#SciFiMonth: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? & The Red Scholar’s Wake

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My experience with NK Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? mirrored my experience with Jemisin’s writing as a whole, but definitely left me feeling keener to read more of her work. There were some stories here that did not work for me. Often, these were early tries at novels of hers that I have read and didn’t quite click with (‘Stone Hunger’/The Fifth Season) or novels of hers that I haven’t read and am now even more sure I won’t click with (‘The City Born Great’/The City We Became). A couple were as heavy-handed as her novella Emergency Skin – ‘The Ones Who Stay And Fight’, ‘Red Dirt Witch’; a couple others just felt silly and under-developed – ‘The Trojan Girl’, ‘Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints…’, ‘On The Banks of the River Lex’, ‘Henosis’.

Having said all that, though, there are twenty-two stories in this book and pretty much all the others were great. This is especially impressive because they span such a range of worlds and styles. A cook encounters a mysterious man who passes her magical recipes (‘L’Alchimista’); two women ally in an alternative version of early nineteenth-century New Orleans (‘The Effluent Engine’); a girl discovers why all the school valedictorians in her firewalled world are taken away from their community (‘Valedictorian’). Easily my favourite stories were the science fiction shorts, which feel like novels-in-a-bottle; I loved the chilling ‘The Brides of Heaven’, where an all-woman community struggles in a space colony after all the men die in a life-support unit malfunction, and ‘The Evaluators’, a first-contact story that reminded me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

While I’ve only read one full-length novel by Jemisin, I definitely feel that she’s at her strongest when she’s creating interesting worlds, and at her weakest when she starts giving her stories simple messages. At her best, she somehow manages to tie together huge narratives in the space of thirty pages or so, never trailing off like I’ve seen so many short story writers do. I’m still not sure what I’ll pick up from her next – it’s a shame that all her longer works seem to be fantasy rather than science fiction, which works less well for me – but I’m open to recommendations.

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I loved the cover and the premise and indeed, the title of Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake. Sadly, I did not love this book. The inciting incident struck me as very similar to that of Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbitwhich I also read this month. When Xích Si is captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, she’s shocked when its leader, the sentient ship Rice Fish, proposes an offer of marriage; her previous wife, the Red Scholar, died in mysterious circumstances, and Rice Fish wants to draw on Xích Si’s technical expertise to work out what really happened. Xích Si and Rice Fish are divided by their views of the world: while Xích Si despises piracy and valorises her scavenger lifestyle, deploring the indentures used by the pirate alliance, Rice Fish argues that the haven she has built using the Red Banner offers a better way of living. Despite these differences, Xích Si and Rice Fish begin to fall for each other – but then an escalation of the political struggle within the pirate fleet threatens to tear them apart.

In my review of Winter’s Orbit, I suggested that it was really ‘romance with a side of science fiction’ and I think The Red Scholar’s Wake falls into that category as well, despite having more superficial SF trappings. de Bodard makes much of the sentient ships, the avatars that both ships and humans project and the bots they then use to interact with their environment, but unlike Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy, this book has nothing interesting to say about sentience, and indeed treats its ship and human characters exactly the same way. Similarly, there’s a gloss of Vietnamese culture that informs the world of this novel, but doesn’t ultimately make it any different from a standard SF setting. The political subplot is incredibly simplistic and predictable, making Winter’s Orbit look Machiavellian.

The problem is, then, that if The Red Scholar’s Wake is really a romance, it needs to be… romantic. And for me, the pairing didn’t work at all. Neither Xích Si nor Rice Fish are given much of a character past the different ethical stances that I described above. Because they have no personalities, there is nothing to draw them together, and yet they fall very quickly for each other. There also seems to be no consideration of the fact that ONE OF THEM IS A SHIP. I imagine de Bodard was trying to show that this kind of pairing is very normal in this world, but she needed to do more work to sell this to the reader (I found the ‘sex’ scene in the middle of the novel INCREDIBLY creepy). Reading this book actually made me reflect on why Winter’s Orbit worked so well, and why it might be a bit unfair to describe it as ‘romance with a side of science fiction’. While I was totally won over by the central pairing in that novel, the science fiction setting wasn’t merely a backdrop; Maxwell used some of the technologies she introduced to explore the trauma of an abusive relationship and how we can mend ourselves. In contrast, The Red Scholar’s Wake was definitely romance plus a bit of science fiction; the two aspects of the novel never speak to each other, and at some points (the aforementioned sex scene!!), are directly in conflict.

Note: After writing this, I found this excellent Goodreads review which picks up on the problematic representation of aromantic and asexual people in this book. This perfectly explains the unease I had around the way that Rice Fish’s relationship with her first wife was depicted, and why I didn’t find her trauma convincing.

