January Superlatives, 2023

I originally borrowed this post format from Elle; I enjoyed writing these posts so much last year that I’ve decided to bring them back for 2023!

I have to say that January has been a bit of a slow reading month, although I did read a decent number of books despite quite a few DNFs. I haven’t read anything that I either really loved or really hated (though I did feel strongly about Geraldine Brooks’ March, as you can see from my rant). Last January, I read two books that went on to feature in my Top Ten Books of the year list; this January, I’ve read nothing I’d even consider to be in the running. I’m hoping that February will see some properly superlative superlatives!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour. Women’s fiction often falls flat for me – especially women’s fiction where the writer has previously only written YA, as is the case with LaCour. But I was completely absorbed by this gentle story of Creole florist and house renovator, Emilie, and artistic bartender, Sara, as they fall in love despite their difficult pasts. LaCour’s prose is so perfectly simple. Adore the cover, too!

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal. Argh, so disappointing! I was so sure I would love this story of a female medium working in the ‘Spirit Corps’ during the First World War, talking to the ghosts of men who have recently been killed to extract important information. I adored Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, which put a similar speculative spin on modern history, and I’m also a fan of her short stories. This started well but moved away from its clever premise to become more of a spy story set in the trenches; I also wasn’t invested in the central romantic relationship, which is so crucial to the story that my lack of investment felt a bit like a death knell for this novel. I’ll be reading Kowal’s new stuff but avoiding her backlist in future.

My Best Re-Read This Month Was…

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… Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Once I discovered that the sequel to this Yale-set dark academia novel was about to come out, I realised that although I’d really enjoyed Ninth House back in 2019, I remembered very little about it. Time for a re-read! Interestingly, I’d say I liked Ninth House both more and less this time round. Its complicated system of magic-using secret societies  felt much clearer to me on a re-read, and I navigated the multiple plot strands and time jumps much less painfully. However, I found myself wishing that Bardugo would give herself more time to simply explore this world and its characters and pack rather less action into the novel. (I’ve heard that the next one, Hell Bent, is even more plot-driven.) This reread also made me reflect on how much the dark academia sub-genre has moved on in the last three years, especially regarding its treatment of social justice. What felt fresh back in 2019 now seems rather tokenistic after reading the A Deadly Education trilogy, Catherine House and BabelI had a lot of fun rereading this and I still want to read Hell Bent, but I’ve tempered my expectations.

The Novel That Felt Most Like I’d Read It Somewhere Else Before This Month Was…

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… The Divines by Ellie Eaton. This novel is narrated by Josephine, who was a pupil at English boarding school St John the Divine in the 1990s and is now newly married; the narration moves between Josephine’s final year at the school and her first few years of married life. Eaton is a skilful writer, but this ultimately reminded me too strongly of other novels I’ve read about cloistered schools, teenage girls and early sexual experience, especially Bella Bathurst’s Special (also centred around a life-threatening fall!), Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire (shares the same uncomfortable ‘plot twist’!), and Tana French’s far superior The Secret Place. The final chapters, where Josephine is forced to reassess her own and others’ mismemories of their girlhood, are compelling, and this thread could have been introduced earlier, but it wasn’t enough to make this book stand out to me.

The Most Underwhelming Piece of Literary Fiction I Read This Month Was…

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… Trespasses by Louise Kennedy. This debut’s plot treads cliched lines; Cushla, a Catholic primary school teacher in 1975 Belfast, falls in love with an older, married Protestant barrister, Michael, and they embark upon an affair. Kennedy’s prose is intelligent, accomplished, often impressive; and yet I felt like each chapter followed a sequence familiar from much literary fiction, with the accumulation of a series of beautifully observed details (and Kennedy does brilliantly evoke Belfast during the Troubles), the deliberately inconsequential dialogue, the minimal interiority. On the other hand, this probably wouldn’t have felt so rote-like to me if I’d been emotionally invested in the narrative, and I never was. Admirable, but for me it felt like a text to study rather than to love.

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. I had mixed feelings about Kupersmith’s debut novel, Build Your House Around My Bodybut was impressed by its clever puzzle-box narrative and some indelible set-pieces, and loved the bonus short story that was included at the end of my edition. My hope was that I would like Kupersmith even more as a short story writer than as a novelist. This turned out not to be the case – I think whatever she writes next will be her best thing yet, as she’s clearly still developing her obvious talents – but this collection was worth reading. The first story in the collection, ‘Boat Story’, where a granddaughter wants to hear her grandmother’s dramatic tale of escaping from Vietnam in a small boat but gets an unnerving ghost story instead, tells us what we’re in for. Only a couple of stories really stood out to me in the way that Kupersmith’s other vignettes have: my favourite was ‘Little Brother’, where an elderly Vietnamese trucker takes on a disturbing passenger, and I also liked ‘The Frangipani Hotel’, which hints at a macabre family history but resists telling us too much, and ‘Turning Back’, where a teenage girl living in Houston meets an old man who keeps turning into a python. If you’ve read Build Your House…, you’ll see how certain motifs link the two books, and it’s the stories that resonated with that later novel that I found the most vivid and unnerving. Nevertheless, Kupersmith writes so fluidly that I sped through this collection.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty. This was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, but unfortunately my expectations were wrong: I thought it would be a collection of speculative short stories, but it’s actually a novel told in linked episodes with no speculative elements at all. David, or Dee, is a young Penobscot man growing up on ‘the rez’; he and his family experience poverty, violence and drug addiction, while he spends long, aimless days with best friend Fellis, structured only around visits to the methadone clinic. The issues faced by Native communities that Talty highlights here are undoubtedly important, but this didn’t work for me at all as fiction. Most of the chapters have been previously published as short stories, and I can see how they’d function as one-offs: I actually loved the first, very short section of this book, ‘Burn’, where Dee is trying to score some pot and comes across Fellis stuck in the swamp with his braid frozen to the ground. But when they’re put together, they feel repetitive and shapeless, and despite a few powerful paragraphs, Talty’s prose is workmanlike, often flat: ‘I pressed a Q-tip soaked in peroxide against the wound and winced. I dried the area and put Neosporin on it. Behind the mirror I found a box of assorted Band-Aids and stuck a medium-small one vertically between my eye and nose.’ Sadly, this wasn’t for me.

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

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… Ten Steps To Nanette by Hannah Gadsby. I very rarely read memoirs by even quasi-celebrities; ironically, I think the last one I read was Tom Allen’s No Shame, which I very much enjoyed. Gadsby, like Allen, is of course a queer comedian, known for her Netflix smash hit Nanette. However, Nanette was the product of twelve years on the comedy circuit and a lifetime’s struggles, proving the truth of the classic comedy adage that Gadsby quotes in this memoir: ‘comedy is trauma plus time‘. Like No Shame, Ten Steps to Nanette is clearly not written by somebody who writes books professionally; however, I liked the unwieldiness of it, the rambliness, and of course the humour. Even more refreshing was Gadsby’s honesty about how very hard she found it, and still finds it, to ‘fit in’. Lots of writers tell us about their awkward teen experiences but we very rarely hear from anyone who struggled for more than a few years in adolescence, or struggled to the degree that Gadsby obviously did. It was only later in life that Gadsby would be diagnosed with both autism and ADHD, which for her explained a lot about why life had always been so hard. Yet whether or not you share her diagnoses, Ten Steps to Nanette comes as a big relief for anyone whose ‘weirdness’ went beyond the socially-acceptable narrative of ‘I was bullied for a bit at school and was a geek but then pulled it together at university/in my early twenties’. Highly recommended.

