The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

Rosemary Harper wakes up in a pod travelling through open space to begin a new job under a new identity – she’s bribed a government official for the latter. The job is on the Wayfarer, captained by Ashby. Rosemary’s going to be a clerk on his ship which builds wormholes in space: ‘the intergalactic passageways that ran through the Galactic Commons’.

The Wayfarer’s crew consists of Corbin, human, ‘a talented algaeist and a complete asshole’; Jenks and Kizzy, both humans and the ship’s techs; Sissix, an Aandrisk and the pilot; Dr Chef, a Grum and the cook and medic; Ohan, a Sianat Pair and a Navigator; Lovey, a sentient AI and the ship’s communication interface.

The novel’s set far in the future, long after humans have taken up residence on other planets:

The majority of living Humans were descended from the Exodus Fleet, which had sailed far beyond the reaches of their ancestral sun. Many, like Ashby, had been born within the very same homesteaders that had belonged to the original Earthen refugees. His tight black curls and amber skin were the result of generations of mingling and mixing aboard the giant ships. Most Humans, whether space born or colony kids, shared that nationless Exodan blend.


1430789787569474338

Just after Rosemary arrives on the Wayfarer, Ashby’s told to ‘watch out for some interesting work coming down the line’. The job turns out to be creating a wormhole between Hedra Ka, home of the Toremi, back to Central Space. The job pays well as one of the Toremi clans has just been granted Galactic Commons membership. This hasn’t happened before as the clans ‘came across as vicious and incomprehensible […] they had been industriously killing each other for decades’.

Most of the book is taken up by the journey to Hedra Ka and the preparation needed for the job. Along the way, we discover Rosemary’s secret, learn an incredible amount about the individuals in the crew, find out about life in the future and witness several inter-species relationships.

The novel’s about relationships – familial, romantic and friendly. Chambers has fun considering what it means to be human and where our failings lie:

‘Do you ever get tired of Humans?[…]I’m definitely tired of them today,’ Sissix said, laying her head back. ‘I’m tired of their fleshy faces. I’m tired of their smooth fingertips. I’m tired of how they pronounce their Rs. I’m tired of their inability to smell anything. I’m tired of how clingy they get around kids that don’t even belong to them. I’m tired of how neurotic they are about being naked. I want to smack every single one of them around until they realise how needlessly complicated they make their families and their social lives and their – their everything.’

Dr Chef nodded. ‘You love them and you understand them, but sometimes you wish they – and me and Ohan, too, I’m sure – could be more like ordinary people.’

Chambers also uses her cast of characters to explore gender, pronouns, bodies, politics and religion without ever losing sight of the story or dropping the pace of the plot.

When the Bailey’s Prize longlist was first announced, there were two books I didn’t think I’d enjoy at all: one was Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord, the other was The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. (I might be a Doctor Who fan, but I read very little Science Fiction.) I was delighted to be proved completely wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book from the first page to the last. It’s well-paced with plenty of twists and turns, some of which I didn’t see coming at all; the characters are fascinating and their relationships intriguing, while the themes explore many concerns affecting current society. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a cracking read and I’ll be in the queue for a copy of the sequel later this year.

 

Thanks to Hodder for the review copy.

Push – Sapphire

I don’t know what “realism” mean but I do know what REALITY is and it’s a mutherfucker, lemme tell you.

Claireece Precious Jones – Precious to her friends, Claireece to ‘mutherfuckers I hate’ – 16-years-old, five feet nine or ten, two hundred pounds, is pregnant for the second time to her father.

When she refuses a parent-teacher conference with Mrs Lichenstein, she’s suspended from school. But Mrs Lichenstein does visit and via the intercom tells Precious she’s organised a place for her at Each One Teach One, located on the nineteenth floor of a local hotel. When Precious arrives and takes the test to determine which class she should join, it soon becomes clear she’s illiterate.

The tesses paint a picture of me wiv no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me ‘an my muver – my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible…

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, I watch TV, do what my muver says. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am – vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.

7016625
Precious tells the story of her time attending the group intertwined with that of her family situation. Sexually abused by both of her parents, her mother also beats her and accuses her of stealing her husband. Since the birth of Little Mongo, Precious’ oldest child (so named because she has Down Syndrome), Precious’ mother hasn’t left the house. She expects Precious to wait on her as she claims benefits for the child who actually lives with Precious’ grandmother.

At Each One Teach One, Precious learns to write and she also finds the courage to begin fighting for the life she wants.

