2019 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2019 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 2019, not necessarily first published in 2019.

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I discovered two new favourite authors this year: Nina Allan and Natasha Pulley. I’ve now read both of Pulley’s novels, and three of Allan’s. One novel from each writer has made my top ten books of 2019, but here are the others I read: The Race, The Dollmaker and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Both Allan and Pulley write speculative fiction, and I’ve found myself increasingly drawn towards speculative and science fiction this year, taking part in #SciFiMonth in November.

I didn’t find that 2019 was a particularly strong year for memoir and non-fiction, but two books stood out for me – Thomas Page McBee’s Amateurwhich was my pick to win the Wellcome Prize 2019, and Lisa Taddeo’s Three WomenInterestingly, both are essentially about the patriarchal constraints imposed by binary gender; McBee describes what it’s like to live as a trans man, while Taddeo interrogates how badly the world responds to genuine female desire. McBee’s subtitle is ‘a true story about what makes a man’, while Taddeo’s could easily be ‘three true stories about what makes a woman’.

I’ve been surprised to see some prominent end-of-the-year lists declare that 2019 was a poor year for fiction, as something that stood out for me this year was that many big-name releases didn’t disappoint! Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier produced arguably their strongest novels to date in The Confession and A Single ThreadTaylor Jenkins Reid’s much-hyped Daisy Jones and the Six was totally absorbing, while Emma Donoghue’s Akin was a slow-burning triumph. Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was a totally worthy Booker winner, even if I felt that she shortchanged her youngest narrators.

In fiction, I also enjoyed three very different novels that don’t fit into any of the above categories: Lisa See’s story of Korean haenyeo free divers, The Island of Sea Women, which, pleasingly, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019; Aminatta Forna’s difficult-to-summarise but very moving Happiness; and Naomi Booth’s eco-horror Sealed.

re-read three novels that made a big impression on me second time around (or in the case of Enchantress, probably fourth or fifth time around!): Sarah Moss’s Night Waking, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress From The Stars.

In crime and thriller, I rediscovered Ruth Ware, and was totally captivated by her two latest novels, The Turn of the Key and The Death of Mrs Westawayboth of which brilliantly mix classic Gothic tropes with a contemporary setting. But frankly, I was spoilt for choice in this genre in 2019, as Erin Kelly released her best novel yet, Stone Mothersand Jo Baker’s The Body Lies introduced a clever meta-level into the familiar story of a murdered woman.

Finally, I admired two adult fantasy novels infused with YA energy: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, about a Yale secretly run by supernatural societies, and Bridget Collins’s The Binding, which will please everyone who loves a gay teenage OTP. Both are also absolutely beautiful hardbacks.

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 three authors I had enjoyed in the past. Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil was one of my top ten books of 2018, but his debut, Beasts of No Nation, was simplistic and pointless. Anna Hope’s Expectation was supposed to present three different women reassessing their lives in their thirties, but its characters ended up moving within such narrow bonds, all wanting the same things. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days was muddled, aimless and – oddly, given how much I admired her debut, Harmless Like You – quite badly written.

Two debuts also disappointed me. Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater promised a coming-of-age story set in Sunderland and London, but totally lacked a sense of place. Katy Mahood’s Entanglement was supposed to be inspired by quantum physics but ended up being a very conventional story about two couples over several decades. Both novels were also written in a lilting, quasi-literary style that did nothing for me.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2019!

