Under the Dome – Stephen King

This epic boxset-like novel features a huge cast of characters and dissects, like little else, the intricacies of small town politics – and the dangers we face as the world’s resources become more limited.

It begins when a mysterious see-through dome descends on the small town of Chester’s Mill, killing birds, animals and humans as it does so, and trapping the town’s population. The US government begins looking into the causes and possible solutions, but it’s clear very quickly that the dome dwellers are on their own.
We meet an array of Chester’s Mill residents. Rennie, a small time politician who sees this as his chance to hold power, finally. He engineers situations – like a food riot at the supermarket – to justify more police and greater police violence, eventually recruiting some of the most horrible twenty-somethings to police the town. It turns out he’s a big time criminal who is brewing crystal meth, and is in fact stealing the dwindling town supplies of propane to keep the meth factory going.
We meet his unstable and ill son, Rennie Jr, who is in the midst of a horrific killing spree, which would have happened regardless of the dome, but whose mental and physical ill health is exacerbated by the the dome.
We meet Barbie, an army veteran cooking in the town diner, who is in fact leaving town when the dome comes down following a run-in with Rennie Jr and his pals. Blocked by the dome, an army official from the outside – Colonel Cox – asks him to lead the town, a suggestion that Rennie does everything in his power to stop.
And we meet Julia, the local paper’s editor who is intent on speaking truth to power, not least to Rennie and his gang of thugs, even as her paper and her life are constantly threatened by Rennie.
From here ensues hundreds of pages about the politics, intrigue and terror of a small town population trapped in a confined space with limited resources and growing despair about being freed, as a small few try to turn the situation to their advantage.
In short bursts of 3 or 4 pages, King takes us through the lives and emotions of probably nearly a hundred people – and it’s truly gripping. You start to connect to loads of them. Andy Sanders who turns from a naive politician to a gun-toting meth addict after his family dies. Sam Bushy who is horrifically raped by the new police recruits and kills plenty of them in return. Rusty, a medical assistant who becomes the town’s surgeon after the only qualified surgeon dies.
And as the story goes on, gradually there are less and less of them – very few in fact. So few that the apparent hero at the start – Barbie – appears far from that by the end, not because he’s turned away from heroic but because events conspire against him and the other good guys almost entirely.
I can’t help feeling that the final 100 or so pages, where King tries to bring a supernatural explanation and finale to the dome, are a bit of a let down. It’s the townspeople, their relationships, the insight into how terrified and cornered people behave, that are so mesmerising. You can’t help making the jump from this story to the impact of climate change, and thinking it does not bode well for us.

The Line – Amor Towles

A beautifully told and evocative – if slightly capitalist leaning – short story of the power of generosity whatever the circumstances.

Pushkin and his wife Irina are peasant farmers on the eve of the Russian Revolution. As the revolution occurs they move from the country to Moscow to be part of the birth of a new communist world.

Irina straight away becomes an organiser and Leninist activist, becoming active in her factory work. Pushkin ends up getting fired for incompetence and assumes the traditional role of the woman, queuing in long lines for essentials like bread or grain.

But, though he may be incompetent he is kind and endearing with everyone he meets in the queues, and he soon finds that his generosity towards others is rewarded. He stands in lines for others and they, in return, give him a share of what they gain – bread, jam, coffee etc.

As time goes by he, through generosity not self-interest, recruits a team of young orphans who follow his lead, and together they help people queue in long lines for things they need and get their rewards in return.

Irina re-evaluates her view of Pushkin; from a kind, naive, hapless idiot – like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot – to a useful contributor to the revolutionary society, helping people achieve their aims and even making others productive. Unspoken, though, is that she’s rationalising his contribution because it benefits them so much. By then they live in a beautiful large apartment of the sort occupied by party grandees.

All is well until Pushkin finds himself in a line for the right to emigrate, on behalf of an artist / cleaner he befriends.The artist never relieves him of his place in the queue, and so Pushkin ends up successfully getting the seal for himself and his wife.

Irina and Pushkin leave for New York, but Pushkin’s naivety leads him to give away half of their possessions on the journey there, prompting Irina to realise he’s as hapless as ever and so leave him alone with almost nothing in this heaving and entirely alien city. But it ends with a positive note, as Pushkin joins the queue for a soup kitchen, and Towles hints that through his patience and generosity in lines like this he will recreate m himself and achieve his previous successes again, there in New York.

