Chivalry – Neil Gaiman

Such a disarming story. It’s charming, funny and utterly pleasant. But there’s a lot going on underneath – as there is beneath the protagonist’s ‘niceness’.

Mrs Whittaker is an old woman, widowed and living alone, though apparently quite content. On one of her regular visits to Oxfam after picking up her pension, she sees on the shelf for 30p, the Holy Grail. She buys it thinking it will look good on the mantle piece. It will look ‘nice’ she says, as she does about much else.

Shortly after, she is visited by a very gallant Sir Galahad on his horse who has been on a quest to find the Holy Grail for ‘a very long time’, which we can assume means for centuries or longer. She declines to give him it, and so begins a number of attempts by Galahad to offer Mrs Whittaker mythical treasures in return for the Grail. They talk over pots of tea and fruitcake. He helps with some chores. And eventually she accepts the philosopher’s stone and a phoenix in return, as they’d look ‘nice’ on the mantle piece. It ends beautifully with Mrs Whittaker in Oxfam the following week, picking up a strange looking lamp from the shelf but deciding not to take it as she has no space left to display it on the mantle piece.

It’s such a hilarious idea for a story that you smile throughout. And it’s reinforced by the style – so pleasant, everyone is polite and kind, it feels whimsical.

But you can’t help notice that Mrs Whittaker, beneath the platitudes, knows exactly what’s going on – what the objects are, their power, and the desire driving Lancelot beneath his apparent chivalry. She’s wise, experienced, and although it’s never said, she knows that the desire for magical tools is corrupting.

She doesn’t want the bother, though, so she says nothing. Maybe she’s old, done all of that already. Who knows what secrets she hides, or what’s in her past? Everything is described as ‘nice’ – a non-descript word that glosses over and distracts from her probably vast knowledge of the world.

Image from the graphic novel, illustrated by Colleen Doran.

Stretched out on the backseat…

“Stretched out on the backseat, long and stiff as a dead fish, was a Remington automatic shotgun. Its shells rustled dryly in the pocket of my wife’s windbreaker. We had two black ski masks in the glove compartment. Why my wife owned a shotgun, I had no idea. Or ski masks. Neither of us had ever skied. But she didn’t explain and I didn’t ask. Married life is weird, I felt.”

Haruki Murakami, The Second Bakery Attack

The Second Bakery Attack – Haruki Murakami

In an interview about the story of an amorous talking monkey, Murakami once said that not all stories had to have a point, they could just be a bit of fun and that’s OK. Well, The Secondary Bakery Attack is fun, but it decidedly has a point too.

It’s a short story about a newly married couple who wake in the night hungry, start chatting and the guy confesses that when he was younger he and a friend went to hold-up a bakery. They didn’t want money, just bread. But it went wrong, in a surprising way: the bakery owner said they could have the bread so long as they listened to Wagner. And ever since he’s felt a curse is on him.

The wife says the only thing to do is to commit another bakery attack, and he goes along with it. Ten minutes later they are cruising Toyko looking for an all-night bakery to hold-up. Most amusingly they’ve got an automatic shotgun and two ski masks, which to the husband’s surprise is something his new wife happens to possess!

They can’t find a bakery but they find a McDonald’s, which the wife says is good enough. So they hold up the McDonald’s, demanding they close up and do them thirty big macs. The wife is firmly in charge by now, blocking out the plates on their car and tying up the workers with all the skills of a professional.

Apart from the amusement and surprise, first, that they go through with it and, second, that the wife appears to be a skilled robber, The Second Bakery Attack has some serious points.

Firstly, unknowability. Yes it’s probably more likely and more of a live issue for newlyweds, but Murakami deftly raises the question of whether you can really know anyone. There’s always something hidden, unknown.

Second, consequences. The original attack hangs over the husband like a curse, a weird failed incident that haunts him. Most people would probably feel remorse rather than a sense of failure at how the hold-up went, but all the same it’s stayed with him, and he has this need to expunge the feeling. (Perhaps the fact that he is haunted by the failure not the guilt explains why his chosen bride has an automatic shotgun and two ski masks too.)

Third, capitalism. There are a great few lines when they start making their demands in McDonald’s. The manager is happy to give them money (as that would be insured) but doesn’t want to turn the open sign off because he’ll get into trouble from his boss, or give them food (rather than money) as it will mess with the inventory and accounts. Business and the continuity of business processes come first, even in the remarkable incident of a robbery.

