The Starless Sea

When Zachary Rawlins stumbles across a strange book hidden in his university library it leads him on a quest unlike any other. Its pages entrance him with their tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities and nameless acolytes, but they also contain something impossible: a recollection from his own childhood.

Determined to solve the puzzle of the book, Zachary follows the clues he finds on the cover – a bee, a key and a sword. They guide him to a masquerade ball, to a dangerous secret club, and finally through a magical doorway created by the fierce and mysterious Mirabel. The door leads to a subterranean labyrinth filled with stories, hidden far beneath the surface of the earth.

When the labyrinth is threatened, Zachary must race with Mirabel and Dorian, a handsome barefoot man with shifting alliances, through its twisting tunnels and crowded ballrooms, searching for the end of his story.


I’m kind of afraid to summarise my thoughts about The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. For one, this book is seriously beloved in the bookish community and, well, unfortunately that was not my experience. Also, my first thought on finishing (and throughout, tbh), was: what did I just read?

I was really disappointed, because I absolutely loved The Night Circus. The way the different threads of that novel wound themselves together into a tale spinning across decades totally took my breath away. Aside from Erin’s language choices, which are as gorgeous as everyone says, what I adored about The Night Circus was the feeling that nothing was wasted – every conversation, practically every sideways glance of that novel was building toward the finale. I never wanted to put that book down because through every chapter I had the unwavering belief that the author was building something.

I suppose it might have been to the detriment of my own reading experience that I carried that belief with me into The Starless Sea.

In terms of the pure building blocks of the almost 500-page narrative, it isn’t all that different from The Night Circus, I guess. Much as it was in her debut, time is very much up for manipulation. A story about stories, as it has been endlessly described, the book is largely divided between the narrative of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a college student in New York who is plunged into a magical world after checking out a book from the library he is stunned to discover himself a character in; and the chapters of that book, Sweet Sorrows, an ancient tome of myths about time, fate and love haunted by The Owl King who might be an owl king or might be a metaphor – to be honest I was never really sure.

This numbered one of my many frustrations.

Rather than that gradual stitching together I so loved during her debut, reading The Starless Sea, I felt I was forever grabbing for threads only to have them slip straight through my fingers. Zachary’s story had stakes – there is a group known as the Collector’s Club trying to destroy the Starless Sea forever – but the why of it all felt so hazy to me that even in its most dramatic moments I always felt apart from the action, like I was constantly playing catch up.

Ultimately I felt like The Starless Sea got so caught up in its own mythology it totally sacrificed plot. I think perhaps my confusion lay in the genre, which felt like it had one foot in the a literary world shrouded in metaphor, and the other very much grounded in that of plot-driven fantasy and the jumbled elements of both really wound up serving neither. I can read a beautiful book of metaphor with no plot and fall in love. I can ready an epic fantasy and be thrilled at every twist. Somehow though, this combination of both just didn’t work for me.

Despite my issues with the narrative, such as it was, the writing was as beautiful as ever – even if I couldn’t feel it in my bones like I wanted to. I felt throughout like I had a vague sense of what she was trying to say – that all stories are connected, that every ending is a new beginning and while that’s still sad, it’s hopeful, too – somehow none of it really meant anything to me.

The Starless Sea was one of those strange books I walked away from with a sense of failure. We’ve all had that, right? That perhaps there is this profound message somewhere in there that I just couldn’t uncover, that somehow, some way, I read it ‘wrong’.

Maybe. Or maybe it just wasn’t my type of book.

Perhaps I’ll let myself off the hook, and decide to believe in the latter.

Every ending is a new beginning after all. Now I’m finally through this book (it took me a while), I can go read something else.

Queenie

Meet Queenie.

Journalist. Catastrophist. Expressive. Aggressive. Loved. Lonely. Enough?

A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on life, love, race and family. Queenie will have you nodding in recognition, crying in solidarity and rooting for this unforgettable character every step of the way.


Fellow people in their twenties: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is required reading, okay? The story of Queenie, a young Black woman navigating a break up, a break down, a stalling career, friendship, sex, sexism, racism – basically, all the things – it’s one of those books that feels like relaxing into a bath. Maybe it’s a little bit too hot, if you’re totally honest with yourself, but the feeling of your muscles tensing and then unwinding as you sink down is totally worth it.

Queenie is contemporary in the most vivid sense – plumbing the depths of dating apps (“I know exactly how to handle a girl with a body like yours. I might not be black, but trust me, you wouldn’t know it from my dick”), the group chat (known as the Corgis. Cause, y’know, they’re Queenie’s friends), Black Lives Matter, workplace sexual misconduct, therapy on the NHS.

