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

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already!

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

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

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

My rating in 2013: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

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

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

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

My rating in 2014: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

 

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?

The Reread Project: The Color Purple

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post (though I’ve since cut Tess because I know I will just hate it again!) The two other entries in this series so far are To Kill A Mockingbird  and The Handmaid’s Tale. This is also #3 of my 20 Books of Summer.

3. The Color Purple: Alice Walker (1982)

The edition I own (L) and an example of some of my copious annotations (R).

I first read The Color Purple in 2003, when I was sixteen, and again in 2004, when I was seventeen. It was one of my AS Level set texts for English Literature, which means that, amusingly, I still have copies of old essays that I wrote on it. Before I’d even finished the novel, I vehemently hated The Color Purple. My violent reaction was related to its presentation of women and men. I felt that the male characters were all stereotyped as abusive and irredeemable, and believed that Walker had done this in pursuit of a feminist agenda. As I wrote in my post on The Handmaid’s Taleas a teenager, I did not define myself as a feminist. I felt that feminism wanted to lock me into a system where women were oppressed for their ‘feminine’ qualities, qualities which I did not believe I possessed. I preferred thinking of myself as ‘not like other girls’: somebody who was good enough to compete with men on their own terms. I remember being highly satisfied when I managed to get into one of my exam essays that the presentation of the male characters ‘severely weakens the novel’. (I got full marks!)

My reaction to The Color Purple was also conditioned by it being an AS Level set text. I doubt I would have felt so strongly about it otherwise. I think I suspected that it was seen as a text that was suitable for my mostly-girls sixth form (all girls comp with mixed sixth form, but very few boys actually swapped in) because it dealt with topics that we would find relatable. I was cross because I didn’t think The Color Purple was rigorous, real literature; this was also my reaction to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, another AS Level set text (I was furious that the boys’ school got to do Persuasion!). In retrospect, I do think it was a shame that we ended up with so many set texts that dealt explicitly with issues of sexual violence (as well as Color and Tess, we did Othello for AS and The Duchess of Malfi for A Level). One text like this would have been fine or even desirable: four does seem a bit like the teachers were making assumptions about what teenage girls would connect with.

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When I reread To Kill A Mockingbird, I felt my teenage self was basically right about it being too simplistic and stereotyped. When I reread The Handmaid’s Tale, I was chastened to find that it was a far better novel that I rememberedThe Color Purple falls somewhere in between the two. While I appreciate it more as an adult who knows more about feminism, womanism and racism, some of the problems I had with it as a teenager don’t seem to me to be totally off-base.

To start with the good news. More than most novels, I think that The Color Purple really suffered from being picked apart and analysed. Because we read it bit by bit in school, the emotional impact of Walker’s writing was lost, and that was what really struck me on this reread. There are more than a few set-pieces where Walker really brings home the struggles and triumphs of her characters, and they hit the mark every time. The novel’s most famous scene, rightly so, is perhaps when the downtrodden protagonist Celie finally stands up against her abusive husband Mr. —, who has told her ‘You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddamn, he say, you nothing at all.’ Celie, driven by her newfound knowledge that Mr. — has kept her sister Nettie’s letters from her for decades, finds her voice and responds: ‘I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook. . . . But I’m here.’ 

Walker also conveys the poignancy and tragedy of the struggles of her minor characters, such as Sofia, Mr.—‘s daughter-in-law, who serves as a foil for Celie in many ways. Celie’s response to patriarchy, poverty and white supremacy is, for much of the novel, to stay quiet and do what she’s told; Sofia’s response is to fight back. Indeed, as a more traditionally ‘active’ character, Sofia’s story actually eclipses Celie’s for much of the first third of The Color Purple; as Celie is our narrator, this indicates her fascination with a woman who seems so unlike her. But when Sofia is imprisoned for twelve years for ‘disrespecting’ the town’s mayor and his wife, her rebelliousness is forced within her. She says: ‘Every time they ast me to do something, Miss Celie, I act like I’m you. I jump right up and do just what they say.’

Sofia was not a character that I remember thinking much about as a teenager beyond the required analyses I had to write for class, but I found her surprisingly compelling on a re-read, especially as even the other black characters seem to think she has overstepped a line in responding with violence: ‘Don’t make her have to look at you like us look at Sofia’, Shug, Celie’s lover, says to her when she wants to kill Mr. — after finding out about Nettie’s letters. Having said that, Sofia’s character would not be so striking if we did not have Celie as her inverse reflection, and Walker’s decision to make her protagonist passive and suffering rather than openly subversive is, I think, very wise, if also very unfashionable.

