2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.

 

In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!

20 Books of Summer 2020: A Retrospective

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20 Books of Summer 2020 is over, and I read all of my 20 books – helped a lot this time by choosing books that I needed to read anyway!

What did I think of the books I read? [Links are to my reviews]. I’ll group them in the same way as I did in 2018 and 2019. This time, the absolute standouts were The Mercies, Swamplandia! and New Waves. All will be strong contenders for my books of the year.

In the second tier are Summerwater, Brixton Hill, The Vanishing Half, Tiamat’s WrathSurfacing and The Maths of Life and DeathNone of these absolutely blew me away, but they’re still very good books that I’d strongly recommend.

As before, there were a number of books that I enjoyed but about which I had reservations, ranging from more to less serious. These were The Terror, Blue TicketYou Will Never Be Forgotten, A Children’s Bible, If I Had Your Face, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead and The Fens.

Finally, there were the outright disappointments: The Road Home, The Disaster Tourist, Home Remedies and Notes From The Bottom of the World.

These divisions are pretty much identical to 2019, making me wonder if they would hold true for any given set of 20 books I might read! I found the challenge easier this year, though, than any previous year, because I picked books I already owned but not books that had been sitting in a TBR pile for a long time already (went on a bit of a book-buying spree at the start of lockdown, not helped by publishers sticking everything on NetGalley!)

Will I do 20 Books of Summer again next year? Yes, but I really want to do what I’d planned to do this year, and make it a re-reading challenge. Next year, I’m hoping to have moved into a bigger place and finally be reunited with all my books, making this plan much more possible 🤞

Did you do 20 Books of Summer this year? How did it go?

20 Books of Summer, #19 and #20: Home Remedies and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

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Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection of short stories, Home Remedies, was on my list of books to read in 2020. The collection is split into three sections, ‘Family’, ‘Love’ and ‘Time’, though I wasn’t sure this division was necessary, as while the stories do fall into certain groups, they don’t mirror these themes. Wang showcases her versatility by writing in a number of different registers. One lot of stories – ‘Days of Being Mild’ – ‘Fuerdai to the Max’ – are told in first-person and focus on young Chinese people living either in China or in the US who are pursuing the kind of unfocused millennial existence that has been explored in a fair amount of fiction, living in large houseshares, making art and having messy relationships. Another lot – ‘Mott Street in July’ – ‘White Tiger of the West’ – adopt a more distant third-person register and explore generational dynamics with reference to more traditional Chinese ways of life. We also have a couple with the kind of cutesy, clever titles that I can’t deal with at all – ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening-Ailments’ – ‘Algorithmic Problem-Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships’ – that impose certain structures, such as a list of remedies or algorithms, on their narratives in a way that looks clever but always ends up being so reductive. It’s not surprising that the best story in the collection, ‘Vaulting the Sea’, which considers the relationship between two young male synchronised divers who represent China in international competitions, doesn’t fit into any of these slots. However, although I appreciated its sympathetic development of one young man’s feelings for the other, it concludes with an image that underlines the symbolism of the story far too obviously. This sits in contrast to the majority of the stories in this collection, which go too far the other way and simply trail off with no sense of resolution. I really wanted to like this more, and I know several bloggers whose opinions I trust are big fans, but I found it bland and disappointing.

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Olga Tokarczuk’s seventh novel, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, attracted a shed-load of positive critical attention from English-speaking reviewers and bloggers after its translation into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in 2019 (it was originally published in Polish in 2009). Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize for Literature win in 2018 meant her literary stardom was assured. Drive Your Plow… is an undoubtedly bizarre novel held together by an incredible narrative voice. Our narrator is Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman living in an isolated Polish village; when her neighbour is murdered in the middle of winter, she sets out to discover the reasons behind his death. However, this is no murder mystery but a much more metaphysical exploration of questions about what makes us human. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of novel that I will just never get on with personally, even though I was tempted into trying it by the glowing reviews. I loved how vividly Janina was drawn but found the whole enterprise too surreal and disparate to really commit to this fictional world. The folk-tale feel of the first chapter was also more evocative for me, and I felt further distanced when Janina comes into crunching contact with modernity a bit later on. Drive Your Plow… is a divisive read, but it’s an impressive novel that must also have been horribly difficult to translate. And at least I’ve read something that counts towards #WomenInTranslation month!