Three feminist eco-horror dystopias! #SciFiMonth #NovellasinNovember

I’m not sure how #NovellasInNovember officially defines a novella, but, given that I usually read much longer books, I’m going to go for anything under 200 pages. And Naomi Booth’s Sealed is 170 pages of pure, brilliant horror. I heard Booth speak about this novel at the Durham Book Festival and instantly knew I had to read it, especially when I saw it had Victoria (Eve’s Alexandria)’s endorsement. Booth imagines a near-future Australia infected by cutis, a disease that causes skin to seal over all the orifices in the body. Alice, who is nearing the end of her pregnancy, and her partner, Pete, leave Sydney for a small town in the Blue Mountains because they believe the environment will be cleaner and safer; as Alice puts it, ‘I look out at the mountains and the blue-grey haze around them. It’s not like the smog back in the city; there’s nothing yellow or septic-looking about it. The softening of the mountain edges is just distance, and eucalypt oil on the air, and low, fine cloud.’ But, as Booth discussed at her festival event, our ideas about detox, health and rural space are often chimeras; living in a polluted world means that we are polluted too. Often, climate change fiction posits a contrast between unspoiled natural places, often located in developing countries, and Western urban sprawl, but Booth has little time for this, writing about a village located near the Citarum river in Indonesia, ‘the river doesn’t appear to move at all as the reporter walks alongside it; it’s covered over with greyish debris, a barely-drifting scurf of different bits of plastic.’ The ideas explored in Sealed are inherently gripping, but Booth also writes incredibly precise prose and place.

Some shots from my trip to the Blue Mountains in June.

Cynan Jones’s Stillicide is even shorter; technically, it’s 174 pages, but the wide spacing of his short paragraphs means it clocks in at far fewer words than Booth’s novella. Jones originally wrote this series of interlinked short stories to be read on the radio, and from what I can tell from this version, they’d have sounded incredible. Like Sealed, Stillicide is concerned with the displacement of people; this time, their homes on the outskirts of the city are being bulldozed to make way for the ‘Ice Dock’, a huge iceberg designed to solve the urban water crisis. As in his previous novellas, The Dig and Cove, his prose is beautifully sparse and efficient. He has fun with the word ‘stillicide’, which is strung between every story: it means ‘a continual dropping of water’ but also ‘a right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land’. For me, though, there’s also an instinctive if incorrect meaning to the word that filters through Jones’s stories; the ‘cide’ ending makes me think of ‘suicide’, and so ‘stillicide’ sounds to me like a kind of death through standing still, through inaction. While it’s obviously deeply concerned with climate change, Stillicide doesn’t fit the ‘feminist eco-horror dystopia’ tag quite as well as the other two books in this post, but I couldn’t resist that title.

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The BBC Radio 4 advert for Stillicide.

Rory Powers’s 370-page YA novel, Wilder Girls, is definitely not a novella, but it’s so thematically relevant I decided to make it part of this post anyway. Hetty, Reese and Byatt are pupils at the Raxter School for Girls, located on an isolated island. When the novel opens, the school has been cut off from the mainland for eighteen months because of the spread of the Tox, which causes the girls’ bodies to mutate in gruesome ways and also infects the local flora and fauna (there’s more than a hint of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation in this novel – an infected bear even plays a key role – but fortunately it’s not nearly as disturbing!). With food supplies running low and the death toll rising, the girls come to realise that their days on the island are numbered. Great premise, but this book felt too bound by YA conventions for me to really enjoy it, and the obligatory link to climate change was unnecessary – as the two novellas above show, we have no shortage of books that do this well. The pace is, weirdly, both slow and breathless, and the three main characters feel interchangeable. I would have liked this to spend a LOT more time delving into the life of the school and the background to the Tox, and less time on action sequences; there’s also very little on how the girls experience their changing bodies. Even more than VanderMeer, this book reminded me of Ann Halam’s Dr Franklin’s Island, which also focuses on three protagonists forced into a bizarre medical experiment. But while I found the morphing sequences in that book unforgettable – I last read it more than fifteen years ago! – Wilder Girls didn’t make much of an impression on me.

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Dr Franklin’s Island: maybe a YA classic, maybe a book I’d hate if I read it now!

I also read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (thankfully, only 104 pages in my Kindle version) as part of #NovellasinNovember, but as it’s not remotely thematically relevant to this post, I’ve put my review on Goodreads instead. You can read it here. (Dickens fans may want to avoid.)

