Spring Reading Tag

51KTSiQPa8L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Taken from Elle Thinks.

1. What books are you most excited to read over the next few months? 

As usual, I have a small backlog of proofs: I still need to read Lisa McInerney’s The Blood Miracles and Colm Toibin’s House of Names, and I’ve also picked up a copy of Laline Paull’s The Ice. (I wasn’t a fan of her debut novel The Beesbut for reasons that were very particular to the story she’d chosen to tell – and I can never resist anything set in the Arctic or Antarctic.) I’m also very much looking forward to the fourth and last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child. As for books I’m yet to acquire, SO many, but especially Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims and Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers. In crime and thrillers, I’m most looking forward to Susie Steiner’s second novel, Persons Unknown, after loving her crime debut, Missing, Presumed.

2. What book most makes you think of Spring, for whatever reason?

I’m really struggling with this question! I can think of a plethora of summer, autumn and winter reads, but very little for spring. Perhaps Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley, a wonderful Beauty and the Beast retelling that is all about things coming back to life?

3. The days are getting longer – what is the longest book you’ve read?

I’ve no idea how this works out in terms of different translations etc., but my feeling is that it’s either Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Augustine’s City of God or Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. All are well over a thousand pages.

4. What books would you recommend to brighten someone’s day?

This obviously depends on the person, but Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is my top comfort read at the moment (and I know nothing about its two key themes: computer games and the 80s.)

232660475. Spring brings new life in nature – think up a book that doesn’t exist but you wish it did. (eg by a favourite author, on a certain theme or issue etc)

I used to read a lot of chick lit (as opposed to romance), and although I’ve rather gone off the genre in recent years, I still love really warm-hearted chick lit novels with great characters, like Nicola Doherty’s If I Could Turn Back Time, The Out of Office Girl and Girls on Tour. I’ve been thinking recently about how the gay male best friend has long been a staple of chick lit (at first, appearing in very stereotypical guises, but becoming more sensitively written in later years) but that lesbians or bisexual women never get a look in, even as background characters. (Bisexual men also rarely appear, and if they do, they are written as dangerous womanisers, men to avoid.) It strikes me that it would be brilliant to read a mainstream chick lit novel that fits in with all the genre conventions but is about a lesbian or bisexual woman. Apart from the main romantic plot line, chick lit already tends to deal heavily with relationships between women – conflict with a female boss, sub-plots with female friends or sisters – and it would be lovely to see this fully played out with a woman trying to find the woman of her dreams rather than the man. I would be rubbish at writing this, so I can’t have a go myself, but I wish somebody else would!

6. Spring is also a time of growth – how has your reading changed over the years?

Since records began (around the age of fourteen, when I began tallying all the books I’d read) there have been ups and downs. After getting seriously into adult fiction around the age of sixteen or so, the number of books I read every year dropped but the quality increased. I read more and more every year I was at university, culminating in my Best Reading Year Ever, 2008, when I read 119 books. After entering the world of work in 2009, and then embarking on a PhD, numbers dropped dramatically, and I’ve averaged around 80 ever since. In terms of what I read, I’ve steadily read classics and literary fiction throughout the years, but my ‘what I read when I’m tired’ reading has moved from chick lit (see above) to crime and thrillers, and is now moving more towards sci-fi.

7. We’re a couple of months into the new year – how’s your reading going?

One of the best things about 2017 so far for me is that I’m reading so much and enjoying it so much. I don’t think I realised it at the time, but I’d lost so much pleasure in reading since around 2009/10, and although of course I’ve read so many wonderful novels in the intervening years, I find I’m now coming to new books with a relish that I haven’t felt for a long time. My workload hasn’t significantly dropped, but I’ve already read 42 books this year, which means that I’m definitely going to smash that 80-ish average, and hopefully smash my target of 100 books in 2017. Can I beat THE BEST YEAR EVER? Probably not, but we’ll see…

9781909762299-wpcf_237x3608. Any plans you’re looking forward to over the next few months?

What I’ve read of the Baileys shortlist so far has hugely impressed me, so I can’t wait to get to the remaining three novels – Stay With Me, First Love and The Dark Circle (although I’m a little dubious about the last). I also still want to read the rest of the Jhalak Prize and Wellcome Prize shortlists – especially Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular, Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America, David Olusoga’s Black and British, and David France’s How To Survive A Plague.

