#NovellasInNovember: Patchett, Brooks, Fernández

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I’m obsessed with Ann Patchett’s non-fiction, so I splashed out on What Now? even though it’s really no more than an essay padded out with inspirational Instagram-like black and white images that don’t feel like Patchett at all. This mini-book is an expanded version of Patchett’s commencement address at Sarah Lawrence, her alma mater (having attended a lot of UK graduations in my role as an academic, I can’t imagine having someone like Patchett come to speak to you rather than the usual miserable speeches we get!). Some of the material, like her time working as a waitress and as a line cook, will be familiar if you’ve read her earlier autobiographical essays and writings in Truth and Beauty and This Is The Story of a Happy MarriageStill, I enjoyed her reflections on ‘what now?’ and how this question can be freeing as well as pressurising and terrifying. My favourite bit was actually the postscript when she explains how she wrote a boring, portentous speech first time around, then had to write it again after her mentor broke the news to her that it was awful…

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Maud Martha, first published in 1953, is a modern classic, the only novel by acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. It follows the life of Maud Martha, a black girl growing up in inter-war Chicago, who moves from a relatively affluent family household to a smaller, more run down ‘kitchenette’ apartment when she marries. I had much the same problem with Maud Martha that I’ve had with other classics from black female writers from this period, such as Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); while I recognise the historical significance of these novels, and how groundbreaking they would have been at the time, they now feel narrow and cliched to me. (I don’t think this is a problem confined to black female writers, by the way! I struggle in general with inter-war and postwar English and American literature, and so I just haven’t picked up many books by white and/or male writers from these periods – these three texts have all been book club picks.)

Maud Martha tells a very familiar coming of age story of marriage, motherhood, colorism and racism. Brooks does a marvellous job of illuminating the inner consciousness, how we think and how we imbue what we see and observe with our own emotions. Her description of the birth of Maud Martha’s daughter Paulette is so vivid and immediate, as is an incident when the n-word is used at a black-owned beauty shop but the owner fails to call it out, to Maud Martha’s horror. It’s also obvious that Brooks was a brilliant poet; there are some absolutely perfect sentences here, like when Maud Martha muses on her general dissatisfaction with her marriage when she sees her husband dancing with another woman: ‘ “I could,” considered Maud Martha, “go over there and scratch her upsweep down. I could spit on her back”… But if the root was sour what business did she have up there hacking at a leaf?’ Nevertheless, these vignettes of human consciousness never seemed to me to belong to a specific person, to Maud Martha; the novella felt like a strung-together series of observations from Brooks plus some sociological background on Maud Martha’s life. In the introduction to this edition, Margo Jefferson makes much of Maud Martha’s teenage assertion ‘What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha’, suggesting that Maud Martha ‘cherishes her own mind, her sensibility… it is quietly extraordinary’ and that readers should ‘take nothing about this girl for granted’; but I found that Maud Martha very rarely took me by surprise.

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This very short novella is told in chorus by a group of schoolfriends who were children during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile in the 1980s, and are now adults who still feel bound together by the horrors of this time, and especially the uncertain fate of their classmate, Estrella González. Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders, translated by Natasha Wimmer, makes much of the familiar computer game that the children play, with the ranks of green aliens who continually advance symbolising the militaristic society they are growing up in. However, I preferred the parts of this novella that felt less certain, harder to interpret. Although they are scattered far apart, the friends – with González’s childhood crush, Zúñiga, gradually coming to the fore – believe that they meet each other in dreams, where they discuss what may have happened to González after she was abruptly taken out of school by her father, an officer in Pinochet’s regime. ‘We could take attendance… but it’s not necessary. We’re all here. We were scheduled to meet here. We’ve risen from our sheets and mattresses scattered around the city to arrive precisely on time. As always, the dream summons us.’ Maybe this is just Zúñiga’s way of dealing with his own trauma, but it makes the collective memories of the friends feel powerfully entangled. As ever with novellas, this just felt too brief to me, but I’m now keen to read Fernández’s recently translated novel, The Twilight Zone.

Have you read any novellas in November? Which were your favourites?

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More R.I.P XVII Reviews #SpooktasticReads

I picked out some ‘mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror or supernatural’ reads for the R.I.P XVII challenge back at the end of September. This also doubles up with Spooktastic Reads, which runs from 19th to 31st October and focuses on dark fantasy.

What I’ve Been Reading

The book I was most excited about reading this month was definitely Naomi Novik’s The Golden Enclaves, the conclusion to her Scholomance trilogy. I don’t think I’ve looked forward to a book this much since the sixth Harry Potter book came out (sadly, I hated book six, so I didn’t anticipate book seven, which was good, since I hated it even more!). And while nothing can ever top A Deadly Education for me, this was probably on par with The Last Graduatealthough I badly missed spending time in the Scholomance. Like The Last Graduate, the first half of The Golden Enclaves is rather slow and meandering, but it REALLY kicks into gear in the second half, with some satisfying character development and a return to the more complex moral questions that I missed in The Last Graduate. A great trilogy with an utterly superb first book that should be required reading for anyone who loves dark academia – or who has struggled with not being on the same wavelength as their classmates.