Female desire in a patriarchy: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo & The Body Lies by Jo Baker

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Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women seems to have attracted a lot of controversy – partly because it doesn’t fulfil the unachievable expectations set by its marketing campaign. It’s been billed as a book that gives a universal account of female sexuality, but of course, it doesn’t do this. Three Women focuses on three white American women whose backgrounds range from comfortable to wealthy; while one of the women is bisexual, the book focuses on relationships with men. In a sense, this should be unsurprising. As Taddeo writes in her epilogue, even when women are listened to, it’s only certain women that get to be heard, and it’s obvious why women who more closely adhere to social norms have been more willing to have their stories told in this intensely intimate way. None of this is to say, however, that the three subjects of the book aren’t also subject to uncomfortable power relationships. Lina, engaged in a hopeless affair with a married man in Indiana, also suffers from the chronic pain brought on by her fibromyalgia. Maggie, in South Dakota, was only fifteen when her teacher started coming on to her. Meanwhile, Sloane, in the Northeast, seems to have everything going for her and pursues her own erotic fantasies with apparent freedom, but still can’t avoid being objectified by men even as she willingly participates in threesomes.

Other reviewers have argued that the book is not about desire but about abuse, but I actually think that, on this point, the blurb has it spot on; the book exposes ‘the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire’ in a patriarchy. All three subjects are in touch with their own deep sexual desires, but this does not mean that they manage to fulfil them in a healthy way. Taddeo is frank about how much Maggie wants her teacher, but equally clear that he is in the wrong. Lina’s desperation makes us want to turn away from the page, but that only makes us realise how we’ve been socialised to believe that the very worst thing a woman can be is ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’ – far better to ignore what we feel and keep quiet. Similarly, the instinctive impulse to judge Sloane should also make us reflect on our beliefs about how women’s desires should be appropriately expressed. I understand that, if you came to this book wanting something more uplifting about how women can relate differently to their sexual selves, that this isn’t what it delivers. But Taddeo is so good on the barriers that women face in being true to their sexuality, even in this supposedly sexually liberated society. Does these women’s privilege make it even more frustrating that they can’t break free? Or is privilege, in this case, a straitjacket that stops you imagining different relationships?

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If Three Women left you feeling pessimistic about the future of heterosexual relationships, I’d steer clear of Jo Baker’s latest novel, The Body Lies (which also suffers from a rather misleading blurb that frames it as a literary thriller).Our unnamed female protagonist, who is in her early thirties, has just taken up a lectureship in creative writing in an unidentified northern English town, leaving her husband in London but bringing her three-year-old son with her. The protagonist encounters familiar tensions at her new university; the steady accumulation of administrative responsibilities loaded onto a new female hire, and the problems of handling several very different personalities in her MA novel-writing seminars. But this begins to involve into something rather more sinister as she becomes aware of the interest of one of her MA students, Nicholas, who is writing a novel about a ‘lost girl’ but also becomes very angry when one of his classmates starts his bog-standard police procedural with a naked body. The metafictional themes are obvious from the start; The Body Lies starts with the frozen body of a young woman lying undiscovered in a field. Baker’s writing is so smart and creepy that this rather gentle plot becomes unputdownable; there are shades of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard in her analysis of how even women in notional positions of power can be undermined by misogyny. It’s a very different novel from Longbourn and A Country Road, A Treebut it’s equally good.

Durham Book Festival 2019: Part Two

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I was back at Durham Book Festival this Saturday, this time in the beautiful surroundings of St Chad’s college chapel, to take in two more literary events. First, I attended a Northern Showcase with fiction writers Naomi Booth and Sunjeev Sahota – both have recently become assistant professors of creative writing at Durham University, which is broadening its traditional remit by now offering an MA in Creative Writing.

