Talking to ghosts: The Library of the Dead by TL Huchu

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TL Huchu’s debut novel, The Library of the Dead, one of my most anticipated 2021 releases, is narrated by a fourteen-year-old Scottish-Zimbabwean girl called Ropa who can talk to ghosts. Her interactions with the dead tend to be short and sweet – after all, the more messages from the afterlife she can pass onto grieving relatives, the more money she can make, and she has to support her gran and little sister. However, when a ghost appeals to her to find out what happened to her young son, who has mysteriously vanished, Ropa finds herself becoming involved in a dangerous mystery that will take her beneath the streets of Edinburgh and into the Library of the Dead.

When I heard that The Library of the Dead was not only an urban supernatural novel but a dystopian one, I wasn’t sure whether Huchu would be able to handle all of these elements in the same novel. As it turns out, the Scottish dystopia he imagines remains a backdrop to the main plot, but a backdrop that is vividly rendered, with brief descriptions that indicate a much more intricate history that I’m sure we’ll discover more about in later books in this series: ‘The concrete walls of the now-old “new Parliament” are marked with graffiti, and there’s a gaping hole through the main entrance, called “the king’s knock”. It was made by a shell from a Challenger tank when separatist MSPs holed up in the building, rejecting the crown’s authority after the restoration. Parliament looks like a wounded animal sunk on its haunches after the hunt, just before it expires. It’s forever caught in that moment. As the wind blows, you can hear its rattly gasps through the yawning cavern.’ If you know Edinburgh, these kind of passages are particularly chilling.

However, there’s a bit too much thrown into The Library of the Dead, or perhaps it’s that everything that’s here doesn’t quite work together, as great as all the components are. We have a slangy teenage narrator akin to El from Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education exploring a library that’s reminiscent of Garth Nix’s Lirael learning a magic system that reminded me a bit of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and ending up somewhere as unnerving as David Mitchell’s Slade House. The book never seems to know exactly where it sits. The tone shifts, as well. The Library of the Dead feels predominantly like YA, sometimes with a darker edge that leads towards adult crossover, and yet the resolution of the mystery of who’s been taking the children is light-hearted enough to be at home in children’s fiction. Ropa’s voice is fantastic – she seems like a genuine autodidact, with her random mix of references and slang – but because she is the kind of narrator who makes complicated jokes and doesn’t always tell us things straight, I think it would have worked better were she narrating a more straightforward plot.

Perhaps because of the amount of information that Huchu packs in, The Library of the Dead also feels weirdly slow, although plenty happens. The very short chapters and scenes chop up the reader’s attention, as Ropa moves between different plot threads, and it’s only in the final third of the novel, when she completely commits to solving the missing children mystery, that it speeds up. Huchu seems to be doing a lot of work here setting up later books in the series by showcasing his rich and original world, but for me, this first instalment struggled to stand on its own, despite all the brilliant things that were in it.

Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education: Sunshine and Shadows

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Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, her second immersive folktale retelling, was one of my top ten books of 2020. Her latest novel, A Deadly Education, is both utterly different and equally brilliant. The first in a trilogy, it’s set at the Scholomance, a magical school that takes all the nagging doubts we had about Hogwarts – ‘why are teenagers allowed to attend a school that’s so dangerous?’ – and runs with them. The Scholomance is infested with mals, dangerous magical creatures that want to kill the trainee wizards within, and so constant vigilance is required to see off attacks, whether you’re getting your lunch in the cafeteria or trying to find a book in the library. However, the curriculum itself, which is not taught by teachers but simply manifests for the students to follow, doesn’t help matters. As El, our first-person narrator, explains:

If you don’t complete a shop assignment on time, your unfinished work will animate on the due date and come after you with whatever power you’ve put into it. And if you try and get around that by not putting anything into it, or doing it wrong, the raw materials you should have used all animate separately and come at you. It’s quite a solid teaching technique.

El blithely tells us near the beginning of the novel that the reason teenage wizards fight to get into the Scholomance is that they’re even more vulnerable to mals in the outside world, which neatly dispenses with some obvious objections to this set-up. And while this isn’t a major theme of the book, I liked its unconscious riposte to Lord of the Flies-type assumptions that teenagers would descend into anarchy if left to their own devices; as we see, these adolescents are as capable of constructing a social order as adults, even if it has many of the same class issues.

El, a half-Indian, half-Welsh social outcast, is such a delightful narrator. If you don’t like tangents in your fiction, forget about reading this book now, because a massive proportion of this book is El simply telling us about how the Scholomance works, how its social hierarchies function, and the myriad ways that the students have devised to try and survive to graduation (only a certain proportion of each year group ever make it out). El even manages to shoot off on several digressions while facing a mawmouth, most terrifying of all the mals. However, I adore this kind of narration, and I can’t wait to devour two more books of it. Coincidentally enough, I happened to re-read Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, one of my favourite books of all time, just before I started A Deadly Education, and I’m convinced that Sunshine’s voice was a huge influence on El’s voice. (This theory was lent weight when I found out that Novik stuck a deliberate reference to another McKinley novel into her first folktale retelling, Uprootedclearly, she’s a fan). Sunshine, who is a coffeehouse baker in an alternative version of our world infested with vampires, shares a lot with El; both enthusiastically tell us about the intricacies of their lives even in the face of danger, and both are afraid that they might become evil. But their voices sound similar even on the sentence level, with a lot of second-person address, long sentences, and snark. Here’s El telling us why the Scholomance exists:

We’re a lot harder to get at in here than if we were living out in the wide open, in a yurt for instance. Even enclave kids were getting eaten more often than not before the school was built, and if you’re an indie kid who doesn’t get into the Scholomance, these days your odds of making it to the far side of puberty are one in twenty. One in four is plenty decent odds compared to that. 

