My Month in Books: February 2021

Forced Out: A Detective’s Story of Prejudice and Resilience by Kevin Maxwell

I thought I’d kick off LGBT+ History Month with a bit of recent history. Forced Out is the autobiography of Kevin Maxwell, a black, gay man and a former Metropolitan police officer, who took the force to an employment tribunal and won due to their entrenched culture of homophobia and racism. Maxwell’s story is honestly a deeply dispiriting read, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. Essentially it tracks his disillusionment with the force, opening with him as an optimistic and precocious child who has dreamed of serving his community as a police officer from an early age. Even when his colleagues treat him atrociously, excluding him, hurling slurs in his direction and denying him promotions, Maxwell is driven by an incredibly resilient desire to fulfil his childhood dream and serve the citizens of his community. The book is written with very little emotion, in spite of the emotional and upsetting nature of its subject matter, which I think might put some people off. But for me, the detailed and forensic nature of the writing makes it clear that Maxwell must have been a hell of detective and that the force lost one of their brightest the day they forced him out. Forced Out is a damning indictment of the culture of the British police force, and while it offers very little hope to its readers that change is incoming from within the force, I think the issues it raises are important for people to be aware of in order to build the demand for a police service that is inclusive to all.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

I’d been meaning to read this book for a while after I was captured by its exciting premise and it came recommended by my Mum, who never steers me wrong when it comes to good books. It centres around Anna, a young woman who works for a temp agency that specialises in providing administrative support to super villains. At the start of the novel Anna is just looking for a way to pay her bills, but after a battle between her villainous boss and a famous superhero, she is left badly injured and with permanent mobility issues. Furious at what has been done to her and to countless others like her, Anna does what she does best – she makes a spreadsheet. She begins to calculate the damage that superheroes do, not just to so-called villains, but to civilians, in their pursuit of justice and eventually her work captures the attention of one of the most infamous super villains of all. He gives Anna the resources that she needs for her to start using her data to take on the superhero establishment and as the story progresses, the line between who is a hero and who is a villain becomes increasingly blurry. This novel was a totally compulsive read. The plot moved so quickly from major event to major event that I couldn’t put it down because I needed to know what was happening next. It expertly blends moments of real emotional depth with great laughs, heart-pounding action and truly horrifying elements (the ultimate fate of Supercollider was so incredibly and deliciously fucked up; a masterpiece). All I can say is, Natalie Zina Walschots – I salute you and I can’t wait to read whatever you’re writing next.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park is something of a red-headed stepchild among Jane Austen’s oeuvre. I’ve seen countless reviewers say they don’t enjoy it because they dislike the main character, Fanny, for being boring and priggish (I am firmly team #LeaveFannyAlone ) or because they find the fact that the novel ends with a wedding between two first cousins to be kind of skeevy (which is fair enough to be honest, not going to argue with that one). However, I feel like people who dislike Mansfield Park on these grounds are absolutely missing the point of arguably Austen’s funniest novel. The novel centres around Fanny Price, a poor relation of the wealthy Bertram family, who has been taken in by them as their ward but is not truly loved or treated as a member of the family. She is constantly reminded that she ought to be grateful to the Bertrams for showing her any decency at all and so she grows up into an anxious, nervous young woman who is constantly trying to oblige those around her and ensure that her conduct is above reproach. The precariousness of her position means that she struggles to advocate for herself and her lack of spirit and gumption seems to be the root of much of the dislike of this character. Fanny is also desperately in love with her older cousin, Edmund, because he is the only person in the Bertram family to treat her with love, kindness and consideration. The lives of the family are thrown into chaos with the arrival into the neighbourhood of the Crawford siblings, who are everything Fanny is not. They are witty, attractive, confident but also deeply insincere and shallow people and it is the contrast between their fashionable and attractive demeanours and their weak characters (along with the inability of much of the Bertram family to recognise this) that drives much of the action of the novel. At its heart, Mansfield Park is a biting social satire which relentlessly mocks all of the hypocrisies of upperclass society in Regency England and Fanny is a protagonist who has been expertly designed to highlight these elements to the reader. In spite of her perceived weakness, she is the only character in the novel who constantly remains true to herself and her principles, making her, in my opinion, the strongest character in the novel.

