Book Review: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

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

My Top Ten Books of 2021

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

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

In no particular order…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Stats

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

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

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

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

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2021 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

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

Highly Commended

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

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

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

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

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

Biggest Disappointments

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

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

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

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

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

More #NovellasInNovember: Kashimada and Serpell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sci-Fi Novellas for #SciFiMonth #NovellasinNovember

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Premee Mohamed’s These Lifeless Things is a dystopian novella that switches between the diary entries of Eva, a forty-something survivor of an apocalyptic attack, and the first-person point-of-view of Emerson, an anthropologist studying the ruins of her city fifty years later. Eva refers to the monsters that have devastated the world only as ‘Them’, and both narrators struggle to understand what they truly are/were: they don’t seem to be aliens who hail from the same kind of time and space as we do, nor beings that have emerged from Earth itself. The narrative chillingly hints at Their ability to affect human minds themselves, with millions committing suicide at the beginning of the invasion. In Emerson’s time, They have disappeared without a trace, but Emerson is convinced that her research is essential to understand what happened during the three years now known as ‘the Setback’. However, her colleagues in the hard sciences aren’t convinced, and tell her she is wasting her time studying Eva’s diary, even when what she finds in the ruins starts to mirror what Eva described.

I found These Lifeless Things to be an adept and skilful read, but it didn’t affect me in the ways I’d hoped. There was something in the way the story was told that made me expect more of a twist, or perhaps more of a sudden linkage between Eva’s world and Emerson’s. Unless I’ve been too stupid to miss subtle clues, this doesn’t really happen. Instead, Eva’s story devolves into a cliched -let’s-rescue-the-children plot, and Emerson’s frustrations with her colleagues are spelt out rather too clearly at the end of the novella when she bursts out: ‘you think there has to be an application for things we study? You think everything has to end up in some… lab somewhere, a product for people to buy. Well, I happen to think there are other questions in the world.’ The novella wasn’t quite as scary as I had hoped, either, despite some good lines about statues coming to life and trees being possessed by Them. I found Emerson’s sections much more engaging than Eva’s diary entries (but then I love fictional anthropologists and hate diary entries as a narrative device, so that was pretty inevitable) and I found myself wondering if this might not have been better, and more frightening, if it had been told completely from Emerson’s point of view, with perhaps quoted snippets from Eva’s entries. (Interestingly, Eva’s close alliance with another survivor in the face of this devastation reminded me of Sarah Hall’s pandemic novel Burntcoatbut I wasn’t sure what it added here). However, I would certainly read more by Mohamed.

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That was the dystopia, now for the utopia! I loved Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series and her previous novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, so her latest novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, was one of my most anticipated 2021 releases. Chambers’s brand of sci-fi is often described as cozy or comforting, but I think at its best, it’s optimistic; there are certainly darker strands in all of her previous work, such as the enslaved clones in A Close and Common Orbit or the horrific experience of having your ship buried in alien slugs in To Be Taught, If Fortunate. For me, then, A Psalm for the Wild-Built marks a bit of a departure; dedicated ‘to anyone who needs a break’, it is cozy to the max. Non-binary* monk, Sibling Dex, leaves their job tending the monastery garden to become an itinerant tea-monk, dispensing tea and advice as they travel around, but even this new life starts to feel limiting. When they strike out into the wilderness where the robots that humans made disappeared after the ‘Factory Age’, they meet robot Mosscap, and wander around with Mosscap chatting about life and humanity.

And… that’s it. I love positive visions of the future after endless recycled dystopias, but this felt so thin. It reads more like children’s fiction than anything else, but without the profundity and timelessness that the best children’s fiction delivers. The characters’ voices are far too similar for a novella that promises a meeting of two beings from very different worlds, and this makes their philosophical dialogue feel especially contrived. In general, I think Chambers’ meditations on ethics are original and engaging, but she doesn’t manage to make them feel organic in this story. By the end, I wished we had just stayed with Dex handing out different kinds of tea to suffering people; that’s the kind of cozy I could possibly suspend my critical faculties for.

