June Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. A shorter post than usual as I’ve reviewed more of what I’ve read this month via 20 Books of Summer.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

59236067

… The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley. It’s 1963, and Valery has spent six years in the gulag when he is abruptly transferred to a secret facility called Chelyabinsk 40, where his scientific expertise is required to study an irradiated forest and the animal life within. However, Valery soon realises that something is wrong; the levels of radiation in the city are far above what has been officially reported. Valery is a hugely compelling protagonist; I loved him, and I loved this book. My full review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

61xVWCa6NtL

… The Unlikely Thru-Hiker by Derick Lugo. Despite being a self-proclaimed ‘metrosexual’ with no hiking or camping experience, New York comedian Derick Lugo sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, where he’s given the trail name ‘Mr Fabulous’ because of his attention to personal hygiene and grooming, as well as his ‘peace and love’ attitude. I’m fascinated by the Appalachian Trail, although I’ve never set foot on it, and I’d hoped for a reflection on Lugo’s experiences as a black man hiking this famous route; many of his fellow hikers comment that he’s the only black man they’ve ever seen doing it. This book isn’t about race, which, of course, is fair enough; the trouble is that it isn’t about anything else either. Lugo reels off tons of unconnected anecdotes, most of which have a ‘you had to be there’ feel. He also obsesses about food, toilets and camping facilities. It’s not a long book, but it felt like it was.

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

71dAclaiLfL

… Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham. Wadham is a renewed glaciologist, and this is an accessible and interesting introduction to how glaciers form, move and melt, and how climate change is affecting some of the coldest places on Earth. Following ice around the world, we move from France to Greenland to Antarctica to Peru. As with Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother TreeI enjoyed the science in this book (this time, it was A Level Chemistry rather than A Level Biology I was struggling to recall), and I liked how Wadham weaved her personal experiences through the chapters, although it’s a much thinner thread than Simard’s.

The Book With The Best Narrator I Read This Month Was…

9781529080445

… Vladimir by Julia May Jonas. When you struggle to review a novel because you know its narrator would look scathingly on any of the comments that you make about it, that’s when you know you’ve just read an excellent character study. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

9781472277527

… Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski. I would likely not have picked this up without Elle’s recommendation, but I’m glad I did. Set in a strip club in the Chicago suburbs in 1999, Real Easy is ostensibly about the disappearance of two of the women who work at the club, with some viewpoint chapters from the detectives assigned to the case. However, its real focus is the lives of the women who do lap dances and strip shows to make money, exposing the banal routines of the club as well as their different home lives, their partners and children and parents. Rutkoski hops from voice to voice, but two women, intersex Samantha and bisexual, mixed-race Georgia, take centre stage. While some of the points about female objectification felt a bit familiar – especially in the chapters narrated by the male characters – Rutkoski’s writing is smart and fresh.

What do we want the future to look like? : The Men by Sandra Newman & The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley

59427240._SY475_

The Men, one of my most anticipated books of 2022, has a high-concept premise: everybody with a Y chromosome suddenly disappears from the world, and those left behind have to rebuild it. Despite this, I’m not sure that Sandra Newman actually needed a world without men (and trans women and some intersex and non-binary people) to tell the story she wanted to tell. This novel focuses on two captivatingly flawed women drawn into a close relationship with each other: Jane, a white convicted sex offender who was exploited by an older man when she was a teenager and took the rap for his crimes, and Evangelyne, a black woman who was imprisoned for more than a decade for shooting the cops that killed her family.

The Men spends almost as much time on these women’s backstories prior to the Y-chromosome-only Rapture, than it does on exploring a world without men. When Jane and Evangelyne meet at college, Evangelyne is already famous for the text she wrote in prison on commensalism, arguing that this biological concept can be applied to human society to show that it is ethical to ‘eat the rich’, as wealthy people derive little benefit from being so wealthy. (Newman is good at inventing a radical literary trajectory for Evangelyne; her more personal essay ‘The White Girl’ is her other most famous work, describing the events that led up to her shooting incident). Evangelyne then becomes the leader of a group called ComPA which rises to power as society reorganises in light of the Rapture.

All this reminded me much more of books about all-female groups trying to build utopias, like Sarah Hall’s excellent The Carhullan Army, than books that play with sex and gender, like Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, I got the impression that Newman isn’t that interested in writing about sex/gender constructs, despite a couple of insightful lines (‘the concept of “men” had always been religious. All women were sold the idea of men as superior beings… Trans men could be masculine without making sex into a two-tier system, as cis men always had. We could love one another face-to-face, where before we had loved only through a glass darkly: so the ComPAs said’). This, I think, is why most of the mentions of trans and non-binary people feel so crowbarred in; gender isn’t Newman’s focus. Parts of the novel are also truly beautiful and hypnotic, even as they feel disconnected from the story at hand: ‘We pondered, the cozy, uncomfortable hum of the bus all around and a heavy East Texas rain making lines of wavy light on the windows, lines that trembled and were deformed in wind… We have no real face; they are masks that are borrowed and passed on, that live for millennia and are what a human is.’

