April Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. Much of my reading this month has been from the Women’s Prize longlist, so I won’t rehearse that. See this post for my rankings and thoughts on the shortlist!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The First Woman, which follows teenage protagonist Kirabo as she explores the secrets of her relatively well-off rural Ugandan family and her own relationship with folktales and myths about women, set against the background of Idi Amin’s dictatorship in the 1970s. I was bowled over by Makumbi’s writing: it’s so original, clever and alive. Makumbi harnesses the energy of local vernacular in both her dialogue and in Kirabo’s narration, especially in Kirabo’s conversations with the village witch, Nsuuta. ‘Nsuuta clapped wonderment. Sometimes God loved her as if he would never kill her.’ Makumbi refuses to spell out context for white British readers like me, but lets this kind of reader do the work without ever leaving them confused. I’m usually very wary of coming-of-age tales, especially when they involve seeking out lost relatives (Kirabo has a missing mother), but this is just so different from the rest. Much the best of the three 1970s Ugandan-set novels I’ve recently read (the other two were Kololo Hill and We Are All Birds of Uganda, both still worth reading).

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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Hide, Kiersten White’s adult fiction debut, which did not work for me in any way at all. I’d say it’s probably the worst book I’ve read so far this year, let alone this month. The premise is excellent: a group of people compete for prize money by spending a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park without getting caught. So where did Hide go so wrong? My Goodreads review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Fantasy Novel I Read This Month Was…

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Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher. This is only the second full-length work I’ve read by Kingfisher, but I’m definitely a confirmed fan. Like Bryony and Roses, the first Kingfisher I tried, Nettle and Bone is a bit of a weird mix: it combines the darker, more serious folktale feel of a writer like Robin McKinley with the lightheartedness of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. I love both ways of writing, but I’m not sure they quite belong together. Nevertheless, I found Nettle and Bone engrossing. My Goodreads review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Horror Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, a schlocky horror novel about killer mermaids that delivered everything I like in horror. A lost ship and a new expedition sent to find out what happened to it; brilliantly tense set-pieces (my favourite was the scientist piloting a submarine to the bottom of the Challenger Deep); convincingly biological explanations of the existence of cryptids; and all the action taking place in a relatively small space. Characterisation was perhaps a bit tick-box, but I liked mermaid expert, or ‘sirenologist’, Jillian Toth a lot.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Tice Cin’s Keeping the House. Now shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize, this had an amazing blurb: ‘Ayla’s a gardener, and she has a plan. Offering a fresh and funny take on the machinery of the North London heroin trade, Keeping the House lifts the lid on a covert world thriving just beneath notice: not only in McDonald’s queues and men’s clubs, but in spotless living rooms and whispering kitchens. Spanning three generations, this is the story of the women who keep their family – and their family business – afloat.’ Unfortunately, when I gave up on the novel almost halfway through, pretty much none of this had materialised, and I found its fragmentary style too confusing to follow without strong incentive.

(Two (dis?)honorable mentions here: Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, which I reviewed here, and Xueting Christine Ni’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction in translation, Sinopticon, which I thought was startlingly weak compared to Ken Liu ed. Broken Stars, despite having some author overlap).

The Best Graphic Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… Emily Carroll’s Through The Woods, a collection of five horror stories that are definitely for teenage or adult readers! The stories that worked best for me were the ones that had less explicit gore and violence, though, and relied more on allusion and uncertainty: I liked the open endings of ‘Our Neighbour’s House’, ‘My Friend Janna’ and ‘His Face All Red’. These puzzling stories work especially well in graphic novel form; I like graphic novels but am sometimes sad at how quickly I get through them, so these tales are perfect for re-reading, especially the mysterious ‘His Face All Red’, my favourite story in the collection, which you can try for free on Carroll’s website. Carroll’s art is striking, conveying tone and mood cleverly, and I enjoyed the mixture of styles, such as notebook scribblings in ‘My Friend Janna’ and the way a repeating song was conveyed in ‘A Lady’s Hands Are Cold’.

The Book I Learnt The Most From This Month Was…

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True Biz by Sara Nović, set in a boarding school for Deaf students in Ohio that comes under threat of closure. Told through the voices of several of the school’s students as well as its principal, True Biz sets out to educate its reader, and it succeeds; it’s fascinating on the history of ASL, lipreading and cochlear implants as well as shocking on the ways in which Deaf people and Deaf culture have been oppressed over the centuries in the United States. It’s a more commercial book than Nović’s memorable if uneven debut, Girl At Warand at times its straightforward, moralistic plot felt a bit too YA, but it certainly does the job of raising awareness of the issues Deaf people continue to face. My Goodreads review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd. I loved this husband-and-wife writing duo’s second novel, The Clubso after a recommendation from Cathy, I checked their debut out of my local library. I am thoroughly sick of both thrillers and women’s fiction that portray social media as the root of all evils, and always have their characters unrealistically give it all up at the end. To be honest, it’s started to remind me of Jane Austen’s famous critique of writers of romantic novels in Northanger Abbey; she pointed out that they always have their heroines disdain romantic fiction, even though they clearly have a vested interest in women continuing to buy it. (You can be sure that these writers don’t refuse to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to sell their novels!) Anyway, to get back to the point: People Like Her is a breath of fresh air. It stars Instagram influencer Emmy and her failed novelist husband Dan, who also jointly narrate the novel. Emmy has carved out a career as ‘Mamabare’, telling ‘the truth’ about motherhood and building a platform around the message that mums need to support each other.

