World Book Day – January round-up

by Maria on March 5, 2020

OK it’s World Book Day and as it’s too depressing to work today because – freelance life – God knows when I’ll get paid for anything anyway, and it’s been raining for years, and I frankly have no idea what sort of blog-posts I’m supposed to or able to write these days (but word to the wise, all sarcastic, shitty, trolly or otherwise unpredictably dislikable comments that I won’t define but I know one when I see it will get zapped and their posters banned from here on in because I am DONE with this and I hope some of our lovely women commenters can come back but I completely understand if you, too, are DONE with this), I am going to do a round-up of books I read in January because that may be remotely of interest to some, and no, I will not be pressing the edit button, back button, etc. so this really, really just is what it is.

There are a lot of books because 1) post-Christmas reading days and 2) a holiday I took to beat the winter blues which clearly was worth every penny spent on it.

Rosewater, Tade Thompson, first of a trilogy
Aliens in near-future Nigeria, a new city and its politics built around them, psychic powers, traffic jams, necklacing, biological imperialism and a very good dog. Everyone in SF-world raved about this trilogy and I now see why. It’s fascinating, exciting, much of human life jammed in, funny, clear-eyed, terrific world-building and does so much with and to a well-worn premise that it is completely re-defined – kind of like the first time I heard Radiohead’s Pablo Honey I thrilled to each jewel in its treasure chest of influence, but the second time and ever after, all I heard was the band itself, almost sui generis. A sentence from Rosewater about the alien presence, Wormwood: “When Wormwood surges into awareness, we are unimpressed, even in our knowledge that it is the most significant event in Earth’s history. We’ve seen colonisers before, and they are similar, whether intercontinental or interplanetary.” Read it.

JY Hang, The Read Threads of Fortune
I’m all for the lyrical turn in SFF but found this a bit laboured to begin with, fantasy tropes scattered around like too many rose petals at a renewal of marital vows, but towards the end of this short and quite beautiful book, once I’d acclimated to the necessarily slow reading pace and paid attention to the slightly subversive plot beneath the plot, I really liked it. Gorgeous cover.

Candice Carty Williams, Queenie
Flawed heroines are now a thing but in a way that feels more owned by us than feisty ones ever did. Queenie is a black Brixton girl who’s funny, raw, self-destructive, ridiculously clever and just plain hurting, for good reason. I sometimes wanted to put a sisterly arm around this woman and mostly just wanted to listen to what she thinks about everything and everyone, and was frequently left gasping in stunned admiration of her. A character for the ages.

Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
I have, I suppose, a semi-professional interest in time travel stories and how different people pull them off, especially in that trope-ridden but rarely trope-acknowledging mangrove swamp where the sea of speculative fiction meets the boggy marsh of high concept literary fiction. (It’s probably time I knocked off these over-reaching metaphors. I have a job on at the moment where the actual gig is to think up better metaphors for a tech thing of long-standing, so naturally the analogies, metaphors and full-length parables are reproducing like < cough, ahems > everywhere else except in the actual job.) This time travel one works with the world re-setting every time Harry August is born, and him re-living his life multi-times, then finding the other people who do and working with them to stop one of their kind who is killing them off in order to set history for good. I love a good time war. It’s one of my second favourite sub-genres, though lagging behind my top faves which are post-apocalypse, generation ships, time dilation (generation ships with a bit of time dilation, I love), and space-ships that are alive (living generation ships with time dilation are basically the top best, i.e. KSR’s Aurora though it really needed to end when the ship did.). Harry August doesn’t sit right at all, logically. Each time traveller re-starts their own life each iteration, but interacts with other people with the same gift who overlap . It’s a weird illogical many lives / single timeline mash-up, but a cracking good yarn that rips along fast enough that with enough will you can skim over your own gnawing sense of doubt at the consistence of its internal rules.

Claire North, The Pursuit of William Abbey
More cracking yarns, this time a man, and whole set of people who are followed at walking pace, even across oceans, by the soul of someone who shouldn’t have died, and if the soul catches up, the followee’s most loved person drops dead. Because the curse also brings uncontrollable truth-seeing and telling, it is used by spies in the Great Game. So many great historical settings in this, and scope for lots of Jules Verne type darting around the world in frankly slow and uncomfortable conveyances. One particularly devastating death unravels it all for a key character, and the protagonist has to infer his personal failures and limits from the truth-tellers he encounters because – alas! – the one person we can never truly know is ourselves. Some subtle but satisfying nods that this is set in the same world as Harry August, a bit like David Mitchell’s larger project. I’m just really pleased someone – ok, especially a ridiculously talented and prolific young woman – is writing proper big yarns and doing it so well.

Sarah Davis Goff, The Last Ones Left Alive
Zombies in Ireland! The Road for culchies! This is a short but in the best possible way gruelling tale of a girl and her dog walking from the west of Ireland to a Dublin she hopes is still some kind of civilisation, the people she meets, the family she has left behind, and why. It’s a good, literary treatment of a familiar set-up, but with a commitment and freshness that mean it’s no nose-holding and apolitical dip into the speculative post-apocalyptic (e.g. Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep) but a real, full-throated roar about the choices women might still make. The fights are really good.

Benjamin Moser, Sontag
Still only 2/3 way through this one – liking it but not loving it as her work just seems so much less interesting, challenging and necessary than when I read almost every word of her in the nineties. It’s good at presenting the facts of her appalling mothering and also what she was up against. When I tweeted about this, my friend Barbara commented that Sontag and Barb’s dad had been best buddies and platonic soul-mates in high school and after graduation, Sontag jettisoned him abruptly, completely and forever. Sounds about right. Her Illness as Metaphor was formative for me, and in ways I frankly wish it hadn’t been, and it is interesting to see how her thinking on this came about and subsequently evolved. Maybe one for finishing the next time I hit the beach.

