November Superlatives

November started off slow. (Soooo slowwww.) (Sorry, that is a verbal tic of mine that only makes sense to people who have played Grim Fandango virtually to the end, you know, the bit where the little tiny car-driving demons are…anyway.) Two enormous volumes, in almost-direct sequence, took about five days each, and a third wasn’t quite as enormous but still took nearly an entire working week. Luckily, things picked up a bit after that (helped along by a semi-conscious decision to focus on the slimmer books on my TBR pile) and I rounded out the month with 13 books read, including four volumes of nonfiction, which is almost unheard of. Plus, the Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel had its final judging meeting, where I got to meet some amazing blogger-friends in real life for the first time!

biggest letdown: The End of the Day, by Claire North. Sorry. I did try to like it a bit more, but there were just so many ellipses, and it became increasingly clear that the book’s thesis was The Great Mundane Miracle Of Existence, which…I mean, nearly four hundred pages and that’s it? It’s a nice commercial fiction/fantasy crossover, and bits of it are very funny—I’ll certainly send it to some customers—but not one for me. (review)


most brain-stretching: Nick Harkaway’s new novel, Gnomon. Set in a near-future Britain where surveillance is total and civil order is maintained by a System that occasionally hauls in potential dissidents for a full mind-read, Gnomon follows a detective assigned to a case when a woman dies in custody. In the files of the dead woman’s consciousness, she finds four other minds that aren’t meant to be there… Mind-bending, inventive, wondrous, and very, very funny.

most grudgingly liked: Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney, an exploration of youth and power amongst ambitious artsy twenty-somethings in Dublin that I expected to loathe and instead found myself admiring tremendously. The dialogue is both ridiculously clever and surprisingly poignant. (review)

most pointless-feeling: A 700-page biography that leaves you just as unclear on its subject’s personality as you were at the beginning has missed the mark somehow. Despite its erudition and its writer’s clear love for his subject, this is unfortunately the case of Minoo Dinshaw’s life of Steven Runciman, Outlandish Knight. (review)


darkest: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, a novella by Yukio Mishima about a young Japanese boy who plots a horrible fate for his mother’s new husband. If you think teen violence and desensitisation is the fault of video games, think again; this book was written in the ’60s and depicts the most nihilistic children I’ve ever read.

most emotionally engaging: Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, which just earned her a second National Book Award. It’s a road trip novel; it’s an examination of American racism and history; it’s modern-day Faulkner, lyrical and elegiac. Jojo, our young narrator, will stay with you for a long time, as will his strong love for his baby sister Kayla and his mother Leonie’s desperation to bring her boyfriend Michael home from prison. An utterly stunning book.

most eye-opening: Black Tudors, Miranda Kaufmann’s nonfiction account of ten Africans who lived free in Tudor England. Kaufmann uses parish records, legal testimony, and Court documents to illuminate the lives of men and women like John Blanke, Henry VIII’s trumpeter; Reasonable Blackman, an African silkweaver living in Southwark; Anne Cobbie, a successful sex worker who traded on her skin; and, perhaps my favourite, Cattelena of Almondsbury, a “single woman” who lived in a small rural village near Bristol and whose possessions, listed after she died, included a tablecloth and a cow. Read alongside David Olusoga’s Black and British for a whole new take on what historic England might have looked like.


best support of the sisterhood: A slim book first published in the 1930s by Marjorie Hillis, eventually deputy editor of Vogue, Live Alone and Like It is a delightfully witty, un-self-pitying advice manual for single ladies. It’s rather of its time, but much of it is wonderful (a whole chapter is entitled “A Lady And Her Liquor”, and there’s another on having an affair). Most touching, perhaps, is her firm assertion that a woman living alone is no more likely to be murdered than a woman living with a man, and her advice that, if you are frightened, you must simply lie abed in the dark and think very hard about something else, like your new frock, or what you might say if that nice gentleman you went to the cinema with last week should happen to propose.

sexiest: Come, Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross, a story collection from Peepal Tree Press that I bought on the strength of a single Guardian review. It’s full of stories that range from a couple of paragraphs to a dozen pages, dealing with sex, love, heartbreak, and death. There’s a lot of magical realism—one protagonist, an office cleaner, starts to find abandoned hymens everywhere, which convey to him the sufferings of the women they used to be attached to—and a lot of NSFW stuff, too, which is astonishingly well written. It’s a wonderful collection.

