Some Upcoming September Releases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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20 Books of Summer, #18, #19 and #20: Friday Black, All Is Song and Free Food for Millionaires

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Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection of short stories, Friday Black, feels both memorable and familiar. In full satirical mode, Adjei-Brenyah’s writing recalls both Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and, perhaps most strongly, some of the stories in Narissa Thompson-Spires’s recent collection, Heads of the Colored People, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer. These stories dial up the violence to eleven to produce vicious vignettes of racism and consumerism in the contemporary United States. ‘Zimmer Land’, in particular, could have made a great addition to Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited anthology of speculative fiction, A People’s Future of the United States. It recalls the Black Mirror episode ‘White Bear’ in its depiction of a young black man working in a simulation where he has to pretend to be a robber and have white people pretend to murder him every day. While, technically, this story does the same thing as some of the more pedestrian stories from the LaValle anthology, imagining a dystopian future where white supremacy is even more dominant than it is today, it’s saved by its sheer weirdness. Similarly, ‘The Finkelstein 5’, which picks up on the same themes by having a white man claim that he needed to behead five black children with his chainsaw to defend his own family, works because of how it forces us to revisit the only slightly less horrific things that happen in our own world.

Three stories deal with retail: ‘Friday Black’, ‘How to Sell A Jacket as Told by IceKing’ and ‘In Retail’. The first two, which take place in the same savage world where customers literally murder each other to get to goods on Black Friday, could perhaps usefully have been combined into one long piece; together, they’re unforgettable. ‘In Retail’ feels a little repetitive after these two, but I liked the opportunity it allowed for Adjei-Brenyah to show a softer side. ‘The Lion and the Spider’, about a father who keeps abandoning his son and the vivid fantasy worlds the son creates in his head, is also a stand-out, but in a totally different mode from most of the collection; more realist, and more optimistic. However, despite its strengths, this collection felt uneven as a whole because there were a number of stories that I felt didn’t work at all: ‘Lark Street’, ‘The Hospital Where’ and ‘Light Splitter’ were all too absurd and jumbled for my tastes, and ‘Through the Flash’ was only redeemed by its ending. Adjei-Brenyah may not be a consistently good writer yet, but I’ll still be watching out for more work from him.

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Samantha Harvey’s second novel, All Is Song, tries to imagine what might happen if Socrates was teaching in this day and age. It’s told from the point of view of the Socrates-figure’s brother, Leonard, who has come to stay with his older brother William after the collapse of a relationship. Leonard witnesses William’s extraordinary hold over some local students, which will eventually lead him into trouble, and closely studies his brother’s ways and motives. I barely made it through a quarter of this novel, which is a bit of a shocker, as I absolutely adored Harvey’s Dear Thief and The Western WindHaving read a number of reviews and interviews about this book, I think that Harvey was trying to pull off something incredibly difficult here; to produce a novel as luminous and moving as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, but centred around a character who is extraordinary, rather than relatively ordinary in the way that John Ames could be said to be. I admire her ambition, but it doesn’t work; William doesn’t seem special in the ways she needs him to be, and rather than achieving Gilead‘s timeless simplicity, the novel feels both chronologically and geographically adrift. However, failing to write as well as Marilynne Robinson is hardly a condemnation of Harvey, and I’m still a huge fan of her later books.

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Free Food for Millionaires, Min Jin Lee’s debut novel, took her a very long time to write, as she explains in the foreword. And it’s a very long book: following Casey Han, the daughter of Korean immigrants who disapprove of her fecklessness after graduating from Princeton, it expands to encompass the destinies of a number of Casey’s social circle, especially her best friend Ella, who has managed to meet her own Korean parents’ expectations but becomes desperately unhappy. Compared to PachinkoLee’s second novel, which considered the oppression of Korean immigrants in Japan across several generations, this is basically soapy fun. Given its length – 650 pages – I’d expected this to become more of a multi-generational saga as well, delving back into the past of Casey’s parents, but instead it aims for breadth rather than depth. I liked some of the details of Casey’s characterisation, such as her frustration that her most natural talents – sizing people up for clothes at a glance, making elaborate hats from scratch – don’t help her with what she thinks she ought to be doing in life. But on the whole, Lee relies too much on telling us what her characters are thinking and feeling, and the head-hopping is frequently awkward. I’m not sure this was worth sticking with for the amount of time it took me to read; I’d recommend Pachinko instead, despite its also occasionally clunky writing.

