Dominicana

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Queenie

Meet Queenie.

Journalist. Catastrophist. Expressive. Aggressive. Loved. Lonely. Enough?

A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on life, love, race and family. Queenie will have you nodding in recognition, crying in solidarity and rooting for this unforgettable character every step of the way.


Fellow people in their twenties: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is required reading, okay? The story of Queenie, a young Black woman navigating a break up, a break down, a stalling career, friendship, sex, sexism, racism – basically, all the things – it’s one of those books that feels like relaxing into a bath. Maybe it’s a little bit too hot, if you’re totally honest with yourself, but the feeling of your muscles tensing and then unwinding as you sink down is totally worth it.

Queenie is contemporary in the most vivid sense – plumbing the depths of dating apps (“I know exactly how to handle a girl with a body like yours. I might not be black, but trust me, you wouldn’t know it from my dick”), the group chat (known as the Corgis. Cause, y’know, they’re Queenie’s friends), Black Lives Matter, workplace sexual misconduct, therapy on the NHS.

In Queenie’s story, Candice speaks boldly and insightfully to experiences uniquely Black, uniquely British and utterly relatable whether or not you claim either of those identities.

Candice Carty-Williams writes about issues young people go through in a way only someone who has faced them herself really can. In an interview I read in The Guardian, she said “What I needed to say in Queenie is that we are all living variations of the same life, but for some it is harder. How much money you have, the colour of your skin, your cultural capital can make it harder.”
That sentiment is absolutely perfect – as it would be, coming from a storyteller of her calibre. From Queenie’s experiences at work, a magazine that won’t let her write about Black Lives Matter, to the constant issues she experiences trying to find affordable housing in London after a break up means she is suddenly forced to find alternate accommodation while also suddenly losing the financial stability her ex-boyfriend offered felt so real. Seeing Queenie forced to choose between grim house share or grandma’s spare room (and I haven’t even talked about her family yet, but suffice to say, it’s a bit complicated) hit me in a cathartic way I didn’t even knew I needed as someone who lives in a house share with six other people and still pays more rent than I should.

In general, but particularly I think in the British book market we fall woefully short when it comes to Black narratives. Even now, I feel like a lot of the Black voices we turn to are American (part of our desire to pretend racism isn’t a thing here, I think) that to pick up a book so grounded in Black British experience felt completely refreshing. Though it was also really tough reading at times. The hyper sexualised way men communicate with Queenie on dating apps, the constant micro aggressions she goes through with her ex-boyfriend’s family – and his subsequent denials of her experience – are brutal and poignant examples of the normalised relentlessness of white supremacy.

I love the representation of Queenie’s family as well. Queenie’s grandparents are Jamaican and the elements of that culture dropped into the narrative – music, to food, to patois – added so much depth and seemed from the outside like such an authentic representation of a thriving part of the UK community that we don’t get to see enough.

Soon I’ll stop, but I can’t end a review of Queenie without making mention of Candice’s deft, empathetic and multi-faceted exploration of mental health. Queenie carries a lot of trauma from her childhood that has never really left her, but absolutely becomes front and centre following her breakup in a way that leads her to start experiencing some serious anxiety and panic. The manifestation of that, and how it is deeply grounded in Queenie’s physical body – which we all know anxiety is for so many of us expressed through the body – is something you really feel while you’re reading, as if the pressure in Queenie’s chest is your own. Her determination to seek therapy, despite the unique barriers to entry thrown up by the intersections of her race and gender felt like such a necessary story to tell, too. I haven’t read many narratives where we see both the decline and the turning point in someone’s mental health story, and there is something so deeply comforting in that. You don’t leave Queenie with the idea she’s fixed, but instead that she’s learning, and coping better every day – it’s so, so reassuring.

Yeah, so, this book might be my new best friend? Is that weird?

There’s a reason Queenie has won so many awards. It’s a story of contemporary female London life we have all needed for years.

Girl, Woman, Other

This is Britain as you’ve never read it.

This is Britain as it has never been told.

From the top of the country to the bottom, across more than a century of change and growth and struggle and life, Girl, Woman, Other follows twelve characters on an entwined journey of discovery.

It is future, it is past. It is fiction, it is history.

It is a novel about who we are now.


It is fair to say I’ve never read anything quite like Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. The winner of the Booker prize last year and the subject of endless praise, it’s one of those books I fear I don’t have much to add to the conversation about. But, despite that, I’m writing today to confirm holy shit this is good.