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

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Four Speculative Novellas: Tchaikovsky, Klages, Le Guin and Cho #NovellasInNovember #SciFiMonth

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Gary was once a normal boy from Stevenage. Now he’s the sole survivor of a group of astronauts sent to investigate a gigantic alien artefact out beyond Pluto’s orbit, wandering through an endless maze of chambers that he calls ‘The Crypts’. Time, space, and other laws of physics are fluid in the Crypts: Gary walks between different atmospheres and finds that gravity doesn’t always behave itself. He also encounters a range of aliens who have also wandered into this artefact, but are clearly fellow explorers rather than its creators; some of whom are friendly, some of whom attack him. But he gradually becomes tormented by a ‘scritchy-scratchy’ noise in his head, and determines to seek out its cause. Adrian Tchaikovsky clearly had fun with Walking to Aldebaran, which is very different from everything else I’ve read by him and reminded me of many other things, from Caitlin Starling’s SF/horror novel The Luminous Dead to Clark Ashton Smith’s terrifying short story ‘The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis’ to old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks like Deathtrap Dungeon (Tchaikovsky is apparently into role-play and there’s a D&D reference at the start, so that last one is probably deliberate). Gary’s narration is also reminiscent of Mark Watney’s dry humour in Andy Weir’s The Martian, but I thought Tchaikovsky made cleverer use of this register, making it clear how Gary uses it as a defence mechanism.  A satisfying SF/horror novella with a good twist (I saw it coming, but I think I was meant to), plus a reference to a classic text at the end.

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What a gem of a book. Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange is a near-perfect novella. Set in San Francisco in the 1940s, Klages beautifully recreates a hidden lesbian subculture, taking us to bars like Mona’s where women dress in drag and butch/femme couples dominate, while detailing the police abuse that lesbians suffer if they are caught – for example – breaking the ‘three garment rule’ and not wearing at least three pieces of female clothing. At the centre of this novel is the relationship between bisexual pulp comics artist Haskell and lesbian drag king performer Emily, but Klages places them within a warm, supportive network of other queer women. While Klages wisely lets us discover her world and fall in love with her characters slowly, the book still maintains an underlying tension because of its mysterious prologue, set decades after the main action, when the last surviving member of the group drives a hard bargain for one of Haskell’s paintings. I also liked that the magic in this novel is an undercurrent rather than a dominant theme, something that forms a natural part of these women’s marginalised lives. The only thing that didn’t quite work for me in Passing Strange was the ending; I adored the way that the novel concluded but I felt that the steps to getting there were a bit rushed, as the women very quickly accept the unbelievable and don’t seem much concerned about an utter sea-change in their lives. Nevertheless, I’d recommend this to readers regardless of whether you normally like SF or speculative fiction; this is really a historical novella with a little supernatural glitter.

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After loving Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed earlier this year, and having read The Left Hand of Darkness back in 2018, I wanted to read more from her Hainish Cycle. To be honest, it was the title of this novella that sold it to me: I couldn’t resist The Word for World Is Forest. In her introduction to the text, Le Guin says that she knew when writing this novella in 1968 against the background of the Vietnam War ‘that it was likely to become a preachment.’ And the plot is familiar; humans despoil another race’s planet and exploit its native people, who then become violent in their turn as they resist. (I was reminded, for example, of Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s brilliant Enchantress From The Stars.) The book is narrated by three people: Lyubov, the human who is the most sympathetic to the Athsheans, Davidson, who is utterly unsympathetic, and Selvan, the leader of the Athshean resistance. I’d agree with Le Guin herself that Davidson is ‘purely evil’ and hence not particularly interesting. I wonder if this novella would have worked better if she’d kept Davidson in play but relegated him to the secondary cast; a more ambiguous human narrator, perhaps Dongh, who grudgingly comes to broker peace with the Athsheans, could have been a good replacement.

However, what saved this novella from feeling moralistic to me was the sheer quality of Le Guin’s writing and the way she develops the oppressed Athsheans, who are presented as another evolutionary branch of humankind. The Athsheans use dreams consciously to solve problems in the ‘real’ world, or what they call ‘world-time’; some of their human colonisers view them as lazy or insane because of this, and the Athsheans return the courtesy: ‘A realist is a man who knows both the world and his own dreams. You’re not sane: there’s not one man in a thousand of you that knows how to dream… Now go back and talk about reality with the other insane men.’ There’s something more here than a simple tale of power and exploitation; a debate over what is ‘real’ and who gets to decide. For the Athsheans, after all, ‘the word for world is forest’, whereas the humans only see the forest as a source of valuable wood. Similarly, we might think, the Athsheans have come to terms with the powers of the unconscious that are beyond rational ken, the dark forest within ourselves, whereas most humans stick to the shallow edges of the mind.

Zen Cho’s ‘The Terra-Cotta Bride’, at 30-odd pages, is really a short story rather than a novella, reprinted in her collection Spirits Abroad. But it’s a superb short story that manages to be funny, wildly creative, immersive and poignant. Siew Tsin is living an unhappy death in the Chinese afterlife after she’s married off to the richest man in the tenth circle of hell (his descendants burn paper money for him ‘with pious fervour and regularity’ and it turns up at the bottom of his closet). In the tenth circle, those who can afford it avoid both the torments of demons and the risk of being called to ‘have tea with Lady Meng’ and being reborn. Siew Tsin’s afterlife takes an even more bizarre turn when her husband brings home a beautiful terra-cotta automaton, Yonghua, as his bride; the inhabitants of hell are used to terra-cotta warriors causing trouble, but nobody has ever seen anything like this before. At this point, I thought I knew how the story was going to play out – but actually, I did not. Like the tiny paper replicas of real-world objects that the descendants burn for their ancestors, this story creates an entire world in miniature. I can’t wait to read the rest of Cho’s collection.