For the first time, I read all 20! I’ll be writing a retrospective on my 20 Books of Summer before the challenge ends on September 3rd. If you were also doing this challenge, how did it go?

20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Good Immigrant USA and Fruit of the Drunken Tree

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The Good Immigrant USA, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman, is the American follow-up to Shukla’s previous edited collection, The Good Immigrant, which focused on Britain. Both collections feature a range of essays from immigrants to these countries talking about their own experiences and challenging stereotypes, but for me at least, the two books have a very different feel. The Good Immigrant was more personal and more anecdotal, and it was definitely funnier; while there were, of course, essays that didn’t employ humour at all, many other contributors used it to effect to make serious points, such as comedian Nish Kumar’s ‘Is Nish Kumar A Confused Muslim?’, about becoming a racist meme, and actor ‘Miss L’s’ ‘The Wife of A Terrorist’, which explained how, as a brown woman, she’s always typecast as a traditional Middle Eastern wife, often of a terrorist.

In contrast, The Good Immigrant USA takes a more literary and a less journalistic tone, and many of the essays require more sustained effort, although the effort is repaid. It feels also more wide-ranging, reflecting the US’s racial mix, from Adrián and Sebastián Villar Rojas’s essay about the history of Argentina’s colonial encounters, ‘Juana Azurdy Versus Christopher Columbus’, to Porochista Kapoor’s meditation on becoming pigeonholed by your ethnic identity, ‘How to Write Iranian-American, Or The Last Essay’. There’s also a didactic earnestness in a few of the essays in this collection that’s missing from their British counterparts: for example, Jim St. Germain’s essay on Haiti, ‘Shithole Nation’. None of this makes one collection superior or inferior, but they aren’t simply transatlantic versions of each other. The Good Immigrant had more of an impact on me, but I think this was partly the result of having read much less about race and immigration when I encountered it.

One feature of The Good Immigrant USA which wasn’t present in The Good Immigrant is the inclusion of essays by white or white-passing immigrants as well as ethnic minorities. This perhaps says something about the two countries’ attitudes to immigration, but I also found this a helpful and interesting addition to The Good Immigrant USA, allowing the writers to explicitly reflect on white privilege while also reflecting the experience of growing up caught between two cultures. Maeve Higgins writes well about the long tradition of Irish immigration to the US (‘Luck of the Irish’), but I was particularly captivated by Jean Hannah Edelstein’s ‘An American, Told’ (I also loved her memoir This Really Isn’t About You), which focused on having a British mother and Jewish father, and growing up between Britain and the US. Personally, having also moved between the two countries, I identified with what she said about not really feeling British or American. Although I fall much more on the British side of the equation, I still sometimes fall through those cracks (as a recent discussion about ‘frowns’ on Twitter reminded me; I’m on the Americans’ side with that one!).

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Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who is from Bogotá but now lives in San Francisco, could easily have contributed (and I suspect, very interestingly) to The Good Immigrant USA. Her debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, draws on her experience of growing up in a gated community in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It focuses on two children, Chula and her sister Cassandra, and the close relationship they develop with their teenage maid Petrona, who is from what they term the invasión, one of the guerrilla-occupied shanty towns that have grown up on the outskirts of Bogotá. As the girls witness the rise of drug lord Pablo Escobar and the violent incidents that surround them, they cling more tightly to Petrona as an emissary from an outside world they do not understand. But their family’s connection with Petrona will also bring them into danger.

Contreras is obviously a gifted writer, and the afterword of this novel, which explains how it links to her own personal experience, is exceptionally moving. Her website says that ‘She is working on a family memoir about her grandfather, a curandero from Colombia who it was said had the power to move clouds’, and I’d absolutely love to read that. Having read only one other novel set in Colombia (Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Oneswhich also kicks off in the early 1990s) this was refreshingly different, in some ways, from what I usually read. However, it also rehashes some familiar tropes about children encountering a conflict that they don’t understand (I thought the novel would have been much more interesting if narrated by the mother), and the pacing is askew, with virtually everything that happens squashed into the last hundred pages. I found myself wondering if Contreras had been tripped up by trying to translate her own childhood into fictional form, and if her life-writing might work better for me. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is effective page-by-page, but I found the book as a whole frustrating.

