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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#SciFiMonth and #NovellasInNovember Reading Plans!

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

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

On My Kindle

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

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

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

NetGalley ARCs

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

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

2022 Reading List

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

SF Novellas In November

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

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

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

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

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

October Superlatives

October superlatives already! You can also read my R.I.P XVII/Spooktastic Reads challenge round-up for this month.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry. Teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s! However, this evocative historical novel was also brilliant on how our perspectives on race, feminism and queer/trans identity have changed, not always for the better. My full review is here.

(Hon. mention: This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, which gives its time-travel narrative somewhat short shrift due to some odd pacing choices, but which partly makes up for this by its beautiful, poignant depiction of the central father-daughter relationship.)

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Patricia Wants To Cuddle by Samantha Allen. I hoped this short novel would be the right side of ridiculous, but unfortunately it was the wrong side of ridiculous. The finale of a Bachelor-style franchise is taking place on a remote island where a group of female hikers went missing decades ago. Unbeknownst to our Instagram-obsessed cast, a female Bigfoot is stalking the island, aided and abetted by a cult of lesbians. Doesn’t it sound engagingly weird? However, the execution was really off. The first two-thirds of the novel reads like a light thriller criticising social media, then the final third pairs gruesome horror with humour. There needed to be a much darker, more subversive undercurrent from the beginning to make this shift work. And while this book obviously wants to be queer and satirical, I still wasn’t a fan of the lesbian stereotypes which didn’t seem to do any interesting narrative work (the interspersed love letters were so cliched they were painful to read), and the cult of ‘Patricia’ needed a lot more page-time. A shame, because it has a good cover.

The Book That Was So Well-Written But Not Much Else This Month Was…

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… The White Rock by Anna Hope. Hope’s fourth novel follows four unnamed narrators in four different time periods, travelling in the same area of Mexico: the Writer in 2020, the Singer in 1969, the Girl in 1907 and the Lieutenant in 1775. All of her novels have been well-written, but The White Rock is on another level. The strength of her writing here, however, helped me really pin down why it is that none of her novels have quite worked for me (I’ve also reviewed The Ballroom and Expectation). The quality of the prose is definitely there but the quality of the ideas is consistently lacking. These four narratives are linked by a sense of worlds that are ending, relationships with the environment that are being destroyed. However, Hope has little new to say about this; once you try and look past the prose, the story dissolves. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Only Book I Read From The Booker Longlist Before The Winner Was Announced Was…

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… Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. This debut novel made this year’s Booker longlist but not the shortlist, and, while I admired Mottley’s writing, I’m not sure I’d have even put it on the longlist. Kiara is a black teenage girl living in Oakland who turns to casual sex work when she and her brother are threatened with eviction from their rented apartment; things turn even darker when the local police pick her up and force her to have sex with them at regular ‘parties’. Kiara’s voice is convincing, with some fantastic sentences: ‘the boyfriend I had when I was fourteen and still trying to live out childhood’; ‘a series of tingles have coursed across my forehead like that feeling when you’re blindfolded, but your body feels the eyes’; ‘Mama wore wide-leg red pants to go fall in love with Daddy and kept them even after they tore at the seams.’ The prose also occasionally waterfalls into long, run-on sections that feel utterly authentic for this seventeen-year-old narrator. However, the story itself felt too familiar, and Mottley sometimes tells us what we should take from a scene rather than letting it speak for itself, as in the otherwise strong set-piece when Kiara and a friend go to a ‘funeral day’, taking food and clothes from a funeral parlour: ‘Funeral day is a reckoning, when we mimic thieves and really just find excuses for our tears’. Despite the excellent writing, therefore, I doubt Nightcrawling will stay with me.

