Finishing Up With February ARCs

These three solid debut novels mark the end of my glut of February ARCs! My first post on February releases can be found here.

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I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Layden’s All Girls, although I recognised that the book has some issues which may be more of a turn-off for other readers. 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. It’s narrated through nine different third-person perspectives (plus a bit of head-hopping in the final section), as we meet a range of girls from different grades, from awkward new freshman Lauren to jaded ex-ballet dancer Sloane to lesbian Emma, a senior whose long-term relationship with her mixed-race girlfriend Olivia has become iconic in the school.

While the characters sometimes become hard to keep track of, I really felt that Layden had thought this all through; there’s something solid about the connections between her 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. In this way, I thought her decision to use multiple narrators was much more illuminating than if we’d had to keep to a single person’s perspective (both the strength and weakness of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prepwhich this novel obviously has a lot in common with, is that we’re totally trapped in Lee’s head, and Lee’s head is a very unreliable place to be trapped). And while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like 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; it would have been nice, and more realistic, to get inside the head of at least one student who was less compulsively analytic. It’s also, frankly, too long. Nevertheless, it’s definitely well ahead of most books of this kind, and if you like campus novels, you’ll probably like this.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill focuses on an episode in British colonial history that may not be familiar to many readers; the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin. Most Asians had to leave the country within ninety days, fleeing to the range of countries in which they had citizenship – with a majority ending up in Britain – although some were left stateless. As the novel makes clear, although Uganda had gained independence from Britain in 1962, this event was a direct result of its long history of colonisation. South Asians, mostly Gujaratis, had been originally brought to Uganda by the British, first to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway in the late nineteenth century (nearly a third of these Indian workers were killed or maimed during the project), and later to participate in commerce and administration under the Uganda Protectorate. However, the expulsion of Ugandan Asians was also intertwined with Britain’s future stance towards its former colonial subjects; the 1971 Immigration Act increased immigration controls and was primarily motivated by the influx of refugees from Uganda and from Kenya, which also expelled Asians in the late 1960s.

Kololo Hill tells this story through a single family. Asha has recently married Pran, who runs a general store, or dukan, with his brother Vijay, and also lives with mother Jaya and father Motichand. While the family are not wealthy, they become increasingly aware of how they are perceived as privileged ‘dukawallahs’ by African Ugandans, and try to protect their ‘house-boy’ December, who is one of the persecuted Acholi people. Each step of the plot is pretty predictable, but Kololo Hill still flows easily and engagingly as we see how this family deal with their world suddenly being turned upside down. I wanted our three narrators – Asha, Vijay and Jaya – to stray a little further from archetype, but I appreciated the inter-generational perspective, and the consideration of how Vijay manages with a physical disability (he was born missing most of his left arm), especially when he comes into contact with the British welfare state. Shah depicts the ways in which her protagonists are both oppressed and fortunate skilfully, as they recognise the advantages they’ve had over African Ugandans due to British patronage and their relatively kinder welcome into Britain itself, and yet are obviously uprooted, robbed, and attacked in Uganda, and continue to face racism every day in Britain. While Kololo Hill might be competent rather than brilliant, it vividly conveys this significant moment in history.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Way back in January 2020, before the UK publication date of Meng Jin’s Little Gods got pushed back, it was one of my most-anticipated books for that year. And, it turns out, it does use a narrative device that’s one of my favourites: telling the story of a single character solely through the perspectives of multiple other people, like Anna North does in The Life and Death of Sophie Stark or Kevin Nguyen does in New WavesAs a young woman, Su Lan is a brilliantly talented theoretical physicist. We meet her having just given birth to her daughter Liya in Beijing in the midst of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, where an exhausted nurse is struck by her unusual demeanour. The novel then moves between the perspectives of Su Lan’s former neighbour Zu Wen, her former classmate Li Yongzong, and Liya herself to put together the fractured pieces of Su Lan’s history. What emerges is that Su Lan was a master of self-fashioning, but this was driven by a desperate need to hide what she saw as her true self. Arguing with her, Yongzong reflects: ‘through the cracks I saw something terrible, it was dark and powerful and churning, and I recognised with frightening clarity that everything I knew about Su Lan – her excellence, her beauty, her composure – was actually an attempt to control this thing.’ We hear about the poverty of Su Lan’s childhood in rural China, but we never get to the bottom of what she thinks is so wrong with her, and this novel is the stronger for it. Instead, we see how she uses theoretical physics and thermodynamics (in the form of Maxwell’s demon) to chase an impossible dream: can we forget the past and remember the future? There’s something here of Nell Freudenberger’s excellent Lost and Wantedwhich also picks up on quantum mechanics to deal with grief and ghosts. For me, Little Gods was stronger in its first half than in its second, when the pieces of the puzzle come together a bit too neatly, but it’s still an impressive debut.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 25th February.