Push could be an unbearable read: every time you think it couldn’t get any darker, it does, but it’s balanced by Precious’ determination. This is supported by Precious’ voice which is pitch perfect and seems authentic. Sapphire’s done an incredible job not only of capturing Precious’ voice but of including her early attempts at writing as she learns the alphabet and begins to exchange words with Ms Rain, her teacher. She’s so well drawn that at times I wanted to bring her home with me and look after her; at others, I stood on the sidelines cheering her on. If you were to tell me she doesn’t exist, I’m not sure I’d believe you.

Push is a compelling story of one hell of a life, detailing the incredibly shitty deal some people are handed through no fault of their own. It also demonstrates the power of education and the enormous difference one person who cares and has access to structures can make to another. This isn’t a book you can enjoy but it is one that grips, I devoured it in one sad but hopeful gulp.

Small g: A Summer Idyll – Patricia Highsmith

Peter Ritter, 20, leaves a cinema in Zurich around midnight one Wednesday. He takes a shortcut through an alley on the way back to his parents’ house. There he’s mugged and stabbed by two men. He’s dead on arrival at the hospital.

Peter is the boyfriend of Rickie Markwalder, a 46-year-old illustrator who creates images for advertising campaigns. Rickie lives with his dog, Lulu, close to his studio and a Bierstube-Restaurant called Jakob’s.

This was known as the Small g at weekends, but that name wasn’t appropriate around 9:30 A.M. on any day. One of the guidebooks on Zurich’s attractions so categorized Jakob’s – with a ‘small g’ – meaning a partially gay clientele but not entirely.

The locals frequent Jakob’s on a regular basis, including Luisa, who had a two-month crush on Peter, and Luisa’s boss, Renate. Renate’s around 50 ‘somehow a spy, hostile’ and has a club foot which she hides with long skirts and high shoes with one sole thicker than the other.

Renate’s behind rumours that Peter was murdered in Rickie’s bed by a stranger he picked up whilst Rickie was working late in his studio. Rickie suspects she’s engaged Willi Biber, a local who seems to be intellectually disabled, to spread these lies. Her motivation?

‘It’s these homos everywhere that are the problem! So many – you’d think AIDS didn’t exist!’ She forced a titter. ‘They are the silly ones. Always changing partners. They have no partners, just sex en masse, you know. At the same time they flirt. They think they are handsome.’

Despite Renate’s opinion, Luisa and Rickie become friends after Rickie presents her with Peter’s scarf, a token for her to remember him by.

small-g-a-summer-idyll

The tension in the novel comes largely from Renate’s attitude towards Luisa. Luisa arrived at Renate’s after being sexually abused by her stepfather and running away from home. A job and a place to sleep seemed like ‘the luckiest thing’. But Renate tries to control Luisa, ridiculing her, expecting her to wait on her, dictating whom she can see, sending Willi to spy on her and setting a curfew which, if broken, will result in the door being bolted.

Renate enjoyed her near total control of Luisa, though at the same time realized that it had a sadistic element. Whenever these self-critical thoughts crossed her mind, she absolved herself utterly from blame or overcaution by remembering Luisa when she first presented herself – unkempt, even in need of a bath, broken fingernails, hair cut short and abominably by herself, Luisa had admitted.

The more involved Luisa becomes with Rickie and his group of friends at the Small g, the more sadistic Renate’s behaviour.

In Small g, Highsmith explores attitudes to homosexuality. She tackles prejudice by associating homophobia with the characters who are vicious and susceptible to manipulation whilst showing a group of friends – gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual – having fun but ultimately being supportive, caring and understanding towards each other.

Small g was Highsmith’s final book. Having previously only read The Talented Mr Ripley, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I’d hesitate to call it a crime novel: if Peter’s murder’s ever solved we aren’t told about it and the other crime that’s committed midway through the book has a fairly obvious culprit and functions as a plot device to bring Freddie, a police office, back into Rickie’s life as well as further expose Renate’s shocking behaviour towards Luisa and her friends.

What this novel does do, however, is highlight friendship and its role in life; expose some unfounded attitudes towards LGBT communities, including a shocking scene regarding the HIV virus, and include two bisexual characters. The later isn’t without issues – one is a young woman whom it seems to suggest might be in an ‘experimental phase’ and the other is a married man – but it’s notable these characters exist when bisexuality’s often erased from culture.

