Summer by Ali Smith

Summer is the fourth and final novel in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, once again combining past and present and punning language to explore different episodes with current relevance. In this one, the climate crisis, COVID-19, internment camps, and Einstein are all important, along with the previous recurring themes of immigration and detention centres, and of family and divides. The modern day narrative starts with Sacha and her brother Robert live in Brighton, where Sacha wants to change the world and Robert seems to delight in upsetting it, and their parents have split up but live next door to each other. After this, the narrative jumps to the 1940s, and then continues to move around different character’s stories to bring things together.

The main question I had going into Summer was whether it would feature coronavirus, considering how up to date the other ones were, and it does, though doesn’t focus on it extensively. From reading other comments about it, it is apparent that there’s a lot of recurring things and characters from the previous three books, though the only one I noticed was the security firm that run the detention centres, as it’s a while since I’ve read the others. Overall, I found this one harder to get into than the others—I enjoyed the start in the present day, but as the narrative moved around, I couldn’t keep track of who people were or why they mattered. Possibly it would’ve been better to read immediately after rereading the other three, as then it would’ve likely felt like a kind of conclusion or coming together, so this might be one only for people who’ve read (and remember well) the other seasonal novels.

After reading all four, I think Spring was my favourite, and this one didn’t feel like it went anywhere. However, it did feature a lot of expected Ali Smith elements and it was nice to have a book that picked up on some of the political concerns of COVID-19 without being a ‘pandemic’ novel. The whole quartet might be something to go back and reread further away from the ‘modern day’ that they weave in with historical narratives, and to fully appreciate how they link together.

The Lamplighter by Jackie Kay

The Lamplighter is a play about slavery and the slave trade first written and produced in 2007 and now published with a new introduction by Kay. It reads like a multi-voiced poem with a chorus and individual stories, as a few characters relate their own and others’ experiences as slaves. Interweaved with this are, as Kay discusses in the introduction, details about British involvement in the slave trade and the way in which particular cities, including Glasgow, were deeply involved, and the book ends with a list of further reading to follow up on the stories and the events from the play.

This is a powerful way of both telling specific stories about slavery and getting across a sense of the wider realities of the slave trade, both in terms of human experience and the impact upon everyday things like food (particularly sugar) and cities. The repetition and use of the chorus is particularly effective in replicating voices and getting across scale, and you can almost hear it as you read, and hear parts read in different voices. The emotion really comes across and so does the important educational element, making points about what isn’t taught in school curriculums and how the slave trade can’t be separated from the growth of British cities and the industrial revolution. Even people who don’t typically read plays should pick this one up, as the format allows Kay to tell these different stories in an approachable, moving way.

Love Is For Losers by Wibke Brueggemann

Love is for Losers is a young adult novel about a girl who thinks love turns people into idiots, until she finds herself entranced by the girl at her godmother’s charity shop. Phoebe is fifteen, about to do her GCSEs, and dealing with the fact her best friend has a new boyfriend and her mum is abroad working as a doctor. She lives with her godmother and her godmother’s designer cats, but an accident means she agrees to volunteer at her godmother’s charity shop, where she meets Emma. Phoebe hates everyone, but she doesn’t hate Emma, and she’s not sure what to do about it.

The novel feels like a merging of older YA lit (particularly in terms of the diary-like style and humour) and newer YA’s characters and messages, and it is done well to create a funny, touching story about not only love, but also loss and being more aware of other people. Phoebe is a good flawed character whose disdain for most things and sense that she knows everything can clash with other people, but who is a good person too. Her slow realisation that it isn’t love she dislikes, but how she sees it (and, implicitly, how the heteronormative culture around her has only given her one way of seeing love) is important, and the ending is sweet without being too saccharine.

It is good to have YA that feels like a follow on from older British YA, but with a same sex love story that isn’t really focused on the fact they’re both girls as much as the fact one of them thinks she won’t fall in love with anyone. It’s the sort of book I wish was around when I was a young teenager to show that people’s stories aren’t all the same even in a kind of romcom YA context.

