As the exiled mortal Queen of Faerie, Jude is reeling from Cardan’s betrayal and is determined to reclaim everything he took from her. Opportunity arrives in the form of her deceptive twin siser, Taryn, whose life is in peril. Jude myst return to the treacherous Farie Court and confront her lingering feelings for Cardan.
But Elfhame is not as she left it. War is brewing, and she becomes ensnared in the conflict’s bloody politics. When a terrible curse is unleashed, panic spreads throughout the land, forcing Jude to choose between her ambition and her humanity…
“I feel the soft brush of his tail against my ankle, winding around my calf.”
… This is not a scenario I would ever have imagined myself finding totally hot, but such is the power of Holly Black. Or maybe it’s the pandemic enforced isolation.
Probably it’s a little of both.
Queen of Nothing, the final book in Holly Black’s Folk of Air trilogy was everything I wanted.
Did it all totally hang together? Nope!
Were some things too easily resolved? Absolutely.
Did I mind? Not one bit.
With the exception of one off-page death – not to be all blood-thirsty, but I feel like we deserved to see it – part three of this power-grabbing, sexy, magical adventure was the satisfying conclusion I needed.
Escapist, immersive and a little bit silly, this series is one of my top recs for surviving the panny-d.
We have all the necessary ingredients for total distraction: sexy faeries, political intrigue that has nothing to do with actual real life political intrigue (I remain a little unsure why all these faerie clans were so mad at each other and I do not mind at all), complicated female relationships, spies and a really big snake.
If you don’t think a really big snake is a necessary ingredient for total distraction then you have clearly never been faced with one. Nothing focuses the mind quite like a really big snake.
Jude’s story has a satisfying three-act structure that totally pays off in the finale. If in book one she was teetering on the edge of herself and during book two barrelling down the rabbit hole of Roy family levels of manipulation and general evilness (like Succession but with magical kingdoms instead of America’s largest media and entertainment conglomerate), in book three she finds something like balance. While she is not exactly a nice person by the end – thank God. That would have been so disappointing – she has found the middle ground of her humanity and her desire for power, and it is a surprisingly solid place. I don’t get the sense she’s totally ‘clean’ – her and Cardan are still very much the people they started out as (albeit older and wiser, heads of state, etc) – and a potential future that sees her fall off the no-active-evil wagon is not unimaginable, and there is satisfaction in that, too. What has been so attractive about Jude from the beginning is her propensity to make a total mess of things, and she doesn’t shed that tendency to achieve perfection like so many YA special snowflakes before her.
Like I said, she is what she has always been: a human girl in a faerie world. It’s complicated, but she’s figuring it out.
Right now we need distraction, we need satisfaction, and quite honestly, we need sexy times. The Folk of Air series provides in all departments. If you’re looking to be somewhere else for a while, these three books are a great option.
Kathy is a writer. Kathy is getting married. It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart.
From a Tuscan hotel for the super-rich to a Brexit-paralysed UK, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties trying to adjust to making a lifelong commitment just as Trump is tweeting the world into nuclear war. But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing. Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead, the planet is hotting up. Is it really worth learning to love when the end of the world is nigh? And how do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?
Olivia Laing radically rewires the novel in a brilliant, funny and emphatically raw account of love in the apocalypse. Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.
The book is about existing during that summer – the early days of the Trump presidency, the first fallout after the Brexit vote and the ongoing tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. It’s about the numbing horror of the 24-hour news cycle, the creeping sense of detached fear we have that maybe we’re in the midst of a long and drawn out apocalypse, where the most we can hope for is to bow out before the bloody end – and this was before most of us knew what a zoonotic disease was, and the role our casual destruction of the planet played in creating them. It’s also a book about learning to be married in your forties, having spent the vast majority of your life alone. On Literary Friction, Laing said it was, in part, a book about selfishness.
A weird thing about Crudo that you don’t strictly need to know going in is that is it is sort of autobiographical – Laing herself was a woman just married in her forties navigating the relentless horror of that summer, and is sort of written as Kathy Acker, a famous post-modernist writer who died in 1997. Laing writes from the perspective of an invented Acker, who in turn built a career out of theft: she wrote her own re-imaginings of Great Expectations and Don Quixote, among others. Like Laing, Kathy loved to write from the invented perspectives of the famous and dead.
