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.

My Favourite Books of 2020

2020 has been a long and hard year. During these unprecedented times, books have provided me with a much needed escape and below, in no particular order, are some of my very favourites out of the one hundred and ten books I’ve managed to read this year. In order to make choosing a bit easier, I’ve limited myself to books which were published in 2020. I hope that you feel inspired to pick up at least one of these books and that it can bring you some of the same enjoyment that it brought me, as we move into 2021.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik is one of my favourite fantasy authors at the moment and when I heard she was releasing a new series of books set in a magical and highly dangerous school, I was so excited. A Deadly Education is set in the Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted that is infested with vicious and deadly monsters that love feasting on students. Our heroine is El, a young witch who has an incredible affinity for dark magic and is the subject of the prophesy that says she will bring untold doom and suffering to the entire magical world. For the moment she’s just trying to keep her head down, make a few friends and survive until the epic graduation bloodbath but this becomes more complicated once she meets Orion. He’s the Scholomance’s resident hero type and he is determined to save as many students from dying as he possibly can, even if it means putting himself, and everyone else, in danger. This book has a wicked sense of humour and brilliant world-building, you find yourself getting lost in the Scholomance right along with the characters. I’m eagerly anticipating the next book in this series.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Some people say the market for novels about young women in their early twenties making terrible decisions, having crap sex and finding themselves is oversaturated. To those people I say, bugger off. Luster by Raven Leilani is an extremely confident debut novel that centres around Edie, a young black woman who becomes embroiled in the life of a suburban white couple and their adopted black daughter after she begins an affair with the father. Leilani has an incredible talent for expressing the angst of the modern twenty something. She embraces the humour and melodrama of the situations that Edie finds herself in but we never lose our sense of empathy for her, in spite of her self-destructive tendencies.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

I was a latecomer to Curtis Sittenfeld’s work but now I find myself a firm fan. I initially felt uncomfortable about a novel taking such an intimate look at a real person’s private life, particularly someone like Hillary Clinton, who goodness knows has faced more scrutiny of her choices than most people would face in twenty lifetimes. However, Sittenfeld’s examination of what Hillary’s life might have been had she not married Bill Clinton was one of the most compelling reads of my year. She examines both the personal and political ramifications of this choice and the result is a real page turner that pulled me out of a difficult reading slump. Sittenfeld clearly knows her subject inside and out and while her characterisation of Hillary is not always sympathetic, it feels true to the complex woman who has done so much to shape modern American politics.

More Than A Woman by Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran is one of my favourite authors of all time and my love affair with her books began with her fabulous memoir How To Be A Woman which came out in 2011. So imagine my excitement when she announced she would be releasing a sequel in which she tackles getting older, raising teenage girls and managing a never ending to-do list. Moran, as always, is fabulously and hilariously funny while still being open and vulnerable about the sort of things that are hard to talk about. Both she and her daughter are so brave for sharing their experience of her daughter’s eating disorder and subsequent treatment and recovery and I have no doubt that these chapters will mean a lot to parents and teenagers alike. There is something for everyone in More Than A Woman and it is my fervent hope that Moran will continue periodically publishing updates to her memoirs so that I will always have the benefit of her wisdom as I face different stages of life.

Fake Law: The Truth About Justice In An Age of Lies by The Secret Barrister

In an age where fake news and distortion can create confusion and discord amongst citizens, it’s reassuring that there are intelligent and articulate people like the Secret Barrister writing books to help us all understand what the hell is going on. The Secret Barrister is an anonymous blogger and junior barrister whose aim is to make knowledge of how the law and legal system works more accessible to the average person. Their most recent book tackles the sort of ‘fake law’ that we often see perpetuated by certain media outlets and politicians which aims to capitalise on public ignorance to win support for degrading the legal system. The Secret Barrister debunks common myths and misunderstandings about some of the most infamous legal cases of the last few decades thoroughly and does so entertainingly and in language that anyone can understand. I’d recommend this to everybody who is seeking to better understand how the law works and wants to be able to see through the obfuscation that so often surrounds some of the most important legal matters of our times. Once you’ve read this, you’ll be seeing fake law everywhere.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Naoise Dolan is often compared to Sally Rooney. I assume this is because they are both young and talented female Irish authors who write compellingly about complex relationships. But what often gets lost in that comparison is how singularly witty Naoise Dolan is. Her debut novel, Exciting Times centres around Ava, a young Irish ex-pat working as an English teacher in Hong Kong who is caught between two relationships, one with Julian, a wealthy, entitled British banker, and one with Edith, a thoughtful, Hong Kong-born lawyer. The novel fizzes with the Dolan’s dry humour which leaves the reader wincing as well as laughing. Dolan has written widely about how her autism has informed and strengthened her writing because it forces her to think carefully about people’s motivations and meanings when they speak. This is absolutely reflected in Exciting Times, which brims with sharp and thoughtful insight into complicated relationships between complicated people.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemison

This book made me so happy. N.K Jemison is best known for her Broken Earth trilogy but in The City We Became she turns her imagination to a location that it at once more fantastical and mundane than her other fantasy settings: New York City. After the human avatar of New York is overcome by a hoard of Lovecraftian horrors, five previously ordinary New Yorkers find themselves transformed into the embodiment of each of the city’s five boroughs. This book is a weird and wonderful love letter to New York City and the people that make it the greatest city in the world. The characters are all brilliantly and vividly drawn and I cannot wait to see where they all go next when the second book in the series comes out.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa was probably one of the more controversial books that came out this year and from its’ subject matter it isn’t hard to guess why. It tells the story of Vanessa Wye, a teenage girl who is groomed and sexually abused by her much older English teacher but who doesn’t see herself as a victim at all. She instead considers their relationship to be a passionate love affair that society is too small-minded and puritanical to understand. But as the Me Too movement gains momentum and other former students of her teacher begin to come forward with disturbing stories, Vanessa is forced to confront the fact that the reality she has constructed for herself is actually nothing but a delusion. Russell expertly inverts the Lolita narrative to create a compelling narrative that lays bare the vulnerability of adolescence and the fragility of lies we tell ourselves. I’ve written about this book in much more detail here.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Finally an author who appreciates that a novel with literary value doesn’t necessarily need to be a total misery. Kiley Reid’s debut novel, Such a Fun Age, is a witty and sharply clever page turner that neatly skewers the hypocrisy of those who convince themselves that they are the heroes of their own story while actually doing a tremendous amount of harm. 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 a joy to read and it kept me flipping the pages at a pace right up until the end.

