20 Books of Summer, 2022: A Retrospective

A flurry of posts from me at the moment but expect this blog to get quieter as we move into September and the new semester starts.

This year, I reinvented Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge as a rereading challenge. I could read any 20 books as long as I had read them already. How did it go?

The Books

Would I do a rereading challenge again?

Definitely, YES; I liked being able to read as the mood took me, although I did plan a couple of reads in advance as I was keen to revisit them and sometimes had to secure library copies.

However, I probably wouldn’t do a rereading challenge for all 20 books of summer again, as I found I got behind with review copies and my general TBR. Next year, I think it would make sense to have 10 pre-planned books that are new reads plus 10 rereads in the mix.

Did you do 20 Books of Summer? What were your favourite and least favourite summer reads? Would you make different summer reading plans next year?

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20 Books of Summer, #18, #19 and #20: Double Fault, The Buried Giant and The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing

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! 

Three eclectic choices to finish up with… though all have something to say about marriage.

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Before rereading: I first read Double Fault in 2010, when I was twenty-three, and again in 2012, when I gave it the same star rating but enjoyed it more. I remember it vividly. It’s the story of an up-and-coming tennis player, Willy, who falls in love with another tennis player, Eric. At first, Willy can easily outpace him, but as his career gathers speed and hers falters, she becomes paralysed by the pain of her own unfulfilled dreams and her struggle to support Eric. This is one of Shriver’s best novels, but I remember it as quite a traumatic read. Willy’s slow failure is so horrible to witness, and I hugely identified with her inability to see herself as anything other than a tennis player (despite having only successfully hit a ball with a tennis racket a couple times in my life!!) and how viciously Eric’s success rubbed salt into her wounds. The novel has attracted a lot of moany Goodreads reviews about how Willy isn’t ‘likeable’, to which I say, whatever.

After rereading: I found Double Fault much less upsetting to read this time around, although I rated it just as highly. What was actually upsetting were the ‘reading group’ questions in my edition (the book was originally published in 1997, but this edition is from 2007, so not THAT long ago!!). Some examples:

  • Do you find Willy – or at least her plight – sympathetic? Or is her moral obligation to be supportive of her husband so profound in your mind that you cannot forgive her bad attitude?
  • To what degree do you believe that Willy engineers her own professional downfall? Might she want to succeed too much? But you can’t really blame her for her injury, can you?
  • The book’s title is obviously a play on words, implying that both parties in the marriage have some responsibility for what happens. Willy’s “fault” is pretty obvious. But in what way is Eric to blame? Or is he?
  • How do you picture Willy’s life after the last page? What will she do for a living? Will she marry again? If so, will she have learnt her lesson? And what lesson will that be?

Yes, what lesson WILL that be?

My rating in 2010/2012: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

L: The hardback edition that I used to own. R: The paperback copy I borrowed from the library this time around.

Before rereading: I was so excited about Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Never Let Me Go remains one of my favourite novels of all time, and this was his first new novel in ten years. I loved the idea of Ishiguro tackling traditional fantasy after his take on sci-fi tropes in Never Let Me Go, and I bought the novel in hardback when it first came out in 2015. Sadly, The Buried Giant was not a hit for me. While I liked the themes of memory and forgetting, I found the narrative so slow-paced that I never finished the novel. I truly hate quest or journey narratives – when the characters walk from place to place searching for something they’re not allowed to find – and this seemed like a classic example.

After rereading: The Buried Giant focuses on an ageing couple, Axel and Beatrice, who decide to leave the warren of caverns where they have been mysteriously shunned by their community, and go in search of their son. They are also troubled by the ‘mist’ that has come over their memories and those of everybody else around them, and hope to lift it so they can remember happy times together in the past. As they travel, they experience a number of strange encounters, including a community of monks who ritually allow themselves to be pecked by birds in penance, and a group of three frozen ogres, one half-submerged in a pool. They also wonder, as it becomes clear to them that this land has a violent past, if the ‘mist’ is a result of human actions; ‘Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget.’ 

If that was all The Buried Giant was – a novella or long short story that focused on Axel and Beatrice’s journey – I’d likely find it both strange and impressive. Unfortunately, the novel is padded out with much weaker material, including a sub-plot about the ageing Sir Gawain which read like a parody of epic fantasy, complete with creaky dialogue. It’s a deliberate mishmash of influences, many of which are probably unintentional – I was reminded, at different times, of A Song Of Ice and Fire, The Neverending Story (the ‘Nothing’ bears an uncanny resemblance to Ishiguro’s mist) and the film Return To Oz. I’m inclined to agree with James Wood in the New Yorker when he says ‘a generalized Arthurian setting, perilous for most writers, is a larger liability for a writer whose mimesis tends not toward the specific but toward discursive monologue and dreamlike suspensions’ and that Ishiguro’s writing tends to (deliberately) lack ‘texture and telling particulars’, which works in his other novels but not here. I’d add that Ishiguro’s obsession with the things we misremember feels unnecessary in The Buried Giant, given that the premise of this novel is that everybody has forgotten almost everything – and yet his characters still quibble over the details of the past. Honestly, I found this a massive slog, but I was at least left with more to think about than after reading Klara and the Sun.

My rating in 2015: *** [DNF]

My rating in 2022: ***

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Before rereading: I discovered Melissa Bank’s work via her second novel, The Wonder Spot, which I re-read multiple times in my early to mid twenties. I’ve only read The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing once, in 2007, when I was twenty years old, and wasn’t as impressed with it as The Wonder Spot, though the books cover similar ground – smart, thoughtful takes on modern dating reminiscent of something like Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of My Dreams. I was sad to hear that Bank has recently died of lung cancer, aged only 61, and thought it would be good to return to these books, this time in publication order.