Reading Crudo you get whiplash. It is the perfect microcosm of modern life – as they describe it on Literary Friction, the epitome of the state of the nation novel – veering between the different sorts of excess we have at our fingertips. The too much news contrasts with the too much food, horror on screen is read against a backdrop of the glorious Italian summer Kathy spends eating and drinking with her new husband. Crudo means raw in Italian – that’s what it is. This book is about the way the world leaves you raw – and how opening yourself up to someone by marrying them does the same thing.
Crudo is particular to that summer, but applicable to the others that have come since. Trump is no longer president, but Trumpism is still thriving and I’m scared of what will happen next now it is freed from the few remaining threads of accountability the White House provided. Here in the UK, we Brexited, and we’re not focused on it because there is so much else to worry about, but it is chaos and it is destroying businesses, and the consequences in Northern Ireland are as bad as all of the experts nobody listened to predicted. The situations have shifted, but the feeling is the same. The impending doom. There was an odd sort of comfort in sitting in that for Laing for a while, like I recaptured, briefly, that feeling of all being in it together we glimpsed in the early days of the pandemic, when people stood in doorways banging saucepans for the NHS just to feel like they were doing something.
It is not a hopeful book, but it is not strictly a depressing one either. It’s all so beautifully normal – Kathy’s lazy days, the small fights with her new husband that feel huge until they don’t anymore, her constant desire for more space from the man until she has it, and the terrible feeling of missing him when she finally does. It’s a snapshot of a moment that adds up to a devastating and intimate portrait of a person in the midst of a life-shifting summer – but the reality of lift shifting is it doesn’t feel especially huge at the time – in what feels like a world-ending crisis, but actually turns out to be a precursor for whatever comes next. Though Olivia didn’t know that then.
It made me wonder what this crisis is a precursor to.
Sometimes you just have to sit in it for a while, and there’s no one better to do that with than Olivia Laing.
Since Covid, what small, previously not-much-considered thing has grown into something much larger for you?
For me, it’s cooking. I’ve always enjoyed it, but in the pandemic I have clung to it like a life raft. Assembling a recipe offers structure, a roadmap from point A to point B. There is a rhythm to the chopping and frying and boiling on a low heat for 15 minutes that soothes me. There’s the health thing, too – another desperate bid for control on my part, but I take a certain amount of satisfaction in the feeling of nourishment.
I’ve been trying new things, too, buying the ingredients I would always skip because they are too expensive. They are still too expensive, really, but I justify it to myself that I’m spending the money I might have used eating out were it a normal year. When you grow up without much money you get into the habit of thinking there are certain things in life that just aren’t for you – somehow in eating the foods from the fancy bit of the supermarket I feel like I am reclaiming a space I didn’t even realise I wanted. This year I bought a mango for the first time. I had to Google how you cut it. I tried cacao powder. I have oyster mushrooms in my fridge right now, something I’ve never tried before – the non-regular, non-cheap mushrooms have always been strictly off limits in my mind. I’m excited.
I never thought cookery books would become such a central part of my library, but when I’m tired but can’t take the scroll any longer, I find myself reaching for them and leafing through the pages, poring over the pictures I’ve pored over countless times before. A cookery book is a luxury item. All of mine were gifts – like the oyster mushrooms, until recently it hadn’t occurred to me they are something I might buy for myself.
Quote of the month “I am sometimes unduly terrified by my shortcomings, and I do not trust God. But at my worst, for now, I remember that one thing I still control is whether or not I give in. And then I go on.”
– Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
The best thing that happened to me, hands down, this month was How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. At some point I will write about it, and hate myself for how little justice I did to explaining what this book meant to me.
Tell me about your February. How are you getting on?
Mountweazel (n.) a fake entry deliberately inserted into a dictionary or work of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.
It is the final year of the nineteenth century and Peter Winceworth has reached the letter ‘S’, toiling away for the much-anticipated Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. He is increasingly uneasy that his colleagues are attempting to coral language and regiment facts. Compelled to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom, Winceworth begins inserting fictitious entries into the dictionary.
In the present day, young intern Mallory is tasked with uncovering the mountweazels as the text of the dictionary is digitised. Through the fake words, she finds she has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires. More pressingly, she must also field daily threatening phone calls. Is a suggested change to the definition of marriage (n.) really so controversial? And does the caller really intend for the Swansby’s staff to ‘burn in hell’?