This is a simply told, light and amusing story, almost parable-like at times, very Russian even. But it has a pretty clear message: that enterprise and ingenuity and survival are inherent to all people, even the most naive and virtuous, and this will thrive in a communist society as much as a capitalist one. The implication, too, is that the aims of communism are not only easily betrayed by good people like Pushkin naturally doing what they do, but also that people like Irina – activists and supporters – are easily corrupted into wanting more and more, and they will rationalise that desire to allow their acquisition to continue and inequality to grow. In other words i can’t help finding a pro-capitalist, pro-enterprise message in this otherwise touching and enjoyable story.

Freaky Deaky – Elmore Leonard

This has everything you’d expect from a Leonard book – cool and ludicrously readable dialogue (of course), a string of morally ambiguous characters, murder and drugs and plotting and theft – plus, in this book, bombs and 60s radicals gone bad, taking a dose of nihilism and bomb making skills with them.

It’s the story of once-radicals Robin and stoner-slash-bomb maker Skip, who put together a plan to use bombs and deceit to dupe super rich Woody and Mark Ricks out of a few million. It’s complicated by Woody’s assistant Donnell who also wants to benefit from their wealth, and by explosives cop Chris and Greta, a wanna-be actress. As you’d expect, the plot twists and turns satisfyingly, and the good-ish guys kind of win out, though there’s certainly no moral to be taken from this tale.

I was, though, particularly aware of Leonard’s treatment of women in this novel. Greta says early on that she has been raped by Woody. It’s unclear whether this is true or not, and at times Leonard seems to be saying she led him on, especially as Woody is an obese semi-comatose alcoholic. It’s never dealt with or clarified, and Greta seems untroubled by it. I guess it’s indicative of his treatment of female characters. Some of them anyway are little more than objects of playthings for men, and have little depth to them. Obviously this isn’t always true – Robin in Freaky Deaky is the brains and probably the most interesting character in the book – but in the case of Greta it certainly is.

This doesn’t make it a bad book – it’s a fun, gripping and character-packed read, but you do need a certain detachment I think, so you don’t think that the treatment of Greta as a character is ok.

National Populism – Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin

Though it makes for uncomfortable reading this book is a powerful corrective to the left-liberal narrative around issues like immigration, the EU and national populism.

Eatwell and Goodwin take an evidence-based, considered but emphatically sympathetic look at the reasons why national populism is on the rise in the form of Brexit, Trump, Le Pen and elsewhere across Europe. Their view throughout is that voters for national populists have legitimate reasons for doing so that left-liberals moralise about and so not only misunderstand but also fuel. Specifically, they argue that there are four underlying causes for the rise:

Distrust. A political elite and wider business and cultural elite has become so far removed from the wider public, and especially manual workers and those without degrees, that they appear to forward their own values and interests, meaning people have little trust in them to do what they think is right for them or the county. Eatwell and Goodwin argue that people aren’t necessarily turning against democracy but actually national populism is offering a deeper, participative form of democracy precisely because the representative version has failed.

Destruction. In probably the most controversial chapter, Eatwell and Goodwin argue that the last few decades has seen the destruction of national cultures by successive waves of immigration that threaten the sense of national identity and culture. They make the point that many national populist voters aren’t necessarily racist, nor are they motivated by the self-interested fear of losing resources to immigrants, rather they value the national culture and it’s the destruction of that culture they fear.

Deprivation. Also over the last few decades, they argue, inequality and globalisation have together created a feeling of relative inequality especially among less educated and blue collar workers. This has not only fuelled anti-immigrant feeling but also led to those people supporting parties which promise more protectionist policies and public spending that will benefit them.

De-alignment. Amidst all of this change, there has also been a massive move away from the traditional party loyalties of the post war era. Many blue collar voters in particular have moved from social democratic parties to the right, especially to anti-immigrant protectionist parties, while the liberal left has fragmented somewhat, meaning national populists are able to poll better than they would have a couple of decades ago. Nothing is set, they say, as mainstream parties start to use the language and policy direction of populists, but today the trend remains de-alignment and volatility.

This book is well-written, packed full of data and evidence, and I think it’s a book that lefties and liberals ought to read to understand what’s going on among large numbers of voters. Eatwell and Goodwin are willing to talk seriously about the issues many people feel are important but cannot speak about for fear of being labelled racist, and that’s refreshing and important.

