Rebecca

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives – presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.


I am a huge Lily James fan girl, so of course I watched the Netflix adaptation of Rebecca as soon as it came out. I enjoyed it. The scenery was rich and immersive, the outfits gorgeous and Mrs Danvers downright weird. Then… I didn’t think a lot more of it. I rarely read the book after having watched the film – I don’t know why this is. I will often watch the adaptation of the book, but something about the other way around doesn’t tend to call to me unless the film was one I particularly loved. Which I did not – though I of course enjoyed it, it wasn’t an experience that was going to linger in my mind for years to come.

What changed? Well, I started to notice that there was a response I was seeing from a particular group – women around my mum’s age – of total dismissiveness of the film. They got it all wrong, they said, that wasn’t Rebecca at all. So when I went to visit home over Christmas and spied my mum’s copy on the book shelf, I decided it was time to pick it up.

And that, friends, is the last anyone saw me for the next couple of days.

In general I have really enjoyed my reading lately, but it has been a while since I have truly resented having to do anything but curl up in a corner and scour the pages like I did with this.

Because despite having watched the movie, what I did not anticipate was: this book is seriously messed up!

Rebecca is a tale of toxic relationships, patriarchy, sexuality and death – actual, real death and the insidious, incremental, unbearably slow death of the self, a common phenomenon driven by a particular type of consuming, domineering relationship.

In Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier serves us the two Mrs De Winters as foils to one another. We have the deceased Rebecca: wildly sexy, charismatic, beloved and great at parties, presented in stark contrast to the new bearer of the title. The narrator and current Mrs De Winter: youthful and inexperienced, mousy, shy and not even allowed the respect of her own name – a symbol, we soon realise, of her willingness to completely abandon herself to this relationship with the cold, mysterious Maxim – couldn’t more different. And oh, is she aware of it. She is consumed by it, in fact. Her intrigue about Rebecca – driven by her husband’s absolute refusal to discuss her – quickly crosses over into obsession, and perhaps some admiration too, for this woman who was so loudly, so profoundly, herself.

Then we have the other domineering female presence of the book: Mrs Danvers. The house keeper at Manderly, she is a black cloud hanging over everything right from the start. She’s a like a dark shadow stretching throughout the house – the thing moving in the corner of your eye that you don’t notice until it’s already too late. She too can’t help but compare the current Mrs De Winter to the former – who, you get the feeling as the book goes on, she was probably in love with (apparently Du Maurier was bisexual herself, so even though this book came out in the 1930s it seems likely this is what she meant to imply). She makes it her mission to nurture the narrator’s Rebecca obsession, feeding her small details that add up to a comparison in which she is found desperately wanting.

What is especially intriguing about this book, is that about three quarters of the way through, the narrative utterly flips – if you’ve watched the movie you’ll know this already, but it not, I won’t spoil it for you (also, it’s way better in the book). Du Maurier executes a genius twist that sees everything the narrator had come to believe about her life at Manderly crumble away, revealing an even darker reality.

At its core, I think, Rebecca is a book about identity. As the story goes on and the gothic undertones draw in closer around her, you start to see the narrator as a woman divided – one part of her explores her power, experimenting with what she understands as Rebecca-like behaviours, only to be shamed and rejected for them by Maxim. The other, dominant side is the submissive wife, the blank page willing to be whatever her husband wishes of her – a husband who on the rare occasions he engages with her at all speaks of her innocence, her fragility and her youthful inexperience as what attracts him.

I know which side I want to see win out.

Rebecca was thrilling, compelling and totally, totally addictive. Clearly, I need some more Du Maurier in my life.

Top reads of 2020

It’s hard to know what to say about 2020. I’m so tired of the vagueness of talk about ‘these extraordinary times’, but at a loss for how to describe them for myself.

I suppose I could talk about my 2020. In a nutshell: it sucked, but not as much as it might have. I made it through to the other end with a job (albeit with a 20% pay cut), a home – a new one. I finally escaped from my seven-person shared house into a much smaller, somewhat Covid-safer environment. My new landlady has a dog. I’m healthy. My loved ones are healthy too.

In the other hand, like so many, I can count the number of times I’ve seen my family this year on one hand – my brother is clinically vulnerable, so he and my mum have spent the year even more isolated than I have. My gran became very sick and died during the first lockdown in March – I couldn’t say goodbye or grieve with my family. My dog died right before lockdown started, too. My mental health has taken a massive hit. I don’t sleep well.

Within that: I read lots. There was a long period there were nothing brought me any comfort or enjoyment aside from books, and I clung to that. I feel closer to my friends than I ever have, even though I’ve barely seen most of them this year. I got really into cooking, and I’m getting pretty good at it. I did a lot of knitting, and I’m getting better at that too. I started a bookstagram account, and I’m really enjoying curating that space. It’s my little corner of the internet filled with the things that I love.

This is how I have existed in ‘these extraordinary times’. I built a Covid bunker out of books, filling my head with stories in a mostly fruitless effort to push the anxiety out. But it wasn’t all for nothing – yes, I’m still anxious, but the reading was excellent. Here are a few of my favourites…

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

One of my first pandemic reads, City of Girls lifted my heart at a time I desperately needed it. There’s an entire life in this book – one filled with fun, sex, adventure, self doubt, utter and complete failure and fuck up, destruction, rebuilding, loss and how you go about continuing life after it – there are even periods of contentment. As well as being an incredibley thrilling ride through the roaring twenties in the theatre world of New York City, something about this novel offers some much needed hopeful perspective on things. It’s a visceral reminder that a life is so much greater than the sum of its parts – that there is always, always something just around the corner. And not only that, but, whether you believe it or not – you’re ready to meet it.

