A list of all the books I’m reading, sometimes annotated. Links aren’t affiliate ones, because I’m not that organised (yet).
A Passage of Stars – Kate Elliott
God’s War – Kameron Hurley
A Paradise Built in Hell – Rebecca Solnit
Daemon Voices – Philip Pullman. ❤
Capital, Volume 1 – Marx. Um. I may be some time.
Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez.
1. World Mythology – Mark Daniels. A quick read, and a decent introduction to various mythologies.
2. Darling – Rachel Edwards. This genre of suspense novel realllly isn’t my thing, but this was billed as “the first Brexit novel”, which suckered me in. Decent for what it is.
3. Once & Future – Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy. I had high hopes for this – queer Arthur in space, with a female Arthur! But…DNF.
4. Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer. This was a highly readable, informative story of Foer’s attempt to become US Memory Champion in 2006. It turns out there are various techniques you can master to help you memorise all sorts of things. I tried creating my own memory palace (Foer walks you through the process in one chapter), and it works. Much more interesting than expected!
5. Tartan Tragedy – Antonia Fraser. I thought this crime series by Fraser, a respected historian, were worth trying, but this one suffered from very dated cultural and sexual mores, and I doubt I’ll pick up any more in the series.
6. A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers. I LOVED this! My boyfriend probably got bored of me putting it down every few chapters to tell him just how much I was enjoying, but he bought it for me so I wanted him to know I appreciated it. Once a ship’s AI, Sidra has illegally been transplanted into a body, which means she now needs to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, with the help of Pepper, an engineer. In a second strand to the story, a young girl called Jane works in a factory sorting scrap parts and watched over by “the Mothers” – until an industrial accident blows a hole in the wall and shows her something she didn’t know existed: outside. The two strands work brilliantly together, with Sidra tentatively developing friendships and ideas while Jane learns to expand her own, very limited, universe.
I liked A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers’s first novel, but felt it was too slow in parts. This one is also a slow build, but I absolutely loved it, and Sidra, and Jane.
7. The Fifth Season – NK Jemison. Holy shit, she’s good. I read Jemisin’s first trilogy when it came out, and enjoyed it, but this is on a whole new level. Again there are multiple narrative strands: Essun, an orogene living clandestinely in a remote village, discovers her husband has beaten their son to death, presumably upon discovering his orogeny (an ability to manipulate the earth/minerals), and run away with their daughter. Damaya is a young girl whose orogeny has just been discovered, taken to The Fulcrum where she is taught to control it. And Syenite is a young woman, also an orogene, sent out with the more experienced Alabaster to quell a local disturbance in the earth. These three narratives gradually come together in unexpected ways; Jemisin’s storytelling is masterly here, and I’m not surprised this book won her the first of three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards.
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.
March 2019 – a mixture of sci-fi, climate change and comfort reading*:
Ink – Sabrina Vourvoulias. A thoughtful, moving and harrowing look at an America not too distant from the current climate.
Red Moon – Kim Stanley Robinson. When did this guy become my safe space for reading? It’s such a relief to read something that’s on my wavelength politically and ecologically.
Cold Granite – Stuart MacBride. Excellent writing, good start to a series that’s nearly, but not quite, too dark for me.
An Inconvenient Death – Miles Goslett. I’ve been haunted by the death of Dr David Kelly for many years, and this was an excellent review of the reasons why.
Killer Plan and Murder Ring – Leigh Russell.
Snap – Belinda Bauer. I’ve seen Bauer recommended so many times over the years, and was glad to finally read something by her. This wasn’t quite what I expected, although very readable, and I’m sure I’ll seek out her other books at some point.
Ack-Ack Macaque – Gareth L Powell. This was SO MUCH FUN. And also moving and a tiny bit sad, and there’s an excellent intrepid reporter heroine, and yes. All the good things.
Rosewater – Tade Thompson. I really enjoyed Thompson’s interview on Death of 1000 Cuts recently, and bought Rosewater on the back of it (as I did with Ack-Ack Macaque, come to think of it). It’s fab – loads of fun, but with serious undertones, plus good writing and a SEQUEL that’s just come out, so yay.
Streets of Darkness and Girl Zero by A A Dhand. These are too dark for me but still excellent, compulsive reading, and it’s such a treat to find a really good crime series set in Bradford. I probably won’t read more (because too dark), but if you like this sort of thing you should definitely try him.
Ghost Wall – Goddess Sarah Moss. Oof, this hurt to read, and it’s so good, so terrifying, I’m still breathless after finishing it.
MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood. OMG, so many tears. It’s my second time through this trilogy, but the first time I’ve read all three books in quick succession (I originally read them as they came out). Reading them the way they’re supposed to be read, all three books fit together beautifully. I cried at the end (and at intervals through the last hundred pages) not only because it was sad, but because I didn’t want to leave the characters. I wanted more Toby, more Zeb, more Blackbeard, more everyone. More Amanda, such an interesting character whom I feel we never quite get inside – which is maybe the point. Also, this is a novel that really rewards listening to as an audiobook. Blackbeard’s narration, in particular, was so perfectly pitched, I basically cried whenever he was talking.
Rereading the first two novels, in January, I was struck by how prescient they are, when even a decade ago the future they depicted felt fascinating but remote (to me). Now it feels much, much closer. This third novel concerns itself less with the mess we as humans have made of our world, and more with how a new civilisation might make its own future. And the ways in which humans will inevitably shape this future, by violence, potentially, but also through well-meaning interference (not to mention creation at the hands of Crake). I see from GoodReads reviews that this novel splits readers into “yay” or “meh”. Count me among the highly satisfied campers this time.
The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells. This book has been billed as “terrifying”; it opens with the words, “It is worse, much worse than you think.” It pulls no punches, and I think that’s important. Climate change isn’t just coming – it’s here, in the wildfires of California and the cyclone that just hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, not to mention the increasingly desperate and recurring floods in countries like Bangladesh, and also (to a lesser extent, but still visible) in the UK.
I’ve been trying to envisage what our globally warmed world might look like for so long, it’s oddly comforting to see the potential future laid out in stark detail in this book. Drawing on a wealth (heh, the irony) of scientific research and resources, the author breaks down the factors by category: “Heat death”, “Hunger”, “Drowning”…and those are just the first three chapter titles. Cheerful it’s not, but there is something to be said for knowing more about what we are facing in order to act.
In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein vividly describes her desire not to look climate change in the eye. It’s so vast, so nebulous, so terrifying, and so frustrating to be aware of it, and yet to watch successive governments in most parts of the world fail to act, for fear of short-term losses.
Like Naomi Klein, Wallace-Wells is clear that neoliberal capitalism is behind our inertia, our failure to combat this existential threat to humanity, or even in some quarters to accept that it exists. Aside from this the two books are very different; Klein is concerned with political systems, Wallace-Wells with the specifics of what might happen to the planet and to those who inhabit it.
The real message of this book is that we. can. still. act. The 2018 IPCC report gave us twelve years to avoid climate change “catastrophe” (I’d argue that catastrophe has already hit many parts of the world due to climate change, but in this context they’re talking about the globe). Fatalistic attitudes, a shrug of the shoulder, comments like “we’re f*cked” – all responses I’ve encountered from friends – are understandable, but premature, at least in much of the privileged West.
The power to save our future generations is still in our hands – just not for much longer.
Cast in Silence – Michelle Sagara. I recently discovered this series, and they’re great for switching off at night.
There’s a Witch in the Word Machine – Jenni Fagan.
Everything Under – Daisy Johnson. This is the first thing I’ve read by Johnson, and for some reason I was expecting it to be “hard”. You know, cerebral, difficult structure, maybe not much of a story. My expectations were completely wrong – this is a compulsively readable novel of loss, lost people and identity. Fascinating, beautiful, and brilliant!
Vigil – Angela Slatter. I do love a good urban fantasy crime novel, and the writing in this one was gooood. Not surprising, since I see Angela Slatter’s been winning awards all over the place in her native Australia. Will definitely be picking up the sequels to this.
*NB: For some reason, crime fiction comes under the heading of comfort reading, for me.