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.

My Month in Books: July 2021

Written In My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

When you’re eight books into a series and each book is approximately nine hundred pages long, you somewhat lose the ability to be objective about it. Did Written In My Own Heart’s Blood have a particularly coherent plot? No. Could I even begin to explain what plot there was to a non-fan without the use of a detailed diagram explaining the connections between the extended Fraser family and their associates? Not a chance. Did it need every last one of those extremely detailed 18th-century surgery scenes? Hell no it didn’t. Did I love it anyway? You bet your ass I did. At this point, the fact that these books are mostly just increasingly bizarre things happening to a very complicated family is completely overshadowed by the fact that I am fully invested in every last detail of all of their lives. I don’t just want an update on Lizzie Wemyss and the Beardsley twins’ bonkers polygamous marriage, I need it. When a character in this book is in peril, I audibly exclaim (much to the concern of my partner). I am ride or die for this series, even if the next book is just Claire removing ingrown toenails for the people of Fraser’s Ridge while Jamie lives through a ye olde version of Grand Designs. I don’t care, Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone can’t come out soon enough.

A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost

The test for whether a comedy memoir is any good is whether it actually makes you laugh out loud. This book not only did that multiple times, but it actually made me cry with laughter. Many people will recognise Jost as the host of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment but many aren’t aware that he’s actually been working at SNL for 15 years, first as a staff writer and eventually as head writer. Even when he wasn’t on screen, he was behind the scenes helping to pull together some of the most memorable sketches in recent years of SNL and his talent for being hilarious definitely shines in this book. Jost provides a range of hysterical anecdotes about his time at SNL as well as delving into his childhood on Staten Island, his time at Harvard and the disturbingly high number of times that he has pooped his pants as an adult man. Anyone who is a fan of SNL must read this book.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin for an ARC of this fabulous book. I’m a huge fan of Elif Shafak. She has an incredible talent for bringing a scene vividly to life in a way that evokes strong emotions in her readers and The Island of Missing Trees is a fine example of this. It’s a beautiful story of two parts. In one half we have two lovers struggling to be together against the backdrop of a civil conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the 1960s. Defne and Kostas come from opposing sides of this conflict and the only place where they can meet with each other without either of their families finding out is a taverna in the middle of the island, run by another mixed Turkish/Greek couple. In the middle of this taverna grows a fig tree and when Defne and Kostas are eventually forced to leave Cyprus and move to London, they take a cutting from the fig tree and plant her in their new back garden. There, the fig tree continues to watch over them and, eventually, their daughter Ada. The other half of the novel picks up years down the line. Ada is a moody teenager, mourning the death of her mother and unsure how to relate to her distant father who has always been more comfortable with plants than people. An outburst at school and the sudden arrival of a figure from her parents’ past leaves Ada desperately curious about Cyprus, an island that has shaped her life even though she has never been there. The novel is narrated in part by the fig tree which adds a wonderful sense of magic to a story about very real and very painful issues. The island of Cyprus is essentially a character in its own right and Shafak does a brilliant job of bringing her sights, smells, sounds and history to life for her reader. Ultimately The Island of Missing Trees is a thoughtful and heartfelt exploration of identity, belonging and the immigrant experience of adaption and survival.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I’m going to cut to the chase; this is as close to a perfect book as I have ever read. It is a stunning, immersive novel that expertly blends historical fiction and fantasy to create one of the most convincing magical and fantastical books that I have ever had the joy of laying eyes on. It is set in 19th century England, but one where magicians used to rule the land with the help of their fairy servants. However, all of their magic has long since faded away and the only ‘magicians’ left are those who merely study the history of magic. Enter Mr Norrell, a ‘practical’ magician who has studied every book he can lay his hands on in order to recreate the magic that everyone thought was lost. He becomes renowned as the man who brought magic back to England and is soon doing favours for the most powerful men in the kingdom and waging war against Napoleon on their behalf. Norrell is a nervous, fastidious and jealous man who has no interest in sharing the title of magician with anyone and so when the charming, inventive and naturally gifted Jonathan Strange enters the picture seeking a position as his pupil, the reader knows that things are unlikely to go smoothly, Their relationship is epic, equal parts partnership and rivalry and they are perfect foils for each other, driving each other to increasingly erratic and risky behaviour to prove themselves the greatest magician of the age. Reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell felt effortless. Every part of the story seamlessly blended into the other, every character felt real, every event felt completely natural (no matter how supernatural it was). Susanna Clarke is an absolute genius and it’s books like this one that remind my how much I love reading.

