20 Books of Summer, #10: The Woman In White

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already!

L: The edition of The Woman In White I read in 2005 from the library. R: The edition I read this time around, purchased second-hand.

Before rereading: I remember loving this novel when I first read it as an eighteen-year-old in 2005, but almost nothing else about it.

When I first read The Woman In White, I wrote: I happened to read The Woman in White during a very brief period in my late teens when I wrote frequent updates on all the books I was reading. So, here they are!

April 25th, 2005. I haven’t really read enough of this to form an opinion on it yet.

April 27th, 2005. This is improving – I’ve read about 50 pages and I’m interested in Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, who have just been introduced. The narrator of this section seems fairly boring, but then narrators often do. I’m thrilled that it’s written with switching 1st-person perspectives; so few books are and I absolutely love it, though it can be quite badly done, as in FALLING ANGELS [by Tracy Chevalier]. I didn’t find his first meeting with ‘the woman in white’ particularly chilling though…

May 2nd, 2005. Have read about 100 more pages and is v. good, though Laura Fairlie is v. boring. Have just read the legal section which I liked. Unfortunately I am fairly sure on what happens having read spoilers, but intrigued that Wilkie Collins was the 1st to use switching perspectives. [I don’t think this is true. Collins’s introduction to the novel makes this claim, which is where I got it from.]

May 5th, 2005. Have read quite a bit more (to p.225) but not much seems to have happened. Already know the bit about the insane asylum and LF so am waiting for it to happen.

May 9th, 2005. The same. V. slow at the moment. Wish I didn’t know what was going to happen.

May 16th, 2005. Has just got off the ground and is now v. good. I loved all the short narratives, especially Mr Fairlie and Fosco’s note, and I’m now on the Third Epoch and in the depths of the mystery. The part of the plot I know about has now happened and I’m not sure what the secret is – much better. I actually quite like the slow pace now, and if I read it again I think I’d enjoy it a lot more. Common with most classic books.

After rereading: Oh, what a pleasure it was to revisit The Woman In White. It’s one of those books that’s so famous that writing a full review seems a bit silly, though for the benefit of those who haven’t read it, it’s a ‘sensation’ tale of inheritance, asylums and mistaken identity. A few observations: this really feels like a proto-psychological thriller. It was serialised in the journal All The Year Round from November 1859 to August 1860, and was such a hit that readers used to queue outside the journal’s offices to get their hands on the next instalment as soon as it was published. The Penguin edition marks the beginning and end of each section, so you get some sense of what it must have been like to read it when it was first coming out, and the cliffhangers are brilliant. However, I was also fascinated by how it mimics the structure of a traditional ghost story, despite not actually containing any hint of the supernatural. The ‘woman in white’ appears out of the night, disappears without trace, reappears standing by her own gravestone – she’s much more of an apparition than a character in her own right, especially as her name and identity get detached from each other.

I enjoyed The Woman In White more than when I read it as a teenager. I didn’t experience the lull in pacing that my notes record; if anything, I thought the very beginning was slow and it speeded up from there, plus I wasn’t so bothered by knowing the plot in advance. And yes, Laura Fairlie is boring – and perplexing to a modern reader. Collins seems to have been inspired by Dickens’ ideal of the child-woman when figuring her as the romantic lead, for her main appeal seems to be that she is utterly incapable of doing anything. Unsurprisingly, both contemporary and modern readers preferred her clever, capable spinster sister, Marian Halcombe, whom we actually see interacting with Laura’s love interest, Walter, far more than Laura does, making us wonder why he doesn’t prefer her too. Nevertheless, if you’re used to Victorian novels, this isn’t a surprise, and this is one of the most absorbing and gripping nineteenth-century blockbusters out there.

Random trivia: It took me at least 21 days (and probably a few more) to read The Woman In White first time around, and it took me 19 days the second time.

My rating in 2005: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

July Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. I only feature books that I read for the first time this month, not rereads (otherwise the worst book would obviously be Skellig)

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. This gorgeous story of work, friendship, making art, storytelling and play completely bowled me over. My full review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Honorable mention: Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou. This smart, surreal satire about Asian Americans in academia both delighted and impressed me, even if I thought the tone was a bit uneven. My full review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Pulse Points by Jennifer Down. Down is an Australian writer, and I picked up this collection of short stories because I spotted Julia Armfield recommending it. Unfortunately, it did not work for me at all. I actually liked the title story, which appears first in the collection; I thought it was subtle and clever. Then all the rest blurred into one. Although Down flips between different styles and viewpoints, I found her stories very samey, and I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to do.

(Dis)honorable mention: People Like Them by Samira Sedira, trans. Lara Vergnaud. Painfully clunky prose – I assume a combination of bad writing and bad translation – plus painfully obvious social commentary.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Complicit by Winnie M Li. I admired Li’s debut novel, Dark Chapterwith some reservations; I thought Li wrote bravely and vividly about rape, drawing from her own experience, but was less convinced by the sections written from the point of view of the rapist. Complicit is in a very different category. It’s basically a straightforward #MeToo thriller told from the perspective of a young Chinese-American woman, Sarah, an assistant film producer in Hollywood. It brings nothing new to the table, and also makes some missteps. On reflection, I think Li wanted to make Sarah a flawed and unreliable narrator in the vein of My Dark Vanessastruggling with internalised misogyny and racism as she stereotypes other women as dumb blondes and herself as a victim of her ‘Chinese work ethic’, and dismisses sexual assault as ‘not rape’. However, the writing isn’t strong enough to pull this off, and Sarah’s comments often end up sounding as if we’re meant to read them straight. A disappointing second novel.

