Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoingI rarely buy new releases because I don’t like hardbacks, or reading in the midst of hype, but I couldn’t resist this one. And it’s true what everyone’s saying – it’s a book that actually does live up to the hype.

In 18th century west Africa, in what’s now Ghana, Effia and Esi are half-sisters who never meet. Effia is made to be a white British slave trader’s wife, while Esi is sold into slavery and eventually shipped to the US. The book follows the next six generations of their families in Ghana and the US, right up to the present day, and explores how the trauma of slavery, colonialism and racism can run through.

Each chapter focuses on one descendant of each side of the family, alternating between Effia’s and Esi’s family. (A family tree is printed at the beginning of the book which is really helpful to check each time you pick up the book to remember which side of the family you’re reading about). The novel is almost an interlinked short story collection, but it becomes a novel because part of what it’s about is that thread between them – the ‘zooming out’ and seeing the whole.

Though a couple of the later chapters are a little less skillful, what Gyasi manages to do with only about twenty pages for each character vignette is incredible. As well as creating a connection between the reader and all fourteen main characters, she weaves in so much history of each time period, but in a way that never feels too expositional. Each chapter is also its own love story, though not always a happy one, as we see how the next generation came to be. Gyasi also doesn’t turn away from violence or horror, but it’s never gratuitous or romanticised.

And it’s so damn readable. The writing has moments of beauty but is mostly fairly stripped back, which works really well with the structure because complicated, less accessible writing together with a complex structure would have been too much, and the novel would have become style over substance. As it stands, it gets to be both.

It’s not a perfect novel. The earlier chapters felt richer than the later ones, and the very end was far too neat and contrived (I don’t believe Marjorie would have given the *spoiler* to *spoiler* because of what her *spoiler* meant to her).

BUT. But. This is a very readable, interesting, and important read that I’d urge you to pick up. It’s only Gyasi’s debut novel, so I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

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Best books of 2016

2016 was an odd reading year for me. I read 59 books, which is roughly average for me, maybe slightly below, but I seemed to read a lot of ‘okay’ books but not as many great ones. For some reason this has meant I’ve ended up with 4 ‘best-of’ books and 5 honourable mentions. All 9 are great through. In no particular order:

the vegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang (novel, Korean in translation)

Translated by Deborah Smith. This is a book broadly about trying to understand a seemingly incomprehensible other person from your own perspective, about the relationship between humans and nature, about misogyny, about violence, about mental health, and about wanting a different kind of life. It’s weird and beautifully written. Full review here.

hope-in-the-darkHope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (non-fiction)

This short book is about hope as activism, and describes different examples of how activism has worked, though sometimes over a long period of time, because “we can change the world because we have many times before.” It’s a little repetitive in places and I don’t agree with everything she says, but I love her writing style (I underlined so many sentences) and I think its central message is an important one, particularly as we head into 2017 – remember to be hopeful, and that hope means action, and that action does make a difference, even if you don’t see the larger changes in your lifetime. Full review here.

lolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov (novel)

Unsurprisingly, this was incredible. Disturbing, yes, but incredible. The language is lyrical and beautiful, and Nabokov is able to present this beautiful language coming from a narrator trying his best to justify himself, to make you see his side, but without making him any less repulsive. Monstrous and genius.

the-good-immigrantThe Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (non-fiction)

This essay collection is powerful, important, challenging, and very readable. It’s about what it means to be an immigrant of colour in Britain today; what it means to be ‘other’. There was only maybe one essay I didn’t think was as good as the others, so twenty out of twenty-one truly excellent essays is pretty amazing. If you read nothing else on this list, read this book.

And the five honourable mentions which didn’t quite make the list:

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (novel) – This is one of those rare longer books that I don’t think could be any shorter. It’s not an easy read, but it’s worth your time. Brutal and violent and messy and genius. It only didn’t make the list because for some reason I don’t feel the urge to thrust it into everyone’s hands like the others. Full review here.

Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd (non-fiction) – Absolutely fascinating biography of Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston lived a very full and varied life, and was in many ways quite a ‘modern’ woman. Boyd also writes beautifully and comprehensively, and I’d recommend this even if, like me, you haven’t read any Hurston before, as an interesting story about an incredible woman and life in the US in the early 1900s as a black female writer.

Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss (non-fiction) – The first essay (which begins as a discussion of the invention of the telephone and the fight to get telephone poles accepted by residents and turns into a discussion of the lynching of black people using telephone poles) has really stayed with me.

Peter and Alice by John Logan (play) – Really great fictional account of the real-life meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves (the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland) and Peter Llewelyn Davies (the inspiration for Peter Pan). Some of the dialogue is a little clunky, but there are also many moving and powerful scenes which make it well worth your time. Full review here.

Strong Female Protagonist: Book One by Brennan Lee Mulligan & Molly Ostertag (graphic novel – fiction) – A fun and enjoyable comic about a superhero trying to work out what really is the best way to save the world. She hangs up her cape to go to college but she can’t untangle herself from her previous life, or her fame/notoriety. It covers many of the same themes as Watchmen by Alan Moore, but in a slightly lighter way. I also particularly liked Feral’s arc, a superhero who can regenerate, who decides to remain in a constant state of surgery to donate organs, despite the fact she can have no anaesthesia.

Happy reading for 2017!

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December reads 2016

grief-is-the-thing-with-the-feathersGrief is the Thing with the Feathers by Max Porter (poetry/novel)

Not really a poetry collection or a novel, but more something in between – it is a novel fragmented as life is fragmented by grief. It doesn’t always make immediate sense, particularly some of Crow’s sections, but it’s one to read in few sittings and just let the meaning/emotion emerge. Genius and excellent. Full review here.

hope-in-the-darkHope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (non-fiction)

This short book is about hope as activism, and describes different examples of how activism has worked, though sometimes over a long period of time, because “we can change the world because we have many times before.” It’s a little repetitive in places and I don’t agree with everything she says, but I love her writing style (I underlined so many sentences) and I think its central message is an important one – remember to be hopeful, and that hope means action, and that action does make a difference, even if you don’t see the larger changes in your lifetime. Full review here.

black-waveBlack Wave by Michelle Tea (novel)

This is definitely a novel of two halves. The first half is more of a fictionalised memoir, continuing on from Tea’s previous memoirs, but the second half is part apocalyptic fiction, part meta-discussion of memoir writing, part magical realism. I found it difficult to get into the first half, and didn’t click with the writing style at all, but I loved the second half. The writing flowed better and there were lots of interesting ideas which wove together really well. I can see the first half provides a kind of foundation and contrast, but I would have preferred a novel in just the second half’s style. I probably wont pick up her earlier memoir work, but if she writes anything else like the second half I would pick it up in a heartbeat.

the-old-king-in-his-exileThe Old King in His Exile by Arno Geiger (non-fiction, German in translation)

Translated by Stefan Tobler. This is a memoir of Geiger’s father’s developing Alzheimer’s, his father’s life, and his relationship to him. It’s written incredibly warmly, and you can really feel the deep love Geiger feels for his father. It’s funny in parts and moving in others, and I liked that the final chapter was almost just a collection of thoughts and reflections. But despite this something about it didn’t quite work as a whole for me. I’m not quite sure what.

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Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

hope-in-the-darkThis short book is about hope as activism, and describes different examples of how activism has worked, though sometimes over a long period of time, because “we can change the world because we have many times before.”

While reading this I found myself swinging between feeling it was dated, and feeling its absolute relevance to this year. It was first published in 2005, in response to the Bush administration in the US, and then reissued with an additional forward and afterward in 2015. 2016 has been…interesting…and some of the progress she talks about in the book feels like it’s heading backwards this year. But at the point I started feeling that yes, it is out of date for the mess that is 2016, the Standing Rock protests got an easement for the pipeline denied. Though it’s by no means the end of that fight, it felt like a little piece of hope in the dark, especially as it seemed so impossible.

