October Superlatives

Thirteen books this month; an appropriate number for the month of Halloween, although I don’t really keep the feast anymore. Certainly not when it falls on a Tuesday. It’s been a busy old month and the near future won’t slow down much; maybe by the middle of November I’ll have a Saturday or an evening where I have time to cook a meal, stay up late reading, lie in bed doing nothing in particular. (Write a few book reviews?)

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party to which I was late: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the novel that made John Le Carré’s name. The most astonishing thing about it is its absolute, even-handed refusal to permit heroism to any of its characters. Everyone—the British, the East Germans, our protagonist, his boss—is weak, petty, self-serving, or cold. Sometimes all at once. It’s a devastating book, with a devastating ending: no one wins.

for Wodehouse fans: Max Beerbohm’s frothy Edwardian novel Zuleika Dobson, whose titular heroine visits her grandfather’s Oxford college and wreaks havoc amongst the undergraduates, who all end up committing suicide en masse in her honour. To be perfectly honest, it’s a slightly weird read, because Beerbohm never seems totally sure of how serious he wants to be; there are some moments between Zuleika and her most devoted lover, the Duke of Dorset, which I found quite moving, and yet the whole point of the book is this moment of comically extreme violence, which we’re apparently not meant to take more seriously than your average Tom and Jerry maiming. Still bloody funny, though.

most thought-provoking: American War by Omar El Akkad, a new novel set in the 2070s, after a ban on fossil fuel usage has provoked a Second American Civil War. Our protagonist, Sarat, is a young displaced girl from the South, and the novel charts the course of her radicalisation and eventual deployment as a terrorist. A lot of El Akkad’s extrapolations about the future are surprising: he totally ignores issues of race, for example, which I can’t see completely disappearing in fifty years unless something socioculturally cataclysmic happens before the start of the book, and none of his characters make any reference to such an event. And his Southerners don’t feel like Southerners to me: first of all, race is always a major if unspoken factor in the South, and secondly, there is a semi-feral attachment to land and land’s history there that I don’t see in his characters. But what American War did was force me to reevaluate how children are radicalised, simply by making me watch it happen in a landscape I was familiar with and to people whose cultural referents are roughly my own, and that’s a hell of an important thing.

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most a victim of its time: I actually quite enjoyed most of The Black Cloud, a hard sf novel from 1957. It’s a fascinating insight into the status of science fiction at the time—one of its major selling points is that it’s written “by a scientist”, and Hoyle clearly cares a thousand times less about characterisation and the social implications of global natural disaster than he does about explaining to us exactly what kind of natural disaster we’ll get, and why. (There are equations.) But his protagonist (who, intriguingly, holds the same post at Cambridge University that Hoyle did) is not to be borne: he’s a patronising, info-dumping egotist with a Messiah complex who doesn’t understand a) why it’s not okay to kidnap a beautiful young pianist and hold her hostage in your Science Lair so that you can have some culture and eye candy whilst saving the world, and b) why your government might be completely justified in thinking you’re a megalomaniacal world-dictator-in-waiting, given that YOU HAVE A FUCKING SCIENCE LAIR. And the less said about attitudes towards women, the better. (They literally make the tea, I cannot.) File under enjoyable but deeply flawed.

most jaw-droppingly transcendent of its genre: Dodgers, a crime novel by Bill Beverly that won the CWA’s Debut Dagger Award. My God, this book. It’s a crime novel in the sense that Crime and Punishment is. East is fifteen years old. He used to supervise lookouts at a crack house in LA, running a yard full of boys ready to sound the alarm at a moment’s notice, but his house gets busted. He’s given a last chance to prove himself, a drive with three other boys from California to Wisconsin to assassinate a judge. Things get complicated. Beverly nails interpersonal dynamics, the Morse code of young men communicating with few words, and the sense of responsibility and despair that East feels for his younger brother Ty, who’s already much better at this life than he is. And he nails atmosphere, most particularly the atmosphere of the road trip: the jittery smeared-neon eye-gritting blur of America, the cold blue light in the front of a gas station just before sunup. It’s an astonishing book; it left me with a hole inside.

most humane: Autumn, by Ali Smith, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and might easily have won it. It’s rather difficult to summarise this book, which is presumably why most of the writing I’ve seen about it online hasn’t tried. Effectively, there are two main characters: Daniel Gluck, now an old man, and Elisabeth Demand, once a precocious schoolchild who was his neighbour, now teaching art history. Woven in between their stories are the stories of Pauline Boty, one of Britain’s few female Pop Artists (in fact, identifying her as such is the source of an argument between Elisabeth and her initial postgraduate supervisor), and of Christine Keeling, the model involved in the Profumo Affair of the 1960s (Britain’s Watergate, in that you can argue for its being the modern moment when the public stopped trusting politicians). Smith is, I am convinced, a genius; she thinks on the very highest level, then tells her stories as though she is sitting cross-legged on a sofa.

most utterly predictable reread: The Likeness, by Tana French. It makes me weep every time, that last page. You know how much I like Tana French. Moving on.

