability is only an illusion - as his characters get drawn into the Shimoyama case, and spiral downwards, the prose does the same. The second section culminates in an extraordinary, hallucinatory sequence that's almost unputdownable - even if it's not always wholly comprehensible.

Tokyo Redux is a dark novel, although it's less dark than Peace's stomach-churning Red Riding novels. It's a thoughtful novel, too, one that demands to be read not simply as a detective story but as a reflection on a theme.

Ultimately I've come to love it just as much as Peace's others, and for that reason I'd suggest it might be a good gateway into his writing. It calls itself part of the Tokyo trilogy, but it works as a standalone novel, and I’d even argue it’s the most accessible of all three books (Tokyo Year Zero, Tokyo Occupied City and Tokyo Redux).

It's a class act. Recommended.


Summerwater - Sarah Moss

Where, when and why I bought it:

On an Audible deal - it cost me £3. Ordinarily I'm reluctant to buy audiobooks on impulse as I mostly don't have time to listen to them, but Sarah Moss’s previous novel Ghost Wall was wonderful and if anything, the reviews for Summerwater have been even better. It was also pretty short by audiobook standards, at just 4hrs long.

What it's about:

The simmering tensions between a bunch of holidaymakers staying in some Scottish lodges in a very rainy summer.

What it's really about:

Brexit, and specifically how fear of outsiders can bleed into every interaction; climate change, and how it breeds a kind of underlying dread; more generally, British repression, and its many dangers.

What it's like to read:

Addictive. It shouldn't be - each of the stories is concerned with pretty small things, like the teenager who goes out in a kayak and nearly drowns, or the old man trying to deal with his wife's fragility - but there's a consistent undercurrent of tension, and a question over how their stories will ultimately coalesce.

The ending might be a little subtle for some people's tastes, as Moss shies away from showing the aftermath of the eventual catastrophe. For my part, it felt effectively poised, absolutely appropriate on a thematic level, and with just enough information for the reader to imagine what happened next.

That was my feeling about Ghost Wall too, which some people disliked for being insufficiently specific with its folk horror. It's a matter of taste, but Moss is so good at sketching characters that they all seem to have lives beyond her fiction - which is what makes her novels so powerful, and so lingering.

Special mention to Morvern Christie, too, whose narration absolutely made the book. It's one novel I'd specifically suggest seeking out on audiobook, as it's a tremendous experience.


Until next time,

Tom

"so they think I'm probably a chimera"

(Matt Wesolowski, Dan Davies, T.Kingfisher, Iain Banks)

Folks,

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,

Tom

"a great idea in the hands of little people"

(John le Carre, Joseph Conrad)

Friends,

Here’s what I’ve been reading this week…


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - John le Carre

When, where and why I bought it: I bought this in a charity shop in Bristol for 50p, after reading John le Carre's first novella Call for the Dead. Honestly, I was converted to le Carre by this passage alone:

‘It’s an old illness you suffer from, Mr Smiley,’ she continued, taking a cigarette from the box; ‘and I have seen many victims of it. The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims. But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment, isn’t it? The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins. When that happens I am sorry for you.’

It remains brilliant piece of writing, weary and profound, and I've thought of it often since I started working in HR. I knew I wanted more of that.

What it's about: Alec Leamas, a spy who takes on a mission in which he'll pretend to be a defector to destroy a high-ranking Soviet official.

What it's really about: how the grand machinery of the state doesn't care about people at all; the ultimate hollowness of grand ideologies like communism and democracy, especially on an operational level; the loneliness and isolation brought about by bureaucratic systems.

What it's like to read: it's brilliant: queasily thrilling, gripping, filled with twists and startlingly profound. It's immediately clear why it's been held up as a masterpiece. It also appealed on a more personal level, as the past few years have been a gradual process of deconstructing the Christian faith I grew up in - trying to sift out the good from the baggage - and I've unexpectedly found le Carre to be the most comforting person to read in all this.

Take the brilliant description of a disappointing Communist party meeting in Leipzig, where Liz reflects that "it was like the meetings in Bayswater, it was like the midweek evenings when she used to go to church - the same dutiful, little group of lost faces, the same fussy self-consciousness, the same feeling of a great idea in the hands of little people." It's exactly the kind of cognitive dissonance that I've been experiencing in church lately.

None of le Carre's characters are heroes, not really, but like Graham Greene's haunted lovers and priests, they are all engaged in deciphering the meaning of existence itself. Leamas is a great example of this, a man who's deeply cynical about the world's great ideologies (Christianity included) - at one point we read how Liz "sometimes... thought Alec was right - you believed in things because you needed to; what you believed had no value of its own, no function".

That fearsome interrogation, that willingness to shine a hard light on the sacred, is one of the things that makes le Carre's books still so worth reading. They're always wrestling with grand ideas, and refusing to flinch from what they find there. I expect to re-read both this and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy before long.


Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

When, where and why I bought it: I bought this from an online seller for about £4 a few weeks ago. I'm currently signed up to the Galley Beggar School, run by one of Galley Beggar Press's founders (Sam Jordison), and Heart of Darkness is this month's book for discussion. I've got a copy sitting at my parents' house, still covered in my university notes, but sometimes you need a fresh copy to see things clearly.

