I’m, erm, late to posting here this year. This is partly because the start of the year in the UK was rough; lockdown in winter is no fun whatsoever. It’s also partly because I’ve been working on a new project, a podcast called Late To It, with my friend and co-host Kirsty Doole.
Late To It is about reading books at the right time. The idea that you are ‘late’ to a book, film, TV series, exhibition, article and so on has become pervasive on social media in the last few years. We wanted to reclaim this idea and make it positive. Sometimes you read a book that’s been around for years at a time that’s perfect for you, when it means more than it ever would if you’d read it on the week it was published. We wanted to capture that and to highlight books that are out in paperback that might not have had the attention they deserved when they were first released. We also wanted a reason to read those books that have been sitting on our own shelves for a while that we’ve been neglected for the shiny and new ones that can sometime feel as though they’re shouting for our attention.
The first episode features two debut novels: Gwendoline Riley’s Cold Water, which is set in Manchester, a city I love and am strongly connected to, and Kirsten Innes’ Fishnet, which is set in an unnamed city that might be Glasgow, which is close to where Kirsty grew up.
We do also mention more recent books that we’ve been reading and enjoying. In this episode they are:
little scratch by Rebecca Watson Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden Sanatorium by Abi Palmer
You can view our podcast landing page, and listen directly, here. Or listen on Spotify here. We will also be available on Apple, we’re just waiting for them to approve the listing. We hope you enjoy it and discover some new/old books.
At the end of 2019, I challenged myself to read 100 books from my own shelves. What I meant by from my own shelves were the books that had been sitting there some time, often for years. I was fed up of not getting to books that I knew I wanted to read because there was always something shiny and new in front of me. The pandemic helped, of course; losing most of your work and being forced to stay at home will do that. I finished the 100 in early December. Here are the ones I really really loved.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender (Windmill)
I thought this would be twee, I was so wrong. The story of a girl who realises she can taste people’s emotions; the story of her brother who begins to disappear. It’s about trauma and depression and it’s perfect.
The Western Wind – Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)
A Brexit allegory disguised as a Medieval whodunnit. Utterly compelling.
Fleishman Is in Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Wildfire)
A soon-to-be-ex-wife and mother disappears. A terrible soon-to-be-ex-husband who thinks he’s great has his story narrated by his ‘crazy’ friend. A piercing look at heterosexual marriage and a send-up of the Great American Novel. Longer review here.
Things we lost in the fire – Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell) (Granta)
Dark, dark, dark stories. So haunting, so brilliant.
Exquisite Cadavers – Meena Kandasamy (Atlantic)
A Oulipo style novella showing how fiction can be created from life, but it isn’t the same thing. Longer review here.
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary – Sarah Manguso (Graywolf Press)
Manguso wrote a daily diary until she had her first child. This is full of ideas of letting go which are so brilliant I copied many of them on to Post-Its and stuck them above my desk. It’s published by Picador in the UK.
we are never meeting in real life – Samantha Irby (Faber)
Irby is my discovery of the year. Her essays are laugh-out-loud funny and entertaining but they are also about her life as a working class, disabled Black woman with a traumatic childhood. Revolutionary.
Heartburn – Nora Ephron (Virago)
Funny; good on cooking and marriage. Devastating final chapter.
Fingersmith – Sarah Waters (Virago)
Clever crime novel about class, the art of theft and pornography. Superb structure. A masterpiece.
The Chronology of Water – Lidia Yuknavitch (Canongate)
Yuknavitch’s non-chronological memoir about the fifteen lives she has lived. It’s about dying (metaphorically), swimming (literally and metaphorically) and living (literally). It fizzes.
Bear – Marian Engel (Pandora)
The headline is this is a book about a woman who has sex with a bear. It’s really about female autonomy. It’s being republished in the UK in 2021 by Daunt Books.
Magic for Beginners – Kelly Link (Harper Perennial)
Kelly Link is a genius. These stories are so rich in detail; she takes you from a situation that seems perfectly normal to a wild, subverted world that also seems perfectly normal. Incredible.
Parable of the Talents – Octavia E. Butler (Headline)
The novel that predicted a president who would aim to ‘Make America Great Again’. It’s as much the story of a mother / daughter relationship formed under significant trauma as it is the story of a country at war with itself. Longer review here.
Copies of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Fleishman is in Trouble, Exquisite Cadavers, we are never meeting in real life, The Chronology of Water and Parable of the Talents were courtesy of the publishers as listed. All others are my own copies.
