2021 Reading Plans

Well, we all know that 2020 was a terrible year, so there’s not much need to explore why! While very fortunate in being financially stable and healthy during the pandemic, I have also obviously experienced the same restrictions and frustrations as everyone else, and have also felt sad because I don’t fit into the traditional ‘nuclear family’ model (with access to car!) that UK government policies seem to be targeted towards. After a very successful 2019, it’s been difficult coming to terms with the fact that I haven’t really been able to achieve anything ‘external’ this year: no publications, no conferences (after March), no visible progress towards a deal for my novel, no travel, no chance to really get to know colleagues at my new job. Even my roller derby has been cancelled indefinitely….

Snaps of a strange year. Peanut butter brownies by post in the spring; working on my time travel novel in the park in summer, thrilled to be allowed to sit (rather than just exercise) outside again; attending a Zoom cocktail party in December.

However, to be honest, I have found unexpected upsides during certain periods of the pandemic. Again, I recognise this is because of the sort of person I am and what I happen to be good at, rather than suggesting I have any kind of special resilience. My sister and I lived in rural Wiltshire during the second half of our childhoods, and often spent weeks seeing nobody other than our parents and each other, so I guess I have some experience in drawing on my own resources. Being forced to come to a halt in March made me realise how close to burnout I was with all my work and social commitments. I now can’t imagine going straight back to the life I used to lead, and I think that will be good for me long-term, however hard things are now.

One benefit of having to focus on internal validation, rather than external achievements, is that this has been potentially the best writing year I’ve ever had. (The only competition it has is the academic year 2004-5, when I was in my last year of sixth form and adopted a committed, daily writing-and-meditation routine that led to me producing two-thirds of my first serious novel, but it’s hard to compare the two, as then I was really inventing myself as a writer for the first time). This year, I’ve rewritten my time travel novel in response to my agent’s feedback to the point where it’s ready to submit to publishers, completely rewritten and restructured the first serious novel I mentioned above (cutting 40k words so it’s now a sensible length!), which is set in late nineteenth-century England, and knocked out 50k terrible words of my brand new Antarctic novel. (I imagine blog readers are either writers themselves, and so might care about my WIPs, or don’t care at all, but in case anyone wants to know more, I have brief summaries of each of these up on my Fiction page. I tend to refer to them as ‘nineteenth-century novel’, ‘time travel novel’ and ‘Antarctic novel’, but their proper working titles are, respectively, Of Others And Elizabeth, The Forest That Eats Bone and Old Ice.

Anyway, onto the books…

A couple of caveats: I have collected a LOT of 2021 proofs and e-ARCS that I’m super excited about, but I don’t like to include books I already own in this list. So don’t think that I’m not excited about Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew, Lisa McInerney’s The Rules of Revelation, Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising, Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, Francis Spufford’s Light PerpetualTahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl, and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning (among others), because I definitely am!

In this post, I’ve picked twelve 2021 releases that I am particularly looking forward to – almost all from the first half of the year, for obvious reasons – then, as always, added a further eighteen books that I want to read in 2021, whether they are new this year or not. There are a few I didn’t read from my 2020 list that I’m still keen to get to, so those are included in the last eighteen.

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Anna North, Outlawed (January 2021). Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark was one of my top ten books of the last decade, so unsurprisingly I’m excited about her next novel, even though it sounds totally different. This follows a teenage girl who becomes an outlaw in the 1890s Wild West. The only reason I’m a little hesitant is because the last time I was super excited about one of my favourite authors unexpectedly writing a ‘feminist Western’, it didn’t quite work for me (Tea Obreht’s Inland). But I’m still very keen!

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Erin Kelly, Watch Her Fall (March 2021). My usual Erin disclaimer: Erin tutored me on the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course I took in 2015-16, and has been so supportive of my writing ever since. However, fortunately I don’t have to be at all tactful when I talk about Erin’s books, because I genuinely love them. Her last novel, We Know You Know (previously published as Stone Mothers) was one of the best thrillers I’d read in a long time, and I can’t wait to read Watch Her Fall, which focuses on a ballerina who has somebody watching her from the wings…

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Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter (March 2021). It’s very unusual for me to include a YA novel in this part of the list, but I’m so intrigued by Boulley’s debut, which focuses on an Ojibwe teenage girl who’s caught up in a covert FBI operation on her reservation. And what a stunning cover!

