Two Recent Reading Recommendations

Two very different debut novels that I have just read and would recommend!

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Cara is a traverser, able to hop between particular parallel universes and bring back valuable data that will inform the development of her own world. The catch is that you can only travel into parallel universes where you are no longer alive, and Cara is especially valuable to the company she works for because she is dead in so many. This technological quirk reverses normal social hierarchies, making people like Cara who have always lived life on the outskirts suddenly significant to those in power. However, Cara’s knowledge of her many deaths also underlines the fragility of her current existence as a black bisexual woman with limited resources who lacks citizenship of Wiley City, hailing instead from the wastelands outside its walls. The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson’s debut, uses this device to resonate with what we know about how little the lives of men and women of colour are valued in many supposedly advanced countries today, and also explores how her own specific knowledge shapes Cara’s attitude to herself. Nursing a throat injury, she thinks ‘The worst part isn’t the pain: it’s the familiarity. It’s how many times I’ve felt this before and how many times I’ve sworn I would never feel it again.’

The Space Between Worlds also made me think about how knowing about the paths taken by your alternate selves would shape your own self-image. Some of Cara’s selves have done things that she considers morally wrong; does this mean that she has to rethink her sense of her own moral compass, or have they diverged so far from her that their actions mean nothing? Has Cara’s hard upbringing made her more vulnerable to having these kinds of selves, or would we all want to distance ourselves from some of our other versions if we knew about them? Johnson plots well, taking the reader down a twisty, complex path without losing them along the way, and she makes good emotional capital out of the ways in which Cara’s jumps between worlds fracture her relationship with Dell, a female co-worker whom she’s strongly attracted to but who seems to have written her off because of her background. There were certain elements of this novel – principally, the tidy split between Wiley City and the wastelands, and the psychopathic corporate villain – that felt a little YA-ish to me, but Johnson largely steers clear of simplistic narratives. Recommended for those who enjoyed Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel and Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

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Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke is billed as a thriller, but is probably better described as literary fiction; I found that there were a number of genuinely unexpected moments, but these can’t exactly be classified as the kind of twists that genre novels demand. Rachel’s relationship with her fifteen-year-old daughter Mia is already under strain when Mia’s best friend Lily goes missing. We soon discover that Lily has not been abducted, but has gone of her own accord, sending shockwaves through the school where Rachel teaches, and where she’s been closely involved in directing a production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, with Lily cast as the fragile Laura. Rachel finds her fears about her own daughter’s progress towards adulthood intensifying, but at the same time, she is pulled back irresistibly to her own adolescence, which was not marked by ‘sweet perfume… in a crystal star’ but black eyeliner and ripped tights. She becomes obsessed with how her own ageing body contrasts with her daughter’s effortless youth. (Cleverly, Barkworth only gives us one clue about what Rachel feels she’s missed out on; at a dinner party, as the guests talk about why they chose their teaching careers, Rachel admits ‘I thought I’d be something quite different’, then refuses to elaborate. ‘Don’t play it down, Rach’, her husband interjects. ‘Rachel was going to be a rock star, she was in a pretty successful band’. We know nothing else about what happened.)

Given this, even though the subject-matter of this novel is very close to that of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa (which I haven’t read), it reminded me most strongly of Zoe Heller’s Notes on A Scandal – indeed, there is a climatic dressing-up scene that feels like a deliberate homage, but is, if anything, even more powerful. Barkworth treats this difficult and controversial material delicately. This book explores the dual set of narratives we impose on teenagers – especially teenage girls but also teenage boys – and how our ‘cult of youth’ is only harmful to actual adolescents. Rachel, alongside some of the other adults in the novel, meditates on Lily’s vulnerability and childlikeness, allowing this to feed a righteous fury, while at the same time constantly thinking about how sexy and confident other girls Lily’s age are. She describes Mia’s boyfriend as ‘physically a man, even if not legally’ while at the same time framing him firmly as an adolescent with no self-awareness: ‘It seemed odd that her poised daughter was drawn in by this lumpen ox.’ The ending of the novel unsurprisingly emphasises how much Rachel doesn’t know about her daughter, but rather than the traditional twist that unveils how hedonistic, dangerous and thoughtless her daughter’s life really is, Mia is revealed to us as kinder, braver and more serious than Rachel expected. Totally gripping, but also very thought-provoking.

If either of these debuts appeal, you can buy The Space Between Worlds here and Heatstroke here. Heatstroke is also currently on a 99p ebook deal.