I think at times they go too far – are too generous to voters, giving them a consistent ideology when it might not really be there, and especially to national populist leaders like Farage or Trump or Le Pen who do stoke the flames of nationalism and division, making claims about immigration and the economy that they surely know will have a detrimental impact on many individuals and the country as a whole – and they do it as much for electoral gain as ideological belief.

Fasting, Feasting – Anita Desai

This is a captivating, readable and sad story about the repressed upbringing of a traditional, aspirational Indian family.

It focuses on a sister and a brother, with the novel split into two halves, focusing on each.

Uma is a kind but not beautiful or especially competent girl who watches other girls be married off and boys get an education. Her parents – the strict Mama and worried Papa – take her out of school to look after her younger brother and arrange for two marriages for her, both of which turn out to be scams, and eventually she is left at home, little more than a help. She longs to volunteer at local Christian school, the only people that have ever offered them any autonomy, but her parents refuse.

Arun, as a boy is offered so much more, but in a way that has a similarly repressive effect. From a young age he is at school and in tutoring almost constantly, eventually getting into a good university in the States. But his upbringing has made him chronically introverted and unable to deal with the people and situations he encounters – the other students and especially the Pattons, the American family he stays with over the summer. Mr Patton is a football loving, meat eating worker, Mrs Patton someone who loves having Arun and a chance to mother someone again, while her two kids have their own lives, the girl bulimic and the boy sport obsessed.

The Patton family is as dysfunctional as Arun’s but in a different way, one stemming from having too much rather than the risk of too little. And it’s this comparison or similarity that’s at the heart of this book, with each family set to reproduce itself again and again.

The contrast between men and women is as marked as that between rural India and suburban America. Uma has a freedom within, a life of the mind, a will, but her outward possibilities are limited, whereas Arun has all the chances but his upbringing was so stultified that he is imprisoned in his own mind, and so unable to make the most of any of them.

This is a brilliant book, but there’s something of its time about it, at least in its portrayal of the traditional patriarchal Indian family, where Uma is strictly prohibited from most activities because of her gender and marital status – today novels on these themes are often more complex, with resistance and oppression and snatches of freedom mixed together, the portrayal of people not quite so one dimensional.

“No, he had not escaped. He had travelled and he had stumbled into what was like a plastic representation of what he had known at home; not the real thing – which was plain, unbeautiful, misshapen, fraught, and compromised – but the unreal thing – clean, bright, gleaming, without taste, savour or nourishment.”

From India to America. Anita Desai in Fasting, Feasting

The High Window – Raymond Chandler

I don’t read Chandler or other hard-boiled fiction for it’s characters or plot, but it’s dialogue, style and atmosphere.

Set in a corrupt LA, populated by a pool of greedy rich people and a sea of desperate souls searching for money, security and happiness, The High Window is classic Chandler.

Marlowe is enlisted on a job for Mrs Murdoch, an ageing patriarch tracking down her daughter in law, Linda, who Murdoch says she suspects of stealing a valuable coin. As always, the trail takes Marlowe far and wide into a seedy world of high and low crime. There are murders, new character after new character, twist after twist as it turns no one is who they say they (except Marlowe), and in the end a resolution of a case that is as much to do with revenge and justice as the legal system.

I can’t say I followed all the plot twists, but it’s a joy to read. In fact, the style of writing, the incessant plot changes, encourages you read like Marlowe lives – in the moment, dealing with one situation after another as it arises, enjoying each scene as it’s happening.

Days of Awe – A.M Homes

Days of Awe is a darkly comic and unsettling short story about a woman novelist on a speaking engagement at a conference on the Holocaust, at which she meets a guy she used to know at university and has a brief affair. But it’s about so much more than this – guilt, truth, forgiveness, openness, what it is to be yourself…

She recognises the guy when she arrives at the airport (we never know the protagonists’ names; the woman is the Trangressive Novelist or just ‘she’, he is the War Correspondent) and they strike up a conversation when they meet in the hotel lobby. They soon get together and have a one night stand, despite the fact that she is in a relationship with her girlfriend, a relationship close enough that her girlfriend and her mother play online scrabble with one another.

This is followed the next day when she finds a synagogue to go and worship at, only to find him there too. They spend time together, time in which they are able to be playful and honest and maybe very different from how they normally are – but eventually fall out and she leaves him in the middle of nowhere to walk back to the hotel.

