Early Spring Reading

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As a free school meals student at a comprehensive school in the deprived Suffolk town of Nusstead, Marianne is determined to pursue her dream of studying art history at university. But things have become even worse for her family since the closure of the local mental hospital, Nazareth, during the move towards community care, which robbed Nusstead of around four hundred jobs. Exploring Nazareth’s crumbling Victorian buildings with her boyfriend, Jesse, she comes across something that might be a solution to her problems. More than thirty years later, a successfully socially mobile Marianne is abruptly brought back into contact with her past – and she’s terrified that if her long-held secret comes out, her mentally fragile daughter will suffer.

I’m a fan of all of Erin Kelly’s psychological thrillers, but with Stone Mothers, she’s really surpassed herself. The novel effortlessly manages three timelines and three voices, moving from the 1950s to the 1980s to the present day, while establishing a distinct register for each. While the opening paragraphs are a little needlessly grabby, the novel as a whole refuses to follow a traditional thriller structure, and is the better for it. The characterisation is satisfyingly complex, and I particularly admired the way that Kelly writes about Marianne’s working-class adolescence, and her relationships with her sister and mother in both the present and the past.

Thematically, mental illness is woven subtly throughout the story, from the patients incarcerated in Nazareth in the 1950s to Marianne’s mother’s dementia and her daughter’s bipolar disorder in the present day. Kelly uses her research on changing attitudes to mental health care lightly, which makes it even more convincing. Without giving anything away, I’ve read a number of novels which foreground the story of somebody committed to an asylum for social transgressions, from Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture to Anna Hope’s The Ballroom and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and, in my opinion, Kelly writes about it most vividly and convincingly; in particular, she’s careful to note the sufferings of those who are actually mentally ill as well as of those who are mentally ‘well’.

Stone Mothers is utterly gripping, but in a rather different way from the run-of-the-mill thriller; it doesn’t rely on plot twists (although there are some!) but on the strength of its characterisation to pull the reader along. I’d recommend this confidently to fans of Tana French, Ruth Ware and Sabine Durrant.

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, I genuinely thought this was wonderful. I also received a proof copy from the publisher for review (not via Erin). Stone Mothers is out in the UK on the 4th April.

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Eleven-year-old Chinese orphan, Ren, worked as a houseboy for a British doctor before his master’s death; his last request is that Ren find his severed finger and reunite it with his corpse so that his soul doesn’t end up roaming the earth for all eternity. But Ren only has forty-two days to carry out his master’s final wish, before the doctor’s soul departs forever. Meanwhile, Ji-Lin, working at a dance hall in Ipoh to pay off her mother’s mah-jong debts and to try and save some money for her own education, receives a preserved finger in a vial from one of her clients, who then abruptly passes away in his turn. As Ren searches for the finger, he acquires a new British master, Dr William Acton, and rumours begin of a sinister weretiger that is killing local women. How are Ren’s, Ji-Lin’s and William’s stories intertwined? Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia), The Night Tiger is deliberately symbolic, drawing repeatedly on the five Confucian virtues and on the pairs of twins that reoccur in the central characters’ dreams to suggest that its cast is linked by a fate that has followed them since they were born.

Choo tries hard to maintain the atmosphere of her story, but it’s a long book (480 pages), and it feels long; the plot has little direction, with the quest for the finger resolved early and the tiger attacks barely impinging on the story. While both Ren and Ji-Lin are engaging characters, I found myself waiting for the short bits from William, as it was only in those sections that anything much seemed to happen. I also found the romantic element of Ji-Lin’s plot too YA-ish, and a bit patriarchal, for my liking. Furthermore, I’m a little impatient with the way that folklore is used in plots like this – despite the promise of the weretiger myths, The Night Tiger ends up focusing almost entirely on magic sets of numbers, and even those are largely used in repetitive dream sequences. (In fact, I’m not sure why it’s called The Night Tiger at all). Despite the promise of the setting, the novel also failed to give me much of a sense of colonial Malaya. Started well, but lost momentum.

