March Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

418Y8P7JJ7L

… Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2nd ed). I’d already read the title story of this collection back in spring 2021, and it’s brilliant; I was thrilled to discover that Butler’s other SF shorts are just as good. In fact, I think my favourite story in this collection wasn’t ‘Bloodchild’ but ‘Amnesty’, another coloniser/colonised story with an even more morally complex dynamic. But I also loved ‘Speech Sounds’, which depicts a world where humans have lost most of their language abilities; ‘The Evening and The Morning and The Night’, which is about an imaginary hereditary disease and also about what we inherit more generally, even when we don’t want to; and ‘The Book of Martha’, where a woman challenged by God comes up with a pretty original idea for a utopia. (There’s something of Ted Chiang in that last one). This collection also contains two short essays by Butler on writing, neither of which is groundbreaking but which are nice to have, and two non-SF short stories, ‘Near of Kin’ and ‘Crossover’, which unfortunately didn’t work for me at all. However, a collection of five incredible miniature pieces of science fiction hardly leaves the reader shortchanged.

 The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

9781529057676.jpg

… Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin. This novella was translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang; my comments here are obviously based on the English translation and I can’t speak to the quality of the original Korean text. Concerning My Daughter sets up such interesting internal conflicts for its characters. Our narrator, an ageing woman, is appalled when her daughter, Green, moves into her house with her girlfriend, Lane. She can’t understand why her daughter would seek a relationship that, for her, is ‘play-acting’, without ‘real’ intimacy or the hope of biological children. She’s also ashamed of Green’s activism at work; Green, a university lecturer, has stood up for some of her colleagues who were sacked for being in a homosexual relationship. But our narrator is not a one-dimensional bigot. She, too, stands up for what she believes to be right when she witnesses the mistreatment of a woman with dementia at the care home where she works – a woman who’s lived a life much bigger than our narrator’s conventional trajectory.

Unfortunately, for me, the structure and prose made Concerning My Daughter almost unreadable. The novella jumps around in time, following its narrator’s internal monologue – something I love when a writer pulls it off, but here was just confusing and bitty. The narrator also has a habit of spelling out her thoughts on everything, leaving the reader no room for interpretation. This makes the novella feel clunky and obvious, despite its hugely promising plot-line, and reminded me a bit of Maki Kashimada’s Japanese novella-in-translation Ninety-Nine Kisses, which suffered from the same problem.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th April.

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

59978457._SY475_

… Out There by Kate Folk. This debut collection shares a lot of concerns and themes with many other collections I’ve read recently from female writers; body horror, AI infiltrators, the hidden violence of heterosexual relationships, female sexuality, mysterious medical conditions, folktale themes, returns from the dead. I’d place it alongside collections such as Julia Armfield’s salt slow, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties, Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten and Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch. However, unlike these earlier books, all of which I found disappointing to one degree or another (although both the Armfield and Machado contain some excellent individual stories), Out There delivers. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

9781529342895

… Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu. Owusu grew up between multiple different cultures but never felt she belonged in any; her mother was Armenian, her father Ghanaian, her stepmother Tanzanian, and she has lived in New York, Rome, London, Addis Ababa, Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala and Kumasi. The extended metaphor of the ‘seismometer’ in her head and the earthquakes it triggers allows Owusu to write incredibly effectively about trauma, as well as race and culture; as a relatively light-skinned black woman, she experiences being read differently wherever she goes. In Rome, she’s a curiosity; in Addis Ababa, she’s mistaken for a native Ethopian until people realise she can’t speak Amharic; in Ghana, she’s seen as fortunate because her skin is not too dark. In its rewarding density and its attention to the different trajectories of an extended family, this reminded me of Négar Djavadi’s novel Disoriental.

(Hon. mention: Inferno by Catherine Cho, which deals with postnatal psychosis and which I found much more emotionally resonant than I expected, given I have never been pregnant and never intend to be).

The Book That Took Me The Longest To Read This Month Was…

51C7SHIOM-S

…A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. It took me a month to read this, and I’m glad I finished it, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel any time soon – especially as the loose ends felt very tied up. Great worldbuilding, politics and thought-provoking technology, but I had the same problem with this that I had with the couple of China Mieville books I’ve read (Embassytown and The City and the City); there wasn’t enough internal depth to the characters. We know interesting things about our protagonist Mahit, such as her attraction to Teixcalaanli culture, but I never felt this really informed her as a person, especially as, given how lacking she is in backstory, she might as well have appeared out of nowhere at the start of the novel (we only learn halfway through, for example, that she has a younger brother). Meanwhile, the voices of the secondary characters tended to blend together.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was…

9781787332003

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. True to form, I’ve already forgotten almost everything about it, so there’s not much I can say! I thought the scenes in The Hague were very well done but was disappointed that the book increasingly focused on the protagonist’s romantic life. Ultimately, she ended up a bit too much disaster woman and not enough international criminal court translator.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

57693184.jpg

… Dead Silence by SA Barnes. The premise of this book is one of my favourite SF set-ups ever, although it’s a relatively familiar trope: crew of a spaceship accidentally happen upon the abandoned wreck of another spaceship that mysteriously disappeared a long time ago. The extra embellishments that Dead Silence promised only made its plot sound better; in this book, the abandoned ship is a luxury liner which was not on any kind of mission when it vanished but simply on a pleasure cruise. It’s found far away from its original course with an emergency beacon transmitting on a disused frequency; what happened? Unfortunately, Dead Silence squanders this premise, and I agree with other reviewers that it plays out more as a (tired) psychological thriller than as a relatively more original horror/SF genre-cross. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

hbg-title-9781473681699-34.jpg

… Sun Damage by Sabine Durrant. I’ve read all of Durrant’s thrillers; she reliably delivers gripping but credible plots, strong prose, and well-observed characterisation. Sun Damage is no exception. Ali is making ends meet through running small scams with her partner in crime Sean, drifting between different holiday destinations to find their next mark. But when a sudden tragedy makes her realise how much Sean is exploiting her, she takes off on her own, knowing she mustn’t let Sean track her down. As she infiltrates the lives of a family group holidaying in the South of France, she keeps one eye open for Sean while struggling to keep up the deception she’s invented to allow her to remain in their midst. But is somebody on to Ali, and what will happen if Sean does find her?