I feel like I got lucky with my #SciMonth #NovellasInNovember choices here! Do any of these appeal to you? READ PASSING STRANGE OBVIOUSLY And have you been reading any SF, speculative fiction and/or novellas this month?

#SciFiMonth: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

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OK, so Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit had a lot to live up to, as it was sold to me as ‘Red, White and Royal Blue meets Ancillary Justice’DID IT DELIVER? Yes, although it leant hard on the Red, White and Royal Blue part of that equation – I’d have gone for ‘Red, White and Royal Blue set in space’ if I was publishing this. Indeed, Maxwell’s space opera is so SF-lite that it occurred to me that it would have worked just as well if she’d gone for a fantasy setting. Don’t expect Ann Leckie’s fascinating world-building here – though it has much to offer in its own right.

Winter’s Orbit kicks off when dilettante Prince Kiam of the Iskat Empire is instructed to enter into an arranged marriage with Jainan, whose previous husband Taam was recently killed in an accident. The match is diplomatically significant because Jainan is an ambassador from vassal planet Thea, and Iskat is due for an inspection from the mysterious figure of the Auditor, during which they have to prove that their alliances with all their vassal planets are sound. And although Kiam comes off as a political lightweight, he is determined to do his duty and horrified that Jainan is being forced into marriage so soon after the death of his previous husband. Jainan, meanwhile, appears to Kiam to be very serious, scholarly and grief-stricken, but having experienced serious abuse from Taam, he’s actually desperate to please Kiam and keep his mouth shut. The growing feelings between the two men are at the centre of this novel, and Maxwell pulls this familiar romance trope off beautifully. For once, it actually makes sense that their wires get so crossed – there’s no reliance on the annoying kind of miscommunications that I hate in romance. And although Kiam and Jainan are positioned as opposites, they have much in common, which makes them more complex than an Opposites Attract cookie-cutter plot – they’re both intelligent, fast-thinking, and deeply considerate of others’ emotions.

Reviewers have disagreed about how far this is ‘romance with a side of science fiction’ or whether the science fiction takes centre stage, and I suspect your opinion on this will depend on your own relationship with SF. Maxwell whips up a decent political intrigue plot but the book certainly seems to have been structured around the romance rather than the politics. As someone who reads a lot more SF than romance, though, I guess why this felt so SF-lite to me wasn’t the focus on romance but the lack of any really interesting ideas to explore. (Maxwell tells us roughly a thousand times that people in Iskat signal their gender identity via the jewellry they wear, and that’s about as far as the ideas in this novel go.) This wasn’t a problem for me, on the whole, because this was such a lovely character-led novel. However, the book made a lot more sense when I found out in the author’s note that it was originally published as serialised fiction on A03. Although this is original fiction, there’s definitely a serialised ‘fanfic’ feel to it, especially in the fanservicey final chapters. The writing also feels pretty uneven between the first and second half of the novel – a lot of awkward info-dumping and repetition simply vanishes later on, as if Maxwell wrote the second half of the book more smoothly and coherently and the first half in smaller bits. I’m really interested to read her new novel, Ocean’s Echo, which I assume wasn’t written in installments – I’d hope it would be even better.

There are all sorts of holes that you could pick in Winter’s Orbit, but I found it a fun and joyful read that also deals quite seriously with emotional trauma. One I’d recommend to fans of Becky Chambers as well as the aforementioned R,W&RB.

If you’re a SF reader, what makes a book ‘primarily SF’ for you? If you’re a romance reader, would you ever pick up a romance with a SF setting? And if you’ve read Ocean’s Echo, how does it compare to Winter’s Orbit?

#SciFiMonth and #NovellasInNovember Reading Plans!

I’m once again taking part in #SciFiMonth, which runs from 1 to 30 November. As I did in 2021, I’ll be combining this challenge with #NovellasInNovember. Serendipitously, I tend to get on a lot better with SF novellas than with any other kind of novella, so these two challenges work well together for me.

I’ll be using this challenge to read some SF books I already had on my Kindle, plus some NetGalley ARCs and the science fiction that’s remaining on my 2022 reading list, then adding some SF novellas! (I doubt I will actually get through all these, but oh well).

On My Kindle

N.K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? has been on my reading list for some time. I admired Jemisin’s The Fifth Season but did not feel compelled to read the rest of the trilogy. However, I’ve enjoyed short stories by her in various anthologies, and would like to give her writing another go.

Gwyneth Jones’s Life (originally published in 2004) has recently been republished in a beautiful SF Masterworks edition. I think it was Elle’s review that originally drew my attention to this novel, which focuses on the fictional, brilliant scientist Anna Senoz who discovers ‘transferred Y’ syndrome; sections of the Y chromosome can cross to the X chromosome, which may eventually make the Y chromosome redundant. I’m continually intrigued by SF which plays with sex and gender (The Left Hand of Darkness, AmmoniteThe Men) and this sounds like a good addition.

Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit promises to focus on a high-ranking political figure rushed into an arranged marriage with another man against the backdrop of an interplanetary empire. However, it’s pitched as Ancillary Justice meets Red, White and Royal Blue, so I was instantly sold! I’m intrigued by the idea of a space opera that is quite light and romantic, as I often find them too convoluted and overly earnest (see: A Memory Called Empire).

NetGalley ARCs

Coincidentally, I had two SF ARCs lined up that both publish in November – and both on the 24th of the month! Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory is the final instalment in the trilogy that began with Children of TimeThis hugely ambitious space opera started with the remains of the human race sleeping in stasis on an arkship called the Gilgamesh, having fled from an uninhabitable Earth. They come across a planet that appears to be habitable, but it’s guarded by an aggressive and hostile AI, and populated by giant, sentient spiders. In my opinion, the sequel, Children of Ruinwas the stronger novel, having dispensed with set-up and showing us how humans and spiders ally in the search for new worlds. The blurb of Children of Memory seems to suggest an about-face, as it focuses on a different human colony established by a different arkship, the Enkidu.

Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake promises space pirates and lesbians, an irresistible combination for me – and just look at that cover! Xich Si’s ship is captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, led by Red Fish, who was the wife of the Red Scholar – until her wife died under suspicious circumstances. Xich Si expects to be tortured to death by Red Fish, but then she receives an unexpected offer. This sounds superficially similar to the blurb of Winter’s Orbit, so I’ll be interested to see how the two books compare.

2022 Reading List

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The only SF novel left on my 2022 reading list is Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi. Set in a near-future Earth in the 2050s, the wealthy have fled to colonies in space, while the poor are left behind to survive on a dying planet. I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go In The Dark, the third section of Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise and Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility.

SF Novellas In November

Ellen Flages’s Passing Strange sounds right up my street. It follows the intersecting lives of four women in 1940s San Francisco as they explore the magical borderlands of the city. Inter-war and wartime US and European settings are usually a pass for me – I’m utterly unseduced by this kind of glamour – but I’m hoping the speculative elements will enrich this familiar material in the way they did in Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen.

Meanwhile, I’ll be continuing my journey through Ursula Le Guin’s wonderful science fiction with her novella The Word for World Is Forest (the title itself makes this a must-read for me!). This is part of her Hainish Cycle, which also includes The Left Hand of Darkness and The DispossessedIt focuses on a military logging colony set up on another planet by people from Earth, and I’m hoping for more of the social insight I so loved in The Dispossessed.

I’m also picking up another Adrian Tchaikovsky (he is PROLIFIC), but his novella Walking to Aldebaran sounds like it operates on a completely different scale from his spidery space operas. This tells the story of an astronaut sent to explore a mysterious alien rock; when he gets lost in the tunnels inside it, he becomes uncomfortably aware there’s something else there with him… Tchaikovsky is good at SF horror, possibly my favourite genre-cross.

Finally, I’ll be reading Zen Cho’s The Terracotta Bride. I wanted to try something by Cho, and this is advertised as ‘A tale of first love, bad theology and robot reincarnation set in the Chinese afterlife.’ Intriguing!

Are you taking part in #SciFiMonth and/or #NovellasInNovember? What will you be reading? Do any of my picks sound tempting?

20 Books of Summer, #4, #5 and #6: Bones of the Earth, The Lowland and The Village

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

I am a bit behind this summer, but not quite as bad as it looks – I’m reading #7 and #8 at the moment and have #9-#12 planned out. I’m enjoying the freedom of reading more slowly as I’m rereading, though.

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Before rereading: I remembered finding Michael Swanwick’s dinosaur time-travel novel Bones of the Earth rather convoluted and confusing, but I also remembered it having an amazing set-piece section when a group of palaeontologists get stranded in the late Cretaceous period. Basically, I was in the mood to read it again. I discovered this book online in 2017 and bought a second-hand hardback. It was nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Campbell and Locus awards in 2002 and 2003.

The first time I read Bones of the EarthI wrote: ‘Bones of the Earth is an exhilarating novel. Swanwick may have chucked far too many ideas at it, but this results in some wonderful set-pieces. His handling of the dinosaur scenes is brilliant, and made me wish that he had simplified the time travel apparatus considerably… with such a crowded and complicated narrative, it could do with a strong emotional anchor provided by a single protagonist to guide us through.’ 

After rereading: Perhaps because I knew what to expect, I found this a rather different reading experience second time around. The individual threads were less compelling, but I appreciated how Swanwick draws it all together at the end much more; making some of the things I complained about before seem more necessary to his overall design. Bones of the Earth is really about why we do science, even when we gain nothing from it other than the satisfaction of knowing, and I love that.

My rating in 2017: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

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I read the same hardback edition from two different libraries.

Before rereading: I know that I loved The Lowland (it was one of my top ten books of 2014) but I recall hardly anything about it. The things that have stayed with me are a mother leaving her family to pursue her own dreams, and an incredibly moving ending (which I can’t remember!). I read a hardback copy from the library after it was shortlisted for the Baileys/Women’s Prize for Fiction that year. (An aside: just how good was the 2014 Baileys shortlist? It also had Americanah, The Goldfinch and A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing! Plus, The Luminaries, All The Birds, Singing and The Signature of All Things on the longlist! Interestingly, I’ve now reread four of these novels – maybe I should do the whole lot.)

