Sunday 31 December 2023

Favourite Books I've Read This Year


Michael Wallis: The Best Land Under Heaven. The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny.
David Welky: A Wretched and Precarious Situation. In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier. 
Buddy Levy: Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk.
Gershom Gorenberg: The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.
Rashid Khalidi: The Hundred Years' War on Palestine. A History of Settler Colonial Conquest and Restance, 1917-2007.


Emily Tesh: Some Desperate Glory. 
Kemi Ashing-Giwa: The Splinter in the Sky.
Bethany Jacobs: These Burning Stars. 
Michelle Min Sterling: Camp Zero.
C Pam Zhang: Land of Milk and Honey.
Sin Blaché and Helen MacDonald: Prophet. 
Marisa Crane: I Keep My Exoskeleton to Myself. 
Rebecca Rotert: Last Night at the Blue Angel.
Tananarive Due: The Reformatory.
Trang Thanh Tran: She Is a Haunting.
Alix E. Harrow: Starling House.
Caitlin Starling: Last to Leave the Room. 
Victor LaValle: Lone Women.
Ling Ling Huang: Natural Beauty. 
Megan Abbott: Beware the Woman.
Jessica Knoll: Bright Young Women.
Rebecca Makkai: The Great Believers.
Chloe Michelle Howarth: Sunburn.
Bronwyn Fisher: The Adult.

Emily Tesh
's Some Desperate Glory is a great science fiction novel with a captivating protagonist: Valkyr has never known a world different from the small human settlement of Gaea station, a Sparta-like warrior culture obsessed with avenging the death of Earth. It is obvious to the reader that this is a deeply troubling culture that is obsessed with breeding child warriors, is deeply misogynist, does population control through state-sanctioned rape and ideologically indoctrinates its young who cannot even perceive of an alternative. As the story progresses, Valkyr realises that she has been told lies, that other humans live very different lives elsewhere and appear to be happy. This universe is defined by an artificial intelligence programmed to make the best decisions for the greatest number of people, a prime directive that has led to the destruction of Earth, but Valkyr's attempts to change the course of history fail - only for her to be thrown into an alternative timeline where she was never raised on Gaea station. Some Desperate Glory asks questions about how upbringing informs identity, but also the impossibility of the great heroic act, as any decision that Valkyr makes lead to horrible outcomes for someone. 

I read Michelle Min Sterling's Camp Zero right after finishing Birnam Wood by Eleanor Cotton, and it feels like these two should be read in tandem, as they have similar concerns. In both novels, billionaires continue the tradition of extractive capitalism while also attempting to build themselves oases far away from the ecological consequences of their greed. In Camp Zero, a tech billionaire is exploring whether the Canadian North has deposits of a mineral he needs to update his (implanted) social media platform that is wreaking havoc on human relationships and people's memories, all under the cover of building a sustainable community far from the ravages that is plaguing the South. The individuals caught up in the ploy have to figure out how to build lives while caught up in the greater power structures at play. 

Land of Milk and Honey
by C Pam Zhang will stay with me for a long time. This felt like a year of writers tackling the moral deprivation of the immorally rich: here, a man who dominates the novel more like a crime boss than a traditional billionaire escapes a world horribly changed by the climate catastrophe by building an arc of sorts in the Italian Alps, where a team of scientists recreates lost animals and plants, working towards a plan to afford a group of privileged people (and some servants) an escape hatch from the consequences of their greed. Zhang's main character is a chef and invited into the mountains to cook for a selected group of guests - except in the end, she is asked to do so much more, and bears witness to the perversity that unfolds. The novel beautifully ties food in with memory - or rather, the food only becomes meaningful when it does connect with memory, and before that, it feels like an empty signifier of excess and wealth. 

I Keep My Exoskeleton to Myself
is a very grim twist on a world that values a twisted concept of safety above freedom. Marisa Crane's protagonist Kris is a "Shadester": in this dystopian world, the criminal justice system has been radically transformed, and anyone who has been found to transgress is given a second shadow, and is discriminated against and constantly observed. After the traumatic death of her wife, she is raising her child in the shadow of this unfair and oppressive system, navigating discrimination and the mistrust and violence of those who are biased against her while trying to cope with her own trauma. This is a novel about someone who is trying, desperately, to build a liveable future for herself and her daughter against impossible odds, finding her own path to parenthood and meaningful resistance.

