#NovellasInNovember: Patchett, Brooks, Fernández

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I’m obsessed with Ann Patchett’s non-fiction, so I splashed out on What Now? even though it’s really no more than an essay padded out with inspirational Instagram-like black and white images that don’t feel like Patchett at all. This mini-book is an expanded version of Patchett’s commencement address at Sarah Lawrence, her alma mater (having attended a lot of UK graduations in my role as an academic, I can’t imagine having someone like Patchett come to speak to you rather than the usual miserable speeches we get!). Some of the material, like her time working as a waitress and as a line cook, will be familiar if you’ve read her earlier autobiographical essays and writings in Truth and Beauty and This Is The Story of a Happy MarriageStill, I enjoyed her reflections on ‘what now?’ and how this question can be freeing as well as pressurising and terrifying. My favourite bit was actually the postscript when she explains how she wrote a boring, portentous speech first time around, then had to write it again after her mentor broke the news to her that it was awful…

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Maud Martha, first published in 1953, is a modern classic, the only novel by acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. It follows the life of Maud Martha, a black girl growing up in inter-war Chicago, who moves from a relatively affluent family household to a smaller, more run down ‘kitchenette’ apartment when she marries. I had much the same problem with Maud Martha that I’ve had with other classics from black female writers from this period, such as Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); while I recognise the historical significance of these novels, and how groundbreaking they would have been at the time, they now feel narrow and cliched to me. (I don’t think this is a problem confined to black female writers, by the way! I struggle in general with inter-war and postwar English and American literature, and so I just haven’t picked up many books by white and/or male writers from these periods – these three texts have all been book club picks.)

Maud Martha tells a very familiar coming of age story of marriage, motherhood, colorism and racism. Brooks does a marvellous job of illuminating the inner consciousness, how we think and how we imbue what we see and observe with our own emotions. Her description of the birth of Maud Martha’s daughter Paulette is so vivid and immediate, as is an incident when the n-word is used at a black-owned beauty shop but the owner fails to call it out, to Maud Martha’s horror. It’s also obvious that Brooks was a brilliant poet; there are some absolutely perfect sentences here, like when Maud Martha muses on her general dissatisfaction with her marriage when she sees her husband dancing with another woman: ‘ “I could,” considered Maud Martha, “go over there and scratch her upsweep down. I could spit on her back”… But if the root was sour what business did she have up there hacking at a leaf?’ Nevertheless, these vignettes of human consciousness never seemed to me to belong to a specific person, to Maud Martha; the novella felt like a strung-together series of observations from Brooks plus some sociological background on Maud Martha’s life. In the introduction to this edition, Margo Jefferson makes much of Maud Martha’s teenage assertion ‘What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha’, suggesting that Maud Martha ‘cherishes her own mind, her sensibility… it is quietly extraordinary’ and that readers should ‘take nothing about this girl for granted’; but I found that Maud Martha very rarely took me by surprise.

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This very short novella is told in chorus by a group of schoolfriends who were children during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile in the 1980s, and are now adults who still feel bound together by the horrors of this time, and especially the uncertain fate of their classmate, Estrella González. Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders, translated by Natasha Wimmer, makes much of the familiar computer game that the children play, with the ranks of green aliens who continually advance symbolising the militaristic society they are growing up in. However, I preferred the parts of this novella that felt less certain, harder to interpret. Although they are scattered far apart, the friends – with González’s childhood crush, Zúñiga, gradually coming to the fore – believe that they meet each other in dreams, where they discuss what may have happened to González after she was abruptly taken out of school by her father, an officer in Pinochet’s regime. ‘We could take attendance… but it’s not necessary. We’re all here. We were scheduled to meet here. We’ve risen from our sheets and mattresses scattered around the city to arrive precisely on time. As always, the dream summons us.’ Maybe this is just Zúñiga’s way of dealing with his own trauma, but it makes the collective memories of the friends feel powerfully entangled. As ever with novellas, this just felt too brief to me, but I’m now keen to read Fernández’s recently translated novel, The Twilight Zone.

Have you read any novellas in November? Which were your favourites?

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#SciFiMonth: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? & The Red Scholar’s Wake

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My experience with NK Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? mirrored my experience with Jemisin’s writing as a whole, but definitely left me feeling keener to read more of her work. There were some stories here that did not work for me. Often, these were early tries at novels of hers that I have read and didn’t quite click with (‘Stone Hunger’/The Fifth Season) or novels of hers that I haven’t read and am now even more sure I won’t click with (‘The City Born Great’/The City We Became). A couple were as heavy-handed as her novella Emergency Skin – ‘The Ones Who Stay And Fight’, ‘Red Dirt Witch’; a couple others just felt silly and under-developed – ‘The Trojan Girl’, ‘Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints…’, ‘On The Banks of the River Lex’, ‘Henosis’.

Having said all that, though, there are twenty-two stories in this book and pretty much all the others were great. This is especially impressive because they span such a range of worlds and styles. A cook encounters a mysterious man who passes her magical recipes (‘L’Alchimista’); two women ally in an alternative version of early nineteenth-century New Orleans (‘The Effluent Engine’); a girl discovers why all the school valedictorians in her firewalled world are taken away from their community (‘Valedictorian’). Easily my favourite stories were the science fiction shorts, which feel like novels-in-a-bottle; I loved the chilling ‘The Brides of Heaven’, where an all-woman community struggles in a space colony after all the men die in a life-support unit malfunction, and ‘The Evaluators’, a first-contact story that reminded me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

While I’ve only read one full-length novel by Jemisin, I definitely feel that she’s at her strongest when she’s creating interesting worlds, and at her weakest when she starts giving her stories simple messages. At her best, she somehow manages to tie together huge narratives in the space of thirty pages or so, never trailing off like I’ve seen so many short story writers do. I’m still not sure what I’ll pick up from her next – it’s a shame that all her longer works seem to be fantasy rather than science fiction, which works less well for me – but I’m open to recommendations.

