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

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

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

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

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

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

20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: If I Had Your Face and Surfacing

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Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, is narrated in first person by four women in their late twenties and early thirties living precarious lives in contemporary Seoul (they actually live in the Gangnam district, which is a good education for those of us who have only heard of Gangnam from the K-pop single ‘Gangnam Style’). Despite only having four narrators, it has five significant female characters, all of whom live in the same apartment building. Ara, a mute hair stylist obsessed with a K-pop icon, shares her flat with school friend Sujin, who is saving up for plastic surgery so she can be a top ‘room salon’ girl like Kyuri, who makes money by entertaining men every night. Kyuri’s flatmate, Miho, seems to have broken away from her deprived upbringing in an orphanage when she wins a scholarship to an art school in New York, but is still at the mercy of the classist judgments of other Koreans when she returns; finally, Wonna, who lives with her husband in the downstairs flat, is desperate to become a mother even though she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to make ends meet. If I Had Your Face is significantly, if not wholly, concerned with how all of these women struggle to meet conventional standards of femininity and sexuality. In this, it has something in common with Cheryl Lu-Lien’s Singapore-set Sarong Party Girls; however, the latter has a much more satirical tone, depicting women who party hard and are much more willing to break the rules in their search for the perfect husband, whereas the Korean characters in If I Had Your Face live more constrained lives.

There are flashes of memorable originality in this debut novel, but the bits that stuck with me most vividly – like Wonna accidentally blinding her cousin as a child or Ara beating up an assistant hair stylist who’s sabotaging her at work – were the incidents that didn’t really connect to the story as a whole. The novel feels a little meandering and confusing, and this is amplified by how difficult it is to tell its four narrators apart and how all four of them tend to skip backwards and forwards in time when telling their stories. I was perhaps more bothered than I ought to have been by the fact that Sujin doesn’t get to narrate, whereas Wonna doesn’t seem to fit into many of the key themes of the book and so felt like an unnecessary addition. I understand that Cha wanted to explore the fate of women who do achieve marriage to a respectable man as a counterpoint to the rest of her characters trying to survive on their own, but I felt like I’d read this story many times before. If I Had Your Face had so much potential, but it never quite pulled it together.

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

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Surfacing is Kathleen Jamie’s third collection of nature-writing essays, following Findings and Sightlinesboth of which I enjoyed immensely. Unlike her previous two collections, Surfacing is dominated by two novella-length pieces on archaeological digs and their relationship with the landscape around them – ‘In Quinhagak’ explores the University of Aberdeen’s excavations at the Nunalleq site near the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak in Alaska, while ‘Links of Noltland’ focuses on the excavation of Neolithic remains on Orkney. The former essay is especially interesting because of the presence of the Yup’ik community, who support the archaeological dig because it’s uncovering evidence of their pre-contact culture. As Jamie writes, ‘It’s about saying, this is yours. Everything you feared you lost, or never even knew you had. Look. It’s here. It’s back.’ The Links of Noltland dig, exploring a time unfathomably more ancient, has no such direct living connection, but the meticulous work of the archaeologists builds up a sense of what the community must have been like. At one point, Jamie is helping two of the researchers, Dan and Anna, explore a particular patch:

[Dan] had the enclosure wall to deal with and, in its lee, many flints. His patch was covered in little polythene bags, each containing a bit of flint. Anna and I, just a metre further into the enclosure, had only brown earth which yielded occasional small morsels of bone. I pretended outrage when Hazel came by. “Miss! It’s not fair! He’s getting all these finds, and we’re not.”

Hazel’s answer seemed visionary. She glanced and said, “They must have been sitting on the wall, flint-knapping.”

Sat right there on their village wall in the afternoon sunshine, working and chatting. I almost saw them.

Jamie’s writing is as clear and brilliant as ever, but this collection felt slightly unbalanced by the dominance of these two long pieces. None of the very short pieces interspersed throughout worked for me, although I enjoyed a couple of the medium-length pieces; ‘The Wind Horse’, a bit of a departure from Jamie’s usual work, evocatively returns to her travels as a young woman in Xiahe, which is formally part of China but ‘ethnically and culturally Tibetan’, and ‘Elders’ is a moving piece about the ageing and death of her dad. Unlike Sightlines, Surfacing is also less successful at pulling together Jamie’s travel-writing with her emotional reflections on her own life; both are present in this book but tend to be explored in separate essays. Nevertheless, I would recommend this thoughtful, beautiful collection, especially if you are interested in questions of historical and cultural preservation.

