20 Books of Summer, #6: Swamplandia!

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Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree’s world is falling apart. After her mother, Hilola Bigtree, renowned alligator wrestler and the star attraction at the family’s island theme park, Swamplandia!, dies of cancer, things start unravelling. Revenues at Swamplandia! plummet and Ava’s father travels to the mainland to try and save his business. Her brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival theme park, the World of Darkness, and her sister, Osceola, falls in love with the ghost of a teenage dredgeman who was killed in the swamp in the 1930s. Ava is left alone amid the ruins of Swamplandia!, trying to hold back the infestation of melaleuca trees and watching over the ninety-eight Seths (all of the Bigtree alligators are called Seth) that populate the park. As this makes clear, Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia!, exists in the same speculative space as her short stories, and it’s exactly the kind of territory I like most; weird things happen, but they feel real rather than magical realist. Russell grounds her yarn through the precise details of her swampy setting, which is an actual place – the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida.

I have to say that Rebecca’s review of this novel pretty much sums up my thoughts, but I’ll try to explain why I loved Swamplandia! so much even though it’s a massive mess. It took Russell a long time to write and it shows – you can almost see the stitches that hold its disparate parts together. Ava’s narrative approximates a coming-of-age story but its relationship with reality is never quite clear; at times it seems that Russell wants us to read Ava as an intensely unreliable narrator who is bestowing magic upon Swamplandia!, at other times it seems that we’re meant to believe in what she’s recounting. Osceola’s relationship with the dredgeman ghost starts off with a bang, when she recounts the story of his death in a beautifully focused few pages that showcase Russell’s gift for set-piece, but then this thread flounders, getting wrapped up swiftly at the end as if Russell had already forgotten about it. Meanwhile, Kiwi’s more realistic travails at the World of Darkness are so straightforwardly gripping that they risk  dominating the book and robbing Ava of her agency. It’s a tricky one to call, because I enjoyed the digressions in Swamplandia! far more than the central narrative, and yet structurally they do detract from what Russell wants to say about Ava. At the same time, the untidiness of this book adds a richness to its telling.

Russell has a gift for simile and metaphor, and in her short stories, these are deployed expertly. In Swamplandia!, I felt they were, at times, used too much, especially as reading a 300+ page novel is a much more intense experience than reading a 30-page short story. Each individual idea is still brilliant, but when juxtaposed too closely together, the effect is confusing rather than illuminating. For example:

[T]he black raptors continued to map the sky. The buzzards from Ohio had migrated here too. Turning circles, as docile as party ponies around a mainland carousel. Then they fell, one by one, like little black razors, into the paurotis palms. And it was hard to see this and not think of carnage. A line of birds falling in a row. Red clouds massed in the southeast and it looked like the sky was getting its stitches out after an operation.

However, as with the book’s structure, the writing is strikingly uneven; there are whole pages and chapters that are impeccably judged, and then pages like this that feel much clunkier. Ava’s long journey into the swamp, from which this quotation comes, is especially overwritten, and this probably contributed to my sense that this segment was the weakest part of the novel.

And yet… sometimes I worry that books can be overedited, because while I can see the temptation to ‘fix’ Swamplandia!, and I definitely think that some of its sentences could be slashed and burned, I also wonder if trying to make this novel work in a more conventional way would have robbed it of some of its genius. We probably don’t need to know everything that we find out about the Bigtrees, but I wanted to know most of it anyway. And while the road there might be frustratingly meandering, the final paragraph is just perfection.

Belated April ARCs

I feel very sorry for these three April ARCs. Not only have these three authors had to deal with being published in the middle of a global pandemic, they’ve also been personally neglected by me because I was so busy with my Women’s Prize reading. Nevertheless, I’ve finally got round to them, and I have to say that all three are worthwhile – so I hope that they get at least some of the attention that they deserve!

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You People, Nikita Lalwani’s third novel, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020, though I wish it hadn’t been burdened with such a hideous cover. It’s set in 2003 in an Italian restaurant in London that’s run by Tuli, who enjoys the reputation of being a benefactor to the undocumented migrants and other recent arrivals who work there, many of whom are Tamils from Sri Lanka fleeing civil war. It has two narrators: first, Nia, a nineteen-year-old Welsh waitress who passes for white and privileged and is happy to reap the advantages of that, but whose father was Bengali and who’s refusing to return home so she won’t have to deal with her alcoholic mother. Second, Shan, one of the Sri Lankan refugees, who is desperately seeking to reunite with his wife and child. Lalwani carefully draws the reader into the net that Tuli is weaving, causing us to continuously reassess what we think we know about the situation that Nia and Shan find themselves in. As ever, Lalwani writes so well about complicated moral choices and inhabits each of her characters with sharp empathy, although I didn’t find this novel to be quite as clever or memorable as her brilliant The VillageNevertheless, she creates a complex community of word-of-mouth bargains and secrets, and she’s still streets ahead of many of her contemporaries. I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty, which – although it’s set in Sydney – also deals with an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka who has to make a difficult ethical decision!

You People was released in the UK on April 2nd. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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C. Pam Zhang’s debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, is set in California at the end  of the Gold Rush of the 1850s. It explores the lives and histories of two young Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, as they struggle to survive after the deaths of both their parents. In this, it joins novels like Téa Obreht’s Inland and Philipp Meyer’s The Son in seeking to reimagine white, male myths of the American nineteenth-century ‘pioneer spirit’. The novel starts with the siblings fleeing their home with their Ba’s body packed into a trunk on the back of their mule; it then flashes back so that Ba can relate the last generation of their family’s history; and finally flashes forward five years to a time when Lucy, now seventeen, is trying to become a respectable young woman in town while an absent Sam lives feral.

Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find this structure especially awkward – for me, the siblings’ futures and pasts were more interesting than their present, so I was glad that Zhang decided to deftly shake it up a bit – but still, this novel doesn’t quite fulfil its ambitions. Both Lucy and Sam are vividly imagined, and yet they’re never given enough space to become totally captivating. Sam’s contested relationship with gender is handled cleverly by Zhang – it can be difficult to position this kind of narrative in a historical setting, but I thought Zhang managed to create a space for Sam that felt like a kind of  queer space that might have existed at the time, even though readers may continue to wonder what modern labels fit the character. However, as Elle points out in her review, Zhang’s refusal to commit to pronouns for Sam makes the writing clunky. Initially, I wondered if this represented Lucy’s own confusion about how to refer to Sam, but as we get sentences like ‘Sam’s hair… reaches just under Sam’s ears’ at the same time as Lucy continually refers to Sam as ‘her’, I didn’t understand why Zhang didn’t choose a set of pronouns, even if these changed later on in the book. The present tense also felt too much like a creative-writing class default setting rather than a deliberate choice. In short, How Much of These Hills Is Gold suffers, like many debut novels, from trying to pack too much into one story, but I’d much rather read something like this than a bland, competent book, and I’ll look out for more from Zhang.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold was released in the UK on April 9th. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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How To Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection of short stories, was also one of my most anticipated 2020 titles. All the stories are set in a city that is deliberately unnamed, left sketchy around the edges, although I had the sense from a couple of references that we are somewhere in Canada. All, also, deal with the lives of Lao immigrants and their children, although not all of the stories are primarily about immigration or ethnicity. What I found so impressive about these quiet stories, in fact, is the way that they don’t cluster around one specific theme; Thammavongsa is sharply insightful on a number of registers. Childhood is one of these, and Thammavongsa’s thoughts on writing in the voice of a child are worth reading. The title story, which deals with a small girl trying to navigate between her family’s culture and the world of school, completely gets how frustrating it is for children not to be heard, and how adults continually fail to understand how, when young children are angry about one thing, it’s often something much bigger than just that thing.

However, Thammavongsa takes us into the head of an older woman who has just begun a sexy affair with a much younger man with equal conviction (‘Slingshot’), upturning our received ideas about age, sex, and the way that these attributes structure power dynamics in a relationship. She writes beautifully about how chicken plant worker Red (‘Paris’) only knows one kind of love: ‘that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself on the quiet moments of the day. It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekends’. She vividly details the different work worlds of a man working in a nail salon (‘Mani Pedi’) and a woman picking worms in a field (‘Picking Worms’). Occasionally, a story seems to draw away from its climax rather than landing with the conviction of the others in this collection, and Thammavongsa sometimes goes for an easy emotional beat rather than pressing for something more interesting (‘Her sense of taste comes and goes now’, muses an older woman after having a stroke in ‘You Are So Embarrassing’. ‘Most of the time it all tastes bitter. And all that bitterness in her mouth is hard to swallow.’) However, these are rare missteps in a collection that is otherwise consistently good.

How to Pronounce Knife was released in the UK on April 16th. I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

If any of these books appeal, and if you’re able to do so, please consider ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.

‘The Sequel is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing

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Sequels to science fiction and fantasy books, films and TV series are often described as ‘darker’ than their immediate predecessor, a trend that I first noticed with Harry Potter. Retrospectives on the book series tend to assume that Voldemort’s return in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, shifted the series towards a ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, tone; retrospectives on the film series point the finger at the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, where director Alfonso Cuaron deliberately created a Hogwarts with a very different feel to Chris Columbus’s version (at the time, most newspapers ran with ‘Harry Potter hits puberty‘, praising Cuaron’s revamp). Nevertheless, this trend started earlier; every Harry Potter film was described as darker than the one before it. A number of professional reviewers praised the second film, Chamber of Secrets for being ‘better and darker than its predecessor’. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film ‘deepen[ed] the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences. This is as it should be: Harry’s story is supposed to get darker’, referring to J.K. Rowling’s stated intention that the series should ‘grow up with its readers’. However, even after the tonal shift when Voldemort regains a physical body in Goblet of Fire, reviewers kept praising the films for being darker than the last. ‘Harry Potter grows older and darker’ was Time‘s headline for their review of Order of the Phoenix .

Given the larger number of books and films in the Harry Potter series, this trend is most obvious for this franchise, but is not confined to it. You might not think that a series that kicks off with the state-sanctioned murder of 23 children and adolescents by their peers could get any darker, but according to reviewers, the Hunger Games franchise did. The Atlantic found Mockingjay: Part 1, the third film in the series, ‘darker, more relentless’ than the previous installments, spelling out what they meant while unintentionally proving the Sequel Is Always Darker rule: ‘The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more.’ The Star Wars prequel Rogue One was obviously going to have a different tone from the earlier films, given its content, but alongside its universal reputation as ‘dark’, fans still asked ‘Should Rogue One Have Been Even Darker?‘ To look at a different kind of follow-up, remakes of classic movies are often praised as being ‘darker’ than the originals. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake was seen as ‘the darker side of Willy Wonka‘. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been reviewed as both ‘darker’ than the original 1990s sitcom and comic book series and as getting darker than its original self season-by-season. Showrunners also love to tease fans with ‘darker’ sequels, as with this piece on the third season of Stranger Things,  which claims, ‘it’s definitely going to get darker still – [it will go to?] places that I think audiences are going to really love.’

But what do reviewers actually mean when they say that a book or film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor? We could spend ages arguing over what it means to be ‘dark’ (kill count? tone? grey morality?) or whether or not these sequels are actually darker, but instead, I want to suggest that when people say something is ‘darker’, they mean it is ‘better’, and this is a big problem.

Why does darker = better, especially when it comes to popular science fiction and fantasy series? My hypothesis is that it’s a signal that these books and films are worthy of adult attention, and so it’s OK if you’re an adult and you like them. Popular associations surrounding these genres still associate them with children, and one way for both artists and their fans to try and shed this ‘childish’ reputation is to talk about how dark their work is, and how much darker it’s going to be. This also explains why the first episode may be dark, but the next one is always darker: series need to ‘mature’, ‘grow up’, ‘develop’, because these are all Good Things, whereas remaining in the supposedly immature and undeveloped world of childhood is bad.

