You would think that 2020 created a lot of time for reading. However, I have never spent so little time in transit, which is when I normally do most my reading. Also, I wasn’t able to attend book club at all. This year, reading mainly happened before bed or over the weekend. No holidays, so no holiday reading. (Could not be bothered with time off without the ability to travel; which may have not been the most healthy choice. But first world problems, so moving on.)
So, I thought I would have probably read a lot less. However, throughout the first two lockdowns I went through a lot of book-club books anyway! Just reading from a distance and having discussions in the form of online comments rather than the (much, much missed) pub. Plus, all the work-from-home screen time resulted in not only consciously switching to a book at night but even needing to. As a result, I may have read a few books less than last year… but it’s not that far off. Here’s my recommendations (and warnings):
Always North by Vicki Jarrett
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A post-apocalyptic book-club book, although I could not attend the online meeting. I loved the idea of this novel: it starts with this crew on a nuclear icebreaker makings its way north to investigate the changing climate. Relevant. But then something really weird with a polar bear happens, and then there’s a jump in time, and then an odd dream-like research centre, and flashbacks… Personally, I do not like strange dreams and flashbacks, they do not improve stories for me. That is really just me though, others might be fine with this. This book has been described as ‘a profound meditation on our consumption of the world, and the perception of time.’ It also reminded me just a little bit of Cold Earth by Sarah Moss (cool female main character, north, dreams). Anyway, I really struggled to finish this.
Sunfall by Jim Al-Khalili
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This was actually the Christmas post-apocalyptic book-club book for 2019/2020. Jim Al-Khalili is a theoretical physicist, so it promised a scientifically believable apocalypse. Ooh but did it disappoint. I always worry writing that, in case the author somehow ends up reading my blog (why would they?!)… but this was not the best book I read over 2020. (Spoilers ahead.) Scenario: Earth’s magnetic field is failing.
I loved getting to know a couple of the unique personalities introduced in individual chapters – but they were abruptly and brutally killed off without further character development. I appreciated that the main characters were mostly interesting women, including an Iranian computer scientist. However, one of them does end up is a stereotypical romance at the end, with the guy saving the day, etc. etc. Basically – I think with some more detail and effort there was real potential here. However, the plot was written for a movie, with so, so many plot-holes in it… and the science did not add up (even to me, the opposite of a theoretical physicist). Most of it I can forgive, but at the end there is a radiation incident that is just totally unbelievable. I appreciate Al-Khalili’s effort, and I finished the book, and I certainly think he should try again… but if I had been his editor I would have suggested taking some more time, doing some more re-writes, and possibly taking a creative writing course… because it just did not really culminate in a great novel.
Intrusion by Ken Macleod
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This was a book-club book set mostly in London. Medical science has advanced such that a single-dose pill, taken when pregnant, eradicates many common genetic defects from an unborn child (‘the Fix’). The main character is pregnant, and does not want to take this ‘fix’. She isn’t an anti-vaccer or anything stereotypical – she cares quite a lot about defects. She just wants what happens to be her body and her child to be her choice. Simple. I.e. if the fix was optional rather than compulsory she would probably take it. (Ooooh put this into COVID-19 context!) The book raises a lot of questions that come up in today’s society, e.g. should you find out about anything before birth and if so then what do you do; how acceptable is that decision; and how does it affect those around you. It is not just about medical science though, it is really about state intrusion into personal privacy and self-determination. And some feminism of course. With that said, the plot develops a bit… oddly. And there are dreams again (as you know, I am not a fan of dreams and flashbacks). It was an interesting read, but I did not like where it went toward the ending, and it was not my favourite book of the year.
The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey
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Also a book-club book. This is the same author as The Girl With All The Gifts, which I thought was rather good. This book likewise involves elements of environmental apocalypse, but otherwise the story is very different. It tells the story of Koli (as you might have guessed), who lives in a small village in the very distant future. People have forgotten about technology (and worship any surviving tech), and no longer remember lots of modern features of life such as writing, cars, and so forth. They live in small village-fort-settlements which have some contact with one another (but not much, because going outside the fortifications is dangerous). The synopsis made me think the book would be all about a fight against bio-engineered trees… but it turns out that is only a very small element of the story in this first installment of the trilogy. The book reminded me of Riddley Walker, including the language. (Although nowhere near as far evolved, grim, and metaphorical!) I wouldn’t say it was really that great (the intended audience seems to maybe be young adults or children?), but I decided I would read the second novel as well, which is probably a good sign. (Update from the future: I sort of enjoyed the second novel also, and shall be reading the third one too. May up it to four stars next year, maybe.)