You can listen to an excellent audio of this on the LeVar Burton Reads on Spotify here.

Six Four – Hideo Yokoyama

An intriguing work of crime fiction in which almost no crime takes place. Rather than the nitty-gritty of the investigation we get the ins-and-outs, the politics, of the Japanese police force – the rivalries and alliances, the double-crossing, ass-covering, power-plays, all of it.

Perhaps most unusual is that the protagonist Mikami is no longer a detective (though he once was) but the media relations director for the police. Which gives us an insight into the spin and wheeling of the police, and his attempt to walk a fine line between the press, police bosses, and his colleagues. It shouldn’t work, but it does; precisely because the media angle seems to elavate it from a standard police procedural to a look under the lid of a complex bureaucracy. More Call of the Duty or The Wire than standard your detective fayre.

The main driver of this big novel is three missing teenage girls. One went missing and was killed 14 years earlier during the still unsolved Six Four case, a source of shame and reputational embarrassment for the police. This is the core of the story – a failed investigation, a cover-up, disagreements within the police, a broken father who has taken the search for the killer into his own hands.

Another is Mikami’s own daughter who seems to have run away recently. It’s a constant weight and anxiety that follows him around, and compels his wife to stay home waiting for her to call.

And one is later in the book, as it reaches its finale, when a girl goes missing and the police are led to believe she has been kidnapped in what seems to be a copycat of the Six Four case.


However, it transpires that it was a fake abduction set up by the father of the girl kidnapped in the original Six Four case. He has discovered – by calling every phone number in the city – the original kidnapper and fourteen years later delivers a very personal type of justice.

It’s an impressive novel; long and absorbing, despite the fact that little really happens! There are countless twists and turns, with Mikami using his detective skills to track down truth – but hes not searchinh outside the force but within, trying to understand the cover-ups and disagreements that led to the police’s many failures. Like a classic noir,each chapter appears as a new encounter.

It’s a damning take on the Japanese police, revealing corruption and deception at the highest levels. For many years Yokoyama was a crime reporter and journalist, which seems to be where much of this story comes from.

There is, it has to be said, a vein of sexism running through Six Four. From the missing girls to the condescending attitude of Mikami towards the woman on his team (Mikumo) and his wife (Minako) both of whom are treated with kid gloves for fear they might break. Both actually turn out to be far stronger or more capable than Mikami assumes, but nevertheless that anachronistic sense of female fragility is oddly present throughout this otherwise fine novel.

20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism – Jon Padgett

Oh my god, what a downright creepy piece of fiction this is.

As the title says, it’s twenty steps towards becoming a ventriloquist. But after step eight it’s not about becoming your average show business ventriloquist, more your maniac, serial killer, giving yourself over to the supernatural forces that are directing the world kind of ventriloquist.

The story is literally a step-by-step guide. It begins with techniques on throwing your voice, operating the dummy, altering your pronunciation. But gradually the dummy isn’t a piece of wood, but other humans who are no more than dummies anyway and deserve to be controlled. And in the end it’s the ventriloquist who is digging into their own skin to find the strings which control them.

It’s not just the content that makes this so effective but also the style. It’s written in the second person, which is unusual for a short story – more like an instruction manual – and has the disconcerting effect of making you feel implicated in the increasingly disturbing activities you’re being advised on.

There’s also something troubling about the combination of the narrator as a kind of wheedling saddo and self-declared Nietzschean Uberman. I listened to the story on Pseudopod narrated by the author, Jon Padgett. If you saw the recent Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, you might remember the older guy who was the organiser of the ‘collectors’ convention – he sounded just like that guy. Sad, pathetic, desperate, horrible. But at the same time the narrator has these very Nietzschean descriptions of humanity as the herd, as dummies, who are unaware of what really matters and can be killed with no concern.

It’s a weird contrast that unsettles all the way through, until the end when the narrator has dropped the Nietzschean element and is talking in a Lovecraft-like way about the deeper malevolent powers that control us all.

Check out the Pseudopod reading here.

In the Name of Bobby – Julian Cortazar

This is literary weirdness. A mix of dreams, menace and the unspoken add up to a tale that’s hard to interpret but haunts you.

