Some of My Favourite Short Stories

I read a lot of short stories, but I feel like they rarely get the recognition from me that they deserve because it’s unusual that a whole collection is so good as to, say, make it into my top ten books of the year (Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades and Runaway, George Saunders’s Tenth of December and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove are honourable exceptions). They also aren’t eligible for the Women’s Prize, which is the book prize I follow most consistently. Therefore, I thought I would highlight some of my favourite short stories. If I can find online links to the stories, I’ll include them, so you can read along!

General/Literary Fiction

  • Alice Munro: ‘Red Dress – 1946’ from Dance of the Happy Shades. This might seem like an odd choice; it’s one of Munro’s earliest stories and probably feels slight next to some of her later work. But it so perfectly inhabits adolescence, and the last line is both determinedly low-key and unforgettable. You can read the opening of this story here.
  • Nafissa Thompson-Spires, ‘Suicide, Watch’ from Heads of the Colored PeoplePretty much the only story I’ve ever read that has managed an effective satire about excessive use of social media. Read it here.
  • Matthew Kneale, ‘Powder’ in Small Crimes in an Age of AbundanceStarts with a middle-ranking lawyer who feels he has been overlooked for promotion since achieving the rank of salaried partner and goes to some bizarre places. Many of the other stories in this collection are also worth reading.
  • Lionel Shriver, ‘The Standing Chandelier’ in Property [also published as a stand-alone]. Shriver at her worst is unreadable; Shriver at her best is unforgettable. I also liked ‘Kilifi Creek’ in the same collection, which is thematically remiscient of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am.
  • Michel Faber, ‘Vanilla Bright Like Eminem’ from The Fahrenheit Twins. I’ve never forgotten this simple story, in which a man unknowingly experiences the best moment of his life. Read it here.
  • Sarah Hall, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ from The Beautiful Indifference. Again, pretty much everything in this collection is amazing, but I loved this evocation of a small and brutal Cumbrian town.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ from The Thing Around Your Neck. In an otherwise undistinguished collection, this story about writing your own life as a Nigerian woman stood out, prefiguring Adichie’s magnificent Americanah. Read it here.
  • Curtis Sittenfeld, ‘The Nominee’ from You Think It, I’ll Say ItI loved this short story about Hillary Clinton, and can’t wait for the novel-length version. Read it here.
  • Lauren Groff, ‘Ghosts and Empties’ from Florida. Such an evocative collection, and this story, about a woman walking the streets of her neighbourhood, has stayed with me. Read it here.
  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, ‘The Lion and the Spider’ from Friday BlackThis isn’t really representative of Adjei-Brenyah’s speculative satire, but it’s such a moving story.

