All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett & I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m catching up with reviews of two February releases that I spent the whole of last month submerged in. These are early entries on my Best of 2023 list: A lovely memoir about grief and gardening, caring for an ill child and a dying parent; and a riveting true crime-inspired novel, set on a boarding school campus, that rages at injustice and violence against women.
All My Wild Mothers: Motherhood, loss and an apothecary garden by Victoria Bennett
Early in February, I attended the online book launch via Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere. With conversation, readings and song, it was the ideal introduction to the themes of this debut memoir by a poet. The book is composed of dozens of brief autobiographical, present-tense essays, each titled after a wildflower with traditional healing properties. The chapters are headed by a black-and-white woodcut of each plant (by Bennett’s husband, Adam Clarke) and a précis of its medicinal uses, as well as where it is found. Again and again, these descriptions site the flora on edgelands or “disturbed ground” – the perfect metaphorical tie-in to Bennett’s tumultuous life and the comfort that creating an apothecary garden brought.
Bennett is the youngest of six children. When she was expecting her son – much longed for after multiple pregnancy losses – news came that her eldest sister had died in a canoeing accident. At age two, her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; managing his condition has imposed a heavy emotional burden. And years later, she was the primary caregiver for her elderly mother as she was dying of mesothelioma. The memoir’s format – which arose in part because it was written over the course of 10 years, during stolen moments – realistically presents bereavement and caring as ongoing, cyclical challenges rather than one-time events.
There are no simple solutions offered here, nothing so pat as that ‘gardening heals all hurts’, but Bennett writes into the broken places and finds joy in what comes to life spontaneously in nature or in her ramshackle yard on a social housing estate in Cumbria. She recalls a horse chestnut tree that looked over her outside the window of her childhood home; she and her son take impish delight in guerrilla gardening and sometimes disastrous cooking projects with foraged fruit. Some of my favourite individual vignettes were “Elder,” about the magic and medicine of making elderberry syrup from the few village trees that escape the chainsaw; “Dandelion,” about her trio of older sisters, who were Greenham Common protestors and always tried to protect her as well as nature; “Herb Robert,” about her sister-in-law’s funeral; and especially “Honeysuckle,” about a local agricultural show where the officious organizers make them feel like interlopers yet her son wins first place for their feral, fecund garden.
Many side topics twine into the narrative as well: a difficult relationship with a controlling mother; a family history that takes in boarding schools, cults, road trips, risk taking and mental health issues; the economic disparity that leads to one set of rules for the rich and another for those on benefits. But the core of the book is a tender mother–son relationship. “I can give him this: a seed, with all its defiant hope against the dark; and the memory that once, we grew a garden out of rock, and waste, and all things broken, and it thrived.” Sitting somewhere between creative nonfiction and nature essays, it’s a beautiful read for any fan of women’s life writing, especially if you share the interests in grief or gardening. I hope we’ll see it recognized on the Barbellion and Wainwright Prize shortlists alike.
Readalikes I have reviewed: A Still Life by Josie George, The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick
With thanks to Victoria Bennett and Two Roads for the free copy for review.
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m a big fan of Makkai’s first two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and have her other two books lined up to read, so I was excited to hear about this new work and put it on my Most Anticipated list for the year. My interest was redoubled by Laura’s review, which likens it to a cross between Prep and My Dark Vanessa – irresistible.
Bodie Kane grew up in a deprived and dysfunctional family in Indiana, and has beneficent Mormon neighbours to thank for the tuition money that allowed her to attend Granby, an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school, in the early to mid-1990s. She was an angry and awkward high school student, yet her memories of Granby and the friendships she made there are still an emotional mainstay more than two decades later. In 2018, she is a successful film professor with a podcast about Hollywood starlets. Although she is separated from Jerome, her artist husband, he lives next door and they co-parent their two children.
After an invitation comes from Granby to teach a two-week course on podcasting, Bodie trades Los Angeles for a bitter New England winter. It’s the perfect excuse to indulge her obsession with the 1995 murder of her former Granby roommate, Thalia Keith, who was found dead in the swimming pool one March morning after a play performance. Bodie has never been comfortable with the flawed case against the Black athletics coach, Omar Evans, who has been imprisoned ever since. When one of her students chooses to make Thalia’s murder the subject of a podcast, it’s all the justification Bodie needs to dive deep into her pet hypothesis: Thalia was sleeping with the music director, Denny Bloch, and he was involved in her death in some way. Her blinkered view threatens to exclude a key explanation. Still, the informal sleuthing she and her students do is enough to warrant a follow-up hearing in 2022, but they – and Omar – are up against a broken system.
