‘Another boy, another planet’

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Daniel Wilkinson is a musician in his early twenties living in New York, the only child of two successful American academics. His parents want him to go back to college; Daniel wants to keep on writing songs with his best friend, Roland, in the hope that their band, Psychic Hearts, will break out on the club scene. Deming Guo is the eleven-year-old son of a Chinese immigrant mother who works in a nail salon. Born in the US but having spent his early childhood in China, he now feels he fits into the Fuzhounese community in the part of the Bronx where he lives with his mother, Polly (Peilan), her boyfriend, Leon, Leon’s sister, Vivian, and her son, Michael. However, when Polly abruptly disappears, Deming is eventually put into foster care, adopted, and renamed. As he adjusts to his new life as Daniel, Deming never leaves him: ‘Deming wouldn’t have the scar on his right forearm that Daniel had gotten from skateboarding with Roland in eighth grade. While Deming was growing up in Chinatown and the Bronx, was Daniel hibernating, asleep in Planet Ridgeborough?… Daniel had lay [sic] dormant in Deming until  adolescence, and now Deming was a hairball tumor jammed deep in Daniel’s gut. Or Deming had never left Rutgers Street [his old home in the Bronx]; he’d been here all along.’

The Leavers, Lisa Ko’s wonderful debut novel, recalls Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut Harmless Like Youwhich also deals with the reunion of an adult son with the mother who left him in New York long ago, although in Buchanan’s novel, the mother is Japanese and left her son when he was too young to remember her. Thinking about the two novels together made me reflect on the reader’s empathy. By any measure, Polly is less culpable than Yuki, the mother in Harmless Like You; she went to great lengths to access abortion when pregnant with Deming, so has ultimately been landed with a child she never chose to have, and, as we discover later in the novel, the reasons behind her abandonment of Deming are not what they seem. In contrast, Yuki exercises much greater agency when she chooses to leave her son, Jay. However, The Leavers starts by placing the young Deming’s perspective front and centre, whereas Harmless Like You focuses on the teenage Yuki’s struggles to be regarded as an artist despite the fact she’s both female and Japanese. Initially, then, I sympathised with Deming and Yuki more than Polly and Jay.

What The Leavers does so well, therefore, is to deconstruct our preconceptions about motherhood – especially Chinese motherhood – by forcing us to question why we feel like we’re on Deming’s ‘side’. Interestingly, Polly and Yuki’s choices of vocation may come into play here; Yuki is a visual artist, whereas Polly does manicures, and later becomes an English educator. As I discussed in my review of Convenience Store Womanthe automatic reverence Brits and Americans tend to extend to those working in the arts is pretty problematic. Polly’s ability to keep her family financially afloat is nothing short of amazing – and she’s also pretty brilliant at painting nails. The book is also scathing about the half-hearted efforts of Deming’s adoptive parents, Kay and Peter, to understand who he is and what he’s going through.

While some of the sections dealing with the tension between Daniel’s music career and his adoptive parents’ desire for him to get a college degree are a bit simplistic, The Leavers is, on the whole, a satisfyingly complex novel. Ultimately, it asks what we lose when we leave our closest connections for a chance of a better life, when ‘better’ is defined as more middle-class, more financially stable, more outwardly respectable. In this, it recalls Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet and Zadie Smith’s Swing Timeand also picks up some of the questions raised by Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) about where you belong when you feel you don’t belong anywhere. Both Deming’s and Daniel’s final answers are beautifully moving.

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

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2019 Reading Plans

2018 started better than it went on, but has still been a pretty good year for me. After a number of full MS requests and revise-and-resubmits, my time-travel novel is now out with another batch of literary agents, and I’ve (just!) started my Antarctic-set novel after finishing Tim Clare’s incredibly helpful Couch to 80k podcast series. I bought my first flat, in Newcastle, and started my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Queen Mary University of London. I finished the manuscript of my first academic monograph, A Progressive Education?and have received the final set of edits, which are very constructive and useful. I travelled to France and also finally fulfilled a long-held dream by returning to the US, where I spent five years of my childhood, travelling to Providence, New York, Boston and my old home city, DC.

