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.

Review: In The Dream House

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Ask Again, Yes

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Month in Books: January 2020

The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger

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

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

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

Beloved by Toni Morrison

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

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

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

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

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

Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

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

In At The Deep End by Kate Davies

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

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

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

Review: Dark Places

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

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

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

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

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