20 Books of Summer, #7, #8 and #9: Tiamat’s Wrath, The Disaster Tourist and Notes From The Bottom of the World

71-FMj7COhL

Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth book in the Expanse series, a vast interplanetary science fiction saga with more than a little in common with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (the two writers behind the pen name ‘James S.A. Corey’ dreamed up the world of the Expanse in a role-playing game where Martin was one of the players). Given that this is the eighth of nine planned installments, the rest of this review will inevitably contain spoilers for the first seven books of the series [highlight to read]. Tiamat’s Wrath and its immediate predecessor, Persepolis Rising, instigate a soft reboot of this very long series by skipping forward decades and refocusing on what was the central antagonist of the first few books: the protomolecule, a substance created by a long-lost alien race that has the power to rewrite the very laws of physics. This was a massive return to form, in my opinion: neither Nemesis Games or Babylon’s Ashes, the fifth and sixth entries, worked well for me because they deviated from this fascinating concept to focus on a much more mundane war. I was thrilled when I realised that Persepolis Rising was returning to the series’ original horror roots, and Tiamat’s Wrath continues in the same vein, focusing on the dangerous meddling of the new Laconian Empire. Corey also resists the temptation to expand the number of narrators as they did in some of the earlier books, making them unwieldy and confusing: sticking to a core group, all but one of which have narrated before, allows Tiamat’s Wrath to keep up its pace and tension. The ending is hugely disturbing, and having become lukewarm about the Expanse in its mid-series slump, I now can’t wait for the ninth and final book.

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

42366547

Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler, follows a young woman called Yona who feels she is being gradually forced out of the company she works for, Jungle Tourism, after experiencing sexual harassment. Jungle specialise in ‘disaster tourism’, luring Korean tourists to the sites of high-profile disasters, and Yona is dispatched to assess an experience called ‘Desert Sinkhole’ in the fictional country of Mui, which Yun reportedly based on south-east Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. Yona discovers that this once-popular destination is becoming less appealing because it’s perceived by its visitors as lacking authenticity; the volcano doesn’t look like what they think a volcano should look like, and the sinkhole isn’t providing the emotional experience they crave. After being accidentally left behind in Mui when her tour group depart, Yona becomes drawn into an attempt to fundamentally rebrand this tourist destination through manufacturing a new disaster, directed by a faceless corporation called Paul. It goes without saying that this novella is intended to critique the destructive tourism of wealthy outsiders, but it didn’t hit as hard as I thought it might. I wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of workplace harassment at the beginning; it seemed like one theme too many for such a short book to carry and didn’t fundamentally shape Yona’s portrayal, so I would have preferred the focus to remain with the exploitation of Mui. Even so, the intensely surreal tone meant that I felt too distanced from what was happening; it seemed so unreal that it was hard to connect with the moral questions the book raises. I wondered if, as an English reader who hasn’t read that much Korean fiction, I was missing something, and sought out this fascinating interview with the author and translator; however, Yun’s suggestion that she wanted this novel to feel like an ‘Orwellian dystopia’ confirmed that for whatever reason, The Disaster Tourist didn’t work for me.

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

91jz6iUw+2L

Suzanne Adam’s reflections on being an American expat who has lived in Chile for forty years, Notes From The Bottom of the World, were billed as being travel writing about ‘[Chile’s] culture, its idiosyncrasies, and its exotic landscapes, from Patagonian glaciers to the northern Atacama Desert’. However, this series of very short essays – many aren’t much more than a page long – focus more on Adam’s personal experiences than her explorations of Chile, at least in the third of the book that I read. Moreover, her observations tend towards the banal and the cliched, whether she’s writing about ageing or glaciers; for example, travelling through the Patagonian fjords, she muses: ‘What draws us in the twenty-first century to visit rugged, distant places? Is it an urge for adventure in these times when few unexplored frontiers remain on this planet?’ Given that this is really life-writing rather than travel writing, I found Adam strikingly unreflective. If you want a book that combines travel-writing from the farthest south with intelligent self-narrative, I’d suggest reading Jean McNeil’s wonderful memoir Ice Diaries instead.

20 Books of Summer, #6: Swamplandia!

9781446468487

Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree’s world is falling apart. After her mother, Hilola Bigtree, renowned alligator wrestler and the star attraction at the family’s island theme park, Swamplandia!, dies of cancer, things start unravelling. Revenues at Swamplandia! plummet and Ava’s father travels to the mainland to try and save his business. Her brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival theme park, the World of Darkness, and her sister, Osceola, falls in love with the ghost of a teenage dredgeman who was killed in the swamp in the 1930s. Ava is left alone amid the ruins of Swamplandia!, trying to hold back the infestation of melaleuca trees and watching over the ninety-eight Seths (all of the Bigtree alligators are called Seth) that populate the park. As this makes clear, Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia!, exists in the same speculative space as her short stories, and it’s exactly the kind of territory I like most; weird things happen, but they feel real rather than magical realist. Russell grounds her yarn through the precise details of her swampy setting, which is an actual place – the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida.

I have to say that Rebecca’s review of this novel pretty much sums up my thoughts, but I’ll try to explain why I loved Swamplandia! so much even though it’s a massive mess. It took Russell a long time to write and it shows – you can almost see the stitches that hold its disparate parts together. Ava’s narrative approximates a coming-of-age story but its relationship with reality is never quite clear; at times it seems that Russell wants us to read Ava as an intensely unreliable narrator who is bestowing magic upon Swamplandia!, at other times it seems that we’re meant to believe in what she’s recounting. Osceola’s relationship with the dredgeman ghost starts off with a bang, when she recounts the story of his death in a beautifully focused few pages that showcase Russell’s gift for set-piece, but then this thread flounders, getting wrapped up swiftly at the end as if Russell had already forgotten about it. Meanwhile, Kiwi’s more realistic travails at the World of Darkness are so straightforwardly gripping that they risk  dominating the book and robbing Ava of her agency. It’s a tricky one to call, because I enjoyed the digressions in Swamplandia! far more than the central narrative, and yet structurally they do detract from what Russell wants to say about Ava. At the same time, the untidiness of this book adds a richness to its telling.