Random Late Summer Non-Fiction Reading

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

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

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

20 Books of Summer, #13: Summerwater

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King’s tower and queen’s bower,
And weed and reed in the gloom;
And a lost city in Semmerwater,
Deep asleep till Doom.

I read Sarah Moss’s latest novel, Summerwater, in a couple of sittings on a rainy Saturday. It was the perfect way to experience this short, clever novel, which skips between the perspectives of twelve holidaymakers staying on a holiday resort in rural Scotland on a single, torrentially rainy day. Most have been kept up the night before by loud music played by a Ukrainian family, and their hell is now continuing as the weather refuses to relent. Moss’s depiction of this bleak resort is both deeply personal and panoramic. We are completely immersed in the stream-of-consciousness narrative of a young woman trying to have a simultaneous orgasm with her fiancee and being continuously distracted by everything else that’s on her mind, and in the frantic thoughts of a mother who wants to make the most of having an hour to herself while her husband takes the children for a paddle. However, as Moss shifts perspectives, we see how small details that sit in the background of certain narratives, such as a child’s abandoned shoe, take on new meaning in others. There are also short omniscient sections that relate the natural history of this place; as with Jon McGregor’s employment of a similar technique in Reservoir 13this attempt to connect the human, animal and mineral worlds didn’t work for me, but it only makes up a tiny proportion of the novel.

Summerwater demonstrates Moss’s versatility as a writer; she is equally convincing as an elderly woman suffering memory problems and as a teenage boy getting into trouble in a kayak. Indeed, I thought the two sections narrated by teenagers were two of the strongest in this novel. Moss’s The Tidal Zone proved how good she is at writing about adolescence, and I was pleased to see that carried over when writing as an adolescent. She makes a deliberate choice not to narrate from the perspective of any of the Ukrainian characters; I wondered if, given that they are positioned as a disruptive influence in the resort because of their relentless music, it might have helped to get more from their point of view. But on the other hand, I can see how keeping them silent reinforces some of the other things Moss wants to say about xenophobia, and the stories that others impose on this family (they are intermittently referred to as ‘Poles’, ‘Romanians’ or just ‘Eastern Europeans’, and subtle prejudice threads its way through a number of the characters’ internal monologues).

Summerwater is troubled by something that’s never quite in sight, lending it a tension that carries us through to a thematically ambiguous ending – although there may be clues in the poem that one of the characters half-remembers, ‘The Ballad of Semmerwater’, which recounts the story of a town drowned beneath a lake because of the unkindness of its richest citizens. As with Ghost Wall, I wasn’t sure that Moss left herself quite enough space to deliver the punch she wanted, and wished that the final scene had been further developed; but the last lines are completely haunting. This is definitely top-tier Moss, and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves (though I feel like I say that every time she publishes something new).

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

20 Books of Summer, #11 and #12: You Will Never Be Forgotten and A Children’s Bible

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Mary South’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenwas billed by the publisher as being about people who ‘attempt to use technology to escape their uncontrollable feelings of grief or rage or despair, only to reveal their most flawed and human selves’. The first thing to say is that isn’t an accurate description of this collection at all. Only two or three of the stories really focus on technology, and of those, only ‘Keith Prime’ really explores its speculative implications by depicting a facility that nurtures sets of human beings so they can be used as organ donors. ‘Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls’ is yet another reflection on the distorted lives that people live through the internet, a poor reflection of sharper, more satirical short stories on this topic such as Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s ‘Suicide, Watch’ in her Heads of the Colored People. Meanwhile, ‘You Will Never Be Forgotten’, where a woman who works as a content moderator for a search engine tracks her rapist down in real life, is one of the better stories in the collection, but still feels a little flat and familiar.

At its worst, You Will Never Be Forgotten serves up imaginative and bizarre situations, like the woman who breastfeeds a series of adult men staying at her hostel, but then spells out exactly what we ought to take from this story: ‘Not one of you has bothered to find out the reason I’m here’, the woman complains to the men, ‘Do you think you’re the only ones who need love? I’m done. Consider yourselves weaned.’ (Earlier on, to underline the point, the group read the ending of Peter Pan, where it’s explained that Wendy’s female descendants will become Peter’s mother in their turn, while he remains an eternal child.) At its best, however, this collection shows some promise, even if South isn’t really that interested in tech: my favourite story was ‘Not Setsuko’, which draws from the imagery of J-horror to tell the story of a mother who is forcing her daughter to relive every important moment in the life of her older sister, who died at the age of nine. This creepy tale has some interesting things to say about childhood, parenthood and ‘making memories’, and it’s here that South is at her most original.

