This was a bumper month of reading for me. Due to pandemic-induced publishing delays, more books were published in September 2020 than any other month in history. This also meant I got new reads from some of my favourite authors, including Louise O’Neill, Caitlin Moran and The Secret Barrister mixed in with reading older books and discovering new authors. Essentially I became a kid in a candy store and hammered through twelve books in thirty days. Keep reading for my thoughts on the best and worst of them!
Curtis Sittenfeld has written a novel with an audacious and intriguing premise: What if Hillary Clinton had never married Bill and what would that seemingly insignificant decision mean for American politics – and for Hillary herself- in the decades to come? I had seriously complicated feelings about this book before I picked it up, mostly because it feels ethically dubious to speculate about someone’s personal relationships in so much depth and to draw conclusions about the impact those relationships have had on global politics. And yet I still found myself buying it and, once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. Maybe this is just the part of me that still feels angry and sad about the 2016 US election and stressed about the 2020 one but I couldn’t resist being pulled into about an alternate universe where American politics looks so different and yet so frustratingly similar. I was totally captivated by this story, needing to know what was going to happen next and how it was going to end. One thing that really struck me was how well Sittenfeld seems to know her subject. I read Clinton’s book What Happened shortly after it came out and I’m amazed by how accurately Sittenfeld has captured her voice. It almost felt like it was really her speaking. I was also impressed that Sittenfeld resisted the temptation to make an angel or a martyr out of her version of Hillary. Like her real life equivalent, she is diligent, intelligent and eager to change the world but she’s also flawed. She makes bad decisions, she hurts people and she’s willing to compromise on her morals to get to where she wants to be. I found myself relating to and rooting for the fictional Hillary, as I did her real life counterpart.
People say that if you throw a frog into boiling water that it will panic and jump to safety, but if you heat up the water slowly, the frog won’t notice and will be boiled to death. Louise O’Neill is a master of writing from the perspective of the frog. Often her protagonists are trapped in increasingly dangerous situations and are left convincing themselves everything is fine as the temperature rises around them and the water starts to bubble. After the Silence is no exception. The protagonist, Keelin Kinsella, lives with her family on the remote island of Inisrún where years ago a beautiful young local girl was mysteriously and violently murdered. The killer was never found, but the people of Inisrún are quick to blame Keelin’s husband Henry, a ‘blow in’ who has always been considered an outsider by the locals. The family live ostracised by the rest of the island until a film crew arrives to make a documentary about the murder, which Henry hopes will clear his name. Keelin, however, has never been the same since the night of the murder and as the film crew starts asking questions and stirring up the past, her incredibly fragile facade of normality begins to fracture beyond repair and she is forced to reckon with the secrets her family have been hiding – and how complicit she has been in burying the truth. This is being marketed as a mystery but it felt less whodunnit and more like a psychological thriller. It is brilliantly paced, atmospheric and pulls the reader deep into Keelin’s interior world, which is frankly a deeply uncomfortable place to be. Even as the reader wants to help her, they’re also left wondering what she isn’t telling them and who exactly she’s protecting. Louise O’Neill continues to be one of my absolute favourite authors, now I just have to kill time until her next book comes out.
It’s always a delight when a book has an intriguing premise and is beautifully written. This Is How You Lose The Time War manages to be an innovative and exciting work of science fiction while transcending its genre to meditate on the meaning of time, progress and history. This is largely an epistolary novel, containing an exchange of letters between Red and Blue, time travelling agents who are employed by rival organisations locked in perpetual war over the fate of the timeline. While their letters begin as taunts from across a bloody battlefield, they gradually develop a friendship and, eventually, a forbidden romance. But they are still locked into war that only one side can win and if their relationship is discovered it will mean certain death. If that premise isn’t enough to get you interested, perhaps the interesting way in which it is written will. The book is jointly written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, with El-Mohtar writing all of Blue’s letters and Gladstone writing all of Red’s. Because you really are reading an exchange between two distinct writers, known for writing poetry and fiction respectively, the reader feels a palpable shift in each of the two characters writing styles. Both authors also happen to have an absolutely beautiful, lyrical style of writing that feels slightly otherworldly but is also peppered with distinctly nerdy jokes. In short, I was in heaven. This book also happens to be very short (only 200 pages) so I can’t recommend losing a day or so getting absorbed in it enough.
