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.

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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?

04. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton

This rather marvelous book is a mashup of biography, social history, and what for a lack of a better phrase I might call “research thriller”. Susannah Stapleton comes across the figure of Maud West by chance, while idly pondering whether lady detectives had existed during the Golden Age of crime fiction; she’s only thinking about this at all because of a historical missing-persons case that regular historical research had led her to. When she finds Maud West, her interest is piqued by the dearth of information. “The game”, as she winningly puts it, “was afoot.”

Maud West did exist, although she wasn’t born under that name. She opened a private investigation agency in London in 1905 and ran it until just before the Second World War, employing a small staff of hand-selected and rigorously trained men and women as well as undertaking large amounts of field work herself. She wrote “case study” pieces for a variety of tabloids, and filled them with tales of derring-do, often involving white slavers, cocaine smugglers, last-minute ocean liner voyages, and fisticuffs (or, just as often, the well-timed production of a small revolver). Stapleton concludes that West mostly made these stories up–but why? Her business flourished; she tracked cheating spouses, fraudulent salesmen, dishonest cardsharps and country-house jewel thieves. In other advertising venues, she made much of her work amongst the “best sort”; the aristocracy and upper middle classes, in other words. West’s psychology–what she felt she had to prove; the characters she enjoyed playing; her love of disguise (this is borne out by many, many contemporary news features including photographs of West disguised as an old woman, a businessman, a vicar, and so on)–fascinates Stapleton, and the more she digs, the clearer it becomes that the life of this particular private investigator was at least as interesting as any of the cases she worked over the course of her career. Amongst other revelations, and without wishing to spoil anything, West’s life story includes a name change, illegitimacy, and someone who spends forty years masquerading as his own uncle.

Stapleton structures her book brilliantly: excerpts from sensationalist articles written by West are reprinted between chapters. Each chapter is named for a classic crime novel and deals (roughly) with some relevant social issue of the time, like the introduction of women to the Metropolitan police force or the “nightclub panic” of the interwar years, spliced with details of Stapleton’s sleuthing. Quite apart from being an excellent introduction to the Golden Age of crime outside of the pages of fiction, The Adventures of Maud West also functions as a window into the life of a working researcher. Stapleton takes trains from her home in Shropshire to the British Library to read archival clippings; she tracks down out-of-print books to get a sense of how West might have trained herself in investigation techniques; she scans international print databases and calls up descendants. The thrill of the academic chase is a huge part of the book’s appeal–which is really saying something, given that its subject is a woman with such immense willpower, fortitude, and peculiarity of character. A more engaging and intellectually stimulating biography you won’t read this summer.


The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective was published by Picador on 13 June.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Monthly Book, #3: The Pisces

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~~caution: some spoilers ahead~~

The first paragraph of The Pisces nearly wrecked everything for me: featuring the rancid breath and un-self-conscious shit of our protagonist’s sister’s beloved foxhound (named Dominic), it seemed to represent exactly the sort of Moshfeghian abject devotion to the grossness of the body that starts to pall after about two sentences. But then Broder’s protagonist, Lucy, saved everything: “I thought, This is the proper use of my love, this is the man for me, this is the way.” It’s such a weird, sweet(-ish), innocent(-ish) thought to express: wrecked by a breakup she realizes too late she doesn’t want, recuperating in her rich but kind sister’s fancy Venice Beach pad, perhaps a dog can represent a safe locus of all the love she has to give.

It’s something that Broder returns to again and again over the course of The Pisces: who is truly worthy of our love? And how can we stop ourselves from lavishing it on someone who doesn’t deserve it? The way of framing the question is sneaky, because it subverts not only the way women are taught to think about relationships and desire, but many of the connotations of the way The Pisces itself is structured. Lucy, as we learn early on in the novel, has broken up with her long-term boyfriend, Jamie–mostly because an idle threat issued in a moment of frustration took on a life of its own–and has moved to Venice Beach for the summer, nominally to house-sit for her sister, but really to mend her broken heart. We know how this is going to go; it’s how many romance novels, wish-fulfillment tales, are written: a newly single woman escapes to some place where it’s sunny and warm and she doesn’t have to work, spends time and energy recreating herself, and is narratively rewarded for her efforts, at last, with a romantic relationship. But even from the start, Broder is messing with these tropes and with us. Lucy is unemployed because she’s a graduate student trying to finish her thesis, on how to read the textual lacunae in the extant works of Sappho. She is having a difficult time doing this, but she is meant to be doing it; she is meant to be working, and working intellectually. Already, her California beach retreat is shown to be tethered to real life, to responsibility and maturity.

In her romantic encounters with men, too, Lucy has experiences that possess the structure of a classic romance novel, but the import of which is very different. That incongruity forces the reader to reassess traditional perspectives on the situations Lucy finds herself in. There’s an excruciating sequence, for instance, in which she meets a man on Tinder and plans to have no-strings sex in a hotel with him. She buys $300 lingerie, they maintain the fantasy via text, and then the reality–he meant a hotel bar bathroom, not an actual room; the anal that he wants is painful and the attempt swiftly abandoned–reveals how empty and shallow their interactions have actually been. Crucially, Broder is not saying that having no-strings sex in a hotel bathroom is bad in and of itself; what she’s criticizing is the pressure to lavish huge amounts of time, effort and money, in the name of sexiness, upon someone whose fundamental superficiality and indifference to you renders them unworthy of that effort. The reason Lucy’s fellow patients in group therapy are all so spectacularly unable to get over their various issues with intimacy and relationships, likewise, is because all of the energy they’re expending in “self-care” is intended to make them more desirable. It’s not self-care at all; it’s an investment in product development, in the hopes that it will increase that product’s market value.

When Lucy finally does meet someone who seems to be worth it–the sexy merman Theo, who loves giving head–it looks like the romantic payoff we’ve been expecting. Or at least, it does from one angle. From another angle, it looks a little too good to be true: who actually has cosmic-level period sex? Who actually has this level of connection with a lover they barely speak to (or rather, whose dialogue with their lover is only minimally reported)? And in choosing a man who mostly lives underwater, hasn’t Lucy rather conveniently selected another person who is, at best, only half available? (“Available”, as a concept, is something Broder touches upon frequently.) The way the novel ends is confirmation of this more suspicious reading of Theo. He may be hot and good in bed, but he’s also a bottomless pit of need: almost literally, since Lucy discovers that he’s dragged seventeen women before her to the bottom of the sea.

The Pisces, therefore–if you’ll forgive me for mixing my animal metaphors–is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a romance novel that eviscerates romantic tropes; it’s erotica that revels in the awkward; it’s the story of a woman finding herself by, eventually, forgoing her narrative reward of A Man’s Attention (Labeled Love). It’s smart as hell, and not too far below the surface of the irony there’s an acknowledgment of what Lucy calls “nothingness” or “the void” that lends the novel ballast. Is it sexy? Sure. But it’s also sincere, and profoundly unexpected. I wouldn’t be sad at all to see it on the Women’s Prize shortlist.