My Month in Books: June 2021

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

When you pick up a book that ostensibly centres around a young man who brutally kills several of his high school classmates with a crossbow, you expect that to be the most unsettling thing that happens in the story. But We Need To Talk About Kevin is ultimately focused not on Kevin and his crimes, but his mother, Eva, and her fraught experience of motherhood. Almost from the moment he is born, Eva finds Kevin to be manipulative, calculating and difficult to love and the central question of the novel is whether Eva is repulsed by the infant Kevin because of his latent evil tendencies or if Kevin only becomes evil because his mother was repulsed by him. Reading the story from Eva’s perspective feels like watching a car crash in slow motion, as she is tormented by Kevin in seemingly innocuous ways and gaslit by the people around her into feeling as if she is the monster for recognising the enormous capacity for harm that lurks within him. The true horror of this novel comes not from Kevin or his massacre but the dozens of ordinary deaths that Eva dies over the years as she slowly but surely loses her identity and sanity to her son’s machinations and her husband’s wilful ignorance.

The Hounds of Mórrígan by Pat O’Shea

The Hounds of the Mórrígan is a children’s book which tells the story of Pidge and his younger sister Brigit as they journey through a fantasy version of the West of Ireland on a quest to defeat the Mórrígan. They are assisted by a range of characters from Irish mythology as well as a few highly original animal companions and the overall effect is one of comfort, wonder and general loveliness. This isn’t one of those children’s books I’d say could be read by readers of all ages, I would definitely say it would only be fully enjoyed by kids under the age of twelve. But if you’re looking for something for a child about that age to read, I’ve no doubt they’ll thoroughly enjoy this.

The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion by Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne

This is an absolutely remarkable book that shines a light on the psyche of those who have committed acts of unimaginable violence and cruelty. Dr Gwen Adshead is a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist who has spent her career working with people who have committed serious crimes such as murder, stalking, arson and child sexual abuse. Working with dramatist Eileen Horne, she has crafted eleven narratives that are representative of her experiences of working within the criminal justice systems and allow her to explore a range of issues including female violence, PTSD and the long-lasting impacts of child abuse. In spite of the fact that each of these narratives centres around someone who has committed a terrible crime, I found myself feeling empathy and compassion for each and every one of them. This book invites you to do the challenging work of seeing those who we would usually write off as ‘monsters’ for what the really are, people. Damaged people who have done huge amounts of harm to those around them yes, but also people who are deserving of our compassion. Some of these narratives end in progress and hope, others end in in regression but each of them expands the readers understanding of violence, trauma and what it means to show empathy to our fellow human beings. I hope more people working in criminal justice read this book, it’s an incredibly important and invaluable resource.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book in Seanan McGuire’s excellent Wayward Children series, which focuses on children who have visited other worlds and then returned to their old lives. This instalment focuses on Jack and Jill, twin sisters who are forced into restrictive gender roles by their parents. While Jill is encouraged to play soccer and roughhouse with the boys, Jack is made to stay indoors, sit still and look pretty. But when the two girls find a mysterious set of stairs in their grandmother’s old trunk that leads them to an ancient door with a sign above it, warning them to ‘be sure’, they are thrust into a whole new way of life. The Moors is a magical land filled with vampires, werewolves and mad scientists who resurrect the dead and while Jack jumps at the chance to finally do something by becoming a scientist’s apprentice, Jill is seduced by the pampered, cloistered life of a vampire princess. The different choices the two sisters make will split apart their already fragile relationship, putting them on a collision course with each other that will have terrible consequences, not only for them, but for both their old and new worlds. McGuire has once again crafted an immersive, unputdownable fantasy in just over a hundred pages and I’m having to sit on my hands to stop me from immediately picking up the next book in the series and devouring that as well.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic does precisely what it says on the tin. It’s a gripping gothic novel set in turn of the century Mexico, in which glamorous debutante Noemí must go an investigate her beloved cousin’s mysterious mental illness, which descended shortly after her marriage to an enigmatic Englishman. On the one hand I found this book slightly disappointing. On some levels it felt slightly like a ‘paint by numbers’ gothic novel, with not a huge amount of depth coming out of the secondary characters and heavy use of trope in certain elements of the plot. But on the other hand I really appreciate how Moreno-Garcia used these tried and tested plot and character devices to address colonialist narratives and reclaim these kinds of stories for those who have been historically shut out from them. The fact that so much feels the same makes the elements that are different stand out all the more, meaning that the audacious and creative ending really shines.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

