City of Brass

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

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

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

Be careful what you wish for.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Just saying.

Clap When You Land

Note: trigger warning for sexual assault.

Camino lives for her father’s visits to the Dominican Republic. But this year, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people.

In New York, Yahaira is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

Separated by distance – and Papi’s secrets – the two sisters are forced to face a new reality in which their lives are forever altered. Now Camino and Yahaira are both left to grapple with their grief, their new-found love for one another and what it will take to keep their dreams alive.


15 September – 15 October is Latinx Heritage Month, a 30-day celebration of the culture and contributions of Latinx, Hispanic and Latin-identifying people around the world. Here in the book community, we celebrate by reading, and seeing my WordPress and Instagram feeds fill with recommendations of authors familiar and new to me has been wonderful. That said, as has been noted by many Latinx bloggers and bookstagrammers (I really recommend this article in particular from @lupita.reads on Insta), a lot of the people currently reading and posting about these authors do not mention them at all the rest of the year. That is not okay. We should be reading and recommending a racially diverse selection of authors all year round. So this post is part screaming about a book I loved and part a call for accountability, from myself and everyone celebrating Latinx Heritage Month who is not part of the community (especially my fellow white folks) – this is a whole-life thing, not a everybody’s-doing-it-so-I-guess-I’ll-performatively-join-in thing.

Now for my review.

Clap When You Land is a heart-rending novel about grief, lies, family and forgiveness. Written in verse and divided between the perspectives of Camino, who lives in the Dominican Republic, and Yahaira, who lives in New York, it tells the story of two sisters separated all their lives by the shame of their father learning of each others’ existence for the first time, while dealing with his sudden and devastating loss. He had two wives and two daughters in two countries, and neither of those daughters found out about it until he could no longer give them any answers.

How you deal with that is a question Elizabeth Acevedo answers with deep empathy – for everyone involved – complexity and breathtaking understanding of all of the big and small ways broken people navigate a world where their foundations have turned shakey.

There is so much in this book it’s hard to know where to start.

What is most immediately, unavoidably striking is the stark differences in Camino and Yahaira’s daily lives. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic, and though she and her aunt Tía live in relative comfort because of the money Camino’s father sends from America, the rest of her neighbourhood is another story. Poverty is rife, and the healthcare system too expensive for most people to access. Tía is a healer and Camino is her assistant, so she witnesses first hand those in her community suffering – from the woman dying of cancer to her best friend Carline, young and pregnant with no pre-natal care available to her. Camino wants nothing more than to escape to America to go to university, but there are endless obstacles. When Camino tells her father she wants to be a doctor in America, he laughs at her.

Yahaira’s life in New York is much more familiar – at least to this reader – but no less deeply felt. Half closeted but utterly in love with her girlfriend, Dre, a chess champion (though she’s quit, now) and harbouring a secret about her father that is eating her up inside, Yahaira’s life has been as filled with struggles as anyone’s, but none of them are concerning survival like they are for Camino. Like I said though, you don’t have the sense that Yahaira’s problems are less-than as a result of that. Her pain – and she has been through some real trauma – is never compared to Camino’s. The girls just exist in their different worlds without the author passing any judgement and it’s that masterful writing that makes your own feelings so complicated once they finally meet. Because Yahaira gets it wrong a lot – as is inevitable when meeting someone whose life experiences are so far outside of your own, let alone when that person happens to be the sister you didn’t know existed. And even though you cringe for her, and at times even feel frustrated by her behaviour, you can never judge her for it, because by the time the sisters meet, Yahaira has utterly captivated your heart. This novel is such a nuanced look at privilege and how it can be used that was as heartfelt as it was challenging.

This complicated, dysfunctional family has no villains, and it’s a testament to Acevedo’s writing that even with the amount of wrong that had been done by them, particularly the parents, none of them ever felt like either Camino or Yahaira’s enemy – even their deceased father, who started all the problems in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, you’re constantly angry at them, frustrated by them, even mystified by them, but the storytelling demands your empathy extend to them anyway.

Clap When You Land is a book about acceptance and forgiveness, acknowledging – finally – everything that is wrong and deciding to walk towards something better, together. It’s beautiful, and once you start reading I promise you won’t want to put it down until you’ve made it all the way to the end.

The Starless Sea

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

This numbered one of my many frustrations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Fires Everywhere

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

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

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


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

Don’t mind if I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.

Normal People

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but the similarities end there. In school, Connell is popular and well-liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation – awkward but electrifying – something life-changing begins.

Normal People is a story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find they can’t.


