January Superlatives, 2023

I originally borrowed this post format from Elle; I enjoyed writing these posts so much last year that I’ve decided to bring them back for 2023!

I have to say that January has been a bit of a slow reading month, although I did read a decent number of books despite quite a few DNFs. I haven’t read anything that I either really loved or really hated (though I did feel strongly about Geraldine Brooks’ March, as you can see from my rant). Last January, I read two books that went on to feature in my Top Ten Books of the year list; this January, I’ve read nothing I’d even consider to be in the running. I’m hoping that February will see some properly superlative superlatives!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour. Women’s fiction often falls flat for me – especially women’s fiction where the writer has previously only written YA, as is the case with LaCour. But I was completely absorbed by this gentle story of Creole florist and house renovator, Emilie, and artistic bartender, Sara, as they fall in love despite their difficult pasts. LaCour’s prose is so perfectly simple. Adore the cover, too!

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal. Argh, so disappointing! I was so sure I would love this story of a female medium working in the ‘Spirit Corps’ during the First World War, talking to the ghosts of men who have recently been killed to extract important information. I adored Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, which put a similar speculative spin on modern history, and I’m also a fan of her short stories. This started well but moved away from its clever premise to become more of a spy story set in the trenches; I also wasn’t invested in the central romantic relationship, which is so crucial to the story that my lack of investment felt a bit like a death knell for this novel. I’ll be reading Kowal’s new stuff but avoiding her backlist in future.

My Best Re-Read This Month Was…

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… Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Once I discovered that the sequel to this Yale-set dark academia novel was about to come out, I realised that although I’d really enjoyed Ninth House back in 2019, I remembered very little about it. Time for a re-read! Interestingly, I’d say I liked Ninth House both more and less this time round. Its complicated system of magic-using secret societies  felt much clearer to me on a re-read, and I navigated the multiple plot strands and time jumps much less painfully. However, I found myself wishing that Bardugo would give herself more time to simply explore this world and its characters and pack rather less action into the novel. (I’ve heard that the next one, Hell Bent, is even more plot-driven.) This reread also made me reflect on how much the dark academia sub-genre has moved on in the last three years, especially regarding its treatment of social justice. What felt fresh back in 2019 now seems rather tokenistic after reading the A Deadly Education trilogy, Catherine House and BabelI had a lot of fun rereading this and I still want to read Hell Bent, but I’ve tempered my expectations.

The Novel That Felt Most Like I’d Read It Somewhere Else Before This Month Was…

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… The Divines by Ellie Eaton. This novel is narrated by Josephine, who was a pupil at English boarding school St John the Divine in the 1990s and is now newly married; the narration moves between Josephine’s final year at the school and her first few years of married life. Eaton is a skilful writer, but this ultimately reminded me too strongly of other novels I’ve read about cloistered schools, teenage girls and early sexual experience, especially Bella Bathurst’s Special (also centred around a life-threatening fall!), Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire (shares the same uncomfortable ‘plot twist’!), and Tana French’s far superior The Secret Place. The final chapters, where Josephine is forced to reassess her own and others’ mismemories of their girlhood, are compelling, and this thread could have been introduced earlier, but it wasn’t enough to make this book stand out to me.

The Most Underwhelming Piece of Literary Fiction I Read This Month Was…

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… Trespasses by Louise Kennedy. This debut’s plot treads cliched lines; Cushla, a Catholic primary school teacher in 1975 Belfast, falls in love with an older, married Protestant barrister, Michael, and they embark upon an affair. Kennedy’s prose is intelligent, accomplished, often impressive; and yet I felt like each chapter followed a sequence familiar from much literary fiction, with the accumulation of a series of beautifully observed details (and Kennedy does brilliantly evoke Belfast during the Troubles), the deliberately inconsequential dialogue, the minimal interiority. On the other hand, this probably wouldn’t have felt so rote-like to me if I’d been emotionally invested in the narrative, and I never was. Admirable, but for me it felt like a text to study rather than to love.

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. I had mixed feelings about Kupersmith’s debut novel, Build Your House Around My Bodybut was impressed by its clever puzzle-box narrative and some indelible set-pieces, and loved the bonus short story that was included at the end of my edition. My hope was that I would like Kupersmith even more as a short story writer than as a novelist. This turned out not to be the case – I think whatever she writes next will be her best thing yet, as she’s clearly still developing her obvious talents – but this collection was worth reading. The first story in the collection, ‘Boat Story’, where a granddaughter wants to hear her grandmother’s dramatic tale of escaping from Vietnam in a small boat but gets an unnerving ghost story instead, tells us what we’re in for. Only a couple of stories really stood out to me in the way that Kupersmith’s other vignettes have: my favourite was ‘Little Brother’, where an elderly Vietnamese trucker takes on a disturbing passenger, and I also liked ‘The Frangipani Hotel’, which hints at a macabre family history but resists telling us too much, and ‘Turning Back’, where a teenage girl living in Houston meets an old man who keeps turning into a python. If you’ve read Build Your House…, you’ll see how certain motifs link the two books, and it’s the stories that resonated with that later novel that I found the most vivid and unnerving. Nevertheless, Kupersmith writes so fluidly that I sped through this collection.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty. This was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, but unfortunately my expectations were wrong: I thought it would be a collection of speculative short stories, but it’s actually a novel told in linked episodes with no speculative elements at all. David, or Dee, is a young Penobscot man growing up on ‘the rez’; he and his family experience poverty, violence and drug addiction, while he spends long, aimless days with best friend Fellis, structured only around visits to the methadone clinic. The issues faced by Native communities that Talty highlights here are undoubtedly important, but this didn’t work for me at all as fiction. Most of the chapters have been previously published as short stories, and I can see how they’d function as one-offs: I actually loved the first, very short section of this book, ‘Burn’, where Dee is trying to score some pot and comes across Fellis stuck in the swamp with his braid frozen to the ground. But when they’re put together, they feel repetitive and shapeless, and despite a few powerful paragraphs, Talty’s prose is workmanlike, often flat: ‘I pressed a Q-tip soaked in peroxide against the wound and winced. I dried the area and put Neosporin on it. Behind the mirror I found a box of assorted Band-Aids and stuck a medium-small one vertically between my eye and nose.’ Sadly, this wasn’t for me.