The first time I read The Lowland, I wrote: ‘Unlike many novels which claim an ambitious scope because they move continents, The Lowland is ambitious in the best sort of way; retaining a very small central cast, it makes its readers truly care about the fates of Udayan, Subhash and Gauri, and it makes their stories unpredictable and yet seemingly inevitable, the way real lives are…. As the novel unfolds, it looses itself from being solely about two brothers from West Bengal and speaks to wider themes of ageing and what we choose to do with our lives as we age, and how key choices mould our lives more than we could ever have imagined.’ 

After rereading: I was both as impressed with this book as I was when I first read it and not surprised that it hasn’t stayed with me. The craft of The Lowland is in the way it traces the slow unfolding of its central characters’ fates; this time around, I felt it was less about the choices we make and more about how one horrific event can continue to constrain us. The way that the novel continually bends back to that pivotal turning point makes sense, because for the characters, it will always be ‘yesterday’, in the sense that Gauri’s daughter Bela understands it as a small child: ‘One day she told Gauri… I want short hair, like yesterday. It had been many months ago that Bela’s hair was short… But for Bela, three months ago and the day before were the same.’ I’ve given it a slightly lower rating, but this doesn’t reflect any sense of disappointment; I’m not sure that the five-star rating made sense last time, given that I wrote it ‘never flared into brilliance’ (though to be fair, I was comparing it to The Goldfinch and Americanah – hard acts to follow!)

My rating in 2014: *****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

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Before rereading: I first read The Village in 2012, when I was twenty-five. I received a proof copy from the publisher and had not read anything else by Nikita Lalwani before, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

The first time I read The Village, I wrote: ‘It is difficult to warm to this excellent novel, but this is really a proof of its success. It’s genuinely disturbing, not in the ‘horror film’ sense, but because it disturbs the reader’s settled pre-conceptions and leaves you not quite knowing where to settle them again. Ray, Nathan and Serena are the three members of a BBC production crew who have come to India to make a documentary about life in a ‘prison village’, a rehabilitative experiment where prisoners who have behaved well during their first years in jail are allowed to live under controlled conditions with their families while they serve out the rest of their sentences. Ray, the central character, straddles these two worlds uneasily… gripping and all too brief.’

After rereading: So, I actually liked this one even more ten years down the line. In 2012, I wrote: ‘the theme of voyeurism becomes so strong that it almost seems a little laboured’ and ‘the dubiousness of their work perhaps shouldn’t have been so obvious from the start… the fact that Nathan, Serena and even Ray are all so unsympathetic doesn’t help’. I just didn’t feel this way second time around. I liked how Lalwani shows how we are all constantly watching and judging each other, as the villagers, guards and locals run close surveillance on the BBC crew even as they are being filmed themselves. Interestingly, I also sympathised more with Ray, even though she is an obviously flawed protagonist, and this helped me feel like the project wasn’t so clearly dubious at the start of the novel. She’s a woman of North Indian descent who’s been brought up in Britain but speaks both English and Hindi, and I could understand why she struggled running interference between her unpleasant and competitive BBC colleagues, the village governor, and the villagers. It helped that she genuinely realises how appalling some of her actions have been by the end of the book. This is such a clever, fraught novel, which ratches up the tension even though we’re not sure exactly what we fear is going to happen; every sentence matters.

(I feel highly aggrieved on behalf of The Village that its average Goodreads rating is so low! I can only assume that it somehow reached entirely the wrong readership… it definitely isn’t slow, stereotyped or directionless!)

My rating in 2012: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

Three Things… June 2022

Back to this useful post format, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter! These three things have a horror theme

Reading

I read the British edition (L) but the cover of the American edition (R) gives a much better idea of the feel of the book.

I’m currently taking part in an online ‘How To Write Horror Fiction’ course, and as part of that course, I was sent a free book bundle from Bloomsbury (or, to be precise, their Raven Books imprint). This included a number of titles I’d never heard of, and I tore through James Han Mattson’s Reprieve, which is ostensibly about a full-contact haunted house challenge but really reflects on how people’s bodies are objectified by society. We know from the start that the book centres on the murder of a black man, Bryan, but this comes more and more into focus as the story develops.

The bits of Reprieve I found most difficult to read didn’t concern haunted house gore but the disgusting ways that people treat each other. Jaidee is a gay international student from Thailand who is shunned by the white gay men he meets at college, who assume he’s coming onto them and think it’s laughable that they could ever be attracted to him. Inversely, the middle-aged Leonard leaves a happy marriage and starts an obsession with a Thai sex worker, Boonsri, projecting all his desires and dreams onto her despite her obvious discomfort. Mattson doesn’t map simple trajectories of racial oppression, however. Jaidee and Bryan are college roommates, but when Jaidee expresses unease with how Bryan treats him, he’s told by a white friend that he’s being racist, because he’s assuming black men are homophobic. However, Jaidee then embarks on a campaign of deliberate racism against black students to express his resentment, plus denigrating other international students for their ‘ethnic’ ways, even as he is mocked for trying to fit in by wearing American brands.

Don’t go into Reprieve expecting a straightforward horror novel, despite the very misleading British cover: instead, read it for Mattson’s deconstruction of the genre.

