a bit of most things

Not everything I’ve read since my last post, but a fair amount of it.

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Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve: An addition to the shelf of books that prove children’s literature need not be any less morally complex, engaging, or surprising than adult books (Philip Pullman’s complete oeuvre also lives there). You no doubt know the premise of this already, from the film: in an ecologically ravaged future, cities have become mechanized and mobile, and the principle of Municipal Darwinism encourages larger settlements to hunt and consume smaller ones. (This accounts for Reeve’s justly famous opening line: “It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the North Sea.”) Tom Natsworthy, a young apprentice historian, saves a famous adventurer from an assassin and, during the struggle, is flung from the city into the wastelands below. He must team up with a physically and emotionally scarred girl named Hester Shaw, not only to get back to London, but to foil a plot brewing within the city itself that threatens what remains of the world. There’s also a third point-of-view character: Katherine, the sheltered and protected daughter of the man whose life Tom saves, who mounts her own investigation from within the upper echelons of London society.

Both Katherine’s and Tom’s moral arcs bend towards disillusionment and the assumption of responsibility, and Mortal Engines is so good because that development is paced so well. Tom and Hester argue periodically about the legitimacy of Municipal Darwinism, and for more than half the book, Tom cannot quite understand why anybody would want a different system; Katherine trusts in the good faith of the authority figures around her for a very long time, even as she continues to uncover proof of corruption. It’s a realistic depiction of how difficult it is to face the flaws in your own beliefs, and it’s infinitely more convincing than the remarkable readiness of, e.g., Katniss Everdeen to overthrow everything she’s ever known. (Reeve also writes with a restraint and sureness of touch that makes his more emotional sequences unbearably effective: a sudden death near the end of the book is conveyed in a paragraph the rhythmic balance and deftness of which made me cry.) I’ll be reading the rest of the series.

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The Jewel, by Neil Hegarty: Back to adult literature for a bit, with Neil Hegarty’s second novel, which was published on 3 October. It centers around the theft of an almost miraculous artwork: a painting buried with its artist as a shroud, but later exhumed and hung on the walls of a Dublin gallery. It draws the attention of the public for its uncanny freshness: the nature of the materials means the colours should not have remained bright for as long as they have. A short opening sequence is from the perspective of the late Victorian female artist who painted the piece; when it is stolen, the chapters shift between the perspectives of the thief, the specialist tasked with recovering it, and the curator in charge of the robbed gallery. It is, in a way, a novel about a stolen painting, but it is not an art-world heist caper; it is very much more about the lives led by three people brought together by a piece of art that is meaningful to each of them, about what sorts of experiences form a person and how that formed personality can sometimes be blazed away, for an instant, by something other. Probably more to the point, though, Hegarty’s character sketches are precise and painful: the corrosive effect of cynicism on a man’s soul, the revelation of the cancerous depth of abuse in a supposedly loving relationship, the searing trauma of a sister’s death in silent, repressive late-twentieth-century Ireland. Some are more effective than others. I was never quite as convinced by Roisin, the gallery curator, and the story of Ward, the recovery specialist, is by far the most emotionally engaging. But these are quibbles that raise themselves weeks after reading the book; while turning the pages, all of these characters are real. And Hegarty’s prose is just so trustworthy, which is much rarer than it sounds.

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Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, by Colin Grant: Also published on 3 October. Grant is a journalist and Homecoming (or Home Coming; reviews have been published that spell it both ways) is an oral history of black Caribbean-British life from the 1940s onwards. Like many books that use this research method, Homecoming is often not quite clear about when its sources were interviewed, presumably because Grant has visited some of his interviewees multiple times, then cut and shaped their testimony (Svetlana Alexievich’s books are not dissimilar). The book also borrows transcripts from other projects of this kind: from BBC documentaries on the black British experience going back as far as the 1950s, for example, or from memoirs by black British writers. Although this can lead to a kind of historical vertigo, it also has the effect of layering generations of testimony, sometimes in a surprising and enlightening manner; there is a whole chapter dedicated to racist violence in Notting Hill in 1958, but there are also several interviewees who state frankly that Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, ten years later, made little to no impression on their daily lives. It’s one of many salutary reminders in the book that people live, as Margaret Atwood puts it in The Handmaid’s Tale, “as usual”–that patterns we retroactively read as abnormal or catastrophic are often experienced much less dramatically by the people alive at the time. The point is not that racism never existed or wasn’t as bad as news reports suggested; it’s that no two people of Caribbean descent in Britain have experienced the same things in the same ways. Homecoming goes a long way towards challenging the still-prevalent idea of a monolithic racial narrative.