I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on August 6th.

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Lydia Millet has had a pretty distinguished career in the States – she’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Book Prize, among other things – but I don’t get the sense that she’s especially well-known here in the UK. Her latest novel, A Children’s Bible, is painfully timely; it starts with a group of teenagers and their parents spending the summer in a remote lake house, and descends into a story of environmental catastrophe. I loved the sharpness of the generational divisions in the first half of this novel, as Eve, our teenage narrator, and her friends, look on in disgust as their parents indulge in sex, drugs and drink. The children are so desperate to disassociate themselves from the older generation that they refuse to tell each other which mother and father they’re related to, and play a game of trying to work out these family connections. There’s something of Meg Rosoff’s arresting How I Live Now (which I first read when I actually was a teenager!) in the way Millet writes about the self-sufficiency of this adolescent community, especially when the teenagers flee their parents to shelter in a barn some distance away. However, the apocalyptic climate change reflections, including their implications for future generations, have become very familiar in fiction, and here I didn’t think A Children’s Bible brought much to the table; I also found the biblical allusions too obvious. I wish Millet had spent more time on her delightful inversion of the usual power hierarchies between adults and children, and less time telling us that the adults are only culpable because of their failure to do anything about climate change. Nevertheless, this novel is worth reading, if only for its courage in putting age, rather than other social identities, front and centre.

I received a free copy of this novel from W.W. Norton for review.

20 Books of Summer, #6: Swamplandia!

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Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree’s world is falling apart. After her mother, Hilola Bigtree, renowned alligator wrestler and the star attraction at the family’s island theme park, Swamplandia!, dies of cancer, things start unravelling. Revenues at Swamplandia! plummet and Ava’s father travels to the mainland to try and save his business. Her brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival theme park, the World of Darkness, and her sister, Osceola, falls in love with the ghost of a teenage dredgeman who was killed in the swamp in the 1930s. Ava is left alone amid the ruins of Swamplandia!, trying to hold back the infestation of melaleuca trees and watching over the ninety-eight Seths (all of the Bigtree alligators are called Seth) that populate the park. As this makes clear, Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia!, exists in the same speculative space as her short stories, and it’s exactly the kind of territory I like most; weird things happen, but they feel real rather than magical realist. Russell grounds her yarn through the precise details of her swampy setting, which is an actual place – the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida.

I have to say that Rebecca’s review of this novel pretty much sums up my thoughts, but I’ll try to explain why I loved Swamplandia! so much even though it’s a massive mess. It took Russell a long time to write and it shows – you can almost see the stitches that hold its disparate parts together. Ava’s narrative approximates a coming-of-age story but its relationship with reality is never quite clear; at times it seems that Russell wants us to read Ava as an intensely unreliable narrator who is bestowing magic upon Swamplandia!, at other times it seems that we’re meant to believe in what she’s recounting. Osceola’s relationship with the dredgeman ghost starts off with a bang, when she recounts the story of his death in a beautifully focused few pages that showcase Russell’s gift for set-piece, but then this thread flounders, getting wrapped up swiftly at the end as if Russell had already forgotten about it. Meanwhile, Kiwi’s more realistic travails at the World of Darkness are so straightforwardly gripping that they risk  dominating the book and robbing Ava of her agency. It’s a tricky one to call, because I enjoyed the digressions in Swamplandia! far more than the central narrative, and yet structurally they do detract from what Russell wants to say about Ava. At the same time, the untidiness of this book adds a richness to its telling.

Russell has a gift for simile and metaphor, and in her short stories, these are deployed expertly. In Swamplandia!, I felt they were, at times, used too much, especially as reading a 300+ page novel is a much more intense experience than reading a 30-page short story. Each individual idea is still brilliant, but when juxtaposed too closely together, the effect is confusing rather than illuminating. For example:

[T]he black raptors continued to map the sky. The buzzards from Ohio had migrated here too. Turning circles, as docile as party ponies around a mainland carousel. Then they fell, one by one, like little black razors, into the paurotis palms. And it was hard to see this and not think of carnage. A line of birds falling in a row. Red clouds massed in the southeast and it looked like the sky was getting its stitches out after an operation.

