Three Things… September 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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I have to admit that I’m a little relieved 20 Books of Summer is over. It’s back to reading what I want, by which I mean the backlog that has accumulated while I read my 20 books. I just finished Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which I found emotionally exhausting, as it mirrors so many of my thoughts and concerns about potential motherhood, although I have to admit to finding Heti an irritating and self-indulgent writer at times. The thought that’s stuck with me, however, is the simple statement that if you’re genuinely undecided about having children, ‘it will probably be a fine life either way.’ It started me off thinking things that Heti doesn’t explicitly spell out. If having children is central to what you want, it makes sense to shape your life around that, but for the rest of us, the choice whether or not to have a child is less a question we can ask in isolation – Should I Be A Mother? Should I Bring A Child Into This World? – and more a practical question that’s dependent on where we find ourselves. Speaking only for myself, I know I wouldn’t want to have a child unless the circumstances were exactly right (and I have pretty specific ideas of what I mean by that!) and if that never happens, I’m better off without one. Sadly, I doubt this will be the end of my worries about it, given how patriarchy likes to make us feel guilty for even entertaining the thought of not having children.

Another thing that Heti doesn’t touch on in Motherhood is the idea that not wanting your own children means you don’t like children, an unfortunate belief that I find comes up surprisingly often. I worked part-time with children for four years when I was doing my PhD in Cambridge and absolutely loved it; I know it’s something I want to do again in the future. I’m also really looking forward to getting to know my friends’ children, and my sister and I are both very keen to be aunts (there’s only the two of us, so you can see the flaw in this plan… we’ll have to rely on (potential) partners’ siblings for the moment). As a historian of childhood, I also spend my professional life thinking about how children have been marginalised and oppressed in the past, something which is very important to me. Heti doesn’t seem to have many children in her life – which is of course absolutely fine – but even if I don’t have my own children, I know I’ll want to live a life that includes other people’s children.

Watching

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I saw Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s film Still Here at the Side Cinema a week or so ago, and thought it was absolutely fantastic. Konttinen photographed residents in Byker from 1969-81 – her most famous photograph is probably ‘Girl on A Spacehopper’ – and in this film, she goes back to talk to some of the people she photographed who are still living in the area, although not always in Byker itself. Konttinen did a fascinating Q&A after this short film where she talked about how she tracked down her subjects. The ‘girl on a spacehopper’ has proved the most elusive; four women have claimed to be her already. I particularly enjoyed hearing from the man who was disappointed he was missing from the photograph of kids collecting junk [see above], given that his siblings were in it, but, as he said to Konttinen, ‘that was probably because I was looting your studio’. As far as I know, there aren’t any plans to tour this film outside Newcastle at the moment, which is a shame – it’s really worth seeing.

I’ve also been watching Bake Off, like everyone else – my favourite is Rahul.

Thinking

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I’m a bit tired of thinking at the moment as I’m finishing up the initial draft of my academic monograph, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools, and so have been doing a lot of thinking about that. It’s been good to get a break from cogitation by going wild swimming with my mum and sister in the Brecon Beacons; we swam in some waterfall pools and a tarn [pictured above]. I’m a big fan of wild swimming but rarely get the chance to do it; I think a proper wetsuit might be a sensible investment next spring, as the sea near Newcastle is COLD all year round. The following weekend, my sister and I rode a working fireboat in Bristol that protected Bristol docks during the Blitz, and saw it shooting water from its water cannons. This was also a very welcome respite from work.

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20 Books of Summer: A Retrospective

 

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20 Books of Summer 2018 is over! I read 19 of my 20 books, with two planned substitutions, and reviewed all 19 of them. This compares favourably to my previous attempts:

In 2016, I managed to read 18 of my 20 books, but only reviewed 11 of them. (Apologies to A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Eustace Diamonds, The Prime Minister, Closure, J, Eligible and Go Set a Watchman!)

In 2017, I also managed to read 18 of my 20 books, and reviewed 17 of them (Mrs Dalloway was the one that missed out, and I doubt I’d have had anything new to say about it anyway!).

What did I think of the books I read? [Links are to my reviews]. There were some absolute stand-outs. The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Asymmetry, The Growing Season and Let Go My Hand will all be strong contenders for my books of the year.

In the second tier, Forward, Educated, An American Marriage and Heads of the Colored People didn’t absolutely blow me away, but they’re still very good books that I’d strongly recommend.

There were a number of books that I enjoyed but about which I had reservations, ranging from more to less serious. These were Sick, The Trauma CleanerEverything I Never Told You, Negroland, How to Survive A Plague, Exit Westand Built.

