May Superlatives, 2023

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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Phase Six by Jim Shepard. This is the best book about the immediate onset of, and response to, a pandemic that I’ve ever read. Unlike most pandemic literature (for example: Emily St John Mandel’s wonderful Station Eleven), Phase Six is very closely focused on the first few weeks and months after a new pathogen is released into the environment due to the thawing of Greenlandic permafrost. Jim Shepard digs deep to produce an incredibly well-researched picture of how the CDC, WHO, and healthcare centres might respond, which I found fascinating to read in its own right. I love medical detail, especially epidemiology, and the way Shepard has woven in references to Covid-19 in what was clearly a later draft of this novel only emphasises how realistic his original version was. However, Shepard also transcends this material to tell the human stories of a handful of characters caught up in this pandemic; the abrupt and open ending is intentionally frustrating, but also beautiful, speaking to how our own personal stories always finish before we want them to. This makes Phase Six sound like a dark and difficult read, but I didn’t find it so. In many ways, it’s uplifting, emphasising co-operation and collaboration between humans rather than selfishness. This is not a dystopian novel, but a realistic exploration of how people respond to adversity, and the power as well as the limitations of scientific research. If the Wellcome Book Prize had still been active in 2021, this would have been a perfect winner.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird by Agustina Bazterrica, trans. Sarah Moses. This collection of very short stories has echoes of a number of other collections I’ve read recently about girls and women, sex and violence; the stories that worked better for me in Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird, like ‘Roberto’ and ‘Unamuno’s Boxes’, are reminiscent of writers like Julia Armfield, Carmen Maria Machado and Kate Folk, whereas the more experimental and bizarre pieces, like ‘Candy Pink’ and ‘Dishwasher’, reminded me more of Irenosen Okojie‘s stories with their accumulation of detail, a style I’ve struggled with in the past. Most of the stories aim to shock and I found that, once I’d worked out the pattern, I was often just waiting for the twist ending, so although they are tonally different, they also feel very similar. I wasn’t greatly impressed. I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Book I Just Simply Enjoyed The Most This Month Was…

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… Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld. Sittenfeld is such a reliable joy for me; if you exclude her bizarre Eligible, I’ve loved everything she’s ever written. And her latest novel is just as captivating, if not as complex as some of her other work. Sally works as a scriptwriter on comedy sketch show The Night Owls [Saturday Night Live]. When her friend Danny hooks up with a movie star, she’s frustrated enough at this latest example of a trend to propose a sketch that she calls ‘The Danny Horst Rule’: men often date and marry women far more beautiful and successful than them, but ordinary women never end up with celebrity men. Of course, before Sally has even finished writing her sketch, she’s met pop idol Noah, who seems interested in her – but obviously, he can’t be. Can he? The first third of this novel was the most truly satisfying for me, as Sittenfeld convincingly explores the way Sally’s show is put together, with some great observations on how comedy sketches are written, and traces her developing connection with Noah as well as her sparky friendships with her colleagues. The rest of the book, which relies heavily on emails, felt slighter, giving Sittenfeld less opportunity to show what she’s good at, which is mapping complicated human connections. Nevertheless, it made me reflect that if all romance was written this well, I might be more of a fan of the genre.

The Book That Was Ruined By Its Protagonist This Month Was…

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… Girl In Ice by Erica Ferencik. I ought to have loved this slow-burn speculative thriller, which ticked all my boxes. Set in a remote Arctic research station, it focuses on the mysterious thawing of a small girl, alive, from the ice. How did she survive, and will she continue to do so? At the same time, there’s a nice touch of horror with the introduction of freezing katabatic winds that are striking people unawares throughout the world and killing them on the spot. Ferencik is a great writer, and the Arctic landscape is beautifully evoked. BUT, I could not handle Girl In Ice‘s protagonist, a linguist called Val who suffers from such crippling anxiety that she has barely travelled anywhere in her life and relies heavily on medication, which she starts to supplement with alcohol once she’s forced to travel out to the Arctic to try and understand what the unfrozen girl is saying. I’m absolutely on board with novels exploring this kind of anxiety and trauma, but I just don’t think it can be explored well in this kind of thriller, and yet novelists keep on trying to do it (see also: The Dark by Emma Haughton). In this sort of book, I really want a competent and practical protagonist who’s able to deal sensibly with other people. It made me reflect on why the nervous, incompetent protagonist of Ferencik’s first, brilliant thriller, The River At Night, worked so well for me: one, she wasn’t faced with urgent research mysteries, and two, her apprehension about going white-water rafting turned out to be totally reasonable and justified! Other readers, though, might warm to Val more than I did.

The Best Novel I Read About Capitalism This Month Was…

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… For The Win by Cory Doctorow. Set between LA, South China and Mumbai in the near-future, this novel follows a group of young people, mostly teenagers, who are getting exploited by capitalist bosses in their low-wage, long-hour jobs. However, its major focus isn’t the traditional setting of the factory but the virtual world of online multiplayer games, where most of the protagonists are making money by churning through quests to earn virtual gold and level up avatars that can be sold on to richer players. ‘Gold farming’ in these games is technically illegal, but there’s little the game companies can do about it. This means, though, that gold farmers are vulnerable to mistreatment, getting locked out of their workplaces – internet cafes – or having their pay cut if they dare to complain. Big Sister Nor, who started off organising workers in the ‘real world’, now leads trade union Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, or the ‘Webblies’, playing on the ‘Wobblies’ of the early twentieth-century US. The Webblies are trying to organise workers across borders, breaking down old rules about unionisation, which is often about resisting undercutting by foreign labour; but they have all the power of the internet on their side.

For The Win is both a fast-paced techno-thriller and a crash course in basic economics and how workers might stand up for their rights. It’s now more than a decade old, but it possibly feels even more relevant today than it did when it was published. I loved the way that Doctorow weaves his accessible explanations into the story, and how this information becomes crucial as the plot unfolds. I also loved that this is a story without individual villains. There are people who do bad things, but the antagonist is the bigger social and economic system rather than any of our narrating characters, even those who hold power in companies like Nintendo. This was apparently badged as YA when it was first sold, but it definitely doesn’t feel like a young adult novel – though I’m sure many teenagers would get a lot out of it. It’s basically a serious, thoughtful and yet still fun examination of what Marx would have called alienated labour. Brilliant. I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary

The Best Summer Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… The New Wife by JP Delaney. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Delaney’s earlier thrillers, but this felt like a big, and interesting, change of pace. (The cover art reflects the way his other books have been marketed, but doesn’t feel right at all for this novel – don’t be put off!). Finn and his sister grew up in Mallorca on a decaying finca, but after an abusive childhood, both of them left in their teens and haven’t looked back. Now their father has died and they’ve inherited the finca – but their father’s new wife, Ruensa, is still living there with her adult daughter Roze. Finn travels to Mallorca to sort out the legalities, but is stunned by what he finds – Ruensa and Roze have transformed the finca and its grounds, planning to set it up as a functioning agrotourism spot and a hostel for hikers. Moreover, he’s immediately attracted to Roze, who draws him in with her mix of lightheartedness, practicality, and fragility. But was it really a coincidence that Finn’s father died so shortly after his marriage? And will Ruensa and Roze give up their fledging business so easily?

In short: this is a retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s unforgettable My Cousin Rachel, and Delaney does capture some of its beauty and menace, gorgeously evoking his Mallorcan setting. As with Rachel in the du Maurier novel, we both want Roze to be what she seems and fear that she isn’t – Delaney makes it completely convincing that Finn would be entranced by her against his better judgment. A late twist is effective, but I did feel that, unlike My Cousin Rachel, The New Wife then leans a little too hard into one interpretation of the characters, despite Delaney’s efforts to keep the ending open. Du Maurier said that she deliberately never made up her mind about Rachel’s true motives; Delaney admits, in his afterword, that he does know what Roze was about. Nevertheless, this is perfect summer reading.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 20th July.