As I’ve said, my biggest problem with The Color Purple as a teenager was its presentation of the male characters, and this is where I felt most unsatisfied with the novel on a reread as well. Almost all the men in The Color Purple fall into two camps: ‘bad’ (abusive, lazy, patriarchal) and ‘good’ (quiet, supportive of women, willing to do ‘women’s work’). This makes characters like Samuel, Harpo, Alfonso and Jack feel pretty flat, especially as the novel goes on. However, I will give Walker credit for her development of Mr.—, which I wasn’t convinced by as a teenager but liked a lot more on a reread. Mr.— is the only man who is allowed to change in this story; all the others remain good or bad throughout; and this gives him the kind of depth of character that is otherwise only visible in the female cast. On the other hand, though, the sections of the novel set in Western Africa, where Celie’s sister Nettie goes as a missionary, worked less well for me than they did when I was younger. Walker uses Nettie as a mouthpiece to make political points that have not always aged especially well, and, unlike the vividness of Celie’s letters, I could never forget that Nettie’s account was constructed by an external author.

There are a lot of angles from which to criticise The Color Purple, and I still agree with most, if not all of them. However, when I finally read it from cover to cover without stopping to make notes, I was surprised by how deeply I engaged with Celie and her story.

My rating in 2003/4: **

My rating in 2022: ***1/2

20 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: All Girls and Gillespie and I

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already! (Only posting now makes it look like I’m super behind, but I’m doing rather better with my rereads than with my reviews of my rereads…)

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Before rereading: I first read All Girls in February 2021, so not very long ago! I picked it up again on a whim; I remembered an evocative set-piece set at the school’s ‘Fall Fest’ and originally intended just to re-read that section. I originally received All Girls as a Kindle proof from NetGalley.

The first time I read All Girls, I wrote: All Girls is set during the academic year 2015-16 at a New England prep school where a former student has recently accused one of the teachers of sexually assaulting her. However, All Girls is not really focused on the details of the accusation, but rather how it impacts the school’s current students, and their developing ideas of how to navigate in the world as young women who are never quite taken seriously.’ I felt that ‘there’s something solid about the connections between [Layden’s] cast that makes me believe that if I re-read this novel, all sorts of things would start coming to light that I hadn’t noticed first time round… while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like [Curtis] Sittenfeld, Layden really gets how some teenage girls approach the world, and how small but yet significant interactions can crush or uplift their sense of who they are… If there was one thing I found less convincing about All Girls, it was that all her narrators seem to share this sense of watchfulness’.

After rereading: While I still found All Girls a compelling read, I was a little less impressed with it second time around. I still think it is thoughtful and insightful on the experience of being a teenage girl, and far better than many much-hyped novels on this theme, like Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise or Robin Wasserman’s Girls On FireHowever, I guess what I hoped for didn’t materialise: no new connections between the cast emerge even as you start recognising previous narrators popping up across the chapters. I also continued to be frustrated with how Layden leans so heavily on the watchful outcast, even though there are some narrators who don’t quite fit this trope. Finally, the theme of sexual agency seemed more dominant than on my first read, and I didn’t think Layden had much new to say on this topic.

My rating in 2021: ****

My rating in 2022: ***1/2

The original hardback  I read from the library (L) and the second-hand paperback I own now (R)

Before rereading: I first read Jane Harris’s second novel, Gillespie and I, in 2011, when I was 24. I believe I originally read a library copy but now own a second-hand paperback copy that I bought after loving it so much. (It was one of my top ten books of 2011). I now remember very little about it other than that it had an incredible, unreliable narrative voice, as the older narrator inveigled her way into the family of artist Ned Gillespie.

The first time I read Gillespie and I, I wrote: Due to extreme pickiness, I rarely find a historical novel that I like, with the exception of anything by Sarah Waters, but this is certainly getting there. Narrated by the unreliable Harriet Baxter, it follows the story of her relationship with the Gillespie family in the 1890s, and especially with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist. While becoming a little melodramatic in places, the historical detail is beautifully conveyed, the characters satisfyingly grey, and the narration as compelling as that of The Observations [Harris’s debut], if not quite as idiosyncratic.’

After rereading: Well, my rating has stayed the same, but I felt like my reading experience was radically different. Gillespie and I is a novel that totally relies on its narrator. Harriet’s unreliable voice is our only guide to anything that’s actually going on here, and we gradually realise across the course of the novel just how untrustworthy she is. However, because I had the measure of Harriet from the start this time, I found the first half of the novel frustratingly slow, even though I think much (though not all) of the detail here is justified. Once Harris’s narrative reaches a key turning-point about halfway through and everything starts to unravel, Gillespie and I is newly gripping.

On this reread, it also struck me how much this feels like a psychological thriller, a genre that, pre-Gone Girl, was not nearly as dominant back in 2011. Perhaps this was why it struck me as less clever and less original this time round; I’ve got too used to novels with unreliable, ‘unlikeable’ female narrators. But there are still aspects of Gillespie and I that strike me as both stranger and more emotionally authentic than the territory that most psychological thrillers tread, such as the portrait of Ned’s troubled young daughter, Sybil. Indeed, I’d say that the sections of Gillespie and I set in the 1930s, when Harriet is a very elderly woman, veer close to psychological horror. It also trusts its reader to do a lot of guesswork, which I think is why it makes such an indelible impression; long after finishing it, you’re still wondering what to believe.

