August Superlatives

Plainly, another terrible month for reviewing. I’m sure I will get back on the horse eventually. Writing reviews seems to take so much mental energy, though, and so much of my stock of that is being expended on other things right now. I didn’t read a whole lot of books, either—at least, not a whole lot for me—August’s total being eleven. Still, I had a holiday and I saw my folks and some dear friends, and that’s a pretty good trade.

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easiest to analyse: Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, which I did actually manage to review. A reassessment of Mrs. Dalloway set in contemporary South Africa, it neatly captures the feeling of Woolf’s original while also intelligently updating several key aspects. A couple of unnecessary elements weren’t enough to mar the thing. (review)

weirdest: Bogmail, by Patrick McGinley, an Irish Gothic novel about murder and blackmail and mushrooms that came out in the early ’90s and is being reprinted. This was probably a wrong-book-wrong-reader problem; it just didn’t land with me, the blackness of the humour seemed jarring instead of cheeky, and I had a hard time differentiating, or indeed giving a damn about, any of the characters.

best romp: Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of forbidden pirate love in seventeenth-century Cornwall. It’s romantic and silly, somewhat reminiscent of The Princess Bride, but quite charming in its own way. Dona St Columb is a marvelous heroine, and her goofy idiot husband Harry a well-drawn aristocrat, benign but totally entitled.

most nearly: Sarah Franklin’s WWII saga, Shelter, which follows a member of the Women’s Timber Corps and her growing friendship with an Italian prisoner of war. On a thematic level, Shelter is brave and bold, dealing with pre-marital sex, toxic masculinity, and a woman who isn’t a natural mother; on the more basic level of sentence and character, it’s a little overblown and relies too heavily on cliché. Fun, though. (review)

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most HELL YEAH: This year’s airplane reading, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas. A 500+-page tome exploring the life of a promising young writer who has children and is thwarted from writing for about the next twenty-five years, it is all about ambition, expectations, art, family, and how these things interact and compete with each other. It’s brutally honest and also incredibly well written. The final hundred-odd pages, set in Dharamshala, didn’t quite convince me (can we stop sending Western women East to find their True Purpose, plz?), but they too were faultlessly composed. This is out in September and I highly recommend it.

most good clean fun: John Grisham’s new novel, Camino Island. It opens with the theft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts of Gatsby and others from the Princeton University library, and a lot of it is set in the world of rare books and antiques dealers. It’s the first Grisham I’ve ever read; I conclude that he can’t write a three-dimensional character to save his life, but he can show you a good time. Worth it.

most nostalgic: Guess what I reached for when I was at home? That is correct: Tolkien. He soothes me; he’s what I read when I was ten or eleven and hungry for something meaningful and more important than real life seemed. The Two Towers will always be my favourite of the books, and of the films: the battle of Helm’s Deep is simply superb, though when you read it you realise how much Jackson compressed and altered in the film version. (Whisper it: his pacing is actually a lot better than Tolkien’s.) The Return of the King, meanwhile, is dramatically satisfying and proper scary, although again, the pacing is off. Still, I’m glad I went back to the books. They take themselves so seriously, and it feels like there’s a lesson in that somewhere.

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breeziest: The Case of the Team Spirit, a collection of the strips that comprise John Allison’s first Bad Machinery story. Mystery-solving teens! Implausibly witty dialogue! Hilarious Yorkshire accents! A wall-eyed Russian lady! A character named Mad Terry! You gotta love it.

most parent-shocking: Saga, vol. 3, a continuation of Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love story. This time, Marko and Alana are hiding out with their illegal baby daughter Hazel and Marko’s irascible, recently widowed mother, at the home of romance novelist D. Oswald Heist. Things get weirder from there: bounty hunters are still on their trail, not to mention Marko’s ex Gwendolyn, who is severely pissed off. There’s enough explicit sex and violence in this one that my dad, leaning over my shoulder to look at one particularly unfortunate spread, recoiled. That’ll learn ‘im.

best rediscovery: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, which I read years ago but had sort of forgotten about until my brother got me a signed and personalised copy (best.brother.ever.) and gave it to me on holiday. It is a bloody amazing book, so full of character and incident, knowing and mouthy but also quiet and wise. How does she ventriloquise all these characters, all their cultural baggage? How does she tie things in so neatly and also make it so clear that nothing can fully be tied in, or mopped up, that the past isn’t even past? And she was twenty-four. God.

