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.

My Month in Books: February 2021

Forced Out: A Detective’s Story of Prejudice and Resilience by Kevin Maxwell

I thought I’d kick off LGBT+ History Month with a bit of recent history. Forced Out is the autobiography of Kevin Maxwell, a black, gay man and a former Metropolitan police officer, who took the force to an employment tribunal and won due to their entrenched culture of homophobia and racism. Maxwell’s story is honestly a deeply dispiriting read, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. Essentially it tracks his disillusionment with the force, opening with him as an optimistic and precocious child who has dreamed of serving his community as a police officer from an early age. Even when his colleagues treat him atrociously, excluding him, hurling slurs in his direction and denying him promotions, Maxwell is driven by an incredibly resilient desire to fulfil his childhood dream and serve the citizens of his community. The book is written with very little emotion, in spite of the emotional and upsetting nature of its subject matter, which I think might put some people off. But for me, the detailed and forensic nature of the writing makes it clear that Maxwell must have been a hell of detective and that the force lost one of their brightest the day they forced him out. Forced Out is a damning indictment of the culture of the British police force, and while it offers very little hope to its readers that change is incoming from within the force, I think the issues it raises are important for people to be aware of in order to build the demand for a police service that is inclusive to all.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

I’d been meaning to read this book for a while after I was captured by its exciting premise and it came recommended by my Mum, who never steers me wrong when it comes to good books. It centres around Anna, a young woman who works for a temp agency that specialises in providing administrative support to super villains. At the start of the novel Anna is just looking for a way to pay her bills, but after a battle between her villainous boss and a famous superhero, she is left badly injured and with permanent mobility issues. Furious at what has been done to her and to countless others like her, Anna does what she does best – she makes a spreadsheet. She begins to calculate the damage that superheroes do, not just to so-called villains, but to civilians, in their pursuit of justice and eventually her work captures the attention of one of the most infamous super villains of all. He gives Anna the resources that she needs for her to start using her data to take on the superhero establishment and as the story progresses, the line between who is a hero and who is a villain becomes increasingly blurry. This novel was a totally compulsive read. The plot moved so quickly from major event to major event that I couldn’t put it down because I needed to know what was happening next. It expertly blends moments of real emotional depth with great laughs, heart-pounding action and truly horrifying elements (the ultimate fate of Supercollider was so incredibly and deliciously fucked up; a masterpiece). All I can say is, Natalie Zina Walschots – I salute you and I can’t wait to read whatever you’re writing next.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park is something of a red-headed stepchild among Jane Austen’s oeuvre. I’ve seen countless reviewers say they don’t enjoy it because they dislike the main character, Fanny, for being boring and priggish (I am firmly team #LeaveFannyAlone ) or because they find the fact that the novel ends with a wedding between two first cousins to be kind of skeevy (which is fair enough to be honest, not going to argue with that one). However, I feel like people who dislike Mansfield Park on these grounds are absolutely missing the point of arguably Austen’s funniest novel. The novel centres around Fanny Price, a poor relation of the wealthy Bertram family, who has been taken in by them as their ward but is not truly loved or treated as a member of the family. She is constantly reminded that she ought to be grateful to the Bertrams for showing her any decency at all and so she grows up into an anxious, nervous young woman who is constantly trying to oblige those around her and ensure that her conduct is above reproach. The precariousness of her position means that she struggles to advocate for herself and her lack of spirit and gumption seems to be the root of much of the dislike of this character. Fanny is also desperately in love with her older cousin, Edmund, because he is the only person in the Bertram family to treat her with love, kindness and consideration. The lives of the family are thrown into chaos with the arrival into the neighbourhood of the Crawford siblings, who are everything Fanny is not. They are witty, attractive, confident but also deeply insincere and shallow people and it is the contrast between their fashionable and attractive demeanours and their weak characters (along with the inability of much of the Bertram family to recognise this) that drives much of the action of the novel. At its heart, Mansfield Park is a biting social satire which relentlessly mocks all of the hypocrisies of upperclass society in Regency England and Fanny is a protagonist who has been expertly designed to highlight these elements to the reader. In spite of her perceived weakness, she is the only character in the novel who constantly remains true to herself and her principles, making her, in my opinion, the strongest character in the novel.

