January Superlatives, 2023

I originally borrowed this post format from Elle; I enjoyed writing these posts so much last year that I’ve decided to bring them back for 2023!

I have to say that January has been a bit of a slow reading month, although I did read a decent number of books despite quite a few DNFs. I haven’t read anything that I either really loved or really hated (though I did feel strongly about Geraldine Brooks’ March, as you can see from my rant). Last January, I read two books that went on to feature in my Top Ten Books of the year list; this January, I’ve read nothing I’d even consider to be in the running. I’m hoping that February will see some properly superlative superlatives!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour. Women’s fiction often falls flat for me – especially women’s fiction where the writer has previously only written YA, as is the case with LaCour. But I was completely absorbed by this gentle story of Creole florist and house renovator, Emilie, and artistic bartender, Sara, as they fall in love despite their difficult pasts. LaCour’s prose is so perfectly simple. Adore the cover, too!

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal. Argh, so disappointing! I was so sure I would love this story of a female medium working in the ‘Spirit Corps’ during the First World War, talking to the ghosts of men who have recently been killed to extract important information. I adored Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, which put a similar speculative spin on modern history, and I’m also a fan of her short stories. This started well but moved away from its clever premise to become more of a spy story set in the trenches; I also wasn’t invested in the central romantic relationship, which is so crucial to the story that my lack of investment felt a bit like a death knell for this novel. I’ll be reading Kowal’s new stuff but avoiding her backlist in future.

My Best Re-Read This Month Was…

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… Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Once I discovered that the sequel to this Yale-set dark academia novel was about to come out, I realised that although I’d really enjoyed Ninth House back in 2019, I remembered very little about it. Time for a re-read! Interestingly, I’d say I liked Ninth House both more and less this time round. Its complicated system of magic-using secret societies  felt much clearer to me on a re-read, and I navigated the multiple plot strands and time jumps much less painfully. However, I found myself wishing that Bardugo would give herself more time to simply explore this world and its characters and pack rather less action into the novel. (I’ve heard that the next one, Hell Bent, is even more plot-driven.) This reread also made me reflect on how much the dark academia sub-genre has moved on in the last three years, especially regarding its treatment of social justice. What felt fresh back in 2019 now seems rather tokenistic after reading the A Deadly Education trilogy, Catherine House and BabelI had a lot of fun rereading this and I still want to read Hell Bent, but I’ve tempered my expectations.

The Novel That Felt Most Like I’d Read It Somewhere Else Before This Month Was…

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… The Divines by Ellie Eaton. This novel is narrated by Josephine, who was a pupil at English boarding school St John the Divine in the 1990s and is now newly married; the narration moves between Josephine’s final year at the school and her first few years of married life. Eaton is a skilful writer, but this ultimately reminded me too strongly of other novels I’ve read about cloistered schools, teenage girls and early sexual experience, especially Bella Bathurst’s Special (also centred around a life-threatening fall!), Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire (shares the same uncomfortable ‘plot twist’!), and Tana French’s far superior The Secret Place. The final chapters, where Josephine is forced to reassess her own and others’ mismemories of their girlhood, are compelling, and this thread could have been introduced earlier, but it wasn’t enough to make this book stand out to me.

The Most Underwhelming Piece of Literary Fiction I Read This Month Was…

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… Trespasses by Louise Kennedy. This debut’s plot treads cliched lines; Cushla, a Catholic primary school teacher in 1975 Belfast, falls in love with an older, married Protestant barrister, Michael, and they embark upon an affair. Kennedy’s prose is intelligent, accomplished, often impressive; and yet I felt like each chapter followed a sequence familiar from much literary fiction, with the accumulation of a series of beautifully observed details (and Kennedy does brilliantly evoke Belfast during the Troubles), the deliberately inconsequential dialogue, the minimal interiority. On the other hand, this probably wouldn’t have felt so rote-like to me if I’d been emotionally invested in the narrative, and I never was. Admirable, but for me it felt like a text to study rather than to love.

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. I had mixed feelings about Kupersmith’s debut novel, Build Your House Around My Bodybut was impressed by its clever puzzle-box narrative and some indelible set-pieces, and loved the bonus short story that was included at the end of my edition. My hope was that I would like Kupersmith even more as a short story writer than as a novelist. This turned out not to be the case – I think whatever she writes next will be her best thing yet, as she’s clearly still developing her obvious talents – but this collection was worth reading. The first story in the collection, ‘Boat Story’, where a granddaughter wants to hear her grandmother’s dramatic tale of escaping from Vietnam in a small boat but gets an unnerving ghost story instead, tells us what we’re in for. Only a couple of stories really stood out to me in the way that Kupersmith’s other vignettes have: my favourite was ‘Little Brother’, where an elderly Vietnamese trucker takes on a disturbing passenger, and I also liked ‘The Frangipani Hotel’, which hints at a macabre family history but resists telling us too much, and ‘Turning Back’, where a teenage girl living in Houston meets an old man who keeps turning into a python. If you’ve read Build Your House…, you’ll see how certain motifs link the two books, and it’s the stories that resonated with that later novel that I found the most vivid and unnerving. Nevertheless, Kupersmith writes so fluidly that I sped through this collection.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty. This was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, but unfortunately my expectations were wrong: I thought it would be a collection of speculative short stories, but it’s actually a novel told in linked episodes with no speculative elements at all. David, or Dee, is a young Penobscot man growing up on ‘the rez’; he and his family experience poverty, violence and drug addiction, while he spends long, aimless days with best friend Fellis, structured only around visits to the methadone clinic. The issues faced by Native communities that Talty highlights here are undoubtedly important, but this didn’t work for me at all as fiction. Most of the chapters have been previously published as short stories, and I can see how they’d function as one-offs: I actually loved the first, very short section of this book, ‘Burn’, where Dee is trying to score some pot and comes across Fellis stuck in the swamp with his braid frozen to the ground. But when they’re put together, they feel repetitive and shapeless, and despite a few powerful paragraphs, Talty’s prose is workmanlike, often flat: ‘I pressed a Q-tip soaked in peroxide against the wound and winced. I dried the area and put Neosporin on it. Behind the mirror I found a box of assorted Band-Aids and stuck a medium-small one vertically between my eye and nose.’ Sadly, this wasn’t for me.