20 Books of Summer is almost over! How are you getting on with the challenge, if you decided to do it?

I’ll post my usual 20 Books of Summer retrospective on Tuesday 1st of September.

20 Books of Summer, #17 and #18: New Waves and The Fens

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Kevin Nguyen’s debut New Waves was one of my most anticipated new releases of 2020, and it didn’t disappoint, even though the novel I read turned out to be a very different novel from the one the blurb led me to expect. New Waves was billed as fast-paced and satirical, featuring a black woman, Margo, and a Vietnamese man, Lucas, who team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long. While that’s certainly where the story starts, this hook doesn’t have much to do with where it goes after that. Nevertheless, as it turned out, New Waves fits right into a sub-genre that I’ve only just realised I love: literary fiction about fascinatingly opaque characters whom we learn about solely through the viewpoints of their friends and the technological or artistic remnants they leave behind (see also: Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted). Which is to say that this novel is all about Margo, tech genius and science fiction short story writer, even though she dies in a random accident in its first few pages. Grieving the loss of his best friend, Lucas hunts through her laptop, and while he doesn’t exactly come across revelations that overturn everything he knows about Margo, he definitely finds things that switch that knowledge onto new tracks. New Waves is so smart about race and gender, but it also has a lot to say about how both people and programmes tend to add up data in a way that makes sense to them. Margo’s short stories are nihilistic, refusing to organise themselves in any way that allows a happy ending, but her actual presence in Lucas’s life was relentlessly optimistic. Because we never hear from her directly (other than in the typed and spoken material she left behind, which is more about her fiction than about her), we are left to make up our own minds about a lot of loose ends. What kind of person was she deep down? What did she really think about Lucas? This novel will probably drive some readers to distraction, but I loved it.

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Francis Pryor is an archaeologist who specialises in the study of the British Bronze and Iron Ages. The Fens: Discovering England’s Ancient Depths traces the history of this particular English region from prehistoric times to the present day, interspersing Pryor’s personal experiences on particular digs and his memories of living in the fenland with an archaeologist’s view of how and why the fens have developed and changed. Unsurprisingly, given Pryor’s area of specialism, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up this book, the bulk of the material is prehistoric; the medieval fens, which is the period I’m personally most interested in, barely get a look in, and what he does say about medieval power relationships is pretty simplistic from a historian’s point of view. Pryor is, when it comes down to it, more interested in the evolution of technologies, buildings and settlements than in social and political history, and fair enough if that’s your kind of thing. However, I did feel this would struggle to appeal beyond a relatively narrow audience. It’s very long, goes off on a lot of tangents, and Pryor’s writing is clear but no more than that. Certainly, the autobiographical elements of this book don’t add very much, although it promises to discuss a more emotional relationship with landscape. If you’ve lived in the fens, there will be something to interest you here, but it might not be enough to engage you for the whole 400+ pages; I read the first four chapters and then skipped to the chapters that particularly appealed to me.

I’ve made a second and final substitution in my 20 Books of Summer; unfortunately, my NetGalley copy of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain was so badly formatted it was unreadable (not the first time), so I’ve subbed in Xuan Juliana Wang’s collection of short stories Home Remedies, which was on my list of books to read in 2020.

20 Books of Summer, #16: Blue Ticket

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Sophie Mackintosh’s second novel, Blue Ticket, one of my most anticipated books of 2020, is billed as a feminist dystopia where adolescent girls are assigned either a blue or white ticket once they get their first period. ‘White tickets’ are required to seek out a solid heterosexual relationship and give birth to children, whereas ‘blue tickets’ are released on a path of uncertain freedoms, assigned to jobs that are deemed to suit them but able to control their personal lives – as long as they never get pregnant. Predictably enough, our protagonist, Calla, is a ‘blue ticket’ who has never especially questioned the system until she begins to realise how much she wants to be a mother. When she becomes pregnant, she flees the city for the wilderness outside, and travels in hope of reaching the ‘border’ to embark on a new life in a different country that doesn’t have the same rules. The first half or so of Blue Ticket, therefore, despite Mackintosh’s sharp writing, feels like YA with weak worldbuilding crossed with the kind of literary novel that Fatma has brilliantly termed ‘Dysfunctional Women Being Dysfunctional’, as Calla careers blindly through her life and we learn very little about how this system works or why it exists.

