Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: The End

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 will be announced this evening! This is a short summary post. My round-up of the whole longlist can be found here.

The book I want to win

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The book I think will win

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(though I’m 50/50 with Girl, Woman, Other, this is who I’d bet on if I was asked to bet).

The book I least want to win

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My overall ranking of the shortlist, with links to my reviews

  1. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill
  4. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  5. Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  6. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

Who do you think will win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020? And who do you want to win?

Update: And the winner is…

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Called it! I predicted this result because:

  • The Mirror and The Light is probably going to win the Booker, and Girl, Woman, Other has already won the Booker, so the Women’s Prize want a book they can call their own, especially after Hamnet didn’t make the Booker longlist.
  • I didn’t see any of the other three books on the shortlist as plausible options, even though I personally liked Weather a lot more than this one.
  • Hamnet is timely (plague!) and allows the Women’s Prize to make up for having unfairly neglected Maggie O’Farrell all these years.

My feelings: chuffed that I guessed right, sad that O’Farrell has won for what I think is one of the weakest of her novels, pleased that she has been recognised as she’s generally a writer I rate, and baffled that (even given the political considerations above) that anyone could think this is better than The Mirror and the Light.

Two Recent Reading Recommendations

Two very different debut novels that I have just read and would recommend!

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Cara is a traverser, able to hop between particular parallel universes and bring back valuable data that will inform the development of her own world. The catch is that you can only travel into parallel universes where you are no longer alive, and Cara is especially valuable to the company she works for because she is dead in so many. This technological quirk reverses normal social hierarchies, making people like Cara who have always lived life on the outskirts suddenly significant to those in power. However, Cara’s knowledge of her many deaths also underlines the fragility of her current existence as a black bisexual woman with limited resources who lacks citizenship of Wiley City, hailing instead from the wastelands outside its walls. The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson’s debut, uses this device to resonate with what we know about how little the lives of men and women of colour are valued in many supposedly advanced countries today, and also explores how her own specific knowledge shapes Cara’s attitude to herself. Nursing a throat injury, she thinks ‘The worst part isn’t the pain: it’s the familiarity. It’s how many times I’ve felt this before and how many times I’ve sworn I would never feel it again.’

The Space Between Worlds also made me think about how knowing about the paths taken by your alternate selves would shape your own self-image. Some of Cara’s selves have done things that she considers morally wrong; does this mean that she has to rethink her sense of her own moral compass, or have they diverged so far from her that their actions mean nothing? Has Cara’s hard upbringing made her more vulnerable to having these kinds of selves, or would we all want to distance ourselves from some of our other versions if we knew about them? Johnson plots well, taking the reader down a twisty, complex path without losing them along the way, and she makes good emotional capital out of the ways in which Cara’s jumps between worlds fracture her relationship with Dell, a female co-worker whom she’s strongly attracted to but who seems to have written her off because of her background. There were certain elements of this novel – principally, the tidy split between Wiley City and the wastelands, and the psychopathic corporate villain – that felt a little YA-ish to me, but Johnson largely steers clear of simplistic narratives. Recommended for those who enjoyed Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel and Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

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Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke is billed as a thriller, but is probably better described as literary fiction; I found that there were a number of genuinely unexpected moments, but these can’t exactly be classified as the kind of twists that genre novels demand. Rachel’s relationship with her fifteen-year-old daughter Mia is already under strain when Mia’s best friend Lily goes missing. We soon discover that Lily has not been abducted, but has gone of her own accord, sending shockwaves through the school where Rachel teaches, and where she’s been closely involved in directing a production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, with Lily cast as the fragile Laura. Rachel finds her fears about her own daughter’s progress towards adulthood intensifying, but at the same time, she is pulled back irresistibly to her own adolescence, which was not marked by ‘sweet perfume… in a crystal star’ but black eyeliner and ripped tights. She becomes obsessed with how her own ageing body contrasts with her daughter’s effortless youth. (Cleverly, Barkworth only gives us one clue about what Rachel feels she’s missed out on; at a dinner party, as the guests talk about why they chose their teaching careers, Rachel admits ‘I thought I’d be something quite different’, then refuses to elaborate. ‘Don’t play it down, Rach’, her husband interjects. ‘Rachel was going to be a rock star, she was in a pretty successful band’. We know nothing else about what happened.)