However, although The Men is original and insightful, it’s also frankly bizarre. The narrative is weird and disjointed. Much of the novel is narrated by Jane, a straightforward choice that makes sense, but it trails into bits from other narrators who seem to have little to do with the main thrust of the plot. Many women are obsessed with watching a TV show called ‘The Men’ that shows naked men wandering a blasted landscape peopled with strange beasts, but the purpose of these interludes is not clear. Some reviewers have suggested that The Men is gender-essentialist and transphobic; while I largely disagree, it certainly struggles to make sense of all the ideas flung into its melting pot. I think it’s also fair to say that it wasn’t a great plan to tackle such a controversial premise when you don’t have a lot to say about gender. 

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

59236067

The Half Life of Valery K was not on my list of most anticipated books of 2022, but it definitely would have been had I known it was getting published this year, because Natasha Pulley is one of my favourite authors. It’s 1963, and Valery has spent six years in the gulag when he is abruptly transferred to a secret facility called Chelyabinsk 40, where his scientific expertise is required to study an irradiated forest and the animal life within. However, Valery soon realises that something is wrong; the levels of radiation in the city are far above what has been officially reported. Struggling with the effects of his trauma, and having firmly believed that he was going to die in the gulag, Valery is aware that he sees everything off-kilter. He’s almost moved through his own death to a state beyond it where nothing matters to him more than preserving the lives of others. He’s a hugely compelling protagonist, perhaps Pulley’s best creation to date, because of this skewed logic.

In this context, the title of the novel becomes fascinating: on first glance, we might assume that Valery’s ‘half life’ refers to how he has been damaged and reduced by the gulag. But there’s a second meaning here, tied more closely to the subject-matter of the novel: the ‘half life’ of a radioactive substance is how long it takes for half of the unstable nuclei to decay. Substances with a longer half life have a slower but longer reach across time, while substances with a shorter half life show their effects more quickly but don’t last as long. Pulley seems to be asking: what is someone like Valery’s impact on the world, and how long will it linger?

Pulley’s other novels have all been set in versions of the nineteenth century where the real and the speculative intermingle; for fans of her other books, reading The Half Life of Valery K is a rather disconcerting experience, because it’s all based on fact but feels profoundly unreal. If The Men recalled Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the novel I kept thinking of while reading Valery K was Le Guin’s The DispossessedThere’s something about Valery that reminded me strongly of Shevek, the physicist protagonist of The Dispossessed who comes to a capitalist world from an anarcho-syndicalist society. Pulley doesn’t delve as deeply into alternative value-systems, but Valery’s thought processes are at odds with Soviet Russian norms; she also shows how her characters, raised under communism, are perplexed by the West, especially its treatment of women. Other Pulley tropes are present and correct – Valery is drawn into a close friendship with KGB head of security, Shenkov, despite the fact that he knows Shenkov could execute him at any time – but didn’t seem as central to this novel as they have been to her others. It’s Valery and his pet octopus who take centre stage.

I’ve reviewed these two novels together because I happened to read them both in June, but there are threads that connect them: both The Men and The Half Life of Valery K are interested in imagining different futures, and asking whether we could cope with these new versions of the world. We want things to change – but do we really?

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

The Reread Project: The Color Purple

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post (though I’ve since cut Tess because I know I will just hate it again!) The two other entries in this series so far are To Kill A Mockingbird  and The Handmaid’s Tale. This is also #3 of my 20 Books of Summer.

3. The Color Purple: Alice Walker (1982)

The edition I own (L) and an example of some of my copious annotations (R).

I first read The Color Purple in 2003, when I was sixteen, and again in 2004, when I was seventeen. It was one of my AS Level set texts for English Literature, which means that, amusingly, I still have copies of old essays that I wrote on it. Before I’d even finished the novel, I vehemently hated The Color Purple. My violent reaction was related to its presentation of women and men. I felt that the male characters were all stereotyped as abusive and irredeemable, and believed that Walker had done this in pursuit of a feminist agenda. As I wrote in my post on The Handmaid’s Taleas a teenager, I did not define myself as a feminist. I felt that feminism wanted to lock me into a system where women were oppressed for their ‘feminine’ qualities, qualities which I did not believe I possessed. I preferred thinking of myself as ‘not like other girls’: somebody who was good enough to compete with men on their own terms. I remember being highly satisfied when I managed to get into one of my exam essays that the presentation of the male characters ‘severely weakens the novel’. (I got full marks!)

