Little Women (BBC, 2017) vs Little Women (Columbia, 2019)

When the hype for Greta Gerwig’s film version of Little Women (2019) started to get going, I felt a bit confused. The film was being hailed as a modern take on the classic novel that finally drew out its feminist themes, foregrounded the real, human relationships between the women of the family, and gave both Jo and Amy the credit they deserve. But for me, all of this had already been done – by the stellar BBC television adaptation of the novel in 2017.

Before anyone gets cross, I really liked Greta Gerwig’s film – but I think Vanessa Caswill’s very different adaptation has been unfairly sidelined. So I thought it would be fun to pitch these two against each other. I will only compare things that I care about, so don’t expect this to be in any way fair.

Warning, this post probably won’t make much sense unless you are already familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives!

Meg

Let’s start with an easy one. Meg from 2017 (Willa Fitzgerald) is streets ahead of Meg from 2019 (Emma Watson), and because No-One Likes Meg, it’s so important to get her right. This is down to the acting, but – even though I’m not a Watson fan – I think the script is the crucial factor here. The longer runtime of the BBC mini-series allows Meg to come into her own. Fitzgerald portrays her with a quiet serenity that makes her affectations at the Moffats’ party feel genuinely out of character, and giving her time to talk about her work as a governess – and be snubbed by an English snob, as she is in the novel – means that her desire for pretty things feels less shallow and more understandable. As she moves into adulthood, the harrowing birth scene added in 2017 makes her life feel real and hard rather than merely a heteronormative fantasy that’s there to taunt Jo.

I think that the 2019 film had its heart in the right place with Meg. For example, her line to Jo – ‘just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant – indicates that we are meant to see her as a person worthy of respect in her own right, and that Gerwig wants us to recognise that women who choose a traditional path of marriage and child-bearing are not inherently inferior. But I think that the way that 2019 chooses to value Meg is a bit of a misstep, emphasising the need for both sisters to understand each other rather than the true, inherent conflict between their dreams. Meg wants her own home and family; Jo wants her ‘first family’ to remain together forever. Both films are really good at portraying Jo’s anguish at the prospect of losing Meg, but only 2017 actually presents it as the insoluble problem that it is. But because 2017 takes Jo so seriously, it also allows us to feel the pressure that Jo’s expectations put on Meg, with Jo looming in the background of John’s proposal like a forbidding, virtuous angel. Meg is sometimes seen as moralistic, but Jo shows us that she’s actually the sister who holds others to viciously high standards. +1 to 2017.

Jo

Let’s move on to a more difficult one. Yes, Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Jo in 2019 is, I think, better than Maya Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jo in 2017. But, again, this isn’t just down to the two actors, but about the choices made by script and direction. 2019 is the Jo Show, and the character is totally captivating. Gerwig draws out the queer undertones of Jo’s character much more effectively than any other adaptation I’ve seen, and she gets a huge amount of screen time to explore the central tension in her life: that, as she puts it in the most memorable scene of the 2019 film, she doesn’t want to get married but nor does she want to live her life alone. ‘Jo’s Dark Days’ is one of my favourite chapters of Little Women and Good Wives, and 2019 gets that so well. However, if Jo is less striking in the 2017 adaptation, it’s partly because the script has made a deliberate choice to give more time to Marmee and to the other sisters, which strengthens the story as a whole. So 2019 wins, but at a cost. +1 to 2019.

Beth

Maybe nobody likes Meg, but the character I found most difficult in the novel was always Beth – I still find her death totally unmoving except in terms of how it affects Jo. Annes Elwy in 2017 and Eliza Scanlen in 2019 both do an admirable job of making her a little less dull. Both adaptations play up her social anxiety, which helps us to understand the character a little more, but on balance, I preferred the deliberate weirdness of 2019’s Beth, who constructs elaborate tableaux with her dolls at the table and uses the fact of her impending death to get Jo to write her the stories she wants. +1 to 2019.

Amy

Everyone’s supposed to hate Amy, but I always liked her, and both 2017 and 2019 bring Justice for Amy. Both adaptations make the choice to have Amy played by the same actor throughout, which means they both make certain sacrifices. Kathryn Newton (2017) is much more convincing as Young Amy, partly because she gets more screen-time, so although neither version really helps us understand why Amy burns Jo’s book, 2017 gives us more space to explore Amy’s character development after the terrible deed. For example, we get the scene where Amy writes a will, with Laurie’s help, when Beth is sick with scarlet fever, and makes a specific bequest to Jo because she’s sorry about her book and wants to be a better person.

On that note, I really disliked the fact that the 2019 adaptation chose to have Amy in love with Laurie all along, rather than being the self-centred, creative, clever, irritating person she actually is in the first volume. 2019 really wants us to buy into Amy and Laurie, a pairing that a lot of fans find difficult to accept, but because I never had a problem with them in the first place, I never found this to be such a plot hurdle. 2017 handles the pairing more subtly by showing us how Amy and Laurie interact while she’s still a child and he’s still in love with Jo, while 2019 uses its non-chronological structure to intercut shots of the young Amy pining after Laurie while older Amy realises that he’s finally falling for her. Not a fan, bring back selfish Amy please.

