Reading on My Travels: Tokyo and Sydney 2019

 

Having spent the last few days at the Social History Society conference in Lincoln, I’m flying off tomorrow to Tokyo and then Sydney for two weeks on a work trip (Society for the History of Childhood and Youth conference in Sydney, stopover in Tokyo for a week beforehand). This means this blog will be out of action until July! So before I go, I thought I’d answer the most important question: what am I going to read on my travels?

Four Books of Summer

 

20 Books of Summer wouldn’t be a challenge if I finished it too fast, so I’m only taking four of the list on my travels (the ones I could get cheaply on Kindle or have as e-ARCs): The Chalk Artist, Pulp, Starling Days and Winter Sisters.

Our Latest Book Club Read

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I currently run Sisters Read the World, an all-female book group that only reads books by people of colour, in Newcastle; this group was originally the brainchild of my friend Ramla, but she is on ‘maternity leave’ at the moment. Our latest choice is Never Far From Nowhere by Andrea Levy; having read The Long Song and Small Island, I was keen to explore some of Levy’s earlier work after her untimely death earlier this year. This sounds like it might have parallels with Zadie Smith’s Swing Timewhich I loved; it’s about two sisters of Jamaican heritage growing up in Finsbury Park in the 1970s.

E-ARCs

 

I’ve also acquired two e-ARCs to read from NetGalley, and am hoping that my two pending requests will come through while I’m away! Nikesh Shukla’s and Sammy Jones’s edited collection Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth has been a must-read for me ever since I heard it was being crowdfunded via Unbound. This book of essays by writers under 24 addresses politics, education, renting, gender, class and race, and is hugely relevant to my own work on young people’s writing. Secondly, I have William Prendiville’s novella Atlantic Winds, another offering from Fairlight Books, who published the Women’s Prize-shortlisted Bottled Goods. I was intrigued by its synopsis; set in 1970s Canada, it looks at the ‘small island community of Bear Lake [which] is awash with rumours of lay-offs and wildcat strikes at the mill’. I’ve also requested Tea Obrecht’s Inland (possibly my most anticipated read of 2019) and Patrice Lawrence’s second YA novel, Rose, Interrupted, which stars a black teenage girl who’s recently escaped a strict religious sect.

Everything Else

 

In short, the rest are books that I’ve acquired through those ever-seductive Kindle deals. First, John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Skywhich I picked up after enjoying The Heart’s Incredible Furies so much; I love the idea of a book based around an insatiable plagiarist. Second, Hanna Jameson’s The Lastwhich has an irresistible synopsis: twenty people survive holed up in a hotel after the end of the world. Third, Alex White’s A Big Ship at the End of the Universe sounds like it might be fun, light SF; recommended for fans of The Expanse series, it stars a crew of outcasts hunting down a legendary spaceship. Fourth, I snapped up Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo after loving her more recent Daisy Jones and the Six; I wasn’t inspired by the idea of a novel about a classic Hollywood star, as I’m not a fan of classic Hollywood movies, but Rachel persuaded me to give it a go. Finally, Nathan Hill’s The Nixabout a failed American writer researching his mother’s radical past, looks like a good, chunky holiday read.

Can I read all these books in three weeks? Probably not – but I do have three very long plane journeys ahead!

Are you off anywhere this summer?

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‘A robot may not cause a human being to come to harm’

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Machines Like Me sees Ian McEwan tackle a genre about which he evidently knows very little – speculative and science fiction – and it has to be admitted that he doesn’t fall completely flat on his face, although the most interesting aspects of this novel have only a tenuous relationship to artificial intelligence. There are actually two speculative conceits at work in Machines Like Me, though only one is obvious from the cover. Firstly, McEwan imagines a world in which robots which fully pass the ‘Turing test’ of sentience have been built, and, bizarrely, have been sold commercially for private use with seemingly few safeguards. These machines certainly don’t obey Asimov’s First Law of Robotics (‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, cause a human being to come to harm’) although, interestingly, they may be working with a version of the Second Law (‘A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law’) which would explain the seeming rebelliousness of these creations.