Russell has a gift for simile and metaphor, and in her short stories, these are deployed expertly. In Swamplandia!, I felt they were, at times, used too much, especially as reading a 300+ page novel is a much more intense experience than reading a 30-page short story. Each individual idea is still brilliant, but when juxtaposed too closely together, the effect is confusing rather than illuminating. For example:

[T]he black raptors continued to map the sky. The buzzards from Ohio had migrated here too. Turning circles, as docile as party ponies around a mainland carousel. Then they fell, one by one, like little black razors, into the paurotis palms. And it was hard to see this and not think of carnage. A line of birds falling in a row. Red clouds massed in the southeast and it looked like the sky was getting its stitches out after an operation.

However, as with the book’s structure, the writing is strikingly uneven; there are whole pages and chapters that are impeccably judged, and then pages like this that feel much clunkier. Ava’s long journey into the swamp, from which this quotation comes, is especially overwritten, and this probably contributed to my sense that this segment was the weakest part of the novel.

And yet… sometimes I worry that books can be overedited, because while I can see the temptation to ‘fix’ Swamplandia!, and I definitely think that some of its sentences could be slashed and burned, I also wonder if trying to make this novel work in a more conventional way would have robbed it of some of its genius. We probably don’t need to know everything that we find out about the Bigtrees, but I wanted to know most of it anyway. And while the road there might be frustratingly meandering, the final paragraph is just perfection.

Getting ahead of himself: The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

51-oBc4ApzL._AC_SY400_

Thaniel Steepleton, a translator and former boxer, and Keita Mori, a watchmaker, live an unconventional but happy life together with their adopted daughter Six in late Victorian London. Mori’s clairvoyant powers don’t impinge much on their day-to-day life – perhaps he sometimes answers questions before he’s asked them, or knows that their neighbour will deliver a healthy baby before she does. However, this changes with a vengeance when Mori abruptly realises that he must go to Yokohama, and Thaniel follows him, taking up a posting in the British legation in Tokyo. Once they’re in Japan, staying on Mori’s unexpectedly grand family estate, Thaniel becomes increasingly aware that Mori’s ability to see the future is leading him to carry out a plan that is too big for Thaniel to understand – and in which there may be no place for him. Meanwhile, Thaniel’s ex-wife Grace investigates the mysterious wave of electrification sweeping in with the wind, while Takiko Pepperharrow, an old friend of Mori’s, heads off on secret business to a frozen prison in northern Japan. Mori may be a clairvoyant, but how much of this has he planned ahead – and how much is outside his control?

In the hands of a different writer, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, with its clockwork octopus and electrical ghosts, could have risked being both twee and Orientalist. But Natasha Pulley already negotiated colonialist questions deftly in The Bedlam Stacksand she knows how to walk the line between the atmospheric and the gimmicky (I found her use of Thaniel’s synesthesia a bit gimmicky in the prequel to this novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, but luckily it’s barely mentioned here). She also spent some time living in Tokyo and speaks Japanese, which helps to dispel some stereotypes. I loved her author’s note on the use of language in the book, which explains that Western audiences tend to think of Japanese as an unfailingly polite and formal language, but she’s tried to show what ‘normal, working-class Tokyo Japanese actually sounds like’ in her rendition of it in English, so we have Japanese speakers saying things like ‘sod off!’ and ‘Fucking ghosts!’ And the novel is beautifully evocative of Mori’s estate, with its hot pools that smell of sulphur and pine trees wreathed with prayer cards.

Most impressive, however, is how Pulley ties Mori’s gift of precognition into the narrative, which is much more intricate than the story she told in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Having spent too much time writing a time travel novel, I know how difficult it can be to plot when the normal rules of cause and effect are suspended, but clairvoyance introduces a whole new set of problems. How far should we hold Mori responsible for things that he knew were going to happen but did nothing to prevent? Doesn’t his gift simply reduce all the other characters in the novel to his puppets, because  he knows what they’re going to do in advance and so can factor it into his plans? How do you write a book where one of the central characters already knows the ending? Perhaps inevitably given all this, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow feels oddly weighted, with so much unfolding in the last fifty pages or so, but Pulley generally handles these concerns with aplomb. She also thinks about the emotional effects of Mori’s abilities; how you love somebody who knows what’s going to happen to you; how he can love you back with the weight of all that knowledge. This novel isn’t quite as brilliant as The Bedlam Stacks, but it’s pretty close.

If this book sounds like your kind of thing, and if you’re able to do so, please consider ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.

‘You are in the house and the house is in the woods’: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

48729631._SY475_

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of boarding-school and campus novels. I love fiction set in any kind of institution of education anyway, and these settings combine that with another of my favourite tropes, the set-piece where all the action is confined to one building or location. 2019 and early 2020 have seen a flurry of these kind of novels, but so far, I’ve found them all disappointing. Neither Rory Power’s Wilder GirlsClare Beams’s The Illness Lesson nor Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing worked for me. So, I was thrilled, as I ventured deeper into the world of Elisabeth Thomas’s debut, Catherine House, to realise that I’d finally found exactly what I’m looking for, while realising that the kind of resonances Thomas picks up on might not chime quite so perfectly with all readers.

