My Month in Books: March 2021

How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? by Pandora Sykes

I’ve been missing the measured, reassuring voice of The High Low in the months since the podcast came to an end. Pandora Sykes’ first book, a collection of essays on modern life, is a great tonic for this. Sykes’ work spans everything from navigating the minefield of modern wellness trends to living with burnout to the struggles of being constantly contactable. I particularly enjoyed ‘The Authentic Lie’ which muses on the pursuit of the authentic self and how that reconciles with how we present ourselves to the world, online and off. What’s particularly nice about this book is that Sykes doesn’t take a directive approach with her readers. Rather than pontificating on the ‘right’ way to think about each of the issues she raises, she asks a series of thought-provoking and probing questions, giving her readers space to do their own thinking and agree or disagree as we move through the book. This makes How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? a surprisingly pleasant reading experience for anyone who finds the black and white thinking so often exhibited online exhausting.

Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn

Another book, another Bridgerton sibling packed off into the sunset to live a life of marital bliss after a series of completely avoidable misunderstandings. This time it is Colin’s turn to find love and he finds it with Penelope Featherington, the awkward and unpopular spinster who has been in love with him since childhood. However, Penelope has a lot more going on beneath the surface than her friends and family might expect. This addition to the Bridgerton series was broadly very fun though once again I did find myself getting frustrated by the way that everyone in these books is incapable of actually saying what they mean and how they are feeling in a non-cryptic way. But if you liked the other books in this series and you’re able to turn off that nit-picking, cynical part of your brain, you should enjoy this book too.

Daddy by Emma Cline

Lockdown was definitely impacting my attention span earlier this month, so I figured short stories might be a good solution. However, Daddy feels much more cohesive than most short story collections. The stories are all united by exploring the complex power dynamics that can exist in relationships, in particular between men and women but also between friends, siblings and parents and children. There is often the shadow of violence and trauma lurking beneath the surface of the stories but Cline is deliberately sparse with her details, leaving blanks for the reader to fill in and mull over. When advising women on how to achieve a truly stylish look, Coco Chanel once suggested “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Cline does this expertly when writing. In lesser hands, this collection could have felt like a ripped-from-the-headlines examination of post-Me Too gender dynamics but in Cline’s it feels like a sophisticated and considered meditation on power, privilege and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

White Ivy by Susie Yang

White Ivy is a twisted coming of age story that centres around Ivy Lin, a young Chinese immigrant who is fixated on achieving the material trappings of wealth associated with the American dream. Gideon Speyer, a privileged scion of a wealthy Massachusetts political family and the object of her affection, is a symbol of all that Ivy wants in life. She pursues him relentlessly and ruthlessly, winning over Gideon and his family by presenting herself as a picture-perfect partner and hiding the darker, messier aspects of her past and personality. But when an old flame unexpectedly re-enters her life, Ivy is caught between her desire for position, status and an idealised image of who she ought to be and the temptation to let herself be truly known for who she is. This was a really compulsive read and it was full of twists and turns that make it difficult to put down. Ivy’s Machiavellian attitude to getting what she wants makes for an unpredictable rollercoaster of a novel.

Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women by Kate Manne

This month I was saddened, shaken, but not shocked, by the tragic death of Sarah Everard and felt prompted to pick up this book. I loved Kate Manne’s first book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny because of her forensic and tightly argued examination of what misogyny actually is and how it serves to reinforce patriarchy. Her background as a professor of moral philosophy means that she comes at the problem from a refreshing angle and breathes new life into concepts that to some may seem tired. Entitled hones in on the particular problem of men’s sense of entitlement – to sex, admiration, power, knowledge and more – and how this contributes to a range of societal ills including medical discrimination, mass killings by ‘incels’ and the pervasive notion that women just aren’t ‘electable’. The only criticism of Down Girl that I’m willing to accept was that it was written in highly academic language that would make it inaccessible to the average reader and I’m delighted that Entitled goes some way to alleviating this. I personally found this a much easier read than Down Girl and whizzed through it in a couple of days (though I was partly fuelled by feminist rage). The other difference between this book and Down Girl that I particularly enjoyed was the ending. Down Girl ends on a despondent note, with Manne unsure to what extent the societal issues of misogyny and sexism can ever be fully tackled. But in Entitled Manne is much more optimistic – she has to be, as she was pregnant with her first child, a daughter, as she was writing the book. She ends Entitled still unsure how these problems can be tackled but driven to find a way somehow so that her daughter can live a better life. I was deeply moved by her choice to end the book with a list of all the things she wanted her daughter to feel entitled to and I share her sense of determined optimism, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I’ve been seeing this book recommended in tonnes of places over the last few months and, after receiving a copy for Christmas, I’ve finally managed to get around to actually reading it. The Vanishing Half centres around the Desiree and Stella Vignes, twin girls who grow up in a small, southern black community called Mallard. What makes Mallard unusual is that everyone in the town is unusually light-skinned to the extent that many of them could actually pass for white if they chose to. At sixteen, the twins run away from home to work in New Orleans but eventually they diverge to walk down two very different paths and become estranged. Stella chooses to abandon her family and start a new life as a white woman while Desiree continues to live her life as a black woman and raises a very dark-skinned daughter. Ultimately this book is the story of a family and each character is so richly realised that it almost doesn’t feel like a novel. Bennett’s storytelling is so gentle and so accomplished that it almost feels as if the story is rolling past you like a slow-moving river. The plot feels completely natural and inevitable. This was my book club pick for March and I would definitely recommend it for other book clubs, there’s a lot in here to generate plenty of discussion.

Leaving Coy’s Hill by Katherine A. Sherbrooke

The best kind of historical fiction novels make us consider the present and the future as well as the past. Leaving Coy’s Hill by Katherine A. Sherbrooke is a fine example of this. Her novel centres around a lesser known leader of the early American women’s rights movement, Lucy Stone. Born in 1818 to a pro-abolition family, Stone is conscious from an early age of the inalienable rights of her fellow human beings and concludes that, for women, the marriage laws of the time strip them of almost all of their rights, rendering them little better off than chattel. She vows to never marry until the situation is changes. Although it is considered highly inappropriate for a woman to speak publicly, Stone goes to university and trains in rhetoric to hone her natural gift for public speaking so that she can fight for the abolition of slavery. She faces much resistance to her choosing this path and the resistance only grows once she decides she also wants to use her talents to fight for the rights of women as well. The novel is narrated by Stone in the first person, as she looks back on her life and tells her story to a young women’s rights campaigner. This choice created a wonderful sense of the story being handed down from previous generations of women directly to the reader and Sherbrooke does a brilliant job of creating a distinctive and vibrant voice for Stone, which is all the more impressive considering we have very few of her speeches surviving today. While reading this book, I was often reminded of the musical Hamilton, not only because the protagonists are both important historical figures who were largely written out of the official narrative, but also due to similarities in their personalities (their relentless energy, gift for speaking, unwillingness to compromise on what is important to them) and, of course, the question of legacy, which both works deal with beautifully. In ‘Hamilton’, Lin Manuel Miranda defines legacy as ‘planting seeds in a garden you never get to see’ and for me this line really sums up the life of Lucy Stone. So many of the questions Stone grapples with in this novel felt extremely pertinent to modern women. How can I forge a new path for myself in spite of the disapproval of my family? How can I best advocate for the change I want to see in the world? If I make compromises in my activism, am I being pragmatic or am I betraying my causes? Is it possible to have a true marriage of equals and what would that look like? How can I balance my career and my family? While this book is a wonderful tribute to the women who have sacrificed so much to win rights for women across the world, it is also a timely reminder of the fact that we can’t sit back on our laurels and think that the fight is won. We must continue working to honour their legacy. I have no doubt that Sherbooke’s telling of Stone’s story will inspire many going forward and will hopefully help to bring much more deserved attention to this largely forgotten historical figure.

