Beating the backlist in 2023, AKA working my way through an out-of-control bookcase

Surveying my stacks of books that have now spilled out from the bookshelves and into piles, I decided it was time to participate in the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. As per the challenge, it is: ‘designed to help you tackle all the books you keep meaning to read and still haven’t’.

The guidelines are simple:

  1. The book must be published in the previous year or earlier (for the 2023 challenge, anything published in 2022 or earlier counts).
  2. You have to start and finish the book in 2023.
  3. I’m adding a third guideline that I have to own a physical copy of the book, as this is the real impetus behind reading these

Any format, any genre. Re-reads count, and you don’t have to own the book. It’s open for the entire year so whenever you feel like jumping in, you can!

Prompt: meant to read it last year (and every year for the past 6 years)

Do Not Say We Have Nothing
by Madeleine Thien (2016)

Prompt: multiple points of view

Of Women and Salt
by Gabriela Garcia (2021)

Prompt: recommended by a bookseller

The Hierarchies
by Ros Anderson (2020)

Prompt: more than 450 pages

The Warmth of Other Suns
by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

Prompt: featuring travel (time optional)

I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories
by Kim Bo-Young (2021)

Prompt: set on a continent you don’t live on

The Republic of False Truths
by Alaa Al Aswany (2018)

Honestly, I’ll be very happy if I get to these 6 this year without getting distracted by shiny new books!

2022 round-up: favourite book covers of the year

With just 11 days left until 2023 (say it isn’t so!), here’s the first round-up post to finish the year – covers from books published in 2022 that would have me plucking them off the shelf in a bookshop in no time. We all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but these are just *chef’s kiss*.

Recent book reviews

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn: A sweeping wartime saga ★★★★

These are the years between the wars, and young Cristabel Seagrave plays out her days in the stately Chilcombe manor on the Dorset coast; ‘a many-gabled, many-chimneyed, ivy-covered manor house with an elephantine air of weary grandeur’. She’s an orphan, and a plucky heroine to boot, the natural ringleader of her half-sister Flossie (nicknamed the…

Subversive and surreal short stories: Bliss Montage by Ling Ma ★★★★½

After reading Ling Ma’s Severance, one of my favourite books of 2020 (and I’ll be so bold as to say this decade), I was going to read whatever she published next. Bliss Montage is a surrealist collection of short stories narrated by Chinese-American women. One lives in a house with 100 of their ex-boyfriends, but…

The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz - book review

Inventive, twisty thriller with dark academia vibes: The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz ★★★★½

Books about the writing world are catnip to me. Combine that with one of my favourite genres, the psychological thriller, and I am the perfect audience for this inventive, twisted story about success, creativity, and the limits of both.

30-year-old Alex has ‘risen up the ranks from bleakly underpaid editorial assistant to bleakly underpaid associate editor.’ She had been working on her own writing, but since a catastrophic fall out with her best friend Wren (the circumstances of which are slowly revealed to us), she’s had impenetrable writer’s block. Seeing other friends in her writers’ circle garner mainstream success is a difficult pill to swallow.

‘A hungry, wolfish feeling reared up in my gut. What would it feel like to hold your own book in your hands for the fist time? For it to be a physical object, a thing that people paid for?’

Alex and Wren had bonded over their shared love for kooky author Roza Vallo, known for her deliciously dark novels that push the boundaries of genre. A series of fortunate events land Alex a spot at Roza’s much-coveted writing retreat in her remote 19th-century mansion in upstate New York. The only problem is, Wren will also be there, and Alex doesn’t know how she’ll manage being in such close proximity to her ex-best-friend, under such claustrophobic and high-stakes circumstances.

Because this is no ordinary writing retreat. The five young women chosen will each have to complete a full manuscript during their time at the mansion (which was, coincidentally, the historical site of two mysterious and brutal deaths). One will be chosen for an eye-wateringly big publishing deal at the end. And Roza, they discover, has a darkness both on and off the page, enjoying her mind games in the name of sparking their creativity. From the start, her unpredictability is what keeps the writers – and the reader – on the edge of their seat. 

‘Her jeans had a large tear and skin showed through like a bone poking through flesh.’

The atmosphere is spellbinding as the writers begin to work under the extreme pressure to perform – and when a major snowstorm cuts off transport and communication to the mansion, well, any seasoned thriller reader will know that this is when things get really hairy. 

So yes, I loved it – mostly. The first quarter, this was a five-star read for me. Things lost momentum a little during the middle, and the end went a little nuts (as psychological thrillers are wont to do). I also wasn’t as keen on the passages interspersed in the narrative showing Alex’s own writing – it took me out of the ‘now’ of the novel and I felt myself skimming past to get to the meat of the story. But overall, it is fresh and original, with three-dimensional characters and a complex exploration of friendship, trauma, sexuality, and the promise and pitfalls of literary fame. 

