The Lit Club: Unexpected Gems


[Picture from News From Nowhere in Liverpool taken by Risen Zine.]



Edited by Emily Bourne

Hello bookworms! This month’s Lit Club theme is Unexpected Gems: books we didn’t expect much from, but surprised us with how good they were. This edition is all about how you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover -  however cliché that is to say.


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[Image description: a light blue front cover with a colourful abstract piece on the front. Above is the book title and author.]

Review by Kseniia

In a world where most of us science fiction fans, who have Netflix accounts, have watched Annihilation and traced it back to its author Jeff Vandermeer, I want to introduce you to his other work - Borne. Area X trilogy was a beautiful exploration of individuality in the face of big changes, while Borne is here to show us what love and connection can do instead.

Our main character and our vessel into this dystopian world is Rachel, a twenty-eight-year-old scavenger in the world after some unspecified apocalypse. She lives in a devastated, polluted city where she searches for scraps of food and tradable “biotech” from the ruins of a once-great place owned by a mysterious Company. It is a dangerous endeavour, however, as the landscape is haunted by multiple other desperate people, monsters, and everything in between. Her lover and partner, Wick, takes up a more defensive approach to their survival, protecting the apartment building that they decided to call home. 

This fragile balance changes one day when Rachel finds the giant adversarial flying bear, Mord, asleep and undertakes a dangerous mission of trying to find anything useful around his body. But instead, she escapes with a bundle of something that will become her family, even if she doesn’t yet know about the titular Borne. To her he becomes a curiosity first, then a pet, and then something akin to a child. 

Vandermeer’s prose is deceptively simple and engaging at first, but as life and growth become a bit more complicated, then we start to ask more and more uncomfortable questions. Just like us, Borne starts out as a new-born, cautiously grasping the language of human or “persons” from his distinctly inhuman form:

[Borne was] like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as waterworn stone if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers.

And with the ever-growing love from Rachel, and ever-growing suspicion from Wick, Borne transforms, learns, and understands his destiny through the connections he makes in the world. But the place he grows up in is harsh and unforgiving and soon they all have to make a choice what it is to be human even if you were born or changed into something else. 

It seems, that Vandemeer is obsessed with this question as one of the pivotal moments ends on a simple yet powerful exchange between what we are led to believe a family unit: 

“I’ve stopped trying to be good,” Borne tells Rachel the last time they speak. “It isn’t in my nature. I was made to absorb. I was made to kill. I know that now. And it’s no use.”

“You must try,” Rachel says.

“I’m telling you, Rachel, I can’t anymore. I’m not built like you. I’m not human. I’m not a person.”

Rachel tells Borne he is a person. She feels like she has to. Her love is something that makes Borne more than the sum of his parts and his love, in turn, gives Rachel a world to believe in again. And what else is human if not an active choice to love and love again.


Another Life

Jodie Chapman

[Image description: A red background with a drawing of two tickets, one white with the text 'Another Life', and a purple one with 'Jodie Chapman' written on it.]

Review by Meg Scarbie.

This book has quite unusual style of writing; the chapters are short and not in chronological order. The first chapter starts midway through the story, not in the past and not quite in the present. The first few pages describe a heart-breaking scene which draws you in, and so you have to keep reading in order to find out more.

Switching from when Nick and Anna were kids in the 80s to present day and all the years in between, I didn't think I would form a bond of any sort with these characters. I didn't fall in love with Nick and Anna as a couple, but I did love their characters separately and appreciate their individual growth into adulthood, even though as a reader I only saw snippets. Every character in this book I loved wholeheartedly.

Anna's religion and how it relates to growing up in a cult I found really interesting especially after learning Chapman was writing from her own experience.

Overall I thought this was a beautiful debut novel and definitely an unexpected gem.


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Claire North (pen name of Catherine Webb)

[Image description: A boy holding a hollow wooden frame has a picture of himself holding that same wooden frame, and inside that frame is the same image. At the bottom of the image is the author’s name.]

Review by Aiden Tsen

Though this may sound odd for a novel that did win the 2015 Campbell Memorial Award, this book was an unexpected gem for me. The reason: I don’t generally read sci-fi, let alone like it.

The premise: Harry August is born in Berwick-upon-Tweed station in 1919, lives a fairly standard life, then dies in hospital in 1989. As you might expect from the title, he is born again back in 1919 in the same circumstances, with his memories from his previous life returning at a young age. He is soon contacted by the Cronus Club, an organisation of people like him, known as ouroborans or kalachakra. Nothing ever changes much until the end of his eleventh life, when a little girl appears at his bedside and tells him that the end of the world is coming, and keeps on getting closer.

While the idea itself is strong on its own, what I liked most about this book is its exploration of invisible differences, which has lots of parallels with my own experiences as a queer, invisibly disabled person. Firstly, there are the well-known three stages of realising you’re different: ‘rejection, exploration and acceptance.’ Harry also alludes to a counterpart to gaydar or autdar when saying that ‘A kalachakra tends to recognise another when he sees him [...] through the incongruity of circumstance and a certain bearing.’ And, of course, the existence of a community that does its best to look after its young members.

Another thing that I liked is how it explores trauma, which is common for kalachakra during the rejection and exploration stages. For instance, Harry notes to himself at one point that he wonders ‘why [his] body refused to forget a thing which [his] mind had long since passed on by.’ Especially given that it was published in 2014, I really appreciated this as someone who knows they’re being irrational and yet can’t stop their physiological response to reminders of upsetting events. At the same time though, it does mean that the novel would benefit from a content warning for topics such as suicide, forced hospitalisation and torture.

Lastly, although it does have heavy gay undertones at points, these are properly addressed in the narrative. Given the number of conversations still going on about queerbaiting, this is unfortunately something of note.