While Emmy cynically exploits her market, Lloyd examines the world of an influencer in a critical but nuanced way, pointing out that Emmy’s success is based on some considerable skill, that she is the main breadwinner for her family, that rhetoric of ‘honesty’ can sometimes hide ‘perfection’ rather than the other way round, and that a lot of mums have genuinely been helped by Emmy’s messaging. Perhaps partly because each of the two writers wrote one of the voices, Emmy and Dan are much more vividly characterised than is usually the case in thrillers; Dan has a penchant for dragging up bits of philosophy from his youth, for example, while Emmy is much more direct. I also loved the ending, which spoke to the concerns I raised in this post. My only concern about People Like Her is its ‘stalker’ plotline; although this was obviously necessary to make it into a thriller, I could actually have done without it, as I found Emmy’s machinations compelling enough. It also contains a viscerally upsetting flashback scene featuring the death of a baby (not a spoiler, this is flagged from the start) which doesn’t really feel like it belongs in this otherwise lighthearted, satirical book; I’m not usually disturbed by this kind of thing, but this time I was. However, The Club didn’t repeat this problem, so I’ll still be eagerly awaiting the next novel from Lloyd.

Did you have any stand-out reads in April?

Two Disappointing Big-Name April Releases

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (2011) and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) and The Glass Hotel (2020) have been acclaimed for their shifting timelines, polyphonic narratives and kaleidoscopic cast of characters. Both writers have follow-up novels out this month, and I found both disappointing – although my enthusiasm for Egan was already dampened after my buddy re-read of A Visit From The Goon Squad with Rebecca whereas Mandel had yet to let me down.

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Sea of Tranquility was one of my most anticipated books of 2022. It’s loosely linked to both Station Eleven – one of my favourite books of the last ten years – and perhaps especially to The Glass Hotel, which I also loved. It features four major plot threads/timelines. Edwin travels aimlessly in Canada in 1912, trying to find a purpose for his life after being ‘exiled’ from England by his wealthy family. In 2020, Mirelle, a side character from The Glass Hotel, watches a strange forest video made by its protagonist Vincent in 1994. Novelist Olive is on a book tour in 2203 promoting her pandemic novel, Marienbad. Finally, Gaspery discovers the strange truth about his physicist sister’s job in 2401.

Sea of Tranquility is a short, quick read, but I don’t think I ever got what it was trying to do. As other reviewers have pointed out, the SF elements of this novel feel cliched and stale to anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the genre. Personally, I hate when writers postulate that time travellers can change the past and have to correct anomalies, because it’s by far the stupidest, most illogical and least interesting way to use time travel, especially when there are two perfectly good alternative models available (one, you time travel into a parallel universe; two, you accept you can’t change the past and whatever you did there has already happened). However, I also have no interest in the ‘we are all living in a simulation’ thought experiment, another trope that’s very familiar.

Parts of this book feel more like Easter eggs for fans of Mandel’s earlier work rather than narrative strands in their own right. The Mirelle section, in particular, would surely feel pointless to anyone who hadn’t read The Glass Hotel. Meanwhile, Mandel uses Olive as a mouthpiece to talk about her experiences writing Station Eleven, but again that would only really land if you’d read the earlier novel. Olive’s reflections on day to day living in a pandemic are mostly thinly-veiled comments on Covid-19 with added futuristic trappings (‘Dion’s job required a great many meetings, so he was in the holospace six hours a day and was dazed with exhaustion in the evenings’), which is very irritating.

Nevertheless, there are points in Sea of Tranquility where Mandel really hits it out of the park, and reminds me why I loved her writing in the first place. Some of her pandemic comments are incredibly insightful, much the best writing I’ve seen on the topic so far: ‘Pandemics don’t approach like wars, with the distant thud of artillery growing louder every day and flashes of bombs on the horizon. They arrive in retrospect, essentially. It’s disorientating. The pandemic is far away and then it’s all around you, with seemingly no intermediate step’. And this novel is still perfectly readable and even enjoyable. It’s just a bit closer to trashy SF/bad literary takes on SF than the truly literary SF that Mandel is clearly capable of writing.

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

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After reading and admiring A Visit From The Goon Squad in 2011, I went on a bit of a Jennifer Egan binge, burning through Look At Me and The Keep as well. Funnily enough, though, I can remember very little about any of those books now. (The only Egan book I do remember clearly is the later, less popular Manhattan Beach). Due to this plus my failed Goon Squad re-read, I wouldn’t have requested an ARC of The Candy House had I realised it was a loose companion to Goon Squad. From that perspective, I’m not sure I can even call The Candy House disappointing; it’s just more of the same.

The Candy House claims to be about a new technology called Own Your Unconscious, which allows you access to all human memories uploaded into the ‘collective consciousness’ as long as you upload yours in return. In short: it’s not. You could remove Own Your Unconscious from the vast majority of this book and it would have no impact on the plot or themes. In itself, not a big deal, but it points to a wider problem with The Candy House; Egan just isn’t interested in how being able to access other people’s actual experiences would transform our understanding of humanity. Like one of my least favourite Black Mirror episodes, ‘The Entire History of You’, The Candy House focuses on using this technology to play out the same kind of stories rather than thinking big. Once again, a literary writer appropriates a SF trope that has been explored far more thoughtfully and adventurously elsewhere.

