Book Review: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

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

My Top Ten Books of 2021

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find 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: I feel like 2021 has been one of my worst reading years for a long time, not in terms of the number of books I read, but the quality – or perhaps I was just very bad at picking books that suited my mood. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was struggling to find books for my top ten rather than struggling to choose between them. These books are still all great, but I’m hoping to have a better reading year in 2022.

In no particular order…

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1.My Dark Vanessa: Kate Elizabeth Russell. I held off from reading My Dark Vanessa for a long time, convinced that there was nothing new to add to the vast number of recent novels that deal with coercive, abusive relationships. But this collaboration between Russell and her teenage self made a huge impact on me. I reviewed it here.

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2.Light Perpetual: Francis Spufford. I loved Spufford’s clever and inventive Golden Hillbut I thought this was even better. Many readers and reviewers seem to have misunderstood its ‘alternative timeline’ conceit; it’s not a Sliding Doors type book, but kills off its ordinary protagonists at the beginning so we can feel the weight of their loss, even though they make no direct impact on history. I reviewed it here.

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3.A Deadly Education: Naomi Novik. Novik’s Spinning Silver was one of my favourite books of 2020, and this very different, but utterly delightful novel took me back to being a pre-teen reading the early Harry Potter books for the first time, although the narrative voice also reminded me of one of my adult SFF favourites, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. I reviewed it here.

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4. In This House of Brede: Rumer Godden. 2021 was the year of novels about nuns for me, and although there were some other nun novels that I really enjoyed (such as Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts), this was the best of the bunch. Set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s, this novel centres on new recruit Philippa, but expands outwards to give a portrait of the entire community. I reviewed it here.

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5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: George Saunders. This is probably the best book I’ve ever read about fiction-writing, even though it’s centred on a series of classic Russian short stories which I am not especially interested in. I’ve now signed up for Saunders’s online writing course on substack, Story Club.

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6. Slow River: Nicola Griffith. Nicola Griffith can’t put a foot wrong with me; this is the third time in a row she’s appeared on my top ten books list (after Ammonite in 2019 and Hild in 2020). Slow River is not only the best SF novel about sewage treatment I’ve ever read, but features a truly compelling central character and a skilful back-and-forth structure. No idea what’s going on with the cover of this edition.

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7. Transcendent Kingdom: Yaa Gyasi. What an incredible, cerebral, emotional novel. It’s brilliantly written, handles so many interesting ideas, and yet is so vibrant and human. I loved the protagonist, Gifty. I reviewed it here.

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8. Little Gods: Meng Jin. This is another one with a great, complex protagonist, which seems to be something I’m really looking for in novels at the moment: Su Lan is only the more fascinating because her story is told through a series of other narrators, and we never hear from her directly. I reviewed it here.

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9. Breasts and Eggs: Mieko Kawakami. This took me such a long time to read, but it was such a worthwhile experience. This strange, meandering novel about lonely writer Natsu has a great deal to say about parenthood and our responsibilities to the next generation. I wrote briefly about it here.

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10. In The Dream House: Carmen Maria Machado. Squeaking in just under the wire… I raced through this memoir between Boxing Day and New Year, hugely impressed by Machado’s ability to weave together self-narrative, fantasy, and academic reflections on how abusive relationships between women have been (not) written about before. Everyone who recommended this to me was right.

Reading Stats

I read 153 books in 2021. Slightly more than 2020, but quite a few less than my 2019 record, 175. This is pretty much where I want to be, so in 2022, I’ll again set a target of 150. However, I’d also like to start keeping track of how many books I re-read. This year, 11 of the books I read were re-reads, and I’d like to see that number go up in 2022.

I read 125 books by women (including one trans woman), 27 books by men, and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary.  This means I read the same percentage of books by men as I did in 2020 – 18%. I usually say I don’t care about upping the number of books I read by men, but this article has made me realise that I really want to read more by men of colour. Therefore, I’ve tried to include lots of books by men of colour in my 2022 Reading Plans, which will be up tomorrow. I also still want to read more from trans men, despite reading 0 books by trans men this year!

I read 43 books by writers of colour and 110 books by white writers. This means the percentage of books I read by writers of colour has dropped a little since 2020, to 28%. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2022.

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

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2021 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2021 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 2021, not necessarily first published in 2021.

Highly Commended

 In prize lists, I loved Annabel Lyon’s Consentwhich should have made the Women’s Prize shortlist – and Richard Powers’s Bewildermentwhich did make the Booker Prize shortlist.

The new Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was massively overhyped, but it was easily my favourite Rooney so far – I loved her clever use of psychic distance, switching between an observer’s view of her characters to their innermost thoughts.

In science fiction and speculative fiction, I thought the writing team behind James S.A. Corey pulled off a hugely satisfying conclusion to The Expanse series with the final instalment, Leviathan Falls – this series stuttered a bit in the middle but the last three books were all great, and Corey effectively tied up all the loose ends while wisely leaving the ‘dark gods’ of the universe still mysterious. Tade Thompson’s Far From the Light of Heaven was a hugely inventive space-opera-cum-crime-thriller with touches of horror. Will Maclean’s The Apparition Phase was a brilliant ghost story, something that is almost impossible to achieve at novel-length. Finally, Nina Allan’s short story collection The Art of Space Travel showcased what I love best about her writing in haunting stories such as ‘Flying in the Face of God’, ‘Four Abstracts’ and ‘The Art of Space Travel’ itself.