My reaction to The Color Purple was also conditioned by it being an AS Level set text. I doubt I would have felt so strongly about it otherwise. I think I suspected that it was seen as a text that was suitable for my mostly-girls sixth form (all girls comp with mixed sixth form, but very few boys actually swapped in) because it dealt with topics that we would find relatable. I was cross because I didn’t think The Color Purple was rigorous, real literature; this was also my reaction to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, another AS Level set text (I was furious that the boys’ school got to do Persuasion!). In retrospect, I do think it was a shame that we ended up with so many set texts that dealt explicitly with issues of sexual violence (as well as Color and Tess, we did Othello for AS and The Duchess of Malfi for A Level). One text like this would have been fine or even desirable: four does seem a bit like the teachers were making assumptions about what teenage girls would connect with.

***

When I reread To Kill A Mockingbird, I felt my teenage self was basically right about it being too simplistic and stereotyped. When I reread The Handmaid’s Tale, I was chastened to find that it was a far better novel that I rememberedThe Color Purple falls somewhere in between the two. While I appreciate it more as an adult who knows more about feminism, womanism and racism, some of the problems I had with it as a teenager don’t seem to me to be totally off-base.

To start with the good news. More than most novels, I think that The Color Purple really suffered from being picked apart and analysed. Because we read it bit by bit in school, the emotional impact of Walker’s writing was lost, and that was what really struck me on this reread. There are more than a few set-pieces where Walker really brings home the struggles and triumphs of her characters, and they hit the mark every time. The novel’s most famous scene, rightly so, is perhaps when the downtrodden protagonist Celie finally stands up against her abusive husband Mr. —, who has told her ‘You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddamn, he say, you nothing at all.’ Celie, driven by her newfound knowledge that Mr. — has kept her sister Nettie’s letters from her for decades, finds her voice and responds: ‘I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook. . . . But I’m here.’ 

Walker also conveys the poignancy and tragedy of the struggles of her minor characters, such as Sofia, Mr.—‘s daughter-in-law, who serves as a foil for Celie in many ways. Celie’s response to patriarchy, poverty and white supremacy is, for much of the novel, to stay quiet and do what she’s told; Sofia’s response is to fight back. Indeed, as a more traditionally ‘active’ character, Sofia’s story actually eclipses Celie’s for much of the first third of The Color Purple; as Celie is our narrator, this indicates her fascination with a woman who seems so unlike her. But when Sofia is imprisoned for twelve years for ‘disrespecting’ the town’s mayor and his wife, her rebelliousness is forced within her. She says: ‘Every time they ast me to do something, Miss Celie, I act like I’m you. I jump right up and do just what they say.’

Sofia was not a character that I remember thinking much about as a teenager beyond the required analyses I had to write for class, but I found her surprisingly compelling on a re-read, especially as even the other black characters seem to think she has overstepped a line in responding with violence: ‘Don’t make her have to look at you like us look at Sofia’, Shug, Celie’s lover, says to her when she wants to kill Mr. — after finding out about Nettie’s letters. Having said that, Sofia’s character would not be so striking if we did not have Celie as her inverse reflection, and Walker’s decision to make her protagonist passive and suffering rather than openly subversive is, I think, very wise, if also very unfashionable.

As I’ve said, my biggest problem with The Color Purple as a teenager was its presentation of the male characters, and this is where I felt most unsatisfied with the novel on a reread as well. Almost all the men in The Color Purple fall into two camps: ‘bad’ (abusive, lazy, patriarchal) and ‘good’ (quiet, supportive of women, willing to do ‘women’s work’). This makes characters like Samuel, Harpo, Alfonso and Jack feel pretty flat, especially as the novel goes on. However, I will give Walker credit for her development of Mr.—, which I wasn’t convinced by as a teenager but liked a lot more on a reread. Mr.— is the only man who is allowed to change in this story; all the others remain good or bad throughout; and this gives him the kind of depth of character that is otherwise only visible in the female cast. On the other hand, though, the sections of the novel set in Western Africa, where Celie’s sister Nettie goes as a missionary, worked less well for me than they did when I was younger. Walker uses Nettie as a mouthpiece to make political points that have not always aged especially well, and, unlike the vividness of Celie’s letters, I could never forget that Nettie’s account was constructed by an external author.

There are a lot of angles from which to criticise The Color Purple, and I still agree with most, if not all of them. However, when I finally read it from cover to cover without stopping to make notes, I was surprised by how deeply I engaged with Celie and her story.

My rating in 2003/4: **

My rating in 2022: ***1/2

20 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: All Girls and Gillespie and I

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already! (Only posting now makes it look like I’m super behind, but I’m doing rather better with my rereads than with my reviews of my rereads…)

51NXoZuHt0L

Before rereading: I first read All Girls in February 2021, so not very long ago! I picked it up again on a whim; I remembered an evocative set-piece set at the school’s ‘Fall Fest’ and originally intended just to re-read that section. I originally received All Girls as a Kindle proof from NetGalley.

