Dear Mrs Bird

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

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


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

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

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

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

And that’s when things start to get interesting.

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

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

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

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

What do we do about Harry Potter? A discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninth House

Trigger warning for sexual assault

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

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

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


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

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

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

Magic?

Yep.

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

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

(There’s actually quite a lot of murder)

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

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

I ship it, obviously.

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

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

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

Asha and the Spirit Bird

Asha lives in the foothills of the Himalayas. Money is tight and she misses her papa who works in the city. When he suddenly stops sending his wages, a ruthless moneylender ransacks their home and her mother talks of leaving.

From her den in the mango tree, Asha makes a pact with her best friend, Jeevan, to find her father and make things right. But the journey is dangerous: they must cross the world’s highest mountains and face hunger, tiredness – even snow leopards.

And yet, Asha has the unshakeable sense that the spirit bird of her grandmother – her nanijee – will be watching over her.


“The lamagaia starts to make a clucking sound, as if trying to tell me something, and I stare into its dark-flecked eyes, mesmerized. I feel a little heart-patter of nerves, but lean even further forward, stretching my fingers towards its feathery wing. It hops away, perching back on the well, tilts its head to one side and lifts its wings.
‘I wish you were my nanijee,’ I say, my voice quivering. ‘I need her so much.’ A grey feather tinged with gold floats down and lands by my foot. I stroke its silky softness and weave it into my plait. ‘Perhaps I’ll call you my spirit bird.’”

I don’t read a ton of middle grade books, but I’m so glad that Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan made it into my hands. It’s the perfect kind of MG read – a deft blend of the magical with the real; the hopefulness of children who don’t know any better yet with the reality of what can be a brutal and unforgiving world.

Asha has lived all her life on a farm with her family – her papa, her mama and her younger siblings (mostly just known as “the twins”) – until the family fell on hard times and her papa had to head into the city to make money. They haven’t heard from him for months, so one day after loan sharks turn up at the farm to shake down her mother, Asha recruits her best friend Jeevan and together they make the treacherous journey to Zandapur to track down Asha’s missing papa.

Yes, two unaccompanied children do this. As an adult, it makes for highly stressful reading.

But despite the odds – which are stacked against them, precariously, ready to come tumbling down in a destructive flood at any moment – Asha is driven forward by her love for her family. That, and her spirit bird. Throughout the book, Asha is followed/guided by a lamagaia that she comes to believe is the spirit of her nanijee. Lamagaias, or bone-eating vultures as they are also known, are actually kind of terrifying by the way. One of the largest vultures in the world, they are characterised by their orange-reddish feathers – though naturally white, their feathers are dyed by, depending on who you ask, either mud or blood. Their red-rimmed eyes stand out against jet black eye liner-like feathers and their hooked beaks lend them a murderous expression that makes them not a little intimidating. Unless, I suppose, they are on your side – which, fortunately for Asha, they are. I mention this because I did not get around to image searching this bird until I came to write this review and having a true picture of these extraordinary looking creatures would have added to the reading experience, I think.

Jasbinder Bilan has said that one of the questions she asked herself while writing Asha and the Spirit Bird was: what if our ancestors are never really gone, but actually stick around to come to our aid in times of need? From the moment Asha’s mother fastens her Nanijee’s necklace around her neck – a piece of jewellery passed down to the oldest daughters for generations, Asha feels filled with the power of all the women who came before her. Her connection with her ancestors is a resource of strength she pulls on in the darkest days of her and Jeevan’s journey to Zandapur – and let me tell you, there are some dark days. I’ve been listening to a lot of Layla F Saad’s The Good Ancestor Podcast lately, and in it Layla places herself and her interviewees among their ancestors; framing her work in the context of the women who fought before her and, as she builds her life, what being a good ancestor might look like for the generations who will come after her. I couldn’t help but think of this when I read Asha’s story. Asha is a strong young woman born of all of the strong women who came before her, and in her you can see all of them – as Layla would say, living and transitioned – driving her ever forward.

“She leads me to the mirror behind the shrine and the pendant catches the golden light from the flickering deeva, illuminating Ma’s face behind me, and in this moment a rhythm sweeps through my body as if I’m connecting to all the daughters in my family who have worn it before me. It’s as if I’m seeing my eyes properly for the first time, mountain-green flecked with fury, and the faces of my ancestors flash across them like stars from the distant past.”

I started a Bookstagram!