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I loved the cover and the premise and indeed, the title of Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake. Sadly, I did not love this book. The inciting incident struck me as very similar to that of Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbitwhich I also read this month. When Xích Si is captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, she’s shocked when its leader, the sentient ship Rice Fish, proposes an offer of marriage; her previous wife, the Red Scholar, died in mysterious circumstances, and Rice Fish wants to draw on Xích Si’s technical expertise to work out what really happened. Xích Si and Rice Fish are divided by their views of the world: while Xích Si despises piracy and valorises her scavenger lifestyle, deploring the indentures used by the pirate alliance, Rice Fish argues that the haven she has built using the Red Banner offers a better way of living. Despite these differences, Xích Si and Rice Fish begin to fall for each other – but then an escalation of the political struggle within the pirate fleet threatens to tear them apart.

In my review of Winter’s Orbit, I suggested that it was really ‘romance with a side of science fiction’ and I think The Red Scholar’s Wake falls into that category as well, despite having more superficial SF trappings. de Bodard makes much of the sentient ships, the avatars that both ships and humans project and the bots they then use to interact with their environment, but unlike Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy, this book has nothing interesting to say about sentience, and indeed treats its ship and human characters exactly the same way. Similarly, there’s a gloss of Vietnamese culture that informs the world of this novel, but doesn’t ultimately make it any different from a standard SF setting. The political subplot is incredibly simplistic and predictable, making Winter’s Orbit look Machiavellian.

The problem is, then, that if The Red Scholar’s Wake is really a romance, it needs to be… romantic. And for me, the pairing didn’t work at all. Neither Xích Si nor Rice Fish are given much of a character past the different ethical stances that I described above. Because they have no personalities, there is nothing to draw them together, and yet they fall very quickly for each other. There also seems to be no consideration of the fact that ONE OF THEM IS A SHIP. I imagine de Bodard was trying to show that this kind of pairing is very normal in this world, but she needed to do more work to sell this to the reader (I found the ‘sex’ scene in the middle of the novel INCREDIBLY creepy). Reading this book actually made me reflect on why Winter’s Orbit worked so well, and why it might be a bit unfair to describe it as ‘romance with a side of science fiction’. While I was totally won over by the central pairing in that novel, the science fiction setting wasn’t merely a backdrop; Maxwell used some of the technologies she introduced to explore the trauma of an abusive relationship and how we can mend ourselves. In contrast, The Red Scholar’s Wake was definitely romance plus a bit of science fiction; the two aspects of the novel never speak to each other, and at some points (the aforementioned sex scene!!), are directly in conflict.

Note: After writing this, I found this excellent Goodreads review which picks up on the problematic representation of aromantic and asexual people in this book. This perfectly explains the unease I had around the way that Rice Fish’s relationship with her first wife was depicted, and why I didn’t find her trauma convincing.

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

Four Speculative Novellas: Tchaikovsky, Klages, Le Guin and Cho #NovellasInNovember #SciFiMonth

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Gary was once a normal boy from Stevenage. Now he’s the sole survivor of a group of astronauts sent to investigate a gigantic alien artefact out beyond Pluto’s orbit, wandering through an endless maze of chambers that he calls ‘The Crypts’. Time, space, and other laws of physics are fluid in the Crypts: Gary walks between different atmospheres and finds that gravity doesn’t always behave itself. He also encounters a range of aliens who have also wandered into this artefact, but are clearly fellow explorers rather than its creators; some of whom are friendly, some of whom attack him. But he gradually becomes tormented by a ‘scritchy-scratchy’ noise in his head, and determines to seek out its cause. Adrian Tchaikovsky clearly had fun with Walking to Aldebaran, which is very different from everything else I’ve read by him and reminded me of many other things, from Caitlin Starling’s SF/horror novel The Luminous Dead to Clark Ashton Smith’s terrifying short story ‘The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis’ to old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks like Deathtrap Dungeon (Tchaikovsky is apparently into role-play and there’s a D&D reference at the start, so that last one is probably deliberate). Gary’s narration is also reminiscent of Mark Watney’s dry humour in Andy Weir’s The Martian, but I thought Tchaikovsky made cleverer use of this register, making it clear how Gary uses it as a defence mechanism.  A satisfying SF/horror novella with a good twist (I saw it coming, but I think I was meant to), plus a reference to a classic text at the end.

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What a gem of a book. Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange is a near-perfect novella. Set in San Francisco in the 1940s, Klages beautifully recreates a hidden lesbian subculture, taking us to bars like Mona’s where women dress in drag and butch/femme couples dominate, while detailing the police abuse that lesbians suffer if they are caught – for example – breaking the ‘three garment rule’ and not wearing at least three pieces of female clothing. At the centre of this novel is the relationship between bisexual pulp comics artist Haskell and lesbian drag king performer Emily, but Klages places them within a warm, supportive network of other queer women. While Klages wisely lets us discover her world and fall in love with her characters slowly, the book still maintains an underlying tension because of its mysterious prologue, set decades after the main action, when the last surviving member of the group drives a hard bargain for one of Haskell’s paintings. I also liked that the magic in this novel is an undercurrent rather than a dominant theme, something that forms a natural part of these women’s marginalised lives. The only thing that didn’t quite work for me in Passing Strange was the ending; I adored the way that the novel concluded but I felt that the steps to getting there were a bit rushed, as the women very quickly accept the unbelievable and don’t seem much concerned about an utter sea-change in their lives. Nevertheless, I’d recommend this to readers regardless of whether you normally like SF or speculative fiction; this is really a historical novella with a little supernatural glitter.

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After loving Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed earlier this year, and having read The Left Hand of Darkness back in 2018, I wanted to read more from her Hainish Cycle. To be honest, it was the title of this novella that sold it to me: I couldn’t resist The Word for World Is Forest. In her introduction to the text, Le Guin says that she knew when writing this novella in 1968 against the background of the Vietnam War ‘that it was likely to become a preachment.’ And the plot is familiar; humans despoil another race’s planet and exploit its native people, who then become violent in their turn as they resist. (I was reminded, for example, of Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s brilliant Enchantress From The Stars.) The book is narrated by three people: Lyubov, the human who is the most sympathetic to the Athsheans, Davidson, who is utterly unsympathetic, and Selvan, the leader of the Athshean resistance. I’d agree with Le Guin herself that Davidson is ‘purely evil’ and hence not particularly interesting. I wonder if this novella would have worked better if she’d kept Davidson in play but relegated him to the secondary cast; a more ambiguous human narrator, perhaps Dongh, who grudgingly comes to broker peace with the Athsheans, could have been a good replacement.