Speculative and Science Fiction

  • Ted Chiang, ‘Story of Your Life’ from Stories of Your Life and OthersMade famous by its film adaptation, Arrival, ‘Story of Your Life’ pulls off what I thought was an impossible plot-line (I saw the film first, and thought the twist was ridiculous) in Chiang’s characteristically cerebral style. Read it here.
  • George Saunders, ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ from Tenth of DecemberBrilliantly surreal and utterly horrifying, like many of Saunders’ imaginings. Read it here. I also loved ‘Sticks’ from the same collection, which is so short it’s almost flash fiction, and yet so powerful.
  • Karen Russell, ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ from Vampires in the Lemon GroveLet’s face it, I could have chosen any story from this wonderful collection (apart from that weird one where the presidents are all horses). The titular story is both deliciously weird and so grounded. I mean, how can you not like a story where a vampire feeding from a lemon describes it as ‘bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt’?
  • Alice Sola Kim, ‘Now Wait For This Week’ from LaValle et al ed., A People’s Future of the United StatesI’ve been raving about this already, but it’s just so good, cleverly inverting the Groundhog Day conceit, and you can read it here.
  • Ted Chiang, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ from ExhalationNo apologies for putting Chiang on the list twice; he just writes such good SF short stories. This one made me sad, because I will never write time travel as well as Chiang does, and happy, because he gets it so right. His ‘Story Notes’ on this story also perfectly sum up the time travel genre in a paragraph. Basically, he’s a genius. Read it here.
  • Daisy Johnson, ‘Starver’ from Fen. A girl turns into an eel against the backdrop of an eerie fenland landscape.
  • Lesley Nneka Arimah, ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ from What It Means When A Man Falls From the Skyin which a mother’s yarn baby starts to unravel; read it here. I also loved the titular short story from this collection, about ‘grief collectors’ during a time of war, but thought it would have been even better expanded into a novel.
  • Kirsty Logan, ‘The Rental Heart’ from The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. Many of the stories in this folklore-inspired collection felt a bit insubstantial to me, but I loved this tale of clockwork hearts that get passed around and broken. Read it here.
  • Jen Campbell, ‘Bright White Hearts’ from The Beginning of the World In The Middle of the NightAgain, most of the pieces in this collection didn’t quite work for me, for similar reasons to Logan’s, but this story about a woman working at an aquarium was poetic and memorable. Read it here.
  • Carmen Maria Machado, ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, from Her Body and Other Parties. I haven’t read the rest of the collection yet but I loved this story, which imagines a world where women are gradually becoming insubstantial.

Ghost and Horror

  • M.R. James, ‘Casting the Runes’, from Collected Ghost Stories. And now for something completely different. I’m not a massive fan of M.R. James, but I love this terrifying story of demonic pursuit, which you can read here. I also like his ‘The Tractate Middoth’, set in the stacks of Cambridge University Library, which are just crying out for ghost stories.
  • T.E.D. Klein, ‘The Events on Poroth Farm’ which I encountered in American Supernatural Tales. Technically, this is a novella, but I’m having it anyway because it is one of the scariest things I’ve ever read. It also provides a crash course in American supernatural fiction.
  • Garth Nix, ‘The Creature in the Case’, published as a stand-alone for World Book Day in the UK. To throw in a bit of YA, this is another frightening story of supernatural pursuit (I’m sensing a theme here) that takes place in the same universe as Nix’s Old Kingdom novels.

This got LONG – apologies! What this indicates to me is, although I also read a lot of speculative and science fiction in novel form, I especially enjoy speculative and SF short stories; this isn’t surprising, given the history of this genre. Ghost and horror stories also tend to work better for me in short form. The favourite stories that don’t fall into these categories tend to be slices of life that say something about power structures, either societal or within a particular friendship group or family, or which are especially evocative on landscape. Historical fiction is, perhaps unsurprisingly, totally absent.

What are your favourite short stories or short story collections? Do you tend to have different genre preferences when you read short stories?

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Choose The Year Book Tag: 2003

Thanks for Laura (Reading in Bed) for tagging me for this! The idea is that you select a certain year and look back at the books published in that year. Like others, I’ve used the Goodreads Top 200 list for convenience.

1. Choose a year and say why.

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My Y11 yearbook picture from 2003.

I’ve picked 2003 because it falls on the cusp for me; I turned seventeen in September 2003, so this was really the period when I was moving from teenage fiction to adult novels, but still dipping back into YA here and there! I’ve noticed that the Goodreads Top 200 tends to feature YA quite heavily, so I thought it would be fun to pick a year where I have both YA and adult fiction to talk about.

2. Which books published in that year have you read, or if none, heard of?

I’ve read 24! Almost an eighth of the Goodreads Top 200, although there are some dubious entries (Harry Potter appears twice, as a single book (Order of the Phoenix) and as a series, and I’m pretty sure The Cat In The Hat wasn’t first published in 2003; nor, although I have not read it, was Plato’s Symposium).

