Saturday 31 December 2022

Favourite Books I've Read This Year


Karen Cheung: The Impossible City.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard: The Worst Journey in the World.
Russell A. Potter: Finding Franklin. The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search.
Hampton Sides: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette.
Buddy Levy: Labyrinth of Ice. The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition.
Hua Hsu: Stay True.


Alison Rumfitt: Tell Me I'm Worthless.
Delilah Dawson: The Violence.
Kit Mayquist: Tripping Arcadia.
John Darnielle: Devil House.
Catriona Ward: The House on Needless Street.
Christopher Golden: Road of Bones.
Ally Wilkes: All the White Spaces.
Jessamine Chan: The School for Good Mothers.
Sequoia Nagamatsu: How High We Go in the Dark.
Rebecca Scherm: A House Between the Earth and the Moon.
R.F. Kuang: Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution.
Tamsyn Muir: Nona the Ninth.
Ferya Marske: A Restless Truth.
Marie Rutkoski: Real Easy. 
Nina LaCour: Yerba Buena.
Leila Mottley: Nightcrawling. 
Jules Ohman: Body Grammar. 

I read Alison Rumfitt's brilliant debut novel Tell Me I'm Worthless again in January this year, this time in conjunction with Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (which I had never read before, and it surprised me how queer it was). Tell Me I'm Worthless is also about a haunted house, except this one is not apolitical - its name is Albion, like the mystical founder of England, and it hates violently, especially those who deviate from its narrow conception of humanity (all the while the country it's set in veers towards something horrible, an ominous violence that is frequently hinted at). Jackson writes "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality", Rumfitt uses this as a jumping off point - "No live organism can continue to exist compassionately under conditions of absolute fascism." This house turns people who enter it against each other by using their pre-existing prejudices and flaws, except here the horror is visceral, physical and gory. It also prompted me to re-read all of Caitlín R. Kiernan's earlier novels, where the difference between psychosis and supernatural horror constantly blurs to the extent that the difference ceases to matter, since it determines the reality of its protagonists. 

Delilah Dawson
's The Violence is a science fiction tale about an epidemic of violence - people who contract the Violence black out and commit horrible acts against whoever is hear them - but it is also a story about women who fight back against their abusers, who carve out their freedoms in the face of threats, who break out of their cages ready to fight back. It's a story about a family - from grandmother to tiny grandchild - affected by misogyny and sexism, each generation finding their own path towards something resembling freedom. There's also an underground, illegal wrestling league, a group of vigilante vaccination specialists spreading a crowd-sourced cure, a grandmother rethinking her survival skills. This story is deeply affecting, but ultimately about resourcefulness and surviving male violence and abuse. 

Lena, a med school drop out, begins a new job as a physician's assistant for a doctor looking after the scions of a rich family, and falls through a rabbit hole into a strange world of drug-fuelled parties, where the wealthy and famous decadently and far from the eyes of the public lose all inhibitions. She becomes deeply fascinated with both the son and the daughter of the family - the former appears more friendly and caring than her public image would have you believe, the latter is fascinated with romantic poets and is wasting away slowly, only resurfacing to full-consciousness occasionally. Kit Mayquist's Tripping Arcadia develops its co-opted revenge fantasies alongside an investigation of a mystery at the heart of the family, asking questions about what happens when the need for a steady income meets the immoral demands of the ultra-wealthy to whom no laws or ethics appear to apply. 

The Mountain Goat's John Darnielle returns for a third novel with Devil House. I liked both of his previous books, Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester, but with Devil House I felt more keenly what I do when I listen to his records: essentially, every single song contains the seeds for a whole story, and Darnielle has the uncanny ability to convey so much about a person and a relationship in just a few lines (take the doomed relationship in his most popular song, No Children, or the incredible warmth in the community of Color in Your Cheek) His newest novel is about a true crime writer who moves into a house with a long history that includes two murders - and includes the fictional account of the writer's most successful book about a different killing - but rather than focusing on the horror, Darnielle paints all the characters in great detail, especially the wild creativity and artistry (which ends up being completely misunderstood in the panic that follows the killings) of the teenagers who turn Devil House into an art installation while they deal with the prospect of high school ending, of their relationship being transformed inevitably by the end of what holds them together. The murders are almost incidental (and the same holds true for the insert story about a teacher, whose life is drawn vividly, who just ends up going to far when she is attacked in her own home). That gentle care with characters feels like a celebration almost, and like a reminder of what kind of responsibility any storyteller (not just true crime) has. 

Two men go to the coldest inhabited place on Earth (in Siberia) to make a documentary series about ghosts, but what they find there turns out to be so much worth - an entire village emptied of people, leaving only one creepy, quiet child behind. Christopher Golden's Road of Bones (Kolyma Highway is an existing place, a road built on the graves of those who built it) is an escalating tale of horror in which folk tales come to life in a place that feels like nobody should be able to survive there, and yet the best moments are the ones where he captures the lives that people have carved out for themselves, the grace they find in their survival right before something comes out of the woods to destroy it. 