As their two narratives combine, Winceworth and Mallory must discover how to negotiate the complexities of an often nonsensical, untrustworthy, hoax-strewn and undefineable life.
The Liars Dictionary explores the themes of trust and creativity, and celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language. It is an exhilarating debut novel from a formidably brilliant young writer.
The Liars Dictionary is a playful novel about the irony of language – even when presented with a literal encyclopaedia of words, self expression remains just out of reach. Told through two socially uncomfortable narrators – Peter Winceworth in the 19th century and half-closeted intern Mallory in the present day – Eley Williams explores the undefinable bulk of human experience.
I tend to stay away from self consciously ‘bookish’ reads – anything set in a book shop, books about authors (one rung below movies about Hollywood on the ladder of annoying things no one really needs), etc – so I worry that others out there like me might be put off when I say that The Liars Dictionary is a book that delights in nerding out about words. Please don’t be. This is no literary Once Upon a Time In Hollywood – it’s a story about expressing yourself, and the often woeful inadequacy of language in the face of that task. It’s about how we’re compelled to try anyway, even holding the weight of a history filled with devastating communication failures – small and large.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews grouping Eley Williams with writers like Ali Smith and George Saunders and while I think both are fair comparisons – and I love Saunders and I like Smith in certain doses –there is a self concious whimsy to their writing that I didn’t feel during The Liars Dictionary, to its benefit. There is something about the closely observed portrayal of the discomfort that both Winceworth and Mallory feel about themselves that kept the novel grounded, even in its most playful moments.
I love books that play out across different timelines, and in The Liars Dictionary, Williams does it to delightful effect. As you’ll gather from the summary above, the bulk of Mallory’s work for her internship digitising the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary has become seeking out and removing mountweazels – fake words inserted into the dictionary by its creators. Mountweazels are actually a real thing, and much like the paper towns used by cartographers (and beloved by the likes of Margo Roth Speigelman), they are inserted as copyright markers – so if an Oxford English fake word suddenly shows up, for example, in the Merriam Webster, you know some copying has taken place. However, it turns out in Swansby’s, there is not just one mountweazel but many peppered throughout, words like Relectoblivious (adj.), accidentally rereading a phrase or line due to lack of focus or desire to finish; Prognostisumption (n.), belief, as made by glimpsing aspects of something from a distance; and Agrupt (adj.), irritation caused by having a denouement ruined. Mallory must seek out and remove the markers of this invented language, even as she wonders at the stories of the person who created it.
We don’t have to wonder. The novel slips seamlessly back to the 19th century where we get to see, in real time, the experiences and events that would lead Peter to invent those words. We feel with him the indefinable experiences he seeks to give language too – all experiences he is too afraid to say out loud and so hides them instead in the pages of the encyclopaedic dictionary he and a legion of other lexicographers have dedicated their professional lives to. I should mention here another unique aspect of the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary is that it never got finished. There were too many words.
The Liars Dictionary grapples with expression and definition in an utterly unique fashion, exploring language in all its limits and invention to captivating effect. It’s a quietly hopeful book, equal parts silly (I mean, an uncomfortable guy is literally called Winceworth) and profound.
Written during the early months of lockdown, Intimations explores ideas, feelings and questions prompted by an unprecedented situation. What does it mean it submit to a new reality – or to resist it? How do we compare relative sufferings? What is the relationship between time and work? In our isolation, what do other people mean to us? How do we think about them? What is the ratio of contempt to compassion in a crisis? When an unfamiliar world arrives, what does it reveal about the world that came before it?
Suffused with a profound intimacy and tenderness in response to these extraordinary times, Intimations is a slim, suggestive volume with a wide scope, in which Zadie Smith clears a generous space for thought, open enough for each reader to reflect on what has happened – and what might come next.
The isolation of the pandemic has created a space for the mind that we’ve never experienced before. Or maybe I shouldn’t say created, maybe it was always there, but in the long-term suspension of anything resembling the sort of life we had always taken for granted has finally become un-ignorable. I think whether this is a good thing or a hellish thing probably depends on the day, and what sort of person you are – in terms of both privilege and disposition. In Intimations, Zadie Smith’s utterly absorbing series of essays about pandemic life, she describes us as being “Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure”, and Zadie, like us, has “almost no idea what to do with it”. So we sit and we think, or we try not to think, and in the grey space between those two goals we reach for books like this, which are like a fresh hot water bottle in a cold lap – they burn a little, but they comfort too.
