Reading round up, January – June 2020

An image of Jen Campbell's novel 'The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night' and a fossilised leaf next to it.

An image of Jen Campbell’s novel ‘The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night’ and a fossilised leaf next to it.

Here’s a round-up of some of the books I’ve read between January – June and some brief commentary around the ones I felt strongly about. There are a few I enjoyed but I just don’t feel moved to write anything about them (e.g. Lethal White which I probably won’t remember in a few years time). I will not be writing about ones I really hated / DNF’ed this time though (hello, Mythos). I will be writing longer reviews of books going forward.

Jen Campbell (2018) The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, Two Roads
This is an unusual collection of, I think it might be fair to say, experimental short stories. Jen is also a poet and this comes through in some of the more dreamscape-esque stories (e.g. ‘Plum Pie. Zombie Green. Yellow Bee. Purple Monster.’). The short story ‘Bright White Hearts’ mirrors some of the poems in The Girl Aquarium. I loved the opening story ‘Animals’ which had an Angela Carter fairytale bite to it.

While I absolutely loved some of the short stories in this collection, I felt that I just wanted, well, a little bit more from some of them. (Which is on me as the reader; I have greedy eyes and a hungry imagination!) It’s not that the writing wasn’t luminous nor that the weaving of fact/fiction/myth/fairy tale were not interesting devices; it’s that some of them seemed to end abruptly. I thought ‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel’ was a fantastic concept with great characters and a creepy story building (in the vein of M.R. James) and then it felt like it ended without any conclusions and some questions unanswered. I love Jen’s poetic writing style, and the academic approach to inserting research, I just wanted more from some of these intriguing ‘monsters’ (I’m riffing on the Mary Shelley epigraph here). My favourites, though, in the collection are ‘Margaret and Mary and the End of the World’ and ‘Little Deaths’.

As a non-related book-ish note: I think Jen is brilliant; I’ve enjoyed her BookTube YouTube channel for a couple of years now. She is fiercely intelligent, comes across as highly personable, and a great advocate for disability rights and queer writing. Her YouTube channel is here and Patreon site is here.

Rosie Garland (2014) Vixen, HarperCollins
I wanted to love this book as much as I loved ‘The Palace of Curiosities’ and, while I didn’t get on with it as well as Rosie’s other novel (and her ace punky poetry), I did enjoy the fourteenth-century ride. I thought the research that went into this was brilliant and the dialogue work too. Again it has Rosie’s poetic writing coming through, and it seemed like every single word in the novel was read aloud and weighted before committing to the page. The weird, sensuous world of Vixen is surreal and visceral.

Audrey Niffenegger (2009) Her Fearful Symmetry, Penguin
I was a bit ambivalent about The TimeTraveler’s Wife and am somewhat ambivalent about this one too. I guessed the twist – that was finally revealed in the middle of the novel – from the start (no spoilers though) as, for me anyway, there were too many telegraphed hints. Solid place-writing in some of the descriptions of London though, if a little bit: “here are the tourist bits” heavy. It has made me want to visit Highgate Cemetery so I guess that’s sort of a win?!

Catherine Storr (1958) Marianne Dreams, Faber and Faber
I read this on recommendation from one of the Rachaels of our library service. Although it purports to be a children’s novel it is creepier than any horror film that I’ve seen recently. No jump scares but the menacing rocks and the power creating a world through childish drawing is psychologically frightening. I swear I had to sleep with the light on one night! I am 41 years old. . .

Melissa Harrison (2018) All Among the Barley, Bloomsbury
I’m cribbing my GoodReads review for this one: it’s the 1930s, it’s agricultural England, and we’re on the fringes of another war. This book is a warning about the dangers of nostalgia and the fascistic ideologies of race purity and the imagined rural idyll. It feels both a literary historical novel and contemporary too. Brilliant portrayals of the surrounding place/s and wildlife which are just as important as the human characters. Fantastic. Also, landrails (Crex crex) are ace.

Emily Morris (2017) My Shitty Twenties, Salt
An honest, humourous portrayal of life as a smart young single mum. I enjoyed this a lot, Emily writes about place and the pregnant body, really well and feminism runs throughout like a hot sharp knife.

Maz Evans (2017) Who Let the Gods Out?, ChickenHouse / Audible
A middle-grade book that’s enjoyable for everyone in my opinion. Maz narrated the book on Audible and she’s a fantastic storyteller. The scene with the queen is quite possibly genius (I defy you not to laugh out loud).

Ocean Vuong (2019) On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Audible
Another crib from my GoodReads review: A complex, multilayered novel, a dizzying feat of beauty. Ocean Vuong’s novel has the feel of the contemporary ‘great American novel’. Dealing with the fallout of the Vietnam war, what it is to be alive, what it is to be ‘other’ and intersections of otherness, on place and places and memories, the beauty and terrifying nature of migration, on the body, on how fleeting life is. Huge fundamental questions on what it is to be alive, on equity, on empathy. It’s poetic, it’s unflinching. Basically, I loved this; it’s affected me deeply, and I didn’t want it to end.

Mona Awad (2019) Bunny, Audible
Another GoodReads crib: Well. That was quite unashamedly bonkers, possibly giving new meanings to the term “unreliable narrator”. I don’t think I can write anything that isn’t spoiler-y here. Things I loved: the pacing, the swirling plot twists, some of the characterisation, the sheer postmodernist madness of it all. I think, however, it’s going to be of most interest to MFA/MA audiences who may recognise notions of e.g.: plot bunnies, killing your darlings, “the work”. I did like it, in an “I feel seen” way, though, as I think I’m probably a target audience member (MA in poetry)! And I will reread at some point as I think it would be of interest when teaching creative writing which I do now with a community group! If you loved Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’, the movies ‘Heathers’ and ‘Mean Girls’ and like an Angela Carter-esque dollop of fairytale magical realism then I think you may like this book too.

I’m keeping a book log here and will be updating the TBR semi-regularly (and I’m always up for a recommendation or twenty)!

I would love to know what you’re reading at the moment too. Until next time, happy reading.