The Best Essay Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller. This was on my 2022 reading list; it was also shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize and the 2022 Jhalak Prize. As Miller explains in the introduction, these essays ‘are about things I have withheld’, quoting the poet Dionne Brand: ‘I am a black woman speaking to a largely white audience… so that there are some things that I will say to you and some things that I won’t. And quite possibly the most important things will be the ones that I withhold.’  He writes so thoughtfully about racialisation – how society constructs racial categories to put people into – and especially well, perhaps surprisingly so, about white women, in essays like ‘Mr Brown, Mrs White and Ms Black’, ‘The Crimes That Haunt The Body’ and ‘The White Women and The Language of Bees’. As Miller demonstrates, we tend to think of ‘race’ and ‘racialisation’ only when we think of people of colour, but ‘white’ is a constructed category as well. And as a black man, he’s acutely aware of his own perspective – structurally advantaged by his sex but not by his race, although his queerness complicates things further. The book largely focuses upon Britain and Jamaica, Miller’s two home countries, plus a trip that he takes to Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, but speaks to experiences of racism elsewhere too. There were a few very short pieces here that felt a little less necessary, but otherwise this is an excellent, elegant and moving collection of essays.

The Best Novel About Ballet I Read This Month Was…

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… They’re Going To Love You by Meg Howrey. I was enraptured by Howrey’s last novel, The Wanderers, a brilliantly dead-pan but richly thoughtful story that followed three astronauts training for a Mars mission in the Utah desert. They’re Going To Love You is a very different book. Carlisle trained as a ballet dancer in New York, relying heavily on the support of her father Robert and his long-term partner, James. In the wake of the 1980s AIDS crisis, she watched them both uneasily, reassured by their monogamy but haunted by the sudden deaths of young men they knew. The novel skips between Carlisle’s past and the present [c.2016], where we learn that Carlisle has been estranged from both Robert and James for nineteen years, after her father forbade her to contact them. Ballet has been served badly by fiction: most ballet novels I’ve read emphasise the tortured nature of the art and how masochistic you must be to want to devote your life to it. Howrey, a former professional dancer, presents a much more nuanced view. I doubt this will be memorable in the way that The Wanderers was, with Carlisle’s first-person voice already slipping from me. Nevertheless, it’s still all too rare to read a novel that stars an ambitious, childless woman who isn’t punished for her perversity. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 10th November. 

(Hon. mention: The Cranes Dance, Howrey’s first novel, which is much MORE about ballet than They’re Going To Love You is, and is also very much worth reading, but which I found a bit schematic in its depiction of the two Crane sisters.)

The Only Book In Translation I Read This Month Was…

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… Saha by Cho Nam-Joo. This short novel introduces us to a city-state called Town where you belong to one of three levels of society: either you are a full Citizen, an ‘L2’ who’s licensed for up to two years to fulfil particular jobs, or a ‘Saha’, one of the social outcasts who lives in the high-rise Saha estates. But Saha feels caught between two narratives, two types of story. One follows Saha resident Jin-Kyung’s determination to get to the bottom of her brother’s disappearance after he’s falsely accused of murdering his girlfriend. The other skips around between the people who live in Saha and is organised by the numbers of the units they occupy. I think I understood what Nam-Joo was trying to do with this second narrative, and I liked the idea of bringing the Saha estates to life through the voices of this peripatetic community. But it strays back too often to Jin-Kyung, and the individuals often blur into a litany of suffering rather than strongly coming forward in their own right. I also struggled with the choppy transitions and sketchy writing, which often felt like an early draft. I was struck to see that this was translated by Jamie Chang, who also translated Kim Hye-Jin’s Concerning My Daughter – and I had exactly the same problems with the prose in that novella! So, this at least may be a translation issue, but I still didn’t feel that Nam-Joo really pulled off what she set out to achieve here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 30th November. 

What were the best and worst books you read in October?