My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long

My Darling from the Lions is a debut collection of poetry full of short, storytelling poems that are vivid and clever. Split into three sections, the topics range from family to race, sexual politics to growing up, and a range of other moments, with some hilariously sharp lines and insightful ways of phrasing things that’ll make you think ‘oh yeah, that’s it’. Some of the imagery and comments from the poems will stay with me for a while, particularly ‘Sandwiches’ and ‘Interview with B. Tape II’.

The poems are approachable and readable, making this a great collection to read and share, and they create a real sense of person and life even within very short poems. Powerful messages are combined with witty storytelling to bring a really enjoyable collection of poetry.

Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall

Maxwell’s Demon is a kind of weird literary mystery crossed with philosophical questioning, as struggling writer Thomas Quinn tries to work out if the world really is falling apart thanks to hypertext. Five years ago, Andrew Black wrote a bestselling book, a perfectly crafted mystery, and then disappeared. Now, Thomas thinks he might be being stalked by the hero of Black’s book whilst his wife Imogen is away. Black is tied up with Thomas’s past, both from their acquaintance and through Thomas’ father, and Thomas might have to look deeper than expected to find out what Black’s been doing and whether he can be followed by a literary creation.

Hall mixes metafiction, Biblical scholarship, Don Quixote, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics in this unusual novel about finding order in the world and making sense of what is happening (having not read Hall’s debut The Raw Shark Texts, I can only imagine that it probably contains a similar postmodern distinctiveness). The pictorial elements in the text feel quite House of Leaves, though less embedded in the narrative, but it is the questioning over the characters and narrative that occurs later in the novel that really brings out an unnerving sense as you read it. The focus on entropy is intriguing and the Biblical parts are perhaps best for the occasional jibes at Dan Brown (there’s a lovely sense that the book is very aware that at the beginning it could go down the direction of a Dan Brown novel instead of the much weirder narrative it takes). The self-consciousness, not even in terms of the narration but in terms of the book itself and the focus on writers only having one novel and whether they’ll create another, is enjoyable and it feels like a clever way to engage with ideas about authorial creation and looking for meaning.

Maxwell’s Demon is a novel for people who like to occasionally have no idea what just happened, but recognise that literary reference on the way. It is a philosophical mystery about family, writers, and narrative that some people will devour and probably others will wonder what the point was (and maybe that’s the point).

Loveless by Alice Oseman

Loveless is a YA novel about a girl starting university and working out she’s asexual, whilst seeing that she doesn’t have to have the exact uni experience that she pictured herself having before she came. Georgia is just starting at Durham, alongside her best friends from school Pip and Jason, and though she’s never been kissed or had a crush, she loves romantic stories and is dreaming of one of her own in this new setting. Instead, she finds herself sharing a room with someone who is much more outgoing than her, not enjoying going to clubs, and risking friendships as she desperately tries to prove to herself that she can find love, but maybe she’s been too focused on certain kinds of love and things aren’t as fairy tale straightforward as Georgia has been imagining.

I’ve never read an Alice Oseman book before, though I’ve heard of her books and particularly her webcomic Heartstopper, but the premise of this one made me know I had to read it. The setting was well-realised (I went to a similarly archaic uni and found freshers week to be similar in its weird combination of club nights and old traditions) and the supporting characters are varied and interesting with their own hints of narrative, but what is perhaps most notable is the protagonist coming to terms with being asexual and aromantic. Georgia’s thought processes will have relatable moments for a lot of people who aren’t used to seeing these things depicted in fiction, particularly some of her more negative thoughts around herself and her own future, but Oseman balances this with Georgia working out how to accept herself and to build new visions of the future. As someone who found certain parts of Georgia’s experiences very relatable, it was exciting (and sometimes difficult) to read her fairly typically YA story of self realisation, but with these particular experiences.