The Wall by John Lanchester
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And also a book-club book. This is about a future Britain where everyone is conscripted to serve as guards on a wall surrounding the entire island. Yes, I did picture this wall in Game of Thrones style for most of the story. We do not learn a lot about the society, or even very much about the characters; the story really is limited to the experience of the main character on the wall. I kind of like that, because it leaves some mystery, and it makes you want to turn the pages, and find out more. But I also kind of hate that, because obviously I want to know how the world got to this situation. I really enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book, but then it gets… crazy, and in the end not a lot is resolved. So, pretty anti-climactic. The book is short enough though, so might as well give it a read.
Vox by Christina Dalcher
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This book had a fair bit of internet and media attention last year. It is about silencing women (insert Oprah meme) – but then literally. What a concept, what an allegory. This one is set in the US. The government literally decrees that that women are no longer allowed to speak more than 100 words daily, and they have to wear these crazy devices that give them an electric shock when they do. Including children. It is an interesting ( ? ) idea; the writing flowed easily; and I finished the book pretty quickly. I would recommend it, just for some reflection on society. With that said, since it is so popular, I do also get to be critical. It really does not address how transgender or non-binary people fit into the world, which is such an astounding oversight. And it lacks in diversity in multiple areas. Oh and a man resolves the situation in the end. I understand what the author is trying to do; I just think maybe the execution was a little too short-sighted.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
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Surprise, this was also a book-club book. A really beautifully written novel about the loss of identity. It is set on an island, which seems to no longer have a connection to mainland Japan. It was written in the 1990s, pre-smartphones and so forth; although I am sure if it had been written today they would not have featured. This is a timeless story. The police controls the population, and slowly takes things away. For example, roses. You are no longer allowed to think about them. They all have to be taken from the gardens and destroyed. Decorations are burned. And then slowly people either forget or pretend they never existed. Some things are small, some more important. Throughout the novel, increasingly more important things are ‘forgotten’. People who remember things are arrested. The main character is a novelist, and the situation certainly makes writing stories complicated. It is a very surreal novel, beginning quite realistic (standard oppressive society) and becoming more and more dreamlike (or nightmare-like). It is one of those books that I wish I could have read in the original language because I am sure it is even more meaningful then.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
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Parable of the Sower was actually also published it the 1990s, and it has been on my to-read list for a while. I guess I was a little worried it would almost be too classic? (There’s a lot of school curriculum literature that I do not love.) That worry was completely unfounded. This is a brilliant book and I do not know what took me so long. Encouraged by book club, I finally added it to a book order at some point last year. This novel is set in the US, in the 2020s ( ! ). It is always a little more worrying when authors write about the distant future apocalypse… and then it is actually the decade you are living in. Climate change and inequality have ended society as we know it, and there are small fortified settlements left over where people are trying to get by. Outside the walls there are a lot of guns, and there is a lot of violence.
This novel has an amazing and complex main character (Lauren) and a big deal is initially made about her ‘hyperempathy’ (or ‘sharing’; in essence, she can feel the pain of others). The main focus of the novel however is this type of belief system she begins developing for herself called ‘Earthseed’. Her ideas are very interesting; and the responses others have to them are very realistic. I did wonder about the title of the book (sounds Biblical) – I am sure there is some significance to it, but my interpretation in the end is a combination of the main character ‘sowing the seed’ for a new set of beliefs, and the fact that it has become very difficult to grow anything (literally as well as metaphorically). The book addresses education, racism, domestic abuse; and it does it very well in so few pages.
Really beautifully written, and covers a lot of important themes. I definitely recommend this one. And I am also very happy there is a sequel (on the list for 2021!); although equally sad to find out the author passed away before writing part three.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
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Another classical novel I had not read yet. This one, for a change, has a somewhat happy ‘apocalypse’? I found this book really difficult to get in to and started over two or three times, but from the middle onward I sprinted through it to the end. As I mentioned a few times in this post, I am not a huge fan of stories with dream sequences and flashbacks (or flashforwards?) so this was never going to be my new favourite book. However, it is very well written, with a really rich and complex main character. Which is what the novel is really famous for, of course.
