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.

My June and July in Books

It’s been a busy summer for me so far and I haven’t had a lot of time to write, so to make up for it I’m doing one massive reading round up covering the whole of June and July – enjoy!

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

This one was a hell of a ride. Spinning Silver is a fantasy novel telling the story of Miryem, a young moneylender’s daughter who enters the family business and is so good at it that she quickly gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold. However, when the Staryk, a magical race of ice creatures with a lust for gold, overhears these rumours, they set Miryem an impossible task. Caught between certain death if she fails and an undesirable future as queen of the Staryk if she succeeds, Miryem calls upon the help of friends old and new as well as the power of her family and faith to overcome her tasks, unleash her power and forge her own path. This was epic and so immersive you can nearly feel the snow falling around you as you read it. If you’re feeling overheated this summer, this is the perfect read to cool you down.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

This was a nice, light-hearted rom-com that is essentially a gender-flipped version of Pretty Woman. Stella is a socially awkward econometrician with autism whose family won’t stop hassling her to find a nice man to settle down with. Obviously the solution to this is to hire a male escort to pretend to be her boyfriend and teach her how to be in a relationship. That definitely won’t have any unintended consequences. Romance and chaos ensues. This is perfect for if you’re looking for something happy and not too challenging but having said that it was really refreshing to see an autistic rom-com heroine.

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

This was such an incredible and inspirational book to read and by far an away one of my favourite reads of the summer so far. Samantha Power has had a long and varied career working to improve the lives of others and advance the cause of human rights. In her memoir, Power takes us through her time as war reporter in Bosnia, as a Pulitzer Prize winning author, as a senior official in the Obama administration and finally as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. At each step along way, Power provides fascinating insight into the policy and humanitarian work that goes on behind the scenes of some of the the world’s biggest human rights crises of the past three decades while also empowering the reader to go forth and make change in their own lives, urging us to look for the small, concrete steps that we can take to change ‘many individual worlds.’ Equally impressive however is the personal narrative that she weaves into her memoir, from her childhood in Dublin, her move to America, her struggles with anxiety and the difficulties of being a working mother in a series of incredibly demanding, high pressure jobs, Power shows admirable levels of vulnerability to her readers. Honestly, as a young, Irish immigrant woman working in policy development, trying to make a difference and struggling with anxiety and my own ‘bat cave’, reading her story made me feel like I can do anything.

Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet

 I first heard of this book in the newspaper. Not in the review pages like I normally would, but in a news article detailing how students at Georgia Southern University had burned copies of it after being incensed by frank discussions of the experience of first generation university attendees, white privilege and the strain of code switching. Burning books disgusts me to the very core of my soul and I was so horrified reading about this incident and the horrible threats that the author suffered after coming to speak at Georgia Southern, I felt compelled to buy the book and read it to find what exactly what got these students’ knickers in such a twist. The novel tells the story of Lizet, a young Cuban-American woman who leaves her home in Miami to attend a prestigious college in upstate New York. As she is leaving, her parents marriage breaks down, her sister is struggling with single motherhood, she is feeling pressure to commit to her long term high school boyfriend and the arrival a young Cuban refugee is sparking a wave of protests in her neighbourhood. Once she arrives in New York she faces unfamiliar challenges in her course work and racist microaggressions from her fellow students. Lizet feels torn between the worlds of Miami and New York, wanting to belong in both but feeling welcomed by neither and the reader feels her anguish viscerally. My heart absolutely broke for her each time she faced rejection from her old world and her new one. Anyone who reads this book and feels it’s ‘racist towards white people’ has missed the point so spectacularly that they may never be able to find it. Those who read it with an open mind and heart will find an engaging, intelligent and often heartbreaking coming of age story. 