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In less impressive but personally satisfying goals, I have learnt how to bleed radiators, put together many pieces of flatpack furniture, and how some bits of Newcastle connect together. I have watched 32 new films this year (my goal was 50, but never mind), trying to address my habit of rewatching the same things over and over. I’ve pretty much kept my New Year’s resolution of exercising four times a week, focusing on swimming and yoga (my other New Year’s resolutions didn’t turn out quite so well).

I’ve made a list of 30 books I want to read in 2019, and am going to highlight a few 2019 releases I’m particularly excited about:

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Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams ed., A People’s Future of the United States (February 2019). This collection of short speculative fiction, riffing off the title of Howard Zinn’s 1980 A People’s History of the United Stateswhich attacked glorified ‘manifest destiny’ interpretations of American history, showcases stories that ‘challenge oppressive American myths’. With contributions from N.K. Jemisin, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Charlie Jane Anders, Omar El Akkad and more, it sounds fantastic.

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Lisa See: The Island of Sea Women (March 2019). I’ve enjoyed a number of See’s earlier novels, which tend to foreground close female friendships (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in nineteenth-century China, China Dolls in WWII America). The Island of Sea Women focuses on two Korean female divers, Mi-ja and Young-sook, over several decades, beginning in the 1930s.

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Nell Freudenberger: Lost and Wanted (April 2019). I’ve actually never read anything by Freudenberger, but her latest sounds irresistible. The protagonist is a theoretical physicist, Helen, who starts receiving calls and texts from a friend who’s just died.

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Ted Chiang: Exhalation (May 2019). Chiang’s previous collection of SF short stories, Stories of Your Life and Otherswas incredibly imaginative and intellectually engaging, so I’m expecting no less from this new collection. Highlights include a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad encountering a portal through time, and an alien scientist making a startling discovery.

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Chia-Chia Lin: The Unpassing (May 2019). I’m intrigued by this debut, which follows an immigrant family of six struggling to make ends meet on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. Lin has already published a number of short stories.

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Colson Whitehead: The Nickel Boys (July 2019). After the success of The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s next novel will be eagerly anticipated by many. I was disappointed by one of his earlier books, Zone One, but am still keen to read this, which follows two boys sentenced to a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

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Téa Obreht: Inland (August 2019). I loved Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife, so much; it’s my favourite of all the Orange/Baileys/Women’s Prize for Fiction winners that I’ve read. But it’s been so long since 2011, and I was delighted to hear that she finally has another book coming. Inland sounds EPIC; it’s set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, focusing on the collision between a frontierswoman, Nora, and an outlaw, Lurie. Obreht, according to her publishers, ‘subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely – and unforgettably – her own.’

I hope you’ve all had a lovely New Year!

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The Rest of the List

Leftover from 2018

George Sandison ed.: 2084

Nina Allen: The Rift

Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion

Clarissa Goenawan: Rainbirds

New Entries

Jeff Vandermeer: Annihilation

Rebecca Loncraine: Skybound

Sally Rooney: Normal People

Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room

Anna Burns: Milkman

Allegra Goodman: The Chalk Artist

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black

Robin Talley: Pulp

Marie Lu: Warcross

Tayari Jones: The Untelling

Joseph Camara: The House of Impossible Beauties

Uzodinma Iweala: Beasts of No Nation

Evie Wyld: The Bass Rock (September 2019)

Ellen Feldman: Terrible Virtue

Robin Oliveira: Winter Sisters

Emily Bernard: Black Is The Body (January 2019)

Samantha Harvey: All Is Song

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Lisa Ko: The Leavers

My Top Ten Books of 2018

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find 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.

In no particular order…

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1. Speak No Evil: Uzodinma Iweala. Iweala’s second novel tells, at first glance, a very familiar story. Teenage Niru is quietly trying to fit in at an upscale DC school, although he’s set apart by being both black and gay. But its brilliance comes from Iweala’s experimental literary style, blending Niru’s dialogue and interior monologue in a way that captures his voice and yet makes complete sense to the reader. Iweala’s debut, Beasts of No Nation, is definitely on my TBR list for 2019. Speak No Evil was a NetGalley discovery, and I reviewed it here.

