2019 was off to a great start, because I decided to join a book club. I had the following requirements: 1) it should be in a 45 minutes cycling radius from home/work in London, and 2) take place on a weekday; this resulted in two options which both happened to perfectly match my interests: an Irish book club at Trafalgar Square, and a Post-Apocalyptic Book Club at King’s Cross. The Irish book club sadly turned out to be having its last meeting the first time I went (the organiser was moving back to Ireland) (rightly so, I wish I was moving to Ireland #Brexit). So, I have been reading a lot of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction the past year. It is great being in a book club and I highly recommend it. I have really gotten back into the swing of reading – although on the other hand, I have also never read so many bad books in a row!
(N.b. I don’t know what happened to the post I was writing about books I read during 2018.)
The Record Keeper by Agnes Gomillion
This was a book club book, and by far the worst I read all year. I cannot even rate it, because I actually did not finish it. I just wanted to mention it here, to warn people before they read it. All my opinions are strictly personal of course, and it was actually not received so badly by the book club – so please keep that in mind!
World War III is meant to have happened, splitting up society into a couple of very black-and-white (in this case literally) sections (as in many post-apocalyptic situations) in America (again, as in most apocalypses). The main character is part of a specific group of elite people, and sadly involved with records and archives a lot less than I hoped from the title of the book.
There was apparently a debate on racism and slavery incorporated under the story-line, which was appreciated by others. For me, I could not see through the bad writing and poor characterisation to care about anything deeper. It is a while since I read it now, so I cannot remember the particular details of things that frustrated me, but perhaps it is best to just leave it at that and move on.
The Migration by Helen Marshall
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Another book club book, quite comparable to the previous in the sense that there was probably more going on than I was willing to pick up on. The world is being mysteriously affected by storms and floods, as well as a fast-spreading new disease… which affects only youths.
The book club rather loved this one, and I believe someone knew the author too. She sounds really lovely, and this is why I can never be a book critic, because I would be way too worried about somehow accidentally offending her. I just did not like the way it was written; in particular the voice given to the teenage main character, which was meant to make her more authentic and realistic I think, but I thought the particular style and words chosen just made her seem fake – and it got worse as the book carried on.
I had also really hoped, before I began reading, that the book would be about the migrant debate in some way; which, unless I really missed something, it was not. However, I did like the fact that it was set in Oxford, and included (fairly basic) historical research on the Black Death. Also, I did finish reading it (although I skimmed the last chapter).
Square Eyes by Anna Mill & Luke Jones
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Also a book club book. This one was very hard to judge for me, because I loved the art, and the story was incredibly complex and interesting. The main character invents a big and powerful network system and eventually the boundaries between memory, dreams and the digital world start to blur.
However, because it was so complex, it also made this book very difficult to read for me. I cannot quite remember the plot, because I never properly grasped it I think. So this is a book where I think I am going to have to admit it went over my head a little – so please do give this a try if you are up for the challenge! (It is rather big and expensive, but I got my copy second hand!)
The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells
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This was a rather good book club story, a ‘vintage’ one (i.e. not published recently and most people will have probably heard of this) – published in 1899. Essentially, it is about a man who sleeps for two centuries, waking up in a completely transformed London in which he has become the richest person in the world.
I would have rated this one higher, if it had been a bit easier to read – the ‘old’ English, for me, as a non-native speaker I suppose, was a slight struggle. Also, the ‘future’ has not aged terribly well – it is not especially comparable to modern day London as it is now! However, I really loved reading how the main character explores this new future. There are ‘babble machines’, and euthanasia has become normal. Also, Wells did predict the future of airplanes, which is rather crazy.
Tentacle by Rita Indiana
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This book is a reason to join a book club – because otherwise I would have never heard of it. It was not originally written in English, so if you are capable of reading the original then please go for it. The main character is transgender, but also somehow travels in time with the help of a sacred sea anemone (if I am explaining this correctly), in a story that critiques climate change.