Makkai has taken her cues from the true crime genre and constructed a convincing mesh of evidence and theories. There’s a large cast of secondary characters, from Dorian, the bully who once humiliated Bodie with sexual slurs, to Fran, the faculty kid/gay best friend who now lives and works on campus herself and continues to be Bodie’s trusty backup. The combinations of background + teenage behaviour + 40-something lives all feel authentic in their randomness (when I saw that Makkai sourced 24 names from indie bookstore supporters, I realized afresh just how real, as opposed to ‘made-up’, these characters feel).
At times I wondered if there was too much detail on the case and the former classmates; I might even have streamlined the novel by doing away with the 2022 section altogether, though it ends up being crucial to the plot. But Makkai has so carefully crafted these pen portraits, and so intimately involved us in Bodie’s psyche, that it’s easy to become invested in the story. What’s more, the novel introduces a seam of rage about violence towards women – so predictably excused and allowed to recur by a justice system weighted against victims –
What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation? Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own. Girl as sacrifice to the idea of girl.
let’s say it was the one where the rugby team covered up the girl’s death and the school covered for the rugby team. Actually it was the one where the therapist spent years grooming her. It was the one where the senator, then a promising teenager, shoved his d*ck in the girl’s face. … It was the one where her body was never found. It was the one where her body was found in the snow. It was the one where he left her body for dead under the tarp.
– yet also finds nuance in the situation when Bodie’s ex-husband is subjected to exaggerated #MeToo accusations. It’s timely, daring, intelligent, enthralling storytelling. Susan (review here) and I are both hoping to see this make the Women’s Prize longlist next week.
Readalikes I have reviewed: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
With thanks to Fleet for the proof copy for review.
What are the best 2023 books you’ve read so far?
A Trip to Kyoto with Muriel Barbery and Florentyna Leow (#FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies)
One of my most recent Book Serendipity incidents was reading these two 139-page books about a foreigner’s wanderings in Kyoto (often touring temples) at the same time. They’re also both from independent publishers, so I’m taking the opportunity to review them together for Read Indies month. The Barbery is also towards Marina Sofia’s casual French February challenge.
A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery (2020; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Alison Anderson]
That Barbery is a Japanophile was clear from her whimsical The Writer’s Cats, which I reviewed for Novellas in November in 2021. Here she takes inspiration from a Japanese aesthetic of minimalist prose, melancholy walks in rainy gardens, and a mixture of legends and stoic Buddhist philosophy. Rose, the half-French, half-Japanese protagonist, is in Kyoto to hear the reading of the will made by her late father, Haru, a contemporary art dealer.
A 40-year-old botanist, Rose is adrift, her father’s death just the latest in a string of losses that have caused her to close off her heart. Her time in Kyoto, while she waits to meet with the lawyer, is a low-key cycle of visits to gardens and Buddhist temples, sake-soused meals, going to bed sad and tipsy, and waking up to rain and preparing to do it all over again. Her minder is Paul, a Belgian who was her father’s assistant. They initially find each other irritating, but are gradually drawn together as two damaged souls.
There are lovely descriptive passages, and the theme of the inescapability of suffering cannot be refuted. The universality of loss comes across in key quotes from Issa and Rainer Maria Rilke, respectively: “in this world / we walk on the roof of hell / gazing at flowers” and “A single rose is every rose.” Still, I somehow found this work both too subtle (the only vaguely relevant chapter-opening snippets of history or legend) and too obvious (“Everybody hurts” is hardly a groundbreaking message). This was my third novella by Barbery. Shall I carry on and read The Elegance of the Hedgehog as well?
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow (2023)
On the face of it, this collection has quite a lot in common with Nina Mingya Powles’s Tiny Moons, from the same publisher: travel- and food-inspired essays that loop through some of the same experiences of loneliness and disorientation. The writers also have a similar background, with Leow a Malaysian Chinese woman living in Japan. She is able to pass for Japanese and so is experienced at code-switching as she moves from temple to jazz bar to teahouse and learns new dialects and accents.
For some years she made a living by leading tours she could never have afforded herself. Much as she loves Kyoto and its sights, she tired of the crowds and of seeing the same temples all the time. It took a stranger observing that she seemed unhappy in her work for her too realize it was time for a change.
This disillusionment and the end of her friendship with her female housemate are the main themes of this short book, especially in the six-part title essay. Interestingly, she describes the end of their relationship in the sort of terms that would generally be used for a romantic break-up, despondently querying what went wrong between them when they had been so happy picking and cooking the fruit from the persimmon tree outside their apartment window. Indeed, later on she cites the concept of a “romantic friendship.”
But I think what she was really mourning was the temporary nature of life. We’re nostalgic for golden times we can never get back. I think of parts of my early twenties like that. I wouldn’t necessarily trade my life now to go back in time (or maybe I would), but those periods will always glow in my memory.
