2019 Reading Plans

2018 started better than it went on, but has still been a pretty good year for me. After a number of full MS requests and revise-and-resubmits, my time-travel novel is now out with another batch of literary agents, and I’ve (just!) started my Antarctic-set novel after finishing Tim Clare’s incredibly helpful Couch to 80k podcast series. I bought my first flat, in Newcastle, and started my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Queen Mary University of London. I finished the manuscript of my first academic monograph, A Progressive Education?and have received the final set of edits, which are very constructive and useful. I travelled to France and also finally fulfilled a long-held dream by returning to the US, where I spent five years of my childhood, travelling to Providence, New York, Boston and my old home city, DC.

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In less impressive but personally satisfying goals, I have learnt how to bleed radiators, put together many pieces of flatpack furniture, and how some bits of Newcastle connect together. I have watched 32 new films this year (my goal was 50, but never mind), trying to address my habit of rewatching the same things over and over. I’ve pretty much kept my New Year’s resolution of exercising four times a week, focusing on swimming and yoga (my other New Year’s resolutions didn’t turn out quite so well).

I’ve made a list of 30 books I want to read in 2019, and am going to highlight a few 2019 releases I’m particularly excited about:

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Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams ed., A People’s Future of the United States (February 2019). This collection of short speculative fiction, riffing off the title of Howard Zinn’s 1980 A People’s History of the United Stateswhich attacked glorified ‘manifest destiny’ interpretations of American history, showcases stories that ‘challenge oppressive American myths’. With contributions from N.K. Jemisin, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Charlie Jane Anders, Omar El Akkad and more, it sounds fantastic.

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Lisa See: The Island of Sea Women (March 2019). I’ve enjoyed a number of See’s earlier novels, which tend to foreground close female friendships (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in nineteenth-century China, China Dolls in WWII America). The Island of Sea Women focuses on two Korean female divers, Mi-ja and Young-sook, over several decades, beginning in the 1930s.

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Nell Freudenberger: Lost and Wanted (April 2019). I’ve actually never read anything by Freudenberger, but her latest sounds irresistible. The protagonist is a theoretical physicist, Helen, who starts receiving calls and texts from a friend who’s just died.

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Ted Chiang: Exhalation (May 2019). Chiang’s previous collection of SF short stories, Stories of Your Life and Otherswas incredibly imaginative and intellectually engaging, so I’m expecting no less from this new collection. Highlights include a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad encountering a portal through time, and an alien scientist making a startling discovery.

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Chia-Chia Lin: The Unpassing (May 2019). I’m intrigued by this debut, which follows an immigrant family of six struggling to make ends meet on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. Lin has already published a number of short stories.

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Colson Whitehead: The Nickel Boys (July 2019). After the success of The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s next novel will be eagerly anticipated by many. I was disappointed by one of his earlier books, Zone One, but am still keen to read this, which follows two boys sentenced to a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

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Téa Obreht: Inland (August 2019). I loved Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife, so much; it’s my favourite of all the Orange/Baileys/Women’s Prize for Fiction winners that I’ve read. But it’s been so long since 2011, and I was delighted to hear that she finally has another book coming. Inland sounds EPIC; it’s set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, focusing on the collision between a frontierswoman, Nora, and an outlaw, Lurie. Obreht, according to her publishers, ‘subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely – and unforgettably – her own.’

I hope you’ve all had a lovely New Year!

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The Rest of the List

Leftover from 2018

George Sandison ed.: 2084

Nina Allen: The Rift

Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion

Clarissa Goenawan: Rainbirds

New Entries

Jeff Vandermeer: Annihilation

Rebecca Loncraine: Skybound

Sally Rooney: Normal People

Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room

Anna Burns: Milkman

Allegra Goodman: The Chalk Artist

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black

Robin Talley: Pulp

Marie Lu: Warcross

Tayari Jones: The Untelling

Joseph Camara: The House of Impossible Beauties

Uzodinma Iweala: Beasts of No Nation

Evie Wyld: The Bass Rock (September 2019)

Ellen Feldman: Terrible Virtue

Robin Oliveira: Winter Sisters

Emily Bernard: Black Is The Body (January 2019)

Samantha Harvey: All Is Song

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Lisa Ko: The Leavers

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2018 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2018 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 2018, not necessarily first published in 2018.

Highly Commended

The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was especially strong this year, and there were lots of standout titles for me. I’ll focus on my two favourites here. Fiona Mozley’s Elmetwhich was shortlisted for the Booker but inexplicably failed to make the Women’s Prize shortlist, is mesmerisingly good on femininity and masculinity, and the close connections of a single family to rural Yorkshire. Jessie Greengrass’s shortlisted Sight mixes auto-fiction with historic interludes that cover the detection of X-rays, the psychoanalytical work of Anna Freud and a nineteenth-century Scottish surgeon. I was blown away by Greengrass’s precise and brilliant meditations on pregnancy and early motherhood.

