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.

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Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward

Book review: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, an illuminating, brutal memoir of loss in the Deep South ★★★★½

At the beginning of her harrowing, lyrical memoir, Jesmyn Ward tells us: ‘telling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But my ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that.’ 

Through this slim book, Jesmyn humanizes these ghosts – the five dead young men, boys she grew up with in the rural South, and tells their stories. Through her thoughtful, introspective storytelling, these men are not statistics but real people with hopes and dreams – even if they were always lingering just out of reach. 

Born and raised the Mississippi coast where ‘where the dirty gray Gulf lapped desultorily at a man-made beach ringed by concrete and pine trees’, Jesmyn was no stranger to poverty, discrimination, addiction, and abandonment. Her father left the family to pursue his dreams (and other women), and her mother worked tirelessly as a housekeeper for rich white families to keep Jesmyn and her three siblings fed and clothed.

“Both of us on the cusp of adulthood, and this is how my brother and I understood what it meant to be a woman: working, dour, full of worry. What it meant to be a man: resentful, angry, wanting life to be everything but what it was.”

In a place with little hope of a better life, the men in her life turn to drink, or drugs, or crime. Jesmyn herself narrowly escapes – she attends a Christian private school, paid for by the rich white family who her mother works for. She’s the only Black girl for long periods of school, and endures constant, grinding racism. But at least the chance at an education offers her a potential route out of the cycle of poverty, the ‘cycle of futility.’ 

“This was like walking into a storm surge: a cycle of futility. Maybe he looked at those who still lived and those who’d died, and didn’t see much difference between the two; pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism, we were all dying inside.”

It’s a complex heritage, a place that may offer little in the way of economic opportunity but a lot in the way of community, and a place that pulls Jesmyn back time and time again. Amongst the relentless grind of survival, there’s freedom and friendship – even if fleeting – on hot summer nights when Jesmyn and her siblings or cousins or friends roll down the windows and drive along the coastal highway, or sit sipping warm beer in the park, listening to music turned up loud. It reminds you they were just children, forced to grow up too soon.

The novel isn’t linear, but instead weaves its way through the timeline of Jesmyn’s life and the deaths of these five young men. The structure took a little while to get used to, but really came into its own when the narratives converged for the penultimate chapter, the death of her beloved brother, Joshua. The final chapter zooms out from her personal tragedies and takes a look at the statistics – of being poor, Black, and from the rural South, of incarceration, discrimination, and the historical context into which these five men were born and died. My only quibble would be that she could have taken this further, and woven it throughout, to really drive home the pernicious and enduring effects of racism. 

Her writing is elegiac and restrained, even as she writes about events and circumstances that have caused her unending sorrow. Jesmyn writes as she is still trying to process and make sense of what happened to her. It’s engrossing and beautiful, and hard to look away from. 

Book review: Yellowface by R. F. Kuang – a deliciously dark satire on the publishing world ★★★★★

June Hayward is desperate for success as an author. She’s longing to achieve that perfect trifecta of huge commercial gains accompanied by high-profile literary prizes and a legacy on literature for generations to come.

So the sudden death of literary darling Athena Liu, leaving behind an unpublished manuscript, presents in itself an… opportunity.

June is convinced that if she were a little more ‘diverse’, rather than a brown-haired, brown-eyed girl from Philly, she’d be a lot more successful. She’s obsessed with and deeply resentful of Athena, both during her life and after her death. The manuscript Athena leaves behind tells the little-known story of the Chinese Labour Corps, the Chinese workers recruited by the British Army in the first world war. And June knows she’s hit the jackpot, and frantically begins to put her stamp on it. This might be the book to catapult her into the recognition she feels she very much deserves.

‘I’d somehow absorbed all the directness and verve of Athena’s writing. I felt, as Kayne put it, harder, better, faster, and stronger. I felt like the kind of person who now listened to Kanye.’

