Mid-Year Check-In Tag

Taken from Eric Karl Anderson’s (Lonesome Reader’s) YouTube video. A bit of a late mid-year check-in, but I arrived back from Australia on 30th June and went straight to another conference in Birmingham in the first week of July, so I’m behind!

1. How many books have you read so far this year? 91 (was 85 at the end of June). This is definitely above average for me – I’ve been doing a lot of travelling, so that’s probably contributed.

2. What’s your favourite book so far this year? Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks has probably made the deepest impression upon me so far in its beautiful mixture of historical fiction and speculative fantasy set in the Peruvian rainforest.

3. What’s the most disappointing book you’ve read this year? Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater is probably the one I feel most irritated about; I’d been so hoping for a brilliant coming-of-age novel set in the north-east and instead I got standard-issue literary writing coupled with no sense of place.

4. What genre have you read most this year? This is impossible to answer, as I do read a lot of genres, but my reading has probably skewed towards science fiction and speculative literary fiction.

5. Name a new favourite author that you’ve discovered this year. Natasha Pulley, as above – I also very much enjoyed her The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – but I was also bowled over by Nina Allan’s The Riftand can’t wait to read her first novel, The Race, although her latest, The Dollmakerdidn’t quite land for me.

6. What’s the most surprisingly good book you’ve read so far this year? Ha, this has to go to Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, which I initially refused to read because I thought it was going to be crude and sensationalist, and then liked so much that it made my personal Women’s Prize shortlist.

7. What are your favourite and most anticipated 2019 releases? Some of my original picks still haven’t come out (or have been moved to 2020 very sad about this Evie Wyld), but here are some new picks [links to Goodreads]:

  • I’m a huge fan of Ann Patchett, so I can’t wait to read her latest, The Dutch House (September): ‘Set over the course of five decades… a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past.’
  • I loved Amy Waldman’s The Submission, so I’m looking forward to her second novel, A Door in the Earth (August),which focuses on ‘Parveen Shamsa, a college senior in search of a calling, [who] feels pulled between her charismatic and mercurial anthropology professor and the comfortable but predictable Afghan-American community in her Northern California hometown’.
  • This is already out (May), but I’ve heard great things about Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, OtherI wasn’t a fan of her Blonde Roots but I love this blurb: ‘follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.’
  • I’ve long admired Tash Aw’s writing but find his novels weirdly forgettable; I’m hoping that his latest, We, the Survivors (out since April), will break the trend. It focuses on Ah Hock, a poor inhabitant of a Malaysian fishing village who murders a migrant worker from Bangladesh.
  • I’m so excited for Louise Doughty’s new novel, Platform Seven (August)like everyone else, I was impressed by Apple Tree Yard, but personally, I felt that her last novel, Black Watertook her writing to new heights. And just look at the blurb! ‘Two deaths on Platform Seven. Two fatalities in eighteen months – surely they’re connected? No one is more desperate to understand what connects them than Lisa Evans herself. After all, she was the first of the two to die.’ It sounds like Point Horror meets literary fiction, and I am in.
  • In genre fiction, I’m definitely going to read Becky Chambers’s new SF novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate (September); I loved her Wayfarers series even if I felt that A Long Way… was much better than the other two. ‘In the future, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of galaxy transform themselves.’ I have requested this from NetGalley so hopefully it will come through soon please.
  • I’m also looking forward to Erica Ferencik’s next thriller, Into the Jungle (out since May, but not published in the UK and so expensive on Kindle!); I found her The River at Night evocative and gripping. ‘a young woman leaves behind everything she knows to take on the Bolivian jungle, but her excursion abroad quickly turns into a fight for her life.’

8. What’s your next big priority for your reading? Getting my 20 Books of Summer read before I’m distracted by the new exciting titles above.

9. What’s been your bookish highlight of the year so far? Definitely attending the Wellcome Book Prize ceremony after shadowing the award for the second time, and also the 5×15 Stories event that featured five of the shortlisted writers.

I don’t tend to tag people, but if anyone hasn’t already done a mid-year round-up and fancies this tag, go for it! I’d love to hear others’ responses.

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Reading on My Travels: Tokyo and Sydney 2019

 

Having spent the last few days at the Social History Society conference in Lincoln, I’m flying off tomorrow to Tokyo and then Sydney for two weeks on a work trip (Society for the History of Childhood and Youth conference in Sydney, stopover in Tokyo for a week beforehand). This means this blog will be out of action until July! So before I go, I thought I’d answer the most important question: what am I going to read on my travels?