The Novel I Spent Longest Reading This Month Was…

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… Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears. I started this 600-page brick back in mid-December but read the vast majority of it this month. It moves backwards in time – which was what attracted me to it in the first place – from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890 to Venice in 1867, unpicking the complicated history of a couple of members of the global financial elite and the women they become involved with. Stone’s Fall is an old-fashioned novel in several ways. It’s a deliberate pastiche of the kind of Victorian sensation novel that Wilkie Collins might have written, with affairs, madmen, mysterious deaths and stock market scheming. But also, although it only came out in 2009, I find it hard to imagine this being published today: it’s so indulgently long, and the female characters very much fit a certain mould of smart-but-unhinged, sexily mysterious but not quite human. Having said all that, I had a lot of fun reading the final two-thirds of this novel, where our two different narrators, both men of influence, take us through some entertaining plots and alternative, behind-the-scenes history; the majority of the month and a half it took me to read Stone’s Fall was spent on the first third, where a naive journalist narrator tried my patience and nothing seemed to happen but a slow accumulation of detail that we’ll need later. If I’d known this in advance, I’d have plowed through the first section more quickly. But this still manages to be the best book I’ve read by Pears.

The Book I Read In December But Which Didn’t Make It Into My December Round-Ups Was*…

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… Life by Gwyneth Jones. And what a very strange book it was. Life had moments of brilliance but also moments that I found troubling and others that seemed redundant. The novel promises to be about the breakdown of chromosomal sex after the discovery of ‘Transferred Y’, or TY, by scientist Anna Senoz. However, TY turns out to be much more destabilising for society’s ideas about gender than for biological sex itself; as Anna explains, the ‘death’ of the Y chromosome doesn’t mean that sexually dimorphic men and women won’t continue to make up the vast majority of the population, even if men are now all technically intersex, because the masculinising SRY gene remains intact on one of men’s X chromosomes. Life, therefore, is really about the ‘sex wars’ and the tension between heterosexual sexual attraction and the more equal sexual relationships that some men and women are trying to forge. TY is such a problem because people believe there are fundamental genetic differences between men and women, and because they believe these matter for society to function. Gwyneth Jones is a bold and intelligent writer, but I felt uncomfortable with the treatment of lesbians, in particular, and the way the narrative flipped between being set in a speculative future where sex and gender are being reconstructed, and rehashing old feminist debates from the 1970s and 1980s. Ultimately, I believed in Anna as a character and she carried the book for me, even when it became baffling.

*very dubious superlative

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My Top Ten Books of 2022

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2021 post here, my 2020 post here, my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

A note: If 2021 was a weak reading year, 2022 was an exceptionally strong one! Plenty of my commended books could also have appeared on this list.

In no particular order…

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1. The Dispossessed: Ursula Le Guin. This classic SF novel has rightly swept many readers across the decades off their feet; it’s such an intelligent, detailed and honest exploration of what an anarchist society might look like, and how that would change the kind of people we are. I wrote briefly about it here.

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2. Our Wives Under The Sea: Julia Armfield. MY OBSESSION. After Miri’s biologist wife Leah returns from a mysterious deep-sea mission, she realises that the Leah who left is not the person who’s come back. A book about grief, but also a very fine horror novel. I reviewed it here.

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3. Finding The Mother Tree: Suzanne Simard. Many writers want to combine memoir and nature-writing and very few succeed. Simard does it perfectly, and she’s also the protagonist of a fascinating, revolutionary scientific investigation that would have been enough for a book on its own, as she explores how trees of different species share resources and information via an underground fungal network. I wrote briefly about it here.

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4. The First Woman: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Teenage Kirabo explores the secrets of her own family against a backdrop of Ugandan folktales during Idi Amin’s dictatorship in the 1970s. Makumbi’s writing is incredible: she lets her story speak for itself in a local vernacular that is so clever, vivid and alive. I wrote briefly about it here.

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5. The Anthill: Julianne Pachico. Lina spent her early childhood in Medellín but left for England when she was eight; now she’s returned to the city as an uncomfortable outsider. This book is both a merciless, brilliantly observed critique of foreign visitors to Columbia and a haunting horror story that uses ghostly tropes to explore a character and a country’s traumatic past. In the end, we can never really come home. I wrote briefly about it here.

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6. Spirits Abroad: Zen Cho. I didn’t love every story in this collection but about half of it was so wonderful that I felt it belonged on this list anyway. Cho expertly combines dry wit, Malaysian folklore, a hint of horror, and her own superb imagination. Best stories: ‘The Terra-Cotta Bride’ and ‘The House of Aunts’. I reviewed it here.

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7. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: Gabrielle Zevin. Of course I loved this gorgeous tale of work, friendship, making art, storytelling and play. Sam and Sadie design video games together, but you don’t need to like video games to like this novel, which is really about the challenges of creating. I reviewed it here.

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8. To Paradise: Hanya Yanagihara. CONTROVERSIAL. This wasn’t an instant smash hit for me but I haven’t stopped thinking about it all year, especially the third section of the novel, ‘Zone Eight’. The questions Yanagihara asks about how societies that seem dystopic to us may actually have benefits for those who suffer in our society are just not questions I’ve seen being explored anywhere else. I reviewed it here.

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9. The Sentence: Louise Erdrich. Should have won the Women’s Prize! This isn’t a perfect novel but I felt that Erdrich brought a whole world to life through the warm, humorous voice of her Objiwe narrator, Tookie. I reviewed it here.

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10. Bloodchild and Other Stories: Octavia E. Butler. Five incredible miniature pieces of science fiction (plus a couple things that didn’t work for me, but whatever). Best stories: ‘Amnesty’ and ‘Bloodchild’. I wrote about it briefly here.

Reading Stats

I read 190 books in 2022. This is an all-time record, but I’m not sure why I read more this year than in previous years! In 2023, I’ll again set a target of 150, as I don’t like having a target that’s too ambitious. Of the 190 books I read, 25 were re-reads, a significant improvement over the 11 books I re-read in 2021.

I read 162 books by women (including 1 trans woman) and 28 books by men (including 2 trans men). I think this is the fewest number of books by men I’ve ever read in one year, totalling just 15% of my total reading. I wanted to read more books by men of colour and trans men this year, and I did up my numbers in that respect. Also notable: this is the only time that my top ten books of the year have all been written by women.

I read 72 books by writers of colour and 118 books by white writers. This means I have FINALLY achieved (and smashed) my target of reading 33% of books by writers of colour, getting it up to 38%. I have to say, I’ve really noticed how much more diverse my reading has felt this year, and I’m glad that six of my top ten books of the year were by women of colour. Once again, I will aim to read 33% books by writers of colour in 2022.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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2022 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2022 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 2022, not necessarily first published in 2022.

