‘Another boy, another planet’

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Daniel Wilkinson is a musician in his early twenties living in New York, the only child of two successful American academics. His parents want him to go back to college; Daniel wants to keep on writing songs with his best friend, Roland, in the hope that their band, Psychic Hearts, will break out on the club scene. Deming Guo is the eleven-year-old son of a Chinese immigrant mother who works in a nail salon. Born in the US but having spent his early childhood in China, he now feels he fits into the Fuzhounese community in the part of the Bronx where he lives with his mother, Polly (Peilan), her boyfriend, Leon, Leon’s sister, Vivian, and her son, Michael. However, when Polly abruptly disappears, Deming is eventually put into foster care, adopted, and renamed. As he adjusts to his new life as Daniel, Deming never leaves him: ‘Deming wouldn’t have the scar on his right forearm that Daniel had gotten from skateboarding with Roland in eighth grade. While Deming was growing up in Chinatown and the Bronx, was Daniel hibernating, asleep in Planet Ridgeborough?… Daniel had lay [sic] dormant in Deming until  adolescence, and now Deming was a hairball tumor jammed deep in Daniel’s gut. Or Deming had never left Rutgers Street [his old home in the Bronx]; he’d been here all along.’

The Leavers, Lisa Ko’s wonderful debut novel, recalls Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut Harmless Like Youwhich also deals with the reunion of an adult son with the mother who left him in New York long ago, although in Buchanan’s novel, the mother is Japanese and left her son when he was too young to remember her. Thinking about the two novels together made me reflect on the reader’s empathy. By any measure, Polly is less culpable than Yuki, the mother in Harmless Like You; she went to great lengths to access abortion when pregnant with Deming, so has ultimately been landed with a child she never chose to have, and, as we discover later in the novel, the reasons behind her abandonment of Deming are not what they seem. In contrast, Yuki exercises much greater agency when she chooses to leave her son, Jay. However, The Leavers starts by placing the young Deming’s perspective front and centre, whereas Harmless Like You focuses on the teenage Yuki’s struggles to be regarded as an artist despite the fact she’s both female and Japanese. Initially, then, I sympathised with Deming and Yuki more than Polly and Jay.

What The Leavers does so well, therefore, is to deconstruct our preconceptions about motherhood – especially Chinese motherhood – by forcing us to question why we feel like we’re on Deming’s ‘side’. Interestingly, Polly and Yuki’s choices of vocation may come into play here; Yuki is a visual artist, whereas Polly does manicures, and later becomes an English educator. As I discussed in my review of Convenience Store Womanthe automatic reverence Brits and Americans tend to extend to those working in the arts is pretty problematic. Polly’s ability to keep her family financially afloat is nothing short of amazing – and she’s also pretty brilliant at painting nails. The book is also scathing about the half-hearted efforts of Deming’s adoptive parents, Kay and Peter, to understand who he is and what he’s going through.

While some of the sections dealing with the tension between Daniel’s music career and his adoptive parents’ desire for him to get a college degree are a bit simplistic, The Leavers is, on the whole, a satisfyingly complex novel. Ultimately, it asks what we lose when we leave our closest connections for a chance of a better life, when ‘better’ is defined as more middle-class, more financially stable, more outwardly respectable. In this, it recalls Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet and Zadie Smith’s Swing Timeand also picks up some of the questions raised by Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) about where you belong when you feel you don’t belong anywhere. Both Deming’s and Daniel’s final answers are beautifully moving.

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

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The Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019

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I’m delighted to once again be part of the Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel organised by Rebecca, alongside brilliant fellow bloggers Clare, Paul and Annabel. The prize highlights ‘the best new novels, memoirs and non-fiction that illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness’. The longlist was revealed yesterday, and it’s quite exciting! Here are my initial thoughts, organised by theme.

Masculinity and gender identity

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I’ve had Thomas Page McBee’s memoir of his transition, Man Alive, on my TBR list for a while. I’m still most interested in the first book, but Amateurwhich focuses on McBee training as a boxer, sounds like a fascinating glimpse into the experience of living as a trans man, something that is hugely neglected by the mainstream media, which tends to focus on trans women. I’ve become increasingly interested in what happens to ‘masculinity’ when it isn’t seen as solely a property of those born male – i.e. what it feels like to be a trans man, or a butch lesbian – and Amateur promises to explore this with style.

Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is a biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman who runs a ‘trauma cleaning’ business, mopping up after sudden death, removing bodies that have lain alone and undiscovered for weeks, and dealing with living people who have taken to hoarding. As Krasnostein describes her, Sandra is ideally suited to this line of work, because she manages to provide ‘a bespoke blend of respect, warmth, humour and interest that establishes a basic human equity’, to all her clients, drawing from her own abusive past. I had mixed feelings about The Trauma Cleaner, which I reviewed here: the scenes of Sandra working with her cleaning clients are vivid and moving, but Krasnostein treads a little too carefully at times when dealing with Sandra’s past.

Finally, Matthew Sperling’s debut novel, Astroturf, promises to explore modern masculinity from the point of view of a man who starts taking steroids to bulk up his physique, and then starts a black-market business of his own. Promising to be ‘brilliantly funny’, I can’t say that this one especially appeals to me, but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Memoirs of chronic illness

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Jean Hannah Edelstein’s This Really Isn’t About You looks at how she deals with finding out that she’s inherited the gene for Lynch syndrome, which gives her a higher lifetime risk of certain types of cancer. This has been on my radar for a while, and I’m hoping it’ll be the book about finding your way in life that Meg Fee’s Places I Stopped on the Way Home wanted to be, with the added complication of Edelstein’s genetic inheritance. Very keen to read this one, and I’ve already requested it from my local library.

Arnold Thomas Manning’s memoir, Mind on Fire, deals with his experience of living with manic depression and delusions after experiencing his first episode in adolescence, following the death of his mother. I’m not sure I’ll get on with this one – I struggle with books about mental and physical illnesses where the person’s perception of reality is severely distorted – in other words, I’m happy to read about depression and anxiety but don’t really find it very interesting to read about dementia and schizophrenia. I’m not sure where Manning’s book will fall.

Everyone’s already heard of Tara Westover’s Educated, her account of growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in rural Idaho who didn’t send her to school, so she first set foot in a classroom when she was eighteen. While I liked Educatedfinding it insightful, if uneven, I must admit I’m baffled as to what it’s doing on this longlist. I understand that Westover’s abusive father was probably mentally ill, but the memoir is primarily about Tara’s relationship with her family and how she copes in the outside world. Wellcome’s description, which focuses solely on the theme of education, isn’t illuminating either.

Proper medicine

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Sandeep Jauhar’s Heart: A History is another of the titles on the longlist that really intrigues me. Jauhar, director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, has already written two medical memoirs about his own career, neither of which I’ve read, but both of which I want to read now I’ve heard about them! Heart takes a wider view, considering the history of research on the heart and Jauhar’s own family legacy of heart problems. This is one of those books that will definitely give me more flashbacks to GCSE Medicine Through Time.

Will Eaves’s Murmur sounds like important, but very grim reading: it deals with the legally enforced chemical castration of the homosexual mathematician Alan Turing, after he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ in 1952. It promises to explore what ‘great bodily change… does to a person’s mind‘. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to pick this one up, though I’m pleased that Eaves has written it.

Finally, Thomas Abraham’s Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication sounds like it might have a lot in common with last year’s shortlistee, Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race. Unlike Wadman, however, this book focuses on the campaign to wipe out a single disease: polio. While I enjoyed The Vaccine Race, and learnt a lot, I’m not sure I’m especially keen to tackle this one, especially as I imagine there will be crossover between the two.

Medical fictions

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I adored Jessie Greengrass’s Sightwhich I read when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. One of my favourites on a very strong shortlist, Sight forms part of an emerging genre of autofiction, switching between the perspective of a woman pregnant with her second child to the subjects of her medical historical research in the Wellcome Library. Greengrass is especially good on pregnancy and motherhood; I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else as good on the subject.

I’ve been avoiding Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, despite the hype, because I intensely disliked Eileen. It sounds like a very different novel, however, focusing on a young woman’s year spent under the influence of a cocktail of drugs in New York at the turn of the millennium. I’m not sure what’s up with the ironic cover, which is pretty misleading and a big part of what’s been putting me off.

Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, Freshwater, deals with a young Igbo woman, Ada, who is ‘peopled with spirits’, and it’s narrated by the different selves within her. I’m torn about this one: I love the idea of the tension between Nigerian folklore and mental health diagnoses, but I think it’s very unlikely I’ll like something that sounds as surreal as this (and deals with mind-distorting mental illness; see above!) Apparently, this is also trendy autofiction. I’ll probably be reading it simply because it’s one of the two titles I can get at my local library, albeit in e-book form.

So there we go! I’m delighted by the freshness of the shortlist, but sad that there’s still no science fiction or speculative fiction on the list – James Smythe’s I Still Dream and Katie Williams’s Tell The Machine Goodnight were only two of the many novels that I thought could have been interesting contenders.

Have you read any of the books on the Wellcome longlist? Are there any worthy contenders that have been missed off?

Three Things… January 2019

Reading

Earlier this month, I read Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging for my book club; it’s basically the book I wanted Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race to be. It moves beyond simplistic journalism to ask interesting and nuanced questions about race in Britain today. Hirsch, the daughter of a Ghanian mother and European Jewish father, is very good on her own search for belonging in Britain and in Ghana, and how this points to wider issues; the invention of new racial ‘others’, such as Muslims and Poles; the sense that a light-skinned, middle-class, mixed-race woman is somehow unthreatening in a way that Hirsch’s husband, a dark-skinned working-class black man, can never be. Highly recommended, and useful reading for my modern British history undergraduates as well.

Rachel Kushner’s Booker-shortlisted The Mars Room was also a hit, and a pleasant surprise after I struggled somewhat with her previous novel, The Flamethrowers. It’s 2002, and Romy Hall has been condemned to two consecutive life sentences – plus an extra six years – in Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Darting between a range of narrators, and from first to third person, it’s Romy’s voice that holds the book together. The novel is inevitably reminiscent of Orange is the New Black, but although there are moments of black humour, it takes on the much more brutal side of life in maximum security, unlike the relatively relaxed regime of minimum-security Litchfield. Hugely disturbing, it ends on a carefully-judged moment of rebellion plus oppression.

I was less impressed by Sonia Velton’s derivative historical debut, Blackberry and Wild Rose, set among the Spitalfields community of exiled Huguenot silk weavers in the late eighteenth century, which joins the club of female-led historical fiction novels with gorgeous covers but overwritten narratives. More of my thoughts can be found on Goodreads. I’m now starting Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagoswhich follows a group of five newcomers who want to start a new life in the Nigerian city that has perhaps featured in the largest number of novels, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Death By Black Holea collection of popular essays on astrophysics that I’m keen to get going on after my recent excursion into quantum mechanics.

Watching

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Knowing my love of fiction set in polar regions, my dad insisted that I try Fortitude, a Sky Atlantic drama set in a fictional Arctic town in Svalbard, when I was staying with him over New Year. At first, I was hesitant, but I was won over by its careful plotting and beautiful, if sometimes grim, landscapes. The town is headlined as somewhere where ‘no-one ever dies’ and where no violent crime is ever committed, so it’s not surprising when the series kicks off with two deaths: Billy Pettigrew (Tam Dean Burn), a geologist who may or may not have been eaten by a polar bear, and Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston), whose corpse is found bizarrely mutilated in his own home. Fortitude starts off on a solid crime-drama footing, as DCI Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci) arrives from the mainland to investigate the second incident and is accordingly resented and obstructed by the local police force, especially Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer). However, it ends up in much weirder, gorier and more speculative places. Huge content warning for gore and violence on this one: I can’t watch that sort of thing, so I used the Guardian live-blog to warn me of what was up ahead when watching the first series, as the explicit scenes are intermittent enough that I didn’t miss too much. (My dad had already spoiled the central plot twist, so I didn’t really care!)

Thinking

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I’ve been rewriting the Fiction section of this blog to better reflect the projects I’m actually working on at the moment. You can find the update here. In short: a time-travel novel set in fourteenth-century and twenty-first century Cambridgeshire, and a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in contemporary Antarctica. In other news, my academic monograph is now virtually ready for final submission to its publisher, Manchester University Press. Hooray!