Given this, even though the subject-matter of this novel is very close to that of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa (which I haven’t read), it reminded me most strongly of Zoe Heller’s Notes on A Scandal – indeed, there is a climatic dressing-up scene that feels like a deliberate homage, but is, if anything, even more powerful. Barkworth treats this difficult and controversial material delicately. This book explores the dual set of narratives we impose on teenagers – especially teenage girls but also teenage boys – and how our ‘cult of youth’ is only harmful to actual adolescents. Rachel, alongside some of the other adults in the novel, meditates on Lily’s vulnerability and childlikeness, allowing this to feed a righteous fury, while at the same time constantly thinking about how sexy and confident other girls Lily’s age are. She describes Mia’s boyfriend as ‘physically a man, even if not legally’ while at the same time framing him firmly as an adolescent with no self-awareness: ‘It seemed odd that her poised daughter was drawn in by this lumpen ox.’ The ending of the novel unsurprisingly emphasises how much Rachel doesn’t know about her daughter, but rather than the traditional twist that unveils how hedonistic, dangerous and thoughtless her daughter’s life really is, Mia is revealed to us as kinder, braver and more serious than Rachel expected. Totally gripping, but also very thought-provoking.

If either of these debuts appeal, you can buy The Space Between Worlds here and Heatstroke here. Heatstroke is also currently on a 99p ebook deal.

‘We could always blame the stars’

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Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, The Pull of the Stars, is set over three days in Dublin during the 1918 flu pandemic. Its narrator, Julia Power, is a nurse tasked with caring for pregnant women who have come down with influenza, as it’s known that these patients can be hit especially hard by the disease and that it may also lead to early delivery. Overcome with the amount of work, she requests and is sent a volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney, who seems to know mysteriously little about the world but is very quick to learn. A new doctor is also assigned to oversee the ward: Kathleen Lynn, a real historical figure who was a Sinn Féin politician as well as its director of public health, and had been arrested in the Easter Rising of 1916. Reviewers have stressed how eerily timely The Pull of the Stars is (Donoghue was finishing her final edits on the novel when Covid-19 became a serious concern), but, funnily enough, I found it so immersive that I forgot to make connections between this historical pandemic and our contemporary situation, except in a couple of obvious moments where Julia is reading public health notices that stress keeping away from crowded venues. The power of this novel, for me, wasn’t because it has anything particular to say about Covid-19 but because of how well it works within the very narrow constraints it sets itself.

Unlike many readers, I wasn’t entirely won over by Donoghue’s Room, although I loved some of her earlier work; but, with The Wonder, Akin and now The Pull of the Stars, I think she’s become one of the writers who I’ll always follow with interest. The Pull of the Stars reminded me vividly of Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch[highlight for spoiler] not because of its lesbian content but [end spoiler] because both novelists use precise historical detail to patiently evoke the experience of living during an extraordinary time. While Waters’ WWII-set novel technically covers a number of years, the longest central section is a set-piece that focuses on a single night during the Blitz, and one of the characters is a female ambulance driver dealing with bomb casualties. In the same way, although in a different time and place, Donoghue brings to life the small routines of life on a ward as well as the horrifying stories of Julia’s patients. While I’m not familiar with Irish sources from the early twentieth century, their medical histories reminded me of similar accounts from England, although in that country the particular pressures imposed by Catholicism were largely absent. In 1915, the Women’s Co-Operative Guild published Maternity: Letters From Working Womenwhich collected narratives from English Guild members that graphically describe how they have been worn out by persistent childbearing alongside work and childcare. Donoghue repeats a chilling if potentially apocryphal saying in The Pull of the Stars: She doesn’t love him unless she gives him twelve.’ The Pull of the Stars might seem unnecessarily shocking in its depiction of the suffering of these women, but Maternity indicates that Donoghue is simply drawing from history.