In the time of dinosaurs*

BonesOfTheEarthThe plot of Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Campbell and Locus awards in 2002 and 2003, makes you feel like taking a deep breath before trying to describe it. Elevator pitch: palaeontologists are offered the opportunity to travel back in time to study dinosaurs. After a ‘deep creationist’ plants a bomb in their ‘time beacon’, a small working party of researchers are trapped in the late Cretaceous period, with no way home. Longer version: there’s so much more going on. To give a sense of it, the book kicks off with one of the main characters, palaeontologist Richard Leyster, attending a conference in Virginia, having just been offered the opportunity to use time travel in his research. However, the conference is taking place ten years in Leyster’s future, and the research he hasn’t carried out yet has already made him a legend. ‘Oh! You’re Richard Leyster! Oh, my goodness. I want to tell you that your book was so… Oh, right. It wouldn’t be out yet,’ gushes a fellow speaker. As the conference continues, things just get weirder. Leyster attends a talk by another significant character, Gertrude Salley, who is from ‘about thirty-forty years forward’ and is not allowed to reveal any information that hasn’t already been discovered in the present time. Unsurprisingly, Leyster and Salley end up sleeping together. Afterwards, Leyster is accosted by Griffin, who is orchestrating the entire project: he tells Leyster he is a ‘fucking idiot’ because Salley will, in the future, write a paper that is ‘the single most virulent refutation of your book ever printed.‘ The book, remember, that Leyster has not yet written.

If this kind of thing puts you off, Bones of the Earth is probably not for you. It flits between time periods in both the twenty-first century and in the Mesozoic era. It head-hops with equal abandon. Griffin, Leyster and Salley are the three central protagonists, but dozens of minor characters get a look-in. This weakens the novel, in my opinion; with such a crowded and complicated narrative, it could do with a strong emotional anchor provided by a single protagonist to guide us through. Instead, we end up flipping from Leyster’s research in the Cretaceous period to Griffin’s scheming in the 2040s to Salley’s grandstanding in the 2030s, and it’s very hard to keep up. About halfway through, after the creationist plot comes to fruition, we spend a lot more time with the stranded research group, and this helps to centre Bones of the Earth – until its final chapters, when it spins off on further adventures far into the Earth’s future. It’s too much to cram into a novel that’s barely more than 300 pages long. I rarely say this, but it could have been twice the length without feeling laboured.

I would have been happier to go with the flow of this novel if the time travel in it made any sense at all. It seems to me that there are basically two ways to handle time travel consistently in fiction: either accept that your characters are travelling back in the past of an identical parallel world, rather than the past of their own world, or allow them to travel back in their own past, while accepting the seemingly unbelievable truth that they will not be able to change anything that they haven’t already changed. (In other words, they’ll know that they can’t kill their own grandfathers, however hard they try.) David Lewis’s very famous metaphysical essay ‘The Paradoxes of Time Travel’ explains this second version in greater depth. Unfortunately, Swanwick goes for neither. His characters explain that they can change their own past, but they are not allowed to, because of the terrible consequences that would result. This quickly becomes very confusing, as it’s clear that the characters are allowed to interact with their own past in specified circumstances (they spend some time leaving notes for past selves), as long as they know they’ve already done it and the way in which they did it. While this does stack up, it’s hard to avoid asking how they could possibly guard against all the potential paradoxes that might happen, and how they always know exactly what to do in their own pasts. This version of time travel does turn out to be plot-important, but I couldn’t help feeling it was an extra complication the story simply didn’t need.

Having said all this: The Bones of the Earth is an exhilarating novel. Swanwick may have chucked far too many ideas at it, but this results in some wonderful set-pieces. His handling of the dinosaur scenes is brilliant, and made me wish that he had simplified the time travel apparatus considerably (the novel originally emerged from a short story called ‘Scherzo with Tyrannosaur’, which focused more closely on the dinosaurs themselves). There’s surely enough material for a novel in the vision of a future in which expensive corporate dinners are held in an underwater bubble in the Tethys Sea, full of swarms of ammonites… jewelllike teleosts… giant strands of seaweed’ and rudist clams that dominated the Cretaceous oceans before most corals existed? Or in the description of Hilltop research station, celebrating the sheer difference of the Earth millions of years ago, where ‘shallow seas so moderated the climate that even the poles were free of ice’ and ‘herds of triceratops speckle the flowered plains… their frills were all as bright as butterflies, dominated by two black-rimmed orange circles, like great eyes.’ Swanwick also has enormous fun playing with debates about why the dinosaurs went extinct so suddenly after the Chicxulub asteroid impact. He seems to have invented his own novel hypothesis about species communicating through infrasonic vibrations (like elephants and crocodiles do) which were silenced by the earth ringing after the impact of the asteroid (this is also a thing that happens) meaning that migration and co-operation patterns were messed up, causing eventual extinction. This is obviously not true, but I’m definitely up for some quasi-scientific hypothesising in time travel novels, and this twist, for me, alongside the ‘stranded in Tyrannosaurus rex times’ bit of the plot, could easily have carried the novel.