And here’s Sunshine telling us about the ninety percent of people who have both sorcerer and demon blood who go insane:

If you were in the ninety percent, it showed up early. Usually. If you weren’t born with a precocious ability to hoist yourself out of your cost and get into really repulsive mischief, the next likeliest time for you to start running amok was in the pre-teen years, when magic-handling kids are apprenticed for their first serious magic-handling training.

This isn’t to say that A Deadly Education is in any way copying off Sunshine. Both books share a concern with being a powerful magic handler who could go bad (and both build this up brilliantly through slightly unreliable first-person narration) and both also feature enchanted objects, like wards and books, that frequently do go bad, but in most other ways their worldbuilding and storylines are very different. And to be honest, most of this probably wouldn’t even occur to you if you haven’t read Sunshine a worryingly large number of times, like me. What I am saying is, if this is a homage, it’s a fantastic one; and if you liked A Deadly Education, you need to read Sunshine IMMEDIATELY. 

A note: when A Deadly Education first came out, it was accused of being racist in this Goodreads review. As a result, one unintentionally racist, but problematic passage was excised from future editions of the book, and Novik apologised. The review makes a number of other claims about why the book is racist, but in my opinion, these additional claims just don’t stand up. A lot of them are factually wrong, while others have been challenged by other readers of colour from the relevant backgrounds (this review discusses Chinese representation, and this review covers Indian representation). I was also interested to read the comments from biracial people on all of these reviews, as one criticism of El is that she is ‘whitewashed’ and disconnected from her Indian heritage – which she absolutely is, but this seems to make sense given that she has been brought up in Wales by her white mother. Overall, the diversity of the Scholomance is pretty surface-level, and exists largely to facilitate world-building – different languages are useful for different spells, for example. This means that the book doesn’t have much to say about race, or the experience of being biracial, but I don’t think it intended to, and given its style and genre, I think Novik, as a white writer, sensibly decided not to tackle these issues. While I totally agree that it’s a problem if this is the only kind of diversity we get in fiction, this is a structural publishing problem rather than an individual book problem; while publishing remains white-dominated, it’s going to be easier to sell this kind of ‘diversity’ to publishers than books by authors of colour.

#SciFiMonth Reading, 2020

I haven’t really participated properly in #SciFiMonth this year, but here’s a round up of the science fiction and speculative fiction that I did read in November!

Megan Giddings’ debut novel Lakewood unites horror and speculative fiction in the story of Lena, a young black woman living in Michigan who drops out of college to participate in a secret medical testing programme to pay her mother’s medical bills after her grandmother dies. It soon becomes apparent that things at Lakewood, the location of the programme, are not right, but Lena can’t see another way forward – she’s gripped by the inertia that results from living in a system where both healthcare and education aren’t treated as universal rights, and black lives are viewed as less valuable. Despite the importance of Giddings’ message, however, and her deft use of some horror tropes, Lakewood didn’t function successfully as fiction for me. Like Mary South’s recent collection of short stories, You Will Never Be ForgottenI found it both too surreal and too obvious. Especially in its final third, Lakewood becomes hallucinatory in a way that I found frustrating, but at the same time, we’re told exactly what we should take away from this book, with Lena namechecking infamous historical medical experiments on black people such as Tuskagee

I’m late to the party with Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction classic Kindred, but I’m so glad I got there in the end. Kindred follows a black female writer, Dana, who is unexpectedly thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she’s called upon to save the life of a drowning white boy. As she continues to jump back and forth through time, she realises that this boy is her ancestor, and that he will grow up to become a slaveowner in his own right – and that their fates seem to have become linked. This novel is more of a time-slip than a time travel narrative. Butler is uninterested in the metaphysical questions that get raised in a lot of time travel fiction, preferring instead to reckon with issues of historical relativism, culpability and empathy. I was struck by how naturally the story is told, although this isn’t the first time I’ve been impressed by how (American) science fiction writers from the 1970s and 1980s seem almost to speak from the page. Butler makes her set-up feel completely real through the very simple device of having her characters ask the right questions, allowing her to demonstrate that their actions and reactions make sense, and the novel is both emotionally engaging and incredibly thought-provoking. I’m definitely a Butler convert.

