July Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. I only feature books that I read for the first time this month, not rereads (otherwise the worst book would obviously be Skellig)

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. This gorgeous story of work, friendship, making art, storytelling and play completely bowled me over. My full review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Honorable mention: Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou. This smart, surreal satire about Asian Americans in academia both delighted and impressed me, even if I thought the tone was a bit uneven. My full review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Pulse Points by Jennifer Down. Down is an Australian writer, and I picked up this collection of short stories because I spotted Julia Armfield recommending it. Unfortunately, it did not work for me at all. I actually liked the title story, which appears first in the collection; I thought it was subtle and clever. Then all the rest blurred into one. Although Down flips between different styles and viewpoints, I found her stories very samey, and I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to do.

(Dis)honorable mention: People Like Them by Samira Sedira, trans. Lara Vergnaud. Painfully clunky prose – I assume a combination of bad writing and bad translation – plus painfully obvious social commentary.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Complicit by Winnie M Li. I admired Li’s debut novel, Dark Chapterwith some reservations; I thought Li wrote bravely and vividly about rape, drawing from her own experience, but was less convinced by the sections written from the point of view of the rapist. Complicit is in a very different category. It’s basically a straightforward #MeToo thriller told from the perspective of a young Chinese-American woman, Sarah, an assistant film producer in Hollywood. It brings nothing new to the table, and also makes some missteps. On reflection, I think Li wanted to make Sarah a flawed and unreliable narrator in the vein of My Dark Vanessastruggling with internalised misogyny and racism as she stereotypes other women as dumb blondes and herself as a victim of her ‘Chinese work ethic’, and dismisses sexual assault as ‘not rape’. However, the writing isn’t strong enough to pull this off, and Sarah’s comments often end up sounding as if we’re meant to read them straight. A disappointing second novel.

The Book I Had The Most Mixed Feelings About This Month Was…

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… Unofficial Britain by Gareth E. Rees. This book has a mission statement, drawn from Rees’s original Unofficial Britain website; Rees wants to ‘walk through everyday places, like car parks, bus stops, amusement arcades, factories, alleyways and promenades, only to find that they become weirder the closer we look’. Probably because of Rees’s single-mindedness, I found Unofficial Britain highly irritating and incredibly insightful by turns. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the idea that a car park or an underpass is exactly the same as a natural landscape like a forest; apart from anything else, forests are living organisms in their own right, not just dead structures upon which humans bestow meaning. There’s also too much moaning about what Rees sees as stereotypical haunted places, like rural moorland or old Victorian houses. However, when he manages to get off his bandwagon, he has lots of interesting things to say. I especially enjoyed the chapters on motorways, multistorey car parks, and motorways, and I loved his discussion of the liminal nature of chain hotels, which feel like they could be anyplace because they all look the same inside.

The Weirdest Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori. I struggle with body horror and am a bit tired of the numerous recent short story collections that deal with women and their bodies. Therefore, I should not have been a fan of Life Ceremony, which features cannibalism, jewellery made from bones, and a woman obsessed with other people’s body fluids, among other bizarre themes. But weirdly, a lot of these stories worked for me. I loved how Murata revealed the contingent, mandated nature of what we think of as ‘normal’ in Convenience Store Woman, and that’s a big concern here, as well. As one character puts it: ‘There was a couple engaged in insemination on the beach. What would that have looked like back when it was still called sex?’ My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Best YA Book I Read This Month Was…

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… A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin. It’s unusual for me to find a YA fantasy that I enjoy, but I liked this immersive debut. It stars teenage Ning, a physician’s apprentice whose mother has recently been killed by drinking poisoned tea distributed by her province’s governor. Now Ning is determined to take up the art of tea magic to cure her sister Shu, who was also poisoned and is now slowly dying. But to achieve her goal, she’ll have to compete to become the palace’s next shennong-shi – a master of tea-making. Lin’s world-building is elegant and convincing. It actually reminded me a bit of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall; there’s an authority in Lin’s writing that allows her to set out the politics of this kingdom simply and effectively without making them feel skimpy. Sadly, I found the characters interchangeable, and so did not invest enough in their story to necessarily want to follow them to the next novel in this duology, but this was escapist and fun. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Book That Swung Off Course The Most For Me This Month Was...

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… Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. This much-hyped debut follows Elizabeth Zott, an uncompromising research chemist rebelling against American women’s expected roles in the 1950s and 1960s, who uses her TV cookery show to encourage other housewives to break free. I thought the first half of this novel was delightful, if a little self-indulgent. Garmus balanced the jaunty tone well with the hints of a greater darkness in Elizabeth’s past, and I was won over by her relationship with fellow chemist Calvin. Unfortunately, it all went wrong in the second half, after Elizabeth begins her cookery show; I found its audience appeal completely unconvincing and the snippets of ‘chemistry’ irritating (I loved chemistry A Level because of the way it made everything fit together; there’s no sense of that here, with Elizabeth simply namedropping terms like ‘sodium chloride’). We have to deal with both an irritating dog, who understands English, and an irritating child, who is ‘precocious’ in the cute way that children in books often are, which is nothing like the way exceptionally smart children are in real life. The random reappearance of long-lost family members at the end ties it all together into a sugary bow. A pity, because I really liked Elizabeth-the-research-chemist before she (reluctantly) became Elizabeth-the-TV-star.