In Queenie’s story, Candice speaks boldly and insightfully to experiences uniquely Black, uniquely British and utterly relatable whether or not you claim either of those identities.

Candice Carty-Williams writes about issues young people go through in a way only someone who has faced them herself really can. In an interview I read in The Guardian, she said “What I needed to say in Queenie is that we are all living variations of the same life, but for some it is harder. How much money you have, the colour of your skin, your cultural capital can make it harder.”
That sentiment is absolutely perfect – as it would be, coming from a storyteller of her calibre. From Queenie’s experiences at work, a magazine that won’t let her write about Black Lives Matter, to the constant issues she experiences trying to find affordable housing in London after a break up means she is suddenly forced to find alternate accommodation while also suddenly losing the financial stability her ex-boyfriend offered felt so real. Seeing Queenie forced to choose between grim house share or grandma’s spare room (and I haven’t even talked about her family yet, but suffice to say, it’s a bit complicated) hit me in a cathartic way I didn’t even knew I needed as someone who lives in a house share with six other people and still pays more rent than I should.

In general, but particularly I think in the British book market we fall woefully short when it comes to Black narratives. Even now, I feel like a lot of the Black voices we turn to are American (part of our desire to pretend racism isn’t a thing here, I think) that to pick up a book so grounded in Black British experience felt completely refreshing. Though it was also really tough reading at times. The hyper sexualised way men communicate with Queenie on dating apps, the constant micro aggressions she goes through with her ex-boyfriend’s family – and his subsequent denials of her experience – are brutal and poignant examples of the normalised relentlessness of white supremacy.

I love the representation of Queenie’s family as well. Queenie’s grandparents are Jamaican and the elements of that culture dropped into the narrative – music, to food, to patois – added so much depth and seemed from the outside like such an authentic representation of a thriving part of the UK community that we don’t get to see enough.

Soon I’ll stop, but I can’t end a review of Queenie without making mention of Candice’s deft, empathetic and multi-faceted exploration of mental health. Queenie carries a lot of trauma from her childhood that has never really left her, but absolutely becomes front and centre following her breakup in a way that leads her to start experiencing some serious anxiety and panic. The manifestation of that, and how it is deeply grounded in Queenie’s physical body – which we all know anxiety is for so many of us expressed through the body – is something you really feel while you’re reading, as if the pressure in Queenie’s chest is your own. Her determination to seek therapy, despite the unique barriers to entry thrown up by the intersections of her race and gender felt like such a necessary story to tell, too. I haven’t read many narratives where we see both the decline and the turning point in someone’s mental health story, and there is something so deeply comforting in that. You don’t leave Queenie with the idea she’s fixed, but instead that she’s learning, and coping better every day – it’s so, so reassuring.

Yeah, so, this book might be my new best friend? Is that weird?

There’s a reason Queenie has won so many awards. It’s a story of contemporary female London life we have all needed for years.

Girl, Woman, Other

This is Britain as you’ve never read it.

This is Britain as it has never been told.

From the top of the country to the bottom, across more than a century of change and growth and struggle and life, Girl, Woman, Other follows twelve characters on an entwined journey of discovery.

It is future, it is past. It is fiction, it is history.

It is a novel about who we are now.


It is fair to say I’ve never read anything quite like Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. The winner of the Booker prize last year and the subject of endless praise, it’s one of those books I fear I don’t have much to add to the conversation about. But, despite that, I’m writing today to confirm holy shit this is good.

Girl, Woman, Other is a subversive piece of writing comprised of 12 interconnected stories of mostly Black, mostly female characters and their experiences of Britishness over maybe a century. Queer people, married and unmarried, mothers and the child free, bohemians and traditionalists, female and non-binary, middle and working class; each character in the novel is complex, embodied and leaps from the page – however long you get to spend with them. It is so easy to fall into the narrative of this book, which consumed me from the first page, that you forget to step back for a moment and consider the revolutionary act of writing it. In a publishing world still falling woefully short in its diversity of representation, perhaps most especially here in the UK, to have a book filled with stories of fully realised Black women in all their complexity, different sexualities, politics and relationships – with themselves and others – is an act of total and complete triumph.

The form of this book is probably like nothing you’ve ever read before. Written in an utterly experimental style (which is something I am always up for – I know not everybody feels that way, but I would urge you not to be put off if you’re the type to get upset about missing punctuation. Maybe, just maybe, punctuation is overrated) Bernadine has referred to as ‘fusion-fiction’, it’s poetic, free and subversive. And the style totally serves the story that Bernadine has set out to tell.

