January 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!

I have to say that January has been a bit of a slow reading month, although I did read a decent number of books despite quite a few DNFs. I haven’t read anything that I either really loved or really hated (though I did feel strongly about Geraldine Brooks’ March, as you can see from my rant). Last January, I read two books that went on to feature in my Top Ten Books of the year list; this January, I’ve read nothing I’d even consider to be in the running. I’m hoping that February will see some properly superlative superlatives!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour. Women’s fiction often falls flat for me – especially women’s fiction where the writer has previously only written YA, as is the case with LaCour. But I was completely absorbed by this gentle story of Creole florist and house renovator, Emilie, and artistic bartender, Sara, as they fall in love despite their difficult pasts. LaCour’s prose is so perfectly simple. Adore the cover, too!

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal. Argh, so disappointing! I was so sure I would love this story of a female medium working in the ‘Spirit Corps’ during the First World War, talking to the ghosts of men who have recently been killed to extract important information. I adored Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, which put a similar speculative spin on modern history, and I’m also a fan of her short stories. This started well but moved away from its clever premise to become more of a spy story set in the trenches; I also wasn’t invested in the central romantic relationship, which is so crucial to the story that my lack of investment felt a bit like a death knell for this novel. I’ll be reading Kowal’s new stuff but avoiding her backlist in future.

My Best Re-Read This Month Was…

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… Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Once I discovered that the sequel to this Yale-set dark academia novel was about to come out, I realised that although I’d really enjoyed Ninth House back in 2019, I remembered very little about it. Time for a re-read! Interestingly, I’d say I liked Ninth House both more and less this time round. Its complicated system of magic-using secret societies  felt much clearer to me on a re-read, and I navigated the multiple plot strands and time jumps much less painfully. However, I found myself wishing that Bardugo would give herself more time to simply explore this world and its characters and pack rather less action into the novel. (I’ve heard that the next one, Hell Bent, is even more plot-driven.) This reread also made me reflect on how much the dark academia sub-genre has moved on in the last three years, especially regarding its treatment of social justice. What felt fresh back in 2019 now seems rather tokenistic after reading the A Deadly Education trilogy, Catherine House and BabelI had a lot of fun rereading this and I still want to read Hell Bent, but I’ve tempered my expectations.

The Novel That Felt Most Like I’d Read It Somewhere Else Before This Month Was…

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… The Divines by Ellie Eaton. This novel is narrated by Josephine, who was a pupil at English boarding school St John the Divine in the 1990s and is now newly married; the narration moves between Josephine’s final year at the school and her first few years of married life. Eaton is a skilful writer, but this ultimately reminded me too strongly of other novels I’ve read about cloistered schools, teenage girls and early sexual experience, especially Bella Bathurst’s Special (also centred around a life-threatening fall!), Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire (shares the same uncomfortable ‘plot twist’!), and Tana French’s far superior The Secret Place. The final chapters, where Josephine is forced to reassess her own and others’ mismemories of their girlhood, are compelling, and this thread could have been introduced earlier, but it wasn’t enough to make this book stand out to me.

The Most Underwhelming Piece of Literary Fiction I Read This Month Was…

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… Trespasses by Louise Kennedy. This debut’s plot treads cliched lines; Cushla, a Catholic primary school teacher in 1975 Belfast, falls in love with an older, married Protestant barrister, Michael, and they embark upon an affair. Kennedy’s prose is intelligent, accomplished, often impressive; and yet I felt like each chapter followed a sequence familiar from much literary fiction, with the accumulation of a series of beautifully observed details (and Kennedy does brilliantly evoke Belfast during the Troubles), the deliberately inconsequential dialogue, the minimal interiority. On the other hand, this probably wouldn’t have felt so rote-like to me if I’d been emotionally invested in the narrative, and I never was. Admirable, but for me it felt like a text to study rather than to love.

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. I had mixed feelings about Kupersmith’s debut novel, Build Your House Around My Bodybut was impressed by its clever puzzle-box narrative and some indelible set-pieces, and loved the bonus short story that was included at the end of my edition. My hope was that I would like Kupersmith even more as a short story writer than as a novelist. This turned out not to be the case – I think whatever she writes next will be her best thing yet, as she’s clearly still developing her obvious talents – but this collection was worth reading. The first story in the collection, ‘Boat Story’, where a granddaughter wants to hear her grandmother’s dramatic tale of escaping from Vietnam in a small boat but gets an unnerving ghost story instead, tells us what we’re in for. Only a couple of stories really stood out to me in the way that Kupersmith’s other vignettes have: my favourite was ‘Little Brother’, where an elderly Vietnamese trucker takes on a disturbing passenger, and I also liked ‘The Frangipani Hotel’, which hints at a macabre family history but resists telling us too much, and ‘Turning Back’, where a teenage girl living in Houston meets an old man who keeps turning into a python. If you’ve read Build Your House…, you’ll see how certain motifs link the two books, and it’s the stories that resonated with that later novel that I found the most vivid and unnerving. Nevertheless, Kupersmith writes so fluidly that I sped through this collection.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty. This was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, but unfortunately my expectations were wrong: I thought it would be a collection of speculative short stories, but it’s actually a novel told in linked episodes with no speculative elements at all. David, or Dee, is a young Penobscot man growing up on ‘the rez’; he and his family experience poverty, violence and drug addiction, while he spends long, aimless days with best friend Fellis, structured only around visits to the methadone clinic. The issues faced by Native communities that Talty highlights here are undoubtedly important, but this didn’t work for me at all as fiction. Most of the chapters have been previously published as short stories, and I can see how they’d function as one-offs: I actually loved the first, very short section of this book, ‘Burn’, where Dee is trying to score some pot and comes across Fellis stuck in the swamp with his braid frozen to the ground. But when they’re put together, they feel repetitive and shapeless, and despite a few powerful paragraphs, Talty’s prose is workmanlike, often flat: ‘I pressed a Q-tip soaked in peroxide against the wound and winced. I dried the area and put Neosporin on it. Behind the mirror I found a box of assorted Band-Aids and stuck a medium-small one vertically between my eye and nose.’ Sadly, this wasn’t for me.