However, having said that, Florence Pugh (2019) is so good as the older Amy, and one of the stand-out moments of the film is when she explains to Laurie that while marriage might not be a financial transaction for him, it surely is for her. Some of the assumed modernity of 2019 grated on me, but I can completely believe that this is something that Amy might say to the dissipated and ‘lazy’ Laurie. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

Marmee

2019 did not get Marmee. She’s one of the key casualties of its meta approach to the source text, with Gerwig unable to play her deeply held moral beliefs – based on a life of repression and self-sacrifice – straight and instead retconning in feminist statements. As Sarah Blackwood writes in the New Yorker:

Marmee belongs at the heart of the story. Gerwig’s adaptation is too committed to the idea of Jo as a transformative feminist hero to plumb these depths. The story that Gerwig’s film wants us to own—the story that so many redemptive, individualist readings of the novel push us toward—is the one where there are survivors, singular women who somehow escape. I don’t think this was the story Alcott was telling. 

One of my favourite scenes in the novel is the scene when Marmee talks to Jo after Amy falls through the ice; partly because it’s one of the few scenes that gives us a glimpse of Marmee as a person. Both 2017 and 2019, unusually, adapt this scene, but I don’t think either of them quite get it right. In the book, Marmee tells Jo: “You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it.” Jo can’t believe it: “Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!” Marmee explains: “I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

In an age where we are told – and rightly so – that rage becomes her, that anger is a positive emotion, that the criticism and belittling of women’s anger, particularly the anger of women of colour, is a tool of the patriarchy, Marmee’s words may feel too anti-feminist to screen, and it’s noticeable that neither adaptation lets her say the full quotation. However, I think that we need to know this about Marmee if we are going to understand her character. Marmee isn’t sweetness and light; she is a mother who cares deeply about her daughters but is still deeply embedded in the society in which she lives. 2019 sees her offering her daughters ‘outs’, suggesting to Jo that her life can be different from the one that Marmee herself has lived. The harsher, less forgiving Marmee in 2017 (Emily Watson) is much more accurate, and much more interesting, and as a bonus, unlike Laura Dern, she doesn’t look like she’s dressed up for a day at the office. +1 to 2017.

Mr March

Mr March is literally missing in action in 2019 even after he comes home from war, with Bob Odenkirk only appearing in a couple of shots (none of which I could find to use for this post). While I slightly admire Gerwig’s determination to make the patriarch of the family ‘not seen and not heard’, this choice undermines the reality of the sisters’ worry about him, and further diminishes Marmee as an independent individual. While Mr March (Dylan Baker) doesn’t have a great deal more to do in 2017, he’s there enough to address these issues. +1 to 2017.

Laurie

I don’t really care about Laurie as a character, except insofar as the way he is presented affects the characterisation of Jo and Amy. 2019’s Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is much more engaging, but I think 2017’s Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) does a better job of getting across why the essentially conventional Laurie is not right for Jo. Both films handle the proposal scene heartbreakingly well, but 2019 leans harder on the idea that Jo never wants to get married, whereas 2017 is more focused on Jo’s assertion that she does not love Laurie romantically, but may love somebody else in the future. I like 2019’s interpretation more, but I actually found the 2017 version of the scene more convincing. As I’ve suggested, both adaptations also do a pretty good job of setting up Amy and Laurie as a romantic pairing. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

Professor Bhaer

I mean, that says it all, doesn’t it? Alcott was cross about having to marry Jo off at the end of Good Wives, so she invented Professor Friedrich Bhaer, an older German intellectual who is not conventionally attractive (Mark Stanley, 2017); the pair team up to open a school for boys. Making Bhaer into a hottie (Louis Garrel, 2019) totally undermines that, whatever the meta intentions of Gerwig’s choice, and I’m not sure about the more conventional feminist resolution of having Jo and Friedrich open a mixed-sex school instead of a boys’ school either.

Rewatching the 2017 adaptation, in contrast, made me see why Friedrich is a good match for the Jo presented in this version of Little Women. Jo, as I suggested above, is an idealist who holds other people to her scarily high moral standards, and the person she’s hardest upon is herself. Modern readers find the scene where Professor Bhaer paternalistically criticises Jo’s stories hard to swallow – and this scene isn’t adapted fully in either 2017 or 2019 – but the intention behind his criticism is to show that he believes that these stories don’t represent the moral or emotional truth Jo is capable of writing. The 2017 adaptation gets how important it is for Jo to have someone who believes in her, not as a writer (I never got the sense that Jo was lacking in self-confidence where her writing is concerned) but as a good person. +1 to 2017.