To my surprise, however, once Calla is firmly established as a fugitive, Blue Ticket becomes a rather different and more interesting book. What began to emerge for me is that Mackintosh is just not interested in writing an actual dystopia or even realist fiction. The female life-cycle that she depicts is, instead, far more stylised and symbolic: at puberty, Calla and the other ‘blue ticket’ girls were required to set off alone on the road to make their way to their new lives, and it is this common experience that comes to define them. As another woman says to Calla, ‘You need to let yourself remember how you did it before… The system has failed us. But our bodies got us here the first time.’ Calla’s flight, therefore, feels less like the typical rebellion of a dystopian heroine but a preordained step in a folktale, especially with the sense that the authorities know what she’s doing all the time. Once the story settles like this, it has moments when it becomes mesmerising. I was especially struck by how Mackintosh makes motherhood weird and fresh again once we see it through the eyes of the ‘blue ticket’ women, who don’t have the inherited knowledge that we take for granted: ‘She turned back and I realised that the baby was attached to her nipple, its mouth locked on to her flesh. I thought about the heaviness of my breasts, hard and blue when I undressed, and it made a terrible new sense.’

Because of its long uncertainty about the kind of book it wants to be, Blue Ticket doesn’t live up to its potential: I wished there had been more about how the ticket system shaped these women’s emotional lives, and that Mackintosh had begun the story with Calla’s decision, allowing us to spend more time with the community she builds outside the city walls. Nevertheless, I was impressed by Mackintosh’s prose, especially on childbirth – in labour, Calla goes ‘up the ladder of the pain, rung by rung’ and, having heard tales of PND, fears that, afterwards, ‘my brain was loosening in my skull’ – and I’d read more by her.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 27th August.

A 20 Books of Summer update: I’ve decided that there’s no way I’m going to get through a 500 page + Anglo-Saxon historical epic by the end of August, and so I’ve used one of my two official substitutions to swap out Nicola Griffith’s Hild for Kevin Nguyen’s New Waves, which was also one of my most anticipated books of 2020. I’ll definitely still be reading Hild, though, hopefully in September.

20 Books of Summer, #14 and #15: The Mercies and The Terror

After a series of random mismatched 20 Books of Summer posts, I am perhaps unreasonably pleased that I’ve finally managed to bring together two historical novels that share undoubted thematic similarities, despite some equally obvious differences. Both are set in the far and freezing north; both feature characters in small communities beset by threats from outside that raise superstitious fears; both feature uneasy interactions between white Europeans and local indigenous people; and both are full of violence and death. Neither, therefore, is the best summer read, but as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of summer, I didn’t find that to be a problem 🌞

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel, The Mercies, is set on a tiny island off the Norwegian coast in the early seventeenth century. When an unexpected storm sweeps in and kills almost all of the island’s men, the women are left to fend for themselves, and are managing well enough when a commissioner from Scotland, steeped in King James VI and I’s writings on witchfinding, is dispatched from the mainland to root out suspected sorcery in this isolated community. Threaded through this series of real historical events is the story of two women: Maren, one of the islanders, who is trying to handle the breakdown of the relationship between her mother and Sámi sister-in-law, and Ursa, the commissioner’s unhappy wife. Hargrave warmly conveys the way in which these very different women come to trust and love each other, as Maren teaches Ursa basic skills such as baking and butchering that she never had cause to learn before. While the pace of this novel is deliberately meditative, the building tensions within the wider community of women are exceptionally well-conveyed, with their common experience of grief proving to be divisive as they find different ways of coping with the tragedy.

The Mercies has an unapologetically feminist focus, and it’s this perhaps that sets it apart from the many, many novels I’ve read that deal with witchcraft accusations in isolated communities in both the early American colonies and across Europe (Corrag/Witch Light by Susan Fletcher; The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent). This isn’t to say that these other fictions aren’t conscious of gender inequality, because they are, but The Mercies is both more brutal and more beautiful in its depiction of the position of women under patriarchy. Hargrave vividly depicts Ursa’s humiliating marriage and the abuse faced by the village women who break out of traditional roles to take to the fishing boats after the loss of their men. She gives her story time to breathe before tightening the screws at the end, and while some readers may think this makes the book too slow, I thought this decision was necessary to ensure that we truly care about these characters before they meet their fates. While I clocked that this book plays into a trope that is much too common [highlight for spoiler] bury your gays [end spoiler], I did think that Hargrave made the right kind of choice for the story she was telling, although she could have softened this somewhat by [highlight for spoiler] not killing Maren [end spoiler]. This confident and moving novel bodes well for Hargrave’s future in adult fiction.

