Review: Gentleman Jack – Angela Steidele

★★★

Another non-fiction book today – this time a biography of Anne Lister. For anyone unfamiliar with Anne Lister, she was an obsessive diarist who wrote not only her day to day minutiae of being a female landowner but also is known for being an unapologetic lesbian. Her diary is filled with coded entries of her relationships with women – quite a few of them – and this is a biography which explores her outside her own words.

So, I did listen to this on audiobook. While the narration was sublime (thank you Heather Peace), I don’t think this particular book suited the format as well as I had hoped. The book uses extracts of her diary and puts information around them, it’s prose-y in places which is fine but in audio it’s quite hard sometimes to distinguish what was written by Anne and what was added by the biographer as diary snippets are just thrown in the middle of sentences and paragraphs to put things in to Anne’s own words next to the biographers own. It’s a little jarring at times.

My main issue with this, aside from the fact I listened to it rather than read it, is that I don’t think the author actually understood the period, or the topic at hand, properly. I do think that her naivety comes through. She did say at one point that she has not read Anne Lister’s diaries in full, and I don’t think she read much source material at all. It feels like she picked the bits that suited her and put a narrative around them. She took the sex and romance and put her own interpretation on it, which really just takes away from the complexity that was Anne Lister. Additionally, in the final chapter/epilogue there was a paragraph which basically went on to say that there was “no consequence” for Anne and Ann (her wife) living as a married couple and while I’ve read very little around Anne Lister, I know that this is not true at all. They were practically shunned, subject to homophobic attacks, and to paint Anne Lister’s life as some Jane Austen romance is not fair, or right, at all.

Anne Lister was not perfect – she had numerous wives, cheated on most of her partners, 2 of her ex-partners were institutionalised and, to top it all off, she was a Tory. She was not perfect by any stretch of the word but I feel this book completely removed her of all nuance. She was a highly educated woman, long before that was socially acceptable for women, she was well travelled – there is so much more to her, more depth than the women she was in relationships with.

I gave this 3 stars because parts of it were good, the narration was impeccable and I had knowledge about Anne Lister away from this book to fill in some gaps myself. But I think if you’re looking for a more in depth look at Anne Lister, this isn’t the book for you. If you want a romanticised version of her that defines her by the women she was in relationships with (each section of her life is separated by her partner of the time) and nearly completely erases the homophobia? Give it a whirl.

Review: Dead Famous – Greg Jenner

★★★★

I picked this up because I love Greg Jenner’s podcast You’re Dead to Me (available on all good podcast services). His “specialist subject” as it were is the history of fame and celebrity, and having heard him talk about characters like Lord Byron in the podcast with such enthusiasm I knew this wasn’t going to be a disappointment.

Naturally, because I love the podcast, I chose the audiobook of this and it was not a bad decision! If you’re going to pick this up, I really recommend the audiobook as it does just feel like a long podcast – or your friend going on a really enthusiastic lecture about something they love. And who doesn’t love that?

So, the book explores the history of fame and celebrity, how people became famous, or celebrities, in times before TV, and even the printed press. It explores the differences between the varying levels of fame (because there are differences), how some people choose it and others have it thrust upon them. And while the book does generally focus on pre-1950, there are more modern examples used such as Miley Cyrus – and let me tell you a whole paragraph about Miley Cyrus was out of the blue but not unwelcome, and actually put a lot of his ideas in to context. Who knew Miley Cyrus would be a good example? (I jest of course). He also explores the history of fandom – which is not a new phenomenon at all – and I really enjoyed the exploration of this aspect of fame/celebrity because we consider it a new thing, something that stemmed from Beatlemania in the 60’s and grew from there with the more readily accessible media, but versions of fandom have been around for centuries.

There are so many wonderful people who I’d never heard of talked about in this book, and I did do some googling while reading because so many of the people are fascinating and I’d just never heard of them. You can tell how enthusiastic Greg Jenner is about this subject, and as I mentioned above the audiobook is like having a friend just talk at you about something they’re really passionate about. He’s funny, and makes this so easily understood and relatable, it’s really hard to not enjoy this book.