Small g is an interesting read but probably not an essential one unless you’re a Highsmith completest.

Small g is reissued by Virago this week along with A Game for the Living, A Dog’s Ransom and Found in the Street.

 

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

My Plans for #ReadDiverse2016

ReadDiverse_Avatar

I don’t do New Year resolutions. I learnt some years ago that those vague statements – I’m going to do more exercise/eat less/learn a language – don’t last beyond mid-January. But goals do, at least specific ones you can work towards and extend, if necessary, or not beat yourself up about if you don’t quite fulfil them do.

Last year, I set a goal to read more books by women of colour. I joined Eva Stalker’s #TBR20 project with the caveat that I’d continue to read review copies I was sent as well. I still haven’t completed all the reviews of those books yet but the main effect it had was I paid attention to what I was reading, specifically who the writer was. In 2014 10% of my reading was by writers of colour, in 2015, it was 32%. The unintended consequence of this, however, is that the number of books I read by writers from LGBTQIA communities plummeted from 6% to 0.5% and books in translation from 11% to 0.6%. (The latter was partly a consequence of me not really taking part in #WITMonth due to personal circumstances but still, it’s poor.)

The plan for this year then: more reviews of books by women of colour; more reviews of books by women who identify as LGBT; a proper focus on women in translation in August.

I’m aiming for 50% of my reviews to be of books by women of colour. I’ve changed the focus from the percentage I’m reading with the intention of even coverage on here. What I noticed last year was that although I was reading books from my #TBR20 stack, when I got back to reading and reviewing after my break in the summer, I was focusing on books by white women, the ‘big titles’. As a consequence, I have a stack of review copies by women of colour. These are now at the top of the pile.

FullSizeRender[3]FullSizeRender[2]FullSizeRender[1]

I’ve also created a new #TBR20 pile focusing on writers from the LGBT communities. And here they are…

FullSizeRenderFullSizeRender[4]
IMG_0335Half of the books (those on the left, except Anaïs Nin who appears to be in the wrong pile) are by women of colour. I used several sources to help me compile the list: More than 50 books by Queer People of Color by zarahwithaz; 10 Novels & Memoirs By and About Black Lesbian, Bisexual and Queer Women on Autostraddle;100+ LGBTQ Black Women You Should Know: The Epic Black History Month Megapost also on Autostraddle, and the Wikipedia list of LGBT Writers.

Elsewhere, you might have seen on social media that Media Diversified have created Bare Lit Festival (@BareLit). ‘A literary festival focused entirely on writers of colour’, which will run from the 26th – 28th February 2016.

We want to counteract the trend of equating literary merit with whiteness by highlighting the amazing variety of work currently being produced by BAME writers. That’s why we’ve put together an exciting programme of performances, panels and conversations — such as ‘Second-Generation Poets in Exile’, ‘What Does Liberation in Literature Look Like?, Sci Fi vs. Afrofuturism’ and much more.

I’ve already bought my weekend pass and you can support the festival by buying passes or single event tickets now and helping them to raise the cost of running the event. Find out more on their Indiegogo page.

Mention of Media Diversified brings me to this interesting piece, posted a couple of days ago: Decolonise, not Diversify by Kavita Bhanot. I agree with everything she says.

Speaking only for myself, I didn’t get involved with #diversedecember because I thought it would change the world but I did hope it might lead some people to question their world view or the view the white-dominated world imposes upon us.

During December, Salena Godden (@salenagodden) posted a video of her performing her new poem ‘I Count’. ‘I have become a woman that counts…’ she begins. Yep. I became a woman that counts when I started this blog. I don’t think it’s a solution and it’s certainly not going to bring about one on its own, but while ever white/male/hetero/cis domination exists, I’ll count. For me, #ReadDiverse2016 (@ReadDiverse2016) is about hoping you’ll join in that count too.

Books of the Year, Part Two: 2015 Publications

Here we are then, the books from this year I’ve read and rated most highly. I’m basing my choices on the very unscientific, I thought it was brilliant at the time and I’m still thinking about it. I was concerned this would skew the list towards the end of the year but it hasn’t at all – two thirds of the books are from the first half of 2015. Publication dates are UK (where applicable) and if you click on the cover it will take you to my review.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine 

A superb book. An examination of race and the treatment of black people in present day America. Rankine uses flash fiction, essays and poetry to explore the way people of colour ‘…feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background’ and, by implication, how often, as a white person, you are complicit in creating and maintaining that background. Short, sharp and powerful, I’d like to see a copy of Citizen distributed to every household, taught in schools and university, and added to the canon. If you believe art can change the world, this is a book that should be able to do so.