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a depressed nerd locked up in her flat must be in want of a Pride and Prejudice rewrite to keep her going. This enormous book centres around one of the more neglected Bennet sisters, the awkward and bookish middle child, Mary. Hadlow creates a realistic and moving heroic journey for this lesser thought of character, weaving elements of the original text into a new story that felt authentic and in the spirit of Austen while still feeling fresh and exciting. This was the perfect comfort read of quarantine and will please fans of Austen as well as fans of good books generally.

Honorary Mention: In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Ok, I’m cheating. This book came out in November 2019, not 2020, but I read it in January 2020 and it was honestly too good not to include in my round up. In short, it is an account of the author’s experience of an abusive relationship, but in reality this book is so much more. Carmen Maria Machado is such an exciting author who is doing such innovative and innovative things with genre and In the Dream House is a brilliant example of this. You may have noticed by now that I read a lot of books, but I’ve never read anything else like In the Dream House. I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

My Month in Books: November 2020

Dear NHS: 100 Stories to Say Thank You edited by Adam Kay

As England was preparing to enter its second lockdown, this felt like the right book to be reading. It’s a collection of short thank you letters to the NHS, collated by Adam Kay who wrote the fabulous yet devastating This is Going to Hurt. The letters are written by a wide range of celebrities, including Emma Watson, Louis Theroux, Paul McCartney, Malala Yousafzai and Dawn French. Some of the stories they tell are heartbreaking, some are hilarious and each captures the depth of love and gratitude the people of the U.K. feel for the NHS. Proceeds from the sale of this book go to NHS Charities Together and the Lullaby Trust but even if it wasn’t supporting two incredibly worthy causes and still be encouraging you to pick up a copy of this brilliant little book.

Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

I picked up this book when I desperately needed something fluffy and nice to distract me from the stress of the US presidential election. This was a fun, romantic comedy that centred on cautious lawyer Olivia and charming junior senator Max and how they handle building a relationship that can last in spite of public scrutiny and their own innate differences. The love story was nice and all, but, honestly, what struck me most about this book was the sheer amount of food they ate. Literally every scene in this book seemed to feature an obscene amount of food. I hope these two get to enjoy whatever years they have left together before they both die of heart attacks at a tragically young age. However, it did prove a nice distraction from constantly refreshing the New York Times election map.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum

Dear reader, you’ll get no points for guessing at what point despair at the American electoral system and it’s electorate more widely set in. Applebaum, who identifies politically with right wing figures such as John McCain and Margaret Thatcher, looks back at the shift towards authoritarian populism that has taken place in right wing politics over the last few years. She pays particular attention to the role that ‘clercs’ (essentially public intellectuals who use their talents and intelligence to defend and promote populist authoritarianism) play in the rise of authoritarianism. Applebaum is a particularly striking observer of this phenomenon as many people who she would have counted as dear friends have, in recent years, become clercs for authoritarian regimes and she would now ‘cross the street to avoid them’ if she ran into them. In spite of the somewhat terrifying title, I actually found this book to be oddly uplifting. Applebaum’s observation that periods of stability for long-lasting liberal democracies are the exception, not the norm and that the attraction of authoritarianism being always present for those who are pre-disposed to it, actually felt quite hopeful. While there is a global rise in populist authoritarianism, it can be defeated, as it has been defeated before. Highly recommend this one.

The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

I picked up this book due to a combination of feely poorly and listening to Sentimental Garbage, a podcast that discusses various chick-lit classics. They were talking about The Secret Countess, a book which I had read years and years ago, and I enjoyed their conversation so much that I promptly picked it up for a sickbed re-read. The plot centres around Anna Grazinsky, a teenaged Russian countess whose family flees Russia following the Bolshevik revolution and winds up in London utterly penniless. Anna is determined to support her family and so takes a job as a maid in the home of the Earl of Westerholme. The newly minted Earl is about to bring his fiancée home to plan their wedding, but once the Earl and Anna meet things rapidly stop going to plan. Honestly this book is as close to perfect as it gets. It has the most enormous and absolutely ridiculous cast of characters, all of whom I love (or at least love to hate) and the humour moves rapidly between pantomime and Austen. It has everything; daschunds who’ve swallowed priceless jewels, literal Nazis, dramatic costume parties, curtsies being used as a weapon and elderly wet nurses who practice voodoo and wear mummified saint’s fingers around their necks. I’m generally pretty tolerant of differences of opinion when it comes to literature, but if you don’t love this book I pity you and we can’t be friends. I’m incapable of being rational about this.

The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn

After being told the books in the series got better after the first one I decided to give them another chance. Alas, I’m still disappointed. I’ve never been a massive fan of ‘two people are absolutely horrible to each other but it’s fine because they’re secretly in love’ trope and coupled with the ridiculous and overblown melodramatics from the main characters, I nearly abandoned this book halfway through. I shan’t spoil anything but suffice to say the incident with the bee that occurs halfway through the book was so completely and utterly stupid that I think I lost a few brain cells reading it. Hopefully the Netflix version is better!

