July Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. I only feature books that I read for the first time this month, not rereads (otherwise the worst book would obviously be Skellig)

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. This gorgeous story of work, friendship, making art, storytelling and play completely bowled me over. My full review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Honorable mention: Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou. This smart, surreal satire about Asian Americans in academia both delighted and impressed me, even if I thought the tone was a bit uneven. My full review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Pulse Points by Jennifer Down. Down is an Australian writer, and I picked up this collection of short stories because I spotted Julia Armfield recommending it. Unfortunately, it did not work for me at all. I actually liked the title story, which appears first in the collection; I thought it was subtle and clever. Then all the rest blurred into one. Although Down flips between different styles and viewpoints, I found her stories very samey, and I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to do.

(Dis)honorable mention: People Like Them by Samira Sedira, trans. Lara Vergnaud. Painfully clunky prose – I assume a combination of bad writing and bad translation – plus painfully obvious social commentary.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Complicit by Winnie M Li. I admired Li’s debut novel, Dark Chapterwith some reservations; I thought Li wrote bravely and vividly about rape, drawing from her own experience, but was less convinced by the sections written from the point of view of the rapist. Complicit is in a very different category. It’s basically a straightforward #MeToo thriller told from the perspective of a young Chinese-American woman, Sarah, an assistant film producer in Hollywood. It brings nothing new to the table, and also makes some missteps. On reflection, I think Li wanted to make Sarah a flawed and unreliable narrator in the vein of My Dark Vanessastruggling with internalised misogyny and racism as she stereotypes other women as dumb blondes and herself as a victim of her ‘Chinese work ethic’, and dismisses sexual assault as ‘not rape’. However, the writing isn’t strong enough to pull this off, and Sarah’s comments often end up sounding as if we’re meant to read them straight. A disappointing second novel.

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

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… Unofficial Britain by Gareth E. Rees. This book has a mission statement, drawn from Rees’s original Unofficial Britain website; Rees wants to ‘walk through everyday places, like car parks, bus stops, amusement arcades, factories, alleyways and promenades, only to find that they become weirder the closer we look’. Probably because of Rees’s single-mindedness, I found Unofficial Britain highly irritating and incredibly insightful by turns. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the idea that a car park or an underpass is exactly the same as a natural landscape like a forest; apart from anything else, forests are living organisms in their own right, not just dead structures upon which humans bestow meaning. There’s also too much moaning about what Rees sees as stereotypical haunted places, like rural moorland or old Victorian houses. However, when he manages to get off his bandwagon, he has lots of interesting things to say. I especially enjoyed the chapters on motorways, multistorey car parks, and motorways, and I loved his discussion of the liminal nature of chain hotels, which feel like they could be anyplace because they all look the same inside.

The Weirdest Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori. I struggle with body horror and am a bit tired of the numerous recent short story collections that deal with women and their bodies. Therefore, I should not have been a fan of Life Ceremony, which features cannibalism, jewellery made from bones, and a woman obsessed with other people’s body fluids, among other bizarre themes. But weirdly, a lot of these stories worked for me. I loved how Murata revealed the contingent, mandated nature of what we think of as ‘normal’ in Convenience Store Woman, and that’s a big concern here, as well. As one character puts it: ‘There was a couple engaged in insemination on the beach. What would that have looked like back when it was still called sex?’ My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Best YA Book I Read This Month Was…

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… A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin. It’s unusual for me to find a YA fantasy that I enjoy, but I liked this immersive debut. It stars teenage Ning, a physician’s apprentice whose mother has recently been killed by drinking poisoned tea distributed by her province’s governor. Now Ning is determined to take up the art of tea magic to cure her sister Shu, who was also poisoned and is now slowly dying. But to achieve her goal, she’ll have to compete to become the palace’s next shennong-shi – a master of tea-making. Lin’s world-building is elegant and convincing. It actually reminded me a bit of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall; there’s an authority in Lin’s writing that allows her to set out the politics of this kingdom simply and effectively without making them feel skimpy. Sadly, I found the characters interchangeable, and so did not invest enough in their story to necessarily want to follow them to the next novel in this duology, but this was escapist and fun. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Book That Swung Off Course The Most For Me This Month Was...

