September Superlatives, Part 1

This got really long so I’ve split it into two posts!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Anthill by Julianne Pachico. I loved Pachico’s linked short story collection The Lucky Ones, which focused on left-wing guerrilla groups in Colombia in the 1990s as seen through the eyes of one elite, expat school class. Her first novel is just as good. It follows Lina, who spent her early childhood in Medellín but left for England when she was eight. Lina’s returned to the city to reunite with childhood friend Mattias, who now runs a community centre for local children, the Anthill. She uncomfortably navigates her own privilege as she volunteers at the centre, desperate to insist that she’s not like the other volunteers – that she knows this city, she knows Mattias, she speaks fluent Spanish. Here, the novel reminded me of Nikita Lalwani’s brilliant, merciless The VillageHowever, The Anthill also keeps company with another kind of book that I love: like Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Bodyit uses horror tropes to explore a character’s and a country’s traumatic past. A fantastic novel that seems to have been very unfairly overlooked.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes by Eric LaRocca. This is a strange little book. It consists of one novella – ‘Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke’ and two short stories – ‘The Enchantment’ and ‘You’ll Find It’s Like That All Over’. The first and last stories in the collection felt like they had potential. In ‘Things Have Gotten Worse’, two women connect over email when one is trying to sell her grandmother’s antique apple peeler and develop a strange, swift obsession with each other. In ‘You’ll Find It’s Like That’, a man enters into a dangerously escalating series of bets with his neighbour.

Neither of these stories exactly worked for me – the first came too close to torture porn for shock value for my liking while the second felt too abrupt and abbreviated – but both have memorable images and phrases. In contrast, ‘The Enchantment’ was a bit of a mess; it starts with the arresting idea that the afterlife has been proven not to exist, but does nothing with that at all, choosing instead to focus on a couple grieving after their son commits suicide, an experience which seems like it would have been much the same regardless of belief in an afterlife. Finally, Eric LaRocca’s writing is consistently off-kilter and stilted; I thought this was a stylistic choice when reading ‘Things Have Gotten Worse’ but soon realised it wasn’t, which robbed that novella of some of what made it interesting as well. I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Best Historical Novel I Read This Month Was

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People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. This novel’s central thread follows rare books specialist Hanna, who’s been asked to restore the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. However, the rest of the narrative functions as a series of interconnected short stories interspersed throughout Hanna’s story as she tracks the origins of the traces on the book: saltwater and wine marks, missing silver clasps, a butterfly wing, a white cat hair stained with dye. We move through the interconnected European histories of the three major Abrahamic religions, with a focus on the persecution of the Jews: from Sarajevo during the Second World War to Vienna in the 1890s to seventeenth-century Venice to Barcelona and Seville in the late fifteenth century. I struggled with the short modern sections but felt that the past came alive once we entered the early modern and medieval periods. Meanwhile, Hanna’s present-day voice is satisfyingly individual, caustic and critical, although I found the resolution to her difficult relationship with her mother rather too neat – I would have preferred a more complex reckoning with the past – and the romantic subplot felt unnecessary. I was impressed by Brooks’s Year of Wonders until its jump-the-shark ending, so I was glad to find that People of the Book was much more convincing. Next up: Brooks’s March. [Borrowed from my local library #LoveYourLibrary]

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So. This incredibly strong collection of short stories showcases So’s talent and underlines the tragedy of his early death; he died unexpectedly in 2020, before seeing it published. So achieves something very difficult in this collection, asking the same questions without becoming repetitive as he tells the stories of second-generation Cambodian immigrants to California who live in the shadow of their Khmer parents’ experience of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. Stories like ‘The Shop’ and ‘We Would’ve Been Princes!’, which begin comically, inevitably circle round to this reckoning. For me, the strongest stories were the ones that moved a little further away from the young gay male narrators who dominate much of this collection – ‘Three Women Of Chuck’s Donuts’, ‘The Monks’, and ‘Generational Differences’ – not because So’s stories about young gay men’s experiences were not strong nor important, but because it was a joy to see him stretch himself. This reminded me of another short story collection I loved that combined a unity of theme with a multiplicity of voices, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How To Pronounce Knife.

