Talking to ghosts: The Library of the Dead by TL Huchu

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TL Huchu’s debut novel, The Library of the Dead, one of my most anticipated 2021 releases, is narrated by a fourteen-year-old Scottish-Zimbabwean girl called Ropa who can talk to ghosts. Her interactions with the dead tend to be short and sweet – after all, the more messages from the afterlife she can pass onto grieving relatives, the more money she can make, and she has to support her gran and little sister. However, when a ghost appeals to her to find out what happened to her young son, who has mysteriously vanished, Ropa finds herself becoming involved in a dangerous mystery that will take her beneath the streets of Edinburgh and into the Library of the Dead.

When I heard that The Library of the Dead was not only an urban supernatural novel but a dystopian one, I wasn’t sure whether Huchu would be able to handle all of these elements in the same novel. As it turns out, the Scottish dystopia he imagines remains a backdrop to the main plot, but a backdrop that is vividly rendered, with brief descriptions that indicate a much more intricate history that I’m sure we’ll discover more about in later books in this series: ‘The concrete walls of the now-old “new Parliament” are marked with graffiti, and there’s a gaping hole through the main entrance, called “the king’s knock”. It was made by a shell from a Challenger tank when separatist MSPs holed up in the building, rejecting the crown’s authority after the restoration. Parliament looks like a wounded animal sunk on its haunches after the hunt, just before it expires. It’s forever caught in that moment. As the wind blows, you can hear its rattly gasps through the yawning cavern.’ If you know Edinburgh, these kind of passages are particularly chilling.

However, there’s a bit too much thrown into The Library of the Dead, or perhaps it’s that everything that’s here doesn’t quite work together, as great as all the components are. We have a slangy teenage narrator akin to El from Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education exploring a library that’s reminiscent of Garth Nix’s Lirael learning a magic system that reminded me a bit of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and ending up somewhere as unnerving as David Mitchell’s Slade House. The book never seems to know exactly where it sits. The tone shifts, as well. The Library of the Dead feels predominantly like YA, sometimes with a darker edge that leads towards adult crossover, and yet the resolution of the mystery of who’s been taking the children is light-hearted enough to be at home in children’s fiction. Ropa’s voice is fantastic – she seems like a genuine autodidact, with her random mix of references and slang – but because she is the kind of narrator who makes complicated jokes and doesn’t always tell us things straight, I think it would have worked better were she narrating a more straightforward plot.

Perhaps because of the amount of information that Huchu packs in, The Library of the Dead also feels weirdly slow, although plenty happens. The very short chapters and scenes chop up the reader’s attention, as Ropa moves between different plot threads, and it’s only in the final third of the novel, when she completely commits to solving the missing children mystery, that it speeds up. Huchu seems to be doing a lot of work here setting up later books in the series by showcasing his rich and original world, but for me, this first instalment struggled to stand on its own, despite all the brilliant things that were in it.

Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education: Sunshine and Shadows

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Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, her second immersive folktale retelling, was one of my top ten books of 2020. Her latest novel, A Deadly Education, is both utterly different and equally brilliant. The first in a trilogy, it’s set at the Scholomance, a magical school that takes all the nagging doubts we had about Hogwarts – ‘why are teenagers allowed to attend a school that’s so dangerous?’ – and runs with them. The Scholomance is infested with mals, dangerous magical creatures that want to kill the trainee wizards within, and so constant vigilance is required to see off attacks, whether you’re getting your lunch in the cafeteria or trying to find a book in the library. However, the curriculum itself, which is not taught by teachers but simply manifests for the students to follow, doesn’t help matters. As El, our first-person narrator, explains:

If you don’t complete a shop assignment on time, your unfinished work will animate on the due date and come after you with whatever power you’ve put into it. And if you try and get around that by not putting anything into it, or doing it wrong, the raw materials you should have used all animate separately and come at you. It’s quite a solid teaching technique.

El blithely tells us near the beginning of the novel that the reason teenage wizards fight to get into the Scholomance is that they’re even more vulnerable to mals in the outside world, which neatly dispenses with some obvious objections to this set-up. And while this isn’t a major theme of the book, I liked its unconscious riposte to Lord of the Flies-type assumptions that teenagers would descend into anarchy if left to their own devices; as we see, these adolescents are as capable of constructing a social order as adults, even if it has many of the same class issues.

