Lovecraft Country

I think I’ve found my book of the year (so far), and although it’s actually by a white author*, it is very much rooted in the experiences of an almost all Black cast of characters.

While H.P. Lovecraft infamously wrote in a derogatory way about non-Anglo whites (AKA. he was a racist and very specific type of white supremacist), this lovely book takes his pulpy stories and twists them, this time making its central Black protagonists the heroes – and demonising the mostly middle-aged, wealthy white antagonists. As expected Lovecraft Country has a heavy supernatural/science fiction vibe – and it’s delicious, really.

Broken up into short stories that all add up to a dynamic whole, it focuses on a new character each time, and I have strong feelings for each and every one of them. Pretty sure you will too.

HBO have actually adapted it now into an upcoming show, produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams – and this is the main reason I picked up the book. That and my boo Matt has been raving about it (and I almost always take all his recommendations because we’re horror twins). I’m not usually a big sci-fi/fantasy fan when it comes to literature but these characters, as well as the very real topic of racial discrimination and the book’s supernatural stylings, they got under my skin and maybe now I’m a convert.

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year-old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George – publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide – and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite – heir to the estate that owned one of Atticus’s ancestors – they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

I’m not going to go into any of the intricacies of the plot here because they’re joyous and a real treat to unravel. As above, each story ties into the central themes and the overriding narrative, but also works in bite-sized chunks.

We meet Atticus and his uncle George first, who are joined by childhood pal, Letitia on a road trip to retrieve Atticus’ father Montrose from a mysterious group of rich white men. But what do they want from the family really? Well this trip undoubtedly changes the course of all their lives forever and has a trickle down effect that saturates the rest of their families, including George’s amazing wife Hippolyta and their son – and Letitia’s half-sister Ruby.

Each segment is influenced by Lovecraft’s stories (of which I don’t know enough, I have to admit) and there are elements of supernatural, (Hammer) horror, fantasy and a whole lot more. Central to all the stories is the very real threat posed to our protagonists by the racist system – and it has a lot to say about what’s more dangerous – traveling through a sundown town (or state) or tentacled monsters hiding in your peripheral.

Coming soon!

Well for a start I didn’t even know what a sundown town was until I read this and I am appalled – with the concept itself but also my own ignorance. There’s a particularly terrifying chapter in which the characters find them in a sundown state and they have a very small window of time to flee beyond the state line before they’re killed by the pursuing law enforcement. LEGALLY.

It’s nail biting stuff but it’s also devastating because how can this ever have been accepted? It makes you wonder what still might go on underground in places like this because God knows racism is still as prevalent today.

I also have to admit that I only learnt about the Green book after watching the 2018 film of the same name – a film incidentally that I really enjoyed but now recognise to be deeply problematic. We learn every day though, right? Anyway, George and his family travel around the country doing research for the Green book – and I really enjoyed these asides.

Without spoilering, I am really into the female characters of this story – Letitia is a feisty heroine who doesn’t take no for an answer – and one of my favourite threads is the one in which she takes ownership of a haunted house. Meanwhile, her half sister Ruby takes on a very intriguing secret mission which really puts white privilege and the concept of the thin white, European beauty ideal into perspective.

Ruby’s story is right up my street – and really taps into the super unsettling body horror sub-genre. I cannot wait to see what it looks like onscreen. From what I can see (and I’ve been avoiding it as much as I can), the TV adaptation has added – or padded out more characters – presumably to build a fuller Lovecraft Country universe – which means it will probably move beyond the original story – or build it outwards. I just hope it doesn’t lose any of the characterisation or move too far away from the central crew, because they are the best and I love them all.

With regard to its author being white, I’m not sure how I feel about that. That he can write such an amazing book and really tap into such racial themes is impressive, but is it his place? I don’t know the answer to that and it’s something I wish to ruminate on. Perhaps my opinion here doesn’t even matter – and that makes perfect sense too.

My only comment from here is, read this book – it’s a straight up banger. So fun, so rich and it’s genuinely beautiful. I had the most fun texting my thoughts to Matt after every chapter.