However, what saved this novella from feeling moralistic to me was the sheer quality of Le Guin’s writing and the way she develops the oppressed Athsheans, who are presented as another evolutionary branch of humankind. The Athsheans use dreams consciously to solve problems in the ‘real’ world, or what they call ‘world-time’; some of their human colonisers view them as lazy or insane because of this, and the Athsheans return the courtesy: ‘A realist is a man who knows both the world and his own dreams. You’re not sane: there’s not one man in a thousand of you that knows how to dream… Now go back and talk about reality with the other insane men.’ There’s something more here than a simple tale of power and exploitation; a debate over what is ‘real’ and who gets to decide. For the Athsheans, after all, ‘the word for world is forest’, whereas the humans only see the forest as a source of valuable wood. Similarly, we might think, the Athsheans have come to terms with the powers of the unconscious that are beyond rational ken, the dark forest within ourselves, whereas most humans stick to the shallow edges of the mind.

Zen Cho’s ‘The Terra-Cotta Bride’, at 30-odd pages, is really a short story rather than a novella, reprinted in her collection Spirits Abroad. But it’s a superb short story that manages to be funny, wildly creative, immersive and poignant. Siew Tsin is living an unhappy death in the Chinese afterlife after she’s married off to the richest man in the tenth circle of hell (his descendants burn paper money for him ‘with pious fervour and regularity’ and it turns up at the bottom of his closet). In the tenth circle, those who can afford it avoid both the torments of demons and the risk of being called to ‘have tea with Lady Meng’ and being reborn. Siew Tsin’s afterlife takes an even more bizarre turn when her husband brings home a beautiful terra-cotta automaton, Yonghua, as his bride; the inhabitants of hell are used to terra-cotta warriors causing trouble, but nobody has ever seen anything like this before. At this point, I thought I knew how the story was going to play out – but actually, I did not. Like the tiny paper replicas of real-world objects that the descendants burn for their ancestors, this story creates an entire world in miniature. I can’t wait to read the rest of Cho’s collection.

I feel like I got lucky with my #SciMonth #NovellasInNovember choices here! Do any of these appeal to you? READ PASSING STRANGE OBVIOUSLY And have you been reading any SF, speculative fiction and/or novellas this month?

‘I saw the other side of them’: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

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We break from our regular SF Month and Novellas In November programming to bring you this somewhat ranty review.

The Mountains Sing tells the story of the Vietnam War through the perspective of three generations of a relatively wealthy Vietnamese family living in the North. Although it touches on the occupation of the country by the French and the Japanese, the bulk of the novel is focused on the rise of Communism and the splitting of Vietnam between a US-backed South and a Communist-backed North. The novel is narrated in alternate chapters by Diệu Lan, who relates her experience of the Land Reform of the mid-1950s, and her granddaughter Hương, who grows up in the 1970s as the US withdraw from Vietnam but fighting continues. This Goodreads review perfectly sums up my reservations about this kind of inter-generational ‘history of a non-Western country novel’; while they can be amazing (Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Lisa See’s The Island of Sea WomenJing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappearedand while not a novel, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans) they can also be simplistic stories of suffering that seem to be designed to make Western audiences feel good about themselves while saying very little else.

Typically, these novels fail to distinguish one character from another; the different members of the cast are defined entirely by what has happened to them, not who they are. Some are at least good on historical detail while others are much sketchier. The Mountains Sing falls into this category. I learnt surprisingly little about Vietnam or the Vietnam War from reading it. Of course, this doesn’t have to be a novelist’s job, but it doesn’t really work as a novel either – none of the characters have any distinguishing traits and I wasn’t sure why Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai chose to switch between Diệu Lan’s and Hương’s narratives – every time I was sinking into one, I’d get dragged back to the other, and because their voices are exactly the same, I easily became confused. I also found the take on the Vietnam War so simplistic as to be problematic. My knowledge of the war is very poor, but Quế Mai’s approach seems to be summed up by this quotation from about halfway through the novel, after Hương listens to her uncle’s story of an encounter with American soldiers: ‘What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books [Hương is a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House In The Big Woods], I saw the other side of them – their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.’

I mean, really? The novel consistently refuses to talk about structural power or exploitation, and is much keener to describe Communist atrocities against rich landowners then to focus on the American role in the war. And while I don’t know enough about the Land Reform to judge Quế Mai’s account of it, I felt uncomfortable with the consistent dehumanisation of the family’s poorer neighbours, who are all portrayed as evil, greedy and animalistic. In contrast, Diệu Lan’s family are saints who help out their village by installing a water pump. You don’t have to be a communist to feel a little uneasy that this book seems to be totally happy with the existing social inequalities and so disgusted at the villagers who aren’t as fortunate as Diệu Lan. And with all their talk about reaching out to invading Americans, the family find it much harder to forgive Uncle Minh (Diệu Lan’s oldest son) who ended up fighting for the South during the war. This could very much be a realistic character choice (easier to blame each other than the real oppressors), but I wanted to see this explored by Quế Mai. As it stands, The Mountains Sing seems likely to confirm stereotypes rather than to challenge them. In many ways, it seems to me an example of writing for your worst possible reader rather than for your best.

#SciFiMonth and #NovellasInNovember Reading Plans!

I’m once again taking part in #SciFiMonth, which runs from 1 to 30 November. As I did in 2021, I’ll be combining this challenge with #NovellasInNovember. Serendipitously, I tend to get on a lot better with SF novellas than with any other kind of novella, so these two challenges work well together for me.

I’ll be using this challenge to read some SF books I already had on my Kindle, plus some NetGalley ARCs and the science fiction that’s remaining on my 2022 reading list, then adding some SF novellas! (I doubt I will actually get through all these, but oh well).

On My Kindle

N.K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? has been on my reading list for some time. I admired Jemisin’s The Fifth Season but did not feel compelled to read the rest of the trilogy. However, I’ve enjoyed short stories by her in various anthologies, and would like to give her writing another go.

Gwyneth Jones’s Life (originally published in 2004) has recently been republished in a beautiful SF Masterworks edition. I think it was Elle’s review that originally drew my attention to this novel, which focuses on the fictional, brilliant scientist Anna Senoz who discovers ‘transferred Y’ syndrome; sections of the Y chromosome can cross to the X chromosome, which may eventually make the Y chromosome redundant. I’m continually intrigued by SF which plays with sex and gender (The Left Hand of Darkness, AmmoniteThe Men) and this sounds like a good addition.

Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit promises to focus on a high-ranking political figure rushed into an arranged marriage with another man against the backdrop of an interplanetary empire. However, it’s pitched as Ancillary Justice meets Red, White and Royal Blue, so I was instantly sold! I’m intrigued by the idea of a space opera that is quite light and romantic, as I often find them too convoluted and overly earnest (see: A Memory Called Empire).

NetGalley ARCs

Coincidentally, I had two SF ARCs lined up that both publish in November – and both on the 24th of the month! Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory is the final instalment in the trilogy that began with Children of TimeThis hugely ambitious space opera started with the remains of the human race sleeping in stasis on an arkship called the Gilgamesh, having fled from an uninhabitable Earth. They come across a planet that appears to be habitable, but it’s guarded by an aggressive and hostile AI, and populated by giant, sentient spiders. In my opinion, the sequel, Children of Ruinwas the stronger novel, having dispensed with set-up and showing us how humans and spiders ally in the search for new worlds. The blurb of Children of Memory seems to suggest an about-face, as it focuses on a different human colony established by a different arkship, the Enkidu.

Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake promises space pirates and lesbians, an irresistible combination for me – and just look at that cover! Xich Si’s ship is captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, led by Red Fish, who was the wife of the Red Scholar – until her wife died under suspicious circumstances. Xich Si expects to be tortured to death by Red Fish, but then she receives an unexpected offer. This sounds superficially similar to the blurb of Winter’s Orbit, so I’ll be interested to see how the two books compare.

2022 Reading List

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The only SF novel left on my 2022 reading list is Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi. Set in a near-future Earth in the 2050s, the wealthy have fled to colonies in space, while the poor are left behind to survive on a dying planet. I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go In The Dark, the third section of Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise and Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility.

SF Novellas In November

Ellen Flages’s Passing Strange sounds right up my street. It follows the intersecting lives of four women in 1940s San Francisco as they explore the magical borderlands of the city. Inter-war and wartime US and European settings are usually a pass for me – I’m utterly unseduced by this kind of glamour – but I’m hoping the speculative elements will enrich this familiar material in the way they did in Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen.

Meanwhile, I’ll be continuing my journey through Ursula Le Guin’s wonderful science fiction with her novella The Word for World Is Forest (the title itself makes this a must-read for me!). This is part of her Hainish Cycle, which also includes The Left Hand of Darkness and The DispossessedIt focuses on a military logging colony set up on another planet by people from Earth, and I’m hoping for more of the social insight I so loved in The Dispossessed.

I’m also picking up another Adrian Tchaikovsky (he is PROLIFIC), but his novella Walking to Aldebaran sounds like it operates on a completely different scale from his spidery space operas. This tells the story of an astronaut sent to explore a mysterious alien rock; when he gets lost in the tunnels inside it, he becomes uncomfortably aware there’s something else there with him… Tchaikovsky is good at SF horror, possibly my favourite genre-cross.

Finally, I’ll be reading Zen Cho’s The Terracotta Bride. I wanted to try something by Cho, and this is advertised as ‘A tale of first love, bad theology and robot reincarnation set in the Chinese afterlife.’ Intriguing!

Are you taking part in #SciFiMonth and/or #NovellasInNovember? What will you be reading? Do any of my picks sound tempting?

October Superlatives

October superlatives already! You can also read my R.I.P XVII/Spooktastic Reads challenge round-up for this month.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry. Teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s! However, this evocative historical novel was also brilliant on how our perspectives on race, feminism and queer/trans identity have changed, not always for the better. My full review is here.

(Hon. mention: This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, which gives its time-travel narrative somewhat short shrift due to some odd pacing choices, but which partly makes up for this by its beautiful, poignant depiction of the central father-daughter relationship.)

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Patricia Wants To Cuddle by Samantha Allen. I hoped this short novel would be the right side of ridiculous, but unfortunately it was the wrong side of ridiculous. The finale of a Bachelor-style franchise is taking place on a remote island where a group of female hikers went missing decades ago. Unbeknownst to our Instagram-obsessed cast, a female Bigfoot is stalking the island, aided and abetted by a cult of lesbians. Doesn’t it sound engagingly weird? However, the execution was really off. The first two-thirds of the novel reads like a light thriller criticising social media, then the final third pairs gruesome horror with humour. There needed to be a much darker, more subversive undercurrent from the beginning to make this shift work. And while this book obviously wants to be queer and satirical, I still wasn’t a fan of the lesbian stereotypes which didn’t seem to do any interesting narrative work (the interspersed love letters were so cliched they were painful to read), and the cult of ‘Patricia’ needed a lot more page-time. A shame, because it has a good cover.

The Book That Was So Well-Written But Not Much Else This Month Was…

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… The White Rock by Anna Hope. Hope’s fourth novel follows four unnamed narrators in four different time periods, travelling in the same area of Mexico: the Writer in 2020, the Singer in 1969, the Girl in 1907 and the Lieutenant in 1775. All of her novels have been well-written, but The White Rock is on another level. The strength of her writing here, however, helped me really pin down why it is that none of her novels have quite worked for me (I’ve also reviewed The Ballroom and Expectation). The quality of the prose is definitely there but the quality of the ideas is consistently lacking. These four narratives are linked by a sense of worlds that are ending, relationships with the environment that are being destroyed. However, Hope has little new to say about this; once you try and look past the prose, the story dissolves. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Only Book I Read From The Booker Longlist Before The Winner Was Announced Was…

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… Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. This debut novel made this year’s Booker longlist but not the shortlist, and, while I admired Mottley’s writing, I’m not sure I’d have even put it on the longlist. Kiara is a black teenage girl living in Oakland who turns to casual sex work when she and her brother are threatened with eviction from their rented apartment; things turn even darker when the local police pick her up and force her to have sex with them at regular ‘parties’. Kiara’s voice is convincing, with some fantastic sentences: ‘the boyfriend I had when I was fourteen and still trying to live out childhood’; ‘a series of tingles have coursed across my forehead like that feeling when you’re blindfolded, but your body feels the eyes’; ‘Mama wore wide-leg red pants to go fall in love with Daddy and kept them even after they tore at the seams.’ The prose also occasionally waterfalls into long, run-on sections that feel utterly authentic for this seventeen-year-old narrator. However, the story itself felt too familiar, and Mottley sometimes tells us what we should take from a scene rather than letting it speak for itself, as in the otherwise strong set-piece when Kiara and a friend go to a ‘funeral day’, taking food and clothes from a funeral parlour: ‘Funeral day is a reckoning, when we mimic thieves and really just find excuses for our tears’. Despite the excellent writing, therefore, I doubt Nightcrawling will stay with me.

