My Month in Books: October 2020

It’s spooky season and this month my reads have ghosts, witches, werewolves and institutional racism. No contest about which is the scariest!

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

I love when brilliant and clever people write brilliant and clever books. Akala is an award-winning rapper, performer and public intellectual who is known for his insightful and incisive opinions on race and class in modern British society. Natives is somewhere between a memoir, recounting his early life growing up in London as a mixed race child in the eighties and nineties, and polemic, shining a light on the hypocrisies and inadequacies of the way that British society perceives its history and its ongoing relationship with racism and social immobility. Akala’s knowledge is almost encyclopaedic on the academic subjects he’s discussing and I learned so much about black history and the British Empire from this book but it’s the biographical sections that had the most impact. His description of his educational experience was infuriating and heartbreaking in equal measure and honestly made me want to burn the whole thing down and start over. Likewise his accounts of how young people get pulled into lives of dangerous criminality was matter-of-fact and compassionate, taking the rare approach of highlighting the rationality and reasonableness that can underlie so many ‘bad choices’. This book is wide-ranging, passionately argued and was a perfect read for Black History Month.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

This was a seasonally appropriate, spooky read set in 1890s Malaysia. It’s centres around Li Lan, a young woman whose family has fallen on hard times and has few prospects of marriage. Her life is turned upside down when her father is approached by the wealthy and influential Lim family, who want her to marry their son. There’s just one catch – their son is dead. Haunted by a ghostly and malevolent suitor, Li Lan must travel to the land of the dead to find a way to banish him and fight for her life and freedom. This is was ultimately a fun read. It was slow in parts but the world building was great and it was very interesting to get into Malaysian mythology and lore around death and the afterlife.

Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates

Laura Bates, the founder of the excellent and influential Everyday Sexism Project, has gone deeper into the grimmest parts of the internet than most of us would dare in order to show us that, actually, behaviours that we associate with nasty trolls who live in their mum’s basements have started to pervade and affect our day to day lives. Bates has spent long periods of time undercover on incel, pick up artist and MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) forums to map and understand the ‘manosphere’ – a coalition of men united by their hatred of women and hostile attitudes towards gender equality. This book is eye-opening for anyone who has managed to avoid this particular corner of the internet but Bates makes a convincing argument that our ignorance about these men and their extremist activities is becoming increasingly dangerous and has cost lives. Invoking a range of attacks committed in recent years by members of the manosphere as well as the ‘acceptable misogyny’ exhibited by mainstream public figures, Bates makes a compelling case for more aggressive tactics to tackle this growing tide of extremism that is affecting more and more young men. I also found the sections in the men’s liberation movement of the early 70s to be very interesting and heartening, as well as the sections where she highlighted the brilliant work of charities such as The Good Lad Initiative, Promundo and the White Ribbon Coalition, all of which work alongside feminist organisations to free men from restrictive gender stereotypes that hurt and repress them.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

There’s something about this time of year that always makes me want to read books about magic. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman is a much-loved classic of the genre that I’ve been meaning to get around to for ages though I must say I found myself a bit disappointed. The book centres on Sally and Gillian Owens, two sisters who descend from an exceptionally witchy family. Their powers have made them outcasts in their small town and both are on a quest to leave the past behind them. After being widowed at a young age, Sally is determined to build a ‘normal’ life for herself and her two daughters while Gillian refuses to sit still, traipsing across the country and enchanting a seemingly endless string of men to fall for her. But, when after decades of separation, Gillian appears in Sally’s doorway with the body of her latest fling in the car, the sisters realise that you can’t run away from the past forever. I honestly think I found myself relating more to the the eccentric and magical aunts than to Sally or Gillian and just wanted more of the novel to focus on them and the history of the Owens family. When it centred on the younger generations the plot felt quite unfocused. Plus, I’m willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to magic spells and hauntings – but no way do I believe anyone would choose to avoid being a witch if they had the option. Too unrealistic for me.