The Civil War

Neither film lingers on the realities of the Civil War or its legacies of white supremacy, but 2019 gives a couple of black characters speaking parts, whereas the only black person in 2017 is a corpse on a stretcher. (If you want to read more about the whiteness of Little WomenKaitlyn Greenidge’s essay in The New York Times is a good place to start). +1 to 2019.

Story structure

2017 tells the story in strict chronological order. 2019 intercuts between Little Women and Good Wives, so, for example, both of Beth’s sickbed scenes are juxtaposed together, and Jo is trying to sell her stories at the start of the film. I admire the idea behind 2019’s out-of-order storytelling, but I don’t think it really works. It makes the film feel even more rushed and choppy, and I’m not sure a viewer who wasn’t very familiar with these two volumes could easily follow it. +1 to 2017.

So meta

Modern Little Women adaptations are always a little bit meta, something that some of the reviews of the 2019 film have missed. (Even the 1994 adaptation shows Jo writing her life story). However, 2019 goes a step further, presenting two potential endings to Jo’s story – one in which she marries Professor Bhaer and runs her school, and one in which, like her creator, she becomes a ‘literary spinster’. This pulls out a lot of the thematic material that is latent in Little Women and Good Wives and gets at some of the ideas raised above about how all of the sisters are stuck in the system, but it does also feed into the suggestion that exceptional women are able to escape. For me personally, the straightforward 2017 adaptation feels more useful to think with, but I have to admit that 2019 has probably brought the tensions at the heart of Little Women to a bigger audience. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

THE VERDICT

2017: 8 points

2019: 6 points

To be honest, we’re lucky to have two such great adaptations of this great novel. However, 2017 wins out for me because I think it’s willing to present the viewer with more difficult material, because it doesn’t aim to wrap everything up with a feminist bow, and because it acknowledges that Marmee, not Jo, is the centre of the story.

Has anyone else seen both these adaptations? What did you think? Or are any of the earlier adaptations closer to your heart?

 

 

The king of winter

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Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, viewed with suspicion by her tiny community because of her faith and her father’s profession, even though her father is so kind-hearted he rarely collects his debts. As her mother’s health worsens, Miryem takes matters into her own hands and starts running her father’s business. Her methods are so effective that she attracts the attention of the Staryk king, who rules the fairy kingdom of winter and is determined to take her as his wife because he believes she can turn silver into gold. At the same time, Irina, a duke’s daughter who has fairy heritage, is being forced into marriage to the tsar, who is possessed by a fire demon that draws him to the mysterious cold within her. Finally, our third female protagonist and narrator, Wanda, is relieved to be employed by Miryem’s family as a means of escaping her violent father, and hopes to store up enough money to flee with her two younger brothers – but what will happen to her when she too is drawn into the frozen Staryk kingdom?

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik’s second stand-alone novel, has been billed as a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin that addresses the anti-semitic material in the original folktale, and while it certainly is that, it’s also so much more. I was hesitant, at first, to pick up this novel, despite its appealing blurb, because I had serious reservations about Novik’s first loose fairytale retelling, Uprooted, even though I hugely admired her ability to echo some of the finest modern rewriters of folktales (for me, Robin McKinley is the go-to example). Despite its feminist trappings, I felt that Uprooted ultimately fell into very old patterns in recounting the story of Agnieszka, who is taken from her village to serve a powerful wizard. Agnieszka has her own magic, but it is presented as ‘natural’ and intuitive as opposed to the intellectual, masculine magic of her captor; she’s supposed to be strongly linked to her closest female friend, Kasia, but the relationship never came alive for me; worst of all, she’s drawn into a misogynistic and problematic romantic entanglement. The blurb for Spinning Silver sounded like it might cover similar ground. However, this is actually a very different kind of novel, and all the better for it.

While Uprooted was narrated solely through the rather tiresome lens of Agnieszka, Novik deftly jumps between five voices in Spinning Silver; she does this so skilfully that there’s no need for names to mark the breaks between sections. By foregrounding three female characters, she avoids the feminine stereotypes that marred the previous novel, emphasising Miryem’s, Irina’s and Wanda’s different strengths, and it’s also refreshing to see Judaism handled so explicitly in a fantasy setting, moving away from the usual dominance of either Christianity or a kind of pseudo-paganism in these kinds of retellings. However, for me, the biggest strength of Spinning Silver is how Novik maintains the beautiful structure of folktales without compromising on the complexity of her plot. While Uprooted’s pace often felt relentless, as Novik tried to match the inevitable onward march of events in folk stories, Spinning Silver is simply gripping, as jumping from one storyline to the other gives the reader a bit of a break from the repeated sequences of three tasks and three days. This is such a clever and magical book, and I can’t wait for Novik’s next.