This book was absolutely bonkers and I loved it so much. Our unnamed protagonist is internet famous for having once tweeted ‘Can a dog be twins?’ and No One Is Talking About This is a stream of consciousness trip through her life lived online. She is utterly preoccupied with ‘the portal’, as she calls it, until her outside life makes itself impossible to ignore when her sister discovers that she is pregnant with a child with Proteus syndrome. Patricia Lockwood has written the most perfectly ‘online’ book I’ve ever read while still managing to craft something incredibly, heartbreakingly human. It lures you in with witty and wry observations about a life lived on the internet before gut-punching you with agonising reality. It’s a beautiful portrait of the way that we think, live and love today, seamlessly blending the virtual and the ‘real’.

The Likeness by Tana French

One of my only problems with the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series was that I wanted more of Cassie Maddox, but the second instalment, The Likeness, grants my wish in a way I never expected. The novel begins with the discovery of a body in an abandoned cottage on the outskirts of Dublin. The dead girl is the exact doppelganger of Cassie Maddox, a former Murder Squad detective who is still reckoning with the trauma caused by her last homicide investigation. What makes things even stranger than they already are is that the dead girl’s I.D. says she’s Lexie Maddison. But Lexie doesn’t exist, she’s a pseudonym that Cassie used years ago while undercover trying to bust a student drug ring. The cherry on top of this already very bizarre sundae is that Cassie agrees to go undercover as Lexie Maddison one more time, slotting into the dead girl’s life in the hopes that she can uncover where this mysterious girl came from and who murdered her. But as Cassie finds herself becoming more and more integrated into Lexie’s life, the line between the two becomes increasingly blurry. Once again French has crafted a fantastic thriller with an incredibly creative premise. The Likeness has firmly cemented Dublin Murder Squad as one of my favourite crime series and I can’t wait to pick up the next one.

Ariadne Unraveled: A Mythic Retelling by Zenobia Neil

Thank you to Victory Editing and NetGalley for this ARC. I’m a huge fan of any sort of Greek myth retelling and Ariadne is not a figure I’ve seen get a a huge amount of attention in the recent spate of novels that have been seeking to reframe various ancient stories from a female perspective. Dionysus is also a very neglected god in modern retellings, with few authors knowing how to handle an Olympian who embodies drunkenness, ecstasy, insanity and performance. So a novel that seeks to flesh out the relationship between these two characters and give Ariadne some agency back? Sign me up! However, I was ultimately a little disappointed. While I ultimately liked the portrayal of Dionysus and thought it captured the tension between his mortality and his godhead really well, the whole novel just felt a bit…bodice ripper-y to me (though the author was at pains to emphasise that Ariadne is not wearing anything that could be described as a bodice for 90% of this book). I know Dionysus is the god of orgies, so maybe I should have expected this, but it just felt like sex was being shoe-horned in at every possible opportunity and I felt like it really distracted from the wider plot, which I actually found to be a really interesting take on the Ariadne myth. I’m conscious that this is really a matter of personal taste, so if you’ve already read books like The Silence of the Girls and A Thousand Ships but you thought ‘Hmmm, I like this but it needs more vine-themed bondage’ then Ariadne Unravelled is definitely the book for you.

The Silence by Don DeLillo

I have mixed feelings about The Silence and I think it’s because it was very different to what I was expecting. This novel is set at a point in the near future where there is a complete blackout of all technology, for reasons that are unclear. Without phones, television and the internet to fall back on, a small party finds themselves stranded and confused, with no idea what to do in the face of such an upending of the way they live their lives. I think I was expecting this to be a little more action-packed and plot-driven but The Silence, fittingly, is more of a quiet meditation that examines our reliance on the constant buzz and conversation that we can plug into via our digital devices as well as the tremendous destructive power of technology that the human race isn’t responsible enough to wield. The prose here is lovely though at times I found it quite dense and inscrutable. Don’t be fooled by its size, this is definitely not a light, easy read. It’s a challenging novella and part of me thinks DeLillo has challenged his reader more than he necessarily had to in order to make the points he was seeking to. While obviously that’s his choice, I’m afraid that this book will feel quite inaccessible to even avid readers.

