Books I Read in May 2023

Books I Read in May 2023

In May, I read 29 books. That number is a little higher than usual, and it may have been even higher if one of these books hadn’t slowed me down (see my thoughts on Girl in Pieces). Still, admittedly I did read a few very short zines; and ten of the 29 were the volumes of Samurai Executioner, a manga for which I finally made time after years of letting it gather dust on a shelf. At the beginning of the month, I read quite a few library books, but now I am hoping to focus on getting through my personal backlog. Hopefully, I’ll read some more classics, too; my first book of June was Oliver Twist.

Here are some brief thoughts on all the books I read in May.

Cell Block Five
by Fadhil al-Azzawi (translated by William M. Hutchins)
(Arabia Books, 2008)
Originally published in 1972, this book follows Aziz, a young man arrested in a Baghdad café. Despite maintaining his innocence, he is held indefinitely in a penitentiary, slowly losing hope of ever being released. Al-Azzawi, a member of the 1960s Kirkuk Group of poets, drew on his own experience of prison to write the book. Aziz at first holds the idealistic view that, eventually, the misunderstanding will be cleared up, and he will be able to leave. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that guards and officials would rather wrongly accuse him (and therefore justify his continued imprisonment) than set him free. Encountering political dissidents, victims of torture, and prisoners willing to collaborate with their jailers, Aziz attempts to remain separate from controversy and danger. He even falls in love: with Salwa, the sister of a fellow inmate. Despite glimmers of hope, there is a sense of inevitability in the book; and from the very beginning, it is clear that Aziz’s proclaimed innocence means very little to those around him.

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
(Jonathan Cape, 2011)
Split into two sections, this literary novella explores memory and remorse. In the first half, Tony Webster recalls his youth: in particular, how the new boy at school, Adrian, shifted the dynamic of his friend group. Three boys became four, each of the original members vying for the newcomer’s attention and approval. Adrian is smarter, more thoughtful and insightful than his peers, and Tony and his friends both envy and admire him for it. In the book’s second half, Tony is in his sixties. A sudden death, a will, and a missing bequest propel him to re-evaluate his memories. Snatches of reminiscence coalesce to clearer images, and fragments of truth slot together to complete the picture. Barnes’ unreliable narrator is by turns frustrating and deeply relatable; Tony unintentionally obfuscates the truth and is often shocked when he finally remembers his own actions. It is not difficult to see how this won the 2011 Booker.

by Megan Abbott
(Pocket Books UK, 2009)
Queenpin is Megan Abbott’s third novel. Her non-fiction work, The Street Was Mine, explored white masculinity in Film Noir and Hardboiled fiction, and no doubt served her well in the transition to writing Pulp and Noir fiction. This 2007 novel follows an unnamed, unreliable narrator: a young woman seduced by gamblers and gangsters. Specifically, the infamous Gloria Denton grooms her, spotting criminal potential in an outwardly innocent girl. A kind of sexual tension crackles between them – the first thing (or, indeed, things) our narrator notices about Gloria is her legs – with Gloria as the predatory older woman sweeping away a deceptively innocent girl. Soon, though, the young protégée begins to challenge her mentor, driven in part by her attraction to an unlucky gambler. While the novel is not entirely successful, it is undoubtedly evocative, and Abbot’s prose is often sharp and shrewd.

by M. G. Leonard
(Walker Books Ltd, 2022)
The second book in the Twitchers series, Spark can be read as a standalone. We follow Jack, a young birdwatcher who, along with some friends, attempts to solve a dark mystery. Someone has been attacking – and, in one case, killing – cats, and Jack wants to get to the bottom of it. However, his best friend (and birdwatcher extraordinaire) Twitch is distracted by the imminent arrival of a rare vulture. When Jack discovers that the bird itself may be the next target, the Twitchers must work together to prevent a tragedy. While arguably stronger than the first book, Spark suffers in many of the ways Twitch suffered. The characters’ love for birds is infectious, and it’s clear that Leonard has a passion for the topic. Both this book and Twitch offer a welcomely nuanced look at friendship and forgiveness. Unfortunately, certain themes are shallow, and some of the messaging is unclear at best and harmful at worst. The prose is mostly serviceable, with characters reciting facts like textbooks. The book also suffers from poor copyediting. Paddy Donnelly’s cover illustration is striking, though, and for a bird- or nature-lover, this book will soar.