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… Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. This much-hyped debut follows Elizabeth Zott, an uncompromising research chemist rebelling against American women’s expected roles in the 1950s and 1960s, who uses her TV cookery show to encourage other housewives to break free. I thought the first half of this novel was delightful, if a little self-indulgent. Garmus balanced the jaunty tone well with the hints of a greater darkness in Elizabeth’s past, and I was won over by her relationship with fellow chemist Calvin. Unfortunately, it all went wrong in the second half, after Elizabeth begins her cookery show; I found its audience appeal completely unconvincing and the snippets of ‘chemistry’ irritating (I loved chemistry A Level because of the way it made everything fit together; there’s no sense of that here, with Elizabeth simply namedropping terms like ‘sodium chloride’). We have to deal with both an irritating dog, who understands English, and an irritating child, who is ‘precocious’ in the cute way that children in books often are, which is nothing like the way exceptionally smart children are in real life. The random reappearance of long-lost family members at the end ties it all together into a sugary bow. A pity, because I really liked Elizabeth-the-research-chemist before she (reluctantly) became Elizabeth-the-TV-star.

The Most Illuminating Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Reverse Engineering ed. Tom Conaghan. This first book from new indie short story publishers Scratch Books reprints seven exceptional modern short stories and pairs them with commentary from their authors. The stories are worth reading in their own right – I loved every single one except Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Filamo’, which I’d already encountered in her Nudibranchso I knew what to expect. But it’s so great to have the authors’ reflections as well. My favourite story was Mahreen Sohail’s wonderful ‘Hair’. Sohail’s discussion of how she first extended and then pared back the story’s ending, which shoots forward into the future, was fascinating, as was her reflection on how she signalled a switch of protagonist early in the text, temporarily revealing the story’s workings: ‘Sometimes I think short stories should do this more. We seem to be really into smokes and mirrors and tricks and stuff but there’s something really powerful about stating something as it is.’ Chris Powers’s story ‘The Crossing’, alongside his commentary, made me reflect on what George Saunders says in A Swim In The Pond In The Rain about how short story writers should anticipate the reader’s expectations at each stage of the story, and make the unexpected choice. Other standouts for me were Jessie Greengrass’s clever ‘Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague’, which was based loosely on the life of the early modern physician and philosopher Paracelsus (who was born Theophrastus, though I wish there had been a clue to his more famous identity in the text), and Joseph O’Neill’s bizarre ‘The Flier’.

Did you have any stand-out reads in July?

20 Books of Summer, #8 and #9: Prodigal Summer and All Over Creation

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Before rereading: I first read Prodigal Summer in 2010, when I was twenty-three, and backpacking around Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. (The fact that I carried this secondhand hardback edition back to the UK with me indicates how much I liked it – it still has a sticker that says ‘Librería el lector [The Reader Bookshop], Arequipa’ on the back). It was one of my top ten books of 2010, and I frequently cite it as one of the best examples of fiction that deals with a biologist trying to make a rural community understand the value of an apex predator. (This may sound like a niche topic, but there’s The Wolf Border, Once There Were Wolvesand Happinessamong others). However… I remember very little about it, other than that I found it slightly preachy, but not nearly as preachy as Kingsolver’s other novels. I did not review it at the time.

After rereading: This is just such a beautiful book. There’s no other way of putting it. It’s the best kind of comfort read for me, one that is realistic about loss and suffering but creates a world in which people can gradually mend. Prodigal Summer has three, largely separate story threads. Deanna is a wildlife biologist working for the Forest Service in the southern Appalachians, employed to deter poachers and tracking a family of coyotes who have recently returned to the region. In the valley below, Lusa is newly widowed and isolated on her husband’s farm, surrounded by her hostile relatives and wondering if she should flee back to the city. Finally, her elderly neighbour Garnett broods over his losses and nurtures a grudge against his own neighbour Nannie, who refuses to use pesticides on her plants and so, he believes, is putting his project to save the American chestnut tree in danger. Despite the focus on grief and loneliness, Prodigal Summer, as befits its title, is also about the abundant reproduction of nature, its persistence and excess. All the characters long to have a relationship with the next generation, whether that’s through biological grandchildren or adopted kin. This time round, I didn’t find it preachy at all; my only slight hesitation was that there seems to be no place in this world for women who don’t want to mother, and that Kingsolver’s own voice seeps through occasionally. Deanna and Lusa overlap a little too much in their worldviews, given the two characters’ very different backgrounds. Nevertheless, this remains my favourite Kingsolver novel (up there with Flight Behaviour) and it was an utter joy to spend time with.

