Nuns In Novel(la)s

This year, despite not being religious myself, I’ve become slightly obsessed with fictional nuns. I thought I’d think a little about why nuns offer such interesting possibilities for novelists, in anticipation of Lauren Groff’s forthcoming MatrixHere, I’ll be discussing three very different books about three very different kinds of nuns: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2008), which depicts a convent in sixteenth-century Italy; Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black (2019), which follows an unspecified order of nuns on board a living spaceship; and Rumer Godden’s In This House Of Brede (1969), which is set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s. However, although these nuns are far apart in space and time, they all sit within the Catholic tradition; this post will therefore focus on Catholic nuns, while recognising that these aren’t the only nuns that exist, even in the Christian faith – and recommendations for books that deal with non-Christian nuns would be very welcome!

Catholic nuns tend to be the butt of jokes, either portrayed as incredibly prudish or sex-obsessed; because nuns are supposed to be angelic, any hint of misbehaviour from a nun is somehow funnier than if it came from a ‘normal’ person. (One of my favourite jokes as a child – no idea why – was ‘What goes black white black white?’/’A nun rolling down a hill.’/’What’s black and white and goes ha ha?’/’The nun who pushed her!’) The radical potential in stories about Catholic nuns, therefore, lies in asking what it’s really like to be a nun and whether this popular stereotype of repressed, unhappy, usually elderly women holds true. If you take out references to nuns or convents from the blurbs of Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede, they suddenly sound a lot more subversive: 

Sixteen-year-old Serafina is ripped by her family from an illicit love affair and forced into the women’s community of Santa Caterina, renowned for its superb music. 

Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her life among the London elite to join a women’s community.

This is not to say that you can simply ‘take out’ the religion from these kinds of communities and reimagine them as proto-feminist communes, but that there’s obvious potential in telling stories about groups of women who live together and rely on each other, and are often able to do things they could not do in the outside world, while recognising that this kind of life comes with its own set of restrictions. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Matrix sparks a new trend for this kind of novel, as it speaks to a lot of twenty-first century concerns: women who are not defined as wives or mothers; female separatism; loneliness vs chosen solitude; the un/importance of sex.

However, if nun novels were just about women both embracing and escaping the confines of their times, Sisters of the Vast Black would be pointless. Why write about nuns in space when you can invent a future where women can do anything they want? Here, I think we see the appeal of writing about a community of people who are simply trying to do the right thing, aside from feminist concerns. The first two-thirds of Sisters of the Vast Black have a moral seriousness that isn’t preachy or theoretical but very much connected to the world the sisters are dealing with. Even more interestingly, both Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede depict closed orders, where the nuns’ job is not to do ‘good works’ but to create a community of prayer, cut off from most contact with the world around them. The purpose of this can be hard to understand; what good are the nuns doing by removing themselves from the world? However, in both novels, the power of the convent, of this way of living, is evident, although both Godden and Dunant recognise that this life is right for some women and hellish for others.

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Diana Rigg starred in a film adaptation of In This House Of Brede (1975)

Why read about Catholic nuns if you are not yourself Catholic or Christian? One great thing that these novels open up is the opportunity to write about women who are not primarily driven by one emotional tie, whether that’s to a man, a child or another family member. As I wrote in my review of Lissa Evans’s Old Baggagethese kind of novels are very rare. And while I wouldn’t want to read a nun novel that was simplistic or dogmatic about religion, none of these books are like that. Dunant vividly conveys the importance of faith to some women in her sixteenth-century convent while others suffer under its strictures. Godden has a harder task, convincing us that a twentieth-century character like Philippa would enter a convent in the first place, or thrive there as she does. But while few of us have a vocation to be a nun, I could identify with how Philippa struggles with herself, the fight to be the best version of herself she can be – I don’t need to share her beliefs to understand that.

Finally, there’s a thoughtfulness about these kind of novels, a deliberately reflective pace that I find hugely refreshing in fiction. Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede tell a big story about lots of women and the lives they lead, and they aren’t tempted to hurry us along to hit the dramatic highpoints. Sisters of the Vast Black, in my opinion, suffers in its final third because it suddenly speeds up, losing much of what made it special earlier on. These books eschew standard plots with a single, ‘active’ protagonist to think about how even the most self-reliant of nuns are part of something bigger. Along the way, they break many ‘rules’ of fiction, and they’re all the better for it.