Four Books of Summer

 

20 Books of Summer wouldn’t be a challenge if I finished it too fast, so I’m only taking four of the list on my travels (the ones I could get cheaply on Kindle or have as e-ARCs): The Chalk Artist, Pulp, Starling Days and Winter Sisters.

Our Latest Book Club Read

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I currently run Sisters Read the World, an all-female book group that only reads books by people of colour, in Newcastle; this group was originally the brainchild of my friend Ramla, but she is on ‘maternity leave’ at the moment. Our latest choice is Never Far From Nowhere by Andrea Levy; having read The Long Song and Small Island, I was keen to explore some of Levy’s earlier work after her untimely death earlier this year. This sounds like it might have parallels with Zadie Smith’s Swing Timewhich I loved; it’s about two sisters of Jamaican heritage growing up in Finsbury Park in the 1970s.

E-ARCs

 

I’ve also acquired two e-ARCs to read from NetGalley, and am hoping that my two pending requests will come through while I’m away! Nikesh Shukla’s and Sammy Jones’s edited collection Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth has been a must-read for me ever since I heard it was being crowdfunded via Unbound. This book of essays by writers under 24 addresses politics, education, renting, gender, class and race, and is hugely relevant to my own work on young people’s writing. Secondly, I have William Prendiville’s novella Atlantic Winds, another offering from Fairlight Books, who published the Women’s Prize-shortlisted Bottled Goods. I was intrigued by its synopsis; set in 1970s Canada, it looks at the ‘small island community of Bear Lake [which] is awash with rumours of lay-offs and wildcat strikes at the mill’. I’ve also requested Tea Obrecht’s Inland (possibly my most anticipated read of 2019) and Patrice Lawrence’s second YA novel, Rose, Interrupted, which stars a black teenage girl who’s recently escaped a strict religious sect.

Everything Else

 

In short, the rest are books that I’ve acquired through those ever-seductive Kindle deals. First, John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Skywhich I picked up after enjoying The Heart’s Incredible Furies so much; I love the idea of a book based around an insatiable plagiarist. Second, Hanna Jameson’s The Lastwhich has an irresistible synopsis: twenty people survive holed up in a hotel after the end of the world. Third, Alex White’s A Big Ship at the End of the Universe sounds like it might be fun, light SF; recommended for fans of The Expanse series, it stars a crew of outcasts hunting down a legendary spaceship. Fourth, I snapped up Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo after loving her more recent Daisy Jones and the Six; I wasn’t inspired by the idea of a novel about a classic Hollywood star, as I’m not a fan of classic Hollywood movies, but Rachel persuaded me to give it a go. Finally, Nathan Hill’s The Nixabout a failed American writer researching his mother’s radical past, looks like a good, chunky holiday read.

Can I read all these books in three weeks? Probably not – but I do have three very long plane journeys ahead!

Are you off anywhere this summer?

The 4.5 Star Challenge

Taken from Rachel at pace, amore, libri! The idea of this challenge is that you choose five books that you think you’ll rate five stars but that you haven’t read yet, and see what happens. I have renamed this challenge as it’s so unusual for me to give out five star ratings – so I’ll be looking for these books to be at least 4.5 stars.

So I don’t add to my reading list, everything I’ve chosen is from my 2019 Reading Plans.

Téa Obreht: Inland. I already wrote about how much I’m looking forward to this, but suffice it to say that (a) Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wifewas one of my favourite books of the last ten years and (b) this is set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, allowing Obreht, whose last novel was focused on folklore and conflict, to ‘subvert and reimagine the myths of the American West’. This is out in August.

Sally Rooney: Normal People. A funny one for me, as I enjoyed Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friendsbut it didn’t blow me away. However, I adore novels with university settings and, as I am the last person in the world to read this book, I’ve seen lots of glowing reviews.

Allegra Goodman: The Chalk Artist. Again, a bit of a leap of faith. I admired the intelligence and sharpness of Goodman’s Intuition and The Cookbook Collector, but neither novel really came together for me. Still, I’m convinced that Goodman can write, and the premise of this novel – a boy whose life is taken over by an alternative gaming reality – couldn’t be more up my street.