The Best Debut Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… Neon Roses by Rachel Dawson. It’s 1984 in the valleys of South Wales, and Eluned is tired of her boyfriend, her job and her life. In the midst of the miners’ strike, having fun is a distant memory, as all her wages need to go to support her family. Even worse, her sister Mabli is sleeping with the enemy, being wined and dined by one of the policemen who oppress the miners on the pickets. When LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) turn up in Eluned’s village, her attraction to lesbian June makes her realise why she has never quite fit in with her community’s expectations – but can she really leave her whole life behind? This accomplished novel vividly evokes a range of settings across Britain in the mid-1980s, from rural Wales to Cardiff to London to Manchester. It has all the verisimilitude of Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses but, for me, much more originality and heart. As a historian of this period, I loved how effortlessly Dawson brought queer communities and protest movements to life, weaving in detail without over-explaining or overloading. I know much less about the specifics of her South Wales setting, but I felt that was also beautifully done; Dawson refuses to pander to the reader by explaining the ‘Wenglish’ that many of her characters use, but I never felt lost. There’s a depth to this novel that is absent from most twentieth-century historical fiction.

My only question is: why didn’t I love it more, as it literally ticks all my boxes? This is probably a me problem rather than a book problem, but I never quite warmed to Eluned as much as I wanted to, despite the homophobia and hardship she faces, and the solidarity she shows. (So great to read a book that understands that identifying as a lesbian, especially in the 1980s, is about more than who you sleep with.) On a macro level, she never seemed to truly experience any vulnerability, although I can appreciate that Dawson puts her in many situations where she’s positioned as vulnerable; something about what was happening to Eluned on the outside and what was happening in her head didn’t quite connect. On a micro level, I wondered if this wasn’t helped by the slightly detached prose, which keeps us at a fair distance from Eluned (Dawson continually uses ‘Eluned’ when ‘she’ would have done, and this jolted me outside of her consciousness). I wanted to fall in love with Eluned and June, and I just didn’t. Nevertheless, a brilliant debut. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Re-Read That Made Me Think The Most About Rereading This Month Was…

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… The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank. I adored this novel when I first read it aged twenty, in 2007; I re-read it in 2008 and 2009, and was equally captivated each time. Last summer, I re-read Bank’s debut, The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing, which I never had liked as much, and commented ‘I enjoyed revisiting Girls’ Guide, but I have much higher hopes for [rereading] The Wonder Spot’. Both books follow a similar trajectory, tracing the life of a young Jewish woman struggling with jobs and dating; in The Wonder Spot, our heroine is Sophie. I do still think The Wonder Spot is better than Girls’ Guide; the humour is subtler, and Bank has abandoned the tics that annoyed me in her first novel. But, I was disappointed! Although I still admired Bank’s observational skill and the way she doesn’t feel the need to tell the reader everything, I couldn’t remember why I had once loved The Wonder Spot so much.

I think this was a book that spoke much more to my younger self; I intensely re-read it during the period of my life when I was struggling the most with romantic relationships, meeting men (that was my first mistake) who messed me around, played games or just weren’t right. And The Wonder Spot is incredibly good at showing us, rather than telling us, why Sophie’s relationships don’t work out. Most of the chapters in the book stand alone as short stories that dissect the behaviour of men who seem to have potential, but just aren’t the one; I especially enjoyed ‘Teen Romance’ and ‘The One After You’, which have the most mature takes on Sophie’s love life. More than fifteen years on, though, this reminded me too much of the Disaster Women novels that are now so popular, although Sophie is definitely Gen X rather than a millennial or Gen Z, and Bank can write much better than most. Having said that, though, I would press her books on anybody who actually likes this kind of fiction; Bank was well ahead of her time. PUBLISHERS TAKE NOTE: if this were rejacketed for 2023, I think it would be a hit again.

What books stood out for you in May?

April Superlatives, 2023

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Know My Name by Chanel Miller. Miller wrote the famous ‘Emily Doe’ victim impact statement after being raped by Stanford student Brock Turner; after much soul-searching, she decided to waive her anonymity when publishing this memoir. I wanted to read this because I was so impressed by Miller’s incredible statement, but my expectations were relatively modest: I wondered how much more there was to say, and whether Miller could sustain the power of her long essay across hundreds of pages. Turns out, she can and she does. As she did in her statement, Miller both tells us an intimately personal story of dealing with trauma, and positions her experience against the wider social context within which it occurred. Miller has become a ‘lighthouse’ for so many victims both because of the relative unusualness of her case – less than 1% of rapes in the US lead to felony convictions – and because of her own ability to speak up, which she thoughtfully ascribes to both her own personal courage and her solid, supportive base.

I was especially struck by Miller’s recognition that the ‘future’ that Brock ‘lost’ when he chose to rape her is a privilege only afforded to elite, straight, able-bodied white men: ‘On the day the verdict of my case was read, a Washington Post article quoted Brock saying that in ten years he hoped to be in residency to be a surgeon. His sister wrote, Goodbye to the Olympics. Goodbye to being an orthopaedic surgeon… At the time of the assault, he had worked as a lifeguard for two years and then at a store called Speedy Feet. But I never read this anywhere. He was not forced to acknowledge the facts of his present. He was talked about in terms of his lost potential, what he would never be, rather than what he is. They spoke as if his future was patiently waiting for him to step into it.’ As Miller writes, ‘let’s imagine a Hispanic nineteen-year-old working in the kitchen of the fraternity commits the same crime. Does this story end differently? Does the Washington Post call him a surgeon?’

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor. Full review coming soon, but let’s file this one – and Okorafor’s work in general – under Just Not For Me.

The Most Disappointing Memoir I Read This Month Was…

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… Thunderstone by Nancy Campbell. I loved Campbell’s The Library of Ice and Fifty Words For Snow so much that I picked up Thunderstone even though the blurb didn’t especially draw me in (and because I LOVED the cover). This was an error. Thunderstone is an edited version of a journal Campbell kept when she was living in a static caravan in a strip of woodland near a canal outside Oxford. The setting resonated with me: I used to live in Littlemore and could cycle into Oxford along the river, so although this was clearly not the same bit where Campbell lived, I remember the communities that staked out space in the woods there, and reading this brought back some things I had forgotten. However, I’ve almost never read a novel that works for me told in short-ish diary entries, and non-fiction seems to be no exception. I wouldn’t have decided to read this if I’d known it was written in this style, as I find it works against establishing any pace or thematic through-lines. Nevertheless, Campbell’s writing is still both beautiful and precise, and others may get on with this memoir much better than I did. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Oddest Psychological Thriller I Read This Month Was…

… No Place To Hide by JS Monroe. This starts off feeling very much like a typical example of the genre. Adam is now a successful paediatrician, happily married with two children, but his past secrets from his time as a medical student at Cambridge come back to haunt him when a woman he used to know suddenly reappears.  But then it switches into more interesting territory, as Adam’s Cambridge friend Ji introduces him to the dark web and suggests that his life may be being filmed as part of a horrific game that is linked to what happened at the university all these years ago. This gripping section of the book enters a kind of Black Mirror space – I was especially reminded of the excellent ‘Shut Up and Dance’. But then, it wheels back round to a pretty unsatisfying psychological thriller resolution, where a lot seems to have been swept under the carpet. Tonally, the book also feels like it’s stuck between several kinds of narrative. The writing is noticeably more ambitious than is the case with most psychological thrillers, and Monroe seems to be attempting a nuanced, literary portrait of Adam and his social circle. But then, once the plot kicks in, much of this is lost, and Adam becomes more simplistically heroic. Having said all this, I would read more by Monroe. I admired his attempt to do something different with the thriller genre, even if it didn’t quite work for me. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Debut Novel (About Trying to Be A Good Person) I Read This Month Was…

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… We Meant Well by Erum Shazia Hasan, one of my most anticipated releases of 2023. Maya worked in international development for more than a decade, running an orphanage that serves the fictional African village of Likanni. For the past few years, she’s retreated from the field, getting married and having a child of her own, overseeing operations from the United States. But when her colleague Marc is accused of raping Lele, a village girl who’s employed by Maya’s company, Maya’s ties to the locals, who affectionately call her ‘Bigabosse’, mean that she has to fly over to handle the situation. Unsurprisingly, Maya encounters a knotted ethical tangle. Did Marc rape Lele? If the accusation becomes public, will bringing justice to this community mean destroying the work they are doing with orphans and destitute children? And what kind of justice does Lele herself want? We Meant Well is a compulsive read that digs deeply into moral tensions, but its secondary cast is stereotyped, each character positioned to espouse a particular world-view; long discussions with Maya leave us in no doubt of where they stand. It reminded me strongly of Nikita Lalwani’s The Village, but I think Lalwani’s book is more subtle, vivid and challenging. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling debut. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Other Best Debut Novel (About Trying to Be A Good Person) I Read This Month Was…

