July Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. I only feature books that I read for the first time this month, not rereads (otherwise the worst book would obviously be Skellig)

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. This gorgeous story of work, friendship, making art, storytelling and play completely bowled me over. My full review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Honorable mention: Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou. This smart, surreal satire about Asian Americans in academia both delighted and impressed me, even if I thought the tone was a bit uneven. My full review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Pulse Points by Jennifer Down. Down is an Australian writer, and I picked up this collection of short stories because I spotted Julia Armfield recommending it. Unfortunately, it did not work for me at all. I actually liked the title story, which appears first in the collection; I thought it was subtle and clever. Then all the rest blurred into one. Although Down flips between different styles and viewpoints, I found her stories very samey, and I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to do.

(Dis)honorable mention: People Like Them by Samira Sedira, trans. Lara Vergnaud. Painfully clunky prose – I assume a combination of bad writing and bad translation – plus painfully obvious social commentary.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Complicit by Winnie M Li. I admired Li’s debut novel, Dark Chapterwith some reservations; I thought Li wrote bravely and vividly about rape, drawing from her own experience, but was less convinced by the sections written from the point of view of the rapist. Complicit is in a very different category. It’s basically a straightforward #MeToo thriller told from the perspective of a young Chinese-American woman, Sarah, an assistant film producer in Hollywood. It brings nothing new to the table, and also makes some missteps. On reflection, I think Li wanted to make Sarah a flawed and unreliable narrator in the vein of My Dark Vanessastruggling with internalised misogyny and racism as she stereotypes other women as dumb blondes and herself as a victim of her ‘Chinese work ethic’, and dismisses sexual assault as ‘not rape’. However, the writing isn’t strong enough to pull this off, and Sarah’s comments often end up sounding as if we’re meant to read them straight. A disappointing second novel.

The Book I Had The Most Mixed Feelings About This Month Was…

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… Unofficial Britain by Gareth E. Rees. This book has a mission statement, drawn from Rees’s original Unofficial Britain website; Rees wants to ‘walk through everyday places, like car parks, bus stops, amusement arcades, factories, alleyways and promenades, only to find that they become weirder the closer we look’. Probably because of Rees’s single-mindedness, I found Unofficial Britain highly irritating and incredibly insightful by turns. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the idea that a car park or an underpass is exactly the same as a natural landscape like a forest; apart from anything else, forests are living organisms in their own right, not just dead structures upon which humans bestow meaning. There’s also too much moaning about what Rees sees as stereotypical haunted places, like rural moorland or old Victorian houses. However, when he manages to get off his bandwagon, he has lots of interesting things to say. I especially enjoyed the chapters on motorways, multistorey car parks, and motorways, and I loved his discussion of the liminal nature of chain hotels, which feel like they could be anyplace because they all look the same inside.

The Weirdest Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori. I struggle with body horror and am a bit tired of the numerous recent short story collections that deal with women and their bodies. Therefore, I should not have been a fan of Life Ceremony, which features cannibalism, jewellery made from bones, and a woman obsessed with other people’s body fluids, among other bizarre themes. But weirdly, a lot of these stories worked for me. I loved how Murata revealed the contingent, mandated nature of what we think of as ‘normal’ in Convenience Store Woman, and that’s a big concern here, as well. As one character puts it: ‘There was a couple engaged in insemination on the beach. What would that have looked like back when it was still called sex?’ My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Best YA Book I Read This Month Was…

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… A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin. It’s unusual for me to find a YA fantasy that I enjoy, but I liked this immersive debut. It stars teenage Ning, a physician’s apprentice whose mother has recently been killed by drinking poisoned tea distributed by her province’s governor. Now Ning is determined to take up the art of tea magic to cure her sister Shu, who was also poisoned and is now slowly dying. But to achieve her goal, she’ll have to compete to become the palace’s next shennong-shi – a master of tea-making. Lin’s world-building is elegant and convincing. It actually reminded me a bit of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall; there’s an authority in Lin’s writing that allows her to set out the politics of this kingdom simply and effectively without making them feel skimpy. Sadly, I found the characters interchangeable, and so did not invest enough in their story to necessarily want to follow them to the next novel in this duology, but this was escapist and fun. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Book That Swung Off Course The Most For Me This Month Was...

