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

Everyday Horror: The Other Black Girl & The Apparition Phase

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Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl starts off in relatively familiar, All About Eve territory. Nella is the only black employee at Wagner Books, and despite her continuous efforts to make her colleagues more aware of issues of race and representation, nothing much has changed in the years she’s worked there. When another black girl, Hazel, joins the company, Nella is initially hopeful that she has an ally, especially when Hazel commiserates with her over the racist representation of a character in the latest novel from one of Wagner’s top-selling authors. However, when Hazel throws Nella under the bus to impress her white bosses, Nella grows rapidly more suspicious. As Nella’s story unfolds in the present, we get occasional snippets from other narrators who are both entwined in Wagner’s past and involved in something much more sinister.

There’s a great novel somewhere inside The Other Black Girl, but for me the pacing was too radically uneven for it to reach its full potential. The first 75% or so focuses too squarely on office politics, and the creepy speculative thread is introduced too late, making the ending feel rushed. If only it had had longer to rev up, the climax could have been brilliantly twisted, but Harris spent too long on office microaggressions (which of course could form the basis of a great novel in their own right) to fully lean into the weirdness. I can see why this has made a big splash, but I hope Harris goes more full out with the horror in her next novel.

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

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Will Maclean’s debut novel, The Apparition Phase, is that very rare thing – a novel-length ghost story that actually works. I don’t really like straight ghost stories unless they’re liberally crossed over with horror, and this is up there with Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, delivering a truly chilling entity from an author who is smart enough not to tell us everything. The Apparition Phase begins with teenage twins Tim and Abi, growing up in 70s English suburbia, who have allied together over a shared interest in anything spooky or unexplained. (They have a list of their top three favourite ghost photographs, and collaborate to write phrases on the pages of a book that describe what the afterlife is like – swearing an oath that whichever of them dies first will use these phrases to communicate with the surviving twin). But when they fake a ghost photograph to scare a gullible classmate, they fear they have summoned up more than they’ve bargained for.

The Apparition Phase feels a little like two stories in one – after an awkward bridging section which is the only point when the pace of the book really falters, we’re plunged into another plot. Tim joins a group of teenagers led by an academic who is investigating ghostly phenomena in a haunted house in Suffolk. This, however, eventually loops around to link back to the beginning of the novel in a terrifying climatic scene where Tim is pursued by a mysterious figure through the pitch-black countryside in pelting rain. Despite the bridging section, I thought that this unusual structure worked, making sure the novel didn’t run out of steam halfway through. The Apparition Phase reminded me most strongly of Nina Allen’s brilliant work of speculative fiction, The Riftas it explores the edges of our world and what we can know, telling a fragmentary tale that doesn’t tie up neatly but is all the more haunting for it. One of my favourite books of the year so far.

Early Spring Reading, 2021

As usual, I have been reading three completely different things!

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Alexandra Andrews’s debut thriller, Who Is Maud Dixon?, is so close to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley that it feels almost like a retelling, although there are also shades of Caroline Kepnes’s You in its cynical take on the literary world. Florence is an editorial assistant in New York who never seems to do or say the right thing; her less privileged upbringing leaves her feeling like an outsider. Like other young women of her generation, she’s fallen in love with the novel Mississippi Foxtrot, written under the pseudonym Maud Dixon. When Florence is invited to travel to Morocco to work as a personal assistant for the woman behind the pseudonym, Helen Wilcox, she believes she will learn the secret of how to be a successful novelist. However, she still feels stuck too fast in her old identity. When an unexpected opportunity to become Helen Wilcox – and through her, Maud Dixon – comes up, what will Florence do with it?

The first half of this thriller was really intelligently written; although the early chapters are not overtly eventful, I felt completely gripped by Florence’s voice and observations. In the second half, it comes off the rails a bit, with an identity-swapping plot that becomes too complicated and a little absurd. Highsmith’s decision to have Tom Ripley’s deception be initially so simple, but so audacious, felt even wiser after reading Who Is Maud Dixon? I would have been much more convinced if the novel had taken a quieter turn and focused more on literary deception. In particular, Andrews’s decision to make Mississippi Foxtrot loosely autobiographical felt unfortunate given that Elena Ferrante’s decision to write under a pseudonym seemed at least partly motivated by  the assumption that women writers can only write about their own lives. As she writes anonymously, Ferrante’s critics can’t draw neat lines between her life and that of her characters, which seems to be exactly what she wants. Instead, Andrews falls back on a really tiring trope – that all novels are simply veiled versions of autobiography – which doesn’t leave her any room to explain wider questions about writing. However, I would definitely read her next novel, as I thought Florence was such an interesting creation, and she carries the book even in its sillier moments.