What it's about: it's about the sailor Marlow's journey up river and into the jungle, to find Kurtz, the head of a trading post.

(Not Colonel Kurtz, that's the film.)

What it's really about: it's about everything, basically, but it's arguably mostly about the barbarity inside every man, the facades we put up to hide it, and capitalism's murderous impulses.

What it's like to read: it was great when I read it fifteen years ago and it's still great now - but it is properly dense and dizzying. It's more exciting than I remembered, and more visceral - you can see why it's been such an influential text over the years.

Much has been made of the fact that Joseph Conrad was Polish and wrote Heart of Darkness in his second language, and how that lends the novel a sense of dislocation and alienness - as so much of it is about the difficulty of expressing things, or even its impossibility.

Passages like this speech by Marlow remain extraordinary, capturing something universal about the human experience and our fundamental blindness to the reality that surrounds us:

“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams... No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone...”

Those are clearly the kind of passages I'm craving at the moment - ones that help me interpret the world, that dig into its guts - as although Conrad's style is different from le Carre's, there's a similarity in how both try to capture the universal and the profound.

All that said, though, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is more fun.


Until next time,

Tom

"we're from where we're from"

(Stephen Graham Jones, Stephen King, David Quantick)

Friends,

Here’s what I’ve been reading this week…


Stephen Graham Jones - The Only Good Indians

When, where and why I bought it: in paperback, from Waterstones, with a book token. It's one of the few horror novels from the past few years everyone agrees is great. They're right.

What it's about: it’s about a bunch of Indian men being haunted by an elk who they killed ten years before.

What it's really about: facing up to your past sins, and not being able to escape your cultural upbringing.

What it's like to read: surprisingly emotional. That's the novel’s greatest strength - you feel the characters’ pain and weariness, although much of that pain is existential rather than physical. I wrote about Adam Nevill's The Ritual a few weeks back, whose incessant focus on physical trauma wore me down a little, but that's not the case here - it's nicely balanced.

It's also got a couple of really, viscerally gory scenes - necessary ones, and on a scale that feels small and realistic, but they’re nonetheless shocking.

Ally Wilkes wrote a great review of the book on Sublime Horror that points out some issues with the book - around character motivations, mostly - which I do agree with. But that said, when I was reading it, I didn't notice those things - only in retrospect. And if the mark of good horror is what it makes you feel (as Tim Waggoner argued), then this is a big success.


Stephen King - If it Bleeds

When, where, and why I bought it: it’s a library book, now the library has finally reopened for browsing. I know it says something about me that, throughout this pandemic, the thing I’ve missed most is the library - but let's just pause for a moment to acknowledge that libraries are amazing.

I remember somebody on Twitter saying that if you tried to introduce libraries now, they’d seem like the most socialist concept imaginable - all these books, paid for by the state, and we’re just lending them to people? For free? - and would be instantly voted down in Parliament. That makes their continuing existence all the more miraculous, and makes them worth fighting to preserve.

So yes, I didn't need more books to read - I've already got far too many on the go - but honestly I couldn't resist this. Free books, man.

What it's about: it's four novellas. One of them is a continuation from The Outsider, another is a story told in reverse about The Life of Chuck, which is about the end of the world (kinda), and those are the two I read. The others are about buying an old man a phone, and a sinister talking rat, I think.

What it's really about: If it Bleeds, the novella that's a continuation of The Outsider, isn't really about much - the nature of evil, if I'm feeling generous - but it's mostly just fun. The Life of Chuck is about grief, and death, and how the death of a loved one feels like the end of the world.

What it's like to read: it's an absolute blast. Stephen King can really tell a story, and although If it Bleeds is almost never scary, it's always entertaining. I'm never quite sure how he manages that - whether it's his character voices, which always feel just the right kind of authentic even when filled with folksy, down-home aphorisms, or the drip feed of mystery in his stories - but his work scratches an itch in my brain.

I won't remember any of the stories in here as vividly as some of King's earlier work - or even his lesser classics like 11-22-63 - but I enjoyed every moment I spent reading them. Sometimes that's enough.


David Quantick - All My Colours

When, where, and why I bought it: in a charity shop in Warwick, while staying with friends. I knew about David Quantick from his excellent books on writing, so this was on my radar already - it's the kind of horror concept that really appeals to me - and it's also by Titan Books, who I'm hoping might buy my novel.

What it's about: Todd Milstead, a jerk who discovers that he's the only person to remember a novel called All My Colours - which, conveniently, he can type from memory. He does so, with terrible consequences.

What it's really about: the writing process, its many miseries, and the terrible people involved in it.

What it's like to read: unputdownable. That's not to say it's always brilliant - for one thing, the protagonist is really unlikable, and some people will find Quantick’s breezy style out of keeping with his material - but it is consistently compelling, with an insistent note of dread and an unpredictable plot.

I read it in a day, and although I'm not completely sure it lives up to its potential, it was nevertheless a thoroughly entertaining experience. I especially enjoyed the final unravelling, and its delicious sting in the tail.