However, as with the book’s structure, the writing is strikingly uneven; there are whole pages and chapters that are impeccably judged, and then pages like this that feel much clunkier. Ava’s long journey into the swamp, from which this quotation comes, is especially overwritten, and this probably contributed to my sense that this segment was the weakest part of the novel.

And yet… sometimes I worry that books can be overedited, because while I can see the temptation to ‘fix’ Swamplandia!, and I definitely think that some of its sentences could be slashed and burned, I also wonder if trying to make this novel work in a more conventional way would have robbed it of some of its genius. We probably don’t need to know everything that we find out about the Bigtrees, but I wanted to know most of it anyway. And while the road there might be frustratingly meandering, the final paragraph is just perfection.

Literary Fiction in Late Spring

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Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is one of those books I’d heard a great deal about before I picked it up, and I was so intrigued that I put it on my ideal longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (to be honest, even though I didn’t like it, I still wish that it had been longlisted, as it would have shaken things up a bit). The first half of the novel immerses us in heated teen drama at a performing arts school in Houston, focusing on an on/off relationship between students Sarah and David, but also suggesting that a number of the staff are unable to maintain professional boundaries. Afterwards, it does the kind of structural flip that novels like Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry pull off so beautifully – but here, I don’t think it works. I felt completely disengaged from both halves of the novel, and while I can see that Choi is posing questions about who gets to control the narrative, I just didn’t find them very interesting. If anything, after the perspective switches, the side we should take is too obvious and there isn’t enough left for the reader to wrestle with. In one sense, I felt this was an ultra-literary take on a problem that genre writers have been engaging with for decades: who engages the reader’s sympathies and how can writers play with that? It’s also a #MeToo novel, once again written before #MeToo (this interview with Choi is really worth reading, though it has significant spoilers for Trust Exercise) but published at a time when I’m starting to feel that a straightforward take on these themes is becoming too familiar. I loved the idea of a novel called Trust Exercise that demands time and patience from its readers, but I didn’t feel I was repaid.

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I’m not having a lot of luck with experimental literary fiction recently, because Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel didn’t work for me either, although I admired her A Girl Is A Half-Formed ThingLike McBride’s debut, Strange Hotel excels at tracing the precise shifts in a woman’s thought processes; however, her protagonist here is not the chaotic young narrator of Girl but a relatively older woman, in her mid-thirties, who is travelling from hotel room to hotel room in a number of different cities. Her own relationship with herself is much more detached and ironic, and the prose reflects this: ‘She drinks [the wine] down with some considerable relief at outmanoeuvring her travel fatigue… That’s it right now, agitating her veins. Coursing through until the arches of her feet unclench – the most secret pleasure of drinking, she thinks, and unquantifiably nice.’ McBride knows how we become different people when alone in unfamiliar hotel rooms, and the first quarter of the book could be a brilliant short story. There are hints of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation in how this woman secludes herself from the world and seeks the optimum state of intoxication. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it any further, because I couldn’t face spending any more time with the protagonist’s convoluted and depressing voice. I’ll be checking out McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, instead.

Although I found these two novels disappointing, I’ve not had a bad time with all literary fiction this month – I’m completely immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Lightwhich I think is the best of the Cromwell trilogy, and am now almost halfway through! Review to come once I finish, but I’m deliberately taking my time.

Have you read any good literary novels recently?

Belated April ARCs

I feel very sorry for these three April ARCs. Not only have these three authors had to deal with being published in the middle of a global pandemic, they’ve also been personally neglected by me because I was so busy with my Women’s Prize reading. Nevertheless, I’ve finally got round to them, and I have to say that all three are worthwhile – so I hope that they get at least some of the attention that they deserve!

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You People, Nikita Lalwani’s third novel, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020, though I wish it hadn’t been burdened with such a hideous cover. It’s set in 2003 in an Italian restaurant in London that’s run by Tuli, who enjoys the reputation of being a benefactor to the undocumented migrants and other recent arrivals who work there, many of whom are Tamils from Sri Lanka fleeing civil war. It has two narrators: first, Nia, a nineteen-year-old Welsh waitress who passes for white and privileged and is happy to reap the advantages of that, but whose father was Bengali and who’s refusing to return home so she won’t have to deal with her alcoholic mother. Second, Shan, one of the Sri Lankan refugees, who is desperately seeking to reunite with his wife and child. Lalwani carefully draws the reader into the net that Tuli is weaving, causing us to continuously reassess what we think we know about the situation that Nia and Shan find themselves in. As ever, Lalwani writes so well about complicated moral choices and inhabits each of her characters with sharp empathy, although I didn’t find this novel to be quite as clever or memorable as her brilliant The VillageNevertheless, she creates a complex community of word-of-mouth bargains and secrets, and she’s still streets ahead of many of her contemporaries. I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty, which – although it’s set in Sydney – also deals with an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka who has to make a difficult ethical decision!