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Dan Simmons’s The Terror tells the story of John Franklin’s infamous ‘lost expedition’ (1845-8), a voyage of exploration that intended to chart the Arctic Northwest Passage but from which none of the men ever returned. The fate of Franklin’s expedition attracted a fair amount of attention at the time, especially given the (later verified) rumours of cannibalism among some of the crew and the single, confusing note that survives from one of the copper cairns where Franklin was meant to leave regular reports of his progress. Simmons starts his story after Franklin’s death, during the period when the expedition’s two ships, Erebus and Terror, were still stuck fast in pack ice off King William Island. Nineteenth-century Arctic expeditions relied on building ships that could survive a winter or more marooned in this way, but Franklin’s party ran into particular trouble. Not only did two winters pass with little sign of the pack ice loosening enough for them to sail in the intervening warmer periods, but much of the tinned food they had packed was found to have been poorly sealed, and became poisonous. Along with the weakening of the ascorbic acid in their stores of lemon juice over time, scurvy became a major problem for the crew, alongside other horrific ailments such as frostbite.

Not content with allowing his characters to deal with these trials, Simmons introduces a supernatural element into the mix. Both ships are being stalked by a mysterious white creature that is far taller and more deadly than a polar bear, and which kills men without warning. The Terror switches between more mundane struggles for survival and the fear induced by this monster, but these two plots don’t properly dovetail until the men leave their stricken ships and begin hauling sledges overland to reach a new stock of supplies at one of their base camps, about two-thirds of the way through the narrative. For me, it was only at this point that the novel became truly gripping, which is a bit of an ask given that it’s almost a thousand pages long. Nevertheless, Simmons serves up brilliant set-piece after brilliant set-piece in the first two-thirds, so if you can deal with the lack of narrative pull and are attracted by the blurb, you’re still likely to get a lot out of this book. Two particular stand-outs are a terrifying action scene where one of the ship’s ‘ice masters’ has to climb and leap through the rigging to evade the monster, and a garish ‘Carnivale’ that the men hold on the ice, complete with tents made of sailcloth dyed of different colours, that predictably ends in carnage.

Simmons’s account of being an explorer in the coldest regions of the Earth is the best fictional recreation I’ve ever read, summoning up memories of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s hellish memoir of his Antarctic experience, The Worst Journey in the World, and, through this, he fully captures the absurdity of the colonial mindset that led white men to ship bad canned food to the furthest corners of the globe rather than recognising the skills that allow native people to survive there. There’s absolutely no way that this book needed to be as long as it is for Simmons to achieve what he wanted with it; however, it’s not a story that I’ll forget in a hurry.

20 Books of Summer, #13: Summerwater

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King’s tower and queen’s bower,
And weed and reed in the gloom;
And a lost city in Semmerwater,
Deep asleep till Doom.

I read Sarah Moss’s latest novel, Summerwater, in a couple of sittings on a rainy Saturday. It was the perfect way to experience this short, clever novel, which skips between the perspectives of twelve holidaymakers staying on a holiday resort in rural Scotland on a single, torrentially rainy day. Most have been kept up the night before by loud music played by a Ukrainian family, and their hell is now continuing as the weather refuses to relent. Moss’s depiction of this bleak resort is both deeply personal and panoramic. We are completely immersed in the stream-of-consciousness narrative of a young woman trying to have a simultaneous orgasm with her fiancee and being continuously distracted by everything else that’s on her mind, and in the frantic thoughts of a mother who wants to make the most of having an hour to herself while her husband takes the children for a paddle. However, as Moss shifts perspectives, we see how small details that sit in the background of certain narratives, such as a child’s abandoned shoe, take on new meaning in others. There are also short omniscient sections that relate the natural history of this place; as with Jon McGregor’s employment of a similar technique in Reservoir 13this attempt to connect the human, animal and mineral worlds didn’t work for me, but it only makes up a tiny proportion of the novel.

