It’s been a difficult summer for me and books. For the me/books relationship. This is due to a number of factors, all of which are my dissertation. In the run-up to YALC, I had such lofty goals of reading books by ALL THE AUTHORS, so I could meet them and have a knowledgeable chat about the themes of their works, the obvious influence of so-and-so upon their hallowed prose stylings. Wandering into the green room, I would spy an author and declare myself an avid shipper of X and Y, despite those plot shenanigans I had definitely read all about!
I read literally one book in July. A NEW LOW. But it was a brilliant book.
NEEDLEWORK by Deirdre Sullivan – At a slight 224 pages, Needlework wields more power than its size might lead you to suspect. It is dense with pain and beauty, often difficult to read because of the subject matter, but the fluent writing and Ces’ direct voice pull the reader inexorably along, no matter how hard the going gets. I sometimes take photos of jokes in books so I can send them to my friends, but Needlework had me taking pictures of pages because they had distilled something so true and personal I felt the words reverberate in my bones. I didn’t send those pictures to anyone. This book is not for everyone, but if you can bear the intimacy and discomfort, it will make a lasting impact.
And now for my August reads:
JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke – How can I review Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? I listened to 32 hours of it, over the course of several weeks, and I literally wept at the ending not because it was sad but because I was already grieving the characters I had spent so long with. An alternative history fantasy set in an England that has long known magic and fairies, but where both have been dormant for a long time before the eponymous magicians revive the practice and generally cause a stir, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of those novels you could happily live in. It is peopled with characters who are utterly convincing as individuals with histories and motivations of their own, from Jonathan Strange himself to Mr Norrell’s servant’s cat. Some readers find the level of detail Clarke goes to tedious – this is a novel with footnotes, and plenty of them – but I would happily spend another 32 hours at least finding out what everyone’s been up to, right down to what Childermass had for breakfast yesterday. It bears mentioning that Jonathan Strange is my number one, my top book totty, the babeliest of all magicians and indeed all men the fictional world has to offer. He is sometimes a bit annoying, and most of the plot could have been resolved in moments if he ever paid any attention to his wife, but he is also really hot. I’m still slightly cross he wasn’t ginger in the TV series, but he is always ginger in my heart. This is one of my favourite books of all time. It is all narrated in third person as a deadpan, uncannily accurate pastiche of 18th century novels you probably read at school, with the elaborate detail and footnotes and occasional cameos from figures such as Wellington and Lord Byron making it convincing as a history. This same deadpan, bedtime story narrator voice makes the brief flashes of violence and horror all the more jarring; alongside the genteel society comedy of manners is a dark, veiled world of unpredictable magic and terrible consequences. Clarke also draws our attention to the oppressed of the society she depicts; the story is ostensibly about Messrs Strange and Norrell, but of the many subplots, one of the most significant and interesting is that of Stephen Black, butler to Lord Pole, black man in Regency era England, and, according to at least one fairy, the future king of England. The ferocity of Lady Pole’s rage is also something to behold; her entire life is centred around the whims of men, and she is REALLY ANGRY about it. I’ve started to realise how often I’m drawn to historical fiction for the rich, detailed sort of prose that often comes along with it, and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell fits the bill. I frankly love few books more than this one.
T IS FOR TREE by Greg Fowler – I received a copy of this book from Ink Road, so I could feature it for the blog tour – check out the post here!
FRESHERS by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison – I completely adore everything Tom & Lucy write. This book is hilarious and true, and makes me nostalgic for a freshers experience I never even really had. You finish reading with the sense that you’ve just had a rollercoaster of a time with your best mates. I’m a bit disappointed that I won’t get to see them again next term. The relationships are as ever absolutely spot on – I love the awkward romances Tom and Lucy write, but also that it’s the highs and lows of the friendships that really get me invested. Friendship is VISCERAL and VITAL and A BIG TERRIBLE MESS. Also: you’ll laugh a lot, out loud, in public. Don’t be embarrassed – everyone who’s read this book has done the same thing, and you’re probably still less embarrassing than most of the characters.
A CHANGE IS GONNA COME (Anthology) – It took me an embarrassingly long time to read this but I’m so glad I finally did! a change is gonna come is important & necessary in bringing together underrepresented voices in YA lit but it’s also actually, genuinely brilliant. such a staggering variety of stories that pretty much all made me cry for very different reasons. it’s difficult to pick favourites – there’s honestly not a bum note – but I particularly enjoyed Tanya Byrne’s HACKNEY MOON about queer identity, love, and finding your tribe, Nikesh Shukla’s WE WHO? about post-Brexit racism infecting years of friendship, Yasmin Rahman’s story of facing down Islamophobia and making friends along the way FORTUNE FAVOURS THE BOLD and Aisha Bushby’s intimate and heartbreaking MARIONETTE GIRL. That’s a full third of the book. I could go on. Thank goodness for the team at Stripes, who are changing the game with their publishing committed to levelling the playing field. Hopefully in the near future we won’t need anthologies like this, but if they’re all as good as A Change Is Gonna Come, we’ll keep publishing them anyway.