Library Checkout!

I’ve started using my local public library a lot more recently, thanks in large part to this rather magnificent Twitter thread from Secret Library Gorgon. It reminded me that I do, in fact, possess an Islington Libraries card, and that until two weeks ago, I had only used it once in the course of nine or ten months. So I went down to the library a fortnight ago, borrowed five books (most of which were mentioned in my last reading roundup post), and had a whale of a time.

They were all due back today (one of the most embarrassing things about my relative virginity as a public libraries user is that I was genuinely unsure whether that meant I could return them at any time today, or whether I had to return them by the time it became today, e.g. yesterday. For anyone else similarly struggling: it is the former.) Duly, I returned them and immediately borrowed seven more:

One of the very nicest things about a public library is its free-ness. This should be obvious, but it allows for all sorts of experimentation in one’s reading that would be harder to defend if spending of actual cash were required. My job does provide me with a lot of free books, but these come from publisher’s reps and, as proof copies, are in the nature of “previews” of the things they’re going to be releasing this season. If I happen to want to read something published longer ago than, say, six to eight months, the reps are unlikely to have proof copies (though sometimes miracles do occur—reprint editions, how I love thee), and I will have to spend money on it in order to possess it. My staff discount from Heywood Hill is extremely good—we can buy books at cost price, more or less, which in practice generally means at least 45% discount and sometimes as much as 55%—but it’s still, you know, money.

I am, as you can probably see from the above pile, trying to expand my knowledge of iconic crime and science fiction, and it is much easier to do that when I don’t have to spend money on a book whose quality I can’t predict, precisely because my knowledge base in that genre is currently limited. I’m also trying to fill some of my classic literature gaps; these are probably smaller than most people’s, by the nature of the degree that I did, but with the best will in the world, even after three years of reading the Anglophone canon, one is going to have missed some things. And I’m being guided, in a vague sort of way, by the Guardian’s Top 1000 Novels list (although the more I examine it, the more I realize that it is noticeably biased, though the nature of that bias has yet to clarify itself. It contains, for instance, five novels by Michael Dibdin and three by Ian Fleming in the “crime” subcategory, which is itself composed of 146 titles. Even his champions will probably balk at the notion that Ian Fleming, neither the world’s greatest stylist nor its greatest plotsmith, wrote three—three!—entirely indispensable books. I have read two of the listed, Goldfinger and Casino Royale. Only the latter has a claim to that kind of significance, and its claim is mainly historic. The former is not even particularly good.)

Tangents aside, this is what I’ve come away with this time:

  • The Drowned World, by JG Ballard [on the Guardian list]
  • Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss [on the Guardian list]
  • Sorcerer To the Crown, by Zen Cho [on my personal to-read list for years]
  • The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke [on the Guardian list]
  • Blood Shot, also published as Toxic Shock, by Sara Paretsky [on the Guardian list]
  • Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë [on the Guardian list]
  • How Do You Like Me Now?, by Holly Bourke [recommended by my trustworthy colleague Faye]


Anyone read any of these, or want to? What should I read first? I’ve never read any of these authors before, except for Brontë, obviously.

Rebecca at Bookish Beck runs a regular Library Checkout feature, from which I’ve snitched this post title; the most recent one is here.

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03. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, by Elif Shafak

