Young God, by Katherine Faw Morris (2014). First read: May 2014.
What I thought the first time: I initially reviewed this for Quadrapheme, an online literary magazine I was involved with at the time. It’s now defunct and I didn’t keep my review drafts (fool!) But, as it turns out, I did make notes on the endpapers of my copy (!) Most of these are to do with the gender politics of the story: how brutal and predatory the environment surrounding our main character, 13-year-old Nikki, is, and how she uses her girlhood to her advantage, but not in the way we usually expect from stories like this. Many of the book’s details had vanished from memory, but Nikki really stuck with me. It was also one of my 2014 Books of the Year.
What I thought this time: The main plot of the book is concerned with how Nikki—barely into her teens—becomes a drug lord in rural North Carolina, which is definitely something I did remember. I think what struck me the most about it this time was its tone. In some ways, that plot description seems to demand comedy, if a Fargo-like variety of comedy. Young God is not comic. It is told in spare, bleak sentences, chapters usually only a page or two long. Scenes that might, in other hands, have a blackly humorous edge—like the scene where Nikki and her father, Coy Hawkins, drag trash bags full of a murdered girl’s body parts up a mountain and hurl them off the top—are not even a little bit funny.
In some ways I think that’s a mistake; in other ways, it ties in with Nikki’s almost total lack of interiority. Rarely, if ever, does Morris focus on how Nikki feels about anything. She does things—lots of things—but she never seems to think about why she does them. Only in very small asides, mostly in dialogue between characters who know each other from way back, does a picture begin to emerge of what her life before the book starts was like. In one of these, she asks her grandma, now bedridden and virtually comatose, why she wasn’t “chosen” and her little cousin Levi was; there have already been references to Nikki’s life in “the group home” and her terror of “DSS”, the Department of Social Services. The implication—that her grandmother was made to choose which grandchild to keep, and went for the younger one (and the boy)—says a lot about Nikki’s relationship to her own feelings: she’s already learned that she can’t really afford them. What seems to motivate her is pride: first in trying to rehabilitate her dad’s reputation (he used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county; when she returns to live with him, he is trying to stay out of trouble, but she considers his current activities beneath him), then in deciding to build up her own.
It was probably inevitable that I wouldn’t feel such strong admiration for Young God this time around. It’s a hard-hitting novel, for sure, but I’m less easily impressed now. Morris relies quite heavily on shock: the shock of declarative sentences and violent acts (“Coy Hawkins pulls the gun from his boot and shoots Renee in the face”), the shock of profoundly transgressive behaviour from a very young girl (“Heroin is the most secret of them all and needles are the most secret part and she has always loved secrets”), the shock of its formal presentation on the page (single-line chapters, lots of blank (or “charged white”) space.) That doesn’t always work cohesively with the emotional reactions that Morris seems to be aiming for with some of her other authorial choices, like Coy’s occasional apparent remorse for what happened in Nikki’s early life. It would be interesting to see how her writing has developed since this; she’s published one other book (Ultraluminous, in 2017).
Herewith, brief considerations of my two most recent reads, both of which were nonfiction.
The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan (2021)
I bought this during a happy ninety minute spree in Blackwell’s after a major 18th-century studies conference at St Hugh’s College, which was a glorious three days of scholarship and friend-making, but which was also highly social and draining. I skipped the final plenary roundtable (I’m sorry!) in favour of some solitary book shopping to restore my introvert energy tank. The Right to Sex is (in short) a brilliant collection of essays by an All Souls fellow, tackling phenomena like Internet pornography, the incel movement, legalising sex work, and the shortcomings of a model of good sex that operates solely on the binary basis of consent = good, non-consent = bad. What Srinivasan’s thinking reminds me of the most is Jia Tolentino’s, in the latter’s collection on modern technology, Trick Mirror—there is that same commitment to thinking through absolutely every angle, following every thread to its conclusion, and resisting not only easy answers, but often any answers at all. Which isn’t to say that Srinivasan has no point of view: she very much does, but she forces us to ask what it actually means to claim (for instance) that our feminism is “intersectional” or “sex-positive”. The Right to Sex has acted as a whetstone, sharpening up my thinking, and I’m going to be recommending it a lot.
A Horse at Night: On Writing, Amina Cain (2022)
This was a passed-on volume from a writer friend and former colleague. I’d read Cain’s novel Indelicacy and felt vaguely positive indifference for it; it was obviously stylish but didn’t make me feel much of anything, and wasn’t therefore really my cup of tea. A Horse at Night, which is a collection of short musings (some no more than a page long) on various books, paintings and films in relation to Cain’s own authorial projects, cemented my notion that she and I simply value different things in fiction, and in art generally. She comes back to the power of landscape a lot, but its power for her seems to be of the impressionistic, not the concrete, variety. Many of the authors she cites are ones whose work has provoked in me a similar vaguely positive indifference—Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy. I prefer other things: the satisfactions of plot, which may be a vulgar pleasure but is not worth denying; depth of character; colour, texture, detail and density in language. It’s not a value judgement on Cain’s taste, or on mine, but it means that what she gets out of art is unlikely to be what I get out of it, and so her thinking is focused away from what interests me.
Have you read either of these? If so (and even if not!), do you have thoughts?
Where I grew up, in rural central Virginia, there was a local man named Dick Gladstone. We knew him through the Ruritan, a small-town service club that my father had joined upon moving to the area, and I saw him regularly at meetings and get-togethers. He had a rough, gravelly voice and he was bent forward permanently at the shoulders; in order to look you in the eye, he had to physically twist himself sideways and look up at you, which gave him a faintly roguish air. I was afraid of him for a time when I was very small, until it was explained to me that he had been thrown against the wall of a barn when he was a young man by an angry bullock, and although his back had been broken, it had somehow also healed and had not paralyzed him permanently.
