I’ve actually wanted to get on Bookstagram for a while but I was nervous. The quality of the content on there is so high, I always felt embarrassed to share my photos in comparison. But in the end I just thought screw it.
I love talking about books and there is such a great conversation happening over there I decided to jump in too, whatever my insecurities about the quality of my photos. And you know what? So far I’m having lots of fun with it.
So if you fancy it please do give me a follow over on Instagram. I’m @22isstillyoungadult over there too.
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Circe is strange – not powerful and terrible, like her father, nor gorgeous and mercenary like her mother. But she has a dark power of her own: witchcraft. When Circe’s gift threatens the gods, she is banished to the island of Aiaia where she hones her occult craft, casting spells, gathering strange herbs and taming wild beasts. Yet a woman who stands alone cannot live in peace for long – and among her island’s guests is an unexpected visitor: the mortal Odysseus, for whom Circe will risk everything.
Circe’s tale is a vivid epic of family rivalry, love and loss – the inextinguishable song of woman burning hot and bright in the darkness of a man’s world.
I do not know a lot about Greek mythology, and I have definitely never read the Odyssey, but as I understand it, originally Circe appeared in Odysseus’s story during a year-long stopover he took on her island, Aiaia. Homer told the tale of her and Odysseus’s relationship, which began when Circe, a powerful witch, turned all of Odysseus’s sailing buddies into pigs. Odysseus himself was only saved from this terrible fate because he had some anti-magic herb called moly that protected him from this very scenario (convenient). Odysseus – in all his manliness – persuades Circe to turn the men back and despite getting off to something of a shaky start, I assume they all become friends.
As I said, I haven’t read it.
In Homer’s version, it seems that Circe is a feature in Odysseus’s story. In Circe, Madeline Miller dispenses with that idea (Homer, we are over you) and weaves a rich and episodic tale entirely of Circe’s own.
In a similar fashion to City of Girls, which I talked about last week, I really loved the sprawling timeline of this novel. We get to grow up with this character and see her through so many phases of her life – Circe as a young person, getting her heart broken for the first time, being exiled from her home, recovering from rape, and eventually her journey into motherhood and everything that happens after the birth of her son – though I can’t get too much into that, cause spoilers. Her character development is rich, with glimpses of the woman she would one day go on to be evident even during her childhood of neglect at the hands of her parents, Helios (as in the sun god) and Perse, a nymph.
Circe is an outcast from the beginning. From the moment of her birth when Helios declares her not good enough to marry to a god because she isn’t beautiful enough (to which her mother’s response is “let’s go make a better one”), Circe is considered the runt of the litter and treated accordingly. As such, it’s hardly surprising that Circe grows up feeling inferior.
Weirdly, having something of an inferiority complex seems to be a common problem among the gods. The toxicity and rivalry apparent in Circe’s own family spills out into the wider community as well, which is driven by men who all have one thing in common: they want power, and more of it, all the time. Even the literal gods feel like what they have isn’t enough. The gods are made up of two communities, Titans and Olympians – basically old gods and new gods. After a devastating war there have been many years of peace, but threat to that peace looms over Circe’s entire childhood, as her father and his friends agitate always for more, more, more.
This idea of power, who has it and what it means is central to the novel. Circe’s entire life has been defined by the unforgiving hand of her father, and she is years into her adulthood and her exile before she really understands how she can reclaim some of that power for herself – and keep reclaiming it, even as men continue to try and take it from her.
It’s a gorgeously written novel of survival, and of carving space for yourself even when you have to do that without the love and the support of those supposedly closest to you. Loss runs through its pages – a side effect of being immortal, I guess – but not all those losses are bad. Changing your life involves a lot of loss, after all. But Circe will tell you more about that.
It is the summer of 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris arrives in New York with her suitcase and sewing machine, exiled by her despairing parents. Although her quicksilver talents with a needle and commitment to mastering the perfect hair roll have been deemed insufficient for her to pass her sophomore year of Vassar, she soon finds gainful employment as the self-appointed seamstress at the Lily Playhouse, her Aunt Peg’s charmingly disreputable Manhattan revue theatre. There, Vivian becomes the toast of the showgirls, transforming the trash and tinsel only fit for the cheap seats into creations for goddesses.