*I’m not sure if this is the right term in this futuristic context – Dex describes themselves as ‘not having a gender’, while other people in this world do use gendered titles and pronouns.

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As the hip-hop group clipping explain in their afterword to The Deep, this novella emerges from a collaborative creative space. clipping were inspired by the music of techno-electronic duo Drexciya to write their song, ‘The Deep’, which drew from the same mythology – an underwater world peopled by the descendants of enslaved, pregnant African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships. Solomon’s novella is another link in this chain, and I loved the way clipping described their contribution: ‘It’s a retelling that reaches back to the materials it adapts, and complicates them; makes them better. In this sense, Rivers has coauthored our song in as profound a way as we have inspired this book.’ I also liked the way clipping rejected the concept of this universe having a fixed ‘canon’: ‘We prefer to imagine each of these objects as artefacts – as primary sources – each showing a different angle on a world whose nature can never be observed in totality’. The Deep, therefore, draws from an incredibly rich imaginative space, telling a story about historical suffering, and who has to bear its weight. Its protagonist, Yetu, has been selected by the community as its ‘historian’, carrying these memories so the community doesn’t have to, but bringing them back together through the ritual of the Remembering so they retain their identity as a people.

The Deep is a portrait of Yetu and her community, who call themselves the wajinru, and so it is not, and does not need to be, plot-driven. Solomon evokes the deep underwater world of the wajinru atmospherically, as well as the ways they have developed away from their original human forms. However, given the nature of this novella, this fascinating world really needed to be matched by exceptional writing, and unfortunately, here it fell a bit short. Solomon’s prose wasn’t distinctive or memorable enough for me, and there is a tendency to spell things out that could have been more subtly conveyed, especially when it comes to Yetu’s internal struggles about her role as historian, which become quite repetitive: ‘She wasn’t used to having wants and needs of her own at all. It had always been a battle between what the wajinru needed, what the ancestors needed, and what she needed. A single lonely girl, her own needs never won.’ Thematically, The Deep is brilliant; it takes the central concept of Lois Lowry’s The Giver and thinks about it specifically in the context of the burden of memory that oppressed groups carry, and it also reminded me of the figure of Arha in Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, whose personal identity is ‘eaten’ by the Nameless Ones. But for this to work for me as a fiction rather than merely an exploration of ideas, it needed something else, something more.

#SciFiMonth: Yu and Binge

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I put Charles Yu’s second short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You, on my 2021 TBR after reading his short story ‘Good News Bad News’ in A People’s Future of the United StatesYu has been compared to the brilliant science fiction writer Ted Chiang, but honestly I don’t think they have much in common (cynically, you might say that they’ve been squashed together because they’re both Chinese-American men who write speculative short fiction). Chiang’s work is intensely cerebral and serious, whereas Yu’s short stories are much more playful, satirical and strongly reminiscent of early George Saunders (e.g. CivilWarLand In Bad Decline). Like Saunders, Yu is fond of making fun of American corporate culture and late capitalism, enjoying phrases like ‘the new slogan, Be The Person You Wish You Were™’ and ‘I’ve always loved Autumn®’. And as with Saunders’ early writing, this can work well for one story but quickly become tiresome over the course of an entire collection.

Luckily, there are some gems here. I thought the opening story, ‘Standard Loneliness Package’, was really wonderful; I read it twice in a row to fully appreciate how Yu pulls it off. It’s based on a pretty standard kind of science fiction premise; our narrator works in a call centre where people can pay him to feel their pain for them. However, Yu elevates this material beyond a simple ‘what if?’ by the skill with which he weaves various elements of the story together. His deliberately repetitive style builds resonance, so the final paragraphs are horribly moving even though you don’t quite know why. While nothing else in this collection is quite as good, the shorter ‘Troubleshooting’ works on the same kind of terms, but is even more pared down. Yu also gives us two stories that imagine what it would be like to be a character in formulaic fictional worlds; of the two, I thought the Star Trek inspired one (‘Yeoman’) was a lot better and funnier than the Dungeons and Dragons/World of Warcraft inspired one (‘Hero Absorbs Major Damage’). The rest of the collection is padded out with a lot of very short pieces that cover similar ground, which is a shame, because Yu’s best stories show that when he’s good, he’s really good.