I’d certainly recommend Sun Damage for anybody looking for a solid thriller that’s a notch above the rest. However, looking back on my reviews of Durrant’s earlier work – which I’ve always rated four stars – I have one reflection. For some reason, however much I enjoy Durrant’s books at the time, they quickly slip from my memory. I have no recollection of her other novels, even Take Me In, which at the time, I thought was ‘much more memorable’ than other thrillers I’d read. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s interesting to compare her to a writer like Lottie Moggach – Durrant and Moggach are very much on a par in terms of the quality of their prose and their plots, but Moggach’s Kiss Me First, Under The Sun and Brixton Hill are all vivid and distinct in my memory. This doesn’t make her a bad writer, though; I suppose it depends what you want from a book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 2nd June.


				

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Sentence

hbg-title-9781472156983-26

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Louise Erdrich’s work. I read her acclaimed novel The Round House about six or so years ago. It’s one of those books where, looking back, I’m surprised to find that my review was so positive, because that isn’t how I remember the experience of reading it. The Round House, which deals with the epidemic of sexual violence among Native American women, is undoubtedly an important and accomplished novel, but something about it clearly didn’t click for me – perhaps it was the ‘child’s-eye-view of adult situations’ narrator, a device I really don’t like, or perhaps it was simply too grim.

The Sentence, to me, feels like it was written by a completely different person. Despite some difficult subject-matter, it’s an uplifting read. Our Objiwe narrator, Tookie, has spent ten years in prison for body-snatching and conspiracy to transport drugs across state lines, an offence she was tricked into by friends. Given the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in North American prison statistics, she isn’t surprised to initially receive what amounts to a life sentence, which is eventually commuted due to the efforts of her Objiwe defence lawyer. The Sentence is about what happens next, as Tookie takes a job at Erdrich’s own bookstore (rather sweetly, Erdrich has a bit part in the novel, and isn’t afraid to gently make fun of herself) and starts to be haunted by the ghost of its ‘most annoying customer’, Flora.

Flora is a ‘wannabe Native American’, claiming Indigenous heritage despite being obviously white, and at first, she seems like a ‘wannabe ghost’; her incursions on the life of the bookstore are only very slight. Anybody who’s put off by ghost stories should not avoid The Sentence; Flora manifests only very sparingly, and does not make direct contact with the living. Due to this restraint, Erdrich manages to make Flora chilling in death, even though she was a bit ridiculous in life. When Tookie’s alone one evening in the bookstore, ‘a song began that I knew was not on the playlist. Flora cranked up the volume; it was Johnny Cash singing ‘Ain’t No Grave’. There ain’t no grave can hold my body down… If you’ve ever heard Johnny sing this song, you can imagine.’

The Sentence pulls a number of oddly eclectic themes together; books that can kill, Indigenous religion, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter protests, dealing with stepfamilies, Tookie’s tender relationship with her husband Pollux – who happens to be the retired Potawatomi policeman who originally arrested her. The reason it works, for the most part, is Tookie’s voice. I was immediately captivated by her warmth and humour. Through her, Erdrich makes us as readers believe in all the weirdness this book throws at us, even if I would have preferred it to come together a bit more tightly in the end. The secondary cast are beautifully handled; they genuinely feel like a community that have lived together for a long time. And as a love letter to books themselves, The Sentence is much more effective and much less sentimental than its fellow longlistee The Book of Form and EmptinessI’d be happy to see this on the shortlist.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number four. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness and Careless.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Careless

9781398700109

Bess is fifteen years old when she finds out she’s pregnant. Although she’s been in a long-term foster care placement since she was four, she’s never felt that she truly belongs to her foster family, and her boyfriend, Boy, has gone AWOL. The only person she can really rely on is her best friend Eshal, but Eshal has problems of her own – she’s worried that her Bangladeshi Muslim family are going to encourage her into an arranged marriage she does not want. Careless, Kirsty Capes’s debut novel, starts with Bess’s discovery of her pregnancy and then flashes back to explore her relationship with Boy and friendship with Eshal, before moving forward along the original timeline.

First things first: I enjoyed Careless much more than I expected to. This is a book about teenagers that could be read by teenagers, but I wouldn’t class it as YA and it doesn’t seem to have been sold as such. This is a relief. My problems with YA have never been that it’s written for a teenage audience but about the conventions and stereotypical assumptions that have become wrapped up with writing for that audience. Careless avoids these tropes. I’d place it alongside Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OKwhich deals sensitively and thoughtfully with alcoholism and sexuality. Like Nina, Careless is a dark and painful read – but this certainly should not exclude it from an adolescent as well as an adult readership.

Bess is a compelling protagonist. The book cleverly moves from the relative lightheartedness of early scenes with Eshal, watching the raft race at Shepperton Village Fair and chucking rubbish at an enemy’s raft, to much more harrowing scenes later on, which helps us to see Bess as a person and not just as a suffering statistic. Her world, too, is vividly evoked. Capes shuns generic council estate settings and allows us to really see the Studios Estate where Bess lives, in its everyday beauty and ugliness: ‘From my bedroom window on the estate, I can see the park, with two big horse chestnut trees on the green where the parakeets roost… And the long sloping sides of the reservoir, just beyond the farmer’s fields… I can see the River Ash Woods, where everyone goes to fly-tip and inject heroin. And then the tin houses, which are what everyone calls the pre-fabs, from after the Second World War’. 