This is problematic enough in itself, because it simultaneously devalues children and adolescents, claims that young people don’t want complex stories, and assumes that being into ‘darker’ media makes you a better, more serious adult. It sets up a false binary between cheery, morally black-and-white children’s fiction and dark, morally grey fiction for adults. However, I’d also argue that playing into this narrative leads writers, filmmakers and showrunners into serious trouble. I’m going to reserve my full Harry Potter rant for another post, but suffice it to say that I think Rowling’s decision to make the series ‘grow up with Harry’ not only gives it a horribly uneven tone, but actually leads to it becoming less morally interesting. Rogue One disappointed me terribly because it served up such simplistic and boring characters compared to its companion film, A New Hope, as if being serious means that you don’t get to have a personality (you know you’ve gone wrong when the robot is the most compelling person in your film). And season three of Stranger Things misstepped by deciding that it had to fully embrace adolescence rather than exploring the ways in which our protagonists are still children – or realising that it was its celebration of childhood creativity and ingenuity that made the first two series so great.

I think it’s time to abolish the assumption that darker is better, or even that calling something ‘dark’ is a meaningful description. I love a lot of fiction that has been called ‘dark’, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Mirror. But give me The Force Awakens or the book version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone any day over other films or books in those franchises that try to be ‘dark’ because they think that’s how to be ‘grown up’, and, in doing so, reinforce our limited ideas of what is worthy of our notice.

 

 

Not The Wellcome Prize 2020: Exhalation and A Good Enough Mother

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Thanks to Annabel for this graphic!

I’m delighted to be taking part in both the blog tour and the judging panel for Not the Wellcome Prize this year, which has been so brilliantly organised by Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck. As the Wellcome Book Prize, which aims to recognise books that have a  ‘central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness’, is on hiatus this year, we are hoping to fill the gap by highlighting some of the best health-related fiction and non-fiction of 2019, then choosing our own ‘winner’ in May! Be sure to check in with the other stops on the blog tour to see what other books we’ve picked.

I’m excited to showcase two titles on my blog today: Ted Chiang’s latest collection of SF short stories, Exhalation, and Bev Thomas’s debut psychological thriller, A Good Enough Mother. These two books are very different from each other, but share common concerns about parenting, childhood and a ‘healthy’ upbringing.

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I was utterly gripped by Exhalation when it first appeared in July 2019 (as was Barack Obama, who said that it ‘will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction’.) It was one of my top ten books of 2019 and contains one of my favourite short stories of all time. You can read my full review of Exhalation here, but for the purposes of this blog post, I thought I’d focus on one novella in this collection that seems to me to be especially concerned with themes of medicine, health and illness.

‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and examines the ethical issues that this introduces. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator, Ana, among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. Because of this, this novella asks questions about what is healthy for both the digients and their owners; is it fair to keep the digients ‘alive’ when they have minimal social interaction and are often unhappy, but on the other hand, how can it be right to ‘kill’ a sentient being simply because you’ve got bored with it? A lot of owners start to ‘suspend’ their digients as a compromise solution, but this unsurprisingly unsettles the digients when they find out they’ve missed whole chunks of time.

The story continually plays with the analogy between digients and human children, up to the point when their owners have to decide whether to let their ‘teenage’ digients be recoded as sexual beings, and which, early on, is made explicit when one of Ana’s friends gets pregnant and tells her ‘People always say that we’re evolved to want babies, and I used to think that was a bunch of crap, but not anymore… Cats, dogs, digients, they’re all just substitutes for what we’re supposed to be caring for.’ Indeed, one of Chiang’s points in this novella is that ‘healthy’ AIs will need to be brought up like human children: ‘The years [Ana] spent raising Jax… gave him… fluency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgement you could entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.’ Chiang writes in his ‘Story Notes’ that ‘based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person.’ I’d challenge the idea that children and adolescents can’t be creative, resourceful or trustworthy, but the overall point is one worth making.

Nevertheless, I felt there was a darker message about the biological need for creating children that Ana’s friend talks about early in the story buried in ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’. One of the major obstacles for the digients and their owners in this novella is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. While Chiang is delightfully good at teasing out the specifics of this situation, it also has symbolic weight; is it right to create new people who will be born into a world that is becoming unfit for purpose? As ever, Chiang doesn’t offer answers, but he poses some major questions.

Other stories in this collection that, in my opinion, have something to say about health, medicine and illness are ‘Exhalation’, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’.

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Way back in October 2018, I was lucky enough to hear Bev Thomas discuss this novel, which was published in March 2019, at the Durham Book Festival. Thomas previously worked as a clinical psychologist, and her expertise is evident in the very title of this novel, which is drawn from the work of the post-war child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who published a number of popular childrearing guides as well as becoming a regular feature on BBC radio. Winnicott asserted that mothers should not worry too much about making ‘mistakes’ with their children, saying that ‘The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.’ In his popular texts, he built on this by writing that mothers would instinctively know what their infants needed, and did not need to rely on external expertise. As I’ve argued, this may have been intended to reassure mothers (coincidentally, Winnicott was reacting against the strict inter-war ‘behaviourist’ ideas that Chiang satirises in Exhalation, in his story ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’!)  but, in practice, left many feeling inadequate because their parental instincts did not seem to have kicked in and they would have liked some outside help.

So, what does this mean for Thomas’s novel (other than setting it up with a title that feels pretty sinister to me!)? The book focuses on Ruth Hartland, a professional psychotherapist who is haunted by her missing son, Tom, who disappeared a year and a half ago. As she starts treating a new patient, Dan, she can’t shake the fact that he reminds her strongly of Tom, and her increasing inability to separate the two men leads her into tragedy. A Good Enough Mother functions perfectly as a gripping psychological thriller, but is much more thought-provoking than the average thriller about therapy (or indeed than the approximately two million other thrillers that deal with missing children). We see that Ruth has never felt she was a ‘good enough mother’ to Tom, despite the supposedly soothing nature of Winnicott’s advice; Tom always struggled to separate from her and she worries that she did not encourage him to become independent. Now that they are completely apart, she can only guess how he’s navigating the world by himself. This theme is especially highlighted by the fact that Tom is a twin, which – although he and his more confident sister are obviously fraternal rather than identical – makes Ruth strain even harder to understand why her two children are so different. Ruth’s gradual emotional breakdown felt utterly convincing, and this is a hugely promising debut. (Incidentally, it also gets the thumbs up from my mum!)

Make sure to check out the other great books featured on our blog tour! 