Secondly, this is all taking place in an alternative version of the 1980s, whose political history becomes increasingly satisfying as it moves outwards from its starting-point of Thatcher losing the Falklands War. McEwan enjoys himself sketching deliberate parallels to current politics, using Tony Benn as a Corbyn figure who gives an inspiring speech to huge crowds in Hyde Park then wins a snap election foolishly called by Thatcher as, like May, she struggles to hold on with a tiny majority of MPs (in this alternative reality, she’s also introduced the poll tax early, which has further hollowed out her support). I had fun reading all of this, but frankly, it serves little purpose in the novel itself other than to provide a background for the most plot-significant ripple effect: Alan Turing is still alive and his insights were instrumental in developing the sentient robots (though, like Einstein with the nuclear bomb, he is not happy about this).

Much of the novel, however, is taken up by the simple human story of its two central characters: Charlie, an aimless man in his early thirties who makes ends meet by speculating on the stock markets (a historical piece that remains firmly in place) and Miranda, his lover, a PhD student in her early twenties who is hiding something from him. The plot ostensibly kicks off when Charlie purchases Adam, one of the first robot prototypes, whom he installs in his flat as a kind of friend and servant. However, he’s slow to get to know Adam and to realise his potential. Because of this, Machines Like Me is very sluggish to start; the first half is slow, and says nothing about artificial intelligence that SF readers won’t have encountered before.

McEwan comes more into his own in the second half of the novel, which consists largely of a series of set-pieces, his consistent strength as a novelist. An immensely enjoyable scene when Miranda introduces Adam and Charlie to her father and her father assumes that Charlie is the robot could have stood to be even longer; while a final confrontation with Turing addresses some of the obvious moral issues that are weirdly ignored in earlier chapters. Nevertheless, I wasn’t convinced by the ending: while avoiding spoilers, the way Adam conceives of his ‘self’ didn’t seem to square with the moral burden that Charlie and Miranda end up carrying. This book did not make me cross, which is more than I can say for the last three McEwan novels I read (Saturday, Sweet Tooth, The Children Act); but it’s not really doing anything new. McEwan uses robots here as a device to explore some of his familiar preoccupations – culpability, moral responsibility and moral relativity – but just as the robot seems to have something to say on these issues, he throws it away.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019: Final Thoughts

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As all readers of this blog probably know by now, I found this a disappointing year for the Women’s Prize, especially following the incredibly strong longlist and shortlist in 2018. For me, the problem started with the longlist. Not only were some of my favourite novels written by women in the past year omitted (Lissa Evans’s Old BaggageSamantha Harvey’s The Western Windand Sarah Perry’s Melmoth), I found most of the novels on the longlist to be mildly or majorly disappointing – with the caveat that I haven’t read, and will not be reading, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song, Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant. For me, even novels that were evidently strong contenders, such as Ghost Wall, Normal People, The Pisces, Bottled Goods and The Silence of the Girls, failed to blow me away. My thoughts on the longlisted titles I’ve read are as follows, with a line from each of my reviews. In order of preference:

  • Milkman: ‘a uniquely frustrating read… incredible’
  • Ghost Wall: ‘a below par Moss novel is still very much worth reading’
  • The Silence of the Girls: the novel lost some of its power once its voice was divided… [Nevertheless], wonderful’
  • The Pisces: ‘I wasn’t totally won over by this novel, but it will continue to niggle at me’
  • Normal People: ‘an addictive read… [but] I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as a future classic’
  • Freshwater: ‘doesn’t quite work at times… Nevertheless, this is a startling novel’
  • An American Marriage: ‘effortlessly readable… [but] not especially groundbreaking’
  • Bottled Goods: ‘very arresting… [but] too slight’
  • Lost Children Archive: ‘lumbers under the weight of its own intertextuality [but] incredibly good on the physicality, word-play, and belief systems of childhood
  • Circe: ‘the morality is a bit black-and-white… [but] Miller’s writing is still excellent’
  • My Sister, The Serial Killer: ‘is this really doing something edgy, or is it just more of the same from a flipped perspective?’
  • Ordinary People: ‘incredibly familiar… Evans is obviously a good writer – but I didn’t find her choice of material captivating’
  • Remembered: ‘weak writing… tips over into exploitative melodrama’

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Therefore, when the shortlist came out, I was less disappointed than many other bloggers, as the only longlisted titles I had strong positive feelings about were Milkman and The Silence of the Girls. My main feeling was relief that none of the titles I really didn’t like/really didn’t want to read had been shortlisted. However, inevitably, this is not a strong shortlist.

