The Books That Made Me, Part 1

I’ve been thinking about where my basic assumptions about what makes a good novel comes from, and how both my reading preferences and the themes, structures and concerns of my own creative writing can be traced back to a handful of crucial titles. These are not my favourite books of all time, or the books that I think are the best, but they are books that I once loved or still love. Post inspired partly by Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm!

Early Childhood Favourites (Under 8)

I was a precocious reader (nobody who reads this blog will be at all surprised to hear) and my mum struggled to find me books that I wouldn’t eat up in two seconds and yet would still be appropriate for my age. It’s not surprising that she turned to fantasy. What’s wonderful about all these titles is that they’re books that have lived with me for more than twenty years, enriching my life differently as I get older; they’re books that I didn’t necessarily understand completely the first time I read them, but which have shaped my understanding of story-form on an unconscious level.

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Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, especially the first two titles in the series, Dealing With Dragons and Searching For Dragons, have given me endless pleasure throughout the years. Most importantly, I think their use of twisted fairytale elements made me understand that stories look different from different points of view. Princess Cimorene volunteers to live with a dragon, but has to constantly turn away disgruntled princes who want to rescue her so they can get half her father’s kingdom and her hand in marriage. Rumpelstiltskin is forced, through family tradition, to take the babies of women who can’t guess his name after spinning straw into gold, but he can’t provide for all the children, and he can’t spin gold for himself; he solves the problem by setting up a boarding school and hiring a good lawyer to make it into a charitable trust, so he can spin for charity. Wizards, like the Wicked Witch of the West, can be vanquished by a bucket of soapy water, but don’t forget to add lemon juice, or it doesn’t work. Unlike many favourite children’s books, I honestly feel that these could be read and appreciated at any age, even if you first come to them as an adult.

Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and Juniper, about a group of powerful women, called dorans, who strive to live in harmony with the earth, put forward a beautiful and subtly feminist vision of female power, based on Cornish folklore. In that, they share some elements with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet*, especially The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu. I didn’t fully understand any of these books as a child, but their descriptions of light and dark magic made a deep impression. Similarly, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, about a female dragon killer, was almost incomprehensible to me at first due to the way it nested stories within stories, but it became my first introduction to this storytelling style. Her Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast was more accessible for a seven-year-old. Finally, my mum’s childhood copy of Alan Garner’s A Weirdstone of Brisingamen scared me and delighted me at the same time, and the scene when Colin and Susan are chased through an underground cave system is still an exemplar of how to build up tension.

*There were only four books when I was little…

Late Childhood Favourites (8-12)

Fantasy and speculative fiction continued to dominate my reading during this period (I read plenty of more realistic books as well, I just didn’t like them as much) with the beginnings of some science fiction as well. Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams is still one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read, and also a great lesson in how to mix fantasy and reality; it focuses on Marianne, who is confined to bed with a long illness, and who starts to discover that the things she draws come to life in her dreams. Lionel Davidson’s almost unknown Under Plum Lake is a deeply haunting narrative of a boy who discovers a secret world deep under the sea; impossible to summarise, impossible to forget. The last of these three books – they always go together in my mind – is Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, about a girl at boarding school in the 1960s who unknowingly swaps places with a girl at the same school in 1918. All these novels have the supernatural, otherworldly quality that I strive for in my own fiction.

All these books were published decades before I was born. On the other hand, there were modern series: so many series! Growing up in the 1990s, very few new books for children or teenagers seemed to be stand-alones. Many of these titles were rubbish, but there were some exceptions. I bought the first Harry Potter book in 1997, and so was a little ahead of the curve; I was enraptured by how incredibly well-plotted it was, and the complex moral universe that seemed to be suggested by its two sequels. Alas, the Harry Potter series jumped the shark for me after book five (see monster rant coming soon), but I still admire the first three books. More satisfying was K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, which I’ve written about before but will never stop talking about, probably because they had the single biggest impact on my childhood self. This SF series stars a group of teenagers who can change into any animal they can touch and have to use these powers to fight a guerrilla war against an undercover alien invasion that’s infiltrating Earth by taking over human bodies. By the age of ten, I was desperate for books that moved beyond heroes and villains and explored more difficult questions about morality; Animorphs, which ends with our all-American boy hero committing genocide against the main alien antagonists of the series, delivered this in spades. Given that the series is fifty-four books long, plus some sequels, super editions and spin-offs, it obviously varies in quality, but nothing else I read made me think so hard.

