Booker Prize 2021: Bewilderment and Great Circle

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Astrobiologist Theo Byrne spends his time looking for life on other planets but is most concerned about the welfare of his nine-year-old son, Robin. Since Theo’s wife and Robin’s mother, Alyssa, died two years ago, Robin has struggled at school and with life in general, and Theo has come under increasing pressure to accept a psychological diagnosis for his son and put him on meditation. Instead, Theo turns to an experimental treatment being pioneered by one of his colleagues, ‘Decoded Neurofeedback’, which guides ‘trainees’ to mimic the brain states of ‘targets’ who have deliberately elicited particular emotions in themselves while their brains were scanned with fMRI. Because Alyssa participated in an earlier phase of the experiment, Robin can be matched to his mother’s euphoric brain patterns – a process which puts him into a state of beatific calm. Having been constantly screaming at the pain of living in a dying world, Robin now embraces the beauty of endangered species and becomes a viral news story. At the same time, Theo witnesses the world beginning to unravel. Bewilderment, Richard Powers’s thirteenth novel, is uneasily set between our present and a slightly different version of it, giving the book a speculative twist while not allowing us to feel safely distant from the America it describes:

That first Tuesday in November, online conspiracy theories, compromised ballots, and bands of armed poll protesters undermined the integrity of the vote in six different battleground states. The country slid into three days of chaos. On Saturday, the President declared the entire election invalid. He ordered a repeat, claiming it would require at least three more months to secure and implement.

As readers of Powers’s previous novel, the brilliant The Overstorywill know, Powers has a bleak view of our environmental future, and Bewilderment is, if possible, even darker than its predecessor. However, it’s also lit up by the stories about other planets, other peoples and other extinctions and rebirths that Theo tells Robin, and by Robin himself, who seems to symbolically switch between two ways of responding to our current predicament: mourning what we have lost or embracing it before it’s gone. If there’s a fault in this novel, it’s that Powers occasionally gives into the temptation to end paragraphs with a too-easy, too-sentimental line; but in general, he keeps impressively far away from sentimentality for a book about a ‘special’ child. A beautiful, if discomforting read that ought to make the shortlist.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 21st September.

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Marian Graves was a pioneering inter-war and wartime aviator whose career abruptly ended after she circumnavigated the globe in 1949 and disappeared in the Antarctic. In the present day, Hadley Baxter has been hired to portray Marian in a biopic, sensing a chance to get her career back on track after cheating on her co-star in a thinly veiled version of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. The bulk of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle is a family saga, focused largely on Marian but circling back before her birth and outwards to explore the lives of other characters like her brother Jamie, while the Hollywood episodes with Hadley seem to belong to a lighter kind of book altogether. I have to confess that, at the point of writing this review, I’m only slightly over halfway through Great Circle, so it may make a sudden turnabout in its second half; however, it’s an incredibly long book, and 300+ pages in, I’m looking for a payback that I’m not getting. Shipstead’s prose is pedestrian, and the story she’s telling is very familiar; I found particular resonances with Michael Christie’s far superior Greenwood, but there are so many sagas of this kind. Great Circle is plodding along enjoyably enough to keep me reading, but it’s a massive potboiler that I don’t think belongs on the Booker longlist.

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The Booker shortlist will be announced on September 14th, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get to any more of the longlisted titles before then, so here’s my ranking of the six I’ve read:

  1. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
  2. Bewilderment by Richard Powers
  3. China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
  4. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
  5. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  6. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

I would really like to see the Spufford, Powers and Sahota on the shortlist, but I don’t know the Booker Prize well enough or have read enough of the longlist to be confident in making any predictions!

Have you read any of the longlisted titles? Who do you think will make it to the shortlist?