Girl A by Abigail Dean

Girl A is an engrossing and complex debut novel with a dark subject matter. The novel centres around the Gracie family, who became infamous after it emerged that the parents had starved, incarcerated and tortured their children. Our protagonist, Lex, is the eldest Gracie daughter who heroically managed to escape her parents’ ‘House of Horrors’ through a window, alert the police of the abuse and rescue her siblings from her parents. If graphic descriptions of violence and abuse put you off, don’t worry, this isn’t that kind of novel. Dean chooses instead to focus on the long term psychological impact that their upbringing has had on each of the Gracie children and how it has twisted and frayed their relationships with each other. The novel begins years after their escape from their parents, with Lex having just been made the executor of their mother’s will after she has died in prison. They have all been left an equal share of their childhood home and must decide what is to be done with it. Lex and her sister Evie want to turn in into a community centre but they must get each of their siblings to agree to their proposal in order to move forward. The relationships between the siblings are complicated to say the least, with each of them having experienced and in some cases, were even participants in, their parents abuse to varying extents and all of responded to their trauma differently as adults. Dean really dives into the messy grey areas and ambiguities of these relationships and the result is a fascinating psychological portrait of a family pushed to breaking point and warped almost, but not quite, beyond recognition.

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I love turning to Taylor Jenkins Reid when I want something that has a lighter subject matter but still a really good, engrossing story and I was lucky enough to find a proof copy of her not yet published book Malibu Rising in a book box outside my local park. It tells the story of the famous Riva siblings, who have all been variously impacted by their unsettled childhood with a deadbeat father and an alcoholic mother. Every summer they host an enormous party in Malibu that is attended by all of the great and good of Hollywood but this year the secrets that the siblings have been keeping from each other and themselves will bubble to the surface and by the end of the night the Riva mansion will have burned to the ground. This book was highly readable and perfect if you’re looking for a bit of an escape to a far off sunny beach.

I Want To Be Where The Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom

Rachel Bloom is one of my favourite funny people on the planet. I’ve loved her since she first started posting musical comedy sketches on Youtube and I am a die hard fan of her brilliant TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (if you haven’t watched it yet, what are you doing? Go! It’s on Netflix now!). So naturally when I saw she was publishing a collection of personal essays, it went straight to the top of my TBR list. What I love about Bloom’s work is her uncanny ability to take a heavy, scary topic and to make it absolutely hilarious while still handling it intelligently and sensitively. I picked up this book when I was going through a period of really struggling with my mental health and Bloom made me feel like I was less alone in a way that I really, desperately needed in that moment. She also made me laugh my ass off, which I also really needed. The subject matter of this book ranges from middle school bullies to shitty relationships to musical theatre to the struggles of being potty trained and is written in across an incredible range of styles, from Harry Potter fanfiction to amusement park maps. Bloom is so creative and so goddamn funny and I really don’t know what else to tell you other than get on board and read this book. If you’re still not convinced she’s brilliant, try watching this and if you’re still not feeling it, I can’t relate to you.

Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait by Alison Weir

When I find myself in times of trouble, my boyfriend comes to me, speaking words of wisdom: ‘Why don’t you read one of your nice books about the Tudors, that usually makes you feel better?’. He is right, he is always right. Alison Weir is continuing to do a brilliant job with her Six Tudor Queens series, in which one book is dedicated to telling the story of each of the six wives of Henry VIII. This one centred around Anna of Kleve, Henry VIII’s fourth wife who he famously divorced for allegedly being much uglier than her portrait had suggested. I hadn’t read a book that entirely centred on Anna before and I really enjoyed getting to read about her life after Henry divorced her. My only issue was that Weir seems to have taken a number of liberties with the facts and much of the drama in the earlier and latter portions of the book was derived from events that most historians would dispute. However, I appreciate that it’s difficult to write a compelling novel about a woman happily retiring to the countryside to live alone and mind her own business so I won’t judge Weir too harshly.

