My Top Ten Books of 2021

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2020 post here, my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

A note: I feel like 2021 has been one of my worst reading years for a long time, not in terms of the number of books I read, but the quality – or perhaps I was just very bad at picking books that suited my mood. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was struggling to find books for my top ten rather than struggling to choose between them. These books are still all great, but I’m hoping to have a better reading year in 2022.

In no particular order…

71zWT2VoVwL

1.My Dark Vanessa: Kate Elizabeth Russell. I held off from reading My Dark Vanessa for a long time, convinced that there was nothing new to add to the vast number of recent novels that deal with coercive, abusive relationships. But this collaboration between Russell and her teenage self made a huge impact on me. I reviewed it here.

91-Bp4cElOL

2.Light Perpetual: Francis Spufford. I loved Spufford’s clever and inventive Golden Hillbut I thought this was even better. Many readers and reviewers seem to have misunderstood its ‘alternative timeline’ conceit; it’s not a Sliding Doors type book, but kills off its ordinary protagonists at the beginning so we can feel the weight of their loss, even though they make no direct impact on history. I reviewed it here.

9781529100853

3.A Deadly Education: Naomi Novik. Novik’s Spinning Silver was one of my favourite books of 2020, and this very different, but utterly delightful novel took me back to being a pre-teen reading the early Harry Potter books for the first time, although the narrative voice also reminded me of one of my adult SFF favourites, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. I reviewed it here.

51Dn6ggQp0L._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_ML2_

4. In This House of Brede: Rumer Godden. 2021 was the year of novels about nuns for me, and although there were some other nun novels that I really enjoyed (such as Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts), this was the best of the bunch. Set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s, this novel centres on new recruit Philippa, but expands outwards to give a portrait of the entire community. I reviewed it here.

525x840

5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: George Saunders. This is probably the best book I’ve ever read about fiction-writing, even though it’s centred on a series of classic Russian short stories which I am not especially interested in. I’ve now signed up for Saunders’s online writing course on substack, Story Club.

d53c7e36974d8b8d8210a8ace985acbd-w204@1x

6. Slow River: Nicola Griffith. Nicola Griffith can’t put a foot wrong with me; this is the third time in a row she’s appeared on my top ten books list (after Ammonite in 2019 and Hild in 2020). Slow River is not only the best SF novel about sewage treatment I’ve ever read, but features a truly compelling central character and a skilful back-and-forth structure. No idea what’s going on with the cover of this edition.

9780241433379

7. Transcendent Kingdom: Yaa Gyasi. What an incredible, cerebral, emotional novel. It’s brilliantly written, handles so many interesting ideas, and yet is so vibrant and human. I loved the protagonist, Gifty. I reviewed it here.

43386055

8. Little Gods: Meng Jin. This is another one with a great, complex protagonist, which seems to be something I’m really looking for in novels at the moment: Su Lan is only the more fascinating because her story is told through a series of other narrators, and we never hear from her directly. I reviewed it here.

41kjojdfsQL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

9. Breasts and Eggs: Mieko Kawakami. This took me such a long time to read, but it was such a worthwhile experience. This strange, meandering novel about lonely writer Natsu has a great deal to say about parenthood and our responsibilities to the next generation. I wrote briefly about it here.

9781788162258

10. In The Dream House: Carmen Maria Machado. Squeaking in just under the wire… I raced through this memoir between Boxing Day and New Year, hugely impressed by Machado’s ability to weave together self-narrative, fantasy, and academic reflections on how abusive relationships between women have been (not) written about before. Everyone who recommended this to me was right.

Reading Stats

I read 153 books in 2021. Slightly more than 2020, but quite a few less than my 2019 record, 175. This is pretty much where I want to be, so in 2022, I’ll again set a target of 150. However, I’d also like to start keeping track of how many books I re-read. This year, 11 of the books I read were re-reads, and I’d like to see that number go up in 2022.

I read 125 books by women (including one trans woman), 27 books by men, and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary.  This means I read the same percentage of books by men as I did in 2020 – 18%. I usually say I don’t care about upping the number of books I read by men, but this article has made me realise that I really want to read more by men of colour. Therefore, I’ve tried to include lots of books by men of colour in my 2022 Reading Plans, which will be up tomorrow. I also still want to read more from trans men, despite reading 0 books by trans men this year!

