October Superlatives

October superlatives already! You can also read my R.I.P XVII/Spooktastic Reads challenge round-up for this month.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry. Teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s! However, this evocative historical novel was also brilliant on how our perspectives on race, feminism and queer/trans identity have changed, not always for the better. My full review is here.

(Hon. mention: This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, which gives its time-travel narrative somewhat short shrift due to some odd pacing choices, but which partly makes up for this by its beautiful, poignant depiction of the central father-daughter relationship.)

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Patricia Wants To Cuddle by Samantha Allen. I hoped this short novel would be the right side of ridiculous, but unfortunately it was the wrong side of ridiculous. The finale of a Bachelor-style franchise is taking place on a remote island where a group of female hikers went missing decades ago. Unbeknownst to our Instagram-obsessed cast, a female Bigfoot is stalking the island, aided and abetted by a cult of lesbians. Doesn’t it sound engagingly weird? However, the execution was really off. The first two-thirds of the novel reads like a light thriller criticising social media, then the final third pairs gruesome horror with humour. There needed to be a much darker, more subversive undercurrent from the beginning to make this shift work. And while this book obviously wants to be queer and satirical, I still wasn’t a fan of the lesbian stereotypes which didn’t seem to do any interesting narrative work (the interspersed love letters were so cliched they were painful to read), and the cult of ‘Patricia’ needed a lot more page-time. A shame, because it has a good cover.

The Book That Was So Well-Written But Not Much Else This Month Was…

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… The White Rock by Anna Hope. Hope’s fourth novel follows four unnamed narrators in four different time periods, travelling in the same area of Mexico: the Writer in 2020, the Singer in 1969, the Girl in 1907 and the Lieutenant in 1775. All of her novels have been well-written, but The White Rock is on another level. The strength of her writing here, however, helped me really pin down why it is that none of her novels have quite worked for me (I’ve also reviewed The Ballroom and Expectation). The quality of the prose is definitely there but the quality of the ideas is consistently lacking. These four narratives are linked by a sense of worlds that are ending, relationships with the environment that are being destroyed. However, Hope has little new to say about this; once you try and look past the prose, the story dissolves. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Only Book I Read From The Booker Longlist Before The Winner Was Announced Was…

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… Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. This debut novel made this year’s Booker longlist but not the shortlist, and, while I admired Mottley’s writing, I’m not sure I’d have even put it on the longlist. Kiara is a black teenage girl living in Oakland who turns to casual sex work when she and her brother are threatened with eviction from their rented apartment; things turn even darker when the local police pick her up and force her to have sex with them at regular ‘parties’. Kiara’s voice is convincing, with some fantastic sentences: ‘the boyfriend I had when I was fourteen and still trying to live out childhood’; ‘a series of tingles have coursed across my forehead like that feeling when you’re blindfolded, but your body feels the eyes’; ‘Mama wore wide-leg red pants to go fall in love with Daddy and kept them even after they tore at the seams.’ The prose also occasionally waterfalls into long, run-on sections that feel utterly authentic for this seventeen-year-old narrator. However, the story itself felt too familiar, and Mottley sometimes tells us what we should take from a scene rather than letting it speak for itself, as in the otherwise strong set-piece when Kiara and a friend go to a ‘funeral day’, taking food and clothes from a funeral parlour: ‘Funeral day is a reckoning, when we mimic thieves and really just find excuses for our tears’. Despite the excellent writing, therefore, I doubt Nightcrawling will stay with me.

