Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell follows his Wellcome Prize-winning exploration of transhumanism To Be a Machine with another book about the future, this time looking at the ways in which people prepare for ecological and societal collapse. O’Connell travels to South Dakota to visit underground survival bunkers, attends a Mars convention in California, visits New Zealand to find out why it is the favoured location for billionaires to ride out the end of the world, and goes to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in which the post-apocalyptic scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster has become a popular tourist attraction in recent years.
In the paperback edition, O’Connell notes in a new foreword that the timing of the hardback publication in April 2020 was “impeccable”. Nevertheless, it does mean that certain parts read a bit differently from how they would have done without a global pandemic. For example, the actions of the “preppers” who stockpile supplies to live on in the event of a possible worst-case scenario now seem a lot less extreme these days. O’Connell’s writing is dense and cerebral and ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ contains as much food for thought as his first book, albeit with an even larger dose of anxiety about the future this time round. Continue reading
After a long period of neglect, I have been reading more books in translation recently, including some recently published titles. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura has been translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton and sees an unnamed woman in her mid-30s walk into an employment agency looking for a job that has the following traits: it is close to her home, requires no reading or writing and preferably very little thinking. The book follows her attempts at five different roles: surveillance, recording voice ads for buses, writing fun facts to be printed on cracker wrappers, putting up posters and park maintenance. Tsumura wrote her debut novel after her own experience of job burnout and it captures a sense of listlessness in a way that will have you counting down the days until you are entitled to claim your own pension. With deadpan humour and a bit of magical realism, it ends up being a bit of an aimless novel overall, yet also quite thought-provoking about the meaning of job satisfaction, particularly in the context of workplace culture in Japan which is known for extreme presenteeism.
Bluemoose Books is one of my favourite indie publishers and I have been reading some more of its titles over the past few weeks. Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal has recently been featured on the BBC’s books programme Between The Covers and has deservedly won plaudits for its sensitive and non-judgemental portrayal of the most marginalised groups in society. Duggal’s second novel tells the story of Jimmy Noone who is homeless in an unnamed city and has been searching for his friend, Betwa, who grew up in the local area. He is seen as a threat by Ebele, a single mother who lives with her six-year-old daughter Tuli, while her landlord and employer, Nikos, who owns a furniture shop nearby thinks he is a nuisance. Jimmy does, however, generate more compassion from their neighbour, Rayya, who is a carer for her terminally-ill husband Satish. The way in which the characters’ backgrounds are slowly revealed is very effective, emphasising that ordinary people have extraordinary stories to tell, that actions are not all that they appear to be and how people can end up on completely different paths and become invisible to the rest of society. This is a perceptive and poignant novel and I look forward to reading more of Duggal’s work. Continue reading
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood about 10 years ago and recently reread it followed by the long-awaited sequel The Testaments. Atwood’s dystopian classic first published in 1985 depicts the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and patriarchal state created after the downfall of the United States some time in the 21st century. It is narrated by Offred, a handmaid who is forced to produce children for Commander Waterford and his wife Serena Joy.
As a reread, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was fresher in my mind than it would have been thanks to the recent television series which is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. I particularly admire Atwood’s skill at detailed world-building in relatively spare prose. Even though there isn’t a huge amount of description of what Offred’s surroundings look like or even much explanation about the creation of Gilead initially, Atwood paints a vivid and shocking portrait of this dystopian world, gradually building towards a dramatic conclusion. Continue reading
The title of the book A Short History of London: The Creation of a World Capital by Simon Jenkins gives a fair warning to the reader that there is inevitably quite a lot left out of the city’s 2,000 year history in its 400 pages. The focus is very much on the architecture and planning of the city centre in the last century or so with a bit about its governance alongside this. As a lifelong Londoner, Jenkins is clearly passionate about his home city. He has witnessed a remarkable amount of change in his lifetime and doesn’t hold back on his forthright views about recent developments. Having already produced short histories of Europe and England, Jenkins is well-practised at the most important aspect of writing a deliberately short book which is that he writes with pace and is very good at conveying the general sweep of events succinctly in easily digestible chapters. Continue reading
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha is a novel about two families in Los Angeles – one Korean-American and one African-American. It is a fictionalised version of a real case in which Soon Ja Du, a Korean female convenience store owner, shot and killed a 15-year-old African-American girl called Latasha Harlins in 1991. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but didn’t receive a jail sentence. In the novel, 15-year-old Ava Matthews is shot and killed by Jung-Ja Han who believed Ava was attempting to steal milk from her store. The narrative alternates between both families and the past and the present. Ava’s brother and cousin, Shawn and Ray, struggle to cope in the aftermath of Ava’s death while Jung-Ja changes her name to Yvonne Park and her daughter, Grace, grows up unaware of the incident until the past catches up with them. Cha takes great care to show the impact of events on both sides and the result is a powerful depiction of the background behind racial tensions in Los Angeles in the early 1990s and beyond. Continue reading
The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist for 2021 was announced last Wednesday. The 16 titles are:
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
