Three Things… September 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been delving into a subreddit called nosleep, which focuses on ‘realistic horror stories’; as you’d expect, it’s of very mixed quality, but contains some real gems. On Elle’s recommendation, I started with ‘Has anyone heard of the Left/Right game?’, and moved on to ‘I’m a search and rescue officer for the US Forest Service, I have some stories to tell’. The first is a straightforward ‘found footage’ set-up, focusing on a journalist called Alice who sets off on a journey along a terrifying road, and has a fully realised plot that is recounted to us through a series of files that Alice’s friend, the subreddit poster, claims to have found. The second doesn’t have a plot as such, but is actually even scarier as we’re introduced to a series of mysterious disappearances in one of the US National Parks, and the sets of staircases that rangers occasionally come across that lead to nowhere. They’re told by their superiors never to go near them or talk about them, but of course some people break the rules…

What I find especially fascinating about these nosleep stories is the way that they play with the genre conventions of message boards to create a new kind of fiction. In one sense, this is a very traditional way to tell a story – in serialised parts – but it gets interesting when commentators below the line start playing along, and treat the story as if it’s real, like this poster on the US Forest Service story: ‘I’ve heard about these staircases too, my ex was a SAR officer and he mentioned them and told me not to tell anyone. It pissed me off, because he didn’t know much about them and didn’t seem to find it as fascinating as I did.’ Obviously, part of the game is not knowing who’s recounting real stories and who’s deliberately playing into the theme of the board, and if possible, this makes these stories even more terrifying. Seriously, do not read either of these after dark, or, if you’re easily spooked, by yourself. Both of them remind me a little of James Smythe’s SF novels The Explorer and The Echowhich suggests how well horror conventions can be integrated into other genres (see also: George R.R. Martin’s depiction of the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords). But they also made me think about how horror rarely works well in long form, and how this is a new way to connect with readers.

Watching

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On a very different note, I’ve been indulging in nostalgia recently! I went to see Wise Children’s production of Malory Towersadapted and directed by Emma Rice, at the York Theatre Royal. I loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels as a child but am in no sense a Malory Towers purist; I liked how this show drew on elements from all six novels in a mishmash of fun. The cast have a great energy and there are some hilarious moments, most notably Mary-Lou dangling from a cliff and being rescued by a horse.  School bully Gwendoline was also depicted wonderfully (I’m a Gwendoline apologist and so is this show). Nevertheless, it didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. I think this was partly the result of trying to handle too many characters; Rice rightly wants to show how all the girls are flawed and have their own secrets and complexities, but there’s just too much going on. Also, a number of the character choices for the pupils jarred for me. In the original, Sally is terribly jealous of her baby sister, and Alicia is an incredibly smart girl who struggles to empathise with others because everything comes so easily to her. In this, only child Sally is simply ignored by her parents and Alicia worries about keeping up with the other girls in lessons. In short, they’re both reduced to much less interesting archetypes, and I didn’t understand why.

Finally, Bill was a highlight of the show for me; played wonderfully by non-binary actor Vinnie Heaven, the character is exuberantly gender non-conforming. The show itself did a good job of leaving it up to the audience how to interpret Bill, I thought; is he a trans boy, are they non-binary, or is she a lesbian in a very 1940s mould? However, the reviews of this show all seem to have decided that Bill is definitely trans (it’s not clear whether Rice herself intended the reading to be so set in stone). I find this a bit of a problem because the character in the play is produced from the rolling together of two Blyton characters who are canonically lesbian (some may question this, but they would be wrong; the two characters decide to live together and set up a stables at the end of the series, and for anyone who knows anything about inter-war lesbian coding, it’s written all over them). There does seem to be a tendency recently for media to operate a ‘one in one out’ policy on lesbian and trans characters; if your show has a trans man, it seemingly can’t have a lesbian as well (see also: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinawhich I’ve been watching on Netflix). Both trans men and lesbians are still chronically under-represented, so I think this is really sad. Why can’t we have both?