Feminisms: A Global History by Lucy Delap

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Lucy Delap’s accessible and compelling Feminisms: A Global History does not attempt the impossible task of writing a complete global history of feminism, but instead, picks up on a series of themes in feminist history, ranging from ‘dreams’ to ‘dress’ to ‘actions’, and draws from modern feminist activists and movements to explore how feminist thought and action was shaped internationally. Delap deliberately uses the term ‘feminisms’ rather than feminism to emphasise the multiplicity of women’s movements across the globe, and also frames this as ‘mosaic feminism’ – women may have been using some of the same inherited pieces, but they formed different patterns. And indeed, the very first chapter emphasises that one big problem for contemporary feminism might be the inability to accommodate disagreement, citing feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young: ‘we need to wake up to the challenge of understanding across difference rather than keep on dreaming about common dreams’. Not all the activists Delap writes about would even have called themselves feminists, but they still contributed to a wider history of political action that centred women’s needs.

What I found so valuable about Delap’s approach to writing about global feminisms was that non-Western feminisms are not treated simply as an ‘add-on’ to more familiar Western histories – we aren’t simply told that there were also feminist activists and organisations elsewhere. Instead, Delap illuminates how African, Latin American and Asian feminists transformed feminist thought and challenged Western priorities. The Bengali writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain published her utopian text Sultana’s Dream in 1905, which depicted ‘Ladyland’, a world where women and men could interact as equals through ‘sacred’ relations that had no sexual connotations; this envisaged women’s liberation through ‘the abandonment of sexual links to men’, a vision that we might more commonly associate with ‘political lesbianism’ in Britain and the USA in the 1970s. In the early twentieth century, there was also an active Chinese feminist movement, with women in some Chinese provinces gaining the vote by 1912, well ahead of many Western counterparts, and the word nannü starting to be used to indicate a ‘sexed system of social organisation’, or something like what we might call patriarchy. Meanwhile, the Egyptian activist Huda Sha’arawi organised women in the 1919 protests against British rule; her decision to unveil in public in 1923 was celebrated by Europeans, but Sha’arawi herself did not see this as particularly important, and, in fact, mocked ‘the veil of ignorance’ that Western women wore, unable to see Egyptian women clearly because of orientalist stereotypes.

Delap also shows how ideas were exchanged, translated and repurposed in global contexts. The famous US second-wave feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves (1970), which encouraged women to look after their health and celebrate their sexuality, was reproduced and reworked in different settings. In Bulgaria, it was retitled Our Body, Ourselves, to emphasise individualism after the fall of the communist state, whereas in Latin America the text was framed with more of a focus on traditional community settings. The phrase ‘the personal is political’, coined by US feminist Carol Hanisch, was influenced both by the Black Power practice of ‘telling it like it is’ and Hanisch’s reading of French feminist Claudie Broyelle’s Half the Sky (1973), which stressed the autonomy of women in Communist China to voice and act on their emotions through the Maoist idea of ‘speaking bitterness’. (Broyelle wrote a follow-up to this work in 1980, admitting it had been a ‘day-dream’ as reports of the violent oppression of women in China continued to emerge.) However, Feminisms does not just trace the histories of familiar Western touchstones but introduces new ones, such as the memorable phrase used by Japanese activist Kishida Toshiko in 1883, who publicly spoke of her anger at how women had to live their lives in close confinement, saying that raising daughters in such an environment was like ‘trying to grow flowers in salt’.

Feminisms is primarily concerned with the intersections of gender, race and class rather than sexuality or gender identity, although it does touch on the issues faced by lesbians and trans women who tried to engage with second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Delap writes briefly about how sex and gender might have been understood more fluidly in certain African countries before colonialist binaries were imposed, citing the work of Ifi Amadiume and Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí. Amadiume has argued that age hierarchies were more important than gender hierarchies in the organisation of some African societies, allowing women to adopt more powerful roles such as ‘female husband’. However, it is obviously impossible to cover everything in a single book, and I had the sense that Delap had been led by the priorities of many of the activists she considers, who, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were often focused on colonial or class oppression. In 1975, Bolivian tin miner’s wife Domitila Barrios de Chúngara confronted the US feminist Betty Friedan at a meeting in Mexico City, which revealed the perceived gulf between their ideas of feminism: Barrios de Chúngara was an experienced union activist who worked alongside men, and thought gringa feminism was ‘a lesbian-dominated war against men’. (Friedan had actually been instrumental in banning lesbians from the US National Organisation for Women’s New York chapter in 1970, so likely shared this hostility).