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TL Huchu, The Library of the Dead (March 2021). I mean, this just has everything: a Zimbabwean teenager goes ghost-hunting in Edinburgh after a child goes missing, and discovers an occult library along the way. I sometimes find ghost stories ponderous, but this sounds like it will be offset by our protagonist’s cynical voice. First in a new series.

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Maki Kashimada trans. Haydn Trowell, Touring The Land Of The Dead (April 2021). Kashimada is a well-established Japanese writer who won the Akutagawa Prize for this novella in 2012. This focuses on a wife who takes her damaged husband away to a luxury spa where her mother went when she was little. This Europa edition also includes a second novella by Kashimada, Ninety-Nine Kisses, about a younger sister obsessed with her three older sisters, which I think sounds even more interesting.

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Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd (April 2021). I have an uneven track record with Kushner as a novelist; I was impressed by The Mars Room but struggled with The FlamethrowersThis collection of essays promises a selection of Kushner’s non-fiction over the past twenty years, including an essay on her experience competing in the notorious Mexican motorbike race, Cabo 1000. As a fictionalised description of this race was far and away my favourite part of The Flamethrowers, this grabbed my attention.

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Jessie Greengrass, The High House (April 2021). I loved Greengrass’s autofictional Sightwhich remains one of the best musings on motherhood I’ve ever read. The blurb of The High House wouldn’t appeal to me if it was written by somebody else: it looks at a family building an ark in a holiday home against the threat of climate change. I tend to avoid these kinds of stories simply because I’ve read so many of them, but if anyone can make this fresh again, it’s Greengrass.

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Arifa Akbar, Consumed (June 2021). This memoir recounts the sudden death of Akbar’s sister from TB, and how Akbar later travelled to the places that she and her sister had explored, from Rome to Pakistan. There’s still too little written about the grief you feel for a death of a sibling, and although happily my only sibling is alive and well, it’s a subject that interests me because my time-travel novel is about the loss of a sister. No cover yet.

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Becky Chambers, A Psalm For The Wild-Built (July 2021). I’m a big fan of Becky Chambers, so it’s great to see she has two new SF books out this year; the novel that concludes her Wayfarers Quartet, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (my review coming soon!) ,and this book, which starts a new series about robots living in the wilderness of Earth.

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Nina Mingya Powles, Small Bodies of Water (August 2021) Powles, who is Malaysian-Chinese, won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize, which aimed to highlight the work of writers currently under-represented in nature-writing, for this book. I love the blurb: ‘From the rainforest waterfalls of Borneo to the wild coastline of New Zealand and the Ladies’ Pond in Hampstead Heath, this book explores migration, food, family and the bodies of water that separate and connect us.’ I’m keen to read more nature-writing that’s not by white people; I’m also very excited about Rahawa Haile’s In Open Countrywhich is about her experiences as a black woman walking the Appalachian trail, but I can’t work out when it’s getting published. No cover for Powles yet, either.

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Lauren Groff, Matrix (September 2021). OK, this is the book that I’m most excited about this year. Just when I was saying I wanted to read a good novel about nuns, THIS came along, with the best blurb: ‘[in the twelfth century] seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey… at first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.’ I’m so keen to read a book that explores how entering convents could help medieval women gain more autonomy, and books about all-female communities in general. My usual concern with a book like this would be that it would be overwritten and too weighty, but Groff’s sharp, contemporary prose should be the perfect match. No cover yet.

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Bridget Collins et al. The Haunting Season (October 2021). I can’t get over how good the line-up in this collection of new ghost stories is: including Bridget Collins, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Elizabeth Macneal and Natasha Pulley! (I’m assuming because of Covid-19 they didn’t actually get together in person to discuss this book, but how much would I love to hang out with these people collectively). There are also a couple of writers I’m keen to try: Sara Collins and Jess Kidd. And as for Andrew Michael Hurley and Laura Purcell, who I haven’t had the best of luck with so far, perhaps they’ll pull it together for this anthology as well. No proper cover yet.

The Rest Of The List

Miriam Cohen, Adults and Other Children 

Derek Owusu ed., Safe: 20 Ways To Be A Black Man In Britain Today

Kristen Schilt, Just One Of The Guys?: Transgender Men And The Persistence of Gender Inequality

Bruce Holsinger, The Gifted School OR Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman, Girls With Bright Futures (February 2021) [I want to read one book about pushy parents and school admissions, but probably not two!]