So, my rating is the same, but I think I’ve gone from a ‘high’ four stars in 2011 to a ‘low’ four stars in 2022.

My rating in 2011: ****

My rating in 2022: **** 

April Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. Much of my reading this month has been from the Women’s Prize longlist, so I won’t rehearse that. See this post for my rankings and thoughts on the shortlist!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The First Woman, which follows teenage protagonist Kirabo as she explores the secrets of her relatively well-off rural Ugandan family and her own relationship with folktales and myths about women, set against the background of Idi Amin’s dictatorship in the 1970s. I was bowled over by Makumbi’s writing: it’s so original, clever and alive. Makumbi harnesses the energy of local vernacular in both her dialogue and in Kirabo’s narration, especially in Kirabo’s conversations with the village witch, Nsuuta. ‘Nsuuta clapped wonderment. Sometimes God loved her as if he would never kill her.’ Makumbi refuses to spell out context for white British readers like me, but lets this kind of reader do the work without ever leaving them confused. I’m usually very wary of coming-of-age tales, especially when they involve seeking out lost relatives (Kirabo has a missing mother), but this is just so different from the rest. Much the best of the three 1970s Ugandan-set novels I’ve recently read (the other two were Kololo Hill and We Are All Birds of Uganda, both still worth reading).

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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Hide, Kiersten White’s adult fiction debut, which did not work for me in any way at all. I’d say it’s probably the worst book I’ve read so far this year, let alone this month. The premise is excellent: a group of people compete for prize money by spending a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park without getting caught. So where did Hide go so wrong? My Goodreads review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Fantasy Novel I Read This Month Was…

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Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher. This is only the second full-length work I’ve read by Kingfisher, but I’m definitely a confirmed fan. Like Bryony and Roses, the first Kingfisher I tried, Nettle and Bone is a bit of a weird mix: it combines the darker, more serious folktale feel of a writer like Robin McKinley with the lightheartedness of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. I love both ways of writing, but I’m not sure they quite belong together. Nevertheless, I found Nettle and Bone engrossing. My Goodreads review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Horror Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, a schlocky horror novel about killer mermaids that delivered everything I like in horror. A lost ship and a new expedition sent to find out what happened to it; brilliantly tense set-pieces (my favourite was the scientist piloting a submarine to the bottom of the Challenger Deep); convincingly biological explanations of the existence of cryptids; and all the action taking place in a relatively small space. Characterisation was perhaps a bit tick-box, but I liked mermaid expert, or ‘sirenologist’, Jillian Toth a lot.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Tice Cin’s Keeping the House. Now shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize, this had an amazing blurb: ‘Ayla’s a gardener, and she has a plan. Offering a fresh and funny take on the machinery of the North London heroin trade, Keeping the House lifts the lid on a covert world thriving just beneath notice: not only in McDonald’s queues and men’s clubs, but in spotless living rooms and whispering kitchens. Spanning three generations, this is the story of the women who keep their family – and their family business – afloat.’ Unfortunately, when I gave up on the novel almost halfway through, pretty much none of this had materialised, and I found its fragmentary style too confusing to follow without strong incentive.

(Two (dis?)honorable mentions here: Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, which I reviewed here, and Xueting Christine Ni’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction in translation, Sinopticon, which I thought was startlingly weak compared to Ken Liu ed. Broken Stars, despite having some author overlap).

The Best Graphic Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… Emily Carroll’s Through The Woods, a collection of five horror stories that are definitely for teenage or adult readers! The stories that worked best for me were the ones that had less explicit gore and violence, though, and relied more on allusion and uncertainty: I liked the open endings of ‘Our Neighbour’s House’, ‘My Friend Janna’ and ‘His Face All Red’. These puzzling stories work especially well in graphic novel form; I like graphic novels but am sometimes sad at how quickly I get through them, so these tales are perfect for re-reading, especially the mysterious ‘His Face All Red’, my favourite story in the collection, which you can try for free on Carroll’s website. Carroll’s art is striking, conveying tone and mood cleverly, and I enjoyed the mixture of styles, such as notebook scribblings in ‘My Friend Janna’ and the way a repeating song was conveyed in ‘A Lady’s Hands Are Cold’.