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most disorienting: The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis. Unusually, this was a book someone recommended to me (it doesn’t happen often); my childhood best friend’s partner heard about the book I’m writing and told me I should read this. There’s a rough similarity—college students, a love triangle, people who refuse to deal with their sexualities—but the odd thing about Ellis’s book was that I couldn’t find the heart of it, I couldn’t sense where my attention and investment was meant to be directed. It’s written in a lot of short, choppy sections, from the perspectives of about half a dozen different people; you often get wildly varying versions of the same situation. The experience of reading it is a lot like wandering through a party in a darkened flat that you’ve never been to before, six glasses of wine down, looking for your friends, your shoes, your coat, and/or somewhere to throw up: everything goes past at the wrong speed, seems to be in the wrong place, keeps happening for too long, and you really want to just lie down. Not that drugs and sex aren’t valid subjects for fiction, it’s just…awfully hard to know what Ellis was getting at with this one. (Patrick Bateman makes an appearance, though; Sean, one of the main characters here, is his younger brother.)

most intriguing opening: I read a graphic novel this month, volume 1 of Y: the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan of Saga fame and drawn by Pia Guerra. The premise is that a virus has killed all men and male animals – everything with a Y chromosome – simultaneously, except for one man (Yorick) and his pet monkey Ampersand. Various groups want them, for experiments or vengeance or other things, and all Yorick wants is to find his girlfriend Beth, who was in Australia when global communications broke down. Yorick’s an infuriating character, full of a young man’s arrogance, and I’m not sure that Vaughan always does a totally convincing job of standing outside of that character inviting us to assess it, as opposed to appearing to endorse it. Still, there are some great scenes, including one where the wives of now-dead Republican congressmen storm Capitol Hill, armed, demanding their husbands’ seats.

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most balls-to-the-wall bonkers: This, mind you, is a good thing. The honour goes to China Miéville’s novel Kraken, which is universally considered to be not one of his best, and I can kind of see why, since it tastes very similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and indeed to Miéville’s own early works like UnLun Dun and King Rat. However, it has still got the theft of a giant squid, a section of the Metropolitan Police that deals entirely with cult activity, a mysterious society of Londonmancers, a strike by the Union of Familiars, and just in general quite a lot of good mad stuff. I love the idea that the places of great inherent power in this city aren’t always where you think they might be (though of course there’s plenty of it round the London Stone); that you could also find it round back of a chippy on the Edgware Road, or in a lock-up in Hoxton.

most unnerving to my boss: E. Gabriella Coleman’s seminal book, Coding Freedom: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. I picked it up because of my interest in the intellectual struggles around copyright and freedom of information, and because in the spring I read an incredible biography of Aaron Swartz, who helped to develop Reddit and Creative Commons before being arraigned by the FBI for mass-downloading a bunch of JSTOR articles. Coleman’s focus is actually much less on the law and much more on the anthropological structures of hacker culture, but as these have a lot to do with shared, deeply internalised ethics, there’s enough overlap for it to be fascinating too.

most moving: Another road trip novel, this one by Sara Taylor, who wrote The Shore. Her second novel, The Lauras, follows a mother and child (we never know what sex Alex is, or what gender, and Alex themself is pretty clear: they don’t feel they fit into either box) as they drive across America. It’s sort of an escape from Alex’s father, but he’s not exactly a villain, just a mediocre guy; it’s more to do with Ma’s need to visit pieces of her past. Taylor evokes rootlessness well, and she’s tenderly open-minded on the complexities of maternal love, and the myriad ways in which it’s possible to make or have a family. Beautiful writing, too. (review)

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most gonzo: Is that actually the right word? I don’t know. It feels like it, for Julianne Pachico’s short story collection The Lucky Ones. They’re interlinked, so that characters who appear peripherally in one story become the centre of another. Set in Colombia, mostly during the drug wars of the early 1990s, they circle around a group of schoolgirl friends and frenemies – Stephanie, Betsy, La Flaca, Mariela – with other stories from the point of view of a kidnapped teacher, a teenage soon-to-be-paramilitary recruit, and (really) a bunch of pet rabbits hooked on coca leaves. It’s an absolute knockout.

up next: The last two books in October were read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Shadow Panel, which I’m delighted to be on this year. I’m now reading The End of the Day by Claire North, a novel about the Harbinger of Death, who turns out to be a nice, kind of schlubby guy called Charlie. It’s an odd mix, the witty apocalypticism of Good Omens mingled with a more serious humanitarian flavour. I think I like it.

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Down the TBR Hole, #3

Time for another round! This is a meme started by Lia, and it goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read.

(My Goodreads TBR, by the way, isn’t like a real-world TBR. It only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have. It does, however, often guide my purchasing decisions.)

4193ii6whql-_sx327_bo1204203200_Book #21: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter

Why is it on my TBR? It looked like cool, reasonably accessible writing about maths and music and pattern. Sold.

Do I already own it? No, although I have Hofstadter’s (massive) book on translation, Le ton beau de Marot.

Verdict? Keep, or at least keep to try. Ton beau is written—at least to begin with—in a half-rhyming, almost spoken-word style; if GEB is the same I may have a hard time with it, since I need maths writing to be a bit more straightforward.

Book #22: English Food, by Jane Grigson41fmma0p1nl-_sx320_bo1204203200_

Why is it on my TBR? Quite superficially, because I liked the look of it in a shop.

Do I already own it? I did. I’ve already gotten rid of it, because…

Verdict? …if I’m ever going to have the time, energy and technique to prepare dishes like devilled hare’s kidney in marmalade (only a little bit exaggerating), it will be very far into the future.