After rereading: The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing was a big hit when it was first published in 1999, and I can see why; it captures the turn-of-the-millennium zeitgeist, with its direct references to The Rules and echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary. However, while I can understand why the titular short story made waves, the book as a whole still doesn’t hang together for me. Even putting aside the entirely random story in the middle of the collection that doesn’t feature Jane, Girls’ Guide is uneven. The other strongest stories are ‘Advanced Beginners’ and ‘The Worst Thing A Suburban Girl Can Imagine’, which are also the only two which don’t focus solely on romantic relationships. Banks’ writing is undoubtedly sharp, but the clever one-liners become a little formulaic, as they often rely on reversing a common phrase (Jane ironically accuses a boyfriend who’s trying to find her a job of ‘work harassment in the sexual place’; she calls herself ‘a truthball in search of goof’, etc.) And while a lot of the reviews of this book want to stress that it is NOT CHICK LIT, the best early 00s chick lit is better than this. I enjoyed revisiting Girls’ Guide, but I have much higher hopes for The Wonder Spot, which I plan to re-read in September.

My rating in 2007: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***1/2

20 Books of Summer, #17: Room

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! I’m on holiday and off-grid until 30th August, so my last couple of posts for this challenge are auto-scheduled.

L: My proof copy. R: The original hardback cover of the novel.

Before rereading: I read Room in 2010, as an ARC, so before the real hype around the novel began. Since reading Room, I’ve read and loved many of Donoghue’s other novels (Stir-Fry, Hood, The Sealed Letter, The Wonder, Akin, The Pull of the Stars) which has influenced my take on her as a writer. I’ve also seen the excellent film version of Room (2015), which helped me to engage with the novel as I could more clearly visualise what was happening. On one hand, Room is strikingly unrepresentative of Donoghue’s other work, which makes me think better of it; I can see how she was pushing boundaries here. On the other hand, I’ve become a little uncomfortable with the views on motherhood expressed in some of Donoghue’s later work, especially her short story ‘Halfway To Free’, which makes me approach it more warily than before. Finally, since first reading Room in 2010, I have become a historian of childhood; so obviously I’m going to have more thoughts about how it treats its child narrator than I did first time around!

When I first read Room, I wrote: ‘ When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything” Jack, the delightful narrator of Emma Donoghue’s new novel tells us. What he has discovered shortly after his fifth birthday is that the room in which he lives with his mother, ‘Ma’, is not in fact the entire world; there’s a world outside, and one day he and Ma might be able to escape… Jack’s voice is the most important thing about this novel, as being inside his head both simplifies the story, sometimes irritatingly, and also allows Donoghue to view the imprisonment in Room from an unexpected angle. Before reading this book, I thought that it might be very distressing and dark – in the vein of John Fowles’ The Collector – but although some of the details that we manage to work out don’t make for easy reading, the overall tone is far lighter than you might expect… I felt that this novel leant a little too hard on the exciting original concept, and on Jack’s skewed narration… and could have been a little better-plotted, especially in the latter half. But I would still very much recommend it.’

After rereading: So, I liked Room more the second time around. I found it intensely gripping, which was not quite my experience when I first read it. The first half of the novel is impressive. Donoghue handles Jack’s voice adeptly, and in the process, says much about being five years old in any place as well as in Room. It made me reflect on the push and pull about what we need as adults and what children need from us, a push and pull that is inevitable anywhere we live right now, let alone in somewhere like Room. Ma heroically constructs as normal as possible a life for Jack, which means that he is largely happy in Room; when they escape, he struggles with the adjustment to the outside world, pining for the objects he remembers. One particular exchange between him and Ma is both insignificant and horribly poignant, especially as the reader has only ‘seen’ the objects in Room through Jack’s uncritical eyes before:

Mine [hair] is back in ponytail but tangledy because there’s no Comb, we left him in Room. “You should have brung Comb,” I tell her.

Brought,” she says. “Remember, I was in kind of a hurry to see you.”

Yeah but we need it.”

“That old plastic comb with half its teeth snapped off? We need it like a hole in the head,” she says.

Jack also struggles, inevitably, with ever being apart from Ma, which means their needs are in direct conflict; Ma is desperate to get outside after seven years in confinement, whereas Jack finds the outside world terrifying. It’s a clever exploration of the tensions within the nuclear family, dialled up to eleven.

Having said this, it’s disappointing that the novel ultimately trails off. Donoghue doesn’t seem sure what to do with Ma and Jack after they are discharged from hospital. Jack’s voice, which worked so well in Room and in the immediate aftermath of their rescue, starts to become a little saccharine in the later stages of the novel, as he encounters more social norms: ‘In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time… In Room me and Ma had time for everything.’ I started to wonder if it might have worked better if Donoghue had switched from Jack’s voice to Ma’s in this final section, which would  have avoided this ‘innocent child reveals the truth of society’ cliche. Just as Jack was the right narrator in Room, giving us a backwards perspective on the horror of Ma’s imprisonment, Ma might have been the right narrator as they try to adjust to the outside world. For me, most of Donoghue’s other novels are stronger than this one, but it does have more to say about childhood than I originally thought.

My rating in 2010: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ****

20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Memory of Love and Beloved

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Before rereading: I first read The Memory of Love in 2011, when it was on the Orange Prize shortlist. I remember liking the novel far more than I anticipated, but being hugely disappointed by the ending. I remember very little about it otherwise, although I was impressed by Aminatta Forna’s subsequent novels, The Hired Man and Happiness. Spoilers for The Memory of Love follow.