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Professor Everywhere, Nicholas Binge’s debut novel, sounded right up my street: Chloe Chan, an international student at the University of Warwick, is determined to discover what the mysterious Professor Crannus is up to, and is drawn into a series of multiple worlds. I love books set at colleges or universities and I also love books that draw on physicist Hugh Everett’s many-worlds theory. To top that off, this novel has the kind of precise, contemporary historical setting that I also enjoy; it’s set around the time of the G20 summit in London in 2009. And to be fair, Professor Everywhere delivers on its promises, even if Binge’s version of time travel, with mysterious ‘Constants’ that remain the same throughout space and time, was a bit fuzzy for my liking. By the end, I found myself wondering why it never quite drew me in, as there isn’t anything obviously wrong with the story Binge is telling.

This might just be a mismatch between the book I wanted to read and the book Binge wanted to write, which is not anyone’s fault. Professor Everywhere is more of a straightforward time travel thriller than I expected from the blurb, with oblique references to the ‘Pimlico incident’ culminating in a satisfyingly dramatic resolution. Although it’s framed as Chloe’s memoir (complete with footnotes), Binge has more fun geekily referencing other SF writers than getting into questions of unreliable narration or subjectivity, which I found a little disappointing. And, despite being set at a university, the novel doesn’t really have a campus atmosphere – which is, to a degree, understandable, especially given Warwick’s thoroughly modern campus, but I still felt Binge could have done a little more with his setting (there is that beautiful lake!). I’d recommend this to fans of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter; less so to those seeking dark academia or really clever metafiction.

Autumn Reading, 2021

Autumn (I also like the American ‘fall’, which I used in my early childhood) is my favourite season, for all the usual reasons: Halloween, Bonfire Night, leaves changing colour, beautiful afternoon light, back-to-school, cozy jumpers, pumpkin spice lattes, comfortable boots. And some less-usual reasons: my birthday, days getting shorter, dogs allowed on the North Tyneside/Northumberland beaches, allowed to wear tights again. I always like to seek out some autumnal reading, which might be cozy or spooky or set in the fall, but sometimes just ends up feeling ‘autumnal’ to me for some unspecified reason. Here’s some thoughts on what I’ve been reading:

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Something about Sarah Hall’s work always makes me think of autumn. In the case of Burntcoat, it’s the protagonist’s, Edith’s, art, which involves sculpting from wood using burning techniques she learnt in Japan, so the wood can bear the weather better. Edith describes the process:

There was incredible skill to it – collapsing the cell walls to strengthen the wood, preserving its integrity while enhancing its beauty. Too much heat and the piece was ruined, too little and the wood wasn’t sealed, could not achieve the finish. Shun called this experience. The wood is experiencing fire now. It will be improved.

This passage could serve as an epigraph for the whole book, which darts between Edith’s past and her present. In the present, she is nearing the end of her life, living with the aftereffects of the novavirus, a pandemic that ravaged the world several decades ago. In the past, she faces the pandemic in isolation with her lover, and remembers her mother’s struggle back to life after a brain haemorrhage. I found this all strongly reminiscent of some of the Nina Allan short stories I recently read, especially ‘Neptune’s Trident’, ‘Flying in the Face of God’, and ‘Four Abstracts’. Hall has the same knack as Allan of creating imaginary art that feels so real you almost believe it exists – next time I’m at Scotch Corner, I’ll expect to see Edith’s witch – and she’s also interested in those outcast by illness and dealing with its effects on their body.