The Most Illuminating Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Reverse Engineering ed. Tom Conaghan. This first book from new indie short story publishers Scratch Books reprints seven exceptional modern short stories and pairs them with commentary from their authors. The stories are worth reading in their own right – I loved every single one except Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Filamo’, which I’d already encountered in her Nudibranchso I knew what to expect. But it’s so great to have the authors’ reflections as well. My favourite story was Mahreen Sohail’s wonderful ‘Hair’. Sohail’s discussion of how she first extended and then pared back the story’s ending, which shoots forward into the future, was fascinating, as was her reflection on how she signalled a switch of protagonist early in the text, temporarily revealing the story’s workings: ‘Sometimes I think short stories should do this more. We seem to be really into smokes and mirrors and tricks and stuff but there’s something really powerful about stating something as it is.’ Chris Powers’s story ‘The Crossing’, alongside his commentary, made me reflect on what George Saunders says in A Swim In The Pond In The Rain about how short story writers should anticipate the reader’s expectations at each stage of the story, and make the unexpected choice. Other standouts for me were Jessie Greengrass’s clever ‘Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague’, which was based loosely on the life of the early modern physician and philosopher Paracelsus (who was born Theophrastus, though I wish there had been a clue to his more famous identity in the text), and Joseph O’Neill’s bizarre ‘The Flier’.

Did you have any stand-out reads in July?

June Superlatives

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

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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

20 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: All Girls and Gillespie and I

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! (Only posting now makes it look like I’m super behind, but I’m doing rather better with my rereads than with my reviews of my rereads…)

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Before rereading: I first read All Girls in February 2021, so not very long ago! I picked it up again on a whim; I remembered an evocative set-piece set at the school’s ‘Fall Fest’ and originally intended just to re-read that section. I originally received All Girls as a Kindle proof from NetGalley.

The first time I read All Girls, I wrote: All Girls is set during the academic year 2015-16 at a New England prep school where a former student has recently accused one of the teachers of sexually assaulting her. However, All Girls is not really focused on the details of the accusation, but rather how it impacts the school’s current students, and their developing ideas of how to navigate in the world as young women who are never quite taken seriously.’ I felt that ‘there’s something solid about the connections between [Layden’s] cast that makes me believe that if I re-read this novel, all sorts of things would start coming to light that I hadn’t noticed first time round… while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like [Curtis] Sittenfeld, Layden really gets how some teenage girls approach the world, and how small but yet significant interactions can crush or uplift their sense of who they are… If there was one thing I found less convincing about All Girls, it was that all her narrators seem to share this sense of watchfulness’.

After rereading: While I still found All Girls a compelling read, I was a little less impressed with it second time around. I still think it is thoughtful and insightful on the experience of being a teenage girl, and far better than many much-hyped novels on this theme, like Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise or Robin Wasserman’s Girls On FireHowever, I guess what I hoped for didn’t materialise: no new connections between the cast emerge even as you start recognising previous narrators popping up across the chapters. I also continued to be frustrated with how Layden leans so heavily on the watchful outcast, even though there are some narrators who don’t quite fit this trope. Finally, the theme of sexual agency seemed more dominant than on my first read, and I didn’t think Layden had much new to say on this topic.

My rating in 2021: ****

My rating in 2022: ***1/2

The original hardback  I read from the library (L) and the second-hand paperback I own now (R)

Before rereading: I first read Jane Harris’s second novel, Gillespie and I, in 2011, when I was 24. I believe I originally read a library copy but now own a second-hand paperback copy that I bought after loving it so much. (It was one of my top ten books of 2011). I now remember very little about it other than that it had an incredible, unreliable narrative voice, as the older narrator inveigled her way into the family of artist Ned Gillespie.

The first time I read Gillespie and I, I wrote: Due to extreme pickiness, I rarely find a historical novel that I like, with the exception of anything by Sarah Waters, but this is certainly getting there. Narrated by the unreliable Harriet Baxter, it follows the story of her relationship with the Gillespie family in the 1890s, and especially with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist. While becoming a little melodramatic in places, the historical detail is beautifully conveyed, the characters satisfyingly grey, and the narration as compelling as that of The Observations [Harris’s debut], if not quite as idiosyncratic.’

After rereading: Well, my rating has stayed the same, but I felt like my reading experience was radically different. Gillespie and I is a novel that totally relies on its narrator. Harriet’s unreliable voice is our only guide to anything that’s actually going on here, and we gradually realise across the course of the novel just how untrustworthy she is. However, because I had the measure of Harriet from the start this time, I found the first half of the novel frustratingly slow, even though I think much (though not all) of the detail here is justified. Once Harris’s narrative reaches a key turning-point about halfway through and everything starts to unravel, Gillespie and I is newly gripping.

On this reread, it also struck me how much this feels like a psychological thriller, a genre that, pre-Gone Girl, was not nearly as dominant back in 2011. Perhaps this was why it struck me as less clever and less original this time round; I’ve got too used to novels with unreliable, ‘unlikeable’ female narrators. But there are still aspects of Gillespie and I that strike me as both stranger and more emotionally authentic than the territory that most psychological thrillers tread, such as the portrait of Ned’s troubled young daughter, Sybil. Indeed, I’d say that the sections of Gillespie and I set in the 1930s, when Harriet is a very elderly woman, veer close to psychological horror. It also trusts its reader to do a lot of guesswork, which I think is why it makes such an indelible impression; long after finishing it, you’re still wondering what to believe.

So, my rating is the same, but I think I’ve gone from a ‘high’ four stars in 2011 to a ‘low’ four stars in 2022.