Sometimes the hype surrounding a particular book is so intense I find myself at a loss to know what to add to the conversation. That’s one of the reasons I have put off reviewing Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

The other is that it is a particularly polarising novel. There are the Normal People evangelists, waving the book around to anyone who will listen like you. Must. Read. This. Then on the other hand there’s those who disliked it so much they want to hurl the thing out of the window, tear it, burn it and then throw the pieces in the faces of everybody who ever told them it was worth reading.

I fall very much into the first camp.

I love Normal People.

(Yes, I have watched the BBC show. Yes, I loved it. Especially the episode about Marianne’s year in Sweden. It destroyed me.)

Normal People is a quiet, introspective novel about two people, Marianne and Connell, who love each other very much, but are, for reasons ranging from miscommunication to trauma, unable to hold onto each other. At least not in the way they’d like.

I have a theory that the people who don’t like Normal People are that weird subsection of the emotionally healthy who, like, know how to communicate their feelings? And they don’t understand how you could accidentally end a relationship because it didn’t occur to you that the person you’re in love with wouldn’t want to leave you?

(Who even are those people?)

For the rest of us, Normal People is a mirror for feelings of inadequacy (Marianne: why would anyone love me? Connell: What if people are judging me right now?), love (and heartbreak) and the self-destructive habits (Connell: isolating. Marianne: dating men who want to destroy her.) people have to move through in order to reach something like the beginnings of an emotionally healthy life.

It’s about how two people can change each other, and damage each other, and love each other.

The perspective shifts constantly between Marianne and Connell, between situations they’ve shared and the times – always temporary – where their lives have diverged away from each other. Time jumps as well as perspective, as though Rooney is sharing only snapshots of the most crucial points in these two lives. What is so remarkable is how ordinary these crucial moments are – a party at university where Connell and Marianne reconnect after many months, the sudden onset of Connor’s depression, Marianne’s study abroad year in isolation. Probably her most destructive period in the book, even it is punctuated not by melodrama but instead a fucked up sort of endurance test for Marianne to figure out how much hurt she deserves. I don’t think I have read such an empathetic and painful narrative of a person who wants to do harm to themselves before Rooney’s depiction of Marianne.

This snapshot-like structure spoke to me because often the biggest moments aren’t some epic thunderclap of realisation like I’d always thought they would be. Instead, a lot of the time, they’re only recognisable in retrospect, something I think the structure of Normal People really speaks to.

If you like books with plot, you’re probably not going to enjoy Normal People. If you like people to make emotionally healthy decisions that make total sense… yeah, you’re probably not going to like Normal People. But if you’re interested in emotionally messy, complicated people who fuck up constantly – sometimes deliberately – and all the moments of a relationship from the romantic to the truly painful and gnarly, then, yeah, Normal People might be for you.

Permanent Record

On paper, college drop-out Pablo Rind doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. His graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour deli in Brooklyn is a struggle. Plus, he’s up to his eyeballs in credit card debt. Never mind the state of his student loans.

Pop juggernaut Leanna Smart has enough social media followers to populate whole continents. The brand is unstoppable. She graduated from child stardom to become an international icon, and her adult life is a queasy blur of private planes, hotel rooms and strangers screaming for her just to notice them.

When Leanna and Pablo meet at 5am at the bodega in the dead of winter, it’s absurd to think that they’d become A Thing. But as they discover who they are, who they want to be and how to defy the expectations of everyone else, Lee and Pab turn to each other. Which, of course, is when things get properly complicated.

Mary H.K. Choi appeared on one of my favourite podcasts, Call Your Girlfriend, a few months back and I fell in love with her within the first five minutes. She’s just really fucking cool. Read/listen to any interview she’s ever given and you’ll quickly see what I mean – this one is a good start, if you’re interested.

Permanent Record offers an authentic take on what it means to be young and lost. Though classified as YA, perhaps what I liked most is that Permanent Record wasn’t about teenagers, but people in their early twenties. It wasn’t about high school, or university even, but that vast space you find yourself in when you’re finally thrown out of all the institutions in whose structures you’ve been immersed your entire life up until that point. Technically you’re an adult – employed full time, no longer living with your parents – but the reality is that you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. There’s this old musical that we used to have on VHS when I was a kid, Singin’ In The Rain. My brother and I’s favourite song in the whole thing was ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’, sung by Cosmo Brown, the clown to Gene Kelly’s leading man. Anyway, while he’s singing this stupid song, for the final flourish he goes to do his signature move – this back flip that involves first running up the wall before springing back off of it and landing on his feet. We see him manage it successfully a couple times, but the final wall turns out to be fake – they’re on a movie set – so he crashes straight through. Basically what I’m getting at is that I think early adulthood is a lot like Cosmo Brown singing ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’.