I’ve read everything Sarah Hall has written, and her uncompromising, vivid prose is in full force in Burntcoat. I found her last collection of short stories, Madame Zerosomewhat disappointing, so for me this felt like a return to form, and I was glad to see her publish a longer work again. While this was not as distinctive and memorable for me as my favourite Hall, The Carhullan Armyit’s still a highly original take on a theme that was familiar in fiction long before coronavirus: how we survive mass illness and death, and what is left if we do.

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

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Tade Thompson’s new SF thriller, Far From The Light of Heaven, also fills the autumnal brief for me, as well as the RIP Challenge, by being pretty creepy. Shell Campion is the first mate on the starship Ragtime, and she expects an easy ride; she’ll be in deep sleep for most of her ten-year stint travelling to the new settlement of Bloodroot, and even when she’s awake, the AI captain will actually be in charge. However, when Shell is awakened abruptly from stasis, she realises something has gone terribly wrong; the AI has been compromised, and robots have killed a number of her sleeping passengers. Shell’s story intersects with that of a number of other characters, most hailing either from Bloodroot or from the space station Lagos, as she tries to find out what is going on and save her ship.

This gripping space-opera-cum-crime-thriller reminded me at times of James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, especially in its touches of horror as vegetable contagion creeps through the spaceship, and in its use of multiple points-of-view. There’s also some hints of China Miéville in Thompson’s genre-mixing. I found Far From The Light of Heaven more compelling than the only other novel I’ve read by Thompson, Rosewaterwhich failed to emotionally engage me with its protagonist. Nevertheless, it does still have a few of the same issues as Rosewater – in short, it sometimes spreads itself too thin. Thompson has a habit of suddenly lurching into chunks of backstory in the middle of the narrative, which feel out of place, especially in a novel as fast-paced as this one, and could have been introduced more originally. There are rather too many points-of-view broken up into very small chunks, which adds to the reader’s disorientation. And while this isn’t billed as the first book in a series, it feels very much like it’s setting up for something bigger, especially in its introduction of the race of mysterious Lambers, which is wonderfully imaginative but feels like a distraction from the main goings-on in this book. Nevertheless, Thompson continues to impress me with his originality, and I’d certainly like to read more set in this world.

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

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Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books have been a favourite autumnal read for me since I was a teenager, and although none of the later titles in the series ever reached the heights of Sabriel or Lirael, I still always enjoy returning to the Old Kingdom. This latest instalment, Terciel and Elinor, jumps back in time to focus on Sabriel’s parents, moving between their stories and ultimately interweaving them. Terciel is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, charged by the current Abhorsen to help her bind the Greater Dead creature Kerrigor, who we know will become significant later on in the history of this world. Elinor has grown up in Ancelstierre knowing nothing of the Old Kingdom, convinced that the Charter Mark she bears on her forehead is a disfiguring scar – until she is forced to come face to face with her heritage. I always get most out of the parts of the Old Kingdom books that are set in one of Nix’s marvellous set-piece locations (my favourite sequence in any of the novels is the part of Lirael where Lirael is still living with the Clayr) and so I was delighted to find that some of them feature here: Wyverley College and Abhorsen’s House (though sadly, we don’t see much of the Clayr’s Glacier). Like its predecessors Abhorsen and Goldenhand, Terciel and Elinor is fun and immersive, but doesn’t imaginatively introduce or expand this world in the ways that Sabriel and Lirael did; therefore, I can’t rank it as highly as the first two books, which were truly magical. Nevertheless, fans of the Old Kingdom series should like this.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 2nd November.

(This may seem frivolous, but I think part of the reason I haven’t got as much out of the two more recently published Abhorsen novels – Goldenhand and now Terciel and Elinor* – is simply because I haven’t had the sheer pleasure of reading them in the beautiful American hardback editions of the original trilogy. I read both on Kindle, but the British and newer American editions are so hideous that I don’t think it would have helped if I bought them in hard copy. Sadly, there are no matching editions for the more recent novels.)