Nothing Ever Happens Here
by Sarah Hagger-Holt
(Usborne Publishing Ltd, 2020)
Izzy is almost painfully shy, relying on her best friend Grace to do most of the talking at school. Thankfully, nothing much ever happens in her small town, so she flies under the radar. Then one of her parents comes out as trans, and Izzy must learn to use her voice to speak up for what’s right. Hagger-Holt’s debut novel takes a look at a family adjusting to change. Izzy’s five-year-old brother, Jamie, immediately accepts the situation, while sixteen-year-old Megan reacts badly (though ends up channeling her anger into something constructive and positive). Izzy, meanwhile, wants to focus on learning her lines for the school play, while shielding her parent from any negativity. There are some noticeable issues here – such as Grace falling into some tropes as the Black best friend; and the clumsy pronouncement that there is a “right” way for a trans woman to look – which will understandably put off many readers. Put simply, this is a book written by a cis person for a cis audience. Take that how you will.

Proud of Me
by Sarah Hagger-Holt
(Usborne Publishing Ltd., 2021)
Becky and Josh are almost twins, sharing two mums and one anonymous sperm donor. For thirteen years, they have done everything together, from first days at school to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Then Josh decides to track down the donor, refusing to wait until he’s eighteen; and Becky starts to have feelings for the new girl at school. Suddenly – unexpectedly – each has a secret from the other, and neither Becky nor Josh understands how hard that will be. Hagger-Holt’s second novel is a marked improvement on the first. There are some great conversations about family and belonging here, with both Becky and Josh’s viewpoints and experiences fully explored and respected. The subplot about a Pride group at school is also a nice touch. It is not a perfect book, with pacing and structure suffering the most. Still, it will be a rewarding read for many.

What We Did
by Christobel Kent
(Sphere, 2019)
As a child, Bridget Webster was groomed and abused by her violin teacher, Anthony Carmichael. Decades later, married with a son, she has attained something close to contentment. Then Carmichael walks into her dress shop, accompanied by a teenage girl. Immediately, Bridget knows the girl is in danger. When Carmichael returns to the shop and corners her, Bridget reacts on instinct. Now, she has to deal with the consequences of her actions. Christobel Kent’s 2018 literary thriller offers an explicit look at not only sexual abuse itself, but also at its victims’ responses. Bridget suffered with an eating disorder as a teenager; as an adult, she can’t ever sit still. Her husband is kind and safe, but she can never tell him what happened to her. Deep down, she worries that every man will hurt her like Carmichael did. Kent plots a compelling, unflinching tale.

Bill’s New Frock
by Anne Fine
(Egmont Books, 2017)
Bill Simpson wakes up one morning to discover he is a girl. His mother puts him in a frilly pink frock, his dad kisses him goodbye, and off Bill goes to school. So begins one of the worst days of his life. Originally published in 1989, Bill’s New Frock explores everyday sexism.  Bill’s work is criticised for messiness, while another boy’s even messier work is praised. The boys won’t let Bill join their football game. Bill’s frock doesn’t even have pockets. While not the intention, through a contemporary lens, the book may also serve as an introduction to gender dysphoria; Bill knows instinctively that something is wrong, and his frustration and discomfort goes mostly unnoticed. As the book goes on, though, others pick up on the change, noting how strange he seems today. Overall, the book remains insightful and entertaining over thirty years on.

Samurai Executioner
by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima (translated by Dana Lewis and Marc Miyake)
(Dark Horse Manga, 2004-2006)
Yamada Asaemon, the third of that name, takes up the role of o-tameshiyaku: the shōgun’s official sword-tester. As a rōnin, he is unworthy of executing samurai, instead tasked with decapitating criminals. His fearsome reputation precedes him: Neck-Chopper Asa his unofficial title. As in their contemporary series, Lone Wolf and Cub, Koike and Kojima’s collaborative effort is a painstakingly-researched recreation of Edo-period Japan. Fictional characters and events notwithstanding, it is a powerfully evocative achievement. Unlike Lone Wolf and Cub, there is no overarching plot. Themes are consistent, but the series is episodic. Each chapter of this ten-volume series offers a short story or vignette: a fleeting moment in Asa’s life, and the last moments of the condemned. There is much philosophising on everything from government corruption to gender roles. Many readers may find it difficult to separate period-accurate misogyny from the general sexism of two men writing in the 1970s. Still, this is a rich and rewarding experience.

by Naben Ruthnum
(Undertow Publications, 2022)
Louise Wilk’s husband is dying, ravaged by a terrifying illness: one that sloughs the very flesh from his bones. An expert in venereal disease has declared that the mystery ailment is not syphilis (despite Edward Wilk’s many extramarital affairs), leaving the couple alone to await the inevitable. Ruthnum’s Gothic novella oozes with tragic romance and body horror. Exquisite prose makes for a transcendent reading experience. Ruthnum aims to unsettle and disturb, rather than truly frighten, readers. Perhaps more than anything, he wishes to explore how far one person’s love will take them: how committed can one person truly be to another? Louise married Edward within weeks of meeting him – in spite of the affairs she already knew he conducted. A trained nurse, she finds herself quickly and ably attending to his medical needs, willing to do whatever it takes to care for him at the end.

