September Superlatives, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

The Best ‘Dark Academia’ Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman, published back in 2002 before ‘dark academia’ really became a trend as such, although it owes a bit to The Secret History. When Jane was a pupil at a private girls’ school by the shores of Heart Lake, both her roommates committed suicide. Now she’s back as a Latin teacher with her young daughter in tow. But as the lake gradually freezes over, the secrets Jane has been keeping all these years rise back to the surface. The Lake of Dead Languages is a pitch-perfect example of this sub-sub-genre. Goodman expertly interweaves the past with the present, and treads carefully enough to avoid too much melodrama, despite her sensational subject-matter. The biggest triumph, though, is the evocative atmosphere, and the way in which the lake functions so elegantly as metaphor; ‘overturn’, we learn, is what happens when a body of water cools, with the denser, colder water sinking to the bottom and the warmer water rising to the top to cool in its turn. I found a number of the revelations predictable, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment; if anything, I liked seeing how Goodman was setting up her dominos.  If you liked Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House, Bridget Collins’s The Betrayals or Tana French’s The Secret PlaceI’d suggest trying this one. [My copy was discovered in a little free library!]

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly. Loosely based on Kit Williams’ famous Masqueradethis novel invents another treasure hunt started by The Golden Bones, a picture book full of clues that lead to a set of tiny golden models of a folktale lady’s bones. Decades on, so-called ‘Bonehunters’ are still obsessed with finding the final bone, and Nell, who has grown up under the shadow of this book her father wrote with his best friend, is still dealing with the fallout. Erin Kelly is known for her sophisticated thrillers, but this felt like a step beyond even what she’s done before, with such psychological realism as she explores the network of relationships within Nell’s family. It took a little while, but ultimately I fell in love with this complicated, intricate story. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I Read This Month Was… 

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… Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored by Jeffrey Boakye. I’ve read a number of excellent recent books on black British culture and the legacy of the British Empire – Akala’s Natives and Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) come to mind. Black, Listed isn’t quite as good as those two, but Boakye cleverly structures his reflections around the language that has been used to describe black people in Britain, and the language they use to describe themselves. So we have short sections on official descriptors like ‘Afro-Caribbean’, ‘ethnic minority’ and ‘person of colour’, alongside openly derogatory language like ‘half-caste’, historical terms like ‘Moor’ and what Boakye calls ‘loaded terms’ like ‘ebony’, ‘exotic’ and ‘powerful’. (In a book full of violent words, I found it striking that Boakye admits that the thing he’d most hate to be called is ‘sellout’, which reflects his continuing struggle with his black identity and his fear of being seen as ‘not black enough’.) This tight focus on terminology was consistently thought-provoking, even if some of the content was familiar. I’ve immediately set a section of the book for my undergraduates.

The Book That Left Me Feeling Most Conflicted This Month Was…

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… The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. Hustvedt is always a cerebral writer, but I found this significantly more challenging than What I Loved and Memories of the FutureHarriet Burden has struggled for artistic recognition all her life, and now, in early old age, she conducts an experiment that she calls the ‘Masking’: she stages three art exhibitions using three different male artists as her alter egos, and watches as the accolades roll in. The book is told via a compilation of Harriet’s notebooks, written or spoken accounts from other key players, and reviews of the shows. I’ve no doubt this novel will stay indelibly fixed in my mind. Hustvedt brilliantly explores how Harriet’s art changes as she imagines herself as each of the three men she chooses, and how she creates a complicated web of self-reflection, writing to an art journal under yet another male name to both reveal and critique her own project. You get the sense that Harriet’s fatal flaw is that she can’t quite recognise that the rest of the world are not as clever as she is. She’s a marvellous character. Having said that, though, I felt this worked better as a thought experiment than as a novel. I found some sections nearly unreadable, and others dragged down by the weight of academic footnotes that added very little. Like Harriet, it’s a bit too smart for its own good. Hustvedt’s follow-up, Memories of the Future, is a much better piece of fiction; still, I’d rather read a book like this than many tidier novels. [Borrowed from my local library #LoveYourLibrary]

The Best Romcom I Read This Month Was…

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… Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn. This charming first novel is basically rebranded ‘chick lit’, of the sort I used to devour in my early twenties, and none the worse for that, especially as it changes things up by starring a dark-skinned Nigerian-British woman. Yinka is tired of being asked by older relatives when she is going to find a ‘huzband’ – especially as she’s secretly a hopeless romantic and would love to settle down with a man. So she finally agrees to try out some of the strategies recommended by her community, including attending a different (more evangelical, less C of E) church with lots of eligible bachelors. I adored Yinka, and her story is great fun. A more light-hearted version of Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie and a better-written, more engaging version of Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. 