In historical fiction, I was pleasantly surprised by Stacey Halls’s engaging Mrs Englandwhich had one of the dreaded floral covers but actually featured a complex, sympathetic protagonist who works as a Norland nanny in Edwardian England. Meanwhile, everything this damning review says about Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary is true (except that Cambridge does offer a masters degree in eighteenth-century and Romantic studies – that’s Cambridge being weird, not Penner!). Nevertheless, I found it irresistibly fun and gripping, so I guess I recommend it anyway, if you can deal with the terrible history?

Finally, in YA and YA-adjacent, I liked Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter (one of my most anticipated reads of 2021) despite its pacing problems and tendency to spell things out for the reader – it follows an Ojibwe teenager who’s an unenrolled tribal member, and so feels she’s never quite fit into her family. Emily Layden’s All Girls gave me Prep vibes (amazing), and was serious and insightful about the inner worlds of teenage girls (rare). I picked up T. Kingfisher’s Bryony and Roses after loving her short story in Escape Pod; this Beauty and the Beast retelling is heavily influenced by Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, but still brings its own wit and logic to the table, plus a nicely chilling touch of horror.

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 have to say, there were a lot of disappointments in 2021. For whatever reason, this was a pretty lacklustre reading year for me. So this list is longer than normal.

I was disappointed by quite a few books written by authors I’ve loved in the past. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun promised a fresh take on AI but was just a tired rehash of Never Let Me Go. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness drowned in its own tweeness about literature, despite a promising central cast. And Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew abandoned all the subtlety of Elmet for Dickensian caricatures.

Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders unfortunately didn’t live up to her excellent debut, The Doll FactoryJessie Greengrass’s The High House had none of the originality of Sight. Mark O’Connell’s Notes From an Apocalypse was only mildly disappointing compared to his To Be A Machine until I reached the end, where he admits he regularly lies to his young son about the state of the world – this is horrific (children know what’s going on, so lying to them just leaves them alone with their fears). Sarah Moss’s The Fell confirmed to me that I don’t like the direction her writing is currently going. Finally, after loving Kindred so much, I did not get on at all with Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, although some of this was not Butler’s fault – so many YA writers have clearly copied her dystopian tropes that they now feel cliched in a way they wouldn’t have done when the book was originally published. Still, I found the heroine disturbingly monomaniacal and the diary entry format limiting.

At least some of this must be me, rather than the books! But I think it explains why 2021 felt like such a dud of a reading year, even though I also read many books that I loved. On that note…

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2021!

More #NovellasInNovember: Kashimada and Serpell

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I looked forward to reading this collection of two novellas in translation from the Japanese writer Maki Kashimada (trans. Haydn Trowell) back in January 2021. I have to admit, part of the attraction was the cover; this design from Europa Editions is simply gorgeous. However, I’ve liked a lot of Japanese novellas and short novels in recent years, and was excited to try a writer new to me. And I enjoyed the first and longer novella in this collection, Touring the Land of the Dead, a lot. It’s an introspective third-person piece that focuses on Natsuko, who is accompanying her disabled husband Taichi to a spa hotel she used to visit with her family in her childhood. Natsuko’s family shun and jeer at Taichi for not being able to support Natsuko. However, as Natsuko’s mind darts between past and present, we learn that ‘that life’, her past with her mother and brother, was a place of horror for her, and she is still trying to shrug them off in the present. Natsuko’s striving to become her own person in the face of family expectations is a familiar theme from much Japanese fiction written by women that I’ve read, but Kashimada puts a different slant on it. As we come to realise, Natsuko has already got out, but can’t quite credit that she’s escaped.

The second novella in this collection, Ninety-Nine Kisses, is very different in style and tone. It’s narrated in first person by the youngest of four sisters, Nanako. Her three older sisters remain unmarried and living at home with their mother, and we come to realise that Nanako sees them as parts of the same whole, and is sexually possessive over them, although she denies their relationship is incestuous. As the novella develops, we realise there is something off-kilter about the whole family, who pride themselves on being able to engage in ‘dirty talk’ with each other as a sign of their closeness. This is undoubtedly a weird and disturbing story, but I didn’t find that to be a problem in itself; instead, the style didn’t work for me because it felt like everything was spelt out as explicitly as possible. There’s a sense that Kashimada wants to shock here with blatant sexual content, but this overshadowed the more interesting aspects of the relationship between the four sisters, and made it feel like nothing changed or emerged over the course of the novella, because it was all there from the beginning.

