Archive for ‘Books read in 2018’

March 22, 2019

December Reading (and other 2018 book things)

Normally, at the beginning of January I’d publish a post (or two) talking about what I’d read in the previous month and looking back at my reading (and thinking) across the year as a whole. And here it is, and it’s most of the way into March, which is probably telling. Delhi had its one week of glorious spring and I think this is now summer.

I’m going to try something different in 2019, and not publish monthly (or bi- or tri-monthly, of late) lists but maintain one list for the end of the year (I do want to keep track, and publicly for some reason), and talk about books I actually want to talk about as they occur. (Given the frequency with which I’ve written here recently, I won’t vouch for how often that might be …)

Quite a lot happened in 2018; I moved to India For Good, moved back to the UK, moved back to India (For Good?); had a really cool job (if only it hadn’t been a 6 month contract…); had two horrific family bereavements that I’m still trying to get my head around. And yet in many ways, the whole year felt like it passed by in a blur of recovery from the previous few years–I’ve started new and exciting things, I’ve done some work I’m really proud of, and yet everything still feels like aftermath.


Anyway. Some stuff I read in December:

Anthony Berkeley, The Wychford Poisoning Case: When last heard of (November), I’d read Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d try one more in the series. It was very much what I’d expected from the first book, but I liked it less–the best characters in Chocolates are relatively minor ones, and the spreading around of perspective was much more appealing to me. I spent much of the book (spoiler alert?) yelling “has no one read Dorothy Sayers’s Strong Poison??!” before realising that no, they probably hadn’t (this was published a few years earlier) and concluding that everyone in the golden age was obsessed with arsenic eaters.


Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand: I’ve been looking forward to this, advertised as a Mughal-inspired epic fantasy. My Mughal history is pretty perfunctory–the CBSE syllabus from the late 90s and early 2000s, shored up by assorted snippets (and living in Delhi)–though even then I’m probably at an advantage over readers of this book who live in other parts of the world. As a result, it’s possible that I missed some of what made Suri’s world specifically Mughal, but the social structures felt true to most of what I know of medieval India generally. I struggled more with the disjointedness in my own head between djinn and (for want of a better phrase) magical Bharatnatyam.

That disconnect aside, I enjoyed this. Firstly because Empire of Sand takes on a fantasy trope that I love–magical contracts, and how you negotiate them. The protagonists have both inherited a supernatural trait by which promises or contracts made by them are seared into their skins and physically binding. Forced to swear allegiance to the Maha, a monstrous religious figure, they’re constantly looking for ways to work with those constraints while protecting each other and keeping a sort of faith with one another. This also feeds into a love I have for a particular fanfic trope, where plots are built to allow characters to precisely and tortuously map out their own boundaries in relation to each other, how consent works for them, etc. I think I might be too old to fully appreciate Suri’s sad, tortured hero, and I share Nibedita Sen’s questions here about gendered magic, which hopefully later books will clarify.


Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone: I’m still quite conflicted about how I feel about this book. Adeyemi’s prose is good, I’m enjoying the setting, and I’m genuinely looking forward to the next book, but I did often find myself frustrated with the structure. One of the inevitable consequences of dividing a narrative neatly between a set number of perspectives is that it implies a sort of equivalence in the weight afforded to each. Here, where one of the point of view characters is a member of an oppressed minority group, dragged unwittingly into a dangerous situation, the other two are from the powerful family who have participated enthusiastically in that oppression (even though they both have significant vulnerabilities to contend with), the result ends up feeling unbalanced. This is possibly enhanced because the book is so clear about how structured it is–two sets of siblings (both brother-sister pairings), each attracted to one (of the opposite gender) in the other set, point of view characters on either “side” of each conflict. Having said all of which, this giving us these particular points of view works exceptionally well towards the end, as one character we’ve been allowed to sympathise with and understand turns out to be too susceptible to the ideas he was raised with to change; it’s not a shocking twist, but it’s a very effective one.


Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater: As is probably clear from what I say above, I haven’t particularly enjoyed reading for most of the last year. Reading Freshwater at the end of December, I was honestly a bit shocked to realise that I was feeling energised and absorbed again. I’m not yet sure how to talk about this book usefully. I found that immersing myself in it worked wonderfully but has made it hard to think about in terms of actual words (and when I do I sound like a bad blurb–Did You Know this book is Rich, and Lyrical and Stylistically Daring?). Emezi’s on the Women’s Fiction Prize shortlist, which means that presumably a lot of people will be reading this book if they hadn’t already. I’m rather hoping that one of them will have the words. I can only say that it made me pace the room a lot.


