Everything I read in June

I read 7 books in June 2019, and failed to finish another.

This month’s reading was all about bad husbands, missing husbands, husbands who drink too much, husbands who spend the entire book on the same airplane, and calendrical heresy in space. Let’s go!

The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt

This Booker-shortlisted novel opens in Kent in 1895, and follows the fortunes of several interconnected families, all centred around prolific children’s author and matriarch Olive Wellwood.

I do like a good historical family saga (Pachinko was one of my favourite reads last year) and The Children’s Book is overflowing with characters who touch on every aspect of turn-of-the-century Fabian Society life – writers, scholars, anarchists, suffragettes, even puppeteers. Olive herself is modelled on E. Nesbit, who also lived in Kent and had an unconventional family life. I was initially enchanted by Todefright, Olive’s home, and the seemingly idyllic life its characters live there. But it soon becomes clear that darker things lurk beneath the surface, and the young generation is thoroughly betrayed by their idealistic elders.

The book has its flaws. Byatt has a tendency to get bogged down in her background research (reminding me of how frustrating I can find Neal Stephenson), and it can be irritating when all the heat is sucked out of the plot by a several-page digression about decorative ceramics, or Kaiser Wilhelm, or the Exposition Universelle of 1900. Even if late 19th century arts and politics in England and Germany isn’t something you’re very familiar with, you certainly won’t be lacking for context here. But at its best, this is a devastating book, and had me in floods of tears by the end.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

This Omani book just won the Man Booker International Prize, and that’s why I picked it up. Like The Children’s Book, it also turned out to be a family saga, covering several generations of three families in the village of al-Awafi – two linked by marriage, and another by slavery, which was only outlawed in 1970.

I found Celestial Bodies a challenging read at times. It’s not very linear and the cast of characters is substantial. I read it on an ereader and somehow missed the family tree at the very start of the book, something I really would have benefitted from checking to remind me of the difference between Zayd and Zayid.

I’m glad I stuck with it though, as it was a really interesting window into a country I know very little about. The vast scope and speed of social change in Oman is a major theme, and the lack of linearity in the novel makes it especially stark at times – one minute, a character is being married off at the age of 13; the next, her independent granddaughter is going to medical school and driving a BMW.

The book also contrasts the ideals of love (both romantic and parental) with the reality. Arabic love poetry is a recurring topic and beloved by many of the characters, with its visions of passion, beauty, and soulmates destined to meet. But instead, most of their relationships are marked by disappointment, tension and guilt. As themes go, you can’t get much more universal than that.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

This has been at the top of my “To Read” list for years, so I was excited to finally get to it. Ninefox Gambit is a military space opera, albeit one with a pretty dim view of the military. Our hero is Captain Kel Cheris, a soldier in the oppressive hexarchate. When a space station is seized by rebels, she’s forced to cooperate with General Shuos Jedao, a notorious mass-murderer. And since Jedao’s been dead for 400 years, the nature of their collaboration is… complicated.

Lee thrusts the reader into the action without much exposition, and the first few chapters can feel like a linguistic bombardment – hexarchs, exotics, calendrical heresies, winnowers and cindermoths abound. The enjoyably twisty plot does clarify some of this as it goes on. However, I found myself wishing for more backstory on some aspects of the world to help me understand what was going on. Why are the calendars so important? How do the Kel formations work? What exactly are exotic weapons? One book down and I’m none the wiser. I can write it off as some mix of metaphor and magic, but it’s a little dissatisfying.

Grumbles aside, this was a fun read, and I’ll definitely check out the rest of the series when I get the chance. Also, I will now be signing off all my emails with “Yours in calendrical heresy”.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Answer: we talk about when a man’s wife leaves him and everybody drinks too much. (Hey, is this my Richard Yates review from last month?) But this collection of short stories deserves more than my rubbish jokes. Carver is generally regarded as a master of the form, and for good reason.

Many of the stories are set in Oregon. This reminded me a bit of Richard Brautigan, whose Revenge of the Lawn is probably my favourite book of short stories. Brautigan is a lot weirder and more surreal than Carver, but What We Talk About does occasionally show a more playful side – there’s the petty barbershop argument in “The Calm”, or the slightly manic rooftop energy at the end of “Viewfinder”. But for the most part, things are bleak.

The unsettling “So Much Water So Close To Home” was the standout for me. (“Tell The Women We’re Going”, its cousin, is more disturbing and less successful.) Like the girl in “Why Don’t You Dance?”, my brush with these troubled characters was brief, but continues to haunt me. I guess you could say there’s more to it, and I’m trying to get it talked out.

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

After a call from her mother-in-law, a woman agrees to look for her estranged husband, who has gone missing in Greece. I can see this being inaccurately pitched as a sort of twisty thriller, Lullaby style, but fortunately the publishers haven’t gone down that road.

The unnamed narrator is defined by her passivity. Her marriage has been dominated by her husband and his infidelities – they appear to have split up only when he wanted to, and even then she agrees to his request not to tell anyone. She is outwardly polite, performing her expected roles in the way that causes the least fuss – loving wife, dutiful daughter-in-law, interested tourist. But her head is a mess of strong emotions, generally delivered in run-on sentences (which admittedly made my inner grammar nerd itch). “I thought about saying” or “I wanted to ask” are common occurrences, and rarely acted upon.