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

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… Ten Steps To Nanette by Hannah Gadsby. I very rarely read memoirs by even quasi-celebrities; ironically, I think the last one I read was Tom Allen’s No Shame, which I very much enjoyed. Gadsby, like Allen, is of course a queer comedian, known for her Netflix smash hit Nanette. However, Nanette was the product of twelve years on the comedy circuit and a lifetime’s struggles, proving the truth of the classic comedy adage that Gadsby quotes in this memoir: ‘comedy is trauma plus time‘. Like No Shame, Ten Steps to Nanette is clearly not written by somebody who writes books professionally; however, I liked the unwieldiness of it, the rambliness, and of course the humour. Even more refreshing was Gadsby’s honesty about how very hard she found it, and still finds it, to ‘fit in’. Lots of writers tell us about their awkward teen experiences but we very rarely hear from anyone who struggled for more than a few years in adolescence, or struggled to the degree that Gadsby obviously did. It was only later in life that Gadsby would be diagnosed with both autism and ADHD, which for her explained a lot about why life had always been so hard. Yet whether or not you share her diagnoses, Ten Steps to Nanette comes as a big relief for anyone whose ‘weirdness’ went beyond the socially-acceptable narrative of ‘I was bullied for a bit at school and was a geek but then pulled it together at university/in my early twenties’. Highly recommended.

The Novel I Spent Longest Reading This Month Was…

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… Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears. I started this 600-page brick back in mid-December but read the vast majority of it this month. It moves backwards in time – which was what attracted me to it in the first place – from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890 to Venice in 1867, unpicking the complicated history of a couple of members of the global financial elite and the women they become involved with. Stone’s Fall is an old-fashioned novel in several ways. It’s a deliberate pastiche of the kind of Victorian sensation novel that Wilkie Collins might have written, with affairs, madmen, mysterious deaths and stock market scheming. But also, although it only came out in 2009, I find it hard to imagine this being published today: it’s so indulgently long, and the female characters very much fit a certain mould of smart-but-unhinged, sexily mysterious but not quite human. Having said all that, I had a lot of fun reading the final two-thirds of this novel, where our two different narrators, both men of influence, take us through some entertaining plots and alternative, behind-the-scenes history; the majority of the month and a half it took me to read Stone’s Fall was spent on the first third, where a naive journalist narrator tried my patience and nothing seemed to happen but a slow accumulation of detail that we’ll need later. If I’d known this in advance, I’d have plowed through the first section more quickly. But this still manages to be the best book I’ve read by Pears.

The Book I Read In December But Which Didn’t Make It Into My December Round-Ups Was*…

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… Life by Gwyneth Jones. And what a very strange book it was. Life had moments of brilliance but also moments that I found troubling and others that seemed redundant. The novel promises to be about the breakdown of chromosomal sex after the discovery of ‘Transferred Y’, or TY, by scientist Anna Senoz. However, TY turns out to be much more destabilising for society’s ideas about gender than for biological sex itself; as Anna explains, the ‘death’ of the Y chromosome doesn’t mean that sexually dimorphic men and women won’t continue to make up the vast majority of the population, even if men are now all technically intersex, because the masculinising SRY gene remains intact on one of men’s X chromosomes. Life, therefore, is really about the ‘sex wars’ and the tension between heterosexual sexual attraction and the more equal sexual relationships that some men and women are trying to forge. TY is such a problem because people believe there are fundamental genetic differences between men and women, and because they believe these matter for society to function. Gwyneth Jones is a bold and intelligent writer, but I felt uncomfortable with the treatment of lesbians, in particular, and the way the narrative flipped between being set in a speculative future where sex and gender are being reconstructed, and rehashing old feminist debates from the 1970s and 1980s. Ultimately, I believed in Anna as a character and she carried the book for me, even when it became baffling.

*very dubious superlative

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2022 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2022 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2022, not necessarily first published in 2022.

Highly Commended

2022 was a very good year for short story collections. Two have made my Top Ten, but there were many others that I loved. Kate Folk’s Out There is part of the Julia Armfield/Carmen Maria Machado/Mary South/Irenosen Okojie feminist body horror axis, but for my money, is better than the story collections by any of those writers. NK Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? showcased some incredible novels-in-a-bottle SF shorts. Anthony Veasna So’s first and last collection, Afterparties, unifies beautifully around the stories of stories of second-generation Cambodian immigrants to California who live in the shadow of their Khmer parents’ experience of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. Finally, on the meta end, Tom Conaghan’s edited collection Reverse Engineering reprints seven exceptional modern short stories and pairs them with commentary from their authors. My favourite: Mahreen Sohail’s wonderful ‘Hair’.