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

If I Had Your Face is a debut novel by Frances Cha which focuses on the lives of four young women living in Seoul, South Korea and the way that extremely rigid gender role, punishing standards of beauty and strict class structures rules their lives and restrict their opportunities. This book was a fascinating look at an entirely different culture, in particular I found the insight into attitudes towards plastic surgery in South Korea to be riveting (if slightly terrifying). I did feel that this book suffered though for not really having a plot – it seemed more like a series of events that happened rather than a story. At times it felt like a list of issues the author wanted to highlight rather than a novel. But in spite of this I found it a highly compelling read.

The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto

I’ve had this book sitting on my Kindle for sometime but when I finally got around to reading it I found it quite disappointing. It’s centres around three young people, impoverished but clever Anita, privileged Monty and lost and angry Sunny who all find themselves running away from home and abandoning those they love to join ISIS. While one might expect this to make an exciting read, I actually found it to be quite dull. The split narrative means that the book felt quite disjointed to me, even as the threads of the story began to come together towards the end. Sunny and Monty’s seemingly endless walk through the desert was so mind numbingly boring I nearly didn’t finish this book and I never don’t finish books. The twists also felt quite predictable and not very satisfying. I think the problem is that the author is dealing with hugely complicated and controversial issues through a character driven narrative but her characters just didn’t feel like they were strong enough to carry that narrative.

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

I love Meg Wolitzer and I love ancient Greek drama so a book that combines both was always going to be a treat for me. The Uncoupling centres around a suburban town in New Jersey whose local high school has elected to stage a production of Lysistrata, an ancient Greek comedy in which the women of Athens go on a sex strike to stop an interminable war. However, as the play approaches its opening night, the women of the town find themselves bereft of the desire they once felt for their lovers and go on an unwitting sex strike of their own. Wolitzer does a fabulous job of exploring desire in all its many forms in this book and the role that sex plays in a wide range of relationships. I think without Wolitzer’s signature warmth and wit this book actually could have been quite depressing but she handles the subject matter so deftly that the experience of reading it is a total pleasure. Some may have found the magical elements of this book to be a bit strange and while I would have liked to see them be developed a little bit more, I think it was right to keep the focus on the results of the magic rather than spending pages explaining how precisely it came about. Overall, another great read from one of my favourite authors.

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

This one was a book club pick and I broadly enjoyed reading it. Hobb is fabulous at world-building and didn’t fall into the trap of making the early chapters of a fantasy novel overly heavy with exposition. The world of the Six Duchies is beautifully realised. However, I must confess to finding the book on the whole a little dull. Which is surprising given that it features assassin training, magic, poison, talking to animals, political intrigue and the mysterious zombification of numerous local peasants. I think my issue was that I found the protagonist and narrator, Fitz, to be a bit of a blank canvas without much of a personality. He is narrating these events from what appears to be many years in the future and so his feelings and reactions to the explosive events going on around him feels muted and dulled. I may eventually persist with this series, but it hasn’t really captured my interest or imagination.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

At this point in the month, I felt in need of something lighter and so I turned to this collection of essays by the American humorist, David Sedaris. The topics of the essays range from his eccentric family, particularly his father, his time in art school, his struggles with addiction, his life in New York City and, in the latter half of the book, his time spent living in France with his partner and his attempts to learn French. This book had me laughing out loud multiple times. I particularly enjoyed ‘City of Angels’ in which a friend of Sedaris’ brings a new acquaintance to visit New York City and experiences quite the culture shock, ‘Jesus Shaves’ in which Sedaris and his fellow French students struggle to explain the concept of Easter in very broken French and ‘Picka Pocketoni’ in which Sedaris is mistaken for a French pickpocket by a loud and obnoxious American on the Paris Metro. If you’re looking for something a bit different but still light, this is a great read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

I finally surrendered to the inevitable and read an Agatha Christie book and it is safe to say I am a total convert. I now understand why she’s the absolute queen of mystery writing. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Christie’s novels that centre around her famous detective character, Hercule Poirot and many consider it to be the greatest crime novel ever written. The famous twist ending has been a huge influence on modern crime and mystery fiction and I hold my hands up and say I did not see it coming at all. I shan’t say any more to avoid spoiling anything, but suffice to say that this was a hugely satisfying and enjoyable read. Thankfully I now have many more Christie mysteries to choose from!

Notes to Self: Essays by Emilie Pine

I loved this short collection of personal essays written by academic Emilie Pine. When I say ‘personal essays’, I mean personal. Pine covers a range of topics in her essays that would normally be considered private or taboo to speak about, such as caring for a dying parent, loving someone with an addiction, struggling with fertility, adolescent trauma and her struggles with mental health and perfectionism. It was incredibly refreshing to see someone tackle these topics with such openness, candour and vulnerability. Notes To Self is so beautifully written and so intensely personal that it held me emotionally hostage. I couldn’t put it down and was compelled to keep reading until I had finished the whole thing. I recommend this to absolutely anyone, in particular if you’re looking for a read that might induce a cathartic cry.

The Eternal Appeal of Books About Magic

For years, I have always been inexorably pulled towards books about magic. For me, like so many others, the Harry Potter series acted as the gateway to a lifelong addiction to stories of witches and wizards and the magical quests and creatures that surround them. Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl and Witch Child in childhood eventually gave way to the works of Neil Gaiman, JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett in my teenage years and in just the last few months I’ve raced through Practical Magic, A Deadly Education and The Bloody Chamber. Some people might consider this fixation to be childish or would posit that it reflects a desire to escape an increasingly complex and frightening reality. To those people I would say ‘back off, you’re not my therapist’ although there’s probably a kernel of truth in what they’re saying. But this leaves me with a question – why magic? Why not the far off planets of science fiction or the swooning fantasy of romance novels? What is it about magic that keeps pulling me back in times of trouble?