5/5

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*Even though Matt Ruff is not a Black author, I’ve still categorised it with the other Black books I’ve been reading, just to keep them together.

Such a Fun Age

Such a fun book, honestly. Well, maybe not fun but a great read and one that really promotes a different way of thinking about racism, one that is less overt, not so aggressive – but no less insidious for it. It really made me think and I really appreciated it.
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Books by Black authors reading list

The last month or so I’ve been trying to be a bit more conscious about what I’m reading. Don’t get me wrong, I love my female-authored thrillers, the ones you can read in a day and end up all blurring into one after a while. But these are usually written by white women, about white characters in white situations – and sometimes I want more.

So, like many of us, I have been actively seeking literature that will actually stay with me and teach me something. We all have to start somewhere and I understand that my (minuscule) part in dismantling systematic racism is going to take more than picking up a couple of books or watching a couple of films. But we have to start somewhere.
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Queenie

One of the things I’d most like to do this year is read more books by black authors. Not just educational books but fiction as well.

Queenie’s cover caught my eye in the window of Waterstones just before lock-down – and with time on my hands recently, I was finally able to pick it up… and I really enjoyed myself.

Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Meet Queenie.

She just can’t cut a break. Well, apart from one from her long term boyfriend, Tom. That’s just a break though. Definitely not a break up. Stuck between a boss who doesn’t seem to see her, a family who don’t seem to listen (if it’s not Jesus or water rates, they’re not interested), and trying to fit in two worlds that don’t really understand her, it’s no wonder she’s struggling.

 

She was named to be queen of everything. So why is she finding it so hard to rule her own life?

Queenie is a joy – the book itself but also the deeply flawed character. She might not be able to catch a break but she’s honest and very real. It’s interesting also to read something all too familiar – at the heart of it, this is a rom-com/coming-of-age story like so many before it – but its told from the perspective of a black woman, who has a very different life experience to my own. I appreciate the book for opening up my eyes to situations and environments I will never understand first hand.

The writing flows well and it’s easy to forget you’re reading fiction as Queenie comes to terms with her relationship break, friendships and new found casual sex life. While her world starts to unravel and she’s forced to tackle her own mental health issues (despite her grandmother being ferociously against therapy), Queenie gets into trouble at work – and has to find a way to save the ‘career’ she’s worked so had to cobble together in the first place.

I liked Queenie but I am fully aware she might not be everybody’s cup of tea. At times she is frustrating and self-involved but she’s also funny so I’m okay with that. Who isn’t sometimes? The general message of this story is that Queenie needs to rely on herself before anyone else and when she begins getting to grips with seeing a counselor I was genuinely elated.

The male characters are for the most part total dickheads and not worth mentioning but I liked Queenie’s female crew and their very different attitudes.

The book at first glance could be passed off as kind of ‘fluffy’ but it covers a lot of topics that aren’t trivial at all. I won’t spoiler these parts but I respect it’s unflinching attention to potentially triggering subject matter.

I recommend and also wouldn’t be against meeting Queenie again… film or TV adaptation, pretty please?

4/5

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The Wayward Girls

I don’t know if this says something about me but I’m really in the mood for darkness at the moment (like there’s not enough all around us already).

I’ve just purchased The Exorcist to enjoy in my down time, while I have James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia to finish next. If I enjoy it, I’ll come back to it on here but so far I’m not sure if I’m enjoying the hard-boiled detective style of writing, which surprises me as I love Noir generally.

Anywho. Back to this book which is genuinely spooky in places, flits satisfyingly between past and present – and also reminds me strongly of the real life Enfield poltergeist case. Seriously it has borrowed an awful lot and as far as I can see, shown no receipts.