However, I didn’t think the structure of the novel served Capes’s purposes particularly well. By positioning all that comes before the positive pregnancy test as flashback, the reader is simply waiting for Careless to catch up with itself. This messes with the pacing and also draws attention away from the most important element of the novel – the friendship between Bess and Eshal. I’ve been seeing this thriller device – pulling a scene from the middle and putting it at the beginning – more and more in books that are not thrillers. I suspect it is often advised by agents and editors, but it doesn’t work well for me as a reader. For Careless, certainly, I would have appreciated more time to get to know Bess before the book starts to revolve around her pregnancy.

There are also a few duff notes. I agree with this reviewer that Eshal’s plotline is too neatly concluded, although I imagine this came from Cape’s over-cautiousness in tackling this subject as a white writer. Bess’s voice generally works very well, but occasionally she feels like a mouthpiece for important things that Capes wants to say about the experience of being in care that probably wouldn’t come out of the mouth of a 1990s teenager. For example: ‘There’s something wrong with being in care, the care system, and it’s making us into a transaction… It’s not right, how we’re treated like a job. There’s too much emotional labour involved.’ Having said that, I thought that Cape’s handling of the reasons behind Bess entering foster care in the first place was exceptional. She tells the reader just enough so we can guess at what happened but allows us to understand it through the fragmented lens of Bess’s trauma, or what we might identify as complex PTSD.

So, a flawed book, for me, but one which I think deserves its Women’s Prize longlisting, and which certainly achieves what it’s trying to do much better than the other two novels on the list I’ve read so far. I doubt it will be shortlisted – the quote from Pandora Sykes on the cover makes me think it was the pet pick of a single judge – but I’m glad that I read it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number three. I’ve already read Great Circle and The Book of Form and Emptiness.

Write What You Know: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole & Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein

It’s 2016 America, in the months before Trump’s election, and a young man in his late twenties dreams of being a writer. However, he can only really write about what he knows from real life, including the stories that others tell him. He’s accused of stealing material from others’ lives by somebody who’s very close to him, and can’t really deny it because he’s failed to change any of the characters’ names. He meets his ideal girl and starts a relationship with her, but as the novel reaches its climax, he’s forced to choose between her and his writing as he decides whether or not to board an outgoing flight. His story is told without speech marks or chapter breaks, and is the debut novel of a youngish white male writer who lives in New York and probably shares quite a lot in common with his protagonist. 

Bizarrely, this could be the synopsis of either Groundskeeping by Lee Cole or Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein – two books which are actually very different, but share the same basic building blocks. This certainly isn’t a case of ‘if you liked this you’d also like’ – although I personally enjoyed both novels. Groundskeeping is a deliberately slow, meditative book about Owen, who grew up in rural Kentucky, and has taken a job as a groundskeeper at a local college so he can make some money and take a free writing course. In class, he’s forced to reflect on ‘jungle narratives’; at work, he fells and trims trees in the college’s grounds. Alma, a writer-in-residence at the college, is a ‘cultural Muslim’ whose parents fled Bosnia before she was born. She grew up on the outskirts of DC and was educated in the Ivy League. As the two navigate their relationship, both make uncomfortable missteps.

The heart of Groundskeeping seemed to me to be when Alma tells Owen: ‘I just wish I could think of something without thinking of a dozen other things related to it. Like, I can’t just think of a tree anymore. I think about all the poems about trees that I like. The tree as cultural signifier. I think about “Birches” by Robert Frost. But you – you just think of them as they are, I’m sure. Or you think of them in a technical sense, as something you have to work on.’ This tells us everything about who these two characters want to be and who they think the other person is, especially when Owen wonders if he likes this ‘compliment’: ‘It was true that I’d never thought of Robert Frost while working on a tree, but I knew the poem.’

Caleb, the protagonist of Last Resort, is both much more privileged and much more stupid and shortsighted than Owen – although I still found myself rooting for him. He’s trying and failing to write a publishable first novel when he meets up with old college friend Avi Dietsch. Avi tells him a true story about a dying woman that somehow inspires Caleb to write well when inventing things was only leading him into dead ends. When he’s finished the manuscript, he grabs the attention of a ‘big shot’ literary agent who plans to sell the book for a lot of money. Unfortunately, Avi gets wind of what Caleb’s done, and demands that Caleb recompense him for the use of ‘his’ story – even though it actually belongs to neither of them.

Like Owen, Caleb struggles when he isn’t able to ‘write what he knows’, although in this case, he’s positioned as a writer who has to work from real life, but not his own life. Lipstein keeps the reader guessing, developing the plot in such a way that we feel surprised but not cheated about what happens next. Because of the characterisation of Caleb, these twists feel earnt – they proceed from what we already know about the character and the way that he operates. Unlike Groundskeeping, it’s a totally gripping book – I read it in a couple of sittings – but it lacks Groundskeeping‘s social nuance and commentary on being white and working-class in the rural United States.

Both novels raise questions about who stories belong to, but both present a frustrating cliche about writing by suggesting that writers can only write ‘what they know’, and so have to address these issues whenever they put pen to paper. Other readalikes might be A Ladder To The Sky by John Boyne or The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, though I think both Cole’s and Lipstein’s novels are better. But this coincidental reading experience – I read Groundskeeping and Last Resort back to back – did make me reflect on how much novels about novelists lean on this trope. I’d love to read a book about fictional writers who actually make things up – or, God forbid, write science fiction or fantasy that isn’t a thinly veiled version of their current preoccupations. But perhaps that kind of book-within-a-book would be a step too far.

Have you read any novels that feature a book-within-a-book? Or writers who write what they know?

I received free proof copies of these novels from their publishers for review. Groundskeeping and Last Resort are, incredibly, BOTH out in the UK on 17th March 2022. Are we sure somebody didn’t do a Caleb?