I also read two anthologies of science fiction and speculative fiction this month, Escape Pod, edited by Mur Lafferty and SB Divya, and New Suns, edited by Nisi Shawl. Escape Pod was drawn from the Escape Pod podcast to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. As with all anthologies, there were some stories that worked for me better than others. I was disappointed to find a cluster of stories that, like Lakewood, committed the common SF error of introducing really promising concepts, but then spelling out the message of the story so clearly near the end that it ceased to be interesting. This was the case with Kameron Hurley’s ‘Citizens of Elsewhen’, Beth Cato’s ‘A Consideration of Trees’ and Tobias S. Buckell’s ‘The Machine that Would Rewild Humanity’, among others. However, in contrast to other SF collections I’ve read, this anthology was really strong on stories that were thoughtful and funny, or at least more light-hearted. I loved T. Kingfisher’s ‘Report of Dr. Hollowmas on the Incident at Jackrabbit Five’, Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘Jaiden’s Weaver’, John Scalzi’s ‘Alien Animal Encounters’ and Cory Doctorow’s ‘Clockwork Fagin’. I’d already read NK Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death’, in another collection, A People’s Future of the United States, but it’s a great story that’s worth revisiting. Overall, this anthology definitely picked up in its second half, and introduced me to a number of writers I hadn’t heard of before.

I received a free proof copy of Escape Pod from the publisher for review.

Nisi Shawl’s edited collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour, New Suns, has been on my radar for a while, and while, as I say, anthologies are always a mixed bag, this is an exceptionally strong selection. (It’s made me even keener to check out Shawl’s own work, as they clearly have good taste). There were only a couple of stories that didn’t work for me at all; Jaymee Goh’s ‘The Freedom of the Shifting Sea’ had a lot of pretty gratuitous body horror, which is not my thing; E. Lily Yu’s ‘Three Variations on A Theme of Imperial Attire’ not only had the kind of title that sends up red flags for me, but was awkwardly meta; and Karin Lowachee’s ‘Blood and Bells’ was a cliched Romeo-and-Juliet gang narrative, albeit set in another world. Having said that, I basically liked everything else in New Suns; even Hiromi Goto’s ‘One Easy Trick’, which became too silly for me by the end as a woman chases her own bellyfat through a forest and encounters a talking bear, had such an arresting and memorable opening that I can’t write it off. My favourite stories were mostly on the creepy side: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’ mixes a terrifying premise with an incredibly authentic, inattentive narrative voice to great effect; Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s very short ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ taps into the fear of having done something terrible in childhood which we can’t remember, and which still sets us apart from everybody else; and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’ sets up a haunting world on another planet governed by hagtrees and kalform demons. However, I also loved Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’, a lighter story about how two translators team up to stop a war that reminded me of some of the more stylised stories in Ken Liu’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction, Broken Stars, although Kang is Korean. A brilliant anthology.

Mind the gaps: Exit Management by Naomi Booth

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Before lockdown, I wasn’t aware that there was a sub-genre of psychological thrillers that centre on property purchases, even though I’d read the occasional novel that would fit this brief – Kate Murray-Browne’s excellent The Upstairs Room is one example. However, one of my neighbours is clearly a big fan of Louise Candlish’s fiction, and has deposited thriller after thriller in our little free neighbourhood library, all of which focus on people buying, selling and losing houses, often because of hostility on their street (Our House; Those People; The Sudden Departure of the Frasers.) Although I am a bit concerned about what this says about how my neighbour feels about our other neighbours, I’ve also got into this sub-genre. Most obviously, these books are about class; the protagonists tend to be aspirational and upwardly mobile, and obsessively concerned with not living near anybody who doesn’t fit their own standards. At the same time, they idolise those who operate in a higher social echelon, and fantasise about moving into a particular house or street to live that kind of life – even though, once they get there, they usually feel uncomfortable. However, what interests me more than this pretty straightforward classism is how intensely concerned these novels are with our desire to use space to keep others out, not just those whom we look down upon, but anybody at all.

Naomi Booth’s new novel, Exit Management, takes the uneasiness brewing beneath the surface of these thrillers and boils it into a froth. Unlike Candlish’s dissatisfied middle-class leads, both her protagonists come from working-class backgrounds. Cal works as a concierge for a firm that rents out elite London residences to wealthy clients; however, he’s become very close to one of the homeowners who uses the firm, elderly and terminally ill Jozsef, who introduces him to a world of visual art that he’s never experienced before. Lauren handles ‘exit management’ for HR, easing people gently out of their jobs, and finds she has a natural talent for it. Outside work, she desperately seeks a house that might fit both her tastes and her price range, and keeps coming up short. When Cal asks Lauren out on a date, everything starts moving very quickly – although I’m not sure what the publisher’s blurb for Exit Management is going on about when it talks about the trio descending into ‘a deadly spiral of violence’, so I’d suggest ignoring it.