Ram V, Dev Pramanik, Dearbhla Kelly and Aditya Bidikar, Paradiso Vol. 1: I was curious about this, as it’s been on some end of year lists; also because Bidikar’s an old friend and it’s just nice seeing him appreciated. I struggled a bit to get into this–there’s clearly some backstory and some worldbuilding that are going to become apparent as the series continues, but what I gathered of it all felt too much like other things I’d read before for it to strike me as a memorable thing in and of itself.


Some reading stats, as ever (disclaimers from previous years still apply): I read about 50 books, not counting (because I binged them over a couple of weeks, and am no longer sure which ones) some anthologies of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn stories–so the real number is probably closer to 60. 37 (ish) of the 50 were by authors who aren’t men (at least one’s nonbinary, and I don’t want to assume the others are all women). 28 were by authors who to my knowledge weren’t white, and as in previous years, I seem to have binge-read white women authors most–note that these stats do not even include the Ngaio Marsh binge.


And so on to 2019! She said, three months into 2019.

December 9, 2018

October and November Reading

Two months of books! Many of these were read on a week’s holiday in mid-October–I’ve struggled a bit to read since I came back to Delhi.


Onjali Q. Rauf, The Boy at the Back of the Class: I was a little nervous of this, as I am of much of the “children’s books about refugees” phenomenon that has become a thing of recent years; it’s understandable, and probably necessary, but raises so many questions about who it is being written about/for/by, and often fails to answer them. Rauf seems to answer those questions clearly–her narrator is a British child who doesn’t know much about refugees, and there’s an expectation of a reader who will learn at the same time; the back of the book contains various teaching materials as well. But Ahmet (the “boy” of the title) isn’t just a sad, silent presence in the book; he often actively participates in the telling of his story to the people he accepts as his friends. And the British characters have complicated family histories–the protagonist is mixed-race and has a grandmother who “ran away from the Nazis”. And it’s not a purely utilitarian “teaching” book; its genuinely funny, there’s material targeted at a more knowing reader (for example, a boy who keeps asking Ahmet if he’s actually the age he says he is; is he sure he’s not older?), and real skill in the way the narrative works to conceal the name and gender of its protagonist without drawing our attention to the fact that it’s doing so until close to the end–think The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler.

(More importantly?,) the book manages to treat racist immigration policy as policy,  not the unfortunate results of individual bad actors, tragic accidents, or people who Just Don’t Understand (though there are a few of those among the wider cast of characters). At one point the children contemplate writing to the Prime Minister for help, and one of them points out that “the Prime Minister was in charge of the government and had probably been the one who told the security guards to lock the gates and sent them her special keys.” It’s a bit of a shame that an appeal to the Queen ends up being part of the solution–Rauf leaves open the possibility that the massive PR campaign that the children unwittingly initiate may be what spurs her to help, but it’s hardly explicit and feels of a piece with British media’s weird habit of treating the royal family as somehow outside/innocent of politics and power. This affront to human dignity aside, The Boy at the Back of the Class is great at getting at the sheer, visceral horror of small, individual acts of racism (the school bully destroying the backpack that Ahmet has carried with him, even as he’s lost his parents and seen his sister and cat die) as well as big, structural ones (that closing the borders means separating traumatised children from their families is something that most adults know, and yet). It’s very good.