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

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… Ten Steps To Nanette by Hannah Gadsby. I very rarely read memoirs by even quasi-celebrities; ironically, I think the last one I read was Tom Allen’s No Shame, which I very much enjoyed. Gadsby, like Allen, is of course a queer comedian, known for her Netflix smash hit Nanette. However, Nanette was the product of twelve years on the comedy circuit and a lifetime’s struggles, proving the truth of the classic comedy adage that Gadsby quotes in this memoir: ‘comedy is trauma plus time‘. Like No Shame, Ten Steps to Nanette is clearly not written by somebody who writes books professionally; however, I liked the unwieldiness of it, the rambliness, and of course the humour. Even more refreshing was Gadsby’s honesty about how very hard she found it, and still finds it, to ‘fit in’. Lots of writers tell us about their awkward teen experiences but we very rarely hear from anyone who struggled for more than a few years in adolescence, or struggled to the degree that Gadsby obviously did. It was only later in life that Gadsby would be diagnosed with both autism and ADHD, which for her explained a lot about why life had always been so hard. Yet whether or not you share her diagnoses, Ten Steps to Nanette comes as a big relief for anyone whose ‘weirdness’ went beyond the socially-acceptable narrative of ‘I was bullied for a bit at school and was a geek but then pulled it together at university/in my early twenties’. Highly recommended.

The Novel I Spent Longest Reading This Month Was…

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… Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears. I started this 600-page brick back in mid-December but read the vast majority of it this month. It moves backwards in time – which was what attracted me to it in the first place – from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890 to Venice in 1867, unpicking the complicated history of a couple of members of the global financial elite and the women they become involved with. Stone’s Fall is an old-fashioned novel in several ways. It’s a deliberate pastiche of the kind of Victorian sensation novel that Wilkie Collins might have written, with affairs, madmen, mysterious deaths and stock market scheming. But also, although it only came out in 2009, I find it hard to imagine this being published today: it’s so indulgently long, and the female characters very much fit a certain mould of smart-but-unhinged, sexily mysterious but not quite human. Having said all that, I had a lot of fun reading the final two-thirds of this novel, where our two different narrators, both men of influence, take us through some entertaining plots and alternative, behind-the-scenes history; the majority of the month and a half it took me to read Stone’s Fall was spent on the first third, where a naive journalist narrator tried my patience and nothing seemed to happen but a slow accumulation of detail that we’ll need later. If I’d known this in advance, I’d have plowed through the first section more quickly. But this still manages to be the best book I’ve read by Pears.

The Book I Read In December But Which Didn’t Make It Into My December Round-Ups Was*…

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… Life by Gwyneth Jones. And what a very strange book it was. Life had moments of brilliance but also moments that I found troubling and others that seemed redundant. The novel promises to be about the breakdown of chromosomal sex after the discovery of ‘Transferred Y’, or TY, by scientist Anna Senoz. However, TY turns out to be much more destabilising for society’s ideas about gender than for biological sex itself; as Anna explains, the ‘death’ of the Y chromosome doesn’t mean that sexually dimorphic men and women won’t continue to make up the vast majority of the population, even if men are now all technically intersex, because the masculinising SRY gene remains intact on one of men’s X chromosomes. Life, therefore, is really about the ‘sex wars’ and the tension between heterosexual sexual attraction and the more equal sexual relationships that some men and women are trying to forge. TY is such a problem because people believe there are fundamental genetic differences between men and women, and because they believe these matter for society to function. Gwyneth Jones is a bold and intelligent writer, but I felt uncomfortable with the treatment of lesbians, in particular, and the way the narrative flipped between being set in a speculative future where sex and gender are being reconstructed, and rehashing old feminist debates from the 1970s and 1980s. Ultimately, I believed in Anna as a character and she carried the book for me, even when it became baffling.

*very dubious superlative

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My Top Ten Books of 2022

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2021 post here, my 2020 post here, my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

A note: If 2021 was a weak reading year, 2022 was an exceptionally strong one! Plenty of my commended books could also have appeared on this list.

In no particular order…

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1. The Dispossessed: Ursula Le Guin. This classic SF novel has rightly swept many readers across the decades off their feet; it’s such an intelligent, detailed and honest exploration of what an anarchist society might look like, and how that would change the kind of people we are. I wrote briefly about it here.

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2. Our Wives Under The Sea: Julia Armfield. MY OBSESSION. After Miri’s biologist wife Leah returns from a mysterious deep-sea mission, she realises that the Leah who left is not the person who’s come back. A book about grief, but also a very fine horror novel. I reviewed it here.

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3. Finding The Mother Tree: Suzanne Simard. Many writers want to combine memoir and nature-writing and very few succeed. Simard does it perfectly, and she’s also the protagonist of a fascinating, revolutionary scientific investigation that would have been enough for a book on its own, as she explores how trees of different species share resources and information via an underground fungal network. I wrote briefly about it here.

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4. The First Woman: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Teenage Kirabo explores the secrets of her own family against a backdrop of Ugandan folktales during Idi Amin’s dictatorship in the 1970s. Makumbi’s writing is incredible: she lets her story speak for itself in a local vernacular that is so clever, vivid and alive. I wrote briefly about it here.

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5. The Anthill: Julianne Pachico. Lina spent her early childhood in Medellín but left for England when she was eight; now she’s returned to the city as an uncomfortable outsider. This book is both a merciless, brilliantly observed critique of foreign visitors to Columbia and a haunting horror story that uses ghostly tropes to explore a character and a country’s traumatic past. In the end, we can never really come home. I wrote briefly about it here.