up next: I’m about to finish Mark Twain’s Western travelogue, Roughing It, and have a couple of options for where to go next. Maybe Pajtim Statovci’s forthcoming book My Cat Yugoslavia, from Pushkin Press; maybe a book from my US purchases stack; or maybe something left over from a pre-holiday Waterstone’s binge—I’ll Sell You A Dog or China Mountain Zhang. Unless I get a lot of overwhelming feedback, I’ll probably leave it up to the random number generator…

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#6Degrees of Separation: Shopgirl

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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First up: Shopgirl, a novella by Steve Martin about Mirabelle, a girl who works at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and tries to navigate a love triangle. It was made into a film, which just happened to star Steve Martin as the wealthy, debonair older man.

Another monological Martin vehicle, “Roxanne”, is based on the French play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, about a charming and brilliant swashbuckler whose romantic prospects are scuppered only by the fact that he’s got an enormous, almost disfiguring, nose.

Facial disfigurement is a bit of a phobia of mine; in Tamora Pierce’s young adult novel Trickster’s Choice, the young protagonist Ally deliberately allows her nose to be broken in a fight when she’s captured as a slave, knowing that the uglier she is, the less likely it is that she’ll be bought for sex.

Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet constitute the only books I’ve read so much they’ve fallen apart, save for my copy of Little House on the Prairie, which was held together by packing tape by the time I was six.

A grown-up version of the Little House world is that conjured by Willa Cather, particularly in her gorgeous novel O Pioneers!, about a woman who inherits her immigrant family’s farm on the plains of Nebraska.

My favourite female farmer in literary history (except, perhaps, for Dick King-Smith’s Sophie) is, of course, Far From the Madding Crowd‘s Bathsheba Everdene (who doesn’t look like Carey Mulligan, jfc, this should be obvious to everyone. In my mind she actually looks a little bit like Mayim Bialik.)

So—from urban ennui to rural angst, from Beverly Hills to fictionalised Dorset via Gascony, the imaginary country of Tortall, and the Midwest! Where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month the chain starts with Picnic At Hanging Rock, which I’ve never read…

May Superlatives

The less said about May, the better, frankly. Or perhaps that’s unfair: it’s been much too busy, but I’ve seen old friends, and family, and done a lot of singing. At the end of the month, though, my personal life has—quite unexpectedly—gone to shit. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s incredibly painful and it means my present, and my future, are in a state of upheaval. I don’t want to talk about it on here, beyond that. I have read 12 books, and my brain is like a wrung-out sponge: reviewing capacities are at a pretty low ebb.

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biggest mindfuck: The City and the City, China Miéville’s novel about two cities which, topologically, exist in the same space, but are ontologically not the same places: Beszél and Ul Qoma. Miéville’s said he wants to write a novel in every genre, and this is his noir, with Inspector Borlú our hardboiled detective. As is the case with a lot of his work, the conceit is adhered to with such astonishing tenacity that the sheer comprehensiveness of it mostly makes up for a certain thematic thinness. (After all, if the point of The City and the City‘s overlapping spaces is to illustrate urban alienation, all you need to do that is the conceit itself; you don’t really need to hang a whole novel on it.) Still, I never regret reading a Miéville book.

hardest to discuss: As a bookseller, I can tell you right now that any book about a paedophile is going to be a hard sell. Tench, by Inge Schilperoord, is nevertheless a very compassionate and terribly lucid exploration of the circumstances that surround people who commit this nature of offense, and the ways that they’re so often unsupported, and left to offend again. A heartbreaking but very good book. (review)

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hands-down favourite: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers—recommended to me by a colleague—a six hundred-page novel about the musically talented mixed-race children of a black Philadelphian woman and a German Jewish man, growing up in the 1960s. The best novel I have ever read about classical singing, it also encompasses over a hundred years of American racial history. It’s a total knock-out and should be much better known.

most like a feminist rewrite of The Road: There’s one every year now, in the vein of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven. This year it’s Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, an extremely brief and spare book about a woman raising her newborn son alone in a flooded England. The woman (unnamed) navigates the loss of her husband, her home, and everything about her old life with grief, but also with aplomb; the baby, curiously, anchors her. You could read it, I suppose, as an extended metaphor. That might be the most productive way to do it, given that, at the end of the book, the waters recede, the husband returns, and the baby starts to walk—this confluence, I suspect, not coincidental.

