20 Books of Summer, #18, #19 and #20: Double Fault, The Buried Giant and The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing

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! 

Three eclectic choices to finish up with… though all have something to say about marriage.


Before rereading: I first read Double Fault in 2010, when I was twenty-three, and again in 2012, when I gave it the same star rating but enjoyed it more. I remember it vividly. It’s the story of an up-and-coming tennis player, Willy, who falls in love with another tennis player, Eric. At first, Willy can easily outpace him, but as his career gathers speed and hers falters, she becomes paralysed by the pain of her own unfulfilled dreams and her struggle to support Eric. This is one of Shriver’s best novels, but I remember it as quite a traumatic read. Willy’s slow failure is so horrible to witness, and I hugely identified with her inability to see herself as anything other than a tennis player (despite having only successfully hit a ball with a tennis racket a couple times in my life!!) and how viciously Eric’s success rubbed salt into her wounds. The novel has attracted a lot of moany Goodreads reviews about how Willy isn’t ‘likeable’, to which I say, whatever.

After rereading: I found Double Fault much less upsetting to read this time around, although I rated it just as highly. What was actually upsetting were the ‘reading group’ questions in my edition (the book was originally published in 1997, but this edition is from 2007, so not THAT long ago!!). Some examples:

  • Do you find Willy – or at least her plight – sympathetic? Or is her moral obligation to be supportive of her husband so profound in your mind that you cannot forgive her bad attitude?
  • To what degree do you believe that Willy engineers her own professional downfall? Might she want to succeed too much? But you can’t really blame her for her injury, can you?
  • The book’s title is obviously a play on words, implying that both parties in the marriage have some responsibility for what happens. Willy’s “fault” is pretty obvious. But in what way is Eric to blame? Or is he?
  • How do you picture Willy’s life after the last page? What will she do for a living? Will she marry again? If so, will she have learnt her lesson? And what lesson will that be?

Yes, what lesson WILL that be?

My rating in 2010/2012: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

L: The hardback edition that I used to own. R: The paperback copy I borrowed from the library this time around.

Before rereading: I was so excited about Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Never Let Me Go remains one of my favourite novels of all time, and this was his first new novel in ten years. I loved the idea of Ishiguro tackling traditional fantasy after his take on sci-fi tropes in Never Let Me Go, and I bought the novel in hardback when it first came out in 2015. Sadly, The Buried Giant was not a hit for me. While I liked the themes of memory and forgetting, I found the narrative so slow-paced that I never finished the novel. I truly hate quest or journey narratives – when the characters walk from place to place searching for something they’re not allowed to find – and this seemed like a classic example.

After rereading: The Buried Giant focuses on an ageing couple, Axel and Beatrice, who decide to leave the warren of caverns where they have been mysteriously shunned by their community, and go in search of their son. They are also troubled by the ‘mist’ that has come over their memories and those of everybody else around them, and hope to lift it so they can remember happy times together in the past. As they travel, they experience a number of strange encounters, including a community of monks who ritually allow themselves to be pecked by birds in penance, and a group of three frozen ogres, one half-submerged in a pool. They also wonder, as it becomes clear to them that this land has a violent past, if the ‘mist’ is a result of human actions; ‘Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget.’ 

If that was all The Buried Giant was – a novella or long short story that focused on Axel and Beatrice’s journey – I’d likely find it both strange and impressive. Unfortunately, the novel is padded out with much weaker material, including a sub-plot about the ageing Sir Gawain which read like a parody of epic fantasy, complete with creaky dialogue. It’s a deliberate mishmash of influences, many of which are probably unintentional – I was reminded, at different times, of A Song Of Ice and Fire, The Neverending Story (the ‘Nothing’ bears an uncanny resemblance to Ishiguro’s mist) and the film Return To Oz. I’m inclined to agree with James Wood in the New Yorker when he says ‘a generalized Arthurian setting, perilous for most writers, is a larger liability for a writer whose mimesis tends not toward the specific but toward discursive monologue and dreamlike suspensions’ and that Ishiguro’s writing tends to (deliberately) lack ‘texture and telling particulars’, which works in his other novels but not here. I’d add that Ishiguro’s obsession with the things we misremember feels unnecessary in The Buried Giant, given that the premise of this novel is that everybody has forgotten almost everything – and yet his characters still quibble over the details of the past. Honestly, I found this a massive slog, but I was at least left with more to think about than after reading Klara and the Sun.