Speaking of beach-reading, I just can’t read thin, plain puddings of books, and need grit in the oyster when on the beach. Which is probably why my readings of holiday-let fare Joanna Trollope’s Next of Kin and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland are best left unremarked upon.

Analee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline
I was discussing this with one of the CT parish the other week – not naming names because – and I think we agreed that this book’s specific attractions to me – my feeling that it is insane how little feminist revenge porn there exists in mainstream publishing and how, in particular, Naomi Alderman’s The Power dodged the scenes I really wanted to see – and slight on the nose-ness of its identity politics (I know white lady feminists are bad. Ok show me. Ok thanks. Oh again. Cheers. Oh … etc.), mean it may be a great book for me but not for thee. But honestly, the whole delicious conceit of all of human history being essentially a Wikipedia edit war. I love it and can’t get enough of it.

Helen Taylor, Why Women Read Fiction
You may be sensing a theme in my January reading. This was a Christmas request book and it was enjoyable and light enough to read over the holidays. It’s basically a series of musings based on the admittedly not very scientific questionnaire research of the author, about why women read, what it means to them, how it’s just silly and retrograde to assume romance is silly and retrograde, and some interesting stuff about adjacent sectors of literary festivals and places of historic interest, e.g. Austen’s Bath (any Austen reader knows it’s where she was most miserable) and the Brontes’ Haworth. The Private Eye magazine take on this book was almost fractally un-self aware in its recursive sniffiness about a book that says men are sniffy about women’s reading and writing. But I was pretty annoyed and disappointed by how, after a quite sensitive and counter-intuitive treatment of genre writing in romance and crime, Taylor straight up dismissed all of science fiction as something her respondents just didn’t get on with, and didn’t bother to inquire any more on the topic as she had on the other genres. Apparently, if a self-selected group of women say SF is just not for them as it’s just for boys, then that’s that. Then there followed a whole chunk about feminist dystopia which is apparently a totally disconnected phenomenon. Whatever. Enjoyable and interesting, even with its peculiar blind spots.

Ilya Kaminsky – Deaf Republic
The only poetry collection I asked for and received at Christmas. Kaminsky, I recently learnt, is deaf/hard of hearing, and thinking about that may well inflect my re-reading of this, as and when. It’s a poem that could also be a play, or a beautiful animated feature with weird Estonian folk song tone-poems, say, but about a town in eastern Europe that’s occupied by the enemy and to protest the murder of a deaf boy, the townspeople become deaf to anything the occupiers say. It’s fairly devastating, I have to warn you. And beautiful and soulful about what it might mean to be truthful under occupation and what the limits of that are. Thinking about it now, and probably because I’m (finally!) reading Anna Burns’ Milkman, the selective deafness under occupation to those in coercive authority who shout from behind their weapons and issue credible threats of horrific retribution – well it’s a bit like China Mieville’s The City and The City, with the selective blindness and elaborate manners of people who insist on living parallel – in the mathematical sense of two lines that will never, ever meet – lives to those they’re cheek by jowl with, how you can’t live under occupation except by ignoring and pretending away the soldiers who just ran through your front door and out your back door and through the garden, wrecking the washing. And, gods, how that’s what we’re doing anyway with the holocaust always and ever here but emphatically not to say athletically ignored, and those videos this week of small children fleeing war to be tear-gassed near train tracks and sitting, rigid and pale in their buggies, as Greek policemen in riot-gear lean in at them and roar at them to go home, those tear-streaked babies now too terrified to cry, with no home to go to that’s not poisonous rubble, no way to go forward and nowhere to go back to, and hear we sit reading our books.



Dave Maier 03.06.20 at 2:31 am

Thanks Maria! Rosewater sounds good — I’ll check it out.


NickH 03.06.20 at 2:40 am

I agree that Rosewater is quite lovely, and I also liked The Rosewater Insurrection, but was not as fond of volume 3, The Rosewater Redemption. (ROT13 in case this is a spoiler: “Gryy zr ubj gung’f abg trabpvqr!” “vg vf!” “Bu, BX gura.”)

Also note: the second book on your list is:
JY HYang, The Read Threads of Fortune.
It is also volume 1b in a series, and I enjoyed it the best of the set. (The styles are quite different between the volumes; 1a, the Black Tides of Heaven tells the story of the other twin and is perhaps somewhat similar in style, but then Descent of Monsters and Ascent to Godhood get stylistically weirder and do more backfilling of the story rather than moving it forward.)


oldster 03.06.20 at 11:12 am

Thanks for this.

Most of the names were new to me, so this was all learning.

I envy your ability to read that much serious fiction so quickly. At my age, I can read a real book now and then, but find it tiring, and return to pablum and comfort.

When I next have some ambition and energy, I will look at Claire North.


Doug 03.06.20 at 2:29 pm

The Mirror & the Light jumped into my hands yesterday. It hadn’t been in the store the day before when I had gone in and looked at By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar, so clearly I was simply meant to come back a day later on a cheer-myself-up visit so that the Mantel would have had time to precipitate onto the shelves.

Have you tried Jodi Taylor’s time-travel series? It’s light, and internal consistency be damned through the first two books, but heartfelt and enormous fun.


Hidari 03.09.20 at 6:53 pm

‘The Party’ by Elizabeth Day is quite good.

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