My favourite essays were “Persimmons,” “A Bowl of Tea,” “A Rainy Day in Kyoto” and “Egg Love” – prove you care for someone by learning how they like their eggs. This wasn’t a particularly stand-out read for me, especially in comparison to the Powles, but I’d happily read more by Leow in the future.
A favourite passage:
REASONS FOR TEA
To celebrate. To thank someone. To enjoy the scent of different incense. To listen to the rain. To view an autumn moon reflected on a pond outside. To watch snow blanket the garden. To hear the texture of that silence. To walk through freshly fallen snow before dawn on the way to the teahouse. To drink tea by candlelight. To remember someone. To bask in the light, the cool of early summer mornings. Because it is spring. Because the leaves are changing colour. Because it is autumn. Because the plum blossoms are out. Because the world is beautiful. Because why not?
How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart will be published on 23 February. With thanks to The Emma Press for the proof copy for review.
Dylan Thomas & Folio Prize Lists and a Book Launch
Literary prize season is upon us! I sometimes find it overwhelming, but mostly I love it. Last month I submitted a longlist of my top five manuscripts to be considered for the McKitterick Prize. In the past week the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and Folio Prize shortlists have been announced. The press release for the former notes “an even split of debut and established names, with African diaspora and female voices dominating.”
- Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Atlantic Books) – novel (Australia)
- Seven Steeples by Sara Baume (Tramp Press) – novel (Ireland)
- God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu (Orion, Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – short story collection (Nigeria)
- Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – novel (UK)
- Phantom Gang by Ciarán O’Rourke (The Irish Pages Press) – poetry collection (Ireland)
- Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor (Oneworld) – novel (Kenya)
- Losing the Plot by Derek Owusu (Canongate Books) – novel (UK)
- I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel (Rough Trade Books) – novel (UK)
- Send Nudes by Saba Sams (Bloomsbury Publishing) – short story collection (UK)
- Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire (Chatto & Windus) – poetry collection (Somalia-UK)
- Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – novel (UK)
- No Land to Light On by Yara Zgheib (Atlantic Books, Allen & Unwin) – novel (Lebanon)
I happen to have already read Warsan Shire’s poetry collection and Nell Stevens’ debut novel (my review), which I loved and am delighted to see get more attention. I had Seven Steeples as an unsolicited review copy on my e-reader so have started reading that, and Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is one of the books I treated myself to with Christmas money. There’s a possibility of a longlist blog tour, so for that I’ve requested the poetry book Phantom Gang. The shortlist will be announced on 23 March and the winner on 11 May.
This is the first year of the new Rathbones Folio Prize format: as in the defunct Costa Awards, the judges will choose a winner in each of three categories and then the category winners will go on to compete for an overall prize.
- The Passengers by Will Ashon
- In Love by Amy Bloom
- The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland
- Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
- The Social Distance Between Us by Darren McGarvey
- Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley
- Ephemeron by Fiona Benson
- Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
- England’s Green by Zaffar Kunial
- Manorism by Yomi Ṣode
- Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo
- Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser
- Pure Colour by Sheila Heti
- Emergency by Daisy Hildyard
- Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
Amy Bloom’s memoir In Love was one of my favourites last year, but I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the nonfiction shortlist and all the poetry collections are new to me (though I’ve read Zaffar Kunial’s Us). From the fiction list, I’m currently reading Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea and I’ve read part of Sheila Heti’s bizarre Pure Colour and will try to get back into it on my Kindle at some point. In 2021 I was sent the entire Folio Prize shortlist to feature on my blog, but last year there was no contact from the publicists. I’ve expressed interest in receiving the poetry nominees, if nothing else.
The Women’s Prize longlist is always announced on International Women’s Day (8 March). Very unusually for me, I have already put together a list of novels we might see on that. I actually started compiling the list in 2022, and then last month spent some bookish procrastination time scouring the web for what I might have missed. There are 124 books on my list. Before cutting that down by 90% I have to decide if I want to be really thorough and check the publisher for each one (bar some exceptions, each publisher can only submit two books). I’ll work on that a bit more and post it in the next couple of weeks.
Last night I attended an online book launch (throwback to 2020!) via Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere, for All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett. Vik saw me express interest in her book on Twitter and had her publisher, Two Roads, send me a copy. I knew I had to attend the launch event because the Bookshop Band wrote a song about the book and premiered it as a music video partway through the evening. I’ve read the first 50 pages so far and it’s a lovely book I’ll review in full later in the month.
The brief autobiographical essays, each titled after a wildflower and headed by a woodcut of it, sit somewhere between creative nonfiction and nature writing, with Bennett reflecting on her sister’s sudden accidental death, her years caring for elderly parents and an ill son, and the process of creating an “apothecary garden” from scratch on a social housing estate in Cumbria. Interviewed by Catherine Simpson (author of When I Had a Little Sister), she said that the book is about “what grows not in spite of brokenness, but because of it.” The format is such in part because it was written over the course of 10 years and Bennett could only steal moments at a time from full-time caregiving. She has also previously published poetry, but this is her prose debut.