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… Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong. Reed is a young Asian-American man who wants to drop out of college to commit himself to activism full-time, disillusioned by the support of the Asian-American community for Asian-American Peter Liang, a NYPD officer who shot unarmed black man Akai Gurley. (This novel is set in 2016, which I didn’t clock at first, and was confused when Reed kept calling himself a millennial – though he is still almost young enough to be Gen Z). However, his mother, once the leader of a Korean-Black coalition during the 1992 LA uprising, has some lessons to teach him. There’s a slightly satirical edge to Which Side Are You On, with Reed often tangling himself up in jargon in a way that is unintentionally (on his part, but not on the author’s) funny. Going to a K-Town club, for example, he witnesses two separate queues: ‘one with a long line of the subaltern clubbers, the other for the normatively beautiful and very rich… I tripped on a broken sidewalk… muttered a little curse at the neglected pavement and this pedestrian-hostile city’. ‘You sound like Adorno if he, like, worked out his ideas on Twitter’, his friend CJ tells him.

Which Side Are You On is also cleverly written as a stream of continuous action, as Reed tries to find out about his parents’ history of organising while all his mother wants to do is take him to a Korean spa and make him get a professional haircut. What his parents want him to understand, it turns out, is that building messy, difficult relationships with real people is where activism actually takes place, rather than holding everyone, including yourself, up to impossible standards. Which Side Are You On was a little too neat for me to truly love it; some of the secondary cast are reduced to stereotypes, and I wanted to feel Reed’s relationship with his mother more rather than be told about it (it reminded me a little of Michelle Zauner’s depiction of her mother in Crying In H Mart, which was much more emotionally raw). Still, it’s SO refreshing to read a book like this about inter-generational activism rather than the usual conservative parents/woke child story, Wong has loads to teach us, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

The Strangest Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… The Furrows by Namwali Serpell. This hallucinatory novel about a sister, C’s, grief following the loss of her seven-year-old brother Wayne works emotionally rather than logically: if you want to try it, I’d suggest taking C’s refrain ‘I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt’ very literally. The first half of the book takes us through a series of what may be mismemories, parallel realities or nightmares as C repeats the story of Wayne’s death and her later encounter, as an adult, with an man called Wayne, played out in different settings but always with the same recurring motifs. I admired Serpell’s craft in this section of the novel but found it difficult to turn back to it whenever I put it down. This changed during the last hundred pages or so, when I found myself eager to read on to unravel the puzzle-box mystery of the multiple Waynes that wander into and through this narrative. I also loved the repeated imagery of the furrows, and the way that Serpell ties some of her ideas together in a passage that suggests ‘History is a mop’.  The final paragraphs are deliberately oblique, but I thought they were brilliant – Serpell definitely does make us feel the crashing, destructive nature of sudden death. It’s difficult to write much more about this text without ruining it, but it worked for me despite my entrenched suspicion of magical realist adjacent stuff. I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary.

The Best YA Novel I Read This Month Was…

… The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes. I’ve read a lot of upbeat YA romance titles in the last couple years that explore the experiences of queer teens of colour, but The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School is distinctive in not only centring the voice of a Mexican-American lesbian, but in digging into questions of class and cultural privilege. When the book opens, our narrator, Yami, is in a precarious position: she’s transferred to Catholic school along with her slightly younger brother, Cesar, to keep him out of trouble, but because he’s got a scholarship and she hasn’t, she needs to find work to cover the fees. Meanwhile, her mother only seems to care about Cesar’s potential, and while Yami secretly feels she’s her father’s favourite, he was deported to Mexico some time ago and they mostly communicate by text. Even worse, Yami is certain that if her mother finds out she’s a lesbian, she’ll kick her out – so she also needs to build up a secret fund to allow her to rent her own apartment if necessary. I blazed through this sweet, fun book, but I do wish that the tensions that marked its first half had been more convincingly explored in its second, rather than smoothed over in a way that felt a bit untrue to the earlier character dynamics. So, not perfect, but definitely worth reading. Also, LOVE the cover. 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 May 4th.

The Novel I Felt Had Been Marketed Most Confusingly This Month Was…

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… Rosewater by Liv Little. The (beautiful) cover and marketing of Little’s debut made me think it was going to be literary fiction, perhaps something akin to Raven Leilani’s Luster – and this made it one of my most anticipated 2023 releases. It would have been helpful to know going in that this is much more straightforward, and yes, I would shelve it next to Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie or Lizzie Damilola Blackburn’s Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband?, though it refreshingly turns away from the very heterosexual and heteronormative worlds of those novels. Elsie, the protagonist, is a British-Guyanese dyke and unemployed poet. At the start of the novel she’s been evicted from her flat and forced to move in with best friend Juliet, who works as a teacher by day and cam girl at night. She’s a bit of a player, cutting a swathe through women on dating apps as an adult just as she used to kiss a stream of girls in the toilets at school, but doesn’t know how to get serious about a relationship. I loved the depiction of queer female community and the fact that this is a ‘disaster woman’ novel that focuses on a protagonist who’s looking for other women rather than being used by unreliable men. However, near the end, Rosewater struggles to deal with everything it wants to talk about, and there are two melodramatic and unnecessary plot twists. It fell a bit short for me, and I suspect Little’s next novel will be better. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Did you have any standout reads in April? What was the best book you read this month? What was the worst?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2023: Cursed Bread, & Shortlist Predictions and Wishlist

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I liked Sophie Mackintosh’s previous novel, Blue Ticketeven though it didn’t fulfil its dystopian promises: it was a stylised and symbolic rehearsal of the female life-cycle that managed to capture the sheer weirdness of pregnancy and early motherhood. Cursed Breadher third novel, is more formless (though it has one of the best covers I think I’ve ever seen, up there with Our Wives Under The Sea – UK publishers have really raised their game over the last few years!). Our narrator, Elodie, is a baker’s wife in a post-war French village who is captivated by a charismatic new couple who arrive in town one day: ‘the ambassador’, and his wife, Violet. Mackintosh’s writing is brilliant, and not ‘brilliant’ in an overblown or attention-seeking way, but just very, simply good: ‘In the early days of our marriage, we did everything expected of us. I washed our bedclothes in the labour while the older women looked knowingly on… I can’t forget that before anything else there was the promise of a town of pale stone and a beautiful bridge. I fell into this life, I was not thrown’. Unfortunately, this felt like two novels mixed together for me: one is the hallucinatory story of ‘cursed bread’ and mass delusion that I was promised, and one is a much more conventional story of Elodie’s obsession with Violet and her husband. There are some fantastic, dream-like sequences in Cursed Bread: the midsummer celebration that happens at the midpoint of the novel, the story passed down through generations about ‘when the dead came up the river’, and the final few pages, when the village collapses. If the book had just been like this I would have liked it a lot more, but I found the sexual longing dull, pointless and so repetitive; I’ve read too much literary fiction about this kind of madness. I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary.

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022 shortlist will be announced in two days’ time! This year, I am not shadowing the Prize properly, so I only ended up reading eight titles from the longlist: all but two of these I had already read, or wanted to read already.  And given my disappointment when the list was announced, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the titles I chose to read, although I’m dead certain that I wouldn’t get on with the ones I skipped.

Here’s my ranking, with links to my reviews:

  1. Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks
  2. I’m A Fan by Sheena Patel
  3. Homesick by Jennifer Croft
  4. The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
  5. Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
  6. Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh
  7. The Bandit Queens by Parini Schroff
  8. Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin

This means that my ideal shortlist is:

I feel the same way about this as I did last year – there are only three or four books there that I really want to cheerlead for. However, I would rather see these six books get shortlisted than any of the others.

