April Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. Much of my reading this month has been from the Women’s Prize longlist, so I won’t rehearse that. See this post for my rankings and thoughts on the shortlist!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The First Woman, which follows teenage protagonist Kirabo as she explores the secrets of her relatively well-off rural Ugandan family and her own relationship with folktales and myths about women, set against the background of Idi Amin’s dictatorship in the 1970s. I was bowled over by Makumbi’s writing: it’s so original, clever and alive. Makumbi harnesses the energy of local vernacular in both her dialogue and in Kirabo’s narration, especially in Kirabo’s conversations with the village witch, Nsuuta. ‘Nsuuta clapped wonderment. Sometimes God loved her as if he would never kill her.’ Makumbi refuses to spell out context for white British readers like me, but lets this kind of reader do the work without ever leaving them confused. I’m usually very wary of coming-of-age tales, especially when they involve seeking out lost relatives (Kirabo has a missing mother), but this is just so different from the rest. Much the best of the three 1970s Ugandan-set novels I’ve recently read (the other two were Kololo Hill and We Are All Birds of Uganda, both still worth reading).

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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Hide, Kiersten White’s adult fiction debut, which did not work for me in any way at all. I’d say it’s probably the worst book I’ve read so far this year, let alone this month. The premise is excellent: a group of people compete for prize money by spending a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park without getting caught. So where did Hide go so wrong? My Goodreads review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Fantasy Novel I Read This Month Was…

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Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher. This is only the second full-length work I’ve read by Kingfisher, but I’m definitely a confirmed fan. Like Bryony and Roses, the first Kingfisher I tried, Nettle and Bone is a bit of a weird mix: it combines the darker, more serious folktale feel of a writer like Robin McKinley with the lightheartedness of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. I love both ways of writing, but I’m not sure they quite belong together. Nevertheless, I found Nettle and Bone engrossing. My Goodreads review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Horror Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, a schlocky horror novel about killer mermaids that delivered everything I like in horror. A lost ship and a new expedition sent to find out what happened to it; brilliantly tense set-pieces (my favourite was the scientist piloting a submarine to the bottom of the Challenger Deep); convincingly biological explanations of the existence of cryptids; and all the action taking place in a relatively small space. Characterisation was perhaps a bit tick-box, but I liked mermaid expert, or ‘sirenologist’, Jillian Toth a lot.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Tice Cin’s Keeping the House. Now shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize, this had an amazing blurb: ‘Ayla’s a gardener, and she has a plan. Offering a fresh and funny take on the machinery of the North London heroin trade, Keeping the House lifts the lid on a covert world thriving just beneath notice: not only in McDonald’s queues and men’s clubs, but in spotless living rooms and whispering kitchens. Spanning three generations, this is the story of the women who keep their family – and their family business – afloat.’ Unfortunately, when I gave up on the novel almost halfway through, pretty much none of this had materialised, and I found its fragmentary style too confusing to follow without strong incentive.

(Two (dis?)honorable mentions here: Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, which I reviewed here, and Xueting Christine Ni’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction in translation, Sinopticon, which I thought was startlingly weak compared to Ken Liu ed. Broken Stars, despite having some author overlap).

The Best Graphic Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… Emily Carroll’s Through The Woods, a collection of five horror stories that are definitely for teenage or adult readers! The stories that worked best for me were the ones that had less explicit gore and violence, though, and relied more on allusion and uncertainty: I liked the open endings of ‘Our Neighbour’s House’, ‘My Friend Janna’ and ‘His Face All Red’. These puzzling stories work especially well in graphic novel form; I like graphic novels but am sometimes sad at how quickly I get through them, so these tales are perfect for re-reading, especially the mysterious ‘His Face All Red’, my favourite story in the collection, which you can try for free on Carroll’s website. Carroll’s art is striking, conveying tone and mood cleverly, and I enjoyed the mixture of styles, such as notebook scribblings in ‘My Friend Janna’ and the way a repeating song was conveyed in ‘A Lady’s Hands Are Cold’.

The Book I Learnt The Most From This Month Was…

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True Biz by Sara Nović, set in a boarding school for Deaf students in Ohio that comes under threat of closure. Told through the voices of several of the school’s students as well as its principal, True Biz sets out to educate its reader, and it succeeds; it’s fascinating on the history of ASL, lipreading and cochlear implants as well as shocking on the ways in which Deaf people and Deaf culture have been oppressed over the centuries in the United States. It’s a more commercial book than Nović’s memorable if uneven debut, Girl At Warand at times its straightforward, moralistic plot felt a bit too YA, but it certainly does the job of raising awareness of the issues Deaf people continue to face. My Goodreads review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd. I loved this husband-and-wife writing duo’s second novel, The Clubso after a recommendation from Cathy, I checked their debut out of my local library. I am thoroughly sick of both thrillers and women’s fiction that portray social media as the root of all evils, and always have their characters unrealistically give it all up at the end. To be honest, it’s started to remind me of Jane Austen’s famous critique of writers of romantic novels in Northanger Abbey; she pointed out that they always have their heroines disdain romantic fiction, even though they clearly have a vested interest in women continuing to buy it. (You can be sure that these writers don’t refuse to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to sell their novels!) Anyway, to get back to the point: People Like Her is a breath of fresh air. It stars Instagram influencer Emmy and her failed novelist husband Dan, who also jointly narrate the novel. Emmy has carved out a career as ‘Mamabare’, telling ‘the truth’ about motherhood and building a platform around the message that mums need to support each other.