Girl, Woman, Other is a subversive piece of writing comprised of 12 interconnected stories of mostly Black, mostly female characters and their experiences of Britishness over maybe a century. Queer people, married and unmarried, mothers and the child free, bohemians and traditionalists, female and non-binary, middle and working class; each character in the novel is complex, embodied and leaps from the page – however long you get to spend with them. It is so easy to fall into the narrative of this book, which consumed me from the first page, that you forget to step back for a moment and consider the revolutionary act of writing it. In a publishing world still falling woefully short in its diversity of representation, perhaps most especially here in the UK, to have a book filled with stories of fully realised Black women in all their complexity, different sexualities, politics and relationships – with themselves and others – is an act of total and complete triumph.

The form of this book is probably like nothing you’ve ever read before. Written in an utterly experimental style (which is something I am always up for – I know not everybody feels that way, but I would urge you not to be put off if you’re the type to get upset about missing punctuation. Maybe, just maybe, punctuation is overrated) Bernadine has referred to as ‘fusion-fiction’, it’s poetic, free and subversive. And the style totally serves the story that Bernadine has set out to tell.

There is a feeling of timelessness to Girl, Woman, Other – and I don’t mean that in the traditional sense – but instead that it’s as if time is the rabbit hole and you’re Alice falling through it, as the focus of the authorial gaze shifts fluidly from decade to decade. Once you’ve fallen for long enough, gravity stops existing and you realise that maybe there’s no such thing as up and down anyway. There’s nowhere left to look but around –to see the story in its entirety.

That’s what reading this felt like for me, anyway.

The lack of (rejection of?) punctuation and time’s resultant flow state builds this intense sense of connection between these women’s stories, strung together in a sprawling, endlessly diverse picture of Black British womanhood through the centuries and further on into the horizons we haven’t met yet. It’s a version of the UK we haven’t seen a lot of, to put it mildly.

Another aspect of the writing that I loved was that Evaristo somehow managed to balance nuance with a healthy dose of scepticism toward her characters. She didn’t shy away from elements of the ridiculous where they were present – whether that’s the maybe slightly too intense political expression of the young when they’re coming to it all for the first time (written as if I don’t 100% fall into this group), or the determined bohemian expression of the old even as they veer farther and farther into the mainstream. This was funny, but it also served to hook me in even faster I think. You can only send up a character well if you understand the heart of them through and through, and in Girl, Woman, Other I always felt like Bernadine did. There was not a single person in this book I did not believe in entirely.

I now have to read my way through her back catalogue, which thankfully/shamefully due to my complete ignorance of her work pre-Booker prize, there is lots of. I’ve heard her say she needs every book she writes to challenge her, and I’m excited to see how her books will challenge me too.

Creatures

On the eve of Evangeline’s wedding on the shore of Winter Island, a dead whale is trapped in the harbour, the groom may be lost at sea, and Evie’s mostly absent mother has shown up out of the blue. From there, in this mesmerizing, provocative debut, the narrative flows back and forth through time as Evie reckons with her complicated upbringing in this lush, wild land off the coast of Southern California.

Evie grew up with her father, surviving off the money he made dealing the island’s world-famous strain of weed, Winter Wonderland. Although her father raised her with a deep respect for the elements, the sea, and the creatures living within in it, he also left her to parent herself. With wit, love, and bracing flashes of anger, Creatures probes the complexities of love and abandonment, guilt and forgiveness, betrayal and grief – and the ways in which our childhoods can threaten our ability to love if we are not brave enough to conquer the past. Lyrical, modern, darkly funny and ultimately cathartic, Creatures exerts a pull as strong as the tides.


With the exception of their release dates in the UK, which tend to come months after they are the chosen book of the month, Belletrist picks never let me down (when I can eventually get my hands on them, anyway). Creatures by Crissy Van Meter was no different.

He’ll tell you that, like his, your heart will sometimes ache as if it will explode, and that sometimes joy can kill you, too. Everything can kill you, is what he’s saying, but you won’t be listening. He’s telling you he hopes you’ll be wild enough to love things you cannot see. He will tell you to be careful. Accidentally, he will tell you to build walls without telling you to build them. Over the years, you will watch his heart ache and sing and burn out. And then do it again, and again.”

Creatures is the story of Evie, forced into the role of her own parent because her mother and father aren’t up to the task – her father is consumed by his drug addiction, and her mother of a tendency to up and leave for years at a time – as the years tick by on the run down Winter Island she calls home. Written in a series of vignettes, we meet Evie at four distinct points in her life: childhood, young adulthood, the night before her wedding and the tenth year of her marriage.

It’s a novel about the wounds we all carry; those we inherit from our parents, and those picked up along the way. It’s a quiet book, one where plot doesn’t hold the same importance as language. I love that. Van Meter’s writing is brutal and poetic, merciless and yet at the same time it holds you steady somehow as she reaches right into the heart of the matter and gives it a firm tug.

