My Month in Books: March 2020

Girl, Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo

My first book of March was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which provides moments of insights into the lives and struggles of twelve different people, mostly black British women. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different narrator and the narratives subtly overlap while still managing to cut across time, geography, age, class and race. Each character is so distinct and has such a unique voice that it’s easy to forget that they’re not real people, let alone that just one author has written all of them. This truly was a special book and an absolute joy to read. I can’t recommend it enough.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener is a memoir recounting Wiener’s time working at tech startups in Silicon Valley and offers insight into the people behind the internet. I would describe this book as funny but not in a ‘ha-ha’ way, more in a ‘I need to laugh so I don’t cry’ kind of way. Wiener’s anecdotes about the callous treatment of startup staff, the sexism and harassment that were engrained in the culture of her workplaces and the total disinterest of tech companies in how their tools are being used so long as they are profitable expose the cynicism and thoughtlessness that exists at the highest levels of the tech industry. While many are aware about the dubious ethics behind some of the world’s biggest tech companies, Wiener’s memoir opens the readers eyes and makes it impossible to look away.

Shadow and Bone Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

There was a period in which I fell down a rabbit hole and devoured all three books of Leigh Bardugo’s dark fantasy Shadow and Bone trilogy over the course of one delightful week. The Shadow and Bone trilogy follows the orphaned and insignificant Alina Starkov as she discovers that she has unprecedented magical powers that have lain dormant for most of her life and mark her out as one of the most powerful of the grisha, magical soldiers who serve in the army of the fictional country of Ravka. Over the course of three books Alina must master her powers and save her country from (literally) being consumed by darkness. This series has magic, pirates, all manner of magical beasts and epic battles between good and evil while still dealing with the pressure and anxiety associated with having heroism thrust upon you. I literally do not know what else you could want in a fantasy series.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This month my book club chose to read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, not realising it was about a pandemic that wiped out 99% of the human population. So yeah, it felt a little on the nose. While I don’t necessarily recommend reading this book right this second (the descriptions of the pandemic spreading through a city are anxiety inducing enough without the current atmosphere), this is a beautiful ode to the resilience of the humanity and the constant search for meaning through art and culture. Once I got over the heartbreaking sections on the pandemic, I found this to be a hopeful read that reminded me that all of that is best about humanity can’t be killed by a disease, no matter how deadly or contagious.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

My classic pick of the month was The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and as I read it, I often recalled the author’s laconic response to an interviewer for The Paris Review asking him what his advice was for readers who said they could not understand his writing even after reading it two or three times – ‘Read it four times.’ Faulkner tells the story of the decline of the Southern aristocracy through the microcosm of the Compsons, a once wealthy and noble family who have fallen into financial and moral decline. Each of the three Compson sons is obsessed with their sister Caddy, whose promiscuity and disregard for the restrictive conventions of old school Southern morality distress her brothers to varying degrees. While I won’t pretend this novel is particularly accessible (the sections narrated by two of Caddy’s brothers are told in a stream of consciousness style that defies all conventions of syntax, grammar and linear time itself), Faulkner has created a vivid portrait of a way of life on the brink of collapse.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a South Korean novel that was recently translated into English and captures many of the concerns of the #MeToo movement in South Korea and the wider world. It tells the story of Jiyoung, an unremarkable thirty-something stay at home mum, who starts having dissociative episodes after the birth of her first child and agrees to seek psychiatric help at the behest of her husband. As part of her therapy she tells the doctor the story of her life and chronicles all the mundane detail of the sexist discrimination she has faced along the way. The prose of this novel is very sparse and it often reads more like a case study than a story (citations are included!). However, I found this very effective as it made Jiyoung less a character and more of an Everywoman whose plight was symbolic of the discrimination faced by women throughout the world (indeed, the name Kim Jiyoung is the Korean equivalent of Jane Doe). To see all of the detail of the sexism Jiyoung faced was highly effecting and while this novel is short, there is no doubt it is powerful.

Expectation by Anna Hope

This novel tells the story of three friends who lived together in London in their twenties but find themselves growing increasingly dissatisfied with their lives as they grow older. In spite of her loving husband and dream job, Hannah cannot stop obsessing over her inability to have a child. Cate has a healthy baby boy but she’s feeling isolated after giving up London and her job and she’s starting to question if she’s married the right person. Lissa lives a life free of ties a responsibilities but she craves professional recognition and longs for connection. Each wants a little bit of what the other has and Hope does a wonderful job of simultaneously portraying the anxiety that comes with growing older and celebrating the myriad forms that happiness can take.