Finally, there were the outright disappointments: American War, Places I Stopped On The Way Home, Painter to the King and Rosewater – although, of these, I would argue that only Places I Stopped… is genuinely bad.

(I also read 22 other books between June and September, with a similar-ish hit rate of good and bad!)

I’m not sure I’ve yet cracked 20 Books of Summer. The first year I did it I tried to demolish my TBR pile, only to discover there was a reason many of those books had been there so long. In the second year, I tried a mix between old and new, but didn’t put enough thought into choosing the new titles. This year has probably been the best in terms of quality – but as I picked titles that were almost all recently published or not actually out yet, I had difficulty getting hold of the books, which is probably why I didn’t complete the challenge.

I’ll have to do it again, though – if only to get all twenty.

20 Books of Summer, #17, #18 and #19: Painter to the King, Asymmetry and An American Marriage

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Amy Sackville’s third novel, Painter to the King, reads as if Sackville is guiding us through a series of living paintings that make up the court of Philip IV of Spain in the first half of the seventeenth century. The future Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland turns up on an ill-fated courtship with the Duke of Buckingham, his father’s infamous favourite, in tow; Philip’s own favourite, the count-duke Olivares, is the power behind the throne; among all this, Diego Velázquez, painter to the king, watches, observes and records. Sackville’s writing is deliberately distancing and closely observational, especially when she’s describing the process of painting. Unlike Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, she doesn’t take us deeply into court intrigue but leaves us alongside Velázquez, who’s not always a prominent figure in the novel himself, but who is always present.

Sackville also reflects explicitly on the process of trying to get at the life of somebody like Velázquez, giving us a narrator – probably Sackville herself – who is retracing his steps through Madrid and often finding little left of the places he had known. These palimpsest bits of the story were the most intriguing bits for me; the traces of autofiction reminded me a bit of Jessie Greengrass’s marvellous Sight, and they add a kind of human contact to the novel that it badly needs. Unfortunately, they’re scattered only occasionally through the book.

Having read and loved The Still Point and Orkney, I already knew Sackville was a wonderful writer, but unlike these previous novels, Painter to the King feels somewhat like an extended writing exercise. The intense focus on the visual surfaces of things means that the reader never really ‘gets to know’ any of the central characters, and perhaps that’s the point; Sackville is exploring what we can know about these people who’ve been handed down to us in paint. However, for me, this stylistic choice left the novel virtually unreadable, whereas as a shorter piece it might have worked very well. I love that Sackville has taken such a bold step away from the frozen landscapes of her earlier work, but this novel ultimately left me cold.

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I wrote up a proper review of Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday’s dazzling debut, about a week ago, but WordPress decided to eat it. Therefore, I’ll have to say briefly that it’s brilliant. The novel begins on familiar territory, when a young editor, Alice, starts an affair with a much older writer, Ezra. (As all the reviews have noted, this reflects Halliday’s own relationship with Philip Roth, but as I’ve never read anything by Roth and know very little about him, this simply shows that one can enjoy this novel while missing many of the in-jokes and references that are probably present). In its second half, it starts telling a different kind of story altogether, when Iraqi-American economist Amar Jaafari is detained by border officials at Heathrow. Spoilers ahead – although I guessed the twist in this novel pretty early and don’t think it matters if you know about it ahead of time or not.

When we realise that the Amar section of the novel is actually written by Alice, it becomes clear what a brave thing Halliday has done. By allowing us to see her workings, we can unpick all the usual questions readers like to ask about whether or not a story is ‘authentic’ and how closely it ‘relates to the writer’s own life.’ There are little intersections for us to catch at, like the moment when Alice is called up for jury duty, overhears a Muslim man talking about his family, and is told that ‘Amar Jaafari’ has failed to turn up for his own jury service. When the coda to the novel turns out to be a pitch-perfect, fictitious interview with Ezra on Desert Island Discs, it might be tempting to believe that Halliday is simply showing off her literary ventriloquism. As this wonderful Atlantic review puts it: Asymmetry is a “masterpiece” in the original sense of the word—a piece of work that an apprentice produces to show that she has mastered her trade.’ However, unlike Painter to the King, there’s too much heart in Asymmetry for it to be misread as a technical experiment. It’s one of the very few books that, when I’d finished it, I wanted to start from the beginning and read all over again.