This post got too long, so Parts 2 and 3 are coming soon! Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Have you read any of these books? What were your childhood favourites, and how have they affected the way that you read and/or write fiction?

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The 4.5 Star Challenge

Taken from Rachel at pace, amore, libri! The idea of this challenge is that you choose five books that you think you’ll rate five stars but that you haven’t read yet, and see what happens. I have renamed this challenge as it’s so unusual for me to give out five star ratings – so I’ll be looking for these books to be at least 4.5 stars.

So I don’t add to my reading list, everything I’ve chosen is from my 2019 Reading Plans.

Téa Obreht: Inland. I already wrote about how much I’m looking forward to this, but suffice it to say that (a) Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wifewas one of my favourite books of the last ten years and (b) this is set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, allowing Obreht, whose last novel was focused on folklore and conflict, to ‘subvert and reimagine the myths of the American West’. This is out in August.

Sally Rooney: Normal People. A funny one for me, as I enjoyed Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friendsbut it didn’t blow me away. However, I adore novels with university settings and, as I am the last person in the world to read this book, I’ve seen lots of glowing reviews.

Allegra Goodman: The Chalk Artist. Again, a bit of a leap of faith. I admired the intelligence and sharpness of Goodman’s Intuition and The Cookbook Collector, but neither novel really came together for me. Still, I’m convinced that Goodman can write, and the premise of this novel – a boy whose life is taken over by an alternative gaming reality – couldn’t be more up my street.

Evie Wyld: The Bass Rock. Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing was also one of my favourite novels of the past ten years, and although I was less impressed by her debut, After The Fire, A Small Still VoiceI loved her graphic novel, Everything Is Teeth. This one tells the story of three unconventional women who live hundreds of years apart. It looks like the publication of this has been pushed to 2020, though, so I might have a while to wait. (It also has no cover yet, so I’ve used a photo of Wyld instead.)

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker. I was hugely impressed by Powers’s The Overstory, which was one of my top ten books of 2018, and have decided to explore his back catalogue. I was most intrigued by this one, which is about a man who doesn’t recognise his own sister after suffering brain damage in a car accident, but sounds like it might take an unexpected turn.

Have you read any of these novels? What did you think, if so?

The year of the doll

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If 2018 was the year of the mermaid, with Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks, Kirsty Logan’s The GloamingMelissa Broder’s The Pisces, and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancockit looks like 2019 might be the year of the doll, with Elizabeth Macneal’s debut, The Doll Factoryfollowing hard on the heels of Nina Allan’s The DollmakerHowever, like The Dollmaker, The Doll Factory uses dolls more figuratively than it does literally. Iris and her sister Rose paint porcelain dolls and sew their clothing for a living, able only to dream of having their own shop some day. However, when Iris catches the attention of an (invented) Pre-Raphaelite artist, Louis Frost, she becomes not only his model but also his pupil. As Iris’s world begins to open out, however, she is also watched by Silas, a resentful taxidermist, who wants to claim her as his own. With its emphasis on how women are treated as beautiful objects, and Iris’s quest for freedom, The Doll Factory recalls Mary de Morgan’s 1877 short story ‘The Toy Princess’, where a spirited princess is replaced by an identical clockwork doll after her people find the real woman too wilful. (This should also forestall any criticism that Macneal’s representation of women is too modern).

While Macneal’s writing is not as distinctive as Hermes Gowar’s in Mermaid or as Sarah Perry’s in The Essex Serpent, the two most obvious comparators for this novel, I found The Doll Factory totally absorbing and surprisingly moving, which puts it head and shoulders above most recent eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century-set historical fiction. There’s an upsetting moment about three-quarters of the way through which knocked me totally off balance; it’s not a twist as such, but I hadn’t expected it, and it reminded me of similar moments in Mermaid and in Francis Spufford’s Golden HillAnd while much of this story treads familiar ground, Macneal somehow manages to bring a sense of hope to it that makes it very refreshing to read. I particularly enjoyed the development of the relationship between the two sisters. While they were close as children, Rose’s teenage disfigurement through smallpox scars has left her jealous of her sister, and has led to their estrangement – or at least, so Iris believes. Rather than focusing on female rivalry, Macneal has the two sisters become sources of strength for each other.