I’ve already read at least one review for Exit Management which talks about class and Brexit, and yes, those elements are present in the novel, but I don’t think they’re what the book’s really about. (Booth is also the first fiction writer I’ve seen not to resort to the lazy ‘white working class = xenophobia = Brexit voters’ narrative, writing a scene where Cal’s parents, who voted different ways in the referendum, debate the issue, and making it clear that even Cal’s dad’s leave vote wasn’t driven by what we might think of as the obvious motives.) As I said, these kind of novels are about keeping other people out, and keeping ourselves in. Because of this, even though Exit Management is, on the surface, very different from Booth’s last novel, the pandemic eco-horror Sealed, they also have a lot in common. Both books are concerned with our firm but false belief that we can uphold our own physical boundaries, and how environmental degradation makes that impossible. As Lauren reflects, her body is full of ‘single-use objects that never go away: the piece of chewing gum she’d swallowed as a child; the end of coral-coloured gel nail she’d once bitten off in a meeting… and that night back in 2008… when she’d insisted on a condom and she’d seen the empty foil packet on the floor, but no condom had re-emerged, post-coitus’.

Exit Management pulls off an unusual feat: it works remarkably well as mainstream literary fiction, with vivid characterisation, an evocative sense of place, and satisfyingly complex social tensions, but it also operates on a more experimental level. At first, you might not notice the slightly-too-big gaps between the words in certain sentences; but as they widen and become more frequent near the end of the novel, you might start to wonder what’s underneath those empty spaces. For me, even though very little of the text is missing, I felt like it was being gradually eaten away by something terrifying that lacks any kind of edges of its own, like the Nothing in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. If you want to read Exit Management solely for its social and political plot, you can; but there’s definitely something else lurking at its margins.

20 Books of Summer, #14 and #15: The Mercies and The Terror

After a series of random mismatched 20 Books of Summer posts, I am perhaps unreasonably pleased that I’ve finally managed to bring together two historical novels that share undoubted thematic similarities, despite some equally obvious differences. Both are set in the far and freezing north; both feature characters in small communities beset by threats from outside that raise superstitious fears; both feature uneasy interactions between white Europeans and local indigenous people; and both are full of violence and death. Neither, therefore, is the best summer read, but as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of summer, I didn’t find that to be a problem 🌞

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel, The Mercies, is set on a tiny island off the Norwegian coast in the early seventeenth century. When an unexpected storm sweeps in and kills almost all of the island’s men, the women are left to fend for themselves, and are managing well enough when a commissioner from Scotland, steeped in King James VI and I’s writings on witchfinding, is dispatched from the mainland to root out suspected sorcery in this isolated community. Threaded through this series of real historical events is the story of two women: Maren, one of the islanders, who is trying to handle the breakdown of the relationship between her mother and Sámi sister-in-law, and Ursa, the commissioner’s unhappy wife. Hargrave warmly conveys the way in which these very different women come to trust and love each other, as Maren teaches Ursa basic skills such as baking and butchering that she never had cause to learn before. While the pace of this novel is deliberately meditative, the building tensions within the wider community of women are exceptionally well-conveyed, with their common experience of grief proving to be divisive as they find different ways of coping with the tragedy.

The Mercies has an unapologetically feminist focus, and it’s this perhaps that sets it apart from the many, many novels I’ve read that deal with witchcraft accusations in isolated communities in both the early American colonies and across Europe (Corrag/Witch Light by Susan Fletcher; The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent). This isn’t to say that these other fictions aren’t conscious of gender inequality, because they are, but The Mercies is both more brutal and more beautiful in its depiction of the position of women under patriarchy. Hargrave vividly depicts Ursa’s humiliating marriage and the abuse faced by the village women who break out of traditional roles to take to the fishing boats after the loss of their men. She gives her story time to breathe before tightening the screws at the end, and while some readers may think this makes the book too slow, I thought this decision was necessary to ensure that we truly care about these characters before they meet their fates. While I clocked that this book plays into a trope that is much too common [highlight for spoiler] bury your gays [end spoiler], I did think that Hargrave made the right kind of choice for the story she was telling, although she could have softened this somewhat by [highlight for spoiler] not killing Maren [end spoiler]. This confident and moving novel bodes well for Hargrave’s future in adult fiction.

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Dan Simmons’s The Terror tells the story of John Franklin’s infamous ‘lost expedition’ (1845-8), a voyage of exploration that intended to chart the Arctic Northwest Passage but from which none of the men ever returned. The fate of Franklin’s expedition attracted a fair amount of attention at the time, especially given the (later verified) rumours of cannibalism among some of the crew and the single, confusing note that survives from one of the copper cairns where Franklin was meant to leave regular reports of his progress. Simmons starts his story after Franklin’s death, during the period when the expedition’s two ships, Erebus and Terror, were still stuck fast in pack ice off King William Island. Nineteenth-century Arctic expeditions relied on building ships that could survive a winter or more marooned in this way, but Franklin’s party ran into particular trouble. Not only did two winters pass with little sign of the pack ice loosening enough for them to sail in the intervening warmer periods, but much of the tinned food they had packed was found to have been poorly sealed, and became poisonous. Along with the weakening of the ascorbic acid in their stores of lemon juice over time, scurvy became a major problem for the crew, alongside other horrific ailments such as frostbite.