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The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather: Still on a Cather kick, and I think this might be the best one so far, although possibly that’s because it’s about something that fascinates me: namely, the artistic development of a musician. Thea Kronborg grows up the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in Moonstone, Colorado, but her talent as a pianist, and later as a soprano, lead her to Chicago, Germany, New York, and beyond. Cather’s strengths are here in full force: her apparently effortless evocation of the lands of the American West; her subtle and entire grasp of the complications of human character; and her innate understanding that artistry involves sacrifice, and that involves decisions that other people can’t always empathize with. (Thea chooses, for example, not to come home when her mother is dying; if she stays in Germany, she will have the chance to sing the role of Elizabeth in Wagner’s Tannhauser, which becomes her breakthrough role. The people in her life are divided primarily into those who understand this perfectly, and those who never will.) Structurally, Cather thought the novel a failure, and AS Byatt, in her introduction, agrees: she cites what Cather seemed to think of as the weakening effect of the final section of the novel, during which Thea is seen at the height of her career. Cather’s regret is understandable; the novel would be strong enough if it ended just as Thea goes off to Germany, her development as a singer now well underway. This isn’t really a book about success: it’s a book about work, which makes a whole section on success a little redundant. But it’s worth it, just about, to know that the work pays off.

also read recently:

  • Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino, undoubtedly the most intelligent and rigorous essay collection on the Internet age, and specifically Internet feminism, that I’ve yet read. Tolentino’s a New Yorker staff writer and she is not content with platitudes about millennial culture or about the deleterious effects of social media on our attention spans; she’s much more interested in dissecting how things happen, what the exact circumstances are that result in malaise, or trolling, or a specific cultural phenomenon. Outstanding.
  • Priests de la Resistance, by Fergus Butler-Gallie, a moving and also charming collection of biographical chapters focusing on religious individuals (mostly ordained or consecrated but some not) who have fought Fascism in the twentieth century. The usual suspects are present (Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), but also some names quite new to me (Sister Sara Salkhazi, Pietro Pappagallo). He also doesn’t just stick to WWII-era resistance, but glances also at the religious foundations of the US civil rights movement. A bit more balance would have been welcome, but maybe that’s for volume three? In any case: an excellent collation of humans who, whatever you think of theology in general, felt themselves called to save lives. We could all do a lot worse than to follow these particular examples.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, my first audiobook in… maybe ever. Our household didn’t really do audiobooks when I was a kid, and I’ve always assumed I’ll find them annoying. This was technically a re-read, since I read it first at fifteen, but this time around, Atwood’s novel felt much more immediate and daring and vital. For a long time I’ve been quietly skeptical of what all the fuss is about, having only faint memories of the book I read twelve years ago, and now – especially thanks to Elisabeth Moss’s dry, softly-spoken narrative style – I get it. Occasionally Atwood shows signs of the slightly too on-the-nose jokes that have started to mar her recent work (“pen is envy”, recently cited by a reviewer of The Testaments, turns up for the first time in The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m not at all convinced by the likelihood of portmanteaux such as “Prayvaganza” or “Particicution”, although the grim euphemism of “Salvaging” is plausible). But mostly, it’s as fresh and terrifying a guide to the ways in which women can be enslaved – and complicit in the system that enslaves them – as ever.