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An American Marriage – one of Barack Obama’s summer reads – highlights a universal injustice with a closely personal focus. African-American couple Celestial and Roy have been married barely a year when Roy is falsely accused of raping a white woman and sent to jail for twelve years. Celestial promises to wait for her husband, but as Roy’s days in prison roll by, the previous cracks between them start to widen. Celestial ‘comes from money’, whereas Roy’s father worked his way up from nothing. Roy’s early brashness and ambition shows that he feels he has something to prove, whereas Celestial’s instilled middle-class confidence leads her to start her own business selling expensive, handmade baby dolls – although it’s Roy who hits on the right name for the business, Poupées. How can Roy rebuild his life again once he’s freed? What does Celestial owe to Roy, hailed as a martyr by the black community – and what should she be allowed to keep for herself?

This is Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, and experience shows – her writing is effortlessly readable. Jones doesn’t dwell on the details of Roy’s trial or the wider media and community response to the case, preferring to keep her lens tightly trained on Celestial, Roy, and the old friend who becomes mixed up in their personal tragedy, Andre. While the subject-matter is not especially groundbreaking, this stylistic choice means we can’t help but feel for all three of these characters. As Rebecca noted in her review, this would be a perfect reading group book, and I’ll be recommending it to my own book group (which only reads books by people of colour, so this is a good fit) when it comes out in paperback. Jones handles the intersections of class, race and gender so lightly that this book never feels didactic, and yet leaves the reader with plenty to think about.

20 Books of Summer ends today, so that’s nineteen books read, with two official substitutions, and one left unread, Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan. My most successful summer yet! I’ll be posting a retrospective on the challenge later this week, and talking about my reading plans for the autumn.

How did you do with 20 Books of Summer, or with your summer reading? Would you do the challenge again?

Tag: How I Choose My Books

Borrowed from Hannah at I Have Thoughts on Books.

Find a book on your shelves with a pink cover. What made you pick up the  book in the first place?

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When I was seventeen, my youth theatre group took part in the initial stages of the National Theatre Connections project, which commissions ten new plays from well-known playwrights for young people to perform. We got together with the National Theatre’s youth theatre group, all the potential directors and the playwrights to workshop the plays. I was picked to workshop Ali Smith’s Just (which is an amazing play that I still think about today) and, like the committed young person I was, decided that I also had to read one of her novels in preparation. My school library had Hotel World. Alas, Ali wasn’t able to make it to the workshop after all, but I loved Hotel World – I’d never read anything like it at that age – and we had a fab two days with Jeremy Stockwell instead, who was mad and brilliant.

Think of a book you didn’t expect to enjoy but did. Why did you read it in the first place?

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As I said in my review of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht, ‘I almost didn’t read this book because I thought it was going to be a story about a boy meeting a magical tiger.’ I found out that it was nothing of the kind – and it ended up being possibly my favourite Orange Prize winner ever. (I read it in the first place because it was on the Orange Prize shortlist.) I have also now read and enjoyed Yann Martel’s Life of Pi – which was the first book I ever read on a Kindle – which could arguably be said to be about a boy meeting a magical tiger, so I’m not sure what my problem with boys and magical tigers was in the first place.

Stand in front of your bookshelf with your eyes closed and pick up a book at random. How did you discover this book?

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I read Suzanna Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, in 2007, after reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I can’t remember much about it now, other than, like all Clarke’s work, it’s long on charming detail and a little short on satisfying storytelling (Jonathan Strange is so long for such a simple plot – and I was annoyed that Clarke went for such black-and-white characterisation – Mr Norrell will always be my favourite). The question here is really how I discovered Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in the first place, but I can’t remember. I must have read it before I went to university, because footnotes still seemed very novel.

To go off on a tangent, I heard Clarke talk about Jonathan Strange in 2005 and she told a story that I still use when I want to argue that striving for perfect historical accuracy in historical novels is a losing game. The novel begins in 1806 in York Minster, which the book refers to as York Cathedral. Clarke received many letters telling her that York Cathedral is always known as York Minster. She explained that this is the case, except at the precise time Jonathan Strange is set, when it was not. However, this still sounds ‘wrong’ to modern readers. On the other hand, Clarke did admit that she used Jane Austen’s spelling in the book because she thought it was authentically Regency, then realised that Austen’s spelling is quite specific to Austen…

Pick a book that someone personally recommended to you. What did you think of it?

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My dad recommended Restless, William Boyd’s novel about espionage during the Second World War, and it has become one of the elite number of books that my dad and I both really like (I think all these books are by either William Boyd, Bernard Cornwell or George R.R. Martin). It’s also the only spy novel I’ve ever read that I’ve liked.