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if there is a new adaption of Pride and Prejudice that I will read it no questions asked. Janice Hadlow asks the question of whatever happened to Mary Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet’s bookish, awkward, plain sister and creates a realistic and moving heroic journey for this lesser thought of character. Hadlow expertly wove elements of the original text into a new story that felt authentic and in the spirit of Austen while still feeling fresh and exciting. Old characters appear just often enough to keep fans of the original happy but focus is rightfully kept on Mary and her journey to find happiness and self-esteem as an unmarried and unwanted young lady in Regency England. This was the perfect comfort read of quarantine and the sheer size of this novel means you won’t have to leave the house to get a new book anytime soon!

My Month in Books: February 2020

Mrs Everything by Jennifer Weiner

Mrs Everything tells the story of Jo and Bethie Kauffman, two very different sisters growing up in Detroit in the 1950s. The novel tracks their lives over the decades and examines how both girls and their life choices were shaped by the culture and circumstances of the time. Over the course of the decades, the reader sees how wild, tomboyish Jo ended up becoming a stay at home mother while docile, well-behaved Bethie ends up diving head first into the countercultural movements of the sixties and seventies. Ultimately this novel is about the relationship between the two sisters and the ways in which people find different versions of happiness.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is a witty, sharp and compelling debut that centres around themes of privilege, power and self-perception, particularly the lies that we tell ourselves and others in order to make ourselves the hero of our own story. The novel begins with a confrontation between Emira, a young black babysitter, and a security guard who believes she is kidnapping her young, white charge. In the aftermath of this incident Alix, Emira’s well-meaning but utterly clueless boss, vows to befriend her. However, an unexpected connection between Alix and Kelley, Emira’s new, white boyfriend, sets off a chain of events that wreaks havoc on the lives of all concerned. This book was incredibly insightful and clever while still being a real page turner – definitely my top pick of February.

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

Everyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with Meg Wolitzer and so it’s no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed The Wife. The novel opens on Joan Castleman, the wife of famous novelist John Castleman, as they are flying to Finland so that he can accept a prestigious literary award. While on the plane, Joan resolves to leave her husband and the rest of the novel flashes back over their relationship and the sacrifices Joan has had to make to support her husband and keep their family together. The Wife is full of Wolitzer’s classic eye for detail and incredible ability to make the mundane details of a character’s life come alive.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund

In February my book club was feeling a bit depressed about the state of the world and so opted for Factfulness, a non-fiction book that shows how the world is actually much better than we perceive it to be and offers a tool-kit for seeing the world more ‘factfully’ in our day to day lives. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s looking to give their critical thinking skills a bit of a tune up. I would also caution you to not skip the epilogue, it was incredibly moving and honestly my favourite part of the book.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Sticking to my resolution to read at least one classic a month that I hadn’t read before, in February I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude. Unsurprisingly I loved this book and found myself totally immersed in the Buendia family and the weird, wonderful, magical realist world of Macondo. If you haven’t picked this one up yet because you’re worried you’ll be unable to distinguish between the dozens of Aureliano Buendias, fear not and press on!

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Lolita when she grew up, this is the book for you. Putney tells the story of Daphne Greenslay, a young woman who was groomed by a family friend when she was nine years old and remained in a relationship with him into her late teens. Daphne has always viewed this relationship as a romantic one that could not be constrained by the conventions of age, but when motherhood and a conversation with a childhood friend leads her to start seeing this relationship in a very different light Daphne must confront her past and reckon with the impact that sexual abuse has had on her life, whether she realised it or not. Told from the split perspectives of Daphne, her abuser, Ralph, and her childhood friend, Jane, this book compellingly addresses the messy grey areas of consent, abuse and memory itself.

One Day by David Nicholls

One Day is an unconventional love story that follows the lives of Emma and Dexter on one day a year, the anniversary of the day they met. This novel is heartwarming, hilarious, devastating and deals touchingly with themes of coming of age, addiction, friendship, parenthood, grief and the uncertainties and difficulties that come with getting older. It’s utterly heartwarming and wonderful and if you’re looking to feel all warm and fuzzy while crying your eyes out, this is the book for you.

Review: In The Dream House

One of the first books I picked up when I was getting back into reading at the start of 2019 was Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of short stories that blended horror, sci-fi, feminism, dark comedy, queerness and psychological realism with fantastically weird and compelling results (I have not and never will shut up about The Husband Stitch, the first story in the collection). It was clear to me that Machado was an exciting new voice in fiction and that she clearly had an original imagination and highly creative approach to genre and its supposed boundaries

You can therefore imagine my excitement when I found out Machado had a memoir coming out in early 2020 and guess how quickly I pre-ordered the book. In The Dream House is an account of an abusive relationship that Machado had with another women, who is referred to throughout the book only as The Woman in the Dream House. Machado was frustrated by the fact that, in the aftermath of their relationship, she was unable to find stories like her own reflected in the literary, academic or media canon and In The Dream House is her attempt to correct this glaring omission.