The first time I read The Memory of Love, I wrote: ‘The book is set in 2001 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and delicately and vividly charts the aftermath of the recent civil war. The central character is ostensibly Adrian Lockheart, an English psychatrist who has come to help the survivors work through their trauma and grief, but he is rather colourless, and I found myself far more involved in the stories of the two other major characters: Kai, an orthopedic surgeon, and Elias, a dying man who tells Adrian the events that unfolded thirty years ago when he fell in love with the wife of a colleague just before the country was swept up in a military coup.’ 

However, I was hugely disappointed by the final fifty pages of the novel, writing: ‘I thought this was a fantastic novel up until the last fifty pages, and then – abruptly, and to my own frustration and disappointment – I began to change my mind… Adrian, who has never lived through a war or under military rule, feels that he can despise Elias, while not giving a thought to his abdication of responsibilities towards his own family… If this self-righteousness was portrayed as a failing of Adrian’s, it would be interesting – but my impression was that Forna was entirely behind Adrian’s viewpoint here, especially as we hear no more of Elias after this pivotal scene, and there are no more sections from his point of view that might qualify his actions. Disturbingly, in an earlier scene Adrian is fully able to forgive a war criminal who tossed a baby into a burning building, and even compares him favourably to Elias because he is honestly repentant, while Elias is still trying to justify himself… [The female characters] become idealised pawns largely because we are meant to come down on Adrian’s “side”‘.

After rereading: Interestingly, while I disagree with some of the criticisms I made of The Memory of Love the first time around, I came away with a significantly worse impression of the novel in 2022 than in 2011. It now strikes me as a curiously old-fashioned book, especially in comparison to Forna’s later work. Forna seems determined not to reveal much of Adrian’s inner life, keeping us at arm’s length from the character and instead describing the world he moves through in great, if not excruciating, detail. This might have been a clever narrative choice, especially given Adrian’s psychiatric work that requires him to dig deeply into the traumatised minds of other characters while saying nothing about himself, but it ultimately causes a big problem for the novel.

Adrian’s ‘colourlessness’ seems to render him an objective observer of the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone and the moral conflicts it has caused for its survivors, which makes him feel uncomfortably like a kind of white saviour who isn’t even that good at saving. I’m less convinced than I was in 2011 that this was Forna’s intention; I think we are meant to question Adrian’s presence and motives. Nevertheless, his judgment of Elias still feels off-kilter, even if we can assume that some of his anger is displaced frustration about his inability to help his lover, Mamakay, who is Elias’s daughter. I disliked Elias even more this time round (originally, I felt he was ‘seriously flawed’ but still sympathetic), and so was a bit less bothered about his fate, but it was hard not to feel that both he and Adrian are cast in the same mould: paternalistic men who believe they know what’s best for those around them, especially the women they claim to love but never really get to know. However, if this was the reaction that Forna was aiming for, I wish the women in the narrative had been more than idealised ciphers.

If there’s anything that saves this novel, it’s Kai’s story. While Forna also gives us limited access to Kai’s thoughts, we get more to work with, and he is also the character that has the most nuanced and interesting arc, as he struggles with his own unresolved PTSD and the temptation of emigrating to the United States to join his friend Tejani, rather than continuing with his important orthopaedic practice in Sierra Leone. Interestingly, when Mamakay turns up in Kai’s narrative, we get a sense of who she might be as a person rather than the ‘unreadable’ woman she appears to be through Adrian’s eyes. Again, I wonder if Forna had something to say here about the white and/or misogynistic gaze, as this replays Elias’s relationship with Mamakay’s mother Saffia. If so, though, the novel reproduces these power structures rather than truly challenging them. The woman on its cover remains a distant memory rather than a real, living love.

My rating in 2011: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***

L: The fantastic, Woman In White-esque edition belonging to my mum that I read first time around. R: the slightly bizarre Everyman’s classics edition I borrowed from the library this time around.

Before rereading: I first read Beloved during the summer of 2004, when I was seventeen. I clearly remember reading it in the tent that served as the ‘green room’ for the outdoor youth theatre production of My Fair Lady I was involved with that summer. I’d been inspired to read it because we’d read the opening paragraphs in English Literature class (we’d started preparing for our A Level unseen text syllabus just before school broke up, as our AS Levels were over) and I’d been hugely impressed by Morrison’s writing. However, I remember struggling with the denseness of the text while reading the whole novel. I thought it was good, but I knew I didn’t quite understand it. I didn’t write anything about the novel at the time.

After rereading: Like The Memory of Love, Beloved deals with the legacy of trauma, working through dreams and fragmentary flashbacks as the characters continue to struggle with the violence they’ve witnessed. Slavery occupies the same kind of space in Beloved as the civil war does in The Memory of Love; we gradually become aware of what has happened to our protagonists, but we are never given a neat chronological account. Instead, we re-experience the trauma as they do, when it intrudes upon the present. It won’t come as any surprise that Beloved is the far better novel, but they made interesting reading companions.

I was surprised, when revisiting Beloved, to find that it was much less dense and difficult than I remembered. I think I’ve just had so much more experience at reading this kind of writing since I was a teen (when I chomped down big nineteenth-century English classics, so had no fear of ‘challenging’ books per se). And yes, it’s a hugely impressive achievement. Morrison’s prose is stunning, especially when she writes about what we remember, what we cannot, and how we re-encounter it:

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I don’t really think the world needs me to review Beloved in great depth, because I don’t have anything profound to say. This is a great novel, and if I do still admire it rather than adore it, that doesn’t bear any relation to how well it achieves what it set out to do.

