Time Is A Mother by Ocean Vuong

Time is a Mother is Ocean Vuong’s second collection of poetry, exploring grief and memory and the important details as well as larger questions of self and place. The writing is lyrical and beautiful, as I expected, but also the poems are highly readable, telling stories and putting together images masterfully. 

My two favourites were probably ‘Beautiful Short Loser’, which feels like a collection of biting observations and tells multiple stories at once, and ‘Not Even’, which is a breathtaking look at self and the past. I also particularly liked ‘Dear T’ and ‘No One Knows the Way to Heaven’, and I enjoyed a lot of the different use of form, particularly space, and also the format of ‘Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker’ which was very powerful whilst only using an Amazon purchase history.

Fans of Ocean’s Vuong’s poetry probably won’t be disappointed—I wasn’t, but was drawn into the poems, and I’ll definitely want to return to them. I’m still in awe at the combination of powerful meaning, concisely expressed thoughts, and sheer readability of Vuong’s poetry.

At Least This I Know by Andrés N. Ordorica

At Least This I Know is a collection of poetry that explores belonging in a range of forms: nation, race, sexuality, family, future, and more. The book is split into sections – ‘Where I begin’, ‘How I have grown’, ‘What I have lost’, ‘What I have given’, ‘He that I love’ and ‘Where I will burn’ – and I really liked how this took you on a journey through the poems, enacting journeys of the poet and also giving a sense of going deeper into issues of belonging and self.

I knew I was going to like the collection from the first poem ‘November 16th, 2014’, which is a perfect opening for it: a moment at border control, encapsulating fear and desire for a place to belong, and a poem that almost makes you laugh and cry at once. From there, the collection moves on to images of family, like being passed photos around and told stories, and then onto growing up and queerness, loss, and place. 

I really liked the use of repetition in many of the poems, used to various effects, for example in ‘By the seashore’, one of my favourites in the collection, in a way that really gets across how certain details can become entwined with grief and traumatic moments. Also, the repetition (and variation) in ‘These pyramids are houses for the dead’ stood out to me, especially with the font size changes, and the poem has such a powerful sense of place and what people can lay claim to.

I also like the understated love poetry in the collection, especially ‘We are young and still have time’ and ‘It had been so long’, which both have a beautiful sense not only of tiny moments of love, but also time, the seeming unreality of it and maybe how queerness impacts that, changing the effects of looking back or thinking of a future.

In short, I loved this collection, which captured me from the start, with its wit, phrasing and powerful simplicity combined with explorations of all sorts of things that make up a person and make them feel like they belong somewhere. Occasionally I had to pause reading at the end of a poem to think ‘damn, that’s good’.

(Note: Thanks for 404 Ink for the proof copy – the book is out now via their website)

My favourite non-2021 books I read in 2021

I always do a ‘best books I read this year that weren’t out this year’ list, to fully appreciate any books I was catching up on/not born for/etc, but this year it is crucial, because this year is the year I read Lote and the year I read Tommy Pico. So we have to start with my two new faves:

  • Lote by Shola von Reinhold – Not so much the book I didn’t know I needed as much as the book I knew I needed but did not have. A friend gave me this thinking I would like it, maybe not that it would quickly become one of my favourite books of all time. We follow Matilda through Transfixions, aesthetics, and questions of who gets to define history and taste in a book that does Gender Feelings and made me google people and just generally feel like I got so much from it. I read it twice in 2021 and that may have not been enough.
  • IRL, Nature Poem, and Feed by Tommy Pico – I read three of Tommy Pico’s poetry books this year, and the only reason I’ve not read the fourth is that I’m saving it on my ‘to read’ pile that some kind of hoarder. I love long poems, I love books that are a single poem, and I love how Tommy Pico writes. I was sold and then I read the lines “Stop fucking / posting about “veggies,” truly / America’s most disgustingly / perky word”. Also, this year I watched Reservation Dogs because Pico writes on it, so got even more great content.

Okay, fine, I did read some other great books from not-2021 this year too, so here’s a few others that I’ll go less feral for:

  • Homie by Danez Smith – I read a whole bunch of recent-ish poetry on catch up this year and this was another stand out book, about friendship and loss.
  • Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang – A short novel about where you come from, as a trans woman deals with grief and explores her aunt’s secret relationship, that was just really good.
  • Infect Your Friends And Loved Ones by Torrey Peters – If we’re talking short… this novella was one of those ‘I know I need to read it’ and then I read Peters’ Detransition, Baby (which will come on the proper year list) and then I finally read this and it was fantastically witty and dark.
  • The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen – The only graphic novel I read this year, and it gets onto my top books list… the art style is beautiful (I basically picked this up because I saw a picture of the cover) and the tale of using stories to communicate where you don’t have other words is very emotional.