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Have you read anything recently that deals particularly well with themes of health, medicine and/or illness?

‘Gleefully narrating the events of last night’

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Jai is nine years old and lives with his family in the slums of New Delhi. He loves watching reality cop shows, especially Police Patrol (presumably a fictionalised version of Crime Patrol), waits hungrily for his mother to bring back special food from her job as a maid in one of the ‘hi-fi’ flats of the city, and is watched over by his older sister, Runu, who dreams of becoming a successful runner and winning a sports scholarship that will allow her to escape. When children start disappearing from Jai’s basti, he forms a detective gang with his two best friends, Pari and Faiz, and they determine to find out what is happening. Their investigations take them onto the Metro’s Purple Line, into a part of the city they have never been before. Jai is convinced that there may be something supernatural at work, and that the children may have been snatched by the hungry djinns that are said to hunt at night. Framed by the fact that around 180 children in India go missing every day (although this article explains that the reasons behind this statistic are complex, and not all of these children are abducted), this debut novel is unafraid to highlight the limited interest from the Indian media in the fate of poor kids and to go to some very dark places. Indeed, I found this one of the most upsetting things I have read for some time.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line draws from Deepa Anappara’s own origins in Kerala and her experience of working as a journalist in India for eleven years, and, as expected, is rich in detail. Anappara slips seamlessly between English and Hindi in such a way that the language of the novel is never difficult to follow, and Jai’s basti is vividly brought to life. Anappara has written thoughtfully about the difficulties of inhabiting the voice of a poor urban child, even given her own background and experience, in the Times [paywalled], an article that feels even more salient given the recent reviews of Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt.I had been concerned that any representation of a marginalised, vulnerable community in India risked stereotyping or romanticising their difficult circumstances’, she writes, recounting that ‘I had witnessed how children’s voices had been absent from the news reports about their disappearances, and I wanted to reframe the narrative so they would be at the heart of it.’ Ultimately, she writes, it was only after her sibling was diagnosed with incurable cancer that she really felt at one with Jai, and his need to tell stories about the world to make sense of the horrors he witnesses.

Although I can’t comment on how accurate Anappara’s depiction of the New Delhi slums actually is, I do think that she has successfully achieved her aim of not writing ‘poverty porn’. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line presents a diverse cast of characters not defined by their personal circumstances, and also pays close attention to the social and economic hierarchies within the basti, rather than presenting a mass of human misery. When Jai visits the home of the first boy who disappears, Bahadur, he notes that Bahadur’s family must be better off than his because they have ‘more of everything: more clothes hanging from the clothes lines above us, more upturned pots and pans… more framed photos of gods on the walls, the glass turning sooty because of the joss sticks stuck into the corners of the frames, a bigger TV, and even a fridge’. The novel is also attentive to anti-Muslim feeling among the predominantly Hindu population.

If there was something about this novel that made me feel a bit uncertain, it was Jai’s voice, which feels too much like the kind of chirpy, cliched child narrator I’ve read in many other novels set in wildly different times and places. A brief segment of narration from his older sister Runu sets this into context somewhat, giving us a very necessary external viewpoint on Jai. After a family argument where she is slapped by her father, she sees her brother ‘gleefully narrating the events of last night’ to his friends and reflects that ‘Since he had been born, she had considered Jai with a blend of loathing and admiration; it seemed to her that he had a way of softening the imperfections of life with his daydreams and the self-confidence that the world granted boys’. The first two-thirds of this novel are overlong, with Jai’s rambling narration becoming a bit frustrating, but the interspersed sections from other narrators are much stronger, especially those that relate urban legends from the basti – I was especially gripped by the tale of Junction-ki-Rani, who is said to stand guard at highway junctions to protect women who are threatened by men. And to be fair, the harrowing ending justifies much of the build-up, even if this could still probably have been achieved in a shorter page count. I’ve rarely read a final chapter that stayed with me so long, and that’s probably the great achievement of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on January 30th.

Rewatching Black Mirror: Arkangel

This is part of a very occasional series where I rewatch and review Black Mirror episodes. I’ve already written about ‘San Junipero’ and ‘Hang the DJ’. I only review episodes where I feel like I have something to say, so don’t expect this to be comprehensive. (I am a big fan of Black Mirror, so when I’m critical, it’s only because I hold the show to such high standards… and often I have more to say about episodes that I think didn’t quite work.)

WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for the Black Mirror Season 4 episode ‘Arkangel’. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to be spoiled, do not read this post.

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‘Arkangel’ is Black Mirror’s modern childhood episode, an episode that writer Charlie Brooker thinksonly a parent could write’, that introduces a piece of technology that ‘it would be very hard for many parents to not agree to use’. That piece of technology is Arkangel, an implant in a child’s brain that allows the parent to track their every movement, to look through their eyes, and to impose ‘parental control settings’ on what they can see and hear. When single mother Marie first has Arkangel installed into her daughter Sara, Sara is a small child, and it seems essential to be able to see where she is when she runs away or to screen out the large dog that barks at her and scares her. But as Sara becomes a teenager, even though Marie has promised not to use Arkangel any more, she can’t resist the temptation to take the controller out of its box when Sara stays out too late one night.

The problem with ‘Arkangel’, for me, is, although it effectively uses a tried-and-tested Black Mirror technique by offering us two interpretations of the events that unfold, neither of those interpretations are very interesting. One: Marie is a control freak, children need to be exposed to the bad things in the world, and parents need to let go. This is backed up by Marie’s boyfriend, a motorcycle rider, who thinks that life is about taking risks; by Marie’s father, who points out that while she might have broken an arm as a child it didn’t do her any long-term damage; and by Sara’s experience as a pre-teen, when she is isolated from the other children at school because she can’t see the gory things they’re watching online. Two: Marie went too far with Arkangel, but there are obvious reasons why this technology is a good thing, so we can’t reject it so easily. Through Sara’s eyes, Marie realised her father was having a heart attack and was able to get him medical help; the teenage Sara, once free of Arkangel, strides out to accept a lift from a stranger without any thought for the consequences; and are the gory things Sara watched online as a child partly behind her vicious attack on her mother when she finds out the truth?

