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.

My Month in Books: May 2022

Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis by Grace Lavery

I’m a simple girl who likes puns and giggles at the word penis so the title alone was enough to make me pick up this book. The blurb which promised a revolutionary queer memoir and described the author as an ‘omnisexual chaos muppet’ sealed the deal. However, I’m happy to hold up my hands and say that in spite of my high hopes as I opened this book, I simply did not get it. I get what the author was doing, and they were doing it very successfully (I think?) but I am simply neither well-read enough nor clever enough to really get the most out of it. I think there are probably around seven people in the world who are though and I hope they find this book. If a friend or loved one is a queer academic who specialises in Dickens and loves Little Shop of Horrors, this may be the ideal Christmas present.

The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers by Mark Gevisser

The Pink Line is an ambitious and meticulously researched exploration of LGBTQ+ rights around the world. Although never before has a social movement brought about so much change so quickly, attitudes to queer people across the world are still variable with some countries celebrating LGBTQ+ people and with others strengthening laws to criminalise homosexuality and gender non-conformity. Indeed, even within nations attitudes, freedoms and safety varies from region to region, town to town and even house to house. Mark Gevisser explores this ‘pink line’ which has been drawn through the modern world, mixing chapters which provide detailed analysis of the geopolitical and social factors at play with personal stories of people living at the edge of the pink line. This includes a trans Malawian refugee living in South Africa, a lesbian couple running a gay cafe in Cairo, genderqueer teens living in the American north-east and a Kothi community in an Indian fishing village. This book is absolutely fascinating and is an excellent addition to any Pride Month reading list.

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

I’m so glad that Seanan McGuire 1) Exists and spends her time writing sensational portal fantasy novellas 2) Chose to revisit Jack and Jill’s story. When last we encountered the Wolcott sisters, Jack was carrying Jill back to their horror-movie homeworld, The Moors, with plans to resurrect her and prevent her from becoming a vampire. However, fans of the series will know that Jill is happy enough to kill to get what she wants and soon Jack is forced to enlist her friends from Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children to finally put a stop to her sister, once and for all. Jack is such a special character for me and Jill is so believably terrifying and seeing the two of them finally square off head to head to each fight for their version of a happily ever after was everything I needed. It’s going to be hard making myself wait to read the next book in this series but I know something this good is to be savoured, not rushed.

The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

This book was not good. I don’t want to be a snob about books that are ‘TikTok sensations’ because I think anything that gets people reading is wonderful but this book honestly felt more like a collection of ‘dark academia’/’aesthetic’ buzzwords than an actual coherent story. Having written this, I now feel ancient and like I need to yell at some kids to get off my lawn.

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbor was the first Dublin Murder Squad book that I felt apprehensive about reading, as when Mick ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy appeared in the previous instalment in the series, Faithful Place, he was a total jerk. It is a testament to Tana French’s skill as an author and her empathy towards her characters that within a few chapters, Scorcher had totally won me over and Broken Harbor now stands as my favourite (so far) in the Dublin Murder Squad series. Broken Harbor focuses on a murder on one of Dublin’s infamous ‘ghost estates’ during the 2008 recession. Patrick Spain and his two young children have been brutally murdered and Jenny Spain, his wife, is in intensive care after being found bleeding out and clinging to the body of her husband. While initially this looks like a straightforward case of family annihilation, there a few things that point to something stranger going on that can’t seem to be explained. The result was a gripping and thrilling mystery with plenty of twists and turns, another great addition to one of my favourite detective series.

Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favourite Guilty Pleasure by Amy Kaufman

Confession: I don’t go in much for reality television and I’ve never watched a single episode of the Bachelor. However, I find its cultural pervasiveness fascinating and this book is a well-researched study of why this show has captured the hearts and minds of so many. Starting with a history of the televised dating show and following the development of the series through time, Kaufman interviews former producers and contestants to understand how the show has repackaged a tale as old as time, the ‘marriage plot’, into a modern phenomenon that captivates millions. My main issue with the book was the chapters written by various celebrities about why they were fans of the series, which I found repetitive and not particularly insightful. Honestly I’d just advise skipping over these sections as they add very little to what was an otherwise interesting book.

Book of Night by Holly Black

I loved the Folk of the Air series so I was super excited to see how Holly Black’s first foray into non-YA literature would turn out. The whole premise of shadow magic and the world-building was really cool and well-developed but the whole thing just felt a little hollow and it didn’t grip me the way that her previous books have. I’m not normally a person who minds swearing, hard-drinking and sex (either in literature or in life) but it felt as if Black was trying really hard separate herself from her YA fairy story past and emphasise that now she writes gritty books for grown ups. I mean, it’s still essentially a make-believe book about wizards so I’d prefer a bit more revelry in the magic and wonder of it all, but if you’re into the more gritty-realist side of fantasy, you might really enjoy this.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Sometimes in times of trouble you need to bust out an old favourite. Memoirs of a Geisha is one of my favourite books of all time and reading it honestly feels meditative at this point. I will never get tired of reading about Sayuri’s journey from destitute orphan to geisha, drawing on wells of inner strength and achieving control and independence in a world set up to keep these things from her. The language is stunning and the picture of a hidden jewel of a world on the brink of destruction is preserved like a fossil in amber. Is it an orientalist mess? Absolutely. Will I always have a special place in my heart for this orientalist mess? Absolutely. Sometimes the heart wins out over the head and that is no bad thing.

My Month in Books: March and April 2022

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water was my book club’s pick for March and, after nearly five years of meeting, it was one of the first books that we all enjoyed reading. It’s a beautiful, lyrical story of two young black artists who fall in love and are driven apart by the anxieties and pressures brought on by the racist world that they live in. Although it’s a short novel, it is impactful and creates visceral feelings of love, heartbreak, fear and longing in the reader. Azumah Nelson’s writing is absolutely gorgeous and effortlessly sensual. This is the kind of book that you can just let wash over you and sweep you away with the poetry of the writing. An absolute pleasure of a read.