Doubtless an element of this will be that, for me, books about magic act as a time machine, pulling me back to the safety of childhood when I was still waiting for my Hogwarts letter and thought that it was sensible to stay on the good side of fairies, just in case they were real. But there’s more to it than mere nostalgia. Often magical systems revolve around ideals of justice (magic always comes with a price) and fairness (whatever energy you put out into the world will return to you threefold), concepts that children are extremely sensitive to and that adults can all too often forget about. There is something singularly appealing and fantastical about the idea of a world in which unseen powers ensure that people, good or bad, get what they deserve.

But can science fiction not be equally fantastical? Yes and no. The science fiction writer Charles C. Clarke famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” but in a world where I’m more reliant than ever on technology for connection to family, friends, work and the world as a whole, I’m finding that this isn’t entirely true. I think this is because magic, by definition, is something that you call from within yourself. It’s a power that exists independently of your surroundings and indeed often your own consciousness. Magical literature is rife with protagonists calling on previously unknown powers in times of distress, from Harry Potter accidentally releasing the Burmese python at the London Zoo to Alina Starkov fighting off Volcra in the Fold. Technology, and by extension the world of science fiction, lacks the appeal of the magical because it exists outside of ourselves. It can malfunction, break or be taken away in a way that magic can never be because it is inherent. Similarly romantic novels lack this appeal because the fantastical element of these stories is grounded in a relationship with another person. Magic is therefore incredibly attractive and comforting, not only because how it evokes the unique power of humanity but also how it appeals to human desire for independence and self-sufficiency.

Magic in literature is also attractive because of the illusion of control that it offers to the reader. In times where life can feel so uncertain or confusing the fantasy of being able to influence events, protect our loved ones or ward off evil by simply chanting a few words or ingesting the right herbs is tremendously appealing. Magic can sometimes feel like the flightier sister of hope, something that we turn to when the world seems darker than we can bear. In the second book of the Harry Potter series, Albus Dumbledore says that “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it” and this proves itself to be true throughout the series, with magical assistance often appearing at the last possible moment to help Harry to defeat whatever foe he is facing. In a year that has felt very dark indeed at times, it’s been nice to indulge in the fantasy of magical ability or assistance while we wait for scientists to do the gruelling but necessary work to create a vaccine.

So this year more than most years I’m not ashamed to fall back into fantastical books about magic. Their appeal is almost tailor made for the uncertain and frightening world that we’re having to face. Yet, it is important to keep your feet on the ground, even if your head is in the clouds. I know that it will be scientists, not wizards and witches, who make things right in the end and it will be our loved ones, not magical creatures, who keep us sane in the meantime. But magic is certainly a lovely distraction.

My Month in Books: October 2020

It’s spooky season and this month my reads have ghosts, witches, werewolves and institutional racism. No contest about which is the scariest!

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

I love when brilliant and clever people write brilliant and clever books. Akala is an award-winning rapper, performer and public intellectual who is known for his insightful and incisive opinions on race and class in modern British society. Natives is somewhere between a memoir, recounting his early life growing up in London as a mixed race child in the eighties and nineties, and polemic, shining a light on the hypocrisies and inadequacies of the way that British society perceives its history and its ongoing relationship with racism and social immobility. Akala’s knowledge is almost encyclopaedic on the academic subjects he’s discussing and I learned so much about black history and the British Empire from this book but it’s the biographical sections that had the most impact. His description of his educational experience was infuriating and heartbreaking in equal measure and honestly made me want to burn the whole thing down and start over. Likewise his accounts of how young people get pulled into lives of dangerous criminality was matter-of-fact and compassionate, taking the rare approach of highlighting the rationality and reasonableness that can underlie so many ‘bad choices’. This book is wide-ranging, passionately argued and was a perfect read for Black History Month.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

This was a seasonally appropriate, spooky read set in 1890s Malaysia. It’s centres around Li Lan, a young woman whose family has fallen on hard times and has few prospects of marriage. Her life is turned upside down when her father is approached by the wealthy and influential Lim family, who want her to marry their son. There’s just one catch – their son is dead. Haunted by a ghostly and malevolent suitor, Li Lan must travel to the land of the dead to find a way to banish him and fight for her life and freedom. This is was ultimately a fun read. It was slow in parts but the world building was great and it was very interesting to get into Malaysian mythology and lore around death and the afterlife.

Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates

Laura Bates, the founder of the excellent and influential Everyday Sexism Project, has gone deeper into the grimmest parts of the internet than most of us would dare in order to show us that, actually, behaviours that we associate with nasty trolls who live in their mum’s basements have started to pervade and affect our day to day lives. Bates has spent long periods of time undercover on incel, pick up artist and MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) forums to map and understand the ‘manosphere’ – a coalition of men united by their hatred of women and hostile attitudes towards gender equality. This book is eye-opening for anyone who has managed to avoid this particular corner of the internet but Bates makes a convincing argument that our ignorance about these men and their extremist activities is becoming increasingly dangerous and has cost lives. Invoking a range of attacks committed in recent years by members of the manosphere as well as the ‘acceptable misogyny’ exhibited by mainstream public figures, Bates makes a compelling case for more aggressive tactics to tackle this growing tide of extremism that is affecting more and more young men. I also found the sections in the men’s liberation movement of the early 70s to be very interesting and heartening, as well as the sections where she highlighted the brilliant work of charities such as The Good Lad Initiative, Promundo and the White Ribbon Coalition, all of which work alongside feminist organisations to free men from restrictive gender stereotypes that hurt and repress them.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

