Review: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within – Becky Chambers

★★★★★

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Let me preface this with the truth that I love Becky Chambers. I love every book of hers I’ve read. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is one of my ultimate comfort reads, the universe she has created within these Wayfarers books is so familiar to me now that reading any book in the series feels like a homecoming. This is, hands down, one of my most anticipated reads of 2021 and, spoiler alert, it didn’t disappoint.

The thing I love most about the Wayfarers books is that though they’re a series, and there are some reoccurring characters that link each book to the next, they all stand independently and look at a different aspect of this world that has been created. This book is set the furthest away from “life as we know it” – none of the characters in this book have that familiarity of “human” but in spite of that this feels like the most intimate of all the books. If I’m remembering the other books correctly this is the first book to feature no human characters, so it’s the most spacey of them all. Ouloo and Tupo are a mother and child, Ouloo runs a out of space service station/rest stop/motel type thing and their home is where this entire story takes place.

The plot of this book is essentially all of our characters being grounded due to some space-y thing going on which means that what was meant to be a short stop for each of them turns in to a much longer stay until they can get back on their journeys. While they’re grounded they all start to interact, share their stores and cultures, wants and desires. They become friends, although not without a bit of drama! I think not having a human character was so, so clever as the book is essentially about inclusivity and finding commonality in a place so foreign to you, with noone who looks like you or has your culture. You’re just as alien as they are, and sometimes it did feel like you were encroaching on a private moment. Given we follow 6 characters in this book, in varying depth, all of them were really fleshed out and explored, and as with all of Chambers’ books I felt by the end we were friends.

Another thing I loved about this is Ouloo’s relationship with her child, Tupo. Ouloo and Tupo are Laru, and in their culture children grow up with gender neutral pronouns and choose their gender when they’re ready. As is common in any of Chambers’ books there is a lot of incredible representation of queer characters, and I think this book subtly explored gender without it being the main plot of the book. It was just a fact, it’s part of Tupo (who is adorable). There’s also a point in the book which explains how damaging it is to any individual who is questioning their gender to just assume where they fall on the gender spectrum which I thought was a gentle nod to being a good human.

I would not change one thing about this book. Am I sad it’s the last set in this universe? 100%, absolutely, I’m heartbroken. Was it the perfect end? Yes. The nature of these books means they’re cyclical. I could go back to book 1 and sink right back in to the universe from where this left off. While chronologically this I think takes place after book 1, there’s nothing explicit and no reason to say this couldn’t have taken place before. It was the perfect ending to one of the most incredible, immersive, diverse, beautiful series’. I did cry finishing this book, but I’m so excited to read the next series that Becky Chambers is working on.

The book is released on the 18th February and I urge everyone to go read all these books and support one of the loveliest authors I’ve ever met.

Review: Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

★★

This book, for me, did not meet the hype that has been thrown about for it. I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I really enjoy Susanna Clarke’s writing but this book was just a huge miss with my personal tastes. And as much as I hate to say it, this is a marmite book and one that most people seem to be fawning over (much to my confusion).

Piranesi is an ambling story – and one that dragged on for much longer than it’s mere 250 pages would have you believe. For the first 150 or so, absolutely nothing happens. The character of Piranesi is really boring. I found this meandering narrative of corridors and birds that he sees more tedious and frustrating than charming. The characters are endlessly dull too, I didn’t feel any of them were multifaceted (and, let’s face it, there’s only 3 characters in this whole book really).

I kept reading because I enjoy Susanna Clarke’s writing; the world building was interesting and I have to admit, the final quarter picked up pace and is probably what I enjoyed most. Additionally, I did switch to the audiobook at one point and narration did make this marginally more enjoyable. Before the final quarter I was finding this difficult to get through and quite drab. Also, the ending was really anticlimactic.

Honestly, this was like treacle to get through. I genuinely think the 1000+ page behemoth that was Jonathan Strange was easier to get through than this comparatively slim, 250 page volume. I felt like I was reading it for hours, the ending was bizarre, nothing really happened and I just felt frustrated by the time I was done with it. If you want a gushing, positive review there are plenty of those on Goodreads as for some reason, unknown to me, the general consensus for this book is adoration.

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: 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.

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!)