Exile in New York is no exile at all: here in this strange wartime city of girls, Vivian and her girlfriends mean to be free, to drink the heady highball of life itself to the last drop. But there are hard lessons to be learned, and bitterly regrettable mistakes to be made. Vivian sees that to live the life she wants, she must live many lives, ceaselessly and ingeniously making them new.
“At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is,” she confides. And so Vivian sets forth her story, and that of the women around her – women who have lived as they truly are, out of step with a century that could never quite keep up with them.
A work colleague leant me City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert the day before lockdown started here in the UK. We’d just both been furloughed and she had made the decision to go and be with family for the foreseeable, while I was staying in the house share where I currently live. My family are shielding (high risk), and since I had until a few days previously been going into the office and I live with six other people (it has now dwindled to three as everyone jumped ship to their respective families), not to mention the various trains and taxis I’d have to take in order to get home, staying put seemed like the best idea at the time.
That being the case, she said, City of Girls was going to be exactly the lift that I needed.
She was right.
I had never read any of Elizabeth Gilbert’s fiction. I love her non-fiction. I know it’s not cool to like Eat Pray Love but despite all the God stuff, which I could never really get behind, I loved the writing. Big Magic, her book about creativity is always an inspiring read, and the short lived podcast that accompanied it was one of my favourites.
A few years back I read that she had left her husband – the guy at the end of Eat Pray Love – for her dying best friend, another woman, who she had realised she was in love with when suddenly faced with the possibility of losing her. It was and is the saddest story – Rayya, the woman in question, passed away a year or so ago now – and it was from this devastating loss that City of Girls was born.
Now – and I don’t mean this to sound as glib as it does – I don’t think I was alone in expecting a heart breaking memoir of love and loss to come out of this experience. But that is not what Elizabeth Gilbert produced. Instead, she wrote City of Girls to feel better. When your day to day is making it through the depths of all that unimaginable grief, you need a place to escape to, right? For Liz, that turned out to be 1940s Manhattan – and it is excellent.
City of Girls is a story that begins with a question. In 2010 a now elderly Vivian receives a letter from the daughter of a friend with a single request. She wants to know “what were you to my father?”
What follows is Vivian’s account of her life from the age of 19, when she arrived in New York. A college drop-out and a disappointment to her parents, she is shipped off to NY to begin her life as an independent woman (sort of. Her parents still pretty much pay for everything) – and that is when things start to get interesting.
There are people in life who the second you meet them you know they are going to be important, people who change you and drag your entire life in a direction you previously hadn’t considered for yourself. They might not be around forever – in fact, they almost certainly won’t – but they will leave a mark. Then there are also those that sneak up on you, people who perhaps existed on the periphery of your daily experience for long enough that you hadn’t considered them, but who slowly creep into your bones until one day you look up and realise they are the most important people in your life. In City of Girls, Liz Gilbert explores this particular phenomenon in a way I’ve never experienced before. It’s because the book is so expansive, yes – it begins in the 1940s and ends in 2010 – but it’s much more about the seeds expertly sown in the earlier chapters that don’t blossom until much, much later on. So much later on you didn’t even realise they were seeds in the first place.
Which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
It is a book of two halves – the early, crazy years of sex, partying, rising fame and all the drama that accompanies it. Then the story gets split – Vivian makes a terrible mistake, one that will flip the entire narrative of her life and ultimately send her down a path that is just revelatory to read. The long road to the eventual answer of that initial question is a story of how to build a life – an adventurous, devastating life of entirely Viv’s own.
When I eventually go back to work and have to return City of Girls to its owner I will be purchasing my own copy. It’s the sort of story you want to keep around.
The Truly Devious case – an unsolved kidnapping and triple murder that rocked Ellingham Academy in 1936 – has consumed Stevie Bell for years. It’s the very reason she came to the academy. But then her classmate Hayes Major was murdered, and though she identified his killer, her parents quickly pull her out of school. For her safety, they say.
Stevie’s willing to do anything to get back to Ellingham, be with her friends, and solve the case. Even if it means making a deal with the despicable Senator Edward King. And when Stevie finally returns, she also returns to David: the guy she kissed, the guy who lied about his identity – Edward King’s son. But larger issues are at play. Was Hayes’s death really solved? Where did his murderer hide away to? What’s the meaning of the riddle Albert Ellingham left behind? And what, exactly, is at stake in the Truly Devious affair?