My Dark Vanessa, Or Why I’m A Year Behind Everyone Else In Getting To This Book

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I wasn’t going to read My Dark Vanessa. Not even when I saw how many rave reviews it was getting from bloggers I trust. Based on this, I was sure that it was a good book; that it dealt thoughtfully with a sensitive subject. But I still wasn’t convinced that I needed to read another novel about a relationship between a schoolgirl and her teacher, no matter how well it was written. This is ground that’s been so thoroughly trodden, both in novels and in numerous comment pieces analysing real-life cases in both Britain and the US over the past few years. It’s also something I think about in my own historical research on children and young people in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain. My Dark Vanessa might be great, I decided, but it wasn’t going to say anything that I didn’t already know.

I changed my mind about trying My Dark Vanessa after attending an online At Home With Four Indies event where Kate Elizabeth Russell was interviewed (very adeptly) by Louise O’Neill. What I found so fascinating about the way Russell wrote My Dark Vanessa was not just that the novel was drafted over the course of eighteen years, but that Russell essentially put it together in conversation with her teenage self. She talked about finding bits and pieces she had written as a teenager where she didn’t know if it was her writing as herself or as Vanessa, and also how certain sequences that had been present in early drafts of the novel dropped out as she redrafted then made it back in to the final version, as if they were always meant to be there. I found this especially interesting because I, too, have a novel that I’ve been working with, on and off, for about seventeen years, since I was in my late teens, and it, too, is traumatic, although not in an especially autobiographical way and not in quite the same way as My Dark Vanessa. Nevertheless, however captivated I was by Russell’s account of her process, I still needed to find out if the novel would work for me.

And unexpectedly, it did. Basically, this was because while My Dark Vanessa is absolutely a book about a schoolgirl who has a relationship with her teacher, and which has a lot to say on that specific subject, that also isn’t all it is. Russell clearly thought very deeply about tackling something so difficult, and Vanessa is presented as a character who has been fundamentally shaped by what has been happening to her since she was fifteen. As other reviewers have outlined, Vanessa is such a thought-provoking protagonist because she doesn’t fit into our idea of what the ‘ideal victim’ should be – she maintains that what happened between her and her teacher, Strane, was not abuse, and that her own psychology was somehow leading her towards something of this kind. Russell does not give Vanessa a simplistic moment of revelation in the wake of the #MeToo movement, but we see how she comes to reassess how she felt at the time.

But because Russell presents such an authentic portrait of both Vanessa’s teenage and adult selves, this novel also has resonance far beyond stories of sexual exploitation in the classroom or even abuse and rape more generally, and for me, that’s why it worked so well. It asks how we can square beliefs that our younger selves held so fervently with what we learn later on in life – and how we can do that without totally tossing our younger selves under a bus. It explores how we can cope with the knowledge that our life has been shaped by something outside our control, especially if we thought it was within our control when it was happening. And in this, I felt the strength of what all Russell’s different reworkings of this story have brought to it. I don’t know how she’s going to write her next book after something like this – I know how difficult it is starting a new project after working on one thing since you were a teenager, because your teenage self had so much to give – but I do feel confident that she can.

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 1st February.

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

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

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

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

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

2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 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 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.

 

In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

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 was disappointed by two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!