Have you read any of these novels, or any other novels about nuns? Do you have any recommendations? (I’ve already spotted that Rumer Godden wrote two other novels about nuns, and am eagerly seeking them out!)

#AllSystemsRead SF Readathon

#AllSystemsRead was a science fiction readathon hosted by Imyril @ There’s Always Room For One More and Lisa @ Dear Geek Place. It ran over the long Easter weekend, 2nd to 5th April, and the aim was just to catch up on some SF reading! Here’s what I read (NB you did not have to read All Systems Red, I wanted to read it anyway!):

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Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries series is pretty famous for its Murderbot narrator, which starts by telling us: ‘I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.’ The first novella in the series, All Systems Red, follows Murderbot after it’s been deployed as a security bot to protect a team of scientists conducting a research expedition on a largely unexplored planet. It was a solid and fun read, but I admit I wasn’t quite as wowed by it as I’d expected to be after all the hype surrounding Murderbot. I think I’d been expecting something more subversive – Murderbot is the classic snarky-exterior-with-a-heart-of-gold character rather than anything more ethically experimental. I liked that, in this set-up, the AI resists the humanity that the human characters project onto it rather than trying to prove its humanity, but as Murderbot clearly thinks very much like a human, this is played for laughs rather than to seriously suggest that there’s anything fundamentally different about bots in this universe. I’m not compelled to pick up the next novella in the series unless the price significantly drops, but I enjoyed the time I spent with this one. (Interestingly, Murderbot very clearly describes itself, and is described, as an ‘it’, but about half the Goodreads reviews that ascribe it a gender say they thought of it as he and half as she. I felt happier thinking of it as an it, though I imagined its human face as generic male.)

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Octavia E. Butler’s short story ‘Bloodchild’ has only convinced me that I must read more Butler as soon as possible – I’ve already read Kindredso next up will be Parable of the Sower. ‘Bloodchild’ has an interesting colonised/coloniser dynamic; a group of humans have left Earth for another planet already inhabited by the Tlic, a race of giant insectoids. We find out that humans were originally forced to live on special preserves, but that recently the two species have developed a more symbiotic relationship that seems to rest on one child of each family rendering a particular kind of service to the Tlic. I don’t want to say much more as this is only thirty pages, but this is a brilliantly disturbing story that raises both obvious and less obvious questions.

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Next up, I read Lina Rather’s novella Sisters of the Vast Black, which focuses on an order of nuns travelling through space in a living ship. The novella opens with them arguing over whether the ship has a soul, which made me think this was going to be a rather more cerebral story than it actually is – this thread is soon dropped and seems only to have served to introduce the central characters. Nevertheless, I thought the first two-thirds of the novella were fantastic. In its last third, Rather abruptly introduces a more standard-issue science fiction plot and draws much tidier moral lines, which was a disappointment. I’m not going to say anything more about this one because I want to include it in a round-up of novels about nuns that I’m working on for later.

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Finally, I started Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu. After all this short fiction, I wanted something really long and immersive! I loved Hao’s short story ‘The New Year Train’ in Broken Stars, edited by Liu, and the premise of this novel sounded fantastic: ‘A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth’. I’m still reading this, so I’ll withhold judgment on it for now!

Have you read any science fiction recently, whether it was recently published, a classic text, or anything in between?

Interview With Natasha Pulley

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed the speculative historical fiction writer Natasha Pulley for Newcastle’s Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA). The video of this interview is now up on YouTube:

Natasha has written four novels to date – The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, and The Kingdoms – all of which I have read and loved. (Watch out for my review of The Kingdoms coming soon – it’s out in May!)

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 1st February.

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

My Top Ten Books of 2020

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

In the order I read them…

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  1. Spinning Silver: Naomi Novik. Novik hits it out of the park with her second folktale retelling, telling three equally compelling stories about three very different women in the fictional kingdom of Lithvas, loosely inspired, according to Novik, by Lithuania, Poland and Russia. I’ve always believed folk/fairytales are fiendishly and perhaps deceptively difficult to turn into full-length novels, because they operate with a logic and a pace that breaks a lot of our conventional ‘rules’ of storytelling (I can’t recommend Kate Bernheimer’s essay ‘Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale’ enough if you’re as interested in this as I am). Novik’s approach is to tell a series of miniature stories that magically combine together. Perfection. I reviewed it here.