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

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… Ten Steps To Nanette by Hannah Gadsby. I very rarely read memoirs by even quasi-celebrities; ironically, I think the last one I read was Tom Allen’s No Shame, which I very much enjoyed. Gadsby, like Allen, is of course a queer comedian, known for her Netflix smash hit Nanette. However, Nanette was the product of twelve years on the comedy circuit and a lifetime’s struggles, proving the truth of the classic comedy adage that Gadsby quotes in this memoir: ‘comedy is trauma plus time‘. Like No Shame, Ten Steps to Nanette is clearly not written by somebody who writes books professionally; however, I liked the unwieldiness of it, the rambliness, and of course the humour. Even more refreshing was Gadsby’s honesty about how very hard she found it, and still finds it, to ‘fit in’. Lots of writers tell us about their awkward teen experiences but we very rarely hear from anyone who struggled for more than a few years in adolescence, or struggled to the degree that Gadsby obviously did. It was only later in life that Gadsby would be diagnosed with both autism and ADHD, which for her explained a lot about why life had always been so hard. Yet whether or not you share her diagnoses, Ten Steps to Nanette comes as a big relief for anyone whose ‘weirdness’ went beyond the socially-acceptable narrative of ‘I was bullied for a bit at school and was a geek but then pulled it together at university/in my early twenties’. Highly recommended.

The Novel I Spent Longest Reading This Month Was…

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… Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears. I started this 600-page brick back in mid-December but read the vast majority of it this month. It moves backwards in time – which was what attracted me to it in the first place – from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890 to Venice in 1867, unpicking the complicated history of a couple of members of the global financial elite and the women they become involved with. Stone’s Fall is an old-fashioned novel in several ways. It’s a deliberate pastiche of the kind of Victorian sensation novel that Wilkie Collins might have written, with affairs, madmen, mysterious deaths and stock market scheming. But also, although it only came out in 2009, I find it hard to imagine this being published today: it’s so indulgently long, and the female characters very much fit a certain mould of smart-but-unhinged, sexily mysterious but not quite human. Having said all that, I had a lot of fun reading the final two-thirds of this novel, where our two different narrators, both men of influence, take us through some entertaining plots and alternative, behind-the-scenes history; the majority of the month and a half it took me to read Stone’s Fall was spent on the first third, where a naive journalist narrator tried my patience and nothing seemed to happen but a slow accumulation of detail that we’ll need later. If I’d known this in advance, I’d have plowed through the first section more quickly. But this still manages to be the best book I’ve read by Pears.

The Book I Read In December But Which Didn’t Make It Into My December Round-Ups Was*…

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… Life by Gwyneth Jones. And what a very strange book it was. Life had moments of brilliance but also moments that I found troubling and others that seemed redundant. The novel promises to be about the breakdown of chromosomal sex after the discovery of ‘Transferred Y’, or TY, by scientist Anna Senoz. However, TY turns out to be much more destabilising for society’s ideas about gender than for biological sex itself; as Anna explains, the ‘death’ of the Y chromosome doesn’t mean that sexually dimorphic men and women won’t continue to make up the vast majority of the population, even if men are now all technically intersex, because the masculinising SRY gene remains intact on one of men’s X chromosomes. Life, therefore, is really about the ‘sex wars’ and the tension between heterosexual sexual attraction and the more equal sexual relationships that some men and women are trying to forge. TY is such a problem because people believe there are fundamental genetic differences between men and women, and because they believe these matter for society to function. Gwyneth Jones is a bold and intelligent writer, but I felt uncomfortable with the treatment of lesbians, in particular, and the way the narrative flipped between being set in a speculative future where sex and gender are being reconstructed, and rehashing old feminist debates from the 1970s and 1980s. Ultimately, I believed in Anna as a character and she carried the book for me, even when it became baffling.

*very dubious superlative

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‘Becoming a Marmee’: March by Geraldine Brooks

My edition of March and my edition of Little Women

One of my favourite chapters in Little Women comes near the very end. After Beth’s death and her other sisters’ marriages, Jo is at home alone caring for her parents and the household, and she’s utterly miserable: ‘Jo… was learning to do her duty and to feel unhappy if she did not, but to do it cheerfully – ah, that was another thing! She had often said she wanted to do something splendid, no matter how hard, and now she had her wish, for what could be more beautiful than to devote her life to Father and Mother, trying to make home as happy to them as they had to her? And if difficulties were necessary to increase the splendour of the effort, what could be harder for a restless, ambitious girl than to give up her own hopes, plans and desires and cheerfully live for others?’ Jo’s struggles mirror her mother’s. In a more famous scene earlier in the text, which is also one of my favourites, Marmee admits to Jo: ‘I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it.’

Like it or not, this ethos of self-sacrifice is at the heart of Little Women. To a modern reader, Jo and Marmee’s efforts towards self-abnegation may feel horrifying, demonstrating the internalised misogyny of the mid-nineteenth century (although I’d say that Mr March preaches and tries to practice the same ideas). This essay on Marmee hits the nail on the head about her role in the book: ‘The prospect of becoming a Marmee, “Little Women” tells us, is simultaneously an aspiration and a threat. Marmee is at once far more interesting than many readers may recognize and also a major narrative problem.’ Viewing Marmee as simply a cautionary tale of the fate that awaits Jo if she can’t break free, however, is just as reductive as viewing her as an ideal woman and cozy maternal figure. Jo herself recognises this, I think, though she doesn’t say it in so many words. Marmee is clearly the person she most admires in the world, and not because of traditional ideas about being a ‘good wife’ and mother but because of the moral example Marmee sets. Jo has always had scarily high standards for herself and others, and it’s Marmee who both introduced her to those standards and comforts her when she falls short.