Highly Commended

2022 was a very good year for short story collections. Two have made my Top Ten, but there were many others that I loved. Kate Folk’s Out There is part of the Julia Armfield/Carmen Maria Machado/Mary South/Irenosen Okojie feminist body horror axis, but for my money, is better than the story collections by any of those writers. NK Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? showcased some incredible novels-in-a-bottle SF shorts. Anthony Veasna So’s first and last collection, Afterparties, unifies beautifully around the stories of 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. Finally, on the meta end, Tom Conaghan’s edited collection Reverse Engineering reprints seven exceptional modern short stories and pairs them with commentary from their authors. My favourite: Mahreen Sohail’s wonderful ‘Hair’.

I also read some brilliant speculative fiction and SFF. T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone made me a confirmed fan of her work; a totally engrossing, original low fantasy that combines the darker, more serious folktale feel of a writer like Robin McKinley with the lightheartedness of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Ellen Klages’s glittering novella Passing Strange transports the reader to the lesbian subculture of San Francisco in the 1940s, with just a hint of magic. Meanwhile, on the SF end, I just loved Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbitwhich had some problems but won me over with its joyful queer romance. (I’m now reading her second book set in the same universe, Ocean’s Echo, and it’s just as good so far!)

Non-fiction was also strong this year, especially memoir. Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim was a brilliant examination of human engagement with water throughout the world, from abalone divers to public pools. Catherine Cho’s Infernoan account of her experience with postnatal psychosis, was emotionally resonant and beautifully written. Meanwhile, Nadia Owusu’s Aftershocks is also an exploration of trauma, as well as Owusu’s experiences of feeling rootless, her race and identity read differently wherever she goes.

I always love a good campus novel and 2022 really delivered! Julia May Jonas’s Vladimir is a sharp, amoral character study of an English professor in her late fifties whose husband John has just been accused by his students of sexual assault. Elaine Hsieh Cho’s  Disorientation wasn’t perfect, but it’s still a brilliant satire, following Taiwanese-American PhD student Ingrid as she tries to finish her dissertation while nursing her rivalry with fellow grad student Vivian, an Asian lesbian activist who writes papers called things like ‘Still Thirsty: Why Boba Liberalism Will Not Save Us’. Finally, Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping eschews literary flashiness for slow meditation as it explores the relationship between Owen, who grew up in rural Kentucky and works as a groundskeeper at the local college, and Alma, a writer-in-residence and ‘cultural Muslim’ whose parents fled Bosnia before she was born.

I read fewer good crime and thriller novels this year, although I was delighted by the revival of horror tropes and full-blown horror novels. Ellery Lloyd’s The Club was probably my thriller of the year: set in the luxurious retreat of ‘Island Home’, it handles its twists realistically rather than sacrificing realism for shock value, which has been a problem for me with a lot of recent thrillers. Nicola Griffith’s The Blue Place is a literary thriller that I’d also class as thoroughly satisfying wish-fulfilment for lesbians: its unforgettable protagonist Aud Torvingen is a former police lieutenant, six-foot tall martial arts practitioner, carpenter and social manipulator. Meanwhile, in horror, I devoured Mira Grant’s Into The Drowning Deepa schlocky novel about killer mermaids that features an especially memorable set-piece when a Deaf character pilots a bespoke submarine into the Challenger Deep.

Women’s fiction, romance and YA are not my favourite genres, but I had a few hits this year. Queer YA really delivered for me, and I was delighted to find novels that focused on lesbian or bi girls, having read so many about gay boys: my two favourites were Rachael Lippincott’s and Alyson Derrick’s She Gets The Girl and Adiba Jaigirdar’s The Henna Warswhich both set up a pair of girls as sworn enemies and let us watch them fall in love while navigating cultural difference. In women’s fiction, Taylor Jenkins Reid made a comeback for me with her latest, Carrie Soto Is BackI LOVED star tennis player Carrie and how the novel unambiguously let women be successful without punishing them.

Biggest Disappointments

Even though 2022 was a great reading year, I actually had more big disappointments than usual. Maybe this makes sense: with so many books to be excited about, it was inevitable that some of them would fall short.

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t 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.

There were a few big SFF releases that disappointed me (though I didn’t always get to these as soon as they were released). I was SO excited about RF Kuang’s Babelbut although I found it a fun read, the characterisation was weak, the critique of colonialism heavy-handed and the worldbuilding hopelessly illogical. Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throneon the other hand, which was also on my 2022 reading list, had three wonderful female protagonists but a slow pace plus unconvincing romance meant that I won’t be continuing with the trilogy. Finally, Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake not only had a beautiful cover but promised sapphic romance between a pirate queen and a geeky mechanic: unfortunately, this book did not work for me on any level.

I was disappointed (as ever!) by some new releases from authors I’ve loved in the past. Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility was a quick, enjoyable read, but felt very much like a literary writer trying out bad SF than the truly good SF that I know Mandel is capable of writing. Emma Donoghue’s Haven is the first book I’ve ever read from her that I thought wasn’t worth reading: this tale of three monks founding a refuge from the world on Skellig Michael in the seventh century relied on caricatures of dogmatic faith, and also threw intersex people under the bus.

Finally, I was disappointed by Tice Cin’s Keeping The House – the blurb was so enticing but didn’t seem to relate to the actual book, and the writing was too convoluted – ditto Morowa Yejidé’s Creatures of Passage. And I hated Josie George’s A Still Lifewhere I was left only with the overriding impression that George and I would not get on.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2022!

A #SciFiMonth Coda: Speculative Fiction in December

Or, things I planned to read in #SciFiMonth and didn’t get round to…

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This gorgeous collection of short stories by Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad, is split into three sections: ‘Here’, ‘There’ and ‘Elsewhere’. The stories in ‘Here’ are set in our world with a darker twist, while in ‘There’, characters spend more time in fantastical settings that are still linked to the real world, and in ‘Elsewhere’, they could be anywhere at all, from the Chinese afterlife to outer space. The collection is also geographically split; the stories in ‘Here’ are usually set in Malaysia, especially in Kuala Lumpur, while the stories in ‘Elsewhere’ often have British settings, and at least two are set at Cambridge. It’s not exactly original, when reviewing a short story collection, to say that you liked some stories more than others, but what struck me about Spirits Abroad was that if it had consisted solely of the first section, ‘Here’, plus everything but ‘Monkey King, Faerie Queen’ from ‘Elsewhere’, it would probably have been one of the very best collections of short stories I’d ever read. Every one of these stories was a knock-out, and they also have an incredible coherence while never becoming repetitive. Cho expertly combines dry wit, Malaysian folklore, a hint of horror, and her own brilliant imagination. These are difficult elements to balance, but somehow she pulls it off every time.

Apart from ‘The Terra-Cotta Bride’, which I reviewed back in November, my favourite stories included ‘The House of Aunts’, which draws on vampiric Malay tales of the pontianak but also tells a heartwarming tale of how teenage Ah Lee both loves and resents the older female family members with whom she lives – often with good reason (‘Dealing with the aunts had actually been less difficult than she had expected. They had told her off for not staying home and doing her homework, but it had been a half-hearted telling off.  The aunts knew they had forfeited the moral high ground by trying to eat her classmate.’). I also loved the family matriarch, Nai Nai, in ‘The First Witch of Damasara’, who is disturbing her family by threatening to become a kuang shi [zombie] unless she’s buried in Penang (‘You know why I wanted you all to call me Nai Nai? Even though Hokkien people call their grandmother Ah Ma?… In the movies, Nai Nai is always bad!’). Meanwhile, ‘The Fish Bowl’ is a less flashy story about a teenage girl who makes a deal with a koi fish as she struggles with the pressures of school, but it moves beautifully towards its joyful ending. ‘Liyana’ is a gentle, sweet story about a family who grow their own houses from the ground, while, for all the ghouls and zombies here, ‘Odette’, which lacks either, is easily the most horrifying tale.