I’m not going to discuss all 24, so here are some highlights:

 

  • Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada still infuriates me whenever I think of it because of how Andy is treated for prioritising her career rather than her boyfriend. Said boyfriend is also very stupid because he cannot seem to understand that Andy hasn’t ‘sold out to the fashion world’ but is deliberately doing the internship from hell for one year to hold out for what she really wants to do. The film has a different ending, but is equally, if not more annoying in this respect. Still love it though…
  • We Need To Talk About Kevin is Lionel Shriver’s most famous book but it’s only midlist in terms of quality; my favourites are Double Fault and The Post-Birthday World. It’s a shame that Shriver seems to have become so offensive and shortsighted in recent years, as her writing used to be excellent, and still is when she isn’t ranting about libertarianism.
  • Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is one of my favourite books of all time; a vampire novel that doesn’t fall back on a single cliche, it’s set in a totally convincing alternative world where humans are trying and slowly failing to hold back the dark, but where where there’s still space for good cinnamon rolls, painted motorcycles and used book fairs that yield favourite novels and protective objects. READ IT.
  • Zoe Heller’s Notes on A Scandal is a wonderful portrayal of not just obsession, but loneliness and isolation – the film is very good in some ways but drops the ball badly by making Barbara into a stalkerish lesbian stereotype – no hint of that in the book.
  • Jostein Gaarder’s The Orange Girl isn’t my favourite book by him (I’ll be writing more about Gaarder when I get around to the books in translation tag), but the storytelling is still compelling and it rests on an obvious twist that amazingly worked very well for me as a teenager.
  • Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light (published as A Northern Light in the US and on this list) made me very cross as a teenager and I can’t remember why! I definitely wasn’t a fan of the heroine.
  • Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice was a disappointment to me after loving her Alanna, Daine and Kel series; I never warmed to Aly as a character or got over her romance with a bird!
  • Philippa Gregory’s The Queen’s Fool is a very silly historical novel in numerous ways, not least its ahistorical take on gender norms, but I still like its no-holds-barred version of Elizabeth I before she became queen; Elizabeth is so often presented as so saccharine (e.g. in the film Elizabeth, which has her totally innocent of all conspiracy against Mary) this is a nice antidote, even if it goes too far the other way… Along with David Starkey’s Elizabeth, this probably inspired my A Level history dissertation which was on Elizabeth’s involvement in plotting during Mary I’s reign.
  • Eoin Colfer’s The Eternity Code, third in his Artemis Fowl series, is a book I can no longer remember anything about other than its very glittery cover, but has brought back fond memories of the first in the series which was very fun.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is one of the few books on this list I read AFTER the year 2003, and like all her writing, it’s subtle and moving.

3. Are there any books published in that year that sound interesting and would you read them now?

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Very, very few on this list! I’m really only interested in reading Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor after reading Rachel’s review of it. I suppose I might eventually get round to reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.

4. Most obscure sounding book?

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Looking only at books that don’t fit into obvious categories (i.e. I don’t read romance, so it’s all obscure to me, but I don’t think that makes it obscure in general) I’ve gone for Bill Willingham’ Fables: Volume 2: Animal Farm just because I’m really confused as to what it is! A graphic novel? Here’s the blurb:

Ever since they were driven from their homelands by the Adversary, the non-human Fables have been living on the Farm—a vast property in upstate New York that keeps them hidden from the prying eyes of the mundane world. But now, after hundreds of years of isolation, the Farm is seething with revolution, fanned by the inflammatory rhetoric of Goldilocks and the Three Little Pigs. And when Snow White and her sister Rose Red stumble upon their plan to liberate the Homelands, the commissars of the Farm are ready to silence them—by any means necessary!

5. Strangest book cover?

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Yuu Watase’s Absolute Boyfriend has to win this – what is going on here?? To be honest,  this manga novel actually sounds amazing:

Shy high school student Riko Izawa aches for a boyfriend but guys just won’t look her way. Then one day she signs up for a three-day trial of a mysterious “lover figurine,” and the next thing she knows, a cute naked guy is delivered to her doorstep–and he wants to be her boyfriend!