You People was released in the UK on April 2nd. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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C. Pam Zhang’s debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, is set in California at the end  of the Gold Rush of the 1850s. It explores the lives and histories of two young Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, as they struggle to survive after the deaths of both their parents. In this, it joins novels like Téa Obreht’s Inland and Philipp Meyer’s The Son in seeking to reimagine white, male myths of the American nineteenth-century ‘pioneer spirit’. The novel starts with the siblings fleeing their home with their Ba’s body packed into a trunk on the back of their mule; it then flashes back so that Ba can relate the last generation of their family’s history; and finally flashes forward five years to a time when Lucy, now seventeen, is trying to become a respectable young woman in town while an absent Sam lives feral.

Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find this structure especially awkward – for me, the siblings’ futures and pasts were more interesting than their present, so I was glad that Zhang decided to deftly shake it up a bit – but still, this novel doesn’t quite fulfil its ambitions. Both Lucy and Sam are vividly imagined, and yet they’re never given enough space to become totally captivating. Sam’s contested relationship with gender is handled cleverly by Zhang – it can be difficult to position this kind of narrative in a historical setting, but I thought Zhang managed to create a space for Sam that felt like a kind of  queer space that might have existed at the time, even though readers may continue to wonder what modern labels fit the character. However, as Elle points out in her review, Zhang’s refusal to commit to pronouns for Sam makes the writing clunky. Initially, I wondered if this represented Lucy’s own confusion about how to refer to Sam, but as we get sentences like ‘Sam’s hair… reaches just under Sam’s ears’ at the same time as Lucy continually refers to Sam as ‘her’, I didn’t understand why Zhang didn’t choose a set of pronouns, even if these changed later on in the book. The present tense also felt too much like a creative-writing class default setting rather than a deliberate choice. In short, How Much of These Hills Is Gold suffers, like many debut novels, from trying to pack too much into one story, but I’d much rather read something like this than a bland, competent book, and I’ll look out for more from Zhang.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold was released in the UK on April 9th. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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How To Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection of short stories, was also one of my most anticipated 2020 titles. All the stories are set in a city that is deliberately unnamed, left sketchy around the edges, although I had the sense from a couple of references that we are somewhere in Canada. All, also, deal with the lives of Lao immigrants and their children, although not all of the stories are primarily about immigration or ethnicity. What I found so impressive about these quiet stories, in fact, is the way that they don’t cluster around one specific theme; Thammavongsa is sharply insightful on a number of registers. Childhood is one of these, and Thammavongsa’s thoughts on writing in the voice of a child are worth reading. The title story, which deals with a small girl trying to navigate between her family’s culture and the world of school, completely gets how frustrating it is for children not to be heard, and how adults continually fail to understand how, when young children are angry about one thing, it’s often something much bigger than just that thing.

However, Thammavongsa takes us into the head of an older woman who has just begun a sexy affair with a much younger man with equal conviction (‘Slingshot’), upturning our received ideas about age, sex, and the way that these attributes structure power dynamics in a relationship. She writes beautifully about how chicken plant worker Red (‘Paris’) only knows one kind of love: ‘that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself on the quiet moments of the day. It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekends’. She vividly details the different work worlds of a man working in a nail salon (‘Mani Pedi’) and a woman picking worms in a field (‘Picking Worms’). Occasionally, a story seems to draw away from its climax rather than landing with the conviction of the others in this collection, and Thammavongsa sometimes goes for an easy emotional beat rather than pressing for something more interesting (‘Her sense of taste comes and goes now’, muses an older woman after having a stroke in ‘You Are So Embarrassing’. ‘Most of the time it all tastes bitter. And all that bitterness in her mouth is hard to swallow.’) However, these are rare missteps in a collection that is otherwise consistently good.

How to Pronounce Knife was released in the UK on April 16th. I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

If any of these books appeal, and if you’re able to do so, please consider ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.