The Dinner Party: A Tragedy by Sarah Gilmartin

Thank you to NetGalley and Pushkin Press for this ARC. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t enjoy this book at all and honestly considered giving up on it multiple times. I never DNF and this book nearly made me. It’s pitched as a ‘dark and twisty novel that thrillingly unravels into family secrets and tragedy’ that centres around one dramatic dinner party.
However, the titular dinner party is over within the first 10% of the book and nothing that could be described as ‘dark and twisty’ happens at it. The narrator is obviously suffering from psychological turmoil but the most exciting thing that happens is her chucking a Baked Alaska in the bin. That happens in The Great British Bake Off, I have higher standards from novels that pitch themselves as ‘thrilling’. To add insult to injury, the majority of the novel’s events are narrated via a weed brownie induced drug trip which honestly feels like a deeply lazy device of the ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’ school of writing. While this novel is dark, it is not twisty. There are no actual family secrets revealed. We establish very quickly that the narrator has a dead twin, her dad is also dead and her mother is clearly mentally ill, abusive and has a terrible relationship with her children. These facts continue to be hammered home throughout the novel. If you know from the first few pages that the narrator’s twin is dead, it is not a ‘twist’ when the twin dies via flashback. In general, this novel felt incoherent. It jumped around in time a lot and seemed to lurch from one episode to the next very clumsily. It felt like it was trying to tick boxes of plot points it wanted to cover without actually covering any of them sufficiently thoroughly to mean anything to the reader. I was utterly perplexed by the decision not to cover any of the narrator’s treatment for her obvious trauma and instead just jump from her being at absolute rock bottom to her being more or less completely fine. It made the ending feel unearned and rushed. I do not recommend this book to anyone.

Period. It’s About Bloody Time by Emma Barnett

My work book club chose this book in honour of Endometriosis Awareness Month. In it, Emma Barnett sets out to write a manifesto for the smashing of the taboo that still exists around discussing periods. I broadly enjoyed this and I think her overall points were well made – shame around a perfectly natural biological process that is essential to the continuation of the human race is completely nonsensical. They ought to be able to be discussed openly and everyone should be conscious of the struggles that people go through as they manage them. However, there were times when I felt like she could have taken her ideas a bit further. Barnett always seems to stop herself before she hit on an idea that felt truly ground-breaking. The book also became fairly repetitive after a certain point but to be fair there’s only so many pages anyone can expound on one topic for before this happens. Ultimately I think this is a really useful and interesting book, but I think it would have been better if Barnett had narrowed her focus, shortened the book slightly and felt more empowered to get creative about solutions to the problems she outlines.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Since this series started back in 2015, I feel like haven’t been able to read a list of fantasy recommendations without seeing A Court of Thorns and Roses on the list. This series is hugely popular and often I’ve felt like the last person on the planet who hasn’t read them. So this month I finally succumbed but, unfortunately, I am definitely not joining the legions of fans that love this book. It’s a pretty straightforward riff on Beauty and the Beast in which a human woman, Feyre, kills a fairy and, as punishment for her crime, she must go live in fairyland in the home of a fairy lord named Tamlin. Tamlin and his lands are under a nasty curse and someone must fall in love with him in order for the curse to be broken and the day to be saved etc. etc. – you know the rest. The nice thing about working with such a straightforward and well-known plot template when you’re writing a story is that you can now turn your full attention to making your version of this much-loved classic innovative and interesting. Maas has not done this. Instead she appears to have stuck every fairytale and romance trope in a blender and whizzed it around until it resembled a narrative. I was honestly slightly insulted as a reader by how incredibly predictable the plot was and by the end I was beginning to think that the characters themselves were stupid for not being able to see what was about to happen next (I’m thinking particularly of the painful sequence with the riddle). This is not a series I’ll be pursuing any further.

Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo

I have a well-documented love affair with Leigh Bardugo’s writing, in particular her Grishaverse novels, but all the same I promised myself that I would wait to start Rule of Wolves, the latest in the series, until I had finished the book I had already started. That resolve lasted until approximately two seconds after it landed on my Kindle and I then proceeded to inhale the 600+ page book in a 48 hour period. A moment of silence for my partner, who had to deal with me being completely incapable of thinking or talking about anything else during this time. I’m conscious that this book came out less than a week ago so I’ll be careful of spoilers, but suffice to say that this installment in the series did everything I wanted it to do and more. The plot is intricate, unpredictable and as full of twists and turns as always. However, what really makes these books are the characters that so many fans have grown to love and Bardugo brings back quite a few familiar faces from the past to round out the adventures of Nikolai, Zoya and Nina, which made me embarrassingly excited. Bardugo also leaves the door open for potentially more books to come in this series and, honestly, if it weren’t for the Netflix adaption of these novels coming out at the end of the month I’d be battering down her door asking her to get started on them ASAP.

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