Evie Wyld: The Bass Rock. Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing was also one of my favourite novels of the past ten years, and although I was less impressed by her debut, After The Fire, A Small Still VoiceI loved her graphic novel, Everything Is Teeth. This one tells the story of three unconventional women who live hundreds of years apart. It looks like the publication of this has been pushed to 2020, though, so I might have a while to wait. (It also has no cover yet, so I’ve used a photo of Wyld instead.)

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker. I was hugely impressed by Powers’s The Overstory, which was one of my top ten books of 2018, and have decided to explore his back catalogue. I was most intrigued by this one, which is about a man who doesn’t recognise his own sister after suffering brain damage in a car accident, but sounds like it might take an unexpected turn.

Have you read any of these novels? What did you think, if so?

The Last 10 Books Tag

I’ve seen this popping up everywhere, but most recently at Annabel’s blog.

The last book I gave up on

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. I wanted to read about people climbing Everest, but when I realised that a substantial amount of this doorstopper was about the First World War, I stopped reading it. I’ve read a lot of historiography on the experience of the war, and its myth and memory, for work, and so revising this just isn’t that fun for me.

The last book I re-read

Abhorsen by Garth Nix. If you haven’t read this creepy, atmospheric YA quartet, which starts with Sabriel, you really ought to. Nix brings his fantasy universe, peopled by necromancers, seers and animate corpses, vividly to life, and he wrote about a kingdom divided by a Wall behind which the dead walk before George R. R. Martin did.

The last book I bought

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. I thought it was fabulous and will be reviewing it here soon.

The last book I said I read but actually didn’t

I can’t remember ever doing this. Unless I’ve done it by accident? I perhaps have claimed to have read Bleak House when I’ve only read half of it, but that was enough for a lifetime.

The last book I wrote in the margins of

Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch. A popular, conservative-ish history of education in twentieth-century America. I write in all the academic books I own.

The last book I had signed

Solar by Ian McEwan. I never have books signed for myself, so got this signed as a present for my mum several years back. My impression of McEwan was not favourable.

The last book I lost

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. This childhood favourite was sadly left on a train, and I must get round to buying a new copy. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna for grown-ups.

The last book I had to replace

Freeze Tag by Caroline B. Cooney. This Point Horror classic really isn’t very good, but I wanted it for inspiration for my current work-in-progress. It turns out the best thing about it is the cover and the title, and my teenage self was quite right to get rid of my previous copy.

The last book I argued over

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I really couldn’t get on with this at all, finding it shallow and a bit ridiculous, but many fellow members of my creative writing group loved it.

The last book I couldn’t find

My treasured chick lit collection, c. 2005-c.2010, including many titles by Lindsey Kelk, Harriet Evans and Miranda Dickinson. My dad found these books for me hiding in a box after I explained the concept of I Heart…  to him. (‘You mean it’s called ‘I Love New York?’ ‘No, I Heart New York.’ ‘A book can’t be called that.’)

Three Things… December 2018

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

I’m trying to finish off my TBR pile before Christmas to make room for new acquisitions. Having very much enjoyed Tayari Jones’s An American MarriageI’m now tearing through her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which deals with the real-life disappearance of dozens of African-American children in Atlanta in 1979. Told from the perspective of three black fifth-graders, the novel is both gripping and beautifully observed; Jones captures the eleven-year-old mindset perfectly. Her narrators range from middle-class Tasha, who is desperately concerned about getting a pink party invitation with a magenta heart sticker from the most popular girl in her class, but is also dealing with her parents’ separation and becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of the outside world, to Octavia, a ‘project kid’ on a reduced lunch voucher who is also expert at reading the dynamics of the classroom. Jones also pulls off the difficult trick of moving from first to second to third person as she skips between her narrators. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, about four Nigerian brothers who receive a curse from a local madman, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, and on a line-by-line level, it’s easy to see why; Obioma’s prose is clever and distinctive. However, the density of the writing and the reliance on flashbacks keeps the reader at arms length, and I found that this was a novel I admired rather than enjoyed. I abandoned Kim Sherwood’s Testament after realising that I’m not sure I can read any more Holocaust novels; it prompted similar thoughts to Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in WinterFinally, I’m hoping to start my book club’s latest choice, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, as I head home, which should see me hitting my Goodreads target of 150 books read in 2018.