I read 43 books by writers of colour and 110 books by white writers. This means the percentage of books I read by writers of colour has dropped a little since 2020, to 28%. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2022.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

Screenshot 2021-12-30 at 16.04.50

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!

More #NovellasInNovember: Kashimada and Serpell

cover_9781787702806__id1329_w600_t1599553503__1x

I looked forward to reading this collection of two novellas in translation from the Japanese writer Maki Kashimada (trans. Haydn Trowell) back in January 2021. I have to admit, part of the attraction was the cover; this design from Europa Editions is simply gorgeous. However, I’ve liked a lot of Japanese novellas and short novels in recent years, and was excited to try a writer new to me. And I enjoyed the first and longer novella in this collection, Touring the Land of the Dead, a lot. It’s an introspective third-person piece that focuses on Natsuko, who is accompanying her disabled husband Taichi to a spa hotel she used to visit with her family in her childhood. Natsuko’s family shun and jeer at Taichi for not being able to support Natsuko. However, as Natsuko’s mind darts between past and present, we learn that ‘that life’, her past with her mother and brother, was a place of horror for her, and she is still trying to shrug them off in the present. Natsuko’s striving to become her own person in the face of family expectations is a familiar theme from much Japanese fiction written by women that I’ve read, but Kashimada puts a different slant on it. As we come to realise, Natsuko has already got out, but can’t quite credit that she’s escaped.

The second novella in this collection, Ninety-Nine Kisses, is very different in style and tone. It’s narrated in first person by the youngest of four sisters, Nanako. Her three older sisters remain unmarried and living at home with their mother, and we come to realise that Nanako sees them as parts of the same whole, and is sexually possessive over them, although she denies their relationship is incestuous. As the novella develops, we realise there is something off-kilter about the whole family, who pride themselves on being able to engage in ‘dirty talk’ with each other as a sign of their closeness. This is undoubtedly a weird and disturbing story, but I didn’t find that to be a problem in itself; instead, the style didn’t work for me because it felt like everything was spelt out as explicitly as possible. There’s a sense that Kashimada wants to shock here with blatant sexual content, but this overshadowed the more interesting aspects of the relationship between the four sisters, and made it feel like nothing changed or emerged over the course of the novella, because it was all there from the beginning.

61T7wG0xRCL

(Technically, this is a short collection of essays rather than a novella, but it’s also Non-Fiction November, so…)

I put Stranger Faces on my 2021 TBR after being hugely impressed by Namwali Serpell’s essay on empathy in fiction. Serpell is a professor of English at Harvard, so it’s no surprise that these short essays on faces as signifiers have an academic bent. All have moments of real, accessible insight, but most use an interpretive framework that feels a little alien to somebody like me, who’s used to reading texts either as a historian or as an ‘ordinary reader’, whatever that is, rather than being trained in film or literary criticism. Serpell’s interested in how texts, both written and visual, are put together, excavating their juxtapositions and shots for layers of meaning, whereas I tend to think of texts in terms of story structure and unreliable narration. For example, ‘Mop head’, her analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the murder of Marion Crane, focuses heavily on the visual doubling that transfers the viewer’s interest from Marion to her sister Lila, whereas I’m more interested in thinking about Marion as a decoy protagonist and how this affects the storytelling (although unlike Serpell, I’m certainly no expert on Psycho!)

Both our sets of interests come together in ‘Two-faced’, Serpell’s essay on Hannah Crafts’ ‘The Bondwoman’s Narrative’, a novel that may have been written between 1853 and 1861 by an enslaved woman. If this book was really written by an escaped female slave, it would be the ‘only known novel written by a fugitive from slavery and the first by an African-American woman.’ However, as Serpell outlines, since this text was republished in 2002, academics have fiercely debated its ‘authenticity’, with some arguing that it was written by a white abolitionist. Serpell points out the anachronistic claims made by critics such as John Bloom, who argued that the text could not really have been written by an enslaved woman because of its multiple literary references and sophisticated vocabulary, which ignores the erudition of former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley.  However, she also deconstructs our assumptions about what makes a text ‘real’ or ‘fake’, highlighting Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s argument that no text can be truly pure, and that our instinctive assumptions about ‘tells’ that reveal a text’s authorship are often wrong (Crafts’ class snobbery has been cited by critics as a sign that Crafts must have been white and as a sign she must have been black). This reminded me, incidentally, of the female reviewer who thought Jane Eyre must have been written by a man because the writer had such a poor knowledge of women’s clothes.