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*I know Clariel exists but I wouldn’t have liked it regardless of what format I read it in

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2021: How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

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Cherie Jones’s debut novel, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, starts with a grandmother telling a story to her granddaughter about two sisters, one of whom was ‘gifted with good sense’ while the other was ‘own-way and like to give the mother mouth’. The sisters are warned against entering the network of tunnels that riddle the ground, as ‘the tunnels is where bad men go where they die‘. In the way of stories, we know what will happen; the bad sister goes into the tunnel and her good sister tries to pull her back. The bad sister escapes, but at a price: she’s missing one of her arms. The granddaughter, Lala, is not especially impressed by this story, and tells her grandmother, Wilma, so:

Well I bet it not so bad having one arm.” says Lala. “She can still do things like everybody else, she can still get a husband and some children and a house.”

Stupid girl,” says Wilma. “How she gonna sweep it?”

Set in Barbados in the mid 1980s, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is a vividly painful exploration of how a violent fate haunts three generations of women. Wilma has her own explanation for why she, her daughter and her granddaughter have suffered so: ‘She assumes it is a curse… this way the Wilkinson women have with men, this ability to so bewitch a man that he becomes besotted.’ Wilma thinks that, like the bad sister, they all grow up too fast, and it is this premature sexuality that leads them into trouble. Jones shows us how this pattern of belief makes Wilma culpable in the fates of Lala and her mother Esme, as well as how the men who abuse them are themselves shaped by poverty.

Some reviewers have criticised How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House for being too schematic – its cast defined by what happens to them rather than by who they are as people – but that wasn’t exactly my experience of it. I felt that Jones’s characters did have great potential depth, although I wished she had given more page-time to exploring their inner lives. Jones has a gift for set-piece, and particular scenes showcase how much she does know about her characters; for example, when Wilma is tending to Esme after she’s been raped or when Lala walks out on the beach to braid hair. Lala’s abusive husband, Adan, is perhaps closest to caricature, displaying classic psychopath tropes as a boy, but that still isn’t all he is; when Lala is trying to remember how her mother used to sing her name, Adan ‘had sung her name in every tone he could think of to see if she would recognise it’. And Jones’s present-tense, fluid writing is perfectly suited to this story, moving effortlessly between a ring of characters who surround Lala.

I was surprised that so many reviewers, such as Rhiannon Lucy Coslett in the Guardian, describe this book as relentlessly miserable. It’s certainly a difficult read, but I didn’t find How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House especially grim compared to many other novels that have made it onto Women’s Prize shortlists and longlists in recent years. Indeed, its ending is arguably too neat and hopeful, sweeping Lala too easily away from this cycle of intergenerational violence without really answering the question it poses at the start: how do you carry on living when you have been so wounded by the world around you? How does the one-armed sister sweep her house?

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number ten. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures, Detransition, Baby, No One Is Talking About This and Unsettled Ground.

This is also #8 of my 10 Books of Summer.

10 Books of Summer, #6 and #7: Easy Meat and The Women of Troy

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It’s the day of the Brexit referendum but Caleb Jenkins doesn’t think he’s going to vote. Employed as a butcher in a slaughterhouse in the South Wales valleys alongside a largely Polish workforce, he’s more concerned with hanging onto his job and regaining his physical fitness so he can win the Swansea triathlon in September. Winning the 18-24 category in the Ironman five years before made him a temporary celebrity and Welsh reality TV star, but his victory also led to heartbreak when he was deceived by a girlfriend who wanted to keep him at any cost. Now he’s trying to support his unemployed family and ‘get back to the point in his life when he’d been winning’, but everything seems to be stacked against him.