However, although Silas’s obsession with Iris technically forms the key source of tension in The Doll Factory, I could have done without it. I have read too many books about stalking, dangerous men, and Silas himself is pretty two-dimensional, so I found myself dreading the chapters when he would simply rehearse his grievances against the world. There’s possibly a more complex story about class privilege lurking here, but Macneal doesn’t explore it. While this would make The Doll Factory a less traditionally ‘gripping’ novel, I would honestly have preferred to have no Silas – the social obstacles that Iris has to face are large enough on their own. And if this led to more on the art of oil painting, and less on taxidermy, I’d be all for that as well. The Doll Factory kept my attention not because I was afraid for Iris’s safety, but because the strength of Macneal’s story carries itself forward. I hope she has the courage to break further away from familiar plots in her next novel.

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

Wellcome Book Prize 2019: Shortlist Events and Award Ceremony

I’m off to the Wellcome Book Prize award ceremony tonight to find out which of these books has won the prize!

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I went to the Wellcome 5×15 event with a friend yesterday evening at Wilton’s Music Hall, where five of the six shortlisted authors had fifteen minutes each to discuss their work. This was great, as always – if I lived in London, I’d try to go to some non-Wellcome-related 5×15 events, as the format really works for me. Here are some brief thoughts.

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Sarah Krasnostein: ‘Trauma cleaning for Sandra’

Krasnostein gave a very emotive talk on The Trauma Cleanerher biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman who has suffered her own personal horrors and now cleans the houses of hoarders, agoraphobics and those who have died and been left undiscovered. It’s clear how much this matters to her. She described how, when she first began the research for this book, her doctor asked her ‘Who would ever want to read that?’ and how this made her more determined to show how we are all connected despite our outward differences. To emphasise this, she used the metaphor of a forest of 40,000 quaking aspens in Utah, which are all linked by the same root system even though they look like individual trunks above the surface (this really is fashionable at the moment!) Krasnostein sees her book as a kind of trauma cleaning for Sandra, doing for her subject what she has done for others. The Trauma Cleaner was our shadow panel winner, and I think it has a good chance of taking the actual prize.

Sandeep Jauhar: ‘Taking away the sudden death option’

In my favourite talk of the evening, Jauhar, a cardiologist, spoke about how his family history of malignant heart disease led him to write his popular medical book, Heart: A History. Like Krasnostein, he encountered some initial resistance to his topic: his eleven-year-old son told him ‘Don’t write a book about the heart. No-one will buy it, because the heart is boring.’ Jauhar told us how the sudden deaths of both of his grandfathers gave him a ‘fear of the heart’, which he saw as both powerful and vulnerable, and how he became obsessed with the organ as a child, adjusting the speed of the ceiling fan so it synchronised with his heartbeat. (He also discovered that if you hooked up an average adult human heart to a swimming pool, it would empty it in a week.) Overall, though, he has come to the conclusion that a swift death from heart disease can be merciful, leaving him with difficult decisions to make about whether to suggest that his patients are fitted with internal defibrillators, which ‘take away the sudden death option’.

Arnold Thomas Fanning: ‘Walking down corridors endlessly’

For those of us who have read Mind on FireFanning’s account of living with bipolar disorder, this talk perhaps had less to offer, as Fanning essentially recounted what he tells us in his memoir. However, he illustrated the talk with a series of pictures of himself from childhood to the present day, which were really interesting to see, and vividly recounted his time in a mental hospital, where he ‘walked down corridors endlessly’ because of his restless energy, and at one point was prescribed sixty different medications over a six-month period. Fanning’s emotional honesty is admirable, and it was lovely to see the delighted reaction from the audience when he announced at the end of the talk that he’s getting married the month after next.

Will Eaves: ‘Understanding the gap between your experiences and someone else’s’

I’m afraid I had many of the same problems with Eaves’s talk as I did with his novel, Murmurwhich chronicles the inner life of a fictional Alan Turing undergoing forced chemical castration after being convicted of gross indecency for having sex with another man. It swung between being profound and pretentious as he meditated on the idea that we can never really understand somebody else’s internal state, and that’s what true sympathy is, offering an interesting counterpart to Krasnostein’s tree metaphor. I was particularly frustrated by the section on time, where Eaves claimed that there is no scientific reason why an equation can’t go backwards rather than forwards;  I wrote ‘ENTROPY’ on my programme and my friend added ‘TWADDLE’. However, Eaves did give us a great potted history of Turing’s life, which will help those approaching Murmur with little knowledge of the subject.