2020 Reading Plans

2019 has been a good year for me. These were the key positive events:

  • In January, I signed with a literary agent, Kerry Glencorse at Susanna Lea Associates, and am currently revising my time-travel novel, A Minute’s Grace. I hope that we will be able to submit this to publishers in 2020!
  • In June, I got a new job, as a NUAcT Fellow in History at Newcastle University, and will be transferring my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship there as well. My job officially starts on January 1st, but nothing much will change for me as I am already living in Newcastle and doing my research.
  • In September, I gave a Science Award Lecture at the British Science Festival, on ‘When children became evil’, which covered the sudden rise of ‘extraordinary children’ in horror and science fiction films in post-war Britain and the United States, and linked these depictions to changing concepts of childhood. I reprised versions of this talk at Oxford IF and at Nine Lessons and Carols for Curious People at the Lowry in Manchester. You can read a summary of the talk here.
  • In October, my first academic monographA Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed In Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schoolswas published by Manchester University Press. In about two years’ time (given the speed of academic book reviews) I should be able to find out what other historians think of it!

I also travelled to Japan and Australia, started doing research with adolescents in a Northampton secondary school, welcomed my first cousin once removed (baby Hudson) to the world, went to my first football match (Newcastle United vs. Arsenal), passed the Newcastle Roller Girls roller derby intake (even if I am retaking it in 2020) and put together two pieces of flatpack furniture by myself!

Right, onto the books…

I’ve picked twelve 2020 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 2020, whether or not they are new this year or not.

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Miriam Cohen, Adults and Other Children (January 2020). I’m intrigued by this debut collection of short stories, which promises to explore girlhood and motherhood from a range of angles, including a little girl convinced that her baby sister is a changeling, a woman who makes up an imagined child, and a college student who becomes a surrogate for her professor. And, given my own research, I couldn’t resist the title.

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Meng Jin, Little Gods (January 2020). I have to join the bandwagon for this debut novel about brilliant physicist Su Lan and her daughter Lina’s search for answers about her mother’s life. I love novels that engage with theoretical physics, and I have been slightly suckered in by this tagline: ‘combining the emotional resonance of Home Fire with the ambition and innovation of Asymmetry‘. I mean, YES.

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Aravind Adiga, Amnesty (February 2020). While I admire Adiga as a writer, I didn’t find either of the novels I’ve read by him – The White Tiger and Last Man In Tower – especially memorable. However, his latest book, which focuses on a young undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka – now living in Sydney – who must decide whether or not to report crucial information about a murder sounds potentially riveting. It also sounds like it might have a lot in common with Nikita Lalwani’s latest (see below!).

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Evie Wyld, The Bass Rock (February 2020). LONG anticipated by me, this novel about three women linked across the centuries by an isolated Scottish rock is finally coming!

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Natasha Pulley, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (March 2020). Natasha Pulley was one of thetwo new favourite authors I discovered in 2019, so OF COURSE I’m anticipating her third novel with great excitement. This sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (which is also loosely linked to The Bedlam Stacks) is set in a ghost-ridden Japan in 1888, where a British translator and his Japanese watchmaker friend are investigating supernatural occurrences. Pulley consistently turns the potentially twee into the electrifying, and the possibly colonialist into the challenging, so I can’t wait to see what she does with this premise. Also, octopuses.

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Kevin Nyugen, New Waves (March 2020). I’m intrigued by this debut novel where a black woman and an Asian man team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long.

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Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (March 2020). Like EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD, I’m eagerly anticipating O’Farrell’s next novel – I thought her two most recent books, the memoir I Am, I Am, I Amand the novel This Must Be The Placewere utterly fantastic. This signals a bit of a change in direction; set in the 1580s, it explores the hidden story of Shakespeare’s son, who died at the age of eleven.

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Nikita Lalwani, You People (April 2020). I liked Lalwani’s debut, Giftedand loved her second novel, The Villageso this long-awaited third novel is a must-read for me. It’s set in an Italian restaurant in London run by undocumented Sri Lankan immigrants, and promises the kind of difficult moral choices that Lalwani delivered so effectively in The Village.

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Souvankham Thammavongsa, How To Pronounce Knife (April 2020). This debut collection of short stories comes recommended by Mary Gaitskill, and promises vignettes of the day-to-day life of immigrants and refugees in a nameless city.

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Elisabeth Thomas, Catherine House (May 2020). We’ve had an abundance of creepy or speculative fiction set in educational establishments recently, a trope I absolutely adore, but nothing has quite hit the nail on the head for me yet. I’m hoping that Thomas’s debut, set at a liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania where students have to isolate themselves from the outside world for three years, will be the one where everything comes together. Like Little Gods, it also has some irresistible if unlikely comps: ‘combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go’.

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Sophie Mackintosh, Blue Ticket (May 2020). I was put off Mackintosh’s Booker-longlisted debut, The Water Cure, by the lukewarm reviews and an opening page where the writing sounded decidedly wavery, but I’m keen to give this one a go because I love the premise; it’s set in a world where motherhood is decided by lottery, and women have to live with the decision that is made for them – no children if they draw a blue ticket, motherhood if they draw a white one.

