March 2021 Wrap-Up

Hahahahaha. Well, that didn’t last: I managed two months of reviewing pretty much everything I read, and then this month, it all went wrong.

In my defense, that is because I was reading for, and writing up, an application for an MPhil/PhD programme in English, which consumed a lot of time and brain energy. It also led me to read several academic books in quick succession, none of which I could really adequately review, and to reach mainly (although not entirely) for palate-cleansers in between.

So, this month, I read fourteen books, which is a lot more like the olden days. Of those, I have managed to review one, Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Of the rest, five were new releases and/or proof copies: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (a truly wonderful, eerie novel set in Cornwall and based on the true story of three lighthousemen who disappeared without a trace; Stonex’s ability to depict human emotion and her firm grasp on the nature of insanity is never less than bracing); The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (I never read anything billed as “stories and a novella” and good Lord am I glad I made an exception for this, a near-flawless collection on emotional loss and the deceptions of American historio-mythology; my two favourite stories are “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain”, set during a wedding that doesn’t happen, and the title story, a novella that makes devastatingly clear the cost of being honest about history); Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley (a rather broadly drawn but engaging romp through all levels of society, centering on the attempted demolition of a Soho brothel and gentrification of the neighbourhood; Mozley works in types here, and the prose is less remarkable than in her debut, Elmet, but Hot Stew is in a Dickensian tradition of London novels that connect the homeless with the high and mighty and everyone in between; it’s a lot of fun); Harvest by Georgina Harding (the third in a loose trilogy–I’ve read the second but not the first–and a book that grows on you, quietly, the further you read; dealing with the unspoken traumas and losses of a Norfolk farming family which are revealed when Kumiko, the Japanese girlfriend of youngest son Jonathan, comes to stay; Harding moves from perspective to perspective seamlessly and with great empathy, and although the book is certainly a rural tragedy of a sort it never feels melodramatic or Hardy-esque); and The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix (sadly, mildly diverting but there’s nothing going on here that China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Ben Aaronovitch, Michael Moorcock, CS Lewis, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and JRR Tolkien–the latter four of whom are frequently name-checked–haven’t done already, and better; the story of a half-mortal girl discovering her parentage, aided by an eccentric and sometimes violent extra-governmental secret agency, spirits of ancient wells and mountains evoking a deep-time England, etc; it should all be very evocative but Nix never really grounds his setting in a feeling of place: he gets street names and geographies right (down to his booksellers’ headquarters on, ahem, Curzon Street, in a Georgian townhouse, right across from Shepherd Market… looks a lot like home…) but unlike Cooper, Garner, Mieville and Tolkien (at least), he never manages to make me feel as though I understand the spirit of his settings. Which is fatal for a book about topographical magic.) A final, and unexpectedly wonderful, read for March was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1920 novel Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, which Penguin Modern Classics have reissued in one of their lovely eau-de-nil-backed editions; the premise–a middle-aged English bank clerk receives a small inheritance, becomes a missionary in Polynesia, feels a call to convert the inhabitants of the tiny island of Fanua, but makes only one convert, a boy, and finds himself put to “a terrible test”–seemed fertile ground for Graham Greene-ish misery, but Warner is nothing like Greene, nowhere near so predictable in her belief in human wretchedness, and instead the novel is profoundly moving: Mr. Fortune’s friendship with the boy Lueli changes his life, and eventually it is love that compels him to give up his own happiness, because he realizes the damage he will do to the Fanuan way of life if he stays. Quietly stunning and under two hundred pages long; I urge you to give it a go.

Three of the other books I read were for background purposes as I worked up an abstract and then a research proposal: Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture by Laura J. Rosenthal (a broad overview of 18th-century literary depictions of prostitutes), Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture, an anthology of literary and historical essays edited by Ann Lewis and focusing on British, French and Dutch sources, and Mastery, Tyranny and Desire by Trevor Burnard, an in-depth look at the diaries of Jamaican slave-owner Thomas Thistlewood, from whose extensive journal-keeping comes much of what we know about the experiences of enslaved people and Anglo-Jamaican colonialists during the eighteenth century. It’s both genuinely fascinating, and utterly horrifying.

In between, I’ve read two science fiction novels as palate-cleansers: a re-read of Alastair Reynolds’s gripping and entirely inessential Revelation Space, whose failings on the level of character become more obvious the second time around but which still has a pretty compelling mystery at its heart, which rescues it, and Tricia Sullivan’s 1999 Clarke Award-winner Dreaming In Smoke, a planetary colonization novel whose plot is catalyzed by the apparent implosion of the AI, Ganesh, that keeps operational a fledgling human outpost on the fiery planet T’nane. (Verdict: also pretty compelling, though with great lashings of cyberpunk-ish technobabble, which I always find myself having to skim, and a protagonist whose profound insecurity and passivity is both infuriating and a fascinating character choice in a genre where indestructible badass bitches are more the order of the day.) I also reread Adam Roberts’s collection of sci fi and fantasy criticism, Sibilant Fricative, which, like all of Roberts’s criticism, is always amusing and largely illuminating. Finally, I read the short story/novella Bloodchild by Octavia Butler, which is utterly brilliant, revolting and entrancing and poignant and horrific all at once, about a reproductive relationship worked out between future humans on an alien world and that world’s indigenous insectoid race, the T’lic. The story’s thirty pages long and says more about consent, bodily autonomy, love, coercion, and choice than most novels can hope for.