Let’s go…

The Wayward Girls by Amanda Mason

1976. Loo and her sister Bee live in a run-down cottage in the middle of nowhere, with their artistic parents and wild siblings. Their mother, Cathy, had hoped to escape to a simpler life; instead the family find themselves isolated and shunned by their neighbours. At the height of the stifling summer, unexplained noises and occurrences in the house begin to disturb the family, until they intrude on every waking moment…

Their dangerous game became all too real

Loo and Bee are sisters nearly always found in eachothers company. In some ways this seems odd given the four year age gap between them but nobody questions it when they see them together. Home-schooled and growing up in a beaten up cottage in the country with their parents, Cathy and Joe – and three other siblings – life is what it is. Until Joe leaves for a job far away from home and weird things start occurring. Things like loud knocking, doors slamming on their own and occasionally, a hailstorm of glass marbles…

Cathy, struggling with five children on her own amid all this apparent activity, is forced to start taking it seriously when it escalates. Will paranormal investigators/scientists be able to help the family? Simon, Michael and local newspaper photographer Issy think so, although perhaps their interest is more self-serving than Cathy realises.

In present day, we meet Cathy again, now an elderly resident at nursing home Bluejacket House. One evening she has a nasty fall in the communal gardens which brings her daughter Lucia – Lucy – Loo – to her aid. What will Lucy make of Cathy’s insistence that she’s seen a ghostly young girl outside? And when she finds out her mother has been conversing with a new groups of investigators about the farm, how’s she going to take that?

Well, Lucy has to decide whether she’s up to revisiting the long hot Summer of 1976 and the truth about what happened to the family in that crumbling haunted house.

There’s something really symmetrical about this story. Past and present mirror each other very nicely with a separate haunted house and paranormal team in each time zone, while the ghostly presence is a negative version of the girls – dark dress, fair hair Vs. pale dress, dark hair. Maybe that helps the book remain fluid and less annoying when it swings back and forth. Sometimes with this kind of structure, I’ll will it to go back to just one of the time periods but here I felt engaged in both.

I thought the characters were well rounded and well described given there are so many of them – and the relationship between sisters is captured very well too. The love/hate rivalry between them, especially when attentions starts to focus more on Loo, who finds herself at the heart of the haunting, is vivid and real. I remember feeling a similar way about my high school best friend, who was like a sister.

At times I found this book genuinely tense but ultimately it suffers in the final third when too much happens at one. I wish it had been stripped back just a little. There are a couple of reveals that I half-expected so it didn’t blow my mind completely but the work was put it to build momentum, make us care about the central family and certainly make Issy and Simon likable, if nobody else.

Not bad at all. And it’s also sent me down an Enfield haunting rabbit hole too so that’s even better.

4/5

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Pine

I usually save stories like this for the colder months, when I can hole up under the duvet and scare the crap out of myself in the semi-darkness. But this one seemed like it would be good and child, I have nothing but time on my hands right now – so no putting things off for a more appropriate time.

Pine by Francine Toon

Lauren and her father Niall live alone in the Highlands, in a small village surrounded by pine forest. When a woman stumbles out onto the road one Halloween night, Niall drives her back to their house in his pickup. In the morning, she’s gone.

Ten-year-old Lauren and her father Niall bump into the mysterious woman on a winding country road late one night. They take her back to their home, warm her up and feed her – but in the morning she’s gone and Niall has no recollection of any of it. Lauren is convinced she didn’t dream it all and is more convinced than ever when she keeps spotting the same woman, though nobody else seems to be able to see her.

Meanwhile, she deals with bullying at school and tries to work out why the villagers are always whispering behind her and her father’s backs. She has an ally in her pal Billy, whose family are always on hand to pick her up when Niall isn’t up to it, which is more and more frequently these days. Niall for his part, is still devastated by the loss of Lauren’s mother Christine, who left suddenly when she was just a baby.

Unable, or perhaps unwilling to move on, he’s finally interested in the new GP, Catriona – though her attitude towards him is decidedly chilled, based no doubt on village hearsay.

Lauren tries to glean information about her mother from Niall but he’s unwilling to talk about her – so she turns to local older girls, best-friends Diane and Ann-Marie for answers. The girls look out for Lauren and vow to help her where they can. But when Ann-Marie goes missing, last seen in the company of Niall, Lauren looses grip on who she can trust. And, is Ann-Marie’s disappearance connected to what happened to her mother? What if she didn’t leave them after all?