My rating in 2015: *** [DNF]

My rating in 2022: ***


Before rereading: I discovered Melissa Bank’s work via her second novel, The Wonder Spot, which I re-read multiple times in my early to mid twenties. I’ve only read The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing once, in 2007, when I was twenty years old, and wasn’t as impressed with it as The Wonder Spot, though the books cover similar ground – smart, thoughtful takes on modern dating reminiscent of something like Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of My Dreams. I was sad to hear that Bank has recently died of lung cancer, aged only 61, and thought it would be good to return to these books, this time in publication order.

After rereading: The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing was a big hit when it was first published in 1999, and I can see why; it captures the turn-of-the-millennium zeitgeist, with its direct references to The Rules and echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary. However, while I can understand why the titular short story made waves, the book as a whole still doesn’t hang together for me. Even putting aside the entirely random story in the middle of the collection that doesn’t feature Jane, Girls’ Guide is uneven. The other strongest stories are ‘Advanced Beginners’ and ‘The Worst Thing A Suburban Girl Can Imagine’, which are also the only two which don’t focus solely on romantic relationships. Banks’ writing is undoubtedly sharp, but the clever one-liners become a little formulaic, as they often rely on reversing a common phrase (Jane ironically accuses a boyfriend who’s trying to find her a job of ‘work harassment in the sexual place’; she calls herself ‘a truthball in search of goof’, etc.) And while a lot of the reviews of this book want to stress that it is NOT CHICK LIT, the best early 00s chick lit is better than this. I enjoyed revisiting Girls’ Guide, but I have much higher hopes for The Wonder Spot, which I plan to re-read in September.

My rating in 2007: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***1/2

Reading on My Travels, Tokyo 2019: Mini-Reviews

I’m back from my travels! Tokyo (and Kyoto, Nikko and Hakone) were everything I’d wanted them to be:

I’m posting my 20 Books of Summer reviews separately, but here’s some thoughts on the other reading I did while I was in Tokyo:

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was totally addictive – I tore through it in a single day, and I have to thank Rachel for persuading me that I’d like it despite my aversion to Old Hollywood settings. The plot draws on some classic chick-lit tropes: junior journalist Monique is stunned when she’s contacted out of the blue by Hollywood star Evelyn Hugo, now in her seventies, and asked to write her biography. Evelyn is famous for having been married seven times – but who was the true love of her life? And what other secrets is she hiding? So far, so predictable. However, Reid’s writing is a notch above similar novels like Harriet Evans’s Not Without You, and the novel is more diverse in terms of both sexuality and race than is usual for this genre; Monique is a biracial black woman, Evelyn is Cuban-American, and there’s also significant LGB representation. In considering the ‘it factor’ projected by true stars, and the emotional dynamics of close-knit groups, Reid picks up on some of the themes she explores further in her most recent novel, Daisy Jones and the Six, although I thought that novel’s innovative narrative structure and more restrained plot twists made it superior.

While I hugely enjoyed this novel, I did have some issues. Firstly, it’s cleverly organised into sections each named after one of Evelyn’s husbands, but this does mess with the pacing a little – some important segments of Evelyn’s life feel rushed, especially as she grows older (in contrast, Daisy Jones covers the band’s whole career but the bulk of it focuses on only a few years). Secondly, while it’s more mature in its approach to different kinds of love than the usual romance novel, I felt that the ending, which falls back on a traditional ‘love is more important than ambition’ platitude, was regressive compared to the more satisfying midpoint where Evelyn validates the importance of both love and career (if Reid was trying to say something clever here about how we value love at different points in our lives, she didn’t quite pull it off). Thirdly [highlight for spoilers] while I loved that Evelyn’s major relationship was with another woman, I felt there was a certain reliance on stereotypes; Evelyn is a bisexual, maritally promiscuous Cuban-American, which draws on unfortunate tropes about both bi people and Latin Americans, while her partner, Celia, is a ‘pure’, blonde, gold star lesbian. While there’s a bit of awkward dialogue where Evelyn argues that her multiple marriages have nothing to do with her bisexuality – which, to be fair, they don’t – this feels a bit pasted on to fix this problem, rather than integral to her character. [spoilers end] Nevertheless, I can forgive the novel a great deal for its last line; it’s just brilliant.