I’ve read more books this year than I’ve ever read in a year before. It’s been a very strange time, but these are the books published this year that have resonated with me.
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)
Tambudzai’s life is not going how she expected. In her 30s, living in a hostel, unemployed, in a country that’s hostile, there are multiple structural barriers preventing her progress. An examination of a woman and a country. A masterpiece. Longer review here.
Love After Love – Ingrid Persaud (Faber)
A woman widowed from her abusive husband; her young son, and a gay man hiding his sexuality. Their bond asks the question what really makes a family? Betty, Solo and Mr Chetan have lived in my head since I read this in the first half of the year. Gorgeous. Longer review here.
So We Can Glow – Leesa Cross-Smith (Grand Central)
Cross-Smith’s latest short story collection celebrates women and girls. Their triumphs, their tribulations, their crushes, their loves, the way they support each other to rebuild themselves and their lives. The language and the characters fizz. Longer review here.
The Meaning of Mariah Carey – Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis (Macmillan)
It shouldn’t really be a surprise that Carey’s memoir isn’t your average celebrity memoir. Open, honest and reflective, Carey looks at her traumatic childhood, her marriage to Tommy Mottola and her career. A fascinating insight into who she is and how she became one of the most successful singers in the world.
The Bass Rock – Evie Wyld (Jonathan Cape)
The story of three women, in three different time periods, lived in the shadow of the Bass Rock. They’re linked by what one of Wyld’s minor characters – the brilliant Maggie – describes as a serial killer: toxic masculinity. Maggie’s idea of a map showing places where women have been killed by men has haunted me all year, as has the final page of the novel. Longer review here.
Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)
Named for Shakespeare’s son who died – probably of plague – and the play that was probably written about Shakespeare’s grief: Hamlet. Really though, this is the story of Agnes (Anne), Shakespeare’s wife. Beautiful and vividly told. O’Farrell’s well-deserved acclaim was long overdue. Longer review here.
Breasts and Eggs – Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) (Picador)
A novel in two-parts exploring Natsuko’s sister’s desire for breast implants and then Natsuko’s questions around whether or not she wants a child. An examination of the expectations placed on women from a working class Japanese perspective with a bonus send-up of the literary industry. Longer review here.
In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado (Serpent’s Tail)
A ground-breaking memoir of an emotionally abusive, same-gender relationship. It questions notions of the canon through a range of devices and genres while delivering a devastating portrait of domestic abuse. Longer review here.
Postcolonial Love Poem – Natalie Diaz (Faber)
An investigation of the body as a site of trauma and of desire. Diaz connects the body to the land, the water (particularly rivers) and the air, showing how violation of the elements by white Americans has led to irreparable damage. This is also a celebration of queer love and language that elevates and transcends. Longer review here.
Bad Love – Maame Blue (Jacaranda Books)
19yo Ekuah has an on / off affair with up-and-coming musician Dee. Later she meets English teacher and spoken word night organiser Jay Stanley. The two men exert different pulls on her life, but Ekuah has to work out how she wants to live. I was rooting for her all the way. Longer review here.
Writers & Lovers – Lily King (Picador)
Casey’s in her 30s. Single, a waitress trying to write a novel, living in her brother’s friend’s shed, she meets two men: Silas is a teacher and a writer, but unreliable; Oscar is slightly older, an established writer, widowed with two young boys. Casey has to decide whether to accept or reject a conventional life. I wrote about her choices for the Pan Macmillan blog.
Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie (Dialogue Books)
Okojie is the queen of stories that take you to unexpected places. Her latest collection is a wild ride of time-travelling silent monks; some unexpected zombies; a heart-eating goddess; mechanical boys, and an albino man who brings fountains to a small town in Mozambique. The incredible ‘Grace Jones’, about an impersonator and her past, deservedly won the 2020 AKO Cane Prize. Slightly longer review here.
Thanks to the publishers (as listed) for This Mournable Body, The Bass Rock, Hamnet, Breasts and Eggs, and Writers & Lovers. All other books are my own purchases.
Things have been slightly derailed by my despair at the situation in the UK and being exhausted at the end of term. I also wanted everything I recommended to be fairly recent publications and I over-estimated how much reading I could do. But I’m back on track so I’m going to do two round-ups, one today and one on Thursday (Christmas Eve).