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

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Naomi Ishiguro’s debut novel, Common Ground, also starts in a very familiar place. It’s 2003, but it might as well be 1950; thirteen-year-old Stan is the school outcast, teased for his NHS glasses and old clothes, and struggling after his father’s death. When he meets cool sixteen-year-old Charlie, who doesn’t go to school but works at the local gym instead, an unlikely friendship results. Stan – who, speaking as someone who was also a pretty unworldly teenager in 2003, seems almost impossibly naive – is fascinated by Charlie’s Traveller* family and shocked at the abuse they receive. Almost ten years later, in 2012, Stan and Charlie meet again at a party in London. Both are now very different people, and struggle to connect across class, education and racial divides. Charlie’s life has been marked by the social exclusion and discrimination he’s experienced, while Stan seems to have lightly shrugged off his earlier suffering. Will their previous closeness be enough to bring them together?

Common Ground has very worthy intentions, and draws attention to a form of racism that is often forgotten, despite recent headlines about discrimination against Traveller communities in both Britain and Ireland. However, as a novel, I found it plodding and simplistic, and much too long. I was a little puzzled about what it was trying to do. A number of reviews describe it as ‘feelgood’ or ‘heartwarming’, but I found it rightly, relentlessly grim. If you’re looking for something that cheerfully explores community in the vein of Libby Page’s The Lido or Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsiethis is not the book for you. However, by itself, that isn’t a problem – there’s no reason why a book that explores this kind of entrenched racism should be uplifting. The trouble is that Common Ground doesn’t bring much more to the table. The prose is competent, but both Charlie and Stan remain within the boundaries of their respective archetypes. When they meet again in London in 2012, Charlie slips straight into the salt-of-the-earth working-class observer role, mocking middle-class students’ pretentious views on art (why is this always the way protagonists demonstrate emotional authenticity?) while Stan can’t speak without lapsing into journalistic jargon about austerity politics. People are more complicated than this.

I was sorry not to like Common Ground more, because I really admire its focus on the experiences of Traveller communities. I would actually be keen to try Ishiguro’s collection of short stories, Escape Routes, to see how her writing works in a very different form.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 25th March.

*There are a range of terms that these communities use to refer to themselves, as the linked article describes. I’m using ‘Traveller’ in this review because it’s the word Charlie seems to prefer.

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Gwendoline Riley has many gifts as a writer, but I think the most obvious – showcased both in her most recent book, My Phantoms, and her previous one, First Love – is the way she composes dialogue. I can’t think of another writer who nails so precisely how we actually speak, with all of its redundancies, embarrassing repetitions and pointless exclamations. The narrator of My Phantoms, Bridget, is also acutely aware of how even the most throwaway comment might be interpreted, at least when she’s talking to her mother, Hen, which adds an extra layer of self-reflection. Here she is talking to Hen about a drinks party:

I got stuck with a really boring woman for about ten minutes,” I said.

“Oh no!” my mother said.

“So typical,” I said, “in a room full of interesting people.”

That was a slip-up. I knew it as soon as I’d said it.

“Mmm,” she said, bravely.

I tried to get her back: “The dreadful thing is, I think she felt she’d got stuck with me, too! But neither of us had the wherewithal to break it off.”

“Aargh!” said my mother.

And encouraged, I went on, “I think it’s worse when you feel you’re the boring one!” I said. But there again, that was wrong; I’d given the impression now of such a party-rich life that I could make generalisations.

Bridget tells us almost nothing about herself; the focus of this novella is on character portraits of her parents, her unbearably awful father (whose constant badgering of her when she was a child gives us some idea of why she may have withdrawn so far into herself) and the much more complicated Hen, who is always striving for something brighter and better at the same time as she trips herself up. Hen’s life is the real centre of this story, and the final glimpse of her we get is unbearably sad.

Other reviewers have noted that Bridget’s effacement of herself from the narrative doesn’t mean that we should think of her as unselfish, pointing out that she outsources caring responsibilities to her sister Michelle as Hen gets older, and seems unreasonably opposed to Hen meeting her boyfriend. However, I think Riley leaves Bridget’s motivations deliberately open. She is far estranged not only from her parents but from Michelle, and there seems to be a great deal she doesn’t say about her childhood. And while she is capable of deliberately baiting and upsetting her mother (for example, subtly noting the inconvenience of having dinner with Hen on her actual birthday, because the weather’s always cold and wet) we also see how hard she tries to make pleasant conversation. This kind of watchfulness made me reflect back on what Bridget experienced while she was growing up, as it felt like the kind of learnt behaviour that emerges from an abusive environment. None of these characters are easy to read, but that’s why this novella is so good.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 1st April.