Thinking

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After giving my talk on ‘When children became evil’ at the British Science Festival, which was held this year at the University of Warwick, I enjoyed seeing some of the other talks. The highlight for me was probably Robin Allaby’s talk on ‘The lost landmass of Doggerland’ where he described his team’s scientific research on this lost landmass in the North Sea that used to connect Britain and Europe. I was fascinated to hear about a wide range of phenomena, including ‘Seahenge’, a submerged timber circle discovered in Norfolk, the remains of forests that can be found under the North Sea (I already knew about the ones found in Cambridgeshire peat fens!), and the Storegga Slide tsunami that caused an underwater landslide 8200 years ago, marking this hidden landscape. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Searching for Doggerland was already on my TBR list, but now I’m extra keen to read it. I was also fascinated by Diva Amon’s talk on ‘The dark heart of the ocean‘, which focused on deep-sea mining but also included some interesting bits about deep sea landscapes, such as how ancient many of the organisms are (tubeworms can live up to 1000 years and black corals 4200 years) and so how hard they find it to adapt to human interference. Finally, Hannah Belcher, Karen Leneh Buckle, Will Mandy and Hannah Hayward spoke on ‘Autism: the lost girls’, about how girls with autism are routinely ignored or misdiagnosed because of the ‘extreme male brain’ stereotype: the most moving part of this talk was the Q&A, where many audience members spoke of their own struggles with getting help for their daughters or granddaughters.

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Some of My Favourite Short Stories

I read a lot of short stories, but I feel like they rarely get the recognition from me that they deserve because it’s unusual that a whole collection is so good as to, say, make it into my top ten books of the year (Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades and Runaway, George Saunders’s Tenth of December and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove are honourable exceptions). They also aren’t eligible for the Women’s Prize, which is the book prize I follow most consistently. Therefore, I thought I would highlight some of my favourite short stories. If I can find online links to the stories, I’ll include them, so you can read along!

General/Literary Fiction

  • Alice Munro: ‘Red Dress – 1946’ from Dance of the Happy Shades. This might seem like an odd choice; it’s one of Munro’s earliest stories and probably feels slight next to some of her later work. But it so perfectly inhabits adolescence, and the last line is both determinedly low-key and unforgettable. You can read the opening of this story here.
  • Nafissa Thompson-Spires, ‘Suicide, Watch’ from Heads of the Colored PeoplePretty much the only story I’ve ever read that has managed an effective satire about excessive use of social media. Read it here.
  • Matthew Kneale, ‘Powder’ in Small Crimes in an Age of AbundanceStarts with a middle-ranking lawyer who feels he has been overlooked for promotion since achieving the rank of salaried partner and goes to some bizarre places. Many of the other stories in this collection are also worth reading.
  • Lionel Shriver, ‘The Standing Chandelier’ in Property [also published as a stand-alone]. Shriver at her worst is unreadable; Shriver at her best is unforgettable. I also liked ‘Kilifi Creek’ in the same collection, which is thematically remiscient of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am.
  • Michel Faber, ‘Vanilla Bright Like Eminem’ from The Fahrenheit Twins. I’ve never forgotten this simple story, in which a man unknowingly experiences the best moment of his life. Read it here.
  • Sarah Hall, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ from The Beautiful Indifference. Again, pretty much everything in this collection is amazing, but I loved this evocation of a small and brutal Cumbrian town.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ from The Thing Around Your Neck. In an otherwise undistinguished collection, this story about writing your own life as a Nigerian woman stood out, prefiguring Adichie’s magnificent Americanah. Read it here.
  • Curtis Sittenfeld, ‘The Nominee’ from You Think It, I’ll Say ItI loved this short story about Hillary Clinton, and can’t wait for the novel-length version. Read it here.
  • Lauren Groff, ‘Ghosts and Empties’ from Florida. Such an evocative collection, and this story, about a woman walking the streets of her neighbourhood, has stayed with me. Read it here.
  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, ‘The Lion and the Spider’ from Friday BlackThis isn’t really representative of Adjei-Brenyah’s speculative satire, but it’s such a moving story.