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

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Growing up in 1970s Belfast, middle sister never wanted to be interesting, but now she is.   Even though she’s been dating maybe-boyfriend for some time, a rumour’s going round that she’s actually with the milkman, who isn’t really a milkman at all but is a renouncer of the state. She tries her best to avoid the milkman, not wanting to be tagged as one of the renouncers, but he keeps on turning up – at her French class, where they don’t often speak French, and when she’s out running with third brother-in-law. Meanwhile, maybe-boyfriend is suspected of receiving a car part from over the water, and the milkman threatens to kill him. Will this all be resolved if middle sister keeps on keeping her head down, putting on her ‘I don’t know‘, ‘her terminal face’ – or will she have to take some kind of action?

Apologies in advance for the non-literariness of this review, but I found Anna Burns’s Milkman a uniquely frustrating read. Every day I would pick it up to read about fifteen pages (my daily limit), and every day I’d tell myself this was the last day, that I wouldn’t have to go back to this book ever again, that it was fine to leave it unfinished. But the bloody thing kept pulling me back in. Whenever I decided to give up on it, Burns would pull something so incredible out that I had to keep reading, however much of a slog it might be. Some of this was about the Troubles – Burns captures the experience of living in a community under threat from both outside and inside better than anything else I’d ever read – but some of it was just how well Burns writes about any subject at all. Here is middle sister on the arrival of second-wave feminism to the district:

This housewife’s notice said ‘ATTENTION ALL WOMEN OF THE DISTRICT: GREAT GOOD NEWS!!’ then followed information about some international women’s group that had been inaugurated unexpectedly into the world. It was seeking to set up sister branches in all the world’s countries, with no place… to be excluded from the remit, with no woman – again, any colour, any creed, any sexual preference, any disability, any mental illness or even general dislikeability, indeed, of any type of diversity – to be excluded from the venture… In her notice in the window, and in a daring modern fashion, she invited all women from the area to put their children out for their evening adventures as usual then, unencumbered, to make their way of a Wednesday evening to her house to hear her talk.

As this suggests, middle sister’s voice is often surprisingly, subtly funny – something you don’t often expect in experimental literary fiction. I particularly loved her interactions with ‘wee sisters’, her very bright, very contrary three younger sisters who all blend into one.

If I have one actual criticism of this book, it’s the lack of paragraphs. Seriously:

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[there are occasionally paragraph breaks, but not on every page!]

Everything else about the book that might be seen as ‘challenging’ – the run-on sentences, the lack of proper names, the quasi-nineteenth-century voice – was completely necessary and not actually that confusing, but I don’t think it would have made any difference if Burns had hit the ‘Enter’ key a lot more often. This may be peculiar to the way that I read – as far as I can tell, I think I tend to seek out the beginnings and ends of paragraphs, then somehow take in the whole thing in one go – but I found I kept on skipping bits accidentally and having to go back. So if this is a device to make people read more carefully, it didn’t work on me. Nevertheless, I’ve never before read a book that I literally couldn’t abandon even though I wanted to, and for that alone, I think Burns deserves her Booker win. (She’s also just been longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize).

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Finally, a random observation. I finished Milkman at the same time as I was reading Jeff VanderMeer’s dystopic sci-fi Annihilation, which follows four female scientists as they embark on an expedition into the mysterious Area X, and they kept on crossing over in odd ways in my head. Whether it was the lack of names, the endemic distrust within a small group of people, the formal first-person narrators, or the feeling of being trapped in an enclosed space where nothing quite makes sense, I don’t know!

Thoughts on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, 2019

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been announced! Here are my thoughts:

The Ones I’ve Read

  • Anna Burns, Milkman. I wrote more about Milkman here: in short, this Booker-winning novel, set in Belfast in the 1970s at the height of the Troubles, was intensely frustrating, but also refused to let go. It certainly deserves its place on this longlist.
  • Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, The Serial Killer. I’m a little bemused as to what this much-hyped, Nigerian-set novel is doing here. It has a great premise: Korede’s sister, Ayoola, has killed her last three boyfriends, forcing Korede to help her mop up the mess, and Ayoola has now set her sights on the man Korede fancies. However, as I wrote on Goodreads: even though they’re very different books, I had similar thoughts about this one as I had about Caroline Kepnes’s You. Is this really doing something edgy, or is it just more of the same from a flipped perspective?
  • Tayari Jones, An American Marriage. I thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of what happens to African-American couple Celestial and Roy’s relationship after Roy is falsely accused of raping a white woman and sent to jail for twelve years. Jones’s writing is effortlessly readable, and I’m now working my way through her backlist. I reviewed An American Marriage here.
  • Diana Evans, Ordinary People. I’m also baffled as to how this has managed to make the longlist. I found this story of two well-off London couples struggling with parenthood and career far too familiar, and although three out of the four protagonists are black, this fails to add enough to lift the novel; neither does the half-baked supernatural plotline. I reviewed Ordinary People here.
  • Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall. Moss’s latest, a creepy novella that follows teenage Silvie as her controlling father forces her to live out a facsimile of Iron Age life in Northumbria, is certainly a worthy contender for the Women’s Prize, although it wasn’t my favourite of her novels. I reviewed Ghost Wall for Shiny New Books here.