I Am Not Your Baby Mother is an observant, funny, devastating and deeply personal look at the homogenous portrayal of motherhood in British culture and the problems this creates and compounds for black mothers. Candice Braithwaite shines a light on issues that, due to my privilege, I hadn’t been aware of, such as the fear of raising children of colour in a city environment vs the fear that they’ll be ostracised for their race in a more rural community. My heart broke reading these sections and I can’t begin to imagine how much agonising goes into these decisions for millions of parents every day. The section of childbirth experiences was also so timely. I think people are becoming increasingly aware of failures in U.K. maternity care, coupled with devastating cuts to the NHS as well as changing expectations of how birth ‘should’ be on the part of mothers and how this is creating a time bomb for trauma and neglect of mothers, particularly mothers of colour. It’s an incredibly complicated landscape with no easy solutions but it was great to see the brilliant work of MBRRACE-UK highlighted and hopefully this book will spread awareness of this issue far and wide. Since I’ve finished reading it, I find myself referring back to this book in conversation again and again. Like all good memoirs, it lingers in the mind and offers a new lens through which to view the world.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Caitlin Moran’s first book How To Be A Woman changed my life. The way she talked about feminism and all the weird, uncomfortable, mad bits that come along with being female in such a funny, candid and straightforward way was a total lightning bolt moment for me and I have been asking myself WWCMD? (What Would Caitlin Moran Do?) in various tricky situations ever since. So when I heard that she was writing a follow up to ‘How To Be A Woman’ filled with even more hard-won wisdom and laughs, I was rushing out to buy my copy. And I’ve not been disappointed! Caitlin is as funny and wise as ever and she has a real gift for articulating complicated and hard to name feelings in a clear and memorable way. The sections on the differences in male and female socialisation and how women often ‘marry their own glass ceiling’ were particularly striking and poignant, while still being hilarious. But she also exhibits a huge amount of emotional vulnerability in this book. Her sections on mothering teenage girls are totally heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. Both she and her daughters are so strong and brave to share their experience with the world. Here’s hoping she writes a new one of these every decade so I can continue to enjoy her work well into my hag years.
This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It centres (unsurprisingly) around a young woman named Stella Fortuna. Stella was born in rural Italy in the 1920s and throughout her life she has a shockingly large number of near death experiences that may or may not be caused by the vengeful ghost of her older sister, who died as a baby. I enjoyed the early parts of the book that dealt with Stella’s childhood and her family history but after she emigrated to America and gets married the book just became so relentlessly depressing that I couldn’t really enjoy it. Essentially this book is about how life slowly kills you in a series of increasingly mundane ways before you actually die. Facing down the barrel of further lockdowns due to COVID-19 and all the banality that comes with them, I think this message hit a little too close to home to really be enjoyable.
Just as representatives of the U.K. government stand up in parliament saying that it’s fine to break international law, provided you do so in a ‘specific and limited way’, the mysterious Secret Barrister swoops in with a brilliantly timed polemic laying out the different ways that the British public are being manipulated into believing ‘fake law’ stories that ultimately undermine law and order. The Secret Barrister busts myths surrounding some of the biggest legal stories of the past few years – from Alfie Evans to Shamima Begum, from changes to employment tribunals to the recent attempted prorogation of Parliament – and offers a timely reminder that the law is for us and, in order for it to protect us and our families when we need it most, we need it to apply equally and robustly to everyone, no matter how unpopular decisions may be. It also shines a light on the dismal state of legal education in the U.K., which leaves the population incredibly susceptible to lies and distortions about sentencing, the role of the European Court of Human Rights, legal aid and much more. If it were up to me, I’d make everyone in the U.K. read this book. If they did, the standard of debate and discussion around politics and matters of law would be so much higher.