A Little Life
– Hanya Yanagihara

It’s divided readers and critics but I make no apologies for including this book for several reasons: it’s utterly absorbing, I felt as though I’d been entombed in Yanagihara’s world; it focuses on male friendship which I think is unusual; the friendship group consists of four men of different ethnicities and different sexualities, one of whom is disabled and Yanagihara has written about their lives as though they are, well, people. They are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality and this feels like a break through. It’s huge and harrowing and clearly not for everyone but I’m still thinking about it six months on.

 

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy (translated by Alison Entrekin)

A short, sharp tale told in fragments. At the centre of the book is the story of the key given to the unnamed narrator by her grandfather: the key to his old house in Turkey, in Smyrna. There are four threads to the book: the narrator’s journey to her grandfather’s house; the grandfather’s journey from the house to the woman who became the narrator’s grandmother; the narrator’s relationship with her dead mother, and the narrator’s passionate affair with an unnamed man. A shocking and beautiful novella about exile in many different forms.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika
Kapur 

Mrs Sharma’s thirty-seven-years-old and married with a fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. They live in a flat in Dehli with her parents-in-law. Her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, has been working in Dubai for over a year in a bid to raise enough money to cover his parents’ medical bills and send his son to college to do an MBA in business. She works as a receptionist in a gynaecological clinic and dreams of starting her own business. Mrs Sharma’s veneer begins to crack when she meets Vineet Seghal on a station platform. Tightly plotted with precise, often repetitive, language, this is a brilliant book about an unfulfilled woman.

Vigilante – Shelley Harris

Jenny Pepper, 42, manager of a charity bookshop, married to Elliot, graphic designer, with a 14-year-old daughter, Martha, is fed-up of her life. She’s particularly annoyed and frustrated by the way men objectify women and the consequences of this behaviour. Donning a superhero costume for a fancy dress party, she stops a mugging and gets a taste for the vigilante lifestyle. Before long, she’s on the tale of someone who’s attacking teenage girls. A gripping and believable look at the concerns of a middle-aged woman and her life.

 

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

When Cathy Rentzenbrink was seventeen, her sixteen-year-old brother, Matty, was hit by a car and left in a persistent vegetative state for eight years. The book is Rentzenbrink’s story of the effect of Matty’s accident on her and her family. Told in an unflinching first person account with a huge amount of love and dollops of humour, Rentzenbrink brings the Matty she loved back to life and pays tribute to her parents without descending into mawkishness. Heartbreaking and heartwarming. Buy tissues before reading, I’m welling up just thinking about it.

 

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

A companion piece to Life After LifeA God in Ruins focuses on Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy and those who’ve shared his life – his wife, Nancy; daughter, Viola; grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, and the men he served alongside in the RAF. The structure’s non-chronological, creating a jigsaw puzzle of Teddy’s life and the lives of his family members for the reader to reconstruct; every chapter capable of standing alone as a story in its own right. The chapters set in the war are some of Atkinson’s best writing but this is more than a character study, it’s a book that explores what fiction is. Superb.

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Mr Cheong chose his wife, Yeong-Ho, because she’s passive. But then, due to a set of reoccurring dreams, she turns vegetarian; a highly unorthodox act in South Korea. The reactions of Mr Cheong and Yeong-Ho’s family turn dark and sometimes violent quite quickly. But Yeong-Ho’s brother-in-law is fascinated with her and her mongolian mark which leads to him creating a physical work of art with her. A disconcerting story that explores society’s treatment of a woman who defies expectations and how her internalisation of those expectations affects her psyche.

 

The Ship – Antonia Honeywell 

In the not so distant future where banks have collapsed, the homeless population is out of control, food is scarce and the military rule, Lalage is protected by her father, Michael Paul, and his creation, the ship. The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. As it sets sail with Michael Paul’s chosen people on it, Lalage begins to question her father’s motives and what she really wants from life. The Ship raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It’s futuristic setting is misleading, this is really a novel about what’s happening to society now.