Not content with allowing his characters to deal with these trials, Simmons introduces a supernatural element into the mix. Both ships are being stalked by a mysterious white creature that is far taller and more deadly than a polar bear, and which kills men without warning. The Terror switches between more mundane struggles for survival and the fear induced by this monster, but these two plots don’t properly dovetail until the men leave their stricken ships and begin hauling sledges overland to reach a new stock of supplies at one of their base camps, about two-thirds of the way through the narrative. For me, it was only at this point that the novel became truly gripping, which is a bit of an ask given that it’s almost a thousand pages long. Nevertheless, Simmons serves up brilliant set-piece after brilliant set-piece in the first two-thirds, so if you can deal with the lack of narrative pull and are attracted by the blurb, you’re still likely to get a lot out of this book. Two particular stand-outs are a terrifying action scene where one of the ship’s ‘ice masters’ has to climb and leap through the rigging to evade the monster, and a garish ‘Carnivale’ that the men hold on the ice, complete with tents made of sailcloth dyed of different colours, that predictably ends in carnage.

Simmons’s account of being an explorer in the coldest regions of the Earth is the best fictional recreation I’ve ever read, summoning up memories of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s hellish memoir of his Antarctic experience, The Worst Journey in the World, and, through this, he fully captures the absurdity of the colonial mindset that led white men to ship bad canned food to the furthest corners of the globe rather than recognising the skills that allow native people to survive there. There’s absolutely no way that this book needed to be as long as it is for Simmons to achieve what he wanted with it; however, it’s not a story that I’ll forget in a hurry.

20 Books of Summer, #7, #8 and #9: Tiamat’s Wrath, The Disaster Tourist and Notes From The Bottom of the World

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Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth book in the Expanse series, a vast interplanetary science fiction saga with more than a little in common with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (the two writers behind the pen name ‘James S.A. Corey’ dreamed up the world of the Expanse in a role-playing game where Martin was one of the players). Given that this is the eighth of nine planned installments, the rest of this review will inevitably contain spoilers for the first seven books of the series [highlight to read]. Tiamat’s Wrath and its immediate predecessor, Persepolis Rising, instigate a soft reboot of this very long series by skipping forward decades and refocusing on what was the central antagonist of the first few books: the protomolecule, a substance created by a long-lost alien race that has the power to rewrite the very laws of physics. This was a massive return to form, in my opinion: neither Nemesis Games or Babylon’s Ashes, the fifth and sixth entries, worked well for me because they deviated from this fascinating concept to focus on a much more mundane war. I was thrilled when I realised that Persepolis Rising was returning to the series’ original horror roots, and Tiamat’s Wrath continues in the same vein, focusing on the dangerous meddling of the new Laconian Empire. Corey also resists the temptation to expand the number of narrators as they did in some of the earlier books, making them unwieldy and confusing: sticking to a core group, all but one of which have narrated before, allows Tiamat’s Wrath to keep up its pace and tension. The ending is hugely disturbing, and having become lukewarm about the Expanse in its mid-series slump, I now can’t wait for the ninth and final book.

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

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Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler, follows a young woman called Yona who feels she is being gradually forced out of the company she works for, Jungle Tourism, after experiencing sexual harassment. Jungle specialise in ‘disaster tourism’, luring Korean tourists to the sites of high-profile disasters, and Yona is dispatched to assess an experience called ‘Desert Sinkhole’ in the fictional country of Mui, which Yun reportedly based on south-east Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. Yona discovers that this once-popular destination is becoming less appealing because it’s perceived by its visitors as lacking authenticity; the volcano doesn’t look like what they think a volcano should look like, and the sinkhole isn’t providing the emotional experience they crave. After being accidentally left behind in Mui when her tour group depart, Yona becomes drawn into an attempt to fundamentally rebrand this tourist destination through manufacturing a new disaster, directed by a faceless corporation called Paul. It goes without saying that this novella is intended to critique the destructive tourism of wealthy outsiders, but it didn’t hit as hard as I thought it might. I wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of workplace harassment at the beginning; it seemed like one theme too many for such a short book to carry and didn’t fundamentally shape Yona’s portrayal, so I would have preferred the focus to remain with the exploitation of Mui. Even so, the intensely surreal tone meant that I felt too distanced from what was happening; it seemed so unreal that it was hard to connect with the moral questions the book raises. I wondered if, as an English reader who hasn’t read that much Korean fiction, I was missing something, and sought out this fascinating interview with the author and translator; however, Yun’s suggestion that she wanted this novel to feel like an ‘Orwellian dystopia’ confirmed that for whatever reason, The Disaster Tourist didn’t work for me.

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

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Suzanne Adam’s reflections on being an American expat who has lived in Chile for forty years, Notes From The Bottom of the World, were billed as being travel writing about ‘[Chile’s] culture, its idiosyncrasies, and its exotic landscapes, from Patagonian glaciers to the northern Atacama Desert’. However, this series of very short essays – many aren’t much more than a page long – focus more on Adam’s personal experiences than her explorations of Chile, at least in the third of the book that I read. Moreover, her observations tend towards the banal and the cliched, whether she’s writing about ageing or glaciers; for example, travelling through the Patagonian fjords, she muses: ‘What draws us in the twenty-first century to visit rugged, distant places? Is it an urge for adventure in these times when few unexplored frontiers remain on this planet?’ Given that this is really life-writing rather than travel writing, I found Adam strikingly unreflective. If you want a book that combines travel-writing from the farthest south with intelligent self-narrative, I’d suggest reading Jean McNeil’s wonderful memoir Ice Diaries instead.

