Thursday 31 December 2020

Favourite books I've read this year In Progress


Patrick Radden Keefe: Say Nothing. A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. 
Richard Rhodes: The Making of the Atomic Bomb. 
Nathalie Olah: Steal As Much As You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity.
Aaron Bastani: Fully Automated Luxury Communism.
Anna Wiener: Uncanny Valley. A Memoir.
Melissa Febos: Abandon Me. Memoirs. 
Imani Perry: Looking for Lorraine. The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.
Jenn Shapland: My Autobiography of Carson McCullers.
Becky Cooper: We Keep the Dead Close. 
Emma Eisenberg Copley: The Third Rainbow Girl.


Annalee Newitz: The Future of Another Timeline.
Rebecca Barrow: This Is What It Feels Like.
Charlie Jane Anders: The City in the Middle of the Night.
Sue Burke: Semiosis.
Chana Porter: The Seep.
Karen Osborne: Architects of Memory.
Elizabeth Bear: Machine.
N.K. Jemisin: The City We Became.
Elisabeth Thomas: Catherine House.
V.E. Schwab: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.
Caitlin Starling: The Luminous Dead.
Tamsyn Muir: Gideon the Ninth / Harrow the Ninth.
Paul Tremblay: Survivor Song.
William Gibson: Agency.
Tiffany Tsao: The Majesties.
Holly Throsby: Goodwood.
Claire O'Dell: The Hound of Justice. 
Emily St. John Mandel: The Glass Hotel.
Hally Sutton: The Lady Upstairs.
Janelle Brown: Pretty Things.
Micah  Nemerever: These Violent Delights.
Miriam Toews: Women Talking.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave: The Mercies.
Emily M. Danforth: Plan Bad Heroines.

Tess, one of the main protagonists in Annalee Newitz' The Future of Another Timeline, exists in a world that is altered by an ancient, mysterious technology - portals that can take travellers to the past. Newitz imagines this world altered in a way that feels familiar, and right: the existence of these portals has created a battle between Tess and her friends, the Daughters of Harriet, who are advancing and defending the rights of women and LGBTQIA+ people against conservative regressive forces who are attempting the opposite. These men travel through time to prevent critical moments for the advancement of rights, and it's hard not to see this as a reflection on our own world, where time travel doesn't exist but no progress can ever be taken for granted, or relied on, for as long as there are people in power who think that others are less deserving of equality than they are. This is a beautiful book, one that progresses forward and backwards in time to the beat of riot grrrl (a beautiful detail is the flashbacks to the girls' devotion to a band called 'Million Eyes' and its lead singer, Kathleen Hanna). 
And it's a great book in conjunction with Rebecca Barrow's This Is What It Feels Like, which is not about time travel but seems just as energetically informed by the spirit of riot grrrl, if it had overcome its own limitations and been more inclusive. Three high school girls used to be in band called Fairground, but their friendship fell apart - but now they come back together, and overcome obstacles, and find their love for music and for each other again. 

In Charlie Jane Anders' The City in the Middle of the Night, we travel to a tidally locked planet that has  become the future of humanity after the destruction of its original homeworld, and yet also like a prison in which warring factions deal differently with the lack of a night and a day, a clear and familiar rhythm of life. Because we can never truly leave ourselves behind, regardless of how far we travel, this transplanted humanity is not very different from what came before - it regards the existing civilisation on this planet as too alien to communicate with, and as nothing but prey, once again wreaking havoc on the environment. In ascribing otherness to these lifeforms instead of attempting to understand their existence and complex society, humanity is also alienated from its new habitat, and exists in a persistently depressed state. The novel centres on two friends, Sophie and Bianca, who are torn apart when the strictly regulated society of their hometown exiles Sophie, who goes on a different path from everyone else - she realises that the other lifeforms inhabiting this planet are complex and curious. In the course of the novel, Sophie realises that the only way to exist meaningfully in this utterly new place is to become a hybrid between the old and the new. Bianca, who personifies humanity as it was, as it destroyed what it had, turns into an antagonist. 
This is a beautiful, harrowing piece of science fiction, close to Ursula K. Le Guin, demanding curiosity instead of colonialism.
I find it difficult to describe Chana Porter's The Seep - a novel that explores humanity utterly altered by an alien life form that provides endless potentialities, and yet does not provide an answer for what any of it means. It's a rare, imaginative feat - the idea of endless possibilities for life without end and limits appears to create boundaries and to break connections, if anything, as much as it pretends to create a better version of humanity. Sometimes it's VanderMeerian biohorror, sometimes it's just the captivating protagonist Trina, navigating a now-unfamiliar world and the grief of a lost life-long relationship and trying to find a way to still help.