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2. Bookworm: Lucy Mangan. How much did I adore this engrossing memoir, in which journalist Lucy Mangan takes us on a tour of the books she loved in childhood and adolescence? Along the way, she also writes hilariously and delightfully about herself and her family. I’ve already given this as a gift to two friends. This was picked up after reading so many positive reviews of it from other bloggers, and I reviewed it here.

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3. The Western WindSamantha Harvey. This was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, and it didn’t disappoint. I already knew Harvey was an incredible writer, but in this novel, she manages to write with impressive historical empathy about the late medieval mindset, narrating in the voice of a village priest, John Reve, investigating the murder of one of his flock. The novel is told backwards, but, as Reve teases out the truth in the final pages, it ends up becoming almost a circle, mirroring how fifteenth-century villagers might have thought about time.  I also loved Harvey’s Dear Thief when I read it, and I’ll have to check out her back catalogue in 2019; All Is Song looks especially intriguing. I reviewed The Western Wind here.

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4. Let Go My Hand: Edward Docx. This was one of my 20 Books of Summer, and while it’s the third of Docx’s novels I’ve read, it’s the first one that really blew me away. Louis journeys with his terminally ill father, Larry, towards Switzerland so Larry can end his life at Dignitas. When Louis’s two older half-brothers, Ralph and Jack, turn up, Docx takes us back through their complicated family history as well as unpicking the way they relate to each other now. Let Go My Hand is one of those very unusual books that manage to be both genuinely funny and profoundly moving. It’s been unfairly overlooked by most critics, and I can’t recommend it enough. I reviewed it here.

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5. The Growing Season: Helen Sedgwick. In a year packed with speculative re-imaginings of pregnancy, child-bearing and motherhood, The Growing Season easily stood out for me. Sedgwick imagines a world where babies are now nurtured in artificial wombs, installed in wearable pouches, and getting pregnant in the old-fashioned way is stigmatised. Sedgwick’s narrative is admirably even-handed, refusing to present this technological advance as either dystopian or as straightforwardly liberatory, and the result is a consistently thought-provoking, moving and gripping piece of speculative fiction. The Growing Season was another of my 20 Books of Summer, and I reviewed it here.

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6. Asymmetry: Lisa Halliday. Also on my 20 Books of Summer list, Halliday’s courageous debut faces questions about fiction and authenticity head-on, even though it begins on cliched ground, as a young writer, Alice, starts an affair with a much older writer, Ezra. I reviewed it here.

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7. Melmoth: Sarah Perry. I didn’t really love either After Me Comes The Flood or The Essex Serpentbut I was captivated by this Calvinist horror story about sin, regret and redemption. Perry creates a terrifying female figure called Melmoth the Wanderer (based on Charles Maturin’s 1820 Gothic novel), who wanders through history seeking out lost souls and bearing witness to acts of unspeakable evil. I reviewed Melmoth here.

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8. Leaving Atlanta: Tayari Jones. Jones’s latest novel, An American Marriagehas received a lot of attention this year, especially after being named by Obama as one of his summer reads. However, I was even more impressed by her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which I chose for my book group in November. The novel is set in Atlanta in 1979, when dozens of African-American children were going missing. Narrated from the perspective of three fifth-graders, it uses this particular tragedy to say broader things about the fears that  black children internalise as they approach adolescence. I’m now keen to read more by Jones, and The Untelling is up next. I wrote briefly about Leaving Atlanta here.

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9. The OverstoryRichard Powers. Powers’s Booker-shortlisted novel takes nine protagonists and sets them in relation to the fight to stop the remnants of ancient American forests being destroyed. Despite deliberately reducing the significance of humanity in light of a much longer natural history and the destruction we’re wreaking on the planet, it also presents a number of closely observed portraits of individuals. Lots of recent books have brought up the scientific hypothesis that trees talk to each other, but The Overstory makes the best use of it. Powers has a big backlist, and I think I’ll try The Echo Maker next. I reviewed The Overstory here.