While Emmy cynically exploits her market, Lloyd examines the world of an influencer in a critical but nuanced way, pointing out that Emmy’s success is based on some considerable skill, that she is the main breadwinner for her family, that rhetoric of ‘honesty’ can sometimes hide ‘perfection’ rather than the other way round, and that a lot of mums have genuinely been helped by Emmy’s messaging. Perhaps partly because each of the two writers wrote one of the voices, Emmy and Dan are much more vividly characterised than is usually the case in thrillers; Dan has a penchant for dragging up bits of philosophy from his youth, for example, while Emmy is much more direct. I also loved the ending, which spoke to the concerns I raised in this post. My only concern about People Like Her is its ‘stalker’ plotline; although this was obviously necessary to make it into a thriller, I could actually have done without it, as I found Emmy’s machinations compelling enough. It also contains a viscerally upsetting flashback scene featuring the death of a baby (not a spoiler, this is flagged from the start) which doesn’t really feel like it belongs in this otherwise lighthearted, satirical book; I’m not usually disturbed by this kind of thing, but this time I was. However, The Club didn’t repeat this problem, so I’ll still be eagerly awaiting the next novel from Lloyd.

Did you have any stand-out reads in April?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Creatures of Passage

Nephthys Kinwell drives a sky-blue 1967 Plymouth Belvedere, haunted by the occasional thump of the ghost of a white girl in the trunk. She ferries lost souls across the Anacostia neighbourhood of Washington DC in 1977, helped by the fact that her car never breaks down or needs refuelling. Nephthys is haunted by the violent death of her twin brother Osiris; they were born conjoined at the finger (best to treat this as fantasy: conjoined twins cannot be different sexes, as they are always genetically identical, and this type of conjoining also seems unlikely) and she does not feel complete without him. Her niece Amber has the power to predict deaths, and when she has a dream about her son, Dash, Nephthys fears for his fate. Meanwhile, child abuser Mercy, the caretaker at the local school, stalks this troubled kingdom.

Creatures of Passage, Morowa Yejidé’s second novel, draws heavily on Ancient Egyptian mythology. I was familiar with the story of Isis and Osiris but hadn’t realised that Nephthys was their sister, and that she helped Isis to bring Osiris back from the dead after his murder and dismemberment. In some accounts she is also the mother of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death who oversaw the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ in the Egyptian journey to the underworld. Egyptian Books of the Dead map routes to the underworld that involve fearful obstacles such as a lake of fire, giving the deceased a series of spells to recite so they can pass safely. A ferryman also carries the souls of the dead into the underworld. Yejidé uses this imagery throughout the novel, including the use of ancient language such as ‘kingdoms’ and ‘kings’ to describe the United States. Certain incidents bring this mythological resonance together hauntingly and beautifully: most notably, the murder of Osiris.

Unfortunately, for much of this novel, the voice that Yejidé cultivates simply did not work for me, on both a structural level and line-by-line. Creatures of Passage is deliberately repetitive and circular, as indicated by the childhood song that is repeated by both Nephthys and Osiris: ‘Indigo swirlin’ round de vat/No beginnin’ and no end…’ Both siblings also repeat certain phrases, such as ‘the unbearable inertia of one’ and ‘the interstellar cold of his solitude’, a tic that drove me increasingly mad as the novel went on. This was perhaps especially irritating because these phrases, like much of the rest of the text, felt mannered and pretentious. Yejidé chooses complex language even when things could be said much more simply. Describing the death of a pregnant woman: ‘As the woman moved from one plane of existence to another, the preborn lay quiet in her amniotic water, listening to the sound of her progenitor’s heartbeat slowing to a stop.’ One line like this might work, but the accumulation of them is very wearing, even if it’s in keeping with the mood of the novel. There are flashes of brilliant writing – ‘the cherry-blossom flecked currents of the Tidal Basin; the shallow majesty of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool; the slushy inflow of the McMillan Reservoir; the black tranquility of the Georgetown canal; the rolling deep of the Potomac River’ – but even these get diluted by being repeated.

I genuinely admire what Yejidé was trying to do with this novel, but it did not work well for me, especially because all this is anchored by a rather thin plot that centres on child abuse, a prominent theme in the Women’s Prize longlist this year but one which is difficult to handle in fiction. Probably my biggest disappointment from the list, and I doubt it will be shortlisted.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number eleven. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, CarelessThe Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote SympathyThe Final Revival of Opal & Nev , Build Your House Around My Body, The Bread The Devil Knead and Sorrow and Bliss.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy

First, an update on my progress with the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the titles I’ve read so far. I’m now thinking that the judges were actually onto something with their off-the-wall picks. Therefore, I’ve decided to expand the number of titles I plan to read from the longlist from eight to eleven. It’s still unlikely that I’ll read the remaining five longlisted titles (Flamingo, This One Sky Day, The Exhibitionist, The Island of Missing Trees and Salt Lick) unless they make the shortlist.