Leap Year Science Fiction, 2020*

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I adored The Calculating Stars, the first novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s  Lady Astronaut series. (If you want to get a taste of the style of this series, there are a number of short stories available online – I’d suggest starting with ‘Articulated Restraint’, which indeed I would advise everyone to read before getting too deep into the series). The series is reminiscent of Michael Grant’s YA alternate WWII trilogy Front Lines, in that it takes a big event in modern American history and writes women back into the story not only by uncovering the hidden contributions of women at the time but by explicitly changing the facts so that women were equal participants. In The Calculating Stars, we’re offered an alternative version of the development of space exploration in the US; after a huge meteorite hits the earth in 1952, the space programme is accelerated to find new places for humans to live in the universe, and some women become serious contenders for astronaut training due to their flying experience in the Second World War. The novel is narrated by Elma Yorke, a brilliant mathematician who is keen to be one of the first women into space, and her voice is light, funny and so incredibly readable. I wrote on Twitter that I’d never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting, and I stand by those comments.

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The Fated Sky, the sequel to The Calculating Stars, was in some ways more of the same, but didn’t quite work as well for me, although I still very much enjoyed reading it. The Fated Sky jumps forward into the 1960s, and rightly makes issues of race much more prominent than they were in the first novel; however, I felt that Kowal struggled to know how to handle Elma’s interactions with her fellow astronauts of colour within the stylistic parameters she set for herself in the first novel. Kowal wants to show us that Elma, as a white woman in the post-war US, would likely be ignorant and insensitive on matters of race despite her good intentions, and in that she succeeds, but only through a series of repetitive scenes where Elma gets things wrong and black characters put her right (the novel also features significant Hispanic and Taiwanese characters, but it tends to be the African-American characters doing the heavy lifting in these conversations, especially the one prominent black woman, which is worrying in itself). The overall effect is that of a tick-box take on ‘diversity’ that makes Elma difficult to like – maybe we shouldn’t like her, but if we don’t, the books don’t work!

Kowal also missteps, quite badly, in her handling of gay and trans characters [highlight for spoiler] The book reproduces the Bury Your Gays trope, which is pretty unforgivable in 2019, especially as it also resorts to the cliched device of only having the other characters realise that the two men concerned were actually a couple after one of them is killed. It also technically features a trans man, but handles this in a very peculiar way. There is nothing to suggest the character is trans in the text – he is referred to as she throughout – but Kowal reveals in the author’s note that she has misgendered this character because Elma, our narrator, doesn’t know he is trans. To me, this is not really representation and is akin to JK Rowling proclaiming ‘Dumbledore is gay’ despite writing nothing about it in the actual texts. Also, I understand that Kowal was concerned about historical accuracy here, but this is an alternate history that is pretty light-touch – I didn’t think it would have felt jarring to have this character come out, even if he had used terms that are less familiar to a modern audience to describe his experience.[end spoiler] It all feels a bit like Kowal was trying and worrying about this too hard and didn’t have the courage of her convictions. However, I’m still a big fan of this series, and am looking forward to the third in the quartet, The Relentless Moon.

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In a very different corner of the science fiction universe, I read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s hard SF sequel to Children of TimeChildren of Ruin. When I reviewed Children of Time last year, I wrote that ‘I couldn’t shake the sense that this was 600 pages of set-up for the next novel in the series’ and I’m pleased to say that I was right; Children of Ruin worked much better for me than Children of Time, although I think this could have been accomplished with much less preamble. To recap: Children of Time followed two plot threads. In the first, the remnants of humanity are using stasis machines to travel for centuries looking for habitable planets to terraform after the destruction of Earth; in the second, another group of now long-dead humans have introduced an evolutionary virus into a species of spider on a distant planet, which is now slowly developing towards sentience. I found the first novel frustrating because it seemed to take so long for the spider civilisation to get to a point where they could make contact with humanity on an equal level, and this inevitable confrontation only takes place at the very end of the novel. But because of this, Children of Ruin hits the ground running, showing us how humans and spiders have now allied in a search for new worlds. This book is also divided between two plotlines, one in the past and one in the present, but this time, I found both equally fascinating, and I loved how this sequel amped up the horror elements that were inchoate in the first book. Tchaikovsky returns to questions about inter-species communication by inventing a race of sentient octopuses, but evolutionary biology doesn’t dominate the book as it did in Children of Time, which means that the plot has a lot more direction and the ideas that Tchaikovsky is playing with have more immediate implications for his characters.

I also read the sixth book in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, Babylon’s Ashesthis month, but the last few books of this series have blended together for me – I’m HOPING this was the one where they finally solved the race for the Iron Throne interplanetary political conflict so they can get on with facing the much more horrific threat from the Others protomolecule.