My rating in 2004: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

#20 Books of Summer, #13 and #14: True Believer and Over Sea, Under Stone

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!

I feel like a bit of a cheat choosing two children’s/YA books (Skellig did not count because it was so awful I read it very slowly) but, to be fair, nothing against it in the rules I set myself.

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The UK edition I own – couldn’t find a stock photo online. I love the very ‘early 00s’ font choice, reminiscent of the cover of Nicola Griffiths’ The Blue Place.

Before rereading: I first read this book in 2002, when I was fifteen years old, the same age as the main character. I don’t remember much about it other than that I resonated with its themes of oppressive, evangelical Christianity and first love.  It stands out in my memory because I liked it despite the fact it was an ‘issue’ book written in blank verse – two things I usually steered clear of as a teenager. I didn’t write anything down about the novel at the time, but it was ‘Commended’ in my monthly book awards.

After rereading: Ah, I completely see why I loved this so much as a teenager, but I still really enjoyed it as an adult. The central themes of the novel – unrequited love, religion, and biochemistry – were also three of my obsessions at this age. Like LaVaughn, the protagonist of True Believer, I was disturbed by how many of my fellow classmates had become vocal evangelical Christians, committing to fundamentalist ideas about evolution and hellfire, and resisted their attempts to convert me. Although our adolescent experiences were otherwise very far apart – American LaVaughn lives in a rough inner city area with frequent shootings, both inside and outside her high school – I identified with her concerns. It also features a very early 00s take on adolescent homosexuality: our sympathetic, straight protagonist discovers that a male friend is gay and, after the initial shock, accepts it. It’s interesting how the few YA novels at the time that did tackle this topic often did it in this sidelong way (and totally unsurprising that the gay characters were always male). Passages from the book came back to me as I was reading, making me realise that they must have stayed with me ever since. And while I still struggle with novels written in blank verse, this, along with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Otheris a rare exception that works for me: Wolff uses verse so cleverly to convey the cadence of LaVaughn’s voice.

(This book is actually the second in a trilogy. I read the first, Make Lemonade, after reading this one and wasn’t too impressed with it. The third, This Full House, came out in 2009, when my teen years were over, and doesn’t seem to have got great reviews, so I’m hesitant to try it).

My rating in 2002: ****

My rating in 2022 (twenty years later 😲): ****

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Before rereading: I read this book multiple times as a young child. The American edition suggests to me that I first read it in the States, so I was probably around six or seven (c.1993-4). I remember it as being quite similar to Enid Blyton, The Magician’s Nephew and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in its Cornish holiday setting, quest narrative and hint of something darker via the character of Great-Uncle Merry, who I remember as having a bit of a Gandalf vibe. I did not read the rest of the novels in The Dark Is Rising sequence until I was a teenager, and never clicked with them in the same way. I think it was a combination of not being a big fan of high/Arthurian fantasy and feeling resentful that there were (initially) so few connections between this book and the rest of the series.

I’m rereading this as part of Annabel’s Dark Is Rising Sequence Readalong #TDiR22.

After rereading: This took me back! I read it when I was so young I still believed all books somehow existed in the same world, so it’s muddled in my head with Weirdstone – which was published five years earlier, and with which it shares certain key similarities – and other children’s books I read that dealt with Cornish folklore. It starts off feeling very Blytonesque, as the three Drew children embark on their seaside holiday, but Cooper expertly weaves in a darker and more menacing thread as they find a mysterious map and search for the Grail, and the final revelation about Great-Uncle Merry confirms my dim memory of the novel. This was a perfect read for a sunny few days spent largely on the north-east coast – plus one misty morning.

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Annabel asks:

  1. We’re reading the book in prime holiday season. Does it successfully evoke the sense of adventure of childhood holidays at the seaside for you? YES – especially the sequence when the children explore a cave at low tide.
  2. This novel was initially written in response to a competition to honour the memory of E. Nesbit, although it wasn’t actually entered for it. How well do you think Cooper achieves this? I find this a bit puzzling. I devoured many E. Nesbit books as a child – Five Children and It, The Story of the Amulet, The Story of The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Enchanted Castle (hated The Railway Children, sorry) – and this book doesn’t seem to owe much to Nesbit. As I’ve said, to me the obvious readalikes are Blyton and Garner. Over Sea, Under Stone recalls a world of ‘high’ magic linked to local legend, which doesn’t fit with the feel of the more prosaic magics in Nesbit’s books. The closest Nesbit novels are probably Treasure Seekers/Wouldbegoods, but there is no element of fantasy in those two, and they adopt a much more imaginative and interesting style of first-person narration than Over Sea, which is very straightforwardly told.
  3. I can’t help comparing the Drew children to Narnia’s Pevensies. Barney would be Lucy, Simon would be Peter – does that make Jane Susan? What other parallels are there if any? I don’t remember the Narnia novels well enough to answer this, but I was interested by the way the three children are characterised. Although Cooper’s writing is far superior to Blyton’s, there are traces of familiar roles. Simon is the leader and protective older brother, Barney is the maverick younger brother and repository of random facts, and Jane is more caring, more easily frightened and more timid. Cooper is careful to have all three children contribute equally to the quest for the grail, but I was sorry to see Jane sometimes relegated to more traditionally feminine roles – for example, waiting for the boys outside the cave.
  4. And what about the dog? How does Rufus compare with Tintin’s Snowy/Milou or Timmy in the Blyton’s Famous Five? I’m not really sure why there was a dog in this book – although he does a good line in alerting our protagonists to the presence of evil.

My rating c.1994: *****

My rating in 2022: ****

20 Books of Summer, #11 and #12: NW and The Unwitting

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!

