1. Love/Pride – Ellipsis Zine. There are some lovely pieces of flash fiction in here – my favourites were She’s Not There by Rosie Garland Repetitions by Laura Clay and How to Love Your Child Without Your Neighbour Reporting You to Child Services by Christopher Allen.
2. The Overstory – Richard Powers. I was daunted by this, and a little frustrated by the stop-start nature of the first hundred pages (essentially around ten short stories about individuals set at various points over the past two hundred years). The writing is gorgeous, though, and the tree theme kept me at it long enough for the stories to start coming together, at which point the novel really took off. A beautiful, compelling book; my only criticism is of the ending, which didn’t, to me, live up to its promise. It also left me feeling worn down about activism/the planet in a way that David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth (March reading) didn’t.
3. America is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo. I enjoyed this lesbian communist Filipino story, and if that summary hooks you in any way, you probably will, too.
4. The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben. For various reasons, I’ve been reading this for months and months, in little snatches. It was especially lovely to finish it alongside The Overstory, since Powers has obviously read work akin to Wohlleben’s. Highly recommended.
5. There There – Tommy Orange. I really, really enjoyed the set-up for this; multiple character narratives that come together in something bigger is exactly my kind of book. IMO it didn’t quite follow through with the ending, but I really want to see what Orange writes next.
6. Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone. The second in his Craft Sequence – enjoyable and thought-provoking, but it didn’t grip me the way the first one did (that may be my fault, as it was my bedtime reading).
7. Speak No Evil – Uzodinma Iweala.
8. Murray Constantine, aka Katherine Burdekin – Swastika Night. Because women have always written prophetic utopias and dystopias, too, and damn, this one is terrifyingly grim. Seven hundred years after Hitler died, he is revered as a god, Germany and Japan have divided the world between them, and women are regarded (and treated) as subhuman. Doughty Englishman Alfred encounters a Knight (named, intriguing, von Hess) who unburdens himself of a secret: not only was Hitler short, dark-haired and dumpy, but women were once beautiful and the equals of men. The book is long on philosophical discussion that’s sometimes utterly chilling, but still very worth reading. Btw, this book was published in 1937! I find it both fascinating and horrifying that Burdekin could extrapolate to that extent – but I also see it as proof that many of the discussions in our public discourse today were also playing out in the 1930s. Hmm.
9. Hunger – Roxane Gay. I love Roxane Gay, and this book made me so sad. On one hand, as someone with disordered eating I recognised a lot of her thinking about food and the way she uses it. On the other hand, I’m not a plus-size person, but her beautiful writing made me feel acutely and in many different ways the pain of being in her body. Then there’s the horrific story that precedes her first period of weight gain – and again, I understand why she would be fascinated with the perpetrator of her pain. But the point at which I burst into tears and couldn’t stop for ten minutes came as she related the time her worst fears came true at a literary event in NYC. I don’t know why this upset me so much, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Roxane Gay is a beautiful human and an amazing writer, and this book is well worth your time. Everyone’s time.
10. Strix Issue 6. I ordered this thinking I was getting a little local publication, and was blown away by the first few poems by Jane Burn and others, plus the story Foundations by LC Elliott. Then again, they had a thousand submissions for this issue, so it’s not surprising that the standard is so high.
11. To Love and Be Wise – Josephine Tey. I’ve been gradually picking up Tey’s Alan Grant books (having read The Daughter of Time in my teens as every good Ricardian should), and this one was a gem.
12. Sour Fruit – Eli Allison. I loved this eco-dystopia set in Hull! Onion has been snatched. She wakes up chained to an armpit of a river city, earmarked for a skin-trader called The Toymaker. Surrounded by a creeping rot she has just three days to escape before the sold sticker becomes a brand.
It’s Onion’s anger that propels us through the disorienting opening scenes, as Onion is thrown from one crisis to the next (think out of the frying pan into the fire and then into the volcano, followed possibly by the sun) and the reader tries to figure out what’s going on. Onion’s voice is hugely compelling: furiously teenagerish in its bravado without ever quite hiding the fact that there’s a scared kid underneath.
But a book doesn’t stand on one character alone, and thankfully we also have Rhea, appointed as Onion’s unwilling jailer until she’s handed over to the appropriately ominous-sounding Toymaker, to guide us. Ostensibly a frightened mouse, Rhea takes everything Onion throws at her and basically gets on with doing the best she can in the circumstances. It’s as she leads Onion around the streets of Kingston that we really start to get a sense of the world behind the breakneck action – a world in which people who aren’t deemed worthy of citizenship are dumped in flooded Kingston (upon Hull, for those wondering) and left to fend for themselves.
While the evolving relationship between Rhea and Onion is the true high point of the story (for me), Eli Allison has also done a magnificent job of reimagining Hull as a flooded disaster city in which kindness can still flourish. It’s impossible to miss the fact that we’re in a dystopia, but Onion’s descriptions paint the crowded world in technicolour detail, while also making time for quiet beauty, like “The last of the light had turned the estuary bruise-purple, and the sky blood-red. If I squinted I could just make out the shadow of the bridge. I’ve always loved suspension bridges.”
The writing is always interesting: characters don’t jump, they “jack-in-the-box jump”. The deckchair “looked like a debutante’s fart could do it in” (Onion’s voice is truly a joy!). And I’m delighted to know this is only the first book in a trilogy, because if the first book packs this much in, I can’t wait to see what the next two will do.
13. The Half-God of Rainfall – Inua Ellams. A fun, moving story of clashing gods and a demi-god who just wants to play basketball. Oh, and it’s in verse. Well worth a read!
14. The Secrets of Ghosts – Sarah Painter. I really enjoyed the previous book in this series, The Language of Ghosts, and this was a good follow-up. It took me a while to get into it, but it’s excellent escapism.
15. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. This was such a beguiling, intriguing book. Set during the time at which Leopold of Belgium was ravaging the Congo (the repercussions of which are still felt today), various disparate groups (Fabian socialists, Black Americans, Congolese natives) attempt to create their own utopia. Told from multiple, often marginalised points of view, we watch Everfair’s progress over twenty or so years, from its inception through the buffets and storms of World War I. While the politics are fascinating, I was most interested in the relationships that ensue and the ways in which these challenge the bigotries and preconceptions of many of the characters, from French Lisette and English Daisy, spurned lovers who become lovers themselves, through Fwendi & Matty and George & Martha (different races, disparate ages), to King Mwenda and his favourite Josina. It’s a hugely interesting book, and I’m looking forward to Shawl’s next full-length outing.
16. The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters. This book took me three goes, unusual given that Waters is one of my favourite novelists. It is a very slow start, full of intricate detail of Frances’s new life of drudgery. She and her mother have been left penniless following her father’s death and in the wake of her brothers’ deaths in World War I. When they are forced to rent out rooms to the paying guests of the title, lower class but more moneyed, Frances forges an unexpected friendship with the female half of the couple. Once the action hots up (er, in more ways than one), I was worried that I could see where the story was headed, but thankfully Waters steers it into more thoughtful, less melodramatic territory over the final hundred pages or so.
Books by people of colour: 6
Books by women: 8
Favourite: The Overstory