There’s something about this time of year that always makes me want to read books about magic. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman is a much-loved classic of the genre that I’ve been meaning to get around to for ages though I must say I found myself a bit disappointed. The book centres on Sally and Gillian Owens, two sisters who descend from an exceptionally witchy family. Their powers have made them outcasts in their small town and both are on a quest to leave the past behind them. After being widowed at a young age, Sally is determined to build a ‘normal’ life for herself and her two daughters while Gillian refuses to sit still, traipsing across the country and enchanting a seemingly endless string of men to fall for her. But, when after decades of separation, Gillian appears in Sally’s doorway with the body of her latest fling in the car, the sisters realise that you can’t run away from the past forever. I honestly think I found myself relating more to the the eccentric and magical aunts than to Sally or Gillian and just wanted more of the novel to focus on them and the history of the Owens family. When it centred on the younger generations the plot felt quite unfocused. Plus, I’m willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to magic spells and hauntings – but no way do I believe anyone would choose to avoid being a witch if they had the option. Too unrealistic for me.

Our Women on the Ground: Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World by Zahra Hankir

Our Women on the Ground is a collection of nineteen essays written by Arab women on their experience of working as journalists in the Middle East. From Syria, to Saudi Arabia, to Egypt and to Yemen, these women often take huge personal risks in order to report on the situations in these countries and more. This book is a fascinating read for anyone seeking to learn more about the rich and diverse culture of the Arab world as well as an insight into what motivates journalists to keep doing the work they do, even in the most terrifying and heartbreaking circumstances.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I loved this book. Naomi Novik is one of my favourite fantasy authors right now and she’s outdone herself with the world building on this one. A Deadly Education is set in a semi-sentient, extremely dangerous magical school that acts as a magnet for homicidal monsters who are just dying to eat young witches and wizards. Our heroine is El, who is just trying to survive until graduation while managing her incredibly powerful affinity for dark magic. She’s in conflict with Orion, the school’s resident hero who has a bad habit of upsetting the balance of the universe by saving too many lives and starving the local monsters into a frenzy. I liked the magic system that Novik creates here and the twist that she’s taken on the idea that magic must always come with a price. I also really liked this twist on the ‘magical school’ trope – people joke that it’s a miracle Hogwarts wasn’t shut down because so many students die every year but Novik has made the danger of the school integral to the plot rather than a mere plot device. The result is a really exciting new fantasy series and I can’t wait until the next one comes out.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

This read felt very seasonally appropriate indeed. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is a collection of short stories by Angela Carter, in which she takes the dark and creepy undercurrents that are present in so many traditional fairy tales and brings them to the forefront. The overarching feeling you get while reading this collection is that of walking through a familiar forest in the dead of night, knowing that something is creeping up behind you. All of the tropes of traditional fairy tales are there but magnified to an uncomfortable and unfamiliar extent that leaves the reader is a sense of perpetual suspense as they await the unexpected twist in the tale. A perfect Halloween read.

Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue

Scenes of a Graphic Nature centres around Charlie Regan, a young woman from the U.K. who is a struggling film maker and has put her life on hold to be there for her terminally ill father. Her one achievement is the film she wrote and directed about her father’s life, specifically about how he is the sole survivor of a terrible accident that devastated his rural Irish community. When Charlie is invited to show her film at the Cork Film Festival, she jumps at the chance to visit her father’s homeland but the longer she spends in Ireland, the more certain she becomes that there are parts of the story that her father left out. Broadly I enjoyed this book. The plot was engaging and well-paced and the mystery at the heart of the story was well thought out. I just felt frustrated by the number of loose ends left at the end – there was no real resolution to Charlie’s complicated relationship with her best friend Laura or any interaction with her father after the revelations that follow her arrival in Ireland. Likewise the ‘reveal’ of the truth felt anti-climatic due to the lack of any actual consequences for anyone involved. It felt a bit like the novel was driven by a series of points the author wanted to make rather than a coherent plot.

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

In times of trouble I love a good Tudor-based historical fiction, though I hadn’t read one before that had Jane Seymour as the central character. Jane was the third wife of Henry VIII, who he married just days after executing Anne Boleyn and who bore Henry his much desired son and died right after. Her time in the spotlight was short-lived, but she bore witness to much of the events of Henry VIII’s first divorce while acting as a lady in waiting to both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. It was interesting to read about these well-known historical events from her perspective and it allowed for moments of delicious irony, such as her wondering how Katherine could still love Henry after all his cruelty and judging Anne for stealing away the husband of her mistress – both things Jane herself would go on to do. I also really liked the insertion of supernatural elements into the book although I can see this irritating some historical purists! My only quibble is this book paints Jane as a bit too much of an innocent lamb for my liking, I would have liked to see her with a bit more agency or at least acting like something other than a perfect angel 24/7 but overall Alison Weir continues to knock it out of the park with this series.

My Month in Books: September 2020

This was a bumper month of reading for me. Due to pandemic-induced publishing delays, more books were published in September 2020 than any other month in history. This also meant I got new reads from some of my favourite authors, including Louise O’Neill, Caitlin Moran and The Secret Barrister mixed in with reading older books and discovering new authors. Essentially I became a kid in a candy store and hammered through twelve books in thirty days. Keep reading for my thoughts on the best and worst of them!