Normally this premise would be an opportunity for the narrator to regain that sense of agency, to step out of her husband’s shadow and become a more active character in her own life. But this is not that book. Our heroine remains an iceberg, drifting in the current, her true self submerged. She even projects her own sense of inevitable onto others. Speaking of an acquaintance facing a romantic quandary, she says: “the remainder of her life would be delineated in an instant, the entire future known. She was young, it was only natural that she would fight against such certainty.” It’s not clear if the narrator ever had any fight in her, but she could probably use some therapy. (She can certainly afford it – popping off to a luxury hotel in Greece for an indeterminate amount of time appears to be no bother for any of the English characters.)

This is an unsettling book, and I suspect its pacing and protagonist will make it a bit Marmite to some readers. But I think it’d be great for your book club. Just invite me so I can talk about it too.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

An entertaining romp through a regency England populated by quarrelling wizards, fairies and familiars. Zacharias Wythe has just become England’s Sorcerer Royal, the leader an unruly society of thaumaturges, few of whom are happy to see him in charge. Prunella Gentleman is an impoverished orphan, but one blessed with raw magical talent, which she is determined not to squander in obscurity. Together, they must restore the country’s waning magical energy, avoid escalating wars abroad, and – this being regency England – attend a large number of elaborate balls.

What makes all of this significantly more difficult is contending with the racism and sexism of their fellow magicians. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers is exclusively designed for the white, male, upper-class elite – a category which neither of our heroes fall into. Zacharias was born into slavery, and while the previous Sorcerer Royal spotted his ability and freed him, it didn’t even occur to the older wizard to do the same for the child’s parents. When he was young, most of the Royal Society dismissed him as a novelty; now that he’s in power, they see him as a threat. Prunella’s own parentage is uncertain, but she knows her mother wasn’t white. And magic in women is seen as shameful at best – at her level of talent, it would be shocking and dangerous.

It becomes clear that the insularity and prejudice of this narrow wizarding elite isn’t just damaging to the people it oppresses, but to the power of magic itself. And while Zacharias and Prunella have some allies in magical society, those allies consistently downplay or underestimate the level of bigotry they’re up against, and sometimes even exhibit it themselves. If our heroes are really going to save the world, that world is going to need some big changes.

I enjoyed the book’s Jane Austen homages, but the inevitable Austen romance subplot left me cold. The pacing is also somewhat awkward – it’s a slow starter, to the extent that I wondered if I’d accidentally picked up the first in a series, but then escalates to such a pace that the ending feels rather abrupt. And lo, it turns out a sequel, The True Queen, just came out this year. I think Sorcerer works fine as a standalone novel, but I may pick the new one up anyway, as long as it features the return of Mak Genggang.

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

I thought, early on, that I would hate this book. But that didn’t stop me tearing through it in less than 12 hours.

Reeling from a bad breakup, Lucy agrees to dog-sit for her sister in Venice Beach while attending group therapy for sex and love addicts. She passes the time procrastinating on her doctoral thesis and arranging Tinder hookups (resulting in truly some of the worst sex I’ve ever read). But she finds she has a strange connection with the handsome swimmer who she keeps meeting on the beach at night. But why does he never come out of the water? And why has she only seen him from the waist up? Is the whole situation a little bit… fishy? Yes, this is going where you think it is.

Lucy can be an uncomfortable protagonist to share the book with. She thinks aggressively cruel thoughts about pretty much everyone she meets, a nastiness which becomes more palatable once you realise it’s redirected from her own deep self-loathing. She routinely shirks her responsibilities to others – friends in need, her sister’s dog – in pursuit of the next hit of desire. Whenever she has any bodily functions, you can be sure you’re going to hear about them in more detail than you wanted. But despite all this, I was along for the ride, and really hoping she’d find some happiness.

And then there’s the merman. (It’s established early on that this novel takes place in a universe other than our own – where else could you hear of a fully-funded classics PhD lasting 9 years?) I guess this could technically be considered a supernatural romance. But The Pisces is a world away from Twilight with fish-people. Instead, it’s a sort of hybrid of The Shape of Water and Fleabag, with a twist of Shame.

Theo is a literal romantic fantasy. He’s not like other men. He makes Lucy feel special and unique. He’s also a monster, a visitor from the dark ocean void. And, like most fantasies, he’s wildly unattainable. As a metaphor, I think this is pretty successful. But unlike most metaphors, Lucy is able to engage with him on a physical level. And boy, does it get physical.

Honestly, I don’t really know what to make of this book. It’s certainly original, and Broder knows how to write a narrative that really draws you in. I enjoyed her skewering of the city, with its shiny yuppies and healing crystal shops (“capitalist magic”). The mer-sex can be cringy, especially when it leads to some of Lucy’s trippier romantic insights, which feel like a bizarro Carrie Bradshaw (“I couldn’t help but wonder: were we like two incestuous god-twins?”). But while there are still some aspects I disliked, I enjoyed The Pisces a lot more than I initially thought I would. And I certainly won’t be forgetting it any time soon.

And one I didn’t finish

I made it about 100 pages into A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James before setting it aside. I didn’t dislike the book – although I found its violence hard to stomach at times – but the plot appears to be a very slow burn, and I found myself only reading a handful of pages at a time out of obligation. Maybe I’ll give it another go in the future when I’ve got the time and focus to really dig into its massive cast of characters.

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