2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 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 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.

 

In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

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 was disappointed by two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!

Reviewing Amazon Original Short Stories

I accidentally signed up for (and immediately cancelled) Amazon Prime for the dozenth time recently, but still have a free trial lasting a month. As part of this, I realised, I can borrow Amazon Original e-book only short stories from Prime for free, many of which are by authors I really rate. It turns out, this is quite addictive, and I’ve recently read two short story collections. Here’s what I thought:

The Forward collection, edited by Blake Crouch, is a selection of six SF short stories about the future of our world. Overall, I found this collection disappointing: the stories tended to be cliched, and were often more engaged with spelling out their moral message than in creating compelling fiction. This was especially true for ‘Ark’ by Veronica Roth and ‘Emergency Skin’ by NK Jemisin (a huge disappointment from Jemisin, who’s usually a much more subtle writer). I’m honestly getting a bit concerned about this trend in a lot of the recent short SF I’ve read, because while I love stories that tackle the real-life inequalities in our world, and totally agree with the messages these writers are trying to put across, I find these kind of stories so alienating. I just don’t think fiction is the right medium to choose if all you want to do is present your own points, however morally important those points might be. In contrast, ‘Randomise’ by Andy Weir was fun but forgettable, and Paul Tremblay’s ‘The Last Conversation’ sub-Black Mirror and predictable.

The two stand-outs for me were the two longer stories: Blake Crouch’s ‘Summer Frost’ and Amor Towles’s ‘You Have Arrived At Your Destination’. Like the two Crouch novels I’ve read, Dark Matter and Recursion, ‘Summer Frost’ suffers a bit from trying to chuck too many ideas into one story, but it makes you think and keeps you guessing, and that’s always a good thing. It tackles the familiar trope of a video game designer who creates an AI that is gradually increasing in intelligence, but adds in creepy stuff like Roko’s Basilisk, which I loved. My major criticism would be that the narrator is a queer woman, but her voice feels odd to me, and I kept on forgetting that she wasn’t a straight man, although I can’t put my finger on why – possibly something about the particular quality of the sexually possessive way she interacts with her creation? ‘You Have Arrived At Your Destination’, meanwhile, is probably the most well-crafted of the stories in this collection, which makes sense given that Towles made his name in literary fiction. It cleverly starts with another hackneyed premise – a man is invited to choose the genetic characteristics of his future child – but then shoots off in a different direction, exploring the ways in which we already try to control our children’s lives, and how frequently we fail. Towles is willing to let his story finish ambiguously, which gives it much more resonance than the neat endings of most of the stories in this collection. 

The Out of Line collection features seven stories by female writers that explore ‘what happens when women step out of line and take control of their own stories’. This was a much stronger collection than Forward, and I wasn’t surprised, because I know how good most of these writers are. I loved Lisa Ko’s ‘The Contractors’, about  two women working for the same company, one in the Philippines and one in the US, who gradually wake up to their exploitation but also how it differs, and Mary Gaitskill’s ‘Bear Witness’, a dark multi-perspective story that focuses on a rape trial. Surprisingly, however, the real standout was Caroline Kepnes’s ‘Sweet Virginia’, a brilliantly satirical story that takes a young mother dreaming of Hallmark movies into her own version of a wintry escape. This has made me believe that there’s more to Kepnes than just one hit (I very much enjoyed You but couldn’t get through its sequel, Hidden Bodies, which I felt was re-running the same story again).

Two of the stories use a similar premise to Sophie Mackintosh’s novel Blue Ticketimagining worlds where only certain women are allowed or encouraged to have children. Roxane Gay’s ‘Graceful Burdens’ started with an arresting scene at a ‘baby library’, where women are encouraged to check out babies for a short time to ease their maternal urges, but didn’t do anything very interesting with the idea after that. Meantime, Emma Donoghue’s ‘Halfway To Free’ really worried me; I love Donoghue, but this story was so problematic. By imagining a dystopian world where childlessness is celebrated as a means of population control and environmentalism, I felt that Donoghue played strongly into anti-feminist tropes, and also weirdly scapegoated millennials and Generation Z who are (rightly, in my opinion) thinking hard about whether or not to have children due to the climate crisis. I have to believe that this was a writing misstep rather than a reflection of what Donoghue really thinks; there are suggestions in the story that this world is not meant to be entirely bad (older people are respected and valued much more, and a dementia vaccine shows how healthcare has been refocused on their needs) but it very much comes across as a warning rather than a nuanced look at what would happen if we elevated childlessness rather than motherhood.

