Review: The Covent Garden Ladies – Hallie Rubenhold

★★★

Having loved The Five last year I really wanted to get around to reading to Hallie’s other work, because I love her writing. After reading A Curious History of Sex I was apparently in the mood to read a book about historical sex workers and the Georgian underworld.

So, Harris’ List was a document created and updated over the course of several years in the 1800s. It was a list of sex workers in the Covent Garden area of London, and outlined the names, their sexual skills and talents, any traits that may be preferable to any prospective client, and of course their price for their service. This book uses these pamphlets as the backbone of the narrative, elaborating on them, using information from the time (albeit, not all of it reliable) to weave a story of these women – and the man who created the list – together.

There are three individuals who are intrinsically linked to this list, and who Rubenhold focuses on – the pimp John Harrison (Harris) who inspired the list, the person who published the list (name of who escapes me), and a woman wo started as a sex worker, became a madam and wanted to retire to the country, Charlotte. And it was Charlotte’s story that ultimately turned this book around for me. Until Charlotte’s story was the one being explored, I was really struggling with this book but I was invested in Charlotte. While exploring the stories of the men who created and inspired the list was interesting, it just didn’t engage me in the same way.

This is not as engaging or easy to read as The Five is and maybe it is because it’s a lesser known topic. I think Rubenhold’s writing is fantastic, I think how she wove the narrative together was creative, and I did go in to this with “high expectations”-itis. Ultimately, it delivered what it said on the tin, was interesting, and taught me something about a topic I didn’t have any clue about. I consider that a win!

Review: You Let Me In – Camilla Bruce

★★★★

This book was dark and creepy, full of folklore and atmosphere. I know this is not a book for everyone, as it definitely contains triggers for trauma, childhood abuse, unhealthy/coercive relationships, miscarriage/stillbirth, murder and suicide (I’m also sure I’ve forgotten something). It’s very unsettling but, it has to be said, it is so clever and I really, really enjoyed this. It’s magical realism, gothic, full of folklore but also is quite the mystery.

The book opens with some newspaper articles which describe the disappearance of our protagonist, Cassandra Tipp, and in it it tells us the life of Cassandra as the world saw her. Accused of murder of her husband, her brother and father lost in what appeared to be a murder/suicide several years later. She was the subject of a book written by her psychiatrist, but in her later years also an author of romance novels. From there the book is essentially a manuscript she has written for her heirs – her story, in her own words.

Her life, as she writes it, is a fairytale. But the dark, creepy, Brothers Grimm sort. She relays the stories of her life with the faerie community in the woods, and of her relationship with a strange spectre of a man – Pepperman – who has been the constant in her life since she was 5. Cassie is one of the most complex unreliable narrators I’ve ever read from the perspective of and ultimately it’s up to us as the reader to decide if her story is true, that she was part of the fae community, or if as her therapist determined it was an elaborate coping mechanism for extreme childhood trauma and abuse.

This book was very unsettling, but oh it was clever. While Cassandra as the narrator tried to romanticise things, it was very clear that her life was full of far-from-ideal relationships. She’s absolutely a victim, but the question at the end of the book is of what. I can’t actually get over the depths and complexities of Cassandra. I finished this book 2 weeks ago at the time of writing this, and I’m still unsure what ‘truth’ I believe. The use of magical realism in the form of a whole underground faerie community to make you question reality and the truth is so, so clever.

While this book is dark and unsettling, and sinister it was also oddly beautiful and atmospheric. The prose is lyrical, the descriptions of nature are vivid, the characters are all fleshed out and rich. I think it’s the sign of a very good writer to tell such a deeply unsettling narrative, and still manage to capture so much beauty around it. I really can’t wait to see what Camilla Bruce does next.

Review: Love in Colour – Bolu Babalola

★★★★★

This book. This book.

Love in Colour is a collection of short stories, which are based on myths from mostly African folklore but also some other cultures, about love. I don’t read romance-y type books, I generally loathe romance in any book (because I rarely see me) and it always invariably disappoints or makes me lose all interest. But this felt raw and real, and passionate and I loved it.

As with all short stories, there were a couple I enjoyed less, but for the most part these were all hits. Every story was so rich, fleshed out and vivid, no character sounded like another. Bolu Babalola is a gymnast of the written word, each story had it’s own tone which suited the nature of the story, if it was softer or sexier, if it was passionate or chaste. I want full novels of some of these stories, because what I had had me wanting more.

My favourite story was Nefertiti, and oh my god I need this novel. Underground mob boss, low key queer Nefertiti? I want this. I need this. It was one of the more edgy and plot (rather than romance) driven stories in the collection, and while there was romance in it there was so much more to it than that. It did feel a bit like an outlier, in and amongst quite a bit of fluff, but then it still fit in perfectly. I do think it was an experiment, but it worked. So very well.

If like me, romance – especially heterosexual romance – isn’t something you gravitate towards, isn’t a genre you enjoy, I would encourage you pick this up. This feels real, for the most part the couples in this book are believable. I loved the different layers; that every story had warmth, depth and characters that I was invested in. I loved this book. I loved it and I’m so glad I saw it in a top 10 books of 2020 on Instagram and actually read that review because I’m pretty certain I’d never have picked it up. Honestly, there’s nothing better than a book that just takes you by surprise like this.

Review: A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes

★★

I’m going to preface this with my main thought which is – I think I read this book at the wrong time. I’d read a lot of historical non-fiction, and been listening to exclusively history podcasts, and picking up historical fiction straight off of that may not have been the smartest idea. Also, I partially listened to this and I think maybe reading it physically would have been a better experience.

For me this missed the mark. A Thousand Ships is retelling the Trojan war from the perspective of the women involved and on paper this is a perfect book for me. Greek Myth retelling and giving voices to lost women, heck yes! But in reality, it just didn’t work for me.

When this book is so character driven, it’s really difficult to then enjoy the book when you can’t connect to the characters. However, I felt that no voices were particularly stand-out, they blended in to each other and I didn’t feel I could fully invest in any one of the different perspectives because they all became one perspective to me which led to confusion. And those few that did stand out didn’t for the right reasons – Penelope was in this and her entire selling point is her chapters are letters to her husband, rehashing the Iliad/Odyssey verbatim in letters to Odysseus telling us the reader the plot of the Iliad/Odyssey in a CrEaTiVe way. For me, that felt lazy. Again, this could be an issue with the audiobook – the fact it was narrated by Natalie Haynes was great but each characters voice was the same. It was flat. It lacked personality. And as much as I love an author narrating their own book, and Haynes has a lovely narration style, it was very monotonous and would have suited a more linear/one perspective book a lot more. I’m not usually a fan of multi-narrator audiobooks but I think that this book specifically could really have benefited from more than one narrator.

On the plus side, the prose is lovely. I really like Natalie Haynes’ writing style, and I can see why this book worked for a vast majority of people. I’d like to see more like Children of Jocasta, which I read in 2018 (and apparently didn’t review?) because I feel her prose does suit a more linear, focused on one character narrative.

It’s really difficult to say anything more on this book because it just fell so far from the mark for me. I think rather than backing and forthing in narrative it would have been better being more intense character studies in an interlinking short story collection style (more like Girl, Woman, Other was). The actual structure of this didn’t work for me, the characters felt flat and yes, it just wasn’t for me. It’s not to say that

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.