The first time I read All Girls, I wrote: All Girls is set during the academic year 2015-16 at a New England prep school where a former student has recently accused one of the teachers of sexually assaulting her. However, All Girls is not really focused on the details of the accusation, but rather how it impacts the school’s current students, and their developing ideas of how to navigate in the world as young women who are never quite taken seriously.’ I felt that ‘there’s something solid about the connections between [Layden’s] cast that makes me believe that if I re-read this novel, all sorts of things would start coming to light that I hadn’t noticed first time round… while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like [Curtis] Sittenfeld, Layden really gets how some teenage girls approach the world, and how small but yet significant interactions can crush or uplift their sense of who they are… If there was one thing I found less convincing about All Girls, it was that all her narrators seem to share this sense of watchfulness’.

After rereading: While I still found All Girls a compelling read, I was a little less impressed with it second time around. I still think it is thoughtful and insightful on the experience of being a teenage girl, and far better than many much-hyped novels on this theme, like Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise or Robin Wasserman’s Girls On FireHowever, I guess what I hoped for didn’t materialise: no new connections between the cast emerge even as you start recognising previous narrators popping up across the chapters. I also continued to be frustrated with how Layden leans so heavily on the watchful outcast, even though there are some narrators who don’t quite fit this trope. Finally, the theme of sexual agency seemed more dominant than on my first read, and I didn’t think Layden had much new to say on this topic.

My rating in 2021: ****

My rating in 2022: ***1/2

The original hardback  I read from the library (L) and the second-hand paperback I own now (R)

Before rereading: I first read Jane Harris’s second novel, Gillespie and I, in 2011, when I was 24. I believe I originally read a library copy but now own a second-hand paperback copy that I bought after loving it so much. (It was one of my top ten books of 2011). I now remember very little about it other than that it had an incredible, unreliable narrative voice, as the older narrator inveigled her way into the family of artist Ned Gillespie.

The first time I read Gillespie and I, I wrote: Due to extreme pickiness, I rarely find a historical novel that I like, with the exception of anything by Sarah Waters, but this is certainly getting there. Narrated by the unreliable Harriet Baxter, it follows the story of her relationship with the Gillespie family in the 1890s, and especially with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist. While becoming a little melodramatic in places, the historical detail is beautifully conveyed, the characters satisfyingly grey, and the narration as compelling as that of The Observations [Harris’s debut], if not quite as idiosyncratic.’

After rereading: Well, my rating has stayed the same, but I felt like my reading experience was radically different. Gillespie and I is a novel that totally relies on its narrator. Harriet’s unreliable voice is our only guide to anything that’s actually going on here, and we gradually realise across the course of the novel just how untrustworthy she is. However, because I had the measure of Harriet from the start this time, I found the first half of the novel frustratingly slow, even though I think much (though not all) of the detail here is justified. Once Harris’s narrative reaches a key turning-point about halfway through and everything starts to unravel, Gillespie and I is newly gripping.

On this reread, it also struck me how much this feels like a psychological thriller, a genre that, pre-Gone Girl, was not nearly as dominant back in 2011. Perhaps this was why it struck me as less clever and less original this time round; I’ve got too used to novels with unreliable, ‘unlikeable’ female narrators. But there are still aspects of Gillespie and I that strike me as both stranger and more emotionally authentic than the territory that most psychological thrillers tread, such as the portrait of Ned’s troubled young daughter, Sybil. Indeed, I’d say that the sections of Gillespie and I set in the 1930s, when Harriet is a very elderly woman, veer close to psychological horror. It also trusts its reader to do a lot of guesswork, which I think is why it makes such an indelible impression; long after finishing it, you’re still wondering what to believe.

So, my rating is the same, but I think I’ve gone from a ‘high’ four stars in 2011 to a ‘low’ four stars in 2022.

My rating in 2011: ****

My rating in 2022: **** 

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Going To Church In Medieval England

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the fourth year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2022 shortlist hereThis year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Prize.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 22nd June 2022.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Nicholas Orme’s Going To Church In Medieval England. Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University. His book is an ‘account of parish churches and their role in medieval communities, demonstrating the presence of religion at every point in a human life, from birth to coming of age, from marriage to death’.

71-hqn1M-7L

When I was a history undergraduate studying both early modern religion and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious practice in Britain, I used to get horribly confused by the way English churches worked. What was the difference between a rector, a vicar and a curate? What was a glebe, a benefice or a prebend? In short, I needed this book. By exploring the history of the parish church from its earliest foundations, Orme clearly explains how the relationship between the church and its parishioners was structured, and how these older traditions survived the Reformation and the coming of Protestantism. Apart from one opening and one closing chapter, all the chapters of this book cover its full chronological span from the Anglo-Saxon period until the 1520s, focusing on themes like the staff of the church, the church building, and the liturgical day, week and year.

