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 Veg) and her much-longed-for cousin, Digby, who she considers a brother.

There’s a delightful and expansive cast of characters that play a role in Cristabel, Flossie and Digby’s idiosyncratic childhood; the lady of the manor, Rosalind, who delights in frittering away the family fortunes on décor and parties and not much else. Willoughby, her husband, has roguish but undeniable charm, and a penchant for fast cars and planes. They are joined by bohemian types – an American poetess, a Russian avant-garde artist (and his lovers and semi-feral children). There are also the many staff employed to keep the house running – from the inquisitive maid Maudie Kitcat to the disinterested governess Mademoiselle Aubert. And the Dorset landscape is itself a character alongside the rest of them, personified and alive with the changing seasons.

‘April is blown away by another round of storms, thunder rolling about the bay like a wooden skittle ball, then May steps in with a curtsey, and Dorset blooms with a giddy enthusiasm, like a young girl at her first county ball spun about the dance floor by a strong-handed farmer. The hedgerows take up motion, cow parsley quivering delightedly every time Willoughby roars past in his Daimler.’

Within the first half of the novel we follow this whimsical childhood. A seminal event is the discovery of a whale, washed up on the shores in the summer of 1928. Cristabel declares the carcass her own, and once there has been no sign of the King’s men arriving to stake their claim, the bones of the whale are transported up to the manor, where they become the stage for the titular Whalebone Theatre. From that point onwards, their imaginations can run wild – each summer of their childhood the Seagrave children enlist a troupe and perform to local crowds – Shakespeare, Homer – and delight in the rising star of their amateur productions.

And then, of course, years pass – the war arrives, and everything changes. The plot at this point is driven not by the will of the characters but by the force of history: Cristabel becomes an undercover agent who is parachuted into France, hoping to be reunited with Digby, and Flossie joins the Women’s Land Army. As is the nature of war, other characters disappear and die as the story is propelled forward. Chilcombe manor briefly plays host to evacuees from London, puts on musical evenings to build morale of nearby stationed American servicemen, and slowly falls into a state of disrepair, as England itself slips into yet another year, another Christmas, of this seemingly never-ending conflict.

‘The beach appears very far away, in the same way that their bodies seem distant when seen underwater. How easy it is to separate, from the land, from the shape of yourself. England is an unprepossessing layer of beige and green; it hardly seems worth fighting over.’

Quinn’s writing is gorgeous and evocative, and I particularly enjoyed the textual excursions – lists or diary entries or inventive formatting. Chilcombe is a magnetic force in the novel; I kept wanting to go back there. The first half of the book, set entirely against the Seagrave childhood on the Dorset coast, is dazzling. But this is a book of two halves: once the war begins and we are in occupied France, I found it harder to sustain interest. The plot moves a lot faster, of course, and there is life-or-death peril – but it lost some of the sheen from the first half, and began to feel more generic and, dare I say, predictable.

However, it’s the powerful bonds of love that drive forward the second half when it begins to get bogged down with history – particularly that between Cristabel and Digby, the sensitive boy who always preferred poetry to rugby, over whom Cristabel has always felt fiercely protective.

‘If he were still a boy, she would put her arm around him, but he is twenty-one years old now, a young man who has spent nearly all his adult life at war, and the hunch in his shoulders tells her he does not want to be calmed or comforted, however much she wants to comfort him.’

These later scenes are emotional and affecting, reminding us all of the horrors of war and what humanity is capable of – the bad and the good. A brilliant start that would have benefited from a different approach to the second half, but with a suitably satisfying conclusion ultimately makes this a story well told.

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!

Bliss Montage by Ling Ma

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 only two who matter: the one she was in love with and the one who beat her. A twenty-something aspiring PhD takes a banned drug (for old time’s sake) that turns her invisible. A professor finds a liminal space in another dimension in the back of her office closet.

The stories are bizarre and unsettling at times, but despite the weirdness, they never stop feeling real: whether we’re living in our 2023 or a near-future world order where microplastics wreak havoc on our bodies and America has fallen spectacularly from grace (see: Tomorrow), the rhythm of human life follows the same patterns. We fall in and out of love. We make and lose friends. We wonder what to do with our lives. We grapple with who we are and want to be.

‘When I think about Y now, I think less about the beginning than about the end, which is where all my feelings have now pooled, having rolled downward towards the inevitable outcome.’

It is our shifting identities that are at the centre of the book: the way we perceive ourselves and the way others perceive us, the way we write and rewrite our own histories and the histories of others. This is particularly poignant in ‘Peking Duck’, a metafictional narrative where a woman on an MFA program shares the story of her immigrant mother’s unpleasant encounter with a door-to-door salesman. When her story is published, she shares it with her mother, whose response is indignant. “How would you even know what happened? It happened to me, not to us.” In the workshop, the story is derided as “stereotypical” and “a kind of Asian minstrelsy“.