20 Books of Summer, #14: A People’s Future of the United States

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Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited collection of speculative fiction, A People’s History of the United States, has a brilliant premise. As LaValle explains in his introduction, the title riffs on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), which, in the words of the jacket copy, was the first book ‘to tell America’s story from the point of view of – and in the words of – America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.’ Whether or not this historiographical claim is true, LaValle and Adams used this famous text as a jumping-off point for this collection. They, LaValle writes, ‘decided to ask a gang of incredible writers to imagine the years, decades, even the centuries, to come. And to have tales told by those, and/or about those, who history often sees fit to forget.’ The jacket copy of this book doubles down on LaValle’s framing, suggesting that: ‘Knowing that imagining a brighter tomorrow has always been an act of resistance, [the editors] asked for narratives that would challenge oppressive American myths, release us from the chokehold of our history, and give us new futures to believe in.’

My disappointment with the majority of this collection, therefore, stems both from the fact that most of the stories here don’t do this, and the fact that the stories that do are almost always head and shoulders above their predictable dystopian counterparts. While many of the snatches of misery here are well-written, do we really need another set of futures that envisage the bureaucratic oppression of trans and non-binary people (A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Our Aim Is Not to Die’), imagine high-tech gay conversion therapy (Violet Allen’s ‘The Synapse Will Free Us From Ourselves’), allow no access to contraception or abortion (Justina Ireland’s ‘Calendar Girls’) or predict the reinstatement of enslavement (Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘The Referendum’*)? Not only are these stories pessimistic, they are usually unimaginative; it doesn’t take much to think of a future where things are uniformly worse. But history doesn’t usually march towards progress or slide towards despair; realistic futures will be a mix of both. Moreover, these stories usually have very little to say about identity other than that we shouldn’t oppress others; to me, the diversity, especially around LGBT+ identities, often feels tick-box rather than significant (for example, in Seanan MacGuire’s ‘Harmony’).

*I still love Arimah’s writing, though: for better work by her, both realistic and speculative, check out her collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.

These stories, however, still work on some level; for me, the absolute failures in this collection – which were in the minority, but still all too frequent – were the stories where the writer seemed to have misunderstood how fiction functions. These stories spelt out their messages so simplistically that they left no space for creativity. By far the worst was Ashok K. Banker’s ‘By His Bootstraps’, which imagines a future where a president who strongly resembles Donald Trump has used a bioweapon meant to return America to its original genetic purity. In case you can’t guess where this is going, Banker has one of the characters tell you: ‘Mr President, you gave the order to deploy Operation Clean Sweep because you thought – we all did – that it would be a clean sweep of our country’s racial diversity, restoring America to the white Christian nation we all believed it once had been. But that was a myth. America has always been an ethnically diverse myth, a melting pot of races and cultures.’ Not only is this terrible writing, it also seems strikingly naive about how white supremacy functions; as if white supremacists would realise the error of their ways if they attended more history lessons.

Amongst all this, however, are some absolute stars. Malka Older’s ‘Chapter 5: Disruption and Continuity (Excerpted)’ is simply brilliant, recalling Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’ in how it plays with tenses to deploy its central concept. Readers may have different interpretations of this story, which is written in the style of an academic monograph, but for me, it seemed to come from a future where time travel has become an accepted research method for historians, leading to this kind of baffling but glorious analysis by ‘futurists’:

“Civil society” will become, in the absence of strong political institutions, just “society”, while without coherent corporations “social media” will become just “media”. While we can describe these transitions, from a distance, as neutral changes or even positive outcomes of creative destruction, it is important to remember that for people living in that time, such drastic shifts are disorienting and frightening.

I loved the idea of getting away from teleological narratives of ‘everything got better’ or ‘everything got worse’ by imagining historians as observers of a range of past and future time periods, able to pity or admire the future as much as the past. Older takes the challenge posed by the editor head on, and her story seems to frame the whole collection.