My favourite chapter in Going To Church In Medieval England was on ‘the congregation’. After the Religious Census of 1851, which showed that only 54% of the population of England and Wales attended any service on the day of the census, the Victorians were swept into a panic. Why had the working classes become so heathen? Orme demonstrates that, even in a period where you could be reported to a Church court for being persistently absent at church and be made to do public penance, many stayed away or attended only intermittently. Even when parishioners made it to church, they didn’t always behave well. People walked about the church, gossiped or quarrelled, or complained about the priest. Orme writes: ‘Resentment could be shown without words, as with one man who contemptuously washed his hands in the font and another who gave holy bread to his dog.’ Meanwhile, behaviours that we associate with attending a modern church service developed only gradually. Praying was done with the hands held up by the head with the palms open until the early thirteenth century, when people started to adopt the more familiar posture of joined palms by the breast. Standing up at certain points in the service only became meaningful when most worshippers were able to sit down, which was not possible in the early medieval church due to a lack of seating.

Orme writes simply and accessibly about a hugely complex historiography, and for that reason, this book works. Nevertheless, I think I’d expected something a bit different from Going To Church In Medieval England, which is ultimately a top-down, institutional history of the development of the English parish church. The title made me think it would have more to say about religious experience, which – bar the chapter on the congregation – is not the focus of this text. I was also surprised to see so little about doctrine or religious belief, a topic which I personally find fascinating. Orme hints at the development of English Catholicism across this period but largely chooses to steer clear of doctrinal arguments, which, for me, was disappointing.

I wasn’t convinced that Going to Church in Medieval England quite fulfilled the remit of the Wolfson Prize, as I’m not sure how attractive it would be to a general reader. Nevertheless, it will certainly be a useful reference text for those studying the history of the English parish church or exploring church buildings.

Be sure to check out the rest of the stops on the first week of this blog tour:

FVIAbmBXwAAH_oH

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022: The End

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022 will be announced TOMORROW! This is a short summary post. My round-up of the twelve titles I’ve read from the longlist can be found here.

The book I want to win

hbg-title-9781472156983-26

The book I think will win

hbg-title-9781472156983-26

The book I least want to win

810lnQaHqmL

My overall ranking of the shortlist, with links to my reviews

  1. The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
  2. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
  3. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
  4. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  5. The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini
  6. The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Who do you think will win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022? And who do you want to win?

EDIT: And the winner is…

71uigFoq0pS

I almost called it! I hoped The Sentence would win but thought that The Book of Form and Emptiness also ticked a lot of the same boxes for the judges, and so it has proven. I’m unsurprised but pleased that the judges gave the prize to a woman of colour.

Although I didn’t get on with The Book of Form and Emptiness, I’m not too disappointed with this result. Ozeki is a wonderful writer whose work deserves to be recognised, and there were certainly wonderful sections even within what I consider to be her worst book.

Three Things… June 2022

Back to this useful post format, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter! These three things have a horror theme

Reading

I read the British edition (L) but the cover of the American edition (R) gives a much better idea of the feel of the book.

I’m currently taking part in an online ‘How To Write Horror Fiction’ course, and as part of that course, I was sent a free book bundle from Bloomsbury (or, to be precise, their Raven Books imprint). This included a number of titles I’d never heard of, and I tore through James Han Mattson’s Reprieve, which is ostensibly about a full-contact haunted house challenge but really reflects on how people’s bodies are objectified by society. We know from the start that the book centres on the murder of a black man, Bryan, but this comes more and more into focus as the story develops.

The bits of Reprieve I found most difficult to read didn’t concern haunted house gore but the disgusting ways that people treat each other. Jaidee is a gay international student from Thailand who is shunned by the white gay men he meets at college, who assume he’s coming onto them and think it’s laughable that they could ever be attracted to him. Inversely, the middle-aged Leonard leaves a happy marriage and starts an obsession with a Thai sex worker, Boonsri, projecting all his desires and dreams onto her despite her obvious discomfort. Mattson doesn’t map simple trajectories of racial oppression, however. Jaidee and Bryan are college roommates, but when Jaidee expresses unease with how Bryan treats him, he’s told by a white friend that he’s being racist, because he’s assuming black men are homophobic. However, Jaidee then embarks on a campaign of deliberate racism against black students to express his resentment, plus denigrating other international students for their ‘ethnic’ ways, even as he is mocked for trying to fit in by wearing American brands.

Don’t go into Reprieve expecting a straightforward horror novel, despite the very misleading British cover: instead, read it for Mattson’s deconstruction of the genre.

Watching

Stranger_Things_4_Poster

I was a huge fan of Stranger Things 1 and 2 but found Stranger Things 3more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting’Luckily, Stranger Things 4 is back on track, and steaming ahead into 1986, the year I was born (which means more of the nostalgic references were familiar to me!). I’ve been having a great conversation with one of my writing groups about why this season hit so hard when Season 3 was so forgettable. We all think it’s because of the characters. First, the writers are reaping dividends from earlier seasons in having such a diverse and well-developed cast who continually bounce off each other in interesting ways. My favourite characters are currently Dustin, Will, Steve and Robin, which definitely wouldn’t have been the case in Season 1! However, the writers are also smart enough to bring characters with interesting internal conflicts to the foreground (Max) while sidelining previously prominent characters who don’t have much going on (Mike, Jonathan).

