Archive for ‘Books read in 2018’

October 3, 2018

July, August, September Reading

It has been Several Months since I posted a reading list (or posted anything at all); and there’s been very little to say. I read very slowly this summer, but I did do some good work, spent lots of time walking around Newcastle and saying goodbye to it, was officially awarded my PhD, and organised yet another intercontinental house move.

Lots of the things included in the list below are things I read several weeks ago, and so I’ve not got a lot to say about them. One book in particular seems to have provoked a longer rant, so I’ve left it till the end. Anyway, here’s what I read over the summer.

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Robin Stevens, The Case of the Missing Treasure: I was a bit nervous about this book, with a very Egyptian sarcophagus on the cover. I have Views on Egyptian (and other African and Asian etc) artefacts in European museums, and while I don’t expect characters in 1930s settings to wholly subscribe to them, I’m rarely in the mood for the sort of entitlement that characterises British responses to these artefacts. In the event this short story was not as radical as I’d have loved it to be, it does manage to weave a great deal of discomfort with the museum into the narrative–through George’s moral clarity (I love him so dearly) and even more effectively, through Daisy’s uncertainty.

 

Gabrielle Kent and Rex Crowle, Knights And Bikes: Going in I knew almost nothing about this book; I don’t tend to pay much attention to games (this is set in the same world as a forthcoming one), and only gathered from the cover that it was about two kids with bikes. The knights/quest narrative I’d rather assumed to be something along the lines of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights–more a product of the characters’ imaginations than an Actual Supernatural Adventure. I was wrong about this; this is absolutely the sort of local fantasy quest that I read as a small child, castles rise from the sea, statues come to life, and so forth. More importantly, there’s treasure, formed of Crusaders’ loot, and it becomes essential to the book that that treasure be returned to the places from where it was stolen. Combined with the Stevens story above, and Emma Carroll’s Secrets of a Sun King, which I’m currently reading, it feels like there’s a lot to say about writers responding to current critiques of the imperial museum and yet attempting to still write familiar forms of story. I’m not sure if I’m the person who’s going to write it–at the moment it feels a little too intertwined with arguments I’m making throughout my PhD, but I’m hoping to find a way.

 

Katie Tsang and Kevin Tsang, Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts and Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Sharks: Breezed through these during a long-haul flight, and thoroughly enjoyed them, though my enduring memory is a sort of uncomfortable awe that Sam, who is (like me) afraid of snakes, is keeping one *in his house* where it can sometimes escape.

 

O. Douglas, Eliza for Common: As I’ve said on here before, I really like O. Douglas for a very particular sort of mood and character-observation. This was one of the major books by her that I hadn’t read, and it’s great for a really clear, sympathetic depiction of adolescent … self-fashioning, for want of a less good phrase; the forming of Good Taste (and so often in these gently middle-class books good taste is treated as inherent and genetic; to see it as a construct here is rather nice), the appropriate short form of one’s own name; the right level of cosmopolitanism. For that, and for a sudden, painful moment towards the end of the book that felt very familiar at the time, I’m very glad I read it.

 

Nadia Shireen, Billy and the Beast: A very classic picture book plot–intrepid small child outwits and defeats monster–and it’s adorable. The cat, who is fat (and called fat cat), has the grumpiest little face, Billy’s big, curly hair means that she can hide useful tools in it, the hedgehog is reading a classic penguin paperback. This will probably be the book that multiple friends’ small children are given this year, and I think they’re going to love it.

 

Malala Yousafzai and Kerascoet, Malala’s Magic Pencil: This was on of the books on the Little Rebels shortlist, which was my main reason for reading it. I … wasn’t a huge fan; I think it needed to be either an explanation of Malala’s activism and shooting or a book that took our knowledge of that context for granted, because the magic pencil itself gets rather lost. The Kerascoët illustrations are very good, though.

 

Birdie Milano, Boy Meets Hamster: This has been a nice summer for the teenage romcom– I enjoyed Love, Simon and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and (bookswise) Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat. Boy Meets Hamster fit in very well with this general mood; gay romance set in a rainy caravan park and featuring an alarming hamster mascot. It’s at its least convincing when its protagonist is smitten with the horrible boy next door–if the book is from Dylan’s perspective, surely his horribleness shouldn’t be this obvious to us? I would still watch the cute netflix film of it though.