Who do I want to win? An American Marriage, Ordinary People and Circe are totally out of the running for me, and for different reasons, I don’t think any of them are likely winners. Milkman is by far the best novel on the shortlist and longlist, but has already won the Booker, and I don’t see this taking the Women’s Prize as well (though we all said they would never shortlist two classical retellings, so maybe!!!) This leaves two candidates.

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I would be very cross if My Sister, The Serial Killer took the prize. This fun and inventive thriller is simply not substantial enough to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Although this should have no bearing on my judgement of the book, I also find it difficult to take Braithwaite seriously as a writer after reading an interview with her where she gives the impression that she dashed this novel off quickly after deciding she wanted to get published by thirty. Perhaps Braithwaite will write brilliant novels in the future (she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2016!), but this isn’t one of them.

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I’m hence backing The Silence of the Girls as the most likely, and most personally satisfying, winner. I found this retelling of the siege of Troy incredibly vivid and emotionally engaging. While I agree with other bloggers that the shifting points of view diluted the impact of the novel, I guess I simply wasn’t as invested in the idea of hearing the unheard voices of the women involved. Many retellings have already done this, notably Adele Geras’s Troy, though admittedly from inside rather than outside the city walls. I also disagree that the Women’s Prize has to reward novels with a specifically feminist agenda, although there’s certainly a feminist slant to this retelling. While I don’t believe that this is the best novel written by a women this past year, this would be the best outcome for me from the shortlist as it stands.

And the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 is…

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It would be fair to say this is an unexpected result, and I know many people will be cross. An American Marriage has already received plenty of acclaim in the US (Obama’s summer reading pick!) and it isn’t a technically accomplished novel. Choosing it over Milkman or even The Silence of the Girls is absurd. Nevertheless, my primary emotion is relief. Unlike My Sister, The Serial Killer, Ordinary People and Circe (though the last of those three is much better written), this was at least a novel that I warmed to, and I do like Jones as a writer. Congratulations to her, and let’s all cross our fingers for a stronger longlist next year!

Who do you want to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019?

Wolfson History Prize 2019 Blog Tour: Building Anglo-Saxon England by John Blair

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‘Outside the precincts of minsters,’ John Blair writes in the conclusion to his magnificent new monograph, Building Anglo-Saxon England, almost everything that was built before the year 1000 carried with it no expectation that it would last. The Anglo-Saxons conceived their secular building and planning projects as the “Beowulf” poet did Herorot: “The hall towered aloft, high and wide-gabled: it awaited the upheavals of war and malicious fire.”‘ The question that this book confronts is: how can we find out how Anglo-Saxon settlements developed if their timber buildings have long disappeared? As Blair puts it: ‘this was a culture whose sophisticated artisanship and careful structuring of the built environment sat remarkably lightly in the landscape.’ As anyone who had the chance to visit the stunning British Library Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition will know, the Anglo-Saxons left behind much material evidence in the form of what Blair calls ‘small precious objects’ – the treasures of the Sutton Hoo excavations and Staffordshire Hoard, and fantastic illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels – but what did their larger works look like?

Objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, c.600, and an image from the Lindisfarne Gospels, c.715-720

Building Anglo-Saxon England, covering the period 600-1100, takes an innovative methodological approach to this problem (historians please note that I am writing as a general reader here, rather than with my historian hat on; as a modernist, I can’t fully assess how novel these claims are!) Blair explains that the integration of archaeological and historiographical findings allows us to draw a much more detailed picture of the settlements and buildings of Anglo-Saxon England than was possible in the past. Despite the wealth of material evidence discovered by archaeological digs since the 1980s, historians have not been able to access this ‘grey literature’ easily because most of it is unpublished and unprinted. On the other hand, archaeologists of early medieval England have taken a ‘prehistoric’ approach to this period despite the fact that textual evidence (albeit extremely patchy, and limited to certain geographical areas such as Wessex and Northumbria) does exist. Blair also emphasises the importance of drawing on other disciplines such as anthropology, geography and place-name studies in rewriting the history of Anglo-Saxon settlement.

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5th century excavations. From the Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog.

Blair’s conclusions are numerous, but some of his most important points are as follows. Firstly, he argues, Anglo-Saxon secular architecture was likely as sophisticated and complex as the smaller material goods that they have left behind. Regional diversity is crucial to understanding settlement patterns, especially in considering the autonomous development of Mercia, and England was influenced equally by the Frankish (Carolingian) and Scandinavian worlds after 650. However, this is not only important for architectural historians or archaeologists; work on ‘rank, lordship and estate management’ needs to take account of how much things varied from place to place, and not assume that the social structures of eastern England and the East Midlands dominated everywhere, especially before 920. This means that many popular assumptions about an homogenous feudal society made up of lords and peasants and the ‘caging of the peasantry’ by feudal law may have to be rethought, even for the later medieval period.