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… Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. This much-hyped debut follows Elizabeth Zott, an uncompromising research chemist rebelling against American women’s expected roles in the 1950s and 1960s, who uses her TV cookery show to encourage other housewives to break free. I thought the first half of this novel was delightful, if a little self-indulgent. Garmus balanced the jaunty tone well with the hints of a greater darkness in Elizabeth’s past, and I was won over by her relationship with fellow chemist Calvin. Unfortunately, it all went wrong in the second half, after Elizabeth begins her cookery show; I found its audience appeal completely unconvincing and the snippets of ‘chemistry’ irritating (I loved chemistry A Level because of the way it made everything fit together; there’s no sense of that here, with Elizabeth simply namedropping terms like ‘sodium chloride’). We have to deal with both an irritating dog, who understands English, and an irritating child, who is ‘precocious’ in the cute way that children in books often are, which is nothing like the way exceptionally smart children are in real life. The random reappearance of long-lost family members at the end ties it all together into a sugary bow. A pity, because I really liked Elizabeth-the-research-chemist before she (reluctantly) became Elizabeth-the-TV-star.

The Most Illuminating Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Reverse Engineering ed. Tom Conaghan. This first book from new indie short story publishers Scratch Books reprints seven exceptional modern short stories and pairs them with commentary from their authors. The stories are worth reading in their own right – I loved every single one except Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Filamo’, which I’d already encountered in her Nudibranchso I knew what to expect. But it’s so great to have the authors’ reflections as well. My favourite story was Mahreen Sohail’s wonderful ‘Hair’. Sohail’s discussion of how she first extended and then pared back the story’s ending, which shoots forward into the future, was fascinating, as was her reflection on how she signalled a switch of protagonist early in the text, temporarily revealing the story’s workings: ‘Sometimes I think short stories should do this more. We seem to be really into smokes and mirrors and tricks and stuff but there’s something really powerful about stating something as it is.’ Chris Powers’s story ‘The Crossing’, alongside his commentary, made me reflect on what George Saunders says in A Swim In The Pond In The Rain about how short story writers should anticipate the reader’s expectations at each stage of the story, and make the unexpected choice. Other standouts for me were Jessie Greengrass’s clever ‘Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague’, which was based loosely on the life of the early modern physician and philosopher Paracelsus (who was born Theophrastus, though I wish there had been a clue to his more famous identity in the text), and Joseph O’Neill’s bizarre ‘The Flier’.

Did you have any stand-out reads in July?

Disconcerted, disturbed and dismayed: Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou

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Ingrid is in the eighth year of her PhD on canonical Chinese-American poet Xiao-Wen Chou. As a Taiwanese-American student, she’s uncomfortably aware that her white advisor, Michael, directed her towards this topic because of the need for more Asian representation in the East Asian Studies department, even though she really wanted to study modernism (‘Did some people actually believe a poem about a red wheelbarrow was about a red wheelbarrow when it was obviously about existential dread?’) She’s happily engaged to white boyfriend Stephen, a Japanese to English translator with no knowledge of spoken Japanese, who is reassuringly boring (‘One got the feeling if he were caught in a fire, he would remain calmly smiling even as the flames consumed his flesh’.) Her Korean-American best friend and department ally Eunice shares her hatred of fellow grad student Vivian Vo, an Asian lesbian activist who writes papers called things like ‘Still Thirsty: Why Boba Liberalism Will Not Save Us’. However, the calm order of Ingrid’s existence is upended when she makes an unexpected discovery about Xiao-Wen Chou, which may change the course of her life (and her dissertation).

