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!)

 

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.

Review: Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor

061 - Lagoon

061 - Lagoon

Rating – 2*

 Lagoon is a book I absolutely picked up on a whim. I was in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of my local bookshop, looking for something out of my usual comfort zone, and stumbled upon this. I’ve heard a lot of incredible things about Nnedi Okorafor (particularly her Binti series) and was interested to see that she’s actually a very, very prolific author!

I’m relatively new to the Sci-Fi genre in fiction – so I can’t really place this anywhere in particular on a scale. But I really enjoyed a lot of it – it’s a first contact story, but not little green men from mars like you probably think of when you hear Sci-Fi. The invasion of Nigeria comes from the seas, not the skies, which is what drew me to the book in the first place.  I love the idea of creatures from the deep coming to the surface!

The book also draws a lot of inspiration from a lot of Nigerian folklore and fairy tales, and I really enjoyed how they were blended in with the science fiction elements. I also felt that more than anything this was a book that looked at the humanity of a small population, and how something so big (such as an alien invasion) divides them and unites them simultaneously. While there are three main characters, there are also view points from several smaller characters – which are interesting but made the book feel crowded in my mind.

While I enjoyed the first half, I felt the second half lost a bit of momentum, and lost my interest. The ending was okay, it all came together nicely but I feel like it could have ended half way through and had the same impact on me. I gave this two stars, maybe because I didn’t fully understand it at the time of reading. In parts it felt cramped and overworked, in other places it was sparse and not thought out enough. It felt quite meh come the end, and I don’t feel that much was resolved.

What I will say though is that I did enjoy the writing though, so I think I’ll be picking up more Okorafor in the future.

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë

060 - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

060 - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Rating – 5*

I was in the mood for a classic, but rather than pick one of the many on my shelves I haven’t read, I reached for one of my all time favourites – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne is by far my favourite Brontë because of this book. And I honestly urge anyone to pick this up.

While this story opens with a letter written by Gilbert Markham, and is bookended with one at the end too, this is ultimately Helen’s story. It’s told through letters and diaries, which is something I find hard to get through when not in the right hands. Epistolary writing is incredible for just really getting in to a characters head, understanding their thoughts and feelings, and when done well it can be absolutely amazing.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a rare gem in classic fiction in that it deals with very complex issues and has very few tropes of 19th century literature with a female protagonist. Helen Graham is one of the strongest women I’ve ever come across in fiction, and Anne Brontë is an incredible author who was ahead of her time for writing her. What we experience through Helen’s diaries in this book is a story I’ve still to this day never seen handled as well as this, especially for the time period in which this was written (and set). The most incredible thing about Helen is that while she’s been through hell and back, and has experienced abuse that no woman should ever experience, she keeps her head high and is so poised throughout; she retains her dignity which is something I never thought I would say about a 19th century female protagonist!

What makes this novel so incredible is how real the depiction of alcoholism is, and how it impacts a family. This is, I know, the most autobiographical of any Brontë novel as I believe that Helen’s husband is based on the only Brontë brother, Branwell. It also depicts a rarity of a woman living independently, causing scandal, living under a pseudonym and not doing her husbands bidding. The different take on women in Anne’s world to Charlotte and Emily’s is, frankly, astounding. This book caused a rift between the women, and after Anne’s death, Charlotte took the executive decision to suppress this book and disallow a reprint to “protect” the family name as Anne didn’t hold the same, more pious, opinions as her sisters.

I originally read this book in 2014 – and it holds a very special place in my heart because it was the book I read on my last holiday with my grandmother before she died only a few months later. We read it together, and for that I think I will always love this book a little bit more than all other Brontë novels. If anything I loved it more on a second read, I really did. And if you’re to read one classic this year, or ever, I’d urge it to be this one because it truly is incredible.

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman – Theodora Goss

059 - European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

059 - European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

Rating – 4*

After reading the first book in this series and loving it, I had to immediately pick up the second in the series. Now, I’ll admit I was a little intimidated when I saw the size of this (700 and something pages!) but I somehow read this book in 2 or 3 sittings. I just couldn’t put this down.