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I haven’t yet read anything by Booth, but I was compelled by the two readings she gave from her most recent novel, Sealedwhich is set in an analog of the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, where a pandemic disease is affecting people’s skin, causing it to seal over any openings in their bodies. (She also spoke about her debut novella, The Lost Art of Sinking, which emerged from her academic research on fainting in literature and explores the story of a woman who wants to keep passing out.) As with Louise Doughty’s talk, writing horror was a prominent theme in the conversation – Booth explained that she finds writing a productive way to work out the things that bother her anyway. She quoted the US writer Eula Biss, saying that the central question of citizenship and motherhood is ‘what we do with our fear’, and that she was interested in exploring what Timothy Morton calls ‘dark ecology’ and how we are enmeshed with the natural world. She sees the novel as a work of ‘eco-horror’ that she hopes will get across the message that environmental contamination doesn’t just happen ‘out there’ but also in our own bodies, citing the work of Australian writer Rebecca Giggs.

In contrast, Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways was one of my favourite books of 2016, so it was delightful to return to the novel and to hear Sahota discuss it, along with his debut, Ours Are the Streets, which I still haven’t read. My review of the novel is here.

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The final event I attended at the festival was a reading by the festival laureate, poet Raymond Antrobus. My friend suggested attending this event and I wasn’t familiar with Antrobus’s work before, so it was great to hear him read from his recent collection, The Perseverance, which won the Ted Hughes prize, as well as some more recent poems. As a deaf poet, Antrobus writes a lot about hearing and deafness, and the first poem in this collection, ‘Echo’, explores this theme in relation to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona – he spoke about finding out that Gaudi saw cathedrals as containers for holy sound, a place to experience sound as angels would, and how he wasn’t sure if he could be included in this. He also talked about using BSL in his collection, and how different signs have had different meanings to BSL-fluent readers. Two poems on, respectively, teaching poetry in men’s prisons and on the shooting of a deaf man, Daniel Harris, by US police were especially powerful. Antrobus’s relationship with his dad, who recently died, is also a key theme of this collection, and he talked about being read to by his dad as a child and misunderstanding how to say his own name, because he could only hear half of it.

Durham Book Festival 2019: Part One

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One of the (many) things I love about living in Newcastle is what brilliant literary events we have in the north-east, and the highlight of the year is always the Durham Book Festival, which never fails to have an excellent line-up at relatively affordable prices. I headed to two events there last Saturday and am going to two more next Saturday, so here is the first installment of my thoughts!

The John Murray Proof Party was not one I was going to miss, as it offered three proof copies of upcoming 2020 releases as well as a discussion with the authors.

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L to R: Rebecca Wilkie (New Writing North), Karen Raney, Guinevere Glasfurd, Sally Magnusson

The three books in question were:

All The Water in the World (January 2020), Karen Raney’s debut novel, which is told from the perspective of Maddy, a sixteen-year-old girl with cancer, and her mother, Eve. I was intrigued by the setting – the book takes place mostly in Washington DC and at a lake house in Pennsylvania – and as I, like Raney, have fond memories of visiting a lake in Pennsylvania as a child, as well as growing up in DC, I’m interested to see what she does with these places. Raney talked about wanting to show a ‘sound’ relationship between a mother and daughter that’s under great strain, which I liked – as she said, too many parent-child relationships in fiction are fundamentally dysfunctional. She also enjoyed writing from the perspective of a teenager, finding it easier to imagine, in Zadie Smith’s words, ‘the I that is not me’. I wouldn’t necessarily have bought this novel myself, as the premise sounds a little too familiar, but I’m looking forward to reading my free copy.

The Year Without Summer (February 2020) is Guinevere Glasfurd’s second novel. This sounds incredibly ambitious, using six voices – ranging from Mary Shelley in Switzerland, John Constable in Suffolk and a female farm labourer in the Cambridgeshire Fens – to tell the story of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, the devastation of local communities, and the global impact of the ash cloud that led the ‘seasons to fail’ in the following year. I love the idea of looking at a period of historical climate change, and linking disparate places through this weird weather. Glasfurd spoke about how, during her research, she found that Tambora was ten times bigger than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, and yet very little is known about it and it wasn’t reported for a year after it happened. She was also very interesting on wanting to challenge Constable’s bland image as the painter of ‘The Hay Wain‘, speaking of the vivid oil sketches that he completed in that year. I hadn’t heard of Glasfurd before this event, but this all sounds great to me.