Yep… I caved.

I’ve actually wanted to get on Bookstagram for a while but I was nervous. The quality of the content on there is so high, I always felt embarrassed to share my photos in comparison. But in the end I just thought screw it.

I love talking about books and there is such a great conversation happening over there I decided to jump in too, whatever my insecurities about the quality of my photos. And you know what? So far I’m having lots of fun with it.

So if you fancy it please do give me a follow over on Instagram. I’m @22isstillyoungadult over there too.

Are you on Bookstagram too?

Circe

Trigger warning for rape

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Circe is strange – not powerful and terrible, like her father, nor gorgeous and mercenary like her mother. But she has a dark power of her own: witchcraft. When Circe’s gift threatens the gods, she is banished to the island of Aiaia where she hones her occult craft, casting spells, gathering strange herbs and taming wild beasts. Yet a woman who stands alone cannot live in peace for long – and among her island’s guests is an unexpected visitor: the mortal Odysseus, for whom Circe will risk everything.

Circe’s tale is a vivid epic of family rivalry, love and loss – the inextinguishable song of woman burning hot and bright in the darkness of a man’s world.


I do not know a lot about Greek mythology, and I have definitely never read the Odyssey, but as I understand it, originally Circe appeared in Odysseus’s story during a year-long stopover he took on her island, Aiaia. Homer told the tale of her and Odysseus’s relationship, which began when Circe, a powerful witch, turned all of Odysseus’s sailing buddies into pigs. Odysseus himself was only saved from this terrible fate because he had some anti-magic herb called moly that protected him from this very scenario (convenient). Odysseus – in all his manliness – persuades Circe to turn the men back and despite getting off to something of a shaky start, I assume they all become friends.

As I said, I haven’t read it.

In Homer’s version, it seems that Circe is a feature in Odysseus’s story. In Circe, Madeline Miller dispenses with that idea (Homer, we are over you) and weaves a rich and episodic tale entirely of Circe’s own.

In a similar fashion to City of Girls, which I talked about last week, I really loved the sprawling timeline of this novel. We get to grow up with this character and see her through so many phases of her life – Circe as a young person, getting her heart broken for the first time, being exiled from her home, recovering from rape, and eventually her journey into motherhood and everything that happens after the birth of her son – though I can’t get too much into that, cause spoilers. Her character development is rich, with glimpses of the woman she would one day go on to be evident even during her childhood of neglect at the hands of her parents, Helios (as in the sun god) and Perse, a nymph.

Circe is an outcast from the beginning. From the moment of her birth when Helios declares her not good enough to marry to a god because she isn’t beautiful enough (to which her mother’s response is “let’s go make a better one”), Circe is considered the runt of the litter and treated accordingly. As such, it’s hardly surprising that Circe grows up feeling inferior.

Weirdly, having something of an inferiority complex seems to be a common problem among the gods. The toxicity and rivalry apparent in Circe’s own family spills out into the wider community as well, which is driven by men who all have one thing in common: they want power, and more of it, all the time. Even the literal gods feel like what they have isn’t enough. The gods are made up of two communities, Titans and Olympians – basically old gods and new gods. After a devastating war there have been many years of peace, but threat to that peace looms over Circe’s entire childhood, as her father and his friends agitate always for more, more, more.

This idea of power, who has it and what it means is central to the novel. Circe’s entire life has been defined by the unforgiving hand of her father, and she is years into her adulthood and her exile before she really understands how she can reclaim some of that power for herself – and keep reclaiming it, even as men continue to try and take it from her.

It’s a gorgeously written novel of survival, and of carving space for yourself even when you have to do that without the love and the support of those supposedly closest to you. Loss runs through its pages – a side effect of being immortal, I guess – but not all those losses are bad. Changing your life involves a lot of loss, after all. But Circe will tell you more about that.

City of Girls

It is the summer of 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris arrives in New York with her suitcase and sewing machine, exiled by her despairing parents. Although her quicksilver talents with a needle and commitment to mastering the perfect hair roll have been deemed insufficient for her to pass her sophomore year of Vassar, she soon finds gainful employment as the self-appointed seamstress at the Lily Playhouse, her Aunt Peg’s charmingly disreputable Manhattan revue theatre. There, Vivian becomes the toast of the showgirls, transforming the trash and tinsel only fit for the cheap seats into creations for goddesses.

