Eighteen to the dozen: my books of 2017

This year, the tenth anniversary year of my blog, which I celebrated by not adding any new content to it, I nonetheless kept a note of books I read that thrilled or tickled or astonished me. And here it is, with links to added commentary on Twitter where applicable (which usually follows in a thread from the first tweet I’ve linked to).

Trends are: (1) brevity continues to win the day; (2) most of these books are, in style if not in subject matter, straightforward to read—they slip down easily; and (3) there is more non-fiction than in previous years. All three features point in the same direction: an ever-increasing scarcity of time and attention as the twin calls of career and parenthood crowd out quiet time. The first two speak for themselves, and for the third, I think non-fiction generally accepts a different, more attenuated, form of attention than fiction, or at least the kinds of fiction and non-fiction I read do.

I haven’t attempted to cut this list down, in order to make up for the lack of recommendations on my blog for the rest of this year. But nor have I softened my gaze (as if!): all of the books here delighted me and are recommended, for the reasons given. The list is alphabetical by the author’s last name.

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Giorgio Bassani: The Heron
For the last few years, Penguin has been putting out new translations, by Jamie McKendrick, of Giorgio Bassani’s series of romanzo di FerraraI’ve enjoyed those I’ve read enough that I decided not to wait for the final volume, The Heron, due next year, but to buy the existing edition in the Quartet Encounters series. (A reliable imprint in itself.) This one is translated by William Weaver, whose work I first came to more than 20 years ago via his translations of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. I’ll be interested to see whether McKendrick can live up to Weaver’s smooth, engaging version. The Heron, in subject, is quite unlike the other Ferrara books: it is a very gloomy account of a middle-aged man who leaves his family early one morning to go hunting. In a sense, it is an apt farewell to the novel for Bassani, who lived another 30-odd years after its publication in 1968, and in that time wrote a few short pieces and made revisions to his earlier work, but published nothing new of substance.

Anne Brontë: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
It took a long-haul flight to get me to knuckle down to this 500-page classic, which turns out to be as good as its longevity would suggest. It even managed to win me over despite digressing into a character’s backstory for most of its length, a technique I normally hate. Like many classics, it’s both surprising and reassuring. Brief Twitter thoughts, and affirmations from fellow admirers, here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: We Were Eight Years in Power – An American Tragedy
Having been aware of Coates through praise of his books Between the World and Me and The Beautiful Struggle, I read an article by him this year in The Atlantic, ‘The First White President’, and knew I needed to read his new book as soon as it came out. As it happens, that article is the final piece in We Were Eight Years in Power, which collects Coates’s essays about American politics through the context of race, one for each year of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is a fascinating book partly because Coates writes so seductively, partly because you can see his confidence grow with each year (and the confidence The Atlantic‘s editors have in him, as his word count swells), and partly because he is so relentlessly pessimistic about the institutional embedding of racism in American society. I tweeted about it, and from it, regularly while reading.

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Joan Didion: Play It As It Lays
The only Didion I’ve read, years ago, is The Year of Magical Thinking, but recently people were recommending her novels on Twitter and I thought I’d start with the first, published in 1970. I read most of it in an airport while awaiting a delayed flight, which seems apt for its air of suffocation and stasis. Above all else, it’s only now clear to me who Bret Easton Ellis was ripping off inspired by particularly in his early fiction. By that I mean that this is a satirical story of deadened wealthy people, very dry and funny and fairly horrifying too. One early Penguin edition described it as “the truth about women as objects.” Twitter thoughts here.

Paul Fournel: Antequil, Alone
I pre-ordered this book after seeing someone (who turned out to be the publisher) praising it on Twitter, then forgot all about it until it arrived. It was a lovely surprise: an elliptical biography, translated by Nick Caistor, of one of the world’s greatest cyclists, not that I’d heard of him before. Perhaps that is the best sort of biography to read, unencumbered by foreknowledge. The extracts I’ve posted on Twitter will tell you whether or not it’s for you, but I was interested to note after I finished it that I have another book by Fournel on my shelves: his playful novella Dear Reader, which I really must get around to now, and realising that he is a writer of the Oulipo school made his particulate approach to Jacques Anquetil’s life make more sense.