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Before rereading: I first read NW in 2013, when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’d found the two previous Zadie Smith novels I’d read – White Teeth and On Beauty – ponderous, pretentious and caricatured. In comparison, this was a breath of fresh air. I don’t remember much else about the novel, though.

The first time I read NW, I wrote: ‘NW, in my opinion, is everything that White Teeth should have been – sharply observational, genuinely funny, perceptive on the interlocking system of inequalities that form from class, race and gender, and incredibly evocative of the small corner of London in which it is set. Because it’s free of the stereotypes, caricatures, and laboured farce that I felt marred [Smith’s] earlier work, it’s a much more engaging read, with a cast of fully-rounded characters who each get a chance to tell their own story in their own style (I was particularly fond of the long Natalie Blake section, which told the story of a very individual girl but also said a lot about selfhood and identity). As this suggests, Smith extends her range stylistically in this novel as well, and her experiments with words worked much better for me than they’ve ever done before’. I ranked it third of the six novels on the Women’s Prize shortlist, behind Kingsolver and Mantel.

After rereading: This was a really interesting reread. I felt like I liked NW both less and more than I did the first time round, although my rating hasn’t changed. Having read Swing Time since, I still believe that the later novel is the most fully-realised and accomplished version of the themes that Smith explores here, and is also distinguished by a much more naturalistic and seemingly effortless style. In contrast, the experimentation of NW feels a little laboured, a difficult transition from one kind of novel to another. Having said that, though, it’s also incredibly sharp, especially in its later sections. I can see why Smith included the two narratives that make up the first half of the novel – Leah’s and Felix’s – but they ultimately feel like a lot of throat-clearing for the brilliant Natalie Blake section that, as I noted in my first review, is what NW is really about. The whole book builds towards Natalie’s meeting with former schoolmate Nathan, and the choice that she ultimately makes as she tries to reconcile the world of her childhood with her new life as a bigshot corporate lawyer. Smith plays so intensely with voice that every reader is bound to find bits that don’t work for them and bits that do, but it’s in the Natalie chapters that this really feels coherent and worthwhile, whereas it can get in the way of Leah and Felix’s stories. Swing Time remains my favourite Smith, but this is a close second.

My rating in 2013: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

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Before rereading: I first read The Unwitting in 2014, while I was writing up my PhD thesis! I’d enjoyed Ellen Feldman’s previous two books, Scottsboro and Next To Love, and I was attracted by its Cold War setting.

The first time I read The Unwitting, I wrote: ‘Pivoting around November 22nd, 1963, the novel jumps back to the early 1950s to explore the beginnings of Nell and Charlie’s relationship. Soon after they meet, Charlie is offered a job on a liberal, anti-Soviet journal, Compass. Nell is equally committed to the journal’s remit, to oppose both ‘the totalitarianism of the left’ and that of the right. In the McCarthy era, a number of its writers fall under suspicion, including Charlie himself; and Nell is, dimly, suspicious of where Compass’s financial backing is coming from. In the loose-living circles that they frequent, it would be easy for Nell to lose her trust in Charlie, and suspect he was cheating on her, but she trusts completely in his faithfulness. What niggles at her is the loose threads that never quite seem to make sense – like the story on the coup in Guatemala that she wrote for Compass, but which was rejected at the last moment… A particularly satisfying thread in The Unwitting is the way in which Feldman turns the traditional plot – a woman’s happy marriage is shattered by the discovery of adultery – on its head, by suggesting that, for Nell at least, there are worse crimes than sexual unfaithfulness… I admired Feldman’s deft, precise and clever writing… however, [she] gives us less to think about beyond the obvious, and is so economic with her narrative choices that the novel feels over-schematic.’

After rereading: Again, my rating remains the same, but I’m inclined to be rather kinder to The Unwitting than I was in 2014. I don’t think it feels over-schematic any more, although it is certainly tidily demarcated into the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ of Nell’s marriage. I also don’t agree with my prediction in 2014 that ‘I doubt there is enough depth in The Unwitting for me to want to read it again’; I both enjoyed this reread and found it thought-provoking. As I said in my original review, I liked how Feldman juxtaposes personal and professional betrayal, but flips this familiar theme; it’s Nell who is most wounded by what Charlie keeps from her professionally whereas Charlie feels less guilty about his deception when he discovers Nell has cheated on him. The revelation at the heart of this story does not feel especially huge or shocking, which is why I think a lot of readers have complained this is a novel where ‘nothing happens’ (the publishers didn’t help here by billing it as a spy story, which it is not). However, I admire Feldman’s bravery in exploring something that feels so significant to Nell even if it is less obviously significant to readers who didn’t live through the Cold War in the United States. Not every twist needs to be jaw-dropping. I’d definitely recommend this to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and Rodham. 

My rating in 2014: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

 

20 Books of Summer, #10: The Woman In White

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!

L: The edition of The Woman In White I read in 2005 from the library. R: The edition I read this time around, purchased second-hand.

Before rereading: I remember loving this novel when I first read it as an eighteen-year-old in 2005, but almost nothing else about it.

When I first read The Woman In White, I wrote: I happened to read The Woman in White during a very brief period in my late teens when I wrote frequent updates on all the books I was reading. So, here they are!

April 25th, 2005. I haven’t really read enough of this to form an opinion on it yet.