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

I didn’t like this book and it’s entirely my own fault. I should have known better. I was already seemingly the only person on planet earth who did not enjoy The Silent Patient at all but I picked up The Maidens anyway because I was seduced by promises of a murder mystery set around the University of Cambridge Classics Faculty. I spent four years of my life there and honestly I wanted to see how someone could pull off a murder in that building without being caught because every room is constantly occupied by someone looking for space to hold a supervision. Imagine my disappointment when all of the students who were studying Greek tragedy, in the original Ancient Greek, were described as English students. Outrageous. Leaving my pettier grievances aside, I disliked The Maidens for the exact same reason I disliked The Silent Patient; the reason you’ll never see the ‘big twist’ coming is because it comes out of nowhere and is completely nonsensical. I’ve now learned my lesson and won’t be lured in by future books by this author.

My Month in Books: May 2021

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire

There is an unanswered question the lurks in the shadows of most portal fantasy novels – what happens to the children who find magical worlds after they’ve returned to our world? And what if those children never wanted to return in the first place? Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is the place for them, a school specially created to help reluctant returnees to the real world readjust to the mundane and learn to move on from the magical adventures they’ve had and the lives they built in other worlds. Our protagonists have wandered through fairylands and nonsense worlds filled with candy as well as the halls of the dead and dark worlds full of mad scientists and vampires but what they have in common is each is equally desperate to find a magical doorway which will take them back to where they feel they belong. Some among them might even be willing to kill their fellow students if it means getting back home. This book is bizarre, hilarious, creepy, incredibly creative and, above all, a beautiful meditation on what it means to belong. I adored this book and I cannot recommend it enough.

Animal by Lisa Taddeo

Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury for sending me an ARC of this book. This is a book I’ve really been looking forward to as I enjoyed Lisa Taddeo’s non-fiction debut Three Women and I was keen to see how her talent translated into fiction writing. Unfortunately Animal left me feeling a little cold. It’s an incredibly raw story of a woman named Joan who, after her married lover shoots himself in front of her while she’s on a date with another man (yes, you read that right – it’s quite the opening), flees New York and moves to a remote canyon outside of Los Angeles and begins to ingratiate herself into the life of a young local women for reasons that only become clear as we move through the book. Joan is an incredibly messy protagonist who makes awful, dangerous choices but as we get to know her the depths of her trauma become apparent and you find yourself beginning to understand her behaviour and her outlook on life. But ultimately for me it all just felt like too much and I’m not usually one to shy away from gritty or upsetting stories. Taddeo is relentless in piling incredible levels pain and suffering onto Joan and the female characters in her immediate vicinity and after a certain point it felt more like cheap shock tactics than good writing. The book improves towards the end when some of the key plot points and mysteries of the novel pay off but I’d still be hesitant to recommend this book to friends. Would it have been too much to ask to have just one fewer brutal sexual assault?

In the Woods by Tana French

There is a huge amount of pleasure to be gained from a good detective novel and I’m always on the lookout for a new series. I’ve been seeing great reviews of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series for a while now and I’m delighted to say that it lives up to the hype. It pulls you in right from the first page with absolutely stunning writing that completely transports the reader to a hazy summer day in a 1980s suburb of Dublin. But the loveliness of the scene belies the grim events about to occur; three pre-teens wander innocently into the woods to play and only one returns, spattered with blood, covered in mysterious scratch marks and with no memory of what has happened to him or his missing friends. This child, Rob, grows up to become a detective working on the eponymous Dublin Murder Squad and he tells almost no one about his own traumatic past. But one day the past comes back for him, as he and his partner are assigned a case where a child has been mysteriously murdered in the very same woods where he lost his friends and there is evidence to suggest the two cases are linked. This book is an absolute rollercoaster and while I have seen some reviewers complaining about finding the ending either too predictable or frustrating, I think they’re missing the point. In a well-constructed mystery the reader should have a pretty good idea of whodunnit by the climax of the novel and in a great novel not everything needs to be wrapped up in a neat bow. French has created a portrait of a messy person dealing with a messy situation that defies the conventional tropes of the mystery genre and as a result, transcends it. I will definitely be putting the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad books on my TBR.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