Pretending by Holly Bourne

I absolutely loved this book. The protagonist, April, is smart, pretty, kind-hearted and utterly incapable of getting past the fifth date. Between her PTSD after being raped by an abusive ex and her triggering but rewarding day job at a relationships advice charity, she can’t seem to find a man who is willing to accept her as she is rather than running a mile at the first sign of trouble. So April decides to become someone else entirely: Gretel. Gretel is everything April thinks men want; she’s sexy, she’s cool, she’s easy going and she definitely doesn’t have any unresolved trauma or mental health issues. But when April goes on a date as Gretel and meets Joshua, she starts questioning whether or not he might be able to love her for herself, not for who she’s pretending to be. And, more importantly, maybe she’ll be able to do the same. Bourne pulled no punches about the reality of dealing with mental illness and the insecurity and fear that it can engender as you open yourself up to people. She also is incredibly raw about how hard it can be to continue to open yourself up and be vulnerable with people when you’ve been relentlessly and consistently hurt in the past. However, she’s also freaking hilarious about how utterly rubbish men can be and the outrageous, unrealistic expectations that are put in women who are trying to appear attractive to them. I frequently found myself reading sections of this book and being reminded of various ghosts of douchebags past. I suspect Bourne must have crowdsourced stories from her friends when writing some bits! The next time I have a single friend who is bemoaning her lot, I’m handing her this book to put a smile on her face

Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope Change and Courage by Tori Amos

I’ve been a massive fan of Tori Amos ever since I stumbled across a copy of Little Earthquakes when I was in my early teens. This book is such a gift for fans of hers – it’s a mixture of autobiography, song commentary, life advice and above all a guide for artists on how to continue to create and use your art and your gift to resist and rebel in these troubling political times. The chapter on Silent All These Years, my favourite song of hers, moved me nearly to tears. I recommend listening to the songs she’s discussing as you read, it really enhances the experience.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is often a tonic on tricky times. Guards! Guards! tells the story of the beleaguered and incompetent city watch of Ankh-Morpok as they take a break from their usually busy schedule of bumming around and not upholding the law the rescue the city from a vicious dragon. It’s full of Pratchett’s trademark humour and fantastical imagination and will please fans old and new.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

After reading My Dark Vanessa a few months ago, I thought I’d revisit Nabokov’s masterpiece, Lolita, which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager. The more I reread this one, the more perplexed I become at the fact that anyone could possibly view it as a love story. Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, a pedophile who is sexually obsessed with twelve year old Dolores Haze, who he calls Lolita. He recounts how he marries her mother to become close to her and when her mother dies he spirits her away from her life as a normal child and makes her the object of his twisted affections. The reader is captured by the contrast between Nabokov’s beautiful prose and the sordid activity he’s describing. At no point do I sympathise with Humbert. If anything the flowery language makes it even clearer that he is attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of the reader and that what he is doing bears no resemblance to love whatsoever but is pure and disgusting selfishness. What continues to shock me about this book is how many people fall for his scam!

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I enjoyed this book so much, it was so weirdly funny and inspiring! It tells the story of Keiko, a single, thirty six year old woman who has found her life’s purpose – working in a convenience store. However, her friends and family can’t understand how she can possibly be happy without a high-powered career or a husband or children. Keiko fights for her personal happiness in spite of the expectations that society places on her and the final few pages are so cathartically fantastic I had to stop myself from physically cheering for her. This book is so short you could read it in a day but it’s an absolute treat and perfect if you’re coming off a cycle of long or sad reads!

The Overstory by Richard Powers

This book absolutely blew me away. The Overstory is a stunning work of fiction and powerful a call to arms to save our planet from catastrophe. Told through a series of personal and interconnecting stories, like a forest, each part of this beautiful novel stands alone while working to create something greater than the some of its parts. I’m adding this to my list of books that would make the world a better place if everyone had read them.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Naoise Dolan’s debut novel is exciting times indeed. It centres around Ava, a sarcastic and spiky twenty something Irish expat in Hong Kong with a crippling fear of any level of intimacy, and her romantic entanglements with two very different partners. On the one hand there’s Julian, a self-satisfied and emotionally vacant Old Etonian with whom she lives rent free and has sex but who is emphatically not her boyfriend and on the other there’s Edith, a brilliant and beautiful lawyer who makes Ava feel all warm and fuzzy inside unironically (the horror). In the grand tradition of the protagonists of coming of age novels (and indeed twenty somethings in real life) making life way harder than it needs to be, choosing between the two proves difficult. This book is getting compared a lot to Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, seemingly stemming from the fact that both books are observant and emotionally intelligent first outings by young female authors about Irish bisexuals making questionable romantic decisions due to a combination of self-loathing, millennial ennui and fear of being truly known (fair enough to be honest). However, what the comparisons are missing is how bloody funny Naoise Dolan is – not only did I wince and empathise with her characters and the tangled webs they wove, but I full on belly laughed multiple times. I also love the way she writes about the British class system from an Irish perspective, she puts things into words that I’ve been feeling for a long time.

Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of Ancient Myths by Helen Morales

Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths by Helen Morales is an innovative and fresh look at a range of stories and cultural phenomena from classical antiquity and how they can be read subversively in line with modern feminist thought. I enjoyed the authors comparisons of modern female resistors such as Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai to Antigone and her chapter of transmythology and queering the classical canon took me straight back to my undergrad dissertation! With some of the other chapters, the connection to classics felt a bit tenuous so I would advise readers to consider this a series of accessible cultural essays rather than hardcore academia. If you’ve just read books like Circe, The Silence of The Girls or A Thousand Ships – this is a great follow up read!

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo is a brilliant starting point for anyone looking to get a clearer understanding of the ways in which racism has adapted to survive and thrive in a post-civil rights world. DiAngelo breaks down the ways in which white fragility allows white supremacy to continue through means such as the fallacy that if you’re a ‘good person’ you cannot possibly be racist, the belief that humans are capable of objectivity or refraining from judgement, the presumption of white racial innocence and the denial of a white racial identity. DiAngelo also provides a helpful model for how white people can do better – by accepting that because we have all been ‘swimming in the same water’ of a racist society that it is impossible for us to have not have picked up racist behaviours and habits. We should therefore treat feedback on our behaviour from others as the gift that it is and use it as an opportunity to challenge ourselves and do better.

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer

In the summer of 2014, a young journalist named Stephanie Mailer disappears from the sleepy seaside town of Orphea. Just days before her disappearance, she confronted retiring detective Jesse Rosenberg about a grisly quadruple homicide he solved in the 1994 at great personal cost. Stephanie is convinced he got the wrong man but Rosenberg dismisses her out of hand. When Mailer vanishes, Rosenberg can’t quell his worry that she was onto something big and so he links up with his old partner, Derek Scott, who has refused fieldwork since the 1994 case, and Deputy Police Chief Betsy Kanner, who is determined to prove herself to her misogynistic colleagues, to solve the mystery of what Stephanie Mailer knew, why she disappeared and what really happened in Orphea in the summer on 1994. I’ve been a fan of Dicker’s since The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair and this book is a twisty mystery/thriller that will satisfy those who love his work. However, the translation in the English version can often feel clunky and unnatural which can somewhat spoil the reading experience. Guess I’ll have to learn French before his next one comes out!

The City We Became by N.K. Jemison

The City We Became by N.K. Jemison is a wildly creative fantasy/sci fi novel that asks the question: what if cities were actually alive? In the first instalment of the Great Cities Trilogy, Jemison introduces readers to New York City, but not as we know it. New York has become embodied in five human avatars representing each of its five boroughs – Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island – as well as a primary avatar who represents the city as a whole. The city is under attack from interdimensional invaders and the avatars must find each other, learn to use their new powers and protect their city at all costs from those who would seek to rob it of what makes it unique. The premise of this book is so creative and the story is fast-paced, funny and like nothing I’ve read before. The characters are brilliantly written and perfectly embody their respective boroughs (side note: I would die for Queens). Ultimately Jemison has written a brilliant new sci fi/fantasy novel but a heartfelt love letter to New York, so this is perfect for fans of either.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I mean it’s hardly revelatory to say Rebecca Solnit is brilliant, but in case anyone was still in any doubt: Rebecca Solnit is brilliant. Men Explain Things To Me is an essay collection on feminism and the title essay is widely credited with inspiring the term ‘mansplaining’. Solnit is, as always, an incisive, intelligent and impactful writer across a seemingly impossibly wide range of subjects. Handily the book is also short enough that you could finish it in a day, so no one has any excuse not to read it.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