I gave up on Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of The Universe about 15% in – I’m theoretically up for the idea of crossing SF and fantasy, but this fell too much on the fantasy side for me, and also did that irritating fantasy thing of setting up some interesting world-building only to abandon it all after the plot kicks off (SF seems to be generally better at integrating its stories more closely with the worlds they’re set in, and makes better use of set-piece/enclosed settings, which is something I can’t get enough of).

Finally, Hanna Jameson’s The Last is a sub-Station Eleven novel about ‘the end of the world’, but then again, most speculative fiction is sub-Station Eleven, and The Last does well at what it sets out to do. Jon, a historian of modern America, is staying in an isolated hotel in Switzerland when the news breaks of nuclear attacks on countries across the world. No-one knows quite what has happened – the situation is realistically confusing, with phone and internet connections breaking down – and Jon and a handful of other people decide it’s safest to stay holed up at the hotel, rather than venture into an uncertain world. Unlike Station Eleven, therefore, The Last picks up directly after the initial catastrophe, and looks at the nuts and bolts of rebuilding a workable society, rather than considering ‘higher level’ goods like art. Nevertheless, it doesn’t neglect more complex human needs. Jon, desperate to be useful in some way, starts recording events, and when a small girl’s body is discovered in the water tank of the hotel, decides that he’s going to find out what happened to her.

The Last is billed as a murder mystery as well as an end-of-the-world thriller, but it really isn’t about murder – Jon’s search for the girl’s killer is more about his own psychological need to support his belief that human life still matters, that it hasn’t become meaningless in the face of such disaster. This thread, therefore, backs up one of The Last’s central themes: that humans have enough good in them to work together for a common goal. Refreshingly, this is not a nihilistic look at human nature, although Jameson portrays violence and desperation at times. Instead, it impresses us with humankind’s ability to strive towards civilisation, despite our imperfections. Jon himself acts as a microcosm here – he has a number of admirable qualities, but he’s also an unreliable narrator who has done things he’s ashamed of and hurt other people. Jameson bravely leaves the ending wide open, and the ‘resolution’ of Jon’s anxieties about the fate of his wife and children, who were in San Francisco at the time of the attacks, is especially haunting.

20 Books of Summer, #2 and #3: Queenie and Pulp


Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams’s debut novel, has attracted comparisons to Bridget Jones for its funny and frank account of a young black woman working in the media, living in London, navigating bad one-night stands and on-off relationships with men, and relying on the support of her loyal group of female friends, or, as she renames their WhatsApp group, ‘The Corgis’. However, Queenie is more of a straight reinvention of the much-maligned and, in recent years, unpopular ‘chick lit’ genre than a successor to Bridget Jones. As I have said many times (and am going to keep saying until people stop saying the opposite!) Bridget Jones, at least in novel form, is not chick lit or a ‘romcom’ but social satire. Bridget is not meant to be a feminist icon and we aren’t necessarily meant to like her. In contrast, Queenie is hugely sympathetic, and realistically flawed. Her story is a satisfyingly different take on the chick lit plot. Rather than being relegated to the role of the ‘black best friend’, she takes centre stage, with both her white and black friends firmly positioned as her supporting cast; rather than personifying white liberal feminism at her media job, she vocally supports Black Lives Matter, despite resistance from her boss; and the ending is nicely unexpected.

Queenie is also far less ‘feelgood’ than most chick lit, and for all the right reasons; the misogynist and racist abuse Queenie receives, most often entwined in the form of ‘misogynoir‘, is incredibly distressing to read (and I’m speaking about this from the point of view of a white woman who has never had to receive this kind of abuse, so God knows how it must feel to read this if you’re a woman of colour). I found myself feeling angry on Queenie’s behalf almost all of the time, although I liked the way that Carty-Williams challenges the ‘strong black woman’ trope by allowing Queenie to be vulnerable and to seek help from a therapist. Queenie is the target of so much hate because her physical body is hyper-visible in the white-dominated places she’s forced to frequent; from a trendy lido, to her workplace, where only three ‘diverse’ colleagues could be found to appear in a ‘diversity’ poster (‘Zainab in Digital had refused to take part’), to the bars and clubs of Brixton that used to be dominated by her black Caribbean community. Her size, her hair, her skin colour and her shape (‘a bum like yours needs room for manoeuvre’) are all used to belittle and objectify her. In this way, she is a constantly ‘visible woman’, but not for the right reasons.