Alongside this story is their relationship to war and genocide. He is a war correspondent, a witness to genocides, and held in high esteem. She is a novelist who has no direct experience of genocide but who is trying to understand its effect on future generations, and is taunted by holocaust survivors at the conference for having no right to talk to about the subject. Her treatment by some of those attending the conference is just hilarious.

The Days of Awe is a ten day religious period in the Jewish calendar when people ask for forgiveness from those they have wronged, and it’s this question of forgiveness and how much is owed that is at the heart of this story – to holocaust survivors, to parents, to partners. At the same time, though, it’s as if everyday life for the woman (and probably the man) are frozen and normal rules don’t apply at the conference, as she acts in ways that seem to be at odds with how she typically behaves.

The question is, does she need to ask for forgiveness for how she behaves during these Days of Awe that we witness in the story, or for how she normally behaves?

Black Girl, White Girl – Joyce Carole Oates

This is a truly brilliant book, a thorough and often uncomfortable character study that highlights differences in race, class, privilege and values.

Genna Meade is the narrator, the wealthy daughter of radical liberals Max and Veronica, who were active in the activism of the 60s and early 70s. Max is a lawyer to the counter culture movement, and Genna saw countless hippies and radicals live in their shambolic house as she grew up. They are are from a rich family of Quakers, the Meades, though what Genna had in terms of financial wealth she lacked in family support.

At the liberal arts college that was paid for by her family, she gets a roommate in Minette Swift, one of the few black girls in the college hall. Minette is from a church family, is devoutly Christian, and despite all of Genna’s attempts to be her friend, is consistently aloof and guarded and self-reliant.

We hear the story through Geneva fifteen years after Minette’s death at the college. Through their time as roommates, Minette is subjected to apparently racist acts that Genna at first doesn’t see but gradually comes to understand. At the same time she tries to befriend Minette, but Minette always keeps her distance, refusing to accept Genna’s overtures of friendship – something that Genna can’t comprehend.

What’s so powerful about this novel is the detail of emotion – the fact that Minette can’t be pigeonholed, that Genna is both privileged and traumatised by her upbringing, that the relationship between the two girls is so tense, that Genna still can’t see what was going on even a decade and a half later.

And what’s here, too, is the impact of racism and racial stereotyping on Minette, how she is tense and awkward, how she has different values and ways of relating to people, when compared to Genna; and Genna can’t or doesn’t comprehend this, always thinking that Minette will

at any moment accept the generous hand of friendship and support she is offering.

We see, as well, the impact of historic forces on individuals’ lives – Minette who is shaped by a history of racism and resistance in America, and Genna who is traumatised by the life her parents forced upon her.

This is an uncomfortable read at times, not least because Minette is often unlikable, and the fact that it’s a white woman, Oates, writing about black experience, makes you wonder whether the portrayal is fair or ought to be more understanding or sympathetic.

Ultimately for me this book is about how, when two people with radically different and difficult histories, values and daily experiences, are thrown together, they can’t easily just get one another, they can’t just connect, there’s too much there holding them apart.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

This is a beautifully written tapestry of a novel with a host of characters‘ lives intersecting in the story of the end of modern civilisation and the beginning of a new one, after a flu epidemic wipes out almost the entire world’s population and everything we associate with modern life.

The core character that ties all the others together is Arthur, a famous actor who in fact dies on stage just hours before the ‘Georgian flu’ begins to affect people.

We meet a woman who acted with him as a girl, Kirsten, who two decades later travels the devastated world in a travelling symphony playing Shakespeare and classical music to the scattered townships that have emerged.

We meet Clarke, his friend, who finds himself trapped with a couple of hundred others in an airport on the way to Arthur’s funeral, and makes his post-apocalypse home there, eventually setting up the Museum of Civilisation that collects objects from the old world – iPhones, laptops, medicines, magazines etc.

We meet his ex-wife Elizabeth and son Tyler who are initially at the airport but leave, with Tyler becoming part of a religious cult, one of many, which claim they have answers, that the flu happened for a purpose, and attempt to wrestle control or at least take power, wherever they can.

And we meet Miranda, Arthur’s ex-wife too, who dies early on in the flu epidemic but whose hobby is creating a comic, Station Eleven, which Kirsten has a copy of and which finds its way to the Museum of Civilisation.