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Both of these narratives about childhood and adolescence are already very familiar, and ‘Arkangel’ doubles down on the cliches by presenting a mother and a teenage daughter who have a completely stereotypical relationship. Fifteen-year-old Sara rebels by taking drugs and having sex, and lies to her mum about where she’s been. Rather than talking to Sara about this, Marie prefers to use Arkangel to spy on her; while this is an extreme reaction, it fits into the fictional parental playbook of teenagers who scream ‘You don’t understand me!” and parents who respond “You’re grounded!” This episode is watchable enough, but it never brings its characters to life in the same way as other Black Mirror episodes manage to do in an equally short space of time (not my favourite episode, but compare the presentation of the young American backpacker in ‘Playtest’, whom we care about as a person before horrible things start happening to him).

There was real potential in ‘Arkangel’. One alternative plot that I kept thinking about while rewatching the episode was: what if Marie had handed over control of Arkangel to Sara when she became a teenager? Arkangel is billed as a parental control device, but you could also manipulate your own settings to protect yourself from traumatic things you don’t want to see. Would this be a way of avoiding reality, or a sensible move to allow yourself to adapt to stimuli that scare you? ‘Arkangel’ pushes the idea that you can only get past your fear of something by exposing yourself to it – Sara only stops being afraid of the scary dog once she can see and hear it – but is that fair? (I know a lot of people who are still scared of dogs to this day because they were barked at aggressively as children).

‘Arkangel’ reflects recent sociological and historical work on modern Western childhood and youth, tapping into the argument that the reduction of children’s and adolescents’ freedom to roam independently in the last seventy years has been profoundly harmful. However, it’s not as squarely on the side of children and young people as it might appear on first viewing, by presenting Sara as violent and impulsive, unable to understand the consequences of her actions. By allowing Marie and Sara to collaborate over how to use this technology, ‘Arkangel’ could have presented both characters with truly difficult choices. Instead, Sara becomes a reckless adolescent, and Marie an abusive mother, fulfilling their tropes rather than questioning them.

 

Three Things… December 2019

Reading

First, Nikita Lalwani’s debut novel, Gifted (2007), which follows Rumi, a second-generation Indian immigrant growing up in Cardiff, whose father, Mahesh, is determined that she should become a maths prodigy after she’s identified as ‘gifted’ as a young child. Lalwani handles this situation with great subtlety; Mahesh makes Rumi’s life a misery, but not necessarily because he buys into the Mensa-approved ideas about what it is to be gifted, and he is infuriated by the idea that Rumi is somehow a freak because she is both smart and brown. He sees himself as a progressive man, willing to nurture a daughter’s gifts in the same way as he would a son’s. Meanwhile, Shreene, Rumi’s mother, pushes against stereotypes of silenced Asian women, despite her conviction that Rumi’s main destiny is to get married; she too goes to work every day and happily recalls how she refused to see Mahesh when he made the first formal visit to her family to ask for her hand, because he arrived earlier than expected and she wasn’t ready. Gifted succeeds more as a series of excellent set-pieces than as a whole novel; it’s a bit fragmented and directionless, but its evocation of Mahesh, in particular, is brutal and touching. Despite the title, it’s not really about the label ‘gifted’ or about being a ‘precocious’ child – I wish somebody would write a really intelligent novel about either of those subjects! – but about the pressure of family expectation, especially in a hostile country.

Second, I finished my re-read of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (2002); I don’t have the energy right now to give this novel the review it deserves, but suffice it to say that (a) this evocation of a Mississippi community in the early 1970s is devastatingly sad – much more so than I remembered, and (b) it’s definitely Tartt’s best novel.

Third, I read Deborah Levy’s Booker-longlisted novel The Man Who Saw Everything (2019) – or at least I got halfway through it, setting a new record for me with a Levy novel. (And yes I did get to the bit where it all switches about). Levy just doesn’t click for me – she’s obviously a very good writer, but while I hoped this would be a literary mediation on time and space along the lines of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, it didn’t engage me at all.

My December reading plans haven’t been especially successful; I’ve read two of the six books I planned to read (The Bluest Eye and The Unpassing), have struggled to get hold of two others (We, The Survivors and A Door in the Stone) and have decided against reading the final two, at least right now (The Echo Maker and Heaven My Home). Because I’m dumping The Echo Maker, I’ll hold out on declaring my 4.5 star challenge complete until I can read Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock. However, I did manage to read ONE SF book by a writer of colour in December (Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse).

Watching

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As usual, I have been watching a lot of rubbish! I went to see Frozen II a week or so ago (if anyone cares about spoilers for Frozen II, look away now!) This is a somewhat frustrating sequel in that it’s pitch-perfect thematically, but isn’t a very compelling film. The basic plot sees Elsa, Anna and their various sidekicks try to heal a past rift with the local community of Northuldra (obviously based on Inuit peoples) after Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling her away from her kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa’s character arc is very well-handled; the writing team have worked out how to give her a second internal conflict that doesn’t diminish what she came to terms with in Frozen. While she ultimately decides to resign her queenship and leave the kingdom, she does this on her own terms; rather than running away as she did in the first film, she now knows she is accepted for who she is and can freely decide what to do.

There’s been lots of speculation over whether Disney will dare to present Elsa as openly lesbian, and the furthest this film goes is to emphasise that she has no interest in marriage and give her a cute girl to chat to. While this decision was probably made for the wrong reasons, I thought it was the right one for this particular film – much as I love the idea of lesbian Elsa, it is refreshing to see a female character in an animated film (or any kind of film!) whose central arc is not about romance. It’s funny to think that the film writers have probably been forced into this relatively positive representation by dint of wanting to avoid explicit lesbian representation but not wanting to piss off the LGBT community too badly.