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6. Spirits Abroad: Zen Cho. I didn’t love every story in this collection but about half of it was so wonderful that I felt it belonged on this list anyway. Cho expertly combines dry wit, Malaysian folklore, a hint of horror, and her own superb imagination. Best stories: ‘The Terra-Cotta Bride’ and ‘The House of Aunts’. I reviewed it here.

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7. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: Gabrielle Zevin. Of course I loved this gorgeous tale of work, friendship, making art, storytelling and play. Sam and Sadie design video games together, but you don’t need to like video games to like this novel, which is really about the challenges of creating. I reviewed it here.

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8. To Paradise: Hanya Yanagihara. CONTROVERSIAL. This wasn’t an instant smash hit for me but I haven’t stopped thinking about it all year, especially the third section of the novel, ‘Zone Eight’. The questions Yanagihara asks about how societies that seem dystopic to us may actually have benefits for those who suffer in our society are just not questions I’ve seen being explored anywhere else. I reviewed it here.

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9. The Sentence: Louise Erdrich. Should have won the Women’s Prize! This isn’t a perfect novel but I felt that Erdrich brought a whole world to life through the warm, humorous voice of her Objiwe narrator, Tookie. I reviewed it here.

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10. Bloodchild and Other Stories: Octavia E. Butler. Five incredible miniature pieces of science fiction (plus a couple things that didn’t work for me, but whatever). Best stories: ‘Amnesty’ and ‘Bloodchild’. I wrote about it briefly here.

Reading Stats

I read 190 books in 2022. This is an all-time record, but I’m not sure why I read more this year than in previous years! In 2023, I’ll again set a target of 150, as I don’t like having a target that’s too ambitious. Of the 190 books I read, 25 were re-reads, a significant improvement over the 11 books I re-read in 2021.

I read 162 books by women (including 1 trans woman) and 28 books by men (including 2 trans men). I think this is the fewest number of books by men I’ve ever read in one year, totalling just 15% of my total reading. I wanted to read more books by men of colour and trans men this year, and I did up my numbers in that respect. Also notable: this is the only time that my top ten books of the year have all been written by women.

I read 72 books by writers of colour and 118 books by white writers. This means I have FINALLY achieved (and smashed) my target of reading 33% of books by writers of colour, getting it up to 38%. I have to say, I’ve really noticed how much more diverse my reading has felt this year, and I’m glad that six of my top ten books of the year were by women of colour. Once again, I will aim to read 33% books by writers of colour in 2022.

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

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2022 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2022 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2022, not necessarily first published in 2022.

Highly Commended

2022 was a very good year for short story collections. Two have made my Top Ten, but there were many others that I loved. Kate Folk’s Out There is part of the Julia Armfield/Carmen Maria Machado/Mary South/Irenosen Okojie feminist body horror axis, but for my money, is better than the story collections by any of those writers. NK Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? showcased some incredible novels-in-a-bottle SF shorts. Anthony Veasna So’s first and last collection, Afterparties, unifies beautifully around the stories of stories of second-generation Cambodian immigrants to California who live in the shadow of their Khmer parents’ experience of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. Finally, on the meta end, Tom Conaghan’s edited collection Reverse Engineering reprints seven exceptional modern short stories and pairs them with commentary from their authors. My favourite: Mahreen Sohail’s wonderful ‘Hair’.

I also read some brilliant speculative fiction and SFF. T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone made me a confirmed fan of her work; a totally engrossing, original low fantasy that combines the darker, more serious folktale feel of a writer like Robin McKinley with the lightheartedness of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Ellen Klages’s glittering novella Passing Strange transports the reader to the lesbian subculture of San Francisco in the 1940s, with just a hint of magic. Meanwhile, on the SF end, I just loved Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbitwhich had some problems but won me over with its joyful queer romance. (I’m now reading her second book set in the same universe, Ocean’s Echo, and it’s just as good so far!)

Non-fiction was also strong this year, especially memoir. Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim was a brilliant examination of human engagement with water throughout the world, from abalone divers to public pools. Catherine Cho’s Infernoan account of her experience with postnatal psychosis, was emotionally resonant and beautifully written. Meanwhile, Nadia Owusu’s Aftershocks is also an exploration of trauma, as well as Owusu’s experiences of feeling rootless, her race and identity read differently wherever she goes.

I always love a good campus novel and 2022 really delivered! Julia May Jonas’s Vladimir is a sharp, amoral character study of an English professor in her late fifties whose husband John has just been accused by his students of sexual assault. Elaine Hsieh Cho’s  Disorientation wasn’t perfect, but it’s still a brilliant satire, following Taiwanese-American PhD student Ingrid as she tries to finish her dissertation while nursing her rivalry with fellow grad student Vivian, an Asian lesbian activist who writes papers called things like ‘Still Thirsty: Why Boba Liberalism Will Not Save Us’. Finally, Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping eschews literary flashiness for slow meditation as it explores the relationship between Owen, who grew up in rural Kentucky and works as a groundskeeper at the local college, and Alma, a writer-in-residence and ‘cultural Muslim’ whose parents fled Bosnia before she was born.

I read fewer good crime and thriller novels this year, although I was delighted by the revival of horror tropes and full-blown horror novels. Ellery Lloyd’s The Club was probably my thriller of the year: set in the luxurious retreat of ‘Island Home’, it handles its twists realistically rather than sacrificing realism for shock value, which has been a problem for me with a lot of recent thrillers. Nicola Griffith’s The Blue Place is a literary thriller that I’d also class as thoroughly satisfying wish-fulfilment for lesbians: its unforgettable protagonist Aud Torvingen is a former police lieutenant, six-foot tall martial arts practitioner, carpenter and social manipulator. Meanwhile, in horror, I devoured Mira Grant’s Into The Drowning Deepa schlocky novel about killer mermaids that features an especially memorable set-piece when a Deaf character pilots a bespoke submarine into the Challenger Deep.