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10. The Boat People: Sharon Bala. Bala’s debut starts with a group of Sri Lankan refugees arriving in Canada in 2009, and flips between three first-person perspectives: Mahindan, a refugee; Japanese-Canadian Grace, charged with adjudicating the refugees’ asylum claims; and second-generation Sri Lankan lawyer Priya. The Boat People is thoughtful and authentic, raising similar questions to Melmoth about our own moral limits, although in a less explicitly horrific way. I reviewed it here.

Reading Stats

I read 155 books in 2018. This sets a new record for me, smashing my 2017 total of 127. Next year, I’ll set a target of 125 – I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to keep outdoing the previous year’s total.

I read 39 books by men and 116 by women. This has been the worst year yet for men, making up only 25% of the books I read. I’m not especially interested in setting any targets for reading male authors but I note that, as usual, men are slightly over-represented in my Top Ten books, making up 30% of the list. I’d like to continue seeking out books by male authors I’ve enjoyed in the past, and try and discover some new ones.

I read 44 books by writers of colour and 111 books by white writers. As in previous years, I’ve read more books by writers of colour than ever before, but my percentages only inch up very slowly. 28% of the books I read this year were by writers of colour (as compared to 25% in 2017 and 15% in 2016). I’m going to set a more achievable target for this year, and try and get that 28% to 33%, or one-third of all books I read.

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

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2018 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2018 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 2018, not necessarily first published in 2018.

Highly Commended

The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was especially strong this year, and there were lots of standout titles for me. I’ll focus on my two favourites here. Fiona Mozley’s Elmetwhich was shortlisted for the Booker but inexplicably failed to make the Women’s Prize shortlist, is mesmerisingly good on femininity and masculinity, and the close connections of a single family to rural Yorkshire. Jessie Greengrass’s shortlisted Sight mixes auto-fiction with historic interludes that cover the detection of X-rays, the psychoanalytical work of Anna Freud and a nineteenth-century Scottish surgeon. I was blown away by Greengrass’s precise and brilliant meditations on pregnancy and early motherhood.

I read two excellent short story collections: Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Onesset between 1993 and 2013 in Colombia, New York and DC, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, one of my 20 Books of Summer, which is a series of sketches of young middle-class black lives in present-day America. Pachico deals brilliantly with the intersection between imagination and reality, whereas Thompson-Spires’s satirical narratives are delightfully vivid and larger-than-life.

2018 wasn’t as strong a year for memoir and non-fiction as 2017, but three books stood out: Xiaolu Guo’s Once Upon A Time In The East and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,  neither of which I’ve reviewed on this blog, and Nancy Campbell’s The Library of IceGuo’s account of her childhood and adolescence in China is riveting, much more engaging than any of her novels. Campbell eschews autobiography to seek out ice in all of its forms, from a remote Greenlandic community to a curling rink in Scotland, successfully reinventing the overstuffed ‘polar memoir’ genre. Persepolis, one of the only graphic novels I’ve read, brilliantly and succinctly conveys Satrapi’s experience growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution.

Two historical novels stood out. Lissa Evans’s wonderful Old Baggageset in the late 1920s, stars Mattie, a once-militant suffragette who wonders what she should do with her life now. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies proved to be a comedic and moving take on gay male lives in Britain since 1945.

Finally, I enjoyed two novels that might broadly be called speculative. Mary Doria Russell’s eerie and unforgettable The Sparrow deals with a Jesuit mission to make contact with an alien race. I got its sequel, Children of God, for Christmas, and can’t wait to start it. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, about a man isolated in the Arctic winter, hasn’t been reviewed on this blog but is an absolute model of how to write a horror story. Don’t read it alone in the dark.

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.

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Michael Donkor’s Hold, dealing with a teenage Ghanian housegirl, Belinda, who comes to London in 2002 to deal with a disobedient relative of the family she works for, Amma, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018. Unfortunately, I found Donkor’s writing laborious and convoluted, and his dialogue was so doggedly ‘authentic’ as to be almost unreadable.