Martin Gayford: Man with a Blue Scarf
Another example of the pleasure in a book that’s about something you know nothing of. Here it’s not just Lucian Freud, the ostensible subject of the book, but art generally. This of course means that those who do have a little knowledge may not find it as satisfying. But this account, by an art critic and friend of Freud’s, of sitting for a portrait over a period of months, is fascinating, and one of the very best books I read this year, as I hope my extracts in tweets show.

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Chrissie Gittins: Between Here and Knitwear
It was a sad day for all of us who like buying books and eventually, sometimes, reading them when Nicholas Lezard’s Paperback of the Week column in the Guardian ended in June after 25 years. But he did offer this recommendation on Twitter earlier in the year, saying that if he had read the book at the time it was published (2015), he would have included it in his column. He would have been right to: this is a sort of life story in short pieces from childhood to maturity. It has a very light touch but is frequently funny and sometimes very moving, particularly in the later sections. I can’t find any Twitter thoughts on this one, which is odd, but it’s a book that stayed with me throughout the year.

Sarah Hall: Madame Zero
I read, or started, Hall’s most recent novel The Wolf Border a few years ago, but didn’t get far. It made me wonder what all the fuss was about. Now I know: it’s in the stories, which are strong and original. This collection starts and ends with two somehow similar and equally brilliant stories of physicality – carnality, even – ‘Mrs Fox’ and ‘Evie’. Little wonder that ‘Mrs Fox’ won the BBC National Short Story Award (you can read it here) and ‘Evie’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award (you can read it here; non-subscribers can register and read it for free). The remaining stories are good but inevitably don’t quite match those powerful bookends. Nonetheless this collection was a revelation to me.

Hiromi Kawakami: Record of a Night Too Brief
This year Pushkin Press issued a series of books of short Japanese fiction. This was the first of the four I read and my firm favourite. It consists of three stories, translated by Lucy North, all of them odd, surreal even, but budding with comedy and poignancy. In particular the story ‘A Snake Stepped On’ is sinister, moving and surprising – and entirely sui generis. If you liked Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (and who didn’t!), try this one. I was pleased to get some context from the translator on Twitter, who told me that “in Japanese medieval Buddhist literature, snakes, women and desire often feature as a sort of set. Fear of sexual desire projected onto women’s bodies…” You can read my thoughts on the book upthread of that link.

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Yiyun Li: Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life
I haven’t read much of Yiyun Li’s fiction, and she hasn’t produced much recently. This memoir helps explain her silence: it reports on her experience of catastrophic, suicidal depression. It is brave and bleak, but also full of life as she finds a way forward in part with reference to the writers she has loved, from Katherine Mansfield (who provides the book’s title) to John McGahern and most of all William Trevor. When I read this book, at the tail end of last year (it’s in this year’s list because it was published in 2017), Trevor had just died and I felt more than a twinge of empathy for how his death must have affected Li. As well as being an emotional wringer, like all good books about writers, this one leaves the reader with many more books on the TBR pile. I tweeted some extracts from it.

Mike McCormack: Solar Bones
I was a bit late to this novel, which was general all over Ireland last year and won the Goldsmiths Prize, but it was worth the wait. I’d only read a few of McCormack’s stories before (including one about a man being investigated by the police as he is the only person in Ireland not to have written a memoir) but this shows beyond doubt that the acclaim is justified. The conceit, of it being written in one long sentence, is neither as tiresome nor as false as it sounds. It is still in paragraphs, but the lack of punctuation drives McCormack to build a rhythm into the structure of the sections and their links that is very seductive. The book builds to a brilliant ending, too. Tweets here.