20 Books of Summer, #3: The Maths of Life and Death

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The Maths of Life and Death, written by Kit Yates, who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath, aims to show that ‘maths is for everyone’ and that mathematics is ‘first and foremost, a practical tool to make sense of our complex world.‘ This is a mission that I’m definitely on board with. I’m convinced that maths is the worst taught of all school subjects in England (due to the failure of central government policies to attract and reward good teachers), leaving a lot of people with the idea that maths isn’t for them. It’s frustrating to see people who are otherwise really smart refusing to even engage with an argument if it contains numbers or anything else ‘sciency’. Yates’s book, on the whole, definitely does a good job of explaining some basic mathematical concepts simply and clearly, and showing how they are relevant in the ‘real world’. The book is almost entirely focused on statistics, and the one chapter that strays into the realm of pure mathematics – on algorithms – will probably be less accessible for the average reader. However, having a solid understanding of some basic concepts in statistics is both vital and possible for everyone, and so I think this focus works well.

I have to say that most of the examples used in The Maths of Life and Death were already familiar to me, which is probably the result of my amateur enthusiasm for statistics rather than any undue repetition on Yates’s part, although there is a certain amount of crossover with Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. Because I’m interested in medicine, I was already familiar with the material on medical statistics covered in chapter two, and with much of the epidemiological information in chapter seven (this, of course, is not Yates’s fault, but because this chapter focuses on controlling global pandemics, it makes for a rather chilling read in the wake of Covid-19). Chapter three, on the law, retells the story of the infamous Sally Clark case, where statistics were used to ‘prove’ that the chances of experiencing two stillbirths in the same family were 1 in 73 million, and so Clark must have murdered her two children; as Yates shows, this figure could only have been arrived at through multiple statistical errors. And I already knew about the ‘birthday problem’ in chapter four, which shows that in any school class it’s more likely than not that two children share the same birthday, although I loved hearing the story of how Yates used this fact to pitch his literary agent, Chris Wellbelove, while they were having drinks in a pub:

I bet him the next round of drinks that I would be able to find two people, in the relatively quiet pub, who shared a birthday. After a quick scan of the room, he readily took me on and indeed offered to buy the next two rounds if I could find such a pair, so unlikely did he think the prospect of a match. Twenty minutes and a lot of baffled looks and superficial explanations later… I had found my pair of birthday-sharers and the drinks were on Chris.

Yates’s prose is clear and straightforward, which is absolutely necessary for a book of this type. Occasionally, when he is trying to write about the bigger implications of statistics, it becomes a bit banal, but this isn’t the case most of the time. I also liked that he explained his calculations both in the text and through the use of diagrams – I found the text easier to follow, but others would probably prefer the diagrams, so this works for everyone. All in all, I’d recommend this book as an accessible and important introduction to understanding the use and abuse of statistics.

I would like to thank Quercus for sending me a free copy of this book to review.

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: The Five

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the second year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2020 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on Monday 15 June 2020 in a virtual ceremony.

Today I’ll be reviewing one of the shortlisted titles, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, which fits nicely with my teaching interests (I don’t focus on the nineteenth century in my own research, but have taught a number of undergraduate modules on gender and sexuality in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.)

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The obsessive study of Jack the Ripper, or ‘Ripperology’, has been a persistent if unpleasant trend since the series of Ripper murders were committed in Whitechapel in 1888. The Bishopsgate Institute, located in Spitalfields, holds a collection of more than three hundred books on the Ripper (though to be fair, when I toured their archives, they seemed pretty embarrassed by this, and much more keen to talk about their brilliant collections of LGBT+ and protest history). In The Five, Rubenhold wants to face firmly away from this accumulation of misogynist morbidity and focus on the lives of the five women believed to have been killed by Jack the Ripper: Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane. To be honest, it’s a great idea for a joint biography even without the aim of debunking Ripper myths: we often think about the diverging life courses of people who started in the same place, but here we have five women who started in very different places but came to the same end. It makes the five life stories that Rubenhold presents feel increasingly claustrophobic, as each bottlenecks towards its descent.