The Ninth Child (March 2020) is also Sally Magnusson’s second novel, though she has also written a memoir about dementia called Where Memories Go and a number of other things. This book is set in the Trossachs in Scotland, specifically ‘on the line between the Lowlands and the Highlands’, and deals with the building of a waterworks at Aberfoyle in the mid nineteenth century that was intended to supply fresh water to Glasgow to prevent another cholera epidemic. Its three narrators are an elite woman called Isabel, a navvy’s wife called Kirsty, and Robert Kirk – the legendary seventeenth-century minister who wrote about ‘the secret commonwealth’ of fairy and was believed to have been taken by the fairies upon his sudden death. Magnusson said that she wanted to explore what might happen ‘if Robert Kirk came back’, so it sounds like there’s a hint of magic in this historical novel. I very much enjoyed Magnusson’s first novel, The Sealwoman’s Giftand I can’t wait to see what she does with this premise.

At the end of the event, we were all given copies of these three books in a gorgeous Two Roads tote bag, which was a present in itself!

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The second event I went to last Saturday was a discussion between Louise Doughty, whose new novel, Platform Seven, is just out, and John Mitchison from Unbound.

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When I first heard the premise of Platform Seven, I described it as ‘Point Horror meets literary thriller’, but you can judge for yourself:

Platform Seven at 4am: Peterborough Railway Station is deserted. The man crossing the covered walkway on this freezing November morning is confident he’s alone. As he sits on the metal bench at the far end of the platform it is clear his choice is strategic – he’s as far away from the night staff as he can get.

What the man doesn’t realise is that he has company. Lisa Evans knows what he has decided. She knows what he is about to do as she tries and fails to stop him walking to the platform edge.

Two deaths on Platform Seven. Two fatalities in eighteen months – surely they’re connected?

No one is more desperate to understand what connects them than Lisa Evans herself. After all, she was the first of the two to die.

I don’t seem to have cross-posted my Goodreads review of this gripping and chilling novel to my blog, but you can find it here.

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Doughty started off by saying that she sees Platform Seven not exactly as a ghost story, but as ‘a novel narrated by a dead person’, and for me, this set the tone for the rest of the event. She explained that she was envisaging Peterborough railway station as a kind of ‘purgatory’, as, due to growing up in the East Midlands and attending university and work in Leeds, Norwich and London, she seemed to have spent a lot of her life waiting there in the freezing cold! However, she also reflected, later in the event, that it was exactly when she no longer had a reason to go to Peterborough, after her mother’s sudden death, that she ended up setting a novel there and spending a lot of time at the station doing research – so the novel itself was part of the grieving process. She wanted to capture ‘an affectionate portrayal’ of Peterborough and its inhabitants (and in my opinion, she definitely succeeds) – emphasising the individuality and significance of each of her characters, whether they’re a security guard or a station manager.

I managed to ask her at the end of the event about how, as a novelist, she handled the melding of horror and thriller in Platform Seven, and she explained how the inclusion of horror elements allowed her to explore certain themes in a different way – imagining Peterborough station as a kind of portal for unquiet souls allowed her to explore her characters’ hidden motivations in a different way (Lisa, the dead narrator, also has a limited ability to see into other people’s minds, so offers a kind of omniscience). She also argued that ghost and horror novels tend to be set in traditionally spooky places like an old manor house, but why shouldn’t Peterborough station be a portal? – to which I say YES, bring it on, because these traditional settings are something I find very tiring in Gothic fiction (I loved Ruth Ware’s recent chiller set in a ‘smart house’, for example). Basically, she concluded, she’s ‘greedy’ – she doesn’t want to be restricted by genre in the things she can explore. I love cross-genre fiction, so this all sounds great to me, and Platform Seven would be a perfect read for the RIP Challenge, or anyone wanting something creepy for Halloween!