Watching

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I saw the documentary Free Solo at Tyneside Cinema last week, which recounts Alex Honnold’s climb up the 3000-foot high El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley without any rope or safety equipment. Filming this feat was a massive achievement in itself, as the film makes clear – not only did the crew have to handle the logistics of capturing the key moments of Honnold’s climb, they had to reckon with the risk that their presence would put him off his game and lead him to fall to his death. The sheer danger of Honnold’s undertaking can hardly be overestimated: one fellow climber describes it as taking a shot at an Olympic gold medal, but if you fail, you die. I’m fascinated by the psychology that leads people to take such risks with their lives, but this goes far beyond even other extreme sports such as freediving. The footage from the morning of Alex’s attempt is acutely uncomfortable to watch, as the crew put on a false joviality, as if Alex is doing no more than attempting a Ninja Warrior obstacle course, whereas you can see many of them are thinking that this might be the last time they speak to him.

In the face of this, I started to wonder if Free Solo itself was unethical, glorifying a feat that is actually profoundly unhealthy. Honnold suggests in the documentary that he’s driven by the idea, instilled in childhood, that he can never be good enough. However, I think there’s a subtlety in the composition of this piece that allows these questions to be raised. Although Honnold values success rather than happiness (‘anyone can be happy and cozy’, he says at one point), the nature of free solo climbs mean they are usually accomplished out of the spotlight, with nobody watching. Seeing Honnold’s climb as either glorious or as idiotic is to simplify it. Honnold’s commitment to a (probably shortened) life of free soloing is his own response to mortality; akin to free diving, he likes the freedom of this kind of climbing, the fact that he’s only relying on himself, and the simplicity and speed of the ascent. However, the problems start when he establishes human ties as well; his serious relationship with a girlfriend feels like an unfair commitment for him to have taken on, even though he’s perfectly honest with her about his intention to continue free soloing. I can’t stop thinking about Free Solo, and the shots of Honnold’s ascent alone make it worth seeing.

Thinking

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Even though I essentially get paid to think, I always struggle to remember anything I’ve actually thought once I get to this section! So I’m going to write about where I do a lot of my thinking: either on walks in Jesmond Dene, in the swimming pool, or in yoga classes. One new version of the above that I’ve taken up recently is hot yoga, with classes in Newcastle run by Hotpod Yoga, a franchise which has bases all over the country. Before I did a trial membership at Hotpod, I was convinced that hot yoga was not for me, despite having practised normal yoga for eight years. I struggle when the temperature outside gets above 30 C (in the pods, it’s set at 37 C) and never go in saunas.

However, I’m a surprised convert. Hotpod offer three difficulty levels, of which I’ve tried two: the mid-range ‘normal’ Hotpod class is basically a vinyasa flow class in the pod, whereas Nurturing Flow is a much slower and more restorative practice, especially good for when you’re aching from other activity. Turns out, when you’re geared up to get sweaty, it isn’t that bad – I find the purple atmosphere wonderfully relaxing, and it’s a great escape from northern weather. Although I have been doing yoga for so long, I’m not very good at it – I’m not naturally bendy – and Hotpod also helps a bit with my inflexible muscles.

This will be my last post before Christmas. I’ve got some exciting festive reading lined up, including Laura Purcell’s The Corset, Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affairand I’ll be back at the end of December with a couple of posts on the year’s reading. Hope that you all have a relaxing break!

Three Things… November 2018

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been reading a lot of books that deal with ice, snow, and travelling in the cold – very appropriate for Newcastle in November. I finally finished Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, which I’ve been reading very slowly – the first half, in particular, is dense and difficult, and I needed time to take it in. As is well known, the novel deals with a foreign visitor to the planet Gethen, or ‘Winter’, whose otherwise-human inhabitants have no specific biological sex until they enter a monthly state called kemmer, when they can become either male or female depending on circumstance (Le Guin calls this ‘a bisexual society’, which makes the modern reader trip up a bit, and demonstrates how marginal bisexual sexualities were in the 1970s). This not only makes gender irrelevant but renders everybody asexual most of the time. The phrase that the title comes from – a Gethenian saying that ‘the left hand of darkness is the right hand of light’ indicates the novel’s concern with challenging binaries, not solely those of man/woman but of friend/enemy and sexual partner/platonic companion.

The second half of the novel is where it really picks up pace, having established its theoretical framework, as our original narrator travels with an exiled Gethenian across a frozen sea – a journey reminiscent of the accounts of Antarctic travellers such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the WorldI kept tracing the influence of this novel forward to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justicewhich also corrects one of the most significant flaws of The Left Hand of Darkness by using ‘she’ rather than ‘he’ to refer to its genderless beings, a thought experiment that, for me, works much better. I’m certain I’ve missed half of what this novel has to say, so I hope I’ll return to it again.