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2. Minor Feelings: Cathy Park Hong. This series of essays on making art while considering your own cultural and historical position now feels especially relevant given the issues that were ever more strongly highlighted by black activists during 2020, but is also vital for anyone who’s ever given a thought to how artists should and can use their own experience. I’ve yet to read something better on the idea of writing both within and outside your lane; Hong, who is Korean-American, argues that even when we are apparently writing from our own lived experience, we are always ‘speaking nearby’ ourselves, because no one person can tell everybody else’s story – or even their own. I reviewed it here.

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3. Ice Diaries: Jean McNeil. There’s a whole sub-genre of memoirs written by writers-in-residence in Antarctica, but McNeil’s is in a class of its own. She brilliantly evokes how spending four months on an Antarctic base affected her sense of her own selfhood, while also interrogating the human fascination with empty spaces on the map. If you liked Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Iceyou should read this next – however, I think this is also one of those rare Antarctic books that would appeal to readers who otherwise have no interest in the farthest south. I reviewed it briefly here.

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4. The Butchers: Ruth Gilligan. I recently named this as one of the novels I thought had been most unfairly overlooked this year, and I still don’t understand why it hasn’t received more critical attention. Set during the BSE crisis in Ireland in 1996, it moves between four narrators to tell a story of cow-smuggling and cattle-slaughtering that feels infused with folktale. Read it if you’re a fan of Fiona Mozley or Cynan Jones. I reviewed it here. (Published as The Butchers’ Blessing in the US).

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5. Broken Stars: ed. and trans. Ken Liu. This collection of short Chinese science fiction in translation, the second such collection edited by Liu, gives the Western reader an insight into a literary world that is otherwise not accessible to them. The inclusion of three essays on Chinese SF and its fandom is particularly inspired, giving ignorant readers like me some context for the development of the genre in China. And the book is stuffed full of original and exciting stories, with my favourites including Han Song’s ‘Submarines’, Baoshu’s ‘What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear’, Hao Jingfang’s ‘The New Year Train’, Ma Boyong’s ‘The First Emperor’s Games’ and Chen Qiufan’s ‘A History of Future Illnesses’. To top it all off, the UK edition has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen, though you have to see it in its real-life gold-foiled glory to fully appreciate it.

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6. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: Natasha Pulley. I’m a massive Pulley fan, and this sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street didn’t disappoint (indeed, I thought it was better than the first, though not quite as good as The Bedlam Stacks). We now follow the clairvoyant watchmaker Keita Mori and his friend and lover, Thaniel Steepleton, to late nineteenth-century Japan, where Mori disappears on a mission of his own as electrical storms brew across the country. Before I read Pulley’s fiction, I worried her books would be a little twee, but I was totally wrong; they’re eerie and intelligent and funny, all at the same time. And having wrestled with a time travel novel for several years, I can only admire her ability to centre her plot around a character who has the gift of precognition, which makes figuring out cause and effect EVEN MORE CONFUSING. I reviewed it here.

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7. The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel. I’m not sure what else I can say about this magnificent conclusion to the Cromwell trilogy, other than that it was delightful to find myself finally falling in love with a much-praised sequence of books that I’d always had ambivalent feelings about before (though, typically for me, this happened just when everybody else seemed to decide this one wasn’t as good as the others). For me, this was the best in the trilogy, and should have won everything going. I reviewed it here.

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8. My Year of Meats: Ruth Ozeki. I would never have picked this book up if I hadn’t loved A Tale For The Time Being so much; the story of a Japanese-American documentarian, Jane Takagi-Little, who exposes the illegal use of hormones in the American meat industry back in 1991 didn’t immediately appeal to me. However, although this novel goes to some bizarre places, it really works; it’s held together by Jane, who feels real in a way that few characters ever do. I reviewed it here.

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9. New Suns: ed. Nisi Shawl. It’s very unusual for me to like one multi-author SF anthology enough to put it in my top ten books of the year, let alone two! But Shawl’s edited collection of short speculative fiction by writers of colour delivered hit after hit, and gave me lots of new names to look out for. I especially loved some creepy contributions: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’. I reviewed it here.