Emily Bernard, Black Is The Body

Martha Wells, All Systems Red

Charles Yu, Sorry Please Thank You

Mark O’Connell, Notes From An Apocalypse

Ben Lerner, The Topeka School

Julianne Pachico, The Anthill

Harriet Alida Lye, Natural Killer

Regina Porter, The Travelers

Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home

Nisi Shawl, Everfair

Hao Jingfang trans. Ken Liu, Vagabonds

Namwali Serpell, Stranger Faces

Caoilinn Hughes, The Wild Laughter

Carmen Maria Machado, In The Dream House

 

 

The Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag, 2020

  1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2020. This has to be Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light.
  2. Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2020. Technically, this could ALSO be The Mirror and The Light, but I don’t want to be repetitive, so this goes to Natasha Pulley’s The Lost Future of Pepperharrowa totally bewitching sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street that is, in my view, better than the first book.
  3. New release you haven’t read yet, but want to. I’m desperate to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, so desperate in fact that I pre-ordered the hardback. This was my undoing, as I subsequently discovered that, in the UK, it’s available much earlier on Kindle, so now I have to pointlessly wait!
  4. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year. I’ve pre-ordered Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, which isn’t out in the UK until late August. I love the premise and it’s also received glowing reviews from bloggers I trust.
  5. Biggest disappointment. Carys Davies’s WestTechnically, I didn’t have super high expectations for this novella, which I picked up on a whim on a Kindle 99p deal, but I still can’t get over how BAD it was. I think it must be one of the worst examples of literary fiction I’ve ever read.
  6. Biggest surprise. James S.A. Corey’s Persepolis Rising. For some reason I’ve been dutifully slogging through the Expanse series, a SF epic, despite only really enjoying the first three books. However, this seventh entry instigates a kind of soft reboot of the series and takes it back to what I enjoyed in the first place. I was unexpectedly gripped!
  7. Favourite new author (debut or new to you) Mary Robinette Kowal. I loved her alternative-history women astronaut book The Calculating Stars so much that I immediately went out and bought the sequel, The Fated Sky, then read all the free short stories she has online 🙂
  8. Newest fictional crush. I have thought about this but I don’t think I’ve had any fictional crushes since I was a teenager!
  9. Newest favourite character. I loved the three female protagonists of Naomi Novik’s enchanting Spinning SilverMiryem, Wanda and Irina. Novik does such a fantastic job of giving them such distinctive first-person voices and showing how their different strengths complement each other, while allowing them all to mess up and not assuming that they’ll automatically show solidarity.
  10. Book that made you cry. I can’t remember if I actually cried, but I was devastated by the ending of Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.
  11. Book that made you happy. I loved how Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House channelled all the spooky ESP young adult novels I read as a teenager!
  12. Most beautiful book you’ve bought so far this year (or received). Ken Liu’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction in translation, Broken Stars. The British edition is so stunning [see it here, though the picture doesn’t do justice to the gold foil!] I spent a lot of time just looking at it, and the stories are stellar as well.
  13. What books do you need to read by the end of the year? I still have 14 of my 20 Books of Summer to go, plus around another 18 books from the list I made at the beginning of the year, but I find this question works best (in terms of me actually reading the books) if I stick to a few titles. So I’ll go for: Paulina Flores’s Humiliation, Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went To The Woods, and Nisi Shawl’s edited collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour, New Suns.

I’ve loved reading other responses to this tag, so tagging everyone else to give it a go if you haven’t already!

2020 Reading Plans

2019 has been a good year for me. These were the key positive events:

  • In January, I signed with a literary agent, Kerry Glencorse at Susanna Lea Associates, and am currently revising my time-travel novel, A Minute’s Grace. I hope that we will be able to submit this to publishers in 2020!
  • In June, I got a new job, as a NUAcT Fellow in History at Newcastle University, and will be transferring my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship there as well. My job officially starts on January 1st, but nothing much will change for me as I am already living in Newcastle and doing my research.
  • In September, I gave a Science Award Lecture at the British Science Festival, on ‘When children became evil’, which covered the sudden rise of ‘extraordinary children’ in horror and science fiction films in post-war Britain and the United States, and linked these depictions to changing concepts of childhood. I reprised versions of this talk at Oxford IF and at Nine Lessons and Carols for Curious People at the Lowry in Manchester. You can read a summary of the talk here.
  • In October, my first academic monographA Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed In Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schoolswas published by Manchester University Press. In about two years’ time (given the speed of academic book reviews) I should be able to find out what other historians think of it!

