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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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.

The End of the Year Book Tag, 2020

Resurrecting this from last year!

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

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NO, because I just finished it: Hild by Nicola Griffith. I’ve been reading it since September and had tried and failed to read it before in 2017 and 2018. Set in Britain in the seventh century and following the early life of Hilda of Whitby, it’s a massive undertaking akin to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy (although I found its thicket of names and references even harder to navigate). Eventually, I tackled it in the same way I tackled The Mirror and the Light: reading a set number of pages a day and not caring if it took me months to finish. In this way, I found myself completely sinking into Hild’s world, which although led by men has an emphasis on the bonds between women that reminded me of Griffith’s earlier SF novel Ammonite. So expansive and beautiful.

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

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British nature-writing always feels autumnal to me, as it tends to run the full range of the seasons, and so I’m looking forward to Whitney Brown’s memoir of her time as a female dry stone-waller, Between Stone and Sky. Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy!

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

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I’m excited to read Ernest Cline’s sequel to his SF smash hit Ready Player One – of course, it’s called Ready Player Two – which is out on the 24th November. I loved the first book but never took it seriously, so my expectations are both very high and very low. From the blurb, it sounds like Kline has essentially written Ready Player One redux, which is exactly what I want.

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

Going back to my mid-year freakout tag, I’m still keen to read New Suns, a collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour edited by Nisi Shawl. I received Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman for my birthday, and I’m looking forward to diving into this story of an elderly British-Antiguan man who has hidden his homosexuality for his entire life. Finally, I picked up a proof of Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder, a debut that focuses on an intersex protagonist growing up in Nigeria.

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

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If I ever get round to reading it, I feel like I’m going to either love or hate Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went To The Woods, which is about a young woman who gets kicked off a reality TV show and ends up on a 1960s-style commune.

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2021?

Yes! I have a stack of 2021 releases to read. Of those, I’m most excited about James Smythe’s The Edge, the long-awaited third installment in his Anomaly Quartet; Natasha Pulley’s new speculative historical novel The Kingdoms, which sounds like it’s about time travel; and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, which is about three characters who get caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Kolkata.

Tagging everyone who wants to join in with this tag!

Three #NovellasInNovember (and #NaNoWriMo)

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This blog has been a bit quiet recently! The reason for this isn’t that I haven’t been reading – in fact, after a couple of bad reading months, I’ve been tearing through books in November, and have read nine already, though admittedly this included three novellas (see below) and a pretty short YA novel. No, the reason for my relative silence is that I’ve decided to properly commit to #NaNoWriMo this year to finally crank out a significant chunk of a first draft of my Antarctic-set novel, working title Old Ice. I’ve never been able to write more than about 10k words during NaNo before, but I think this year might be my year – lockdown means there are fewer distractions, so I’m getting into a really decent writing habit. Also, it turns out that all my intermittent efforts with freewriting exercises over the last couple of years mean that I’ve built up much more of the world of this novel than I anticipated already, and that I’ve got a lot better at just putting words on the page without my inner editor intervening. However, it turns out that getting out about 1700 words of fiction every day means that something has to give, and I haven’t had as much creative energy for blogposts as normal. So here’s a quick #NovellasinNovember post as a stop-gap.

I never officially join #NovNov, which is co-run by Rebecca and Cathy, because, much in the same way that some people can’t stand short stories, I’m not a big fan of novellas. I almost always end up thinking that the book could have been shorter or longer! However, by chance I usually read a couple of novellas in November anyway, and here are my thoughts on the three I did read.

Becky Albertalli’s Love, Creekwood is a YA novella that’s strictly for fans of her first two novels set in the same universe – Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Leah On The Offbeat. (Technically, The Upside of Unrequited is also in this universe, but I don’t like it so I tend to pretend it doesn’t exist.) If you haven’t read those two books, I don’t think this has much to offer you. But if you have, this is an unashamed 100+ pages of fanservice as we catch up with the Creekwood gang at college, especially our two favourite queer couples. Did this book need to exist? No. Did I want it to exist? Definitely, YES – and as a bonus, Albertalli is donating all her profits to The Trevor Project, an US LGBT+ suicide hotline. Normally I’d be cross at having to pay £4.99 for a novella, but I can’t begrudge that.

Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is narrated by a Chilean writer called Lucina who, due to complications of diabetes, has been told that the veins behind her eyes are fragile and could burst at any minute, rendering her at least partly blind. She’s been instructed to ‘stop smoking… and then don’t hold your breath, don’t cough, do not for any reason pick up heavy packages, boxes, suitcases. Never ever lean over, or dive headfirst into water. The carnal throes of passion were forbidden’. At a party in New York, where she is pursuing an academic career, she suddenly sees red spreading across her vision and realises that the worst has happened. However, even as Lucina tries to navigate the world with limited sight, she realises that she has now been set free to indulge her physical urges in every way she couldn’t before because she feared her fragile veins would break. Meruane has spoken about how this novella is based on her own experience of sight impairment but is not autobiographical; however, she says, one thing she realised when she was almost blind was how visual her world still was, with her brain filling in the gaps. Therefore, Seeing Red is surprisingly full of vivid visual imagery. It’s also written in a stream-of-consciousness rush that allows us to inhabit Lucina’s world as she waits for an operation that may or may not restore her sight. This was another of those stylistically experimental books that keep the reader close inside the protagonist’s head, like A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, that I struggled to connect with emotionally, though it’s incredibly well-written (kudos to the translator, who has had to cope with a lot of figurative language that can’t translate easily, starting with the title itself, which is Sangre en el ojo in the Spanish-language version, or ‘blood in the eye’; apparently, that connotes flying into a rage in the same way that Seeing Red does in English). The medical narrative is fascinating, however, and this book would be a good fit for the Wellcome Prize had it been eligible and were the prize still running.

Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? is a quiet novella about Berie and Sils, whose were incredibly, inseparably close as adolescents in the early 1970s but who no longer see each other now they are adults. The book is framed by two sections where Berie is holidaying in Paris with her husband, but the bulk of it focuses on a single summer when the girls were working summer jobs in Storyland, a run-down children’s amusement park in upstate New York. Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? reminded me of an expanded version of one of Alice Munro’s short stories; Moore has the same ability to distil an entire life into a scant number of pages. I was especially fascinated by the title; Berie explains that the local boys used to shoot frogs with BB guns when she and Sils were children, and they used to try and bandage them up. Later, seeing the tragi-comedy in this situation, teenage Sils painted a picture called ‘Who Will Run The Frog Hospital’ which depicted them caring for the injured frogs. (Moore was reportedly inspired by a real-life painting by Nancy Mladenoff, which appears as a frontispiece in some editions of this novella). This book is all about the evocation of a particular emotional period, and the final paragraph conveys the heartbreaking loss of adolescence as well as anything I’ve read. Thanks very much to Rebecca for passing on her copy!

Have you read any novellas in November? Or is anyone else attempting #NaNoWriMo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leap Year Science Fiction, 2020*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you read any science fiction or speculative fiction recently?

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

My Top Ten Books of 2019

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find 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.

In the order I read them…

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1. The Bedlam Stacks: Natasha Pulley. I read this novel back in January, but it’s haunted me all year. Merrick Tremayne, once a smuggler for the East India Company, travels to the tiny mission colony of Bedlam on the edge of the Amazon where the water glows, statues walk and the woods are said to be cursed. Pulley is so good at weaving together the speculative and the everyday, and The Bedlam Stacks also interrogates colonial classifications. I reviewed it here.