Catherine House is set in the mid-1990s, in that convenient period for writers where a lot of the trappings still feel reasonably contemporary but you don’t have to deal with the problems introduced by widespread access to the internet and mobile devices. It has a intriguing premise: Catherine House is a rural Pennsylvanian institution of higher education that educates all its students for free, with free room and board, for all three years of their degree. The catch: during that time, you can’t leave Catherine House and its grounds, and only very limited contact with the outside world is allowed. Even in a time before the student debt crisis in America had hit its current peak, you can see why this might be a tempting offer, and, even better, Catherine graduates are known for forging illustrious careers. It’s certainly a godsend for our narrator, Ines, who is running from her previous life. At first, the rumours of the school’s mysterious scientific experiments with ‘plasm’ don’t really impinge on Ines’s life, but then she’s gradually drawn in…

The novel’s blurb pins it as a cross between Sarah Waters and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but – while there’s a hint of Hailsham in the way that Catherine students relate to the institution – I thought what the book did most brilliantly was reinvent the kind of YA supernatural thrillers that I devoured in the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, Lois Duncan’s Down A Dark Hall and L.J. Smith’s Dark Visions trilogy also depict students at an exclusive institution that wants to explore and perhaps exploit their uncanny abilities. Thomas captures the tense, immersive atmosphere of these novels while using the greater space afforded by contemporary adult fiction to build her world. I loved the fact that she also inverts a number of familiar tropes from this kind of fiction. Most satisfyingly, Ines is not a reluctant outsider to the Catherine community, but, after some initial doubts, settles in with a close group of friends. This allows Thomas to say much more interesting things about our desire to belong and work communally than if she had made Ines the typical rebellious heroine.

Catherine House depicts a group of people who are isolated but still connected, wrapped up in a hallucinatory world of deep winter snows and hazy hot summers, with enough creepily oblique references to the plasm experiments (‘I read everything I could about Catherine… Even the mean [articles] – the ones after Shiner’) to keep the plot taut. In short, I found it a perfect read for right now, and I’m just sorry that it’s over!

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 12th May. If you’re interested and able to do so, please consider pre-ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.

Should you write in the voice of an oppressor?

51901147._SX318_SY475_

In January, fans’ excitement over a promised prequel to the extremely popular YA Hunger Games series, written by Suzanne Collins, turned to dismay when it was revealed that the prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, would be told from the point of view of one of the central villains of the original series, President Snow. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the premise of the Hunger Games, President Snow ruled over a dystopian North America whose most vicious act was the staging of an annual ‘Hunger Games’, where twenty-four teenagers chosen by lottery from the twelve oppressed Districts were forced to fight to the death on live television. While many fans seemed unhappy that the prequel wasn’t focusing on a different character, framing Collins’ choice as a missed opportunity, or were simply uninterested in hearing from President Snow, some (adult) fans have been putting forward a different argument. In short, these writers suggest, it’s morally wrong to write a prequel from the point of view of a younger President Snow because it will ‘humanise’ him and ‘encourage readers to sympathise with an egotistical dictator.’[1] The prequel ‘can’t redeem’ Snow because he is not ‘a cog in the machine… he is the machine… It’s telling that Collins seems more invested in humanizing the architect of cruelty than exploring its aftermath.’ [2]

While I’m not hugely invested in a Hunger Games prequel of any kind, although I enjoyed the original books and (especially) the films, this debate is interesting to me because it’s based on no evidence at all – at the moment, all we have about this book is its blurb and a brief excerpt, neither of which indicate the direction in which the story is going to go. Obviously, this book might be awful, but nobody knows that yet. In the absence of a text, then, all we can argue about is whether it is ever OK to write from the point of view of an oppressor – and some of these angry reactions seem to me to indicate either a fundamental misunderstanding of what fiction can be for, or a firm belief that fiction can and should only ever have one function.

As I wrote recently, certain readers seem to think that the purpose – the only purpose – of fiction is to ‘give voice’ to people whose stories we need to hear. As a historian, I find this interesting because it parallels particular developments in the discipline of history, recalling a set of historical ‘turns’ that kicked off in the 1960s that promised to write ‘muted groups’, like working-class people, women, and people of colour, back into history. At the same time, though more recently, historians have become increasingly reflective about how who they choose to write about affects power dynamics in the contemporary world. Kathleen Blee’s incredible essay [paywalled] on conducting oral histories with female members of the Ku Klux Klan is a great example. Despite the fact that she sought to understand why these women were drawn into violent white supremacist far-right politics in order to condemn it, she reflects that ‘perhaps the nature of oral history research… itself empowers informants, by suggesting to them, and to their political descendants, the importance of the Klan in American history.’ As a white woman from Indiana, Blee found that her interviewees would simply assume that she shared their political views: ‘Even challenging their beliefs had no effect on their willingness to talk. They simply discounted my spoken objections as ‘public talk’ and carried on the ‘private talk’ they assumed was universal among whites.’

Blee’s concerns are genuine and important, but things become more complicated when we turn to fiction rather than oral history. Most obviously, President Snow isn’t real, and there aren’t a lot of disaffected President Snow diehards out there longing for someone to finally pay proper attention to his story, even if they write a critical account. This does not mean that Collins should write a novel that seeks to simplistically ‘redeem’ Snow, but as of right now, there’s no evidence that she aims to do that. Some of the articles on this subject seem to have a very limited sense of what it means to be a protagonist, assuming that, because Snow is the narrator, this must be a story that aims to elicit sympathy with Snow, and that the overall structure of the novel will be a redemption arc.