Obviously, a book like this can never be more than a starting-point for the huge histories it touches upon, but this is an incredibly thought-provoking take on some of the questions we should be asking when we think about global histories of feminism.

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

Finishing Up With February ARCs

These three solid debut novels mark the end of my glut of February ARCs! My first post on February releases can be found here.

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I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Layden’s All Girls, although I recognised that the book has some issues which may be more of a turn-off for other readers. All Girls is set during the academic year 2015-16 at a New England prep school where a former student has recently accused one of the teachers of sexually assaulting her. However, All Girls is not really focused on the details of the accusation, but rather how it impacts the school’s current students, and their developing ideas of how to navigate in the world as young women who are never quite taken seriously. It’s narrated through nine different third-person perspectives (plus a bit of head-hopping in the final section), as we meet a range of girls from different grades, from awkward new freshman Lauren to jaded ex-ballet dancer Sloane to lesbian Emma, a senior whose long-term relationship with her mixed-race girlfriend Olivia has become iconic in the school.

While the characters sometimes become hard to keep track of, I really felt that Layden had thought this all through; there’s something solid about the connections between her cast that makes me believe that if I re-read this novel, all sorts of things would start coming to light that I hadn’t noticed first time round. In this way, I thought her decision to use multiple narrators was much more illuminating than if we’d had to keep to a single person’s perspective (both the strength and weakness of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prepwhich this novel obviously has a lot in common with, is that we’re totally trapped in Lee’s head, and Lee’s head is a very unreliable place to be trapped). And while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like Sittenfeld, Layden really gets how some teenage girls approach the world, and how small but yet significant interactions can crush or uplift their sense of who they are. If there was one thing I found less convincing about All Girls, it was that all her narrators seem to share this sense of watchfulness; it would have been nice, and more realistic, to get inside the head of at least one student who was less compulsively analytic. It’s also, frankly, too long. Nevertheless, it’s definitely well ahead of most books of this kind, and if you like campus novels, you’ll probably like this.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill focuses on an episode in British colonial history that may not be familiar to many readers; the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin. Most Asians had to leave the country within ninety days, fleeing to the range of countries in which they had citizenship – with a majority ending up in Britain – although some were left stateless. As the novel makes clear, although Uganda had gained independence from Britain in 1962, this event was a direct result of its long history of colonisation. South Asians, mostly Gujaratis, had been originally brought to Uganda by the British, first to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway in the late nineteenth century (nearly a third of these Indian workers were killed or maimed during the project), and later to participate in commerce and administration under the Uganda Protectorate. However, the expulsion of Ugandan Asians was also intertwined with Britain’s future stance towards its former colonial subjects; the 1971 Immigration Act increased immigration controls and was primarily motivated by the influx of refugees from Uganda and from Kenya, which also expelled Asians in the late 1960s.