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nimblest: Let Go My Hand, by Edward Docx, is a book that could have run into a lot of problems: it’s about three brothers unwillingly escorting their dying father to Zurich in a camper van. He intends to take his own life at the Dignitas clinic. On the way, there are emotional and physical reckonings from decades of parenting failures, both standard and particular. Docx avoids every one of the places where he could have bogged down in sentimentality or crassness; it’s a superb piece of work, moving and realistic and often bizarrely funny, with some perfect dialogue. Imagine a Wes Anderson movie, but not annoying. (It’ll probably be a Wes Anderson movie soon, so read it first.)

most rage-inducing: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir about growing up black and middle-class in white suburban Australia, The Hate Race. It’s just won the Multicultural NSW Award there, which is both heartening (it’s a fantastic book and it deserves prizes) and kind of hilariously ironic (it’s mostly about the appalling racist bullying Clarke suffered as a child in “multicultural New South Wales” barely 25 years ago). (review)

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best newcomer: Ocean Vuong’s poetry isn’t completely new to me—I’d read “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and a couple other pieces online in Poetry Magazine—but his first full collection is just out in the UK. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an elegiac, sexy, pull-the-rug-out compendium of poems, absolutely unforgettable. “Because It’s Summer” might be one of my new all-time favourites.

oddest: Sudden Death, by Álvaro Enrigue. Fictionalising and retelling the story of a tennis match-cum-duel that was once fought between the painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, it’s sort of a novel. It calls itself a novel. It frequently digresses, however, to take in historical footnotes such as the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s hair (used to stuff the world’s most expensive tennis balls), the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s executioner (executed himself, his throat professionally slit in a French courtyard), and the conquest of the Aztecs. I think I can see what it’s trying to do, and I think I’m intrigued and impressed. I’m just not quite sure it comes off: partly it’s hampered by its own cleverness, which has Enrigue writing these footnote sections in the tone of a chatty media don, giving the impression that they’ve migrated into the novel from a popular history book.

pleasantest surprise: This is going to sound so weird, but: It, Stephen King’s killer-clown novel. I’d never read Stephen King, and picked this up really on a whim. It turned out to be astonishingly addictive, which for me means that the writing is high-quality and frictionless. It’s also genuinely terrifying—more so when focusing on events that happen to the central group of characters as children; slightly less so when focusing on them as adults and the final reckoning with It, but still pretty good then. I’ll be trying King again. (review)

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most hmm: Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World, which is out in June. The idea is cool: a child psychologist with his own issues around nurture and stability is funded by an eccentric billionairess to run a ten-year study called the Infinite Family Project, where ten couples raise their babies communally to see how this affects child development. Our main character, teen single mother Izzy, is delightfully down-to-earth and the way Wilson introduces conflict to the “perfect little world” is pleasingly realistic, but his prose style creates a kind of distance between the reader and the characters; I always felt I was on the outside, looking in. Perhaps that was the point, though I’m still not sure how I feel about it if so.

hardest to read: When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife, by Meena Kandasamy, a novel about an abusive marriage between an Indian feminist writer and her passionately Communist husband. The title should tell you why. (This has got nothing to do with the shit thing that has just happened, though.)

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biggest relief: Tana French’s most recent novel, The Trespasser, is finally 1.99 on Kindle. It’s the only thing I’ve been able to read since the shit thing happened—I can’t focus enough for anything else—and I should take this opportunity to again state how thoroughly French as a writer has earned my trust as a reader.

up next: No idea. In any sense.

Two Utopias: Thoughts on Walkaway and Naondel

These two books are, on the surface of it, about as different as you can imagine. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, is resolutely for adults (with a lot of graphic sex); Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff’s follow-up to last year’s Maresi, is, despite its girth, a middle-grade YA novel. Walkaway believes in the power of technology to save us; Naondel places its faith in earth magic and the maternal life force. Walkaway is profoundly, almost giddily, optimistic about human nature; Naondel shows us a humanity that is near uniform in its brutality. And yet for all these polarities – sci fi vs. fantasy; adults vs. kids; positivity vs. cynicism – the two books have some striking similarities, and even their differences are illuminating.