Seraph of the End: Vampire Reign, vol. 26
by Takaya Kagami, Yamato Yamamoto and Daisuke Furuya (translated by Adrienne Beck)
(VIZ Media, 2023)
Years ago, vampires swarmed the Earth. Amongst the humans abducted for various nefarious reasons was a group of orphans. One of them, Yūichirō Hyakuya, witnessed a bloodsucker murder the others, before escaping the underground city. Vowing to kill all vampires, Yūichirō rose through the ranks of the Japanese Imperial Demon Army. Now, he has cultivated a new family, including Mikaela: one of the orphans presumed dead. Seraph of the End is the best kind of shōnen manga. Full of heart, and deadly serious about the power of friendship, it remains one of my favourite ongoing series.

Animals Eat Each Other
by Elle Nash
(404 Ink, 2019)
Originally published in the US by Dzanc Books, Elle Nash’s 2018 debut novel concerns an unnamed young woman’s experience in an intense liaison. Teenage parents Matt and Frances rename the narrator Lilith, and pull her into a fraught, three-way BDSM relationship. ‘Lilith’ finds herself falling for Matt, convinced she can give him something Frances never could: true submission. Nash explores despair and desire in equal measure, through the eyes of a teenager still discovering herself. ‘Lilith’ sleeps with her boss just for the experience; she fools around with another girl, not quite accepting how serious her feelings may truly be; and she fantasises about a blissful future with Matt. The fact that the BDSM might actually be closer to abuse adds another level of complexity to the piece. This is a compelling debut. Just by the by, though, it is incredibly frustrating that most of the books I have read recently contain glaring typos. I realise this may be a trivial complaint.

I Like Men
by Gil Goletski
An autobiographical zine about a sexual awakening, I Like Men is a fabulous piece. Goletski’s memories of casual (and violent) homophobia, and secretly watching Brokeback Mountain are powerfully evocative. The discussion towards the end about identity and labels is also greatly appreciated. I highly recommend this quick, important read.

Lamp Comic
by Gil Goletski
A very short zine featuring musings on, and illustrations and photos of, Goletski’s lamp collection; appreciations of appliances allow room for Goletski’s exploration of binary thinking. The lamps may be ‘on’ or ‘off’, but their light is dim, as opposed to that cast by harsh overheads. Goletski compares dimmer switches to transitioning, not really going from ‘on’ to ‘off’ – a constant, just now on a different setting. A lovely read.

Stif Fits
by Gil Goletski and Anna Firth
A series of illustrations featuring queer, anthropomorphised animals. There’s something charming about a cowboy boot-wearing catperson sweating over a copy of ‘Men Kissing, vol. 5’.

Manga Diary of a Male Porn Star, vol. 1 by Kaeruno Erefante
(Seven Seas, 2021)
Divorced and unemployed, Kaeruno has nothing left to lose. He heads to Tokyo and is easily talked into starting a career in the porn industry. This autobiographical manga is undeniably compelling. While much of the narrator’s decision is driven by his desire to see (and fuck) beautiful girls, the book goes into detail about the process of making porn in both the city and the country. Most compelling is Kojima, the only female director he meets. His surprise is less driven by sexism, and more an aversion to kink – something Kojima greatly appreciates. The comedy here is derived mostly from farcical, absurd situations that are, apparently, all true. Depicting himself as a frog in a pair of briefs, Kaeruno stands out from both the bevy of buxom beauties, and the cartoonish crew members. This first volume was very enjoyable, and I look forward to the next.

Gwendy’s Final Task
by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
(Hodder & Stoughton, 2022)
The third and final entry in the Gwendy trilogy is (barely) stronger than the second but weaker than the first. Here, 64-year-old Gwendy Peterson has been tasked with taking the magic button box somewhere no one can ever find it: space. The undeniably silly premise is bolstered by some good character work, which the previous book lacked, and a fabulous mystery surrounding Derry, Maine, and linked to the Dark Tower series. There are some weaknesses here, including clunky exposition and dialogue, plus some unsubtle villainy. Gwendy herself remains narratively unassailable, despite her (to put it mildly) morally questionable views and decisions. Still, there is a strong emotional core, and some lovely interior illustrations courtesy of Keith Minnion. And, personally speaking, a trip to Derry, Maine, is always worth taking.

The Passenger
by Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson and Ian MacEwan
An unnamed man misses his stop and sets out to buy a new train ticket. Wandering away from the tracks, he discovers an old roadside exhibition and decides to investigate. This short comic hits the sweet spot of strange, cosmic horror found in old ghost stories. The simple (yet no doubt effective) story plays second fiddle to MacEwan’s art; there is some fabulous cartooning here. Our protagonist hikes over rocks and fields, reaching a level of exhaustion so complete even his hat seems to sweat. And, of course, the horror lurking at the heart of this story is superbly realised. The Passenger is far from a scary story – it is too comfortably familiar for that – but it is a very good example of a common trope, and certainly worth the mere minute it takes to read. It offers a lot in such a short trip and is definitely worth a return journey.