Unequal Affections by Laura S. Ormiston

Just when you all thought I’d run out of new takes on Pride and Prejudice to review, my mum came through with a cracker of a recommendation. Unequal Affections is a Pride and Prejudice retelling starring all the original characters, with one key point of divergence. Instead of epically telling Mr. Darcy where to go after his first, unbelievably rude, proposal, Elizabeth is so shocked by his unexpected declaration of love that she chooses to accept him, although she is clear that she does not yet return his affection. And so we are left with a cast of beloved characters taking a different route to the same happy ending. It is a testament to Ormiston’s knowledge and love of the original text that this feels like a credible alternative to Austen’s story rather than a shoddy imitation. While, of course, this can be no substitute for the original, it is a delightful homage for those whose dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice needs a break so that it doesn’t fall to pieces.

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood is a hilarious, smart and deeply, deeply weird writer. She is also the daughter of a married, Catholic priest who wanders around their home in a perpetual state of semi-nudity playing electric guitar at ear-splitting volume. Priestdaddy is her memoir. Look, Lockwood’s writing isn’t for everyone but it is definitely for me. I spent this entire book laughing, cringing and generally feeling my feelings and by the end I wanted to take up permanent residence in Lockwood’s brain so I wouldn’t have to read anything not written by her ever again. The chapter in which she and her mother find semen on the sheets of their hotel bed is legitimately one of the best things I have ever read. If that last sentence confused and frightened you, do not read this book. It’s not for you. But if it intrigued you, you may be one of my people and you need to read this book urgently.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

Two years ago I read The Guest List by Lucy Foley and I did not enjoy it. At the time I said ‘In The Guest List the focus seemed to be in cramming in as many ‘shocking twists’ (that were actually fairly predictable) as possible at the expense of the actual mystery plot.However, because I’m an optimist at heart, I decided to give another one of Foley’s books a go. Guess what? In The Hunting Party the focus seemed to be in cramming in as many ‘shocking twists’ (that were actually fairly predictable) as possible at the expense of the actual mystery plot. I have now learned my lesson. I need to trust myself more when I think an author is not for me!

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler

I’ve got a real soft spot for ‘extremely online’ books and the premise of this one was too intriguing for me to resist. Fake Accounts centres around a young woman who finds out that her long-time, seemingly normal boyfriend is an anonymous, hugely popular alt-right conspiracy theorist. As she mulls how best to end the relationship, a series of further twists in the tale cause her to flee to Berlin where she descends into her own pattern of ruthless but petty deception and manipulation via her own online personas. Ultimately this is one of those books where ‘nothing really happens’ but Oyler’s musings on how the casual cruelty and dishonesty of the internet makes psychopaths and narcissists of us all is still an entertaining and gripping read.

Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon

Oh Diana, I love you so much but you’re starting to lose me. No one could ever accuse a book in the Outlander series of being tightly plotted but this was taking it to some serious extremes. Where the hell was the editor? It was only because I am so devoted to the character in this series that I didn’t give up around six hundred pages in when someone went on yet another very long, very boring journey to some distant town for very contrived reasons. Will I read the next Outlander book when it comes out? Absolutely, I am now now approximately 10,000 pages into this series and I don’t give up easy. But am I anticipating it in the same way I did with the earlier books in the series? Unfortunately not.

It’s In His Kiss by Julia Quinn

We have now reached the seventh Bridgerton child to be shipped off into marital bliss with an unlikely suitor! My quest to read all of these books is nearly at an end! This instalment focuses on Hyacinth, the youngest and sassiest of the Bridgertons as she finds her true love in Lady Danbury’s equally sassy nephew. It’s In His Kiss managed to skirt being unintentionally horrifying (see: the rape scene from The Duke and I, Eloise falling in love with a guy who neglected to mention he was in the market for a live in housekeeper/nanny rather than a wife in To Sir Philip, With Love) and being unintentionally hilarious (see: Anthony trying to suck the bee venom out of Kate’s boob in The Viscount Who Loved Me, Benedict spending a whole book not recognising the alleged love of his life in An Offer from A Gentleman). However, that meant it was generally pretty unremarkable compared to its more outrageous siblings. Rather a disappointing story for one of the more interesting Bridgertons but I’m sure it will satisfy long time fans of the series.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Another book club pick, this time revisiting a book that some of us had read as children. Unfortunately I missed the Garth Nix hype train when I was a kid, but luckily Sabriel is definitely still engaging for fantasy-loving adults. It centres around Sabriel (shocker) a young necromancer in training who is next in line to take on the title of Abhorsen. For generations the Abhorsens have protected the Old Kingdom from evil by making sure that the dead stay dead but when Sabriel’s father is unexpectedly killed during her final term of school, Sabriel finds herself thrust into the role much earlier than she ever expected. Thus she embarks on an adventure to find out what killed him, save the Old Kingdom from a terrible evil and maybe, just maybe, find a way to resurrect her beloved father. This book is equal parts suspenseful and gripping high fantasy, complete with edge of your seat fight scenes and a wickedly cool magic system, and a coming of age novel about taking responsibility, striking out on your own and coming to terms with death. Highly recommended for readers of all ages.

Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata

Thank you to Netgalley and Granta for giving me an ARC copy of this book. I’ve loved Murata’s previous novels, which combine a surrealist sense of humor with a fiercely individualistic streak. Her novels usually concern characters who have their own way of looking at the world and are rebelling against the arbitrary boundaries that society has placed around them. In Life Ceremony, Murata continues to ruminate on these themes and these short stories touch on controversial and taboo topics such as eating the bodies of the dead, choosing to have a platonic marriage and cultivating multiple contradictory personalities for different groups of friends. Murata is a very original thinker who handles all of these topics with a light touch, a keen eye for the bizarre and incredibly sensual writing (sometimes stomach-turningly so). if you’ve enjoyed her previous work, Life Stories should continue to satisfy you.

Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina

I’ve had this book sitting on my Kindle for a while but the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine made reading this memoir of rebellion against Russian state tyranny feel urgent. Maria Alyokhina is a member of Pussy Riot, a radical Russian activist collective known for its eye-catching protests against Vladimir Putin’s authoritariansim. Her memoir of her time spent in a Russian penal colony is a mix of stream of consciousness, poetry, political theory and ‘you have to laugh or you’ll cry’ insight into the relentless and petty cruelty and unfairness of the Russian penal system. Ultimately this is a story of a woman who endured the unendurable and not only emerged with her spirit intact, but also won rights for her fellow prisoners. A brutal and inspiring read for bleak times.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Yes, I lived twenty seven years on this earth and hadn’t read anything by Patrick Rothfuss and yes, I now know myself to be a fool. We find our hero, Kvothe, long after his days as the most infamous and powerful wizard in the land are behind him. For reasons unknown he is now living as a humble innkeeper, keeping a low profile and seemingly showing no interest in returning to his old life of heroism and daring deeds. But when an enterprising young Chronicler tracks him down and pleads with Kvothe to give him the true story of his life before the lies and the half-truths that swirl about him become the accepted version of events, Kvothe finds himself agreeing to tell the Chronicler his story. And so our unreliable yet charismatic narrator takes us through the story of his early life, from his idyllic childhood wandering the land with his family’s theatrical troupe, to their brutal slaughter at the hands of mysterious, magical forces, to his years spent living as a feral orphan on the mean streets of Tarbean, to his eventual acceptance into the University where he learns the magical arts, becomes a bard of great renown, finds first love and makes friends and enemies for life. You will be utterly under Kvothe’s spell from start to finish and, as much as you know him to be a cocky little shit with entirely too high an opinion of himself and a penchant for chaos, you’ll be rooting for him every step of the way.

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Prior to publishing this book, Brodesser-Akner was best known for her brilliant celebrity profiles and that background is strikingly apparent in her writing. She has crafted a vivid, searing portrait of a man, Toby Fleishman, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, but this ‘profile’ actually serves as a Trojan Horse to write about the significantly more interesting women in Toby’s life. Toby is a recently divorced father of two and after years of feeling emasculated by his ambitious and high-earning wife Rachel, Toby is finally free to hop on the dating apps and live life on his own terms. But when Rachel mysteriously vanishes without a word, Toby is forced to juggle his children, his job, his dates and his increasingly fragile state of mind. As the reader gains more insight into Toby, the reasons for the breakdown of his marriage become clearer and they are not as simple as they initially appeared. This is a dense, layered but immensely readable novel filled with colourful characters. Perfect for reading on a holiday or if you’re looking for something to get you out of a reading slump.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

Summerwater is a slender novel that packs a lot of punch. It’s effectively a group of short stories, each focusing on different families who are holidaying in a group of cabins by a remote Scottish lake. While this might sound pretty dull, Moss imbues a sense of impending doom from the very beginning, creating a sense of unease and danger through the wild and untamed landscape, the dramatic weather and the vulnerability of the characters to its dangers. As the stories progress, we gradually see the inhabitants of the cabins turn against a group of perceived outsiders and Moss gradually ratchets up the unease before an explosive finale. Moss is an author who is gifted at weaving tension into the seemingly mundane and while her books are always short, they leave me wanting more.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

For the end of April I thought I’d shake things up a little and read a graphic novel. Persepolis is the memoir of Marjane Satrapi, a young woman who grew up Tehran at the height of the Islamic Revolution. Marjane comes of age surrounded by a loving and supportive family who encourage her to think for herself and protest against injustice but they all live in the shadow of political upheaval and the arrest and executions of family and friends. As her parents grow increasingly concerned for her safety, they are forced to send Marjane away from home. The book deals with Marjane’s time living as a refugee in Austria, alone and fending for herself at just fourteen years old, and her eventual return to Iran as a young adult and her struggle to reintegrate after having been away for so long. The stark black and white panels add a grim humor and humanity to what is often a decidedly bleak story. Persepolis is an emotional and fascinating insight into the history of Iran, with a strong focus on the resilience and bravery of the Iranian people.

My Month in Books: February 2022

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

One of Capote’s most famous novels and a pioneer in the genre of true crime, In Cold Blood, tells the story of a vicious murder that shook a community to its’ foundations. In the tiny town of Holcomb, Kansas, the Clutter family are popular and well-loved pillars of the local community. So when they are all found dead in their home after being tied up and shot at close range, no one could think of who could possibly have a motive to kill them. With painstaking attention to detail, Capote sets the scene of the murder and recounts the investigation, capture, trial and eventual execution of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith for the murder of the Clutter family. These two men are at the centre of the narrative and while Capote never shies away from the horror of their crimes, he still paints a startlingly empathetic portrait of two men who are capable of unspeakable violence and yet are as human as the rest of us. In Cold Blood is a poignant reminder of the capacity for evil that lurks within all of us and how little it may take to bring it to the surface.

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams

Seven Days in June centres around the relationship between Eva Mercy and Shane Hall. Eva is a popular supernatural romance author, successfully juggling her career with single motherhood while managing a chronic illness. Shane is a literary critical darling whose gritty novels have won him plaudits and awards, but behind closed doors he has been struggling with addiction. As two successful Black authors, they move in the same circles but no one knows that twenty years ago the two of them spent one week madly, chaotically and passionately in love. However, now a newly sober Shane is back in town and keen to make amends for the wrongs of the past and as he and Eva reconnect old traumas start to resurface along with old romance. This was a funny, warm book about healing from trauma, motherhood and motherlessness and the struggles of living a creative life with plenty of romance mixed in. Perfect for anyone looking for something that will bring a smile to your face while not shying away from real issues.

Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas by Adam Kay

After watching the excellent adaption of Kay’s first book, This is Going to Hurt, on the BBC, I just couldn’t stop myself going back for more heartbreaking and sidesplitting dispatches from the frontline of the NHS. As you may have guessed from the title, these stories from the life of a junior doctor centre around what it’s like to be working on the hospital wards over the festive period (spoiler alert: it’s bonkers). Kay’s stories abound with blood, guts, humour and, above all, heart. I appreciate I’m not being very seasonal in recommending this but it makes excellent reading any time of the year.