Women’s fiction, romance and YA are not my favourite genres, but I had a few hits this year. Queer YA really delivered for me, and I was delighted to find novels that focused on lesbian or bi girls, having read so many about gay boys: my two favourites were Rachael Lippincott’s and Alyson Derrick’s She Gets The Girl and Adiba Jaigirdar’s The Henna Warswhich both set up a pair of girls as sworn enemies and let us watch them fall in love while navigating cultural difference. In women’s fiction, Taylor Jenkins Reid made a comeback for me with her latest, Carrie Soto Is BackI LOVED star tennis player Carrie and how the novel unambiguously let women be successful without punishing them.

Biggest Disappointments

Even though 2022 was a great reading year, I actually had more big disappointments than usual. Maybe this makes sense: with so many books to be excited about, it was inevitable that some of them would fall short.

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

There were a few big SFF releases that disappointed me (though I didn’t always get to these as soon as they were released). I was SO excited about RF Kuang’s Babelbut although I found it a fun read, the characterisation was weak, the critique of colonialism heavy-handed and the worldbuilding hopelessly illogical. Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throneon the other hand, which was also on my 2022 reading list, had three wonderful female protagonists but a slow pace plus unconvincing romance meant that I won’t be continuing with the trilogy. Finally, Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake not only had a beautiful cover but promised sapphic romance between a pirate queen and a geeky mechanic: unfortunately, this book did not work for me on any level.

I was disappointed (as ever!) by some new releases from authors I’ve loved in the past. Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility was a quick, enjoyable read, but felt very much like a literary writer trying out bad SF than the truly good SF that I know Mandel is capable of writing. Emma Donoghue’s Haven is the first book I’ve ever read from her that I thought wasn’t worth reading: this tale of three monks founding a refuge from the world on Skellig Michael in the seventh century relied on caricatures of dogmatic faith, and also threw intersex people under the bus.

Finally, I was disappointed by Tice Cin’s Keeping The House – the blurb was so enticing but didn’t seem to relate to the actual book, and the writing was too convoluted – ditto Morowa Yejidé’s Creatures of Passage. And I hated Josie George’s A Still Lifewhere I was left only with the overriding impression that George and I would not get on.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2022!

December Superlatives

An early Superlatives post as I always post my commendations/disappointments, top ten books of the year and next year’s reading plans at the end of December. If I read anything especially superb or terrible between now and then, I’ll find a way of recognising it in one of those posts!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. This is the third in a loosely-linked sequence of autofiction that began with Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and continued with 10:04Plotwise, this novel follows the protagonist of Atocha Station, Adam, during his high school years, alongside tracing the stories of his psychiatrist parents and his troubled classmate Darren. However, if you’ve read anything by Lerner, you’ll know it’s not about the plot. Lerner brilliantly dissects the construction of white male supremacy in the late 1990s United States, continually returning to these young men’s cleverness with language but inability to understand the emotion beneath their words, how they connect to the body. Adam is a master of ‘the spread’, a tactic used by competing debaters to fit as many arguments as possible into their allotted time by talking at the edge of intelligibility. In this way, they can defend whatever motion they need to, never thinking about what it actually means. His classmates appropriate African-American street slang because it sounds tough, shooting it back and forth at each other without understanding. His father Jonathan reflects that using psychological language often gets therapists and their patients no closer to recognising their feelings. The Topeka School is probably the most technically experimental of Lerner’s three novels, but it also has the most emotional and political resonance. Not an easy read, but I’m glad I finally picked it off my 2022 reading list.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… To Be A Trans Man by Ezra Woodger. Many of the individual testimonies from trans men and non-binary transmasculine people collected in this book were interesting, moving and thought-provoking, but I thought Woodger did a poor editorial job: the themes became repetitive and there was too much focus on relatively young interviewees who are urban influencers, activists or artists. My full review is hereI received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Book That Left Me The Most Weirdly Underwhelmed This Month Was…

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… The School For Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan. This has had a lot of hype, and there’s been a glut of books about motherhood and sub-Handmaid’s Tale type dystopias recently (see also: Joanne Ramos’s The Farm, Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket), so my expectations were low. Oddly, The School for Good Mothers was much better than I thought it was going to be, and yet it still felt disappointing. Our protagonist is Frida, a Chinese-American woman who’s struggling with her toddler daughter Harriet since her husband left her. When Frida snaps and leaves Harriet alone in her apartment for two hours, she loses custody and is forced to enrol in a residential government programme for ‘bad mothers’, where robotic toddler dolls record her every move.

Chan is undoubtedly a good writer. The relationship between Frida and Harriet feels real, warm and individual, rather than a sketchy stand-in for any old mother-daughter relationship, and I really cared about the possibility of their reunion. Nevertheless, I kept thinking about another feminist dystopia when I was reading this book; Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yourswhere the protagonist, bizarrely, is called Freida (rendered freida). Only Ever Yours is a pitch-black nightmare of a book about the insane expectations placed on teenage girls, and Chan seems to be trying to do something similar for motherhood but doesn’t push it far enough. For all its creepy robots, the book often reads like a realistic prison drama – after all, poor women of colour, especially immigrant women, are routinely separated from their children right now. For me, it would have had more to say about our world if, like Only Ever Yours, it had been more obviously separate from reality, if Chan had amped everything up another notch and gone full-blown horror. As it is, I felt like The School For Good Mothers was telling me things I already knew.

