Run, Rebel by Manjeet Mann

Run, Rebel is young adult novel in verse about a girl looking for a way to start a revolution in her life. Amber lives on a council estate with her parents, her abusive, alcoholic father and her mother who works long shifts at an exploitative job. She used to have her sister, but she’s married now, her dreams of university long gone, and Amber is left to read out receipts to her illiterate mum and go to appointments to translate for her father. She can’t tell her friends exactly what goes on at home and she can’t explain to her teachers why she’s not allowed to continue athletics training despite her love of running. Now, though, Amber is ready to fight, inspired by learning about revolutions and by her mum’s growing rebellions.

The verse style is vital to the novel, allowing the story to flow forward and the narrative to cut deep into Amber’s emotions. It makes it a very readable book, despite the difficult subject matter, and feels like it is pulsing forward like the running that keeps Amber going. The story is a powerful one that shows that people can find ways to get out of terrible situations and that it isn’t always as simple as wanting to leave. Run, Rebel will hopefully not only share an important narrative, but also give teenager readers examples of how poetry can be used to fight back and to tell a story in a fast-paced, engaging way.

The Reality Game by Samuel Woolley

The Reality Game, subtitledHow the next wave of technology will break the truth and what we can do about it’, is a book about what Woolley and his colleagues have termed ‘computational propaganda’, or what other people might think of as online disinformation or ‘fake news’. Rather than focusing mostly on what has already happened, Woolley tries to sketch out where different areas—deep fakes, VR, machine learning—might go in the future, and then suggests ways that this might be combatted in the fight against this ‘computational propaganda’ that threatens our sense of what is true and real. The book looks at tools, but also the human side: what people do and the choices they make that affect how these tools and techniques have been developed and are used.

This is a book about technology that is both pessimistic and trying to offer up possible responses, and is not confined to the usual main points of similar books which focus on AI, big data, and the spread of disinformation on Facebook, but also looks at faked videos and how virtualising humans—through voice or otherwise—may be the future of this kind of falsified content. Woolley does occasionally fall back to imagining (or recounting, at one point) plots for Black Mirror, but he uses this as a way to engage the audience with the occasionally dry topic of technological threat to politics. What makes The Reality Game engaging is both the way that Woolley talks with people involved with many different areas of the issues and tech covered, meaning that the book goes beyond his research, and the way that the concepts are clearly laid out and the buzzwords explained, furthering one of Woolley’s later points that digital literacy is crucial for the future of reality.

There are a lot of books out now about ‘fake news’ or various threats that technology poses to politics, democracy, and reality, but The Reality Game is a good one to go to for a clear summary of some of the existing tech, some speculation about where it could go, and discussion of what might need to be done to improve the prospects for ‘reality’. The message isn’t that all technology is bad, but that humans have been utilising it in bad ways, and that something needs to change.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa is a novel about a relationship between a fifteen year old girl and her English teacher, looking at what happens when she has to confront what occurred between them in the wake of various sexual abuse allegations against powerful men coming to light. Vanessa is fifteen and lonely at her new boarding school. Her English teacher seems to understand her, though. When they end up in a relationship, she believes that it is love, and he desperately tells her that. But now she’s thirty two and the teacher, Jacob Strane, is being accused of sexual abuse by another ex-student, she has to think about everything that has happened between them, through layers of trauma and what he managed to convince her was true.

This is no easy book to read. It has been described as a kind of reworking or subversion of Lolita, and Nabokov’s novel is a central theme throughout as Strane uses it as a way of grooming Vanessa to see herself as the one with the power, and it is important that people are aware of this similarity and of the content of My Dark Vanessa before picking it up. It is, intentionally, deeply uncomfortable, as the novel is from Vanessa’s point of view so the reader gets to see the ways in which she is manipulated and how this cannot be undone years later. Russell does well to get across the trauma and abuse that Vanessa suffers through the prose style, making scenes between her and Strane disturbing even whilst Vanessa is claiming it is love and it is what she wants.