Thanks again to Paula for the Three Things idea! What have you been reading, watching and thinking this month?

Quantum Interactions: Entanglement (Katy Mahood) and Lost and Wanted (Nell Freudenberger)

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Katy Mahood’s debut novel, Entanglement, picks up on a couple of concepts from quantum physics to tell the story of two couples across three decades. Firstly, the idea that two ‘entangled’ particles can affect each other’s quantum states even when they are far apart, what Einstein called ‘spooky action from a distance’. Secondly, the Schrodinger’s cat idea that something only becomes fixed in a quantum state once it is observed, and, before then, is simultaneously in both states at once. However, clever as this might seem, this Versions of Us hook actually adds very little to what is otherwise a pretty conventional, if readable, novel.

Stella and John fall in love in London in the mid-1970s when he is studying theoretical physics and she English Literature. However, both of their lives are knocked off course – Stella’s in a wholly predictable way, when marriage and motherhood force her to abandon her studies, and John’s in a wholly unpredictable way, when a virus in his brain forces him to relearn concepts and speech from scratch. In a parallel thread, Charlie’s life is full of pain and turmoil after the sudden death of his sister, and the early struggles of his marriage to Beth. When he briefly passes Stella and John in the park, he is jealous of their happiness, not knowing he ought to be careful what he wishes for. As the novel continues, these two threads are tied together in an unexpected(-ish) way.

Mahood writes in a kind of lilting literary style that is flowing, but frustratingly vague. Characterisation is perfunctory – the big dilemmas that face these characters have been repeated in so many novels before, and aren’t illuminated any further here. The one strand of the novel that lifts away from this pattern is the bit that deals with John’s illness, which is genuinely touching, and I wasn’t surprised to find out after finishing the novel that this draws from Mahood’s own experience. However, it was annoying that the frequent references to missed chances, near-misses and quantum physics didn’t amount to anything more.

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

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Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted also picks up on quantum themes; the first section is called ‘Entanglement’. It also has a really excellent opening: ‘In the first few months after Charlie died, I began hearing from her much more frequently. This was even more surprising than it might have been, since Charlie wasn’t a good correspondent even when she was alive.’ Helen, a theoretical physicist, doesn’t see her best friend from university, Charlie, nearly as often as she would like, so Charlie’s sudden death comes as a shock. As she receives a string of text messages and emails from Charlie over the next weeks and months, she reflects on the history of their friendship while she tries to move forward into her own future. Those excellent opening lines are somewhat misleading in that this really isn’t a novel about a ghostly mystery; instead, like Entanglement, Freudenberger uses physics to explore relationships between the living. However, Lost and Wanted works much better for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Freudenberger has done her research on quantum physics, and actually sounds like she knows what she’s talking about, unlike Mahood, although as a non-physicist myself, I can’t really judge. Secondly, the central conceit makes much more sense here because, unlike the two couples in Entanglement, Helen and Charlie were once so close to each other and have moved far apart, and yet keep affecting each other’s lives in unexpected ways, even after Charlie’s death. Both women end up working in the other’s home town, on opposite sides of the United States; Charlie’s husband and daughter live in the ground floor flat of Helen’s house in the aftermath of their bereavement.

Thirdly, Freudenberger’s writing is full of crunchy detail. Helen struggles with handling emotional interactions, recalling another female scientist called Helen (in Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers) and perhaps more generalised cliches about intellectual women. However, she’s not written as an Eleanor Oliphant-style caricature, but as someone who has a great deal of insight into her own limitations, and perhaps tries too hard to correct them, especially when she’s worrying about her seven-year-old son, Jack, or her relationship with Simmi, Charlie’s bereaved eight-year-old daughter: ‘I thought of how much better my sister would be at dealing with Simmi than I was. She seemed able to keep her feelings on an even keel, whereas I was always fluctuating between these poles of emotion, frustration and passionate attachment.’ Yet there’s also a sense that Helen sells herself too short; that her dominant rationality is not actually keeping her from reading situations right.