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Sarah Moss, Summerwater (Autumn 2020, no cover yet). Sarah Moss is a somewhat ambivalent author for me. I’ve read everything she’s written, and am consistently impressed by her intelligence and originality, but no single one of her books has ever totally bowled me over (the two that came closest were The Tidal Zone and Night Waking). Perhaps Summerwater, set in a rainy Scottish holiday park, will be the one I unreservedly adore. Interestingly, it also marks her switch from smaller literary publisher Granta to big-hitter Picador.

***

The Rest of the List 

Ken Liu ed., Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

Bruce Holsinger, The Gifted School

Zawe Ashton, Character Breakdown

Kit de Waal ed., Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers

Emily St John Mandel, The Glass Hotel

Edmund de Waal, The White Road

Nicola Griffith, So Lucky

Paulina Flores, Humiliation

Alia Trabucco Zerán, The Remainder

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt (January 2020)

Sandeep Jauhar, Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation

Helen Mort, Black Car Burning

Xuan Juliana Wang, Home Remedies

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

Caite Dolan-Leach, We Went To The Woods

Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Stubborn Archivist

Jessi Klein, You’ll Grow Out of It

My Top Ten Books of 2019

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

In the order I read them…

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1. The Bedlam Stacks: Natasha Pulley. I read this novel back in January, but it’s haunted me all year. Merrick Tremayne, once a smuggler for the East India Company, travels to the tiny mission colony of Bedlam on the edge of the Amazon where the water glows, statues walk and the woods are said to be cursed. Pulley is so good at weaving together the speculative and the everyday, and The Bedlam Stacks also interrogates colonial classifications. I reviewed it here.

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2. Brit(ish): Afua Hirsch. This is the best contemporary text I’ve read on black British identity. Hirsch, the daughter of a Ghanian mother and European Jewish father, is acutely intelligent on intersectionality as well, especially class and gender – she’s painfully aware of her own privilege in relation to her dark-skinned, working-class boyfriend, who doesn’t get why she wants to write a book about race in the first place, but also utterly clear on how women of colour are marginalised. I reviewed it here.

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3. The Leavers: Lisa Ko. This beautiful debut novel alternates between the story of a son and the story of his mother. Daniel Wilkinson is the privileged son of two New York academics, but he was once also Deming Guo, a Chinese immigrant boy abandoned by his mother Polly at the age of eleven. Ko handles the reader’s split sympathies adeptly, but she also writes movingly about the need to leave where we’re from to feel like we’ve ‘made it’. I reviewed The Leavers here.

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4. Convenience Store Woman: Sayaka Murata. I think this novella, translated from the Japanese, is so memorable for me not just because of the words on the page but because of everything it made me think about. Keiko is thirty-six and is totally devoted to a convenience store; her family think that she ought to want more out of life, yet Keiko is happy the way she is. But why be happy when you could be normal? I reviewed it here.

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5. Milkman: Anna Burns. Of all the novels that have made my top ten lists over the years, this is definitely the one that I enjoyed least when I was actually reading it. But the narrator just wouldn’t let go. For me, the definitive novel of the Northern Irish Troubles. I reviewed it here.

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6. The Rift: Nina Allan. Selena’s sister Julie went missing when they were teenagers, and Selena had come to assume that Julie is dead. But then Julie turns up again, claiming to have lived the last couple of decades on a distant planet called Tristane. Allan pulls off this premise by leaving it open to interpretation; the last few segments of the novel, which postulated that ‘there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the universe, and most of them were terrifying’ are especially haunting. I reviewed it here.

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7. Self-Portrait With Boy: Rachel Lyon. One of the best books on the psychological costs of being an artist that I’ve ever read, this novel starts off with a simple dilemma. Lu Rile accidentally takes an incredible photograph of a small boy falling to his death outside the window of her apartment block. Should she show the picture and kick-start her career, even though it would horrify his grieving parents? However, Lyon is smart enough not to let this question dominate her whole story, which interrogates questions about truth and connection. I reviewed it here.

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8. The Nickel Boys: Colson Whitehead. I wasn’t as bowled over by The Underground Railroad as everybody else, but Whitehead more than made up for it with his next novel, which is one of the most moving things I read all year. The Nickel Boys follows a teenage African-American boy, Elwood, after he is unjustly incarcerated in a reform school in Florida in the early 1960s. This could have been formulaic, but Whitehead takes it to another level. I reviewed it here.

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9. Exhalation: Ted Chiang. Like The Nickel Boys, this was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019, and it didn’t disappoint. Chiang writes the best short science fiction I’ve ever read, and this was an even better collection than his last. I particularly loved ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ – this is how you write time travel – and the novella ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’, which interrogates questions about free will. I’m especially in awe of Chiang’s intelligence – his ‘Story Notes’ at the back of the book are mini-masterpieces in their own right. I reviewed Exhalation here.

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10. Ammonite: Nicola Griffith. In a list skewed towards recent releases, this science fiction novel from 1992 also stood out. It follows Marghe, an anthropologist working on a planet inhabited by an estranged strand of the human race. Centuries ago, a virus eliminated all the men from this population and conferred upon the women the capacity to reproduce asexually. For me, Ammonite had all the intellectual excitement of Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, but was much more emotionally engaging. I reviewed it here.