Girl A by Abigail Dean

Girl A is an engrossing and complex debut novel with a dark subject matter. The novel centres around the Gracie family, who became infamous after it emerged that the parents had starved, incarcerated and tortured their children. Our protagonist, Lex, is the eldest Gracie daughter who heroically managed to escape her parents’ ‘House of Horrors’ through a window, alert the police of the abuse and rescue her siblings from her parents. If graphic descriptions of violence and abuse put you off, don’t worry, this isn’t that kind of novel. Dean chooses instead to focus on the long term psychological impact that their upbringing has had on each of the Gracie children and how it has twisted and frayed their relationships with each other. The novel begins years after their escape from their parents, with Lex having just been made the executor of their mother’s will after she has died in prison. They have all been left an equal share of their childhood home and must decide what is to be done with it. Lex and her sister Evie want to turn in into a community centre but they must get each of their siblings to agree to their proposal in order to move forward. The relationships between the siblings are complicated to say the least, with each of them having experienced and in some cases, were even participants in, their parents abuse to varying extents and all of responded to their trauma differently as adults. Dean really dives into the messy grey areas and ambiguities of these relationships and the result is a fascinating psychological portrait of a family pushed to breaking point and warped almost, but not quite, beyond recognition.

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I love turning to Taylor Jenkins Reid when I want something that has a lighter subject matter but still a really good, engrossing story and I was lucky enough to find a proof copy of her not yet published book Malibu Rising in a book box outside my local park. It tells the story of the famous Riva siblings, who have all been variously impacted by their unsettled childhood with a deadbeat father and an alcoholic mother. Every summer they host an enormous party in Malibu that is attended by all of the great and good of Hollywood but this year the secrets that the siblings have been keeping from each other and themselves will bubble to the surface and by the end of the night the Riva mansion will have burned to the ground. This book was highly readable and perfect if you’re looking for a bit of an escape to a far off sunny beach.

I Want To Be Where The Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom

Rachel Bloom is one of my favourite funny people on the planet. I’ve loved her since she first started posting musical comedy sketches on Youtube and I am a die hard fan of her brilliant TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (if you haven’t watched it yet, what are you doing? Go! It’s on Netflix now!). So naturally when I saw she was publishing a collection of personal essays, it went straight to the top of my TBR list. What I love about Bloom’s work is her uncanny ability to take a heavy, scary topic and to make it absolutely hilarious while still handling it intelligently and sensitively. I picked up this book when I was going through a period of really struggling with my mental health and Bloom made me feel like I was less alone in a way that I really, desperately needed in that moment. She also made me laugh my ass off, which I also really needed. The subject matter of this book ranges from middle school bullies to shitty relationships to musical theatre to the struggles of being potty trained and is written in across an incredible range of styles, from Harry Potter fanfiction to amusement park maps. Bloom is so creative and so goddamn funny and I really don’t know what else to tell you other than get on board and read this book. If you’re still not convinced she’s brilliant, try watching this and if you’re still not feeling it, I can’t relate to you.

Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait by Alison Weir

When I find myself in times of trouble, my boyfriend comes to me, speaking words of wisdom: ‘Why don’t you read one of your nice books about the Tudors, that usually makes you feel better?’. He is right, he is always right. Alison Weir is continuing to do a brilliant job with her Six Tudor Queens series, in which one book is dedicated to telling the story of each of the six wives of Henry VIII. This one centred around Anna of Kleve, Henry VIII’s fourth wife who he famously divorced for allegedly being much uglier than her portrait had suggested. I hadn’t read a book that entirely centred on Anna before and I really enjoyed getting to read about her life after Henry divorced her. My only issue was that Weir seems to have taken a number of liberties with the facts and much of the drama in the earlier and latter portions of the book was derived from events that most historians would dispute. However, I appreciate that it’s difficult to write a compelling novel about a woman happily retiring to the countryside to live alone and mind her own business so I won’t judge Weir too harshly.

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