I did not love that it was centred heavily around prophecy and contemporary art references I did not always understand. However, I was very interested in the way it dealt with queer politics and poverty, among other things. Above all, it was well-written; the characters had personality without needing to be described by looking at clothing or hairstyles in the mirror, the writing style was quite different from most other things I have read, and it featured women (and men) in all shapes and from all backgrounds. While it was not an easy or smooth read for me – it was fast-paced, sometimes confusing, and not always on themes that interest me – I really think getting this story onto paper in a somewhat legible form was very admirable and brave.
Sweet Fruit, Sour Land by Rebecca Ley
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Could not make it to book club for this one, so I do not know what everyone else thought. In this book the world is apparently really struggling, especially with drought/food shortage – the UK/London in particular (not sure, or can’t remember, what happened to the continent). There’s a few elites left, who have lavish parties. Women no longer have authority over their bodies; they are meant to produce children at a certain point. This is all not terribly different from other post-apocalyptic stories. The interesting bit in my opinion is the relationship between the two main characters – but I can’t write about that too much without revealing spoilers.
I was not overly impressed with the general story or plot, but I thought this book was rather beautifully written, for once. A lot of book club books seem to suffer from being first novels; you can tell the author is inexperienced in characterisation, and has too many ideas to narrow down to one story. This book did not especially have those flaws, in my opinion, which is why I am rating it a little higher than some of the others. Peaches feature a fair bit as a symbol, and I actually did not mind that – it resulted in some emotional descriptions and scenes. I am not sure I recommend it, but if you come across it in a charity shop, then give it a go sure.
Rosewater by Thade Thompson
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This was probably one of the more ‘put-together’ books we read for book club last year. There is a part two as well, and a part three coming soon. I think I might read the second one, but especially if I see it on offer/sale somewhere at some point.
Rosewater is a town built around a mysterious alien biodome, which is rumoured to have healing powers. It is somewhere in the middle of Africa, which makes a very refreshing change from all novels centred around the US/Oxford/London. The author is indeed very good at describing society, including local foods and smells – this is something I really enjoyed about the book.
That said, the characters fall a bit flat. It took me ages to work out the main character was a man and not a lesbian woman, which I do not think was actually intentional. All ‘attractive’ women in the book seem to have a certain body type; and yes, you can tell this book was written by a man.
That said, there’s a couple mysteries there that kept me turning the pages, and I went through the book quite quickly – which I usually take as a good sign.
Resistance is Futile by Jenny T. Colgan
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This one was given to me by someone at book club, not actually discussed there. I read it in probably about 3 days, while I was working in South Africa and had no access to internet. I cannot really say what the book is truly about without giving away a big part of the plot – but it basically describes a really interesting and unusual romance.
The main character is a very cool female mathematician, and her friends are all quite interesting characters too. That is about the extent of what is good about it though – I did not find it particularly well-written. Oh and it is set in Cambridge, this one (as opposed to Oxford). The reason I would probably recommend this book though, is because there are some really touching and romantic scenes in it, and the whole story is very easy to understand, and very easy to read. I think it would make great beach holiday reading.
Ah and it has nothing to do with Star Trek or the Borg by the way (which is how I understand ‘resistance is futile’); in fact I am not sure I understand the title at all. It is really a quite sweet and friendly book.
Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson
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This was another ‘vintage’ book club book, especially relevant, in my opinion, because of Brexit. The group really did not love this one, and I can see why; but I think I might have appreciated it a bit more than most.
Reacting to their country’s inexorable decline into consumerism, turpitude, racism, and violence, the powers that be establish four independent republics based on the perceived nature of the citizens assigned to each. And it is based on four humours?! All people are classified as either Sanguine, Melancholic, Choleric or Phlegmatic – which is just a straight out bizarre choice on the author’s part, to me.