Abby is a seventeen-year-old lesbian living in DC in the present day who’s decided to do her school project on post-war lesbian pulp fiction; Janet is an eighteen-year-old lesbian living in DC in the 1950s, trying to hide her sexuality as she finds herself falling in love with her best friend. Robin Talley’s Pulp alternates between these two girls’ stories, exploring the historical difficulties of being homosexual in an age of McCarthy and the ‘lavender menace’, while also dealing with Abby’s more mundane struggles with her family, her ex-girlfriend, and what being in love might mean.

Pulp has a great premise, but like much YA fiction, it suffers from being YA. Much as I wish writers wouldn’t write down to a teenage audience (though the majority of YA is actually read by adults) they continue to do so, and everything in Pulp is spelt out and ticked off far too neatly. Talley puts great effort into her diverse cast, featuring a range of characters of colour, a non-binary friend, and a number of bi and gay characters alongside her lesbian leads, but these feel like nothing more than lip-service, especially given that few of them play much of a role in the novel. Abby’s strand of the story is particularly slow, and Abby herself is really not an engaging character. The historical material is more interesting, but I didn’t feel as confident as I should have done with Talley’s handling of this period; some details, like Janet’s job at a drive-in, feel real, most feel too simplistic.

Pulp did, however, make me think about what a book about lesbians aimed at this kind of audience should be doing, if not for the right reasons. Abby rightfully condemns the kind of still-too-familiar queer narrative that sees its characters meet an unhappy ending, but she doesn’t seem to know what she wants to put in its place. As part of her project, she’s meant to be writing her own take on pulp fiction, but apart from ditching the ‘twilight realm’ and ‘in the shadows’ connotations and calling it Totally Normal Women in the Daylight, we never get a sense of what’s different about her plot. In fact, at one point, her teacher tells her that one of her characters, Henrietta, needs to grow and change throughout the course of the book, and Abby resists this – society was what was wrong, not Henrietta, she thinks. Of course, Abby sees this differently by the end of Pulp, but I didn’t get why – wouldn’t this actually be one way of challenging story conventions, by showing gay characters who don’t change, because they don’t need to, but also don’t have the protagonist’s traditional ‘agency’ because of the heteronormative world in which they live?

Pulp clearly wants to be something a bit more serious than Becky Albertalli’s delightful, feelgood LBGT YA novels (Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Upside of Unexpected, Leah On the Offbeat) but, in aiming for this, it fails to deliver the subversive happiness of those stories, and doesn’t really deliver anything else. And it has nothing to say about LGBT identity, really, other than that oppression is bad. Overall – and so ironically for a book about pulp fiction – I just found it a bit worthy.

I’m still away travelling at the moment and so may take longer to reply to comments than usual.

The Last 10 Books Tag

I’ve seen this popping up everywhere, but most recently at Annabel’s blog.

The last book I gave up on

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. I wanted to read about people climbing Everest, but when I realised that a substantial amount of this doorstopper was about the First World War, I stopped reading it. I’ve read a lot of historiography on the experience of the war, and its myth and memory, for work, and so revising this just isn’t that fun for me.

The last book I re-read

Abhorsen by Garth Nix. If you haven’t read this creepy, atmospheric YA quartet, which starts with Sabriel, you really ought to. Nix brings his fantasy universe, peopled by necromancers, seers and animate corpses, vividly to life, and he wrote about a kingdom divided by a Wall behind which the dead walk before George R. R. Martin did.

The last book I bought

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. I thought it was fabulous and will be reviewing it here soon.

The last book I said I read but actually didn’t

I can’t remember ever doing this. Unless I’ve done it by accident? I perhaps have claimed to have read Bleak House when I’ve only read half of it, but that was enough for a lifetime.

The last book I wrote in the margins of

Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch. A popular, conservative-ish history of education in twentieth-century America. I write in all the academic books I own.

The last book I had signed

Solar by Ian McEwan. I never have books signed for myself, so got this signed as a present for my mum several years back. My impression of McEwan was not favourable.

The last book I lost

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. This childhood favourite was sadly left on a train, and I must get round to buying a new copy. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna for grown-ups.