9780765392763Both are about the drive, and the overwhelming need, to create utopias. Doctorow opens his book by introducing us to three characters: Hubert “Etcetera” Espinoza, so called because he has nineteen first names; Seth, Hubert’s slightly fratty but basically harmless friend; and Natalie, the scion of a minor branch of Toronto’s wealthy Redwater family. Hubert and Seth meet Natalie at a party (in one of the book’s many delightful coinings, it is a “Communist party”, where enterprising youths use 3D printing and microbial biology to create free dance floors, free speakers, and—crucially—free beer out of “feedstock”, useless industrial leftovers in an abandoned warehouse). At the end of chapter one, the party is crashed by drones directed by the forces of “default” society; one of Natalie’s friends, Billiam, falls fatally from a catwalk; Hubert, Seth and Natalie end up in the house of Natalie’s father, uber-capitalist Jacob Redwater; and the three of them, fueled by Natalie’s disgust over her family’s privileged arrogance and Hubert’s knowledge of other options, choose to “go walkaway”. Apparently, eighty years in the future, this will be a possibility: to join huge communal groups of people who don’t want to live in the wage slavery of late capitalism (where the rulers are not the 1%, but the .001%), and who use advances in 3D printing, network programming, and genetic modification to build lives for themselves.

The other way of living, in this world—the “default” way—is exactly like how we live now, but worse: go into deep hock to acquire degrees that are all but meaningless; reach age sixty-five without ever shaking the word “assistant” from your job title; live in constant terror of eviction or joblessness. Domestic servants in the Redwater household are hired on an ad hoc basis through an app—much in the way that catering and hospitality agencies provide workers now—meaning that the maid or the gardener is rarely the same person twice. It’s not the sort of world that values anyone, other than absolute zillionaires. The appeal of rejecting it is obvious.

34035652Naondel, meanwhile, is set in a country that clearly doesn’t belong to our world but which, judging from linguistics and economy, seems to be an amalgam of Arabic and Japanese culture. (This is a problem in itself, opening the novel up to charges of both exoticising and demonising Eastern cultures and their attitudes towards women. The Big Bad character is a brutal poisoner and rapist named Iskan ak Honta-che, which made me think of nothing so much as the rapey desert warlord in Game of Thrones.) In Karenokoi, very few people are both good and powerful. Power, by definition, corrupts. Turtschaninoff shows us a world where it’s not just the men who are evil, either; Izani, Iskan’s mother, is cold and cruel to her grandsons, while Lehan, the younger sister of a main character, is so infatuated with Iskan that she actually—albeit unknowingly—helps him to victimise another woman.

The whole novel is the foundation story of the Red Abbey on the island of Menos, where the first book, Maresi, was set. In Maresi we saw that kind of utopian, matriarchal society in action, and cheered as it destroyed a threat from outside. In Naondel we see why it’s necessary: the only place for women in Karenokoi is a subservient one. Interestingly, though, Turtschaninoff’s attempts at creating diversity among her characters cause a continuity problem. Several of the women who eventually escape from the dairahesi (harem) of Ohaddin Palace are from other cultures: there’s a woman from a nomadic tribe with strong spiritual connections to the earth, another from a tree-dwelling people who has the power to control others’ dreams. When they escape—as we always know they will—why don’t they make for one of these lands, where women and their powers are revered or at least respected? One suspects that it’s because the mechanics of Turtschaninoff’s plot demand otherwise. They have to settle the island of Menos and establish the Red Abbey; we knew from the moment we opened the book that it would end this way. To make that happen, we get a bit of authorial hand-waving that acknowledges the problem without digging into it, which limits the book’s success.

Anyway. Both of these countries, clearly, are ruled by total bastards. The establishment of a utopia is the only way out of their uncompromising and dehumanising systems. But here Doctorow and Turtschaninoff part ways again. Doctorow’s bastards are, by definition, a minority, and a tiny minority at that. Pretty much everyone whom our hero/-ines meet in walkaway is compassionate, sensible, and positive about their ability to make a difference. They collectively embody the covered-dish principle, which Doctorow explains within the book itself: after a catastrophe, do you go over to your neighbour’s house with a covered dish of food, or a shotgun? If you choose the dish, even a neighbour who chose the shotgun is more likely to put it down and offer you some food in return. If you choose the shotgun, it’s very unlikely that things will end well for anyone. Walkaway is about people who believe fiercely that taking a covered dish is the right thing to do, and who make the right choice most of the time. When an aggressive inhabitant of a walkaway community tries to create a formal hierarchy, he’s stymied because people there simply abandon the place, rather than live under someone again. When police besiege another community near the end of the novel, they’re defeated in part by their own innate goodness: those who are trapped mobilise the Internet to find relatives of the policemen who are also walkaways, then broadcast appeals from police’s siblings, parents, and children, targeted at individual cops. Without fail, this causes them to drop their weapons. You may find this beautiful, or unbelievable, or – as I did – both; but there’s no doubt that it gave me more hope, post-election, post-Brexit, post-Westminster and Stockholm and Syrian gas attack, than anything more overtly political I’ve read in the past year.