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

This BOOK. Written like a series of transcribed interviews with one of the most iconic bands of the 1970s, Daisy Jones & The Six narrates the drug-fuelled, heartbreaking, exhilarating years of the eponymous band’s meteoric rise and explosive split, with singer-songwriter Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne at its addictive, star-crossed centre. A book about how people – and relationships – crumble under the weight of ego (and lots and lots of drugs), soul mates (the fucked up, destructive kind), the bitter cost of fame, and maybe, eventually, a little bit of healing. And music. Lots and lots of music.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

On the spectrum of responses to Normal People, I come down strongly on the side of love. It is a book about all of the small and big ways we can meet each other and fail each other over the course of a relationship. As close as we might think we are to somebody, we’re only ever parallel lines, and in that space between lie endless possibilities for connection – and, as Sally Rooney is far more interested in, misunderstanding. Connor and Marianne, the dual narrators of Normal People, fail and hurt each other in seemingly endless combinations throughout this often frustrating (or, depending on the type of person you are, uncomfortably confronting) book about figuring out how to love someone for their entire, complicated self – while bringing your entire, complicated self, open and vulnerable, to the table.

The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Daré

This book was one of my biggest surprises this year. We were sent a copy at work and it hung around the office for ages (that’s how long I’ve had it for – since back when I still went into the office!) before I eventually claimed it for myself – where it proceeded to get bumped off the top of the TBR for the next several months. Sometimes it goes that way. If you’re making the same mistake, I suggest you bump it up to your next read. This book is powerful, emotive and utterly addictive. The story of one young girl, Adunni, and her determination to get an education despite facing the devastating loss of her mother, forced marriage and other immense challenges that would take us into spoiler territory to name, once you start reading you won’t be able to put The Girl With The Louding Voice down until you find out how Adunni’s story ends. True to its title, it is the vibrance of the narrative voice that made this novel stand out. Adunni’s personality is huge and encompassing, and I fell completely in love with her faster and with greater force than I have with a protagonist in a long time. I read this book with a sort of desperation, rapidly flipping the pages, hoping against hope Adunni would get the ending she deserved. Daré is a powerful writer, and I am greatly looking forward to reading whatever she comes out with next.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

At this point it’s fair to say I am a fully paid up member of the cult of Bardugo. After Six of Crows I didn’t think it was possible for me to love her any more – then she goes and throws THIS into the mix. Like Veronica Mars meets Buffy by way of Gilmore Girls (the Yale years), this is a thrilling dual narrative split between Alex Stern (one-time drug dealer, natural ghost see-er of traumatic and mysterious origins) and Daniel Arlington ‘Darlington’, for all appearances the typical Yale rich kid (aside from the whole ‘I can see dead people’ (with the help of substances, anyway) thing) that centres on three key mysteries: what exactly are the origins of Alex Stern? Who is the murderer currently prowling the campus? And what the heck happened to Alex and Darlington that sees the book start with her bloodied and alone in her apartment and him, apparently, vanished?

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

This sprawling, evocative and utterly unique book throws you into 12 vastly different lives. Told mostly from the perspective of Black, British women, this novel of interconnected but separate narratives spanning continents and centuries doesn’t spend much time with each of its characters, but completely immerses you in their lives. The 12 portraits are empathetic but sharp – they dig deep into challenging territory of racism, trauma and heartbreak, but very equally into the satirical, where no one is let off the hook. It gives these women such authenticity and complexity that you feel robbed when their stories end – even as you’re eager to meet the next.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

I can’t decide whether I want Jia Tolentino to be my best friend, or if I just want to live inside of her brain. I love a book of essays, but Trick Mirror took the form to a level of cut throat relevancy I have never experienced before. These works are so of the moment, so cutting and so minutely observed on all things pop culture, feminism, race and politics that I spent half the time shaking the book and aggressively nodding my approval and the other face palming and screaming (internally, obvs): HOW have I never thought of that?! Whether she’s skewering #GirlBoss feminism, the cult of athleisure or her own performance on a little known reality TV show, her perspective is revealing, thrilling and deeply cathartic. Please, just read it.

And there we have it! Well, plus Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Intimations by Zadie Smith, both of which I have read in the last week and fallen utterly in love with. We’ll talk about those more in 2021, I guess.

If you made it to the end of this post, first, thank you. Second, tell me, what are some of the books that got you through 2020?

Happy New Year friends. I don’t know what to expect from this coming year, but there will be good books, and there is comfort in that ❤

The 3 bookish podcasts you need

2020 has been the year of the podcast. I have always been a listener, but as my anxiety levels have increased (and… I mean… 2020.) my pod hours have sky rocketed. Truthfully, I probably spend an unhealthy amount of time listening to podcasts, but as vices go, I could have chosen much worse. For the first time, this year I started deliberately seeking out bookish podcasts, so today I thought I’d share three of my favourites.


