The End of the Year Book Tag, 2019

I borrowed this from Diana at Thoughts on Papyrus#SciFiMonth reads are excluded!

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

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I’ve done a good job winnowing down my TBR pile to 2020 releases, but I ambitiously started a re-read of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and am only a few pages in at the moment (this is solely due to the size of the paperback and not a reflection on the book itself) so I’d like to finish that by the end of the year.

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

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I’m currently reading Tom Cox’s collection of short stories, Help The Witch, which is left over from my Halloween reading but is beautifully atmospheric and surprisingly funny. A number of the stories have ghostly themes, but Cox is very light touch: as he puts it in his acknowledgements, ‘thank you to ghosts, for maybe being real.’ What he’s especially good on is how places shape our personalities, even places where we only spend a short time. As one of his characters puts it: ‘Human character was more subject to geography than was generally acknowledged. Yet there was a pressure to be the same person people had come to expect everywhere you went.’ Striking woodcuts by Cox’s mother, Jo, add to the overall feel of this collection.

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

I think I nabbed them all on NetGalley!

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Going back to my mid-year check in tag, I’d like to prioritise Amy Waldman’s A Door in the Earth and Tash Aw’s We, The Survivors. I’d also like to read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments by the end of the year, before I totally miss the zeitgeist.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

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If it’s The Testaments I should probably give up reviewing books! But more likely, I think, looking at my TBR list, is Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, which is the one book remaining from my 4.5 star challenge (none of the rest achieved 4.5 stars, so he is my only hope).

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2020?

Yep – I have three main goals:

  • Start 2020 as I mean to go on by reading through all the 2020 releases I have stacked up on NetGalley and don’t think I’ll get a chance to read before then. These are: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara; The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams; A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry; The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue; and If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha. I also have two proofs from the John Murray Proof Party at the Durham Book Festival to read: Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child and Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer.
  • Reframe 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge, so I can read any 20 books I like as long as they’re rereads.
  • In a similar vein, continue my Reread Project.

#SciFiMonth: Halfway Through!

We’re now halfway through #SciFiMonth, so I thought I’d check in with some thoughts on what I’ve been reading.

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I was utterly captivated by Nina Allan’s The Riftand her debut novel The Race is in the same vein. It presents what the Chicago Tribune called ‘an ingenious puzzle-box of a narrative’: four interlinked novellas, two set in our own world and two set in a near-future landscape devastated by fracking and focused around the racing of smartdogs, genetically modified greyhounds who can connect empathically with their human trainers. Some reviewers seem to think that the links between these narratives are a meta-commentary on the unnecessary divides erected between science fiction and literary fiction; while I agree that Allan’s work demonstrates why these two genres should talk more to each other, I prefer to read this novel more literally. Like The Rift, it suggests that there are junctions within our own world that lead us into parallel realities, although the two worlds may remain linked in unsettling ways. When people go missing, they may simply have crossed into another world. At first glance, the more overtly SF sections in The Race could be read as short stories written by one of the characters in our own world, Christy; however, the connections between the different novellas are not quite as simple as that. While I liked The Race, it did feel a bit like a warm-up act for The Rift, which weaves its strands much more tightly together and so is more complex, but also more satisfying; it also makes use of various different found texts, like newspaper articles, in a way The Race does not. However, like all Nina Allan’s novels, this is strong on atmosphere, and she manages to create very solid worlds out of what seems like very sketchy details.

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The Expanse series (written by two authors under the pen name James S.A. Corey) is set in a future where humanity has expanded outwards from Earth and colonised both Mars the meteorite belt, and the outer planets, but hasn’t cracked interstellar travel. The novel deals both with existing political tensions between these civilisations and with the new problems introduced by the discovery of the protomolecule, an infectious alien agent that has the power to radically alter life forms (yes I had to crib a lot of this from the very useful Expanse Wiki). I loved the first three novels, but then started losing track of the series. With multiple point-of-view characters operating in an extended world, it feels a lot like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire in space – it’s notable that one of the co-authors, Ty Franck, first created this universe as a setting for a tabletop RPG and also works as GRRM’s assistant. For this reason, I suspect that the series requires at least one re-read every time a new instalment comes out so you can keep track of what’s going on. Unfortunately, the Expanse series just doesn’t have the depth of ASOIAF, and I can’t see myself re-reading the earlier volumes (except perhaps Leviathan Wakes, which operates as a supremely horrific horror story as well as the beginning of this space opera). Nemesis Games, the fifth in the series, helpfully reduces its point-of-view characters back to four of the original protagonists, which makes it a much easier and more enjoyable read than its predecessor, Cibola Burns, but I was still aware that I wasn’t really following the story at times, especially in the first half. If you want to try this series, I suggest binge-reading the lot.