I was a bit disappointed by this one to be honest, which is a shame because it seems the rest of of internet loves it! The Guest List centres around the wedding of Will and Jules, a seemingly perfect couple who are getting married on a remote island off the coast of Connemara. However, the illusion of their perfect day is shattered when a member of the wedding party is murdered during a power outage. The advice often given to writers is ‘show, don’t tell’ and I just felt like so much of this book was focused on the ‘tell’ that it was a bit patronising. I think this was a result of there being so many characters and so many of the key events of the novel having taken place prior to it starting, the exposition just felt a bit endless. It also made it a bit difficult to reasonably crack who the killer was, given that the victim was only revealed in the latter fifth of the novel. Trying to crack the case ahead of time is one of the great pleasures of a mystery novel, but in The Guest List the focus seemed to be in cramming in as many ‘shocking twists’ (that were actually fairly predictable) as possible at the expense of the actual mystery plot.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

After having this book on my TBR list for ages, I finally got around to reading it and I wasn’t disappointed. Over the course of only 180 pages, Reni Eddo-Lodge lays out the issues with the way we talk about race and racism in modern British society and the flawed discussions around history, class and gender that often accompany it. It was so illuminating to read a book like this that focused on the Black British experience. I’ve seen so many people claiming that they don’t understand why #blacklivesmatter has taken off in the U.K. because ‘that’s an American problem, we don’t have that here.’ This book is a thorough rebuke of that attitude. I found Eddo-Lodges’ section on history absolutely fascinating. I’m not native to Britain so much of the information about the Bristol bus boycott, the death of Stephen Lawrence and Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade was new to me (though in my defence, it was also new to a lot of native born Brits I later asked about it!). I also thought her section on white feminism was spot on – it feels so obvious when she says it but I had never spotted the cognitive dissonance between ‘feminists’ who are able to understand and argue against the pervasiveness of patriarchy, discriminatory pay and hiring practices, issues with all male panels etc. but when similar issues relating to race are brought up they seem to become selectively deaf or firm believers in the myth of meritocracy. I read this book as part of a social justice book club I started at my work and I was so happy that it sparked a really useful and productive discussion.

The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames

I’d been meaning to read this one for along time but unfortunately it left me a little cold. The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames tells the story of four friends, Alice, Ji Sun, Margaret and Lainey, who meet in college and become lifelong friends. The novel follows them through college, early adulthood, marriage and motherhood. The narrative of the novel is centred around the worst mistakes that each of the women makes over the course of their lives. For Alice; an accident in her childhood, for Ji Sun; an accusation she makes while at university, for Margaret; a disturbing kiss and for Lainey; a bite from seemingly out of the blue. My main issue with this book is it raised a lot of very serious issues (childhood sexual abuse, postpartum mental illness and infidelity among others) but the author didn’t seem to know what to do with this issues once they’d been raised. I felt the novel stopped in a weird place and left a lot of unresolved issues and questions for the reader. Perhaps this was intentional on the author’s part, but I would have liked a bit more resolution and clarity to this story, particularly regarding Margaret’s ‘mistake’. And without spoiling anything, I would seriously contest the assertion that Ji Sun’s worst mistake was the accusation while she was in college!

My Month in Books: May

The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

The Book of Life is the third instalment of the All Souls trilogy, which chronicles the adventures of Oxford professor and secret witch, Diana Bishop, as she seeks out an ancient magical manuscript, falls in love with a vampire and also does some time-travelling. As you might be able to guess, there is a lot going on in this series and to be honest I found this final instalment way too busy. There was so much going on that I honestly just felt confused most of the time and didn’t really get invested in any of the endless plot points that kept springing up. Honestly, where did the Nazi vampire rapist even come from? I swear the whole blood rage thing wasn’t always this big a deal. And I get the twins are important but it honestly does anyone else feel like Diana was pregnant for approximately a million years? Also the eleventh hour Gallowglass reveal just felt like a shameless set up for a spin off. Can’t we just focus on finally finding Ashmole 782? I came here for witch academia, not stupidly vague yet long-winded negotiations about vampire scions. A disappointing end to what started out as a fun series.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