There is a feeling of timelessness to Girl, Woman, Other – and I don’t mean that in the traditional sense – but instead that it’s as if time is the rabbit hole and you’re Alice falling through it, as the focus of the authorial gaze shifts fluidly from decade to decade. Once you’ve fallen for long enough, gravity stops existing and you realise that maybe there’s no such thing as up and down anyway. There’s nowhere left to look but around –to see the story in its entirety.

That’s what reading this felt like for me, anyway.

The lack of (rejection of?) punctuation and time’s resultant flow state builds this intense sense of connection between these women’s stories, strung together in a sprawling, endlessly diverse picture of Black British womanhood through the centuries and further on into the horizons we haven’t met yet. It’s a version of the UK we haven’t seen a lot of, to put it mildly.

Another aspect of the writing that I loved was that Evaristo somehow managed to balance nuance with a healthy dose of scepticism toward her characters. She didn’t shy away from elements of the ridiculous where they were present – whether that’s the maybe slightly too intense political expression of the young when they’re coming to it all for the first time (written as if I don’t 100% fall into this group), or the determined bohemian expression of the old even as they veer farther and farther into the mainstream. This was funny, but it also served to hook me in even faster I think. You can only send up a character well if you understand the heart of them through and through, and in Girl, Woman, Other I always felt like Bernadine did. There was not a single person in this book I did not believe in entirely.

I now have to read my way through her back catalogue, which thankfully/shamefully due to my complete ignorance of her work pre-Booker prize, there is lots of. I’ve heard her say she needs every book she writes to challenge her, and I’m excited to see how her books will challenge me too.

Creatures

On the eve of Evangeline’s wedding on the shore of Winter Island, a dead whale is trapped in the harbour, the groom may be lost at sea, and Evie’s mostly absent mother has shown up out of the blue. From there, in this mesmerizing, provocative debut, the narrative flows back and forth through time as Evie reckons with her complicated upbringing in this lush, wild land off the coast of Southern California.

Evie grew up with her father, surviving off the money he made dealing the island’s world-famous strain of weed, Winter Wonderland. Although her father raised her with a deep respect for the elements, the sea, and the creatures living within in it, he also left her to parent herself. With wit, love, and bracing flashes of anger, Creatures probes the complexities of love and abandonment, guilt and forgiveness, betrayal and grief – and the ways in which our childhoods can threaten our ability to love if we are not brave enough to conquer the past. Lyrical, modern, darkly funny and ultimately cathartic, Creatures exerts a pull as strong as the tides.


With the exception of their release dates in the UK, which tend to come months after they are the chosen book of the month, Belletrist picks never let me down (when I can eventually get my hands on them, anyway). Creatures by Crissy Van Meter was no different.

He’ll tell you that, like his, your heart will sometimes ache as if it will explode, and that sometimes joy can kill you, too. Everything can kill you, is what he’s saying, but you won’t be listening. He’s telling you he hopes you’ll be wild enough to love things you cannot see. He will tell you to be careful. Accidentally, he will tell you to build walls without telling you to build them. Over the years, you will watch his heart ache and sing and burn out. And then do it again, and again.”

Creatures is the story of Evie, forced into the role of her own parent because her mother and father aren’t up to the task – her father is consumed by his drug addiction, and her mother of a tendency to up and leave for years at a time – as the years tick by on the run down Winter Island she calls home. Written in a series of vignettes, we meet Evie at four distinct points in her life: childhood, young adulthood, the night before her wedding and the tenth year of her marriage.

It’s a novel about the wounds we all carry; those we inherit from our parents, and those picked up along the way. It’s a quiet book, one where plot doesn’t hold the same importance as language. I love that. Van Meter’s writing is brutal and poetic, merciless and yet at the same time it holds you steady somehow as she reaches right into the heart of the matter and gives it a firm tug.

It’s a confronting read, in many ways. As Evie grows older, the narrative dispenses with the idea that love will set you free. It’s much more interested in the ways love will tear you apart, and the things to be discovered at the other end of that process. Not freedom – there might not be such a thing – but perhaps, the first steps in the direction of healing, of forgiveness.

The real reasons: I’m not sure he loves me like I love him. And I can’t bear the thought of loving him anymore. Each day, the burden of that brokenness feels bigger.
‘Don’t forget to take the dog to get his allergy shot,’ I say.
‘How long will you be gone?’ he asks.
But how can I know? I am still mending all my bleeding things.”