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2. Brit(ish): Afua Hirsch. This is the best contemporary text I’ve read on black British identity. Hirsch, the daughter of a Ghanian mother and European Jewish father, is acutely intelligent on intersectionality as well, especially class and gender – she’s painfully aware of her own privilege in relation to her dark-skinned, working-class boyfriend, who doesn’t get why she wants to write a book about race in the first place, but also utterly clear on how women of colour are marginalised. I reviewed it here.

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3. The Leavers: Lisa Ko. This beautiful debut novel alternates between the story of a son and the story of his mother. Daniel Wilkinson is the privileged son of two New York academics, but he was once also Deming Guo, a Chinese immigrant boy abandoned by his mother Polly at the age of eleven. Ko handles the reader’s split sympathies adeptly, but she also writes movingly about the need to leave where we’re from to feel like we’ve ‘made it’. I reviewed The Leavers here.

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4. Convenience Store Woman: Sayaka Murata. I think this novella, translated from the Japanese, is so memorable for me not just because of the words on the page but because of everything it made me think about. Keiko is thirty-six and is totally devoted to a convenience store; her family think that she ought to want more out of life, yet Keiko is happy the way she is. But why be happy when you could be normal? I reviewed it here.

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5. Milkman: Anna Burns. Of all the novels that have made my top ten lists over the years, this is definitely the one that I enjoyed least when I was actually reading it. But the narrator just wouldn’t let go. For me, the definitive novel of the Northern Irish Troubles. I reviewed it here.

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6. The Rift: Nina Allan. Selena’s sister Julie went missing when they were teenagers, and Selena had come to assume that Julie is dead. But then Julie turns up again, claiming to have lived the last couple of decades on a distant planet called Tristane. Allan pulls off this premise by leaving it open to interpretation; the last few segments of the novel, which postulated that ‘there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the universe, and most of them were terrifying’ are especially haunting. I reviewed it here.

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7. Self-Portrait With Boy: Rachel Lyon. One of the best books on the psychological costs of being an artist that I’ve ever read, this novel starts off with a simple dilemma. Lu Rile accidentally takes an incredible photograph of a small boy falling to his death outside the window of her apartment block. Should she show the picture and kick-start her career, even though it would horrify his grieving parents? However, Lyon is smart enough not to let this question dominate her whole story, which interrogates questions about truth and connection. I reviewed it here.

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8. The Nickel Boys: Colson Whitehead. I wasn’t as bowled over by The Underground Railroad as everybody else, but Whitehead more than made up for it with his next novel, which is one of the most moving things I read all year. The Nickel Boys follows a teenage African-American boy, Elwood, after he is unjustly incarcerated in a reform school in Florida in the early 1960s. This could have been formulaic, but Whitehead takes it to another level. I reviewed it here.

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9. Exhalation: Ted Chiang. Like The Nickel Boys, this was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019, and it didn’t disappoint. Chiang writes the best short science fiction I’ve ever read, and this was an even better collection than his last. I particularly loved ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ – this is how you write time travel – and the novella ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’, which interrogates questions about free will. I’m especially in awe of Chiang’s intelligence – his ‘Story Notes’ at the back of the book are mini-masterpieces in their own right. I reviewed Exhalation here.

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10. Ammonite: Nicola Griffith. In a list skewed towards recent releases, this science fiction novel from 1992 also stood out. It follows Marghe, an anthropologist working on a planet inhabited by an estranged strand of the human race. Centuries ago, a virus eliminated all the men from this population and conferred upon the women the capacity to reproduce asexually. For me, Ammonite had all the intellectual excitement of Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, but was much more emotionally engaging. I reviewed it here.

Reading Stats

I read 175 books in 2019. This is, again, a new record for me, although I think the figures are a little skewed, as I now count some books that I did not finish towards the total. I think this is a bit ridiculous, so in 2020, I’ll set a target of 150.

I read 134 books by women, 40 books by men (including one trans man), and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary. This continues my usual gender split, with male authors making up about 23% of the books I read – and, although men are usually over-represented in my top ten, that isn’t the case this year. I would like to read more books by trans people in 2020, especially trans men.

