A Weekend of No Reading!

I don’t think I have had a weekend of no reading – no books, no newspapers or magazines, no social media or podcasts – since I learnt to read. I certainly am not far from a book unless I’m actually on holiday seeing exciting things, not stuck at home in my usual routine. However, I decided to try it out as one of the suggested exercises in Julia Cameron’s famous text The Artist’s Waywhich aims to help you recover a healthy creative practice (Cameron thinks you should actually do a week of no reading, but this was not going to happen with the kind of job I do).

This is a pictorial representation of my normal weekend (I do sometimes see people as well):

So what did I do instead? And did I gain the clarity of mind that Cameron promises?

I…

  • did the writing tasks from The Artist’s Way
  • cleaned the house much more thoroughly than usual
  • talked to my housemate
  • watched most of Hellbound (highly recommended. Cameron thinks you should also not watch films and TV, but as my attention span for films and TV is awful, I thought this was a good opportunity to practice focus).
  • watched Mother/Android (not very good)
  • went to the roller disco to practice my skating
  • did hot yoga
  • watched a couple of recommendations from the Guardian short film list
  • did a couple of Yoga with Adriene sessions
  • meditated
  • drew the pictures for this blog
  • wrote 1000 words of the new draft of my Antarctic novel
  • had a candlelit bath listening to a Laura Marling album (I never listen to music normally)
  • walked my English springer spaniel puppy
  • went to a vigil for Ashling Murphy that was held outside the Tyneside Irish Centre [image below]

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What were the results of a normal weekend with no reading?

  • I was surprised to realise how lonely I felt without being able to read anything at all. On the upside, I definitely had more social energy and felt more open to chatting to people.
  • Bus journeys were especially boring, but I was also surprised at how easily I could become lost in my own thoughts without the temptation of my phone or Kindle, and how I enjoyed observing the scenery and the other passengers.
  • I definitely felt more clear-headed this weekend, and I was very productive with my own writing – which is what Cameron promises.
  • I found it hard not to have books to look forward to – giving up social media and the rest was surprisingly easy, but I definitely use reading as a reward.
  • I realised how much I fill time between tasks with reading or browsing. Without being able to do either, I became incredibly efficient!

Would I do it again?

Yes – I would definitely do a much longer stretch without social media or news, and I could even be persuaded to do a longer stretch without books – but I think I’d like to be somewhere more interesting while I did it!

One thing I definitely want to try is not using my phone when I’m out and about, except for Google Maps etc. I really don’t need it.

Would you ever try a period of time with no reading of any kind? Have you done it already, and if so, what was your experience?

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Happy weekends past.

Book Review: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

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Forty-year-old Nuyorican Olga is a wedding planner for New York’s super-rich, making lots of money on her fees (plus interest for late payments) and even more by clever deals on the side, whether it’s appropriating hand-stitched cloth napkins for her cousin’s own wedding or selling on black-market cases of champagne to her clients for a significant mark-up. Her brother Prieto is an ambitious congressman representing his own Brooklyn neighbourhood, but is considered a ‘sellout’ on community issues – from putting his signature to PROMESA, an oversight board appointed for Puerto Rico by the Obama administration in 2016, or giving unscrupulous businessmen free rein to pursue ‘development’ projects in his home territory that don’t benefit the locals. (In regards to the latter, Prieto feels his hands are tied – despite being married with a child, he’s secretly gay and has been threatened with exposure if he resists.) The siblings’ mother, Blanca, organises a revolutionary group called the Pañuelos Negros [black bandannas] back in Puerto Rico, seeking independence for the island, and thinks both of her children have totally wasted their lives – a view she expresses in numerous passive-aggressive letters over the years, even though neither Olga nor Prieto have seen her since they were teenagers and have no way of writing back.

Olga Dies Dreaming, Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut novel, is an utter mishmash of genre, but nevertheless, it’s never tonally jarring; Gonzalez skilfully handles the various strands here so this doesn’t feel like a romcom with some politics smashed in, or a political thriller with romance added. This strengthens the novel, moving it away from familiar narratives of immigrants making new lives in New York (Dominicana by Angie Cruz, Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue) or racier tales of social climbers accumulating wealth (Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, White Ivy by Susie Yang). The principal reason this all holds together, I think, is how well Gonzalez writes the two siblings, especially Olga. Olga’s own life moves between breakfast talk shows, competitive family gatherings, political fundraisers and radical messages from her mother; therefore, it makes sense that this story does the same. I also loved that she wasn’t the classic twenty-something protagonist of this kind of novel – it’s refreshing to see an older woman negotiating these kind of issues.