Pick a book you discovered through book blogs. Did it live up to the hype?

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I discover most books through book blogs these days, but back in the day, I was impressed by George Mackay Brown’s Vinland, a modern Viking saga, after reading Victoria’s review on Eve’s Alexandria – one of many Eve’s Alexandria-inspired reads. My review is here on my old blog.

Find a book on your shelves with a one word title. What drew you to this book?

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I was drawn to Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley because it was by Robin McKinley, with whom I am obsessed. This book, about a boy living in a dragon sanctuary, is not one of her best, but luckily she’s also written lots of other excellent books with one-word titles, including Deerskin, Chalice, Beauty and Sunshine, as well as some other excellent books with slightly longer titles, such as The Hero and the Crown, Spindle’s End and Rose Daughter.

What book did you discover through a film/TV adaptation?

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A really tricky category, as I don’t watch very many films or much TV, so it normally goes the other way. The only example I can think of is Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education, which I came to through the Carey Mulligan film. I was amused to find out that some of the dodgy dealings in this memoir took place on a street I used to live on in Cambridge!

Is anyone else keen to do this tag? Would love to hear other people’s answers!

20 Books of Summer, #16: The Growing Season

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I’ve been waiting to read The Growing Season ever since I heard its premise. In an alternate version of the present, FullLife now offers UK parents – or at least those who can afford their birth plans – an alternative to pregnancy. Instead, adults can purchase a wearable pouch, which is warm, soft and comfortable, and carry their baby to term. Men and women can take turns wearing the pouch, instilling a sense of equality that continues after the birth, and same-sex couples, trans people, and single parents can all have their own biological children. However, the novel begins as FullLife realises that something is wrong with their technology. The pouch promised a completely safe gestation (something that seems unlikely to me given that many of the embryos are naturally conceived, so are presumably as vulnerable to genetic defect as any other embryos, but this is what the novel establishes), but now babies are being stillborn. What is wrong with the pouches – and does this prove that those who protested against them were right all along?

When I reviewed Naomi Alderman’s The PowerI suggested that this novel might tell a story that The Power didn’t address; how far is women’s oppression tied to the fact that they carry, bear and often nurse children, and what happens if you take that away? Sedgwick’s answer is satisfyingly complicated, and whatever your instinctive reaction to the idea of an artificial womb, there’s probably something in this novel that will force you to think again. Sedgwick employs a range of fascinating characters, not only to consider the intellectual arguments, but to explore the emotional impact pouches have had after three generations of use. For Holly Bhattacharyya, who resisted the established gender roles in her conservative family to be the first person to use a pouch, the pouch is a symbol of liberation, the ‘meaning of her whole life’. Holly is fully aware of the dangers of ‘natural’ pregnancy and childbirth for both mother and baby, and ‘she was not going to give up on her better world.’ For Eva, a professional protester, whose mother Avigail believed in the celebration of sexual difference, and feared that the pouch would make women obsolete, resisting is instinctive, part of her family inheritance; ‘she felt that she had to protect something that was being lost.‘ For Julianne, whose career has been enabled by the more gender-equal workplaces that have resulted from pouch birth, ‘the idea of carrying a growing life inside her for nine months just felt wrong. It felt unfair.’ For other women, like Holly’s nervous, silenced mother, the question is not about patriarchy or power: ‘ “Actually, I rather loved giving birth to my children,” she says.

Sedgwick resists a number of binary cliches in The Growing Season – technology is evil! Natural is good! Intellect is bad! – and it’s a much more powerful read for recognising, that for all these characters, both the facts and their feelings matter. Eva seeks justification for her natural revulsion against the pouch, but finding out that the rate of stillbirths is the same in pouches than in pregnancies helps her find a more balanced view. Similarly, Holly recognises that there may not be only one way for women to be freed. The society that Sedgwick imagines is clearly still patriarchal, although a patriarchy that has been modified through the widespread use of this technology, and, as such, it’s completely convincing. She’s particularly good at what-ifs; abortion becomes much less common now embryos can be transferred into pouches, but what happens to all the children born without parents – especially now adoption is much less common now infertile couples can use pouches? Do pouches facilitate domestic abuse, because men can more easily control unborn children, or reduce it, because women are no longer vulnerable when pregnant?