It’s a simple plot; nothing much happens. Narrated by the Auntie of eight year old Bobby, we quickly learn that they live together along with her sister, Bobby’s Mum. The Dad has gone, and the three of them live an isolated life, apparently a bit fearful of the outside world, though that’s never said explicitly.

The main driver of the plot is that Bobby confides in his Auntie that he has dreams in which his Mum hurts him, something that neither of them ever tell the Mum. The story is built around a few scenes in which this happens. Bobby keeps looking at his Mum in a particular way, with malevolence probably, though it’s never said explicitly. Part way through the story the Mum is ill and the Auntie advises him not to say anything, Later, at the culmination of the story, just after he he has experienced what the Auntie says is his ‘last’ bad dream, he tells her about it and shortly after the Auntie asks him to get a knife. It’s all about the dreams and how the Auntie appears to help him deal with them.

The story’s weirdness – and its strength – is that it’s unclear precisely what’s going on, surely intentional. It’s written in simple language, never delving too deep, always from the perspective of the Aunt. So there are a number of interpretations. One is that Bobby is a disturbed kid who might just got on to be a killer – in fact to kill his Mum, right after this last dream. Another is that it’s the Auntie who is manipulating Bobby, telling him he needs to keep the dreams from his Mum. The Mum often seems to be ill and tired; maybe that’s something to do with the Auntie? Maybe she wants to be the Mum, not the Aunt? Or maybe something awful has happened to Bobby. Perhaps the Mum, or the absent father, have done something horrible in the past, and Bobby’s dreams are the result of trauma, which is why the Auntie looks after Bobby more than the Mum does, or why they lock themselves away from the world. Or maybe there’s a supernatural interpretation: the Mum is harming Bobby in his nightmares, or perhaps the Auntie is controlling them both in their sleep, making the Mum ill and Bobby fearful.

And the title – in the name of Bobby – what’s the relevance of that? Maybe because we only get the perspective of the Auntie the reference is to her speaking in his name, speaking for him. Would he say something completely different if we did in fact hear from him? What would Bobby’s story be?

In the end, it’s a story that doesn’t try to explain itself. There’s an unknowability to it, like a dream, which means it stays with you, asking you – what about Bobby?

Zombie – Joyce Carol Oates

In his discussion of this story Akhil Sharma says he judges a story by its ability to take the reader a long way from the familiar. Zombie achieves that with intensity.

Told in the first person, Quentin P who refers to himself throughout the story in the third person as QP, explains how he went about killing a host of people. We’re in the mind of a serial killer ultimately.

As QP describes some incidents with his victims and his family, we learn some key things: he is the son of a successful physics professor at university. In his early thirties when he tells this story, he looks after a house they own where students stay. And he uses this space, among others, for his killings. His Dad suspects and discovers what he’s doing, he goes court, but because his family is well connected he doesn’t get sentenced as you might expect.

And we get some grim accounts of some of the horrific murders he’s committed. Made all the worse by the matter of fact style he uses to describe them. His bungled attempts. Disgusting failures. And the way he preys on people nobody will miss, first international students, then local poor people. These cold descriptions make the story, they’re so chilling.

This isn’t a story that attempts easy explanations, QP doesn’t talk much of motivations, though he does seem to be attracted to creating a zombie he can control, which is the cause of death for some of his victims.

He’s from a well-heeled family – it means he probably gets off the full

extent of punishment he’d have received were he poorer. But is this a feature of the story for some other reason too? Maybe Oates is suggesting his murders are a very sick rebellion against the obvious success of his father, his family. It seems unlikely but that question mark is there.

Most significantly though, QP – as the narrator – seems to be almost oblivious to the horror he is responsible for, and the pain he’s causing. When he describes the awful acts of violence it’s only ever in terms of how they meet his own objectives, his failure to execute his plans effectively. He appears almost unaware of what he is actually doing. Perhaps a comment on what it is to be a murderer of this kind, to act with an absolute void of empathy.

*Akhil Sharma is discussing this on the excellent New Yorker fiction podcast

Murder Inc – Joyce Carol Oates

A neat story of an over-confident murderer getting a taste of his own medicine, almost literally…

** Spoiler alert **

An unnamed narrator is visiting New Hampshire to go to Murder Inc, a grand mystery bookshop over several floors.

The narrator owns a string of mystery bookshops himself, and it transpires that he owns them because he has conned the previous owners into signing them over to him before he poisons them. He plans to do the same with the owner of Murder Inc.

