Six Months of Women Writers

22 Jan 2017book-reviews

Last spring, I was taking a look at what I’d been reading recently. I read a lot of novels. Reading a novel seems to be my default state. I read a lot of science fiction, some crime novels, some historical fiction, some “straight” fiction (whatever that really is). But what I noticed was that the authors I tend to read skew very male. I decided I needed to do something about that, if only because I was probably missing some great stuff. So for six months I decided to read only novels written by women.

And I was right! I was missing some great stuff. I read about 60 novels in those six months, and discovered some amazing things that I really wish I’d known about before. Here are a few of the stand-outs.

First, I now have five (count them, five!) new crime series to read, all engaging and quite superb in different ways.

First, there are the Medicus novels by Ruth Downie, set in Britain (and in later novels other places too) in the late(-ish) Roman Empire, which hit both the “crime” and “historical” spots. Equally enjoyable, and also in the historical crime mould are the Crowther & Westerman novels of Imogen Robertson. (I derived slightly nasty enjoyment from the inversion of the “gallant seaman has adventures while faithful wife keeps the home fires burning” trope here. The “gallant seaman” even gets fridged in the second [?] book in the series...)

The other three series are all contemporary, but each has a different flavour. First are Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie stories, which are huge fun. After the first book, the titular character appears mostly incidentally, which is unsettling, but makes for a very particular effect. I don’t know what it is she does, but Atkinson has this very delicate control of mood, a control that I can’t quite describe: you just have to read the books...

Then there are Sophie Hannah’s Culver Valley books, usually described as “psychological thrillers”, but which for me sometimes edge into “weird fiction” territory. Hannah superlatively shows the unknowability of the other in her characters: many of them are very strange, their motivations unclear, their actions difficult to explain. The two central figures in the books (the Zailer and Waterhouse of the series title) have a relationship that’s very hard to characterise: they clearly love each other, as well as they can given their insecurities and quirks, but they constantly talk past each other, keep secrets, misunderstand one another. There’s a lot to Hannah’s books. Sometimes there’s a feeling that things are going to veer into the supernatural, but they never do. There are mundane, if strange, explanations for everything that happens. Sometimes very strange, given the strangeness of her characters. (Oh, and the families. Oh god, the families. Terrifying. I do hope that Hannah didn’t model them on her own. If so, she should get help.)

Finally, for crime, there are Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels. These are just brilliant. I was hooked from the start, just by the language of the first novel, In The Woods. There’s an elegiac feeling to it, and French’s evocation of the far-off summers of childhood is perfect in tone. The cadences of her writing made me think of Dylan Thomas. Beautiful and powerful. French, like Atkinson, avoids the common pattern of having a single protagonist or pair of protagonists in each novel, moving the focus between different members of an ensemble cast. It works really well, mostly because French has the skill to write an apparently endless stream of engaging characters. And this skill allows her to do some special things. The central premise of the second book in the series is so unlikely, requires such a huge suspension of disbelief, that, if you laid it out as a bare description of the plot of a book, no-one would believe it. French makes it work, makes the unbelievable completely believable, and does it (apparently) effortlessly. Some writers, you read their work and you think “Hmmmm. I could probably write something like that.” I read French’s work and think “No way could I ever be that good, not in a hundred years.”

The rest of what I read was mostly fantasy or science fiction. Some fluff, but some other things that take a bit more processing. On the fluffier side, Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library books are a lot of fun, for instance.

On the “more processing” side though, Becky Chambers’ two novels (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit) are really good. The first book feels very much to me as being about “found family”, an idea I like a lot.

Emma Newman has written two “hard-ish” science fiction novels set in the same universe, Planetfall and After Atlas, plus a series of stories (Split Worlds) that might at first glance look like fluff, faeries and Regency manners and such silliness. As you get into them, they’re anything but fluff, and work as a sort of eerie psychological horror. As well as the four existing novels (one more to come, I think), there’s a sequence of short stories set in this world that you can get sent by email, one per week. I’m on about number seven or eight now, and some of them are downright disturbing. As for the science fiction novels, Planetfall took me a little while to get into (I had a lot of other books lined up to read!), but once it got going, it was hard to put down. The protagonist is very damaged, hiding herself from herself as well as the others in the community where she lives. The sequence where her secrets are uncovered is extremely uncomfortable to read, and is one of the better depictions of obsession and mental illness that I’ve read. I found After Atlas to be less good, but that may just be because Planetfall set the bar unreasonably high.

And then, and then! There’s N. K. Jemisin. I read the second book of her Broken Earth trilogy (the last book is due out this year, and will be one of the publishing events of the year as far as I’m concerned). There is so much to say about these books. Go and read them. I might re-read them later in the year when the third book is out and write a proper review. But just go and read them, OK? Regrets, you will have none. (And if you like them, read the Dreamblood books too.)

Speaking of publishing events for 2017, the absolute top of the list for me is Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys, which comes out some time in the spring. If you’ve read any (or a lot of) H. P. Lovecraft and have always been suspicious of dear Howard’s horrifying racism and sexism, and have been led to wonder what else he got wrong by looking through his twisted little lens of bigotry, read Emrys’s short story The Litany of Earth, which is a sort of prologue to Winter Tide.

Oh, and in the same vein, you could do worse than have a read of Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, another “reimagining” of Lovecraft. (And then read her short stories collected in At the Mouth of the River of Bees, especially Names for Water, which might have brought a little tear to my eye when I read it...).

So, a successful experiment? Oh yeah. Why had I not read any of these things before? I could blame Amazon’s recommendation engine, but I think it mostly just comes down to habit and laziness. This was a really good way to bump me out of that.