Because of You by Dawn French
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
Luster by Raven Leilani
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Consent by Annabel Lyon
Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Summer by Ali Smith Continue reading
Hello World by Hannah Fry, subtitled ‘How to Be Human in the Age of the Machine’ looks at the role of algorithms in modern life, from our everyday internet use to the justice system to creating works of art. Most of the discussion around algorithms tends to focus on the negative impact they can have with sat navs sending drivers off the edge of a cliff and data privacy concerns being two of the most well-known examples. Fry also looks at the positive benefits of algorithms as they are undoubtedly useful in research contexts such as monitoring cell patterns in order to diagnose cancer earlier. The real-world examples of how humans interact with algorithms are concisely written and this is an engaging popular science book which is straightforward enough for a layperson to grasp as an introduction to a complex topic. Continue reading
The last ten months or so have been very tough for the publishing industry in general, and particularly challenging for small indie presses who have still succeeded in bringing brilliant new books in to the world during a pandemic no less. One of those is Exit Management by Naomi Booth which was published by Dead Ink Books last summer. Originally from the north of England, Lauren works at a City firm as a graduate HR executive and specialises in “exit management”, otherwise known as firing people in less corporate terms. She is very ambitious about climbing the property ladder, even in a city where she discovers early on that a bedsit in Deptford will always be advertised as a “luxury studio in outer Greenwich”. Callum is a young man in his twenties who lives with his parents in Croydon and lands a job at GuestHouse, a company which finds elite temporary residences in London for the super-rich. Callum forms a close bond with one of his clients, József, a terminally ill elderly man who came to live in England from Hungary as a refugee in 1956. When Callum and Lauren meet by chance outside József‘s home in Elgin Mews, Lauren assumes that Callum owns the property, and the lives of the three characters become drawn together in unexpected ways. I think the characterisation is particularly strong in this novel, as it explores Lauren and Callum’s relationship in more interesting ways than just depicting their status as millennials inevitably struggling to get by in London. I look forward to reading Booth’s eco-horror debut novel ‘Sealed’. Continue reading
There are a lot of new books coming in 2021. Here are the titles I am looking forward to reading the most, although I probably won’t get round to all of them this year. All publication dates where known apply to the United Kingdom only.
High-profile debut novels out in early 2021 include Luster by Raven Leilani and No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood whose memoir Priestdaddy I reviewed last month. Several of the books I will be looking out for are second novels by authors who have written impressive debuts. Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley is set in modern-day Soho in London and sounds like a real departure from the Booker Prize-shortlisted Elmet. The High House by Jessie Greengrass is the second novel by the author of Sight. It addresses climate change and is out in April. Panenka by Ronan Hessian sees the author of the word-of-mouth success Leonard and Hungry Paul return with his new novel in May about a man who is living with mistakes he made in the past. Out in February, Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford tells the possible stories of five children if they hadn’t been killed by a V2 bomb in London in 1944 – a very different concept and setting from the 18th century New York depicted in his debut Golden Hill.
There are lots of reasons why 2020 has been an unusual year. One of them is that several books I have both read and enjoyed have won major literary prizes this year – more often than not, my longlist or shortlist preferences don’t get as far as taking the big cheques home with them. However, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize this year – a debut novel about a young boy growing up in 1980s Glasgow (and I’m still feeling smug about including it in my predictions post back in July before it was even longlisted). Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for its moving portrayal of the death of William Shakespeare’s young son. And One Two Three Four by Craig Brown was awarded the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction – a brilliantly original and comic biography of the Beatles told in 99 short chapters. Continue reading
I have been following the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award since its relaunch in 2015 and shadowed the prize in 2017. This year’s shortlist was announced on Sunday 1st November and consists of two poetry collections, two novels and one memoir. The titles are:
Surge by Jay Bernard
Inferno by Catherine Cho
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt
Nightingale by Marina Kemp
The poetry collections include Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt which draws on Hewitt’s time in Sweden, a translation of the Irish legend of Buile Suibhne, and his father’s terminal illness. Rooted in the natural world, these poems are very immersive, and deal with themes of identity and loss. Surge by Jay Bernard has already been shortlisted for several other major awards (Costa, Forward, Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot). It focuses on the New Cross house fire in south-east London in January 1981 which killed 13 black teenagers who were celebrating a birthday party. The cause has never been fully established but it is possible that the fire was started deliberately in a racist attack. In poems such as ‘Sentence’, Bernard explores parallels between the New Cross fire and the grief surrounding more recent tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Windrush scandal. I don’t read poetry very often, but I could see ‘Surge’ being a potential winner with its thoughtful exploration of a powerful central theme.
I borrowed Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett from the library because I really enjoyed reading The Bus on Thursday last year. Barrett’s debut novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016. Set in the early 20th century in the port town of Eden in New South Wales, ‘Rush Oh!’ is loosely based on the life of George Davidson, one of Australia’s most prominent master whalers at the time. During the 1908 season, his fictional teenage daughter, Mary, is tasked with supporting her father’s whaling crew and caring for her five siblings after their mother’s death, and the arrival of the mysterious former Methodist preacher, John Beck, proves to be a welcome distraction for her.