Ma resists giving us tidy conclusions. The stories often take us on an unpredictable path and then end without a full resolution. This sounds like it would be frustrating, but it feels the most honest approach in a book about the complexities of our modern condition. The writing is cool and restrained but also wryly funny at times (like the financier husband who speaks only in dollar signs) and I could have read 10 more stories in the same volume and still be enchanted and haunted by them all.

TW: domestic abuse

2022 round-up: the best books of the year

2022, another year over. This was a pretty good reading year – 28 books in total, under my initial (and overly ambitious) reading goal of 40 but over my revised goal of 25. I am always in awe at readers who can manage 52+ (the only time I got close to that, other than when studying for my Literature degree 10+ years ago, was 2020).

Before I get on to my favourites, here’s a quick wrap up:

Of these 28:

  • 17% were non-fiction, 83% fiction
  • All but one were written by women
  • 57% of authors were American, 37% British, with the remaining being Irish and Australian. This is less geographically diverse than previous years and something I want to improve on in 2023!

I love these wrap-ups because they remind of how much joy there is in reading a book you adore. Here are my top reads of 2022…

True Biz
by Sara Nović

Genre: contemporary fiction

In a sentence: an incredibly eye-opening read that introduced me to Deaf culture in all its exuberance.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

How High We Go In The Dark
by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Genre: lit fic/sci-fi/speculative

In a sentence: deeply imaginative, illuminating and original stories from a plague-ridden world that transcend the boundaries of genre.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Hop
By Diana Clarke

Genre: contemporary fiction

In a sentence: refreshing and empowering perspective on the sex work industry with whip-smart commentary on contemporary culture.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Yellowface
by R. F. Kuang

Genre: lit fic

My one 5-star read of the year. In a sentence: a biting and deliciously dark story, satirizing the publishing world and the creative process in a very on-the-nose way. Publishing 2023!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Nobody Told Me
by Holly McNish

Genre: poetry

In a sentence: poetry and prose that is candid and funny, playful yet serious, and unflinchingly honest on the realities of motherhood.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Intimacies
by Katie Kitamura

Genre: lit fic

In a sentence: a translator navigates language and power in this brilliant, incisive novel where the writing is a joy to behold.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Fight Night
by Miriam Toews

Genre: memoir

In a sentence: an irrepressibly energetic book told through the eyes of a nine-year-old – a hilarious and moving rallying cry.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Happy new year – let’s hope it’s a good one!

Some recent posts

The beginning of the apocalypse is here: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam ★★★★

Two well-heeled Brooklynites, Amanda and Clay, have rented an Air Bnb in rural Long Island with their two adolescent children. Amanda overbuys at the supermarket, Clay smokes, the children swim in the pool. It’s an idyllic enclave, a place for them to ‘leave the world behind’, switch off from their busy jobs and the mundaneity of everyday life in the city.

Before long, though, there’s a knock on the door.

The detail in the writing is excruciating at times, both to beneficial and detrimental effect. When GH and Ruth knock at the door, the moment – suspended in time – is excruciating in all the right ways. We don’t know what’s wrong, but it’s clear that something very much is.

GH and Ruth are a wealthy Black couple in their sixties who own the vacation home. There is an immediate sizing up of these unwelcome guests (if you can call them that). They’ve clearly done well for themselves, and Amanda bristles. They say there’s been a power outage and all lines of communication in the city are down. The same, it turns out, is true for the vacation home – while the electricity remains, there is no TV, phone reception, or radio – just the same message on repeat: this is the emergency broadcast. GH and Ruth have asked to spend the night until they can all figure out what’s going on.

“Ruth had learned only one thing from the current reality, and it was that everything held together by tacit agreement that it would. All it took to unravel something was one party deciding to do just that. There was no real structure to prevent chaos. There was only a collective faith in order.”

The characters are all granted rich interior lives, and the narration slides between their perspectives as things grow evermore uneasy. The tension is so well crafted, the atmosphere unbearable as they struggle to understand what’s happening, what nameless, terrible thing has occurred. The horror builds, piece by piece: a noise so terrible no-one can express it in words. A sudden flock of flamingos. The teenage son’s teeth falling out, simultaneously, horrifyingly, leaving bloody recesses where they once were.

This book has been around for long enough that I knew we wouldn’t get answers by the end. But Alam instead gives us an omniscient narrator who provides windows into what the future world might look like, hints at who lives and who dies. It’s an ingenious way of giving the reader tantalizing pieces of information about a post-apocalyptic world, without having to give that future shape and name.

I alluded to the purple prose above – I can absolutely see why it isolated and irritated readers (at one point the fridge is described as a ‘cacophony of magnets’) and there are some bodily descriptions that are particularly cringe-making. With more ruthless editing it would be a five-star read.

“They said the ocean was coming for them all. …They didn’t ask what the world would be when their children grew.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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.

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.