My Month in Books: January 2021

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

I loved this book. On the surface, Ben Lerner’s latest novel is about a small family who live in Kansas in the late nineties. The parents, Jane and Jonathan, are both psychiatrists who work at a renowned local clinic and their son, Adam, is a high school senior with a talent for debate and poetry. However, once you get a few pages in you realise that the actual plot of the novel isn’t that important and what you’re here for is to enjoy a masterclass in brilliant writing. The novel jumps around in space, time and perspective and this can mean the novel can come across as fragmented but I was so utterly spellbound by the words on the page that I didn’t care. I have never had scenes or characters feel more real to me than the ones in this book did. I talk about this book in a lot more detail here and I cannot recommend it enough.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I was really disappointed by this book. Normally I love Curtis Sittenfeld and I’d had this book recommended to me by so many people but I just couldn’t get into it. Prep tells the story of Lee Fiora, a thirteen year old girl who wins a scholarship to an ultra-elite boarding school. It covers her entire high school experience and is pitched as a coming of age narrative. The problem is that with these kind of coming of age stories, I usually expect the main character to mature or at the very least change in some way but this just didn’t happen with Lee. She remains passive, insecure and thoughtless from start to finish. There’s a chance that Sittenfeld is trying to make a point that this is how most teens really are but it was borderline unbearable to read for over 500 pages and there was very little actual plot to distract from it. Also, I couldn’t tell if Sittenfeld was messing with me by giving nearly all of the characters comically ridiculous names and having no one comment on them.

An Offer From A Gentleman by Julia Quinn

So I, like the rest of the planet, got really into Netflix’s Bridgerton over Christmas and I didn’t want to wait until they released the next series to find out what happens. An Offer from a Gentlemen is essentially a re-telling of Cinderella in which Benedict Bridgerton falls madly in love with a mysterious woman who attends the annual Bridgerton masquerade ball. Little does he know that his mystery lady is Sophie Beckett, the illegitimate daughter of an earl. Sophie lives with her cruel stepmother and stepsisters, working as their maid in exchange for room and board, and has snuck out of the house looking for just one night of fun. I broadly enjoyed this book, much more than the other Bridgerton books that I had read. I think it’s because this book focuses much more on Sophie. A lot of attention is given to fleshing out her character and her choices seem much more rational and explicable than other characters’ in this series have been. This book was a lot of fun and I would recommend it to anyone who had either enjoyed the Netflix series or was looking for something enjoyable to break up a series of heavier reads.

Pachinko by Min Jee Lee

Those who know me know that I’m a sucker for a family saga that spans generations and countries, so I unsurprisingly utterly adored Pachinko. The novel begins in Korea in the early 1900s with Sunja, the beloved only daughter of a disabled fisherman and his much younger wife. As a teenager, she falls in love with a wealthy gangster and becomes pregnant with his child. But when he reveals that he is already married and offers to set her up in Japan as his mistress, Sunja refuses him and instead accepts an offer of marriage from a sickly minister who is passing through her village on the way to take a position at a Christian church in Osaka. Sunja’s decision will echo through her extended family for generations as they struggle to succeed in a country that wants Koreans immigrants like them to fail. The reader is taken through decades of Japanese and Korean shared history through the lens of one family and the result is a beautiful story perseverance, hope and survival, even when all of the odds are stacked against you.

Sabotage: The Business of Finance by Anastasia Nesvetailova and Ronen Palan

This book was an interesting read for me because I know very little about financial services. However, I saw this book described as ‘required reading for every civil servant, regulator and politician in the UK and elsewhere‘ and decided it was high time I educated my self. The book starts with a simple enough premise; since perfectly competitive markets don’t allow large profits and the finance industry enjoys large profits, the finance industry must not be a perfectly competitive market. Nesvetailova and Palan believe that the reason for this is that in finance, the biggest profits come from taking advantage of or sabotaging someone else, be they a customer, a fellow financial institution or a government. This book was very heavy on anecdote (the point that some people who worked in banks did very bad things indeed had been made sufficiently emphatically by chapter 3). However, I found the section on the future of regulation very interesting. They posit that in order to prevent large-scale economic crises going forward, the prevention of sabotage must be at the heart of the future regulatory agenda and present the recommendations of the 1932 Precora Commission as a starting point. While I definitely wouldn’t say this is a light read, I did find it very interesting and reasonably straightforward to understand even for someone who didn’t know much about this area prior to starting the book.