Simpson asked if she found the writing of All My Wild Mothers cathartic and Bennett replied that she went to therapy for that purpose, but that time and words have indeed helped to mellow anger and self-pity. She found that she was close enough in time to the events she writes about to remember them, but not so close as to get lost in grief. The Bookshop Band’s song “Keeping the Magic,” mostly on cello and guitar, has imagery of wildflowers and trees and dwells on the maternal and muddling through. (You can watch a performance of it here.)
Yesterday was a day of bad family news for me, both a diagnosis and another sudden death, so this was a message I needed, of beauty and hope alongside the grief. It’s why I’m so earnestly seeking warmth and spring flowers this season. I found snowdrops in the park the other day, and crocuses in a neighbour’s garden today.
Which literary prize races will you follow this year?
What’s bringing joy into your life these days?
Barbellion Prize Shortlist: Book of Hours by Letty McHugh
The Barbellion Prize shortlist, announced yesterday, consists of the short story collection Polluted Sex and the novel Chouette, both of which I’m still keen to read; and two nonfiction works, Hybrid Humans, which I reviewed last year, and Letty McHugh’s hybrid memoir, Book of Hours: An Almanac for the Seasons of the Soul.
I’m saving up tiny joys the way a bear fattens up for the coming winter
A patchwork quilt of ordinary leftover happiness
to keep me warm through the darkest part of the night.
In medieval times, a book of hours was a devotional book that set out the day’s prayers. Usually an illuminated manuscript, it was a precious object for laypeople, and a way of marking time. For Letty McHugh, a Yorkshire-based visual artist who lives with chronic pain and illness, this book of hours is many things: a journal, a scrapbook, an enquiry into the monastic impulse, and an interrogation of the potential meanings of physical suffering.
In April 2020, McHugh experienced a relapse of MS so bad she had to move back in with her parents and was sleeping 20 hours a day. Her sphere had contracted to a single room. If only, she wished, there was “something to concentrate on that wasn’t my unravelling body or the unravelling world.” A Catholic upbringing and childhood holidays in Northumberland made her think about the early Christian hermits and saints like Aidan, Cuthbert and Julian of Norwich who salvaged something from solitude, who out of the privations of monasticism made monuments of faith and, sometimes, written documents, too.
This was the inspiration behind her own book of hours, which intersperses poems and photographs of found objects (wildflowers, animal skulls, sea glass and shells) with biographical sketches of saints, short autobiographical essays about her childhood and career, and musings on faith and pain. Metaphors of magic and outer space contrast with the claustrophobia of “the illness place,” somewhere she knows she’ll return to again and again. Although she knows she will never be perfectly holy or perfectly productive, she is encouraged to know that even those with confined lives (such as Emily Dickinson) can have a rich inner existence. While she resists the desire for a cure, or for a simple meaning to suffering, she bears witness to the fact that creativity can emerge in spite of everything.
I enjoyed spending time with this meticulously crafted and meditative work that engages with the present moment but also the eternal. It’s perfect onward reading for fans of the inaugural Barbellion Prize winner, Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, and A Still Life by Josie George, a shortlistee from last year.
Book of Hours was self-published with assistance from Disability Arts Online. You can buy a signed copy of the handmade book from her Etsy shop, or read the text for free here.
With thanks to Letty McHugh for sending a free e-copy for review.
This year’s Barbellion Prize judges are Dr Emmeline Burdett, Lynn Buckle (last year’s winner) and scholar Ray Davis. The winner will be announced in February.
11 Days, 11 Books: 2023’s Reading So Far
I realized that, as in 2020, I happen to have finished 11 books so far this year (including a Patrick Gale again). Some of the below I’ll be reviewing in full for other themes or challenges coming up, and others have paid reviews pending that I can’t share yet, but I’ve written a little bit about each of the others. Here’s how my reading year has started off…
A children’s book
Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Similar in strategy to Hargrave’s previous book (also illustrated by her husband Tom de Freston), Julia and the Shark, one of my favourite reads of last year – both focus on the adventures of a girl who has trouble relating to her mother, a scientific researcher obsessed with a particular species. Leila, a Syrian refugee, lives with family in London and is visiting her mother in the far north of Norway. She joins her in tracking an Arctic fox on an epic journey, and helps the expedition out with social media. Migration for survival is the obvious link. There’s a lovely teal and black colour scheme, but I found this unsubtle. It crams too much together that doesn’t fit.
A genre that pretty much never makes it onto my stacks, but I read these two despite knowing little to nothing about the authors; instead, I was drawn in by their particular stories.
A Heart that Works by Rob Delaney – Delaney is an American actor who was living in London for TV filming in 2016 when his third son, baby Henry, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He died before the age of three. The details of disabling illness and brutal treatment could not be other than wrenching, but the tone is a delicate balance between humour, rage, and tenderness. The tribute to his son may be short in terms of number of words, yet includes so much emotional range and a lot of before and after to create a vivid picture of the wider family. People who have never picked up a bereavement memoir will warm to this one.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah – Again, I was not familiar with the author’s work in TV/comedy, but had heard good things so gave this a try. It reminded me of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father what with the African connection, the absent father, the close relationship with his mother, and the reflections on race and politics. I especially loved his stories of being dragged to church multiple times every Sunday. He writes a lot about her tough love, and the difficulty of leaving hood life behind once you’ve been sucked into it. The final chapter is exceptional. Noah does a fine job of creating scenes and dialogue; I’d happily read another book of his.
Bournville by Jonathan Coe – Coe does a good line in witty state-of-the-nation novels. Patriotism versus xenophobia is the overarching dichotomy in this one, as captured through a family’s response to seven key events from English history over the last 75+ years, several of them connected with the royals. Mary Lamb, the matriarch, is an Everywoman whose happy life still harboured unfulfilled longings. Coe mixes things up by including monologues, diary entries, and so on. In some sections he cuts between the main action and a transcript of a speech, TV commentary, or set of regulations. Covid informs his prologue and the highly autobiographical final chapter, and it’s clear he’s furious with the government’s handling.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng – Disappointing compared to her two previous novels. I’d read too much about the premise while writing a synopsis for Bookmarks magazine, so there were no surprises remaining. The political commentary, though necessary, is fairly obvious. The structure, which recounts some events first from Bird’s perspective and then from his mother Margaret Miu’s, makes parts of the second half feel redundant. Still, impossible not to find the plight of children separated from their parents heart-rending, or to disagree with the importance of drawing attention to race-based violence. It’s also appealing to think about the power of individual stories and how literature and libraries might be part of an underground protest movement.
And a memoir in miniature
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly – I love memoirs-in-essays. Fennelly goes for the same minimalist approach as Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. Pieces range from one line to six pages and mostly pull out moments of note from the everyday of marriage, motherhood and house maintenance. I tended to get more out of the ones where she reinhabits earlier life, like “Goner” (growing up in the Catholic church); “Nine Months in Madison” (poetry fellowship in Wisconsin, running around the lake where Otis Redding died in a plane crash); and “Emulsionar,” (age 23 and in Barcelona: sexy encounter, immediately followed by scary scene). Two about grief, anticipatory for her mother (“I’ll be alone, curator of the archives”) and realized for her sister (“She threaded her arms into the sleeves of grief” – you can tell Fennelly started off as a poet), hit me hardest. Sassy and poignant.
The best so far? Probably Born a Crime, followed by Bournville.
Any of these you have read or would read?
Best Backlist Reads of the Year
Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. These 16 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2022 post (coming up tomorrow), make up the top 9.5% or so of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.
First, a special mention for this trio:
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
It’s unusual for me to fall so wholeheartedly for short stories. I intended to write up these three “Birds” collections as part of my short story focus in September but ultimately decided to spend more time with the latter two (and then fell ill with Covid before I could write them up, so look out for my full reviews early in the new year). The word from the title is incidental, really; the books do have a lot in common in terms of theme and tone, though. The environment, fidelity and motherhood are recurring elements. The warmth and psychological depth are palpable. Each story feels fleshed out enough that I would happily read an entire novel set in its world, but also such that it is complete unto itself. Two of these writers (Bergman and Moore) are best known for short stories; the third, to my mind, should be.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier: I’ve read all of Chevalier’s novels and always thought of this one as my favourite. A reread didn’t change that. I loved the neat structure that bookends the action between the death of Queen Victoria and the death of Edward VII, and the focus on funerary customs (with Highgate Cemetery a major setting) and women’s rights.
Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Julia and her parents are on an island adventure to Unst, in the north of Shetland, where her father will keep the lighthouse for a summer and her mother, a marine biologist, will search for the Greenland shark. Hargrave treats the shark as both a real creature and a metaphor for all that lurks – all that we fear and don’t understand. Beautifully illustrated, too; a modern children’s classic in the making.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: A brooding character study of two sisters isolated by their scandalous family history and the suspicion of the townspeople. I loved the offbeat voice and unreliable narration, and the way the Blackwood house is both a refuge and a prison for the sisters. Who is protecting whom, and from what? There are a lot of great scenes, all so discrete that I could see this working very well as a play
Foster by Claire Keegan: A delicate, heart-rending novella about a deprived young Irish girl sent to live with rural relatives for one pivotal summer. It bears all the hallmarks of a book several times its length: a convincing and original voice, rich character development, an evocative setting, just enough backstory, psychological depth, conflict and sensitive treatment of difficult themes like poverty and neglect. I finished the one-sitting read in a flood of tears.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: One good man’s small act of rebellion is a way of standing up to the injustice of the Magdalen Laundries, a church-sanctioned system that must have seemed too big to tackle. Keegan fits so much into so few pages, including Bill working out who his father was and deciding what to make of the middle of his life. Like Foster, this is set in the 1980s but feels timeless. Absolutely beautiful.
The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius: Sally Jones is a ship’s engineer who journeys from Portugal to India to clear her captain’s name when he is accused of murder. She’s also a gorilla. This was the perfect rip-roaring adventure story to read at sea (on the ferry to Spain in May); the twisty plot and larger-than-life characters who aid or betray Sally Jones kept the nearly 600 pages turning quickly.
Honorifics by Cynthia Miller: Miller is a Malaysian American poet in Edinburgh. The themes of her debut include living between countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home. There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms and others freer: a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: The University of Washington rowing team in general, and Joe Rantz in particular, were unlikely champions. Boatbuilding and rowing both come across as admirable skills involving hard physical labour, scientific precision and an artist’s mind. All along, Brown subtly weaves in the historical background: Depression-era Seattle with its shantytowns, and the rise of Hitler in Germany. A classic underdog story.
My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster: Having become a homeowner for the first time earlier this year, I was interested in how an author would organize their life around the different places they’ve lived. The early chapters about being a child in Carlisle are compelling in terms of cultural history; later on she observes gentrification in London, and her home becomes a haven for her during her cancer treatment.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie: A reread started on our July trip to the Outer Hebrides. I’d forgotten how closely Jamie’s interests align with my own: Scotland and its islands, birds, the prehistoric, museums, archaeology. I particularly appreciated “Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda,” but everything she writes is profound: “if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain.”
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson: Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time (through 1970s), also serving as president of the National Parks Association. This collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us.
Smile by Sarah Ruhl: These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after delivery, Ruhl developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression – it was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet provoked questions about whether the body equates to identity.
Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght: Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia. Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. Amid the science, this is a darn good story, full of bizarre characters. Top-notch nature and travel writing; a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest.
Some of the best backlist reads I own and could lay my hands on.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
The 2023 Releases I’ve Read So Far
Some reviewers and book bloggers are constantly reading three to six months ahead of what’s out on the shelves, but I tend to get behind on proof copies and read from the library instead. (Who am I kidding? I’m no influencer.)
In any case, I happen to have read a number of pre-release books, generally for paid review for Foreword, Shelf Awareness, etc. Most of my reviews haven’t been published yet; I’ll give very brief excerpts and ratings here to pique the interest.
Early in January I’ll follow up with my 20 Most Anticipated titles of the coming year.
My top recommendations so far:
(In alphabetical order)
Shoot the Horses First by Leah Angstman [Feb. 28, Kernpunkt Press]: Sixteen sumptuous historical stories ranging from flash to novella length depict outsiders and pioneers who face disability and prejudice with poise.
The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland [April 4, Simon & Schuster]: Four characters – two men and two women; two white people and two Black slaves – are caught up in the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811. Painstakingly researched and a propulsive read.
Tell the Rest by Lucy Jane Bledsoe [March 7, Akashic Books]: A high school girl’s basketball coach and a Black poet, both survivors of a conversion therapy camp in Oregon, return to the site of their spiritual abuse, looking for redemption.
All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer [April 4, Hub City Press]: A pensive memoir investigates the blinking lights that appeared in his family’s woods soon after his mother’s death from complications of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in 2019.
Other 2023 releases I’ve read:
(In publication date order; links to the few reviews that are already available online)
Pusheen the Cat’s Guide to Everything by Claire Belton [Jan. 10, Gallery Books]: Good-natured and whimsical comic scenes delight in the endearing quirks of Pusheen, everyone’s favorite cartoon cat since Garfield. Belton creates a family and pals for her, too.
Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle [Jan. 13, Thirty West]: The 20 weird flash fiction stories in this chapbook are like prizes from a claw machine: you never know whether you’ll pluck a drunk raccoon or a red onion the perfect size to replace a broken heart.
Decade of the Brain by Janine Joseph [Jan. 17, Alice James Books]: With formal variety and thematic intensity, this second collection by the Philippines-born poet ruminates on her protracted recovery from a traumatic car accident and her journey to U.S. citizenship.
For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie [Jan. 19, Bloomsbury]: Two female medieval mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, are the twin protagonists of Mackenzie’s debut. She allows each to tell her life story through alternating first-person strands that only braid together very late on.
The Faraway World by Patricia Engel [Jan. 24, Simon & Schuster]: These 10 short stories contrast dreams and reality. Money and religion are opposing pulls for Latinx characters as they ponder whether life will be better at home or elsewhere.
Your Hearts, Your Scars by Adina Talve-Goodman [Jan. 24, Bellevue Literary Press]: The author grew up a daughter of rabbis in St. Louis and had a heart transplant at age 19. This posthumous collection gathers seven poignant autobiographical essays about living joyfully and looking for love in spite of chronic illness.
God’s Ex-Girlfriend: A Memoir About Loving and Leaving the Evangelical Jesus by Gloria Beth Amodeo [Feb. 21, Ig Publishing]: In a candid memoir, Amodeo traces how she was drawn into Evangelical Christianity in college before coming to see it as a “common American cult” involving unhealthy relationship dynamics and repressed sexuality.
Zig-Zag Boy: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood by Tanya Frank [Feb. 28, W. W. Norton]: A wrenching debut memoir ranges between California and England and draws in metaphors of the natural world as it recounts a decade-long search to help her mentally ill son.
The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore [March 7, The University of North Carolina Press]: An Iowan now based in Oregon, Moore balances nostalgia and critique to craft nuanced, hypnotic autobiographical essays about growing up in the Midwest. The piece on Shania Twain is a highlight.
(In release date order)
My What If Year: A Memoir by Alisha Fernandez Miranda [Feb. 7, Zibby Books]: “On the cusp of turning forty, Alisha Fernandez Miranda … decides to give herself a break, temporarily pausing her stressful career as the CEO of her own consulting firm … she leaves her home in London to spend one year exploring the dream jobs of her youth.”
Sea Change by Gina Chung [April 11, Vintage]: “With her best friend pulling away to focus on her upcoming wedding, Ro’s only companion is Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus who also happens to be Ro’s last remaining link to her father, a marine biologist who disappeared while on an expedition when Ro was a teenager.”
Additional pre-release books on my shelf:
(In release date order)
Will you look out for one or more of these?
Any 2023 reads you can recommend already?
Five Final Novellas: Adichie, Glück, Jhabvala, Victory for Ukraine, Woodson (#NovNov22)
We’ll wrap up Novellas in November and give some final statistics tomorrow. Today, I have mini reviews of another five novellas I read this month: one short nonfiction reread and then fiction ranging from India in the 1920s to short stories in comics about the war in Ukraine.
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2021)
This came out in May last year – I pre-ordered it from Waterstones with points I’d saved up, because I’m that much of a fan – and it’s rare for me to reread something so soon, but of course it took on new significance for me this month. Like me, Adichie lived on a different continent from her family and so technology mediated her long-distance relationships. She saw her father on their weekly Sunday Zoom on June 7, 2020 and he appeared briefly on screen the next two days, seeming tired; on June 10, he was gone, her brother’s phone screen showing her his face: “my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose.”
My experience of my mother’s death was similar: everything was sudden; my sister was the one there at the hospital, while all I could do was wait by the phone/laptop for news. So these details were particularly piercing, but the whole essay resonated with me as she navigates the early days of grief and remembers what she most admires about her father, including his piety, record-keeping and pride in her. (How lucky I am that Covid travel restrictions were no longer a factor; they delayed his memorial service.) My original review is here. Cathy also reviewed it. If you wish, you can read the New Yorker piece it arose from here.
Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Glück (2022)
The first (and so far only) fiction by the poet and 2020 Nobel Prize winner, this is a curious little story that imagines the inner lives of infant twins and closes with their first birthday. Like Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, it ascribes to preverbal beings thoughts and wisdom they could not possibly have. Marigold, the would-be writer of the pair, is spiky and unpredictable, whereas Rose is the archetypal good baby.
Marigold did not like people. She liked Mother and Father; everyone else had not yet been properly inspected. Rose did like people and she intended them to like her. … Everyone understood that Marigold lived in her head and Rose lived in the world.
Now every day was like the days when the twins did not perform well at naptime. Then Mother and Father would begin to look tired and harassed. Mother explained that babies got tired too; often, they cried because they were tired. I don’t cry because I’m tired, Marigold thought. I cry because something has disappointed me.
As a psychological allegory, this tracks personality development and the growing awareness of Mother and Father as separate people with their own characteristics, some of which each girl replicates. But I failed to find much of a point.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975)
A lesser-known Booker Prize winner that we read for our book club’s women’s classics subgroup. My reading was interrupted by the last-minute trip back to the States, so I ended up finishing the last two-thirds after we’d had the discussion and also watched the movie. I found I was better able to engage with the subtle story and understated writing after I’d seen the sumptuous 1983 Merchant Ivory film: the characters jumped out for me much more than they initially had on the page, and it was no problem having Greta Scacchi in my head.
In 1923, Olivia is a bored young officer’s wife in India who becomes infatuated with the Nawab, an Indian prince involved in some dodgy dealings. In the novel’s present day, Olivia’s step-granddaughter (never named; in the film she’s called Anne, played by Julie Christie and changed to a great-niece for some reason) is also in India, enjoying the hippie freedom and rediscovering Olivia’s life through the letters she wrote to her sister. Both novel and film cut quickly and often between the two time periods to draw increasingly overt parallels between the women’s lives, culminating in unexpected pregnancies and difficult decisions to be made. I enjoyed the atmosphere (see also The Painted Veil and China Room) and would recommend the film, but I doubt I’ll seek out more by Jhabvala. (Public library)
PEREMOHA: Victory for Ukraine (2022)
Various writers and artists contributed these graphic shorts, so there are likely to be some stories you enjoy more than others. “The Ghost of Kyiv” is about a mythical hero from the early days of the Russian invasion who shot down six enemy planes in a day. I got Andy Capp vibes from “Looters,” about Russian goons so dumb they don’t even recognize the appliances they haul back to their slum-dwelling families. (Look, this is propaganda. Whether it comes from the right side or not, recognize it for what it is.) In “Zmiinyi Island 13,” Ukrainian missiles destroy a Russian missile cruiser. Though hospitalized, the Ukrainian soldiers involved – including a woman – can rejoice in the win. “A pure heart is one that overcomes fear” is the lesson they quote from a legend. “Brave Little Tractor” is an adorable Thomas the Tank Engine-like story-within-a-story about farm machinery that joins the war effort. A bit too much of the superhero, shoot-’em-up stylings (including perfectly put-together females with pneumatic bosoms) for me here, but how could any graphic novel reader resist this Tokyopop compilation when a portion of proceeds go to RAZOM, a nonprofit Ukrainian-American human rights organization? (Read via Edelweiss)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016)
August looks back on her coming of age in 1970s Bushwick, Brooklyn. She lived with her father and brother in a shabby apartment, but friendship with Angela, Gigi and Sylvia lightened a gloomy existence: “as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.” As in Very Cold People, though, this is not an untroubled girlhood. Male threat is everywhere, and if boyfriends bring sexual awakening they are also a constant goad to do more than girls are ready for. In short, flitting paragraphs, Woodson explores August’s past – a childhood in Tennessee, her uncle who died in the Vietnam War, her father’s growing involvement with the Nation of Islam. What struck me most, though, was August’s coming to terms with her mother’s death, a fact she doesn’t even acknowledge at first, and the anthropological asides about other cultures’ death rituals. This was my second from Woodson after the Women’s Prize-longlisted Red at the Bone, and I liked them about the same. A problem for me was that Brown Girls, which, with its New York City setting and focus on friendships between girls of colour, must have at least partially been inspired by Another Brooklyn, was better. (Public library)
In total, I read 17 novellas this November, though if you add in the ones I’d read in advance and then reviewed over the course of the month, I managed 24. All things considered, I think that’s a great showing. The 5-star stand-outs for me were The Hero of This Book and Body Kintsugi, but Up at the Villa was also a great read.
The Heart of Things by Richard Holloway (#NovNov22 Nonfiction Week)
This was my sixth book by Holloway, a retired Bishop of Edinburgh whose perspective is maybe not what you would expect from a churchman – he focuses on this life and on practical and emotional needs rather than on the supernatural or abstruse points of theology. His recent work, such as Waiting for the Last Bus, also embraces melancholy in a way that many on the more evangelical end of Christianity might deem shamefully negative.
Being a pessimist myself, though, I find that his outlook resonates. The title of this 2021 release, originally subtitled “An Anthology of Memory and Regret,” comes from Virgil’s Aeneid (“there are tears at the heart of things [sunt lacrimae rerum]”), and that context makes it clearer where he’s coming from. In the same paragraph in which he reveals that source, he defines melancholia as “sorrowing empathy for the constant defeats of the human condition.”
The book is in six thematic essays that plait Holloway’s own thoughts with lengthy quotations, especially from 19th- and 20th-century poetry: Passing – Mourning – Warring – Ruining – Regretting – Forgiving. The war chapter, though appropriate for it having just been Remembrance Day, engaged me the least, while the section on ruin sticks closely to the author’s Glasgow childhood and so seems to offer less universal value than the rest. I most appreciated the first two chapters and the one on regret, which features musings on Nietzsche’s “amor fati” and extended quotes from Borges, Housman and MacNeice.
We melancholics are prone to looking backwards, even when we know it’s not good for us; to dwelling on our losses and failures. The final chapter, then, is key, insisting on self-forgiveness because of the forgiveness modelled by Christ (in whatever way you understand that). Holloway believes in the edifying wisdom of poetry, which he calls “greater than the intention of its makers and [continuing] to reveal new meanings long after they are gone.” He’s created an unusual and pensive collection that will perform the same role.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.