I also read some brilliant speculative fiction and SFF. T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone made me a confirmed fan of her work; a totally engrossing, original low fantasy that combines the darker, more serious folktale feel of a writer like Robin McKinley with the lightheartedness of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Ellen Klages’s glittering novella Passing Strange transports the reader to the lesbian subculture of San Francisco in the 1940s, with just a hint of magic. Meanwhile, on the SF end, I just loved Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbitwhich had some problems but won me over with its joyful queer romance. (I’m now reading her second book set in the same universe, Ocean’s Echo, and it’s just as good so far!)

Non-fiction was also strong this year, especially memoir. Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim was a brilliant examination of human engagement with water throughout the world, from abalone divers to public pools. Catherine Cho’s Infernoan account of her experience with postnatal psychosis, was emotionally resonant and beautifully written. Meanwhile, Nadia Owusu’s Aftershocks is also an exploration of trauma, as well as Owusu’s experiences of feeling rootless, her race and identity read differently wherever she goes.

I always love a good campus novel and 2022 really delivered! Julia May Jonas’s Vladimir is a sharp, amoral character study of an English professor in her late fifties whose husband John has just been accused by his students of sexual assault. Elaine Hsieh Cho’s  Disorientation wasn’t perfect, but it’s still a brilliant satire, following Taiwanese-American PhD student Ingrid as she tries to finish her dissertation while nursing her rivalry with fellow grad student Vivian, an Asian lesbian activist who writes papers called things like ‘Still Thirsty: Why Boba Liberalism Will Not Save Us’. Finally, Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping eschews literary flashiness for slow meditation as it explores the relationship between Owen, who grew up in rural Kentucky and works as a groundskeeper at the local college, and Alma, a writer-in-residence and ‘cultural Muslim’ whose parents fled Bosnia before she was born.

I read fewer good crime and thriller novels this year, although I was delighted by the revival of horror tropes and full-blown horror novels. Ellery Lloyd’s The Club was probably my thriller of the year: set in the luxurious retreat of ‘Island Home’, it handles its twists realistically rather than sacrificing realism for shock value, which has been a problem for me with a lot of recent thrillers. Nicola Griffith’s The Blue Place is a literary thriller that I’d also class as thoroughly satisfying wish-fulfilment for lesbians: its unforgettable protagonist Aud Torvingen is a former police lieutenant, six-foot tall martial arts practitioner, carpenter and social manipulator. Meanwhile, in horror, I devoured Mira Grant’s Into The Drowning Deepa schlocky novel about killer mermaids that features an especially memorable set-piece when a Deaf character pilots a bespoke submarine into the Challenger Deep.

Women’s fiction, romance and YA are not my favourite genres, but I had a few hits this year. Queer YA really delivered for me, and I was delighted to find novels that focused on lesbian or bi girls, having read so many about gay boys: my two favourites were Rachael Lippincott’s and Alyson Derrick’s She Gets The Girl and Adiba Jaigirdar’s The Henna Warswhich both set up a pair of girls as sworn enemies and let us watch them fall in love while navigating cultural difference. In women’s fiction, Taylor Jenkins Reid made a comeback for me with her latest, Carrie Soto Is BackI LOVED star tennis player Carrie and how the novel unambiguously let women be successful without punishing them.

Biggest Disappointments

Even though 2022 was a great reading year, I actually had more big disappointments than usual. Maybe this makes sense: with so many books to be excited about, it was inevitable that some of them would fall short.

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

There were a few big SFF releases that disappointed me (though I didn’t always get to these as soon as they were released). I was SO excited about RF Kuang’s Babelbut although I found it a fun read, the characterisation was weak, the critique of colonialism heavy-handed and the worldbuilding hopelessly illogical. Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throneon the other hand, which was also on my 2022 reading list, had three wonderful female protagonists but a slow pace plus unconvincing romance meant that I won’t be continuing with the trilogy. Finally, Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake not only had a beautiful cover but promised sapphic romance between a pirate queen and a geeky mechanic: unfortunately, this book did not work for me on any level.

I was disappointed (as ever!) by some new releases from authors I’ve loved in the past. Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility was a quick, enjoyable read, but felt very much like a literary writer trying out bad SF than the truly good SF that I know Mandel is capable of writing. Emma Donoghue’s Haven is the first book I’ve ever read from her that I thought wasn’t worth reading: this tale of three monks founding a refuge from the world on Skellig Michael in the seventh century relied on caricatures of dogmatic faith, and also threw intersex people under the bus.

Finally, I was disappointed by Tice Cin’s Keeping The House – the blurb was so enticing but didn’t seem to relate to the actual book, and the writing was too convoluted – ditto Morowa Yejidé’s Creatures of Passage. And I hated Josie George’s A Still Lifewhere I was left only with the overriding impression that George and I would not get on.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2022!

#NovellasInNovember: Patchett, Brooks, Fernández

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I’m obsessed with Ann Patchett’s non-fiction, so I splashed out on What Now? even though it’s really no more than an essay padded out with inspirational Instagram-like black and white images that don’t feel like Patchett at all. This mini-book is an expanded version of Patchett’s commencement address at Sarah Lawrence, her alma mater (having attended a lot of UK graduations in my role as an academic, I can’t imagine having someone like Patchett come to speak to you rather than the usual miserable speeches we get!). Some of the material, like her time working as a waitress and as a line cook, will be familiar if you’ve read her earlier autobiographical essays and writings in Truth and Beauty and This Is The Story of a Happy MarriageStill, I enjoyed her reflections on ‘what now?’ and how this question can be freeing as well as pressurising and terrifying. My favourite bit was actually the postscript when she explains how she wrote a boring, portentous speech first time around, then had to write it again after her mentor broke the news to her that it was awful…

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Maud Martha, first published in 1953, is a modern classic, the only novel by acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. It follows the life of Maud Martha, a black girl growing up in inter-war Chicago, who moves from a relatively affluent family household to a smaller, more run down ‘kitchenette’ apartment when she marries. I had much the same problem with Maud Martha that I’ve had with other classics from black female writers from this period, such as Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); while I recognise the historical significance of these novels, and how groundbreaking they would have been at the time, they now feel narrow and cliched to me. (I don’t think this is a problem confined to black female writers, by the way! I struggle in general with inter-war and postwar English and American literature, and so I just haven’t picked up many books by white and/or male writers from these periods – these three texts have all been book club picks.)