My rating in 2011: ****

My rating in 2022: **** 

May Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. I had nine NetGalley ARCs to read and review this month – eight of which have been done! – so this is very NetGalley heavy.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard. I tend to struggle with nature-writing that also incorporates an element of memoir. I know Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun were big hits for others, but I found both unsatisfying; the only book in this sub-genre that has unequivocally worked for me was Alys Fowler’s Hidden NatureSo, this was an welcome surprise. Simard is now famous for her research on ‘how trees talk to each other’, but she spent decades trying to convince both the scientific and foresting communities that trees of different species share resources and information via an underground fungal network. There’s some harder science in this book than in most nature-writing, which is perhaps also why it worked better for me: I loved trying to remember A Level Biology while reading about carbon gradients, xylem and phloem, and trees acting as ‘sources’ or ‘sinks’. But Simard is also unexpectedly gifted at linking her scientific findings to her personal life in a way that could easily have been cheesy (we should all seek connection just like the trees!!!) but was actually heartfelt, moving and unforced.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Someone In Time ed. Jonathan Strahan. This collection of short stories featuring ‘tales of time-crossed romance’ sounded right up my street, but was short on both time travel and romance. There were a couple of stories that I thought were really fantastic, but most of them failed to exploit the potential of time travel or write convincing relationships. My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan. I zipped through this standalone legal thriller but ultimately felt let down after loving McTiernan’s earlier Cormac Reilly novels, The Ruin and The Scholar. I liked the unusual set-up: law student Hannah starts working for the Innocence Project, a real-life US organisation that helps to exonerate wrongly convicted people, but she plans to secretly use her position to make sure one particular man remains in prison. Unfortunately, The Murder Rule became increasingly unbelievable as it went on, and it’s obvious that McTiernan is more comfortable writing about Ireland than the US. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

My Most Serendipitous Reading Location This Month Was…

… a deserted, cold bus stop late at night [picture does not show the actual stop], when reading Caitlin Starling’s space horror novel The Luminous Dead. This set-piece chiller sees a woman descend into a labyrinth of caves beneath the surface of a distant planet, locked into a full-body suit to avoid attracting the attention of monsters called Tunnellers, and only able to communicate with the outside world via a comms link to her unreliable boss. The Luminous Dead failed to capitalise on much of its potential (seriously, there’s so much more you could do with somebody wearing a suit they can’t remove that can be controlled from afar!) and left a lot of irritating loose ends. Nevertheless, it was still pretty creepy reading it in the dark.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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…The It Girl by Ruth Ware. Ware’s latest tells a relatively familiar story. Shy Hannah from the local comprehensive arrives at Oxford and becomes best friends with April, her glamorous and wealthy roommate. April starts dating their mutual friend Will, but Hannah harbours a secret crush on him. After April is murdered, Hannah is a key witness. There are a lot of thrillers set at Oxford, but The It Girl evokes the weirdness of its setting far better than most. The characterisation is also much more effective than in most ‘friends get involved in a murder’ thrillers, including Ware’s own One by One. Finally, Ware manages to pull off a great twist that’s more in the style of older crime novels than modern psychological thrillers, letting the reader figure out some of the mystery for themselves by giving us a classic locked-room murder. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd August.

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

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… Glitter by Nicole Seymour, one of the short books in the ‘Object Lessons‘ series, which thinks about the meanings and uses of glitter, and why it arouses such strong feelings of love and hate. A book of two halves for me: I loved the first half, which explored how glitter has been associated with children, women and queer people, and hence stigmatised as wasteful, annoying, frivolous and frustratingly persistent. Seymour shows how LGBT+ movements have reclaimed glitter through tactics such as ‘glitterbombing’, celebrating its silliness as part of a celebration of queer ‘pleasure politics’. Sadly, the last two chapters strayed away from this interesting historical and political material and focused more on a cultural analysis of glitter as product, looking at children’s entertainment and gimmicks such as ‘glitter beer’, which I found less convincing. Still worth reading though, and I’d be interested to know if anyone’s read any of the other titles from this series. My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Best Far-Back-In-Time Historical Fiction I Read This Month Was*…

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The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. This novel focuses on the ‘dance plague’ in Strasbourg in 1518, when there was an outbreak of compulsive dancing that lasted for months. It looks at the dance plague from a sideways angle, as the book is narrated by Lisbet, a young married woman who lives outside Strasbourg and is struggling with recurrent pregnancy loss. My experience of reading The Dance Tree changed as the book went on. I found the first third captivating: Hargrave’s attention to the physical details of Lisbet’s life made her world feel real, and I loved the evocative, gentle accounts of her love for beekeeping and her visits to the ‘dance tree’, where she has hung ribbons as a memorial for her dead babies. It felt like a vastly more successful version of what Hannah Kent was aiming for in the opening of Devotion. Then, things went downhill a bit for me, although the rest of the novel was certainly not wholly disappointing. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

[*worded to exclude more contemporary historical novels like the 90s-set Carrie Soto Is Back!]

The Best YA Romance I Read This Month Was…

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She Gets The Girl, written by wife-and-wife writing duo Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick, which was such an adorable, uplifting read. Campus novel with lesbians, I’m sold. I’m not a big reader of YA romance, so I’m sure there are lots of others out there like this, but it strikes me that the really big-name queer YA books I’ve encountered – Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Leah on the Offbeat, Red, White and Royal Blue, Heartstopper – are all primarily about gay boys or bisexual teens. While I loved all the aforementioned reads, it was really special to find a book that unapologetically centres lesbians. My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

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

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… Boys Come First by Aaron Foley. I adore this cover; it’s such a loving rendition of the three protagonists of this Detroit-set novel, paying attention to their individual features rather than rendering them as generic Black men. It reminds me of some of the older covers on the children’s books I own from the eighties, when publishers actually paid artists to draw pictures based on the book rather than using stock images. Finally, it also strikes me that black men or men of colour so often appear on book covers looking sad, angry or under pressure; I think this cover feels so fresh partly because the protagonists look so happy. It’s a shame, then, that this cover doesn’t truly reflect the content of Boys Come First; it makes it look like a joyful YA read when it’s actually a much grimmer examination of the lives of gay Black men in their thirties facing up to the white-led gentrification of their home city. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Weirdest Book I Read This Month Was…

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Imposter Syndrome by Kathy Wang. This was on my 2022 reading list; I was attracted by the idea of a corporate thriller starring Julia, a Russian intelligence agent in Silicon Valley, and Alice, a first-generation Chinese-American working at the same company. However, I’m just not sure what this book wanted to be. It flicks uneasily between satire and seriousness, and between thriller and social commentary. The narrators, other than Alice, are just bizarre. Props to Wang for trying something new, but it didn’t work for me. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Did you have any stand-out reads in May?

April Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. Much of my reading this month has been from the Women’s Prize longlist, so I won’t rehearse that. See this post for my rankings and thoughts on the shortlist!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The First Woman, which follows teenage protagonist Kirabo as she explores the secrets of her relatively well-off rural Ugandan family and her own relationship with folktales and myths about women, set against the background of Idi Amin’s dictatorship in the 1970s. I was bowled over by Makumbi’s writing: it’s so original, clever and alive. Makumbi harnesses the energy of local vernacular in both her dialogue and in Kirabo’s narration, especially in Kirabo’s conversations with the village witch, Nsuuta. ‘Nsuuta clapped wonderment. Sometimes God loved her as if he would never kill her.’ Makumbi refuses to spell out context for white British readers like me, but lets this kind of reader do the work without ever leaving them confused. I’m usually very wary of coming-of-age tales, especially when they involve seeking out lost relatives (Kirabo has a missing mother), but this is just so different from the rest. Much the best of the three 1970s Ugandan-set novels I’ve recently read (the other two were Kololo Hill and We Are All Birds of Uganda, both still worth reading).

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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Hide, Kiersten White’s adult fiction debut, which did not work for me in any way at all. I’d say it’s probably the worst book I’ve read so far this year, let alone this month. The premise is excellent: a group of people compete for prize money by spending a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park without getting caught. So where did Hide go so wrong? My Goodreads review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Fantasy Novel I Read This Month Was…

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Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher. This is only the second full-length work I’ve read by Kingfisher, but I’m definitely a confirmed fan. Like Bryony and Roses, the first Kingfisher I tried, Nettle and Bone is a bit of a weird mix: it combines the darker, more serious folktale feel of a writer like Robin McKinley with the lightheartedness of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. I love both ways of writing, but I’m not sure they quite belong together. Nevertheless, I found Nettle and Bone engrossing. My Goodreads review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Horror Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, a schlocky horror novel about killer mermaids that delivered everything I like in horror. A lost ship and a new expedition sent to find out what happened to it; brilliantly tense set-pieces (my favourite was the scientist piloting a submarine to the bottom of the Challenger Deep); convincingly biological explanations of the existence of cryptids; and all the action taking place in a relatively small space. Characterisation was perhaps a bit tick-box, but I liked mermaid expert, or ‘sirenologist’, Jillian Toth a lot.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Tice Cin’s Keeping the House. Now shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize, this had an amazing blurb: ‘Ayla’s a gardener, and she has a plan. Offering a fresh and funny take on the machinery of the North London heroin trade, Keeping the House lifts the lid on a covert world thriving just beneath notice: not only in McDonald’s queues and men’s clubs, but in spotless living rooms and whispering kitchens. Spanning three generations, this is the story of the women who keep their family – and their family business – afloat.’ Unfortunately, when I gave up on the novel almost halfway through, pretty much none of this had materialised, and I found its fragmentary style too confusing to follow without strong incentive.

(Two (dis?)honorable mentions here: Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, which I reviewed here, and Xueting Christine Ni’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction in translation, Sinopticon, which I thought was startlingly weak compared to Ken Liu ed. Broken Stars, despite having some author overlap).

The Best Graphic Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… Emily Carroll’s Through The Woods, a collection of five horror stories that are definitely for teenage or adult readers! The stories that worked best for me were the ones that had less explicit gore and violence, though, and relied more on allusion and uncertainty: I liked the open endings of ‘Our Neighbour’s House’, ‘My Friend Janna’ and ‘His Face All Red’. These puzzling stories work especially well in graphic novel form; I like graphic novels but am sometimes sad at how quickly I get through them, so these tales are perfect for re-reading, especially the mysterious ‘His Face All Red’, my favourite story in the collection, which you can try for free on Carroll’s website. Carroll’s art is striking, conveying tone and mood cleverly, and I enjoyed the mixture of styles, such as notebook scribblings in ‘My Friend Janna’ and the way a repeating song was conveyed in ‘A Lady’s Hands Are Cold’.

The Book I Learnt The Most From This Month Was…

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True Biz by Sara Nović, set in a boarding school for Deaf students in Ohio that comes under threat of closure. Told through the voices of several of the school’s students as well as its principal, True Biz sets out to educate its reader, and it succeeds; it’s fascinating on the history of ASL, lipreading and cochlear implants as well as shocking on the ways in which Deaf people and Deaf culture have been oppressed over the centuries in the United States. It’s a more commercial book than Nović’s memorable if uneven debut, Girl At Warand at times its straightforward, moralistic plot felt a bit too YA, but it certainly does the job of raising awareness of the issues Deaf people continue to face. My Goodreads review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd. I loved this husband-and-wife writing duo’s second novel, The Clubso after a recommendation from Cathy, I checked their debut out of my local library. I am thoroughly sick of both thrillers and women’s fiction that portray social media as the root of all evils, and always have their characters unrealistically give it all up at the end. To be honest, it’s started to remind me of Jane Austen’s famous critique of writers of romantic novels in Northanger Abbey; she pointed out that they always have their heroines disdain romantic fiction, even though they clearly have a vested interest in women continuing to buy it. (You can be sure that these writers don’t refuse to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to sell their novels!) Anyway, to get back to the point: People Like Her is a breath of fresh air. It stars Instagram influencer Emmy and her failed novelist husband Dan, who also jointly narrate the novel. Emmy has carved out a career as ‘Mamabare’, telling ‘the truth’ about motherhood and building a platform around the message that mums need to support each other.