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10. Hild: Nicola Griffith. Having abandoned this book twice before finishing it, once in 2017 and again in 2018, it’s safe to say I never thought it would make a top ten books of the year list. However, when I finally committed to Hild, I found myself completely inhabiting her sixth-century world. It’s a book that demands a lot of time and attention, more so, I’d say, even than The Mirror and The Light; but I thought about it for such a long time after finishing it, and wished I could walk back in. (Interestingly, Griffith is now two for two in my books of the year; her SF debut Ammonite was in my top ten in 2019. I’m about to read So Lucky, so we’ll see if she can keep this up!). I wrote a little more about Hild here.

Reading Stats

I read 150 books in 2020. I’m a little surprised by this – it’s less than I read in 2018 and 2019 – as I felt I was reading much more during the pandemic. However, I have to remember that as recently as 2017, 127 books still felt like a massive number. I suspect what has happened is that I’ve read a lot of very long books because I had more time to concentrate, which have dragged down my stats (The Terror, The Mirror and The Light, Hild and The Wise Man’s Fear, I’m looking at you). In 2021, I’ll again set a target of 150.

I read 120 books by women, 28 books by men, and 2 books by an author who identifies as non-binary. This was, again, the worst year ever for men, dwindling to 18% of the books I read – and, interestingly, a few male authors appear several times (I read three books apiece by both James Smythe and James S.A. Corey) – meaning that the number of individual male authors I read was even lower.

I read 46 books by writers of colour and 104 books by white writers. To my huge surprise, the percentage of writers of colour (31%) is the best I’ve ever managed, and actually quite close to my target of 33%! I’m surprised because I felt I was really failing on this target this year, so something must have gone right. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2021.

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

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2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.

 

In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!

Reviewing Amazon Original Short Stories

I accidentally signed up for (and immediately cancelled) Amazon Prime for the dozenth time recently, but still have a free trial lasting a month. As part of this, I realised, I can borrow Amazon Original e-book only short stories from Prime for free, many of which are by authors I really rate. It turns out, this is quite addictive, and I’ve recently read two short story collections. Here’s what I thought:

The Forward collection, edited by Blake Crouch, is a selection of six SF short stories about the future of our world. Overall, I found this collection disappointing: the stories tended to be cliched, and were often more engaged with spelling out their moral message than in creating compelling fiction. This was especially true for ‘Ark’ by Veronica Roth and ‘Emergency Skin’ by NK Jemisin (a huge disappointment from Jemisin, who’s usually a much more subtle writer). I’m honestly getting a bit concerned about this trend in a lot of the recent short SF I’ve read, because while I love stories that tackle the real-life inequalities in our world, and totally agree with the messages these writers are trying to put across, I find these kind of stories so alienating. I just don’t think fiction is the right medium to choose if all you want to do is present your own points, however morally important those points might be. In contrast, ‘Randomise’ by Andy Weir was fun but forgettable, and Paul Tremblay’s ‘The Last Conversation’ sub-Black Mirror and predictable.

The two stand-outs for me were the two longer stories: Blake Crouch’s ‘Summer Frost’ and Amor Towles’s ‘You Have Arrived At Your Destination’. Like the two Crouch novels I’ve read, Dark Matter and Recursion, ‘Summer Frost’ suffers a bit from trying to chuck too many ideas into one story, but it makes you think and keeps you guessing, and that’s always a good thing. It tackles the familiar trope of a video game designer who creates an AI that is gradually increasing in intelligence, but adds in creepy stuff like Roko’s Basilisk, which I loved. My major criticism would be that the narrator is a queer woman, but her voice feels odd to me, and I kept on forgetting that she wasn’t a straight man, although I can’t put my finger on why – possibly something about the particular quality of the sexually possessive way she interacts with her creation? ‘You Have Arrived At Your Destination’, meanwhile, is probably the most well-crafted of the stories in this collection, which makes sense given that Towles made his name in literary fiction. It cleverly starts with another hackneyed premise – a man is invited to choose the genetic characteristics of his future child – but then shoots off in a different direction, exploring the ways in which we already try to control our children’s lives, and how frequently we fail. Towles is willing to let his story finish ambiguously, which gives it much more resonance than the neat endings of most of the stories in this collection. 