The Book I Had The Most Mixed Feelings About This Month Was…

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… Unofficial Britain by Gareth E. Rees. This book has a mission statement, drawn from Rees’s original Unofficial Britain website; Rees wants to ‘walk through everyday places, like car parks, bus stops, amusement arcades, factories, alleyways and promenades, only to find that they become weirder the closer we look’. Probably because of Rees’s single-mindedness, I found Unofficial Britain highly irritating and incredibly insightful by turns. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the idea that a car park or an underpass is exactly the same as a natural landscape like a forest; apart from anything else, forests are living organisms in their own right, not just dead structures upon which humans bestow meaning. There’s also too much moaning about what Rees sees as stereotypical haunted places, like rural moorland or old Victorian houses. However, when he manages to get off his bandwagon, he has lots of interesting things to say. I especially enjoyed the chapters on motorways, multistorey car parks, and motorways, and I loved his discussion of the liminal nature of chain hotels, which feel like they could be anyplace because they all look the same inside.

The Weirdest Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori. I struggle with body horror and am a bit tired of the numerous recent short story collections that deal with women and their bodies. Therefore, I should not have been a fan of Life Ceremony, which features cannibalism, jewellery made from bones, and a woman obsessed with other people’s body fluids, among other bizarre themes. But weirdly, a lot of these stories worked for me. I loved how Murata revealed the contingent, mandated nature of what we think of as ‘normal’ in Convenience Store Woman, and that’s a big concern here, as well. As one character puts it: ‘There was a couple engaged in insemination on the beach. What would that have looked like back when it was still called sex?’ My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Best YA Book I Read This Month Was…

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… A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin. It’s unusual for me to find a YA fantasy that I enjoy, but I liked this immersive debut. It stars teenage Ning, a physician’s apprentice whose mother has recently been killed by drinking poisoned tea distributed by her province’s governor. Now Ning is determined to take up the art of tea magic to cure her sister Shu, who was also poisoned and is now slowly dying. But to achieve her goal, she’ll have to compete to become the palace’s next shennong-shi – a master of tea-making. Lin’s world-building is elegant and convincing. It actually reminded me a bit of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall; there’s an authority in Lin’s writing that allows her to set out the politics of this kingdom simply and effectively without making them feel skimpy. Sadly, I found the characters interchangeable, and so did not invest enough in their story to necessarily want to follow them to the next novel in this duology, but this was escapist and fun. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Book That Swung Off Course The Most For Me This Month Was...

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… Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. This much-hyped debut follows Elizabeth Zott, an uncompromising research chemist rebelling against American women’s expected roles in the 1950s and 1960s, who uses her TV cookery show to encourage other housewives to break free. I thought the first half of this novel was delightful, if a little self-indulgent. Garmus balanced the jaunty tone well with the hints of a greater darkness in Elizabeth’s past, and I was won over by her relationship with fellow chemist Calvin. Unfortunately, it all went wrong in the second half, after Elizabeth begins her cookery show; I found its audience appeal completely unconvincing and the snippets of ‘chemistry’ irritating (I loved chemistry A Level because of the way it made everything fit together; there’s no sense of that here, with Elizabeth simply namedropping terms like ‘sodium chloride’). We have to deal with both an irritating dog, who understands English, and an irritating child, who is ‘precocious’ in the cute way that children in books often are, which is nothing like the way exceptionally smart children are in real life. The random reappearance of long-lost family members at the end ties it all together into a sugary bow. A pity, because I really liked Elizabeth-the-research-chemist before she (reluctantly) became Elizabeth-the-TV-star.

The Most Illuminating Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Reverse Engineering ed. Tom Conaghan. This first book from new indie short story publishers Scratch Books reprints seven exceptional modern short stories and pairs them with commentary from their authors. The stories are worth reading in their own right – I loved every single one except Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Filamo’, which I’d already encountered in her Nudibranchso I knew what to expect. But it’s so great to have the authors’ reflections as well. My favourite story was Mahreen Sohail’s wonderful ‘Hair’. Sohail’s discussion of how she first extended and then pared back the story’s ending, which shoots forward into the future, was fascinating, as was her reflection on how she signalled a switch of protagonist early in the text, temporarily revealing the story’s workings: ‘Sometimes I think short stories should do this more. We seem to be really into smokes and mirrors and tricks and stuff but there’s something really powerful about stating something as it is.’ Chris Powers’s story ‘The Crossing’, alongside his commentary, made me reflect on what George Saunders says in A Swim In The Pond In The Rain about how short story writers should anticipate the reader’s expectations at each stage of the story, and make the unexpected choice. Other standouts for me were Jessie Greengrass’s clever ‘Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague’, which was based loosely on the life of the early modern physician and philosopher Paracelsus (who was born Theophrastus, though I wish there had been a clue to his more famous identity in the text), and Joseph O’Neill’s bizarre ‘The Flier’.

Did you have any stand-out reads in July?

20 Books of Summer, #8 and #9: Prodigal Summer and All Over Creation

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Before rereading: I first read Prodigal Summer in 2010, when I was twenty-three, and backpacking around Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. (The fact that I carried this secondhand hardback edition back to the UK with me indicates how much I liked it – it still has a sticker that says ‘Librería el lector [The Reader Bookshop], Arequipa’ on the back). It was one of my top ten books of 2010, and I frequently cite it as one of the best examples of fiction that deals with a biologist trying to make a rural community understand the value of an apex predator. (This may sound like a niche topic, but there’s The Wolf Border, Once There Were Wolvesand Happinessamong others). However… I remember very little about it, other than that I found it slightly preachy, but not nearly as preachy as Kingsolver’s other novels. I did not review it at the time.