 

Smriti Prasadam-Halls and Jonathan Woodward, The Ways of the Wolf: As some of you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about children’s nonfiction over the last couple of years, and particularly about nature-related nonfiction. Woodward’s art here is beautiful, Prasadam-Halls’ prose is lyrical, for a format that’s of necessity sparse. I rolled my eyes quite a lot at the reference to Native American stories about wolves–instead of being included in the other myths and folktales about wolves, this was is part of a double-spread titled “Friends of the Wolf” where the “friends” were black-winged ravens and Native Americans (which Native Americans?). Besides this, I did like a lot about the book–when dealing with animals, it’s substantial and beautifully made.

 

Margaret Biggs, Christmas Term at Vernley: Team who are bad at stuff make good is another classic plot, especially within the school story (as I wrote this, I had to go and reread Wodehouse’s The Head of Kay’s), and the sports film. A favourite iteration of this is Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Pony Club Cup; the Woodbury Pony Club triumphs, sort of, but they and their ponies never cease to be a bit of a mess. Christmas Term at Vernley straddles this comic tradition and a more straightfaced “for the sake of the school” narrative, but falls mostly on the comic side–it’s set in a school where there are only two houses and one is better at everything. The head of the other house is challenged to reform her half of the school, and sets about this with the dubiously-useful aid of an eager little sister. The younger girls evolve series of grand plans that go wrong; the elder girls quietly make friends. This is the first thing by Biggs that I’ve read (it’s a standalone book and I didn’t want to start collecting a new series); it’s good enough that I might have to look into her Melling books.

 

Tamora Pierce, Tempests and Slaughter: I’m not sure the Tortall books were ever going to survive rereading by an adult. (Except the Keladry books, because those are good.) Pierce is such a formative writer for so many fantasy-reading women of my generation–she’s where many of us saw women having periods and casualish sex for the first time in the genre, she’s good at stubborn girls with magic (or without) and their rather daunting destinies. The Tortall (and surrounding countries) books are less good, and less interesting on things like race and empire–Tortall itself is just another fantasy medieval western European nation, and its main social difficulties seem largely solvable by having a sufficiently progressive monarch. (The Keladry books point out many of the limitations of this, but settle for a sort of patient centrism that insists that you read it as pragmatic.)

Non-white cultures occasionally appear–the Carthaki empire that is inhabited by black- and brown-skinned people, is a centre of learning and does slavery; the Yamani who have enigmatic poetry, tea ceremonies and martial arts and who train themselves out of facial expressions; the nomadic tent-dwelling Bazhir tribes, etc; there are flashes of interest with some of these, so perhaps I’m being unfair in reducing them to their stereotypes, but the books make it very easy to and that’s telling. In the Trickster duology, there’s a promising set up involving an island nation to the west colonised by (white) Easterners where the slave trade and a form of plantation slavery are practised. The duology documents the overthrow of the white colonising class and the establishment of a multiracial queen whose blood is sufficiently noble under both traditions. Even here, though, the books are unable to not make the story that of a white Tortallan girl, Alanna’s daughter. It’s not that the Copper Islanders have no agency, it’s that the books are unwilling or unable to wholly hand us over to them–Tortallan values, and Tortallan perspective must be present, must be nuanced.

And so to Tempests and Slaughter, a prequel to Pierce’s Immortals tetralogy, and providing backstory for that series’s beloved Numair Salmalin. Numair’s childhood was spent in Carthak; and Pierce’s portrayal of that empire in the earlier books is rather jarring and continues to be so here. We have the oriental despots with their dependence on overornamentation and slavery, the virtuous hero who, the book is careful to inform us, is not really from here–his family are from the north (this also serves as a hint that he’s white) and so even growing up in a society where slavery is normal and uncommented upon has not encroached upon his innate love of Freedom. It’s not clear to me why this is better than, say, The Horse and his Boy.

There are other issues. This is primarily a book about magic school and I love magic school as  a genre. There are inter-student politics, intense boarding school friendships, and even a hint of the animal-transformations-as-education of T.H. White. But in all of this the book is hamstrung by the worst sort of prequelitis. The later books have already determined what aspects of Numair’s past are going to matter when he’s an adult, and so this book is determined that we get all of them. He was friends with Ozorne when they were children? Now they must be intensely involved best friends. He had a girlfriend at some point? Now he must have been in love with her from childhood. In adulthood he’s friends with a man who’d escaped slavery? Then the enslaved man he befriends in his youth obviously must be the same man. It’s stifling. This focus on the characters’ futures also means that the book’s relationships are only effective if the reader already has all the context of the later books–which seems a weird choice, given that the Immortals books were published in the early 90s. This reads like nothing more than a litany of complaints, but it just doesn’t work, and I retain enough fondness for these characters that I wanted it to.