In The Dream House is not structured like a conventional memoir. Each chapter is written in the style of a different genre or narrative trope, ranging from stoner comedy to Bildungsroman to erotica. This is Machado’s effort to reinsert her story into the canon but also illustrates the complexities of living through and telling the story of an abusive relationship. Of course it wasn’t a horror movie from the beginning or else Machado would have run for the hills. The Woman in the Dream House starts off as a sexy, beautiful romcom heroine who makes Machado feel loved and happy and it is only with the passage of time that the extent of her cruelty and her abusiveness becomes clear. This leaves the book with an overall sense of slowly building dread and the is reader propulsively driven forward by the narrative, desperate to see if Machado will be able to escape the gradually escalating behaviour of her partner (which of course she does and after reading this book I was disproportionately delighted to find that not only is she a kick ass author but is also happily married to lovely lady and has lots of dogs).

I have to take a moment to discuss my favourite chapter in detail because it was such a brilliant and creative way of conveying the futility of attempting to appease or prevent the rage of abusive partners and the anxiety and self-doubt this can cultivate in their victims. In ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’, Machado takes the reader through a day in her life with her partner and offers them a series of choices in the style of a choose your own adventure novel. However, the twist is that The Woman in the Dream House becomes enraged no matter what choices you make and the chapter always ends with Machado feeling anxious, miserable and trapped. It’s a devastatingly effective illustration of the fact that abusive behaviour is never the fault of the victim or the result of some terrible provocation, the issue lies with the abuser alone.

Machado also chooses to narrate the majority of the book in the second person, seeming to address the reader throughout and putting them directly into Machado’s shoes. The result is a heightened sense of personal connection and the line between author and reader becoming increasingly blurry. Machado also explains that she chose to narrate the majority of the book in the second person to draw a distinction between the person she is now, someone who is successful, confident and happy, and the person she was while in the abusive relationship, someone who constantly felt passive, powerless and worn down. Towards the end of the book when Machado begins to describe her recovery process and how she came to write In The Dream House, we see her shift into the first person narrative and honestly I never thought grammar and case usage would make me so emotional.

In The Dream House is so much more than a memoir. It is an experiment in genre, it is an academic study of abuse is queer relationships, it is a pop culture analysis of queer representation, it is dark, it is funny, it is sexy, it is devastating, it is clever and it is frightening. Above all it is a primal cry for the world, and in particular for the queer community, to sit up and listen to stories like Machado’s which historically have been brushed under the carpet for the sake of appearances or disregarded as being impossible. Machado has created her own canon where previously there was only a void and I have no doubt that this book will simultaneously be a source of awe, comfort and inspiration for countless people for years to come.

Review: Ask Again, Yes

In my post about books I gave people for Christmas, I talk about how Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane was my favourite book of 2019. I’ve been unable to stop recommending it to everyone I know so, in the spirit of efficiency, I thought it would be best to write a post further elaborating on why I thought it was so excellent and to recommend it to the internet at large.

Ask Again, Yes tells the story of two families, the Gleesons and the Stanhopes, over the course of their lives. Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope become partners in their early days working for the New York Police Department and both choose to move out of the city with their new wives to the small town of Gillam to start families. Francis’ wife, the sociable Lena, quickly finds herself bored and lonely and reaches out to Brian’s wife, Anne, in the hopes that they can become friends. But Anne coldly rejects her offer of friendship, sowing the seeds of discord and distrust between the two families.

Years down the line, a friendship and, eventually, a romance blossoms between Francis and Lena’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Brian and Anne’s only son, Peter. However, the complex relationships and problems of the adults in their lives present obstacles to their budding relationship. This eventually culminates in a shocking act of violence that severs the connection between the two families and tears the young lovers apart.

While the plot of this novel is utterly gripping (I devoured it in two days), what I really loved about Ask Again, Yes was the nuance with which Keane treated each of her characters, allowing them to become more complex as the novel progressed. Characters who began the novel as ‘good guys’ were shown to be deeply flawed and those who initially seemed to be ‘bad guys’ gradually become less frightening and more sympathetic as we learned more about them. The extension of forgiveness and understanding, even to the most flawed characters, was deeply moving but I also appreciated the depiction of this forgiveness as a gift and a privilege. For instance, Peter’s eventual forgiveness of his mother was not born out of twisted filial obligation, but out a desire for himself to find solace and healing after the events of his childhood. Forgiveness is something that is for the benefit of the forgiver, not the forgiven.

In the hands of a less talented author, the events of Ask Again, Yes could seem melodramatic or overwrought but Keane paints a moving portrait of life’s complexities and hardships while never losing sight of its’ corresponding joys. So often in novels we see life’s extremes, with characters either living happily ever after or in protracted misery, but Ask Again, Yes offers the reader something different. The characters learn and grow together from their hardships and appreciate that these traumas are a price worth paying for the joy of being alive. At the novel’s end, the characters weigh up the choices they’ve made and the difficulties they faced and still conclude that their lives have been good and happy. It’s a moving reminder that happiness can be found even in life’s darkest periods and that in the end, it’s the big picture that matters.