After rereading: This is just such a beautiful book. There’s no other way of putting it. It’s the best kind of comfort read for me, one that is realistic about loss and suffering but creates a world in which people can gradually mend. Prodigal Summer has three, largely separate story threads. Deanna is a wildlife biologist working for the Forest Service in the southern Appalachians, employed to deter poachers and tracking a family of coyotes who have recently returned to the region. In the valley below, Lusa is newly widowed and isolated on her husband’s farm, surrounded by her hostile relatives and wondering if she should flee back to the city. Finally, her elderly neighbour Garnett broods over his losses and nurtures a grudge against his own neighbour Nannie, who refuses to use pesticides on her plants and so, he believes, is putting his project to save the American chestnut tree in danger. Despite the focus on grief and loneliness, Prodigal Summer, as befits its title, is also about the abundant reproduction of nature, its persistence and excess. All the characters long to have a relationship with the next generation, whether that’s through biological grandchildren or adopted kin. This time round, I didn’t find it preachy at all; my only slight hesitation was that there seems to be no place in this world for women who don’t want to mother, and that Kingsolver’s own voice seeps through occasionally. Deanna and Lusa overlap a little too much in their worldviews, given the two characters’ very different backgrounds. Nevertheless, this remains my favourite Kingsolver novel (up there with Flight Behaviour) and it was an utter joy to spend time with.

My rating in 2010: ****1/2

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

L: The edition I originally read. R: The (much uglier) edition I read this time.

Before rereading: I first read All Over Creation in 2014, when I was twenty-seven. I’d loved Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and wanted to read more by her, and I thought this one sounded more up my street than My Year of Meats (which I actually loved when I eventually got round to reading it in 2020). However, I couldn’t get on with it, and didn’t finish it. I now don’t remember much about it other than that it featured GM crops, possibly potatoes.

After rereading: Sadly, I haven’t changed my mind about this one, although I did make it all the way through this time. I think Ozeki was going for something akin to Prodigal Summer. There are several major groupings of characters: Yumi, returning to her home town in Idaho twenty-five years after she ran away at the age of fourteen; her estranged parents, Lloyd and Momoko; her old best friend Cass, childless and miserable; her ex-teacher and ex-lover Elliot, who now works for NuLife, a company developing GM potatoes; and a group of environmental activists, the Seeds of Resistance. But both these characters’ stories and the exploration of GM crops feel shortchanged.

The novel has no central protagonist, which is not necessarily a problem, but all the cast feel under-developed. Yumi regresses to her teenage self, but we get no sense of who she was in the years between. Cass is defined solely by her longing for a baby and her criticisms of Yumi’s neglectful parenting of her three children. Lloyd, Momoko and Elliot are basically caricatures, and the hippy activists reminded me of the irritating group of library misfits in The Book of Form and Emptiness(Speaking of Ozeki’s latest, I think it’s actually the better novel of the two; All Over Creation doesn’t have the twee asides from the Book, which is a big plus, but neither does it have the strong, nuanced character work of the relationship between Benny and Annabelle). Finally, Ozeki does not interweave the theme of GM crops into her story as artfully as Kingsolver weaves her environmental messages, even though both authors have something to say about pesticides. I’d definitely recommend My Year of Meats or A Tale For The Time Being instead.

My rating in 2014: ***

My rating in 2022: ***

The Reread Project: Skellig

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a child or teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post (though I’ve since cut Tess because I know I will just hate it again!) The three other entries in this series so far are To Kill A Mockingbird , The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Color Purple. This is also #7 of my 20 Books of Summer.

4. Skellig: David Almond (1998)

L: The edition I originally read. R: The edition I own now.

I first read Skellig around the time it came out, when I was twelve years old. I furiously hated it. (Seeing the title still makes me feel angry even now!) Although I obviously did not enjoy the novel, I think the reason I felt such ire towards it was because it happened to come out just as I was clarifying my critical thoughts on children’s fiction, which had been brewing for the past two years or so. Skellig won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year, and to me, epitomised ‘the kind of book adults think children ought to like’. I’d been wary of award-winning children’s novels since a string of bad experiences with Newbery Award winners when I was much younger, and nearly didn’t pick up the first Harry Potter solely because it had won prizes. (Interestingly, checking the novel’s Wikipedia page, it turns out that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone won basically all the UK awards that were voted for by children, but was only shortlisted for awards voted for by adults. If I’d known this at the time, it would definitely have added fuel to the flames!)

I have a fairly clear memory of the basic plot of Skellig. Boy meets decaying angel in his garage while he is praying for his ailing baby sister to get well. I also remember why I hated it so much. My biggest complaint was what I might now call the ‘magical realist’ elements of the book. I was hugely frustrated with the angel, the idea that he might not be real within the world of the book (I was of course used to reading science fiction and fantasy; fantastical elements per se were not a problem) and that he only existed to represent something else. This made the whole book feel pointless to me. When my mum read Skellig, I remember her saying: ‘I think the angel represented the boy’s hope; so the angel got better as he got more hopeful’. This interpretation filled me with utter disgust! I also had more minor criticisms of the book. Aesthetically, it didn’t work for my imagination. I didn’t like the way the angel intersected with the ordinary world, demanding Chinese takeaway; this just seemed ludicrous to me. I also couldn’t relate to the boy’s concern for his sister (I think adults often forget that our instinctive horror at the idea of an ailing child or baby will not necessarily be experienced by children who are much closer to the character’s age). Finally, I just found it boring.