This novel is best described as ‘atmospheric’. It’s certainly a page-turner and the did-he-didn’t-he? story-line is gripping. I went back and forth on how I thought it would turn out, praying out loud that Niall would prove himself to be the good person his daughter hopes he is. The decade old missing mum story is fascinating and I love the tension built around Niall and his complicated feelings for his wife, the descriptions of his dreams and hallucinations are so vivid and really set a tone. The wild setting suits this ghost story so perfectly and it gives off seriously witchy vibes, which of course is a bit of me.

Gimme me more, Francine Toon

Lauren is a wonderful character, mystic and open in a way I never was at the same age. I love the comfort she gets from her mother’s battered old tarot cards – and the spells she takes from an old journal, passed down by generations of the women in her family. Women I wish she knew.

I feel like, although this is set hundreds of miles away from where I grew up, that I can relate to those small-town feelings. The mild bullying, the rumours, the folklore about local families. Every town must have these and it’s comforting somehow.

I’m a fan of this book and I’m intrigued to read what Francine writes next. I’d also like to revisit Lauren sometime and see how she’s fared in life. Just fine I would hope.

4/5

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The Silent Patient

Alicia Berenson lived a seemingly perfect life until one day six years ago.

When she shot her husband in the head five times.

Since then she hasn’t spoken a single word.

It’s time to find out why.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

This is a prime example of an enticing story written in a not particularly enjoyable way.

I don’t know why but I didn’t warm to the author – who’s writing style is not for me – but thinking about it, maybe he’s done too good a job. I mean, the central character, Theo isn’t very likable and the story is mostly told from his perspective. I found him too sniveling and oh so condescending.

I enjoyed mute Alice and her diary entries though, which piece together the story of what happened on the night she allegedly slaughtered her husband. The question is, did she do it and why would she? And when she refuses to speak, how’s anyone supposed to find out?

Theo, an ambitious young psychotherapist is convinced he’s the man to get her talking, if he can just get her off the heavy meds and painting again. But Theo has his own issues to worry about, what with his wife working later and later every night – and his own dark feelings of failure, left over from childhood.

Overall I thought this was good in terms of the story and setting, though perhaps it’s not as clever as it thinks it is – and I found the writing functional but boring. I doubt I’d pick up another by the same author.

The Silent Patient plays into a lot of my own fears about home invasion, so as the tale unravels it made me feel more and more uneasy. Although, that tired old trope about the mentally unstable woman imagining all the mysterious goings on? Done with it.

3.5/5 for being a decent weekend page turner, 2/5 for the writing

What are you reading?

The Other Wife

She’s a total stranger. But she knows who you are…

Suzi did a bad thing. She’s paying for it now, pregnant, scared, and living in an isolated cottage with her jealous husband, Nick.

When Nora moves into the only house nearby, Suzi is delighted to have a friend. So much so that she’s almost tempted to tell Nora her terrible secret. But there’s more to Nora than meets the eye. It’s impossible—does she already know what Suzi did?

The Other Wife by Claire McGowan

I really needed something throwaway after a couple of quite heavy books. While this one isn’t exactly fluffy, I do find comfort in this particular breed of novel.

The trials and tribulations of characters I only semi give a shit about gets me intrigued enough to keep delving back in but doesn’t emotionally drain me like the very real fates of Jack the Ripper’s victims (as an example).

Suzi has recently moved to the countryside with her husband Nick. Their new home is very isolated but luckily, she quickly bonds with the nice but no nonsense lady next door. Nora accompanies pregnant Suzi on afternoon rambles and listens to the things that are worrying her, which start to add up as strange things keep happening to her in the house.

The thing is, both women have their secrets which may or may not derail the friendship before it can fully take root.

I’m not going to say anymore about plot because it’s very twisty. It’s not exactly surprising though and some of it you’ll see coming a mile off. However, it’s not a bad little yarn which takes an uncomfortable look at coercive abuse and gaslighting.

I do also appreciate that one character’s initial motivation completely changes by the end to give the story a feminist slant.

It might not be the most memorable thriller in recent times but it filled an otherwise unremarkable Sunday afternoon with drama and I appreciate that.

3/5

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See What I Have Done

Just after 11am on 4th August 1892, the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden are discovered. He’s found on the sitting room sofa, she upstairs on the bedroom floor, both murdered with an axe.