I read 42 books by writers of colour and 133 books by white writers. Frustratingly, this percentage – 24% – is actually worse than the percentages I managed in 2018 and 2017 (28% and 25%) – and I also read fewer books by writers of colour than I did in 2018 (44). This is especially disappointing because half of my top ten books are by writers of colour, so it shows that I have once again been defaulting to mediocre white writers. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2020.

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

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2019 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biggest Disappointments

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

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

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

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

Female desire in a patriarchy: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo & The Body Lies by Jo Baker

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Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women seems to have attracted a lot of controversy – partly because it doesn’t fulfil the unachievable expectations set by its marketing campaign. It’s been billed as a book that gives a universal account of female sexuality, but of course, it doesn’t do this. Three Women focuses on three white American women whose backgrounds range from comfortable to wealthy; while one of the women is bisexual, the book focuses on relationships with men. In a sense, this should be unsurprising. As Taddeo writes in her epilogue, even when women are listened to, it’s only certain women that get to be heard, and it’s obvious why women who more closely adhere to social norms have been more willing to have their stories told in this intensely intimate way. None of this is to say, however, that the three subjects of the book aren’t also subject to uncomfortable power relationships. Lina, engaged in a hopeless affair with a married man in Indiana, also suffers from the chronic pain brought on by her fibromyalgia. Maggie, in South Dakota, was only fifteen when her teacher started coming on to her. Meanwhile, Sloane, in the Northeast, seems to have everything going for her and pursues her own erotic fantasies with apparent freedom, but still can’t avoid being objectified by men even as she willingly participates in threesomes.

Other reviewers have argued that the book is not about desire but about abuse, but I actually think that, on this point, the blurb has it spot on; the book exposes ‘the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire’ in a patriarchy. All three subjects are in touch with their own deep sexual desires, but this does not mean that they manage to fulfil them in a healthy way. Taddeo is frank about how much Maggie wants her teacher, but equally clear that he is in the wrong. Lina’s desperation makes us want to turn away from the page, but that only makes us realise how we’ve been socialised to believe that the very worst thing a woman can be is ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’ – far better to ignore what we feel and keep quiet. Similarly, the instinctive impulse to judge Sloane should also make us reflect on our beliefs about how women’s desires should be appropriately expressed. I understand that, if you came to this book wanting something more uplifting about how women can relate differently to their sexual selves, that this isn’t what it delivers. But Taddeo is so good on the barriers that women face in being true to their sexuality, even in this supposedly sexually liberated society. Does these women’s privilege make it even more frustrating that they can’t break free? Or is privilege, in this case, a straitjacket that stops you imagining different relationships?

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If Three Women left you feeling pessimistic about the future of heterosexual relationships, I’d steer clear of Jo Baker’s latest novel, The Body Lies (which also suffers from a rather misleading blurb that frames it as a literary thriller).Our unnamed female protagonist, who is in her early thirties, has just taken up a lectureship in creative writing in an unidentified northern English town, leaving her husband in London but bringing her three-year-old son with her. The protagonist encounters familiar tensions at her new university; the steady accumulation of administrative responsibilities loaded onto a new female hire, and the problems of handling several very different personalities in her MA novel-writing seminars. But this begins to involve into something rather more sinister as she becomes aware of the interest of one of her MA students, Nicholas, who is writing a novel about a ‘lost girl’ but also becomes very angry when one of his classmates starts his bog-standard police procedural with a naked body. The metafictional themes are obvious from the start; The Body Lies starts with the frozen body of a young woman lying undiscovered in a field. Baker’s writing is so smart and creepy that this rather gentle plot becomes unputdownable; there are shades of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard in her analysis of how even women in notional positions of power can be undermined by misogyny. It’s a very different novel from Longbourn and A Country Road, A Treebut it’s equally good.