I also travelled to Japan and Australia, started doing research with adolescents in a Northampton secondary school, welcomed my first cousin once removed (baby Hudson) to the world, went to my first football match (Newcastle United vs. Arsenal), passed the Newcastle Roller Girls roller derby intake (even if I am retaking it in 2020) and put together two pieces of flatpack furniture by myself!

Right, onto the books…

I’ve picked twelve 2020 releases that I am particularly looking forward to – almost all from the first half of the year, for obvious reasons – then, as always, added a further eighteen books that I want to read in 2020, whether or not they are new this year or not.

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Miriam Cohen, Adults and Other Children (January 2020). I’m intrigued by this debut collection of short stories, which promises to explore girlhood and motherhood from a range of angles, including a little girl convinced that her baby sister is a changeling, a woman who makes up an imagined child, and a college student who becomes a surrogate for her professor. And, given my own research, I couldn’t resist the title.

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Meng Jin, Little Gods (January 2020). I have to join the bandwagon for this debut novel about brilliant physicist Su Lan and her daughter Lina’s search for answers about her mother’s life. I love novels that engage with theoretical physics, and I have been slightly suckered in by this tagline: ‘combining the emotional resonance of Home Fire with the ambition and innovation of Asymmetry‘. I mean, YES.

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Aravind Adiga, Amnesty (February 2020). While I admire Adiga as a writer, I didn’t find either of the novels I’ve read by him – The White Tiger and Last Man In Tower – especially memorable. However, his latest book, which focuses on a young undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka – now living in Sydney – who must decide whether or not to report crucial information about a murder sounds potentially riveting. It also sounds like it might have a lot in common with Nikita Lalwani’s latest (see below!).

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Evie Wyld, The Bass Rock (February 2020). LONG anticipated by me, this novel about three women linked across the centuries by an isolated Scottish rock is finally coming!

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Natasha Pulley, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (March 2020). Natasha Pulley was one of thetwo new favourite authors I discovered in 2019, so OF COURSE I’m anticipating her third novel with great excitement. This sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (which is also loosely linked to The Bedlam Stacks) is set in a ghost-ridden Japan in 1888, where a British translator and his Japanese watchmaker friend are investigating supernatural occurrences. Pulley consistently turns the potentially twee into the electrifying, and the possibly colonialist into the challenging, so I can’t wait to see what she does with this premise. Also, octopuses.

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Kevin Nyugen, New Waves (March 2020). I’m intrigued by this debut novel where a black woman and an Asian man team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long.

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Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (March 2020). Like EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD, I’m eagerly anticipating O’Farrell’s next novel – I thought her two most recent books, the memoir I Am, I Am, I Amand the novel This Must Be The Placewere utterly fantastic. This signals a bit of a change in direction; set in the 1580s, it explores the hidden story of Shakespeare’s son, who died at the age of eleven.

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Nikita Lalwani, You People (April 2020). I liked Lalwani’s debut, Giftedand loved her second novel, The Villageso this long-awaited third novel is a must-read for me. It’s set in an Italian restaurant in London run by undocumented Sri Lankan immigrants, and promises the kind of difficult moral choices that Lalwani delivered so effectively in The Village.

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Souvankham Thammavongsa, How To Pronounce Knife (April 2020). This debut collection of short stories comes recommended by Mary Gaitskill, and promises vignettes of the day-to-day life of immigrants and refugees in a nameless city.

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Elisabeth Thomas, Catherine House (May 2020). We’ve had an abundance of creepy or speculative fiction set in educational establishments recently, a trope I absolutely adore, but nothing has quite hit the nail on the head for me yet. I’m hoping that Thomas’s debut, set at a liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania where students have to isolate themselves from the outside world for three years, will be the one where everything comes together. Like Little Gods, it also has some irresistible if unlikely comps: ‘combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go’.