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The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel, is narrated by fifty-year-old Elle, who has returned every summer throughout her life to an idyllic family hideaway at Cape Cod. This summer, she’s there with her three children and her husband, Peter, when she abruptly reconnects with an old flame, Jonas, who is also the keeper of her darkest secrets. The Paper Palace flashes back and forward through time to trace the events since Elle’s earliest childhood as her story also unfolds in the present, a structural choice that works effectively when Heller confines herself to the two central timelines, but can become unnecessarily confusing in the few instances when multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards are employed at the same time.

Numerous reviewers mention the traumatic subject-matter of The Paper Palace. While I don’t believe the central incident of the novel is gratuitous per se, as it is the hook upon which the story hangs, I would certainly concur that the numerous other mentions of sexual abuse, other kinds of childhood abuse and neglect, unlikely accidents and early deaths are indeed gratuitous and unnecessary. This is a book where we can’t witness an old man swimming happily with his friend in the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath without him abruptly drowning, where children are smothered by sand dunes for no reason, where adolescents are constantly exposed to random adults having sex in front of them. (I feel I can mention these incidents freely because they are in no way spoilers for the main plot or the primary or secondary characters’ journeys – which itself indicates how easily Heller could have removed them.) The Paper Palace, despite its incredibly familiar plot-line and flat characters, is a weirdly compelling read, and I think a big part of this is Heller’s car-crash writing – we don’t want to look away because we know there’s going to be something awful on the next page. This is certainly one way to compel your reader, but a good novel it does not make.

Even putting this material aside, The Paper Palace is not a well-executed novel. Elle, Peter and Jonas are all very sketchily characterised and largely unsympathetic. Heller might claim to be exploring the generational impacts of trauma, and to be reflecting her characters’ experience thematically through the string of arbitrary misfortunes that befall other people in this book, but I just didn’t think she pulled it off. There are also small annoyances. The book is weirdly obsessed with Elle’s hymen being intact (so obviously intact a gynaecologist comments on it!) before she has sex for the first time, despite the fact she uses tampons, which perpetuates myths about what the hymen is and how it’s related to female ‘virginity’. Sex scenes are used to stand in for any kind of meaningful emotional development between Elle and her two lovers. And while, unlike some other readers, I felt that it was pretty clear what Elle decides to do at the end of the novel, I simply did not care by this point. Ultimately, this reads like sub-par Jodi Picoult, and I don’t believe it belongs on the Women’s Prize longlist.

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Remote Sympathy, Catherine Chidgey’s sixth novel, alternates between four perspectives on the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald during the final years of the Second World War. SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn was the camp’s administrator; his sections are narrated from the vantage point of the 1950s when he is being interviewed after his release from prison. His young wife, Greta Hahn, is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in 1943, and tells us what is happening to her as it happens. The doctor Lenard Weber is a ‘political prisoner’ in the camp, arrested for an invented crime after Dietrich found out about his pre-war invention, the ‘Sympathetic Vitaliser’, which was intended to cure cancers through the transmission of electric current through the body. His contributions come in the form of letters to his small daughter Lotte, who has been taken with her Jewish mother Anna to another concentration camp, Theresienstadt. A fourth and, in my opinion, superfluous, perspective is an occasional contribution from a chorus of Weimar villagers who live near Buchenwald.

While the synopsis of this novel indicates potentially speculative elements, Remote Sympathy is in fact a straightforwardly traditional and realistic historical novel; Lenard’s ‘vitaliser’ is clearly rooted in pre-war experiments with electricity as a means of rejuvenation, and the principle of ‘remote sympathy’ which supposedly makes it effectual is based on the eighteenth-century experiments of the Scottish surgeon John Hunter. And Remote Sympathy is very good at what it does. It’s convincing and moving. Chidgey uses Dietrich’s self-justifying perspective to explore how he rationalises the horrors of Buchenwald in relation to what he believes were ‘actual’ concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, and we see how Buchenwald did indeed possess weird flourishes to try and hide its true purpose, such as a prisoners’ library and brothel. (And in the grotesque choral sections from the Weimar villagers, it’s reminiscent of Audrey Magee’s The Undertakingwhich was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize back in 2014.)  Its most heartbreaking thread is Lenard’s realisation that he must now pretend as hard as he can that his failed experimental machine may actually be working, in order to save his own life and hopefully that of his wife and child, even as he struggles with lying to Greta about her prognosis.

This is not, however, a novel that I think will stay with me. I’ve simply read too many novels that cover this ground and many of them were equally competent. I’m glad to have read Remote Sympathy and I think it deserves to be longlisted, but it doesn’t offer anything especially new.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers five and six. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness , Careless and The Sentence.

March Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2nd ed). I’d already read the title story of this collection back in spring 2021, and it’s brilliant; I was thrilled to discover that Butler’s other SF shorts are just as good. In fact, I think my favourite story in this collection wasn’t ‘Bloodchild’ but ‘Amnesty’, another coloniser/colonised story with an even more morally complex dynamic. But I also loved ‘Speech Sounds’, which depicts a world where humans have lost most of their language abilities; ‘The Evening and The Morning and The Night’, which is about an imaginary hereditary disease and also about what we inherit more generally, even when we don’t want to; and ‘The Book of Martha’, where a woman challenged by God comes up with a pretty original idea for a utopia. (There’s something of Ted Chiang in that last one). This collection also contains two short essays by Butler on writing, neither of which is groundbreaking but which are nice to have, and two non-SF short stories, ‘Near of Kin’ and ‘Crossover’, which unfortunately didn’t work for me at all. However, a collection of five incredible miniature pieces of science fiction hardly leaves the reader shortchanged.

 The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin. This novella was translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang; my comments here are obviously based on the English translation and I can’t speak to the quality of the original Korean text. Concerning My Daughter sets up such interesting internal conflicts for its characters. Our narrator, an ageing woman, is appalled when her daughter, Green, moves into her house with her girlfriend, Lane. She can’t understand why her daughter would seek a relationship that, for her, is ‘play-acting’, without ‘real’ intimacy or the hope of biological children. She’s also ashamed of Green’s activism at work; Green, a university lecturer, has stood up for some of her colleagues who were sacked for being in a homosexual relationship. But our narrator is not a one-dimensional bigot. She, too, stands up for what she believes to be right when she witnesses the mistreatment of a woman with dementia at the care home where she works – a woman who’s lived a life much bigger than our narrator’s conventional trajectory.

Unfortunately, for me, the structure and prose made Concerning My Daughter almost unreadable. The novella jumps around in time, following its narrator’s internal monologue – something I love when a writer pulls it off, but here was just confusing and bitty. The narrator also has a habit of spelling out her thoughts on everything, leaving the reader no room for interpretation. This makes the novella feel clunky and obvious, despite its hugely promising plot-line, and reminded me a bit of Maki Kashimada’s Japanese novella-in-translation Ninety-Nine Kisses, which suffered from the same problem.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th April.

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Out There by Kate Folk. This debut collection shares a lot of concerns and themes with many other collections I’ve read recently from female writers; body horror, AI infiltrators, the hidden violence of heterosexual relationships, female sexuality, mysterious medical conditions, folktale themes, returns from the dead. I’d place it alongside collections such as Julia Armfield’s salt slow, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties, Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten and Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch. However, unlike these earlier books, all of which I found disappointing to one degree or another (although both the Armfield and Machado contain some excellent individual stories), Out There delivers. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

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… Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu. Owusu grew up between multiple different cultures but never felt she belonged in any; her mother was Armenian, her father Ghanaian, her stepmother Tanzanian, and she has lived in New York, Rome, London, Addis Ababa, Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala and Kumasi. The extended metaphor of the ‘seismometer’ in her head and the earthquakes it triggers allows Owusu to write incredibly effectively about trauma, as well as race and culture; as a relatively light-skinned black woman, she experiences being read differently wherever she goes. In Rome, she’s a curiosity; in Addis Ababa, she’s mistaken for a native Ethopian until people realise she can’t speak Amharic; in Ghana, she’s seen as fortunate because her skin is not too dark. In its rewarding density and its attention to the different trajectories of an extended family, this reminded me of Négar Djavadi’s novel Disoriental.

(Hon. mention: Inferno by Catherine Cho, which deals with postnatal psychosis and which I found much more emotionally resonant than I expected, given I have never been pregnant and never intend to be).

The Book That Took Me The Longest To Read This Month Was…

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…A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. It took me a month to read this, and I’m glad I finished it, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel any time soon – especially as the loose ends felt very tied up. Great worldbuilding, politics and thought-provoking technology, but I had the same problem with this that I had with the couple of China Mieville books I’ve read (Embassytown and The City and the City); there wasn’t enough internal depth to the characters. We know interesting things about our protagonist Mahit, such as her attraction to Teixcalaanli culture, but I never felt this really informed her as a person, especially as, given how lacking she is in backstory, she might as well have appeared out of nowhere at the start of the novel (we only learn halfway through, for example, that she has a younger brother). Meanwhile, the voices of the secondary characters tended to blend together.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was…