 

July 4, 2018

June Reading

Almost all of the things I read this month were children’s books (the Carnegie and Little Rebels prize shortlists both contributed to this), and a couple of things I had to stop reading, like Emma Glass’s Peach (I will go back to this, but … not yet, I think), but it was still a better month for reading than I’ve grown to expect over the last couple of years.

 

Henry Lien, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword: I’m writing a longer review of this for Strange Horizons, so expect to see it there soon. But: this was a lot of fun. Since I read it I’ve been reading Lien’s other stories set in this world, which add a further layer of complexity, but it works very well as a standalone piece, as a fantasy school story, as an increasingly complex middle-grade novel. I liked it a lot, basically.

Elys Dolan, Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory: I didn’t have time to read all of the Little Rebels shortlist this year, but I picked up a few of the books that were on it anyway. This is a picturebook about labour rights in a chocolate egg factory, where the workers are chickens. I’ll be writing about it at length, but as with other children’s books about labour rights, I was disappointed that it didn’t go far enough. No one seems to have the courage to depict the violent overthrow of the system, which is a shame.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Beautiful Ones: This is a historical romance, of the sort we’re all familiar with–awkward debutante, beautiful and sophisticated older woman, intriguing self-made man who has travelled to parts of the world that seem strange and exotic to his own people. It’s also a fantasy because of the setting–another world, but with fashions and social mores drawn from our own 19th century (Moreno-Garcia describes it as inspired by the Belle Époque)–and because some people in this world, including two of the protagonists, have telekinetic powers. The fantasy is perhaps the least interesting part of this story–it’s never very clear to me that the world is significantly altered by the presence of telekinesis, and all it does is give Antonina and Hector something in common; references to the larger, alternate geography are intriguing, but the plot doesn’t give us much opportunity to explore. I’m not sure that matters though, because the relationships do work. If this is a romance, it’s a conflicted one–do we accept Hector’s reform because Nina does? And what Hector feels for Nina may be very wonderful, but at some level the book knows it’s not the same thing as what he felt for Valerie and the difference may matter someday. There’s a yearny, bittersweet undertone to all of this; it’s a little bit Barbara Pym. Which is not a comparison I thought I’d be making when I started out. (The Les Liaisons Dangereuses comparison, which everyone has made, is also accurate.)

Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends: Several words on this (excellent) book here; it has since won the Carnegie medal.

Patrick Ness, Release: Several words on this book here.

Zanib Mian, The Muslims: This won the Little Rebels award, and I enjoyed it very much; I was interested particularly in how directly it addresses islamophobia and racism in the UK by building them into the book’s structure: the title, for example, is derived from a bigoted neighbour’s constant references to what sinister activities “the Muslims” are up to (she does learn to like them, but there’s a hint that her acceptance of these racially-other neighbours doesn’t extend to other communities). Since reading the book, I’ve also used it in a class (about antiracist activism, children’s literature, and illustrations) with some school students, who were intrigued by it. I’ll be writing about it separately soon.

Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, The Racial Imaginary: I was looking for a particular piece in this collection (it turned out to be one of Loffreda’s own entries), and ended up reading the whole thing, almost straight through, over a couple of days. It wasn’t the ideal way to read the collection, which I’d only dipped in and out of previously; but there are a few pieces in there (Bhanu Kapil!) that stood out to me despite my fire-hose approach to reading it.

 

June 3, 2018

May Reading

This is probably the most reading I’ve done in a single month this year; but then awards shortlists will do that to you.

 

Lauren Wolk, Beyond the Bright Sea: From the Carnegie shortlist, and written about in quite some detail here.

Anthony McGowan, Rook: This was also a book on the Carnegie shortlist, and I’ve discussed it in a bit more detail here.

Becky Albertalli, Leah on the Offbeat: This book was very nicely timed–it arrived shortly after I’d watched Love Simon, the film adaptation of Albertalli’s Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, to which this is a sequel. This also may have been why it was a bit of a disappointment to me–the movie really heightened the anticipation, and in the end, while I genuinely enjoyed this book, that was about it. Some of it was simply that I find it hard to read adults writing teenagers in fandom without cringing a little bit; but also it didn’t feel as knotty and interesting in its character work as Albertalli’s last book, The Upside of Unrequited. There are moments, however, that are genuinely wonderfully done–there’s a scene when Leah is buying a prom dress, finds one that actually fits her and that she likes herself in, comes out of the changing room, and has her otherwise lovely mother just be lukewarm all over it; and it’s so sharp and well-observed and you’re reminded of how good Albertalli can be. And I wish there’d been more queer romances starring fat bi girls when I was a teenager (or, indeed, now that I’m in my 30s).