Has Riko died and gone to heaven? The cute naked guy turns out to be smart, super nice, stylish and a gourmet chef. Plus, he looks like a million bucks…. Trouble is, that’s about what he’s going to cost Riko because she didn’t return him in time!

I don’t tend to tag people, but I love this tag, so please have a go if you fancy it and haven’t already done it!

 

Reading on My Travels, Sydney 2019: Mini-Reviews

I headed onwards from Tokyo to Sydney for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth conference at Australian Catholic University. Sydney wasn’t as high on my personal wish list as Tokyo, but it was still amazing to get the chance to spend time there (and in the Blue Mountains):

I read two books not from my 20 Books of Summer list in Sydney (and started The Nix and Atlantic Winds as well):

Never Far From Nowhere, one of Andrea Levy’s earlier novels, actually felt much more original to me than her later, more well-known works The Long Song or Small Island. Perhaps this is simply my aversion to much historical fiction, or perhaps Levy herself wrote better about more contemporary times and places. Technically, Never Far From Nowhere, published in 1996, is historical fiction: set on a council estate in the 1970s, it revels in the details of teenage life in that decade, from bovver boots to tights with carefully-positioned rows of holes to hippie hair to Ben Sherman checked shirts. However, Levy is clearly drawing on her own experiences growing up in Islington (although the book is set in Finsbury Park) and so this deluge of detail feels properly authentic.

Never Far From Nowhere follows two sisters, Olive and Vivian. Neither of them is traditionally likeable. Olive, darker-skinned and both much more acutely aware of her blackness and more willing to adopt it as an identity, leaves school with no qualifications and struggles in a series of short-term jobs. She rows constantly with her mother, but her younger sister, Vivian, is jealous of how Olive always seems to be the centre of attention, the one that their mother really cares about. This is despite the fact that Vivian makes every effort to meet their mother’s expectations: she works hard at grammar school and has ambitions to go to art college. Levy carefully balances the family dynamics, not allowing her story to become a simple binary between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sister.

The plot also plays with ideas of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ working-class immigrant – Olive and Vivian were both born in England, but their parents emigrated from Jamaica. ‘Mouthy’ Olive ends up on benefits and doggedly chases up a council flat; Vivian aspires to be socially mobile and keeps her mouth shut when her friends toss around racial slurs. Olive’s recalcitrance seems deliberate; why should we only have sympathy for those who are doing all the right things? And despite Vivian’s academic intelligence, it’s Olive who is clearest about the structural oppression the sisters face in England, although she can be strikingly naïve in certain situations. Never Far From Nowhere lacks deliberate structure; it’s a slice of these sisters’ lives, and ends at a point that feels largely arbitary. It’s also a pretty grim read. Nevertheless, Levy’s portrayal of 1970s north London through the eyes of these two sisters stands out.

Because I work on young people’s writing in post-war Britain, I was excited to read Rife: Twenty-One Stories From Britain’s Youth, a collection of essays by young people aged sixteen to twenty-four, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Sammy Jones. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in most of these essays on a number of counts. Firstly, it has to be said: most of the writing here isn’t very good. I know from reading blogs, short stories and novels written by young/er people, as well as from reading the writing of my own undergraduate students, that writers in their late teens and early twenties are as capable of producing wonderful and insightful prose as any other group of writers. However, I worry that others reading this collection will lazily assume that nothing better can be expected from young people.

The problem possibly lies in the way many of these essays were produced: rather than seeking out twenty-one independent contributions, a lot of these essays emerged from a single project at Watershed in Bristol, which produced Rife magazine. Whatever the process was, it seems to have encouraged many of these writers towards a ponderous and formal style; individual voice is smothered and a lot of the essays sound the same. Rather than drawing on personal experience, many of the essays pontificate on very familiar topics: the rental crisis, poor funding for mental health and university fees. (One essay on the university experience was particularly enraging; the writer rightly criticises high fees but seems to blame lecturers for not providing ‘value for money’ e.g. for going on strike over staff pensions, rather than government policies. I know from talking to my own students about these issues that many undergraduates are not this short-sighted).