Where Olga Dies Dreaming both intensifies and falls slightly apart is after Hurricane Maria devastates Puerto Rico, which happens relatively late in the novel and causes crises of conscience for both of the siblings. Here, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that the most radical ideas in the novel are solely voiced through the siblings’ neglectful and abusive mother, which seems to nudge the reader to reject them in favour of the ‘middle ground’ favoured by Olga and Prieto, even as they recognise that their previous attitudes need altering. Spoilers – highlight to read. In particular, when Olga’s mother asks her to seduce a powerful businessman to gain a large order of solar panels for Puerto Rico, which would help the country become more self-supporting in the wake of widespread electricity outage, Olga ultimately refuses because she has fallen in love with someone else and wants to be more true to herself – despite the fact that she was happy to seduce the same guy earlier in the novel just to get invited to a party to gain more influential contacts for her wedding business. When Gonzalez has the businessman rape Olga, it feels both gratuitous in the context of her character development, and a device to make us confident that Olga did the right thing. End spoilers. However, as a white English woman who knows very little about Puerto Rico, I’d be really keen to see how Puerto Rican readers respond to this novel – I found this Goodreads review very interesting, although there are other more positive reviews from Puerto Ricans. To be fair, I felt that Gonzalez was trying to present a nuanced portrait of Blanca – it’s just that I didn’t think this quite came across in the novel, partly because we see very little from Blanca herself, and hear from her mostly through her letters.

The original pitch of this novel was apparently: Robin Hood wedding planner robs from her clients, sends money to mother (revolutionary?) to fix house in Puerto Rico [source], and that sounds AMAZING, but it’s not quite the novel we got. Still, the novel we got is still well worth reading.

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

2022 Reading Plans

In this post, I’ve picked twelve 2022 releases that I am particularly looking forward to, then, as always, added a further eighteen books that I want to read in 2022, whether they are new this year or not. There are a few I didn’t read from my 2021 list that I’m still keen to get to, so those are included in the last eighteen.

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Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise (January 2022). This was on pretty much every ‘most anticipated’ list that I looked at, but there’s a reason for that. I loved Yanagihara’s first two novels, The People in the Trees and A Little Lifeand I love the blurb for this one: it presents three narratives, two set in alternative versions of 1893 and 1993, the third set in an imagined 2093, joined by themes of illness, race and power.

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Sequoia Nagamatsu, How High We Go In The Dark (January 2022).  Much like Yanagihara’s latest, this debut also promises an epic, near-future narrative about a fictional plague – in this case, a disease released from melting Arctic permafrost in 2030.

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Tochi Onyebuchi, Goliath (January 2022). I’ve not read anything by Onyebuchi before, but I love the sound of this: we’re (once again!) in a near-future Earth, this time in the 2050s, when the wealthy have fled to colonies in space, while the poor are left behind to survive on a dying planet. I was attracted by its  range of disparate narratives that will explore this world.

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Pankaj Mishra, Run and Hide (February 2022). This sounds like a thoughtful thriller, following Arun and his friends, who are determined to make their way out of their small town in India and will do anything to succeed – but will their past catch up with them after they make it big? This marks Mishra’s return to fiction after twenty years.

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Elaine Hsieh Chou, Disorientation (March 2022). I’m not convinced by the cover but I love everything else I’ve heard about this debut: a Taiwanese-American PhD student is researching a canonical Chinese poet when she stumbles across a revelation in the archives. Alexander Chee thinks this is ‘a deeply original debut novel that reinvents the campus novel satire as an Asian American literary studies whodunnit’.

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Julia Armfield, Our Wives Under The Sea (March 2022). Again, on lots of people’s lists, and it sounds great. It combines a lot of my personal favourite things in fiction: deep-sea exploration, lesbians and horror! Also, the cover is epic.

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Emily St John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility (April 2022). I was excited about St John Mandel’s last book, The Glass Hoteleven though it didn’t sound like my sort of thing, because I loved Station Eleven so much. The Glass Hotel was one of my favourite reads of last year, and now this comes along, which definitely does sound like my sort of thing: once again, it skips between the future and the past, and features time travel, metaphysics and a moon colony. I CAN’T WAIT.

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Nghi Vo, Siren Queen (May 2022). I like novels about film-making, and this promises a great twist on the usual formula; it follows a Chinese-American actress in a speculative version of Old Hollywood, where ancient magic is running the show.

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David Santos Donaldson, Greenland (May 2022, US). I just love the blurb for this: ‘A dazzling, debut novel-within-a-novel in the vein of The Prophets and Memorial, about a young author writing about the secret love affair between E.M. Forster and Mohammed el Adl—in which Mohammed’s story collides with his own, blending fact and fiction.’

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Sandra Newman, The Men (June 2022). All men mysteriously disappear from the face of the earth. SOLD.

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Morgan Talty, Night of the Living Rez (July 2022, US). Spotted on Rachel’s list. This debut collection of short stories is set in a Penobscot community in Maine, and sounds like it could be brilliant.

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RF Kuang, Babel (August 2022). I’ve wanted to read this ever since I first heard the premise; it’s a dark academia set in early nineteenth-century Oxford, which deals with ‘student revolutions, colonial resistance and the use of translation as a tool of empire’! SO EXCITED.

The Rest Of The List

Kristen Schilt, Just One Of The Guys?: Transgender Men And The Persistence of Gender Inequality. From my 2021 list, but I’m still keen to read this exploration of trans men’s experiences.

Ben Lerner, The Topeka School. From my 2021 list. I liked both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04but for some reason haven’t got round to this yet.

Julianne Pachico, The Anthill. From my 2021 list. I loved The Lucky Ones so am looking forward to this.

Quan Barry, We Ride Upon Sticks. How have I not heard about this before? Teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s!

Kate Folk, Out There (April 2022). NetGalley ARC. A debut short story collection that sounds like it presents a series of fascinating speculative premises about ‘the voids in life’.