He would not have been out of place in Harry Crews’s memoir, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, which has just been reissued in the UK in a smart Penguin Classics edition, and which (despite being only my third book of 2023) is now a strong contender for the best-of-year list. Crews was a cult novelist of what’s sometimes called “grit lit”, emerging out of the Southern gothic tradition, and this memoir of his first six years of life in Bacon County, Georgia, contains all the grotesquerie, all the dry wit, and all the arrestingly profound and gorgeous writing you would expect from Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner. (Indeed, John Williams once referred to his work as being “like [O’Connor] on steroids”.) He opens it by imagining himself into a time ten years before his birth, when his father—who died so young that Crews has no memory of him—is working in Florida, building highways, and is struck with gonorrhea. It’s a completely remarkable opening, it’s extremely funny (he constructs dialogue between his father and a friend, Carl, the flat matter-of-factness of which conceals reservoirs of meaning), and it immediately introduces some of Crews’s key preoccupations: home, legacy, inheritance, recovery, how people actually lived and why they lived that way. “Whatever I am,” he writes,
has its source back there in Bacon County, from which I left when I was seventeen years old to join the Marine Corps, and to which I never returned to live. I have always known, though, that part of me never left, could never leave, the place where I was born, and, further, that what has been most significant in my life had all taken place by the time I was six years old.
A Childhood, p. 6
It is not an easy life. Most of the people young Harry knows are maimed in some way, an eye missing here or a scarred limb there. He and his friend Willalee Bookatee are obsessed with the Sears Roebuck catalog, partly because its inhabitants are so implausibly physically perfect. They invent stories about the models, pretending that one is an angry father, another his cherished only daughter, and a third the daughter’s no-good suitor. Willalee is black—his parents, Katie and Will, live in a cottage on Harry’s parents’ land—and one of the most fascinating aspects of A Childhood is the utter lack of racial prejudice between the families. Crews as an older man is not naive about the experiences that Willalee and his parents must have had in that time and place, and he recounts an aunt’s casual use of the n-word, but for his and his parents’ part, there seems to be no divide. He mentions the presence of another black man, John C. Pace, at a communal hog slaughter, identifying him as black but with no other markers in the text that suggest anything like social inferiority. He describes being aware that slavery had existed—Willalee’s grandma, always called Auntie, was born enslaved—but finding the whole notion of it baffling, mysterious, and inexplicable. So often, twentieth-century narratives of the Deep South reinforce the Harper Lee image of Jim Crow society; that absolutely existed, but it feels like an act of historical recovery to read an account of a life where the situation was less adversarial and more generally indifferent. I suspect part of this is down to class, and survival. Willalee and Harry are both the children of extremely poor farming families. Farmers do not do stupid or unnecessary things, and racism in that context is particularly stupid and unnecessary: when your closest neighbors are people you may literally rely on to live, and they rely on you in the same way, neither of you is going to have much time for artificially introduced social division.
It is also a very funny life at times: Harry’s meditations on “God and little girls”, both of which scare him witless; the account of their hired man Mr. Willis and their slow mule Pete, who stops every seventy yards because they bought him from an elderly farmer and the mule had gotten used to pausing regularly so his previous owner could catch a breather. It is a tender life: the man Harry knows as his father (who is actually his uncle) comforting him after he has walked in his sleep; his grandmother protecting him from his mother’s wrath even though he has behaved terribly all afternoon. Sometimes the funniness and the scariness and difficulty go together: describing his stepfather’s firing a gun inside the house while drunk, Crews muses,
I still loved him. For all I knew, every family was like that. I knew for certain it was not unusual for a man to shoot at his wife. It was only unusual if he hit her.
A Childhood, p. 129
A perfect balance between comedy and tragedy, self-awareness and innocence, description of place and evocation of character, psychology and action—I can’t praise it more highly. I’m so glad Penguin has reissued it, along with one of Crews’s novels, The Gospel Singer (1968). That’s high on my wishlist, and I hope they’ll continue to reissue his fiction. His writing is a marvel, and I think I’ve just found a new ride-or-die, read-it-all writer.
A Childhood: the Biography of a Place was reprinted in 2022, but originally published in 1978. Although it isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I first devised the American Classics reading project, I rather think the Penguin imprimatur makes it eligible, so I am counting it as my first read under that heading!
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien (2016). First read: March 2017.
What I thought the first time: I wrote that “the book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century, during which time China underwent traumatic political and social change” and that it was “the most intellectually sophisticated book of the [2017 Bailey’s Prize] longlistees that I’ve read, so far: the questions it poses and the assertions that it makes about the ideology of making art are subtly framed and yet don’t detract from the actual story… on the page, it looks simple [but] develops in complexity as it follows this enormous tree of extended family and friends… very affecting and deeply intelligent.”
What I thought this time: Most of this assessment, I stand by! Thien’s writing about three young conservatory students in Shanghai during China’s Cultural Revolution engages on a very high level with how social and political repression can sink into the soul, how profoundly being deprived of your art can change who you are. This time around, the structural particularities (and peculiarities) of the novel stood out more to me. It begins with a framing story set in the 1990s, which continues moving forward at the start of each chapter to the year of the novel’s composition, that describes narrator Marie’s encounter with student and political radical Ai-ming, sent to live with Marie and her mother in Vancouver after she participates in the Tiananmen Square uprising. Ai-ming tells Marie stories about their intertwined families: their fathers, Kai and Sparrow, are two of the three Shanghai conservatory students that the novel spends the most time with. Sparrow is the son of the fantastically named Big Mother Knife, who spends her young adulthood traveling through China singing in teahouses with her sister, Swirl—who marries a man named Wen the Dreamer and has a daughter named Zhuli, who becomes a talented violinist and the third Shanghai Conservatory student. Relationships between family members and close friends in the novel are many and complex, and Thien flashes back and forth between time periods, trusting the reader to keep up. Her writing is clear enough that it’s never hard to work out when and where we are, but it can be easy to lose track of who the characters are to each other.