So We Can Glow – Leesa Cross-Smith (Grand Central Publishing)
The ‘We’ in the title of Lessa Cross-Smith’s latest short story collection is women and girls. Through a collective narration in the opening story ‘We, Moons’ the hopes, dreams and fears of women and girls are laid out:
We’re not depressed all the time, some of us aren’t even depressed sometimes. We’re okay, our hearts, dusted with pink. When we cry in our bathrooms together it’s about men or our mothers or our fathers or our bodies. […] We love men. We are ashamed of this attraction. We, the ones who aren’t lesbians or asexual; we fantasise about lesbian communes or asexual communes.
What follows are 41 stories in which women and girls have crushes, fall in love, have affairs, have relationships with good men and terrible men, form friendships which last a lifetime, live, laugh, cry.
One of the reasons I love Cross-Smith’s work is that we share a lot of cultural references. This exchange from ‘Teenage Dream Time Machine’ is a perfect example:
Dave and I were listening to DEF LEPPARD.
POUR SOME SUGAR ON ME?!
Of course! LOL.
I love it. Did you ever dye your hair?
Bright pink once and my mom almost killed me. I used to spray Sun In in my hair when I laid out but it didn’t do much. It smelled good though. I wanted to be Drew Barrymore. I wanted to be Courtney Love for a minute too.
Same. This is so funny…all the women our age…we were practically living the same life! We’re all connected…like magic.
I also love that she takes crushes, especially on pop stars / actors / sportsmen seriously and the lives and thoughts of teenage girls. That she writes like a dream, ending so many of these stories on the most perfect lines, only elevates the stories of women and girls further. As it should be.
My Darling from the Lions – Rachel Long (Picador)
Rachel Long’s excellent debut collection considers love in all its forms: romantic, familial, friendship, discovering how to love yourself. A series of poems called ‘Open’ punctuate the first section:
This morning he told me I sleep with my mouth open and my hands in my hair. I say, What, like screaming? He says, No, like abandon.
But it’s the love for her mother that really shines through:
Mum combs her auburn ’fro up high. So high it’s an orb. Everyone wants to – but cannot – touch it.
Themes of race, class and misogyny underpin the collection and it’s often these undertones that deliver the vivid images and sucker punch final lines that resonate long after reading.
Ify Adenuga is the mother of four children: Joseph Junior aka Skepta; Jamie aka Jme; Julie, who was the voice of Apple’s music station Beats 1 when it launched, and Jason, music producer and graphic designer. They’re the reason I picked up Endless Fortune, but Ify Adenuga’s own story turns out to be more interesting than her children’s.
The book begins when Adenuga is 10, living in Lagos with her family. The Bifran War begins and Adenuga’s family, who are Igbo, flee the city to their father’s village. Adenuga misses much about Lagos, not least attending school. When she is able to go to the nearest school the teacher suggests she skips a year (having missed three years of schooling) This creates tension with her father who thinks she should do things chronologically and come top of the class. Adenuga finds a way around this and passes the year with a high mark. This sets up two threads that weave throughout Adenuga’s story: the first is her passion for learning which takes her to a ‘good’ school, through a degree as a mature student, to setting up her own education centres and the second, her determination that no one will stand in her way.
Adenuga’s memoir is one of a woman who took risks, stayed resilient through multiple setbacks, and created a life that allowed herself and her family to flourish. It’s a fascinating story.
Future Home of the Living God – Louise Erdrich (Corsair)
When I tell you that my white name is Cedar Hawk Songmaker and that I am the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals, and that when I went looking for my Ojibwe parents and found that I was born Mary Potts I hid the knowledge, maybe you’ll understand. Or not. I’ll write this anyway, because ever since last week things have changed.
Cedar’s diary is written for the unborn baby she is carrying in a world where being pregnant is dangerous. As society breaks down, pregnant women are being captured and kept in hospitals.
When Cedar discovers she is pregnant, she goes to meet her birth mother, withdraws all her savings and stockpiles things that might be useful – cigarettes, guns, ammunition. Protected by the baby’s father, she attempts to stay hidden, communicating with her birth family via her mother’s husband.
It’s a tense tale with some particularly evocative scenes; a period of time in hospital with an elective mute roommate is a really interesting section of the story, and there’s a graphic description of labour and birth that had me wincing.