My rating in 2010: ****1/2

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

L: The edition I originally read. R: The (much uglier) edition I read this time.

Before rereading: I first read All Over Creation in 2014, when I was twenty-seven. I’d loved Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and wanted to read more by her, and I thought this one sounded more up my street than My Year of Meats (which I actually loved when I eventually got round to reading it in 2020). However, I couldn’t get on with it, and didn’t finish it. I now don’t remember much about it other than that it featured GM crops, possibly potatoes.

After rereading: Sadly, I haven’t changed my mind about this one, although I did make it all the way through this time. I think Ozeki was going for something akin to Prodigal Summer. There are several major groupings of characters: Yumi, returning to her home town in Idaho twenty-five years after she ran away at the age of fourteen; her estranged parents, Lloyd and Momoko; her old best friend Cass, childless and miserable; her ex-teacher and ex-lover Elliot, who now works for NuLife, a company developing GM potatoes; and a group of environmental activists, the Seeds of Resistance. But both these characters’ stories and the exploration of GM crops feel shortchanged.

The novel has no central protagonist, which is not necessarily a problem, but all the cast feel under-developed. Yumi regresses to her teenage self, but we get no sense of who she was in the years between. Cass is defined solely by her longing for a baby and her criticisms of Yumi’s neglectful parenting of her three children. Lloyd, Momoko and Elliot are basically caricatures, and the hippy activists reminded me of the irritating group of library misfits in The Book of Form and Emptiness(Speaking of Ozeki’s latest, I think it’s actually the better novel of the two; All Over Creation doesn’t have the twee asides from the Book, which is a big plus, but neither does it have the strong, nuanced character work of the relationship between Benny and Annabelle). Finally, Ozeki does not interweave the theme of GM crops into her story as artfully as Kingsolver weaves her environmental messages, even though both authors have something to say about pesticides. I’d definitely recommend My Year of Meats or A Tale For The Time Being instead.

My rating in 2014: ***

My rating in 2022: ***

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

June Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. A shorter post than usual as I’ve reviewed more of what I’ve read this month via 20 Books of Summer.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley. It’s 1963, and Valery has spent six years in the gulag when he is abruptly transferred to a secret facility called Chelyabinsk 40, where his scientific expertise is required to study an irradiated forest and the animal life within. However, Valery soon realises that something is wrong; the levels of radiation in the city are far above what has been officially reported. Valery is a hugely compelling protagonist; I loved him, and I loved this book. My full review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Unlikely Thru-Hiker by Derick Lugo. Despite being a self-proclaimed ‘metrosexual’ with no hiking or camping experience, New York comedian Derick Lugo sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, where he’s given the trail name ‘Mr Fabulous’ because of his attention to personal hygiene and grooming, as well as his ‘peace and love’ attitude. I’m fascinated by the Appalachian Trail, although I’ve never set foot on it, and I’d hoped for a reflection on Lugo’s experiences as a black man hiking this famous route; many of his fellow hikers comment that he’s the only black man they’ve ever seen doing it. This book isn’t about race, which, of course, is fair enough; the trouble is that it isn’t about anything else either. Lugo reels off tons of unconnected anecdotes, most of which have a ‘you had to be there’ feel. He also obsesses about food, toilets and camping facilities. It’s not a long book, but it felt like it was.

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

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… Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham. Wadham is a renewed glaciologist, and this is an accessible and interesting introduction to how glaciers form, move and melt, and how climate change is affecting some of the coldest places on Earth. Following ice around the world, we move from France to Greenland to Antarctica to Peru. As with Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother TreeI enjoyed the science in this book (this time, it was A Level Chemistry rather than A Level Biology I was struggling to recall), and I liked how Wadham weaved her personal experiences through the chapters, although it’s a much thinner thread than Simard’s.