What do I think will actually get shortlisted? And can I maintain my solid track record with Women’s Prize predictions when I’ve only read half the titles on the longlist? WE SHALL SEE, but:

My reasoning:

  • I’ve put through two big names, Kingsolver and O’Farrell, and Bulawayo, with her double Booker shortlistings, also might have some clout here.
  • There are a lot of short, more obscure, literary novels on the list this year – I think a lot of these will fall at longlist stage, as the Prize has a history of longlisting books like Homesick and then immediately dropping them. I considered picking I’m a Fan (which means it will almost definitely get shortlisted now, ha), but I think the combo of Fire Rush and Trespasses works well to fulfil this aspect of the list, and they are both books that may have wider appeal to the judges than some of the more experimental novels.
  • I hated Wandering Souls but it seems to, bemusingly, be impressing a lot of people and I think it might make it through, especially because refugees and migration are such a hot political topic in the UK at the moment.
  • I loved Fire Rush, so including it here might be playing too much to my own tastes, but I think it’s such a brilliant, resonant, original novel and I don’t think the judges can fail to see that.
  • Some reasons why I think particular titles won’t be shortlisted: too quirky and divisive, not ‘serious’ enough (Dog of the North); too grotesque and divisive, too literary (Children of Paradise); too literary and small press (Homesick); too bizarre (Pod); too lightweight and full of inaccuracies (The Bandit Queens); too literary and confusing (Cursed Bread); doesn’t stand out, maybe one judge’s pick? (Black Butterflies); controversial, both author and subject-matter (Memphis); yet another Greek myth retelling (Stone Blind); too literary, divisive, loads of attention from other prizes, covers some themes that other titles do, but is the one I’ve missed off that I think is most likely to get longlisted (I’m A Fan). This is not to say that I think any of these are GOOD reasons to not shortlist these books.
  • Finally, this imaginary shortlist is a nice combo of established authors and debuts; it’s diverse; and it’s issue-led, which I think these judges like.

Here are Eric’s and Rebecca’s predictions (I wrote this post before I read either!).

EDIT 26/4/23: And the actual shortlist is…

2023-Shortlist

I predicted 4/6 correctly, which is on the lower end of my previous sets of predictions, but good enough going given that I only read half the longlist this year.

I am pleased with this shortlist, given the longlist. I’m thrilled to see Fire Rush, very pleased to see The Marriage Portrait, OK with Trespasses, and of the half of the list I haven’t read, the judges have managed to pick the three titles that are the most appealing to me of the books I chose to skip. I am delighted that neither The Bandit Queens nor Wandering Souls made it, and equally delighted that I don’t have to consider tackling books like Glory, The Dog of the North or Children of Paradise. 

Will I be reading the whole shortlist? Before the announcement, my answer would definitely have been NO. But I’m now reconsidering! I’ve read everything else by Paull and Kingsolver, so the completist in me is tempted, and I almost decided to read Black Butterflies at longlist stage. No promises, but we shall see!

What are your thoughts on the shortlist?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2023: The Marriage Portrait #LoveYourLibrary

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I was one of the readers who, as a long-time Maggie O’Farrell fan, was disappointed by Hamnet: I thought the characterisation was stale, the narrative familiar from many earlier historical novels set in the early modern period, and, most deadly of all, it didn’t really make me feel anything. The Marriage Portrait, therefore, O’Farrell’s version of the short life of the Italian noblewoman Lucrezia de’ Medici, rumoured murdered by her husband at fifteen in 1561, puts me in a somewhat difficult position. Intellectually I can see that it shares most of the faults of its predecessor, and yet I found it totally captivating.

The first thing to understand about The Marriage Portrait is that, in my opinion, it’s less a fictional response to the real biography of Lucrezia than a response to Robert Browning’s 1842 poem ‘My Last Duchess’. This for me explains O’Farrell’s decision to remove her novel somewhat from historical fact: she’s thinking of her Lucrezia as the foil to Browning’s depiction of Duke Alfonso, revealed through numerous small details such as the white mule that Lucrezia rides and the fact that O’Farrell, like Browning, imagines that she was strangled rather than poisoned. I’m not bothered about these discrepancies: as ever, when I read historical fiction, I’m interested in how the writer uses it to have a conversation with the past, and whether they are really inhabiting the earlier period or are just using it as window-dressing for an essentially modern story. The more history I read, the harder I find it to catch true ‘anachronism’: it’s so hard to say that something could never have happened. This is especially true in a novel like O’Farrell’s that deliberately (and wisely) adopts modern language to convey the feeling of being alive in the sixteenth century.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t criticise choices writers make about how to present the past to a modern audience, and there are problems with The Marriage Portrait. Like Hamnet, it stereotypes its secondary cast. Of course Lucrezia’s sisters are bitchy; of course Alfonso has one plain, tattling sister and one beautiful, reckless one; of course Lucrezia’s maid, Emilia, exists only to be loyal and useful to her. Lucrezia’s parents, Cosimo and Eleonora, do rather better, with O’Farrell touching on how different the dynamics of their marriage are compared to Lucrezia’s forced union, and showing how they simultaneously care about their daughter and cannot allow themselves to listen to her fears. But we get to see so very little of them. Moreover, there are dozens of historical novels (and indeed fantasy novels that draw on historical tropes) that tell this kind of story, about a young woman facing an arranged marriage, her wedding night, and the controlling abuse of her husband. There is absolutely nothing new here.

But having said that. Somehow O’Farrell makes this material fresh again. Somehow she so deeply inhabits Lucrezia’s psyche that even though she ought, like Agnes in Hamnet, to be a hopelessly uninteresting ‘strong female character’ inserted into a sixteenth-century setting, she becomes real beyond the annoying trappings of her archetype (loves painting and exploring, hates embroidery, check). O’Farrell finally manages to bring what’s so distinctive about her contemporary fiction to a historical novel. She gives herself time: she allows us to really live through the key moments of Lucrezia’s life with her. And yet, The Marriage Portrait remains riveting, as we’re drawn through it by a thread of dread, knowing the fate that Lucrezia is going to meet. All the emotional intensity that I didn’t find in Hamnet is so present here.

Should The Marriage Portrait win the Women’s Prize for Fiction? Definitely not. Is it worth reading, even if you didn’t like Hamnet? Definitely yes.

Thanks to the library for my copy of The Marriage Portrait, which I definitely didn’t want to buy in hardback #LoveYourLibrary.

March Superlatives, 2023

Here we go again! Quite a positive bunch of Superlatives this time round…

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks. Set at the dawn of the Thatcher era, this follows a young British-Jamaican woman, Yemaye, as she raves in dub reggae clubs and encounters the hard side of the British state she calls ‘Babylon’. This isn’t a perfect novel, but if it was, it probably wouldn’t be as good. I’d love to see this win the Women’s Prize. 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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… And Put Away Childish Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is the third in a thematically-linked set of three novellas by Tchaikovsky published in the UK by Rebellion Publishing; I liked the first, Walking to Aldebaran, so I thought I would try this one. And Put Away Childish Things is a portal fantasy where a man stumbles into the world of the beloved children’s series his grandmother wrote (think Narnia) and encounters unexpected horrors. To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked up a book with this blurb if it wasn’t by Tchaikovsky, whom I also know and admire from his Children of Time trilogy. I adore the idea of stumbling into an imaginary world that’s come alive but have found that the execution never works for me. People always seem to end up in the tweest of children’s literature rather than entering the genuinely frightening and original landscapes that characterise many children’s books. The whole thing feels silly to me when I want it to be scary. Sadly, And Put Away Childish Things falls into exactly the same traps. Probably a Just Not for Me rather than a novella that’s objectively bad, but I would love to see a writer properly and seriously explore the imaginative spaces of childhood. I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review.