At its heart, Ask Again, Yes is a beautiful and heartfelt story about the powers of forgiveness, love and family to pull even the most fragmented shards back together again to create something beautiful. If you were to ask me again whether I’d recommend this book, the answer would be a resounding yes.

My Month in Books: January 2020

The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger

This juicy page-turner observes the impact of the opening of a school for gifted children amongst a group of parents in an affluent American suburb. Perfect for fans of Big Little Lies.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

You might remember Chanel Miller better as ‘Emily Doe’, the young woman whose powerful victim impact statement went massively viral after she was raped by Brock Turner. Miller has now waived her right to anonymity and has written a memoir detailing the aftermath of her assault, her experience with the justice system and her journey to begin move past her trauma. Chanel is an incredibly gifted writer and I sincerely hope I’ll have the chance to read many more books by her.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Telling you Beloved is amazing is basically like telling you that water is wet and the sky is blue, but just in case anyone hasn’t already heard, I’ll reiterate that Beloved is amazing. Truly Toni Morrison’s masterpiece (and that’s saying something), it is both devastating and beautiful all at once and is rightly considered a classic.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Described as Bridget Jones’s Diary meets Americanah, Queenie tells the story of Queenie Jenkins, a 25 year old British-Jamaican women fresh off a brutal break up who starts searching for self-worth in all the wrong places (generally in the trousers of men who don’t deserve her). The novel recounts how, with the help of her friends, family and not a small amount of therapy, Queenie starts to build back her self-esteem and love herself. Hilarious and heartwarming.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House is an experimental and wildly creative memoir that recounts Machado’s experience of an abusive same-sex relationship. Frustrated by the absence of any story like hers from the literary canon, Machado has sought to insert herself into the archive by telling each chapter of her story through the lens of a different genre, ranging from stoner comedy to erotica to choose your own adventure. It pushes the boundaries of what I thought a memoir could be and was utterly gripping from start to finish.

Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

Anyone who knows me will know I’m a sucker for historical fiction and that this goes double if it’s anything to do with the Tudors. Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession is the second book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, in which she presents fictionalised first person accounts of the lives of each of the wives of King Henry VIII. Weir has masterful control over her material and manages to make a story that has been told countless times feel fresh and new. I’m already looking forward to seeing what she does with Jane Seymour.

In At The Deep End by Kate Davies

I do hate saying this, as I don’t like spending my time writing negative things, but I did not enjoy this book at all. In At The Deep End tells the story of Julia, a young twenty something living in London who realises she’s a lesbian and embarks on a great gay sexual Odyssey. This was a book club pick and I really wanted to like it but unfortunately I just found so much of it to be unfunny, unsexy and utterly disconnected from reality that I couldn’t enjoy it. It’s unfortunate that I read this so shortly after Queenie which did ‘young woman living in London undergoes major upheaval, has a tonne of ill-advised sex, gets some therapy and then discovers her self-worth’ with lashings more warmth and humour and In The Dream House which handled topics of lesbian identity and abusive and controlling queer relationships with significantly more nuance and thought.

The Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of Isis by Azadeh Moaveni

The Guest House for Young Widows is a gripping non-fiction account of thirteen different women who sought to join ISIS and live in the Islamic State. From British schoolgirls to Syrian university students to German housewives, Moaveni examines the different reasons that women around the world chose to collaborate with a terrorist regime. As someone who felt deeply uncomfortable with the conversation that surrounded Shamima Begum’s attempt to return to her home in the United Kingdom, I loved that this book thoughtfully tackled the thorny questions of how the women of Isis should be treated and what governments can do to break the cycle of conflict in the Middle East.

Review: Dark Places

Reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl for the first time ignited my love of thriller and I’ve been chasing the high that only an epic mind-bending twist can provide ever since. Unfortunately, if I had a pound of every book that was advertised as being ‘the next Gone Girl‘ that went on to disappoint me, I’d be able to quit my job and read full time. Time has taught me that only Gillian Flynn can be compared to Gillian Flynn and so my solution to this dilemma has been to slowly ration out Flynn’s earlier work and savour them like sweets.

Dark Places is Flynn’s second novel and was originally published in 2010. Our protagonist is Libby Day, whose entire family was massacred in what appeared to be a Satanic ritual when she was just seven years old. Her older brother Ben was convicted of the murders and Libby’s testimony was instrumental in putting him in prison for the rest of his life. The novel begins twenty five years later, with Libby now a highly dysfunctional adult in serious need of some cash (and therapy, so much therapy). She’s approached by an unorthodox club of true crime enthusiasts who are willing to pay her a lot of money to have her answer their questions about the murder of her family. She reluctantly consents, only to find that they believe that her brother Ben is innocent and that the real killer is still walking free. In exchange for payment, Libby agrees to reach out to various figures from her past to attempt to understand what really happened that night and what she discovers leaves her questioning everything she thought she knew about her family, her life and herself.