The Most Disappointing Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… The Helpdesk by SA Dunphy. This started well. James is a tax lawyer who’s desperate to make partner, but his dreams hang in the balance when a vital report goes missing as he assists in a merger. Frantic, he calls the IT helpdesk, where a woman called Charlotte is able to recover the file. James is relieved and grateful, and feels a connection with Charlotte – a connection that’s renewed as things continue to go wrong with his system. I loved this premise, and the sections of the novel that dealt with James’s job were gripping. However, the book strays well away from its opening by introducing a subplot about James’s wife, Bella, a teacher at a prestigious private school, and her (highly implausible) unfinished PhD on aggressive behaviour by high-flying corporate businessmen. In the afterword, Dunphy says that he had originally intended to focus only on the helpdesk plot but found Bella’s voice so compelling that he had to work her more fully into the novel. For me, a tighter focus would have worked better, as the way the two strands are linked becomes increasingly silly, and less original than the opening of the novel. The plot also relies on what I think is a very cheap trick; first-person narrators who are not flagged as unreliable not telling the reader what they are actually doing or thinking, which sacrifices realism for the sake of a twist. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

My Most Reluctant DNF This Month Was…

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… The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay, where I got about 100 pages in, or a third of the way through. I was reluctant to give up on this novel because I liked so much about it: principally, the narrator, Jean, an unfriendly alcoholic grandmother and unreliable wildlife park employee who’s who’s got herself ‘pretty much banned from the internet’ for posting conspiracy theories, but nevertheless has built a fiercely close relationship with granddaughter Kim. I was also interested to see what McKay, an expert on animal communication, would do with the premise of a virus that allows humans to understand animals. However, at the point where I gave up on the book, McKay didn’t seem to be doing as much with this idea as I’d hoped, other than presenting the bleak truth that humans struggle to deal with the bombardment of voices of other humans, let alone animals as well. Even so, I’m not quite sure why I found this book so unengaging; maybe I should have tried it when I was feeling less tired. Thanks very much to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy to me.

What reads stood out for you so far in December? What have been your favourite and least favourite books?

Trans Histories, Trans Lives

I read these two books in quick succession over the past few weeks: I had a lot of Thoughts about both of them, so I’ve put together shorter (though still long) summaries here then linked to my super long Goodreads reviews!

Ezra Woodger’s To Be A Trans Man is a short collection of interviews with trans men and non-binary transmasculine people; while some of his interviewees are people of colour and/or disabled people, almost all of them identify as artists, social media influencers and/or activists, and most of them are relatively young. This uniformity, coupled with a lack of editorial control by Woodger, makes this a much less interesting book than it should have been. As Woodger makes clear, trans men’s experiences are still rarely talked about, and myths about trans men abound; it’s so important that we understand the particular kinds of oppression that trans men and transmasculine people face.

One recurring theme is the idea of ‘male femininity’; a number of Woodger’s interviewees push back against the idea that being a trans man means conforming to stereotypical masculine norms, and yet they insightfully discuss how they often tried to fit into male stereotypes earlier in their transitions, believing this was the only way to be seen as a ‘real man’. Kasper sums this up as the idea that if ‘you’re a trans man… you have to give up every single feminine thing about yourself’ but emphasises the joy he feels when wearing elaborate makeup, arguing that his masculinity has always been flamboyant and camp. He also criticises ‘passing tips’: ‘they were all things like “don’t smile and don’t move out of the way of people in the street”. Be really mean to everybody and then everyone will think you’re a man’. Ironically, he suggests, it can be harder for trans men to play with masculinity, because they still feel they have to prove themselves. Having said this, I would have loved to see this theme explored more deeply, as the same point is repeated throughout a number of the interviews without Woodger delving any further. (I’m thinking of texts such as Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and Finn Mackay’s work on butch/queer masculinities – I’d love to see similar work on ‘male femininity’.)

Unsurprisingly, the interviewees often have much to say about how gender expectations pigeonhole everyone, even people who are not trans. Leo, a disabled trans man, reflects that when they use their wheelchair, they are read as more gender ambiguous: ‘The fact that I’m in a more passive physical pose is enough for them to add up what they’re seeing to way over on the side of “probably a woman”‘. Charlie reflects on the benefits and harms of being ‘invisible’ as a trans man: ‘I am still very well aware of the fact that women get hassled on the street. When I have women friends talk to me about the kind of stuff that they have to put up with on a daily basis and it’s like, well, I just exist. I walk outside my house and I exist outside my house, and that’s the way it is.’ Woodger comments: ‘‘The invisibility that we experience has led to a significant disregard for our rights and the issues we face but is also a privilege in its own way.’ This recognition, however, linked to one of my frustrations with the book; that it pushes the idea of a cis/trans dichotomy, rather than recognising how everyone struggles with performing gender and living up to gender expectations. This is not to say that trans men’s particular experiences aren’t valuable here, but that the book as a whole risked setting up a new binary while claiming to break down barriers.

I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review. My even longer review is on Goodreads!

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The Public Universal Friend, depicted in an 1821 biography

Kit Heyam’s Before We Were Trans is a popular history that thinks about how we can find trans lives in the past. Heyam offers a series of case studies of what Heyam terms ‘trans history’ across the globe, from seventeenth-century West African female kings to contemporary South Asian hijra to figures like Jemima Wilkinson, who rose from their deathbed as the genderless Public Universal Friend in 1776 and preached Quaker ideology throughout the northwestern United States. Heyam’s definition of ‘trans history’ is ‘deliberately expansive’: he argues that trans history must include ‘people who’ve troubled the relationship between our bodies and how we live; people who’ve taken creative, critical approaches to gender binaries; people who’ve approached gender disruptively or messily.’

Heyam’s introduction to this book is extremely useful and insightful, making a number of key methodological points. These points are followed through in a couple of especially strong chapters. Heyam is careful to show that intersex histories, for example, should not simply be appropriated by trans people, talking through the example of Roberta Cowell, a British trans woman who had gender reassignment surgery in 1948. Cowell always claimed that she was really intersex rather than trans, and had ‘developed along the wrong lines‘. However, in order to support her own story, she relied on homophobic and transphobic tropes to present herself as a ‘real woman’. Another excellent chapter concerns the experiences of men who lived and performed as women in First World War internment camps. Heyam effectively uses these histories to show how many different motives people in the past might have had for gender non-conformity, whether it was to ‘legitimise’ homosexual attraction, to participate in music-hall traditions of drag, or to seize the opportunity to express their true gender.