 

February Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

9781529017236.jpg

…Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield, which I thought was hauntingly beautiful, and gets my second five-star rating of 2022. My review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

9781526612007

… A Still Life by Josie George. As much as I wanted this memoir of chronic illness to be for me, it was not for me. I’m sorry about this, because I know how much Elle and Rebecca liked this book, but I could not get on with the narrative voice, especially in the present-day sections. I’d recommend Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay instead.

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

41whhB9bGgL

… Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, which was an impulse purchase from Forum Books. I loved Tsui’s exploration of swimming clubs, abalone divers, desperate swims for survival and public pools.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was… 

9780857867971-uk

…A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I named this as one of my favourite books of the decade (2010-19), but I was worried it wouldn’t hold up on a re-read, especially as I didn’t like Ozeki’s latest, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Thankfully, it did. My original review and my most recent thoughts are here.

The Best Sequel I Read This Month Was… 

56179337

… Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather; for me, one of those rare sequels that was actually better than the first book. Sisters of the Vast Black had a brilliant premise, focusing on an order of spacefaring nuns piloting a ‘liveship’, or a ship constructed from the body of a creature that seems to be adapted for this purpose. However, the pacing was off; the last third felt rushed and cliched compared to the thoughtful, contemplative story that preceded it. Sisters of the Forsaken Stars is much better-paced and more morally complex, although there were characters and themes that I thought could still have benefited from more page-time. I would have particularly liked to hear more about Gemma, who left the order in the last book to be with her girlfriend but is still struggling to ‘be in the world’ after years of being a nun, and is especially struggling with physical intimacy. This is the kind of thing we don’t hear much about in fiction, and although all the beats of Gemma’s character growth are present and correct, I just wanted to spend more time living through this with her. Nevertheless, great SFF.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was… 

58536005._SY475_

… Ellery Lloyd’s The Club. After a proliferation of thrillers that place unlikely ‘twists’ above all else, sacrificing characterisation and plausibility for the sake of potentially surprising the reader, The Club was a welcome change. My review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 31st March.

The Book That Grew Most On Me As It Went Along Was… 

9781529118667

… We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan. I was a little dismayed by the first couple of chapters of this debut; the writing felt simplistic and clunky, and characters had a tendency to tell other characters things they would already know. However, as the story unfolded, I started to appreciate the way Zayyan gradually layered complexity onto this unpromising beginning. I especially liked the portrayal of the two central protagonists. Sameer is a lawyer living in England who returns to Uganda to explore his heritage; his family, Ugandan Asians, were forced to flee the country in 1972 (Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill also explores this episode in British colonial history). Interspersed with Sameer’s story are letters from his grandfather, Hasan, written as the crisis unfolds in 1970s Kampala. Both Sameer and Hasan ultimately have to negotiate their positioning between their own exploitation by British colonialists and present-day racists and their relative power compared to black Ugandans; both, arguably, also possess unexamined male privilege. Zayyan does not exult nor condemn either man, but lets the reader see them as they are. This book never quite took off for me because of the problems with its prose, but I admired Zayyan’s depiction of faith, morality and racism.

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

9780356515649

…The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, first in a fantasy trilogy set in a world inspired by Indian epics. I loved the three female protagonists, Priya, Malini and Bhumika, and enjoyed the atmospheric and original worldbuilding. But the male PoVs were underdeveloped (the most interesting and complex male character, Aditya, did not get to narrate); for me, this gave the book a stop-start feel, as the pace slowed to a crawl whenever a male character took the stage then sped up again when a female character returned. It’s also overlong, especially towards the end, when an obvious ‘reveal’ is dragged out for all it’s worth, and I never really believed in the romance between Priya and Malini, much as I love lesbian representation.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was… 

9780571371303

…These Days by Lucy Caldwell. Set during the devastating Belfast Blitz of 1941, These Days focuses primarily on two middle-class sisters: 21-year-old Audrey, who has recently become engaged and is already having doubts, and 18-year-old Emma, secretly in love with another woman who, like her, works for the ambulance service. Their mother, Florence, also gets a significant sub-plot, as she reflects back on a long-lost love and forward as she wonders whether her life is essentially over: ‘How is it, she sometimes thinks, that this is her life, that here she is, a wife of twenty-two years this September, mother of two adult daughters, of a baby son already matching her for height?… It isn’t, she hastily thinks, that she’s unhappy, nor ungrateful with her lot: just bemused, she supposes, that this has turned out to be it.’ There are also snippets of narration from other characters: most notably, a brilliant, vividly rendered football match from the point-of-view of the sisters’ younger brother, Paul.

These Days is, in some ways, refreshing, and it’s certainly very well-written; not only does it highlight a lesser-known Blitz, but Caldwell’s writing manages to make familiar details from many, many World War Two novels feel immediate again. We feel the sudden loss of whole streets and landmarks and the fear of seeking safety in an air raid shelter that itself becomes a target. I also liked the subtle characterisation of Audrey and Emma, and the way that they are not set against each other. However, in other ways, it’s very familiar; it rehearses some stereotypical tropes about homosexuality, and I found the inclusion of perspectives from outside the family circle distracting. This seemed to be a gesture towards encompassing the working-class as well as the middle-class experience of the Blitz, but became a bit tokenistic. In particular, the narrative arc of ‘Wee Betty’, one of the family’s servants, is very sentimental.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

In the hadal zone: Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield

Beyond this point, there is a final layer… This layer is known as the Hadalpelagic, or Hadal Zone, a name which speaks for itself. Lying between roughly nineteen and thirty-six thousand feet, much of this layer of the water is unexplored, which is not to say uninhabited.

The deep sea is… deep. (If you want to get a sense of just how deep, I can’t recommend this enough, but brace yourself – it’s scary). Miri’s biologist wife Leah has returned home after a deep-sea mission that was supposed to last for three weeks, but took three months. Leah won’t or can’t explain the length of her absence, and when Miri repeatedly calls her employer, the Centre, she remains in an endless loop of recorded messages. Leah’s account of the mission alternates with Miri’s longer sections, as she describes how their submarine began to sink, as planned – and then just kept sinking. With the lights and power off, and the comms broken, they had no way of knowing just how deep they’d fallen – and no way of getting back up.