Watching

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I was a huge fan of Stranger Things 1 and 2 but found Stranger Things 3more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting’Luckily, Stranger Things 4 is back on track, and steaming ahead into 1986, the year I was born (which means more of the nostalgic references were familiar to me!). I’ve been having a great conversation with one of my writing groups about why this season hit so hard when Season 3 was so forgettable. We all think it’s because of the characters. First, the writers are reaping dividends from earlier seasons in having such a diverse and well-developed cast who continually bounce off each other in interesting ways. My favourite characters are currently Dustin, Will, Steve and Robin, which definitely wouldn’t have been the case in Season 1! However, the writers are also smart enough to bring characters with interesting internal conflicts to the foreground (Max) while sidelining previously prominent characters who don’t have much going on (Mike, Jonathan).

Second, some characters who have always experienced conflict got more interesting for me this season. Controversially, I’ve never been quite won over by the traumatised, psychokinetic Eleven. While I don’t dislike her character, she remained a little flat for me throughout the first three seasons, always morally in the right and saving the day with her powers. Stripped of her supernatural abilities and struggling with the loss of father-figure Hopper, she’s in a very different place at the start of this season. A violent scene at a roller-skating rink was one of my favourite moments of Season 4. Finally, Eleven felt like a real, rageful girl who scares herself as much as she scares others. For this reason, I found the season finale disappointing, as it seemed to reset the status quo. I hope the final two episodes in July allow Eleven to be a person as well as just the hero.

Thinking

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Sky have just aired a new remake of John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), following earlier film versions from 1960/1963 and 1995. I’m fascinated by how this story of a group of creepy alien children who dominate adults through psychokinetic powers seems to pop up again every thirty years. I’m writing a piece for The Conversation on what this tells us about our attitudes towards the rising generation, so I won’t say much more about that now (though you can get a preview by checking out either of my academic articles on the subject here or here).

Does this remake stand up in its own right? I actually enjoyed watching it, but I’d have to say no. There’s so much potential here that is not well-served by a pretty straight remake of the original source material. The biggest difference from earlier adaptations is the close focus on the relationship between the mothers and their hostile children, which rehearses familiar stereotypes about the burden of parental love and the ingratitude that children display in the face of their parents’ sacrifices. This set of Midwich Cuckoos are portrayed as especially unnatural because they are unable to love their parents, which raises interesting questions about the emotional tasks of children within the family that this remake is not equipped to answer.

This version of The Midwich Cuckoos also felt less resonant to me because it lacks the interesting tensions that haunted the sixties adaptations, Village of the Damned (1960) and its loosely linked sequel, Children of the Damned (1963). The latter, in particular, treads an uneasy line between showing us the amorality of the alien children but also suggesting that the amorality of adults is destroying the future for those who ought to inherit the world. The destruction of the children at the end of Children of the Damned is not a necessary evil but a tragic accident. The film invites us to shiver at the unnatural competence and maturity of the Cuckoos, but also plays with fears of nuclear annihilation and the ways in which adults have abdicated their authority by creating such terrible weapons. In an age of climate change protests, this felt like a big missed opportunity for the remake, which sticks very closely to the Cuckoos-are-evil line. Apparently, there’s already talk of a second series, which might allow Sky to move into Children of the Damned territory – but I’m not holding my breath.

May Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. I had nine NetGalley ARCs to read and review this month – eight of which have been done! – so this is very NetGalley heavy.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard. I tend to struggle with nature-writing that also incorporates an element of memoir. I know Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun were big hits for others, but I found both unsatisfying; the only book in this sub-genre that has unequivocally worked for me was Alys Fowler’s Hidden NatureSo, this was an welcome surprise. Simard is now famous for her research on ‘how trees talk to each other’, but she spent decades trying to convince both the scientific and foresting communities that trees of different species share resources and information via an underground fungal network. There’s some harder science in this book than in most nature-writing, which is perhaps also why it worked better for me: I loved trying to remember A Level Biology while reading about carbon gradients, xylem and phloem, and trees acting as ‘sources’ or ‘sinks’. But Simard is also unexpectedly gifted at linking her scientific findings to her personal life in a way that could easily have been cheesy (we should all seek connection just like the trees!!!) but was actually heartfelt, moving and unforced.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Someone In Time ed. Jonathan Strahan. This collection of short stories featuring ‘tales of time-crossed romance’ sounded right up my street, but was short on both time travel and romance. There were a couple of stories that I thought were really fantastic, but most of them failed to exploit the potential of time travel or write convincing relationships. My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan. I zipped through this standalone legal thriller but ultimately felt let down after loving McTiernan’s earlier Cormac Reilly novels, The Ruin and The Scholar. I liked the unusual set-up: law student Hannah starts working for the Innocence Project, a real-life US organisation that helps to exonerate wrongly convicted people, but she plans to secretly use her position to make sure one particular man remains in prison. Unfortunately, The Murder Rule became increasingly unbelievable as it went on, and it’s obvious that McTiernan is more comfortable writing about Ireland than the US. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