Elisabeth Thomas' Catherine House is a gothic, science-fiction infused story about a very unusual and mysterious boarding school for various talented and troubled teenagers. It reminded me of so many other novels (The Secret History, Annihilation, most of all maybe Wilder Girls), but at the same time it is unlike anything else I've ever read. At its centre is an esoteric technology that the entire school is dedicated to, one that maybe makes leaving school impossible for some of its student, and traps them there forever. It's a horror story and a haunted house story, but also a classic college thriller, with a captivating main character in Ines, who doesn't have a home outside and now finds herself in a place that preys on the unrooted. 
K.M. Szpara's Docile imagines a world in which the escalation in debt accumulation (mainly medical and college), and a policy decision to make debt hereditary, results in a debt resolution system that turns people into slaves. Under the guise of providing a choice (between prison or slavery), the rich have created a system in which they can turn the poor into personal slaves, with barely any limits on what they can do. Fittingly the tagline of the novel is "there is no consent under capitalism", because the appearance of a choice between the two options is obviously false. To "lighten the blow" (and boy do they tell themselves they're being charitable with their science), Bishop laboratories have developed a drug called Dociline, that essentially functions like the chair in Dollhouse. While unspeakable things are being done to them, no new memories are formed. 
Szpara goes beyond indicting this system and all that has led to it. Docile asks questions about whether love can be possible without informed consent, and what happens to both sides of the equation if human life is turned into something that can be purchased. 

And talking about VanderMeerian biohorror, and the specific horror of entering a strange terroir, crossing a border that turns out to be both about literal space and mindspace: Caitlin Starling's The Luminous Dead is a feat, a masterpiece. It follows Gyre, who under false pretences has applied for and accepted a complex caving job on a planet that lives on dangerous extraction of minerals from cave systems - and for the entirety of the novel, there are only two characters, interacting with each other. Gyre in her advanced suit that she is physically part of and connected to, that keeps her alive yet closed off, and her handler Em, who has many dangerous secrets but also lives in Gyre's head, is her only contact to the world outside, a kind of intimacy that shakes her to the bones. As she realises the full extent of her mission, she finds it more and more difficult to extract herself from both the proximity of Em and the deadly call of the caves themselves.  

It took me a second attempt to fall in love completely with Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth / Harrow the Ninth. Muir creates a future world in which magic and necromancy are real, and she emerges us in that world through (first) the eyes of Gideon Nav, muscled dreamboat and unwilling cavalier of the Ninth House to Harrowhark the Ninth, as they go off to attempt to become Lyctors to God (or, as per Harrow the Ninth, just John). Somehow, undying John has created a future from right-around now (his pop-cultural references, and the pop-cultural references in the book, thrive on twitter and tumblr memes - JAIL FOR MOTHER!), but a dark secret lurks in the centre of this world, and makes it work. Also, Gideon and Harrow are a love-story for the ages, with truly horrible timing. It will be hard to await the third novel in this Locked Tomb series. 

Apart from William Gibson delivering the second entry into his newest trilogy, Agency (for having it, not being one), N.K. Jemisin has also begun a new trilogy following Broken Earth. In The City We Became, New York City is the most recent city in the world to cross the threshold into becoming its own entity, a struggle that includes becoming literally personified, and facing off against other forces that wish it to become a generic non-place and destroy its spirit utterly. It being NYC, each borough becomes personified in a person as well, carrying the individual histories and culture within them. Four of them join together in the fight for their city whereas the fifth one proves that sometimes the political boundaries of a city do not correspond with its true ones (probably a move New Yorkers understand more than people who have never been there, but I did grow up on the wrong side of the Danube). 

There's barely a book that feels as essential to this moment as Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which is on the surface about a world after a deadly pandemic that actually does wipe out civilisation as we know it, but beyond that, about the purpose and essential nature of art and human companionship - in short, about why we should survive, now how. Mandel's newest novel, The Glass Hotel, is inspired by Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme (and it may be a good idea to read a non-fiction account of that, for example Diana B. Henriques The Wizard of Lies) but centres on a brother and sister whose lives become entangled in that of the fictional Madoff, Jonathan Alkaitis. It's an expansive story with many characters, but driven at its core by grief and loss, and making sense of oneself after suffering the kind of defeats that seem to be impossible to overcome. Vincent - who begins and ends in the service industry, but in-between becomes Alkaitis' partner right before his scheme collapses - is a captivating woman, and Mandel travels to locations that feel as strange and foreign as Station Eleven's post-apocalyptic world.