El, a half-Indian, half-Welsh social outcast, is such a delightful narrator. If you don’t like tangents in your fiction, forget about reading this book now, because a massive proportion of this book is El simply telling us about how the Scholomance works, how its social hierarchies function, and the myriad ways that the students have devised to try and survive to graduation (only a certain proportion of each year group ever make it out). El even manages to shoot off on several digressions while facing a mawmouth, most terrifying of all the mals. However, I adore this kind of narration, and I can’t wait to devour two more books of it. Coincidentally enough, I happened to re-read Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, one of my favourite books of all time, just before I started A Deadly Education, and I’m convinced that Sunshine’s voice was a huge influence on El’s voice. (This theory was lent weight when I found out that Novik stuck a deliberate reference to another McKinley novel into her first folktale retelling, Uprootedclearly, she’s a fan). Sunshine, who is a coffeehouse baker in an alternative version of our world infested with vampires, shares a lot with El; both enthusiastically tell us about the intricacies of their lives even in the face of danger, and both are afraid that they might become evil. But their voices sound similar even on the sentence level, with a lot of second-person address, long sentences, and snark. Here’s El telling us why the Scholomance exists:

We’re a lot harder to get at in here than if we were living out in the wide open, in a yurt for instance. Even enclave kids were getting eaten more often than not before the school was built, and if you’re an indie kid who doesn’t get into the Scholomance, these days your odds of making it to the far side of puberty are one in twenty. One in four is plenty decent odds compared to that. 

And here’s Sunshine telling us about the ninety percent of people who have both sorcerer and demon blood who go insane:

If you were in the ninety percent, it showed up early. Usually. If you weren’t born with a precocious ability to hoist yourself out of your cost and get into really repulsive mischief, the next likeliest time for you to start running amok was in the pre-teen years, when magic-handling kids are apprenticed for their first serious magic-handling training.

This isn’t to say that A Deadly Education is in any way copying off Sunshine. Both books share a concern with being a powerful magic handler who could go bad (and both build this up brilliantly through slightly unreliable first-person narration) and both also feature enchanted objects, like wards and books, that frequently do go bad, but in most other ways their worldbuilding and storylines are very different. And to be honest, most of this probably wouldn’t even occur to you if you haven’t read Sunshine a worryingly large number of times, like me. What I am saying is, if this is a homage, it’s a fantastic one; and if you liked A Deadly Education, you need to read Sunshine IMMEDIATELY. 

A note: when A Deadly Education first came out, it was accused of being racist in this Goodreads review. As a result, one unintentionally racist, but problematic passage was excised from future editions of the book, and Novik apologised. The review makes a number of other claims about why the book is racist, but in my opinion, these additional claims just don’t stand up. A lot of them are factually wrong, while others have been challenged by other readers of colour from the relevant backgrounds (this review discusses Chinese representation, and this review covers Indian representation). I was also interested to read the comments from biracial people on all of these reviews, as one criticism of El is that she is ‘whitewashed’ and disconnected from her Indian heritage – which she absolutely is, but this seems to make sense given that she has been brought up in Wales by her white mother. Overall, the diversity of the Scholomance is pretty surface-level, and exists largely to facilitate world-building – different languages are useful for different spells, for example. This means that the book doesn’t have much to say about race, or the experience of being biracial, but I don’t think it intended to, and given its style and genre, I think Novik, as a white writer, sensibly decided not to tackle these issues. While I totally agree that it’s a problem if this is the only kind of diversity we get in fiction, this is a structural publishing problem rather than an individual book problem; while publishing remains white-dominated, it’s going to be easier to sell this kind of ‘diversity’ to publishers than books by authors of colour.