Ross Raisin: A Natural
I liked Raisin’s debut novel God’s Own Country, and didn’t get on at all with his second, Waterline. I approached his third therefore with some trepidation, but fears fled very quickly. This was the best new novel I read this year. This time there is no obvious ventriloquism in the voice, which instead offered a low-key, unhurried telling of the story of a lower-league footballer. For those who were let down by people who said Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch was the book that even football agnostics could like, this is the one for you. Aside from the emotional heft, Raisin’s sinuous sentences take the reader in constantly surprising directions. It’s a cliche to put it like this, but: why wasn’t this book all over the prize shortlists? My tweets are here.

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Claudia Rankine: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
After the great acclaim for Rankine’s Citizen a couple of years ago, Penguin reissued her earlier book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which takes the same form of political poetry, often on race in America. Although it came out in 2004, it feels decades older: back then, Bush and Iraq were the greatest political issues for US liberals, with no sign of either Obama or Trump. In that sense it feels at times quaint, though that is largely a reflection of our own love of feeling that we live in the worst of all possible times, and that everyone else had it easier. I will pass over my literary ignorance as to why the book is classified as poetry at all when it is almost exclusively written in prose, and simply recommend it for its eye-opening force and elegance of form. Not much more said in my tweets but here they are.

Gwendoline Riley: First Love
I’d been meaning to read Riley for ages – slim novels about miserable people? Sounds like just my bag – but it wasn’t until her new novel was published that I did. It’s a first person account of a woman’s relationship with her lover and her mother, and has some brilliantly horrible dialogue. It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and Goldsmiths Prize this year and seems to have been so ubiquitous in recommendations that I had to check just now that it really did come out only in 2017. I liked it enough, in fact, that I read it twice (it is very short). My only worry now is that those who were in the ground floor with her have assured me that First Love is her best book, so now I don’t know if I should bother to try her others. Tweets here.

Katie Roiphe: The Violet Hour
This was another Nicholas Lezard recommendation, an account of the deaths of six writers: Susan Sontag, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter (though Salter is not much more than a postscript). Perhaps in keeping with my inability to concentrate on anything very long these days, the short, piecemeal approach to biography – a short period covered, a concentration of time and subject – works very well and I finished the book feeling overwhelmed in curious ways. For some reason I can’t find any tweets about it (probably down to my habit of starting a book-thread with an image of the cover and no mention of the author or title), but here is Lezard’s review than inspired me to read it.

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Stav Sherez: The Intrusions
I don’t read much crime fiction, largely through ignorance which leads to an inability to find the sort of thing I might like (Highsmith, Price, Harris, that sort of thing). But I was sent this novel by the publisher and it was, I think, the first book I read in 2017 and it remains one of the ones I enjoyed most. Sherez is a recommended presence on Twitter, who is a great reader and proponent of interesting fiction, and now I see that he’s a very good writer too. This is the third in a series of crime novels, but I am living evidence that you don’t need to have read the others. It’s bang up to date about social media trolling and other issues, and entirely gripping.

Sjón: Moonstone
I loved Sjón’s novel From the Mouth of a Whale several years ago, but didn’t read more of him until now. In honesty, this story of a boy growing up, cinema, homosexuality and more, was not one I felt deep love for throughout – but it is one of those rare books that goes up into a new register in the last couple of pages, and by that I was very moved and impressed. In any event it’s short and it won’t take you long to get to those final pages…

Denton Welch: A Voice Through a Cloud
Another author I’ve been meaning to read for years – for seven years, in fact, since he was mentioned here in conjunction with Jocelyn Brooke. Finally this year I did, and wasn’t disappointed. Welch’s unfinished novel, an account of a period in hospital recovering from a serious cycling accident, is simple, vivid, painful and beautiful. His early death, at the age of 33, was a huge loss. Immediately I read this, I went and bought his collected short prose. He deserves to be republished with a bit of love. A few tweets here, which remind me that in fact I had read him before, though just last year, and one short story’s worth.

Catching Up

I’ve been remiss this year in posting links to my reviews published elsewhere, so here’s a recap of the year to date.

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Anakana Schofield: Martin John
Click here for my Guardian review of this funny, stark, circular novel which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in Canada and the Goldsmiths Prize in the UK.