I’ll be back at the Durham Book Festival next week, heading to an event with poet Raymond Antrobus as well as a discussion with Naomi Booth and Sunjeev Sahota. I don’t think I have many readers from northern England, but is anyone else planning to attend anything at this festival? (And if anyone is wondering, Durham Book Festival didn’t actually sponsor me to write these posts, I’m just a massive geek…)

 

Three Things… September 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been delving into a subreddit called nosleep, which focuses on ‘realistic horror stories’; as you’d expect, it’s of very mixed quality, but contains some real gems. On Elle’s recommendation, I started with ‘Has anyone heard of the Left/Right game?’, and moved on to ‘I’m a search and rescue officer for the US Forest Service, I have some stories to tell’. The first is a straightforward ‘found footage’ set-up, focusing on a journalist called Alice who sets off on a journey along a terrifying road, and has a fully realised plot that is recounted to us through a series of files that Alice’s friend, the subreddit poster, claims to have found. The second doesn’t have a plot as such, but is actually even scarier as we’re introduced to a series of mysterious disappearances in one of the US National Parks, and the sets of staircases that rangers occasionally come across that lead to nowhere. They’re told by their superiors never to go near them or talk about them, but of course some people break the rules…

What I find especially fascinating about these nosleep stories is the way that they play with the genre conventions of message boards to create a new kind of fiction. In one sense, this is a very traditional way to tell a story – in serialised parts – but it gets interesting when commentators below the line start playing along, and treat the story as if it’s real, like this poster on the US Forest Service story: ‘I’ve heard about these staircases too, my ex was a SAR officer and he mentioned them and told me not to tell anyone. It pissed me off, because he didn’t know much about them and didn’t seem to find it as fascinating as I did.’ Obviously, part of the game is not knowing who’s recounting real stories and who’s deliberately playing into the theme of the board, and if possible, this makes these stories even more terrifying. Seriously, do not read either of these after dark, or, if you’re easily spooked, by yourself. Both of them remind me a little of James Smythe’s SF novels The Explorer and The Echowhich suggests how well horror conventions can be integrated into other genres (see also: George R.R. Martin’s depiction of the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords). But they also made me think about how horror rarely works well in long form, and how this is a new way to connect with readers.

Watching

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On a very different note, I’ve been indulging in nostalgia recently! I went to see Wise Children’s production of Malory Towersadapted and directed by Emma Rice, at the York Theatre Royal. I loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels as a child but am in no sense a Malory Towers purist; I liked how this show drew on elements from all six novels in a mishmash of fun. The cast have a great energy and there are some hilarious moments, most notably Mary-Lou dangling from a cliff and being rescued by a horse.  School bully Gwendoline was also depicted wonderfully (I’m a Gwendoline apologist and so is this show). Nevertheless, it didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. I think this was partly the result of trying to handle too many characters; Rice rightly wants to show how all the girls are flawed and have their own secrets and complexities, but there’s just too much going on. Also, a number of the character choices for the pupils jarred for me. In the original, Sally is terribly jealous of her baby sister, and Alicia is an incredibly smart girl who struggles to empathise with others because everything comes so easily to her. In this, only child Sally is simply ignored by her parents and Alicia worries about keeping up with the other girls in lessons. In short, they’re both reduced to much less interesting archetypes, and I didn’t understand why.