Other recent reads that deal with the cold, and travelling away from, through it, and towards it: Garth Nix’s follow-up to his brilliant Abhorsen trilogy, Goldenhand, which I enjoyed as much as Abhorsen, if not as much as Sabriel or Lirael; and Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift, a thoroughly engrossing historical novel set between seventeenth-century Iceland and Algiers, which is both genuinely funny and genuinely sad. I especially admired how Magnusson described the meeting of two oral storytelling traditions, as captured Icelandic slaves come into contact with local Muslim women.

Watching

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Passengers (2016) attracted fierce criticism for its misogynistic and antiquated story line when it was initially released. Nevertheless, I can’t resist (a) set-pieces/’locked rooms’ (b) films set in space (c) living spaces full of futuristic breakfast-making technology etc. (d) things going wrong with lots of beeping screens and electronic read-outs, so I was pretty sure I was going to hate the gender politics but enjoy the film anyway. Spoilers for Passengers follow. 

And yes, as the film stands, it’s as sexist as everybody says. If you didn’t follow the original controversy, the film focuses on a ship making its way towards a new home world for humanity. The passengers and crew on board are in suspended animation over the 120-year journey, but when the ship suffers a meteorite strike, one of the pods is damaged, and its passenger, Jim, wakes up ninety years too early. Realising that he’s doomed to live out his life alone on the ship, he becomes fixated on fellow passenger, Aurora, tampers with her pod and wakes her up as well. Aurora and Jim fall in love, but when she finds out what he did, she’s rightly furious. When the ship starts going even more wrong, Jim’s heroic willingness to risk his own life to save others encourages Aurora to forgive him, and they grow old and die together in space.

As a number of people pointed out at the time, this is fundamentally disturbing. Jim essentially murders Aurora, and deliberately places her in a situation where she will become emotionally and socially dependent on him. His behaviour is abusive, and although Aurora is offered the choice of returning to suspended animation near the end of the film through a plot contrivance, Jim could not have known this would happen when he decided to wake her up. Moreover, the way the film is framed reduces Aurora to a passive object that Jim first takes and then has to win back. A recorded message from one of her friends telling her that she needs to learn to give more of herself and not always be so distant and independent underlines the unpleasant message that her enforced ‘love’ for Jim is natural and right.

Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about Passengers, basically because it’s one of those films that could so easily have been really good and instead is terrible. As this video (‘Passengers, Rearranged’) outlines, if the structure of the film was flipped and we started in Aurora’s head as she wakes up, the reveal that Jim deliberately did this to her would come as a surprise to the viewers as well. Jim would become a dark grey character, rather than a romantic hero, and the film’s tone would shift more towards horror than sci-fi. Even better, the video suggests that Jim could be killed off in the course of the movie, leaving Aurora alone on the ship – and faced with the same dark choice that he originally struggled with. Framed like this, Passengers could have been less Titanic and more Black Mirror, much more thought-provoking, and far less objectionable.

Thinking

I’m absolutely loving Tim Clare’s Couch to 80k Writing Bootcamp, a free eight-week novel-writing course with a 20-minute podcast including a ten-minute writing exercise every day (with one day off a week). The name, while catchy, is a bit misleading – Clare explicitly advises writers against the kind of NaNoWriMo mentality where you try to get as many words down each day no matter how bad they are, believing it makes you burn out and get put off. Instead, he suggests, you should make writing something you look forward to and stop while you still want to do more – a practice that these podcasts certainly encourage. So you won’t have 80k words by the end, but you’ll hopefully be feeling much more creative and productive.

What’s especially brilliant about it is how flexible it is – it’s really a way of getting you to establish a daily writing habit, so it’s a useful boost whether you’re just starting your very first novel or are bogged down in the third draft of your tenth. For me, it’s helping me do some proper thinking and planning for my new project, which is set in Antarctica (more cold!) and has the working title Old Ice. I love this bootcamp so much that I’m listening to two episodes a day and making it into a four-week writing course, so I’m hoping to be done by Christmas and ready to properly launch into a first draft. Given how many novel-writing courses, offline or online, are prohibitively expensive for those on low incomes (which is not my position at the moment, but used to be for a number of years and may be again in the future) I’m really impressed by Clare’s generosity in providing this gem for free, and I’ll definitely be contributing to his coffee fund.