As I finished reading the final chapters, civilians in Aleppo were being executed. I very nearly swung back to the hopeless-irrelevance place, but much of this book is about how hope means action. It talks about hope not as a belief that everything is / will be fine, but about the possibility of something different, a possibility that invites you to act. Solnit also talks about how unhelpful despair about the world is – “If the world is totally doomed no matter what, little or nothing is demanded of you in response.”

Solnit also talks a little about when progress made feels like it’s retreating backwards. It’s important to celebrate victories when they come, even when it’s not ‘perfect’, and often those victories provide a starting point/milestone, a vocabulary, and a tool box for further change. But, they are usually unfinished. “It’s always too soon to go home”  – the fight must continue. For Standing Rock, it’s important this is remembered.

For a short book, it can be repetitive in places, and I don’t agree with everything she says, but I love Solnit’s writing. I’ve underlined so many sentences in my copy, and I’m not normally one to write in books. My favourite is maybe – “in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act”.

2016 has been a strange year politically and culturally, but I think this is still an important and relevant book to read to help you remember to be hopeful, and that hope means action, and that action does make a difference, even if you don’t see the larger changes in your lifetime. The rise of the far right, Brexit, Trump, climate change, the removal of rights for disabled and LGBT people – the list of reasons to despair is endless. But they also mean more people are mobilising and participating in activism. There is hope in the dark.

“American electoral politics is not the most hopeful direction to look in, and yet the very disastrousness seems sometimes to offer possibility.”

“I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for and to live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender abandons not only the future, it abandons the soul.”

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Grief is the Thing with the Feathers by Max Porter

grief-is-the-thing-with-the-feathersI wouldn’t call this a poetry collection, but it’s not really a straightforward novel either. It’s maybe best described as a novel in poetry form. Maybe?

This is a book about grief. It centers on a dad and his two young sons who are coping with the recent sudden loss of the mother of the family. They are visited by a grotesque, cruel crow, which says it will stay with them until they no longer need him. The crow not only represents the family’s grief, but also acts as a kind of trickster-counsellor, especially to the dad. As their grief and the way they deal with it changes, so too does crow and how he speaks to them.

It doesn’t say anything new about grief, but the way that it does it makes the known new. The story is told in fragments of poetry and prose by the crow, boys, and dad. Much of it, especially crow’s sections, is abstract and, at times, confusing. It is a novel fragmented as life is fragmented by grief. But I found if I just read through the confusion, and let it wash over me, I could understand the meaning without necessarily always being able to articulate it. The emotion and the understanding of that emotion was enough and what was necessary. In that respect it’s definitely a book to read in as few sittings as possible (it’s very short; I read it in less than an hour).

The dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, and retreats into his work to deal with his grief. I haven’t read ‘Crow’ by Hughes, but I know this book and its crow is loosely based on Hughes’ crow. There is definitely another layer to Grief is the Thing which I couldn’t see without knowing Hughes’ Crow, but it was still able to stand on its own as its own thing. I’m definitely going to read Hughes and then re-read this to see what else I find and if anything changes.

I think this book is kind of genius, and I won’t be surprised if it makes my best-of list this year. Read it in few sittings and let it wash over you.

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November reads 2016

I wasn’t supposed to be reading in November…so I just read a few comics and listened to an audiobook.

where-am-i-nowWhere Am I Now? by Mara Wilson (non-fiction)

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to the whole way through, and from that perspective it was great. Mara reads it herself and she has such a soothing voice. It’s a coming-of-age memoir, and, although Mara obviously had quite a different childhood to most people, there’s a lot people will recognise from their own childhood/adolescence. She writes about dealing with mental health issues, not fitting in, trying to work out where you fit, grief, and appearance. I follow her on twitter (she has excellent retweet game) so nothing was particularly new to me (though there are a lot of people who need to read her chapter on going through adolescence in the public eye, and to stop sending her ‘isn’t she ugly now’ links. Urgh). It’s an enjoyable enough book, but didn’t challenge me in the way I like essay collections to. Probably a good one if you’re not used to reading non-fiction, or you’re just feeling a bit nosy about what Matilda is up to now. I’m glad I listened, but glad it wasn’t one I bought.