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld has written a novel with an audacious and intriguing premise: What if Hillary Clinton had never married Bill and what would that seemingly insignificant decision mean for American politics – and for Hillary herself- in the decades to come? I had seriously complicated feelings about this book before I picked it up, mostly because it feels ethically dubious to speculate about someone’s personal relationships in so much depth and to draw conclusions about the impact those relationships have had on global politics. And yet I still found myself buying it and, once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. Maybe this is just the part of me that still feels angry and sad about the 2016 US election and stressed about the 2020 one but I couldn’t resist being pulled into about an alternate universe where American politics looks so different and yet so frustratingly similar. I was totally captivated by this story, needing to know what was going to happen next and how it was going to end. One thing that really struck me was how well Sittenfeld seems to know her subject. I read Clinton’s book What Happened shortly after it came out and I’m amazed by how accurately Sittenfeld has captured her voice. It almost felt like it was really her speaking. I was also impressed that Sittenfeld resisted the temptation to make an angel or a martyr out of her version of Hillary. Like her real life equivalent, she is diligent, intelligent and eager to change the world but she’s also flawed. She makes bad decisions, she hurts people and she’s willing to compromise on her morals to get to where she wants to be. I found myself relating to and rooting for the fictional Hillary, as I did her real life counterpart.

After the Silence by Louise O’Neill

People say that if you throw a frog into boiling water that it will panic and jump to safety, but if you heat up the water slowly, the frog won’t notice and will be boiled to death. Louise O’Neill is a master of writing from the perspective of the frog. Often her protagonists are trapped in increasingly dangerous situations and are left convincing themselves everything is fine as the temperature rises around them and the water starts to bubble. After the Silence is no exception. The protagonist, Keelin Kinsella, lives with her family on the remote island of Inisrún where years ago a beautiful young local girl was mysteriously and violently murdered. The killer was never found, but the people of Inisrún are quick to blame Keelin’s husband Henry, a ‘blow in’ who has always been considered an outsider by the locals. The family live ostracised by the rest of the island until a film crew arrives to make a documentary about the murder, which Henry hopes will clear his name. Keelin, however, has never been the same since the night of the murder and as the film crew starts asking questions and stirring up the past, her incredibly fragile facade of normality begins to fracture beyond repair and she is forced to reckon with the secrets her family have been hiding – and how complicit she has been in burying the truth. This is being marketed as a mystery but it felt less whodunnit and more like a psychological thriller. It is brilliantly paced, atmospheric and pulls the reader deep into Keelin’s interior world, which is frankly a deeply uncomfortable place to be. Even as the reader wants to help her, they’re also left wondering what she isn’t telling them and who exactly she’s protecting. Louise O’Neill continues to be one of my absolute favourite authors, now I just have to kill time until her next book comes out.

This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

It’s always a delight when a book has an intriguing premise and is beautifully written. This Is How You Lose The Time War manages to be an innovative and exciting work of science fiction while transcending its genre to meditate on the meaning of time, progress and history. This is largely an epistolary novel, containing an exchange of letters between Red and Blue, time travelling agents who are employed by rival organisations locked in perpetual war over the fate of the timeline. While their letters begin as taunts from across a bloody battlefield, they gradually develop a friendship and, eventually, a forbidden romance. But they are still locked into war that only one side can win and if their relationship is discovered it will mean certain death. If that premise isn’t enough to get you interested, perhaps the interesting way in which it is written will. The book is jointly written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, with El-Mohtar writing all of Blue’s letters and Gladstone writing all of Red’s. Because you really are reading an exchange between two distinct writers, known for writing poetry and fiction respectively, the reader feels a palpable shift in each of the two characters writing styles. Both authors also happen to have an absolutely beautiful, lyrical style of writing that feels slightly otherworldly but is also peppered with distinctly nerdy jokes. In short, I was in heaven. This book also happens to be very short (only 200 pages) so I can’t recommend losing a day or so getting absorbed in it enough.

I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Braithwaite

I Am Not Your Baby Mother is an observant, funny, devastating and deeply personal look at the homogenous portrayal of motherhood in British culture and the problems this creates and compounds for black mothers. Candice Braithwaite shines a light on issues that, due to my privilege, I hadn’t been aware of, such as the fear of raising children of colour in a city environment vs the fear that they’ll be ostracised for their race in a more rural community. My heart broke reading these sections and I can’t begin to imagine how much agonising goes into these decisions for millions of parents every day. The section of childbirth experiences was also so timely. I think people are becoming increasingly aware of failures in U.K. maternity care, coupled with devastating cuts to the NHS as well as changing expectations of how birth ‘should’ be on the part of mothers and how this is creating a time bomb for trauma and neglect of mothers, particularly mothers of colour. It’s an incredibly complicated landscape with no easy solutions but it was great to see the brilliant work of MBRRACE-UK highlighted and hopefully this book will spread awareness of this issue far and wide. Since I’ve finished reading it, I find myself referring back to this book in conversation again and again. Like all good memoirs, it lingers in the mind and offers a new lens through which to view the world.

More Than A Woman by Caitlin Moran

It’s no exaggeration to say that Caitlin Moran’s first book How To Be A Woman changed my life. The way she talked about feminism and all the weird, uncomfortable, mad bits that come along with being female in such a funny, candid and straightforward way was a total lightning bolt moment for me and I have been asking myself WWCMD? (What Would Caitlin Moran Do?) in various tricky situations ever since. So when I heard that she was writing a follow up to ‘How To Be A Woman’ filled with even more hard-won wisdom and laughs, I was rushing out to buy my copy. And I’ve not been disappointed! Caitlin is as funny and wise as ever and she has a real gift for articulating complicated and hard to name feelings in a clear and memorable way. The sections on the differences in male and female socialisation and how women often ‘marry their own glass ceiling’ were particularly striking and poignant, while still being hilarious. But she also exhibits a huge amount of emotional vulnerability in this book. Her sections on mothering teenage girls are totally heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. Both she and her daughters are so strong and brave to share their experience with the world. Here’s hoping she writes a new one of these every decade so I can continue to enjoy her work well into my hag years.