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Sylvain Neuvel’s The Test starts with Idir, a kind, likeable Iranian Muslim man, sitting a futuristic version of the British citizenship test. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because the book is so short (indeed, this counts as an accidental Novellas in November entry – I didn’t realise how short it was when I started reading it!). Comparisons with Black Mirror are justified, but I think this would have worked a lot better as a Black Mirror episode than it does as a novella, simply because Neuvel can’t resist the temptation to tell the reader everything he wants them to know, and this wouldn’t be possible if this was adapted for TV. It also illustrates my usual problems with novellas – it would have worked better either as a disturbing, confusing short story or as a full-length novel where Neuvel could take the time to explore the issues he raises more subtly.

I also wrote a Re-Read Project post on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as part of #SciFiMonth, which is here. This also fits nicely into Margaret Atwood Reading Month, or #MARM, run by Naomi and Marcie!

Are you taking part in #SciFiMonth? Do you have any SF recommendations?

The Reread Project: The Handmaid’s Tale

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post. The only other entry in this series so far is To Kill A Mockingbird. This is also a bonus entry for #ReadSciFi month.

The edition I read as a teenager versus the edition I read this time round.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood (1985)

I first read this novel in 2003, when I was sixteen. It wasn’t a set text, but I did read it from the school library. As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I felt that I ‘ought’ to read it and like it, and this may explain some of my hostile reaction. I didn’t dislike Atwood per se at this age: my first book by her had been Alias Grace, which I’d loved (though I liked it less when I re-read it a few years later). But I really didn’t like The Handmaid’s TaleAs I wrote in my review of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, when I was a teenager I considered feminism to be outdated. While I may have been more responsive to other feminist dystopias, I remember feeling that Atwood’s vision of a world of handmaids seemed especially contrived and implausible. I felt that I lived in a world where sexual freedom was only becoming more and more widespread; Atwood’s world was supposedly set in the future, but seemed to belong to the past.

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When I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, I felt like I’d been basically right about it when I was a teenager. In contrast, re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale has been a sobering experience. It’s really good. While these thoughts may bring nothing new to the table for those of you who’ve been reading and discussing the novel for decades, I thought I’d try and say something about why my opinion has changed so drastically.

As a teenager, I was introduced to The Handmaid’s Tale as an Important Feminist Text, having never been told very much about feminism, and I interpreted its story according to what I understood of feminism at the time. Offred was a feminist heroine rebelling against an evil regime – I’m not sure the word patriarchal was familiar to me. In this regime, men were all bad and women were all oppressed, and this reflected the future that Atwood thought we were all heading towards. I believed this was incredibly unlikely. However, I don’t think I disliked The Handmaid’s Tale so much solely because I didn’t see myself as a feminist; I think my misinterpretation of the story Atwood is trying to tell also played into it.

The first thing that struck me about the narrative that we receive in The Handmaid’s Tale on my re-read is how deliberately partial it is – both fragmented, and biased. Offred is, or at least was, a middle-class white woman from a certain kind of liberal background. She’s rather impatient with the radical feminism of her second-wave feminist mother. While she notionally stands for sexual freedom, she isn’t as open-minded as we might expect when her best friend Moira comes out as a lesbian: ‘There was a time when we didn’t hug, after she’d told me about being gay; but then she said I didn’t turn her on, reassuring me, and we’d gone back to it.’ Offred has precious little to tell us about the fate of people of colour in her world; we only learn in the Historical Notes, which detail a conference held by a number of professors hailing from previously colonised countries like India that ‘racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.’

 But once we realise that Offred isn’t an icon, but an ordinary person, and her narrative is intentionally limited, The Handmaid’s Tale opens up. Atwood juxtaposes a number of different understandings of feminism and maternalism, rather than focusing on how the dystopian society of Gilead is Bad and the previous world order was Good. In many ways, the book is a deliberate reckoning with the legacy of second-wave feminism, and with the cracks that were opening up in the movement in the 1980s. Offred, before the coup, takes much of her previous freedom for granted and is somewhat dismissive of her mother’s activism, but also accepts that there were restrictions on life before: that women couldn’t walk freely in the streets alone and were constantly confronted with pornographic depictions of their own bodies. As Atwood herself has commented, Gilead deliberately co-opts some of the tenets of the second-wave feminist movement: for example, in its antipathy to rape and its glorification of women’s ability to bear children. Offred’s relationship to this earlier brand of feminism is poignantly reflected in her realisation of what has happened to her own mother: ‘I think of my mother, sweeping up deadly toxins… I can’t quite believe it. Surely her cockiness, her optimism and energey, her pizzazz, will get her out of this. She will think of something. But I know this isn’t true. It is just passing the buck, as children do, to mothers.’