Reading Stats

I read 175 books in 2019. This is, again, a new record for me, although I think the figures are a little skewed, as I now count some books that I did not finish towards the total. I think this is a bit ridiculous, so in 2020, I’ll set a target of 150.

I read 134 books by women, 40 books by men (including one trans man), and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary. This continues my usual gender split, with male authors making up about 23% of the books I read – and, although men are usually over-represented in my top ten, that isn’t the case this year. I would like to read more books by trans people in 2020, especially trans men.

I read 42 books by writers of colour and 133 books by white writers. Frustratingly, this percentage – 24% – is actually worse than the percentages I managed in 2018 and 2017 (28% and 25%) – and I also read fewer books by writers of colour than I did in 2018 (44). This is especially disappointing because half of my top ten books are by writers of colour, so it shows that I have once again been defaulting to mediocre white writers. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2020.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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2019 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2019 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2019, not necessarily first published in 2019.

Highly Commended

I discovered two new favourite authors this year: Nina Allan and Natasha Pulley. I’ve now read both of Pulley’s novels, and three of Allan’s. One novel from each writer has made my top ten books of 2019, but here are the others I read: The Race, The Dollmaker and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Both Allan and Pulley write speculative fiction, and I’ve found myself increasingly drawn towards speculative and science fiction this year, taking part in #SciFiMonth in November.

I didn’t find that 2019 was a particularly strong year for memoir and non-fiction, but two books stood out for me – Thomas Page McBee’s Amateurwhich was my pick to win the Wellcome Prize 2019, and Lisa Taddeo’s Three WomenInterestingly, both are essentially about the patriarchal constraints imposed by binary gender; McBee describes what it’s like to live as a trans man, while Taddeo interrogates how badly the world responds to genuine female desire. McBee’s subtitle is ‘a true story about what makes a man’, while Taddeo’s could easily be ‘three true stories about what makes a woman’.

I’ve been surprised to see some prominent end-of-the-year lists declare that 2019 was a poor year for fiction, as something that stood out for me this year was that many big-name releases didn’t disappoint! Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier produced arguably their strongest novels to date in The Confession and A Single ThreadTaylor Jenkins Reid’s much-hyped Daisy Jones and the Six was totally absorbing, while Emma Donoghue’s Akin was a slow-burning triumph. Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was a totally worthy Booker winner, even if I felt that she shortchanged her youngest narrators.

In fiction, I also enjoyed three very different novels that don’t fit into any of the above categories: Lisa See’s story of Korean haenyeo free divers, The Island of Sea Women, which, pleasingly, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019; Aminatta Forna’s difficult-to-summarise but very moving Happiness; and Naomi Booth’s eco-horror Sealed.

re-read three novels that made a big impression on me second time around (or in the case of Enchantress, probably fourth or fifth time around!): Sarah Moss’s Night Waking, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress From The Stars.

In crime and thriller, I rediscovered Ruth Ware, and was totally captivated by her two latest novels, The Turn of the Key and The Death of Mrs Westawayboth of which brilliantly mix classic Gothic tropes with a contemporary setting. But frankly, I was spoilt for choice in this genre in 2019, as Erin Kelly released her best novel yet, Stone Mothersand Jo Baker’s The Body Lies introduced a clever meta-level into the familiar story of a murdered woman.

Finally, I admired two adult fantasy novels infused with YA energy: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, about a Yale secretly run by supernatural societies, and Bridget Collins’s The Binding, which will please everyone who loves a gay teenage OTP. Both are also absolutely beautiful hardbacks.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by three authors I had enjoyed in the past. Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil was one of my top ten books of 2018, but his debut, Beasts of No Nation, was simplistic and pointless. Anna Hope’s Expectation was supposed to present three different women reassessing their lives in their thirties, but its characters ended up moving within such narrow bonds, all wanting the same things. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days was muddled, aimless and – oddly, given how much I admired her debut, Harmless Like You – quite badly written.

Two debuts also disappointed me. Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater promised a coming-of-age story set in Sunderland and London, but totally lacked a sense of place. Katy Mahood’s Entanglement was supposed to be inspired by quantum physics but ended up being a very conventional story about two couples over several decades. Both novels were also written in a lilting, quasi-literary style that did nothing for me.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2019!

Ten Books of the Decade!

Here we go – my ten books of the decade (2010-2019). Unlike my books of the year, I have only included titles published in this decade. You’ll notice there’s an interesting skew towards the earlier years of the decade – I think it takes me a while to know whether or not a book will stick with me. I’ve also tended to favour books that I both loved and which have fed into my own development as a writer. So a partial and biased list, but still, here it is. Links are to my reviews:

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The Still PointAmy Sackville (2010). This luminous debut novel intercuts between the gruelling expedition narrative of a turn-of-the-century Arctic explorer and twenty-four hours in the life of his great-grand-niece in the present day. Sackville writes the kind of prose that slows down time, in the most wonderful way.