Naondel, by contrast, doesn’t allow us to believe in the innate goodness of anyone other than our heroines. They are somewhat complicated, but their morally dubious acts are always implicitly justified: Kabira, the eldest, taunts her mother-in-law with breathtaking cruelty as the old woman lies dying, but she has endured decades of taunts in her turn, and has been denied access to her children. Orseola, the dreamweaver, is exiled from her home for a major social taboo, but her outburst stems from the fact that she is untrained in her craft, and frightened of her own power. Sulani, the warrior, murders people left, right and centre, but she is a warrior and—it’s implied—that’s just what warriors do. Outside of this circle, we actually see very few characters, and the minor ones—like the eunuch guards of the harem—are at best indifferent to the suffering of the women. At worst, they’re either mustache-twirlers (like Iskan, who all but cackles), or—as in the case of Iskan’s other concubines—vain and stupid.

This is largely down to the fact that Turtschaninoff’s gender politics are broad-brush. It makes a certain level of sense. She’s writing for middle school girls, who are just becoming aware of the fact that, yeah, people will judge you for literally anything, and, no, it doesn’t seem to be like that for boys. Unfairness is the engine that drives Naondel—at points I found myself becoming furious—and to be given a book that not only provokes anger, but legitimises it, is a big deal for a twelve-year-old girl. Doctorow’s utopia takes the opposite approach. It is almost post-gender. None of the major characters have long-lasting cishet relationships; they’re all either L, G, B, T, Q, or I, and relationship drama is kept at an absolute minimum. Crucially, cishet identities are most reinforced by people who oppose walkaway culture: by Jimmy, the guy who attempts to create hierarchy in a community by tearing down their best programmer for being female; and by Jacob Redwater, whose wife and daughter live in a world of gilded privilege but almost no real freedom.

I prefer Doctorow’s vision, probably appropriately: I’m an adult, and his gender politics are adult too. Naondel is still a book I’d recommend heartily to middle-grade kids and their parents; it has important things to say. I would just take care to balance it with something like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. For all her faults, Pierce at least recognised that women were capable not only of creating their own retreat from the world, but also of engaging with its injustices head on.

Thanks very much to Chrissy at Head of Zeus and Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copies. Walkaway will be published in the UK on 25 April; Naondel was published in the UK on 6 April.

 

March Superlatives

In March the Baileys Prize longlist was announced and I started duties as part of the prize’s shadow panel, which involved reading all of the longlisted books I hadn’t already gotten to. This amounted to ten (well, nine and a half; I’d already read part of The Lesser Bohemians), plus some reading for work that included a couple of thrillers, some social realism, and some historical fiction. Overall, it’s been a very good, if exhausting, reading month: eighteen books finished. This is productive even for me.

best thriller: Sand, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s newly released novel that combines the black humour of Greene with the social observation of Ian Fleming, but better written. It’s nasty, funny, irresistibly engaging, confusing, and utterly nihilistic. (review)

best surprise: I read Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone because there was a damaged paperback copy at work that we couldn’t sell or return. I was expecting a basic story about dysfunctional, miserable WASPs. Instead, I got a book and a writer capable of articulating the complex motives behind emotions with such precision that I wanted to underline bits—and I never underline bits. Highly, highly recommended.