Gabrielle Zevin, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (July 2022). NetGalley ARC. Two kids bond over their love of video gaming when they meet in 1987, then eight years later start building games together. I rarely play computer games but love novels about them!

Jennifer Egan, The Candy House (April 2022). NetGalley ARC. I read my way through almost all Egan’s work back in the day but was very disappointed when I recently re-read A Visit from the Goon Squad (my original review; my re-read). Still, I’m happy to give her another chance, and I like the sound of this; a linked narrative that explores a world where our memories are no longer our own.

Lucy Caldwell, These Days (March 2022). NetGalley ARC. I usually avoid all fiction set in the Second World War, but I have a bit of a soft spot for fiction set specifically in the Blitz, plus this has lesbians and is not set in London: ‘[follows] the lives of sisters Emma and Audrey – one engaged to be married, the other in a secret relationship with another woman – as they try to survive the horrors of the four nights of bombing which were the Belfast Blitz’.

Kathy Wang, Imposter Syndrome (May 2022). NetGalley ARC. This sounds fun; it deals with Julia, a Russian intelligence agent in Silicon Valley, and Alice, a first-generation Chinese-American working at the same company. I like corporate thrillers, especially when they involve tech.

Lee Cole, Groundskeeping (March 2022). NetGalley ARC. This is ‘A love story set in the foothills of Appalachia about two very different people – Owen, from Kentucky, and Alma, the daughter of Bosnian immigrants – navigating the entanglements of class and identify in an America coming apart at the seams’. I was attracted by the Appalachian setting and the fact that Owen is taking a writing course where Alma is the writer-in-residence.

Charlotte McConaghy, Once There Were Wolves (January 2022). NetGalley ARC. I adore Sarah Hall but I was disappointed by her 2015 novel The Wolf Border, which focuses on a woman piloting a scheme to reintroduce wolves to the British countryside. Fortunately, this one has the same premise, though it’s set in Scotland, not Cumbria! I hope it lives up to its promise.

Xochitl Gonzalez, Olga Dies Dreaming (January 2022). NetGalley ARC. This is ‘the tale of a status-driven wedding planner grappling with her social ambitions, absent mother, and Puerto Rican roots—all in the wake of Hurricane Maria’. It’s a long time since I requested this but I think I was attracted by the New York high society setting plus the Latinx characters.

Kei Miller, Things I Have Withheld. I liked Miller’s novel Augustown a lot and this collection of essays sounds fascinating.

Iain Pears, Stone’s Fall. This is told in reverse chronological order and I’m currently fascinated by novels that use this device!

Tasha Suri, The Jasmine Throne. The first book in an epic fantasy trilogy, this promises lesbian romance set in ‘a world inspired by the history and epics of India’. 

Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories. I loved ‘Bloodchild’ so am very keen to read more short stories from Butler.

Nicola Griffith, The Blue Place. After how much I’ve liked everything else by Griffith I’ve read, I had to try this, though I’d never have picked it up based on the blurb alone!

Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression. This has been on my Goodreads TBR for far too long, so hopefully this will be the year I finally read it: it promises to explore how search engines like Google reinforce societal racism.

My Top Ten Books of 2021

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2020 post here, my 2019 post here, 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.

A note: I feel like 2021 has been one of my worst reading years for a long time, not in terms of the number of books I read, but the quality – or perhaps I was just very bad at picking books that suited my mood. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was struggling to find books for my top ten rather than struggling to choose between them. These books are still all great, but I’m hoping to have a better reading year in 2022.

In no particular order…

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1.My Dark Vanessa: Kate Elizabeth Russell. I held off from reading My Dark Vanessa for a long time, convinced that there was nothing new to add to the vast number of recent novels that deal with coercive, abusive relationships. But this collaboration between Russell and her teenage self made a huge impact on me. I reviewed it here.

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2.Light Perpetual: Francis Spufford. I loved Spufford’s clever and inventive Golden Hillbut I thought this was even better. Many readers and reviewers seem to have misunderstood its ‘alternative timeline’ conceit; it’s not a Sliding Doors type book, but kills off its ordinary protagonists at the beginning so we can feel the weight of their loss, even though they make no direct impact on history. I reviewed it here.

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3.A Deadly Education: Naomi Novik. Novik’s Spinning Silver was one of my favourite books of 2020, and this very different, but utterly delightful novel took me back to being a pre-teen reading the early Harry Potter books for the first time, although the narrative voice also reminded me of one of my adult SFF favourites, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. I reviewed it here.

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4. In This House of Brede: Rumer Godden. 2021 was the year of novels about nuns for me, and although there were some other nun novels that I really enjoyed (such as Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts), this was the best of the bunch. Set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s, this novel centres on new recruit Philippa, but expands outwards to give a portrait of the entire community. I reviewed it here.

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5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: George Saunders. This is probably the best book I’ve ever read about fiction-writing, even though it’s centred on a series of classic Russian short stories which I am not especially interested in. I’ve now signed up for Saunders’s online writing course on substack, Story Club.