Both Omar El Akkad’s American War and Angela Chadwick’s XX had great premises. American War is set in the aftermath of a second civil war that has torn apart America, creating a refugee crisis. XX imagines a world where two women can have their own biological child together, opening up new possibilities for lesbian couples. However, most of American War played out like a cliched dystopian novel, whereas XX never moved beyond simplistic moral messages, refusing to explore the full implications of its imagined future. Two missed opportunities.

I was also disappointed by two authors whose novels I’d enjoyed in the past. Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days was a gripping and original literary thriller, but her latest, Bitter Orange, about a lonely, middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a glamorous younger couple during a summer spent in a country house, felt so hackneyed, and had such an unpleasant narrator, that I gave up a third of the way in, and haven’t reviewed it here. Having loved Amy Sackville’s first two novels, The Still Point and Orkney, I couldn’t wait to read her latest, Painter to the Kingwhich deals with the painter Diego Velázquez at the court of Philip IV of Spain in the first half of the seventeenth century. However, it felt more like an extended writing exercise than a novel, focusing intently on the visuals with little psychological probing into the mindsets of her characters.

I’ll be back on Monday with my Top Ten Books of 2018!

 

 

Three Things… December 2018

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

I’m trying to finish off my TBR pile before Christmas to make room for new acquisitions. Having very much enjoyed Tayari Jones’s An American MarriageI’m now tearing through her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which deals with the real-life disappearance of dozens of African-American children in Atlanta in 1979. Told from the perspective of three black fifth-graders, the novel is both gripping and beautifully observed; Jones captures the eleven-year-old mindset perfectly. Her narrators range from middle-class Tasha, who is desperately concerned about getting a pink party invitation with a magenta heart sticker from the most popular girl in her class, but is also dealing with her parents’ separation and becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of the outside world, to Octavia, a ‘project kid’ on a reduced lunch voucher who is also expert at reading the dynamics of the classroom. Jones also pulls off the difficult trick of moving from first to second to third person as she skips between her narrators. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, about four Nigerian brothers who receive a curse from a local madman, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, and on a line-by-line level, it’s easy to see why; Obioma’s prose is clever and distinctive. However, the density of the writing and the reliance on flashbacks keeps the reader at arms length, and I found that this was a novel I admired rather than enjoyed. I abandoned Kim Sherwood’s Testament after realising that I’m not sure I can read any more Holocaust novels; it prompted similar thoughts to Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in WinterFinally, I’m hoping to start my book club’s latest choice, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, as I head home, which should see me hitting my Goodreads target of 150 books read in 2018.

Watching

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I saw the documentary Free Solo at Tyneside Cinema last week, which recounts Alex Honnold’s climb up the 3000-foot high El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley without any rope or safety equipment. Filming this feat was a massive achievement in itself, as the film makes clear – not only did the crew have to handle the logistics of capturing the key moments of Honnold’s climb, they had to reckon with the risk that their presence would put him off his game and lead him to fall to his death. The sheer danger of Honnold’s undertaking can hardly be overestimated: one fellow climber describes it as taking a shot at an Olympic gold medal, but if you fail, you die. I’m fascinated by the psychology that leads people to take such risks with their lives, but this goes far beyond even other extreme sports such as freediving. The footage from the morning of Alex’s attempt is acutely uncomfortable to watch, as the crew put on a false joviality, as if Alex is doing no more than attempting a Ninja Warrior obstacle course, whereas you can see many of them are thinking that this might be the last time they speak to him.

In the face of this, I started to wonder if Free Solo itself was unethical, glorifying a feat that is actually profoundly unhealthy. Honnold suggests in the documentary that he’s driven by the idea, instilled in childhood, that he can never be good enough. However, I think there’s a subtlety in the composition of this piece that allows these questions to be raised. Although Honnold values success rather than happiness (‘anyone can be happy and cozy’, he says at one point), the nature of free solo climbs mean they are usually accomplished out of the spotlight, with nobody watching. Seeing Honnold’s climb as either glorious or as idiotic is to simplify it. Honnold’s commitment to a (probably shortened) life of free soloing is his own response to mortality; akin to free diving, he likes the freedom of this kind of climbing, the fact that he’s only relying on himself, and the simplicity and speed of the ascent. However, the problems start when he establishes human ties as well; his serious relationship with a girlfriend feels like an unfair commitment for him to have taken on, even though he’s perfectly honest with her about his intention to continue free soloing. I can’t stop thinking about Free Solo, and the shots of Honnold’s ascent alone make it worth seeing.