The first time I read this, I think I poured a lot more emotion into it, and therefore seem to have gotten a lot of emotion out. Memory and my book journal agree that I had just started working at Heywood Hill Bookshop, just started getting back into the swing of the bookselling and publishing world, and my strong recollection is that I was overjoyed to be doing so. Those strong feelings almost certainly coloured my reading at the time, at least to an extent. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is definitely a thoughtful, worthwhile, intelligent and accomplished novel, one that could easily have won the Booker Prize that year, in addition to the then-Bailey’s Prize (although in the end it won neither, losing out to Lincoln In the Bardo and The Power, respectively). But this time around, I read the first half of it in bits and pieces—time snatched from travel to, and participation in, a major conference in my academic field—and given the structural characteristics I mentioned above, this meant it took me a lot longer to fully engage with the book.
Conclusions: I don’t do star-ratings for books anymore (it’s become too frustrating to boil my reactions, positive and negative, down into a system of that nature!) but in 2017, I gave this five stars. I wouldn’t do that now—instead, perhaps, I’d think of it as a solid A- regarding ambition of thought and quality of writing, while reserving a B for the occasional resistance generated by the structure.
I very, very rarely read crime, of any persuasion; Golden Age or noir, Old World or New, it just tends not to draw me. Or so I thought. For some reason, this year, between about the 22nd and the 31st of December, crime was nearly all I wanted to read. (Perhaps this is because we discovered all twelve series of David Suchet’s Poirot are available on ITV’s new streaming service. Who can say?) Anyway, here’s what I made of it all.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie (1916; pub. 1920): I hate to say this given it’s the novel that introduces the famous Hercule Poirot, but… largely forgettable. It’s a poisoning murder, set in a country house, with clues that include a false beard and a lethal dose of strychine. Poirot is brilliant from the start, but the other characters are quite forgettable (with the possible exception of Hastings, our narrator, whose voice is just daft and pompous enough to reveal his own self-delusions, and to showcase how much potential Christie had even at this early stage of her career).
Sparkling Cyanide, by Agatha Christie (1945): Much, much better all around. Another poisoning mystery—a young and beautiful woman, recently married, appears to commit suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced glass of champagne at a public party for her birthday; one year later, her husband, convinced that her death was murder, gets all the possible suspects together in the same venue, and promptly dies in the same way. Because the novel starts with a section in which each chapter is focalised through a different suspect, and because the novel starts well after the first death, it’s a more structurally exciting and sophisticated fiction, and the characterisation is much improved. It’s odd that the killer’s identity is, in many ways, very similar to the solution in Styles; the books were published twenty-five years apart. But that said, the solution here is more satisfying than in Styles, precisely because of that improved insight into character. A really good entry in the Christie canon.
The Norfolk Mystery, by Ian Sansom (2013): Sadly disappointing. The premise was very promising: shocked into near-nihilism by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, ex-soldier Stephen Sefton takes a job as amanuensis to Professor Swanton Morley, a prolific autodidact who intends to write a guide to every county in England in under a decade. On their first jaunt, in Norfolk, the body of a local vicar is discovered hanging in his vestry, but Morley is convinced all is not as it appears… and he’s right. Or, well, actually, he’s wrong. Frustratingly [mild spoilers, I guess?], what originally appeared to be the case is in fact the case. It’s not quite a murder. We do figure out what happened, eventually, but the route of deduction is circuitous and greatly obstructed by Morley’s characterisation; Sansom was obviously aiming for a sort of lower-middle-class Sherlock Holmes figure, someone who knows a lot and spouts off about it endlessly, but most of Morley’s observations aren’t to the point the way that Sherlock’s are. Sefton, meanwhile, remains largely a cipher. It’s difficult to imagine what Sansom’s purpose in writing the book might have been. I won’t carry on with the series.
The Outsider, by Stephen King (2018): Half horror, half crime, this one, which is a subgenre I’m finding myself attracted to. Beloved Little League baseball coach Terry Maitland is accused of an appalling crime against a child. Forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony both put him at the scene; it was definitely him. But it can’t have been… because he was also captured on tape at a conference hundreds of miles away at the same time, on the same day. From this premise, King spins a story of a supernatural, superhuman predator out of legend, and brings together a band of misfits with skin in the game to catch the creature. Holly Gibney appears again in this book; I gather she featured in the Bill Hodges books (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch), which, on the basis of The Outsider, I would happily read. Contemporary King has often misfired for me (couldn’t finish The Institute, for example), but this feels like some of his quintessential work.
The Lost Gallows, by John Dickson Carr(1931): My very first British Library Crime Classic, and an excellent choice! This one has a crackerjack premise: a wealthy man is apparently abducted, his car somehow driven around London by his unfortunate chauffeur’s corpse, and a message received that he has been “hanged on the gallows in Ruination Street”… which doesn’t exist. The note is signed “Jack Ketch”—London’s historic name for an executioner. I absolutely loved this: the atmosphere of gloom, fog, and miserable gentlemen’s clubs is second to none, while the intrigue of a street that doesn’t exist and the creepiness of the little model gallows that keeps appearing on tables create proper shivers. As the foregoing may have suggested, I really like mysteries whose solution seems like it must be supernatural (but isn’t); the sense of impossibility tickles my brain. Inspector Henri Bencolin, the detective protagonist in this story, is a remarkably dark character, repeatedly described as “cruel” and “malicious” by the narrator (who’s supposedly his friend!) It gives the story a more modern feel, and it also makes Bencolin more of a person, instead of a detective “type”. Highly recommended, and I’ll be reading more of Carr’s work very soon.