The First Bad Man – Miranda July 

Cheryl Glickman, early forties, lives alone and works for a company who make self-defence, fitness DVDs. She has two fascinations: Phillip Bettelheim and babies who might be Kubelko Bondy, the son of her parents’ friends. Cheryl’s bosses ask if their daughter, Clee, can move in with her until she finds a job. First Clee trashes Cheryl’s system for keeping the house clean and tidy, then she’s physically fighting Cheryl for extended periods before Cheryl begins imagining herself as Phillip having sex with Clee. It sounds absurd but it’s a sharp exploration of loneliness which transforms into something emotionally fulfilling.

The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

Rachel has spent almost a decade in Idaho, monitoring wolves on a reservation but an unplanned pregnancy, the death of her mother and the offer of a job supporting the reintroduction of the Grey Wolf to Great Britain sees her returning to the Lake District. The Wolf Border considers a variety of different intersections that humans come up against – birth, death, addiction, love, political change and, of course, nature. The precision of the language, particularly in the descriptions of the Lake District and the wolves, is superb as is the characterisation of Rachel. One of our best novelists, probably her best book.

Grow a Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex 
 – Joanna Walsh

From the very opening sentences of the first story to the end of the afterword of Grow a Pair transformations occur: characters adopt and change their genitalia; a man becomes a woman; a queen becomes a witch; a woman fragments into multiple vaginas. Walsh mixes retellings of traditional fairytales like ‘The Princess and the Penis’ with new pieces. Filled with as many moments of humour as it is ones of magical realism, the collection allows its women to take control of their own sexuality and fulfilment. Entertaining, smart and thoughtful.

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

A dual narrative following two young women – North, who lives with Circus Excalibur, travelling the sea but performing most nights on land with her bear, and Callanish, the gracekeeper, living on a tiny island by the graveyard and performing Restings for the dead. North has a number of issues to deal with – she’s engaged to Ainsel and his father wants them to live on land, but she doesn’t want either of these things; Ainsel’s mother is jealous, and North is pregnant to someone else. She’s also tied to Callanish in ways that only begin to reveal themselves when the two meet. A beautifully rendered world.

 

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay 

Mirelle is kidnapped in front of her husband, Michael, and their baby, Christophe, directly outside the heavy steel gates at the bottom of the drive to her parents’ house in Haiti. She’s been taken because her father’s rich and the kidnappers believe he will pay a lot of money for her, his youngest and favourite daughter in U.S. dollars. He refuses, assuming they will return her unharmed. She’s repeatedly raped and tortured. The majority of the book deals with the aftermath, looking at whether it’s possible to rebuild a life, a marriage, a familial relationship after such horror. An interesting examination of power and privilege.

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven

Angela’s short-term ambition is for her and her best friend, Lorraine, to lose their virginity over the summer holidays. Long-term, she wants to move away from the council scheme she’s grown up on and attend Glasgow School of Art. Her parents are determined she’s getting a job. Over one summer in the 1980s, Angela and Lorraine’s friendship will deteriorate thanks to Pamela aka Little Miss Brown Nose and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘a total ride’. Class, religion, family and friendships are all explored but it’s the perceptive look at women’s sexuality and the use of Scots dialect that really make this a stand out read.

 

Honourable mentions also go to The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester; The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips; Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey; Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, The Chimes by Anna Smaill and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller.

Books of the Year, Part One: Pre-2015 Publications

Like last year, I’ve read a lot of books so I’ve decided to split my books of the year post into two – those published pre-2015 and those published in 2015 (UK dates where applicable). The latter will appear tomorrow, in the meantime, here’s my pick of the former. Clicking on the book cover will take you to my review.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman

Not just a book of the year, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Set in the Nighted States sometime in the future and narrated by fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star. White people are dead of a disease called WAKS. Black people die of something called Posies at eighteen/nineteen. Ice Cream Star’s brother, Driver, is dying and she sets out to find a cure. Written in a futuristic version of AAVE, the novel considers race, religion, politics, class, war and love and has one of the best heroines ever. Newman also gives good interview, you can read my interview with her here.


Prayers for the Stolen
– Jennifer
Clement

Ladydi Garcia Martínez was dressed as a boy until she was eleven, as were all the girls in her village. This was to prevent drug traffickers kidnapping them. But Ladydi’s friend, Paula, was taken and – astonishingly – returned. Clement illustrates the way poor, brown skinned women in an exposed state in Mexico are treated by men. Fathers are feckless; brothers are dangerous. An unknown man entering the area is to be feared. Houses are peppered with bullet holes. Ladydi’s narration lifts this from being utterly bleak and Clement’s plot twists, often buried in a mid-paragraph sentence, are brilliant.