The Growing Season made me realise how much of my uncertainty about whether or not to have children is bound up with the realities of pregnancy, birth, and the way in which these biological processes enforce unequal relationships between men and women. Others will probably read it very differently, and one of the things that Sedgwick does so well in this novel is to make space for all kinds of reader, encouraging us to see the issue from other viewpoints, even if we think our opinions are fixed. This excellent book has received barely any critical attention, and I really hope the publishers give it more of a push when it comes out in paperback – it deserves to be read very widely.

Tempests and Slaughter: Numair Returns!

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I’m a long-time fan of Tamora Pierce, having read her first Alanna novel when I was only seven years old. In the following years, I ploughed through the rest of the Alanna quartet, her other Tortall-set books – including my absolute favourite, the Protector of the Small novels – and her Emelan novels, Circle of Magic, The Circle Opens and Will of the Empress. This is the first of her very recent novels that I’ve tried, and overall, I felt disappointed. Tempests and Slaughter has an exciting premise for any Pierce junkie, especially those who’ve read her Immortals quartet. It focuses on the ‘early years’ of the great mage Numair Salmalin as he trains at the Imperial University of Carthak and befriends fellow student Ozorne, who is very distantly in line for the Carthak throne, and the pretty, talented Varice.

In many ways, Tempests and Slaughter shares close similarities with other Pierce books – most obviously, Alanna: The First Adventure, First Test, and the whole of the Circle of Magic series. Some of Pierce’s novels have always had the tendency to focus on the quiet beginnings of an education, rather than significant events, and this is usually a theme I really enjoy. Pierce writes very well about learning new skills, about dedication and friendship, and I was hoping to find all these things in Tempests and Slaughter. To an extent, I did – but the book is simply too long. At 432 pages, it’s at least twice the length of any of the novels I’ve just mentioned, and it just drags and drags. There’s no central plot-line, and no sense of progress by the end of the book. If you have a clear recollection of the events of Emperor Mage – and I have to admit that I had to look these up, having never particularly got on with the Immortals quartet – there’s some interest here in re-encountering familiar characters, but even that’s surely not enough to carry the entire story.

There are some promising threads in Tempests and Slaughter. I really liked young Numair’s – Arram Draper as he’s known here – encounter with the brutality of the gladiatorial arena, and his growing friendship with one of the fighters, who turns out to have a link to his future. I also enjoyed the sequence when Arram is flung into the middle of a plague and has to use his Gift to provide medical care – it reminded me somewhat of a similar sequence in The Healing in the Vine. If the book had focused more on these plot-lines and less on the back-and-forth between Arram, Ozorne and Varice, it would have felt less repetitive. It would also have helped to differentiate it more from the now huge number of books about wizards going to wizard school (although I appreciate that this is a book Pierce has been planning for a very long time.)

I would read another book in this series, but I hope that the next is more tightly-plotted and/or shorter.

I received a free copy of this novel for review from the publisher via NetGalley. It’s out in the UK on 20th September.

Genre fiction round-up, July/August 2018

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Tell the Machine Goodnight, Katie Williams’s first novel for adults, is clever, gripping and smoothly written, if a little insubstantial. The central conceit is that, in a near-future world, the Apricity machine can give you a short list of actions that will make your life happier – even if they seem at first to be completely illogical (the first customer we see is told to amputate the upper section of his right index finger). The book hovers somewhere between a continuous narrative and a collection of interlinked short stories – we do return to characters and plot-lines, but we also dive off into tangents that are not always tightly related to Apricity, such as the couple of chapters near the end that explore the celebrity of Calla Pax, an actress known mostly for dying in different, gruesome ways in body horror films.

Williams’ earlier experience writing YA fiction is especially evident in the chapters concerning Rhett, whose mother Pearl works for Apricity and who is currently struggling with an eating disorder. However, these chapters don’t feel jarring, and Rhett’s plot thread was actually among one of those I found most interesting, as Pearl tries to deal with the idea that the machine thinks that the only way to make her son happier is for him to harm somebody else. Although, again, this material didn’t have a great deal to do with the Apricity machine, I also liked Rhett’s investigations into the recent humiliation of his friend Saff at school, and his later friendship with his roommate Zi at college, when they climb ‘imaginary’ [virtual reality] mountains together.

As this suggests, Tell the Machine Goodnight is less about one specific idea than a wider consideration of how technology affects our responses to other people, from the idea that pain and fear can be recorded and transmitted to a film audience, to the ability to meet up with a friend in a virtual space. As this is a common theme in recent fiction, the novel doesn’t feel especially original, but I liked its balanced consideration of both the positive and negative impacts of tech, and its Black Mirror-esque interest in thinking about what humans do with technology, rather than assuming that the machine itself is all-powerful. I’d certainly like to read more by Williams.