Ottessa Moshfegh: ‘People are vulnerable in having feelings’

Moshfegh spent quite a lot of time talking about what her novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxationis (in her words) not about: namely, how easy it is to get psychiatric drugs in the US, and why that’s a problem. Psychiatrists play on this to get customers, she argued, because ‘people are vulnerable in having feelings.’ Underlining this point, she read the section from the novel where our protagonist first meets Dr Tuttle. However, she stated that, for her, My Year is actually about a woman who ‘does not want to live in this plane of consciousness’ and believes that if she sleeps long enough, all her cells will have forgotten their cellular trauma. Moshfegh presents her protagonist more sympathetically than I had expected from the way she writes about her in the novel, and the talk really made me think again about how to interpret My Year.

Updated 1/5/19: The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize is…

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I’m not surprised by this result, but I am disappointed. Murmur was my least favourite book on the shortlist and on the longlist. I found it pretentious and unreadable, and Eaves’s discussion of the book has only cemented my opinions. More broadly speaking, I felt it would have been the right moment for a book on trans issues to have taken the prize, which would have pointed to a win for either Amateur or The Trauma Cleaner. Winning this prize will probably garner Eaves a wider readership, but it seems unlikely that many readers will be engaged by Murmur.

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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A young woman, recently graduated and recently orphaned, decides to take a year off from living to emerge purified. Camping out in her expensive New York apartment, she doses herself with a vast range of drugs, from the real to the fictional, in an attempt to sleep away the next three hundred and sixty five days. During this period, her human contact is limited to her only friend, Reva, whom she openly despises, the men at the local bodega who sell her two coffees when she manages to wake up, and her terrible psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, who’s happy to prescribe her anything and everything. The narrator also muses on her earlier employment in the surreal art market of the very late twentieth century, and the kinds of productions that received acclaim, such as ejaculation drawings and pedigree dogs preserved through taxidermy.

There are a number of ways to read Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Most obviously, its narrator is obscenely privileged, cushioned from ‘real life’, as is the art scene which she frequents; both are abruptly jolted awake by the intrusion of 9/11, which takes place at the very end of the novel. Secondly, My Year is both surprisingly readable and unreadably dull; its litanies of drugs and old movies recall Patrick Bateman’s recitation of brand names in American Psycho, another book that feels to me like it was deliberately written to be skimmed:

I took another Nembutal, watched Presumed Innocent, then took a few Lunestas and drank the second bottle of funeral wine, but somehow the alcohol undid the sleeping pills, and I felt even more awake than before… Then I was hungry, so I ate the banana bread and watched Frantic three times in a row, taking a few Ativan every thirty minutes or so. But I still couldn’t sleep. I watched Schindler’s List, which I hoped would depress me, but it only irritated me, and then the sun came up, so I took some Lamictal and watched The Last of the Mohicans and Patriot Games, but that had no effect either, so I took a few Placidyl and put The Player back in.

Like American Psycho, this is a satire that’s too horrific – at least in my view – to be funny. The only genuinely satirical section is the mid-point set-piece, when our narrator attends Reva’s mum’s funeral – a scene which weirdly kept reminding me of Bunny’s funeral gathering in The Secret History, even though the Secret History scene is undoubtedly much better in its lurches between comedy and tragedy.

Thirdly, one might discern a more serious side to My Year. What would happen, it asks, if we simply didn’t do anything for a year, if we were able to do that? It’s an anti-YOLO book, a deliberate rejection of the idea that life has meaning or that it shouldn’t be wasted. Because of this, my favourite section was the section near the end, when our narrator finally decides to knock herself out completely for several months, only waking for an hour every three days to see to her basic needs. This takes Moshfegh’s project to its logical conclusion, refusing to allow her narrator any wants or desires, and hence discarding all the usual things that novels are meant to be about. My Year, in this respect, is strangely liberating, because there’s absolutely nothing our narrator wants to achieve (and although she’s arrogant and self-aggrandising, she doesn’t seem to think she’s in any way perfect, so this isn’t rooted in false self-belief). Are our ambitions simply a shield against the absurdity of having such a short, and yet such a long, life to waste?