 

The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandesamy

The story of the Kilvanmani massacre and events leading up to it in 1968. A small village in Tamil Nadu, where the farm labourers haven’t had a pay rise for ten years and any insubordination against the landlords results in beatings. When Communism arrives, the local workers stand strong but their strength results in a massacre in which 42 villagers, mostly women and children, are killed. This is also a book about how you might tell the story of a massacre and the problems you might incur. Intelligent, layered, funny metafiction blending facts and storytelling.

 

how to be both – Ali Smith 

how to be both either begins with George in the car with her recently deceased mother discussing a moral conundrum or it begins with a 550 year old painter returning (sort of) to see his painting in an art gallery and to tell us about his life. George’s section is about life after the death of her mother; Francescho’s is about his youth and becoming an artist. Smith considers what art is and what’s its value, as well as how to be two things at once – alive and dead, watched and watcher, male and female. One of the joys of reading the novel is spotting the connections between the two sections.

 

Every Kiss a War – Leesa Cross-Smith

A collection about our battle with love: to find it, to keep it, to get over it once it’s gone. Teenagers deal with abortions, parental arguments and first loves:your heart beating like two quick tick-tocking clocks, like two fists with their muffled punching. Adults negotiate beginnings, endings and whether to stay or go: And staying in love is like trying to catch a light. To hold it in my hand. Even when it looks like I have it, I don’t. Ranging from flash fiction to interlinked stories, this is a confident, beautifully written collection.

 

 

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn 

The story of the Binewski family. Crystal Lil and Aloysius Binewski created their own freaks, experimenting with ‘illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes’.Five children survived: Arturo, known as Aqua Boy; Electra and Iphigenia, conjoined twins; Olympia, a hunchback, albino dwarf, and Fortunato, known as Chick, who appears to be ‘normal’ but is revealed to have telekinetic powers. Competition is fierce between them. The sub-plot, set in the future tells of Olympia and her daughter, Miranda, pursued by heiress, Mary Lick, who pays for women to be operated on so they’re less attractive/less likely to be exploited by men. A cult classic.

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

My review of this was bumped to January 2016 due to #diversedecember but I love this book. Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lottringer, have dinner with Dick, a cultural critic and acquaintance of Sylvère’s.  Chris falls for Dick and begins writing letters to him. The love is largely unrequited but she explores her feelings for him through the letters. The second half of the book, in particular, becomes much more than that, it’s filled with critical essays on art and theorists and explores the role of women in culture and life. A book you need to read with a pencil in hand. Should be described as ‘a classic’, rather than ‘a feminist classic’.

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen 

Two novellas packaged together. In Quicksand Helga Crane searches for happiness. It’s always fleeting and she moves on until she finds herself trapped. Passing, the stronger of the two stories, focuses on a rekindled friendship between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Clare is passing as white to the extent that not even her racist husband knows she’s black. The tension comes from knowing she’s bound to be exposed but also the devastating consequences her reappearance has on Irene’s life too.

 

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo

A counterfactual slave narrative in which black people rule the world and whites are slaves. Divided into three sections, the first and third focus on Omorenomwara/Doris Scagglethorpe and her attempt to escape Chief Kaga Konata Katamba (KKK) and return to her family. The middle of the novel is the chief’s story of his involvement in the slave trade. His pronouncements about the inferiority of the Caucasoinid are supported by anthropology, ideas of savagery and a mission to save souls. Very funny in a horrifying sense. The reversal highlights the ludicrousness of the slide trade as well as reminding us of the barbarity of it.

How to Be a Heroine – Samantha
Ellis 

On a visit to Top Withins, the house that inspired Wuthering Heights, Ellis has a revelation: My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane. It leads her to revisit heroines from her formative years and consider others she didn’t read at the time. Part-memoir, part-literary criticism, fearlessly feminist, this will add to your TBR books you want to read and books you want to revisit. Part of the joy of this book is the space Ellis leaves for you to discuss and argue with her. I didn’t always agree with her points (#TeamCathy) but I was always engaged.

 

 

Mân – Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman)

Mãn is raised by her third mother after the first dies and the second retreats from the world. Maman takes her to a big city and passes on the things her mother has taught her. Maman finds Mãn a husband and moves to Montreal to live with him, helping to run his restaurant. As it becomes more and more successful, Mãn travels to Paris where the cookbook she’s co-written has also been a success. There she meets another restaurant owner and falls in love. Told in first person narrated vignettes, this is a beautifully written and emotionally engaging book.