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Sophie Mackintosh, Blue Ticket (May 2020). I was put off Mackintosh’s Booker-longlisted debut, The Water Cure, by the lukewarm reviews and an opening page where the writing sounded decidedly wavery, but I’m keen to give this one a go because I love the premise; it’s set in a world where motherhood is decided by lottery, and women have to live with the decision that is made for them – no children if they draw a blue ticket, motherhood if they draw a white one.

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Sarah Moss, Summerwater (Autumn 2020, no cover yet). Sarah Moss is a somewhat ambivalent author for me. I’ve read everything she’s written, and am consistently impressed by her intelligence and originality, but no single one of her books has ever totally bowled me over (the two that came closest were The Tidal Zone and Night Waking). Perhaps Summerwater, set in a rainy Scottish holiday park, will be the one I unreservedly adore. Interestingly, it also marks her switch from smaller literary publisher Granta to big-hitter Picador.

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The Rest of the List 

Ken Liu ed., Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

Bruce Holsinger, The Gifted School

Zawe Ashton, Character Breakdown

Kit de Waal ed., Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers

Emily St John Mandel, The Glass Hotel

Edmund de Waal, The White Road

Nicola Griffith, So Lucky

Paulina Flores, Humiliation

Alia Trabucco Zerán, The Remainder

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt (January 2020)

Sandeep Jauhar, Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation

Helen Mort, Black Car Burning

Xuan Juliana Wang, Home Remedies

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

Caite Dolan-Leach, We Went To The Woods

Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Stubborn Archivist

Jessi Klein, You’ll Grow Out of It

November Challenges Wrap-Up & December Reading Plans

 

I only intended to take part in #SciFiMonth in November, but by accident, I’ve ended up reading a few things for #MARM (Margaret Atwood Reading Month) and #NovellasinNovember as well. Most of these books cross over so these summaries make it look like I read loads more in November than I actually did!

For #MARM, I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale and first read The Testamentswith very mixed results.

For #SciFiMonth, I read eight of the sixteen books I had on my TBR list, AND a bonus read, so I’m counting that as a win! These books were the two Atwoods, plus Stillicide, Wilder Girls and Sealed, plus The Test, Nemesis Games, The Race and Ammonite. However, it’s pretty bad that I didn’t get to any of the SF by writers of colour that I had on my list. This will be prioritised either in December or early next year.

For #NovellasinNovember, I managed to read four novellas, which is four more than I normally read, and I actually liked half of them (though one of those was from my favourite novella writer, Cynan Jones). These were Stillicide, Sealed and The Test (reviews linked above) plus A Christmas Carol.

Reading Plans for December

My priority is to get through the following six books before the end of the year, roughly in this order:

  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison – book club read, meeting on 8th December!
  • Heaven My Home by Attica Locke – due back at library
  • The Echo Maker – Richard Powers – penultimate book on my TBR list for this year AND the final book on my 4.5 star challenge list
  • The Unpassing – Chia-Chia Lin – final book on my TBR list for this year
  • We, The Survivors – Tash Aw – highlighted in my mid-year round-up
  • A Door in the Stone – Amy Waldman – also highlighted in my mid-year round-up

I recently changed my Goodreads Reading Challenge back to its original total of 175 books. As of today, I’ve read 161 books and am partway through a re-read of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, taking my total to 162. 13 more books in December *might* be doable, as I always read a lot at the end of December and I’m still on strike until December 4th – but we’ll see!

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#SciFiMonth Reading Plans

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Inspired by Hannah at I have thoughts on books, I’ve decided to take part in #SciFiMonth, which runs from 1 to 30 November. The details are here, but as far as I can tell, there are no rules other than to read as much SF as possible! Reading more SF is one of my ongoing challenges to myself, and I’m also keen to read more SF writers of colour. While the challenge itself takes a broad definition of what counts as ‘science fiction’, I’ll be targeting SF proper rather than speculative fiction, simply because I already read a lot of the latter.