Two of Donoghue’s other narrative choices have come in for criticism from reviewers: because I think that both of these constitute spoilers for the novel, I suggest you skip the next section [marked by two sets of asterisks] unless you want to find out what happened or you have already read the book.

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In the last quarter or so of The Pull of the Stars, Julia finds herself abruptly falling for Bridie. A number of Goodreads reviewers seem to think this came out of nowhere, but I don’t agree; in fact, I thought Donoghue cleverly seeded this twist from the moment that Bridie is introduced, but allowed us to recognise Julia’s feelings just as she clocks them herself. It made sense to me that, given the society she lives in, Julia wouldn’t initially allow herself to register her attraction to Bridie, but what Donoghue does do is make Bridie incredibly attractive to us, the readers, even as we forget that we’re seeing this through Julia’s eyes. This continued to the extent that I started to think that Bridie was being overly idealised; then the penny dropped. Far from being ‘tacked on’, I thought this romantic sub-plot was absolutely necessary for the emotional power of The Pull of the Stars, and key to its central conceit of how we are driven by forces we don’t always understand.

While I was predisposed to like this twist, the ending of The Pull of the Stars uses one of the tropes I usually hate in fiction: a happily childless woman who has never expressed much interest in motherhood before ending up with a baby. Sarah Moss criticised this in her Guardian review, writing that ‘I found this novel admirable right up to the final chapters, when it veers into a disappointing cliche.’ Weirdly enough, however, The Pull of the Stars might be the one novel where this trope worked for me, although I still think the prevalence of it in fiction is a problem. Thinking it over, I felt that the book was so bleak that it had to end with a fragment of hope, and while there were probably other ways to supply that hope, they might not have been as historically plausible (I would have loved to see Julia team up with Kathleen Lynn and her female partner when they opened their free clinic and then a children’s hospital, but this wouldn’t have worked within the tight timeline of the novel). I was also glad that Julia adopted a baby rather than randomly getting pregnant herself, which made the choice seem less about ‘maternal instinct’ and more about trying to break the cycle of abuse she’s witnessed. So I’m giving Donoghue a bit of a pass for this one, especially as she doesn’t have form for resorting to convention.

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In short: this is a brief novel that works incredibly well, and which has much more to offer than a reflection of the Covid-19 pandemic. Beautiful, moving work by Emma Donoghue.

20 Books of Summer 2020: A Retrospective

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20 Books of Summer 2020 is over, and I read all of my 20 books – helped a lot this time by choosing books that I needed to read anyway!

What did I think of the books I read? [Links are to my reviews]. I’ll group them in the same way as I did in 2018 and 2019. This time, the absolute standouts were The Mercies, Swamplandia! and New Waves. All will be strong contenders for my books of the year.

In the second tier are Summerwater, Brixton Hill, The Vanishing Half, Tiamat’s WrathSurfacing and The Maths of Life and DeathNone of these absolutely blew me away, but they’re still very good books that I’d strongly recommend.

As before, there were a number of books that I enjoyed but about which I had reservations, ranging from more to less serious. These were The Terror, Blue TicketYou Will Never Be Forgotten, A Children’s Bible, If I Had Your Face, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead and The Fens.

Finally, there were the outright disappointments: The Road Home, The Disaster Tourist, Home Remedies and Notes From The Bottom of the World.

These divisions are pretty much identical to 2019, making me wonder if they would hold true for any given set of 20 books I might read! I found the challenge easier this year, though, than any previous year, because I picked books I already owned but not books that had been sitting in a TBR pile for a long time already (went on a bit of a book-buying spree at the start of lockdown, not helped by publishers sticking everything on NetGalley!)