Sex was an important part of Offred’s life before the coup, but is now reduced to ritualistic intercourse with the Commander once a month. When the Commander suggests that this society is better for women, and asks Offred ‘What did we overlook?’, her answer, like the answers of many fictional victims of dystopian societies, is ‘Love… Falling in love’. In her own head, she continues: ‘It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself; if it never happened to you, not ever, you would be like a mutant, a creature from outer space’. When Offred does embark on a sexual relationship with Nick, she isn’t driven by romantic passion but by a desire to break out of the role she has to play all day every day. Nevertheless, this becomes addictive: ‘I no longer want to leave, escape… I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him.’ In The Handmaid’s Tale, love is not positioned tidily as salvation from dystopia but as another way in which women’s wants can both be expressed and co-opted. Atwood’s description of what women get out of reading women’s magazines, which preach the gospel of love, can’t really be bettered: ‘They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities… They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.’

 The Handmaid’s Tale, therefore, isn’t a simplistically feminist book but a reckoning with a specific kind of feminist philosophy; and Atwood never lets on what she really thinks. While Gilead may contain some superficially tempting features, the real temptation, underneath the surface, is the world-view of Offred’s mother, which has been both destroyed by Gilead and vindicated in the most disturbing of ways. The novel doesn’t tell us what we should think about sex in a patriarchy, about the narrative of romantic love, or how we walk the line between protection and restriction; but it poses all these questions so well. Because of this, it seems essential to me that it is an unfinished text, and I worry about what The Testaments has done to the parameters that Atwood originally established here, even though I’m now keen to read it. For me, Go Set A Watchman helped to redeem some of the problems in To Kill A Mockingbird, but I doubt that will be the case with this particular sequel.

A personal note: The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in Britain in 1986, the year I was born. I first read it when I was sixteen, the same age as one of the narrators of The Testaments. And now, like Offred, I’m thirty-three. I wonder, if I re-read this novel when I’m twice as old once more, whether it will be a different book again.

 

Female desire in a patriarchy: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo & The Body Lies by Jo Baker

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Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women seems to have attracted a lot of controversy – partly because it doesn’t fulfil the unachievable expectations set by its marketing campaign. It’s been billed as a book that gives a universal account of female sexuality, but of course, it doesn’t do this. Three Women focuses on three white American women whose backgrounds range from comfortable to wealthy; while one of the women is bisexual, the book focuses on relationships with men. In a sense, this should be unsurprising. As Taddeo writes in her epilogue, even when women are listened to, it’s only certain women that get to be heard, and it’s obvious why women who more closely adhere to social norms have been more willing to have their stories told in this intensely intimate way. None of this is to say, however, that the three subjects of the book aren’t also subject to uncomfortable power relationships. Lina, engaged in a hopeless affair with a married man in Indiana, also suffers from the chronic pain brought on by her fibromyalgia. Maggie, in South Dakota, was only fifteen when her teacher started coming on to her. Meanwhile, Sloane, in the Northeast, seems to have everything going for her and pursues her own erotic fantasies with apparent freedom, but still can’t avoid being objectified by men even as she willingly participates in threesomes.

Other reviewers have argued that the book is not about desire but about abuse, but I actually think that, on this point, the blurb has it spot on; the book exposes ‘the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire’ in a patriarchy. All three subjects are in touch with their own deep sexual desires, but this does not mean that they manage to fulfil them in a healthy way. Taddeo is frank about how much Maggie wants her teacher, but equally clear that he is in the wrong. Lina’s desperation makes us want to turn away from the page, but that only makes us realise how we’ve been socialised to believe that the very worst thing a woman can be is ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’ – far better to ignore what we feel and keep quiet. Similarly, the instinctive impulse to judge Sloane should also make us reflect on our beliefs about how women’s desires should be appropriately expressed. I understand that, if you came to this book wanting something more uplifting about how women can relate differently to their sexual selves, that this isn’t what it delivers. But Taddeo is so good on the barriers that women face in being true to their sexuality, even in this supposedly sexually liberated society. Does these women’s privilege make it even more frustrating that they can’t break free? Or is privilege, in this case, a straitjacket that stops you imagining different relationships?