I managed to eliminate my physical/Kindle TBR pile in October (barring proofs that aren’t published until 2020) so I have a lot of leeway as to what to read, but this will fluctuate depending on library availability/cost. Some of my ideas are as follows:

Books That I Already Own

I’m currently reading Nina Allan’s The Race; presenting four interlinked novella-length stories, I’m hoping it has the same potential for surprising connections as her wonderful The RiftI found two more SF books at my local charity shop. Nicola Griffiths’ debut novel, Ammonite, follows an anthropologist who travels to a planet under quarantine after a viral outbreak and discovers a native population that seems to be entirely female; it comes with praise from Ursula Le Guin, and I’ve been interested in Griffiths’ writing since reading her more recent historical novel, Hild. I also picked up the fifth book in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Nemesis Games; I loved the first three books in this series but got totally bogged down in the digressions of the fourth, Cibola Burns, a couple of years ago, so didn’t read on. This entry seems to take us back to the original cast, which is a relief. Finally, I’m planning to re-read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which needs no introduction; this also feeds into my long-neglected re-read project.

Random SF From My Goodreads TBR List

Who knows why I added some of these in the first place, but they look like good choices to expand my horizons! Kim Stanley Robinson is a SF great, but I haven’t read anything by him; hopefully Aurora is a good place to start. Alexander Weinstein’s collection of short stories, Children of the New World, promises stories of virtual reality set in a near future. Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade uses a similar premise to Joe Haldemann’s The Forever Warbut hopefully won’t be as misogynistic and homophobic as that older novel. Finally, I’m intrigued by the hype around Sylvain Neuvel’s The Test, which is about an Iranian man sitting a futuristic version of the British citizenship test.

Authors I Found In A People’s Future Of The United States

A People’s Future Of The United States disappointed me as a collection, but introduced me to some promising new authors. I loved Daniel H. Wilson’s entry, so am keen to try his Robopocalypse, which seems to start with quite a familiar premise about robots taking over the world but hopefully goes to some interesting places. Charles Yu’s short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You, looks exciting, as does G. Willow Wilson’s novel Alif The UnseenMalka Older’s story was easily one of the most imaginative in A People’s Future, so I’m keen to read her debut novel, Infomocracy, which is about a political experiment based on powerful information technology.

Towards the Speculative Side 

I don’t really get on with high fantasy, so N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season didn’t grip me sufficiently to make me want to read the rest of the trilogy, but I admire her as a writer and am looking forward to her collection of fantasy/SF short stories, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? Callum has convinced me to try Rory Power’s horror-SF debut, The Wilder Girls. I loved Cynan Jones’s The Dig and The Shore, so his climate change novel Stillicide sounds good to me. Finally, after hearing Naomi Booth speak at the Durham Book Festival, I can’t wait to read her eco-horror Sealed.

I obviously won’t be able to read all of these, so do let me know if there are any you particularly recommend or advise against! And is anyone else interested in taking part in #SciFiMonth?

2019 Reading Plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rest of the List

Leftover from 2018

George Sandison ed.: 2084

Nina Allen: The Rift

Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion

Clarissa Goenawan: Rainbirds

New Entries

Jeff Vandermeer: Annihilation

Rebecca Loncraine: Skybound

Sally Rooney: Normal People

Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room

Anna Burns: Milkman

Allegra Goodman: The Chalk Artist

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black

Robin Talley: Pulp

Marie Lu: Warcross

Tayari Jones: The Untelling

Joseph Camara: The House of Impossible Beauties

Uzodinma Iweala: Beasts of No Nation

Evie Wyld: The Bass Rock (September 2019)

Ellen Feldman: Terrible Virtue

Robin Oliveira: Winter Sisters

Emily Bernard: Black Is The Body (January 2019)

Samantha Harvey: All Is Song

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Lisa Ko: The Leavers

Three Things… December 2018

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

I’m trying to finish off my TBR pile before Christmas to make room for new acquisitions. Having very much enjoyed Tayari Jones’s An American MarriageI’m now tearing through her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which deals with the real-life disappearance of dozens of African-American children in Atlanta in 1979. Told from the perspective of three black fifth-graders, the novel is both gripping and beautifully observed; Jones captures the eleven-year-old mindset perfectly. Her narrators range from middle-class Tasha, who is desperately concerned about getting a pink party invitation with a magenta heart sticker from the most popular girl in her class, but is also dealing with her parents’ separation and becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of the outside world, to Octavia, a ‘project kid’ on a reduced lunch voucher who is also expert at reading the dynamics of the classroom. Jones also pulls off the difficult trick of moving from first to second to third person as she skips between her narrators. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, about four Nigerian brothers who receive a curse from a local madman, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, and on a line-by-line level, it’s easy to see why; Obioma’s prose is clever and distinctive. However, the density of the writing and the reliance on flashbacks keeps the reader at arms length, and I found that this was a novel I admired rather than enjoyed. I abandoned Kim Sherwood’s Testament after realising that I’m not sure I can read any more Holocaust novels; it prompted similar thoughts to Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in WinterFinally, I’m hoping to start my book club’s latest choice, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, as I head home, which should see me hitting my Goodreads target of 150 books read in 2018.

