My Month in Books: June and July 2022

Nothing But the Truth: Stories of Crime, Guilt and the Loss of Innocence by The Secret Barrister

The Secret Barrister is one of my very favourite legal commentators but the only drawback to their writing is that it can sometimes seem not particularly accessible to the average person. Given that I am personally a huge criminal justice nerd, this isn’t really a problem for me but I often think that the people who would most benefit from reading the Secret Barrister’s work might be put off before they even start. Nothing But The Truth seems like an explicit effort to counter this issue, as it charts the Secret Barrister’s journey from innocence to experience, starting with them as a passionate young law student who firmly believed that ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ was the way forward and ending with them as the empathetic, reasoned, but no less passionate campaigner for a better and more humane justice system that they are today. The lack of awareness and understanding of the criminal justice system in the U.K. today never fails to astound me but this is an excellent, accessible starting point for anyone who wants real insight into the problems that face Britain’s justice system and what is needed to fix it.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Long-time readers of this blog (hi Mom) will know that nothing gets me excited like a reinterpretation of ancient mythology and the Percy Jackson series really fanned the flames of this lifelong obsession when I first stumbled across it in an airport bookstore when I was ten years old. Inspired by the fact that a TV adaption of this fabulous series is in the works, I decided to embark on a re-read. For those who aren’t aware, the Percy Jackson series (unsurprisingly) focuses on a child named Percy Jackson who discovers that not only are the Greek Gods real, but they have moved to the United States of America, have continued their favourite hobby of having torrid affairs with mortals and that he is one of their children. He is subsequently sent to Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp and training ground for demigods as they grow into mighty heroes. But trouble is brewing amongst the Olympians and Percy must undertake a quest with his best pals Grover the satyr and Annabeth, daughter of Athena, in order to save the world from a devastating war. Rick Riordan has done so much for popularising the study of classics amongst young people with these brilliant, funny and exciting novels. His love for the ancient world is bursting off the page and it’s impossible not to catch his enthusiasm. Knowing that he’s involved with the production of the new TV series, I have extremely high hopes!

Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido

Brother of the More Famous Jack is one of those books where if you were asked to describe the plot it would sound incredibly dull. A young girl is introduced to an eccentric, intellectual family and becomes utterly infatuated with them à la Laurie in Little Women. She begins to date the eldest son of the family and when they break up she becomes estranged from the whole lot of them. After time spent living abroad and significant trauma, she reconnects with the family and falls in love with the younger son. However, this sparse summary captures none of the magic of the characters of this book. Everyone is so fully, beautifully realised and the writing is so sensual and funny and earthy and real that if by the end you haven’t also fallen madly in love with the Goldman family then I’m not sure that we can be friends. Just trust me and give it a read, it’s a short book so you have nothing to lose!

1984 by George Orwell

If I had a pound for every time I heard someone describe something as Orwellian when it was simply complicated, annoying or something the person in question didn’t understand, I’d probably have enough money to quit my job and read full-time. But nonetheless, I was delighted when my book club decided to read one of the most iconic (albeit misunderstood) works of dystopia there is. I won’t say that it’s a pleasant read, but Orwell’s simple, brutal picture of a world of no freedom, no individualism and no joy continues to haunt and send a shiver down the spine. I thoroughly enjoyed a long conversation that it prompted with a good friend of mine about whether there was anything of hope to take from the novel and, in hindsight, I think the message of hope is that people continue to have access to this novel and will surely debate it and its various interpretations for years to come.

Modern Tarot by Michelle Tea

I mean come on, no one can possibly read as many fantasy books as I do without low-key believing that they are a witch. I’ve been into the tarot ever since I was a child, fascinated by the symbolism and mysticism held in such an inconspicuous packet of cards. I lost touch with it somewhere in the morass of being a teenager, when I didn’t want to be seen as believing in childish things like magic. However, I am now grown and completely out of fucks to give so I’m re-embracing my inner witch. Michelle Tea’s guide is a fabulous entry point for people looking to deepen their practice and perhaps even expand it beyond the tarot. It fully embraces queer, post-colonial and feminist interpretations of the cards and is bursting with anecdotes that will help you start connecting the cards to your own daily life. A perfect gift for the budding sorceress in your life.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

I put off reading Shuggie Bain for a long time because I assumed it was going to be incredibly depressing. Please don’t get me wrong, it was incredibly depressing but I loved every second of it. It tells the story of a young, gay boy, the titular Shuggie, growing up in the poverty-stricken Glasgow of the 1980s and dealing with deprivation, abuse and homophobia (internalised and otherwise). In spite of this, Shuggie’s biggest struggles relate to his mother, Agnes, a beautiful, vivacious woman in the grip of alcoholism. Shuggie adores his mother and struggles to care for her as she alternately succumbs and fights against her illness while battling his own demons. Shuggie and Agnes’ struggles will break your heart and you will feel every loss and every setback right alongside them from beginning to end. Don’t be afraid to let this book devastate you, it is absolutely and completely worth it.