The Ellingham case isn’t just a piece of history – it’s a live wire into the present. The path to the truth has more twists and turns than Stevie can imagine, and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for. In New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson’s second novel in the Truly Devious series, someone will pay for the truth with their life.
This review will contain at least a few spoilers for Truly Devious. Sorry about that.
When I started reading Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series I sort of assumed it’d be like the Shades of London books – each new release a fresh mystery to unravel. Not so. Truly Devious and the mystery of Albert Ellingham’s missing daughter is the overarching theme of the series, and for every question The Vanishing Stair answered it raised at least three more.
I loved it, obviously.
At the end of the last book we saw our favourite wannabe detective, Stevie Bell, yanked from Ellingham Academy by her parents following the revelation of Hayes’s murderer. She is not okay with the situation. The Ellingham case remains unsolved and the whole Hayes affair at least somewhat unfinished. So when the opportunity to return comes up in the shape of a dodgy offer from the worst sort of Republican Senator Edward King – boss to Stevie’s parents and (surprise) father to Stevie’s on-again-off-again love interest David – despite her misgivings she’s prepared to do whatever he wants.
That particular decision looms large over everything else that happens in The Vanishing Stair.
I flew through this book. Continuing the split narrative of Stevie’s present divided by snapshots of the unfolding mystery in 1936 – the one Stevie came to Ellingham in the first place to solve before all the Hayes business – Maureen builds ever more layers of complexity onto a mystery that has already confounded everyone who has tried to solve it in the 80-odd years since it began. New and intriguing figures enter into play, from the possibly murderous runaway Ellingham students of the past, Francis Crane and Edward Pierce Davenport, to Dr Irene Fenton, the probably alcoholic true crime professor as eager to solve the Ellingham case as Stevie herself.
David continues to do the most. I’ve read several reviews where readers aren’t so keen on Stevie and David’s dynamic – some going as far as to describe it as insta-lovey and thin. I couldn’t disagree more. David and Stevie are pulled towards each other in a way that read electric to me – though they both remain defensive weirdos they can’t help but keep circling, each one taking turns to pull back in the other when they pull away. They share a similar sort of darkness, I think. It may not be the healthiest basis for a relationship, but for reading purposes it is delicious. Don’t believe the rumours: Stevie and David are a pairing you ship hard, however unlikely their resolution turning out to be a happy one is at this point.
A lot of pieces clicked into place during The Vanishing Stair, but there are a lot of questions still to be answered in the Hand on the Wall, and I for one cannot wait to see where Maureen Johnson’s twisting mystery takes us next.
It is the mid-1800s. At Sweet Home in Kentucky, an era is ending as slavery comes under attack from the abolitionists. The worlds of Halle and Paul D are to be destroyed in a cataclysm of torment and agony. The world of Sethe, however, is to turn from one of love to one of violence and death – the death of Sethe’s baby daughter, Beloved, whose name is the single word on the tombstone, who died at her mother’s hands, and who will return to claim retribution.
“I decided that the single most uncontroversial thing one can say about the institution of slavery vis-à-vis contemporary time, is that it haunts us all. That in so many ways all our lives are entangled with the past – its manipulations and, fearful of its grasp, ignoring or dismissing or distorting it to suit ourselves, but always unable to erase it.” – From The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations by Toni Morrison
The first thing you should know about Beloved, the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner by Toni Morrison is that it is a ghost story. Number 124 is a ‘spiteful’ house, ‘full of a baby’s venom’ where Denver and her mother Sethe spend their days isolated – their other family lost to death or driven out by the baby ghost that shatters mirrors, ruins food and tortures the dog, and whose death at Sethe’s own hands has alienated the family from the rest of the community.
The second thing to know about Beloved is that it is a story about motherhood. In her discussion of the novel in The Source of Self Regard, Toni writes that part of what inspired Beloved was the conversations about reproductive freedom happening at the time, but rather than focusing on a woman’s right to be child-free, she was instead interested in writing about those women to whom the choice to have children “was the supreme act of freedom, not its opposite”. And so we step into the story of Sethe, and the vastness of her love for her children – a love so vast it drove her to kill one of them.