Sadly, despite it being another of my most-anticipated releases of 2022, I didn’t find RF Kuang’s Babel nearly as satisfying. You can read my full review here – plus a few thoughts about why Novik’s Scholomance trilogy is a much more interesting addition to the ‘dark academia’ sub-genre.

Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks also made my 2022 reading list because it promised ‘teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s’ and it definitely delivered! Danvers High’s field hockey team of ten girls plus one token boy have never been very good at actually winning games. However, their luck reverses when they make a deal with the devil and start recording their bad deeds in a secret notebook, channelling their power not only to win every game they play but to achieve their own secret ambitions. Barry’s prose – or at least, the particular narrative voice she chose for this novel – takes a little getting used to. It’s deliberately dense with contemporary references, and skips between the collective voice of the team and the individual perspectives of its members, each of whom get a chapter of their own. It also skips back and forth in time rather disconcertingly. Having said that, this quixotic style is what makes We Ride Upon Sticks so distinctive, and I can’t imagine it being told in any other way. This isn’t the fast, feelgood read the pink cover might seem to promise, but I loved how subtly it dealt with feminism, race and queer/trans identity in the late 1980s, acknowledging that times have changed both for the better and for the worse.

(I also planned to read Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night for this challenge. I’m a third of the way through this behemoth and it’s going… slowly, despite some unforgettably terrifying set-pieces. I will review next month, if I finish it then!)

 What I’ve Been Watching

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I was pleasantly surprised by Hocus Pocus 2given that I’ve watched the original Hocus Pocus countless times since it first came out when I was a small child, and can recite most of the dialogue. Hocus Pocus 2 leans quite heavily on the original film, but also brings some excellent moments of its own (I loved the mini-arc where the jock character works out that he’s been ‘making fun of people’, the three child actors who had so carefully learnt all of the witches’ mannerisms, and the hoovers that save the day). What is perhaps most impressive is the way the film mostly preserves the original’s clever balance between spooky, funny and poignant, although the first Hocus Pocus is scarier and more atmospheric. The final scene with Winifred could have been sappy but was just weird and off-kilter enough to work for me – and, contrary to some reviewers, I didn’t feel that the three witches ceased to be bad guys – we’ve always known they care about each other and nobody else! Obviously not as great as the original film, but a fun and nostalgic coda.

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

The release of the new Netflix adaptation of The Midnight Club inspired me to seek out the original Christopher Pike novel from 1994, which was one of my favourite books in my early teens. Pike was one of the big teen writers of the 1990s and early 00s, author of dozens of books which were sold to the same audience as Point Horror but which were much more gruesome, disturbing and original. I don’t remember very many of his books (I’m sure I read some of The Last Vampire and Remember Me series, I still own Chain Letter, and that I was so intensely freaked out by Magic Fire* that I couldn’t finish it). And until I picked it up this month, I hadn’t reread The Midnight Club in decades, suspecting I might find it silly and exploitative as an adult.

Well, I was wrong! I still love it! The Midnight Club packs such a powerful atmospheric punch as it follows a group of teens living in a hospice who tell each other stories every night as they are waiting to die. All the stories the characters tell are fully incorporated into the narrative, a narrative device that rarely works for me but which is brilliantly-handled here. Pike somehow manages to give each character a distinct storytelling style and to tell us stories that are not always good but are always interesting. Also, we can’t always neatly draw parallels between the stories and the characters’ lives, which makes the novel much richer, more interesting and more realistic (funnily enough, fiction isn’t always thinly-veiled autobiography). The spiritual aspects of the novel ought to be absurd, but because the book is genuinely moving and we really do care for the characters, it somehow manages to carry it. Pike is known for his horror novels, but this is less a horror novel (though the stories-within-the-story have horror elements) and more a haunting meditation on death. MOVE OVER FAULT IN OUR STARS AND YOUR MANY RIPOFFS.

*yes I did just spend too much time googling ‘Christopher Pike novel brains in vats’.

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Soulmates Ilonka and Kevin share a moment.

So, how about The Midnight Club Netflix series? I’ve only watched half the series so far, so my thoughts may change, but here goes: It diverges from the novel immediately, and I wasn’t surprised, given how much of the original is about reincarnation and past-life regression. But I loved how it feels very much like a remix of the book, with references popping up when you least expect them. Anya (Ruth Codd)’s horror story incorporates an experience she had in real life in the original novel; Kevin (Igby Rigney) casually references the Louvre, having told an entire story centred around the museum in the book version. The original cast are all present and correct but several new characters are added, a choice that makes sense given this is obviously intended to be more than a one-season show, and we’re going to lose them all one by one.