Green for Danger, by Christianna Brand (1944): A tremendously plotted crime novel, my second BLCC (there’s a 3 for 2 deal and I was in the British Library bookshop a few days ago… I couldn’t resist), set during the Blitz in a Kentish military hospital. In the opening chapter, a local postman delivers seven letters to the hospital from doctors and nurses accepting posts there. One year later, that postman dies on the operating table, and one of those seven doctors and nurses is the killer. Why anyone would want to kill him, and how they could possibly have done it in the operating theatre with multiple other people present, is the core of a totally fiendish puzzle—but what I loved so much about Green for Danger was the character work. The complex social ecosystem of V.A.D.s and ward sisters is described perfectly, the bravery and boredom that go hand in hand when bombing is a regular threat, the appeal of illicit sex in a newly topsy-turvy world characterized by stress and danger. Fantastically misleading at times, and with a false-bottom reveal I genuinely didn’t see coming (though, to be fair, I rarely do). Top drawer.
The Mysterious Mr Badman, by W.F. Harvey (1934): Delightfully subtitled “a Yorkshire bibliomystery”, this is another great premise: the splendidly named Athelstan Digby, a humble blanket manufacturer, is on holiday visiting his nephew on the North York Moors. One day he agrees to mind his landlord’s shop, which happens to sell secondhand books, and receives three separate requests for John Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman—not in stock until the very end of the day, when a young lad sells him a parcel of secondhand books containing that very title. Soon after, one of the customers who’d inquired for the title is found shot dead on the moor, and Athelstan—plus his doctor nephew, Jim Pickering, and the delightful Diana Conyers, who Jim seems to have met during the first world war when she was a V.A.D.—determines to investigate. This is mostly a novel about politically motivated blackmail, and less a novel about books as murder-worthy objects in their own right, but the character interactions are marvelous. I would love to read more fiction featuring Athelstan Digby; sadly I don’t think Harvey wrote any more novels including him.
From this I have concluded that I held out on the BLCCs for far too long. I thought I wasn’t keen on Golden Age crime—turns out, what I’m mostly not keen on is subpar contemporary parodies of Golden Age crime. The real stuff is proving fantastic!
This year I’m committing to very little in the way of reading plans, hoping to keep enjoying reading at whim. I want to encourage myself to jump into series and backlists that I like, and to keep using the libraries as much as possible. There are a number of directions I’d like to explore: more Russians (Bely, Turgenev, another Dostoevsky, short stories); Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature challenge; improving my knowledge of classic writers from Continental Europe; choosing a category from the Guardian 1000 list to shape each month’s reading. But truly, I don’t want to overextend, or get too caught up in planning and not enough in the reading. There are two (maybe three) projects I’d really like to prioritize:
Kaggsy and Simon’s #1940Club in April. I’ve never done one of these and they’re so very famous in the litblogosphere! 1940 looks like a good year in publishing: Richard Wright’s Native Son, Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me, John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Couldn’t Shudder… Some of these would also count for my other project(s), too.
The Great Reread of 2023. Partly inspired by Laura’s 20 Rereads of Summer, I’d like to see what I think now of some titles that I remember making a huge impression on me a few years ago. In the half-decade after graduating from university, in particular (approx. 2014-2019), there were a lot of books that I recall feeling strongly positive about, but I haven’t reread most of them since. Time to see if all the fuss was worth it! I’m thinking a minimum of one reread a month.
A new personal reading-list project, probably themed around American Classics. Some of this could be part of the Great Reread, but there’s plenty that I haven’t read yet. Most of Edith Wharton and Henry James, for example; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; any James Fenimore Cooper; Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie; Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The list goes on!
There’s also some travel coming up, including a long flight to San Francisco in February (and a flight back, of course), and a week of walking Hadrian’s Wall in May. I’ll need to determine some foolproof airplane reading—they’ll be the longest flights of my life so far!—and something for May that’s portable enough to go in a rucksack, but not so short I finish it on the first evening… I can’t wait to start planning.
Do you have any bookish resolutions or reading plans for 2023?
I had a really, really good reading year in 2022. At the time of posting, my tally is at 164 books read, and I’ll get through a few more over the holidays. Perhaps it’s been almost too good—I have a perpetual feeling I shouldn’t be reading this much stuff that’s not related to my academic work. (Some of it is, I guess.) On the other hand, it’s not like my productivity is too shabby: I wrote a rough draft of my first chapter between January and May, and am steaming through a rough draft of my second now, plus I went to a summer school in Prague, presented at Birkbeck’s graduate conference and the Women’s Studies Group in Bloomsbury, and fit in a short research trip to Oxford. I read all the time; it is not only my displacement activity but my literally-everywhere-and-in-all-moments activity. I do it while I’m cooking and crossing the road and standing in line and on the bus. If that means I end up reading and loving a huge amount of literature that falls outside of my area of academic interest, that ought to be seen as a good thing.
This year I did a couple of things to direct my reading at various points. I set myself a short list of Russian books to read during the spring, and another of African novels for the summer months. I read a whole bunch of nonfiction about death and dying in May, when my mental health wouldn’t let me stop thinking about mortality. I did the RIP challenge in the autumn, which led to a lot of new discoveries in the Gothic/creepy/horror field. I have also started using libraries for pleasure reading as never before, and it has been an absolute boon. In November, I left my long-time bookselling job, which is definitely going to have an effect on my reading: I’ll have less immediate access to the new and shiny, I’ll lose some of that up-to-the-minute knowledge, but on the other hand, my increasing hunger for backlist gems will be indulged to the hilt in the months and years to come.
For now, here are twenty books that I absolutely adored reading in 2022.
Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset (1920, 1921, 1922). Technically a trilogy, and the first book of the year: I brought it with me on the plane when we flew to visit my parents and brother in January. It’s a remarkable story set in medieval Norway, about a woman who marries for love, and pays the price. Utterly immersive and hypnotic.
The Family Chao – Lan Samantha Chang (2022). A sideways look at Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, set in a Chinese-American family restaurant over the Christmas and New Year period. Wonderful, fluid, darkly funny writing, with some extraordinary character interactions (and a dog!)