Exile in New York is no exile at all: here in this strange wartime city of girls, Vivian and her girlfriends mean to be free, to drink the heady highball of life itself to the last drop. But there are hard lessons to be learned, and bitterly regrettable mistakes to be made. Vivian sees that to live the life she wants, she must live many lives, ceaselessly and ingeniously making them new.

“At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is,” she confides. And so Vivian sets forth her story, and that of the women around her – women who have lived as they truly are, out of step with a century that could never quite keep up with them.


A work colleague leant me City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert the day before lockdown started here in the UK. We’d just both been furloughed and she had made the decision to go and be with family for the foreseeable, while I was staying in the house share where I currently live. My family are shielding (high risk), and since I had until a few days previously been going into the office and I live with six other people (it has now dwindled to three as everyone jumped ship to their respective families), not to mention the various trains and taxis I’d have to take in order to get home, staying put seemed like the best idea at the time.

That being the case, she said, City of Girls was going to be exactly the lift that I needed.

She was right.

I had never read any of Elizabeth Gilbert’s fiction. I love her non-fiction. I know it’s not cool to like Eat Pray Love but despite all the God stuff, which I could never really get behind, I loved the writing. Big Magic, her book about creativity is always an inspiring read, and the short lived podcast that accompanied it was one of my favourites.

A few years back I read that she had left her husband – the guy at the end of Eat Pray Love – for her dying best friend, another woman, who she had realised she was in love with when suddenly faced with the possibility of losing her. It was and is the saddest story – Rayya, the woman in question, passed away a year or so ago now – and it was from this devastating loss that City of Girls was born.

Now – and I don’t mean this to sound as glib as it does – I don’t think I was alone in expecting a heart breaking memoir of love and loss to come out of this experience. But that is not what Elizabeth Gilbert produced. Instead, she wrote City of Girls to feel better. When your day to day is making it through the depths of all that unimaginable grief, you need a place to escape to, right? For Liz, that turned out to be 1940s Manhattan – and it is excellent.

City of Girls is a story that begins with a question. In 2010 a now elderly Vivian receives a letter from the daughter of a friend with a single request. She wants to know “what were you to my father?”

What follows is Vivian’s account of her life from the age of 19, when she arrived in New York. A college drop-out and a disappointment to her parents, she is shipped off to NY to begin her life as an independent woman (sort of. Her parents still pretty much pay for everything) – and that is when things start to get interesting.

There are people in life who the second you meet them you know they are going to be important, people who change you and drag your entire life in a direction you previously hadn’t considered for yourself. They might not be around forever – in fact, they almost certainly won’t – but they will leave a mark. Then there are also those that sneak up on you, people who perhaps existed on the periphery of your daily experience for long enough that you hadn’t considered them, but who slowly creep into your bones until one day you look up and realise they are the most important people in your life. In City of Girls, Liz Gilbert explores this particular phenomenon in a way I’ve never experienced before. It’s because the book is so expansive, yes – it begins in the 1940s and ends in 2010 – but it’s much more about the seeds expertly sown in the earlier chapters that don’t blossom until much, much later on. So much later on you didn’t even realise they were seeds in the first place.

Which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

It is a book of two halves – the early, crazy years of sex, partying, rising fame and all the drama that accompanies it. Then the story gets split – Vivian makes a terrible mistake, one that will flip the entire narrative of her life and ultimately send her down a path that is just revelatory to read. The long road to the eventual answer of that initial question is a story of how to build a life – an adventurous, devastating life of entirely Viv’s own.

When I eventually go back to work and have to return City of Girls to its owner I will be purchasing my own copy. It’s the sort of story you want to keep around.

The Vanishing Stair

The Truly Devious case – an unsolved kidnapping and triple murder that rocked Ellingham Academy in 1936 – has consumed Stevie Bell for years. It’s the very reason she came to the academy. But then her classmate Hayes Major was murdered, and though she identified his killer, her parents quickly pull her out of school. For her safety, they say.

Stevie’s willing to do anything to get back to Ellingham, be with her friends, and solve the case. Even if it means making a deal with the despicable Senator Edward King. And when Stevie finally returns, she also returns to David: the guy she kissed, the guy who lied about his identity – Edward King’s son. But larger issues are at play. Was Hayes’s death really solved? Where did his murderer hide away to? What’s the meaning of the riddle Albert Ellingham left behind? And what, exactly, is at stake in the Truly Devious affair?