It’s a shame, then, about ‘There’, which went badly off-kilter for me. The stories in this section tilted far too far towards being silly, losing the darker edge that rooted the rest of the collection. The only one I came close to liking was ‘The Mystery of the Suet Swain’, where the depiction of a group of Malaysian students who stick together at the University of Cambridge was so realistic and well-observed that it grounded the rest of it. (Personal bias: there’s something about stories of fairies/faeries that never works for me, so any mention of fairyland was an instant no.) But, on the other hand, the way this collection is grouped does at least suggest that Cho knows very well what she’s doing, and the stories in ‘There’ have obviously balanced perfectly for some readers. All in all, I was so impressed by this collection, and I can’t wait to try Cho’s novels.

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Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory is the third in his ambitious, hard-SF series that began with Children of Time and continued with Children of RuinI had a mixed experience with the first two books – I struggled with the amount of evolutionary biology that Tchaikovsky included, especially in Children of Time, but loved the horror elements – ancient AIs, abandoned spaceships and invading consciousnesses – that were more prominent in Children of Ruin. Children of Memory sits somewhere between the two. It’s set on another planet that was targeted by human terraformers as they sought out new worlds to live on after the destruction of Earth. This planet, Imir, has not fared very well – the small human population has struggled to set up a functioning eco-system, and they live at a subsistence level. Our main protagonist is a teenage girl called Liff, who encounters Miranda, a woman who claims to have come from one of the ‘out-farms’ that encircle the main settlement on Imir, but who seems to originate from a much more distant place. As Liff tries to work out Miranda’s secret, she also encounters the Witch, a powerful woman who is determined to seek out Miranda.

This plot-line was compelling (and I loved the final twist). There’s not enough SFF that mixes SF and fantasy elements like this, and I was reminded of Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s classic Enchantress From The Stars. However, I was frustrated by the more cerebral material in this novel, especially when Tchaikovsky invents yet another Earth species that has followed a different evolutionary pathway – this time, birds. This felt unnecessary, and the bird chapters were so intensely annoying that I had to skim them. I would have preferred to be immersed in Liff and Miranda’s story. I guess I have to conclude that I’m not the right audience for the harder SF elements of Tchaikovsky’s work, even though I’ve enjoyed much of this wildly intelligent and original series.

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

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I’m still trying to find the right time to start Gwyneth Jones’s Life, which looks fascinating but a bit too cerebral for my currently frazzled, end-of-semester brain. Its take on sex and gender looks like it will chime well with some of the reading on trans identities I’m doing at the moment, so watch this space!

Have you read any speculative fiction in December?

#SciFiMonth: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? & The Red Scholar’s Wake

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My experience with NK Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? mirrored my experience with Jemisin’s writing as a whole, but definitely left me feeling keener to read more of her work. There were some stories here that did not work for me. Often, these were early tries at novels of hers that I have read and didn’t quite click with (‘Stone Hunger’/The Fifth Season) or novels of hers that I haven’t read and am now even more sure I won’t click with (‘The City Born Great’/The City We Became). A couple were as heavy-handed as her novella Emergency Skin – ‘The Ones Who Stay And Fight’, ‘Red Dirt Witch’; a couple others just felt silly and under-developed – ‘The Trojan Girl’, ‘Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints…’, ‘On The Banks of the River Lex’, ‘Henosis’.

Having said all that, though, there are twenty-two stories in this book and pretty much all the others were great. This is especially impressive because they span such a range of worlds and styles. A cook encounters a mysterious man who passes her magical recipes (‘L’Alchimista’); two women ally in an alternative version of early nineteenth-century New Orleans (‘The Effluent Engine’); a girl discovers why all the school valedictorians in her firewalled world are taken away from their community (‘Valedictorian’). Easily my favourite stories were the science fiction shorts, which feel like novels-in-a-bottle; I loved the chilling ‘The Brides of Heaven’, where an all-woman community struggles in a space colony after all the men die in a life-support unit malfunction, and ‘The Evaluators’, a first-contact story that reminded me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

While I’ve only read one full-length novel by Jemisin, I definitely feel that she’s at her strongest when she’s creating interesting worlds, and at her weakest when she starts giving her stories simple messages. At her best, she somehow manages to tie together huge narratives in the space of thirty pages or so, never trailing off like I’ve seen so many short story writers do. I’m still not sure what I’ll pick up from her next – it’s a shame that all her longer works seem to be fantasy rather than science fiction, which works less well for me – but I’m open to recommendations.

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I loved the cover and the premise and indeed, the title of Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake. Sadly, I did not love this book. The inciting incident struck me as very similar to that of Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbitwhich I also read this month. When Xích Si is captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, she’s shocked when its leader, the sentient ship Rice Fish, proposes an offer of marriage; her previous wife, the Red Scholar, died in mysterious circumstances, and Rice Fish wants to draw on Xích Si’s technical expertise to work out what really happened. Xích Si and Rice Fish are divided by their views of the world: while Xích Si despises piracy and valorises her scavenger lifestyle, deploring the indentures used by the pirate alliance, Rice Fish argues that the haven she has built using the Red Banner offers a better way of living. Despite these differences, Xích Si and Rice Fish begin to fall for each other – but then an escalation of the political struggle within the pirate fleet threatens to tear them apart.

In my review of Winter’s Orbit, I suggested that it was really ‘romance with a side of science fiction’ and I think The Red Scholar’s Wake falls into that category as well, despite having more superficial SF trappings. de Bodard makes much of the sentient ships, the avatars that both ships and humans project and the bots they then use to interact with their environment, but unlike Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy, this book has nothing interesting to say about sentience, and indeed treats its ship and human characters exactly the same way. Similarly, there’s a gloss of Vietnamese culture that informs the world of this novel, but doesn’t ultimately make it any different from a standard SF setting. The political subplot is incredibly simplistic and predictable, making Winter’s Orbit look Machiavellian.

The problem is, then, that if The Red Scholar’s Wake is really a romance, it needs to be… romantic. And for me, the pairing didn’t work at all. Neither Xích Si nor Rice Fish are given much of a character past the different ethical stances that I described above. Because they have no personalities, there is nothing to draw them together, and yet they fall very quickly for each other. There also seems to be no consideration of the fact that ONE OF THEM IS A SHIP. I imagine de Bodard was trying to show that this kind of pairing is very normal in this world, but she needed to do more work to sell this to the reader (I found the ‘sex’ scene in the middle of the novel INCREDIBLY creepy). Reading this book actually made me reflect on why Winter’s Orbit worked so well, and why it might be a bit unfair to describe it as ‘romance with a side of science fiction’. While I was totally won over by the central pairing in that novel, the science fiction setting wasn’t merely a backdrop; Maxwell used some of the technologies she introduced to explore the trauma of an abusive relationship and how we can mend ourselves. In contrast, The Red Scholar’s Wake was definitely romance plus a bit of science fiction; the two aspects of the novel never speak to each other, and at some points (the aforementioned sex scene!!), are directly in conflict.