~~some spoilers ahead, I guess~~

10 minutes and 38 seconds is the longest amount of time (according to Elif Shafak’s novel) that human brain activity has been recorded post-mortem. (I’m not sure this is true, but as Shafak makes no attempt to convince us of medical legitimacy, I’m also not sure that it’s the point.) In this novel, the dead or dying brain belongs to Tequila Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul. Her ten minutes are spent remembering her life up to this point, in a series of vignette flashbacks that each start with a smell: the scent of the lemon-and-sugar wax that her mother and auntie slathered on their legs, the aroma of the cardamom coffee she used to drink with the man who became her husband. Shafak’s descriptive powers are at their height in these flashback passages, which are the strongest parts of the novel. She is a serious political novelist, but also a dryly humorous one; particularly enjoyable is the sequence in which the madam of Leila’s brothel makes all the girls clean it in anticipation of the arrival of the American Sixth Fleet, only to be stymied by a left-wing student demonstration that means the Americans never get off their ship. Bitter Ma’s rage at the lost business potential is very real and fundamentally not funny–we already know that she privileges a profit above the safety of her workers, as when she leaves Leila alone with a john who has a history of violence and who ends up throwing acid at her–but Shafak simultaneously nails the glorious, futile absurdity that seems to characterize street life in Istanbul. This section also introduces Leila’s five friends: Hollywood Humeyra, Sabotage Sinan, Nalan (who used to be Osman), Jameelah, and Zaynab122 (the number refers to her height; she has a form of dwarfism). These are the people–transsexuals, sex workers, the disabled and the lonely–who form her chosen family when her blood family fails her, and they will be the people who come to take her body from the morgue.

They don’t receive it, though. The first part of the book is entitled The Mind; the second, The Body. Shafak splits her narrative strategy into two: The Mind is limited to Leila’s perspective, but The Body–which mostly concerns the five friends’ attempts to give Leila’s corpse a proper burial–is narrated by an omniscient external voice that observes the living characters without committing to any one point of view. As the five are not her immediate family, the hospital refuses to release Leila’s body to them, and she is buried in the Cemetery of the Companionless, a kind of potter’s field outside of Istanbul where the nameless dead are denied even gravestones: the individual plots are marked with wooden boards upon which numbers are haphazardly scrawled. Nalan, the group’s de facto leader, suggests a solution: they will rob the grave, remove their friend’s body, and bury her at sea, as she wished. This section (and the very brief third, The Spirit, that follows) is much less successful. Mostly, I think, this is because Shafak’s handle on her tone starts to loosen. In part one, there is a delicate balance between horror and hilarity; in part two, the madcap grave robbery quickly becomes slapstick, and many of the jokes seem to turn on the inherently amusing nature of Nalan’s physical presentation as a trans woman. It’s as though the novel can’t decide what sort of book it is: an evocative meditation on violence against women in twentieth-century Turkey, or a buddy romp.

On the whole, I think, the first section is strong enough to carry the rest. But once the life leaves Leila, it leaves the book, too.


10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World was published by Viking on 6 June.

02. Rough Magic, by Lara Prior-Palmer

Lara Prior-Palmer signed up for the Mongol Derby—famously the world’s toughest horse race—on a whim, a month before the start date. Other competitors had been preparing for a year, building their endurance and stamina. She won it. At nineteen, she was the youngest rider, and the first woman, ever to do so. Although her book about the experience is technically, I suppose, a sports memoir(!), what’s most evident throughout Rough Magic is the kind of mental or spiritual transformation she finds herself undergoing. When she starts the race, she’s casual and unconcerned, in it for the fun of spending an August in Mongolia, a why-not kind of person. By the time she’s halfway through, she discovers quite suddenly that she cares. The compelling bones of Rough Magic are the paths she took in her own head to get to that place.

Even, or especially, by her own account, Prior-Palmer is a vague and drifty sort of person. Her family seems to think of her as semi-permanently away with the fairies. But that’s a common disparagement to throw at young women (her father’s friend refers to her as “Avatar”, which she tells us in a way that I think is meant to be ironic and self-aware, but which I actually found quite disturbing–what kind of adult man gives his friend’s kid a nickname deriving from her social awkwardness, then uses it to her face?) In any case, that blinky personality serves to mask more interesting things. One of these is that Prior-Palmer is ambitious, and she acknowledges that she’s been raised to find naked ambition vaguely suspect. Her impetus to win the race comes from being deeply, personally irked by an American woman called Devan, who, only a year older, takes the race with deadly seriousness. Some readers seem to feel betrayed by Prior-Palmer’s immediate antipathy towards Devan, seeing it, I think, as yet another instance of women competing instead of coming together in supportive sisterhood. But it rings very true: there’s little that can spur a person more than seeing herself reflected at a frustrating angle in someone else.