My only issue with this is it isn’t chronological. It is a little all over the place, which does maybe suit some peoples reading styles more, for me I’d have preferred a chronological look at things. I understand why it was organised the way it was, but for me it did make it feel a bit disjointed.

Would highly recommend this – and the podcast You’re Dead to Me!

Review: A Curious History of Sex – Kate Lister

★★★★★

If you’re anything like me, you save a book you know you’re going to love for the first book you read in a year. After what was frankly an abysmal reading year in 2020, I knew that I wanted the first book of 2021 to be one that was a belter. I’ve been wanting to read this since I saw Hannah Witton talk about it when it was first published, so when I saw it was finally on Audible I snaffled up the audiobook.

As the title may suggest, this is a history of sex and sexuality. I think it’s fair to say it’s explicit throughout. If the word cunt offends you, probably not the book for you. There’s a whole chapter on the etymology of female genitalia and how the word that is seen as so obscene now is actually the most feminist of any of the words we have in our vocabulary. Even the medical words – vagina, vulva etc – are entrenched in misogyny. That chapter alone is a masterpiece, but throughout the book historical slang for anatomy and sexual acts are used, and honestly that never failed to make me laugh.

Kate Lister’s flair and overall cheekiness made this even more fun. Her personality shone through for me, and maybe it is because she narrated the audiobook herself but I’ve read some reviews and I think that this aspect of her came through even in print. Some of this book genuinely made me pause and laugh out loud, and I think it is genuinely the perfect balance between hard hitting facts and humour. Because the history of sex isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, though quite a bit of it is hilarious. From personal hygiene and communal bathing to pubic hair, by way of the myth/construct of virginity, religion and menstruation – this book is one that really gives a comprehensive history.

As I said, it’s pretty serious in places too. There’s a chapter which covers FGM, and the mutilation that the clitoris has faced over the years in an effort to control the humans who had one. How those who were deemed “abnormal” resulted in people being burnt as witches. How virginity testing – something that is seen as medieval – is still partaken in in parts of the world. There is a chapter which explores the persecution sex workers have faced, and are still facing. And if you’re thinking “this seems very vulva heavy” – there’s horrific stories of how penis owners have suffered through history too.

Something that really brings you back to down to earth is realising how much work we still have to do, that while we’ve made huge waves we still have a long way to go in making sex safe and legal for everyone. In 72 countries it’s still illegal to be gay, in 15 countries expressing gender outside the binary/what you were assigned at birth is punishable by death. Sex workers are being discriminated against now more than ever, and it’s becoming increasingly more unsafe for them to work.

I couldn’t put this book down. There are so many bits that I could sit here and just gush about. I’ve already recommended it to two reading groups, and a couple of friends and I only finished it a couple of days ago. It’s just one of those books that is overflowing with information that you want to share with everyone. I sincerely hope that if the Wellcome prize makes a welcome return this year, that this is on the longlist because it is brilliant. I would urge anyone to read this.

Looking Forward

So, it’s been 18 months since I reviewed a book. It’s been the best part of a year since I read a book. The blog has been on hiatus officially since January last year. But I’ve decided to actually give this another shot. I miss reading, I miss interacting with the bookish community. Last year I decided that I needed a break, that it was just too much pressure. I had to stop watching booktube, I had to stop reading reviews. I had to just stop because I feel like I lost what reading was about for me. But then our family had a few bereavements and I just didn’t pick up a book for 6 months. Looking back, I think a “year off” from reading, from reviewing, has absolutely been the best thing for me, but I want to get back in to it again. So hi, welcome. Hello. Nice to see you again.

Last year wasn’t the best year. For anyone. While we were all in the same storm, how we were hit by it varied, what things we had going on around us varied. For me 2020 was a proper shitter (see my last post) but it was also full of moments of light, I found new hobbies and picked up old ones. I learnt how to drive (last test in Norwich before March lockdown) and I bought a car in May. I BOUGHT A CAR! I’m now officially 2 years in remission with fibromyalgia, bad days have been few and far between. I’m off all medication (save for my antihistamines) even though my mental health tanked. And I learnt to make focaccia.