But while this enormous book will surely be of interest to scholars, how accessible is it to the general reader? One obvious barrier is its sheer size; I can barely lift it one-handed, certainly can’t turn pages unless I use both hands, and struggle to rest it comfortably on my lap. However, the reason it’s so big isn’t because it’s overlong but because of the huge number of maps and diagrams that Blair has somehow managed to persuade his publisher to include; far more than is normal for an historical monograph. Given the nature of the subject, these are essential. And while the book may be physically heavy, its contents are less daunting than you might imagine. Starting Building Anglo-Saxon England reminded me of sitting down with someone who knows a lot more than you about a subject you never thought you were interested in; you think the conversation is going to be boring, but actually they win you over with their sheer enthusiasm, knowledge and clarity.

I received a free copy of this book for review from Midas PR as part of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour. 

The other titles shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2019 are as follows (just look at this beast sitting on the top!) and the winner will be announced on 11th June.

books-2019-2Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour this week!

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20 Books of Summer, 2019

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I’m having a go at Cathy’s (746 Books) 20 Books of Summer challenge for the third year running! Last year, I managed to read and review nineteen books, so I’m really hoping to complete the challenge this year. In 2019, it runs from 3rd June to 3rd September.

My Twenty Books

Each with a one-line plot summary, then a one-line summary of why I’ve chosen it.

  • A People’s Future of the United States: Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams ed.
  • The Island of Sea Women: Lisa See
  • Exhalation: Ted Chiang
  • The Unpassing: Chia-Chia Lin

These first four books were in my most anticipated reads of 2019, so I’ve written more about why I’m looking forward to each of them in that post.