Of course, there’s plenty about the nitty-gritty of the race: the Derby is so difficult in part because it has twenty-five stages and each one is ridden on a different Mongolian pony, which are rounded up into small herds at each checkpoint. Prior-Palmer differentiates each of her mounts with a nickname, which helps the reader keep track as well. She’s great on the confusions of navigating on a seemingly featureless steppe (the GPS tracker is frequently unhelpful), negotiating a place to stay with the local semi-nomadic herders when she gets caught between checkpoints at nightfall, and the cultural cruces that make communication difficult. (She also glances at the particular hazards of being a woman traveling alone, even in a bad-ass competitive way: one local assaults her, and a group of boys attack her pony while she’s riding.) If you’re interested in the logistics of cross-country horse racing, Rough Magic has you covered. But it’s also a very compelling twist on the current crop of memoirs by young women; Prior-Palmer’s psychological growth isn’t often foregrounded, but the reader is ever aware that the Derby is permanently changing her. Very worthwhile indeed.


Rough Magic was published by Ebury on 6 June.

Reading Diary round-up

More for me than for you; short impressions of what I’ve read in the last fortnight that isn’t 20 Books of Summer.

Lit, by Mary Karr: A devastating memoir of trying to be a poet, keep a failing marriage together, and kick alcoholism. (Two of these things, Karr achieves. The marriage isn’t one.) A little too long given that it doesn’t really acquire a sense of propulsion until the second half, which is when Karr also finds Catholicism–but her writing about faith, particularly faith as an intellectual and inveterate doubter, is electric. One for fans of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald’s writing is very clear and clean and capable, and also entirely of its time; one wonders whether she’d get published in today’s marketing- and sales-driven environment. The Blue Flower is the love story of the German Romantic poet Novalis and the pre-teen daughter of a business acquaintance, which makes it somewhat tricky to read in 2019, although the narration is never prurient or indeed particularly sexual. Her atmospheric abilities are incredible, though; you do feel you’re in a nineteenth-century German market town on wash day. And Novalis’s odd, ethereal little brother makes the novel memorable all on his own.

The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon: Tremendously fun contemporary urban fantasy, set in an England beset by a plague of clairvoyance and suffering under a repressive regime. Shannon makes Oxford a ghost town controlled by powerful, supernatural beings who are also utter arseholes. (One imagines there’s some not entirely sublimated irony there.) A bit race-y in its plotting, but then that’s why you read a book like this: to be swept away.

Shadowplay, by Joseph O’Connor: Set in the Lyceum Theatre in 1878, and with a cast of characters including Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Bram Stoker, and (briefly) Oscar Wilde. Fantastically evocative historical fiction with a wide streak of poignancy and an even wider streak of queer desire and anxiety. One for fans of The Wardrobe MistressThe Phantom of the Opera, and Things In Jars.

Joe Country, by Mick Herron: I go back and forth on Herron’s work in the Slough House series; it’s sometimes wickedly funny, with a strong element of self-aware bathos, and sometimes tries too hard for its own good, falling over its own political incorrectness. Joe Country lies on the right side of the line, generally, though I’m starting to wonder if the series is now long enough that new readers will have a hard time starting in the middle.

Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin: Outstanding. It’s a very short novel about a closeted gay American man in Paris, who falls in love with an Italian bartender but abandons him for (he thinks) a respectable life married to a woman. This abandonment has…consequences. Baldwin’s a beautiful writer of sentences–quotable but never sententious–and quite how he lays claim to a reader’s emotions in such a short space and with pretty limited use of interiority is something I’ll only be able to work out upon rereading, if then.

01. Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo

Oof. This BOOK. Three women; eight years; their love and sex and desires meticulously recorded, celebrated, foregrounded. It is, almost unbelievably, nonfiction that – in the very truest sense – reads like a novel; Lisa Taddeo gives her subjects the care and complete focus that we often only give to the people we’ve made up.

The three women she chooses are Maggie, who has an affair with her high school English teacher at fifteen, and at twenty-three decides to seek justice; Lina, who marries the first man who asks, then suffers in the desert of being unkissed and untouched for months on end; and Sloane, who’s thin and hot and rich but whose husband is most turned on by watching her have sex with people he’s chosen for her. They couldn’t possibly be more different, and yet Taddeo seems able to slide into each of their brains with ease. (She is scrupulous, in her prologue, about her sources: she uses text records, phone logs, and court documents where she can, but in situations like Maggie’s–her teacher demanded that she delete every text message sent to, or received from, him–she has had to work with her subject to reconstruct the dynamic from memory.)

The most interesting element of Three Women, for me, is Taddeo’s ability not just to trace the events of eight years or so, but to show how every choice each woman makes, every twinge of desire or dread that she feels, is rooted in experiences from years or decades previously. Maggie’s early years–both her parents alcoholics, their marriage essentially loving but under a good deal of strain–make her intensely vulnerable to the isolation and grooming that Aaron Knodel perpetrates upon her. Sloane’s relationship with her mother, Dyan, a woman who herself was starved of familial love after a car that she was driving killed her own mother, is a kaleidoscope of inherited trauma. Lina’s parents’ apparent inability to take anything she says seriously drives her to cover up her own gang rape (by three friends of her older brother) in high school, then to an increasingly desperate need to have her longings acknowledged as an adult. Their choices are the sums of their lives, but so are their needs, their predilections, their compromises.

You’re likely, I’ll warn you, to come away from this book with the strong conviction that men are worthless toads. None of the featured men treat women well. Aaron Knodel is a weasely paedophile; Lina’s husband Ed is a vague and distant human-shaped meatsack; Aidan Hart–a high school sweetheart with whom she initiates an affair–sees her as an option but never a priority; Sloane’s husband Richard evades all the responsibility for any heartache that their sexual life–based entirely upon what arouses him–causes other couples.

But the point that Taddeo makes, implicitly but with every sentence, is that men aren’t the fulcrum of this book’s interest. It’s called, after all, Three Women. The sheer level of focus and attention, of serious consideration, given to the fantasies and realities of her subjects is almost unprecedented. Lina’s goofy texts to her lover made me cringe with their profound lack of sexiness, but Taddeo never cringes. Maggie’s experiences at Knodel’s trial made me flinch, but Taddeo never flinches. Nor does the book judge Sloane. Such care: is that what we mean by grace?


Three Women is out on 9 July, from Bloomsbury. Man or woman or neither or in-between, you should read it asap.

20 Books of Summer, 2019 Edition

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I’m playing again! Cathy at 746 Books hosts this (extremely chill) reading challenge; you’re allowed to do a 15-book or a 10-book version, swap out books as you go, etc. I’ve decided to aim for the 20-book goal. Most of the books on my list will come from my proof TBR; as the challenge runs from 3 June to 3 September, I’ve decided to try reading five proofs being released in each month (June, July, and August), plus a final five which are drawn from my stacks at home. With any luck, I’ll read many more than twenty books this summer, but these are the first priority!