Maud Martha tells a very familiar coming of age story of marriage, motherhood, colorism and racism. Brooks does a marvellous job of illuminating the inner consciousness, how we think and how we imbue what we see and observe with our own emotions. Her description of the birth of Maud Martha’s daughter Paulette is so vivid and immediate, as is an incident when the n-word is used at a black-owned beauty shop but the owner fails to call it out, to Maud Martha’s horror. It’s also obvious that Brooks was a brilliant poet; there are some absolutely perfect sentences here, like when Maud Martha muses on her general dissatisfaction with her marriage when she sees her husband dancing with another woman: ‘ “I could,” considered Maud Martha, “go over there and scratch her upsweep down. I could spit on her back”… But if the root was sour what business did she have up there hacking at a leaf?’ Nevertheless, these vignettes of human consciousness never seemed to me to belong to a specific person, to Maud Martha; the novella felt like a strung-together series of observations from Brooks plus some sociological background on Maud Martha’s life. In the introduction to this edition, Margo Jefferson makes much of Maud Martha’s teenage assertion ‘What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha’, suggesting that Maud Martha ‘cherishes her own mind, her sensibility… it is quietly extraordinary’ and that readers should ‘take nothing about this girl for granted’; but I found that Maud Martha very rarely took me by surprise.

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This very short novella is told in chorus by a group of schoolfriends who were children during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile in the 1980s, and are now adults who still feel bound together by the horrors of this time, and especially the uncertain fate of their classmate, Estrella González. Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders, translated by Natasha Wimmer, makes much of the familiar computer game that the children play, with the ranks of green aliens who continually advance symbolising the militaristic society they are growing up in. However, I preferred the parts of this novella that felt less certain, harder to interpret. Although they are scattered far apart, the friends – with González’s childhood crush, Zúñiga, gradually coming to the fore – believe that they meet each other in dreams, where they discuss what may have happened to González after she was abruptly taken out of school by her father, an officer in Pinochet’s regime. ‘We could take attendance… but it’s not necessary. We’re all here. We were scheduled to meet here. We’ve risen from our sheets and mattresses scattered around the city to arrive precisely on time. As always, the dream summons us.’ Maybe this is just Zúñiga’s way of dealing with his own trauma, but it makes the collective memories of the friends feel powerfully entangled. As ever with novellas, this just felt too brief to me, but I’m now keen to read Fernández’s recently translated novel, The Twilight Zone.

Have you read any novellas in November? Which were your favourites?

More R.I.P XVII Reviews #SpooktasticReads

I picked out some ‘mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror or supernatural’ reads for the R.I.P XVII challenge back at the end of September. This also doubles up with Spooktastic Reads, which runs from 19th to 31st October and focuses on dark fantasy.

What I’ve Been Reading

The book I was most excited about reading this month was definitely Naomi Novik’s The Golden Enclaves, the conclusion to her Scholomance trilogy. I don’t think I’ve looked forward to a book this much since the sixth Harry Potter book came out (sadly, I hated book six, so I didn’t anticipate book seven, which was good, since I hated it even more!). And while nothing can ever top A Deadly Education for me, this was probably on par with The Last Graduatealthough I badly missed spending time in the Scholomance. Like The Last Graduate, the first half of The Golden Enclaves is rather slow and meandering, but it REALLY kicks into gear in the second half, with some satisfying character development and a return to the more complex moral questions that I missed in The Last Graduate. A great trilogy with an utterly superb first book that should be required reading for anyone who loves dark academia – or who has struggled with not being on the same wavelength as their classmates.

Sadly, despite it being another of my most-anticipated releases of 2022, I didn’t find RF Kuang’s Babel nearly as satisfying. You can read my full review here – plus a few thoughts about why Novik’s Scholomance trilogy is a much more interesting addition to the ‘dark academia’ sub-genre.

Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks also made my 2022 reading list because it promised ‘teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s’ and it definitely delivered! Danvers High’s field hockey team of ten girls plus one token boy have never been very good at actually winning games. However, their luck reverses when they make a deal with the devil and start recording their bad deeds in a secret notebook, channelling their power not only to win every game they play but to achieve their own secret ambitions. Barry’s prose – or at least, the particular narrative voice she chose for this novel – takes a little getting used to. It’s deliberately dense with contemporary references, and skips between the collective voice of the team and the individual perspectives of its members, each of whom get a chapter of their own. It also skips back and forth in time rather disconcertingly. Having said that, this quixotic style is what makes We Ride Upon Sticks so distinctive, and I can’t imagine it being told in any other way. This isn’t the fast, feelgood read the pink cover might seem to promise, but I loved how subtly it dealt with feminism, race and queer/trans identity in the late 1980s, acknowledging that times have changed both for the better and for the worse.

(I also planned to read Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night for this challenge. I’m a third of the way through this behemoth and it’s going… slowly, despite some unforgettably terrifying set-pieces. I will review next month, if I finish it then!)