It was difficult to read the novel without keeping an eye towards how it might end and how it would present Vanessa’s story as a whole. Overall, it delves into the complexity of what Vanessa suffers, including the hard facts of facing up to a movement standing up to sexual abuse when someone was groomed to believe it wasn’t abuse. In some ways, it feels like it highlights how certain elements of art— like Lolita, but also other references made in the novel—can be wilfully misread or interpreted to justify abuse and to manipulate people. It isn’t a novel that ends with a big, unambiguous statement, and there is a lot to take in and think about rather than easy answers given.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is a novel about transactional relationships, race, and making the right decisions. Emira is nearly twenty-six, about to lose her health insurance, and works as a babysitter for Alix Chamberlain, a wealthy white woman who built a brand around female confidence. One night, Alix asks Emira to take two-year-old Briar to an upmarket supermarket whilst they deal with a situation at home, but whilst there Emira is confronted by a security guard who thinks Emira has kidnapped Briar. In the aftermath, Emira deals with the fact a bystander filmed the moment and Alix desires to help Emira but doesn’t know how, and things are complicated when Emira meets someone from Alix’s past.

This is a clever novel that looks at the ways interpersonal relationships work and how they can be seen differently by the people involved, using Emira and Alix’s viewpoints to unfold the narrative but also get across the gulf between how they view their lives. Emira is a complex and relatable character, aimless but given purpose by the bond she has formed with Briar whilst babysitting, particular as Alix ignores her eldest daughter in favour of her younger one. This relationship formed of necessary mirrors the way Alix desperately wants to be friend with Emira, all whilst Emira isn’t really aware of this fact. Reid writes the characters and situations carefully to show not only how Alix tries to be a ‘white saviour’, but how Emira views her actions and ultimately uses it to work out what she wants. Summary-style endings can be a let down, but in this case it feels important to cast a look at what happens to the characters after the events of the main narrative.

Such a Fun Age is social commentary with gripping character and a protagonist who you really want the best for, and is being quite rightfully hyped as a book that shines a light on power and race in a fresh, sharp way.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments was a surprise in some ways, and not at all surprising in others. As a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, it is positioned as containing the narratives (‘testaments’) of three more characters, women tied up in some way with Gilead and a particular point in its history. Most of the plot is standard dystopian fare, and it goes over many of the things found in The Handmaid’s Tale but with more of a focus on Wives, Aunts, and other elements of the power structure that aren’t Handmaids. One of the narratives is by a character who has a lot more power and knowledge about the regime, which gives more context to Gilead and gives the book quite a different feel to its precursor, which slowly unveils elements of Gilead rather than assuming readers are already aware of most elements.

At this stage it is worth saying that I’m not a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it (multiple times) for my AS Level English Literature coursework, found the writing annoying and too obvious, and then reread it last year and came to the same conclusions. I think Atwood has written better things, and better dystopian fiction (the MaddAddam books are at least occasionally more subtle than the puns and concepts in Gilead). I was therefore surprised to discover that I got quite engrossed in The Testaments, with the writing style less grating and the movement between three different narratives providing tension. Initially it took some time to get into the world of the books again, and it was hard to know at first if I was missing a lot from not remembering The Handmaid’s Tale well enough, but after a while I settled into it.

The story is predictable and clearly written to provide elements of hopefulness in light of how prescient The Handmaid’s Tale is sometimes thought as being in relation to the modern day. This doesn’t stop it from being a gripping read, perhaps partly because I wasn’t invested in how good it was as a sequel but just interested to see if I liked it more than its precursor. However, after finishing it, it does seem a bit too neatly tied up and lacking in the kind of dramatic moments that at least make The Handmaid’s Tale hard to forget. The Testaments is bonus material to The Handmaid’s Tale which fleshes out more wider context and how society works and has a narrative which makes a decent read but doesn’t really do anything interesting.

My favourite non-2019 books I read in 2019

It always feels unfair to only document my favourite books I read during a year that came out that year, so I’m also listing my favourite catchily-named-non-that-year books, as I did last year and the year before. This year my comments on each may have become a little more facetious, as the actual books got more heavy-going.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor – The version I read was technically published this year, but seeing as it was published before it’s going here. This is Ovid for the modern day: a 90s LGBT culture shapeshifter story with a picaresque vibe.