Rightly or not, I tend to read essay collections with the hope they will ‘explain life’ to me, to unlock some previously unidentified truth that will make me ‘solved’ for having read them. The first thing I often do find, but I’m less sure about the second – I think perhaps that will continue to mostly evade me until I pluck up the courage to start writing it for myself. While I definitely went into Intimations with my usual attitude of teach me how to be, Zadie, the profound experience I had with this book – and continue to have when I pick it up from time to time to reread an essay as I have done since I first read it – shook me.
The past year has been a destabilising lurch into the unknown. Before now most of us – the lucky ones, I guess – never understood how living in a real-life disaster movie could be so boring. We’ve clung to routine, or no routine, great habits and maladaptive ones, obsessive scrolling and Netflix – our coping mechanisms in the absence of any roadmap instructing us How to Deal. This whole time, we should have just been reading Intimations instead.
I’m not saying you’ll finish these six essays knowing suddenly how to mark time in some way other than with whatever you’re going to eat next (just me?) – like I said, essays don’t tend to ‘solve’ you, much as you might wish them to – but Zadie’s words go some way towards lifting the emotional burden. I’m writing this the day after Alexandria Orcasio Cortez’s Instagram Live where she revealed the details of what happened to her during the storming of the capital, and before that, how her response to that trauma was informed by a previous sexual assault. During that video she talked a lot about trauma, and how doubt over the legitimacy of our own experience – stoked by the gas lighting of a society that hasn’t figured out how to face its own darkness – stops us from talking about it. And this is so counter intuitive, she explained, because research has actually shown that one of the ways that we process trauma is to talk about it, by telling people: This Is What Happened To Me.
That’s what Zadie Smith is doing in Intimations.
It’s been really hard to figure out how to talk about suffering during the pandemic, when so many of us are in such fortunate positions of privilege. When the entire world is going through the exact same thing, how can you talk about your individual suffering? I don’t know about anyone else, but there have been times in the midst of all this when I am having an especially bad day I have found myself berating myself along the lines of – so today you’re making a literally global pandemic all about you?
Yep. I guess.
As Zadie writes: “…it is possible to penetrate the bubble of privilege and even pop it – whereas the suffering bubble is impermeable. Language, logic, argument, rationale and relative perspective itself are no match for it.” It’s an essay that suggests rather than berating ourselves for this sense of our own suffering we might be better served by accepting it, feeling empathy for it – so that ultimately, we might give other people the same kindness.
Intimations is a collection filled with these small truths – the writing brings with it a sort of clarity that you want to sit in conversation with. It is a work that keeps informing your day to day long after you have turned the final page. It’s a conversation about quarantine, and time, and the murder of George Floyd – an essay that points towards the other pandemic, the one that has been slowly killing us without half of the headlines: contempt.
She writes: “Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave-ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck, and reverse-engineered an emotion – contempt – from a situation he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. So unlike other people. Frighteningly unlike!”
It is a time of trauma – not equally distributed – and none of us know what to do. We don’t know “what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it”, and it feels like our identities have been swallowed by that reality. Intimations doesn’t have the solution – though for a short while at least does answer the question of what to do with all that time. The solution probably, let’s face it, doesn’t really exist – or isn’t so much one achievable thing as a multitude of shifting and evolving goal posts. But it says something important, all the same.
Jude has tricked Cardan onto the throne, binding him to her for a year and a day. But the new High King does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her, even as his fascination with her remains undimmed.
Meanwhile, a traitor in the court is scheming against her. Jude must fight for her life and the lives of those she loves, and also battle her own complicated feelings for Cardan. Now a year and a day seems like no time at all…
Another tale of power grabbing, deceit, betrayal and lust, The Wicked King is a sequel worthy of its predecessor.
Five months after the end of The Cruel Prince and we land back in the world of faerie – and, I’m happy to report, nobody has gotten any nicer. Reluctantly King Carden – now kind of Jude’s magical slave – is leaning hard into the whole sexy, rakish, self destructive thing, meanwhile Jude is pretending like her new found position of power isn’t going to her head.