The chapters regarding Evie’s marriage were my favourite. These days I am much more interested in stories where the ‘I do’ isn’t the end point. The relationship is so often presented as the solution, when the truth of the matter is – yes, you fell in love, but you’re still the same person you were yesterday, baggage in hand. In Creatures, Van Meter isn’t afraid to explore imperfect love, sometimes toxic love, the kind of love you can see yourself in much more clearly than those stories you have to read through rose-tinted glasses.

If I haven’t made it clear enough, Creatures blew me away. Beautiful, succinct and written like a pure shot of vital feeling, it’s the perfect accessory for a lazy Sunday afternoon of introspection.

Little Fires Everywhere

In the placid, progressive suburb of Shaker Heights everything is meticulously planned, from the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson.

Mia Warren, an enigmatic artist and single mother, arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter, Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants; all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs Richardson on opposing sides. Mrs Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.


I had been meaning to read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng forever, obviously. Everyone said it was amazing, then the Amazon adaptation was coming starring none other than Olivia Pope herself, AKA Kerry Washington, who I would watch doing pretty much anything, to be honest – and somehow I still had not gotten around to it. So it was very fortuitous that back in the early days of lockdown when I was making my weekly 7am trip up to the Co-Op, one of my neighbours had kindly included it in the box of ‘free – please take’ books placed their gateway.

Don’t mind if I do.

I read the book and then watched the show (which I loved), so the two are a little intertwined in my head, but I will do my best to stick to the Ng-only version for the purposes of this review. (Though if you did watch the show, how good was Reese Witherspoon!? I never thought I could be revolted by Reese but she pulled it off).

Set in 1990s America but with a feel that is utterly contemporary, Little Fires Everywhere is, as the title suggests, a tinder box of a book. Dual tensions of race in so-called liberal white suburbia rub up against issues of class and bohemian verses traditional lifestyles to produce a novel that is simmering – with resentment, tension, sex and rage. Though they don’t speak of such things in a place like Shaker Heights, of course.

Celeste Ng captures so much in this novel, casting a merciless eye over the failings of the liberal middle class who consider ‘colour blindess’ a virtue. She examines the unacknowledged white privilege driving the Shaker Heights community with the heart-rending tale of Bebe Chow, a Chinese woman fighting for custody of her child, who was adopted by a local couple after Bebe abandoned her in a moment of poverty-driven despair. The custody battle splits the community down the middle, with Elena and Mia at the heart of the conflict. The case raises many questions the residents of Shaker are entirely unprepared to face: does motherhood lie in the love or in the blood? Does the race matter in adoption (why did her adoptive parents change her name from May Ling to Mirabelle?)? Are we setting up certain mothers – single mothers, mothers who aren’t white, aren’t American, aren’t wealthy, perhaps aren’t legal citizens – to fail? Ng leaves us to draw our own conclusions.

At the same time as all this, the complex entanglement of Elena and Mia’s families shows the sometimes destabilizing effect of confronting a lifestyle entirely different from one’s own. Shaker has always been Elena’s plan. The husband, the house, the brood of photogenic children was what she was working toward, but the sudden arrival of Mia, a nomad, an artist, the apparent embodiment of freedom from all those things women are socialised to strive for, throws it all off balance. How do you respond when faced with an individual living all of the decisions you chose not to pursue? Elena opts for rejection and suspicion – and Mia returns it in kind. For their children however, it’s an entirely different story. It’s funny how when you’re a kid it’s much easier to see a different lifestyle as a possibility rather than a threat – it’s a feeling we should all work harder to hold onto as we grow up, I think. Little Fires Everywhere evoked more than anything I’ve ever read that feeling from childhood of that one friend’s house that feels like stepping into another world – their family so fun, so pretty, so lacking in all of the complexities and frustrations that make your own so annoying. The family you want to join, at whose house sleepovers are elevated to exploratory missions, data gathering for previously unknown possibilities. Both Pearl, Mia’s daughter, and Elena’s kids feel this way about each other. It’s a feeling I’d forgotten, and revisiting it was a nostalgic joy.

Little Fires Everywhere is complex and utterly gripping. Read it. Then watch the show. They are both challenging, nuanced and truly excellent experiences.

Trick Mirror

We are living in the era of the self, an era of malleable truth and widespread personal and political delusion. In these nine interlinked essays, Jia Tolentino explores her own coming of age in this warped and confusing landscape.

From the rise of the internet to her appearance on an early reality TV show as a teenager; from her experiences of ecstasy – both religious and chemical – to her uneasy engagement with our culture’s endless drive towards ‘self-optimisation’; from the phenomenon of the successful American scammer to the extravagance of wedding culture, Jia Tolentino writes with style, humour and a fierce clarity about these strangest of times.