The Seven or Eight Death of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It centres (unsurprisingly) around a young woman named Stella Fortuna. Stella was born in rural Italy in the 1920s and throughout her life she has a shockingly large number of near death experiences that may or may not be caused by the vengeful ghost of her older sister, who died as a baby. I enjoyed the early parts of the book that dealt with Stella’s childhood and her family history but after she emigrated to America and gets married the book just became so relentlessly depressing that I couldn’t really enjoy it. Essentially this book is about how life slowly kills you in a series of increasingly mundane ways before you actually die. Facing down the barrel of further lockdowns due to COVID-19 and all the banality that comes with them, I think this message hit a little too close to home to really be enjoyable.

Fake Law: The Truth About Justice In An Age of Lies by The Secret Barrister

The mysterious Secret Barrister has crafted a brilliantly timed polemic laying out the different ways that the British public are being manipulated into believing ‘fake law’ stories that ultimately undermine law and order. The Secret Barrister busts myths surrounding some of the biggest legal stories of the past few years – from Alfie Evans to Shamima Begum – and offers a timely reminder that the law is for us and, in order for it to protect us and our families when we need it most, we need it to apply equally and robustly to everyone, no matter how unpopular decisions may be. It also shines a light on the dismal state of legal education in the U.K., which leaves the population incredibly susceptible to lies and distortions about sentencing, the role of the European Court of Human Rights, legal aid and much more. If it were up to me, I’d make everyone in the U.K. read this book. If they did, the standard of debate and discussion around politics and matters of law would be so much higher.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

This book was sold to me on the premise of ‘It’s Cinderella except she’s a cyborg who has to save planet earth from being invaded by aliens from the moon with mind control powers.’ The problem was, the story itself couldn’t quite live up to the expectations set by that description. Don’t get me wrong, the image of Cinderella leaving her actual robotic foot behind as she flees a ball overrun by aliens trying to kill her fills me with great joy but the plot felt a bit predictable (the ‘big twist’ in particular was obvious from maybe one or two chapters in) and it didn’t quite pull me in enough to actually make me keen to read any further in this series. I think this is ultimately a series that would suit readers on the younger side of YA, who I have no doubt will have a greater appreciation for this futuristic and campy take on the classic fairytale.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson delivers what it promises in the title – a series of lives lived by one woman living in Britain in the first half of the 20th century in the shadow of World War I and II. Ursula Todd seems incapable of dying, whether she drowns, suffocates, becomes ill, gets hit by a bomb or even is murdered. She always seems to end up back where she started: Being born on a snowy day in February in 1910 with the chance to do things differently this time around. In each life it varies whether Ursula pursues education, what career path she follows, whether she gets married, whether she has children and how various family members and friends are impacted by the different twists and turns her lives take. The result is a brilliant, immersive study of the endlessness of human potential and the myriad selves and lives that live within all of us. It also poses the question of what it means to ‘live your best life’. Different readers will have different opinions on which of Ursula’s lives was her ‘best’ one but each is beautifully written and feels real and meaningful to the reader.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Heartburn is confirmation that Nora Ephron can make literally anything funny, even one of the most painful situations imaginable. Heartburn has been described as a ‘thinly disguised novel’ that fictionalises Ephron’s experience of discovering that her husband had been carrying on a months-long affair when she was seven months pregnant with his child. She rightly points out that when male authors cannibalise their relationships, the resulting novels are rarely called ‘thinly disguised’ but they also rarely exhibit this amount of emotional depth and complexity while still remaining hilarious. The details are what makes this story – from her therapy group being robbed at gunpoint, to her producer suddenly and absurdly proposing to her, to her spreading a rumour that her husband’s affair partner has a horrifying vaginal infection. Heartburn will basically make you laugh and cry on a relentless loop for 170 pages. I cannot recommend it enough.

Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives by Helen Taylor

It’s only in recent years that I’ve noticed that reading fiction can be perceived as ‘girly’. I’ve had conversations with men who say they don’t read fiction because they don’t see the point in it and I’ve also spoken to men who say they’d love to join a book club but that there don’t seem to be any ‘for men’. I picked up this book with these interactions in mind, hoping to understand how and why the reading of fiction became a ‘feminine’ hobby and why female readers of fiction are so much more prevalent than male ones. Through extensive research and over 500 personal interviews with female authors and readers alike, Helen Taylor explores the history of women’s fiction reading from beloved novels, to favourite genres to book clubs (amusingly referred to as ‘the female equivalent of freemasonry’). Taylor ultimately explores how the reading of fiction has shaped and influenced the way that women understand their own lives and stories, while not shying away from how factors such as race and class can impact attitudes and access to fiction. This book is a total treat for book lovers – while the topic is fascinating I got so much joy out of reading the excerpts from interviews of female readers. It’s such a wonderful feeling to feel connected to others through a hobby and shared love of reading just seeps out of the pages of this book.

Well Played by Jen DeLuca

The sequel to last year’s very popular Ren Faire romcom Well Met, Well Played picks up with Stacey Lindholm, another devotee of the Willow Creek Ren Faire and a young woman who feels like she’s wasting her life still living in her small hometown with her parents at 27. Stacey spends her days playing with her cat, seeking validation on Instagram and looking forward to her town’s annual Ren Faire, the only time of year she gets to leave her life behind and pretend to be someone different. She strikes up an email correspondence and long distance romance with a travelling performer from the Faire, but he is not all that he appears. Honestly the romantic element of this book didn’t do a lot for me, the more interesting narrative thread here was Stacey gaining the courage to make changes and start living her life for herself. I was also disappointed by the smaller role that the actual Faire played in this one. I’m reading this for the jousts dammit.

