My Month In Books: August 2021

In Black and White: A Young Barrister’s Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System by Alexandra Wilson

In Black and White is a timely memoir written by Alexandra Wilson, a young, black, working-class woman who is motivated to become a barrister after her friend is tragically murdered. Wilson believes in her heart of hearts that she can use the legal system to make a difference to the lives of both victims and plaintiffs, but the system she is met with is one fraught with flaws and biases, both conscious and unconscious. Wilson painstakingly lays out the myriad ways in which the justice system is still dominated by middle-class white men and how anyone who does not fall into this category can often find themselves slipping through the cracks of an over-stretched system. In one particularly cringe-inducing section, Wilson illustrates how far we still have to come by recounting an occasion on which she was mistaken for a defendant rather than a barrister not once, not twice, but three times in one day because various staff at the court where she was working were so unused to seeing someone like her in a position of authority. Wilson is an inspiring young woman and her passion for making a difference is hugely admirable. She is full of thoughtful and useful advice on navigating the process of becoming a barrister so you know anyone who is considering a career in law, this book would make a perfect gift for them.

A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore

A Rogue of One’s Own is the second installation in Dunmore’s League of Extraordinary Women series, in which a group of Oxford suffragists plot to secure the vote for women and manage to find love along the way. The novel centres around Lucie, the dedicated leader of the suffragist chapter, who has finally managed to secure the capital to purchase a majority share in publishing house so that she and her colleagues can spread their study of domestic abuse suffered by married women throughout the country and gain support for the repeal of the Marriage Act which renders women the property of their husbands. There’s just one problem. Lord Ballentine, a childhood acquaintance of Lucie’s, has swept in to buy up the rest of the shares of the publishing house, giving him a veto over all of the suffragists’ activities. Lucie and Ballentine then enter into an intense battle of wills that inevitably ends in romance and also the feminist awakening of multiple 19th century members of parliament, what more can you ask for?

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Thank you to NetGalley and Little Brown Book Group for giving me access to an ARC of this book. I was excited to get this ARC because I really enjoyed Whitehead’s earlier novel The Underground Railroad. However, that book was so singular in the way that it merged historical fiction with more speculative elements to put a new spin on narratives of slavery and the more horrifying chapters of America’s history, I was struggling to imagine where he would go next. At first glance, Harlem Shuffle seems like a very different sort of book to The Underground Railroad. It is set it Harlem in the 1950s and 60s and centres around a man named Ray Carney, who is trapped between two personas. ‘Straight Ray’ is an upstanding small business owner and dedicated husband and father who wants to climb the ladder of respectability and move his family into a better neighbourhood. ‘Crooked Ray’ is the son of a small-time Harlem criminal who has never fully been able to outrun his father’s reputation and who is happy to look the other way when goods of questionable provenance move through his store. However, Ray’s careful balancing act starts to wobble dangerously when his cousin Freddie brings him in as the fence on a high-profile robbery of the Hotel Theresa, ‘The Waldorf of Harlem’. A high stakes caper ensues that expertly blends the comic and the dramatic into a multi-layered piece of historical fiction where you can never quite predict what will happen next. What The Underground Railroad and Harlem Shuffle have in common is their sweeping examination of Black history in America that fixes an unflinching eye on the prejudice of the era. Ray’s relentless striving in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers and setbacks, in both the straight and crooked halves of his life, creates a twisted sort of hero’s journey that you won’t be able to look away from.

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for giving me access to an ARC of this book. I loved the first book in the Scholomance series so I was absolutely delighted to get a hold of the next one a little bit early so that I could follow up on that cliffhanger as soon as possible. However, I couldn’t help but find myself a little disappointed with this new instalment in the series. I think now that the novelty of the murderous school and the magic system have worn off, I found the plot to be a weaker than I was expecting. It all just felt like a series of big, random set-piece events that hadn’t really been appropriately built up to or seeded in A Deadly Education or even really in the earlier parts of The Last Graduate. There were also entirely too many completely random, inconsequential characters who were introduced and who ended up not mattering even a little bit, which felt like an odd choice. I still found the novel very readable and in the last quarter or so of the book I was totally hooked into the story but after I put it down and had some time to reflect, the whole thing just felt a bit hollow and rushed. I’ll still most likely read the next book in the series because I want to know how the story ends, but I hope the next instalment returns to form and manages to recapture some of the magic of the first book.