Girl in Pieces
by Kathleen Glasgow
(Rock the Boat, 2023)
This novel was originally published in 2016. Like Glasgow’s later work, How to Make Friends with the Dark, this book tackles the fatal flaws in the US care systems. Whereas How to Make Friends… scrutinised foster care, Girl in Pieces looks at mental health. We follow Charlie Davis, a teenage girl who wakes up in hospital. Suffering with extreme trauma and covered in self-harm scars, she struggles to connect with the other patients. Just as she feels ready to open up, she is forced to leave. What works well, here, is Glasgow’s honesty. Her author’s note reveals that she, like Charlie, has scars; the book serves then as a love letter to girls like her. The early section of the book is very strong, and the horrific revelation that, due to a change in her financial situation, Charlie must leave the hospital and return to her abusive mother, hits like a train. Sadly, the book loses its way. There are too many one-note characters (all of whom are deeply eloquent or traumatised or both), and a narrative voice that cannot sustain itself. Overall, this was something of a disappointment.

In Case of Emergency
by Poorna Bell
(Penguin Books, 2023)
After a near-death accident, Bel Kumar wakes up to find her ex-boyfriend by her hospital bed. It turns out that Bel has forgotten to change the name of her emergency contact on her HR form. Deciding to rectify this frankly embarrassing mistake forces Bel to confront the fact that she does not feel close enough to anyone in her life. As a debut novel, In Case of Emergency stumbles a little at the finish line – Bell incorporates a race-against-time climax that just about comes off – but overall works very well. It adeptly balances scenes of family drama, teenage trauma, and casual (and not so casual) racism. The hints toward the secret at the heart of Bel’s problem are sprinkled in such a way that, at first, you wonder whether it was such a big deal, or if it was just a teenage falling-out that Bel struggled to parse. The revelation, therefore, hits extremely hard. Overall, reading In Case of Emergency was great way to end May.

Tell Me the Good Stuff | Curi🅐sity Kills

In 2021, some bad behaviour was discovered at a literary journal called Black Cat Magazine. Said behaviour implicated other journals with which one editor in particular was involved. In response, writer V.F. Thompson posted a call to action on Twitter: anyone who had submitted work to the now-defunct Black Cat Magazine (or any related journals) could resubmit their work to a new zine called Curi🅐sity Kills. The first release from Dionysian Public Library, the zine comprises five pieces of anarchist, political prose. I am so proud to be a part of the zine, and to present my story “Tell Me the Good Stuff” in full below. At the bottom of the page, I will leave details on how to support the zine.

I hope you enjoy my story.


At last, the jeep crests the hill, and for a moment Jack’s vision turns white. He shields his eyes, blinking rapidly, and squints towards the encampment nestled in the reddish-brown valley. They pass between two bollards that once, he’s sure, must have bracketed a checkpoint, but now serve as pummel horses for shoeless children – some freckled and fair, some with their hair in locs, others grinning through sunburn – who now abandon their game and come running, yelling welcome at the newcomer. Jack’s chest tightens. His hand twitches, but he keeps his head still, stares through cracked and dusty glass.

“Hungry?” The driver glances at him. “You can eat first.”

Jack shakes his head. The children peel away and chase each other, screaming, through the dust. Absurdly, Jack wonders if they’ll let him join them. How old is too old? He frowns at his hands, at the brownish crusts beneath his nails, the stump where his pinkie should be. He chews his thumbnail, thinking how silly it is, to want children to play with you now when they never did before; or if they did, it’s been so long it hardly counts. But he thinks about the children, about their games and stories spawned from fertile, shared imaginations. He thinks (hopes) they’re all friends, and that there are best friends sprinkled in amongst the group. Something niggles at him there, at the base of his skull. It shivers down his spine and agitates his stomach. Best friends.

He gnaws the inside of his cheek.

“Here we are.”

Jack looks up, first at the driver’s kind face, and then beyond, towards the greyish tent.

“We’ll say our hellos first.”

Jack nods and slips from his seat. His feet throb, and he hobbles around the jeep’s idle nose. The driver waits for him, and then embraces a new man, who climbs behind the wheel and rumbles down the track.

“We keep the cars and trucks together,” the driver explains. “All the fuel and everything – it stays in one place. Easy to run low, so we have people to take care of that.” He rubs the back of his neck. “Sure you don’t need anything?”