Even this would be less of a death knell for The Candy House if Egan used the sections of the novel, which are told through multiple perspectives, to prove her mission statement: that the novel is really the only thing that allows us access to the collective consciousness. However, as in Goon Squad, beyond the gimmicks, most of her narrators sound and think the same. Part of the reason I struggle to keep track of her large and disparate cast of people linked to the music and later the social media industry is that they aren’t clearly differentiated from each other. Imposing different structures on different sections (spy instructions; algorithms; D&D terminology) doesn’t mean you have actually developed distinct voices. There are a couple of sections that worked better for me – Molly’s teenage voice is fresh and different, while the long email exchange near the end of the novel is a lot of fun – but that was about it.

The candy house, in this novel, is either the social media algorithms that tempt users in, believing they can get stuff for free while they’re actually selling their own data, or a nostalgic ‘memory palace’ built by past generations to lure the young back towards a world they remember. Both are interesting themes (the latter rather more so than the former) but neither are adequately explored in The Candy House. Sadly, this just wasn’t for me, and I think my interest in Egan’s work has also come to an end.

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

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Build Your House Around My Body

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In 2011, Winnie, a young Vietnamese-American woman, is eking out her days as an English teacher in Saigon, scarcely bothering to teach her students anything more than the slang phrases she scribbles on the board (‘Humblebrag, catfishing, bikini body, friends with benefits’). Long Phan, now Winnie’s boyfriend, is haunted by Binh, a girl he met when they were children – but not as haunted as his brother Tan. Seven months earlier, Fortune Teller and his two assistants are called to investigate a ghostly dripping sound in a house in Ia Kare, isolated in the rural highlands of Vietnam. In 1949, two Frenchmen lease twenty acres of bushland in the same area and plant rubber trees, hoping it’s the route to a quick fortune. And in 1986, the teenage daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese man gets lost in that forest trying to escape the horrors of her present.

Build Your House Around My Body flips between these different characters in different times, not stopping to explain to the reader how they are connected, so it’s only really in the last quarter of the novel that it starts to come together. However, I found one of the attractions of this narrative was its puzzle-box nature; when the links finally click, it’s both chilling and satisfying. This is definitely very reminiscent of David Mitchell, especially his The Bone Clocks and Slade House (although I liked it a lot more than I liked Slade House), with a smattering of other horror tropes; Kupersmith has fun playing with imagery from The Ring/Ringu, for example. And that’s another aspect of Build Your House that you might not anticipate from the blurb; there’s a dry wit that runs through it; it doesn’t take itself too seriously. (‘Though the Fortune Teller’s horoscopes were always alarmingly accurate, whenever he bet on soccer games he lost’).

I’d agree with other reviewers that this novel is too long – especially because it spends so much time on disparate episodes before tying up its threads – but it partly makes up for its length by some incredibly memorable set-pieces. Three children meet a man in a graveyard whose jaw gradually unhinges to emit red smoke. A wealthy coffee plantation owner possesses a book with a strand of hair from all of his sexual conquests who return in unusual form. A woman’s hair lengthens and lengthens until a man can braid it into three braids each as thick as his forearm.

For much of Build Your House, I agreed with Sharlene Teo in the Guardian that Winnie is one of the ‘disaffected millennial heroines’ that I would call Disaster Women, and which I’ve come to tire of as a fictional trope. I wished we’d get more of the vivid Binh and less of Winnie’s endless moping. But by the end of the novel, I began to see what Kupersmith was doing with Winnie. She’s less a Disaster Woman in the mould of Edie in Luster or Ava in Exciting Times and more like the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. She’s literally trying to break down and discard her own body. This insight still left me feeling that we got too much Winnie, but at least her travails had some direction.

While this is undoubtedly a flawed novel, I loved its originality and daring, and I think it’s likely to be one of my favourites on the Women’s Prize longlist. In addition, my Waterstones special edition of the novel contained a bonus short story, ‘My Darkling’. This had shades of the Julia Armfield/Carmen Maria Machado/Kate Folk axis that I wrote about in my review of Folk’s Out There, but was an exceptional example of this weird sub-genre, so I’ll definitely be looking to read Kupersmith’s earlier short story collection, The Frangipani Hotel.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number eight. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote Sympathy and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev

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First things first: I found The Final Revival of Opal & Nev intensely frustrating. There’s so much potential here, but the novel feels like an early draft of itself. As this is Dawnie Walton’s debut, I hope more of that potential is fulfilled in her next book. I’ve also found it difficult to talk about this novel without intermittently mentioning spoilers. If you want to avoid these, click through to my Goodreads review, which has spoiler tags.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is told as a series of excerpts from oral history interviews collected by journalist Sunny, who also provides a framing narrative for the novel. (This structural choice feels like a bit of a mash-up between two Taylor Jenkins Reid novels – Daisy Jones and the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo). Opal & Nev were an iconic rock duo in the 1970s, but later split to pursue solo careers, and are now planning a final reunion. Their early days, however, were overshadowed by a concert that turned violent when their black drummer Jimmy was murdered by white racists. Here, Sunny has a personal stake; Jimmy was her father, and was having an affair with Opal when he died.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev turns on a central revelation at the midpoint of the novel, when we find out that what we thought happened at that fatal concert was not the full story. In short, we discover that Nev may have made Jimmy a target of racist violence by falsely telling the thuggish band that he stole their Confederate flag. I was disappointed by this twist; basically, because I feel that twists in novels should make stories more complex, not less so. The initial draw of Opal and Nev for the reader is the question of how two such different people formed a creative collaboration. We fully expect it to fall apart and we suspect it will be because Nev will be unable to recognise his white privilege and the difficulties Opal faces as a radical black female artist. The twist, therefore, is hardly a surprise, it’s a confirmation of what we already knew.