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6. Slow River: Nicola Griffith. Nicola Griffith can’t put a foot wrong with me; this is the third time in a row she’s appeared on my top ten books list (after Ammonite in 2019 and Hild in 2020). Slow River is not only the best SF novel about sewage treatment I’ve ever read, but features a truly compelling central character and a skilful back-and-forth structure. No idea what’s going on with the cover of this edition.

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7. Transcendent Kingdom: Yaa Gyasi. What an incredible, cerebral, emotional novel. It’s brilliantly written, handles so many interesting ideas, and yet is so vibrant and human. I loved the protagonist, Gifty. I reviewed it here.

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8. Little Gods: Meng Jin. This is another one with a great, complex protagonist, which seems to be something I’m really looking for in novels at the moment: Su Lan is only the more fascinating because her story is told through a series of other narrators, and we never hear from her directly. I reviewed it here.

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9. Breasts and Eggs: Mieko Kawakami. This took me such a long time to read, but it was such a worthwhile experience. This strange, meandering novel about lonely writer Natsu has a great deal to say about parenthood and our responsibilities to the next generation. I wrote briefly about it here.

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10. In The Dream House: Carmen Maria Machado. Squeaking in just under the wire… I raced through this memoir between Boxing Day and New Year, hugely impressed by Machado’s ability to weave together self-narrative, fantasy, and academic reflections on how abusive relationships between women have been (not) written about before. Everyone who recommended this to me was right.

Reading Stats

I read 153 books in 2021. Slightly more than 2020, but quite a few less than my 2019 record, 175. This is pretty much where I want to be, so in 2022, I’ll again set a target of 150. However, I’d also like to start keeping track of how many books I re-read. This year, 11 of the books I read were re-reads, and I’d like to see that number go up in 2022.

I read 125 books by women (including one trans woman), 27 books by men, and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary.  This means I read the same percentage of books by men as I did in 2020 – 18%. I usually say I don’t care about upping the number of books I read by men, but this article has made me realise that I really want to read more by men of colour. Therefore, I’ve tried to include lots of books by men of colour in my 2022 Reading Plans, which will be up tomorrow. I also still want to read more from trans men, despite reading 0 books by trans men this year!

I read 43 books by writers of colour and 110 books by white writers. This means the percentage of books I read by writers of colour has dropped a little since 2020, to 28%. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2022.

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

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2021 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2021 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 2021, not necessarily first published in 2021.

Highly Commended

 In prize lists, I loved Annabel Lyon’s Consentwhich should have made the Women’s Prize shortlist – and Richard Powers’s Bewildermentwhich did make the Booker Prize shortlist.

The new Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was massively overhyped, but it was easily my favourite Rooney so far – I loved her clever use of psychic distance, switching between an observer’s view of her characters to their innermost thoughts.

In science fiction and speculative fiction, I thought the writing team behind James S.A. Corey pulled off a hugely satisfying conclusion to The Expanse series with the final instalment, Leviathan Falls – this series stuttered a bit in the middle but the last three books were all great, and Corey effectively tied up all the loose ends while wisely leaving the ‘dark gods’ of the universe still mysterious. Tade Thompson’s Far From the Light of Heaven was a hugely inventive space-opera-cum-crime-thriller with touches of horror. Will Maclean’s The Apparition Phase was a brilliant ghost story, something that is almost impossible to achieve at novel-length. Finally, Nina Allan’s short story collection The Art of Space Travel showcased what I love best about her writing in haunting stories such as ‘Flying in the Face of God’, ‘Four Abstracts’ and ‘The Art of Space Travel’ itself.

In historical fiction, I was pleasantly surprised by Stacey Halls’s engaging Mrs Englandwhich had one of the dreaded floral covers but actually featured a complex, sympathetic protagonist who works as a Norland nanny in Edwardian England. Meanwhile, everything this damning review says about Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary is true (except that Cambridge does offer a masters degree in eighteenth-century and Romantic studies – that’s Cambridge being weird, not Penner!). Nevertheless, I found it irresistibly fun and gripping, so I guess I recommend it anyway, if you can deal with the terrible history?

Finally, in YA and YA-adjacent, I liked Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter (one of my most anticipated reads of 2021) despite its pacing problems and tendency to spell things out for the reader – it follows an Ojibwe teenager who’s an unenrolled tribal member, and so feels she’s never quite fit into her family. Emily Layden’s All Girls gave me Prep vibes (amazing), and was serious and insightful about the inner worlds of teenage girls (rare). I picked up T. Kingfisher’s Bryony and Roses after loving her short story in Escape Pod; this Beauty and the Beast retelling is heavily influenced by Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, but still brings its own wit and logic to the table, plus a nicely chilling touch of horror.

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 have to say, there were a lot of disappointments in 2021. For whatever reason, this was a pretty lacklustre reading year for me. So this list is longer than normal.

I was disappointed by quite a few books written by authors I’ve loved in the past. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun promised a fresh take on AI but was just a tired rehash of Never Let Me Go. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness drowned in its own tweeness about literature, despite a promising central cast. And Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew abandoned all the subtlety of Elmet for Dickensian caricatures.

Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders unfortunately didn’t live up to her excellent debut, The Doll FactoryJessie Greengrass’s The High House had none of the originality of Sight. Mark O’Connell’s Notes From an Apocalypse was only mildly disappointing compared to his To Be A Machine until I reached the end, where he admits he regularly lies to his young son about the state of the world – this is horrific (children know what’s going on, so lying to them just leaves them alone with their fears). Sarah Moss’s The Fell confirmed to me that I don’t like the direction her writing is currently going. Finally, after loving Kindred so much, I did not get on at all with Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, although some of this was not Butler’s fault – so many YA writers have clearly copied her dystopian tropes that they now feel cliched in a way they wouldn’t have done when the book was originally published. Still, I found the heroine disturbingly monomaniacal and the diary entry format limiting.

At least some of this must be me, rather than the books! But I think it explains why 2021 felt like such a dud of a reading year, even though I also read many books that I loved. On that note…

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2021!

December Blogging Break and Rereading Month

November has been an incredibly busy and productive reading and reviewing month. I read all but two of the 12 books in my November Reading Plans (one, Learwife, I abandoned; and I’m still waiting in the library queue for Open Water). Then I managed to read another 7 books on top of that, for a total of 17! Even though a lot of these were novellas, this is still a pretty good month for me.

After that marathon, I’m feeling a bit burnt out. Part of it is that, sadly, very few of those 17 books were books that I unequivocally enjoyed. I loved two essay collections: Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days and Dan Coxon and Richard V. Hirst eds. Writing The Uncanny. I also thought Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees was hugely impressive.

But as for the rest… there were a few with moments of brilliance, like Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment, which I thought was overwritten but still had some genuinely interesting things to say, or Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank Youwhich had a couple of wonderful stories, or Touring the Land of the Dead in Maki Kashimada’s eponymous collection, or the essay on emojis in Namwali Serpell’s Stranger Faces. Apart from these, though, I feel a general sense of underwhelm about the rest of my month’s reading, much of which is already expressed in my reviews this month (The Fell, NetGalley Reads, The Haunting Season, SF Month, SF Novellas, More Novellas), but which I also felt about books I read and haven’t reviewed, like Tanya Byrne’s Afterlove and Emily Bernard’s Black Is The Body. At this point, I think that part of this problem is me as well as the books.

Therefore, I’m declaring December a blogging break and a rereading month. I’m reading three new-to-me books at the moment – Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper and The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai – but after I finish those, I’m going to only reread books I have already read until the Christmas presents come in! I’d like to take a break from reviewing, too, but hopefully will write something up about this rereading experience after I’d finished it. And of course I’ll be back to review my 2021 reading and make 2022 reading plans at the end of December!

Do you have any particular reading plans for December?

Does a rereading challenge appeal to you?

If you’ve been doing #NovellasInNovember and/or #SciFiMonth, have you discovered any gems?

More #NovellasInNovember: Kashimada and Serpell

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I looked forward to reading this collection of two novellas in translation from the Japanese writer Maki Kashimada (trans. Haydn Trowell) back in January 2021. I have to admit, part of the attraction was the cover; this design from Europa Editions is simply gorgeous. However, I’ve liked a lot of Japanese novellas and short novels in recent years, and was excited to try a writer new to me. And I enjoyed the first and longer novella in this collection, Touring the Land of the Dead, a lot. It’s an introspective third-person piece that focuses on Natsuko, who is accompanying her disabled husband Taichi to a spa hotel she used to visit with her family in her childhood. Natsuko’s family shun and jeer at Taichi for not being able to support Natsuko. However, as Natsuko’s mind darts between past and present, we learn that ‘that life’, her past with her mother and brother, was a place of horror for her, and she is still trying to shrug them off in the present. Natsuko’s striving to become her own person in the face of family expectations is a familiar theme from much Japanese fiction written by women that I’ve read, but Kashimada puts a different slant on it. As we come to realise, Natsuko has already got out, but can’t quite credit that she’s escaped.

The second novella in this collection, Ninety-Nine Kisses, is very different in style and tone. It’s narrated in first person by the youngest of four sisters, Nanako. Her three older sisters remain unmarried and living at home with their mother, and we come to realise that Nanako sees them as parts of the same whole, and is sexually possessive over them, although she denies their relationship is incestuous. As the novella develops, we realise there is something off-kilter about the whole family, who pride themselves on being able to engage in ‘dirty talk’ with each other as a sign of their closeness. This is undoubtedly a weird and disturbing story, but I didn’t find that to be a problem in itself; instead, the style didn’t work for me because it felt like everything was spelt out as explicitly as possible. There’s a sense that Kashimada wants to shock here with blatant sexual content, but this overshadowed the more interesting aspects of the relationship between the four sisters, and made it feel like nothing changed or emerged over the course of the novella, because it was all there from the beginning.

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(Technically, this is a short collection of essays rather than a novella, but it’s also Non-Fiction November, so…)

I put Stranger Faces on my 2021 TBR after being hugely impressed by Namwali Serpell’s essay on empathy in fiction. Serpell is a professor of English at Harvard, so it’s no surprise that these short essays on faces as signifiers have an academic bent. All have moments of real, accessible insight, but most use an interpretive framework that feels a little alien to somebody like me, who’s used to reading texts either as a historian or as an ‘ordinary reader’, whatever that is, rather than being trained in film or literary criticism. Serpell’s interested in how texts, both written and visual, are put together, excavating their juxtapositions and shots for layers of meaning, whereas I tend to think of texts in terms of story structure and unreliable narration. For example, ‘Mop head’, her analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the murder of Marion Crane, focuses heavily on the visual doubling that transfers the viewer’s interest from Marion to her sister Lila, whereas I’m more interested in thinking about Marion as a decoy protagonist and how this affects the storytelling (although unlike Serpell, I’m certainly no expert on Psycho!)