Will I do 20 Books of Summer again next year? Yes, but I really want to do what I’d planned to do this year, and make it a re-reading challenge. Next year, I’m hoping to have moved into a bigger place and finally be reunited with all my books, making this plan much more possible 🤞

Did you do 20 Books of Summer this year? How did it go?

20 Books of Summer, #19 and #20: Home Remedies and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

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Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection of short stories, Home Remedies, was on my list of books to read in 2020. The collection is split into three sections, ‘Family’, ‘Love’ and ‘Time’, though I wasn’t sure this division was necessary, as while the stories do fall into certain groups, they don’t mirror these themes. Wang showcases her versatility by writing in a number of different registers. One lot of stories – ‘Days of Being Mild’ – ‘Fuerdai to the Max’ – are told in first-person and focus on young Chinese people living either in China or in the US who are pursuing the kind of unfocused millennial existence that has been explored in a fair amount of fiction, living in large houseshares, making art and having messy relationships. Another lot – ‘Mott Street in July’ – ‘White Tiger of the West’ – adopt a more distant third-person register and explore generational dynamics with reference to more traditional Chinese ways of life. We also have a couple with the kind of cutesy, clever titles that I can’t deal with at all – ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening-Ailments’ – ‘Algorithmic Problem-Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships’ – that impose certain structures, such as a list of remedies or algorithms, on their narratives in a way that looks clever but always ends up being so reductive. It’s not surprising that the best story in the collection, ‘Vaulting the Sea’, which considers the relationship between two young male synchronised divers who represent China in international competitions, doesn’t fit into any of these slots. However, although I appreciated its sympathetic development of one young man’s feelings for the other, it concludes with an image that underlines the symbolism of the story far too obviously. This sits in contrast to the majority of the stories in this collection, which go too far the other way and simply trail off with no sense of resolution. I really wanted to like this more, and I know several bloggers whose opinions I trust are big fans, but I found it bland and disappointing.

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Olga Tokarczuk’s seventh novel, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, attracted a shed-load of positive critical attention from English-speaking reviewers and bloggers after its translation into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in 2019 (it was originally published in Polish in 2009). Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize for Literature win in 2018 meant her literary stardom was assured. Drive Your Plow… is an undoubtedly bizarre novel held together by an incredible narrative voice. Our narrator is Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman living in an isolated Polish village; when her neighbour is murdered in the middle of winter, she sets out to discover the reasons behind his death. However, this is no murder mystery but a much more metaphysical exploration of questions about what makes us human. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of novel that I will just never get on with personally, even though I was tempted into trying it by the glowing reviews. I loved how vividly Janina was drawn but found the whole enterprise too surreal and disparate to really commit to this fictional world. The folk-tale feel of the first chapter was also more evocative for me, and I felt further distanced when Janina comes into crunching contact with modernity a bit later on. Drive Your Plow… is a divisive read, but it’s an impressive novel that must also have been horribly difficult to translate. And at least I’ve read something that counts towards #WomenInTranslation month!

20 Books of Summer is almost over! How are you getting on with the challenge, if you decided to do it?

I’ll post my usual 20 Books of Summer retrospective on Tuesday 1st of September.

20 Books of Summer, #17 and #18: New Waves and The Fens

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Kevin Nguyen’s debut New Waves was one of my most anticipated new releases of 2020, and it didn’t disappoint, even though the novel I read turned out to be a very different novel from the one the blurb led me to expect. New Waves was billed as fast-paced and satirical, featuring a black woman, Margo, and a Vietnamese man, Lucas, who team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long. While that’s certainly where the story starts, this hook doesn’t have much to do with where it goes after that. Nevertheless, as it turned out, New Waves fits right into a sub-genre that I’ve only just realised I love: literary fiction about fascinatingly opaque characters whom we learn about solely through the viewpoints of their friends and the technological or artistic remnants they leave behind (see also: Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted). Which is to say that this novel is all about Margo, tech genius and science fiction short story writer, even though she dies in a random accident in its first few pages. Grieving the loss of his best friend, Lucas hunts through her laptop, and while he doesn’t exactly come across revelations that overturn everything he knows about Margo, he definitely finds things that switch that knowledge onto new tracks. New Waves is so smart about race and gender, but it also has a lot to say about how both people and programmes tend to add up data in a way that makes sense to them. Margo’s short stories are nihilistic, refusing to organise themselves in any way that allows a happy ending, but her actual presence in Lucas’s life was relentlessly optimistic. Because we never hear from her directly (other than in the typed and spoken material she left behind, which is more about her fiction than about her), we are left to make up our own minds about a lot of loose ends. What kind of person was she deep down? What did she really think about Lucas? This novel will probably drive some readers to distraction, but I loved it.