The Arsonists by Max Frisch – Thanks to watching Philosophy Tube this year, I discovered not only works of philosophy, but also some more-modern-than-my-early-modern-degree plays, and this one had me sat up reading it in one go. In short, don’t play with fire.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – I live-tweeted my response to reading the book I had never read due to irrational dislike until the BBC adaptation tempted me to give it a go. On here because it was actually an enjoyable, if occasionally digressive, experience.

No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre – I said I’d got into 20th century plays (that aren’t just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus – Yes, really. Was it not a year for the absurd?

To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov – I keep recommending this or bringing up concepts from it to everyone so it has to go on here. Why finding tech solutions to everything isn’t always the answer.

Hello World by Hannah Fry – My year really was all existentialism or technology. Fry’s account of how algorithms shape our world and what we can do about it is engaging and deeply interesting. Plus it helped me shape some of the articles in our online Digital Wellbeing course.

Radical Technologies by Adam Greenfield – Another one, I know. Each chapter is about a different technology and how it has or might change our world, and it is surprisingly possible to even understand the chapters on blockchain and cryptocurrency (mostly).

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls is a dark YA novel that combines a kind of lockdown tension with body horror and female relationships. It is a year and a half since Raxter School for Girls was put into quarantine after everyone there was slowly turned by the Tox, become wild and strange and having their bodies morphed in different ways. Trapped in the school’s boundaries on an island off Maine, they wait for a cure and live under the new rules forged by those remaining. When Hetty’s best friend Byatt disappears, she’s determined to find her, but the horrors of their situation don’t just seem to be the feral animals outside the fence also taken by the Tox.

Rory Power takes the mysterious outbreak trope and uses it to explore the bonds between teenage girls—friendships, romance, power struggles—whilst implying a lot about the darkness not only within people, but that might come from the outside when disaster strikes. This is a different kind of book set at a girls’ school, and it is not one for the squeamish, with much of the horror being around what happens to their bodies and the violence of what they must do. The tension is gripping, and the narrative is more focused on the here and now than on explanations or deep exploration of characters’ pasts; it is easy to see from this how it could be adapted into an (admittedly pretty dark) film. The romantic subplot and the depiction of Hetty and Byatt’s friendship are two elements that make it more than just a kind of shock horror story, and though some people might not like the ambiguity of the ending, it suits the outbreak narrative to not have a neat conclusion.

This is visceral YA fiction, real in its character relationships and bloody and dark in its content. It combines some of the best thing about young adult novels with cleverly used body horror, and though it will make some readers wish there was more explanation, it is a thrilling read.

My favourite books of 2019

That time again: for reading through lists of books and thinking ‘oh yeah, I did mean to read that this year’. My list seems shorter this year, possibly because I read a lot of decent books that came out this year, but not that many which count as favourites (and you can see the Spite List for the other end of the scale). My favourite books that came out in 2019, in order of when I read them (links to full reviews where written):

Fiction

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – Another female retelling of the Trojan War, but this time epic in scope and style.

Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy – Eerie heatwave coming of age gothic set in 70s Wales.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn – Set between Jamaica and America, this novel tells the story of Patsy and her daughter Tru and their struggles with identity, sexuality, and finding a home.

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson – Winterson’s retelling of Frankenstein to feature AI, gender, and what is life and death – not always nuanced, but interesting.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong – Lyrical prose about telling your story in Vuong’s debut novel, about trauma, addiction, and growing up.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – Two rival agents fall in love across the battlegrounds of time in this short novel that seems to have made a lot of people fall in love with it and its two female protagonists, ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’.

Meat Market by Juno Dawson – If you’ve read her previous novel Clean, you won’t be surprised that this is a sharp, sometimes shocking look at the fashion industry, abuse, and teenage models, aimed at but not only for a YA audience.

Birthday by Meredith Russo – Part of this made me cry on a plane, but it’s okay because it has a happy ending – a YA novel about Morgan and Eric, best friends whose love story is told through their shared birthday each year.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – A tense novel about a reform school’s corruption and abuse, combining the history of a real institution with a well-plotted narrative.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston – What would happen if the son of a female US president realises his rivalry with the Prince of Wales might not be about dislike after all? Everyone raved about this feelgood read and eventually I overcame the monarchy aspect to agree that it is very sweet and funny.

Nonfiction

Underland by Robert Macfarlane – My real surprise of the year was enjoying this account of subterranean travel and thought as much as I did.