Marcus Sedgwick, Saint Death: Also on the Carnegie shortlist (which is rather dominating my reading at the moment). Alas, I’m not a fan.

Rick Riordan, The Burning Maze: Someday I’d like to actually read Riordan’s books consecutively and with an actual recollection of the plot in the previous books–since the first Percy Jackson series I’ve been reading the Greek and Roman books as they came out, but because I’m extremely vague on plot and characters my investment in them is limited. I enjoyed this, like I’ve enjoyed all the others in the series so far, but (as with a Wes Anderson film, a comparison with Riordan that probably hasn’t been made before), a few hours after finishing I couldn’t tell you why.

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give: Also on the Carnegie shortlist. Further thoughts to come, but this is a very good book.

 

 

May 11, 2018

April Reading

Perhaps it’s time to accept that I’m only going to read two or three books a month, and stop trying to excuse it? Anyway.

 

Nisi Shawl, Everfair: Read as part of the book group/podcast I mentioned in last month’s reading round up–along with Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People and Samatar’s Winged Histories. All three books bounced off each other in ways that were genuinely productive and sometimes unexpected, and this one in particular satisfied my love of nineteenth century settings, and worlds that are big and rich and (politically, socially, ideaswise) interconnected. I did some inarticulate flailing to Jonah and Maureen, and that podcast will eventually be available for your consumption, but I’m a little bit in awe of this book, and the depth of knowledge and research (even if, as Maureen said, it wears that research lightly) and ambition it represents.

The other reason the book felt immediate and real to me was that I’ve spent a lot of the last few months thinking about activist movements and their dynamics–because of my current research, and the university strikes, and other movements elsewhere, as well as things I’ve been reading and watching. There’s a certain blend of hope and exhaustion and cynicism and utter despair that Shawl’s characters sometimes tap into and that is overwhelmingly familiar (one particular moment, towards the end of the book, utterly destroys me). It’s good, and you should read it, is my point here.

 

Lissa Evans, Wed Wabbit: I’ve decided to shadow the Carnegie shortlist again this year; partly because the medal has finally achieved a not-entirely-white shortlist, and partly for academic reasons. This was a book I knew very little about, I was really pleased to see a solidly middle-grade title on the list. Now that I’ve read it, I have a lot of thoughts about portal fantasies–to be revealed in a forthcoming post. I don’t know that I’d consider this one of the best children’s books published in the UK this year, but it is good.

 

Sharanya Manivannan, The High Priestess Never Marries: I’d had this for a year or so, and kept meaning to read it–I like some of Manivannan’s nonfiction, and this collection promised me mermaids and loosely connected short stories and characters who tell stories. It has all of those things, and yet I felt disappointed–I wanted to be more startled than I was by the people here; wanted them to be less same-y; wanted the prose to be … not less purple, necessarily (though tightly controlled prose will always be where my heart is), but purple in ways that wrongfooted me. The story about the red giraffes, however, was great.

 

April 2, 2018

February and March Reading

In February I travelled to America for a short visit, travelled to the UK to spend the next six months working on a project here, and spent a lot of time doing visa paperwork. In March, I flathunted, moved into my new place (I’m still in the process of settling in, and also have no internet at home), and began work. I ought to have read more over this period than I did, but well.

 

Robin Stevens, A Spoonful of Murder: I’ve been a bit nervous about this book. The pitfalls of writing a novel in which an aristocratic English girl visits a friend in 1930s Hong Kong are many and I’m invested enough in this series that I don’t want unpleasant feelings spoiling it for me. In the event, I can’t speak for the quality of its depiction of a city I’ve never been to (at a period I wasn’t alive), but it seemed to avoid the specific pitfalls that I’ve been used to looking out for. More importantly, the depiction of a relatively (or in Hazel’s case extremely) wealthy and privileged girl showing the place she’s grown up in to the British friend and being acutely aware of how certain things look from outside is an experience I can speak to, and here it feels real and nuanced. And the series continues to be wonderful at invoking complex, painful interpersonal relationships, and subjecting Hazel (who I love, and intensely want to protect) to various forms of emotional devastation.

 

John Agard, Book: I planned to read this a couple of years ago, when it was one of the only books on the Carnegie longlist by a BAME author (it did not make it to the shortlist, in common with all other books by BAME authors on Carnegie longlists since*). I wish I’d read it earlier, because it’s wonderful. A separate post to come; but I grew up reading good nonfiction as well as fiction, and it saddens me that I see less of it in bookshops (and even less on award shortlists etc) than I used to. This is the sort of thing I’d have loved as a child–its history of the book is as much an etymological history as anything else (this is where this book-related term comes from and this is why), it’s interspersed with quotations that open up such a wide and unexpected bibliography for a children’s book (just the thought of discovering Brecht when I’d been the target age for this book!); and while we get the North-Africa-Europe-Gutenberg version of book history, we get enough of the rest of the world that it becomes global and vital.