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The mention of Heaven Eyes (2000) suggests to me that I wrote this a bit later, when I was 13.

The good thing about Skellig, though, was that it started my career as a book reviewer. It was my rage at Skellig that led me to start making lists of the books I thought were really ‘deserving’ of awards, and eventually to start recording everything I read. So I did have something to thank the book for.

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Where to start? I was SO right about Skellig.

I’m sure there are both adults and children who genuinely love this bookHowever, what struck me most about rereading it as an adult is how performative it is. Almond has his characters utter so many faux-profound statements, which gives the impression that the book is saying something deep – but it isn’t actually saying anything at all. There’s a void at the heart of this novel. My mum’s interpretation about ‘hope’ seems as good to me as any, because basically this is a book that allows you to project what you want onto it. Here are some examples of Almond’s platitudes; while they all sound the same, they’re actually spoken or thought by a range of different characters, including some random elderly people who turn up to dispense wisdom, then depart:

‘He said we were surrounded by angels and spirits. We must just open our eyes a little wider, look a little harder.’

You just keep believing. And everything will be fine.’

They say that shoulder blades are where your wings were, when you were an angel. They say they’re where your wings will grow again one day.’

Keep on moving. That’s the thing. Keep the old bones moving. Don’t let everything seize up.’

There was the loveliest lass on the trapeze. You could swear she could nearly fly.’

‘Her dark eyes looked right into me, right into the place where all my dreams were.’

Skellig very much presents an adult’s view of a child’s internal landscape, an idealised, sentimental view of childhood imagination. I’m sure that some readers can relate to this, but it felt utterly alien to me. We’re supposed to be swept away by the beauty of this fable (and I think that’s what it is; it certainly isn’t a folk tale or fairy story, which have far more internal logic) but it just made me feel a bit sick. I’m sad to think of all the children who have surely been subjected to studying this at school.

This book unfortunately concludes with the narrator and his parents considering a couple of ‘meaningful’ names for the baby, including ‘Persephone’ and ‘Angela’, and finally deciding to name her JOY.

My rating in 1998: *

My rating in 2022: *

Disconcerted, disturbed and dismayed: Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou

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Ingrid is in the eighth year of her PhD on canonical Chinese-American poet Xiao-Wen Chou. As a Taiwanese-American student, she’s uncomfortably aware that her white advisor, Michael, directed her towards this topic because of the need for more Asian representation in the East Asian Studies department, even though she really wanted to study modernism (‘Did some people actually believe a poem about a red wheelbarrow was about a red wheelbarrow when it was obviously about existential dread?’) She’s happily engaged to white boyfriend Stephen, a Japanese to English translator with no knowledge of spoken Japanese, who is reassuringly boring (‘One got the feeling if he were caught in a fire, he would remain calmly smiling even as the flames consumed his flesh’.) Her Korean-American best friend and department ally Eunice shares her hatred of fellow grad student Vivian Vo, an Asian lesbian activist who writes papers called things like ‘Still Thirsty: Why Boba Liberalism Will Not Save Us’. However, the calm order of Ingrid’s existence is upended when she makes an unexpected discovery about Xiao-Wen Chou, which may change the course of her life (and her dissertation).

Disorientation, Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut, is the second novel on Asian-American representation in the arts that I’ve read this month (the other is Rebecca Kuang’s Yellowface, which I’ve not reviewed yet because it isn’t out until next year). And it’s by far the more successful of the two, largely because Chou is unafraid to reach real satirical heights, whereas Yellowface promised satire but actually stayed within realistic bounds. The first half of Disorientation, as Ingrid persists in existing in her own bubble despite all evidence to the contrary, is a triumph, pivoting around an incredible scene when she ‘infiltrates’ the POC Caucus on campus to spy on their activities and witnesses a debate about the casting of a white actress in Xiao-Wen Chou’s play Chinatown Blues:

“Are they going to make her eyes slanty – 

” – ‘slanty’ is a derogatory term – 

” – literally a shape, so does that mean I’m not allowed to say ‘square’ or ‘circular’ either – 

” – can’t believe we’re still discussing if this is okay – “

” – not the 1950s anymore – “

” – you know what else was popular in the 1950s? Book burnings –

“Well, speaking as a Chinese American man – “

“Well, speaking as a Chinese American woman – “

“Well, speaking as a queer disabled Chinese first-generation child of immigrants – “

At its best, Chou’s satire reminded me of other blisteringly smart works like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Babyexploring structural marginalisation while also thinking about how oppressed communities can turn on each other. It also brilliantly captures the hothouse atmosphere of academia, where the next chapter of your thesis can be more important than your love life, mental health or friendships.

Disorientation, for me, struggled a little in its final chapters, where Chou’s desire to write a realistic character arc for Ingrid seemed in tension with Ingrid’s deliberately exaggerated ignorance at the start of the novel. Some aspects of the novel’s conclusion are absolutely satisfying – for example, how we reassess Eunice, who originally seemed like an even more ditzy version of Ingrid – but the tone becomes a bit jarring, as a book that was soaring to surreal heights is brought abruptly down to earth. Chou ultimately spells out her messages a bit too clearly (though not nearly as obviously as Kuang’s Yellowface, which becomes didactic near the end). Nevertheless, this is a novel that thinks about so much, and leaves the reader with so much to think about. It was one of my most anticipated reads of 2022, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK TOMORROW, 21st July. Pre-order it here.

20 Books of Summer, #4, #5 and #6: Bones of the Earth, The Lowland and The Village

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already!