Buddenbrooks – Thomas Mann (1901). More family saga, this time set in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. It’s about the three-generation cycle of rising fortunes followed by a slide into ruin, and much of it concerns the falsity of the narratives that individuals, families, businesses, countries choose to propagate about themselves. Remarkably readable; I’d been told Mann was dense and dry but I tore through this.
Putin’s People – Catherine Belton (2020). Like a lot of people, I sought out some context when Russia invaded Ukraine last spring. Belton’s book is a few years old but still the most comprehensive account of Vladimir Putin’s strategic acts of financial domestic terrorism, designed to shore up his power by consolidating the control of Russian wealth in his own hands. Followed by a trip to the theatre to see Peter Morgan’s new play The Patriots, about Boris Berezovsky, this was extremely useful and surprisingly gripping.
Sketches from a Hunter’s Album – Ivan Turgenev (1852). The first of a number of authors whom I discovered this year and immediately dove into. Of all the Turgenev I’ve read in 2022, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (my second of his books) is still the favourite, partly because I love the compiled, cumulative effect of its short pieces which describe country landscapes and manners so beautifully, but also partly because I read it in a pub beer garden with a big glass of cider after a long walk along the South Downs, just as the weather was getting warm again, and it was one of the more perfect reading experiences of my life.
The Last House on Needless Street – Catriona Ward (2021). Ward is the second of the authors I discovered this year and got a little obsessed with. I’ve now also read Little Eve and Sundial (the library doesn’t seem to have Rawblood). The Last House on Needless Street has the most bonkers premise and the wildest twist, and is so well written that none of it feels hard to swallow. It could have been done so badly and has instead been done so well, which always feels like an extra mark in a book’s favour.
Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov (1962). I said I wanted a Pale Fire Finishers Support Group when I finished this, and I still do. It is totally brilliant, though. As I also said, people talk about how funny it is, but what struck me most about it was its sense of loneliness.
NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (2015, 2016, 2017). These have been well dissected elsewhere, so all I’ll say is that reading all three of these in a row, in big hungry gulps, was both absolutely engrossing and gave me a terrible book hangover. A world that’s as hard to shake off as Jemisin’s The Stillness is worth celebrating.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – George Saunders (2021). Reading Saunders’s thoughts on a handful of Russian short stories—taking them one page at a time, as he does with his students at Syracuse—made me a better reader, at least temporarily. It also gave me a better framework for appreciating short fiction. And he’s such a stylish writer himself, even when writing chatty, accessible nonfiction.
The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin (1974). A mind-blower. It’s probably very Undergraduate Philosophy 101 of me, but I’d never read it before and it crystallized a lot of thoughts I’d been having about work and art and creativity and money. I’m sure this is all highly characteristic of my generation, but the fact remains that The Dispossessed presents as possible a way of living that Western capitalism encourages us to believe can’t be achieved at all. Truly groundbreaking for me.
Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz (1956-7). Another trilogy, technically; Palace Walk is just the first volume. Another entrancing family saga, this time set in Cairo before, during, and just after the First World War. Huge international events filtered through private individual experience is one of my favourite ways to read historical fiction. Mahfouz’s tyrannical patriarch character, al-Sayyid Ahmad, changes and diminishes as the years pass and the world changes, as do the other members of his family, and by the end I felt I’d come to know them all like my own.
The Night Ship – Jess Kidd (2022). This dual-strand historical novel focuses on two protagonists: Mayken, a Dutch girl in the seventeenth century, and Gil, an Australian boy in the twentieth who has been sent to live with his grandfather on the archipelago where Mayken’s ship was wrecked hundreds of years previously. There’s the faintest hint of slipstream in their odd connection to each other across centuries, and Kidd’s slightly whimsical, slightly unsettling prose style is perfectly suited to the material, which is fantastical and uncanny and eventually explodes into violence. I cried at the end, which is very rare indeed.
The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing (1950). My second Lessing, but my first in a very long time, and it really packs a punch. As a character study of Mary Turner, a white Rhodesian woman whose mind gives the reader an understanding of how racist ideology grows in a person, it’s extraordinary. Sad and disturbing, but incredibly incisive and succinct.
Memoirs – Harriette Wilson (1825). The first book on this list to have actually been part of my PhD project reading! I read a lot more than just this, but Wilson’s Memoirs stick out for a number of reasons. Her narrating voice is extremely funny, fresh, immediate; her pen portraits of society’s finest are well observed, mean, and hilarious. She’s smart and sarcastic and occasionally seems to wish she’d been taken more seriously as an intellectual; her major obstacle in some ways was herself, as she also seems to have been unable to resist returning to the role of quippy, witty woman of pleasure. You can easily see why men paid money for her mere company. Four volumes of delight.
Armadale – Wilkie Collins (1864-6). Contains extreme melodrama, secret identities on every other page, laudanum addiction, poison gas, a dodgy doctor, marriage certificates and legal shenanigans, supernatural dreams of forboding, convenient but mysterious deaths, and one of the best villainesses of all time in the person of flame-haired Lydia Gwilt. An absolute corker, certainly on a par with the more famous TheWoman in White. I’d love to read more critical engagement with Lydia’s character, who (apart from the poisoning stuff) struck me as more sinned against than sinning.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow – Gabrielle Zevin (2022). One of the best reading experiences of the latter half of the year. It’s about two friends who meet as children in a hospital, bump into each other again at college, and start a video game company together. It’s also about disability and love and sex and depression and friendship and money. It’s also, and most deeply, about stories and how they’re told and how people need them and engage with them and why they matter so incredibly much. I am too mal-coordinated to play any console game but Mario Kart, and I still found myself falling in love with this book. Wonderful.
Ghost Story – Peter Straub (1979). One of my favourite kinds of book: chunky, plotty, compellingly written, with a time span of many decades and a structure that you know will reveal things slowly and gradually as you read, so you start out knowing how much you don’t know and also knowing that it will all fall into place. Straub’s writing is so confident and so confiding. He’s also very metatextually engaged with the American horror tradition (two of the characters are named Hawthorne and James!) I’m bummed that most of his work is only available in e-format in the UK at the moment.