Second, some characters who have always experienced conflict got more interesting for me this season. Controversially, I’ve never been quite won over by the traumatised, psychokinetic Eleven. While I don’t dislike her character, she remained a little flat for me throughout the first three seasons, always morally in the right and saving the day with her powers. Stripped of her supernatural abilities and struggling with the loss of father-figure Hopper, she’s in a very different place at the start of this season. A violent scene at a roller-skating rink was one of my favourite moments of Season 4. Finally, Eleven felt like a real, rageful girl who scares herself as much as she scares others. For this reason, I found the season finale disappointing, as it seemed to reset the status quo. I hope the final two episodes in July allow Eleven to be a person as well as just the hero.

Thinking

tv-drama-the-midwich-cuckoos-sky-max-now-keeley-hawes

Sky have just aired a new remake of John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), following earlier film versions from 1960/1963 and 1995. I’m fascinated by how this story of a group of creepy alien children who dominate adults through psychokinetic powers seems to pop up again every thirty years. I’m writing a piece for The Conversation on what this tells us about our attitudes towards the rising generation, so I won’t say much more about that now (though you can get a preview by checking out either of my academic articles on the subject here or here).

Does this remake stand up in its own right? I actually enjoyed watching it, but I’d have to say no. There’s so much potential here that is not well-served by a pretty straight remake of the original source material. The biggest difference from earlier adaptations is the close focus on the relationship between the mothers and their hostile children, which rehearses familiar stereotypes about the burden of parental love and the ingratitude that children display in the face of their parents’ sacrifices. This set of Midwich Cuckoos are portrayed as especially unnatural because they are unable to love their parents, which raises interesting questions about the emotional tasks of children within the family that this remake is not equipped to answer.

This version of The Midwich Cuckoos also felt less resonant to me because it lacks the interesting tensions that haunted the sixties adaptations, Village of the Damned (1960) and its loosely linked sequel, Children of the Damned (1963). The latter, in particular, treads an uneasy line between showing us the amorality of the alien children but also suggesting that the amorality of adults is destroying the future for those who ought to inherit the world. The destruction of the children at the end of Children of the Damned is not a necessary evil but a tragic accident. The film invites us to shiver at the unnatural competence and maturity of the Cuckoos, but also plays with fears of nuclear annihilation and the ways in which adults have abdicated their authority by creating such terrible weapons. In an age of climate change protests, this felt like a big missed opportunity for the remake, which sticks very closely to the Cuckoos-are-evil line. Apparently, there’s already talk of a second series, which might allow Sky to move into Children of the Damned territory – but I’m not holding my breath.

May Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. I had nine NetGalley ARCs to read and review this month – eight of which have been done! – so this is very NetGalley heavy.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

A1IQQw8njnL

Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard. I tend to struggle with nature-writing that also incorporates an element of memoir. I know Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun were big hits for others, but I found both unsatisfying; the only book in this sub-genre that has unequivocally worked for me was Alys Fowler’s Hidden NatureSo, this was an welcome surprise. Simard is now famous for her research on ‘how trees talk to each other’, but she spent decades trying to convince both the scientific and foresting communities that trees of different species share resources and information via an underground fungal network. There’s some harder science in this book than in most nature-writing, which is perhaps also why it worked better for me: I loved trying to remember A Level Biology while reading about carbon gradients, xylem and phloem, and trees acting as ‘sources’ or ‘sinks’. But Simard is also unexpectedly gifted at linking her scientific findings to her personal life in a way that could easily have been cheesy (we should all seek connection just like the trees!!!) but was actually heartfelt, moving and unforced.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

someone-in-time-9781786185099_hr

… Someone In Time ed. Jonathan Strahan. This collection of short stories featuring ‘tales of time-crossed romance’ sounded right up my street, but was short on both time travel and romance. There were a couple of stories that I thought were really fantastic, but most of them failed to exploit the potential of time travel or write convincing relationships. My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

41jFrnTT0tL

… The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan. I zipped through this standalone legal thriller but ultimately felt let down after loving McTiernan’s earlier Cormac Reilly novels, The Ruin and The Scholar. I liked the unusual set-up: law student Hannah starts working for the Innocence Project, a real-life US organisation that helps to exonerate wrongly convicted people, but she plans to secretly use her position to make sure one particular man remains in prison. Unfortunately, The Murder Rule became increasingly unbelievable as it went on, and it’s obvious that McTiernan is more comfortable writing about Ireland than the US. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