When I first read about Our Wives Under The Sea, Julia Armfield’s first novel, it sounded like it ticked a lot of my boxes. Deep-sea exploration, lesbians, speculative fiction, horror… plus that haunting cover. However, I couldn’t have anticipated just how much I would love this book. I am officially obsessed. Much as I love this kind of crossover between literary fiction and speculative fiction/horror, I don’t think we should underestimate just how difficult it is to pull off. While I think these two kinds of writing can work so well together (my own novel-in-progress, The Forest That Eats Bonealso occupies this space), some of their demands pull against each other. The kind of concrete explanations for mysterious phenomena that you might get in science fiction, for example, don’t always work well alongside the usual rhythms of literary prose; meanwhile, literary fiction’s penchant for strange metaphor can be confusing in a story where bizarre things are actually happening. Armfield balances this perfectly. We learn just enough about the Centre to root Leah’s mission in the real world, while also positioning it in the realms of the uncanny (in comparison, Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed Annihilation drifted too far into unreality for me). Her use of unsettling scientific facts about the deep sea allows what is possible and what is impossible to bleed beautifully into each other.

However, the other thing that anchors this story is the relationship between Miri and Leah. Armfield avoids the temptation of romantic vagueness that seems to catch so many writers of speculative literary fiction and makes them both wonderfully-observed, concretely realistic people. I loved Miri’s stray observations about the Leah she knew before her wife embarked on the mission: ‘The thing about Leah was that nine times out of ten she couldn’t bring herself to be unkind about anyone, but then three times a year would say something so blisteringly cruel about someone we knew that she’d clap both hands to her mouth and turn in a circle as if warding off evil’. Their world, too, is rendered in such fine detail, from the sound of the neighbour’s television that constantly blares into their flat to the way the weather was on their first date: ‘The night was wet, air close and flannel-damp’.

Our Wives Under The Sea is not one of those frustrating literary novels that is simply a metaphor for something else, but it uses the potential of its plot to talk about grief in expertly moving ways. Armfield has written about her interest in women and their bodies’ and this certainly comes through in Our Wives Under The Sea; alongside the weird metamorphosis of Leah’s body after she emerges from the ocean, Miri recollects caring for her mother in the final stages of dementia, and the way she lost control of her own movements after a life of adopting only very rigid facial expressions. The ending of the novel – and this never happens – made me cry.

Armfield’s prose is absolutely stunning, but this is not a novel that is all about the writing. (I wouldn’t love it so much if it was). It’s a gorgeous, heartbreaking book about the relationship between two women and what becomes of that relationship, and it gets a full five stars from me, which is another thing that almost never happens. But I guess stranger things have happened at sea.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd March. BUY IT NOW.

Edit: In my excitement to post this review I forgot to mention that Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim is a wonderful non-fiction companion to Our Wives Under The Sea, if rather less creepy.

41whhB9bGgL

 

New Year Superlatives

With apologies to Elle of Elle Thinks for borrowing her excellent Superlatives format.

Best Read of 2022 So Far…

81Ry5hSi3tL

…was Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which has all the intellectual clout of The Left Hand of Darkness but which I found much more accessible as science fiction. Its portrayal of the anarchist society of Anarres should be essential reading for those who wrongly think that anarchism is ‘everyone being allowed to do whatever they like and society descending into chaos’; it’s an incredibly ambitious attempt to work out what such a society might look like in practice, and how its people would think differently. My first five-star read of 2022.

Worst Read of 2022 So Far…

image

…was definitely Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves, which supposedly looks at the reintroduction of wolves into the Scottish Highlands but is instead dominated by cliched romance and gratituous abuse. My Goodreads rant review is here.

Most WTF Read of 2022 So Far...

91zu+1zlbAL

… was, surprisingly, Hannah Kent’s Devotion, which started off treading very familiar ground but then went to some… unexpected places. My Goodreads review is here (spoilers are hidden). Maybe we can forgive it for its gorgeous coloured edges though? [Devotion is out in the UK on 3rd February].

Most Anticipated 2021 Release Read In 2022…

9781838852153

… was Nina Mingya Powles’s collection of essays Small Bodies of Water (such a stunning cover!); it won the Nan Shepherd Prize for writers currently under-represented in nature writing. Although the natural world is certainly a linking thread between these essays, there are other themes that I’d say are equally dominant: food – from honey pomelos to the Chinese tofu pudding dòufu huā – and the Mandarin language. I picked up this book because I wanted to read about swimming, so it’s unsurprising that I was most drawn to the essays that focus on water, such as ‘The Safe Zone’, ‘Ache’ and ‘We Are All Dreaming of Swimming Pools’. However, I also loved how Powles often chases a single thing through time and space, such as the kōwhai tree in ‘Where the Kōwhai Blooms’, connecting her experiences of living in Aotearoa, Shanghai and London.

Least Anticipated 2021 Prize Longlistee Read In 2022…

81klMM18AyL

… was Raven Leilani’s Luster, which I decided not to read when I was shadowing the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction because ‘I still don’t want to read any more dysfunctional women being dysfunctional books’. Either I’ve had a long enough break from them or this one is better than most, because I liked it a lot more than I anticipated. It reminded me very strongly of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Timesbut I’d probably rank it more highly (which means it would have made my ideal Women’s Prize 2021 shortlist), largely because Edie is a more interesting protagonist than Ava. However, I still had issues with Luster; like many of my fellow bloggers, I loved Edie’s dark irony but found that her journey ended up in a much less interesting place than I’d anticipated at the start of the novel.