Speculative and Science Fiction

  • Ted Chiang, ‘Story of Your Life’ from Stories of Your Life and OthersMade famous by its film adaptation, Arrival, ‘Story of Your Life’ pulls off what I thought was an impossible plot-line (I saw the film first, and thought the twist was ridiculous) in Chiang’s characteristically cerebral style. Read it here.
  • George Saunders, ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ from Tenth of DecemberBrilliantly surreal and utterly horrifying, like many of Saunders’ imaginings. Read it here. I also loved ‘Sticks’ from the same collection, which is so short it’s almost flash fiction, and yet so powerful.
  • Karen Russell, ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ from Vampires in the Lemon GroveLet’s face it, I could have chosen any story from this wonderful collection (apart from that weird one where the presidents are all horses). The titular story is both deliciously weird and so grounded. I mean, how can you not like a story where a vampire feeding from a lemon describes it as ‘bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt’?
  • Alice Sola Kim, ‘Now Wait For This Week’ from LaValle et al ed., A People’s Future of the United StatesI’ve been raving about this already, but it’s just so good, cleverly inverting the Groundhog Day conceit, and you can read it here.
  • Ted Chiang, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ from ExhalationNo apologies for putting Chiang on the list twice; he just writes such good SF short stories. This one made me sad, because I will never write time travel as well as Chiang does, and happy, because he gets it so right. His ‘Story Notes’ on this story also perfectly sum up the time travel genre in a paragraph. Basically, he’s a genius. Read it here.
  • Daisy Johnson, ‘Starver’ from Fen. A girl turns into an eel against the backdrop of an eerie fenland landscape.
  • Lesley Nneka Arimah, ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ from What It Means When A Man Falls From the Skyin which a mother’s yarn baby starts to unravel; read it here. I also loved the titular short story from this collection, about ‘grief collectors’ during a time of war, but thought it would have been even better expanded into a novel.
  • Kirsty Logan, ‘The Rental Heart’ from The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. Many of the stories in this folklore-inspired collection felt a bit insubstantial to me, but I loved this tale of clockwork hearts that get passed around and broken. Read it here.
  • Jen Campbell, ‘Bright White Hearts’ from The Beginning of the World In The Middle of the NightAgain, most of the pieces in this collection didn’t quite work for me, for similar reasons to Logan’s, but this story about a woman working at an aquarium was poetic and memorable. Read it here.
  • Carmen Maria Machado, ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, from Her Body and Other Parties. I haven’t read the rest of the collection yet but I loved this story, which imagines a world where women are gradually becoming insubstantial.

Ghost and Horror

  • M.R. James, ‘Casting the Runes’, from Collected Ghost Stories. And now for something completely different. I’m not a massive fan of M.R. James, but I love this terrifying story of demonic pursuit, which you can read here. I also like his ‘The Tractate Middoth’, set in the stacks of Cambridge University Library, which are just crying out for ghost stories.
  • T.E.D. Klein, ‘The Events on Poroth Farm’ which I encountered in American Supernatural Tales. Technically, this is a novella, but I’m having it anyway because it is one of the scariest things I’ve ever read. It also provides a crash course in American supernatural fiction.
  • Garth Nix, ‘The Creature in the Case’, published as a stand-alone for World Book Day in the UK. To throw in a bit of YA, this is another frightening story of supernatural pursuit (I’m sensing a theme here) that takes place in the same universe as Nix’s Old Kingdom novels.

This got LONG – apologies! What this indicates to me is, although I also read a lot of speculative and science fiction in novel form, I especially enjoy speculative and SF short stories; this isn’t surprising, given the history of this genre. Ghost and horror stories also tend to work better for me in short form. The favourite stories that don’t fall into these categories tend to be slices of life that say something about power structures, either societal or within a particular friendship group or family, or which are especially evocative on landscape. Historical fiction is, perhaps unsurprisingly, totally absent.

What are your favourite short stories or short story collections? Do you tend to have different genre preferences when you read short stories?

20 Books of Summer, #17: Exhalation

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Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories, is even better than his exhilarating Stories of Your Life and Others (although I’m sad about the UK cover; why can’t we have this beautiful US one, as well as a decently produced hardback?) For me, more of the stories in Exhalation than in Stories of Your Life managed to blend Chiang’s incredible intelligence with a solid emotional core, and when Chiang does this, he’s unbeatable. The opening story, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ was, for me, the most satisfying: Chiang effortlessly handles complicated single-timeline time travel and its emotional consequences, while packaging it in a literary form – the nested stories of The Arabian Nights – to which it is absolutely suited. Although, [spoiler] I couldn’t help speculating that the narrator, by travelling back to intercept the comforting news being brought to his former self, had inadvertently condemned his former self to a lifetime of guilt, motivating him to travel back in the first place, which he doesn’t seem to register! [spoilers end]. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to write time travel this elegantly, and I can only applaud (and envy) Chiang.