23999630Book #23: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Why is it on my TBR? Read a good review of it while trawling through the archives of a books blog I’d just discovered and really adored, I think. Can’t recall which one—perhaps Eve’s Alexandria.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep. It’s a classic of speculative fiction and I’m fascinated by the idea of monks preserving civilisation post-apocalypse, like late antiquity all over again. (Plus, the title is terrific for charades.)

Book #24: Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon71gmzprxvgl

Why is it on my TBR? Americana. Nostalgia. Travels on the forgotten byways of the continent. (A weakness for road-trippery.)

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: I have heard not-so-good things about this one, in the interim. I might not bother.

386187Book #25: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

Why is it on my TBR? Southern Gothic nonfiction. Eccentricity and Spanish moss and heat. Duh. Also, my cousin bought it for me for about $4 at a secondhand bookshop when I was seventeen; you remember things like that.

Do I already own it? Yes!

Verdict: Keep. So obviously.

Book #26: Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon81cbrobjzrl

Why is it on my TBR? I was bought it by a dear friend who thought I should read it.

Do I already own it? Yes. But I lent it to another dear friend who seemed in need of it, and then she moved a long way away, and long story short, I think she might still have it but I don’t know where.

Verdict: Keep, if I can ever find the damn thing again.

9780060885618_custom-1f0040cfdade67159cc9ebfe336dcbabaf73206c-s6-c30Book #27: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Why is it on my TBR? Not sure. After I added it, though, it was made into a film, which is apparently amazing and surreal, and I would really like to read the book first.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep, I think.

Book #28: The Common Stream: Two Thousand Years of the FrontCoverMockTemplateEnglish Village, by Rowland Parker

Why is it on my TBR? Piqued an interest in English social history, especially over centuries. I might have just finished Ulverton by Adam Thorpe when I added it.

Do I already own it? Nope, but there’s a very attractive Eland edition in the bookshop.

Verdict: Keep. I’ve just read a Thomas Hardy and remembered why I like rusticity.

bio_2000_sp_unabridged_journals_web Book #29: The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Why is it on my TBR? Read Plath’s Collected Poems, thought they were amazing, had a shufti at some of her journaling and found it as compelling and personal as Woolf’s.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep.

Book #30: All Change, by Elizabeth Jane Howardpage-51-all

Why is it on my TBR? I read the first four Cazalet Chronicles books and really, really loved them. All Change is set ten(?) years after the last one.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Actually, discard. I loved the Cazalets so much because of the way that the children interacted with one another, and with the adults; now that the children are young adults in their own right, I don’t feel quite as compelled by it.


Conclusions: Three books out of ten discarded, each for a good reason, I think. Going through these books is, if nothing else, reminding me of how much I’ve been “wanting to get to” for a long time, and how silly it is to put off reading interesting things you’ve been aware of for a while in favour of titles that you’ve seen more recently.

What do you think—is William Least Heat-Moon actually a genius whom I should read immediately? Is Sylvia Plath not worth it? How difficult is Douglas Hofstadter’s mathematical writing?! Comments much encouraged, as always.

June Superlatives

June has been about how to live and thrive in limbo, between one state and another. Doing that successfully requires you to be intentional about a whole lot of things, including what you put into your brain. So although there have been many dinners with friends, glasses of wine and chai tea and gin-based cocktails, WhatsApp messages and perfectly chosen postcards and so much love, I’ve also watched my reading die down. And then it bounced back—such that I cleared 18 books this month—which is, at least, something positive. (I thoroughly sucked at reviewing, but that’s life.)

most diverting: The final two books in Mick Herron’s Slough House series, Real Tigers and Spook Street. For about a week at the beginning of the month, reading, sleeping and eating were much harder than I usually find them. Herron’s slick, pacy espionage thrillers (from the point of view of a team of underdogs) were exactly what my brain needed: easily digestible and not too deep. He writes good books anyway, but it’s especially nice to know that they can fill this kind of reading niche.

hardest-hitting: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson has worked for decades as a death row lawyer in Alabama, defending condemned men and women free of charge through his nonprofit, the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s a deeply thoughtful and compassionate man, and his writing about the flawed ways in which the death penalty is applied is so calmly, measuredly furious that it is nearly impossible to believe so many states (including my home state, Virginia) still use it. This, too, I read during the week that reading was hard, though I’m almost positive that’s due to personal associations that make me feel comfortable and secure when reading books about the law.

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best start: My first Iain M. Banks novel, The Player of Games. Jernat Morau Gurgeh is a member of the Culture, a utopian, anti-hierarchical society of plenty. He’s one of the Culture’s best game-players, and he’s dispatched in this book to the far-off Empire of Azad to play the game that gives the empire its name—and everything else; roles at every level of society are determined by how well you play, and the winner becomes the Emperor of Azad himself. As an introduction to Banks’s science-fictional work, The Player of Games works very well; it doesn’t assume too much familiarity (it was only the second Culture novel to be published), but there’s a level of sophistication to the political maneuvering that I enjoyed. I look forward to more of these; perhaps Use of Weapons next.