The Best Essay Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller. This was on my 2022 reading list; it was also shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize and the 2022 Jhalak Prize. As Miller explains in the introduction, these essays ‘are about things I have withheld’, quoting the poet Dionne Brand: ‘I am a black woman speaking to a largely white audience… so that there are some things that I will say to you and some things that I won’t. And quite possibly the most important things will be the ones that I withhold.’  He writes so thoughtfully about racialisation – how society constructs racial categories to put people into – and especially well, perhaps surprisingly so, about white women, in essays like ‘Mr Brown, Mrs White and Ms Black’, ‘The Crimes That Haunt The Body’ and ‘The White Women and The Language of Bees’. As Miller demonstrates, we tend to think of ‘race’ and ‘racialisation’ only when we think of people of colour, but ‘white’ is a constructed category as well. And as a black man, he’s acutely aware of his own perspective – structurally advantaged by his sex but not by his race, although his queerness complicates things further. The book largely focuses upon Britain and Jamaica, Miller’s two home countries, plus a trip that he takes to Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, but speaks to experiences of racism elsewhere too. There were a few very short pieces here that felt a little less necessary, but otherwise this is an excellent, elegant and moving collection of essays.

The Best Novel About Ballet I Read This Month Was…

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… They’re Going To Love You by Meg Howrey. I was enraptured by Howrey’s last novel, The Wanderers, a brilliantly dead-pan but richly thoughtful story that followed three astronauts training for a Mars mission in the Utah desert. They’re Going To Love You is a very different book. Carlisle trained as a ballet dancer in New York, relying heavily on the support of her father Robert and his long-term partner, James. In the wake of the 1980s AIDS crisis, she watched them both uneasily, reassured by their monogamy but haunted by the sudden deaths of young men they knew. The novel skips between Carlisle’s past and the present [c.2016], where we learn that Carlisle has been estranged from both Robert and James for nineteen years, after her father forbade her to contact them. Ballet has been served badly by fiction: most ballet novels I’ve read emphasise the tortured nature of the art and how masochistic you must be to want to devote your life to it. Howrey, a former professional dancer, presents a much more nuanced view. I doubt this will be memorable in the way that The Wanderers was, with Carlisle’s first-person voice already slipping from me. Nevertheless, it’s still all too rare to read a novel that stars an ambitious, childless woman who isn’t punished for her perversity. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 10th November. 

(Hon. mention: The Cranes Dance, Howrey’s first novel, which is much MORE about ballet than They’re Going To Love You is, and is also very much worth reading, but which I found a bit schematic in its depiction of the two Crane sisters.)

The Only Book In Translation I Read This Month Was…

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… Saha by Cho Nam-Joo. This short novel introduces us to a city-state called Town where you belong to one of three levels of society: either you are a full Citizen, an ‘L2’ who’s licensed for up to two years to fulfil particular jobs, or a ‘Saha’, one of the social outcasts who lives in the high-rise Saha estates. But Saha feels caught between two narratives, two types of story. One follows Saha resident Jin-Kyung’s determination to get to the bottom of her brother’s disappearance after he’s falsely accused of murdering his girlfriend. The other skips around between the people who live in Saha and is organised by the numbers of the units they occupy. I think I understood what Nam-Joo was trying to do with this second narrative, and I liked the idea of bringing the Saha estates to life through the voices of this peripatetic community. But it strays back too often to Jin-Kyung, and the individuals often blur into a litany of suffering rather than strongly coming forward in their own right. I also struggled with the choppy transitions and sketchy writing, which often felt like an early draft. I was struck to see that this was translated by Jamie Chang, who also translated Kim Hye-Jin’s Concerning My Daughter – and I had exactly the same problems with the prose in that novella! So, this at least may be a translation issue, but I still didn’t feel that Nam-Joo really pulled off what she set out to achieve here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 30th November. 

What were the best and worst books you read in October?

15 thoughts on “October Superlatives

  1. I felt very similarly about The White Rock, and it made me think of a distinction I saw Jo Walton make about “literary realism” (however useful or useless a category that may be) and “genre fiction” (ditto): genre fiction is more often *about* something else, something deeper, and literary realism is often content not to be. It’s a contentious argument, and I don’t think it applies to every book in either genre, but when I read books like The White Rock I totally get that line of reasoning, because it’s beautifully written and it *gestures* at being thematically coherent but it doesn’t actually seem to get there.