I read two excellent short story collections: Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Onesset between 1993 and 2013 in Colombia, New York and DC, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, one of my 20 Books of Summer, which is a series of sketches of young middle-class black lives in present-day America. Pachico deals brilliantly with the intersection between imagination and reality, whereas Thompson-Spires’s satirical narratives are delightfully vivid and larger-than-life.

2018 wasn’t as strong a year for memoir and non-fiction as 2017, but three books stood out: Xiaolu Guo’s Once Upon A Time In The East and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,  neither of which I’ve reviewed on this blog, and Nancy Campbell’s The Library of IceGuo’s account of her childhood and adolescence in China is riveting, much more engaging than any of her novels. Campbell eschews autobiography to seek out ice in all of its forms, from a remote Greenlandic community to a curling rink in Scotland, successfully reinventing the overstuffed ‘polar memoir’ genre. Persepolis, one of the only graphic novels I’ve read, brilliantly and succinctly conveys Satrapi’s experience growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution.

Two historical novels stood out. Lissa Evans’s wonderful Old Baggageset in the late 1920s, stars Mattie, a once-militant suffragette who wonders what she should do with her life now. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies proved to be a comedic and moving take on gay male lives in Britain since 1945.

Finally, I enjoyed two novels that might broadly be called speculative. Mary Doria Russell’s eerie and unforgettable The Sparrow deals with a Jesuit mission to make contact with an alien race. I got its sequel, Children of God, for Christmas, and can’t wait to start it. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, about a man isolated in the Arctic winter, hasn’t been reviewed on this blog but is an absolute model of how to write a horror story. Don’t read it alone in the dark.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily 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.

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Michael Donkor’s Hold, dealing with a teenage Ghanian housegirl, Belinda, who comes to London in 2002 to deal with a disobedient relative of the family she works for, Amma, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018. Unfortunately, I found Donkor’s writing laborious and convoluted, and his dialogue was so doggedly ‘authentic’ as to be almost unreadable.

Both Omar El Akkad’s American War and Angela Chadwick’s XX had great premises. American War is set in the aftermath of a second civil war that has torn apart America, creating a refugee crisis. XX imagines a world where two women can have their own biological child together, opening up new possibilities for lesbian couples. However, most of American War played out like a cliched dystopian novel, whereas XX never moved beyond simplistic moral messages, refusing to explore the full implications of its imagined future. Two missed opportunities.

I was also disappointed by two authors whose novels I’d enjoyed in the past. Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days was a gripping and original literary thriller, but her latest, Bitter Orange, about a lonely, middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a glamorous younger couple during a summer spent in a country house, felt so hackneyed, and had such an unpleasant narrator, that I gave up a third of the way in, and haven’t reviewed it here. Having loved Amy Sackville’s first two novels, The Still Point and Orkney, I couldn’t wait to read her latest, Painter to the Kingwhich deals with the painter Diego Velázquez at the court of Philip IV of Spain in the first half of the seventeenth century. However, it felt more like an extended writing exercise than a novel, focusing intently on the visuals with little psychological probing into the mindsets of her characters.

I’ll be back on Monday with my Top Ten Books of 2018!

 

 

20 Books of Summer, #10 and #11: The Trauma Cleaner and Heads of the Colored People

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Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is a book it will be difficult to forget in a hurry. Krasnostein documents the elusive life of Sandra Pankhurst, who runs a ‘trauma cleaning’ business in Australia. In short, Sandra and her team are brought in to clean up houses after lives that have gone terribly wrong, whether that’s because their resident has committed suicide, died alone and undiscovered for weeks, or – as in most of the stories recounted in this book – has taken to hoarding. This is a highly skilled as well as labour-intensive occupation. Sandra is certified as a crime and trauma biorecovery technician, and knows everything about what she needs to deal with different kinds of stains, rubbish and smells: ‘a quarter of a teaspoon [of clove oil] to half a litre of water’ for black mould; hospital-grade disinfectants Multi-Task and San-Sol to strip surfaces of stains and remove bodily fluids; for blood, ‘you would know by the colour how deeply it has gone into the carpet… we would spray solution all over the carpets to see whether there are droplets of blood, it illuminates the blood. This tells us where we’ve got to work and what we’ve got to work on.’

This sounds like Sandra is excavating a crime scene, and there are some similarities between her work and that of a team charged with investigating a murder. When her clients are living, Sandra is required to probe gently into their pasts to try and understand a little of what has led them to hoard – in order to persuade them to jettison at least most of the rubbish. As Krasnostein so aptly describes, this requires formidable social skills. ‘One of Sandra’s talents is that she is superb… at instantly conveying a bespoke blend of respect, warmth, humour and interest that establishes a basic human equity’. Many of Sandra’s living clients, somewhere along the way, have lost faith in themselves and their own worth, and Sandra helps them to regain this. Krasnostein speculates that this is because Sandra has lived a life that was itself filled with so much trauma. Abused as a child, Sandra underwent gender reassignment surgery in the 1980s in the face of considerable opposition from the Australian medical establishment, then was raped and assaulted during a period of time as a sex worker. From these foundations, she built a ‘respectable’ life for herself as a wife, President of the North Brighton Chamber of Commerce and a small business owner.