Miscellaneous October Reading

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Melissa Harrison’s most recent novel, All Among the Barley, set in the early 1930s, focuses on an extended encounter between fourteen-year-old Edie Mather, who lives and works on a farm in rural England, and Constance FitzAllen, who claims that she has travelled from London to document rural traditions before they are lost to the next generation. Harrison’s nature-writing is spot on, and I thought that Edie’s narrative posed a resonant question: what do you do when there is no future for you in the place where you live, but when you are so bound to that place that you can’t imagine living anywhere else? In that, and in other ways, the novel recalls Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, with its menacing sexual tension and exploration of the boundaries of consent in Edie’s ‘courtship’ with a village boy. However, I thought the threat posed by Constance was almost too sinister; I think Harrison would have had more to work with if she had made her more of an early social scientist with a less overtly horrific agenda. Other themes, such as witchcraft and mental illness, feel underdeveloped. Harrison writes so well, but I was struck by the feeling that I would have been hugely impressed by this as an older teen, and that I don’t feel quite so drawn to these kind of books any more; which actually makes me feel a little sad.

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Temi Oh’s debut, Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, is set in an alternative present where a group of British teenagers have been selected to travel to the distant planet of Terra-Two, which is envisaged as an alternative home for humanity. The catch: the journey will take twenty-three years and none of them will ever come back. Before reading this novel, I was aware that a number of reviewers had found it too ‘YA-ish’, with a heavy focus on romance that reduced the sci-fi setting to a backdrop. The first third of Do You Dream of Terra-Two? absolutely met expectations in this respect, and I almost gave up on it several times. However, once our protagonists finally leave Earth, this novel takes off as well, acquiring a dream-like quality through the characters’ visions and imaginings of the utopian Terra-Two. It’s strongly influenced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; there are some obvious nods to the earlier novel, such as the final stage of training being nicknamed ‘Command School’ and one male character becoming completely obsessed with a simulation. However, Oh also captures some of the mood of Ender’s experiences at Battle School, raising questions about how these characters are going to create a new world, especially when their adult mentors are absent or inadequate and the people they’ve left behind are already starting to forget them. It still feels more like the first installment in a series rather than a book that works in its own right, but I enjoyed the time I spent in its eerie world.

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Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being was one of my top ten novels of the last ten years, but I couldn’t finish All Over Creation. Thankfully, her debut, My Year of Meats, was a hit rather than a miss. Set in 1991, it follows Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American documentarian who’s been employed by a Japanese production company to film a series called My American Wife!, sponsored by an American meat-exporting business who want to offload more beef into the Japanese market. The My American Wife! formula stipulates that Jane should find an attractive white woman with a reasonable number of children who can demonstrate a delicious meat dish that she makes to feed her family, and feature one woman like this per programme. However, as Jane gains more creative control, she starts going rogue, filming Hispanic and black families, adopted children, and, in her most daring decision, featuring a vegetarian lesbian couple making pasta primavera. Interwoven with Jane’s story is that of Akiko, a Japanese housewife whose abusive husband is part of the production team, and who forces her to watch every episode of My American Wife! and make the featured dishes. Jane and Akiko are poles apart, but their stories are linked by a common experience of infertility, with Jane suffering from a deformed uterus caused by the hormonal drugs her mother took during pregnancy. This leads her to start uncovering the ways in which hormones are used, often illegally, in the American meat industry, and the human cost of these practices. The blurb of My Year of Meats wasn’t that appealing to me; I thought it would become too simplistic, preaching about male violence and the horrors of the meat industry (although as a feminist vegetarian, I’m very much on board with such criticisms!). Instead, Ozeki writes so intelligently and vividly, I was totally engrossed. I also loved the short extracts from Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, which I believe Jane is drawn to because Shōnagon shares her sharp observational abilities. Brilliant, if not quite as brilliant as A Tale For The Time Being.

#ReadingWomen: Past Women’s Prize for Fiction Winners, Part Two

I’ve now read the last two Women’s Prize for Fiction winners that I had remaining (one, Larry’s Party, I’d technically read before, but I remembered so little about it I decided to start from scratch). This means I have officially finished the #ReadingWomen challenge! I’ll be posting my ranking of all twenty-five Women’s Prize for Fiction winners before the 1st November, when the Women’s Prize will announce their Winner of Winners.