The Best Essay Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller. This was on my 2022 reading list; it was also shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize and the 2022 Jhalak Prize. As Miller explains in the introduction, these essays ‘are about things I have withheld’, quoting the poet Dionne Brand: ‘I am a black woman speaking to a largely white audience… so that there are some things that I will say to you and some things that I won’t. And quite possibly the most important things will be the ones that I withhold.’  He writes so thoughtfully about racialisation – how society constructs racial categories to put people into – and especially well, perhaps surprisingly so, about white women, in essays like ‘Mr Brown, Mrs White and Ms Black’, ‘The Crimes That Haunt The Body’ and ‘The White Women and The Language of Bees’. As Miller demonstrates, we tend to think of ‘race’ and ‘racialisation’ only when we think of people of colour, but ‘white’ is a constructed category as well. And as a black man, he’s acutely aware of his own perspective – structurally advantaged by his sex but not by his race, although his queerness complicates things further. The book largely focuses upon Britain and Jamaica, Miller’s two home countries, plus a trip that he takes to Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, but speaks to experiences of racism elsewhere too. There were a few very short pieces here that felt a little less necessary, but otherwise this is an excellent, elegant and moving collection of essays.

The Best Novel About Ballet I Read This Month Was…

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… They’re Going To Love You by Meg Howrey. I was enraptured by Howrey’s last novel, The Wanderers, a brilliantly dead-pan but richly thoughtful story that followed three astronauts training for a Mars mission in the Utah desert. They’re Going To Love You is a very different book. Carlisle trained as a ballet dancer in New York, relying heavily on the support of her father Robert and his long-term partner, James. In the wake of the 1980s AIDS crisis, she watched them both uneasily, reassured by their monogamy but haunted by the sudden deaths of young men they knew. The novel skips between Carlisle’s past and the present [c.2016], where we learn that Carlisle has been estranged from both Robert and James for nineteen years, after her father forbade her to contact them. Ballet has been served badly by fiction: most ballet novels I’ve read emphasise the tortured nature of the art and how masochistic you must be to want to devote your life to it. Howrey, a former professional dancer, presents a much more nuanced view. I doubt this will be memorable in the way that The Wanderers was, with Carlisle’s first-person voice already slipping from me. Nevertheless, it’s still all too rare to read a novel that stars an ambitious, childless woman who isn’t punished for her perversity. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 10th November. 

(Hon. mention: The Cranes Dance, Howrey’s first novel, which is much MORE about ballet than They’re Going To Love You is, and is also very much worth reading, but which I found a bit schematic in its depiction of the two Crane sisters.)

The Only Book In Translation I Read This Month Was…

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… Saha by Cho Nam-Joo. This short novel introduces us to a city-state called Town where you belong to one of three levels of society: either you are a full Citizen, an ‘L2’ who’s licensed for up to two years to fulfil particular jobs, or a ‘Saha’, one of the social outcasts who lives in the high-rise Saha estates. But Saha feels caught between two narratives, two types of story. One follows Saha resident Jin-Kyung’s determination to get to the bottom of her brother’s disappearance after he’s falsely accused of murdering his girlfriend. The other skips around between the people who live in Saha and is organised by the numbers of the units they occupy. I think I understood what Nam-Joo was trying to do with this second narrative, and I liked the idea of bringing the Saha estates to life through the voices of this peripatetic community. But it strays back too often to Jin-Kyung, and the individuals often blur into a litany of suffering rather than strongly coming forward in their own right. I also struggled with the choppy transitions and sketchy writing, which often felt like an early draft. I was struck to see that this was translated by Jamie Chang, who also translated Kim Hye-Jin’s Concerning My Daughter – and I had exactly the same problems with the prose in that novella! So, this at least may be a translation issue, but I still didn’t feel that Nam-Joo really pulled off what she set out to achieve here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 30th November. 

What were the best and worst books you read in October?

More R.I.P XVII Reviews #SpooktasticReads

I picked out some ‘mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror or supernatural’ reads for the R.I.P XVII challenge back at the end of September. This also doubles up with Spooktastic Reads, which runs from 19th to 31st October and focuses on dark fantasy.

What I’ve Been Reading

The book I was most excited about reading this month was definitely Naomi Novik’s The Golden Enclaves, the conclusion to her Scholomance trilogy. I don’t think I’ve looked forward to a book this much since the sixth Harry Potter book came out (sadly, I hated book six, so I didn’t anticipate book seven, which was good, since I hated it even more!). And while nothing can ever top A Deadly Education for me, this was probably on par with The Last Graduatealthough I badly missed spending time in the Scholomance. Like The Last Graduate, the first half of The Golden Enclaves is rather slow and meandering, but it REALLY kicks into gear in the second half, with some satisfying character development and a return to the more complex moral questions that I missed in The Last Graduate. A great trilogy with an utterly superb first book that should be required reading for anyone who loves dark academia – or who has struggled with not being on the same wavelength as their classmates.

Sadly, despite it being another of my most-anticipated releases of 2022, I didn’t find RF Kuang’s Babel nearly as satisfying. You can read my full review here – plus a few thoughts about why Novik’s Scholomance trilogy is a much more interesting addition to the ‘dark academia’ sub-genre.

Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks also made my 2022 reading list because it promised ‘teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s’ and it definitely delivered! Danvers High’s field hockey team of ten girls plus one token boy have never been very good at actually winning games. However, their luck reverses when they make a deal with the devil and start recording their bad deeds in a secret notebook, channelling their power not only to win every game they play but to achieve their own secret ambitions. Barry’s prose – or at least, the particular narrative voice she chose for this novel – takes a little getting used to. It’s deliberately dense with contemporary references, and skips between the collective voice of the team and the individual perspectives of its members, each of whom get a chapter of their own. It also skips back and forth in time rather disconcertingly. Having said that, this quixotic style is what makes We Ride Upon Sticks so distinctive, and I can’t imagine it being told in any other way. This isn’t the fast, feelgood read the pink cover might seem to promise, but I loved how subtly it dealt with feminism, race and queer/trans identity in the late 1980s, acknowledging that times have changed both for the better and for the worse.