Disorientation, Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut, is the second novel on Asian-American representation in the arts that I’ve read this month (the other is Rebecca Kuang’s Yellowface, which I’ve not reviewed yet because it isn’t out until next year). And it’s by far the more successful of the two, largely because Chou is unafraid to reach real satirical heights, whereas Yellowface promised satire but actually stayed within realistic bounds. The first half of Disorientation, as Ingrid persists in existing in her own bubble despite all evidence to the contrary, is a triumph, pivoting around an incredible scene when she ‘infiltrates’ the POC Caucus on campus to spy on their activities and witnesses a debate about the casting of a white actress in Xiao-Wen Chou’s play Chinatown Blues:

“Are they going to make her eyes slanty – 

” – ‘slanty’ is a derogatory term – 

” – literally a shape, so does that mean I’m not allowed to say ‘square’ or ‘circular’ either – 

” – can’t believe we’re still discussing if this is okay – “

” – not the 1950s anymore – “

” – you know what else was popular in the 1950s? Book burnings –

“Well, speaking as a Chinese American man – “

“Well, speaking as a Chinese American woman – “

“Well, speaking as a queer disabled Chinese first-generation child of immigrants – “

At its best, Chou’s satire reminded me of other blisteringly smart works like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Babyexploring structural marginalisation while also thinking about how oppressed communities can turn on each other. It also brilliantly captures the hothouse atmosphere of academia, where the next chapter of your thesis can be more important than your love life, mental health or friendships.

Disorientation, for me, struggled a little in its final chapters, where Chou’s desire to write a realistic character arc for Ingrid seemed in tension with Ingrid’s deliberately exaggerated ignorance at the start of the novel. Some aspects of the novel’s conclusion are absolutely satisfying – for example, how we reassess Eunice, who originally seemed like an even more ditzy version of Ingrid – but the tone becomes a bit jarring, as a book that was soaring to surreal heights is brought abruptly down to earth. Chou ultimately spells out her messages a bit too clearly (though not nearly as obviously as Kuang’s Yellowface, which becomes didactic near the end). Nevertheless, this is a novel that thinks about so much, and leaves the reader with so much to think about. It was one of my most anticipated reads of 2022, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK TOMORROW, 21st July. Pre-order it here.

June Superlatives

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

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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

Write What You Know: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole & Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein

It’s 2016 America, in the months before Trump’s election, and a young man in his late twenties dreams of being a writer. However, he can only really write about what he knows from real life, including the stories that others tell him. He’s accused of stealing material from others’ lives by somebody who’s very close to him, and can’t really deny it because he’s failed to change any of the characters’ names. He meets his ideal girl and starts a relationship with her, but as the novel reaches its climax, he’s forced to choose between her and his writing as he decides whether or not to board an outgoing flight. His story is told without speech marks or chapter breaks, and is the debut novel of a youngish white male writer who lives in New York and probably shares quite a lot in common with his protagonist. 

Bizarrely, this could be the synopsis of either Groundskeeping by Lee Cole or Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein – two books which are actually very different, but share the same basic building blocks. This certainly isn’t a case of ‘if you liked this you’d also like’ – although I personally enjoyed both novels. Groundskeeping is a deliberately slow, meditative book about Owen, who grew up in rural Kentucky, and has taken a job as a groundskeeper at a local college so he can make some money and take a free writing course. In class, he’s forced to reflect on ‘jungle narratives’; at work, he fells and trims trees in the college’s grounds. Alma, a writer-in-residence at the college, is a ‘cultural Muslim’ whose parents fled Bosnia before she was born. She grew up on the outskirts of DC and was educated in the Ivy League. As the two navigate their relationship, both make uncomfortable missteps.

The heart of Groundskeeping seemed to me to be when Alma tells Owen: ‘I just wish I could think of something without thinking of a dozen other things related to it. Like, I can’t just think of a tree anymore. I think about all the poems about trees that I like. The tree as cultural signifier. I think about “Birches” by Robert Frost. But you – you just think of them as they are, I’m sure. Or you think of them in a technical sense, as something you have to work on.’ This tells us everything about who these two characters want to be and who they think the other person is, especially when Owen wonders if he likes this ‘compliment’: ‘It was true that I’d never thought of Robert Frost while working on a tree, but I knew the poem.’

Caleb, the protagonist of Last Resort, is both much more privileged and much more stupid and shortsighted than Owen – although I still found myself rooting for him. He’s trying and failing to write a publishable first novel when he meets up with old college friend Avi Dietsch. Avi tells him a true story about a dying woman that somehow inspires Caleb to write well when inventing things was only leading him into dead ends. When he’s finished the manuscript, he grabs the attention of a ‘big shot’ literary agent who plans to sell the book for a lot of money. Unfortunately, Avi gets wind of what Caleb’s done, and demands that Caleb recompense him for the use of ‘his’ story – even though it actually belongs to neither of them.