One thing I love about Gillian Flynn novels is that it’s impossible to trust anyone, even the narrator. Our protagonist, Libby, begins the novel with a very fixed idea of what occurred on the night of the massacre but doubts begin to creep in as she confronts the various figures who knew her family around the time of the killings. In a lesser novel, one would assume that Libby’s older brother Ben being found guilty of the murders means that he’s the only one we can be certain isn’t responsible for the murders, however Flynn manages to keep the reader questioning reality throughout through the cunning use of a three-way split perspective. The novel is variously narrated by Libby in the present day and by Ben and their mother, Patty, on the day of the massacre in 1985. Because everyone has their own version of the truth, this device leads to the misconceptions and half-truths at the heart of the story to slowly unfurl in a way that keeps the reader guessing until almost the last moment.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this book is it articulated a lot of what I find most uncomfortable about the recent true crime craze. These days podcasts like My Favourite Murder and documentaries like Making A Murderer have become increasingly popular but they’ve always left me with a feeling of unease. What does our consumption of these tragedies say about us? What does it do to the victims and their families to see their most intimate memories dissected by strangers? Dark Places attempts to answer these questions through Libby’s interactions with the members of the Kill Club, a group of true crime enthusiasts who believe they know more about the murder of her family than she does and are willing to pay her large amounts of money for personal items that belonged to her dead sisters. All the interactions with the Kill Club made me deeply uncomfortable and honestly furious on Libby’s behalf. Seeing them through Libby’s eyes made me understand that the consumption of true crime necessitates the retraumatisation of victims and that their pain, suffering and lived experience is often ignored in the pursuit of the ‘real truth’ of what happened. Flynn’s deft handling of the tension between Libby and her sponsors at the Kill Club throws this into razor sharp relief.

All of this tension, confusion and deceit culminates in the big twist. In the past, I’ve been burned many times by promises of ‘twists you’ll never seen coming’ that actually just utterly nonsensical endings. What distinguishes Flynn as a true master of the genre is that her twists are always satisfying, make sense and you always kick yourself for not figuring it our earlier. Like all good twists, the answer is dangled in front of your face early in the novel and there are sufficient clues dropped throughout that you can almost put the pieces together but the answer remains tantalisingly out of reach until almost the last second. I’ll say no more for fear of accidentally spoiling anything, but suffice to say that Dark Places will not only keep you turning pages but will have you questioning the generic expectations of the thriller itself.

Books I Gifted This Christmas

One of my favourite things to gift people for Christmas (or any time of the year to be honest) is a book. I spend a lot of time putting thought into which book to get for which person, so in order to save you some time, here is the full list of books I purchased for my friends and family (and a few extras in case your loved ones have already read the books I suggest). Happy reading!

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

This is a little bit of a cheat because this wasn’t technically a Christmas present, more like a book I gifted to my mother in the general vicinity of Christmas. This is because I started reading Ask Again, Yes on the first day of my Christmas break, devoured it, realised my mother would love it and frantically searched a local bookstore for a copy for her to devour over the Christmas break. Ask Again, Yes is the story of two families – the Gleesons and the Stanhopes – who are brought together when the fathers of both families become partners while working for the NYPD. They become neighbours and two of their children, Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, develop a friendship that eventually blossoms into love. However, an explosive event tears the two families apart and the rest of the novel is a beautiful examination of forgiveness, redemption, family and love. This book is as close to perfect as it gets and it was hands down my favourite book of 2019.

Perfect for: Literally anyone, I’m never going to shut up about this book.

They might also enjoy: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Normal People by Sally Rooney

Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs and Steel is an oldie but a goodie. It’s a transdisciplinary look at why human societies have developed so differently across the globe and makes the case that that geography and biogeography are responsible for the differences we see rather than race. It’s hugely comprehensive, covering a massive range of time periods and geographies, so there’s something in it to interest everyone.

Perfect for: Politics nerds, history nerds, geography nerds and nerds in general.

They might also enjoy: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez

Invisible Women examines the ways in which men are considered to be the default in countless areas of life and how this is actively harming women and causing them to lose out in ways even they might not fully understand. Some of the revelations in this book had me throwing the book across the room (the bit about Viagra still haunts me) but it is meticulously researched and impossible to put down.

Perfect for: Your friendly local feminist, data nerds.

They might also enjoy: The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House is the start of a thrilling new fantasy series by the wildly popular Leigh Bardugo. It follows Alex Stern, a young woman with a mysterious past and the ability to communicate with the dead, after she is admitted to Yale on the condition that she use her powers to police and curb the worst excesses of the university’s secret societies. Ninth House is fast paced, twisty and compulsively readable. I’m already eagerly waiting for the next installation.