(I also planned to read Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night for this challenge. I’m a third of the way through this behemoth and it’s going… slowly, despite some unforgettably terrifying set-pieces. I will review next month, if I finish it then!)

 What I’ve Been Watching

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I was pleasantly surprised by Hocus Pocus 2given that I’ve watched the original Hocus Pocus countless times since it first came out when I was a small child, and can recite most of the dialogue. Hocus Pocus 2 leans quite heavily on the original film, but also brings some excellent moments of its own (I loved the mini-arc where the jock character works out that he’s been ‘making fun of people’, the three child actors who had so carefully learnt all of the witches’ mannerisms, and the hoovers that save the day). What is perhaps most impressive is the way the film mostly preserves the original’s clever balance between spooky, funny and poignant, although the first Hocus Pocus is scarier and more atmospheric. The final scene with Winifred could have been sappy but was just weird and off-kilter enough to work for me – and, contrary to some reviewers, I didn’t feel that the three witches ceased to be bad guys – we’ve always known they care about each other and nobody else! Obviously not as great as the original film, but a fun and nostalgic coda.

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

The release of the new Netflix adaptation of The Midnight Club inspired me to seek out the original Christopher Pike novel from 1994, which was one of my favourite books in my early teens. Pike was one of the big teen writers of the 1990s and early 00s, author of dozens of books which were sold to the same audience as Point Horror but which were much more gruesome, disturbing and original. I don’t remember very many of his books (I’m sure I read some of The Last Vampire and Remember Me series, I still own Chain Letter, and that I was so intensely freaked out by Magic Fire* that I couldn’t finish it). And until I picked it up this month, I hadn’t reread The Midnight Club in decades, suspecting I might find it silly and exploitative as an adult.

Well, I was wrong! I still love it! The Midnight Club packs such a powerful atmospheric punch as it follows a group of teens living in a hospice who tell each other stories every night as they are waiting to die. All the stories the characters tell are fully incorporated into the narrative, a narrative device that rarely works for me but which is brilliantly-handled here. Pike somehow manages to give each character a distinct storytelling style and to tell us stories that are not always good but are always interesting. Also, we can’t always neatly draw parallels between the stories and the characters’ lives, which makes the novel much richer, more interesting and more realistic (funnily enough, fiction isn’t always thinly-veiled autobiography). The spiritual aspects of the novel ought to be absurd, but because the book is genuinely moving and we really do care for the characters, it somehow manages to carry it. Pike is known for his horror novels, but this is less a horror novel (though the stories-within-the-story have horror elements) and more a haunting meditation on death. MOVE OVER FAULT IN OUR STARS AND YOUR MANY RIPOFFS.

*yes I did just spend too much time googling ‘Christopher Pike novel brains in vats’.

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Soulmates Ilonka and Kevin share a moment.

So, how about The Midnight Club Netflix series? I’ve only watched half the series so far, so my thoughts may change, but here goes: It diverges from the novel immediately, and I wasn’t surprised, given how much of the original is about reincarnation and past-life regression. But I loved how it feels very much like a remix of the book, with references popping up when you least expect them. Anya (Ruth Codd)’s horror story incorporates an experience she had in real life in the original novel; Kevin (Igby Rigney) casually references the Louvre, having told an entire story centred around the museum in the book version. The original cast are all present and correct but several new characters are added, a choice that makes sense given this is obviously intended to be more than a one-season show, and we’re going to lose them all one by one.

As in the book, the different ‘voices’ of the storytellers are very cleverly handled. I especially liked the very first story, told by Natsuki (Aya Furukawa), which dissolves into chaos as she insists on jump-scaring her audience over and over again. I was less certain about the decision to add an overarching storyline about a mysterious cult that meets in the basement of the hospice; it just felt unnecessary to me, and it’s inevitably dragged out across the whole season, only allowed to advance by increments in each episode. However, I did like that Ilonka (Iman Benson) is drawn to the hospice because she reads about a girl who was miraculously cured after straying into the woods nearby; this is, again, another clever remix of Ilonka’s original storyline, where she spends most of the novel in denial about her prognosis, relying on herbs and healthy eating rather than pain medication. And while I miss the weird intensity of our original group of teenagers, this would also have been hard to translate to screen. Fingers crossed for the second half of the season!

Did you read any spooky books this October? Or watch anything scary?

‘Oxford began to crumble’: Babel by RF Kuang #RIPXVII #SpooktasticReads

I’m taking part in both the RIP XVII challenge (1 September – 31 October) and Spooktastic Reads (19 October – 31 October) this year. Both focus on reading darker books, but Spooktastic Reads has more of a focus on dark fantasy, which makes RF Kuang’s Babel a perfect pick. (The publishers have even worked with these challenges’ colour schemes!)

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Babel is set in Oxford in the late 1830s: industrialisation is picking up pace, despite Luddite protests, the Whigs are in power under Lord Melbourne, and we’re on the brink of the Opium Wars. Kuang, however, diverges from history by devising an ingenious mechanism that powers colonial exploitation: silver-working. In short, elite Oxford academics, working in the Royal Institute of Translation – Babel – inscribe ‘match-pairs’, or two different translations of the same word, into silver bars. The subtle differences between the meanings of the words produce their intended effects. In this way, Babel becomes the hub of the British Empire, with its silver-magic allowing the British to dominate the rest of the world even as extractive knowledge of foreign languages is the essential mechanism that keeps imperialism going. Our four protagonists enter Babel as undergraduate students on generous stipends. Robin, the central narrator, is originally from Canton but was brought over to England by his absent father after his mother’s death; his best friend Ramy, a practising Muslim, is from Calcutta; Victoire was born in Haiti; and Letty is a white English aristocrat who is nevertheless enraged by how her brother’s access to education was facilitated while she was ignored.