One hugely important result of this is to blow apart Victorian myths of what social investigators called the ‘residuum’, the people who lived in the very worst circumstances, skirting between criminality and vagrancy in the inner cities. Rubenhold shows that we cannot think of the nineteenth-century poor as a miserable, identical mass. Several of these five women – who experienced their childhoods in the period before the establishment of compulsory universal elementary education in England in 1870 – were literate. Polly spent much of her adult life in one of the model Peabody estates built to hasten slum clearance, which only admitted working-class residents seen to be of exceptional character and industry. Elizabeth was an immigrant from Sweden. Annie was the daughter of a cavalry trooper, growing up between London and Windsor barracks where ‘the sight of landaus filled with ladies in expensive silk bonnets and titled gentleman whose uniforms clanked with medals would have seemed an ordinary occurrence’. Kate often made a living, alongside her husband, as a chapbook seller and street singer. Mary Jane, the last of the five victims, offered other women sanctuary from the streets when she heard about the Whitechapel murders, and was heard singing in her room for more than an hour on the night she herself was killed. The Five brings home the fragility of Victorian respectability, familiar to academic historians of this period, to a popular audience, indicating how easy it was for working-class support systems to fail, even among the families of the most skilled craftsmen.

The Five is also concerned with shattering a myth that is central to Ripperology, and which remains the one thing that most people know about Jack the Ripper’s victims: the assumption, made by the press at the time, that the Ripper deliberately targeted prostitutes. Rubenhold argues that four out of five of the victims did not regularly engage in selling sex, and therefore, this framework, which contributes to the gruesome notoriety of this series of murders, is wrong. But, as Rubenhold makes clear in her conclusion to this book, the word ‘prostitute’ did not have a straightforward meaning in Victorian England. Selling sex has never been illegal in England, so to be convicted as a ‘common prostitute’ [the legal term which was used at the time] under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, you needed to also be behaving in a ‘riotous or indecent manner’ in pubic. However, because these two claims (soliciting and bad behaviour) needed to be combined for a charge to be brought against you, the identification of which women were ‘common prostitutes’ was to a large extent left to the judgement of the police.  ‘Common prostitute’, therefore, became a legal category that ‘manufactured prostitutes’, in the words of the first female inspector of women’s prisons in 1918: it was not an offence to be a prostitute, but once you were designated as such, you could be accused of crimes that other women could not commit. [1]

As Rubenhold writes in her conclusion: ‘very few authorities, including the Metropolitan Police, could agree as to what exactly constituted a “prostitute” and how she might be identified’ as the moral codes of the time did not firmly distinguish between casual sex outside wedlock and sex work. She emphasises that four out of the five women were not legally labelled as ‘common prostitutes’, and that there is also little evidence that they engaged in ‘casual prostitution’. Nevertheless, I was a little concerned by the way that this argument was handled throughout the course of The Five. In the four sections that deal with these women, Rubenhold spends quite a lot of time emphasising that they were not prostitutes, and her return to the subject in the conclusion seems to frame it as a central finding of the book. Moreover, it’s only in the conclusion itself that Rubenhold explores the contested meaning of the word ‘prostitute’ in the nineteenth century in detail; before that, the casual reader would likely think that ‘prostitute’ = ‘sex worker’. In short, I worried that, by putting so much emphasis on this issue, Rubenhold was giving ground to the Ripperologists by debunking a claim that they clearly consider to be important. But ultimately, it should not matter whether or not these women sold sex. The Five is a significant book for so many other reasons; there’s no need to lean on this one.

Make sure to check out the other stops on this blog tour as it enters its second week:

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[1] Julia Laite, ‘Taking Nellie Johnson’s fingerprints: prostitutes and legal identity in early twentieth-century London’History Workshop Journal, 65, 1 (2008), paywalled.

‘Speaking Nearby’ Ourselves: Cathy Park Hong

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I’m not sure that the title and blurb of Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings give a completely accurate impression of what the book is about – in short, I can see someone picking this up expecting a meditation on the Korean American immigrant ‘experience’, and instead, encountering a series of essays that are much more concerned with making art while happening to be Korean American. Indeed, part of Hong’s achievement here is to demonstrate the deadness of familiar questions such as ‘Can white people write characters of colour?’ and to say much more interesting things about writing from your own and from others’ experiences, in conversation with other female Asian artists. For example, she writes:

‘Rather than “speaking about” a culture outside your experience, the filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha suggests we “speak nearby”. In an interview for Artforum, Trinh says: “When you decide to speak nearby, rather than speak about, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge the possible gap between you and the who populate your film… You can only speak nearby, in proximity… which requires that you deliberately suspend meaning… This allows the other person to come in and fill that space as they wish.”‘

Hong uses Trinh’s insights to try and turn the conversation away from the inevitable focus upon white writers writing ‘outside their lane’, arguing: ‘I am only capable of “speaking nearby” the Asian American condition… I can’t stretch myself across it.’ (I found Jeannette Ng’s essay, ‘On Identity, Performing Marginalisations and the Limitations of #OwnVoices’ interesting in this context, reflecting some of Hong’s concerns about the power of the ‘single story’, or what happens when only immigrant narratives palatable to white audiences are told and retold).

