Backlist Books of the Year

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.

An Unkindness of Ghosts – Rivers Solomon #DiverseDecember #12

“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 Planet meets 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. 

Trauma in Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Kindred by Octavia Butler and Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My favourite thing on Twitter at the moment is the monthly discussions about sci-fi and fantasy books by women, led by the writer Gem Todd (author of Defender and Hunted as GX Todd). Each month we vote on a selection of books before reading and then discussing the most popular choice. In May and June we discussed two novels by black women which dealt with different types of trauma – the classic Kindred by Octavia Butler and the Afrofuturist, soon-to-be a HBO series, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a 26-year-old black woman living a few miles from LA with her white husband, Kevin. It’s 1976. As they unpack the boxes in their new home, Dana begins to feel dizzy and sick. She’s pulled from 1976 to 1815 where a young white boy, Rufus, is drowning. Dana saves him but then is almost shot by the boy’s father. As she stares down the barrel of his rifle, she travels forwards to 1976 where Kevin tells her she’s only been missing for a few seconds.

Later that evening, Dana finds herself back with Rufus who is now three or four years older and attempting to set fire to the curtains in the room he’s in. It soon becomes clear that Rufus is the son of a plantation owner and also a relative of Dana’s.

Over the course of the novel, Dana is repeatedly called to Rufus when he is in mortal danger. She’s tied to him in the sense that she seems to be the only person who can save him from himself and also because she exists due to his relationship with her ancestor, Alice, a free black girl who lives outside the bounds of the plantation with her mother, who is also free.

The complexity of Dana’s link to Rufus allows Butler to explore ideas of structural inequality, complicity and the way in which horrific behaviour can be normalised.

Kevin and I became more a part of the household, familiar, accepted, accepting. That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history – adjusting to our places in the household of a slaveholder.

Kindred is a difficult and disturbing read – as it should be. The moral complexity of Butler’s tale also makes it a thoughtful one and raises questions about our own behaviour in a time where white supremacy is highly visible once again.

Onyesonwu is the protagonist of Who Fears Death, the title being the meaning of her name in an ancient language. Onyesonwu is an Ewu – the product of rape – and has been shunned because of it. The novel begins with her telling us that the father who raised her, who looked beyond what she was to who she was, died. In the four years since his death a lot has happened. She dictates this to an unknown scribe with a laptop during the two days she has left to live.

She tells of her upbringing in the desert with her mother. Of finally settling in a town and going to school. Of the friends she makes, including Mwita, a boy who is also Ewu. She also reveals that she is more than she seems:

“There was a vulture,” I said. “Looking right at me. Close enough for me to see its eyes. I threw a rock at it and as it flew off, one of its feathers fell off. A long black one. I…went and picked it up. I was standing there wishing I could fly as it did. And then…I don’t…”
“You changed,” Mwita said. He was looking at me very closely.
“Yeah! I became the vulture. I swear to you! I’m not making this..”
“You’re an Eshu,” he said.
“A what?” The word sounded like a sneeze.
“An Eshu. You can shape-shift, among other things.”

Onyesonwu is being hunted by something that repeatedly appears to her as an oval eye. In order to help her harness her powers and defeat the thing that seeks her, she tries to get Aro, the sorcerer, to teach her. He rejects her while apprenticing Mwita. Why? Because she’s a girl.

Who Fears Death is a coming of age story that deals with first love, friendship and sex. It also looks at power – who has it, how it can be used, how to defeat it and what happens when it goes wrong. Okorafor considers how society treats women, including men who would view themselves as supportive of women but still fall foul of their own egos. The book’s strength lies in Onyesonwu’s youth and flaws – she doesn’t transform into a strong, all-conquering woman but has to deal with her fallibility and her mistakes – and also in the friendship between four young women, including Onyesonwu, which develops as the novel progresses. It’s an interesting and inventive story but also a slightly overlong one.

Thanks to Headline for the review copy of Kindred.