‘The Sequel is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing

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Sequels to science fiction and fantasy books, films and TV series are often described as ‘darker’ than their immediate predecessor, a trend that I first noticed with Harry Potter. Retrospectives on the book series tend to assume that Voldemort’s return in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, shifted the series towards a ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, tone; retrospectives on the film series point the finger at the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, where director Alfonso Cuaron deliberately created a Hogwarts with a very different feel to Chris Columbus’s version (at the time, most newspapers ran with ‘Harry Potter hits puberty‘, praising Cuaron’s revamp). Nevertheless, this trend started earlier; every Harry Potter film was described as darker than the one before it. A number of professional reviewers praised the second film, Chamber of Secrets for being ‘better and darker than its predecessor’. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film ‘deepen[ed] the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences. This is as it should be: Harry’s story is supposed to get darker’, referring to J.K. Rowling’s stated intention that the series should ‘grow up with its readers’. However, even after the tonal shift when Voldemort regains a physical body in Goblet of Fire, reviewers kept praising the films for being darker than the last. ‘Harry Potter grows older and darker’ was Time‘s headline for their review of Order of the Phoenix .

Given the larger number of books and films in the Harry Potter series, this trend is most obvious for this franchise, but is not confined to it. You might not think that a series that kicks off with the state-sanctioned murder of 23 children and adolescents by their peers could get any darker, but according to reviewers, the Hunger Games franchise did. The Atlantic found Mockingjay: Part 1, the third film in the series, ‘darker, more relentless’ than the previous installments, spelling out what they meant while unintentionally proving the Sequel Is Always Darker rule: ‘The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more.’ The Star Wars prequel Rogue One was obviously going to have a different tone from the earlier films, given its content, but alongside its universal reputation as ‘dark’, fans still asked ‘Should Rogue One Have Been Even Darker?‘ To look at a different kind of follow-up, remakes of classic movies are often praised as being ‘darker’ than the originals. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake was seen as ‘the darker side of Willy Wonka‘. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been reviewed as both ‘darker’ than the original 1990s sitcom and comic book series and as getting darker than its original self season-by-season. Showrunners also love to tease fans with ‘darker’ sequels, as with this piece on the third season of Stranger Things,  which claims, ‘it’s definitely going to get darker still – [it will go to?] places that I think audiences are going to really love.’

But what do reviewers actually mean when they say that a book or film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor? We could spend ages arguing over what it means to be ‘dark’ (kill count? tone? grey morality?) or whether or not these sequels are actually darker, but instead, I want to suggest that when people say something is ‘darker’, they mean it is ‘better’, and this is a big problem.

Why does darker = better, especially when it comes to popular science fiction and fantasy series? My hypothesis is that it’s a signal that these books and films are worthy of adult attention, and so it’s OK if you’re an adult and you like them. Popular associations surrounding these genres still associate them with children, and one way for both artists and their fans to try and shed this ‘childish’ reputation is to talk about how dark their work is, and how much darker it’s going to be. This also explains why the first episode may be dark, but the next one is always darker: series need to ‘mature’, ‘grow up’, ‘develop’, because these are all Good Things, whereas remaining in the supposedly immature and undeveloped world of childhood is bad.

This is problematic enough in itself, because it simultaneously devalues children and adolescents, claims that young people don’t want complex stories, and assumes that being into ‘darker’ media makes you a better, more serious adult. It sets up a false binary between cheery, morally black-and-white children’s fiction and dark, morally grey fiction for adults. However, I’d also argue that playing into this narrative leads writers, filmmakers and showrunners into serious trouble. I’m going to reserve my full Harry Potter rant for another post, but suffice it to say that I think Rowling’s decision to make the series ‘grow up with Harry’ not only gives it a horribly uneven tone, but actually leads to it becoming less morally interesting. Rogue One disappointed me terribly because it served up such simplistic and boring characters compared to its companion film, A New Hope, as if being serious means that you don’t get to have a personality (you know you’ve gone wrong when the robot is the most compelling person in your film). And season three of Stranger Things misstepped by deciding that it had to fully embrace adolescence rather than exploring the ways in which our protagonists are still children – or realising that it was its celebration of childhood creativity and ingenuity that made the first two series so great.