Although I admired ‘Two-faced’, the real gem here is ‘E-faced’, the final essay in Stranger Faces, which I absolutely loved. ‘E-faced’ focuses on emoji, and while I’m sure Serpell is not the first writer to analyse emoji, this is the first serious piece on them I’ve read, and I found it fascinating. Serpell points out that emoji were intended to clarify meaning but, like all languages, have developed shifting and uncertain meanings of their own. She also thinks about how we use emoji – often ‘stacking’ them, posting multiple emoji in one go – and how emoji are almost always unnecessary, but add a kind of warmth to a message (which I guess makes sense of why I, personally, so often add a pointless one to the end of a text, e.g. ‘Hope you have a good time at the party!’ 🎉) There are also some great bits of trivia. Wittgenstein experimented with ‘proto-emoji’ in his ‘Lectures on Aesthetics’ in the late 1930s, arguing that simplified drawings of expressions could make language more flexible and more precise. And the word ’emoji’ has nothing to do with e- as in electronic or emo- as in emotion, but comes from the Japanese words (picture) and moji (character). Interesting stuff! 👍

Netgalley Reads in November

71uigFoq0pS

Ruth Ozeki’s third novel, A Tale for The Time Beingwas not only one of my favourite reads of 2013, but one of my favourite ten books of the decade (2010-19); her debut novel, My Year of Meatswhich I came to late, was one of my favourite reads of 2020. It’s such a shame, therefore, to admit that I really did not like her latest book, the 500+ page doorstopper The Book of Form and Emptiness. The basic story at the heart of it isn’t even a bad one; teenage Benny is dropping in and out of school after being diagnosed with a mental health condition, while his widowed mother Annabelle struggles with hoarding and mourns the senseless death of his father, Kenji. All three characters (even though Kenji is dead and doesn’t get much page-time even in flashbacks) are memorable creations, especially Annabelle, who is simultaneously sympathetic and deeply frustrating, a difficult balance for a writer to pull off. (I particularly enjoyed Annabelle’s correspondence with a Marie-Kondo-like figure who wrote a bestselling Zen guide to our relationship with things, Tidy Magic). 

And yet, this story, which could have made a good novel half the length of this one, is totally buried in twee narration from ‘The Book’ and saccharine asides about the life of books in general. (‘Books don’t have eyes or hands, it’s true, but when a book and a reader are meant for each other, both of them know it.’). I am really allergic to this way of talking about books, especially within fiction itself, and I’m ready to admit that I may be more annoyed about these cutesy sentences than is truly fair. However, there are other problems with The Book of Form and Emptiness that link to the childishness of its style; it veers off on a pointless tangent with a group of irritatingly quirky misfits, Benny’s ability to hear the voices of inanimate objects goes nowhere, and the end is so ridiculously rushed and unbelievable that I started searching for a meta explanation for it (did The Book make it up?), even though, as far as I can tell, there’s no textual evidence for this. If you really, really adored Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, you’ll probably like this; otherwise, my best advice is to read A Tale for the Time Being.

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

9781526640963

Ann Patchett is a wonderful novelist, but in my opinion, her non-fiction is even better. I adored her memoir Truth and Beauty and her previous essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriageso I was keen to get my hands on her new collection of essays, These Precious Days. All I can say is, Patchett really has a gift; she manages to make the most trivial essays about her life, things that would seem self-indulgent in the hands of most other writers, somehow work. Knitting, decluttering, cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time for a group of stranded college students, not getting a tattoo in Paris; these snippets of prose are all easy and fun to read. I preferred the balance of pieces in This is the Story of A Happy Marriage, which featured fewer, longer pieces of work, as it’s in long-form essays that I think Patchett really shines.