Although we may not agree with Marmee, Jo, and Mr March about the way they see duty, Little Women loses a lot of its power if we don’t understand how emotionally important this philosophy of living is to them, and how far Marmee and Mr March have been changed by trying to live in this way. And here, we come to Geraldine Brooks’s March. Much of this novel retells the story of Little Women from Mr March’s point of view, as he works as a chaplain during the American Civil War, ending up teaching basic literacy to newly freed black men, women and children on a southern plantation that has been captured by Union forces. And during this section of the novel, Brooks beautifully inhabits the mindset and moral world of Little Women. The voice she develops for Mr March is spot-on. As he struggles with the tension between preaching the right thing to do and doing it yourself, between taking action and knowing when to stand back, his internal difficulties have the same kind of resonance for modern readers that Jo’s struggles did in Little Women, even though we ask ourselves different questions.

The first two-thirds of the novel also feature Marmee. Mr March flashes back to when he first met Marmee as a young woman and how taken aback he was by her temper. During one of her outbursts at dinner during their courtship, two other women ‘standing one on either side… half patted, half held her, as one would both soothe and restrain a lunging, growling dog.’ Although Marmee is often quite right in what she says, I really enjoyed how ugly Brooks makes her in these moments of rage. It would have been easy to present her as righteously angry from a modern perspective, but Brooks gets us to see how shocking her behaviour is in the nineteenth-century context, and to recoil slightly from her ourselves. And once Marmee and Mr March marry, we see how they work together to live their lives in the service of their principles, providing a safe house as part of the Underground Railroad (these scenes gave me pause, especially a sentimental encounter between a young, formerly enslaved woman and Beth; it feels very white-saviour, but then again, that is the point of the book, that Mr March sees himself and his family as white saviours, and so he’s obviously going to tell us these kind of stories).

It’s all the more disappointing, then, when Brooks decides to give us Marmee’s point of view in the last few chapters of the story, and all this careful work crashes down. She never wanted her husband to go to war, Marmee tells us, but ‘one is not permitted to say such a thing; it is just one more in the long list of things that a woman must not say… I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces.’ This Thousand Ships-style authorial intervention just feels utterly alien to everything Marmee was in Little Women, and everything that makes her such an interesting character. Brooks’ Marmee wouldn’t make efforts to govern her temper, and she certainly wouldn’t tell Jo to do so. Her whole life has been a miserable kind of pretence, so she doesn’t have any wisdom to pass on. She’s a figure to be pitied, not admired or emulated. Ironically, in ‘giving Marmee a voice’, Brooks diminishes her as a character.

I so wanted to love this novel and for the first two-thirds or so, I did. But I wish Brooks had held back and allowed us to make up our own minds about how we feel about Marmee and Mr March. For me, the contradictions at the heart of Little Women, as with so many nineteenth-century novels, especially those about younger women (What Katy Did, The Mill on the Floss, the Emily of New Moon novels) are what gives it such power today. Answering its questions so boldly does it no favours.

If you want even more of my thoughts on Little Women, check out this post where I compare the 2017 and 2019 adaptations of the novel and pontificate about the characters.

 

November Superlatives Plus #NovellasInNovember #SciFiMonth Round-Up

A very short superlatives post this month because I’ve been focused on Novellas in November and SF Month! I’ve also included my summaries of both of these challenges at the bottom of this post.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Passing Strange by Ellen Klages, a glittering lesbian novella set in 1940s San Francisco. You can read my full review here.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. So, I knew this was going to be bad, but I didn’t know it would be quite THIS bad. My Goodreads review/rant is here.

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

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… Five Survive by Holly Jackson. This follows six friends who get into an RV for a long road trip from Philadelphia to the Gulf Coast, hoping to celebrate high school graduation. However, things go wrong when they break down in the middle of nowhere, none of their phones have any service, and they realise there’s a sniper shooting at them. One of them won’t survive the night… but which one? And why have they been targeted and held hostage?  In short: compelling thriller, incredibly irritating narrator. And why has it been saddled with a cover that makes it look like it’s one of the children’s mysteries I used to read as a kid? Readalike: Riley Sager’s silly but compelling Survive The Night. My full Goodreads review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on December 8th.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was…

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… The Galaxy, and The Ground Within by Becky Chambers. I read this final instalment of Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet a couple of years back, but it was a delight to return to it as part of the #SciFiMonth readalong, and I found the discussion questions from Lisa and Mayri helped me think more deeply about the novel. In particular, I focused on Pei’s character arc, which had been easily the most interesting section of the novel for me first time around but this time felt even more resonant.  Spoilers follow – if you want a spoiler-free review of this novel, here’s my original review

Pei is part of an alien species called the Aeluon, who organise their reproductive cycle rather differently than humans do. The Aeluon come in three sexes – male, female and shon, who can shift between the two. Females only incubate an egg once or twice in their reproductive lifetimes, and this is signalled by the ‘shimmer’, when their scales sparkle rainbow. As Aeluon society has developed, males and shon have come to do all the child-rearing, and this is respected as a professional skill, with prospective fathers listing their qualifications. Mothers, meanwhile, just need to have sex with the father/s while they’re shimmering, and then expel the fertilised egg. Aeluons are accustomed, therefore, to separating biological parenthood from those who actually bring you up, and collective child-rearing in creches is standard.

Pei’s dilemma in Galaxy is that she starts shimmering and realises that she really doesn’t want to take time out of her life to spend the required few weeks at a creche to fertilise and expel her egg. Aeluon society, because of its low fertility, really hammers home the message that this is a sacred duty for females, but Pei ultimately realises that there’s no problem with the Aeluon population these days* and she really doesn’t have to mother an egg if she doesn’t want to. Great, you might think: but when I first read Galaxy, I was incredibly frustrated with Pei’s decision. I always cheer on human women in fiction who don’t want to be mothers, but come on! This is the easiest sacred social duty to fulfil ever! Why wouldn’t you fit in with your society’s norms if you could do it so simply!