Lost and Wanted was a tad disappointing to me simply because I wanted it to go into more metaphysical territory, but it still reflects movingly on grief, especially kinds of grief that are less often explored in fiction; the grief of one friend for another friend, or of a child for a parent. One exchange between Simmi and Helen stands out. When Helen tells her, “Kids can’t imagine how much we love them,” Simmi answers: “Parents have their own parents. And they have husbands and wives… And their jobs and stuff. Kids just have parents… Parents forget everything… They forget how much they used to love their own parents… when they were kids.”

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 30th May.

Starting the year with speculative fiction

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Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks has been on my radar for a while, and I found it totally captivating. Set in 1857, it follows Merrick Tremayne, who was working for the East India Company until a leg injury meant he could no longer do his job. When he’s offered the chance to travel to Peru by his friend Clements Markham as part of an expedition to retrieve cuttings from cinchona trees, which produce the malaria-combating quinine, he feels he has to accept – especially as his family have a long history in the country. However, high in the Peruvian rainforest, Merrick encounters the eerie town of Bedlam, watched over by Incan markayuq – sacred statues – lit by luminescent pollen, and built around a river that boils and freezes by turns. Raphael, a Catholic priest, is his guide to this strange world, but nevertheless, Merrick keeps feeling that he’s missing something – especially when it comes to the line of salt that separates the cinchona plantation from the town of Bedlam, and which he’s told he must not cross.

The Bedlam Stacks recalls a eclectic tangle of previous stories, including Doctor Who’s ‘Blink’, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, with a bit of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow thrown in for good measure. However, this merely increases its resonance rather than making it feel in any way derivative. Pulley brilliantly draws the reader into a world where we’re genuinely unsure what is fact and what is fantasy, mediated by the unfamiliarity of the setting and Merrick’s own limited understanding and colonial gaze. While I’m by no means an expert on any of this, I did quite a bit of research on nineteenth-century Peru, including reading some of Markham’s travel writing, for a now-abandoned novel project, and also spent a month or so in the country almost ten years ago now. I was hugely impressed by the depth of Pulley’s knowledge, which goes way beyond the things you learn quite quickly as a tourist in Peru, and how cleverly she deploys it in the novel.

Before reading The Bedlam Stacks, I was worried that it might become a little ‘white man goes on an adventure in strange foreign climes’, but Pulley’s writing, while not overtly discussing power structures, probes these kind of narratives in a way I’ve rarely seen done in fiction, although there are a number of academic histories that do this well. In short, Pulley gets the fact that rational explanations for phenomena change depending on who you are, rather than writing off non-Western beliefs as superstitious or naive. She sums this up in a brilliant passage near the end of the book, which I can’t quote because it spoils a central twist, but which uses the metaphor of translation (a key theme throughout the book, as the characters switch between English, Spanish and Quechua) to get at this cultural disconnect. Oh, and there’s also an incredibly moving love story and genuinely funny banter. HIGHLY recommended. It’s the first book I read this year, but, nevertheless, it will surely be a contender for my top ten books of 2019.

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Revelation Space, which was Alistair Reynolds’s debut novel back in 2000, kickstarted a trilogy, and has since been republished in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. It appealed to me because it sounded like the same kind of fun, sweeping space opera as James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, and to an extent, I was right, although I’d say Revelation Space leans more towards the ‘harder’ end of SF. The novel starts with archaeologist Dan Sylveste, having returned, perhaps permanently altered, from the mysterious alien Shroud, investigating the sudden demise of the Amarantin civilisation. A second thread follows Ilia Volyova, part of a Triumvirate who rules over a vast spaceship, who is determined to capture Sylveste and his father’s AI simulation so she can heal the Captain of their ship, who is suffering from a Melding Plague that afflicts both human flesh and its technological implants. Finally, Ana Khouri, a hired assassin, has been planted on the ship by a mysterious entity called Mademoiselle, who wants to see Sylvester dead.

Revelation Space is definitely an entertaining read, and Reynolds engages intelligently with the conventions of the genre, but I found myself a little frustrated by his writing style. Each chapter switches at least once between all three of his protagonists, and Reynolds seems determined to end each section on a cliffhanger, which stops feeling organic and urgent and starts feeling Goosebumps-level cheesy after he does it for the hundredth time, especially as he has a tendency to really underline the tension:

There’s something Khouri and I need to discuss with all of you. It concerns Cerberus.”