A final note on this collection: all the protagonists in these stories are mothers, and all but two of them are overtly about motherhood. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the collection wasn’t framed as an examination of motherhood – and certainly I know some of us are weary of this theme after a glut of novels in 2019 and 2020. I personally found Kepnes’s take on this, in particular, very refreshing, but it feels like this focus should have been advertised upfront. 

I’ll now be taking a break from this blog until I post my Commendations and Disappointments, Top Ten Books of the Year, and 2021 Reading Plans on December 30th, December 31st and January 1st respectively! I hope you are all able to have a relaxing holiday season, however you celebrate.

Two Book Reviews: Adiga & Adiga

Srinath Adiga’s debut novel, Dead Money, kicks off in February 2002 with what amounts to a captivating novella. Raymond Li, a Hong Kong stockbroker, has been making money for gangsters by investing it judiciously. When he loses millions of dollars for his key client, Mr Wu, he knows his life is worth nothing if Wu finds out – but how can he make so much money so quickly with no ready capital? Raymond thinks of a crazy idea: Afterlife Dollars, inspired by the Chinese tradition of burning paper money and objects for use by the dead. If he can persuade people that he can exchange money for Afterlife Dollars with the Afterlife Bank, he can essentially make something for nothing, while selling the idea of an affluent afterlife where you will have everything you want because you had the forethought to prepare in advance. This section of Dead Money reads like a speculative thriller, and is totally gripping as Raymond sets his scam in motion but is always looking over his shoulder to see if either his gangster clients, or the police, will catch up with him. Adiga’s writing is, to be honest, a bit clunky and schlocky, but this doesn’t matter so much at the start because his ideas are so interesting.

Unfortunately, while the rest of the novel isn’t a complete write-off, it certainly steers off the rails with an unnecessarily sensationalist and stereotypical second section about Muslim suicide bombers, before getting back on track for a while in 2011 with its third narrator, Theo, a Dutch investment banker who is being forced to recommend Afterlife Dollars as investment stock to his clients despite the fact that he thinks they’re immoral. Adiga pulls off some clever twists here as he explores the ways that the mythology of Afterlife Dollars has been developed in different cultural contexts, and thinks about how this new currency might impact the global economy. However, the novel slides to an uneven halt as it moves more towards dystopian fiction than satirical thriller, a genre switch that immediately exposes the limitations of Adiga’s writing. I loved the sporadic originality and intelligence of Dead Money, but writing- and character-wise, it’s a bit of a mess.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on January 26th.

Aravind Adiga’s fourth novel, Amnesty, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020. I’ve had a patchy experience with Adiga in the past; I loved his debut, The White Tiger, but found Last Man In Tower ponderous and schematic. I was drawn to Amnesty by its premise: it focuses on Danny, an undocumented Sri Lankan immigrant to Australia, who has to decide whether to report crucial information about a murdered acquaintance to the police and risk getting deported. The blurb seemed to share some striking similarities with Nikita Lalwani’s thought-provoking You People, which also (partly) focuses on an undocumented Sri Lankan immigrant who has to make a difficult ethical decision, although it’s set in London rather than Sydney. The two novels do, obviously, share concerns about the dehumanising effects of immigrant policy, but after that they part ways. While Lalwani is interested in the solidarity that grows between a disparate group of undocumented immigrants in a London cafe, Adiga’s protagonist perceives greater hostility from ‘brown’ than white Australians: ‘The brown man in a white man’s city who is watching other brown men. Danny had studied all the ways this was done, from the amiable glances of the Western Suburbs Indians, smug in their jobs and Toyota Camrys… [to] the ostentatiously indifferent I’ve got nothing in common with you, mate glances of the Australian-born children of doctors in Mosman or Castle Hill (Icebox Indians, Danny called them, because they… never seemed to sweat, even in summer’).

Overall, I felt that Amnesty was weaker than You People, largely because of Adiga’s prose, which is surprising, given that I’ve always found him to be a very readable writer in the past. For some reason, when writing from Danny’s third-person viewpoint, he consistently trips himself up with clauses and sub-clauses: ‘In the moist mirror… he now saw the city of Sydney, when it appeared most beautiful to him, at dawn on a winter’s morning in the heart of the city, with the road-cleaning machines rumbling about Danny as he looked up at the four-faced sandstone clock tower of Central Station held aloft on shattered and roseate clouds: renewing the promise to the immigrant that something as thrilling as the air-conditioned interior of the Hotel Galadari lay ahead of him.’ This is a particular problem because Amnesty is definitely an observational rather than a plot-driven novel; Danny’s central internal dilemma is always present, but there is very little external action. Adiga still retains his sharp eye for detail, but his writing is just so hard to follow that I felt alienated from everything that was happening.