This book, then, is almost more about the methodology of doing trans history than it is about trans history, and I had some problems with how Heyam’s approach played out in practice. For example, he sets up a false binary between simplistic histories of homosexuality that are focused solely on who you sleep with, and the more expansive trans history that he advocates. I like Heyam’s umbrella definition of trans history but it ignores the ways in which lesbian historians, in particular, have drawn on lesbian activism to present similarly expansive definitions of lesbian history that overlap with Heyam’s trans umbrella. Judith Bennett, for example, argues that by using the term ‘lesbian-like’, ‘we might incorporate into lesbian history sexual rebels, gender rebels, marriage-resisters, cross-dressers, singlewomen’. This draws on earlier activist ideas from groups like Radicalesbians who argued that lesbians are positioned in a specific way in relation to patriarchy; being a ‘lesbian’ is to step outside the acceptable boundaries of what it means to be a woman, and therefore to face the full force of patriarchal oppression, as well as making as the choice to orientate your energies towards other women rather than men. As historians, we might sometimes find ‘trans’ or ‘lesbian’ history to be a more useful umbrella term, but it’s not true that one is inclusive and one is not: they include different people.

Heyam argues that there is an emotional case for trans history; that it is important for trans people to see themselves in the past. ‘We’re… trying to reassure ourselves that our genders are real’. While I completely agree, I thought this book did treat some histories with less care than others, especially Global South and indigenous histories, and the histories of lesbians/wlw. (Heyam does reflect on the problems of white Western trans people appropriating terms like ‘two-spirit’, but then goes on to include these kind of histories in their book on trans history; there’s something not quite right here). In short, I’m totally behind Heyam’s ideas about trans history, but they don’t always play out convincingly in practice, and the book ends up sitting uneasily between popular history and academic theory.

I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review. My even longer review is on Goodreads!

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I had hoped to include Kristen Schilt’s Just One Of The Guys?: Transgender Men And The Persistence of Gender Inequality in this post, one of the books on my 2022 reading list. Unfortunately, although I’ve ordered it, it won’t arrive for a while! This academic book promises to examine, via interviews and ethnographies, how trans men are still subject to systemic gender inequality in the workplace: while ‘some transmen gain acceptance—and even privileges—by becoming “just one of the guys,”… some are coerced into working as women or marginalized for being openly transgender’. I think it will be a great counterpart to these two popular/non-academic books.

Have you read any non-fiction about trans histories or trans lives recently? Any recommendations?

A #SciFiMonth Coda: Speculative Fiction in December

Or, things I planned to read in #SciFiMonth and didn’t get round to…

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This gorgeous collection of short stories by Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad, is split into three sections: ‘Here’, ‘There’ and ‘Elsewhere’. The stories in ‘Here’ are set in our world with a darker twist, while in ‘There’, characters spend more time in fantastical settings that are still linked to the real world, and in ‘Elsewhere’, they could be anywhere at all, from the Chinese afterlife to outer space. The collection is also geographically split; the stories in ‘Here’ are usually set in Malaysia, especially in Kuala Lumpur, while the stories in ‘Elsewhere’ often have British settings, and at least two are set at Cambridge. It’s not exactly original, when reviewing a short story collection, to say that you liked some stories more than others, but what struck me about Spirits Abroad was that if it had consisted solely of the first section, ‘Here’, plus everything but ‘Monkey King, Faerie Queen’ from ‘Elsewhere’, it would probably have been one of the very best collections of short stories I’d ever read. Every one of these stories was a knock-out, and they also have an incredible coherence while never becoming repetitive. Cho expertly combines dry wit, Malaysian folklore, a hint of horror, and her own brilliant imagination. These are difficult elements to balance, but somehow she pulls it off every time.

Apart from ‘The Terra-Cotta Bride’, which I reviewed back in November, my favourite stories included ‘The House of Aunts’, which draws on vampiric Malay tales of the pontianak but also tells a heartwarming tale of how teenage Ah Lee both loves and resents the older female family members with whom she lives – often with good reason (‘Dealing with the aunts had actually been less difficult than she had expected. They had told her off for not staying home and doing her homework, but it had been a half-hearted telling off.  The aunts knew they had forfeited the moral high ground by trying to eat her classmate.’). I also loved the family matriarch, Nai Nai, in ‘The First Witch of Damasara’, who is disturbing her family by threatening to become a kuang shi [zombie] unless she’s buried in Penang (‘You know why I wanted you all to call me Nai Nai? Even though Hokkien people call their grandmother Ah Ma?… In the movies, Nai Nai is always bad!’). Meanwhile, ‘The Fish Bowl’ is a less flashy story about a teenage girl who makes a deal with a koi fish as she struggles with the pressures of school, but it moves beautifully towards its joyful ending. ‘Liyana’ is a gentle, sweet story about a family who grow their own houses from the ground, while, for all the ghouls and zombies here, ‘Odette’, which lacks either, is easily the most horrifying tale.

It’s a shame, then, about ‘There’, which went badly off-kilter for me. The stories in this section tilted far too far towards being silly, losing the darker edge that rooted the rest of the collection. The only one I came close to liking was ‘The Mystery of the Suet Swain’, where the depiction of a group of Malaysian students who stick together at the University of Cambridge was so realistic and well-observed that it grounded the rest of it. (Personal bias: there’s something about stories of fairies/faeries that never works for me, so any mention of fairyland was an instant no.) But, on the other hand, the way this collection is grouped does at least suggest that Cho knows very well what she’s doing, and the stories in ‘There’ have obviously balanced perfectly for some readers. All in all, I was so impressed by this collection, and I can’t wait to try Cho’s novels.