I, along with what seemed like everyone else in the world, spent May watching BBC’s adaptation of Normal People and fell in love with Sally Rooney’s work all over again. Feeling positively hungover after binging the series and following the old adage about hair of the dog, I felt like it was the perfect time to crack into Rooney’s other novel, Conversations with Friends. It centres around Frances, a student in Dublin whose life is still deeply entwined, both personally and professionally, with her ex-girlfriend Bobbi. When Francis and Bobbi enter the social circle of an artsy and sophisticated married couple, Francis’ relationships are hurled into chaos. Rooney is, as always, brilliant at dealing with the complex interior lives of her characters and expertly sketches out the tiny, mundane moments that can bring people together and drive them apart. And, oh my god, the ending! My heart was in my mouth, absolutely masterful. I was left feeling even more hungover than when I started only now I didn’t have any Sally Rooney books left to fill the void.

The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams

My mother always told me that if you’ve got nothing nice to say, say nothing.

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron

This was such a brilliant, warm and funny book. Reading it felt exactly like getting a hug from your favourite cool, wise aunt. I’ve seen people complain that this book isn’t representative of everyone’s experience of being a women but honestly, I don’t think Ephron had any desire to capture the experience of anyone but herself and she does that beautifully so I’m not complaining. While On Maintenance and I Hate My Purse are hilarious I think the real gem in this essay collection is On Rapture which is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt odes to reading I have ever had the pleasure of reading myself. Truly an absolute pleasure.

Over The Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness

As someone who is largely familiar with Van Ness through his exuberant personality while working as the grooming expert on Queer Eye: More Than A Makeover, I definitely wasn’t expecting this book to be as heavy as it was. Van Ness’ road to self-love has been long and his newfound peace and success has been hard won. In his memoir he deftly deals with themes of sexual abuse, addiction and bullying. However, the dark times only make the sunshine seem brighter and after finishing this book I just felt overwhelmingly proud of him for all that he has overcome to become the inspiration for LGBT+ youth that he is now. As I often say while watching Queer Eye with those who find is Van Ness’ enthusiasm off-putting ‘if you think Jonathan too much, it is because you are not enough!’

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

This was my classic book of the month for May and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It was an absolute joy to read. Like Water for Chocolate centres around Tita, the youngest daughter of the all-female De La Garza clan, who is a gifted cook and pours all of her emotion (literally) into her cooking. However, tradition dictates that Tita must never marry and take care of her mother until she dies. But when Tita falls in love with Pedro and he is forbidden from marrying her due to this tradition, he opts to marry her sister instead, setting off a chain of gastronomical events that range from the hilarious to the magical to the tragic before Tita and Pedro can ever hope to be united against all odds. If you’re a fan of the magical realist works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you’ll love this romantic, transportive novel.

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Samantha Irby is the absolute, unquestionable, reigning queen of TMI humour. I now know more about this woman’s bowels than I do my own and I’m thrilled about it. The reason Irby is so successful at this particular style of humour is because she writes about herself in a way that feels genuine and conversational rather than something that is calculated to shock. The whole book feels like the point in a night out where your best friend has had just one drink too many and starts spilling out her soul onto the table. I full on belly laughed out loud on multiple occasions while reading it. I related to the essay Girls Gone Mild on a cellular level and the phrase ‘cool olds’ is now fully integrated into my daily lexicon. Other personal highlights included Hello, 911?, Body Negativity and Late-1900s Time Capsule, the latter of which sent me down a Tori Amos nostalgia whirlpool from which I refuse to ever emerge.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

