Women’s Prize 2021: Longlist Predictions

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After last year’s disappointing longlist, I’m not going to commit myself to reading all or even most of the books longlisted for the Women’s Prize this year. However, I’m excited by the judging panel, which includes two writers I think will be exceptionally interesting judges – Bernardine Evaristo and Nesrine Malik – so if the Prize manage to pull a really good longlist out of the bag, I’m also not averse to changing my mind.

As ever, these predictions will lean towards books I wish would get longlisted rather than books I think will get longlisted – I’m not trying to get the maximum number correct. Books are eligible for the Prize if they were, or will be, first published in the UK between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021. The Prize will announce the longlist on the 10th March, and it will consist of sixteen books.

My wishlist:

  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. I’m about a third of the way through this at the moment, and I love the complex portrayal of the first-person narrator, Gifty, and the intersection between her doctoral work as a neuroscientist and her family’s Pentecostal religious beliefs.
  • Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley. I loved Mozley’s debut, Elmetand she spoke so interestingly about this novel at an event I went to last year.
  • Little Gods by Meng Jin. I know this has been out in the US for ages, but I think its delayed UK publication date makes it eligible. A fascinating character study of theoretical physicist Su Lan; I reviewed it here.
  • Outlawed by Anna North. From what I’ve heard, this feminist Western is maybe a bit silly for the Prize, but I loved North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark so much that I have to include her newest novel.
  • The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes. On my TBR list for this year – I’m fascinated by the idea of a novel set in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash in Ireland after the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’.
  • The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel. This beautiful and haunting novel very much deserves to be here in its own right, but it would also allow the Prize to make up for longlisting but not shortlisting Station Eleven back in 2015!
  • White Ivy by Susie Yang. This is also probably too light for the Prize, but it sounds like a lot of fun, judging by Fatma’s review.
  • Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan. I’ve been meaning to try more of Fagan’s work for ages after reading The Sunlight Pilgrimsand I love the blurb for this: ‘The devil’s daughter rows to Edinburgh in a coffin, to work as maid for the Minister of Culture, a man who lives a dual life. But the real reason she’s there is to bear him and his barren wife a child, the consequences of which curse the tenement building that is their home for a hundred years. As we travel through the nine floors of the building and the next eight decades, the residents’ lives entwine over the ages and in unpredictable ways.’
  • The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. This totally immersive historical novel about the 1918 flu deserves to be here not because it’s ‘timely’ but because it’s just really good.
  • Kololo Hill by Neema Shah. This debut about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 didn’t blow me away, but it has enough going for it to get longlisted.
  • The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey. After winning the Costa, it’s a toss-up as to whether the Prize will want in on the action with this one or think it’s had enough exposure already. I love the idea of a Caribbean-set mermaid story.
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Every year, I want the Prize to shortlist more science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction; every year, it does not. This might be in with more of a chance because (a) it’s Susanna Clarke and (b) it sounds odd enough not to be pigeonholed by genre.
  • The Yield by Tara June Winch. This is on my TBR; it’s a multigenerational tale of the Wiradjuri people of Australia.
  • Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth. Probably not literary enough for the Prize, but I thought this thriller was so insightful on our attitudes to adolescence.
  • We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan. I’m not especially drawn to this for whatever reason, but it sounds good, and it might be an interesting counterpoint to Kololo Hill, as part of it is set in Uganda in the same period.
  • Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham: ‘Twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike are enjoying a relatively comfortable life in Lagos in 1996. Then their mother loses her job due to political strife and their father gambles away their home.’ I love books about sisters, so this sounds up my street.

What would you like to see longlisted for the Prize? Have I missed anything out? (I know there are a couple of shoo-ins that I deliberately haven’t mentioned, because this is my wishlist!)

Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education: Sunshine and Shadows

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Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, her second immersive folktale retelling, was one of my top ten books of 2020. Her latest novel, A Deadly Education, is both utterly different and equally brilliant. The first in a trilogy, it’s set at the Scholomance, a magical school that takes all the nagging doubts we had about Hogwarts – ‘why are teenagers allowed to attend a school that’s so dangerous?’ – and runs with them. The Scholomance is infested with mals, dangerous magical creatures that want to kill the trainee wizards within, and so constant vigilance is required to see off attacks, whether you’re getting your lunch in the cafeteria or trying to find a book in the library. However, the curriculum itself, which is not taught by teachers but simply manifests for the students to follow, doesn’t help matters. As El, our first-person narrator, explains:

If you don’t complete a shop assignment on time, your unfinished work will animate on the due date and come after you with whatever power you’ve put into it. And if you try and get around that by not putting anything into it, or doing it wrong, the raw materials you should have used all animate separately and come at you. It’s quite a solid teaching technique.

El blithely tells us near the beginning of the novel that the reason teenage wizards fight to get into the Scholomance is that they’re even more vulnerable to mals in the outside world, which neatly dispenses with some obvious objections to this set-up. And while this isn’t a major theme of the book, I liked its unconscious riposte to Lord of the Flies-type assumptions that teenagers would descend into anarchy if left to their own devices; as we see, these adolescents are as capable of constructing a social order as adults, even if it has many of the same class issues.