I didn’t enjoy reading My Year very much at all, but I don’t think that I was meant to. And while there were a number of books on the longlist that I thought were stronger (Sight, This Really Isn’t About You, Freshwater, Educated), it’s probably my second favourite on the Wellcome shortlist, if only because I doubt I will ever forget it.

Thoughts on My Year of Rest and Relaxation from other members of the shadow panel can be found here:

Rebecca’s review

Annabel’s review

Clare’s review

Paul’s review

Thanks to Midas PR for sending me a free copy of this novel to review for the blog tour.

The shadow panel – who are pretty divided this year! – will announce our winner on Monday 29th April, and the official winner will be announced on Wednesday 1st May.

My personal winner, by some distance, is Thomas Page McBee’s remarkable Amateur.

Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour!

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Finally, 5×15 are running a Wellcome Book Prize shortlist event in London once again, featuring  five of the shortlisted writers: Will Eaves, Sarah Krasnostein, Ottessa Moshfegh, Sandeep Jauhar and Arnold Thomas Fanning. While I’m sad that, once again, I won’t be hearing from my favourite shortlisted writer (though this is unsurprising given that McBee lives in New York), I loved this event in 2018, when I live-tweeted it, and have already booked tickets – along with three of my friends who were also big fans of last year’s event, despite not having read any of the shortlisted books! It’s on 7pm on the 30th April, and you can get tickets here.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #4: Remembered & Bottled Goods

Onwards! This is the last pair of Women’s Prize reviews I’ll be able to fit in before the shortlist is announced on 29th April (I still haven’t been able to read Normal People, so it had BETTER be shortlisted just saying). I’ll be posting my own wishlist before then, probably this weekend.

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Yvonne Battle Felton’s debut, Remembered, operates a dual timeline. In Philadelphia in 1910, Spring is sitting by the bedside of her injured son, Edward, who has been charged with deliberately driving a streetcar into a department store. As Spring tells him the story of his grandmothers and mothers, we jump back in time to antebellum America and the experience of being enslaved. There’s also a familiar ghostly element to the story, as Spring’s dead sister, Tempe, sits beside her and comments on the tale she’s telling, occasionally summoning visions to give us glimpses of scenes Spring wasn’t privy to, such as the plan that led up to Edward’s protest (I’m afraid this device felt less magical to me and more a rather clumsy way of adding an additional point of view). In this, Remembered most obviously recalls Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Singwhich was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize and also dealt with the legacy of slavery, as well as Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved.

I’ve been having an interesting discussion on Elle’s blog about the recent popularity of novels that explore the experiences of enslaved people, whether that’s in a C19th/C20th American context, as with the examples above, or focusing on the C18th/C19th transatlantic slave trade, such as Esi Eduygan’s Washington BlackAndrea Levy’s The Long Song, Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money (the latter is also the only recent example I can think of written by a white person). Most obviously, this trend is well overdue, and it also makes perfect sense that in the wake of movements such as Black Lives Matter, black writers are being drawn to explore the structural roots of modern racism. I also recognise that while Battle-Felton was writing this novel, the willingness of publishers to suddenly foreground narratives of slavery was hardly something she could have predicted. Yet, having said all this, it’s still the case that Remembered addresses a story that’s becoming familiar, and I’m not sure what it brings to the table. As I commented in my review of Rachel Seiffert’s The Boy in Winterlonglisted for last year’s Women’s Prize, which deals with the round-up of Jews in the Ukraine in 1941 by the SS; there has to be a compelling reason to rehearse these traumatic histories, especially when black writers and readers have emphasised that they don’t just want to see stories about slavery and black suffering.

And sadly, I didn’t feel that Battle-Felton’s writing was up to this task. There are two compelling ideas at the heart of Remembered. First, the streetcar incident as a deliberate act of resistance to racial discrimination, and second, the plantation where Spring and Tempe grow up, which is said to be cursed; no live babies can be born there, and it turns out that the enslaved women are deliberately taking contraceptive measures. Both these plots foreground the agency of black people long before the inception of the civil rights movement. However, both are strangely under-explored. This, I think, comes down to the nuts and bolts of Battle-Felton’s prose; point-of-view switches are not handled well, it’s really difficult to get a sense of time passing, and some key incidents in the novel are just confusing. This becomes particularly problematic in an especially brutal scene near the beginning of the narrative; this scene is, deliberately, horrific, but because of the weak writing, it tips over into what feels like exploitative melodrama. While I admire Battle-Felton’s intentions, this is not a strong entry on the Women’s Prize longlist.