So, let’s talk a bit more about what the freedom of motherhood looks like for Sethe. As a slave, her children legally did not belong to her. They could be sold separately from her. Under such circumstances, for Sethe to choose to have her children and to claim them as hers was an act of revolution. And once she had them, she knew she had to save them from the life she and her predecessors had endured. So she does – taking a harrowing journey with them to freedom.
Freedom was hard to come by. During the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, owners went after escaped slaves like Sethe – their bodies, and their children still considered claimable property under the law. That’s what happens – Sethe and her children make it almost a month into their escape from their owners at Sweet Home when the slave master comes for them, and so Sethe takes her children out to the back of the house to kill them, starting with the newborn Beloved. To Sethe, to kill them is the only way she can save them. Ultimately, she only kills Beloved before she is stopped and arrested.
“If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died.” – Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved is an intensely complicated and painful read. And I haven’t even got to what happens when Beloved returns to 124 (maybe? We don’t really know. It might just be some random lady who also happens to be called Beloved). From Sethe’s act of violence, to the all-consuming intensity of her relationship with the returned Beloved, to Sethe’s boyfriend Paul D’s subsequent deeply uncomfortable sexual relationship with that very same Beloved – all of the characters in this book resist the classifications of noble victimhood that modern discourse so often projects onto slaves, and what we imagine their survival to have looked like. They are survivors, yes, but survival is a messy thing, and it is that mess that Toni explores in Beloved.
Though Sethe and Paul D are physically free from slavery, they both remain imprisoned by their trauma. Sethe’s literally haunts the house, keeping her trapped inside of it and away from the outside world where she might find a means to start moving on. Paul D, meanwhile is afraid to really love, because to love would be to feel everything, and to feel everything would, he believes, destroy him. Denver, Sethe’s daughter, meanwhile did not grow up a slave, and yet the generations of trauma that her family has endured keep her as locked inside the walls of 124 as everyone else.
“Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realise that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.” – Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved is a deeply sad book, but it is not without hope. The ghosts probably won’t ever leave, but that doesn’t mean Sethe can’t ever step outside of her haunting.
For a book named after her I know I haven’t written much about Beloved herself. She’s a tricky character to grasp, intentionally so. She might be a ghost or she might not – we’ll never really know – but what we do know is, she is a symbol for the 60 million and more lives lost in the slave trade whose names and stories we will never know. And even Beloved, in the end, is forgotten.
Yeah so, if it wasn’t clear, I adored this book. I know there’s nothing new about recognising Toni Morrison’s brilliance, but I am adding to the clamour to let you know if you haven’t picked up one of her books yet, you must.
For me, one of the biggest lessons of the past few years is that values kept locked inside aren’t really values. Speaking up, facing discomfort and an openness to learn are the vital ingredients of living a value-driven life.
As we all process and respond to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd among so many others, for a lot of white people now is a time where we’re thinking seriously about our anti-racist learning (something we should have been doing all along, FYI). This can have some complicated side effects for the black community, who are already dealing with a sort of trauma that we’ll never truly be able to understand. Now is a time where many well-intentioned but, to be clear, wrong, white people will ask their black and brown friends, and black and brown public figures to expend additional emotional labour teaching us how to be better people.
To be clear, that is not okay. Black and brown people don’t owe you emotional labour.
And there are already a ton of resources online so you don’t need to be sliding into anyone’s DMS demanding they educate you. The work exists, you just have to be active in seeking it out.
Today I wanted to highlight a few of the voices I turn to in my own anti-racism work. I want to caveat this post first with the probably obvious but I am just going to mention it anyway note to respect these spaces and, if you’re white, listen more than you talk.