Early Autumn Reading #ReadingWomen

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Anneliese Mackintosh’s Bright and Dangerous Objects combines two kinds of female-led stories that are currently very popular; the dysfunctional millennial drifting through her life, and the woman struggling with the realities and fantasies of potential motherhood. However, Solvig, the 37-year-old protagonist of this novel, is a bit different from a lot of her literary counterparts; alongside her internal conflicts, she is also occupied with a skilled and dangerous job, commercial deep-sea diving for an oil company in the North Sea. (This addresses one of my most frequent complaints about this kind of novel, so kudos to Mackintosh for that!) She also toys with what is probably one of the most extreme solutions to her present problems contemplated by any of these literary women: joining the first mission to Mars as a colonist. Bright and Dangerous Objects doesn’t have a lot to say about either deep-sea diving or Mars, so I wouldn’t advise picking it up if your interest really lies in either of those areas, rather than with Solvig herself. However, I thought that Mackintosh’s take on this sub-genre was smarter and more engaging than many I’ve read, especially when she starts getting into the idea that going to Mars could potentially be seen as a suicide mission, given the high death rate anticipated among colonists. While the novel never seems to take the Mars mission totally seriously as an option, this does give it some thematic resonance; is there something appealing for Solvig in bowing out of life when she could still just about be perceived as the maiden, rather than the mother or the crone? Bright and Dangerous Objects, as a piece of work, was too sketchy and brief for me, but it suggests that Mackintosh has the potential to write something brilliant.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK and US on October 6th.

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Cal has retired from the Chicago police force to a tiny town in rural Ireland, where he spends his time doing up an old farmhouse and enjoying long, casual chats with his neighbours. However, when a local teenager, Trey, whose older brother Brendan has recently gone missing, starts hanging around his property, Cal finds himself being pulled into this community far more deeply and dangerously than he intended. French is known for her brilliant Dublin Murder Squad novels, a series of police procedurals, and it seemed to me that, in The Searcher, she wanted to write about sombody conducting an investigation who can’t fall back on the apparatus of the state; no forensics, no technology, no mobile phone records. This allows French to showcase what she has always been best at – mapping out conversations between two people when one has something to hide and the other wants to find it out, which have before taken place in the interrogation room but are now set in bedrooms, shops and fields. However, thematically, Cal’s lack of formal ties also allows French to explore how this forces him to negotiate right and wrong outside the framework of the police force, and to ask questions about the role of the police themselves that are hugely relevant in the wake of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement. As Elle says in her review, the conversation that Cal and Trey have about the difference between ‘etiquette, manners and morals’ is absolutely crucial to French’s project, as is Cal tussling with the idea that he once had a personal ‘code’ which he has lost along the way.

However, although The Searcher is an intelligent and immersive novel, it fell a little short for me. Of all French’s protagonists, I felt Cal was the one who is least called upon to truly rethink what he believes. My concern is that somebody who has bought into ideas about the silliness of ‘woke’ millennials might think that they are being vindicated here – with Cal’s comments, for example, about how everyone today is too hung up on using the correct language rather than doing the right thing – and while I don’t think that’s what French is saying at all, I wanted her to back Cal into a tighter corner. Because the narrative ended up being too straightforward, this sits in the second tier of French novels for me, alongside The Witch Elm and my least favourite Dublin Murder Squad novel, Faithful Place. I still miss the supernatural spark that lights up all of French’s best books, and I don’t think her most recent stories have been as enthralling. Nevertheless, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: French cannot write a bad novel, and this is still so worth reading.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the US on October 6th and in the UK on November 5th.