The Best Book On Death I Read This Month Was…

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And Finally by Henry Marsh. This short book chronicles Henry Marsh’s life after retiring from neurosurgery and being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, as he looks back on his career from the perspective that age and illness gives him. I’ve read Marsh’s two previous memoirs, Do No Harm and Admissions, and frankly I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody who hasn’t at least read Do No Harm; much of the poignancy here is lost if we don’t first encounter Marsh as a practicing surgeon. However, Marsh is typically (for him) and unusually (for most writers) honest about his experience of ageing and facing mortality, and that alone made And Finally worthwhile for me. I also liked his clear and compelling arguments for legalising assisted dying in the UK, a cause for which he is now campaigning. Alongside Paul Kalanithi and Atul Gawande, Marsh remains one of the best doctors-turned-writers I’ve read. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Part 2 coming soon!

R.I.P XVII Reading Plans

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I’ve taken part in the R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge once before. This challenge runs from 1st September to 31st October, and involves reading books classified as mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror or supernatural. So technically I’m a bit late to the game, but for me, these kind of books really belong to October, and I’m anticipating a few new acquisitions in these categories for my birthday at the end of the month!

I’m planning to read:

I am utterly obsessed with Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, so much so that I have written several posts about it. The third in the trilogy, The Golden Enclaves, finally comes out on the 27th September, and I can’t wait! The Scholomance is perfect for the RIP challenge; it’s a magical school where the majority of its students never graduate, due to the very high death rate within its walls.

Keeping with the dark fantasy theme, I’ve asked for RF Kuang’s Babel for my birthday. I’ve been excited about this novel since I first heard about it, and I hope it doesn’t disappoint! Here’s the blurb: ‘Oxford, 1836. The city of dreaming spires. It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world. And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows. Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift. Until it became a prison… but can a student stand against an empire?’ One of my most anticipated novels of 2022.

While Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks is unlikely to be that dark, the witchy content makes it a perfect October read for me. NPR describes it as a ‘charming teen witchcraft-slash-field-hockey novel’. Set in 1989, a school hockey team’s luck changes when the girls ‘pledge themselves to the forces of eternal darkness’. Another from my 2022 reading list.

Finally, I have a proof of Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night from NetGalley, which spans ‘the brutal decades of Argentina’s military dictatorship and its aftermath’ but tells this story through an occult lens: ‘Gaspar is six years old when the Order first come for him. For years, they have exploited his father’s ability to commune with the dead and the demonic, presiding over macabre rituals where the unwanted and the disappeared are tortured and executed, sacrificed to the Darkness. Now they want a successor. Nothing will stop the Order, nothing is beyond them. Surrounded by horrors, can Gaspar break free?’ I’ve just finished Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill, which similarly uses horror tropes to explore the aftermath of Colombia’s traumatic history. I loved The Anthill and I hope I’ll love Our Share of Night as well.

In film and TV, I’m uneasily awaiting the release of Hocus Pocus 2which comes out on my birthday. The original Hocus Pocus was one of the iconic films of my childhood, and my sister and I can probably quote most of the film. There’s no way the sequel can live up to it, but I hope it will be a fun and nostalgic watch.

Check out Elle’s R.I.P XVII reading list here.

Are you taking part in the R.I.P Challenge, or planning to read any darker books this October?

Leave to remain: Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie

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Maryam and Zahra are teenage girls growing up in Karachi in the late 1980s when Benazir Bhutto is democratically elected after the death of dictator General Zia. Both are inspired by the progressive future that thirty-five year old Bhutto seems to promise, but both are also dealing with the rise of what Maryam calls ‘girlfear’: the growing realisation that they cannot move through the world in the same way as men. And although they are close friends, both from relatively privileged backgrounds, they are at heart very different: wealthy Maryam is heir to her family’s leather business, dreaming of one day taking her grandfather’s place, while middle-class, idealistic Zahra wants to go to Cambridge and be a lawyer. The slow trace of desire and unease as the girls recognise their awakening sexuality is very well done, setting Best of Friends apart from many similar coming-of-age novels; as does the evocation of the particular experience of being a teenager in this place, in this time.