While Emmy cynically exploits her market, Lloyd examines the world of an influencer in a critical but nuanced way, pointing out that Emmy’s success is based on some considerable skill, that she is the main breadwinner for her family, that rhetoric of ‘honesty’ can sometimes hide ‘perfection’ rather than the other way round, and that a lot of mums have genuinely been helped by Emmy’s messaging. Perhaps partly because each of the two writers wrote one of the voices, Emmy and Dan are much more vividly characterised than is usually the case in thrillers; Dan has a penchant for dragging up bits of philosophy from his youth, for example, while Emmy is much more direct. I also loved the ending, which spoke to the concerns I raised in this post. My only concern about People Like Her is its ‘stalker’ plotline; although this was obviously necessary to make it into a thriller, I could actually have done without it, as I found Emmy’s machinations compelling enough. It also contains a viscerally upsetting flashback scene featuring the death of a baby (not a spoiler, this is flagged from the start) which doesn’t really feel like it belongs in this otherwise lighthearted, satirical book; I’m not usually disturbed by this kind of thing, but this time I was. However, The Club didn’t repeat this problem, so I’ll still be eagerly awaiting the next novel from Lloyd.

Did you have any stand-out reads in April?

Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends

I’ve read a recent string of psychological thrillers that seem to be subconsciously angry at ambitious women. Even as some of these Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends novels highlight how women suffer from wanting things outside the traditional female domain of marriage and a family, they also portray female characters who try to achieve success as tortured and unhappy. If you’re not killed off along the way, often the only route to satisfaction as a woman in this kind of book is to abandon the career you worked so hard for, or, at the very least, to scale it back. It’s hard not to feel that readers are being told, over. and over again, that women should just stop wanting things.

Some of this stems from the demands of the genre. Women with various types of mental illness have become a staple of the form, as have people who are willing to kill for what they want. Some of these novels, to be fair, are also keen to highlight genuinely damaging and abusive practices within particular industries, often through a feminist lens. This is the case with Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s The Ballerinas, Ilaria Bernardini’s The Girls Are Good, and, to a lesser extent, Laura Vaughan’s Let’s Pretend, which focus respectively on classical ballet, gymnastics and acting. (I have not read this novel, but I suspect Megan Abbott’s The Turnout is in the same vein). Books like this highlight obsession with body image, sexual abuse, and psychological pressure, all vital issues to discuss. But yet, the cumulative impact of such books being all we ever get about women who pursue artistic or sporting careers is grim. Where are the women who experience at least some happiness in their successes, even for a moment?

Another subset of psychological thrillers take a darker turn, actively appearing to punish women who aim for the top. Let’s Pretend fits in here as well. It focuses on actor Lily, who made her name as ‘Little Lucie’ in a saccharine Christmas film as a child star, but whose career has never really taken off since. In contrast, Adam, once a fellow student at drama school, is on the brink of breaking into the A list. When Adam suggests that Lily pretend to be his girlfriend so he can hide his homosexuality and she can raise her profile, Lily is happy to agree. But things become toxic between them as Lily realises the extent of Adam’s drug habit, and becomes worried he’ll drag her down with him. Every character in this novel, including Lily herself, is shallow, catty and unhappy, and while this applies to men as well as women in this case, it’s depressing that Vaughan could provide no positive counter-examples to set against Lily’s inevitable downfall.

Even worse, arguably, are Harriet Tyce’s It Ends at Midnight and Louise O’Neill’s Idol, which I read back to back and was struck by the similarities between what, on the surface, are two quite different novels. [Spoilers for both of these novels follow.It Ends at Midnight focuses on high-flying lawyer Sylvie, whose ultimate goal is to become a judge. However, her life is derailed when she is framed for something she didn’t do, and she becomes obsessed with old friend Tess, who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Both women share a secret in their past, but when Tess threatens to come clean so she can die with a clear conscience, Sylvie is terrified that her life will be ruined. As it turns out, although we are initially led to believe that Tess is lying about almost everything, Sylvie is the one who was principally culpable in their teenage actions, and Tess is actually the collateral damage.

A similar bait-and-switch plays out in Louise O’Neill’s Idol, which stars an influencer, Samantha, who has built her career on being a role model to teenage girls. After speaking openly about her own sexual assault and imploring the public to ‘believe women’, she is devastated to be accused of a similar crime by her teenage best friend, Lisa. The novel is structured in such a way to make it seem that the reader is supposed to gradually realise that Sam is in the wrong about everything, but for me – given the usual stereotypes about influencers and Instagram big names in fiction – this was obvious from the start. I hoped for a while that O’Neill might be aiming for a more complex portrayal of Sam, acknowledging that she has been both abuser and abused, but this unravels near the end.

Both O’Neill and Tyce are then determined to totally destroy their errant protagonists. Idol ends with Sam’s career being completely crushed after a shocking video is leaked on social media. Of course, given what Sam has done, she ‘deserves’ this, but O’Neill constructed her and her story; she didn’t need to make Sam so irredeemably villainous. Meanwhile, Sylvie meets a fate that seems out of proportion to her actions, and indeed almost gleefully cruel; she is impaled on a set of railings after falling from a rooftop and bleeds to death. Women, that’s what comes of reaching too high. [Spoilers end.]