Finally, Bill was a highlight of the show for me; played wonderfully by non-binary actor Vinnie Heaven, the character is exuberantly gender non-conforming. The show itself did a good job of leaving it up to the audience how to interpret Bill, I thought; is he a trans boy, are they non-binary, or is she a lesbian in a very 1940s mould? However, the reviews of this show all seem to have decided that Bill is definitely trans (it’s not clear whether Rice herself intended the reading to be so set in stone). I find this a bit of a problem because the character in the play is produced from the rolling together of two Blyton characters who are canonically lesbian (some may question this, but they would be wrong; the two characters decide to live together and set up a stables at the end of the series, and for anyone who knows anything about inter-war lesbian coding, it’s written all over them). There does seem to be a tendency recently for media to operate a ‘one in one out’ policy on lesbian and trans characters; if your show has a trans man, it seemingly can’t have a lesbian as well (see also: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinawhich I’ve been watching on Netflix). Both trans men and lesbians are still chronically under-represented, so I think this is really sad. Why can’t we have both?

Thinking

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After giving my talk on ‘When children became evil’ at the British Science Festival, which was held this year at the University of Warwick, I enjoyed seeing some of the other talks. The highlight for me was probably Robin Allaby’s talk on ‘The lost landmass of Doggerland’ where he described his team’s scientific research on this lost landmass in the North Sea that used to connect Britain and Europe. I was fascinated to hear about a wide range of phenomena, including ‘Seahenge’, a submerged timber circle discovered in Norfolk, the remains of forests that can be found under the North Sea (I already knew about the ones found in Cambridgeshire peat fens!), and the Storegga Slide tsunami that caused an underwater landslide 8200 years ago, marking this hidden landscape. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Searching for Doggerland was already on my TBR list, but now I’m extra keen to read it. I was also fascinated by Diva Amon’s talk on ‘The dark heart of the ocean‘, which focused on deep-sea mining but also included some interesting bits about deep sea landscapes, such as how ancient many of the organisms are (tubeworms can live up to 1000 years and black corals 4200 years) and so how hard they find it to adapt to human interference. Finally, Hannah Belcher, Karen Leneh Buckle, Will Mandy and Hannah Hayward spoke on ‘Autism: the lost girls’, about how girls with autism are routinely ignored or misdiagnosed because of the ‘extreme male brain’ stereotype: the most moving part of this talk was the Q&A, where many audience members spoke of their own struggles with getting help for their daughters or granddaughters.

20 Books of Summer, #14: A People’s Future of the United States

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Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited collection of speculative fiction, A People’s History of the United States, has a brilliant premise. As LaValle explains in his introduction, the title riffs on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), which, in the words of the jacket copy, was the first book ‘to tell America’s story from the point of view of – and in the words of – America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.’ Whether or not this historiographical claim is true, LaValle and Adams used this famous text as a jumping-off point for this collection. They, LaValle writes, ‘decided to ask a gang of incredible writers to imagine the years, decades, even the centuries, to come. And to have tales told by those, and/or about those, who history often sees fit to forget.’ The jacket copy of this book doubles down on LaValle’s framing, suggesting that: ‘Knowing that imagining a brighter tomorrow has always been an act of resistance, [the editors] asked for narratives that would challenge oppressive American myths, release us from the chokehold of our history, and give us new futures to believe in.’

My disappointment with the majority of this collection, therefore, stems both from the fact that most of the stories here don’t do this, and the fact that the stories that do are almost always head and shoulders above their predictable dystopian counterparts. While many of the snatches of misery here are well-written, do we really need another set of futures that envisage the bureaucratic oppression of trans and non-binary people (A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Our Aim Is Not to Die’), imagine high-tech gay conversion therapy (Violet Allen’s ‘The Synapse Will Free Us From Ourselves’), allow no access to contraception or abortion (Justina Ireland’s ‘Calendar Girls’) or predict the reinstatement of enslavement (Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘The Referendum’*)? Not only are these stories pessimistic, they are usually unimaginative; it doesn’t take much to think of a future where things are uniformly worse. But history doesn’t usually march towards progress or slide towards despair; realistic futures will be a mix of both. Moreover, these stories usually have very little to say about identity other than that we shouldn’t oppress others; to me, the diversity, especially around LGBT+ identities, often feels tick-box rather than significant (for example, in Seanan MacGuire’s ‘Harmony’).