Anyway, we’re rolling with it. We follow a character’s somewhat insane journey through all these parts of the country. Whilst I really do not like what the author did there, the book overall, in my opinion, was not terribly written – it slows down a bit in the middle and I think most of us skipped a few chapters at some point, but other than that it was ok compared to the other books up here ( ^ ) in my opinion.
Most of all, I was really reading it in the context of Britain today (while this was published in 2005). It is very easy to project different political parties and characters onto what is going on, and especially different movements and their effects (or what effects they may have). That is what made it a rather good and interesting read to me. That, and in this case, I did really get and love the title.
The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster
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Another ‘vintage’ book club story. It is very short, and this is the first time I ever listened to an audio book (I have been struggling with severe travel sickness so can no longer read on the train :( ). I thoroughly did not enjoy the audio recording; the person reading did not have the right accent, and tried to do different voices for different characters, and it was just awful. However, it only took me one commute to finish the story.
Anyway. This is another 19th century science-fiction story (well, early 20th century, published in 1909 originally). In this future, people have started living underground, and they rely on a mysterious machine to regulate their needs. The main character is an (apparently) non-western ( ! ) woman (!!) who is a lecturer, a scholar of some sort (!!!), who spends her days sharing knowledge through what we would now call Skype. As far as 1909 characterisation by a man goes, that’s a pretty good start. She has a rebellious son on the other side of the world, who is somewhat of a machine skeptic – which is what the story revolves around.
This short story is now famous, because it basically predicts the internet – as well as a couple of other modern technologies, and also the normalisation of euthanasia (which, notably, seems to be quite common in a lot of older science-fiction). Interestingly, at the same time, the primary mode of air travel is air ship (e.g. zeppelin). Quite steam punk. Personally, I would have liked some more exploration of the ‘apocalypse’, i.e. if anyone is still on the surface, and why, and what happened – but at the same time, I can appreciate this short story for staying on point: how much do we rely on technology, what happens if that fails, and does it matter at what time in the ‘future’ we are living?
The Fireman by Joe Hill
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This was my first ever book club book and while no one else really warmed to it I rather liked it. The main character is a girl, and she’s pregnant, and that’s a bit different to your standard man with a dog isn’t it. Also, the pandemic that is attempting to end this world, is one of spontaneous combustion. Spontaneous combustion. That’s also different from the usual deadly zombie virus. I just liked that the author had the idea, and then managed to work it into an entire novel.
Yes the ideas were also possibly a bit simple and derivative (similar virus concepts have already been written), and there was a cult of course; and yes some of it was a bit sensationalist, and the characters were not that complex (e.g. typical evil abusive husband). However, it is a massive book (almost 800 pages) – and I read it in about a week? It was very easy to read, and very hard to put down, which is something that can make me really love a book. I would recommend this one.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
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Post-apocalyptic book club has coincided nicely with my new job in nuclear security. Riddley Walker is set in a far distant UK (or what used to be the UK), which has been obliterated by nuclear war . The story is told from the perspective of 12 year old Riddley Walker, in a future form of English. If you enjoyed the adapted language of e.g. Catcher in the Rye, you will appreciate this. I did anyway. Riddley grew up in a harsh environment, people and nature strongly affected by radiation, and he never ventured far from his home settlement; but then he somehow finds himself part of some of the new power development going on in this future society. Life has basically reverted to the Iron Age, which is scarily realistic and interesting at the same time.
I never did work out a lot of the concepts, until we discussed them at book club. For example, the “Eusa show” features throughout the book – which I thought must be related to Jesus somehow (it is not); as well as a “Littl Shining Man” causing an explosion called the “1 Big 1” (that one is a little more obvious). There are also a lot of references to Punch and Judy, an old British puppet show I was completely unfamiliar with (and upon investigation, don’t care for very much). That said, while it is a challenging story to follow, I appreciated both the language, ‘historical’ setting, and symbolism, and would really recommend.