Many thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books for the advanced reader’s copy. The Writing Retreat will be published in February 2023.

A galvanizing account of the power of female rage: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister ★★★★½

Women aren’t supposed to display rage. While men’s ire is ‘comprehensible’ and ‘rational’, angry women are chaotic, unhinged, unnatural. Of course, we’ve got a lot to be angry about. This double standard is just one more addition to a growing list of rage-inducing injustices. In this powerful, incisive account, Traister traces the history and power of women’s anger, how it has been received and perceived over time, and how it is inherently powerful. Written in the months following the election of Donald Trump, this is very much a book about a particular contemporary moment in American history.

The rage of women, Traister convincingly and meticulously argues, is a catalyst for societal change in the US – despite the disdain, disgust and ridicule that is heaped upon these women. Mamie Till, the mother of lynched schoolboy Emmett Till, insisted upon an open casket at his funeral: the world would not be permitted to look away from the unimaginable racist violence inflicted upon him. Mamie Till, Traister writes, is ‘most often pictured as a grieving mother being held up at her son’s coffin, weeping… What we are never trained to consider is that alongside her sorrow and suffering was a burning rage.’ This was a rage that would help propel the struggle for civil rights and change the course of American history. She also turns to Rosa Parks, often presented in a sanitized way and lauded for her stoicism and refusal to show anger – when in fact she had been a ‘lifelong furious fighter against sexual and racial violence, a defender of black men wrongly accused of sexual misconduct by white women, and an elected NAACP secretary who investigated the rape claims of black women against white men’. As a more contemporary example, she turns to the crusade of the Parkland students, demanding an end to gun violence in the wake of another horrific school shooting. 16-year-old Sarah Chadwick, in a tweet that went viral, responded to Trump’s thoughts and prayers with ‘I don’t want your condolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Do something instead of sending prayers.’ Such rage galvanized Chadwick and her peers towards nationwide protests and resonated with millions of Americans, for whom her anger spoke to their own desperation over the inevitability of relentless gun violence. The year before, the election of a white supremacist and abuser to the White House in 2016 inspired the Women’s March movement and a resurgence of activism for women of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.

In the twenty-first century, it is still ‘unfeminine’ to be angry. To be angry is to be obscene and hysterical, our anger is pathologized. Women in the public eye – particularly those in politics, such as Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris – are frequently discredited for transgressing that boundary: ‘The best way to discredit these women, to make them look unattractive, is to capture an image of them screaming’, Traister writes. ‘…The act of a woman opening her mouth with volume and assured force, often in complaint, is coded in our minds as ugly.’ Ugly, unlikable, not to be trusted. By contrast, white men display rage with impunity, and are often portrayed in a far more sympathetic light – just think of the so-called ‘lone wolf’ perpetrators of mass shootings who are supposedly misunderstood loners or lovesick teens – something Traister explores in a later chapter, using the term coined by Kate Manne: ‘himpathy’.

We have the voices of stalwart feminists throughout – Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem and many more – peppered with Traister’s own personal experiences, lending depth and personality to the essays. I felt seen in her chapter about tears as ‘one of the most frequent outlets for our wrath’ and the depressing truth that they are ‘fundamentally misunderstood’ by the men who witness them. There is nothing more infuriating than involuntary weeping out of fury – except for the fact that men may misread the anger as sadness, something to be pitied.

‘One of my sharpest memories from an early job, in a male-dominated office, where I too once found myself weeping with inexpressible rage, was being grabbed by the scruff of my neck by an older woman—a chilly, hard-ass manager of whom I’d always been slightly terrified—who dragged me into a stairwell. “Never let them see you crying,” she told me. “They don’t know you’re furious. They think you’re sad and will be pleased because they got to you.”‘

She also takes care to explore how anger is not perceived the same across colour lines: Black women must resist ‘America’s cheapest caricature’ of the Angry Black Woman. Quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘for black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted’. Similarly, while white women’s tears – of anger, rather than rage – can be perceived sympathetically by white men (or indeed, weaponized by the women themselves) – the same cannot be said for the perception of a Black woman expressing emotion in the same way. They are not afforded the same sympathy, and suffer to an even greater extent as race and gender intersect.