Summerwater demonstrates Moss’s versatility as a writer; she is equally convincing as an elderly woman suffering memory problems and as a teenage boy getting into trouble in a kayak. Indeed, I thought the two sections narrated by teenagers were two of the strongest in this novel. Moss’s The Tidal Zone proved how good she is at writing about adolescence, and I was pleased to see that carried over when writing as an adolescent. She makes a deliberate choice not to narrate from the perspective of any of the Ukrainian characters; I wondered if, given that they are positioned as a disruptive influence in the resort because of their relentless music, it might have helped to get more from their point of view. But on the other hand, I can see how keeping them silent reinforces some of the other things Moss wants to say about xenophobia, and the stories that others impose on this family (they are intermittently referred to as ‘Poles’, ‘Romanians’ or just ‘Eastern Europeans’, and subtle prejudice threads its way through a number of the characters’ internal monologues).

Summerwater is troubled by something that’s never quite in sight, lending it a tension that carries us through to a thematically ambiguous ending – although there may be clues in the poem that one of the characters half-remembers, ‘The Ballad of Semmerwater’, which recounts the story of a town drowned beneath a lake because of the unkindness of its richest citizens. As with Ghost Wall, I wasn’t sure that Moss left herself quite enough space to deliver the punch she wanted, and wished that the final scene had been further developed; but the last lines are completely haunting. This is definitely top-tier Moss, and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves (though I feel like I say that every time she publishes something new).

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 20th August.

20 Books of Summer, #11 and #12: You Will Never Be Forgotten and A Children’s Bible

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Mary South’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenwas billed by the publisher as being about people who ‘attempt to use technology to escape their uncontrollable feelings of grief or rage or despair, only to reveal their most flawed and human selves’. The first thing to say is that isn’t an accurate description of this collection at all. Only two or three of the stories really focus on technology, and of those, only ‘Keith Prime’ really explores its speculative implications by depicting a facility that nurtures sets of human beings so they can be used as organ donors. ‘Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls’ is yet another reflection on the distorted lives that people live through the internet, a poor reflection of sharper, more satirical short stories on this topic such as Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s ‘Suicide, Watch’ in her Heads of the Colored People. Meanwhile, ‘You Will Never Be Forgotten’, where a woman who works as a content moderator for a search engine tracks her rapist down in real life, is one of the better stories in the collection, but still feels a little flat and familiar.

At its worst, You Will Never Be Forgotten serves up imaginative and bizarre situations, like the woman who breastfeeds a series of adult men staying at her hostel, but then spells out exactly what we ought to take from this story: ‘Not one of you has bothered to find out the reason I’m here’, the woman complains to the men, ‘Do you think you’re the only ones who need love? I’m done. Consider yourselves weaned.’ (Earlier on, to underline the point, the group read the ending of Peter Pan, where it’s explained that Wendy’s female descendants will become Peter’s mother in their turn, while he remains an eternal child.) At its best, however, this collection shows some promise, even if South isn’t really that interested in tech: my favourite story was ‘Not Setsuko’, which draws from the imagery of J-horror to tell the story of a mother who is forcing her daughter to relive every important moment in the life of her older sister, who died at the age of nine. This creepy tale has some interesting things to say about childhood, parenthood and ‘making memories’, and it’s here that South is at her most original.

I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on August 6th.

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Lydia Millet has had a pretty distinguished career in the States – she’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Book Prize, among other things – but I don’t get the sense that she’s especially well-known here in the UK. Her latest novel, A Children’s Bible, is painfully timely; it starts with a group of teenagers and their parents spending the summer in a remote lake house, and descends into a story of environmental catastrophe. I loved the sharpness of the generational divisions in the first half of this novel, as Eve, our teenage narrator, and her friends, look on in disgust as their parents indulge in sex, drugs and drink. The children are so desperate to disassociate themselves from the older generation that they refuse to tell each other which mother and father they’re related to, and play a game of trying to work out these family connections. There’s something of Meg Rosoff’s arresting How I Live Now (which I first read when I actually was a teenager!) in the way Millet writes about the self-sufficiency of this adolescent community, especially when the teenagers flee their parents to shelter in a barn some distance away. However, the apocalyptic climate change reflections, including their implications for future generations, have become very familiar in fiction, and here I didn’t think A Children’s Bible brought much to the table; I also found the biblical allusions too obvious. I wish Millet had spent more time on her delightful inversion of the usual power hierarchies between adults and children, and less time telling us that the adults are only culpable because of their failure to do anything about climate change. Nevertheless, this novel is worth reading, if only for its courage in putting age, rather than other social identities, front and centre.