most ekphrastic: Edward Dusinberre’s memoir-cum-journey through Beethoven’s late string quartets, Beethoven For a Later Age. Dusinberre is the first violinist in the Takács Quartet, and he writes evocatively not only about the music itself (excerpts are printed within the text, which is extremely helpful) but about the process of making music cooperatively but not hierarchically—a very different endeavour from that of a solo artist, or even an orchestra, which has a conductor to follow. A superb insight into professional musicianship.

book that brought my groove back: The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow. It follows the tribulations of Gertie Nevels, a Kentucky hill farmer and mother of five who is impelled by World War II to move to Detroit, where her husband Clovis, a mechanic, gets a job in a steel factory. The rest of the book traces the fallout of that choice, and the corrosive effect of industrialised urban living on a creative mind. If anyone you know still has lingering doubts about the disadvantages imposed by poverty, hand them this. (review)

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most intelligent: Gwyneth Jones’s five-minutes-in-the-future novel, Life, which follows the adolescence and adulthood of molecular biologist Anna Senoz, who discovers a sex chromosome phenomenon called Transferred Y which might mean the end of human sexual difference as we know it. It is a novel about sex, and sexuality and gender, but also about science: the everyday practice of it, the hard work and the research and the satisfaction. Life is utterly unlike anything else I’ve read; like Madeleine Thien, Jones does her thinking on a very high level and lets it play out in her fiction through the depiction of ordinary, everyday lives.

best timing: My uncle sent me a sorry-you-broke-up book, which goes to show a) how well my family knows me, or b) how predictable I am. Or both. It was Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller—a memoir of her marriage to Charlie Ross, and its dissolution, and further memories of growing up with deeply eccentric parents on a farm in Zambia. Fuller writes beautifully, and she is so good at gesturing at psychological damage without spelling it out for you.

most underrated: Michael Arditti has been writing novels for years and yet he seems to fly under the radar. I read his book Easter this month. Set over the course of a single Holy Week in a Hampstead parish, it deals with AIDS, hypocrisy, loss of faith, the legacy of the Holocaust, and love, and I really, really liked it. Like a modern-day, slightly grittier Trollope, focusing on the contemporary issues that the Anglican church faces.

hands-down favourites: Two, actually. One was George Saunders’s novel Lincoln In the Bardo, which imagines the night that Abraham Lincoln spent in his eleven-year-old son Willie’s mausoleum, from the point of view of the ghosts who haunt the place. It’s hot ice and wondrous strange snow, a truly polyphonic piece of work (it helps to read it as though it’s a play, or to think of it as a written-down audiobook) that manages to be both heart-rending and honest, and surprisingly funny in places.

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The other was Jeff VanderMeer’s new book Borne, which follows scavenger Rachel in a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a five-storey-tall flying bear called Mord, the result of experimentation within the sinister Company. When Rachel finds a piece of biotech in Mord’s fur, she takes it home and names it Borne. From their relationship—semi-parental, semi-best-friendship—comes the book’s emotional core, which is made more poignant by our growing realisation (and Rachel’s resistance to realising) of what Borne is, does, and could be. The dialogue is sweet and goofy and painful, and I dashed through the book in a day. It’s wonderful.

most nearly: After a twenty-year wait for Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is finally here. While I enjoyed reading it at the time, and was as moved and distressed as Roy presumably wanted me to be by the descriptions of the Indian army’s program of oppression and torture amongst the insurgents of Kashmir, I ultimately felt the novel’s focus was too diffuse; in trying to present us with many different points of view, it failed to provide a strong emotional core. I wrote more about it at Litro (review text here).

most holy-fucking-shit: Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling, which is coming out from 4th Estate in August. It’s the story of 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, who can navigate through thirty miles of rough terrain in a day and shoot a playing card out of her daddy’s hand. Her daddy is all she has, and she loves him, but things are changing… It is astonishing on the psychological dynamics of abuse—that love/hate, life/death, symbiotic/parasitic framework—and there is heart-in-throat suspensefulness. A beautiful and beautifully written book about entering adulthood too soon, with all of the implications about survival and protection and decision-making that implies. I hope it’s huge.

second most nearly: My first Allegra Goodman novel, The Chalk Artist. I still really want to read Intuition and The Cookbook Collector, since I love the promise of a novelist whose work fuses an interest in technological advances with a clear dedication to artistic creativity and (at least in this book) the written word. The problem with this was the prose, which was the sort I once heard described as “medium-roast”, and the level of melodrama reached the ridiculous about halfway through and didn’t abate. If I didn’t already know I want to read her early work, this might have put me off permanently.

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party I was late to: The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley’s Costa-winning novel from last year. It’s a good creepy Gothic, suffused with the awfulness of mid-century middle-class Catholics (the narrator’s mother is obsessed with “curing” her mute, disabled elder son Hanny) and with bleak seashore menace, and with potential satanism. I have to confess it left me a little cold, though; that melodrama, again, was too strong, and the pacing of the dénouement, the revelation of horror, felt rushed and diluted. I did read it very quickly, which probably didn’t help.

warm bath book: An odd category for this, but Nicholas Hytner’s memoir of his time at the National Theatre, Balancing Acts, was immensely soothing. He writes with intelligence and style and deep understanding about the text and subtext of plays, and he’s wonderfully witty on actors and directors too, without making the inevitable name-dropping appear too self-satisfied. (I love the way he introduces Ben Whishaw, whom he first sees as a minor character in the initially disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.) And Hytner on Shakespeare is superb; the book is worth its price for the sections on Othello, Hamlet and Much Ado alone.