The Out of Line collection features seven stories by female writers that explore ‘what happens when women step out of line and take control of their own stories’. This was a much stronger collection than Forward, and I wasn’t surprised, because I know how good most of these writers are. I loved Lisa Ko’s ‘The Contractors’, about  two women working for the same company, one in the Philippines and one in the US, who gradually wake up to their exploitation but also how it differs, and Mary Gaitskill’s ‘Bear Witness’, a dark multi-perspective story that focuses on a rape trial. Surprisingly, however, the real standout was Caroline Kepnes’s ‘Sweet Virginia’, a brilliantly satirical story that takes a young mother dreaming of Hallmark movies into her own version of a wintry escape. This has made me believe that there’s more to Kepnes than just one hit (I very much enjoyed You but couldn’t get through its sequel, Hidden Bodies, which I felt was re-running the same story again).

Two of the stories use a similar premise to Sophie Mackintosh’s novel Blue Ticketimagining worlds where only certain women are allowed or encouraged to have children. Roxane Gay’s ‘Graceful Burdens’ started with an arresting scene at a ‘baby library’, where women are encouraged to check out babies for a short time to ease their maternal urges, but didn’t do anything very interesting with the idea after that. Meantime, Emma Donoghue’s ‘Halfway To Free’ really worried me; I love Donoghue, but this story was so problematic. By imagining a dystopian world where childlessness is celebrated as a means of population control and environmentalism, I felt that Donoghue played strongly into anti-feminist tropes, and also weirdly scapegoated millennials and Generation Z who are (rightly, in my opinion) thinking hard about whether or not to have children due to the climate crisis. I have to believe that this was a writing misstep rather than a reflection of what Donoghue really thinks; there are suggestions in the story that this world is not meant to be entirely bad (older people are respected and valued much more, and a dementia vaccine shows how healthcare has been refocused on their needs) but it very much comes across as a warning rather than a nuanced look at what would happen if we elevated childlessness rather than motherhood.

A final note on this collection: all the protagonists in these stories are mothers, and all but two of them are overtly about motherhood. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the collection wasn’t framed as an examination of motherhood – and certainly I know some of us are weary of this theme after a glut of novels in 2019 and 2020. I personally found Kepnes’s take on this, in particular, very refreshing, but it feels like this focus should have been advertised upfront. 

I’ll now be taking a break from this blog until I post my Commendations and Disappointments, Top Ten Books of the Year, and 2021 Reading Plans on December 30th, December 31st and January 1st respectively! I hope you are all able to have a relaxing holiday season, however you celebrate.

#SciFiMonth Reading, 2020

I haven’t really participated properly in #SciFiMonth this year, but here’s a round up of the science fiction and speculative fiction that I did read in November!

Megan Giddings’ debut novel Lakewood unites horror and speculative fiction in the story of Lena, a young black woman living in Michigan who drops out of college to participate in a secret medical testing programme to pay her mother’s medical bills after her grandmother dies. It soon becomes apparent that things at Lakewood, the location of the programme, are not right, but Lena can’t see another way forward – she’s gripped by the inertia that results from living in a system where both healthcare and education aren’t treated as universal rights, and black lives are viewed as less valuable. Despite the importance of Giddings’ message, however, and her deft use of some horror tropes, Lakewood didn’t function successfully as fiction for me. Like Mary South’s recent collection of short stories, You Will Never Be ForgottenI found it both too surreal and too obvious. Especially in its final third, Lakewood becomes hallucinatory in a way that I found frustrating, but at the same time, we’re told exactly what we should take away from this book, with Lena namechecking infamous historical medical experiments on black people such as Tuskagee

I’m late to the party with Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction classic Kindred, but I’m so glad I got there in the end. Kindred follows a black female writer, Dana, who is unexpectedly thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she’s called upon to save the life of a drowning white boy. As she continues to jump back and forth through time, she realises that this boy is her ancestor, and that he will grow up to become a slaveowner in his own right – and that their fates seem to have become linked. This novel is more of a time-slip than a time travel narrative. Butler is uninterested in the metaphysical questions that get raised in a lot of time travel fiction, preferring instead to reckon with issues of historical relativism, culpability and empathy. I was struck by how naturally the story is told, although this isn’t the first time I’ve been impressed by how (American) science fiction writers from the 1970s and 1980s seem almost to speak from the page. Butler makes her set-up feel completely real through the very simple device of having her characters ask the right questions, allowing her to demonstrate that their actions and reactions make sense, and the novel is both emotionally engaging and incredibly thought-provoking. I’m definitely a Butler convert.