In structural terms, this twist and its placement in the novel robs the rest of the book of any momentum. We know we’re going to watch Opal & Nev’s ultimate decline. From my point of view as a reader – and I acknowledge this might not have worked with Walton’s vision for the novel – it would have been much more interesting if Nev had played no role in Jimmy’s death, but if he and Opal had come to blows over her onstage protest after the concert. Maybe he could even have wrongly blamed her for inciting violence? This would show his obliviousness as a white man, but have opened up more subtle fault-lines between them that were genuinely about race rather than sexual jealousy.

A number of reviewers note that, with the exception of Opal, Walton tends to rely on stereotype, and I would agree; aside from the flattening of Nev’s character, we have the white ‘trailer trash’ racists, the flamboyant gay costume designer, the Bernie Sanders fan who thinks everything is about false consciousness, the greedy record label head honcho… Again, this is only more frustrating because there are flashes of greater insight in her writing. I loved that Opal’s deeply religious sister, Pearl, was not a villain but a source of support, for example, and had a great singing voice of her own. Having said that, I thought that Opal herself was also unevenly developed as a character. Her affair with Jimmy is so pivotal to the novel, but we barely see the two together. There’s also a suggestion that her key conflict is between her desire for recognition and her own values, but I never really felt this – Opal always seemed to come down on the right side of history. Finally, we don’t get enough of Opal and Nev when things were good between them, which means his betrayal doesn’t land with enough emotional weight. Sunny, also, never comes alive in her own right.

There’s a lot that’s good about this book – the imaginative descriptions of Opal & Nev’s hit songs and their stage performances, and the ways in which they intersected with seventies protest culture, are brilliant – but it didn’t quite land for me.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy

First, an update on my progress with the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the titles I’ve read so far. I’m now thinking that the judges were actually onto something with their off-the-wall picks. Therefore, I’ve decided to expand the number of titles I plan to read from the longlist from eight to eleven. It’s still unlikely that I’ll read the remaining five longlisted titles (Flamingo, This One Sky Day, The Exhibitionist, The Island of Missing Trees and Salt Lick) unless they make the shortlist.

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The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel, is narrated by fifty-year-old Elle, who has returned every summer throughout her life to an idyllic family hideaway at Cape Cod. This summer, she’s there with her three children and her husband, Peter, when she abruptly reconnects with an old flame, Jonas, who is also the keeper of her darkest secrets. The Paper Palace flashes back and forward through time to trace the events since Elle’s earliest childhood as her story also unfolds in the present, a structural choice that works effectively when Heller confines herself to the two central timelines, but can become unnecessarily confusing in the few instances when multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards are employed at the same time.

Numerous reviewers mention the traumatic subject-matter of The Paper Palace. While I don’t believe the central incident of the novel is gratuitous per se, as it is the hook upon which the story hangs, I would certainly concur that the numerous other mentions of sexual abuse, other kinds of childhood abuse and neglect, unlikely accidents and early deaths are indeed gratuitous and unnecessary. This is a book where we can’t witness an old man swimming happily with his friend in the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath without him abruptly drowning, where children are smothered by sand dunes for no reason, where adolescents are constantly exposed to random adults having sex in front of them. (I feel I can mention these incidents freely because they are in no way spoilers for the main plot or the primary or secondary characters’ journeys – which itself indicates how easily Heller could have removed them.) The Paper Palace, despite its incredibly familiar plot-line and flat characters, is a weirdly compelling read, and I think a big part of this is Heller’s car-crash writing – we don’t want to look away because we know there’s going to be something awful on the next page. This is certainly one way to compel your reader, but a good novel it does not make.

Even putting this material aside, The Paper Palace is not a well-executed novel. Elle, Peter and Jonas are all very sketchily characterised and largely unsympathetic. Heller might claim to be exploring the generational impacts of trauma, and to be reflecting her characters’ experience thematically through the string of arbitrary misfortunes that befall other people in this book, but I just didn’t think she pulled it off. There are also small annoyances. The book is weirdly obsessed with Elle’s hymen being intact (so obviously intact a gynaecologist comments on it!) before she has sex for the first time, despite the fact she uses tampons, which perpetuates myths about what the hymen is and how it’s related to female ‘virginity’. Sex scenes are used to stand in for any kind of meaningful emotional development between Elle and her two lovers. And while, unlike some other readers, I felt that it was pretty clear what Elle decides to do at the end of the novel, I simply did not care by this point. Ultimately, this reads like sub-par Jodi Picoult, and I don’t believe it belongs on the Women’s Prize longlist.

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Remote Sympathy, Catherine Chidgey’s sixth novel, alternates between four perspectives on the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald during the final years of the Second World War. SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn was the camp’s administrator; his sections are narrated from the vantage point of the 1950s when he is being interviewed after his release from prison. His young wife, Greta Hahn, is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in 1943, and tells us what is happening to her as it happens. The doctor Lenard Weber is a ‘political prisoner’ in the camp, arrested for an invented crime after Dietrich found out about his pre-war invention, the ‘Sympathetic Vitaliser’, which was intended to cure cancers through the transmission of electric current through the body. His contributions come in the form of letters to his small daughter Lotte, who has been taken with her Jewish mother Anna to another concentration camp, Theresienstadt. A fourth and, in my opinion, superfluous, perspective is an occasional contribution from a chorus of Weimar villagers who live near Buchenwald.