most fun to argue with: Tracy Chevalier’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare novelisation series, New Boy, her take on Othello. The choices she makes about how to approach and modernise the story seem to me superficial; I don’t believe that she sat down with the play and thought deeply enough about character or motivation, or perhaps she did but wanted something that would hit all the notes a casual reader might remember from doing the play at A-Level thirty years ago. If you ignore the question of whether the book as it’s framed has any merit as a response to Shakespeare’s ideas, it’s a clean and stylish piece of work, but I’m not sure that’s enough. (review)

most apt timing: A new debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, called What We Lose, of which I got a proof copy from work. It’s written with such urgency and clarity that it feels like a memoir, and it is all about loss – of parents, of lovers, of friendships – and displacement: what does it feel like to be neither South African nor American, neither white nor black? Short, fragmentary and strangely soothing; it’s out in July and I really recommend it.

up next: I’m reading Francesca Segal’s new novel, The Awkward Age, about a blended Anglo-American family whose teenagers seem to hate each other, and so far it’s wonderful: funny, observant, with wonderful casual descriptions of people and places.

January Superlatives

For the first time ever, I have signed up to a year-long Goodreads Reading Challenge. Don’t ask me why. My target is 150 books, which should be achievable since I read 141 last year (possibly my highest total since records began back in 2007). This month I read 17, which, Goodreads informs me, puts me 5 books ahead of schedule. Thank goodness their algorithms are keeping track of the maths for that, because I wouldn’t know how.

best short story collection: Virgin by April Ayers Lawson is an extremely technically impressive collection; she’s one of those young American writers whose prose is planed smooth and wouldn’t look out of place in The New Yorker. I can’t say that this collection moved me very deeply, but that’s not always a bad thing. Her take on fundamentalism and sexual awakening is interesting and well worth the read.

best comfort rereads: Split, this one, between Tana French’s Broken Harbour and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I’m now leaning on French’s murder mysteries for mental distraction in busy times; Broken Harbour focuses on the murder of almost an entire family in an Irish ghost estate, one of those places that was half-built during the Celtic Tiger boom and then abandoned by the contractors during the recession. It’s terrific, and terrifying, on the psychology of being broke and jobless. I Capture the Castle probably needs no introduction; I read it after a week of consuming media mostly about death and torment, longing for comfort and uplift. It delivered, as it always does.

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best tragedy: His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It’s full of horrible petty officials oppressing hardworking Scottish crofters, and unreliable narration, and raped sisters, and dead sheep, in a way that recalls Britain’s seemingly unshakable love of the historical costume drama. However, it’s all done with an extremely skillful voice. I can entirely see how this swayed the Booker Prize jury, and why it’s been the best-selling of last year’s shortlist.

best state-of-the-nation novel: Laura Kaye’s terrific debut, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman whose experience working for a rich but struggling English couple reveals the prejudices of this country with wondrous slyness. Appropriate post-Brexit, but full of truths that apply not just to this immediate moment, but to English culture throughout the ages.

party I was late to: How had I not read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s collaboration, Good Omens, until now? It’s a wonderful, hilarious, generous novel about the Antichrist (as you would expect), featuring a no-nonsense witch named Anathema Device, a Satanic Nun of the Chattering Order of St Beryl (who later becomes a businesswoman running corporate management courses), a Witchfinder named Newton Pulsifer, and a demon/angel duo who don’t actually want the world to end at all. Its cult status is fully deserved, and I loved it.

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best escapism: You’d think this would be one of my comfort rereads, but no! This month I read volume 1 of Brian Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’s graphic novel Saga. It starts with a childbirth scene. The cover features a breastfeeding woman. There is an interracial couple from opposite sides of a galactic war. There is a sarcastic teenage ghost and a spider-lady assassin and an animal called Lying Cat (which I particularly like; it’s blue and has pointy ears and croaks the word “LYING” whenever anyone tries to fib in its vicinity.) I can’t wait to order volume 2.

best city novel: Chibundu Onuzo’s second novel, Welcome to Lagos. It follows a group of unlikely comrades—from two soldiers who reject their colonel’s acts of cruelty in the Nigerian Delta, to a runaway middle-class wife, to a chancing teenager with radio dreams named Fineboy—as they try to live without money, papers or qualifications in a city that chews people up and spits them out. There’s a political plot, too, but I thought it was most effective in its portrait of how ordinary people build trust between themselves.

Annual Winter Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, which I somehow managed to escape secondary school without ever having read. More interesting, I think, for its dissection of how revolutionary fervour can turn into a massacre of the innocent than for its nominal plot (noble self-sacrifice tugs my heartstrings well enough, but I resent it).

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best intellectual romp: Joanna Kavenna’s bizarre, inventive, beautiful novel A Field Guide to Reality. Set in a sort of otherworldly Oxford (where there are still waitresses and the Cowley Road, but the colleges are named things like Pie Hall and Nightingale Hall and there’s a Unicorn Street), it shifts between the thirteenth century and the present day, and deals with ideas about light and optics, perception, grief, and the nature of reality. It handles huge questions with a kind of boundless, sarcastic creativity that I really enjoyed. It also contains gorgeous illustrations by Olly Ralfe. Highly recommended, especially if you like slightly weird shit.

best anti-Tr*mp reading: The Good Immigrant, a crowdfunded collection of essays about the experience of being an ethnic minority in Britain. This is one of those books that makes you more aware of things: the way you look at people in public, the way you hold your body on the train or the words you use to friends and coworkers, and the consequences those actions might have. Some of the essays are more creative and interesting than others, and there are a few that felt theoretical in a way detrimental to engaging with them, but I’m happy to admit that this may be my problem.

best “commercial” read: Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars, which doesn’t do much with its sci-fi window dressing but which does tell a touching love story, and might very well get readers who wouldn’t normally be keen on genre more interested.