Kololo Hill tells this story through a single family. Asha has recently married Pran, who runs a general store, or dukan, with his brother Vijay, and also lives with mother Jaya and father Motichand. While the family are not wealthy, they become increasingly aware of how they are perceived as privileged ‘dukawallahs’ by African Ugandans, and try to protect their ‘house-boy’ December, who is one of the persecuted Acholi people. Each step of the plot is pretty predictable, but Kololo Hill still flows easily and engagingly as we see how this family deal with their world suddenly being turned upside down. I wanted our three narrators – Asha, Vijay and Jaya – to stray a little further from archetype, but I appreciated the inter-generational perspective, and the consideration of how Vijay manages with a physical disability (he was born missing most of his left arm), especially when he comes into contact with the British welfare state. Shah depicts the ways in which her protagonists are both oppressed and fortunate skilfully, as they recognise the advantages they’ve had over African Ugandans due to British patronage and their relatively kinder welcome into Britain itself, and yet are obviously uprooted, robbed, and attacked in Uganda, and continue to face racism every day in Britain. While Kololo Hill might be competent rather than brilliant, it vividly conveys this significant moment in history.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Way back in January 2020, before the UK publication date of Meng Jin’s Little Gods got pushed back, it was one of my most-anticipated books for that year. And, it turns out, it does use a narrative device that’s one of my favourites: telling the story of a single character solely through the perspectives of multiple other people, like Anna North does in The Life and Death of Sophie Stark or Kevin Nguyen does in New WavesAs a young woman, Su Lan is a brilliantly talented theoretical physicist. We meet her having just given birth to her daughter Liya in Beijing in the midst of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, where an exhausted nurse is struck by her unusual demeanour. The novel then moves between the perspectives of Su Lan’s former neighbour Zu Wen, her former classmate Li Yongzong, and Liya herself to put together the fractured pieces of Su Lan’s history. What emerges is that Su Lan was a master of self-fashioning, but this was driven by a desperate need to hide what she saw as her true self. Arguing with her, Yongzong reflects: ‘through the cracks I saw something terrible, it was dark and powerful and churning, and I recognised with frightening clarity that everything I knew about Su Lan – her excellence, her beauty, her composure – was actually an attempt to control this thing.’ We hear about the poverty of Su Lan’s childhood in rural China, but we never get to the bottom of what she thinks is so wrong with her, and this novel is the stronger for it. Instead, we see how she uses theoretical physics and thermodynamics (in the form of Maxwell’s demon) to chase an impossible dream: can we forget the past and remember the future? There’s something here of Nell Freudenberger’s excellent Lost and Wantedwhich also picks up on quantum mechanics to deal with grief and ghosts. For me, Little Gods was stronger in its first half than in its second, when the pieces of the puzzle come together a bit too neatly, but it’s still an impressive debut.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 25th February.

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 1st February.

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 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 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.

 

In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

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 two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!

#SciFiMonth: Halfway Through!

We’re now halfway through #SciFiMonth, so I thought I’d check in with some thoughts on what I’ve been reading.

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I was utterly captivated by Nina Allan’s The Riftand her debut novel The Race is in the same vein. It presents what the Chicago Tribune called ‘an ingenious puzzle-box of a narrative’: four interlinked novellas, two set in our own world and two set in a near-future landscape devastated by fracking and focused around the racing of smartdogs, genetically modified greyhounds who can connect empathically with their human trainers. Some reviewers seem to think that the links between these narratives are a meta-commentary on the unnecessary divides erected between science fiction and literary fiction; while I agree that Allan’s work demonstrates why these two genres should talk more to each other, I prefer to read this novel more literally. Like The Rift, it suggests that there are junctions within our own world that lead us into parallel realities, although the two worlds may remain linked in unsettling ways. When people go missing, they may simply have crossed into another world. At first glance, the more overtly SF sections in The Race could be read as short stories written by one of the characters in our own world, Christy; however, the connections between the different novellas are not quite as simple as that. While I liked The Race, it did feel a bit like a warm-up act for The Rift, which weaves its strands much more tightly together and so is more complex, but also more satisfying; it also makes use of various different found texts, like newspaper articles, in a way The Race does not. However, like all Nina Allan’s novels, this is strong on atmosphere, and she manages to create very solid worlds out of what seems like very sketchy details.