Nova Reid Nova is an inspirational speaker, writer, diversity and anti-racism campaigner. I came to her work through her new podcast, Conversations With Nova Reid where she and a range of guests talk about racism, allyship and what it looks like to really interrogate internalised biases. There are only 12 episodes at the time of writing, so it’s easy to catch up. Nova’s background is in counselling and wellbeing, something that really shines through in her work, where she asks her audience to step into discomfort and be willing to be vulnerable in our examination of our internalised racism – something we all have, if we’re completely honest with ourselves. Something she has spoken of often that really stuck with me is how our fear of perceiving ourselves as “bad” holds us back from making meaningful progress in anti-racism work. For so many people that hold white privilege, the thought of being called racist is like our worst nightmare. It’s an understandable fear – I totally have it too – but rather than pushing us to be better, that fear really only manifests itself in fragility and an unwillingness to deeply look at the ways that actually we might be kind of racist. Nova’s message – if you’re willing to engage with it and really do the work (100% on you, btw) – is that rather than realising that your worst fears are true, you are in fact, “bad”, by facing your internalised racism you are actually uncovering all of the ways in which you might be better. Feeling guilty about internalised racism pales in comparison to what it feels like for the people of colour who actually experience it. Links to Nova’s work Podcast: Conversations with Nova Reid Nova’s Tedx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8iNGeVyvUs Instagram: @novareidofficial Ways to pay for Nova’s work: [a lot of labour goes into creating resources like this, so it’s important to pay in any way you can. For some of us that means financially supporting, or, if that’s not possible for you right now, it’s spreading the word about their work] There are a couple! Nova has a paid for anti-racism course, which you can read more about at her website. If you aren’t able to afford that right now you can also send her some money via Pay Pal, paypal.me/NovaReid
Layla F Saad I found Layla’s work recently when Aja Barber (who I’ll get to in a minute) was a guest on her podcast. Layla is most well known for her Instagram challenge and now book Me and White Supremacy, a work that challenges readers to dig deep into their own internalised racism and confront white fragility. I haven’t read her book yet, but I am absolutely loving her podcast, The Good Ancestor Podcast. Layla talks at length about what it means to be a good ancestor, which according to her means working to create a world that is better for future generations. It is a vital idea, and the podcast features conversations with a wide range of anti-racism campaigners, activists, change makers and writers having challenging and revealing conversations about what it means to live in a white supremacy as a person of colour. Links to Layla’s work Podcast: The Good Ancestor Podcast @laylafsaad on Instagram Book: Me and White Supremacy Ways to pay for Layla’s work: Aside from the obvious (her book!), Layla also as a Paypal account, paypal.me/LaylaSaad
Aja Barber I came to Aja originally through her work in the realm of ethical fashion. I quickly learned, however, that it’s impossible to talk about ethical fashion without also talking about race. Aja talks more about this on her episode of Layla Saad’s podcast that I’ve already mentioned so do head there to get this in more detail, but the fashion industry is completely bound up in colonialism. From shipping our waste clothes to African countries where they either undercut and damage the local garment industry or wind up filling up landfills, to the underpaid, unsafe, slavery-rife garment sector where the majority of big brands make their products, the industry is largely build at the expense of black and brown bodies – with the many of us turning a blind eye because we just love Zara so much. Links to Aja’s work: @ajabarber on Instagram Read some of Aja’s writing on Eco Age: https://eco-age.com/aja-barber Ways to pay for Aja’s work: Aja has a Patreon where she regularly posts about ethical brands as well as hosting discussions about news in the world of sustainability at www.patreon.com/AjaBarber
Munroe Bergdorf Munroe was actually one of the first anti-racist activists I encountered when a few years ago she was fired as a spokesperson by L’Oreal after speaking out about white supremacy on TV (something that has been in the news a lot in the last couple days as L’Oreal have started using #blacklivesmatter to boost their own profile now it suits them). Munroe Bergdorf is a black trans activist, model and UN Changemaker having challenging discussions about racism and white supremacy and how both those things intersect with LGBTQIA+ issues. As we head into pride month, make sure you follow Munroe. Links to Munroe’s work: @munroebergdorf and @goddessplatform on Instagram Documentary: What Makes A Woman? (this is probably UK-only, sorry) Ways to pay for Munroe’s work: She is pretty famous so she doesn’t have a Paypal or a Patreon where you can directly pay for her work, but Munroe is a patron of Mermaid, a charity here in the UK that supports trans and gender-diverse children, young people and their families. You can donate to them at mermaids.org.uk/donate
Remember that learning is a life-long thing. Allyship isn’t only engaging with anti-racism work when it’s in the media like it is right now, it’s following activists like these women and regularly engaging with their work. Respectfully. And staying out of their DMs.