While the synopsis of this novel indicates potentially speculative elements, Remote Sympathy is in fact a straightforwardly traditional and realistic historical novel; Lenard’s ‘vitaliser’ is clearly rooted in pre-war experiments with electricity as a means of rejuvenation, and the principle of ‘remote sympathy’ which supposedly makes it effectual is based on the eighteenth-century experiments of the Scottish surgeon John Hunter. And Remote Sympathy is very good at what it does. It’s convincing and moving. Chidgey uses Dietrich’s self-justifying perspective to explore how he rationalises the horrors of Buchenwald in relation to what he believes were ‘actual’ concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, and we see how Buchenwald did indeed possess weird flourishes to try and hide its true purpose, such as a prisoners’ library and brothel. (And in the grotesque choral sections from the Weimar villagers, it’s reminiscent of Audrey Magee’s The Undertakingwhich was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize back in 2014.)  Its most heartbreaking thread is Lenard’s realisation that he must now pretend as hard as he can that his failed experimental machine may actually be working, in order to save his own life and hopefully that of his wife and child, even as he struggles with lying to Greta about her prognosis.

This is not, however, a novel that I think will stay with me. I’ve simply read too many novels that cover this ground and many of them were equally competent. I’m glad to have read Remote Sympathy and I think it deserves to be longlisted, but it doesn’t offer anything especially new.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers five and six. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness , Careless and The Sentence.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Sentence

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This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Louise Erdrich’s work. I read her acclaimed novel The Round House about six or so years ago. It’s one of those books where, looking back, I’m surprised to find that my review was so positive, because that isn’t how I remember the experience of reading it. The Round House, which deals with the epidemic of sexual violence among Native American women, is undoubtedly an important and accomplished novel, but something about it clearly didn’t click for me – perhaps it was the ‘child’s-eye-view of adult situations’ narrator, a device I really don’t like, or perhaps it was simply too grim.

The Sentence, to me, feels like it was written by a completely different person. Despite some difficult subject-matter, it’s an uplifting read. Our Objiwe narrator, Tookie, has spent ten years in prison for body-snatching and conspiracy to transport drugs across state lines, an offence she was tricked into by friends. Given the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in North American prison statistics, she isn’t surprised to initially receive what amounts to a life sentence, which is eventually commuted due to the efforts of her Objiwe defence lawyer. The Sentence is about what happens next, as Tookie takes a job at Erdrich’s own bookstore (rather sweetly, Erdrich has a bit part in the novel, and isn’t afraid to gently make fun of herself) and starts to be haunted by the ghost of its ‘most annoying customer’, Flora.

Flora is a ‘wannabe Native American’, claiming Indigenous heritage despite being obviously white, and at first, she seems like a ‘wannabe ghost’; her incursions on the life of the bookstore are only very slight. Anybody who’s put off by ghost stories should not avoid The Sentence; Flora manifests only very sparingly, and does not make direct contact with the living. Due to this restraint, Erdrich manages to make Flora chilling in death, even though she was a bit ridiculous in life. When Tookie’s alone one evening in the bookstore, ‘a song began that I knew was not on the playlist. Flora cranked up the volume; it was Johnny Cash singing ‘Ain’t No Grave’. There ain’t no grave can hold my body down… If you’ve ever heard Johnny sing this song, you can imagine.’

The Sentence pulls a number of oddly eclectic themes together; books that can kill, Indigenous religion, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter protests, dealing with stepfamilies, Tookie’s tender relationship with her husband Pollux – who happens to be the retired Potawatomi policeman who originally arrested her. The reason it works, for the most part, is Tookie’s voice. I was immediately captivated by her warmth and humour. Through her, Erdrich makes us as readers believe in all the weirdness this book throws at us, even if I would have preferred it to come together a bit more tightly in the end. The secondary cast are beautifully handled; they genuinely feel like a community that have lived together for a long time. And as a love letter to books themselves, The Sentence is much more effective and much less sentimental than its fellow longlistee The Book of Form and EmptinessI’d be happy to see this on the shortlist.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number four. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness and Careless.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Careless

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Bess is fifteen years old when she finds out she’s pregnant. Although she’s been in a long-term foster care placement since she was four, she’s never felt that she truly belongs to her foster family, and her boyfriend, Boy, has gone AWOL. The only person she can really rely on is her best friend Eshal, but Eshal has problems of her own – she’s worried that her Bangladeshi Muslim family are going to encourage her into an arranged marriage she does not want. Careless, Kirsty Capes’s debut novel, starts with Bess’s discovery of her pregnancy and then flashes back to explore her relationship with Boy and friendship with Eshal, before moving forward along the original timeline.

First things first: I enjoyed Careless much more than I expected to. This is a book about teenagers that could be read by teenagers, but I wouldn’t class it as YA and it doesn’t seem to have been sold as such. This is a relief. My problems with YA have never been that it’s written for a teenage audience but about the conventions and stereotypical assumptions that have become wrapped up with writing for that audience. Careless avoids these tropes. I’d place it alongside Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OKwhich deals sensitively and thoughtfully with alcoholism and sexuality. Like Nina, Careless is a dark and painful read – but this certainly should not exclude it from an adolescent as well as an adult readership.