Reading Slump! Some Books That Didn’t Work For Me

This blog has been a bit quiet recently. That’s partly due to term restarting, but also because I’ve been struggling with a lot of my recent reads, and I can’t decide whether it’s my fault or the books’ fault. Here’s some short thoughts on some fiction and non-fiction that has disappointed me. Warning: long!

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The premise of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country sounded fantastic (and look at that cover!). Like all sensible people, I find H.P. Lovecraft’s visions of the ‘Old Ones’ genuinely frightening, but am equally disturbed by the racism and anti-semitism that’s pervasive in much of his work. Lovecraft Country promised to bring these two themes together in the story of Atticus, an African-American Weird Tales fan who embarks on a road trip to New England in 1954 to seek out his missing father. However, the horrors that Atticus encounters are not only supernatural but are fundamentally intertwined with the white supremacist violence that he faces as part of his everyday life as a black person in the post-war United States. I don’t think this was inevitable, but I feel a lot of the failures of Lovecraft Country lie in the fact that it wasn’t written by a person of colour. The exploration of violent racist acts committed by the police and other law officials feels weirdly gratuitous, partly due to the frequency and length of their occurrence, and partly due to the way that the black characters simply shrug their shoulders after being chased and shot at multiple times (and not in the sense that they expect this treatment, but in the sense that it seems to be experienced as somehow non-traumatic). The tone, in short, is totally off, and this feels more like a jaunty road trip. If institutional racism, in this novel, is not horrifying, neither are the otherworldly antics of the cult that Atticus and his friends encounter. I abandoned this novel about a quarter way through.

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When I was a teenager, I was absorbed by A.S. Byatt’s ‘The Stone Woman’, about a woman who is gradually turning into stone. Much more recently, Sarah Hall’s memorable ‘Mrs Fox’ told the story of a woman who turns into a fox, although from the point of view of her husband. Therefore, the premise of the first full-length story in Nudibranch, Irenosen Okojie’s new short story collection, ‘Kookaburra Sweet’ – which is about a woman who turns into liquorice – wasn’t in itself off-putting. I sometimes think that I don’t like ‘magical realism’, but, even putting aside the problematic ways in which that term has started to be used so broadly (I can’t find the original article I read about this, but here’s one that outlines the arguments!), I’m not sure that’s true; I do like magical realism when it’s done well. Unfortunately, this is a tremendously difficult thing to do, and I don’t think most of the stories that I read from this collection pull it off.

For me, ‘magical realism’ in its broad sense is distinguished from speculative or science fiction, or even from horror, by its lack of boundaries. So, in speculative fiction, strange things might happen but they tend to have a rational explanation, even if it’s impossible; even in horror or ghost stories, there are certain rules that govern the monster’s behaviour (‘don’t stay in the old house overnight’). Magical realism, it seems to me, doesn’t really deal in rules or explanations, because it’s trying to convey reality in a different way. However, for this to work for me, the stories need to feel psychologically real, and that was what was lacking throughout much of the first half of this collection. Byatt’s ‘The Stone Woman’ made such an impression on me because of the horror the central character feels when she realises she’s turning to stone. In contrast, Kara, the woman who turns to liquorice, doesn’t seem too bothered; after her fingers almost melt under the hot water from her taps, she just goes back to what she was thinking about before: ‘Sydney had been a disaster. She was broken by it. Almost.’ While I understand that the story isn’t meant to be read literally, this weird mix of realism and the magical didn’t work for me.

Part of this is due to Okojie’s writing. I read her first collection, Speak Gigantular, when it first came out and remember very little about it other than that it felt under-edited. Much of her writing here also has that first-draft feeling; there are wonderful sentences, but then others that just aren’t very good. Often the similes are just too complicated, as in the opening to ‘Grace Jones’: ‘

‘Once the stray parts of a singed scene had found their way into the bedroom, onyx edges gleaming and the figures without memories had lost their molten heads to the coming morning… the phone rang, shrill, invasive, demanding. Still on the floor, the wood cold against her skin, she crawled to the receiver tentatively, as if her limbs were tethered to a thread on the earth’s equator, the thread bending and collapsing into the different stages of her life.’