Thinking

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Even though I essentially get paid to think, I always struggle to remember anything I’ve actually thought once I get to this section! So I’m going to write about where I do a lot of my thinking: either on walks in Jesmond Dene, in the swimming pool, or in yoga classes. One new version of the above that I’ve taken up recently is hot yoga, with classes in Newcastle run by Hotpod Yoga, a franchise which has bases all over the country. Before I did a trial membership at Hotpod, I was convinced that hot yoga was not for me, despite having practised normal yoga for eight years. I struggle when the temperature outside gets above 30 C (in the pods, it’s set at 37 C) and never go in saunas.

However, I’m a surprised convert. Hotpod offer three difficulty levels, of which I’ve tried two: the mid-range ‘normal’ Hotpod class is basically a vinyasa flow class in the pod, whereas Nurturing Flow is a much slower and more restorative practice, especially good for when you’re aching from other activity. Turns out, when you’re geared up to get sweaty, it isn’t that bad – I find the purple atmosphere wonderfully relaxing, and it’s a great escape from northern weather. Although I have been doing yoga for so long, I’m not very good at it – I’m not naturally bendy – and Hotpod also helps a bit with my inflexible muscles.

This will be my last post before Christmas. I’ve got some exciting festive reading lined up, including Laura Purcell’s The Corset, Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affairand I’ll be back at the end of December with a couple of posts on the year’s reading. Hope that you all have a relaxing break!

Tag: How I Choose My Books

Borrowed from Hannah at I Have Thoughts on Books.

Find a book on your shelves with a pink cover. What made you pick up the  book in the first place?

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When I was seventeen, my youth theatre group took part in the initial stages of the National Theatre Connections project, which commissions ten new plays from well-known playwrights for young people to perform. We got together with the National Theatre’s youth theatre group, all the potential directors and the playwrights to workshop the plays. I was picked to workshop Ali Smith’s Just (which is an amazing play that I still think about today) and, like the committed young person I was, decided that I also had to read one of her novels in preparation. My school library had Hotel World. Alas, Ali wasn’t able to make it to the workshop after all, but I loved Hotel World – I’d never read anything like it at that age – and we had a fab two days with Jeremy Stockwell instead, who was mad and brilliant.

Think of a book you didn’t expect to enjoy but did. Why did you read it in the first place?

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As I said in my review of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht, ‘I almost didn’t read this book because I thought it was going to be a story about a boy meeting a magical tiger.’ I found out that it was nothing of the kind – and it ended up being possibly my favourite Orange Prize winner ever. (I read it in the first place because it was on the Orange Prize shortlist.) I have also now read and enjoyed Yann Martel’s Life of Pi – which was the first book I ever read on a Kindle – which could arguably be said to be about a boy meeting a magical tiger, so I’m not sure what my problem with boys and magical tigers was in the first place.

Stand in front of your bookshelf with your eyes closed and pick up a book at random. How did you discover this book?

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I read Suzanna Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, in 2007, after reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I can’t remember much about it now, other than, like all Clarke’s work, it’s long on charming detail and a little short on satisfying storytelling (Jonathan Strange is so long for such a simple plot – and I was annoyed that Clarke went for such black-and-white characterisation – Mr Norrell will always be my favourite). The question here is really how I discovered Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in the first place, but I can’t remember. I must have read it before I went to university, because footnotes still seemed very novel.

To go off on a tangent, I heard Clarke talk about Jonathan Strange in 2005 and she told a story that I still use when I want to argue that striving for perfect historical accuracy in historical novels is a losing game. The novel begins in 1806 in York Minster, which the book refers to as York Cathedral. Clarke received many letters telling her that York Cathedral is always known as York Minster. She explained that this is the case, except at the precise time Jonathan Strange is set, when it was not. However, this still sounds ‘wrong’ to modern readers. On the other hand, Clarke did admit that she used Jane Austen’s spelling in the book because she thought it was authentically Regency, then realised that Austen’s spelling is quite specific to Austen…

Pick a book that someone personally recommended to you. What did you think of it?