My Most Serendipitous Reading Location This Month Was…

… a deserted, cold bus stop late at night [picture does not show the actual stop], when reading Caitlin Starling’s space horror novel The Luminous Dead. This set-piece chiller sees a woman descend into a labyrinth of caves beneath the surface of a distant planet, locked into a full-body suit to avoid attracting the attention of monsters called Tunnellers, and only able to communicate with the outside world via a comms link to her unreliable boss. The Luminous Dead failed to capitalise on much of its potential (seriously, there’s so much more you could do with somebody wearing a suit they can’t remove that can be controlled from afar!) and left a lot of irritating loose ends. Nevertheless, it was still pretty creepy reading it in the dark.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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…The It Girl by Ruth Ware. Ware’s latest tells a relatively familiar story. Shy Hannah from the local comprehensive arrives at Oxford and becomes best friends with April, her glamorous and wealthy roommate. April starts dating their mutual friend Will, but Hannah harbours a secret crush on him. After April is murdered, Hannah is a key witness. There are a lot of thrillers set at Oxford, but The It Girl evokes the weirdness of its setting far better than most. The characterisation is also much more effective than in most ‘friends get involved in a murder’ thrillers, including Ware’s own One by One. Finally, Ware manages to pull off a great twist that’s more in the style of older crime novels than modern psychological thrillers, letting the reader figure out some of the mystery for themselves by giving us a classic locked-room murder. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd August.

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

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… Glitter by Nicole Seymour, one of the short books in the ‘Object Lessons‘ series, which thinks about the meanings and uses of glitter, and why it arouses such strong feelings of love and hate. A book of two halves for me: I loved the first half, which explored how glitter has been associated with children, women and queer people, and hence stigmatised as wasteful, annoying, frivolous and frustratingly persistent. Seymour shows how LGBT+ movements have reclaimed glitter through tactics such as ‘glitterbombing’, celebrating its silliness as part of a celebration of queer ‘pleasure politics’. Sadly, the last two chapters strayed away from this interesting historical and political material and focused more on a cultural analysis of glitter as product, looking at children’s entertainment and gimmicks such as ‘glitter beer’, which I found less convincing. Still worth reading though, and I’d be interested to know if anyone’s read any of the other titles from this series. My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Best Far-Back-In-Time Historical Fiction I Read This Month Was*…

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The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. This novel focuses on the ‘dance plague’ in Strasbourg in 1518, when there was an outbreak of compulsive dancing that lasted for months. It looks at the dance plague from a sideways angle, as the book is narrated by Lisbet, a young married woman who lives outside Strasbourg and is struggling with recurrent pregnancy loss. My experience of reading The Dance Tree changed as the book went on. I found the first third captivating: Hargrave’s attention to the physical details of Lisbet’s life made her world feel real, and I loved the evocative, gentle accounts of her love for beekeeping and her visits to the ‘dance tree’, where she has hung ribbons as a memorial for her dead babies. It felt like a vastly more successful version of what Hannah Kent was aiming for in the opening of Devotion. Then, things went downhill a bit for me, although the rest of the novel was certainly not wholly disappointing. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

[*worded to exclude more contemporary historical novels like the 90s-set Carrie Soto Is Back!]

The Best YA Romance I Read This Month Was…

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She Gets The Girl, written by wife-and-wife writing duo Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick, which was such an adorable, uplifting read. Campus novel with lesbians, I’m sold. I’m not a big reader of YA romance, so I’m sure there are lots of others out there like this, but it strikes me that the really big-name queer YA books I’ve encountered – Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Leah on the Offbeat, Red, White and Royal Blue, Heartstopper – are all primarily about gay boys or bisexual teens. While I loved all the aforementioned reads, it was really special to find a book that unapologetically centres lesbians. My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Book With The Best Cover I Read This Month Was…

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… Boys Come First by Aaron Foley. I adore this cover; it’s such a loving rendition of the three protagonists of this Detroit-set novel, paying attention to their individual features rather than rendering them as generic Black men. It reminds me of some of the older covers on the children’s books I own from the eighties, when publishers actually paid artists to draw pictures based on the book rather than using stock images. Finally, it also strikes me that black men or men of colour so often appear on book covers looking sad, angry or under pressure; I think this cover feels so fresh partly because the protagonists look so happy. It’s a shame, then, that this cover doesn’t truly reflect the content of Boys Come First; it makes it look like a joyful YA read when it’s actually a much grimmer examination of the lives of gay Black men in their thirties facing up to the white-led gentrification of their home city. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Weirdest Book I Read This Month Was…

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Imposter Syndrome by Kathy Wang. This was on my 2022 reading list; I was attracted by the idea of a corporate thriller starring Julia, a Russian intelligence agent in Silicon Valley, and Alice, a first-generation Chinese-American working at the same company. However, I’m just not sure what this book wanted to be. It flicks uneasily between satire and seriousness, and between thriller and social commentary. The narrators, other than Alice, are just bizarre. Props to Wang for trying something new, but it didn’t work for me. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Did you have any stand-out reads in May?

April Superlatives

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

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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

The Best Fantasy Novel I Read This Month Was…

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

The Best Horror Novel I Read This Month Was…

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

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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

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

The Best Graphic Novel I Read This Month Was…

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

The Book I Learnt The Most From This Month Was…

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

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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

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

Did you have any stand-out reads in April?