The last book I had to replace

Freeze Tag by Caroline B. Cooney. This Point Horror classic really isn’t very good, but I wanted it for inspiration for my current work-in-progress. It turns out the best thing about it is the cover and the title, and my teenage self was quite right to get rid of my previous copy.

The last book I argued over

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I really couldn’t get on with this at all, finding it shallow and a bit ridiculous, but many fellow members of my creative writing group loved it.

The last book I couldn’t find

My treasured chick lit collection, c. 2005-c.2010, including many titles by Lindsey Kelk, Harriet Evans and Miranda Dickinson. My dad found these books for me hiding in a box after I explained the concept of I Heart…  to him. (‘You mean it’s called ‘I Love New York?’ ‘No, I Heart New York.’ ‘A book can’t be called that.’)

Three Things… October 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Regular readers may have noticed that this blog has gone a bit quiet recently. I’ve been facing some difficult personal upheavals again, and I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on reading, let alone writing reviews. However, things seem to be settling down a bit now, especially work-wise – I’m settling into my new job as a research fellow at Queen Mary University of London, and have just submitted the full manuscript of my first academic book, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools, which is under contract with Manchester University Press.



I was reading Esi Edugyan’s Booker-shortlisted Washington Black before things went pear-shaped, and so it probably suffered somewhat from being read over an exceptionally long period of time. Washington Black shares some surface similarities with Jane Harris’s recent Sugar Money: they are both narrated by a young, male, enslaved narrator who starts his story in the West Indies, although Washington Black is set in the early nineteenth century, exploring the shifting legal position of slavery at the time, whereas Sugar Money deals with a slave revolt in the mid-eighteenth century. Both books also tap into an eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century tradition of adventure narratives, which can lead them to feel a bit repetitive, as the story jumps from one dramatic event to another. However, I found Washington Black much more reflective and emotionally resonant than Sugar Money, helped by the fact that it takes place over a longer period of time and moves through a range of geographically diverse settings.

Washington Black’s life is transformed when, as a young boy, he comes into contact with his master’s brother, ‘Titch’, who helps him escape from slavery and adventure into the unknown. Like Sugar Money, Washington Black moves from scenes of intense and horrifying realism – most of which take place on the Barbados plantation – to more whimsical escapades, as when Washington and Titch fly off in a hot air balloon and, finding themselves about to crash into the sea, manage to steer it so they land on a ship (much to the captain’s displeasure). Tonally, Edugyan handles this expertly, and Washington’s voice is convincing and compelling.

Nevertheless, I felt that something was lacking in the cast of this novel. Frustratingly, it was Titch rather than Washington who came most vividly alive for me. Initially appearing as a kind of ‘white saviour’, or, in more historically-appropriate terminology, a ‘knight in shining armour’, Titch’s mind and motives are deconstructed across the course of this novel. Edugyan cleverly flips our perspective on him a number of times, revealing his inner conflict while not allowing him to become truly sympathetic. The final scene between him and Washington is especially powerful. While I appreciated this nuanced portrait, it’s a shame that the main black characters feel so wooden in comparison. Washington notably comes to life only when he interacts with Titch, while a love interest introduced about halfway through the novel remains no more than that. I’d be surprised if this won the Booker today (though I am usually wrong about prizes, so it probably has a good chance).

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



Due to aforementioned life events, I haven’t been watching anything especially intelligent recently. Netflix’s sweet rom-com To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was perfect escapism. The predictable plot follows a girl who has to confront a series of past crushes after her secret love letters to them get mailed out, but it’s nice to see a more diverse cast in this genre – the heroine, Lara Jean, is Korean-American in the novel, though played in the film by a Vietnamese-American actress. I liked what the author of the original novel, Jenny Han, had to say about the casting of Lara Jean: ‘One producer said to me, as long as the actress captures the spirit of the character, age and race don’t matter… I said, well, her spirit is Asian-American. That was the end of that.’