You’ll fall down a lot, and you probably won’t be the leading man.

That’s pretty much where Pablo is at when an escape hatch arrives in the shape of Leanna Smart. I once heard Dylan Moran say that relationships in your twenties are a continual process of not wanting to turn around and face your bullshit, so instead you find another person to whom you can attach yourself and be all “you look at it”, and that particular dynamic forms the heart of Pablo and Leanna’s relationship. It’s all-consuming and chaotic, it further fucks Pablo’s already pretty fucked up priorities and, more than anything, presents a fast-moving tide he can ride along rather than going about the difficult business of gathering the pieces of his scattered life.

So much of YA is consumed with firsts (for obvious reasons) – first love, first sexual experiences – and oftentimes, at least in contemporary novels they are written in a way that’s very much idealised. And look, I’m not complaining. There is a very important place for uncomplicated love stories (I mean, the first thing I did when lockdown happened was start rewatching Parks & Rec because I needed my Lesliemin fix) and there is something regenerative and hopeful about reading them, but the older I get the more I want to live in complicated spaces, and Permanent Record is the perfect read for this.

It’s also straight up uncomfortable at times. You know when your friends are doing better than you and you don’t exactly celebrate their achievements as you should because you’re so caught up in your own sense of inadequacy? Mary writes that to perfection. What about when you realise that those people in your life you’re totally judgey towards maybe aren’t actually doing it (it = life) wrong? That maybe despite what you’ve always thought they actually aren’t a joke, but had it figured out in a way you can only hope you will one day the entire time? Mary. Fucking. Gets it.

Permanent Record grabbed a hold of my heart with the wild abandon of a murderous Damon Salvatore and I loved it. Bittersweet and packed with uncomfortable truths, it was every bit as cool as Mary H.K. Choi herself. From this book to her extremely helpful podcast Hey, Cool Life, Mary has now cemented her place as one of my favourites, and a voice I am very glad to have during this lockdown.

Read Permanent Record. Seriously. It’ll blow your mind and break your heart a bit – but you can deal with that.

Then maybe watch Singin’ In The Rain because it doesn’t get much more pure than tap dancing, and I feel like we need that right now.

Skyward

Spensa’s world has been under attack for hundreds of years. An alien race called the Krell leads onslaught after onslaught from the sky in a never-ending campaign to destroy humankind. Humanity’s only defence is to take their ships and fight the enemy in the skies. Pilots have become the heroes of what’s left of the human race. Spensa has always dreamed of being one of them; of soaring above Earth and proving her bravery. But her fate is intertwined with her father’s – a pilot who was killed years ago when he abruptly deserted his team, placing Spensa’s chances of attending flight school somewhere between slim and none. No one will let Spensa forget what her father did, but she is still determined to fly. And the Krell just made that a possibility. They’ve doubled their fleet, making Spensa’s world twice as dangerous… but their desperation to survive might just take her skyward.

I’m not really a sci-fi person generally speaking, so when one of my housemates lent me Skyward by Brandon Sanderson to occupy a couple days of quarantine I went into it with low expectations. But, actually, as so often happens, I really enjoyed it. Turns out an immersive look at a totally different world (despite the blurb saying that Spensa and the other humans live on Earth, they actually don’t) with pilots, aliens and weird genetic irregularities that may or may not make you evil/cowardly was exactly what I needed to take my mind off what’s happening in the world right now.

Who knew?

Spensa is a fun character to hang out with. When she was a kid her dad was killed during a battle after apparently bottling it and turning to run from the fight (by run I mean fly away – this was all happening in space), and her entire life she and her family have been shunned because of her father’s so-called act of cowardice. Despite the continuous bullying, isolation and poverty this has brought on her family (they make a living by selling rats as food, which Spensa spends most of her days hunting in the caves below their city), Spensa is not the type of girl to let this get her down. Brought up on stories of brave warriors by her Gran-Gran, she’s come to see her life as a heroic tale with herself at the centre. Her objective? Get into flight school, where she can prove everybody wrong – she’s no coward, whatever her father did. Spensa’s obsession with proving her bravery manifests itself in some slightly odd ways – primarily in her way of expressing herself. She has a habit of saying things like ‘I shall bathe in the blood of my enemies’, which initially I found off-puttingly weird – as does literally every character in the book, so I think you’re supposed to – but over time I came to see as part of the armour Spensa had built to protect herself from a world that said she was a cowardly nothing. If you’ve grown up with that you either accept it and live out that assumption, or, Spensa-style, you go in the opposite direction in a big way – and sometimes that involves bathing in the blood of your enemies, I guess.