Perfect for: Adventurers, horror fans, wizard wannabes.

They might also enjoy: The Folk of the Air Trilogy by Holly Black, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

This is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev

If, over the last couple of years, you’ve felt that truth and reality are more nebulous substances than they used to be, This is Not Propaganda is the book for you. Pomerantsev travels the world speaking to trolls for hire, activists, dissidents and fact checkers to understand the new ways that misinformation is being spread and utilised across the political spectrum. Mixed in with all of this is a touching family memoir recounting Pomerantsev’s parents’ clash with the KGB and their flight from Russia.

Perfect for: Politics nerds, current affairs junkies, inducing an existential crisis about the meaning of reality.

They might also enjoy: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman, We Need New Stories by Nesrine Malik

The Father of Lions by Louise Callaghan

The Father of Lions is a powerful true story about the evacuation of Mosul Zoo after the city becomes occupied by ISIS. It recounts the efforts Abu Laith to care for the animals and keep them alive through the occupation as well as the impact of the occupation on Abu Laith’s own family and friends. A beautifully human story of perseverance and love in the face of evil.

Perfect for: Animal lovers and politics nerds (ideally people who are both).

They may also enjoy: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, A Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists was my favourite book of 2018 but unfortunately by the time I read it it was too late to give it to anyone as a gift. It tells the story of four siblings who, as children, are told the date of their deaths. The novel then follows each of the siblings throughout their lives seeing how this knowledge affects them and the choices that they make, leading the reader to question wonder their fates were predetermined or a matter of choice. It’s a beautiful story about family and what it means to truly live.

Perfect for: Everyone, I see no reason why someone wouldn’t enjoy this book.

They may also enjoy: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Mrs Everything by Jennifer Weiner

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings is a brilliant novel that follows a group of friends who meet at a summer camp for gifted teens and how their lives as adults have diverged dramatically from what they envisaged as young, artistic idealists. It also examines what it means to be ‘interesting’ and the role that power and privilege plays in artistic success. I love this novel because it perfectly captures the fervent passion of teenage friendship, the joy of finding your tribe and the different ways that these friendships can evolve as you grow older.

Perfect for: Your favourite local eccentric, the best friend you met at a summer camp for gifted teens.

They may also enjoy: Anything else by Meg Wolitzer, I’d read the phonebook if you told me she’d written it.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Three Women is exactly what it says on the tin, the true story of three American women and their romantic and sexual lives over a period of eight years. Maggie is a young woman who has chosen to come forward about having had an affair with her English teacher in high school, Lina is a stay at home mother whose husband refuses to kiss her, prompting her to revisit an old flame and Sloane is a happily married business owner whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other men. While these stories may seem utterly disparate, Taddeo uses them to make bold statements about love, desire and the struggles of modern womanhood.

Perfect for: Your favourite ladies.

They may also enjoy: Trick Mirror: Reflections of Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover and Me by Adrienne Brodeur.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

A lovely combination of romance, mystery and nature writing, Where the Crawdads Sing tells the story of Kya Clark, a ‘Marsh Girl’ who was abandoned by her family and grew up alone in the marshes of North Carolina. When a local boy turns up dead, the townspeople immediately suspect Kya and over the course of the novel we see her true story unfold. This is a story of survival and loneliness but also of the sustaining beauty and bounty of nature.

Perfect for: Nature lovers, romantics

They may also enjoy: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, Educated by Tara Westover

Review: Trick Mirror

It’s such a joy to read a book where you feel as if the author is a long lost friend who just gets you. This is how I felt reading Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (and not just because I think she might be the only other person I know who’s read the incredible and hilarious Hey Ladies! by Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss). Reading this book felt as if someone I knew and trusted had heard all of the complicated feelings and thoughts that are bouncing around in my head and articulated them more intelligently and eloquently than I could have ever hoped to.

Trick Mirror consists of a series of essays all based around the themes of self-deception and delusion, examining the way in which modern society allows and encourages us to view ourselves and our actions through a distorted lens. Trick Mirror is Tolentino’s debut collection of essays though she has had a long career in journalism, most recently as a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her journalistic skills are clear throughout her essays, each piece is expertly plotted and researched, but it’s Tolentino’s sharp mind and biting wit that compelled me to read long passages of this book aloud to whichever poor soul was unlucky enough to be sitting next to me (sorry James).

I was drawn in from the very beginning by the book’s first essay The I in Internet, which highlights the way we have grown to conflate expressing an opinion on social media with actual meaningful social action and the detrimental effect this has had on modern life. Tolentino’s arguments were persuasive, well-researched and forced me to think long and hard about the ethics of my use of sites like Facebook and Amazon. I also thoroughly enjoyed I Thee Dread, a sharply written piece dissecting modern wedding culture in which Tolentino ponders if any woman would sign up for marriage (something that statistically leads to them being more unhappy, earning less and dying sooner) if they didn’t also get a wedding (a day in which they are encouraged to be completely self-centred without judgement).