I went to see Sarah Waters talk about her 2009 novel, The Little Stranger, which has just been made into a film, at the Durham Book Festival. The talk was followed by a screening of the film, which, rather to my surprise – having thought the book would be difficult to film – I very much enjoyed. The film manages to be genuinely creepy, restraining the urge to have anything flashy happen, and Ruth Wilson is superb as Caroline, completely inhabiting her ‘unfeminine’ gait and confident sloppiness. Waters always interviews well, and I was particularly intrigued by a comment she made about the ‘ontological shock’ that should be at the heart of any good ghost story. As Waters put it, if we see a ghost, this should surely strike at the heart of our understanding of the laws of reality. If we see a ghost, surely now anything could happen – a glass could fly across the table, we ourselves could fly apart. I think Waters is absolutely right about the horror of this, and it’s something I think very few ghost stories do well. (I have to say, this is something that always annoyed me in Harry Potter as well – both Harry and Hermione are SO confident about what is silly and mythical, e.g. Luna Lovegood’s Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, and what is real. If you were introduced to a world of magic at the age of eleven, might you not be a bit more open-minded in the future? I have a vintage fanfic from 2004 that explores this question – that’s how much it got to me!)

Genre fiction round-up, February 2018

A bit about some of the genre fiction I’ve been reading recently!



Holly Cave’s thriller The Memory Chamber has a premise that’s strongly reminiscent of the TV show Black Mirror. Isobel is a Heaven Architect, identifying her clients’ most beloved memories and using them to create an artificial Heaven which they can occupy indefinitely after their death. In Heavens, you don’t feel the passage of time, so are unable to tire of the relatively limited pool of memories that Isobel selects, and so can spend forever in the happiest moments of your life. However, there’s a catch: you can only include other people in your Heaven if they explicitly ‘opt-in’. Isobel passionately defends this rule, emphasising that others have a right to privacy, and this could open the door to people’s images and personalities being exploited by their abusers, for example. But her smaller UK-based company is coming under pressure from Valhalla, the US supplier of Heavens, to challenge this in the courts. At the same time, Isobel finds herself dealing with an emotional crisis: she’s falling in love with one of her clients, Jarek, a married man dying from a brain tumour. Jarek says he no longer loves his wife and doesn’t want her in his Heaven; will he end up including Isobel instead?

The Memory Chamber is cleverly and thoughtfully written. This premise could be treated simplistically (Heavens = bad, real life = good), but Cave is aware of both the pitfalls and benefits of her invented technology. (This also highlighted the book’s connections with Black Mirror for me; contrary to popular opinion, Black Mirror is not about how technology is bad and will kill us but how people misuse and exploit technology.) The plot takes some relatively unexpected twists, and I found it genuinely gripping. Cave is also very good at hinting at the wider world in which The Memory Chamber takes place without becoming vague or unbelievable. In terms of genre, this book is definitely a psychological thriller with a speculative twist, and so detailed futuristic world-building would be out of place, but Cave suggests both geopolitical shifts (a new Cold War with China) and day-to-day change (no more honey; driverless cars; iris chips) without labouring the point. She also gets at the poignancy of the past, the way in which Heavens are both beautiful and terrible at the same time. And the cover design is creepily ingenious.


I’ve been reading Harriet Evans’s novels since her 2005 debut, Going Home, and I’m a particular fan of the turn she’s taken in her last two books, A Place for Us and The Butterfly Summer, moving away from ‘chick lit’ towards modern family sagas. I always enjoy a good chick lit, but there’s something in Evans’s writing, and in her interest in home, place and family dynamics, that seems to work especially well telling these kinds of stories, and I’ve found them all really absorbing. The Wildflowers is no exception, and I think it might be her best yet. It focuses at first on a single family in the 1970s and 1980s: Althea and Tony Wilde and their two children, Cordelia and Ben, known as ‘The Wildflowers’ by the locals who live near the ‘Bosky’, the old family house in Worth Bay. The book looks forward into the future, letting us know early on that this family has become fractured, even as all its members pursue their own creative careers; Althea and Tony as actors, Cordelia as a singer and Ben as a film director. But the book also reaches back into Tony’s past; orphaned during the Second World War, he’s taken in by his eccentric archaeologist great-aunt, Dinah. Finally, we see the family through the eyes of Mads, a neglected and abused child who grows up near Cordelia and Ben, and longs to be a part of their games.