This was published in the 1970s, and it is set in the US again, with a Mexican-American protagonist who has already been through a lot before the story even starts. It emerges that she is unfairly committed to a mental institution, and the story is really one of feminism; how her actions and her thoughts are unreasonably questioned, to such an extent that perhaps she questions herself. She has a connection with someone from the future (2137) who lives in a sort of utopia that combines many of the movements of the 70s; they have addressed racism, inequality, homophobia, pollution, consumerism, class, and more. They use ‘per’ to refer to ‘persons’; eliminating gender from the English language. Why has this not stuck? I really loved reading about this world. They still seem to be fighting an invisible battle with an unknown enemy, but most the story just describes a really wonderful future. These were my favourite chapters in the book, even though the ‘present day’ sections were obviously also very important.
This is a much-analysed novel, so I do not need to do that here. Even the Wikipedia page gives a good impression of the ways in which some of the themes are covered. I would recommend reading the book before the analysis though, of course.
On The Come Up by Angie Thomas
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Last year I read The Hate U Give, and since then I also watched the movie on an airplane some time (when we were still allowed to fly)… and I remain deeply impressed by this powerful story. It is easily accessible young adult writing, sure, but that should not be considered a negative. These are the kinds of stories that should be easily accessible; and get attention; and be made into movies. It is not some sort of sensationalist media trick, it is necessary.
When I write ‘easy’ I just mean the way the language is written by the way, not the plot or the characters or their experiences. This second novel (if I can call it that; it stands alone from the other) is about a girl who hopes to become a rapper. I thought it might be quite feminist, because there’s more boy rappers than girl rappers, but actually the book brushes past that quite nicely. Yeah it is acknowledged, but also, it is the 21st century; of course girls can be rappers, get over it. The story is much more about the difference between worlds and classes, and other inequalities; and very much… about having your voice heard. Really great read.
The Secret Commonwealth by Phillip Pullman
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This one I saved for the Christmas holidays. I knew I would enjoy reading it, because I am a big fan of the His Dark Materials trilogy. I read those books many times when I was younger. Phillip Pullman is a brilliant storyteller, and the books are very re-readable. There are layers to the stories that are difficult to absorb on the first go.
I liked The Secret Commonwealth more than La Belle Sauvage – although that one was also excellent. It just had a few too many dreamlike sequences for me especially nearer the end. This new installment is set 20 years later again; so basically the chronological order is LBS – HDM trilogy – TSC. This Guardian review puts it very well: ‘Pullman seems to be writing for those who read the HDM novels as children, but are children no longer.’ Lyra is actually a student in Oxford now, and the Magisterium is going strong. A murder takes her on an adventure across Europe and some of the Middle East, which I found satisfyingly nostalgic at a time when I could not travel in real life. Pan looks for Lyra’s imagination. There’s a botanical mystery. Plenty of odd elements as usual, and also as always some discussion of theology. I am not sure how to summarise this mixture of elements without spoiling anything at the same time. The title is explained at one point: the Secret Commonwealth is the world of fairies, ghosts and witches, which exists next to the world of reason. So that is the kind of world Lyra travels between this time (as she does not go to the modern Oxford or any other parallel universe). Personally I am more in it for the travel element though; and at this stage, also for the characters.
The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith
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A friend lent me this book in February 2020. It is tiny, so I expected to finish it very quickly (I did) and then give it back to her when we next met (we still haven’t). It is a really curious, short story. I am sure it has much more going on than it seems at first, and lots of layers to unpeel. I did look up a couple reviews after to try and piece together some of my own thoughts.
We get to know Fatou, who works for a family on a London street that reads just so familiar to me (having lived in London). It is crazy how Zadie Smith can do that with so few words! For some reason, Fatou observes people playing badminton behind the tall walls of the tiny embassy of Cambodia (which is not in the big fancy embassy district, but on a random street in Willesden). The whole story is this contrast between huge political events and migration and human rights abuses.. and small every day activities like waiting for the bus or enjoying a swim or experiencing English rain. It is really hard to explain the meaning of it all; I am sure someone else would do a better job than me. I know that I will be adding Zadie Smith to my to-read list anyway (with apologies for taking so long).
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
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This was by far one of the best books I read last year. Mainly, I had it on my Christmas wish-list because it won the Booker Prize together with The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. Who is of course one of my favourite authors of all time. Well, it would have made sense for me to look into Bernardine Evaristo a little bit more. It is really embarrassing that it had not occurred to me before The Big Award situation.