April 27th, 2005. This is improving – I’ve read about 50 pages and I’m interested in Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, who have just been introduced. The narrator of this section seems fairly boring, but then narrators often do. I’m thrilled that it’s written with switching 1st-person perspectives; so few books are and I absolutely love it, though it can be quite badly done, as in FALLING ANGELS [by Tracy Chevalier]. I didn’t find his first meeting with ‘the woman in white’ particularly chilling though…

May 2nd, 2005. Have read about 100 more pages and is v. good, though Laura Fairlie is v. boring. Have just read the legal section which I liked. Unfortunately I am fairly sure on what happens having read spoilers, but intrigued that Wilkie Collins was the 1st to use switching perspectives. [I don’t think this is true. Collins’s introduction to the novel makes this claim, which is where I got it from.]

May 5th, 2005. Have read quite a bit more (to p.225) but not much seems to have happened. Already know the bit about the insane asylum and LF so am waiting for it to happen.

May 9th, 2005. The same. V. slow at the moment. Wish I didn’t know what was going to happen.

May 16th, 2005. Has just got off the ground and is now v. good. I loved all the short narratives, especially Mr Fairlie and Fosco’s note, and I’m now on the Third Epoch and in the depths of the mystery. The part of the plot I know about has now happened and I’m not sure what the secret is – much better. I actually quite like the slow pace now, and if I read it again I think I’d enjoy it a lot more. Common with most classic books.

After rereading: Oh, what a pleasure it was to revisit The Woman In White. It’s one of those books that’s so famous that writing a full review seems a bit silly, though for the benefit of those who haven’t read it, it’s a ‘sensation’ tale of inheritance, asylums and mistaken identity. A few observations: this really feels like a proto-psychological thriller. It was serialised in the journal All The Year Round from November 1859 to August 1860, and was such a hit that readers used to queue outside the journal’s offices to get their hands on the next instalment as soon as it was published. The Penguin edition marks the beginning and end of each section, so you get some sense of what it must have been like to read it when it was first coming out, and the cliffhangers are brilliant. However, I was also fascinated by how it mimics the structure of a traditional ghost story, despite not actually containing any hint of the supernatural. The ‘woman in white’ appears out of the night, disappears without trace, reappears standing by her own gravestone – she’s much more of an apparition than a character in her own right, especially as her name and identity get detached from each other.

I enjoyed The Woman In White more than when I read it as a teenager. I didn’t experience the lull in pacing that my notes record; if anything, I thought the very beginning was slow and it speeded up from there, plus I wasn’t so bothered by knowing the plot in advance. And yes, Laura Fairlie is boring – and perplexing to a modern reader. Collins seems to have been inspired by Dickens’ ideal of the child-woman when figuring her as the romantic lead, for her main appeal seems to be that she is utterly incapable of doing anything. Unsurprisingly, both contemporary and modern readers preferred her clever, capable spinster sister, Marian Halcombe, whom we actually see interacting with Laura’s love interest, Walter, far more than Laura does, making us wonder why he doesn’t prefer her too. Nevertheless, if you’re used to Victorian novels, this isn’t a surprise, and this is one of the most absorbing and gripping nineteenth-century blockbusters out there.

Random trivia: It took me at least 21 days (and probably a few more) to read The Woman In White first time around, and it took me 19 days the second time.

My rating in 2005: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

20 Books of Summer, #8 and #9: Prodigal Summer and All Over Creation

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Before rereading: I first read Prodigal Summer in 2010, when I was twenty-three, and backpacking around Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. (The fact that I carried this secondhand hardback edition back to the UK with me indicates how much I liked it – it still has a sticker that says ‘Librería el lector [The Reader Bookshop], Arequipa’ on the back). It was one of my top ten books of 2010, and I frequently cite it as one of the best examples of fiction that deals with a biologist trying to make a rural community understand the value of an apex predator. (This may sound like a niche topic, but there’s The Wolf Border, Once There Were Wolvesand Happinessamong others). However… I remember very little about it, other than that I found it slightly preachy, but not nearly as preachy as Kingsolver’s other novels. I did not review it at the time.

After rereading: This is just such a beautiful book. There’s no other way of putting it. It’s the best kind of comfort read for me, one that is realistic about loss and suffering but creates a world in which people can gradually mend. Prodigal Summer has three, largely separate story threads. Deanna is a wildlife biologist working for the Forest Service in the southern Appalachians, employed to deter poachers and tracking a family of coyotes who have recently returned to the region. In the valley below, Lusa is newly widowed and isolated on her husband’s farm, surrounded by her hostile relatives and wondering if she should flee back to the city. Finally, her elderly neighbour Garnett broods over his losses and nurtures a grudge against his own neighbour Nannie, who refuses to use pesticides on her plants and so, he believes, is putting his project to save the American chestnut tree in danger. Despite the focus on grief and loneliness, Prodigal Summer, as befits its title, is also about the abundant reproduction of nature, its persistence and excess. All the characters long to have a relationship with the next generation, whether that’s through biological grandchildren or adopted kin. This time round, I didn’t find it preachy at all; my only slight hesitation was that there seems to be no place in this world for women who don’t want to mother, and that Kingsolver’s own voice seeps through occasionally. Deanna and Lusa overlap a little too much in their worldviews, given the two characters’ very different backgrounds. Nevertheless, this remains my favourite Kingsolver novel (up there with Flight Behaviour) and it was an utter joy to spend time with.

My rating in 2010: ****1/2

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

L: The edition I originally read. R: The (much uglier) edition I read this time.

Before rereading: I first read All Over Creation in 2014, when I was twenty-seven. I’d loved Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and wanted to read more by her, and I thought this one sounded more up my street than My Year of Meats (which I actually loved when I eventually got round to reading it in 2020). However, I couldn’t get on with it, and didn’t finish it. I now don’t remember much about it other than that it featured GM crops, possibly potatoes.