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The Expanse series (written by two authors under the pen name James S.A. Corey) is set in a future where humanity has expanded outwards from Earth and colonised both Mars the meteorite belt, and the outer planets, but hasn’t cracked interstellar travel. The novel deals both with existing political tensions between these civilisations and with the new problems introduced by the discovery of the protomolecule, an infectious alien agent that has the power to radically alter life forms (yes I had to crib a lot of this from the very useful Expanse Wiki). I loved the first three novels, but then started losing track of the series. With multiple point-of-view characters operating in an extended world, it feels a lot like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire in space – it’s notable that one of the co-authors, Ty Franck, first created this universe as a setting for a tabletop RPG and also works as GRRM’s assistant. For this reason, I suspect that the series requires at least one re-read every time a new instalment comes out so you can keep track of what’s going on. Unfortunately, the Expanse series just doesn’t have the depth of ASOIAF, and I can’t see myself re-reading the earlier volumes (except perhaps Leviathan Wakes, which operates as a supremely horrific horror story as well as the beginning of this space opera). Nemesis Games, the fifth in the series, helpfully reduces its point-of-view characters back to four of the original protagonists, which makes it a much easier and more enjoyable read than its predecessor, Cibola Burns, but I was still aware that I wasn’t really following the story at times, especially in the first half. If you want to try this series, I suggest binge-reading the lot.

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Sylvain Neuvel’s The Test starts with Idir, a kind, likeable Iranian Muslim man, sitting a futuristic version of the British citizenship test. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because the book is so short (indeed, this counts as an accidental Novellas in November entry – I didn’t realise how short it was when I started reading it!). Comparisons with Black Mirror are justified, but I think this would have worked a lot better as a Black Mirror episode than it does as a novella, simply because Neuvel can’t resist the temptation to tell the reader everything he wants them to know, and this wouldn’t be possible if this was adapted for TV. It also illustrates my usual problems with novellas – it would have worked better either as a disturbing, confusing short story or as a full-length novel where Neuvel could take the time to explore the issues he raises more subtly.

I also wrote a Re-Read Project post on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as part of #SciFiMonth, which is here. This also fits nicely into Margaret Atwood Reading Month, or #MARM, run by Naomi and Marcie!

Are you taking part in #SciFiMonth? Do you have any SF recommendations?

Three Things… October 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

After my reading slump, I wanted to read something relatively undemanding to get me back on track. Diane Setterfield’s immersive Once Upon A River fit the bill. Setterfield’s books are basically potboilers, but I enjoyed this a lot more than The Thirteenth Tale. Set around the River Thames, it uses the case of a four-year-old girl who seems to have come back to life after being pulled from the river as a central thread that interweaves a range of stories from the local villagers. The novel actually has a pretty precise temporal location – the references to Darwin’s recent book suggest we’re around 1859 – but I thought this was a misstep. The timeless feel of Setterfield’s prose is one of the book’s strengths, and the Darwinian references are hackneyed and unnecessary (and far less important to the plot than the back cover blurb makes out). The book has a fairly conservative attitude to childhood and motherhood on the whole (it ALMOST features a woman who makes a positive decision to remain childless, but no), but there are hints of radicalism in how the community tears itself apart over who owns this little girl, suggesting how children can be valuable more as symbols than as people.

I’ve read all of Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan police procedurals, and while the early entries in the series (especially The Wire In The Blood, which inspired the TV series of the same name) can’t be beaten, she’s done a remarkable job of maintaining quality across a long-running series. The eleventh installment, How The Dead Speak, cleverly handles several plot threads without overwhelming the reader – this is crucial, as her central cast are now scattered in different locations, with Tony in prison, Carol retired from the police, and the remaining members of Carol’s old squad assigned to a new case. Only one plotline, following Tony’s abusive mother, felt unnecessary – it provided a kind of psychological closure that I felt that the previous novels in the series had already addressed – but it wasn’t too much of a distraction. Perfect weekend reading.

Finally, I’ve almost finished Lisa Taddeo’s controversial Three Women – full review coming soon, but I’ll say that I’m finding it totally absorbing, especially Maggie’s story, and I’m a little puzzled as to why it’s upset people so much – I wonder if the answer may lie with the marketing of the book rather than the book itself. I think the publishers have made claims about the universal nature of the three women’s stories that couldn’t possibly be supported by any book of this kind.