  • Self Portrait With Boy: Rachel Lyon. I was fortunate enough to win this in a giveaway from Rachel at pace, amore, libri. This debut is ‘about an ambitious young artist whose accidental photograph of a boy falling to his death could jumpstart her career, but devastate her most intimate friendship.’ [publisher’s website] Rachel (the blogger, not the author!) and I seem to have eerily similar taste in novels, and I like books about visual artists, so this sounded right up my street.
  • The Chalk Artist: Allegra Goodman. I recently highlighted this as one of the books I think will be a 4.5-star read for me, because of this blurb: ‘In exquisite detail, Goodman explores what happens when an alternate reality takes over one boy’s life, and the forces at work behind his obsession: the all-encompassing gaming realm that becomes more authentic than his real world.’ [Amazon] I’m interested in all novels that interact with imaginary, role-playing or computer games, and I admire Goodman’s writing, if not necessarily her plotting.
  • Friday Black: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. This debut collection of short stories ‘tackles urgent instances of racism and cultural unrest, and explores the many ways we fight for humanity in an unforgiving world.’ [publisher’s website] However, what really drew me in is the promise of stories that engage with virtual reality (see above) and the comparison with Black Mirror.
  • Pulp: Robin Talley. I find it hard to imagine how I could not like this YA novel, which ‘explores first loves and first heartbreaks as queer girls, both today and in 1955’ [author’s website] Its dual narratives follow a lesbian pulp fiction writer in the 1950s and a young lesbian writing her high school senior project on these novels in the present day, hence combining my loves of female same-sex romance and intertextuality in one package.
  • The Untelling: Tayari Jones. ‘When nine-year-old Ariadne Jackson loses her father and baby sister in an auto accident, her life in a black middle-class Atlanta neighborhood changes forever.’ [author’s website] Many found Jones’s best-known and most recent novel, An American Marriage (which I read for 20 Books of Summer last year!), to be too straightforward, but I thought her debut, Leaving Atlantapaired her effortless writing with more complex issues, so I’m checking out her backlist.
  • Winter Sisters: Robin Oliveira. ‘New York, 1879. After an epic snow storm ravages the city of Albany, Dr. Mary Sutter, a former Civil War surgeon, begins a search for two little girls, the daughters of close friends killed by the storm who have vanished without a trace.’ [Google Books] I very much enjoyed this book’s prequel, My Name Is Mary Sutterwhich I heard about through Claire’s blog, and this sequel has an even more attractive premise (and cover!).
  • Free Food for Millionaires: Min Jin Lee. ‘The daughter of Korean immigrants, Casey Han has refined diction, a closeted passion for reading the Bible, a popular white boyfriend, and a magna cum laude degree in economics from Princeton, but no job and an addiction to the things she cannot afford in the glittering world of Manhattan.’ [Goodreads] I very much enjoyed Lee’s second novel, Pachinkowhich I read for book club, and I’m also intrigued by the lengthy writing process that lay behind this one, which Lee writes about in her new introduction.
  • All Is Song: Samantha Harvey. ‘An evocative tale of two brothers that resists the easy and the obvious’ [Guardian], Harvey’s second novel sounds more akin to her Dear Thief than to her more recent, late medieval historical novel, The Western WindI loved both, and Harvey’s writing is so good that I almost don’t care what she’s writing about, so I have high hopes for this.
  • The Echo Maker: Richard Powers. I also picked this as one of the novels I think I’ll give a 4.5 star rating, after being so impressed by Powers’ The Overstory. ‘On a winter night, Mark Schluter’s truck turns over in a near-fatal accident. His sister, Karin, returns reluctantly to their hometown to look after him. But when he finally awakes from his coma, Mark believes that Karin – who looks, acts, and sounds just like his sister – is really an identical impostor.’ [Amazon]
  • Happiness: Aminatta Forna. I’ve been a fan of Forna’s novels for a while, including The Hired Man and The Memory of Loveand I’m impressed by her range as a novelist. Her latest, set in London, focuses on ‘Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist, and Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes’, whose lives collide on Waterloo Bridge [author’s website].
  • Queenie: Candice Carty-Williams. ‘Caught between the Jamaican British family who don’t seem to understand her, a job that’s not all it promised and a man she just can’t get over, Queenie Jenkins’ life seems to be steadily spiralling out of control’ [Waterstones]. This debut has had a LOT of buzz, but it sounds like something I’d really enjoy, and I like the idea of telling the disaffected millennial zeitgeisty story from the point of view of a black woman.
  • The Good Immigrant USA: Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman ed. ‘An urgent collection of essays by first- and second-generation immigrants, exploring what it’s like to be othered in an increasingly divided America’ [Amazon UK]. I loved most of the essays in Shukla’s previous edited collection, The Good Immigrant, particularly those which explored ethnic identities that don’t get a lot of air-time, such as British Chinese, and I’m keen to read the American version.
  • Fruit of the Drunken Tree: Ingrid Rojas Contreras. ‘In the vein of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a mesmerizing debut set against the backdrop of the devastating violence of 1990s Colombia about a sheltered young girl and a teenage maid who strike up an unlikely friendship that threatens to undo them both.’[Goodreads] I was searching for Colombian fiction by Colombian writers for a gift for a friend who’s currently travelling in Colombia, and Rebecca suggested this debut; after loving Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky OnesI’m keen to read this myself.
  • Chemistry: Weike Wang. ‘A luminous, funny and charming novel… about a young Chinese-American scientist who must recalibrate her life when her academic career goes off-track’. [Google Books] I’m intrigued by this take on academic burnout and mental health issues.
  • Memories of the Future: Siri Hustvedt. ‘Fresh from Minnesota and hungry for all New York has to offer, twenty-three-year-old S.H. embarks on a year that proves both exhilarating and frightening – from bruising encounters with men to the increasingly ominous monologues of the woman next door.’ [publisher’s website] Hustvedt’s What I Loved made a big impact on me when I read it in my first year of university, and the structure of this novel sounds reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which I also read that year.
  •  Starling Days: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. ‘A beautifully weird portrayal of being alone together, millennial ennui, bisexuality and hybrid identity. It captures the brilliance and isolation of big cities as well as the struggle and strength to keep on going.’ [Fantastic Fiction] I loved Buchanan’s debut, Harmless Like Youand was excited to get a proof copy of this one.

Reserve Options

Tommy Orange’s There There, about a community of Native Americans living in California, and Anuradha Bhagwati’s Unbecoming, about her experience as a bisexual woman of colour in the US Marines, are both only reserve options because it would be difficult/expensive for me to get hold of them at the moment. I’m still very keen to read both of these, and like to have reserve options in case I completely go off the idea of any of the books above and/or cannot source them.

Are you taking part in 20 Books of Summer this year? Have you read any of these?