Krasnostein is rightly impressed by Sandra’s resilience, and, in telling her story, she makes the right choice, I think, to remain as a largely invisible presence, unlike the intrusive narration of Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksHowever, given the state of Sandra’s memory – which is unsurprisingly riddled with gaps and contradictions – Krasnostein must have done a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes work to put this story together at all, and it’s when the stitches start to show that I found The Trauma Cleaner a little frustrating. The book alternates between chapters that tell Sandra’s own story and chapters that focus on her trauma cleaning business in the present day, and I wanted to hear less about Past Sandra – who is necessarily unknown and incomplete – and more about Present Sandra. Krasnostein also has the unfortunate habit of repeatedly telling us how wonderful Sandra is (‘the great and wondrous energy that Sandra manages to generate‘) despite the fact that Sandra’s particular qualities come across much more clearly when Krasnostein tells us about concrete actions that Sandra has performed in taking care of her cleaning clients. At times, we get the sense that Krasnostein’s admiration for Sandra is battling with anger at Sandra’s refusal to face up to certain things in her life, such as her abandonment of her wife and her two very small sons when she realised she identified as a woman. And yet, insofar as this book seems to have been written as a kind of love letter to Sandra, Krasnostein is restricted by her own reasons for writing it in the first place.

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Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s debut short story collection, Heads of the Colored People, takes its title from the nineteenth-century black American writer James McCune Smith’s The Heads of the Colored People (1852-4),written under the pen name Communipaw, a series of ten biographical character sketches of black working class people living in New York. (You can read more about them here.) Thompson-Spires writes that ‘like the original sketches, these stories maintain an interest in black US citizenship, the black middle class, and the future of black American life during pivotal sociopolitical moments.’ Many of her stories fall into rough groups. The opening story, ‘Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, And No Apology’ totally deconstructs one of the most familiar narratives we hear about black American lives: the innocent black man shot and killed by the police.

Thompson-Spires’s protagonist, Riley, is as deliberately unlike any familiar images of these victims as it’s possible to be, with ‘blue contact lenses’, bleached hair and a love of cosplay, dressed as manga character Tamaki Such ‘in a skinny periwinkle suit with a skinny black tie.‘ After his death, the picture released of Riley in the press shows him in ‘an oversize blue shirt and a bedazzled blue bandana over cornrows. His mother, and girlfriend, Paris, explained repeatedly that he was not dressed as a thug, but as nineties Justin Timberlake.’ But this title story isn’t just about confounding stereotypes; the omniscient narrator’s voice constantly intrudes, corrects and analyses. Thompson-Spires seems to be commenting on how difficult it is to tell a story like this without all the other versions of it getting superimposed over the top. It’s in this story that her voice sounds most like Paul Beatty’s brilliant, Booker-Prize winning The Sellout.

The first set of stories in this collection loosely follows Fatima, growing up in an all-white neighbourhood and at a series of virtually all-white schools. In ‘Belles Lettres’, Fatima’s mother Monica exchanges a series of increasingly angry notes with the mother of the only other black girl at her elementary school, Christinia; in ‘The Body’s Defenses Against Itself’, an adult Fatima can’t help comparing herself to the only other black woman in her yoga class, while thinking back to her feud with Christinia; finally, in ‘Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story’, the teenage Fatima befriends an albino black girl, Violet, who hails from a much more diverse public school and who teaches her how to talk and behave ‘like a black person’. Thompson-Spires reflects a more modern version of the experience of growing up elite and black that Margo Jefferson describes so well in Negrolandin another of the stories in this collection, her female black protagonist, contemplating suicide methods, also picks up on the idea that black women are rarely allowed to be at the tragic centre of stories about self-harm and suicide, because they aren’t seen as fragile and as worthy of care in the same way as white women are.

A second set of stories brings together some of my favourite pieces in this collection, when Thompson-Spires turns her satire up to ten. In ‘The Subject of Consumption’, a documentary-maker seeks dysfunctional families leading alternative lifestyles. In ‘Suicide, Watch’, the quasi-suicidal black woman mentioned above tries desperately to get as much attention as possible on Facebook while she hints she’s thinking of ending her life, only to kill herself accidentally by microwaving her phone: ‘in the moment, Jilly saw only the bright crimson of the explosion. It came in four red pops, like notifications, friend requests.’ In ‘Whisper to a Scream’, a teenage girl makes soothing ASMR YouTube videos even as she knows that men are privately getting off on them – as long as they can’t see her face. I usually steer clear of any satire about ‘social media’ because it tends to be incredibly lazy, relying on stereotypes about how uniquely self-obsessed we are today, but Thompson-Spires bypasses all of this in the sheer horror and colour of her writing. A fourth story, ‘This Todd’, while not about social media as such, continues the theme of obsession with appearances, as an artist, Kim, dates a succession of disabled black men, fixating upon their injuries.