After rereading: Sadly, I haven’t changed my mind about this one, although I did make it all the way through this time. I think Ozeki was going for something akin to Prodigal Summer. There are several major groupings of characters: Yumi, returning to her home town in Idaho twenty-five years after she ran away at the age of fourteen; her estranged parents, Lloyd and Momoko; her old best friend Cass, childless and miserable; her ex-teacher and ex-lover Elliot, who now works for NuLife, a company developing GM potatoes; and a group of environmental activists, the Seeds of Resistance. But both these characters’ stories and the exploration of GM crops feel shortchanged.

The novel has no central protagonist, which is not necessarily a problem, but all the cast feel under-developed. Yumi regresses to her teenage self, but we get no sense of who she was in the years between. Cass is defined solely by her longing for a baby and her criticisms of Yumi’s neglectful parenting of her three children. Lloyd, Momoko and Elliot are basically caricatures, and the hippy activists reminded me of the irritating group of library misfits in The Book of Form and Emptiness(Speaking of Ozeki’s latest, I think it’s actually the better novel of the two; All Over Creation doesn’t have the twee asides from the Book, which is a big plus, but neither does it have the strong, nuanced character work of the relationship between Benny and Annabelle). Finally, Ozeki does not interweave the theme of GM crops into her story as artfully as Kingsolver weaves her environmental messages, even though both authors have something to say about pesticides. I’d definitely recommend My Year of Meats or A Tale For The Time Being instead.

My rating in 2014: ***

My rating in 2022: ***

The Reread Project: Skellig

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a child or 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 three other entries in this series so far are To Kill A Mockingbird , The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Color Purple. This is also #7 of my 20 Books of Summer.

4. Skellig: David Almond (1998)

L: The edition I originally read. R: The edition I own now.

I first read Skellig around the time it came out, when I was twelve years old. I furiously hated it. (Seeing the title still makes me feel angry even now!) Although I obviously did not enjoy the novel, I think the reason I felt such ire towards it was because it happened to come out just as I was clarifying my critical thoughts on children’s fiction, which had been brewing for the past two years or so. Skellig won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year, and to me, epitomised ‘the kind of book adults think children ought to like’. I’d been wary of award-winning children’s novels since a string of bad experiences with Newbery Award winners when I was much younger, and nearly didn’t pick up the first Harry Potter solely because it had won prizes. (Interestingly, checking the novel’s Wikipedia page, it turns out that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone won basically all the UK awards that were voted for by children, but was only shortlisted for awards voted for by adults. If I’d known this at the time, it would definitely have added fuel to the flames!)

I have a fairly clear memory of the basic plot of Skellig. Boy meets decaying angel in his garage while he is praying for his ailing baby sister to get well. I also remember why I hated it so much. My biggest complaint was what I might now call the ‘magical realist’ elements of the book. I was hugely frustrated with the angel, the idea that he might not be real within the world of the book (I was of course used to reading science fiction and fantasy; fantastical elements per se were not a problem) and that he only existed to represent something else. This made the whole book feel pointless to me. When my mum read Skellig, I remember her saying: ‘I think the angel represented the boy’s hope; so the angel got better as he got more hopeful’. This interpretation filled me with utter disgust! I also had more minor criticisms of the book. Aesthetically, it didn’t work for my imagination. I didn’t like the way the angel intersected with the ordinary world, demanding Chinese takeaway; this just seemed ludicrous to me. I also couldn’t relate to the boy’s concern for his sister (I think adults often forget that our instinctive horror at the idea of an ailing child or baby will not necessarily be experienced by children who are much closer to the character’s age). Finally, I just found it boring.

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The mention of Heaven Eyes (2000) suggests to me that I wrote this a bit later, when I was 13.

The good thing about Skellig, though, was that it started my career as a book reviewer. It was my rage at Skellig that led me to start making lists of the books I thought were really ‘deserving’ of awards, and eventually to start recording everything I read. So I did have something to thank the book for.

***

Where to start? I was SO right about Skellig.

I’m sure there are both adults and children who genuinely love this bookHowever, what struck me most about rereading it as an adult is how performative it is. Almond has his characters utter so many faux-profound statements, which gives the impression that the book is saying something deep – but it isn’t actually saying anything at all. There’s a void at the heart of this novel. My mum’s interpretation about ‘hope’ seems as good to me as any, because basically this is a book that allows you to project what you want onto it. Here are some examples of Almond’s platitudes; while they all sound the same, they’re actually spoken or thought by a range of different characters, including some random elderly people who turn up to dispense wisdom, then depart:

‘He said we were surrounded by angels and spirits. We must just open our eyes a little wider, look a little harder.’

You just keep believing. And everything will be fine.’

They say that shoulder blades are where your wings were, when you were an angel. They say they’re where your wings will grow again one day.’

Keep on moving. That’s the thing. Keep the old bones moving. Don’t let everything seize up.’

There was the loveliest lass on the trapeze. You could swear she could nearly fly.’

‘Her dark eyes looked right into me, right into the place where all my dreams were.’

Skellig very much presents an adult’s view of a child’s internal landscape, an idealised, sentimental view of childhood imagination. I’m sure that some readers can relate to this, but it felt utterly alien to me. We’re supposed to be swept away by the beauty of this fable (and I think that’s what it is; it certainly isn’t a folk tale or fairy story, which have far more internal logic) but it just made me feel a bit sick. I’m sad to think of all the children who have surely been subjected to studying this at school.

This book unfortunately concludes with the narrator and his parents considering a couple of ‘meaningful’ names for the baby, including ‘Persephone’ and ‘Angela’, and finally deciding to name her JOY.