So rather than reading, what have I been up to? I replayed my favourite video games (Horizon Zero Dawn, Lego Harry Potter, Subnautica, Shadow of the Tomb Raider and lots of The Sims). I started playing Animal Crossing, then stopped, then started again.

I became obsessed with podcasts – All Killa, No Filla has been a fun one and I genuinely love the community built around that podcast. Honestly? It’s in part down to them why I’m reading again. I’ve also really, really enjoyed We Are History with Angela Barnes and John O’Farrell – something that may become obvious in some of my reading for 2021 as they have recommended so many good books that I can’t wait to get my hands on. In a similar tone I’ve enjoyed You’re Dead to Me which is hosted by Greg Jenner (author of Dead Famous which is on my TBR and will hopefully be read early 2021). I’ve enjoyed Fingers on Buzzers with Lucy Porter and Jenny Ryan (from the Chase) which is all about quizzing. And if I need cheering up I’ve resorted back to My Dad Wrote a Porno which never fails to crease me.

I learnt to love myself and be unashamedly me. I’ve addressed some things in my past that have been weighing me down a lot more than I thought, and have been working through them. I feel more confident, and braver, than I think I ever have. I’m both terrified and excited about the next steps and what the future holds but I think whatever comes my way, I’ll deal with it.

Reading has been something on the backburner, something for ‘later’ – books will always be there after all. But now I think I’m at a point were I’m ready to start trying to get in the habit of reading again. Because it is a habit, and one I need to get back in to my daily routine. I’ve set my goal for the year low – 25 books – and I want to actively start reviewing again. I may even dig out a few reviews from last year that I wrote and just never shared – Girl, Woman, Other being one. I can’t wait to explore 2021 in books, and share that with you.

Update From Isolation

I’m very out of practice at this, it’s been nearly a year since I last posted on here. Not through lack of love, because I love reviewing books, but through circumstances.

At the end of 2019 my mental health took a real hit. Not only that I was coming off medication for Fibromyalgia and suffering all the fun side effects that come with weaning off a controlled drug, but I was stressed at work and feeling overwhelmed with pressure to post on here. Something had to give and it had to be books. As sad as that made me for a while, reading was becoming a chore.

Then 2020 happened. After a pretty rough few months, we lost our dog on February 22nd. He was my best friend, he was the one who got me out of bed when I could hardly walk. He was the one who cuddled me when I was in pain. He licked away my tears, the little weirdo. I loved him. And losing him destroyed me. In the end, we chose to let him go peacefully, we wanted him to make it to his birthday on the 26th but he told us it was time. So we had to make the decision, which was hard and easy at the same time. Hard because we had spent every day for the last 14 years together, but easy because I couldn’t imagine putting him through pain and suffering. That morning was hands down the worst morning of my life.

Then, 2 weeks later at 6:30 on a Sunday morning we get a call and my grandmother had to call an ambulance for my grandad. By 7:20 he’d gone too. We were all shell shocked, still are really. We were lucky in that we actually got to say goodbye, we got a small funeral – just 10 people, all immediate family – not everyone is that fortunate right now.

To top it all off, my mum had corona virus. Yeah. That happened. Working in a community pharmacy with little to no PPE, she was likely infected before social distancing was at the front of our minds, never mind PPE for frontline staff.

Oddly though, right now, I’m feeling good. I’m off my medication, including my antidepressants, now. I’m also a little Puppy-Broody. Being home without Huey feels somehow wrong, but I’m getting used to that empty space in my heart now. And I feel ready to fill the space beside it, when my parents are ready to that is.

I miss this, I miss blogging and talking and interacting with people in this bookish sphere. Reading has been such a back burner thing for the last few months, and maybe I will talk about what I have read soon in another post. Try get a feel for this again.

Take care everyone, isolation isn’t easy, but we’re going to get through this!