greatest technical skill: Jon McGregor is a must-read author for life, now that I’ve read not only Reservoir 13 but also If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, which was published in 2002. Set in the late ’90s, it flips back and forth between an ordinary day on a street in a city neighbourhood, at the end of which something terrible happens, and the present day, where a witness of that event must come to terms with the way her life is now. McGregor is the master of the moving-camera point of view, the sort of thing that Virginia Woolf did a lot, and I don’t know anyone who captures the holiness of mundanity in the way he does. He’s a simply beautiful writer.


most deserved hype: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, which I read in a day, so addictive is the voice of its protagonist. Eleanor Oliphant is thirty and works in an office. Every Friday night, she buys a pizza for dinner and two bottles of vodka, which last her the weekend. Every Wednesday, she has a phone call with Mummy, who is locked away somewhere. Slowly, over the course of the novel, Eleanor’s carefully controlled world—and her loneliness—peels away from her, to be replaced with friendship, self-awareness, and, at last, understanding of what exactly Mummy did. It could be sentimental and overworked; instead, it’s tender, restrained and heartbreaking, and surprisingly very funny. I loved it.


best surprise: Another nonfiction book, Lucy Moore’s Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book, which recounts the life of Civil War heroine Anne Fanshawe through her personal memoirs and papers. Anne’s marriage was delightfully happy—she and her husband Richard seem to have been each other’s best friend—but their loyalty to Charles I and later to his son meant that they lost a lot of money and all of their security in the Royalist cause. Bouncing from country to country as refugees, they buried ten children in eight different locations; Anne suffered six additional miscarriages. Only four of the children she bore survived to adulthood. She was also a total badass who lobbied in court and at Parliament, once bribed a cabin boy for his clothes to use as a disguise, and forged a French visa for herself and her children, amongst other things. Her story is a reminder that the people of the past were still recognisably people, who suffered and loved as we do.

most oh-God-okaayyyy: The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan. It’s a weird, claustrophobic little novella, set in Venice over the length of an English couple’s holiday, that builds to a moment of magnificent what-the-fuckery that’s all the more surreal for having been so meticulously prepared for. It’s a nasty little thing, but one of those perfectly sculpted technical pieces that you have to admire, even if it also makes me feel gross.

up next: I’ve just started A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which is charming and which I’ll take away with me to my grandparents’ for the weekend. I’ve also got The Old Curiosity Shop for my Annual Winter Dickens, plus the endless pile of proofs.

#6Degrees of Separation: Picnic at Hanging Rock

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


We start off with Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay, which I’ve never read but which was something of a sensation in the ’60s and ’70s, a novel about the disappearance of a group of Australian schoolgirls on a school outing. I gather that the central mystery is never really resolved, though apparently Lindsay wrote a revelatory final chapter which was published separately. It sounds a bit rubbish.

My favourite disappearance story this year – and one of my favourite books of the year so far, full stop – has been Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. It’s a tender, nuanced portrait of a small community where a young girl disappears while on holiday with her parents; McGregor returns to the village over the course of thirteen years, finding both change and continuity with each passing year. It is a beautiful book, and highly recommended. (review)

Another “thirteen” book is Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. In each chapter, she discusses a technical aspect of the novel form: voice, characterisation, length, and so on. In the final section, she writes notes on one hundred books that she read as part of her project to determine what defines a novel. It’s an excellent resource both on a technical level and for people who want a basic reading list of classics and contemporary classics.

One of the books I read because it was in Smiley’s compendium is Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. A society novel about three Japanese sisters and their family’s difficulties in marrying them all off, it reminded me strongly of an east Asian Jane Austen, with equal biting wit, satire, and observation. (review – a very old one! I was so cute in 2013.)

I recommended The Makioka Sisters to a very well-read customer recently, along with Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, about a pair of Catholic priests who travel to Japan at a time when Christianity is illegal. They end up serving an underground community of believers, but at great risk both to themselves and to their flock. The book’s emotional core is the choice between renouncing one’s faith publicly in order to save the innocent, or remaining technically faithful to God but condemning others to die.

Martin Scorsese directed a nerve-wracking film of this book last year. He also directed “Hugo”, a gorgeously shot if slightly incoherent movie based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick’s stunning children’s novel about a boy who lives in a railway station, befriends a pioneer of early film, and tries to fix an automaton left to him by his father.