Behind Closed Doors: Why We Break Up Families and How to Mend them by Polly Curtis

It is a secret to no one that the care system in the U.K. leaves a lot to be desired but I must admit to being shamefully ignorant of the full extent of the mess the system was in prior to reading this book. Behind Closed Doors begins with the startling fact that in the U.K. we are currently removing more children from their families than ever before and that our rates of family separation are much higher than other similar nations. Why is it that this is happening? As you might expect, there is no easy answer but Curtis interviews a range of individuals who have contact with the care system, from parents who have had their children removed, parents who have narrowly escaped having their children removed, social workers and family court judges and lawyers. All of these individual stories paint a picture of a system struggling to do its best in the face of insurmountable societal issues, lack of funding and lack of support available for families to enable them to do their best for their children. This is a must read for anyone looking to develop their understanding of the problems that currently plague British society, as basically all of them have a role to play in why more and more families are finding themselves unable to stay together.

Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun is a beautiful novel narrated by an intelligent, solar-powered ‘Artificial Friend’ named Klara. Klara has uniquely sharp observational skills and because of this, she is purchased to be the companion of a young, extremely ill teenager named Josie. Josie and her mother live isolated lives in the middle of nowhere and so Klara’s world revolves around Josie and her needs. Klara grows to love Josie, desperately wanting her to recover from her illness and proves willing to go to increasingly drastic lengths to find a way to keep her alive. Ultimately this novel is a meditation on what it means to love someone, expertly told from the perspective of someone who is deeply human while still technically being non-human. I’d give anything to know how Kazuo Ishiguro comes up with such original ideas and still manages to execute them with such stunning simplicity.

My Month in Books: January 2022

Faithful Place by Tana French

What’s really interesting about Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels is that they are in-depth psychological portraits disguised as detective novels. In The Woods was a portrait of a shattered childhood, The Likeness is a twisted take on a campus novel and now Faithful Place enters the ring with a story of generational trauma and family drama disguised as a murder mystery. This novel centres around Frank, the head of the undercover unit who we encountered in The Likeness. We learn that when Frank was a young boy growing up in an abusive home in Dublin’s Liberties, he had planned to run away to England with the love of his life, Rosie Daly. Only on the night they were due to catch the ferry and start their new lives together, Rosie never showed and Frank found a note from her implying that she was leaving him to go make her fortune in England alone. Devastated, Frank never returns to The Liberties and drops out of contact with his family altogether. But when Rosie’s old suitcase is found stuffed up a chimney in a disused house on their street, Frank gets pulled back into their orbit to find out what really happened to Rosie on that fateful night. Once again, French totally sucked me into her world and brought Dublin to life like very few authors can. Faithful Place is an excellent further addition to the Dublin Murder Squad series and I’ll definitely be reading the next one.

Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding

Growing up I seem to have missed all of the Bridget Jones hype, but having recently watched the movie for the first time I though now might be the time to give the book a go. While Bridget’s constant internal monologue about her weight was hitting me a little hard at the start of January, ultimately I really enjoyed this book. I don’t find Bridget particularly relatable (I personally identify as a Shazzer), but Helen Fielding is a really funny writer and I can see her influence in so many of my favourite female characters in literature and on screen. It ultimately had a weird effect of making me feel nostalgic reading this book, even though I was only reading it for the first time. While many elements of this book haven’t aged incredibly (so much smoking!), hating the absolute emotional fuckwittage of Daniel Cleaver is timeless.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

This book has been on my to read list forever but it was only when the culmination of Elizabeth Holmes’ trial for fraud started making headlines that I actually motivated myself to pick it up. I quickly realised that as batshit as the headlines had made the story seem, they had barely scratched the surface of the layers and layers of crazy that had been going on at Theranos for years. Between the audacious lies Holmes spun to the incredibly hostile work environment that she created for her staff, it’s easy to get swept up in the drama of it all. But the most important and shocking story remains Holmes’ willingness to put people’s lives at risk so that she could cosplay Steve Jobs using a prop machine that didn’t even work. Carreyrou’s book is a fascinating insight into the darkest elements of Silicon Valley start-up culture and a timely reminder that, whatever they tell themselves, the owners of Big Tech often don’t give a damn about the users that they profit off.

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

A Rising Man is a historical fiction mystery novel set in Calcutta in early 20th century. Our narrator is the British officer Sam Wyndham, fresh out of the trenches of World War I and the newest recruit to Calcutta’s police force. When a senior official of the British Raj is murdered and a note is found on him warning the British to leave India or more deaths will follow, Wyndham is thrust into a world whose politics he doesn’t truly understand. Thankfully he has the assistance of Sergeant Bannerjee, one of the few Indian officers in the police force and a significantly more interesting character than Wyndham, to stop him completely botching the entire investigation. This novel was pretty good from a historical fiction perspective, giving insight into the atmosphere in India as British rule begins to crumble. However, it was absolutely dire from a mystery perspective and I found it difficult to retain my interest when Wyndham seemed desperate to do everything but follow incredibly obvious leads to solve a high profile murder. I’ve heard that the second book in this series is better, but to be honest I have so many more books I’d rather read that I doubt I’ll follow up on it.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Being a person who studied Classics at a pretty wanky university surrounded by posh people (at least some of whom had probably murdered someone…), people were generally very surprised when I admitted I hadn’t gotten around to reading The Secret History yet. Now that I’ve finally read it, I am slightly kicking myself over the fact I didn’t do it sooner. The novel follows a young man, Richard, as he falls in with a crowd of wealthy and eccentric Classics students and their charismatic lecturer. Richard is completely entranced by their world of academia, luxury and beauty, but realises too late that there is a much darker undercurrent of rot and decay under the sparkling surface. Before long, one of their number is dead and from there the group undergoes a slow, excruciating decline culminating in an explosive finale that leaves the survivors scattered to the winds. The novel consists of Richard looking back over this time in his life, giving the whole story a sense of grim inevitability right from the first shocking sentence. It’s funny, having read this now I realise how many other books I have read are trying to capture what Tartt seems to so effortlessly. That sense of undying devotion that you only really feel for people you meet in the turbulent days of your youth, the giddy hedonism of those first years of having moved away from home, the absolutely unironic pretension of young people who know nothing and yet think they know everything. To everyone who tried to get me to read this sooner: You were totally right and I am sorry.

