April Superlatives

April was a shockingly good month for reading: I finished sixteen books. Chunking four books from my TBR at a time seems to really work! On the downside, I’ve realized that I have so many books requested from publishers to review that it’s been impossible to review anything that I’ve read outside of that. I’m going to cut down severely on publisher requests after next month (not much I can do about it now because May’s pre-pubs have already been sent to me)–but focusing on the books I really want to read, as opposed to the books I think I might as well accept for review, is something I’m looking forward to.

most thought-altering: Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall. A genuine dystopia, for once (people tend to use the word when they mean “post-apocalyptic” or even just “bad”, but Hall’s novel really does feature a repressive, terrifying government, one that tries to control the population by forcibly implanting coils in all women of reproductive age.) The story of our heroine’s escape, life on a rebel collective, and eventual militarization is fascinating, disturbing, and totally up-ends the things you think you believe about human behaviour.

best UK publishing debut: Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke. A collection of short stories that utterly blew me away, each one perfect and containing a novel’s worth of emotion and development in a tiny space. It feels like such a cliché to call them “gem-like”, but that’s the word my brain wants to use. Buy it and read it, and buy Clarke’s next book too.

most unexpected surprise:  A Month With Starfish, Bev Jackson’s memoir of her month spent on Lesbos volunteering to aid refugees. It’s such a humane and generous book, making both the refugees and the volunteers real people, instead of nameless, faceless statistics or stories on the news. Really worth reading if you can get hold of it; it’s £6.99 on Kindle.


most thoroughly comforting, a warm bath of a book: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. Oh how I loved this. There’s an interspecies lesbian romance, a human with dwarfism in love with an AI, plenty of fascinating galactic diversity, and a basically happy ending. It’s written with utter control and limpidity, and it made me happy like a good ensemble-cast TV show makes you happy. [insert Firefly reference here]

best thriller: The Turning Tide, by Brooke Magnanti. Complex thriller from former escort Belle du Jour, whose Diary of a London Call Girl was my guilty pleasure throughout university (but especially just before Mods.) It turns out she can write fiction, too. Maybe a little too complex (there are several different plot strands, not all obviously related), but I enjoyed it hugely; it’s topical, political, and socially aware.

best teenager: The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney. Five people in Cork’s criminal underbelly–a gangster, his mother, a prostitute, a teenage drug dealer, and his alcoholic dad–are connected over the years. On the shortlist for the Baileys Prize and I’m hoping it wins. Ryan Cusack is the best, most complicatedly believable teenager that I’ve read for years.

most disillusioning: The Exclusives, by Rebecca Thornton. Two best friends are awful to each other at boarding school, then must reconcile 18 years later. You will never look at boarding schools the same way again.


party I was late to: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Deservedly a classic. It’s written in quite a portentous, old-fashioned style, but the story of Ged, who needs to learn the limits and responsibilities of his immense power, is never going to get old. And yes, I object to the erasure/belittling of women’s magic, but. It’s still a good book. I read the other two in the original Earthsea trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, at the start of the bank holiday weekend. Their ethos is one of balance and goodness and maintaining equilibrium, and it’s really quite beautiful.

true love: Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath. I love her. I love her frightening, visual imagination, and the way motherhood repels her as well as attracting her, and I love how she wrote through madness. I just love her. The end. (I’ve mentioned before that someone should set “Daddy” to music, and I’ll say it again. Same goes for “Tulips”, I think.)

most evocative: The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan.  In the grip of a global winter, a lost young man, a single mother, and a transitioning teenager find friendship and love with each other in a Scottish caravan park. Fagan is good on atmosphere and the effect is quite lovely, although the book as a whole feels anti-climactic somehow.

most engrossing: I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in two days, glued to the sofa and twiddling my hair breathlessly through most of a Saturday.  I’ve always loved Kingsolver, but this novel–the one that made her name, about an evangelical missionary’s family in the Congo in 1959–is really something else. Transcendent, and highly recommended.