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(Technically, this is a short collection of essays rather than a novella, but it’s also Non-Fiction November, so…)

I put Stranger Faces on my 2021 TBR after being hugely impressed by Namwali Serpell’s essay on empathy in fiction. Serpell is a professor of English at Harvard, so it’s no surprise that these short essays on faces as signifiers have an academic bent. All have moments of real, accessible insight, but most use an interpretive framework that feels a little alien to somebody like me, who’s used to reading texts either as a historian or as an ‘ordinary reader’, whatever that is, rather than being trained in film or literary criticism. Serpell’s interested in how texts, both written and visual, are put together, excavating their juxtapositions and shots for layers of meaning, whereas I tend to think of texts in terms of story structure and unreliable narration. For example, ‘Mop head’, her analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the murder of Marion Crane, focuses heavily on the visual doubling that transfers the viewer’s interest from Marion to her sister Lila, whereas I’m more interested in thinking about Marion as a decoy protagonist and how this affects the storytelling (although unlike Serpell, I’m certainly no expert on Psycho!)

Both our sets of interests come together in ‘Two-faced’, Serpell’s essay on Hannah Crafts’ ‘The Bondwoman’s Narrative’, a novel that may have been written between 1853 and 1861 by an enslaved woman. If this book was really written by an escaped female slave, it would be the ‘only known novel written by a fugitive from slavery and the first by an African-American woman.’ However, as Serpell outlines, since this text was republished in 2002, academics have fiercely debated its ‘authenticity’, with some arguing that it was written by a white abolitionist. Serpell points out the anachronistic claims made by critics such as John Bloom, who argued that the text could not really have been written by an enslaved woman because of its multiple literary references and sophisticated vocabulary, which ignores the erudition of former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley.  However, she also deconstructs our assumptions about what makes a text ‘real’ or ‘fake’, highlighting Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s argument that no text can be truly pure, and that our instinctive assumptions about ‘tells’ that reveal a text’s authorship are often wrong (Crafts’ class snobbery has been cited by critics as a sign that Crafts must have been white and as a sign she must have been black). This reminded me, incidentally, of the female reviewer who thought Jane Eyre must have been written by a man because the writer had such a poor knowledge of women’s clothes.

Although I admired ‘Two-faced’, the real gem here is ‘E-faced’, the final essay in Stranger Faces, which I absolutely loved. ‘E-faced’ focuses on emoji, and while I’m sure Serpell is not the first writer to analyse emoji, this is the first serious piece on them I’ve read, and I found it fascinating. Serpell points out that emoji were intended to clarify meaning but, like all languages, have developed shifting and uncertain meanings of their own. She also thinks about how we use emoji – often ‘stacking’ them, posting multiple emoji in one go – and how emoji are almost always unnecessary, but add a kind of warmth to a message (which I guess makes sense of why I, personally, so often add a pointless one to the end of a text, e.g. ‘Hope you have a good time at the party!’ 🎉) There are also some great bits of trivia. Wittgenstein experimented with ‘proto-emoji’ in his ‘Lectures on Aesthetics’ in the late 1930s, arguing that simplified drawings of expressions could make language more flexible and more precise. And the word ’emoji’ has nothing to do with e- as in electronic or emo- as in emotion, but comes from the Japanese words (picture) and moji (character). Interesting stuff! 👍

Sci-Fi Novellas for #SciFiMonth #NovellasinNovember

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Premee Mohamed’s These Lifeless Things is a dystopian novella that switches between the diary entries of Eva, a forty-something survivor of an apocalyptic attack, and the first-person point-of-view of Emerson, an anthropologist studying the ruins of her city fifty years later. Eva refers to the monsters that have devastated the world only as ‘Them’, and both narrators struggle to understand what they truly are/were: they don’t seem to be aliens who hail from the same kind of time and space as we do, nor beings that have emerged from Earth itself. The narrative chillingly hints at Their ability to affect human minds themselves, with millions committing suicide at the beginning of the invasion. In Emerson’s time, They have disappeared without a trace, but Emerson is convinced that her research is essential to understand what happened during the three years now known as ‘the Setback’. However, her colleagues in the hard sciences aren’t convinced, and tell her she is wasting her time studying Eva’s diary, even when what she finds in the ruins starts to mirror what Eva described.

I found These Lifeless Things to be an adept and skilful read, but it didn’t affect me in the ways I’d hoped. There was something in the way the story was told that made me expect more of a twist, or perhaps more of a sudden linkage between Eva’s world and Emerson’s. Unless I’ve been too stupid to miss subtle clues, this doesn’t really happen. Instead, Eva’s story devolves into a cliched -let’s-rescue-the-children plot, and Emerson’s frustrations with her colleagues are spelt out rather too clearly at the end of the novella when she bursts out: ‘you think there has to be an application for things we study? You think everything has to end up in some… lab somewhere, a product for people to buy. Well, I happen to think there are other questions in the world.’ The novella wasn’t quite as scary as I had hoped, either, despite some good lines about statues coming to life and trees being possessed by Them. I found Emerson’s sections much more engaging than Eva’s diary entries (but then I love fictional anthropologists and hate diary entries as a narrative device, so that was pretty inevitable) and I found myself wondering if this might not have been better, and more frightening, if it had been told completely from Emerson’s point of view, with perhaps quoted snippets from Eva’s entries. (Interestingly, Eva’s close alliance with another survivor in the face of this devastation reminded me of Sarah Hall’s pandemic novel Burntcoatbut I wasn’t sure what it added here). However, I would certainly read more by Mohamed.