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cut nearest to the bone: Polly Clark’s debut novel, Larchfield, is about a young pregnant poet, Dora, who moves with her husband to Helensburgh, a small community in Scotland. W.H. Auden, she learns, used to teach at the local school. When Dora has the baby, a combination of neighbourly malice, loneliness, and loss of personal identity drives her to seek solace in learning about Auden’s experiences in Helensburgh. Curiously, neither working at Mumsnet nor talking to friends with babies has brought home to me as clearly as Larchfield did what a thoroughly frightening, isolating, relentless undertaking motherhood is. It seriously, seriously scared me about having children. (I think there is a longer post in this—in how fiction represents motherhood, and in how that particular thematic obsession in literature by and about women is received by women like me—young, childless, starting to wonder—but I’m leaving it for now.)

solidest thriller: Being the most solid of something is not the same as being the best at something, but Jane Harper’s The Dry is a good example of a crime novel that will please pretty much everyone. It is what people usually mean when they say “well-written”: nothing clunks or stands out; the plot is gory enough to be interesting without relying on the torture porn that seems to be the crime genre’s stock-in-trade these days; the villain is believable, and you don’t see the reveal coming from a mile away. Also, it’s set in a small Australian farming community, which is a fairly unusual setting and gives the book a sense of uniqueness. If you like decent crime, pick it up.

Mantel for the easily distracted: Sarah Dunant’s take on Renaissance Italy and the Borgias, In the Name of the Family. I found that she covers much of the same thematic ground as Mantel does—autocratic power, the role of the church in government, moral compromise in exchange for a measure of safety—but does so with a little more zip to her plotting. Highly recommended. (review)

most meh: I feel bad about saying this. There’s nothing wrong with The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain’s Baileys Prize-longlisted novel about a young boy growing up in post-war Switzerland and his lifelong friendship with talented pianist Anton. It just felt aimless. The writing is very lucid and the characterisation sympathetic, but it faded from memory more and more as I compared it to other longlisters. (review)

best Shakespeare rewrite: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. This is, without a doubt, the most successful installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare project so far, not least because Atwood acknowledges the existence of her source material (The Tempest) within her novel, and thus is allowed to write a book that stands on its own and can explicitly examine The Tempest’s preoccupations. Not Atwood’s best novel, but really good for Shakespeare nerds. (review)

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best reread: I got ill over a weekend and read American Gods by Neil Gaiman all over again, and it was great. It’s still the best of his books, I think (maybe a close contender with Neverwhere; I’d have to read the latter again to decide.) His take on modern gods—the sharp businessman Mr. Wednesday (Odin), the dapper and shrewd Mr. Nancy (Anansi), undertakers Jacquel and Ibis (Egyptian underworld gods Anubis and Thoth)—remains fresh and clever, and he conjures the menace of Americana like no other author I know.

most cute: This is definitely damning with faint praise, I’m afraid. I did like Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door; her portrayal of two elderly, crotchety neighbour ladies, one white and one black, is irresistibly charming, and she does engage with serious political and historical ideas. But the flavour the book left in my mouth was The Help meets Alexander McCall Smith, where people are mildly chastised for their prejudice but mostly let off the hook, and everything is okay at the end. I wanted more than that. (review)

most intelligent: Pretty much all of the books I read this month were intelligent, so this is kind of a crap category. But Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien, engages on such a high level with questions of ethics and art-making and agency in Mao’s China that it leaves much of its competition in the dust. I can’t help feeling a Baileys win would be somehow unfair (it’s already won the Giller, and been Booker Prize-shortlisted; let someone else have a go), but it would be very richly deserved. (review)

hardest punch to the gut: The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Alderman takes a simple premise—what if girls and women had the ability to discharge electricity from their bodies?—and uses it to explore some of the deepest questions about what human civilisation even is. If Thien is interested in the cerebral, Alderman is all about the fundamental. This book shook me. It’s a big deal. (review)

best sex: Unsurprisingly, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. Never have I encountered an author who understands so clearly that sex isn’t interesting because of who put what where, but because of who feels what when, and why. In other words, she maps sex as an emotional experience—and she also explores what sex is like when emotions are missing, and isn’t judgmental about it. (review)

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should have been on the Baileys longlist: For all my days, there are some things I will never understand about prize lists. The omission of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border in 2015 was one of them; the omission of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First this year is another. It’s a short, choppy, odd little novel, just like its subject: Margaret Cavendish, seventeenth-century Duchess of Newcastle and first female science fiction writer in the Western world, as far as we know. I loved it for its utter idiosyncracy—the prose so full of sharp, well-chosen images—for the efficiency with which Dutton sketches Margaret for us (it’s a very short book and by the end of it we know her as we do a dear friend), and for the lack of sentimentality with which she closes it. Seek this out.