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Francis Pryor is an archaeologist who specialises in the study of the British Bronze and Iron Ages. The Fens: Discovering England’s Ancient Depths traces the history of this particular English region from prehistoric times to the present day, interspersing Pryor’s personal experiences on particular digs and his memories of living in the fenland with an archaeologist’s view of how and why the fens have developed and changed. Unsurprisingly, given Pryor’s area of specialism, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up this book, the bulk of the material is prehistoric; the medieval fens, which is the period I’m personally most interested in, barely get a look in, and what he does say about medieval power relationships is pretty simplistic from a historian’s point of view. Pryor is, when it comes down to it, more interested in the evolution of technologies, buildings and settlements than in social and political history, and fair enough if that’s your kind of thing. However, I did feel this would struggle to appeal beyond a relatively narrow audience. It’s very long, goes off on a lot of tangents, and Pryor’s writing is clear but no more than that. Certainly, the autobiographical elements of this book don’t add very much, although it promises to discuss a more emotional relationship with landscape. If you’ve lived in the fens, there will be something to interest you here, but it might not be enough to engage you for the whole 400+ pages; I read the first four chapters and then skipped to the chapters that particularly appealed to me.

I’ve made a second and final substitution in my 20 Books of Summer; unfortunately, my NetGalley copy of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain was so badly formatted it was unreadable (not the first time), so I’ve subbed in Xuan Juliana Wang’s collection of short stories Home Remedies, which was on my list of books to read in 2020.

20 Books of Summer, #16: Blue Ticket

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Sophie Mackintosh’s second novel, Blue Ticket, one of my most anticipated books of 2020, is billed as a feminist dystopia where adolescent girls are assigned either a blue or white ticket once they get their first period. ‘White tickets’ are required to seek out a solid heterosexual relationship and give birth to children, whereas ‘blue tickets’ are released on a path of uncertain freedoms, assigned to jobs that are deemed to suit them but able to control their personal lives – as long as they never get pregnant. Predictably enough, our protagonist, Calla, is a ‘blue ticket’ who has never especially questioned the system until she begins to realise how much she wants to be a mother. When she becomes pregnant, she flees the city for the wilderness outside, and travels in hope of reaching the ‘border’ to embark on a new life in a different country that doesn’t have the same rules. The first half or so of Blue Ticket, therefore, despite Mackintosh’s sharp writing, feels like YA with weak worldbuilding crossed with the kind of literary novel that Fatma has brilliantly termed ‘Dysfunctional Women Being Dysfunctional’, as Calla careers blindly through her life and we learn very little about how this system works or why it exists.

To my surprise, however, once Calla is firmly established as a fugitive, Blue Ticket becomes a rather different and more interesting book. What began to emerge for me is that Mackintosh is just not interested in writing an actual dystopia or even realist fiction. The female life-cycle that she depicts is, instead, far more stylised and symbolic: at puberty, Calla and the other ‘blue ticket’ girls were required to set off alone on the road to make their way to their new lives, and it is this common experience that comes to define them. As another woman says to Calla, ‘You need to let yourself remember how you did it before… The system has failed us. But our bodies got us here the first time.’ Calla’s flight, therefore, feels less like the typical rebellion of a dystopian heroine but a preordained step in a folktale, especially with the sense that the authorities know what she’s doing all the time. Once the story settles like this, it has moments when it becomes mesmerising. I was especially struck by how Mackintosh makes motherhood weird and fresh again once we see it through the eyes of the ‘blue ticket’ women, who don’t have the inherited knowledge that we take for granted: ‘She turned back and I realised that the baby was attached to her nipple, its mouth locked on to her flesh. I thought about the heaviness of my breasts, hard and blue when I undressed, and it made a terrible new sense.’