Jack shakes his head again and tries to smile. He likes this man – who is tall and dark-skinned, with long black hair hanging down his back – and wants this man to like him. Again, he thinks about the children; he thinks that if he were still like them, still young and small, he could go to this man, let himself be swallowed up in his arms, bury his face in his chest. He could ask, even. He could look him in the eye and ask to be held. A little strange, he thinks, for a boy who is really a man to ask someone his equal in height for a hug. But even big men, even men who don’t radiate kindness the way this one does, would allow a tiny, frightened child one small comfort.


“Come on, then.” He helps Jack inside, takes his negligible weight on his arm. They pass through the heavy flaps and sigh in unison. The air is lighter here, and cooler, and with the sun blocked out, they can at last relax.

The people in the tent look at them, curious. But Jack has eyes only for the person at the table: the man with sandy hair and greenish eyes. The man whose jaw drops, who stands and reveals his tall, slim frame. The man whose shirt hangs open, hinting at surgical scars.

They stare at each other. Then Jack cries out – some useless noise – and weeping falls into the man’s arms. He hugs him tight, and Jack hears him ask the driver Where incredulous where did you find him? He holds him at arm’s length, looks into the face that is now opposite his own, and touches his hair.

“Sam,” says Jack, voice hoarse with disuse. He tests the word, the name that might not be right anymore. But the man nods – just once, emphatic, almost proud – and tears roll down his cheeks.

“I told you,” he says. “I told you we’d see each other again.”

Jack hugs him fiercely. He is distantly aware of voices growing softer. A puff of hot air touches the darkened space as the tent flaps move, and then they are alone. Jack marvels at how easy it is, how simple to rearrange himself to match this new version of his friend. Before – so long ago now – when they were both children, Sam was the taller, and painfully thin. He would shrug off Jack’s worried hands, glare at him through sunken eyes. Jack would watch him fiddle with the bandages that bound his chest, loath to remove and replace them. He didn’t understand at the time. He was only five when people started getting sick, too young maybe to know all the words. All he knew was that his friend was sad sometimes, and hurt. His makeshift binder pinched and squeezed, and nights he’d go without, hunched and silent. He explained it once, towards the end, when he was too sick to stand. Then he went away, taken in the back of a truck by people who knew what to do. How to help.

Jack buries his face in Sam’s neck, not wanting to remember, needing to remember nonetheless. Someone held his arms, but the righteous fury unique to seven-year-olds was too much, too hot; he broke away, screaming, and bolted down the potholed road, bare feet ripped raw, tears whipped from his eyes into the dead heat of that August day. Then he was caught, swept up into the last hug of his life before now. When the screaming stopped, so did his words.

“Jack, look at me.”

He looks at him.

“I’m sorry I left you.”

Jack shakes his head, vehement. “Don’t.” He wipes his face. “I – wasn’t angry at you. I was angry they… they took you away. Away from me. I didn’t understand.”

Neither of them says, They could only take one.

“So you’re—” Jack coughs. Sam’s eyes widen, and Jack quickly flaps his hands. “No, it’s okay – my throat – I need some water.”

Sam hands him a canteen and lets him drink.

Quenched, Jack tries again: “So you’re in charge?”

Sam pulls a face. “I don’t like to put it that way. A group of us – I guess you could say we’re in charge. But it’s more equal than that.”

Jack nods.  “The man who drove me – I don’t know his name—”

“Bear.” Sam smiles.

Jack feels the possessive child in him stick out his chin, tries to quiet him. “He’s nice, I liked him. Well, he said he was taking me to ‘the boss’.” Jack laughs softly. “I guess he was just joking.”

Sam scratches his head. “He likes to call me that.” The expression on his face is one Jack has never learned to parse. He thinks perhaps in another world – another time, where his parents lived, and maybe no one ever got sick in the first place – at twenty he’d understand expressions like that. But then (and it’s an awful thought, despite the distance between him and half-remembered parents) if no one died, he never would have met Sam. He feels a little sick thinking about that, and tries to push on.

“What are you doing here?” Jack asks. “Where did they—” take you? he thinks. “Where did you go?”

“We’re working,” Sam says. “They took care of me, Jack. And now we’re working to take care of others.” He smiles softly. “You saw?” He opens his shirt a little wider, revealing the scars. “I spoke to someone – they’re still here, I’ll introduce you. Dr Nguyen. Once I was better, they let me talk about how I felt. They did the surgery, too.” He closes the shirt, buttons it halfway. “For a while I was obnoxiously shirtless.”

Jack giggles, setting off Sam – and for a moment they are seven and thirteen again.

Sam pauses. For no reason Jack can see, he looks almost nervous. “You’re not… I mean, it’s okay. Isn’t it?”