What’s the book about? Mostly, I think, the distinction between the contingent and the vital. What we think of as essential are really just the trappings of modern civilisation – air travel, nations, technology, healthcare… yes, no doubt they make life more comfortable – mostly anyway – but they can disappear, and when they’ve gone life is stripped to back to what is vital: human relationships, co-operation, selfishness and selflessness, art, and of course the flourishing of non-human life like animals and flora and fauna. It’s complex and difficult, and the book offers no simple solutions about what matters in our existing civilisation or afterwards, but it’s thought-provoking and haunting in equal measure – and, it’s worth saying, a highly readable if exploratory plot, with characters that you want to know more about even whilst you might not fully like them. Ambiguous and interesting to the last.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

This is a book full of life but so much despair and sadness and horror that it’s at times both impossible to put down and hard to keep on reading.

It tells the story of four close friends who meet at university – JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. All of them become successful, unrealistically so in some ways (artist, architect, actor, lawyer respectively), but what the book focuses on is Jude’s life.

In his adult life a hugely successful lawyer, as a child he was subjected the most horrific upbringing and abuse – first in an orphanage, then at the hands of Brother Luke, then by Dr Traylor and finally in a children’s home.

He manages to present himself as a success, but beneath it is constant self-loathing, cutting and self-harm and an inability to connect properly with others because he is always holding back what he views as his real – and, he feels, depraved – self.

Eventually, in his forties, he establishes a relationship with Willem that, though hard for him, is the closest he comes to contentment, but which is then ripped apart by Willem’s death. At this point he lets himself go entirely, unable to control his core drives, with self-harm and starvation escalating, and his relationships with JB, his adoptive parents Harold and Julia and friend / doctor Andy falling apart.

This book is so so sad. The length of the book means we get deep into Jude’s psyche and history, neither of which are nice to read, but both of which explain his behaviour, his life. And his life is both, as the book title says, little as he is so self-limiting, but also big because he has experienced more than anyone ever should.

For me, this book made me reflect on two things.

That people of all sorts, even the most apparently successful or brilliant, might be hiding brutal personal truths or emotions or even physical scars beneath the surface of their personality or clothes. It’s obvious but the brilliant, brutal exploration in this book really makes it so apparent.

And second, that despite everything, therapy and time and love will not always allow people to overcome or come to terms with their past and live happily or lightly; sometimes the experience is so horrific that a person’s life is so badly damaged that they can never live without despair, pain or suicidal thoughts hijacking their every moment.

My work is not yet done – Thomas Ligotti

This is the closest thing to traditional writing that I’ve read by Ligotti, but it doesn’t disappoint in its dose of supernatural horror and, in fact, humour.

Frank Dominio is a supervisor at a large corporate; he tolerates the mundane work but despises his colleagues, especially, six supervisors of other departments and their boss Richard, which he dubs ‘The Seven.’

After making a proposal for a new product to The Seven, they conspire against him and he is sacked. Frank plans revenge by visiting a gun shop and ordering seven guns. All very Falling Down. But then, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but entail a large black fog and, it seems, a mystical deal, he finds himself in his apartment in possession of supernatural powers.

He uses these to take revenge on each of The Seven, through some bizarre, macabre and disturbing acts. One of the seven finds herself sucked into an oozing substance in a door, for example, while another is trapped inside the body of one of Ligotti’s trademark motifs, a mannequin.

Frank only comes unstuck when it transpires that Richard himself has some supernatural links and that his earlier deal allowed him to kill only seven people; a problem because he had to deal with another office worker during his activities (trapping him in a never-ending series of doors.) To be honest, this results in a slightly weaker ending than I’d have expected, but nevertheless the book remains great regardless.

I love Ligotti’s work – his writing, his ideas, his weirdness – and this book is no exception. In fact, it’s got everything you’d want from a Ligotti story but puts it into a scenario it’s easy to relate to – dissatisfaction with all the bullshit of work – making it in many ways a stronger and perhaps more disturbing read.

The Town Manager – Thomas Ligotti

One of Ligotti’s finest short stories, The Town Manager is a disturbing allegory for urban politics and decay.

In an unnamed town, the protagonist tells of the role of the Town Manager, whose job is to run the town. The last one – the latest in a long line – has disappeared, and a new one comes along.

Their first job is to undo the best work of previous managers, in this case getting residents to destroy the tram service, with the driver found dead. Then they demand everyone in the town change the organisations and businesses they run, creating a bizarre carnivalesque world, in which shop fronts open into distorted or horrific scenes.