El, a half-Indian, half-Welsh social outcast, is such a delightful narrator. If you don’t like tangents in your fiction, forget about reading this book now, because a massive proportion of this book is El simply telling us about how the Scholomance works, how its social hierarchies function, and the myriad ways that the students have devised to try and survive to graduation (only a certain proportion of each year group ever make it out). El even manages to shoot off on several digressions while facing a mawmouth, most terrifying of all the mals. However, I adore this kind of narration, and I can’t wait to devour two more books of it. Coincidentally enough, I happened to re-read Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, one of my favourite books of all time, just before I started A Deadly Education, and I’m convinced that Sunshine’s voice was a huge influence on El’s voice. (This theory was lent weight when I found out that Novik stuck a deliberate reference to another McKinley novel into her first folktale retelling, Uprootedclearly, she’s a fan). Sunshine, who is a coffeehouse baker in an alternative version of our world infested with vampires, shares a lot with El; both enthusiastically tell us about the intricacies of their lives even in the face of danger, and both are afraid that they might become evil. But their voices sound similar even on the sentence level, with a lot of second-person address, long sentences, and snark. Here’s El telling us why the Scholomance exists:

We’re a lot harder to get at in here than if we were living out in the wide open, in a yurt for instance. Even enclave kids were getting eaten more often than not before the school was built, and if you’re an indie kid who doesn’t get into the Scholomance, these days your odds of making it to the far side of puberty are one in twenty. One in four is plenty decent odds compared to that. 

And here’s Sunshine telling us about the ninety percent of people who have both sorcerer and demon blood who go insane:

If you were in the ninety percent, it showed up early. Usually. If you weren’t born with a precocious ability to hoist yourself out of your cost and get into really repulsive mischief, the next likeliest time for you to start running amok was in the pre-teen years, when magic-handling kids are apprenticed for their first serious magic-handling training.

This isn’t to say that A Deadly Education is in any way copying off Sunshine. Both books share a concern with being a powerful magic handler who could go bad (and both build this up brilliantly through slightly unreliable first-person narration) and both also feature enchanted objects, like wards and books, that frequently do go bad, but in most other ways their worldbuilding and storylines are very different. And to be honest, most of this probably wouldn’t even occur to you if you haven’t read Sunshine a worryingly large number of times, like me. What I am saying is, if this is a homage, it’s a fantastic one; and if you liked A Deadly Education, you need to read Sunshine IMMEDIATELY. 

A note: when A Deadly Education first came out, it was accused of being racist in this Goodreads review. As a result, one unintentionally racist, but problematic passage was excised from future editions of the book, and Novik apologised. The review makes a number of other claims about why the book is racist, but in my opinion, these additional claims just don’t stand up. A lot of them are factually wrong, while others have been challenged by other readers of colour from the relevant backgrounds (this review discusses Chinese representation, and this review covers Indian representation). I was also interested to read the comments from biracial people on all of these reviews, as one criticism of El is that she is ‘whitewashed’ and disconnected from her Indian heritage – which she absolutely is, but this seems to make sense given that she has been brought up in Wales by her white mother. Overall, the diversity of the Scholomance is pretty surface-level, and exists largely to facilitate world-building – different languages are useful for different spells, for example. This means that the book doesn’t have much to say about race, or the experience of being biracial, but I don’t think it intended to, and given its style and genre, I think Novik, as a white writer, sensibly decided not to tackle these issues. While I totally agree that it’s a problem if this is the only kind of diversity we get in fiction, this is a structural publishing problem rather than an individual book problem; while publishing remains white-dominated, it’s going to be easier to sell this kind of ‘diversity’ to publishers than books by authors of colour.

Feminisms: A Global History by Lucy Delap

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Lucy Delap’s accessible and compelling Feminisms: A Global History does not attempt the impossible task of writing a complete global history of feminism, but instead, picks up on a series of themes in feminist history, ranging from ‘dreams’ to ‘dress’ to ‘actions’, and draws from modern feminist activists and movements to explore how feminist thought and action was shaped internationally. Delap deliberately uses the term ‘feminisms’ rather than feminism to emphasise the multiplicity of women’s movements across the globe, and also frames this as ‘mosaic feminism’ – women may have been using some of the same inherited pieces, but they formed different patterns. And indeed, the very first chapter emphasises that one big problem for contemporary feminism might be the inability to accommodate disagreement, citing feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young: ‘we need to wake up to the challenge of understanding across difference rather than keep on dreaming about common dreams’. Not all the activists Delap writes about would even have called themselves feminists, but they still contributed to a wider history of political action that centred women’s needs.