Her agent loves it, of course, and a bidding war ensues. Ironically, Athena’s words are stripped down to be made more palatable for the white reader: racist epithets (authentic to the deeply racist period) are removed, June slices out a chunk of characters because she can’t get the names straight, the white baddies are turned Chinese. And the audience laps it up: June hits meteoric success. She publishes under the name ‘Juniper Song’ (Song being her middle name from a hippy mother), complete with an ‘ethnically ambiguous’ author photo on the book jacket.

But the threat of someone finding out the truth about the book’s origins plagues her day and night.

It’s a biting and deliciously dark story, satirizing the publishing world in a very on-the-nose way (but that’s precisely the point). This one is definitely for the publishing nerds among us, so be prepared to tear through a lot of June reading her own Goodreads reviews and searching for her name on bookish Twitter circles. She’s an utter narcissist and can’t avert her gaze, even as she’s ripped apart on the internet and everything teeters on the brink of catastrophe.

Of course, we’re not supposed to like her. She’s brazenly discriminatory against the Chinese community as she continues to profit of the story, disparaging ‘funny-smelling’ Chinese food, moaning about Chinese elders not speaking in English, deciding she can suffer through a reading at a small-town Chinese American Social Club by imagining ‘the optics of an Instagram post of me eating catered Chinese food, surrounded by admiring Chinese fans.’ And yet, as insufferable as she is, you can’t stop invested in how her story will play out.

I sunk my teeth into this and couldn’t put it down: it’s very fast-paced and hardly drops a beat (the ending is a little nuts, but weirdly it worked?) and one of the best books I’ve read this year. I can’t wait for it to be published so I can hear the rest of the commentary on it (it will all be rather meta).

With thanks to HarperCollins for the advanced copy. Yellowface by R. F. Kuang will be published in May 2023.

Book review: sharp social commentary on a city in flux – Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley ★★★★

Mozley’s London is sprawling, humming, in constant flux – and home to a cast list of of down-and-out addicts, property developers, villainous heiresses, aspiring actors, ex-hitmen…It’s a melting pot in the true sense of the word. And the focus around which this multi-layered plot spins is one crumbling townhouse in Soho, on the cusp of being snatched up into rampant capitalist clutches and converted into luxury flats and whatever else: a ‘blank slate’ for the centuries-old building.

The townhouse is home to a brothel, and the sex workers won’t go quietly. Precious and Tabitha have been there for decades, and it provides a safe space for them to work – a far cry from the horror stories of the girls on the streets. They’re drawn with compassion and insight, and were my favourite characters in this populous novel. They’re entangled with many other individuals – by way of geographical proximity or chance or both – but the nemesis here is the cool and calculating Agatha, daughter of a long-deceased billionaire gangster who is set to inherit his vast property fortune, much of which is in Soho. And she’s willing to do so through legal and not-so-legal means (without getting her own hands dirty, of course).

And while property is the hottest commodity, London itself exists as a Dickensian-esque character in its own right, a place where ‘night… is brighter than the day. The spread of muddy phosphor illuminates dark corners. The emphasis of shapes that sunshine melts. The drawn, bending, sonorous beams of buses loping from stop to stop.’ Where history is layered upon history, a place simultaneously ancient and modern. Having spent several very happy years in London, I loved the way Mozley captures the spirit of city, the rich tapestry of metropolitan life in all its grubbiness and glory.

‘The stone came. Bricks and mortar replaced trees; people replaced deer; sticky gray grime replaced sticky brown dirt. Paths carved by the tread of animals were set in stone, widened, edged with walls and gates. Mansions were built for high society. There was dancing, gambling, sex. Music was played and plays were staged. Bargains were struck, sedition was plotted, betrayals were planned, secrets were kept.’