As in the book, the different ‘voices’ of the storytellers are very cleverly handled. I especially liked the very first story, told by Natsuki (Aya Furukawa), which dissolves into chaos as she insists on jump-scaring her audience over and over again. I was less certain about the decision to add an overarching storyline about a mysterious cult that meets in the basement of the hospice; it just felt unnecessary to me, and it’s inevitably dragged out across the whole season, only allowed to advance by increments in each episode. However, I did like that Ilonka (Iman Benson) is drawn to the hospice because she reads about a girl who was miraculously cured after straying into the woods nearby; this is, again, another clever remix of Ilonka’s original storyline, where she spends most of the novel in denial about her prognosis, relying on herbs and healthy eating rather than pain medication. And while I miss the weird intensity of our original group of teenagers, this would also have been hard to translate to screen. Fingers crossed for the second half of the season!

Did you read any spooky books this October? Or watch anything scary?

R.I.P XVII Reading Plans

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I’ve taken part in the R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge once before. This challenge runs from 1st September to 31st October, and involves reading books classified as mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror or supernatural. So technically I’m a bit late to the game, but for me, these kind of books really belong to October, and I’m anticipating a few new acquisitions in these categories for my birthday at the end of the month!

I’m planning to read:

I am utterly obsessed with Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, so much so that I have written several posts about it. The third in the trilogy, The Golden Enclaves, finally comes out on the 27th September, and I can’t wait! The Scholomance is perfect for the RIP challenge; it’s a magical school where the majority of its students never graduate, due to the very high death rate within its walls.

Keeping with the dark fantasy theme, I’ve asked for RF Kuang’s Babel for my birthday. I’ve been excited about this novel since I first heard about it, and I hope it doesn’t disappoint! Here’s the blurb: ‘Oxford, 1836. The city of dreaming spires. It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world. And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows. Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift. Until it became a prison… but can a student stand against an empire?’ One of my most anticipated novels of 2022.

While Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks is unlikely to be that dark, the witchy content makes it a perfect October read for me. NPR describes it as a ‘charming teen witchcraft-slash-field-hockey novel’. Set in 1989, a school hockey team’s luck changes when the girls ‘pledge themselves to the forces of eternal darkness’. Another from my 2022 reading list.

Finally, I have a proof of Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night from NetGalley, which spans ‘the brutal decades of Argentina’s military dictatorship and its aftermath’ but tells this story through an occult lens: ‘Gaspar is six years old when the Order first come for him. For years, they have exploited his father’s ability to commune with the dead and the demonic, presiding over macabre rituals where the unwanted and the disappeared are tortured and executed, sacrificed to the Darkness. Now they want a successor. Nothing will stop the Order, nothing is beyond them. Surrounded by horrors, can Gaspar break free?’ I’ve just finished Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill, which similarly uses horror tropes to explore the aftermath of Colombia’s traumatic history. I loved The Anthill and I hope I’ll love Our Share of Night as well.

In film and TV, I’m uneasily awaiting the release of Hocus Pocus 2which comes out on my birthday. The original Hocus Pocus was one of the iconic films of my childhood, and my sister and I can probably quote most of the film. There’s no way the sequel can live up to it, but I hope it will be a fun and nostalgic watch.

Check out Elle’s R.I.P XVII reading list here.

Are you taking part in the R.I.P Challenge, or planning to read any darker books this October?

20 Books of Summer, #17: Room

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’m on holiday and off-grid until 30th August, so my last couple of posts for this challenge are auto-scheduled.

L: My proof copy. R: The original hardback cover of the novel.

Before rereading: I read Room in 2010, as an ARC, so before the real hype around the novel began. Since reading Room, I’ve read and loved many of Donoghue’s other novels (Stir-Fry, Hood, The Sealed Letter, The Wonder, Akin, The Pull of the Stars) which has influenced my take on her as a writer. I’ve also seen the excellent film version of Room (2015), which helped me to engage with the novel as I could more clearly visualise what was happening. On one hand, Room is strikingly unrepresentative of Donoghue’s other work, which makes me think better of it; I can see how she was pushing boundaries here. On the other hand, I’ve become a little uncomfortable with the views on motherhood expressed in some of Donoghue’s later work, especially her short story ‘Halfway To Free’, which makes me approach it more warily than before. Finally, since first reading Room in 2010, I have become a historian of childhood; so obviously I’m going to have more thoughts about how it treats its child narrator than I did first time around!

When I first read Room, I wrote: ‘ When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything” Jack, the delightful narrator of Emma Donoghue’s new novel tells us. What he has discovered shortly after his fifth birthday is that the room in which he lives with his mother, ‘Ma’, is not in fact the entire world; there’s a world outside, and one day he and Ma might be able to escape… Jack’s voice is the most important thing about this novel, as being inside his head both simplifies the story, sometimes irritatingly, and also allows Donoghue to view the imprisonment in Room from an unexpected angle. Before reading this book, I thought that it might be very distressing and dark – in the vein of John Fowles’ The Collector – but although some of the details that we manage to work out don’t make for easy reading, the overall tone is far lighter than you might expect… I felt that this novel leant a little too hard on the exciting original concept, and on Jack’s skewed narration… and could have been a little better-plotted, especially in the latter half. But I would still very much recommend it.’