The Ones I Already Wanted to Read

  • Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater. This came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019. It deals with a young Igbo woman, Ada, who is ‘peopled with spirits’, and it’s narrated by the different selves within her. While I admire the premise of this novel, I think it’s very unlikely I’ll enjoy it, as I find it very difficult to engage with narrators whose perception of the world is fundamentally distorted. Nevertheless, I want to give it a go.
  • Sally Rooney, Normal People. I feel like I’m the last person in the world not yet to have read Rooney’s second novel, but somebody has had my local library copy checked out for months. I think it’s now time to pay the grand sum of 50p to request a copy through the central library system… upon which point it will almost certainly be returned to my branch.
  • Yvonne Battle-Felton, Remembered. I met Yvonne briefly at a Penguin WriteNow event in Manchester in 2016, when this book was on submission to agents. The premise, which traces an elderly woman’s memories back through the history of slavery in America, sounded fantastic then, and I’m not surprised to see this doing so well.
  • Madeline Miller, Circe. I loved Miller’s The Song of Achilleswhich won the Women’s Prize in 2012, and I’m keen to read this feminist retelling of the Greek goddess Circe’s story.
  • Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive. I just finished Luiselli’s moving long essay, Tell Me How it Ends, which recounts her work as a translator for the unaccompanied child refugees who arrive at the US-Mexico border from the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This novel picks up on similar themes about the ‘immigration crisis’, and sounds totally intriguing.

The Ones I Now Want To Read

  • Lillian Li, Number One Chinese Restaurant. I’d read about this novel, which centres around the owner and staff of a Chinese restaurant in Maryland, on Naomi’s blog, and thought it sounded fun, but wasn’t motivated enough to add it to a TBR list until now.
  • Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. I’ve avoided Pat Barker since struggling with the first of the Regeneration trilogy back when I was a teenager, but I’ve already been convinced to try her again, and I like the sound of this feminist retelling of the Iliad.

The Ones I Just Don’t Want To Read

  • Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan SongI’d already decided that, given my total lack of interest in Truman Capote, this novel about his life wasn’t going to be for me, and the opening pages convinced me further.
  • Bernice L. McFadden, Praise Song for the Butterflies. Claire wrote a great review of this novel, set in a fictional African nation, on her blog, but it doesn’t sound like my sort of thing.
  • Melissa Broder, The Pisces. I’ve heard a lot about this novel, and was initially attracted by a brief blurb claiming that it’s about a woman who falls in love with a merman. However, when I figured out it was a sexual satire, I lost interest.
  • Sophie van Llewyn, Bottled Goods. This is the only longlisted novel I hadn’t heard of, but I’m not drawn in by the blurb, which describes it as a magic realist novel set in 1970s communist Romania. Kudos to the Women’s Prize for longlisting something from such a tiny press (Fairlight Books), however.

The Ones That Should Have Been On The Longlist

I’m pretty cross about the omission of three of my favourite books from last year, Lissa Evans’s Old BaggageSamantha Harvey’s The Western Windand Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, especially given some of the titles that have been longlisted.

The Ones I’m Glad Not To See On the Longlist

I didn’t get on with Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, despite having loved her short story collection, Fen, so I’m pleased not to see it here. Having tried and failed to get into Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, I’m also glad it didn’t make it. While I liked Esi Edugyan’s Washington Blackit didn’t impress me enough to make me feel it deserves to be here, and Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure has attracted too many poor reviews from bloggers I trust to make me want to try it.

What are your thoughts on the Women’s Prize longlist for 2019?

Three Things: February 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter, and apologies for playing with the format a bit!