Note: After writing this, I found this excellent Goodreads review which picks up on the problematic representation of aromantic and asexual people in this book. This perfectly explains the unease I had around the way that Rice Fish’s relationship with her first wife was depicted, and why I didn’t find her trauma convincing.

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

Four Speculative Novellas: Tchaikovsky, Klages, Le Guin and Cho #NovellasInNovember #SciFiMonth

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Gary was once a normal boy from Stevenage. Now he’s the sole survivor of a group of astronauts sent to investigate a gigantic alien artefact out beyond Pluto’s orbit, wandering through an endless maze of chambers that he calls ‘The Crypts’. Time, space, and other laws of physics are fluid in the Crypts: Gary walks between different atmospheres and finds that gravity doesn’t always behave itself. He also encounters a range of aliens who have also wandered into this artefact, but are clearly fellow explorers rather than its creators; some of whom are friendly, some of whom attack him. But he gradually becomes tormented by a ‘scritchy-scratchy’ noise in his head, and determines to seek out its cause. Adrian Tchaikovsky clearly had fun with Walking to Aldebaran, which is very different from everything else I’ve read by him and reminded me of many other things, from Caitlin Starling’s SF/horror novel The Luminous Dead to Clark Ashton Smith’s terrifying short story ‘The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis’ to old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks like Deathtrap Dungeon (Tchaikovsky is apparently into role-play and there’s a D&D reference at the start, so that last one is probably deliberate). Gary’s narration is also reminiscent of Mark Watney’s dry humour in Andy Weir’s The Martian, but I thought Tchaikovsky made cleverer use of this register, making it clear how Gary uses it as a defence mechanism.  A satisfying SF/horror novella with a good twist (I saw it coming, but I think I was meant to), plus a reference to a classic text at the end.

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What a gem of a book. Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange is a near-perfect novella. Set in San Francisco in the 1940s, Klages beautifully recreates a hidden lesbian subculture, taking us to bars like Mona’s where women dress in drag and butch/femme couples dominate, while detailing the police abuse that lesbians suffer if they are caught – for example – breaking the ‘three garment rule’ and not wearing at least three pieces of female clothing. At the centre of this novel is the relationship between bisexual pulp comics artist Haskell and lesbian drag king performer Emily, but Klages places them within a warm, supportive network of other queer women. While Klages wisely lets us discover her world and fall in love with her characters slowly, the book still maintains an underlying tension because of its mysterious prologue, set decades after the main action, when the last surviving member of the group drives a hard bargain for one of Haskell’s paintings. I also liked that the magic in this novel is an undercurrent rather than a dominant theme, something that forms a natural part of these women’s marginalised lives. The only thing that didn’t quite work for me in Passing Strange was the ending; I adored the way that the novel concluded but I felt that the steps to getting there were a bit rushed, as the women very quickly accept the unbelievable and don’t seem much concerned about an utter sea-change in their lives. Nevertheless, I’d recommend this to readers regardless of whether you normally like SF or speculative fiction; this is really a historical novella with a little supernatural glitter.

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After loving Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed earlier this year, and having read The Left Hand of Darkness back in 2018, I wanted to read more from her Hainish Cycle. To be honest, it was the title of this novella that sold it to me: I couldn’t resist The Word for World Is Forest. In her introduction to the text, Le Guin says that she knew when writing this novella in 1968 against the background of the Vietnam War ‘that it was likely to become a preachment.’ And the plot is familiar; humans despoil another race’s planet and exploit its native people, who then become violent in their turn as they resist. (I was reminded, for example, of Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s brilliant Enchantress From The Stars.) The book is narrated by three people: Lyubov, the human who is the most sympathetic to the Athsheans, Davidson, who is utterly unsympathetic, and Selvan, the leader of the Athshean resistance. I’d agree with Le Guin herself that Davidson is ‘purely evil’ and hence not particularly interesting. I wonder if this novella would have worked better if she’d kept Davidson in play but relegated him to the secondary cast; a more ambiguous human narrator, perhaps Dongh, who grudgingly comes to broker peace with the Athsheans, could have been a good replacement.

However, what saved this novella from feeling moralistic to me was the sheer quality of Le Guin’s writing and the way she develops the oppressed Athsheans, who are presented as another evolutionary branch of humankind. The Athsheans use dreams consciously to solve problems in the ‘real’ world, or what they call ‘world-time’; some of their human colonisers view them as lazy or insane because of this, and the Athsheans return the courtesy: ‘A realist is a man who knows both the world and his own dreams. You’re not sane: there’s not one man in a thousand of you that knows how to dream… Now go back and talk about reality with the other insane men.’ There’s something more here than a simple tale of power and exploitation; a debate over what is ‘real’ and who gets to decide. For the Athsheans, after all, ‘the word for world is forest’, whereas the humans only see the forest as a source of valuable wood. Similarly, we might think, the Athsheans have come to terms with the powers of the unconscious that are beyond rational ken, the dark forest within ourselves, whereas most humans stick to the shallow edges of the mind.

Zen Cho’s ‘The Terra-Cotta Bride’, at 30-odd pages, is really a short story rather than a novella, reprinted in her collection Spirits Abroad. But it’s a superb short story that manages to be funny, wildly creative, immersive and poignant. Siew Tsin is living an unhappy death in the Chinese afterlife after she’s married off to the richest man in the tenth circle of hell (his descendants burn paper money for him ‘with pious fervour and regularity’ and it turns up at the bottom of his closet). In the tenth circle, those who can afford it avoid both the torments of demons and the risk of being called to ‘have tea with Lady Meng’ and being reborn. Siew Tsin’s afterlife takes an even more bizarre turn when her husband brings home a beautiful terra-cotta automaton, Yonghua, as his bride; the inhabitants of hell are used to terra-cotta warriors causing trouble, but nobody has ever seen anything like this before. At this point, I thought I knew how the story was going to play out – but actually, I did not. Like the tiny paper replicas of real-world objects that the descendants burn for their ancestors, this story creates an entire world in miniature. I can’t wait to read the rest of Cho’s collection.

I feel like I got lucky with my #SciMonth #NovellasInNovember choices here! Do any of these appeal to you? READ PASSING STRANGE OBVIOUSLY And have you been reading any SF, speculative fiction and/or novellas this month?

‘This isn’t life and it isn’t time’: Our Share of Night by Mariana Enríquez

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In 1985, the world watched as a thirteen-year-old girl, Omayra Sánchez, slowly died as she stood trapped in debris after a volcanic eruption in the Tolima region of Colombia. Pinned down by the ruins of her own house, Omayra’s dead aunt’s arms were locked around her niece’s legs and feet. Given the equipment on the ground there was no way to get Omayra out. She survived for several days as gangrene and hypothermia set in; by the time she died, her fingers had become white and her eyes had turned completely black.