September Superlatives, Part 1

This got really long so I’ve split it into two posts!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Anthill by Julianne Pachico. I loved Pachico’s linked short story collection The Lucky Ones, which focused on left-wing guerrilla groups in Colombia in the 1990s as seen through the eyes of one elite, expat school class. Her first novel is just as good. It follows Lina, who spent her early childhood in Medellín but left for England when she was eight. Lina’s returned to the city to reunite with childhood friend Mattias, who now runs a community centre for local children, the Anthill. She uncomfortably navigates her own privilege as she volunteers at the centre, desperate to insist that she’s not like the other volunteers – that she knows this city, she knows Mattias, she speaks fluent Spanish. Here, the novel reminded me of Nikita Lalwani’s brilliant, merciless The VillageHowever, The Anthill also keeps company with another kind of book that I love: like Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Bodyit uses horror tropes to explore a character’s and a country’s traumatic past. A fantastic novel that seems to have been very unfairly overlooked.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes by Eric LaRocca. This is a strange little book. It consists of one novella – ‘Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke’ and two short stories – ‘The Enchantment’ and ‘You’ll Find It’s Like That All Over’. The first and last stories in the collection felt like they had potential. In ‘Things Have Gotten Worse’, two women connect over email when one is trying to sell her grandmother’s antique apple peeler and develop a strange, swift obsession with each other. In ‘You’ll Find It’s Like That’, a man enters into a dangerously escalating series of bets with his neighbour.

Neither of these stories exactly worked for me – the first came too close to torture porn for shock value for my liking while the second felt too abrupt and abbreviated – but both have memorable images and phrases. In contrast, ‘The Enchantment’ was a bit of a mess; it starts with the arresting idea that the afterlife has been proven not to exist, but does nothing with that at all, choosing instead to focus on a couple grieving after their son commits suicide, an experience which seems like it would have been much the same regardless of belief in an afterlife. Finally, Eric LaRocca’s writing is consistently off-kilter and stilted; I thought this was a stylistic choice when reading ‘Things Have Gotten Worse’ but soon realised it wasn’t, which robbed that novella of some of what made it interesting as well. I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Best Historical Novel I Read This Month Was

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People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. This novel’s central thread follows rare books specialist Hanna, who’s been asked to restore the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. However, the rest of the narrative functions as a series of interconnected short stories interspersed throughout Hanna’s story as she tracks the origins of the traces on the book: saltwater and wine marks, missing silver clasps, a butterfly wing, a white cat hair stained with dye. We move through the interconnected European histories of the three major Abrahamic religions, with a focus on the persecution of the Jews: from Sarajevo during the Second World War to Vienna in the 1890s to seventeenth-century Venice to Barcelona and Seville in the late fifteenth century. I struggled with the short modern sections but felt that the past came alive once we entered the early modern and medieval periods. Meanwhile, Hanna’s present-day voice is satisfyingly individual, caustic and critical, although I found the resolution to her difficult relationship with her mother rather too neat – I would have preferred a more complex reckoning with the past – and the romantic subplot felt unnecessary. I was impressed by Brooks’s Year of Wonders until its jump-the-shark ending, so I was glad to find that People of the Book was much more convincing. Next up: Brooks’s March. [Borrowed from my local library #LoveYourLibrary]

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So. This incredibly strong collection of short stories showcases So’s talent and underlines the tragedy of his early death; he died unexpectedly in 2020, before seeing it published. So achieves something very difficult in this collection, asking the same questions without becoming repetitive as he tells the 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. Stories like ‘The Shop’ and ‘We Would’ve Been Princes!’, which begin comically, inevitably circle round to this reckoning. For me, the strongest stories were the ones that moved a little further away from the young gay male narrators who dominate much of this collection – ‘Three Women Of Chuck’s Donuts’, ‘The Monks’, and ‘Generational Differences’ – not because So’s stories about young gay men’s experiences were not strong nor important, but because it was a joy to see him stretch himself. This reminded me of another short story collection I loved that combined a unity of theme with a multiplicity of voices, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How To Pronounce Knife.

The Best Book On Death I Read This Month Was…

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And Finally by Henry Marsh. This short book chronicles Henry Marsh’s life after retiring from neurosurgery and being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, as he looks back on his career from the perspective that age and illness gives him. I’ve read Marsh’s two previous memoirs, Do No Harm and Admissions, and frankly I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody who hasn’t at least read Do No Harm; much of the poignancy here is lost if we don’t first encounter Marsh as a practicing surgeon. However, Marsh is typically (for him) and unusually (for most writers) honest about his experience of ageing and facing mortality, and that alone made And Finally worthwhile for me. I also liked his clear and compelling arguments for legalising assisted dying in the UK, a cause for which he is now campaigning. Alongside Paul Kalanithi and Atul Gawande, Marsh remains one of the best doctors-turned-writers I’ve read. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Part 2 coming soon!