Three #NovellasInNovember (and #NaNoWriMo)

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This blog has been a bit quiet recently! The reason for this isn’t that I haven’t been reading – in fact, after a couple of bad reading months, I’ve been tearing through books in November, and have read nine already, though admittedly this included three novellas (see below) and a pretty short YA novel. No, the reason for my relative silence is that I’ve decided to properly commit to #NaNoWriMo this year to finally crank out a significant chunk of a first draft of my Antarctic-set novel, working title Old Ice. I’ve never been able to write more than about 10k words during NaNo before, but I think this year might be my year – lockdown means there are fewer distractions, so I’m getting into a really decent writing habit. Also, it turns out that all my intermittent efforts with freewriting exercises over the last couple of years mean that I’ve built up much more of the world of this novel than I anticipated already, and that I’ve got a lot better at just putting words on the page without my inner editor intervening. However, it turns out that getting out about 1700 words of fiction every day means that something has to give, and I haven’t had as much creative energy for blogposts as normal. So here’s a quick #NovellasinNovember post as a stop-gap.

I never officially join #NovNov, which is co-run by Rebecca and Cathy, because, much in the same way that some people can’t stand short stories, I’m not a big fan of novellas. I almost always end up thinking that the book could have been shorter or longer! However, by chance I usually read a couple of novellas in November anyway, and here are my thoughts on the three I did read.

Becky Albertalli’s Love, Creekwood is a YA novella that’s strictly for fans of her first two novels set in the same universe – Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Leah On The Offbeat. (Technically, The Upside of Unrequited is also in this universe, but I don’t like it so I tend to pretend it doesn’t exist.) If you haven’t read those two books, I don’t think this has much to offer you. But if you have, this is an unashamed 100+ pages of fanservice as we catch up with the Creekwood gang at college, especially our two favourite queer couples. Did this book need to exist? No. Did I want it to exist? Definitely, YES – and as a bonus, Albertalli is donating all her profits to The Trevor Project, an US LGBT+ suicide hotline. Normally I’d be cross at having to pay £4.99 for a novella, but I can’t begrudge that.

Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is narrated by a Chilean writer called Lucina who, due to complications of diabetes, has been told that the veins behind her eyes are fragile and could burst at any minute, rendering her at least partly blind. She’s been instructed to ‘stop smoking… and then don’t hold your breath, don’t cough, do not for any reason pick up heavy packages, boxes, suitcases. Never ever lean over, or dive headfirst into water. The carnal throes of passion were forbidden’. At a party in New York, where she is pursuing an academic career, she suddenly sees red spreading across her vision and realises that the worst has happened. However, even as Lucina tries to navigate the world with limited sight, she realises that she has now been set free to indulge her physical urges in every way she couldn’t before because she feared her fragile veins would break. Meruane has spoken about how this novella is based on her own experience of sight impairment but is not autobiographical; however, she says, one thing she realised when she was almost blind was how visual her world still was, with her brain filling in the gaps. Therefore, Seeing Red is surprisingly full of vivid visual imagery. It’s also written in a stream-of-consciousness rush that allows us to inhabit Lucina’s world as she waits for an operation that may or may not restore her sight. This was another of those stylistically experimental books that keep the reader close inside the protagonist’s head, like A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, that I struggled to connect with emotionally, though it’s incredibly well-written (kudos to the translator, who has had to cope with a lot of figurative language that can’t translate easily, starting with the title itself, which is Sangre en el ojo in the Spanish-language version, or ‘blood in the eye’; apparently, that connotes flying into a rage in the same way that Seeing Red does in English). The medical narrative is fascinating, however, and this book would be a good fit for the Wellcome Prize had it been eligible and were the prize still running.

Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? is a quiet novella about Berie and Sils, whose were incredibly, inseparably close as adolescents in the early 1970s but who no longer see each other now they are adults. The book is framed by two sections where Berie is holidaying in Paris with her husband, but the bulk of it focuses on a single summer when the girls were working summer jobs in Storyland, a run-down children’s amusement park in upstate New York. Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? reminded me of an expanded version of one of Alice Munro’s short stories; Moore has the same ability to distil an entire life into a scant number of pages. I was especially fascinated by the title; Berie explains that the local boys used to shoot frogs with BB guns when she and Sils were children, and they used to try and bandage them up. Later, seeing the tragi-comedy in this situation, teenage Sils painted a picture called ‘Who Will Run The Frog Hospital’ which depicted them caring for the injured frogs. (Moore was reportedly inspired by a real-life painting by Nancy Mladenoff, which appears as a frontispiece in some editions of this novella). This book is all about the evocation of a particular emotional period, and the final paragraph conveys the heartbreaking loss of adolescence as well as anything I’ve read. Thanks very much to Rebecca for passing on her copy!