The narrator discovers that there are brochures for the town in nearby places, and the town manager has been marketing it as a bizarro-town to visit. It’s a success for a while, but when the tourists die down the town manager disappears.

The narrator leaves the town and travels through nearby no-hope towns until, in a diner, he meets a stranger whose job is to recruit… a town manager.

Like so much of Ligotti’s writing this is a great story and more: an indictment of political power and the willing gullibility of citizens, when there is no hope or wealth in a perhaps once great American city.

“All of us had problems, it seemed, whose sources were untraceable, crossing over like the trajectories of countless raindrops in a storm, blending to create a fog of delusion and counter-delusion. Powerful connections and forces were undoubtedly at play, yet they seemed to have no faces and no names.”

Thomas Ligotti, Gas Station Carnivals

I’ve seen the future baby; it’s murder – Tara Isabella Burton

A hugely relevant short story with a cutting critique of our apolitical narcissistic times.

Henry and Susan are the kinds of people who hate each other: he a part of the American elite, she a left feminist. But in their late twenties they meet one another at chance and strike up a loveless relationship based around sex and drink.

Their relationship is really a series of nights at hotels, where they antagonise and sometimes discuss politics with one another, both knowing they’re diametrically opposed to one another and stand for what the other hates.

Their first night together is the one when David Bowie dies, the second when Prince dies. The third, and the focus of the story, is Trump’s election. They are in a hotel, getting wasted as it happens, and they end up arguing, waking up with little recollection of what they did, then driving home via a sleezy motel where they argue, have sex and Henry gets beat up pointlessly defending his Porsche.

This is a good read but more than anything is a story for the Trump era, one that perhaps explains to us why Trump can succeed: irony and self-absorption are such motivating factors for Henry and Susan that political and social events, however much they dislike or care about them, are nothing more than a backdrop to their lives. They dislike one another’s politics but ignore it for the hedonistic pleasure of being completely other than themselves.

Tellingly, Susan even runs out of time to vote because she’s meeting Henry, and so feels partially responsible for Trump’s victory because she did nothing to stop it, because she was so obsessed with her own disingenuous enjoyment that she let something terrible happen.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

This has more than you could expect from a big American novel – immigration, assimilation, sprawling and complicated families, race, food, diners, urban decline, enterprise, all of it – but with an added twist that marks the ambivalence of everything.

The narrator is Calliope Stephanides, a hermaphrodite. This is her / his story but it’s also that of her Greek immigrant grandparents Desdemona and Lefty, and her parents Tessie and Milton. It begins with her grandparents living in Greece and eventually travelling to the States during war. In these extraordinary times Desdemona and Lefty, who are in fact brother and sister, realise their love for one another and marry, though vow to tell nobody.

After moving to America we follow them finding their way in the US and settling in Detroit. Lefty earns money by starting a speakeasy and then a bar – the Zebra Rooms – they have children, and the book then moves on to their son, Milton, and his wife Tessie. Whereas the grandparents remain only partially assimilated, Milton is the all-American male of the American dream, eventually creating a successful chain of hot dog restaurants, but managing to alienate his wife and kids with his posturing masculinity.

Then comes Calliope (and her oddly named brother, Chapter Eleven), and we follow her through the first 16 or so years of her life. Her gradual coming of age as a teenager sees her peers becoming adolescents but Calliope’s body refusing to grow breasts or begin periods. She falls for another girl (known as the Obscure Object), but eventually she ends up going to see a sex specialist who diagnoses her and says a small operation will make her all-girl.

But Calliope doesn’t feel like a girl, so she runs away – hitching, living in a park in San Francisco and becoming an act in a sexual freak show. And she cuts her hair, changes her name to Cal and becomes a boy.

This is just one of those huge absorbing novels, where you can get lost in the characters and the romance and the details. The lives of the family are set against the backdrop of Greek and Turkish wars, prohibition, race riots, the rise and decline of industry in Detroit, sexual liberation, all of it.

As the narrator, Calliope gives us details that nobody could know – about her grandparents, about herself in the womb – making it part research, part fantasy, part guesswork, part elaboration, part author’s license.

And throughout, what Eugenides gives us the ambiguity of life – nothing is straightforward. The Greek war with Turkey, the island of Cyprus split between the two, marital and familial love, nature and nurture, sexuality and gender, nothing is ever one thing or the other but lives in an ambiguous place in the middle. Middlesex.