most disturbing: Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, a tale of Satanism and the rape and murder of children in East Texas. It is beautiful and moving but it is also incredibly dark. Also, if you are a woman, you may have difficulty trusting any men at all for up to forty-eight hours after reading it. Sorry. (Also, Becoming/Unbecoming, a graphic novel memoir by an artist called Una about growing up in Yorkshire under the shadow of the Ripper murders. It’s about so much more than that, too; it’s about what happens when a culture hates women, and thinks they deserve all the violence meted out to them. I am very glad it is not the 1970s anymore, although I’m sanguine about the amount of hatred and violence that remains.)

most formally playful: The Cauliflower, by Nicola Barker, is a fragmented novel that explores the life of Sri Ramakrishna, a late nineteenth-century Indian guru who was thought to be God. It’s a very self-aware, constructed novel, and its reputation preceded it, so I expected it to be deeply annoying. Instead, it was very amusing and a little disturbing, shaking your ideas about how the public performance of faith works. Good stuff.

up next: After the bank holiday, I’ll need to read Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils, from ONE Pushkin, to review (it’s supposedly a combination of Mormons and motorcycles). I’ve also got Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters lined up for soon afterwards.


18 thoughts on “April Superlatives

  1. I’m assuming Daughters of the North is the US title for The Carhullan Army? Wonderful novel – I think it’s my favourite by Hall.

    The McInerney is moving ever further up my TBR list – it’s so rare for teenagers to be written well.

    The fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu, is better, though still not brilliant, on gender.

    I’m reading Ruby at the moment, but obviously haven’t hit the darkest point yet…

    1. Yes, I borrowed it from a colleague and I think she’d acquired it from the US!

      I’d like to read Tehanu. I was reasonably impressed by Tenar’s character in The Tombs of Atuan, so would like to see more of her!

      And, trust me, if you’re reading Ruby, you’ll get there…

  2. “most thoroughly comforting, a warm bath of a book” -That’s the kind of book I fee like right now!

    What a great month you had!

    1. Everyone needs a warm bath of a book at some point! I did have a good month; not sure how it happened, but pleased.

  3. 16 BOOKS? That’s amazing! I still haven’t managed to ever finish my 20 Books of Summer challenge and it takes place over 3 months! Glad you enjoyed The Glorious Heresies. I loved it and you are right. Ryan is a fantastically written character.

    1. Ryan is terrific! She’s writing a second novel which apparently focuses on him; I can’t wait to read it.

      I got lucky because some of the books this month were quite short (Sarah Hall; Una’s graphic novel; the Earthsea books). Hoping to keep it up into May, though.

  4. I absolutely love the way you write about books, I always want to pick up a book afterwards. I’ve skimmed through parts, like Ruby which I’m ready at the moment, because there are quite a few on here I want to read. Glad to know the Earthsea books only get better (I’ve read one, about Ged growing up) I’ll have to read more.

    1. Squee! Thank you; that’s quite a compliment. Do read the other Earthsea books, yes. They complicate and fill out the world that we’re introduced to in the first one. (I’ll be keen to see what you make of Ruby, too.)

  5. No question that The Poisonwood Bible is totally engrossing. Interested in The Cauliflower because Nicola Barker can be extremely interesting.

    1. I was very impressed by this one. I can’t say it engaged my emotions much as a reader, but it’s so clever and wears its deep interrogation of motive so lightly. The swift/camera scene is particularly good.

  6. I’ve loved Mark Haddon’s When the Pier Falls (short stories: fabulous) and Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (winner of the NorthernReader prize for best title as well as being just gloriously engrossing). Can’t join you in the Sylvia Plath fan club, though: must be too many years listening – patiently, obviously – to self-absorbed teenage goths telling me how she feels their pain. Ah, I feel a blog on The Selfish Reader coming up!

    1. Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is a great title!

      My advice re: Sylvia Plath: ignore what everyone says about her, ignore her reputation, ignore the fact that she’s easily co-opted by the solipsistic, and just read what she actually wrote. It will almost certainly be better than anything you could have expected!

  7. I agree about Kingsolver, she’s great for the big, escapist, job-and-family-blocking-out fiction I need a dose of now and again. And also about Plath. Since reading ‘The Bell Jar’ it’s returned to me with considerable frequency.

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