However, the writers have seemingly forgotten to give Anna a parallel arc to her sister, and this shows, as her sections of the film really drag. This is annoying, as obvious possibilities present themselves – Kristoff keeps trying unsuccessfully to propose marriage to Anna throughout the film (which is hilarious), but if he’d been allowed to pop the question at the start, this could have sent Anna into a tailspin, as she flashed back to her disastrous engagement to Hans and wondered whether she was rushing into things with Kristoff as well, even though she has now known him for a year. Instead, Anna’s only conflict is whether she can get Elsa to accept that she needs to accompany her on her adventures – which falls rather flat when it transpires that Elsa was absolutely right to tell Anna that, without magic, there are places she cannot go. While I LOVED Kristoff’s line to Anna when they are reunited, and she’s worrying if he now doubts whether she cares for him – ‘My love is not fragile‘ – both characters are under-used in this film. And the sooner Olaf the snowman is blasted into smithereens, the better.

Thinking

Well, like everyone else in Britain, I’ve been thinking about the horrible election result on Friday, but I don’t want to spend much time discussing it on this blog. These are some interesting Twitter threads/articles if anyone wants them: one    two    three    four

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What has helped me in the last few days, apart from talking to my sister and some of my friends, is re-reading Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s classic Enchantress From The Stars (1970), which I first read when I was fifteen. Enchantress from the Stars focuses on a young woman, Elana, who joins a secret team from the Federation Anthropological Service, bound to encourage one civilisation to leave the planet of another. Engdahl was the first to teach me that you can combine science fiction and fantasy, and that unthinking atheism and rationality is as damaging as unthinking belief and superstition. (Engdahl herself has objected to the novel being called a combination of these two genres, because she thinks that only science fiction has something to say about the future, which is her purpose as a writer. Whether or not you agree with this, my sense of the way in which the novel lets genres talk to each other is stylistic and thematic – Enchantress From the Stars is not only partly written in a folktale pastiche, but is concerned with the reality of ‘magic’). It reminded me that I want to read many more novels where the speculative genres talk to each other like this; Nina Allan’s work pulls off the same kind of thing. I found Enchantress so helpful to re-read in the last few days for two reasons: firstly, it reminds us that the route to social progress is not linear, and things can get a lot worse before they get better. Secondly, in its depiction of Elana and her local ally Georyn, it suggests that sometimes we can only accomplish things we believe to be impossible by pursuing them in defiance of reason, and that that isn’t a stupid thing to do.

I’ll now be mostly offline until I put up my Books of the Year posts at the end of December (and maybe a bonus Books of the Decade this time around as well) so I hope you all have a festive and relaxing holiday season!

 

Words Weekend, Sage Gateshead, December 2019, & Weekend Reading

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I attended a couple of events at Words Weekend at the Sage Gateshead this weekend. This is the first of a series of Words Weekends planned throughout England during 2019-20; upcoming events will be held in Salford, Bury St Edmunds, London, and somewhere else unspecified in the north-west! The festival organisers have aimed to make the festival diverse and accessible; all the events are BSL-interpreted, for example, and 40% are free. As usual, the Sage have also been holding pop-up events in their foyer alongside the scheduled festival programme (purely accidentally, I caught a bit of classical music, a choir, a talk on positive body image, and Curtis Brown literary agency talking about pitching novels).

For me, the flagship event of this festival was David Olusoga in conversation with Bernardine Evaristo; I loved her novel Girl, Woman, Otherwhich won the Booker Prize earlier this year. Evaristo didn’t disappoint. She spoke about wanting to tell a wider cross-section of the stories of black British women, though accepting that her twelve protagonists could never really be representative – initially, she said, she had imagined a thousand women speaking in a more poetic form. She remembered the impact that Peter Fryer’s Staying Power (1984) had on her as a young woman, and how this is reflected in a number of her protagonists, who demonstrate that black people have been in Britain long before the Windrush – ninety-three year old Hattie, for example, has spent her life on a farm in northern England. She also cited Ntozake Shange’s for coloured girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuff (1976) as a key influence on the novel’s prose-poetry style, which, she reflected, has been surprisingly accessible, especially for dyslexic readers.

 

The event was too crowded to get a photo of either Evaristo or Olusoga!

The only note that rang a little uncomfortably for me was when Evaristo asserted that it’s difficult for young writers to write older characters, as they lack the interest and experience, whereas older writers can more easily write younger characters. I don’t agree with this in the slightest; while fiction is dominated by younger protagonists, this is a different issue, especially given that most fiction is not written by people under thirty. Interestingly, I noted in my review of Evaristo’s novel that she doesn’t seem to extend the same depth of sympathy to her youngest protagonists as to the protagonists who are in their early thirties or older, and this may be the kind of stereotype she’s running up against. As I see it, reinhabiting an age that you have thoroughly left behind may be even more difficult than imagining an age you have yet to experience, as you inevitably have to put aside your own particular ideas about what that age is like; Evaristo, for example, spoke about how she felt very angry as a young woman and found it hard to use humour in her art, but this obviously isn’t the case for all young people.

The question-and-answer session was, unusually, almost more interesting than the discussion. A woman who’d been at the same drama school as Evaristo popped up and asked her about being angry; she said that, despite being older, she was still angry, whereas Evaristo seemed to have attained a state of calm. In response to this, Evaristo spoke very interestingly about how she believes that you can’t write fiction from a position of anger. She also fielded a mansplaining question about the origins of the Booker Prize gracefully. The best exchange, for me, was when an older man asked her about writing older characters and she started her answer by saying ‘As I’m now sixty…’ He interrupted to say ‘You don’t look it, hinny!’ to which she fired back ‘Well, black don’t crack!’

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I also went to see a talk by Dr Jon Copley called ‘Ask An Ocean Explorer’ where he discussed his research on deep-sea environments, especially on hydrothermal vents in the Cayman Trench. This built on the talk by Dr Diva Amon I heard at the British Science Festival, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Copley noted that, below a thousand metres, water is totally beyond the reach of sunshine, so this part of the sea is ‘beyond the blue’. More than half the world is covered by water that is deeper than this. He challenged the common idea, however, that we know more about the Moon or Mars than the very deep ocean, arguing that, while we have more detailed maps of the Moon and Mars because we can scan them with radar, which doesn’t penetrate water, we have access to far more biological and geological samples from the deep. He also did a quick dash through the history of ocean exploration, refreshingly highlighting the work of female pioneer Marie Tharp, who wasn’t allowed to go to sea on research vessels until she was in her late forties, but through interpreting the data they gathered, still managed to discover the rift valley along the floor of the Atlantic Ocean that proved theories of plate tectonics and continental drift in 1952. Copley thinks this was as significant a moment for the earth sciences as the discovery of DNA was for the biological sciences.