Three Things… October 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Regular readers may have noticed that this blog has gone a bit quiet recently. I’ve been facing some difficult personal upheavals again, and I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on reading, let alone writing reviews. However, things seem to be settling down a bit now, especially work-wise – I’m settling into my new job as a research fellow at Queen Mary University of London, and have just submitted the full manuscript of my first academic book, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools, which is under contract with Manchester University Press.

Reading

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I was reading Esi Edugyan’s Booker-shortlisted Washington Black before things went pear-shaped, and so it probably suffered somewhat from being read over an exceptionally long period of time. Washington Black shares some surface similarities with Jane Harris’s recent Sugar Money: they are both narrated by a young, male, enslaved narrator who starts his story in the West Indies, although Washington Black is set in the early nineteenth century, exploring the shifting legal position of slavery at the time, whereas Sugar Money deals with a slave revolt in the mid-eighteenth century. Both books also tap into an eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century tradition of adventure narratives, which can lead them to feel a bit repetitive, as the story jumps from one dramatic event to another. However, I found Washington Black much more reflective and emotionally resonant than Sugar Money, helped by the fact that it takes place over a longer period of time and moves through a range of geographically diverse settings.

Washington Black’s life is transformed when, as a young boy, he comes into contact with his master’s brother, ‘Titch’, who helps him escape from slavery and adventure into the unknown. Like Sugar Money, Washington Black moves from scenes of intense and horrifying realism – most of which take place on the Barbados plantation – to more whimsical escapades, as when Washington and Titch fly off in a hot air balloon and, finding themselves about to crash into the sea, manage to steer it so they land on a ship (much to the captain’s displeasure). Tonally, Edugyan handles this expertly, and Washington’s voice is convincing and compelling.

Nevertheless, I felt that something was lacking in the cast of this novel. Frustratingly, it was Titch rather than Washington who came most vividly alive for me. Initially appearing as a kind of ‘white saviour’, or, in more historically-appropriate terminology, a ‘knight in shining armour’, Titch’s mind and motives are deconstructed across the course of this novel. Edugyan cleverly flips our perspective on him a number of times, revealing his inner conflict while not allowing him to become truly sympathetic. The final scene between him and Washington is especially powerful. While I appreciated this nuanced portrait, it’s a shame that the main black characters feel so wooden in comparison. Washington notably comes to life only when he interacts with Titch, while a love interest introduced about halfway through the novel remains no more than that. I’d be surprised if this won the Booker today (though I am usually wrong about prizes, so it probably has a good chance).

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

Watching

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Due to aforementioned life events, I haven’t been watching anything especially intelligent recently. Netflix’s sweet rom-com To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was perfect escapism. The predictable plot follows a girl who has to confront a series of past crushes after her secret love letters to them get mailed out, but it’s nice to see a more diverse cast in this genre – the heroine, Lara Jean, is Korean-American in the novel, though played in the film by a Vietnamese-American actress. I liked what the author of the original novel, Jenny Han, had to say about the casting of Lara Jean: ‘One producer said to me, as long as the actress captures the spirit of the character, age and race don’t matter… I said, well, her spirit is Asian-American. That was the end of that.’

Thinking

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I went to see Sarah Waters talk about her 2009 novel, The Little Stranger, which has just been made into a film, at the Durham Book Festival. The talk was followed by a screening of the film, which, rather to my surprise – having thought the book would be difficult to film – I very much enjoyed. The film manages to be genuinely creepy, restraining the urge to have anything flashy happen, and Ruth Wilson is superb as Caroline, completely inhabiting her ‘unfeminine’ gait and confident sloppiness. Waters always interviews well, and I was particularly intrigued by a comment she made about the ‘ontological shock’ that should be at the heart of any good ghost story. As Waters put it, if we see a ghost, this should surely strike at the heart of our understanding of the laws of reality. If we see a ghost, surely now anything could happen – a glass could fly across the table, we ourselves could fly apart. I think Waters is absolutely right about the horror of this, and it’s something I think very few ghost stories do well. (I have to say, this is something that always annoyed me in Harry Potter as well – both Harry and Hermione are SO confident about what is silly and mythical, e.g. Luna Lovegood’s Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, and what is real. If you were introduced to a world of magic at the age of eleven, might you not be a bit more open-minded in the future? I have a vintage fanfic from 2004 that explores this question – that’s how much it got to me!)