Happy New Year! 2024 is well and truly here, and we have so much to look forward to. So many books left unread in the increasingly large piles surrounding my bed. Look, buying books and reading them are two totally different skills. I just happen to be excellent at both. I’ve set my annual target for 100 books. I’ve put together my pop culture challenges for the coming year (share your must-read books of 2024 in the comments!), and the Christmas book tokens have been thoroughly spent. Here’s how I kicked off the year.
Soul Kitchen by Billy Martin
My first novel of the new year. pic.twitter.com/syUBVAcPSb— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) January 1, 2024
It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the work of Billy Martin (published under the name Poppy Z. Brite - Martin is a trans man and I’ll be referring to his works via his current name.) I never read his infamous horror novels as a teen, although if I had, I’m sure they would have become my entire personality. Exquisite Corpse is, to this day, the most disturbing novel I’ve ever read. In the second half of his career, he did a complete 180, flipping from transgressive gore to slice-of-life tales of working-class New Orleans chefs in the pre-Katrina era. I’m addicted to both styles of Martin, but there’s a special fondness for the latter that I must confess to.
Soul Kitchen is the third and final full-length novel in the Ricky and G-Man series, about a pair of cooks who start a restaurant where every recipe has some form of alcohol in it. Imagine The Bear but less anxiety-inducing and way gayer. The third novel sees them deal with a lot of the same problems as previous stories, although this time around, Ricky has started to develop a pill problem due to kitchen injuries (you can tell when this book was written by the fact that he wasn’t prescribed OxyContin.) These aren’t massively plot-driven stories and any conflict tends to get wrapped up rather quickly. What I find joy in is the languid pacing and well-textured depiction of a working-class world where food dominates everything and not a single character has even the slightest tolerance for bullsh*t. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Martin, who was married to a chef, is a king of food porn. I’d eat literally every dish described in his works (at least the non-horror ones.)
Martin stopped writing after Katrina devastated his home city, although he has been hinting on Facebook about a return to short stories. Whatever he has planned, I am committed for the long-haul.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
The Matilda floats through space, looking for its long-promised new world. The ship is organized like a plantation from the antebellum South, with the Black and brown people on the lower decks and whites living in comfort above. Aster lives below, where guards control everything, the power goes out constantly, and provisions are depleting. She tries to be a doctor to her deckmates, even those who mock her appearance and the death of her mother. Through her mother’s journals, she gleams long-held secrets about the Matilda, and the crooked power dynamic that has kept her kind enslaved for centuries.
The intense ambition of Rivers Solomon is easy to downplay. Their work, which includes Sorrowland, one of my favourite novels of the decade so far, is bleak but vast in its understanding of human cruelty. The more they dig, the more they discover, and their gaze seems to have no end in sight. The Matilda is sharply realized without descending into gawkish exploitation. The upper deckers enforce a constitutional monarchy and theocracy that insists the ‘failings’ of lowdeckers has prevented them all from reaching the new world. Solomon cannily depicts a system where those in power would rather everything suffer in some sense than level the scales or offer an olive branch of peace to those they oppress. An Unkindness of Ghosts also pays a lot of attention to ideas of gender and queerness, and how they intersect with colonial rule and the policing of Black and brown bodies. Solomons’ ability to layer these ideas without overwhelming the reader, or talking down to them, is highly impressive.
Throughout it all is the voice of Aster: fierce, kind but unsentimental, angry but driven to tackle that which she has been told is impossible. She is telling a story of the past, present, and future, interrogating history we’ve been told to get over and showing the tendrils that white supremacy has proudly continued centuries later. Whatever Solomon puts their name to, you can be sure it’ll push the boundaries of the SFF genre.
Solomon is currently fundraising for help with their application for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) in the UK so that they can permanently reside here with their family. Consider donating if you can.
An Uncomplicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
Nomi Nickel lives with her depressed father in the middle of nowhere. Her mother and sister have run away. Life in her oppressive Mennonite town in Manitoba is defined by religious hypocrisy and burnout. Teenage angst is difficult enough without having to worry about your eternal soul.
Miriam Toews, one of my favourite contemporary writers, is an author whose works are variations on her life. She too was raised Mennonite and has spent her creative career exploring the ins and outs of an oft-misunderstood faith that left her family in ruin (both her father and sister died by suicide, which is explored in perhaps her best novel, All My Puny Sorrows.) A Complicated Kindness is her take on the classic coming-of-age narrative, filtered through the lens of oppression and isolation that defined her own upbringing.
Nomi is a lost soul cursed with self-awareness, a flinty but funny and caring young woman who is easy to root for even as she slumps into a self-destructive spiral. She has a dirtbag boyfriend with a guitar and indie rock vibes (ah, the universal first bad boyfriend experience), her dad cares for her but is evidently struggling to get over his wife and other child leaving him. Her uncle is a religious zealot who takes a tad too much joy in being able to excommunicate those who don’t fall in line with Menno ways. The more she tries to search for clues as to why ‘the better-looking half’ of her family fled, the more confused she becomes, and her sense of hopelessness is fully realized via Toews’ perceptive, often darkly funny gaze.
Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler
Octavia Butler’s status as a SFF icon is undisputed and universally appreciated. The late great legend of the genre had a reputation for using the form to delve into prickly ideas of consent, colonialism, gender, and fascism. Some of her books are annoyingly prescient, like Parable of the Sower, while others hint at a dark future that feels increasingly familiar as the years pass. Bloodchild, her sole collection of stories and essays, probes into her most well-trodden concerns but never feels like a retread in execution.
Butler is both a weary cynic and something desperate to be proven wrong. She wants humanity to prevail even if she feels we cannot help but give into our worst excesses. In the story ‘Speech Sounds’, she imagines a world where the majority of humans have lost the capacity to speak, read, write, or other forms of communication. It doesn’t take long for us to descend into primal cruelty, which Butler depicts with stark realness. Still, there is always a glimmer of something more hopeful on the horizon, even if the path forward will continue to be treacherous.
In the title story, humans have escaped Earth and now reside on a planet ruled by giant insects called the Tlic, who have all but imprisoned them in the Preserve to ‘protect’ them when they realize the human form is perfect for incubating their eggs. Gan is a young boy who has been raised with the knowledge that he will one day be impregnated by a female Tlic named T’Gatoi, but he doesn’t truly grasp the situation until he bears witness to a birth gone wrong. It’s a startling depiction of the terrors of losing bodily autonomy, and of, as Butler says in her afterword, ‘paying the rent’ as a colonizer. Its echoes to the too-near history of Black enslaved women being forced to carry the offspring of their enslavers is evident.
I’m slowly running out of new-to-me Butler works to read, which sucks for obvious reasons. When you discover an author whose work resonates with you, you wish their back catalogue was endless (Butler was only 58 when she died in 2006.) I suppose I’ll just have to reread her greatest hits. After all, they’re essentially guides for our terrifying fates.