What I found so valuable about Delap’s approach to writing about global feminisms was that non-Western feminisms are not treated simply as an ‘add-on’ to more familiar Western histories – we aren’t simply told that there were also feminist activists and organisations elsewhere. Instead, Delap illuminates how African, Latin American and Asian feminists transformed feminist thought and challenged Western priorities. The Bengali writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain published her utopian text Sultana’s Dream in 1905, which depicted ‘Ladyland’, a world where women and men could interact as equals through ‘sacred’ relations that had no sexual connotations; this envisaged women’s liberation through ‘the abandonment of sexual links to men’, a vision that we might more commonly associate with ‘political lesbianism’ in Britain and the USA in the 1970s. In the early twentieth century, there was also an active Chinese feminist movement, with women in some Chinese provinces gaining the vote by 1912, well ahead of many Western counterparts, and the word nannü starting to be used to indicate a ‘sexed system of social organisation’, or something like what we might call patriarchy. Meanwhile, the Egyptian activist Huda Sha’arawi organised women in the 1919 protests against British rule; her decision to unveil in public in 1923 was celebrated by Europeans, but Sha’arawi herself did not see this as particularly important, and, in fact, mocked ‘the veil of ignorance’ that Western women wore, unable to see Egyptian women clearly because of orientalist stereotypes.

Delap also shows how ideas were exchanged, translated and repurposed in global contexts. The famous US second-wave feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves (1970), which encouraged women to look after their health and celebrate their sexuality, was reproduced and reworked in different settings. In Bulgaria, it was retitled Our Body, Ourselves, to emphasise individualism after the fall of the communist state, whereas in Latin America the text was framed with more of a focus on traditional community settings. The phrase ‘the personal is political’, coined by US feminist Carol Hanisch, was influenced both by the Black Power practice of ‘telling it like it is’ and Hanisch’s reading of French feminist Claudie Broyelle’s Half the Sky (1973), which stressed the autonomy of women in Communist China to voice and act on their emotions through the Maoist idea of ‘speaking bitterness’. (Broyelle wrote a follow-up to this work in 1980, admitting it had been a ‘day-dream’ as reports of the violent oppression of women in China continued to emerge.) However, Feminisms does not just trace the histories of familiar Western touchstones but introduces new ones, such as the memorable phrase used by Japanese activist Kishida Toshiko in 1883, who publicly spoke of her anger at how women had to live their lives in close confinement, saying that raising daughters in such an environment was like ‘trying to grow flowers in salt’.

Feminisms is primarily concerned with the intersections of gender, race and class rather than sexuality or gender identity, although it does touch on the issues faced by lesbians and trans women who tried to engage with second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Delap writes briefly about how sex and gender might have been understood more fluidly in certain African countries before colonialist binaries were imposed, citing the work of Ifi Amadiume and Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí. Amadiume has argued that age hierarchies were more important than gender hierarchies in the organisation of some African societies, allowing women to adopt more powerful roles such as ‘female husband’. However, it is obviously impossible to cover everything in a single book, and I had the sense that Delap had been led by the priorities of many of the activists she considers, who, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were often focused on colonial or class oppression. In 1975, Bolivian tin miner’s wife Domitila Barrios de Chúngara confronted the US feminist Betty Friedan at a meeting in Mexico City, which revealed the perceived gulf between their ideas of feminism: Barrios de Chúngara was an experienced union activist who worked alongside men, and thought gringa feminism was ‘a lesbian-dominated war against men’. (Friedan had actually been instrumental in banning lesbians from the US National Organisation for Women’s New York chapter in 1970, so likely shared this hostility).

Obviously, a book like this can never be more than a starting-point for the huge histories it touches upon, but this is an incredibly thought-provoking take on some of the questions we should be asking when we think about global histories of feminism.

I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Finishing Up With February ARCs

These three solid debut novels mark the end of my glut of February ARCs! My first post on February releases can be found here.

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I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Layden’s All Girls, although I recognised that the book has some issues which may be more of a turn-off for other readers. All Girls is set during the academic year 2015-16 at a New England prep school where a former student has recently accused one of the teachers of sexually assaulting her. However, All Girls is not really focused on the details of the accusation, but rather how it impacts the school’s current students, and their developing ideas of how to navigate in the world as young women who are never quite taken seriously. It’s narrated through nine different third-person perspectives (plus a bit of head-hopping in the final section), as we meet a range of girls from different grades, from awkward new freshman Lauren to jaded ex-ballet dancer Sloane to lesbian Emma, a senior whose long-term relationship with her mixed-race girlfriend Olivia has become iconic in the school.