Watching

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I saw the documentary Free Solo at Tyneside Cinema last week, which recounts Alex Honnold’s climb up the 3000-foot high El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley without any rope or safety equipment. Filming this feat was a massive achievement in itself, as the film makes clear – not only did the crew have to handle the logistics of capturing the key moments of Honnold’s climb, they had to reckon with the risk that their presence would put him off his game and lead him to fall to his death. The sheer danger of Honnold’s undertaking can hardly be overestimated: one fellow climber describes it as taking a shot at an Olympic gold medal, but if you fail, you die. I’m fascinated by the psychology that leads people to take such risks with their lives, but this goes far beyond even other extreme sports such as freediving. The footage from the morning of Alex’s attempt is acutely uncomfortable to watch, as the crew put on a false joviality, as if Alex is doing no more than attempting a Ninja Warrior obstacle course, whereas you can see many of them are thinking that this might be the last time they speak to him.

In the face of this, I started to wonder if Free Solo itself was unethical, glorifying a feat that is actually profoundly unhealthy. Honnold suggests in the documentary that he’s driven by the idea, instilled in childhood, that he can never be good enough. However, I think there’s a subtlety in the composition of this piece that allows these questions to be raised. Although Honnold values success rather than happiness (‘anyone can be happy and cozy’, he says at one point), the nature of free solo climbs mean they are usually accomplished out of the spotlight, with nobody watching. Seeing Honnold’s climb as either glorious or as idiotic is to simplify it. Honnold’s commitment to a (probably shortened) life of free soloing is his own response to mortality; akin to free diving, he likes the freedom of this kind of climbing, the fact that he’s only relying on himself, and the simplicity and speed of the ascent. However, the problems start when he establishes human ties as well; his serious relationship with a girlfriend feels like an unfair commitment for him to have taken on, even though he’s perfectly honest with her about his intention to continue free soloing. I can’t stop thinking about Free Solo, and the shots of Honnold’s ascent alone make it worth seeing.

Thinking

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Even though I essentially get paid to think, I always struggle to remember anything I’ve actually thought once I get to this section! So I’m going to write about where I do a lot of my thinking: either on walks in Jesmond Dene, in the swimming pool, or in yoga classes. One new version of the above that I’ve taken up recently is hot yoga, with classes in Newcastle run by Hotpod Yoga, a franchise which has bases all over the country. Before I did a trial membership at Hotpod, I was convinced that hot yoga was not for me, despite having practised normal yoga for eight years. I struggle when the temperature outside gets above 30 C (in the pods, it’s set at 37 C) and never go in saunas.

However, I’m a surprised convert. Hotpod offer three difficulty levels, of which I’ve tried two: the mid-range ‘normal’ Hotpod class is basically a vinyasa flow class in the pod, whereas Nurturing Flow is a much slower and more restorative practice, especially good for when you’re aching from other activity. Turns out, when you’re geared up to get sweaty, it isn’t that bad – I find the purple atmosphere wonderfully relaxing, and it’s a great escape from northern weather. Although I have been doing yoga for so long, I’m not very good at it – I’m not naturally bendy – and Hotpod also helps a bit with my inflexible muscles.

This will be my last post before Christmas. I’ve got some exciting festive reading lined up, including Laura Purcell’s The Corset, Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affairand I’ll be back at the end of December with a couple of posts on the year’s reading. Hope that you all have a relaxing break!

December Reading Plans

 

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump recently; I abandoned Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange, yet another novel of complicated relationships set in a stately home during a heatwave summer; this pitch feels too familiar to me now, and the protagonist wasn’t engaging enough to keep me reading. I also struggled with Lucie Whitehouse’s first police procedural, Critical Incidents; Whitehouse is an elegant and effective writer of psychological thrillers, but this first instalment in a series was horribly over-complicated, with three interlocking plots that were all tied up too swiftly at the end.