Sylveste looked scornful. “What do you know about Cerberus?”

Too much,” Khouri said. “Too damned much.”

This structure also means that the novel is absolutely packed with twists, which makes it longer than it needs to be, and, ironically, means that the really clever switchbacks fall with less force than they should, as the characters are stunned by new information every other page. Reynolds’s excessively cerebral writing also undermined my investment in all his protagonists; I found myself engaging with them more as Machiavellian rational actors* than as human beings. This kept me going, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to get the next in the trilogy.

*I know this is a mixed metaphor

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I was utterly absorbed by Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel, The Sparrow, which followed Emilio Sandoz, genius linguist and sole survivor of a Jesuit mission to a distant alien planet, as he deals with reliving the trauma of what happened to him there. So I was keen to get hold of Children of God, its sequel, as quickly as possible. Children of God picks up pretty much where The Sparrow left off, as Emilio tries to rebuild his life on Earth, leaving the priesthood, meeting a woman, and acquiring a guinea pig. However, the Society of Jesus is preparing another mission to Rakat – and they want Emilio to be part of it, even though he’s refused to ever go back to the planet. Parallel threads follow the stories of Supaari VaGayjur, a Jana’ata who initially befriended and then abused Emilio during the previous mission to Rakat, and a burgeoning resistance movement among the second alien species on Rakat, the Runa, who are subjugated by the Jana’ata.

While The Sparrow‘s plot was propelled irresistibly forward by the central mystery of what happened to Emilio’s mission, Children of God is inevitably more reflective, exploring how Emilio tries to renegotiate his relationship with God and with other human beings after what he suffered, and, on Rakat, examining how social norms can be  resisted and overturned. Unlike The Sparrow, which had an especially rich ensemble cast, Children of God is dominated by a couple of protagonists, most notably Emilio, whose struggles with his maimed hands root him firmly in the physical world even as he deals with the most abstract of questions. For me, it was a weaker novel solely because it deals much more squarely with the Jana’ata and the Runa; the sketchy world-building that sufficed in The Sparrow doesn’t really become any more solid, and these chapters feel like reading a middle-of-the-road fantasy novel. However, Emilio’s arc, as we see how he starts to rebuild the wreck of his life, is both gripping and necessary, and it’s worth reading the novel for that alone.

2019 Reading Plans

2018 started better than it went on, but has still been a pretty good year for me. After a number of full MS requests and revise-and-resubmits, my time-travel novel is now out with another batch of literary agents, and I’ve (just!) started my Antarctic-set novel after finishing Tim Clare’s incredibly helpful Couch to 80k podcast series. I bought my first flat, in Newcastle, and started my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Queen Mary University of London. I finished the manuscript of my first academic monograph, A Progressive Education?and have received the final set of edits, which are very constructive and useful. I travelled to France and also finally fulfilled a long-held dream by returning to the US, where I spent five years of my childhood, travelling to Providence, New York, Boston and my old home city, DC.

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In less impressive but personally satisfying goals, I have learnt how to bleed radiators, put together many pieces of flatpack furniture, and how some bits of Newcastle connect together. I have watched 32 new films this year (my goal was 50, but never mind), trying to address my habit of rewatching the same things over and over. I’ve pretty much kept my New Year’s resolution of exercising four times a week, focusing on swimming and yoga (my other New Year’s resolutions didn’t turn out quite so well).

I’ve made a list of 30 books I want to read in 2019, and am going to highlight a few 2019 releases I’m particularly excited about:

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Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams ed., A People’s Future of the United States (February 2019). This collection of short speculative fiction, riffing off the title of Howard Zinn’s 1980 A People’s History of the United Stateswhich attacked glorified ‘manifest destiny’ interpretations of American history, showcases stories that ‘challenge oppressive American myths’. With contributions from N.K. Jemisin, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Charlie Jane Anders, Omar El Akkad and more, it sounds fantastic.

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Lisa See: The Island of Sea Women (March 2019). I’ve enjoyed a number of See’s earlier novels, which tend to foreground close female friendships (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in nineteenth-century China, China Dolls in WWII America). The Island of Sea Women focuses on two Korean female divers, Mi-ja and Young-sook, over several decades, beginning in the 1930s.