While the characters sometimes become hard to keep track of, I really felt that Layden had thought this all through; there’s something solid about the connections between her cast that makes me believe that if I re-read this novel, all sorts of things would start coming to light that I hadn’t noticed first time round. In this way, I thought her decision to use multiple narrators was much more illuminating than if we’d had to keep to a single person’s perspective (both the strength and weakness of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prepwhich this novel obviously has a lot in common with, is that we’re totally trapped in Lee’s head, and Lee’s head is a very unreliable place to be trapped). And while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like Sittenfeld, Layden really gets how some teenage girls approach the world, and how small but yet significant interactions can crush or uplift their sense of who they are. If there was one thing I found less convincing about All Girls, it was that all her narrators seem to share this sense of watchfulness; it would have been nice, and more realistic, to get inside the head of at least one student who was less compulsively analytic. It’s also, frankly, too long. Nevertheless, it’s definitely well ahead of most books of this kind, and if you like campus novels, you’ll probably like this.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill focuses on an episode in British colonial history that may not be familiar to many readers; the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin. Most Asians had to leave the country within ninety days, fleeing to the range of countries in which they had citizenship – with a majority ending up in Britain – although some were left stateless. As the novel makes clear, although Uganda had gained independence from Britain in 1962, this event was a direct result of its long history of colonisation. South Asians, mostly Gujaratis, had been originally brought to Uganda by the British, first to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway in the late nineteenth century (nearly a third of these Indian workers were killed or maimed during the project), and later to participate in commerce and administration under the Uganda Protectorate. However, the expulsion of Ugandan Asians was also intertwined with Britain’s future stance towards its former colonial subjects; the 1971 Immigration Act increased immigration controls and was primarily motivated by the influx of refugees from Uganda and from Kenya, which also expelled Asians in the late 1960s.

Kololo Hill tells this story through a single family. Asha has recently married Pran, who runs a general store, or dukan, with his brother Vijay, and also lives with mother Jaya and father Motichand. While the family are not wealthy, they become increasingly aware of how they are perceived as privileged ‘dukawallahs’ by African Ugandans, and try to protect their ‘house-boy’ December, who is one of the persecuted Acholi people. Each step of the plot is pretty predictable, but Kololo Hill still flows easily and engagingly as we see how this family deal with their world suddenly being turned upside down. I wanted our three narrators – Asha, Vijay and Jaya – to stray a little further from archetype, but I appreciated the inter-generational perspective, and the consideration of how Vijay manages with a physical disability (he was born missing most of his left arm), especially when he comes into contact with the British welfare state. Shah depicts the ways in which her protagonists are both oppressed and fortunate skilfully, as they recognise the advantages they’ve had over African Ugandans due to British patronage and their relatively kinder welcome into Britain itself, and yet are obviously uprooted, robbed, and attacked in Uganda, and continue to face racism every day in Britain. While Kololo Hill might be competent rather than brilliant, it vividly conveys this significant moment in history.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Way back in January 2020, before the UK publication date of Meng Jin’s Little Gods got pushed back, it was one of my most-anticipated books for that year. And, it turns out, it does use a narrative device that’s one of my favourites: telling the story of a single character solely through the perspectives of multiple other people, like Anna North does in The Life and Death of Sophie Stark or Kevin Nguyen does in New WavesAs a young woman, Su Lan is a brilliantly talented theoretical physicist. We meet her having just given birth to her daughter Liya in Beijing in the midst of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, where an exhausted nurse is struck by her unusual demeanour. The novel then moves between the perspectives of Su Lan’s former neighbour Zu Wen, her former classmate Li Yongzong, and Liya herself to put together the fractured pieces of Su Lan’s history. What emerges is that Su Lan was a master of self-fashioning, but this was driven by a desperate need to hide what she saw as her true self. Arguing with her, Yongzong reflects: ‘through the cracks I saw something terrible, it was dark and powerful and churning, and I recognised with frightening clarity that everything I knew about Su Lan – her excellence, her beauty, her composure – was actually an attempt to control this thing.’ We hear about the poverty of Su Lan’s childhood in rural China, but we never get to the bottom of what she thinks is so wrong with her, and this novel is the stronger for it. Instead, we see how she uses theoretical physics and thermodynamics (in the form of Maxwell’s demon) to chase an impossible dream: can we forget the past and remember the future? There’s something here of Nell Freudenberger’s excellent Lost and Wantedwhich also picks up on quantum mechanics to deal with grief and ghosts. For me, Little Gods was stronger in its first half than in its second, when the pieces of the puzzle come together a bit too neatly, but it’s still an impressive debut.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 25th February.

Last 10 Books Book Tag

Thanks to Emily at Literary Elephant for tagging me in this!

Last Book I Gave Up On:

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Symona’s Still Single by Lisa Bent. I feel bad about this, because I love everything about the idea of this book – there needs to be more romantic fiction by and about black women, the cover is beautiful and I very much support Jacaranda Books’ TwentyIn2020 project which published twenty books by black writers last year. Unfortunately, this was rambly and not very well-written, and it relied too much on info-dumps from the characters telling us what they feel about everything from self-actualisation to spirituality. I made it about two-thirds of the way through.

Last Book I Re-Read:

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Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. This Second World War novel was one of my top ten books of 2015, and this was an enjoyable re-read, but I wasn’t quite as blown away as I was when I first read it. The wit felt a little more artificial than it did the first time around, the situations more contrived, and regardless of concerns about historical accuracy, I think it overuses racist slurs and incidents given the relatively small part that black characters play in the story.

Last Book I Bought:


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I was enticed into purchase by a 99p Kindle deal, but I’ve had my eye on Babita Sharma’s The Corner Shop for a while. According to the Observer, this memoir promises: ‘a gentle, charming and at times poignant look at our nation of shopkeepers . . . a nuanced exploration of a part of British Asian life that has long been stereotyped’.

