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)?

‘The future has failed to materialise’: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

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The reason I really chose this place was because of its name: Davids Island. Not singular – David’s – but many, as if this land were inhabited not by an ever-changing population of (mostly) children, but by Davids. My son, in duplicate, at all different ages, doing all the things my son had liked to do at various points in his life. … There would be no misunderstandings, no concerns that the younger Davids might be somehow different, somehow strange, because the older Davids would understand them. There would be no loneliness, because… they would only know one another… they would never know the agony of wanting to be someone else, for there was no one else to admire, no one else to envy.

Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise has already attracted wildly divergent critical reactions – everything from ‘it’s a masterpiece’ to ‘it’s a boring, incoherent mess’. I suspect that even among those of us who like this novel, there will be little common ground. Yanagihara gives us so much to think with that we’re bound to come out thinking very different things.

To Paradise consists of two novellas and a novel. The first, ‘Washington Square’, is set in an alternative version of our nineteenth century where the territories that make up the United States are configured differently, with a few northeastern states making up the ‘Free States’, where same-sex marriages are legal and acceptable but white supremacy still rules. The second, ‘Lipo-Wao-Nahele’, starts with a young gay man weathering the AIDS epidemic in early 1990s Manhattan, but flashes back to tell the story of his father, a descendant of the last king of Hawai’i, who is convinced by a charismatic friend to try and start a new community on a scrappy bit of land that still belongs to him. The third, ‘Zone Eight’, flashes back and forward in a pandemic-ravaged twenty-first century, narrated alternately by a grandfather and his granddaughter living in an increasingly totalitarian state. The links between these three sections are delicate and speculative rather than solid, and I can understand why many readers have found this frustrating. Why do protagonists called David and Charles continually reoccur, alongside secondary characters called Edward, Peter and Eden? Does it matter that all three narratives centre on a house in Washington Square? However, I like questionably interconnected stories (Nina Allan’s work also comes to mind), and the way it’s left to the readers to figure out their own theories about why these three stories sit together.

One big clue, I think, is in the passage I quoted at the start of the review. All three stories feature narrators whom Yanagihara is careful not to label as cognitively disabled or mentally ill, but, for their different reasons, are unable to interact with the world with the kind of motivation felt by a ‘normal’ person. Yanagihara suggests that there are possible worlds in which these disconnected, directionless people would be happy, but that society is not built for them, and so they are cursed to eternal loneliness or to desperately seeking human connection, whatever the cost. The reader’s own impatience with these characters is, I think, part of the point; breaking all the ‘rules’ of fiction-writing, they are characters without agency, who let life happen to them. However, I don’t think this is just about how we treat social outcasts or what kind of sympathy we owe them, although those themes are present. As each of these characters is taken to their own version of ‘paradise’ at the end of their book, Yanagihara shows us how seductive the idea of surrendering control and letting someone else decide our destiny is, even for those of us who think we are moving steadily onwards into the future we planned. This is perhaps especially the case when the world is falling apart; as Charles, the once hugely-ambitious grandfather in ‘Zone Eight’, reflects as his society descends into chaos, ‘The past is no longer relevant; the future has failed to materialise’.

Having said this, I think I would agree with other critics that there is a problem in the structure of To Paradise. I found the second section by far the weakest (I struggled to get through it, whereas the other two had me gripped), and I’m still not clear why Yanagihara included the lengthy party sequence, which seems divorced from the broader themes of the novel except insofar as it deals with impending death. While the segment at Lipo-Wao-Nahele was much more thematically relevant, I’m relieved it wasn’t any longer, as I found it almost too miserable to read (which leads me off on a bit of a tangent about books being ‘depressing’ or ‘miserable’; for me, the presence of terrible events in a novel does not automatically make it depressing, whereas novels that are about very banal things can feel blackly awful. A Little Life was absolutely heartbreaking, for example, but I didn’t find it as grim as Lipo-Wao-Nahele).