Even more than the legacy of the military junta in Argentina that led to the death or ‘disappearance’ of thousands of people, Omayra’s story haunts the pages of Our Share of Night, the first of Mariana Enríquez’s novels to be translated into English. Alongside these real horrors, Enríquez gives us a terrifying shadow-story that revolves around the cult of the ‘Darkness’, whose followers believe it can offer them eternal life despite its destructive mutilations when it manifests via a medium. When Our Share of Night opens in 1981, the only medium is Juan, a seriously ailing man born with a congenital heart condition whose body has also broken down through being forced to manifest the Darkness. Juan is desperate to protect his young son, Gaspar, who is the cult’s next target – if Gaspar doesn’t inherit his father’s powers, they plan to transfer Juan’s consciousness into Gaspar’s body so Juan can live on after his impending death.

Despite its 736 pages, Our Share of Night has a straightforward plot and a small cast of characters. Even in its side-stories we focus tightly on Juan, Gaspar and the Darkness. And here, I think, is one reason why I so admired Enríquez’s ambition and many of her set-pieces, but found the book such a painfully slow read. Yes, it’s long, but it doesn’t normally take me five weeks to get through a book of this length; I read Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise, which is almost exactly the same length, in less than two. Like To Paradise, I’d suggest that this book is best approached as a collection of novels and novellas rather than as a single work. But unlike To Paradise, the unity of theme and character between the different sections makes Our Share of Night feel much more repetitive. I think the only section that completely worked for me was the short-story-length ‘The Zañartú Pit’, set in 1993, where we see anthropologist Olga Gallardo exploring the remnants of these dark rites in a Guaraní village devastated by the military coup, unaware of exactly what she’s getting herself into.

And maybe this was my favourite section because it really is the only section where Enríquez truly weaves together the horrors of Argentinian history and the terror of the cult of the Darkness. Throughout the rest of the novel, these are very much two separate stories, with the Darkness almost standing in for the junta rather than reflecting and illuminating it. Perhaps I am at fault here as well; I know very little about this period in Argentina and, if I knew more, the parallels might be more obvious. But I do think that Enríquez was going for something akin to Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill or Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Body, which both entwine the violent history of a country (Colombia and Vietnam respectively) with more supernatural gore and horror.

Omayra, then, feels more present in the novel than anything done by the military junta because she is the figure that haunts the set of characters who are the only ones who really come to life: Gaspar’s childhood friends, Pablo, Vicky and Adela. And this gives me another reason why this book was so difficult to drag myself through: ultimately, I didn’t care what happened to Juan or to Gaspar. They never felt like real people to me. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice by Enríquez; touched by the weirdness of the Darkness, Gaspar is set apart from his three, more human friends. But again, I thought of another brick of a novel that I found much easier to read, and re-read: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Gaspar shares something with the traumatised Theo, but despite Theo’s story meandering almost as badly as Gaspar’s at times (get out of Las Vegas, please!!!), I stayed with it because I was so invested in Theo. And unlike The Goldfinch, which pulls off a stonking final section that fully repays the reader’s investment, Our Share of Night manages to rush its climax.

This is a very difficult novel to sum up, because despite the fact that I did not enjoy reading most of it, I know that it will absolutely stay with me; and there are sections where Enríquez’s prose, as translated by Megan McDowell, is extraordinarily powerful. I’ll definitely be reading Enríquez’s translated short story collections. Still, the pacing is hopeless, and the horror only intermittent. I can’t in good conscience recommend it.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It was left over from my R.I.P XVII challenge (though I have been reading it since October 8th!)

#SciFiMonth and #NovellasInNovember Reading Plans!

I’m once again taking part in #SciFiMonth, which runs from 1 to 30 November. As I did in 2021, I’ll be combining this challenge with #NovellasInNovember. Serendipitously, I tend to get on a lot better with SF novellas than with any other kind of novella, so these two challenges work well together for me.

I’ll be using this challenge to read some SF books I already had on my Kindle, plus some NetGalley ARCs and the science fiction that’s remaining on my 2022 reading list, then adding some SF novellas! (I doubt I will actually get through all these, but oh well).

On My Kindle

N.K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? has been on my reading list for some time. I admired Jemisin’s The Fifth Season but did not feel compelled to read the rest of the trilogy. However, I’ve enjoyed short stories by her in various anthologies, and would like to give her writing another go.

Gwyneth Jones’s Life (originally published in 2004) has recently been republished in a beautiful SF Masterworks edition. I think it was Elle’s review that originally drew my attention to this novel, which focuses on the fictional, brilliant scientist Anna Senoz who discovers ‘transferred Y’ syndrome; sections of the Y chromosome can cross to the X chromosome, which may eventually make the Y chromosome redundant. I’m continually intrigued by SF which plays with sex and gender (The Left Hand of Darkness, AmmoniteThe Men) and this sounds like a good addition.

Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit promises to focus on a high-ranking political figure rushed into an arranged marriage with another man against the backdrop of an interplanetary empire. However, it’s pitched as Ancillary Justice meets Red, White and Royal Blue, so I was instantly sold! I’m intrigued by the idea of a space opera that is quite light and romantic, as I often find them too convoluted and overly earnest (see: A Memory Called Empire).

NetGalley ARCs

Coincidentally, I had two SF ARCs lined up that both publish in November – and both on the 24th of the month! Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory is the final instalment in the trilogy that began with Children of TimeThis hugely ambitious space opera started with the remains of the human race sleeping in stasis on an arkship called the Gilgamesh, having fled from an uninhabitable Earth. They come across a planet that appears to be habitable, but it’s guarded by an aggressive and hostile AI, and populated by giant, sentient spiders. In my opinion, the sequel, Children of Ruinwas the stronger novel, having dispensed with set-up and showing us how humans and spiders ally in the search for new worlds. The blurb of Children of Memory seems to suggest an about-face, as it focuses on a different human colony established by a different arkship, the Enkidu.

Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake promises space pirates and lesbians, an irresistible combination for me – and just look at that cover! Xich Si’s ship is captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, led by Red Fish, who was the wife of the Red Scholar – until her wife died under suspicious circumstances. Xich Si expects to be tortured to death by Red Fish, but then she receives an unexpected offer. This sounds superficially similar to the blurb of Winter’s Orbit, so I’ll be interested to see how the two books compare.

2022 Reading List

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The only SF novel left on my 2022 reading list is Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi. Set in a near-future Earth in the 2050s, the wealthy have fled to colonies in space, while the poor are left behind to survive on a dying planet. I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go In The Dark, the third section of Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise and Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility.

SF Novellas In November

Ellen Flages’s Passing Strange sounds right up my street. It follows the intersecting lives of four women in 1940s San Francisco as they explore the magical borderlands of the city. Inter-war and wartime US and European settings are usually a pass for me – I’m utterly unseduced by this kind of glamour – but I’m hoping the speculative elements will enrich this familiar material in the way they did in Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen.

Meanwhile, I’ll be continuing my journey through Ursula Le Guin’s wonderful science fiction with her novella The Word for World Is Forest (the title itself makes this a must-read for me!). This is part of her Hainish Cycle, which also includes The Left Hand of Darkness and The DispossessedIt focuses on a military logging colony set up on another planet by people from Earth, and I’m hoping for more of the social insight I so loved in The Dispossessed.