Heads of the Coloured People is a fresh, irresistible and consistently intelligent take on (mostly middle-class, mostly young) black lives in America today. Thompson-Spires is a writer to watch.

I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 9th August.

Reading round-up, April into May 2018

April was largely taken up with the Women’s Prize For Fiction longlist and the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, but I’ve started to catch up with some other things as we move into May.

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I highlighted You Think It, I’ll Say It as one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, and I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint. I’m a big Curtis Sittenfeld fan, though for me, nothing she’s written has ever quite beaten her debut, Prepa boarding-school expose that features a narrator who’s not so much unreliable as completely impossible to see past. Sittenfeld’s familiar strengths and weaknesses are on display in You Think It, I’ll Say It, her first short story collection. As this Independent review points out, Sittenfeld’s scope can sometimes feel a little too narrow, confined to white middle-class American men and women living comfortable and predictable lives. And yet, it’s from this that I think her greatest strengths emerge: her utter confidence in pinpointing the exact details of such lives, and saying the unspoken things that everybody else is thinking. But because, perhaps, of this familiar subject-matter, for me these stories worked best when they were least neat.

I wasn’t surprised to love ‘The Nominee’, a short story about Hillary Clinton that Sittenfeld is developing into a full-length book. Having just re-read American Wife, Sittenfeld’s novel about the life of a fictionalised version of Laura Bush, Alice Blackwell, it was fun to see Sittenfeld enter the psyche of a very different woman experiencing some of the same pressures as she thinks back on her own tenure as First Lady. The childhood taunt that follows this unnamed character – ‘You’re awfully opinionated for a girl’ – is certainly not something that would trouble Alice Blackwell, who wrestles with the opposite problem; has she blended far too seamlessly into other people’s lives? While the ending of this story isn’t as open as some of the others in the collection, I still found it satisfying without being too tidy, perhaps especially because I know there’s more to come. On the other hand, ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’ and ‘Gender Studies’ both pull off loose, unresolved conclusions, and are the better for it.

This was less so for some of the other stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It. Two stories have twists in the middle – ‘Plausible Deniability’ and ‘The Prairie Wife’ – and in both cases, I guessed the twist almost immediately. This didn’t necessarily ruin the stories, but I found both of them less satisfying than I would have done otherwise. Two stories on motherhood, ‘Bad Latch’ and ‘Off the Record’, are refreshing for different reasons – ‘Bad Latch’ resists the temptation to set mothers, and different styles of parenting, up against each other, while ‘Off the Record’ is a rare glimpse into the pleasures as well as the hardships of being a single mother – but both are tied off too tightly to be especially thought-provoking.

Apart from ‘The Nominee’, the two stories that seemed to me to have the most depth and promise were ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto’ [‘the voice of one crying out in the desert’] and ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’. The first deals with three college friends whose lives become linked together in unexpected ways; the second with the micro-politics of a group of volunteers running a children’s group at a shelter for women who’ve experienced domestic abuse. ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto’ reminded me a little of Prep – and indeed is partly set at a prestigious prep school – while ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’ took me back to my own experiences of working and volunteering with children, although the vast majority of the other staff and volunteers in my organisation were wonderful, and things certainly never turned as nasty as they do here. I did wonder why Frances, the narrator of ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’, had OCD – it seemed to have been introduced to create some artificial conflict, and I thought Sittenfeld could have told essentially the same story without this prop. However, it was one of the stories in the collection that niggled at me most insistently, and hence became the most memorable.

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Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City, which is narrated by five different characters living on a north London housing estate, has already received a fair amount of advance praise. Gunaratne interweaves three stories of protest, violence, terrorism and the rejection of terrorism over the course of two generations. Elderly West Indian immigrant Nelson remembers his teenage involvement in the black community’s protests against the fascism personified by Oswald Mosley. Irish Catholic Caroline recalls how her family became both victims and perpetrators of the sectarian violence in Ireland during the Troubles. Meanwhile, the book’s three teenage narrators, Caroline’s son Ardan, Nelson’s son Selvon, and Yusuf, a Muslim whose family are originally from Pakistan, demonstrate solidarity across racial lines while they court trouble of their own.