Another standout was The Cult of Difficult Women which challenged a recent trend in modern, pop-feminism of praising women purely for being ‘difficult’ and viewing any criticism of ‘difficult’ women, however valid, as being anti-woman and unfeminist. This is an absolute pet peeve of mine (I have shouted ‘Just because she’s wearing a blazer doesn’t mean she’s a feminist’ in the recent past) and I relished seeing Tolentino expertly expose this phenomenon as being utterly nonsensical. Describing Kim Kardashian, Tolentino says ‘It is not “brave” strictly speaking for a woman to do things that will make her make her rich and famous. For some women, it is difficult and indeed dangerous to live as themselves in the world, but for other women, like Kim and her sisters, it’s not just easy but extraordinarily profitable’. It was at this moment I concluded that Tolentino and I had to have been friends in a past life.

All that being said, my favourite essay in the collection was Always Be Optimising, which examines the pressure that young women feel to be an ideal version of themselves and the huge amount additional effort and anxiety that this generates. I found this essay hugely relatable and it would not be an exaggeration to say that it made me fundamentally re-examine the way I think about myself. Rather than attempt to summarise it, all I can do is desperately implore you all to read it, as it is available in its entirety here. You won’t regret it.

What I think made this collection of essays truly special was how self-aware Tolentino was about her complicity in the self-delusion that she highlights. She discusses how she rose to prominence in her career by writing opinion pieces for Jezebel in The I in Internet, how she has sweated her way through many a punishing barre class in Always Be Optimising and how she too has been thrilled by the audacity of scammers in The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams. Rather than preaching from on high about the ills of modern society, Tolentino is just as confused as the rest of us. Her gift is not to give her readers a clear map of what should be done, but to point out the ‘mirror’ is indeed a trick. What we do with this information is up to us.

Review: The Library at Mount Char

A few months ago I was reading a forum thread about underrated books. One commenter mentioned The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. They said that they couldn’t even begin to describe the plot of this book in a coherent way but that it had made them laugh, cry and rethink their entire existence. Intrigued by this description and being the kind of person who is willing to read anything with ‘library’ in the title, I picked up a copy, started reading and did not surface for 48 hours. It was that good.

I’ll do one better than the initial commenter and attempt to describe what this highly original fantasy novel is about. Carolyn, our protagonist, has been raised in the titular library by an omnipotent, immortal being known as ‘Father’ along with eleven other children. Over the millennia, Father has mastered twelve different skills, ranging from the expected (war and medicine) to the distinctly unexpected (talking to animals and the dead). For reasons unknown, he has committed to teaching each of the twelve children one of his skills and forbids them from learning anything outside of their assigned discipline. Carolyn has been tasked with achieving mastery of all languages and her classes consist of a lot more than tapping her way through Duolingo. But in spite of Father’s cruel teaching methods and her often homicidal siblings, Carolyn manages to grow up into a seemingly normal, semi-functional adult (albeit one who definitely needs a lot of therapy ASAP). The novel opens on the siblings as adults, after they have just been unceremoniously ejected from the library, the only home they’ve ever known, and the Father who has dominated their entire lives has mysteriously disappeared. The siblings initially work together to locate Father but as the novel progresses, their focus soon shifts to competing to see which of them is worthy of replacing him.

I know it sounds complicated and insane (and that’s because it absolutely is) but I need you to trust me and give it a chance. The novel is full of absolutely surreal humour that somehow sits perfectly alongside pertinent questions about the nature of free will, what it means to be human and the impacts of childhood trauma. I’ve seen people compare this book to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and while I can see similarities I think that what Hawkins accomplishes here is much more original. While Gaiman borrows mythology and gods from cultures around the world and blends them into one narrative, Hawkins has created a mythology all his own and the results are astounding. You literally will never guess what is coming next, it could be anything from a talking tiger to a supernaturally strong killing machine in a tutu. I was completely riveted and by the time I finished the book I felt oddly bereft and wobbly, the way you do when you first get off a rollercoaster.

While I should warn that sections of this novel are very violent and upsetting, Hawkins handles it expertly. At no point does it feel gratuitous or exploitative but as a reader you still feel the full impact of what is happening and your heart breaks for the characters involved. The way that Hawkins flips between Carolyn and her siblings incredibly traumatic upbringing and their present as supernaturally powerful beings adds real emotional heart to a story that otherwise might seem removed from reality. Months later I’m still thinking about David and the transformation he undergoes as Father moulds him into the ultimate warrior. In spite of the terrible acts he commits over the course of the novel, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sorrow thinking about the child he was and the man he could have been had Father not intervened.