Babel is clearly in conversation with earlier novels that deal with language, academia, magic and injustice – but sadly, it seems more interested in toppling the obvious targets of Harry Potter and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind than engaging with more intelligent predecessors like Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Robin and his friends may not be the Trio, but they are definitely the Marauders – with all the moral simplicity that that entails. (One pivotal moment even directly recalls Sirius Black’s outburst, directed at Peter Pettigrew: ‘Then you should have died! Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!‘*) Robin goes on a relatively interesting journey, but the other three remain ciphers, ultimately defined by race and gender rather than developing real personalities; we know that Victoire’s world-view is smarter than Ramy’s is smarter than Letty’s because that’s what hierarchies of oppression tell us. And while I am ALL FOR authors showing how the lived experience of discrimination allows oppressed groups to have a better understanding of an oppressive system, this is not handled with any subtlety.

*yes maybe I did just quote that from memory

This brilliant Goodreads review sums up Babel‘s worldbuilding problems far better than I can, so I won’t add much here: in short, the addition of silver-working bizarrely does absolutely nothing to change early nineteenth-century British history, and the language used by our anti-colonial protagonists all too frequently hails from the twenty-first century, which feels especially jarring in a novel so attuned to the histories of words. Having said that, though, I could probably have put up with these problems if the points that Kuang was making weren’t quite so obvious. I still haven’t posted my review of her forthcoming contemporary novel Yellowface because it’s not out until May 2023: still, I was struck by how two such different novels can suffer from the same kinds of problems. Yellowface, too, is determined to spell out everything to the reader rather than let them draw their own conclusions. I’ve heard that Kuang was frustrated when readers missed that her earlier Poppy War trilogy was a critique of colonialism in China and Hong Kong; I’ve not read this trilogy, but I very much sympathise if this is true. However, I don’t think this means that you should write to the lowest common denominator of readers, especially when surely anyone who picks up Babel knows what they are getting into.

While reading Babel, I kept on thinking of Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy, which stand as some of the most morally complex fantasy/dark academia novels I have read in recent years. Novik is much more interested than Kuang in understanding how people become complicit in corrupt systems, and she’s willing to take her protagonist, El, to some very dark places as she walks her own path towards resistance. The final hundred pages of Babel do go some way towards acknowledging knotty problems that were not visible in the previous four hundred or so. I loved the emergence of radical working-class groups as key allies, and how they exposed some of the holes in our protagonists’ thinking, especially the idea that machine-breakers were just dumb peasants impeding progress #JusticeforLuddites. Finally, we get some serious disagreements over tactics from people who are all on the right side of history. And, as somebody who has never studied at Oxford but worked there unhappily for three years, I did revel in the sheer destruction that the novel’s climax brings; Kuang is great at really bringing home to the reader how quickly systems of power unravel when labour is withdrawn. (Yet, I return to the comparison with the Scholomance series, which is much better at portraying the sheer difficulty of resistance, even after the school itself is expelled into the void; most exploited peoples don’t conveniently have their labour locked into a single place that they can blow up).

OK this got LONG, but to conclude: if you want thoughtful, thought-provoking dark academia, read Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education; if you instead want a dissection of the inherent colonialism within the modern university, read Elaine Hsieh Chou’s Disorientation(And yeah, if you do just want a fast-paced, old-fashioned wizard school fantasy book, still read Babel.)

September Superlatives, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

The Best ‘Dark Academia’ Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman, published back in 2002 before ‘dark academia’ really became a trend as such, although it owes a bit to The Secret History. When Jane was a pupil at a private girls’ school by the shores of Heart Lake, both her roommates committed suicide. Now she’s back as a Latin teacher with her young daughter in tow. But as the lake gradually freezes over, the secrets Jane has been keeping all these years rise back to the surface. The Lake of Dead Languages is a pitch-perfect example of this sub-sub-genre. Goodman expertly interweaves the past with the present, and treads carefully enough to avoid too much melodrama, despite her sensational subject-matter. The biggest triumph, though, is the evocative atmosphere, and the way in which the lake functions so elegantly as metaphor; ‘overturn’, we learn, is what happens when a body of water cools, with the denser, colder water sinking to the bottom and the warmer water rising to the top to cool in its turn. I found a number of the revelations predictable, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment; if anything, I liked seeing how Goodman was setting up her dominos.  If you liked Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House, Bridget Collins’s The Betrayals or Tana French’s The Secret PlaceI’d suggest trying this one. [My copy was discovered in a little free library!]

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly. Loosely based on Kit Williams’ famous Masqueradethis novel invents another treasure hunt started by The Golden Bones, a picture book full of clues that lead to a set of tiny golden models of a folktale lady’s bones. Decades on, so-called ‘Bonehunters’ are still obsessed with finding the final bone, and Nell, who has grown up under the shadow of this book her father wrote with his best friend, is still dealing with the fallout. Erin Kelly is known for her sophisticated thrillers, but this felt like a step beyond even what she’s done before, with such psychological realism as she explores the network of relationships within Nell’s family. It took a little while, but ultimately I fell in love with this complicated, intricate story. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I Read This Month Was… 

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… Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored by Jeffrey Boakye. I’ve read a number of excellent recent books on black British culture and the legacy of the British Empire – Akala’s Natives and Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) come to mind. Black, Listed isn’t quite as good as those two, but Boakye cleverly structures his reflections around the language that has been used to describe black people in Britain, and the language they use to describe themselves. So we have short sections on official descriptors like ‘Afro-Caribbean’, ‘ethnic minority’ and ‘person of colour’, alongside openly derogatory language like ‘half-caste’, historical terms like ‘Moor’ and what Boakye calls ‘loaded terms’ like ‘ebony’, ‘exotic’ and ‘powerful’. (In a book full of violent words, I found it striking that Boakye admits that the thing he’d most hate to be called is ‘sellout’, which reflects his continuing struggle with his black identity and his fear of being seen as ‘not black enough’.) This tight focus on terminology was consistently thought-provoking, even if some of the content was familiar. I’ve immediately set a section of the book for my undergraduates.