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SMITHSONIAN DINOSAURS

Would I recommend Bones of the Earth? For all of its faults, it’s competently and intelligently written, Hancock has a gift for explaining complex things clearly, and at least part of it is a time-travelling adventure with dinosaurs. For the kid in me that spent so many happy hours in the Smithsonian, the answer has to be yes.

*Animorphs homage

‘Because they could’

The_PowerWhen I was thirteen or fourteen, I read a number of science fiction and fantasy young adult novels that imagined matriarchal worlds where women held political and societal power, rather than men. These worlds were not necessarily presented as utopias, but they were usually peaceful, co-operative and somewhat passive in the face of threat. Published in the 1980s and 1990s, novels such as Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust (1985), and Jean Ure’s Come Lucky April (1992), already seemed to me to be very old-fashioned. Of course it was ridiculous to assume that women would rule any better than men, I thought. And why would you want to imagine such a world anyway? I devoured these novels, but regarded them with suspicion. I thought that I recognised them as part of a ‘feminist’ project that was itself out-of-date. (I’m not a feminist, I declared proudly at that age; basically, I was saying I’m not like other girls.) Concerns about gender had nothing to do with me and how I was going to live my life.

Most readers probably know the premise of The Power by now. Girls and women start to develop the ability to deliver fatal electric shocks through their fingertips. At first, this is regarded as a curiosity; then as an incipient threat; then as an existential crisis, especially as religious cults form around female religious leaders and women overthrow male-led governments. The book swaps between a number of viewpoints; Allie, who assumes the mantle of ‘Mother Eve’ and claims to perform miracles; Tunde, who starts off as a freelance reporter and soon finds himself being pulled into the unrest; Margot, running for state political office, and her daughter Jocelyn; Roxy, part of a family of organised criminals in Britain who, at the start of the novel, witnesses her mother murdered in front of her. These stories are tied together by a framing narrative that takes place thousands of years in the future, as a ‘male author’, Neil, presents them as an historical novel to his female mentor, Naomi. Channelling the Man Who Has It All, she  questions his conclusions about the world ‘before’: ‘I feel instinctively… that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’

Other reviewers have rightly criticised The Power for its curious silence on the subject of race, and how race might intersect with this new gender order, especially as it features one black and one mixed-race protagonist whom you might expect to have thoughts on this. Given that it’s already bitten off more than it can chew, I can forgive the novel more easily for not engaging with other axes of oppression. I don’t see any reason why the premise of The Power requires the novel to engage with issues of sexuality, or with trans issues, for example. As ever, I’d like to see more – or indeed any! – important gay, bi, lesbian or trans characters, but the omission is no more glaring here than in many other novels. Indeed, my main criticism of it would not be that it isn’t intersectional enough, but that it doesn’t take into account all the reasons for women’s gendered oppression. In physical terms, women are not solely oppressed as a sex class because they are physically weaker than men, but because they carry, bear and often nurse children. (Helen Sedgwick’s new novel, The Growing Seasonout in September, promises to explore a world where men can have babies, and I’m hugely looking forward to what feels to me like an exploration of the other ‘half’ of The Power’s conceit.)

Despite their physical inferiority to women, men in The Power still won’t have to deal with unwanted pregnancy, or pregnancy as a result of rape; they won’t have to spend nine months pregnant and then give birth; they still won’t have to take any time out from work at all to have their own biological children. This means that the nature of their oppression is not the simple flip-side of women’s oppression, but a different kind of subjugation. All this would feel much less problematic if the book simply lacked its framing narrative, which is where we see a gender-flipped world, and overall, I’m not convinced that the framing narrative adds very much. It introduces problems (surely The Power would be written very differently if it was an historical novel from thousands of years in the future? Wouldn’t there be more explanations for its ‘modern’ readers, and less explanation about things the writer would assume they’d know?) and doesn’t solve any. It recalls The Handmaid’s Tale a little too obviously. And yet, despite these issues, I already feel convinced that The Power will remain with me for a very long time.

It’s clear from the start that The Power is not going to be about a matriarchal utopia. And yet, I suspect my teenage self would still have held it at arm’s-length, because it makes it clear that sex, and its constructed counterpart, gender, both matter. A number of reviews of The Power have suggested that ultimately, it’s not really about gender, but about power itself. I’m not sure that’s the case: I think that the novel is about both gender and sex. Alderman seems to me to be interested in the power that men hold over women as a biological sex class. In other words, she’s concerned less with socially constructed ideas about gender, and more about the physical reality of the average man’s physical superiority over the average woman. The unreality of gender norms is demonstrated by the ease with which ‘female’ characteristics – such as emotional behaviour, caring personalities and the sexual double standard – are handed over to men once they are subjugated by women. Of course, we might argue that many of these things, such as the ability to nurture and support, are not undesirable at all, but made so by the unequal burden of emotional labour they require from women. And of course, that’s right. This, I think, is precisely the point that Alderman is trying to make; as she says in her excellent interview at The Writes Of Women, ‘of course it would be good not to be in fear of violence. But the only way we can conceive of that in the current system is by being the wielder of violence… So we want the freedom… but if nothing else were to change we’d just become the aggressor. Or to put it another way (and in the words of Audre Lorde): the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ 

The crucial conversation comes near the end of the novel:

One of them says, “Why did they do it …?”