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

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… Vladimir by Julia May Jonas. When you struggle to review a novel because you know its narrator would look scathingly on any of the comments that you make about it, that’s when you know you’ve just read an excellent character study. My full review is on GoodreadsI 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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… Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski. I would likely not have picked this up without Elle’s recommendation, but I’m glad I did. Set in a strip club in the Chicago suburbs in 1999, Real Easy is ostensibly about the disappearance of two of the women who work at the club, with some viewpoint chapters from the detectives assigned to the case. However, its real focus is the lives of the women who do lap dances and strip shows to make money, exposing the banal routines of the club as well as their different home lives, their partners and children and parents. Rutkoski hops from voice to voice, but two women, intersex Samantha and bisexual, mixed-race Georgia, take centre stage. While some of the points about female objectification felt a bit familiar – especially in the chapters narrated by the male characters – Rutkoski’s writing is smart and fresh.

What do we want the future to look like? : The Men by Sandra Newman & The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley

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The Men, one of my most anticipated books of 2022, has a high-concept premise: everybody with a Y chromosome suddenly disappears from the world, and those left behind have to rebuild it. Despite this, I’m not sure that Sandra Newman actually needed a world without men (and trans women and some intersex and non-binary people) to tell the story she wanted to tell. This novel focuses on two captivatingly flawed women drawn into a close relationship with each other: Jane, a white convicted sex offender who was exploited by an older man when she was a teenager and took the rap for his crimes, and Evangelyne, a black woman who was imprisoned for more than a decade for shooting the cops that killed her family.

The Men spends almost as much time on these women’s backstories prior to the Y-chromosome-only Rapture, than it does on exploring a world without men. When Jane and Evangelyne meet at college, Evangelyne is already famous for the text she wrote in prison on commensalism, arguing that this biological concept can be applied to human society to show that it is ethical to ‘eat the rich’, as wealthy people derive little benefit from being so wealthy. (Newman is good at inventing a radical literary trajectory for Evangelyne; her more personal essay ‘The White Girl’ is her other most famous work, describing the events that led up to her shooting incident). Evangelyne then becomes the leader of a group called ComPA which rises to power as society reorganises in light of the Rapture.

All this reminded me much more of books about all-female groups trying to build utopias, like Sarah Hall’s excellent The Carhullan Army, than books that play with sex and gender, like Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, I got the impression that Newman isn’t that interested in writing about sex/gender constructs, despite a couple of insightful lines (‘the concept of “men” had always been religious. All women were sold the idea of men as superior beings… Trans men could be masculine without making sex into a two-tier system, as cis men always had. We could love one another face-to-face, where before we had loved only through a glass darkly: so the ComPAs said’). This, I think, is why most of the mentions of trans and non-binary people feel so crowbarred in; gender isn’t Newman’s focus. Parts of the novel are also truly beautiful and hypnotic, even as they feel disconnected from the story at hand: ‘We pondered, the cozy, uncomfortable hum of the bus all around and a heavy East Texas rain making lines of wavy light on the windows, lines that trembled and were deformed in wind… We have no real face; they are masks that are borrowed and passed on, that live for millennia and are what a human is.’

However, although The Men is original and insightful, it’s also frankly bizarre. The narrative is weird and disjointed. Much of the novel is narrated by Jane, a straightforward choice that makes sense, but it trails into bits from other narrators who seem to have little to do with the main thrust of the plot. Many women are obsessed with watching a TV show called ‘The Men’ that shows naked men wandering a blasted landscape peopled with strange beasts, but the purpose of these interludes is not clear. Some reviewers have suggested that The Men is gender-essentialist and transphobic; while I largely disagree, it certainly struggles to make sense of all the ideas flung into its melting pot. I think it’s also fair to say that it wasn’t a great plan to tackle such a controversial premise when you don’t have a lot to say about gender. 