Certain images reoccur in this collection – body parts turn up in unexpected places, things melt, people perform rituals – but there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to it. Some stories conjure up fascinating worlds but then don’t make much use of them, such as ‘Filamo’, set in an otherworldly monastery, and ‘Saudade Minus One (S – 1 = )’, which looks at a future in which children are malfunctioning. The one story of those I read which worked for me was ‘Point and Shrill’; Okojie’s writing is much more restrained, and it allows the eeriness of the story to take centre stage as it moves from naturalism into horror.

I read about half of these stories, but then concluded that this collection wasn’t for me. It reminds me most strongly of a less accomplished version of Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, so if that’s your sort of thing, this might work better for you.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 7th November.

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I 100% thought that I was going to love Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which was billed as a memoir about two sets of parallel experiences of gendered bodies: while Nelson went through her first pregnancy, her trans partner Harry Dodge decided to start taking testosterone and to have ‘top surgery’. As Nelson writes: ‘2011, the summer of our changing bodies. Me, four months pregnant, you, six months on T.’ Nelson is a fiercely intelligent writer, and, to her credit, she writes very clearly and perceptively about issues of queer identity and discourse that can become very difficult to understand in the hands of the wrong person. To an extent, my reaction to The Argonauts is personal: this memoir simply didn’t speak to me and my own life experiences. Nelson is bent on breaking down certain ideas of what it means to be ‘queer’, writing of ‘the tired binary that places femininity, reproduction and normativity on one side and masculinity, sexuality and queer resistance on the other.’ I can see Nelson’s point: there is nothing inherently conformist in getting pregnant and giving birth, and indeed, the ways in which women’s bodies are treated during pregnancy and birth shows how difficult it is for patriarchy to handle female experience. However, I guess I’m just not that interested in what is ‘queer’ and what is not.

Heteronormative society privileges a certain set of experiences that are rooted in material reality, not identity; it prefers (white) women who have relationships with men, who get pregnant and raise children within nuclear families and who conform to feminine norms of behaviour and presentation. Because of the double bind, this obviously doesn’t mean that women who conform to this way of life don’t suffer under patriarchy. But it seems to me that rather than worrying about how to ‘queer’ experiences like pregnancy, we should attend to the power relationships that are leveraged particularly violently against women who don’t conform; women who are of colour, who choose not to have children, who are single mothers or lesbians, who are butch or gender non-conforming, who don’t have relationships with anybody at all. I guess, in short, I’d rather have heard from Dodge than Nelson; his experience of trans and gender-fluid identity shifts throughout the book, and while he uses male pronouns, his take is a bit more complicated: ‘I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it.’  But Nelson’s take on this challenging statement is disappointingly woolly, and can be boiled down to: just listen to what other people tell you about their identity. Well, yes, but if society didn’t impose categories on us regardless of what we have to say about it, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place, and we need to say something about that.

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Finally, I read Anna Weiner’s Uncanny Valley, a memoir of working in Silicon Valley in her mid-twenties; I won’t say too much about this one as it isn’t out until next year, but I found that it felt like a good online article that had been stretched out into more than three hundred pages. Weiner has nothing especially insightful to say about tech, and rehearses familiar critiques: the dominance of young white men, the lack of concern for data security, the distance from the ‘real world’. I also found the way Weiner presents herself as totally unrelatable; she seems to think it’s a classic example of millennial drift, but there’s no solid core to anything about this version of her self, and she comes across as unbearably obtuse. You’re probably better off reading her online output; I stopped reading this around the halfway mark.

I received a free proof copy of this memoir from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th January 2020.

Is it me, or is it the books? What books have you struggled with recently? And do you have any recommendations to get me out of this reading slump?