I’ve read eight books in between the most recent few #20BooksofSummer entrants, and, frankly, though I want to say something about each of them, I also don’t have much time. So here are some tiny reviews.
Blackfish City, by Sam Miller
The premise: In a post-climate change world, a floating city is visited by a mysterious woman riding an orca and accompanied by a polar bear, seeking someone she lost decades ago, .
How I’d (cynically) sell it: Blade Runner meets Philip Pullman.
The good bits: Lots of gender diversity, including a non-binary teenage main character. Extremely atmospheric. Wears its influences elegantly.
The bad bits: Somewhat awkwardly written, particularly in the dialogue. Plot uneven: front-loaded with contextless information, conflict resolved in haste and without giving this reader a strong sense of emotional connection to the characters.
Verdict: Three stars (worth reading, but won’t keep a hard copy).
Glass and God, by Anne Carson
The premise: Well, it’s poetry, so there isn’t really one, but the book is divided into several sections, the first of which (“The Glass Essay”) explores the end of a love affair through the lens of Emily Bronte’s life and work.
How I’d (cynically) sell it: Maggie Nelson for heteros, if she was also a professor of classics.
The good bits: The images, and the phrasing, of “The Glass Essay” are some of the starkest poetry I’ve ever read. You remember too much,/my mother said to me recently.//Why hold onto all that? And I said,/Where can I put it down?
The bad bits: The other parts of the collection are diffuse to the point of incomprehensibility, although I suspect there’s meaning in them; it’s just hard to break through to.
Verdict: Five stars (I’ve read this before, and I loved it then too.)
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
The premise: The lives of Becky Sharp, a sexy, penniless governess on the make, and her friend Amelia Sedley – a fatally naive young gentlewoman – provide a frame through which to view English high society during the early to mid-nineteenth century.
How I’d (cynically) sell it: Well, it’s a classic, so the comparisons should go the other way round really, but the toxic female friendship around which the book revolves is echoed in popular culture from Mean Girls to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; plus, Becky’s strange positioning (partly an antagonist, partly a protagonist) is reminiscent of Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.
The good bits: Very funny. Total lack of purple-ness; you never have to wade through Thackeray’s syntax to get to his meaning, as you sometimes do with Dickens or Eliot. Every character drawn with merciless clarity, but also with pity or compassion for their weakness.
The bad bits: Very long. But that’s only really a drawback if you don’t like long books on principle; Thackeray needs it to be long because his plot needs decades.
Verdict: Five stars (this is my favourite book of all time, so that one was a gimme.)
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
The premise: Hiero Falk had more raw talent than any other jazz trumpeter of his generation. In occupied Paris, he was taken away and interned, never seen again, presumed dead. Now, his former bandmates – Sid, who believes that he betrayed Hiero, and Chip, who believes Hiero is still alive – set out to find him again.
How I’d (cynically) sell it: The Time Of Our Singing with classical music stripped out and World War II injected into the space where it had been.
The good bits: Emotionally compelling. Characters believably weak and vulnerable. Evocation of Paris under occupation, and of the essence of jazz playing, is exceptional.
The bad bits: Perhaps it could have been more emotionally compelling. Sid does a lot of processing in the modern-day sections, and some of his self-awareness seems to have been arrived at with convenient rapidity.
Verdict: Four stars (have already recommended to many).
The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee
The premise: Partly a biography of Hernando Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and his father’s first biographer; partly an account of Hernando’s attempt to build the first truly universal library.
How I’d (cynically) sell it: Fans of Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, as well as people who get nerdy about the history of information technology, might like this.
The good bits: Some great analogies drawn between the idea of the universal library and the Internet. Hernando Colon’s life also happens to have been rather colourful: he first went to the New World as a teenager, and inherited a lot of his father’s personal drama (and lawsuits).
The bad bits: Not nearly enough about the intellectual connection between universal libraries and the Internet. To me this was the most interesting element of the book, and it felt very under-developed.
Verdict: Three stars (I’ve been sending it out steadily, but haven’t kept my hard copy).
Signs of Life, by Anna Raverat
The premise: A young woman has an affair with a man in her office; her relationship ends badly; her affair ends badly; as she recounts this eventful history, is she telling us the truth?
How I’d (cynically) sell it: Glass and God as prose fiction.
The good bits: I can’t get enough of writing like this: material about destructive relationships, relayed in prose like a recently cleaned window (and, also, like a broken bottle).
The bad bits: I didn’t dislike any of it. You’ll either love this sort of thing or you’ll hate it.
Verdict: Five stars (bought with my own money, now on the shelf of Books To Save From Fire).
Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds
The premise: The Amarantin civilisation were wiped out nine hundred thousand years ago, just as they were on the cusp of discovering spaceflight. Dan Sylveste is determined to find out why, and forges an unholy alliance with the cyborg crew of the Nostalgia For Infinity to do so – but the Amarantin were crushed for a reason…
How I’d (cynically) sell it: A beguilingly written and plotted classic space opera.
The good bits: It’s funny, it’s engaging, the mystery is excellent, and most of the main characters are women (at least one is also of colour).
The bad bits: It’s longer than it needs to be, although the scenic route lets Reynolds write some fun worldbuilding stuff. Also, despite the presence of many female characters, Dan Sylveste is still written as an Asshole Genius Deserving Veneration.
Verdict: Four stars (I raced through it and had a great time. It’s also very well written. Just, ugh, men).
The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker
The premise: The end of the Trojan War – Agamemnon’s quarrel with Achilles, the death of Patroclus, etc. – told through the eyes of Briseis, the slave girl over whom the former two famously fall out.
How I’d (cynically) sell it: I’m so tired of people comparing every book that glances at misogyny to The Handmaid’s Tale. This does, however, have the virtue of actually also being a book about sexual slavery. (I wouldn’t compare the two in any other way, though.)
The good bits: Very competently written, as you’d expect from Pat Barker, and absolutely merciless in the way it draws back the veil on ancient societies, war, and the vulnerability of women in those contexts. Hard to read the way Ghost Wall is hard to read (which is to say, in the best possible way).
The bad bits: WHY. ARE THERE SO MANY CHAPTERS. DEVOTED TO THE PERSPECTIVES. OF MEN. At least half the book is through Achilles’s eyes. I understand the need to create variation, but why couldn’t we have had a different female perspective to fulfill that requirement, instead? I was hoping for a panoply of women’s voices.
Verdict: Four stars (it’s still bloody good).