People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

People We Meet on Vacation is precisely what I needed at the end of a cold, wet January and after a stream of pretty uniformly grim books full of people behaving unethically and/or homicidally. It’s a romantic novel that tells the story Poppy and Alex, who are two totally platonic best buddies (yeah right) who take a special vacation just the two of them every year (totally normal). But, after a mysterious and awkward event happened on one of their vacations (They shagged. I’m not even counting this as a spoiler. This is blindingly obvious to anyone with a brain), they haven’t spoken in ages and Poppy has determined that they need to go for one more vacation to save their friendship. Obviously they fall in love instead. Now, I’m rarely reading romantic books for their realism but the relationship between Poppy and Alex stretched even my credulity. There is literally no reason for two people who find each other attractive, spend copious amounts of time together and are best friends to take over a decade to realise that they should just get together already but maybe I’m just old-fashioned. Either way, the descriptions of various exotic vacation locales gave me just the escape I needed in the bleak midwinter so if you, like me, have pretty limited holiday days this year, People We Meet On Vacation could prove a very effective substitute.

My Month in Books: December 2021

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

After spending the guts of November getting lost in the absolute vastness of Shogun, I wanted something short and totally bonkers to bring me out of that world. The third instalment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series was just what I needed and this book is even stranger than the first two books in the series (something I didn’t think was possible). Beneath the Sugar Sky centres around the daughter of Sumi, one of the central characters from the first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway. However, the sharper minds among you will recall that Sumi was brutally murdered in that book and that she had no daughter…so what’s going on? That’s precisely what Rini would like to know. Rini has somehow travelled through time and space to crash land at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children to resurrect her mother, save the nonsense world of Confection from being taken over by the cruel Queen of Cakes and stop herself from slowly disappearing Back to the Future-style. Still with me? Good, cause it’s going to get so much weirder! With the help of Kade the rejected Goblin Prince, Chris the skeleton charmer and Cora the ex-mermaid, Rini thoroughly smashes Eleanor West’s infamous ‘No Quests’ rule into a million pieces. As bonkers as it is though, Beneath the Sugar Sky has all the thoroughly magical charm of the previous books in this series and I’ll be continuing to savour reading each and every one of them.

Idol by Louise O’Neill

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for this ARC. I audibly squealed when I saw I had been given access to Louise O’Neill’s latest book early and lucky for me Idol lived up to my high expectations. Part of what makes a O’Neill’s books so brilliant is that she seems to relish making the reader feel deeply uncomfortable and I honestly can’t think of another novel that has made me feel as uncomfortable as this one. The more I read the more I felt sick to my stomach at what I was watching unfold before me and yet I was physically incapable of putting it down. The book centres around Samantha, a lifestyle guru and influencer at the top of her game. Sam has thriving wellness brand, a cult-like following of female fans and a brand new book out that has rocketed to the top of the bestsellers list. Determined to ‘speak her truth’ and be vulnerable with her followers, Samantha writes an essay in which she recounts a sexual experience with her teenage best friend Lisa. Sam hasn’t spoken to Lisa in years but once the essay goes viral, Lisa reaches out to say that she doesn’t remember that night as a sexual awakening. She remembers it as a sexual assault. Thrown into damage control mode, Sam rushes back to her hometown to convince Lisa not to go public with her false accusation. But is the accusation false? Who gets to tell this story? And whose ‘truth’ is really the truth of what happened that night? O’Neill doesn’t offer any black and white resolutions to these questions but instead embraces all of the shades of grey. This is a timely and challenging book that I will be recommending to all of my friends because I am desperate for other people to read it so they can talk about it with me!

Writers & Lovers by Lily King

This book was an absolutely gorgeous read about a young woman determined to live a creative life against all of the odds. Casey is a thirty-one year old former golf prodigy who is still reeling from the death of her mother, recovering from a brutal break-up and drowning in student debt. She makes ends meet by renting a dilapidated garden shed to live in and taking as many shifts as she can waiting tables at an upmarket restaurant in Harvard Square while she writes her novel, an homage to her mother’s early life. As two very different men enter her life, offering visions of different kinds of futures, we follow Casey as she fights to balance her creative ambitions with the demands of living in the world. Writers and Lovers is an absolute pleasure to read. King’s writing is the kind that can slip from hilarious to emotionally devastating and back again in just a few paragraphs. If you’re into witty Bildungsromans about smart women making bad romantic choices and feeling all of their feelings, this is definitely one for your to-read list.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

I’ve seen this book recommended everywhere and on the surface it seems to tick a lot of my boxes. Whimsical fantasy? Check. A found family of magical misfits? Check. It even had things I didn’t know I needed (I am referring specifically to Chauncey, I know he’s fictional but I would die to protect that little guy and his bellhop dreams). However, in spite of all this something about it just didn’t click for me. Something about the story just rang a little bit false, it didn’t feel true in the way that I need fantasy to feel even when the main characters are wyverns and gnomes. I think the problem for me was that it felt a bit too fantastically happy and as a result the plot felt very predictable. There was no real jeopardy or suspense because I knew with absolute certainty that everyone was going to wind up learning to see the world through new eyes and living happily ever after. So if you’re in the mood for something uncomplicated and lovely, this is a solid pick definitely don’t pick this up expecting something that will challenge you or keep you on the edge of your seat.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

The Tiffany Aching books from the Discworld series are a such a significant part of my psyche that sometimes I can’t tell where my actual personality ends and my inner kelda begins. The novel centres around a young witch named Tiffany, whose younger brother is stolen away by the Queen of the Fairies. Determined to take back what is hers, Tiffany enlists the help of a local colony of hard-drinking, criminal, potty-mouthed pictsies, known as the Nac Mac Feegles, who were kicked out of Fairyland for causing too much chaos. While the fantasy elements are brilliant (the Feegles are genuinely my favourite fictional creatures of all time), at it’s heart this is a novel about growing up and coming into your power. Tiffany is such an incredible and fully realised protagonist and every time I read these books I fall in love with her a little more. She may only be nine years old, but when I grow up I want to be her.

Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

Is the premise of this book even remotely feasible? No. Do I care? Also no. I’m not choosing my romance novels for their gritty realism. Marcus is the star of a hugely popular fantasy TV series whose final season has gone to the dogs after lazy writers threw away hard-earned character development in favour of shock tactics and misogynistic tropes (the author’s bitterness at Game of Thrones‘ final season is scarcely concealed and I love this). While appearing to be an air-headed actor to the press and his fans, in his free time Marcus works out his frustration with the show’s writing through his secret fanfiction account and by venting to his online best buddy, a fellow fanfiction writer named April. Through a series of increasingly improbable coincidences, Marcus and April end up going on a highly publicised date with neither knowing that the other is their online fanfiction buddy and romantic chaos ensues. Like I said, if you like your romance gritty and realistic, this is not the book for you, but if you’re looking for some nerdy, very online, fluff, you can’t go wrong with Spoiler Alert.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This book was simultaneously bonkers and beautiful, everything I’ve come to expect from Susanna Clarke and yet completely unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is almost impossible to summarise this book without ruining the story but suffice to say that it centres around a strange individual named Piranesi who lives in a mysterious, magical house. Who precisely he is, how he came to be there and what precisely the house will all be revealed over the course of the novel but I shan’t say any more lest I spoil a single second of this absolute dream of a book for you. Just go and read it. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

Beartown by Fredrick Backman

This book came out of nowhere and whacked me over the head. If you had told me for a few days I’d become completely obsessed with the inhabitants of a fictional Swedish town, I’d have said you were crazy. Yet here I am. Beartown tells the story of a tiny community whose hopes for the future all rest on the incredibly young shoulders of their junior ice hockey team, who have just made the national semi-finals. However, when a terrible crime leaves a member of their community shattered and puts the prospects of the team in jeopardy, the people of Beartown must take a long hard look at the the culture they have built before their secrets tear them apart. Every character in this book was so compelling and richly realised, I was completely captivated by the tiny but vivid world that Backman created. This is a great book to lose yourself in.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

Once known largely for their philanthropic donations to museums, in recent years the Sackler family has become more known for their creation and marketing of oxycontin, a highly addictive painkiller which is credited as the fuel behind the American opiod crisis. Radden Keefe has chronicled, in excruciating detail, the history of the family and the personal role that they played in causing the deaths of thousands. From their aggressive sales tactics to their silencing of critics to their manipulation of the institutions that should have held them to account, this is a compelling and rage-inducing story of a family who was willing to let the world burn out of simple greed. Warning: Do not read this book if you are already depressed about the state of the world.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

You can’t beat a good mystery novel over Christmas and no one does it better than Christie. Death of the Nile is set on an Egyptian river cruise and concerns the murder of a beautiful and fabulously wealthy heiress, Linnet Doyle. In spite of her gregarious nature and carefree attitude, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s plenty of people on the boat with a motive for murdering the seemingly-lovely Mrs Doyle. However, Poirot is on the case and is determined that her killer will be brought to justice. This book is full of the twists, turns and red herrings that Christie is so beloved for and Death of the Nile would be a great entry point for anyone who is looking to get into her work.

In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

I know, I know – two Seanan McGuire books in one month, I really have spoiled myself but screw it it’s Christmas! In this prequel, McGuire has crafted one of her most compelling fantasy worlds yet. The Goblin Market is a world in which giving fair value, paying your debts and playing by the rules is paramount. For the quiet and serious Lundy, it’s the home she has always dreamed of but in spite of the fact that she’s sure she wants to stay at the Goblin Market forever, she can’t help but feel obligated to the family she is leaving behind. With the time to choose running out, Lundy feels forced to resort to drastic action and tries to cheat the Market out of what it is owed. This was a stunning novella and I want to live in Seanan McGuire’s brain.

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev is a pseudo-nonfiction oral history of a 1970s rock and roll duo. Opal is a flamboyant, proto-Afro-Punk performer from Detroit and Nev is a dorky British singer/songwriter. They shouldn’t go together but when they’re on stage performing it’s nothing short of magic. The novel deals with their origin story, an infamous concert that turns violent and leads to the death of one of their band mates, their meteoric rise to fame and their eventual break-up. But as Opal contemplates a reunion tour with Nev in 2016, a chilling accusation about what really happened on the night their band mate was murdered forces her to look at their story in an entirely new light. This book deals with weighty and serious topics but does it with a lightness of touch that makes it eminently readable and perfect for book clubs looking for something to really sink their teeth into.

My Month in Books: November 2021

Serpent and Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Technically I read this book in October, but it was so bad I think my brain must have repressed it and I genuinely forgot to put it in my October round up. I’m not going to waste my time reviewing this at length, so suffice to say that the plot was an incoherent mess, all of the characters were ridiculous and none of their actions made any sense whatsoever. The world building was shallow and the central romance was utterly baffling. Trust no one who tells you this book is worth reading.

Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing by Hilary Mantel

And the award for ‘Best Title of an Essay Collection’ goes to Hilary Mantel. It’s no secret that Mantel is a gifted writer of fiction but I thoroughly enjoyed this wide-ranging series of non-fiction essays that cover topics ranging from the French Revolution, the Virgin Mary and (of course) the Tudors. This is one of those books that makes you feel cleverer as you read it and I highly recommend this for any Mantel fans who are looking to enjoy her prose in a slightly more compact format than her Wolf Hall trilogy.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is an absolute master at weaving the kind of stories that feel so fantastical and yet so true to life at the same time. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I devoured in a day, is narrated by a man recalling a strange and magical episode from his childhood. As a young boy he had to face down a great evil that had reared its ugly head in his rural community, protected and guided by the formidable Hempstock women who lived in a ramshackle cottage at the end of the lane. The malevolent force brings darkness into the young boy’s life, some of it supernatural and some of it all too recognisable and mundane. This is a story of simple courage in the face of the incomprehensibly frightening and the ways that time and adulthood can so often smooth over the wrinkles of childhood trauma. Neil Gaiman remains one of my favourite authors of all time, this novel blew me away and I’m honestly still feeling quite emotional just thinking about it!