Jack frowns. “You explained it to me before. I remember.” He gnaws on his cheek. “It made me sad before. I mean, that you were sad. Because you knew who you were, and I knew who you were, too. But sometimes you didn’t feel like who you were. Is that right?”

Sam nods.

“So if you’re not sad anymore. If you’re not hurt. Then it’s okay.” He smiles. “I think before, I just didn’t like that something was making you sad. Something I couldn’t help you with, I mean. When you were sick—” He pauses, shoves aside flashes of his friend’s distended ribs and sallow skin. “When you were sick, even though I knew I couldn’t make you better, I could do something. I could try to look after you. But you were sad sometimes. And angry. And there wasn’t anything I could do. Except…”

Sam watches him closely. “Except what?”

“Be your friend.” He shrugs. “You can’t really do anything except that, I think. You can’t fix things for your friends. You can just be for them.”

Sam is quiet for a moment. Then he laughs. “I hardly remember anything. I don’t know if I lost the memory – if that’s a side-effect – or if I just repressed it.” He hugs himself, briefly. “I’m glad I don’t remember much.” Then, with a small smile: “Except you.”

Jack, who remembers everything – remembers how, on his worst days, Sam would snap and hit; how he’d hate so much it would consume him – thinks, and not for the first time, that children who are hurt so easily must understand easily, too. Furtively, he puts his hands behind his back, fingers the nearly-nothing of his pinkie. And he thinks, no, it’s better Sam doesn’t remember. It’s better he’s well now, and leave it at that.

Jack hugs him again. “Where are we?” he whispers into Sam’s neck. “What is this place?”
Sam squeezes him. “This is the future.” He holds him at arm’s length again. “No one’s sick here, Jack, can you believe it? Well” – he laughs – “I mean, of course people get sick. But what I had – what everyone had – it’s gone here.”

Something pulls at Jack’s chest, loosening and tightening at once. “Gone?”

Sam nods. “Completely. We all tested negative. And we all keep testing negative.”

Jack’s mouth goes dry, and he reaches for the canteen again.

“I was…” Sam sighs. “There’s no point lying – and I’m sure you already figured it out. I was almost dead, when they found us.”

Jack sets his jaw.

“I think that’s why they took me.” He sighs. “You were all right. They needed someone who was sick. Someone they could – well…”

Something snaps in Jack’s chest. “They used you like that?”

Sam pulls a face. “Yeah.” He tries to shrug it off. “They had to be sure. They couldn’t test it on someone who wasn’t—”

“Going to die anyway?”

Sam nods, eyes averted.

Jack’s fists burn, and he’s suddenly aware of his nails digging into his palms. He forces them loose, and rubs them while he asks, “Are they still here?” He feels his mouth twisting, can barely push the words between his lips.

Sam shakes his head. “Long gone. They brought me here, then left. Who knows about them now…”

“Looking for more sick kids to—”

“I don’t think so.” He smiles wanly. “They only needed one.”

Jack sits heavily on the cot in the corner. “I should have been with you.”

Sam comes to him, puts an arm around his thin shoulders. “It was so long ago.” And he repeats, softly: “So long.”

Jack rests his head on his friend’s shoulder. He thinks again about the look that crossed his face when they spoke about the driver. “Is he – Bear – is he your…” He frowns. “Well, I mean, are you—”

“We’re friends.” Sam squeezes him gently.

Jack narrows his eyes. “Best friends?”

Sam throws back his head and laughs.

“Because that’s not fair, if you are. I know we lost touch for a while, but—”

Sam doubles over, and manages: “Were you always funny?”

Jack grins. “Yeah. You just don’t remember.”

With a mischievous glint in his eye, Sam makes to hit him – and Jack flinches so violently Sam not only withdraws his hand, but moves away from him, putting a foot of space between them on the cot. Jack breathes hard and tries to smile, to reassure him, but something flashed across Sam’s face: this time an emotion Jack knows, something old, something of memory.

“I – I’m sorry. I—” Sam puts his hands under his thighs. “I wasn’t going to…” He shakes his head. “I don’t know why I did that.”

“It’s okay,” says Jack, too quickly. “You know, it’s been… Well, I don’t know how this sounds, but it’s been so long since anyone – you know, touched me, I just. I’m not sure—”

“No.” Sam touches his chest. “It’s my fault. I won’t do that again, I promise.”

Jack nods. He brings his legs up, hugs them close to his chest. “What else happens here?”

Sam relaxes visibly. “Everything. It started small, before I got here. We’re making sure we know how to live. People like Bear, they go out to see what’s still out there. What we can salvage, you know. Food and resources, things like that. Greenhouses went up years ago. We grow whatever we can, regulating the soil, the temperature. I don’t pretend to understand how it works.”

