Thaniel Steepleton, a translator and former boxer, and Keita Mori, a watchmaker, live an unconventional but happy life together with their adopted daughter Six in late Victorian London. Mori’s clairvoyant powers don’t impinge much on their day-to-day life – perhaps he sometimes answers questions before he’s asked them, or knows that their neighbour will deliver a healthy baby before she does. However, this changes with a vengeance when Mori abruptly realises that he must go to Yokohama, and Thaniel follows him, taking up a posting in the British legation in Tokyo. Once they’re in Japan, staying on Mori’s unexpectedly grand family estate, Thaniel becomes increasingly aware that Mori’s ability to see the future is leading him to carry out a plan that is too big for Thaniel to understand – and in which there may be no place for him. Meanwhile, Thaniel’s ex-wife Grace investigates the mysterious wave of electrification sweeping in with the wind, while Takiko Pepperharrow, an old friend of Mori’s, heads off on secret business to a frozen prison in northern Japan. Mori may be a clairvoyant, but how much of this has he planned ahead – and how much is outside his control?
In the hands of a different writer, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, with its clockwork octopus and electrical ghosts, could have risked being both twee and Orientalist. But Natasha Pulley already negotiated colonialist questions deftly in The Bedlam Stacks, and she knows how to walk the line between the atmospheric and the gimmicky (I found her use of Thaniel’s synesthesia a bit gimmicky in the prequel to this novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, but luckily it’s barely mentioned here). She also spent some time living in Tokyo and speaks Japanese, which helps to dispel some stereotypes. I loved her author’s note on the use of language in the book, which explains that Western audiences tend to think of Japanese as an unfailingly polite and formal language, but she’s tried to show what ‘normal, working-class Tokyo Japanese actually sounds like’ in her rendition of it in English, so we have Japanese speakers saying things like ‘sod off!’ and ‘Fucking ghosts!’ And the novel is beautifully evocative of Mori’s estate, with its hot pools that smell of sulphur and pine trees wreathed with prayer cards.
Most impressive, however, is how Pulley ties Mori’s gift of precognition into the narrative, which is much more intricate than the story she told in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Having spent too much time writing a time travel novel, I know how difficult it can be to plot when the normal rules of cause and effect are suspended, but clairvoyance introduces a whole new set of problems. How far should we hold Mori responsible for things that he knew were going to happen but did nothing to prevent? Doesn’t his gift simply reduce all the other characters in the novel to his puppets, because he knows what they’re going to do in advance and so can factor it into his plans? How do you write a book where one of the central characters already knows the ending? Perhaps inevitably given all this, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow feels oddly weighted, with so much unfolding in the last fifty pages or so, but Pulley generally handles these concerns with aplomb. She also thinks about the emotional effects of Mori’s abilities; how you love somebody who knows what’s going to happen to you; how he can love you back with the weight of all that knowledge. This novel isn’t quite as brilliant as The Bedlam Stacks, but it’s pretty close.
I’m having a go at Cathy’s (746 Books) 20 Books of Summer challenge for the fourth year running!
I had grand plans about making 20 Books of Summer a re-reading challenge this year, but two things have got in my way: firstly, most of my books are stored at my dad’s, so I haven’t been able to access some of the titles I wanted to re-read, and secondly, I’ve managed to build up a big TBR pile through stockpiling books when lockdown first started. While I know others are happy to have a lot of TBR books on their shelves, I really don’t like it, and so I’m going to clear the pile by putting all of them on this list!
Last year, I managed to read and review all 20 books for the first time, so I won’t be too bothered if I don’t manage it this time – but a lot of these are ARCs, so I’ll probably be reading and reviewing them anyway.
My Twenty Books
Each with a one-line plot summary, then a one-line summary of why I’ve chosen it, plus bonus details on where I bought/borrowed it from.
The Road Home: Rose Tremain. Lev, an Eastern European immigrant, seeks work in Britain to support his family. I checked this out of my local library just before lockdown started, and it’s a past winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, so forms part of my #ReadingWomen challenge this year.
The Mercies: Kiran Millwood Hargrave. This focuses on two women living in a Norwegian coastal village in the 1600s who are threatened with accusations of witchcraft after a storm kills all of the island’s men. I love the summary, and it’s on the alternative Women’s Prize longlist. Kindle deal.
The Terror: Dan Simmons. Continuing a theme, this blockbuster novel imagines that Sir John Frankin’s ill-fated mid-nineteenth-century expedition to the Arctic was stalked by a monster. I think this was recommended by Elle? Anyway, it ticks a lot of my boxes. Kindle deal.
BrixtonHill: Lottie Moggach. Rob is reaching the end of his time in an open prison in Brixton, now allowed out for a few hours a day to volunteer in a local charity shop; but after an encounter with a mysterious woman, everything hangs in the balance. I thought Moggach’s two previous books, Kiss Me First and Under The Sun,were thoughtful literary thrillers, and this promises more of the same. NetGalley, out in July.
You Will Never Be Forgotten: Mary South. This collection of speculative short stories looks at what happens when technology intersects with human emotion in a near-future world. Sounds right up my street, and I like having at least one collection of short stories for 20 Books of Summer. Netgalley, out in August.
Summerwater: Sarah Moss. Told over the course of a single day in a Scottish holiday park, this short novel charts rising tensions between twelve residents. I’ve read everything Moss has written, and this was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases. Netgalley, out in August.