Fortunately, there are some of those longer pieces here as well. I think most readers will find the title essay, ‘These Precious Days’, about Patchett’s almost accidental friendship with artist Sooki Raphael, to be the stand-out, and it does stand out; it’s beautiful and moving and actually helps me make sense of what people mean when they say writing is ‘luminous’. It’s a comforting beacon of an essay about human goodness, life and death. But there were other stand-outs for me as well. I loved Patchett’s wry, thoughtful reflections on choosing not to have children in ‘There Are No Children Here’, and, weirdly, her homage to the children’s writer Kate DiCamillo, ‘Reading Kate DiCamillo’, even though I haven’t read anything by DiCamillo myself and am not sure I intend to. ‘Flight Plan’, which is mostly about her husband Karl’s love of flying planes, demonstrates Patchett’s ability to weave all sorts of disparate material together into a coherent emotional whole, something many essayists attempt but few achieve. There are fewer big hitters here than in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and overall, I think it’s a slighter collection. But it’s still so worth reading.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 23rd November.

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:

415nZl+CCeL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

9780356514321

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.

9781471409691

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.)

22784456363

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

More Nuns in Novels: Matrix by Lauren Groff

81DmxnVoToS

Lauren Groff’s Matrix was my most anticipated book of 2021. I was captivated by the synopsis: ‘seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey… at first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.’ I was also intrigued as to how a writer like Groff, who has only written very contemporary fiction before, would handle the distant twelfth-century past; I hoped this would avoid the ponderousness that drags down a lot of historical fiction, and lead to more freedom and inventiveness with the subject-matter. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m also obsessed with novels about nuns at the moment: current favourites include Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede (modern) and Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (early modern). Could Matrix possibly live up to all these expectations?

The answer is: yes, almost! Groff’s novel returns to a lot of the themes that novels about women’s religious communities are well-placed to explore: female solidarity, solitude, duty, sexuality. Unlike Godden’s and Dunant’s novels – which have protagonists, but which are very much ensemble stories – Groff focuses completely on the dominant figure of Marie herself, and how she transforms the abbey in her own image. (Marie has at least one historical counterpart; I knew nothing about this when I read the novel, so it didn’t affect my experience of it, but these Goodreads reviews – one negative and one positive! – give good background if you’re interested: Review 1; Review 2). Marie is both this novel’s strength and its weakness. Groff, refreshingly, isn’t interested in depicting women who get their comeuppance for exercising power, and while there are twists and turns in Marie’s life, she remains fiercely defiant. There’s more than a trace of Nicola Griffith’s Hild in her exceptional stature and intelligence. However, by exalting Marie, Groff misses the opportunity to more fully explore the lives of the other nuns and novices – and so presents a less interesting and less complex version of the convent as social community than do Godden and Dunant. She also goes full throttle on lesbian nuns, which – while I’m never going to complain there are too many lesbians in a book – focuses very much on sex between women rather than other aspects of close romantic attachment, and feels a bit like it was dropped in to be daring.

This also emerges in the way that Matrix is written. Groff skips across great swathes of years very quickly, relating the progress of the abbey to Marie’s own life, and particularly to her own biological ageing, as she suffers with painful periods and then with an early menopause. Even dramatic incidents don’t hold the pace back for too long; we are always moving forward. I thought that this worked beautifully in telling Marie’s own story, but again, less well in capturing the everyday texture of life at the abbey. There are also odd lacunae; I wanted to know more about how Marie initially resigned herself to the convent, and her turn to her Marian faith. All in all, this is not the best novel about nuns I’ve read, but it’s certainly one to add to reading lists.

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

Nina Allan: The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories

81AOoRcOPqL

Everything I’ve read by Nina Allan has been good, but not all of it has been to my taste. I feel like there are two versions of Allan; the speculative writer whose fiction is always tinged with a thread of horror, and the writer more concerned with magical suburbia, whose style feels deliberately old-fashioned, harking back to the 1950s and 1960s. In the first camp, I’d put her brilliant novels The Race and The Rift; in the second, The Dollmaker and The Silver Wind, which were undoubtedly accomplished but just didn’t create worlds I was interested in inhabiting; both felt too narrow and twee-archaic for me. The joy, then, of this collection of short stories, The Art of Space Travel, which spans her writing career, is that it brings together these different versions of Allan, and so has something for everyone.