If you live in the UK, like me, Zing Tsjeng, Vice UK’s executive editor has suggested the following to take action:
Since she tweeted this the report has been released but without any investigation into why this disparity exists or concrete actions that are going to be taken to address it, so the pressure to do more is still very much needed. Writing to your MP can be difficult if you’ve never done it before. If you’d like help or to use the email I wrote as a template then please let me know – my email address is email@example.com
Commit to learning, listening and remembering that anti-racist work starts with the work you do on yourself.
Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but the similarities end there. In school, Connell is popular and well-liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation – awkward but electrifying – something life-changing begins.
Normal People is a story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find they can’t.
Sometimes the hype surrounding a particular book is so intense I find myself at a loss to know what to add to the conversation. That’s one of the reasons I have put off reviewing Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
The other is that it is a particularly polarising novel. There are the Normal People evangelists, waving the book around to anyone who will listen like you. Must. Read. This. Then on the other hand there’s those who disliked it so much they want to hurl the thing out of the window, tear it, burn it and then throw the pieces in the faces of everybody who ever told them it was worth reading.
I fall very much into the first camp.
I love Normal People.
(Yes, I have watched the BBC show. Yes, I loved it. Especially the episode about Marianne’s year in Sweden. It destroyed me.)
Normal People is a quiet, introspective novel about two people, Marianne and Connell, who love each other very much, but are, for reasons ranging from miscommunication to trauma, unable to hold onto each other. At least not in the way they’d like.
I have a theory that the people who don’t like Normal People are that weird subsection of the emotionally healthy who, like, know how to communicate their feelings? And they don’t understand how you could accidentally end a relationship because it didn’t occur to you that the person you’re in love with wouldn’t want to leave you?
(Who even are those people?)
For the rest of us, Normal People is a mirror for feelings of inadequacy (Marianne: why would anyone love me? Connell: What if people are judging me right now?), love (and heartbreak) and the self-destructive habits (Connell: isolating. Marianne: dating men who want to destroy her.) people have to move through in order to reach something like the beginnings of an emotionally healthy life.
It’s about how two people can change each other, and damage each other, and love each other.
The perspective shifts constantly between Marianne and Connell, between situations they’ve shared and the times – always temporary – where their lives have diverged away from each other. Time jumps as well as perspective, as though Rooney is sharing only snapshots of the most crucial points in these two lives. What is so remarkable is how ordinary these crucial moments are – a party at university where Connell and Marianne reconnect after many months, the sudden onset of Connor’s depression, Marianne’s study abroad year in isolation. Probably her most destructive period in the book, even it is punctuated not by melodrama but instead a fucked up sort of endurance test for Marianne to figure out how much hurt she deserves. I don’t think I have read such an empathetic and painful narrative of a person who wants to do harm to themselves before Rooney’s depiction of Marianne.
This snapshot-like structure spoke to me because often the biggest moments aren’t some epic thunderclap of realisation like I’d always thought they would be. Instead, a lot of the time, they’re only recognisable in retrospect, something I think the structure of Normal People really speaks to.
If you like books with plot, you’re probably not going to enjoy Normal People. If you like people to make emotionally healthy decisions that make total sense… yeah, you’re probably not going to like Normal People. But if you’re interested in emotionally messy, complicated people who fuck up constantly – sometimes deliberately – and all the moments of a relationship from the romantic to the truly painful and gnarly, then, yeah, Normal People might be for you.
Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”
In 1936, shortly after the school opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great crimes of American history. Something like that could never happen again, obviously…
Years later, true crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder.
Remotely situated boarding schools for the excellent – be that wizards, vampires or, in this case, geniuses – have always been one of my favourite literary escapes. So when Maureen Johnson, one of my forever faves, presented us with Ellingham Academy – a school with ‘…no application, no list of requirements, no instructions other than “If you would like to be considered for Ellingham Academy, please get in touch.”’ – I was totally in before I even read the first page.
Truly Devious is a murder mystery split into two separate timelines. There’s Stevie Bell, a new arrival at the school, true crime enthusiast and Sherlock Holmes-in-training at present day Ellingham Academy, sticking her nose into history to see what she can sniff out there, interspersed with chapters covering those shocking days of April 1936 when the course of Albert Ellingham’s life was thrown dramatically and tragically off course. The only thing both timelines have in common is that no one yet understands what on earth has gone on.