Kamila Shamsie’s previous novel, Home Firewas remorseless and explosive; given that, I’m not surprised that she wanted to write something rather gentler, with lower stakes. Nevertheless, I liked the development of Maryam and Zahra’s relationship as they move away from their early years and become successful forty-something women in London. I’ve said before that Shamsie’s writing can be heavy-handed, and that isn’t totally absent here; sometimes she spells out exactly what she wants to say about friendship rather than letting the reader realise it. ‘Childhood friendship really was the most mysterious of all relationships… it was built around rules that didn’t extend to any other pairing in life’. However, there are also more thought-provoking observations, such as the description of two elderly women walking together that is allowed to speak for itself.

And while Maryam and Zahra at first appear to be differentiated rather schematically from each other, I thought both grew into much richer characters. I was especially heartened by how seriously Shamsie takes Zahra’s political and moral commitments. Writers often suggest that, when it really comes down to it, what’s ‘real’ is your love for your friends and family and that will always come first. That’s definitely Maryam’s view, but it’s not Zahra’s – or at least, her definition of those she loves stretches much further than those who are personally known to her. As Maryam and Zahra approach their moment of reckoning, it’s clear that what sets them apart isn’t jealousy or petty resentment but a real difference in their core values, which is so refreshing after reading so many novels like Anna Hope’s Expectationwhich boil down problems in female friendship to grudges over men or children.

I didn’t think Shamsie quite hit the emotional climax she wanted to in this novel, but it’s an absorbing read that, for me, moves far away from the problems I had with her earlier historical fiction, Burnt Shadows and A God In Every Stone, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Home Fire.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 27th September.

A familiar tyrant: Haven by Emma Donoghue

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Emma Donoghue’s Haven doesn’t have the ingredients to be an obvious bestseller. Three monks set out to found a refuge from the world in seventh-century Ireland, eventually alighting on Skellig Michael, an isolated rock in the middle of the sea home to puffins, shearwaters, cormorants, auks and not much else. However, I love quiet, slow historical stories about faith and isolation, and I’ve never read a Donoghue novel I didn’t like (Hood, The Sealed Letter, The Wonder, Room) or love (Stir-Fry, Akin, The Pull of the Stars). So why wasn’t Haven a hit for me?

There are aspects of this novel I really liked. Donoghue painstakingly and lovingly explores the details of the monks’ difficult lives as they try to eke out an existence in this unpromising place. Through the oldest of the three, Cormac, we learn about masonry; the youngest of the three, Trian, struggles with the copying of manuscripts that is required of him by their leader, Artt, trying to find new ways to mix ink when he’d prefer to be out fishing and fowling. Having recently visited the Farne Islands, the sharp descriptions of the bird populations on Skellig Michael also rang true to me. While it helped that I could easily visualise this place due to its appearances in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi as Luke Skywalker’s hideout, Donoghue brought it to greater life.

Where Haven fell down for me was in its thematic concerns and, to an extent, its characterisation. Cormac and Trian are both well-developed but Artt increasingly becomes a caricature of dogmatic faith. This linked to my lukewarm feelings about the novel’s concerns; it seemed to be saying very familiar things about fanaticism and human dominion over nature, rather than using its seventh-century setting to ask new questions. A late revelation feels unnecessary and under-explored, and should either have been integrated into the book from the beginning or omitted.

A final note: many reviewers have suggested this shares a lot with Donoghue’s earlier novel Room. Having very recently reread Room, I disagree. The books are both about people living in isolation from the world and making the best of the limited resources they have, but that’s where the similarities end. Room, I thought, was much richer and more interesting, posing questions about parenthood and childhood through the use of five-year-old Jack as a narrator. In contrast, Haven is disappointingly conventional, telling us things we already know.