In Our Mad and Furious City is partly a victim of its own ambition. Its structure is over-complicated: five voices, three parts, each divided into sub-parts, with two narrators – Nelson and Caroline – that switch between the far past and the present – it took me almost half the novel simply to work out the allegiances and interconnections I’ve summarised above. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I frequently mixed up Ardan, Selvon and Yusuf’s narratives, all characterised by the same repetition of street slang (‘ennet’, ‘fam’, ‘blood’), although, to be fair to Gunaratne, he does draw out differences between his characters’ voices as well (Selvon’s fond of saying ‘kiss my teeth’; Ardan is noticeably less confident; Yusuf uses more sophisticated sentence structure.) For this reason, I found the voices of the older generation more compelling and distinctive.   Gunaratne also hammers too hard on the ‘dangerous volatile seething tinderbox’ language that I’ve seen a number of other writers use when writing about this side of London, especially in the largely unnecessary prologue and epilogue. The novel tells us too much about what it already effectively shows, reminding me strongly of Sunil Yapa’s similarly good but flawed debut Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size of A Fist.

But at the heart of In Our Mad And Furious City, away from the noise and the familiar story beats, are quieter scenes that will repay re-reading and re-inhabiting. Timid Ardan comes into his own for one glorious moment when he beats another boy in an improvisational grime music battle while they ride on the top deck of a bus. Swaggering Seldon carefully mixes salve for his father’s swollen and painful feet and cleans them carefully with a cloth, a weekly ritual. Caroline remembers her own youth in Ireland, and the moment she realised that some members of her family were involved in the IRA. Nelson thinks back to his own teenage years, proud to be part of a resistance movement but increasingly fearful for his own personal safety, as he hears the beats of his community’s music antagonising their racist opponents. I wished that Gunaratne, obviously such a talented writer, had spent more time with his characters in moments like this, and less time telling us how everything is about to erupt.

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

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I’ve also recently read Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, which I loved, and which deserves a full review of its own, and relished three re-reads: Sarah Hall’s magnificent The Carhullan Army, Naomi Alderman’s thought-provoking, if uneven, The Lessons and Sarah Waters’s  lesbian classic, Fingersmith. I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, an incredibly well-written but frustratingly clinical zombie apocalypse novel, and Xiaolu Guo’s mesmerising memoir, Once Upon A Time in the East, which was shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Rathbones Folio Prize. After being disappointed by her novels, especially I Am China, I’m finding this riveting.

What spring reading have you been doing?

 

Young women writing on young women

Recently, I’ve read three deliberately cerebral books written by young women who are (mainly) writing about young women. (This is partly because I was lucky enough to win a set of the titles shortlisted for the PFD/Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award.) Some have worked for me better than others, but all of them impressed me with their ability to combine analytical intelligence and literary experimentation with the emotional engagement that’s often lacking in novels that are so overtly clever.

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Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award, was a novel I steered clear of for some time because I thought it would be a more literary version of other books about millennials that I’d strongly disliked: Lauren Berry’s Living the Dream, for example, whose twenty-something female characters are defined entirely by ennui, weak sarcasm and emotional detachment. So I was pleasantly surprised by its robust treatment of both intimate relationships and chronic illness. I particularly liked its depiction of the on-off relationship and long-term friendship between our bisexual narrator, Frances, and her lesbian friend, Bobbi, and its unflinching descriptions of Frances’s struggles with an often invisible but common female illness, endometriosis.

Conversations With Friends has been much-praised for ‘capturing the zeitgeist’, but I’m not sure that it does, and given what the press often thinks the millennial zeitgeist consists of, I’m glad that it doesn’t. (This is obviously not the fault of millennials; I’m one myself!) The novel didn’t remind me of the kind of contemporary works that treat intersectionality as a series of tick-boxes and have no interest in moral questions around honesty and integrity in relationships; instead, it felt more reminiscent of some of the 1980s and 1990s novels I’ve read that followed in the wake of second-wave feminism, like Emma Donoghue’s wonderful debut Stir-FryIt captures how it feels to be asking difficult questions for the first time without distancing or patronising its narrator, and it doesn’t treat identity as a meaningless performance.

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This is a little less true of Women, Chloe Caldwell’s novella about a young(ish) woman – she’s almost ten years older than Frances from Conversations with Friends – who embarks on her first same-sex relationship after moving to a new city and meeting soft butch Finn, who is nineteen years older than her. I requested this on NetGalley after reading Elle’s excellent review, where she suggests that this is a kind of ‘tourist-lesbian novel’ that doesn’t deal adequately with the power structures that marginalise lesbians and bisexual women. In general, I completely agree; unlike Conversations with Friends, Women is happy to engage on a surface level with queer culture, the haircuts and clothing and token trans friends, the lesbian writing and films and TV shows, but rarely properly asks questions about identity, even as our narrator struggles with whether or not she should identify as a lesbian. This misses much of why lesbians are oppressed by heteronormative society, and how the trappings of queerness are not its substance.

To an extent, I sympathise with Caldwell’s task: lesbians remain so under-represented, especially in fiction, that any novel that centres on a same-sex relationship between women ends up carrying an unfair burden. The novel is also already four years old; it was first published in the US in 2014. And yet I was still disappointed to see familiar stereotypes about tempestuous, doomed lesbian relationships being repeated, and Caldwell’s stab at making this ironic falls flat: ‘I ask Finn if things are always this insane and dramatic between two women, and she says yes.’ It felt especially gratuitous to have our narrator come home near the end of the novel to find that even the older lesbian couple she grew up nearby have broken up.