 What I’ve Been Watching

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I was pleasantly surprised by Hocus Pocus 2given that I’ve watched the original Hocus Pocus countless times since it first came out when I was a small child, and can recite most of the dialogue. Hocus Pocus 2 leans quite heavily on the original film, but also brings some excellent moments of its own (I loved the mini-arc where the jock character works out that he’s been ‘making fun of people’, the three child actors who had so carefully learnt all of the witches’ mannerisms, and the hoovers that save the day). What is perhaps most impressive is the way the film mostly preserves the original’s clever balance between spooky, funny and poignant, although the first Hocus Pocus is scarier and more atmospheric. The final scene with Winifred could have been sappy but was just weird and off-kilter enough to work for me – and, contrary to some reviewers, I didn’t feel that the three witches ceased to be bad guys – we’ve always known they care about each other and nobody else! Obviously not as great as the original film, but a fun and nostalgic coda.

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

The release of the new Netflix adaptation of The Midnight Club inspired me to seek out the original Christopher Pike novel from 1994, which was one of my favourite books in my early teens. Pike was one of the big teen writers of the 1990s and early 00s, author of dozens of books which were sold to the same audience as Point Horror but which were much more gruesome, disturbing and original. I don’t remember very many of his books (I’m sure I read some of The Last Vampire and Remember Me series, I still own Chain Letter, and that I was so intensely freaked out by Magic Fire* that I couldn’t finish it). And until I picked it up this month, I hadn’t reread The Midnight Club in decades, suspecting I might find it silly and exploitative as an adult.

Well, I was wrong! I still love it! The Midnight Club packs such a powerful atmospheric punch as it follows a group of teens living in a hospice who tell each other stories every night as they are waiting to die. All the stories the characters tell are fully incorporated into the narrative, a narrative device that rarely works for me but which is brilliantly-handled here. Pike somehow manages to give each character a distinct storytelling style and to tell us stories that are not always good but are always interesting. Also, we can’t always neatly draw parallels between the stories and the characters’ lives, which makes the novel much richer, more interesting and more realistic (funnily enough, fiction isn’t always thinly-veiled autobiography). The spiritual aspects of the novel ought to be absurd, but because the book is genuinely moving and we really do care for the characters, it somehow manages to carry it. Pike is known for his horror novels, but this is less a horror novel (though the stories-within-the-story have horror elements) and more a haunting meditation on death. MOVE OVER FAULT IN OUR STARS AND YOUR MANY RIPOFFS.

*yes I did just spend too much time googling ‘Christopher Pike novel brains in vats’.

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Soulmates Ilonka and Kevin share a moment.

So, how about The Midnight Club Netflix series? I’ve only watched half the series so far, so my thoughts may change, but here goes: It diverges from the novel immediately, and I wasn’t surprised, given how much of the original is about reincarnation and past-life regression. But I loved how it feels very much like a remix of the book, with references popping up when you least expect them. Anya (Ruth Codd)’s horror story incorporates an experience she had in real life in the original novel; Kevin (Igby Rigney) casually references the Louvre, having told an entire story centred around the museum in the book version. The original cast are all present and correct but several new characters are added, a choice that makes sense given this is obviously intended to be more than a one-season show, and we’re going to lose them all one by one.

As in the book, the different ‘voices’ of the storytellers are very cleverly handled. I especially liked the very first story, told by Natsuki (Aya Furukawa), which dissolves into chaos as she insists on jump-scaring her audience over and over again. I was less certain about the decision to add an overarching storyline about a mysterious cult that meets in the basement of the hospice; it just felt unnecessary to me, and it’s inevitably dragged out across the whole season, only allowed to advance by increments in each episode. However, I did like that Ilonka (Iman Benson) is drawn to the hospice because she reads about a girl who was miraculously cured after straying into the woods nearby; this is, again, another clever remix of Ilonka’s original storyline, where she spends most of the novel in denial about her prognosis, relying on herbs and healthy eating rather than pain medication. And while I miss the weird intensity of our original group of teenagers, this would also have been hard to translate to screen. Fingers crossed for the second half of the season!

Did you read any spooky books this October? Or watch anything scary?

‘Oxford began to crumble’: Babel by RF Kuang #RIPXVII #SpooktasticReads

I’m taking part in both the RIP XVII challenge (1 September – 31 October) and Spooktastic Reads (19 October – 31 October) this year. Both focus on reading darker books, but Spooktastic Reads has more of a focus on dark fantasy, which makes RF Kuang’s Babel a perfect pick. (The publishers have even worked with these challenges’ colour schemes!)

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Babel is set in Oxford in the late 1830s: industrialisation is picking up pace, despite Luddite protests, the Whigs are in power under Lord Melbourne, and we’re on the brink of the Opium Wars. Kuang, however, diverges from history by devising an ingenious mechanism that powers colonial exploitation: silver-working. In short, elite Oxford academics, working in the Royal Institute of Translation – Babel – inscribe ‘match-pairs’, or two different translations of the same word, into silver bars. The subtle differences between the meanings of the words produce their intended effects. In this way, Babel becomes the hub of the British Empire, with its silver-magic allowing the British to dominate the rest of the world even as extractive knowledge of foreign languages is the essential mechanism that keeps imperialism going. Our four protagonists enter Babel as undergraduate students on generous stipends. Robin, the central narrator, is originally from Canton but was brought over to England by his absent father after his mother’s death; his best friend Ramy, a practising Muslim, is from Calcutta; Victoire was born in Haiti; and Letty is a white English aristocrat who is nevertheless enraged by how her brother’s access to education was facilitated while she was ignored.