The two novellas included in the collection are also both fantastic, although for me, not quite as perfect as ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and the ethical issues that this throws up. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. As ever, Chiang thinks about the details: one obstacle the owners face is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. However, this story is particularly notable for the potential parallels it draws. The analogy with human children is somewhat imperfect (digients seem much less capable than children, even when the number of years they’ve been alive is factored in) but works when we start thinking about why we have children: can it ever be right to create something just so we can love it?

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ (the title is taken from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety) also dissects a familiar time-travel trope, although it’s not a time travel story: in this novella, humans are able to converse with their ‘paraselves’ who are living in alternative timelines that have split off from the timeline they are living in following quantum events. A lot of time travel novels (including mine…) use this trope, drawn from  Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, to allow time travel between parallel timelines rather than within a single timeline. Chiang stresses that new timelines, in this story, don’t break off whenever anyone makes a decision but only in certain circumstances; however, it is often possible to converse with a paraself in a timeline where a significant decision has turned out differently, whether that’s leaving a marriage, taking a new job, or admitting to a crime. Chiang glosses this story most succinctly in his own ‘Story Notes’ (I could happily read a volume of Chiang’s ‘Story Notes’): ‘Some have pointed out that when Martin Luther defended his actions to the church in 1521, he reportedly said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” i.e. he couldn’t have done anything else. But does that mean we shouldn’t give Luther credit for his actions? Surely we don’t think he would be worthier of praise if he had said, “I could have gone either way.”… If you could somehow examine a multitude of Martin Luthers across many worlds, I think you’d have to go far afield to find one that didn’t defy the church, and that would say something about the kind of person he was.’

These kinds of themes – our relationship with our former or alternative selves, our moral responsibility for the choices we make that could have ‘gone either way’, and whether we are the sum of our choices or our circumstances – are prominent in all of my own fiction, so unsurprisingly, I found the story fascinating, although the ending was a little unsatisfying. Chiang is rightly concerned to demonstrate that the many-worlds interpretation does not mean our choices are meaningless (because there is an alternative universe where we made the opposite choice) and I agree with his take on it; parallel timelines can surely be separated from our own world by various degrees of difference, and some situations are not so neatly reducible to a single individual’s choice.  However, in a particular incident that dogs one character, it seems to be suggested that a choice she regrets made no difference because the friend she betrayed would have taken the same path in life anyway. I would like Chiang to have delved a little deeper into this theme (which he does address in a parallel plotline): how does making selfish choices hurt us and our future selves, even if they have no actual impact? (Coincidentally, while reading background material on Samantha Harvey’s All Is Song, another of my 20 Books of Summer, I came across this interview where she discusses exactly that.)

There are other excellent stories in this collection, such as ‘Omphalos’, which considers what would have happened if God had created the world, and humanity realised we were not at the centre of his universe – but a few of the others fell into the trap I wrote about in my review of Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, lacking emotional commitment and taking place in a blank void: ‘Exhalation’, ‘What’s Expected Of Us’, ‘The Great Silence’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’. Chiang always gives you lots to think about, but he doesn’t always make you feel. Meanwhile, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’, which postulates that interwar American behaviourist child psychologists such as John F. Watson and B.F. Skinner went a step further by designing a mechanical automaton to see to a child’s needs, made me smile, but didn’t feel terribly fresh to me (probably because I’ve written on behaviourism in my historical research, and thought this was a bit of a simplistic take on how childrearing advice developed in the first half of the twentieth century). Nevertheless, this collection is stunning, the percentage of hits is higher than in Stories of Your Life, and it’s got to be one of my favourite books of the year so far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Fiction Book Tag

Thanks to Rachel from pace, amore, libri for tagging me for this!