Bess is a compelling protagonist. The book cleverly moves from the relative lightheartedness of early scenes with Eshal, watching the raft race at Shepperton Village Fair and chucking rubbish at an enemy’s raft, to much more harrowing scenes later on, which helps us to see Bess as a person and not just as a suffering statistic. Her world, too, is vividly evoked. Capes shuns generic council estate settings and allows us to really see the Studios Estate where Bess lives, in its everyday beauty and ugliness: ‘From my bedroom window on the estate, I can see the park, with two big horse chestnut trees on the green where the parakeets roost… And the long sloping sides of the reservoir, just beyond the farmer’s fields… I can see the River Ash Woods, where everyone goes to fly-tip and inject heroin. And then the tin houses, which are what everyone calls the pre-fabs, from after the Second World War’. 

However, I didn’t think the structure of the novel served Capes’s purposes particularly well. By positioning all that comes before the positive pregnancy test as flashback, the reader is simply waiting for Careless to catch up with itself. This messes with the pacing and also draws attention away from the most important element of the novel – the friendship between Bess and Eshal. I’ve been seeing this thriller device – pulling a scene from the middle and putting it at the beginning – more and more in books that are not thrillers. I suspect it is often advised by agents and editors, but it doesn’t work well for me as a reader. For Careless, certainly, I would have appreciated more time to get to know Bess before the book starts to revolve around her pregnancy.

There are also a few duff notes. I agree with this reviewer that Eshal’s plotline is too neatly concluded, although I imagine this came from Cape’s over-cautiousness in tackling this subject as a white writer. Bess’s voice generally works very well, but occasionally she feels like a mouthpiece for important things that Capes wants to say about the experience of being in care that probably wouldn’t come out of the mouth of a 1990s teenager. For example: ‘There’s something wrong with being in care, the care system, and it’s making us into a transaction… It’s not right, how we’re treated like a job. There’s too much emotional labour involved.’ Having said that, I thought that Cape’s handling of the reasons behind Bess entering foster care in the first place was exceptional. She tells the reader just enough so we can guess at what happened but allows us to understand it through the fragmented lens of Bess’s trauma, or what we might identify as complex PTSD.

So, a flawed book, for me, but one which I think deserves its Women’s Prize longlisting, and which certainly achieves what it’s trying to do much better than the other two novels on the list I’ve read so far. I doubt it will be shortlisted – the quote from Pandora Sykes on the cover makes me think it was the pet pick of a single judge – but I’m glad that I read it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number three. I’ve already read Great Circle and The Book of Form and Emptiness.

Write What You Know: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole & Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein

It’s 2016 America, in the months before Trump’s election, and a young man in his late twenties dreams of being a writer. However, he can only really write about what he knows from real life, including the stories that others tell him. He’s accused of stealing material from others’ lives by somebody who’s very close to him, and can’t really deny it because he’s failed to change any of the characters’ names. He meets his ideal girl and starts a relationship with her, but as the novel reaches its climax, he’s forced to choose between her and his writing as he decides whether or not to board an outgoing flight. His story is told without speech marks or chapter breaks, and is the debut novel of a youngish white male writer who lives in New York and probably shares quite a lot in common with his protagonist. 

Bizarrely, this could be the synopsis of either Groundskeeping by Lee Cole or Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein – two books which are actually very different, but share the same basic building blocks. This certainly isn’t a case of ‘if you liked this you’d also like’ – although I personally enjoyed both novels. Groundskeeping is a deliberately slow, meditative book about Owen, who grew up in rural Kentucky, and has taken a job as a groundskeeper at a local college so he can make some money and take a free writing course. In class, he’s forced to reflect on ‘jungle narratives’; at work, he fells and trims trees in the college’s grounds. Alma, a writer-in-residence at the college, is a ‘cultural Muslim’ whose parents fled Bosnia before she was born. She grew up on the outskirts of DC and was educated in the Ivy League. As the two navigate their relationship, both make uncomfortable missteps.

The heart of Groundskeeping seemed to me to be when Alma tells Owen: ‘I just wish I could think of something without thinking of a dozen other things related to it. Like, I can’t just think of a tree anymore. I think about all the poems about trees that I like. The tree as cultural signifier. I think about “Birches” by Robert Frost. But you – you just think of them as they are, I’m sure. Or you think of them in a technical sense, as something you have to work on.’ This tells us everything about who these two characters want to be and who they think the other person is, especially when Owen wonders if he likes this ‘compliment’: ‘It was true that I’d never thought of Robert Frost while working on a tree, but I knew the poem.’

Caleb, the protagonist of Last Resort, is both much more privileged and much more stupid and shortsighted than Owen – although I still found myself rooting for him. He’s trying and failing to write a publishable first novel when he meets up with old college friend Avi Dietsch. Avi tells him a true story about a dying woman that somehow inspires Caleb to write well when inventing things was only leading him into dead ends. When he’s finished the manuscript, he grabs the attention of a ‘big shot’ literary agent who plans to sell the book for a lot of money. Unfortunately, Avi gets wind of what Caleb’s done, and demands that Caleb recompense him for the use of ‘his’ story – even though it actually belongs to neither of them.