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Nell Freudenberger: Lost and Wanted (April 2019). I’ve actually never read anything by Freudenberger, but her latest sounds irresistible. The protagonist is a theoretical physicist, Helen, who starts receiving calls and texts from a friend who’s just died.

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Ted Chiang: Exhalation (May 2019). Chiang’s previous collection of SF short stories, Stories of Your Life and Otherswas incredibly imaginative and intellectually engaging, so I’m expecting no less from this new collection. Highlights include a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad encountering a portal through time, and an alien scientist making a startling discovery.

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Chia-Chia Lin: The Unpassing (May 2019). I’m intrigued by this debut, which follows an immigrant family of six struggling to make ends meet on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. Lin has already published a number of short stories.

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Colson Whitehead: The Nickel Boys (July 2019). After the success of The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s next novel will be eagerly anticipated by many. I was disappointed by one of his earlier books, Zone One, but am still keen to read this, which follows two boys sentenced to a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

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Téa Obreht: Inland (August 2019). I loved Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife, so much; it’s my favourite of all the Orange/Baileys/Women’s Prize for Fiction winners that I’ve read. But it’s been so long since 2011, and I was delighted to hear that she finally has another book coming. Inland sounds EPIC; it’s set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, focusing on the collision between a frontierswoman, Nora, and an outlaw, Lurie. Obreht, according to her publishers, ‘subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely – and unforgettably – her own.’

I hope you’ve all had a lovely New Year!

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The Rest of the List

Leftover from 2018

George Sandison ed.: 2084

Nina Allen: The Rift

Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion

Clarissa Goenawan: Rainbirds

New Entries

Jeff Vandermeer: Annihilation

Rebecca Loncraine: Skybound

Sally Rooney: Normal People

Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room

Anna Burns: Milkman

Allegra Goodman: The Chalk Artist

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black

Robin Talley: Pulp

Marie Lu: Warcross

Tayari Jones: The Untelling

Joseph Camara: The House of Impossible Beauties

Uzodinma Iweala: Beasts of No Nation

Evie Wyld: The Bass Rock (September 2019)

Ellen Feldman: Terrible Virtue

Robin Oliveira: Winter Sisters

Emily Bernard: Black Is The Body (January 2019)

Samantha Harvey: All Is Song

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Lisa Ko: The Leavers

My Top Ten Books of 2018

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

In no particular order…

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1. Speak No Evil: Uzodinma Iweala. Iweala’s second novel tells, at first glance, a very familiar story. Teenage Niru is quietly trying to fit in at an upscale DC school, although he’s set apart by being both black and gay. But its brilliance comes from Iweala’s experimental literary style, blending Niru’s dialogue and interior monologue in a way that captures his voice and yet makes complete sense to the reader. Iweala’s debut, Beasts of No Nation, is definitely on my TBR list for 2019. Speak No Evil was a NetGalley discovery, and I reviewed it here.

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2. Bookworm: Lucy Mangan. How much did I adore this engrossing memoir, in which journalist Lucy Mangan takes us on a tour of the books she loved in childhood and adolescence? Along the way, she also writes hilariously and delightfully about herself and her family. I’ve already given this as a gift to two friends. This was picked up after reading so many positive reviews of it from other bloggers, and I reviewed it here.

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3. The Western WindSamantha Harvey. This was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, and it didn’t disappoint. I already knew Harvey was an incredible writer, but in this novel, she manages to write with impressive historical empathy about the late medieval mindset, narrating in the voice of a village priest, John Reve, investigating the murder of one of his flock. The novel is told backwards, but, as Reve teases out the truth in the final pages, it ends up becoming almost a circle, mirroring how fifteenth-century villagers might have thought about time.  I also loved Harvey’s Dear Thief when I read it, and I’ll have to check out her back catalogue in 2019; All Is Song looks especially intriguing. I reviewed The Western Wind here.