What did this all mean for my self-imposed reading resolutions? Oddly, not everything was a loss: nearly half of this month’s books were nonfiction. Only two were by an author of colour, though (The Office of Historical Corrections and Bloodchild), and only one by a queer author (Hot Stew). No translations, and my progress through the Great Unread stalled entirely (although I enjoyed my rereads). I did, however, set myself the goal of reading “eighteenth-century stuff” and “stuff on sex work” in March, which, I think we can all agree, has been a success. And did I succeed at “generally not stressing myself out too much”? Not really. But that’s an ongoing project.

In April, I’ll have little to do but wait for a reply to my application, so my reading can be a touch more expansive. Certainly, maintaining reading diversity and getting through the Great Unread are still general aims. I’m also enjoying my rereads so much, and usually give rereading so little thought, that I’d quite like to do more of it. Finally, I went hog-wild during a Gollancz 99p ebook sale yesterday and bought eight titles for the price of one, so I really must attempt to justify that by actually reading them. (The first I read was the underwhelming Nix, mentioned above, but most of the others are in the SF Masterworks series – aka classics of the genre – so I expect better things to come.)

I can’t think too much about the fact that it’s been a year since lockdown one. I remember it felt like a strange, hallucinatory holiday – I bought a Disney+ subscription and ordered a lot of sushi and drank a lot of gin, and it was a sunny spring, although a lonely one. That feeling is long gone. We’ll readjust, of course, in a superficial way, once we’re allowed to see our loved ones and go out and about again, but we’ll be experiencing the effects of these two years in a more subtle fashion for a long time, I think.

22 thoughts on “March 2021 Wrap-Up

  1. Good luck with your Ph.D. application – I loved doing my Ph.D., although it has helped me not a scrap later on in life… (Of course it has helped me in terms of the skills I gained etc. but not in terms of career advancement).

    1. I’m sure I’m just kicking the can of my quarter-life crisis further down the road by even contemplating this, but I want so profoundly to do it that I think the time has come to stop ignoring that desire.

  2. Echoing Marina’s good luck with the PhD application.

    Always pleased to see Georgina Harding get a mention. I read the Evans in the last days of Trump’s administration which made it all the more resonant. I wasn’t at all sure about reading The Lamplighters but it sounds as if I should.

    1. Thank you!

      Yes, Harding as ever needs more public attention! I’m not sure I could have handled the Evans before the election – it’s just so spot-on. The Lamplighters I would really recommend; the writing is very trustworthy and the suspense is handled beautifully, never crass or jumping the gun.

  3. I’m keen to try Sylvia Townsend Warner, and I’ll make Bloodchild my next Butler after I finish Parable of the Talents. I’m reading the final novella in the Evans and will finish it today. I so rarely pick up volumes of short fiction, but this one was well worth it, I agree.

    I hope April brings good news for you!

    1. STW is fantastic and I think you’d really like her! Bloodchild is currently free (!) on Kindle, which I have on my laptop (I know, it’s naughty, but… free!) Oof ok be prepared for the end of the Evans – it’s not a surprise but all the more distressing.

      And thank you – I hope so too!

      1. I’ve been getting my Butler books from the University of Reading library (my husband’s staff borrowing account must look to the librarians like a bewildering mix of ecology, entomology, ornithology and literary fiction!). Parable of the Talents has just been recalled, which gives me the impetus to finish it in a timely fashion.

  4. Any PhD programme should snap you up, hope the result is the correct one.

    I think you’ve nailed why I didn’t like Hot Stew. I hate Dickens and I hate ‘types’. I know it was deliberate but I still don’t like it any more.

    I couldn’t finish the Left-Handed Booksellers, it was just too silly for me. It’s a shame, I loved Nix’s Abhorsen novels.

    I must read The Lamplighters and Bloodchild.

    1. That is ever so kind of you to say, thank you. Fingers firmly crossed!

      Hot Stew – yes, absolutely, there are limits to its approach, and I wholeheartedly agree that sometimes, knowing an author is doing something intentionally does not make it more palatable.

      I finished Left-Handed Booksellers because it was about 11 pm by the time I decided it was too absurd, and by that point I figured I might as well commit. I sort of regret it. The Abhorsen books are much better, I don’t quite know what’s happened to him there.

      You’d love Lamplighters and Bloodchild both, and the latter is free on Kindle (sshhhhh…)

      1. I was sent an unsolicited proof of The Lamplighters and gave up on it after 30 pages, but seeing that you found it worthwhile makes me want to try again. If I still don’t like it, Laura is welcome to it 🙂

  5. I’d never heard of The Lamplighters but that went straight onto the TBR after your description. Sounds very up my alley.

    And good luck with the application; I must echo Laura’s sentiment that any program would be lucky to have you.

    1. The Lamplighters has this very VanderMeerian vibe, which is all the weirder for it having no science fictional components whatsoever, the whole solution is rational, but it FEELS fantastical. Extremely vibe-y book all round really.

      You two will make me blush! My impostor syndrome is getting all itchy.

  6. Good luck with the new program! I just read Left-Handed Booksellers and thought of your bookstore. I didn’t love the book, mainly because as you say, it felt like it had been done before. Also I didn’t think the characters were well developed. I just read Neverwhere and this book suffered by comparison.

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