Babel is clearly in conversation with earlier novels that deal with language, academia, magic and injustice – but sadly, it seems more interested in toppling the obvious targets of Harry Potter and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind than engaging with more intelligent predecessors like Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Robin and his friends may not be the Trio, but they are definitely the Marauders – with all the moral simplicity that that entails. (One pivotal moment even directly recalls Sirius Black’s outburst, directed at Peter Pettigrew: ‘Then you should have died! Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!‘*) Robin goes on a relatively interesting journey, but the other three remain ciphers, ultimately defined by race and gender rather than developing real personalities; we know that Victoire’s world-view is smarter than Ramy’s is smarter than Letty’s because that’s what hierarchies of oppression tell us. And while I am ALL FOR authors showing how the lived experience of discrimination allows oppressed groups to have a better understanding of an oppressive system, this is not handled with any subtlety.

*yes maybe I did just quote that from memory

This brilliant Goodreads review sums up Babel‘s worldbuilding problems far better than I can, so I won’t add much here: in short, the addition of silver-working bizarrely does absolutely nothing to change early nineteenth-century British history, and the language used by our anti-colonial protagonists all too frequently hails from the twenty-first century, which feels especially jarring in a novel so attuned to the histories of words. Having said that, though, I could probably have put up with these problems if the points that Kuang was making weren’t quite so obvious. I still haven’t posted my review of her forthcoming contemporary novel Yellowface because it’s not out until May 2023: still, I was struck by how two such different novels can suffer from the same kinds of problems. Yellowface, too, is determined to spell out everything to the reader rather than let them draw their own conclusions. I’ve heard that Kuang was frustrated when readers missed that her earlier Poppy War trilogy was a critique of colonialism in China and Hong Kong; I’ve not read this trilogy, but I very much sympathise if this is true. However, I don’t think this means that you should write to the lowest common denominator of readers, especially when surely anyone who picks up Babel knows what they are getting into.

While reading Babel, I kept on thinking of Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy, which stand as some of the most morally complex fantasy/dark academia novels I have read in recent years. Novik is much more interested than Kuang in understanding how people become complicit in corrupt systems, and she’s willing to take her protagonist, El, to some very dark places as she walks her own path towards resistance. The final hundred pages of Babel do go some way towards acknowledging knotty problems that were not visible in the previous four hundred or so. I loved the emergence of radical working-class groups as key allies, and how they exposed some of the holes in our protagonists’ thinking, especially the idea that machine-breakers were just dumb peasants impeding progress #JusticeforLuddites. Finally, we get some serious disagreements over tactics from people who are all on the right side of history. And, as somebody who has never studied at Oxford but worked there unhappily for three years, I did revel in the sheer destruction that the novel’s climax brings; Kuang is great at really bringing home to the reader how quickly systems of power unravel when labour is withdrawn. (Yet, I return to the comparison with the Scholomance series, which is much better at portraying the sheer difficulty of resistance, even after the school itself is expelled into the void; most exploited peoples don’t conveniently have their labour locked into a single place that they can blow up).

OK this got LONG, but to conclude: if you want thoughtful, thought-provoking dark academia, read Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education; if you instead want a dissection of the inherent colonialism within the modern university, read Elaine Hsieh Chou’s Disorientation(And yeah, if you do just want a fast-paced, old-fashioned wizard school fantasy book, still read Babel.)

R.I.P XVII Reading Plans

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I’ve taken part in the R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge once before. This challenge runs from 1st September to 31st October, and involves reading books classified as mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror or supernatural. So technically I’m a bit late to the game, but for me, these kind of books really belong to October, and I’m anticipating a few new acquisitions in these categories for my birthday at the end of the month!

I’m planning to read:

I am utterly obsessed with Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, so much so that I have written several posts about it. The third in the trilogy, The Golden Enclaves, finally comes out on the 27th September, and I can’t wait! The Scholomance is perfect for the RIP challenge; it’s a magical school where the majority of its students never graduate, due to the very high death rate within its walls.

Keeping with the dark fantasy theme, I’ve asked for RF Kuang’s Babel for my birthday. I’ve been excited about this novel since I first heard about it, and I hope it doesn’t disappoint! Here’s the blurb: ‘Oxford, 1836. The city of dreaming spires. It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world. And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows. Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift. Until it became a prison… but can a student stand against an empire?’ One of my most anticipated novels of 2022.

While Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks is unlikely to be that dark, the witchy content makes it a perfect October read for me. NPR describes it as a ‘charming teen witchcraft-slash-field-hockey novel’. Set in 1989, a school hockey team’s luck changes when the girls ‘pledge themselves to the forces of eternal darkness’. Another from my 2022 reading list.

Finally, I have a proof of Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night from NetGalley, which spans ‘the brutal decades of Argentina’s military dictatorship and its aftermath’ but tells this story through an occult lens: ‘Gaspar is six years old when the Order first come for him. For years, they have exploited his father’s ability to commune with the dead and the demonic, presiding over macabre rituals where the unwanted and the disappeared are tortured and executed, sacrificed to the Darkness. Now they want a successor. Nothing will stop the Order, nothing is beyond them. Surrounded by horrors, can Gaspar break free?’ I’ve just finished Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill, which similarly uses horror tropes to explore the aftermath of Colombia’s traumatic history. I loved The Anthill and I hope I’ll love Our Share of Night as well.

In film and TV, I’m uneasily awaiting the release of Hocus Pocus 2which comes out on my birthday. The original Hocus Pocus was one of the iconic films of my childhood, and my sister and I can probably quote most of the film. There’s no way the sequel can live up to it, but I hope it will be a fun and nostalgic watch.