Literary Friction
Bookish, introspective, whip smart and brimming with exciting recommendations, it’s always a good day when a new episode of Literary Friction lands in my feed. Hosted by Carrie Plitt and Octavia Bright, expect in-depth author interviews and thematic discussions on everything from the necessity of hope, to sisterhood, race, therapy, vanity, social media and so much more. I recommend listening in a hot bath – some sort of bubbles/salts essential – with a towel pillow. Literary Friction is the perfect accompaniment to a lazy, introspective Sunday afternoon.

Dip in: State of the Nation with Olivia Laing. Recorded in 2018 with the release of her novel Crudo, this is a look at the role of the state of the nation novel – those books that capture the Zeitgeist and push us to reflect on the current moment.

City of Voices with Zadie Smith. Honestly I could listen to Zadie Smith talk all day. This episode, a live recording of an interview celebrating the release of Grand Union, Smith’s first short story collection, is all about embracing our inner chaos and turning our backs on the influence of social media (to whatever extent that is still possible).


Book Riot
If you’re into the newsy, gossipy side of the book world then Book Riot, hosted by Jeff O’Neal and Rebecca Joines Schinsky is the show for you. A weekly delve into the latest in the book world, they cover the bookish buzz, scandals and publishing insider info you need to know. As someone always several weeks behind of the goss – at least before I listened to this show – I get a lot of satisfaction being up to date with what’s going on, whether that’s the books making the awards lists, the publishers launching new, exciting imprints or the tell-all essays on whatever latest old science fiction writer turned out to be a perv. I would say I think this show suffers from being slightly too regular (they’re pushing two pods a week at the moment) but you can always skip one when they fall too far into the irrelevant (for example there’s one in my feed right now about The West Wing I don’t feel the need to listen to). Overall though, Jeff and Rebecca’s critical eye to the publishing world and regular dose of bookish excitement is enriching, and has provided me with a much greater insight into the industry than I previously had.

Dip In: Our Favourite Reads of Summer 2020. Who doesn’t like a good recommendations show? As if we don’t already have longer TBRs than we could ever possibly tackle! What I particularly enjoy about Jeff and Rebecca’s recommendations is they don’t necessarily feel the need of pick up every book simply because it’s ‘of the moment’ – there’ll always be a few gems in their lists I’ve never heard of before.

Deals deals deals. A very publishing ‘inside baseball’ type episode, this is a look at the recently announced book deals and pretty much whether or not Jeff and Rebecca think they’re worth the money. Again, if you’re interested in the inner workings of the publishing industry then this conversation will interest you.


The High Low
While technically a news and pop culture show, The High Low, hosted by writers Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton, has a strongly bookish flavour. It’s a show that celebrates writing, and is filled with author interviews, bookish recommendations and links to the best articles and essays Pandora and Dolly have enjoyed that week (something that makes my journalist heart oh-so-happy). As the name implies, The High Low embraces the silly as much as the serious, giving rise to a wide-ranging conversation that one week might centre an absolutely devastating, necessary piece of political writing, and the next might be consumed by an essay on what coronavirus means for the future of the buffet (someone really wrote this, and it was fantastic).

The High Low just aired its final episode (literally heartbreaking), but I think it still deserves its place on this list and I will be going back to listen to my favourite episodes again and again. Dolly and Pandora created a beautiful community of people celebrating things they loved and having challenging conversations with empathy and introspection. It might not be current any more, but it’ll always be relevant.

Dip in: Wiley’s Anti-Semitism, Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age & An Author Special With Nesrine Malik. Recorded back in July, the interview with Nesrine Malik (who, if you don’t know please Google all of her work immediately – this piece about cancel culture is a wonderful start point) about resisting cultural myths is vital listening.

Anti-Racism Resources & An Author Special with Candice Brathwaite. At some point I will finally get around to reviewing I Am Not Your Baby Mother, Candice Brathwaite’s utterly mesmerising memoir/ social and political commentary on Black motherhood in the UK. This episode of The High Low was where I first encountered her, and I fell in love immediately. It’s an utterly compelling conversation on the inequalities, joys and frustrations of Black motherhood in the UK, and the groundbreaking work in representation Candice has done in the last few years in the ridiculously white world of the mummy bloggers.

Do you listen to many podcasts? What are some of your favourites? Let me know in comments so I can keeping feeding my obsession

A bookish gift guide

Books are, in my humble opinion, far and away the best way to show your love – and most especially at Christmas, when even the busiest among us has time to settle down with blanket and bestseller, hot chocolate in hand. Here’s a few of the books my loved ones will find under their respective trees this Christmas…

For Your Bestie: Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman


The ladies of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast have written the book about friendship we have all been waiting for. Refreshing, honest, thoroughly researched and utterly celebratory, Big Friendship looks at what it means to be in a committed, platonic relationship with another person and the joys and difficulties that come with that. Strung together around the narrative of their own friendship – its inception, development, how they almost lost each other and how they went about rebuilding – Big Friendship is about the family we choose, and how we can keep choosing them, no matter what the years throw our way.

The Big Non Fiction: She Said by Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey


In this remarkable work – which reads more like a thriller than a piece of journalism – New York Times reporters Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey narrate their experience of breaking the Harvey Weinstein story, and the following explosion of the #MeToo movement into the cultural conciousness. This book takes you behind the scenes into the nitty gritty of reporting – finding sources, confirming stories and the continuing work of convincing people to come forward, despite the personal cost. If you’ve watched the movie Spotlight, it’s a lot like that.