After rereading: So, I liked Room more the second time around. I found it intensely gripping, which was not quite my experience when I first read it. The first half of the novel is impressive. Donoghue handles Jack’s voice adeptly, and in the process, says much about being five years old in any place as well as in Room. It made me reflect on the push and pull about what we need as adults and what children need from us, a push and pull that is inevitable anywhere we live right now, let alone in somewhere like Room. Ma heroically constructs as normal as possible a life for Jack, which means that he is largely happy in Room; when they escape, he struggles with the adjustment to the outside world, pining for the objects he remembers. One particular exchange between him and Ma is both insignificant and horribly poignant, especially as the reader has only ‘seen’ the objects in Room through Jack’s uncritical eyes before:

Mine [hair] is back in ponytail but tangledy because there’s no Comb, we left him in Room. “You should have brung Comb,” I tell her.

Brought,” she says. “Remember, I was in kind of a hurry to see you.”

Yeah but we need it.”

“That old plastic comb with half its teeth snapped off? We need it like a hole in the head,” she says.

Jack also struggles, inevitably, with ever being apart from Ma, which means their needs are in direct conflict; Ma is desperate to get outside after seven years in confinement, whereas Jack finds the outside world terrifying. It’s a clever exploration of the tensions within the nuclear family, dialled up to eleven.

Having said this, it’s disappointing that the novel ultimately trails off. Donoghue doesn’t seem sure what to do with Ma and Jack after they are discharged from hospital. Jack’s voice, which worked so well in Room and in the immediate aftermath of their rescue, starts to become a little saccharine in the later stages of the novel, as he encounters more social norms: ‘In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time… In Room me and Ma had time for everything.’ I started to wonder if it might have worked better if Donoghue had switched from Jack’s voice to Ma’s in this final section, which would  have avoided this ‘innocent child reveals the truth of society’ cliche. Just as Jack was the right narrator in Room, giving us a backwards perspective on the horror of Ma’s imprisonment, Ma might have been the right narrator as they try to adjust to the outside world. For me, most of Donoghue’s other novels are stronger than this one, but it does have more to say about childhood than I originally thought.

My rating in 2010: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ****

‘Is It Finished?’ and ‘Are You Happy With It?’: When I Grow Up: Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood

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I’m on holiday and off-grid until the end of August. This post, and a couple of others, have been auto-scheduled.

Jacqueline Wilson, the 76-year-old bestselling children’s author, has little time for adulthood. ‘From the way you are speaking’, she tells Moya Sarner, when being interviewed for Sarner’s book When I Grow Up: Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood, ‘it’s as if… when you achieve adulthood, that is somehow the pinnacle, whereas I think that’s when you start to pretend.’ Wilson thinks that the people who seem most mature ‘have just learned how to pretend to be an adult’, and that children are refreshing because they tend not to participate in this pretence. Several of Sarner’s other interviewees also reject adulthood outright. 19-year-old Sam, a Nigerian immigrant to Britain, hopes never to be an adult despite having had to take on a great deal of responsibility; he sees adulthood as defined by self-imposed constraints, by the refusal to dream, and so by the inability to imagine radical social revolution. Most strikingly, very few of Sarner’s interviewees, from those in their late teens to those reaching the end of their lives, see themselves as truly ‘adult’. ‘I truly do not consider that I have grown up,’ says Pog, who has three adult children and was a full-time carer for her late husband. ‘And I’m 90.’

Like the concept of ‘adulthood’ itself, When I Grow Up is caught between contradictions, which are acutely frustrating in its earlier, shallower chapters and become more meaningful in the later, better sections of the book. As a historian of adulthood in Cold War Britain, I would contend that ‘adulthood’ is difficult to reclaim, despite Sarner’s efforts, because it serves two main societal purposes. One – the one that Sarner is really interested in – is the idea that adulthood is an individual attitude of mind, something that we may lose and regain throughout our lives, that isn’t better than other orientations towards the world, but just different. As psychoanalyst Josh Cohen suggests in conversation with Sarner, who is herself a psychodynamic psychotherapist, childhood and adulthood can be seen as different psychic states rather than developmental stages, and hence not positioned as part of a hierarchy. I love this idea, and very much resonate with the sense of being more and less ‘adult’ at different times of life.