  1. Rough Magic, by Lara Prior-Palmer [June, nonfiction]: The world’s youngest, and first female, winner of the Mongol Derby, on the mental and physical discipline of horse racing. She’s also the sister of a former colleague of mine. (review)
  2. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, by Elif Shafak [June, fiction]: An Istanbul sex worker is killed; in the ten minutes after her death, a series of flashbacks reveals her childhood and early life. (review)
  3. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton [June, nonfiction]: The life and times of Maud West, who opened her private investigation agency in London in 1905.
  4. Dressed: the Secret Life of Clothes, by Shahida Bari [June, nonfiction]: I’m an absolute sucker for fashion/style analysis, particularly as it relates to material culture.
  5. Big Sky, by Kate Atkinson [June, fiction]: The next in the Jackson Brodie series, and long-awaited too. I need to read Case Histories first.
  6. Patsy, by Nicole Dennis-Benn [July, fiction]: An undocumented Jamaican woman in New York, and her daughter growing up without her on the island. Looks magnificent.
  7. Supper Club, by Lara Williams [July, fiction]: I know very little about this, except that it’s about female rage, and must involve food at some point. Sign me upppp.
  8. Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo [July, fiction]: Taddeo basically embedded, like a war reporter, into the lives of three women over eight years. These are the stories of their love lives over that time. Modern New Journalism + exploration of contemporary female sexuality = 100% my jam. (review)
  9. Exhalation: Stories, by Ted Chiang [July, fiction]: Chiang wrote “Story of Your Life”, which the movie “Arrival” is based on. I’m told he’s excellent, and this is his first collection in a decade.
  10. Rose, Interrupted, by Patrice Lawrence [July, YA]: Lawrence’s earlier YA novel, Orangeboy, really impressed me. Rose, Interrupted is about a girl who escapes a cult with her brother and has to learn to be a Normal Teenager while also Following Her Path. Sounds good. Cover’s adorable.
  11. Life For Sale, by Yukio Mishima [August, fiction]: According to the jacket copy: “When Hanio Yamada realizes the future holds nothing of worth to him, he puts his life for sale in a Tokyo newspaper, thus unleashing a series of unimaginable exploits. A world of revenge, murderous mobsters, hidden cameras, a vampire woman, poisonous carrots, espionage and code-breaking, a junkie heiress, home-made explosives and decoys reveals itself.” Need I say more?
  12. The Truants, by Kate Weinberg [August, fiction]: Sort of The Secret History, but on a campus in East Anglia instead of the woods of New England, and minus the classical references. Worth a punt.
  13. The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware [August, fiction]: Ware’s brand of contemporary Gothic thriller is eminently suited to a rewrite of The Turn of the Screw.
  14. Girl. Boy. Sea., by Chris Vick [August, YA]: A British boy and a Berber girl, both shipwrecked, must help each other to survive. This looks wonderful.
  15. The Offing, by Benjamin Myers [August, fiction]: Post-WWII, following an unlikely friendship between a sixteen-year-old miner’s son and an older woman in Robin Hood’s Bay. Myers has loads of critical acclaim and I’ve never read any of his work before; this seems like a good time to start, though his other stuff appears to be much darker than this sounds.

The final five are subject to change, but may look something like this:

  1. Pericles, by William Shakespeare
  2. Daemon Voices: Essays On Storytelling, by Philip Pullman
  3. Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell
  4. A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel
  5. The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

Other possibilities for the final five include: The Summer Without Men, also by Siri Hustvedt; The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphael Jerusalmy; Breathe by Dominick Donald; Lowborn by Kerry Hudson; Happy Fat by Sofie Hagen; If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson.


Have you read any of my choices? Do you particularly recommend (or dis-recommend) any of them?

My Mama Said, #1: The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny

This is the first in an occasional series of posts reviewing books that my mum challenges me to read. She’s a huge reader and I so rarely get recommendations from other people. Technically, she wants me to read all of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books, but of the ones on the shelves in my grandparents’ house, this is the earliest number in the series, so I’ve started here.

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The premise: In Three Pines, a sleepy Québecois village, a man is found bludgeoned to death inside Olivier’s Bistro. No one recognises him, and the murder weapon is nowhere to be found. As Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté investigates, the neighbourly veneer of Three Pines is stripped away to reveal deep-rooted deceit.