 

 

 

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The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware: I finished this in a day; it is SO readable. A modern take on James’s Turn of the Screw, featuring all our faves (creepy kids, mysterious footsteps, an initially rational narrator with secrets of her own who is progressively broken down by fear), but with some modern twists (the house is old, with a terrible history, but has been renovated to make it a “smart house” which can be run – and also run remotely – via app. YES, horrifying.) I’m not so sure about the ending, which makes some leaps with regards to motive and capacity, but goodness me is it gripping.

 

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Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature, by Elizabeth Hardwick: I took this to Paris, because look at that title, how could I take anything else? Much of the criticism seemed outdated, at least in terms of its gender politics, but then, it was written in the ’70s, so it’d be sort of surprising if it wasn’t. The other thing I found tricky about it is that Hardwick’s particular brand of criticism doesn’t involve a lot of textual reference: she writes about the characterisation of Ibsen’s heroines – the terrifyingly empty and amoral Hedda Gabler, for instance, or the somehow untouchably free Nora in A Doll’s House – while rarely making reference to anything they say. The same is true, to a large extent, of the Bronte sisters, who are the subject of the first essay, and of the women both real and fictional whom she discusses in the title essay (including Anna Karenina and Richardson’s Clarissa). Still worth reading for the declarative power of her sentences, and for the essay on Sylvia Plath alone.

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Girl. Boy. Sea., by Chris Vick: A brave ten-year-old could handle this, but I’d suggest it for twelve and up, on the whole. Bill, a young English boy, is on a sailing summer course off Gran Canaria when a storm separates him from his shipmates. Drifting in the Atlantic, he comes across another shipwrecked adolescent: Aya, a Berber girl, who is keeping secrets of her own. Bill and Aya’s growing ability to communicate and trust one another is beautifully rendered, as are the stories Aya tells to keep them going (as not-so-subtle but still very moving symbols of the power of narrative to provide hope). Sort of like a junior Life of Pi without all of the clever-clever religiosity. Also a genuinely scary and thrilling survival/adventure story.

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The Truants, by Kate Weinberg: Whether you enjoy The Truants or not probably depends on how well you react to familiarity. When I read the proof blurb by Scarlett Thomas that claimed this was like a mashup of Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, and Liane Moriarty, I wasn’t prepared for how entirely accurate that was: it’s The Secret History set in Norwich with Agatha Christie texts occupying the place that classical Greek culture takes in the former. If you’re keen on genre riffs, and sexily unpredictable men, and the erotics of pedagogy, pick it up. I rather enjoyed it, but I doubt I’ll remember much in a month.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather: Willa, my queen. Not much happens in Death Comes for the Archbishop, except for a whole life: that of the titular Archbishop, who’s mostly just a Bishop while we know him. He’s Jean Latour, the first Catholic bishop of New Mexico, and with him is Father Joseph Vaillant, his right-hand man. The friendship between the two men – Latour intellectual and kindly but aloof, Vaillant awkward and ungainly but easy to love – is the most beautiful part of Cather’s novel, although she’s also good on the shifting nineteenth-century politics of the West and Southwest, and describes Native American and Mexican customs with interest and respect. Her prose is like desert air: lucid, invigorating, vivid. *chef’s kiss*

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Ohio, by Stephen Markley: This. Is fucking brilliant. The best post-9/11 novel I’ve ever read: detailed, lyrical, raw, all those book review words. Four high school friends reconverge in their hometown, one night in the early 2010s. They don’t all meet, but that night illuminates the history they share and the path their country has taken since. The Iraq war, Alanis Morrisette, OxyContin, summers at the lake, your boyfriend’s truck, baby lesbians, post-industrial hellscapes, Obama’s election, white supremacists, memorial tattoos, homecoming dances, football games, small-town rumors, the mystery at the centre of existence – Ohio has them all, and all wrapped up in beautiful, headstrong, confident prose. Get it. Read it. 

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Supper Club, by Lara Williams: As excellent as I expected from the author of the short story “Treats”, which smacked me around the face when I read it in Best British Short Stories of 2017. I sort of thought this might be predictable (wild women, eating as resistance, awkward sexual interactions, all that stuff that’s rolling around the societal forebrain at the moment), but Williams’s antisocial anti-heroine is painted in shades of grey: sometimes she’s selfish, sometimes genuinely self-protective; sometimes she really is pushing boundaries, other times hiding behind them. It’s a smart piece of work.