The Beginning of Spring – Penelope Fitzgerald (1988). Very little happens in this pre-revolutionary-Russia-set novel, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll stick to what I said about it last month: “The writing! And the grasp of human feelings that the characters don’t themselves understand! And oh, my God, the scene with the baby bear. It’s so rich in so few pages. It’ll be one of those books that keeps being rewarding, read after read.”
Barnaby Rudge – Charles Dickens (1841). I was by no means expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. It’s one of Dickens’s lesser-known works and it shouldn’t be; the political commentary is as good, and the actual scenes of public disorder and violence are as scary, as anything in A Tale of Two Cities. I can’t help feeling that in its depiction of ordinary working people—but particularly a vulnerable young adult—being manipulated and egged on to violence by a cynical, privileged individual who is protected from the consequences of his actions by virtue of his wealth, it’s an alarmingly contemporary novel. Also, there’s a talking raven. Win.
Babel – R.F. Kuang (2022). I loved this and read it too recently to talk sensibly about it. Imagine His Dark Materials, then add the light touch of Natasha Pulley’s narrating voice in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and a pinch of China Miéville’s linguistic focus in Embassytown, and place at the centre of the whole thing a strong awareness of the mechanics of mercantile colonialism. And yet to compare it to other things is in some ways to do it a disservice, because Babel does stand on its own, as an Oxford novel and a fantasy novel and a novel about being young and going to university and finding your people and then having that friendship be changed and affected by the very process of growing up, as a novel about revolution and efficacy and solidarity and complicity and abuse and bigotry and loneliness and the contingencies of seeking redemption. It’s really very good.*
*let it be noted that I have read the critiques and accept that there are weaknesses to Babel‘s execution, some of them very serious. That said, it is unbelievably readable and I had a fantastic time reading it, so I feel it deserves its place here.
Soon, I’ll be posting my biblio-lutions and reading plans for 2023, but for now, have you read any of my top books of 2022? And what were your favourites of the year?
Most of my reading this month did come from libraries, but some did not! I’m borrowing from myself here and resurrecting a Superlatives format (which lovely Laura Tisdall also uses for monthly round-ups) to discuss the rest.
best backlist gem: The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald(1988). Genuinely amazing. I read The Blue Flower a few years ago and was not at all impressed, but this is extraordinary. An English man who runs a printing business in pre-revolutionary Russia finds his wife has gone back to England with no warning. She takes the children with her for the first few train stops but eventually sends them back. He has to sort out what to do with them, and then she returns. That’s pretty much it. But the writing! And the grasp of human feelings that the characters don’t themselves understand! And oh, my God, the scene with the baby bear. It’s so rich in so few pages. It’ll be one of those books that keeps being rewarding, read after read.
best read inspired by a previous read: Smoke, by Ivan Turgenev, transl. Michael Pursglove (1867 ). After The Beginning of Spring, I felt powerfully drawn back to Smoke, which I’d abandoned a few months previously after the first few chapters—set in the German spa town of Baden-Baden—didn’t fit my mood. They worked a treat this time around. There’s a bit of a pattern to Turgenev novels: a young, idealistic but ineffectual man is torn between a beautiful, virtuous, kind woman, and a woman who is unattainable and will wreck his peace of mind. I sort of don’t care about the repetitive plots, though. Smoke is probably not one of his best but there’s something hypnotic about it. And clearly his writing just works for me, almost regardless of translator.
most outside of my usual comfort zone: The Memory of the Air,by Caroline Lamarche, transl. Katherine Gregor (2014 ): Rebecca of Bookish Beck sent this to me in a lovely bookish parcel! It’s a very short, poetic novella, with a strong flavour of the autofictional or even authotheoretical. It’s highly French, is one way of putting it. The narrator spends most of the book working through her understanding of her own rape, which is mentioned only at the very end of the book. It’s simultaneously cerebral and dreamlike. Your mileage may vary.
darkest comedy: Wayward Heroes, by Halldor Laxness, transl. Philip Roughton (1952 ): I described this on Twitter as “a brutal satire on the cultural valorisation of unwashed manslaughter”, a description I back entirely. The second Laxness novel I’ve read in full, it’s much, much funnier than Salka Valka while somehow depicting more horrifically violent acts. In fact, you could say the violence is cartoonish; that would be pretty near the mark. Thorgeir and Thormod are “sworn brothers”, Thorgeir determined to embody the greatness of saga heroes, Thormod committed to memorializing Thorgeir’s deeds in poetry. The fact that Thorgeir is a feckless thug to whom Thormod (who, incidentally, can’t keep his dick in his pants) has blindly shackled himself appears to escape both of them, right up until the book’s extraordinary end. The historical detail is great here, too—the description of Vikings attacking London and being repelled not by an army, but by the townsfolk pouring boiling piss on them and stabbing them with whatever meat cleavers or threshing tools came to hand, are excellent, as is the extended section on the sack of Canterbury and the murder of Archbishop (now Saint) Alfege. And there’s a whole bit set among the Inuit in Greenland which is also fantastic. Strongly recommended.
best novella: For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain, by Victoria Mackenzie(forthcoming, 2023). Well, okay, it was the only novella I read in November. Let us not quibble. It’s a very short novel that focuses on the meeting between two real-life medieval female mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Julian was an anchoress who spent decades in a single cell, and was the older of the two; Margery was a young housewife whose visions of Christ and performative piety irritated her neighbours, her husband, and pretty much everyone else she ever met, including some quite important officials. Mackenzie tells the tale of their lives in parallel; they only come together at the end. Structurally I thought this was an odd decision. The book is lopsided, with the first section (Julian’s and Margery’s individual lives and journeys towards God) much the longest, followed by a short second section presented in dialogue like a play, and a third section of only two or three pages. The prose, also, is fairly plain and clipped, although both women produce some beautiful metaphors (as they do in their writings). For a while this frustrated me, but the more I read, the more I thought I understood what Mackenzie was trying to achieve with this style: a similar flavour to the actual narrating style of Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love and Margery’s The Book of Margery Kempe, which are both declarative and plain even when they are using extraordinary metaphors, like comparing the omnipresence of God to the ubiquity of herring scales after preparing a fish for dinner, or describing Christ as a sexually alluring lover. It really grew on me, this book.