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

August Superlatives

A nice short round-up this month as I’ve reviewed most of my reads for 20 Books of Summer already, and only new reads count for the purposes of my Superlatives posts.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith. This, with its AMAZING late 90s cover, only confirmed that I will read anything Nicola Griffith writes. Billed as a thriller, this is actually a character study of Aud Torvingen: former police lieutenant, lesbian, six-foot tall martial arts practitioner, Norwegian-British-American, carpenter and social manipulator. From the first page I loved Aud and the way that Griffith writes about her world, from the humidity of Atlanta to the glacial lakes of the fjords. It’s the first in a trilogy and there’s a sense that Griffith is just getting going; the book really springs to life in its second half. However, we rarely meet fictional people like Aud, and that alone is enough to make me want to read the next two books. Arguably, she’s a bit larger than life, a bit wish-fulfilment-for-lesbians, but you know what, I love it: there are so many wish-fulfilment books for straight white men, especially in the crime/thriller space, and nobody cares. (I also love that the Italian edition is called Concrete Eyes). Not quite up there with Hild, Ammonite and Slow Riverbut still brilliant.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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…The Dark Between The Trees by Fiona Barnett. This novel had such potential. It’s told through alternating chapters set in two different time periods. A group of historians follow the trail of some seventeenth-century Parliamentarian soldiers who disappeared in Moresby Wood, now out of bounds to the general public. Both groups soon find that the woods are not what they seem; paths seem to rearrange themselves to direct them towards certain places, landmarks shift and go missing. So far, so Blair Witch. However, the poor writing robs the novel of any tension and the large cast are difficult to tell apart. There also seems to have been no real effort to portray an early modern mindset in the soldiers’ chapters (at one point, a character talks about the division between his ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ roles). My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best YA Book/s I Read This Month Were…

….Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating and The Henna Wars, both by Adiba Jaigirdar. I think I’ve found the kind of YA novel I like, and it’s queer contemporary romance! (Though I also read Casey McQuiston’s I Kissed Shara Wheeler this month, which did not work well for me, and found Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper: Volume 3 a bit cheesy). These were two more adorable stories. Hani and Ishu is about two bisexual Bengali girls who start ‘fake dating’ each other at their Irish Catholic school, each for their own reasons, but then start falling for each other for real. The Henna Wars stars a lesbian Bangladeshi Muslim girl, Nishat, who is infuriated when Brazilian-Irish classmate, Flávia, steals her idea of launching a henna business.

Funnily enough, the first few chapters of Hani and Ishu (though not The Henna Wars) start out over-explaining everything, not just Bengali references, but Irish ones like ‘Leaving Cert’ – but then Jaigirdar drops this completely (except in conversations between the protagonists and their white friends, where explanations feel natural). She trusts the reader to come along with her, which I loved. For this reason, both The Henna Wars and Hani and Ishu feel more subtle and complex than many adult romance/women’s fiction novels I’ve read on similar subjects. The Henna Wars spells out Nishat’s frustrations about cultural appropriation a few too many times, but that was the only time it reminded me of more usual YA fare.

Jaigirdar beautifully portrays how much it means to Hani and Ishu to find each other, after years of being the only brown girls at an all-white school; however, she doesn’t ignore cultural difference. Hani, like Nishat, is a Bangladeshi Muslim; Ishu Indian and pretty secular, happy to swear and drink alcohol. Intergenerational dynamics are cleverly portrayed, too. Ishu’s ‘pushy’ parents are not driven by religion or conservatism but by ambition; Hani’s parents rarely go to the mosque until Hani becomes interested in Islam in her own right, and are totally accepting of her bisexuality. The Henna Wars, meanwhile, tells a different story about coming out in a Muslim family; Nishat’s parents are much more traditionally religious and struggle to come to terms with her being a lesbian. I adored the super-close relationship between Nishat and her younger sister Priti, though.

If I was to compare these two books, I think The Henna Wars is the stronger novel – I liked the more substantial plot-line and the more nuanced characterisation of Nishat’s classmates – but both are certainly worth reading.

The Best Historical Novel I Read This Month Was...