Blue Ticket: Sophie Mackintosh. This high-concept novel is set in a world where motherhood is decided by lottery, and women have to live with the decision that is made for them – no children if they draw a blue ticket, motherhood if they draw a white one. Also one of my most anticipated 2020 releases. Netgalley, out in August.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: Olga Tokarczuk. This novel, set in a remote Polish village, sounds distinctly strange and original, blending murder mystery with ‘dark feminist commentary‘ (Guardian). I’ve heard lots of bloggers rave about this book, so I thought I’d give it a try, and it’s nice to read more translated fiction. Kindle deal.
Hild: Nicola Griffith. Set in seventh-century Britain, this novel is a fictionalised telling of the life of the real historical figure, Hilda of Whitby. This novel has already defeated me once due to its huge cast of characters, but armed with pen and paper, I’m determined to tackle it again. Bought in person from Mr B’s bookshop some years ago.
If I Had Your Face: Frances Cha. Set in Seoul, this debut novel focuses on four young women living in the same apartment building who are trying to make their way in a world defined by impossible beauty standards. I started this once before but wasn’t in the right mood for it; I didn’t spot anything wrong with it, though, so I’m excited to give it another go. NetGalley, out in July.
The Disaster Tourist: Yun Ko-eun. Billed by the publisher as ‘a satirical Korean eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility’, this follows Yona, an employee at a travel company who realises that the company is fabricating environmental disaster on a remote island to make one of their package holidays more interesting. I love the premise, but I’ve seen some lukewarm reviews since requesting the ARC, so I’ll see how I get on with it. NetGalley, out in July.
A Children’s Bible: Lydia Millett. This novel follows ‘a group of twelve eerily mature children on a forced vacation with their families at a sprawling lakeside mansion’ (Goodreads). I’m interested in anything that interrogates childhood, and I was offered a review copy of this novel by the publisher (thanks Rebecca for alerting me to it!)
Tiamat’s Wrath: James S.A. Corey. The eighth and penultimate installment in the Expanse series, this continues the sprawling futuristic spacefaring tale told by the previous seven books. I was pleasantly surprised by the seventh book, Persepolis Rising, which feels like a soft reboot after some poormiddle entries in the series, so I’m hoping this continues the trend. NetGalley.
The Vanishing Half: Brit Bennett. This novel follows identical twin sisters, one who stays in the small, southern black US community where they grew up, the other who leaves and passes for white even to her own husband. I was underwhelmed by Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers, but her writing is immensely readable, and I was intrigued by this blurb – I’m always interested by, as Elena Ferrante puts it,‘those who leave and those who stay’, and the racial element here adds another layer of potential. NetGalley, out in June.
Unusually for me, there’s a substantial non-fiction showing in my 20 Books of Summer this year. Here are the five non-fiction books I plan to read.
The Gendered Brain: Gina Rippon. A neuroscientist debunks popular myths about ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains. Having read both Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, I’m wondering how different this will be, but I’m always up for people demolishing neurosexism, and I enjoyed meeting Rippon briefly at the British Science Festival in September, where we were both speaking. NetGalley.
Surfacing: Kathleen Jamie. Another collection of nature-writing essays by Jamie, who is also an acclaimed poet. I loved Jamie’s two previous collections, Findings and (especially) Sightlines, so I’m very much looking forward to this. Kindle deal.
Notes From The Bottom of the World: A Life in Chile: Suzanne Adam. This collection of personal essays deals with the forty years Adam spent living in Chile, having originally moved there from the United States. I hope this will supply some useful background for a novel I’m beginning to write. Christmas present.
The Fens: Francis Pryor. Pryor spent forty years living in the fens (rather than Chile!) and this book is a history of that landscape and its great transformation. Research for a (different!) novel I’m writing, but as that one is at a much more advanced stage, I’m not sure how far this will feed in. Kindle deal.
The Maths of Life and Death: Kit Yates. This popular science book ‘explores the true stories of life-changing events in which the application – or misapplication – of mathematics has played a critical role‘ (Amazon). I have a maths A Level but have forgotten pretty much all of it, yet this all sounds really intriguing. Review copy supplied by the publisher.
Are you taking part in 20 Books of Summer, or do you have any other summer reading plans? Is anyone else, like me, trying to conquer (or at least reduce) their TBR pile?
Susan Choi’s Trust Exerciseis one of those books I’d heard a great deal about before I picked it up, and I was so intrigued that I put it on my ideal longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (to be honest, even though I didn’t like it, I still wish that it had been longlisted, as it would have shaken things up a bit). The first half of the novel immerses us in heated teen drama at a performing arts school in Houston, focusing on an on/off relationship between students Sarah and David, but also suggesting that a number of the staff are unable to maintain professional boundaries. Afterwards, it does the kind of structural flip that novels like Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetrypull off so beautifully – but here, I don’t think it works. I felt completely disengaged from both halves of the novel, and while I can see that Choi is posing questions about who gets to control the narrative, I just didn’t find them very interesting. If anything, after the perspective switches, the side we should take is too obvious and there isn’t enough left for the reader to wrestle with. In one sense, I felt this was an ultra-literary take on a problem that genre writers have been engaging with for decades: who engages the reader’s sympathies and how can writers play with that? It’s also a #MeToo novel, once again written before #MeToo (this interview with Choi is really worth reading, though it has significant spoilers for Trust Exercise) but published at a time when I’m starting to feel that a straightforward take on these themes is becoming too familiar. I loved the idea of a novel called Trust Exercise that demands time and patience from its readers, but I didn’t feel I was repaid.