The Ellingham case isn’t just a piece of history – it’s a live wire into the present. The path to the truth has more twists and turns than Stevie can imagine, and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for. In New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson’s second novel in the Truly Devious series, someone will pay for the truth with their life.


This review will contain at least a few spoilers for Truly Devious. Sorry about that.

When I started reading Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series I sort of assumed it’d be like the Shades of London books – each new release a fresh mystery to unravel. Not so. Truly Devious and the mystery of Albert Ellingham’s missing daughter is the overarching theme of the series, and for every question The Vanishing Stair answered it raised at least three more.

I loved it, obviously.

At the end of the last book we saw our favourite wannabe detective, Stevie Bell, yanked from Ellingham Academy by her parents following the revelation of Hayes’s murderer. She is not okay with the situation. The Ellingham case remains unsolved and the whole Hayes affair at least somewhat unfinished. So when the opportunity to return comes up in the shape of a dodgy offer from the worst sort of Republican Senator Edward King – boss to Stevie’s parents and (surprise) father to Stevie’s on-again-off-again love interest David – despite her misgivings she’s prepared to do whatever he wants.

That particular decision looms large over everything else that happens in The Vanishing Stair.

I flew through this book. Continuing the split narrative of Stevie’s present divided by snapshots of the unfolding mystery in 1936 – the one Stevie came to Ellingham in the first place to solve before all the Hayes business – Maureen builds ever more layers of complexity onto a mystery that has already confounded everyone who has tried to solve it in the 80-odd years since it began. New and intriguing figures enter into play, from the possibly murderous runaway Ellingham students of the past, Francis Crane and Edward Pierce Davenport, to Dr Irene Fenton, the probably alcoholic true crime professor as eager to solve the Ellingham case as Stevie herself.

David continues to do the most. I’ve read several reviews where readers aren’t so keen on Stevie and David’s dynamic – some going as far as to describe it as insta-lovey and thin. I couldn’t disagree more. David and Stevie are pulled towards each other in a way that read electric to me – though they both remain defensive weirdos they can’t help but keep circling, each one taking turns to pull back in the other when they pull away. They share a similar sort of darkness, I think. It may not be the healthiest basis for a relationship, but for reading purposes it is delicious. Don’t believe the rumours: Stevie and David are a pairing you ship hard, however unlikely their resolution turning out to be a happy one is at this point.

A lot of pieces clicked into place during The Vanishing Stair, but there are a lot of questions still to be answered in the Hand on the Wall, and I for one cannot wait to see where Maureen Johnson’s twisting mystery takes us next.

Beloved

It is the mid-1800s. At Sweet Home in Kentucky, an era is ending as slavery comes under attack from the abolitionists. The worlds of Halle and Paul D are to be destroyed in a cataclysm of torment and agony. The world of Sethe, however, is to turn from one of love to one of violence and death – the death of Sethe’s baby daughter, Beloved, whose name is the single word on the tombstone, who died at her mother’s hands, and who will return to claim retribution.


“I decided that the single most uncontroversial thing one can say about the institution of slavery vis-à-vis contemporary time, is that it haunts us all. That in so many ways all our lives are entangled with the past – its manipulations and, fearful of its grasp, ignoring or dismissing or distorting it to suit ourselves, but always unable to erase it.”
– From The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The first thing you should know about Beloved, the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner by Toni Morrison is that it is a ghost story. Number 124 is a ‘spiteful’ house, ‘full of a baby’s venom’ where Denver and her mother Sethe spend their days isolated – their other family lost to death or driven out by the baby ghost that shatters mirrors, ruins food and tortures the dog, and whose death at Sethe’s own hands has alienated the family from the rest of the community.

The second thing to know about Beloved is that it is a story about motherhood. In her discussion of the novel in The Source of Self Regard, Toni writes that part of what inspired Beloved was the conversations about reproductive freedom happening at the time, but rather than focusing on a woman’s right to be child-free, she was instead interested in writing about those women to whom the choice to have children “was the supreme act of freedom, not its opposite”. And so we step into the story of Sethe, and the vastness of her love for her children – a love so vast it drove her to kill one of them.

So, let’s talk a bit more about what the freedom of motherhood looks like for Sethe. As a slave, her children legally did not belong to her. They could be sold separately from her. Under such circumstances, for Sethe to choose to have her children and to claim them as hers was an act of revolution. And once she had them, she knew she had to save them from the life she and her predecessors had endured. So she does – taking a harrowing journey with them to freedom.