Watching

 

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I went to see the premiere of Ken Loach’s new film, Sorry We Missed You, at (where else!) Tyneside cinema last Wednesday, which was followed with a Q&A with Loach, the scriptwriter Paul Laverty and the key cast members. Set in Newcastle, the film focuses on a working-class family who, in the words of Laverty, sleep ‘in the same house: they are only a few feet away from each other for hours on end. But they hardly see each other at all.’ The dad, Ricky, is ‘self-employed’, delivering parcels for a large firm; what this means in practice is that he bears all the risks of the business and is allowed no sick leave or holiday. The mum, Abby, is a carer, travelling by bus between the homes of old and vulnerable people who need her help; she’s only paid for the time she actually spends with them, and can’t claim overtime if one of them has a crisis and she can’t leave them. Their teenage son, Seb, is struggling at school, focusing instead on becoming a graffiti artist, and their pre-teen daughter, Liza Jane, is distressed about what’s happening to her family. Sorry We Missed You, therefore, presents a critique of the ‘gig economy’ that will be familiar to many people already, but, like I, Daniel Blake, it’s a deeply moving film. Loach commented in the Q&A that followed the film that this family ‘could have lived on the next street to Daniel Blake’.

Loach’s recent films, in my opinion, are intended as campaign pieces rather than as artistic works per se; the impact of I, Daniel Blake, which an audience member who volunteers at a food bank acknowledged in this screening, is so important that one can hardly begrudge him his priorities. However, I did find the characterisation of the four protagonists much more simplistic in Sorry We Missed You than the more interesting stories that were drawn out in I, Daniel Blake. In short, the film’s focus is on Ricky; this is a film about white working-class masculinity and the shame of not being able to provide for his family; even after he hits his son hard in the midst of an argument, the camera stays with him and not with Seb. While we get to see a lot of Abby’s job and her difficulties, the ending of the film underlines the fact that Ricky is the real tragedy of this story. The underlying message also strongly reinforces the nuclear family as the unit under attack by capitalist exploitation, playing into traditional narratives about gender roles. Sorry We Missed You is worth seeing, but I wished it had a bit more of the experimentation that characterised I, Daniel Blake, even if I thought that film ultimately slipped into sentimentality.

Thinking

After six weeks of teaching, I’m too tired to think! Instead, I will suggest some links that connect to what I’ve been teaching. This great article by Professor Lucy Robinson, ‘Climate protests have roots that go deep into the rich history of British social change‘, sums up a lot of the rationale behind my current undergraduate course, which is on youth, age and protest in post-war Britain. Dr Jenny Crane has written a fascinating blog post on ‘What is a “gifted child” anyway – and can children themselves design or defy this term?’ which reflects some of my own work on ‘evil’ or ‘extraordinary’ children in post-war British horror and SF films. Finally, this useful post by Dr Ryan Hanley sums up some new books on black British history.

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I also went to see Margaret Atwood speak at the Sage Gateshead at the last minute on Saturday (friend had a spare ticket). If I’d known I was going, I would have prepared better, as much of the detailed discussion went over my head – I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was sixteen and haven’t read the sequel or watched the TV series. But Atwood was unexpectedly hilarious at times, and I enjoyed her thoughts on writing what you can write rather than trying to write what you can’t. I’m completing the Booker double in December when I’ve booked to see Bernadine Evaristo speak at the same location!

 

Some Upcoming September Releases

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I picked up We Need New Stories, British-Sudanese journalist Nesrine Malik’s first non-fiction book, because I like Malik’s Guardian columns and her Twitter discussions. We Need New Stories aims to challenge six modern myths, ranging from the idea that there is a ‘free speech crisis’ to the argument that ‘identity politics’ is the root of political and social divisions. I read about a third of this book, but eventually found myself losing interest. I agreed with everything Malik was saying, but that was part of the problem; I wasn’t sure if this book was bringing anything especially new to the table, given how well-rehearsed these debates have been already. Her writing also doesn’t translate well to long-form, becoming much too wordy, with run-on sentences and some misuse of commas. This needed to be much shorter and snappier.