Carlo Gébler: The Projectionist
Click here for my Times Literary Supplement review of a memoir, by his son, of a writer who once sold millions of novels but is now remembered, if at all, only as Edna O’Brien’s former husband.

Toby Vieira: Marlow’s Landing
Click here for my Guardian review of a debut novel that comes with a seductive voice fully formed, and a clutch of pink diamonds.

Stanley van der Ziel: John McGahern and the Imagination of Tradition
Click here for my Times Literary Supplement review of a very thorough study of the works of John McGahern.

The Happy Reader
I’ve written a piece for the latest issue (no. 8) of The Happy Reader, Penguin’s bookish quarterly. Each issue features a long interview with a reader (this time Kristin Scott Thomas) and a series of pieces inspired by that issue’s book, which this time is Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!. I’ve written a piece about exclamation marks in book titles… You can’t read it online, but the magazine is a lovely thing and very cheap to subscribe to.

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Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands: City of Lions

The very existence of this book is a stout marker of the robust good health of the publishing industry, and even, in its own way, small evidence that 2016 hasn’t been all bad. It also shows that, four years after its takeover and relaunch, Pushkin Press has retained an essential part of its character even while expanding into crime, children’s books and contemporary English language titles. In other words, where else might we see a beautifully-produced, mass-distributed book containing two essays written 70 years apart about a city I’d never heard of before now?

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City of Lions is about Lviv, now in Western Ukraine but formerly part of Poland, when it was known as Lwów. Which explains why the first essay, written by Pole Józef Wittlin in 1946, is titled ‘My Lwów’, whereas Philippe Sands’ 2016 essay is ‘My Lviv’.

Wittlin’s ‘My Lwów’ (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, 2016) is particularly curious as it is an historical piece which itself looks back: writing in his adopted home of New York in 1946, Wittlin reflects that he left Lwów in 1922 – when he arrived there initially in 1906, it had yet another name: Lemberg. He brings together both the city’s complex political history and its then-contemporary relevance when he reflects that

“my Lwów” was mainly the Lwów of the Austrian partition era, the capital of the “Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria and the Grand Duchy of Kraków with the Duchies of Auschwitz and Zator”. What? That’s right—Auschwitz. (Nowadays, everything goes black before my eyes at the mention of that name.)

As a personal memory, Wittlin’s account is necessarily partial and idiosyncratic. (“Get in line, you wayward memories!”) He writes of the people (“an extraordinary mixture of nobility and roguery, wisdom and imbecility, poetry and vulgarity”), the topography (“Alright, so Lwów hasn’t got a decent river, or a legend. What would it need a river for?”) and the smells (“Every time I returned to Lwów from ‘the world outside’, I always found its aromas in just the same places as before. So they’re probably still there today too…”). Amid numerous translator’s endnotes to give context to the names and places from another life, we learn about the likes of the quasi-aristocrat Ostap Ortwin, a lordly, voluble character who had a doppelgänger otherwise quite unlike him.

Whenever the two lookalikes passed each other in the street, they doffed their ridiculous black hats with wide brims. Thus for many years they bowed to each other, although they were not acquainted at all. They were merely acknowledging their similarity and their awareness of being twins.

Then, a hairpin turn as Wittlin tells us that “in 1942 it turned out that Ortwin was not inviolable. The Germans drove the great, recalcitrant soul out of that ‘lordly’ figure.”

But the antic spirit succeeds, and one of Wittlin’s early points is the “abhorrence of solemnity” and “dislike of all manner of pomp” which he attributes to his Lwów. In the interesting introduction to City of Lions, Eva Hoffman quotes Milan Kundera who considers this quality to apply more widely. Central Europe, he wrote, “has its own vision of the world, a vision based on a deep distrust of history. History, that goddess of Hegel and Marx, that incarnation of reason … that is the history of conquerors. The people of Central Europe … represent the wrong side of this history. They are its victims and outsiders. It is this disabused view of history that is the source of their culture, of their wisdom, of the ‘nonserious spirit’ that mocks grandeur and glory.” This angle can be seen in many of the Central European fiction I’ve written about here: Karel Capek’s War with the Newts; Jiří Weil’s Life with a Star; Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles; Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude and Closely Observed Trains. The antic approach is not what you might expect of a part of the world that had a grim 20th century, but it fits too with what Philip Roth found when he visited Central Europe in the 70s and reintroduced the above authors and more to English-language readers. He spoke too of how the “screwball strain” in their writing enabled him to move away from “American realism” – and gave us some of his best books, in the Zuckerman trilogy and The Counterlife.