I can always count on Sayaka Murata to completely surprise me. She has such an unconventional way of looking at the world that I can never tell where her stories are going to take me next. Her latest novel, Earthlings, is centred around a young girl named Natsuki, who uses her vivid imagination to escape the cruelty and abuse of her daily life and refashion herself as someone powerful and important. No one seems to understand her but her beloved cousin, Yuu, and when a terrible event pulls them apart, they vow to always survive no matter what. Years later, Natsuki is still living a life that perplexes those around her by maintaining a sexless marriage and refusing to consider becoming pregnant. When the pressure causes her to flee to the countryside and reunite with Yuu, a series of completely fucking bananas events are triggered that upends the lives of everyone around them. Wherever you think this book might be going, you are totally wrong. And yet in spite of the (I cannot stress this enough) bonkers ending, Murata has ultimately constructed a moving and psychologically realistic depiction of young people gripped by trauma and trapped in a box created for them by society, desperate to break out and yet desperate to belong. I devoured this in a day and would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoyed Murata’s previous book Convenience Store Woman (though be warned, Earthlings is much darker!).

Bunny by Mona Awad

I was clearly in the mood for oddball books this month. Bunny is difficult to describe but if I were pressed I would say it’s like if The Secret History, Heathers and The Witches of Eastwick had a very strange, ironic but passionate threesome. Our protagonist is Sam, a post-grad student on an MFA programme at a highly prestigious university. Sam is an outsider amongst her creative writing cohort and in particular is appalled by ‘The Bunnies’, the group of unbearably girly, touchy-feely and privileged women who make up the rest of her writer’s seminar. Sam has no interest in joining their cult-like sorority but when she gets an invite to one of their ‘salons’ she can’t resist going along to see what they’re like behind closed doors. And boy is she in for a surprise! Bunny is a macabre and twisted parody of the conventional campus, coming of age novel that still manages to have something quite sincere to say about creativity, the creative process, friendship and discovering who you are. Just don’t expected to be conveyed in a straightforward way.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

I’ve seen so much hype about this book that I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to it’s reviews, but I’m delighted to say I was wrong. Destransition, Baby is a fabulous, witty, insightful and devastating debut novel that centres around a complicated relationship between three women and their kind of shared baby. Amy and Reese had been together for years, living a life of domestic bliss and hoping to find a way for them to start a family together as two trans women. However, when their relationship is rocked by a traumatic event, Amy chooses to detransition and go back to living as a cisgender man, Ames, and loses his relationship with Reese in the process. Years later, Reese is numbing her pain by having ill-advised affairs with married men and Ames still feels uncomfortable in his masculine identity and longs to find a way to have Reese back in his life. When Ames accidentally impregnates his girlfriend and boss, Katrina, after believing he was sterile after being on hormones for so many years, he sees a way for he and Reese to build the family they always wanted and create an unconventional family unit that will allow him to be a parent without being a ‘father’. All Ames needs to do is convince Reese and Katrina to get onboard with his plan. I’ve never read a novel like this before. It smashes the taboos that surround sex, gender, relationships and family so thoroughly but it’s also a beautiful book, utterly compelling and utterly unique. It is absolutely my number one recommendation of the month.

Love and Fury: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft by Samantha Silva

Thank you Netgalley and Allison and Busby for this ARC. Love and Fury is an absorbing debut that focuses on the life of pioneering women’s rights campaigner and author, Mary Wollstonecraft, and it takes the reader from her early childhood, marred by an oppressive father, through her escape and founding of a school for girls, to her intellectual rise and eventually to her tragic death in childbirth. Many aren’t aware that Wollstonecraft is the mother of the famous author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. It’s therefore a very effective device that the novel is framed around Wollstonecraft telling the story of her life to her infant daughter and passing on her feminist legacy to her before her death. But this novel is not just about Wollstonecraft as an intellectual and a firebrand, it paints a painfully human portrait of a woman who loved, lost, desired and suffered trying to live a life that was outside of the bounds of what society deemed acceptable for her. Ultimately Love and Fury is a heartfelt reminder of the trailblazing women who have come before us and the potential that they still have to inspire us even hundreds of years later.