And the other answers, “Because they could.”

That is the only answer there ever is.

Given its acknowledgement of the reality of the subjugation of women, and hence the importance of feminism, my teenage self would have wanted to run a mile from this novel as well. It’s that, more than anything, that suggests to me how important The Power is, even if its exploration of the world it’s created is necessarily incomplete.

***

An aside. At the beginning of 2016, I started a re-read project, where I planned to re-read classic books I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion had changed. I ultimately only got around to re-reading one novel (To Kill A Mockingbird) and decided that, basically, it hadn’t. However, reading The Power has inspired me to add The Handmaid’s Tale to the list. I’ve never been a big Atwood fan, but my skewed views on feminism as a teenager may have unfairly biased me against the novel, which I hated as a fifteen-year-old. Watch this space!

The state she’s in

GreatestHits-350Laura Barnett’s debut, The Versions of Us, had a clever, high-concept pitch: ‘What if one small decision could change the rest of your life?’ Its Sliding Doors-style narrative followed three versions of the lives of star-crossed lovers Jim and Eva, pivoting around a single moment when they either meet or don’t meet as students in Cambridge. Ultimately, I found it frustrating; the need to cover three versions of everything in Jim and Eva’s stories, from marriages to careers to children, made all three stories feel short-changed. It also became clear that Barnett and I have different ideas about what this concept is good for; while I wanted The Versions of Us to explore how fundamentally changed the characters were by their experiences, she was clearly more interested in thinking about what might remain constant. Given this, I’m not quite sure why I picked up her second novel, Greatest Hitsbut I’m so glad I did. Free from the restrictions of finding a smart hook for her story, Barnett’s talents as a storyteller really shine through. I found it a completely immersive read; the five hundred pages flew by.

Cass Wheeler is a well-known singer-songwriter in the vein of Sandy Denny or Joni Mitchell, her career kicking off in the 1970s with her first solo album, The State She’s In. Now, in 2015, having not released any music for ten years, she’s been tasked with choosing sixteen of her songs to appear on a Greatest Hits album, which she’s decided to do on a single day before having a celebratory party in the evening. This acts as a framing device for Cass’s narrative of her life as a whole, and thankfully, after the very early chapters, it isn’t too intrusive. I liked the fact that Barnett was able to jump back and forward in time throughout the novel, but frankly, Greatest Hits doesn’t need a narrative crutch of this kind. Cass’s life story is simply and beautifully told, and entirely gripping in its own right. Barnett’s clear writing somehow manages to breathe new life into the most familiar of themes, such as Cass’s awkward childhood and distant, unhappy mother. I liked Greatest Hits even more, however, from Cass’s late twenties onwards. So many novels think about teenagers running away from home who achieve early success in the field of their choice, but fewer devote as much time to the struggles of middle age.

One of the strengths of The Versions of Us was the attention Barnett paid to the full arcs of Eva and Jim’s lives, rather than foregrounding their youthful romance, and she does the same thing in Greatest Hits. I especially liked the scene where thirty-eight year old Cass is recording a song with a twenty-two year old rising star, Dinah McCombs. We’ve been primed by popular culture to expect catty competition between women in scenes such as this one, but Cass has only empathy for Dinah: ‘Standing in the vocal-booth in the New York studio, she looked across at the younger woman – so lithe and smooth-skinned, so filled with the expectation of imminent success – and felt a maternal stirring of fear for her, and the hope that she would not make the same mistakes Cass had made. But of course, she reminded herself, Dinah would make them – or she would find others of her own.’ (I’m a bit younger than Cass is in this scene, but this is how I feel towards some of my female undergraduates – although they will no doubt feel immensely and justifiably patronised if any of them read this, as most of them are much more sorted than I was at their age!)

Greatest Hits is a genuinely absorbing novel, definitely one to sink into over long summer evenings. Furthermore, it’s being released alongside an album by Kathryn Williams, produced in collaboration with Barnett, that features the songs that appear in the book – so that’s something else to look forward to.

I received a free proof copy of Greatest Hits to review. It will be released in the UK on 15th June.