So: from Edwardian Australia to steampunk Paris, via contemporary Yorkshire, mid-century Osaka, and post-Shimabara Japan. Where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month we start with Pride and Prejudice, which ought to provide a lot of jumping-off points…

6 Degrees of Separation: Fates and Furies

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


  1. This month we start with Lauren Groff’s bestselling Fates and Furies, which I have not yet read but which is the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s loving marriage. Except halfway through the perspective shifts, and we realise all is not as it seems…
  2. Fates and Furies was shortlisted for the 2015 National Book Award. The winner of that award was Adam Johnson’s collection of short stories, Fortune Smiles, which focuses on (amongst other things) technology, politics, and relationships.
  3. The title story of that collection is reminiscent, in its East Asian setting and flavour of surreal weirdness, of Haruki Murakami. The only novel of his that I’ve read all the way through is The Wind-Up Bird Chroniclewhich features dream sex, spaghetti, and a cat named after the protagonist’s brother-in-law.
  4. My favourite fictional cat has got to be Behemoth, the whisky-drinking, cigar-smoking, pistol-toting kitty from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
  5. I read most of The Master and Margarita in a Heathrow departure lounge on the way home for Christmas one year. Another year, in the same place, I read Hans Fallada’s bleak novel of resistance to Nazism, Alone In Berlin, which I would not recommend as airplane reading, to put it lightly. It is good—beyond good; almost essential—but extremely disturbing.

From a deceptive American marriage to the deepest questions of personal responsibility in mid-century Germany, via surrealist Japan and satirical Russia: a better geographical spread this month, though still quite Eurocentric. Does anyone have a different favourite fictional cat? I thought about Dinah, from Alice in Wonderland, or Tabitha Twitchit of Beatrix Potter, or, of course, Mrs. Norris from the Harry Potter series…

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira in “Silence”
  1. It’s been a while since I did one of these.
  2. We went to see the new Scorsese movie, “Silence”, based on the novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, at the BFI last week. It’s about seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan, where Christianity was persecuted after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637-8. It is…rough. I hesitate to use the word “graphic”, because no one gets disembowelled or anything, but there are some pretty distressing scenes. I thought it was a very powerful movie asking very interesting questions about the point at which virtuous loyalty to a faith becomes destructive pride (in this case, the point at which the life at stake isn’t yours, but someone else’s). The Chaos thought it was a very powerful movie with a very superfluous premise, since to him, all religious belief is absurd anyway. I’d really like to read the book now.
  3. Though there are a couple of Endo’s books in the flat, Silence isn’t one of them.
  4. “Reading resolutions” are not really my cup of tea—I like reading somewhat at whim; “challenges” and “lists” strike me as being generally an instance of eyes larger than stomach. However: in the sitting room and the landing bookshelves, we have hundreds of books that the Chaos took from his grandparents’ house after they died. There are many nineteenth and twentieth-century classics (Bellow, Kafka, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene); there is a fair amount of Japanese literature and non-fiction; there is quite a lot of science and poetry. I’d like to start reading them. In between new books solicited from publishers and essential contemporary reading (The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, etc.), I’ll prioritise those.
  5. This is all I have for you at the moment, I’m afraid: reading, writing my own book (which comes along), turning up to work, and getting quite a lot of cuddles are pretty much all I can manage. January is not my favourite month.
  6. (Although a couple of years ago I wrote a post about how to survive January; it’s on my old blog. It included the advice “eat a lot of oranges”.)

October Superlatives

I only read seven books this month, which is a little lower than average and certainly not ideal. On the other hand, at least two of them were 600+ pages, and I haven’t had much free time because I’ve finally, finally moved! October started with a whole heap of a lot of trauma reading—the first three books of the month were about bereavement, mental instability, and physical and sexual abuse, respectively. However, almost all of this month’s books have been excellent, beautiful, thought-provoking, or all three, save for one definite misfire—and I’ve managed to review a little more than half of them. (Or I will have done; the review of Before the Feast is coming soon.)

most perfectly timed: H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. Although, having said that, it’s one of those books that is so beautifully written, so easy to slip into the tide of, that it would probably have been perfect no matter when I read it. Her descriptions of training her goshawk, Mabel, as the autumn waxes into winter, however, felt particularly apt. It’s also some of the most truthful writing I’ve ever read about bereavement and how it can affect your behavior, sometimes to the point of making you unrecognizable even to yourself. No wonder it won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

biggest punch to the emotional solar plexus: A tie here between Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, by Max Porter, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. (Told you this month was cheery!) Porter’s novel is a very short, polished jewel of a poetry-novel about a bereaved husband and his two little boys, and the Crow (maybe of Ted Hughes’s writings, maybe something else entirely) that comes to stay with them. It contains, like Macdonald’s memoir, spot-on observations about the experience and performance of grief. A Little Life was the Booker Prize favorite, an astonishingly dark book full of childhood physical and sexual abuse. The prose was dense and lush in the same way that Donna Tartt’s is, but like Tartt’s The Goldfinch, A Little Life felt simultaneously over-and underplotted: too much flesh, not enough muscle. Yanagihara could have excised a hundred pages simply by cutting superfluous paragraphs and had a much tighter novel. It still made me feel like crying when I’d finished, though.

greatest disappointment: Soji Shimada’s 1980 locked-room mystery, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Stilted translation, a ridiculous plot, an overall scent of sexism and a sense that the author didn’t care much about his characters combined to make me deeply frustrated with the whole shebang. It’s one of Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo collection of translated crime novels, and the others in the series have been well reviewed, so perhaps this was just a case of reviewer/book mismatch.