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

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The Half Life of Valery K was not on my list of most anticipated books of 2022, but it definitely would have been had I known it was getting published this year, because Natasha Pulley is one of my favourite authors. It’s 1963, and Valery has spent six years in the gulag when he is abruptly transferred to a secret facility called Chelyabinsk 40, where his scientific expertise is required to study an irradiated forest and the animal life within. However, Valery soon realises that something is wrong; the levels of radiation in the city are far above what has been officially reported. Struggling with the effects of his trauma, and having firmly believed that he was going to die in the gulag, Valery is aware that he sees everything off-kilter. He’s almost moved through his own death to a state beyond it where nothing matters to him more than preserving the lives of others. He’s a hugely compelling protagonist, perhaps Pulley’s best creation to date, because of this skewed logic.

In this context, the title of the novel becomes fascinating: on first glance, we might assume that Valery’s ‘half life’ refers to how he has been damaged and reduced by the gulag. But there’s a second meaning here, tied more closely to the subject-matter of the novel: the ‘half life’ of a radioactive substance is how long it takes for half of the unstable nuclei to decay. Substances with a longer half life have a slower but longer reach across time, while substances with a shorter half life show their effects more quickly but don’t last as long. Pulley seems to be asking: what is someone like Valery’s impact on the world, and how long will it linger?

Pulley’s other novels have all been set in versions of the nineteenth century where the real and the speculative intermingle; for fans of her other books, reading The Half Life of Valery K is a rather disconcerting experience, because it’s all based on fact but feels profoundly unreal. If The Men recalled Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the novel I kept thinking of while reading Valery K was Le Guin’s The DispossessedThere’s something about Valery that reminded me strongly of Shevek, the physicist protagonist of The Dispossessed who comes to a capitalist world from an anarcho-syndicalist society. Pulley doesn’t delve as deeply into alternative value-systems, but Valery’s thought processes are at odds with Soviet Russian norms; she also shows how her characters, raised under communism, are perplexed by the West, especially its treatment of women. Other Pulley tropes are present and correct – Valery is drawn into a close friendship with KGB head of security, Shenkov, despite the fact that he knows Shenkov could execute him at any time – but didn’t seem as central to this novel as they have been to her others. It’s Valery and his pet octopus who take centre stage.

I’ve reviewed these two novels together because I happened to read them both in June, but there are threads that connect them: both The Men and The Half Life of Valery K are interested in imagining different futures, and asking whether we could cope with these new versions of the world. We want things to change – but do we really?

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

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?

February Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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…Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield, which I thought was hauntingly beautiful, and gets my second five-star rating of 2022. My review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… A Still Life by Josie George. As much as I wanted this memoir of chronic illness to be for me, it was not for me. I’m sorry about this, because I know how much Elle and Rebecca liked this book, but I could not get on with the narrative voice, especially in the present-day sections. I’d recommend Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay instead.

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

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… Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, which was an impulse purchase from Forum Books. I loved Tsui’s exploration of swimming clubs, abalone divers, desperate swims for survival and public pools.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was… 

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…A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I named this as one of my favourite books of the decade (2010-19), but I was worried it wouldn’t hold up on a re-read, especially as I didn’t like Ozeki’s latest, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Thankfully, it did. My original review and my most recent thoughts are here.

The Best Sequel I Read This Month Was… 

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… Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather; for me, one of those rare sequels that was actually better than the first book. Sisters of the Vast Black had a brilliant premise, focusing on an order of spacefaring nuns piloting a ‘liveship’, or a ship constructed from the body of a creature that seems to be adapted for this purpose. However, the pacing was off; the last third felt rushed and cliched compared to the thoughtful, contemplative story that preceded it. Sisters of the Forsaken Stars is much better-paced and more morally complex, although there were characters and themes that I thought could still have benefited from more page-time. I would have particularly liked to hear more about Gemma, who left the order in the last book to be with her girlfriend but is still struggling to ‘be in the world’ after years of being a nun, and is especially struggling with physical intimacy. This is the kind of thing we don’t hear much about in fiction, and although all the beats of Gemma’s character growth are present and correct, I just wanted to spend more time living through this with her. Nevertheless, great SFF.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was… 

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… Ellery Lloyd’s The Club. After a proliferation of thrillers that place unlikely ‘twists’ above all else, sacrificing characterisation and plausibility for the sake of potentially surprising the reader, The Club was a welcome change. My review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 31st March.