I received a free copy of this novel from W.W. Norton for review.

20 Books of Summer, #10: The Road Home by Rose Tremain #ReadingWomen

I’m taking part in the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s #ReadingWomen challenge, aiming to read all 24 previous winners of the Women’s Prize before the autumn. Now I have two left to go!

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Rose Tremain’s The Road Home won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008. It follows Lev, an immigrant from a nameless Eastern European country, as he struggles to make a life for himself in England while sending money home to his mother and his young daughter. For much of the novel, Lev is positioned as a neutral social observer, and Tremain often seems to be using him (as well as some of the other characters that he meets) as a mouthpiece for the things she wants to say about the weirdnesses and excesses of English society. For example, when Lev goes to see an experimental new play that features a character who watches child pornography, he thinks it’s ‘disgusting’ and gets into an argument with his girlfriend, Sophie, about it:

I think it’s brilliant,” said Sophie… “it’s radical and brave and – ” 

It’s shit,” said Lev… “I understand you now. You don’t see anything! You see what is “fashion”, what is “smart”. That’s all that matters to you. Because you don’t know the world… I’m not sick, like this play. At home I have a daughter, Maya. I love this daughter – 

Who cares?” said Preece [an artist.] “That’s so not relevant. Who cares if you’ve got a daughter? This is art. This is cutting edge.”

Because of this, Lev doesn’t develop a distinctive voice or character of his own. For much of the novel, he remains a cipher, flipping between different registers depending on what Tremain wants from the interaction; which makes the one scene where he smashes out of his anodyne default even more shocking. As this argument about art heats up, he suddenly, for no obvious reason ‘grabbed Sophie and locked her body to his with his arm around her neck… She began to choke and gasp.’  Later on, when she comes round to see if he’s OK after he’s fired from his job, he rapes her. Nevertheless, the reader seems to be expected to continue keeping company with Lev as if all of this is forgivable and understandable; it’s not presented as a line that he’s crossed.

While this is horrific enough by itself, the problems with this novel run even deeper. As I’ve suggested, Tremain uses Lev to criticise certain aspects of English society, but this never amounts to a fundamental engagement with the problems of capitalism and globalisation. In other exchange where she seems to be making her characters spell out one of the messages she wants to impart, Lev is talking to Midge, the owner of an asparagus farm that employs migrant labour. Lev thinks that Midge’s Chinese employees are so happy all the time because “in England, they feel more… free than in China. And this freedom gives them happiness.” (The Chinese stereotypes in this novel are something else.) Midge replies: “Never think of our lives as “free”, do we? Think of them as one long work shift… But perhaps, in this country, we take a lot for granted.” Later, Lev is talking to a friend who works as a mortgage advisor: she comments ‘We have a mountain of personal debt in this country… in Britain, everybody wants it now, hurry-scurry: new house, new car, new fridge, new kitchen…’. This novel was published just before the financial crisis, but this message is still pretty awful: England is the promised land, and individuals’ problems are their own greedy fault. It’s notable that Lev encounters barely a jot of xenophobia throughout the whole novel, despite anti-immigrant sentiment being rife at the time; prime minister Gordon Brown made his infamous ‘British jobs for British workers’ statement the year this novel was published.

So if England is mostly all right, actually, what about the nameless country Lev has left behind, and which he still thinks of as ‘home’? The trouble is that we don’t know anything about it. Not only is it never identified, everything we do learn is generic; it’s poor, people struggle to get work, vodka is the most popular drink, Lev’s mother sews traditional things, Lev’s best friend runs a dodgy taxi business with a patched-together car. By refusing to make this country real, Tremain plays into stereotypes of a faceless, grim Eastern Europe defined solely by its Communist past, and contrasts this no-place with the opportunities offered by a England – mostly by a London – that is rendered in specific detail. As Eveline Kilian argues in her analysis of the novel, ‘There is nothing in Lev’s country that seems worth preserving: no traditions, no culture, no political ideas; it is a place with “[n]o future”‘. [1] It’s only by adopting British values that Lev can build a successful life for himself back home, opening a restaurant that he’s sure will make money because it will be ‘the first one in my country where the food will be truly good’. I can’t imagine that The Road Home felt especially timely or insightful even in 2008, and I fervently hope that it wouldn’t win the Women’s Prize if it were published today.