Minor Feelings wrestles with the question of how artists should and can use their own experience, especially female artists of colour who risk being totally defined by it; what Nesrine Malik has called always writing ‘as a’. One of Hong’s closest friends as a young artist, Erin, insists on keeping some tragic events in her own past completely private: ‘If you reveal anything, they collapse your art with your life – and I don’t want my autobiography hijacking my art. Maybe back then, my loss was a deep part of me but I have worked really hard to separate my work and my identity from that loss.’ In another essay, Hong further interrogates these ideas through an exploration of the life and work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an artist and poet who worked in America but who was originally from South Korea, and who was raped and murdered at the age of thirty-one in 1982. Cha’s Dictee has become ‘a seminal book in Asian American literature… taught widely in universities’, but, Hong found, scholars are reluctant to talk about Cha’s death or to read her book as autobiographical because they feel this context devalues her art. ‘But where does the silence that neglects her end and where does the silence that respects her begin?’ Hong asks.

Because I’m fascinated by writing about art-making, I loved the turn that Minor Feelings took after the first couple of essays, which were equally strongly written but made points that were relatively more familiar to me (the denial of ‘innocence’ to children of colour; the ‘underachievement’ of black children in formal education in the US; the awkward position of Asian Americans, who are conceptualised as a ‘model minority’, privileged at the expense of African Americans, but who are also subject to racist stereotypes of passivity and authoritarianism, and told to “go home”). Hong is especially good at placing her work in dialogue with a longer tradition of female Asian American writing about art and emphasising that this is completely natural, remembering her good fortune in being college-educated in the US in the mid to late nineties: ‘Of course I read Theresa Hak Kyung Cha alongside William Carlos Williams in poetry class. I didn’t study the performances of Guillermo Gómez-Peña because I needed a sample of the “Chicano experience” like a vitamin supplement. I studied these writers and artists because they were the most interesting thinkers’.

Therefore, Minor Feelings itself becomes a subtle rebuke to those who read it looking for a certain kind of book, one that will somehow illuminate the Korean-American or, even more ridiculous, the Asian-American ‘experience’. As Hong argues, this can’t be done. But this brilliantly intelligent collection of essays is an important intervention in ongoing debates about race, identity and art.

I received a free proof copy of this essay collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on March 5th.

2020 Reading Plans

2019 has been a good year for me. These were the key positive events:

  • In January, I signed with a literary agent, Kerry Glencorse at Susanna Lea Associates, and am currently revising my time-travel novel, A Minute’s Grace. I hope that we will be able to submit this to publishers in 2020!
  • In June, I got a new job, as a NUAcT Fellow in History at Newcastle University, and will be transferring my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship there as well. My job officially starts on January 1st, but nothing much will change for me as I am already living in Newcastle and doing my research.
  • In September, I gave a Science Award Lecture at the British Science Festival, on ‘When children became evil’, which covered the sudden rise of ‘extraordinary children’ in horror and science fiction films in post-war Britain and the United States, and linked these depictions to changing concepts of childhood. I reprised versions of this talk at Oxford IF and at Nine Lessons and Carols for Curious People at the Lowry in Manchester. You can read a summary of the talk here.
  • In October, my first academic monographA Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed In Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schoolswas published by Manchester University Press. In about two years’ time (given the speed of academic book reviews) I should be able to find out what other historians think of it!

I also travelled to Japan and Australia, started doing research with adolescents in a Northampton secondary school, welcomed my first cousin once removed (baby Hudson) to the world, went to my first football match (Newcastle United vs. Arsenal), passed the Newcastle Roller Girls roller derby intake (even if I am retaking it in 2020) and put together two pieces of flatpack furniture by myself!

Right, onto the books…

I’ve picked twelve 2020 releases that I am particularly looking forward to – almost all from the first half of the year, for obvious reasons – then, as always, added a further eighteen books that I want to read in 2020, whether or not they are new this year or not.

