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!

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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

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.

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.

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

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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