I’m currently reading Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, which is a extremely well-written story of a religious fundamentalist family spending time on an isolated piece of coastline in north-west England in the 1970s, but it’s also a classic case of a book that’s been let down by its marketing. With the current resurgence of ghost and horror narratives, it’s been repackaged, as my friend Alex pointed out, as part of that genre even though it really isn’t a spooky novel. If I’d started it in a literary fiction frame of mind, I think I’d be getting on with it much better. Finally, I’m about two-thirds of the way through Richard Powers’s massive The Overstory, which actually is very good, but demands time and effort.

I’ve got six books left on my TBR pile, and I’m hoping to read these before Christmas rolls around. They are:

  • Unsheltered: Barbara Kingsolver. After hearing her speak in London recently, I obviously wanted to get hold of her latest novel, and although I’m unsure about the historical strand (which deals, yet again, with the impact of Darwin) I’m intrigued with her contemporary take on the economic crisis and boomerang millennials.
  • The Fishermen: Chigozie Obioma. Set in 1990s Nigeria, this 2015 Booker Prize shortlisted novel tells the story of four brothers who receive a curse from a local madman.
  • The Rapture: Claire McGlasson [June 2019]. I heard Glasson speak about this novel at the Durham Book Festival. It tells the story of a real-life inter-war all-female cult, the Panacea Society.
  • Golden Child: Claire Adam [January 2019]. Again, Adam spoke about this debut at the Durham Book Festival. Set in Trinidad, the novel follows one brother searching for another.
  • Testament: Kim Sherwood. Based on Sherwood’s own family history. Eva is seeking to uncover her grandfather’s past when she discovers that he underwent forced labour service in Hungary before being taken to the death camps during the Holocaust.
  • The Boat PeopleSharon Bala. A ship of refugees from Sri Lanka reaches Vancouver and are thrown into a detention processing centre. Told through the perspectives of a range of characters, including refugee and father, Mahindan, his lawyer, and the adjudicator. Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy!

What are your December reading plans?

2018 Reading Plans

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At a work event in December.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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The Rest of the List

Conversations with Friends: Sally Rooney

Manhattan Beach: Jennifer Egan

Little Fires Everywhere: Celeste Ng

American War: Omar El Akhad

Elmet: Fiona Mozley

Bystanders: Tara Laskowski

Negroland: Margo Jefferson

Attrib.: Eley Williams

Universal Harvester: John Darnielle

Solar Bones: Mike McCormack

How To Survive A Plague: David France

The Lucky Ones: Julianne Pachico

Sing, Unburied, Sing: Jesmyn Ward

Sophia of Silicon Valley: Anna Yen

The Rift: Nina Allan

Borne: Jeff Vandermeer

2084: George Sandison ed.

The Other Half of Happiness: Ayisha Malik

Lullaby: Leila Slimani

Melmoth: Sarah Perry

The Gloaming: Kirsty Logan

The Upstairs Room: Kate Murray-Browne

A re-reading season

DSC_0013I’ve decided that for autumn and winter 2017, I’m only going to read books that I already own or have already read. I’m hoping this will allow me to do more re-reading, but given the length of the list of books I own and haven’t read (below), I’m not sure how much I’ll get to in the near future…

Why? I really value re-reading. Even putting aside the question of whether you need to re-read certain books to fully understand them, I find that when I’m re-reading, the pressure is off; I feel I can go as slow or as fast as I like, and I don’t have to think all the time about how much I’m enjoying the book or what I should say in my review. I stop worrying so much about the literaryness or otherwise of the novel I’m reading. It’s a way of reading that I discovered in my late teens, and it’s something I’d like to return to.

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TBR Pile

The Hate Race: Maxine Beneba Clarke

Hild: Nicola Griffiths

Swallow: Sefi Atta

Mrs Dalloway: Virginia Woolf

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms [short stories]: George R. R. Martin

The Many Days [poetry]: Norman MacCaig

Harmless Like You: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

The Things I Would Tell You [short pieces] ed. Sabrina Mahfouz

The Start of Something [short stories]: Stuart Dybek

The Vegetarian: Han Kang

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics [non-fiction]: Carlo Rovelli

Our Endless Numbered Days: Claire Fuller

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock: Imogen Hermes Gowar

Lincoln in the Bardo: George Saunders