I think it’s time to abolish the assumption that darker is better, or even that calling something ‘dark’ is a meaningful description. I love a lot of fiction that has been called ‘dark’, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Mirror. But give me The Force Awakens or the book version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone any day over other films or books in those franchises that try to be ‘dark’ because they think that’s how to be ‘grown up’, and, in doing so, reinforce our limited ideas of what is worthy of our notice.

 

 

Not The Wellcome Prize 2020: Exhalation and A Good Enough Mother

Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour poster

Thanks to Annabel for this graphic!

I’m delighted to be taking part in both the blog tour and the judging panel for Not the Wellcome Prize this year, which has been so brilliantly organised by Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck. As the Wellcome Book Prize, which aims to recognise books that have a  ‘central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness’, is on hiatus this year, we are hoping to fill the gap by highlighting some of the best health-related fiction and non-fiction of 2019, then choosing our own ‘winner’ in May! Be sure to check in with the other stops on the blog tour to see what other books we’ve picked.

I’m excited to showcase two titles on my blog today: Ted Chiang’s latest collection of SF short stories, Exhalation, and Bev Thomas’s debut psychological thriller, A Good Enough Mother. These two books are very different from each other, but share common concerns about parenting, childhood and a ‘healthy’ upbringing.

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I was utterly gripped by Exhalation when it first appeared in July 2019 (as was Barack Obama, who said that it ‘will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction’.) It was one of my top ten books of 2019 and contains one of my favourite short stories of all time. You can read my full review of Exhalation here, but for the purposes of this blog post, I thought I’d focus on one novella in this collection that seems to me to be especially concerned with themes of medicine, health and illness.

‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and examines the ethical issues that this introduces. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator, Ana, among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. Because of this, this novella asks questions about what is healthy for both the digients and their owners; is it fair to keep the digients ‘alive’ when they have minimal social interaction and are often unhappy, but on the other hand, how can it be right to ‘kill’ a sentient being simply because you’ve got bored with it? A lot of owners start to ‘suspend’ their digients as a compromise solution, but this unsurprisingly unsettles the digients when they find out they’ve missed whole chunks of time.

The story continually plays with the analogy between digients and human children, up to the point when their owners have to decide whether to let their ‘teenage’ digients be recoded as sexual beings, and which, early on, is made explicit when one of Ana’s friends gets pregnant and tells her ‘People always say that we’re evolved to want babies, and I used to think that was a bunch of crap, but not anymore… Cats, dogs, digients, they’re all just substitutes for what we’re supposed to be caring for.’ Indeed, one of Chiang’s points in this novella is that ‘healthy’ AIs will need to be brought up like human children: ‘The years [Ana] spent raising Jax… gave him… fluency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgement you could entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.’ Chiang writes in his ‘Story Notes’ that ‘based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person.’ I’d challenge the idea that children and adolescents can’t be creative, resourceful or trustworthy, but the overall point is one worth making.

Nevertheless, I felt there was a darker message about the biological need for creating children that Ana’s friend talks about early in the story buried in ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’. One of the major obstacles for the digients and their owners in this novella is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. While Chiang is delightfully good at teasing out the specifics of this situation, it also has symbolic weight; is it right to create new people who will be born into a world that is becoming unfit for purpose? As ever, Chiang doesn’t offer answers, but he poses some major questions.

Other stories in this collection that, in my opinion, have something to say about health, medicine and illness are ‘Exhalation’, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’.

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Way back in October 2018, I was lucky enough to hear Bev Thomas discuss this novel, which was published in March 2019, at the Durham Book Festival. Thomas previously worked as a clinical psychologist, and her expertise is evident in the very title of this novel, which is drawn from the work of the post-war child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who published a number of popular childrearing guides as well as becoming a regular feature on BBC radio. Winnicott asserted that mothers should not worry too much about making ‘mistakes’ with their children, saying that ‘The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.’ In his popular texts, he built on this by writing that mothers would instinctively know what their infants needed, and did not need to rely on external expertise. As I’ve argued, this may have been intended to reassure mothers (coincidentally, Winnicott was reacting against the strict inter-war ‘behaviourist’ ideas that Chiang satirises in Exhalation, in his story ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’!)  but, in practice, left many feeling inadequate because their parental instincts did not seem to have kicked in and they would have liked some outside help.