All of the cast of The Wildflowers are completely convincing, but I was especially won over by Cordelia and Dinah. Cordelia is vividly flawed, defending her own sense of right and wrong to the death, and yet, in terms of her own personal conduct, ends up doing the least damage. Dinah is still mysterious even by the end of the novel, making us share Tony’s desire to know more about her, and what her life was like before and after she ended up taking care of him. Althea is also nicely done; she could easily have become a stereotypical martyr, but Evans gives her a life of her own, as she does with Mads, who manages to escape some of the most familiar ‘outsider’ tropes. If there is a flaw in this novel, it’s that there was a bit too much Tony for my taste. I felt at times that we were being nudged to sympathise with him, and although I didn’t feel completely unsympathetic towards him, I wasn’t sure about the way the narrative seemed to be weighted on his side. I found the sections from his point of view in the 1940s difficult to get through, and thought they could have been cut down – especially as I was so gripped by the sections set in later time periods.

The Wildflowers perfectly evokes the golden past of one particular family and what happened to pull it apart – and questions whether this idyll ever really existed. Top-notch storytelling.

I received a free copy of The Wildflowers for review from the publisher.


Finally, I’ve been enjoying Adele Geras’s Egerton Hall series, first published in 1992, and first read by me as a teenager in the early 2000s. This YA trilogy consists of The Tower Room, Watching the Roses and Pictures of the Night, and focuses on three friends, Megan, Alice and Bella, who have grown up at boarding school together. Each of the novels is a loose retelling of a fairy tale, but Geras is smart enough not to be tied too tightly by her source material, so the books are long on atmosphere and short on artificial constraints. Despite the brevity of each novel – the longest is only 150 pages – Geras manages to completely inhabit the girls’ secluded world. I think they’re wonderful, and was sad to see their poor ratings on Goodreads from YA readers who have come across them more recently. To me, this is what romantic, fairy-tale-retelling YA should be – capturing the magic and excitement of first love while still keeping an eye on gendered power imbalances. This is explored especially well in The Tower Room, a retelling of Rapunzel, where Megan’s liberation is marked not by her initial escape from school with a lover but by her return to sit her exams and stake her claim to a life that doesn’t revolve around him. Geras’s other books for children and young people are also worth seeking out.

What (else) I’ve been reading: January 2018


After feeling impressed but alienated by China Miéville’s Embassytown, I found his slightly earlier novel, The City and The City, a much more engrossing read. While high-concept, it’s a little less cerebral than Embassytown, and much more effectively-structured; Miéville handles a complicated and twisty plot without ever sacrificing conceptual depth. The book centres on Inspector Borlú, a male detective set to investigate the murder of an initially anonymous young woman along with his younger female partner, Constable Corwi. So far, so crime fiction cliché; but The City and The City immediately disproves stereotypes. Borlú’s investigation is set against the backdrop of a city that is quite literally divided; while he lives his life in Besźel, large sections of Besźel are ‘cross-hatched’ against a parallel city, Ul Qoma, and the citizens of both Besźel and Ul Qoma have been socialised since birth to ‘unsee’ anything they might glimpse when the two cities intersect. Serious infractions of these rules are dealt with by an invisible bureaucracy known only as Breach; Breach’s victims are usually never heard from again. The murder Borlú is investigating goes right to the heart of this overlap between the two cities, and to outlawed academic arguments about the existence of ‘Orciny’, a world rumoured to exist in the interstitial space between the city and the city.

As with Embassytown, the key weakness of Miéville’s writing for me is his use of character. Borlú is defined entirely by the external conflict that he faces; how to solve the case and deal with the terrifying threat of Breach. There is very little trace of Borlú as a person, or any internal conflict he might experience, until the very final pages, and arguably not even then. This is especially jarring given the strong focus on identity, belonging and alienation that characterises The City and The City, and it’s not resolved even by the novel’s (wonderful) final paragraph. My only other problem with The City and The City was rather more subjective. The novel is a very effective cross between crime noir and speculative fiction, but it’s inevitable that it was going to come down harder on one side or the other. The conclusion of the novel situates it more solidly on the crime half of the equation, whereas I wanted it to make more imaginative leaps (as it seemed to be doing about two-thirds of the way through). Funnily enough, while Embassytown felt too removed from human concerns for me, The City and The City is tied too heavily to them. Nevertheless, I continue to love Miéville’s intellect and his originality, and really hope that he has written a novel that answers these concerns (Miéville fans, any recommendations for what I should read next?)