Like Owen, Caleb struggles when he isn’t able to ‘write what he knows’, although in this case, he’s positioned as a writer who has to work from real life, but not his own life. Lipstein keeps the reader guessing, developing the plot in such a way that we feel surprised but not cheated about what happens next. Because of the characterisation of Caleb, these twists feel earnt – they proceed from what we already know about the character and the way that he operates. Unlike Groundskeeping, it’s a totally gripping book – I read it in a couple of sittings – but it lacks Groundskeeping‘s social nuance and commentary on being white and working-class in the rural United States.

Both novels raise questions about who stories belong to, but both present a frustrating cliche about writing by suggesting that writers can only write ‘what they know’, and so have to address these issues whenever they put pen to paper. Other readalikes might be A Ladder To The Sky by John Boyne or The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, though I think both Cole’s and Lipstein’s novels are better. But this coincidental reading experience – I read Groundskeeping and Last Resort back to back – did make me reflect on how much novels about novelists lean on this trope. I’d love to read a book about fictional writers who actually make things up – or, God forbid, write science fiction or fantasy that isn’t a thinly veiled version of their current preoccupations. But perhaps that kind of book-within-a-book would be a step too far.

Have you read any novels that feature a book-within-a-book? Or writers who write what they know?

I received free proof copies of these novels from their publishers for review. Groundskeeping and Last Resort are, incredibly, BOTH out in the UK on 17th March 2022. Are we sure somebody didn’t do a Caleb?

 

February Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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…Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield, which I thought was hauntingly beautiful, and gets my second five-star rating of 2022. My review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… A Still Life by Josie George. As much as I wanted this memoir of chronic illness to be for me, it was not for me. I’m sorry about this, because I know how much Elle and Rebecca liked this book, but I could not get on with the narrative voice, especially in the present-day sections. I’d recommend Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay instead.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I Read This Month Was… 

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… Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, which was an impulse purchase from Forum Books. I loved Tsui’s exploration of swimming clubs, abalone divers, desperate swims for survival and public pools.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was… 

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…A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I named this as one of my favourite books of the decade (2010-19), but I was worried it wouldn’t hold up on a re-read, especially as I didn’t like Ozeki’s latest, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Thankfully, it did. My original review and my most recent thoughts are here.

The Best Sequel I Read This Month Was… 

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… Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather; for me, one of those rare sequels that was actually better than the first book. Sisters of the Vast Black had a brilliant premise, focusing on an order of spacefaring nuns piloting a ‘liveship’, or a ship constructed from the body of a creature that seems to be adapted for this purpose. However, the pacing was off; the last third felt rushed and cliched compared to the thoughtful, contemplative story that preceded it. Sisters of the Forsaken Stars is much better-paced and more morally complex, although there were characters and themes that I thought could still have benefited from more page-time. I would have particularly liked to hear more about Gemma, who left the order in the last book to be with her girlfriend but is still struggling to ‘be in the world’ after years of being a nun, and is especially struggling with physical intimacy. This is the kind of thing we don’t hear much about in fiction, and although all the beats of Gemma’s character growth are present and correct, I just wanted to spend more time living through this with her. Nevertheless, great SFF.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was… 

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… Ellery Lloyd’s The Club. After a proliferation of thrillers that place unlikely ‘twists’ above all else, sacrificing characterisation and plausibility for the sake of potentially surprising the reader, The Club was a welcome change. My review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 31st March.

The Book That Grew Most On Me As It Went Along Was… 

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… We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan. I was a little dismayed by the first couple of chapters of this debut; the writing felt simplistic and clunky, and characters had a tendency to tell other characters things they would already know. However, as the story unfolded, I started to appreciate the way Zayyan gradually layered complexity onto this unpromising beginning. I especially liked the portrayal of the two central protagonists. Sameer is a lawyer living in England who returns to Uganda to explore his heritage; his family, Ugandan Asians, were forced to flee the country in 1972 (Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill also explores this episode in British colonial history). Interspersed with Sameer’s story are letters from his grandfather, Hasan, written as the crisis unfolds in 1970s Kampala. Both Sameer and Hasan ultimately have to negotiate their positioning between their own exploitation by British colonialists and present-day racists and their relative power compared to black Ugandans; both, arguably, also possess unexamined male privilege. Zayyan does not exult nor condemn either man, but lets the reader see them as they are. This book never quite took off for me because of the problems with its prose, but I admired Zayyan’s depiction of faith, morality and racism.

The Book I Had Most Mixed Feelings About This Month Was… 

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…The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, first in a fantasy trilogy set in a world inspired by Indian epics. I loved the three female protagonists, Priya, Malini and Bhumika, and enjoyed the atmospheric and original worldbuilding. But the male PoVs were underdeveloped (the most interesting and complex male character, Aditya, did not get to narrate); for me, this gave the book a stop-start feel, as the pace slowed to a crawl whenever a male character took the stage then sped up again when a female character returned. It’s also overlong, especially towards the end, when an obvious ‘reveal’ is dragged out for all it’s worth, and I never really believed in the romance between Priya and Malini, much as I love lesbian representation.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was… 

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…These Days by Lucy Caldwell. Set during the devastating Belfast Blitz of 1941, These Days focuses primarily on two middle-class sisters: 21-year-old Audrey, who has recently become engaged and is already having doubts, and 18-year-old Emma, secretly in love with another woman who, like her, works for the ambulance service. Their mother, Florence, also gets a significant sub-plot, as she reflects back on a long-lost love and forward as she wonders whether her life is essentially over: ‘How is it, she sometimes thinks, that this is her life, that here she is, a wife of twenty-two years this September, mother of two adult daughters, of a baby son already matching her for height?… It isn’t, she hastily thinks, that she’s unhappy, nor ungrateful with her lot: just bemused, she supposes, that this has turned out to be it.’ There are also snippets of narration from other characters: most notably, a brilliant, vividly rendered football match from the point-of-view of the sisters’ younger brother, Paul.