But the owner, Aaron Neuhaus, has other plans. Neuhaus is onto the narrator and rather than he being administered the poison, our narrator is.

It’s a simple plot but Oates packs a lot more in to it. In particular, the ongoing sense from the narrator that he’s been unlucky. Neuhaus with his high-end store: he has that because he’s independently wealthy, unlike our narrator. It’s this sense of unfairness that allows the narrator to justify how he goes about acquiring his stores.

What’s also lovely is the neatness of the story, which plays on the way mystery novels like to tie everything up. The narrator is a poisoner who is poisoned. The title of the bookshop, and the story, is also how the narrator has built his small empire. And throughout Oates builds an atmosphere redolent of classic mysteries.

The Love of a Good Woman – Alice Munro

Alice Munro packs such a lot into this relatively short piece of fiction – intrigue, a host of rich characters and an anatomy of small town America. It does so much with so little, it’s deeply impressive.

The plot is driven by the the death of an elderly optometrist, Mr Willens, who is found in his car submerged in a nearby lake. Then, in a few sections, Munro circles around this storyline to reveal so much more, as well as gradually unveiling the cause of death.

First we meet three kids – Cece Ferns, Bud Salter, Jimmy Box – who discover the body whilst larking around near the lake. We get a back-story for each, an account of their home life, and the spirit of the carefree way they spend time together, messing about in town, which offers them respite from their family. There’s no need for all this. Their story tells us nothing about the death of Mr Willens, so it’s not strictly necessary for the plot, but as a way of giving a sense of the town, the people, what it’s like to live there, it’s enlightening and entertaining.

Next we meet Enid, who is caring for a young terminally ill woman, Mrs Quinn. Again we get this incredibly rich sense of who Enid is, why she’s a carer, her upbringing, and her relationship with Mrs Quinn and her husband Rupert and two young daughters Sylvie and Lois. We learn that Mrs Quinn is a difficult, bitter woman, that Enid – who has never disliked a patient before – hates Mrs Quinn. And then toward the end of this section we learn *spoiler alert* how Mrs Quinn and Rupert were involved in Mr Willens’ death.

Enid is unsure how to react when she learns of this and right to the end it’s not obvious. She in fact has developed a love for Rupert, imagined a life they could live together, and we don’t whether she’ll choose to side with the law or follow her heart.

There are a few things that make this a remarkable story. One is that it’s beautifully plotted. It circles, it explores, it teases out tangential strands, eventually tying them up at the end. Another is the insight into such different characters – the kids, the way they are treated by adults in the town, the inner angst of Enid, and so many more characters. Sometimes it’s an in-depth character study, sometimes it’s a throwaway comment.

And finally there’s the atmosphere of small town America. Like Stephen King or Richard Ford, Alice Munro captures that intimacy of a compact place where everyone knows everyone, but also the reality that underneath it all there are some things that go hidden and unknown.

How the World Thinks – Julian Baggini

Some books are just great ideas, a concept that works and the rest flows from there. Such is Julian Baggini’s incredible tour of comparative philosophy.

How to review it though? There’s so much in here. So instead here are the core elements of the book, as I see them:

– Western philosophy often describes itself as ‘philosophy’ but it’s just one approach, neglecting the rest of the world.

– There are rich traditions of philosophy in China, India, Japan and the Muslim world. Some developed in tandem with Western philosophy as we understand but largely they’re completely separate.

– Unlike the secular, rationalist, disembodied nature of Western philosophy, often these other philosophies can’t be as easily distinguished from religion.

– Indian, Islamic and Buddhist philosophy in particular, are more focused on interpreting sacred texts than discerning or creating new truths.

– Most interestingly I think, whereas Western philosophy is orientated around the discovery of ultimate reality, other traditions are more practical, interested in discovering the best way of living. Philosophy as the art of living you might call it.

– Part of this is that we see in other philosophies – especially Indian, Buddhist, Chinese and Japanese philosophy – much more emphasis on being in the world, appreciating the aesthetic experiences of the everyday, learning to appreciate the richness of the now.

– And partly it’s about cultivating the kind of character and virtues that allow you to live well, recognising your place in your tradition, in your society, your family, and working on yourself to develop appropriate virtues.

– It’s not all good. The emphasis on tradition in Chinese, Indian and Islamic thought in particular tends to result in greater conservatism and legitimate hierarchies and inequalities.