I’m not having a lot of luck with experimental literary fiction recently, because Eimear McBride’s Strange Hoteldidn’t work for me either, although I admired her A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. Like McBride’s debut, Strange Hotel excels at tracing the precise shifts in a woman’s thought processes; however, her protagonist here is not the chaotic young narrator of Girl but a relatively older woman, in her mid-thirties, who is travelling from hotel room to hotel room in a number of different cities. Her own relationship with herself is much more detached and ironic, and the prose reflects this: ‘She drinks [the wine] down with some considerable relief at outmanoeuvring her travel fatigue… That’s it right now, agitating her veins. Coursing through until the arches of her feet unclench – the most secret pleasure of drinking, she thinks, and unquantifiably nice.’ McBride knows how we become different people when alone in unfamiliar hotel rooms, and the first quarter of the book could be a brilliant short story. There are hints of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxationin how this woman secludes herself from the world and seeks the optimum state of intoxication. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it any further, because I couldn’t face spending any more time with the protagonist’s convoluted and depressing voice. I’ll be checking out McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, instead.
Although I found these two novels disappointing, I’ve not had a bad time with all literary fiction this month – I’m completely immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which I think is the best of the Cromwell trilogy, and am now almost halfway through! Review to come once I finish, but I’m deliberately taking my time.
Like many people facing lockdown, I subscribed to Disney+, which has all of the Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel films; and like at least two of my fellow book bloggers (Elle from Elle Thinks and Simon from Savidge Reads), I decided that this might be the moment to watch Star Wars for the first time. As a member of the blighted generation as far as popular SF went, who grew up without Doctor Who and during the time when Star Wars Episodes I-III were screening, the only Star Wars film I’d seen before was Episode I, The Phantom Menace. Reasonably enough, I decided that Star Wars was over-complicated, boring and silly, and decided never to watch a Star Wars film again.
This time around, I decided to skip Episodes I-III altogether and launch straight into IV-VI, followed by Rogue One, followed by VII-IX. There are extensive fandom debates about the correct viewing order for the Star Wars films when watching them for the first time; suffice it to say that, in retrospect, I’m pretty pleased with my choice, even though it was not recommended by anybody! I don’t think you should watch Rogue One before seeing the original trilogy, even if you are keeping chronological order, because it very much functions as a prequel; watching the films in release order means that Rogue One intervenes awkwardly between Episodes VII and VIII; and if you leave it to the end, you finish, in my opinion, on a sad low.
The rest of this post contains spoilers for Star Wars Episodes IV-IX and for Rogue One.
The Original Trilogy (Episodes IV to VI)
In case anyone reading this blog isn’t already aware, I am the kind of person who is either NOT into a franchise or INTO IT; when I love something, I like to think about it for a long time until I’ve analysed every bit of it to destruction. Therefore, what a joy to watch these three films as somebody who really isn’t invested in them. The biggest surprise about Star Wars for me is how funny and uplifting it is. I’d expected serious space battles and plots that I’d have to concentrate on, but instead I got simple-but-effective storytelling and broad-but-compelling characterisation. My favourite thing about the franchise, hands down, is the droids; especially C-3PO but also R2D2 and the other droids that are introduced in the later films. I loved how we actually follow C-3PO and R2D2 through A New Hope, and even though neither of them is as central to The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, they maintain a refreshing counterbalance to the seriousness of The Hero’s Journey.
Speaking of Luke, my hopes were (ironically) not high in A New Hope, when I noted that he was ‘irritating and fluffy!’ but I was surprised by how much I’d warmed to him by Return of the Jedi, where his final confrontation with Darth Vader and his own dark side delivered a twist that I genuinely hadn’t expected. Han Solo and Princess Leia are both engaging secondary characters, and Harrison Ford is one of the best things about the films (obviously second to my beloved droids). Leia didn’t quite work for me basically because the film forgot to give her any kind of lasting emotional reaction to the destruction of her entire planet in A New Hope, and I couldn’t see her as much more than a narrative device after that, but I was still on board with her romance with Han. Courting controversy, my favourite film of the trilogy was Return of the Jedi and my least favourite was The Empire Strikes Back, although I thought all three were strong; Empire is clearly the most tightly plotted and cohesive, but I preferred the greater space that the other two films allowed for characterisation and world-building, even if they did go off on too many diversions. (I hear the Ewoks are generally unpopular with fans, but I thought they were adorable!)
In short: a solid, delightful trilogy that takes its place for me alongside my other fun adventure-film favourites like Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean. While I can see why it would have felt groundbreaking when it first came out, it’s hard to completely relive that experience in the twenty-first century – but I’d definitely watch them all again.
The rogue one
I was SO EXCITED to watch Rogue One,the 2016 prequel to A New Hope that follows the doomed crew that managed to smuggle the blueprints of the Death Star away from the Empire, and cleverly closes a plot hole in the original film by explaining that a disaffected engineer deliberately designed the Death Star with a fatal weakness. However, I hated the film and I’m still sad about it. It has some very basic problems. We’re not given enough time to invest in any of the crew members except our main protagonist, Jyn, and she’s not well-written. A pound-shop Katniss Everdeen, she never feels sympathetic or believable, and I also think she was miscast; she’s meant to have grown up living on her wits, but she’s played by Felicity Jones with a cut-glass English accent. (I know there are meanings to accents in the Star Wars universe etc etc. but it still didn’t work.)