These Days is, in some ways, refreshing, and it’s certainly very well-written; not only does it highlight a lesser-known Blitz, but Caldwell’s writing manages to make familiar details from many, many World War Two novels feel immediate again. We feel the sudden loss of whole streets and landmarks and the fear of seeking safety in an air raid shelter that itself becomes a target. I also liked the subtle characterisation of Audrey and Emma, and the way that they are not set against each other. However, in other ways, it’s very familiar; it rehearses some stereotypical tropes about homosexuality, and I found the inclusion of perspectives from outside the family circle distracting. This seemed to be a gesture towards encompassing the working-class as well as the middle-class experience of the Blitz, but became a bit tokenistic. In particular, the narrative arc of ‘Wee Betty’, one of the family’s servants, is very sentimental.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

New Year Superlatives

With apologies to Elle of Elle Thinks for borrowing her excellent Superlatives format.

Best Read of 2022 So Far…

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…was Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which has all the intellectual clout of The Left Hand of Darkness but which I found much more accessible as science fiction. Its portrayal of the anarchist society of Anarres should be essential reading for those who wrongly think that anarchism is ‘everyone being allowed to do whatever they like and society descending into chaos’; it’s an incredibly ambitious attempt to work out what such a society might look like in practice, and how its people would think differently. My first five-star read of 2022.

Worst Read of 2022 So Far…

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…was definitely Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves, which supposedly looks at the reintroduction of wolves into the Scottish Highlands but is instead dominated by cliched romance and gratituous abuse. My Goodreads rant review is here.

Most WTF Read of 2022 So Far...

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… was, surprisingly, Hannah Kent’s Devotion, which started off treading very familiar ground but then went to some… unexpected places. My Goodreads review is here (spoilers are hidden). Maybe we can forgive it for its gorgeous coloured edges though? [Devotion is out in the UK on 3rd February].

Most Anticipated 2021 Release Read In 2022…

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… was Nina Mingya Powles’s collection of essays Small Bodies of Water (such a stunning cover!); it won the Nan Shepherd Prize for writers currently under-represented in nature writing. Although the natural world is certainly a linking thread between these essays, there are other themes that I’d say are equally dominant: food – from honey pomelos to the Chinese tofu pudding dòufu huā – and the Mandarin language. I picked up this book because I wanted to read about swimming, so it’s unsurprising that I was most drawn to the essays that focus on water, such as ‘The Safe Zone’, ‘Ache’ and ‘We Are All Dreaming of Swimming Pools’. However, I also loved how Powles often chases a single thing through time and space, such as the kōwhai tree in ‘Where the Kōwhai Blooms’, connecting her experiences of living in Aotearoa, Shanghai and London.

Least Anticipated 2021 Prize Longlistee Read In 2022…

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… was Raven Leilani’s Luster, which I decided not to read when I was shadowing the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction because ‘I still don’t want to read any more dysfunctional women being dysfunctional books’. Either I’ve had a long enough break from them or this one is better than most, because I liked it a lot more than I anticipated. It reminded me very strongly of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Timesbut I’d probably rank it more highly (which means it would have made my ideal Women’s Prize 2021 shortlist), largely because Edie is a more interesting protagonist than Ava. However, I still had issues with Luster; like many of my fellow bloggers, I loved Edie’s dark irony but found that her journey ended up in a much less interesting place than I’d anticipated at the start of the novel.

Our First Book Club Read of 2022…

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… was Lot by Bryan Washington. Structurally, I found this difficult; it essentially consists of segments of a novella about a gay mixed-race (black and Latino) teenage boy, Nicolas, interspersed with short stories about people who live in the Houston neighbourhoods around him. Some of the individual short stories were absolutely brilliant in their own right; I loved ‘Peggy Park’, which brutally and efficiently traces the fates of an amateur baseball team, and ‘Waugh’, which explores the complicated relationship between a boy selling sex and the man who provides him with accommodation. However, because I know nothing about Houston and the book doesn’t fill in the gaps, I couldn’t situate any of these locations in relation to each other, so the communal voice of the city that I think Washington was going for didn’t come through for me.

I was also a little lost as to the queer themes running through the stories; Washington has said that he ‘wanted every narrative in Lot to have a queer character or queer component’ because of the lack of representation for queer people who ‘fall outside of a palette-cleansing, cis, white, queer narrative, with a certain brand of polished body’. He’s of course, absolutely right about this, and the protagonist’s narrative offers a powerful corrective to this dominant trope – but the queer characters in the short stories seem to fall into very similar moulds to Nicolas, all young men of colour who have casual sex with other men. It’s very much focused on sexuality as an act rather than an identity, and, partly because of this, it’s a very male take on queerness. For this reason, I didn’t think that Lot offered the diversity of queer experience that it promised.

January’s Biggest Talking Point…

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… was definitely Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradisewith reactions ranging from utter boredom to intellectual delight. My thoughts are here.

What were your favourite and least favourite reads in January? Any other books that stood out (for right or wrong reasons)?