 

Misa Sugiura, It’s Not Like It’s a Secret: A YA novel involving a Japanese-American protagonist who moves from the Midwest to California and finds herself facing the possibility of a mostly-Asian friend group for the first time in her life, as well as coming to terms with her own queerness and falling in love with a Mexican-American girl. Meanwhile, her increasing knowledge of her father’s long-term affair with another woman, as well as her mother’s response to it, is another huge and complicated thing which she needs to assimilate. This is a teenage romance, and follows all the rules of that genre, and is in general very satisfying. But it’s also willing to be interested and complex about the ways in which power dynamics play out in multiracial groups,  families are complicated, and teenagers are genuinely really new to some of the big ideas they’re facing, and can be clever and well-meaning and clumsy and lacking in nuance at all at the same time. Though, as with Julie Buxbaum’s Tell Me Three Things, I could do with less adolescent thoughts on poetry; they remind me too much of my own youth and not in a good way.

 

Swapna Dutta, Juneli’s First Term, Juneli at Avila’s, An Exciting Term: This is a set of school stories written and serialised in the 70s and 80s, and set in a school in India. I’d heard of them before, but only recently realised that they were available as ebooks, and was intrigued enough to buy and read all three. A post to follow (I have many thoughts on genre and intertextuality and the school story and empire; who knew?), but I enjoyed these.

 

Ngaio Marsh, a whole bunch of three-in-one anthologies: In times of stress I turn to golden age crime, but had thus far never actually read any Ngaio Marsh. I therefore attempted to read ALL the Ngaio Marsh at one go. Still in the midst of this foolish enterprise, but I’m enjoying it very much.

 

*This year’s shortlist does at least recognise one black author, which feels like a huge improvement, but as Angie Thomas is American, and The Hate U Give had already been massively successful in the US, this inclusion doesn’t tell us much about improvements in the British children’s publishing world, or indeed the ability of the judges to recognise quality books without having the work already done for them …

February 13, 2018

January Reading

In January I packed up the entire last few years of my life, moved continents, did visa paperwork for a short trip to America, and drafted an article. I did not read many books, but honestly I’m impressed that I read any:

 

John Agard and Satoshi Kitamura, The Young Inferno: I’ve made some notes on this, and will be writing about it at greater length soon, probably. It’s a smart, and slyly clever retelling of Dante; the deviations in form make sense for several good reasons (especially the switch from Virgil to Aesop as a guide for a young boy); Kitamura’s art is always great.

 

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories: Reading A Stranger in Olondria a few years ago, I said (unoriginally, probably) that “stranger” was the important word–that this is, fundamentally, the story of an outsider to the fantastic word, and one whose relationship to that world has been mediated through text. This companion novel is almost the opposite of that one in that its protagonists are very much the insiders to this world–thought they’re all women, and forced to negotiate particular restrictions, not only have they grown up within reach of the Olondrian empire’s metropolitan centre, but three of the four women have been among or close to those who make the major decisions that shape this world. In a sense they’re even greater insiders to the narrative than if Samatar had decided to include a sort of Olondrian Man-on-the-Street; the rather confusing civil war that is the background to Jevick’s visit is of their making. Because it’s an insider’s perspective, this book widens and deepens what we know about Olondria’s internal functioning (and internal empire). Unsurprisingly, this is also a book about books–how texts live in the world, and how they live with one another.

I’ll be discussing this book, along with two others, with Maureen and Jonah, so less superficial thoughts to come.

 

Deepak Unnikrishnan, Temporary People: Also read for the above discussion, and because this is a book about which I was excited. A collection of short, fantastical stories set in the Gulf, usually among Malayali migrant workers, it’s necessarily a fragmented narrative–but one where the individual stories bounce off each other, and off what the reader already knows about this immigrant community, to gradually build up and layer a larger story. In its multilingualism and the sort of detached understanding of what narratives the reader already has access to as well as the stories it wants to tell, it reminds me a little of (the in all other ways completely different) Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. It’s good, it’s formally interesting, I’m glad it is winning prizes. (Am I allowed to quietly boast that I shared a TOC with Unnikrishnan once?)

 

Stephanie Burgis, Snowspelled: I started writing about this and it turned into a seperate post (or half of one; I’ve been lazy recently) so I guess that’ll be here soon? Spoiler alert: I’m being conflicted about regency romance again.