Rebecca at Bookish Beck has been running this monthly meme for years and I’ve started to join in. You can too, using the hashtag #LoveYourLibrary.
In November, I made a pretty big life decision and left my job at Heywood Hill Bookshop, where I’d worked for nearly six years. I’m brewing up a post about that move and everything that working at HH gave me. For now, it feels strangely liberating to have no professional impetus to read in a particular way. (Apart from PhD reading, which always provides direction; I mean reading for leisure purposes. Since 2017, my leisure reading—even the most frivolous—has had at least one eye on whether any of my customers might enjoy this title too. Now that’s all gone, and it’s just me and my whims and my TBR stack and my libraries.)
The Galaxy and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers (2021)—A sweet and moving novel set at an intergalactic truck stop in which people of various species learn to be better to each other. Like a lot of Chambers’s work, I love it while I’m reading it but have found it too generically message-focused for much of it to stick with me for long. I did appreciate the focus on biological differences and the importance of physical accessibility for people whose bodies are constructed very differently from one another. The grumpy-teen character got boring pretty quickly, though.
Bear Head, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2021)—A sequel to Dogs of War, which you don’t technically need to have read but which provides a lot more of the background context for Bear Head than I’d initially realized. Raises some extremely interesting questions and ideas around bio-engineering, sentience, and distributed intelligences. One of the two narrating voices begins to grate fairly early (cynical hack Jimmy, whose head is swiftly invaded by a consciousness that calls itself Honey and claims to be an engineered bear), and the rapist politician character is somewhat cartoonish in his The Worst-ness (although the perspective we get on him from his PA is effectively chilling).
Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho (2021)—This took several starts but became more and more rewarding as I went on. Very, very different from Sorcerer To the Crown. Plots that involve possession—by a spirit or by a data set—were surprisingly recurrent in November, it would seem. It’s easy for me to get bogged down when too many scenes involve someone arguing with someone else inside their head, but Cho mostly keeps it moving. I didn’t really believe in Jess’s girlfriend (she only ever appears on FaceTime and isn’t well developed in her own right), but I did inwardly cheer when Jess comes out to her parents at the end of the novel.
Skyward Inn, by Aliya Whiteley (2021)—A very worthy shortlister for the Arthur C Clarke Award and frankly one I think I might have slightly preferred to see taking the prize. I’d never read Whiteley’s work before, but this bizarre, beautifully grotesque tale of colonialism, alien biology, and playing the (very) long game was breathtaking. Scary in a non-obvious way, sad, stunning. I’ll read more of her work.
The Widow’s House, by Daniel Abraham (2014)—The fourth in The Dagger and the Coin series. Maintained the high standards of fun, page-turning, economics-driven medieval fantasy that the first three books established. Geder’s atrocities get worse while his self-justification increases. I can’t always remember which events happen in which book, which is probably a casualty of this sort of core-genre series.
The Spider’s War, by Daniel Abraham (2015)—Except I do remember what happens in this book because it’s the last one! Smart and thoughtful endings for everyone, more or less, including Geder (whose final action is not presented as sufficient to wipe out all the terrible things he’s done, although his bravery is acknowledged) and Clara and Vincen (no spoilers, but: hooray!!)
Barnaby Rudge, by Charles Dickens (1841)—My Annual Winter Dickens! I try to read one a year, sometime between November and December. Now there’s only one I haven’t yet read (The Pickwick Papers), and after that I’ll have to start the cycle all over again. (Or plow through the oeuvre of Wilkie Collins, perhaps.)
Rudge was way better than I was expecting. It’s probably the Dickens novel that would get you the best score on Pointless—its cultural impact has been negligible—but given the riches it contains, I can’t fathom why. The centerpiece of the book is (famous-ish-ly) the Gordon Riots, which were whipped up by Lord George Gordon in the 1780s against proposed legislation to politically and socially emancipate British Catholics. The accounts of urban violence are second to none; in its depiction of public mobs inflamed by the wealthy and cynical in pursuit of a goal that is ideologically muddled to most of them, it feels shockingly contemporary. The scenes in the prison among the characters condemned to execution are genuinely horrifying. The title character is, for the time, a sensitively drawn portrait of someone we would now call a vulnerable adult, and the ways in which such vulnerability can be manipulated. There’s also a fantastic pet raven named Grip. Truly, one of the best surprises Dickens has shown me thus far.
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine (2019)—Suddenly lost my interest in reading it. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was just the prospect of having to mentally pronounce “Teixcalaan” a bunch of times.
Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer (2016)—I really gave this one the old college try; nearly 200 pages in, it was just too much of a slog to keep lingo and worldbuilding clear in my head. The baffling coyness about gendered pronouns felt like excessive protesting, instead of a way to mark the foreignness of the future. It’s a shame, as I’ve been looking forward to reading it for years, but I think Palmer’s work might not be my cup of tea, at least for now.
Needle in a Timestack, by Robert Silverberg (1966, 1985, 2021)—Read the first story and actually loved it, but the whole book is over 500 pages long and when will I learn to stop checking out multiple thicccc volumes at once? Never, apparently.
CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ
Babel, by RF Kuang (2022)—as an ebook. Very much looking forward to this.