A fair bit of this film, in fact, feels like a Hunger Games rip-off, with its transparent determination to show that even rebels have divided motives and are not all good, but it never gives itself enough time to develop this moral complexity. The filmmakers seem to have been convinced that Morally Complex = Dark = Serious, an equation that annoys me so much that I wrote a whole other blog post about it. OF COURSE the only significant droid in this film, K-2SO, is the only person who’s allowed to be funny or have a character. ♥ droids forever. The result of all this is that we get a lot of relentlessly grim action sequences with none of the lightheartedness that’s characteristic of all the other Star Wars films. Thinking it over, I wish the protagonist of this had not been Jyn but her father Galen, who was the aforementioned disaffected engineer who designed the Death Star; if the filmmakers (rightly) wanted to have a female lead, they could have (shock!) made Galen a woman.
The Latest Trilogy (Episodes VII to IX)
This was an interesting viewing experience, because all these films are recent enough for me to have had vague memories of what I’d perceived to be the ‘fans’ reaction’ when they came out, and I’d basically remembered that everyone loved The Force Awakens, then either hated The Last Jedi and liked The Rise of Skywalker, or vice versa. Therefore, I was surprised that I found these films much of a muchness, although I’d agree that The Force Awakens is the best and The Rise of Skywalker the worst. Again, I wondered how I would have reacted had I been a diehard fan of the original trilogy; no doubt there are a lot of nuances and missed opportunities here that have simply passed me by. Nevertheless, I felt that this new trilogy delivered an equally enjoyable ride to the first three films, with some notable improvements (decent female and BAME representation, more interesting thematic resonance) coupled with slightly more convoluted plotting. Indeed, I’d say The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars film I’ve seen, even if it cheated a bit by riding on the coattails of the original trilogy.
Rey is a much better character than Jyn, the other Star Wars female protagonist of which I am aware (Leia was clearly never foregrounded in that way). I’d heard complaints that she was too idealised, but I didn’t find that to be the case; obviously, she occupies the same Hero slot as Luke did, so there are aspects of her journey that are unrealistic, but that’s par for the course in this genre, and she experiences setbacks and misgivings as well. Finn was a fantastic co-protagonist in The Force Awakens, and one of my main complaints about the second two films is that he was shortchanged, forced very much into a supporting role when I think the story would have been better had it not focused so closely on Rey.
The films also flesh out an interesting and diverse supporting cast, and alongside the obvious cameos, I very much enjoyed Rose, Poe, BB-8 and OF COURSE all of my old favourite droids, who have lots to do, although this did reawaken many of my concerns about droid rights (why is C-3PO, clearly a sentient being, so frequently laughed at when he expresses concerns for his own safety, and why is his temporary loss of selfhood when his memories are wiped also played for laughs?) The Rise of Skywalker didn’t quite succeed in wrapping up the trilogy satisfactorily – there were too many loose ends left hanging due to the film being totally consumed by Rey and Kylo Ren, which I found the least interesting strand of the story – but neither was it the terrible catastrophe that I expected going in.
If you aren’t a diehard fan of something, it’s probably easier to enjoy it, especially when new additions to ‘it’ get released. Which is sad for me because this is just not how I watch or read most things, but these films were a perfect lockdown distraction, and so thank you to everyone who’s told me that I ‘have to see Star Wars’ over the years. In fact, I’m so keen I’m now up for watching more! Tell me which one I should try:
I feel very sorry for these three April ARCs. Not only have these three authors had to deal with being published in the middle of a global pandemic, they’ve also been personally neglected by me because I was so busy with my Women’s Prize reading. Nevertheless, I’ve finally got round to them, and I have to say that all three are worthwhile – so I hope that they get at least some of the attention that they deserve!
You People, Nikita Lalwani’s third novel, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020, though I wish it hadn’t been burdened with such a hideous cover. It’s set in 2003 in an Italian restaurant in London that’s run by Tuli, who enjoys the reputation of being a benefactor to the undocumented migrants and other recent arrivals who work there, many of whom are Tamils from Sri Lanka fleeing civil war. It has two narrators: first, Nia, a nineteen-year-old Welsh waitress who passes for white and privileged and is happy to reap the advantages of that, but whose father was Bengali and who’s refusing to return home so she won’t have to deal with her alcoholic mother. Second, Shan, one of the Sri Lankan refugees, who is desperately seeking to reunite with his wife and child. Lalwani carefully draws the reader into the net that Tuli is weaving, causing us to continuously reassess what we think we know about the situation that Nia and Shan find themselves in. As ever, Lalwani writes so well about complicated moral choices and inhabits each of her characters with sharp empathy, although I didn’t find this novel to be quite as clever or memorable as her brilliant The Village. Nevertheless, she creates a complex community of word-of-mouth bargains and secrets, and she’s still streets ahead of many of her contemporaries. I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty, which – although it’s set in Sydney – also deals with an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka who has to make a difficult ethical decision!
You People was released in the UK on April 2nd. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.