Like Owen, Caleb struggles when he isn’t able to ‘write what he knows’, although in this case, he’s positioned as a writer who has to work from real life, but not his own life. Lipstein keeps the reader guessing, developing the plot in such a way that we feel surprised but not cheated about what happens next. Because of the characterisation of Caleb, these twists feel earnt – they proceed from what we already know about the character and the way that he operates. Unlike Groundskeeping, it’s a totally gripping book – I read it in a couple of sittings – but it lacks Groundskeeping‘s social nuance and commentary on being white and working-class in the rural United States.

Both novels raise questions about who stories belong to, but both present a frustrating cliche about writing by suggesting that writers can only write ‘what they know’, and so have to address these issues whenever they put pen to paper. Other readalikes might be A Ladder To The Sky by John Boyne or The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, though I think both Cole’s and Lipstein’s novels are better. But this coincidental reading experience – I read Groundskeeping and Last Resort back to back – did make me reflect on how much novels about novelists lean on this trope. I’d love to read a book about fictional writers who actually make things up – or, God forbid, write science fiction or fantasy that isn’t a thinly veiled version of their current preoccupations. But perhaps that kind of book-within-a-book would be a step too far.

Have you read any novels that feature a book-within-a-book? Or writers who write what they know?

I received free proof copies of these novels from their publishers for review. Groundskeeping and Last Resort are, incredibly, BOTH out in the UK on 17th March 2022. Are we sure somebody didn’t do a Caleb?

 

Do What Is Right, Not What Is Easy: Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate & The Harry Potter Books

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This post contains spoilers for A Deadly Education but not for The Last Graduate.

For most of my teenage years, I was a highly dedicated and committed Harry Potter fan. I was exactly the right age to ‘grow up with Harry’, reading the first book when I was eleven (and actually having to wait for the second one to come out!) and I spent a great deal of time on forums discussing the books and what might happen next, starting on Amazon.com’s Harry Potter forum (which was deleted abruptly in 2001, to my distress) and moving onto Fictionalley. As well as working out complicated theories, I also wrote some fan fiction (have a read here if you’re curious!) However, after Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published in the summer of 2005, when I was eighteen, I abruptly and painfully fell out of love with the series. When I see Harry Potter fans discussing how betrayed they feel by JK Rowling in recent years, I feel a little amused and a little frustrated, because for me the series’ moral compass was always a little dodgy and crashed and burnt spectacularly with the last two books, so I don’t feel surprised at anything that’s happened since. In particular, I feel uncomfortable when I see fans lamenting that JKR hasn’t lived up to some of the moral platitudes in the series, because frankly, it’s a moral sinkhole, and shouldn’t be framed as Good Books vs their Bad Creator. I keep meaning to write a long post explaining why but it keeps on getting out of hand (for example, I managed to write more than 1550 words mostly on why The Twins are Terrible People, so you can see why I can’t keep my more extensive thoughts blog-length). 

Perhaps Harry Potter was never meant to be a series about ethics; indeed, I’ve seen some convincing essays on why it is really a series about grief and death. However, if that were the case, it certainly puts a lot of emphasis on the difference between ‘doing what is right and what is easy’ and on Harry’s own fears of becoming like Voldemort, especially in book two (where Harry’s fakeout revelation that he might be the Heir of Slytherin made eleven-year-old me screech loudly in a train, to my mum’s annoyance) and book five, where Sirius tells him ‘the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters‘. The problem is, by book six – where Voldemort is portrayed as evil from birth, a creepy baby who never cried – and certainly by book seven, we find out that actually the world is so divided. Either you are Good or you are Bad; if you are Good, all your actions can be justified, whereas if you are Bad, none of them can. Choosing what is right is choosing what is easy if you are a Good person, like Harry; and choosing what is right, however hard it is, rarely comes with long-term consequences (it’s interesting that the book that is arguably not the strongest of the series, but, for my money, has the most ‘adult’ feel, is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which is the only book of the seven to try and deal seriously with trauma).

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Definitely not the best-plotted Harry Potter book, but the one that I still get the most joy from rereading.