I also read two anthologies of science fiction and speculative fiction this month, Escape Pod, edited by Mur Lafferty and SB Divya, and New Suns, edited by Nisi Shawl. Escape Pod was drawn from the Escape Pod podcast to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. As with all anthologies, there were some stories that worked for me better than others. I was disappointed to find a cluster of stories that, like Lakewood, committed the common SF error of introducing really promising concepts, but then spelling out the message of the story so clearly near the end that it ceased to be interesting. This was the case with Kameron Hurley’s ‘Citizens of Elsewhen’, Beth Cato’s ‘A Consideration of Trees’ and Tobias S. Buckell’s ‘The Machine that Would Rewild Humanity’, among others. However, in contrast to other SF collections I’ve read, this anthology was really strong on stories that were thoughtful and funny, or at least more light-hearted. I loved T. Kingfisher’s ‘Report of Dr. Hollowmas on the Incident at Jackrabbit Five’, Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘Jaiden’s Weaver’, John Scalzi’s ‘Alien Animal Encounters’ and Cory Doctorow’s ‘Clockwork Fagin’. I’d already read NK Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death’, in another collection, A People’s Future of the United States, but it’s a great story that’s worth revisiting. Overall, this anthology definitely picked up in its second half, and introduced me to a number of writers I hadn’t heard of before.

I received a free proof copy of Escape Pod from the publisher for review.

Nisi Shawl’s edited collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour, New Suns, has been on my radar for a while, and while, as I say, anthologies are always a mixed bag, this is an exceptionally strong selection. (It’s made me even keener to check out Shawl’s own work, as they clearly have good taste). There were only a couple of stories that didn’t work for me at all; Jaymee Goh’s ‘The Freedom of the Shifting Sea’ had a lot of pretty gratuitous body horror, which is not my thing; E. Lily Yu’s ‘Three Variations on A Theme of Imperial Attire’ not only had the kind of title that sends up red flags for me, but was awkwardly meta; and Karin Lowachee’s ‘Blood and Bells’ was a cliched Romeo-and-Juliet gang narrative, albeit set in another world. Having said that, I basically liked everything else in New Suns; even Hiromi Goto’s ‘One Easy Trick’, which became too silly for me by the end as a woman chases her own bellyfat through a forest and encounters a talking bear, had such an arresting and memorable opening that I can’t write it off. My favourite stories were mostly on the creepy side: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’ mixes a terrifying premise with an incredibly authentic, inattentive narrative voice to great effect; Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s very short ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ taps into the fear of having done something terrible in childhood which we can’t remember, and which still sets us apart from everybody else; and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’ sets up a haunting world on another planet governed by hagtrees and kalform demons. However, I also loved Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’, a lighter story about how two translators team up to stop a war that reminded me of some of the more stylised stories in Ken Liu’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction, Broken Stars, although Kang is Korean. A brilliant anthology.

The End of the Year Book Tag, 2020

Resurrecting this from last year!

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

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NO, because I just finished it: Hild by Nicola Griffith. I’ve been reading it since September and had tried and failed to read it before in 2017 and 2018. Set in Britain in the seventh century and following the early life of Hilda of Whitby, it’s a massive undertaking akin to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy (although I found its thicket of names and references even harder to navigate). Eventually, I tackled it in the same way I tackled The Mirror and the Light: reading a set number of pages a day and not caring if it took me months to finish. In this way, I found myself completely sinking into Hild’s world, which although led by men has an emphasis on the bonds between women that reminded me of Griffith’s earlier SF novel Ammonite. So expansive and beautiful.

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

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British nature-writing always feels autumnal to me, as it tends to run the full range of the seasons, and so I’m looking forward to Whitney Brown’s memoir of her time as a female dry stone-waller, Between Stone and Sky. Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy!

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

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I’m excited to read Ernest Cline’s sequel to his SF smash hit Ready Player One – of course, it’s called Ready Player Two – which is out on the 24th November. I loved the first book but never took it seriously, so my expectations are both very high and very low. From the blurb, it sounds like Kline has essentially written Ready Player One redux, which is exactly what I want.

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Going back to my mid-year freakout tag, I’m still keen to read New Suns, a collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour edited by Nisi Shawl. I received Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman for my birthday, and I’m looking forward to diving into this story of an elderly British-Antiguan man who has hidden his homosexuality for his entire life. Finally, I picked up a proof of Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder, a debut that focuses on an intersex protagonist growing up in Nigeria.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

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If I ever get round to reading it, I feel like I’m going to either love or hate Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went To The Woods, which is about a young woman who gets kicked off a reality TV show and ends up on a 1960s-style commune.