They laugh, and Sam moves a little closer again. “And it isn’t just practical things. Not just food and water and supplies. We’re trying to cover as much as we can – anything we think we’ll need, and then anything we want. Whether that’s leisure or education. Whatever. And of course, there are people like Dr Nguyen. People like me, too. We do everything here, for everyone. I said before about being in charge – that group you saw when you came in. But again, it’s more equal than that. We want everyone to have a say. And the consensus is, right now, to make sure we can survive on what we have. To see if things are sustainable. But we don’t want to just stay here. We don’t think that’s fair. If we survived, there must be others, right? Like you.”

Jack smiles.

“And you’ll have to tell me all about it. But we figure, it can’t be just us. And if we can figure out a way to live, we shouldn’t only keep ourselves alive. Does that make sense?”

Jack nods. “It’s good,” he says. “It’s nice.”

“We hope so.” Sam grins. “So many people died, Jack. I mean. How old were you when it started? Do you remember?”


“So I would have been just eleven.” He gets a faraway look on his face then, and his eyes go glassy. “I think I – I think I can just barely remember seeing something on the news. I don’t know if I just invented the memory. But eleven’s old enough to remember, I think.”

Jack stays quiet, unsure.

“Do you know how many people died?”

Jack pulls a face. “I don’t like to think about it.”

“No.” Sam touches his hand. “Neither do I. Sometimes we have to.”

Knowing the answer, he asks, “You have to think about the bad stuff?”

“It’s not good to do it all the time, but…” He sighs. “Yeah, sometimes.”

Jack gnaws his cheek. “Do you – want me to tell you sometime? About the bad stuff.”

Absently, eyes unfocused again, Sam strokes the spot where Jack’s pinkie should be. “Yeah,” he says, far away again. “But tell me the good stuff first.”


Thank you so much for reading.

Of course, my story is not the only piece in the zine; four other brilliant creatives offered their work, too. If you’d like to read those, too, you can request a copy (digital or print) of Curi🅐sity Kills by emailing

Please make sure to follow V.F. Thompson and Dionysian Public Library on Twitter so you never miss an update on future publications.


For a few years now, I have been fascinated with gekiga, and in general the alternative manga movement that began in the 1950s. I am extremely glad to announce that I have been very lucky to be able to write a small feature about the movement for Japan Curiosity. The piece includes a little background to the genre and a few recommendations for some of my favourite titles. You can read the full piece here, but I would like to share a short excerpt:

Meaning ‘dramatic pictures’, gekiga is the umbrella term for Japanese comics created as an alternative to ‘whimsical pictures’ (or, ‘manga’). Despite reading and being influenced by Osamu Tezuka, who at the time worked exclusively in children’s comics, gekiga artists wanted to challenge what had become conventional. With a gritty, cinematic style that explored mature topics and themes, as well as sexual and political content, gekiga became a very popular genre. When Weekly Shōnen Sunday and Weekly Shōnen Magazine launched in 1959, kashihon artists submitted their work, bringing techniques popularised in gekiga with them.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read it if you did! I am far from an expert, but I was very happy to share a little knowledge.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes | A Poem.

I love Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It is easily my favourite anime, but more than that, it stands out as the most complex and compelling story I have ever experienced. It charts the rise and fall of two diametrically opposed rivals: Yang Wen-li of the Free Planets Alliance, a democracy; and Reinhard von Lohengramm of the Galactic Empire, a dictatorship. Essentially a political drama, it is a vast and fascinating exploration of war, fascism, and the way history repeats itself. Perhaps most commendable is its handling of a colossal cast of characters, though you will absolutely be punished for getting attached to any of them…

After I watched the anime, Viz Media announced that they had licensed the original novels under their Haikasoru imprint. Of course, I pre-ordered as soon as I could, but I also entered their competition. To wit: write an essay or a poem about the series for a chance to win a copy of the first volume. Needless to say, I was inspired, and after an hour or so of tinkering, I sent in my poem. Not only that, I was one of the winners! In a cruel twist of fate, however, Viz appear to have moved their links around so much that it has become quite hard to find my poem. Thankfully, the Wayback Machine saved it. To make things easier (and for posterity), I am going to post it here in full as well.

Two stars shone brightly in a dark sky.
One flickered and flared;
One burned with red flames close by.
No matter which one,
People stopped and they stared,
Agape and unbelieving,
At the history repeating,
Wholly unprepared.

One star –
Uncertain but loved –
Drew friends and fans and foes.
The other had but one.
One star grew strong and scorched the skies.
The other’s light grew dim but once,
And all stars then held close those cries.

They wept.

Two stars shine brightly in a dark sky,
Both feeling love, joy, hope and pain.
And despite how it may seem,
To those who love this epic dream,
All this will happen once again.
As in the historian’s old refrain:
In every age,
In every place,
The deeds of men remain the same.