*though I really don’t understand how this species has survived, let alone thrived, as it is mathematically unable to reproduce itself – even if every female fertilised every egg they had and there was no embryo/infant/child loss – unless there are a great many more females than males or shon, and this is not implied

On a re-read, as I knew what Pei was going to decide ahead of time, I was able to respond more reflectively. Pei’s plot line made me realise, as someone who is childless by choice, how much I would like to be a mother if I lived in a completely different society. I have never felt any biological urge to have children, but I like the idea of being able to deeply invest in a relationship with my own children, although I do hugely value working with other people’s children as well. I would love to experience childrearing as a creative, satisfying and emotional project. However, unfortunately I have realised that in our current society, there’s no way I would have the time and space I’d need to give to a child to make this a fulfilling experience for me while still doing some of the other things that I most value (I am under no illusion that you can have a child and ‘have it all’, in any version of our world, and whether you are a man or a woman; child-rearing takes time, and so you are going to have less time for other things if you do it right). I don’t want to live a life where everything is crammed in, so cheap/free nursery provision, flexible working, supportive partner etc wouldn’t change my mind. On the other hand, I would adore being an Aeluon mother, or even potentially being an Aeluon father! By detaching these questions from our ideas of human sex/gender roles, Chambers gives us so much to think with. It’s a shame that I didn’t find the other character arcs in this book as thought-provoking.

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A quick round-up for #SciFiMonth and #NovellasInNovember – my original plans are linked here:

  • I read four wonderful speculative novellas. My least favourite of the four was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Walking to Aldebaran, and it was still pretty good!
  • I read two queer ‘romances with a side of science fiction’. While I loved Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s OrbitI thought Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake left much to be desired.
  • I loved much of NK Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?especially her SF shorts.
  • I read three more novellas that (accidentally) spanned the range of the #NovellasInNovember challenge: one non-fiction, one classic, one contemporary/in translation. My favourite of the three was the last, Space Invaders by Nona Fernández.
  • I am currently reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel Children of Memory (good, some sections have a very different feel from the first two in the trilogy) and Zen Cho’s short story collection Spirits Abroad (amazing, adore the undead aunts).
  • I am still planning to read Gwyneth Jones’s Life. I just had too many long, complicated SF novels to get through this month! This will be a December read.
  • I am no longer planning to read Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath. Now this book has been published, there are a lot more reviews available, and I decided its fragmentary style and focus on surviving life on a decimated Earth weren’t really for me. I also worried that it might be a bit heavy-handed re social justice issues.

Did you read any SF or speculative fiction, or any novellas from any genre this month? What were your favourite and least favourite reads in November?

More R.I.P XVII Reviews #SpooktasticReads

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

What I’ve Been Reading

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

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

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

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

 What I’ve Been Watching

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

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

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

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

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

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Soulmates Ilonka and Kevin share a moment.

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

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

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

20 Books of Summer, 2022: A Retrospective

A flurry of posts from me at the moment but expect this blog to get quieter as we move into September and the new semester starts.

This year, I reinvented Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge as a rereading challenge. I could read any 20 books as long as I had read them already. How did it go?

The Books

Would I do a rereading challenge again?

Definitely, YES; I liked being able to read as the mood took me, although I did plan a couple of reads in advance as I was keen to revisit them and sometimes had to secure library copies.

However, I probably wouldn’t do a rereading challenge for all 20 books of summer again, as I found I got behind with review copies and my general TBR. Next year, I think it would make sense to have 10 pre-planned books that are new reads plus 10 rereads in the mix.

Did you do 20 Books of Summer? What were your favourite and least favourite summer reads? Would you make different summer reading plans next year?

20 Books of Summer, #18, #19 and #20: Double Fault, The Buried Giant and The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already! 

Three eclectic choices to finish up with… though all have something to say about marriage.

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Before rereading: I first read Double Fault in 2010, when I was twenty-three, and again in 2012, when I gave it the same star rating but enjoyed it more. I remember it vividly. It’s the story of an up-and-coming tennis player, Willy, who falls in love with another tennis player, Eric. At first, Willy can easily outpace him, but as his career gathers speed and hers falters, she becomes paralysed by the pain of her own unfulfilled dreams and her struggle to support Eric. This is one of Shriver’s best novels, but I remember it as quite a traumatic read. Willy’s slow failure is so horrible to witness, and I hugely identified with her inability to see herself as anything other than a tennis player (despite having only successfully hit a ball with a tennis racket a couple times in my life!!) and how viciously Eric’s success rubbed salt into her wounds. The novel has attracted a lot of moany Goodreads reviews about how Willy isn’t ‘likeable’, to which I say, whatever.

After rereading: I found Double Fault much less upsetting to read this time around, although I rated it just as highly. What was actually upsetting were the ‘reading group’ questions in my edition (the book was originally published in 1997, but this edition is from 2007, so not THAT long ago!!). Some examples:

  • Do you find Willy – or at least her plight – sympathetic? Or is her moral obligation to be supportive of her husband so profound in your mind that you cannot forgive her bad attitude?
  • To what degree do you believe that Willy engineers her own professional downfall? Might she want to succeed too much? But you can’t really blame her for her injury, can you?
  • The book’s title is obviously a play on words, implying that both parties in the marriage have some responsibility for what happens. Willy’s “fault” is pretty obvious. But in what way is Eric to blame? Or is he?
  • How do you picture Willy’s life after the last page? What will she do for a living? Will she marry again? If so, will she have learnt her lesson? And what lesson will that be?

Yes, what lesson WILL that be?

My rating in 2010/2012: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

L: The hardback edition that I used to own. R: The paperback copy I borrowed from the library this time around.

Before rereading: I was so excited about Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Never Let Me Go remains one of my favourite novels of all time, and this was his first new novel in ten years. I loved the idea of Ishiguro tackling traditional fantasy after his take on sci-fi tropes in Never Let Me Go, and I bought the novel in hardback when it first came out in 2015. Sadly, The Buried Giant was not a hit for me. While I liked the themes of memory and forgetting, I found the narrative so slow-paced that I never finished the novel. I truly hate quest or journey narratives – when the characters walk from place to place searching for something they’re not allowed to find – and this seemed like a classic example.