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As regular readers of this blog will know, I am aiming to read all twenty-four previous winners of the Women’s Prize as part of their #ReadingWomen challenge before the ‘Winner of Winners’ is announced in November. Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter was the first ever winner of the Prize back in 1996, and at first glance it’s a weird choice, although after I’d thought about it for a little while, I could see that it’s concerned with themes such as patriarchy and motherhood that would have seemed relevant for the inaugural winner of a prize for women writers. Catherine and her brother Rob have grown up isolated from the world in their grandfather’s slowly decaying manor house sometime shortly before the First World War. Catherine’s narration reveals how closely she feels entwined with this building and the land that surrounds it. ‘I knew as much about the house as Rob did. More. I watched it, and he never did. I knew where its walls trapped sunlight and fed it back to you when you leaned against them after dust. I knew where the pears ripened first against the kitchen-garden wall’. Ultimately, her home is overtaken by the natural world: ‘It doesn’t want to be a house any more. It swarms with life… When I went into my grandfather’s room his window was black with leaves.’ I’ve never been especially impressed with Dunmore’s writing before, but here it’s stunning; this book delivers atmosphere in spades, reminiscient of any number of classic novels about lonely girls and old houses, although Catherine’s off-kilter narration reminded me most strongly of Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Unlike that novel, however, A Spell of Winter feels uneasily poised between fantasy and realism, and although the secondary characters are often vivid, I wasn’t as swept away by Catherine’s voice as I felt I needed to be. While reading, I kept on feeling that I was about to be swallowed up by this book, but I never quite got there. Nevertheless, this is a distinctive novel, and I’m not surprised it appealed to the original panel of judges.

Two Recent Reading Recommendations

Two very different debut novels that I have just read and would recommend!

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Cara is a traverser, able to hop between particular parallel universes and bring back valuable data that will inform the development of her own world. The catch is that you can only travel into parallel universes where you are no longer alive, and Cara is especially valuable to the company she works for because she is dead in so many. This technological quirk reverses normal social hierarchies, making people like Cara who have always lived life on the outskirts suddenly significant to those in power. However, Cara’s knowledge of her many deaths also underlines the fragility of her current existence as a black bisexual woman with limited resources who lacks citizenship of Wiley City, hailing instead from the wastelands outside its walls. The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson’s debut, uses this device to resonate with what we know about how little the lives of men and women of colour are valued in many supposedly advanced countries today, and also explores how her own specific knowledge shapes Cara’s attitude to herself. Nursing a throat injury, she thinks ‘The worst part isn’t the pain: it’s the familiarity. It’s how many times I’ve felt this before and how many times I’ve sworn I would never feel it again.’

The Space Between Worlds also made me think about how knowing about the paths taken by your alternate selves would shape your own self-image. Some of Cara’s selves have done things that she considers morally wrong; does this mean that she has to rethink her sense of her own moral compass, or have they diverged so far from her that their actions mean nothing? Has Cara’s hard upbringing made her more vulnerable to having these kinds of selves, or would we all want to distance ourselves from some of our other versions if we knew about them? Johnson plots well, taking the reader down a twisty, complex path without losing them along the way, and she makes good emotional capital out of the ways in which Cara’s jumps between worlds fracture her relationship with Dell, a female co-worker whom she’s strongly attracted to but who seems to have written her off because of her background. There were certain elements of this novel – principally, the tidy split between Wiley City and the wastelands, and the psychopathic corporate villain – that felt a little YA-ish to me, but Johnson largely steers clear of simplistic narratives. Recommended for those who enjoyed Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel and Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

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Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke is billed as a thriller, but is probably better described as literary fiction; I found that there were a number of genuinely unexpected moments, but these can’t exactly be classified as the kind of twists that genre novels demand. Rachel’s relationship with her fifteen-year-old daughter Mia is already under strain when Mia’s best friend Lily goes missing. We soon discover that Lily has not been abducted, but has gone of her own accord, sending shockwaves through the school where Rachel teaches, and where she’s been closely involved in directing a production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, with Lily cast as the fragile Laura. Rachel finds her fears about her own daughter’s progress towards adulthood intensifying, but at the same time, she is pulled back irresistibly to her own adolescence, which was not marked by ‘sweet perfume… in a crystal star’ but black eyeliner and ripped tights. She becomes obsessed with how her own ageing body contrasts with her daughter’s effortless youth. (Cleverly, Barkworth only gives us one clue about what Rachel feels she’s missed out on; at a dinner party, as the guests talk about why they chose their teaching careers, Rachel admits ‘I thought I’d be something quite different’, then refuses to elaborate. ‘Don’t play it down, Rach’, her husband interjects. ‘Rachel was going to be a rock star, she was in a pretty successful band’. We know nothing else about what happened.)

Given this, even though the subject-matter of this novel is very close to that of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa (which I haven’t read), it reminded me most strongly of Zoe Heller’s Notes on A Scandal – indeed, there is a climatic dressing-up scene that feels like a deliberate homage, but is, if anything, even more powerful. Barkworth treats this difficult and controversial material delicately. This book explores the dual set of narratives we impose on teenagers – especially teenage girls but also teenage boys – and how our ‘cult of youth’ is only harmful to actual adolescents. Rachel, alongside some of the other adults in the novel, meditates on Lily’s vulnerability and childlikeness, allowing this to feed a righteous fury, while at the same time constantly thinking about how sexy and confident other girls Lily’s age are. She describes Mia’s boyfriend as ‘physically a man, even if not legally’ while at the same time framing him firmly as an adolescent with no self-awareness: ‘It seemed odd that her poised daughter was drawn in by this lumpen ox.’ The ending of the novel unsurprisingly emphasises how much Rachel doesn’t know about her daughter, but rather than the traditional twist that unveils how hedonistic, dangerous and thoughtless her daughter’s life really is, Mia is revealed to us as kinder, braver and more serious than Rachel expected. Totally gripping, but also very thought-provoking.