Art from the astonishingly talented

most thoroughly engrossing world: The blighted America of Sandra Newman’s Baileys-longlisted novel The Country of Ice Cream Star. All white people (except for the mysterious “roos”) have long ago succumbed to a disease called WAKS; the survivors are struck by a delayed-onset version of the condition in their late teens or early 20s, meaning that a) America is now entirely black/Hispanic, and b) no American now lives past adolescence. Ice Cream Star, a fifteen-year-old leader of her people, sets out to find the cure. She’s an incredible heroine: she fights, fucks, and somehow remains entirely believable, terrified but brave. I couldn’t stop reading about her.

most impressive debut: Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams. A novel about the Lapérouse maritime scientific expedition of the 1780s, it took ten years to research and write, and that dedication pays off in the polished, perfectly weighted prose. It’s a generous book without being unrealistic about human nature. I hope Williams writes more, and I hope she writes more historical fiction. We need more authors who approach the past with such consideration.

best escapism: The delicate weirdness of Before the Feast, Saša Stanišić’s second novel. Set in a German village sometime around now, it’s a dreamy but unsentimental book about how local and national history dovetail, and about how they diverge. It’s one of the best books I’ve read for demonstrating quite clearly that citizens of any country are not all the same, and that a people’s history is not the same as a government’s. It’s also slyly odd, with an air of folk tale and mystery.

up next: I’m currently reading Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; it’s called The Gap of Time and it’s immensely beautiful, and clever, and is making me think all sorts of thoughts about retelling stories, and what the most important element of a work of classic literature is. After that, I’ve got Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson to review, as well as wanting to finally zap my shrinking TBR, maybe by reading Guantanamo Diary or Go Set A Watchman (shamefully late, I know…)

Fall (P)reviews

Recently I stepped down from my position on the editorial team at Quadrapheme. I’d had a great time there, learned a lot and been given incredible opportunities, but it was time that I moved on. Now that I’m just working on Elle Thinks, I have a lot more room to expand and to accept books for review from publishers that fit my own interests. The following are all books that I’ll be covering here in the fall months, some of them very soon!

The Black Country, by Kerry Hadley-Pryce (Salt Publishing). This was sold to me as a variant on Gone Girl, and although I generally roll my eyes at such comparisons, that’s because I think Gone Girl is a real work of genius, and it’s too facile to say that every thriller with an unreliable female narrator is on the same level. The recommendation, however, came from Salt’s publicist Tabitha Pelly, who’s been reliably funneling incredible books my way for over a year, and whose judgment I trust. As far as I can tell, it’s about a married couple whose relationship is toxic, who make terrible (criminal?) decisions together and separately, and who spend a lot of energy deluding the reader as well as themselves and each other. Yum yum.

Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams (Little, Brown). A fictionalization of the Laperouse expedition that sought to circumnavigate the globe in the eighteenth century; each chapter is told by a different character. Ships’ captains, scientists, and sailors all tell their story. I’m hoping it’s going to be a cross between Patrick O’Brian and William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy. It certainly has the most beautiful cover of the season.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada (Pushkin Press). Pushkin’s new crime imprint, Vertigo, seeks to bring into English translation some of the best crime and thriller writing from around the world. I’ve never read any Japanese murder mysteries before, but  this tale of an eccentric, murdered man whose plans to kill the seven women he lives with are carried out to the letter after his death struck me as particularly fiendish. This cover is absolutely ace, as well.

Katherine Carlyle, by Rupert Thomson (Corsair). Created by IVF in the ’80s, Katherine Carlyle is born eight years later. By the time she is an adolescent, her mother has died of cancer and her father is emotionally distant. Partly out of an immature desire to punish him, partly out of impulses she doesn’t really understand herself, Katherine decides to disappear… This looks like it could be extraordinary, and Rupert Thomson has a good reputation. I’m excited for it.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, by Max Porter (Faber and Faber). Two young boys lose their mother; their father loses his wife. Into a household shattered and inarticulate with grief comes Crow, a version of Ted Hughes’s famous bird. He brings solace, warmth, and wildness. He promises not to leave until they are ready for him to leave. This is one of Faber’s biggest fiction releases this season and it looks utterly amazing. The fact that I have a Bit Of A Thing for Hughes, Plath, and their respective poetry certainly doesn’t hurt.