I am a bit behind this summer, but not quite as bad as it looks – I’m reading #7 and #8 at the moment and have #9-#12 planned out. I’m enjoying the freedom of reading more slowly as I’m rereading, though.

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Before rereading: I remembered finding Michael Swanwick’s dinosaur time-travel novel Bones of the Earth rather convoluted and confusing, but I also remembered it having an amazing set-piece section when a group of palaeontologists get stranded in the late Cretaceous period. Basically, I was in the mood to read it again. I discovered this book online in 2017 and bought a second-hand hardback. It was nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Campbell and Locus awards in 2002 and 2003.

The first time I read Bones of the EarthI wrote: ‘Bones of the Earth is an exhilarating novel. Swanwick may have chucked far too many ideas at it, but this results in some wonderful set-pieces. His handling of the dinosaur scenes is brilliant, and made me wish that he had simplified the time travel apparatus considerably… with such a crowded and complicated narrative, it could do with a strong emotional anchor provided by a single protagonist to guide us through.’ 

After rereading: Perhaps because I knew what to expect, I found this a rather different reading experience second time around. The individual threads were less compelling, but I appreciated how Swanwick draws it all together at the end much more; making some of the things I complained about before seem more necessary to his overall design. Bones of the Earth is really about why we do science, even when we gain nothing from it other than the satisfaction of knowing, and I love that.

My rating in 2017: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

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I read the same hardback edition from two different libraries.

Before rereading: I know that I loved The Lowland (it was one of my top ten books of 2014) but I recall hardly anything about it. The things that have stayed with me are a mother leaving her family to pursue her own dreams, and an incredibly moving ending (which I can’t remember!). I read a hardback copy from the library after it was shortlisted for the Baileys/Women’s Prize for Fiction that year. (An aside: just how good was the 2014 Baileys shortlist? It also had Americanah, The Goldfinch and A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing! Plus, The Luminaries, All The Birds, Singing and The Signature of All Things on the longlist! Interestingly, I’ve now reread four of these novels – maybe I should do the whole lot.)

The first time I read The Lowland, I wrote: ‘Unlike many novels which claim an ambitious scope because they move continents, The Lowland is ambitious in the best sort of way; retaining a very small central cast, it makes its readers truly care about the fates of Udayan, Subhash and Gauri, and it makes their stories unpredictable and yet seemingly inevitable, the way real lives are…. As the novel unfolds, it looses itself from being solely about two brothers from West Bengal and speaks to wider themes of ageing and what we choose to do with our lives as we age, and how key choices mould our lives more than we could ever have imagined.’ 

After rereading: I was both as impressed with this book as I was when I first read it and not surprised that it hasn’t stayed with me. The craft of The Lowland is in the way it traces the slow unfolding of its central characters’ fates; this time around, I felt it was less about the choices we make and more about how one horrific event can continue to constrain us. The way that the novel continually bends back to that pivotal turning point makes sense, because for the characters, it will always be ‘yesterday’, in the sense that Gauri’s daughter Bela understands it as a small child: ‘One day she told Gauri… I want short hair, like yesterday. It had been many months ago that Bela’s hair was short… But for Bela, three months ago and the day before were the same.’ I’ve given it a slightly lower rating, but this doesn’t reflect any sense of disappointment; I’m not sure that the five-star rating made sense last time, given that I wrote it ‘never flared into brilliance’ (though to be fair, I was comparing it to The Goldfinch and Americanah – hard acts to follow!)

My rating in 2014: *****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

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Before rereading: I first read The Village in 2012, when I was twenty-five. I received a proof copy from the publisher and had not read anything else by Nikita Lalwani before, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

The first time I read The Village, I wrote: ‘It is difficult to warm to this excellent novel, but this is really a proof of its success. It’s genuinely disturbing, not in the ‘horror film’ sense, but because it disturbs the reader’s settled pre-conceptions and leaves you not quite knowing where to settle them again. Ray, Nathan and Serena are the three members of a BBC production crew who have come to India to make a documentary about life in a ‘prison village’, a rehabilitative experiment where prisoners who have behaved well during their first years in jail are allowed to live under controlled conditions with their families while they serve out the rest of their sentences. Ray, the central character, straddles these two worlds uneasily… gripping and all too brief.’

After rereading: So, I actually liked this one even more ten years down the line. In 2012, I wrote: ‘the theme of voyeurism becomes so strong that it almost seems a little laboured’ and ‘the dubiousness of their work perhaps shouldn’t have been so obvious from the start… the fact that Nathan, Serena and even Ray are all so unsympathetic doesn’t help’. I just didn’t feel this way second time around. I liked how Lalwani shows how we are all constantly watching and judging each other, as the villagers, guards and locals run close surveillance on the BBC crew even as they are being filmed themselves. Interestingly, I also sympathised more with Ray, even though she is an obviously flawed protagonist, and this helped me feel like the project wasn’t so clearly dubious at the start of the novel. She’s a woman of North Indian descent who’s been brought up in Britain but speaks both English and Hindi, and I could understand why she struggled running interference between her unpleasant and competitive BBC colleagues, the village governor, and the villagers. It helped that she genuinely realises how appalling some of her actions have been by the end of the book. This is such a clever, fraught novel, which ratches up the tension even though we’re not sure exactly what we fear is going to happen; every sentence matters.

(I feel highly aggrieved on behalf of The Village that its average Goodreads rating is so low! I can only assume that it somehow reached entirely the wrong readership… it definitely isn’t slow, stereotyped or directionless!)

