My Month in Books: August and September 2022

Fire and Blood by George R.R. Martin

If there’s one author I feel like I’m trapped in an abusive relationship with, it is George R. R. Martin. Yes he treats his female characters like garbage, kills off every character I love in increasingly brutal ways and has kept me waiting for over a decade for him to just finish The Winds of Winter already but goddammit when things are good, things are good. The world-building, the politics, the attention to detail, the dragons! It’s enough to melt even my cynical heart. But after the shitshow that was the Game of Thrones finale (#JusticeForDaenerys), I swore I wouldn’t let this man hurt me again. I resisted the siren call of Fire and Blood for years before the first trailer for House of the Dragon broke my resolve into pieces. I was ready to be hurt again. Fire and Blood pulled me right back to Westeros and it felt like I never left. All my favourite warring families were still there doing terrible terrible things to each other but the scope of this was even bigger than the Song of Ice and Fire series had dared to tackle. Spanning hundreds of years, it acts as a history of the Targaryen family, right from the first wars of Aegon the Conqueror. Martin pulls from dozens of disputed ‘historical sources’ to paint an epic, bloody and lurid portrait of Westeros’ most unhinged family (and oh boy is that saying something). He covers wars, dynastic squabbles, sex, plotting and (briefly) good governance and the installation of sanitation services in Kings Landing. However, as I got further and further into the book, I started to get a sinking feeling in my gut. Although the book was quite the tome at 700 pages, at the pace we were moving I just couldn’t see how we were going to cover the entire history of the Targaryen family right up to Robert’s Rebellion. Dear reader, this is because it didn’t. This is only volume one of the Targaryen histories. Now I am waiting for Martin to finish two bloody books. It really is the hope that kills you in the end.

Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and a Battle for the Truth by Elizabeth Williamson

I was absolutely fascinated by the premise of this book, which examines the conspiracy theories and lies that sprang up in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which twenty-six people were killed. These lies were not organic, but were created and driven by those who were ideologically opposed to the idea of gun control, willing to make a profit from tormenting grieving families or both (conspiracy grifter and con-artist Alex Jones being an excellent example of someone who sits firmly in the middle of this most depressing of Venn diagrams). Williamson draws a straight line from the networks that perpetuated lies about the Sandy Hook shooting to those who spread misinformation during the 2016 US election, the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election which ultimately led to the storming of the US Capitol Building by Trump supporters who believed that the election had been rigged against them in spite of all evidence to the contrary. This book provided fascinating insight into the people who believe in conspiracy theories and the way the social media companies enable them. But what I wasn’t ready for was the absolute gut-punch of reading about the tragedy itself. The details of the lives lost, their final moments with their loved ones and the nightmare that the families had to go through in the aftermath absolutely wrecked me. The empathy and sensitivity of Williamson towards these families who have already suffered so much is a beautiful model for modern journalism. She expertly tells a huge story of the battle for truth in American society while never once losing sight of the human beings whose suffering sits at the heart of the issue.

The Sandman: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman

I want to live in Neil Gaiman’s head so much. After the premiere of the television adaption of The Sandman on Netflix, I’m now finally getting around to reading his critically acclaimed comic book series of the same name, which follows the adventures and trials of the Lord of Dreams, one of the Endless prime deities who monitor the goings on of mankind. After being trapped by a human sorcerer for a lifetime, Dream must set about recapturing dreams and nightmares who have escaped his realm during his long absence. Gaiman deftly explores the darkest and brightest parts of the human psyche, creating a story that at once feels fresh and new and yet old as time itself. I can tell that this is a series that I will have to ration, lest I devour them all too quickly and then regret that I have none left to read!

Across The Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

The Wayward Children series continues to be a portal fantasy nerd’s dream. In this instalment, major horse-girl Regan finds herself transported to the Hooflands, a magical land populated by various fantastical equine species such as centaurs, unicorns and kelpies. The Hooflanders seem to think that Regan has been sent to them to be a hero but Regan’s not feeling so confident in her ability to be a saviour after having a seriously rough time at school lately. But living among a centaur herd makes her feel more herself than she has ever felt before and what ensues is a story of self-love, friendships that cross worlds and species and, of course, the importance of collapsing corrupt structures of government. I love Seanan McGuire and I have already downloaded the next book in this series onto my Kindle.