Similarly, I appreciated Omar El Akkad’s ‘Riverbed’, which envisages a future US making reparations for the forced displacement and internment of its Muslim citizens, because of El Akkad’s willingness to imagine a scenario that isn’t wholly negative or positive. The assertiveness of its main character, Khadija, at the airport and with her taxi driver, subtly makes the point that she’s operating in very different circumstances than Muslim women do today, but the horrors of her past show how easily we could tip into this kind of atrocity. El Akkad’s American War, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer, didn’t really work for me, but this story underlined what a promising writer he is. Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘A History of Barbed Wire’, which imagines a reservation built by the Cherokee Nation with a wall to keep refugees out, also strikes an interesting balance.

Finally, the editors irritatingly group a number of the best stories near the end of the collection. Charles Yu’s ‘Good News Bad News’ and N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread Or Give Me Death’ both use humour to great effect; Yu’s story, in particular, slips between satire and chilling realism as he quotes from invented news stories about racist robots, sentient trees and an automated Congress. Jemisin has fun with a more fantastic tale of dragons who are persuaded not to feed on the populace by being given various spicy vegetable dishes instead. G. Willow Wilson’s ‘ROME’, though not as original as other offerings, tells an enticingly human story about a group of people trying to finish their automated English tests while the street burns around them because voters didn’t want to pay taxes for firefighters.

However, the stand-out entry in A People’s Future of the United States is probably the very last one. Alice Sola Kim’s ‘Now Wait For This Week’ (read it here) flips the familiar Groundhog Day trope to tell the repeating week from the perspective of the time traveller’s perplexed friends. This both works brilliantly on a story level and helps Kim illuminate wider narratives about the endless ‘Me Too’ media cycle that lacks real justice, because it doesn’t tackle the structural causes of men’s behaviour. Kim also trusts her readers to join the dots without having everything spelt out for them, both structurally and thematically. Speculative fiction writers, this is how it’s done: more like this, please?

Three Things… July 2019

It’s ages since I’ve done a Three Things! Borrowed, as ever, from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Terrible, a memoir by poet and short-story writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, falls into the category of prose-poetry that has attracted criticism recently for being easy and vague, and for prizing ‘relatability’ above other artistic considerations. Poets like Daley-Ward, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur have been disparagingly termed ‘Instapoets’ because of their significant social media presence and use of Instagram to highlight their poetry; given that poets nowadays need to be proactive in engaging with their audience, I don’t find this term useful, and nor do I think that using Instagram makes you a less serious writer. Nevertheless, I broadly agree with poet Rebecca Watts’ now infamous piece in PN Review, ‘The cult of the noble amateur’, which focuses on McNish, that McNish’s and Kaur’s poetry is problematic because it is characterised by an ‘open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft’. This assumes, Watts argues, that poems are not ‘deliberately created works’ but naturally occurring outbursts of feeling, and thus positions them as something that ‘anyone could write’. Unfortunately, I felt that Daley-Ward’s memoir, despite some interesting sections, also ended up in this place.

The Terrible is certainly honest, and it is brave in its exploration of childhood and adolescent trauma. Yrsa and her little brother Roo grew up with their Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents in north-west England; their mother was both present and absent in their childhood. ‘I think she loves us a bit,’ the young Yrsa tells Roo, ‘but not as much as other people’s mums.’ Daley-Ward writes well about how she was meant to feel alienated from her own body before she even hit her teens; entering puberty early, being exoticised as a woman of colour, encountering the ‘powerfear’ of men’s sexual attraction to her. At nine and a half, she writes, ‘I longed for smallness; to be petite. To have small hands and feet and no growing pains; no angry lion dreams and definitely no boobs.’ However, these sections are some of the few in the book that are narrated in prose, and are the stronger for it.

As Daley-Ward moves into her teens, she narrates more and more in prose-poetry (which often just feels like confessional, split-up prose) as she recounts her time in sex work and her isolation in the world. After sleeping with a much older man for money and having to hurriedly leave because his daughters are arriving, she thinks ‘He has daughters. He has a family. It does not feel fair that someone so old should have a doting family and someone as young as me should have no-one.’ But most of these chapters feel like words spilt onto the page, too easy, too emotive, often in a manipulative second-person voice:

You

reduce food to 1200 calories

reduce food to 1000 calories

don’t tell anyone what’s happening with Peter

He wants to leave his wife. Oh God.

He says “You’re losing too much weight.

Eat. Please eat.”