These takes also assume that because Snow holds ultimate power in the original trilogy that he must always have been a free agent, even though The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place sixty-four years earlier. This argument is especially bizarre because the protagonist who is unwillingly or unknowingly complicit in evil is the central concern of the series, moving from the microcosm of book one, where Katniss is forced to enter the Hunger Games and kill other tributes in order to survive, to the macrocosm of book three, where Katniss realises she has been a crucial part of bringing a new regime to power that looks like it could be as bloodthirsty as the last.

What I find particularly concerning, though, is the persistent use of the word ‘humanise’ and the idea that humanising Snow would be wrong. If Collins wrote a novel that simply showed that Snow was ‘evil from birth’, and, like little Voldemort, he ‘never cried’, that, to me, would be just as much a betrayal of her readers as a novel that expected us to forgive Snow everything because of his tragic past. If we all believe that all oppressors are psychopaths, then we won’t be able to recognise how ordinary people oppress others. That, for me, is why it is not only permissible, but vital, to write in the voice of an oppressor; because the origins of oppression don’t lie with its victims, but with its perpetrators.

[1] ‘Opinion: We don’t need a President Snow origin story’, Jerrett Alexander, Indiana Daily Student.

[2] ‘Snow Thank You: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” can’t redeem Coriolanus Snow’, S.E. Smith, Bitch Media.

Not The Wellcome Prize 2020: Exhalation and A Good Enough Mother

Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour poster

Thanks to Annabel for this graphic!

I’m delighted to be taking part in both the blog tour and the judging panel for Not the Wellcome Prize this year, which has been so brilliantly organised by Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck. As the Wellcome Book Prize, which aims to recognise books that have a  ‘central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness’, is on hiatus this year, we are hoping to fill the gap by highlighting some of the best health-related fiction and non-fiction of 2019, then choosing our own ‘winner’ in May! Be sure to check in with the other stops on the blog tour to see what other books we’ve picked.

I’m excited to showcase two titles on my blog today: Ted Chiang’s latest collection of SF short stories, Exhalation, and Bev Thomas’s debut psychological thriller, A Good Enough Mother. These two books are very different from each other, but share common concerns about parenting, childhood and a ‘healthy’ upbringing.

9781101947883

I was utterly gripped by Exhalation when it first appeared in July 2019 (as was Barack Obama, who said that it ‘will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction’.) It was one of my top ten books of 2019 and contains one of my favourite short stories of all time. You can read my full review of Exhalation here, but for the purposes of this blog post, I thought I’d focus on one novella in this collection that seems to me to be especially concerned with themes of medicine, health and illness.

‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and examines the ethical issues that this introduces. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator, Ana, among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. Because of this, this novella asks questions about what is healthy for both the digients and their owners; is it fair to keep the digients ‘alive’ when they have minimal social interaction and are often unhappy, but on the other hand, how can it be right to ‘kill’ a sentient being simply because you’ve got bored with it? A lot of owners start to ‘suspend’ their digients as a compromise solution, but this unsurprisingly unsettles the digients when they find out they’ve missed whole chunks of time.

The story continually plays with the analogy between digients and human children, up to the point when their owners have to decide whether to let their ‘teenage’ digients be recoded as sexual beings, and which, early on, is made explicit when one of Ana’s friends gets pregnant and tells her ‘People always say that we’re evolved to want babies, and I used to think that was a bunch of crap, but not anymore… Cats, dogs, digients, they’re all just substitutes for what we’re supposed to be caring for.’ Indeed, one of Chiang’s points in this novella is that ‘healthy’ AIs will need to be brought up like human children: ‘The years [Ana] spent raising Jax… gave him… fluency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgement you could entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.’ Chiang writes in his ‘Story Notes’ that ‘based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person.’ I’d challenge the idea that children and adolescents can’t be creative, resourceful or trustworthy, but the overall point is one worth making.

Nevertheless, I felt there was a darker message about the biological need for creating children that Ana’s friend talks about early in the story buried in ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’. One of the major obstacles for the digients and their owners in this novella is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. While Chiang is delightfully good at teasing out the specifics of this situation, it also has symbolic weight; is it right to create new people who will be born into a world that is becoming unfit for purpose? As ever, Chiang doesn’t offer answers, but he poses some major questions.

Other stories in this collection that, in my opinion, have something to say about health, medicine and illness are ‘Exhalation’, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’.

81Z9VAXpzJL

Way back in October 2018, I was lucky enough to hear Bev Thomas discuss this novel, which was published in March 2019, at the Durham Book Festival. Thomas previously worked as a clinical psychologist, and her expertise is evident in the very title of this novel, which is drawn from the work of the post-war child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who published a number of popular childrearing guides as well as becoming a regular feature on BBC radio. Winnicott asserted that mothers should not worry too much about making ‘mistakes’ with their children, saying that ‘The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.’ In his popular texts, he built on this by writing that mothers would instinctively know what their infants needed, and did not need to rely on external expertise. As I’ve argued, this may have been intended to reassure mothers (coincidentally, Winnicott was reacting against the strict inter-war ‘behaviourist’ ideas that Chiang satirises in Exhalation, in his story ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’!)  but, in practice, left many feeling inadequate because their parental instincts did not seem to have kicked in and they would have liked some outside help.

So, what does this mean for Thomas’s novel (other than setting it up with a title that feels pretty sinister to me!)? The book focuses on Ruth Hartland, a professional psychotherapist who is haunted by her missing son, Tom, who disappeared a year and a half ago. As she starts treating a new patient, Dan, she can’t shake the fact that he reminds her strongly of Tom, and her increasing inability to separate the two men leads her into tragedy. A Good Enough Mother functions perfectly as a gripping psychological thriller, but is much more thought-provoking than the average thriller about therapy (or indeed than the approximately two million other thrillers that deal with missing children). We see that Ruth has never felt she was a ‘good enough mother’ to Tom, despite the supposedly soothing nature of Winnicott’s advice; Tom always struggled to separate from her and she worries that she did not encourage him to become independent. Now that they are completely apart, she can only guess how he’s navigating the world by himself. This theme is especially highlighted by the fact that Tom is a twin, which – although he and his more confident sister are obviously fraternal rather than identical – makes Ruth strain even harder to understand why her two children are so different. Ruth’s gradual emotional breakdown felt utterly convincing, and this is a hugely promising debut. (Incidentally, it also gets the thumbs up from my mum!)