For The Reader: Truly Devious, The Vanishing Stair and The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson


There is nothing more delicious than devouring an entire series in the liminal time between Christmas and New Year’s, and this YA mystery series has it all: remote boarding school full of genius teenagers, romance, a years-old murder mystery that suddenly intrudes on the present day when a student is found dead under mysterious and confounding circumstances. The addictive and immersive world of the Ellingham Academy is the perfect post-Christmas literary escape.

The Mum Read: The Familiars by Stacey Halls


The 17-year-old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall is pregnant for the fourth time. With three miscarriages already behind her, when Fleetwood Shuttleworth discovers a letter hidden by her husband Richard – himself desperate for an heir to his family fortune – from her doctor declaring her unfit to survive childbirth, she becomes desperate. Then she meets Alice Gray, a mysterious young midwife whose ancient knowledge of herbs and potions promises to help Fleetwood survive her pregnancy and provide the heir her husband demands. Then the witchcraft accusers come to town, and everything goes to hell. This deeply atmospheric, creepy, emotive book weaves a rich and enveloping tale that is just the right balance of female empowerment and spooky witchy vibes.

The Young’un: Asha & The Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan


The magical middle grade read tells the story of Asha and her journey across the Himalayas to track down her missing father. Immersed in the culture of India, unflinching in its portrayal of family difficulties and how children respond to them and filled with adventure and peril, you’ll fall in love with Asha and her best friend Jeevan on their journey to save Asha’s family from the debt collectors who would take everything from them.

The ‘Tough Year’ Read: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert


Vivian’s life opens up when she moves to New York. This tale of love, heartbreak, finding your passion, utterly fucking up – like, fucking up so badly it feels like there is no way back – finding that way back and becoming the person you were supposed to be all along, is the inspirational, comforting, everything is going to be okay-ist book I have read all year. It also has sexy showgirls, theatre, costumes, glamour and lots and lots of sex. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote this book while navigating the loss of her wife, and it doing so she created the book we all need as a friend to guide us through hard times.

The Everybody MUST Read: I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite

This seminal work on Black British Motherhood is like nothing you’ve ever read before. Part memoir, part socio-political journalism, Candice extrapolates her own experiences into the wider narrative of racial divides in Britain. From mummy blogger representation to utterly heartbreaking health disparities experienced by Black Mothers, this book offers revolutionary insight into the real Britain so often ignored by the headlines. Compelling, emotive and revealing in every sense of the word, whether you’re a mother or not, whether you want to be or not, this book has something to teach you about life.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race: A Discussion

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s 2017 book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is a thorough and confronting analysis of race relations in Britain today. Through chapters on subjects including Black British history (and its erasure), systemic racism in institutions like the police, education and sport, feminism and the relationship between race and class, Eddo-Lodge delves into the racist structures that British society is built on and the ways they are upheld by a society that has chosen to avert its eyes.

Though the book was a massive deal when it first came out, following the murder of George Floyd, it flew back up the charts, and in June, Eddo-Lodge became the first Black Brit to top the best seller list. It was an achievement about which she felt an understandable amount of conflict.

Why was it happening for the first time in 2020? (a shameful 6% of authors published in the UK are people of colour, so it’s not actually that surprising)

And how was it possible that so many white people were just waking up to the existence of racism now?


I first had my mind given a good shake by this book last year but I decided it was long overdue a reread and today I want to do something a bit different. In the
wake of the massive protests for racial inequality this year there was the huge drive for books on anti-racism. And I do think this is a good thing, but given

a) The huge amount of people (white women especially) who still voted for Trump in the US election (still matters, even though he lost)

b) The amount of white people who were surprised by that and

c) Here in the UK, the Conservative government’s decision to choose Black History Month as the moment to move to end the teaching of critical race theory in schools – effectively closing down discussions of white privilege in educational settings.
(I feel the need to add here that the UK curriculum already contains no substantive discussion of racism or Black history, and the government also rejected calls for changes to the curriculum to address this lack earlier in this year, so this entire story was about something that already isn’t happening and was only a means to stoke up right wing vitriol – which worked, obviously)

…I don’t think a lot of people really engaged with what they read.

So, let’s talk. When we read anti-racist texts it shouldn’t be as a passive observer. Reading the book is not the same as holding yourself accountable for the internalised racism that you inevitably hold. In addition to experiencing the author’s story and really taking on the information they are imparting, you need to push yourself – to learn more, to ask yourself big, uncomfortable questions. There’s a tendency – which I have absolutely fallen into – to hear people’s stories about racism they’ve faced, or even witness it yourself, and fall into shock and horror. You know, that moment when you think “I can’t believe this still happens! How can people be so awful?” etc. This is understandable, I think, but ultimately unhelpful. It is a means for those who consider themselves ‘good’ white people to separate themselves from those acts of racism, to centre their own feelings of horror in order to comfortably distance themselves from the truth of the matter that the same white supremacy that produced that horror is one that they (I) benefit from every single day. Nova Reid, an incredible writer and anti-racism activist I have learned SO much from has talked about this a lot on Instagram.

This post, I hope, is a suggestion of how you might read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race through the frame of accountability.

Let’s go.

Reni on the absence of Black history in UK education:
…I don’t think my ignorance was an individual thing. That I had to go looking for significant moments in black British history suggests to me that I have been kept ignorant. While the black British story is starved of oxygen, the US struggle against racism is globalised into the story of the struggle against racism that we should look to for inspiration – eclipsing the black British story so much that we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race.
We need to stop lying to ourselves, and we need to stop lying to each other. To assume that there was no civil rights movement in the UK is not just untrue, it does a disservice to our black history, leaving gaping holes where the story of progress should be.”