C. Pam Zhang’s debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold,is set in California at the end of the Gold Rush of the 1850s. It explores the lives and histories of two young Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, as they struggle to survive after the deaths of both their parents. In this, it joins novels like Téa Obreht’s Inland and Philipp Meyer’s The Son in seeking to reimagine white, male myths of the American nineteenth-century ‘pioneer spirit’. The novel starts with the siblings fleeing their home with their Ba’s body packed into a trunk on the back of their mule; it then flashes back so that Ba can relate the last generation of their family’s history; and finally flashes forward five years to a time when Lucy, now seventeen, is trying to become a respectable young woman in town while an absent Sam lives feral.
Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find this structure especially awkward – for me, the siblings’ futures and pasts were more interesting than their present, so I was glad that Zhang decided to deftly shake it up a bit – but still, this novel doesn’t quite fulfil its ambitions. Both Lucy and Sam are vividly imagined, and yet they’re never given enough space to become totally captivating. Sam’s contested relationship with gender is handled cleverly by Zhang – it can be difficult to position this kind of narrative in a historical setting, but I thought Zhang managed to create a space for Sam that felt like a kind of queer space that might have existed at the time, even though readers may continue to wonder what modern labels fit the character. However, as Elle points out in her review, Zhang’s refusal to commit to pronouns for Sam makes the writing clunky. Initially, I wondered if this represented Lucy’s own confusion about how to refer to Sam, but as we get sentences like ‘Sam’s hair… reaches just under Sam’s ears’ at the same time as Lucy continually refers to Sam as ‘her’, I didn’t understand why Zhang didn’t choose a set of pronouns, even if these changed later on in the book. The present tense also felt too much like a creative-writing class default setting rather than a deliberate choice. In short, How Much of These Hills Is Gold suffers, like many debut novels, from trying to pack too much into one story, but I’d much rather read something like this than a bland, competent book, and I’ll look out for more from Zhang.
How Much Of These Hills Is Gold was released in the UK on April 9th. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.
How To Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection of short stories, was also one of my most anticipated 2020 titles. All the stories are set in a city that is deliberately unnamed, left sketchy around the edges, although I had the sense from a couple of references that we are somewhere in Canada. All, also, deal with the lives of Lao immigrants and their children, although not all of the stories are primarily about immigration or ethnicity. What I found so impressive about these quiet stories, in fact, is the way that they don’t cluster around one specific theme; Thammavongsa is sharply insightful on a number of registers. Childhood is one of these, and Thammavongsa’s thoughts on writing in the voice of a child are worth reading. The title story, which deals with a small girl trying to navigate between her family’s culture and the world of school, completely gets how frustrating it is for children not to be heard, and how adults continually fail to understand how, when young children are angry about one thing, it’s often something much bigger than just that thing.
However, Thammavongsa takes us into the head of an older woman who has just begun a sexy affair with a much younger man with equal conviction (‘Slingshot’), upturning our received ideas about age, sex, and the way that these attributes structure power dynamics in a relationship. She writes beautifully about how chicken plant worker Red (‘Paris’) only knows one kind of love: ‘that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself on the quiet moments of the day. It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekends’. She vividly details the different work worlds of a man working in a nail salon (‘Mani Pedi’) and a woman picking worms in a field (‘Picking Worms’). Occasionally, a story seems to draw away from its climax rather than landing with the conviction of the others in this collection, and Thammavongsa sometimes goes for an easy emotional beat rather than pressing for something more interesting (‘Her sense of taste comes and goes now’, muses an older woman after having a stroke in ‘You Are So Embarrassing’. ‘Most of the time it all tastes bitter. And all that bitterness in her mouth is hard to swallow.’) However, these are rare missteps in a collection that is otherwise consistently good.
How to Pronounce Knife was released in the UK on April 16th. I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review.
Sequels to science fiction and fantasy books, films and TV series are often described as ‘darker’ than their immediate predecessor, a trend that I first noticed with Harry Potter. Retrospectives on the book series tend to assume that Voldemort’s return in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, shifted the series towards a ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, tone; retrospectives on the film series point the finger at the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, where director Alfonso Cuaron deliberately created a Hogwarts with a very different feel to Chris Columbus’s version (at the time, most newspapers ran with ‘Harry Potter hits puberty‘, praising Cuaron’s revamp). Nevertheless, this trend started earlier; every Harry Potter film was described as darker than the one before it. A number of professional reviewers praised the second film, Chamber of Secrets for being ‘better and darker than its predecessor’.Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film ‘deepen[ed] the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences. This is as it should be: Harry’s story is supposed to get darker’, referring to J.K. Rowling’s stated intention that the series should ‘grow up with its readers’. However, even after the tonal shift when Voldemort regains a physical body in Goblet of Fire, reviewers kept praising the films for being darker than the last. ‘Harry Potter grows older and darker’ was Time‘s headline for their review of Order of the Phoenix .