SO. Where does Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series fit into all this? The Scholomance trilogy has been seen, and rightly so in my opinion, to be in direct conversation with Harry Potter. Set at a magical and part-sentient school and engaging explicitly with the trope of the Chosen One, there are some obvious lines of inspiration (although Rowling didn’t invent any of these things). The first book in the Scholomance series, A Deadly Education, introduced us to El, a deeply traumatised teenage girl who can barely keep her penchant for destructive magic under control, is certain that everybody hates her, and tries to hide all of this from her peers and from the reader by keeping up an ironic running commentary about everything she knows about the Scholomance and how to survive there. One of the things that was so brilliant about A Deadly Education, in my opinion, was its head-first engagement with morality. Magically gifted children, in El’s world, fight to get into the dangerous Scholomance because their odds of surviving to adulthood in the outside world are even worse. But once on the inside, those with money, power and family connections (‘enclavers’) up their own odds even further by exploiting their fellow students. El starts off the series by thinking that she wants to get a spot in an enclave for herself after graduation, but by the end of A Deadly Education, she’s realised she actually wants to burn the whole system down.

In short, in A Deadly Education and in its sequel, The Last Graduate, doing what is right is emphatically not what is easy, and Novik shows how El has to fight this internal battle multiple times, rather than simply setting herself on the path of Good and never looking back. Even more importantly, though, Novik’s commitment to portraying the trauma that every inhabitant of the Scholomance has suffered (there’s a particularly painful sequence in The Last Graduate where the students get a glimpse of the outside world through an enchanted facsimile and experience it as a punishment because they miss it so much) means that there are no real villains here. Bar a few maleficers, El doesn’t encounter a group of ‘bad’ kids equivalent to Rowling’s Slytherins, even though there are students who try and get in her way; Novik understands that the problem lies in the power structure of El’s world rather than with specific people. And while I would argue the Scholomance series is neither as ‘dark’ nor as morally complex as my all-time favourite children’s/YA series, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs – which shows its characters as not only traumatised but as fundamentally altered for the worse by their trauma – it shares more in common with that series than it does with Harry Potter.

Three cheers for the Scholomance books, then? Not yet. The Last Graduate wasn’t, in my opinion, quite as good as A Deadly Education, but it was still a great book that took some unexpected, thoughtful turns, even if it ended with exactly the cliffhanger I’d expected. Nevertheless, it will be the third book in this trilogy that will really decide whether Novik has achieved what I want her to achieve or not, and unfortunately, I do think it could go either way. Will El and Orion continue to be the true heroes they’ve showed themselves to be so far, or will something go badly wrong for one (or ideally, both) of them? A Deadly Education worked so well for me because El couldn’t accept her inner goodness; in The Last Graduate, I had had a bit too much of her inner goodness by the end. Furthermore, the cliffhanger from book one may or may not have been resolved here, and I really hope it hasn’t been, because if it has, that indicates the series is not going the way I’d like it to go. On the plus side: a lot of stuff happens in this book that I would usually expect in the final book of a trilogy, so Novik has given herself a lot of space to play with by clearing up some of the most obvious problems. On the minus side: the cliffhanger in book two sets up the potential of a rather traditional YA plotline that could take us away from what’s most interesting in this series. So we have to wait and see.

I’ve written a more straightforward review of The Last Graduate here.

A Deadly Education was accused of racist representation; I’ve summarised my thoughts on this issue at the end of my review here, and they remain the same.

I received a free proof copy of The Last Graduate from the publisher for review.

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Survivors

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the third year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2021 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 9th June 2021.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives After The Holocaust. Clifford is an Associate Professor in History at Swansea University and specialises in twentieth-century European history, oral history, Holocaust history, and memory studies. You can see her full academic profile here.

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Felice Z., alongside her parents and older sister, was deported from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs in the south of France in October 1940, when she was just one year old. In early 1941, she and her sister were rescued from Gurs by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), and Felice was hidden with a French Catholic family until the Liberation. Her parents were killed in Auschwitz. Despite these wartime experiences, Felice remembered being criticised and belittled by adult survivors of the Holocaust when she attended the first American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1983, saying:

I questioned whether I should go because I’d never been in a camp… I used to want to have a number [tattooed on my arm] so I could show people the pain… They used to say ‘You were a child, what do you know? You don’t remember.’