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induced worst case of location envy: The Enchanted April, obviously. I’d seen the film (it’s one of my mum’s favourites) but not read the Elizabeth von Arnim novel it’s based on until now. It follows four Edwardian women, each unhappy in their own way, who together rent an Italian castle for a month, and the ways in which sunshine and liberty change their lives. You might be thinking of it as an early Eat Pray Love, but it’s much less solipsistic, and much more charming. The garden descriptions are sublime.

most nightmarish: Julia Scheeres’s memoir of child religious, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, Jesus Land. It is unrelenting. I had several problems with it, one of which was the way she recounts experience at the expense of analysis (ask me about this if you’re not sure what I mean; explaining would take a while) and another of which was the way that she keeps foregrounding her own experience while maintaining that this is really a book about her adopted black brother David. Still. Oof.

categorically, not-a-shadow-of-a-doubt, best fucking book this month: The Underground Railroad. Y’all will know about this by now: Oprah loves it, Obama loves it, it won the National Book Award. If I know some of you, you’ll be avoiding it purely because of the attention it’s been getting. Don’t do that with this book. Do it with all the others, but not with this one. It’s too good, too heartbreaking, too well constructed, too evocative and simultaneously subtle and clear, too much of a body slam, too likely to make you think deeply and for long about why America’s present looks as it does, for you to put it off. It’s that rare thing, a novel that both invests you in its characters and story and effortlessly incorporates wider thematic concerns. I can barely talk about it without worrying that I’m not doing it justice. Just read it, for heaven’s sake.

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most disproportionately affecting: First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Telling the story of a walking-on-eggshells marriage and glancing back at wife Neve’s childhood and early adult life, it’s one of those books that doesn’t have a clear-cut moral, but which simply provides a kind of snapshot. I ended up mentally turning it over and over, finding each time that I understood more about the characters and their decisions. It’s an extremely insightful novel.

best murder mystery: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel The Pledge is being republished by Pushkin Vertigo next month. I’m also reviewing it for Shiny, so I won’t say too much here – just that the story of Inspector Matthäi’s doomed obsession with the murderer of schoolchild Gritli Moser is exactly as calculated an affront to the conventions of the detective novel as the publicity material says.

up next: A couple of proof copies for February remain to be read: Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, about a middle-aged woman learning to drive, and Rick Bass’s collected stories, For A Little While. I also REALLY want to read some of the books longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize (for best book by a BAME author in the UK), and am looking forward to picking my first!

Hold Back the Stars, by Katie Khan

“It’s not your job to save me.”

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When I was little, I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but my best friend Kendall wanted to be an astronaut. Even at seven, I knew the Best Friend Rules—you support and encourage at all times. She’d talk about going into space, and I’d nod along, but there was a constant undercurrent of fear that I couldn’t shake or share with her: I was terrified she would die there. I’d never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I had read the Tintin book Explorers on the Moon, and I remembered the bit where one character, a stowaway on a rocket ship, sacrifices himself by stepping out into space when it becomes clear there isn’t enough oxygen for everyone else. Nothing—not monsters under the bed, not Voldemort or Sauron or the White Witch—was as frightening to me as the thought of dying alone in an infinite darkness, floating thousands of miles from Earth and light and love, suffocating slowly.

Hold Back the Stars is about that. As the book opens, Carys and Max are free-falling through space. Their severely damaged ship, the Laertes, is behind them and receding every minute. And every minute counts: they have ninety left in their oxygen tanks. After that, if they can’t get back to the ship or get the AI to direct a satellite drone their way, they will suffocate.

Most of the story is told in flashbacks, showing us how Carys and Max came to know each other and to fall in love. Their world, the back cover of my proof says, is one “where love is banned”, which isn’t strictly true but is close enough for marketing copy. Katie Khan has created a near-future, semi-familiar world, suffering from nuclear fallout as the result of a war between the US and “the Middle East” (never clear which bit). Europe has become Europia, a collection of regions known as Voivodes through which citizens are shuffled every three years in a programme called Rotation. It’s meant to discourage individuals from becoming overly attached to one place; how better to combat xenophobia, jingoism and the various dangers of nationalistic pride than to make sure that everyone is from everywhere, or nowhere?

The catch is the Couples Rule, which stipulates that no one can enter a marriage or a civil partnership—preferably not even a serious relationship—before the age of thirty-five. Carys and Max are in their mid-twenties when they meet each other. (It’s a technological meet-cute, wherein she asks the MindShare [which does what it says on the tin] where to get hold of goose fat to roast potatoes; he answers; they flirt in multiple languages and eventually bump into each other in meatspace.) It’s not the smoothest of romances: Max is from one of the founding familes of Europia, people who believe firmly in the rightness of the rules, and Carys wants a demonstration of commitment that he finds hard to give. Eventually, however, wanting to prove his love for her, he not only introduces her to his parents, but asks the Europian government for an exemption to the Couples Rule. The legislature agrees to give the pair a trial run as a couple, but not within Europia; instead, they’re “volunteered” for a space mission to try and find a navigable route through the asteroid field that has inexplicably surrounded Earth since about the time of the nuclear war.