1. How do you define literary fiction?

I’ve written about this here but I actually now prefer Emma Darwin’s definition. Here’s an excerpt from it: ‘all fiction works by integrating the familiar (the world that readers experience themselves) with the new (what they don’t know themselves), in varying proportions… [but] when it comes to the proportions of originality to familiarity, there’s more originality, in more aspects (plot, character, prose, ideas etc. etc.) than in commercial fiction. The more that’s original and the more original it is, the more challenging it will be to read.’

2. Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study

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I’m actually not as fervent a fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as many others seem to be (I think her The Little Friend is a better novel, and that Tana French’s The Likeness takes on a number of the same themes more interestingly) but this was the first title that came to mind when I thought about characterisation. There are a number of vignettes that have stuck with me. Henry knowing everything about classical culture but only just finding out that man has landed on the moon, and struggling to believe it. The twins, Charles and Camilla, working out their alibi  – they’ve decided to say they were seeing a movie – and then starting to argue over the meaning of the movie that is their alibi for murder, because they’re twins and that’s what they do. The sweet stupidity of Bunny’s father as he dotes over the small children in his family, even as we know the harm his unthinking privilege can wreak.

3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing

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Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil did not get the love it deserved (especially given the inexplicable praise of his far inferior debut, Beasts of No Nation). It follows a black, gay teenager trying to fit in at his exclusive DC private school, but is distinguished by its prose, adopting an experimental literary style that effortlessly blends dialogue and interior monologue in a way that can occasionally be jolting but is usually exhilarating. Despite this, it’s not difficult to read at all; this was one of my top ten novels of 2018.

4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure

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Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing, another massively under-appreciated novel that should have won all the prizes going in the year it was published, switches between first-person chapters narrated in past tense and set in the present which move forward in time, and first-person chapters narrated in present tense and set in the past which move backwards in time. This sounds confusing, but it isn’t; our brilliant protagonist, a woman called Jake, easily ties the two together. Half the novel is set on a remote sheep farm on an island off the coast of Britain; the other half is set in the Australian outback. It’s unusual to find a novel that’s both so intelligent and so moving, and this is why I’m waiting so impatiently for Evie Wyld’s new book.

5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes

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Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army is the best feminist dystopia I’ve ever read (sorry, Margaret Atwood). Set in the near future in Penrith, it follows a youngish woman, Sister, who strikes out from her regimented life in the town to join a female collective, Carhullan, in the wilderness. This novel is feminist not because it glorifies women, but because it explores both the violence and the love that develops in this single-sex settlement, and what women might be like if they lived and ran their own space. Everything Hall’s written is worth reading, but this remains my favourite – and given that it was first published in 2007, it now feels extraordinarily prescient.

6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition

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I have to second Rachel’s suggestion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I’ll also add Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby, which I wrote about here as a guest post on At Home With Books. I’m not especially keen on most of Faulks’ novels, but this book, which starts with the disappearance of a Cambridge student in the 1970s, emerges from Faulks’ fascination with the human brain, and the ways in which it’s ill-adapted to a temporal existence. This picks up on the concerns expressed in his previous novel Human Traces and his subsequent novel A Possible Life, but I think Engleby is the best of the three. The narration is often weird but consistently fascinating, and Faulks writes so well about human consciousness, our sense of modernity, and what Siri Hustvedt might call ‘memories of the future’.

7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel

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My FAVOURITE thing. There are so many I could name, but I’ll go for Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being, an exhilarating mix of literary and speculative fiction. This melts between reality and fantasy so effortlessly as it follows the stories of Ruth and Nao. I must re-read this.

8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I love speculative literary fiction, as above, but it doesn’t always fall firmly enough into the realm of the speculative for me; so let’s say literary sci-fi. I know from bitter experience (writing my own!) that these two genres are not an easy combination, but when it’s pulled off, as it is in Nina Allen’s The Rift and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travelthe results can be extraordinary.

I don’t tend to tag anyone in posts, but if you haven’t done this tag already, I’d love to hear your answers!

Mid-Year Check-In Tag

Taken from Eric Karl Anderson’s (Lonesome Reader’s) YouTube video. A bit of a late mid-year check-in, but I arrived back from Australia on 30th June and went straight to another conference in Birmingham in the first week of July, so I’m behind!

1. How many books have you read so far this year? 91 (was 85 at the end of June). This is definitely above average for me – I’ve been doing a lot of travelling, so that’s probably contributed.