Two Disappointing Big-Name April Releases

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (2011) and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) and The Glass Hotel (2020) have been acclaimed for their shifting timelines, polyphonic narratives and kaleidoscopic cast of characters. Both writers have follow-up novels out this month, and I found both disappointing – although my enthusiasm for Egan was already dampened after my buddy re-read of A Visit From The Goon Squad with Rebecca whereas Mandel had yet to let me down.

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Sea of Tranquility was one of my most anticipated books of 2022. It’s loosely linked to both Station Eleven – one of my favourite books of the last ten years – and perhaps especially to The Glass Hotel, which I also loved. It features four major plot threads/timelines. Edwin travels aimlessly in Canada in 1912, trying to find a purpose for his life after being ‘exiled’ from England by his wealthy family. In 2020, Mirelle, a side character from The Glass Hotel, watches a strange forest video made by its protagonist Vincent in 1994. Novelist Olive is on a book tour in 2203 promoting her pandemic novel, Marienbad. Finally, Gaspery discovers the strange truth about his physicist sister’s job in 2401.

Sea of Tranquility is a short, quick read, but I don’t think I ever got what it was trying to do. As other reviewers have pointed out, the SF elements of this novel feel cliched and stale to anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the genre. Personally, I hate when writers postulate that time travellers can change the past and have to correct anomalies, because it’s by far the stupidest, most illogical and least interesting way to use time travel, especially when there are two perfectly good alternative models available (one, you time travel into a parallel universe; two, you accept you can’t change the past and whatever you did there has already happened). However, I also have no interest in the ‘we are all living in a simulation’ thought experiment, another trope that’s very familiar.

Parts of this book feel more like Easter eggs for fans of Mandel’s earlier work rather than narrative strands in their own right. The Mirelle section, in particular, would surely feel pointless to anyone who hadn’t read The Glass Hotel. Meanwhile, Mandel uses Olive as a mouthpiece to talk about her experiences writing Station Eleven, but again that would only really land if you’d read the earlier novel. Olive’s reflections on day to day living in a pandemic are mostly thinly-veiled comments on Covid-19 with added futuristic trappings (‘Dion’s job required a great many meetings, so he was in the holospace six hours a day and was dazed with exhaustion in the evenings’), which is very irritating.

Nevertheless, there are points in Sea of Tranquility where Mandel really hits it out of the park, and reminds me why I loved her writing in the first place. Some of her pandemic comments are incredibly insightful, much the best writing I’ve seen on the topic so far: ‘Pandemics don’t approach like wars, with the distant thud of artillery growing louder every day and flashes of bombs on the horizon. They arrive in retrospect, essentially. It’s disorientating. The pandemic is far away and then it’s all around you, with seemingly no intermediate step’. And this novel is still perfectly readable and even enjoyable. It’s just a bit closer to trashy SF/bad literary takes on SF than the truly literary SF that Mandel is clearly capable of writing.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th April.

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After reading and admiring A Visit From The Goon Squad in 2011, I went on a bit of a Jennifer Egan binge, burning through Look At Me and The Keep as well. Funnily enough, though, I can remember very little about any of those books now. (The only Egan book I do remember clearly is the later, less popular Manhattan Beach). Due to this plus my failed Goon Squad re-read, I wouldn’t have requested an ARC of The Candy House had I realised it was a loose companion to Goon Squad. From that perspective, I’m not sure I can even call The Candy House disappointing; it’s just more of the same.

The Candy House claims to be about a new technology called Own Your Unconscious, which allows you access to all human memories uploaded into the ‘collective consciousness’ as long as you upload yours in return. In short: it’s not. You could remove Own Your Unconscious from the vast majority of this book and it would have no impact on the plot or themes. In itself, not a big deal, but it points to a wider problem with The Candy House; Egan just isn’t interested in how being able to access other people’s actual experiences would transform our understanding of humanity. Like one of my least favourite Black Mirror episodes, ‘The Entire History of You’, The Candy House focuses on using this technology to play out the same kind of stories rather than thinking big. Once again, a literary writer appropriates a SF trope that has been explored far more thoughtfully and adventurously elsewhere.

Even this would be less of a death knell for The Candy House if Egan used the sections of the novel, which are told through multiple perspectives, to prove her mission statement: that the novel is really the only thing that allows us access to the collective consciousness. However, as in Goon Squad, beyond the gimmicks, most of her narrators sound and think the same. Part of the reason I struggle to keep track of her large and disparate cast of people linked to the music and later the social media industry is that they aren’t clearly differentiated from each other. Imposing different structures on different sections (spy instructions; algorithms; D&D terminology) doesn’t mean you have actually developed distinct voices. There are a couple of sections that worked better for me – Molly’s teenage voice is fresh and different, while the long email exchange near the end of the novel is a lot of fun – but that was about it.

The candy house, in this novel, is either the social media algorithms that tempt users in, believing they can get stuff for free while they’re actually selling their own data, or a nostalgic ‘memory palace’ built by past generations to lure the young back towards a world they remember. Both are interesting themes (the latter rather more so than the former) but neither are adequately explored in The Candy House. Sadly, this just wasn’t for me, and I think my interest in Egan’s work has also come to an end.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th April.

March Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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

 The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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

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

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was…

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

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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