In ‘Rush Oh!’, Barrett strikes a good balance between the well-researched and brutal descriptions of whale hunting and the more gentle strands of Davidson family drama. Mary is a brilliantly imagined narrator, looking back on the events of her youth with amusingly chatty asides to the reader. In terms of genre, Barrett’s two novels to date couldn’t be more different, but they share a brilliant sense of humour and I look forward to reading more by Barrett in the future. Continue reading
I have read four books on this year’s Booker Prize longlist so far. All four are debut novels – there are eight in total on the 13-strong longlist – and two of them have made the shortlist.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid is about a young African-American woman, Emira, who is accused of abducting the white toddler she is looking after in an upmarket grocery store in Philadelphia. The toddler’s mother, Alix Chamberlain, is a wealthy white social media influencer who is at pains to show Emira how “woke” she is, lacking the self-awareness to realise that her attempts to be more progressive end up becoming the total opposite, and often result in her becoming more controlling and insecure. After the incident in the grocery store, Emira starts a relationship with Kelley Copeland, a white man who has a connection with Alix’s past. The novel is a slow-burn after the initial confrontation scene and the structure is a bit all over the place, but overall, ‘Such A Fun Age’ is subtly written with a great sense of irony and skewers “white saviour” hypocrisy very effectively. Continue reading
I have read two books recently which were top of my wish list for this year’s Booker Prize longlist but sadly didn’t make the cut. The omission of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell has surprised a lot of people although it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. O’Farrell’s eighth novel and her first foray into historical fiction is a reimagining of the short life of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet in Warwickshire in the late sixteenth century. The playwright himself only has a background part in this story which is told from the point of view of his wife Agnes (more commonly known as Anne Hathaway, O’Farrell uses the name given in her father’s will) who is the mother of their daughter Susanna followed by twins Hamnet and Judith. The novel focuses on events before and after Hamnet’s early death at the age of 11 in 1596, the true cause of which is unknown but is presented as bubonic plague here. Continue reading
I really enjoyed American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld which is a thinly disguised account of the life of Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush and former First Lady of the United States. I also enjoyed Sittenfeld’s short story ‘The Nominee’ which is included in the UK edition of You Think It, I’ll Say It and is told from the perspective of Hillary Rodham Clinton a few months before the 2016 US presidential election. The premise of her sixth novel ‘Rodham’ – “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?” – is one of the most intriguing alternative history scenarios I can think of, so it was the first book I picked up at a physical bookshop after they reopened following lockdown. Continue reading
The Booker Prize 2020 longlist was announced on Tuesday. The 13 titles are:
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze
The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Such a Fun Age Kiley Reid
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Redhead by The Side of The Road by Anne Tyler
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang Continue reading
Booker Prize longlist predictions are rarely dominated by one book, but the question of whether or not The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel will make the cut will shape a lot of the debate this year. It would open up the potential for Mantel to be the first author to win the Booker Prize three times following the first two books in the trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall in 2009 and Bring Up the Bodies in 2013.
If the judges do select ‘The Mirror and the Light’, they will still need to nominate another 12 books to sit alongside it on the “Booker dozen” longlist. I haven’t read many eligible books this year due to library closures during lockdown which is my main source of new books. However, I was lucky enough read a review copy of Summerwater by Sarah Moss which is due to be published next month and I would very much like to see Moss receive a long overdue nomination for this brilliantly unnerving novel set in a Scottish holiday park. I also enjoyed Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes which is about the life of a Scottish pop star and political activist who takes her own life. Continue reading
I read a proof copy of Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes back in April, when it was originally due to be published, but its release date in the UK was pushed back to July due to the pandemic. It tells the story of Clio Campbell, a one-hit-wonder Scottish pop star and political activist who takes her own life just before she turns 51, some three decades after a brief period of fame as the singer of the anti-poll tax anthem ‘Rise Up’.
Clio’s suicide isn’t a spoiler as it is revealed right at the beginning of the book when her body is discovered by her friend Ruth. The story then jumps back and forth in time looking back at Clio’s life with each part retold by a selection of people who knew Clio from very different perspectives. The non-linear story is slightly confusing initially, but I really got into it by the second half as the glimpses of Clio’s life through the eyes of others gradually come together to reveal an affecting character portrait of someone who is very vulnerable in lots of ways behind the outspoken public facade. Continue reading
After a long period of reading either novels or non-fiction, I have been reading some short story collections recently, possibly a result of my slightly shorter attention span in recent weeks.
I found a copy of Treats by Lara Williams in a charity shop shortly after I read the author’s debut novel Supper Club which was published last summer. This very short collection – 21 stories in just over 100 pages – published in 2016 by the now-defunct Freight Books includes more of the same sharply observed prose about modern life, usually from the point of view of millennial age characters. Consequently, Williams is particularly good on the ways in which reality does not always meet expectations, whether it’s graduate job-hunting, relationships after university or creative writing courses. Her stories written in the second person are also very effective – a tricky perspective to get right. Overall, this is a fresh contemporary collection written by a striking new voice. Continue reading