Last Book I Said I Read But Didn’t:

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I really don’t tend to do this (I am much more likely to say I haven’t read books that I actually have read) so I’m struggling a bit with this one. Hopefully no-one from my book group is reading this, because it was probably when I pretended to have read  Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night a couple of years ago when I actually couldn’t get through it.

Last Book I Wrote In The Margins Of:

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I do this with all the books I own and have to read for work. I think the last victim was John and Elizabeth Newson’s Childhood Into Adolescence: Growing Up In The 1970s which is the reconstitution of some unpublished work by these two psychologists who famously conducted a longitudinal study of c.700 children born in Nottingham around 1958.

Last Book That I Had Signed:

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I am not remotely bothered about getting books signed, so only end up with signed books by accident. Most recently, I was lucky enough to win a copy of Kate Mascarenhas’s latest novel The Thief on the Winged Horse in a Twitter giveaway, and Kate signed the beautiful hardback for me. I loved her debut The Psychology of Time Travelso I’m excited to read this tale of magical dolls.

Last Book I Lost:

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I don’t lose books that often, so the last incident that springs to mind was probably seven or eight years ago, but I am still very unhappy that I lost my copy of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword.  I really want the same edition so haven’t got round to researching and rebuying it.

Last Book I Had To Replace:

I’m sure my physical copies of James Smythe’s The Explorer and The Echo are somewhere, but my dad wasn’t able to find them in the boxes of books I have at his, so I rebought both books on Kindle so I could re-read them before tackling the third in the Anomaly Quartet, The Edge.

Last Book I Argued Over:

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I am not allowed to talk about Anna Hope’s Expectation any more after arguing about it with at least two of my friends, but it made me very cross because it was meant to be about three women taking different paths but actually it was about three women taking the same path (even the one who remains childless wonders regretfully if she should have had children), and it was also meant to be about female friendship, but was actually about how women don’t have each others’ backs. I note in passing that my mini rant on the book continues to attract likes on Goodreads, so clearly I am NOT THE ONLY ONE.

Last Book You Couldn’t Find:

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The universe does not want me to read Caite-Dolan Leach’s We Went To The Woods, because not only has it not been published in this country, my attempt to order a second-hand hard copy online turned into a saga when it never arrived and I had to argue with the seller for a refund. I haven’t got round to trying a second time yet.

I don’t tend to tag people, but would love to hear your answers if you haven’t tried this tag yet!

 

‘Let light perpetual shine upon them’

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In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, British researchers started undertaking series after series of cohort studies, following children born around the same time as they grew up and checking back in with them at different ages. Some of these studies were big and largely quantitative, like the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, which started in 1946 and initially included more than 5000 participants, and some were smaller and largely qualitative, like John and Elizabeth Newson’s study of around 700 children born around 1958 in Nottingham. However, the most fascinating, from my point of view as a researcher, were the studies that asked children and adolescents to imagine their future adult lives, like the sociological researcher Thelma Veness did in 1956, working with fourteen-year-olds. Most of these narratives mapped out the milestones you might expect – marriage, children, work – although there were a few unexpected findings. Veness was puzzled by the fact that almost a quarter of the girls in her sample ‘killed off’ their imaginary husbands before they reached their late thirties, with more than half of the husbands dying by middle age. She postulated that once men had fulfilled their role as father, these girls did not imagine themselves wanting or needing a partner in later life. [1]

The five protagonists of Francis Spufford’s latest novel, Light Perpetual Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben – are all born in London around 1940, making them only slightly older than some of the members of these post-war cohort studies. However, in 1944, these four-year-olds are looking at a new delivery of saucepans in Woolworths with their mothers when a German V2 bomb hits the store, incinerating them all immediately. Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben are never going to hit or miss life ‘milestones’, or ‘transition’ into adolescence, adulthood or old age, because they are all dead. Here, Spufford steps in. He tells us what would have happened to these five people if they hadn’t been killed during the Second World War, jumping forwards in satisfyingly untidy intervals of time all the way up to 2009. For a while, I kept asking – and I think it’s a reasonable question – why did these people have to die in the first place? Spufford isn’t interested in playing with alternative timelines, at least not explicitly, so why not just trace their lives normally, without the interruption of a German bomb? However, by the end of the novel, I came to realise that its opening pages (slightly pretentious as their prose might be) are essential to Spufford’s project. None of the five protagonists change the course of history; the loss of these lives meant both nothing, and everything.

As with Golden HillSpufford’s research is impeccable (and here I’m in a much better position to judge than I was with Golden Hill, because I’m a historian of post-war Britain). He shows how all five protagonists are restrained by class and gender and yet how their lives take them to places we might not have expected when we first properly meet them in a run-down primary school in Halstead Road. Musical, synaesthetic Jo becomes the temporary girlfriend of a rock star in America. Vern builds and loses several business empires. Val becomes mixed up with the fascist racism of the British Movement in the late 1970s. Ben and Alec’s lives seem most tied to their class destinies, in Alec’s case perhaps partly because of the way he sees class struggle; going into a ‘trade for life’ at the printworks, he faces his skills being made obsolete by digitisation. Meanwhile, Ben is also eventually phased out as a bus conductor but struggles terrifyingly in the meantime with schizophrenia, in a fragment that is one of the most immersive and horrific things I’ve ever read about mental illness.