Hey Ladies! by Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss

I’m incapable of shutting up about how funny this book is and every time I reread it I don’t want it to end. Hey Ladies! is a hilarious glimpse into a year in the life of one highly dysfunctional friend group as told through their email chains as they try to organise brunches, birthday parties, weddings and maybe a lecture on the Irish potato famine. These women are ridiculous parodies of all of your most annoying yet beloved friends and even though I have read this book before it still made me howl with laughter. The day I don’t lose it over a newly single Jen being ready to go out, dance and ‘murder someone for the coke under their fingernails’ while one of her friends blithely suggest they meet up for a pre-work coffee instead will be the day they put me in my grave.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I love a book with a twist that I don’t see coming and Fingersmith has three! This is a difficult book to describe without ruining it, so all I shall say is that when Sue Trinder, a young woman raised by a family of thieves in Victorian London, is asked to pose as a ladies maid in order to persuade a gullible heiress to marry a villain and thus swindle her out of her fortune, she has no qualms about saying yes. But the more time she spends with Maud, the target of this wicked scheme, the more complicated things become. Waters is an absolute master story-teller, I was completely hooked on this story and needed to know what happened next like I needed to breathe. If you’re a historical fiction fan who hasn’t read this book yet, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.

One To Watch by Kate Stayman-London

This was another deliciously compelling book, though a much lighter read than most of the others on this list! It centres around Bea Schumacher, a plus-sized fashion blogger who goes viral for an epic takedown of a popular Bachelor-style dating show for having yet another season full of stick-thin women. So imagine her surprise when the show calls her up asking her to be their next contestant? Nursing a broken heart and dreading what the trolls on the internet might have to say about this, Bea nevertheless decides to throw caution to the wind and let 25 total strangers compete for her affections. This is pure, ridiculous escapism and it was so addictive it should probably come with a warning label. Perfect for anyone lucky enough to be going on holiday and looking for something to read by the pool.

My Month in Books: April 2021

Rachel’s Holiday by Marion Keyes

If you’re looking for a nice, straightforward book about a woman who goes on holiday, this is not the book for you – the title is very deceptive! Rachel’s Holiday centres around Rachel Walsh, a young Irish woman living it up in New York City. There’s only one tiny issue; everyone in her life seems to think she’s a drug addict. I mean sure, she takes coke in the morning before she goes to work, she’s ditched her friends multiple times to go and score drugs and she recently (maybe not entirely by accident) overdosed and ended up in hospital but what can she say? She just loves having a good time! She eventually gives in to her well-meaning family’s nagging agrees to go to The Cloisters, a rehab centre that’s Ireland’s answer to the Betty Ford Clinic. She reckons it’ll be a spa-like experience filled with glamorous celebrities but what she finds is something very different. The longer she spends in group therapy with her fellow patients, the more she realises that maybe, just maybe, she might actually have a problem and that she needs to act quickly to stop herself ruining her life any more than she already has. The depth of Rachel’s denial about her addiction is agonising and hilarious at the same time and Keyes handles her slowly realising the extent to which she has been dependent on drugs and the impact that they’ve had on her intimate relationships with the lightest of touches. This book could have been a very heavy read in the hands of a different author but Keyes injects a huge amount of heart, humour and goodwill into this novel and the story feels no less real or emotionally poignant for it. I’m definitely keen to pick up more of her books after reading this one.

Emma by Jane Austen

I’m sure all my readers are delighted that I managed to unearth this virtually unknown novel by an obscure author to review it [insert heavy sarcasm here]. But in all seriousness, just in case you haven’t already been tempted to read one of Austen’s best novels, let me assure you that it is well worth your time. Emma herself is a fantastic heroine, who manages to simultaneously drive the reader demented as she dives headlong into another ill-advised scheme while never losing their good will. I feel like Mr Knightley and Mrs Weston are perpetually arguing in my brain whenever I read this but ultimately I can’t help but love her. As with much of Austen, the side characters are what make this story for me (shout out to Mr Woodhouse, Mrs Elton and Miss Bates for being exactly the sort of people I love reading about and would run a mile from if I met them in real life). But what makes Emma particularly special to me is the secondary story of Jane Fairfax that is playing out behind the scenes, with the full details being kept tantalisingly out of reach of the reader. Every time I read it I feel like I spot something new and feel differently about the ending and I cannot recommend picking it up enough, whether it’s for the first time or the fiftieth. Or just watch Clueless again, up to you.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I enjoyed this book a lot and the fact that I’m saying that despite it including a fair amount of graphic sex featuring a character based on George W. Bush is a testament to Curtis Sittenfeld’s talent as a writer. American Wife is the story of Alice Blackwell, an unassuming, quiet woman who finds herself married to Charlie, a charismatic, complicated man who, over the course of their marriage, becomes the president of the United States. As Charlie’s political star rises, Alice finds herself caught between a number of contradictions – how can she love her husband and yet disagree with him so profoundly on politics? How complicit is she in the decisions of his administration? Is she morally obligated to speak publicly when she disagrees with him? Significant elements of Alice’s backstory and her life with Charlie are based on Laura Bush, former first lady and wife of George W. Bush, however, it would be a mistake to read this only as a vehicle for salacious biographical details. Ultimately this novel is interested in exploring where the line between the personal and the political, the private and the public, the heart and the head, truly lies. Sittenfeld doesn’t offer any easy answers to these questions, instead she gives the reader the space to explore and ponder them over the course of the book and, like most good writing, for them to come to very different conclusions by the end.