Because of its long uncertainty about the kind of book it wants to be, Blue Ticket doesn’t live up to its potential: I wished there had been more about how the ticket system shaped these women’s emotional lives, and that Mackintosh had begun the story with Calla’s decision, allowing us to spend more time with the community she builds outside the city walls. Nevertheless, I was impressed by Mackintosh’s prose, especially on childbirth – in labour, Calla goes ‘up the ladder of the pain, rung by rung’ and, having heard tales of PND, fears that, afterwards, ‘my brain was loosening in my skull’ – and I’d read more by her.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 27th August.

A 20 Books of Summer update: I’ve decided that there’s no way I’m going to get through a 500 page + Anglo-Saxon historical epic by the end of August, and so I’ve used one of my two official substitutions to swap out Nicola Griffith’s Hild for Kevin Nguyen’s New Waves, which was also one of my most anticipated books of 2020. I’ll definitely still be reading Hild, though, hopefully in September.

Random Late Summer Non-Fiction Reading

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Perhaps I was always going to have unfair expectations of Gabrielle Moss’s Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of 80s and 90s Teen Fiction, which is a broad survey of a lot of the US middle grade and YA fiction published in these two decades. I don’t research children’s lit or YA at the moment (though watch this space for a super secret exciting project coming soon!!*), but I’ve read enough on the topic to know that there’s scholarly work on this that Moss doesn’t engage with. However, having said that, I think I would have been happy enough with a shallow analysis of publishing trends and genre history if Moss had really seemed to know and love the books that she’s writing about. And while there are exceptions – she’s clearly a big Christopher Pike fan and gives a welcome shout-out to The Midnight Club, also my favourite Pike – she doesn’t really manage to convey her enthusiasm. Here, Moss isn’t well served by the explosion of blogs and online articles that so intelligently and hilariously dissect 80s and 90s mass market paperbacks aimed at this age group. Why would you read Moss on Lurlene McDaniel when you could read Somewhere Between YA Lit and Death? Or on Sweet Valley High when we have 1bruce1 AND Double Love? On the Baby-Sitters’ Club when we have 3_foot_6’s recaps on bsc_snark? On Point Horror when we have Teenage Scream? Or on this era at all when we have Frankie Thomas’s YA of Yore series in The Paris Review? So as I say, a bit unfair – Moss clearly did not have the page space to be able to go into the same amount of depth – but I guess I think this would have worked better if it had focused on a handful of Moss’s own favourite series rather than trying to cover everything (which it can’t, and doesn’t, anyway). The book is worth it for the hilarious full-colour reproductions of 1980s and 1990s book covers alone, however. And for any other 90s kids, I’m sorry not sorry if I just sent you down a rabbit hole with any of those links.

*maybe temper your expectations, unless you are really into 90s/early 00s middle grade US SF

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Recent Cambridge graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi wrote Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change for other black girls like them trying to navigate the still very white spaces of the British university system. However, it’s an important read for anyone who is involved in education in any way, shape or form. The topics covered – institutional racism, white curriculums, mental health, dating – are not obviously different from a number of other books on race and gender in modern Britain, but Kwakye and Ogunbiyi’s specific perspectives as young black women are hugely valuable. Having taught black students at both Oxford and Cambridge, this book made me further reflect on my own practice, sometimes uncomfortably, especially when Kwakye and Ogunbiyi discuss how they felt at times that less was expected of them because they are black women. At a conscious level, I know that I don’t expect less of black female students, but, especially in the one-to-one and one-to-two supervision/tutorial contexts of Cambridge and Oxford, we as supervisors/tutors are constantly making judgment calls about how to interact with students. Do you aggressively press a counter-argument in the hope that this will inspire the student to defend their own case, or should you talk through other interpretations more collaboratively so you don’t make them feel attacked? For obvious reasons, I’ll tread more carefully if I feel that students, of whatever race or gender, seem under-confident or uncertain, but as I’ve reflected in the past, it’s hard to judge whether these snap judgments are influenced by unconscious bias. On the other hand, Kwakye and Ogunbiyi point out that authority figures and peers can go too far the other way, assuming that they are invulnerable because they are ‘strong black women’, and not allowing them space to care for their own wellbeing. This opposing trope reminds the reader that improving black women’s experience of education is a continuous and challenging process of attaining balance in the context of a racist society.