Check out Elle’s R.I.P XVII reading list here.

Are you taking part in the R.I.P Challenge, or planning to read any darker books this October?

August Superlatives

A nice short round-up this month as I’ve reviewed most of my reads for 20 Books of Summer already, and only new reads count for the purposes of my Superlatives posts.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith. This, with its AMAZING late 90s cover, only confirmed that I will read anything Nicola Griffith writes. Billed as a thriller, this is actually a character study of Aud Torvingen: former police lieutenant, lesbian, six-foot tall martial arts practitioner, Norwegian-British-American, carpenter and social manipulator. From the first page I loved Aud and the way that Griffith writes about her world, from the humidity of Atlanta to the glacial lakes of the fjords. It’s the first in a trilogy and there’s a sense that Griffith is just getting going; the book really springs to life in its second half. However, we rarely meet fictional people like Aud, and that alone is enough to make me want to read the next two books. Arguably, she’s a bit larger than life, a bit wish-fulfilment-for-lesbians, but you know what, I love it: there are so many wish-fulfilment books for straight white men, especially in the crime/thriller space, and nobody cares. (I also love that the Italian edition is called Concrete Eyes). Not quite up there with Hild, Ammonite and Slow Riverbut still brilliant.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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…The Dark Between The Trees by Fiona Barnett. This novel had such potential. It’s told through alternating chapters set in two different time periods. A group of historians follow the trail of some seventeenth-century Parliamentarian soldiers who disappeared in Moresby Wood, now out of bounds to the general public. Both groups soon find that the woods are not what they seem; paths seem to rearrange themselves to direct them towards certain places, landmarks shift and go missing. So far, so Blair Witch. However, the poor writing robs the novel of any tension and the large cast are difficult to tell apart. There also seems to have been no real effort to portray an early modern mindset in the soldiers’ chapters (at one point, a character talks about the division between his ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ roles). My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best YA Book/s I Read This Month Were…

….Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating and The Henna Wars, both by Adiba Jaigirdar. I think I’ve found the kind of YA novel I like, and it’s queer contemporary romance! (Though I also read Casey McQuiston’s I Kissed Shara Wheeler this month, which did not work well for me, and found Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper: Volume 3 a bit cheesy). These were two more adorable stories. Hani and Ishu is about two bisexual Bengali girls who start ‘fake dating’ each other at their Irish Catholic school, each for their own reasons, but then start falling for each other for real. The Henna Wars stars a lesbian Bangladeshi Muslim girl, Nishat, who is infuriated when Brazilian-Irish classmate, Flávia, steals her idea of launching a henna business.

Funnily enough, the first few chapters of Hani and Ishu (though not The Henna Wars) start out over-explaining everything, not just Bengali references, but Irish ones like ‘Leaving Cert’ – but then Jaigirdar drops this completely (except in conversations between the protagonists and their white friends, where explanations feel natural). She trusts the reader to come along with her, which I loved. For this reason, both The Henna Wars and Hani and Ishu feel more subtle and complex than many adult romance/women’s fiction novels I’ve read on similar subjects. The Henna Wars spells out Nishat’s frustrations about cultural appropriation a few too many times, but that was the only time it reminded me of more usual YA fare.

Jaigirdar beautifully portrays how much it means to Hani and Ishu to find each other, after years of being the only brown girls at an all-white school; however, she doesn’t ignore cultural difference. Hani, like Nishat, is a Bangladeshi Muslim; Ishu Indian and pretty secular, happy to swear and drink alcohol. Intergenerational dynamics are cleverly portrayed, too. Ishu’s ‘pushy’ parents are not driven by religion or conservatism but by ambition; Hani’s parents rarely go to the mosque until Hani becomes interested in Islam in her own right, and are totally accepting of her bisexuality. The Henna Wars, meanwhile, tells a different story about coming out in a Muslim family; Nishat’s parents are much more traditionally religious and struggle to come to terms with her being a lesbian. I adored the super-close relationship between Nishat and her younger sister Priti, though.

If I was to compare these two books, I think The Henna Wars is the stronger novel – I liked the more substantial plot-line and the more nuanced characterisation of Nishat’s classmates – but both are certainly worth reading.

The Best Historical Novel I Read This Month Was...

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… The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. Erdrich’s Pulitzer-winning novel is set in 1953 and focuses on the Chippewa Council’s fight against House Concurrent Resolution 108, which ‘called for the eventual termination of all American Indian tribes, and the immediate termination of five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band’. Her central character Thomas Wazhushk is based on her own grandfather; Thomas works shifts as a night watchman while protesting what was erroneously called the ‘Indian Emancipation Bill’, barely finding time to sleep. The other strand in the novel follows a young Chippewa woman called Pixie, who is figuring out her own life while searching for her lost sister. This is a solid and educational novel, but for me it never rose to the heights of Erdrich’s more complex The Sentencewhich was much more evocatively and imaginatively narrated. This was more like The Round House, which I found both worthy and plodding – and I was disappointed by how much Pixie’s relatively cliched narrative dominated when I really wanted to know about Thomas’s campaign. Erdrich fans, which of her books should I read next?

The Saddest Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Dolphin House by Audrey Schulman, which is closely based on a real scientific scandal of the 1960s. A young white woman, Margaret Lovatt, lived with a male dolphin called Peter in a partly flooded house on the Caribbean island of St Thomas, hoping to teach him to communicate with humans by mimicking human language through his blowhole. Schulman presents a harrowing picture of research with dolphins in the 1960s, exploring both their innate capabilities and how little they’re understood by their human captors. Her fictional protagonist, Cora, is desperate to prevent the further exploitation of the dolphins she works with, but is ultimately unable to stop it.