My second problem with this collection is more an issue of personal preference. Most of these writers talk about their experience as young people by invoking the language of generational inequality; making the usual arguments about the unfairness of rising house prices, unemployment and student debt in comparison to the experience of their parents’ generation. While I agree with these arguments, I was hoping that these writers might have more to say about the way that age itself acts as an oppressive category. This may in its turn result from the limited range of ages represented by the contributors. The majority are in their early twenties – already looking back on adolescence. The one essay that is obviously written by a teenager, ‘Sweet Sixteen: Kiss, Marry, Vote’, was one of my favourites. Amber Kirk-Ford effectively challenges the relevance of chronological age, arguing: ‘If some sixteen-year-olds are disengaged or badly behaved, that is equally true of apparent grown-ups… [not giving sixteen-year-olds the vote] is based on the myth that all young people are exactly the same, and are less mature than adults’. Other essays worked well for me despite the fact that they weren’t focused on questions of age because of the way they explored other intersectional identities; for example, Shona Cobb’s essay on her experiences of living with Marfan Syndrome, ‘Exclusion’, and Mariam Khan’s essay on being an hijabi, ‘My Body, My Choice’. On the whole, however, while I think projects of this kind are really important, I’ve read much better writing by teenagers and young adults elsewhere.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 11th July 2019.

Edit: I meant to add my (dissatisfied) thoughts about The Nix and Atlantic Winds to this post and forgot, so here are links to my Goodreads reviews:

The Nix (**1/2), DNF @ 35%

Atlantic Winds (**1/2), only finished because it was so short

20 Books of Summer, #2 and #3: Queenie and Pulp

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Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams’s debut novel, has attracted comparisons to Bridget Jones for its funny and frank account of a young black woman working in the media, living in London, navigating bad one-night stands and on-off relationships with men, and relying on the support of her loyal group of female friends, or, as she renames their WhatsApp group, ‘The Corgis’. However, Queenie is more of a straight reinvention of the much-maligned and, in recent years, unpopular ‘chick lit’ genre than a successor to Bridget Jones. As I have said many times (and am going to keep saying until people stop saying the opposite!) Bridget Jones, at least in novel form, is not chick lit or a ‘romcom’ but social satire. Bridget is not meant to be a feminist icon and we aren’t necessarily meant to like her. In contrast, Queenie is hugely sympathetic, and realistically flawed. Her story is a satisfyingly different take on the chick lit plot. Rather than being relegated to the role of the ‘black best friend’, she takes centre stage, with both her white and black friends firmly positioned as her supporting cast; rather than personifying white liberal feminism at her media job, she vocally supports Black Lives Matter, despite resistance from her boss; and the ending is nicely unexpected.

Queenie is also far less ‘feelgood’ than most chick lit, and for all the right reasons; the misogynist and racist abuse Queenie receives, most often entwined in the form of ‘misogynoir‘, is incredibly distressing to read (and I’m speaking about this from the point of view of a white woman who has never had to receive this kind of abuse, so God knows how it must feel to read this if you’re a woman of colour). I found myself feeling angry on Queenie’s behalf almost all of the time, although I liked the way that Carty-Williams challenges the ‘strong black woman’ trope by allowing Queenie to be vulnerable and to seek help from a therapist. Queenie is the target of so much hate because her physical body is hyper-visible in the white-dominated places she’s forced to frequent; from a trendy lido, to her workplace, where only three ‘diverse’ colleagues could be found to appear in a ‘diversity’ poster (‘Zainab in Digital had refused to take part’), to the bars and clubs of Brixton that used to be dominated by her black Caribbean community. Her size, her hair, her skin colour and her shape (‘a bum like yours needs room for manoeuvre’) are all used to belittle and objectify her. In this way, she is a constantly ‘visible woman’, but not for the right reasons.