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That was the dystopia, now for the utopia! I loved Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series and her previous novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, so her latest novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, was one of my most anticipated 2021 releases. Chambers’s brand of sci-fi is often described as cozy or comforting, but I think at its best, it’s optimistic; there are certainly darker strands in all of her previous work, such as the enslaved clones in A Close and Common Orbit or the horrific experience of having your ship buried in alien slugs in To Be Taught, If Fortunate. For me, then, A Psalm for the Wild-Built marks a bit of a departure; dedicated ‘to anyone who needs a break’, it is cozy to the max. Non-binary* monk, Sibling Dex, leaves their job tending the monastery garden to become an itinerant tea-monk, dispensing tea and advice as they travel around, but even this new life starts to feel limiting. When they strike out into the wilderness where the robots that humans made disappeared after the ‘Factory Age’, they meet robot Mosscap, and wander around with Mosscap chatting about life and humanity.

And… that’s it. I love positive visions of the future after endless recycled dystopias, but this felt so thin. It reads more like children’s fiction than anything else, but without the profundity and timelessness that the best children’s fiction delivers. The characters’ voices are far too similar for a novella that promises a meeting of two beings from very different worlds, and this makes their philosophical dialogue feel especially contrived. In general, I think Chambers’ meditations on ethics are original and engaging, but she doesn’t manage to make them feel organic in this story. By the end, I wished we had just stayed with Dex handing out different kinds of tea to suffering people; that’s the kind of cozy I could possibly suspend my critical faculties for.

*I’m not sure if this is the right term in this futuristic context – Dex describes themselves as ‘not having a gender’, while other people in this world do use gendered titles and pronouns.

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As the hip-hop group clipping explain in their afterword to The Deep, this novella emerges from a collaborative creative space. clipping were inspired by the music of techno-electronic duo Drexciya to write their song, ‘The Deep’, which drew from the same mythology – an underwater world peopled by the descendants of enslaved, pregnant African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships. Solomon’s novella is another link in this chain, and I loved the way clipping described their contribution: ‘It’s a retelling that reaches back to the materials it adapts, and complicates them; makes them better. In this sense, Rivers has coauthored our song in as profound a way as we have inspired this book.’ I also liked the way clipping rejected the concept of this universe having a fixed ‘canon’: ‘We prefer to imagine each of these objects as artefacts – as primary sources – each showing a different angle on a world whose nature can never be observed in totality’. The Deep, therefore, draws from an incredibly rich imaginative space, telling a story about historical suffering, and who has to bear its weight. Its protagonist, Yetu, has been selected by the community as its ‘historian’, carrying these memories so the community doesn’t have to, but bringing them back together through the ritual of the Remembering so they retain their identity as a people.

The Deep is a portrait of Yetu and her community, who call themselves the wajinru, and so it is not, and does not need to be, plot-driven. Solomon evokes the deep underwater world of the wajinru atmospherically, as well as the ways they have developed away from their original human forms. However, given the nature of this novella, this fascinating world really needed to be matched by exceptional writing, and unfortunately, here it fell a bit short. Solomon’s prose wasn’t distinctive or memorable enough for me, and there is a tendency to spell things out that could have been more subtly conveyed, especially when it comes to Yetu’s internal struggles about her role as historian, which become quite repetitive: ‘She wasn’t used to having wants and needs of her own at all. It had always been a battle between what the wajinru needed, what the ancestors needed, and what she needed. A single lonely girl, her own needs never won.’ Thematically, The Deep is brilliant; it takes the central concept of Lois Lowry’s The Giver and thinks about it specifically in the context of the burden of memory that oppressed groups carry, and it also reminded me of the figure of Arha in Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, whose personal identity is ‘eaten’ by the Nameless Ones. But for this to work for me as a fiction rather than merely an exploration of ideas, it needed something else, something more.

#SciFiMonth: Yu and Binge

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I put Charles Yu’s second short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You, on my 2021 TBR after reading his short story ‘Good News Bad News’ in A People’s Future of the United StatesYu has been compared to the brilliant science fiction writer Ted Chiang, but honestly I don’t think they have much in common (cynically, you might say that they’ve been squashed together because they’re both Chinese-American men who write speculative short fiction). Chiang’s work is intensely cerebral and serious, whereas Yu’s short stories are much more playful, satirical and strongly reminiscent of early George Saunders (e.g. CivilWarLand In Bad Decline). Like Saunders, Yu is fond of making fun of American corporate culture and late capitalism, enjoying phrases like ‘the new slogan, Be The Person You Wish You Were™’ and ‘I’ve always loved Autumn®’. And as with Saunders’ early writing, this can work well for one story but quickly become tiresome over the course of an entire collection.