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    • This has kind of blown my mind (and made me wish I’d been able to study lit crit beyond A Level!) I’ve always thought that lit fic is ‘about something deeper’ and genre fiction is not. I obviously think that much genre fiction tackles complex themes, so happy to abandon that idea, but… what is the point of lit fic if it’s not about anything??? I get that literary writers don’t want to join the dots for us, but are we just meant to admire the beautiful writing? And if so, what’s the point of that?

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      • I don’t know, honestly. I suppose it’s this kind of thing that fuels a thousand reviews/columns/thinkpieces! Perhaps literary realism is also a mode that lends itself well to representing the essential formlessness of the experience of life? As in, you can have a novel like John Banville’s The Sea, which in my admittedly faulty memory doesn’t have much of a conclusion; it sort of says “this is the way things are, or the way things are for this one particular person, which may or may not resonate with your own experience, or the apparent experience of someone else you know, and what do you make of that?” Which seems inherently more worthwhile than solely aesthetic appreciation.

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        • I absolutely HATED The Sea so maybe we have our answer 😀 Although I have read books that really worked for me that I’d say had that kind of intent, e.g. Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief.

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          • Yeah, I didn’t like The Sea either, I don’t think it achieves that aim (if that is indeed its aim) particularly well. But like you, I’ve read other “literary realism” books that do seem to be aiming at that and did achieve it! So, as usual, any hard and fast conclusions are elusive… 😉

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    • I’m afraid I struggled with both the structure and the prose (or possibly the translation) in Saha. I hope you enjoy it more than I did! I’ve heard a few people say that about Nightcrawling, which is interesting, because I found it very quick/easy to read but quite forgettable.

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  2. I’m totally thrilled, to sit down on a rather dreary Monday morning (big highlight of the day: exercise class) to discover a fellow Meg Howrey fan!!! I really envy you the advance copy of her latest, which will be published in the U.S. on (I think) Nov 15. I loved Howrey’s The Cranes Dance (read it twice, at widely separated intervals). Although I think you’re probably right about Crane’s schematic treatment of the two sisters (I think Howrey also made the off-stage brother a bit too successful), it was so refreshing to read a novel about a woman following a very, very difficult career path, recognizing its costs and — loving it! I though the narrative voice was quite believable and Howrey’s depiction of the professional dance world (unsurprisingly) rang true. I haven’t read The Wanderers (the premise struck me as a little off, but given your glowing recommendation I may go for it); another of Howrey’s early novels, Blind Sight, was much weaker than Cranes but still definitely worth reading.

    My October reading was a bit of a mishmash; I spent lots of time looking at art books & exhibition catalogues. I did finish three novels, all in translation as I’m trying to wind up a challenge, and Diana Athill’s short story collection (also for a challenge). All of these were good, with Domenico Starnone’s Trick being the standout. Alina Bronsky’s debut novel, Broken Glass Park, was also quite good, but not as memorable as one of her later works, The Hottest Dishes In The Tartar Cuisine.

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    • Ah, I’m also excited to discover fellow Howrey fans! (See Ellen’s comment below as well!) I would really recommend The Wanderers, even if the premise doesn’t initially appeal – it’s a difficult book to summarise. And yes, Howrey’s treatment of ambitious women is one reason why I like her books so much. All the other adult books I’ve read about ballet make out it’s masochistic misogynistic torture, so I loved the more nuanced portrayal in both of these novels, and how she drew on her own experience (can’t quite believe she was clearly a v accomplished dancer and now is such a good novelist).

      I’ve not encountered any of the books you mention, though I have read Athill’s autobiographies. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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  3. I had coherent thoughts on these books until you informed me that there is a new Meg Howrey novel out in the world, and I had to drop everything to order it. I am so glad that you included it in your superlatives. I haven’t heard anyone else talk about it and, as a fan of Howrey, I am both annoyed that I didn’t know about it before and so excited to read it now!

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  4. Ah, now I really want to read the Kei Miller! and the Meg Howrey looks v interesting, too. I did skim “Black England” a bit because there was SO MUCH detail about legal cases and quotes from notes about them, even though it was interesting. Not sure what the best book was …

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