The Girl with All the Gifts by Mike Carey
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Everyone at book club kept talking about this – but they had read it before I joined. So I went out and got it anyway, to read in-between the other books. It is really hard to give a summary of the story though, without giving some of the best plot twists away (this is a page turner kind of book!) – which is probably why I never read it before (the title and description do not do it justice). In essence though, the book starts off with a girl called Melanie going to school in a rather strange and highly secured compound/prison. There’s clearly something going on with her health (and the other children), but she does not understand much about it; in fact, the guards and teachers don’t seem to know all that much about it either. Lets’ say it can be compared, remotely, to The Walking Dead.
The ‘apocalypse’ part of this book was very ingenious, in my opinion; it is a pretty standard one, but with a new perspective. Perspective is really the right word, I think. It takes until the last few chapters to properly work out what is going on, and then there is a very satisfying moment of understanding. That is all I can say really. There are a couple of plot holes and bits and bops I could critique, but it was a very easy and quick read, and it did not feel like ‘another version of the same thing’ even though, really, it kind of is. Overall pretty well-written, and worth a read.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
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This is typically one of those books that make it good to be in a book club. I am not sure I would have heard about it otherwise, and I really like reading more novels written by women who clearly have a 21st century perspective on feminism, science, LGBT+, and so forth.
The story starts off with a ‘pharmaceutical pirate’ who goes by the name of Jack and travels across the somewhat-in-the-future world in a submarine (reminded me a little of Snow Crash, by the way). The book is not about piracy in the sense of Pirates of the Caribbean, but instead piracy when it comes to the digital and the internet, and copyright and patents. Jack’s mission is to bring cheap pharmaceuticals to people who otherwise cannot access or afford them – but she has accidentally copied a drug that actually turns out to be very lethal, and she spends the course of the story trying to stop people from taking it as well as looking for a cure. And the way society works at this point, both socially and technologically, is a huge hindrance.
Alternating chapters also narrate the story from the perspective of a detective and his robot-partner Paladin, who try and track Jack down to capture her (because she did break law despite her good intentions). Paladin is probably one of the most interesting characters in the whole book, and raises a lot of questions about ethics, morals and even gender. There are several more great characters in the book, but they do not receive enough words really. All of them, however, make you question what autonomy means.
A lot of the time, I read books and think ‘oh that’s too many ideas, that should have been shorter; tune that a bit better, tone it down, give that character a separate story, etc’. In this case however, I feel like the book could have been a lot longer (or, alternatively, could have been a trilogy). I did not want these characters deleted, to streamline the story; I wanted to read a lot more, about all of them. There is one that makes you question slavery, several that make you wonder about AI… I can go on.
I would really love to read more from this author. It feels like her literature may need some time to mature further, and her next works will be (even) better. She managed to come up with a character who pirates pharmaceuticals and travels by submarine, and still make it believable rather than outrageous. I want to see what else Annallee Newitz can come up with.
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An event at the British Library actually lead me toward this book, which is now probably one of my most recommended books of 2019. It is a collection of short stories in which 12 Palestinian writers imagine life in 2048 – a century after the Nakba. (This was apparently preceded by Iraq+100, which is now on my to-read list.)
I took this as beach holiday reading by the way – not the best setting for these stories, I can tell you. The authors cover the impact of technologically advanced drones, virtual reality time travel, treaties stretched over parallel universes… A lot of the stories address heritage and memory, and most of them are quite dark. While all these writers hold out various fantastical hopes for solutions to the problem, none of them seem hopelessly optimistic. You can tell that they want to imagine a positive future, but truly struggle to do so.
These are not only very well-written stories – they are also profoundly thought-provoking.
Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah both by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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Apologies for grouping these two books together! I only picked up my first Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel after she spoke at my graduation (!) in 2018 – and have not been able to stop reading ever since. I mostly like her novels for the same reasons though – because they are so well written, the characters are so realistic, and the interwoven history is so educational.
