August Superlatives

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

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Saddest Book I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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

 

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#20 Books of Summer, #13 and #14: True Believer and Over Sea, Under Stone

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

I feel like a bit of a cheat choosing two children’s/YA books (Skellig did not count because it was so awful I read it very slowly) but, to be fair, nothing against it in the rules I set myself.

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The UK edition I own – couldn’t find a stock photo online. I love the very ‘early 00s’ font choice, reminiscent of the cover of Nicola Griffiths’ The Blue Place.

Before rereading: I first read this book in 2002, when I was fifteen years old, the same age as the main character. I don’t remember much about it other than that I resonated with its themes of oppressive, evangelical Christianity and first love.  It stands out in my memory because I liked it despite the fact it was an ‘issue’ book written in blank verse – two things I usually steered clear of as a teenager. I didn’t write anything down about the novel at the time, but it was ‘Commended’ in my monthly book awards.

After rereading: Ah, I completely see why I loved this so much as a teenager, but I still really enjoyed it as an adult. The central themes of the novel – unrequited love, religion, and biochemistry – were also three of my obsessions at this age. Like LaVaughn, the protagonist of True Believer, I was disturbed by how many of my fellow classmates had become vocal evangelical Christians, committing to fundamentalist ideas about evolution and hellfire, and resisted their attempts to convert me. Although our adolescent experiences were otherwise very far apart – American LaVaughn lives in a rough inner city area with frequent shootings, both inside and outside her high school – I identified with her concerns. It also features a very early 00s take on adolescent homosexuality: our sympathetic, straight protagonist discovers that a male friend is gay and, after the initial shock, accepts it. It’s interesting how the few YA novels at the time that did tackle this topic often did it in this sidelong way (and totally unsurprising that the gay characters were always male). Passages from the book came back to me as I was reading, making me realise that they must have stayed with me ever since. And while I still struggle with novels written in blank verse, this, along with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Otheris a rare exception that works for me: Wolff uses verse so cleverly to convey the cadence of LaVaughn’s voice.

(This book is actually the second in a trilogy. I read the first, Make Lemonade, after reading this one and wasn’t too impressed with it. The third, This Full House, came out in 2009, when my teen years were over, and doesn’t seem to have got great reviews, so I’m hesitant to try it).

My rating in 2002: ****

My rating in 2022 (twenty years later 😲): ****

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Before rereading: I read this book multiple times as a young child. The American edition suggests to me that I first read it in the States, so I was probably around six or seven (c.1993-4). I remember it as being quite similar to Enid Blyton, The Magician’s Nephew and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in its Cornish holiday setting, quest narrative and hint of something darker via the character of Great-Uncle Merry, who I remember as having a bit of a Gandalf vibe. I did not read the rest of the novels in The Dark Is Rising sequence until I was a teenager, and never clicked with them in the same way. I think it was a combination of not being a big fan of high/Arthurian fantasy and feeling resentful that there were (initially) so few connections between this book and the rest of the series.

I’m rereading this as part of Annabel’s Dark Is Rising Sequence Readalong #TDiR22.

After rereading: This took me back! I read it when I was so young I still believed all books somehow existed in the same world, so it’s muddled in my head with Weirdstone – which was published five years earlier, and with which it shares certain key similarities – and other children’s books I read that dealt with Cornish folklore. It starts off feeling very Blytonesque, as the three Drew children embark on their seaside holiday, but Cooper expertly weaves in a darker and more menacing thread as they find a mysterious map and search for the Grail, and the final revelation about Great-Uncle Merry confirms my dim memory of the novel. This was a perfect read for a sunny few days spent largely on the north-east coast – plus one misty morning.