I was thirteen years old when The Hunger Games first came out, which was precisely the right age to get totally sucked into it while my parents looked on in concern once I told them what the book was actually about. If someone had told my thirteen year old self I’d still be reading new Hunger Games books in 2020 I’d have called you crazy, but here we are! Ultimately this book was a lot of fun. It was nice, in a weird way, to get back to the supremely messed up world of Panem and to get some more insight into how the Hunger Games came to be and the early years of the Capitol. But honestly I found the choice to centre the novel around President Snow to be confusing. Normally with this kind of prequel, which examines how the baddie became the baddie, you start off with a broadly likeable, even heroic, protagonist who has a fatal flaw that eventually leads to them crossing over to the dark side. However, Snow starts off the novel as a deeply unpleasant person who is only concerned with his own reputation, the reputation of his family and acquiring material comfort. From page one, he also proves that he’s extremely content to step on others to get ahead. Unfortunately this makes the whole book rather predictable – I saw the ‘twists’ with Sejanus and Lucy coming a mile off. But I did enjoy how Collins wove motifs from the Hunger Games into the prequel – in particular the mockingjays and The Hanging Tree. However, I think I’d rather have gotten the info via a different set of characters . Just give us the 50th Quarter Quell prequel we’ve been asking for Suzanne!

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

This was my book club’s pick for May and honestly I had mixed feelings about it. The novel centres around seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain who lives with her eccentric, impoverished family in an ancient castle in the Suffolk. I found the earlier chapters in which she describes her family and the castle to be charming (as an aside, I would read an entire book about Topaz who was the most interesting character by a country mile) but once the Americans turned up the whole thing went a bit downhill. People in this novel seem to fall in love with each other simply because they’re there and have a pulse rather than having anything in common or any kind of connection whatsoever, so I found Cassandra’s dramatic hand-wringing over being in love with her sister’s fiancee a bit hard to swallow. At the risk of sounding misanthropic, I really think I would have preferred this book if they’d just left all the romance out of it.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani

Lullaby, originally published in French as Chanson Douce, opens with the murder of a baby. The novel tells the story of Louise, a nanny hired to look after the young children of Myriam and Paul, a wealthy Parisian couple. The novel traces the development of the relationship between Louise, her employers and her young charges before she ultimately murders the children in cold blood. The novel begins with the crime scene and we are left to watch the story unfold with growing dread, as we sense the inevitable horrific conclusion draw closer and closer. This is a brilliantly paced psychological thriller as well as a nuanced and literary examination of the anxieties of modern motherhood.

Review: My Dark Vanessa

Even before Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa had been published, it was making headlines. Between a juror for the Weinstein trial almost being dismissed for having read an advance copy, ongoing scrutiny of racial bias in the publishing industry and debate around what role ‘authenticity’ plays when you’re a writer of fiction, the question of whether My Dark Vanessa was the most controversial book of the year was a fair one. However, as thrilled as I was to have some truly thorny discussion material for my book club, I feel to a certain extent that all of the public controversy has overshadowed the fact that the book is really bloody good.

My Dark Vanessa tells the story of Vanessa Wye, a fifteen year old girl who is sexually abused and groomed by her much older English teacher, Jacob Strane. However, Vanessa does not view herself as a victim. She believes that she and Strane shared a romance that society is too small-minded to understand and that theirs is an epic love story for the ages. She also believes that she is the one in control of their romantic and sexual relationship because Strane’s powerful and obsessive desire for her has put his life and career in jeopardy. However, as the years pass and Vanessa grows into an adult, she finds herself stagnant, clinging onto the past, still obsessed with Strane and recreating their relationship dynamic wherever she can. But when allegations of abuse from other students of Strane emerge, Vanessa’s carefully constructed story begins to crumble. What if everything she has ever told herself about this period of her life – that she was special, irresistible, in control and that Strane was powerless in the face of her unique charms – is not reality but delusion?

This novel was compulsively readable and the fact that it accomplished this in spite of the fact that it contained the most stomach-churning sex scenes I’ve ever seen written down is a testament to Russell’s talents as a writer. Often to say something is readable is to imply that it has limited literary value, but this is not the case here. My Dark Vanessa is very much a literary piece of fiction and Russell is consciously in dialogue with Nabokov throughout the novel. Strane gives a copy of Lolita to Vanessa (because of course he does) as well as a copy of Pale Fire, from which the novel’s title is derived. But the dialogue between the two authors is not limited to allusion and interplay. My Dark Vanessa is a direct inversion of the Lolita narrative, but instead of the novel being narrated by the pedophile, desperate to portray his molestation of a child as a love story, we see things through the eyes of the child, desperate to accomplish the same deception but for very different reasons. This clever inversion not only builds a compelling narrative but a psychologically realistic one. While reading Lolita I never truly felt Humbert Humbert believed his own lies, I thought his performance was too self-conscious and that he was more invested in ensuring the reader believed him. But in My Dark Vanessa I am in no doubt that Vanessa truly believes her own delusions and that viewing the predatory relationship between herself and Strane as a love story is utterly central to her sense of self.