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Abby is a seventeen-year-old lesbian living in DC in the present day who’s decided to do her school project on post-war lesbian pulp fiction; Janet is an eighteen-year-old lesbian living in DC in the 1950s, trying to hide her sexuality as she finds herself falling in love with her best friend. Robin Talley’s Pulp alternates between these two girls’ stories, exploring the historical difficulties of being homosexual in an age of McCarthy and the ‘lavender menace’, while also dealing with Abby’s more mundane struggles with her family, her ex-girlfriend, and what being in love might mean.

Pulp has a great premise, but like much YA fiction, it suffers from being YA. Much as I wish writers wouldn’t write down to a teenage audience (though the majority of YA is actually read by adults) they continue to do so, and everything in Pulp is spelt out and ticked off far too neatly. Talley puts great effort into her diverse cast, featuring a range of characters of colour, a non-binary friend, and a number of bi and gay characters alongside her lesbian leads, but these feel like nothing more than lip-service, especially given that few of them play much of a role in the novel. Abby’s strand of the story is particularly slow, and Abby herself is really not an engaging character. The historical material is more interesting, but I didn’t feel as confident as I should have done with Talley’s handling of this period; some details, like Janet’s job at a drive-in, feel real, most feel too simplistic.

Pulp did, however, make me think about what a book about lesbians aimed at this kind of audience should be doing, if not for the right reasons. Abby rightfully condemns the kind of still-too-familiar queer narrative that sees its characters meet an unhappy ending, but she doesn’t seem to know what she wants to put in its place. As part of her project, she’s meant to be writing her own take on pulp fiction, but apart from ditching the ‘twilight realm’ and ‘in the shadows’ connotations and calling it Totally Normal Women in the Daylight, we never get a sense of what’s different about her plot. In fact, at one point, her teacher tells her that one of her characters, Henrietta, needs to grow and change throughout the course of the book, and Abby resists this – society was what was wrong, not Henrietta, she thinks. Of course, Abby sees this differently by the end of Pulp, but I didn’t get why – wouldn’t this actually be one way of challenging story conventions, by showing gay characters who don’t change, because they don’t need to, but also don’t have the protagonist’s traditional ‘agency’ because of the heteronormative world in which they live?

Pulp clearly wants to be something a bit more serious than Becky Albertalli’s delightful, feelgood LBGT YA novels (Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Upside of Unexpected, Leah On the Offbeat) but, in aiming for this, it fails to deliver the subversive happiness of those stories, and doesn’t really deliver anything else. And it has nothing to say about LGBT identity, really, other than that oppression is bad. Overall – and so ironically for a book about pulp fiction – I just found it a bit worthy.

I’m still away travelling at the moment and so may take longer to reply to comments than usual.

The Books That Made Me, Part 2

Part I can be found here. Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Early Teenage Years (13 to 16)

 

In my early teens, SF and fantasy still dominated my reading, with a little more realism creeping in. I read Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom as a child, along with many of her other novels, but in my early teens, my absolute favourite was Back Home, about a twelve-year-old girl, Rusty, who returns to England at the end of the Second World War after being evacuated to the States. As someone who spent a significant part of her childhood in Washington DC before moving ‘back home’ to England, where I was born, I strongly identified with Rusty. As I got older, I appreciated Magorian’s subtle characterisation more and more; Back Home is less idealised than Goodnight Mister Tom, and the adult characters don’t split so neatly into good and bad.

Berlie Doherty’s The Sailing Ship Tree really shaped my own writing as a teenager; set in the Edwardian period, it describes the emerging friendship between ‘Master George’, the privileged son of a landed family, and twins Dorothy and Walter, who live on his estate. Told in multiple viewpoints, The Sailing Ship Tree has virtually no plot but is emotionally complex and very moving.