My Month in Books: August

August was a quiet month for me. I found myself getting pulled into a bit of a reading slump which means I didn’t end up getting through nearly as many books as I usually do. The silver lining of this is that all of you have a much shorter blog post to read than usual!

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

Another foray into the Grishaverse but unfortunately now I’m left with no more books in this series (until the next one comes out that is). This duology is set after Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows and focuses on Nikolai, the young king of Ravka who is trying to hold his fragile country together as he himself is falling apart due to the residual effects of the Darkling’s curse. He’s accompanied by many familiar faces from the previous books, including Zoya (intimidating as ever) and Nina (causing as much havoc for the nation of Fjerda as ever). It was interesting to have a novel from the perspective of Nikolai, a character who spends so much time trying to appear charming that the reader often has very little idea what actually lies beneath the surface. Finally getting insight into what’s going on in his head is a real selling point of this book but what I loved most about it is how incredibly clear Leigh Bardugo made it that the Darkling is a giant asshole who does not deserve the slightest shred of a redemption arc or a sympathetic reading. Darkling stans continue to perplex me and I was very amused by Bardugo not so subtly pointing out how deranged it is to idolise a manipulative, genocidal maniac via The Cult of the Starless Saint.

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

I found it really hard to get into this book. Normally I’m a sucker for a multigenerational novel with complicated female relationships but I think there was almost too much going on here for me to get fully invested in any one character or storyline. The novel centre around the Marilyn and David Sorensen and their four adult daughters, Wendy, Violet, Liza and Grace. Wendy is recently widowed and deploying a range of unhealthy coping mechanisms to cope with her grief. Violet is a picture perfect stay at home mum until the son she gave up fifteen years ago suddenly re-enters her life. Liza is doing everything she can to keep her struggling partner (and relationship) afloat while juggling a demanding job when she unexpectedly falls pregnant. Grace is stumbling around trying to find herself while pretending to her family that she’s attending law school. At the centre of all of this is the love story of Marilyn and David, whose daughters accuse them of loving each other more than they loved their children and insist that their ‘perfect’ relationship gave them all psychological complexes. I personally feel this book was way longer than it had to be and that you could have easily cut out at least one of the sisters and the book would have felt much less busy and had more of a focused plot. There wasn’t anything technically ‘wrong’ with this book but it just felt a bit forgettable to me unfortunately. 

The Duke and I by Julia Quinn

I picked up this book because 1) I wanted something easy and breezy to read after trudging through The Most Fun We Ever Had 2) This series apparently widely beloved and has legions of fans and 3) Netflix are adapting it and Julie Andrews is involved so that’s me sold. The plot was a bit ridiculous (which to be fair I expected and was braced for) but Quinn totally, 100% lost me around three quarters of the way through the book with an out of nowhere sexual assault with a side of reproductive coercion that really killed the whole romantic vibe she was going for. It didn’t help that the whole thing was swept under the carpet and minimised for the rest of the book. Yeah, not for me thanks.

Come Again by Robert Webb

This is the part of the month where I began to despair. I was so disappointed not to have liked this because I loved Robert Webb’s autobiography How Not To Be A Boy and the blurb of this sounded so intriguing. Come Again centres around Kate Mardsen, who has just lost Luke, her partner of 28 years, to an undetected brain tumour and is wracked with guilt over not spotting his health issues sooner. She’s on the verge of taking her own life when she is suddenly (and inexplicably) transported back in time to the day they met, Freshers Week 1992 at the University of York. She knows that the brain tumour is already growing in Luke’s head so the question is whether Kate can manage to relive falling in love with her dead husband for the first time and save him from death in the future. Honestly, if this had just been a sentimental rumination on nostalgia, innocence and the nature of fate, like I was expecting, I think it would have been a perfectly fine first novel. It was funny and bits of it were genuinely quite heartfelt and moving. I would have even been able to look the other way about the rather heavy handed and preachy monologues about the state of modern politics (which I didn’t even disagree with, they just felt a bit clumsy and shoehorned in). But I cannot forgive the total and utter bollocks that was the whole spy caper that ended up taking up a good half of the book. The blurb promised a bittersweet rumination on loss and first love, not karate chopping Russian mobsters and evading them with the help of taxi drivers who secretly work for MI6 (I wish I was making this up). It almost felt like Webb was afraid to write something too overly sappy and so felt the need to stick a bonkers car chase in. And if that wasn’t enough, I could have really done without the little plot twist in the epilogue. In the interest of not spoiling anything, all I’ll say is that if you’re going to drop a bomb like that you need a narratively consistent explanation for it.

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

Dear reader you’ll appreciate that at this point I needed to pull out the big guns to get me out of what has been a fairly dismal reading month for me. Nothing gets me going like chunky historical fiction and that goes double for anything that has any connection to the Tudors. Wolf Hall has therefore been on my TBR list for some time but I’ve been waiting for just the right occasion to bust it out. I was not disappointed. Mantel brings the brutal world of Tudor England to life, from the slums of Putney to the glittering Hampton Court. The novel centres around Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who pulled himself up from nothing to become Principal Secretary to Henry VIII and his closest confidant. He is credited as the man who pulled off one of the most famous divorces in history and was one of the most powerful voices in favour of the reformation of the church in England. But Mantel shows us the complicated man who exists alongside the historical figure, giving the reader a flawed but sympathetic protagonist whose story you will be utterly consumed by. She also accomplishes this feat with many other famous historical figures such as Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey, rendering them in all of their human complexity. No one in this book is all hero or all villain. Unfortunately, the reader knows the gruesome end Cromwell meets but I couldn’t help but be swept up in the first act of this tragedy, in which the protagonist rises to great heights before being struck down. I’ll certainly be picking up Bring Up The Bodies and The Mirror and the Light in due time to see his story through to the bitter end.