Make sure to check out the other great books featured on our blog tour! 

Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour covers collage

Have you read anything recently that deals particularly well with themes of health, medicine and/or illness?

Recommended Reading for a Pandemic

If You Actually Want To Read Books About A Pandemic

I can’t face reading pandemic fiction at the moment, but judging by the sales of pandemic films and novels, lots of people don’t feel the same way, so here are some suggestions:

  • Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven was one of my top ten books of the decade. It deals with the aftermath of a grim pandemic with a much greater mortality than coronavirus that sweeps the Earth, killing the majority of its population. However, the bright side of Station Eleven is the society that it imagines on the other side of this catastrophe, following a travelling theatre company across Canada. It also brings to life the fictional comic-book world of ‘Station Eleven’, which both parallels the events of the novel and exists as a significant space of its own. Ultimately, like a lot of good fiction that takes a disaster as its starting-point, I’d argue that this novel is less about A Pandemic and more about how art relates to reality.
  • Naomi Booth’s Sealed is, again, ostensibly about a terrifying skin-sealing disease that is sweeping Australia, but actually has more to say about the relationship between humans and the environment. It’s a brilliant eco-horror that follows Alice, who is heavily pregnant with her first child, and her partner Pete, who leave Sydney for a town in the Blue Mountains because they believe they will be safer there. But the idea of escaping to a ‘cleaner’ rural location soon turns out to be a dangerous fantasy. If this sounds like your sort of thing, please consider ordering Sealed directly from the publisher, Dead Ink, a small press who are struggling right now.
  • Finally, the first (and best!) novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, deals with a creepy space plague caused by a mysterious protomolecule that reassembles biological matter. Our protagonists have to stop this spreading through a space station. The Expanse’s writers have so far failed to fully deliver on the promise of this first novel, but it works as a gripping stand-alone.

If You Want To Read Books Where People Face Up To Bad Things That Are Not Pandemics

This is basically where I’m at right now – I want books where the characters face serious social and economic disasters but still manage to survive – so here are some ideas:

  • Hanna Jameson’s thoughtful and engaging The Last focuses on a group of people trapped in a remote hotel in Switzerland after the world is devastated by a series of nuclear attacks. Jon, our narrator, starts investigating a suspected murder; the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s water tanks. While some of his fellow survivors try to persuade him of the futility of this quest, Jon seems to be driven by the conviction that life still matters even in the face of this disaster, and that society can be rebuilt. Ultimately, and despite its Lord of the Flies-esque set-up, The Last is very optimistic about human nature.
  • I’ve recently been raving about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Skyand now I wish I hadn’t raced through both novels and the associated short stories so quickly! This series imagines an alternative version of post-war American history where a meteor hits the Earth, setting off a spiralling environmental disaster that leads the US to rapidly accelerate its space programme, believing that humanity’s future now lies on other planets. Our narrator, Elma, whose voice is so funny and addictive, was a pilot in WWII and is still a brilliant mathematician; she is determined to become one of the first ‘lady astronauts’. I’ve never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting.
  • I’m hesitant to indulge any of the poor Second World War analogies that have been floating around, but Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is just such a good novel. One of my top ten books of 2015, this Blitz-set book focuses on four young people doing their best for the war effort. Mary and Tom are trying to keep London’s education system running; Alistair is fighting in Malta; Mary’s resentful friend Hilda stands on the sidelines. It sounds like it’s going to be saccharine, but it’s actually hilarious, heartbreaking and intelligent.
  • John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes sees an alien invasion from the sea threaten civilisation. Both genuinely tense and enjoyably ridiculous, this, in my opinion, is Wyndham’s best novel, spookily anticipating later climate change fiction. It’s also notable for being just as sexist as the rest of Wyndham’s science fiction, but, unlike his other books, if you read between the lines you can pretend that the male narrator is completely unreliable and his wife is actually running the show.
  • I’ve also returned to my first love in fiction, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. I devoured this long-running US kids’ series as a pre-teen and teenager. It focuses on five teenagers who are given the ability to morph any animal they can touch to fight an alien invasion, and ends up in some very dark places. At their core, Animorphs are anti-war novels for the post-Cold War generation, and one day I am going to write something serious about them!

If You Want Books That Aren’t About Any Really Bad Things, Including Pandemics

Personally, I’m finding these kinds of novels difficult at the moment, and can’t summon up many original ideas, but if you want something truly escapist, here are some suggestions:

  • Anything by Robin McKinley, my favourite fantasy writer; my top comforting recommendations are her two retellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and Rose Daughter, and her feminist dragon-slaying epic The Hero and the Crown.
  • In a similar vein, Naomi Novik’s fairytale-inspired Uprooted and Spinning Silver are both beautifully escapist, although I thought Spinning Silver was far superior. They’re both stand-alones, so you can read them in any order.
  • If you want something that’s both contemporary and escapist, I recommend Erica Ferencik’s thriller The River at Night; four female friends, all in their forties, are left stranded on a dangerous white-water rafting trip through the Allagash Wilderness in Maine.
  • YA can also be a haven: my top YA picks right now are Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat, which refreshingly foregrounds queer female teenagers, and Bridget Collins’s YA-esque The Bindingwhich is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes.