My sole criticisms: the science can be a bit shaky at times, and Harry’s detached viewpoint, though understandable, does bleed into the narrative. However, if you can handle the very existential and sometimes dark subject matter, the strength of the premise and the exploration of identity and community more than makes it worth a read.


I kissed Alice

Anna Birch

[Image description: A white book cover with the title written in the middle of the page in a swirly font. Two women are illustrated on the front. At the bottom is the author’s name.]

Review by Megan O’Neill

Imagine Alice in Wonderland meets Comic-Con online. Iliana and Rhodes have a complicated relationship: their romantically compatible online presence doesn’t align with their hate-fuelled interactions at the Alabama Conservatory of the Arts. This is made all the more extreme through a fierce competition to win the capstone award, which could set them up for a great art career. As their school and personal lives become increasingly interconnected, they must face difficult decisions which will change the direction of their lives forever…

I discovered this unexpected gem at “Gays The Word” bookshop in London, a bookshop I had been intending to visit since Autumn 2019. When I walked through the doors of the most colourful book haven in London, I was looking for a fictional book about Pansexuality, asexuality or a book with a panromantic asexual as a protagonist/side character. However, after an unsuccessful attempt at finding such a book, I began browsing and came across “I kissed Alice”. I had never even heard of this book before and from the outset it sounded like a cliché romance, with the main spin being that the characters were members of the LGBTQ+ community but after reading the first page, I could tell that whilst that was a factor, there was more to it and I simply had to read it.

Yes, the plot was rich with context, which gave a clear view of the various factors impacting each character’s decisions and thought processes. A perfect use of dramatic irony. Such context was not wasted or unnecessary because it didn’t just focus on the character’s exploration of their sexuality, as most LGBTQ+ books do to excess, but addressed mental health issues in a sensitive and woke manner, in addition with family pressures, peer pressures and the impact of class in relation to accessibility of resources.

As a reader who would rather read a book thick with character development than an interesting storyline, such skilful techniques helped aid both the development of these characters and the plotline, meaning that the book stood out for me due to the fact that it is one of a few which has a perfect balance. Not to mention how original the plot in-itself was, having read a surprising number of adaptations of “Alice in Wonderland”, it stood out from the rest as being imaginative whilst also not outlandish due to the establishment of the inspired elements into a real-world setting.

The double narrative in this book worked so well. I think that sometimes, double narrative books run the risk of losing the central plotline or becoming disjointed. Birch handled this well through the use of last lines that pack a punch, Slash/spot chat messages and extracts of the web-comic the characters of Rhodes and Iliana are unknowingly collaborating on.

The only things that I could possibly critique are that in some places, there are issues with grammar and that the plotline, whilst thoroughly interesting, wasn’t particularly deep or moving. As such, I would recommend reading this book if you are looking to get into reading or if your brain needs a break. This book is a slap in the face and a hug, perfect to read whilst curling up with a blanket and a hot drink.



The Courage To Be Disliked

Irchiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

[Image description: A white cover with a red coffe stain-like shape in red in the middle. The title is in the circle with the description ‘How to free yourself, change your life and achieve real happiness’ under it.]

Review by Emily Bourne.

Right. How do I say this? Self-help books? Generally bogus. But… this book was brilliant! If somebody had told me I would be recommending a self-help book written by two men half a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed them!

For this book, I really think it’s a take it or leave it type thing - for me, I loved and agreed with it, but someone else might read it and think that it’s something just to fill the time while you’re on the toilet. Let me tell you why I loved it:

This book takes the form of a dialogue between a young man and a wise, old philosopher. Based on Adler's philosophy, this open dialogue teaches the root of so many life problems, which I’ll let you discover for yourself.

Anyway, I could yap all day about things I've learned from this book. But, really, we all sort of knew the things that are said in this book deep down. The text just articulates things you’ve recognised in your own life, and displays them in front of you waiting for you to acknowledge them.


A Man Called Ove

Fredrik Backman


[Image description: The front cover has an illustration of a man with his back to us, stood on green grass, with a blue sky surrounding him. Behind him is a cat with it’s face to us. ‘A Man Called Ove’ is written over the illustration in white. The author’s name is at the top: Fredrik Backman’.]

Review By Iren Şerbetcioğlu

Although A Man Called Ove is universally praised, I was still very sceptical when approaching it. It was what I believed to be the premise that turned me off: A grumpy old boomer complains about random stuff for nearly 350 pages. Or so I thought it was. Don’t get me wrong, it definitely is that. However, this novel also turned out to be one of the most touching, heart-felt and funny meditations on grief I have ever read.

The way Backman establishes the characters and their voices is remarkable. With every line you read, you can clearly hear which one of the characters it belongs to. The characters, although at first may seem like caricatures, are so fleshed out that they are almost bursting from the pages. 

And do you know what the most impressive part is? This book got me to care about cars! 17 years on this earth and countless dudes who worship cars have tried to convince me that cars are in any way shape or form worth paying attention to- and failed miserably. This book is filled to the brim with car lingo and I never once got bored. The whole allegory is tied perfectly to the story and adds incredible depth. If that does not make you want to read it, I don’t know what will honestly. 

If you ever feel like reading something light but also heart-breaking, this found family story is the book for you. I won’t lie to you, the book was covered with tears by the time I finished it. However, it also kissed my forehead and read me a good night story and tucked me to bed safe and sound. I hope this review makes any sense whatsoever but this was basically the mental state this book put me in. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.


Until next time,

Risen Zine’s Lit Club:

Emily Bourne, Megan Scarbie, Kseniia, Tyra Wilson, Iren Serbetcioglu, Joselyn Effio, Nimgun and Aiden Tsen.