The construction of the self as a teenager is another fundamental theme of this novel. It is told in a split perspective, alternating between Vanessa at fifteen and Vanessa at thirty two and the use of this device really allows the reader to see the toll that Strane’s abuse has taken on Vanessa. The young Vanessa is lonely and sensitive, but leads a vivid and intense interior life, while the adult Vanessa seems like a washed out version of her former self, devoid of the passionate feelings and creative ambition that drove her as a young woman. The reader is left in no doubt that this change is the result of Strane’s interference in Vanessa’s development. This novel reminded me vividly of the fact that being a teenager is such a uniquely vulnerable position, a time when one is trying to figure out who they are and desperate for someone, anyone, to tell them who that is. When Vanessa is lonely because she has few friends, Strane tells her that she’s not lonely, she just likes her own company. The reader knows this is a mischaracterisation but Vanessa chooses to believe him, because it’s a much more attractive option to be alone by choice than to be friendless because no one else likes you. This has the effect of further isolating Vanessa from her peers and pushing her further into the grasp of Strane. Similarly, when she shows him her poetry, seeking teacherly feedback, he tells her ‘I think we’re very similar, Nessa…From the way you write, I can tell you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.‘ but the reader knows that Vanessa is an ordinary teenage girl who likes reading, playing with her dog and listening to a bit of Fiona Apple, hardly the edgy, sexualised, dark creature that Strane is trying to mould her into. However, because Vanessa trusts him and because she is so uncertain of her own burgeoning identity, she believes him and finds herself becoming this girl who she doesn’t recognise.

Later in the book, when Vanessa is at university, she contemplates the thought of becoming a lecturer with pleasure and she wonders ‘Maybe that’s what this has always been about – not wanting these men but wanting to be them‘. This line hit me hard because it brings to mind the extent one man’s manipulations and selfishness derailed a life. Rather than becoming a mentor or guide, Strane chose to suck away Vanessa’s chances at a good education, healthy relationships and a bright future like a vampire. It is only towards the end of the novel that Vanessa starts to see herself and her situation for what they are; a case of a girl interrupted. In a scene where she is defending Strane to her therapist, she recounts his desire for her and how he was driven wild from the moment she walked into his classroom while the therapist is left to gently remind her that she didn’t ask for any of this, that she was just a child trying to go to school. Vanessa is left dumbstruck and the reader is left chilled at the thought of the myriad young girls just trying to go to school, to work, to sporting practices around the world who have been and will be derailed in the same way Vanessa was. Somewhat depressingly, I felt incredibly lucky that when I was a lonely, sensitive teenager who hadn’t a clue who I was and was desperate for adult approval that all my teachers gave me was extra work rather than a psychosexual complex.

My Month in Books: April

No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

This one was a vital but really tough read. Rachel Louise Snyder breaks this book into three sections, looking at the issue of domestic violence through the eyes of victims, perpetrators and advocates for reform, allowing Snyder to highlight the areas that we continue to misunderstand when developing public policy on this area and how our failings contribute to perpetuating this cycle of violence. While sections of this book broke my heart, I love these kind of reads because they reinforce the importance of informed and evidence-based policy making and remind policy makers that it is their duty to work to eliminate the cracks in their systems that vulnerable people too often fall into.