R.I.P XVII Reading Plans

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I’ve taken part in the R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge once before. This challenge runs from 1st September to 31st October, and involves reading books classified as mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror or supernatural. So technically I’m a bit late to the game, but for me, these kind of books really belong to October, and I’m anticipating a few new acquisitions in these categories for my birthday at the end of the month!

I’m planning to read:

I am utterly obsessed with Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, so much so that I have written several posts about it. The third in the trilogy, The Golden Enclaves, finally comes out on the 27th September, and I can’t wait! The Scholomance is perfect for the RIP challenge; it’s a magical school where the majority of its students never graduate, due to the very high death rate within its walls.

Keeping with the dark fantasy theme, I’ve asked for RF Kuang’s Babel for my birthday. I’ve been excited about this novel since I first heard about it, and I hope it doesn’t disappoint! Here’s the blurb: ‘Oxford, 1836. The city of dreaming spires. It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world. And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows. Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift. Until it became a prison… but can a student stand against an empire?’ One of my most anticipated novels of 2022.

While Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks is unlikely to be that dark, the witchy content makes it a perfect October read for me. NPR describes it as a ‘charming teen witchcraft-slash-field-hockey novel’. Set in 1989, a school hockey team’s luck changes when the girls ‘pledge themselves to the forces of eternal darkness’. Another from my 2022 reading list.

Finally, I have a proof of Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night from NetGalley, which spans ‘the brutal decades of Argentina’s military dictatorship and its aftermath’ but tells this story through an occult lens: ‘Gaspar is six years old when the Order first come for him. For years, they have exploited his father’s ability to commune with the dead and the demonic, presiding over macabre rituals where the unwanted and the disappeared are tortured and executed, sacrificed to the Darkness. Now they want a successor. Nothing will stop the Order, nothing is beyond them. Surrounded by horrors, can Gaspar break free?’ I’ve just finished Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill, which similarly uses horror tropes to explore the aftermath of Colombia’s traumatic history. I loved The Anthill and I hope I’ll love Our Share of Night as well.

In film and TV, I’m uneasily awaiting the release of Hocus Pocus 2which comes out on my birthday. The original Hocus Pocus was one of the iconic films of my childhood, and my sister and I can probably quote most of the film. There’s no way the sequel can live up to it, but I hope it will be a fun and nostalgic watch.

Check out Elle’s R.I.P XVII reading list here.

Are you taking part in the R.I.P Challenge, or planning to read any darker books this October?

July Superlatives

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

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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

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

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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

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

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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

The Weirdest Book I Read This Month Was…

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

The Best YA Book I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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

The Most Illuminating Book I Read This Month Was…

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

Did you have any stand-out reads in July?

Three Things… June 2022

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

Reading

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

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

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

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

Watching

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

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

Thinking

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

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

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

May Superlatives

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

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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

My Most Serendipitous Reading Location This Month Was…

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

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best YA Romance I Read This Month Was…

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

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

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

The Weirdest Book I Read This Month Was…

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

Did you have any stand-out reads in May?

Ambitious Women Don’t Meet Bad Ends!

This post follows up my previous post Ambitious Women Meet Bad Ends. I was delighted to read two commercial novels recently that allow ambitious women to succeed in their respective fields without either punishing them afterwards or making them give it all up for the sake of love/family. But I’m always looking out for more…

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Although I hadn’t read anything by Nghi Vo before, Siren Queen was one of my most anticipated books of 2022. I adored the premise: a lesbian Chinese-American actress trying to make it in a version of Old Hollywood that runs on ancient magic. And Vo certainly makes this work. She embeds us into a world where the characters already instinctively understand how these things function and have no need to explain how the magic works when they bargain with inches of their hair or years of their life. I particularly admired how elegantly she makes the metaphorical real: starlets are literally silenced, erased or become hollowed-out shells of themselves. Luli Wei, our heroine, is shamelessly ambitious, and I loved her for it: she rejects the stereotypical roles that Chinese women usually played in movies of the time, although she ends up occupying a niche as another kind of folk devil.