If you’ve read Erdrich before you’ll know that in her novels the backstory is the story. In some ways, Future Home of the Living God, feels like a departure – things happen in the now as society changes and Cedar’s pregnancy progresses – in others, it feels like a typical Erdrich novel, specifically in the ending that makes the whole book feel as though it’s backstory. It left me wanting more of what happens next.
Cannibal – Safiya Sinclair (Picador)
Safiya Sinclair’s debut collection takes her childhood home of Jamaica, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and her present home of America to explore and confront exile, otherness, race and womanhood. The poems here are deep and rich with language and ideas. Some feel very intense, ‘Pocomania’, for example, which begins:
Father unbending father unbroken father with the low-hanging belly, father I was cleaved from, pressed into, cast and remolded, father I was forged in the fire of your self.
Others more spacious and provocative, such as ‘Elocution Lessons with Ms. Silverstone’, which opens with:
In high school boys were easy – they saw none of you or all of you
in one ravenous gaze, slurped hankering glances or walked right through
you in sterile absolution, high-fived and hissed about your dick-sucking lips.
Brewing names for your body in the mastabatorium.
It’s an incredible collection and I’m excited to see where Sinclair’s career takes her.
Baba, a middle-aged, unemployed man lives in Palemo, Lagos with his wife Munira. Palemo is a poor district with no fresh water. One morning, Baba, sitting in the auto repair shop opposite his home, sees a man on TV wearing ‘dark red glasses that make him look like a mosquito’. U2 frontman Bono is meeting the British Prime Minister before coming to Africa to campaign for healthcare access for all Africans. Baba thinks ‘Mosquito Man’ looks like someone who gets things done and believes he is the man to make Bono listen to the problem in Palemo. When his friends call the local radio station and tell them Baba’s plans, the radio station offers to help him meet Bono. Baba becomes an instant celebrity. Rather than solving his problems, however, this brings him to the attention of journalists and business people who want to use him for their own ends.
Munira also has an agenda. Desperate to be a Nollywood star, she has been used and abused by men from her secondary school teachers to her current landlord. She married Baba because he’d lied about being rich; he married her because of her impressive figure. The abuse coupled with the sense that she will never escape her situation has made Munira vicious. There is a sense though, that underneath her thick skin is a desire to do good and create positive change in the world.
Looking for Bono is a story about structural inequality. How the rich get richer and protect their own when things go wrong. How the poor are pawns for the media, as well as corporations and supposed charity organisations. Ultimately it asks if change is possible and, if so, what does that look like?
Looking for Bono is published by Jacaranda Books and is one of their Twenty in 2020 series. The copy I read was my own purchase.
When Natasha Tretheway was 19 her stepfather murdered her mother. Thirty years later Tretheway returned to the scene of the crime to begin to try to make sense of it and how it had shaped her life.
When I left Atlanta, vowing never to return, I took with me what I had cultivated all those years: mute avoidance of my past, silence and willed amnesia buried deep in me like a root.
She begins with family life when she was young. Born to a Black mother and a white father, she soon became aware of racist reactions towards her family. She recounts the story her grandmother, who they lived with, told about the night the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in their driveway because she allowed young white missionaries to stay in the house.
After her parents break up, Tretheway’s mother meets a man named Joel. He looks after Tretheway while her mum is at work.
Often I wonder whether the course of our lives would have been different had I told my mother, early on, the things she could not have known: the ways Joel had begun to torment me when she was not at home.
While events lead to an abject failure on the part of the authorities to protect Tretheway’s mother, Tretheway examines the role of memory and grief and how she composed her story and herself. It’s a devastating account of how Black women are erased both literally and metaphorically.
Memorial Drive is published by Bloomsbury Circus. The copy I read was my own purchase.
My town was a collection of nests, a factory for manufacturing babies. I was a tool for the town’s good, in two senses.
Firstly, I had to study hard to become a work tool.
Secondly, I had to be a good girl, so that I could become a reproductive organ for the town.
I would probably be a failure on both counts, I thought.
Earthlings begins when Natsuki is eleven. She feels like an outsider in her immediate family, describing Piyyut the soft toy / magical alien from Planet Popinpobopia who has come to save the planet as her best friend. Natsuki is abused by a teacher at summer cram school but, when she tries to tell someone, no one believes her. However, when she is later discovered having sex with her cousin, she is punished.