The Book I Learnt The Most From This Month Was…

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True Biz by Sara Nović, set in a boarding school for Deaf students in Ohio that comes under threat of closure. Told through the voices of several of the school’s students as well as its principal, True Biz sets out to educate its reader, and it succeeds; it’s fascinating on the history of ASL, lipreading and cochlear implants as well as shocking on the ways in which Deaf people and Deaf culture have been oppressed over the centuries in the United States. It’s a more commercial book than Nović’s memorable if uneven debut, Girl At Warand at times its straightforward, moralistic plot felt a bit too YA, but it certainly does the job of raising awareness of the issues Deaf people continue to face. My Goodreads review is hereI 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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… People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd. I loved this husband-and-wife writing duo’s second novel, The Clubso after a recommendation from Cathy, I checked their debut out of my local library. I am thoroughly sick of both thrillers and women’s fiction that portray social media as the root of all evils, and always have their characters unrealistically give it all up at the end. To be honest, it’s started to remind me of Jane Austen’s famous critique of writers of romantic novels in Northanger Abbey; she pointed out that they always have their heroines disdain romantic fiction, even though they clearly have a vested interest in women continuing to buy it. (You can be sure that these writers don’t refuse to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to sell their novels!) Anyway, to get back to the point: People Like Her is a breath of fresh air. It stars Instagram influencer Emmy and her failed novelist husband Dan, who also jointly narrate the novel. Emmy has carved out a career as ‘Mamabare’, telling ‘the truth’ about motherhood and building a platform around the message that mums need to support each other.

While Emmy cynically exploits her market, Lloyd examines the world of an influencer in a critical but nuanced way, pointing out that Emmy’s success is based on some considerable skill, that she is the main breadwinner for her family, that rhetoric of ‘honesty’ can sometimes hide ‘perfection’ rather than the other way round, and that a lot of mums have genuinely been helped by Emmy’s messaging. Perhaps partly because each of the two writers wrote one of the voices, Emmy and Dan are much more vividly characterised than is usually the case in thrillers; Dan has a penchant for dragging up bits of philosophy from his youth, for example, while Emmy is much more direct. I also loved the ending, which spoke to the concerns I raised in this post. My only concern about People Like Her is its ‘stalker’ plotline; although this was obviously necessary to make it into a thriller, I could actually have done without it, as I found Emmy’s machinations compelling enough. It also contains a viscerally upsetting flashback scene featuring the death of a baby (not a spoiler, this is flagged from the start) which doesn’t really feel like it belongs in this otherwise lighthearted, satirical book; I’m not usually disturbed by this kind of thing, but this time I was. However, The Club didn’t repeat this problem, so I’ll still be eagerly awaiting the next novel from Lloyd.

Did you have any stand-out reads in April?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy

First, an update on my progress with the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the titles I’ve read so far. I’m now thinking that the judges were actually onto something with their off-the-wall picks. Therefore, I’ve decided to expand the number of titles I plan to read from the longlist from eight to eleven. It’s still unlikely that I’ll read the remaining five longlisted titles (Flamingo, This One Sky Day, The Exhibitionist, The Island of Missing Trees and Salt Lick) unless they make the shortlist.

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The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel, is narrated by fifty-year-old Elle, who has returned every summer throughout her life to an idyllic family hideaway at Cape Cod. This summer, she’s there with her three children and her husband, Peter, when she abruptly reconnects with an old flame, Jonas, who is also the keeper of her darkest secrets. The Paper Palace flashes back and forward through time to trace the events since Elle’s earliest childhood as her story also unfolds in the present, a structural choice that works effectively when Heller confines herself to the two central timelines, but can become unnecessarily confusing in the few instances when multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards are employed at the same time.

Numerous reviewers mention the traumatic subject-matter of The Paper Palace. While I don’t believe the central incident of the novel is gratuitous per se, as it is the hook upon which the story hangs, I would certainly concur that the numerous other mentions of sexual abuse, other kinds of childhood abuse and neglect, unlikely accidents and early deaths are indeed gratuitous and unnecessary. This is a book where we can’t witness an old man swimming happily with his friend in the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath without him abruptly drowning, where children are smothered by sand dunes for no reason, where adolescents are constantly exposed to random adults having sex in front of them. (I feel I can mention these incidents freely because they are in no way spoilers for the main plot or the primary or secondary characters’ journeys – which itself indicates how easily Heller could have removed them.) The Paper Palace, despite its incredibly familiar plot-line and flat characters, is a weirdly compelling read, and I think a big part of this is Heller’s car-crash writing – we don’t want to look away because we know there’s going to be something awful on the next page. This is certainly one way to compel your reader, but a good novel it does not make.

Even putting this material aside, The Paper Palace is not a well-executed novel. Elle, Peter and Jonas are all very sketchily characterised and largely unsympathetic. Heller might claim to be exploring the generational impacts of trauma, and to be reflecting her characters’ experience thematically through the string of arbitrary misfortunes that befall other people in this book, but I just didn’t think she pulled it off. There are also small annoyances. The book is weirdly obsessed with Elle’s hymen being intact (so obviously intact a gynaecologist comments on it!) before she has sex for the first time, despite the fact she uses tampons, which perpetuates myths about what the hymen is and how it’s related to female ‘virginity’. Sex scenes are used to stand in for any kind of meaningful emotional development between Elle and her two lovers. And while, unlike some other readers, I felt that it was pretty clear what Elle decides to do at the end of the novel, I simply did not care by this point. Ultimately, this reads like sub-par Jodi Picoult, and I don’t believe it belongs on the Women’s Prize longlist.