The Best Book About Siblinghood I Read This Month Was…

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Homesick by Jennifer Croft. Amy and Zoe grow up in their own world, homeschooled after Zoe develops a brain tumour, constructing their own universe of shared references, words and games. But when Amy leaves for college at fifteen after a sudden tragedy, the sisters’ childhood abruptly comes to an end. Homesick was first published in Spanish as Serpientes y escaleras (Snakes and Ladders) before being published in the US in 2019 by Unnamed Press as a memoir with photographs and then published in the UK in 2022 by Charco Press in this novel-form with no images. And the first half of this text, where we are also bound by the tight limitations of Amy and Zoe’s early years, is mesmerising. It’s remarkably elevated from the many novels that touch on sisterhood and growing up: I think because of the serious, concentrated attention that Croft gives to the girls’ experiences, refusing to sentimentalise or to slip into cliches about childhood or about ‘opposite’ or competing siblings. It resonated deeply with me as somebody who was only homeschooled for a very short time in my childhood, but nevertheless grew up very close to my younger sister after moving from the US to Britain, uprooted from all our friends and cultural references, and then ending up living in a pretty rural location. While I was reading this first half, I was sure this was going to be a five-star read for me. It’s a shame, therefore, that it peters out somewhat in the second half, feeling thinner and rushed after the slow, intense build of the sections that focus on childhood, and I didn’t feel that Croft quite tied everything together thematically.  Still, probably the best thing I’ve read on this kind of siblinghood. This novel has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. I borrowed it from the library #LoveYourLibrary

My Best Reread This Month Was…

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… Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, which I first read in 2003 (when I was Griet’s age at the start of the novel, ouch) and re-read again in 2004 and 2011. This re-read was inspired by visiting the Vermeer exhibition in Amsterdam and finally seeing ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ in real life. I’ve always found Chevalier a bit hit-and-miss, but for my money this is a really good novel, easily her best. It’s so interesting that she wrote it in a compressed time-frame because she was pregnant; the straightforward, elegant narrative works so well, and makes Griet’s narration so convincing. This time round, I found myself reflecting on how many ‘rules’ of fiction this hugely successful novel breaks. Most obviously, Griet is an almost entirely passive protagonist. She has little agency and her actions don’t drive the story forward. Chevalier does pick up on some quiet moments when Griet’s decision to share an observation with Vermeer is significant, but these are limited. But Griet works so well for me as a character precisely because of her lack of agency. First, it’s realistic; second, it makes her much more sympathetic, as we see how she’s caught between the demands of her different employers. She has no wish to risk her place as a maid, a key source of income for her family, but she has no choice. I’ve also always loved the melancholy ending.

The Best SF Novel I Read This Month Was…

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… Frontier by Grace Curtis. This satisfyingly strange debut novel augments its SF setting with western vibes. It opens when an escape pod crashes into the parched landscape of a future Earth, and our protagonist steps out into an unfamiliar land. As she searches for a way to communicate with Noelle, the lover she left behind, she encounters drug-carrying tortoises, threatening saints, complex barter systems and apartments built within the ruins of an old spaceship. Curtis constructs the novel through a series of vignettes, and we often see our protagonist through the eyes of other characters. This kind of quest narrative rarely works for me, but it does here because Curtis uses it as a way of letting us walk through the world she’s created, and explore the different societies people have built up since the vast majority of the population left Earth. Despite the devastation caused by climate change and the presence of fundamentalist religion, Frontier feels bright and fun rather than grim: Curtis enjoys playing with western tropes, and the focus is on how we rebuild rather than on how we destroy. It’s the atmosphere of this world that will remain with me rather than the specifics of the story, but I look forward to whatever Curtis writes next. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Book Set In A Convent I Read This Month Was…

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… The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier. As you may know, I am a big fan of novels set in convents. This one is a quasi-historical novel set in a version of Renaissance Florence, though it’s difficult to pin down precisely – the book at the centre of the novel is inspired by the fifteenth-century Voynich manuscript, but the story and setting also reminded me strongly of Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts, set in a late sixteenth-century Ferrara convent. Like Bridget Collins’s The Binding, this is basically fantasy dressed up as history. This decision serves Clothier well, as she is able to infuse magic into her story almost imperceptibly at first. Our protagonist is Beatrice, the convent librarian, who comes across the titular book and gradually realises both that there is something strange about it and that other people want it very badly. But one of the strengths of Clothier’s novel – and something that often flourishes in a convent setting – is the way she develops the wider cast of convent sisters. Mother Chiara is especially vivid and interesting, but I also enjoyed many of the women who get less page-time, like Hildegard. For me, the first half of this novel was strongest, beautifully immersive. It became a little more familiar when the pace picks up, and we get a rather cartoonish religious villain. However, there’s just enough weirdness to stop it becoming too simplistically emancipatory. I 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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… The Lost Night by Andrea Bartz. Lindsay’s best friend Edie killed herself in 2009; ten years on, Lindsay discovers an unsettling video that suggests that she might have been involved in Edie’s death, and given that she can’t remember chunks of that night, she doesn’t know how to prove otherwise. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t spend my early twenties in a Brooklyn party loft, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that’s so evocative of that particular life stage for millennials of my age. There are a ton of books about nostalgia for the late teens and university years, but Bartz is so good at capturing what’s particularly special and difficult about striking out on your own, when you think you’re really grown-up but are still a very young adult. Lindsay’s growing horror as she starts to doubt herself is gripping and disorientating, too. As ever with thrillers (Bartz’s We Were Never Here commits the same crime) this has a bit of a silly twist ending, but it’s worth reading for the central chunk of the story.

Did you have any stand-out reads this month? Anything you hated? Anything you loved?

Two Books From the Women’s Prize Longlist: I’m A Fan and Fire Rush

After my disappointment with the Women’s Prize longlist, it was great to read these two books, which are both such worthy longlistees. Has it made me feel better about the longlist as a whole? Not really, no. But here are two novels that definitely bring the sort of thing I’m looking for:

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The unnamed narrator of Sheena Patel’s I’m A Fan is documenting her one-off, not-quite-relationship with ‘the man I want to be with’ while continuously consuming every single thing his other lover, ‘the woman I am obsessed with’, posts online. The man is married, but his wife has a minimal online presence, so the woman becomes the focus of her obsession instead. Interspersed between her stories of these two people are her reflections on whiteness, misogyny and the colonial gaze, and mini-descriptions of art exhibitions she’s been to and actually connected with, unlike the curated grid of the woman’s Instagram.

I worried a little about I’m A Fan because I don’t get on with books that are incredibly keen to tell us how bad the Social Media is for us (classic examples: Patricia Lockwood’s novel No One Is Talking About This and Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror). But that really isn’t what this book is about. It’s actually the best chronicle of an all-consuming affair that I’ve ever read – the only novel that even comes close in its willingness to show the ugliness of this kind of power play is Louise O’Neill’s Almost Lovebut I’m A Fan is much better. What Patel also does, so cleverly, is to let us hear our narrator talk, quite rightly and so intelligently, about the injustices caused by hegemonic whiteness but also let us see how this is a register she slips into to escape from her own emotions. As she tells us herself, speaking of her lover, ‘I enjoy his deference to me when I talk seemingly authoritatively about race as if I know how the world really works because it makes me seem more important than I actually am. When I feel like I’m losing the argument I can say witheringly, you just don’t understand, which shuts him up and covers up for the fact that I’m not sure how things are either.’  This is not to say that her emotions about her relationship are authentic and her emotions about racial injustice are academic – both cut to the core – but that talking about race in this kind of language is much safer, and allows her to claw back some of the self-esteem she’s lost through her lover’s treatment of her.

When I started I’m A Fan, I also worried that some of the narrator’s arguments about structural racism were both hugely important but a bit jarring in a novel – they didn’t seem to sit right against the rest of her vignettes. But, as I went on, I saw, as I argued above, that she slips into this register when she feels especially vulnerable. I was also fascinated by how she weaves her long, repetitive cyber-stalking of the ‘woman I am obsessed with’ into theories that are both totally on the money and a great way to justify her obsession. ‘In an interview, she says she spent almost $100 on eight heritage apples and it is obvious she was unaware of the problematic nature of admitting this, which implies she doesn’t know the value of money divided by industrial bodily labour and time.’  The narrator’s analysis may be right, but it also reveals how much easier it is, sometimes, to say something is problematic or capitalist or hegemonic, when actually what we want to say is, I’m hurt. I’m in pain. I am lonely. ‘I want a hungry press, hungry for me,’ she writes, ‘rather than jumping for scraps of attention like some rabid dog scrabbling around in the pit of my stomach desperate for someone to listen to what I have to say.’