Key events:

– Racist attacks in Liverpool in 1919, the most high profile of which was the public lynching of Charles Wootten. He was thrown into the sea and pelted with rocks by a white mob until he drowned. The British response? A repatriation drive that resulted in as many as 600 Black people being sent ‘back where they came from’ – deported to the West Indies. Many of these people had settled in the UK after fighting for Britain in the First World War.

– The Bristol Bus Boycott. Guy Bailey was denied an interview at Bristol Omnibus Company because he was Black. In response, he and the West Indian Development Council launched a campaign against the BOC’s racist practices through the local media, gaining support from local students, politicians and press – meanwhile every single one of Bristol’s West Indian residents were boycotting the bus service. Over 100 students marched in support and the boycott continued to grow. In the end, BOC were forced to cave and change their discriminatory hiring practices – though to this day, Eddo-Lodge notes, the company (now called First Somerset & Avon) has never apologised.

These are only two events that I learned of for the first time reading Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race. The entire first section is filled with stories of the civil rights struggle in the UK I would wager the vast majority have very little awareness even happened.

Questions
Instead of asking yourself, why wasn’t I taught about this? Instead ask, why wasn’t I curious about this before now?


Reni on challenging white feminism:
British feminism was characterised as a movement where everything was peaceful until the angry black people turned up. The white feminists’ characterisations of black feminists as disruptive aggressors was not so different from broader stereotyping of black communities by the press. Women of colour were positioned as the immigrants of feminism, unwelcome but tolerated – a reluctantly dealt-with social problem.”

Key events:

– An incident on BBC Radio 4’s Womens Hour in 2013 where Reni was cast as a bully by Caroline Criado Perez, who equated the anti-racism work Eddo-Lodge spoke of with the bullying and harassment Caroline herself was experiencing online at that time following her successful campaign to get a woman on the new ten pound bank note.

– The massive backlash the term ‘intersectionality’ faced when it first made it into the mainstream feminist discussion, with an article in The New Statesmen inferring Black feminists were ‘The Mean Girls Club’ only one example. Eddo Lodge writes: “…this knee-jerk backlash against the phrase – to what is more often than not a rigorous critique of the consequences of structural racism – was undoubtedly born from an entitled need to defend whiteness rather than any yearning to to reflect on the meaning of the phrase ‘white feminism’.”

One problem that comes up over and over again among white feminists – and white women in general – is tone policing. It is surprising how many white women who would sincerely consider themselves to be liberal, even anti-racist still don’t recognise this behaviour. Tone policing, as defined in this excellent series of infrographics by Feminism India, is the act of focusing on the tone of a person’s statement, rather than the content. It is a tactic often employed by white women against Black women to lecture them on how their anti-racist message would be a lot more successful ‘if they were nicer about it’. It’s a way for privileged groups to silence the marginalised and avoid accountability. Basically, it is a very sneaky form of racism white people – and I really can’t emphasise this enough – many of whom consider themselves anti-racist utilise to uphold their own comfort (AKA life in a white supremacy) over progress.

Questions
Why do I feel that someone should communicate the trauma of racism and anti-Blackness in a way that makes me feel comfortable? Am I acting out of a desire to preserve my own privilege?

Can you think of a time when you have felt the ‘knee-jerk’ need to defend whiteness that Eddo-Lodge identifies? Have you ever felt threatened when listening to a person of colour talk about their experiences?

In conclusion
Have you read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race? What came up for you while you were reading? What questions do you think readers should be asking themselves in response to this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Further learning
Reni’s follow-up podcast, About Race where she delves further into subjects covered in her book

Follow The Black Curriculum on Instagram, an organisation committed to teaching Black history, year round

Watch Small Axe: Mangrove on BBC iPlayer, a drama based on the true story of the Mangrove Nine and police systemic racism

The Cruel Prince

One terrible morning, Jude and her sisters see their parents murdered in front of them. The fearsome assassin abducts all three girls and brings them to the world of Faerie, where Jude is installed into the royal court. Mocked and tormented for being merely mortal, Jude soon realises that to survive in this treacherous, dangerous, new world, she needs to be as smart, cunning and deceitful as the Fey themselves.

But the stairway to power is fraught with shadows and betrayal. And looming over all is the infuriating, arrogant and charismatic Prince Cardan. Jude must take the upmost care.


Because you’re like a story that hasn’t happened yet. Because I want to see what you will do. I want to be part of the unfolding of the tale.”

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black is one of those books that has existed on the periphery of my TBR forever. I remember thinking when it first came out that it looked like a lot of fun, but while some bloggers absolutely loved it, I read a lot of negative reviews too – enough that it just kept sliding further and further down the list. Then, a couple weeks back, I decided to join my local library (I know, it’s mad that I was not a member already). I became immediately overwhelmed by indecision as I wandered the stacks, so when my eye fell across The Cruel Prince I thought – I guess it’s finally time.

And you know what, that first thought I had was right. I did really enjoy this book. The thing people did not like, whatever it was – there have been too many years and too many books since for me to remember anymore – did not bother me.

Thought I suspect, but do not know for sure, what people’s problem may have been.

Everyone in this book is kind of awful.

And I loved it.