The character of Carolyn in particular highlights the contrast and melding of the ordinary and the divine. As our primary narrator, I initially viewed her as a sort of everyman character (albeit one who thinks gold cycling shorts and a Christmas jumper are an inconspicuous outfit choice). But as the story slowly unfolds we see this image start to crack and realise that Carolyn is far from a reliable narrator. Her sense of humanity and reality has been so warped by her upbringing that towards the end of the novel I started to wonder if perhaps Father wasn’t the only villain in this story. The way Hawkins portrays Carolyn’s shift from lovably quirky, vulnerable protagonist to a very dangerous individual indeed is so gradual that the reader almost doesn’t notice until it’s too late.

I honestly couldn’t believe this was Scott Hawkins’ debut novel. It was so supremely confident and well-thought out and original that this felt like the work of someone much further along in their career. I’m already excited to read whatever comes out of his brain next. In the meantime, you may be in the fortunate position of being able to experience this wild ride of a book for the first time and I would strongly advise that you grab this opportunity with both hands.

Review: The Testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood was one of the most hotly anticipated books of 2019 and given it follows on from Atwood’s wildly successful and influential 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, how could it not be? Indeed, in the last five or so years, The Handmaid’s Tale has seemed more culturally pervasive and relevant than ever, with millions tuning into the excellent Hulu adaption of the novel and protestors throughout the world drawing on the striking imagery of the red cloak and white bonnet worn by Atwood’s handmaids.

When Atwood announced she would be releasing The Testaments in an attempt to answer all of the questions that fans had been asking her about Gilead in the 35 years since The Handmaid’s Tale was first published, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I’m an enormous fan of both Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale and was excited to delve further into the world she had created. But on the other hand, I was cautious. Part of what I loved so much about The Handmaid’s Tale was its brutally ambiguous ending. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a cruel and uncaring society and sometimes cruelty has no rhyme or reason. It felt right to me that the novel reflected this by refusing to offer any comfort or closure to its readers and I was wary of a sequel changing this.

However, there was a huge amount to enjoy about The Testaments. It picks up fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale and is told from the perspective of three very different narrators. Agnes is the daughter of a Commander who has no memory of anything before the rise of Gilead, Daisy is a young woman growing up in Canada who witnesses the horrors of Gilead from a relative distance and Aunt Lydia, who you’ll remember as the ruthless tormentor of handmaids from the first book, is continuing to wield her power under a more mature regime. I enjoyed the use of the split perspective and it was fascinating to see Gilead from the perspective of those who might be seen to benefit from it. The truly impressive feat, however, was how Atwood seamlessly brings these three seemingly unrelated streams of plot together to create a tightly woven narrative.

While there are similarities between The Testaments and its predecessor (the disturbing yet precise imagery, the dispassionate and chilling descriptions of Gilead’s atrocities), there are also clear points of divergence. Where The Handmaid’s Tale was introspective and focused building the oppressive society of Gilead, The Testaments is much more plot driven. There are daring escapes, secret adoptions and espionage galore, more than enough to keep even the most removed reader’s hearts pounding. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and the twists should keep you rapidly flipping the pages right up until the end.

However, my issues with the book became apparent as I approached its conclusion. A series of increasingly unlikely coincidences led me to something I’d never before encountered in an Atwood novel: a happy ending. I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me, but the anticipated twist never came. I was frankly flummoxed and my feelings about the ending are decidedly mixed. On the one hand, while it felt somewhat like fan service, I’m a huge fan of these books and it was nice to be serviced. The ending was everything I wanted for these characters and it was wonderful to see them achieve a measure of peace. But on the other hand it just didn’t feel quite right.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was first published, Atwood made a point of stating that all of the horrific acts that Gilead inflicts on its citizens in the novel had already happened in real life somewhere in the world. This is part of what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so special and so chilling – the sense that this could really happen and that it was important to never grow complacent. However, I don’t feel this commitment to realism carries over to The Testaments. In the real world, children separated from their families are not being reunited with them against all the odds, refugees fleeing by boat are not being rescued when they run into danger and the seemingly evil people in charge have not been secretly working with the resistance all along. The ending of The Testaments reminded me of Jane Austen’s famous assertion that ‘My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.‘ But when I pick up a Margaret Atwood book, I’m expecting her style, not Austen’s.

Upon reflection though, I wonder if it is not more radical to write a happy ending rather than a realistic one? In this age of cynicism and disillusionment, where we can watch the realistic ending play out on the nightly news, is Atwood offering an alternative vision of hope as brave a choice as her abrupt, ambiguous ending was in 1985? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer, but what I do know is that while The Testaments does not quite live up to the legacy of its predecessor (and frankly, what book could?), it’s well worth a read and will continue to plague your thoughts long after you’ve put it down.