I read some other great poetry this year, but actually a lot of the non-out-this-year books I read this year were a bit of a let down, maybe because with all the reviewing and actual day job I didn’t get time to read as much of a mix as I’d like, especially not older stuff. Still, I got some new obsessed-with favourites out of the year, which I’ll take as a win.

Anyway, my list of actual 2021 books will be coming soon (and then, if you’re lucky, some kind of ‘spite list’/things I didn’t like in books this year)…

Where Decay Sleeps by Anna Cheung

Where Decay Sleeps is a collection of poetry split into seven stages of decay: pallor mortis, algor mortis, rigor mortis, livor mortis, putrefaction, decomposion and skeletonisation. Using seven themes, the poems explore haunted elements and everyday gothic, merging horror creatures with modern technology and creating spooky atmospheres.

I particularly enjoyed some of the twists on modern life, like ‘Monster Tinder’ and ‘Dinner with Dracula’, which were tongue in cheek, and the combination of those with more serious poems like ‘Decay, The Stalker’. The variety of kinds of gothic poetry was nice, with some poems a walk in an eerie woods and others a sudden reveal of gruesome bodies. The poetry is accessible and it’s a good collection for gothic horror fans who perhaps don’t read many poems as well as poetry fans who like a bit of haunting.

Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles

Deep Wheel Orcadia is unlike anything I’ve read before, a sci-fi novel in verse about home, belonging, and place written in the Orkney dialect with an English translation. The plot follows the meeting of Astrid, who returns to the titular space station after art school on Mars, and Darling, who is fleeing her past and has ended up in the far off reaches of space, but also a cast of characters across Orcadia as they try to keep apace with the changes around them.

I found the form ideal for the setting and narrative, with the verse and the sci-fi combining well to make the world-building concise and leaving plenty of ambiguity in this glimpse into the world of the space station. The short poems, occasionally getting longer to play out a big scene, move quickly between characters and situations and I found the pacing a lot more suited to me than a lot of sci-fi, leaving me wanting more rather than feeling like I’d been told too much. There’s probably a lot of different ways to read the book with its dual text, and though I settled into reading each page first in the Orkney and then English, I could imagine trying out different ways in the future.

The exploration of gender and love in this world was a real highlight, and I also liked the fact that a lot of the story was about a character returning from the “big city” (aka Mars) to their childhood home and perhaps looking for inspiration that won’t come. There’s a lot of stuff in Deep Wheel Orcadia that feels timeless, and in general it is a book that transcends things. I want to think more about Astrid and Darling and I’ll undoubtedly be rereading this a few times and probably picking up more and more each time.

Very Authentic Person by Kat Sinclair

As ever, my poetry reviews can be boiled down to ‘nice words here’s my faves’, but anywhere, here are said faves in my review of Kat Sinclair’s poetry collection Very Authentic Person:

Very good poems: I loved the combination of personal and political and pop cultural and public transport and little references, and the thinking about poetry but not in a self indulgent way. My favourite words were “I am floppy disk years old” and “But I’m really getting there with the rainbow paintbrush / this meritocratic omelette, all the good names being taken / when all of our pets have pets” (because I am predictable about old computer stuff in poetry) and I enjoyed all the little references but also the sounds of the poems too.

sikfan glaschu by Sean Wai Keung

I was excited to read this collection as I loved Sean Wai Keung’s poem in the Haunted Voices anthology, and it did not disappoint! The format of focusing on different Glasgow restaurants to explore identity, language, and authenticity worked really well (‘tinto tapas’ was one of my favourite poems in the collection and was very much on this theme) and gave a sense of travelling through the collection around Glasgow, thinking about who you are and where you belong. Some of the poems also explore lockdown, in terms of food and getting outside and also pandemic racism, and they had a wry yet relatable approach (especially ‘wing rush’ which is about whether anyone knows if you’ve already been out once that day) which I also really liked.

I love Sean Wai Keung’s poetic style and these poems were clever and enjoyable, a fresh take on identity and what is authentic (cuisine or otherwise).