Luckily, there are some gems here. I thought the opening story, ‘Standard Loneliness Package’, was really wonderful; I read it twice in a row to fully appreciate how Yu pulls it off. It’s based on a pretty standard kind of science fiction premise; our narrator works in a call centre where people can pay him to feel their pain for them. However, Yu elevates this material beyond a simple ‘what if?’ by the skill with which he weaves various elements of the story together. His deliberately repetitive style builds resonance, so the final paragraphs are horribly moving even though you don’t quite know why. While nothing else in this collection is quite as good, the shorter ‘Troubleshooting’ works on the same kind of terms, but is even more pared down. Yu also gives us two stories that imagine what it would be like to be a character in formulaic fictional worlds; of the two, I thought the Star Trek inspired one (‘Yeoman’) was a lot better and funnier than the Dungeons and Dragons/World of Warcraft inspired one (‘Hero Absorbs Major Damage’). The rest of the collection is padded out with a lot of very short pieces that cover similar ground, which is a shame, because Yu’s best stories show that when he’s good, he’s really good.

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Professor Everywhere, Nicholas Binge’s debut novel, sounded right up my street: Chloe Chan, an international student at the University of Warwick, is determined to discover what the mysterious Professor Crannus is up to, and is drawn into a series of multiple worlds. I love books set at colleges or universities and I also love books that draw on physicist Hugh Everett’s many-worlds theory. To top that off, this novel has the kind of precise, contemporary historical setting that I also enjoy; it’s set around the time of the G20 summit in London in 2009. And to be fair, Professor Everywhere delivers on its promises, even if Binge’s version of time travel, with mysterious ‘Constants’ that remain the same throughout space and time, was a bit fuzzy for my liking. By the end, I found myself wondering why it never quite drew me in, as there isn’t anything obviously wrong with the story Binge is telling.

This might just be a mismatch between the book I wanted to read and the book Binge wanted to write, which is not anyone’s fault. Professor Everywhere is more of a straightforward time travel thriller than I expected from the blurb, with oblique references to the ‘Pimlico incident’ culminating in a satisfyingly dramatic resolution. Although it’s framed as Chloe’s memoir (complete with footnotes), Binge has more fun geekily referencing other SF writers than getting into questions of unreliable narration or subjectivity, which I found a little disappointing. And, despite being set at a university, the novel doesn’t really have a campus atmosphere – which is, to a degree, understandable, especially given Warwick’s thoroughly modern campus, but I still felt Binge could have done a little more with his setting (there is that beautiful lake!). I’d recommend this to fans of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter; less so to those seeking dark academia or really clever metafiction.

Netgalley Reads in November

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Ruth Ozeki’s third novel, A Tale for The Time Beingwas not only one of my favourite reads of 2013, but one of my favourite ten books of the decade (2010-19); her debut novel, My Year of Meatswhich I came to late, was one of my favourite reads of 2020. It’s such a shame, therefore, to admit that I really did not like her latest book, the 500+ page doorstopper The Book of Form and Emptiness. The basic story at the heart of it isn’t even a bad one; teenage Benny is dropping in and out of school after being diagnosed with a mental health condition, while his widowed mother Annabelle struggles with hoarding and mourns the senseless death of his father, Kenji. All three characters (even though Kenji is dead and doesn’t get much page-time even in flashbacks) are memorable creations, especially Annabelle, who is simultaneously sympathetic and deeply frustrating, a difficult balance for a writer to pull off. (I particularly enjoyed Annabelle’s correspondence with a Marie-Kondo-like figure who wrote a bestselling Zen guide to our relationship with things, Tidy Magic). 

And yet, this story, which could have made a good novel half the length of this one, is totally buried in twee narration from ‘The Book’ and saccharine asides about the life of books in general. (‘Books don’t have eyes or hands, it’s true, but when a book and a reader are meant for each other, both of them know it.’). I am really allergic to this way of talking about books, especially within fiction itself, and I’m ready to admit that I may be more annoyed about these cutesy sentences than is truly fair. However, there are other problems with The Book of Form and Emptiness that link to the childishness of its style; it veers off on a pointless tangent with a group of irritatingly quirky misfits, Benny’s ability to hear the voices of inanimate objects goes nowhere, and the end is so ridiculously rushed and unbelievable that I started searching for a meta explanation for it (did The Book make it up?), even though, as far as I can tell, there’s no textual evidence for this. If you really, really adored Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, you’ll probably like this; otherwise, my best advice is to read A Tale for the Time Being.

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

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Ann Patchett is a wonderful novelist, but in my opinion, her non-fiction is even better. I adored her memoir Truth and Beauty and her previous essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriageso I was keen to get my hands on her new collection of essays, These Precious Days. All I can say is, Patchett really has a gift; she manages to make the most trivial essays about her life, things that would seem self-indulgent in the hands of most other writers, somehow work. Knitting, decluttering, cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time for a group of stranded college students, not getting a tattoo in Paris; these snippets of prose are all easy and fun to read. I preferred the balance of pieces in This is the Story of A Happy Marriage, which featured fewer, longer pieces of work, as it’s in long-form essays that I think Patchett really shines.