Both our sets of interests come together in ‘Two-faced’, Serpell’s essay on Hannah Crafts’ ‘The Bondwoman’s Narrative’, a novel that may have been written between 1853 and 1861 by an enslaved woman. If this book was really written by an escaped female slave, it would be the ‘only known novel written by a fugitive from slavery and the first by an African-American woman.’ However, as Serpell outlines, since this text was republished in 2002, academics have fiercely debated its ‘authenticity’, with some arguing that it was written by a white abolitionist. Serpell points out the anachronistic claims made by critics such as John Bloom, who argued that the text could not really have been written by an enslaved woman because of its multiple literary references and sophisticated vocabulary, which ignores the erudition of former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley.  However, she also deconstructs our assumptions about what makes a text ‘real’ or ‘fake’, highlighting Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s argument that no text can be truly pure, and that our instinctive assumptions about ‘tells’ that reveal a text’s authorship are often wrong (Crafts’ class snobbery has been cited by critics as a sign that Crafts must have been white and as a sign she must have been black). This reminded me, incidentally, of the female reviewer who thought Jane Eyre must have been written by a man because the writer had such a poor knowledge of women’s clothes.

Although I admired ‘Two-faced’, the real gem here is ‘E-faced’, the final essay in Stranger Faces, which I absolutely loved. ‘E-faced’ focuses on emoji, and while I’m sure Serpell is not the first writer to analyse emoji, this is the first serious piece on them I’ve read, and I found it fascinating. Serpell points out that emoji were intended to clarify meaning but, like all languages, have developed shifting and uncertain meanings of their own. She also thinks about how we use emoji – often ‘stacking’ them, posting multiple emoji in one go – and how emoji are almost always unnecessary, but add a kind of warmth to a message (which I guess makes sense of why I, personally, so often add a pointless one to the end of a text, e.g. ‘Hope you have a good time at the party!’ 🎉) There are also some great bits of trivia. Wittgenstein experimented with ‘proto-emoji’ in his ‘Lectures on Aesthetics’ in the late 1930s, arguing that simplified drawings of expressions could make language more flexible and more precise. And the word ’emoji’ has nothing to do with e- as in electronic or emo- as in emotion, but comes from the Japanese words (picture) and moji (character). Interesting stuff! 👍

Sci-Fi Novellas for #SciFiMonth #NovellasinNovember

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Premee Mohamed’s These Lifeless Things is a dystopian novella that switches between the diary entries of Eva, a forty-something survivor of an apocalyptic attack, and the first-person point-of-view of Emerson, an anthropologist studying the ruins of her city fifty years later. Eva refers to the monsters that have devastated the world only as ‘Them’, and both narrators struggle to understand what they truly are/were: they don’t seem to be aliens who hail from the same kind of time and space as we do, nor beings that have emerged from Earth itself. The narrative chillingly hints at Their ability to affect human minds themselves, with millions committing suicide at the beginning of the invasion. In Emerson’s time, They have disappeared without a trace, but Emerson is convinced that her research is essential to understand what happened during the three years now known as ‘the Setback’. However, her colleagues in the hard sciences aren’t convinced, and tell her she is wasting her time studying Eva’s diary, even when what she finds in the ruins starts to mirror what Eva described.

I found These Lifeless Things to be an adept and skilful read, but it didn’t affect me in the ways I’d hoped. There was something in the way the story was told that made me expect more of a twist, or perhaps more of a sudden linkage between Eva’s world and Emerson’s. Unless I’ve been too stupid to miss subtle clues, this doesn’t really happen. Instead, Eva’s story devolves into a cliched -let’s-rescue-the-children plot, and Emerson’s frustrations with her colleagues are spelt out rather too clearly at the end of the novella when she bursts out: ‘you think there has to be an application for things we study? You think everything has to end up in some… lab somewhere, a product for people to buy. Well, I happen to think there are other questions in the world.’ The novella wasn’t quite as scary as I had hoped, either, despite some good lines about statues coming to life and trees being possessed by Them. I found Emerson’s sections much more engaging than Eva’s diary entries (but then I love fictional anthropologists and hate diary entries as a narrative device, so that was pretty inevitable) and I found myself wondering if this might not have been better, and more frightening, if it had been told completely from Emerson’s point of view, with perhaps quoted snippets from Eva’s entries. (Interestingly, Eva’s close alliance with another survivor in the face of this devastation reminded me of Sarah Hall’s pandemic novel Burntcoatbut I wasn’t sure what it added here). However, I would certainly read more by Mohamed.