Given the larger number of books and films in the Harry Potter series, this trend is most obvious for this franchise, but is not confined to it. You might not think that a series that kicks off with the state-sanctioned murder of 23 children and adolescents by their peers could get any darker, but according to reviewers, the Hunger Games franchise did. The Atlantic found Mockingjay: Part 1, the third film in the series, ‘darker, more relentless’ than the previous installments, spelling out what they meant while unintentionally proving the Sequel Is Always Darker rule: ‘The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more.’ The Star Wars prequel Rogue One was obviously going to have a different tone from the earlier films, given its content, but alongside its universal reputation as ‘dark’, fans still asked ‘Should Rogue One Have Been Even Darker?‘ To look at a different kind of follow-up, remakes of classic movies are often praised as being ‘darker’ than the originals. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake was seen as ‘the darker side of Willy Wonka‘. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been reviewed as both ‘darker’ than the original 1990s sitcom and comic book seriesand as getting darker than its original self season-by-season. Showrunners also love to tease fans with ‘darker’ sequels, as with this piece on the third season of Stranger Things, which claims, ‘it’s definitely going to get darker still – [it will go to?] places that I think audiences are going to really love.’
But what do reviewers actually mean when they say that a book or film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor? We could spend ages arguing over what it means to be ‘dark’ (kill count? tone? grey morality?) or whether or not these sequels are actually darker, but instead, I want to suggest that when people say something is ‘darker’, they mean it is ‘better’, and this is a big problem.
Why does darker = better, especially when it comes to popular science fiction and fantasy series? My hypothesis is that it’s a signal that these books and films are worthy of adult attention, and so it’s OK if you’re an adult and you like them. Popular associations surrounding these genres still associate them with children, and one way for both artists and their fans to try and shed this ‘childish’ reputation is to talk about how dark their work is, and how much darker it’s going to be. This also explains why the first episode may be dark, but the next one is always darker: series need to ‘mature’, ‘grow up’, ‘develop’, because these are all Good Things, whereas remaining in the supposedly immature and undeveloped world of childhood is bad.
This is problematic enough in itself, because it simultaneously devalues children and adolescents, claims that young people don’t want complex stories, and assumes that being into ‘darker’ media makes you a better, more serious adult. It sets up a false binary between cheery, morally black-and-white children’s fiction and dark, morally grey fiction for adults. However, I’d also argue that playing into this narrative leads writers, filmmakers and showrunners into serious trouble. I’m going to reserve my full Harry Potter rant for another post, but suffice it to say that I think Rowling’s decision to make the series ‘grow up with Harry’ not only gives it a horribly uneven tone, but actually leads to it becoming less morally interesting. Rogue One disappointed me terribly because it served up such simplistic and boring characters compared to its companion film, A New Hope, as if being serious means that you don’t get to have a personality (you know you’ve gone wrong when the robot is the most compelling person in your film). And season three of Stranger Things misstepped by deciding that it had to fully embrace adolescence rather than exploring the ways in which our protagonists are still children – or realising that it was its celebration of childhood creativity and ingenuity that made the first two series so great.
I think it’s time to abolish the assumption that darker is better, or even that calling something ‘dark’ is a meaningful description. I love a lot of fiction that has been called ‘dark’, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Mirror. But give me The Force Awakens or the book version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’sStone any day over other films or books in those franchises that try to be ‘dark’ because they think that’s how to be ‘grown up’, and, in doing so, reinforce our limited ideas of what is worthy of our notice.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of boarding-school and campus novels. I love fiction set in any kind of institution of education anyway, and these settings combine that with another of my favourite tropes, the set-piece where all the action is confined to one building or location. 2019 and early 2020 have seen a flurry of these kind of novels, but so far, I’ve found them all disappointing. Neither Rory Power’s Wilder Girls, Clare Beams’s The Illness Lessonnor Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing worked for me. So, I was thrilled, as I ventured deeper into the world of Elisabeth Thomas’s debut, Catherine House,to realise that I’d finally found exactly what I’m looking for, while realising that the kind of resonances Thomas picks up on might not chime quite so perfectly with all readers.
Catherine House is set in the mid-1990s, in that convenient period for writers where a lot of the trappings still feel reasonably contemporary but you don’t have to deal with the problems introduced by widespread access to the internet and mobile devices. It has a intriguing premise: Catherine House is a rural Pennsylvanian institution of higher education that educates all its students for free, with free room and board, for all three years of their degree. The catch: during that time, you can’t leave Catherine House and its grounds, and only very limited contact with the outside world is allowed. Even in a time before the student debt crisis in America had hit its current peak, you can see why this might be a tempting offer, and, even better, Catherine graduates are known for forging illustrious careers. It’s certainly a godsend for our narrator, Ines, who is running from her previous life. At first, the rumours of the school’s mysterious scientific experiments with ‘plasm’ don’t really impinge on Ines’s life, but then she’s gradually drawn in…
The novel’s blurb pins it as a cross between Sarah Waters and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but – while there’s a hint of Hailsham in the way that Catherine students relate to the institution – I thought what the book did most brilliantly was reinvent the kind of YA supernatural thrillers that I devoured in the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, Lois Duncan’s Down A Dark Hall and L.J. Smith’s Dark Visions trilogy also depict students at an exclusive institution that wants to explore and perhaps exploit their uncanny abilities. Thomas captures the tense, immersive atmosphere of these novels while using the greater space afforded by contemporary adult fiction to build her world. I loved the fact that she also inverts a number of familiar tropes from this kind of fiction. Most satisfyingly, Ines is not a reluctant outsider to the Catherine community, but, after some initial doubts, settles in with a close group of friends. This allows Thomas to say much more interesting things about our desire to belong and work communally than if she had made Ines the typical rebellious heroine.