Fortunately, there are some of those longer pieces here as well. I think most readers will find the title essay, ‘These Precious Days’, about Patchett’s almost accidental friendship with artist Sooki Raphael, to be the stand-out, and it does stand out; it’s beautiful and moving and actually helps me make sense of what people mean when they say writing is ‘luminous’. It’s a comforting beacon of an essay about human goodness, life and death. But there were other stand-outs for me as well. I loved Patchett’s wry, thoughtful reflections on choosing not to have children in ‘There Are No Children Here’, and, weirdly, her homage to the children’s writer Kate DiCamillo, ‘Reading Kate DiCamillo’, even though I haven’t read anything by DiCamillo myself and am not sure I intend to. ‘Flight Plan’, which is mostly about her husband Karl’s love of flying planes, demonstrates Patchett’s ability to weave all sorts of disparate material together into a coherent emotional whole, something many essayists attempt but few achieve. There are fewer big hitters here than in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and overall, I think it’s a slighter collection. But it’s still so worth reading.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 23rd November.

#NovellasInNovember: The Fell by Sarah Moss

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I cheated a little by reading this at the end of October!

I’ve been reading Sarah Moss’s books since I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy of her eerie fiction debut, Cold Earthway back in 2009, and I have read all the fiction she’s ever published. However, I’ve long been waiting for her to write a novel that I really, really love; The Tidal Zone probably came closest as a whole, while Cold Earth and Night Waking (which I’ve reviewed twice!) frustrated me with their moments of brilliance. The Fell, her latest novella, has made me realise that it’s perhaps time to give up this hope, as I don’t think Moss’s writing is moving in a direction that fits what I want from fiction. Like her previous novella, Summerwater, The Fell is told in stream-of-consciousness through multiple voices. Set in the month-long Covid-19 lockdown of November 2020, it focuses on Kate, a struggling single mum who can’t bear the constraints of her two-week isolation period any longer and so secretly strikes out alone onto the moors. We also hear from Kate’s teenage son, Matt; mountain rescue volunteer Rob; and Kate’s next-door neighbour Alice, who is shielding after having had breast cancer and lives alone after the death of her husband.

I imagine some people would have fits if they saw that I’ve tagged The Fell as a ‘historical novel’, but that’s what it feels like to me, set in a specific time, place and mindset that seems very long ago. This, I think, is going to be the problem faced by writers who want to write realistic fiction about the Covid-19 pandemic; it’s all so tiringly familiar and yet already out-of-date; it’s neither of the moment or of its time. This is the first fiction I’ve read to tackle Covid-19, but it already feels full of cliche. The overall message of this novella, conveyed none-too-subtly through anecdotes about baby monkeys clinging to cloth mothers and comforting voices easing patients’ need for pain relief, is that we all need human connection to be truly happy, and there is no real substitute. Moss lays it on even more thickly when the mountain rescue team pull together to rescue an injured Kate. The problem is that we’ve heard nothing else but the importance of human interaction since the start of this pandemic, so this really doesn’t feel like it needs to be said. It evades both more interesting questions about the value and pain of solitude and totally ignores the fact that everyone’s experience of the pandemic wasn’t sitting at home being bored and baking bread, being able to take walks in their private front gardens when they felt too cooped up. In this, it rehearses observations that are already so familiar from social media and journalism: ‘Social distancing, whoever came up with that, there’s not much that’s less social than acting as if everyone’s unclean and dangerous, though the problem of course is that they are, or at least some of them are and there’s no way of knowing.’ No lockdown fanatics or ‘freedom’ protesters here; everyone in this novella reluctantly accepts the need for lockdown and complains about it politely.

These, perhaps, are problems that would face any novelist who is one of the first to write about Covid-19, but I think this topic also posed particular problems for Moss. Alywnne writes in their Goodreads review of The Fell that ‘Moss’s story’s almost too realistic at times, preserving rather than creatively reinventing the territory it covers.’ This, I think, is spot-on, and explains my frustration with Moss’s more recent fiction, which has moved away from both the imaginative exploration of Cold Earth and the visceral historical material evoked in Night Waking, Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, but yet is too slight and insubstantial when compared to the more realistic The Tidal Zone. Moss’s characters have started to feel too comfortable, too similar in their world-views, and her thinking a little stale. This passage near the end of The Fell is so sub-Reservoir 13 (and I thought Reservoir 13 was sub-Jon McGregor anyway!):

The raven flies down the valley. It’s hours yet, till sunrise. Sheep rest where their seed, breed and generation have worn hollows in the peat, lay their dreaming heads where past sheep have lain theirs. The lovely hares sleep where the long grass folds over them. No burrows, no burial. The Saukin Stone dries in the wind. Though the stone’s feet are planted deep in the aquifers, in the bodies of trees a thousand years dead, its face takes the weather, gazes eyeless over heather and bog. Roots reach deep, bide their time. Spring will come.