– But at the same time the collective nature of many of these philosophical approaches situate the person in a tradition, a society, which provides a sense of belonging that Baggini sees as lacking in Western societies precisely because its lacking in Western philosophy, with dire consequences.

There’s so much more to this book. It makes you think more positively about philosophy, about how it’s not just a discipline asking big questions but also, and perhaps more urgently, providing wise answers.

Philosophy as learning to live well

“We can’t know the nature of ultimate reality and that doesn’t really matter. The tradition is more way-seeking than truth-seeking, interested primarily in what we need to live well, not in achieving knowledge of ultimate things for its own sake.”

Julian Baggini on Chinese approaches to philosophy – in How the World Thinks

Invisible- Paul Auster

Reflecting the classic themes and plots of Auster’s many novels – identity, unknowability, consequences – Invisible grips, even if the ending feels just a little too uncertain.

It’s the story of Adam Walker, a young American poet want-to-be, and the fallout from his meeting with French academic Rudolf Born.

Adam meets Born, a French academic, and his younger French girlfriend Margot at a party in New York whilst a young student. Born makes him a ridiculous offer – to make Adam the editor of his own new literary journal – and Born is confused but flattered. It looks like it might happen until **spoiler alert** Born commits an apparently racist act of violence right in front of Adam.

From here Adam is obsessed with Born. He eventually travels to France and runs into both Born and Margot, where he begins a relationship with her and a pretence of friendship with him. But with Born his aim is to destroy him, to reveal Born’s true nature to his future wife to be, and her daughter, Cecile.

Alongside this we also hear about Adam’s apparently intense sexual relationship with his sister, Gwyn, once they are just teenagers and again in their twenties for a month, though what to make of this we just don’t know. Try or not? Gwyn, later in life, certainly says not.

The story is told in a characteristically Auster kind of way – each section is in a different style, either written by Adam or pieced together by an old friend or by Cecile. And it ends oddly, when Adam is older and has died and Cecile goes to visit Born to find out whether he really committed that violence all those years ago, but there’s no Adam here, and of course no real resolution.

What to make of this book… Well Auster’s style of writing, his hyperbolic sentence structure, always makes for gripping reading, even if after so many Auster novels, you’re used to it. And the plot itself, as well as the pieced-together knowingly postmodern structure, is gripping. As always in an Auster story, Adam is unsure of himself, as are we and the other characters trying to understand his inner life. And we are even more unsure of other people whose motives and actions are almost always unclear.

The ending though – with Adam no longer in the story, I wonder what the purpose of that was? To show that Adam was a bit-player in Born’s story? To reinforce that Adam got no resolution to his anger with Born? Or maybe to show that he had succeeded in his mission, with the older Cecile visiting Born to get answers?

I’m not sure, and it’s this ending – not just ambiguous but harder to understand than that – which makes it a slightly dissatisfying read. A good book with a difficult end.

Velvet was the night – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Beautifully readable, tightly plotted with characters that you know and love almost immediately, this novel subtly up-ends the noir genre.

It’s set in early 70s Mexico City, where Elvis is a paid thug for the Hawks, a government funded gang whose purpose is to track and attack student leftists intent on bringing down the government.

He is set on a collision course, of sorts, with Maite, a woman in her thirties who is a legal secretary, bored with life, searching for love, and obsessed with music and romantic comics.

Maite’s neighbour Leonora goes away, asking Maite to look after her cat, and unbeknownst to Maite, it turns out Leonara is part of a leftist student group and has some incriminating photos of the Hawks attacking journalists.

So Elvis and Maite are thrown together, Elvis tracking her whilst she looks for Leonora, and both of them meeting revolutionaries, Russians, corrupt government officials and more on the way.

The chapters alternate between the two characters all the way through and it’s only in the final few chapters that they appear in the same scenes. It’s brilliantly executed.

In many ways this is a classic noir story. The style in particular, the atmosphere, the sense that you’re watching a movie, though it’s more Tarantino than Hitchcock maybe. But in other ways it elevates noir or pulp fiction, or goes beyond it. First because Garcia has intentionally adopted the genre – you know she is capable of writing in other genres (and has regularly).

Second because you care about the characters. In much noir, the characters themselves are secondary to the plot or even the setting. Other than the hero, like Philip Marlow say, you don’t get to know much about the people. And even the protagonist is thin. In Velvet was the Night we get to know the main characters, and even some of the smaller parts, well; understand what makes them act the way they do, get a sense of their upbringing, their relationships.