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A shorter review for a very short novel. Bottled Goods, which is also a debut, has been described as a ‘novella-in-flash’; the novel is divided into very short sections that make big chronological jumps, and also plays with format; one section is a table, another is solely dialogue, some are in first person, others in third. Set in communist Romania in the 1970s, the novella focuses on primary school teacher Alina, who falls under suspicion after her brother-in-law defects to the west and she fails to report a pupil caught with a copy of a subversive magazine. There’s a touch of magical realism, but Sophie van Llewyn holds it in the right balance, making Bottled Goods intriguing but grounded. Nevertheless, despite the strength of van Llewyn’s writing, this isn’t one of my favoured contenders for the shortlist either, although I’m glad that I ultimately decided to read it. I’m not convinced that a series of interlinked flash fiction pieces works in the same way an interlinked collection of short stories can; the strength of flash is its ability to conjure a world in very few words, and as these stories don’t need to do that, because character and situation have already been established, they can feel needlessly short. A number of individual pieces are very arresting, but not all of the pieces attain this standard. Overall, I was left feeling that this novella was simply too slight to make enough of an impression. I hope van Llewyn writes something else soon, however, because she’s clearly an original and skilled writer.

Late Spring Reading

I’m still working my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’ve now read all of the titles I planned to read before the shortlist announcement except Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant – the library just isn’t coming through for me! So, I’ve decided to change my strategy, as I want to get as many of these read before the shortlist is announced on the 29th April. I’m going to buy myself a copy of Normal People, as I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it. Then, as I’ve read some pretty poor reviews of Number One Chinese Restaurant and some pretty good reviews of Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods (plus, I love the fact she’s written this tiny literary novella for a tiny press, and yet says her favourite book/s are A Song of Ice and Fire), I’m going to read Bottled Goods instead. Therefore, I won’t be reading Number One… (or The Pisces, Swan Song or Praise Song for the Butterflies) unless it’s shortlisted, which I doubt it will be.

In the meantime, a round-up of some non-Women’s Prize reading:

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In retrospect, everything else in The Dollmaker was overshadowed for me by the hauntingly brilliant long quotation that prefaces the novel, taken from an 1897 article called ‘A Study of Dolls’, co-authored by the famous American psychologist of adolescence, G. Stanley Hall. Here’s a little bit of it:

90 children mentioned burial, their average age being nine; 80 mentioned funerals, 73 imagined their dolls dead, 30 dug up dolls after burial to see if they had gone to heaven, or simply to get them back. Of these 11 dug them up the same day… 12 dolls came to death by accidental bumps and fractures, 1 burst, 1 died of a melted face, 2 were drowned (1 a paper doll)… 30 children had never imagined dolls dead. This parents often forbid… In 21 cases there was death but no burial; in 10, funerals but no burials; in 8, funerals but no death.

This is so ridiculous and beautiful, the kind of inadvertent poetry that you sometimes find in Victorian social studies, that The Dollmaker was never going to live up to it. Ultimately, I admired the craft and intelligence with which this novel was written, but it wasn’t really my thing.

Andrew Garvie, who has dwarfism, has spent his life collecting and making dolls. When he receives a letter from Bramber Winters, a woman living in an institution on Bodmin Moor, about his collection, this begins an enthusiastic correspondence between them. Andrew sets off on a journey across England to finally meet Bramber, and on the way, reads a book of Polish stories that she’s recommended to him by the fictional Ewa Chaplin. Chaplin’s stories are littered with characters that might be considered ‘freaks’ in nineteenth-century parlance, from a range of people who also have dwarfism to a woman whose fingers have been frozen by rheumatoid arthritis and a woman born without one of her eyes. This engages Andrew’s sympathies; recently, he has been restoring ‘monsters’, damaged dolls who don’t have perfect faces and bodies, because he sees no reason why dolls shouldn’t reflect reality.