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That was the dystopia, now for the utopia! I loved Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series and her previous novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, so her latest novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, was one of my most anticipated 2021 releases. Chambers’s brand of sci-fi is often described as cozy or comforting, but I think at its best, it’s optimistic; there are certainly darker strands in all of her previous work, such as the enslaved clones in A Close and Common Orbit or the horrific experience of having your ship buried in alien slugs in To Be Taught, If Fortunate. For me, then, A Psalm for the Wild-Built marks a bit of a departure; dedicated ‘to anyone who needs a break’, it is cozy to the max. Non-binary* monk, Sibling Dex, leaves their job tending the monastery garden to become an itinerant tea-monk, dispensing tea and advice as they travel around, but even this new life starts to feel limiting. When they strike out into the wilderness where the robots that humans made disappeared after the ‘Factory Age’, they meet robot Mosscap, and wander around with Mosscap chatting about life and humanity.

And… that’s it. I love positive visions of the future after endless recycled dystopias, but this felt so thin. It reads more like children’s fiction than anything else, but without the profundity and timelessness that the best children’s fiction delivers. The characters’ voices are far too similar for a novella that promises a meeting of two beings from very different worlds, and this makes their philosophical dialogue feel especially contrived. In general, I think Chambers’ meditations on ethics are original and engaging, but she doesn’t manage to make them feel organic in this story. By the end, I wished we had just stayed with Dex handing out different kinds of tea to suffering people; that’s the kind of cozy I could possibly suspend my critical faculties for.

*I’m not sure if this is the right term in this futuristic context – Dex describes themselves as ‘not having a gender’, while other people in this world do use gendered titles and pronouns.

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As the hip-hop group clipping explain in their afterword to The Deep, this novella emerges from a collaborative creative space. clipping were inspired by the music of techno-electronic duo Drexciya to write their song, ‘The Deep’, which drew from the same mythology – an underwater world peopled by the descendants of enslaved, pregnant African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships. Solomon’s novella is another link in this chain, and I loved the way clipping described their contribution: ‘It’s a retelling that reaches back to the materials it adapts, and complicates them; makes them better. In this sense, Rivers has coauthored our song in as profound a way as we have inspired this book.’ I also liked the way clipping rejected the concept of this universe having a fixed ‘canon’: ‘We prefer to imagine each of these objects as artefacts – as primary sources – each showing a different angle on a world whose nature can never be observed in totality’. The Deep, therefore, draws from an incredibly rich imaginative space, telling a story about historical suffering, and who has to bear its weight. Its protagonist, Yetu, has been selected by the community as its ‘historian’, carrying these memories so the community doesn’t have to, but bringing them back together through the ritual of the Remembering so they retain their identity as a people.

The Deep is a portrait of Yetu and her community, who call themselves the wajinru, and so it is not, and does not need to be, plot-driven. Solomon evokes the deep underwater world of the wajinru atmospherically, as well as the ways they have developed away from their original human forms. However, given the nature of this novella, this fascinating world really needed to be matched by exceptional writing, and unfortunately, here it fell a bit short. Solomon’s prose wasn’t distinctive or memorable enough for me, and there is a tendency to spell things out that could have been more subtly conveyed, especially when it comes to Yetu’s internal struggles about her role as historian, which become quite repetitive: ‘She wasn’t used to having wants and needs of her own at all. It had always been a battle between what the wajinru needed, what the ancestors needed, and what she needed. A single lonely girl, her own needs never won.’ Thematically, The Deep is brilliant; it takes the central concept of Lois Lowry’s The Giver and thinks about it specifically in the context of the burden of memory that oppressed groups carry, and it also reminded me of the figure of Arha in Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, whose personal identity is ‘eaten’ by the Nameless Ones. But for this to work for me as a fiction rather than merely an exploration of ideas, it needed something else, something more.

#SciFiMonth: Yu and Binge

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I put Charles Yu’s second short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You, on my 2021 TBR after reading his short story ‘Good News Bad News’ in A People’s Future of the United StatesYu has been compared to the brilliant science fiction writer Ted Chiang, but honestly I don’t think they have much in common (cynically, you might say that they’ve been squashed together because they’re both Chinese-American men who write speculative short fiction). Chiang’s work is intensely cerebral and serious, whereas Yu’s short stories are much more playful, satirical and strongly reminiscent of early George Saunders (e.g. CivilWarLand In Bad Decline). Like Saunders, Yu is fond of making fun of American corporate culture and late capitalism, enjoying phrases like ‘the new slogan, Be The Person You Wish You Were™’ and ‘I’ve always loved Autumn®’. And as with Saunders’ early writing, this can work well for one story but quickly become tiresome over the course of an entire collection.

Luckily, there are some gems here. I thought the opening story, ‘Standard Loneliness Package’, was really wonderful; I read it twice in a row to fully appreciate how Yu pulls it off. It’s based on a pretty standard kind of science fiction premise; our narrator works in a call centre where people can pay him to feel their pain for them. However, Yu elevates this material beyond a simple ‘what if?’ by the skill with which he weaves various elements of the story together. His deliberately repetitive style builds resonance, so the final paragraphs are horribly moving even though you don’t quite know why. While nothing else in this collection is quite as good, the shorter ‘Troubleshooting’ works on the same kind of terms, but is even more pared down. Yu also gives us two stories that imagine what it would be like to be a character in formulaic fictional worlds; of the two, I thought the Star Trek inspired one (‘Yeoman’) was a lot better and funnier than the Dungeons and Dragons/World of Warcraft inspired one (‘Hero Absorbs Major Damage’). The rest of the collection is padded out with a lot of very short pieces that cover similar ground, which is a shame, because Yu’s best stories show that when he’s good, he’s really good.