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

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When Emma was a teenager, a summer at Camp Nightingale turned into a nightmare when the other three girls in her cabin vanished without a trace. Now twenty-eight, she’s returned as a resident artist with three new teenage girls to supervise. Haunted by the unsolved mystery in her past and the lies she told, she determines to find out what happened to her former acquaintances – especially when it seems that somebody may be out to get her in the present day.

This formulaic psychological thriller is somewhat uplifted by its summer camp setting. I have never actually been to summer camp, but this took me right back to all the ghostly children’s and YA books and TV set at summer camp that I loved when I was younger – especially the Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode, ‘The Tale of Watcher’s Woods’, and the Sweet Valley Twins Super Chiller The Secret of the Magic Pen. Riley Sager’s previous novel, Final Girls, started off well and got increasingly sillier as it went along, and to an extent, the same is true of Last Time I Lied, which also sags in the middle, though the climax is satisfyingly atmospheric.

I’ve been discussing the ‘anachronistic’ nature of this novel on Goodreads with Rebecca, and it strikes me that it pulls off the rare feat of being doubly or perhaps triply anachronistic. As this Kirkus review points out, both the 2018 and 2003 settings feel off in their details. While I disagree with the precise example cited in the review (I don’t see why a teenager wouldn’t freak out about her first period whenever she got it), I would agree that the 2003 summer felt wrong in general; I kept on thinking that it was set in the 1970s or 1980s, and hence thinking that Emma was much older than she is. There’s also a historical bit that comes to light when Emma is researching the nineteenth-century history of the campsite that is just very silly; I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers.

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

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Rachel Heng’s debut, Suicide Club, is set in a world where longevity is valued above all else. Lea, our central character, already has a predicted lifespan of three hundred years, and is hoping that if she does everything right, she can become part of the first group of ‘Immortals’. However, her life takes an unexpected turn when she bumps into her fugitive father and is put under Observation for being ‘antisanct’, or not ‘life-loving’ enough. As Lea tries to work out why this is happening to her, she’s drawn into the world of the Suicide Club, a group of people who publicly take their own lives to expose what they see as the horror of living forever, and meets Anja, whose mother’s body has broken down even as her mechanical heart keeps on beating.

This is obviously a concept-drive novel, but unfortunately, I found that Suicide Club was more interested in short-term intrigue than in believable worldbuilding. It touches on some of the issues raised by Mark O’Connell’s wonderful To Be A Machine, but fails to think with any seriousness about the wider implications of the world it imagines. To suggest just a few possibilities: what does this do to ideas about age, and what it means to be a fourteen-year-old, a thirty-five-year-old, a seventy-year-old? The novel tells us that formal education now lasts much longer, but doesn’t even attempt to consider how ideas of life stages might have changed in consequence. Has women’s (and men’s) fertility been extended alongside their lifespan, or must childbearing be crammed into what must feel like a much smaller window – and is this why the birth rate has dropped? Why are certain people selected for life extension therapies while others are not? (The novel suggests this has something to do with money and connections, but doesn’t tie up the loose thread.) Other details – such as the idea of a ‘stock exchange’ in human organs – are clearly dropped in for pure shock value. Why would such a stock exchange be needed in a society that can build hearts from scratch?

Suicide Club also falls into the very familiar dystopian trap of making its futuristic world utterly miserable, refusing to suggest that there might be anything better about the society it imagines. Even when Lea notes that work days are now kept strictly to nine to five, because overwork was identified as a key driver of ill health, Heng has her reminisce about all-nighters spent at the office and the camaraderie this built with her co-workers. Really? This leads to the uncomfortable glorifying of the Suicide Club, and the ultimate hammering home of the message that living forever is a Bad Thing. Again, O’Connell’s questioning approach to such a topic is absent. Living three hundred miserable years because you can’t enjoy anything for fear it might make you unwell may be undesirable. Living indefinitely (there’s no suggestion that becoming Immortal means it is impossible for you to ever end your life), presumably with far less restrictions, does not seem to necessarily be a bad thing. Suicide Club wants to tell us that our obsessions with exercise, health food, sleep and dieting are wrong (fair enough), but it does this against the background of a society that’s so different from ours that this message no longer makes any sense.

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

PS I once read a very good novel called The Suicide Club by Rhys Thomas, that seemed to receive no critical attention whatsoever. It’s nothing like Suicide Club, but I thought I’d mention it as we’re here.