I’ve also been promised a copy of Virago’s gorgeous new version of The Birds and other short stories by Daphne du Maurier, which I’m very excited about. See how pretty/scary it is!

The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki

I’ve been trying to get into more world literature recently; it strikes me as a necessary step up from the familiar world of the Brontes and Dickens and all the other English classics. I haven’t read all of those, either, but I’m at least comfortable in the company of the books that people are usually referring to when they mention Classic Literature (having under my belt six Dickenses, Austen’s big six, the Bronte big three, five George Eliots, all of Fielding, six Hardys, and so on and so forth.) I’ve been trying Russia (Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, last year), Italy (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard), and I’ve just finished The Makioka Sisters, the masterpiece of one of Japan’s leading twentieth-century novelists, Junichiro Tanizaki.

In many ways, The Makioka Sisters kept reminding me of Jane Austen. There are four of the eponymous sisters, orphaned young; they now range in age from about thirty-seven to twenty-eight, and as the story opens, the third and fourth sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, are still unmarried. Tradition demands that they marry in order of age. Taeko has a prospect, a rather feckless but well-bred young man named Okubata, with whom she tried to run away several years ago; restrained and brought home, the two of them are waiting on Yukiko, who is thirty and whose matrimonial settlements are proving troublesome.

Yukiko–I shall say this now–is a tremendous pain in the arse. She is passive, silent, boring, skinny, fragile, and at one point destroys any interest that a potential suitor might have had in her by being too terrified/traditional to answer the phone when he rings the house. When something is finally arranged for her (after five hundred and thirty pages), she “took care not to show the slightest pleasure, and above all not to let slip a word of thanks to those who had worked so hard for her.” She is described as deeply caring–her niece is closer to her than she is to her own mother, the second sister, Sachiko–but for a twenty-first century reader, her preciousness begins to wear a bit thin. Fortunately, her sisters find her trying too; she is compared to the court maidens of a thousand years ago, and it is clear that such adherence to traditional etiquette is swiftly becoming a handicap, even in provincial Japan, as the 1930s draw to a close and war looms.

A still from the 1983 film–Yukiko is on the left, in green

That is one of the parallels with Austen, I think: questions of personal choice, marriage and individual lives are played out against a vague, shadowy awareness that larger developments are occurring elsewhere. The Makiokas have German neighbors called the Stolzes, who are eventually called back to Hamburg, and Mrs. Stolz writes a letter in which she expresses her confidence that “Hitler will sort out the Czech question”. For a novel begun in 1943 and finished in 1948, that kind of detail was, one imagines, ominous when Tanizaki first wrote it, and bitterly ironic when he had finished it. Austen generally takes care to keep the Napoleonic conflicts even further in the background, but awareness is piqued by both authors through the presence of soldiers in their narratives–in Austen’s England, regiments are stationed as a matter of course in the neighborhoods of her heroines, and in Tanizaki’s Osaka, they pass through on trains, waiting to see what will come of the China Incident (known in the West as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which sparked the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War.)

Above all, there is the similarity of a slow, deliberate narrative style–in which letters and verbal message-carrying, illnesses and distance and misunderstanding, play pivotal roles–and the deep significance of etiquette. Rudeness, hierarchy, the infinite little dance motions of social interaction which determine breeding and therefore worth, are of terrific concern to the Makiokas, who are of an old and respectable but swiftly declining family, much in the same way that they are to the equally hard-up Dashwoods or Bennets. This does not prevent some rather shocking things from happening (SPOILERS!!!!!!!): Sachiko suffers a miscarriage, Taeko’s other lover Ikubata dies of a blood infection, and Taeko herself is discovered to be pregnant near the end of the book, with near-disastrous results. The way that such catastrophes are covered up, papered over, can be horrifyingly casual. Sachiko’s husband entirely fails to understand why she is crying on the one-year anniversary of their fetus’s death, and Sachiko herself, with whom we are meant to sympathize, muses that it would “probably not be impossible” to force an abortion on Taeko against her will. Partly, I think, this can be chalked up to cultural and generational differences. It may, however, also be partly intended to demonstrate the cost attendant upon a refusal to change with the times.

The Makioka Sisters is a book worth persevering with; you need to be willing to get inside its world, make an effort to understand it, but it is a deep, quiet, gorgeous book and it rewards that effort fully.