I’m also picking up another Adrian Tchaikovsky (he is PROLIFIC), but his novella Walking to Aldebaran sounds like it operates on a completely different scale from his spidery space operas. This tells the story of an astronaut sent to explore a mysterious alien rock; when he gets lost in the tunnels inside it, he becomes uncomfortably aware there’s something else there with him… Tchaikovsky is good at SF horror, possibly my favourite genre-cross.

Finally, I’ll be reading Zen Cho’s The Terracotta Bride. I wanted to try something by Cho, and this is advertised as ‘A tale of first love, bad theology and robot reincarnation set in the Chinese afterlife.’ Intriguing!

Are you taking part in #SciFiMonth and/or #NovellasInNovember? What will you be reading? Do any of my picks sound tempting?

October Superlatives

October superlatives already! You can also read my R.I.P XVII/Spooktastic Reads challenge round-up for this month.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry. Teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s! However, this evocative historical novel was also brilliant on how our perspectives on race, feminism and queer/trans identity have changed, not always for the better. My full review is here.

(Hon. mention: This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, which gives its time-travel narrative somewhat short shrift due to some odd pacing choices, but which partly makes up for this by its beautiful, poignant depiction of the central father-daughter relationship.)

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Patricia Wants To Cuddle by Samantha Allen. I hoped this short novel would be the right side of ridiculous, but unfortunately it was the wrong side of ridiculous. The finale of a Bachelor-style franchise is taking place on a remote island where a group of female hikers went missing decades ago. Unbeknownst to our Instagram-obsessed cast, a female Bigfoot is stalking the island, aided and abetted by a cult of lesbians. Doesn’t it sound engagingly weird? However, the execution was really off. The first two-thirds of the novel reads like a light thriller criticising social media, then the final third pairs gruesome horror with humour. There needed to be a much darker, more subversive undercurrent from the beginning to make this shift work. And while this book obviously wants to be queer and satirical, I still wasn’t a fan of the lesbian stereotypes which didn’t seem to do any interesting narrative work (the interspersed love letters were so cliched they were painful to read), and the cult of ‘Patricia’ needed a lot more page-time. A shame, because it has a good cover.

The Book That Was So Well-Written But Not Much Else This Month Was…

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… The White Rock by Anna Hope. Hope’s fourth novel follows four unnamed narrators in four different time periods, travelling in the same area of Mexico: the Writer in 2020, the Singer in 1969, the Girl in 1907 and the Lieutenant in 1775. All of her novels have been well-written, but The White Rock is on another level. The strength of her writing here, however, helped me really pin down why it is that none of her novels have quite worked for me (I’ve also reviewed The Ballroom and Expectation). The quality of the prose is definitely there but the quality of the ideas is consistently lacking. These four narratives are linked by a sense of worlds that are ending, relationships with the environment that are being destroyed. However, Hope has little new to say about this; once you try and look past the prose, the story dissolves. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Only Book I Read From The Booker Longlist Before The Winner Was Announced Was…

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… Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. This debut novel made this year’s Booker longlist but not the shortlist, and, while I admired Mottley’s writing, I’m not sure I’d have even put it on the longlist. Kiara is a black teenage girl living in Oakland who turns to casual sex work when she and her brother are threatened with eviction from their rented apartment; things turn even darker when the local police pick her up and force her to have sex with them at regular ‘parties’. Kiara’s voice is convincing, with some fantastic sentences: ‘the boyfriend I had when I was fourteen and still trying to live out childhood’; ‘a series of tingles have coursed across my forehead like that feeling when you’re blindfolded, but your body feels the eyes’; ‘Mama wore wide-leg red pants to go fall in love with Daddy and kept them even after they tore at the seams.’ The prose also occasionally waterfalls into long, run-on sections that feel utterly authentic for this seventeen-year-old narrator. However, the story itself felt too familiar, and Mottley sometimes tells us what we should take from a scene rather than letting it speak for itself, as in the otherwise strong set-piece when Kiara and a friend go to a ‘funeral day’, taking food and clothes from a funeral parlour: ‘Funeral day is a reckoning, when we mimic thieves and really just find excuses for our tears’. Despite the excellent writing, therefore, I doubt Nightcrawling will stay with me.

The Best Essay Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller. This was on my 2022 reading list; it was also shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize and the 2022 Jhalak Prize. As Miller explains in the introduction, these essays ‘are about things I have withheld’, quoting the poet Dionne Brand: ‘I am a black woman speaking to a largely white audience… so that there are some things that I will say to you and some things that I won’t. And quite possibly the most important things will be the ones that I withhold.’  He writes so thoughtfully about racialisation – how society constructs racial categories to put people into – and especially well, perhaps surprisingly so, about white women, in essays like ‘Mr Brown, Mrs White and Ms Black’, ‘The Crimes That Haunt The Body’ and ‘The White Women and The Language of Bees’. As Miller demonstrates, we tend to think of ‘race’ and ‘racialisation’ only when we think of people of colour, but ‘white’ is a constructed category as well. And as a black man, he’s acutely aware of his own perspective – structurally advantaged by his sex but not by his race, although his queerness complicates things further. The book largely focuses upon Britain and Jamaica, Miller’s two home countries, plus a trip that he takes to Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, but speaks to experiences of racism elsewhere too. There were a few very short pieces here that felt a little less necessary, but otherwise this is an excellent, elegant and moving collection of essays.

The Best Novel About Ballet I Read This Month Was…

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… They’re Going To Love You by Meg Howrey. I was enraptured by Howrey’s last novel, The Wanderers, a brilliantly dead-pan but richly thoughtful story that followed three astronauts training for a Mars mission in the Utah desert. They’re Going To Love You is a very different book. Carlisle trained as a ballet dancer in New York, relying heavily on the support of her father Robert and his long-term partner, James. In the wake of the 1980s AIDS crisis, she watched them both uneasily, reassured by their monogamy but haunted by the sudden deaths of young men they knew. The novel skips between Carlisle’s past and the present [c.2016], where we learn that Carlisle has been estranged from both Robert and James for nineteen years, after her father forbade her to contact them. Ballet has been served badly by fiction: most ballet novels I’ve read emphasise the tortured nature of the art and how masochistic you must be to want to devote your life to it. Howrey, a former professional dancer, presents a much more nuanced view. I doubt this will be memorable in the way that The Wanderers was, with Carlisle’s first-person voice already slipping from me. Nevertheless, it’s still all too rare to read a novel that stars an ambitious, childless woman who isn’t punished for her perversity. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 10th November. 

(Hon. mention: The Cranes Dance, Howrey’s first novel, which is much MORE about ballet than They’re Going To Love You is, and is also very much worth reading, but which I found a bit schematic in its depiction of the two Crane sisters.)