This reflected earlier ideas of who counted as a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – originally, ‘survivors’ were considered to be concentration camp survivors – but also the general exclusion of child survivors of the Holocaust from the category, even if they had been in a camp. In the immediate post-war period, child survivors were called ‘unaccompanied children’ or ‘Jewish war orphans’ instead. Recently, Clifford writes, child survivors have taken on more of the familiar public roles we might associate with a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – giving talks, speaking to school students, and volunteering at Holocaust museums – but ‘there is a clear rationale behind the shift: they are the only ones left’.

Survivors focuses on child survivors of the Holocaust who were born between 1935 and 1944, making them ten years old or younger at liberation in 1945. This deliberate choice by Clifford shows how things we think we know about the experience of Holocaust survivors changes when young children are placed at the centre of the story. For example, she argues, for child survivors, who experienced a certain amount of stability during wartime, the end of the war could often be a more difficult period. Maurits C., who spent the war in hiding in the Netherlands, recalled that ‘My war began in 1945… When I learned that my father and mother would not come back, and my brothers, then the war started.’ Counter-claims on Jewish child survivors after the end of the war added to this uncertainty. Jewish organisations were determined to reclaim children whom they thought had been taken by Christian families, while countries such as America, Canada, Australia and Britain were keen to care for ‘Jewish war orphans’ – but only if they were very young, ideally female, and full orphans, which many child survivors were not. Child survivors did not always want to be reunited with families they could not remember. Felice was forced to leave the Catholic family who had cared for her during wartime, which she remembered as traumatic: ‘I think they [the OSE] might have said… “you have to start being Jewish.” But I couldn’t understand what being Jewish meant’. 

Their limited memories of the war hampered child survivors throughout their adult lives, calling the validity of their ‘testimony’ into question, especially after the rise of Holocaust denialism, when there was a greater emphasis on survivors’ accounts being fixed and factually accurate. This was often impossible for child survivors. They were marked out in other ways: the West Germany Federal Indemnification Law of 1953 was meant to allow financial compensation for survivors from West Germany, but it was difficult for even adult survivors, let alone children, to supply the kind of ‘proof’ that was required. They could also be further severed from the Jewish community. Esther T. was in Auschwitz as a child, but as an adult, she found she needed her parents’ birth certificate to marry in an Orthodox synagogue: ‘you have to prove you’re Jewish to get married in a shul, and I couldn’t prove it!’

As a historian of childhood, what I found most brilliant about this book was the way in which it integrates histories of childhood into the kind of bigger historical narrative where children are usually absent or only included in a tokenistic or stereotyped way. Clifford shows how changing ideas of childhood and trauma immediately following the Second World War conditioned reactions to child survivors and forced them into unhelpful binaries: either they were seen as unaffected by the trauma they had endured because they would not remember it, or the separation from their mothers they had endured at an early age was believed to have left them permanently damaged. Neither of these narratives were helpful for child survivors, whom, in retrospective interviews, often felt they had to ‘prove’ they weren’t forever ‘maladjusted’: Denny M., who was interviewed in 1977, said ‘compared with so many messed-up adults that I’ve seen, I think I’m reasonably normal’. 

Even at the time, child survivors could be pathologised for being either ‘too bad’ or ‘too good’. The Buchenwald boys were a group of boys, ranging in age from 8 to 18, who were liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 and sent to an OSE-run reception centre in Normandy. On the way there, ‘they destroyed property, stole and assaulted civilians; there is some evidence that they raped German girls as an act of revenge’. Rather than seeing this behaviour as relating to what they had been through, the OSE’s chief psychiatrist suggested that they had survived precisely because of their ‘insensitivity and indifference‘. However – reflecting new psychological post-war ideas about middle childhood as an innately gregarious and energetic period – a welfare officer in the Jewish DP camps located in the US zone of occupation in Germany worried in 1948 that the children in these camps were too obedient and not ‘mischievous, high-spirited and imaginative’ enough.