My Most Serendipitous Reading Location This Month Was…

… a deserted, cold bus stop late at night [picture does not show the actual stop], when reading Caitlin Starling’s space horror novel The Luminous Dead. This set-piece chiller sees a woman descend into a labyrinth of caves beneath the surface of a distant planet, locked into a full-body suit to avoid attracting the attention of monsters called Tunnellers, and only able to communicate with the outside world via a comms link to her unreliable boss. The Luminous Dead failed to capitalise on much of its potential (seriously, there’s so much more you could do with somebody wearing a suit they can’t remove that can be controlled from afar!) and left a lot of irritating loose ends. Nevertheless, it was still pretty creepy reading it in the dark.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

9781398508354

…The It Girl by Ruth Ware. Ware’s latest tells a relatively familiar story. Shy Hannah from the local comprehensive arrives at Oxford and becomes best friends with April, her glamorous and wealthy roommate. April starts dating their mutual friend Will, but Hannah harbours a secret crush on him. After April is murdered, Hannah is a key witness. There are a lot of thrillers set at Oxford, but The It Girl evokes the weirdness of its setting far better than most. The characterisation is also much more effective than in most ‘friends get involved in a murder’ thrillers, including Ware’s own One by One. Finally, Ware manages to pull off a great twist that’s more in the style of older crime novels than modern psychological thrillers, letting the reader figure out some of the mystery for themselves by giving us a classic locked-room murder. 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 3rd August.

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

9781501373763

… Glitter by Nicole Seymour, one of the short books in the ‘Object Lessons‘ series, which thinks about the meanings and uses of glitter, and why it arouses such strong feelings of love and hate. A book of two halves for me: I loved the first half, which explored how glitter has been associated with children, women and queer people, and hence stigmatised as wasteful, annoying, frivolous and frustratingly persistent. Seymour shows how LGBT+ movements have reclaimed glitter through tactics such as ‘glitterbombing’, celebrating its silliness as part of a celebration of queer ‘pleasure politics’. Sadly, the last two chapters strayed away from this interesting historical and political material and focused more on a cultural analysis of glitter as product, looking at children’s entertainment and gimmicks such as ‘glitter beer’, which I found less convincing. Still worth reading though, and I’d be interested to know if anyone’s read any of the other titles from this series. My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Best Far-Back-In-Time Historical Fiction I Read This Month Was*…

51WMiGx6CRL._AC_SY580_

The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. This novel focuses on the ‘dance plague’ in Strasbourg in 1518, when there was an outbreak of compulsive dancing that lasted for months. It looks at the dance plague from a sideways angle, as the book is narrated by Lisbet, a young married woman who lives outside Strasbourg and is struggling with recurrent pregnancy loss. My experience of reading The Dance Tree changed as the book went on. I found the first third captivating: Hargrave’s attention to the physical details of Lisbet’s life made her world feel real, and I loved the evocative, gentle accounts of her love for beekeeping and her visits to the ‘dance tree’, where she has hung ribbons as a memorial for her dead babies. It felt like a vastly more successful version of what Hannah Kent was aiming for in the opening of Devotion. Then, things went downhill a bit for me, although the rest of the novel was certainly not wholly disappointing. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

[*worded to exclude more contemporary historical novels like the 90s-set Carrie Soto Is Back!]

The Best YA Romance I Read This Month Was…

718z6w5Q53L

She Gets The Girl, written by wife-and-wife writing duo Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick, which was such an adorable, uplifting read. Campus novel with lesbians, I’m sold. I’m not a big reader of YA romance, so I’m sure there are lots of others out there like this, but it strikes me that the really big-name queer YA books I’ve encountered – Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Leah on the Offbeat, Red, White and Royal Blue, Heartstopper – are all primarily about gay boys or bisexual teens. While I loved all the aforementioned reads, it was really special to find a book that unapologetically centres lesbians. My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Book With The Best Cover I Read This Month Was…

58663541

… Boys Come First by Aaron Foley. I adore this cover; it’s such a loving rendition of the three protagonists of this Detroit-set novel, paying attention to their individual features rather than rendering them as generic Black men. It reminds me of some of the older covers on the children’s books I own from the eighties, when publishers actually paid artists to draw pictures based on the book rather than using stock images. Finally, it also strikes me that black men or men of colour so often appear on book covers looking sad, angry or under pressure; I think this cover feels so fresh partly because the protagonists look so happy. It’s a shame, then, that this cover doesn’t truly reflect the content of Boys Come First; it makes it look like a joyful YA read when it’s actually a much grimmer examination of the lives of gay Black men in their thirties facing up to the white-led gentrification of their home city. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Weirdest Book I Read This Month Was…

9780857308245

Imposter Syndrome by Kathy Wang. This was on my 2022 reading list; I was attracted by the idea of a corporate thriller starring Julia, a Russian intelligence agent in Silicon Valley, and Alice, a first-generation Chinese-American working at the same company. However, I’m just not sure what this book wanted to be. It flicks uneasily between satire and seriousness, and between thriller and social commentary. The narrators, other than Alice, are just bizarre. Props to Wang for trying something new, but it didn’t work for me. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Did you have any stand-out reads in May?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022: Final Thoughts

Screenshot-2022-03-08-at-09.12.42

I’ve now finished reading the twelve titles from the Women’s Prize longlist that I wanted to read, including all six titles on the shortlist if you include the one I was unable to finish, so I’m going to post my round-up. The actual winner will be announced on June 15th.