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4. Let Go My Hand: Edward Docx. This was one of my 20 Books of Summer, and while it’s the third of Docx’s novels I’ve read, it’s the first one that really blew me away. Louis journeys with his terminally ill father, Larry, towards Switzerland so Larry can end his life at Dignitas. When Louis’s two older half-brothers, Ralph and Jack, turn up, Docx takes us back through their complicated family history as well as unpicking the way they relate to each other now. Let Go My Hand is one of those very unusual books that manage to be both genuinely funny and profoundly moving. It’s been unfairly overlooked by most critics, and I can’t recommend it enough. I reviewed it here.

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5. The Growing Season: Helen Sedgwick. In a year packed with speculative re-imaginings of pregnancy, child-bearing and motherhood, The Growing Season easily stood out for me. Sedgwick imagines a world where babies are now nurtured in artificial wombs, installed in wearable pouches, and getting pregnant in the old-fashioned way is stigmatised. Sedgwick’s narrative is admirably even-handed, refusing to present this technological advance as either dystopian or as straightforwardly liberatory, and the result is a consistently thought-provoking, moving and gripping piece of speculative fiction. The Growing Season was another of my 20 Books of Summer, and I reviewed it here.

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6. Asymmetry: Lisa Halliday. Also on my 20 Books of Summer list, Halliday’s courageous debut faces questions about fiction and authenticity head-on, even though it begins on cliched ground, as a young writer, Alice, starts an affair with a much older writer, Ezra. I reviewed it here.

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7. Melmoth: Sarah Perry. I didn’t really love either After Me Comes The Flood or The Essex Serpentbut I was captivated by this Calvinist horror story about sin, regret and redemption. Perry creates a terrifying female figure called Melmoth the Wanderer (based on Charles Maturin’s 1820 Gothic novel), who wanders through history seeking out lost souls and bearing witness to acts of unspeakable evil. I reviewed Melmoth here.

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8. Leaving Atlanta: Tayari Jones. Jones’s latest novel, An American Marriagehas received a lot of attention this year, especially after being named by Obama as one of his summer reads. However, I was even more impressed by her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which I chose for my book group in November. The novel is set in Atlanta in 1979, when dozens of African-American children were going missing. Narrated from the perspective of three fifth-graders, it uses this particular tragedy to say broader things about the fears that  black children internalise as they approach adolescence. I’m now keen to read more by Jones, and The Untelling is up next. I wrote briefly about Leaving Atlanta here.

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9. The OverstoryRichard Powers. Powers’s Booker-shortlisted novel takes nine protagonists and sets them in relation to the fight to stop the remnants of ancient American forests being destroyed. Despite deliberately reducing the significance of humanity in light of a much longer natural history and the destruction we’re wreaking on the planet, it also presents a number of closely observed portraits of individuals. Lots of recent books have brought up the scientific hypothesis that trees talk to each other, but The Overstory makes the best use of it. Powers has a big backlist, and I think I’ll try The Echo Maker next. I reviewed The Overstory here.

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10. The Boat People: Sharon Bala. Bala’s debut starts with a group of Sri Lankan refugees arriving in Canada in 2009, and flips between three first-person perspectives: Mahindan, a refugee; Japanese-Canadian Grace, charged with adjudicating the refugees’ asylum claims; and second-generation Sri Lankan lawyer Priya. The Boat People is thoughtful and authentic, raising similar questions to Melmoth about our own moral limits, although in a less explicitly horrific way. I reviewed it here.

Reading Stats

I read 155 books in 2018. This sets a new record for me, smashing my 2017 total of 127. Next year, I’ll set a target of 125 – I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to keep outdoing the previous year’s total.

I read 39 books by men and 116 by women. This has been the worst year yet for men, making up only 25% of the books I read. I’m not especially interested in setting any targets for reading male authors but I note that, as usual, men are slightly over-represented in my Top Ten books, making up 30% of the list. I’d like to continue seeking out books by male authors I’ve enjoyed in the past, and try and discover some new ones.

I read 44 books by writers of colour and 111 books by white writers. As in previous years, I’ve read more books by writers of colour than ever before, but my percentages only inch up very slowly. 28% of the books I read this year were by writers of colour (as compared to 25% in 2017 and 15% in 2016). I’m going to set a more achievable target for this year, and try and get that 28% to 33%, or one-third of all books I read.

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

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