So, Jude, the lead in this drama, and her twin sister Taryn are two of very few humans in Faerie. They are all the more unusual for the fact they are free, and, for the most part, un-enchanted. They arrived in Faerie as children when they, along with their older, half Fey sister Vivienne are kidnapped by Vivienne’s vengeful, Fey father, Madoc. He just came to reclaim Vivienne from the human mother who took her away from Faerie, but for violent and murderous reasons winds up bringing Jude and Taryn along too – and raising them all as his own along with his new wife and young son, Oak, in a blended, just-don’t-mention-all-the-murder, family.

I bring all this up so you understand that Jude had something of a complicated childhood.

From such patriarchal beginnings, it’ll hardly surprise you to learn that The Cruel Prince is a book about power – because power, and the pursuit of it, is Jude’s driving force, for better and, sometimes, for worse. Growing up human in a world of Fey is not an easy road, and throughout their lives, Jude and Taryn have been subjected to bullying and harassment from their peers, and at times, full blown endangerment. Black has very much written the twins as foils to one another, at least in this first book of the series, and the blunt juxtaposition of how they have chosen to navigate their low status in Fey society is the most interesting conversation of the book.

For both women the roads they choose come with a lot of darkness, but I never felt particularly judgemental of their choices. They are simply trying to survive using the tools they have – it’s not exactly their fault the tools are shitty. Like I said, for Jude, survival is all about clawing together whatever power she can get her hands on, whatever the cost. For Taryn, on the other hand, she sees safety in going with the status quo, fitting in, and aligning herself with those Fey she hopes might make her acceptable by association.

One way to see this is that Jude is a bitch and Taryn is weak. But I think that shows a certain lack of imagination.

This messy relationship with the power dynamics also makes it known in their relationships with the men in their lives, which are hella problematic – as you might expect, under the circumstances. These women make terrible choices with men bound up in the structures that are oppressing them, and as much I wanted to shake them and scream ‘why though?!’ until I’m blue in the face, or grab a hold of him (a particular him that I cannot name because, spoilers) and point out how close he is to recognising the bullshit he has participated in without question for so long – that was all part of the enjoyment. I love characters that I am supposed to feel conflicted about. I revel in exploring all their shades of grey and I am so excited to see where Black takes it throughout the rest of the series – which I will definitely be returning to the library for, sooner rather than later.

These characters are not nice to each other. They are kind of murdery sometimes. They also make a lot of very poor choices.

It’s super fun to read. Especially if you need to think about someone else’s problems for a while.

City of Brass

In the markets of eighteenth century Cairo, thieves, tricksters, con artists and outcasts eke out a living swindling rich nobles and foreign invaders alike.

But alongside this new world, the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits, of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert – full of enchantment, desire and riches – where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.

Many wish their lives could be filled with wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about her. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…

Be careful what you wish for.


City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is a rich and imaginative fantasy that weaves elements of Islamic folklore with the political machinations of monarchy to create a vivid world filled with tension – of both the romantic and warmongering kind.

The story starts with Nahri, an orphan surviving via the means of the age-old con (fake healings, telling the future, the occasional exorcism, etc) who stumbles from the life she had known as just another Cairo trickster into the magical world of the djinn, beings born of fire who live, for the most part, in a magical land hidden from the human world by, you guessed it, more magic. This dangerous new world of flying carpets, flesh-eating ghouls and terrifying demon-djinn known as ifrit – regular djinn are sexy, ifrit decidedly not so. From what I gather there are a lot of claws and fangs happening – might hold the keys to Nahri’s mysterious past, if she can only get her new sexy djinn friend Dara to answer any of her questions.

I clicked with Nahri right away. A survivor well versed in thinking on her feet, she’s always got a witty retort and a means to make a buck tucked in her back pocket. She has an unusual talent for diagnosing and healing, skills she’s honing with a local pharmacist, and dreams of leaving Cairo behind to seek a career in medicine – even though that’s not something women really do, where she’s from. She can also speak any language as soon as she’s heard it, which is just very cool, honestly.

On the other hand, we have Ali, the other narrator of City of Brass. The prince of Daevabad, the aforementioned hidden magical land, he took me a lot longer to warm up to. But now, two books in (I finished Kingdom of Copper a couple of weeks back), I have come to the conclusion that this was kind of the point. Ali is not an easy person to like, but as I, and Nahri, discovered, he does kinda grow on you. Ali is the kind of guy who is stubborn about all of the wrong things. He holds himself up as the one with principles and his identity is very much wrapped up in that, but the principles – if not the high and mighty attitude that comes with them – seem to melt away when they present any personal risk. Trapped by the confines of royal life and his politically and personally domineering father, there’s a sense throughout City of Brass that he isn’t a fully formed person yet, and though to start with I read him as a weak manboy I didn’t have a lot of time for, after a while his story became one I could engage with. But initially, I’m not going to lie to you, whenever the narrative flipped from what was happening with Nahri to what Ali was up to, the story massively slowed down for me.

City of Brass is, in many ways, a totally perfect book for right now. Rich and complex, Chakraborty goes deep on the many different tribes of the djinn, their histories (a lot of which are bound up in conflict) and how those have led to the balance of power we see in Daevabad now. Keeping track of what different tribes were, which tribes didn’t like other tribes and how those feelings impacted Ali and Nahri required my whole brain. It was exactly what I needed – when I picked up the book and stepped into the world of Daevabad, everything that was going on in my day fell away. There’s not much higher praise for a fantasy than that, right?