[1] Eveline Kilian, ‘Frames of recognition under global capitalism: Eastern European migrants in British fiction’ in Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain ed. Barbara Korte and Frédéric Regard (DeGruyter, 2014), p.138. [Paywalled, but you can read an extract here.]

20 Books of Summer, #7, #8 and #9: Tiamat’s Wrath, The Disaster Tourist and Notes From The Bottom of the World

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Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth book in the Expanse series, a vast interplanetary science fiction saga with more than a little in common with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (the two writers behind the pen name ‘James S.A. Corey’ dreamed up the world of the Expanse in a role-playing game where Martin was one of the players). Given that this is the eighth of nine planned installments, the rest of this review will inevitably contain spoilers for the first seven books of the series [highlight to read]. Tiamat’s Wrath and its immediate predecessor, Persepolis Rising, instigate a soft reboot of this very long series by skipping forward decades and refocusing on what was the central antagonist of the first few books: the protomolecule, a substance created by a long-lost alien race that has the power to rewrite the very laws of physics. This was a massive return to form, in my opinion: neither Nemesis Games or Babylon’s Ashes, the fifth and sixth entries, worked well for me because they deviated from this fascinating concept to focus on a much more mundane war. I was thrilled when I realised that Persepolis Rising was returning to the series’ original horror roots, and Tiamat’s Wrath continues in the same vein, focusing on the dangerous meddling of the new Laconian Empire. Corey also resists the temptation to expand the number of narrators as they did in some of the earlier books, making them unwieldy and confusing: sticking to a core group, all but one of which have narrated before, allows Tiamat’s Wrath to keep up its pace and tension. The ending is hugely disturbing, and having become lukewarm about the Expanse in its mid-series slump, I now can’t wait for the ninth and final book.

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

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Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler, follows a young woman called Yona who feels she is being gradually forced out of the company she works for, Jungle Tourism, after experiencing sexual harassment. Jungle specialise in ‘disaster tourism’, luring Korean tourists to the sites of high-profile disasters, and Yona is dispatched to assess an experience called ‘Desert Sinkhole’ in the fictional country of Mui, which Yun reportedly based on south-east Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. Yona discovers that this once-popular destination is becoming less appealing because it’s perceived by its visitors as lacking authenticity; the volcano doesn’t look like what they think a volcano should look like, and the sinkhole isn’t providing the emotional experience they crave. After being accidentally left behind in Mui when her tour group depart, Yona becomes drawn into an attempt to fundamentally rebrand this tourist destination through manufacturing a new disaster, directed by a faceless corporation called Paul. It goes without saying that this novella is intended to critique the destructive tourism of wealthy outsiders, but it didn’t hit as hard as I thought it might. I wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of workplace harassment at the beginning; it seemed like one theme too many for such a short book to carry and didn’t fundamentally shape Yona’s portrayal, so I would have preferred the focus to remain with the exploitation of Mui. Even so, the intensely surreal tone meant that I felt too distanced from what was happening; it seemed so unreal that it was hard to connect with the moral questions the book raises. I wondered if, as an English reader who hasn’t read that much Korean fiction, I was missing something, and sought out this fascinating interview with the author and translator; however, Yun’s suggestion that she wanted this novel to feel like an ‘Orwellian dystopia’ confirmed that for whatever reason, The Disaster Tourist didn’t work for me.

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

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Suzanne Adam’s reflections on being an American expat who has lived in Chile for forty years, Notes From The Bottom of the World, were billed as being travel writing about ‘[Chile’s] culture, its idiosyncrasies, and its exotic landscapes, from Patagonian glaciers to the northern Atacama Desert’. However, this series of very short essays – many aren’t much more than a page long – focus more on Adam’s personal experiences than her explorations of Chile, at least in the third of the book that I read. Moreover, her observations tend towards the banal and the cliched, whether she’s writing about ageing or glaciers; for example, travelling through the Patagonian fjords, she muses: ‘What draws us in the twenty-first century to visit rugged, distant places? Is it an urge for adventure in these times when few unexplored frontiers remain on this planet?’ Given that this is really life-writing rather than travel writing, I found Adam strikingly unreflective. If you want a book that combines travel-writing from the farthest south with intelligent self-narrative, I’d suggest reading Jean McNeil’s wonderful memoir Ice Diaries instead.