My rating in 2012: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

Last save point: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

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It’s the late 1980s, and pre-teens Sam and Sadie meet in a Los Angeles hospital. Sam is recovering from a horrific car accident that killed his mother and smashed up his foot, leaving him permanently disabled, while Sadie is visiting her older sister. Sam and Sadie bond over playing computer games, so when they reunite as young adults, it’s not surprising that they end up designing games together. However, their partnership is not always an easy one. Half-Korean, half-Jewish Sam – who’s reminiscent of a softer version of the traumatised Theo in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – is secretive, struggling with the chronic pain caused by his injury and the way it’s alienated him from his own body. Sadie is frustrated when Sam is given primary credit for their collaborations; the world assumes that as a female programmer, she must be the sidekick. Gabrielle Zevin handles the duo’s conflicts beautifully, never casting one as the wronged victim and one as the permanent aggressor. They also have recurring, complex disagreements about how far ‘making art’ conflicts with the desire to reach a larger audience, which Zevin explores thoughtfully and intelligently.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a smash hit. I absolutely loved this novel. Zevin somehow manages to port everything that’s great about YA into adult fiction, and it works so well. It focuses on work and friendship rather than romance, which I adored. Sam and Sadie have a complicated history but Zevin ultimately puts their professional and platonic bond front and centre, which is so refreshing. The material on gaming is also handled very cleverly. I rarely play computer games but love reading about them, so I’m somewhere in the middle of the scope of this book’s audience. But this feels like it would be accessible and engaging even to somebody who has no interest in games at all. Zevin focuses on games as a form of storytelling, rather than getting bogged down in the nuts and bolts of programming. She invents wonderful fictional games that demonstrate how the format is used to tell stories that wouldn’t work in more traditional genres, ranging from an Animal Crossing style farming game to a hunt for the murderer of Christopher Marlowe in Elizabethan England. Ultimately, Zevin uses games like so many other authors have used music or visual art – to talk about the challenges and joys of creating.

If this wasn’t enough, Zevin’s writing is so smart and moving. It’s difficult to strike the right balance with recurring motifs in fiction; it’s easy to lay them on too thick or make them too subtle. Zevin handles the themes that echo throughout this novel so well, letting the reader do some work without making them work too hard. One haunting image is the series of gates that Sadie walks through at a Shinto shrine in Japan, helping her understand after a professional failure that there’s always another gate ahead. This returns at an even harder time in Sadie’s life through the German phrase ‘Torschlusspanik’, ‘gate-shut panic… It’s the fear that time is running out and you’re going to miss an opportunity. Literally, the gate is closing, and you’ll never get in.’ However, this also speaks to a wider theme of the novel; the tension between always being able to start again, like having infinite lives in a video game, and running up against true end points. Zevin somehow makes this story both incredibly hopeful and incredibly poignant at the same time, reflecting the title – which references both Macbeth’s nihilistic ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech and a sense of infinite possibility. Too much time when you have nothing to live for, not enough when you do.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is out in the UK on 14th July. Pre-order it now!

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

June Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. A shorter post than usual as I’ve reviewed more of what I’ve read this month via 20 Books of Summer.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley. It’s 1963, and Valery has spent six years in the gulag when he is abruptly transferred to a secret facility called Chelyabinsk 40, where his scientific expertise is required to study an irradiated forest and the animal life within. However, Valery soon realises that something is wrong; the levels of radiation in the city are far above what has been officially reported. Valery is a hugely compelling protagonist; I loved him, and I loved this book. My full review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Unlikely Thru-Hiker by Derick Lugo. Despite being a self-proclaimed ‘metrosexual’ with no hiking or camping experience, New York comedian Derick Lugo sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, where he’s given the trail name ‘Mr Fabulous’ because of his attention to personal hygiene and grooming, as well as his ‘peace and love’ attitude. I’m fascinated by the Appalachian Trail, although I’ve never set foot on it, and I’d hoped for a reflection on Lugo’s experiences as a black man hiking this famous route; many of his fellow hikers comment that he’s the only black man they’ve ever seen doing it. This book isn’t about race, which, of course, is fair enough; the trouble is that it isn’t about anything else either. Lugo reels off tons of unconnected anecdotes, most of which have a ‘you had to be there’ feel. He also obsesses about food, toilets and camping facilities. It’s not a long book, but it felt like it was.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham. Wadham is a renewed glaciologist, and this is an accessible and interesting introduction to how glaciers form, move and melt, and how climate change is affecting some of the coldest places on Earth. Following ice around the world, we move from France to Greenland to Antarctica to Peru. As with Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother TreeI enjoyed the science in this book (this time, it was A Level Chemistry rather than A Level Biology I was struggling to recall), and I liked how Wadham weaved her personal experiences through the chapters, although it’s a much thinner thread than Simard’s.

The Book With The Best Narrator I Read This Month Was…

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… Vladimir by Julia May Jonas. When you struggle to review a novel because you know its narrator would look scathingly on any of the comments that you make about it, that’s when you know you’ve just read an excellent character study. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski. I would likely not have picked this up without Elle’s recommendation, but I’m glad I did. Set in a strip club in the Chicago suburbs in 1999, Real Easy is ostensibly about the disappearance of two of the women who work at the club, with some viewpoint chapters from the detectives assigned to the case. However, its real focus is the lives of the women who do lap dances and strip shows to make money, exposing the banal routines of the club as well as their different home lives, their partners and children and parents. Rutkoski hops from voice to voice, but two women, intersex Samantha and bisexual, mixed-race Georgia, take centre stage. While some of the points about female objectification felt a bit familiar – especially in the chapters narrated by the male characters – Rutkoski’s writing is smart and fresh.