So, what did I think of the last two on the list?

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I read Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, which won the Orange Prize in 2001, as a buddy read with Rebecca at Bookish Beck. It tells the story of two misfits, Douglas and Harley, who meet in the tiny Australian town of Karakarook. Douglas is an engineer who has been sent to demolish the town’s rickety bridge; Harley is a museum curator who has been sent to preserve the region’s rural heritage. Both strangers in the community, single and lonely, they are set on a personal as well as a professional collision course. Grenville is brilliant at making the most mundane moments feel incredibly tense, whether it’s Douglas’s inability to break social convention by speaking up when he’s being driven far too fast through the outback, or Harley’s very quiet confrontation with a local storeowner who won’t sell her a bucket. The Idea of Perfection really gets into the second-by-second tick of social anxiety, with both the protagonists agonising over doing the correct thing. On the surface, this is a funny and light read, but like the patchwork that Harley puts together, Grenville is adept at balancing out the light and the dark, with the darkness in the novel largely to be found in the backstories of the two protagonists. However, The Idea of Perfection also includes a subplot about local housewife Felicity Porcelline, who is determined to be a model to everybody else but ends up being tempted by adultery, and I felt this really detracted from the novel as a whole. Felicity is a very familiar caricature and her story distracted from the warmer thread of Harley and Douglas’s growing bond. Because of this wasted page-time, the novel seemed too long, but also wrapped up too quickly; there didn’t seem to be enough space in the final chapters to really feel for our protagonists. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the quirky originality and clever observations of The Idea of Perfection, and liked it better than the only other Grenville I’ve read (The Secret River).

The cover of Larry’s Party I originally read, L, and my current edition, R. I love how green all editions of Larry’s Party are!

Carol Shields’s ninth novel, Larry’s Party, won the Orange Prize in 1998. The novel follows the life of an ‘ordinary’ Canadian man, Larry Weller, through a series of chronological vignettes that focus on specific years in his life, culminating in a dinner party he holds in his late forties. Shields’s purpose only really becomes clear in this long final chapter, when all the women who’ve been significant in Larry’s life debate the role of men in the late 1990s, and whether they are now redundant! Certain flashes of Larry’s life felt more freshly observed to me than others; I found the very first chapter particularly memorable, when Larry strolls delightedly through the streets wearing a wrong but better jacket than the one he put on that morning. It reminded me of Michel Faber’s brilliant short story ‘Vanilla Bright Like Eminem’, which similarly captures a moment of unexpected joy in the middle of an ordinary day. Larry’s journey through Annunciation paintings with his second wife, Beth, an academic who is by far the most interesting character in the novel, also stuck in my mind, as did his first wife’s callous destruction of the hedge maze he lovingly builds in his garden. Finally, Shields writes hilariously and accurately about Larry’s brief midlife crisis when he turns forty: ‘and then a dazzling thought comes at him sideways – by August he will be forty-one! No longer forty, with forty’s clumsy, abject shoulders and sting of regret, but forty-one! A decent age, a mild, assured, wise and good-hearted manly age.’ However, although I liked the novel a lot, I didn’t think that it brought anything particularly new to discussions of masculinity at the turn of the twenty-first century, although it’s refreshing to see a male protagonist who is fundamentally not a bad sort. I also found the twist at the end both disappointing and frankly, unbelievable, given its minimal seeding. It allows Shields to deploy a satisfying maze metaphor but for me, negatively coloured my final impression of this solid Orange Prize winner.

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Both these novels made me reflect on how rarely I read novels that are older than a couple of years, and what I might be missing out on by focusing so closely on contemporary fiction. I also suspect that I might have been much more impressed by both these books had I read them in my late teens or early twenties, when, for whatever reason, I felt much more drawn to these kind of quiet, character-led narratives. Nowadays, as my Women’s Prize winner ranking will reveal, I am much more enthusiastic about books that make me think, and especially to books that incorporate speculative elements, whether that’s hard SF or something with just a hint of magic. I feel like this reverses some stereotypical ideas about what you like in your teens versus your thirties, but never mind!

Has reading older novels made you reflect on your present reading preferences?

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.

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.