I've mentioned often how terrifying I find both polar and cave exploration - how far they are from anything I would ever want to attempt myself, which is why novels about them (or even wikipedia entries, to be honest) inspire a particular kind of horror. Ally Wilkes' All the White Spaces is a masterpiece - a psychological horror story about a doomed antarctic journey, taking inspiration from historical events but creating its best moments when it portrays the internal journey of its main character, a stowaway on the ship who wants to honour the death of his brothers in the French trenches by fulfilling their dream. Everything that can go wrong, does: The ship sinks after a fire breaks out, causing the remaining crew to suspect each other, and especially a scientist who was a conscientious objector during the war. Then they make their way into the abandoned cabins of a previous, now disappeared, German polar party, only to realise that maybe nobody was ever meant to set foot on this land, that it is profoundly haunted (or perhaps, the extreme conditions are causing hallucinations - the difference between the two is insubstantial, as the outcome is the same). This is one of the best horror novels I've read in a long time - en par with another favourite, The Luminous Dead

Jessamine Chan tells a claustrophobic, horrifying tale about what happens when obsession with technological control and idealised motherhood combine with a state that runs on surveillance and incarceration. In The School for Good Mothers, Frida, mother to an almost-two-year-old, leaves her daughter at home for two hours after an incredibly stressful day. She gets caught, and then caught up in a "reformed" system that sends negligent mothers to a prison camp to ideologically re-educate them into obedience. Chan brilliantly combines observations about how mothers are already constantly bombarded with assumptions and demands (and control) with a Utopian tale about a surveillance state (technologically armed - the novel features incredibly creepy robot children for the mothers to learn on, and endless amounts of data-collecting gadgets) that cares nothing for the individual that gets caught up in its demands. A very interesting novel to read in conjunction with Maggie Gyllenhaal's adaptation of The Lost Daughter, in which young mother and academic Leda (Jessie Buckley, then Olivia Colman) struggles profoundly with conventional motherhood, with preserving her personhood.

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu is a collection of interconnected short-stories about an end of the world: climate change makes an ancient virus reappear, and it radically transforms society. Sequoia follows characters as they reckon with individual and collective grief and work on ways to help humanity survive - either on Earth, or beyond. There is one story about a scientist working with a pig that evolves to develop speech and a full consciousness, and it made me cry (perfectly timed with a re-emergence of this tweet). Nagamatsu charts the progression of the virus from its discovery through the changed reality of a world reckoning with mass death - what that means for rituals of grieving, how we accompany those who are dying, what it means for family structures - and he then charts the course of humanity through technological leaps and bounds into space, thousands of years in the future. 

In Rebecca Scherm's A House Between the Earth and the Moon, an ominous and omnipresent company that has outfitted almost every person on Earth with an implanted phone is building a space station for billionaires to escape the horrible effects of climate change. The novel follows a group of scientists who are pioneers on the station and are trying to make it habitable for those billionaires, while also trying to figure out how if it save for their own families to live on - while a young woman is sent up to monitor their social interactions secretly, to build an algorithm that is meant to be able to predict human behaviour. It's an ambitious, multi-perspective novel about what it means to be surveilled and how humanity will evolve from the climate catastrophe (and once again, the future is unevenly distributed), but it hits hardest in its portrayal of human connection in the face of an extreme, alienating situation. 

RF Kuang's Babel is about a magic system built on the power of translation. It's a novel about language and culture, and how (British) colonialism extracts resources and knowledge to sustain itself and expand unrivalled, a system that the protagonists in the novel, students at Oxford who have come there (voluntarily, and not) from the very places that are being exploited, attempt sabotage. This is a dark academia novel, set in the early 19th century, and one of best novels I've read this year. 

A Restless Truth by Freya Marske is the second novel in a series, but it can still be read on its own (but A Marvellous Light is beautiful, and shouldn't be missed). It is a murder mystery set on a ship, and its main protagonist Maud begins to understand herself as she unravels the crime that was committed on board. 

Marie Rutkoski's Real Easy is a hard-boiled crime novel about a serial killer who preys on women. It uses a multi-perspective approach, following many of the women working in a strip bar where the killer is looking for victims, the two detectives who are investigating the case, and a few other characters who are loosely connected, including some who come into the focus of the investigation only to be discarded later. It reminded me of the great Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton, which takes a similar multi-voiced approach and is set in a comparably narrow environment, in that case a small town/farming community rather than a strip club. What really caught me by surprise out of nowhere was the slow-blooming romance towards the end of the novel - it was worth going back to the beginning, to find the little subtle moments before - and it contributes to how this is really a novel about the complexity and strength of the women in it. 

Yerba Buena
is one of my favourite novels this year. It's a love story on the surface, following its two main characters as they make their improbable and complicated way towards each other, and sometimes apart again - it is too smart a story to end in anything definite. What makes this special is the careful description of beauty - flowers, drinks, food, houses - and what takes place between the people that are surrounded by these things, their friendships, their love, their sadness. For how sad Nina LaCour's characters sometimes get - and in spite of some horrible things that happen - there is such a glow of generosity and togetherness in Yerba Buena

And then I picked up Jules Ohman's debut novel, Body Grammar, which feels like the perfect companion piece for LaCour's Yerba Buena - it also maps the history of a relationship, as protagonist Lou, who always felt strange her body, decides to begin a career in modelling. She leaves her small town just as her friends go off to begin their own lives - in college, or in the case of her best friend, as part of a punk band. Ohman's description of Lou's changing environments - right into the middle of the fashion world (realistically depicted, glamorous only in moments) are generous and expansive. She describes the complicated feelings that Lou feels for her friends, especially after a shared trauma, as she comes to realise what she really wants to do. Like Yerba Buena, Body Grammar feels like it is about creativity in its essence, as an expression of not just aesthetics but as a fulfilling way to pursue life. 

The Monthly: Marshall Law, January 19, 2022

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