Hold Back the Stars, you will probably have gathered by now, is a kind of sci-fi-lite. All of the trappings are there: global political catastrophe, new world order, environmental changes, altered names for familiar objects or phenomena, increased levels of domestic technology, grand and impersonal government. It is, at least, an actual dystopia. I get very fatigued when people throw the word around imprecisely, but in the case of this novel it’s almost too apt: the population of Europia believe themselves to be living in the best of all possible systems on the benighted Earth (they’ve even incorporated the word “utopia” into their new name), but it doesn’t work for everyone, and isn’t as impartial it seems. However, if you’ve read more than even the tiniest smattering of mildly speculative fiction, or seen more than three episodes of Doctor Who, you will probably find the book’s atmosphere a bit dull. The MindShare, for instance, is not what you’d call a groundbreaking concept. Nor are the Wall Rivers, indoor text and video feeds that echo ideas found everywhere in the genre, from Fahrenheit 451 to the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits”. (Also, Khan’s description of the Europian government’s debating chamber reminded me so strongly of the way the Galactic Senate is portrayed in Star Wars: Episode II that I almost giggled.) It’s not that searing originality is the most important thing; I’m not demanding that everyone be a Joanna Russ or a China Miéville. It’s just that if you’re going to use building blocks that lots of other people have used before you, it would be nice to at least give them a fresh coat of paint. <eyes strained metaphor; abandons it>

Anyway, the sci-fi is lite because Hold Back the Stars isn’t all that interested in its own theoretical implications; it’s much more interested in being a love story, and in this it succeeds. Carys and Max are irritating but fundamentally likeable people; they fuck up because of relatable human things like pride, fear, loyalty to family. They’re not deeply characterised, but they are at least clearly so: Carys does things we recognise as being Carys-like, Max does very different things that are classic Max. And as Khan carries her story along, we see the value of this, because of the nature of the plot twist.

Actually, there are two. The end of part one seems to answer the question of what will happen to them as they fall through space, and the reader, saddened and bewildered, reads on to discover the repercussions of their actions in later years. Until a point at which that answer is suddenly shown to be malleable: a different ending could happen, and then the future would look like this. Or…another possibility altogether.

I like the options that are revealed to us; I like that they are revealed in the first place, that Khan is open-ended and open-handed with her characters’ fates. I like somewhat less the fact that the device enabling these twists is never explained or even hinted at. Is there reincarnation? Time travel? Are these parallel universes? Are we, at any point, simply inside someone’s head, and if so, whose? It seems odd, in a book that adopts a speculative or science fiction-y air, to completely ignore this. Unless the point is a meta one (any ending is possible because all is invented), but if so, the book doesn’t draw attention to its own fictionality in its earlier stages, so it’s a bit sudden.

Hold Back the Stars is an evocative, solidly written love story hung on a futuristic framework. The hook is terrific—the opening pages absolutely dare you not to read on—and it’s easy to become invested in what happens next. I probably won’t reach for it again; I’m not its ideal reader. But if you’re looking for an absorbing, fast-paced, and rather charming love story, pick it up. You’ll have a hard time putting it back down.

Many many thanks to the publicity folks at Doubleday for my review copy. Hold Back the Stars is published in the UK on 26 January.

The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson

The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.

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Further to my plan to read everything Neal Stephenson has ever written, the Chaos, who is a good sort, bought me The Diamond Age for Christmas. Like all of Stephenson’s books I’ve read so far, I found it thoroughly addictive, so much so that I blasted through it in under two days. As I go further into his back catalogue, though, and approach his plots with a slightly more critical eye, I’m also discovering that his earlier work tends to suffer from structural weakness. He gets away with it because his invention is explosive and boundless and entirely seductive; the reader is swept up in a world they don’t want to leave, and so the fact that the whole narrative is curiously lopsided doesn’t matter. But it’ll leave the book vulnerable on rereading.

The Diamond Age is set in a near-future made possible by huge leaps in nanotechnological development. Nation-states are obsolete; people now select their own tribe (or join a “phyle”, a slightly less centralised version thereof). Some of them are familiar: the Jews, the Parsis, the Zulus. Some of them are less so: most of England has become neo-Victorian, while America includes a tribe known as the Heartlanders and China is divided into the Celestial Kingdom and the Coastal Republic. Body modification is most commonly practiced through the use of “sites”, nanobots introduced into the bloodstream that can enhance reflexes, incite pain or pleasure, interface with other objects like spectacles or external weaponry, and much more.