most missed opportunity: Little Deaths by Emma Flint is a historical noir that deals with the hideous misogyny of 1960s New York in the context of an investigation into the murders of two children. Flint rouses our fury that the police are so much less interested in really investigating than they are in punishing Ruth Malone, our protagonist, for being separated for her husband and sexually active—but she never makes us feel complicit in that kind of judgment, and if she’d done that, it would have been a more powerful novel. (review)

full marks for ambition: The 700+ page opus from Annie Proulx, Barkskins. Telling the stories of the descendants of René Sel and Charles Duquet from the 1690s to the present day, it also encompasses Manifest Destiny, forest management, racial prejudice, and legacy. It flounders at points, and it’s too damn long, but overall it’s well worth the time. (review)

most classically Womens Prize?: Not that I want to slag off novels about relationships, marriages, infertility, and the staggering hypocrisy of the way society treats men vs. the way it treats women, but this is well-worn ground and exactly the sort of thing the Women’s Prize seems to go for sometimes. Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo’s Nigeria-set novel, covers all these points and introduces a bit of melodrama in the form of death and war. It’s good enough but may turn out to be forgettable. (review)

best find: Mick Herron, whose first entry in the Slough House series of spy thrillers, Slow Horses, isn’t just good for a genre novel—it’s good for any kind of novel. Herron is the Tana French of espionage writers: his grasp of the way language flows is absolute, he trusts his readers, he’s funny, his dialogue is on point. Plus the story—group of disgraced spooks find themselves trying to save a boy whose beheading is scheduled to occur live on the Internet in 48 hours—is a cracker, not least because the details of the boy’s abduction are (not to spoil anything for you) so precisely not what you initially think they are. There are three more in the series thus far, and I’m in it for the long haul.

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most unexpectedly genre-bending: Black Water, Louise Doughty’s first book since the acclaimed Apple Tree Yard. It’s sort of a spy thriller, but the protagonist isn’t a spy; it’s sort of a love story, but the love is complicated by reality and history; it’s sort of a historical political novel, but the present day takes up two-thirds of the book. It’s mostly set in Indonesia and its protagonist is part-Indonesian, part-Dutch, which made a nice change from the Anglo-American-centricity of other books with a similar focus. Doughty too knows how to grip a reader, and knows how to construct a sentence that hangs together and transitions nicely to the next sentence. This is just out in paperback, and I’d highly recommend it.

what’s next: Who knows?! I’m posting my personal Baileys Prize shortlist tomorrow, and the shadow panel is posting our (un)official shortlist choices on Sunday. After that, this project will be more or less wrapped up, and I have well over twenty-five books (reading copies; damaged copies we can’t sell that we’re allowed to take home; etc.) waiting to be prioritised, so it’s not like I’m out of choices…

November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

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most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

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weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

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best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

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big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.

 

The Other World, It Whispers, by Stephanie Victoire

I want to find her and ask her to show me what other creatures I could be.

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Fabulism isn’t a literary mode that I have a particularly easy time with. The discomfort that I often feel when reading something with an overtly “magical realist” tinge is, I’ve discovered, the same as the discomfort I get from “contemporary” translations of texts from classical antiquity. It’s a form of register clash. Reading a translation of Virgil’s Eclogues that includes the phrase “Put up or shut up” (as I once did) is jarring, a yank out of the clearly established classical context into a slangy modernity that feels false. In the same way, reading a story obviously set in a world like our own becomes bewildering when elements of fantasy creep in: witches, spells, sculptures that come to life, but also Paddington station, a bar called the Red Oak, Paris’s Sacré Cœur glimpsed from an apartment window. More often than not, when stories like this work, it’s because the author has planed her prose smooth, every word chosen to encourage and nourish the reader’s belief.

Stephanie Victoire’s stories manage this about half the time, and half is a pretty good ratio for a young author (she graduated from London Met in 2010) whose first collection this is. The first story, “Time and Silence”, and the third, “Layla and the Axe”, work very well because they remain basically unmoored from an easily identifiable contemporary world. “Time and Silence” is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy who is abused, Cinderella-fashion, by a mother who believes in the fundamental badness of males. A mysterious girl with no name appears outside their forest-bound shack. His friendship with her gives him the strength to defy his mother and leave his situation of domestic slavery, but the world into which he escapes is, in many ways, no safer:

As for me, there’d be new lands and the sea, and that thought got me excited. I only looked back once to see the small glow of light from the house disappear behind the arms of the trees. Snow tugged my arm, urging me on. There was no way I could let go of her now. I looked up one more time at the moon before moving quicker, because it was then I was sure I heard the howling of a wolf.