What comfort reads, of any kind, would you recommend? I’d especially love to hear about books that fall into the second category.

 

Some Forthcoming February Novels: girls, schools, sex and death

Looking ahead to three February releases that share a lot of common themes – and none of which quite worked for me, although some came closer than others.

45754743

Clare Beams’ debut novel, The Illness Lesson, is set in Massachusetts in 1871 and is narrated in the third person by Caroline, an unmarried woman in her late twenties who still lives with her father, Samuel, and feels stifled by the narrowness of her life; as she reflects when lying in bed ‘where she lay in the same darkness that had covered her at twenty-four, eighteen, twelve, eight, the walls and ceiling of her room like a box that fit her’. Caroline’s world promises to change when Samuel starts a progressive school for young ladies in their home, aiming to teach them such masculine subjects as Greek and philosophy, and recruiting Caroline to teach English literature. However, the presence of the girls, coupled with the strange behaviour of the trilling hearts, the imaginary species of bird that haunt the school’s environs, starts to stir up old secrets from the past and new tensions in the present.

The Illness Lesson’s blurb foregrounds the group of students, but this is really Caroline’s story, and she’s a convincing narrator, acutely aware of the loneliness of her position as intellectual companion to her father, and unsure whether it is fair to educate girls in a world that does not give them the opportunity to exercise their talents. Beams is a skilful writer, and the quiet prose is consistently vivid and impressive. The problem for me was that the story the novel focuses on is so familiar. There have been lots of post-Victorian fictions about female hysteria and its abusive treatments, and I didn’t think that this one brought anything very new, even though it is elevated by Beams’ careful telling.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 6th.

48128302._SY475_

This is a weird and refreshing little book that doesn’t follow the normal rules of this kind of fiction. It starts off in a relatively familiar space; our protagonist has a very literary name (Henna) and is doing a very literary job (writing encyclopaedia entries for a publisher on water and ice) after her parents and twin sister Claire died in a very literary way (being lost at sea). The first chapter made me think that The Snow Collectors would be full of the kind of drifty, quasi-magical prose that you find in writers like Alice Hoffman. However, this book, and Hall’s writing, actually sits in a more interesting space. While there are sentences that stray into sentimentality – ‘his palm was dry and warm, speckled with grains of salt which rolled between our joined hands like secrets we hadn’t told yet’ – there are other, much more robust, passages that are more typical of the novel: ‘Attached to the gas station near the interstate was a Dunkin’ Donuts, and I sat at the counter and sipped coffee with skim milk… By the counter of the gas station was a display of souvenirs. Apples dangling from key chains and packets of pancake mix, resin moose and dead skyscrapers in globes of water… Everything smelled the chemical scent of strawberry air freshener. The clerk wished a nice day on everyone, as if it were a curse.’

The Snow Collectors is also weird because it doesn’t seem to be set in either our present or the future. There’s a fantastical air to the world that Hall has created – Claire used to be able to hold her breath for four days – but there’s also a SF hint to the near-future Alaskan setting, where bees are gone and the rest of the US never sees snow. It also shoots off in some unexpected directions. The death of Claire, and of Henna’s parents, barely impinges on the plot, except to give Henna a plausible reason to be so isolated. Instead, the book revolves around a dead girl found in the woods and an archive concerning the lost John Franklin Arctic expedition that is held in the town. In between Henna’s chapters, we get short but captivating glimpses of Jane Franklin, who kept up the search for her husband long after everyone else had given up hope. Ultimately, this felt a little incomplete to me, as if it hadn’t quite been imagined fully enough, but there’s enough promise here that I’d definitely be interested in reading whatever Hall writes next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 12th.

819XHuu+swL

The Temple House Vanishing is billed as a novel set in an elite Catholic girls’ boarding school in Ireland in 1990, where creepy nuns rule the roost but attractive art teacher Mr Lavelle offers a possibility of escape. It’s surprising how little of this the novel actually delivers on. Louisa arrives at the school as a scholarship girl and forms an intensive friendship with Victoria; both are drawn into Mr Lavelle’s orbit and become somewhat set apart from the other girls. A second plot thread is narrated by a journalist who is investigating the disappearance of Louisa and Mr Lavelle, now decades in the past; she really wants to contact Victoria, but Victoria isn’t talking.

I love school settings, but The Temple House Vanishing doesn’t conjure up any sense of place or time. The scenes at the school could have been set at any time in the past seventy years (and indeed, feel rather earlier than 1990; while the school itself is supposed to be stuck in the past, there’s not much sense that this causes any disjuncture with the pupils’ ordinary lives). I’m only guessing that it’s set in Ireland because of the fact that the author, Rachel Donohue, is from Dublin. Finally, the nuns have very little presence on the page; we’re told that ‘they weakened you with mind games and nightmares about limbo, and hell’, but this is never actually shown. Throughout, the prose is formal, eschewing contractions in a way that could have worked had it been confined to the narration and dialogue of a single character, but feels ponderous when generalised; here’s the journalist having an inconsequential conversation with her intern:

“Are you coming to the drinks on Friday?” she asked.

I doubt it, might have to go away this weekend,” I said.

No-one thinks you will come,” she answered.

I am predictable that way,” I said.

With so many options of boarding-school or university-set novels to read in 2020, I can’t say that I particularly recommend this one.

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

My Top Ten Books of 2019

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

In the order I read them…

31450615

1. The Bedlam Stacks: Natasha Pulley. I read this novel back in January, but it’s haunted me all year. Merrick Tremayne, once a smuggler for the East India Company, travels to the tiny mission colony of Bedlam on the edge of the Amazon where the water glows, statues walk and the woods are said to be cursed. Pulley is so good at weaving together the speculative and the everyday, and The Bedlam Stacks also interrogates colonial classifications. I reviewed it here.