 

I’ve also been doing some unrelated (and eclectic!) reading of my own this weekend. I finished Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, which was – not what I expected it to be. I picked up this novel because I loved Wilson’s short story in A People’s Future of the United States‘A History of Barbed Wire’, which imagines a reservation built by the Cherokee Nation with a wall to keep refugees out. However, Robopocalypse doesn’t have much to say about the human condition; it’s basically a thriller about killer robots taking over the world. Wilson has no time for irritating questions about whether robots are sentient or what responsibilities humans bear towards them; he just wants to write lots of set-pieces about humans combating increasingly ingenious and disturbing technology. I actually enjoyed this a lot – Wilson has a doctorate in robotics, which stops it getting too silly – but don’t expect it to be thought-provoking.

Finally, I read the first half of Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing, which was one of the books I highlighted in my 2019 reading plans post. This novel, narrated by a ten-year-old boy, Gavin, starts after the death of his toddler sister; while they both contracted meningitis, only he recovered. His family are Taiwanese immigrants to Alaska, and I’d hoped that this would both raise interesting questions about culture and allow readers to explore a different kind of setting. Unfortunately, I found this quite bland. I usually get on well with slow, character-led fiction, but Lin’s writing isn’t strong enough to carry this plotless novel; it’s unobtrusive, but never striking. Frustratingly, almost every other person in this novel, from the grieving mother to the older sister right down to the baby brother, seemed like they’d have been a more interesting mouthpiece than Gavin, and the vestiges of tension surrounding the father being sued for not properly installing a septic tank don’t tighten quickly enough. The Unpassing perhaps suffered from me reading it alongside Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, which has a superficially similar set-up – family falling apart after the death of a child, narrated by a sibling who doesn’t quite understand – but is stratospherically better. Ultimately, I didn’t feel compelled to continue with it.

In the shadow of the Second World War: Akin (Emma Donoghue) & The Tenth Muse (Catherine Chung)

On the whole, I’m a bit tired of books that explore family secrets during the Second World War, but both of these new releases manage to twist this trope in interesting ways, wringing more out of it than I thought was possible.

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Emma Donoghue’s Akin sounded initially unpromising but was unexpectedly delightful. It focuses on retired chemist Noah Selvaggio, who is returning to the French Riviera, where he spent his early childhood, on the eve of his eightieth birthday. Noah lost his wife some years back, and is happy to admit that, of the two of them, she was the one whose work really contributed to the sum of human knowledge, as she was a leading cancer researcher. The couple were contentedly childless, and so Noah is now winding down his own life in a predictable fashion, unsure what it has all meant but happy in the recognition of the privilege it contained. This is all upended when Noah becomes the temporary guardian of Michael, his eleven-year-old great-nephew (“Mr Selvaggio is your great-uncle”… “What’s so great about him?” Michael wanted to know.) Told that if he does not assume responsibility for Michael he will have to be put in foster care, Noah reluctantly takes the boy with him to France.

Akin isn’t a plotty book; how much you like it will probably be dependent on how much you enjoy this kind of dialogue, which makes up the bulk of the novel:

During the Occupation – when the German army took over from the Italians – you had to tape black over every window so American bombers wouldn’t spot any lights. And there was a curfew, which meant everybody had to stay indoors after dark.” [Noah said].

 “I know what a freaking curfew is.” [Michael said]

“Of course you do.” Home by four thirty every day.

“Mom and Grandma were all about the curfew,” Michael said.

 “Yeah?”

 “You come straight home from school now” – in a gravelly old-lady voice – “and stay inside, live to be a man. Hanging around on the corner, you’re going to end up getting yourself shot like Cody.”

 The well-observed repartee between Noah and Michael has several reoccurring themes; Noah shocked by the reality of Michael’s turbulent childhood, and unsure where to draw boundaries with his charge; Noah trying to pass on his knowledge of the world to Michael, while constantly being surprised by what the boy does or doesn’t know, what happens to interest him, and what to protect him from. “You know a lot of stuff, but most of it’s sick,” Michael tells him. “Fair comment,” Noah replies.

The warmth which which Donoghue writes about both her characters offsets the hint of cliché in Michael’s characterisation (just because a portrayal is realistic doesn’t mean it can’t also be cliched). These long conversations also have a thematic purpose; Akin explores what we can pass on to the next generation, and what it’s worth. In this context, when Noah starts researching his family’s past during the Nazi occupation of France, this familiar plot feels fresher, especially as it’s juxtaposed with another miscarriage of justice that has been visited on Michael’s parents. Once again, Donoghue pulls something totally different out of the bag; I’ve read her on countercultural contemporary lesbian relationships (Stir-Fry, Hood) a pulpy nineteenth-century courtroom drama (The Sealed Letter) and the mysterious case of an Irish girl said to have survived without food for months in 1859 (The Wonder), as well as her most famous novel, Room, which is totally distinctive again. All were worthwhile, and although Akin can be a little slow at times, I’d rank it as among her best.

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

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As a female Chinese-American mathematician in the post-war United States, Katherine knows that her path ahead won’t be easy, and that she will never be viewed on her own merits: ‘When I die, I know the first sentence in my obituary will read, “Asian American woman mathematician dies at the age of X”. Nevertheless, she refuses to compromise her principles for the sake of her career or her personal life. The central problem that will haunt her forever is framed early on in this novel; when still an undergraduate student, her professor confronts her, claiming she has copied her problem sets from her male friend. Of course, it’s the friend who is the plagiarist, but he refuses to tell the truth, and Katherine feels that the only way to prove her own merits is to work ten times harder. Later, when she begins a relationship with a well-known mathematician and they publish papers together, everyone refers to him as the sole author, and assumes she was only named on the papers because she’s sleeping with him. However, these early unjust incidents are only the preamble for two further events that mean Katherine must choose between the people she loves and the work that inspires her.