My favourite stories, not surprisingly, were those that had the strongest tinges of either science fiction or horror.  ‘Flying in the Face of God’, which looks at astronauts who undergo a process known as ‘the Kushnev drain’, which wears down their bodies so they can be fit for space travel, combines elements of both, and was my joint favourite story in this collection. My other favourite was ‘Four Abstracts’, a wonderfully creepy story about an artist who believes her family are part-spider. I didn’t read the stories in this collection in order, and only realised later that this is a kind of sequel to an earlier story, ‘A Thread of Truth’; I’m pleased, however, that I came to ‘Four Abstracts’ first, because I felt ‘A Thread of Truth’ was the weaker story, spelling out too much of what had been so carefully implied in ‘Four Abstracts’. And this is really the theme of this collection: the stories where Allan knows just how much to say are simply superb (‘The Art of Space Travel’ is another example) whereas others tell us either a bit too much (‘The Science of Chance’, ‘Microcosmos’) or, more usually, too little (‘Amethyst’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Marielena’). Allan is also brilliant at invented films, novels and other works of art, to the point where I found it difficult to distinguish between real references and imaginary ones; these imaginary artworks and their creators haunt many of her stories.

For me, an uneven collection, then, but one that contained some unforgettable worlds.

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

10 Books of Summer, #9 and #10: The Sleeping Beauties and The Wild Laughter

9781529010558

After reading Suzanne O’Sullivan’s recent article in the Guardian on ‘mystery illnesses’, I knew I wanted to seek out the book in which she explores these ideas further, Sleeping Beauties, though I found it patchier then its précis version. It worked best for me when O’Sullivan used a case study to link together wider issues, as she does in the opening chapter on ‘resignation syndrome’ among refugee children in Sweden, and in the final chapter on how Western medical labels are as open to question as indigenous explanations for illness; less well when she got too bogged down in the minutae of a single example, which was the case in most of the other chapters. The thread that links all of the outbreaks that O’Sullivan explores is the idea of a ‘functional neurological disorder’: in these disorders, patients experience nervous symptoms that are genuine but not linked to any observable physical problem. O’Sullivan understands why people resist being told that their debilitating experience of illness is ‘psychosomatic’, and emphasises that this diagnosis in no way suggests that their suffering is not real, or that they are making up their symptoms. Drawing on a biopsychosocial model of health, she suggests that the causes of these disorders arise from the interaction between body, mind and environment, and that all three of these things can be equally important in understanding certain conditions. Overall, I found this argument very interesting, and there are sections here I’ll definitely return to, but the book becomes a bit repetitive, and I felt that a couple of the chapters could have been cut.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

51zKYrwV9BL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_

Caoilinn Hughes’ The Wild Laughter is a smart, short novel with a brilliant, utterly convincing narrative voice; unfortunately, I found it hard to inhabit rather than simply admire. Hart is the younger of a pair of Irish brothers who are watching their father slowly dying after the economic crash in Ireland leaves him bankrupt. His voice initially reminded me of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (with perhaps a bit of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand thrown in), but Hughes’s dense prose, which needs to be read and digested line by line, is closer to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. And while I adored the two former novels, I also found myself at arm’s length from McBride’s book, recognising her skill but not able to quite connect. Hughes is fond of complicated, poetic similes that are all wonderful in their own right but kept catching me off-balance when I tried to sink into the flow of this book, because I had to work out what they meant. At an agricultural show, ‘peach udders drooped everywhere like the rear end of a birthday party.’ The ‘restless landscape’ is ‘sporadically moonlamped, as if the night was giving sign to a dangerous reef up ahead.’ A hairstyle is ‘a bun like a hare’s tail, but rained on.’ Alongside this, Hughes comes up with many more arresting lines – but they feel buried in the rest of the prose. For me, the writing got in the way of the story she was telling.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

This concludes my 10 Books of Summer! How did you do with your summer reading?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Unsettled Ground

51NlKNl3pEL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother’s secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

The first thing to say is: I have rarely read a blurb that makes me less keen to read a novel than the blurb of Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. I’m not sure exactly what it is about it that makes it so uninteresting to me (the twee names? Twins? Still living with their mother at 51?) but I knew that I wouldn’t want to read this book as soon as I found out what it was about. Obviously I have now read it (this isn’t some weird sort of anti-review) but I certainly wouldn’t have done so had it not been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. All this is to say that you should probably take my views with a pinch of salt, and if you are more attracted to this blurb than I am, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

Because the second thing to say is: Fuller can definitely write. I haven’t had the best luck with her books in the past (the only one I’ve enjoyed so far is Our Endless Numbered Days, which I thought was excellent, partly because it wasn’t so focused on the mundane), but I have never had a problem with her writing. Unfortunately, for me, even her  clear, clever prose couldn’t lift this story out of its doldrums. I recognised the social importance of the issues that she is tackling here and the suffering that results from being outside the system, unable to engage with the bureaucracy of claiming benefits or even paying in a cheque, especially when isolated in the countryside away from the kind of informal support networks that might be easier to access in a town or city. I could also see that the twins’ mother had deliberately forced them to become dependent on her, giving them little chance to learn these life skills.