Snowflake by Louise Nealon

Thanks to NetGalley and Bonnier Books UK for providing me with an ARC of this book. Snowflake centres around Debbie White, who lives on a dairy farm in rural Ireland with her mother and her uncle. As Debbie steps out into the next stage of her life as a student at Trinity College in Dublin, the behaviour of her family, which she once viewed as a mundane fact of life, begins to spin out of control and stands in sharp contrast to the seemingly ordered and untroubled lives of her new university friends. I really don’t know what I was expecting when I launched into reading Snowflake and that is likely because it is a very difficult novel to pin down. It seems to be constantly shifting, even as you read it, between being a wry coming of age story, a dark examination of mental illness and trauma and something quite magical and poetic that is difficult to capture in a review. Ultimately this novel feels like a cathartic journey, as Debbie comes to accept herself and her family and finds a kind of balance between the person she has always been and the person she’s becoming. It’s a strange, special read and at the end you’ll (fittingly) feel as if you’ve just awoken from a very vivid dream that you can’t fully capture when you try to describe it to others.

Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro

I love reading about how certain pieces of culture have been received over time and Shakespeare provides incredibly rich material for books of this nature. Because his works are so universally considered to be worthy of attention and study, figures throughout history have been influenced by his writing and have used his plays as tools of influence. James Shapiro, a leading Shakespeare scholar, traces the history of Shakespeare’s reception in America and how Americans across the political spectrum have turned to Shakespeare for inspiration in how to address the key issues of their day. From John Quincy Adams railing against Desdemona’s character because she dared to fall in love with a black man, to John Wilkes Booth’s and Lincoln’s shared fasciation with Shakespeare, to the fierce debate between writers and producers on how to end Shakespeare in Love all the way up to a controversial performance of Julius Caesar in 2017, in which a Trump-like Caesar is assassinated, that sparked a right wing firestorm. What makes this book fascinating is how it shines a light on the myriad of people from across the political spectrum who have invoked Shakespeare throughout history, sometimes reading the very same plays in completely different ways depending on their personal beliefs. However, this makes Shapiro’s conclusion all the more concerning. He fears that those on the right may have abandoned Shakespeare, finding him to be too representative of the ‘liberal cultural elite’ that they oppose and without common culture to act as a ‘canary in the coal mine’, Shapiro suspects that American will only grow more divided. This book, while it is dense in parts, would be much enjoyed by lovers of Shakespeare or politics (and absolutely ideal for people like me, who love both).

To Sir Phillip, With Love by Julia Quinn

My quest to read all of the Bridgerton books before Season 2 of the Netflix series comes out continues. Unfortunately this one was a bit of a disappointment, even though it focused on Eloise, my favourite of the Bridgerton siblings. It just felt like the central love story wasn’t very compelling, largely because Phillip was totally useless and for most of the book only wanted to marry Eloise because he wanted someone to run his house and raise his kids. The best parts were the ones that featured the wider Bridgerton family and the relationships between them, rather than focusing on the lacklustre romantic relationship.