After rereading: The Buried Giant focuses on an ageing couple, Axel and Beatrice, who decide to leave the warren of caverns where they have been mysteriously shunned by their community, and go in search of their son. They are also troubled by the ‘mist’ that has come over their memories and those of everybody else around them, and hope to lift it so they can remember happy times together in the past. As they travel, they experience a number of strange encounters, including a community of monks who ritually allow themselves to be pecked by birds in penance, and a group of three frozen ogres, one half-submerged in a pool. They also wonder, as it becomes clear to them that this land has a violent past, if the ‘mist’ is a result of human actions; ‘Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget.’ 

If that was all The Buried Giant was – a novella or long short story that focused on Axel and Beatrice’s journey – I’d likely find it both strange and impressive. Unfortunately, the novel is padded out with much weaker material, including a sub-plot about the ageing Sir Gawain which read like a parody of epic fantasy, complete with creaky dialogue. It’s a deliberate mishmash of influences, many of which are probably unintentional – I was reminded, at different times, of A Song Of Ice and Fire, The Neverending Story (the ‘Nothing’ bears an uncanny resemblance to Ishiguro’s mist) and the film Return To Oz. I’m inclined to agree with James Wood in the New Yorker when he says ‘a generalized Arthurian setting, perilous for most writers, is a larger liability for a writer whose mimesis tends not toward the specific but toward discursive monologue and dreamlike suspensions’ and that Ishiguro’s writing tends to (deliberately) lack ‘texture and telling particulars’, which works in his other novels but not here. I’d add that Ishiguro’s obsession with the things we misremember feels unnecessary in The Buried Giant, given that the premise of this novel is that everybody has forgotten almost everything – and yet his characters still quibble over the details of the past. Honestly, I found this a massive slog, but I was at least left with more to think about than after reading Klara and the Sun.

My rating in 2015: *** [DNF]

My rating in 2022: ***

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Before rereading: I discovered Melissa Bank’s work via her second novel, The Wonder Spot, which I re-read multiple times in my early to mid twenties. I’ve only read The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing once, in 2007, when I was twenty years old, and wasn’t as impressed with it as The Wonder Spot, though the books cover similar ground – smart, thoughtful takes on modern dating reminiscent of something like Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of My Dreams. I was sad to hear that Bank has recently died of lung cancer, aged only 61, and thought it would be good to return to these books, this time in publication order.

After rereading: The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing was a big hit when it was first published in 1999, and I can see why; it captures the turn-of-the-millennium zeitgeist, with its direct references to The Rules and echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary. However, while I can understand why the titular short story made waves, the book as a whole still doesn’t hang together for me. Even putting aside the entirely random story in the middle of the collection that doesn’t feature Jane, Girls’ Guide is uneven. The other strongest stories are ‘Advanced Beginners’ and ‘The Worst Thing A Suburban Girl Can Imagine’, which are also the only two which don’t focus solely on romantic relationships. Banks’ writing is undoubtedly sharp, but the clever one-liners become a little formulaic, as they often rely on reversing a common phrase (Jane ironically accuses a boyfriend who’s trying to find her a job of ‘work harassment in the sexual place’; she calls herself ‘a truthball in search of goof’, etc.) And while a lot of the reviews of this book want to stress that it is NOT CHICK LIT, the best early 00s chick lit is better than this. I enjoyed revisiting Girls’ Guide, but I have much higher hopes for The Wonder Spot, which I plan to re-read in September.

My rating in 2007: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***1/2

20 Books of Summer, #17: Room

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already! I’m on holiday and off-grid until 30th August, so my last couple of posts for this challenge are auto-scheduled.

L: My proof copy. R: The original hardback cover of the novel.

Before rereading: I read Room in 2010, as an ARC, so before the real hype around the novel began. Since reading Room, I’ve read and loved many of Donoghue’s other novels (Stir-Fry, Hood, The Sealed Letter, The Wonder, Akin, The Pull of the Stars) which has influenced my take on her as a writer. I’ve also seen the excellent film version of Room (2015), which helped me to engage with the novel as I could more clearly visualise what was happening. On one hand, Room is strikingly unrepresentative of Donoghue’s other work, which makes me think better of it; I can see how she was pushing boundaries here. On the other hand, I’ve become a little uncomfortable with the views on motherhood expressed in some of Donoghue’s later work, especially her short story ‘Halfway To Free’, which makes me approach it more warily than before. Finally, since first reading Room in 2010, I have become a historian of childhood; so obviously I’m going to have more thoughts about how it treats its child narrator than I did first time around!

When I first read Room, I wrote: ‘ When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything” Jack, the delightful narrator of Emma Donoghue’s new novel tells us. What he has discovered shortly after his fifth birthday is that the room in which he lives with his mother, ‘Ma’, is not in fact the entire world; there’s a world outside, and one day he and Ma might be able to escape… Jack’s voice is the most important thing about this novel, as being inside his head both simplifies the story, sometimes irritatingly, and also allows Donoghue to view the imprisonment in Room from an unexpected angle. Before reading this book, I thought that it might be very distressing and dark – in the vein of John Fowles’ The Collector – but although some of the details that we manage to work out don’t make for easy reading, the overall tone is far lighter than you might expect… I felt that this novel leant a little too hard on the exciting original concept, and on Jack’s skewed narration… and could have been a little better-plotted, especially in the latter half. But I would still very much recommend it.’

After rereading: So, I liked Room more the second time around. I found it intensely gripping, which was not quite my experience when I first read it. The first half of the novel is impressive. Donoghue handles Jack’s voice adeptly, and in the process, says much about being five years old in any place as well as in Room. It made me reflect on the push and pull about what we need as adults and what children need from us, a push and pull that is inevitable anywhere we live right now, let alone in somewhere like Room. Ma heroically constructs as normal as possible a life for Jack, which means that he is largely happy in Room; when they escape, he struggles with the adjustment to the outside world, pining for the objects he remembers. One particular exchange between him and Ma is both insignificant and horribly poignant, especially as the reader has only ‘seen’ the objects in Room through Jack’s uncritical eyes before:

Mine [hair] is back in ponytail but tangledy because there’s no Comb, we left him in Room. “You should have brung Comb,” I tell her.