Tiffany Tsao's The Majesties is a family portrait, told after the end of that family by an unreliable narrator whose identity is only truly revealed at the end of the book. It's a thriller in the sense of revealing the precise course of on unimaginable crime after it has already occurred, but not the way that Rian Johnson's Knives Out does (which, in many ways, felt closer to The Majesties than the more often quoted Crazy Rich Asians did). 
In Holly Throsby's Goodwood, two disappearances shake a town and through the eyes of Jean, we slowly make our way towards the realisation that these are two closely linked crimes, happening in the context of complicated community drama in a place that feels like it doesn't have an outside anymore, and could exist anywhere in the world. This is also some of the most unusual storytelling and perspective I've read in a while.
In Laura McPhee-Browne's Cherry Beach, the
close friendship between Ness and Hetty, transplanted from Melbourne to Toronto, veers into the surreal and horrible when Hetty begins to lose her grip on reality and drifts away, and Ness can't figure out what to do to save the woman she's been in love with since childhood.
And in Claire O'Dell's The Hound of Justice (the second entry after A Study in Honor into this alternate universe Sherlock Holmes cover), Dr. Janet Watson and the mysterious agent of some agency Sara Holmes go deep into the dangerous South of this civil war torn alternate history United States to chase war profiteer and villain Nadine Adler, whose pharmaceutical empire has tested on and killed soldiers on both sides of the line. Janet Watson still struggles with her new prosthesis, her war trauma, and trying to become a surgeon again, and Sara Holmes remains distant and unknowable, as I suppose she should be as per the original material.
Ava, the main character and narrator in Saundra Mitchell's All The Things We Do in the Dark, navigates high school bearing the scar of a childhood trauma. It defines her relationships, and her reluctance to be around other people, but everything changes when she begins a tentative relationship with Hufflepuff Hailey and stumbles across a body hidden in a tree stump in the woods. Ava becomes haunted by her Jane Doe, whose murder she wants to solve to protect her from undergoing the same prodding she suffered through in the past, and at the same time, she struggles through the mysterious mood swings of her best friend Syd (the reader may figure the reason out a bit earlier than Ava does, but Syd is pretty busy). This is a teenage crime novel, as great as Cristina Moracho's A Good Idea and Courtney Summer's Sadie.

Both Miriam Toews' Women Talking and Kiran Millwood Hargrave's The Mercies are about women negotiating there place within a community under extreme circumstances. In Women Talking, the women of a Mennonite community debate different options for them to cope with systemic rape and violence committed by their men, husbands and sons. In The Mercies, a far-northern Norwegian village in the 17th century experiences a catastrophe - almost all of its men are taken by the sea - and the fall-out is complex, as some of the women begin to take over duties usually reserved for men and others gather around the idea of a more radical Christianity, one that persecutes witches and is profoundly intolerant of others, including the Sami people and there religion. At the centre of this horrifying, brutal tale about religious persecution, there's an unlikely love story between two women. Couldn't put that one down until it was finished. 

And more: Karen Osborne's Architects of Memory and Elizabeth Bear's Machine, two science fiction stories set in complex universes, mapping adventure and political intrigue, Hally Sutton's The Lady Upstairs, a queer noir tale about betrayal, as good as Megan Abbott's novels, Janelle Brown's Pretty Things, a story that starts as a con job and then twists and turns into an ambiguous thriller, and the brilliant and indescribable (Nemerver quotes Heavenly Creatures as an influence) These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever, about two young men in the 1970s who spiral into violence together. 

The New York Review of Books: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1933–2020, September 20, 2020.
LitHub: Jenny Odell and Wendy Liu on Liberating Ourselves From Usefulness, April 13, 2020
Undark: Marking Grim Milestones, the World Takes Stock of a New Normal, April 4, 2020
LARB: COVID and Community, March 30, 2020.
The Atlantic: How the Pandemic Will End, March 25, 2020.
Vox: Deciem fueled the skin care boom. Then it almost went bust., March 18, 2020
The Oxford American: An Intersection at the End of America, March 17, 2020
n+1: And Then the Brenner Was Closed, March 17, 2020
The Atlantic: The Extraordinary Decisions Facing Italian Doctors, March 11, 2020
The Atlantic: Cancel Everything, March 10, 2020
The Sun: We Will Be Seen; Tressie McMillan Cottom On Confronting Racism, Sexism, And Classism, February 2020
The Atlantic: You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus, February 24, 2020
Ruby Tandoh on Medium: Empire of Seeds. The Life and Dreams of Esiah Levy, February 19, 2020
n+1: A Very Brexit Party, February 10, 2020
The Saturday Paper: Christmas Island and the rise of mandatory detention, February 8, 2020
Buzzfeed: How Margot Robbie Changed Her Hollywood Destiny, February 7, 2020
Vanity Fair: Daniel M. Lavery Comes Unstuck, February 7, 2020
The New York Times: Inside the Race to Contain America’s First Coronavirus Case, February 5, 2020
The Cut: 100 Women vs. Harvey Weinstein, January 2020
The New Yorker: N.K. Jemisin's Dream Worlds, January 27, 2020
Ars Technica: Deadly fungus became resistant to all existing drugs in 3 unlinked US patients, January 10, 2020
Slate: Australia Was Warned, January 9, 2020
The New Yorker: The Killing of Qassem Suleimani Is Tantamount to an Act of War, January 3, 2020

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