bitch-planet-9Bitch Planet #9 by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine de Landro (comics, fiction)

I’m finding the long gaps between each issue means it takes me a while to get back into what’s going on, particularly as I usually read trades rather than singles. But I still love this series and will keep reading it in singles because the back matter is so good. In this issue, chaos kicks off and old hero is released from her cell…

wicked-and-divine-4The Wicked & The Divine volume 4 by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie (comics, fiction)

I enjoyed this much more than volume 3. The title is ‘Rising Action’ and shit is going down as the gods battle it out. It also helps that McKelvie and Matt Wilson (the colourist) are back for the full volume, as the changes in art style didn’t work very well in volume 3. Given the ending of this one, I think volume 5 is either going to be great or a bit directionless, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

paper-girls-volume-1Paper Girls volume 1 by Brian K Vaughan & Cliff Chang (comics, fiction)

I really liked the 80s vibe in this and the colour work by Matt Wilson (who also does The Wicked and The Divine). Though I enjoyed it, the plot was little rushed, and isn’t the strongest, but I think it’s a comic with a lot of potential so I’ll definitely pick up volume 2.

saga-volume-6Saga volume 6 by Fiona Staples & Brain K Vaughan (comics, fiction)

It’s been ages since I read volume 5, so I had to look up what happened because I couldn’t remember what was going on (the problem with multiple characters and storylines in various parts of the universe). I think Saga is over-hyped, but it is good, if a little same old in this volume. I like the way they portray Marko and Alana’s relationship as very loving but complicated (and not just because of where they come from), and how Hazel has her own storyline. But I don’t care much about the subplots, even though they all intersect with the main one. I’m not a big fan of ‘epic’ fiction, so maybe it’s just a genre thing I’m not into. I’ll still give volume 7 a go, though.

preacherPreacher book 1 by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillion (comics, fiction)

I DNF-ed this one about half-way through. Loads of people have recommended it to me but I just couldn’t get into it. I didn’t like the art style and couldn’t make myself care about the plot. Meh.

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October reads 2016

I had yet another bad cold so I didn’t read very much this month (thank the gods for mini-comics!), but in terms of liking what I read it was an excellent October. In the order I read them:

the-good-immigrantThe Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (non-fiction)

This essay collection is powerful, important, challenging, and very readable. It will definitely be in my top books of this year. Please go and read it. Full review here.

death-and-the-seasideDeath and the Seaside by Alison Moore (novel)

Moore is a master of the novella and I really enjoyed this. I wasn’t so interested in the plot, which is fairly predictable and not especially different from an average female-driven thriller, but I loved all the different elements she weaved in, particularly the different ways death and the sea are linked in fiction. I always enjoy her writing style, which is deceptively simple but full of layers. It doesn’t have the lightness of touch and underlying sense of foreboding of her debut The Lighthouse, but it’s still worth a read.

the-transmigration-of-bodiesThe Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera (novel, Spanish in translation)

Translated by Lisa Dillman. It took me about 40 pages (almost half the book) to get into this for some reason, but I enjoyed it once I did. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Signs Preceding The End of The World, I think because hard-boiled crime fiction isn’t my thing and this was a take on that genre (with added Shakespearean tragedy and a dystopian flu-epidemic backdrop). Herrera always does a lot within a short space, which is my favourite kind of book, but I wanted a little more from the language in this.

hark-a-vagrantHark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton (comics, non-fiction/fiction)

I love Kate Beaton’s comics, and I’ve been meaning to read her published collection for ages. I don’t get some of the references (she’s Canadian so some of them deal with Canadian/North American history), but I even like the ones I don’t understand? I had a bad cold and couldn’t really concentrate on a novel, so dipping in and out of this was perfection. My favourite remains Dude Watchin’ With the Brontes:

hark-a-vagrant-brontes

Currently reading: Bitch Planet #9 by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Val DeLandro

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