What do we want the future to look like? : The Men by Sandra Newman & The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley

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The Men, one of my most anticipated books of 2022, has a high-concept premise: everybody with a Y chromosome suddenly disappears from the world, and those left behind have to rebuild it. Despite this, I’m not sure that Sandra Newman actually needed a world without men (and trans women and some intersex and non-binary people) to tell the story she wanted to tell. This novel focuses on two captivatingly flawed women drawn into a close relationship with each other: Jane, a white convicted sex offender who was exploited by an older man when she was a teenager and took the rap for his crimes, and Evangelyne, a black woman who was imprisoned for more than a decade for shooting the cops that killed her family.

The Men spends almost as much time on these women’s backstories prior to the Y-chromosome-only Rapture, than it does on exploring a world without men. When Jane and Evangelyne meet at college, Evangelyne is already famous for the text she wrote in prison on commensalism, arguing that this biological concept can be applied to human society to show that it is ethical to ‘eat the rich’, as wealthy people derive little benefit from being so wealthy. (Newman is good at inventing a radical literary trajectory for Evangelyne; her more personal essay ‘The White Girl’ is her other most famous work, describing the events that led up to her shooting incident). Evangelyne then becomes the leader of a group called ComPA which rises to power as society reorganises in light of the Rapture.

All this reminded me much more of books about all-female groups trying to build utopias, like Sarah Hall’s excellent The Carhullan Army, than books that play with sex and gender, like Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, I got the impression that Newman isn’t that interested in writing about sex/gender constructs, despite a couple of insightful lines (‘the concept of “men” had always been religious. All women were sold the idea of men as superior beings… Trans men could be masculine without making sex into a two-tier system, as cis men always had. We could love one another face-to-face, where before we had loved only through a glass darkly: so the ComPAs said’). This, I think, is why most of the mentions of trans and non-binary people feel so crowbarred in; gender isn’t Newman’s focus. Parts of the novel are also truly beautiful and hypnotic, even as they feel disconnected from the story at hand: ‘We pondered, the cozy, uncomfortable hum of the bus all around and a heavy East Texas rain making lines of wavy light on the windows, lines that trembled and were deformed in wind… We have no real face; they are masks that are borrowed and passed on, that live for millennia and are what a human is.’

However, although The Men is original and insightful, it’s also frankly bizarre. The narrative is weird and disjointed. Much of the novel is narrated by Jane, a straightforward choice that makes sense, but it trails into bits from other narrators who seem to have little to do with the main thrust of the plot. Many women are obsessed with watching a TV show called ‘The Men’ that shows naked men wandering a blasted landscape peopled with strange beasts, but the purpose of these interludes is not clear. Some reviewers have suggested that The Men is gender-essentialist and transphobic; while I largely disagree, it certainly struggles to make sense of all the ideas flung into its melting pot. I think it’s also fair to say that it wasn’t a great plan to tackle such a controversial premise when you don’t have a lot to say about gender. 

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

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The Half Life of Valery K was not on my list of most anticipated books of 2022, but it definitely would have been had I known it was getting published this year, because Natasha Pulley is one of my favourite authors. It’s 1963, and Valery has spent six years in the gulag when he is abruptly transferred to a secret facility called Chelyabinsk 40, where his scientific expertise is required to study an irradiated forest and the animal life within. However, Valery soon realises that something is wrong; the levels of radiation in the city are far above what has been officially reported. Struggling with the effects of his trauma, and having firmly believed that he was going to die in the gulag, Valery is aware that he sees everything off-kilter. He’s almost moved through his own death to a state beyond it where nothing matters to him more than preserving the lives of others. He’s a hugely compelling protagonist, perhaps Pulley’s best creation to date, because of this skewed logic.

In this context, the title of the novel becomes fascinating: on first glance, we might assume that Valery’s ‘half life’ refers to how he has been damaged and reduced by the gulag. But there’s a second meaning here, tied more closely to the subject-matter of the novel: the ‘half life’ of a radioactive substance is how long it takes for half of the unstable nuclei to decay. Substances with a longer half life have a slower but longer reach across time, while substances with a shorter half life show their effects more quickly but don’t last as long. Pulley seems to be asking: what is someone like Valery’s impact on the world, and how long will it linger?

Pulley’s other novels have all been set in versions of the nineteenth century where the real and the speculative intermingle; for fans of her other books, reading The Half Life of Valery K is a rather disconcerting experience, because it’s all based on fact but feels profoundly unreal. If The Men recalled Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the novel I kept thinking of while reading Valery K was Le Guin’s The DispossessedThere’s something about Valery that reminded me strongly of Shevek, the physicist protagonist of The Dispossessed who comes to a capitalist world from an anarcho-syndicalist society. Pulley doesn’t delve as deeply into alternative value-systems, but Valery’s thought processes are at odds with Soviet Russian norms; she also shows how her characters, raised under communism, are perplexed by the West, especially its treatment of women. Other Pulley tropes are present and correct – Valery is drawn into a close friendship with KGB head of security, Shenkov, despite the fact that he knows Shenkov could execute him at any time – but didn’t seem as central to this novel as they have been to her others. It’s Valery and his pet octopus who take centre stage.

I’ve reviewed these two novels together because I happened to read them both in June, but there are threads that connect them: both The Men and The Half Life of Valery K are interested in imagining different futures, and asking whether we could cope with these new versions of the world. We want things to change – but do we really?

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

The Reread Project: The Color Purple

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post (though I’ve since cut Tess because I know I will just hate it again!) The two other entries in this series so far are To Kill A Mockingbird  and The Handmaid’s Tale. This is also #3 of my 20 Books of Summer.