This Much Is True by Miriam Margolyes

For those of you not familiar with British national treasure Miriam Margolyes, this clip should give you a pretty good idea of who she is. Margolyes is not a lady disposed to mincing her words and so her autobiography This Much Is True provides a frank, no-holds-barred and hilarious account of her life and long career on the stage and screen. Bursting with mad anecdotes and a prodigious amount of name dropping, Margolyes holds nothing back, giving her opinions on Monty Python (sexist twats), Harry Potter (doesn’t care for it, in spite of famously playing Professor Sprout in the movies) and Winona Ryder (stole her Oscar). She also dwells seriously on matters of life, love and faith, providing particularly moving accounts of her family history, her relationship with her parents and her experience of therapy. Although the book can be a touch repetitive (I say this without a hint of judgement, only awe, but Margolyes has sucked off a truly astounding number of people), ultimately the book is utterly and quintessentially her and so this is a must read for fans of hers.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’m on a serious Neil Gaiman binge at the moment and so it felt like a perfect time to reread one of my favourite books of all time, American Gods. It follows the adventures of Shadow Moon, freshly released from jail and mourning the death of his beloved wife as he becomes inexorably entangled in the power struggle between gods. One one side, we have the old gods of myth and legend – Odin, Anansi, Easter, Czernobog and many many more – who are fighting for their very existence against the relentless rise of the new gods of media, technology and globalisation. Shadow has been sought out by the old gods for reasons unknown and has the novel progresses it becomes clearer and clearer that nothing happens by accident when all powerful deities are involved. Expertly blending folklore from across the world into an epic story about America, power, love, life and death, this is Neil Gaiman at his absolute best.

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

This book was fine and there’s really not much I can say beyond that. It was a fairly standard thriller/whodunnit that was very readable but otherwise quite unremarkable in terms of interesting plot, characters or themes. If you’re looking for some easy reading for a holiday, this would be a good choice but otherwise I wouldn’t particularly recommend it.

Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin

This novel was sent to me via the book subscription service Books That Matter. The subscription was a gift from colleagues at my old job and it’s been a real treat getting a new book every month! Concerning My Daughter is a slender novel about a middle-aged Korean woman who is struggling to come to terms with the fact that her daughter is a lesbian. When her daughter is forced to move back in with her mother, along with her long-term girlfriend, tensions run high and our narrator is being eaten alive with confusion, anger and worry for her daughter and her perceived ‘choice’ to live such an untraditional life. In parallel, the narrator finds herself looking after an elderly childless woman in the nursing home where she works. When she finds herself being instructed to neglect her patient due to the fact that she has no children who will complain about her mistreatment, the narrator finds herself on a collision course with her employers, her society and everything she ever thought she understood about whose life has value. This impactful novel explores big issues of ageing, complex family relationships and individualism in just over a hundred pages. Read this in an afternoon and thank me later.

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

Warning: Only read this book if you are already incredibly into Homer. Casual fans of Greek myths who are looking to learn a bit more about the Iliad and the Odyssey will find this book completely and utterly overwhelming. Halfway between paean to epic itself and autobiography, this book is a treat for fans of Homer who need a safe space to just geek out. This book is dense and wordy but it is bursting with obvious passion for its subject matter and so never becomes dry. If you are a Homer-obsessive like me, this book with make your heart sing and remind you of why you love Homer so much in the first place.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

A more modern take on the Greek epic, Middlesex is simply stunning. Our narrator is Cal, an intersex man who lived the first fourteen years of his life as a girl. But this is only part of the story. Middlesex is an intergenerational saga, beginning with Cal’s grandparents in their small Greek village, just before their make their journey to America and capturing their lives, the lives of their families and friends and the history of the city of Detroit, all of which come together to create the very specific set of circumstances that led to Cal being born. We see Cal’s childhood, his first loves and heartbreaks and his journey towards accepting who he is, rendered in vivid detail, surrounded by a huge, vibrant and lovingly drawn cast of characters. By the end of the novel you feel as though you really know all of these characters and, whether you personally like them or not, saying goodbye to them almost hurts. Eugenides has such a gift for being able to create such a detailed world that feels fully lived in, I cannot recommend this novel enough.

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