Freedom was hard to come by. During the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, owners went after escaped slaves like Sethe – their bodies, and their children still considered claimable property under the law. That’s what happens – Sethe and her children make it almost a month into their escape from their owners at Sweet Home when the slave master comes for them, and so Sethe takes her children out to the back of the house to kill them, starting with the newborn Beloved. To Sethe, to kill them is the only way she can save them. Ultimately, she only kills Beloved before she is stopped and arrested.

“If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is an intensely complicated and painful read. And I haven’t even got to what happens when Beloved returns to 124 (maybe? We don’t really know. It might just be some random lady who also happens to be called Beloved). From Sethe’s act of violence, to the all-consuming intensity of her relationship with the returned Beloved, to Sethe’s boyfriend Paul D’s subsequent deeply uncomfortable sexual relationship with that very same Beloved – all of the characters in this book resist the classifications of noble victimhood that modern discourse so often projects onto slaves, and what we imagine their survival to have looked like. They are survivors, yes, but survival is a messy thing, and it is that mess that Toni explores in Beloved.

Though Sethe and Paul D are physically free from slavery, they both remain imprisoned by their trauma. Sethe’s literally haunts the house, keeping her trapped inside of it and away from the outside world where she might find a means to start moving on. Paul D, meanwhile is afraid to really love, because to love would be to feel everything, and to feel everything would, he believes, destroy him. Denver, Sethe’s daughter, meanwhile did not grow up a slave, and yet the generations of trauma that her family has endured keep her as locked inside the walls of 124 as everyone else.

“Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realise that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a deeply sad book, but it is not without hope. The ghosts probably won’t ever leave, but that doesn’t mean Sethe can’t ever step outside of her haunting.  

For a book named after her I know I haven’t written much about Beloved herself. She’s a tricky character to grasp, intentionally so. She might be a ghost or she might not – we’ll never really know – but what we do know is, she is a symbol for the 60 million and more lives lost in the slave trade whose names and stories we will never know. And even Beloved, in the end, is forgotten.

Yeah so, if it wasn’t clear, I adored this book. I know there’s nothing new about recognising Toni Morrison’s brilliance, but I am adding to the clamour to let you know if you haven’t picked up one of her books yet, you must.

Allyship is a verb: some resources for learning

For me, one of the biggest lessons of the past few years is that values kept locked inside aren’t really values. Speaking up, facing discomfort and an openness to learn are the vital ingredients of living a value-driven life.

As we all process and respond to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd among so many others, for a lot of white people now is a time where we’re thinking seriously about our anti-racist learning (something we should have been doing all along, FYI). This can have some complicated side effects for the black community, who are already dealing with a sort of trauma that we’ll never truly be able to understand. Now is a time where many well-intentioned but, to be clear, wrong, white people will ask their black and brown friends, and black and brown public figures to expend additional emotional labour teaching us how to be better people.

To be clear, that is not okay. Black and brown people don’t owe you emotional labour.

And there are already a ton of resources online so you don’t need to be sliding into anyone’s DMS demanding they educate you. The work exists, you just have to be active in seeking it out.

Today I wanted to highlight a few of the voices I turn to in my own anti-racism work. I want to caveat this post first with the probably obvious but I am just going to mention it anyway note to respect these spaces and, if you’re white, listen more than you talk.

Nova Reid
Nova is an inspirational speaker, writer, diversity and anti-racism campaigner. I came to her work through her new podcast, Conversations With Nova Reid where she and a range of guests talk about racism, allyship and what it looks like to really interrogate internalised biases. There are only 12 episodes at the time of writing, so it’s easy to catch up.
Nova’s background is in counselling and wellbeing, something that really shines through in her work, where she asks her audience to step into discomfort and be willing to be vulnerable in our examination of our internalised racism – something we all have, if we’re completely honest with ourselves. Something she has spoken of often that really stuck with me is how our fear of perceiving ourselves as “bad” holds us back from making meaningful progress in anti-racism work. For so many people that hold white privilege, the thought of being called racist is like our worst nightmare. It’s an understandable fear – I totally have it too – but rather than pushing us to be better, that fear really only manifests itself in fragility and an unwillingness to deeply look at the ways that actually we might be kind of racist. Nova’s message – if you’re willing to engage with it and really do the work (100% on you, btw) – is that rather than realising that your worst fears are true, you are in fact, “bad”, by facing your internalised racism you are actually uncovering all of the ways in which you might be better.
Feeling guilty about internalised racism pales in comparison to what it feels like for the people of colour who actually experience it.
Links to Nova’s work
Podcast: Conversations with Nova Reid
Nova’s Tedx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8iNGeVyvUs
Instagram: @novareidofficial
Ways to pay for Nova’s work: [a lot of labour goes into creating resources like this, so it’s important to pay in any way you can. For some of us that means financially supporting, or, if that’s not possible for you right now, it’s spreading the word about their work] There are a couple! Nova has a paid for anti-racism course, which you can read more about at her website. If you aren’t able to afford that right now you can also send her some money via Pay Pal, paypal.me/NovaReid