Overall, I’m disappointed with this year’s shortlist, and I think a stronger one could have been assembled from this year’s interesting if uneven longlist (my favourite four books from the longlist were so strong and diverse). There are two titles on the shortlist I’d be totally baffled to see win, which was not the case last year.

My overall ranking of the twelve titles I’ve read is as follows, with quotes from my reviews. Shortlisted titles are starred (*).

  1. *The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. ‘the reason it works is Tookie’s voice… I was captivated by her warmth and humour… through her, Erdrich makes us as readers believe in all the weirdness this book throws at us’
  2. *Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. ‘an unexpected hit… Mason pulls off something quite special’
  3. Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith. ‘too long… [but with] some incredibly memorable set-pieces… I loved its originality and daring’
  4. Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey. ‘convincing and moving… competent… but it doesn’t offer anything especially new’
  5. Careless by Kirsty Cape. ‘Bess is a compelling protagonist… there are a few duff notes… [but] the handling of [Bess’s trauma] is exceptional’
  6. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton. ‘tends to rely on stereotype… [with] flashes of greater insight’
  7. *The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. ‘this story…could have made a good novel half the length of this one’
  8. *Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. ‘a massive potboiler… [but] the last hundred pages are really stunning’
  9. Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé. ‘flashes of brilliant writing… [but] mannered and pretentious’
  10. The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller. ‘despite its incredibly familiar plot-line and flat characters, a weirdly compelling read’
  11. *The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini. ‘pretty much nothing else about this [other than the Creole] worked for me’
  12. *The Island of Missing Trees (DNF) by Elif Shafak. ‘the combination of horrifically clunky writing, melodrama and sentimentality has defeated me’

Looking back at my original post on the shortlist, three of the four titles I decided to read later on in the process were my three least favourites, and I correctly predicted that Sorrow and Bliss would make the shortlist and hence I would have read it anyway. The lesson: stick to my guns in 2023 and only read the longlisted titles that genuinely interest me.

Who do I want to win? And who do I think will win? OK, having the same answer for these two questions has never worked out well for me in the past, but I do think it’s a great book that would tick a lot of the judges’ boxes:

hbg-title-9781472156983-26

I was convinced that the Prize would be awarded to a woman of colour in 2021, after Black Lives Matter gained renewed attention and amid much discussion of the innate whiteness of the publishing industry; this didn’t happen, as Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi surprisingly took the Prize. This year, I think we’re overdue. The Sentence deals directly with Black Lives Matter (refreshingly, from a Native American viewpoint), alongside the prison system, Indigenous religion and Covid-19, but it’s not because it ticks off these issues that I think it’s a worthy and likely winner. It’s a great book that has much to say about the power of literary communities – one of the Prize’s favoured themes this year – without ever tipping into sentimentality. It brings together a band of misfits who support and uplift each other, and it’s joyful but not naive. And while Louise Erdrich may be a big-name author in the US, she is not as well known in the UK, and her books deserve to reach an international audience. Finally, a Native American woman has never won the Women’s Prize. For this mix of reasons, The Sentence is definitely my pick.

However, if I was asked to predict which other title is most likely to win, I’d go for:

71uigFoq0pS

Although I think it is by far the weaker novel, Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness has a lot of the same things going for it as The Sentence. (And an East Asian woman has never won the Women’s Prize either!). I didn’t rate The Book of Form and Emptiness, but as an Ozeki fan, I wouldn’t be outraged by this outcome.

Who do you want to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022? And who do you think will win?

20 Books of Summer 2022: The Rereading Version

20-books

I’m having a go at Cathy’s (746 Books) 20 Books of Summer challenge for the sixth year running! The challenge starts on Wednesday 1st June and finishes on Thursday 1st September.

 However, this year I’m FINALLY doing something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and turning it into a rereading challenge. My only rule is that I must read 20 books that I have read before. Other than that, I’m going to allow myself to choose the books as I go along.

I love comparing Past Me’s and Present Me’s thoughts on books, so I’ll either check in with earlier reviews of the titles I choose, or, if I didn’t review them at the time, I’ll make sure to write down a few thoughts before I begin my reread. (Often what I remember from books is totally random, e.g., the only thing I recall from Barbara Kingsolver’s classic The Poisonwood Bible is to stick your elbows out if you’re at risk of getting crushed in a crowd, so you get lifted up rather than pushed down…)

Are you doing 20 Books of Summer 2022? Would you ever be tempted to throw some rereads into the mix?

Have you reread anything especially good recently?

On the other hand, have you ever reread a book and found it disappointing?