Light Perpetual is, notably, not that concerned with the dreams and promise of youth. More than three-quarters of the novel takes place after the protagonists are thirty-nine. This hugely refreshing choice pulls Spufford away both from the obsessions of the original cohort studies – what percentage get married? who is socially mobile? – and the concerns of most fiction of this kind, which, even if it follows the protagonists through their lives, tends to linger on the twenties and thirties and then race towards old age. It gives him space to explore how our lives still change, transform, explode or implode, even once we are seen as ‘middle-aged’. It feels like he’s telling us that we’re not always going to be defined by choices that felt so important when we were young. And as the characters get older, the book gets ever more beautiful and moving (yes, I cried a couple of times). I noted in my review of Golden Hill that Spufford seemed to have been influenced by George Eliot; here, it’s blatant. Eliot famously wrote in Middlemarch that ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Here’s Spufford’s reinvention, through the eyes of Alec, who was possibly my favourite character:

You couldn’t walk up a rush hour street, negotiate a bus queue, sit in a theatre, if you were constantly aware of the millionfold press of beings as entire and complicated as yourself… He’s still blundering among over-noticed faces when he boards his eastbound train, still ringed around as he sits down with his briefcase on his knee by eyes universally bright and significant because they are all of them the windows through which single souls are looking out.

Riffing off such a famous passage is a pretty hard thing to get away with, but Spufford pulls it off here because he earns it. Golden Hill was brilliantly clever and thoughtful, but Light Perpetual is even better. It tells us that we are all important – even when we’re actually horrible, like Vern, or believe we’re horrible, like Ben – and that we’re all worth something. And somehow it does this, unlike most novels which try it, without ever being sentimental or obvious. What a book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 4th of February. So you know what to do.

[1] Thelma Veness, School Leavers: Their Aspirations and Expectations (London: Methuen and Co, 1962), 33.

My Dark Vanessa, Or Why I’m A Year Behind Everyone Else In Getting To This Book

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I wasn’t going to read My Dark Vanessa. Not even when I saw how many rave reviews it was getting from bloggers I trust. Based on this, I was sure that it was a good book; that it dealt thoughtfully with a sensitive subject. But I still wasn’t convinced that I needed to read another novel about a relationship between a schoolgirl and her teacher, no matter how well it was written. This is ground that’s been so thoroughly trodden, both in novels and in numerous comment pieces analysing real-life cases in both Britain and the US over the past few years. It’s also something I think about in my own historical research on children and young people in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain. My Dark Vanessa might be great, I decided, but it wasn’t going to say anything that I didn’t already know.

I changed my mind about trying My Dark Vanessa after attending an online At Home With Four Indies event where Kate Elizabeth Russell was interviewed (very adeptly) by Louise O’Neill. What I found so fascinating about the way Russell wrote My Dark Vanessa was not just that the novel was drafted over the course of eighteen years, but that Russell essentially put it together in conversation with her teenage self. She talked about finding bits and pieces she had written as a teenager where she didn’t know if it was her writing as herself or as Vanessa, and also how certain sequences that had been present in early drafts of the novel dropped out as she redrafted then made it back in to the final version, as if they were always meant to be there. I found this especially interesting because I, too, have a novel that I’ve been working with, on and off, for about seventeen years, since I was in my late teens, and it, too, is traumatic, although not in an especially autobiographical way and not in quite the same way as My Dark Vanessa. Nevertheless, however captivated I was by Russell’s account of her process, I still needed to find out if the novel would work for me.

And unexpectedly, it did. Basically, this was because while My Dark Vanessa is absolutely a book about a schoolgirl who has a relationship with her teacher, and which has a lot to say on that specific subject, that also isn’t all it is. Russell clearly thought very deeply about tackling something so difficult, and Vanessa is presented as a character who has been fundamentally shaped by what has been happening to her since she was fifteen. As other reviewers have outlined, Vanessa is such a thought-provoking protagonist because she doesn’t fit into our idea of what the ‘ideal victim’ should be – she maintains that what happened between her and her teacher, Strane, was not abuse, and that her own psychology was somehow leading her towards something of this kind. Russell does not give Vanessa a simplistic moment of revelation in the wake of the #MeToo movement, but we see how she comes to reassess how she felt at the time.

But because Russell presents such an authentic portrait of both Vanessa’s teenage and adult selves, this novel also has resonance far beyond stories of sexual exploitation in the classroom or even abuse and rape more generally, and for me, that’s why it worked so well. It asks how we can square beliefs that our younger selves held so fervently with what we learn later on in life – and how we can do that without totally tossing our younger selves under a bus. It explores how we can cope with the knowledge that our life has been shaped by something outside our control, especially if we thought it was within our control when it was happening. And in this, I felt the strength of what all Russell’s different reworkings of this story have brought to it. I don’t know how she’s going to write her next book after something like this – I know how difficult it is starting a new project after working on one thing since you were a teenager, because your teenage self had so much to give – but I do feel confident that she can.