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Whenever I’ve read something particularly depressing, I always seem to turn to Terry Pratchett as a palate cleanser and few books have the ability to invoke as much unfettered joy inside me as the Tiffany Aching series of the Discworld books. In this instalment, Tiffany finds herself in over her head when the spirit of winter himself becomes obsessed with her after a Morris dance gone horribly wrong. Pratchett’s gift is telling really simple stories in complex and fantastical ways. Wintersmith at its heart continues Tiffany Aching’s coming of age as she learns to rise above petty squabbles, stand up for herself, deal with death and grief and ultimately become a responsible and powerful young witch who is capable of protecting her home and family from all manner of magical. And along the way she must contend with a number of eccentric witch mentors, minor deities and her own personal bodyguard of rude and rambunctious pictsies. Wintersmith really sees Tiffany not only embracing her witchiness but deciding the kind of witch that she wants to be. She remains one of my all time favourite protagonists in literature and her journey into adulthood is a must read for all wannabe witches.

Burning Questions by Margaret Atwood

Thanks so much to NetGalley and Random House UK for providing me with an ARC of this excellent essay collection. Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite voices in non-fiction and it was a real treat to get to experience nearly twenty years worth of her non-fiction essays on topics as diverse as climate change, debt, feminism, the art of storytelling, conservation and grief. No matter the subject, Atwood has something intelligent, nuanced and prescient to say and this collection is an absolute gift to fans and a wonderful entry point for those looking to know more about one of the greatest living authors of our time (as she explicitly clarifies, she’s not dead yet!).

Rough: How Violence Has Found Its Way Into The Bedroom and What We Can Do About It by Rachel Thompson

I like to think that fate brought this book found into my life, because I found it sitting forlornly, having been abandoned in the park near my house. I’m glad I found it, because it provides some really interesting analysis of the ‘grey areas’ of sex that legally wouldn’t be considered sexual assault but can still leave people feelings hurt, uncomfortable and even traumatised. She discusses the rise of non-consensual choking, spitting and slapping in casual sexual encounters and goes out of her way to highlight how the prevalence and specifics of this violence can intersect with existing societal problems such as racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and fatphobia. I appreciated that Thompson went out of her way to make this book sex-positive while still highlighting a growing but underdiscussed issue. Rough provides its readers with the vocabulary to have much needed discussions about the ways that this kind of behaviour impacts people and provides concrete solutions for how society can tackle it, including (gasp) treating the people you have sex with with kindness and humanity!

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

Netflix’s new adaption of the Neil Gaiman’s critically-acclaimed and much-loved comic book The Sandman finally prompted me to crack into the first instalment of this series. In it, we meet Dream, a god-like being who rules over the realms of dreams and nightmares. When an arrogant occultist attempts to capture Death and hold her for ransom, he instead catches Dream by mistake. Thus Dream is held in silent captivity for over a century, his kingdom crumbling in his absence and humanity besieged by terrible sleeping sickness and madness. In this first volume, we see him escape and take revenge on his captors before setting out on a quest to reclaim his articles of power; a bag of sand, which has fallen into the hands of mortals, his helm which resides in hell in the ownership of a demon and, finally, his ruby which has been acquired by a deranged villain and is being used to create nightmares in the waking world. The Sandman is a beautifully illustrated, epic tale of a fallen god out to reclaim his power and I’m very excited to see where fate takes him next.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

This book reduced me to incoherent screaming. N.K. Jemisin is nothing short of a genius for being able to create a fantasy world so ambitious, so coherent and so massive while still being able to hold a deeply human and emotional core to her story. The book opens with the world ending (a bold start) and then zooms in from that huge beginning on one particular woman, Essun, who has just discovered that her husband has killed one of their children and run off with the other. To say more would risk spoilers but suffice to say that I simply could not put this book down and I cannot wait to devour the next one. If you have yet to encounter the brilliant, visionary and original writing of N.K. Jemisin, this is a fabulous place to start.

Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey

Thank you to NetGalley and Hodder and Stoughton for providing me with an ARC of this book. When I opened Just Like Home I thought I knew what I was getting into, I was expecting a novel in which a young woman returns to a site of childhood trauma to confront the metaphorical monsters of her past. I was technically right if by ‘confront’ you mean ’embrace’ and by ‘metaphorical’ you mean ‘completely fucking real’. This book was twisted, horrifying and full of unexpected magical realism. I’m not sure I enjoyed it per se but if you love a creepy family horror story then you should definitely check this out.

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