However, I found both Jeanie and Julius so frustratingly helpless that it was impossible to sympathise with them. It makes sense that they don’t know how to engage with the welfare system, but why does Julius also have to get carsick whenever he gets in a vehicle, making it impossible for him to get much casual work? And while I understood Jeanie’s illiteracy and her fears of dealing with a bank, why could she not ask her casual employer to pay her in cash rather than giving her a cheque when she is desperate for money? I know the answer to this lies in the twins’ psychological state, but I wished Fuller hadn’t made them quite so trapped and hopeless.

My overall impression of this novel was of a powerful writer inexplicably deciding to concern themselves with an incredibly dull story; I’m not sure how Fuller managed to keep her own attention while writing this, and it definitely didn’t keep mine. 

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number nine. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures, Detransition, Baby and No One Is Talking About This.

This is also #3 of my 10 Books of Summer.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: No One Is Talking About This

41HBLlYlAsL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_

Patricia Lockwood’s uber-contemporary No One Is Talking About This has been described as a novel of two halves. In the first half, our unnamed protagonist is completely absorbed by what she calls ‘the portal’ and what we would call Twitter: ‘Why did the portal feel so private,’ she reflects, ‘when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?’ In the second half, she is consumed by something else: the short life of her baby niece, who is born with the rare condition Proteus Syndrome. Again, it’s technology – the babycam at the hospital – that allows her to fully enter her obsession: ‘There was a channel that played the baby in fuzzy black and white… and this is what she used to think the angels did, watch the channel that played her.’ I’ve read a number of reviews of this novel that suggest that Lockwood is intending to juxtapose the unreality of the protagonist’s existence of Twitter to the hard reality of her niece’s illness. However, while I think that is one of the things Lockwood is trying to do – and that the title of the novel indicates this – I didn’t find that No One Is Talking About This split that neatly into two halves.

I am very weary of fiction that tells us that the Internet is Bad and is Wrecking Our Minds, and I did feel that Lockwood fell into that trap, although she writes with greater subtlety than many others who have tackled the topic. When I think of popular Twitter memes, like feral hogs, Bernie at the inauguration, or the distracted boyfriend, they honestly make me feel more positive about humanity, not less. I like seeing people have fun, be clever, and be inventive, especially in the face of a lot of difficult things. The kind of ‘humorous’ Twitter that our protagonist is steeped in isn’t a kind that I recognise; it’s not funny and not cheering. I’m sure this was a deliberate choice on Lockwood’s part, but I don’t have much time for this one-sided view of technology. And while Lockwood sometimes hits on a clever turn of phrase, I found much of this novel grimly unreadable.

Where I think things get more interesting with No One Is Talking About This is how the sub-plot with the protagonist’s niece relates to the rest of the novel. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I couldn’t help seeing thematic links between the baby’s condition and the protagonist’s existence as part of the collective consciousness of the portal. Because of the baby’s illness, her head grows out of proportion to the rest of her body, but her caregivers perceive her as having great abilities that she cannot exercise, defying her prognosis: ‘As the baby struggled to breathe, as it became clear that her airway was collapsing, as her head grew too heavy to even turn from side to side, it slowly dawned on them that she was experiencing an enlightenment, a golden age… Against all wisdom… she was learning, she could learn.’ There’s a sense that being part of the ‘Twitter hive mind’ has as much promise as the baby but is also weighing humans down in the same way as the baby struggles with her head, because we weren’t meant to be connected to so much as once; we too have an overgrowth of neural connections. If you buy into this reading, what the book is saying about the internet is much more thoughtful and equivocal. However, I guess I wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t just seeing things that weren’t there.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number eight. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures and Detransition, Baby.