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Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory is the third in his ambitious, hard-SF series that began with Children of Time and continued with Children of RuinI had a mixed experience with the first two books – I struggled with the amount of evolutionary biology that Tchaikovsky included, especially in Children of Time, but loved the horror elements – ancient AIs, abandoned spaceships and invading consciousnesses – that were more prominent in Children of Ruin. Children of Memory sits somewhere between the two. It’s set on another planet that was targeted by human terraformers as they sought out new worlds to live on after the destruction of Earth. This planet, Imir, has not fared very well – the small human population has struggled to set up a functioning eco-system, and they live at a subsistence level. Our main protagonist is a teenage girl called Liff, who encounters Miranda, a woman who claims to have come from one of the ‘out-farms’ that encircle the main settlement on Imir, but who seems to originate from a much more distant place. As Liff tries to work out Miranda’s secret, she also encounters the Witch, a powerful woman who is determined to seek out Miranda.

This plot-line was compelling (and I loved the final twist). There’s not enough SFF that mixes SF and fantasy elements like this, and I was reminded of Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s classic Enchantress From The Stars. However, I was frustrated by the more cerebral material in this novel, especially when Tchaikovsky invents yet another Earth species that has followed a different evolutionary pathway – this time, birds. This felt unnecessary, and the bird chapters were so intensely annoying that I had to skim them. I would have preferred to be immersed in Liff and Miranda’s story. I guess I have to conclude that I’m not the right audience for the harder SF elements of Tchaikovsky’s work, even though I’ve enjoyed much of this wildly intelligent and original series.

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

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I’m still trying to find the right time to start Gwyneth Jones’s Life, which looks fascinating but a bit too cerebral for my currently frazzled, end-of-semester brain. Its take on sex and gender looks like it will chime well with some of the reading on trans identities I’m doing at the moment, so watch this space!

Have you read any speculative fiction in December?

Two Californian Historical Novels: Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson & Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

These two long California-set historical novels were so meticulously researched and the stories of the characters so intensely intertwined with the environment they lived in that it felt as if their writers had resurrected little pieces of the past. Despite this, neither of them quite worked for me as fiction – though I’m glad to have read both! Here are my thoughts:

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Ash Davidson’s debut novel, Damnation Spring, is set in the redwood groves in Del Norte County (“Nortay,” one of the locals mocks an outsider who visits to pronounce on the fate of the logging industry there, ‘It’s Del Nort. E’s silent, asshole’). It’s 1977, and Rich is an old-timer, felling trees for timber; his wife, Colleen, longs for another baby but keeps suffering miscarriages. It swiftly becomes apparent that the chemical sprays the logging company use to kill the brush are contaminating the community’s water supply and causing defects in unborn babies, as well as illness in children and adults. Moving away from traditional methods of sustained yield (‘not cutting faster than the forest could grow back‘) has also caused soil erosion. In short, Damnation Grove could be a case study for Suzanne Simard’s Finding The Mother Treeand also recalls other big sagas of logger families like Michael Christie’s Greenwood as well as pesticide critiques like Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation and Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer. Davidson places a neat conflict at the heart of her novel: Colleen wants the spraying to stop to protect her babies and those of her neighbours, but Rich needs the logging of the grove to continue so he can get clear-cuts through to a plot of timber he’s just bought, dreaming of felling the ‘big pumpkin’ redwoods that his father never could. And as the community realises their livelihood might be under threat from investors and environmental activists, tensions erupt.

This tidy hook makes Damnation Spring a bit formulaic and predictable, and yet it still never delivers the clash that its opening pages promise. This long novel treads water for a long time before we finally (about three hundred pages in) get to the crucial public hearing about the plans to harvest Damnation Grove. And even then, Rich and Colleen’s divisions sputter out somewhat – although I did appreciate Davidson’s commitment to making sure they both remain sympathetic. The novel feels unbalanced, with too much build-up and not enough time for these interesting questions about the rights of workers, parents, animals and trees to a place to play out. This all sounds like this was a straight fail for me, but actually I enjoyed much of Damnation Spring; I liked its immersive quality, its exploration of the daily lives and exceptional skill of loggers, and the way we take our slow, unhurried time to get to know these characters. The ending, picking up on a repetitive refrain throughout the novel, is smart and moving. I wouldn’t read this again, but it definitely provided the kind of reading experience I hope for from a historical doorstopper.

Thanks so much to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy of this novel to me!

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If Damnation Spring is an evocative historical novel, Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music sticks so closely to the historical record that it probably has a claim to being creative non-fiction. It’s set almost exactly a hundred years earlier and some three hundred miles from Damnation Spring, in San Francisco during the heat wave of 1876. Blanche is an exotic dancer and sex worker, living with her lover Arthur and his companion Ernest after all three of them left the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. She encounters the enigmatic Jenny Bonnet, a freewheeling frog-hunter who dresses in men’s clothes and rides a stolen bicycle. But when the novel opens, Jenny has just been shot dead in front of Blanche – and the rest of the story retraces their steps to ask why. Both Blanche and Jenny are arresting characters. While I didn’t like Blanche, exactly, I liked Donoghue’s bravery as she shows how circumstances have conspired to make her into a woman who ‘enjoys’ much of the sex she sells and a mother who neglects her baby. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel, even a historical one, which allows its protagonist to be such a bad mother by modern standards, and yet Donoghue’s portrayal of the poor bargains working-class parents made with baby farms rang true to me.

Donoghue perfectly evokes both the stifling heat in small lodgings in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the tension and fear surrounding the summer’s smallpox epidemic, which eventually leads to racist riots when the Chinese population are wrongly blamed. And, as her extensive author’s note demonstrates, almost all of the major characters and events in this story are true. Frog Music has some blisteringly bad Goodreads reviews, which I think are undeserved – I’ve read historical novels much duller and more info-dumpy than this one (and I loved the historical detail!) But it is probably fair to say that Donoghue’s story is rather too constrained by the facts, and she might have done better to allow herself more creative licence, especially as Blanche’s story piles one misfortune on top of another. I wanted more of Blanche and Jenny’s daring and less of the misery of baby farms, industrial schools and thieving rapists. True to history this might be, but it makes for less satisfying fiction. Nevertheless, with the sole exception of HavenI’ve never read a Donoghue novel that I didn’t think was worthwhile, so I’m going to keep checking out her back catalogue. (Of her adult novels, the only ones I haven’t read are Slammerkin, Life Mask and Landing – anyone read any of those three? Would you recommend, if so?)