There is in fact an element of this in ‘My Lwów’ itself, less in eccentricity than in structural looseness or chaos, which reflects that this is above all a book of memory. Philippe Sands’ ‘My Lviv’ is altogether more orderly. He arrived in Lviv in 2010, when it was established as part of Ukraine, “a country being pulled east by Russia and west by the European Union, at risk of tearing in the middle.” It is, he reminds us, “a city on the edge of many places, a space of constant insecurity.” Sands revisits some of Wittlin’s people, including Ortwin, but introduces us to others such as Hersch Lauterpacht, who devised the concept of “crimes against humanity”, and Rafael Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide”. (“New conceptions require new terms”, Lemkin stated.) Sands argues that, Lviv having produced both men, “the origins of human rights may be traced to this city”. This informs much of what follows, from his choice of illustrative images to his concentration on who to speak to, which is inevitably directed toward the Second World War and the Holocaust. All this makes for a sober and solid balance to Wittlin’s more skittish approach, and completes the book perfectly. One man Sands meets, whose father was a Governor in Nazi-occupied Poland, puts it as starkly as can be. “I am against the death penalty,” he says, “but not in the case of my father.”

Penguin Worlds

Readers of this blog (if there are any left after months of inactivity: sorry, and hello again) will know that I’m a sucker for a series design. If something in me aligns with what Trinny and Susannah would have called matchy-matchy, then I justify it on the basis that it’s less judging a book by its cover than allowing my eyes to be opened to new things. And the Penguin Worlds series is just that: a mixture of science fiction, horror and urban fantasy from across the 20th century, chosen and introduced by Naomi Alderman and Hari Kunzru. And they come in aptly garish stylishly retro covers by La Boca. These are genres I’ve only ever dipped a toenail into, but the curated approach – and the enthusiasm I heard when I tweeted about them – won me over. I’ve read three of them so far, which I’ll whip through below.

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Joanna Russ: We Who Are About To… [1976]
I started with the slimmest of the series (old habits), which also turned out to be perhaps the oddest, and certainly the most subtly unsettling, of the three I’ve read. If the title is the first I’ve seen that contains a cliffhanger, then the opening words of the novel contain its own spoiler: “About to die. And so on.” The we who are about to die (“We’re nowhere. We’ll die alone”) are a group of five women and three men, around the year 2040, whose spaceship has failed and stranded them on an Earth-like planet. “Goodbye, everybody,” continues our narrator, who has less faith than the others that the eight of them can survive on and even colonise their new home (“‘O pioneers,’ I added rather sourly”). She is recording her experiences on a vocoder (“This will never be found”), which enables a certain amount of ‘As you know, Bob’ explanatory dialogue. But Russ’s interest is not in detailing the nature of the new world, but exposing the fault lines underlying society that are exposed in extremis.

The unnamed narrator tries to warn her fellow shipwrecked sailors that the planet may not support life just because it looks like Earth (“like the Australian outback, which looks like New Jersey and can kill you in two hours”). “Civilization must be preserved,” says one, to which she replies, “Civilization is doing fine. We just don’t happen to be where it is.” There are hints that Earth has moved beyond a patriarchal society, only to find it returning among the eight travellers. It’s not long before it all gets pretty Shakespearean, and the teaser in the title proves well-founded. But amid the florid violence there are lighter moments, as when Lori, daughter of two of the other travellers, talks about her love of “serial music. You know, the late-twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement.”