A large part of the book is spent discussing #MeToo in an impassioned and clear-eyed way, where she turns to her own experience of meeting Weinstein as a young journalist. She describes the movement as giving us a ‘view of the architecture of sexism that had been holding everything up.’ The cacophony of voices speaking out meant that women could no longer be derided and disbelieved: there was safety and power in accumulative rage – and perhaps the beginning of breaking everything apart.

‘If they are quiet, they will remain isolated. But if they howl in rage, someone else who shares their fury might hear them, might start howling along.’

In art, and media, and politics, and justice – female rage can incite change. While we are at a different moment now – both better in some ways, worse in others, reeling from a global pandemic and the fall of Roe v Wade, this book still feels powerful, and galvanizing, and a convincing rallying cry to embrace our anger.

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner: A piercing page-turner of obsession and reinvention ★★★★

We’re in London, just before the turn of the millennium. Meggie, a transplant from South Africa, works a ‘media monitoring’ job where she combs through the day’s news to summarize horrible crimes. It’s there that she is drawn into the orbit of her enigmatic colleague Sabine. When Sabine switches to the night shift, Meggie follows her growing obsession for the beautiful Belgian woman and decides to join her. She both desires her – she thinks – and desires to be just like her.

‘Negative space is the lifeblood of obsession. In the late nineties, I felt as I was mostly negative space. Although I wasn’t the daughter my mother wanted, I’d never had the guts to rebel. She said I was like my father: passive, meek, defined more by what I bumped up against than what I chose.’

In Sabine, Meggie sees a window of opportunity: she can reinvent herself in Sabine’s image: glamorous, destructive, mysterious. The nocturnal existence wrecks Meggie in almost every conceivable way: she can’t sleep during the day, so she simply stops sleeping. She breaks up with her steady but boring boyfriend. She quits her further education pursuits.

There’s a hallucinatory feeling to the novel once Meggie begins her nightshifts. She befriends her colleagues Earl, Lizard, Sherry and Prawn, and together they drink and take drugs for lack of anything better to do. I loved the haunting, twilit London of the book, the seedy clubs and bars, the pubs that pour you a pint (or stronger) at 8am, and the oddball crew Meggie spends her days and nights with.

Meggie and Sabine’s friendship – maybe more – takes over Meggie’s life. Sabine both lures her in and lets her go, cruelly ignoring her for weeks, kissing her and then calling her “my cute friend who I kiss”. She’ll send Meggie blank texts on her new phone so she can get her attention without giving her anything in return. Meggie is desperate to know Sabine, but finds it hard to scratch below the surface. And she falls ever deeper into a spiral of self-destructive, dangerous behaviour in a pursuit to escape who she is.

‘Our Cinderella coach had turned into a pumpkin. Sabine would be ever divine whereas I was just Megan again; I couldn’t get beyond the body, the mood, the self. There was a walk, a wait, a train, a bus. As we tenderly parted ways, I tried to think, This is only the beginning – But I knew, even then, it wasn’t true.’

Meggie, despite her very poor decision making, is an empathetic and vulnerable character who encapsulates what it is to be adrift and desperate in your early twenties. We come to realise that the novel is being narrated by Meggie twenty years into the future, which provides interesting perspective and distance from those intoxicating days. It also means we see what ultimately unfolds between the two characters over time. I felt the ending to be a little uneven, not quite as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be. Still, it’s a blistering page-turner of a book.

TW: sexual violence, drug abuse

Propulsive and unsettling literary suspense: Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka ★★★★½

The hours are ticking down until Ansel Packer’s execution. And as he awaits his grim fate – in passages ingeniously told in second-person present, making it impossible to look away – the story of how he comes to be sitting on death row in a Texas prison slowly unravels.

But this isn’t a narrative propelled by our insatiable fascination with charismatic serial killers (although Ansel is both of those things). Instead, it centres the women irrevocably touched by Ansel’s heinous crimes. It starts with Lavender: a young mother married to a dangerous man and isolated on a farm in the middle of nowhere. In a desperate attempt to give her small sons the chance of a better life, she abandons them and calls the authorities to step in. One of those young boys in Ansel. 

‘You do believe in the multiverse. The eternal possibility of it. There is a version of you out there – a child, unabandoned. A boy who came home from school to a mother who read you stories and kissed your forehead goodnight.’

Elsewhere, Saffron Singh is a police detective who was in a group home with Ansel as a child, and was witness to his disturbing behaviour (textbook: killing and dismembering animals from a young age). The third woman in the narrative is Hazel, the twin sister to Ansel’s wife, Jenny.

‘Tragedy had a texture. A knot, begging to be unraveled.’

The novel brims in emotional depth and insight, offering no excuses or explanations but still interrogating thorny questions – are we fated to be a certain way? Would things have been different in a parallel life? Is our justice system truly delivering justice?