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

I had really enjoyed Alderton’s earlier memoir Everything I Know About Love and so was excited to pick up her debut novel. Ghosts tells the story of one year in the life of Nina Dean, a successful food writer in her early thirties who has been purposely single for the last two years. Over the course of the novel she struggles with being ghosted by a man who said he loved her, changing relationships with friends as they marry and have children and, most poignantly, slowly losing her beloved father to dementia. Ultimately, I found Ghosts to be very readable and difficult to put down. In the acknowledgements section, she thanks a number of her friends, saying that conversations with them helped to inspire this book and I think this comes across strongly. The dialogue between characters feels realistic and fresh and will definitely keep you turning the pages. I really like Alderton’s voice as an author, she has a great way of putting difficult to express emotions into words and making them feel relatable to her readers. She’s also very very funny and a sharp observer of the relationships between men and women.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It’s hardly a revelation to say that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes really good books, but in case anyone was still in doubt, allow me to reiterate that Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie writes really good books. Purple Hibiscus is the coming of age story of Kambili, a fifteen year old girl Nigerian girl whose life is ruled by her authoritarian father, who uses religion to justify his abuse of his wife and children. However, when a coup brings instability to Nigeria, Kambili and her brother are sent to spend time with their Aunt Ifeoma and her children and begin to discover what life outside of their father’s control might look like. I think what is most brilliant about this book is how viscerally you’re made to feel Kambili’s fear and anxiety as the rigid strictures of her childhood begin to crumble away and she is faced with growing into an independent and capable young woman. You feel as though you’re on the journey alongside her and that’s what makes this such a compelling read.

The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren

After the intense, emotional experience of reading Purple Hibiscus I needed something a little lighter. The Honey-Don’t List is a romantic comedy about Carey and James, two overworked and stressed out personal assistants to a celebrity couple on the brink of divorce. As they struggle to keep the relationship between their bosses from publicly imploding, the two find themselves bonding and romance naturally ensues. Honestly, the bits of this I found most compelling were the tirades about being overworked and burned out rather than any of the romance. If, like me, working remotely is getting to you and you need some light reading that won’t make your exhausted brain think too hard then this might be a good book for you to pick up.

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

Eva Ibbotson is always the author I turn to when I want to comfort read. She has the most incredible talent for transporting her readers to far off locations and writing wonderful characters that you want to spend forever reading about. A Company of Swans is no exception. It tells the story of Harriet Morton, the nineteen year old daughter of a stuffy Cambridge professor, who lives a life devoid of love and excitement. Her only outlet is her weekly ballet lessons, where she is able to express herself freely and creatively. When a Russian dancing master offers her a role in the corps of a ballet company that plans to tour South America, she runs away from home and finds herself dancing in the grand opera house of Manaus and finding love and friendship on the banks of the Amazon. Ibbotson’s descriptions of the natural beauty of Brazil are stunning, the story is lovely and it is filled with her signature brand of humour that never fails to absolutely delight me. In the absence of being able to travel anywhere, Ibbotson’s novels remain the next best means of escape.

Review: The Topeka School

I love when a book unexpectedly captivates me. I had already been looking forward to reading The Topeka School – it seemed to appear on every best book round up in 2019 and even Barack Obama said it was brilliant – but I wasn’t ready for how completely compelling I would find it. On the surface it’s a straightforward story about a small family who live in Topeka, Kansas. The year is 1997 and the family consists of parents Jonathan and Jane, and their teenage son, Adam. Jonathan and Jane are both employed at The Foundation, a prestigious local psychiatric institution and Adam is a high school senior with a talent for debate and poetry. Disaster strikes when Adam makes an effort to include the local loner, Darren, in his social circle, not knowing that Darren is one of his father’s patients.

One of the things I loved most about this book was how clever Lerner was with his use of metaphors. Choosing to rely heavily on metaphor to make a point can be a tricky balance for an author to strike. You want your meaning to be obvious without the metaphor becoming heavy handed. Lerner executes this tightrope walk flawlessly. I loved the extended metaphor of American high school debate competitions as a commentary on everything that is wrong with modern American politics. Although this part of the novel is set in the late 1990s, the reader can’t help but see a vivid picture of the current political climate in ‘the spread’ of unintelligible and incoherent information, the focus on point-scoring over constructive discussion, the judges rewarding style over substance.