I devoured Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights when it first came out and waited eagerly for the next two books in the series. Sadly, I’ve found that I don’t enjoy re-reading Pullman as an adult, but I absolutely loved all the His Dark Materials books as a teenager. Going to a comprehensive school in Bath where evangelical Christianity was surprisingly dominant among my fellow pupils, I ate up Pullman’s opposition to organised religion, even though I now find his world-view simplistic and aggressive. I also loved reading Pullman’s writing advice, much of which is quite sound, and his suggestion [paraphrased] that ‘writers should study anything but English Literature’ had a big hand in me choosing a History degree.

John Christopher’s The Lotus Caves is about two teenagers living on the moon who fall through its surface into a strange underground world. Eerie and compelling, I still enjoy reading this. Another SF favourite was Lois Lowry’s much more famous The Giver, which still has me pondering ethical questions about the distribution of resources in a fair society, the problems with sexual attraction, and how we handle feelings.

Finally, Susan Cooper’s time-slip story King of Shadows had a much bigger impact on me than her more famous Dark Is Rising series, which I read as a child. Nathan, mourning the loss of his parents, is flung back in time and becomes an actor in Shakespeare’s company. This rather whimsical premise is rooted in clever historical detail and a beautiful exploration of the filial bond that develops between Nathan and Shakespeare.

Late Teenage Years (16 to 19)

 

While the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books were not as structurally perfect as the first three, they fuelled my Harry Potter obsession further; this article gives a pretty good account of how it felt to be a teenage fan in the years before book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, came out. While I never ‘shipped’ Sirius and Lupin, I was just as devoted to seeking out clues in the text of the first five books as were the romance-orientated fans described in the article linked above. I was convinced that the moral complexity that seemed to be emerging in book five, when Sirius tells Harry that ‘the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters‘, would pay off, and spent hours on the internet discussing theories with fellow fans – both other teenagers, and adults. Therefore, it’s hard to convey just how disappointed I was by book six without sounding silly. I’d invested so much time and effort into this series, and I felt like JKR had thrown it all in my face – the terrible romance, the awful plotting, the evil-from-birth baby Tom Riddle who ‘never cried’. I’m not going to write extensively about Harry Potter here because I have a Monster Rant post coming up, but suffice it to say that my anger with books six and seven was incredibly formative. As an adult, I can see that many of the structural problems that afflicted the last two books in the series were present in books four and five as well, but the material in those books was so much more generous and interesting, that I still like them even though I know I shouldn’t.

Luckily, George R.R. Martin stepped in to fill the fantasy gap. I first read A Game of Thrones in 2004, when seemingly no-one else in the UK had heard of it, and became totally addicted to A Song of Ice and Fire, blazing through the next three books over the next year. Please always remember: these books are nothing like the TV series. Rather than a nihilistic world portrayed through a series of misogynistic tropes, Martin presents a universe that is brutal and misogynistic, but where hope and honour can win out, and with a large and diverse female cast who deal with Westerosi society in their own way. What Martin is best at is handling the readers’ sympathies; making us rethink our own allegiances; exploring shades of grey. It’s a literary skill that I still think is massively underrated, and it’s been hugely influential on my own writing. One day I’m going to write a longer post about A Song of Ice and Fire, but suffice it to say that it ENRAGES me that the Harry Potter series has a wholly undeserved ‘feminist’ reputation, whereas Song is written off as sexist, largely because of the awful TV series.

 

And now we get to the really formative books, the books that have had the most profound impact on the way I read and write. The most significant of these has to be Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. As an eighteen-year-old, I was entranced by how Ishiguro approached speculative fiction; throwing scientific accuracy out the window in favour of emotional truth. Kathy H’s voice is absolutely convincing, and I still think about Tommy’s tantrums: ‘Maybe I knew something all along. Something the rest of you didn’t’. If you haven’t read this uncanny story of three teenagers growing up in a peculiar school, what on earth are you waiting for?