I’ve read a couple of brilliant novels recently that deal with the meat industry (Ruth Gilligan’s The ButchersRuth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats) and Rachel Trezise’s novella Easy Meat is no exception, although here the slaughterhouse largely acts as a backdrop, demonstrating the brutal physicality of Caleb’s working life, rather than raising any ethical questions about meat consumption and quality. Easy Meat has also been described as an exploration of why so many chose to vote Leave, but what’s so impressive about Trezise’s take on the referendum is that Brexit very much fades into the background. Caleb ends up filling in his ballot at the very last minute, and while we can guess which way his vote went –  ‘ “Remain” meant that everything would stay the same but “Leave” meant something had to change’ – we aren’t actually told. Nor does he share the typical characteristics of stereotyped Brexit voters, demonstrating solidarity with his Polish workmates and actually envying the close bonds they have with each other.

If I had a reservation about Trezise’s portrayal of Brexit in this novella, it’s that it plays a little into the idea that the Leave vote was driven primarily by ‘left-behind’ working-class voters, when this has been debunked. Nevertheless, there’s much more to Easy Meat than its Brexit narrative; it’s a vivid snapshot of one day in a young man’s life as he tries to accelerate into his future but seems to already be slowing to a halt.

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

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I was impressed by Pat Barker’s 2018 retelling of the siege of Troy, The Silence of the Girlsand The Women of Troy not only picks up exactly where that book left off but seems to herald a third book that will continue to follow Briseis, our protagonist from Lyrnessus who was enslaved in The Silence of the Girls but has been newly freed by marriage in The Women of Troy. Unlike The Silence of the Girls, which zipped with great economy through the major events of the Trojan War, The Women of Troy is deliberately static and brooding. Stranded on the shores of Troy after sacking the city, the Greek army and their captives can only wait for the wind to change, tortured by a brief lull in the weather each morning before the interminable gale starts up again. Briseis wanders through the camp, encountering the most famous women of Troy in turn; Hecuba, shrivelled but still defiant; Andromache, shattered by grief and trauma; Cassandra, being Cassandra (she’s been characterised exactly the same in every retelling of the Greek epics I’ve ever read, and I love her for it); Helen, being pretty selfish but a little more humanised than in other versions I’ve seen from modern writers. The first half of this novel can therefore feel a little too schematic, and Briseis seems to have the measure of all these other women almost immediately, which makes her become rather too idealised – although we also understand more explicitly that she’s telling this story from the vantage point of old age, which perhaps excuses some of her self-aggrandising narration.

Once it’s discovered, about halfway through the novel, that somebody has been trying to bury Priam’s body, which has been deliberately left to rot in the sand (an episode that seems to have been inspired by Antigone), The Women of Troy suddenly picks up its pace, although this isn’t to say I didn’t also enjoy the more reflective first half. Like The Silence of the Girls, Briseis’s first-person narration is interspersed with third-person narration from male characters – here, Achilles’ son Pyrrhus and the Trojan priest Calchas. I felt Barker handled the shift between viewpoints more smoothly in this sequel, partly because Pyrrhus and Calchas are introduced as narrators from the beginning, rather than only appearing after we’ve already had a long stretch of Briseis’s narration. Her prose remains as strong as it was in The Silence of the Girls, and she continues to use a direct, modern style very effectively, especially in dialogue. Like The Silence of the Girls, The Women of Troy didn’t absolutely bowl me away, but it’s a haunting, beautiful novel, both books are by far the best of the recent influx of feminist Greek myth and epic retellings, and if this is a trilogy, I’ll certainly be reading the third installment.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 26th August.

I couldn’t get through Lisa Taddeo’s Animal, so I subbed The Women of Troy into my 10 Books of Summer.

10 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: Milk Fed and The Startup Wife

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Melissa Broder seems to specialise in writing novels that sound like the last thing on earth I would ever want to read and then managing to surprise me. First there was The Pisceswhich sounded like another disaster woman novel but won me over with its thoughtful exploration of sex and love, and now there’s Milk Fed, which explores similar themes but plumbs darker depths. Why did Milk Fed not sound like my kind of thing? Here’s the blurb:

Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of control by way of obsessive food rituals. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Then Rachel meets Miriam, a young Orthodox Jewish woman intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam – by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family – and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.