Following in the footsteps of American luminaries such as Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit, yet with a voice and wisdom all her own, Jia Tolentino writes with a rare gift for elucidating nuance and complexity, coupled with a disarming warmth. This debut collection of essays announces her as exactly the sort of voice we need to hear from right now – and for many years to come.


You know when a book is almost too good to review? Where a writer has accessed a level of insight so profound you could never possibly do it justice?

I refer you to Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, a book of essays that blew my mind, made me uncomfortable, made me laugh out loud and, you know, casually reassess basically everything about my life.

In the first piece of Trick Mirror, ‘The I in Internet’, Jia lays out her thesis statement for everything that is to come – and still, I wasn’t ready. Trick Mirror is a book about consequences, and moving the larger part of our lives online has come with some we never could have anticipated. Perhaps the most distressing of which, Jia argues, is the commodification of the self (“capitalism’s last natural resource”), and the inflation of the importance of personal identity that followed. As Jia writes, “It’s as if we’ve been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection.”

In this world, having an opinion is conflated with taking action; feminism isn’t about the collective so much as #GirlBoss-style individual advancement substituted for progress – or as Jia puts it, “A politics built around getting and spending money is sexier than a politics built around politics” – and we have generally accepted the notion that maybe the best way a person can spend their life is to identify areas of potential profit and take whatever they can under the guise of ‘disrupting’ (or, more accurately, “dismantling social structures to suck up cash from whatever corners of life can still be exploited.”)

Generally speaking, the only way to make it through the day and remain sane is to have a problematically high tolerance for fucked up things. Trick Mirror lowers that shield, and demands the reader’s discomfort as we are brought face to face with the hypocrisies and glaring dilemmas of the system we have agreed to live in. No one is allowed off the hook – not even Jia, who readily implicates herself in a conversation that refuses binaries. It’s as refreshing as it is distressing to read.

It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite from this collection, because they are so impactful in such different ways, but ‘Always Be Optimising’ struck particularly close to home. A sprawling essay taking in the history of barre, beauty standards, influencer culture and the failures of the mainstream feminist movement, it lays bare a lot of the bullshit you encounter day to day as a woman.

“It’s very easy, under certain conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organising your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible. Women have known this intimately for a long time.”

As the world has expanded we’re dealing with not only unrealistic beauty standards, but unrealistic lifestyle standards (My Morning Routine and What I Eat In A Day videos, anyone?), where a relentless pursuit of self-improvement is advertised under the guise of female empowerment and ‘self-care’. In one of the many throw-the-book-across-the-room moments (those can be good too) I had during reading, Jia highlights the irony of the rebrand we’ve gifted the impossible standards women are expected to achieve. It’s no longer mid-century magazines imploring us to “spend time and money trying to be more radiant for our husbands, we now counsel one another to do all the same things but for ourselves.

Like I said before, everyone is implicated.

With Trick Mirror, Jia has cemented herself forever as one of my favourite writers. I have already read most of the essays multiple times, and writing this I got lost in them all over again. I really can’t recommend this book enough.

Vicious

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates – brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same ambition in each other. A shared interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl with a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find – aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the arch-nemeses have set a course for revenge – but who will be left alive at the end?


My favourite fictional characters have always been the evil ones. The murderers, liars, cheaters and manipulators safely ensconced in the pages of books allow us all to indulge ourselves for a little while in the potential of pressing the fuck-it button and letting life crumble into delicious chaos.

We’d never actually do it, of course. If we have learned anything from Tokyo off Money Heist it’s that chaos is not a sustainable lifestyle unless you don’t happen to mind getting your much more likeable co-workers killed from time to time.

We mind.

Anyway. Vicious, by my forever fave V.E. Shwab is an ode to the fuck-it button. It’s about what happens when entitled masculinity meets paranormal science plus murder.

The result?

Chaos, of course. Delicious chaos.

Vicious, like so many of my favourite reads recently, is split into a few different timelines. This, combined with the short chapters and ever evolving list of times, locations and perspectives really drives the narrative, which, like all the best villain stories, has everything to do with revenge. Every player in this story is harbouring something – a God complex (actually, there are a few of those going around), a suspected curse, the exact details of their own murder (yes, you read that right) – and these separate threads weave together in gripping and surprising ways as our MC, Victor gathers the gang of misfits required to finally bring down his ex-university bestie, Eli, for reasons you’ll find out as you go along.