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Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. True to form, I’ve already forgotten almost everything about it, so there’s not much I can say! I thought the scenes in The Hague were very well done but was disappointed that the book increasingly focused on the protagonist’s romantic life. Ultimately, she ended up a bit too much disaster woman and not enough international criminal court translator.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Dead Silence by SA Barnes. The premise of this book is one of my favourite SF set-ups ever, although it’s a relatively familiar trope: crew of a spaceship accidentally happen upon the abandoned wreck of another spaceship that mysteriously disappeared a long time ago. The extra embellishments that Dead Silence promised only made its plot sound better; in this book, the abandoned ship is a luxury liner which was not on any kind of mission when it vanished but simply on a pleasure cruise. It’s found far away from its original course with an emergency beacon transmitting on a disused frequency; what happened? Unfortunately, Dead Silence squanders this premise, and I agree with other reviewers that it plays out more as a (tired) psychological thriller than as a relatively more original horror/SF genre-cross. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… Sun Damage by Sabine Durrant. I’ve read all of Durrant’s thrillers; she reliably delivers gripping but credible plots, strong prose, and well-observed characterisation. Sun Damage is no exception. Ali is making ends meet through running small scams with her partner in crime Sean, drifting between different holiday destinations to find their next mark. But when a sudden tragedy makes her realise how much Sean is exploiting her, she takes off on her own, knowing she mustn’t let Sean track her down. As she infiltrates the lives of a family group holidaying in the South of France, she keeps one eye open for Sean while struggling to keep up the deception she’s invented to allow her to remain in their midst. But is somebody on to Ali, and what will happen if Sean does find her?

I’d certainly recommend Sun Damage for anybody looking for a solid thriller that’s a notch above the rest. However, looking back on my reviews of Durrant’s earlier work – which I’ve always rated four stars – I have one reflection. For some reason, however much I enjoy Durrant’s books at the time, they quickly slip from my memory. I have no recollection of her other novels, even Take Me In, which at the time, I thought was ‘much more memorable’ than other thrillers I’d read. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s interesting to compare her to a writer like Lottie Moggach – Durrant and Moggach are very much on a par in terms of the quality of their prose and their plots, but Moggach’s Kiss Me First, Under The Sun and Brixton Hill are all vivid and distinct in my memory. This doesn’t make her a bad writer, though; I suppose it depends what you want from a book.

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


			

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Sentence

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This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Louise Erdrich’s work. I read her acclaimed novel The Round House about six or so years ago. It’s one of those books where, looking back, I’m surprised to find that my review was so positive, because that isn’t how I remember the experience of reading it. The Round House, which deals with the epidemic of sexual violence among Native American women, is undoubtedly an important and accomplished novel, but something about it clearly didn’t click for me – perhaps it was the ‘child’s-eye-view of adult situations’ narrator, a device I really don’t like, or perhaps it was simply too grim.

The Sentence, to me, feels like it was written by a completely different person. Despite some difficult subject-matter, it’s an uplifting read. Our Objiwe narrator, Tookie, has spent ten years in prison for body-snatching and conspiracy to transport drugs across state lines, an offence she was tricked into by friends. Given the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in North American prison statistics, she isn’t surprised to initially receive what amounts to a life sentence, which is eventually commuted due to the efforts of her Objiwe defence lawyer. The Sentence is about what happens next, as Tookie takes a job at Erdrich’s own bookstore (rather sweetly, Erdrich has a bit part in the novel, and isn’t afraid to gently make fun of herself) and starts to be haunted by the ghost of its ‘most annoying customer’, Flora.

Flora is a ‘wannabe Native American’, claiming Indigenous heritage despite being obviously white, and at first, she seems like a ‘wannabe ghost’; her incursions on the life of the bookstore are only very slight. Anybody who’s put off by ghost stories should not avoid The Sentence; Flora manifests only very sparingly, and does not make direct contact with the living. Due to this restraint, Erdrich manages to make Flora chilling in death, even though she was a bit ridiculous in life. When Tookie’s alone one evening in the bookstore, ‘a song began that I knew was not on the playlist. Flora cranked up the volume; it was Johnny Cash singing ‘Ain’t No Grave’. There ain’t no grave can hold my body down… If you’ve ever heard Johnny sing this song, you can imagine.’

The Sentence pulls a number of oddly eclectic themes together; books that can kill, Indigenous religion, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter protests, dealing with stepfamilies, Tookie’s tender relationship with her husband Pollux – who happens to be the retired Potawatomi policeman who originally arrested her. The reason it works, for the most part, is Tookie’s voice. I was immediately captivated by her warmth and humour. Through her, Erdrich makes us as readers believe in all the weirdness this book throws at us, even if I would have preferred it to come together a bit more tightly in the end. The secondary cast are beautifully handled; they genuinely feel like a community that have lived together for a long time. And as a love letter to books themselves, The Sentence is much more effective and much less sentimental than its fellow longlistee The Book of Form and EmptinessI’d be happy to see this on the shortlist.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number four. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness and Careless.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Careless

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Bess is fifteen years old when she finds out she’s pregnant. Although she’s been in a long-term foster care placement since she was four, she’s never felt that she truly belongs to her foster family, and her boyfriend, Boy, has gone AWOL. The only person she can really rely on is her best friend Eshal, but Eshal has problems of her own – she’s worried that her Bangladeshi Muslim family are going to encourage her into an arranged marriage she does not want. Careless, Kirsty Capes’s debut novel, starts with Bess’s discovery of her pregnancy and then flashes back to explore her relationship with Boy and friendship with Eshal, before moving forward along the original timeline.