2. What’s your favourite book so far this year? Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks has probably made the deepest impression upon me so far in its beautiful mixture of historical fiction and speculative fantasy set in the Peruvian rainforest.

3. What’s the most disappointing book you’ve read this year? Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater is probably the one I feel most irritated about; I’d been so hoping for a brilliant coming-of-age novel set in the north-east and instead I got standard-issue literary writing coupled with no sense of place.

4. What genre have you read most this year? This is impossible to answer, as I do read a lot of genres, but my reading has probably skewed towards science fiction and speculative literary fiction.

5. Name a new favourite author that you’ve discovered this year. Natasha Pulley, as above – I also very much enjoyed her The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – but I was also bowled over by Nina Allan’s The Riftand can’t wait to read her first novel, The Race, although her latest, The Dollmakerdidn’t quite land for me.

6. What’s the most surprisingly good book you’ve read so far this year? Ha, this has to go to Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, which I initially refused to read because I thought it was going to be crude and sensationalist, and then liked so much that it made my personal Women’s Prize shortlist.

7. What are your favourite and most anticipated 2019 releases? Some of my original picks still haven’t come out (or have been moved to 2020 very sad about this Evie Wyld), but here are some new picks [links to Goodreads]:

  • I’m a huge fan of Ann Patchett, so I can’t wait to read her latest, The Dutch House (September): ‘Set over the course of five decades… a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past.’
  • I loved Amy Waldman’s The Submission, so I’m looking forward to her second novel, A Door in the Earth (August),which focuses on ‘Parveen Shamsa, a college senior in search of a calling, [who] feels pulled between her charismatic and mercurial anthropology professor and the comfortable but predictable Afghan-American community in her Northern California hometown’.
  • This is already out (May), but I’ve heard great things about Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, OtherI wasn’t a fan of her Blonde Roots but I love this blurb: ‘follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.’
  • I’ve long admired Tash Aw’s writing but find his novels weirdly forgettable; I’m hoping that his latest, We, the Survivors (out since April), will break the trend. It focuses on Ah Hock, a poor inhabitant of a Malaysian fishing village who murders a migrant worker from Bangladesh.
  • I’m so excited for Louise Doughty’s new novel, Platform Seven (August)like everyone else, I was impressed by Apple Tree Yard, but personally, I felt that her last novel, Black Watertook her writing to new heights. And just look at the blurb! ‘Two deaths on Platform Seven. Two fatalities in eighteen months – surely they’re connected? No one is more desperate to understand what connects them than Lisa Evans herself. After all, she was the first of the two to die.’ It sounds like Point Horror meets literary fiction, and I am in.
  • In genre fiction, I’m definitely going to read Becky Chambers’s new SF novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate (September); I loved her Wayfarers series even if I felt that A Long Way… was much better than the other two. ‘In the future, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of galaxy transform themselves.’ I have requested this from NetGalley so hopefully it will come through soon please.
  • I’m also looking forward to Erica Ferencik’s next thriller, Into the Jungle (out since May, but not published in the UK and so expensive on Kindle!); I found her The River at Night evocative and gripping. ‘a young woman leaves behind everything she knows to take on the Bolivian jungle, but her excursion abroad quickly turns into a fight for her life.’

8. What’s your next big priority for your reading? Getting my 20 Books of Summer read before I’m distracted by the new exciting titles above.

9. What’s been your bookish highlight of the year so far? Definitely attending the Wellcome Book Prize ceremony after shadowing the award for the second time, and also the 5×15 Stories event that featured five of the shortlisted writers.

I don’t tend to tag people, but if anyone hasn’t already done a mid-year round-up and fancies this tag, go for it! I’d love to hear others’ responses.