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Remote Sympathy, Catherine Chidgey’s sixth novel, alternates between four perspectives on the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald during the final years of the Second World War. SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn was the camp’s administrator; his sections are narrated from the vantage point of the 1950s when he is being interviewed after his release from prison. His young wife, Greta Hahn, is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in 1943, and tells us what is happening to her as it happens. The doctor Lenard Weber is a ‘political prisoner’ in the camp, arrested for an invented crime after Dietrich found out about his pre-war invention, the ‘Sympathetic Vitaliser’, which was intended to cure cancers through the transmission of electric current through the body. His contributions come in the form of letters to his small daughter Lotte, who has been taken with her Jewish mother Anna to another concentration camp, Theresienstadt. A fourth and, in my opinion, superfluous, perspective is an occasional contribution from a chorus of Weimar villagers who live near Buchenwald.

While the synopsis of this novel indicates potentially speculative elements, Remote Sympathy is in fact a straightforwardly traditional and realistic historical novel; Lenard’s ‘vitaliser’ is clearly rooted in pre-war experiments with electricity as a means of rejuvenation, and the principle of ‘remote sympathy’ which supposedly makes it effectual is based on the eighteenth-century experiments of the Scottish surgeon John Hunter. And Remote Sympathy is very good at what it does. It’s convincing and moving. Chidgey uses Dietrich’s self-justifying perspective to explore how he rationalises the horrors of Buchenwald in relation to what he believes were ‘actual’ concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, and we see how Buchenwald did indeed possess weird flourishes to try and hide its true purpose, such as a prisoners’ library and brothel. (And in the grotesque choral sections from the Weimar villagers, it’s reminiscent of Audrey Magee’s The Undertakingwhich was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize back in 2014.)  Its most heartbreaking thread is Lenard’s realisation that he must now pretend as hard as he can that his failed experimental machine may actually be working, in order to save his own life and hopefully that of his wife and child, even as he struggles with lying to Greta about her prognosis.

This is not, however, a novel that I think will stay with me. I’ve simply read too many novels that cover this ground and many of them were equally competent. I’m glad to have read Remote Sympathy and I think it deserves to be longlisted, but it doesn’t offer anything especially new.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers five and six. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness , Careless and The Sentence.

Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends

I’ve read a recent string of psychological thrillers that seem to be subconsciously angry at ambitious women. Even as some of these Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends novels highlight how women suffer from wanting things outside the traditional female domain of marriage and a family, they also portray female characters who try to achieve success as tortured and unhappy. If you’re not killed off along the way, often the only route to satisfaction as a woman in this kind of book is to abandon the career you worked so hard for, or, at the very least, to scale it back. It’s hard not to feel that readers are being told, over. and over again, that women should just stop wanting things.

Some of this stems from the demands of the genre. Women with various types of mental illness have become a staple of the form, as have people who are willing to kill for what they want. Some of these novels, to be fair, are also keen to highlight genuinely damaging and abusive practices within particular industries, often through a feminist lens. This is the case with Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s The Ballerinas, Ilaria Bernardini’s The Girls Are Good, and, to a lesser extent, Laura Vaughan’s Let’s Pretend, which focus respectively on classical ballet, gymnastics and acting. (I have not read this novel, but I suspect Megan Abbott’s The Turnout is in the same vein). Books like this highlight obsession with body image, sexual abuse, and psychological pressure, all vital issues to discuss. But yet, the cumulative impact of such books being all we ever get about women who pursue artistic or sporting careers is grim. Where are the women who experience at least some happiness in their successes, even for a moment?

Another subset of psychological thrillers take a darker turn, actively appearing to punish women who aim for the top. Let’s Pretend fits in here as well. It focuses on actor Lily, who made her name as ‘Little Lucie’ in a saccharine Christmas film as a child star, but whose career has never really taken off since. In contrast, Adam, once a fellow student at drama school, is on the brink of breaking into the A list. When Adam suggests that Lily pretend to be his girlfriend so he can hide his homosexuality and she can raise her profile, Lily is happy to agree. But things become toxic between them as Lily realises the extent of Adam’s drug habit, and becomes worried he’ll drag her down with him. Every character in this novel, including Lily herself, is shallow, catty and unhappy, and while this applies to men as well as women in this case, it’s depressing that Vaughan could provide no positive counter-examples to set against Lily’s inevitable downfall.