Half of a Yellow Sun is about Biafra’s struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s – a conflict I had only vaguely heard about until I read this book (which yes, I find hard to admit to). The story is told from the perspective of a 13 year old house boy, working in Nsukka; an Igbo woman, who finds a job as a sociology lecturer in the same town; and an English want-to-be journalist, who struggles between wanting to report on the conflict and his status as an ‘outsider’. Adichie describes how they become refugees in different ways, and the impact the war has on their lives, whilst also narrating their complicated relationships and small details from every day life.
Americanah is about two Nigerian high-school sweethearts who end up moving to different countries – one moves to the US and becomes a successful lecturer and blogger, while the other ends up struggling in London. They meet again 15 years later in a newly democratic Nigeria, and Adichie tells us the story of their changed relationship (making use of a lot of flashbacks). This novel also details Nigerian history, but more specifically, what it has been like for Nigerians to live in countries such as the US or the UK. The characters face many typical obstacles, ranging from racism to struggling to find a good hair salon.
It is hard for me to write anything else in the sense of a review, because so many good things are already published on the world wide web if you want to look for them. All I can say is that I highly recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
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The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my all-time favourite books (since long before the television series), so I was a little concerned that this much-awaited sequel could really only disappoint. Fortunately, I loved it.
The story picks up around 15 years after the conclusion of the previous novel, and it is told through the eyes of three female narrators from Gilead. Margaret Atwood is such a good writer; the quality is obvious to me. Plus, this was (another) page turner. It was also one of those very rare books that I read slowly, because I was reading it too quickly; because I wanted to keep reading, and not put it down, and never finish it. Finishing a good book can be so utterly sad.
I did also watch the television series, which I have been very excited about. It is great to see one of your favourite books on the screen, and then expanded, and added to. I was worried it would ruin it, but it hasn’t. It’s answered questions I’ve always had, it’s enriched some of the characters. I love several of the actresses in the series. I do not much care for the critics: I am a fan. However, I did notice this impacted the way in which I read The Testaments (e.g. how I envisioned the characters) and I am torn between liking and disliking that.
Would I read more? I thought the Handmaid’s Tale was excellent by itself, and although the novel and its ending left me with many questions, I never wanted or expected more and was taken completely by surprise when this all became famous on television. However, now that this seems like a possibility: yes, yes I do want more.
The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky both by Mary Robinette Kowal
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Ooh, remember when I discovered Becky Chambers? The Lady Astronaut series was my discovery for 2019. I devoured the first book and bought the second straight away, eagerly awaiting more!
This likewise reads a little bit to me, like an author composing a successful novel/series for the first time, and some of the character descriptions are maybe a bit clumsy or too obvious – but whatever, everything else totally makes up for that in my opinion. These are ‘alternate history’ novels, in which a 1952 meteorite strike rapidly speeds up the effects of global warming, starting to make the planet uninhabitable, and initiating a new space race. This means that the (U.S. of course) space programme has to deal with issues such as racism and feminism a fair few decades before it did in our real present-day world. (It does remind a little of Hidden Figures, if you are familiar with that).
I love that the main character is a female want-to-be astronaut, and her spirit and determination really resonates with me. It is inspiring to read, yet also satisfying as a story. There is drama, there is romance. It’s a bit stereo-typical in places, but then, that is mostly true to the time it is set in. I love these books a lot.
The Book of Dust (La Belle Sauvage) by Phillip Pullman
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Last but not least is the new Phillip Pullman novel. As with a couple of these others, I was a little worried I would not like it as much as his previous books – but this, too, did not disappoint.
This is a prequel (or as Pullman says, an ‘equal’) to the Northern Lights series – Lyra is actually a newborn baby in this book. The main character, Malcolm, whose parents own a pub called the Trout, somehow finds himself responsible for her. I really liked that this novel is written in such a way that you could read it at any age; I would have read this just as happily when I was 10, as I did now. We find out how Lyra ended up at Jordan college, we learn more about ‘Dust’, and there is a strange journey through the flooded streets of Oxford.
Happily, I have the second volume in this series already waiting for me in my bookcase!