 

Unhappy People: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson) & Normal People (Sally Rooney)

Jeanette Winterson grew up in an English Pentecostal family. Her adoptive parents were shocked when she came out as a lesbian, and had their church conduct an exorcism. Winterson ended up leaving home at sixteen, and broke contact with her family shortly after. Famously, she published a fictionalised account of her childhood and adolescence, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, when she was only twenty-five, but this memoir addresses her experiences from her own point of view. The title has a simple origin. When Winterson told her mother that she had fallen in love with another woman, and that this relationship made her very happy, her mother said: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

While few people would put this question as bluntly as Mrs Winterson (Winterson refers to her mother in this way throughout Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) I think that it’s a question that a lot of us grapple with. That’s certainly true for the protagonists of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, Connell and Marianne, who meet at school in Carricklea and carry on an one-off relationship through their years at university in Dublin. While Marianne’s family are far better off than Connell’s – Connell’s mother cleans their house – Marianne’s class privilege does little to help her at school, where Connell possesses all the social cachet. When they start sleeping together, both simply assume that the relationship should be kept secret. Cleverly, Rooney reverses the power dynamics in Dublin, where it is Marianne who is striving for social success, whereas Connell takes the brunt of not only being working-class but rural. Both characters feel the pressures of being what Marianne calls ‘normal people’, a state that is both aspirational and stifling.

Like Connell, Winterson came from a working-class family in a relatively out-of-the-way location (in her case, Accrington) and went to a glamorous world-class university (in her case, Cambridge). She writes so well about both class and religion. Despite the oppressive nature of the Pentecostal church, she remembers how she valued the sense of community it brought and the simple fact of ‘having somewhere to go in the evening’ in a declining north-west England industrial town where communal facilities had been steadily stripped away. Not connecting this to the bigger picture at the time, Winterson, as a young woman, voted for Thatcher in 1979, valuing what she seemed to represent: a self-made woman in a world where left politics felt dominated by masculine trade unionism. In contrast, both class and (especially) religion are relatively slight in Normal People. While class differences feed into the consistent miscommunication between Connell and Marianne, Rooney seems more interested in analysing how they misunderstand each other word by word and sentence by sentence, rather than suggesting that there are macro factors that keep them apart. The sadness of their story is that it could so easily have been different. In terms of politics, Marianne talks vaguely about Marxism, but that’s as far as it goes.

Rooney is a wonderfully observational writer. This Goodreads review seems to me to miss the point of her prose; it accuses her of piling up irrelevant details, but actually the content of this quote is who is doing what:

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

While I don’t think this is the strongest example of Rooney’s writing, there’s a certain power dynamic here that we can see through Connell’s eyes; Marianne bringing out more bottles; handing him a corkscrew while her current partner, Jamie, tries to get her attention; Peggy taking charge through clearing the plates.

Ordinary People is an addictive read, and I found it less limited than Conversations With Friends (the critics who have suggested that Rooney has somehow regressed because she’s writing about characters who are chronologically younger than her last set of protagonists need to think again). However, I have to confess that I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as ‘a future classic’. I feel like I’ve read quite a few novels like this, most notably Belinda McKeon’s beautiful TenderI’d still put it on my personal shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize, but this is partly due to the weakness of the overall longlist rather than feeling blown away by this book.

What I wanted it to address, I suppose, is something that’s inchoate in the story but never quite comes to the surface: when we are teenagers, we often want more than anything to be ‘normal people’, but as we find out how easy it is to be normal, we strive to become exceptional again. This happens most obviously to Marianne when she’s accepted by a popular set at university, and is seduced into putting her own needs and interests to one side. In Winterson’s case, I get the sense that, after what her mother said to her, being ‘normal’ was never on the agenda; so her wonderful memoir is more about the cost of living on the other side of normality, which may be the right place to be, but is often a very painful space as well.

#100DaysofWriting: A Retrospective

 

 

On 29th December last year, I decided to take on the #100daysofwriting challenge. This challenge was originally created by the novelist Jenn Ashworth, who writes about it here, but I found out about it via Emma Darwin’s blog (which, by the way, is an invaluable resource for those who write fiction). I’ve never been won over by NaNoWriMo or similar challenges, which value word count above all else; neither have I found that telling myself I have to write for a certain amount of time every day is very productive for me, although I like Antonia Honeywell’s reformulation of this, which (paraphrased) suggests that you sit in a chair for fifteen minutes every day and try to write, even if that means spending fifteen minutes doing nothing. In short, this is how #100daysofwriting works; you work on your WiP every day for 100 days, but this could mean as little work as opening the relevant document on your computer, or as much work as a blazing five-thousand-word writing streak. Ashworth calls it ‘gentle productivity’, and for me, it strikes a good balance between the undoubtedly sound advice to write every day and the realities of most people’s writing lives.