Have you read any novellas in November? Or is anyone else attempting #NaNoWriMo?

Random Late Summer Non-Fiction Reading

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Perhaps I was always going to have unfair expectations of Gabrielle Moss’s Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of 80s and 90s Teen Fiction, which is a broad survey of a lot of the US middle grade and YA fiction published in these two decades. I don’t research children’s lit or YA at the moment (though watch this space for a super secret exciting project coming soon!!*), but I’ve read enough on the topic to know that there’s scholarly work on this that Moss doesn’t engage with. However, having said that, I think I would have been happy enough with a shallow analysis of publishing trends and genre history if Moss had really seemed to know and love the books that she’s writing about. And while there are exceptions – she’s clearly a big Christopher Pike fan and gives a welcome shout-out to The Midnight Club, also my favourite Pike – she doesn’t really manage to convey her enthusiasm. Here, Moss isn’t well served by the explosion of blogs and online articles that so intelligently and hilariously dissect 80s and 90s mass market paperbacks aimed at this age group. Why would you read Moss on Lurlene McDaniel when you could read Somewhere Between YA Lit and Death? Or on Sweet Valley High when we have 1bruce1 AND Double Love? On the Baby-Sitters’ Club when we have 3_foot_6’s recaps on bsc_snark? On Point Horror when we have Teenage Scream? Or on this era at all when we have Frankie Thomas’s YA of Yore series in The Paris Review? So as I say, a bit unfair – Moss clearly did not have the page space to be able to go into the same amount of depth – but I guess I think this would have worked better if it had focused on a handful of Moss’s own favourite series rather than trying to cover everything (which it can’t, and doesn’t, anyway). The book is worth it for the hilarious full-colour reproductions of 1980s and 1990s book covers alone, however. And for any other 90s kids, I’m sorry not sorry if I just sent you down a rabbit hole with any of those links.

*maybe temper your expectations, unless you are really into 90s/early 00s middle grade US SF

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Recent Cambridge graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi wrote Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change for other black girls like them trying to navigate the still very white spaces of the British university system. However, it’s an important read for anyone who is involved in education in any way, shape or form. The topics covered – institutional racism, white curriculums, mental health, dating – are not obviously different from a number of other books on race and gender in modern Britain, but Kwakye and Ogunbiyi’s specific perspectives as young black women are hugely valuable. Having taught black students at both Oxford and Cambridge, this book made me further reflect on my own practice, sometimes uncomfortably, especially when Kwakye and Ogunbiyi discuss how they felt at times that less was expected of them because they are black women. At a conscious level, I know that I don’t expect less of black female students, but, especially in the one-to-one and one-to-two supervision/tutorial contexts of Cambridge and Oxford, we as supervisors/tutors are constantly making judgment calls about how to interact with students. Do you aggressively press a counter-argument in the hope that this will inspire the student to defend their own case, or should you talk through other interpretations more collaboratively so you don’t make them feel attacked? For obvious reasons, I’ll tread more carefully if I feel that students, of whatever race or gender, seem under-confident or uncertain, but as I’ve reflected in the past, it’s hard to judge whether these snap judgments are influenced by unconscious bias. On the other hand, Kwakye and Ogunbiyi point out that authority figures and peers can go too far the other way, assuming that they are invulnerable because they are ‘strong black women’, and not allowing them space to care for their own wellbeing. This opposing trope reminds the reader that improving black women’s experience of education is a continuous and challenging process of attaining balance in the context of a racist society.

