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.

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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!

The Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019

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

Masculinity and gender identity

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

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

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

Memoirs of chronic illness

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

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

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

Proper medicine

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

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

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

Medical fictions

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

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

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

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

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

Three Things… January 2019

Reading

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

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

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

Watching

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

Thinking

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

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

Starting the year with speculative fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*I know this is a mixed metaphor

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

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

My Top Ten Books of 2018

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

In no particular order…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Stats

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

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

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

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

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Three Things… December 2018

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

I’m trying to finish off my TBR pile before Christmas to make room for new acquisitions. Having very much enjoyed Tayari Jones’s An American MarriageI’m now tearing through her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which deals with the real-life disappearance of dozens of African-American children in Atlanta in 1979. Told from the perspective of three black fifth-graders, the novel is both gripping and beautifully observed; Jones captures the eleven-year-old mindset perfectly. Her narrators range from middle-class Tasha, who is desperately concerned about getting a pink party invitation with a magenta heart sticker from the most popular girl in her class, but is also dealing with her parents’ separation and becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of the outside world, to Octavia, a ‘project kid’ on a reduced lunch voucher who is also expert at reading the dynamics of the classroom. Jones also pulls off the difficult trick of moving from first to second to third person as she skips between her narrators. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, about four Nigerian brothers who receive a curse from a local madman, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, and on a line-by-line level, it’s easy to see why; Obioma’s prose is clever and distinctive. However, the density of the writing and the reliance on flashbacks keeps the reader at arms length, and I found that this was a novel I admired rather than enjoyed. I abandoned Kim Sherwood’s Testament after realising that I’m not sure I can read any more Holocaust novels; it prompted similar thoughts to Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in WinterFinally, I’m hoping to start my book club’s latest choice, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, as I head home, which should see me hitting my Goodreads target of 150 books read in 2018.

Watching

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I saw the documentary Free Solo at Tyneside Cinema last week, which recounts Alex Honnold’s climb up the 3000-foot high El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley without any rope or safety equipment. Filming this feat was a massive achievement in itself, as the film makes clear – not only did the crew have to handle the logistics of capturing the key moments of Honnold’s climb, they had to reckon with the risk that their presence would put him off his game and lead him to fall to his death. The sheer danger of Honnold’s undertaking can hardly be overestimated: one fellow climber describes it as taking a shot at an Olympic gold medal, but if you fail, you die. I’m fascinated by the psychology that leads people to take such risks with their lives, but this goes far beyond even other extreme sports such as freediving. The footage from the morning of Alex’s attempt is acutely uncomfortable to watch, as the crew put on a false joviality, as if Alex is doing no more than attempting a Ninja Warrior obstacle course, whereas you can see many of them are thinking that this might be the last time they speak to him.

In the face of this, I started to wonder if Free Solo itself was unethical, glorifying a feat that is actually profoundly unhealthy. Honnold suggests in the documentary that he’s driven by the idea, instilled in childhood, that he can never be good enough. However, I think there’s a subtlety in the composition of this piece that allows these questions to be raised. Although Honnold values success rather than happiness (‘anyone can be happy and cozy’, he says at one point), the nature of free solo climbs mean they are usually accomplished out of the spotlight, with nobody watching. Seeing Honnold’s climb as either glorious or as idiotic is to simplify it. Honnold’s commitment to a (probably shortened) life of free soloing is his own response to mortality; akin to free diving, he likes the freedom of this kind of climbing, the fact that he’s only relying on himself, and the simplicity and speed of the ascent. However, the problems start when he establishes human ties as well; his serious relationship with a girlfriend feels like an unfair commitment for him to have taken on, even though he’s perfectly honest with her about his intention to continue free soloing. I can’t stop thinking about Free Solo, and the shots of Honnold’s ascent alone make it worth seeing.

Thinking

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Even though I essentially get paid to think, I always struggle to remember anything I’ve actually thought once I get to this section! So I’m going to write about where I do a lot of my thinking: either on walks in Jesmond Dene, in the swimming pool, or in yoga classes. One new version of the above that I’ve taken up recently is hot yoga, with classes in Newcastle run by Hotpod Yoga, a franchise which has bases all over the country. Before I did a trial membership at Hotpod, I was convinced that hot yoga was not for me, despite having practised normal yoga for eight years. I struggle when the temperature outside gets above 30 C (in the pods, it’s set at 37 C) and never go in saunas.

However, I’m a surprised convert. Hotpod offer three difficulty levels, of which I’ve tried two: the mid-range ‘normal’ Hotpod class is basically a vinyasa flow class in the pod, whereas Nurturing Flow is a much slower and more restorative practice, especially good for when you’re aching from other activity. Turns out, when you’re geared up to get sweaty, it isn’t that bad – I find the purple atmosphere wonderfully relaxing, and it’s a great escape from northern weather. Although I have been doing yoga for so long, I’m not very good at it – I’m not naturally bendy – and Hotpod also helps a bit with my inflexible muscles.

This will be my last post before Christmas. I’ve got some exciting festive reading lined up, including Laura Purcell’s The Corset, Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affairand I’ll be back at the end of December with a couple of posts on the year’s reading. Hope that you all have a relaxing break!