Please bear in mind that I wrote that over five years ago! I am proud of it, though. Thank you for reading and please, watch Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

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Bonjour Tristesse & A Certain Smile | Review.

Bonjour Tristesse & A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan

The young protagonists of Françoise Sagan’s first novels explore their sexuality and morality through their relationships with older men. Bonjour Tristesse sees 17-year-old Cécile find a carefree if co-dependent partner in her father, while her lover indulges her every whim. Meanwhile, law student Dominique finds her desire split between her lover and his uncle in A Certain Smile. The original English translation by Irene Ash omitted anything likely to offend the delicate sensibilities of the British reader, be it sexual or, in Bonjour Tristesse‘s case, analytical. In this Penguin Modern Classics edition of the novels, Heather Lloyd’s 2013 translation not only reinstates the passages which so scandalised the 1950s public, but also hopes to give “a fresh new dress […] to the young Sagan’s remarkably stylish and perceptive” work.

Bonjour Tristesse is a twisted piece of bourgeois disillusionment. Young Cécile has been without parental guidance for over a decade; her mother is dead, and she has spent many years in boarding school. Now living with her father, Raymond, to whom she represents “the dearest, most marvellous of toys”, Cécile whiles away the hours in the Riviera heat, ignoring her studies and flirting with Cyril, a man in his 20s. Raymond, who usually finds a new mistress every six months, announces that Anne Larsen – a friend of Cécile’s late mother – is coming to stay, and it soon becomes clear that they intend to marry. Drawn to the secure mother figure Anne represents, but horrified by the prospect of losing her carefree, pampered lifestyle, Cécile concocts a plan that can only end in tragedy.

Cécile is a viciously intelligent teenager. She neglects her education but maintains a keen interest in philosophy and literature, spending the summer exploring her sexuality freely with an older man. It is this freedom that she is liable to lose if Raymond marries, and while a part of her clearly craves stability, her current life is all she knows, and the fear of disruption overcomes her desire for something more ‘normal’. Interestingly, Cécile used to live with Anne, and through the indignant fog of her adolescent fury it is clear that Cécile likes Anne, and that Anne in turn has Cécile’s best interests at heart. Perhaps more than wanting to be Raymond’s wife, she wants to be Cécile’s mother. These conflicts of interest simmer and sizzle and finally explode in Sagan’s desperate, despondent novel.

Similarly, the protagonist of A Certain Smile is also exploring her sexuality and searching for some kind of stability. Dominique likes Bertrand well enough, but she is completely enamoured of his uncle, Luc. When Dominique agrees to spend two weeks with Luc in Cannes, it is under the condition that it be a purely physical affair. However, Dominique finds herself falling in love with him, and struggles to balance these passionate feelings with her relationship with Bertrand, and her growing affection for Luc’s wife, Françoise. Her guilt and desire – both sexual and for the parental figures so lacking in her own life – draw her down a dark path.

There is a great sense of confusion in Sagan’s second novel. Dominique is drawn to Luc and Françoise, who represent the warm, loving parents she wishes she had (her mother has been depressed for as long as Dominique can remember), but while Françoise remains a kindly mother figure, Luc perverts and exploits his position. In the throes of a passionate sexual affair, Dominque continues to refer to him as a father; she is aware of his power and calls herself a “little girl”. This may not be her first sexual relationship – she sleeps with Bertrand and enjoys brief encounters with strangers – but it is certainly her first experience of love, and she naïvely convinces herself that if the affair continues, eventually he will love her, too.

In both novels, the protagonists seem ill at ease with themselves and the world. Cécile tells her tragic tale in hindsight, looking back on the summer she spent with her father and prospective mother. There is a hopeless air about it, a feeling of guilty confession; she knows that it was her fault, and that she will never be able to go back to whoever she could have been if she had made a different decision. Dominique is arguably the more sympathetic character. While both girls struggle for parental guidance, Dominique is manipulated by a man who should be a father figure. At times, the consequences of his emotional abuse seem staggeringly huge, and the trust she put in him is tested. At the end of the novel, his power over her remains. Does she still hope he may one day love her, or does she see no other option than to keep responding when he calls?

Françoise Sagan’s first novels are fascinating. Twisted and tragic with stylish flourishes, they explore adolescent desires and mistakes with an at times painful realism. It is no surprise that Sagan was only a teenager herself at the time of Bonjour Tristesse‘s publication; she has captured adolescent confusion, intelligence and introspection perfectly. In Rachel Cusk’s 2008 essay (which introduces this Penguin Modern Classics edition), she praises Sagan’s “psychological realism” and this especially is beautifully showcased here. From Cécile’s guilt and desperation to Dominique’s tragic naïveté, Sagan expertly navigates her protagonists’ dark psychological narratives and brings them, kicking and screaming, into the light.

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