Six of Crows Duology by Leigh Bardugo

So last month I read and loved the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, so my expectations for any further novels set in the Grishaverse were sky high. Nevertheless, this delivered. The Six of Crows duology focuses on Kaz Brekker, a crime lord in a fantasy-version of Amsterdam, as he pulls together a rag-tag, semi-magical crew to pull off the heist of a lifetime. These books were a rollercoaster of excitement and emotions and all of the characters are so well-developed (and in need of so much therapy but that’s a whole other conversation), I honestly think I liked them even better than Shadow and Bone and I’m now outrageously psyched to watch the Netflix adaption next year.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

This was my book club choice for April and I had been following all of the controversy surrounding the novel with mounting interest. My Dark Vanessa tells the story of fifteen year old Vanessa Wye, who is groomed and molested by her much older English teacher. However, as an adult, Vanessa does not view what happened to her as rape but rather as a great love story that society is too small-minded to understand. But when other former students of her teacher begin to come forward with similar stories of inappropriate behaviour and molestation, Vanessa is forced to reckon with the fact that the stories she has told herself over the years – that she is no victim, that her teacher truly loved her, that she was special, that she was the one in control of their relationship – are starting to look more like delusion than reality. This was a psychologically fascinating piece of modern literature and definitely my top pick of April.

Jailbirds: Lessons from a Women’s Prison by Mim Skinner

Too often popular media try to paint matters pertaining to crime, abuse, addiction and mental illness as being black and white, when all too often prisoners and those who work with them are operating firmly in grey areas. However, I’m delighted to say that Skinner has managed to capture the full complexity of the lives that female prisoners so often lead by taking the radical step of actually listening to their stories. This book was funny, heart-breaking and full of wisdom and I’d recommend this to anyone looking to better understand prisons and especially the complications that come with imprisoning women.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I picked up this book because I’ve recently been disturbed by an uptick in public shaming during the COVID-19 pandemic. This struck me as being decidedly unhelpful during these difficult times and I wanted to more fully understand the psychological impulse to shame and if this is an effective approach for changing behaviour. This book was insightful, funny and the case studies in it are absolutely mind-boggling. My only wish is that it had been written more recently – I would have loved to have read Ronson’s take on more recent iterations of cancel culture.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

My classic book of the month was Persuasion by Jane Austen and it was the perfect escape from all of the anxieties and stresses of quarantine. As always, Austen is witty, sharp and wonderfully romantic in this touching story of love lost and found again. If, like me, you’ve loved her work and not managed to get around to this one, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy ASAP.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

This book was sent to me through a book exchange on Instagram and, while I’m not sure I would have picked up this book of my own accord, I’m very glad it was chosen for me. Freshwater tells the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman who is possessed by a gang of malevolent deities called ogbanje, who often drive her to self-destructive and reckless behaviour. This felt to me like an interesting take on the coming of age narrative and the search for self-knowledge as Ada learns to accept the voices in her head, but it also struck me as an excellent metaphor for mental illness.

Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper

Megan Phelps-Roper is a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church, an organisation famed for their extremely literal interpretation of the bible and extremely liberal use of homophobic slurs. In her mid-twenties, Megan had a crisis of faith, causing her to abandon most of her family and the only life she has ever known, and since then she has acted as an advocate for tolerance, understanding and the power of constructive challenge. Her memoir vividly depicts the harsh religion she was raised in but does not shy away from the deep, unconditional love she still holds for all of her family members and her hope that one day they will join her in leaving the church. Her memoir is powerful, compelling and extremely well-written.

The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

Not going to lie guys, by the end of last month my brain was essentially fried and I really wanted to go on holiday, so this rom-com set largely in Hawaii was exactly what I needed. Olive and Ethan are sworn enemies whose siblings are getting married (yes, really) but the whole wedding gets terrible food poisoning except them (yes, really) forcing them to pose as a married couple so that they can take their siblings all-expenses paid, non-refundable honeymoon to Maui in their place (yes, really). To the surprise of literally no one, over the course of the of the holiday they discover they don’t really hate each other at all and in fact really really fancy each other. If you are looking for complex characterisation, plot twists or even a semblance of realism, look elsewhere. But if you are looking to escape for a few hours of pure escapism, this book is perfect.

My Month in Books: March 2020

Girl, Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo

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

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

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

Shadow and Bone Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

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

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

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

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

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

Expectation by Anna Hope

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

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

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

My Month in Books: February 2020

Mrs Everything by Jennifer Weiner

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

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

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

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

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

Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund

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

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

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

One Day by David Nicholls

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