This book was sold to me on the premise of ‘It’s Cinderella except she’s a cyborg who has to save planet earth from being invaded by aliens from the moon with mind control powers.’ The problem was, the story itself couldn’t quite live up to the expectations set by that description. Don’t get me wrong, the image of Cinderella leaving her actual robotic foot behind as she flees a ball overrun by aliens trying to kill her fills me with great joy but the plot felt a bit predictable (the ‘big twist’ in particular was obvious from maybe one or two chapters in) and it didn’t quite pull me in enough to actually make me keen to read any further in this series. I think this is ultimately a series that would suit readers on the younger side of YA, who I have no doubt will have a greater appreciation for this futuristic and campy take on the classic fairytale.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson delivers what it promises in the title – a series of lives lived by one woman living in Britain in the first half of the 20th century in the shadow of World War I and II. Ursula Todd seems incapable of dying, whether she drowns, suffocates, becomes ill, gets hit by a bomb or even is murdered. She always seems to end up back where she started: Being born on a snowy day in February in 1910 with the chance to do things differently this time around. In each life it varies whether Ursula pursues education, what career path she follows, whether she gets married, whether she has children and how various family members and friends are impacted by the different twists and turns her lives take. The result is a brilliant, immersive study of the endlessness of human potential and the myriad selves and lives that live within all of us. It also poses the question of what it means to ‘live your best life’. Different readers will have different opinions on which of Ursula’s lives was her ‘best’ one but each is beautifully written and feels real and meaningful to the reader.
Heartburn is confirmation that Nora Ephron can make literally anything funny, even one of the most painful situations imaginable. Heartburn has been described as a ‘thinly disguised novel’ that fictionalises Ephron’s experience of discovering that her husband had been carrying on a months-long affair when she was seven months pregnant with his child. She rightly points out that when male authors cannibalise their relationships, the resulting novels are rarely called ‘thinly disguised’ but they also rarely exhibit this amount of emotional depth and complexity while still remaining hilarious. The details are what makes this story – from her therapy group being robbed at gunpoint, to her producer suddenly and absurdly proposing to her, to her spreading a rumour that her husband’s affair partner has a horrifying vaginal infection. Heartburn will basically make you laugh and cry on a relentless loop for 170 pages. I cannot recommend it enough.
It’s only in recent years that I’ve noticed that reading fiction can be perceived as ‘girly’. I’ve had conversations with men who say they don’t read fiction because they don’t see the point in it and I’ve also spoken to men who say they’d love to join a book club but that there don’t seem to be any ‘for men’. I picked up this book with these interactions in mind, hoping to understand how and why the reading of fiction became a ‘feminine’ hobby and why female readers of fiction are so much more prevalent than male ones. Through extensive research and over 500 personal interviews with female authors and readers alike, Helen Taylor explores the history of women’s fiction reading from beloved novels, to favourite genres to book clubs (amusingly referred to as ‘the female equivalent of freemasonry’). Taylor ultimately explores how the reading of fiction has shaped and influenced the way that women understand their own lives and stories, while not shying away from how factors such as race and class can impact attitudes and access to fiction. This book is a total treat for book lovers – while the topic is fascinating I got so much joy out of reading the excerpts from interviews of female readers. It’s such a wonderful feeling to feel connected to others through a hobby and shared love of reading just seeps out of the pages of this book.
The sequel to last year’s very popular Ren Faire romcom Well Met, Well Played picks up with Stacey Lindholm, another devotee of the Willow Creek Ren Faire and a young woman who feels like she’s wasting her life still living in her small hometown with her parents at 27. Stacey spends her days playing with her cat, seeking validation on Instagram and looking forward to her town’s annual Ren Faire, the only time of year she gets to leave her life behind and pretend to be someone different. She strikes up an email correspondence and long distance romance with a travelling performer from the Faire, but he is not all that he appears. Honestly the romantic element of this book didn’t do a lot for me, the more interesting narrative thread here was Stacey gaining the courage to make changes and start living her life for herself. I was also disappointed by the smaller role that the actual Faire played in this one. I’m reading this for the jousts dammit.