Catherine House depicts a group of people who are isolated but still connected, wrapped up in a hallucinatory world of deep winter snows and hazy hot summers, with enough creepily oblique references to the plasm experiments (‘I read everything I could about Catherine… Even the mean [articles] – the ones after Shiner’) to keep the plot taut. In short, I found it a perfect read for right now, and I’m just sorry that it’s over!
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 12th May. If you’re interested and able to do so, please consider pre-orderingfrom Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.
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.’ 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.’ 
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 theseries, 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.
I’m delighted to be taking part in both the blog tour and the judging panel for Not the Wellcome Prize this year, which has been so brilliantly organised by Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck. As the Wellcome Book Prize, which aims to recognise books that have a ‘central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness’, is on hiatus this year, we are hoping to fill the gap by highlighting some of the best health-related fiction and non-fiction of 2019, then choosing our own ‘winner’ in May! Be sure to check in with the other stops on the blog tour to see what other books we’ve picked.
I’m excited to showcase two titles on my blog today: Ted Chiang’s latest collection of SF short stories, Exhalation, and Bev Thomas’s debut psychological thriller, A Good Enough Mother. These two books are very different from each other, but share common concerns about parenting, childhood and a ‘healthy’ upbringing.
I was utterly gripped by Exhalation when it first appeared in July 2019 (as was Barack Obama, who said that it ‘will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction’.) It was one of my top ten books of 2019 and contains one of my favourite short stories of all time. You can read my full review of Exhalation here, but for the purposes of this blog post, I thought I’d focus on one novella in this collection that seems to me to be especially concerned with themes of medicine, health and illness.
‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and examines the ethical issues that this introduces. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator, Ana, among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. Because of this, this novella asks questions about what is healthy for both the digients and their owners; is it fair to keep the digients ‘alive’ when they have minimal social interaction and are often unhappy, but on the other hand, how can it be right to ‘kill’ a sentient being simply because you’ve got bored with it? A lot of owners start to ‘suspend’ their digients as a compromise solution, but this unsurprisingly unsettles the digients when they find out they’ve missed whole chunks of time.
The story continually plays with the analogy between digients and human children, up to the point when their owners have to decide whether to let their ‘teenage’ digients be recoded as sexual beings, and which, early on, is made explicit when one of Ana’s friends gets pregnant and tells her ‘People always say that we’re evolved to want babies, and I used to think that was a bunch of crap, but not anymore… Cats, dogs, digients, they’re all just substitutes for what we’re supposed to be caring for.’ Indeed, one of Chiang’s points in this novella is that ‘healthy’ AIs will need to be brought up like human children: ‘The years [Ana] spent raising Jax… gave him… fluency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgement you could entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.’ Chiang writes in his ‘Story Notes’ that ‘based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person.’ I’d challenge the idea that children and adolescents can’t be creative, resourceful or trustworthy, but the overall point is one worth making.
Nevertheless, I felt there was a darker message about the biological need for creating children that Ana’s friend talks about early in the story buried in ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’. One of the major obstacles for the digients and their owners in this novella is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. While Chiang is delightfully good at teasing out the specifics of this situation, it also has symbolic weight; is it right to create new people who will be born into a world that is becoming unfit for purpose? As ever, Chiang doesn’t offer answers, but he poses some major questions.
Other stories in this collection that, in my opinion, have something to say about health, medicine and illness are ‘Exhalation’, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’.
Way back in October 2018, I was lucky enough to hear Bev Thomas discuss this novel, which was published in March 2019, at the Durham Book Festival. Thomas previously worked as a clinical psychologist, and her expertise is evident in the very title of this novel, which is drawn from the work of the post-war child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who published a number of popular childrearing guides as well as becoming a regular feature on BBC radio. Winnicott asserted that mothers should not worry too much about making ‘mistakes’ with their children, saying that ‘The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.’ In his popular texts, he built on this by writing that mothers would instinctively know what their infants needed, and did not need to rely on external expertise. As I’ve argued, this may have been intended to reassure mothers (coincidentally, Winnicott was reacting against the strict inter-war ‘behaviourist’ ideas that Chiang satirises in Exhalation, in his story ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’!) but, in practice, left many feeling inadequate because their parental instincts did not seem to have kicked in and they would have liked some outside help.
So, what does this mean for Thomas’s novel (other than setting it up with a title that feels pretty sinister to me!)? The book focuses on Ruth Hartland, a professional psychotherapist who is haunted by her missing son, Tom, who disappeared a year and a half ago. As she starts treating a new patient, Dan, she can’t shake the fact that he reminds her strongly of Tom, and her increasing inability to separate the two men leads her into tragedy. A Good Enough Mother functions perfectly as a gripping psychological thriller, but is much more thought-provoking than the average thriller about therapy (or indeed than the approximately two million other thrillers that deal with missing children). We see that Ruth has never felt she was a ‘good enough mother’ to Tom, despite the supposedly soothing nature of Winnicott’s advice; Tom always struggled to separate from her and she worries that she did not encourage him to become independent. Now that they are completely apart, she can only guess how he’s navigating the world by himself. This theme is especially highlighted by the fact that Tom is a twin, which – although he and his more confident sister are obviously fraternal rather than identical – makes Ruth strain even harder to understand why her two children are so different. Ruth’s gradual emotional breakdown felt utterly convincing, and this is a hugely promising debut. (Incidentally, it also gets the thumbs up from my mum!)