We Need New Stories is out on 5th September. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

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I’ve read everything that Tracy Chevalier has written, despite the fact that I don’t think any of her novels have been solid hits for me since 2003. (I loved her early novels The Virgin Blue, Girl With A Pearl Earring (didn’t we all?) and The Lady and the Unicorn, but have had issues with everything else she’s written since then – if you’re interested, I’ve written about Burning Bright and Remarkable Creatures here, and New Boy here.) So, for the first time in sixteen years, I can honestly say that I liked a Tracy Chevalier novel. A Single Thread probably has the quietest premise of any of her historical fiction; rather than focusing on an encounter with a famous person* or object, the book follows the story of Violet Speedwell, a thirty-eight-year old spinster who has recently moved away from her elderly mother to seek a measure of independence in Winchester, working in an office and living in a boarding house. When Violet meets the broderers, a group of women embroidering ‘kneelers’ for Winchester Cathedral, she is drawn into their fellowship.

A Single Thread complements other recent and more overtly radical inter-war historical fiction such as Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage by considering the impact of individual women choosing to live their lives differently. A long set-piece where Violet takes a walking tour by herself is especially insightful; Chevalier writes so well about how she is subtly constrained by the reactions of the men around her, from the over-friendliness of a patronising publican to a man who starts following her in a cornfield and clearly means harm. The novel underlines how actions that seem relatively small and apolitical, such as reorganising the secretaries’ office work after one of your colleagues leaves so you can get better pay and an extra heater in winter, add another thread of discourse to a changing world. I found the ending a little disappointing – I’d hoped for something less conventional – but it does work with the overall concerns of the novel. And while a little of Chevalier’s tendency to show her research seeps through in a long bell-ringing interlude, on the whole, the historical setting is handled subtly and evocatively. Delightful.

*one of the embroiderers in the book, Louisa Pesel, was a real person, but this is on a bit of a different level from say, William Blake or Mary Anning.

A Single Thread is out on 5th September. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Jessie Burton’s writing seems to be becoming more mature and more complex with every novel; I felt lukewarm about The Miniaturist but was gripped by The Muse. Her latest, The Confession, is even more compelling. The book switches between two timelines, both equally interesting: in the early 1980s, Elise Morceau, in her early twenties, falls swiftly in love with the older novelist Connie Holden after a chance meeting on Hampstead Heath, and goes with her to LA. Meanwhile, in present-day London, Elise’s daughter, Rose, wants to know more about the mother she can’t remember – Elise disappeared when Rose was a baby – and devises a plan to make contact with Connie after she discovers that Connie was the last person to see her mother before she went missing. Burton writes so intelligently about choosing whether or not to have a child (there’s precious little fiction, especially in this mainstream literary vein, that allows women to choose to remain childless, but The Confession made me realise that we also hear little about why women actively choose to have children. Spoiler – highlight to read. It also lets one of its main characters get pregnant accidentally and choose to have an abortion rather than to keep the baby, which should not be surprising in 2019 but is still barely talked about in novels. End spoiler.) Burton’s concern with the conditions under which women can make art, which preoccupied The Muse, is also an important sub-theme in this novel, and there’s something of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s classic Women Who Run With the Wolves in her depiction of women who feel compelled to drop out of their everyday lives. As with the ending of The Muse, Burton gives into the temptation to spell out the themes of the novel a little too neatly in its last few pages, but this is still a smart, thought-provoking take on how women negotiate emotional ties. Thematically, it chimed beautifully with A Single Thread; both novels consider women who choose to be single, who choose to be with other women, and who choose or do not choose motherhood.

The Confession is out on 19th September. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Finally, I’ve just started reading Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House (24th September) – I tend to enjoy Patchett’s more offbeat novels more than her ‘family sagas’, but I’m already captivated by the narrator’s voice. Full review coming soon!

What September releases are you especially excited about, or have already read and liked?