The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart

In this book, journalist Mary Ann Sieghart introduces the us to the idea of the authority gap. This is essentially the idea that women are routinely taken less seriously than their male counterparts – whether is this having their contributions ignored in a meeting, only for a male colleague to be hailed as a genius when he says the same thing, people expressing surprise once you’ve demonstrated a level of expertise about a subject or insisting on asking a man a question that you’re fully capable of answering. Sieghart lays out the arguments for the existence of this gap and to support this she has interviewed a range of highly impressive and interesting women for this book, including Janet Yellen, Mary MacAleese, Julia Gillard, Elaine Chao and Lady Hale, all of whom have experience of being assumed less knowledgable, competent and authoritative than their male peers even when they had reached the pinnacle of their various fields. Sieghart lays out the wide-ranging impact this gap has on the battle for gender equality and concludes the book with actions that can be taken by everyone from individuals, to companies, to governments to close it and bring women’s voices from the margins, into the centre of the conversation. If you’ve enjoyed books like Invisible Women and you’re looking to learn more, you’ll love this.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

I spent a fair chunk of August laid up with a pretty wicked case of the flu. When it comes to reading while sick, I’m extremely picky and only want to read things that I know will not only be good, but will also make me happy. So it will surprise no one who knows me that during my hour of need I turned to my two spiritual fathers, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I had been meaning to give their cult classic collaboration a try for ages now but thankfully being off work for a week presented me with this golden opportunity. Good Omens centres around the friendship between an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley. While on the surface, it might seem that the two of them have nothing in common (and indeed many would argue that they are direct opposites, born to be mortal enemies and fight against each other in the eternal battle between good and evil), Aziraphale and Crowley have come to an Arrangement founded on their mutual affection for humanity and all its moral complexities (including music, books and long boozy lunches). So when Crowley is tasked with delivering the Antichrist to a mortal family, so the boy might grow up and trigger the apocalypse, the two friends determine that they must work together to prevent the end of the world and save the human race that they’re so fond of. What ensues is a chaotic and hilarious romp involving mixed-up babies, ancient prophecies, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (and friends) and one very rambunctious Antichrist. I was never going to think that this book was anything other than perfect and if you still haven’t read the bonkers fever dream of two of the greatest fantasy writers of the age, go now and find yourself a copy of this book.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

This novel was a bit of a departure for me as I’m normally not a fan of horror but the concept sounded so fun I couldn’t help myself. The Final Girl Support Group plays on the slasher movie trope of the ‘final girl’ i.e. the last girl who manages to survive the massacre, defeat the killer and tell the story. This book takes the notion one step further and wonders what might happen to these highly traumatised girls after the credits roll. The answer? Obviously a ton of therapy! Our protagonist, Lynnette, is the sole survivor of a massacre that killed her entire family and has left her with debilitating PTSD. To cope, she has spent the last decade attending a support group made up of five other ‘final girls’ who have survived similarly traumatic mass murders. But when one of their number turns up dead, the remaining women realise that some of the ghosts from their pasts may not be as buried as they thought and so begins a quest to do the one thing they’re all best at: Survive to the end. This was a fun, pacy thriller, packed full of references to classic slasher movies that is perfect for any horror movie fans.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This book has been sitting on my shelf for literal years and I have only just now gotten around to reading it. It is a beautiful dual narrative that mediates on the nature of time and our shared humanity and whose digressions include quantum physics, zen buddhism, World War II and climate change. In one half of the story, we have Nao, a young Japanese schoolgirl who is brutally bullied by her peers and whose father repeatedly tries to kill himself. Nao’s only real friend is her great-grandmother Jiko, an ancient buddhist nun, and Nao resolves to write down the Jiko’s life story in a diary before taking her own life. In the other half of the story, we have Ruth an author living on a remote Canadian island who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach, possibly as debris from the 2011 tsunami that caused devastation across Japan. As Ruth becomes consumed by the diary, her need to find out what has happened to Nao consumes her and the further she goes down this rabbit hole, the more that the past and present seem to blur together. This was a gorgeous read with a really distinct sense of place that really pulls you into the world of the story, giving you as a reader the same sense of urgency to the narrative that Ruth feels as she’s reading Nao’s diary. Fittingly for a book that it took me so long to finally pick up, I feel as if this story reached me at just the right time.

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

This is one for the long list of books that will make you exclaim ‘How have I never heard about this before?’. Sanghera conducts an illuminating study of the British empire and posits that in order to truly understand modern Britain we must understand empire. Sanghera traces everything from the foundation of the NHS, to our distrust of intellectuals to the early government response to the COVID-19 pandemic back to attitudes that stem from Britain’s imperial history and the result is an eye-opening volume that ought to be read by people the length and breadth of the country. Regardless of what your opinion on the British empire is, there will be something new for you to learn from this book.

Verity by Colleen Hoover

I’m notoriously picky about thrillers, but I had high hopes for this one because of how many people I had seen recommending it. The premise is that Lowen, a struggling author, is hired to finish writing a series of thrillers after their multi-bestselling author Verity Crawford is horrifically injured in a car accident. However, as she sorts through Verity’s notes she finds an unfinished biography that reveals horrifying details about Verity and her life. In parallel to this, Lowen is finding herself falling for Verity’s husband Jeremy and starts to think that it might suit her very nicely if he were to realise his wife might really be a total monster. Unfortunately, Verity just didn’t do it for me. the whole thing just felt a bit forgettable and lacked any real ‘oomph’. Even that final big plot twist felt too out of left field to really have an impact. Thus continues my quest for thrillers with endings that genuinely shock me.

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