Since starting #100daysofwriting, I haven’t managed to write every day. I calculate that I wrote on 100/145 days since beginning the challenge, or 69% of all days. This feels both good and bad to me. I’ve had periods of my life where I wrote every day for a year, or two years; on the other hand, I’ve also had periods where I haven’t written anything creative at all for similar amounts of time. Writing on seven out of every ten days is a pretty satisfying achievement from that perspective. I also decided to write about my progress on Twitter, which was not required by the original challenge. I did this for two reasons: while I suspected that daily tweets about my writing progress would irritate or bore most of my followers, I personally would love to see other writers do this. And secondly, I hoped it would help keep me on track by providing an element of public accountability.

So what did I actually get done, and how far did #100daysofwriting help me do it? First things first: I didn’t spend most of my 100 days working on the Antarctic-set novel I mention in the tweet above, and write more about here. In January, I used Tim Clare’s freewriting exercise to work on two novels simultaneously, freewriting on the new novel while I worked on structural edits for my time-travel novel, A Minute’s Grace, which I also discuss here. Freewriting is another brilliant tool for a novelist who’s feeling stuck: it involves writing for fifteen minutes about anything you like, without stopping or editing, although you can also use prompts to get you going (Clare’s free online Couch to 80k Novel-Writing course and his #weeklywritingworkout emails are full of these). However, by early February, something unexpected but fabulous happened; I was offered agent representation for A Minute’s Grace by Kerry Glencorse at Susanna Lea Associates. After two wonderful meetings with Kerry where we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the novel, it was clear that I needed to focus on A Minute’s Grace, rather than the new project, until these edits were done.

Over February and March, I found it much harder to get going again on A Minute’s Grace than I anticipated, and my #100daysofwriting progress was equally patchy. As I wrote on Twitter on February 21st: “Robin McKinley’s Sunshine has this brilliant line where the protagonist is making cinnamon rolls & is trying to ‘persuade stiff, surly, thirty-hour refrigerated dough that it’s time to loosen up’ & that’s EXACTLY what getting back into editing a draft feels like.” I think I was especially struggling with A Minute’s Grace, which had already gone through a number of edits based on professional feedback by that point (I was lucky enough to have been mentored by Orion editor Sam Eades through the Womentoring Project, for example), because my mind and heart had mentally moved on to my Antarctic novel. Freewriting for that novel turned out to be a wonderful way to wake up its cast, but I wished they wouldn’t insist on talking to me when I was trying to focus on something different. I also had some work issues during this period that swallowed up a lot of time and energy.

 

In April and May, I properly got into a serious edit on A Minute’s Grace, helped by a DIY writing retreat near where I grew up in Wiltshire, and ironically enough, this was when #100daysofwriting became less useful. When I’m in the swing of things, I want to write every day, and I’m privileged enough at the moment to have a job that allows me to do that. So I’m finishing out #100daysofwriting with a completely redrafted MS that will be ready to go back to my agent by my (self-imposed) 31st May deadline! That feels like a win. And even though I didn’t write every day, I think the reward of steadily clocking up 100 days helped me get back on the wagon more quickly when I fell off.

Would I recommend #100daysofwriting? I think it depends what you need it for. I’ll definitely be returning to it as I work through the early days of my new novel, provisionally entitled Old Ice, which I find painfully slow; creating something from nothing is so difficult. However, in general, I enjoy editing and find it easy to do once I’ve sorted it out in my head, so I found #100daysofwriting less useful for the later stages of a novel; at that point, I think I need chapter goals, not turning-up goals, as I’m going to turn up anyway. Similarly, the public accountability was more necessary, but more excruciating, when I was working on Old Ice; I’m worried that my more recent tweets have sounded a bit smug, but I know that some people blaze through a first draft and hate editing, so will have the opposite experience! Importantly, this will be different again for non-fiction and academic writers, some of which I know have been trying #100daysofwriting as well.

Are any of you working on your own writing projects at the moment? Do you have any productivity tips? And would you consider trying #100daysofwriting?