The Book That Grew Most On Me As It Went Along Was… 

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… We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan. I was a little dismayed by the first couple of chapters of this debut; the writing felt simplistic and clunky, and characters had a tendency to tell other characters things they would already know. However, as the story unfolded, I started to appreciate the way Zayyan gradually layered complexity onto this unpromising beginning. I especially liked the portrayal of the two central protagonists. Sameer is a lawyer living in England who returns to Uganda to explore his heritage; his family, Ugandan Asians, were forced to flee the country in 1972 (Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill also explores this episode in British colonial history). Interspersed with Sameer’s story are letters from his grandfather, Hasan, written as the crisis unfolds in 1970s Kampala. Both Sameer and Hasan ultimately have to negotiate their positioning between their own exploitation by British colonialists and present-day racists and their relative power compared to black Ugandans; both, arguably, also possess unexamined male privilege. Zayyan does not exult nor condemn either man, but lets the reader see them as they are. This book never quite took off for me because of the problems with its prose, but I admired Zayyan’s depiction of faith, morality and racism.

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

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…The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, first in a fantasy trilogy set in a world inspired by Indian epics. I loved the three female protagonists, Priya, Malini and Bhumika, and enjoyed the atmospheric and original worldbuilding. But the male PoVs were underdeveloped (the most interesting and complex male character, Aditya, did not get to narrate); for me, this gave the book a stop-start feel, as the pace slowed to a crawl whenever a male character took the stage then sped up again when a female character returned. It’s also overlong, especially towards the end, when an obvious ‘reveal’ is dragged out for all it’s worth, and I never really believed in the romance between Priya and Malini, much as I love lesbian representation.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was… 

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…These Days by Lucy Caldwell. Set during the devastating Belfast Blitz of 1941, These Days focuses primarily on two middle-class sisters: 21-year-old Audrey, who has recently become engaged and is already having doubts, and 18-year-old Emma, secretly in love with another woman who, like her, works for the ambulance service. Their mother, Florence, also gets a significant sub-plot, as she reflects back on a long-lost love and forward as she wonders whether her life is essentially over: ‘How is it, she sometimes thinks, that this is her life, that here she is, a wife of twenty-two years this September, mother of two adult daughters, of a baby son already matching her for height?… It isn’t, she hastily thinks, that she’s unhappy, nor ungrateful with her lot: just bemused, she supposes, that this has turned out to be it.’ There are also snippets of narration from other characters: most notably, a brilliant, vividly rendered football match from the point-of-view of the sisters’ younger brother, Paul.

These Days is, in some ways, refreshing, and it’s certainly very well-written; not only does it highlight a lesser-known Blitz, but Caldwell’s writing manages to make familiar details from many, many World War Two novels feel immediate again. We feel the sudden loss of whole streets and landmarks and the fear of seeking safety in an air raid shelter that itself becomes a target. I also liked the subtle characterisation of Audrey and Emma, and the way that they are not set against each other. However, in other ways, it’s very familiar; it rehearses some stereotypical tropes about homosexuality, and I found the inclusion of perspectives from outside the family circle distracting. This seemed to be a gesture towards encompassing the working-class as well as the middle-class experience of the Blitz, but became a bit tokenistic. In particular, the narrative arc of ‘Wee Betty’, one of the family’s servants, is very sentimental.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

In the hadal zone: Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield

Beyond this point, there is a final layer… This layer is known as the Hadalpelagic, or Hadal Zone, a name which speaks for itself. Lying between roughly nineteen and thirty-six thousand feet, much of this layer of the water is unexplored, which is not to say uninhabited.

The deep sea is… deep. (If you want to get a sense of just how deep, I can’t recommend this enough, but brace yourself – it’s scary). Miri’s biologist wife Leah has returned home after a deep-sea mission that was supposed to last for three weeks, but took three months. Leah won’t or can’t explain the length of her absence, and when Miri repeatedly calls her employer, the Centre, she remains in an endless loop of recorded messages. Leah’s account of the mission alternates with Miri’s longer sections, as she describes how their submarine began to sink, as planned – and then just kept sinking. With the lights and power off, and the comms broken, they had no way of knowing just how deep they’d fallen – and no way of getting back up.