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Exhalation, by Ted Chiang: A really outstanding collection of science fictional short stories from a master of the form, which you might not have been able to determine from the way I talked about this book on social media, which went as follows: “Reading Ted Chiang’s exceptional new collection and at the bottom of my 2nd G&T whilst wearing my least modest nightie, thanks, how’s your Friday night?” Anyway, he’s smart and rigorous as hell and his translucent prose serves as the foundation for explorations of how humans might think and live very differently. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, in particular, is going to be a really important story, which you should read.

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A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather: I love, love, love Willa Cather, but I haven’t read any of her work for over a decade, and this was the perfect book to get reacquainted with her (thanks, Second Shelf!) It’s very short but a devastating, nuanced portrait of a woman whose hidden depths we (through the medium of Niel, an infatuated neighbour boy and then a young man) are always aware of but never manage to plumb. What struck me about Cather’s writing for the first time here was how clear and daring she is: about sexuality, about age gaps in relationships, about deep generosity and married love and how our truest selves can be failures as well as triumphs. She reminds me of Elizabeth Gaskell in that way: never vulgar, but often radical. Amazing.

05. Dressed, by Shahidha Bari

Reader, I DNFd it.

Most likely it’s a problem with me, not with Dressed itself. You can hardly fault a book just for not being the thing you wanted it to be. Still, I was really hoping for some fairly specific, example-grounded analysis of garments and styles, and what I got—at least for the first thirty pages or so—was a series of rather superficial, if lyrical, pronouncements. The back cover quote is (for once) illustrative: “Clothes tell our stories, some that we would rather not tell, others that we hardly know ourselves.” As an introduction to a section that delves into specific instances of garments that reveal more than they’re intended to about the person wearing them, that sentence would be okay; still a little dull, but it’d do. As the precursor to several other sentences that are, substantively, exactly like it, it doesn’t convince. Perhaps Bari is more amenable to citing evidence that backs up her statements later on in the book, but life is short, books are many, and I’m never going to get that far.


I don’t intend to replace this in my official 20 Books of Summer list; it’s okay not to finish things. Dressed was published by Jonathan Cape on 13 June.

Son of Reading Diary round-up

Again–more for me than you. Enjoy ’em, though.

Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon: Apparently Stapledon was genuinely surprised when people started telling him he’d written a “science fiction novel”, which actually makes perfect sense once you’ve read it because it’s not really a novel at all. Star Maker‘s closest generic ancestor is the medieval dream vision; like Chaucer’s narrators, Stapledon’s (never named) is vouchsafed a long journey into the heart of cosmic truth. There’s not much in the way of plot or character development, which hampers a reader’s ability to care, although Stapledon’s theology and conception of universal history (and obsession with “community”) is intellectually interesting. Worth reading, though, mostly because he anticipates huge numbers of science fictional tropes, including the Prime Directive.

Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts: A combination of Golden Age of SF and Golden Age of Crime elements into one occasionally frustrating, though generally satisfying, whole. Written in three parts–one a prison breakout mystery, one a whodunnit, and one a locked-room case–the novel’s overarching plot doesn’t quite come together (and by the book’s end I still didn’t feel convinced, as the jacket assured me I would, of the righteousness of the murders). The solutions are ingenious, if also fairly bonkers. This is my first Roberts novel and I’m not totally sold, but I’ll pick up more.

Sibilant Fricative: Essays and Reviews, by Adam Roberts: One thing I am sold on is Roberts’s criticism, though, which is funny and incisive. The best thing in this collection is probably his critical read-through of the entire Wheel of Time sequence, which, if you don’t remember it, absolutely dominated bookshelves of a certain ilk in the ’90s and consists mostly of painful attempts to recreate a Tolkien-esque atmosphere which fail because they’re not grounded in anything like intellectual coherence. Roberts’s increasing despair is articulated with precision and force. He’s also good on Philip K Dick, Neal Stephenson, Ursula K LeGuin and Tolkien himself.