I have honestly started to wonder whether there are any thrillers at all where achieving success in her chosen career is the end-game for a female protagonist – and not success as a side-order to realising what’s really important in life, but success as something that’s worthwhile in its own right. (Ironically, so-called ‘bonkbusters’ like Rebecca Chance’s novels, packaged as much trashier and less worthy than psychological thrillers, are much better at this – her protagonists tend to be brilliantly successful in whatever they set out to do, even if they engage in some dodgy machinations (in more ways than one) along the way.) Why are so many thrillers still telling us that Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends? And can we accept that, while it is important for feminists to highlight the abuse and exploitation of women, it is also important to write feminist depictions of women’s joy, talent and achievement?

I received free proof copies of Let’s Pretend (7th April), It Ends at Midnight (14th April), Idol (12th May) and The Girls Are Good (4th August) from the publishers for review. 

Have you read any Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends novels? What did you think?

Are there any thrillers you would recommend that celebrate female ambition? (Or indeed any books at all set in the artistic or sporting worlds)?

March Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2nd ed). I’d already read the title story of this collection back in spring 2021, and it’s brilliant; I was thrilled to discover that Butler’s other SF shorts are just as good. In fact, I think my favourite story in this collection wasn’t ‘Bloodchild’ but ‘Amnesty’, another coloniser/colonised story with an even more morally complex dynamic. But I also loved ‘Speech Sounds’, which depicts a world where humans have lost most of their language abilities; ‘The Evening and The Morning and The Night’, which is about an imaginary hereditary disease and also about what we inherit more generally, even when we don’t want to; and ‘The Book of Martha’, where a woman challenged by God comes up with a pretty original idea for a utopia. (There’s something of Ted Chiang in that last one). This collection also contains two short essays by Butler on writing, neither of which is groundbreaking but which are nice to have, and two non-SF short stories, ‘Near of Kin’ and ‘Crossover’, which unfortunately didn’t work for me at all. However, a collection of five incredible miniature pieces of science fiction hardly leaves the reader shortchanged.

 The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin. This novella was translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang; my comments here are obviously based on the English translation and I can’t speak to the quality of the original Korean text. Concerning My Daughter sets up such interesting internal conflicts for its characters. Our narrator, an ageing woman, is appalled when her daughter, Green, moves into her house with her girlfriend, Lane. She can’t understand why her daughter would seek a relationship that, for her, is ‘play-acting’, without ‘real’ intimacy or the hope of biological children. She’s also ashamed of Green’s activism at work; Green, a university lecturer, has stood up for some of her colleagues who were sacked for being in a homosexual relationship. But our narrator is not a one-dimensional bigot. She, too, stands up for what she believes to be right when she witnesses the mistreatment of a woman with dementia at the care home where she works – a woman who’s lived a life much bigger than our narrator’s conventional trajectory.

Unfortunately, for me, the structure and prose made Concerning My Daughter almost unreadable. The novella jumps around in time, following its narrator’s internal monologue – something I love when a writer pulls it off, but here was just confusing and bitty. The narrator also has a habit of spelling out her thoughts on everything, leaving the reader no room for interpretation. This makes the novella feel clunky and obvious, despite its hugely promising plot-line, and reminded me a bit of Maki Kashimada’s Japanese novella-in-translation Ninety-Nine Kisses, which suffered from the same problem.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th April.

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Out There by Kate Folk. This debut collection shares a lot of concerns and themes with many other collections I’ve read recently from female writers; body horror, AI infiltrators, the hidden violence of heterosexual relationships, female sexuality, mysterious medical conditions, folktale themes, returns from the dead. I’d place it alongside collections such as Julia Armfield’s salt slow, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties, Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten and Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch. However, unlike these earlier books, all of which I found disappointing to one degree or another (although both the Armfield and Machado contain some excellent individual stories), Out There delivers. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

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… Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu. Owusu grew up between multiple different cultures but never felt she belonged in any; her mother was Armenian, her father Ghanaian, her stepmother Tanzanian, and she has lived in New York, Rome, London, Addis Ababa, Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala and Kumasi. The extended metaphor of the ‘seismometer’ in her head and the earthquakes it triggers allows Owusu to write incredibly effectively about trauma, as well as race and culture; as a relatively light-skinned black woman, she experiences being read differently wherever she goes. In Rome, she’s a curiosity; in Addis Ababa, she’s mistaken for a native Ethopian until people realise she can’t speak Amharic; in Ghana, she’s seen as fortunate because her skin is not too dark. In its rewarding density and its attention to the different trajectories of an extended family, this reminded me of Négar Djavadi’s novel Disoriental.

(Hon. mention: Inferno by Catherine Cho, which deals with postnatal psychosis and which I found much more emotionally resonant than I expected, given I have never been pregnant and never intend to be).