The novel then leaps forward to adulthood when Natsuki is thirty-one and married. The marriage is one of convenience – neither Natsuki nor her husband are interested in a sexual relationship – but, other than comments about starting a family, it allows them to escape scrutiny. Neither of them wants to become work tools or reproductive tools for ‘the Factory’. During a trip to the countryside, where Natsuki sees her cousin again for the first time since they had sex, her husband begins to think about disengaging from society and living an alternative lifestyle. It’s a decision that will allow events from the past to resurface and the lives of those involved to change dramatically.
Earthlings considers the effects of trauma and the damage done to people when society hides abusive behaviour and forces shame on the victims. It questions whether the society we’ve created is anything more than a production line. It is violent and shocking with one of the wildest endings I’ve ever read. Food for thought.
Earthlings is published by Granta. Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.
If you are where you are, then where are those who are not here? Not here.
from ‘Manhattan is a Lenape Word’
In Postcolonial Love Poem Natalie Diaz investigates the body as a site of trauma and of desire. She connects it to the land, the water (particularly rivers) and the air, showing how violation of the elements by white Americans has led to irreparable damage. That damage manifests as pollution of and violence towards the body and the mind.
How can I translate – not in words but in belief – that a river is a body, as alive as you or I, that there can be no life without it?
from ‘The First Water Is the Body’
The poems about her brothers are heart-breaking; their power coming from the way in which Diaz uses magical imagery of animals and wounds to describe the pain of mental illness.
Woven between these darker poems are threads of female desire and longing:
How can I tell you – the amber of her. The body of honey – I took it in my hands.
from ‘Waist and Sway’
I could write something clever here about the way Diaz uses language, but the poems in this collection transcend the words and the techniques Diaz uses. I didn’t just read them, I felt their effect on my body. And that, surely, is the sign of incredible poetry.
Postcolonial Love Poem is published by Faber. The copy I read is my own.
“You can’t see the big picture, only the petty, small, meaningless pleasures and pains of your tiny lives. Mating and drinking and carrying on no better than the draft horses who stubbornly refuse to work when they’ve got a sore ankle.” Lieutenant’s lips snarled. “We have a purpose. Matilda has a purpose. We are on God’s path, and we mustn’t stray. It has been centuries, and it will be centuries more. All we can do is live well. Live good, according to the Heavens’ will.”
Aster lives in the lowdecks of the HSS Matilda. For years the Lieutenant has had a vendetta against her, making her life difficult and, sometimes, the lives of people around her. Aster is smart, persistent and finds social cues difficult to read. She’s never explicitly described as autistic but there are several moments where the ways in which she deals with sensory overload are detailed. Like all of the people on lowdeck, Aster has a job. Which, for her, is working in the fields. However, she is also apprenticed to the Surgeon from whom she learns medical procedures to support those in the lowdecks.
Aster’s mother killed herself when Aster was young. Her coded journals remain, detailing her work in the hub of the ship. When Aster’s friend Giselle manages to decode them, Aster believes they may reveal something new about her mother’s death and sets out to find out more.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is a fresh, gripping tale with a protagonist rarely seen in literature. Solomons incorporates characters who are gay, bisexual, asexual, use they/them pronouns, are working class, upper class, are Black female engineers and medics. If I was writing a strapline for it, it would be A Long Way to a Small Angry Planetmeets Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer written by a Black non-binary person. Solomons has a new novel publishing in 2021 and I’ll be front of the queue.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is published by Akashic Books. The copy I read was my own purchase.
American Spy opens with an explosive chapter in which the narrator, Marie Mitchell, confronts an invader in her home. Across the hall, her twin boys, William and Tommy are asleep. Knowing that this won’t be the last time someone comes for her, Marie takes the boys and goes to her mother’s in Martinique. There, Maria writes to the boys the story of how she became a female African American FBI intelligence officer and how she met their father.
Her story is a deftly woven tale of how she became an intelligence office; of underhand tactics in a white boys’ club, and how her perceptions of the job changed through an undercover operation. Although the pace never matches the opening, it is, nevertheless, an engrossing tale with some unexpected revelations.
American Spy is published by Dialogue Books. The copy I read was my own purchase.
TheCertifiablyTRUERavingsOfASectionedPhilosopher: Don't be afraid to think you might be a little 'crazy'. Who isn't? Check out some of my visualized poems here: https://www.instagram.com/maxismaddened/
Hmmm so I am the Hungry Reader. The one who reads. The one who is constantly reading or wanting to read constantly. This blog is all about the books I have read, the ones that I am reading and gems that I plan to read in the future or whenever it arrives.