Children themselves were aware of adult expectations about trauma and played into these; as Clifford puts it, these ‘wary children’ had good reason to distrust adults in authority and so ‘fabricated suitable pasts’. Two children who were placed in a children’s home in Surrey, Weir Courtney, learnt how to exhibit the correct emotions and tell the right stories. Fritz F. was bullied in the home, and was found crying by the matron who tucked him in at night: ‘I told her I was thinking about my mother. I wasn’t’. Unlike some post-war settings, Weir Courtney prided itself on being a place where children could be open about the past, but children may have been forced to talk about things they would rather not have discussed to play into the psychoanalytical narrative that disclosure was cathartic. We can speculate that this might have led to some false stories. Mina R. told the matron that she had seen her mother shot through the head in front of her, and the matron was pleased with the subsequent change in the girl, who had, she wrote, been ‘much quieter and clearer since‘. However, it was later discovered that Mina’s mother was still alive.

This is a really excellent book, intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic; I would be delighted to see it win the Wolfson History Prize.

Make sure to check out the other stops on the first week of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour:

WHP 2021 Blog Tour Banner Week 1

 

Interview With Natasha Pulley

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed the speculative historical fiction writer Natasha Pulley for Newcastle’s Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA). The video of this interview is now up on YouTube:

Natasha has written four novels to date – The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, and The Kingdoms – all of which I have read and loved. (Watch out for my review of The Kingdoms coming soon – it’s out in May!)

‘In the beginning there was an idea’: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

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Gifty, the protagonist of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is both a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford who sought rigour in all things from an early age, and a grieving woman who is still deeply connected to her Ghanaian family’s Pentecostalism. As a child, she struggled with the command to ceaselessly praise God, soon discovering that she found it difficult to keep her mind on prayer for more than a few minutes; her teenage imagination was caught by the idea that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God’ might actually be translated differently: ‘“Word” was translated from the Greek word Logos, which didn’t really mean “word” at all, but rather something closer to “plea” or even premise… In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.’ Gifty’s research on reward-seeking behaviour in mice has obvious connections with the death of her older brother Nana from opioid addiction, but the novel avoids giving her this one simple motivation for her project; she explains that she was drawn to neuroscience because it seemed so hard and so pure, and is now grappling with the conflict between religious and scientific ideas of the brain, the mind and the soul.

From a white British perspective, fiction on the perceived conflict between religion and science has often tended to focus on the theory of evolution, and explored either the gentle accord that nineteenth-century men of science found between their faith and the evidence that the natural history of the world was much longer than they’d expected, or the later clashes with creationism. Transcendent Kingdom stands out in its depiction of Gifty’s Pentecostal faith, which, unlike Anglicanism/ Episcopalianism, focuses on personal divine revelation and speaking in tongues, and how she integrates her childhood beliefs with her neuroscientific work. (Creationism only comes up once, as an irritating question that non-believers ask her; she dodges it by spouting something one of her schoolteachers once said, ‘I believe we’re made of stardust, and God made the stars.’) This novel is so wise and thoughtful that there are endless bits I could quote, but I was especially struck by how Gifty turns to both scientific articles and biblical passages, not necessarily as sources of authority, but as things that are both good to think with.

This book is so thematically resonant that a lot of the reviews I’ve read make it sound intellectually worthy, but a bit dry; this isn’t the case at all. Gifty is a completely captivating narrator, ironically funny about her younger self, complex, unashamedly ambitious and yet deeply caring. Gyasi does not have time for any of the usual binaries that afflict female characters, and doesn’t let us think for a second that because Gifty wants to be a scientific star and does not want marriage or children, this means that she is in any way emotionally deficient. The novel is also technically brilliant in a very unobtrusive way; the narrative melts between present and past every few paragraphs, but I never felt at all confused about where or when we were. Indeed, it’s this clever juxtaposition that allows Gyasi to say so much without spelling anything out to the reader.

I never managed to love Gyasi’s acclaimed debut, Homegoing, as much as I wanted to; I admired its premise and construction, and connected with some of the stories, but felt a little distanced from the project as a whole. Transcendent Kingdom was a very different experience; I was completely pulled into Gifty’s world and Gifty’s questions. This novel deserves to go straight onto the Women’s Prize longlist and indeed the shortlist, and I hope to see it there on the 10th March.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 4th March.