However, as Sarner’s book unconsciously demonstrates, it’s difficult to use the idea of ‘adulthood’ in this way when it is so embedded in modern society as a way of dividing the deserving from the undeserving; the non-citizens from the citizens; the immature from the mature. Adulthood is hierarchical, by nature, because for there to be adults there have to be non-adults, who don’t possess the same rights, capabilities and competencies as adults. As Sarner says herself, adulthood is associated with independence from others, ‘mastery and competence’, care and thoughtfulness’, ‘responsibility’ and mature moral understanding. Sarner contests this definition later in the book, emphasising that, for example, dependence isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but fails to understand that the idea of the ‘dependent subject’ is encoded in the very idea of adulthood, as historians like Holly Brewer, Satadru Sen, Corinne Field, Nicholas Syrett and Ishita Pande have shown. The most obvious victims of hierarchical adulthood are children and young people, but it also targets disabled people, who may be seen as not fully grown-up because they may not be able to live independently, and other groups who don’t fit into white heterosexual middle-class male norms.  I, personally, would prefer to challenge the idea that ‘being an adult’ is meaningful rather than just trying to change what ‘being an adult’ means.

Nevertheless, the later chapters of Sarner’s book, where she more fully acknowledges that adulthood should not be a fixed goal to be achieved, contain much that is valuable. I loved the story she tells about a nursery manager who does not praise or criticise the paintings the children in her care produce but instead simply asks ‘Is it finished?’ and ‘Are you happy with it?’ Sarner suggests that this gives the picture back to the child – allowing the picture to stay in a child’s world of creation rather than in an adult world of aspiration and achievement. But as she implies, this attitude to one’s artistic work is also deeply mature – and, in my opinion, disconnected from chronological age. I was more able to occupy this headspace at 18 than I am now, at 35. Why not discard the idea of a set sequence of life stages altogether? This is kind of where Sarner gets to by the end of this book – but by not signalling this from the start, and by structuring her chapters around this familiar sequence, she undermines her own argument. Why insist that children must be protected from the world, that adolescents have to party and take risks, that adults should be ambitious, that middle-aged people should settle down, that the old are wise but obsolete? Why not let us all be people, some of whom need more or less help with their lives than other people?

RANDOM POSTSCRIPT FOR THOSE AGED 30-40: We are used to being told that the frontal lobes of our brain, which are responsible for executive functioning, don’t fully develop until 25 or even 30. HOWEVER, Sarner reveals that they then start declining after age 40! So, fellow 30-40 year olds, this is actually the only decade we get to be adults! Make the most of it!!!

If you want to read more about my own historical research on adulthood, check out the History and Publications tabs. I am currently working on an edited collection on adulthood in Britain and the United States since c. 1300 with fellow historian Maria Cannon, and a book on children and adolescents’ understandings of adulthood and chronological age in Cold War Britain, c.1945-1989.

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

#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, #11 and #12: NW and The Unwitting

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!

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Before rereading: I first read NW in 2013, when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’d found the two previous Zadie Smith novels I’d read – White Teeth and On Beauty – ponderous, pretentious and caricatured. In comparison, this was a breath of fresh air. I don’t remember much else about the novel, though.

The first time I read NW, I wrote: ‘NW, in my opinion, is everything that White Teeth should have been – sharply observational, genuinely funny, perceptive on the interlocking system of inequalities that form from class, race and gender, and incredibly evocative of the small corner of London in which it is set. Because it’s free of the stereotypes, caricatures, and laboured farce that I felt marred [Smith’s] earlier work, it’s a much more engaging read, with a cast of fully-rounded characters who each get a chance to tell their own story in their own style (I was particularly fond of the long Natalie Blake section, which told the story of a very individual girl but also said a lot about selfhood and identity). As this suggests, Smith extends her range stylistically in this novel as well, and her experiments with words worked much better for me than they’ve ever done before’. I ranked it third of the six novels on the Women’s Prize shortlist, behind Kingsolver and Mantel.

After rereading: This was a really interesting reread. I felt like I liked NW both less and more than I did the first time round, although my rating hasn’t changed. Having read Swing Time since, I still believe that the later novel is the most fully-realised and accomplished version of the themes that Smith explores here, and is also distinguished by a much more naturalistic and seemingly effortless style. In contrast, the experimentation of NW feels a little laboured, a difficult transition from one kind of novel to another. Having said that, though, it’s also incredibly sharp, especially in its later sections. I can see why Smith included the two narratives that make up the first half of the novel – Leah’s and Felix’s – but they ultimately feel like a lot of throat-clearing for the brilliant Natalie Blake section that, as I noted in my first review, is what NW is really about. The whole book builds towards Natalie’s meeting with former schoolmate Nathan, and the choice that she ultimately makes as she tries to reconcile the world of her childhood with her new life as a bigshot corporate lawyer. Smith plays so intensely with voice that every reader is bound to find bits that don’t work for them and bits that do, but it’s in the Natalie chapters that this really feels coherent and worthwhile, whereas it can get in the way of Leah and Felix’s stories. Swing Time remains my favourite Smith, but this is a close second.

My rating in 2013: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

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Before rereading: I first read The Unwitting in 2014, while I was writing up my PhD thesis! I’d enjoyed Ellen Feldman’s previous two books, Scottsboro and Next To Love, and I was attracted by its Cold War setting.