The story also explores other characters who don’t think they have a romantic future for various reasons, including Georgia’s lesbian best friend and a character struggling with a past abusive relationship, and this works well to show that different people are going to need to find different forms of self-acceptance and support, from romance but also friendships (these characters also get a fun enemies-to-lovers situation). There’s also some undercurrents of how people don’t have one typical ‘university experience’ (though in this case it’s quite different from most people’s starting uni as Georgia has her two closest school friends at the same place), which is also pretty relatable, but will also help with teenage expectations of university and the fact you might actually be more yourself rather than reinvent yourself.

Ultimately, Loveless is a witty YA novel that tackles characters struggling with their sense of self and the future of their lives and relationships. The writing style isn’t necessarily aimed at me, a twentysomething adult, but it was a gripping story and a good depiction of the complexity of the social side of university. As a book by a high profile YA author, it will hopefully share the experiences of someone working out being asexual and aromantic both to people (teenagers and otherwise) who need to see these narratives in relation to themselves and to people who might then understand how other people might feel.

Gender Explorers by Juno Roche

Gender Explorers is a collection of interviews with young trans people, in which they talk about their experiences of their everyday lives, their gender, coming out, school, and their aspirations for the future. Ranging from primary age children to young people who’ve left school, the interviews give an insight into how life is for trans children in the modern age. Some are accompanied by interviews with the parent who accompanied the children to the support meetings where Roche conducted the interviews, but it is always centred around the experiences of the trans person in question. Roche terms these trans children ‘gender explorers’ as a way of highlighting the freedom to explore and be themselves, rather than be forced into a particular box.

This book feels very important in the current climate as a way of sharing the voices of trans children and young adults in a way that tries to protect them, seeing as all of the interviews are anonymous. Roche’s interview style (the interviews are structured to show who is talking and include the questions as well as answers) is empathetic and adjusts depending on the age of the interviewee in a way that feels authentic and allows for different focuses. A theme that arises from the collection is one of happiness: being able to explore gender or be treated in the way that they want to be treated brings happiness to these young people’s lives, and though there are struggles both discussed in the interviews and suggested under the surface, Roche always returns to asking for messages that they’d give to someone else who was in a similar situation and these messages are about kindness, positivity, and acceptance.

There have been some collections of essays and insights into the lives of adult trans people, but it feels groundbreaking to have a collection of the insights of young trans people that isn’t trying to then analyse what they say, but let their words speak for themselves. This isn’t a book looking for a single experience, but a way of opening people’s eyes to children’s lives and what can be done to support them. It definitely should be read by parents and anyone who works with children, but also people who are looking understand different experiences or feel heartened for the future.

The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha

The Wandering is a literary fiction choose-your-own-adventure novel, as an Indonesian woman who dreams of travel makes a deal with the devil. You’re stuck in a rut in Jakarta, teaching English, when you end up with a demon lover who offers you whatever you want. What you want is an adventure, to travel the world, and you end up with a pair of red shoes and the chance to go anywhere. But with such freedom, what are the best choices to make and the best stories to hear from the strangers you meet along the way?

Going into the novel, I didn’t know just how ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ it was going to be, but the answer is that it properly follows the format, with decision points that lead you off down different routes, mostly taking you to different countries and lives. It’s hard to tell how many different ways you can go, as I only took a couple of the different paths, but these offered various options so presumably quite a few (reading it on Kindle meant it was hard to get a sense of even how long it was or could be, and actually the hyperlinks worked nicely to make you more likely to stick to your chosen path). The use of storytelling and the ways different stories can have an impact on you was interesting (there was a nice element where you could go and be reminded of the plots of particular stories if you wanted in the middle of sections), particularly alongside the fact you were aware you were losing other stories by choosing ways to go.

This is an unusual look at global travel and the ways that choices can have a massive impact on your life. If, like me, you find choose-your-own-adventure a bit stressful due to not knowing if you’re making the best choice, then actually the novel works well to get across that point, whilst having enough text between decisions to feel like you are getting proper stories. As with the genre in general, it probably needs multiple reads to fully experience it, but it’s definitely an interesting exploration of where you can go with narrative.

Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know by Samira Ahmed

Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know is a young adult novel with an unravelling mystery, as a seventeen year old budding art historian ends up on the heels of a lost painting, and a woman forgotten by history. Khayyam is spending August in Paris as she does every year, dealing with the mess of a failed essay prize and almost-ex boyfriend she left behind in Chicago. When she meets a descendent of Alexandre Dumas, a young Parisian guy with access to documents about Dumas’ life, she starts to try and unravel the story of a lost Delacroix painting given to Dumas, which in turn reveals a woman with connections to these men and to Lord Byron, and whose story needs to be told.

Ahmed weaves together Khayyam’s summer with the story of Leila, fighting for her true love in the Ottoman empire two hundred years previously, to bring together works of literature and art with fiction. The novel is an enjoyable mixture of fiction, real elements of history, and a protagonist realising she wants to fight for women’s stories. Khayyam’s desire to unravel the mystery, and the parallels she finds with elements of her own life and identity, give the book a powerful meaning, but these are combined with the fun of the Parisian setting and the drama of Khayyam’s love life to make it a book that would be ideal to read on holiday (especially one in a old city, with a sense of these kinds of stories waiting to be discovered). For some people, the historical figures will just be part of the narrative, but for others this might spark an interest in Dumas, Byron, or looking for the lesser known woman around these or other men.

This is a perfectly pitched YA mystery that combines secrets of the past with a young woman hoping to prove herself. As a Byron fan that element was an extra bonus, especially the focus on The Giaour, but there’s no need to know anything about the historical figures in the novel to enjoy it.

Wonderland by Juno Dawson

Wonderland is a thrilling and dark reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, set in the same universe as Juno Dawson’s previous two YA novels, Clean and Meat Market. Alice is a trans girl who goes to an exclusive private girls school, where she’s mostly invisible apart from her dyed blue hair and the fact she missed a few months of school last year (nobody knows it was due to mental health issues). When Bunny, a rich girl with a reputation for going missing who Alice spent an exhilarating evening with, disappears and nobody seems to care, Alice starts investigating and is drawn into the world of ‘Wonderland’, an elite weekend party for ‘old money’ teens. And suddenly she’s a gatecrasher miles from home and trying to work out what is real.

It was hard not to be excited for a third book to follow Clean and Meat Market, which both exposed dark realities in the modern world using sharp, witty characters. Wonderland takes the two a step further, looking not only at issues of mental health, gender, and privilege, but combining it with a tense thriller-like retelling of Alice in Wonderland set over a single weekend. One of the best things about the book is that is takes the teen horror plot, which often tends to paint the villain or perpetrator as having some unidentified mental health condition, and complicates it, so mental health becomes part of the narrative. It feels like a combination of elements of Clean and Meat Market (there’s some cameos and extended references to characters from both, but it also combines the drink and drug fuelled socialite world of Clean with a character who’s an outsider to it, like in Meat Market) with some of the tension and murderous drama of the Point Horror books I loved as a teenager.

Alice is a wonderful protagonist with her Doc Martens and cynicism, wanting to be accepted but also not to fit in with the people so rich they can’t even understand what her life is like as someone less rich and not born with it. A lot of the issues she deals with will be relatable to a lot of people (whether around fitting in, mental health, gender, or figuring out pansexuality), and will probably help others to empathise, even though the world of Wonderland is very unlike anything most people will ever experience. The Alice in Wonderland elements work well not only on a narrative level, but to bookend the whirlwind weekend as something that has changed Alice’s life, but also with the expectation she’ll return to school, her family, and her best friend Dinah at some point once she’s out of ‘Wonderland’.

There’s more you could say about the novel, which has a vibe that is fast, clever, and dangerous—exactly as expected—but it’s better to just dive into its maze (whilst heeding the content warnings at the start). Probably ideal for older teenagers who enjoy similar teen dramas with hard-hitting themes, but also ideal for anyone who used to love Point Horror and wants something that’s a bit more up to date and relevant (plus full of literary references).