The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke: A pivot to a different genre thanks to my library expedition. This is the first of Burke’s New Orleans-set detective novels featuring Dave Robicheaux; it starts with a warning from a death row inmate due to be executed in three hours, proceeds through a series of frequently violet set pieces exposing gang violence and US government complicity in selling weapons to oppressive regimes in Central America, and concludes with our hero vindicated, though wiser, and having picked up a hottie along the way. It’s magnificent: southern Gothic meets urban noir. Clearly written in the ’80s (the love interest’s eyes are “childlike” a little too often), but I have high hopes for the rest of Burke’s canon and plan to read The Tin Roof Blowdown, set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, next.


That was a lot of male authors (and the forthcoming entry in 20 Books of Summer happens to be William Shakespeare, which doesn’t help). I’m currently reading Kate Atkinson’s new novel, though–Big Sky–and can confirm that a) she’s at the top of her game right now, and b) no previous Jackson Brodie experience is necessary.

If you like what I write (and I freely concede that this particular reading diary entry may have been of no use to you at all, but maybe it diverted you from spreadsheets for a minute or two), why not buy me a coffee?

Reading Diary: May 14-May 20

41940609This is Shakespeare, by Emma Smith: Smith is probably best known as the academic whose recorded lectures form the podcast series Approaching Shakespeare, which you can get from iTunes. (I went to them live, as an undergrad, which is saying something because no English students went to lectures after about third week.) Her book’s thesis is that we should read Shakespeare, not because he’s an immortal genius or whatever the propagandistic nonsense du jour is, but because his plays are weird: they’re gappy, ambivalent, they ask more questions than they answer. Each chapter deals with a single question arising from one of the plays (they’re not all covered here, but there’ s a good spread). Lucid, accessible, and fresh, this would be just as perfect for someone who’s slightly anxious about Shakespeare, as for someone who already loves his work.

41081373Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo: Almost, but not quite, an interlinked collection of short stories: each of the twelve chapters here follows a different woman (mostly black and British), and one of the book’s pleasures is discovering how they’re all connected to and through one another. Evaristo has always had great skill with potentially controversial topics: the generosity she extends to her characters nullifies any charges of bandwagoning when it comes to stories about gender, race, and class. This book in particular demonstrates that black women were fighting and winning these battles many decades before “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts and social media accounts became a thing. In her application of the tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner principle, Evaristo reminds me of no one so much as George Eliot.

91at5ojnm-lThe Porpoise, by Mark Haddon: This is the sort of book that the Hogarth Shakespeare project should be trying to produce (interestingly, he was apparently asked to write it for them, and ended up pulling out of the project due to creative differences). Haddon moves from present-day privilege (globally connected aristocratic businessmen certainly have power equivalent to autocratic monarchs) to the ancient Mediterranean to a Tudor London where George Wilkins–Shakespeare’s co-writer on Pericles, the obscure play that this novel engages with–is punished after death for his sins against women. I need much, much more space to write about this (it’ll probably be the focus of my next Monthly Book feature); here, I’ll say only that it’s excellent, the prose crisp, the pace thrilling, the connections between different parts of the novel resonant and moving.

42596091The Dog Runner, by Bren MacDibble: For kids ten and up. Ella and her brother Emery are living through a global emergency: a fungus has destroyed most of the planet’s crops and caused widespread food shortages. When their dad doesn’t come back from an expedition into the city, the two kids set off for Emery’s mother’s house upcountry, along with their three huge dogs. Emery and Ella have different mothers, and Emery’s is of Aboriginal descent. MacDibble deals with blended families and racial difference subtly and well; it’s mentioned when it’s relevant to the story (for instance, Emery’s grandfather, Ba, has used indigenous land management techniques to keep ancient grains alive). Adventurous and thoughtful, with a protagonist both boys and girls can relate to.

Currently reading: About to start either Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin (but not sure I can cope with another chunkster after reading his first book so recently), or Lucasta Miller’s L.E.L., a biography of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, “the female Byron”.