Shogun by James Clavell

I don’t think I fully understood the term ‘saga’ until I picked up Shogun. This 1100 page behemoth of a novel held me in its grip for three weeks, taking me on a totally immersive whirlwind journey through feudal Japan, as seen through the eyes of John Blackthorne (or Anjin, as he later becomes known). John is an English navigator whose ship has been wrecked on the coast of Japan, becoming the first of his people to set foot in, what appears to him to be, an incredibly insular, rigid and bizarre society that places little value on human life. Starting off as a weak, mistreated prisoner who understands nothing of what is happening around him, Blackthorne gradually learns the language and the customs of the Japanese and eventually attains the status of hatamoto to the great daimyo Lord Toranaga. With his unique talent for naval warfare and knowledge of the world beyond Japan, Blackthorne is destined to have a significant part to play in the war between daimyos for the ultimate prize; becoming shogun, the supreme military dictator. This book was written in the 1970s so some of the story felt a bit dated (particularly the fixation that many female characters seemed to have with the size of Blackthorne’s penis…) but ultimately Shogun is an epic reading experience. If you are content to surrender yourself to its bulk for as long as is necessary, you’re in for a treat.

My Month in Books: October 2021

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

October always puts me in the mood for reading books about magic and I’ve had this series on my TBR list ever since I heard someone describe it as ‘Harry Potter for depressed and cynical adults.’ This person was not lying. Our hero (I use this term loosely) is Quentin Coldwater, a young man who has lived all of his life wishing that he could walk through a magical portal into the world of Fillory, the setting of his favourite fantasy novel. So you’d think that the day he discovers that he is actually a magician and has been chosen to attend a highly selective and prestigious secret university where he will learn the art of magic is the best day of his life, right? Wrong. Quentin spends the next four years at Fillory learning spells, making friends and falling in love and he couldn’t be more of a misery guts about it. While I appreciate that Quentin is a psychologically realistic character who embodies the old adage that no matter where you run off to you’ll always end up running into yourself, it was honestly kind of exhausting living in his head for an extended period. This is especially pertinent because Alice was right there being infinitely more interesting than Quentin and I would have killed to have had the book written from her perspective instead. But alas, you can’t always get what you want. I probably will pursue this series further because it was a really interesting and creative adult take on portal fantasy, but I definitely need a long break from Quentin before I do so.

When He Was Wicked by Julia Quinn

My quest to get through all of the Bridgerton books continues at pace. This instalment focuses on the love life of Francesca Bridgerton, one of the quieter (and frankly more forgettable) members of this extremely horny Regency-era family. Surprisingly for a Bridgerton novel, Francesca begins the book already happily married to a perfectly nice earl named John. The intrigue begins when it emerges that John’s cousin, heir and bestie, Michael, is madly, passionately and secretly in love with Francesca but has resigned himself to a life of pained brooding as he third wheels on his best friend and the love of his life. But then John randomly drops dead, Michael becomes the earl and Francesca is single. You might think Michael is internally punching the air at this point but in actual fact he feels entirely too grief-stricken and guilty about stealing his dead best buddy’s wife to make his move. Until he isn’t that is. This was definitely one of the better Bridgerton novels I’ve read and it definitely benefitted from the fact that the heroine actually had received something resembling a sex education. If you have enjoyed the previous Bridgerton novels, you should love this one too.

Dune by Frank Herbert

I’m a big proponent of reading the book before you see the movie and also of going to see all movies that have Zendaya in them, so it was only natural that Dune would be on my reading list for this month. For the approximately six people that are not already aware, Dune is an epic science fiction saga that tells the story of the young Paul Atreides, who moves to the desert planet of Arrakis with his family to take over the ruling of the planet and oversee the production of ‘spice’, the most valuable commodity in the galaxy which can only be mined on Arrakis. Paul has to contend with the political machinations of the Harkonnens, the sworn enemies of his family, the emergence of some unexpected psychic powers, recurring visions of a future in which he appears to be leading a jihad to conquer the universe and the fact that he is living in a desert populated by highly skilled warriors (who think he might be the messiah) and ginormous carnivorous sandworms. And on top of that the poor guy is having to drink his own recycled sweat to survive! Honestly the first few chapters of this book are incredibly confusing because Herbert flings you right into the action with very little exposition or background but I would advise you to push through. Just as the best way to learn a language is through exposure, the best way to understand the complicated but rewarding Dune saga is to persevere, let the world-building wash over you and not be scared off in the first few pages. After all, fear is the mind killer…

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

By this point in October, I was well into spooky season and wanted something that would sake my insatiable taste for blood (in fiction only). So naturally I turned to the queen of murder mysteries, Agatha Christie. And Then There Were None is one of her most well-known tales and for good reason. The central conceit is that ten strangers are invited to an isolated island off the coast of Devon, all for different reasons and with seemingly nothing linking the ten of them. When they arrived there is no sign of their elusive host but a mysterious recording accuses each of the ten of being a murderer who managed to escape punishment for their crime. Their host has invited each of them to the island but intends for none of them to leave. They shall be picked off one by one, in line with a creepy poem on display all over the house, and executed as punishment for the lives that they took. And Then There Were None is a fast-paced psychological thriller with an audacious premise and a mystery so stunningly constructed that it necessitates an epilogue narrated by the killer explaining how precisely they managed to get away with it. It’s hardly a hot take, but Agatha Christie really is fabulous.