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A Tale for the Time BeingRuth Ozeki (2013). I was totally obsessive about this book when it first came out; it made me look at everything sideways for some time. Ruth discovers the diary of fifteen-year-old Nao on the beach in British Columbia, washed up in a barnacle-encrusted lunchbox. These two narratives become intertwined in mindbending and yet hugely moving ways.

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AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013). This is both the simple love story of Ifemelu and Obinze and a sweeping, revealing look at the experiences of Nigerian immigrants to both Britain and the US, at how black women negotiate the world, and how ‘Westerners’ respond to being told about these things. Adichie’s masterpiece (so far), and an absolute must-read.

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This Is The Story of A Happy MarriageAnn Patchett (2013). If the Booker judges can do it, so can I; this is my ‘lifetime achievement’ award for all of Patchett’s incredible non-fiction, because my favourite, Truth and Beauty, was published in 2004 and so is ineligible for this exercise. However, there are some incredible essays in this collection, especially ‘This Dog’s Life’, which is hilarious on voluntary childlessness, and ‘The Wall’, which details how Patchett put herself through the recruitment process for the Police Academy in Los Angeles to try to understand something of what her father’s life as a police captain had been like.

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All The Birds, SingingEvie Wyld (2013). Structurally perfect and emotionally incredible, this novel moves backwards through time to inquire into the past of Jake, a guarded, scarred young woman who was once a sheep-herder in Australia and now lives on a tiny British island, alone with her dog. This reads like a thriller but is as good as literary fiction gets.

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Vampires in the Lemon GroveKaren Russell (2013). This is the best single collection of short stories I’ve ever read; many other collections have included short stories that are as good but haven’t been as strong across the board. What other collection ranges from a vampire drinking from a lemon that is ‘bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt’ to a massage therapist who finds that her clients’ tattoos move to a set of silk-weaving girls who plan an escape from their slavery?

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Station ElevenEmily St John Mandel (2014). This post-apocalyptic novel is the only fiction I’ve ever read that has really pulled off the ‘story within a story’, with its depiction of the comic-book world of Station Eleven that now speaks to the survivors of a global pandemic. Magical.

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The Secret Place, Tana French (2014). I was pleased that The Likeness was published in 2007, because it saved me from having to choose between my two favourite Tana French novels. Why read Tana French in general? Because she totally reinvents the police procedural, writing interrogation scenes with exceptional psychological depth, and also infusing the genre with a brilliant hint of the speculative. Why read The Secret Place in particular? Because it’s the best thing on adolescence I’ve ever read, offering teenage girls the respect they deserve, and it’s also a fantastic set-piece murder mystery.

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The Life and Death of Sophie StarkAnna North (2015). This relatively little-known novel is technically incredible; it uses six different narrators to tell the story of film director Sophie Stark, none of whom are Sophie herself and none of whom narrate more than once. The novel works, so cleverly, both as a set of perfect vignettes and as a bigger whole.

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When Breath Becomes AirPaul Kalanithi (2016). This memoir, written by a neurosurgeon who was himself diagnosed with lung cancer, remains one of the most moving things I’ve ever read, especially his final letter to his daughter, but it’s also brilliant on the life of a doctor and on the intersections between the arts and the sciences. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

(God, 2013 was a good year for books! There are a lot I haven’t even included – The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, Bring Up The Bodies…)

Do you have any books of the decade?

Three Things… December 2019

Reading

First, Nikita Lalwani’s debut novel, Gifted (2007), which follows Rumi, a second-generation Indian immigrant growing up in Cardiff, whose father, Mahesh, is determined that she should become a maths prodigy after she’s identified as ‘gifted’ as a young child. Lalwani handles this situation with great subtlety; Mahesh makes Rumi’s life a misery, but not necessarily because he buys into the Mensa-approved ideas about what it is to be gifted, and he is infuriated by the idea that Rumi is somehow a freak because she is both smart and brown. He sees himself as a progressive man, willing to nurture a daughter’s gifts in the same way as he would a son’s. Meanwhile, Shreene, Rumi’s mother, pushes against stereotypes of silenced Asian women, despite her conviction that Rumi’s main destiny is to get married; she too goes to work every day and happily recalls how she refused to see Mahesh when he made the first formal visit to her family to ask for her hand, because he arrived earlier than expected and she wasn’t ready. Gifted succeeds more as a series of excellent set-pieces than as a whole novel; it’s a bit fragmented and directionless, but its evocation of Mahesh, in particular, is brutal and touching. Despite the title, it’s not really about the label ‘gifted’ or about being a ‘precocious’ child – I wish somebody would write a really intelligent novel about either of those subjects! – but about the pressure of family expectation, especially in a hostile country.