The Book That Took Me The Longest To Read This Month Was…

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…A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. It took me a month to read this, and I’m glad I finished it, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel any time soon – especially as the loose ends felt very tied up. Great worldbuilding, politics and thought-provoking technology, but I had the same problem with this that I had with the couple of China Mieville books I’ve read (Embassytown and The City and the City); there wasn’t enough internal depth to the characters. We know interesting things about our protagonist Mahit, such as her attraction to Teixcalaanli culture, but I never felt this really informed her as a person, especially as, given how lacking she is in backstory, she might as well have appeared out of nowhere at the start of the novel (we only learn halfway through, for example, that she has a younger brother). Meanwhile, the voices of the secondary characters tended to blend together.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was…

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Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. True to form, I’ve already forgotten almost everything about it, so there’s not much I can say! I thought the scenes in The Hague were very well done but was disappointed that the book increasingly focused on the protagonist’s romantic life. Ultimately, she ended up a bit too much disaster woman and not enough international criminal court translator.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Dead Silence by SA Barnes. The premise of this book is one of my favourite SF set-ups ever, although it’s a relatively familiar trope: crew of a spaceship accidentally happen upon the abandoned wreck of another spaceship that mysteriously disappeared a long time ago. The extra embellishments that Dead Silence promised only made its plot sound better; in this book, the abandoned ship is a luxury liner which was not on any kind of mission when it vanished but simply on a pleasure cruise. It’s found far away from its original course with an emergency beacon transmitting on a disused frequency; what happened? Unfortunately, Dead Silence squanders this premise, and I agree with other reviewers that it plays out more as a (tired) psychological thriller than as a relatively more original horror/SF genre-cross. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… Sun Damage by Sabine Durrant. I’ve read all of Durrant’s thrillers; she reliably delivers gripping but credible plots, strong prose, and well-observed characterisation. Sun Damage is no exception. Ali is making ends meet through running small scams with her partner in crime Sean, drifting between different holiday destinations to find their next mark. But when a sudden tragedy makes her realise how much Sean is exploiting her, she takes off on her own, knowing she mustn’t let Sean track her down. As she infiltrates the lives of a family group holidaying in the South of France, she keeps one eye open for Sean while struggling to keep up the deception she’s invented to allow her to remain in their midst. But is somebody on to Ali, and what will happen if Sean does find her?

I’d certainly recommend Sun Damage for anybody looking for a solid thriller that’s a notch above the rest. However, looking back on my reviews of Durrant’s earlier work – which I’ve always rated four stars – I have one reflection. For some reason, however much I enjoy Durrant’s books at the time, they quickly slip from my memory. I have no recollection of her other novels, even Take Me In, which at the time, I thought was ‘much more memorable’ than other thrillers I’d read. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s interesting to compare her to a writer like Lottie Moggach – Durrant and Moggach are very much on a par in terms of the quality of their prose and their plots, but Moggach’s Kiss Me First, Under The Sun and Brixton Hill are all vivid and distinct in my memory. This doesn’t make her a bad writer, though; I suppose it depends what you want from a book.

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


			

February Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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…Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield, which I thought was hauntingly beautiful, and gets my second five-star rating of 2022. My review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… A Still Life by Josie George. As much as I wanted this memoir of chronic illness to be for me, it was not for me. I’m sorry about this, because I know how much Elle and Rebecca liked this book, but I could not get on with the narrative voice, especially in the present-day sections. I’d recommend Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay instead.

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

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… Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, which was an impulse purchase from Forum Books. I loved Tsui’s exploration of swimming clubs, abalone divers, desperate swims for survival and public pools.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was… 

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…A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I named this as one of my favourite books of the decade (2010-19), but I was worried it wouldn’t hold up on a re-read, especially as I didn’t like Ozeki’s latest, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Thankfully, it did. My original review and my most recent thoughts are here.

The Best Sequel I Read This Month Was… 

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… Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather; for me, one of those rare sequels that was actually better than the first book. Sisters of the Vast Black had a brilliant premise, focusing on an order of spacefaring nuns piloting a ‘liveship’, or a ship constructed from the body of a creature that seems to be adapted for this purpose. However, the pacing was off; the last third felt rushed and cliched compared to the thoughtful, contemplative story that preceded it. Sisters of the Forsaken Stars is much better-paced and more morally complex, although there were characters and themes that I thought could still have benefited from more page-time. I would have particularly liked to hear more about Gemma, who left the order in the last book to be with her girlfriend but is still struggling to ‘be in the world’ after years of being a nun, and is especially struggling with physical intimacy. This is the kind of thing we don’t hear much about in fiction, and although all the beats of Gemma’s character growth are present and correct, I just wanted to spend more time living through this with her. Nevertheless, great SFF.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was… 

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… Ellery Lloyd’s The Club. After a proliferation of thrillers that place unlikely ‘twists’ above all else, sacrificing characterisation and plausibility for the sake of potentially surprising the reader, The Club was a welcome change. My review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 31st March.

The Book That Grew Most On Me As It Went Along Was… 

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… We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan. I was a little dismayed by the first couple of chapters of this debut; the writing felt simplistic and clunky, and characters had a tendency to tell other characters things they would already know. However, as the story unfolded, I started to appreciate the way Zayyan gradually layered complexity onto this unpromising beginning. I especially liked the portrayal of the two central protagonists. Sameer is a lawyer living in England who returns to Uganda to explore his heritage; his family, Ugandan Asians, were forced to flee the country in 1972 (Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill also explores this episode in British colonial history). Interspersed with Sameer’s story are letters from his grandfather, Hasan, written as the crisis unfolds in 1970s Kampala. Both Sameer and Hasan ultimately have to negotiate their positioning between their own exploitation by British colonialists and present-day racists and their relative power compared to black Ugandans; both, arguably, also possess unexamined male privilege. Zayyan does not exult nor condemn either man, but lets the reader see them as they are. This book never quite took off for me because of the problems with its prose, but I admired Zayyan’s depiction of faith, morality and racism.