Our First Book Club Read of 2022…

9781786497864

… was Lot by Bryan Washington. Structurally, I found this difficult; it essentially consists of segments of a novella about a gay mixed-race (black and Latino) teenage boy, Nicolas, interspersed with short stories about people who live in the Houston neighbourhoods around him. Some of the individual short stories were absolutely brilliant in their own right; I loved ‘Peggy Park’, which brutally and efficiently traces the fates of an amateur baseball team, and ‘Waugh’, which explores the complicated relationship between a boy selling sex and the man who provides him with accommodation. However, because I know nothing about Houston and the book doesn’t fill in the gaps, I couldn’t situate any of these locations in relation to each other, so the communal voice of the city that I think Washington was going for didn’t come through for me.

I was also a little lost as to the queer themes running through the stories; Washington has said that he ‘wanted every narrative in Lot to have a queer character or queer component’ because of the lack of representation for queer people who ‘fall outside of a palette-cleansing, cis, white, queer narrative, with a certain brand of polished body’. He’s of course, absolutely right about this, and the protagonist’s narrative offers a powerful corrective to this dominant trope – but the queer characters in the short stories seem to fall into very similar moulds to Nicolas, all young men of colour who have casual sex with other men. It’s very much focused on sexuality as an act rather than an identity, and, partly because of this, it’s a very male take on queerness. For this reason, I didn’t think that Lot offered the diversity of queer experience that it promised.

January’s Biggest Talking Point…

31qE3v1HhzL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

… was definitely Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradisewith reactions ranging from utter boredom to intellectual delight. My thoughts are here.

What were your favourite and least favourite reads in January? Any other books that stood out (for right or wrong reasons)?

‘The future has failed to materialise’: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

31qE3v1HhzL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

The reason I really chose this place was because of its name: Davids Island. Not singular – David’s – but many, as if this land were inhabited not by an ever-changing population of (mostly) children, but by Davids. My son, in duplicate, at all different ages, doing all the things my son had liked to do at various points in his life. … There would be no misunderstandings, no concerns that the younger Davids might be somehow different, somehow strange, because the older Davids would understand them. There would be no loneliness, because… they would only know one another… they would never know the agony of wanting to be someone else, for there was no one else to admire, no one else to envy.

Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise has already attracted wildly divergent critical reactions – everything from ‘it’s a masterpiece’ to ‘it’s a boring, incoherent mess’. I suspect that even among those of us who like this novel, there will be little common ground. Yanagihara gives us so much to think with that we’re bound to come out thinking very different things.

To Paradise consists of two novellas and a novel. The first, ‘Washington Square’, is set in an alternative version of our nineteenth century where the territories that make up the United States are configured differently, with a few northeastern states making up the ‘Free States’, where same-sex marriages are legal and acceptable but white supremacy still rules. The second, ‘Lipo-Wao-Nahele’, starts with a young gay man weathering the AIDS epidemic in early 1990s Manhattan, but flashes back to tell the story of his father, a descendant of the last king of Hawai’i, who is convinced by a charismatic friend to try and start a new community on a scrappy bit of land that still belongs to him. The third, ‘Zone Eight’, flashes back and forward in a pandemic-ravaged twenty-first century, narrated alternately by a grandfather and his granddaughter living in an increasingly totalitarian state. The links between these three sections are delicate and speculative rather than solid, and I can understand why many readers have found this frustrating. Why do protagonists called David and Charles continually reoccur, alongside secondary characters called Edward, Peter and Eden? Does it matter that all three narratives centre on a house in Washington Square? However, I like questionably interconnected stories (Nina Allan’s work also comes to mind), and the way it’s left to the readers to figure out their own theories about why these three stories sit together.

One big clue, I think, is in the passage I quoted at the start of the review. All three stories feature narrators whom Yanagihara is careful not to label as cognitively disabled or mentally ill, but, for their different reasons, are unable to interact with the world with the kind of motivation felt by a ‘normal’ person. Yanagihara suggests that there are possible worlds in which these disconnected, directionless people would be happy, but that society is not built for them, and so they are cursed to eternal loneliness or to desperately seeking human connection, whatever the cost. The reader’s own impatience with these characters is, I think, part of the point; breaking all the ‘rules’ of fiction-writing, they are characters without agency, who let life happen to them. However, I don’t think this is just about how we treat social outcasts or what kind of sympathy we owe them, although those themes are present. As each of these characters is taken to their own version of ‘paradise’ at the end of their book, Yanagihara shows us how seductive the idea of surrendering control and letting someone else decide our destiny is, even for those of us who think we are moving steadily onwards into the future we planned. This is perhaps especially the case when the world is falling apart; as Charles, the once hugely-ambitious grandfather in ‘Zone Eight’, reflects as his society descends into chaos, ‘The past is no longer relevant; the future has failed to materialise’.

Having said this, I think I would agree with other critics that there is a problem in the structure of To Paradise. I found the second section by far the weakest (I struggled to get through it, whereas the other two had me gripped), and I’m still not clear why Yanagihara included the lengthy party sequence, which seems divorced from the broader themes of the novel except insofar as it deals with impending death. While the segment at Lipo-Wao-Nahele was much more thematically relevant, I’m relieved it wasn’t any longer, as I found it almost too miserable to read (which leads me off on a bit of a tangent about books being ‘depressing’ or ‘miserable’; for me, the presence of terrible events in a novel does not automatically make it depressing, whereas novels that are about very banal things can feel blackly awful. A Little Life was absolutely heartbreaking, for example, but I didn’t find it as grim as Lipo-Wao-Nahele).

There have also been a number of reviews that suggest that Yanagihara presents yet another cliched dystopia in ‘Zone Eight’, and that this section brings nothing new to the table. While I’m very sympathetic to those who hate literary writers appropriating SF tropes and pretending they’ve reinvented the wheel (I’m looking at you Ian McEwan), I felt Yanagihara’s approach here was closer to Ishiguro’s strategy in Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun – the granddaughter’s blank affect even mimics Ishiguro’s prose style. The worldbuilding is not especially detailed – although Yanagihara is horribly convincing on strategies for containment of a global pandemic – but I don’t think it was intended to be. What Yanagihara does so well here, especially in the grandfather’s sections, is to show how a society gradually descends into dystopia rather than starting with the dystopia itself. And, unlike many boring dystopian novels I’ve read, she’s not afraid to find elements of the utopic within the dystopia – as the grandfather reflects, there is a place and a purpose for his granddaughter in this society, whereas there might not have been had she lived elsewhen. A world of ‘Davids’ would have no hope, no joy, but it might also have less longing, less pain.