Brought,” she says. “Remember, I was in kind of a hurry to see you.”

Yeah but we need it.”

“That old plastic comb with half its teeth snapped off? We need it like a hole in the head,” she says.

Jack also struggles, inevitably, with ever being apart from Ma, which means their needs are in direct conflict; Ma is desperate to get outside after seven years in confinement, whereas Jack finds the outside world terrifying. It’s a clever exploration of the tensions within the nuclear family, dialled up to eleven.

Having said this, it’s disappointing that the novel ultimately trails off. Donoghue doesn’t seem sure what to do with Ma and Jack after they are discharged from hospital. Jack’s voice, which worked so well in Room and in the immediate aftermath of their rescue, starts to become a little saccharine in the later stages of the novel, as he encounters more social norms: ‘In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time… In Room me and Ma had time for everything.’ I started to wonder if it might have worked better if Donoghue had switched from Jack’s voice to Ma’s in this final section, which would  have avoided this ‘innocent child reveals the truth of society’ cliche. Just as Jack was the right narrator in Room, giving us a backwards perspective on the horror of Ma’s imprisonment, Ma might have been the right narrator as they try to adjust to the outside world. For me, most of Donoghue’s other novels are stronger than this one, but it does have more to say about childhood than I originally thought.

My rating in 2010: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ****

20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Memory of Love and Beloved

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Before rereading: I first read The Memory of Love in 2011, when it was on the Orange Prize shortlist. I remember liking the novel far more than I anticipated, but being hugely disappointed by the ending. I remember very little about it otherwise, although I was impressed by Aminatta Forna’s subsequent novels, The Hired Man and Happiness. Spoilers for The Memory of Love follow.

The first time I read The Memory of Love, I wrote: ‘The book is set in 2001 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and delicately and vividly charts the aftermath of the recent civil war. The central character is ostensibly Adrian Lockheart, an English psychatrist who has come to help the survivors work through their trauma and grief, but he is rather colourless, and I found myself far more involved in the stories of the two other major characters: Kai, an orthopedic surgeon, and Elias, a dying man who tells Adrian the events that unfolded thirty years ago when he fell in love with the wife of a colleague just before the country was swept up in a military coup.’ 

However, I was hugely disappointed by the final fifty pages of the novel, writing: ‘I thought this was a fantastic novel up until the last fifty pages, and then – abruptly, and to my own frustration and disappointment – I began to change my mind… Adrian, who has never lived through a war or under military rule, feels that he can despise Elias, while not giving a thought to his abdication of responsibilities towards his own family… If this self-righteousness was portrayed as a failing of Adrian’s, it would be interesting – but my impression was that Forna was entirely behind Adrian’s viewpoint here, especially as we hear no more of Elias after this pivotal scene, and there are no more sections from his point of view that might qualify his actions. Disturbingly, in an earlier scene Adrian is fully able to forgive a war criminal who tossed a baby into a burning building, and even compares him favourably to Elias because he is honestly repentant, while Elias is still trying to justify himself… [The female characters] become idealised pawns largely because we are meant to come down on Adrian’s “side”‘.

After rereading: Interestingly, while I disagree with some of the criticisms I made of The Memory of Love the first time around, I came away with a significantly worse impression of the novel in 2022 than in 2011. It now strikes me as a curiously old-fashioned book, especially in comparison to Forna’s later work. Forna seems determined not to reveal much of Adrian’s inner life, keeping us at arm’s length from the character and instead describing the world he moves through in great, if not excruciating, detail. This might have been a clever narrative choice, especially given Adrian’s psychiatric work that requires him to dig deeply into the traumatised minds of other characters while saying nothing about himself, but it ultimately causes a big problem for the novel.

Adrian’s ‘colourlessness’ seems to render him an objective observer of the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone and the moral conflicts it has caused for its survivors, which makes him feel uncomfortably like a kind of white saviour who isn’t even that good at saving. I’m less convinced than I was in 2011 that this was Forna’s intention; I think we are meant to question Adrian’s presence and motives. Nevertheless, his judgment of Elias still feels off-kilter, even if we can assume that some of his anger is displaced frustration about his inability to help his lover, Mamakay, who is Elias’s daughter. I disliked Elias even more this time round (originally, I felt he was ‘seriously flawed’ but still sympathetic), and so was a bit less bothered about his fate, but it was hard not to feel that both he and Adrian are cast in the same mould: paternalistic men who believe they know what’s best for those around them, especially the women they claim to love but never really get to know. However, if this was the reaction that Forna was aiming for, I wish the women in the narrative had been more than idealised ciphers.

If there’s anything that saves this novel, it’s Kai’s story. While Forna also gives us limited access to Kai’s thoughts, we get more to work with, and he is also the character that has the most nuanced and interesting arc, as he struggles with his own unresolved PTSD and the temptation of emigrating to the United States to join his friend Tejani, rather than continuing with his important orthopaedic practice in Sierra Leone. Interestingly, when Mamakay turns up in Kai’s narrative, we get a sense of who she might be as a person rather than the ‘unreadable’ woman she appears to be through Adrian’s eyes. Again, I wonder if Forna had something to say here about the white and/or misogynistic gaze, as this replays Elias’s relationship with Mamakay’s mother Saffia. If so, though, the novel reproduces these power structures rather than truly challenging them. The woman on its cover remains a distant memory rather than a real, living love.

My rating in 2011: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***

L: The fantastic, Woman In White-esque edition belonging to my mum that I read first time around. R: the slightly bizarre Everyman’s classics edition I borrowed from the library this time around.