It might hit you over the head with its social commentary, but you can’t really argue with it. While I would have loved for a bit more depth to some of the characters (though I do doubt there are many redeeming qualities in Agatha, she was quite the cartoonish villain), the astute way Mozley writes character made each person feel distinct, even in a long and sometimes unwieldy cast list. There’s a lot to unpack here – gentrification being the obvious, but also autonomy and identity and class, and how to survive (and thrive) in a city where unfettered capitalism is pushing the marginalised even further to the margins.

The short chapters propel you through the plot and the prose is rich while still being accessible. It’s hugely entertaining and also sharp, witty, and very readable.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

Book review: Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, where a translator navigates language and power ★★★★½

We don’t know much about our protagonist. All we do know is that she’s somewhat of a rootless individual, who has recently moved to the Hague to translate at the criminal court. Despite the first-person perspective and the intimacy of seeing the world through her lens, we don’t even find out her name.

She’s unsure of the Hague, a place with a shiny veneer that conceals a darker underbelly. But she makes a friend, art curator Jana, and begins an affair with a married (separated) man, Adriaan. There’s something compelling about her, and all we come to know about her is through her emotionally astute observations of the world she inhabits.

As an interpreter, she has a keen awareness of the vagaries and complexities of language. She finds herself interpreting on behalf of a former president on trial, a warlord from an unnamed developing nation responsible for ethnic cleansing and mass murder. As she spends hours each day as the vessel through which his horrifying testimony passes through, it’s as if the horror of what she’s describing is lost in the act of interpreting it.  

‘…Interpretation can be profoundly disorientating, you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act, in trying to maintain utmost fidelity to the words being spoken…that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying. Language loses meaning.’

She keenly feels the responsibility of her role, the necessity of conveying the testimony in a truthful way. As the accused unnervingly tries to build rapport with her, she reflects on her job to ‘make the space between languages as small as possible’. She determines that she will not ‘obfuscate the meaning of what he had done… there would be no escape route between languages.’ It is important that he has his day in court, even as she recognises the disproportionate prosecution of African war criminals as those in the West are overlooked. There is an uneasy, unwanted intimacy between them, as she speaks his words for the court to hear day in and day out.

And in her personal life, there is an absence of closeness. Caught up continuously in her own head, she asks herself whether Adriaan will return from his extended visit to Lisbon, ostensibly to finalise his divorce, as she remains in his apartment, alone. She’s an intriguing, enigmatic character – I hestitate to add that despite this she is not the tortured millennial protagonist of much contemporary lit fic – and much of what we learn about her is through her own churning over of her intimate thoughts.

Not unsurprisingly, for someone who writes in such a highly-attuned way about language, Kitamura’s writing is brilliant – incisive, taut, saying so much without trying too hard. I can’t quite put my finger on why I enjoyed this as much as I did – vaguely plotless novels aren’t really my thing – and I think it has to come down to the writing style, which makes it hard to put down. Her crafting of an atmosphere of unease, her ruminations on the nature of language, her navigation of gendered power dynamics – it all packs a real punch in this slim novel.  

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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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!

Book review: desire and danger in razor-sharp campus novel Vladimir by Julia May Jonas ★★★★

You may also know this book by this very sultry cover.

This is a blistering, subversive, unputdownable read. Which really, you should be able to tell from the cover with the half-naked man.

In a liberal arts college in upstate New York, our narrator – an English professor in her fifties – has fallen madly in lust with Vladimir, a fellow faculty member in his forties. At the same time, her husband John is facing suspension over a series of allegations of sexual impropriety – he had multiple affairs with students in the past (and a tacit understanding with his wife: ‘When I suggested the availability of freedom he didn’t need much encouragement—he is still a cad, I like cads, and he is one.’)

The students aren’t happy with her for standing by her man. They plead with her to feel empowered enough to leave him, they sign petitions. Their discontent threatens her own position with the department. She finds this all rather tiresome. Her concerns are her husband (who mildly infuriates her most of the time), her daughter (an only child) who has problems of her own, her desire to write something of value. And her infatuation with Vladimir.