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Miriam Cohen, Adults and Other Children (January 2020). I’m intrigued by this debut collection of short stories, which promises to explore girlhood and motherhood from a range of angles, including a little girl convinced that her baby sister is a changeling, a woman who makes up an imagined child, and a college student who becomes a surrogate for her professor. And, given my own research, I couldn’t resist the title.

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Meng Jin, Little Gods (January 2020). I have to join the bandwagon for this debut novel about brilliant physicist Su Lan and her daughter Lina’s search for answers about her mother’s life. I love novels that engage with theoretical physics, and I have been slightly suckered in by this tagline: ‘combining the emotional resonance of Home Fire with the ambition and innovation of Asymmetry‘. I mean, YES.

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Aravind Adiga, Amnesty (February 2020). While I admire Adiga as a writer, I didn’t find either of the novels I’ve read by him – The White Tiger and Last Man In Tower – especially memorable. However, his latest book, which focuses on a young undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka – now living in Sydney – who must decide whether or not to report crucial information about a murder sounds potentially riveting. It also sounds like it might have a lot in common with Nikita Lalwani’s latest (see below!).

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Evie Wyld, The Bass Rock (February 2020). LONG anticipated by me, this novel about three women linked across the centuries by an isolated Scottish rock is finally coming!

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Natasha Pulley, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (March 2020). Natasha Pulley was one of thetwo new favourite authors I discovered in 2019, so OF COURSE I’m anticipating her third novel with great excitement. This sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (which is also loosely linked to The Bedlam Stacks) is set in a ghost-ridden Japan in 1888, where a British translator and his Japanese watchmaker friend are investigating supernatural occurrences. Pulley consistently turns the potentially twee into the electrifying, and the possibly colonialist into the challenging, so I can’t wait to see what she does with this premise. Also, octopuses.

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Kevin Nyugen, New Waves (March 2020). I’m intrigued by this debut novel where a black woman and an Asian man team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long.

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Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (March 2020). Like EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD, I’m eagerly anticipating O’Farrell’s next novel – I thought her two most recent books, the memoir I Am, I Am, I Amand the novel This Must Be The Placewere utterly fantastic. This signals a bit of a change in direction; set in the 1580s, it explores the hidden story of Shakespeare’s son, who died at the age of eleven.

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Nikita Lalwani, You People (April 2020). I liked Lalwani’s debut, Giftedand loved her second novel, The Villageso this long-awaited third novel is a must-read for me. It’s set in an Italian restaurant in London run by undocumented Sri Lankan immigrants, and promises the kind of difficult moral choices that Lalwani delivered so effectively in The Village.

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Souvankham Thammavongsa, How To Pronounce Knife (April 2020). This debut collection of short stories comes recommended by Mary Gaitskill, and promises vignettes of the day-to-day life of immigrants and refugees in a nameless city.

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Elisabeth Thomas, Catherine House (May 2020). We’ve had an abundance of creepy or speculative fiction set in educational establishments recently, a trope I absolutely adore, but nothing has quite hit the nail on the head for me yet. I’m hoping that Thomas’s debut, set at a liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania where students have to isolate themselves from the outside world for three years, will be the one where everything comes together. Like Little Gods, it also has some irresistible if unlikely comps: ‘combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go’.

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Sophie Mackintosh, Blue Ticket (May 2020). I was put off Mackintosh’s Booker-longlisted debut, The Water Cure, by the lukewarm reviews and an opening page where the writing sounded decidedly wavery, but I’m keen to give this one a go because I love the premise; it’s set in a world where motherhood is decided by lottery, and women have to live with the decision that is made for them – no children if they draw a blue ticket, motherhood if they draw a white one.

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Sarah Moss, Summerwater (Autumn 2020, no cover yet). Sarah Moss is a somewhat ambivalent author for me. I’ve read everything she’s written, and am consistently impressed by her intelligence and originality, but no single one of her books has ever totally bowled me over (the two that came closest were The Tidal Zone and Night Waking). Perhaps Summerwater, set in a rainy Scottish holiday park, will be the one I unreservedly adore. Interestingly, it also marks her switch from smaller literary publisher Granta to big-hitter Picador.