A number of Chaplin’s stories are scattered throughout the novel, and most are riveting; subtly disturbing, they all suggest worlds that aren’t quite our own. In contrast, Andrew and Bramber’s plot-line is rooted more firmly in reality than I’d expected, and I longed for more than a hint of the speculative. The dolls themselves are more symbolically significant throughout the novel than anything else, and I wished there had been a lot more about Andrew’s work as a dollmaker, picking up on the hint of creepiness in the Stanley Hall quote. And while the Chaplin stories worked for me, they made the pace of the novel very erratic, as it took me a little while to get into each one, meaning I’d often put the novel aside for some time when a new story appeared. Without the stories, on the other hand, this is a familiar tale of two misfits finding love through letter, and Bramber never really came alive for me; I’d have preferred the whole thing to be about Andrew, his dolls, and Ewa Chaplin’s stories.

Writers often complain that reviewers review the book they wanted to read rather than the book the writer wanted to write, and that’s definitely at play for me here; I SO wanted this to be a more alternative-reality sort of novel that I kept on making up elaborate twists that didn’t come to pass (Andrew and Bramber are actually dolls in a complicated child’s game!). However, this is a very well-written novel that I’d recommend to those to whom the synopsis appeals, and as I hear Allan’s earlier novels lean more towards the SF, I’ll definitely be checking those out (The Rift is already on my 2019 reading list).

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

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College friends Jack and Wynn are canoeing the Maskwa River in Northern Canada. Wynn is the most experienced with whitewater, while Jack is an expert on wilderness survival and hunting; they don’t anticipate problems. However, when they find themselves in the path of a forest fire and overhear a couple arguing in the middle of the night, they are unwillingly plunged into a life-or-death journey down the river.

This novel, the first I’ve read by Peter Heller, sits somewhere between literary fiction and thriller; the UK cover is somewhat misleading in depicting it as a pure white-knuckle ride. Heller spends some time establishing the landscape and the relationship between the two men, so the plot doesn’t really kick in until we’re about a third of the way through. However, this is a relatively short novel, so I didn’t find this to be a problem; just don’t expect this to be thrills from page one. Once The River gets going, it’s properly gripping, and Heller’s knowledge of the wilderness is evident. It reminded me of Erica Ferencik’s equally engrossing The River at Night, with perhaps a greater touch of realism.

The ‘literariness’ of this novel is a little more questionable. Heller’s writing is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Frazier, but less deliberately meditative. However, The River doesn’t seem to have a great deal to say; the one enduring theme is the contrast between Wynn’s idealism and Jack’s cynicism, which is rather simplistically resolved. The novel also falls back on cliched gender roles; of the two women mentioned prominently in it, one, Jack’s dead mother, appears only in flashbacks as a motivation for Jack’s actions, while the other is a helpless victim of male violence. In short, I’d have liked this to either have gone full-on ‘thriller’, or to have had greater depth; although I enjoyed reading it, it sits a bit uneasily between the two.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 16th.

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Lucy grew up in a working-class family in Sunderland, attending a comprehensive school in nearby Washington, so when she heads to university at King’s College, London, in the mid-00s, she has to adjust to the new landscape around her, abandoning fake tan, sequins and Asti for cigarettes, leather jackets and leopard-print tights. Later, having received her degree, Lucy will flee to her grandfather’s home in Donegal, seeking out the silence of a very different world.

Saltwater, Jessica Andrews’s debut novel, is told in non-linear fragments, although the four parts of the book roughly divide up the phases of Lucy’s life, from childhood to adolescence to studenthood to the aftermath. However, I didn’t find anything especially original in either the prose or the structure. This kind of storytelling is commonplace in literary fiction – think early Maggie O’Farrell – as, increasingly, are the very short chapters. Saltwater is clearly based very closely on Andrews’s own experiences, and while I’m not against fashionable autofiction per se, it has to be really wonderful to convince me, e.g. Jessie Greengrass’s Sight.

As someone who’s recently moved to Newcastle and who has family on both sides who grew up in the north-east, I loved the idea of a novel that explored working-class experience outside London. However, Saltwater either gives us precise, repetitive litanies of sweets, toys, drinks and bands, or feels irritatingly vague. Some of the sections that explore Lucy’s adolescent experiences, such as hanging out in Exhibition Park, are a bit more satisfying, but these aren’t typical of the novel as a whole. Having read some of Andrews’s articles about being the first person in her family to go to university, I found these more illuminating than the fictional version represented here. Andrews’s writing is readable enough, but I hope she pushes herself further next time.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 19th.