 I wonder if the problem with this kind of poetry, as with McNish’s and Kaur’s, is that it’s really written to be spoken rather than read, that on the page we’re only getting part of the performance. But if that’s the case, this memoir needed to be rethought; for me, this doesn’t work in print. Rather than capturing the specificity of Yrsa’s experiences as her more straightforward writing does, it reduces them and makes them trite. I’d like to see Daley-Ward write more consistently in prose, rather than resort to this hybrid form, as it seems to be where her talents lie.

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

Watching

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People who know me IRL will know I’m a huge Stranger Things fan. The first two series packed a huge emotional punch for me, especially as I watched them in a row when I was having a difficult time back in January 2018. For those who haven’t watched Stranger Things, it’s set in Hawkins, a fictional small town in Indiana, in the 1980s (and never lets you forget it; this is 80s nostalgia writ large). The main focus of the show is a group of friends on the cusp of their teens, one of whom goes missing after a game of Dungeons and Dragons one night, and the strange, traumatised girl they encounter, Eleven, who turns out to have psychokinetic powers. Our heroes soon start to suspect there’s something supernatural going on beneath the surface of Hawkins, and decide to investigate…

[Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 1 and 2 follow.]

After how much I loved the first two series, Stranger Things 3 was a bit of a let-down. Partly, this is beyond the showrunners’ control: the charm of the first two series lay largely in their exploration of the last years of childhood, when you no longer believe in magic but really want to, and as the central cast age into adolescence, this was never going to work in the same way. However, there were other aspects of Stranger Things 3 that I found a bit lacking. A number of the characters became caricatures of themselves. I’ve always disliked Mike, one of the pre-teens, but I hated him with the intensity of a thousand suns this season as he’s pretty much horrible to everybody around him, especially best friend Will and new girlfriend Eleven. Similarly, disillusioned police chief Hopper seemed to be vicious rather than just jaded, and local mother Joyce, who always shouted a lot, seemed to be shouting even more. There was also not nearly enough Will, the original missing person, who for me has always been the heart of the series. Some of the brilliance of the earlier series was still present – I will always adore Dustin, and his alliance with Steve and Robin was inspired – but, overall, I felt like this season of Stranger Things was more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting.

Thinking

I’ve been listening to a brand new podcast, What Editors Want, which is about what publishers look for in an author and book. The first episode, featuring Louisa Joyner from Faber & Faber, was excellent, and it’s nice to get a different take on publishing after having read 1000+ articles on ‘what agents want’. I went to an event with Joyner at the Durham Book Festival where she was talking with three of her debut authors, and I really admire her approach to getting good books to readers. While I disagree with her that there’s no distinction between commercial and literary fiction, I definitely agree that there are a lot of fantastic books that fall into that liminal space.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #3/Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Freshwater

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One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match.

Born in Nigeria to Igbo and Tamil parents, Ada is inhabited by ogbanje, an Igbo term that might translate as ‘evil spirits’ but, as Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, makes clear, is actually much more complicated. ‘Ogbanje’ are also ‘children who come and go’, or what we might think of as changeling children, children of gods who don’t properly belong in this world. To be an ‘ogbanje’, as Ada is, is to be marked out as special. Ada is also a practicing Christian, but while her internal ogbanje recognise the presence of what they call Yshwa, or Christ, they don’t perceive him as having any particular status, and have their own take on his motives: ‘while he loves humans… what they forget is that he loves them as a god does, which is to say, with a taste for suffering’. One of Ada’s selves, Asughara, is particularly resentful of Yshwa, whom they call ‘that fucking resurrected bastard’ after losing an argument with him.

If this all sounds a little metaphysical, you’re not alone; I approached Freshwater with some trepidation. However, I ended up engaging with it a lot more easily than I expected. Emezi’s writing makes the conflict between Ada and her various selves real and concrete, more like the interactions between the gods of a Greek myth than the inner monologue of a person with multiple personality disorder. This is obviously deliberate. One of the things that’s most brilliant about Freshwater is its refusal to line up Ada’s experience with Western psychological or psychoanalytical categories. Insofar as these diagnoses are useful as a way of understanding our experience, Emezi suggests that Ada can most effectively come to terms with herself by using the language of Igbo belief. Because of this, and despite its longlisting for the Wellcome Book PrizeFreshwater doesn’t feel like a novel about mental illness but more a novel about coming to terms with the relationship between self and world.