*I still love Arimah’s writing, though: for better work by her, both realistic and speculative, check out her collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.

These stories, however, still work on some level; for me, the absolute failures in this collection – which were in the minority, but still all too frequent – were the stories where the writer seemed to have misunderstood how fiction functions. These stories spelt out their messages so simplistically that they left no space for creativity. By far the worst was Ashok K. Banker’s ‘By His Bootstraps’, which imagines a future where a president who strongly resembles Donald Trump has used a bioweapon meant to return America to its original genetic purity. In case you can’t guess where this is going, Banker has one of the characters tell you: ‘Mr President, you gave the order to deploy Operation Clean Sweep because you thought – we all did – that it would be a clean sweep of our country’s racial diversity, restoring America to the white Christian nation we all believed it once had been. But that was a myth. America has always been an ethnically diverse myth, a melting pot of races and cultures.’ Not only is this terrible writing, it also seems strikingly naive about how white supremacy functions; as if white supremacists would realise the error of their ways if they attended more history lessons.

Amongst all this, however, are some absolute stars. Malka Older’s ‘Chapter 5: Disruption and Continuity (Excerpted)’ is simply brilliant, recalling Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’ in how it plays with tenses to deploy its central concept. Readers may have different interpretations of this story, which is written in the style of an academic monograph, but for me, it seemed to come from a future where time travel has become an accepted research method for historians, leading to this kind of baffling but glorious analysis by ‘futurists’:

“Civil society” will become, in the absence of strong political institutions, just “society”, while without coherent corporations “social media” will become just “media”. While we can describe these transitions, from a distance, as neutral changes or even positive outcomes of creative destruction, it is important to remember that for people living in that time, such drastic shifts are disorienting and frightening.

I loved the idea of getting away from teleological narratives of ‘everything got better’ or ‘everything got worse’ by imagining historians as observers of a range of past and future time periods, able to pity or admire the future as much as the past. Older takes the challenge posed by the editor head on, and her story seems to frame the whole collection.

Similarly, I appreciated Omar El Akkad’s ‘Riverbed’, which envisages a future US making reparations for the forced displacement and internment of its Muslim citizens, because of El Akkad’s willingness to imagine a scenario that isn’t wholly negative or positive. The assertiveness of its main character, Khadija, at the airport and with her taxi driver, subtly makes the point that she’s operating in very different circumstances than Muslim women do today, but the horrors of her past show how easily we could tip into this kind of atrocity. El Akkad’s American War, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer, didn’t really work for me, but this story underlined what a promising writer he is. Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘A History of Barbed Wire’, which imagines a reservation built by the Cherokee Nation with a wall to keep refugees out, also strikes an interesting balance.

Finally, the editors irritatingly group a number of the best stories near the end of the collection. Charles Yu’s ‘Good News Bad News’ and N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread Or Give Me Death’ both use humour to great effect; Yu’s story, in particular, slips between satire and chilling realism as he quotes from invented news stories about racist robots, sentient trees and an automated Congress. Jemisin has fun with a more fantastic tale of dragons who are persuaded not to feed on the populace by being given various spicy vegetable dishes instead. G. Willow Wilson’s ‘ROME’, though not as original as other offerings, tells an enticingly human story about a group of people trying to finish their automated English tests while the street burns around them because voters didn’t want to pay taxes for firefighters.

However, the stand-out entry in A People’s Future of the United States is probably the very last one. Alice Sola Kim’s ‘Now Wait For This Week’ (read it here) flips the familiar Groundhog Day trope to tell the repeating week from the perspective of the time traveller’s perplexed friends. This both works brilliantly on a story level and helps Kim illuminate wider narratives about the endless ‘Me Too’ media cycle that lacks real justice, because it doesn’t tackle the structural causes of men’s behaviour. Kim also trusts her readers to join the dots without having everything spelt out for them, both structurally and thematically. Speculative fiction writers, this is how it’s done: more like this, please?