It’s totally going to her head.
The desperate scramble for control over the kingdom that took flight with the bloody ending of book one really blossoms this time around – no sooner has Jude gotten her hands on the crown (ahem, to keep safe for her baby brother, ahem) when a brand new force rears up to take it from her.
And this girl is not letting go without a fight. We would expect no less, obviously.
The unfolding of Jude’s corruption continues to completely fascinate me. Book one was all about setting up the divide that Jude has straddled her entire life: a human girl in a magical world, raised by the man she saw murder her mother (but he’s her dad – if not biologically – and she feels for him whether she wants to or not), disgusted by the abuses rife in the world of faerie – and the world of her father in particular – yet drawn to them somehow, too. Violence and the feeling of control that comes with it holds a magnetic pull for Jude, one she can’t always resist, even as she wonders what this all means for her in the long term. You know when you’ve got a super unhealthy habit but you’re going through a hard time and you justify it to yourself like ‘it’s okay, I’ll stop from I’ve gotten through… X’ – well, that’s like Jude, but with murder. As she’s learning, it’s much harder to put behind you than an over indulgence of Ben & Jerry’s.
Her final step over the divide into evil-dom seems to come, surprisingly, with her sort-of reunion with her twin sister Taryn, who she is kind of estranged from for fucked up boy-related reasons that took place during book one. Along with her request to be friends again, Taryn brings a bunch of Jude’s things to her new home in the royal palace – toys, ‘talismans’ of her childhood – and as soon as her sister leaves, Jude dumps them on the fire. It’s a symbolic moment, her transformation into this new iteration of herself is complete. At least, that’s what she wants to believe.
She and Carden fall further into their delicious toxicity. Don’t get me wrong – IRL, I would not support this relationship, but within the bounds of Jude’s world, it makes sense. Their mutual disgust/fascination with each other continues to play out in inventive and sexy ways, as they veer toward and then away from something like, maybe, genuine affection. Until one of them inevitably betrays the other and they are back to square one of absolute disgust with the occasional make out break in between fights.
I can’t wait to see how this all ends. I put a hold on book three at the library and then the UK was hit with the latest lockdown with no end in sight, however, so I must resolve myself that sadly, it’ll probably be a while.
For those who can get their hands on it however, I can’t recommend this series enough. It’s dramatic, thrilling, sexy, ridiculous and exactly the level of escapism we need right now.
I always fear sounding whiny and negative when I write about myself, but if I’m being honest, January has been a hard month. In the UK we’re in our third national lockdown – not as strict as the first lockdown, not as lax as the second – we just passed 100,000 deaths and our utterly incompetent government still won’t fully close the borders whilst claiming they are doing ‘everything they can’.
You compensate in weird ways. I have gotten completely obsessed with wellness and productivity influencers. Women with perfect bodies who wake up at 5am (because they want to, not because they’re anxious!) to set up their bullet journals, and always seem like they are able to eat more than their tiny waists would imply – I know this because the What I Eat In A Day video is the staple of such content creators, and I watch them obsessively. It’s not a practise I recommend.
Like most things, the current state of my days can be summed up by a tweet I found on Instagram:
This Golden Tempeh Nourish Bowl by Pick Up Limes. My latest health-based obsession is gut health, and so I have been trying to simulate some sort of control over the world by introducing more fermented goods into my life. Hence, I’m trying to figure out tempeh. Also kombucha. This recipe is real good, though I would recommend marinating it for as long as possible – it is not a leave it for 10 minutes and hope for the best sort of job.
Quote of the month From Crudo, by Olivia Laing “Kathy was becoming obsessed with the numbness, the way the news cycle was making her incapable of action, a beached somnolent whale. No one could put anything together, that was the problem. She had recently read an article that listed all the reasons why monarch butterflies were dying, before seguing proudly into an account of taking a plane across America so the writer could cheer herself up by seeing monarch butterflies. On the plane she complained about the air pollution of jet fuel and perfume, how it gave her allergies, but she didn’t connect the casual habit of flying thousands of miles with the collapse of the butterflies. Kathy didn’t blame her. The equations were too difficult, you knew intellectually, but you never really saw the consequences since they tended to impact other poorer people in other poorer places.”
How was your January? What are you reading? I’d love to hear from you in comments.
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.
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 ❤
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