Plot stuff: The Brutal Telling is a slow burn to start with. There are multiple false leads, the investigation takes time to work out that the body has been moved not once but twice, and the discovery of the murder scene at the victim’s home–which contains the most significant evidence–comes only halfway through the book. Once the investigation knows which direction to go, though, there are some really excellent clues: a spider’s web that appears to have the word “WOE” woven into its design; two beautiful and terrifying wood-carvings; the legend of the Mountain King; and a linguistic cipher known as Caesar’s Shift. My ma likes these books for their propagation of a grace and forgiveness ethos, and although that ethos caused me to question several moments in the book (what self-respecting Chief Inspector would blithely attend dinner parties hosted by potential suspects?), that’s what gives The Brutal Telling emotional heft. The final unraveling is quite complicated, but the ultimate story–of betrayal, vengeance, shame, and greed–is recognizably human. Gamache’s response to crime is always deeply compassionate; it is an unusual choice in this genre to write a chief inspector who, although he has no illusions about human nature, seems devoid of cynicism.

Technical stuff: I struggle with what appears to be widespread reader consensus that Penny is an exceptional prose stylist. There are certainly passages where she hooks emotion out of the reader; usually they’re the ones that involve characters responding to a work of art, whether it’s a painting, a wood carving, or an old Celtic dance tune played on a Bergonzi violin. On a sentence-by-sentence basis, though, I can’t see where the stylistic skill is meant to be, though I can see a lot of authorial tics. Most frustrating among these: rhythmic repetitiveness, overstatement, and the commencement of sentences with a conjunction. Here’s an example of all three:

As he followed the Chief’s car back to Three Pines Beauvoir thought about that, and agreed that Olivier had saved the precious antiques, and spent time with the crabby old woman. But he could have done it and still given the old woman a fair price.

But he hadn’t.

“Precious” and “crabby” have no place in that sentence; neither tells us anything we don’t already know, and the latter in particular strikes an oddly prim tone in a book that is also quite content to allow two of its positively regarded characters to use words like “fag” and “whore” in apparent jest. (The tonal disjunctions are chronic, and I’ll talk about them in a moment.) To start two consecutive sentences with “but” is unconscionable, and the one-sentence paragraph is a literary tool that needs immediate retirement. In this case, it also functions the way “precious” and “crabby” do, which is to say, it tells us something we already know. If an author does this too much, the reader begins to assume that the author thinks we’re stupid.

Genre stuff: The Brutal Telling exists at a kind of generic crossroads. On the one hand, it has all of the trappings of a “cosy”: small and apparently friendly rural settlement with a disproportionately high and frequent murder rate, eccentric locals for both comic effect and pearls of wisdom, an unflappable Lawful Good figure, and a propensity to center intense emotion upon activities or institutions that, in a larger community, would be able to remain marginal. Three Pines is a literary relation of St Mary Mead, by way of the county of Midsomer, and quite possibly the North Carolina village of Mitford. And yet (and this is present in the Mitford novels too, but Jan Karon gives herself an easier time by not raising the stakes to include deliberate taking of lives) there’s a distinct metaphysical seriousness to this novel, and presumably the rest of Penny’s work too. The reveal of the murderer here is so devastating because they have betrayed trust–not just that of their neighbours and loved ones, but that of the readers, who have (no spoilers) known this character for five books. The seriousness of betrayal is vividly portrayed in the story of the Mountain King, which reappears throughout the book: the King is robbed by a young man who first befriends him, and who is pursued forever by the forces of Chaos, Sorrow, and something “worse than Death”. This turns out to be Conscience, and I think Penny’s aim with the surprisingly compassionate Gamache and the explicit references to allegorical spiritual figures is to situate the horrors of crime in a basis more profound than the integrity of the law; we are meant to understand that murder is a crime of, and against, not just the body but the soul. That combination–cosy atmosphere, extremely serious core–is the source of Penny’s tonal dissonance, but also of her ambition.