First things first: I enjoyed Careless much more than I expected to. This is a book about teenagers that could be read by teenagers, but I wouldn’t class it as YA and it doesn’t seem to have been sold as such. This is a relief. My problems with YA have never been that it’s written for a teenage audience but about the conventions and stereotypical assumptions that have become wrapped up with writing for that audience. Careless avoids these tropes. I’d place it alongside Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OKwhich deals sensitively and thoughtfully with alcoholism and sexuality. Like Nina, Careless is a dark and painful read – but this certainly should not exclude it from an adolescent as well as an adult readership.

Bess is a compelling protagonist. The book cleverly moves from the relative lightheartedness of early scenes with Eshal, watching the raft race at Shepperton Village Fair and chucking rubbish at an enemy’s raft, to much more harrowing scenes later on, which helps us to see Bess as a person and not just as a suffering statistic. Her world, too, is vividly evoked. Capes shuns generic council estate settings and allows us to really see the Studios Estate where Bess lives, in its everyday beauty and ugliness: ‘From my bedroom window on the estate, I can see the park, with two big horse chestnut trees on the green where the parakeets roost… And the long sloping sides of the reservoir, just beyond the farmer’s fields… I can see the River Ash Woods, where everyone goes to fly-tip and inject heroin. And then the tin houses, which are what everyone calls the pre-fabs, from after the Second World War’. 

However, I didn’t think the structure of the novel served Capes’s purposes particularly well. By positioning all that comes before the positive pregnancy test as flashback, the reader is simply waiting for Careless to catch up with itself. This messes with the pacing and also draws attention away from the most important element of the novel – the friendship between Bess and Eshal. I’ve been seeing this thriller device – pulling a scene from the middle and putting it at the beginning – more and more in books that are not thrillers. I suspect it is often advised by agents and editors, but it doesn’t work well for me as a reader. For Careless, certainly, I would have appreciated more time to get to know Bess before the book starts to revolve around her pregnancy.

There are also a few duff notes. I agree with this reviewer that Eshal’s plotline is too neatly concluded, although I imagine this came from Cape’s over-cautiousness in tackling this subject as a white writer. Bess’s voice generally works very well, but occasionally she feels like a mouthpiece for important things that Capes wants to say about the experience of being in care that probably wouldn’t come out of the mouth of a 1990s teenager. For example: ‘There’s something wrong with being in care, the care system, and it’s making us into a transaction… It’s not right, how we’re treated like a job. There’s too much emotional labour involved.’ Having said that, I thought that Cape’s handling of the reasons behind Bess entering foster care in the first place was exceptional. She tells the reader just enough so we can guess at what happened but allows us to understand it through the fragmented lens of Bess’s trauma, or what we might identify as complex PTSD.

So, a flawed book, for me, but one which I think deserves its Women’s Prize longlisting, and which certainly achieves what it’s trying to do much better than the other two novels on the list I’ve read so far. I doubt it will be shortlisted – the quote from Pandora Sykes on the cover makes me think it was the pet pick of a single judge – but I’m glad that I read it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number three. I’ve already read Great Circle and The Book of Form and Emptiness.

Write What You Know: Groundskeeping by Lee Cole & Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein

It’s 2016 America, in the months before Trump’s election, and a young man in his late twenties dreams of being a writer. However, he can only really write about what he knows from real life, including the stories that others tell him. He’s accused of stealing material from others’ lives by somebody who’s very close to him, and can’t really deny it because he’s failed to change any of the characters’ names. He meets his ideal girl and starts a relationship with her, but as the novel reaches its climax, he’s forced to choose between her and his writing as he decides whether or not to board an outgoing flight. His story is told without speech marks or chapter breaks, and is the debut novel of a youngish white male writer who lives in New York and probably shares quite a lot in common with his protagonist. 

Bizarrely, this could be the synopsis of either Groundskeeping by Lee Cole or Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein – two books which are actually very different, but share the same basic building blocks. This certainly isn’t a case of ‘if you liked this you’d also like’ – although I personally enjoyed both novels. Groundskeeping is a deliberately slow, meditative book about Owen, who grew up in rural Kentucky, and has taken a job as a groundskeeper at a local college so he can make some money and take a free writing course. In class, he’s forced to reflect on ‘jungle narratives’; at work, he fells and trims trees in the college’s grounds. Alma, a writer-in-residence at the college, is a ‘cultural Muslim’ whose parents fled Bosnia before she was born. She grew up on the outskirts of DC and was educated in the Ivy League. As the two navigate their relationship, both make uncomfortable missteps.

The heart of Groundskeeping seemed to me to be when Alma tells Owen: ‘I just wish I could think of something without thinking of a dozen other things related to it. Like, I can’t just think of a tree anymore. I think about all the poems about trees that I like. The tree as cultural signifier. I think about “Birches” by Robert Frost. But you – you just think of them as they are, I’m sure. Or you think of them in a technical sense, as something you have to work on.’ This tells us everything about who these two characters want to be and who they think the other person is, especially when Owen wonders if he likes this ‘compliment’: ‘It was true that I’d never thought of Robert Frost while working on a tree, but I knew the poem.’