Victor Vale has all the elements of your favourite likeable bad guy. Emotional detachment, a pattern of drastic behaviour and general disregard for personal safety, a great alliterative name and the required enigmatic magnetism that draws fellow weirdos to his side, kind of like those whistles only dogs can hear. Plus, his parents are self-help millionaires because V.E. Shwab always spoils us with these kinds of details. As a young ‘un, Victor spends his days creating black out poetry from his parents’ books, transforming self-help platitudes into statements like “Be lost. Give up. give In. in the end It would be better to surrender before you begin” with the help of a Sharpie – that is when he isn’t trying to figure how to get super powers.

Eli on the other hand is your standard all American boy: blond, gorgeous, popular, charming and totally capable of mass murder with the right motivation. He’s kind of like Payton off The Politician had he set his sights on gaining superhuman abilities rather than the Oval Office. Plus – you know – the whole murder thing.

It’s a page turner, I’ll tell you that. Shwab takes the age-old at this point trope of the science experiment gone wrong and makes it her own, creating a unique standard of what’s morally right in the process.

(We love Victor! But he’s totally evil too? But like, less evil? I mean I know he did the murder but maybe his murdering wasn’t as bad as Eli’s murdering?)

You get the picture.

As morally upstanding as you believe yourself to be, this is the kind of story where you end up implicated.

It’s not going to end well for anyone, surely, and yet I find I can’t wait to pick up the sequel.

Dear Mrs Bird

London, 1941. Amid the falling bombs Emmeline Lake dreams of becoming a fearless Lady War Correspondent. Unfortunately, Emmy instead finds herself employed as a typist for the formidable Henrietta Bird, the renowned agony aunt at Women’s Friend magazine. Mrs Bird refuses to read, let alone answer, letters containing any form of Unpleasantness, and definitely not those from the lovelorn, grief-stricken or morally conflicted.

But the thought of these desperate women waiting for an answer at this most desperate of times becomes impossible for Emmy to ignore. She decides she simply must help and secretly starts to write back – after all, what harm could she possibly do?


When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst. I’d had a rather cheerful day so far, despite the Luftwaffe annoying everyone by making us all late for work, and then I’d managed to get hold of an onion, which was very good news for a stew. But when I saw the announcement, I could not have been more cock-a-hoop.”

So begins Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce, a book I devoured over a couple of rainy afternoons curled up on my sofa. Relentlessly practical and optimistic in the keep calm and carry on sort of way you imagine war time women to have been, Emmy’s energy was exactly what I needed to channel to get me through lockdown. Like the blurb says, Emmy dreams of being a war correspondent – though currently working as a secretary at Strawman’s Solicitors and a volunteer telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Service three nights a week. So, as you can imagine, she is over the moon when she sees in the paper that the Launceston Press, publishers of The London Evening Chronicle, is hiring a part-time Junior.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out quite like she thought. Rather than getting a position writing the news, it’s actually Women’s Friend magazine Launceston Press is hiring for. This magazine is pretty much what it sounds like – all crochet patterns, serialised romance stories, parenting advice and Henrietta Helps, the problem page. It’s this problem page that Emmy has been hired to type up letters for. Emmy quickly learns that having accidentally taken entirely the wrong sort of job is going to be the least of the problems in her role. The page is ruled by Mrs Henrietta Bird’s draconian hand. The old fashioned type, Mrs Bird refuses to answer questions that involve any sort of ‘unpleasantness’, which, for her, comprises pretty much everything of any interest – sex, politics, religion (with the exception of church fundraisers, of course), war, etc. The list of topics with which Henrietta won’t engage, presented to Emmy on the first day of her job, is extensive.

Obviously Emmy quickly takes the situation in her own hands, answering the listener queries Henrietta had been tossing in the bin for years on the DL.

And that’s when things start to get interesting.

Dear Mrs Bird is the quintessential comfort read. The language is delightful, with phrases like “cock-a-hoop” and “you’ll be smashing” scattered throughout giving Emmy and her friends voices that felt very much of the 1940s, which, coupled with typically stoic British throwaway comments about the war (my personal favourite: “if Hitler asks, tell him I’ve gone on holiday.”) providing what I felt was a pretty authentic insight into the time. Bombs were always a possibility, but life did not simply stop as a result.

The novel is very much a love story, but not in the sense you might expect from one of is genre. It isn’t a tale about Emmy sending off letters to a doomed sweetheart on the front, but instead a story of friendship. Emmy lives with her best friend Bunty (amazing name), and it’s these two women and how they navigate their young lives in the midst of war that is the heart of Dear Mrs Bird. How they support each other (no one is more thrilled about Emmy’s new job than Bunty), hold each other accountable, have fun together and when tragedy finds them – which, it’s a novel about the Second World War. You know that it does – navigate it together (well, with a few bumps along the way) got me right in the feels.