I have always liked ambiguity in short stories, especially in their endings. “Layla and the Axe” also derives its strength from the ambiguity of its ending, indeed of its whole plot: a young girl moves through a similar forest, her faithful fox by her side, carrying an axe. She is on her way to wreak vengeance on a mysterious man who has emerged repeatedly from the trees to seduce, or rape, girls from the village. She finds a house at the story’s end:

“Come in! Come in!” says the voice again and, at the turning of the handle and the creak of the door, Layla pushes through the aches in her arms, ready to swing, and thinks Pa’s axe could be a hero.

There the story ends; we never find out whether she brings the axe down in time, whether the person she kills is the person she is looking for. There is just enough uncertainty about the mysterious man’s provenance to make the reader wonder: is it possible that Layla doesn’t, can’t, succeed?

The stories I found less convincing were “The Animal Ball” and “Dark Arts and Deities”, the penultimate story in the collection. “The Animal Ball” is a brilliant idea wrapped in an execution that feels too hurried. A wealthy couple, the Barringtons, invite everyone they know to an animal-themed costume ball. Over the course of the evening, there is a murder, and the Barrington marriage—thanks in no small part to the presence of a fortune-telling guest dressed as a snow owl—begins to disintegrate under the weight of lies, jealousy, and revenge. My problem with it is that the writing just feels undercooked. The story asks the reader to do quite a lot of emotional work as it progresses, but there’s no sense of the words being arranged artfully in order to help the reader do that. It’s probably easier to illustrate this by quoting:

The swan went over to the snow owl to explain that she’d have her payment the next day as she didn’t have any more cash on her.

“Oh no, all that has been sorted with your husband,” the snow owl replied, stroking the feathers of her cloak.

“What do you mean?” The swan gulped down the lump in her throat, discreetly she thought, but the snow owl saw it.

“I think you ought to talk to him about it.”

I don’t know, it’s just a little too much, or not enough: the casual colloquialisms when the rest of the story is on a higher thematic plane (“didn’t have any more cash on her”; “been sorted”), the tang of cliché (“gulped down”, “lump in her throat”). It didn’t work for me at all.

A similar set of problems plagues “Dark Arts and Deities”, which focuses on a twenty-something wild child summoning a pantheon of historically and culturally diverse gods to wreak revenge on the small town whose provincial inhabitants have snubbed her. Why would any of these divine powers give the slightest damn about a vaguely sexy woman being misunderstood? What about our protagonist is compelling enough to make us believe that she is herself a candidate for apotheosis? The sex scenes are just embarrassing, the info-dumping is excessive, the clichés reach new heights (“the usual suspects”; “sobbing her eyes out”; “all of her emotional cuts were closing up”). The story needs, in effect, a more judicious editorial eye. I know I say this a lot about contemporary fiction but I think it’s true; there are many, many competent stories and novels being published which could have been excellent with a little more attention and criticism.

The collection’s triumph, though—and it does have one—is the presence of two stories which deal with gay and transgender themes. “Shanty”, the inner monologue of a biological male who knows he is a girl, invokes the archetype of the mermaid:

I wish I’d been created so. Imagine being that magnificent, that magnetic and that ethereal… Just a tail that allows you to soar and pirouette, like a ribbon being twirled in the air…in pure, blissful freedom.

Freedom is the key. In the final story, “Morgana’s Shadow”, a young girl from a deeply religious family is imprisoned after she’s seen kissing a woman in the forest. “It was a kiss to seal a deal”, she explains, the deal being that in exchange for the kiss she acquires the power of shape-shifting. It’s one of the shorter stories, but in it, Victoire seamlessly literalises the feeling of not being oneself, or of not being the self that others believe one is or should be, that often haunts people struggling with their sexuality. Her interest in liberation—physical, mental, emotional—is rooted in a belief in the power of transforming magic. But it is very easy to see how literal magic can stand in for the intoxicating feeling that comes from finally, finally being true to yourself:

I rip myself free from the rags and my large wing bats Joshua away from me. …I test out my new lungs and a loud cry sweeps across the room with my breath—the sound of freedom.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Salt for sending me a review copy. The Other World, It Whispers was published in the UK on 15 November.