Stevie has lived all her life feeling like a misfit. From a politically conservative family – her parents even work for a local senator who is the unfortunate embodiment of Make America Great Again-ism – and a high school filled with kids she got on well enough with, but never felt especially connected to, she’s frustrated and desperate for a new chapter of her life to begin.
Yeah, Stevie. We can all relate.
The school is populated by the sort of colourful characters you might expect from an institution for the strange and genius – Janelle, an engineering superstar who was caught mending the toaster at 5 years old; Nate, the teenage author of a best-selling Game of Thrones-type series called The Moon Bright Cycles; Hayes Major, writer and star of The End of it All, a web series about a zombie apocalypse; and, finally, David. Oh, David. Constantly on the edge of expulsion, it’s unclear what David’s talent is besides disruption – of the school, and of Stevie’s general sense of wellbeing – but all I can say is you’re always glad he’s around. It’s Maureen Johnson we’re talking about, so you can’t guarantee a happy ending for the pair, but however it all turns out I am invested.
Like all Maureen’s books – has anyone else read her Shades of London series? I was obsessed – Truly Devious is totally addictive. There is a sense of foreboding over the entire narrative, the weight of the unsolved murders Stevie is at the Academy to investigate, plus that of the murder the summary promises is coming. Who will it be?
I’m not going to give it away.
All I will say I was reaching for the sequel as soon as I could get my hands on it.
On paper, college drop-out Pablo Rind doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. His graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour deli in Brooklyn is a struggle. Plus, he’s up to his eyeballs in credit card debt. Never mind the state of his student loans.
Pop juggernaut Leanna Smart has enough social media followers to populate whole continents. The brand is unstoppable. She graduated from child stardom to become an international icon, and her adult life is a queasy blur of private planes, hotel rooms and strangers screaming for her just to notice them.
When Leanna and Pablo meet at 5am at the bodega in the dead of winter, it’s absurd to think that they’d become A Thing. But as they discover who they are, who they want to be and how to defy the expectations of everyone else, Lee and Pab turn to each other. Which, of course, is when things get properly complicated.
Permanent Record offers an authentic take on what it means to be young and lost. Though classified as YA, perhaps what I liked most is that Permanent Record wasn’t about teenagers, but people in their early twenties. It wasn’t about high school, or university even, but that vast space you find yourself in when you’re finally thrown out of all the institutions in whose structures you’ve been immersed your entire life up until that point. Technically you’re an adult – employed full time, no longer living with your parents – but the reality is that you don’t have a cluewhat you’re doing. There’s this old musical that we used to have on VHS when I was a kid, Singin’ In The Rain. My brother and I’s favourite song in the whole thing was ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’, sung by Cosmo Brown, the clown to Gene Kelly’s leading man. Anyway, while he’s singing this stupid song, for the final flourish he goes to do his signature move – this back flip that involves first running up the wall before springing back off of it and landing on his feet. We see him manage it successfully a couple times, but the final wall turns out to be fake – they’re on a movie set – so he crashes straight through. Basically what I’m getting at is that I think early adulthood is a lot like Cosmo Brown singing ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’.
You’ll fall down a lot, and you probably won’t be the leading man.
That’s pretty much where Pablo is at when an escape hatch arrives in the shape of Leanna Smart. I once heard Dylan Moran say that relationships in your twenties are a continual process of not wanting to turn around and face your bullshit, so instead you find another person to whom you can attach yourself and be all “you look at it”, and that particular dynamic forms the heart of Pablo and Leanna’s relationship. It’s all-consuming and chaotic, it further fucks Pablo’s already pretty fucked up priorities and, more than anything, presents a fast-moving tide he can ride along rather than going about the difficult business of gathering the pieces of his scattered life.
So much of YA is consumed with firsts (for obvious reasons) – first love, first sexual experiences – and oftentimes, at least in contemporary novels they are written in a way that’s very much idealised. And look, I’m not complaining. There is a very important place for uncomplicated love stories (I mean, the first thing I did when lockdown happened was start rewatching Parks & Rec because I needed my Lesliemin fix) and there is something regenerative and hopeful about reading them, but the older I get the more I want to live in complicated spaces, and Permanent Record is the perfect read for this.