It is younger daughter Lizzie who is first on the scene, so it is Lizzie who the police first question, but there are others in the household with stories to tell: older sister Emma, Irish maid Bridget, the girls’ Uncle John, and a boy who knows more than anyone realises.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

I’ve always been intrigued by the Lizzie Borden murders so I was looking forward to this novel. I really enjoyed it and found the very descriptive language helped paint a vivid picture of what everything may have looked like.

Schmidt pads out a well-worn story with intimate detail, shining light on the supposed jealousy between Lizzie and her sister, Emma – and the controlling hand of their father, Andrew. We learn more from Bridget the maid’s POV as she works under the lady of the house, the girls’ stepmother Abby.

And then there’s John, the dodgy uncle who shows up unexpectedly one day with a nefarious plan.

While certain creative liberties are taken, namely the addition of Benjamin, it’s clear his presence is designed to view the curious behaviour of the Bordens through fresh eyes – and it works. As he sneaks about observing from afar we’re treated to his thoughts on Lizzie’s oddness and Andrew’s harsh treatment of his daughter.

I just love how macabre this book is, describing the aftermath of the killings in fine and matter of fact detail. Everything is ever so slightly grimy and I love that I can almost smell it.

The description of the pears, plucked many times from the tree in the garden by multiple characters is especially evocative. While the home seems to be a waxy version of a grander time, even though the family are one of the wealthiest in the neighbourhood.

I don’t know how close to true these depictions are but the sequence of events seem more or less accurate. Lizzie is painted far less adult than I’ve ever seen her before. In all but this novel she’s been presented as quite the sexy minx and I guess that’s just showbiz for you (or a reflection of the kind of shit I watch/read).

I find this version of her far easier to understand somehow, though I can’t sympathise with her – she’s pretty awful.

I recommend picking this one up if you have even a passing interest in one of the most notorious murders in history – or feel like learning more. While this is a work of fiction, it doesn’t exaggerate the murders themselves which were brutal in their intensity.

“Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41 …”

4/5

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The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

Their murderer was never identified, but the name created for him by the press has become far more famous than any of these five women. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, historian Hallie Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, and gives these women back their stories.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

This little banger isn’t really my normal type. I’m just not that into real life I guess. However, like probably everybody, I share a morbid fascination for the Victorian-era butcher who callously took the life of five women in the late 1800s.

We all know his name.

Not only does the book work hard to dispel the myth that all the victims were prostitutes, as has always been reported, it also goes in deep on gender politics during this age. While it isn’t a surprise that women had zero in terms of their own rights, some of the laws just seem mental by today’s standard. And the conditions in which all these women found themselves, all the potential that was lost to them when their precarious standings tumbled – I had no idea. Which is outrageous because these women are fascinating and I am so sad to leave them behind.

Historian Rubenhold takes us from birth to the death of each victim – or all but one, who’s early years are unknown – filling in all the blanks in eye-watering detail. While not every movement can be covered, this is rectified by supposing what a typical women in the same scenario may have done/seen/felt. It’s very well done and well written, though the back stories speak for themselves. The women, it’s not a shock to learn were mothers, sisters, lovers, wives, daughters, and they lived and loved, just like the rest of us. They endured more than their fair share of bullshit, usually at the hands of men but also in the eyes of society, which didn’t look favourably on its interpretation of the ‘fallen woman’.

Any woman abandoned by her husband, or widowed early, ran the risk of winding up in the same environment as The Five, which included for all of them at one point: the workhouse, the doss house or the street. Each step precarious and wrought with risk, sometimes with multiple children in tow. Even the ‘the lucky’ ones were destined to live a life of servitude and back-breaking labour with little to show for it, unless they were born into wealth. And even then most of it was dependent on men. Fucking men.

Rubenhold barely touches the crimes themselves, determined to give the limelight to the women for once. The book is respectful and vivid, detailed and horrifying. It’s brought a new aspect to the story, one I’ve heard a thousand times, and a few on guided tours around museums, the names of The Five reverberating around me but never really landing. I’m grateful to know their names and to know something of their lives.

A brilliant, brilliant book and thoroughly compelling.

5/5

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