Before rereading: I first read Beloved during the summer of 2004, when I was seventeen. I clearly remember reading it in the tent that served as the ‘green room’ for the outdoor youth theatre production of My Fair Lady I was involved with that summer. I’d been inspired to read it because we’d read the opening paragraphs in English Literature class (we’d started preparing for our A Level unseen text syllabus just before school broke up, as our AS Levels were over) and I’d been hugely impressed by Morrison’s writing. However, I remember struggling with the denseness of the text while reading the whole novel. I thought it was good, but I knew I didn’t quite understand it. I didn’t write anything about the novel at the time.

After rereading: Like The Memory of Love, Beloved deals with the legacy of trauma, working through dreams and fragmentary flashbacks as the characters continue to struggle with the violence they’ve witnessed. Slavery occupies the same kind of space in Beloved as the civil war does in The Memory of Love; we gradually become aware of what has happened to our protagonists, but we are never given a neat chronological account. Instead, we re-experience the trauma as they do, when it intrudes upon the present. It won’t come as any surprise that Beloved is the far better novel, but they made interesting reading companions.

I was surprised, when revisiting Beloved, to find that it was much less dense and difficult than I remembered. I think I’ve just had so much more experience at reading this kind of writing since I was a teen (when I chomped down big nineteenth-century English classics, so had no fear of ‘challenging’ books per se). And yes, it’s a hugely impressive achievement. Morrison’s prose is stunning, especially when she writes about what we remember, what we cannot, and how we re-encounter it:

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I don’t really think the world needs me to review Beloved in great depth, because I don’t have anything profound to say. This is a great novel, and if I do still admire it rather than adore it, that doesn’t bear any relation to how well it achieves what it set out to do.

My rating in 2004: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

#20 Books of Summer, #13 and #14: True Believer and Over Sea, Under Stone

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already!

I feel like a bit of a cheat choosing two children’s/YA books (Skellig did not count because it was so awful I read it very slowly) but, to be fair, nothing against it in the rules I set myself.

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The UK edition I own – couldn’t find a stock photo online. I love the very ‘early 00s’ font choice, reminiscent of the cover of Nicola Griffiths’ The Blue Place.

Before rereading: I first read this book in 2002, when I was fifteen years old, the same age as the main character. I don’t remember much about it other than that I resonated with its themes of oppressive, evangelical Christianity and first love.  It stands out in my memory because I liked it despite the fact it was an ‘issue’ book written in blank verse – two things I usually steered clear of as a teenager. I didn’t write anything down about the novel at the time, but it was ‘Commended’ in my monthly book awards.

After rereading: Ah, I completely see why I loved this so much as a teenager, but I still really enjoyed it as an adult. The central themes of the novel – unrequited love, religion, and biochemistry – were also three of my obsessions at this age. Like LaVaughn, the protagonist of True Believer, I was disturbed by how many of my fellow classmates had become vocal evangelical Christians, committing to fundamentalist ideas about evolution and hellfire, and resisted their attempts to convert me. Although our adolescent experiences were otherwise very far apart – American LaVaughn lives in a rough inner city area with frequent shootings, both inside and outside her high school – I identified with her concerns. It also features a very early 00s take on adolescent homosexuality: our sympathetic, straight protagonist discovers that a male friend is gay and, after the initial shock, accepts it. It’s interesting how the few YA novels at the time that did tackle this topic often did it in this sidelong way (and totally unsurprising that the gay characters were always male). Passages from the book came back to me as I was reading, making me realise that they must have stayed with me ever since. And while I still struggle with novels written in blank verse, this, along with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Otheris a rare exception that works for me: Wolff uses verse so cleverly to convey the cadence of LaVaughn’s voice.

(This book is actually the second in a trilogy. I read the first, Make Lemonade, after reading this one and wasn’t too impressed with it. The third, This Full House, came out in 2009, when my teen years were over, and doesn’t seem to have got great reviews, so I’m hesitant to try it).

My rating in 2002: ****

My rating in 2022 (twenty years later 😲): ****

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Before rereading: I read this book multiple times as a young child. The American edition suggests to me that I first read it in the States, so I was probably around six or seven (c.1993-4). I remember it as being quite similar to Enid Blyton, The Magician’s Nephew and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in its Cornish holiday setting, quest narrative and hint of something darker via the character of Great-Uncle Merry, who I remember as having a bit of a Gandalf vibe. I did not read the rest of the novels in The Dark Is Rising sequence until I was a teenager, and never clicked with them in the same way. I think it was a combination of not being a big fan of high/Arthurian fantasy and feeling resentful that there were (initially) so few connections between this book and the rest of the series.

I’m rereading this as part of Annabel’s Dark Is Rising Sequence Readalong #TDiR22.

After rereading: This took me back! I read it when I was so young I still believed all books somehow existed in the same world, so it’s muddled in my head with Weirdstone – which was published five years earlier, and with which it shares certain key similarities – and other children’s books I read that dealt with Cornish folklore. It starts off feeling very Blytonesque, as the three Drew children embark on their seaside holiday, but Cooper expertly weaves in a darker and more menacing thread as they find a mysterious map and search for the Grail, and the final revelation about Great-Uncle Merry confirms my dim memory of the novel. This was a perfect read for a sunny few days spent largely on the north-east coast – plus one misty morning.