I tend to get a bit twitchy about novels that deal with weight and ‘overeating’, and I’d heard that Milk Fed was also very sexually explicit and worried that it might become a bit gratuitous. For these reasons, I wondered if it was the sort of novel that would leave me feeling disgusted and depressed. But although Broder certainly doesn’t shy away from writing scenes that push the reader to the limit of what they can stomach – as in The Pisces, her sex scenes are so detailed they lose their eroticism – I was surprised by how psychologically wholesome Milk Fed actually is. Broder isn’t afraid to show us a character who admits her fundamental hungers – for frozen yoghurt, for sex, for familial love – and writes about Rachel’s blatant pursuit of her needs in a way that makes the reader feel both horribly embarrassed by proxy and yet is also liberating.

I think Milk Fed is the only novel I’ve read that embraces food and fatness in a way that goes beyond being ‘fat-positive’, making the reader truly feel the arbitrariness of the restrictions we place on our own bodies. Miriam, who shows Rachel how to enjoy eating again, starts off as a saviour figure, but we eventually find out that she is repressed in different ways. For this reason, I disagree with readings of the novel that see Miriam as a saintly cipher and Rachel as a selfish monster; Rachel is greedy and thoughtless, but Miriam also lets her down because of her own inability to accept herself, and this balance strengthens the novel, making Miriam into a person rather than just an inspiration. I’m intrigued to see how far Broder can push me out of her comfort zone in her next book.

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When Tahmima Anam’s fourth novel, The Startup Wife, was ready to go on submission to publishers, she asked her agent to submit it under a pseudonym because she felt it was so much less serious than her previous trilogy of novels, which dealt with the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence. And it certainly is a weird book, although in some ways it’s the better for it. The blurb signals a novel that’s concerned with the impact of technology on society – Asha and her husband Cyrus launch a new social media platform called WAI (We Are Infinite) that produces tailor-made rituals for users drawn from a wide variety of religious traditions. As WAI takes off, Cyrus’s star rapidly rises, whereas Asha, who coded the platform in the first place, remains in the background. As this indicates, The Startup Wife is also concerned with how brilliant women – especially women of colour – remain unrecognised and overshadowed, and it refuses to denigrate ‘ambition’ in favour of caring duties in the way so many novels of this kind do. Asha discusses what is happening with her sister, Mira, who has just had a baby:

Mira sighs… “Do you think Stevie Wonder changed diapers?” she says… “He has nine children. Do you think he changed their diapers? Do you think he stayed up at night and rocked them to sleep?…”

No.”

“And would you want him to?”

I can’t pretend anymore that I don’t know what she’s talking about. “No.”

No. You would want him to write ‘My Cherie Amour.'”

The world would be a dark place without that song. “Yes.”

“Someone else had to do all of that.”

You’re telling me that all greatness happens on the backs of other people… This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Having said that, however, The Startup Wife doesn’t feel like it’s really about tech or about structural misogyny, although both those themes are strongly present. In some ways, this makes it a better novel, because it isn’t too bogged down in preaching a message about Tech Is Bad or The World Is Sexist and Racist. Indeed, the tech parts of the story are treated with consistent irony rather than portrayed as a threat – as WAI is first taking off, Asha and Cyrus ‘go home, order poke bowls, and watch multiple episodes of Black Mirror.’ Anam is obviously an incredibly intelligent and observant writer, and Asha is such a captivating character. Nevertheless, this lack of focus does let the novel down, and although I haven’t read any of Anam’s other books, I didn’t feel she was really living up to her full potential here. Structurally, The Startup Wife lurches about for most of its length and fizzles out strangely with some shoehorned references to Covid. And although Anam has said that Cyrus was intended to be as mysterious to the readers as he is to Asha, he felt 2D, whereas Asha’s family, who get far less page time, were fully brought to life. I was left feeling that, while this might not be a must-read, Anam is certainly somebody that I want to hear more from.

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