Ling Ling Huang
's protagonist in Natural Beauty had to abandon a career as a pianist after her parents' death but an unexpected opportunity opens when she is approached to work in a high-end beauty and wellness shop called Holistik, which offers a range of products and treatments to stave off the effects of aging. What emerges is a horrible portrait of a business that profits from its customers obsession with surface-level beauty, who would do anything to appear beautiful and young and ask no questions about the true price of what they consume. Like a cult, once Holistik has its claws in the protagonist, she finds it harder and harder to escape. 

In Trang Thanh Tran's She Is a Haunting, Jade returns to Vietnam to visit her estranged father, who is restoring an old colonial home. As she struggles with her family dynamics, she also becomes aware that the house itself is haunted by its dark colonial history, but to try and protect her sister and herself, she also decides to stage a haunting with the help of a woman his father has hired to do the publicity for the future holiday home. This is a great horror novel featuring hungry ghosts, but also a family portrait, showcasing the scars that personal and political history leave on places and people. 

Victor LaValle
portrays frontier women in Lone Women, following a protagonist who is escaping to a Montana town where "lone women", due to vague language, can own property without a husband. She has a heavy trunk in tow that holds a family secret, but soon, that secret can no longer be contained - but the true monster, it turns out, are the close-minded and racist inhabitants of the local town, who try to shape their settlement to their own limited ideas, and a horrifying family of murderers and thieves, who appear to steal and inhabit other people's lives after getting rid of their previous owners. 

Rebecca Rotert
's Last Night at the Blue Angel is told through the eyes of two protagonists, the enigmatic singer Naomi Hill, who is escaping her childhood home to build a career as a Chicago singer, and through the eyes of her daughter years later, coping with a parent who is ill-suited to parenthood. The portrait of the queer night life of Chicago in the 1960s is beautiful, as is Sophia's relationship with father-stand-in Jim, a photographer (based on Richard Nickel), who is desperate to preserve Chicago's architecture against a policy of urban renewal that is focused on destruction. Sophia's dread of nuclear annihilation and feeling that nothing is permanent translates into endless lists of things that she fears will be lost, Jim's fear of the loss of architectural heritage is translated into photography of a city that is fading. 

Megan Abbott
's Beware the Woman feels like a departure from the hard-boiled stories she usually tells. A woman travels with her new husband to the house of his charismatic father. Both men are excited for her pregnancy, until complications showcase that she doesn't truly know either of them, and can't depend on the medical establishment to help her - and now that is dependent on their goodwill, their misogynist ideology reveals itself, constructing a horrifying cage. When she tries to break free, she discovers terrible secrets. This is a breathtakingly claustrophobic thriller. 

In her second novel, Jessica Knoll, inspired by the unbelievable veneration that a famous serial killer experienced both at his own trial and in the media, after his death, portrays the victims without ever naming the man who took their lives. The book follows one of the women, who tenderly builds a life of her own after she escapes an overbearing mother, and the survivor of a massacre that cost the lives of two of her friends in a sorority house. Bright Young Women follows a decades-long quest for justice, but it's most important point is its rebuke of the idea that this killer was charismatic (she ridicules him when he decides to defend himself, she captures his hatred of realising that others, including the women he targets, are smarter than him) - instead he comes across as deeply odd, profiting from women fearing what would happen if they say "no", or appearing unkind if they aren't accommodating to men. 

Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers is a breathtaking and profoundly moving novel that takes place in two timelines, intertwining the lives of its characters in a powerful exploration of love, loss, and resilience. Set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris, Makkai creates a narrative that is both heart-wrenching and beautifully hopeful. There is a returning motif of art that is lost due to the death of its creators, like empty spaces in museums (the recollections of a dying muse take the story back to the years before the first world war). The prose is exquisite, capturing the raw emotions of her characters with depth and sensitivity. Through themes of friendship, art, and the enduring power of human connection, Makkai delivers a poignant and unforgettable story that lingers in the heart long after the last page.

Chloe Michelle Howarth's Sunburn is set in Ireland at the end of the 1980s, spanning until the mid-1990s. It's a captivating love story about two girls in a small town where everyone knows each others secrets. The main protagonist, Lucy, has to choose between two different partners that symbolise two very different life paths - she can follow her heart, against the rampant homophobia surrounding her, or take the safe option with her best friend and essentially live the same life that her parents have mapped out for her. 

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