20 Books of Summer, #14 and #15: The Mercies and The Terror

After a series of random mismatched 20 Books of Summer posts, I am perhaps unreasonably pleased that I’ve finally managed to bring together two historical novels that share undoubted thematic similarities, despite some equally obvious differences. Both are set in the far and freezing north; both feature characters in small communities beset by threats from outside that raise superstitious fears; both feature uneasy interactions between white Europeans and local indigenous people; and both are full of violence and death. Neither, therefore, is the best summer read, but as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of summer, I didn’t find that to be a problem 🌞

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel, The Mercies, is set on a tiny island off the Norwegian coast in the early seventeenth century. When an unexpected storm sweeps in and kills almost all of the island’s men, the women are left to fend for themselves, and are managing well enough when a commissioner from Scotland, steeped in King James VI and I’s writings on witchfinding, is dispatched from the mainland to root out suspected sorcery in this isolated community. Threaded through this series of real historical events is the story of two women: Maren, one of the islanders, who is trying to handle the breakdown of the relationship between her mother and Sámi sister-in-law, and Ursa, the commissioner’s unhappy wife. Hargrave warmly conveys the way in which these very different women come to trust and love each other, as Maren teaches Ursa basic skills such as baking and butchering that she never had cause to learn before. While the pace of this novel is deliberately meditative, the building tensions within the wider community of women are exceptionally well-conveyed, with their common experience of grief proving to be divisive as they find different ways of coping with the tragedy.

The Mercies has an unapologetically feminist focus, and it’s this perhaps that sets it apart from the many, many novels I’ve read that deal with witchcraft accusations in isolated communities in both the early American colonies and across Europe (Corrag/Witch Light by Susan Fletcher; The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent). This isn’t to say that these other fictions aren’t conscious of gender inequality, because they are, but The Mercies is both more brutal and more beautiful in its depiction of the position of women under patriarchy. Hargrave vividly depicts Ursa’s humiliating marriage and the abuse faced by the village women who break out of traditional roles to take to the fishing boats after the loss of their men. She gives her story time to breathe before tightening the screws at the end, and while some readers may think this makes the book too slow, I thought this decision was necessary to ensure that we truly care about these characters before they meet their fates. While I clocked that this book plays into a trope that is much too common [highlight for spoiler] bury your gays [end spoiler], I did think that Hargrave made the right kind of choice for the story she was telling, although she could have softened this somewhat by [highlight for spoiler] not killing Maren [end spoiler]. This confident and moving novel bodes well for Hargrave’s future in adult fiction.

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Dan Simmons’s The Terror tells the story of John Franklin’s infamous ‘lost expedition’ (1845-8), a voyage of exploration that intended to chart the Arctic Northwest Passage but from which none of the men ever returned. The fate of Franklin’s expedition attracted a fair amount of attention at the time, especially given the (later verified) rumours of cannibalism among some of the crew and the single, confusing note that survives from one of the copper cairns where Franklin was meant to leave regular reports of his progress. Simmons starts his story after Franklin’s death, during the period when the expedition’s two ships, Erebus and Terror, were still stuck fast in pack ice off King William Island. Nineteenth-century Arctic expeditions relied on building ships that could survive a winter or more marooned in this way, but Franklin’s party ran into particular trouble. Not only did two winters pass with little sign of the pack ice loosening enough for them to sail in the intervening warmer periods, but much of the tinned food they had packed was found to have been poorly sealed, and became poisonous. Along with the weakening of the ascorbic acid in their stores of lemon juice over time, scurvy became a major problem for the crew, alongside other horrific ailments such as frostbite.