Reading

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The Binding, Bridget Collins’s first adult novel, is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes, allowing the choice to get rid of painful recollections – or, if you’re struggling to survive, the option of selling your happy or interesting memories for money. When Emmett is sent to train as a bookbinder under the elderly Seredith, he can’t work out why he seems to be in disgrace with his family, or why he reacts so violently to Lucian, an elite young gentleman he encounters, until he realises that he himself has been bound in the past. Collins’s world-building has something of the simple solidity of the wonderful YA writing I loved in my childhood – Monica Furlong and Robin McKinley came to mind. But there’s also a touch of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith in the clever three-part structure, and in the way a private collection of books functions as both horror and revelation. Spoilers for The Binding follow.

As it turns out, Emmett and Lucian fell for each other before the opening of the novel, but when their respective families discovered their love affair, both were bound to hide the ‘shame’ of their sexuality. At the end of Part One, Emmett manages to burn the book that contains his memories, and so reclaims them. The much longer Part Two flashes back to let the reader see how Emmett and Lucian’s relationship developed, but when we’re back in the present in Part Three, we realise that only Emmett now knows the truth; Lucian’s book is still untouched. The climax of the novel sees Lucian torn between whether he should seek out his book – what if it contains evidence that he’s a murderer or a rapist? – or whether he should leave it be. Although Lucian doesn’t know why he was bound, this works pretty neatly as a metaphor for coming to terms with your own sexuality. How long can you lie to yourself about something you already know?

Collins’s background as a YA writer is put to effective use here. What I really liked about The Binding is the way in which it deconstructs what makes YA fiction work so well, but pairs it with stronger writing and a slower, more reflective pace. Readers of YA, especially queer YA, will know that it often pivots on that moment of realisation, that ‘and then he kissed him’, or ‘she kissed her’, though the latter is still unfortunately much harder to find than the former. The Binding lets this happen three times, when Lucian and Emmett first meet, and when they each respectively regain their memories. Moreover, like Fingersmith, it enjoys playing with power dynamics. The novel starts off with the traditional tale, with farm labourer Emmett seduced by the more sexually experienced Lucian, but once Emmett regains his memories and Lucian does not, the tables are amusingly turned. After their ‘first’ encounter, Lucian reflects ‘what he showed me wasn’t tenderness; it was experience. When he first kissed me I thought – in spite of everything – he was innocent. As if he’d never touched anyone else. But that’s absurd. No one fucks like that unless they’ve done it a lot.’ When both Lucian and Emmett learn the truth, their relationship is the more balanced for it. Totally absorbing, and great fun.

Watching Listening

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I don’t seem to have watched anything recently, but I’ve finally found a way to make some time for podcasts – I listen to them while doing repetitive Spanish exercises on Duolingo! Obviously, this requires podcasts that don’t need absolute concentration, but I find BookTube and other podcasts on reading and writing work well for this for me. I’ve been dipping into Savidge Reads and Insert Literary Pun Here‘s channels, as well as some of Tim Clare’s Death of 1000 Cuts podcasts.

I’ve also been enjoying Double Love, a podcast that dissects the ridiculousness of the Sweet Valley High series, one book at a time. I was reading SVH in the late 90s and early 2000s, so I’m much more familiar with the books after #100 (Evil Twin!!!) or so, but it’s fun getting a glimpse at the very different world of the 80s titles.

Thinking

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Yes, yet another book-related one, but I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019, which will be announced on March 4th. THIS IS NOT A PREDICTION, which is why some of the most obvious picks are missing, but rather the sixteen books I’d most like to see on the list. Links to my reviews, where they exist; I haven’t read Rooney, Toews, Griffiths, Serpell, Miller, Kwon, Hustvedt, Li or Forna, but I’m adding them because I’d like to read them.

Normal People: Sally Rooney

Milkman: Anna Burns

Old Baggage: Lissa Evans

Motherhood: Sheila Heti

Women Talking: Miriam Toews

So Lucky: Nicola Griffiths

The Old Drift: Namwali Serpell

Circe: Madeline Miller

Melmoth: Sarah Perry

The Western WindSamantha Harvey

The Incendaries: RO Kwon

Memories of the Future: Siri Hustvedt

Where Reasons End: Yiyun Li

The Night Tiger: Yangsze Choo

Ghost Wall: Sarah Moss [may be too short to qualify]

Happiness: Aminatta Forna

What would you like to see longlisted for the Women’s Prize?