There have also been a number of reviews that suggest that Yanagihara presents yet another cliched dystopia in ‘Zone Eight’, and that this section brings nothing new to the table. While I’m very sympathetic to those who hate literary writers appropriating SF tropes and pretending they’ve reinvented the wheel (I’m looking at you Ian McEwan), I felt Yanagihara’s approach here was closer to Ishiguro’s strategy in Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun – the granddaughter’s blank affect even mimics Ishiguro’s prose style. The worldbuilding is not especially detailed – although Yanagihara is horribly convincing on strategies for containment of a global pandemic – but I don’t think it was intended to be. What Yanagihara does so well here, especially in the grandfather’s sections, is to show how a society gradually descends into dystopia rather than starting with the dystopia itself. And, unlike many boring dystopian novels I’ve read, she’s not afraid to find elements of the utopic within the dystopia – as the grandfather reflects, there is a place and a purpose for his granddaughter in this society, whereas there might not have been had she lived elsewhen. A world of ‘Davids’ would have no hope, no joy, but it might also have less longing, less pain.

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

Book Review: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

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

My Top Ten Books of 2021

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

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

In no particular order…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Stats

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

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

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

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

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2021 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2021 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2021, not necessarily first published in 2021.

Highly Commended

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

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

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

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

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

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations. I have to say, there were a lot of disappointments in 2021. For whatever reason, this was a pretty lacklustre reading year for me. So this list is longer than normal.

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

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

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

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

More #NovellasInNovember: Kashimada and Serpell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Haunting Season: Ghostly Tales for Long Winter Nights

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I’ve been keen to read this collection since I first heard about it in January 2021, and it seems I wasn’t the only one; it’s the first short story collection to hit the Sunday Times bestseller list since records began, and there are now a shortage of copies! I can kind of see why; this features a stellar line-up of writers who’ve all had big success with at least one book group/accessible literary novel, and it was published at exactly the right time of year, with gorgeous cover art. However, writing short stories is a very different art to writing novels, so would The Haunting Season deliver?

Unsurprisingly for a multiple-author collection, I thought this was a mixed bag, but one which did give me the cozy, spooky reading experience I was looking for, even if some of the stories worked better for me than others. Spooky, ghostly and scary stories are, perhaps, particularly subjective, and it doesn’t help that the ‘ghost story’ is, in my opinion, a very different genre from the ‘horror’ or ‘scary’ story, and this collection brings both together. Personally, I prefer horror stories to ghost stories, and have no time at all for friendly ghosts, so there were a few stories here that were never going to work for me, like Imogen Hermes Gowar’s ‘Thwaite’s Tenant’ (though, even putting my own preferences aside, I thought this was a disappointingly bland story for a writer who produced a novel as original as The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock). On the other end of the spectrum, Jess Kidd’s ‘Lily Wilt’ reminded me of some of H.P. Lovecraft’s less tasteful body horror, particularly his short story ‘Cool Air’, and wasn’t my thing at all. And while I liked the stories by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Elizabeth Macneal, I’m less interested in psychological horror, where the reader is left uncertain whether what’s truly happening is real, than in full-blown supernatural fear. 

Given I’m a massive Natasha Pulley fan, I wasn’t surprised that her contribution, ‘The Eel Singers’, was my favourite story in the collection. It’s hard for me to know how this would read to someone who isn’t familiar with her novels The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Lost Future of Pepperharrowbecause it features their protagonists. However, I thought this was perfectly eerie, evoking the fen landscape and leaving just the right amount unexplained. In contrast, Bridget Collins’s ‘A Study in Black and White’ had a wonderfully chilling central idea, but spent too much time on set-up and seemed to stop just as it got going. Another favourite in the collection for me was Laura Purcell’s ‘The Chillingham Chair’. I didn’t get on with her novels The Silent Companions and (especially) The Corset, but this demonstrated that what might seem thin in a novel works well in a short story; as she does in The Silent Companions, Purcell picks a real historical object – in this case, an early kind of wheelchair – and scares her reader with what happens when it becomes animate. Formulaic, but fun.

All of these stories are historical, set in some undefined eighteenth or nineteenth century (Andrew Michael Hurley’s disappointing contribution, ‘The Hanging of the Greens’, is the only one that feels a bit more modern.) This works for this collection, harking back to the golden age of Victorian ghost stories, but it also leaves it feeling somewhat traditional as a whole. The best stories, like the one by Pulley, are the ones that push the boundaries.