Review: Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson

023 - Frankissstein

023 - Frankissstein

★★★★★

I adore Jeanette Winterson – she’s fast becoming one of my favourite authors and when I was on holiday and saw a signed copy of this book, I just had to buy a copy. I couldn’t resist. As it so happens this has now been longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize and, having now read it, I am going to say I am surprised in the best possible way (because I enjoyed this book, but it doesn’t seem very “traditionally” Booker). I adored this book. I originally gave it 4 stars but in thinking more about it, and realising just how unforgettable this book is going to be for me, it easily bumped up to a 5.

This book follows two timelines. Firstly we follow the life of a young Mary Shelley and her contemporaries starting in the period which she wrote Frankenstein. I loved this fictionalised account of her relationships with her husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley – Lord Byron, and some others I’d not heard of until I read this book (and subsequently went on to research about them more) including John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. Mary faces her own oppression, and is a very forthright kind of young woman in a time where that was not the norm. To me that is not one jot out of character given who her mother was (Mary Wollstonecraft; 18th Century Feminist Extraordinaire) and I could very easily have read an entire novel based on the fictional account of Mary Shelley’s life.

Secondly, in the present, we follow Ry Shelley. Ry is a transgender/non-binary doctor who gets involved in his very own Frankenstein related story by Victor Stein. Along with Ron Lord (a man who is promoting the use of AI in sexbots) and a woman known as Polly D they get swept up in a frankly insane plot involving cryogenics, stolen body parts and absolutely mad science. The thing I loved about this present day section is how the parallels between it and the past unravel. Ry is a fantastic character, and in my opinion good representation of a trans/non-binary character (of course I can’t comment on the views of trans/non-binary people on this representation, I might be very wrong in how I’ve read Ry so if that’s the case, I apologise). We learn early on that Ry was assigned female at birth, and while he identifies as male and has had top surgery, he’s happy as he is without having bottom surgery. Ry is Ry – and I think it’s fair to say that the issues he faces throughout about his gender and transphobia in 2019 draw parallels to the oppression Mary was facing in the early 19th century.

Winterson is a genius. For me this book is genius. It’s a good mix of serious and laugh out loud funny. She draws parallels between the industrial revolution which Mary Shelley was living through, inspiring Frankenstein to the current boom in technology and AI. She makes the reader question so many things about life and intelligence and transhumanism, the role of AI and how that might change us as humans. More than anything, the modern period was funny. It wasn’t without it’s darker moments (gender related violence towards Ry to name the most obvious) but it was witty, and genuinely made me laugh.

I also have to confess that it took me a shamefully long time to work out that the 21st century names were all plays on the 19th century names. Ry/Mary was obvious, as was Victor Stein/Dr Frankenstein but Ron Lord (Lord Byron), Polly D (Polidori) and the modern day Claire (Claire Clairmont) took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out.

I loved this book. It wasn’t without it’s flaws, and I think it is fair to say that a lot of people on Goodreads have fair criticisms about Winterson’s representation of a trans character and I get that, I do. I’m yet to see one review by a trans individual though, and I have looked. If I find one, and they say it’s problematic, I would take everything I’ve said back and reassess my current opinion with new knowledge. But I leave this review with a quote from Ry, which I think sums up this book beautifully:-

“I am what I am, but what I am is not one thing, not one gender. I live with doubleness.”

The Odyssey – Homer (Translated by Emily Wilson)

022 - The Odyssey

022 - The Odyssey

★★★★

I first read The Odyssey in August 2014 – so it’s been 5 years almost exactly since I last read it and, honestly, I think I enjoyed it so much more this time around. I don’t know if that’s because I listened to it as an audiobook this time around, the fact it was a different translation, or a combination of the two, but it moved it from a 3 star read to a 4/5 star read easily.

Most people are familiar with parts of The Odyssey – the stories of Circe, the Cyclops, Odysseus’ journey to the underworld – so it doesn’t seem worth rehashing over something that has been reviewed numerous times before in much better ways than I am capable of.