Just to apologise in advance, this may contain spoilers for the first book, even though I am trying my best to make it spoiler free!

This book picks up where the previous left off, the characters are just as wonderful – if not more so – than they were in the first book. All of the female characters develop more, and we are introduced to a few more amazing women including Lucinda van Helsing, Carmilla, and an interesting woman in power – Aisha. We also get to meet Count Dracula and Mina Harker, which is always a bonus! My love of Dracula made me love this book all the more. The inclusion of Carmilla, and her female lover, made me very happy. Even though this is set in the 1890s every character that met them both just accepted it, maybe it’s just their nature as they themselves aren’t exactly your stereotypical citizen of the world, but it was just really refreshing! Dare I say that I loved Carmilla in this more than I loved Carmilla?

The initial premise of this is that Lucinda van Helsing needs rescued, and much like with all of the girls in the Athena Club did at one point in the first book. Something weird is happening to Lucinda, and they need to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. This journey takes them across Europe and out of the London that we became familiar with in the first book. And while there is a more in depth plot to this book than the first, it’s the characters that give the book momentum to move forward. The women in this are all incredible, and it’s why I loved the first book so much, and while I loved the plot it was them that made it all the better. We also get a more in depth look at their lives before they were all together, in freak shows and circuses, and all the colourful characters they knew (and new friends too!) Much like with the first book, their main motivation is understanding why their fathers created them all; it’s just taken to a new, more international, level in this.

Much like with the first book there is a strong female empowerment message, even in the characters from a different generation have the same view, mainly through the persuasion and influence from the younger girls! The women are so varied in their characteristics, and skills and it’s just so, so wonderful to see such a mish-mash of characters as friends. It makes me very happy.

Needless to say this has very easily become one of my favourite book series. I really can’t wait for the third and final book to tie all the loose ends in this up. I just can’t express how much I love this series, and a third book is going to be bittersweet when it’s finally released because I don’t want this series to end, but equally I can’t see where it goes. I think it’s safe to say I’d highly recommend this!

Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley

054 - The Geek Feminist Revolution

054 - The Geek Feminist Revolution

Rating – 4*

I saw this collection on YouTube a few years ago and knew I needed to get my paws on it, so when I saw it in my local Waterstones I snatched it up without hesitation.

This book is a collection of thought provoking, feminist essays, focusing on female representation in geek, sci-fi and pop culture. There is such a variety of content in here, and as someone new to Hurley’s work I found every essay interesting and enjoyable. I’m aware that some people who are long time followers of her blog have found this collection repetitive.

I found the writing easy to read and follow. She has a way with words that makes the content really engaging, and it makes it all the better when I really agree with what the author is saying – which in this case I did. So much of the content rang true with me that it made for uncomfortable reading, uncomfortable in the sense that it hit far too close to home!

One thing I loved about this is how she addressed her own faults and privilege. She discusses intersectionality well throughout, and is aware that this is a fault of her own and knows the importance of hearing voices from minority groups. One of my favourite essays in the collection covers the problem of double standards in literature, how male protagonists can be anything they want to be and far more complex than a female protagonist. Female protagonists have to fit in to far more societal “norms” than a male counterparts, and in general have far more complex story arcs – and those arcs focus around the same tropes.

Overall I really enjoyed this collection. For me it was a really new perspective on feminism, and one that I’ve thought but never been able to vocalise coherently. The reason this gets a 4* opposed to a 5* is that, as I’ve found with a lot of essay collections, there is an element of repetition. Repetition in an essay collection is, in my mind, inevitable due to their nature. In being able to put them in a collection there has to be a common theme, and that just naturally going to involve repetition. I feel that if I hadn’t binged on them maybe it would have been much less of an issue for me as a reader.

I’d definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in a new take on feminism, especially anyone interested in feminism in literature. It’s a breath of fresh air in and amongst a lot of essay collections on the same overarching topic, and has really built up my appetite for more essay collections in the future.