The first time I read The Unwitting, I wrote: ‘Pivoting around November 22nd, 1963, the novel jumps back to the early 1950s to explore the beginnings of Nell and Charlie’s relationship. Soon after they meet, Charlie is offered a job on a liberal, anti-Soviet journal, Compass. Nell is equally committed to the journal’s remit, to oppose both ‘the totalitarianism of the left’ and that of the right. In the McCarthy era, a number of its writers fall under suspicion, including Charlie himself; and Nell is, dimly, suspicious of where Compass’s financial backing is coming from. In the loose-living circles that they frequent, it would be easy for Nell to lose her trust in Charlie, and suspect he was cheating on her, but she trusts completely in his faithfulness. What niggles at her is the loose threads that never quite seem to make sense – like the story on the coup in Guatemala that she wrote for Compass, but which was rejected at the last moment… A particularly satisfying thread in The Unwitting is the way in which Feldman turns the traditional plot – a woman’s happy marriage is shattered by the discovery of adultery – on its head, by suggesting that, for Nell at least, there are worse crimes than sexual unfaithfulness… I admired Feldman’s deft, precise and clever writing… however, [she] gives us less to think about beyond the obvious, and is so economic with her narrative choices that the novel feels over-schematic.’

After rereading: Again, my rating remains the same, but I’m inclined to be rather kinder to The Unwitting than I was in 2014. I don’t think it feels over-schematic any more, although it is certainly tidily demarcated into the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ of Nell’s marriage. I also don’t agree with my prediction in 2014 that ‘I doubt there is enough depth in The Unwitting for me to want to read it again’; I both enjoyed this reread and found it thought-provoking. As I said in my original review, I liked how Feldman juxtaposes personal and professional betrayal, but flips this familiar theme; it’s Nell who is most wounded by what Charlie keeps from her professionally whereas Charlie feels less guilty about his deception when he discovers Nell has cheated on him. The revelation at the heart of this story does not feel especially huge or shocking, which is why I think a lot of readers have complained this is a novel where ‘nothing happens’ (the publishers didn’t help here by billing it as a spy story, which it is not). However, I admire Feldman’s bravery in exploring something that feels so significant to Nell even if it is less obviously significant to readers who didn’t live through the Cold War in the United States. Not every twist needs to be jaw-dropping. I’d definitely recommend this to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and Rodham. 

My rating in 2014: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

 

The Reread Project: Skellig

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a child or teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post (though I’ve since cut Tess because I know I will just hate it again!) The three other entries in this series so far are To Kill A Mockingbird , The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Color Purple. This is also #7 of my 20 Books of Summer.

4. Skellig: David Almond (1998)

L: The edition I originally read. R: The edition I own now.

I first read Skellig around the time it came out, when I was twelve years old. I furiously hated it. (Seeing the title still makes me feel angry even now!) Although I obviously did not enjoy the novel, I think the reason I felt such ire towards it was because it happened to come out just as I was clarifying my critical thoughts on children’s fiction, which had been brewing for the past two years or so. Skellig won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year, and to me, epitomised ‘the kind of book adults think children ought to like’. I’d been wary of award-winning children’s novels since a string of bad experiences with Newbery Award winners when I was much younger, and nearly didn’t pick up the first Harry Potter solely because it had won prizes. (Interestingly, checking the novel’s Wikipedia page, it turns out that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone won basically all the UK awards that were voted for by children, but was only shortlisted for awards voted for by adults. If I’d known this at the time, it would definitely have added fuel to the flames!)

I have a fairly clear memory of the basic plot of Skellig. Boy meets decaying angel in his garage while he is praying for his ailing baby sister to get well. I also remember why I hated it so much. My biggest complaint was what I might now call the ‘magical realist’ elements of the book. I was hugely frustrated with the angel, the idea that he might not be real within the world of the book (I was of course used to reading science fiction and fantasy; fantastical elements per se were not a problem) and that he only existed to represent something else. This made the whole book feel pointless to me. When my mum read Skellig, I remember her saying: ‘I think the angel represented the boy’s hope; so the angel got better as he got more hopeful’. This interpretation filled me with utter disgust! I also had more minor criticisms of the book. Aesthetically, it didn’t work for my imagination. I didn’t like the way the angel intersected with the ordinary world, demanding Chinese takeaway; this just seemed ludicrous to me. I also couldn’t relate to the boy’s concern for his sister (I think adults often forget that our instinctive horror at the idea of an ailing child or baby will not necessarily be experienced by children who are much closer to the character’s age). Finally, I just found it boring.

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The mention of Heaven Eyes (2000) suggests to me that I wrote this a bit later, when I was 13.

The good thing about Skellig, though, was that it started my career as a book reviewer. It was my rage at Skellig that led me to start making lists of the books I thought were really ‘deserving’ of awards, and eventually to start recording everything I read. So I did have something to thank the book for.

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Where to start? I was SO right about Skellig.