What I would like to discuss is the translation I read. Emily Wilson is the first female to translate The Odyssey in to English – and she didn’t just do that, she intended to keep the same rhythm as the “original” Greek verse so rewrote it in iambic pentameter. Not only that but she made it accessible. The foreword to this edition was enlightening, and discussed her translation process and choices and is actually something I’d highly recommend you read – before or after reading the main meat of the book. She points out in this section that many translations have made the book inaccessible due to their linguistic choices to give their version that “authentic” feel – something she says is absolute rubbish as the story has an oral tradition, and would have been adapted by each generation to fit in with the language of the day. If her goal was to bring The Odyssey to a new generation, I think she’s certainly going to achieve it with this translation.

Something else she’s done throughout this book is stripped away the former translators misogyny. This book is always going to be problematic in the way women are treated and represented, and while she has stayed true to the original story. Previous translations refer to the women who are enslaved to Odysseus and Penelope “sluts” or “prostitutes” – Wilson addresses them as slaves, and does seem to imply that a lot of their perceived wrongdoing against Odysseus is not entirely their fault, but a nature of their station. She explores Odysseus as a “complicated” man, which he most certainly is – and she doesn’t sugarcoat him or enhance his heroic deeds, which for me is appreciated.

She has stripped this story back to the roots, removing a lot of ingrained misogyny of translators along the way, leaving it to be told as simply and effectively as possible. I for one loved this translation.

The audiobook, read by Claire Danes, was also spectacular and something I would highly recommend. The story is, historically, orally told and hearing it rather than reading it was a very different experience and one I really enjoyed.

The Familiars – Stacey Halls

021 - The Familiars

021 - The Familiars

★★★★

I was lucky enough to win this book in a competition run by Bibliobeth way back at the start of the year, and I’m so glad I finally picked it up. For me this book had echoes of Rebecca – high praise given it’s one of my favourite books – not in the sense that it is an altered version of it, but in the characters and  the general atmosphere. Rather than being a poor-mans du Maurier, Stacey Halls takes all of that style and puts it in her own setting and it really, really worked for me.

In my opinion there are not enough books about witches – witches of the historical variety that is – and certainly not enough books about British witches. This book is based around the story of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, and is a fictional account of her life around the time of the Pendle witch trials in Lancashire. At the start of the book she is 17 and pregnant for the fourth time, but fearing for her life after her last 3 pregnancies – which ended in miscarriage and stillbirth – she chooses to hire a midwife of her choosing, Alice Grey. Alice is deeply entwined with those accused of witchcraft and over the course of the novel (and Fleetwood’s pregnancy) we unravel her story, and with it we watch Fleetwood grow. Fleetwood’s pregnancy goes on, along with the witch trials, and both reach their peak at the same time – Fleetwood going in to labour the night before the accused women take the stand.

Something I loved in this book was the friendship which developed between Fleetwood and Alice. Two women of very different upbringings and classes, yet they found this very unorthodox friendship and working relationship. The love that Fleetwood has for Alice – someone she calls her first friend of her own choosing – is special. I love a good friendship in a book, especially one which is so unlikely. The transformations in both Fleetwood and Alice over this book are something to love – Fleetwood was a bit of an airheaded socialite-wife who becomes a mature woman, a woman who fights for her child and her friend; and Fleetwood’s belief in the unassuming Alice gives her the confidence to grow. The true magic of this book is friendship – not witchcraft.

Womanhood is something that is also explored in this book – what it means to be a woman in 1612. At one point Fleetwood says that she “wouldn’t wish a girls life on anyone” and in a time when women are treated as objects, that isn’t exactly a surprise. Fleetwood, while still being a woman of the 17th century, has a (slightly) more modern monologue which enables these themes to be explored. She points out that most of the women accused of witchcraft are just poor women, using what skills they have to make their way in the world, they were mistresses to a man who wanted them to disappear, most accusations of witchcraft cam from a person of standing – and who was going to be believed in a public arena?