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

This book was absolutely bonkers and I loved it. It centres around Rachel, a young women in the grip of an eating disorder who obsessively restricts her calorie intake. With the encouragement of her therapist, she goes on a 90-day communication detox from her mother, who is the source of her anxiety about food. Shortly after, she meets Miriram, a young orthodox Jewish woman who works in her favourite frozen yoghurt shop and has a voracious appetite, as well as a passionate desire to feed Rachel. Rachel falls head over heels for Miriam and all that she represents and she embarks on a quest to satisfy her hunger, not just for food, but for love, family, security, acceptance, sex and faith. Melissa Broder has such an incredible gift for describing a situation with all of her senses in hyper-realistic detail, so you feel as if you’re experiencing things along with her characters no matter how completely bizarre the situation is. This stood out in her first novel The Pisces but even more so in Milk Fed, where the descriptions of food are so lovingly and sensually written that they cross the line into the erotic on multiple occasions. This book will have you laughing, crying and saying ‘what the fuck did I just read?’.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages and I’m so glad I finally got around to it. Ishiguro has crafted a dystopian horror novel that doesn’t feel like one at all, because of his beautiful, sparse and perceptive writing about the interior lives of his protagonists. Never Let Me Go takes place in a world where almost all diseases are now curable because of the creation of an underclass of clones who are raised to be living organ donors. The clones typically die young after two or three donations and society wilfully ignores their humanity in order to justify their slaughter. Our protagonist is Kathy, a young clone who is about to begin making her donations and is looking back on her life at Hailsham, a special boarding school where clone children are raised humanely, where she spent her time with her two friends, Ruth and Tommy. Kathy tells the story of her life in a detached way, seemingly bleakly accepting of her fate and those of her loved ones, but the contrast between her clinical tone and her emotional, devastating story only makes the novel more poignant. It is at once a passionate, tragic love story, a bitter critique of society’s exploitation of the vulnerable and a profound meditation of the fragility of life and what it means to be human.

Beach Read by Emily Henry

As much as I did enjoy Never Let Me Go, it was a pretty heavy read that resulted in me needing something lighthearted and fluffy to follow it. So I reached for Beach Read, a romantic comedy in which two authors, one a successful writer of romance and happily ever afters and the other a critically acclaimed novelist who deals in the dark, gritty and depressing, move in next door to each other. Both are suffering from a wicked case of writer’s block and so they challenge each other to write in the other’s style for a change and over the course of book clubs, research trips and late night writing sessions, the two of them naturally fall in love. This was a delightful interlude that definitely brightened my spirits in between two quite heavy reads.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

This is another book I’ve been meaning to get around to for absolute ages and once again it was worth the wait. A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of two women, practical, jaded Mariam and passionate, idealistic Laila, who are united by their marriage to an odious man. Their story is told against the backdrop of thirty years of Afghani history, chronicling their lives as the Soviets invade, the Taliban rises and Afganistan begins to rebuild in the aftermath of war with the United States. Ultimately these two women find strength in their love for each other even as bombs crash around them and they are faced with inhuman levels of oppression both inside and outside the home. Even when faced with circumstances in which most would find it impossible to live, Mariam and Laila endure in this beautiful novel about the resilience of the human spirit and the ability of love to imbue us with tremendous amounts of courage.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines is a dual narrative, with one strand of the story recounting series of mysterious and unfortunate deaths that took place at the Brookhants School for Girls in 1902 and the other strand picking up in the present day where a horror film is being made at the school telling the story of the infamous Brookhants curse. Both narratives have strong queer, gothic themes running through them so imagine how excited I was to get stuck in. Unfortunately I was severely disappointed. I’d like to state for the record that I’m an absolute wuss when it comes to all things horror and I didn’t find anything that happened in this book remotely scary, thrilling or even compelling to be honest. The author is clearly talented and I really enjoyed her style of writing but the plot just felt unnecessarily convoluted and not able to stand on it’s own as separate from the major gimmicks of the book. While it had a lot of potential, I think this book ultimately fell into the trap of style over substance.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Ok, now this was scary. I know it’s a book aimed at children but still! Our protagonist, Coraline Jones, wanders through a mysterious door in her new home and finds a warped, mirror image of her world on the other side. Here her parents have endless time to play with her, her new neighbours are fun and interesting and everything seems designed to keep her happy and entertained. But something seems a little off about her ‘other mother’ who has buttons where her eyes should be and seems determined to keep Coraline on this side of the door with her forever. In order to save herself, the souls of the other children that the other mother has claimed and her own parents, Coraline has to call on all of her courage and smarts to find her way home. What’s really compelling about Coraline as a heroine is that she isn’t written in the same way that other child protagonists usually are. She’s not unusually brave or precocious or mature for her age, she is an ordinary little girl who uses entirely ordinary levels of common sense, courage and brains to defeat an extraordinary monster. It’s a fabulously creepy read that I would recommend to readers of all ages.

My Month in Books: March 2021

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

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

Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn

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

Daddy by Emma Cline

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

White Ivy by Susie Yang

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

Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women by Kate Manne

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

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

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

Leaving Coy’s Hill by Katherine A. Sherbrooke

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

The Dinner Party: A Tragedy by Sarah Gilmartin

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

Period. It’s About Bloody Time by Emma Barnett

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

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

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

Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo

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