The Only Book In Translation I Read This Month Was…

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… Saha by Cho Nam-Joo. This short novel introduces us to a city-state called Town where you belong to one of three levels of society: either you are a full Citizen, an ‘L2’ who’s licensed for up to two years to fulfil particular jobs, or a ‘Saha’, one of the social outcasts who lives in the high-rise Saha estates. But Saha feels caught between two narratives, two types of story. One follows Saha resident Jin-Kyung’s determination to get to the bottom of her brother’s disappearance after he’s falsely accused of murdering his girlfriend. The other skips around between the people who live in Saha and is organised by the numbers of the units they occupy. I think I understood what Nam-Joo was trying to do with this second narrative, and I liked the idea of bringing the Saha estates to life through the voices of this peripatetic community. But it strays back too often to Jin-Kyung, and the individuals often blur into a litany of suffering rather than strongly coming forward in their own right. I also struggled with the choppy transitions and sketchy writing, which often felt like an early draft. I was struck to see that this was translated by Jamie Chang, who also translated Kim Hye-Jin’s Concerning My Daughter – and I had exactly the same problems with the prose in that novella! So, this at least may be a translation issue, but I still didn’t feel that Nam-Joo really pulled off what she set out to achieve here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 30th November. 

What were the best and worst books you read in October?

More R.I.P XVII Reviews #SpooktasticReads

I picked out some ‘mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror or supernatural’ reads for the R.I.P XVII challenge back at the end of September. This also doubles up with Spooktastic Reads, which runs from 19th to 31st October and focuses on dark fantasy.

What I’ve Been Reading

The book I was most excited about reading this month was definitely Naomi Novik’s The Golden Enclaves, the conclusion to her Scholomance trilogy. I don’t think I’ve looked forward to a book this much since the sixth Harry Potter book came out (sadly, I hated book six, so I didn’t anticipate book seven, which was good, since I hated it even more!). And while nothing can ever top A Deadly Education for me, this was probably on par with The Last Graduatealthough I badly missed spending time in the Scholomance. Like The Last Graduate, the first half of The Golden Enclaves is rather slow and meandering, but it REALLY kicks into gear in the second half, with some satisfying character development and a return to the more complex moral questions that I missed in The Last Graduate. A great trilogy with an utterly superb first book that should be required reading for anyone who loves dark academia – or who has struggled with not being on the same wavelength as their classmates.

Sadly, despite it being another of my most-anticipated releases of 2022, I didn’t find RF Kuang’s Babel nearly as satisfying. You can read my full review here – plus a few thoughts about why Novik’s Scholomance trilogy is a much more interesting addition to the ‘dark academia’ sub-genre.

Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks also made my 2022 reading list because it promised ‘teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s’ and it definitely delivered! Danvers High’s field hockey team of ten girls plus one token boy have never been very good at actually winning games. However, their luck reverses when they make a deal with the devil and start recording their bad deeds in a secret notebook, channelling their power not only to win every game they play but to achieve their own secret ambitions. Barry’s prose – or at least, the particular narrative voice she chose for this novel – takes a little getting used to. It’s deliberately dense with contemporary references, and skips between the collective voice of the team and the individual perspectives of its members, each of whom get a chapter of their own. It also skips back and forth in time rather disconcertingly. Having said that, this quixotic style is what makes We Ride Upon Sticks so distinctive, and I can’t imagine it being told in any other way. This isn’t the fast, feelgood read the pink cover might seem to promise, but I loved how subtly it dealt with feminism, race and queer/trans identity in the late 1980s, acknowledging that times have changed both for the better and for the worse.

(I also planned to read Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night for this challenge. I’m a third of the way through this behemoth and it’s going… slowly, despite some unforgettably terrifying set-pieces. I will review next month, if I finish it then!)

 What I’ve Been Watching

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I was pleasantly surprised by Hocus Pocus 2given that I’ve watched the original Hocus Pocus countless times since it first came out when I was a small child, and can recite most of the dialogue. Hocus Pocus 2 leans quite heavily on the original film, but also brings some excellent moments of its own (I loved the mini-arc where the jock character works out that he’s been ‘making fun of people’, the three child actors who had so carefully learnt all of the witches’ mannerisms, and the hoovers that save the day). What is perhaps most impressive is the way the film mostly preserves the original’s clever balance between spooky, funny and poignant, although the first Hocus Pocus is scarier and more atmospheric. The final scene with Winifred could have been sappy but was just weird and off-kilter enough to work for me – and, contrary to some reviewers, I didn’t feel that the three witches ceased to be bad guys – we’ve always known they care about each other and nobody else! Obviously not as great as the original film, but a fun and nostalgic coda.

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

The release of the new Netflix adaptation of The Midnight Club inspired me to seek out the original Christopher Pike novel from 1994, which was one of my favourite books in my early teens. Pike was one of the big teen writers of the 1990s and early 00s, author of dozens of books which were sold to the same audience as Point Horror but which were much more gruesome, disturbing and original. I don’t remember very many of his books (I’m sure I read some of The Last Vampire and Remember Me series, I still own Chain Letter, and that I was so intensely freaked out by Magic Fire* that I couldn’t finish it). And until I picked it up this month, I hadn’t reread The Midnight Club in decades, suspecting I might find it silly and exploitative as an adult.

Well, I was wrong! I still love it! The Midnight Club packs such a powerful atmospheric punch as it follows a group of teens living in a hospice who tell each other stories every night as they are waiting to die. All the stories the characters tell are fully incorporated into the narrative, a narrative device that rarely works for me but which is brilliantly-handled here. Pike somehow manages to give each character a distinct storytelling style and to tell us stories that are not always good but are always interesting. Also, we can’t always neatly draw parallels between the stories and the characters’ lives, which makes the novel much richer, more interesting and more realistic (funnily enough, fiction isn’t always thinly-veiled autobiography). The spiritual aspects of the novel ought to be absurd, but because the book is genuinely moving and we really do care for the characters, it somehow manages to carry it. Pike is known for his horror novels, but this is less a horror novel (though the stories-within-the-story have horror elements) and more a haunting meditation on death. MOVE OVER FAULT IN OUR STARS AND YOUR MANY RIPOFFS.

*yes I did just spend too much time googling ‘Christopher Pike novel brains in vats’.

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Soulmates Ilonka and Kevin share a moment.

So, how about The Midnight Club Netflix series? I’ve only watched half the series so far, so my thoughts may change, but here goes: It diverges from the novel immediately, and I wasn’t surprised, given how much of the original is about reincarnation and past-life regression. But I loved how it feels very much like a remix of the book, with references popping up when you least expect them. Anya (Ruth Codd)’s horror story incorporates an experience she had in real life in the original novel; Kevin (Igby Rigney) casually references the Louvre, having told an entire story centred around the museum in the book version. The original cast are all present and correct but several new characters are added, a choice that makes sense given this is obviously intended to be more than a one-season show, and we’re going to lose them all one by one.

As in the book, the different ‘voices’ of the storytellers are very cleverly handled. I especially liked the very first story, told by Natsuki (Aya Furukawa), which dissolves into chaos as she insists on jump-scaring her audience over and over again. I was less certain about the decision to add an overarching storyline about a mysterious cult that meets in the basement of the hospice; it just felt unnecessary to me, and it’s inevitably dragged out across the whole season, only allowed to advance by increments in each episode. However, I did like that Ilonka (Iman Benson) is drawn to the hospice because she reads about a girl who was miraculously cured after straying into the woods nearby; this is, again, another clever remix of Ilonka’s original storyline, where she spends most of the novel in denial about her prognosis, relying on herbs and healthy eating rather than pain medication. And while I miss the weird intensity of our original group of teenagers, this would also have been hard to translate to screen. Fingers crossed for the second half of the season!

Did you read any spooky books this October? Or watch anything scary?