However, I do disagree with one frequent criticism of the novel; that our narrator’s relationship with Finn is exploitative because she is trying on a lesbian identity for size. Both women, it seemed to me, were exploiting each other. Finn is older, savvier, and has a long-term girlfriend, while the narrator has the ability to retreat back into a safer straight identity if she wants to, though I didn’t feel that the narrator was always planning her escape; her questioning of her sexuality, such as it is, feels genuine. Nevertheless, this doesn’t address the broader issues with this slight novel, which is important because it exists but doesn’t do a great deal even within its tiny page count.

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

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Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones, a collection of interconnected short stories, was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award (and was named the winner by the award’s shadow panel). Set between 1993 and 2013 in Colombia, New York and DC, Pachico’s book focuses on the disappearances of expats in Colombia in the early twenty-first century, and the activity of left-wing guerrilla groups and drug smugglers participating in and targeting these communities. The stories don’t proceed chronologically and are all told in different voices and viewpoints, ranging from a conversation with an invisible person to a stoned group of rabbits. They’re loosely linked, however, by one school class and their teacher, who end up scattered over the world.

The Lucky Ones has already been reviewed so beautifully by the participants of the shadow panel (see Annabel’s review here; Elle’s review here; Rebecca’s review here; Dane’s review here; Clare’s review here) that I don’t feel I have a great deal to add. However, what did strike me about Pachico’s book is how well she deals with the intersection between our imaginations and reality. She’s said that she doesn’t think of her book as magical realism, and I’d agree – given my struggles with magic realist novels – that the label is inappropriate, slapped on The Lucky Ones because most of it takes place in a Latin American country. Instead, Pachico perfectly conveys the ways our minds work when disconnected under strain. My favourite story, ‘Lemon Pie’, features the former class teacher, now imprisoned in the jungle, setting up a school for a series of twigs and leaves which he personifies as the pupils he once knew. It swings back and forward, so at times we can see the forest debris, but at other times we see, as he does, living boys and girls. This is not symbolism but an exactly-right rendition of how we make things up. (You could write about a child’s imaginative game in similar terms). Pachico is an incredible writer, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

2018 Reading Plans

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At a work event in December.

Most of 2016 wasn’t great for me, and it ended especially badly. 2017 has still been difficult, but overall a lot better. I finished my new novel and submitted it to literary agents; signed a contract for my first academic book with Manchester University Press; got a new (temporary) job at Durham University; and received a three-year research fellowship to follow on from this job at Queen Mary University of London. I moved to a new city (Newcastle) and am living by myself for the first time in my life, which is suiting me pretty well. I travelled to Aviemore, Porto and the Outer Hebrides.

In unimpressive but personally satisfying goals, I learnt how to put Zombies Run on my phone, managed to get into the swing of swimming proper breaststroke (which I’ve always known how to do, but it took me some time to get over putting my face in the water) and worked out how to make my laptop play things on the TV that came with my new flat.

I have made a list of 30 books I want to read in 2018 – but excitingly, none of them are books I already own, because I’ve virtually finished my TBR pile. Obviously, I can’t write in detail about all of them here, so I’m going to feature a few 2018 releases that I’m especially excited about. If anyone’s interested, I’ve included a full list at the end of this post.

51sMhYTAA3LThe Western Wind: Samantha Harvey (March 2018). I thought Harvey’s last novel, Dear Thiefwas incredible; I’m not normally one to rave about beautiful prose, but Harvey took it to a new level, writing especially well about the ‘endless possibility’ of the past. Her latest takes a different tack; set in fifteenth-century Somerset, it kicks off with a man being swept away by the river. Was this an accident, or was he murdered? The village priest has to investigate. Writing a novel set in Britain or Europe before the 1500s, is, in my view, an exceptionally difficult challenge, but if anyone can pull it off, Harvey can.

 

51e8r5+-VOLRainbirds: Clarissa Goenawan (March 2018). Ren Ishida has almost finished his degree at Keio University in Tokyo when he hears that his sister Keiko has been stabbed to death in a small town outside the city. Heading to Keiko’s home, he finds himself becoming increasingly involved in the mysterious life she left behind. I usually enjoy books set in Japan, and I’m excited about this debut.

 

 

51DsZ9dxJILI Still Dream: James Smythe (April 2018). Smythe produced two of my favourite pieces of science fiction with the first two books in his Anomaly Quartet, The Explorer and The EchoWhile I wish this was the third instalment of the quarter, I’m still excited about this stand-alone. Seventeen-year-old Laura has invented a rudimentary piece of AI called Organon. As it grows with her, it develops beyond what she could have imagined – and might offer new hope to the world.