When I first read about Our Wives Under The Sea, Julia Armfield’s first novel, it sounded like it ticked a lot of my boxes. Deep-sea exploration, lesbians, speculative fiction, horror… plus that haunting cover. However, I couldn’t have anticipated just how much I would love this book. I am officially obsessed. Much as I love this kind of crossover between literary fiction and speculative fiction/horror, I don’t think we should underestimate just how difficult it is to pull off. While I think these two kinds of writing can work so well together (my own novel-in-progress, The Forest That Eats Bonealso occupies this space), some of their demands pull against each other. The kind of concrete explanations for mysterious phenomena that you might get in science fiction, for example, don’t always work well alongside the usual rhythms of literary prose; meanwhile, literary fiction’s penchant for strange metaphor can be confusing in a story where bizarre things are actually happening. Armfield balances this perfectly. We learn just enough about the Centre to root Leah’s mission in the real world, while also positioning it in the realms of the uncanny (in comparison, Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed Annihilation drifted too far into unreality for me). Her use of unsettling scientific facts about the deep sea allows what is possible and what is impossible to bleed beautifully into each other.

However, the other thing that anchors this story is the relationship between Miri and Leah. Armfield avoids the temptation of romantic vagueness that seems to catch so many writers of speculative literary fiction and makes them both wonderfully-observed, concretely realistic people. I loved Miri’s stray observations about the Leah she knew before her wife embarked on the mission: ‘The thing about Leah was that nine times out of ten she couldn’t bring herself to be unkind about anyone, but then three times a year would say something so blisteringly cruel about someone we knew that she’d clap both hands to her mouth and turn in a circle as if warding off evil’. Their world, too, is rendered in such fine detail, from the sound of the neighbour’s television that constantly blares into their flat to the way the weather was on their first date: ‘The night was wet, air close and flannel-damp’.

Our Wives Under The Sea is not one of those frustrating literary novels that is simply a metaphor for something else, but it uses the potential of its plot to talk about grief in expertly moving ways. Armfield has written about her interest in women and their bodies’ and this certainly comes through in Our Wives Under The Sea; alongside the weird metamorphosis of Leah’s body after she emerges from the ocean, Miri recollects caring for her mother in the final stages of dementia, and the way she lost control of her own movements after a life of adopting only very rigid facial expressions. The ending of the novel – and this never happens – made me cry.

Armfield’s prose is absolutely stunning, but this is not a novel that is all about the writing. (I wouldn’t love it so much if it was). It’s a gorgeous, heartbreaking book about the relationship between two women and what becomes of that relationship, and it gets a full five stars from me, which is another thing that almost never happens. But I guess stranger things have happened at sea.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd March. BUY IT NOW.

Edit: In my excitement to post this review I forgot to mention that Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim is a wonderful non-fiction companion to Our Wives Under The Sea, if rather less creepy.

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10 Books of Summer, #9 and #10: The Sleeping Beauties and The Wild Laughter

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After reading Suzanne O’Sullivan’s recent article in the Guardian on ‘mystery illnesses’, I knew I wanted to seek out the book in which she explores these ideas further, Sleeping Beauties, though I found it patchier then its précis version. It worked best for me when O’Sullivan used a case study to link together wider issues, as she does in the opening chapter on ‘resignation syndrome’ among refugee children in Sweden, and in the final chapter on how Western medical labels are as open to question as indigenous explanations for illness; less well when she got too bogged down in the minutae of a single example, which was the case in most of the other chapters. The thread that links all of the outbreaks that O’Sullivan explores is the idea of a ‘functional neurological disorder’: in these disorders, patients experience nervous symptoms that are genuine but not linked to any observable physical problem. O’Sullivan understands why people resist being told that their debilitating experience of illness is ‘psychosomatic’, and emphasises that this diagnosis in no way suggests that their suffering is not real, or that they are making up their symptoms. Drawing on a biopsychosocial model of health, she suggests that the causes of these disorders arise from the interaction between body, mind and environment, and that all three of these things can be equally important in understanding certain conditions. Overall, I found this argument very interesting, and there are sections here I’ll definitely return to, but the book becomes a bit repetitive, and I felt that a couple of the chapters could have been cut.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