I’m sure there are both adults and children who genuinely love this bookHowever, what struck me most about rereading it as an adult is how performative it is. Almond has his characters utter so many faux-profound statements, which gives the impression that the book is saying something deep – but it isn’t actually saying anything at all. There’s a void at the heart of this novel. My mum’s interpretation about ‘hope’ seems as good to me as any, because basically this is a book that allows you to project what you want onto it. Here are some examples of Almond’s platitudes; while they all sound the same, they’re actually spoken or thought by a range of different characters, including some random elderly people who turn up to dispense wisdom, then depart:

‘He said we were surrounded by angels and spirits. We must just open our eyes a little wider, look a little harder.’

You just keep believing. And everything will be fine.’

They say that shoulder blades are where your wings were, when you were an angel. They say they’re where your wings will grow again one day.’

Keep on moving. That’s the thing. Keep the old bones moving. Don’t let everything seize up.’

There was the loveliest lass on the trapeze. You could swear she could nearly fly.’

‘Her dark eyes looked right into me, right into the place where all my dreams were.’

Skellig very much presents an adult’s view of a child’s internal landscape, an idealised, sentimental view of childhood imagination. I’m sure that some readers can relate to this, but it felt utterly alien to me. We’re supposed to be swept away by the beauty of this fable (and I think that’s what it is; it certainly isn’t a folk tale or fairy story, which have far more internal logic) but it just made me feel a bit sick. I’m sad to think of all the children who have surely been subjected to studying this at school.

This book unfortunately concludes with the narrator and his parents considering a couple of ‘meaningful’ names for the baby, including ‘Persephone’ and ‘Angela’, and finally deciding to name her JOY.

My rating in 1998: *

My rating in 2022: *

Three Things… June 2022

Back to this useful post format, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter! These three things have a horror theme

Reading

I read the British edition (L) but the cover of the American edition (R) gives a much better idea of the feel of the book.

I’m currently taking part in an online ‘How To Write Horror Fiction’ course, and as part of that course, I was sent a free book bundle from Bloomsbury (or, to be precise, their Raven Books imprint). This included a number of titles I’d never heard of, and I tore through James Han Mattson’s Reprieve, which is ostensibly about a full-contact haunted house challenge but really reflects on how people’s bodies are objectified by society. We know from the start that the book centres on the murder of a black man, Bryan, but this comes more and more into focus as the story develops.

The bits of Reprieve I found most difficult to read didn’t concern haunted house gore but the disgusting ways that people treat each other. Jaidee is a gay international student from Thailand who is shunned by the white gay men he meets at college, who assume he’s coming onto them and think it’s laughable that they could ever be attracted to him. Inversely, the middle-aged Leonard leaves a happy marriage and starts an obsession with a Thai sex worker, Boonsri, projecting all his desires and dreams onto her despite her obvious discomfort. Mattson doesn’t map simple trajectories of racial oppression, however. Jaidee and Bryan are college roommates, but when Jaidee expresses unease with how Bryan treats him, he’s told by a white friend that he’s being racist, because he’s assuming black men are homophobic. However, Jaidee then embarks on a campaign of deliberate racism against black students to express his resentment, plus denigrating other international students for their ‘ethnic’ ways, even as he is mocked for trying to fit in by wearing American brands.

Don’t go into Reprieve expecting a straightforward horror novel, despite the very misleading British cover: instead, read it for Mattson’s deconstruction of the genre.

Watching

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I was a huge fan of Stranger Things 1 and 2 but found Stranger Things 3more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting’Luckily, Stranger Things 4 is back on track, and steaming ahead into 1986, the year I was born (which means more of the nostalgic references were familiar to me!). I’ve been having a great conversation with one of my writing groups about why this season hit so hard when Season 3 was so forgettable. We all think it’s because of the characters. First, the writers are reaping dividends from earlier seasons in having such a diverse and well-developed cast who continually bounce off each other in interesting ways. My favourite characters are currently Dustin, Will, Steve and Robin, which definitely wouldn’t have been the case in Season 1! However, the writers are also smart enough to bring characters with interesting internal conflicts to the foreground (Max) while sidelining previously prominent characters who don’t have much going on (Mike, Jonathan).

Second, some characters who have always experienced conflict got more interesting for me this season. Controversially, I’ve never been quite won over by the traumatised, psychokinetic Eleven. While I don’t dislike her character, she remained a little flat for me throughout the first three seasons, always morally in the right and saving the day with her powers. Stripped of her supernatural abilities and struggling with the loss of father-figure Hopper, she’s in a very different place at the start of this season. A violent scene at a roller-skating rink was one of my favourite moments of Season 4. Finally, Eleven felt like a real, rageful girl who scares herself as much as she scares others. For this reason, I found the season finale disappointing, as it seemed to reset the status quo. I hope the final two episodes in July allow Eleven to be a person as well as just the hero.

Thinking

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Sky have just aired a new remake of John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), following earlier film versions from 1960/1963 and 1995. I’m fascinated by how this story of a group of creepy alien children who dominate adults through psychokinetic powers seems to pop up again every thirty years. I’m writing a piece for The Conversation on what this tells us about our attitudes towards the rising generation, so I won’t say much more about that now (though you can get a preview by checking out either of my academic articles on the subject here or here).