What were the best and worst things you read in September?

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15 thoughts on “September Superlatives, Part 2

  1. Enjoyed the roundup as always, Laura. I was particularly interested in your opinion of Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, which largely echoed my own. I read this several years ago, when it was nominated for the Booker. To my surprise, I actually liked it — I found myself thinking about the issues it raised long after putting the novel away — but at times I just wished the author would relax and stop trying to be so clever. And, yes, parts of the novel were pretty slow going. Still, a substantial work that IMO repaid the time I spent on it.
    I, too, love atmospheric novels and I’m mildly addicted to tales of dark academia (reminds me, I think, of the path not taken!). I remember reading Goodman’s Lake several years back and mildly enjoying it; your review reminds me of how much fun this type of novel can be.
    Oddly enough I’ve resisted Erin Kelly, although I like this genre very much. I read The Poison Tree some time back (I think it was her debut) and it didn’t quite take, as far as I was concerned. Perhaps it’s time to give her another go? At any event, Skelton Key sounds intriguing.
    As does Black, Listed, although for different reasons! I know so little of this aspect of British culture (TBH, I’m still at the beginning stages of learning about my own) and this sounds like a good starting point.
    My September reading was odd, as was my September (my first big trip since the pandemic, followed by (successfully) evading Hurricane Ian!). I struggled through my first novel by Thomas Bernhardt (Extinction), worthwhile but very, very slow going, for me at least. I did (finally) get around to Emily St. John Mandel’s latest, Sea of Tranquility, which I enjoyed but found a little disappointing. For sheer pleasure, my September highlight was Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, a tale of three old friends, in their seventies, who are evaluating their relationship to each other after the death of the fourth member of their group. It’s a great portrayal of female friendship, set in an age group that’s usually ignored. I owe the recommendation to Cathy at 746 books (https://746books.com/2022/09/01/august-miscellany-4/); when I get myself together a bit I need to click over and thank her!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Although I love her husband’s books, I feel a bit intimidated by Hustvedt – having only read her first novel The Blindfold, which was actually rather good if I remember correctly. I ordered the Erin Kelly book – my Dad and I spent hours and hours on Masquerade, and were actually beginning to get somewhere (I believed) when the hare was found!

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  3. I loved Black, Listed, it is different from those other two but really accessible, I thought, and very well done. And I loved Yinka, too, and you’re very right in those comparisons. Also loved that it featured an ace character and explained what that meant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I liked the ace representation but I think I appreciated Auntie Blessing even more; a presumably heterosexual woman who’s chosen other priorities in life over a relationship, though is now seeking love late in life! I thought she was a great contrast to both Yinka’s romanticism and the attitudes of other older members of Yinka’s community.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, she was brilliant, too, wasn’t she. I still go to my dumped-woman-moves-to-seaside-town-there-might-be-one-brown-person-and-one-LGBTQIA-person romances for easy escapism, but am really liking the Global Majority People “chicklit” which seems less formulaic and more diverse in lots of different ways.

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  4. I’m reading an example of ‘dark academia’ now, The Truants by Kate Weinberg, which is clearly supposed to be set at UEA and has the main characters taking a course on Agatha Christie. And there’s also a campus backstory in Hare House by Sally Hinchcliffe, one of my RIP reads.

    I remember being kind of in awe of the Hustvedt when it first came out, but if I tried rereading it would probably find it pretentious.

    I also enjoyed Yinka more than I expected to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, love it! Nice to see a dark academia set at a modern campus! (Another excellent example that springs to mind is The Body Lies). Didn’t realise there was a campus backstory in Hare House… that definitely makes me keener to read it.

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