Girl, Woman, Other introduces twelve different characters, each with their own section of the book. In a good way, not a in a gimmicky way. You really, properly get to know each of them, and it is upsetting when a chapter ends; but also, each part is a unique whole, and a story by itself, and it is ok that the novel moves on. I have no idea how Evaristo was able to pull that off, it is truly astonishing quality of writing. Then on top of that, all the stories are interwoven, but not in some obvious cliche way; just satisfying connections here and there, sometimes big, often very small. The characters cover time periods and age ranges and identities… each is strong, and interesting. I wish I had written down some more thoughts on this as I was reading it, because it is a year ago now. I have recommended it to everyone since then in any case.
To be Taught if Fortunate by Becky Chambers
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You probably already know I am a big fan of the Becky Chambers novels, so of course I had to get my hands on this book as well. This one is a little bit different from the regular Wayfarer series. It is meant to make you think – but in an I-am-still-reading-fiction and not non-fiction sort of way, which I think is the best way. The little novella follow a group of explorers doing research on a set of different planets. Instead of following the classic terraforming route (adjust planet to people) the characters go through somaforming (adjust the people to the planet). This happens over a long period of time, during which things back home have the potential to change drastically; if it even remains possible to communicate. As always, the story follows a set of really interesting and diverse characters (and not diverse because it is 2020 and that’s how you have to write nowadays; it’s just natural, and chill). Existential is the way to describe this one.
The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
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This is my other current favourite series. Was this the last book?! It is not clear to me. The ending felt like it may have been but oh, I hope not! This third installment in the women astronaut series features a murder mystery on the moon (like Agatha Christie on a lunar base?!). The fact that it is set in an alternate history is so interesting; no smartphones and internet and all that kind of tech. The old fashioned space station design, but then taken to what would have been a futuristic level for the mid-20th century… and so forth. The historical challenges the characters face, but then they are also relatable. It is fascinating. As always, this is easy to read and I finished it so quickly. What is Mary Robinette Kowal writing next?!
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez
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A non-fiction book! I do read these often (see photo), but I rarely actually finish them. They are the kind of book I read most regularly while waiting for my train to London in the morning; when I am awake and focussed; not so much before going to bed. Of course, I have only been on a train maybe 10 times the past year, so this stack of books has been a little neglected…
Anyway, a few people had recommended this to me, and I finally got around to it this summer / autumn. I read the whole thing thinking ‘B must read this’ and we had a huge argument about it (which of course has left me convinced even more strongly that he has to read it). As the title says, this book ‘Exposes Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’. It reminded me so much of my football team. Or lack thereof. There was no girl’s team in my village when I was little (age 6 or 7) so I just accepted the fact that I could not join a football team. I wasn’t unhappy about it, I didn’t find it unfair. There was nothing to think or feel because it just didn’t exist. Never did I question why girls and boys couldn’t just be on one team, or think I should start a girl’s team or mixed team, or just join the bloody boy’s team. These options just never occurred to me.
That’s exactly what a lot of this book is about. I bet you have never felt that the bus route works against you. Well, everyone feels like that way about busses. But I mean against your gender. Caroline Criado-Perez has all the facts, numbers and figures that explain how every day things have come to be the way they are through data bias. “They didn’t think to consider if women’s needs might be different. And so this data gap was a result of not involving women in planning.”
This is a must read; for women to realise the things they are used to should be questioned more, and for men to understand that bias is real. Caroline Criado-Perez addresses a lot of important topics that I normally do not spend a lot of time thinking about it. She does this clearly, and, crucially, with loads of factual footnotes.
Lingo by Gaston Dorren
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As I mentioned, non-fiction books usually take me a while to finish; because when I read something like this, I want to read it properly, and understand it, and ask questions, and follow up on those. This one in particular, I really wanted to consciously absorb. Lingo combines linguistics and cultural history i.e. my interests in book-form. The sub-title describes it as ‘the language spotters guide to Europe’ which is exactly the sort of guidebook I would want to have on me if it were possible to travel at the moment. What was especially fun about this book, is that almost every chapter made me message a friend whom I thought would like it or be interested in it. It includes big modern languages and obscure ancient ones as well as a variety of amazing dialects, and chapters such as ‘languages of exile’ and of course a whole section on endangered languages. All the chapters are short, so it is not too much to digest at once, and they include little fun-facts such as useful words that just don’t translate (Jólabókaflóð: the Icelandic for ‘Christmas book flood’). Love this book so much!
Here’s to another year of reading. While we cannot travel physically, at least we can escape in books.