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

Book Review: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

hbg-title-9780349726670-12.jpg

Forty-year-old Nuyorican Olga is a wedding planner for New York’s super-rich, making lots of money on her fees (plus interest for late payments) and even more by clever deals on the side, whether it’s appropriating hand-stitched cloth napkins for her cousin’s own wedding or selling on black-market cases of champagne to her clients for a significant mark-up. Her brother Prieto is an ambitious congressman representing his own Brooklyn neighbourhood, but is considered a ‘sellout’ on community issues – from putting his signature to PROMESA, an oversight board appointed for Puerto Rico by the Obama administration in 2016, or giving unscrupulous businessmen free rein to pursue ‘development’ projects in his home territory that don’t benefit the locals. (In regards to the latter, Prieto feels his hands are tied – despite being married with a child, he’s secretly gay and has been threatened with exposure if he resists.) The siblings’ mother, Blanca, organises a revolutionary group called the Pañuelos Negros [black bandannas] back in Puerto Rico, seeking independence for the island, and thinks both of her children have totally wasted their lives – a view she expresses in numerous passive-aggressive letters over the years, even though neither Olga nor Prieto have seen her since they were teenagers and have no way of writing back.

Olga Dies Dreaming, Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut novel, is an utter mishmash of genre, but nevertheless, it’s never tonally jarring; Gonzalez skilfully handles the various strands here so this doesn’t feel like a romcom with some politics smashed in, or a political thriller with romance added. This strengthens the novel, moving it away from familiar narratives of immigrants making new lives in New York (Dominicana by Angie Cruz, Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue) or racier tales of social climbers accumulating wealth (Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, White Ivy by Susie Yang). The principal reason this all holds together, I think, is how well Gonzalez writes the two siblings, especially Olga. Olga’s own life moves between breakfast talk shows, competitive family gatherings, political fundraisers and radical messages from her mother; therefore, it makes sense that this story does the same. I also loved that she wasn’t the classic twenty-something protagonist of this kind of novel – it’s refreshing to see an older woman negotiating these kind of issues.

Where Olga Dies Dreaming both intensifies and falls slightly apart is after Hurricane Maria devastates Puerto Rico, which happens relatively late in the novel and causes crises of conscience for both of the siblings. Here, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that the most radical ideas in the novel are solely voiced through the siblings’ neglectful and abusive mother, which seems to nudge the reader to reject them in favour of the ‘middle ground’ favoured by Olga and Prieto, even as they recognise that their previous attitudes need altering. Spoilers – highlight to read. In particular, when Olga’s mother asks her to seduce a powerful businessman to gain a large order of solar panels for Puerto Rico, which would help the country become more self-supporting in the wake of widespread electricity outage, Olga ultimately refuses because she has fallen in love with someone else and wants to be more true to herself – despite the fact that she was happy to seduce the same guy earlier in the novel just to get invited to a party to gain more influential contacts for her wedding business. When Gonzalez has the businessman rape Olga, it feels both gratuitous in the context of her character development, and a device to make us confident that Olga did the right thing. End spoilers. However, as a white English woman who knows very little about Puerto Rico, I’d be really keen to see how Puerto Rican readers respond to this novel – I found this Goodreads review very interesting, although there are other more positive reviews from Puerto Ricans. To be fair, I felt that Gonzalez was trying to present a nuanced portrait of Blanca – it’s just that I didn’t think this quite came across in the novel, partly because we see very little from Blanca herself, and hear from her mostly through her letters.

The original pitch of this novel was apparently: Robin Hood wedding planner robs from her clients, sends money to mother (revolutionary?) to fix house in Puerto Rico [source], and that sounds AMAZING, but it’s not quite the novel we got. Still, the novel we got is still well worth reading.

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

2022 Reading Plans

In this post, I’ve picked twelve 2022 releases that I am particularly looking forward to, then, as always, added a further eighteen books that I want to read in 2022, whether they are new this year or not. There are a few I didn’t read from my 2021 list that I’m still keen to get to, so those are included in the last eighteen.

31qE3v1HhzL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise (January 2022). This was on pretty much every ‘most anticipated’ list that I looked at, but there’s a reason for that. I loved Yanagihara’s first two novels, The People in the Trees and A Little Lifeand I love the blurb for this one: it presents three narratives, two set in alternative versions of 1893 and 1993, the third set in an imagined 2093, joined by themes of illness, race and power.

9781526637185

Sequoia Nagamatsu, How High We Go In The Dark (January 2022).  Much like Yanagihara’s latest, this debut also promises an epic, near-future narrative about a fictional plague – in this case, a disease released from melting Arctic permafrost in 2030.

9781250782953

Tochi Onyebuchi, Goliath (January 2022). I’ve not read anything by Onyebuchi before, but I love the sound of this: we’re (once again!) in a near-future Earth, this time in the 2050s, when the wealthy have fled to colonies in space, while the poor are left behind to survive on a dying planet. I was attracted by its  range of disparate narratives that will explore this world.

image

Pankaj Mishra, Run and Hide (February 2022). This sounds like a thoughtful thriller, following Arun and his friends, who are determined to make their way out of their small town in India and will do anything to succeed – but will their past catch up with them after they make it big? This marks Mishra’s return to fiction after twenty years.