And third, unlike standard noir, women get to be more than just objects. Maite is a deep, interesting character, who is thrown into a completely new world and deals with it better than anyone. She comes out the other side with more knowledge and confidence than before, feeling she’s experienced what she’d always read and dreamt of.

The fact that it’s written by a woman, in the end, is surely a key factor in making this not your average noir: the sexism not just of the men in the story but of the genre itself, is up-ended because it’s written, it seems, with a wry or knowing smile.

A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

Such a powerful book. Excruciating, sad and funny in equal measure, it’s what the novel form does best, at least when done so well.

Annie has endured a life of abuse, trauma and neglect, and she’s broken as a consequence.

We meet her in her late twenties, obese, with almost no possessions, moving into a new house and trying to establish a new life for herself, though it is only gradually revealed why she’s starting again through the book.

In this present she meets the neighbours through some intensely awkward moments – listening in on next door’s Bbq, holding a housewarming party, attending a dinner party. She meets Neil snd Lucy, the main objects of her obsession, and Sangita and Barry, and Raymond.

Told through her perspective, the beauty of this novel is that we never know precisely what they are thinking, only getting clues from the way she describes their behaviour and actions. Annie is comically unaware of what other people are thinking and almost always misjudges them, seeing them through her own hopes, optimistically distorting anything that doesn’t fit her narrative.

She quickly gets it into her head that neighbour Neil are her are in love, and that he needs freeing from his young, attractive girlfriend, Lucy, whom he lives with next door.

She begins a campaign against Lucy, which Lucy obviously reacts to, and this escalates throughout the story. Until the end when Annie’s fantasies about Neil and Lucy become ever more violent.

At the same time we’re treated to flashbacks of her previous life, with her parents, and then her husband Will. How her life earlier unravelled, the horrendous things she did for attention or love or to meet her desires; tragic end to it all, and the reason why we meet her at the start of the novel, building a new life next door to Neil and Lucy.

At its most universal, A Kind of Intimacy, is a book about knowing yourself and others, about how it’s hard to understand what you want, let alone others, and this can be the cause of so many problems. Annie doesn’t know how she appears and projects onto others what she wants them to think. Neil and Sangita completely underestimate the depth, the complexity, of Annie’s feelings. Annie’s ex-husband Will never really understood, or maybe never really cared, what he was doing to her and what she was thinking. ‘Hell is other people’ Satre said for precisely this reason, because other people project meaning onto us, define who we are, but other people don’t know us enough to do it accurately.

But of course the book is also about abuse. A woman who – because of her weight, lack of love, mental illness – has been bullied, used, repressed and worse her whole life. How could she live like anyone else, given the cards she’d been dealt?

“Sometimes I think the crazies aren’t people, they’re not real. They’re like incarnations of the city’s madness, like escape valves. If they weren’t here, we’d all kill each other or die of stress… “

“Sometimes I think the crazies aren’t people, they’re not real. They’re like incarnations of the city’s madness, like escape valves. If they weren’t here, we’d all kill each other or die of stress… “

Mariana Enriquez, Rambla Triste

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed – Mariana Enriquez

The second collection of short stories from this Argentinian author, it’s a compelling, disturbing read and often sad.

Yes, ok, it’s more of the same, a continuation from her last book, but when the same is this good, then how could you not want it?

Probably the strongest story is Kids Who Come Back, the longest in the collection. It’s focused on a woman, Mechi, who gets a job in an archive for missing children. There are many missing kids, but most disturbing is when they start to return, but *exactly* as they left – the same age, the same hair, clothes and looks – as the day they disappeared.

But there are so many wonderful stories in here. Ghosts in Barcelona that haunt the residents and tender people unable to leave. A woman who is sexually obsessed with other people’s hearts, an obsession that leads to her finding someone wiling you’re be cut open. A cult on teenage girls obsessed with a dead and mutilated pop star, which leads to two fans to dig up his grave and smear themselves with his entrails. There’s so much, so many odd and disturbing stories.

There are some core themes that appear time and again in these stories. Teenager girls and young women driven to weird desires due to early experiences, often at the hands of men. Ghosts and the supernatural as either real entities or manifestations of the chaos of people’s lives and minds. Drink, drugs and sex as part and parcel of daily life, a way to alleviate boredom or obscure pain.