Similarly towards the end of the novel, when Lerner uses a young boy’s unwillingness to share a slide with Adam’s daughters and the boy’s father’s choice to enable his rudeness as a symbol for male entitlement and society’s implicit support of it, he exhibits deft self-awareness. He tacitly acknowledges that this episode is emblematic of something wider by drawing attention to how impressionable Adam’s daughters are, telling the reader that they are “watching intently to see how this would all unfold, preparing…to internalise whatever life lesson”. The reader’s consciousness of the metaphor makes the whole episode even more agonising than it would have been if we were just to take it at face value. The reader is compelled to read on, having a sickening feeling they know how this will end while hoping against hope that they are wrong. This novel is fiercely political but Lerner’s expert use of metaphor means that his points are made subtly but with brutal effectiveness.

I shouldn’t be surprised by Lerner’s expert use of the metaphor because this book is deeply concerned with speech, language and how we use it. Whether it is debate competitions or rap battles, poetry or psychobabble, Lerner is fascinated by different modes of speech and the cultural capital and power his characters are able to access through expertly moving from register to register. However, Lerner makes it clear that the power conferred by mastery of speech has its’ limits:“The stupid mistake psychologists make, a very Foundation mistake; we thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them.” Accomplished use of flashy language alone is not enough for the characters to overcome the deeper issues that lurk beneath the surface of this novel.

A key text that Lerner is in dialogue with is Hermann Hesse’s short story, A Man Named Ziegler. This text is referenced multiple times throughout The Topeka School and it tells the story of the the eponymous Ziegler who, after consuming a mysterious pill, acquires the ability to understand animal speech and realises that they are full of contempt for humans. He then loses his own sense of what it means to be human and descends into madness. The spectre of being unable to articulate your thoughts and becoming unintelligible haunts the novel and the characters in it live in fear of losing what little power they have to manage the chaos that lurks at the edges of their lives.

The danger of communication breakdown is alluded to throughout the novel but comes across nowhere more clearly than in the plight of the young, disaffected men that Jonathan finds himself treating at The Foundation. Jonathan is considered by his colleagues to be a specialist in dealing with these types of patients because he understands that “when a boy like Jacob shows up in your cramped but light-filled office, you should not under any circumstances ask him to account for his behaviour… Jacob would be the last person capable of such an account; if he had the language he wouldn’t express himself with symptoms.” The character Darren acts as a narrative stand in for all of Jonathan’s patients. Darren is a social outcast and it is implied that he has a cognitive disability that prevents him from keeping up with other young people his age. Adam and his friends from school adopt him as a sort of ironic mascot, finding it amusing to bring him to parties, get him drunk and use him for entertainment. Darren does not fully comprehend the complex social dialogue going on around him and he is unable to express his own feelings of inadequacy and frustrated masculinity. Because Darren is unable to access power and credibility through speech, he asserts himself through acts of violence. This inarticulate chaos lurking beneath the surface of the novel highlights the fragility of the kind of liberal civility that Jonathan, Jane and Adam represent. Their efforts to express themselves clearly through debate, poetry, writing and psychoanalysis seem oddly impermanent in the face of the unpredictable strength of those who have been left voiceless.

What I think is also brilliant about The Topeka School is the way that it shifts around in time, space and perspective, seemingly at random. I’ve seen a lot of reviews complaining about this aspect of the novel, saying that it makes it unreadable or difficult to follow but I couldn’t disagree more. I think it makes the universality of the themes of the novel – language and modes of expression, masculinity and identity, power and who does and doesn’t have it – all the more apparent. It doesn’t seem to matter where and when the events of the novel are taking place or who our narrator is, the same issues continue to bubble to the surface and Lerner’s points are made all the more emphatically. While this format may put some off, I urge you to push beyond any initial confusion and surrender yourself to this novel. I promise that it will be worth it.

My Month in Books: December 2020

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy by Kevin Kwan

Well, this trilogy does exactly what it says on the tin; the main characters are all crazy, rich and Asian. Very little unites the plot other than these three words. If, like me, you’ve come to this after watching the film, be warned: the plot is significantly more batshit than the film got into and there’s approximately a hundred further side characters you’ll need to pay attention to. It does all come together to make a rather fabulous and ridiculous soap opera and this is a perfectly fine read if you’re looking for something fluffy and not too challenging. Branding these ‘satire’ is a bridge too far for me – Kwan is far too in awe of the wealth and privilege of his own characters to attempt to properly satirise any but the most ridiculous of them. I must admit that all of the outrageous ‘wealth porn’ did get somewhat tired after three books!