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… The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. Erdrich’s Pulitzer-winning novel is set in 1953 and focuses on the Chippewa Council’s fight against House Concurrent Resolution 108, which ‘called for the eventual termination of all American Indian tribes, and the immediate termination of five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band’. Her central character Thomas Wazhushk is based on her own grandfather; Thomas works shifts as a night watchman while protesting what was erroneously called the ‘Indian Emancipation Bill’, barely finding time to sleep. The other strand in the novel follows a young Chippewa woman called Pixie, who is figuring out her own life while searching for her lost sister. This is a solid and educational novel, but for me it never rose to the heights of Erdrich’s more complex The Sentencewhich was much more evocatively and imaginatively narrated. This was more like The Round House, which I found both worthy and plodding – and I was disappointed by how much Pixie’s relatively cliched narrative dominated when I really wanted to know about Thomas’s campaign. Erdrich fans, which of her books should I read next?

The Saddest Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Dolphin House by Audrey Schulman, which is closely based on a real scientific scandal of the 1960s. A young white woman, Margaret Lovatt, lived with a male dolphin called Peter in a partly flooded house on the Caribbean island of St Thomas, hoping to teach him to communicate with humans by mimicking human language through his blowhole. Schulman presents a harrowing picture of research with dolphins in the 1960s, exploring both their innate capabilities and how little they’re understood by their human captors. Her fictional protagonist, Cora, is desperate to prevent the further exploitation of the dolphins she works with, but is ultimately unable to stop it.

This novel is so intelligent and so interesting that I’m struggling to work out why I didn’t really click with it as a work of fiction (it would have been brilliant as a long essay). the biggest problem for me was Cora herself. Schulman is so determined to rewrite Lovatt’s reputation that I think she goes a bit too far. Cora is continuously idealised, always right in every situation, always there to tell the reader what they should think. So as non-fiction, this is brilliant; as fiction, it’s a little lacking. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Did you have any standout reads in August? What were the best and worst books you read?

 

20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Memory of Love and Beloved

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Before rereading: I first read The Memory of Love in 2011, when it was on the Orange Prize shortlist. I remember liking the novel far more than I anticipated, but being hugely disappointed by the ending. I remember very little about it otherwise, although I was impressed by Aminatta Forna’s subsequent novels, The Hired Man and Happiness. Spoilers for The Memory of Love follow.

The first time I read The Memory of Love, I wrote: ‘The book is set in 2001 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and delicately and vividly charts the aftermath of the recent civil war. The central character is ostensibly Adrian Lockheart, an English psychatrist who has come to help the survivors work through their trauma and grief, but he is rather colourless, and I found myself far more involved in the stories of the two other major characters: Kai, an orthopedic surgeon, and Elias, a dying man who tells Adrian the events that unfolded thirty years ago when he fell in love with the wife of a colleague just before the country was swept up in a military coup.’ 

However, I was hugely disappointed by the final fifty pages of the novel, writing: ‘I thought this was a fantastic novel up until the last fifty pages, and then – abruptly, and to my own frustration and disappointment – I began to change my mind… Adrian, who has never lived through a war or under military rule, feels that he can despise Elias, while not giving a thought to his abdication of responsibilities towards his own family… If this self-righteousness was portrayed as a failing of Adrian’s, it would be interesting – but my impression was that Forna was entirely behind Adrian’s viewpoint here, especially as we hear no more of Elias after this pivotal scene, and there are no more sections from his point of view that might qualify his actions. Disturbingly, in an earlier scene Adrian is fully able to forgive a war criminal who tossed a baby into a burning building, and even compares him favourably to Elias because he is honestly repentant, while Elias is still trying to justify himself… [The female characters] become idealised pawns largely because we are meant to come down on Adrian’s “side”‘.

After rereading: Interestingly, while I disagree with some of the criticisms I made of The Memory of Love the first time around, I came away with a significantly worse impression of the novel in 2022 than in 2011. It now strikes me as a curiously old-fashioned book, especially in comparison to Forna’s later work. Forna seems determined not to reveal much of Adrian’s inner life, keeping us at arm’s length from the character and instead describing the world he moves through in great, if not excruciating, detail. This might have been a clever narrative choice, especially given Adrian’s psychiatric work that requires him to dig deeply into the traumatised minds of other characters while saying nothing about himself, but it ultimately causes a big problem for the novel.