How to be both – Ali Smith

Depending which version of the book you have in front of you, How to be both either begins with George in the car with her recently deceased mother discussing a moral conundrum or it begins with a 550 year old painter returning (sort of) to see his painting in an art gallery and to tell us about his life. As my copy begins with George, I’m going to start there.

It’s New Year’s Eve. George, a teenager, is remembering a conversation between her and her mother the previous May. They were in the car when George’s mother tells her to consider a moral conundrum, one that begins with George imagining she is an artist.

This will be the first year her mother hasn’t been alive since the year her mother was born. This is so obvious that it is stupid even to think about it and yet so terrible that you can’t not think about it. Both at once.

George is spending the beginning of the New Year looking up the lyrics to Let’s Twist Again. She’s decided she’s going to begin the remaining days of the holidays dancing to a song like her mother used to. This happens while George recalls the conversation she had with her mother about being an artist.

Okay, I’m imagining, George in the passenger seat last May in Italy says at exactly the same time as George at home in England the following January stares at the meaninglessness of the words of an old song. Outside the car window Italy unfurls round and over them so hot and yellow it looks like it’s been sandblasted.

The conundrum is whether an artist working on a project with other artists, all of whom are being paid the same, deserves more money because they believe their work is worth more than the others.

Smith uses this beginning in two ways; it serves as an introduction to George and her mother, particularly their relationship with each other, and it links to a key element of the other story, although this doesn’t become obvious until some way into the other section.

George’s section goes on to tell the story of her family life, both before and after her mother’s death. It focuses on George, particularly on school where she has counselling sessions Mrs Rock and becomes close friends with Helena Fisker.

The other section begins with a fifteenth century, Italian artist, Francescho del Cossa returning to consciousness and finding himself standing behind a boy looking at a painting.

A boy in front of a painting.

Good : I like a good back : the best thing about a turned back is the face you can’t see stays a secret : hey : you : can’t hear me? Can’t hear? No? My chin on your shoulder right next to your ear and you still can’t hear, ha well, old argument about eye or ear being mightier all goes to show it’s neither here no there when you’re neither here nor there so call me Cosmo call me Lorenzo call me Ercole call me unknown painter of the school of whatever you like I forgive you I don’t care – don’t have to care – good – somebody else can care…

Francescho tells the story of his youth, living with his parents – his father a bricklayer – and discovering he had a talent for art. He goes on to talk about his apprenticeship and how he came to create the painting which survived him. Throughout this, he follows George from the first section as her story continues.

There are many impressive things about this novel: it’s tightly structured with reference to its themes; the two parts of the book interweave and reference each other throughout; there’s some beautiful wordplay, particularly in the George section.

Smith considers what is art and what is its value throughout the book. George’s mother was one of the ‘Subvert interventionists’. A movement who used early pop-up technology to make ‘a random visual or a piece of information’ appear on web pages. Her mother’s job was ‘to subvert political things with art things’ and vice-versa. One of her mother’s most retweeted Subverts is:

Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.

This links to Francescho’s idea that ‘A picture is most times just picture : but sometimes a picture is more…’. He talks about the ways in which paintings go beyond the frame and what occurs then:

Cause then it does 2 opposing things at once.
The one is, it lets the world be seen and understood.
The other is, it unchains the eye and the lives of those who see it and gives them a moment of freedom, from its world and from their world both.

This idea of being ‘both’/two things at once runs through the book too. The idea that someone can be both alive and dead, watched and the watcher, male and female. It’s about things moving on while continuing to reference the past. One of the joys of the book, is spotting the links – of which there are many – between the novel’s two sections.

I do have one criticism, however, and that’s that the Francescho section of the novel doesn’t seem to be as strong to me as the George section. There’s two reasons for this: firstly, the George section could stand on its own and still make sense but I don’t think the Francescho section could; this is mostly due to the points where it intersects with George’s story – they occur after the reader leaves George’s story and are too vague to make sense without an understanding of her situation. Secondly, the wordplay of George’s section – mostly instigated by George being pedantic over her mother’s grammar – is largely absent from the Francescho section which was a shame, as it’s very enjoyable to read. There is a caveat to this in that, so far, I’ve only read the novel starting with George’s story so it will be interesting to see if I change my mind once I’ve reread it the other way around.

How to be both is a smart, playful novel that considers its themes in great depth while being an absolute joy to read.