Jonas flips the male gaze on its head as we see Vladimir through – and only through – the eyes of the narrator. She describes him in uncomfortable detail, eating him up. Her obsession with him fuels her ability to write, and she writes in frenzies.

I loved how the characters explored the nature of art – writing in particular – a writer writing about writers talking about writing is one of my favourite things.

‘We talked about the rise of autofiction, and how most of the creative-writing students at the college did not even want to write fiction, but creative nonfiction instead, and primarily autofiction and memoir. I said it was because they were so obsessed with themselves they couldn’t imagine existing outside of their viewpoint. John said it came from an anxiety about representing identities and experiences other than their own. Vlad posited it was because they had grown up online, representing themselves via avatars, building brands and presences and constructions of selves before they even knew that’s what they were doing.’

It was hard to agree with the narrator on her views of her husband’s transgressions, but it was easy to like her in a perverse way, to be swept up in her razor-sharp and nuanced view of the world and rich inner life. We rarely see fifty-something women in literature with unapologetic desires.

THEN… there’s a jaw-dropping moment two thirds in when the stakes all get ratcheted up a notch. I’ll leave it there so as not to give any spoilers – but this was such a seductive, wry, complex novel that resists easy categorization – if that sounds like your cup of tea, go get it on your TBR.

4.25*

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.

the it girl by ruth ware - book review

Murder mystery in Oxford’s hallowed halls: The It Girl by Ruth Ware ★★★

I was very excited to receive an advanced copy of The It Girl. Ruth Ware is an auto-read author for me, and this one has dark academic vibes that I couldn’t wait to dive into.

It’s the late noughties and Hannah has just started at Oxford University. Bookish and shy, she initially feels out of place amidst her polished and wealthy classmates, but soon falls in love with Oxford and the allure of all that prestige and history. This is a place, she is sure, where she will be happy.

‘With the sun shining and puffs of white autumnal clouds in the sky, the view had an almost unreal beauty and Hannah had the strangest feeling that she had stepped inside he pages of one of the books in her suitcase – Brideshead Revisited, maybe. Gaudy Night. His Dark Materials. A storybook world.’

Her roommate, April, is dazzling: beautiful, rich, charming. She’s also smart – she’s earned her place at Oxford. And she’s vicious too, at times, with a dark sense of humour. But despite their differences, she and Hannah become firm and fast friends. And then – no spoiler, it’s in the blurb – April is murdered.

Ten years later, Hannah is married, pregnant, living in Edinburgh, working in a bookshop, and has tried to leave the trauma of her best friend’s murder in the past. Her evidence alone convicted the prime suspect – but a journalist has just come forward with intel that might lead to someone else – someone who was never investigated. The thought that Hannah might have convicted an innocent man – who has recently died in prison – torments her, and she sets about on a quest for the real truth of what happened that terrible night.

‘She is there too. Hannah. Not the Hannah of now, but the Hannah of then. The Hannah of before. Young, happy, full of hope and promise, and so unbearably, unutterably innocent of all the horror that life could hold.’

For the first half, I was hooked. We had Ruth Ware’s trademark evocative descriptions, the heady friendships of teenage girls, a sprinkling of 00s pop culture – all set within the beautiful, austere world of Oxford.

This thriller switches between past and present, although only for the first half of the book. And it was towards the second half that the story began to lose steam for me. The pace slows to a trickle and the suspense is totally lost as nothing much happens for quite a chunk of time. I also didn’t feel invested enough in the other characters to really interrogate who might have been the culprit. Had we spent more time with them in 2010 then I would have felt a greater sense of buy-in. The flashes we get of these characters do give a sense of who they are, but I was left wanting more.

The ending does pick up pace-wise as Hannah approaches the truth, and there are a few thrilling, cinematic moments, but by that point I wasn’t as interested in the idea as a whole and so I don’t feel that the narrative fully redeemed itself.

I wanted to love this, I really did! But it just didn’t end up being for me.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The It Girl will be published on July 12th 2022 by Gallery/Scout Press.