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.

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.