November 2022: superlatives for the rest of it

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 [2013]). 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 [2022]): 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 [2017]): 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.


Love Your Library, November 2022

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.


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)

RIP XVII, part two

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.