Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Consent and Exciting Times

(Perhaps someone should actually write a novel called Consent and Exciting Times, it sounds fun).

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Annabel Lyon’s latest novel, Consent, is almost impossible to summarise swiftly (which may explain why the British publisher has pretty much given up and written an inaccurate summary of the entire plot on the back cover, but publishers, this really isn’t a good idea – apart from anything else, it makes Consent sound like a thriller, which it is not). In short, it’s about two pairs of sisters. Sara’s sister Mattie is intellectually disabled, and Sara starts caring for her after the death of their mother. Saskia’s sister Jenny has been out of control since she was a teenager, and now she’s in a coma following a car accident. Lyon packs so much into this relatively slim novel that there are probably multiple ways of summarising what it’s really ‘about’, but I found myself particularly picking up on the theme of bodily autonomy – what we are allowed to do with our bodies, and how that’s related to both our intellectual capacity and our capacity to live independently from other people. We valorise independence, but we’re all dependent. We want freedom, but we often throw away the things that would allow us to seek it. Some of us, Lyon seems to be saying, are allowed to wreck our own lives; some of us are not.

I thought this novel was fantastic, but I’m struggling to say why. I imagine many readers will find it incredibly unsatisfying. Lyon’s writing is elliptical, deliberately looping round pieces of key information so we have to be constantly engaged to work things out for ourselves. Such intensity might have been too much in a longer novel, but in this short book it’s perfect, like one of the strong espressos Sara drinks or the expensive scents she wears. It also strays close to the ironic commentary of some ‘millennial novels’ I’ve read without giving into the temptation to say things that are too easy. (Sara, born in the 70s, is also too old to be a millennial, and I liked the juxtaposition between her inner monologue and that of the younger Saskia’s). I’d never heard of Lyon before she was longlisted for the Women’s Prize, but now I want to check out her entire backlist. Brilliant choice, judges.

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It’s a rare novel that draws praise from both Marian Keyes and Hilary Mantel, but both are quoted on the cover of my copy of Naoise Dolan’s debut, Exciting Times. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been steering clear of this for some time because I felt it would be yet another ‘dysfunctional women being dysfunctional novel’, but after some persuasion, mostly by Elle, I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did; this is much weirder and more interesting than your typical novel about a young woman messing her life up. Ava is working as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong, partly because she doesn’t know what to do next with her life and partly to avoid living at home in Dublin. She finds herself hate-dating banker Julian, and stays in his flat when he leaves Hong Kong for months on business. But then she meets Edith, and finds herself building a relationship that’s much sweeter and more genuine – although, if that’s really the case, why is she still so drawn to Julian?

Ava’s narration makes this novel. She’s interested in language in a way that feels much more illuminating than the wordplay that writers like Ali Smith sometimes indulge in, musing on the differences between Irish English and the ‘correct’ form of English that she’s instructed to teach to her students, as well as the differences between English and the languages she encounters in Hong Kong. Her voice is also pitched very carefully between being relatable and alienating, which perhaps explains why both Keyes and Mantel enjoyed this. Bits of Exciting Times did take me right back to my early twenties, when being the least keen in a relationship was so important, and you get interested in people who seem to be the antithesis of everything you say you believe in, because they come from a world you’ve never encountered before. However, Ava isn’t an everywoman; she’s both terrible and brilliant at social interaction, and makes some very bizarre judgments about others. She comes off at first like the kind of astute narrator that we can laugh along with, but we gradually realise how off-kilter her ideas are. All this is really cleverly handled, and although I didn’t quite fall for Exciting Times, I definitely admired it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers four and five. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half ,Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi.

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.

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

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

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

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.

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.