I haven’t read a lot of books set in the Second World War, but those I have were dominated by the high stakes, violence and tragedy of the situation – which totally makes sense. What I loved about Dear Mrs Bird, though, was that it was concerned only with daily civilian life, the daily grind of war – because it would have been a grind, and it would have been boring, frustrating and, at a certain point, normalised. Emmy’s story is one of how a person carries on their life despite the entire world’s descent into complete and utter chaos.

Which is quite a comforting message for right now, I think.

What do we do about Harry Potter? A discussion

I joined Bookstagram recently (hello, shameless plug! Follow me pls), the latest in a long line of lockdown entertainment activities, and an excuse to add another several to the ever increasing number of hours I spend glued to my phone. So far, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, but there’s one thing that’s been bugging me.

I’m seeing a lot of Harry Potter love – and that has really surprised me.

It seems unlikely to me that anyone around here won’t be aware at this point, but in case you exist outside of my particular echo chamber, J.K. Rowling has not had a good year. Or, perhaps I should say, a significant number of her fans haven’t. What began as the liking of a few anti-trans posts (the innocent finger slips of a middle aged Twitter user, official statements insisted) has evolved over the past year into J.K.’s full on engagement with TERF-ery (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism – though she would rather you don’t call it that) a particularly insidious brand of anti-trans rhetoric where cisgender women claim that the advancement of transgender folks’ rights will result in the diminishment of their own. J.K.’s Twitter feed has since filled with further evidence of her transphobia and in recent weeks she has published an essay detailing her opposition to trans rights activism – a deeply hurtful piece of writing filled with damaging stereotypes, misinformation and a weird obsession with trans men (?) which seems to be rooted in the baffling idea that women transition because they would rather be a man than exist in a sexist world (?), as well as details of abuse and sexual assault she has suffered. What she went through sounds awful, and I have compassion for trauma she carries with her as a result – but she does not have the right to weaponise that trauma against a group more marginalised than herself.

This was really hard for Harry Potter fans. To a community that, broadly speaking, holds values like inclusivity and social justice highly, this revelation of J.K.’s own prejudice was heart-breaking, and pushed the already strained relations between the author and her fan base past breaking point.

Or at least that’s what I thought until I went onto Bookstagram and saw endless aesthetically pleasing posts with nothing but love for the wizarding world.

As it turns out, it’s by no means a phenomenon unique to Bookstagram – Rowling’s sales apparently have not been affected by her behaviour at all. The Guardian actually reported recently that Bloomsbury’s children’s division sales have grown 27% to £18.7m during lockdown, with the Harry Potter series highlighted as a particular best seller. Which, given the wealth of books out there written by people who don’t use their enormous public platforms to spread hate and misinformation about a marginalised group, I find quite depressing.

Now I’m not saying we should never read Harry Potter again. I get it – I’m a 1992-born Millenial. I was that Harry Potter kid, and all of my friends were too. Yes, my attachment to the series isn’t as heartfelt as it has remained for many, but nonetheless, seeing J.K. take this path hurt. What I am saying, however, is that we need to seriously re-evaluate our relationship with this series, and have a continuing conversation about the books, their author and her increasingly conservative and alienating perspective on gender identity.

As people do with any sort of heartbreak, fans have all decided to approach getting through this differently. According to The Atlantic, Harry Potter fan sites The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet have approached the issue by ‘Voldemorting’ Rowling – that is, removing her name and picture from the website, like the wizarding world itself can be absolved of her sins if you just pretend hard enough that she doesn’t exist. I don’t think this is the right approach. I have never been able to get behind the notion of divorcing the art from the artist, the death of the author, etc – I think it’s dumb. More importantly, I think it’s a convenient means of avoiding accountability – for the author and for those who wish to engage with the material in a safe, unproblematised way only those who hold privilege can.

A better way of dealing with Rowling, as Aja Romano writes for Vox, is to break up with her. We must, as they so perfectly put it “minimise her cultural influence” – my new favourite description of what cancelling someone actually means. This minimisation, in my opinion anyway, isn’t possible by keeping on reading and loving Harry Potter as if its author hasn’t spoken out against one of the most marginalised communities in the world, and badly hurt many of her own fans, especially those who are trans and genderqueer, in the process.