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

Natalie Haynes’ Pandora’s Jar is an in-depth examination of ten female figures from ancient myth, looking at the culturally dominant depictions of these women that have persisted throughout the centuries, highlighting the other stories that have faded into the background and questioning what drove the popularity of certain versions more than others (spoiler alert: misogyny plays a big role). Although there is no ‘true’ version of any myth, we often take certain versions to be more true than others simply because they are more established and it’s refreshing to see Haynes treat lesser known versions of popular myths with the rigour and seriousness they deserve. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Medea, but that was inevitable. The sections on Eurydice, the Amazons and Penelope were also brilliant.  What Haynes is truly excellent at is looking at how these ancient myths have influenced modern popular culture and how the cycle of erasing and emphasising certain versions of history creates a self-perpetuating cycle in which female figures are erased and continue to be erased because ‘that’s the way it has always been’. Her cultural references range from Beyoncé to Wonder Woman to Hadestown and beyond. This is a great book for those who don’t know much about the classics or mythology but even if, like me, you’ve done a lot of reading around this topic already there’s still plenty in this collection that will surprise you. If you read and enjoyed Haynes’ earlier novel about the women of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships, then reading this is a must.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Raven Leilani’s debut novel ‘Luster’ is a hell of a ride. It centres around Edie, a twenty three year old black woman working in publishing with a myriad of self-destructive tendencies and unresolved trauma, who starts dating a married white man who is twice her age. As her relationship with him progresses, she becomes deeply entangled in his family life and develops complicated relationships with his autopsist wife, Rebecca, and his adopted, black, pre-teen daughter, Akila. This book has an incredibly dark sense of humour, often making me wince and laugh out loud simultaneously. Edie as a narrator is utterly captivating, she brings her world to life  so vividly but also speaks with such clinical detachment about what is going on around her. This contrast can often make the experience of reading this uncomfortable, even more so when you couple it with the fact that Edie is constantly making terrible and self-destructive choices that left me cringing out of my skin. But ultimately I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for something challenging but captivating.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge felt to me more like a series of short stories than a novel. Each chapter is a different vignette of life from a small community in Maine and, more often than not, features the eponymous Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a cantankerous and volatile retired school teacher who has a complex relationship with both her husband and her son. In spite of the love she has for both of them, she has difficulty expressing herself and often flies into inexplicable bouts of rage or descends into a black mood with little warning. Even in chapters which do not feature her prominently, her indomitable presence is the undercurrent that ties the novel together. While this book was beautifully written and the stories were poignant and emotionally rich, I just couldn’t get into it. I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind for a book that demands so much emotionally from the reader. I’ll probably come back to this in a few years, when I’m in a better space to process it fully.

Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore

I needed something nice, fluffy and uncomplicated and Bringing Down the Duke gave it to me. It centres around Annabelle, an impoverished vicar’s daughter who wins a scholarship to study classics at Oxford and becomes caught up in the activities of the local chapter of suffragists. Along the way she captures the attention the Duke of Montgomery who is advising the Tory party on how to thwart the suffragists and win their next election so that he might recover his ancestral family castle. Romance naturally ensues. This was a lovely, unchallenging read to take me through the Christmas holidays and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for something similar.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Have you ever had the experience of reading one page of a novel and knowing that you’ve got something special on your hands? That’s how I felt when I started reading The Shadow of the Wind. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s brilliant modern gothic novel is all that is best about the genre, bursting with doomed love affairs, haunted mansions and mysterious murders. It opens in 1945 Barcelona with a young Daniel Sempere being taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father, where he is entrusted with a novel by the mysterious Julián Carax. Daniel is enchanted by the brilliant book and is tasked with ensuring that it is never forgotten. But a ghostly figure has been hunting for copies of Carax’s work and has been burning them, determined to erase Carax from history, and Daniel and his friends are caught up in a race to uncover the enigma of Carax’s life and the legacy he left behind. This book is utterly spellbinding and ultimately a love letter to the act of reading. It was a perfect read to take me through Christmas and I’d recommend it to everyone.