Finally, this is not science fiction, but I loved Jean McNeil’s intricate and contemplative memoir Ice Diaries, which recounts the four months she spent as a writer-in-residence in Antarctica, and found that it echoed the themes of these novels in its consideration of how humans seek out empty places only to find either that those places don’t want us or that we are already there.

Have you read any science fiction or speculative fiction recently?

*I obviously didn’t read all of these from start to finish on the 29th February, but the leap year gave me extra reading time to finish several of them off!

2019 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2019 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2019, not necessarily first published in 2019.

Highly Commended

I discovered two new favourite authors this year: Nina Allan and Natasha Pulley. I’ve now read both of Pulley’s novels, and three of Allan’s. One novel from each writer has made my top ten books of 2019, but here are the others I read: The Race, The Dollmaker and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Both Allan and Pulley write speculative fiction, and I’ve found myself increasingly drawn towards speculative and science fiction this year, taking part in #SciFiMonth in November.

I didn’t find that 2019 was a particularly strong year for memoir and non-fiction, but two books stood out for me – Thomas Page McBee’s Amateurwhich was my pick to win the Wellcome Prize 2019, and Lisa Taddeo’s Three WomenInterestingly, both are essentially about the patriarchal constraints imposed by binary gender; McBee describes what it’s like to live as a trans man, while Taddeo interrogates how badly the world responds to genuine female desire. McBee’s subtitle is ‘a true story about what makes a man’, while Taddeo’s could easily be ‘three true stories about what makes a woman’.

I’ve been surprised to see some prominent end-of-the-year lists declare that 2019 was a poor year for fiction, as something that stood out for me this year was that many big-name releases didn’t disappoint! Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier produced arguably their strongest novels to date in The Confession and A Single ThreadTaylor Jenkins Reid’s much-hyped Daisy Jones and the Six was totally absorbing, while Emma Donoghue’s Akin was a slow-burning triumph. Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was a totally worthy Booker winner, even if I felt that she shortchanged her youngest narrators.

In fiction, I also enjoyed three very different novels that don’t fit into any of the above categories: Lisa See’s story of Korean haenyeo free divers, The Island of Sea Women, which, pleasingly, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019; Aminatta Forna’s difficult-to-summarise but very moving Happiness; and Naomi Booth’s eco-horror Sealed.

re-read three novels that made a big impression on me second time around (or in the case of Enchantress, probably fourth or fifth time around!): Sarah Moss’s Night Waking, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress From The Stars.

In crime and thriller, I rediscovered Ruth Ware, and was totally captivated by her two latest novels, The Turn of the Key and The Death of Mrs Westawayboth of which brilliantly mix classic Gothic tropes with a contemporary setting. But frankly, I was spoilt for choice in this genre in 2019, as Erin Kelly released her best novel yet, Stone Mothersand Jo Baker’s The Body Lies introduced a clever meta-level into the familiar story of a murdered woman.

Finally, I admired two adult fantasy novels infused with YA energy: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, about a Yale secretly run by supernatural societies, and Bridget Collins’s The Binding, which will please everyone who loves a gay teenage OTP. Both are also absolutely beautiful hardbacks.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by three authors I had enjoyed in the past. Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil was one of my top ten books of 2018, but his debut, Beasts of No Nation, was simplistic and pointless. Anna Hope’s Expectation was supposed to present three different women reassessing their lives in their thirties, but its characters ended up moving within such narrow bonds, all wanting the same things. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days was muddled, aimless and – oddly, given how much I admired her debut, Harmless Like You – quite badly written.

Two debuts also disappointed me. Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater promised a coming-of-age story set in Sunderland and London, but totally lacked a sense of place. Katy Mahood’s Entanglement was supposed to be inspired by quantum physics but ended up being a very conventional story about two couples over several decades. Both novels were also written in a lilting, quasi-literary style that did nothing for me.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2019!

Three feminist eco-horror dystopias! #SciFiMonth #NovellasinNovember

I’m not sure how #NovellasInNovember officially defines a novella, but, given that I usually read much longer books, I’m going to go for anything under 200 pages. And Naomi Booth’s Sealed is 170 pages of pure, brilliant horror. I heard Booth speak about this novel at the Durham Book Festival and instantly knew I had to read it, especially when I saw it had Victoria (Eve’s Alexandria)’s endorsement. Booth imagines a near-future Australia infected by cutis, a disease that causes skin to seal over all the orifices in the body. Alice, who is nearing the end of her pregnancy, and her partner, Pete, leave Sydney for a small town in the Blue Mountains because they believe the environment will be cleaner and safer; as Alice puts it, ‘I look out at the mountains and the blue-grey haze around them. It’s not like the smog back in the city; there’s nothing yellow or septic-looking about it. The softening of the mountain edges is just distance, and eucalypt oil on the air, and low, fine cloud.’ But, as Booth discussed at her festival event, our ideas about detox, health and rural space are often chimeras; living in a polluted world means that we are polluted too. Often, climate change fiction posits a contrast between unspoiled natural places, often located in developing countries, and Western urban sprawl, but Booth has little time for this, writing about a village located near the Citarum river in Indonesia, ‘the river doesn’t appear to move at all as the reporter walks alongside it; it’s covered over with greyish debris, a barely-drifting scurf of different bits of plastic.’ The ideas explored in Sealed are inherently gripping, but Booth also writes incredibly precise prose and place.