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The Rest of the List 

Ken Liu ed., Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

Bruce Holsinger, The Gifted School

Zawe Ashton, Character Breakdown

Kit de Waal ed., Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers

Emily St John Mandel, The Glass Hotel

Edmund de Waal, The White Road

Nicola Griffith, So Lucky

Paulina Flores, Humiliation

Alia Trabucco Zerán, The Remainder

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt (January 2020)

Sandeep Jauhar, Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation

Helen Mort, Black Car Burning

Xuan Juliana Wang, Home Remedies

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

Caite Dolan-Leach, We Went To The Woods

Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Stubborn Archivist

Jessi Klein, You’ll Grow Out of It

My Top Ten Books of 2019

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

In the order I read them…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Stats

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

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

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

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

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2019 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

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

Highly Commended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biggest Disappointments

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

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

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

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

Ten Books of the Decade!

Here we go – my ten books of the decade (2010-2019). Unlike my books of the year, I have only included titles published in this decade. You’ll notice there’s an interesting skew towards the earlier years of the decade – I think it takes me a while to know whether or not a book will stick with me. I’ve also tended to favour books that I both loved and which have fed into my own development as a writer. So a partial and biased list, but still, here it is. Links are to my reviews:

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The Still PointAmy Sackville (2010). This luminous debut novel intercuts between the gruelling expedition narrative of a turn-of-the-century Arctic explorer and twenty-four hours in the life of his great-grand-niece in the present day. Sackville writes the kind of prose that slows down time, in the most wonderful way.

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A Tale for the Time BeingRuth Ozeki (2013). I was totally obsessive about this book when it first came out; it made me look at everything sideways for some time. Ruth discovers the diary of fifteen-year-old Nao on the beach in British Columbia, washed up in a barnacle-encrusted lunchbox. These two narratives become intertwined in mindbending and yet hugely moving ways.

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AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013). This is both the simple love story of Ifemelu and Obinze and a sweeping, revealing look at the experiences of Nigerian immigrants to both Britain and the US, at how black women negotiate the world, and how ‘Westerners’ respond to being told about these things. Adichie’s masterpiece (so far), and an absolute must-read.

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This Is The Story of A Happy MarriageAnn Patchett (2013). If the Booker judges can do it, so can I; this is my ‘lifetime achievement’ award for all of Patchett’s incredible non-fiction, because my favourite, Truth and Beauty, was published in 2004 and so is ineligible for this exercise. However, there are some incredible essays in this collection, especially ‘This Dog’s Life’, which is hilarious on voluntary childlessness, and ‘The Wall’, which details how Patchett put herself through the recruitment process for the Police Academy in Los Angeles to try to understand something of what her father’s life as a police captain had been like.

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All The Birds, SingingEvie Wyld (2013). Structurally perfect and emotionally incredible, this novel moves backwards through time to inquire into the past of Jake, a guarded, scarred young woman who was once a sheep-herder in Australia and now lives on a tiny British island, alone with her dog. This reads like a thriller but is as good as literary fiction gets.

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Vampires in the Lemon GroveKaren Russell (2013). This is the best single collection of short stories I’ve ever read; many other collections have included short stories that are as good but haven’t been as strong across the board. What other collection ranges from a vampire drinking from a lemon that is ‘bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt’ to a massage therapist who finds that her clients’ tattoos move to a set of silk-weaving girls who plan an escape from their slavery?

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Station ElevenEmily St John Mandel (2014). This post-apocalyptic novel is the only fiction I’ve ever read that has really pulled off the ‘story within a story’, with its depiction of the comic-book world of Station Eleven that now speaks to the survivors of a global pandemic. Magical.

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The Secret Place, Tana French (2014). I was pleased that The Likeness was published in 2007, because it saved me from having to choose between my two favourite Tana French novels. Why read Tana French in general? Because she totally reinvents the police procedural, writing interrogation scenes with exceptional psychological depth, and also infusing the genre with a brilliant hint of the speculative. Why read The Secret Place in particular? Because it’s the best thing on adolescence I’ve ever read, offering teenage girls the respect they deserve, and it’s also a fantastic set-piece murder mystery.

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The Life and Death of Sophie StarkAnna North (2015). This relatively little-known novel is technically incredible; it uses six different narrators to tell the story of film director Sophie Stark, none of whom are Sophie herself and none of whom narrate more than once. The novel works, so cleverly, both as a set of perfect vignettes and as a bigger whole.

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When Breath Becomes AirPaul Kalanithi (2016). This memoir, written by a neurosurgeon who was himself diagnosed with lung cancer, remains one of the most moving things I’ve ever read, especially his final letter to his daughter, but it’s also brilliant on the life of a doctor and on the intersections between the arts and the sciences. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

(God, 2013 was a good year for books! There are a lot I haven’t even included – The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, Bring Up The Bodies…)

Do you have any books of the decade?

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

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

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

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