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Annabel asks:

  1. We’re reading the book in prime holiday season. Does it successfully evoke the sense of adventure of childhood holidays at the seaside for you? YES – especially the sequence when the children explore a cave at low tide.
  2. This novel was initially written in response to a competition to honour the memory of E. Nesbit, although it wasn’t actually entered for it. How well do you think Cooper achieves this? I find this a bit puzzling. I devoured many E. Nesbit books as a child – Five Children and It, The Story of the Amulet, The Story of The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Enchanted Castle (hated The Railway Children, sorry) – and this book doesn’t seem to owe much to Nesbit. As I’ve said, to me the obvious readalikes are Blyton and Garner. Over Sea, Under Stone recalls a world of ‘high’ magic linked to local legend, which doesn’t fit with the feel of the more prosaic magics in Nesbit’s books. The closest Nesbit novels are probably Treasure Seekers/Wouldbegoods, but there is no element of fantasy in those two, and they adopt a much more imaginative and interesting style of first-person narration than Over Sea, which is very straightforwardly told.
  3. I can’t help comparing the Drew children to Narnia’s Pevensies. Barney would be Lucy, Simon would be Peter – does that make Jane Susan? What other parallels are there if any? I don’t remember the Narnia novels well enough to answer this, but I was interested by the way the three children are characterised. Although Cooper’s writing is far superior to Blyton’s, there are traces of familiar roles. Simon is the leader and protective older brother, Barney is the maverick younger brother and repository of random facts, and Jane is more caring, more easily frightened and more timid. Cooper is careful to have all three children contribute equally to the quest for the grail, but I was sorry to see Jane sometimes relegated to more traditionally feminine roles – for example, waiting for the boys outside the cave.
  4. And what about the dog? How does Rufus compare with Tintin’s Snowy/Milou or Timmy in the Blyton’s Famous Five? I’m not really sure why there was a dog in this book – although he does a good line in alerting our protagonists to the presence of evil.

My rating c.1994: *****

My rating in 2022: ****

20 Books of Summer, #4, #5 and #6: Bones of the Earth, The Lowland and The Village

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

I am a bit behind this summer, but not quite as bad as it looks – I’m reading #7 and #8 at the moment and have #9-#12 planned out. I’m enjoying the freedom of reading more slowly as I’m rereading, though.

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Before rereading: I remembered finding Michael Swanwick’s dinosaur time-travel novel Bones of the Earth rather convoluted and confusing, but I also remembered it having an amazing set-piece section when a group of palaeontologists get stranded in the late Cretaceous period. Basically, I was in the mood to read it again. I discovered this book online in 2017 and bought a second-hand hardback. It was nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Campbell and Locus awards in 2002 and 2003.

The first time I read Bones of the EarthI wrote: ‘Bones of the Earth is an exhilarating novel. Swanwick may have chucked far too many ideas at it, but this results in some wonderful set-pieces. His handling of the dinosaur scenes is brilliant, and made me wish that he had simplified the time travel apparatus considerably… with such a crowded and complicated narrative, it could do with a strong emotional anchor provided by a single protagonist to guide us through.’ 

After rereading: Perhaps because I knew what to expect, I found this a rather different reading experience second time around. The individual threads were less compelling, but I appreciated how Swanwick draws it all together at the end much more; making some of the things I complained about before seem more necessary to his overall design. Bones of the Earth is really about why we do science, even when we gain nothing from it other than the satisfaction of knowing, and I love that.

My rating in 2017: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

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I read the same hardback edition from two different libraries.

Before rereading: I know that I loved The Lowland (it was one of my top ten books of 2014) but I recall hardly anything about it. The things that have stayed with me are a mother leaving her family to pursue her own dreams, and an incredibly moving ending (which I can’t remember!). I read a hardback copy from the library after it was shortlisted for the Baileys/Women’s Prize for Fiction that year. (An aside: just how good was the 2014 Baileys shortlist? It also had Americanah, The Goldfinch and A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing! Plus, The Luminaries, All The Birds, Singing and The Signature of All Things on the longlist! Interestingly, I’ve now reread four of these novels – maybe I should do the whole lot.)

The first time I read The Lowland, I wrote: ‘Unlike many novels which claim an ambitious scope because they move continents, The Lowland is ambitious in the best sort of way; retaining a very small central cast, it makes its readers truly care about the fates of Udayan, Subhash and Gauri, and it makes their stories unpredictable and yet seemingly inevitable, the way real lives are…. As the novel unfolds, it looses itself from being solely about two brothers from West Bengal and speaks to wider themes of ageing and what we choose to do with our lives as we age, and how key choices mould our lives more than we could ever have imagined.’ 

After rereading: I was both as impressed with this book as I was when I first read it and not surprised that it hasn’t stayed with me. The craft of The Lowland is in the way it traces the slow unfolding of its central characters’ fates; this time around, I felt it was less about the choices we make and more about how one horrific event can continue to constrain us. The way that the novel continually bends back to that pivotal turning point makes sense, because for the characters, it will always be ‘yesterday’, in the sense that Gauri’s daughter Bela understands it as a small child: ‘One day she told Gauri… I want short hair, like yesterday. It had been many months ago that Bela’s hair was short… But for Bela, three months ago and the day before were the same.’ I’ve given it a slightly lower rating, but this doesn’t reflect any sense of disappointment; I’m not sure that the five-star rating made sense last time, given that I wrote it ‘never flared into brilliance’ (though to be fair, I was comparing it to The Goldfinch and Americanah – hard acts to follow!)

My rating in 2014: *****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

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Before rereading: I first read The Village in 2012, when I was twenty-five. I received a proof copy from the publisher and had not read anything else by Nikita Lalwani before, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

The first time I read The Village, I wrote: ‘It is difficult to warm to this excellent novel, but this is really a proof of its success. It’s genuinely disturbing, not in the ‘horror film’ sense, but because it disturbs the reader’s settled pre-conceptions and leaves you not quite knowing where to settle them again. Ray, Nathan and Serena are the three members of a BBC production crew who have come to India to make a documentary about life in a ‘prison village’, a rehabilitative experiment where prisoners who have behaved well during their first years in jail are allowed to live under controlled conditions with their families while they serve out the rest of their sentences. Ray, the central character, straddles these two worlds uneasily… gripping and all too brief.’

After rereading: So, I actually liked this one even more ten years down the line. In 2012, I wrote: ‘the theme of voyeurism becomes so strong that it almost seems a little laboured’ and ‘the dubiousness of their work perhaps shouldn’t have been so obvious from the start… the fact that Nathan, Serena and even Ray are all so unsympathetic doesn’t help’. I just didn’t feel this way second time around. I liked how Lalwani shows how we are all constantly watching and judging each other, as the villagers, guards and locals run close surveillance on the BBC crew even as they are being filmed themselves. Interestingly, I also sympathised more with Ray, even though she is an obviously flawed protagonist, and this helped me feel like the project wasn’t so clearly dubious at the start of the novel. She’s a woman of North Indian descent who’s been brought up in Britain but speaks both English and Hindi, and I could understand why she struggled running interference between her unpleasant and competitive BBC colleagues, the village governor, and the villagers. It helped that she genuinely realises how appalling some of her actions have been by the end of the book. This is such a clever, fraught novel, which ratches up the tension even though we’re not sure exactly what we fear is going to happen; every sentence matters.

(I feel highly aggrieved on behalf of The Village that its average Goodreads rating is so low! I can only assume that it somehow reached entirely the wrong readership… it definitely isn’t slow, stereotyped or directionless!)

My rating in 2012: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

June Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. A shorter post than usual as I’ve reviewed more of what I’ve read this month via 20 Books of Summer.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley. It’s 1963, and Valery has spent six years in the gulag when he is abruptly transferred to a secret facility called Chelyabinsk 40, where his scientific expertise is required to study an irradiated forest and the animal life within. However, Valery soon realises that something is wrong; the levels of radiation in the city are far above what has been officially reported. Valery is a hugely compelling protagonist; I loved him, and I loved this book. My full review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Unlikely Thru-Hiker by Derick Lugo. Despite being a self-proclaimed ‘metrosexual’ with no hiking or camping experience, New York comedian Derick Lugo sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, where he’s given the trail name ‘Mr Fabulous’ because of his attention to personal hygiene and grooming, as well as his ‘peace and love’ attitude. I’m fascinated by the Appalachian Trail, although I’ve never set foot on it, and I’d hoped for a reflection on Lugo’s experiences as a black man hiking this famous route; many of his fellow hikers comment that he’s the only black man they’ve ever seen doing it. This book isn’t about race, which, of course, is fair enough; the trouble is that it isn’t about anything else either. Lugo reels off tons of unconnected anecdotes, most of which have a ‘you had to be there’ feel. He also obsesses about food, toilets and camping facilities. It’s not a long book, but it felt like it was.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham. Wadham is a renewed glaciologist, and this is an accessible and interesting introduction to how glaciers form, move and melt, and how climate change is affecting some of the coldest places on Earth. Following ice around the world, we move from France to Greenland to Antarctica to Peru. As with Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother TreeI enjoyed the science in this book (this time, it was A Level Chemistry rather than A Level Biology I was struggling to recall), and I liked how Wadham weaved her personal experiences through the chapters, although it’s a much thinner thread than Simard’s.

The Book With The Best Narrator I Read This Month Was…

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… Vladimir by Julia May Jonas. When you struggle to review a novel because you know its narrator would look scathingly on any of the comments that you make about it, that’s when you know you’ve just read an excellent character study. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski. I would likely not have picked this up without Elle’s recommendation, but I’m glad I did. Set in a strip club in the Chicago suburbs in 1999, Real Easy is ostensibly about the disappearance of two of the women who work at the club, with some viewpoint chapters from the detectives assigned to the case. However, its real focus is the lives of the women who do lap dances and strip shows to make money, exposing the banal routines of the club as well as their different home lives, their partners and children and parents. Rutkoski hops from voice to voice, but two women, intersex Samantha and bisexual, mixed-race Georgia, take centre stage. While some of the points about female objectification felt a bit familiar – especially in the chapters narrated by the male characters – Rutkoski’s writing is smart and fresh.

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Going To Church In Medieval England

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the fourth year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2022 shortlist hereThis year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Prize.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 22nd June 2022.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Nicholas Orme’s Going To Church In Medieval England. Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University. His book is an ‘account of parish churches and their role in medieval communities, demonstrating the presence of religion at every point in a human life, from birth to coming of age, from marriage to death’.

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When I was a history undergraduate studying both early modern religion and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious practice in Britain, I used to get horribly confused by the way English churches worked. What was the difference between a rector, a vicar and a curate? What was a glebe, a benefice or a prebend? In short, I needed this book. By exploring the history of the parish church from its earliest foundations, Orme clearly explains how the relationship between the church and its parishioners was structured, and how these older traditions survived the Reformation and the coming of Protestantism. Apart from one opening and one closing chapter, all the chapters of this book cover its full chronological span from the Anglo-Saxon period until the 1520s, focusing on themes like the staff of the church, the church building, and the liturgical day, week and year.

My favourite chapter in Going To Church In Medieval England was on ‘the congregation’. After the Religious Census of 1851, which showed that only 54% of the population of England and Wales attended any service on the day of the census, the Victorians were swept into a panic. Why had the working classes become so heathen? Orme demonstrates that, even in a period where you could be reported to a Church court for being persistently absent at church and be made to do public penance, many stayed away or attended only intermittently. Even when parishioners made it to church, they didn’t always behave well. People walked about the church, gossiped or quarrelled, or complained about the priest. Orme writes: ‘Resentment could be shown without words, as with one man who contemptuously washed his hands in the font and another who gave holy bread to his dog.’ Meanwhile, behaviours that we associate with attending a modern church service developed only gradually. Praying was done with the hands held up by the head with the palms open until the early thirteenth century, when people started to adopt the more familiar posture of joined palms by the breast. Standing up at certain points in the service only became meaningful when most worshippers were able to sit down, which was not possible in the early medieval church due to a lack of seating.

Orme writes simply and accessibly about a hugely complex historiography, and for that reason, this book works. Nevertheless, I think I’d expected something a bit different from Going To Church In Medieval England, which is ultimately a top-down, institutional history of the development of the English parish church. The title made me think it would have more to say about religious experience, which – bar the chapter on the congregation – is not the focus of this text. I was also surprised to see so little about doctrine or religious belief, a topic which I personally find fascinating. Orme hints at the development of English Catholicism across this period but largely chooses to steer clear of doctrinal arguments, which, for me, was disappointing.

I wasn’t convinced that Going to Church in Medieval England quite fulfilled the remit of the Wolfson Prize, as I’m not sure how attractive it would be to a general reader. Nevertheless, it will certainly be a useful reference text for those studying the history of the English parish church or exploring church buildings.

Be sure to check out the rest of the stops on the first week of this blog tour:

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20 Books of Summer, #17 and #18: New Waves and The Fens

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Kevin Nguyen’s debut New Waves was one of my most anticipated new releases of 2020, and it didn’t disappoint, even though the novel I read turned out to be a very different novel from the one the blurb led me to expect. New Waves was billed as fast-paced and satirical, featuring a black woman, Margo, and a Vietnamese man, Lucas, who team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long. While that’s certainly where the story starts, this hook doesn’t have much to do with where it goes after that. Nevertheless, as it turned out, New Waves fits right into a sub-genre that I’ve only just realised I love: literary fiction about fascinatingly opaque characters whom we learn about solely through the viewpoints of their friends and the technological or artistic remnants they leave behind (see also: Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted). Which is to say that this novel is all about Margo, tech genius and science fiction short story writer, even though she dies in a random accident in its first few pages. Grieving the loss of his best friend, Lucas hunts through her laptop, and while he doesn’t exactly come across revelations that overturn everything he knows about Margo, he definitely finds things that switch that knowledge onto new tracks. New Waves is so smart about race and gender, but it also has a lot to say about how both people and programmes tend to add up data in a way that makes sense to them. Margo’s short stories are nihilistic, refusing to organise themselves in any way that allows a happy ending, but her actual presence in Lucas’s life was relentlessly optimistic. Because we never hear from her directly (other than in the typed and spoken material she left behind, which is more about her fiction than about her), we are left to make up our own minds about a lot of loose ends. What kind of person was she deep down? What did she really think about Lucas? This novel will probably drive some readers to distraction, but I loved it.

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Francis Pryor is an archaeologist who specialises in the study of the British Bronze and Iron Ages. The Fens: Discovering England’s Ancient Depths traces the history of this particular English region from prehistoric times to the present day, interspersing Pryor’s personal experiences on particular digs and his memories of living in the fenland with an archaeologist’s view of how and why the fens have developed and changed. Unsurprisingly, given Pryor’s area of specialism, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up this book, the bulk of the material is prehistoric; the medieval fens, which is the period I’m personally most interested in, barely get a look in, and what he does say about medieval power relationships is pretty simplistic from a historian’s point of view. Pryor is, when it comes down to it, more interested in the evolution of technologies, buildings and settlements than in social and political history, and fair enough if that’s your kind of thing. However, I did feel this would struggle to appeal beyond a relatively narrow audience. It’s very long, goes off on a lot of tangents, and Pryor’s writing is clear but no more than that. Certainly, the autobiographical elements of this book don’t add very much, although it promises to discuss a more emotional relationship with landscape. If you’ve lived in the fens, there will be something to interest you here, but it might not be enough to engage you for the whole 400+ pages; I read the first four chapters and then skipped to the chapters that particularly appealed to me.

I’ve made a second and final substitution in my 20 Books of Summer; unfortunately, my NetGalley copy of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain was so badly formatted it was unreadable (not the first time), so I’ve subbed in Xuan Juliana Wang’s collection of short stories Home Remedies, which was on my list of books to read in 2020.

20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: If I Had Your Face and Surfacing

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Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, is narrated in first person by four women in their late twenties and early thirties living precarious lives in contemporary Seoul (they actually live in the Gangnam district, which is a good education for those of us who have only heard of Gangnam from the K-pop single ‘Gangnam Style’). Despite only having four narrators, it has five significant female characters, all of whom live in the same apartment building. Ara, a mute hair stylist obsessed with a K-pop icon, shares her flat with school friend Sujin, who is saving up for plastic surgery so she can be a top ‘room salon’ girl like Kyuri, who makes money by entertaining men every night. Kyuri’s flatmate, Miho, seems to have broken away from her deprived upbringing in an orphanage when she wins a scholarship to an art school in New York, but is still at the mercy of the classist judgments of other Koreans when she returns; finally, Wonna, who lives with her husband in the downstairs flat, is desperate to become a mother even though she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to make ends meet. If I Had Your Face is significantly, if not wholly, concerned with how all of these women struggle to meet conventional standards of femininity and sexuality. In this, it has something in common with Cheryl Lu-Lien’s Singapore-set Sarong Party Girls; however, the latter has a much more satirical tone, depicting women who party hard and are much more willing to break the rules in their search for the perfect husband, whereas the Korean characters in If I Had Your Face live more constrained lives.

There are flashes of memorable originality in this debut novel, but the bits that stuck with me most vividly – like Wonna accidentally blinding her cousin as a child or Ara beating up an assistant hair stylist who’s sabotaging her at work – were the incidents that didn’t really connect to the story as a whole. The novel feels a little meandering and confusing, and this is amplified by how difficult it is to tell its four narrators apart and how all four of them tend to skip backwards and forwards in time when telling their stories. I was perhaps more bothered than I ought to have been by the fact that Sujin doesn’t get to narrate, whereas Wonna doesn’t seem to fit into many of the key themes of the book and so felt like an unnecessary addition. I understand that Cha wanted to explore the fate of women who do achieve marriage to a respectable man as a counterpoint to the rest of her characters trying to survive on their own, but I felt like I’d read this story many times before. If I Had Your Face had so much potential, but it never quite pulled it together.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on July 23rd.

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Surfacing is Kathleen Jamie’s third collection of nature-writing essays, following Findings and Sightlinesboth of which I enjoyed immensely. Unlike her previous two collections, Surfacing is dominated by two novella-length pieces on archaeological digs and their relationship with the landscape around them – ‘In Quinhagak’ explores the University of Aberdeen’s excavations at the Nunalleq site near the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak in Alaska, while ‘Links of Noltland’ focuses on the excavation of Neolithic remains on Orkney. The former essay is especially interesting because of the presence of the Yup’ik community, who support the archaeological dig because it’s uncovering evidence of their pre-contact culture. As Jamie writes, ‘It’s about saying, this is yours. Everything you feared you lost, or never even knew you had. Look. It’s here. It’s back.’ The Links of Noltland dig, exploring a time unfathomably more ancient, has no such direct living connection, but the meticulous work of the archaeologists builds up a sense of what the community must have been like. At one point, Jamie is helping two of the researchers, Dan and Anna, explore a particular patch:

[Dan] had the enclosure wall to deal with and, in its lee, many flints. His patch was covered in little polythene bags, each containing a bit of flint. Anna and I, just a metre further into the enclosure, had only brown earth which yielded occasional small morsels of bone. I pretended outrage when Hazel came by. “Miss! It’s not fair! He’s getting all these finds, and we’re not.”

Hazel’s answer seemed visionary. She glanced and said, “They must have been sitting on the wall, flint-knapping.”

Sat right there on their village wall in the afternoon sunshine, working and chatting. I almost saw them.

Jamie’s writing is as clear and brilliant as ever, but this collection felt slightly unbalanced by the dominance of these two long pieces. None of the very short pieces interspersed throughout worked for me, although I enjoyed a couple of the medium-length pieces; ‘The Wind Horse’, a bit of a departure from Jamie’s usual work, evocatively returns to her travels as a young woman in Xiahe, which is formally part of China but ‘ethnically and culturally Tibetan’, and ‘Elders’ is a moving piece about the ageing and death of her dad. Unlike Sightlines, Surfacing is also less successful at pulling together Jamie’s travel-writing with her emotional reflections on her own life; both are present in this book but tend to be explored in separate essays. Nevertheless, I would recommend this thoughtful, beautiful collection, especially if you are interested in questions of historical and cultural preservation.