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Yamaye is a young, British-Jamaican woman living in Norwood who finds her true self raving at underground dub reggae clubs at the dawn of the Thatcher era. Alongside her two best friends Asase, also Caribbean, and Rumer, an Irish Traveller, she skanks the night away, practicing her own rapping at home. Dub music threads its way through her entire life, but it isn’t the only refrain; she’s also haunted by her muma’s singing, and images of women who jumped from slave ships during an earlier era, floating down through the water. Fire Rush, Jacqueline Crooks’ debut novel, is driven by its incredible set-pieces. The first chapter was originally excerpted separately by Granta and it’s easy to see why: it’s an amazing piece of writing. But Crooks returns to this intensity of voice again and again throughout the novel, when Yamaye joins an ANL (Anti-Nazi League) march, when she and Asase are attacked by the river, and when Yamaye finally gets to perform her own dub riddims in Bristol. It dramatises what Paul Gilroy says about reggae in his classic There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack (1987), showing how crucial it is to black diasporic culture and how it works as an art form: as Gilroy writes, ‘Both soul and reggae consciously reconstruct and celebrate their own histories through complex series of answer records in which different artists criticise and comment on each other’s work.’

Fire Rush was sixteen years in the making, and I think this is the source of both its great power and its slight disjointedness. The first chapter stands slightly apart from the rest of the book, and you can almost see how much it’s been reworked and rethought. Most of the novel has such energy, but it’s in the linking sections that its pace falters slightly, although never for long. Interestingly, it’s also in these sections that the patois recedes, as if Crooks has temporarily lost track of Yamaye’s voice. But she always roars back again. I loved the way Crooks traces the links Yamaye makes in her mind, showing how closely she is still tied to Jamaica, a country she has never visited, and how she understands her experience as continuous rather than as dislocated, because it’s visible and audible all around her in Britain.

This is a second-generation immigrant experience that offers something different from the stories we more often hear from younger British writers of colour (like the narrator of I’m A Fan, for example), but it’s also so well-written, tying Yamaye’s wordless emotions into the stories and music that scaffold her life. ‘I switch off the light and go to the balcony [of her dad’s flat in Norwood]. I look out beyond the tower blocks at the wastelands and the brickfields where hidden trenches and defensive walls were dug up along with the graves of ancient people, weighed down with lead weights and gold. You can’t keep the past down, I say to myself.’  Arriving in Bristol: ‘We drive past old warehouses at the front of the Floating Harbour… I imagine the ships that sailed from this harbour; sailing to Africa, taking its people to the Caribbean; the women sitting on deck, rubbing salt into their sores, singing air and fire alchemy. I smell the ocean in the distance, salty, bitter. Muma’s voice: Let me carry you across the sea.’

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

Laura Rereading: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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Before re-reading: I first read this in May 2012, when I was 25. I’m fairly certain I bought it as part of a Waterstones 3 for 2, given the patch on the front cover where there was once a sticker. We’ve been flooded by Greek myth retellings in recent years, but back then, this felt like something new and different.

The first time I read The Song of Achilles, I wrote a very long review! You can read the full thing here, but in summary: I loved this novel when I first read it, thinking that ‘Miller has a wonderful command of the pace, letting the story lull and loiter, at certain points, only to engage the reader’s interest more strongly when the next part of the tale kicks into action. There are several mini-stories told throughout the novel; Patroclus’s childhood; training with Chiron; journey to Troy; the saga of Briseis; Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon; and Miller unites them beautifully, but lets each tale complete itself before going onto the next. The most resonant scene in the novel, for me, was the well-known sequence where King Priam comes to beg Achilles for his son’s body; a scene that is powerful because it has equal resonance for a modern and classical audience, I imagine. “It is right to seek peace for the dead,” Priam tells the bereaved Achilles. “You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.”‘

However, I did have some concerns about ‘the softening of the harsh classical belief systems of honour and sacrifice’ in the novel, especially through ‘Patroclus’s intense human sympathy and fellow-feeling for those suffering’. I thought that I would have liked to see Miller make ‘Achilles and Patroclus sympathetic in spite of this, rather than simply removing the obstacles to our identification with them… Patroclus’s modern values make Achilles and Patroclus feel sundered, set apart from the rest of the classical-minded Greeks, and I wanted to feel that they were part of that culture, even if their homosexual relationship differentiated them from the other men.’

After re-reading: This was an interesting one to reread! I felt like the doubts I expressed in my first review all crystallised into one big problem: the characterisation of Patroclus. I seem to have liked him a lot more when I first read The Song of Achilles, but this time round, I had doubts about him from the very first pages. I’m not sure why Miller decided to make him quite so useless at everything, so passive, so negative, so obsessed with Achilles to the exclusion of everything else. He sits at odds with the rest of the novel and with the society he’s grown up in, and made me feel, for most of the narrative, that Miller had tried too hard to make him an exception to this cult of heroic masculinity, which speaks to the ‘softening’ of the story I originally observed. It’s especially bizarre that she makes him totally unable to fight, given that we know he does a good enough job when he dons Achilles’ armour. Maybe she was trying to say something interesting about how inhabiting a different role unleashes abilities we didn’t know we had – but unfortunately, because Patroclus has skived military training for most of his life in this retelling, it’s just unbelievable that he’d perform well.

In contrast, Achilles is incredibly compelling: perhaps idealised for much of the text, but then, he’s the son of a goddess, and I don’t think the normal rules apply. I loved how Miller showed how his life was fundamentally shaped by divine foreknowledge: first, the knowledge that he will be the greatest of the Greeks, then the knowledge that he will die at Troy, and so he’s sacrificed the rest of his life in service of his honour. This is how you modernise a story like this, for my money: think through the real psychological burdens of believing these kind of prophecies. When Achilles seeks revenge on Agamemnon near the end of the novel by using Briseis as a pawn, his actions aren’t sympathetic but they are understandable because we know he’s staked so much on his reputation. (In contrast, Patroclus hangs around in the background being useless and ‘nice’, happy to let Briseis carry on being in love with him, which feels especially distasteful after he previously slept with another woman because he felt sorry for her). The secondary cast are also brilliantly portrayed: I LOVED Odysseus, as before, and feel even more aggrieved at how Miller does him wrong in Circe; she manages a morally grey Achilles here, but is happy to cast Odysseus to the dogs.

Having said all this, The Song of Achilles still stands as one of the best of the modern Greek myth retellings I have read, alongside Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls – and its last hundred pages are truly brilliant, as Achilles and Patroclus both cast aside much of the idealisation that constrained them during the rest of the novel, and become much more compromised, and more interesting, men.

Rating May 2012: ****1/2

Rating March 2023: ****

Three Reads About Female Revenge: Your Driver Is Waiting, Black Water Sister and The Bandit Queens

In the first half of March, I read three slightly satirical novels where women seek revenge: whether it’s by possessing their granddaughter, driving a taxi through a protest in pursuit of their faithless female lover, or banding together to murder their abusive husbands! Here are my thoughts:

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Damani, a bisexual Sri Lankan woman, works for an app called RideShare, pocketing only a small amount of the fares the app charges her customers, while trying to care for her housebound mother who’s devastated after her father’s death. She observes the frequent protests in her American city (‘Tech Companies Demand The End of Climate Change’, ‘Jesus had two dads!’, ‘O-KKK BOOMER’) more as an obstruction that causes her to change her routes rather than as anything that might make her life better, preferring to hang out at the Doo Wop cafe with friends Steph, Toni and Shereef. Her two comforts are listening to online guru Dr Thelma Hermin Hesse and lifting weights: ‘people don’t treat me as they would someone who can lift a hundred pounds on a shitty day. They should treat me better.’ Damani is a funny, sharply indvidual and memorable narrator, and the first third of this book showcases her brilliantly.

It’s frustrating, then, that the rest of Priya Guns’s Your Driver Is Waiting is a bit of a mess. The narrative intensifies with the arrival of beautiful blonde Jolene, a white ‘ally’ who is clearly trouble from the start. Damani seems to be so blinded by lust that she can’t see this, but their relationship basically consists of having sex; it’s not clear why Damani is drawn to Jolene beyond this connection. Guns only gives them a few scenes together before Jolene does something unforgivable, as flagged in the blurb. This was a relief (because I wanted rid of Jolene) but means that her betrayal doesn’t really land with real emotional weight, because it was so obvious and we have no investment in their relationship. In short, the pacing is really off, and this feels like a chaotic early draft rather than a finished novel. Having said that, though, it’s still so much more memorable and engaging than many finished novels I’ve read – I adored the image of Damani chasing Jolene down in her taxi as Jolene clutches a We Need Love sign! I just wanted it to be even more because it had such potential.