Given all this, I’m struggling to understand why I just liked Siren Queen rather than absolutely loved it. Firstly, I think, the pacing is off: there’s a long digression in the middle involving one of Luli’s lovers and the Wild Hunt (which itself didn’t seem to belong in this particular magical world; but I hate fairy mythology so I’m biased). Then the Epilogue gives us a glimpse of what seems like the fascinating second half of Luli’s life and career, summarised in just a few pages. While I really enjoyed the way that Luli’s eventual wife, Jane, interjected comments on the story from the very start, this made me want more of her character, and we never really ‘meet’ her on screen. I can see why Vo felt that the climax of her story sat where it did, but I’d have preferred her to race through much of the first half of Luli’s life and focus on the second. We have a lot of books about young women who want to become stars but fewer on what happens after they’ve achieved it.

Ultimately, what I personally wanted from this book didn’t quite fit with the novel Vo wanted to write, which isn’t the book’s fault; and the worldbuilding was spectacular. I hope Vo writes another book set in this creepy space.

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

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Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Carrie Soto Is Back sees the Ambitious Women trope and demolishes it in its first few pages. What a relief! Carrie Soto has already had an immensely successful tennis career in the 1970s and 1980s, setting the record for winning the most Grand Slams before her retirement from the game. Now it’s 1994, and Carrie is thirty-seven years old. As she faces a challenge to her record from upstart player Nicki Chan, Carrie makes a brave and perhaps ill-advised decision: she’s going to come out of retirement and defend her achievement.

The two books I kept thinking of while I was reading Carrie Soto Is Back was Lauren Weisberger’s The Singles Game, which is the only other women’s fiction book on tennis I’ve ever read, and Lionel Shriver’s merciless but insightful Double Fault, whose protagonist has to face the fact that she’ll never achieve what she wanted to in tennis. Weisberger’s book is a great (read: terrible) example of the Ambitious Women trope: its protagonist gives up tennis in her prime for paper-thin reasons that suggest that you just can’t be a nice girl and also be competitive. Shriver’s brilliant book interrogates what happens to us when we pin our entire identity on achievements that we can’t control. Reid walks the line between the two. Carrie is allowed to be satisfyingly, gloriously successful, but this book also questions what success means if you aren’t playing the kind of tennis you used to love. Rather than posing a neat opposition between love/family and ambition, Carrie Soto Is Back realistically shows how the two are intertwined. Carrie’s beloved father is also her coach, and while her love for him goes beyond tennis, tennis is also the ground on which they’ve built their relationship.

Reid is not concerned with making Carrie easily likeable, which I loved. Even more importantly, though, Carrie’s opponents, such as Nicki, are also complex women, not cartoon villains. Nicki is potentially even more ambitious than Carrie herself, and yet we see what drives her. This narrative choice makes the ending of the novel, which could have been a bit disappointing, work, because Reid is still celebrating female ambition. And while there’s a romance sub-plot in Carrie Soto Is Back, the tennis is rightly centre-stage. Some readers may find the close focus on tennis matches boring, but I was fascinated by the way Reid explores the psychology of the game (and I rarely actually watch tennis, so I’m by no means a tennis fan).

If I had any complaints about Carrie Soto Is Back, it’s that Reid’s writing is a bit more simplistic than in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones and the Six: the use of voice is much more straightforward, with the whole novel narrated by Carrie in first person. The 1994-5 setting is also disappointingly thin: I only remembered we weren’t in the present day when characters occasionally did things like use a landline rather than a mobile phone. However, this is so much better than Malibu Rising, and represents a return to form for Reid as much as for Carrie.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 30th August.