While, taken on its own, this is beautiful writing, the passage feels totally unearnt within the context of the novel, which doesn’t spend much time focusing on the connections between nature and humanity (and you really have to earn a line like ‘spring will come’). It feels like it was pulled from a draft of Summerwater, which also tried this trick (and while I didn’t like it there either, it was at least a theme more convincingly woven through the novel).

It’s a shame to write a review like this for a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed so much in the past; I hope Moss’s next book takes a different direction.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 11th November.

November Reading Plans

There are two challenges running in November that I’d like to take part in again this year: #SciFiMonth and #NovellasInNovember (co-run by Rebecca and Cathy). 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 also have an eye on mopping up some of my 2021 TBR, finishing my Netgalley proofs for the year, and getting some belated spooky reading in. Here’s some thoughts I had about what to read this month.

Sci Fi Month

I’ve wanted to try Charles Yu’s writing for some time, so I’m looking forward to trying his collection of short stories, Sorry Please Thank You, which seem to have an SF bent: ‘A big-box store employee is confronted by a zombie during the graveyard shift, a problem that pales in comparison to his inability to ask a coworker out on a date . . . A fighter leads his band of virtual warriors, thieves, and wizards across a deadly computer-generated landscape, but does he have what it takes to be a hero? . . . A company outsources grief for profit, its slogan: “Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.”’

Nicholas Binge’s Professor Everywhere sounds like it combines all the things I love most: campus settings, mysterious academia and multiple worlds: ‘Chloe Chan is just about to give up on finding any real scholars at University when she starts to hear the rumours about Professor Roland Crannus… As her obsession with the Professor grows, she’s plunged into an otherworldly chess game of linguistics and etymology. But the deeper she falls into his academic labyrinth, the more she begins to realise that someone, or something, is hunting them both.’

Novellas in November

I want to read the two novellas by Maki Kashimada collected in Touring the Land of the Deadwhich was one of my most anticipated reads for 2021; I think the second novella in the collection, Ninety-Nine Kisses, sounds even more interesting.

I’ve read everything Sarah Moss has written, and I have a Netgalley proof of her lockdown novella, The Fellwhich is out in November. It sounds great: a woman escaping quarantine walks up onto the moor by herself, but an injury means she can’t get back home again…

Namwali Serpell’s essay collection, Stranger Faces, clocks in under the 200-page mark. I was impressed by Serpell’s writing in her fiction debut, The Old Drift (even though I didn’t finish it), and I loved her essay on empathy in fiction (even though I didn’t agree with all of it), so I’m excited to check this out!

I also have my eye on Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novella, Open Water, which follows the love story of two black British artists in London. I’m not sure about the second-person narration, but I’m happy to give it a go.

Sci Fi Novellas in November

I’m a huge Becky Chambers fan, so her new novella, A Psalm For The Wild-Built, is high on my list; it was also one of my most anticipated 2021 reads. This starts a new series about robots living in the wilderness of Earth.

I also want to try Premee Mohamed’s These Lifeless Things, which follows Eva, a survivor of an apocalyptic invasion of monsters.

Finally, I’ve wanted to read Rivers Solomon’s The Deep for ages: ‘The water-breathing descendants of African slave women tossed overboard have built their own underwater society—and must reclaim the memories of their past to shape their future’.

Netgalley

Apart from the Moss, I have two NetGalley proofs to read in November: J.R. Thorp’s Learwife, which retells the story of King Lear from the point of view of Lear’s queen, and Ann Patchett’s new essay collection These Precious Days. I like Patchett’s non-fiction even more than her fiction, so I’m particularly excited to dive into the latter.

Spooky Reading

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I’ve requested The Haunting Season from Netgalley, a collection of spooky short stories by an amazing line-up of writers: Bridget Collins, Natasha Pulley, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Elizabeth Macneal, plus a couple of writers I’m keen to try: Jess Kidd and Sara Collins. (Not so keen on the final two contributors to the collection, Andrew Michael Hurley and Laura Purcell, but you can’t win them all). If Netgalley don’t come through for me, I’ll probably buy this, as I’ve been excited about it for the whole year!

Which of these books should I prioritise (as I clearly can’t read them all?) What are your November reading plans? Are you taking part in either Novellas in November or SF Month, or a different challenge?

Autumn Reading, 2021

Autumn (I also like the American ‘fall’, which I used in my early childhood) is my favourite season, for all the usual reasons: Halloween, Bonfire Night, leaves changing colour, beautiful afternoon light, back-to-school, cozy jumpers, pumpkin spice lattes, comfortable boots. And some less-usual reasons: my birthday, days getting shorter, dogs allowed on the North Tyneside/Northumberland beaches, allowed to wear tights again. I always like to seek out some autumnal reading, which might be cozy or spooky or set in the fall, but sometimes just ends up feeling ‘autumnal’ to me for some unspecified reason. Here’s some thoughts on what I’ve been reading:

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Something about Sarah Hall’s work always makes me think of autumn. In the case of Burntcoat, it’s the protagonist’s, Edith’s, art, which involves sculpting from wood using burning techniques she learnt in Japan, so the wood can bear the weather better. Edith describes the process:

There was incredible skill to it – collapsing the cell walls to strengthen the wood, preserving its integrity while enhancing its beauty. Too much heat and the piece was ruined, too little and the wood wasn’t sealed, could not achieve the finish. Shun called this experience. The wood is experiencing fire now. It will be improved.