 

 

51Cwi2guG9LThe One Who Wrote Destiny: Nikesh Shukla (April 2018). Like many readers, I heard about Shukla’s work through his fantastic edited collection The Good Immigrant and his more recent projects for a literary agency and a journal to showcase the work of writers of colour and other under-represented groups. However, I’ve never read any of his own novels. His new book looks at three generations of the same family who started off in Kenya and moved to Keighley.

 

 

51s+CweMwFLYou Think It, I’ll Say It: Curtis Sittenfeld (May 2018). While I hated Sittenfeld’s retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Eligible, I’ve loved everything else she’s written (my reviews of Prep and Sisterland are on my old blog), and I’m keen to read this new collection of short stories. It includes what looks like a taster from Sittenfeld’s upcoming novel about Hillary Clinton, which I’m very excited about, as I loved American Wife, her fictionalised version of the life of Laura Bush.

 

 

51hhopbWF+L._SY346_The Female Persuasion: Meg Wolitzer (June 2018). Greer is drawn into feminist activism as a Massachusetts college student when she meets feminist icon Faith Frank, taking her along a very different path from the one she’d imagined. At first, I’d thought this novel was set during the second-wave feminist movement, but it seems to be fairly contemporary, which is a shame, as second-wave feminism deserves more (recent) novels. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued to read a novel that hopefully treats feminist campaigning and organisation seriously, even if I found Wolitzer’s The Interestings disappointing.

51z5hoFPfiLHold: Michael Donkor (July 2018). This debut moves between Ghana and London, focusing on rebellious South London teenager Amma whose Ghanian parents bring house girl Belinda over from Kumasi to set her a good example. When Amma and Belinda develop an unexpected friendship, both their lives are changed forever. It promises to deal with themes of sexuality, identity and sacrifice.

 

 

That’s it for now! I’m starting 2018 as I mean to go on: I took part in Sheffield’s 5K parkrun in Graves Park this morning, and planning to meditate, read and work on the edits for my novel for the rest of the day, then watch The Great Festive Bake Off with my mum this evening as a reward.

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The Rest of the List

Conversations with Friends: Sally Rooney

Manhattan Beach: Jennifer Egan

Little Fires Everywhere: Celeste Ng

American War: Omar El Akhad

Elmet: Fiona Mozley

Bystanders: Tara Laskowski

Negroland: Margo Jefferson

Attrib.: Eley Williams

Universal Harvester: John Darnielle

Solar Bones: Mike McCormack

How To Survive A Plague: David France

The Lucky Ones: Julianne Pachico

Sing, Unburied, Sing: Jesmyn Ward

Sophia of Silicon Valley: Anna Yen

The Rift: Nina Allan

Borne: Jeff Vandermeer

2084: George Sandison ed.

The Other Half of Happiness: Ayisha Malik

Lullaby: Leila Slimani

Melmoth: Sarah Perry

The Gloaming: Kirsty Logan

The Upstairs Room: Kate Murray-Browne

2017 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2017 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, either on this blog or on Amazon or Goodreads.

51XALDZqQwL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Highly Commended

Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone focuses on stay-at-home dad and part-time historian, Adam, after his teenage daughter Miriam collapses mysteriously at school and he has to deal with the aftermath. Like all Moss’s work, this is character-led but thematically rich, touching on parenthood, adolescence, war, architecture, and the painful helplessness of being the relative of somebody who is chronically ill. Moss has never been as well-known as she ought to be, and this is one of her best.

Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier, which I haven’t written about before on this blog, tells the story of a young man leading British troops into an Afghanistan war zone when he is severely injured by an explosive device. What happens after is narrated by 45 objects. Much less experimental and gimmicky than it sounds, and genuinely moving.

Louise Doughty’s Black Water will put off those expecting another Apple Tree Yard, but this is still a fantastic thriller, even if it’s a very different kind of story. John Harper, half-Dutch, half-Indonesian, is on the run. To find out why, the novel flips between his childhood in the Netherlands and in California in the 1940s and 1940s, and Indonesia in 1965, at the time of the failed coup in Jakarta that led to the mass killings of communists. It’s a real shift away from Doughty’s usual subject-matter, and she pulls it off very well.

Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place is, in my opinion, her best novel since her wonderful debut, After You’d Gone (although this isn’t to say that she hasn’t written other great novels in between). It weaves together a massive web of characters and yet manages never to disintegrate.

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill deservedly won the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Costa First Novel Award this year. It’s an eighteenth-century historical romp with a serious core, focusing on the arrival of the mysterious Mr Richard Smith in the small town of New York in 1746, demanding payment for a vast bill. If you’ve already read and enjoyed this: don’t miss Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock in 2018, which has a very similar feel.