Adrian’s ‘colourlessness’ seems to render him an objective observer of the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone and the moral conflicts it has caused for its survivors, which makes him feel uncomfortably like a kind of white saviour who isn’t even that good at saving. I’m less convinced than I was in 2011 that this was Forna’s intention; I think we are meant to question Adrian’s presence and motives. Nevertheless, his judgment of Elias still feels off-kilter, even if we can assume that some of his anger is displaced frustration about his inability to help his lover, Mamakay, who is Elias’s daughter. I disliked Elias even more this time round (originally, I felt he was ‘seriously flawed’ but still sympathetic), and so was a bit less bothered about his fate, but it was hard not to feel that both he and Adrian are cast in the same mould: paternalistic men who believe they know what’s best for those around them, especially the women they claim to love but never really get to know. However, if this was the reaction that Forna was aiming for, I wish the women in the narrative had been more than idealised ciphers.

If there’s anything that saves this novel, it’s Kai’s story. While Forna also gives us limited access to Kai’s thoughts, we get more to work with, and he is also the character that has the most nuanced and interesting arc, as he struggles with his own unresolved PTSD and the temptation of emigrating to the United States to join his friend Tejani, rather than continuing with his important orthopaedic practice in Sierra Leone. Interestingly, when Mamakay turns up in Kai’s narrative, we get a sense of who she might be as a person rather than the ‘unreadable’ woman she appears to be through Adrian’s eyes. Again, I wonder if Forna had something to say here about the white and/or misogynistic gaze, as this replays Elias’s relationship with Mamakay’s mother Saffia. If so, though, the novel reproduces these power structures rather than truly challenging them. The woman on its cover remains a distant memory rather than a real, living love.

My rating in 2011: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***

L: The fantastic, Woman In White-esque edition belonging to my mum that I read first time around. R: the slightly bizarre Everyman’s classics edition I borrowed from the library this time around.

Before rereading: I first read Beloved during the summer of 2004, when I was seventeen. I clearly remember reading it in the tent that served as the ‘green room’ for the outdoor youth theatre production of My Fair Lady I was involved with that summer. I’d been inspired to read it because we’d read the opening paragraphs in English Literature class (we’d started preparing for our A Level unseen text syllabus just before school broke up, as our AS Levels were over) and I’d been hugely impressed by Morrison’s writing. However, I remember struggling with the denseness of the text while reading the whole novel. I thought it was good, but I knew I didn’t quite understand it. I didn’t write anything about the novel at the time.

After rereading: Like The Memory of Love, Beloved deals with the legacy of trauma, working through dreams and fragmentary flashbacks as the characters continue to struggle with the violence they’ve witnessed. Slavery occupies the same kind of space in Beloved as the civil war does in The Memory of Love; we gradually become aware of what has happened to our protagonists, but we are never given a neat chronological account. Instead, we re-experience the trauma as they do, when it intrudes upon the present. It won’t come as any surprise that Beloved is the far better novel, but they made interesting reading companions.

I was surprised, when revisiting Beloved, to find that it was much less dense and difficult than I remembered. I think I’ve just had so much more experience at reading this kind of writing since I was a teen (when I chomped down big nineteenth-century English classics, so had no fear of ‘challenging’ books per se). And yes, it’s a hugely impressive achievement. Morrison’s prose is stunning, especially when she writes about what we remember, what we cannot, and how we re-encounter it:

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I don’t really think the world needs me to review Beloved in great depth, because I don’t have anything profound to say. This is a great novel, and if I do still admire it rather than adore it, that doesn’t bear any relation to how well it achieves what it set out to do.

My rating in 2004: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

20 Books of Summer, #11 and #12: NW and The Unwitting

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!

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Before rereading: I first read NW in 2013, when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’d found the two previous Zadie Smith novels I’d read – White Teeth and On Beauty – ponderous, pretentious and caricatured. In comparison, this was a breath of fresh air. I don’t remember much else about the novel, though.

The first time I read NW, I wrote: ‘NW, in my opinion, is everything that White Teeth should have been – sharply observational, genuinely funny, perceptive on the interlocking system of inequalities that form from class, race and gender, and incredibly evocative of the small corner of London in which it is set. Because it’s free of the stereotypes, caricatures, and laboured farce that I felt marred [Smith’s] earlier work, it’s a much more engaging read, with a cast of fully-rounded characters who each get a chance to tell their own story in their own style (I was particularly fond of the long Natalie Blake section, which told the story of a very individual girl but also said a lot about selfhood and identity). As this suggests, Smith extends her range stylistically in this novel as well, and her experiments with words worked much better for me than they’ve ever done before’. I ranked it third of the six novels on the Women’s Prize shortlist, behind Kingsolver and Mantel.