41jsiuegbdl._sx324_bo1,204,203,200_

2. Brit(ish): Afua Hirsch. This is the best contemporary text I’ve read on black British identity. Hirsch, the daughter of a Ghanian mother and European Jewish father, is acutely intelligent on intersectionality as well, especially class and gender – she’s painfully aware of her own privilege in relation to her dark-skinned, working-class boyfriend, who doesn’t get why she wants to write a book about race in the first place, but also utterly clear on how women of colour are marginalised. I reviewed it here.

the-leavers

3. The Leavers: Lisa Ko. This beautiful debut novel alternates between the story of a son and the story of his mother. Daniel Wilkinson is the privileged son of two New York academics, but he was once also Deming Guo, a Chinese immigrant boy abandoned by his mother Polly at the age of eleven. Ko handles the reader’s split sympathies adeptly, but she also writes movingly about the need to leave where we’re from to feel like we’ve ‘made it’. I reviewed The Leavers here.

81OXLXEKxxL

4. Convenience Store Woman: Sayaka Murata. I think this novella, translated from the Japanese, is so memorable for me not just because of the words on the page but because of everything it made me think about. Keiko is thirty-six and is totally devoted to a convenience store; her family think that she ought to want more out of life, yet Keiko is happy the way she is. But why be happy when you could be normal? I reviewed it here.

91mV-hC1HNL

5. Milkman: Anna Burns. Of all the novels that have made my top ten lists over the years, this is definitely the one that I enjoyed least when I was actually reading it. But the narrator just wouldn’t let go. For me, the definitive novel of the Northern Irish Troubles. I reviewed it here.

220px-NinaAllan_TheRift

6. The Rift: Nina Allan. Selena’s sister Julie went missing when they were teenagers, and Selena had come to assume that Julie is dead. But then Julie turns up again, claiming to have lived the last couple of decades on a distant planet called Tristane. Allan pulls off this premise by leaving it open to interpretation; the last few segments of the novel, which postulated that ‘there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the universe, and most of them were terrifying’ are especially haunting. I reviewed it here.

self-portrait-with-boy-9781501169595_lg

7. Self-Portrait With Boy: Rachel Lyon. One of the best books on the psychological costs of being an artist that I’ve ever read, this novel starts off with a simple dilemma. Lu Rile accidentally takes an incredible photograph of a small boy falling to his death outside the window of her apartment block. Should she show the picture and kick-start her career, even though it would horrify his grieving parents? However, Lyon is smart enough not to let this question dominate her whole story, which interrogates questions about truth and connection. I reviewed it here.

9780385537070

8. The Nickel Boys: Colson Whitehead. I wasn’t as bowled over by The Underground Railroad as everybody else, but Whitehead more than made up for it with his next novel, which is one of the most moving things I read all year. The Nickel Boys follows a teenage African-American boy, Elwood, after he is unjustly incarcerated in a reform school in Florida in the early 1960s. This could have been formulaic, but Whitehead takes it to another level. I reviewed it here.

9781101947883

9. Exhalation: Ted Chiang. Like The Nickel Boys, this was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019, and it didn’t disappoint. Chiang writes the best short science fiction I’ve ever read, and this was an even better collection than his last. I particularly loved ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ – this is how you write time travel – and the novella ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’, which interrogates questions about free will. I’m especially in awe of Chiang’s intelligence – his ‘Story Notes’ at the back of the book are mini-masterpieces in their own right. I reviewed Exhalation here.

15929459._SY475_

10. Ammonite: Nicola Griffith. In a list skewed towards recent releases, this science fiction novel from 1992 also stood out. It follows Marghe, an anthropologist working on a planet inhabited by an estranged strand of the human race. Centuries ago, a virus eliminated all the men from this population and conferred upon the women the capacity to reproduce asexually. For me, Ammonite had all the intellectual excitement of Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, but was much more emotionally engaging. I reviewed it here.

Reading Stats

I read 175 books in 2019. This is, again, a new record for me, although I think the figures are a little skewed, as I now count some books that I did not finish towards the total. I think this is a bit ridiculous, so in 2020, I’ll set a target of 150.

I read 134 books by women, 40 books by men (including one trans man), and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary. This continues my usual gender split, with male authors making up about 23% of the books I read – and, although men are usually over-represented in my top ten, that isn’t the case this year. I would like to read more books by trans people in 2020, especially trans men.

I read 42 books by writers of colour and 133 books by white writers. Frustratingly, this percentage – 24% – is actually worse than the percentages I managed in 2018 and 2017 (28% and 25%) – and I also read fewer books by writers of colour than I did in 2018 (44). This is especially disappointing because half of my top ten books are by writers of colour, so it shows that I have once again been defaulting to mediocre white writers. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2020.

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

Screen Shot 2019-12-31 at 09.30.58

Three Things… December 2019

Reading

First, Nikita Lalwani’s debut novel, Gifted (2007), which follows Rumi, a second-generation Indian immigrant growing up in Cardiff, whose father, Mahesh, is determined that she should become a maths prodigy after she’s identified as ‘gifted’ as a young child. Lalwani handles this situation with great subtlety; Mahesh makes Rumi’s life a misery, but not necessarily because he buys into the Mensa-approved ideas about what it is to be gifted, and he is infuriated by the idea that Rumi is somehow a freak because she is both smart and brown. He sees himself as a progressive man, willing to nurture a daughter’s gifts in the same way as he would a son’s. Meanwhile, Shreene, Rumi’s mother, pushes against stereotypes of silenced Asian women, despite her conviction that Rumi’s main destiny is to get married; she too goes to work every day and happily recalls how she refused to see Mahesh when he made the first formal visit to her family to ask for her hand, because he arrived earlier than expected and she wasn’t ready. Gifted succeeds more as a series of excellent set-pieces than as a whole novel; it’s a bit fragmented and directionless, but its evocation of Mahesh, in particular, is brutal and touching. Despite the title, it’s not really about the label ‘gifted’ or about being a ‘precocious’ child – I wish somebody would write a really intelligent novel about either of those subjects! – but about the pressure of family expectation, especially in a hostile country.