Layla F Saad
I found Layla’s work recently when Aja Barber (who I’ll get to in a minute) was a guest on her podcast. Layla is most well known for her Instagram challenge and now book Me and White Supremacy, a work that challenges readers to dig deep into their own internalised racism and confront white fragility. I haven’t read her book yet, but I am absolutely loving her podcast, The Good Ancestor Podcast. Layla talks at length about what it means to be a good ancestor, which according to her means working to create a world that is better for future generations. It is a vital idea, and the podcast features conversations with a wide range of anti-racism campaigners, activists, change makers and writers having challenging and revealing conversations about what it means to live in a white supremacy as a person of colour.
Links to Layla’s work
Podcast: The Good Ancestor Podcast
@laylafsaad on Instagram
Book: Me and White Supremacy
Ways to pay for Layla’s work: Aside from the obvious (her book!), Layla also as a Paypal account, paypal.me/LaylaSaad

Aja Barber
I came to Aja originally through her work in the realm of ethical fashion. I quickly learned, however, that it’s impossible to talk about ethical fashion without also talking about race. Aja talks more about this on her episode of Layla Saad’s podcast that I’ve already mentioned so do head there to get this in more detail, but the fashion industry is completely bound up in colonialism. From shipping our waste clothes to African countries where they either undercut and damage the local garment industry or wind up filling up landfills, to the underpaid, unsafe, slavery-rife garment sector where the majority of big brands make their products, the industry is largely build at the expense of black and brown bodies – with the many of us turning a blind eye because we just love Zara so much.
Links to Aja’s work:
@ajabarber on Instagram
Read some of Aja’s writing on Eco Age: https://eco-age.com/aja-barber
Ways to pay for Aja’s work: Aja has a Patreon where she regularly posts about ethical brands as well as hosting discussions about news in the world of sustainability at www.patreon.com/AjaBarber

Munroe Bergdorf
Munroe was actually one of the first anti-racist activists I encountered when a few years ago she was fired as a spokesperson by L’Oreal after speaking out about white supremacy on TV (something that has been in the news a lot in the last couple days as L’Oreal have started using #blacklivesmatter to boost their own profile now it suits them). Munroe Bergdorf is a black trans activist, model  and UN Changemaker having challenging discussions about racism and white supremacy and how both those things intersect with LGBTQIA+ issues. As we head into pride month, make sure you follow Munroe.
Links to Munroe’s work:
@munroebergdorf and @goddessplatform on Instagram
Documentary: What Makes A Woman? (this is probably UK-only, sorry)
Ways to pay for Munroe’s work: She is pretty famous so she doesn’t have a Paypal or a Patreon where you can directly pay for her work, but Munroe is a patron of Mermaid, a charity here in the UK that supports trans and gender-diverse children, young people and their families. You can donate to them at mermaids.org.uk/donate

Remember that learning is a life-long thing. Allyship isn’t only engaging with anti-racism work when it’s in the media like it is right now, it’s following activists like these women and regularly engaging with their work. Respectfully. And staying out of their DMs.

Others actions you can take:

There is a live list of updated organisations in Minneapolis in need of financial support, which you can find here: https://bit.ly/fundthecommunity

If you live in the UK, like me, Zing Tsjeng, Vice UK’s executive editor has suggested the following to take action:


Since she tweeted this the report has been released but without any investigation into why this disparity exists or concrete actions that are going to be taken to address it, so the pressure to do more is still very much needed. Writing to your MP can be difficult if you’ve never done it before. If you’d like help or to use the email I wrote as a template then please let me know – my email address is tewkesbury.lydia@gmail.com

Commit to learning, listening and remembering that anti-racist work starts with the work you do on yourself.