This was a format that worked well for quite a long time a few years ago, and maybe it’ll be a little more manageable than a monthly roundup. It’ll also have the distinct advantage of forcing me to a) post more than once a month, so you won’t forget I exist, and b) corral my thoughts about books fairly recently after finishing them, instead of getting to the end of the month and trying to remember it all at once.
The Habsburgs: the Rise and Fall of a World Power, by Martyn Rady: I read this in proof so unfortunately did not get to glory in the finished edition’s excellent front cover. It’s also not necessarily my usual bag, but I picked it up because I knew a lot of my customers would be keen and I wanted to make up my own mind. And it’s excellent! Rady has about nine hundred years of history to distill into <350 pages, and does so masterfully; the occasional confusion about dynasties (so many Ferdinands!), genealogies, and religious affiliations were mostly easily resolved by consulting the multi-century family trees in the front of the book. (A lot of family-tree typos in the proof copy, though; more “Emporers” than you can shake a stick at. Presumably these have been dealt with in the finished version.) The chapters are a perfect length: long enough to provide an overview of a topic or period, short enough to feel manageable and give a pleasing sense of progress. And although Rady is a historian, not a comedian, he clearly has a keen sense of the ridiculous (such as the attempts to cure a particularly mad scion by forcing him to sleep with the mummified corpse of a saint, which–surprise–did not work). His style is light but not lightweight, witty but not intrusive, and intelligent but highly readable. The topic is also less Eurocentric than I’d imagined: the Habsburgs presided over the first genuinely global empire, with outposts in Latin America thanks to their Spanish connection as well as the occasional foray into Southeast Asia (who knew?!) and Africa (likewise). Highly, highly recommended.
Grace Will Lead Us Home, by Jennifer Berry Hawes: This was my next audiobook choice and it was a very good one – I was guided by the fact that it won an Audie Award for Best General Nonfiction. It is an account not only of the massacre of nine Black worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church in 2016, but of what followed: the national and local responses, the arrest and trial of Dylann Roof, and the incredibly painful journey of the survivors and the bereaved. This last is probably the most powerful element of the book. Although forgiveness was the watchword that got picked up by media when one of the survivors told Roof she forgave him just days later, this was not an easy or a universal response. Particularly tragic is the story of the husband of one of the murdered women, who returned from a merchant marine job halfway across the world and sank into depression, bitterness and apathy without his wife’s leavening presence. You find yourself unable to blame him, really. Roof is described about as objectively as possible—we learn about him through his actions and his reactions to his family and police—but it is highly evident that there is something wrong with him, perhaps undiagnosable, perhaps simply the manifestation of evil. A hard book but a very necessary one, and one that gives dignity and complexity to all of the actors in this horrible episode in American history.
Lot, by Bryan Washington: Washington’s debut connected-story collection focuses on the lives of Black and Latinx characters in Houston, Texas. About half of them focus on a particular young man who goes unnamed, but whose uneasy relationship with his family and his burgeoning sexuality is the focus of most of the stories in this main thread. Others, like “South Central” and “Waugh”, are snapshots of different individuals struggling to maintain integrity—or just survive—in a city beset by gentrification, poverty and racism. “Waugh” in particular is appallingly moving, its protagonist Poke a young prostitute forced to reckon with his pimp and protector’s HIV-positive status. It’s the story in which a cultural emphasis on the implicit, the unspoken or unarticulated emotion, is most evident. Elsewhere, our unnamed narrator’s uber-masculine brother Javi teaches him “what happens to faggots”, his father takes him on a visit to his “plainer than plain” mistress, his sister marries to get out of the neighborhood, and his mother suffers as gentrification forces her to give up the family restaurant. Washington’s prose style is clipped and succinct, which often creates a perhaps unintentional sense of emotional distance, but the final chapter—in which the narrator at last decides to commit to a romantic relationship with a man instead of the no-strings-attached sex he’s allowed himself up til now—holds out a delicate hope for fulfillment that only a rock could fail to find heartrending.