Also, the sexual tension between Nahri and Dara… It’s also a very effective distraction.

Just saying.

Dominicana

Fifteen-year-old Ana Canción never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she must say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk up in Washington Heights.

As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, dance with Juan’s brother, César at the Audobon Ballroom, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.

In bright, musical prose that reflects the energy of New York City, Dominicana is a vital portrait of the immigrant experience and the timeless coming-of-age story of a young woman finding her voice in the world.


Joining Bookstagram (follow me!) meant that I was fortunate enough to see a huge amount of books by Latinx authors flood my timeline during Latinx Heritage Month. One of them was Dominicana by Angie Cruz and wow am I glad this book came into my life.

I have never read a story quite like this before. A complex, heartfelt and necessary exploration of an immigrant experience, Ana’s story will stay with me for a long time. There is a sense of immediacy and urgency to Cruz’s glorious writing – it lives entirely in the present tense – that grips you close, holding you deeply inside Ana’s experience in such a way I have rarely seen portrayed with quite such thrilling effectiveness. You’re blinkered by Ana’s experiences – but in a good way. As a reader you adopt her expectations, her understanding of the world and her context in such a way that every moment of her life and her move to the US and all of the alienation, fear and excitement that comes with it feels like your own. It’s incredibly tough at times – domestic violence is a regular feature of Ana’s world – but compelling to read such a closely written portrait of a life.

Part of the way Cruz has achieved this is her deft approach to the political moment of the New York Ana lands in. You understand her context only as she far as she does – which doesn’t include any knowledge of the country and its cultural landscape. So, when she and her new husband move in across the street from the Audobon Ballroom in January of 1965, a month before Malcolm X is assassinated there – and goes on to see from her window a small part of what his community mourning him looks like – you know this has happened and what it means, but Ana does not, so you the event and its after effects remain cloaked in painful mystery. She doesn’t speak any English and her husband won’t allow her to leave the house without him, and there’s no means for her to learn more – so the reader doesn’t either. I found it so refreshing the way Cruz doesn’t waste time spoon feeding context. She treats the political situation in the Dominican Republic in a similar way – you get enough of a sense of what is happening from the story and what it means for Ana and her family, but if you want to understand in more depth (which I would always recommend), you can do further research. The story doesn’t ask it of you, but it does give you a compelling reason to do so.

This is just one of the ways Cruz has crafted how utterly unknown New York is to Ana when she first arrives – the entire city is a question mark, and that fear of feeling lost the moment you step out the door alone was so present, especially in the early chapters of the book before Juan’s return to the Dominican Republic. The realness of that fear only increases the joy at its overcoming.

Dominicana is a unique immigrant narrative entwined with a powerful coming-of-age story – and as you’ll know I’ve you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I love nothing more than reading about a woman stepping into her own. And let me tell you, Ana is a character you want to scream and applaud loudly from the side lines for. Ana has as much self doubt as any 15-year-old – and the sort of weight on her shoulders no one, but especially not one so young should have to carry – but she holds herself with this quiet strength that grows steadily throughout the narrative in a way that was utterly delicious to read. In the process of building her life in New York, Ana falls down a lot – whether that’s from trusting the wrong people, or because what she wants is incompatible with what she needs to do for her family – and there is a bracing authenticity in how she faces it all. Cruz has written a book uninterested in the happy, neat ending of a girl riding off into the sunset, but one that instead revels in the complexities of human relationships, and the never-ending push and pull of duty to family verses duty to self.

It’s an extraordinary piece of writing about an experience too often sidelined. Cruz has crafted a novel that demands the spotlight.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

When, at sixteen, Janie is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before she meets the man of her dreams – who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds.


“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some, they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

I have been meaning to pick up Their Eyes Were Watching God since I read Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness a few years back. Janet wrote of the book with so much love – and I wanted feel closer to Janet/continue to live inside of her brain, so I determined I would read it too so it could be like something we shared (does anyone understand what I mean by this?). It took me a few years, but, like most things, I finally got around to it. And let me tell you, there’s a reason people have such strong feelings about Zora Neale Hurston.

It’s really hard to use the words ‘women’s empowerment’ without cringing, but I’m going to ask that you allow me to do so here. Because Their Eyes Were Watching God is a complex and nuanced look at how one Black woman, Janie, empowers herself in 1930s America. In fact, I think we should remove the cringe factor altogether. We still live in a world where women’s empowerment is a political conversation – albeit one that has been hijacked by a very white, #GirlBoss style of feminism that is much more about buying things than changing things. But, when stripped of its corruption by capitalism, it is a political conversation still.

I digress.

Janie’s story takes her through three husbands: Logan, a much older man Janie’s grandmother marries her off to because she believes it’ll give her her best chance – he’s rich; Jody, another older smooth talker Janie runs off with at the first opportunity; and, finally Teacake, the man who ends up being pretty much the love of her life.

I am deeply resistant to the idea of a woman’s empowerment being wrapped up in a man – as anyone who has ever read a review of mine may have picked up on… – so the structure of Janie’s story as one completely bound up in the men she was in relationship with challenged me, but, I think, ultimately showed me something I hadn’t really considered before.