Teeth in the Back of my Neck by Monika Radojevic

Teeth in the Back of my Neck is a collection of poetry that focuses on anger and sadness, on identity and history, and on the societal structures that hold us. Split into two parts—’The Teeth’ and ‘The Neck’—the poems explore things the violence and trauma that women face, the way women’s bodies are seen, and how race and belonging are constructed and viewed in society. 

The collection manages to feel varied whilst having clear themes, and the poems are written in an immediate and forthright way that gets across the anger and power behind them. Poems like ‘Hell Will Fall Apart for You’ and ‘A Few Brown Bodies’ look at how people react and how to get angry (or not) about things, and how to enact change, feeling immediate and memorable. The second half of the collection focuses even more on personal identity, history, and people’s relation to others in how these are built. I found the poems that explore the importance of names (‘Jane’) and the idea of DNA testing and the self (’23andme’) particularly interesting, questioning what makes a person and how other people react to that.

It’s hard, despite the pun, not to call Teeth in the Back of my Neck poems with bite, because that’s what they feel like: they’re sharp, witty, and emotional, and even just looking quickly back through the book to write this review makes me want to read them again and again.

My favourite books of 2020

I guess here’s where I’m meant to write that it’s been a strange year and all. Anyway, passing over that, here’s my usual list of my favourite books that came out this year. I’ve been quite picky with what I’ve included (and split into fiction, poetry and drama, and non-fiction) as I’ve read a lot of ‘good’ books this year, but I really wanted to highlight the best ones.

Books not published in 2020 are going to come separately, so my top books I’ve read this year are basically split into ‘stuff I’ve reviewed’ (this post) and ‘other things’ (the non-2020 publication lot). Links are to full reviews if you’re interested.

Fiction

  • The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers – Biting look at what happens when two brothers with a big age gap both come out.
  • Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed – YA mystery through the streets of Paris as teenage Khayyam tries to solve an art history puzzle (with bonus Byron as my real selling point).
  • Homes and Experiences by Liam Williams – Email epistolary novel satirising gentrification and millennial culture and guilt, with a bittersweet narrative.
  • Wonderland by Juno Dawson – The final of her three books in a loose trilogy (following Clean and Meat Market), this one is Alice in Wonderland retold as a fall into an elite world of ‘old money’ teenage parties. Dark, thrilling, and hard hitting, it’s my favourite of the three.
  • Loveless by Alice Oseman – Working out asexuality whilst adjusting to weird university life and realising there’s not ‘one’ experience for everyone – just the sort of book I’m glad teenagers now have.
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeki Emezi – An entrancing novel about whether parents really know their child.
  • Boy Parts by Eliza Clark – Perhaps very predictable of me to love this, an artsy Northern female take on the aesthetic antihero, but it was thrilling, very dark, and brilliant.

Poetry and Drama

  • Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt – Lyric poems combining nature and modern, like moving from a walk to a Berlin club and back again, and beautifully describing tiny moments.
  • My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long – Short, storytelling poetry with vivid images and messages.
  • Underground, Monroe, & The Mamalogues by Lisa B. Thompson – Three very different plays looking at the black middle class and elements of race, gender, and respectability.
  • Poor by Caleb Femi – Witty and cutting poetry and photography about growing up on a Peckham estate and the reality of geography and gentrification with class and race.
  • The Girl and the Goddess by Nikita Gill – A novel in verse about a girl growing up in India, discovering herself, and interacting with gods and goddesses, whilst considering the power of storytelling.

Non Fiction

  • The Reality Game by Samuel Woolley – Good primer on online disinformation and technology.
  • Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein – How to think about data science from an intersectional perspective.
  • So Hormonal from Monstrous Regiment – Collection of essays about how hormones impact people’s lives, full of a vast range of eye-opening experiences.
  • White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad – A look at how white feminism affects women of colour and how important intersectionality is (technically this first came out in 2019, but I read an edition out in 2020 so I’m saying it counts here).

Poor by Caleb Femi

Poor is a collection of poetry and photography exploring a Peckham estate and what it is like to grow up as Black boy surrounded by concrete. It is a powerful, fast-paced collection split into sections and broken up with photographs taken by Femi to illustrate the estate and the people found throughout the poems.

So many of the poems have really memorable lines and turns of phrase, witty and cutting deep to the truth of reality on topics like class, race, and gentrification. The ongoing theme of the impact of concrete and the design of estates is really interesting, whether in found poetry or through a clever look at the make up of concrete. 

Reading Poor, you get a real sense of the importance of the world you grow up in, the good, the bad, and the mythologising. It is a brilliantly written collection that feels immediate and emotional and explores how where you live can live and breathe too.