Emezi writes particularly well on Ada’s struggle to live in a physical body, observations that seem to be drawn from Emezi’s own experience (they identify as non-binary). This manifests not exactly as gender dysphoria but as an inability to reconcile how one sees oneself with how others see us. After Ada has a breast reduction, she starts wearing dresses more often; one of her friends can’t understand this, saying ‘Most people get it done to be more masculine’. But for Ada, the surgery wasn’t intended to help her fit into a particular gender category more easily but to complicate people’s impressions of her. If Freshwater doesn’t quite work at times, it’s because of its closeness to Emezi’s own life, and the redundancies that inevitably creep in when you try and compress life into fiction (there seem to be too many temporary lovers, and I wasn’t sure what purpose Ada’s siblings served). Nevertheless, this is a startling novel that deserves its place on both the Women’s Prize and Wellcome Prize longlists – and I wish it had gone forward to the Wellcome shortlist.

Early Spring Reading

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As a free school meals student at a comprehensive school in the deprived Suffolk town of Nusstead, Marianne is determined to pursue her dream of studying art history at university. But things have become even worse for her family since the closure of the local mental hospital, Nazareth, during the move towards community care, which robbed Nusstead of around four hundred jobs. Exploring Nazareth’s crumbling Victorian buildings with her boyfriend, Jesse, she comes across something that might be a solution to her problems. More than thirty years later, a successfully socially mobile Marianne is abruptly brought back into contact with her past – and she’s terrified that if her long-held secret comes out, her mentally fragile daughter will suffer.

I’m a fan of all of Erin Kelly’s psychological thrillers, but with Stone Mothers, she’s really surpassed herself. The novel effortlessly manages three timelines and three voices, moving from the 1950s to the 1980s to the present day, while establishing a distinct register for each. While the opening paragraphs are a little needlessly grabby, the novel as a whole refuses to follow a traditional thriller structure, and is the better for it. The characterisation is satisfyingly complex, and I particularly admired the way that Kelly writes about Marianne’s working-class adolescence, and her relationships with her sister and mother in both the present and the past.

Thematically, mental illness is woven subtly throughout the story, from the patients incarcerated in Nazareth in the 1950s to Marianne’s mother’s dementia and her daughter’s bipolar disorder in the present day. Kelly uses her research on changing attitudes to mental health care lightly, which makes it even more convincing. Without giving anything away, I’ve read a number of novels which foreground the story of somebody committed to an asylum for social transgressions, from Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture to Anna Hope’s The Ballroom and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and, in my opinion, Kelly writes about it most vividly and convincingly; in particular, she’s careful to note the sufferings of those who are actually mentally ill as well as of those who are mentally ‘well’.

Stone Mothers is utterly gripping, but in a rather different way from the run-of-the-mill thriller; it doesn’t rely on plot twists (although there are some!) but on the strength of its characterisation to pull the reader along. I’d recommend this confidently to fans of Tana French, Ruth Ware and Sabine Durrant.

Disclaimer: Erin tutored me on the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course I took in 2015-16, and has been so supportive of my writing ever since. However, I genuinely thought this was wonderful. I also received a proof copy from the publisher for review (not via Erin). Stone Mothers is out in the UK on the 4th April.

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Eleven-year-old Chinese orphan, Ren, worked as a houseboy for a British doctor before his master’s death; his last request is that Ren find his severed finger and reunite it with his corpse so that his soul doesn’t end up roaming the earth for all eternity. But Ren only has forty-two days to carry out his master’s final wish, before the doctor’s soul departs forever. Meanwhile, Ji-Lin, working at a dance hall in Ipoh to pay off her mother’s mah-jong debts and to try and save some money for her own education, receives a preserved finger in a vial from one of her clients, who then abruptly passes away in his turn. As Ren searches for the finger, he acquires a new British master, Dr William Acton, and rumours begin of a sinister weretiger that is killing local women. How are Ren’s, Ji-Lin’s and William’s stories intertwined? Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia), The Night Tiger is deliberately symbolic, drawing repeatedly on the five Confucian virtues and on the pairs of twins that reoccur in the central characters’ dreams to suggest that its cast is linked by a fate that has followed them since they were born.