There is so much that’s good about Harry Potter. A lot of people think the story had a hand in producing a (broadly speaking) progressive generation of young people. But the books were never perfect, and they were always filled with micro-aggressions readers have been unpacking for years, queer baiting, not to mention a very homogenous cast of characters. And, as Aja’s piece (which I really can’t recommend enough that you read) gets into in more detail, there was evidence of Rowling’s gender politics too.

But we love these books, I hear you say. The thing is, love is messy. It’s big and it changes over time. Most of all, love is complex – and our relationship with Harry Potter and the wizarding world has to be too. We can take the good of Harry and everything he taught us, but with the good we have to take the bad. That means holding the work and its author accountable for their failures, dissecting them, and placing them front and centre in our conversations about the series.

So, no, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t post about Harry Potter any more (though I can’t see myself wanting to engage any time soon), but that when we do so it should be with complexity – and with respect for those who are most hurt by Rowling’s views. When we talk about Harry Potter we need to ask, how did the wizarding world fail to live up to its own values? What does that failure mean? And, most importantly, how we can do better?

There are lots of answers to these questions. Ignoring the TERF in the room isn’t one of them.

Ninth House

Trigger warning for sexual assault

Alex Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. A dropout and the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved crime – the last thing she wants is to cause trouble. Not when Yale was supposed to be her fresh start. But a free ride to one of the world’s most prestigious universities was bound to come with a catch.

Alex has been tasked with monitoring the mysterious activities of Yale’s secret societies – societies that have yielded some of the most famous and influential people in the world. Now there’s a dead girl on campus and Alex seems to be the only person who won’t accept the neat answer the police and campus administration have come up with for her murder.

Because Alex knows the secret societies are far more sinister and extraordinary than anyone ever imagined. They tamper with forbidden magic. They raise the dead. And, sometimes, they prey on the living…


What if you were tormented by something only you could see? Something that could harm you or humiliate you at any moment? Something you could never explain to anyone, because nobody would ever believe it anyway?

That’s what Alex Stern has grown up dealing with on a daily basis – since the ghosts arrived. They haunt the streets, bars and public bathrooms of Alex’s days, visible only to her. Some of them just want to talk – others have darker, more violent intentions.

It’s her burden to bear alone until one day she is plucked  from the hospital bed she found herself handcuffed to and invited to become the new Dante of Lethe House, an ancient organisation at Yale University tasked with keeping the secret societies in hand, lest their magic get out of control.

Magic?

Yep.

With that, Alex is thrust into a world where finally some things start to make sense – and others become murkier than they have ever been.

I adore Leigh Bardugo, and because I will automatically buy anything she puts out, I actually had no idea what I was stepping into with Ninth House – aside from the fact there was a bit of murder.

(There’s actually quite a lot of murder)

Suffice to say I’m in love, I need the sequel like, yesterday and this world consumed me in the unique way hers tend to do.

A story about magic, murder, loneliness, lost causes and the fraught and particular manifestations of social class at institutions like Yale, the narrative of Ninth House is split in a before and after style – with some cataclysmic and as yet unknown-to-us event at its core. The novel is divided by narrative perspective as well, which won’t come as a surprise to any of Leigh’s regular readers. The dual narrative of Alex and her Virgil (kind of like the chief inspector to her sergeant/ Dante), Darlington, works to tell the two converging timelines of this extraordinary novel. They also make for the perfect unlikely team (my favourite kind of team) – him, a once rich kid living in the remains of a crumbling mansion, her, as Darlington describes, “a criminal, a drug user, a dropout who cared about none of the things he did.”

I ship it, obviously.

I loved how Leigh weaved a conversation about wealth, privilege and the damage wrought by institutions like Yale into this story of ghosts and magic. That the mostly rich, mostly white kids of Yale pluck homeless people and isolated patients from psychiatric wards to perform magical rituals on, and that the death of a local – town rather than student – a druggie girl probably murdered by her equally druggie boyfriend gets quickly swept into the category of No One Cares aren’t incidental things. It’s no accident that the magic that plagued Alex her entire life until someone finally deigned to explain it to her is hoarded at places like Yale, and taught only to the people who can afford to go there. It’s a book about magic, yes, but it’s also a book about power and the unequal distribution of it. As Alex travels further down the rabbit hole of the whodunit she uncovers countless examples of these rich kids doing damage with impunity under the certainty that the institution and their own privilege will protect them.

Because they always had until Alex – not rich, not white, at the institution but not of it – came along to give the thing a much needed shake up.

I continue to be so impressed by everything Leigh Bardugo puts out, and the nuance, complexity and downright entertainment value of Ninth House comes close to knocking Six of Crows off the top spot of my Bardugo list of favourites.