Should you write in the voice of an oppressor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading for a Pandemic

If You Actually Want To Read Books About A Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Three Things… December 2019

Reading

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

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

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

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

Watching

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

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

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

Thinking

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

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

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

 

Three feminist eco-horror dystopias! #SciFiMonth #NovellasinNovember

I’m not sure how #NovellasInNovember officially defines a novella, but, given that I usually read much longer books, I’m going to go for anything under 200 pages. And Naomi Booth’s Sealed is 170 pages of pure, brilliant horror. I heard Booth speak about this novel at the Durham Book Festival and instantly knew I had to read it, especially when I saw it had Victoria (Eve’s Alexandria)’s endorsement. Booth imagines a near-future Australia infected by cutis, a disease that causes skin to seal over all the orifices in the body. Alice, who is nearing the end of her pregnancy, and her partner, Pete, leave Sydney for a small town in the Blue Mountains because they believe the environment will be cleaner and safer; as Alice puts it, ‘I look out at the mountains and the blue-grey haze around them. It’s not like the smog back in the city; there’s nothing yellow or septic-looking about it. The softening of the mountain edges is just distance, and eucalypt oil on the air, and low, fine cloud.’ But, as Booth discussed at her festival event, our ideas about detox, health and rural space are often chimeras; living in a polluted world means that we are polluted too. Often, climate change fiction posits a contrast between unspoiled natural places, often located in developing countries, and Western urban sprawl, but Booth has little time for this, writing about a village located near the Citarum river in Indonesia, ‘the river doesn’t appear to move at all as the reporter walks alongside it; it’s covered over with greyish debris, a barely-drifting scurf of different bits of plastic.’ The ideas explored in Sealed are inherently gripping, but Booth also writes incredibly precise prose and place.

Some shots from my trip to the Blue Mountains in June.

Cynan Jones’s Stillicide is even shorter; technically, it’s 174 pages, but the wide spacing of his short paragraphs means it clocks in at far fewer words than Booth’s novella. Jones originally wrote this series of interlinked short stories to be read on the radio, and from what I can tell from this version, they’d have sounded incredible. Like Sealed, Stillicide is concerned with the displacement of people; this time, their homes on the outskirts of the city are being bulldozed to make way for the ‘Ice Dock’, a huge iceberg designed to solve the urban water crisis. As in his previous novellas, The Dig and Cove, his prose is beautifully sparse and efficient. He has fun with the word ‘stillicide’, which is strung between every story: it means ‘a continual dropping of water’ but also ‘a right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land’. For me, though, there’s also an instinctive if incorrect meaning to the word that filters through Jones’s stories; the ‘cide’ ending makes me think of ‘suicide’, and so ‘stillicide’ sounds to me like a kind of death through standing still, through inaction. While it’s obviously deeply concerned with climate change, Stillicide doesn’t fit the ‘feminist eco-horror dystopia’ tag quite as well as the other two books in this post, but I couldn’t resist that title.

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The BBC Radio 4 advert for Stillicide.

Rory Powers’s 370-page YA novel, Wilder Girls, is definitely not a novella, but it’s so thematically relevant I decided to make it part of this post anyway. Hetty, Reese and Byatt are pupils at the Raxter School for Girls, located on an isolated island. When the novel opens, the school has been cut off from the mainland for eighteen months because of the spread of the Tox, which causes the girls’ bodies to mutate in gruesome ways and also infects the local flora and fauna (there’s more than a hint of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation in this novel – an infected bear even plays a key role – but fortunately it’s not nearly as disturbing!). With food supplies running low and the death toll rising, the girls come to realise that their days on the island are numbered. Great premise, but this book felt too bound by YA conventions for me to really enjoy it, and the obligatory link to climate change was unnecessary – as the two novellas above show, we have no shortage of books that do this well. The pace is, weirdly, both slow and breathless, and the three main characters feel interchangeable. I would have liked this to spend a LOT more time delving into the life of the school and the background to the Tox, and less time on action sequences; there’s also very little on how the girls experience their changing bodies. Even more than VanderMeer, this book reminded me of Ann Halam’s Dr Franklin’s Island, which also focuses on three protagonists forced into a bizarre medical experiment. But while I found the morphing sequences in that book unforgettable – I last read it more than fifteen years ago! – Wilder Girls didn’t make much of an impression on me.

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Dr Franklin’s Island: maybe a YA classic, maybe a book I’d hate if I read it now!

I also read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (thankfully, only 104 pages in my Kindle version) as part of #NovellasinNovember, but as it’s not remotely thematically relevant to this post, I’ve put my review on Goodreads instead. You can read it here. (Dickens fans may want to avoid.)

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?

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!