It’s excruciating to read at times, as the barbarity of Ansel’s violence is brought home in a crushing way. The murdered women are briefly given parallel lives on the page, as Kukafka imagines all that they would have gone on to do – walking the cobblestones of Italy licking gelato off a plastic spoon, raising sons and daughters who would then go on to live their own full, whole lives. 

‘There are millions of other moments Izzy has lived, but he has eaten them up one by one, until she exists in most memories as a summation of that awful second, distilled constantly in her fear, her pain, the brutal fact.’

Ansel shows no remorse and offers no justification for his acts of terrible violence. But the novel makes clear that as it is senseless to kill innocent people, it is senseless for the state to sanction killings. The hours before and leading up to his death – no matter how evil and unforgivable his crimes – never feel like justice done right. 

It’s completely unputdownable, even as we know the ending before it even begins, it doesn’t stop it being a stunning, complex narrative spinning around questions of fate, choice, justice, and the spaces in between.

7 books on my autumn 2022 TBR

Bliss Montage
by Ling Ma

Genre: literary fiction

‘A new creation by the author of Severance, the stories in Bliss Montage crash through our carefully built mirages… What happens when fantasy tears through the screen of the everyday to wake us up? Could that waking be our end?’

The Family Remains
by Lisa Jewell

Genre: psychological thriller

‘From the #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Jewell comes an intricate and affecting novel about twisted marriages, fractured families, and deadly obsessions in this standalone sequel to The Family Upstairs.’

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies
by Tsering Yangzom Lama

Genre: historical fiction

‘For readers of Pachinko and We Need New Names, a compelling and profound debut novel about a Tibetan family’s journey through exile.’

I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories
by Bo-Young Kim

Genre: speculative fiction

‘In this mind-expanding work of speculative fiction, available in English for the first time, one of South Korea’s most treasured writers explores the driving forces of humanity—love, hope, creation, destruction, and the very meaning of existence—in two pairs of thematically interconnected stories.’

Sea of Tranquility
by Emily St. John Mandel

Genre: speculative/literary fiction

‘…A novel of art, time, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon three hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.’

A Lie Someone Told You about Yourself
by Peter Ho Davies

Genre: literary fiction

‘This spare, graceful narrative chronicles the flux of parenthood, marriage, and the day-to-day practice of loving someone. As challenging as it is vulnerable, as furious as it is tender, as touching as it is darkly comic… an unprecedented depiction of fatherhood.’

My Body
by Emily Ratajkowski

Genre: memoir

‘A deeply honest investigation of what it means to be a woman and a commodity from Emily Ratajkowski, the archetypal, multi-hyphenate celebrity of our time.’

I’m stopping at 7 as that is already very ambitious! What’s on your TBR for these coming months?

Descriptions taken from Goodreads. Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

Some recent posts

Reputation by Sarah Vaughan

Happy (US) Publication Day | Reputation by Sarah Vaughan

Happy publication day to Reputation by Sarah Vaughan! I devoured this a few months ago and would recommend it as the perfect vacation thriller.

Here are 5 things to know about Reputation to help you decide if it’s the book for you…

  • Sits somewhere between a courtroom drama, political thriller and domestic noir
  • Looks at what it takes to be a woman in the spotlight, particularly in politics
  • Examines the seedy underbelly of the tabloid media and the lengths they’ll go to for the story
  • Whip-smart wordplay in the courtroom scenes will have you on the edge of your seat
  • A sharp focus on contemporary issues in our cultural conversation

Enjoy!

Mid year book freakout 2022

The Mid-Year Book Freakout – 2022 edition

1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2022

This is a tough one, but the one that made the biggest impression on me is Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go In The Dark.

2. New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

Love Marriage by Monica Ali

3. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, publishing in October this year.

5. Biggest disappointment

The It Girl by Ruth Ware.

6. Biggest surprise

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

7. Favourite new author (debut or new to you)

Sara Novic, author of True Biz.

8. Newest fictional crush

I’ll have to pass on this one this year!

9. Newest favourite character

Kate Burns, aka Lady Lane, in Diana Clarke’s The Hop.

10. Book that made you cry

Girl A by Abigail Dean

11. Book that made you happy

Fight Night by Miriam Toewes

12. Most beautiful book you’ve bought so far this year (or received)

The Republic of False Truths by Alaa Al Aswany

13. What books do you need to read by the end of the year?

  • All the Things We Don’t Talk About by Amy Feltman
  • My Body by Emily Ratajkowski
  • Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

P.S. How cute is my new mug? Check out FableBound on Etsy for lots of bookish gifts.