Reading on My Travels, Tokyo 2019: Mini-Reviews

I’m back from my travels! Tokyo (and Kyoto, Nikko and Hakone) were everything I’d wanted them to be:

I’m posting my 20 Books of Summer reviews separately, but here’s some thoughts on the other reading I did while I was in Tokyo:

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was totally addictive – I tore through it in a single day, and I have to thank Rachel for persuading me that I’d like it despite my aversion to Old Hollywood settings. The plot draws on some classic chick-lit tropes: junior journalist Monique is stunned when she’s contacted out of the blue by Hollywood star Evelyn Hugo, now in her seventies, and asked to write her biography. Evelyn is famous for having been married seven times – but who was the true love of her life? And what other secrets is she hiding? So far, so predictable. However, Reid’s writing is a notch above similar novels like Harriet Evans’s Not Without You, and the novel is more diverse in terms of both sexuality and race than is usual for this genre; Monique is a biracial black woman, Evelyn is Cuban-American, and there’s also significant LGB representation. In considering the ‘it factor’ projected by true stars, and the emotional dynamics of close-knit groups, Reid picks up on some of the themes she explores further in her most recent novel, Daisy Jones and the Six, although I thought that novel’s innovative narrative structure and more restrained plot twists made it superior.

While I hugely enjoyed this novel, I did have some issues. Firstly, it’s cleverly organised into sections each named after one of Evelyn’s husbands, but this does mess with the pacing a little – some important segments of Evelyn’s life feel rushed, especially as she grows older (in contrast, Daisy Jones covers the band’s whole career but the bulk of it focuses on only a few years). Secondly, while it’s more mature in its approach to different kinds of love than the usual romance novel, I felt that the ending, which falls back on a traditional ‘love is more important than ambition’ platitude, was regressive compared to the more satisfying midpoint where Evelyn validates the importance of both love and career (if Reid was trying to say something clever here about how we value love at different points in our lives, she didn’t quite pull it off). Thirdly [highlight for spoilers] while I loved that Evelyn’s major relationship was with another woman, I felt there was a certain reliance on stereotypes; Evelyn is a bisexual, maritally promiscuous Cuban-American, which draws on unfortunate tropes about both bi people and Latin Americans, while her partner, Celia, is a ‘pure’, blonde, gold star lesbian. While there’s a bit of awkward dialogue where Evelyn argues that her multiple marriages have nothing to do with her bisexuality – which, to be fair, they don’t – this feels a bit pasted on to fix this problem, rather than integral to her character. [spoilers end] Nevertheless, I can forgive the novel a great deal for its last line; it’s just brilliant.

I gave up on Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of The Universe about 15% in – I’m theoretically up for the idea of crossing SF and fantasy, but this fell too much on the fantasy side for me, and also did that irritating fantasy thing of setting up some interesting world-building only to abandon it all after the plot kicks off (SF seems to be generally better at integrating its stories more closely with the worlds they’re set in, and makes better use of set-piece/enclosed settings, which is something I can’t get enough of).

Finally, Hanna Jameson’s The Last is a sub-Station Eleven novel about ‘the end of the world’, but then again, most speculative fiction is sub-Station Eleven, and The Last does well at what it sets out to do. Jon, a historian of modern America, is staying in an isolated hotel in Switzerland when the news breaks of nuclear attacks on countries across the world. No-one knows quite what has happened – the situation is realistically confusing, with phone and internet connections breaking down – and Jon and a handful of other people decide it’s safest to stay holed up at the hotel, rather than venture into an uncertain world. Unlike Station Eleven, therefore, The Last picks up directly after the initial catastrophe, and looks at the nuts and bolts of rebuilding a workable society, rather than considering ‘higher level’ goods like art. Nevertheless, it doesn’t neglect more complex human needs. Jon, desperate to be useful in some way, starts recording events, and when a small girl’s body is discovered in the water tank of the hotel, decides that he’s going to find out what happened to her.

The Last is billed as a murder mystery as well as an end-of-the-world thriller, but it really isn’t about murder – Jon’s search for the girl’s killer is more about his own psychological need to support his belief that human life still matters, that it hasn’t become meaningless in the face of such disaster. This thread, therefore, backs up one of The Last’s central themes: that humans have enough good in them to work together for a common goal. Refreshingly, this is not a nihilistic look at human nature, although Jameson portrays violence and desperation at times. Instead, it impresses us with humankind’s ability to strive towards civilisation, despite our imperfections. Jon himself acts as a microcosm here – he has a number of admirable qualities, but he’s also an unreliable narrator who has done things he’s ashamed of and hurt other people. Jameson bravely leaves the ending wide open, and the ‘resolution’ of Jon’s anxieties about the fate of his wife and children, who were in San Francisco at the time of the attacks, is especially haunting.