We Who Are About To... looks inward and outward at the same time: at damage in society, at the troubled self, and the connection between the two. In particular, it looks at the role of women. One of the survivors suggests that our narrator and one of the men should start work on populating the planet. “‘I can’t see why you and Victor can’t start now, if you like.’ Victor said politely that he certainly wouldn’t mind as long as I wouldn’t mind. I said I would mind.” For Russ, politics, and feminism in particular, were not just present in her writing but essential to it. Her most famous novel was The Female Man, a satire of multiple parallel universes, and her story ‘When It Changed’ won a Nebula Award in 1973. This new edition of We Who Are About To…, uniquely in the Penguin Worlds series, contains introductions by both Alderman and Kunzru, which gives some measure of its value to both editors of the series. And it’s hard to argue with Alderman’s analysis of the book as simultaneously “bonkers” and “brilliant”.

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John Christopher, The World in Winter [1962]
I’ve previously written about John Christopher’s novel The Death of Grass, which was conceptually interesting and a bit slapdash in the writing (it took him “a matter of weeks”, and it showed). The World in Winter is, broadly, more of the same. Christopher’s output, under different names, of about 50 books in 25 years tells us that agonising over le mot juste wasn’t his way.

The World in Winter‘s high concept is in its title: a scientist named Fratellini has observed a decline in solar radiation, and the temperature of the Earth is falling. Fanciful as this seems now, when the book was published global cooling had been a fear for some years, and as late as 1970 the Washington Post was reporting “Colder Winters Herald Dawn of New Ice Age.” So, as with The Death of Grass, Christopher shrewdly used real concerns as a springboard for his fantasy. When Britain begins to freeze and fails to thaw, there isn’t much terror: more a very English tutting and eye-rolling. “Once over the initial shocks and discomforts, people got used to the new conditions.”

The narrative focuses on a handful of people framed by a love triangle. Being among society’s fortunate, they manage to leave England and fly to Nigeria, where the climate is still hospitable. This sets up the central thread of the book, where Africans hold the economic and social advantage, and white Europeans are beholden to them. As one local says: “Nigerians have nothing against whites, as long as there are not too many of them, and as long as they keep to their place. You have perhaps heard something like that before?” This seems a relatively progressive satire, though as Hari Kunzru says in his introduction, the book is nonetheless “animated by a sense that racial difference is a kind of abyss, and between black and white there can be no complete understanding or identification.” The plot itself is admirably bleak and uncompromising to the end, which is consolation of a sort.

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E. Nesbit, Horror Stories
The most attention-grabbing element of the Penguin Worlds series is the discovery that children’s writer E. Nesbit – The Railway Children, Five Children and It – also published, between 1893 and 1910, four collections of horror stories for adults. This volume collects fifteen from throughout her career.

These are traditional spooky fireside tales, and in every single one, I think (they do tend to blend into one another when read sequentially), someone dies. Sometimes, however, the twist is that they have been dead all along. There are strange drugs, mysterious models and plenty of sinister buildings. Love, thwarted and determined, is a regular visitor.

Similarly frequent is the sort of framing introduction that we might expect from stories like these. In ‘The Violet Car’ our narrator begins by admitting that “I do not know how to weave a plot, nor how to embroider it.” In ‘The Shadow’, we are warned that “This is not an artistically rounded off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it…” This ‘who, me?’ approach both adds verisimilitude and takes it away, because it’s such a common feature. But if all stories require a level of submission, of submergence, by the reader, perhaps none depend on this more than traditional horror stories like these. The reader must approach them willing to be spooked, and is unmovable if they are not willing to meet the author halfway. Come to think of it, that’s a good lesson in how to read generally.


Also in the Penguin Worlds series are Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks [1987], which Naomi Alderman’s introduction describes as a pioneering work of urban fantasy which is also “really good fun”, and Vernor Vinge’s True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier. This is the most structurally unusual of the five books, comprising a 320-page book of which Vernor Vinge’s True Names [1981] makes up only 85. The rest is a series of thirteen essays, stories and afterwords emphasising the significance of Vinge’s novella. Rather predictably, the reason I haven’t read these two books yet is that they’re longer than the other three; but if you have, please comment below.