Choo tries hard to maintain the atmosphere of her story, but it’s a long book (480 pages), and it feels long; the plot has little direction, with the quest for the finger resolved early and the tiger attacks barely impinging on the story. While both Ren and Ji-Lin are engaging characters, I found myself waiting for the short bits from William, as it was only in those sections that anything much seemed to happen. I also found the romantic element of Ji-Lin’s plot too YA-ish, and a bit patriarchal, for my liking. Furthermore, I’m a little impatient with the way that folklore is used in plots like this – despite the promise of the weretiger myths, The Night Tiger ends up focusing almost entirely on magic sets of numbers, and even those are largely used in repetitive dream sequences. (In fact, I’m not sure why it’s called The Night Tiger at all). Despite the promise of the setting, the novel also failed to give me much of a sense of colonial Malaya. Started well, but lost momentum.

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

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Growing up in 1970s Belfast, middle sister never wanted to be interesting, but now she is.   Even though she’s been dating maybe-boyfriend for some time, a rumour’s going round that she’s actually with the milkman, who isn’t really a milkman at all but is a renouncer of the state. She tries her best to avoid the milkman, not wanting to be tagged as one of the renouncers, but he keeps on turning up – at her French class, where they don’t often speak French, and when she’s out running with third brother-in-law. Meanwhile, maybe-boyfriend is suspected of receiving a car part from over the water, and the milkman threatens to kill him. Will this all be resolved if middle sister keeps on keeping her head down, putting on her ‘I don’t know‘, ‘her terminal face’ – or will she have to take some kind of action?

Apologies in advance for the non-literariness of this review, but I found Anna Burns’s Milkman a uniquely frustrating read. Every day I would pick it up to read about fifteen pages (my daily limit), and every day I’d tell myself this was the last day, that I wouldn’t have to go back to this book ever again, that it was fine to leave it unfinished. But the bloody thing kept pulling me back in. Whenever I decided to give up on it, Burns would pull something so incredible out that I had to keep reading, however much of a slog it might be. Some of this was about the Troubles – Burns captures the experience of living in a community under threat from both outside and inside better than anything else I’d ever read – but some of it was just how well Burns writes about any subject at all. Here is middle sister on the arrival of second-wave feminism to the district:

This housewife’s notice said ‘ATTENTION ALL WOMEN OF THE DISTRICT: GREAT GOOD NEWS!!’ then followed information about some international women’s group that had been inaugurated unexpectedly into the world. It was seeking to set up sister branches in all the world’s countries, with no place… to be excluded from the remit, with no woman – again, any colour, any creed, any sexual preference, any disability, any mental illness or even general dislikeability, indeed, of any type of diversity – to be excluded from the venture… In her notice in the window, and in a daring modern fashion, she invited all women from the area to put their children out for their evening adventures as usual then, unencumbered, to make their way of a Wednesday evening to her house to hear her talk.

As this suggests, middle sister’s voice is often surprisingly, subtly funny – something you don’t often expect in experimental literary fiction. I particularly loved her interactions with ‘wee sisters’, her very bright, very contrary three younger sisters who all blend into one.

If I have one actual criticism of this book, it’s the lack of paragraphs. Seriously:

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[there are occasionally paragraph breaks, but not on every page!]

Everything else about the book that might be seen as ‘challenging’ – the run-on sentences, the lack of proper names, the quasi-nineteenth-century voice – was completely necessary and not actually that confusing, but I don’t think it would have made any difference if Burns had hit the ‘Enter’ key a lot more often. This may be peculiar to the way that I read – as far as I can tell, I think I tend to seek out the beginnings and ends of paragraphs, then somehow take in the whole thing in one go – but I found I kept on skipping bits accidentally and having to go back. So if this is a device to make people read more carefully, it didn’t work on me. Nevertheless, I’ve never before read a book that I literally couldn’t abandon even though I wanted to, and for that alone, I think Burns deserves her Booker win. (She’s also just been longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize).

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Finally, a random observation. I finished Milkman at the same time as I was reading Jeff VanderMeer’s dystopic sci-fi Annihilation, which follows four female scientists as they embark on an expedition into the mysterious Area X, and they kept on crossing over in odd ways in my head. Whether it was the lack of names, the endemic distrust within a small group of people, the formal first-person narrators, or the feeling of being trapped in an enclosed space where nothing quite makes sense, I don’t know!