Set My Heart to Five, by Simon Stephenson: The premise here is perhaps cringey to a certain type of reader: in a near future containing “driverless ubers” but no New Zealand (casualty of a nuclear exchange with North Korea, apparently), Jared, a bot who looks exactly like a human but whose brain is a biological computer and who has no emotions, begins to develop feelings, along with a taste for classic movies. Pursued by an incompetent but dogged jobsworth from the Bureau of Robotics, he flees his comfortable, sterile dental practice in Ypsilanti for Los Angeles, intending to write and direct a movie that will change the way the world feels about bots. So far, perhaps, so cute (an impression backed up by Jared’s relentlessly slangy narration: “10/10” and “I cannot!” being but two of his many catchphrases). But what makes this stand out as more than just a big-hearted underdog novel with futuristic set dressing is its obsession, nay its love affair, with film tropes—which are, of course, storytelling tropes—and by way of which Jared comments, both explicitly and unconsciously, upon his own quest. I wrote “underdog” up there, for instance; Jared knows he’s in a quest story, and he knows how the logic of such stories works. He knows that Inspector Ryan Bridges of the Bureau of Robotics is his nemesis, and that (as per RP McWilliam’s Twenty Golden Rules of Screenwriting, a text he treats with reverence) coincidences should only occur in order to create obstacles, not to smooth the hero’s path. This incredible circular knowingness—a story about stories, and who gets to tell them, and how they can be hijacked (there’s a great subplot about an unscrupulous Hollywood producer), which also knows it’s a story, and comments on that, and the comments are both an integral part of the story and reinforce its thematic meaning—is quite brilliant, and further reinforced by form, as sections of the book are typeset to resemble a film script. If this all sounds a bit precious, please trust me when I say that it is not. There is something perfect and painful about Jared’s first viewing of Blade Runner, for instance—quite deliberately a movie about whether robots are people—or about his being reassured that the people sailing on Lake Michigan during inclement weather probably don’t want rescuing, because humans actually enjoy illogical risk. Not to mention his unexpected side trip to Las Vegas with a lonely, self-deluding fellow train traveler (who happens to hate bots), or the way he falls in love. Set My Heart to Five is poignant, funny, light on its feet, and very, very sharp. By the end, I felt—as Jared hears a famous screenwriter say—as though I’d been “f-worded in the heart”; I can’t recommend it more highly.
Remain Silent, by Susie Steiner: This is the third of Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw novels, and may be her last—she was recently diagnosed with what seems to be (going from her Twitter and the Acknowledgments page here) a pretty aggressive cancer. Bradshaw (or Manon, as most everyone in the books calls her) has always been an extraordinary creation: grumpy, dogged, keen on a custard cream, not so keen on buzzwords or bullshit. Here her smallest child is a toddler, her older boy Fly—adopted in an earlier novel—is about to sit GCSEs, her partner may or may not be terminally ill, and she is staring at the settlings, losses and alterations of middle age. The crime, on the other hand, could hardly be more contemporary: a dead immigrant hanging from a tree in Cambridgeshire, a note reading “The dead cannot speak” pinned to his clothing. Because this is a crime novel, of course nothing about it adds up, and of course Manon is determined to get to the bottom of it all. Steiner tells the story in a pretty effective multi-POV fashion, switching from the present (narrated alternately by Manon and by her deputy, Davy) to “Before” (narrated by Matis, best friend of the dead man, and Elise, a local girl whose father is a frothing xenophobe abetted by, and fawningly besotted with, a Nigel Farage analogue). Davy’s presence in the book is an interesting leaven to what could otherwise easily be a one-note political set-up: we know Manon has no time for Little England, National Front bollocks, for she tells us so frequently and forthrightly, but Davy is a white man of precarious status approaching middle age and his internal monologues often muse on the anger he sees in these men. He doesn’t quite agree with them, but he understands them, and in some moments even sympathizes, and through his eyes we can understand them too. Or at least understand how other people can understand. The solution to the murder is actually quite ingenious: it struck me as both believable and appalling, which is no mean feat for crime fiction. The believability rests on Steiner’s work with characterization, which she’s remarkably good at; if there is a slight wobble of “would someone really…?”, it’s covered by the fact that most of the other characters wonder that, too. If this is the last Manon Bradshaw book, it will be a very great loss: she is really one of the most exceptionally idiosyncratic characters—let alone detective characters—currently being written, and I would miss her. Let’s hope she rides again.
currently reading: Afropean, by Johny Pitts, which I am absolutely loving. No wonder it won the Jhalak Prize. More on that next week.