Even worse, arguably, are Harriet Tyce’s It Ends at Midnight and Louise O’Neill’s Idol, which I read back to back and was struck by the similarities between what, on the surface, are two quite different novels. [Spoilers for both of these novels follow.It Ends at Midnight focuses on high-flying lawyer Sylvie, whose ultimate goal is to become a judge. However, her life is derailed when she is framed for something she didn’t do, and she becomes obsessed with old friend Tess, who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Both women share a secret in their past, but when Tess threatens to come clean so she can die with a clear conscience, Sylvie is terrified that her life will be ruined. As it turns out, although we are initially led to believe that Tess is lying about almost everything, Sylvie is the one who was principally culpable in their teenage actions, and Tess is actually the collateral damage.

A similar bait-and-switch plays out in Louise O’Neill’s Idol, which stars an influencer, Samantha, who has built her career on being a role model to teenage girls. After speaking openly about her own sexual assault and imploring the public to ‘believe women’, she is devastated to be accused of a similar crime by her teenage best friend, Lisa. The novel is structured in such a way to make it seem that the reader is supposed to gradually realise that Sam is in the wrong about everything, but for me – given the usual stereotypes about influencers and Instagram big names in fiction – this was obvious from the start. I hoped for a while that O’Neill might be aiming for a more complex portrayal of Sam, acknowledging that she has been both abuser and abused, but this unravels near the end.

Both O’Neill and Tyce are then determined to totally destroy their errant protagonists. Idol ends with Sam’s career being completely crushed after a shocking video is leaked on social media. Of course, given what Sam has done, she ‘deserves’ this, but O’Neill constructed her and her story; she didn’t need to make Sam so irredeemably villainous. Meanwhile, Sylvie meets a fate that seems out of proportion to her actions, and indeed almost gleefully cruel; she is impaled on a set of railings after falling from a rooftop and bleeds to death. Women, that’s what comes of reaching too high. [Spoilers end.]

I have honestly started to wonder whether there are any thrillers at all where achieving success in her chosen career is the end-game for a female protagonist – and not success as a side-order to realising what’s really important in life, but success as something that’s worthwhile in its own right. (Ironically, so-called ‘bonkbusters’ like Rebecca Chance’s novels, packaged as much trashier and less worthy than psychological thrillers, are much better at this – her protagonists tend to be brilliantly successful in whatever they set out to do, even if they engage in some dodgy machinations (in more ways than one) along the way.) Why are so many thrillers still telling us that Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends? And can we accept that, while it is important for feminists to highlight the abuse and exploitation of women, it is also important to write feminist depictions of women’s joy, talent and achievement?

I received free proof copies of Let’s Pretend (7th April), It Ends at Midnight (14th April), Idol (12th May) and The Girls Are Good (4th August) from the publishers for review. 

Have you read any Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends novels? What did you think?

Are there any thrillers you would recommend that celebrate female ambition? (Or indeed any books at all set in the artistic or sporting worlds)?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Careless

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Bess is fifteen years old when she finds out she’s pregnant. Although she’s been in a long-term foster care placement since she was four, she’s never felt that she truly belongs to her foster family, and her boyfriend, Boy, has gone AWOL. The only person she can really rely on is her best friend Eshal, but Eshal has problems of her own – she’s worried that her Bangladeshi Muslim family are going to encourage her into an arranged marriage she does not want. Careless, Kirsty Capes’s debut novel, starts with Bess’s discovery of her pregnancy and then flashes back to explore her relationship with Boy and friendship with Eshal, before moving forward along the original timeline.

First things first: I enjoyed Careless much more than I expected to. This is a book about teenagers that could be read by teenagers, but I wouldn’t class it as YA and it doesn’t seem to have been sold as such. This is a relief. My problems with YA have never been that it’s written for a teenage audience but about the conventions and stereotypical assumptions that have become wrapped up with writing for that audience. Careless avoids these tropes. I’d place it alongside Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OKwhich deals sensitively and thoughtfully with alcoholism and sexuality. Like Nina, Careless is a dark and painful read – but this certainly should not exclude it from an adolescent as well as an adult readership.

Bess is a compelling protagonist. The book cleverly moves from the relative lightheartedness of early scenes with Eshal, watching the raft race at Shepperton Village Fair and chucking rubbish at an enemy’s raft, to much more harrowing scenes later on, which helps us to see Bess as a person and not just as a suffering statistic. Her world, too, is vividly evoked. Capes shuns generic council estate settings and allows us to really see the Studios Estate where Bess lives, in its everyday beauty and ugliness: ‘From my bedroom window on the estate, I can see the park, with two big horse chestnut trees on the green where the parakeets roost… And the long sloping sides of the reservoir, just beyond the farmer’s fields… I can see the River Ash Woods, where everyone goes to fly-tip and inject heroin. And then the tin houses, which are what everyone calls the pre-fabs, from after the Second World War’. 

However, I didn’t think the structure of the novel served Capes’s purposes particularly well. By positioning all that comes before the positive pregnancy test as flashback, the reader is simply waiting for Careless to catch up with itself. This messes with the pacing and also draws attention away from the most important element of the novel – the friendship between Bess and Eshal. I’ve been seeing this thriller device – pulling a scene from the middle and putting it at the beginning – more and more in books that are not thrillers. I suspect it is often advised by agents and editors, but it doesn’t work well for me as a reader. For Careless, certainly, I would have appreciated more time to get to know Bess before the book starts to revolve around her pregnancy.

There are also a few duff notes. I agree with this reviewer that Eshal’s plotline is too neatly concluded, although I imagine this came from Cape’s over-cautiousness in tackling this subject as a white writer. Bess’s voice generally works very well, but occasionally she feels like a mouthpiece for important things that Capes wants to say about the experience of being in care that probably wouldn’t come out of the mouth of a 1990s teenager. For example: ‘There’s something wrong with being in care, the care system, and it’s making us into a transaction… It’s not right, how we’re treated like a job. There’s too much emotional labour involved.’ Having said that, I thought that Cape’s handling of the reasons behind Bess entering foster care in the first place was exceptional. She tells the reader just enough so we can guess at what happened but allows us to understand it through the fragmented lens of Bess’s trauma, or what we might identify as complex PTSD.

So, a flawed book, for me, but one which I think deserves its Women’s Prize longlisting, and which certainly achieves what it’s trying to do much better than the other two novels on the list I’ve read so far. I doubt it will be shortlisted – the quote from Pandora Sykes on the cover makes me think it was the pet pick of a single judge – but I’m glad that I read it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number three. I’ve already read Great Circle and The Book of Form and Emptiness.

My Top Ten Books of 2021

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2020 post here, my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

A note: I feel like 2021 has been one of my worst reading years for a long time, not in terms of the number of books I read, but the quality – or perhaps I was just very bad at picking books that suited my mood. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was struggling to find books for my top ten rather than struggling to choose between them. These books are still all great, but I’m hoping to have a better reading year in 2022.

In no particular order…

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1.My Dark Vanessa: Kate Elizabeth Russell. I held off from reading My Dark Vanessa for a long time, convinced that there was nothing new to add to the vast number of recent novels that deal with coercive, abusive relationships. But this collaboration between Russell and her teenage self made a huge impact on me. I reviewed it here.

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2.Light Perpetual: Francis Spufford. I loved Spufford’s clever and inventive Golden Hillbut I thought this was even better. Many readers and reviewers seem to have misunderstood its ‘alternative timeline’ conceit; it’s not a Sliding Doors type book, but kills off its ordinary protagonists at the beginning so we can feel the weight of their loss, even though they make no direct impact on history. I reviewed it here.

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3.A Deadly Education: Naomi Novik. Novik’s Spinning Silver was one of my favourite books of 2020, and this very different, but utterly delightful novel took me back to being a pre-teen reading the early Harry Potter books for the first time, although the narrative voice also reminded me of one of my adult SFF favourites, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. I reviewed it here.

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4. In This House of Brede: Rumer Godden. 2021 was the year of novels about nuns for me, and although there were some other nun novels that I really enjoyed (such as Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts), this was the best of the bunch. Set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s, this novel centres on new recruit Philippa, but expands outwards to give a portrait of the entire community. I reviewed it here.

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5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: George Saunders. This is probably the best book I’ve ever read about fiction-writing, even though it’s centred on a series of classic Russian short stories which I am not especially interested in. I’ve now signed up for Saunders’s online writing course on substack, Story Club.

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6. Slow River: Nicola Griffith. Nicola Griffith can’t put a foot wrong with me; this is the third time in a row she’s appeared on my top ten books list (after Ammonite in 2019 and Hild in 2020). Slow River is not only the best SF novel about sewage treatment I’ve ever read, but features a truly compelling central character and a skilful back-and-forth structure. No idea what’s going on with the cover of this edition.

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7. Transcendent Kingdom: Yaa Gyasi. What an incredible, cerebral, emotional novel. It’s brilliantly written, handles so many interesting ideas, and yet is so vibrant and human. I loved the protagonist, Gifty. I reviewed it here.

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8. Little Gods: Meng Jin. This is another one with a great, complex protagonist, which seems to be something I’m really looking for in novels at the moment: Su Lan is only the more fascinating because her story is told through a series of other narrators, and we never hear from her directly. I reviewed it here.

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9. Breasts and Eggs: Mieko Kawakami. This took me such a long time to read, but it was such a worthwhile experience. This strange, meandering novel about lonely writer Natsu has a great deal to say about parenthood and our responsibilities to the next generation. I wrote briefly about it here.