Reading Diary: May 7-May 13

91zymqnikmlThe Parisian, by Isabella Hammad: Tricky call, this one. It’s a beautifully written (for the most part) historical epic about the life of Midhat Kamal (who happens to be Hammad’s great-grandfather). In 1915, he is sent by his father from Nablus, in Palestine, to study medicine in France; a private humiliation changes his life and has reverberations twenty years later, as Palestine begins its struggle for independence. It’s ambitious and Hammad’s gift for imagery is often truly arresting, but it’s also far too long—as Charles Finch notes, each chapter could be half the length—and, given the multiple points of view, there’s no clear indication of the necessity of each perspective.

25938081On Forgiveness, by Richard Holloway: Short, but brilliant. Holloway is a theologian whose radically laid-back approach to Christianity I quite like (he describes organized religion, at one point in this book, as the rocket shuttle, and the values of love, forgiveness, justice, etc., as the payload, which is bold in that it suggests the utility of organized religion is limited and possibly has come to an end). This book is written “not in the imperative, but the indicative”: he’s not telling us to forgive, but examining the concept and the mechanism of forgiveness, that radical, insane, illogical form of unconditional love. I underlined loads and will be coming back for more.

51d2bl86m0vl._sx309_bo1204203200_The Dollmaker, by Nina Allan: This came on and off my TBR three times before the number of good reviews persuaded me to give it a go, and I’m so glad I did. It is a love story between Andrew Garvie, a man with dwarfism who collects dolls, and Bramber Winters, whose personal advertisement asking for friendship and/or information on Ewa Chaplin, a post-war dollmaker and writer, catches Andrew’s eye. Some of Chaplin’s stories are scattered through the book; they’re brilliant creations, reminiscent of A.S. Byatt’s pastiche Victorian poems in Possession, and create an air of the sinister (as, frankly, do dolls in general) that keeps the reader uncertain about the novel’s ending. My only quibble is the vagueness of the explanation for Bramber’s living situation; other than that, this is a beautiful, quietly confident novel and I am an Allan convert.

9781474943437Where the World Ends, by Geraldine McCaughrean: For children twelve and up (though I think younger ones with high reading levels could handle this; the darker bits would likely go over their heads). Based on the true story of a group of boys from St Kilda who go for the traditional month of bird-catching on one of the sea stacs near the island, and find themselves stranded when the boat meant to bring them back at summer’s end never appears. Quilliam, our storytelling protagonist, is believably charismatic but conflicted, and McCaughrean is funny and accurate on the group dynamics of pre-teen boys. Genuinely high-stakes peril and real psychological nuance make this the real deal.

512tbfmt7al._sx323_bo1204203200_Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky: Space spiders. I am afraid you must accept them before you read this book. Once you’ve done that: an incredibly ambitious, and often beautiful, exploration of theology, evolutionary theory, and legacy. The sections that follow the development of an intelligent, scientific civilization of Portia labiata spiders–infected with a nanovirus that boosts their intellectual development–are significantly more interesting than the rather familiar beats of the human-based plotline (generation ship, cold storage, humanity’s last hope, &c.), but for those spider sections alone, Tchaikovsky deserves the Clarke Award he won in 2016: he not only creates a sense of true alienness, but directs a reader’s sympathy towards it.

original_400_600From the Wreck, by Jane Rawson: More science fiction, but a rather different tone and aesthetic. The plot of From the Wreck is based on the true story of a wreck off the coast of Australia in 1859. George Hills survives for eight days without food or water, protected by what looks like one of the female passengers–but he is convinced that she is something else, not a woman at all, and he is right. His obsession with whatever saved him eventually threatens his family and his own sanity. Chapters from the creature’s perspective–it is essentially an interdimensional refugee–are sufficiently rich and strange, but the middle section drags, and the secondary characters need more room.

Currently reading: This Is Shakespeare by Emma Smith, whose lectures I loved as an undergrad and whose book is no less lucid, accessible, and fresh.