Having mentioned it, I can’t not go back to it  – the echoes of Rebecca. Fleetwood reminds me very much of Mrs de Winter, and her husband of  Maxim. Their relationship is very similar to the relationship between Mr and Mrs de Winter once they’re back at Manderley, a husband keeping secrets and a wife trying to unravel a mystery. We have a woman in the background who, while alive, torments Fleetwood much the same way that Rebecca did Mrs de Winter. There’s also a token Mrs Danvers like character, and even a dog who is similar to Jasper. All in all, there are a lot of similarities which I actually really loved because this was very much its own story, but I can see a lot of inspiration there and (for once) it’s done very well.

Ultimately this is a fantastic debut, and Stacey Halls is an author I will keenly await a second book from. I also think this would be a really good book-club book. For me, there was a few things lacking which is why this is a 3/4 star book opposed to a 5 star book. But make no mistake, I really enjoyed this and I would recommend it (especially alongside a read of Rebecca! Just for the parallels!)

 

Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

020 - The Priory of the Orange Tree

020 - The Priory of the Orange Tree

★★★★

After what feels like a very long reading slump I thought it’d be a great idea to pick up an 850 page epic fantasy novel to ease myself back in to reading gently, I don’t like to make things easy for myself after all. But I’m really, really glad I picked this up. Samantha Shannon is a new author to me, having not read The Bone Season, but as soon as I found out there were lady gays and dragons in this, I knew I had to read it. It took me a little while to get in to it, but my word once I was in to it I devoured it.

As far as fantasy goes, this book is very “traditional” in that there are two very different parts of a world, one where dragons are revered as gods and the other where they’re considered dangerous. These two parts of the world are separated also by geography (East and West), and their religious views. They have differing views on what happened 1000 years ago, when The Nameless One – a dragon like creature – was vanquished and with the imminent return of this creature threatening them all, is what drives this story along. All of this is explored through our four narrators: Tane, Ead, Niclays and Loth. Tane, a young girl in the East hoping to become a dragon rider; Ead, a young woman who has been appointed as a member of the household staff to Queen Sabran Berethnet but is hiding a lot of herself; Naclays, an alchemist who is spiteful and driven by a lost love; and Loth, best friend to Queen Sabran who is sent on a dangerous diplomatic mission. All of these threads interweave perfectly by the end of this though, which is much appreciated! Something unusual for me, however, is that all of these points of view were enjoyable. Each character had a unique voice which made the jumping perspectives more tolerable, and by the time all their stories intertwined I appreciated each of them individually.

Far and a way my favourite character in this book though was Sabran – for me the central character who never got her own voice. A very deliberate move on Shannon’s part. Sabran is directed in her queenly duties by those who surround her, she hasn’t left the palace since her mother died, every move she makes at the beginning is very much decided by someone else and by the end of the book she’s her own person, and a lot stronger as an individual than she was at the start. The whole story revolves around Sabran and her family’s involvement in the slaying of The Nameless One, and Sabran feels that pressure.

The relationships depicted in this book are also something special – and not just the romantic ones – the love between friends and family is something explored beautifully in here. And while there is romance, it’s not forced, it’s not over the top and it’s not in your face. It feels natural and organic, which is a rarity in fantasy! Romantic love comes in all varieties too – gay and heterosexual – and rather than being shoehorned in, it just is and I LOVED that.

Ultimately for me the start of this book let it down a bit. It was a bit slow going which is why it’s only a 4* read for me.

Getting Out of a Slump. Advice?

So, reading this year really isn’t happening – at least in the traditional sense. It’s now been 3 months since I picked up a book and I’m starting to feel a little sad about that fact.

I’m in one hell of a reading slump, and it’s one of those that even rereading a favourite book wouldn’t pull me out of, I don’t think. It’s not that I’m not reading at all, it’s a case that I’m reading news, blogs and magazines which don’t really warrant talking about. Other things I’ve been up to – video games, watching movies and TV, spending time with friends and family – have all been time well spent, but I’m getting to the point that looking at all the books surrounding me in my room is making me anxious because I want to be reading.

So, I want advice. I want your remedies to get you out of a reading slump. Any surefire ways that work for you. I want to know if you’re someone who waits a slump out or someone who tries to force the slump away. I just want to be picking books up again, and I this time I’m asking for help!

I hope you are all well, and I look forward to your suggestions!