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If Three Women left you feeling pessimistic about the future of heterosexual relationships, I’d steer clear of Jo Baker’s latest novel, The Body Lies (which also suffers from a rather misleading blurb that frames it as a literary thriller).Our unnamed female protagonist, who is in her early thirties, has just taken up a lectureship in creative writing in an unidentified northern English town, leaving her husband in London but bringing her three-year-old son with her. The protagonist encounters familiar tensions at her new university; the steady accumulation of administrative responsibilities loaded onto a new female hire, and the problems of handling several very different personalities in her MA novel-writing seminars. But this begins to involve into something rather more sinister as she becomes aware of the interest of one of her MA students, Nicholas, who is writing a novel about a ‘lost girl’ but also becomes very angry when one of his classmates starts his bog-standard police procedural with a naked body. The metafictional themes are obvious from the start; The Body Lies starts with the frozen body of a young woman lying undiscovered in a field. Baker’s writing is so smart and creepy that this rather gentle plot becomes unputdownable; there are shades of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard in her analysis of how even women in notional positions of power can be undermined by misogyny. It’s a very different novel from Longbourn and A Country Road, A Treebut it’s equally good.

#SciFiMonth Reading Plans

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Inspired by Hannah at I have thoughts on books, I’ve decided to take part in #SciFiMonth, which runs from 1 to 30 November. The details are here, but as far as I can tell, there are no rules other than to read as much SF as possible! Reading more SF is one of my ongoing challenges to myself, and I’m also keen to read more SF writers of colour. While the challenge itself takes a broad definition of what counts as ‘science fiction’, I’ll be targeting SF proper rather than speculative fiction, simply because I already read a lot of the latter.

I managed to eliminate my physical/Kindle TBR pile in October (barring proofs that aren’t published until 2020) so I have a lot of leeway as to what to read, but this will fluctuate depending on library availability/cost. Some of my ideas are as follows:

Books That I Already Own

I’m currently reading Nina Allan’s The Race; presenting four interlinked novella-length stories, I’m hoping it has the same potential for surprising connections as her wonderful The RiftI found two more SF books at my local charity shop. Nicola Griffiths’ debut novel, Ammonite, follows an anthropologist who travels to a planet under quarantine after a viral outbreak and discovers a native population that seems to be entirely female; it comes with praise from Ursula Le Guin, and I’ve been interested in Griffiths’ writing since reading her more recent historical novel, Hild. I also picked up the fifth book in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Nemesis Games; I loved the first three books in this series but got totally bogged down in the digressions of the fourth, Cibola Burns, a couple of years ago, so didn’t read on. This entry seems to take us back to the original cast, which is a relief. Finally, I’m planning to re-read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which needs no introduction; this also feeds into my long-neglected re-read project.

Random SF From My Goodreads TBR List

Who knows why I added some of these in the first place, but they look like good choices to expand my horizons! Kim Stanley Robinson is a SF great, but I haven’t read anything by him; hopefully Aurora is a good place to start. Alexander Weinstein’s collection of short stories, Children of the New World, promises stories of virtual reality set in a near future. Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade uses a similar premise to Joe Haldemann’s The Forever Warbut hopefully won’t be as misogynistic and homophobic as that older novel. Finally, I’m intrigued by the hype around Sylvain Neuvel’s The Test, which is about an Iranian man sitting a futuristic version of the British citizenship test.

Authors I Found In A People’s Future Of The United States

A People’s Future Of The United States disappointed me as a collection, but introduced me to some promising new authors. I loved Daniel H. Wilson’s entry, so am keen to try his Robopocalypse, which seems to start with quite a familiar premise about robots taking over the world but hopefully goes to some interesting places. Charles Yu’s short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You, looks exciting, as does G. Willow Wilson’s novel Alif The UnseenMalka Older’s story was easily one of the most imaginative in A People’s Future, so I’m keen to read her debut novel, Infomocracy, which is about a political experiment based on powerful information technology.

Towards the Speculative Side 

I don’t really get on with high fantasy, so N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season didn’t grip me sufficiently to make me want to read the rest of the trilogy, but I admire her as a writer and am looking forward to her collection of fantasy/SF short stories, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? Callum has convinced me to try Rory Power’s horror-SF debut, The Wilder Girls. I loved Cynan Jones’s The Dig and The Shore, so his climate change novel Stillicide sounds good to me. Finally, after hearing Naomi Booth speak at the Durham Book Festival, I can’t wait to read her eco-horror Sealed.