The Book That Left Me Feeling Most Conflicted This Month Was…

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… The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. Hustvedt is always a cerebral writer, but I found this significantly more challenging than What I Loved and Memories of the FutureHarriet Burden has struggled for artistic recognition all her life, and now, in early old age, she conducts an experiment that she calls the ‘Masking’: she stages three art exhibitions using three different male artists as her alter egos, and watches as the accolades roll in. The book is told via a compilation of Harriet’s notebooks, written or spoken accounts from other key players, and reviews of the shows. I’ve no doubt this novel will stay indelibly fixed in my mind. Hustvedt brilliantly explores how Harriet’s art changes as she imagines herself as each of the three men she chooses, and how she creates a complicated web of self-reflection, writing to an art journal under yet another male name to both reveal and critique her own project. You get the sense that Harriet’s fatal flaw is that she can’t quite recognise that the rest of the world are not as clever as she is. She’s a marvellous character. Having said that, though, I felt this worked better as a thought experiment than as a novel. I found some sections nearly unreadable, and others dragged down by the weight of academic footnotes that added very little. Like Harriet, it’s a bit too smart for its own good. Hustvedt’s follow-up, Memories of the Future, is a much better piece of fiction; still, I’d rather read a book like this than many tidier novels. [Borrowed from my local library #LoveYourLibrary]

The Best Romcom I Read This Month Was…

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… Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn. This charming first novel is basically rebranded ‘chick lit’, of the sort I used to devour in my early twenties, and none the worse for that, especially as it changes things up by starring a dark-skinned Nigerian-British woman. Yinka is tired of being asked by older relatives when she is going to find a ‘huzband’ – especially as she’s secretly a hopeless romantic and would love to settle down with a man. So she finally agrees to try out some of the strategies recommended by her community, including attending a different (more evangelical, less C of E) church with lots of eligible bachelors. I adored Yinka, and her story is great fun. A more light-hearted version of Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie and a better-written, more engaging version of Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. 

What were the best and worst things you read in September?

September Superlatives, Part 1

This got really long so I’ve split it into two posts!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Anthill by Julianne Pachico. I loved Pachico’s linked short story collection The Lucky Ones, which focused on left-wing guerrilla groups in Colombia in the 1990s as seen through the eyes of one elite, expat school class. Her first novel is just as good. It follows Lina, who spent her early childhood in Medellín but left for England when she was eight. Lina’s returned to the city to reunite with childhood friend Mattias, who now runs a community centre for local children, the Anthill. She uncomfortably navigates her own privilege as she volunteers at the centre, desperate to insist that she’s not like the other volunteers – that she knows this city, she knows Mattias, she speaks fluent Spanish. Here, the novel reminded me of Nikita Lalwani’s brilliant, merciless The VillageHowever, The Anthill also keeps company with another kind of book that I love: like Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Bodyit uses horror tropes to explore a character’s and a country’s traumatic past. A fantastic novel that seems to have been very unfairly overlooked.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes by Eric LaRocca. This is a strange little book. It consists of one novella – ‘Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke’ and two short stories – ‘The Enchantment’ and ‘You’ll Find It’s Like That All Over’. The first and last stories in the collection felt like they had potential. In ‘Things Have Gotten Worse’, two women connect over email when one is trying to sell her grandmother’s antique apple peeler and develop a strange, swift obsession with each other. In ‘You’ll Find It’s Like That’, a man enters into a dangerously escalating series of bets with his neighbour.

Neither of these stories exactly worked for me – the first came too close to torture porn for shock value for my liking while the second felt too abrupt and abbreviated – but both have memorable images and phrases. In contrast, ‘The Enchantment’ was a bit of a mess; it starts with the arresting idea that the afterlife has been proven not to exist, but does nothing with that at all, choosing instead to focus on a couple grieving after their son commits suicide, an experience which seems like it would have been much the same regardless of belief in an afterlife. Finally, Eric LaRocca’s writing is consistently off-kilter and stilted; I thought this was a stylistic choice when reading ‘Things Have Gotten Worse’ but soon realised it wasn’t, which robbed that novella of some of what made it interesting as well. I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Best Historical Novel I Read This Month Was

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People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. This novel’s central thread follows rare books specialist Hanna, who’s been asked to restore the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. However, the rest of the narrative functions as a series of interconnected short stories interspersed throughout Hanna’s story as she tracks the origins of the traces on the book: saltwater and wine marks, missing silver clasps, a butterfly wing, a white cat hair stained with dye. We move through the interconnected European histories of the three major Abrahamic religions, with a focus on the persecution of the Jews: from Sarajevo during the Second World War to Vienna in the 1890s to seventeenth-century Venice to Barcelona and Seville in the late fifteenth century. I struggled with the short modern sections but felt that the past came alive once we entered the early modern and medieval periods. Meanwhile, Hanna’s present-day voice is satisfyingly individual, caustic and critical, although I found the resolution to her difficult relationship with her mother rather too neat – I would have preferred a more complex reckoning with the past – and the romantic subplot felt unnecessary. I was impressed by Brooks’s Year of Wonders until its jump-the-shark ending, so I was glad to find that People of the Book was much more convincing. Next up: Brooks’s March. [Borrowed from my local library #LoveYourLibrary]

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So. This incredibly strong collection of short stories showcases So’s talent and underlines the tragedy of his early death; he died unexpectedly in 2020, before seeing it published. So achieves something very difficult in this collection, asking the same questions without becoming repetitive as he tells the stories of second-generation Cambodian immigrants to California who live in the shadow of their Khmer parents’ experience of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. Stories like ‘The Shop’ and ‘We Would’ve Been Princes!’, which begin comically, inevitably circle round to this reckoning. For me, the strongest stories were the ones that moved a little further away from the young gay male narrators who dominate much of this collection – ‘Three Women Of Chuck’s Donuts’, ‘The Monks’, and ‘Generational Differences’ – not because So’s stories about young gay men’s experiences were not strong nor important, but because it was a joy to see him stretch himself. This reminded me of another short story collection I loved that combined a unity of theme with a multiplicity of voices, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How To Pronounce Knife.

The Best Book On Death I Read This Month Was…

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And Finally by Henry Marsh. This short book chronicles Henry Marsh’s life after retiring from neurosurgery and being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, as he looks back on his career from the perspective that age and illness gives him. I’ve read Marsh’s two previous memoirs, Do No Harm and Admissions, and frankly I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody who hasn’t at least read Do No Harm; much of the poignancy here is lost if we don’t first encounter Marsh as a practicing surgeon. However, Marsh is typically (for him) and unusually (for most writers) honest about his experience of ageing and facing mortality, and that alone made And Finally worthwhile for me. I also liked his clear and compelling arguments for legalising assisted dying in the UK, a cause for which he is now campaigning. Alongside Paul Kalanithi and Atul Gawande, Marsh remains one of the best doctors-turned-writers I’ve read. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Part 2 coming soon!