Esi Edugyan, Washington Black: I made copious notes on this book while I was reading it, and have thus far completely failed to turn them into any sort of coherent response. Reading over them now, though, what I kept coming back to was the centrality to the book of Titch, a white Englishman from the wealthy family that owns the plantation on which the title character, Washington, begins his life. Titch is the committed scientist who first interests Washington in the subject, and is also the first white person to treat him with some level of decency–but far, far from enough. I don’t think Edugyan ever falls into the trap of treating Titch like the Good White Character who appears in so many books about race in the 19th Century–and Washington’s aware that, e.g., “Once he’d finished his papers on aerostation and the treatment of slaves on Faith, I had lost some value for him. I had become, perhaps, too solid, too heavy, too real–an object to be got rid of”. And yet he’s so central, even in the large swathes of the book from which he’s absent–at one point in my notes there’s a plaintive “I wish this whole book weren’t a meditation on the morality of Titch”. In his post about the book, Dan Hartland also discusses Edugyan’s appearance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival where, he says, she described this as a “post-slavery” narrative. This feels crucial to me in reading the book, because one part of facing the history of slavery (and empire more generally, I think) in a post-slavery (however debatable that “post” is) is creating some sort of bearable narrative about the architects and beneficiaries of those systems, with whom one has to continue to share a world. Washington’s preoccupation with Titch makes a lot of sense in that context, as much as I’d love for him to just break free and have more flying machine or marine life adventures. I’m not happy about it (nor, understandably, is Washington’s partner Tanna), and yet some of the book’s most powerful moments are when Edugyan has Washington struggle with his feelings about Titch; the moments where he confronts him in words that he “could hear what a false picture they painted and also how they were painfully true”.


Robin Stevens, Death in the Spotlight: I had about a week of conversations with friends that just consisted of us yelling the word DAISY at each other and knowing exactly what we meant. DAISY. I think what has impressed me about this book, beyond imagining how I’d have felt about a tiny 1930s lesbian detective when I was a younger reader, is the fact that Stevens has managed to do this–have a character just say outright that she’s attracted to a girl (and not boys, never, why would you even)–and still retain something more delicate, a more ambiguous approach to feelings and sexuality. This probably requires more space and better thinking but: traditionally single-gender dominated genres like the school story (and the books in this series are sometimes school stories, but even when they’re not they’re stories about a girl writing about her adventures/relationship with another girl) are often read productively as queer because they’re so often about girls looking at and constantly thinking about other girls (or the equivalent, but boys). And I think there’s sometimes an assumption that their ambiguity (about whether that fascination between characters is gay) is a purely result of what could/couldn’t be printed/acknowledged in The Olden Days, and sometimes that’s true–in 2018 you’re still much more likely to get hate mail for writing the bland acknowledgement of a character’s queerness than you are for a long, fraught, yearny thing where no one actually says it out loud. It matters to me that I can read children’s books starring gay characters now, but in my heart I don’t want us to lose the other thing, the ambiguous yearny thing. And we’re lucky that there’s so much richness in Hazel and Daisy as characters, in Hazel’s looking at Daisy (through a lens that’s coloured by her own diffidence, her foreignness, her not-white-ness, her class position, as well as the fact that Daisy is fascinating) and Daisy’s looking at Hazel (in the short stories), so that here we can actually have both ways of talking about desire.

In unrelated observations about the book, I’m glad I had my Ngaio Marsh binge earlier this year; I felt very prepared for a theatre murder.


Mohsin Hamid, Exit West: I spent quite a lot of my thesis years thinking about portal fantasies and the ways in which they interacted with the spatial politics of the real world. So when Exit West came out I was both eager to read it and angry that I was expected to think about these things some more. When I started reading it, sometime in 2017, it became very clear to me that I didn’t want to at all. A year later, I really enjoyed this. Hamid isn’t an SF writer (except insofar as he has clearly written a book with an SFnal concept, which may be the only meaningful … anyway), and his interests in how the world responds to this book’s novum–that “doors” between random parts of the world may open up so that traditional methods of border control are increasingly unfeasible–don’t entirely fall in the places that mine would. But the later parts of the book in particular, when the world is being reconstructed to make room for its refugees, meant something to me; an active, constructive vision of the future that was a relief to read.


Nidhi Chanani, Pashmina: This is a YA graphic novel about an Indian-American girl named Pri (Priyanka), who lives with a mother who constantly evades questions about their family and their past. The discovery of an old pashmina shawl takes her into a fantasy world where she meets a peacock and an elephant and is introduced to an Incredible India! version of India; one that’s constantly disrupted by the shadow of something that wants to communicate with her (and that her two guides are very eager to dismiss). Simultaneously, she visits her family in the “real” India; learns some uncomfortable family history, and as the two storylines merge, something of the history of the shawl, and its connection to Shakti, whom her mother worships. So far this is a familiar enough genre–coming of age, family secrets, learning about one’s heritage, general feminism (there’s an all-women workers’ raid on a factory that pleased me very much). But it feels a little bitty–you can’t help feeling that with a slightly different structure the whole thing would feel more coherent than it does, would make its links more smoothly and without awkward exposition (such as Shakti explaining that “There is too much injustice,” and “That pashmina will allow women to see their choices”). I was thrown by the phrasing “Lord Shakti”, which I’ve never heard before, and couldn’t decide whether the book had chosen to deliberately not comment on the fact that Rohini, the original weaver of the shawl, is liberated from her factory job (as the target of what’s heavily implied to be a sexually abusive boss) by her dream of … working as a domestic worker for Pri’s great grandmother. On the other hand, I did appreciate Chanani’s choice not to do anything with Pri’s dislike of her uncle; a lot of writers wouldn’t have been able to resist resolving that plotline, however unlike the real world such a resolution would be. In short, my feelings were also bitty, and generally lukewarm.


Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (eds), The Djinn Falls in Love: Because I love her work, the moment I received a copy of this I jumped ahead to the Kuzhali Manickavel story (“How We Remember You”) and ended up not reading the rest. How that I’ve read the whole thing from beginning to end, I can also reveal that Saad Z. Hossain’s “Bring Your Own Spoon”, set in a future where the cooking and eating of real food is both radical and dangerous, is one of its highlights; the Kamila Shamsie story (“The Congregation”) has the feel of a very good myth. I can’t decide how I felt about Sami Shah’s “Reap”, a horror story told from the perspective of American drone operators surveilling a village in Pakistan, but whatever it was, I felt it viscerally. Some of the stories in here feel a bit gimmicky to me–for example the Claire North story is trying to imitate a particular style of storytelling but comes across as forced and a bit coy. But when this collection is good, it’s excellent–and I really want someone to write the essay on Manickavel and that one large family house that seems to keep recurring in her work.


Mahesh Rao, Polite Society: Emma in Delhi has already been done, in the film Aisha, which I’ve never seen but am obliged to disapprove of because when it came out people sang the title song at me a lot. I was excited about this book, because what I’d read of Rao in the past suggested that he’d be good at an Austenesque world–he’s both ruthless about people and extremely amused by them. That latter trait is necessary in Polite Society, because Delhi’s elite (I may be including myself here; my uncertainty about my position within this book’s social world added a lot to my reading*) are unspeakable. Unlike Austen, Rao isn’t able to feel affection for his interfering heroine, and that’s great, because she doesn’t deserve it. On the other hand, he’s able to be gentler (if not kind) to the more vulnerable figures in her orbit–and is never (overtly) cruel enough to the book’s Mr Knightley. I laughed a lot, recognised a lot of stock figures (and sometimes thought I’d recognised individuals); it was good.


Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kingdoms of Elfin: I bought Kingdoms of Elfin years ago, but my copy has been in storage (in a friend’s garage) for almost a year now. During that year I reread Hope Mirrlees, and read Jeannette Ng, and started work on a paper about England-Faerie international relations (there’s a new Zen Cho in a few months, which I expect to be of some relevance here), and not having access to this book felt like a real absence. Luckily, a new edition has just been published. I’m discussing the book in detail as part of a Strange Horizons book club, but as a preliminary comment, I’m very glad I had that recent Mirrlees read to ground this for me, tonally. I don’t know much about either writer’s life, but I assume they knew of each other, possibly knew each other.


Anthony Berkeley, The Poisoned Chocolates Box: I was listening to an episode of the Shedunnit podcast, about classic detective stories, and Berkeley’s name came up a few times. I’m not a golden age expert by any standard, but felt a bit odd that I’d read all the other people mentioned, if not extensively, but never any Berkeley. This is probably his most famous, and with its multiple solutions it doubles as a commentary on the genre in ways that I was very entertained by. Reading the introduction (by Martin Edwards–this edition was one of the British Library Crime Classics) afterwards I discovered that a character I’d been suspecting of all manner of things may have been based on E.M. Delafield, author of the wonderful Provincial Lady books; I’m finding it pleasing to believe that Delafield (gloriously, born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture– “de la field“, you see?) was this splendidly cold and cynical and diabolical in person.


*I watched Crazy Rich Asians with a friend a couple of months ago, and we found that watching it as relatively rich and highly privileged but-not-like-that Asians in an Asian capital city put us in an odd position as viewers. Polite Society had a little of that feel for me; even as I read and was amused by these ultra-privileged aliens I was furiously calculating my own place in their world.

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.



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.