I obviously won’t be able to read all of these, so do let me know if there are any you particularly recommend or advise against! And is anyone else interested in taking part in #SciFiMonth?

Who does your body belong to?

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I had such mixed feelings about Richard K. Morgan’s novel-turned-Netflix-series, Altered Carbon! The premise is great; set in the future, people can now separate their consciousness from their physical bodies, so death isn’t necessarily permanent – although this technology is much more accessible if you’re wealthy. ‘Stacks’, containing your essential selfhood, are implanted in ‘sleeves’, or bodies – often synthetic – and those who can afford it back-up their minds in the cloud, so even if their stack is destroyed, they’ll continue to exist. ‘Real Death’, or the obliteration of your consciousness, becomes much more significant, while ‘resleeving’ in a different physical form is disorientating but not devastating. However, I was frustrated that Morgan’s excellent worldbuilding often took second place to a convoluted thriller plot that I found difficult to follow; there are so many questions raised by this set-up. The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, finds himself resurrected from virtual storage in somebody else’s ‘sleeve’ – he struggles with a craving for cigarettes and certain sexual partners, as well as missing his original racial identity. Nevertheless, the book never really gets into what the swapping of sleeves does to societal ideas about race, gender and sexuality – although, interestingly, race seems to be more easily sloughed off than gender in Morgan’s world. Perhaps this is because most people still spend their lives in their original bodies, but wouldn’t that make things even stranger for those who swap? And despite the plottiness of the novel, it felt achingly slow until about the two-thirds mark.

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I’ve never forgotten Jane Rogers’ deeply disturbing The Testament of Jessie Lamb (indeed, it haunted me so thoroughly that I reviewed it twice), so it’s not surprising to see her returning to questions of bodily autonomy in her latest novel, Body Tourists. The premise is reminiscent of Altered Carbon, but a few centuries earlier in the development of the technology: again, selfhood can now be stored digitally and transferred to another body, even after your own death. In Rogers’ world, the twist is that there are no synthetic bodies, so you need a healthy volunteer to allow the wealthy dead to live their lives again – someone who’s willing to put their own lives on hold for two weeks and take the risk of letting somebody else walk around in their body. And given the extensive poverty and inequality on the British housing estates in this not-so-distant future, there are no shortage of volunteers hoping to earn ten grand for taking this gamble.

Body Tourists unfolds through the stories of several people connected with the technology; some only narrate for a chapter or so, while others form a continuing thread throughout the novel. Octavia, one of the first to benefit from the technology, is overjoyed by the experience of being in a young body, and Rogers captures the visceral reality of this very well. Paula and Ryan see no alternative other than to volunteer for the experiment. Elsa’s partner Lindy is swept up in a witch-hunt and killed before they can reconcile; what wouldn’t Elsa give for more time with her? Finally, ageing rock star Richard K is tempted to bring back his dead father, but soon begins to regret it.

These human stories are all compelling, but spending her time on so many threads holds Rogers back from exploring the implications of this technology as thoroughly as I’d hoped she would. I can see the advantage of these multiple voices – as in Helen Sedgwick’s wonderful The Growing Season, these different narrators stop body tourism from being pigeonholed as either good or bad. However, the simplistic villainy behind the scheme lets the novel down; the character who drives the misuse of the technology is unbelievable and simplistic, and this stops Rogers asking the more interesting kind of moral questions that she raised in The Testament of Jessie Lamb. This is an addictive read, and more thoughtful than much recent high-concept speculative fiction, but I still wanted a little more depth.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on November 14th.

Three Things… October 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

After my reading slump, I wanted to read something relatively undemanding to get me back on track. Diane Setterfield’s immersive Once Upon A River fit the bill. Setterfield’s books are basically potboilers, but I enjoyed this a lot more than The Thirteenth Tale. Set around the River Thames, it uses the case of a four-year-old girl who seems to have come back to life after being pulled from the river as a central thread that interweaves a range of stories from the local villagers. The novel actually has a pretty precise temporal location – the references to Darwin’s recent book suggest we’re around 1859 – but I thought this was a misstep. The timeless feel of Setterfield’s prose is one of the book’s strengths, and the Darwinian references are hackneyed and unnecessary (and far less important to the plot than the back cover blurb makes out). The book has a fairly conservative attitude to childhood and motherhood on the whole (it ALMOST features a woman who makes a positive decision to remain childless, but no), but there are hints of radicalism in how the community tears itself apart over who owns this little girl, suggesting how children can be valuable more as symbols than as people.