So, what does this mean for Thomas’s novel (other than setting it up with a title that feels pretty sinister to me!)? The book focuses on Ruth Hartland, a professional psychotherapist who is haunted by her missing son, Tom, who disappeared a year and a half ago. As she starts treating a new patient, Dan, she can’t shake the fact that he reminds her strongly of Tom, and her increasing inability to separate the two men leads her into tragedy. A Good Enough Mother functions perfectly as a gripping psychological thriller, but is much more thought-provoking than the average thriller about therapy (or indeed than the approximately two million other thrillers that deal with missing children). We see that Ruth has never felt she was a ‘good enough mother’ to Tom, despite the supposedly soothing nature of Winnicott’s advice; Tom always struggled to separate from her and she worries that she did not encourage him to become independent. Now that they are completely apart, she can only guess how he’s navigating the world by himself. This theme is especially highlighted by the fact that Tom is a twin, which – although he and his more confident sister are obviously fraternal rather than identical – makes Ruth strain even harder to understand why her two children are so different. Ruth’s gradual emotional breakdown felt utterly convincing, and this is a hugely promising debut. (Incidentally, it also gets the thumbs up from my mum!)

Make sure to check out the other great books featured on our blog tour! 

Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour covers collage

Have you read anything recently that deals particularly well with themes of health, medicine and/or illness?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Dominicana

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It’s 1965, and Ana Canción is fifteen years old when she enters into an arranged marriage that will transport her from the Dominican Republic to New York, and offers the chance that her family will be able to follow her there. Ana does not love her new and much older husband, Juan; he beats her, rapes her, and resists letting her leave their apartment, even to access free English classes. Nevertheless, Ana reaches out to her new world as far as she can, befriending one of Juan’s female debtors, Marisela, and talking to the pigeons who live outside her window. When political unrest in the Dominican Republic forces Juan to return to protect his assets, the radius of Ana’s world dramatically expands; suddenly, alongside Juan’s attractive younger brother César, she is dreaming of starting her own food business and selling pastelitos at the World’s Fair. However, what will happen when Juan comes back?

Angie Cruz writes in the afterword to Dominicana that ‘This novel was inspired by my mother’s story… When I told my mother back in 2005 I would write a novel inspired by her, she said, Who would be interested in a story about a woman like me? It’s so typical. And yet, stories like my mother’s, although common, are rarely represented in the mainstream narratives available to us. I am grateful for the opportunity to publish this singular story, knowing very well that so many writers who are women of color do not have this privilege and access.’ Cruz is, in one sense, absolutely right. I’ve read nothing about the Dominican Republic before and knew nothing about the community of Dominicanas that formed in New York City from the 1950s onwards and which is beautifully documented here.

Cruz writes vividly about Ana’s life and language, and although her prose can be a little cringeworthy while describing Ana’s experience of sexual desire (Rachel picks out some good examples in her review), this didn’t dominate my experience of reading the novel as a whole (I wondered if this purple prose reflected the telenovelas that Ana consumes). In general, I felt that Cruz did a good job of communicating the inner world of this very young woman, and her ability to continue exploring and hoping, as in her friendship with Marisela, who exploits her naivety but also gives her a different way to frame her relationship with Juan. After Marisela jokes with her about men, she scripts a different kind of imaginary conversation with her husband: ‘I fall to the sofa, feet in the air. Ana, go get me a drink! Hurry! Where’s my dinner? What’s taking you so long? Ana! Ana! Ana! Oh Juan, get your own stupid drink! I say to the hat on the table, then laugh.’ Ana can’t easily escape her abuse, but Cruz conveys how she builds up an inner resilience that enables her later (if limited) rebellion.

Nevertheless, while the raw materials of this story may be fresh, the literary model that Cruz has chosen is painfully familiar. Dominicana maps out the precise story beats of so many other novels about immigration to the United States that I’ve read, and so it becomes very predictable (not helped by the fact that the blurb summarises pretty much all of the plot!). While the narrative comes to life in a way that other versions of this narrative don’t (for example, Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers), I became frustrated by this very limited coming-of-age framing. The novel already cheats slightly by jumping out of Ana’s first-person voice to give us glimpses of Juan, and I felt that this story might have been much more thought-provoking had we not been confined to Ana’s head. I would have loved to have read more from Juan, who intricately justifies his treatment of Ana and his affair with another woman, and perhaps to explore the perspective of Ana’s mother, who pushes her daughter into this marriage to benefit her family. These perspectives would also have allowed us to see more of the Dominican Republic rather than the typical New York 60s setting. On reflection, I found my enthusiasm for this book waning as I read on.

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

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number six. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; and Nightingale Point.