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

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I loved Zen Cho’s collection of short stories, Spirits Abroadso much that my ghost-story-averse self was persuaded to pick up her latest novel, Black Water Sister, which starts when an American-Malaysian woman is suddenly addressed by the ghost of her grandmother. And I’m glad I did! I knew I’d adore the relationship between Jess and her Ah Ma from the very first sentence, when Ah Ma announces her presence by asking Jess ‘Does your mother know you’re a pengkid? [lesbian]’.  Ah Ma is very much in the mould of the formidable vampiric aunts from one of my favourite stories in Spirits Abroad, ‘The House of Aunts’: she’s not at all bothered by Jess’s sensible objections as she leads her on a crusade to stop a developer tearing down a temple. But as Jess becomes increasingly involved in this drama, she realises that Ah Ma has a personal stake as well as a spiritual one; her relationship with the developer, Ng Chee Hin, goes way back.

Cho manages to maintain an enviably difficult balance in Black Water Sister. It’s often very funny but also genuinely scary, especially when Jess encounters one of the angry temple gods, the titular Black Water Sister (Jess thinks there might be an interesting story behind her name – ‘ “She died where the temple is now, didn’t she? In a forest… Is it because of the turtle pond?”, but her uncle soon dispels that notion: “The temple is in Air Itam mah. Air Hiram is Malay, means –” “Black water.”) However, even while she handles both humour and terror, Cho keeps her characters feeling real. The relationship between Jess and her mom, who is horrified when she finds out what is going on (‘She can’t be a medium! She graduated from Harvard!’) is especially heartwarming, even as Jess struggles with hiding her sexuality from her parents. I found this balance impressive in Cho’s short stories, but it’s especially difficult to sustain at novel-length. I will say that I wasn’t quite sure, throughout, if I was loving Black Water Sister or simply liking it a lot; every chapter was great, but I didn’t always feel drawn back to the novel, and read it quite slowly. Nevertheless, I’m a confirmed Cho fan.

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I was looking forward to Parini Shroff’s debut, The Bandit Queens, after reading this fab pitch: ‘For Geeta, life as a widow is more peaceful than life as a wife… Until the other wives in her village decide they want to be widows, too’. And having expressed my disappointment when I was only partway through it, it’s fair to point out that it does pick up in the final third. Just not enough to save it for me. I thought this would be a dark satire more akin to Your Driver Is Waiting and Black Water Sister, but on the whole, it’s a much more conventional novel with some satirical bits. The strongest and funniest scenes are when the women get together and execute (or argue over) their plans, but there isn’t a lot of this until well over halfway. And the tone is so uneven; The Bandit Queens lurches from satisfying silliness to long, worthy passages where Geeta reflects on patriarchy and misogyny.

Having said all this, though, the thing that really put me off this novel is that I just found it so unbelievable. It’s meant to be set in rural India but the characters sound like they live in America half the time. It also delivers familiar story tropes: kickass women, a cute dog, a romantic sub-plot. As Srivalli Rekha writes in her brilliant Goodreads review, The Bandit Queens sells ideas about a dirty, miserable India to a white Western audience at the same time as it gets quite a few things wrong. I’m reminded of Deepa Anappara’s useful reflections on writing a book about ‘a marginalised, vulnerable community in India’ ; Anappara was born in Kerala, but recognised that she hadn’t lived the same kind of life as her characters, and so trod with care when writing her debut. Shroff does not seem to have been nearly as reflective. This wouldn’t matter so much if the book had just run with its fun premise, but it definitely wants to be something more, and that’s where it falls down.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. Now longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2023.

How do you feel about this kind of social satire?

February Superlatives, 2023

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

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai. Pleasingly, unlike the set of books I read in January, there was some stiff competition for this coveted slot this month, and I’ve put a couple of honourable mentions below. However, this prep school novel won through because it was one of those rare books that was both completely gripping and immersive, but also so thoughtful and thought-provoking. I just loved reading it so much. My full review is here.

Hon. mentions: Bad Cree by Jessica Johns and Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Witch in the Well by Camilla Bruce. This novel focuses on a rekindled rivalry between childhood friends Catherine and Elena after they both decide to write books about a figure that haunts the history of their town. That figure is Ilsbeth Clark, a woman accused of horrific crimes in the nineteenth century. It’s constructed mostly from a series of documents: Catherine and Elena’s own narratives, plus excerpts from Catherine’s novel and sections from the historical records she’s been researching in the archives. Another, undocumented voice intrudes occasionally, and refreshingly, but this is the bulk of the novel. And unfortunately, in striving to give Elena and Catherine distinctive voices, Bruce makes them both hopelessly irritating. Elena uses plentiful hashtags, CAPS LOCKS and exclamation marks; Catherine, despite her more formal prose, actually sounds quite similar; both come off as equally deluded. I’m a big fan of an unsympathetic narrator but they have to be interesting, and I had no interest in either of these women. The only bit that gave me any kind of frisson was the description of the ‘witch in the well’ game played in the school playground, stepping in and out of a circle of chalk; otherwise, this totally lacked atmosphere. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was…

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… The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North. I first read this novel back in 2015 and named it as one of my top ten books of the decade in 2019, so I’m glad it held up! It tells the story of unconventional filmmaker and director, Sophie Stark, though a range of narrators; Sophie herself never gets to narrate, but we hear from her lover, her brother, her husband, her producer. North’s prose is utterly hypnotic, and I spent most of the book trying to work out how she does it (especially as I’ve since read her Outlawed and liked it a lot, but didn’t think it was nearly this brilliant). I think what makes this book so great is its series of nested stories. It starts with a woman telling a story on a stage and never really leaves that mode. I felt glued to the page by the narrative drive of a campfire tale, even when the stories told were much more complex and difficult. Sophie herself is a fantastic character, properly weird rather than movie weird, and both hard to like and to truly dislike. It was particularly special to read this book around visiting a wonderful exhibition at the film museum in Amsterdam, Saodat Ismailova’s 18,000 Worlds.

Hon. mention: Orkney by Amy Sackville, which I liked as much as I did last time I read it, back in 2013… but I do think it should have been a novella, which is possibly the only time I’ve ever said that!

The Best Ghost Story I Read This Month Was…

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… The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne. Another reread! This debut, which I first read back in 2018, has been so thoroughly misunderstood by Goodreads reviewers that I want to shout its praises everywhere. It’s not a thriller or a (traditional) ghost story, but a deeply unsettling dissection of why we settle where and when we do – whether that’s in a relationship, in a job, or in a house. Any summary of the novel makes it sound like a mix of the ‘rootless millennial woman’ genre crossed with ‘middle-aged people’s marriage troubles’, but Murray-Browne’s writing is just so good: one of the writers that makes me feel I’m looking more clearly at the world after reading her, that my own life has been placed into better order. I’d shelve this next to Naomi Booth’s Exit Management. I’m thrilled to hear that Murray-Browne has a new novel coming out in 2024, which sounds great: ‘One Girl Began entwines the stories of three women, separated by history but connected by the same building. For Ellen in 1909, it is a box factory where she finds work and a transformative circle of friendship when her family fall on hard times. For Frances in 1984, it is a derelict ruin, where she joins a group of squatters and is drawn into a coercive relationship. And for Amanda in 2020, it is a gentrified conversion, where she finds herself trapped in a tiny flat and grappling with new motherhood as the pandemic looms into view. Over the span of 111 years these three women will come to haunt one another backwards and forwards in time.’

The Silliest Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi. Jamie is fired from his job at a food delivery start-up at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic but then gets a new job opportunity; he can go and work in an alternative version of Earth, where tropical jungle covers Canada and enormous kaiju roam wild. But as the kaiju are powered by organic nuclear reactors, things could quickly get out of hand. This book is not intended to be serious. As Scalzi writes in his afterword, ‘KPS is not, and I say this with absolutely no slight intended, a brooding symphony of a novel. It’s a pop song.’ And it is pretty much as silly and fun as it promises, with a likeable protagonist and a serviceable secondary cast of scientists who work with the kaiju. For peak escapism, I would have preferred it to be a bit more immersive – the jungle setting is barely described and I felt like there was too much snarky dialogue, not enough space for the concept to breathe. Still, it’s hard to feel badly towards this novel.