The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century by Amia Srinivasan

I love it when a book really forces me to think hard about about long-held opinions. Srinivasan has crafted a seriously of intellectually rigorous essays that examine some of the messier contradictions and conflicts that lie at the heart of the modern feminist movement and its relationship to sex. While she holds them up to the light, she offers no easy answers and indeed actively encourages her readers to sit with their uncertainty and discomfort over the issues that some of these debates raise. Srinivasan tackles everything from the politics of who is and is not desired, the ethics of student-teacher relationships, the impact of pornography and the uncomfortable relationship between rape accusations and racial justice. This book is a fascinating read for those interested in feminism and expanding their own understanding of sexual liberation.

Well Matched by Jen DeLuca

After murder and feminist theory, I felt like my brain needed a little break and so I turned to my annual Renaissance Faire-themed romance novel. At this point the Willow Creek Renaissance Faire needs to start putting ‘Find the Love of Your Life Here or Your Money Back!’ on their posters and seriously rack up their ticket prices. This instalment features April, older sister to Emily, the protagonist of the first novel, and a single mom who is about to be an empty nester. For years April has put her life on hold for her daughter and has hoped that when she finally heads off to college, she’ll be able to sell her home, move to the city and start living her life for her. As she starts fixing up her house to sell it she acquires assistance from Mitch, one of the local Ren Faire organisers and a serious kilt enthusiast. In exchange for his DIY assistance, April agrees to pretend to be his girlfriend at a family gathering so that his family will take him more seriously and stop harassing him about settling down. However, the line between reality and pretend grows increasingly blurry and once Ren Faire kicks off it seems to disappear entirely. This was a lovely romance though again I must complain about a serious gap in the jousting department. Perhaps my patience will finally be rewarded in the next instalment.

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

After I read a romance novel, I usually read something deeply fucked up in order to keep the universe in balance. Baby Teeth was perfect for this. It centres around Hanna, a little girl with selective mutism who is an angel whenever her father is around and saves her crueler and more psychopathic side for her stay at home mother Suzette. Essentially this book is We Need to Talk About Kevin if Kevin got to the homicidal part of his career at a much more precocious age. This book was totally bonkers but a great, captivating thriller that would be perfect for breaking up a period of heavier reading.

The Workshop of Filthy Creation by Richard Gadz

Thank you to NetGalley and Deixis Press for giving me an ARC of this book. The Workshop of Filthy Creation has all of the hallmarks of a perfect Halloween read, it’s a daring semi-sequel to Frankenstein which picks up with the descendent of the infamous Dr Frankenstein (called Von Frakken in this story) and features all manner of grisly murders, scientific experiments and generally terrible people. Von Frakken has gone beyond the ambitions of his ancestors and, instead of reanimating a dead body, he has grown and given life to an entirely man-made body from scratch. Her name is Maria and after she escapes her creator and finds herself in the harsh world of London in 1879, she discovers that there are many, many people with opinions about her existence. Some want her studied, some want her locked up and many many many people want her dead while Maria is left trying to figure out what it means to just be. Honestly, I think the book would have benefitted more from focusing on Maria and her struggle to come to terms with who she is and what life she wants for herself rather than the repeated gruesome digressions focusing on the activities of various nefarious mad scientists. If you’re looking more for a gothic tale full of nightmarish body horror, this is the book for you. But if you’d rather have an even scarier story that focuses a girl trying to get on with her life while a bunch of powerful men try to make decisions about her and body, you may be left wanting.

My Month in Books: September 2021

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

I love a good portal fantasy and this one has so many portals it’s impossible to resist. A Darker Shade of Magic centres around Kell, a magician with the rare and coveted ability to travel between worlds. By cosmic coincidence, each world has a city called London, which sits in the same geographical area across each of the different worlds. Kell acts as an ambassador for the Maresh Empire, the rulers of the prosperous and magical Red London. He travels frequently to White London, a vicious and dangerous world fraught with bloody fights for the throne, and Grey London, the dullest of all worlds where there is no magic left. There was also once a Black London, but it was lost as a result of a terrible magical catastrophe. On the side, Kell has a dangerous habit of smuggling contraband between the different Londons and one day he is tricked into carrying an incredibly dangerous magical artefact from one world to the next. Having unleashed a greater danger than he can comprehend, Kell is forced to work with Grey London pickpocket Delilah to restore order to all of the magical universes. This was a fantastic, fast-paced and twisty fantasy novel that cost me many hours of sleep because I needed to know what happened next. A must-read for fellow magic nerds.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Look, I know basically everyone on earth already has Opinions (TM) about Sally Rooney so I’ll keep this review concise. I loved this book. I loved it for the same reason I loved her other books and it has very little to do with Rooney’s prose (which is beautiful for the record) or her politics or the plot or anything other than the fact that there is no author who can make me feel like Sally Rooney. I was completely and utterly invested in the lives of four broadly insufferable people who spent their time shagging each other, not talking about their feelings and being deeply pretentious. I cared about these fictional idiots like they were actual real people who I was friends with. I spent two days on an emotional rollercoaster desperate to know whether they would end up together and find happiness. Sure I appreciated the structure of the novel, I enjoyed the incredibly specific sense of place (I haven’t been home to Ireland since pre-lockdown) and I even liked the long, pseudo-philosophical email exchanges (that Rooney writes with tongue firmly in cheek) but goddammit all I really want is a book that grabs me by the heartstrings, wrings me dry and makes me impossible to talk to coherently for at least a week afterwards. Rooney, as always, has delivered.

The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye

Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin for sending me an ARC of this fabulous book. The Transgender Issue is a powerful manifesto that tackles the toxic myths that make up much of the frenzy and ‘debate’ around the rights of transgender people to live their lives free from harassment and discrimination. So often this debate doesn’t actually include any actual trans people so Shon Faye adding her voice and expertise to the conversation is a hugely refreshing change. In her meticulously researched book, Faye examines what it really means to be transgender in Britain today, looking at everything from healthcare to employment to prisons to the relationships between the transgender community and the LGBTQ+ and feminist communities. If you’re a person who’s trying to get your head around the trans experience, get to the truth behind all of the culture war bluster and understand what you can do to be an ally to the trans community, this book is a fantastic starting point.

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.