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My dad recommended Restless, William Boyd’s novel about espionage during the Second World War, and it has become one of the elite number of books that my dad and I both really like (I think all these books are by either William Boyd, Bernard Cornwell or George R.R. Martin). It’s also the only spy novel I’ve ever read that I’ve liked.

Pick a book you discovered through book blogs. Did it live up to the hype?

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I discover most books through book blogs these days, but back in the day, I was impressed by George Mackay Brown’s Vinland, a modern Viking saga, after reading Victoria’s review on Eve’s Alexandria – one of many Eve’s Alexandria-inspired reads. My review is here on my old blog.

Find a book on your shelves with a one word title. What drew you to this book?

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I was drawn to Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley because it was by Robin McKinley, with whom I am obsessed. This book, about a boy living in a dragon sanctuary, is not one of her best, but luckily she’s also written lots of other excellent books with one-word titles, including Deerskin, Chalice, Beauty and Sunshine, as well as some other excellent books with slightly longer titles, such as The Hero and the Crown, Spindle’s End and Rose Daughter.

What book did you discover through a film/TV adaptation?

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A really tricky category, as I don’t watch very many films or much TV, so it normally goes the other way. The only example I can think of is Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education, which I came to through the Carey Mulligan film. I was amused to find out that some of the dodgy dealings in this memoir took place on a street I used to live on in Cambridge!

Is anyone else keen to do this tag? Would love to hear other people’s answers!

Tempests and Slaughter: Numair Returns!

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I’m a long-time fan of Tamora Pierce, having read her first Alanna novel when I was only seven years old. In the following years, I ploughed through the rest of the Alanna quartet, her other Tortall-set books – including my absolute favourite, the Protector of the Small novels – and her Emelan novels, Circle of Magic, The Circle Opens and Will of the Empress. This is the first of her very recent novels that I’ve tried, and overall, I felt disappointed. Tempests and Slaughter has an exciting premise for any Pierce junkie, especially those who’ve read her Immortals quartet. It focuses on the ‘early years’ of the great mage Numair Salmalin as he trains at the Imperial University of Carthak and befriends fellow student Ozorne, who is very distantly in line for the Carthak throne, and the pretty, talented Varice.

In many ways, Tempests and Slaughter shares close similarities with other Pierce books – most obviously, Alanna: The First Adventure, First Test, and the whole of the Circle of Magic series. Some of Pierce’s novels have always had the tendency to focus on the quiet beginnings of an education, rather than significant events, and this is usually a theme I really enjoy. Pierce writes very well about learning new skills, about dedication and friendship, and I was hoping to find all these things in Tempests and Slaughter. To an extent, I did – but the book is simply too long. At 432 pages, it’s at least twice the length of any of the novels I’ve just mentioned, and it just drags and drags. There’s no central plot-line, and no sense of progress by the end of the book. If you have a clear recollection of the events of Emperor Mage – and I have to admit that I had to look these up, having never particularly got on with the Immortals quartet – there’s some interest here in re-encountering familiar characters, but even that’s surely not enough to carry the entire story.

There are some promising threads in Tempests and Slaughter. I really liked young Numair’s – Arram Draper as he’s known here – encounter with the brutality of the gladiatorial arena, and his growing friendship with one of the fighters, who turns out to have a link to his future. I also enjoyed the sequence when Arram is flung into the middle of a plague and has to use his Gift to provide medical care – it reminded me somewhat of a similar sequence in The Healing in the Vine. If the book had focused more on these plot-lines and less on the back-and-forth between Arram, Ozorne and Varice, it would have felt less repetitive. It would also have helped to differentiate it more from the now huge number of books about wizards going to wizard school (although I appreciate that this is a book Pierce has been planning for a very long time.)

I would read another book in this series, but I hope that the next is more tightly-plotted and/or shorter.

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