The Best Sequel I Read This Month Was…

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… Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo. I was worried that this sequel to Ninth House might have too much action for me, but while I feel this Yale-set dark academia series could still stand to let its characters breathe a bit more, Hell Bent hits about the same balance as the first book, and is just as atmospheric. Alex is back for a second year at Yale, trying to perform the duties of Lethe by herself while investigating the mysterious murders of two faculty members. Looking forward to the third book!

Have you read any standout books in February?

Three Non-Fiction Reads on Sex, Gender and Sexuality: Hijab Butch Blues, Just One of The Guys? and The Right To Sex

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Hijab Butch Blues is structured as a series of non-chronological essays, each of which could easily stand alone, which intertwine Lamya’s explorations of her sexuality and faith with stories from the Quran. Lamya skips between her early childhood in an unnamed South Asian country to the rest of her childhood and adolescence in an unnamed Middle Eastern country to her adulthood in New York, reflecting on how difficult it has been for her to square her identities as a hijabi Muslim and a gay woman, but also how these different ways of living have illuminated each other. This memoir demonstrates how, although Lamya knows that her Muslim family wouldn’t accept her queerness, she herself has found great solace in her faith. Unsurprisingly, some of the essays are stronger than others, with the autobiographical material tying more smoothly into the selected Quran sections, but when the pairings work, they’re brilliant.

The opening and closing essays are two of the strongest and most moving. In the first, fourteen-year-old Lamya is bowled over in school by reading Surah Maryam, the story of Maryam (more familiar to a Christian audience as the story of Mary), realising that Maryam went to live alone in a mosque and, when told by the angel that she was going to have a baby boy, said ‘How can I have a boy when no man has touched me?’ This passage was revelatory to Lamya as well: ‘Miss, did Maryam say that no man has touched her because she didn’t like men?’. Although her teacher tells her that Maryam was simply trying to send the angel away because she knew that God is always watching and believed he was trying to tempt her, Lamya is sure that she knows differently: ‘Maryam is a dyke.’ In the final essay, an adult Lamya rants about how Yunus (familiar as Jonah to Christian readers) is her least favourite prophet: ‘Yunus’s big claim to fame is that he gets swallowed by a whale. And then the whale spits him out… He does very little else in the story…. He preaches about Islam to his people, but they don’t listen to him so he decides he’s done and he leaves.’ However, her friend convinces her to look again at Yunus, arguing that there can be a strength in knowing when you are not going to convince anyone, and need to protect yourself instead, something Lamya embraces when she decides not to come out to her family.

However, even in the essays where I felt the parallels were a bit more forced, the links between this material make Hijab Butch Blues stand out from other memoirs about sexuality I’ve read. Impressively, also, despite jumping back and forth in time, Lamya’s stories never feel repetitive. My only note (not a complaint, but a note) is that readers looking for a focus on the ‘butch’ part of the title may be disappointed: Lamya is clear that she likes to dress in more masculine clothing, and talks a bit about a bad date where she and another butch woman both try to play the gentleman, but the idea of butchness isn’t really interrogated or explored in the same way as her other identities. Nevertheless, this is a great memoir.

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

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Just One of The Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Equality, an American sociological study from 2011, has one central argument: while trans men face various kinds of oppression and discrimination in the workplace, it can be surprising how easily non-trans men accept them as ‘just one of the guys’. However, as trans men are accepted into male social circles, they often realise just how far they were excluded and belittled when they were seen as women. Kristen Schilt both respects the importance of trans men’s experiences and uses them as a window into how hierarchies of sexuality and gender operate at work. In short, the acceptance of trans men by cis, heterosexual men isn’t because they are more enlightened than we thought; it’s because it’s easier to incorporate trans men, especially trans men who ‘pass’ as male, on one side of the gender binary. ‘The power to exclude is also the power to include’, Schilt points out. Establishing trans men as just like any other straight man means they don’t cause any further ‘gender trouble’.

This becomes clear when people react to gay trans men, who often face much more resistance than straight trans men. Schilt quotes one of her audience members: ‘Why would trans men go through so much trouble just to be gay?’ More privileged trans men – often white, tall, and educated – sometimes benefited directly from transition at work. Chris reflected, ‘I have this professional company that I built, and I have people following me. They trust me, they believe in me, they respect me. I never could have done that as a woman.’ While white trans men appreciated feeling less visible in public, though, black trans men, like Keith, had to deal with becoming hypervisible: ‘I went from being an obnoxious black woman to a scary black man’. Trans men also often went from feeling like they had to try extra hard to be taken seriously as men to criticising and challenging rigid rules of masculinity, like sexist banter: ‘Men just think that is how guys are supposed to talk to one another. They don’t even really believe it. It is like this male lingo… It is like a script.’ In other words, trans men didn’t feel that they were the ones ‘performing’ masculinity in these kinds of encounters. Really fascinating, if framed with a bit too much academic gender theory.

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I found the first three essays in Amia Srinivasan’s short essay collection, The Right To Sex, disappointing. Srinivasan writes very well, and I would certainly recommend these essays to my students, but I felt she was covering ground I already knew well. It’s in her fourth essay, ‘Coda: The Politics of Desire’, exploring responses to her ‘The Right To Sex’ essay originally published in the LRB, that things get interesting. Srinivasan digs deep into a vexed feminist question: is who we desire political? If so, should we try and change our desires? You only need to go on a dating app to see that what Srinivasan calls ‘fuckability’, or ‘whose bodies confer status on those who have sex with them’ is about race, gender and disability, among other axes of oppression. East Asian men struggle to get dates; black women are viewed as promiscuous and as less attractive than white women; East Asian women are sought after by white men for their assumed passivity. But, as Srinivasan recognises, while we might accept there’s a problem here, the solution is not so easy.  ‘When I was a first-year undergraduate I had a professor who said, to our grave disappointment, that there would be heartbreak even in the post-capitalist utopia.’ Some people find it very hard to find a sexual partner or to have a romantic relationship, and this does not always cut along lines of oppression. I found myself thinking of when I was a teenage girl, white, slim, able-bodied, relatively pretty, with long blondish hair – and the total lack of romantic interest I received from anyone. Indeed, my peers enjoyed mocking how unlikely it was that I would ever find a boyfriend.

Reading this essay and others in Srinivasan’s collection, I found myself wondering if we’re asking the wrong questions. If society didn’t elevate sexual experience and romantic love so far above any other kind of love – if we didn’t always put these kinds of relationships first – would we be so desperate to achieve them? When I was a teenage girl, I didn’t want a boyfriend (partly because I didn’t fancy boys but partly because I didn’t actually want any kind of relationship at that time). I felt I ought to have one because ‘having a boyfriend’ gave you social status, proved you were normal, proved (in my head) that you’d go on to get married and have children in the future, to succeed. What would a world look like where we don’t tell people that having had sex means you are more ‘mature’, that we are all bound to be lonely if we don’t have sex, don’t have one monogamous partner, don’t feel romantic love? (As an aside, it’s a shame that Srinivasan’s discussion of Adrienne Rich’s great essay, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, doesn’t more clearly explain that Rich’s idea of the ‘lesbian continuum’ means that she emphasises that lesbianism is not just about who you have sex with. Being a ‘lesbian’, in Rich’s terms, is about directing your emotional energies towards women, whether that’s through working and creating together, or through friendship. Rich does write about heterosexuality as a political institution that hurts all women, whoever they desire, but she has so much more to say!)

And then… the last two essays in the collection were much the same as the first three, although I liked them a bit more, and thoroughly agreed with Srinivasan’s argument in ‘Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism’ that a feminism that focuses on the punishment of individual men through the police state is not doing its job:  ‘Feminists must ask what it is they set in motion and against whom, when they demand more policing and more prisons.’ I also liked the point she makes, in ‘On Not Sleeping With Your Students’, that consensually sleeping with your students is bad pedagogy, a kind of bad pedagogy that works specifically against women by making them feel that they are not really smart, only sexy (though I wished that essay hadn’t ended with sweeping assumptions about how ‘young’ Gen Z are). So, good, on the whole, but spent too much time going over the basics: can Srinivasan please write a coda to every one of these essays?