It’s also straight up uncomfortable at times. You know when your friends are doing better than you and you don’t exactly celebrate their achievements as you should because you’re so caught up in your own sense of inadequacy? Mary writes that to perfection. What about when you realise that those people in your life you’re totally judgey towards maybe aren’t actually doing it (it = life) wrong? That maybe despite what you’ve always thought they actually aren’t a joke, but had it figured out in a way you can only hope you will one day the entire time? Mary. Fucking. Gets it.
Permanent Record grabbed a hold of my heart with the wild abandon of a murderous Damon Salvatore and I loved it. Bittersweet and packed with uncomfortable truths, it was every bit as cool as Mary H.K. Choi herself. From this book to her extremely helpful podcast Hey, Cool Life, Mary has now cemented her place as one of my favourites, and a voice I am very glad to have during this lockdown.
Read Permanent Record. Seriously. It’ll blow your mind and break your heart a bit – but you can deal with that.
Then maybe watch Singin’ In The Rain because it doesn’t get much more pure than tap dancing, and I feel like we need that right now.
All her life, Spensa has dreamed of becoming a pilot. Of proving she’s a hero like her father. She made it to the sky, but the truths she learned there were crushing. The rumours of his cowardice are true – he deserted his flight during battle. Worse, he turned against his own team.
Spensa is sure there’s more to the story. And she’s sure that whatever happened to her father could happen to her. She’s heard the stars too – and it was terrifying. It turned her world upside down. Everything Spensa has been taught is a lie.
But Spensa also learned a few things about herself, too – and she’ll travel to the end of the galaxy to save humankind if she needs to.
After ploughing through Skyward in a couple of days, I quickly picked up Starsight, the sequel to Brandon Sanderson’s story about space pilots fighting a seemingly endless war against an alien race known as the Krell. Like I mentioned in my Skyward review, aliens aren’t really my thing, but after spending two books with Spensa and her multi-planetary (and species) war, I might be willing to change my stance.
There are a lot of aliens in this book. But I’ll get to that.
I’m not going to lie, diving pretty much straight from Skyward to Starsight was a bit of a disorientating experience. There’s a time jump between the events at the end of book one and where Starsight picks up. It’s been six months – and a pretty significant six months at that. The people of Detritus, Spensa’s home planet, have seen their knowledge advance a lot since the reveals at the end of the first book in the series, and while in a lot of ways this was no bad thing – it certainly pushed the story into some new and surprising territory quickly – I did find myself feeling a little bit robbed. After gradually putting the pieces together throughout the first book to finally understand Spensa, her father and what really went down that fateful day he appeared to abandoned his army in the midst of battle, missing out on much of the development of that understanding meant that the start of Starsight did fall a bit flat for me.
But don’t fear – Brandon pulled it back. It becomes apparent within a couple chapters that he made the choice to skip over six months of Spensa’s life because he had something big in mind.
Those other planets that were hinted at during Skyward are explored during Starsight, and it’s quite a ride. As I’ve mentioned, this book things get fully alien, and we find ourselves up close and personal with the Krell (who it turns out are crab people); diones, who tend to be either blue, red or purple and are non-binary; the kitsen, who are tiny fox people; and figments, which are invisible – plus a very scary murdery force out there in the stars which I won’t go into. It’s really better if you learn about those guys yourself.
Much like in the first book where Sanderson used a story of war as a way of thinking about courage, Starsight is more than anything a novel about compassion. When Spensa first encounters the other alien races that populate Starsight she sees them as just that – alien. Other. Not on her side. What becomes increasingly apparent though is that this war Spensa has spent her entire life consumed by is a lot more complicated than she had ever imagined. She comes into the situation as the persecuted party, but as she experiences more of the war from the other side she starts to realise that her own race isn’t blameless. And not only that, but the alien races she is surrounded by maybe aren’t so alien after all. What it means to be ‘human’ – from M-Bot’s struggles to make decisions independent of its AI’s programming, to the dione who wants to be a soldier even though that really isn’t something diones do – is the overarching theme, and I was 100% here for it.
I’m not going to lie, Starsight is not what I was expecting. Spensa spends the vast majority of the story away from Detritus, and therefore the flight team I fell in love with in book one, and while to start off with I felt pretty resentful about that (I love those guys!), the unexpected places Starsight took me had me sucked in again in no time.