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 1st February.

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

Guest Blog Post on Teenage Girls and British Second-Wave Feminism

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This blog has been quiet so far this year! I have been reading, but I don’t seem to have that much headspace for writing reviews, perhaps because I’m trying to knock out a thousand words a day on my Antarctic novel. I will be back soon, probably rounding up my thoughts on recent ARCs I’ve read.

In the meantime, I wrote this blog post on my historical research over at the Changing Childhoods blog: Spare Rib, Shocking Pink and the Politics of Age in 1980s Feminism.

It’s about how teenage girls were ignored and belittled in the pages of adult-led second-wave British feminist magazine Spare Rib, and so went off and started their own collective. Enjoy!

2021 Reading Plans

Well, we all know that 2020 was a terrible year, so there’s not much need to explore why! While very fortunate in being financially stable and healthy during the pandemic, I have also obviously experienced the same restrictions and frustrations as everyone else, and have also felt sad because I don’t fit into the traditional ‘nuclear family’ model (with access to car!) that UK government policies seem to be targeted towards. After a very successful 2019, it’s been difficult coming to terms with the fact that I haven’t really been able to achieve anything ‘external’ this year: no publications, no conferences (after March), no visible progress towards a deal for my novel, no travel, no chance to really get to know colleagues at my new job. Even my roller derby has been cancelled indefinitely….

Snaps of a strange year. Peanut butter brownies by post in the spring; working on my time travel novel in the park in summer, thrilled to be allowed to sit (rather than just exercise) outside again; attending a Zoom cocktail party in December.

However, to be honest, I have found unexpected upsides during certain periods of the pandemic. Again, I recognise this is because of the sort of person I am and what I happen to be good at, rather than suggesting I have any kind of special resilience. My sister and I lived in rural Wiltshire during the second half of our childhoods, and often spent weeks seeing nobody other than our parents and each other, so I guess I have some experience in drawing on my own resources. Being forced to come to a halt in March made me realise how close to burnout I was with all my work and social commitments. I now can’t imagine going straight back to the life I used to lead, and I think that will be good for me long-term, however hard things are now.

One benefit of having to focus on internal validation, rather than external achievements, is that this has been potentially the best writing year I’ve ever had. (The only competition it has is the academic year 2004-5, when I was in my last year of sixth form and adopted a committed, daily writing-and-meditation routine that led to me producing two-thirds of my first serious novel, but it’s hard to compare the two, as then I was really inventing myself as a writer for the first time). This year, I’ve rewritten my time travel novel in response to my agent’s feedback to the point where it’s ready to submit to publishers, completely rewritten and restructured the first serious novel I mentioned above (cutting 40k words so it’s now a sensible length!), which is set in late nineteenth-century England, and knocked out 50k terrible words of my brand new Antarctic novel. (I imagine blog readers are either writers themselves, and so might care about my WIPs, or don’t care at all, but in case anyone wants to know more, I have brief summaries of each of these up on my Fiction page. I tend to refer to them as ‘nineteenth-century novel’, ‘time travel novel’ and ‘Antarctic novel’, but their proper working titles are, respectively, Of Others And Elizabeth, The Forest That Eats Bone and Old Ice.

Anyway, onto the books…

A couple of caveats: I have collected a LOT of 2021 proofs and e-ARCS that I’m super excited about, but I don’t like to include books I already own in this list. So don’t think that I’m not excited about Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew, Lisa McInerney’s The Rules of Revelation, Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising, Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, Francis Spufford’s Light PerpetualTahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl, and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning (among others), because I definitely am!

In this post, I’ve picked twelve 2021 releases that I am particularly looking forward to – almost all from the first half of the year, for obvious reasons – then, as always, added a further eighteen books that I want to read in 2021, whether they are new this year or not. There are a few I didn’t read from my 2020 list that I’m still keen to get to, so those are included in the last eighteen.

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Anna North, Outlawed (January 2021). Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark was one of my top ten books of the last decade, so unsurprisingly I’m excited about her next novel, even though it sounds totally different. This follows a teenage girl who becomes an outlaw in the 1890s Wild West. The only reason I’m a little hesitant is because the last time I was super excited about one of my favourite authors unexpectedly writing a ‘feminist Western’, it didn’t quite work for me (Tea Obreht’s Inland). But I’m still very keen!

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Erin Kelly, Watch Her Fall (March 2021). My usual Erin disclaimer: Erin tutored me on the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course I took in 2015-16, and has been so supportive of my writing ever since. However, fortunately I don’t have to be at all tactful when I talk about Erin’s books, because I genuinely love them. Her last novel, We Know You Know (previously published as Stone Mothers) was one of the best thrillers I’d read in a long time, and I can’t wait to read Watch Her Fall, which focuses on a ballerina who has somebody watching her from the wings…

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Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter (March 2021). It’s very unusual for me to include a YA novel in this part of the list, but I’m so intrigued by Boulley’s debut, which focuses on an Ojibwe teenage girl who’s caught up in a covert FBI operation on her reservation. And what a stunning cover!