Two classic novels also shaped my mindset during this period. My school had been given a free set of Everyman’s Classics at some point, so around the age of sixteen, I started methodically reading through them. I had studied Jane Eyre in Year Nine and liked it, but Charlotte Bronte’s lesser-known and yet greater novel, Villette, totally blew me away. Lucy Snowe, its protagonist, is a strikingly modern heroine who only slowly infiltrates her way into the narrative. She’s an unreliable and not totally likeable narrator, but Bronte’s exploration of her emotional isolation is utterly heartbreaking. I’ve written more about Villette here. Similarly, Middlemarch was an education; the ways in which Eliot extends sympathy to each and every character are still too little replicated in modern novels. (Though it’s clearly an inferior text, I also loved Adam Bede).

Finally, I returned to a childhood favourite, Robin McKinley, for two novels that I’ve re-read countless times. Rose Daughter, a second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, shaped how I write about place and landscape, with its beautiful evocation of the Beast’s castle and the roses that Beauty cultivates there. (Poor McKinley has been lumbered with some terrible covers in her time – please ignore the fact that this looks like a bad romance novel!) Sunshine, which featured vampires before they became fashionable, is a totally different kind of story, with its rambling, captivating narrator and brilliantly imagined futuristic world. I’m only allowed to re-read this very occasionally for fear of wearing the magic out; I love it so much.

What were your favourite teenage reads, and do you still enjoy them now?

[NB. I have put the promised Parts 2 and 3 into one post as there wasn’t really a sensible way to separate them – hence why this is so long!]

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?

 

The Last 10 Books Tag

I’ve seen this popping up everywhere, but most recently at Annabel’s blog.

The last book I gave up on

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. I wanted to read about people climbing Everest, but when I realised that a substantial amount of this doorstopper was about the First World War, I stopped reading it. I’ve read a lot of historiography on the experience of the war, and its myth and memory, for work, and so revising this just isn’t that fun for me.

The last book I re-read

Abhorsen by Garth Nix. If you haven’t read this creepy, atmospheric YA quartet, which starts with Sabriel, you really ought to. Nix brings his fantasy universe, peopled by necromancers, seers and animate corpses, vividly to life, and he wrote about a kingdom divided by a Wall behind which the dead walk before George R. R. Martin did.

The last book I bought

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. I thought it was fabulous and will be reviewing it here soon.

The last book I said I read but actually didn’t

I can’t remember ever doing this. Unless I’ve done it by accident? I perhaps have claimed to have read Bleak House when I’ve only read half of it, but that was enough for a lifetime.

The last book I wrote in the margins of

Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch. A popular, conservative-ish history of education in twentieth-century America. I write in all the academic books I own.

The last book I had signed

Solar by Ian McEwan. I never have books signed for myself, so got this signed as a present for my mum several years back. My impression of McEwan was not favourable.

The last book I lost

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. This childhood favourite was sadly left on a train, and I must get round to buying a new copy. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna for grown-ups.

The last book I had to replace

Freeze Tag by Caroline B. Cooney. This Point Horror classic really isn’t very good, but I wanted it for inspiration for my current work-in-progress. It turns out the best thing about it is the cover and the title, and my teenage self was quite right to get rid of my previous copy.

The last book I argued over

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I really couldn’t get on with this at all, finding it shallow and a bit ridiculous, but many fellow members of my creative writing group loved it.

The last book I couldn’t find

My treasured chick lit collection, c. 2005-c.2010, including many titles by Lindsey Kelk, Harriet Evans and Miranda Dickinson. My dad found these books for me hiding in a box after I explained the concept of I Heart…  to him. (‘You mean it’s called ‘I Love New York?’ ‘No, I Heart New York.’ ‘A book can’t be called that.’)