9780593298350

Elaine Hsieh Chou, Disorientation (March 2022). I’m not convinced by the cover but I love everything else I’ve heard about this debut: a Taiwanese-American PhD student is researching a canonical Chinese poet when she stumbles across a revelation in the archives. Alexander Chee thinks this is ‘a deeply original debut novel that reinvents the campus novel satire as an Asian American literary studies whodunnit’.

51GBaBasRXL

Julia Armfield, Our Wives Under The Sea (March 2022). Again, on lots of people’s lists, and it sounds great. It combines a lot of my personal favourite things in fiction: deep-sea exploration, lesbians and horror! Also, the cover is epic.

412X9EkS4nS._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_

Emily St John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility (April 2022). I was excited about St John Mandel’s last book, The Glass Hoteleven though it didn’t sound like my sort of thing, because I loved Station Eleven so much. The Glass Hotel was one of my favourite reads of last year, and now this comes along, which definitely does sound like my sort of thing: once again, it skips between the future and the past, and features time travel, metaphysics and a moon colony. I CAN’T WAIT.

cover238832-medium

Nghi Vo, Siren Queen (May 2022). I like novels about film-making, and this promises a great twist on the usual formula; it follows a Chinese-American actress in a speculative version of Old Hollywood, where ancient magic is running the show.

51Nox0zB8nL

David Santos Donaldson, Greenland (May 2022, US). I just love the blurb for this: ‘A dazzling, debut novel-within-a-novel in the vein of The Prophets and Memorial, about a young author writing about the secret love affair between E.M. Forster and Mohammed el Adl—in which Mohammed’s story collides with his own, blending fact and fiction.’

59427240._SY475_

Sandra Newman, The Men (June 2022). All men mysteriously disappear from the face of the earth. SOLD.

56648158

Morgan Talty, Night of the Living Rez (July 2022, US). Spotted on Rachel’s list. This debut collection of short stories is set in a Penobscot community in Maine, and sounds like it could be brilliant.

9780008501815

RF Kuang, Babel (August 2022). I’ve wanted to read this ever since I first heard the premise; it’s a dark academia set in early nineteenth-century Oxford, which deals with ‘student revolutions, colonial resistance and the use of translation as a tool of empire’! SO EXCITED.

The Rest Of The List

Kristen Schilt, Just One Of The Guys?: Transgender Men And The Persistence of Gender Inequality. From my 2021 list, but I’m still keen to read this exploration of trans men’s experiences.

Ben Lerner, The Topeka School. From my 2021 list. I liked both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04but for some reason haven’t got round to this yet.

Julianne Pachico, The Anthill. From my 2021 list. I loved The Lucky Ones so am looking forward to this.

Quan Barry, We Ride Upon Sticks. How have I not heard about this before? Teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s!

Kate Folk, Out There (April 2022). NetGalley ARC. A debut short story collection that sounds like it presents a series of fascinating speculative premises about ‘the voids in life’.

Gabrielle Zevin, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (July 2022). NetGalley ARC. Two kids bond over their love of video gaming when they meet in 1987, then eight years later start building games together. I rarely play computer games but love novels about them!

Jennifer Egan, The Candy House (April 2022). NetGalley ARC. I read my way through almost all Egan’s work back in the day but was very disappointed when I recently re-read A Visit from the Goon Squad (my original review; my re-read). Still, I’m happy to give her another chance, and I like the sound of this; a linked narrative that explores a world where our memories are no longer our own.

Lucy Caldwell, These Days (March 2022). NetGalley ARC. I usually avoid all fiction set in the Second World War, but I have a bit of a soft spot for fiction set specifically in the Blitz, plus this has lesbians and is not set in London: ‘[follows] the lives of sisters Emma and Audrey – one engaged to be married, the other in a secret relationship with another woman – as they try to survive the horrors of the four nights of bombing which were the Belfast Blitz’.

Kathy Wang, Imposter Syndrome (May 2022). NetGalley ARC. This sounds fun; it deals with Julia, a Russian intelligence agent in Silicon Valley, and Alice, a first-generation Chinese-American working at the same company. I like corporate thrillers, especially when they involve tech.

Lee Cole, Groundskeeping (March 2022). NetGalley ARC. This is ‘A love story set in the foothills of Appalachia about two very different people – Owen, from Kentucky, and Alma, the daughter of Bosnian immigrants – navigating the entanglements of class and identify in an America coming apart at the seams’. I was attracted by the Appalachian setting and the fact that Owen is taking a writing course where Alma is the writer-in-residence.

Charlotte McConaghy, Once There Were Wolves (January 2022). NetGalley ARC. I adore Sarah Hall but I was disappointed by her 2015 novel The Wolf Border, which focuses on a woman piloting a scheme to reintroduce wolves to the British countryside. Fortunately, this one has the same premise, though it’s set in Scotland, not Cumbria! I hope it lives up to its promise.

Xochitl Gonzalez, Olga Dies Dreaming (January 2022). NetGalley ARC. This is ‘the tale of a status-driven wedding planner grappling with her social ambitions, absent mother, and Puerto Rican roots—all in the wake of Hurricane Maria’. It’s a long time since I requested this but I think I was attracted by the New York high society setting plus the Latinx characters.

Kei Miller, Things I Have Withheld. I liked Miller’s novel Augustown a lot and this collection of essays sounds fascinating.

Iain Pears, Stone’s Fall. This is told in reverse chronological order and I’m currently fascinated by novels that use this device!

Tasha Suri, The Jasmine Throne. The first book in an epic fantasy trilogy, this promises lesbian romance set in ‘a world inspired by the history and epics of India’. 

Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories. I loved ‘Bloodchild’ so am very keen to read more short stories from Butler.

Nicola Griffith, The Blue Place. After how much I’ve liked everything else by Griffith I’ve read, I had to try this, though I’d never have picked it up based on the blurb alone!

Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression. This has been on my Goodreads TBR for far too long, so hopefully this will be the year I finally read it: it promises to explore how search engines like Google reinforce societal racism.