Some shots from my trip to the Blue Mountains in June.

Cynan Jones’s Stillicide is even shorter; technically, it’s 174 pages, but the wide spacing of his short paragraphs means it clocks in at far fewer words than Booth’s novella. Jones originally wrote this series of interlinked short stories to be read on the radio, and from what I can tell from this version, they’d have sounded incredible. Like Sealed, Stillicide is concerned with the displacement of people; this time, their homes on the outskirts of the city are being bulldozed to make way for the ‘Ice Dock’, a huge iceberg designed to solve the urban water crisis. As in his previous novellas, The Dig and Cove, his prose is beautifully sparse and efficient. He has fun with the word ‘stillicide’, which is strung between every story: it means ‘a continual dropping of water’ but also ‘a right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land’. For me, though, there’s also an instinctive if incorrect meaning to the word that filters through Jones’s stories; the ‘cide’ ending makes me think of ‘suicide’, and so ‘stillicide’ sounds to me like a kind of death through standing still, through inaction. While it’s obviously deeply concerned with climate change, Stillicide doesn’t fit the ‘feminist eco-horror dystopia’ tag quite as well as the other two books in this post, but I couldn’t resist that title.

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The BBC Radio 4 advert for Stillicide.

Rory Powers’s 370-page YA novel, Wilder Girls, is definitely not a novella, but it’s so thematically relevant I decided to make it part of this post anyway. Hetty, Reese and Byatt are pupils at the Raxter School for Girls, located on an isolated island. When the novel opens, the school has been cut off from the mainland for eighteen months because of the spread of the Tox, which causes the girls’ bodies to mutate in gruesome ways and also infects the local flora and fauna (there’s more than a hint of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation in this novel – an infected bear even plays a key role – but fortunately it’s not nearly as disturbing!). With food supplies running low and the death toll rising, the girls come to realise that their days on the island are numbered. Great premise, but this book felt too bound by YA conventions for me to really enjoy it, and the obligatory link to climate change was unnecessary – as the two novellas above show, we have no shortage of books that do this well. The pace is, weirdly, both slow and breathless, and the three main characters feel interchangeable. I would have liked this to spend a LOT more time delving into the life of the school and the background to the Tox, and less time on action sequences; there’s also very little on how the girls experience their changing bodies. Even more than VanderMeer, this book reminded me of Ann Halam’s Dr Franklin’s Island, which also focuses on three protagonists forced into a bizarre medical experiment. But while I found the morphing sequences in that book unforgettable – I last read it more than fifteen years ago! – Wilder Girls didn’t make much of an impression on me.

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Dr Franklin’s Island: maybe a YA classic, maybe a book I’d hate if I read it now!

I also read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (thankfully, only 104 pages in my Kindle version) as part of #NovellasinNovember, but as it’s not remotely thematically relevant to this post, I’ve put my review on Goodreads instead. You can read it here. (Dickens fans may want to avoid.)

The End of the Year Book Tag, 2019

I borrowed this from Diana at Thoughts on Papyrus#SciFiMonth reads are excluded!

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

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I’ve done a good job winnowing down my TBR pile to 2020 releases, but I ambitiously started a re-read of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and am only a few pages in at the moment (this is solely due to the size of the paperback and not a reflection on the book itself) so I’d like to finish that by the end of the year.

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

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I’m currently reading Tom Cox’s collection of short stories, Help The Witch, which is left over from my Halloween reading but is beautifully atmospheric and surprisingly funny. A number of the stories have ghostly themes, but Cox is very light touch: as he puts it in his acknowledgements, ‘thank you to ghosts, for maybe being real.’ What he’s especially good on is how places shape our personalities, even places where we only spend a short time. As one of his characters puts it: ‘Human character was more subject to geography than was generally acknowledged. Yet there was a pressure to be the same person people had come to expect everywhere you went.’ Striking woodcuts by Cox’s mother, Jo, add to the overall feel of this collection.

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

I think I nabbed them all on NetGalley!

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Going back to my mid-year check in tag, I’d like to prioritise Amy Waldman’s A Door in the Earth and Tash Aw’s We, The Survivors. I’d also like to read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments by the end of the year, before I totally miss the zeitgeist.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

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If it’s The Testaments I should probably give up reviewing books! But more likely, I think, looking at my TBR list, is Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, which is the one book remaining from my 4.5 star challenge (none of the rest achieved 4.5 stars, so he is my only hope).

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2020?

Yep – I have three main goals:

  • Start 2020 as I mean to go on by reading through all the 2020 releases I have stacked up on NetGalley and don’t think I’ll get a chance to read before then. These are: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara; The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams; A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry; The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue; and If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha. I also have two proofs from the John Murray Proof Party at the Durham Book Festival to read: Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child and Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer.
  • Reframe 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge, so I can read any 20 books I like as long as they’re rereads.
  • In a similar vein, continue my Reread Project.