This novel is so intelligent and so interesting that I’m struggling to work out why I didn’t really click with it as a work of fiction (it would have been brilliant as a long essay). the biggest problem for me was Cora herself. Schulman is so determined to rewrite Lovatt’s reputation that I think she goes a bit too far. Cora is continuously idealised, always right in every situation, always there to tell the reader what they should think. So as non-fiction, this is brilliant; as fiction, it’s a little lacking. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Did you have any standout reads in August? What were the best and worst books you read?

 

‘Is It Finished?’ and ‘Are You Happy With It?’: When I Grow Up: Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood

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I’m on holiday and off-grid until the end of August. This post, and a couple of others, have been auto-scheduled.

Jacqueline Wilson, the 76-year-old bestselling children’s author, has little time for adulthood. ‘From the way you are speaking’, she tells Moya Sarner, when being interviewed for Sarner’s book When I Grow Up: Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood, ‘it’s as if… when you achieve adulthood, that is somehow the pinnacle, whereas I think that’s when you start to pretend.’ Wilson thinks that the people who seem most mature ‘have just learned how to pretend to be an adult’, and that children are refreshing because they tend not to participate in this pretence. Several of Sarner’s other interviewees also reject adulthood outright. 19-year-old Sam, a Nigerian immigrant to Britain, hopes never to be an adult despite having had to take on a great deal of responsibility; he sees adulthood as defined by self-imposed constraints, by the refusal to dream, and so by the inability to imagine radical social revolution. Most strikingly, very few of Sarner’s interviewees, from those in their late teens to those reaching the end of their lives, see themselves as truly ‘adult’. ‘I truly do not consider that I have grown up,’ says Pog, who has three adult children and was a full-time carer for her late husband. ‘And I’m 90.’

Like the concept of ‘adulthood’ itself, When I Grow Up is caught between contradictions, which are acutely frustrating in its earlier, shallower chapters and become more meaningful in the later, better sections of the book. As a historian of adulthood in Cold War Britain, I would contend that ‘adulthood’ is difficult to reclaim, despite Sarner’s efforts, because it serves two main societal purposes. One – the one that Sarner is really interested in – is the idea that adulthood is an individual attitude of mind, something that we may lose and regain throughout our lives, that isn’t better than other orientations towards the world, but just different. As psychoanalyst Josh Cohen suggests in conversation with Sarner, who is herself a psychodynamic psychotherapist, childhood and adulthood can be seen as different psychic states rather than developmental stages, and hence not positioned as part of a hierarchy. I love this idea, and very much resonate with the sense of being more and less ‘adult’ at different times of life.

However, as Sarner’s book unconsciously demonstrates, it’s difficult to use the idea of ‘adulthood’ in this way when it is so embedded in modern society as a way of dividing the deserving from the undeserving; the non-citizens from the citizens; the immature from the mature. Adulthood is hierarchical, by nature, because for there to be adults there have to be non-adults, who don’t possess the same rights, capabilities and competencies as adults. As Sarner says herself, adulthood is associated with independence from others, ‘mastery and competence’, care and thoughtfulness’, ‘responsibility’ and mature moral understanding. Sarner contests this definition later in the book, emphasising that, for example, dependence isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but fails to understand that the idea of the ‘dependent subject’ is encoded in the very idea of adulthood, as historians like Holly Brewer, Satadru Sen, Corinne Field, Nicholas Syrett and Ishita Pande have shown. The most obvious victims of hierarchical adulthood are children and young people, but it also targets disabled people, who may be seen as not fully grown-up because they may not be able to live independently, and other groups who don’t fit into white heterosexual middle-class male norms.  I, personally, would prefer to challenge the idea that ‘being an adult’ is meaningful rather than just trying to change what ‘being an adult’ means.

Nevertheless, the later chapters of Sarner’s book, where she more fully acknowledges that adulthood should not be a fixed goal to be achieved, contain much that is valuable. I loved the story she tells about a nursery manager who does not praise or criticise the paintings the children in her care produce but instead simply asks ‘Is it finished?’ and ‘Are you happy with it?’ Sarner suggests that this gives the picture back to the child – allowing the picture to stay in a child’s world of creation rather than in an adult world of aspiration and achievement. But as she implies, this attitude to one’s artistic work is also deeply mature – and, in my opinion, disconnected from chronological age. I was more able to occupy this headspace at 18 than I am now, at 35. Why not discard the idea of a set sequence of life stages altogether? This is kind of where Sarner gets to by the end of this book – but by not signalling this from the start, and by structuring her chapters around this familiar sequence, she undermines her own argument. Why insist that children must be protected from the world, that adolescents have to party and take risks, that adults should be ambitious, that middle-aged people should settle down, that the old are wise but obsolete? Why not let us all be people, some of whom need more or less help with their lives than other people?

RANDOM POSTSCRIPT FOR THOSE AGED 30-40: We are used to being told that the frontal lobes of our brain, which are responsible for executive functioning, don’t fully develop until 25 or even 30. HOWEVER, Sarner reveals that they then start declining after age 40! So, fellow 30-40 year olds, this is actually the only decade we get to be adults! Make the most of it!!!

If you want to read more about my own historical research on adulthood, check out the History and Publications tabs. I am currently working on an edited collection on adulthood in Britain and the United States since c. 1300 with fellow historian Maria Cannon, and a book on children and adolescents’ understandings of adulthood and chronological age in Cold War Britain, c.1945-1989.

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

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

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?