Two final things - firstly, my website has a new look, and I’d be really grateful if you could let me know whether it’s (a) readable and (b) displaying properly.

Secondly, a plug for Amplenote - my new note-taking solution, which I’ve used to write today’s letter over the course of the past week.

It’s the single best tool I’ve ever discovered for capturing ideas and turning them into action - and if you’re working a full-time job but still want to create in your spare time, I highly recommend you check it out.

Until next time,

Tom

"fear and big white eyes inside a suit of dirty skin"

(Chuck Wendig, Adam Nevill, Chris Power)

Friends,

Here’s what I’ve been reading this week…


The Book of Accidents - Chuck Wendig

When, where and why I bought it: with this month's audible credit. I've listened to a lot of highbrow literary fiction lately, and honestly I wanted something with a story. So when I saw the cover for this - which is right up my street - and read Wendig's wry Twitter blurb ("Haunted house. Hungry coal mine. A missing serial killer. And a family in danger.") I took a punt on it.

Wendig's also a reliably excellent Twitter presence, full of thoughtful writing advice, so I definitely bought this at least in part on the strength of his Twitter feed.

What it's about: it's about a nice suburban family that move to their dad's old house, despite the terrible experience he had there. Turns out things aren't as buried as he thought they were.

What it's really about: it's about how to deal with trauma, especially the kind of trauma that marks you for life, and how to overcome it (uh, I guess. I haven't finished it).

What it's like to read: pure, visceral enjoyment. Stephen Graham Jones has been comparing it to old-school Stephen King novels, but for once the comparison is accurate.

It's gripping - I've done more washing up lately, just because I wanted to keep listening - and massively entertaining. It’s also occasionally rather silly, in a distinctly King-ish sort of way (if you loved the sinister moving topiary in The Shining, then you're in for a treat here), and yet somehow the unlikeliness of certain events never once breaks the flow of the narrative.

It's not yet scary, not really, but it is consistently eerie. Highly recommended.


The Ritual - Adam Nevill

When, where and why I bought it: I bought this in a charity shop on a 3 for 99p deal, along with another Adam Nevill book whose pull-quote calls Nevill "Britain's answer to Stephen King".

The Ritual is one of the better known-horror novels of the past few years - they even made it into a film with Rafe Spall - but I'd held off on reading it before, because the reviews for it are decidedly mixed. Even so, 3 for 99p was a deal too good to resist. It's also the kind of thing that I should love - it's about people lost in the woods, and terrifying folk horror creatures that have been forgotten by civilised society.

What it's about: a bunch of friends who go hiking in Scandinavia and try to take a shortcut through some densely wooded forest. It does not end well. At all.

What's it really about? the horrors lurking off the beaten tracks - the darkness in the foundations of every modern culture.

What it's like to read: uneven. The initial sections, with a bunch of bickering friends in the woods, are enjoyable in a kind of Blair Witch Project way, emphasising the horror of being lost and damp. There's a good pulse of slow burning dread throughout, and some highly effective individual sequences (including one in a ruined woodland church, whose revelation made me squirm in the best possible way).

And yet I didn't love The Ritual. I didn't hate it, not at all, and I read through it in a couple of days, but I didn't love it. Part of that is because it feels a little too long. Part of that is a sense of unreality - the protagonist goes through multiple instances of extreme physical trauma in the book and yet still manages to survive.

And perhaps it's just too grim. It's pretty unrelenting, and it's bleak, and ultimately hopeless - and once that becomes clear, it's a lot less fun. Maybe that makes the novel a success, as Nevill's evoked that despair so vividly, but it's not exactly escapism.


A Lonely Man - Chris Power

Where, when and why I bought it: it was a birthday present (although I asked for it). I read Chris Power's short story collection Mothers last year - one of my very last pre-pandemic memories was sitting in a burger joint in Covent Garden in February 2020, reading Power's book after an intensely boring session of HR training - and it was just wonderful, a short story collection so good it won me round despite my lifelong dissatisfaction with short stories.

What it's about: it's about Robert Prowe, an author with some suspicious similarities to Chris Power, who meets another author in a book shop. His new friend, Patrick, recently ghostwrote a Russian oligarch's memoir, and now the Russian oligarch is dead and Patrick's apparently being followed. Prowe decides to steal Patrick's story.

What it's really about: it's about how you should never trust authors, as they'll steal details of your life and put them in a book. That, and the nature of fiction itself.

What it's like to read: disorientating. There are so many similarities between Power and Prowe that you'll quickly start asking yourself what is real. Did Chris Power actually meet an author called Patrick? Was he actually tailed by Russians?

That's all part of the novel's metafictional conceit, and it's a testament to Power's skill that it reads so easily. His descriptions are incredibly vivid, his prose luminous and precise, and so despite A Lonely Man's highbrow literary concerns, it never feels heavy.

Lots of reviewers have referenced le Carre (I'm not sure I agree - it felt more like Knausgaard) but it's a cut above your usual thriller, and worth your time if you want an uncommonly thoughtful beach read.

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