(An aside: what is going on with the UK cover for this book? It looks like the sort of shapes I used to doodle in class, and the pink and green cover scheme is – not good. It’s such a shame, because the US cover is perfect:

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Guest Blog Post on Teenage Girls and British Second-Wave Feminism

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This blog has been quiet so far this year! I have been reading, but I don’t seem to have that much headspace for writing reviews, perhaps because I’m trying to knock out a thousand words a day on my Antarctic novel. I will be back soon, probably rounding up my thoughts on recent ARCs I’ve read.

In the meantime, I wrote this blog post on my historical research over at the Changing Childhoods blog: Spare Rib, Shocking Pink and the Politics of Age in 1980s Feminism.

It’s about how teenage girls were ignored and belittled in the pages of adult-led second-wave British feminist magazine Spare Rib, and so went off and started their own collective. Enjoy!

Random Late Summer Non-Fiction Reading

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Perhaps I was always going to have unfair expectations of Gabrielle Moss’s Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of 80s and 90s Teen Fiction, which is a broad survey of a lot of the US middle grade and YA fiction published in these two decades. I don’t research children’s lit or YA at the moment (though watch this space for a super secret exciting project coming soon!!*), but I’ve read enough on the topic to know that there’s scholarly work on this that Moss doesn’t engage with. However, having said that, I think I would have been happy enough with a shallow analysis of publishing trends and genre history if Moss had really seemed to know and love the books that she’s writing about. And while there are exceptions – she’s clearly a big Christopher Pike fan and gives a welcome shout-out to The Midnight Club, also my favourite Pike – she doesn’t really manage to convey her enthusiasm. Here, Moss isn’t well served by the explosion of blogs and online articles that so intelligently and hilariously dissect 80s and 90s mass market paperbacks aimed at this age group. Why would you read Moss on Lurlene McDaniel when you could read Somewhere Between YA Lit and Death? Or on Sweet Valley High when we have 1bruce1 AND Double Love? On the Baby-Sitters’ Club when we have 3_foot_6’s recaps on bsc_snark? On Point Horror when we have Teenage Scream? Or on this era at all when we have Frankie Thomas’s YA of Yore series in The Paris Review? So as I say, a bit unfair – Moss clearly did not have the page space to be able to go into the same amount of depth – but I guess I think this would have worked better if it had focused on a handful of Moss’s own favourite series rather than trying to cover everything (which it can’t, and doesn’t, anyway). The book is worth it for the hilarious full-colour reproductions of 1980s and 1990s book covers alone, however. And for any other 90s kids, I’m sorry not sorry if I just sent you down a rabbit hole with any of those links.

*maybe temper your expectations, unless you are really into 90s/early 00s middle grade US SF

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Recent Cambridge graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi wrote Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change for other black girls like them trying to navigate the still very white spaces of the British university system. However, it’s an important read for anyone who is involved in education in any way, shape or form. The topics covered – institutional racism, white curriculums, mental health, dating – are not obviously different from a number of other books on race and gender in modern Britain, but Kwakye and Ogunbiyi’s specific perspectives as young black women are hugely valuable. Having taught black students at both Oxford and Cambridge, this book made me further reflect on my own practice, sometimes uncomfortably, especially when Kwakye and Ogunbiyi discuss how they felt at times that less was expected of them because they are black women. At a conscious level, I know that I don’t expect less of black female students, but, especially in the one-to-one and one-to-two supervision/tutorial contexts of Cambridge and Oxford, we as supervisors/tutors are constantly making judgment calls about how to interact with students. Do you aggressively press a counter-argument in the hope that this will inspire the student to defend their own case, or should you talk through other interpretations more collaboratively so you don’t make them feel attacked? For obvious reasons, I’ll tread more carefully if I feel that students, of whatever race or gender, seem under-confident or uncertain, but as I’ve reflected in the past, it’s hard to judge whether these snap judgments are influenced by unconscious bias. On the other hand, Kwakye and Ogunbiyi point out that authority figures and peers can go too far the other way, assuming that they are invulnerable because they are ‘strong black women’, and not allowing them space to care for their own wellbeing. This opposing trope reminds the reader that improving black women’s experience of education is a continuous and challenging process of attaining balance in the context of a racist society.