“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness’, ‘joy’, or ‘regret’… I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.'”

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

The Electric Michelangelo – Sarah Hall

Told with precision and beauty, this is a hugely atmospheric story of a life both fully and partly lived.

It tracks one man’s life, Cy Parks, and how it grows and shrinks with those he love and ultimately loses – his childhood friends in Morcambe, Reeda his Mum, Eliot Riley his drunk mentor and boss, and Grace his would-be lover.

Set in the 1920s to the 60s, Cy is a tattoo artist who learns his trade in Morcambe under the tutorage of the alcoholic and ill tempered Eliot before moving to the US and taking a booth at Coney Island, where he meets the mysterious and powerful Grace. As he tattoos eyes all over her body, they appear to fall for one another, but the opportunity is cut short by an attack on her by someone who hated that she was a strong woman challenging the conventions of what it was to be a woman.

The descriptions and contrasts between Morcambe and Coney Island are vivid, conjuring up the people, the smells, the eccentricities, as well as contrasting the solid predictability of Morecambe with the transgressive-ness of Coney. Hall expresses both so well.

The female characters are strong in this book – his Mum is a hotelier by day and abortionist by night (it’s set in the 1920s to 1950s) and Grace’s life is one of fierce independence, someone who challenges the objectification of women by tattooing eyes all over her body.

So much of this book is an original and insightful exploration of tattooing – of how the skin is a vital organ, of how the skin bares the soul, how a tattoo is a way for people to express conscious and unconscious parts of their selves, and ultimately how skin, the body, is intricately linked to the mind.

Moshin Hamid – Exit West

This is a humanising story about immigration and the effect it has on people – a brilliantly written book that feels so right for the times.

It focuses on two young people in an unnamed but presumably Middle Eastern city – Nadia and Saeed. Nadia’s a bit of a rebel, riding a motorbike, though she maintains safety by wearing a long black robe. Saeed is not so rebellious but is an honest man, interested in girls and a little weed like most his age.

They get together slowly, and then quickly, before their city begins to resemble a war zone as militants attack and the government defends. They see less of each other and Saeed’s Mum is killed in a bombing.

Then they hear about doors popping up all over the city, ones that lead to other towns and cities. First they travel to Mykonos in Greece, then London, then San Francisco. We see the stress and isolation and hardship takes its toll on their relationship, in time growing irritable with one another and ultimately apart.

The first thing that’s striking about the book is its style – short, yes, but importantly very readable and the author all-knowing. It’s written in this style, arguably, in order to present their experiences as objective in some way, or at least to be dispassionate in the telling.

Also striking is the richness of the two main characters, their depth. At no point are they stereotypes but instead are a complex mix of fun, and sadness, and music, and rebellion, and piety, and fun. Unlike say, Rose Tremain, whose plot and main character in The Road Home are gripping but follow the familiar story of the East European migrant, Hamid’s characters are of their own – as of course all migrants, all people, are.

The Independence Patch – Bryan Camp

This an intriguing and amusing short story exploring the future of humankind by an author I hadn’t come across before.

Donny is teenager who like most of his kind is fed up with school, hates his teachers and wants to have sex. The difference is he’s part robot, part human – ‘technically a cyborg’ as his Mum tells his teacher.

It’s unclear quite why he’s a cyborg (though his mother is a hacker activist which might explain it), but he’s not alone, there are others living among standard humans too. But it’s tricky for him. He’s constantly plugged into the internet and he can download information constantly, making his classes and exams a joke. He can be precise about everything because he is himself technology.

What the technology doesn’t help with, though, is negotiating his relations with other people. In particular he has a relationship with a girl who dumps him, and he struggles to deal with it, as any young kind would do. So, on his 18th birthday he downloads an ‘independence patch’, which allows him to take control of the technology inside him – yet even then it doesn’t help him understand other people.

The story is fun to listen to (it was on the Lightspeed podcast). Donny is a good character, an ultimately kind but typical teenager who finds himself in some amusing scenes with his teacher. But the story also raises good questions about the possibilities and limits of technology: it might be useful but can technology allow us to deal with human emotion or just raw data, facts?

For me, I’m not so sure that the hard data / soft emotion distinction really holds up. As technology develops, with AI and the like, surely it will be possible to both understand sentiments on a meta level through data and read emotion on an individual level, meaning that we / cyborgs will be able to predict and react to what people’s emotions.

Either way this is a great story that makes you think.