Caleb, the protagonist of Last Resort, is both much more privileged and much more stupid and shortsighted than Owen – although I still found myself rooting for him. He’s trying and failing to write a publishable first novel when he meets up with old college friend Avi Dietsch. Avi tells him a true story about a dying woman that somehow inspires Caleb to write well when inventing things was only leading him into dead ends. When he’s finished the manuscript, he grabs the attention of a ‘big shot’ literary agent who plans to sell the book for a lot of money. Unfortunately, Avi gets wind of what Caleb’s done, and demands that Caleb recompense him for the use of ‘his’ story – even though it actually belongs to neither of them.

Like Owen, Caleb struggles when he isn’t able to ‘write what he knows’, although in this case, he’s positioned as a writer who has to work from real life, but not his own life. Lipstein keeps the reader guessing, developing the plot in such a way that we feel surprised but not cheated about what happens next. Because of the characterisation of Caleb, these twists feel earnt – they proceed from what we already know about the character and the way that he operates. Unlike Groundskeeping, it’s a totally gripping book – I read it in a couple of sittings – but it lacks Groundskeeping‘s social nuance and commentary on being white and working-class in the rural United States.

Both novels raise questions about who stories belong to, but both present a frustrating cliche about writing by suggesting that writers can only write ‘what they know’, and so have to address these issues whenever they put pen to paper. Other readalikes might be A Ladder To The Sky by John Boyne or The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, though I think both Cole’s and Lipstein’s novels are better. But this coincidental reading experience – I read Groundskeeping and Last Resort back to back – did make me reflect on how much novels about novelists lean on this trope. I’d love to read a book about fictional writers who actually make things up – or, God forbid, write science fiction or fantasy that isn’t a thinly veiled version of their current preoccupations. But perhaps that kind of book-within-a-book would be a step too far.

Have you read any novels that feature a book-within-a-book? Or writers who write what they know?

I received free proof copies of these novels from their publishers for review. Groundskeeping and Last Resort are, incredibly, BOTH out in the UK on 17th March 2022. Are we sure somebody didn’t do a Caleb?

 

February Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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…Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield, which I thought was hauntingly beautiful, and gets my second five-star rating of 2022. My review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… A Still Life by Josie George. As much as I wanted this memoir of chronic illness to be for me, it was not for me. I’m sorry about this, because I know how much Elle and Rebecca liked this book, but I could not get on with the narrative voice, especially in the present-day sections. I’d recommend Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay instead.

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

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… Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, which was an impulse purchase from Forum Books. I loved Tsui’s exploration of swimming clubs, abalone divers, desperate swims for survival and public pools.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was… 

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…A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I named this as one of my favourite books of the decade (2010-19), but I was worried it wouldn’t hold up on a re-read, especially as I didn’t like Ozeki’s latest, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Thankfully, it did. My original review and my most recent thoughts are here.

The Best Sequel I Read This Month Was… 

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… Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather; for me, one of those rare sequels that was actually better than the first book. Sisters of the Vast Black had a brilliant premise, focusing on an order of spacefaring nuns piloting a ‘liveship’, or a ship constructed from the body of a creature that seems to be adapted for this purpose. However, the pacing was off; the last third felt rushed and cliched compared to the thoughtful, contemplative story that preceded it. Sisters of the Forsaken Stars is much better-paced and more morally complex, although there were characters and themes that I thought could still have benefited from more page-time. I would have particularly liked to hear more about Gemma, who left the order in the last book to be with her girlfriend but is still struggling to ‘be in the world’ after years of being a nun, and is especially struggling with physical intimacy. This is the kind of thing we don’t hear much about in fiction, and although all the beats of Gemma’s character growth are present and correct, I just wanted to spend more time living through this with her. Nevertheless, great SFF.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was… 

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… Ellery Lloyd’s The Club. After a proliferation of thrillers that place unlikely ‘twists’ above all else, sacrificing characterisation and plausibility for the sake of potentially surprising the reader, The Club was a welcome change. My review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 31st March.

The Book That Grew Most On Me As It Went Along Was… 

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… We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan. I was a little dismayed by the first couple of chapters of this debut; the writing felt simplistic and clunky, and characters had a tendency to tell other characters things they would already know. However, as the story unfolded, I started to appreciate the way Zayyan gradually layered complexity onto this unpromising beginning. I especially liked the portrayal of the two central protagonists. Sameer is a lawyer living in England who returns to Uganda to explore his heritage; his family, Ugandan Asians, were forced to flee the country in 1972 (Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill also explores this episode in British colonial history). Interspersed with Sameer’s story are letters from his grandfather, Hasan, written as the crisis unfolds in 1970s Kampala. Both Sameer and Hasan ultimately have to negotiate their positioning between their own exploitation by British colonialists and present-day racists and their relative power compared to black Ugandans; both, arguably, also possess unexamined male privilege. Zayyan does not exult nor condemn either man, but lets the reader see them as they are. This book never quite took off for me because of the problems with its prose, but I admired Zayyan’s depiction of faith, morality and racism.