Thanks very much to my local library for selling this book to me for 50p #LoveYourLibrary

November Superlatives Plus #NovellasInNovember #SciFiMonth Round-Up

A very short superlatives post this month because I’ve been focused on Novellas in November and SF Month! I’ve also included my summaries of both of these challenges at the bottom of this post.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Passing Strange by Ellen Klages, a glittering lesbian novella set in 1940s San Francisco. You can read my full review here.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. So, I knew this was going to be bad, but I didn’t know it would be quite THIS bad. My Goodreads review/rant is here.

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

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… Five Survive by Holly Jackson. This follows six friends who get into an RV for a long road trip from Philadelphia to the Gulf Coast, hoping to celebrate high school graduation. However, things go wrong when they break down in the middle of nowhere, none of their phones have any service, and they realise there’s a sniper shooting at them. One of them won’t survive the night… but which one? And why have they been targeted and held hostage?  In short: compelling thriller, incredibly irritating narrator. And why has it been saddled with a cover that makes it look like it’s one of the children’s mysteries I used to read as a kid? Readalike: Riley Sager’s silly but compelling Survive The Night. My full Goodreads review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on December 8th.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was…

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… The Galaxy, and The Ground Within by Becky Chambers. I read this final instalment of Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet a couple of years back, but it was a delight to return to it as part of the #SciFiMonth readalong, and I found the discussion questions from Lisa and Mayri helped me think more deeply about the novel. In particular, I focused on Pei’s character arc, which had been easily the most interesting section of the novel for me first time around but this time felt even more resonant.  Spoilers follow – if you want a spoiler-free review of this novel, here’s my original review

Pei is part of an alien species called the Aeluon, who organise their reproductive cycle rather differently than humans do. The Aeluon come in three sexes – male, female and shon, who can shift between the two. Females only incubate an egg once or twice in their reproductive lifetimes, and this is signalled by the ‘shimmer’, when their scales sparkle rainbow. As Aeluon society has developed, males and shon have come to do all the child-rearing, and this is respected as a professional skill, with prospective fathers listing their qualifications. Mothers, meanwhile, just need to have sex with the father/s while they’re shimmering, and then expel the fertilised egg. Aeluons are accustomed, therefore, to separating biological parenthood from those who actually bring you up, and collective child-rearing in creches is standard.

Pei’s dilemma in Galaxy is that she starts shimmering and realises that she really doesn’t want to take time out of her life to spend the required few weeks at a creche to fertilise and expel her egg. Aeluon society, because of its low fertility, really hammers home the message that this is a sacred duty for females, but Pei ultimately realises that there’s no problem with the Aeluon population these days* and she really doesn’t have to mother an egg if she doesn’t want to. Great, you might think: but when I first read Galaxy, I was incredibly frustrated with Pei’s decision. I always cheer on human women in fiction who don’t want to be mothers, but come on! This is the easiest sacred social duty to fulfil ever! Why wouldn’t you fit in with your society’s norms if you could do it so simply!

*though I really don’t understand how this species has survived, let alone thrived, as it is mathematically unable to reproduce itself – even if every female fertilised every egg they had and there was no embryo/infant/child loss – unless there are a great many more females than males or shon, and this is not implied

On a re-read, as I knew what Pei was going to decide ahead of time, I was able to respond more reflectively. Pei’s plot line made me realise, as someone who is childless by choice, how much I would like to be a mother if I lived in a completely different society. I have never felt any biological urge to have children, but I like the idea of being able to deeply invest in a relationship with my own children, although I do hugely value working with other people’s children as well. I would love to experience childrearing as a creative, satisfying and emotional project. However, unfortunately I have realised that in our current society, there’s no way I would have the time and space I’d need to give to a child to make this a fulfilling experience for me while still doing some of the other things that I most value (I am under no illusion that you can have a child and ‘have it all’, in any version of our world, and whether you are a man or a woman; child-rearing takes time, and so you are going to have less time for other things if you do it right). I don’t want to live a life where everything is crammed in, so cheap/free nursery provision, flexible working, supportive partner etc wouldn’t change my mind. On the other hand, I would adore being an Aeluon mother, or even potentially being an Aeluon father! By detaching these questions from our ideas of human sex/gender roles, Chambers gives us so much to think with. It’s a shame that I didn’t find the other character arcs in this book as thought-provoking.

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A quick round-up for #SciFiMonth and #NovellasInNovember – my original plans are linked here:

  • I read four wonderful speculative novellas. My least favourite of the four was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Walking to Aldebaran, and it was still pretty good!
  • I read two queer ‘romances with a side of science fiction’. While I loved Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s OrbitI thought Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake left much to be desired.
  • I loved much of NK Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?especially her SF shorts.
  • I read three more novellas that (accidentally) spanned the range of the #NovellasInNovember challenge: one non-fiction, one classic, one contemporary/in translation. My favourite of the three was the last, Space Invaders by Nona Fernández.
  • I am currently reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel Children of Memory (good, some sections have a very different feel from the first two in the trilogy) and Zen Cho’s short story collection Spirits Abroad (amazing, adore the undead aunts).
  • I am still planning to read Gwyneth Jones’s Life. I just had too many long, complicated SF novels to get through this month! This will be a December read.
  • I am no longer planning to read Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath. Now this book has been published, there are a lot more reviews available, and I decided its fragmentary style and focus on surviving life on a decimated Earth weren’t really for me. I also worried that it might be a bit heavy-handed re social justice issues.

Did you read any SF or speculative fiction, or any novellas from any genre this month? What were your favourite and least favourite reads in November?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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