The Book I Had Most Mixed Feelings About This Month Was… 

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…The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, first in a fantasy trilogy set in a world inspired by Indian epics. I loved the three female protagonists, Priya, Malini and Bhumika, and enjoyed the atmospheric and original worldbuilding. But the male PoVs were underdeveloped (the most interesting and complex male character, Aditya, did not get to narrate); for me, this gave the book a stop-start feel, as the pace slowed to a crawl whenever a male character took the stage then sped up again when a female character returned. It’s also overlong, especially towards the end, when an obvious ‘reveal’ is dragged out for all it’s worth, and I never really believed in the romance between Priya and Malini, much as I love lesbian representation.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was… 

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…These Days by Lucy Caldwell. Set during the devastating Belfast Blitz of 1941, These Days focuses primarily on two middle-class sisters: 21-year-old Audrey, who has recently become engaged and is already having doubts, and 18-year-old Emma, secretly in love with another woman who, like her, works for the ambulance service. Their mother, Florence, also gets a significant sub-plot, as she reflects back on a long-lost love and forward as she wonders whether her life is essentially over: ‘How is it, she sometimes thinks, that this is her life, that here she is, a wife of twenty-two years this September, mother of two adult daughters, of a baby son already matching her for height?… It isn’t, she hastily thinks, that she’s unhappy, nor ungrateful with her lot: just bemused, she supposes, that this has turned out to be it.’ There are also snippets of narration from other characters: most notably, a brilliant, vividly rendered football match from the point-of-view of the sisters’ younger brother, Paul.

These Days is, in some ways, refreshing, and it’s certainly very well-written; not only does it highlight a lesser-known Blitz, but Caldwell’s writing manages to make familiar details from many, many World War Two novels feel immediate again. We feel the sudden loss of whole streets and landmarks and the fear of seeking safety in an air raid shelter that itself becomes a target. I also liked the subtle characterisation of Audrey and Emma, and the way that they are not set against each other. However, in other ways, it’s very familiar; it rehearses some stereotypical tropes about homosexuality, and I found the inclusion of perspectives from outside the family circle distracting. This seemed to be a gesture towards encompassing the working-class as well as the middle-class experience of the Blitz, but became a bit tokenistic. In particular, the narrative arc of ‘Wee Betty’, one of the family’s servants, is very sentimental.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

2021 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2021 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2021, not necessarily first published in 2021.

Highly Commended

 In prize lists, I loved Annabel Lyon’s Consentwhich should have made the Women’s Prize shortlist – and Richard Powers’s Bewildermentwhich did make the Booker Prize shortlist.

The new Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was massively overhyped, but it was easily my favourite Rooney so far – I loved her clever use of psychic distance, switching between an observer’s view of her characters to their innermost thoughts.

In science fiction and speculative fiction, I thought the writing team behind James S.A. Corey pulled off a hugely satisfying conclusion to The Expanse series with the final instalment, Leviathan Falls – this series stuttered a bit in the middle but the last three books were all great, and Corey effectively tied up all the loose ends while wisely leaving the ‘dark gods’ of the universe still mysterious. Tade Thompson’s Far From the Light of Heaven was a hugely inventive space-opera-cum-crime-thriller with touches of horror. Will Maclean’s The Apparition Phase was a brilliant ghost story, something that is almost impossible to achieve at novel-length. Finally, Nina Allan’s short story collection The Art of Space Travel showcased what I love best about her writing in haunting stories such as ‘Flying in the Face of God’, ‘Four Abstracts’ and ‘The Art of Space Travel’ itself.

In historical fiction, I was pleasantly surprised by Stacey Halls’s engaging Mrs Englandwhich had one of the dreaded floral covers but actually featured a complex, sympathetic protagonist who works as a Norland nanny in Edwardian England. Meanwhile, everything this damning review says about Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary is true (except that Cambridge does offer a masters degree in eighteenth-century and Romantic studies – that’s Cambridge being weird, not Penner!). Nevertheless, I found it irresistibly fun and gripping, so I guess I recommend it anyway, if you can deal with the terrible history?

Finally, in YA and YA-adjacent, I liked Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter (one of my most anticipated reads of 2021) despite its pacing problems and tendency to spell things out for the reader – it follows an Ojibwe teenager who’s an unenrolled tribal member, and so feels she’s never quite fit into her family. Emily Layden’s All Girls gave me Prep vibes (amazing), and was serious and insightful about the inner worlds of teenage girls (rare). I picked up T. Kingfisher’s Bryony and Roses after loving her short story in Escape Pod; this Beauty and the Beast retelling is heavily influenced by Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, but still brings its own wit and logic to the table, plus a nicely chilling touch of horror.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations. I have to say, there were a lot of disappointments in 2021. For whatever reason, this was a pretty lacklustre reading year for me. So this list is longer than normal.

I was disappointed by quite a few books written by authors I’ve loved in the past. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun promised a fresh take on AI but was just a tired rehash of Never Let Me Go. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness drowned in its own tweeness about literature, despite a promising central cast. And Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew abandoned all the subtlety of Elmet for Dickensian caricatures.

Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders unfortunately didn’t live up to her excellent debut, The Doll FactoryJessie Greengrass’s The High House had none of the originality of Sight. Mark O’Connell’s Notes From an Apocalypse was only mildly disappointing compared to his To Be A Machine until I reached the end, where he admits he regularly lies to his young son about the state of the world – this is horrific (children know what’s going on, so lying to them just leaves them alone with their fears). Sarah Moss’s The Fell confirmed to me that I don’t like the direction her writing is currently going. Finally, after loving Kindred so much, I did not get on at all with Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, although some of this was not Butler’s fault – so many YA writers have clearly copied her dystopian tropes that they now feel cliched in a way they wouldn’t have done when the book was originally published. Still, I found the heroine disturbingly monomaniacal and the diary entry format limiting.

At least some of this must be me, rather than the books! But I think it explains why 2021 felt like such a dud of a reading year, even though I also read many books that I loved. On that note…

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2021!

Autumn Reading, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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