Her first husband, and her second husband even more so, thought of Janie – young, beautiful – as a symbol of their own success. In the all-Black community of Eatonville, the town where she and Jody live together they are basically the ultimate power couple, owners of the General Store that is the centre of the town’s community, and eventually mayor and – I guess? – mayoress. But Jody is deeply controlling, and won’t allow Janie to participate in the town’s community – he barely even lets her to speak to people. He wants only to hold her up like a trophy, another of his achievements.

In a lot of ways this is what women are taught to want, right? It certainly seems like an enviable position to a lot of other women in Janie’s orbit. But it denies her freedom and agency; she is just another of those caged birds, cut off.

She was borned in slavery when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me – don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool tuh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she tol me, but Phoeby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.”

When Teacake, a much younger man, comes along, he offers Janie everything she’s never had before. Fun, music, vitality, and actual love, the sort of active give and take that has very little to do with the alienating idolatry Janie has experienced before. This is not to say their relationship is perfect – it is in many episodes deeply problematic. Teacake often spends Janie’s money without asking, and there is sometimes violence in their relationship – but despite all this he is the man that Janie has chosen for herself. And it is that choice that represents such a turning point for Janie. She steps down off of the high chair and into her life. It’s a complicated life, with a guy we might not have chosen for her, but it is finally her own. As Zadie Smith writes in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition: “the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches far beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives.”

As you will note from the quotes I have chosen, this book includes a mix of omniscient narrator, written in standard English and speech written in dialect. Dialect puts a lot of people off, but it really needn’t. It takes a minute, but you tune in – and once you do the voices leap off the page. Or as Zadie puts it in her gorgeous intro,“her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all.”

I note this mostly because I know dialect scares a lot of people away – might have scared me away if I had realised what I was getting myself into – but it really needn’t. Trust me.

Janie’s story is one you need to read.

White Teeth

At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.


Until recently I haven’t read a lot of British books, especially the really famous ones like White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I suppose because my serious reading addiction began with YA, which is such a US-dominated market, before stretching in more recent years to authors like Stephanie Danler, Catherine Lacey and Jia Tolentino – your basic Belletrist book club reading list – not to mention how America-centric a lot of the TV we’re watching is…

Basically what I’m saying is as a young-ish, internet dwelling person you sort of end up adopting the US as the norm, which is something I hadn’t even really realised I’d done until I discovered how intensely refreshing I found books like Queenie, Girl, Woman, Other and Everything I Know About Love – books that look at the deep problems and deep silliness that I see in my own days.

White Teeth was a particularly powerful example of this. A novel that spans two(ish) decades, it’s a multi generational story of multiculturalism, immigration and racism that came out in 2000, but still felt very much like a contemporary novel. In it, Zadie touches on micro aggressions, white fragility and white saviourism – conversations we’re having in such depth right now (at least, I should caveat, on my feeds, though if The Social Dilemma has taught us anything its that what’s true for us certainly isn’t for everybody!) – but at the time of the book’s publication, at least among its white readers, I imagine were somewhat more fringe. I couldn’t decide whether this felt like progress (we’re having these conversations now!) or its opposite (we’re still having these conversations?).

It’s a book that is deeply concerned with questions of identity, particularly immigrant identity and how that is formed in a country that is often either hostile, or ignores you altogether. The book comes from a multitude of perspectives and two different families, parent and child, which means you experience this from so many different angles. For Samad and Alsana Iqbal, who immigrated from Bangladesh, so much of that identity is bound up in loss. From the loss of their one-time home to watching their children grow up and reach, it seems, ever further and further away from their heritage with every passing year, there is a sense of grief that often expresses itself in ways destructive to their family.

But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance.”

Equally for their kids there is a sense of loss from growing up in a country that so often excludes them, stereotypes them, perpetuates violence against them.

I’ve written about this a lot lately, but here in the UK we quite like to pretend that we don’t have ‘a race problem’, that all that is – going back to my previous point – ‘an American thing’. In this novel Zadie dispenses with the myth completely, representing multiculturalism for what it really is – enriching, joyful and filled with opportunity, but also complex, fraught and rife with the problems of systemic racism we still refuse to tackle.

It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best – less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all that, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.”

It’s also an intensely funny novel, filled with unexpected dramatic irony in how it all unfolds. There are no words wasted. Every moment of this story leads to the dramatic – and utterly ridiculous – finale, highlighting how each decision we make ripples outwards in ways we cannot foresee. Much as it is a novel about loss, it is also a novel about the past, and its refusal to stay back where you left it. You carry every piece of your life with you, for better and for worse – and even though it’s often maddening and painful, there’s something hopeful in it too, I think.

I truly haven’t read anything quite like this before. I have since become completely obsessed with Zadie Smith, seeking out her podcasts, essays, interviews – there is something about her intellect that is simultaneously comforting and challenging.

I might be in love with her.

I’m okay with it. In this shittiest of years, she might be one of my best discoveries.

(I know it sounds sort of ridiculous to talk about ‘discovering’ Zadie Smith cause I know she’s really famous, but whatever. I’m sorry, okay? I’m late to the party! But I am here now. With bells on.)

It’s Black History Month, so I’m dropping in with an accountability check for my fellow white readers in particular. How diverse are your bookshelves? When did you last pick up a book written by a person of colour? If your answers to those are ‘not very’ and ‘um…’ then you need to do something about that. Not sure where to start? Hop over to Instagram and follow @bookishandblack, @theblackbookblog1 and @novelallure to get started building your reading list. Also pick up Zadie Smith. Seriously. I can’t believe I lived my life this long without her.