If either of these debuts appeal, you can buy The Space Between Worlds here and Heatstroke here. Heatstroke is also currently on a 99p ebook deal.

20 Books of Summer, #14 and #15: The Mercies and The Terror

After a series of random mismatched 20 Books of Summer posts, I am perhaps unreasonably pleased that I’ve finally managed to bring together two historical novels that share undoubted thematic similarities, despite some equally obvious differences. Both are set in the far and freezing north; both feature characters in small communities beset by threats from outside that raise superstitious fears; both feature uneasy interactions between white Europeans and local indigenous people; and both are full of violence and death. Neither, therefore, is the best summer read, but as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of summer, I didn’t find that to be a problem 🌞

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel, The Mercies, is set on a tiny island off the Norwegian coast in the early seventeenth century. When an unexpected storm sweeps in and kills almost all of the island’s men, the women are left to fend for themselves, and are managing well enough when a commissioner from Scotland, steeped in King James VI and I’s writings on witchfinding, is dispatched from the mainland to root out suspected sorcery in this isolated community. Threaded through this series of real historical events is the story of two women: Maren, one of the islanders, who is trying to handle the breakdown of the relationship between her mother and Sámi sister-in-law, and Ursa, the commissioner’s unhappy wife. Hargrave warmly conveys the way in which these very different women come to trust and love each other, as Maren teaches Ursa basic skills such as baking and butchering that she never had cause to learn before. While the pace of this novel is deliberately meditative, the building tensions within the wider community of women are exceptionally well-conveyed, with their common experience of grief proving to be divisive as they find different ways of coping with the tragedy.

The Mercies has an unapologetically feminist focus, and it’s this perhaps that sets it apart from the many, many novels I’ve read that deal with witchcraft accusations in isolated communities in both the early American colonies and across Europe (Corrag/Witch Light by Susan Fletcher; The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent). This isn’t to say that these other fictions aren’t conscious of gender inequality, because they are, but The Mercies is both more brutal and more beautiful in its depiction of the position of women under patriarchy. Hargrave vividly depicts Ursa’s humiliating marriage and the abuse faced by the village women who break out of traditional roles to take to the fishing boats after the loss of their men. She gives her story time to breathe before tightening the screws at the end, and while some readers may think this makes the book too slow, I thought this decision was necessary to ensure that we truly care about these characters before they meet their fates. While I clocked that this book plays into a trope that is much too common [highlight for spoiler] bury your gays [end spoiler], I did think that Hargrave made the right kind of choice for the story she was telling, although she could have softened this somewhat by [highlight for spoiler] not killing Maren [end spoiler]. This confident and moving novel bodes well for Hargrave’s future in adult fiction.

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Dan Simmons’s The Terror tells the story of John Franklin’s infamous ‘lost expedition’ (1845-8), a voyage of exploration that intended to chart the Arctic Northwest Passage but from which none of the men ever returned. The fate of Franklin’s expedition attracted a fair amount of attention at the time, especially given the (later verified) rumours of cannibalism among some of the crew and the single, confusing note that survives from one of the copper cairns where Franklin was meant to leave regular reports of his progress. Simmons starts his story after Franklin’s death, during the period when the expedition’s two ships, Erebus and Terror, were still stuck fast in pack ice off King William Island. Nineteenth-century Arctic expeditions relied on building ships that could survive a winter or more marooned in this way, but Franklin’s party ran into particular trouble. Not only did two winters pass with little sign of the pack ice loosening enough for them to sail in the intervening warmer periods, but much of the tinned food they had packed was found to have been poorly sealed, and became poisonous. Along with the weakening of the ascorbic acid in their stores of lemon juice over time, scurvy became a major problem for the crew, alongside other horrific ailments such as frostbite.