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Annabel asks:

  1. We’re reading the book in prime holiday season. Does it successfully evoke the sense of adventure of childhood holidays at the seaside for you? YES – especially the sequence when the children explore a cave at low tide.
  2. This novel was initially written in response to a competition to honour the memory of E. Nesbit, although it wasn’t actually entered for it. How well do you think Cooper achieves this? I find this a bit puzzling. I devoured many E. Nesbit books as a child – Five Children and It, The Story of the Amulet, The Story of The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Enchanted Castle (hated The Railway Children, sorry) – and this book doesn’t seem to owe much to Nesbit. As I’ve said, to me the obvious readalikes are Blyton and Garner. Over Sea, Under Stone recalls a world of ‘high’ magic linked to local legend, which doesn’t fit with the feel of the more prosaic magics in Nesbit’s books. The closest Nesbit novels are probably Treasure Seekers/Wouldbegoods, but there is no element of fantasy in those two, and they adopt a much more imaginative and interesting style of first-person narration than Over Sea, which is very straightforwardly told.
  3. I can’t help comparing the Drew children to Narnia’s Pevensies. Barney would be Lucy, Simon would be Peter – does that make Jane Susan? What other parallels are there if any? I don’t remember the Narnia novels well enough to answer this, but I was interested by the way the three children are characterised. Although Cooper’s writing is far superior to Blyton’s, there are traces of familiar roles. Simon is the leader and protective older brother, Barney is the maverick younger brother and repository of random facts, and Jane is more caring, more easily frightened and more timid. Cooper is careful to have all three children contribute equally to the quest for the grail, but I was sorry to see Jane sometimes relegated to more traditionally feminine roles – for example, waiting for the boys outside the cave.
  4. And what about the dog? How does Rufus compare with Tintin’s Snowy/Milou or Timmy in the Blyton’s Famous Five? I’m not really sure why there was a dog in this book – although he does a good line in alerting our protagonists to the presence of evil.

My rating c.1994: *****

My rating in 2022: ****

20 Books of Summer, #11 and #12: NW and The Unwitting

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already!

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Before rereading: I first read NW in 2013, when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’d found the two previous Zadie Smith novels I’d read – White Teeth and On Beauty – ponderous, pretentious and caricatured. In comparison, this was a breath of fresh air. I don’t remember much else about the novel, though.

The first time I read NW, I wrote: ‘NW, in my opinion, is everything that White Teeth should have been – sharply observational, genuinely funny, perceptive on the interlocking system of inequalities that form from class, race and gender, and incredibly evocative of the small corner of London in which it is set. Because it’s free of the stereotypes, caricatures, and laboured farce that I felt marred [Smith’s] earlier work, it’s a much more engaging read, with a cast of fully-rounded characters who each get a chance to tell their own story in their own style (I was particularly fond of the long Natalie Blake section, which told the story of a very individual girl but also said a lot about selfhood and identity). As this suggests, Smith extends her range stylistically in this novel as well, and her experiments with words worked much better for me than they’ve ever done before’. I ranked it third of the six novels on the Women’s Prize shortlist, behind Kingsolver and Mantel.

After rereading: This was a really interesting reread. I felt like I liked NW both less and more than I did the first time round, although my rating hasn’t changed. Having read Swing Time since, I still believe that the later novel is the most fully-realised and accomplished version of the themes that Smith explores here, and is also distinguished by a much more naturalistic and seemingly effortless style. In contrast, the experimentation of NW feels a little laboured, a difficult transition from one kind of novel to another. Having said that, though, it’s also incredibly sharp, especially in its later sections. I can see why Smith included the two narratives that make up the first half of the novel – Leah’s and Felix’s – but they ultimately feel like a lot of throat-clearing for the brilliant Natalie Blake section that, as I noted in my first review, is what NW is really about. The whole book builds towards Natalie’s meeting with former schoolmate Nathan, and the choice that she ultimately makes as she tries to reconcile the world of her childhood with her new life as a bigshot corporate lawyer. Smith plays so intensely with voice that every reader is bound to find bits that don’t work for them and bits that do, but it’s in the Natalie chapters that this really feels coherent and worthwhile, whereas it can get in the way of Leah and Felix’s stories. Swing Time remains my favourite Smith, but this is a close second.

My rating in 2013: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

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Before rereading: I first read The Unwitting in 2014, while I was writing up my PhD thesis! I’d enjoyed Ellen Feldman’s previous two books, Scottsboro and Next To Love, and I was attracted by its Cold War setting.

The first time I read The Unwitting, I wrote: ‘Pivoting around November 22nd, 1963, the novel jumps back to the early 1950s to explore the beginnings of Nell and Charlie’s relationship. Soon after they meet, Charlie is offered a job on a liberal, anti-Soviet journal, Compass. Nell is equally committed to the journal’s remit, to oppose both ‘the totalitarianism of the left’ and that of the right. In the McCarthy era, a number of its writers fall under suspicion, including Charlie himself; and Nell is, dimly, suspicious of where Compass’s financial backing is coming from. In the loose-living circles that they frequent, it would be easy for Nell to lose her trust in Charlie, and suspect he was cheating on her, but she trusts completely in his faithfulness. What niggles at her is the loose threads that never quite seem to make sense – like the story on the coup in Guatemala that she wrote for Compass, but which was rejected at the last moment… A particularly satisfying thread in The Unwitting is the way in which Feldman turns the traditional plot – a woman’s happy marriage is shattered by the discovery of adultery – on its head, by suggesting that, for Nell at least, there are worse crimes than sexual unfaithfulness… I admired Feldman’s deft, precise and clever writing… however, [she] gives us less to think about beyond the obvious, and is so economic with her narrative choices that the novel feels over-schematic.’

After rereading: Again, my rating remains the same, but I’m inclined to be rather kinder to The Unwitting than I was in 2014. I don’t think it feels over-schematic any more, although it is certainly tidily demarcated into the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ of Nell’s marriage. I also don’t agree with my prediction in 2014 that ‘I doubt there is enough depth in The Unwitting for me to want to read it again’; I both enjoyed this reread and found it thought-provoking. As I said in my original review, I liked how Feldman juxtaposes personal and professional betrayal, but flips this familiar theme; it’s Nell who is most wounded by what Charlie keeps from her professionally whereas Charlie feels less guilty about his deception when he discovers Nell has cheated on him. The revelation at the heart of this story does not feel especially huge or shocking, which is why I think a lot of readers have complained this is a novel where ‘nothing happens’ (the publishers didn’t help here by billing it as a spy story, which it is not). However, I admire Feldman’s bravery in exploring something that feels so significant to Nell even if it is less obviously significant to readers who didn’t live through the Cold War in the United States. Not every twist needs to be jaw-dropping. I’d definitely recommend this to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and Rodham. 

My rating in 2014: ****

My rating in 2022: ****