From the London Library, a number of PhD-related books: The Prince’s Mistress: a Life of Mary Robinson, by Hester Davenport; Perdita: the Life of Mary Robinson, by Paula Byrne; Memoirs of Mary Robinson ed. J. Fitzgerald Molloy; Perdita: the Memoirs of Mary Robinson, ed. M.J. Levy; The Works of Mary Robinson, vol. 8, ed. William D. Brewer
Roma Eterna, by Robert Silverberg (2003)
Little Eve, by Catriona Ward (2018)
Sundial, by Catriona Ward (2022)
The Young HG Wells, by Claire Tomalin (2021)
Civilisations, by Laurent Binet (2019)
People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry (2010)
Here’s the second half of my reading for the RIP XVII challenge! I had a smaller month in October, but not a less exciting or successful one for that.
The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins(1856): Not one of Collins’s major works; it was published just before his career really took off in the ’60s, and you can see him struggling to get out from under Dickens’s shadow with things like a kindly, elderly, eccentric figure, or the deployment of dramatic irony as characters fail to understand things the readers worked out chapters ago. Still, I quite liked it: like a lot of Collins’s work, it takes seriously the emotional landscapes of women and working-class people. Sarah, the maidservant with the “dead secret”, is so sympathetically sketched and her traumatic past sensitively handled. I was also interested by Collins’s portrayal of disability in the blind Leonard Frankland. Leonard isn’t blind from birth, but his sight deteriorates when he’s relatively young. His marriage to Rosamond Treverton is one of the key dramatic points of the novel, but although Rosamond treats Leonard with kindness and loving attention, she’s also patronising and infantilizing, suggesting that he can’t move through the world—literally or figuratively—without her constant interpreting presence. Not much in the way of horror elements here, more of a mild Gothic, but still enormously enjoyable.
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub(1979): Waaaayyyy more classic horror here, and I absolutely loved it—from the character names (“Hawthorne” and “James”, amongst others) to the setting (small-town New England), Ghost Story is very much in dialogue with the tradition of American literary horror. It’s a chunky book with a long plot, and it does go back and forth in time, which gives a real sense of immersion and increased creepiness. The opening forty pages or so are magnificent for this: a situation we think we understand on the face of it—a man who’s abducted a little girl and is taking her cross-country—is almost immediately undermined by unsettling details, and we have no idea how any of this is related to the primary action of the book, but Straub’s writing is so confident and so confiding that I relaxed into it with a grateful sense of being in safe hands. He seems to be largely out of print now, which is a huge shame; I hope that changes. Meanwhile I’ll keep tracking down whatever work of his I can find.
House of Windows, by John Langan (2009): A great chaser to Ghost Story, this is also set in New England and about a haunting. Langan says in his afterword/acknowledgments that he was inspired by Straub, and it definitely has a flavour of homage to it, but it’s also completely its own thing. Set in the world of small-liberal-arts-college academics, there’s a fascinating undercurrent about marriage: what honesty within a marriage means, what an unequal partnership looks like (for many different vectors of “unequal”, not all of them favouring the same partner), how small gaps between people who adore each other can widen through mental illness, obsession, and withholding. The Afghanistan war of the early 2000s has a central role in this novel, which I really appreciated; it’s good to see genre fiction engaging with these real-world horrors. The ending is an absolute corker, too. Highly recommended.
Ghost Stories, by E.F. Benson(this edition 2016): Most of these aren’t meaningfully scary, just creepy or otherworldly; they take their power from rendering normal urban life uncanny in some way (“The Bus-Conductor”, “Spinach”, “In the Tube”). I really enjoyed “Mrs. Amford”, which links the presence of a vampire in a sleepy English village to the project of empire in a way that has remained fresh. “The Room in the Tower” is almost certainly the scariest of them all, featuring a recurring dream which breaks through into reality, a haunted painting, and the undead. Two of the stories feature almost identical antagonists: giant grey slug-like creatures who exsanguinate their victims. In one story, the demonic slug is presented as an instrument of God’s vengeance. In the final tale of the collection, “Caterpillars”, the inherent ick factor of the soft, the slimy, the implacable, the all-consuming, is dialed up to eleven. (Apparently Lovecraft really rated Benson, and you can absolutely see why in stories like this.) None of these were entirely my cup of tea (I think I prefer Le Fanu and MR James), but they add another dimension to the English ghost story.
The Haunting Season, by Bridget Collins et al.(2021): An anthology of “ghostly tales for long winter nights”, as the subtitle has it. Contributors are a roll call of the British writers currently putting their mark on Gothic and historically-inflected fiction: Imogen Hermes Gowar, Natasha Pulley, Jess Kidd, Laura Purcell, Andrew Michael Hurley, and more. For me, the standouts were Gowar’s “Thwaite’s Tenant”—in which a ghostly visitation serves as the catalyst for a woman to take control of her own life, no matter how daunting that prospect might be—Natasha Pulley’s “The Eel Singers”—in which the trio from The Watchmaker of Filigree Street take a Christmas holiday to a supremely creepy Norfolk fen where everyone seems to be singing the same song all the time—and Elizabeth MacNeal’s “Monster”—in which a newly married man desperate to make his name as a fossil hunter loses most of his humanity in the process. All of these absolutely nailed atmosphere, emotion, dread. Less successful for me were Jess Kidd’s “Lily Wilt” (her arch tone from Things in Jars doesn’t work here, and none of the characters is sympathetic enough to provide an emotional hook for the reader), Laura Purcell’s “The Chillingham Chair” (a haunted wheelchair, for goodness’ sake, sorry, I can’t), and Bridget Collins’s “A Study in Black and White” (definitely sets the creepy tone well, with its apparently self-renewing chess game, but it doesn’t really go anywhere). Andrew Michael Hurley’s story “The Hanging of the Greens” is the only one not set historically, and actually, it’s completely horrifying; I would say, though, that it’s less of a ghost story than the others, with more of a focus on the brutality of humans caught up in what they believe to be righteous action.
I enormously enjoyed reading more horror and horror-adjacent work over the past two months, and it’s given me a handful of new authors to explore! Maybe I’m less of a scaredy-cat than I thought.