Originally written in Spanish, these stories seem to hover somewhere between the cataloguing of lives that you find in Roberto Bolano and the melancholy writing of Joel Lane, an often overlooked British weird fiction author. It’s interesting, the settings – mostly the streets of Buenos Aires – make the stories feel less depressing, perhaps more exotic, than Lane’s stories set in post-industrial Birmingham.

Starve Acre – Andrew Michael Hurley

This is a read-in-one-sitting book – short, gripping, claustrophobic, it keeps you turning until the very end.

It’s the story of Juliette and Richard, a young couple who move to an old family home, Starve Acre, in a small village in the Yorkshire Dales. They raise their son Ewan there, but sadly he dies at the age of 5.

In many ways this is a study of grief, how it affects the two of them in different ways. Richard throws himself into excavating the barren field across the road from their house, trying to uncover an ancient oak tree that folk history says was there and used for hangings hundreds of years back – a use that has led, it is said, to the field being barren.

Juliette meanwhile is struggling to get over Ewan’s death, still sleeps in their son’s room, and is convinced she can feel his presence. She invites their friend Gordon and an older woman known for her connection to the supernatural, Mrs Forde, over for what seems to be a seance, where Juliette discovers something that suddenly gives her hope, but that Richard can’t understand.

The only other character in the story of significance is Harrie, Juliette’s sister, who arrives and stays at Starve Acre with the intention of bullying her sister into getting on with her life and overcoming her son’s death.

** Spoiler alerts coming ** We learn gradually that Ewan was a troubled child even at 4, sometimes excessively violent, once going missing in the night, and although it’s never fully explained there are hints it’s connected to the barren field opposite their house where he sometimes plays. In particular, it seems to have led him to being directed by an invisible friend or possibly supernatural being known in local folklore as Jack Grey.

And things begin to escalate when Richard finds the bones of a hare which he takes home. The hare mysteriously regenerates, becoming a living creature that keeps on coming back to the house, eventually being taken on by Juliette as a disturbing and thoroughly inappropriate replacement child.

It’s a great story, brilliantly written. It plays with the relationship between grief and fantasy, with Juliette seeming to grasp for supernatural explanations for the death of Ewan. But there’s more to it than that – the hare, the tree, the voices Ewan heard, perhaps even his death, all are weird occurrences that can’t be explained away by a psychological disorder. So we’re left wondering what’s going on here, grief yes, but something else, something inexplicable too. History, folklore, death coming back to haunt us.

Demon – Matt Wesolowski

In this gripping novel, Wesolowski uses the very modern device of the podcast as a way to highlight the complex motivations behind a murder.

Scott King runs a true crime podcast – Six Stories – which interviews people with insights into controversial cases. This book focuses on six interviews with people who had some knowledge about the murder of 12 year old Sidney Parsons by Danny and Robbie, both the same age as him.

It’s a great way of presenting a series of first person accounts that together shed some light on the murder but are ultimately from unreliable witnesses and are far from conclusive.

Through almost all the witnesses – EGM. a woman living in the villager, a friend of the family – learn a lot about Danny’s troubled early years. His Mum was a hippy or a witch depending on who is interviewed, she killed herself in their barn, and said to Danny their special place was up by the kilns which people think are haunted. He writes letters to her even after her death, not least because his Dad ignores him and throws himself into farming.

Robbie came from a very troubled family, was taken into care, and eventually went to live in the Yorkshire village where Danny lived with a kind, well-to-do family. He was troubled, but strong and defended Danny, and they struck up a friendship.

By most accounts they began to terrorise the town, hanging ropes from doors, frightening people, attacking other kids. It culminated in the pair of them killing Sidney Parsons up at the kilns.

We learn that many of the things were assumed to correct in the court case may not be right – like they weren’t always on the rampage and in fact one of the attacks wasn’t even by them. And most importantly we learn that there *might* be something supernatural guiding the killers, making them act in ways they don’t want to, at least some of the time. There are references to shadows, mysterious stones, off movements, moments of exorcist-like possession.

After the sixth interview things are a little clearer, but not much. Yes, the interviews confirm the boys killed Sidney, but why exactly we don’t know. It’s complicated. Troubled past. Sadness. Parental oversight. The supernatural. All may have played a part. Or not. It turns out it’s complicated. Which is what, perhaps, Wesolowski is aiming to show us.