BonesOfTheEarthThere are other books I want to mention. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky is an uneven but highly imaginative collection of short stories that move from the realistic to the speculative and from Nigeria to America, taking in grief collectors, joy destroyers, animated babies spun from yarn, alongside the simple rebellions of little girls. Arimah is a writer to watch. Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth offers a very different kind of science fiction, postulating that palaeontologists are offered the opportunity to travel back in time to study dinosaurs. Overstuffed, often illogical and sometimes confusing, I loved Swanwick’s book for its sheer guts and for its wonderful descriptions of what it might be like to walk with triceratops or watch swarms of ammonites swimming in prehistoric oceans. Meanwhile, I was very happy to discover James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, which kicks off with Leviathan Wakes – the authors were part of George R.R. Martin’s writing group and you can see the influence of Martin’s impressive plotting in their complicated and yet gripping space operas.

The Booker Prize showcased some gems. One of my favourites was the deserved winner, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; yes, it’s on all the lists; yes, it really is that good. (For those who keep on seeing it mentioned but don’t know what it’s about: a group of ghosts watch Abraham Lincoln as he grieves for his dead son, Willie; the story is told through fragments of Lincoln ‘biography’ and the internal monologues of the dead.) I’ve loved Saunders’s short stories in the past and he is simply brilliant at making impossible things seem internally coherent. His vision of the afterlife is weird, untidy and as solid as a story you feel like you’ve been hearing all your life. Kamila Shamsie’s longlisted Home Fire, which deals with two Muslim sisters and their jihadi brother in the contemporary US and UK, attracted polarised reactions, but I admired its emotional punch and the rich characterisation of the two female protagonists.

32607586In crime and thrillers, Erica Ferencik’s The River at Night stood out for me, especially as it doesn’t seem to have received the attention it deserves. Four female friends, all in their forties, undertake a dangerous white-water rafting trip through the Allagash Wilderness in Maine. When they are left stranded, they’re faced with the possibility that they might not all make it out alive. I felt as compelled forward by the narrative as our protagonists are by the plummeting water. Val McDermid’s older novel, A Distant Echo, was probably my best crime read of the year (sadly I read all of Tana French in 2016), dealing with four male university friends who discover the body of a local barmaid in a snowy Scottish cemetery in 1978. The book jumps forward through time to explore what happens to the four men when this investigation becomes live again in a newly-established cold case unit. Billed as the first in the Karen Pirie series, it can easily be read as a stand-alone.

Finally, my ongoing struggle with YA fiction was epitomised by Shappi Korsandi’s Nina Is Not OK, which felt like everything a YA book should be but was sold as adult fiction. Seventeen-year-old Nina’s fight against alcoholism is disturbing but very well-handled, there’s humour in the darkness, and the characterisation is top-notch.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily 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.

c3ff5a31-d372-4269-9cb3-ac5060706d40Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine introduces us to a strange, isolated female protagonist, and follows her attempts to become more involved in the world while also dealing with an abusive past. Unfortunately, I found Eleanor functioned more as a narrative device than as a fully realised character; socially awkward enough to be funny, not awkward enough to actually face restrictions on her day-to-day life once she’s resolved her psychological problems; suddenly perceptive when she needs to be, but not when she doesn’t. Since reading the novel, I’ve also become increasingly uncomfortable about how autistic-coded protagonists such as Eleanor (another example is Don Tillman in Graeme Simison’s The Rosie Project) are treated in fiction. In brief, their problems become a series of punchlines. Rebecca (Bookish Beck)’s review sums up the other issues with this novel very well.

Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is a tricky one to dislike, in that it deals with a hugely important and timely topic – the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence directed against black Americans. When sixteen-year-old Starr sees her friend Khalil murdered by a police officer, she is unwillingly dragged into a community backlash against the crime. However, I didn’t feel that it succeeded as a novel. Like much YA, it is issue-led with good representation but little substance, and the story is virtually structureless, and far too long.

81MGlHgOVaLSarah Stovell’s Exquisite is probably the book that frustrated me the most this year. It’s a thriller that focuses on an obsessive relationship between two women who meet at a writing retreat – Bo is the tutor, Alice her promising student. When such little fiction is written about lesbians, it means that, inevitably and unfortunately, those stories that do exist must carry a greater weight. Exquisite is not up to the task, falling into some very familiar homophobic tropes: it’s more scandalous and exciting to be part of a ‘lesbian affair’ rather than a ‘normal’ affair; lesbian relationships are emotional, intense, and ‘crazy’; they end badly; both participants are left permanently damaged. Annoyingly, the novel could have challenged this simply by presenting a wider range of lesbian characters in the secondary or even tertiary cast. Even more unrealistically, neither Alice or Bo seems the least bothered about finding out that they fancy women. This should have some impact on their self-identity, especially in Alice’s case (Bo indicates that she has been attracted to women before). It’s also notable that neither Bo nor Alice consider the idea that they might be bisexual – not because they know they’re lesbians but because, in this fictional universe, it doesn’t seem to be an option. To make matters worse, the writing is overheated, and the ‘twist’ is incredibly easy to guess.

I was also disappointed by Jon McGregor’s flat Reservoir 13, Lisa McInerney’s repetitive The Blood Miracles, and two books which were actively offensive: Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2017!