Not content with allowing his characters to deal with these trials, Simmons introduces a supernatural element into the mix. Both ships are being stalked by a mysterious white creature that is far taller and more deadly than a polar bear, and which kills men without warning. The Terror switches between more mundane struggles for survival and the fear induced by this monster, but these two plots don’t properly dovetail until the men leave their stricken ships and begin hauling sledges overland to reach a new stock of supplies at one of their base camps, about two-thirds of the way through the narrative. For me, it was only at this point that the novel became truly gripping, which is a bit of an ask given that it’s almost a thousand pages long. Nevertheless, Simmons serves up brilliant set-piece after brilliant set-piece in the first two-thirds, so if you can deal with the lack of narrative pull and are attracted by the blurb, you’re still likely to get a lot out of this book. Two particular stand-outs are a terrifying action scene where one of the ship’s ‘ice masters’ has to climb and leap through the rigging to evade the monster, and a garish ‘Carnivale’ that the men hold on the ice, complete with tents made of sailcloth dyed of different colours, that predictably ends in carnage.

Simmons’s account of being an explorer in the coldest regions of the Earth is the best fictional recreation I’ve ever read, summoning up memories of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s hellish memoir of his Antarctic experience, The Worst Journey in the World, and, through this, he fully captures the absurdity of the colonial mindset that led white men to ship bad canned food to the furthest corners of the globe rather than recognising the skills that allow native people to survive there. There’s absolutely no way that this book needed to be as long as it is for Simmons to achieve what he wanted with it; however, it’s not a story that I’ll forget in a hurry.

20 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: Brixton Hill and The Vanishing Half

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I enjoyed Lottie Moggach’s two previous social-issue literary thrillers, Kiss Me First and Under the Sunand Brixton Hill is very much in the same vein. Rob is nearing the end of a seven-year sentence for manslaughter in an open prison in Brixton; he’s now allowed out on day release to volunteer in a charity shop. Rob knows that all he has to do now is keep his head down and be on his best behaviour to secure his freedom, but an accidental encounter with Steph, an attractive, well-dressed woman, on Brixton Hill, threatens to risk all of that. Structurally, this novel, which switches between the first-person perspectives of both Rob and Steph, hits all its thriller beats. We’re kept guessing as to what Steph really wants from Rob, and how much he’s worked out about her motives, and Moggach weaves in the small clues very effectively. However, Rob’s narrative, in particular, delivers something even more interesting. Despite his many certificates from prison courses proving that he’s learnt to feel remorse and manage anger, he is uncertain about the possibility of true rehabilitation. He self-presents as a genuinely guilty perpetrator, but we are also left to judge how far his story is reliable, especially as Moggach deliberately limits how much we know about his crime. On the other hand, the novel’s depiction of life even in an open prison highlights how damaging and ineffective imprisonment is, and how difficult it is for released prisoners to aspire to anything in the world outside; the nature of Rob’s conviction means that it will never expire, and so even something like getting credit on a mobile phone purchase will always be hard for him. Brixton Hill kept me gripped, but it also left me with plenty to think about.

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

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I wanted to read Brit Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half, despite being underwhelmed by her debut, The Mothers, because I found the synopsis so intriguing. The Vanishing Half is about identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella, born into Mallard, a Louisiana town so small that it doesn’t feature on maps, and is distinguished by having an all-black population who pride themselves on having extremely light skin. Both sisters flee Mallard in adolescence for a more promising life in New Orleans, but Desiree returns in early adulthood with her small and ‘dark’ daughter, Jude, in tow, while Stella disappears into an entirely different life, passing as white, marrying a white man, and having her own daughter, Kennedy. Bennett arguably spends too much time setting this all up in the first quarter of the novel, which is pretty slow, but once it takes off, The Vanishing Half has some very interesting things to say about race. This is brought home most vividly in the chapters written from Stella’s point of view where she negotiates a friendship with a new black neighbour in her all-white neighbourhood; having accepted the social and economic privileges bestowed upon her by adopting a white identity, she now realises painfully how this excludes her from the friendship and trust of black women.

Similarly, when the two cousins eventually and inevitably meet, they have their own understandings of what race is and means: Kennedy declares that she isn’t black, while Jude insists that Kennedy is. Both cousins’ interpretations seem rational: Kennedy has been brought up as a white woman, with access to everything that would have been denied to her were she racialised as black, but at the same time, her grandfather was still lynched by white racists, and her mother’s decision has left her estranged from her own family history. Bennett’s aim is not to adjudicate this argument, but to draw attention to how constructed and yet how real the category of race is. Jude’s long-term relationship with a trans man, Reese, seems to be designed to explore this theme further, but here I felt the novel fell short: Bennett doesn’t say enough about Reese’s life or how he understands his identity for this thread to take off. Nevertheless, this is a strong second novel that takes Bennett’s highly readable writing to the next level.

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