3. The Color Purple: Alice Walker (1982)

The edition I own (L) and an example of some of my copious annotations (R).

I first read The Color Purple in 2003, when I was sixteen, and again in 2004, when I was seventeen. It was one of my AS Level set texts for English Literature, which means that, amusingly, I still have copies of old essays that I wrote on it. Before I’d even finished the novel, I vehemently hated The Color Purple. My violent reaction was related to its presentation of women and men. I felt that the male characters were all stereotyped as abusive and irredeemable, and believed that Walker had done this in pursuit of a feminist agenda. As I wrote in my post on The Handmaid’s Taleas a teenager, I did not define myself as a feminist. I felt that feminism wanted to lock me into a system where women were oppressed for their ‘feminine’ qualities, qualities which I did not believe I possessed. I preferred thinking of myself as ‘not like other girls’: somebody who was good enough to compete with men on their own terms. I remember being highly satisfied when I managed to get into one of my exam essays that the presentation of the male characters ‘severely weakens the novel’. (I got full marks!)

My reaction to The Color Purple was also conditioned by it being an AS Level set text. I doubt I would have felt so strongly about it otherwise. I think I suspected that it was seen as a text that was suitable for my mostly-girls sixth form (all girls comp with mixed sixth form, but very few boys actually swapped in) because it dealt with topics that we would find relatable. I was cross because I didn’t think The Color Purple was rigorous, real literature; this was also my reaction to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, another AS Level set text (I was furious that the boys’ school got to do Persuasion!). In retrospect, I do think it was a shame that we ended up with so many set texts that dealt explicitly with issues of sexual violence (as well as Color and Tess, we did Othello for AS and The Duchess of Malfi for A Level). One text like this would have been fine or even desirable: four does seem a bit like the teachers were making assumptions about what teenage girls would connect with.

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When I reread To Kill A Mockingbird, I felt my teenage self was basically right about it being too simplistic and stereotyped. When I reread The Handmaid’s Tale, I was chastened to find that it was a far better novel that I rememberedThe Color Purple falls somewhere in between the two. While I appreciate it more as an adult who knows more about feminism, womanism and racism, some of the problems I had with it as a teenager don’t seem to me to be totally off-base.

To start with the good news. More than most novels, I think that The Color Purple really suffered from being picked apart and analysed. Because we read it bit by bit in school, the emotional impact of Walker’s writing was lost, and that was what really struck me on this reread. There are more than a few set-pieces where Walker really brings home the struggles and triumphs of her characters, and they hit the mark every time. The novel’s most famous scene, rightly so, is perhaps when the downtrodden protagonist Celie finally stands up against her abusive husband Mr. —, who has told her ‘You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddamn, he say, you nothing at all.’ Celie, driven by her newfound knowledge that Mr. — has kept her sister Nettie’s letters from her for decades, finds her voice and responds: ‘I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook. . . . But I’m here.’ 

Walker also conveys the poignancy and tragedy of the struggles of her minor characters, such as Sofia, Mr.—‘s daughter-in-law, who serves as a foil for Celie in many ways. Celie’s response to patriarchy, poverty and white supremacy is, for much of the novel, to stay quiet and do what she’s told; Sofia’s response is to fight back. Indeed, as a more traditionally ‘active’ character, Sofia’s story actually eclipses Celie’s for much of the first third of The Color Purple; as Celie is our narrator, this indicates her fascination with a woman who seems so unlike her. But when Sofia is imprisoned for twelve years for ‘disrespecting’ the town’s mayor and his wife, her rebelliousness is forced within her. She says: ‘Every time they ast me to do something, Miss Celie, I act like I’m you. I jump right up and do just what they say.’

Sofia was not a character that I remember thinking much about as a teenager beyond the required analyses I had to write for class, but I found her surprisingly compelling on a re-read, especially as even the other black characters seem to think she has overstepped a line in responding with violence: ‘Don’t make her have to look at you like us look at Sofia’, Shug, Celie’s lover, says to her when she wants to kill Mr. — after finding out about Nettie’s letters. Having said that, Sofia’s character would not be so striking if we did not have Celie as her inverse reflection, and Walker’s decision to make her protagonist passive and suffering rather than openly subversive is, I think, very wise, if also very unfashionable.

As I’ve said, my biggest problem with The Color Purple as a teenager was its presentation of the male characters, and this is where I felt most unsatisfied with the novel on a reread as well. Almost all the men in The Color Purple fall into two camps: ‘bad’ (abusive, lazy, patriarchal) and ‘good’ (quiet, supportive of women, willing to do ‘women’s work’). This makes characters like Samuel, Harpo, Alfonso and Jack feel pretty flat, especially as the novel goes on. However, I will give Walker credit for her development of Mr.—, which I wasn’t convinced by as a teenager but liked a lot more on a reread. Mr.— is the only man who is allowed to change in this story; all the others remain good or bad throughout; and this gives him the kind of depth of character that is otherwise only visible in the female cast. On the other hand, though, the sections of the novel set in Western Africa, where Celie’s sister Nettie goes as a missionary, worked less well for me than they did when I was younger. Walker uses Nettie as a mouthpiece to make political points that have not always aged especially well, and, unlike the vividness of Celie’s letters, I could never forget that Nettie’s account was constructed by an external author.

There are a lot of angles from which to criticise The Color Purple, and I still agree with most, if not all of them. However, when I finally read it from cover to cover without stopping to make notes, I was surprised by how deeply I engaged with Celie and her story.

My rating in 2003/4: **

My rating in 2022: ***1/2