Make sure to check out the other great books featured on our blog tour!
Have you read anything recently that deals particularly well with themes of health, medicine and/or illness?
I have now read fifteen of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and, having read Hilary Mantel’s previous two Cromwell novels, I have a pretty clear idea of how The Mirror and The Light is going to pan out. (I didn’t want to rush through it before the longlist was announced, but I have a beautiful hardback copy waiting for me!) THEREFORE, it’s time to present my own personal shortlist wish list. Which is:
Honourable mention: Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
This is a strange set of picks for me, because books that I thought definitely wouldn’t be strong enough to make the shortlist when it was first announced (e.g. Queenie, Djinn Patrol) have risen up the ranks simply because many of the other longlisted titles were so disappointing. This is definitely the weakest Women’s Prize longlist I’ve read since I seriously started following the Prize, and not only that, it’s depressingly repetitive; too many family sagas, too many books about women, war and rape, another classical retelling.
Nevertheless, the six books above are all solid reads that I’d enthusiastically recommend, and here’s why I chose each of them:
The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel. As I admitted above, I have not yet read this third instalment in her Tudor trilogy, but it’s going to be EPIC. I reviewed Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies here.
Girl, Woman, Otherby Bernardine Evaristo. We all know this is an excellent novel, narrated by twelve black* British* women (*one of whom identifies as non-binary, one of whom believes herself to be white), and telling the long histories of black people and of black feminism in Britain. I’d be shocked if it didn’t make the longlist.
Weatherby Jenny Offill. I was unexpectedly blown away by this slender book that follows Lizzie, a librarian who is musing fearfully and hilariously about the future. Offill writes brilliantly, but she also traces Lizzie’s thought processes with terrifying skill.
How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee. This compelling narrative jumps between Singapore during the Second World War and at the beginning of the twenty-first century to tell the harrowing but humanised story of Wang Di, who is forced into sex slavery in a Japanese military brothel.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Lineby Deepa Anappara. Narrated by a nine-year-old boy who lives in the slums of New Delhi, this debut novel has some flaws, but it ultimately won me over with its clever use of urban legend and its devastating emotional impact. This is one of the few novels on the longlist that I won’t forget.
Queenieby Candice Carty-Williams. Billed as a fun read, this debut has unexpected depths as it deals with the misogynoir Queenie experiences as she looks for love as a young black woman in London. It satisfyingly reinvents the chick lit genre, and its witty originality puts it streets ahead of most of the longlist.
However, what I want to see shortlisted isn’t necessarily what I actually think will be shortlisted, so, regardless of my personal preferences, here are six predictions:
My logic, in order of certainty:
I think both The Mirror and The Lightand Girl, Woman, Otherare dead certs. I know that Girl, Woman, Other already won the Booker, but given that this was somewhat overshadowed by Evaristo’s controversial joint win with Atwood, I think the Women’s Prize will leap at the chance to recognise her again. And it’s a great book!
I’m almost as certain that Hamnetwill be shortlisted. I think the Women’s Prize are belatedly waking up to the fact that they’ve ignored Maggie O’Farrell all these years, and this novel has received a lot of critical acclaim and attention.
Weather is so painfully relevant, and its length sets off the blockbusters on this list nicely. It’s also very obviously different to a lot of the other longlistees.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Dominicana, but after the furore over American Dirt, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Prize wanted to honour a Latina writer.
I hate family sagas, but the judges clearly love them, so at least one will be on the shortlist. As there are quite a few big hitters on this imagined shortlist, they might be tempted to go for something that’s more left-field than The Dutch House or Fleishman Is In Trouble, and I wonder if that might be Red At The Bone,even though I thought it was completely forgettable.
Edit 22/4/20: The actual shortlist is here!
First thoughts: I’m extremely chuffed to have predicted five out of six of the shortlistees, which is my best hit rate ever for any prize list. I’m obviously less pleased that only three of the titles I wanted made it to the shortlist, especially as this had the corollary of making this a less diverse shortlist than last year’s. In particular, I think Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared was cheated of a spot, especially as I feel like it deserves more attention.
However, I’m not devastated to see any of these titles on the shortlist. (I would have been very cross if any of Girl, Nightingale Point, Red at the Bone or The Most Fun We Ever Had had made it). I’m closest to being annoyed about the presence of A Thousand Ships, which I thought had serious structural problems, despite some very strong individual chapters. I also think that it would have had to have been superb to justify the Prize shortlisting another Greek myth retelling, and it really isn’t. But I guess my biggest misgiving about this book is that it’s so on-the-nose about how it wants to ‘tell the untold story of the women of the Trojan war’, which is (a) not untold, even by classical authors (b) often not actually told by this novel, e.g. Penelope’s chapters focus on Odysseus, and (c) not really something I want to see the Women’s Prize rewarding, because I want to read great fiction by women, not fiction that won’t let us forget about its Important Feminist Purpose. But having said that, A Thousand Ships is certainly not devoid of literary merit.
The other thing about this shortlist is that it feels like there are only three books from it that can actually win the Prize, which is a bit weird. I’d be amazed if anything other than The Mirror and the Light, Girl, Woman, Other or Hamnet took it in September. Personally, I’ll be backing one of the first two.
I’ll post again once I’ve read The Mirror and The Light with my final ranking order and hopes/predictions for the winner.
What do you think of the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist?