Autumn Reading, 2021

Autumn (I also like the American ‘fall’, which I used in my early childhood) is my favourite season, for all the usual reasons: Halloween, Bonfire Night, leaves changing colour, beautiful afternoon light, back-to-school, cozy jumpers, pumpkin spice lattes, comfortable boots. And some less-usual reasons: my birthday, days getting shorter, dogs allowed on the North Tyneside/Northumberland beaches, allowed to wear tights again. I always like to seek out some autumnal reading, which might be cozy or spooky or set in the fall, but sometimes just ends up feeling ‘autumnal’ to me for some unspecified reason. Here’s some thoughts on what I’ve been reading:

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Something about Sarah Hall’s work always makes me think of autumn. In the case of Burntcoat, it’s the protagonist’s, Edith’s, art, which involves sculpting from wood using burning techniques she learnt in Japan, so the wood can bear the weather better. Edith describes the process:

There was incredible skill to it – collapsing the cell walls to strengthen the wood, preserving its integrity while enhancing its beauty. Too much heat and the piece was ruined, too little and the wood wasn’t sealed, could not achieve the finish. Shun called this experience. The wood is experiencing fire now. It will be improved.

This passage could serve as an epigraph for the whole book, which darts between Edith’s past and her present. In the present, she is nearing the end of her life, living with the aftereffects of the novavirus, a pandemic that ravaged the world several decades ago. In the past, she faces the pandemic in isolation with her lover, and remembers her mother’s struggle back to life after a brain haemorrhage. I found this all strongly reminiscent of some of the Nina Allan short stories I recently read, especially ‘Neptune’s Trident’, ‘Flying in the Face of God’, and ‘Four Abstracts’. Hall has the same knack as Allan of creating imaginary art that feels so real you almost believe it exists – next time I’m at Scotch Corner, I’ll expect to see Edith’s witch – and she’s also interested in those outcast by illness and dealing with its effects on their body.

I’ve read everything Sarah Hall has written, and her uncompromising, vivid prose is in full force in Burntcoat. I found her last collection of short stories, Madame Zerosomewhat disappointing, so for me this felt like a return to form, and I was glad to see her publish a longer work again. While this was not as distinctive and memorable for me as my favourite Hall, The Carhullan Armyit’s still a highly original take on a theme that was familiar in fiction long before coronavirus: how we survive mass illness and death, and what is left if we do.

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

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Tade Thompson’s new SF thriller, Far From The Light of Heaven, also fills the autumnal brief for me, as well as the RIP Challenge, by being pretty creepy. Shell Campion is the first mate on the starship Ragtime, and she expects an easy ride; she’ll be in deep sleep for most of her ten-year stint travelling to the new settlement of Bloodroot, and even when she’s awake, the AI captain will actually be in charge. However, when Shell is awakened abruptly from stasis, she realises something has gone terribly wrong; the AI has been compromised, and robots have killed a number of her sleeping passengers. Shell’s story intersects with that of a number of other characters, most hailing either from Bloodroot or from the space station Lagos, as she tries to find out what is going on and save her ship.

This gripping space-opera-cum-crime-thriller reminded me at times of James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, especially in its touches of horror as vegetable contagion creeps through the spaceship, and in its use of multiple points-of-view. There’s also some hints of China Miéville in Thompson’s genre-mixing. I found Far From The Light of Heaven more compelling than the only other novel I’ve read by Thompson, Rosewaterwhich failed to emotionally engage me with its protagonist. Nevertheless, it does still have a few of the same issues as Rosewater – in short, it sometimes spreads itself too thin. Thompson has a habit of suddenly lurching into chunks of backstory in the middle of the narrative, which feel out of place, especially in a novel as fast-paced as this one, and could have been introduced more originally. There are rather too many points-of-view broken up into very small chunks, which adds to the reader’s disorientation. And while this isn’t billed as the first book in a series, it feels very much like it’s setting up for something bigger, especially in its introduction of the race of mysterious Lambers, which is wonderfully imaginative but feels like a distraction from the main goings-on in this book. Nevertheless, Thompson continues to impress me with his originality, and I’d certainly like to read more set in this world.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th October.

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Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books have been a favourite autumnal read for me since I was a teenager, and although none of the later titles in the series ever reached the heights of Sabriel or Lirael, I still always enjoy returning to the Old Kingdom. This latest instalment, Terciel and Elinor, jumps back in time to focus on Sabriel’s parents, moving between their stories and ultimately interweaving them. Terciel is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, charged by the current Abhorsen to help her bind the Greater Dead creature Kerrigor, who we know will become significant later on in the history of this world. Elinor has grown up in Ancelstierre knowing nothing of the Old Kingdom, convinced that the Charter Mark she bears on her forehead is a disfiguring scar – until she is forced to come face to face with her heritage. I always get most out of the parts of the Old Kingdom books that are set in one of Nix’s marvellous set-piece locations (my favourite sequence in any of the novels is the part of Lirael where Lirael is still living with the Clayr) and so I was delighted to find that some of them feature here: Wyverley College and Abhorsen’s House (though sadly, we don’t see much of the Clayr’s Glacier). Like its predecessors Abhorsen and Goldenhand, Terciel and Elinor is fun and immersive, but doesn’t imaginatively introduce or expand this world in the ways that Sabriel and Lirael did; therefore, I can’t rank it as highly as the first two books, which were truly magical. Nevertheless, fans of the Old Kingdom series should like this.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 2nd November.

(This may seem frivolous, but I think part of the reason I haven’t got as much out of the two more recently published Abhorsen novels – Goldenhand and now Terciel and Elinor* – is simply because I haven’t had the sheer pleasure of reading them in the beautiful American hardback editions of the original trilogy. I read both on Kindle, but the British and newer American editions are so hideous that I don’t think it would have helped if I bought them in hard copy. Sadly, there are no matching editions for the more recent novels.)

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*I know Clariel exists but I wouldn’t have liked it regardless of what format I read it in

‘Speaking Nearby’ Ourselves: Cathy Park Hong

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I’m not sure that the title and blurb of Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings give a completely accurate impression of what the book is about – in short, I can see someone picking this up expecting a meditation on the Korean American immigrant ‘experience’, and instead, encountering a series of essays that are much more concerned with making art while happening to be Korean American. Indeed, part of Hong’s achievement here is to demonstrate the deadness of familiar questions such as ‘Can white people write characters of colour?’ and to say much more interesting things about writing from your own and from others’ experiences, in conversation with other female Asian artists. For example, she writes:

‘Rather than “speaking about” a culture outside your experience, the filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha suggests we “speak nearby”. In an interview for Artforum, Trinh says: “When you decide to speak nearby, rather than speak about, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge the possible gap between you and the who populate your film… You can only speak nearby, in proximity… which requires that you deliberately suspend meaning… This allows the other person to come in and fill that space as they wish.”‘

Hong uses Trinh’s insights to try and turn the conversation away from the inevitable focus upon white writers writing ‘outside their lane’, arguing: ‘I am only capable of “speaking nearby” the Asian American condition… I can’t stretch myself across it.’ (I found Jeannette Ng’s essay, ‘On Identity, Performing Marginalisations and the Limitations of #OwnVoices’ interesting in this context, reflecting some of Hong’s concerns about the power of the ‘single story’, or what happens when only immigrant narratives palatable to white audiences are told and retold).

Minor Feelings wrestles with the question of how artists should and can use their own experience, especially female artists of colour who risk being totally defined by it; what Nesrine Malik has called always writing ‘as a’. One of Hong’s closest friends as a young artist, Erin, insists on keeping some tragic events in her own past completely private: ‘If you reveal anything, they collapse your art with your life – and I don’t want my autobiography hijacking my art. Maybe back then, my loss was a deep part of me but I have worked really hard to separate my work and my identity from that loss.’ In another essay, Hong further interrogates these ideas through an exploration of the life and work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an artist and poet who worked in America but who was originally from South Korea, and who was raped and murdered at the age of thirty-one in 1982. Cha’s Dictee has become ‘a seminal book in Asian American literature… taught widely in universities’, but, Hong found, scholars are reluctant to talk about Cha’s death or to read her book as autobiographical because they feel this context devalues her art. ‘But where does the silence that neglects her end and where does the silence that respects her begin?’ Hong asks.

Because I’m fascinated by writing about art-making, I loved the turn that Minor Feelings took after the first couple of essays, which were equally strongly written but made points that were relatively more familiar to me (the denial of ‘innocence’ to children of colour; the ‘underachievement’ of black children in formal education in the US; the awkward position of Asian Americans, who are conceptualised as a ‘model minority’, privileged at the expense of African Americans, but who are also subject to racist stereotypes of passivity and authoritarianism, and told to “go home”). Hong is especially good at placing her work in dialogue with a longer tradition of female Asian American writing about art and emphasising that this is completely natural, remembering her good fortune in being college-educated in the US in the mid to late nineties: ‘Of course I read Theresa Hak Kyung Cha alongside William Carlos Williams in poetry class. I didn’t study the performances of Guillermo Gómez-Peña because I needed a sample of the “Chicano experience” like a vitamin supplement. I studied these writers and artists because they were the most interesting thinkers’.

Therefore, Minor Feelings itself becomes a subtle rebuke to those who read it looking for a certain kind of book, one that will somehow illuminate the Korean-American or, even more ridiculous, the Asian-American ‘experience’. As Hong argues, this can’t be done. But this brilliantly intelligent collection of essays is an important intervention in ongoing debates about race, identity and art.

I received a free proof copy of this essay collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on March 5th.