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Professor Everywhere, Nicholas Binge’s debut novel, sounded right up my street: Chloe Chan, an international student at the University of Warwick, is determined to discover what the mysterious Professor Crannus is up to, and is drawn into a series of multiple worlds. I love books set at colleges or universities and I also love books that draw on physicist Hugh Everett’s many-worlds theory. To top that off, this novel has the kind of precise, contemporary historical setting that I also enjoy; it’s set around the time of the G20 summit in London in 2009. And to be fair, Professor Everywhere delivers on its promises, even if Binge’s version of time travel, with mysterious ‘Constants’ that remain the same throughout space and time, was a bit fuzzy for my liking. By the end, I found myself wondering why it never quite drew me in, as there isn’t anything obviously wrong with the story Binge is telling.

This might just be a mismatch between the book I wanted to read and the book Binge wanted to write, which is not anyone’s fault. Professor Everywhere is more of a straightforward time travel thriller than I expected from the blurb, with oblique references to the ‘Pimlico incident’ culminating in a satisfyingly dramatic resolution. Although it’s framed as Chloe’s memoir (complete with footnotes), Binge has more fun geekily referencing other SF writers than getting into questions of unreliable narration or subjectivity, which I found a little disappointing. And, despite being set at a university, the novel doesn’t really have a campus atmosphere – which is, to a degree, understandable, especially given Warwick’s thoroughly modern campus, but I still felt Binge could have done a little more with his setting (there is that beautiful lake!). I’d recommend this to fans of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter; less so to those seeking dark academia or really clever metafiction.

Netgalley Reads in November

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Ruth Ozeki’s third novel, A Tale for The Time Beingwas not only one of my favourite reads of 2013, but one of my favourite ten books of the decade (2010-19); her debut novel, My Year of Meatswhich I came to late, was one of my favourite reads of 2020. It’s such a shame, therefore, to admit that I really did not like her latest book, the 500+ page doorstopper The Book of Form and Emptiness. The basic story at the heart of it isn’t even a bad one; teenage Benny is dropping in and out of school after being diagnosed with a mental health condition, while his widowed mother Annabelle struggles with hoarding and mourns the senseless death of his father, Kenji. All three characters (even though Kenji is dead and doesn’t get much page-time even in flashbacks) are memorable creations, especially Annabelle, who is simultaneously sympathetic and deeply frustrating, a difficult balance for a writer to pull off. (I particularly enjoyed Annabelle’s correspondence with a Marie-Kondo-like figure who wrote a bestselling Zen guide to our relationship with things, Tidy Magic). 

And yet, this story, which could have made a good novel half the length of this one, is totally buried in twee narration from ‘The Book’ and saccharine asides about the life of books in general. (‘Books don’t have eyes or hands, it’s true, but when a book and a reader are meant for each other, both of them know it.’). I am really allergic to this way of talking about books, especially within fiction itself, and I’m ready to admit that I may be more annoyed about these cutesy sentences than is truly fair. However, there are other problems with The Book of Form and Emptiness that link to the childishness of its style; it veers off on a pointless tangent with a group of irritatingly quirky misfits, Benny’s ability to hear the voices of inanimate objects goes nowhere, and the end is so ridiculously rushed and unbelievable that I started searching for a meta explanation for it (did The Book make it up?), even though, as far as I can tell, there’s no textual evidence for this. If you really, really adored Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, you’ll probably like this; otherwise, my best advice is to read A Tale for the Time Being.

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

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Ann Patchett is a wonderful novelist, but in my opinion, her non-fiction is even better. I adored her memoir Truth and Beauty and her previous essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriageso I was keen to get my hands on her new collection of essays, These Precious Days. All I can say is, Patchett really has a gift; she manages to make the most trivial essays about her life, things that would seem self-indulgent in the hands of most other writers, somehow work. Knitting, decluttering, cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time for a group of stranded college students, not getting a tattoo in Paris; these snippets of prose are all easy and fun to read. I preferred the balance of pieces in This is the Story of A Happy Marriage, which featured fewer, longer pieces of work, as it’s in long-form essays that I think Patchett really shines.

Fortunately, there are some of those longer pieces here as well. I think most readers will find the title essay, ‘These Precious Days’, about Patchett’s almost accidental friendship with artist Sooki Raphael, to be the stand-out, and it does stand out; it’s beautiful and moving and actually helps me make sense of what people mean when they say writing is ‘luminous’. It’s a comforting beacon of an essay about human goodness, life and death. But there were other stand-outs for me as well. I loved Patchett’s wry, thoughtful reflections on choosing not to have children in ‘There Are No Children Here’, and, weirdly, her homage to the children’s writer Kate DiCamillo, ‘Reading Kate DiCamillo’, even though I haven’t read anything by DiCamillo myself and am not sure I intend to. ‘Flight Plan’, which is mostly about her husband Karl’s love of flying planes, demonstrates Patchett’s ability to weave all sorts of disparate material together into a coherent emotional whole, something many essayists attempt but few achieve. There are fewer big hitters here than in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and overall, I think it’s a slighter collection. But it’s still so worth reading.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 23rd November.