Second, I finished my re-read of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (2002); I don’t have the energy right now to give this novel the review it deserves, but suffice it to say that (a) this evocation of a Mississippi community in the early 1970s is devastatingly sad – much more so than I remembered, and (b) it’s definitely Tartt’s best novel.

Third, I read Deborah Levy’s Booker-longlisted novel The Man Who Saw Everything (2019) – or at least I got halfway through it, setting a new record for me with a Levy novel. (And yes I did get to the bit where it all switches about). Levy just doesn’t click for me – she’s obviously a very good writer, but while I hoped this would be a literary mediation on time and space along the lines of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, it didn’t engage me at all.

My December reading plans haven’t been especially successful; I’ve read two of the six books I planned to read (The Bluest Eye and The Unpassing), have struggled to get hold of two others (We, The Survivors and A Door in the Stone) and have decided against reading the final two, at least right now (The Echo Maker and Heaven My Home). Because I’m dumping The Echo Maker, I’ll hold out on declaring my 4.5 star challenge complete until I can read Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock. However, I did manage to read ONE SF book by a writer of colour in December (Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse).

Watching

64870f9081094e40ab7afe13f70573d6_md

As usual, I have been watching a lot of rubbish! I went to see Frozen II a week or so ago (if anyone cares about spoilers for Frozen II, look away now!) This is a somewhat frustrating sequel in that it’s pitch-perfect thematically, but isn’t a very compelling film. The basic plot sees Elsa, Anna and their various sidekicks try to heal a past rift with the local community of Northuldra (obviously based on Inuit peoples) after Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling her away from her kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa’s character arc is very well-handled; the writing team have worked out how to give her a second internal conflict that doesn’t diminish what she came to terms with in Frozen. While she ultimately decides to resign her queenship and leave the kingdom, she does this on her own terms; rather than running away as she did in the first film, she now knows she is accepted for who she is and can freely decide what to do.

There’s been lots of speculation over whether Disney will dare to present Elsa as openly lesbian, and the furthest this film goes is to emphasise that she has no interest in marriage and give her a cute girl to chat to. While this decision was probably made for the wrong reasons, I thought it was the right one for this particular film – much as I love the idea of lesbian Elsa, it is refreshing to see a female character in an animated film (or any kind of film!) whose central arc is not about romance. It’s funny to think that the film writers have probably been forced into this relatively positive representation by dint of wanting to avoid explicit lesbian representation but not wanting to piss off the LGBT community too badly.

However, the writers have seemingly forgotten to give Anna a parallel arc to her sister, and this shows, as her sections of the film really drag. This is annoying, as obvious possibilities present themselves – Kristoff keeps trying unsuccessfully to propose marriage to Anna throughout the film (which is hilarious), but if he’d been allowed to pop the question at the start, this could have sent Anna into a tailspin, as she flashed back to her disastrous engagement to Hans and wondered whether she was rushing into things with Kristoff as well, even though she has now known him for a year. Instead, Anna’s only conflict is whether she can get Elsa to accept that she needs to accompany her on her adventures – which falls rather flat when it transpires that Elsa was absolutely right to tell Anna that, without magic, there are places she cannot go. While I LOVED Kristoff’s line to Anna when they are reunited, and she’s worrying if he now doubts whether she cares for him – ‘My love is not fragile‘ – both characters are under-used in this film. And the sooner Olaf the snowman is blasted into smithereens, the better.

Thinking

Well, like everyone else in Britain, I’ve been thinking about the horrible election result on Friday, but I don’t want to spend much time discussing it on this blog. These are some interesting Twitter threads/articles if anyone wants them: one    two    three    four

1450946

What has helped me in the last few days, apart from talking to my sister and some of my friends, is re-reading Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s classic Enchantress From The Stars (1970), which I first read when I was fifteen. Enchantress from the Stars focuses on a young woman, Elana, who joins a secret team from the Federation Anthropological Service, bound to encourage one civilisation to leave the planet of another. Engdahl was the first to teach me that you can combine science fiction and fantasy, and that unthinking atheism and rationality is as damaging as unthinking belief and superstition. (Engdahl herself has objected to the novel being called a combination of these two genres, because she thinks that only science fiction has something to say about the future, which is her purpose as a writer. Whether or not you agree with this, my sense of the way in which the novel lets genres talk to each other is stylistic and thematic – Enchantress From the Stars is not only partly written in a folktale pastiche, but is concerned with the reality of ‘magic’). It reminded me that I want to read many more novels where the speculative genres talk to each other like this; Nina Allan’s work pulls off the same kind of thing. I found Enchantress so helpful to re-read in the last few days for two reasons: firstly, it reminds us that the route to social progress is not linear, and things can get a lot worse before they get better. Secondly, in its depiction of Elana and her local ally Georyn, it suggests that sometimes we can only accomplish things we believe to be impossible by pursuing them in defiance of reason, and that that isn’t a stupid thing to do.

I’ll now be mostly offline until I put up my Books of the Year posts at the end of December (and maybe a bonus Books of the Decade this time around as well) so I hope you all have a festive and relaxing holiday season!