My rating in 1998: *

My rating in 2022: *

20 Books of Summer, #4, #5 and #6: Bones of the Earth, The Lowland and The Village

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!

I am a bit behind this summer, but not quite as bad as it looks – I’m reading #7 and #8 at the moment and have #9-#12 planned out. I’m enjoying the freedom of reading more slowly as I’m rereading, though.

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Before rereading: I remembered finding Michael Swanwick’s dinosaur time-travel novel Bones of the Earth rather convoluted and confusing, but I also remembered it having an amazing set-piece section when a group of palaeontologists get stranded in the late Cretaceous period. Basically, I was in the mood to read it again. I discovered this book online in 2017 and bought a second-hand hardback. It was nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Campbell and Locus awards in 2002 and 2003.

The first time I read Bones of the EarthI wrote: ‘Bones of the Earth is an exhilarating novel. Swanwick may have chucked far too many ideas at it, but this results in some wonderful set-pieces. His handling of the dinosaur scenes is brilliant, and made me wish that he had simplified the time travel apparatus considerably… with such a crowded and complicated narrative, it could do with a strong emotional anchor provided by a single protagonist to guide us through.’ 

After rereading: Perhaps because I knew what to expect, I found this a rather different reading experience second time around. The individual threads were less compelling, but I appreciated how Swanwick draws it all together at the end much more; making some of the things I complained about before seem more necessary to his overall design. Bones of the Earth is really about why we do science, even when we gain nothing from it other than the satisfaction of knowing, and I love that.

My rating in 2017: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

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I read the same hardback edition from two different libraries.

Before rereading: I know that I loved The Lowland (it was one of my top ten books of 2014) but I recall hardly anything about it. The things that have stayed with me are a mother leaving her family to pursue her own dreams, and an incredibly moving ending (which I can’t remember!). I read a hardback copy from the library after it was shortlisted for the Baileys/Women’s Prize for Fiction that year. (An aside: just how good was the 2014 Baileys shortlist? It also had Americanah, The Goldfinch and A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing! Plus, The Luminaries, All The Birds, Singing and The Signature of All Things on the longlist! Interestingly, I’ve now reread four of these novels – maybe I should do the whole lot.)

The first time I read The Lowland, I wrote: ‘Unlike many novels which claim an ambitious scope because they move continents, The Lowland is ambitious in the best sort of way; retaining a very small central cast, it makes its readers truly care about the fates of Udayan, Subhash and Gauri, and it makes their stories unpredictable and yet seemingly inevitable, the way real lives are…. As the novel unfolds, it looses itself from being solely about two brothers from West Bengal and speaks to wider themes of ageing and what we choose to do with our lives as we age, and how key choices mould our lives more than we could ever have imagined.’ 

After rereading: I was both as impressed with this book as I was when I first read it and not surprised that it hasn’t stayed with me. The craft of The Lowland is in the way it traces the slow unfolding of its central characters’ fates; this time around, I felt it was less about the choices we make and more about how one horrific event can continue to constrain us. The way that the novel continually bends back to that pivotal turning point makes sense, because for the characters, it will always be ‘yesterday’, in the sense that Gauri’s daughter Bela understands it as a small child: ‘One day she told Gauri… I want short hair, like yesterday. It had been many months ago that Bela’s hair was short… But for Bela, three months ago and the day before were the same.’ I’ve given it a slightly lower rating, but this doesn’t reflect any sense of disappointment; I’m not sure that the five-star rating made sense last time, given that I wrote it ‘never flared into brilliance’ (though to be fair, I was comparing it to The Goldfinch and Americanah – hard acts to follow!)

My rating in 2014: *****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

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Before rereading: I first read The Village in 2012, when I was twenty-five. I received a proof copy from the publisher and had not read anything else by Nikita Lalwani before, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

The first time I read The Village, I wrote: ‘It is difficult to warm to this excellent novel, but this is really a proof of its success. It’s genuinely disturbing, not in the ‘horror film’ sense, but because it disturbs the reader’s settled pre-conceptions and leaves you not quite knowing where to settle them again. Ray, Nathan and Serena are the three members of a BBC production crew who have come to India to make a documentary about life in a ‘prison village’, a rehabilitative experiment where prisoners who have behaved well during their first years in jail are allowed to live under controlled conditions with their families while they serve out the rest of their sentences. Ray, the central character, straddles these two worlds uneasily… gripping and all too brief.’

After rereading: So, I actually liked this one even more ten years down the line. In 2012, I wrote: ‘the theme of voyeurism becomes so strong that it almost seems a little laboured’ and ‘the dubiousness of their work perhaps shouldn’t have been so obvious from the start… the fact that Nathan, Serena and even Ray are all so unsympathetic doesn’t help’. I just didn’t feel this way second time around. I liked how Lalwani shows how we are all constantly watching and judging each other, as the villagers, guards and locals run close surveillance on the BBC crew even as they are being filmed themselves. Interestingly, I also sympathised more with Ray, even though she is an obviously flawed protagonist, and this helped me feel like the project wasn’t so clearly dubious at the start of the novel. She’s a woman of North Indian descent who’s been brought up in Britain but speaks both English and Hindi, and I could understand why she struggled running interference between her unpleasant and competitive BBC colleagues, the village governor, and the villagers. It helped that she genuinely realises how appalling some of her actions have been by the end of the book. This is such a clever, fraught novel, which ratches up the tension even though we’re not sure exactly what we fear is going to happen; every sentence matters.

(I feel highly aggrieved on behalf of The Village that its average Goodreads rating is so low! I can only assume that it somehow reached entirely the wrong readership… it definitely isn’t slow, stereotyped or directionless!)

My rating in 2012: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2