Genre was also at the heart of my reading of Jesmyn Ward’s beautiful and violent Sing, Unburied, Sing. Rooted in the tradition of Southern Gothic, it also engages with very contemporary concerns about the devastation of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. The novel starts in the real, bloody everyday when thirteen-year-old Jojo’s grandfather, Pop, takes him to slaughter a goat. The detailed description of its killing and dismemberment may shake some readers, but it’s an opening that’s thematically appropriate to what follows. Pop and Mama, Jojo’s grandparents, are revealed as resolute and caring figures, bringing up Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla. Jojo’s white father, Michael, is currently in prison, and his black mother, Leonie, the daughter of Pop and Mama, is a fitful and flighty parent. Sing, Unburied, Sing is rooted in the racial violence of the US South, as we learn early on in the novel as Pop starts to tell Jojo stories of his own brutal experience in prison, and we find out that Michael’s parents have effectively disowned him for having a relationship with a black woman. The novel is largely told in the alternate voices of Jojo and Leonie, and both narrators felt completely convincing to me. Jojo’s fiercely paternal care of Kayla mixed with his own uncertainties about growing into manhood make him completely real, and Leonie, revealed as a terrible parent in Jojo’s sections, is a fascinating case study of selfishness mixed with structural oppression. The points at which I disengaged from Sing, Unburied, Sing have less to do with the novel and more with my own personal genre preferences; I struggle with manifest ghosts in fiction, especially when they take up large portions of the narrative. The tradition within which Ward is writing obviously explains their presence, but I found the more realistic first half of the novel more gripping than its second half, despite a truly spectacular last page or so that showcases the best of Ward’s lyrical writing.


Finally, I’ve been struggling with Ayisha Malik’s romantic comedy The Other Half of Happiness, which stars Sofia Khan, a British/Pakistani hijabi who has recently married a white Irish convert to Islam, Conall, and is struggling with her early experience of marriage. Conall has uprooted them both to Pakistan while he films a documentary, but Sofia would rather be back in Britain promoting her new book about Muslim dating – and her mother is pressurising her to hold a proper Muslim wedding celebration after her sudden elopement. But how can Sofia have a wedding without a groom, and what’s the big secret Conall is hiding from her? I absolutely loved the concept of this novel, and was intrigued by Naomi’s review, but I found it very hard to get through. Partly, this is my fault – I haven’t read the first book in the series, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, and I can see how that might have made me more invested in Sofia and Conall’s relationship, and in Sofia herself as a character. However, I’m not keen to go back and read the first novel because I find the style of both of them so jarring. ‘A Muslim Bridget Jones’, which seems to be what Malik is going for, sounds good on paper but doesn’t really work in practice, at least given the parameters Malik has set herself. As I’ve argued before, the Bridget Jones novels are not chick lit (though there’s nothing wrong with chick lit), but social satire, and Bridget is a caricature that we are not necessarily meant to like or sympathise with. Furthermore, Bridget’s diary style is not generic, but fundamental to her character. Given this, Malik’s pastiche of this style for a character who (as far as I can see) we are meant to like is off-putting, and it jars with the way Sofia presents herself in dialogue. It’s a real shame, as the idea of writing chick lit that centres around diverse experiences (rather than the stereotypical black or Muslim friend who usually pops up in this kind of novel) is really important, and the details about Sofia’s culture, religion and her experiences as a ‘brown’ woman working in publishing are great. The style was just too choppy, fragmented and forced for me.


What else have I been reading in January 2018? I reviewed Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and M.R. Carey’s The Boy On The Bridge. I finished off two books I started in 2017: Jhumpa Lahiri’s absorbing storytelling novel The Namesake, and Elif Batuman’s deliberately disjointed and fragmentary The Idiot, which reminded me what it was like to be at university and discovering all these new ways to think. I enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s naturalistic Manhattan Beach, which (as everyone has said) doesn’t really match up to her earlier novels, but (as not everyone has said) still has much to recommend it, especially the half of the story that deals with the experiences of a female diver in New York during WWII. I found Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, compulsive reading, but ultimately formulaic and disappointing; full review coming soon. And, I’ve been re-reading Tana French (nobody who has ever read this blog before will be surprised) in almost chronological order, kicking off with The Trespasser and moving onto Into The Woods and now The Likeness. I am just doing this for fun, but I try to pretend it’s writing practice as well; I’ve learned a lot from her books.

Reading plans for February 2018: I’ve gathered a small TBR pile already, despite my best intentions, consisting of Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and JL Carr’s A Month in the Countryand I’m just launching into Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything.