Three on a Theme: Frost Fairs Books
Here in southern England, we’ve just had a couple of weeks of hard frost. The local canal froze over for a time; the other day when I thought it had all thawed, a pair of mallard ducks surprised me by appearing to walk on water. In previous centuries, the entire Thames has been known to freeze through central London. (I’d like to revisit Virginia Woolf’s Orlando for a 17th-century scene of that.) This thematic trio of a children’s book, a historical novel, and a poetry collection came together rather by accident: I already had the poetry collection on my shelf, then saw frost fairs referenced in the blurb of the novel, and later spotted the third book while shelving in the children’s section of the library.
A Night at the Frost Fair by Emma Carroll (2021)
Maya’s mum is visiting family in India; Maya and her dad and sister have just settled Gran into a clinical care home. Christmas is coming, and Gran handed out peculiarly mismatched presents: Maya’s older sister got a lovely brooch, while her own present was a weird brick-shaped brown object Gran says belonged to “Edmund”. Now the family is in a taxi home, crossing London Bridge, when Maya notices snow falling faster than seems possible and finds herself on a busy street of horse-drawn carriages, overlooking booths and hordes of people on the frozen river.
A sickly little boy named Eddie is her tour guide to the games, rides and snacks on offer here in 1788, but there’s a man around who wants to keep him from enjoying the fair. Maya hopes to help Eddie, and Gran, all while figuring out what the gift parcel means. A low page count meant this felt pretty thin, with everything wrapped up too soon. The problem, really, was that – believe it or not – this isn’t the first middle-grade time-slip historical fantasy novel about frost fairs that I’ve read; the other, Frost by Holly Webb, was better. Sam Usher’s Quentin Blake-like illustrations are a bonus, though. (Public library)
The Weather Woman by Sally Gardner (2022)
This has been catalogued as science fiction by my library system, but I’d be more likely to describe it as historical fiction with a touch of magic realism, similar to The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock or Things in Jars. I loved the way the action is bookended by the frost fairs of 1789 and 1814. There’s a whiff of the fairy tale in the setup: when we meet Neva, she’s a little girl whose parents operate one of the fair’s attractions, a chess-playing bear. She knows, like no one else seems to, that the ice is shifting and it’s not safe to stay by the Thames. When the predicted tragedy comes, she’s left an orphan and adopted by Victor Friezland, a clockmaker who shares her Russian heritage. He lives in a wonderfully peculiar house made out of ship parts and, between him, Neva, the housekeeper Elise, and other servants, friends and neighbours, they form a delightful makeshift family.
Neva predicts the weather faultlessly, even years ahead. It’s somewhere between synaesthetic and mystical, this ability to hear the ice speaking and see what the clouds hold. While others in their London circle engage in early meteorological prediction, her talent is different. Victor decides to harness it as an attraction, developing “The Weather Woman” as first an automaton and then a magic lantern show, both with Neva behind the scenes giving unerring forecasts. At the same time, Neva brings her childhood imaginary friend to life, dressing in men’s clothing and appearing as Victor’s business partner, Eugene Jonas, in public.
These various disguises are presented as the only way that a woman could be taken seriously in the early 19th century. Gardner is careful to note that Neva does not believe she is, or seek to become, a man; “She thinks she’s been born into the wrong time, not necessarily the wrong sex. As for her mind, that belongs to a different world altogether.” (Whereas there is a trans character and a couple of queer ones; it would also have been interesting for Gardner to take further the male lead’s attraction to Eugene Jonas.) From her early teens on, she’s declared that she doesn’t intend to marry or have children, but in what I suspect is a trope of romance fiction, she changes her tune when she meets the right man. This was slightly disappointing, yet just one of several satisfying matches made over the course of this rollicking story.
London charms here despite its Dickensian (avant la lettre) grime – mudlarks and body snatchers, gambling and trickery, gloomy pubs and shipwrecks, weaselly lawyers and high-society soirees. The plot moves quickly and holds a lot of surprises and diverting secondary characters. While the novel could have done with some trimming – something I’d probably say about the majority of 450-pagers – I remained hooked and found it fun and racy. You’ll want to stick around for a terrific late set-piece on the ice. Gardner had a career in theatre costume design before writing children’s books. I’ll also try her teen novel, I, Coriander. (Public library)
[Two potential anachronisms: “Hold your horses” (p. 202) and calling someone “a card” (p. 209) – both slang uses that more likely date from the 1830s or 1840s.]
The Frost Fairs by John McCullough (2010)
I knew McCullough’s name from his superb 2019 collection Reckless Paper Birds, which was shortlisted for a Costa Prize. This was his debut collection, for which he won a Polari Prize. Appropriately, one poem, “Georgie, Belladonna, Sid,” is crammed full of “Polari words” – “the English homosexual and theatrical slang prevalent in the early to mid 20th century.” The book leans heavily on historical scenes and seaside scenery. “The Other Side of Winter” is the source of the title and the cover image:
Overnight the Thames begins to move again.
The ice beneath the frost fair cracks. Tents,
merry-go-rounds and bookstalls glide about
On islands given up for lost. They race,
switch places, touch—the printing press nuzzling
the swings—then part, slip quietly under.
I also liked the wordplay of “The Dictionary Man,” the alliteration and English summer setting of “Miss Fothergill Observes a Snail,” and the sibilance versus jarringly violent imagery of “Severance.” However, it was hard to detect links that would create overall cohesion in the book. (Purchased directly from Salt Publishing)
The Dark Is Rising Readalong #TDiRS22 & #Headliners2023 Online Event
Annabel’s readalong was the excuse I needed to try something by children’s fantasy author Susan Cooper – she’s one of those much-beloved English writers who happened to pass me by during my upbringing in the States. I’ve been aware of The Dark Is Rising (1973) for just a few years, learning about it from the Twitter readalong run by Robert Macfarlane. (My husband took part in that, having also missed out on Cooper in his childhood.)
Christmas is approaching, and with it a blizzard, but first comes Will Stanton’s birthday on Midwinter Day. A gathering of rooks and a farmer’s ominous pronouncement (“The Walker is abroad. And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining”) and gift of an iron talisman are signals that his eleventh birthday will be different than those that came before. While his large family gets on with their preparations for a traditional English Christmas, they have no idea Will is being ferried by a white horse to a magic hall, where he is let in on the secret of his membership in an ancient alliance meant to combat the forces of darkness. Merriman will be his guide as he gathers Signs and follows the Old Ones’ Ways.
I loved the evocation of a cosy holiday season, and its contrast with the cosmic conflict going on under the surface.
He was not the same Will Stanton that he had been a very few days before. Now and forever, he knew, he inhabited a different timescale from that of everyone he had ever known or loved…But he managed to turn his thoughts away from all these things, even from the two invading, threatening figures of the Dark. For this was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and to all the world. This was a brightness, a shining festival, and while its enchantment was on the world the charmed circle of his family and home would be protected against any invasion from outside.
The bustling family atmosphere is reminiscent of Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s books (e.g., Meet the Austins), as is the nebulous world-building (A Wrinkle in Time) – I found little in the way of concrete detail to latch onto, and like with Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, I felt out of my depth with the allusions to local legend. Good vs. evil battles are a mainstay of fantasy and children’s fiction, like in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, or The Chronicles of Narnia I read over and over between the ages of about five and nine. Had I read this, too, as a child, I’m sure I would have loved it, but I guess I’m too literal-minded an adult these days; it’s hard for me to get swept up in the magic. See also Annabel’s review. (Public library)
Headliners 2023 Online Event
For a small fee (the proceeds went to The Arts Emergency Fund), I joined in this Zoom event hosted by Headline Books and Tandem Collective yesterday evening to learn about 10 of the publisher’s major 2023 releases.
Six of the authors were interviewed live by Sarah Shaffi; the other four had contributed pre-recorded video introductions. Here’s a super-brief rundown, in the order in which they appeared, with my notes on potential readalikes:
Dazzling by Chikodili Emelumadu (16 February)
Two girls at a restrictive Nigerian boarding school tap into their power as “Leopard People” to bring back their missing fathers and achieve more than anyone expects of them.
Sounds like: Akwaeke Emezi’s works
A Pebble in the Throat by Aasmah Mir (2 March)
A memoir contrasting her upbringing in Glasgow with her mother’s in Pakistan, this promises to be thought-provoking on the topics of racism and gender stereotypes.
Sounds like: Brown Baby or Brit(ish)
River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer (19 January)
In 1834 Barbados, a former slave leaves her sugarcane plantation to find her five children. Shearer is a mixed-race descendant of Windrush immigrants and wanted to focus not so much on slavery as on its aftermath and the effects of forced dispersion.
Sounds like: Sugar Money
Becoming Ted by Matt Cain (19 January)
In a Northern seaside town, Ted is dumped by his husband and decides to pursue his dream of becoming a drag queen.
Sounds like: Rachel Joyce’s works
Mother’s Day by Abigail Burdess (2 March)
As a baby, Anna was left by the side of the road*; now she’s found her birth mother, just as she learns she’s pregnant herself. Described as a darkly comic thriller à la Single White Female.
(*Burdess had forgotten that this really happened to her best childhood friend; her mum had to remind her of it!)
Sounds like: A Crooked Tree or When the Stars Go Dark
Me, Myself and Mini Me by Charlotte Crosby (2 March)
A reality TV star’s memoir of having a child after an ectopic pregnancy.
Sounds like: Something Katie Price would ‘write’. I had not heard of this celebrity author before and don’t mean to sound judgmental, but the impression made by her appearance (heavily altered by cosmetic surgery) was not favourable.
All the Little Bird Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow (2 March)
In the Lake District in the 1980s, Sunday is an autistic mother raising a daughter, Dolly. The arrival of glamorous next-door neighbours upends their lives.
Sounds like: Claire Fuller’s works
The Year of the Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (19 January)
A work of creative nonfiction about adopting a cat named Mackerel (who briefly appeared on the video) during lockdown, and deciding whether or not to have a child.
Sounds like: Motherhood, with a cat
The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier (30 March)
Set in Northern Italy in 1500, this is about a convent librarian who discovers a rich tradition of goddess worship that could upend the patriarchy.
Sounds like: Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s and Maggie O’Farrell’s historical novels
The Housekeepers by Alex Hay (6 July)
A historical heist novel set in 1905, this is about Mrs King, a Mayfair housekeeper who takes revenge for her dismissal by assembling a gang of disgruntled women to strip her former employer’s house right under her nose during a party.
Sounds like: Richard Osman’s works
If there was a theme to the evening, it was women’s power!
I’m most keen to read The Year of the Cat, but I’d happily try 3–4 of the novels if my library acquired them.
Which of these 2023 releases appeal to you most?
Booker Prize Longlist Thoughts and Reading Plan
Yesterday the 2022 Booker Prize longlist was announced.
It’s an intriguing selection that for the most part avoids the usual suspects – although a few of these authors have previously been shortlisted, they’re not from the standard crop of staid white men. The website is making much of two pieces of trivia: that the longlist includes the youngest and oldest authors ever (Leila Mottley at 20 and Alan Garner at 87); and that Small Things Like These is the shortest book to be nominated.
I happen to have read two from the longlist so far, and I’m surprised by how many of the rest I want to read. I’ll go through each of the ‘Booker Dozen’ of 13 below (the brief summaries are from the Booker Prize announcement e-mail):
Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo
“This energetic and exhilarating joyride … is the story of an uprising, told by a vivid chorus of animal voices that help us see our human world more clearly.”
- Zimbabwean author Bulawayo was shortlisted for her debut novel, We Need New Names, in 2013. I’ve never been drawn to read that one, and have to wonder why we needed an extended Animal Farm remake…
Trust by Hernan Diaz
“A literary puzzle about money, power, and intimacy, Trust challenges the myths shrouding wealth, and the fictions that often pass for history.”
- I’m looking forward to this one after all the buzz from its U.S. release, and have a copy on the way to me from Picador.
The Trees by Percival Everett
“A violent history refuses to be buried in … Everett’s striking novel, which combines an unnerving murder mystery with a powerful condemnation of racism and police violence.”
- Susan is a fan of Everett’s. He’s known for his satirical fiction, whereas the only book of his that I happen to have read was poetry – not representative of his work. I’d happily read this if given the chance, but Everett’s stuff is hard to find over here.
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
“Fowler’s epic novel about an ill-fated family of thespians, drinkers and dreamers, whose most infamous son is destined to commit a terrible and violent act.”
- I reviewed this for BookBrowse earlier in the year. (It’s Fowler’s second nomination, after We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a very different novel.) The present-tense narration helps it be less of a dull group biography, and there are two female point-of-view characters. The issues of racial equality, political divisions and mistrust of the government are just as important in our own day. However, the foreshadowing is sometimes heavy-handed, the extended timeline means there is some skating over of long periods, and the novel as a whole is low on scenes and dialogue, with Fowler conveying a lot of information through exposition. I gave it a tepid .
Treacle Walker by Alan Garner
“This latest fiction from a remarkable and enduring talent brilliantly illuminates an introspective young mind trying to make sense of the world around him.”
- Garner is a beloved fantasy writer in the UK. Though I didn’t care for The Owl Service when I read it in 2019, given that this is just over 150 pages, there would be no harm in taking a chance on it.
Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
“Karunatilaka’s rip-roaring epic is a searing, mordantly funny satire set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war.”
- This is the sort of Commonwealth novel I’m wary of, fearing Rushdie-like indulgence. My library system tends to order all the Booker nominees, so I would gladly borrow this and try the early pages to see how I get on.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
“Keegan’s tender tale of hope and quiet heroism is both a celebration of compassion and a stern rebuke of the sins committed in the name of religion.”
- I read and reviewed this late last year and appreciated it as a spare and heartwarming yuletide fable. A coal merchant in 1980s Ireland comes to value his quiet family life all the more when he sees how difficult existence is for the teen mothers sent to work in the local convent’s laundry service. I was familiar with the Magdalene Laundries from the movie The Magdalene Sisters and found this a fairly predictable narrative, with the nuns cartoonishly villainous. So I’m not as enthusiastic as many others have been, but feel like a Scrooge for saying so.
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet
“Graeme Macrae Burnet offers a dazzlingly inventive – and often wickedly humorous – meditation on the nature of sanity, identity and truth itself.”
- Macrae Burnet was a dark horse in the 2016 Booker race for the terrific His Bloody Project. This new novel was one of Clare’s top picks for the longlist and sounds like a clever and playful book about a psychoanalyst and his patient; again the author blends fact and fiction and relies on ‘found documents’. I have it on request from the library.
The Colony by Audrey Magee
“In … Magee’s lyrical and brooding fable, two outsiders visit a small island off the west coast of Ireland, with unforeseen and haunting consequences.”
- One of Clare and Susan’s joint correct predictions (Susan’s review). On the face of it, it sounds too similar to one I read from last year’s longlist, An Island. I can’t say I’m particularly interested, though if this were to be shortlisted I might have a go.
Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer
“Under attack from within, Lia tries to keep the landscapes of her past, her present and her body separate. But time and bodies are porous, and unpredictable.”
- This Desmond Elliott Prize winner was already on my TBR for its medical theme and is one of two nominees I’m most excited about. It potentially sounds long and challenging, but has been received well by my Goodreads friends. I’ll hope my library system acquires a copy soon.
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley
“At once agonising and mesmerising, Nightcrawling presents a haunting vision of marginalised young people navigating the darkest corners of an adult world.”
- Like many, I had this brought to my attention anew by Ruth Ozeki’s shout-out during her Women’s Prize acceptance speech (Mottley was her student). I’d already heard some chatter about it from its Oprah’s Book Club selection. The subject matter – sex workers in Oakland, California – will be tough, but I hope the prose and storytelling will make up for it. I have it on request from the library.
After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz
“A joyous reimagining of the lives of a brilliant group of feminists, sapphists, artists and writers from the past, as they battle for control over their lives, for liberation and for justice.”
- The other novel I’m most excited about. It was totally new to me but sounds fantastic. It only came out this month, so I’ll see if Galley Beggar might be willing to send out a review copy.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
“Strout returns to her beloved heroine Lucy Barton in a luminous novel about love, loss, and the family secrets that can erupt and bewilder us at any time.”
- I DNFed this one after just 20 or so pages last year, finding Lucy too annoyingly scatter-brained this time around (I’d enjoyed My Name Is Lucy Barton but not read the sequel). But I’m willing to give it another try, so have placed a library hold.
There we have it: 2 read, 4 I have immediate plans to read, 3 I’m keen to read if I can find them, 4 I’m less likely to read – but, unlike in most years, there are no entries I’m completely uninterested in or averse to reading.
Earlier this year my book club took part in a Women’s Prize shadowing project run by the Reading Agency. They’re organizing a similar thing on behalf of the Booker Prize, but the six groups (for six shortlisted books) will be chosen by the Prize organizers this time, so we’ve been encouraged to apply again. It’s a better deal in that members of successful groups will be invited to attend the shortlist party and then the awards ceremony. I’ll meet up with my co-leader later this week to work on our application.
What have you read from the longlist? Which book(s) do you most want to find?
20 Books of Summer, 6–7: Melissa Harrison & Oliver Rackham
After two days in Inverness, our Western Isles adventure is ready to begin. I’m writing on the ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway (the main population centre on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland), where we’ll pick up a rental car and head to our Airbnb before exploring standing stones and bird reserves well into the long evening.
On the bus this morning I started Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden, the next in my flora-themed reading. For today, I have brief responses to two books I finished before we left: a genial children’s fantasy novel and an in-depth guide to a tree. Ash is today’s linking word.
By Ash, Oak and Thorn by Melissa Harrison (2021)
Burnet, Cumulus and Moss are “Hidden Folk” (like Iceland’s elves), ancient, tiny beings who hibernate for winter in an ash tree. When they lose their home and Cumulus, the oldest, starts fading away, they set off on a journey to look for more of their kind and figure out what is happening. This eventually takes them to “the Hive” (London, presumably); they are helped along the way by creatures they might have been wary of: they hitch rides on deer and pigeons, and a starling, fox and rat are their allies in the city.
This reminded me of Watership Down with the classic quest feel, the many perils faced, and the way the species communicate with each other and are rendered as having different accents. The feasts and creative use of miniature objects recalled what I most love about the Brambly Hedge books. There is an important message about overcoming fear and prejudice, and a warning that Mortals have lost their connection to the Wild World. The hint is that the trio might play a role in helping humans reclaim it – perhaps in the sequel, recently longlisted for the Wainwright Prize (more on which anon).
Although there is a didactic element, with Harrison also commenting on emotions and pointing out natural phenomena for children to notice through the seasons, this didn’t bother me, and – in the Tove Jansson tradition – there are plenty of asides for grown-ups to appreciate, too. I’m unfamiliar with the series that inspired this, the 1930s The Little Grey Men books by “B.B.” (Denys Watkins-Pitchford), so can’t comment on it in comparison to the source material. I’ve read four other Harrison books, nonfiction and adult fiction, but this outstripped them all. (Public library)
A favourite passage:
“Going on an adventure might be exciting, but if you’re a home-loving person, it’s not long until you start wanting to feel safe and indoorsy again.”
The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham (2014)
A single-species monograph, this was more academic than I expected from Little Toller – it has statistics, tables and figures. So, it contains everything you ever wanted to know about ash trees, and then some. I actually bought it for my husband, who has found the late Rackham’s research on British landscapes useful, but thought I’d take a look as well. (The rental house we recently left had a self-seeded ash in the front garden that sprang up to almost the height of the house within the five years we lived there. Every time our landlords came round, we held our breath waiting for them to notice that the roots had started to push up the pavement and tell us it had to be cut down, but until now it has survived.)
Topics include the birds and insects the trees shelter, the lichen that grows on them, coppicing and pollarding techniques (“plashing” into hedges, the creation of horizontal seats), and the designation of ancient and veteran trees. Ash dieback disease, a major global issue, is another point for discussion. I found myself skimming through a lot of the detail, especially in later chapters. My favourite bits of trivia were that Yeats mentions the ash the most out of a handful of notable UK/Ireland poets, and that baseball bats are generally made out of ash wood. There are loads of colour photographs to help visualize tree features and locations. (New purchase)
Short Stories in September, Part II: Tove Jansson, Brandon Taylor, Eley Williams
Each September I make a special effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to languish on my shelves and TBR unread. After my first four reviewed last week, I have another three wonderfully different collections, ranging from bittersweet children’s fantasy in translation to offbeat, wordplay-filled love notes via linked stories suffused with desire and desperation.
Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson (1962; 1963)
[Trans. from the Swedish by Thomas Warburton]
I only discovered the Moomins in my late twenties, but soon fell in love with the quirky charm of Jansson’s characters and their often melancholy musings. Her stories feel like they can be read on multiple levels, with younger readers delighting in the bizarre creations and older ones sensing the pensiveness behind their quests. There are magical events here: Moomintroll discovers a dragon small enough to be kept in a jar; laughter is enough to bring a fearful child back from literal invisibility. But what struck me more was the lessons learned by neurotic creatures. In “The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters,” the title character fixates on her belongings—
“we are so very small and insignificant, and so are our tea cakes and carpets and all those things, you know, and still they’re important, but always they’re threatened by mercilessness…”
—but when a gale and a tornado come and sweep it all away, she experiences relief and joy:
“the strange thing was that she suddenly felt quite safe. It was a very strange feeling, and she found it indescribably nice. But what was there to worry about? The disaster had come at last.”
My other favourite was “The Hemulen who loved Silence.” After years as a fairground ticket-taker, he can’t wait to retire and get away from the crowds and the noise, but once he’s obtained his precious solitude he realizes he needs others after all. The final story, “The Fir Tree,” is a lovely Christmas one in which the Moomins, awoken midway through their winter hibernation, get caught up in seasonal stress and experience the holiday for the first time. (Public library)
Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (2021)
Real Life was one of my five favourite novels of 2020, and we are in parallel fictional territory here. Lionel, the protagonist in four of the 11 stories, is similar to Wallace insomuch as both are gay African Americans at a Midwestern university who become involved with a (straight?) white guy. The main difference is that Lionel has just been released from hospital after a suicide attempt. A mathematician (rather than a biochemist like Wallace), he finds numbers soothingly precise in comparison to the muddle of his thoughts and emotions.
In the opening story, “Potluck,” he meets Charles, a dancer who’s dating Sophie, and the three of them shuffle into a kind of awkward love triangle where, as in Real Life, sex and violence are uncomfortably intertwined. It’s a recurring question in the stories, even those focused around other characters: how does tenderness relate to desire? In the throes of lust, is there room for a gentler love? The troubled teens of the title story are “always in the thick of violence. It moves through them like the Holy Ghost might.” Milton, soon to be sent to boot camp, thinks he’d like to “pry open the world, bone it, remove the ugly hardness of it all.”
Elsewhere, young adults face a cancer diagnosis (“Mass” and “What Made Them Made You”); a babysitter is alarmed by her charge’s feral tendencies (“Little Beast”); and same-sex couples renegotiate their relationships (Simon and Hartjes in “As Though That Were Love” and Sigrid and Marta in “Anne of Cleves,” one of my favourites). While the longer Lionel/Charles/Sophie stories, “Potluck” and “Proctoring,” are probably the best and a few others didn’t make much of an impression, the whole book has an icy angst that resonates. Taylor is a confident orchestrator of scenes and conversations, and the slight detachment of the prose only magnifies his characters’ longing for vulnerability (Marta says to Sigrid before they have sex for the first time: “I’m afraid I’ll mess it up. I’m afraid you’ll see me.” To which Sigrid replies, “I see you. You’re wonderful.”). (New purchase, Forum Books)
A bonus story: “Oh, Youth” was published in Kink (2021), an anthology edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon. I requested this from NetGalley just so I could read the stories by Carmen Maria Machado and Brandon Taylor. All of Taylor’s work feels of a piece, such that his various characters might be rubbing shoulders at a party – which is appropriate because the centrepiece of Real Life is an excruciating dinner party, Filthy Animals opens at a potluck, and “Oh, Youth” is set at a dinner party.
Grisha is here with Enid and Victor, his latest summer couple. He’s been a boytoy for hire since his architecture professor, Nate, surprised him by inviting him into his open marriage with Brigid. “His life at the time was a series of minor discomforts that accumulated like grit in a socket until rotation was no longer possible.” The liaisons are a way to fund a more luxurious lifestyle and keep himself in cigarettes.
While Real Life brought to mind Virginia Woolf, Taylor’s stories recall E.M. Forster or Thomas Mann. In other words, he’s the real deal: a blazing talent, here to stay.
Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams (2017)
After enjoying her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, this time last year, I was pleased to find Williams’s first book in a charity shop last year. Her stories are brief (generally under 10 pages) and 15 of the 17 are first-person narratives, often voiced by a heartbroken character looking for the words to describe their pain or woo back a departed lover. A love of etymology is patent and, as in Ali Smith’s work, the prose is enlivened by the wordplay.
The settings range from an art gallery to a beach where a whale has washed up, and the speakers tend to have peculiar careers like an ortolan chef or a trainer of landmine-detecting rats. My favourite was probably “Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet,” whose narrator is coached through online dating by a doctor.
I found a number of the stories too similar and thin, and it’s a shame that the hedgehog featured on the cover of the U.S. edition has to embody human carelessness in “Spines,” which is otherwise one of the standouts. But the enthusiasm and liveliness of the language were enough to win me over. (Secondhand purchase from the British Red Cross shop, Hay-on-Wye – how fun, then, to find the line “Did you know Timbuktu is twinned with Hay-on-Wye?”)
I’ll have one more set of short story reviews coming up before the end of the month, with a few other collections then spilling into October for R.I.P.
20 Books of Summer, #16–17, GREEN: Jon Dunn and W.H. Hudson
Today’s entries in my colour-themed summer reading are a travelogue tracking the world’s endangered hummingbirds and a bizarre classic novel that blends nature writing and fantasy. Though very different books, they have in common lush South American forest settings.
The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds by Jon Dunn (2021)
As a wildlife writer and photographer, Jon Dunn has come to focus on small and secretive but indelible wonders. His previous book, which I still need to catch up on, was all about orchids, and in this new one he travels the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, to see as many hummingbirds as he can. He provides a thorough survey of the history, science and cultural relevance (from a mini handgun to an indie pop band) of this most jewel-like of bird families. The ruby-throated hummingbirds I grew up seeing in suburban Maryland are gorgeous enough, but from there the names and corresponding colourful markings just get more magnificent: Glittering-throated Emeralds, Tourmaline Sunangels, Violet-capped woodnymphs, and so on. I’ll have to get a look at the photos in a finished copy of the book!
Dunn is equally good at describing birds and their habitats and at constructing a charming travelogue out of his sometimes fraught journeys. He has only a narrow weather of fog-free weather to get from Chile to Isla Robinson Crusoe and the plane has to turn back once before it successfully lands; a planned excursion in Bolivia is a non-starter after political protestors block some main routes. There are moments when the thrill of the chase is rewarded – as when he sees 24 hummingbird species in a day in Costa Rica – and many instances of lavish hospitality from locals who serve as guides or open their gardens to birdwatchers.
Like so many creatures, hummingbirds are in dire straits due to human activity: deforestation, invasive species, pesticide use and climate change are reducing the areas where they can live to pockets here and there; some species number in the hundreds and are considered critically endangered. Dunn juxtaposes the exploitative practices of (white, male) 19th- and 20th-century bird artists, collectors and hunters with indigenous birdwatching and environmental initiatives that are rising up to combat ecological damage in Latin America. Although society has moved past the use of hummingbird feathers in crafts and fashion, he learns that the troubling practice of dead hummingbirds being sold as love charms (chuparosas) persists in Mexico.
Whether you’re familiar with hummingbirds or not, if you have even a passing interest in nature and travel writing, I recommend The Glitter in the Green for how it invites readers into a personal passion, recreates an adventurous odyssey, and reinforces our collective responsibility for threatened wildlife. (Proof copy passed on by Paul of Halfman, Halfbook)
A lovely folk tale I’ll quote in full:
A hummingbird as a symbol of hope, strength and endurance is a recurrent one in South American folklore. An Ecuadorian folk tale tells of a forest on fire – a hummingbird picks up single droplets of water in its beak and lets them fall on the fire. The other animals in the forest laugh, and ask the hummingbird what difference this can possibly make. They say, ‘Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire. What do you think you are doing?’ To which the hummingbird is said to reply, ‘I’m just doing what I can.’
Links between the books: Hudson is quoted in Dunn’s introduction. In Chapter 7 of the below, Hudson describes a hummingbird as “a living prismatic gem that changes its colour with every change of position … it catches the sunshine on its burnished neck and gorget plumes—green and gold and flame-coloured, the beams changing to visible flakes as they fall”
Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest by W.H. Hudson (1904)
Like Heart of Darkness, this is a long recounted tale about a journey among ‘savages’. After a prologue, the narrator soon cedes storytelling duties to Mr. Abel, whom he met in Georgetown, Guyana in 1887. Searching for gold and fighting off illness, the 23-year-old Abel took up the habit of wandering the Venezuelan forest. The indigenous people were superstitious and refused to hunt in that forest. Abel began to hear strange noises – magical bird calls or laughter – that, siren-like, drew him deeper in. His native friend warned him it was the daughter of an evil spirit.
One day, after being bitten by a snake, Abel woke up in the dwelling of an old man and his 17-year-old granddaughter, Rima – the very wood sprite he’d sensed all these times in the forest; she saved his life. Recovering in their home and helping Rima investigate her origins, he romanticizes this tree spirit in a way that struck me as smarmy. It’s possible this could be appreciated as a fable of connection with nature, but I found it vague and old-fashioned. (Not to mention Abel’s condescending attitude to the indigenous people and to women.) I ended up skimming the last three-quarters.
My husband has read nonfiction by Hudson; I think I was under the impression that this was a memoir, in fact. Perhaps I’d enjoy Hudson’s writing in another genre. But I was surprised to read high praise from John Galsworthy in the foreword (“For of all living authors—now that Tolstoi has gone—I could least dispense with W. H. Hudson”) and to note how many of my Goodreads friends have read this; I don’t see it as a classic that stands the test of time.
My 1944 hardback once belonged to one Mary Marcilliat of Louisville, Kentucky, and has strange abstract illustrations by E. McKnight Kauffer. (Free from the Book Thing of Baltimore)
Coming up next: One black and one gold on Wednesday; a Green author and a rainbow bonus (probably on the very last day).
Would you be interested in reading one of these?
Doorstopper of the Month: The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (2019)
Epic fantasy is far from my usual fare, but this was a book worth getting lost in. The reading experience reminded me of what I had with A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, or perhaps Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – though it’s possible this last association was only in my mind because of Dan Kois. You see, we have Kois, an editor at Slate, to thank for this novel being published outside of Knox’s native New Zealand. He wrote an enthusiastic Slate review of an amazing novel he’d found that was only available through a small university press, and Clarke’s novel was his main point of reference. How’s that for the power of a book review?
Taryn Cornick, 33, has adapted her PhD thesis into a popular history of libraries – the search for absolute knowledge; the perennial threats that libraries face, from budget cuts to burnings – that she’s been discussing at literary festivals around the world. One particular burning looms large in her family’s history: the library at her grandfather’s country estate near the border of England and Wales, Princes Gate. As girls, Taryn and her older sister, Beatrice, helped to raise the alarm and saved the bulk of their grandfather’s collection. But one key artifact has been missing ever since: the Firestarter, an ancient scroll box that is said to have been through five fires and will survive another arson attempt before the book is through.
Nearly 15 years ago now, Beatrice was the victim of a random act of violence. Soon after her killer was released from prison, he turned up dead in unusual circumstances. Ever since, Detective Inspector Jacob Berger has suspected that Taryn arranged a revenge killing, but he has no proof. His cold case heats back up when Taryn lands in the hospital and complains of a series of prank calls.
What ensues is complicated, but in essence, the ongoing fallout of Beatrice’s murder and a cosmic battle over the Firestarter are twin forces that plunge Taryn and Jacob into the faerie realm (Sidh). Their guide to the Sidh is Shift, a shapeshifter who can create impromptu gates between the two worlds (while others, like Princes Gate, are permanent passageways).
Fairies (sidhe), demons, talking ravens … there’s some convoluted world-building here, and when I reached the end I realized I still had many ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, though often this was because I hadn’t paid close enough attention and if I glanced back I’d see that Knox did indeed tell us how characters got from A to B, and who was after the Firestarter and why.
The book travels everywhere from Provence to Purgatory, but I particularly liked the descriptions of the primitive lifestyle in the faerie realm. Knox gives enough detail about things like food and clothing that you can really imagine yourself into each setting, and there’s the occasional funny turn of phrase that inserts the magical into everyday life in a tongue-in-cheek way, like “The Nespresso [machine] made hatching-dragon sounds.”
My two favorite scenes were an intense escape from a marsh and one that delightfully blends the human world and faerie: Taryn’s father, Basil Cornick, is a Kiwi actor best known for his role in a Game of Thrones-style television show. He’s roped into what he thinks is a screen test, playing Odin opposite a very convincing animatronic monster and pair of talking birds. We and Taryn know what he doesn’t: that he was used to negotiate with a real demon. The terrific epilogue also offers an appealing vision of how the sidhe might save the world.
If, like me, all you know of Knox’s previous work is the bizarre and kind of awful The Vintner’s Luck (which I read for a book club a decade or so ago), you’ll be intrigued to learn that angels play a role here, too. But beneath all the magical stuff, which is sometimes hard to follow or believe in, the novel is a hymn to language and libraries. A number of books are mentioned, starting with the one that was in Beatrice’s backpack at the time of her death: “the blockbuster of that year, 2003, a novel about tantalising, epoch-spanning conspiracies. Beatrice enjoyed those books, perhaps because they were often set in libraries.” (That’s The Da Vinci Code, of course.) Also mentioned: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, the Moomin books, and the film Spirited Away – no doubt these were beloved influences for Knox.
I appreciated the words about libraries’ enduring value, even on a poisoned planet. “I want there to be libraries in the future. I want today to give up being so smugly sure about what tomorrow won’t need,” Taryn says. She knows that, for this to happen, people must “care about the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, and about keeping what isn’t immediately necessary because it might be vital one day. Or simply intriguing, or beautiful.” That’s an analogy for species, too, I think, and a reminder of our responsibility: to preserve human accomplishments, yes, but also the more-than-human world (even if that ‘more’ might not include fairies).
Page count: 626 (my only 500+-page doorstopper so far this year!)
The Best Books of 2020: Some Runners-Up
I’ve chosen 25 more cracking reads that were first released in 2020. (Asterisks = my hidden gems of the year.) Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 12% of my year’s reading.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity. Light-skinned African-American twins’ paths divide in 1950s Louisiana. Perceptive and beautifully written, this has characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: To start with, Piranesi traverses his watery labyrinth like he’s an eighteenth-century adventurer, his resulting notebooks reading rather like Alexander von Humboldt’s writing. I admired how the novel moved from the fantastical and abstract into the real and gritty. Read it even if you say you don’t like fantasy.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan: At 22, Ava leaves Dublin to teach English as a foreign language to wealthy preteens and almost accidentally embarks on affairs with an English guy and a Chinese girl. Dolan has created a funny, deadpan voice that carries the entire novel. I loved the psychological insight, the playfulness with language, and the zingy one-liners.
*A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler: Issues of race and privilege undermine a teen romance in a perfect-seeming North Carolina community. This is narrated in a first-person plural voice, like the Greek chorus of a classical tragedy. If you loved An American Marriage, it should be next on your list. I’m puzzled by how overlooked it’s been this year.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: A more subdued and subtle book than Homegoing, but its treatment of themes of addiction, grief, racism, and religion is so spot on that it packs a punch. Gifty is a PhD student at Stanford, researching reward circuits in the mouse brain. There’s also a complex mother–daughter relationship and musings on love and risk. [To be published in the UK in March]
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: A rich, natural exploration of a place and time period – full of detail but wearing its research lightly. Inspired by a real-life storm that struck on Christmas Eve 1617 and wiped out the male population of the Norwegian island of Vardø, it intimately portrays the lives of the women left behind. Tender, surprising, and harrowing.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson: Teenagers September and July were born just 10 months apart, with July always in thrall to her older sister. For much of this short novel, Johnson keeps readers guessing as to why the girls’ mother, Sheela, took them away to Settle House, her late husband’s family home in the North York Moors. As mesmerizing as it is unsettling.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd: Kidd’s bold fourth novel started as a what-if question: What if Jesus had a wife? Although this retells biblical events, it is chiefly an attempt to illuminate women’s lives in the 1st century and to chart the female contribution to sacred literature and spirituality. An engrossing story of women’s intuition and yearning.
*The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson: Intense and convincing, this balances historical realism and magical elements. In mid-1850s Scotland, there is a move to ensure clean water. The Glasgow waterworks’ physician’s wife meets a strange minister who died in 1692. A rollicking read with medical elements and a novel look into Victorian women’s lives.
*The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting: In this first book of a magic-fueled historical trilogy, progress, religion, and superstition are forces fighting for the soul of a late-nineteenth-century Norwegian village. Mytting constructs the novel around compelling dichotomies. Astrid, a feminist ahead of her time, vows to protect the ancestral church bells.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: art consumed and people encountered become part of her own story; curiosity about other lives fuels empathy. A quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings.
Weather by Jenny Offill: A blunt, unromanticized, wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, written in an aphoristic style. Set either side of Trump’s election in 2016, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom. Offill’s observations are dead right. This felt like a perfect book for 2020 and its worries.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward: An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. I was particularly taken by the chapter narrated by the ant. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.
*The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts: The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Against a backdrop of flooding and bush fires, a series of personal catastrophes play out. A timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.
To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss: These 10 stories from the last 18 years are melancholy and complex, often featuring several layers of Jewish family history. Europe, Israel, and film are frequent points of reference. “Future Emergencies,” though set just after 9/11, ended up feeling the most contemporary because it involves gas masks and other disaster preparations.
*Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld: A bonus second UK release from Sittenfeld in 2020 after Rodham. Just three stories, but not leftovers; a strong follow-up to You Think It, I’ll Say It. They share the theme of figuring out who you really are versus what others think of you. “White Women LOL,” especially, compares favorably to Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age.
You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South: In this debut collection, characters turn to technology to stake a claim on originality, compensate for losses, and leave a legacy. These 10 quirky, humorous stories never strayed so far into science fiction as to alienate me. I loved the medical themes and subtle, incisive observations about a technology-obsessed culture.
*Survival Is a Style by Christian Wiman: Wiman examines Christian faith in the shadow of cancer. This is the third of his books that I’ve read, and I’m consistently impressed by how he makes room for doubt, bitterness, and irony – yet a flame of faith remains. There is really interesting phrasing and vocabulary in this volume.
Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho: Cho experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She alternates between her time in the mental hospital and her life before the breakdown, weaving in family history and Korean sayings and legends. It’s a painstakingly vivid account.
*The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland: DNA tests can find missing relatives within days. But there are troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. A thought-provoking book with all the verve and suspense of fiction.
*Signs of Life: To the Ends of the Earth with a Doctor by Stephen Fabes: Fabes is an emergency room doctor in London and spent six years of the past decade cycling six continents. This warm-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny account of his travels achieves a perfect balance between world events, everyday discomforts, and humanitarian volunteering.
Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: Nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, but Jones wanted to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. Losing Eden is full of common sense and passion, cramming in lots of information yet never losing sight of the big picture.
*Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb: Jewish grandmothers are renowned for their fiercely protective love, but also for nagging. Both sides of the stereotypical matriarch are on display in this funny, heartfelt family memoir, narrated in the second person – as if from beyond the grave – by her late grandmother. A real delight.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty: McAnulty is a leader in the UK’s youth environmental movement and an impassioned speaker on the love of nature. This is a wonderfully observant and introspective account of his fifteenth year and the joys of everyday encounters with wildlife. Impressive perspective and lyricism.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey: Trethewey grew up biracial in 1960s Mississippi, then moved with her mother to Atlanta. Her stepfather was abusive; her mother’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to their Memorial Drive apartment after 30 years had passed. A striking memoir, delicate and painful.
(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)
Coming tomorrow: My best backlist reads of the year.
Three for Novellas in November: Bythell, Carey and Diop
I started my reading for Novellas in November early with these three review books, one nonfiction and two fiction. They have in common the fact that they are published today –although I believe two were released early to beat the lockdown. Don’t worry, though; there are still plenty of ways of getting hold of new books: most publishers and bookshops are still filling orders, or you can use the UK’s newly launched Bookshop.org site and support your local indie.
Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell
Cheerfully colored and sized to fit into a Christmas stocking, this is a fun follow-up to Bythell’s accounts of life at The Bookshop in Wigtown, The Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller. Within his seven categories are multiple subcategories, all given tongue-in-cheek Latin names as if naming species. When I saw him chat with Lee Randall at the opening event of the Wigtown Book Festival, he introduced a few, such as the autodidact who knows more than you and will tell you all about their pet subject (the Homo odiosus, or bore). This is not the same, though, as the expert who shares genuinely useful knowledge – of a rare cover version on a crime paperback, for instance (Homo utilis, a helpful person).
There’s also the occultists, the erotica browsers, the local historians, the self-published authors, the bearded pensioners (Senex cum barba) holidaying in their caravans, and the young families – now that he has one of his own, he’s become a bit more tolerant. Setting aside the good-natured complaints, who are his favorite customers? Those who revel in the love of books and don’t quibble about the cost. Generally, these are not antiquarian book experts looking for a bargain, but everyday shoppers who keep a low-key collection of fiction or maybe specifically sci-fi and graphic novels, which fly off the shelves for good prices.
So which type am I? Well, occasionally I’m a farter (Crepans), but you won’t hold that against me, will you? I’d like to think I fit squarely into the normal people category (Homines normales) when I visited Wigtown in April 2018: we went in not knowing what we wanted but ended up purchasing a decent stack and even had a pleasant conversation with the man himself at the till – he’s much less of a curmudgeon in person than in his books. I do recommend this to those who have read and loved his other work.
With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey
Carey’s historical novel Little was one of my highlights of 2018, so I jumped at the chance to read his new book. Interestingly, this riff on the Pinocchio story, narrated by Geppetto from the belly of a giant shark, originally appeared in Italian to accompany an exhibition hosted by the Fondazione Nazionale Carlo Collodi at the Parco di Pinocchio in Collodi. Geppetto came from a pottery-painting family but turned to wood when creating a little companion for his loneliness, the wooden boy who astounded him by coming to life. Now a son rather than a mere block of wood, Pinocchio sets off for school but never comes home. When he gets word that a troublesome automaton has been thrown into the sea, Geppetto sets out in a dinghy to find his son but is swallowed by the enormous fish that has been seen off the coast.
The picture of this new world-within-a-world is enthralling. Geppetto finds himself inside a swallowed ship, the Danish schooner Maria. Within the vessel is all he needs to occupy himself, at least for now: wood on which to paint the women he has loved; candle wax and hardtack for sculpting figures. Seaweed to cover his bald spot. Squid ink for his pen so he can write this notebook. A crab that lives in his beard. Relics of the captain’s life to intrigue him.
As a narrator, Geppetto is funny and gifted at wordplay (“This tome is my tomb”; “I unobjected him. Can you object to that?”), yet haunted by his decisions. Carey deftly traces Geppetto’s state of mind as he muses on his loss and imprisonment. The Afterword adds a sly pseudohistorical note to the fantasy. There are black-and-white illustrations throughout, as well as photos of the objects described in the text (and, presumably, featured in the exhibition). For me this didn’t live up to Little, but it would be a great introduction to Carey’s work.
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop
[145 pages; translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis]
I had no idea that Africans (“Chocolat soldiers”) fought for France in World War I. Diop’s second novel, which has already won several major European prizes, is about two Senegalese brothers-in-arms caught up in trench warfare. Alfa Ndaiye, aged 20, considers Mademba Diop his blood brother or “more-than-brother” (the novel’s French title is “Soul Brother”). From the start we know that Mademba has died. Gravely injured in battle, entrails spilling out, he begged Alfa to end his misery; three times Alfa refused. Having watched his friend die in agony, he knows he did the wrong thing. Slitting the man’s throat would have been the compassionate choice. From now on, Alfa will atone by brutally wreaking Mademba’s method of death on Germans. “The captain’s France needs our savagery, and because we are obedient, myself and the others, we play the savage.” Alas, I thought this bleak exploration of (in)humanity was marred by the repetitive language and unpleasantly sexualized metaphors.
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the proof copy for review.