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TL Huchu, The Library of the Dead (March 2021). I mean, this just has everything: a Zimbabwean teenager goes ghost-hunting in Edinburgh after a child goes missing, and discovers an occult library along the way. I sometimes find ghost stories ponderous, but this sounds like it will be offset by our protagonist’s cynical voice. First in a new series.

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Maki Kashimada trans. Haydn Trowell, Touring The Land Of The Dead (April 2021). Kashimada is a well-established Japanese writer who won the Akutagawa Prize for this novella in 2012. This focuses on a wife who takes her damaged husband away to a luxury spa where her mother went when she was little. This Europa edition also includes a second novella by Kashimada, Ninety-Nine Kisses, about a younger sister obsessed with her three older sisters, which I think sounds even more interesting.

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Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd (April 2021). I have an uneven track record with Kushner as a novelist; I was impressed by The Mars Room but struggled with The FlamethrowersThis collection of essays promises a selection of Kushner’s non-fiction over the past twenty years, including an essay on her experience competing in the notorious Mexican motorbike race, Cabo 1000. As a fictionalised description of this race was far and away my favourite part of The Flamethrowers, this grabbed my attention.

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Jessie Greengrass, The High House (April 2021). I loved Greengrass’s autofictional Sightwhich remains one of the best musings on motherhood I’ve ever read. The blurb of The High House wouldn’t appeal to me if it was written by somebody else: it looks at a family building an ark in a holiday home against the threat of climate change. I tend to avoid these kinds of stories simply because I’ve read so many of them, but if anyone can make this fresh again, it’s Greengrass.

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Arifa Akbar, Consumed (June 2021). This memoir recounts the sudden death of Akbar’s sister from TB, and how Akbar later travelled to the places that she and her sister had explored, from Rome to Pakistan. There’s still too little written about the grief you feel for a death of a sibling, and although happily my only sibling is alive and well, it’s a subject that interests me because my time-travel novel is about the loss of a sister. No cover yet.

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Becky Chambers, A Psalm For The Wild-Built (July 2021). I’m a big fan of Becky Chambers, so it’s great to see she has two new SF books out this year; the novel that concludes her Wayfarers Quartet, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (my review coming soon!) ,and this book, which starts a new series about robots living in the wilderness of Earth.

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Nina Mingya Powles, Small Bodies of Water (August 2021) Powles, who is Malaysian-Chinese, won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize, which aimed to highlight the work of writers currently under-represented in nature-writing, for this book. I love the blurb: ‘From the rainforest waterfalls of Borneo to the wild coastline of New Zealand and the Ladies’ Pond in Hampstead Heath, this book explores migration, food, family and the bodies of water that separate and connect us.’ I’m keen to read more nature-writing that’s not by white people; I’m also very excited about Rahawa Haile’s In Open Countrywhich is about her experiences as a black woman walking the Appalachian trail, but I can’t work out when it’s getting published. No cover for Powles yet, either.

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Lauren Groff, Matrix (September 2021). OK, this is the book that I’m most excited about this year. Just when I was saying I wanted to read a good novel about nuns, THIS came along, with the best blurb: ‘[in the twelfth century] seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey… at first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.’ I’m so keen to read a book that explores how entering convents could help medieval women gain more autonomy, and books about all-female communities in general. My usual concern with a book like this would be that it would be overwritten and too weighty, but Groff’s sharp, contemporary prose should be the perfect match. No cover yet.

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Bridget Collins et al. The Haunting Season (October 2021). I can’t get over how good the line-up in this collection of new ghost stories is: including Bridget Collins, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Elizabeth Macneal and Natasha Pulley! (I’m assuming because of Covid-19 they didn’t actually get together in person to discuss this book, but how much would I love to hang out with these people collectively). There are also a couple of writers I’m keen to try: Sara Collins and Jess Kidd. And as for Andrew Michael Hurley and Laura Purcell, who I haven’t had the best of luck with so far, perhaps they’ll pull it together for this anthology as well. No proper cover yet.

The Rest Of The List

Miriam Cohen, Adults and Other Children 

Derek Owusu ed., Safe: 20 Ways To Be A Black Man In Britain Today

Kristen Schilt, Just One Of The Guys?: Transgender Men And The Persistence of Gender Inequality

Bruce Holsinger, The Gifted School OR Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman, Girls With Bright Futures (February 2021) [I want to read one book about pushy parents and school admissions, but probably not two!]

Emily Bernard, Black Is The Body

Martha Wells, All Systems Red

Charles Yu, Sorry Please Thank You

Mark O’Connell, Notes From An Apocalypse

Ben Lerner, The Topeka School

Julianne Pachico, The Anthill

Harriet Alida Lye, Natural Killer

Regina Porter, The Travelers

Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home

Nisi Shawl, Everfair

Hao Jingfang trans. Ken Liu, Vagabonds

Namwali Serpell, Stranger Faces

Caoilinn Hughes, The Wild Laughter

Carmen Maria Machado, In The Dream House