The vast majority of the book takes place in flight school, a cut throat training programme to join the military in charge of fighting the Krell, the alien race trying to kill the humans – that the humans weirdly know nothing about, despite fighting them for many years. Flight school is brutal. Of the recruits in Spensa’s class, only a few will make it to earn their pilot’s pin – the rest will either drop out, get kicked out or, worst of all, die during battle. The relationships Spensa builds with the other members of her flight are the heart of this book. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me what always draws me to a story more than anything else is the relationships – I think I could read a story set in almost any scenario and keep going through it if the relationships were compelling enough. The personalities in Spensa’s flight are distinct, and even those members who don’t stick around for very long (not a spoiler, Sanderson tells us from the off that not everybody is going to graduate) felt complex and real – they all served a purpose in the story and I liked that. There is nothing that turns me off more when the main character – especially one with as much personality as Spensa – is surrounded by people who feel less than her.

There’s a hate-to-love ship in this too that it very easy to get behind. He’s duty-driven and emotionally unavailable – so, exactly my type.

The plot really drives this book forward, but within it Sanderson spends some time dwelling on ideas of bravery and cowardice. Like I’ve mentioned, cowardice is considered really the worst thing a person can be in Spensa’s world. But throughout their training, Spensa and her cohort find that bravery is actually a much more complicated concept than they had been raised to believe. It’s not the absence of fear, and it certainly isn’t pride – something too many young pilots don’t figure out until it’s too late – and, sometimes, it’s even saving your own life. More than anything though, as Spensa demonstrates, bravery is an absolute refusal to give up. And that is an idea I can 100% get behind.

So… maybe I’m into sci-fi now? If you have any recommendations do throw them my way. Right now, I’ve got nothing but time.

Orangeboy

Sixteen-year-old Marlon has made his mum a promise – he’ll never follow his big brother, Andre, down the wrong path. So far, it’s been easy, but when a date ends in tragedy, Marlon finds himself hunted. They’re after the mysterious Mr Orange, and they’re going to use Marlon to get to him. Marlon’s out of choices – can he become the person he never wanted to be, to protect everyone he loves?

Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence is a gripping story about gang warfare and revenge. It’s a page turner, to put it mildly. I finished this book mostly during a train journey (back when we were still allowed to go outside) and clambered out of the carriage with it still stuck to my face, walked down the steps to the station exit and barely closed the book to say hi to my mum, who I was going to visit – to give you some idea of quite how hard it is to put this one down.

Lawrence’s carefully constructed tale of downfall grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.

The worst part is, Marlon is an innocent kid, a good boy dragged into somebody else’s mess. It all starts with an unlikely date; Sonya, cool, worldly and with a pocket full of ecstasy should never have shown up at Marlon’s door. But she did, and he went – how could he not?

And it all goes downhill from there.

There are lots of times during Orangeboy when, as the reader, you want to throw your hands over your eyes, such is the intensity with which Marlon’s life barrels off course. You want to shout “No! Don’t go in there!” like he’s a girl going down to the basement at the beginning of a horror movie, but realistically in his position it is hard to judge his decisions, as bad as most of them are. Failed by the institutions that are supposed to protect him – the police assume the worst of him because of his brother’s history, and because he’s a black kid, and his school much the same – it’s easy to see how Marlon feels there is nowhere to go but further down the rabbit hole of violence and destruction.

It’s a thriller with a compelling mystery at its heart, but the novel also makes a vital social commentary on cycles of violence. Marlon’s brother Andre was a criminal until a car chase led to a tragic accident – one that killed his best friend and left Andre with a head injury he’d never fully recover from. Marlon has always carried the weight of that on his shoulders, and the pressure to be the good kid that his mother could rely on – but despite all his best intentions the world that consumed his brother comes for him anyway. Such is the depth of Lawrence’s writing though, that even as my heart was beating out of my chest, fearing for Marlon’s life during a terrifying chase scene, she was challenging me to consider the structures that had failed these young people – the ones doing the chasing – to take them down this path in the first place. I can’t get into it in too much depth without heading into major spoiler territory, but suffice to say the life of these scary kids is not one they’d choose if they had any better options.

Lawrence has quickly established herself as a vital voice in the UK YA scene, and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of her books. Especially now I’ve got all this time on my hands.