Not content with allowing his characters to deal with these trials, Simmons introduces a supernatural element into the mix. Both ships are being stalked by a mysterious white creature that is far taller and more deadly than a polar bear, and which kills men without warning. The Terror switches between more mundane struggles for survival and the fear induced by this monster, but these two plots don’t properly dovetail until the men leave their stricken ships and begin hauling sledges overland to reach a new stock of supplies at one of their base camps, about two-thirds of the way through the narrative. For me, it was only at this point that the novel became truly gripping, which is a bit of an ask given that it’s almost a thousand pages long. Nevertheless, Simmons serves up brilliant set-piece after brilliant set-piece in the first two-thirds, so if you can deal with the lack of narrative pull and are attracted by the blurb, you’re still likely to get a lot out of this book. Two particular stand-outs are a terrifying action scene where one of the ship’s ‘ice masters’ has to climb and leap through the rigging to evade the monster, and a garish ‘Carnivale’ that the men hold on the ice, complete with tents made of sailcloth dyed of different colours, that predictably ends in carnage.

Simmons’s account of being an explorer in the coldest regions of the Earth is the best fictional recreation I’ve ever read, summoning up memories of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s hellish memoir of his Antarctic experience, The Worst Journey in the World, and, through this, he fully captures the absurdity of the colonial mindset that led white men to ship bad canned food to the furthest corners of the globe rather than recognising the skills that allow native people to survive there. There’s absolutely no way that this book needed to be as long as it is for Simmons to achieve what he wanted with it; however, it’s not a story that I’ll forget in a hurry.

Blog Stats and Random Search Hits

I loved Rebecca’s and Annabel’s posts on their blog stats, and so have written a short one of my own!

My most popular posts, sadly, have nothing to do with the main purpose of this blog but are all related to the academic job market. My best-performing post of all time is Interviews, Part One: Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) with a whopping 6559 views to date. I know that this post has been linked on a number of other blogs and academic careers resources.

If we exclude everything on academic careers, my top three posts of all time are:

  1. Laura Rereading: ‘I belong to him’. (1041 views) This post unpicks the romantic relationships in L.M. Montgomery’s classic Emily of New Moon trilogy and argues that both of Emily’s principal romantic entanglements, with Dean Priest and Teddy Kent, can be seen as dangerously obsessive. A LOT of people find my blog by searching things like ‘teddy kent vs dean priest’ so this is obviously still a live issue!
  2. ‘Because they could’. (925 views) My review of Naomi Alderman’s The Power sparked a lot of debate. It remains my only review that has received a comment from the author and I just discovered that it has been cited in an academic paper!
  3. Unravelling. (491 views) I was really proud of this review of Alys Fowler’s memoir Hidden Nature, which meant a great deal to me personally, so I’m pleased to see that it has had a decent number of hits.

I also had a look at the search terms people use to find my blog and have compiled some favourites:

Most recent search term: why is fiction important

Most bizarre search term: dr log splitter

Most satisfying search term: childhood newcastle university laura tisdall

Most frequent search terms: junior research fellowship interview questions; not getting shortlisted for lectureships; #100daysofwriting

Search terms where the searcher was most likely to be disappointed: uplifting pix for my families; nightwaking sex.com; why I dont like the handmaids tale

If you look at the books people are interested in, there are a few that come up again and again:

  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (usually people hunting for spoilers!)
  • Brixton Hill by Lottie Moggach
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
  • Katy by Jacqueline Wilson
  • The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross (including fab search terms such as ‘could the demon headmaster hypnotise a psychopath’)

What are your most popular blog posts? And has anyone used weird or brilliant search terms to find your blog?