Does this remake stand up in its own right? I actually enjoyed watching it, but I’d have to say no. There’s so much potential here that is not well-served by a pretty straight remake of the original source material. The biggest difference from earlier adaptations is the close focus on the relationship between the mothers and their hostile children, which rehearses familiar stereotypes about the burden of parental love and the ingratitude that children display in the face of their parents’ sacrifices. This set of Midwich Cuckoos are portrayed as especially unnatural because they are unable to love their parents, which raises interesting questions about the emotional tasks of children within the family that this remake is not equipped to answer.

This version of The Midwich Cuckoos also felt less resonant to me because it lacks the interesting tensions that haunted the sixties adaptations, Village of the Damned (1960) and its loosely linked sequel, Children of the Damned (1963). The latter, in particular, treads an uneasy line between showing us the amorality of the alien children but also suggesting that the amorality of adults is destroying the future for those who ought to inherit the world. The destruction of the children at the end of Children of the Damned is not a necessary evil but a tragic accident. The film invites us to shiver at the unnatural competence and maturity of the Cuckoos, but also plays with fears of nuclear annihilation and the ways in which adults have abdicated their authority by creating such terrible weapons. In an age of climate change protests, this felt like a big missed opportunity for the remake, which sticks very closely to the Cuckoos-are-evil line. Apparently, there’s already talk of a second series, which might allow Sky to move into Children of the Damned territory – but I’m not holding my breath.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Bread the Devil Knead and Sorrow and Bliss

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The Bread the Devil Knead, Lisa Allen-Agostini’s debut adult novel, is narrated by Alethea, a Trinidadian woman in her late thirties who lives with a violent partner, Leo. She’s repeating patterns she learnt in childhood from a neglectful mother and abusive uncle, and while she dreams of managing her own clothing boutique, this seems unlikely to ever happen while she’s under Leo’s control. The Trinidadian Creole that Alethea narrates in is the best aspect of this novel; while I didn’t understand all the words and phrases used, this wasn’t a problem, and I was introduced to a lot of brilliantly vivid vernacular: ‘dayclean’; ‘when me and Tamika eye make four’; ‘she skin up she face’. Unfortunately, pretty much nothing else about this worked for me. It reads like simplistic women’s fiction. There’s almost no characterisation except for Alethea herself, and even she is thinly drawn; from other reviews, I’d expected her voice to be funnier and more memorable. The Bread The Devil Knead is reminiscent of one of last year’s Women’s Prize shortlistees, Cherie Jones’s How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, but lacks its fluid writing and rich, complex cast. It also reminded me of another 2022 longlistee I did not like, Miranda Cowley Heller’s The Paper Palace: both books deal with familial child abuse and how abusive relationships are transmitted from generation to generation (and, bizarrely, both feature a scene where the protagonist-as-little-girl wets herself because her mother is too keen to impress to take her to the toilet). Like The Paper Palace, The Bread the Devil Knead has very little new to say, which makes its recital of pain feel gratuitous, and it’s even more badly written. My least favourite title on the Women’s Prize longlist so far.

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I’ve been putting off reading Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason’s second novel, because it didn’t sound like my thing: I was worried it would be another Disaster Woman novel in the vein of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times; plus, much as I think books that focus on personal struggles with mental illness are important and necessary, I rarely enjoy reading them. So this was an unexpected hit, even though I still don’t think I loved it quite as much as other readers did. I enjoyed the first two-thirds of Sorrow and Bliss, but I was expecting the protagonist Martha’s voice to get wearing, as funny, ironic narrative voices often do. I adored Martha’s relationship with sister Ingrid but the other characters felt sketchier; Martha’s relationship with her mother, in particular, felt like it came from a less acerbic Gwendoline Riley novella. In the final third, however, Mason pulls off something quite special as Martha confronts her true diagnosis and with it a reckoning of how she has both wronged others and been wronged. We see that if we felt like we didn’t quite get the rest of the cast before, that’s because Martha has been holding them at arms-length. While Mason heartbreakingly conveys the moment when Martha realises she’s been denying herself what she really wants, I was also disappointed that this revelation turned her character back towards convention. However, this undoubtedly works well for this particular novel, as we share in Martha’s devastation and self-deception. As Martha grows in self-knowledge, so does this book; Mason’s writing starts off clever but a little glib, and becomes much more brilliant as it goes on. I particularly loved this exchange between Ingrid and Martha near the end of the novel:

“I can’t just think of something else and decide to want that instead.”

Ingrid said yes you can. “Even the women who get those things lose them again. Husbands die and children grow up and marry someone you hate… Everything goes away eventually, and women are always the last ones standing so we just make up something else to want.”

I hope and expect to see this novel on the Women’s Prize shortlist.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers nine and ten. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote SympathyThe Final Revival of Opal & Nev and Build Your House Around My Body.