Our Women on the Ground: Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World by Zahra Hankir

Our Women on the Ground is a collection of nineteen essays written by Arab women on their experience of working as journalists in the Middle East. From Syria, to Saudi Arabia, to Egypt and to Yemen, these women often take huge personal risks in order to report on the situations in these countries and more. This book is a fascinating read for anyone seeking to learn more about the rich and diverse culture of the Arab world as well as an insight into what motivates journalists to keep doing the work they do, even in the most terrifying and heartbreaking circumstances.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I loved this book. Naomi Novik is one of my favourite fantasy authors right now and she’s outdone herself with the world building on this one. A Deadly Education is set in a semi-sentient, extremely dangerous magical school that acts as a magnet for homicidal monsters who are just dying to eat young witches and wizards. Our heroine is El, who is just trying to survive until graduation while managing her incredibly powerful affinity for dark magic. She’s in conflict with Orion, the school’s resident hero who has a bad habit of upsetting the balance of the universe by saving too many lives and starving the local monsters into a frenzy. I liked the magic system that Novik creates here and the twist that she’s taken on the idea that magic must always come with a price. I also really liked this twist on the ‘magical school’ trope – people joke that it’s a miracle Hogwarts wasn’t shut down because so many students die every year but Novik has made the danger of the school integral to the plot rather than a mere plot device. The result is a really exciting new fantasy series and I can’t wait until the next one comes out.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

This read felt very seasonally appropriate indeed. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is a collection of short stories by Angela Carter, in which she takes the dark and creepy undercurrents that are present in so many traditional fairy tales and brings them to the forefront. The overarching feeling you get while reading this collection is that of walking through a familiar forest in the dead of night, knowing that something is creeping up behind you. All of the tropes of traditional fairy tales are there but magnified to an uncomfortable and unfamiliar extent that leaves the reader is a sense of perpetual suspense as they await the unexpected twist in the tale. A perfect Halloween read.

Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue

Scenes of a Graphic Nature centres around Charlie Regan, a young woman from the U.K. who is a struggling film maker and has put her life on hold to be there for her terminally ill father. Her one achievement is the film she wrote and directed about her father’s life, specifically about how he is the sole survivor of a terrible accident that devastated his rural Irish community. When Charlie is invited to show her film at the Cork Film Festival, she jumps at the chance to visit her father’s homeland but the longer she spends in Ireland, the more certain she becomes that there are parts of the story that her father left out. Broadly I enjoyed this book. The plot was engaging and well-paced and the mystery at the heart of the story was well thought out. I just felt frustrated by the number of loose ends left at the end – there was no real resolution to Charlie’s complicated relationship with her best friend Laura or any interaction with her father after the revelations that follow her arrival in Ireland. Likewise the ‘reveal’ of the truth felt anti-climatic due to the lack of any actual consequences for anyone involved. It felt a bit like the novel was driven by a series of points the author wanted to make rather than a coherent plot.

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

In times of trouble I love a good Tudor-based historical fiction, though I hadn’t read one before that had Jane Seymour as the central character. Jane was the third wife of Henry VIII, who he married just days after executing Anne Boleyn and who bore Henry his much desired son and died right after. Her time in the spotlight was short-lived, but she bore witness to much of the events of Henry VIII’s first divorce while acting as a lady in waiting to both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. It was interesting to read about these well-known historical events from her perspective and it allowed for moments of delicious irony, such as her wondering how Katherine could still love Henry after all his cruelty and judging Anne for stealing away the husband of her mistress – both things Jane herself would go on to do. I also really liked the insertion of supernatural elements into the book although I can see this irritating some historical purists! My only quibble is this book paints Jane as a bit too much of an innocent lamb for my liking, I would have liked to see her with a bit more agency or at least acting like something other than a perfect angel 24/7 but overall Alison Weir continues to knock it out of the park with this series.

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