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2021?

Yes! I have a stack of 2021 releases to read. Of those, I’m most excited about James Smythe’s The Edge, the long-awaited third installment in his Anomaly Quartet; Natasha Pulley’s new speculative historical novel The Kingdoms, which sounds like it’s about time travel; and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, which is about three characters who get caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Kolkata.

Tagging everyone who wants to join in with this tag!

Miscellaneous October Reading

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Melissa Harrison’s most recent novel, All Among the Barley, set in the early 1930s, focuses on an extended encounter between fourteen-year-old Edie Mather, who lives and works on a farm in rural England, and Constance FitzAllen, who claims that she has travelled from London to document rural traditions before they are lost to the next generation. Harrison’s nature-writing is spot on, and I thought that Edie’s narrative posed a resonant question: what do you do when there is no future for you in the place where you live, but when you are so bound to that place that you can’t imagine living anywhere else? In that, and in other ways, the novel recalls Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, with its menacing sexual tension and exploration of the boundaries of consent in Edie’s ‘courtship’ with a village boy. However, I thought the threat posed by Constance was almost too sinister; I think Harrison would have had more to work with if she had made her more of an early social scientist with a less overtly horrific agenda. Other themes, such as witchcraft and mental illness, feel underdeveloped. Harrison writes so well, but I was struck by the feeling that I would have been hugely impressed by this as an older teen, and that I don’t feel quite so drawn to these kind of books any more; which actually makes me feel a little sad.

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Temi Oh’s debut, Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, is set in an alternative present where a group of British teenagers have been selected to travel to the distant planet of Terra-Two, which is envisaged as an alternative home for humanity. The catch: the journey will take twenty-three years and none of them will ever come back. Before reading this novel, I was aware that a number of reviewers had found it too ‘YA-ish’, with a heavy focus on romance that reduced the sci-fi setting to a backdrop. The first third of Do You Dream of Terra-Two? absolutely met expectations in this respect, and I almost gave up on it several times. However, once our protagonists finally leave Earth, this novel takes off as well, acquiring a dream-like quality through the characters’ visions and imaginings of the utopian Terra-Two. It’s strongly influenced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; there are some obvious nods to the earlier novel, such as the final stage of training being nicknamed ‘Command School’ and one male character becoming completely obsessed with a simulation. However, Oh also captures some of the mood of Ender’s experiences at Battle School, raising questions about how these characters are going to create a new world, especially when their adult mentors are absent or inadequate and the people they’ve left behind are already starting to forget them. It still feels more like the first installment in a series rather than a book that works in its own right, but I enjoyed the time I spent in its eerie world.

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Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being was one of my top ten novels of the last ten years, but I couldn’t finish All Over Creation. Thankfully, her debut, My Year of Meats, was a hit rather than a miss. Set in 1991, it follows Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American documentarian who’s been employed by a Japanese production company to film a series called My American Wife!, sponsored by an American meat-exporting business who want to offload more beef into the Japanese market. The My American Wife! formula stipulates that Jane should find an attractive white woman with a reasonable number of children who can demonstrate a delicious meat dish that she makes to feed her family, and feature one woman like this per programme. However, as Jane gains more creative control, she starts going rogue, filming Hispanic and black families, adopted children, and, in her most daring decision, featuring a vegetarian lesbian couple making pasta primavera. Interwoven with Jane’s story is that of Akiko, a Japanese housewife whose abusive husband is part of the production team, and who forces her to watch every episode of My American Wife! and make the featured dishes. Jane and Akiko are poles apart, but their stories are linked by a common experience of infertility, with Jane suffering from a deformed uterus caused by the hormonal drugs her mother took during pregnancy. This leads her to start uncovering the ways in which hormones are used, often illegally, in the American meat industry, and the human cost of these practices. The blurb of My Year of Meats wasn’t that appealing to me; I thought it would become too simplistic, preaching about male violence and the horrors of the meat industry (although as a feminist vegetarian, I’m very much on board with such criticisms!). Instead, Ozeki writes so intelligently and vividly, I was totally engrossed. I also loved the short extracts from Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, which I believe Jane is drawn to because Shōnagon shares her sharp observational abilities. Brilliant, if not quite as brilliant as A Tale For The Time Being.