The Creativity Code by Marcus du Santoy – What AI can (and can’t) do with creativity, but written in a way that is pretty accessible.

No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference by Greta Thunberg – Must be on so many lists, but it really is powerful and short enough to just give to everyone to read.

Mindf*ck by Christopher Wylie – The story of Cambridge Analytica, from the inside. Brings it all together in a terrifying way (I should add that’s the actual title, I didn’t censor it).

The Spite List

Or, the worst books I read in 2019

I didn’t do a proper spite list last year, but I had to do one this time if only for 3 and 5 on this list. Do not fear, my favourite books of the year (both published this year and not) will be following soon to get past the negativity, but for those who prefer spite, here it is. The books I didn’t get on with, in order of when this year I read them:

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland – I used to be really into 90s American fiction, and I currently read a fair bit about tech companies, so I thought this would be up my street. Instead, it turned out to just be boring. Microsoft employees…get fed up of working for Microsoft. Some of it could’ve been amusing with hindsight if I was overwhelmed by how much I didn’t care about any of it.

Miracle Workers by Simon Rich – The premise – two angels need to stop God closing down Earth – sounded, again, like something I might like. The execution, again, was boring, and possibly too amused by its own concept.

Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson – Here begins the real spite part of my list. I wrote a review of why I didn’t like this one, but basically, it is far too long, the second half is almost unreadable, and the ideas could have been just as interesting in a fraction of the space. Also I would argue it doesn’t deserve the title at all (but maybe that’s because the title is what made me interested in it). Apparently I shouldn’t have trusted books about any kind of afterlife this year.

The Club by Takis Wurger – I picked this up due to my inability to not read books that promise to be about shady things at Oxbridge (or other elite universities). The few reviews of it should’ve warned me, but it was both not a very interesting example of that not-really-a-genre and used a handful of outdated slurs and ‘no homo’ moments for seemingly no reason (other than presumably avoiding the inherent homoeroticism of all ‘shady things at elite university’ novels).

Find Me by André Aciman – I also wrote a proper review of why I didn’t like this one, but the tl;dr version is: what was the point of this other than trying to cash in on the popularity of Call Me By Your Name and failing? The narratives just feel aimless and I wasn’t sure why I was meant to care.

Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin

Foul is Fair is a gripping teenage revenge thriller based on Macbeth set in an elite LA world. Jade Khanjara and her three best friends Mads, Summer, and Jenny are powerful and dazzling, rich and always there for each other. When Jade’s drink is spiked at a party and she is attacked by a group of boys from a different school, the four know that these boys will face no consequences unless they take matters into their own hands, and they scheme a plot to bring them down. Jade has to disguise herself, go into their school, and rip them apart from within, using their muddled conscience Mack to enact the violence.

This is a vicious and dark book, combining the danger of teenage horror and thriller books with the revenge violence of Kill Bill, and taking the control back from fate into the hands of teenage girls who know how to do damage. Jade and her best friends are the heart of the book, ruthless and clever, though the story is about what they do rather than focusing on who they are. The narrative is clearly Macbeth in many ways, but also Capin takes it in different directions, playing around with Jade’s role in particular, and there’s a lot of potential for people who study and love Macbeth to look at how Foul is Fair plays with the original. On the other hand, you don’t necessarily need to know Shakespeare’s play to get into the novel, which has been compared to a range of TV series based variously around revenge, violence, assault, and teenagers.

The writing style is unusual, giving Jade a specific voice and combining elements from different genres, and the use of character feels quite cinematic, where certain shorthands or details are shown to build character rather than more in-depth depictions. The pace of the narrative and events match the sense of time in the play, and bring a sense of unreality which suits the novel as a revenge fantasy. Foul is Fair could easily be adapted into a TV series or film (TV series would allow the space to give Jade’s friends space for their characters too, and it would be good to see more of Mads, Summer, and Jenny and their privileged yet complex lives).

Foul is Fair is gleefully dark and vicious as it depicts teenage girls having the power to enact bloody revenge. Take heed of content warnings and be aware that some people are going to find the violence too much or too unrealistic, but this is a book worth picking up if you’re interested in Macbeth meets Heathers with a scheming, diverse quartet enacting vengeance.