Our heroine is little Nell, a “thete” girl who belongs to no particular tribe and into whose hands falls a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. The Primer is an interactive (or “ractive”) book, programmed with both fairytales and useful instruction, that changes and adapts according to Nell’s responses. It has been designed by John Percival Hackworth, a programmer or “artifex” of great skill, and commissioned by the neo-Victorian Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw. Lord Finkle-McGraw has worked out the fundamental problem with choosing your own tribe: your children will grow up in a society that seems “natural” to them because it is familiar, and will stay in it out of habit, not out of choice. Finkle-McGraw believes, of course, that to be neo-Victorian is the best choice, but he wants his little granddaughter Elizabeth to be raised and educated in such a way that she has the skills and knowledge, eventually, to make that choice. Hackworth is only too happy to build such an education in the form of the Primer, but he makes an illegal copy for his daughter Fiona. And another copy is stolen by Nell’s ne’er-do-well brother, Harv, and finds its way to her…

Add to this heady mix some subplots involving Confucian justice as administered by an inscrutable judge named Fang, a rebellion being led by the Fists of Righteous Harmony and puppeteered by the mysterious Doctor X, and the ractress Miranda Redpath, who, as the voice of Nell’s copy of the Primer, develops a close relationship with this little girl she has never met, and you have some downright addictive stuff. Stephenson’s trademark dry wit is here (I imagine his prose is talking to me with one of its eyebrows lightly arched at all times), as is his entirely unashamed approach to cliffhangers and to proliferating narrative streams. It all makes it very hard to put the book down.

Eventually this becomes a bit of a problem because it also poses a challenge to anyone trying to make the book cohere in their head. About halfway through—roughly, I would say, at the point at which Nell joins Madame Ping’s, though actually I think it starts happening when Hackworth emerges from his ten-year sentence in the realm of the Drummers—the focus of the story shifts from the personal to the political. Technically, I suppose, you could argue that the story has always been political—that the whole thing has been catalysed by Finkle-McGraw’s bid to mass-inculcate subversiveness in the young—but our focus up until now has been on individuals, in whom we have become invested. To see them so suddenly yanked out of one context and thrust into another, and then the battle scenes that follow, is disorienting in the extreme. And, I’m sorry, but I am not satisfied with the ending. It doesn’t need much, maybe another five pages, but I would really have liked those five extra pages.

The star of this book, though, is definitely the Primer. What a wonderful invention; what a beautiful piece of symbolism, using and enriching the trope of a lost child finding solace in books. The Primer isn’t just something you read. It talks back to you; it uses the events of your life as a springboard for the lessons you need to learn; it can zoom in and out on images and stories, showing you both fine detail and the big picture. It contains blueprints, manuals, tales, keys, maps. Had I read The Diamond Age fifteen years ago, I’d have pined away for a Primer of my own. If you love books, you’ll probably love this one just for the way it literalises and takes seriously the deep truth that readers know: a book really can be your best friend.

The Diamond Age is published by Penguin Books.

A Book Haul!

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I don’t often post book hauls because, well, I don’t know. Because it feels vaguely masturbatory? Because they’re nice to look at, sure, but the point is to read them? Because I get the vast majority of my books through publishers or through other people’s kindness, instead of through shopping sprees? Possibly some part of all the above. There are some habits that die hard, though, one of which is the inclination to read around the subject with which I was inoculated just before university. Starting work in a new industry sent me scurrying instantly for research reading. Amazingly, I found a lot of food/cooking/hospitality memoirs for about a penny each secondhand, plus two others which are relevant to that recent talk at the Southbank Centre…

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Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl. I read this years ago, during high school, when I worked at New Dominion Bookshop in my hometown. It’s an account of the disguises—wigs, wardrobe, makeup and all—that Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic, adopted when visiting restaurants in order not to be given “special treatment”. She finds that her different characters have different personalities, too, but the psychological insights (although pretty good) aren’t my favourite part. That would be the reviews: Reichl dissects pretension and hypocrisy with verve, and hands out approving write-ups to small, unfashionable restaurants where the chefs are passionate about their craft. I wish every food critic was like her.

Waiter Rant. This, too, came into my life via the food memoir shelves at New Dominion. I remember very little of it, except for the way it casts a blinding, sarcastic light upon the business of waiting tables. Since that is now my occupation, it seemed due a reread.

Blood, Bones and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton. I know nothing about this, except that it is apparently the best memoir by a chef ever written. Since chefs are, to me, mostly enigmatic and mercurial beasts, reading this is probably, at least on a practical level, a wise move. (Also, no doubt, Kitchen Confidential, but we’ll save that for later.)

Heads in Beds, by Jacob Tomsky. Like Waiter Rant, but for hotels. The relevance of this is that, before getting the pub job, I signed up with an agency that provides contracted workers to hotels for both front-and back-of-house work. The training day, plus a couple of episodes of Hotel Babylon, made the whole hospitality enterprise feel a bit like The West Wing, only less morally defensible.

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UFO In Her Eyes, by Xiaolu Guo. This was the book that Guo talked about most during the Southbank Centre event. She wanted to write it in English, but, because her English was limited, she chose to write the whole thing as a police interview transcript: no flowery language, no poetic turns, just terse narrative prose. It’s about a woman in rural southern China who becomes convinced she’s seen a UFO outside the village, but there’s a whole kettle of political allegory just under the surface.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo. Maybe Guo’s best-known work in the UK; it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, back when Orange was still the sponsor. It follows a young Chinese immigrant to Britain and her love affair—start to inevitable end—with an English man. I’ve read the first few pages and I’m already in; the English of the narrator is so perfectly broken, it’s like you can hear her in your head.

Anyone read any of these, want to offer advice on where to start, or know any other food memoirs/Chinese sci-fi I should check out?