Second, I finished my re-read of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (2002); I don’t have the energy right now to give this novel the review it deserves, but suffice it to say that (a) this evocation of a Mississippi community in the early 1970s is devastatingly sad – much more so than I remembered, and (b) it’s definitely Tartt’s best novel.

Third, I read Deborah Levy’s Booker-longlisted novel The Man Who Saw Everything (2019) – or at least I got halfway through it, setting a new record for me with a Levy novel. (And yes I did get to the bit where it all switches about). Levy just doesn’t click for me – she’s obviously a very good writer, but while I hoped this would be a literary mediation on time and space along the lines of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, it didn’t engage me at all.

My December reading plans haven’t been especially successful; I’ve read two of the six books I planned to read (The Bluest Eye and The Unpassing), have struggled to get hold of two others (We, The Survivors and A Door in the Stone) and have decided against reading the final two, at least right now (The Echo Maker and Heaven My Home). Because I’m dumping The Echo Maker, I’ll hold out on declaring my 4.5 star challenge complete until I can read Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock. However, I did manage to read ONE SF book by a writer of colour in December (Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse).

Watching

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As usual, I have been watching a lot of rubbish! I went to see Frozen II a week or so ago (if anyone cares about spoilers for Frozen II, look away now!) This is a somewhat frustrating sequel in that it’s pitch-perfect thematically, but isn’t a very compelling film. The basic plot sees Elsa, Anna and their various sidekicks try to heal a past rift with the local community of Northuldra (obviously based on Inuit peoples) after Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling her away from her kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa’s character arc is very well-handled; the writing team have worked out how to give her a second internal conflict that doesn’t diminish what she came to terms with in Frozen. While she ultimately decides to resign her queenship and leave the kingdom, she does this on her own terms; rather than running away as she did in the first film, she now knows she is accepted for who she is and can freely decide what to do.

There’s been lots of speculation over whether Disney will dare to present Elsa as openly lesbian, and the furthest this film goes is to emphasise that she has no interest in marriage and give her a cute girl to chat to. While this decision was probably made for the wrong reasons, I thought it was the right one for this particular film – much as I love the idea of lesbian Elsa, it is refreshing to see a female character in an animated film (or any kind of film!) whose central arc is not about romance. It’s funny to think that the film writers have probably been forced into this relatively positive representation by dint of wanting to avoid explicit lesbian representation but not wanting to piss off the LGBT community too badly.

However, the writers have seemingly forgotten to give Anna a parallel arc to her sister, and this shows, as her sections of the film really drag. This is annoying, as obvious possibilities present themselves – Kristoff keeps trying unsuccessfully to propose marriage to Anna throughout the film (which is hilarious), but if he’d been allowed to pop the question at the start, this could have sent Anna into a tailspin, as she flashed back to her disastrous engagement to Hans and wondered whether she was rushing into things with Kristoff as well, even though she has now known him for a year. Instead, Anna’s only conflict is whether she can get Elsa to accept that she needs to accompany her on her adventures – which falls rather flat when it transpires that Elsa was absolutely right to tell Anna that, without magic, there are places she cannot go. While I LOVED Kristoff’s line to Anna when they are reunited, and she’s worrying if he now doubts whether she cares for him – ‘My love is not fragile‘ – both characters are under-used in this film. And the sooner Olaf the snowman is blasted into smithereens, the better.

Thinking

Well, like everyone else in Britain, I’ve been thinking about the horrible election result on Friday, but I don’t want to spend much time discussing it on this blog. These are some interesting Twitter threads/articles if anyone wants them: one    two    three    four

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What has helped me in the last few days, apart from talking to my sister and some of my friends, is re-reading Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s classic Enchantress From The Stars (1970), which I first read when I was fifteen. Enchantress from the Stars focuses on a young woman, Elana, who joins a secret team from the Federation Anthropological Service, bound to encourage one civilisation to leave the planet of another. Engdahl was the first to teach me that you can combine science fiction and fantasy, and that unthinking atheism and rationality is as damaging as unthinking belief and superstition. (Engdahl herself has objected to the novel being called a combination of these two genres, because she thinks that only science fiction has something to say about the future, which is her purpose as a writer. Whether or not you agree with this, my sense of the way in which the novel lets genres talk to each other is stylistic and thematic – Enchantress From the Stars is not only partly written in a folktale pastiche, but is concerned with the reality of ‘magic’). It reminded me that I want to read many more novels where the speculative genres talk to each other like this; Nina Allan’s work pulls off the same kind of thing. I found Enchantress so helpful to re-read in the last few days for two reasons: firstly, it reminds us that the route to social progress is not linear, and things can get a lot worse before they get better. Secondly, in its depiction of Elana and her local ally Georyn, it suggests that sometimes we can only accomplish things we believe to be impossible by pursuing them in defiance of reason, and that that isn’t a stupid thing to do.

I’ll now be mostly offline until I put up my Books of the Year posts at the end of December (and maybe a bonus Books of the Decade this time around as well) so I hope you all have a festive and relaxing holiday season!