I’ve read all of Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan police procedurals, and while the early entries in the series (especially The Wire In The Blood, which inspired the TV series of the same name) can’t be beaten, she’s done a remarkable job of maintaining quality across a long-running series. The eleventh installment, How The Dead Speak, cleverly handles several plot threads without overwhelming the reader – this is crucial, as her central cast are now scattered in different locations, with Tony in prison, Carol retired from the police, and the remaining members of Carol’s old squad assigned to a new case. Only one plotline, following Tony’s abusive mother, felt unnecessary – it provided a kind of psychological closure that I felt that the previous novels in the series had already addressed – but it wasn’t too much of a distraction. Perfect weekend reading.

Finally, I’ve almost finished Lisa Taddeo’s controversial Three Women – full review coming soon, but I’ll say that I’m finding it totally absorbing, especially Maggie’s story, and I’m a little puzzled as to why it’s upset people so much – I wonder if the answer may lie with the marketing of the book rather than the book itself. I think the publishers have made claims about the universal nature of the three women’s stories that couldn’t possibly be supported by any book of this kind.

Watching

 

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I went to see the premiere of Ken Loach’s new film, Sorry We Missed You, at (where else!) Tyneside cinema last Wednesday, which was followed with a Q&A with Loach, the scriptwriter Paul Laverty and the key cast members. Set in Newcastle, the film focuses on a working-class family who, in the words of Laverty, sleep ‘in the same house: they are only a few feet away from each other for hours on end. But they hardly see each other at all.’ The dad, Ricky, is ‘self-employed’, delivering parcels for a large firm; what this means in practice is that he bears all the risks of the business and is allowed no sick leave or holiday. The mum, Abby, is a carer, travelling by bus between the homes of old and vulnerable people who need her help; she’s only paid for the time she actually spends with them, and can’t claim overtime if one of them has a crisis and she can’t leave them. Their teenage son, Seb, is struggling at school, focusing instead on becoming a graffiti artist, and their pre-teen daughter, Liza Jane, is distressed about what’s happening to her family. Sorry We Missed You, therefore, presents a critique of the ‘gig economy’ that will be familiar to many people already, but, like I, Daniel Blake, it’s a deeply moving film. Loach commented in the Q&A that followed the film that this family ‘could have lived on the next street to Daniel Blake’.

Loach’s recent films, in my opinion, are intended as campaign pieces rather than as artistic works per se; the impact of I, Daniel Blake, which an audience member who volunteers at a food bank acknowledged in this screening, is so important that one can hardly begrudge him his priorities. However, I did find the characterisation of the four protagonists much more simplistic in Sorry We Missed You than the more interesting stories that were drawn out in I, Daniel Blake. In short, the film’s focus is on Ricky; this is a film about white working-class masculinity and the shame of not being able to provide for his family; even after he hits his son hard in the midst of an argument, the camera stays with him and not with Seb. While we get to see a lot of Abby’s job and her difficulties, the ending of the film underlines the fact that Ricky is the real tragedy of this story. The underlying message also strongly reinforces the nuclear family as the unit under attack by capitalist exploitation, playing into traditional narratives about gender roles. Sorry We Missed You is worth seeing, but I wished it had a bit more of the experimentation that characterised I, Daniel Blake, even if I thought that film ultimately slipped into sentimentality.

Thinking

After six weeks of teaching, I’m too tired to think! Instead, I will suggest some links that connect to what I’ve been teaching. This great article by Professor Lucy Robinson, ‘Climate protests have roots that go deep into the rich history of British social change‘, sums up a lot of the rationale behind my current undergraduate course, which is on youth, age and protest in post-war Britain. Dr Jenny Crane has written a fascinating blog post on ‘What is a “gifted child” anyway – and can children themselves design or defy this term?’ which reflects some of my own work on ‘evil’ or ‘extraordinary’ children in post-war British horror and SF films. Finally, this useful post by Dr Ryan Hanley sums up some new books on black British history.

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I also went to see Margaret Atwood speak at the Sage Gateshead at the last minute on Saturday (friend had a spare ticket). If I’d known I was going, I would have prepared better, as much of the detailed discussion went over my head – I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was sixteen and haven’t read the sequel or watched the TV series. But Atwood was unexpectedly hilarious at times, and I enjoyed her thoughts on writing what you can write rather than trying to write what you can’t. I’m completing the Booker double in December when I’ve booked to see Bernadine Evaristo speak at the same location!