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Caoilinn Hughes’ The Wild Laughter is a smart, short novel with a brilliant, utterly convincing narrative voice; unfortunately, I found it hard to inhabit rather than simply admire. Hart is the younger of a pair of Irish brothers who are watching their father slowly dying after the economic crash in Ireland leaves him bankrupt. His voice initially reminded me of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (with perhaps a bit of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand thrown in), but Hughes’s dense prose, which needs to be read and digested line by line, is closer to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. And while I adored the two former novels, I also found myself at arm’s length from McBride’s book, recognising her skill but not able to quite connect. Hughes is fond of complicated, poetic similes that are all wonderful in their own right but kept catching me off-balance when I tried to sink into the flow of this book, because I had to work out what they meant. At an agricultural show, ‘peach udders drooped everywhere like the rear end of a birthday party.’ The ‘restless landscape’ is ‘sporadically moonlamped, as if the night was giving sign to a dangerous reef up ahead.’ A hairstyle is ‘a bun like a hare’s tail, but rained on.’ Alongside this, Hughes comes up with many more arresting lines – but they feel buried in the rest of the prose. For me, the writing got in the way of the story she was telling.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

This concludes my 10 Books of Summer! How did you do with your summer reading?

‘In the beginning there was an idea’: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

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Gifty, the protagonist of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is both a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford who sought rigour in all things from an early age, and a grieving woman who is still deeply connected to her Ghanaian family’s Pentecostalism. As a child, she struggled with the command to ceaselessly praise God, soon discovering that she found it difficult to keep her mind on prayer for more than a few minutes; her teenage imagination was caught by the idea that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God’ might actually be translated differently: ‘“Word” was translated from the Greek word Logos, which didn’t really mean “word” at all, but rather something closer to “plea” or even premise… In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.’ Gifty’s research on reward-seeking behaviour in mice has obvious connections with the death of her older brother Nana from opioid addiction, but the novel avoids giving her this one simple motivation for her project; she explains that she was drawn to neuroscience because it seemed so hard and so pure, and is now grappling with the conflict between religious and scientific ideas of the brain, the mind and the soul.

From a white British perspective, fiction on the perceived conflict between religion and science has often tended to focus on the theory of evolution, and explored either the gentle accord that nineteenth-century men of science found between their faith and the evidence that the natural history of the world was much longer than they’d expected, or the later clashes with creationism. Transcendent Kingdom stands out in its depiction of Gifty’s Pentecostal faith, which, unlike Anglicanism/ Episcopalianism, focuses on personal divine revelation and speaking in tongues, and how she integrates her childhood beliefs with her neuroscientific work. (Creationism only comes up once, as an irritating question that non-believers ask her; she dodges it by spouting something one of her schoolteachers once said, ‘I believe we’re made of stardust, and God made the stars.’) This novel is so wise and thoughtful that there are endless bits I could quote, but I was especially struck by how Gifty turns to both scientific articles and biblical passages, not necessarily as sources of authority, but as things that are both good to think with.

This book is so thematically resonant that a lot of the reviews I’ve read make it sound intellectually worthy, but a bit dry; this isn’t the case at all. Gifty is a completely captivating narrator, ironically funny about her younger self, complex, unashamedly ambitious and yet deeply caring. Gyasi does not have time for any of the usual binaries that afflict female characters, and doesn’t let us think for a second that because Gifty wants to be a scientific star and does not want marriage or children, this means that she is in any way emotionally deficient. The novel is also technically brilliant in a very unobtrusive way; the narrative melts between present and past every few paragraphs, but I never felt at all confused about where or when we were. Indeed, it’s this clever juxtaposition that allows Gyasi to say so much without spelling anything out to the reader.

I never managed to love Gyasi’s acclaimed debut, Homegoing, as much as I wanted to; I admired its premise and construction, and connected with some of the stories, but felt a little distanced from the project as a whole. Transcendent Kingdom was a very different experience; I was completely pulled into Gifty’s world and Gifty’s questions. This novel deserves to go straight onto the Women’s Prize longlist and indeed the shortlist, and I hope to see it there on the 10th March.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 4th March.

(An aside: what is going on with the UK cover for this book? It looks like the sort of shapes I used to doodle in class, and the pink and green cover scheme is – not good. It’s such a shame, because the US cover is perfect:

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