The title of Catherine Chung’s novel, The Tenth Muse, also refers back to this central dilemma. As she tells her story, Katherine repeatedly remembers two tales she first encountered as a young child; as she summarises them, ‘The tenth muse gave up everything to claim her own voice. Kwan-Yin gave up everything on behalf of everyone else.’ Katherine wants to believe there’s a middle way between these two poles, but her experiences constantly force her into difficult choices. Chung’s take on the damaging sacrifices we make for those we love is refreshing, and I admired the portrayal of a female protagonist who isn’t willing to always be the Kwan-Yin. She also interweaves the complicated story of Katherine’s heritage, which, like Noah’s, is rooted in the Second World War, carefully through the main plot. However, The Tenth Muse was a little too neat for me. Its message is spelt out several times. It’s very light on the mathematics it describes, which in one way was a relief, as I doubt I would have understood anything more complex, but this also means there’s little to make it stand out. Katherine is a compelling narrator, but her story remains a sketch.

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

Choose The Year Book Tag: 2003

Thanks for Laura (Reading in Bed) for tagging me for this! The idea is that you select a certain year and look back at the books published in that year. Like others, I’ve used the Goodreads Top 200 list for convenience.

1. Choose a year and say why.

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My Y11 yearbook picture from 2003.

I’ve picked 2003 because it falls on the cusp for me; I turned seventeen in September 2003, so this was really the period when I was moving from teenage fiction to adult novels, but still dipping back into YA here and there! I’ve noticed that the Goodreads Top 200 tends to feature YA quite heavily, so I thought it would be fun to pick a year where I have both YA and adult fiction to talk about.

2. Which books published in that year have you read, or if none, heard of?

I’ve read 24! Almost an eighth of the Goodreads Top 200, although there are some dubious entries (Harry Potter appears twice, as a single book (Order of the Phoenix) and as a series, and I’m pretty sure The Cat In The Hat wasn’t first published in 2003; nor, although I have not read it, was Plato’s Symposium).

I’m not going to discuss all 24, so here are some highlights:

 

  • Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada still infuriates me whenever I think of it because of how Andy is treated for prioritising her career rather than her boyfriend. Said boyfriend is also very stupid because he cannot seem to understand that Andy hasn’t ‘sold out to the fashion world’ but is deliberately doing the internship from hell for one year to hold out for what she really wants to do. The film has a different ending, but is equally, if not more annoying in this respect. Still love it though…
  • We Need To Talk About Kevin is Lionel Shriver’s most famous book but it’s only midlist in terms of quality; my favourites are Double Fault and The Post-Birthday World. It’s a shame that Shriver seems to have become so offensive and shortsighted in recent years, as her writing used to be excellent, and still is when she isn’t ranting about libertarianism.
  • Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is one of my favourite books of all time; a vampire novel that doesn’t fall back on a single cliche, it’s set in a totally convincing alternative world where humans are trying and slowly failing to hold back the dark, but where where there’s still space for good cinnamon rolls, painted motorcycles and used book fairs that yield favourite novels and protective objects. READ IT.
  • Zoe Heller’s Notes on A Scandal is a wonderful portrayal of not just obsession, but loneliness and isolation – the film is very good in some ways but drops the ball badly by making Barbara into a stalkerish lesbian stereotype – no hint of that in the book.
  • Jostein Gaarder’s The Orange Girl isn’t my favourite book by him (I’ll be writing more about Gaarder when I get around to the books in translation tag), but the storytelling is still compelling and it rests on an obvious twist that amazingly worked very well for me as a teenager.
  • Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light (published as A Northern Light in the US and on this list) made me very cross as a teenager and I can’t remember why! I definitely wasn’t a fan of the heroine.
  • Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice was a disappointment to me after loving her Alanna, Daine and Kel series; I never warmed to Aly as a character or got over her romance with a bird!
  • Philippa Gregory’s The Queen’s Fool is a very silly historical novel in numerous ways, not least its ahistorical take on gender norms, but I still like its no-holds-barred version of Elizabeth I before she became queen; Elizabeth is so often presented as so saccharine (e.g. in the film Elizabeth, which has her totally innocent of all conspiracy against Mary) this is a nice antidote, even if it goes too far the other way… Along with David Starkey’s Elizabeth, this probably inspired my A Level history dissertation which was on Elizabeth’s involvement in plotting during Mary I’s reign.
  • Eoin Colfer’s The Eternity Code, third in his Artemis Fowl series, is a book I can no longer remember anything about other than its very glittery cover, but has brought back fond memories of the first in the series which was very fun.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is one of the few books on this list I read AFTER the year 2003, and like all her writing, it’s subtle and moving.

3. Are there any books published in that year that sound interesting and would you read them now?

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Very, very few on this list! I’m really only interested in reading Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor after reading Rachel’s review of it. I suppose I might eventually get round to reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.

4. Most obscure sounding book?

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Looking only at books that don’t fit into obvious categories (i.e. I don’t read romance, so it’s all obscure to me, but I don’t think that makes it obscure in general) I’ve gone for Bill Willingham’ Fables: Volume 2: Animal Farm just because I’m really confused as to what it is! A graphic novel? Here’s the blurb:

Ever since they were driven from their homelands by the Adversary, the non-human Fables have been living on the Farm—a vast property in upstate New York that keeps them hidden from the prying eyes of the mundane world. But now, after hundreds of years of isolation, the Farm is seething with revolution, fanned by the inflammatory rhetoric of Goldilocks and the Three Little Pigs. And when Snow White and her sister Rose Red stumble upon their plan to liberate the Homelands, the commissars of the Farm are ready to silence them—by any means necessary!

5. Strangest book cover?

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Yuu Watase’s Absolute Boyfriend has to win this – what is going on here?? To be honest,  this manga novel actually sounds amazing:

Shy high school student Riko Izawa aches for a boyfriend but guys just won’t look her way. Then one day she signs up for a three-day trial of a mysterious “lover figurine,” and the next thing she knows, a cute naked guy is delivered to her doorstep–and he wants to be her boyfriend!

Has Riko died and gone to heaven? The cute naked guy turns out to be smart, super nice, stylish and a gourmet chef. Plus, he looks like a million bucks…. Trouble is, that’s about what he’s going to cost Riko because she didn’t return him in time!

I don’t tend to tag people, but I love this tag, so please have a go if you fancy it and haven’t already done it!