After rereading: This was a really interesting reread. I felt like I liked NW both less and more than I did the first time round, although my rating hasn’t changed. Having read Swing Time since, I still believe that the later novel is the most fully-realised and accomplished version of the themes that Smith explores here, and is also distinguished by a much more naturalistic and seemingly effortless style. In contrast, the experimentation of NW feels a little laboured, a difficult transition from one kind of novel to another. Having said that, though, it’s also incredibly sharp, especially in its later sections. I can see why Smith included the two narratives that make up the first half of the novel – Leah’s and Felix’s – but they ultimately feel like a lot of throat-clearing for the brilliant Natalie Blake section that, as I noted in my first review, is what NW is really about. The whole book builds towards Natalie’s meeting with former schoolmate Nathan, and the choice that she ultimately makes as she tries to reconcile the world of her childhood with her new life as a bigshot corporate lawyer. Smith plays so intensely with voice that every reader is bound to find bits that don’t work for them and bits that do, but it’s in the Natalie chapters that this really feels coherent and worthwhile, whereas it can get in the way of Leah and Felix’s stories. Swing Time remains my favourite Smith, but this is a close second.

My rating in 2013: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

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Before rereading: I first read The Unwitting in 2014, while I was writing up my PhD thesis! I’d enjoyed Ellen Feldman’s previous two books, Scottsboro and Next To Love, and I was attracted by its Cold War setting.

The first time I read The Unwitting, I wrote: ‘Pivoting around November 22nd, 1963, the novel jumps back to the early 1950s to explore the beginnings of Nell and Charlie’s relationship. Soon after they meet, Charlie is offered a job on a liberal, anti-Soviet journal, Compass. Nell is equally committed to the journal’s remit, to oppose both ‘the totalitarianism of the left’ and that of the right. In the McCarthy era, a number of its writers fall under suspicion, including Charlie himself; and Nell is, dimly, suspicious of where Compass’s financial backing is coming from. In the loose-living circles that they frequent, it would be easy for Nell to lose her trust in Charlie, and suspect he was cheating on her, but she trusts completely in his faithfulness. What niggles at her is the loose threads that never quite seem to make sense – like the story on the coup in Guatemala that she wrote for Compass, but which was rejected at the last moment… A particularly satisfying thread in The Unwitting is the way in which Feldman turns the traditional plot – a woman’s happy marriage is shattered by the discovery of adultery – on its head, by suggesting that, for Nell at least, there are worse crimes than sexual unfaithfulness… I admired Feldman’s deft, precise and clever writing… however, [she] gives us less to think about beyond the obvious, and is so economic with her narrative choices that the novel feels over-schematic.’

After rereading: Again, my rating remains the same, but I’m inclined to be rather kinder to The Unwitting than I was in 2014. I don’t think it feels over-schematic any more, although it is certainly tidily demarcated into the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ of Nell’s marriage. I also don’t agree with my prediction in 2014 that ‘I doubt there is enough depth in The Unwitting for me to want to read it again’; I both enjoyed this reread and found it thought-provoking. As I said in my original review, I liked how Feldman juxtaposes personal and professional betrayal, but flips this familiar theme; it’s Nell who is most wounded by what Charlie keeps from her professionally whereas Charlie feels less guilty about his deception when he discovers Nell has cheated on him. The revelation at the heart of this story does not feel especially huge or shocking, which is why I think a lot of readers have complained this is a novel where ‘nothing happens’ (the publishers didn’t help here by billing it as a spy story, which it is not). However, I admire Feldman’s bravery in exploring something that feels so significant to Nell even if it is less obviously significant to readers who didn’t live through the Cold War in the United States. Not every twist needs to be jaw-dropping. I’d definitely recommend this to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and Rodham. 

My rating in 2014: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

 

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, #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