The Book I Had Most Mixed Feelings About This Month Was… 

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…The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, first in a fantasy trilogy set in a world inspired by Indian epics. I loved the three female protagonists, Priya, Malini and Bhumika, and enjoyed the atmospheric and original worldbuilding. But the male PoVs were underdeveloped (the most interesting and complex male character, Aditya, did not get to narrate); for me, this gave the book a stop-start feel, as the pace slowed to a crawl whenever a male character took the stage then sped up again when a female character returned. It’s also overlong, especially towards the end, when an obvious ‘reveal’ is dragged out for all it’s worth, and I never really believed in the romance between Priya and Malini, much as I love lesbian representation.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was… 

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…These Days by Lucy Caldwell. Set during the devastating Belfast Blitz of 1941, These Days focuses primarily on two middle-class sisters: 21-year-old Audrey, who has recently become engaged and is already having doubts, and 18-year-old Emma, secretly in love with another woman who, like her, works for the ambulance service. Their mother, Florence, also gets a significant sub-plot, as she reflects back on a long-lost love and forward as she wonders whether her life is essentially over: ‘How is it, she sometimes thinks, that this is her life, that here she is, a wife of twenty-two years this September, mother of two adult daughters, of a baby son already matching her for height?… It isn’t, she hastily thinks, that she’s unhappy, nor ungrateful with her lot: just bemused, she supposes, that this has turned out to be it.’ There are also snippets of narration from other characters: most notably, a brilliant, vividly rendered football match from the point-of-view of the sisters’ younger brother, Paul.

These Days is, in some ways, refreshing, and it’s certainly very well-written; not only does it highlight a lesser-known Blitz, but Caldwell’s writing manages to make familiar details from many, many World War Two novels feel immediate again. We feel the sudden loss of whole streets and landmarks and the fear of seeking safety in an air raid shelter that itself becomes a target. I also liked the subtle characterisation of Audrey and Emma, and the way that they are not set against each other. However, in other ways, it’s very familiar; it rehearses some stereotypical tropes about homosexuality, and I found the inclusion of perspectives from outside the family circle distracting. This seemed to be a gesture towards encompassing the working-class as well as the middle-class experience of the Blitz, but became a bit tokenistic. In particular, the narrative arc of ‘Wee Betty’, one of the family’s servants, is very sentimental.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

My Top Ten Books of 2021

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

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

In no particular order…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Stats

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

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

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

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

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More Nuns in Novels: Matrix by Lauren Groff

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Lauren Groff’s Matrix was my most anticipated book of 2021. I was captivated by the synopsis: ‘seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey… at first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.’ I was also intrigued as to how a writer like Groff, who has only written very contemporary fiction before, would handle the distant twelfth-century past; I hoped this would avoid the ponderousness that drags down a lot of historical fiction, and lead to more freedom and inventiveness with the subject-matter. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m also obsessed with novels about nuns at the moment: current favourites include Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede (modern) and Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (early modern). Could Matrix possibly live up to all these expectations?

The answer is: yes, almost! Groff’s novel returns to a lot of the themes that novels about women’s religious communities are well-placed to explore: female solidarity, solitude, duty, sexuality. Unlike Godden’s and Dunant’s novels – which have protagonists, but which are very much ensemble stories – Groff focuses completely on the dominant figure of Marie herself, and how she transforms the abbey in her own image. (Marie has at least one historical counterpart; I knew nothing about this when I read the novel, so it didn’t affect my experience of it, but these Goodreads reviews – one negative and one positive! – give good background if you’re interested: Review 1; Review 2). Marie is both this novel’s strength and its weakness. Groff, refreshingly, isn’t interested in depicting women who get their comeuppance for exercising power, and while there are twists and turns in Marie’s life, she remains fiercely defiant. There’s more than a trace of Nicola Griffith’s Hild in her exceptional stature and intelligence. However, by exalting Marie, Groff misses the opportunity to more fully explore the lives of the other nuns and novices – and so presents a less interesting and less complex version of the convent as social community than do Godden and Dunant. She also goes full throttle on lesbian nuns, which – while I’m never going to complain there are too many lesbians in a book – focuses very much on sex between women rather than other aspects of close romantic attachment, and feels a bit like it was dropped in to be daring.

This also emerges in the way that Matrix is written. Groff skips across great swathes of years very quickly, relating the progress of the abbey to Marie’s own life, and particularly to her own biological ageing, as she suffers with painful periods and then with an early menopause. Even dramatic incidents don’t hold the pace back for too long; we are always moving forward. I thought that this worked beautifully in telling Marie’s own story, but again, less well in capturing the everyday texture of life at the abbey. There are also odd lacunae; I wanted to know more about how Marie initially resigned herself to the convent, and her turn to her Marian faith. All in all, this is not the best novel about nuns I’ve read, but it’s certainly one to add to reading lists.

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