This passage could serve as an epigraph for the whole book, which darts between Edith’s past and her present. In the present, she is nearing the end of her life, living with the aftereffects of the novavirus, a pandemic that ravaged the world several decades ago. In the past, she faces the pandemic in isolation with her lover, and remembers her mother’s struggle back to life after a brain haemorrhage. I found this all strongly reminiscent of some of the Nina Allan short stories I recently read, especially ‘Neptune’s Trident’, ‘Flying in the Face of God’, and ‘Four Abstracts’. Hall has the same knack as Allan of creating imaginary art that feels so real you almost believe it exists – next time I’m at Scotch Corner, I’ll expect to see Edith’s witch – and she’s also interested in those outcast by illness and dealing with its effects on their body.

I’ve read everything Sarah Hall has written, and her uncompromising, vivid prose is in full force in Burntcoat. I found her last collection of short stories, Madame Zerosomewhat disappointing, so for me this felt like a return to form, and I was glad to see her publish a longer work again. While this was not as distinctive and memorable for me as my favourite Hall, The Carhullan Armyit’s still a highly original take on a theme that was familiar in fiction long before coronavirus: how we survive mass illness and death, and what is left if we do.

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

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Tade Thompson’s new SF thriller, Far From The Light of Heaven, also fills the autumnal brief for me, as well as the RIP Challenge, by being pretty creepy. Shell Campion is the first mate on the starship Ragtime, and she expects an easy ride; she’ll be in deep sleep for most of her ten-year stint travelling to the new settlement of Bloodroot, and even when she’s awake, the AI captain will actually be in charge. However, when Shell is awakened abruptly from stasis, she realises something has gone terribly wrong; the AI has been compromised, and robots have killed a number of her sleeping passengers. Shell’s story intersects with that of a number of other characters, most hailing either from Bloodroot or from the space station Lagos, as she tries to find out what is going on and save her ship.

This gripping space-opera-cum-crime-thriller reminded me at times of James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, especially in its touches of horror as vegetable contagion creeps through the spaceship, and in its use of multiple points-of-view. There’s also some hints of China Miéville in Thompson’s genre-mixing. I found Far From The Light of Heaven more compelling than the only other novel I’ve read by Thompson, Rosewaterwhich failed to emotionally engage me with its protagonist. Nevertheless, it does still have a few of the same issues as Rosewater – in short, it sometimes spreads itself too thin. Thompson has a habit of suddenly lurching into chunks of backstory in the middle of the narrative, which feel out of place, especially in a novel as fast-paced as this one, and could have been introduced more originally. There are rather too many points-of-view broken up into very small chunks, which adds to the reader’s disorientation. And while this isn’t billed as the first book in a series, it feels very much like it’s setting up for something bigger, especially in its introduction of the race of mysterious Lambers, which is wonderfully imaginative but feels like a distraction from the main goings-on in this book. Nevertheless, Thompson continues to impress me with his originality, and I’d certainly like to read more set in this world.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th October.

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Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books have been a favourite autumnal read for me since I was a teenager, and although none of the later titles in the series ever reached the heights of Sabriel or Lirael, I still always enjoy returning to the Old Kingdom. This latest instalment, Terciel and Elinor, jumps back in time to focus on Sabriel’s parents, moving between their stories and ultimately interweaving them. Terciel is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, charged by the current Abhorsen to help her bind the Greater Dead creature Kerrigor, who we know will become significant later on in the history of this world. Elinor has grown up in Ancelstierre knowing nothing of the Old Kingdom, convinced that the Charter Mark she bears on her forehead is a disfiguring scar – until she is forced to come face to face with her heritage. I always get most out of the parts of the Old Kingdom books that are set in one of Nix’s marvellous set-piece locations (my favourite sequence in any of the novels is the part of Lirael where Lirael is still living with the Clayr) and so I was delighted to find that some of them feature here: Wyverley College and Abhorsen’s House (though sadly, we don’t see much of the Clayr’s Glacier). Like its predecessors Abhorsen and Goldenhand, Terciel and Elinor is fun and immersive, but doesn’t imaginatively introduce or expand this world in the ways that Sabriel and Lirael did; therefore, I can’t rank it as highly as the first two books, which were truly magical. Nevertheless, fans of the Old Kingdom series should like this.

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

(This may seem frivolous, but I think part of the reason I haven’t got as much out of the two more recently published Abhorsen novels – Goldenhand and now Terciel and Elinor* – is simply because I haven’t had the sheer pleasure of reading them in the beautiful American hardback editions of the original trilogy. I read both on Kindle, but the British and newer American editions are so hideous that I don’t think it would have helped if I bought them in hard copy. Sadly, there are no matching editions for the more recent novels.)

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*I know Clariel exists but I wouldn’t have liked it regardless of what format I read it in