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10. In The Dream House: Carmen Maria Machado. Squeaking in just under the wire… I raced through this memoir between Boxing Day and New Year, hugely impressed by Machado’s ability to weave together self-narrative, fantasy, and academic reflections on how abusive relationships between women have been (not) written about before. Everyone who recommended this to me was right.

Reading Stats

I read 153 books in 2021. Slightly more than 2020, but quite a few less than my 2019 record, 175. This is pretty much where I want to be, so in 2022, I’ll again set a target of 150. However, I’d also like to start keeping track of how many books I re-read. This year, 11 of the books I read were re-reads, and I’d like to see that number go up in 2022.

I read 125 books by women (including one trans woman), 27 books by men, and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary.  This means I read the same percentage of books by men as I did in 2020 – 18%. I usually say I don’t care about upping the number of books I read by men, but this article has made me realise that I really want to read more by men of colour. Therefore, I’ve tried to include lots of books by men of colour in my 2022 Reading Plans, which will be up tomorrow. I also still want to read more from trans men, despite reading 0 books by trans men this year!

I read 43 books by writers of colour and 110 books by white writers. This means the percentage of books I read by writers of colour has dropped a little since 2020, to 28%. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2022.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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2021 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2021 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 2021, not necessarily first published in 2021.

Highly Commended

 In prize lists, I loved Annabel Lyon’s Consentwhich should have made the Women’s Prize shortlist – and Richard Powers’s Bewildermentwhich did make the Booker Prize shortlist.

The new Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was massively overhyped, but it was easily my favourite Rooney so far – I loved her clever use of psychic distance, switching between an observer’s view of her characters to their innermost thoughts.

In science fiction and speculative fiction, I thought the writing team behind James S.A. Corey pulled off a hugely satisfying conclusion to The Expanse series with the final instalment, Leviathan Falls – this series stuttered a bit in the middle but the last three books were all great, and Corey effectively tied up all the loose ends while wisely leaving the ‘dark gods’ of the universe still mysterious. Tade Thompson’s Far From the Light of Heaven was a hugely inventive space-opera-cum-crime-thriller with touches of horror. Will Maclean’s The Apparition Phase was a brilliant ghost story, something that is almost impossible to achieve at novel-length. Finally, Nina Allan’s short story collection The Art of Space Travel showcased what I love best about her writing in haunting stories such as ‘Flying in the Face of God’, ‘Four Abstracts’ and ‘The Art of Space Travel’ itself.

In historical fiction, I was pleasantly surprised by Stacey Halls’s engaging Mrs Englandwhich had one of the dreaded floral covers but actually featured a complex, sympathetic protagonist who works as a Norland nanny in Edwardian England. Meanwhile, everything this damning review says about Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary is true (except that Cambridge does offer a masters degree in eighteenth-century and Romantic studies – that’s Cambridge being weird, not Penner!). Nevertheless, I found it irresistibly fun and gripping, so I guess I recommend it anyway, if you can deal with the terrible history?

Finally, in YA and YA-adjacent, I liked Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter (one of my most anticipated reads of 2021) despite its pacing problems and tendency to spell things out for the reader – it follows an Ojibwe teenager who’s an unenrolled tribal member, and so feels she’s never quite fit into her family. Emily Layden’s All Girls gave me Prep vibes (amazing), and was serious and insightful about the inner worlds of teenage girls (rare). I picked up T. Kingfisher’s Bryony and Roses after loving her short story in Escape Pod; this Beauty and the Beast retelling is heavily influenced by Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, but still brings its own wit and logic to the table, plus a nicely chilling touch of horror.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations. I have to say, there were a lot of disappointments in 2021. For whatever reason, this was a pretty lacklustre reading year for me. So this list is longer than normal.

I was disappointed by quite a few books written by authors I’ve loved in the past. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun promised a fresh take on AI but was just a tired rehash of Never Let Me Go. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness drowned in its own tweeness about literature, despite a promising central cast. And Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew abandoned all the subtlety of Elmet for Dickensian caricatures.

Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders unfortunately didn’t live up to her excellent debut, The Doll FactoryJessie Greengrass’s The High House had none of the originality of Sight. Mark O’Connell’s Notes From an Apocalypse was only mildly disappointing compared to his To Be A Machine until I reached the end, where he admits he regularly lies to his young son about the state of the world – this is horrific (children know what’s going on, so lying to them just leaves them alone with their fears). Sarah Moss’s The Fell confirmed to me that I don’t like the direction her writing is currently going. Finally, after loving Kindred so much, I did not get on at all with Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, although some of this was not Butler’s fault – so many YA writers have clearly copied her dystopian tropes that they now feel cliched in a way they wouldn’t have done when the book was originally published. Still, I found the heroine disturbingly monomaniacal and the diary entry format limiting.

At least some of this must be me, rather than the books! But I think it explains why 2021 felt like such a dud of a reading year, even though I also read many books that I loved. On that note…

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2021!