It’s a confronting read, in many ways. As Evie grows older, the narrative dispenses with the idea that love will set you free. It’s much more interested in the ways love will tear you apart, and the things to be discovered at the other end of that process. Not freedom – there might not be such a thing – but perhaps, the first steps in the direction of healing, of forgiveness.

The real reasons: I’m not sure he loves me like I love him. And I can’t bear the thought of loving him anymore. Each day, the burden of that brokenness feels bigger.
‘Don’t forget to take the dog to get his allergy shot,’ I say.
‘How long will you be gone?’ he asks.
But how can I know? I am still mending all my bleeding things.”

The chapters regarding Evie’s marriage were my favourite. These days I am much more interested in stories where the ‘I do’ isn’t the end point. The relationship is so often presented as the solution, when the truth of the matter is – yes, you fell in love, but you’re still the same person you were yesterday, baggage in hand. In Creatures, Van Meter isn’t afraid to explore imperfect love, sometimes toxic love, the kind of love you can see yourself in much more clearly than those stories you have to read through rose-tinted glasses.

If I haven’t made it clear enough, Creatures blew me away. Beautiful, succinct and written like a pure shot of vital feeling, it’s the perfect accessory for a lazy Sunday afternoon of introspection.

Trick Mirror

We are living in the era of the self, an era of malleable truth and widespread personal and political delusion. In these nine interlinked essays, Jia Tolentino explores her own coming of age in this warped and confusing landscape.

From the rise of the internet to her appearance on an early reality TV show as a teenager; from her experiences of ecstasy – both religious and chemical – to her uneasy engagement with our culture’s endless drive towards ‘self-optimisation’; from the phenomenon of the successful American scammer to the extravagance of wedding culture, Jia Tolentino writes with style, humour and a fierce clarity about these strangest of times.

Following in the footsteps of American luminaries such as Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit, yet with a voice and wisdom all her own, Jia Tolentino writes with a rare gift for elucidating nuance and complexity, coupled with a disarming warmth. This debut collection of essays announces her as exactly the sort of voice we need to hear from right now – and for many years to come.


You know when a book is almost too good to review? Where a writer has accessed a level of insight so profound you could never possibly do it justice?

I refer you to Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, a book of essays that blew my mind, made me uncomfortable, made me laugh out loud and, you know, casually reassess basically everything about my life.

In the first piece of Trick Mirror, ‘The I in Internet’, Jia lays out her thesis statement for everything that is to come – and still, I wasn’t ready. Trick Mirror is a book about consequences, and moving the larger part of our lives online has come with some we never could have anticipated. Perhaps the most distressing of which, Jia argues, is the commodification of the self (“capitalism’s last natural resource”), and the inflation of the importance of personal identity that followed. As Jia writes, “It’s as if we’ve been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection.”

In this world, having an opinion is conflated with taking action; feminism isn’t about the collective so much as #GirlBoss-style individual advancement substituted for progress – or as Jia puts it, “A politics built around getting and spending money is sexier than a politics built around politics” – and we have generally accepted the notion that maybe the best way a person can spend their life is to identify areas of potential profit and take whatever they can under the guise of ‘disrupting’ (or, more accurately, “dismantling social structures to suck up cash from whatever corners of life can still be exploited.”)

Generally speaking, the only way to make it through the day and remain sane is to have a problematically high tolerance for fucked up things. Trick Mirror lowers that shield, and demands the reader’s discomfort as we are brought face to face with the hypocrisies and glaring dilemmas of the system we have agreed to live in. No one is allowed off the hook – not even Jia, who readily implicates herself in a conversation that refuses binaries. It’s as refreshing as it is distressing to read.

It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite from this collection, because they are so impactful in such different ways, but ‘Always Be Optimising’ struck particularly close to home. A sprawling essay taking in the history of barre, beauty standards, influencer culture and the failures of the mainstream feminist movement, it lays bare a lot of the bullshit you encounter day to day as a woman.

“It’s very easy, under certain conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organising your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible. Women have known this intimately for a long time.”

As the world has expanded we’re dealing with not only unrealistic beauty standards, but unrealistic lifestyle standards (My Morning Routine and What I Eat In A Day videos, anyone?), where a relentless pursuit of self-improvement is advertised under the guise of female empowerment and ‘self-care’. In one of the many throw-the-book-across-the-room moments (those can be good too) I had during reading, Jia highlights the irony of the rebrand we’ve gifted the impossible standards women are expected to achieve. It’s no longer mid-century magazines imploring us to “spend time and money trying to be more radiant for our husbands, we now counsel one another to do all the same things but for ourselves.

Like I said before, everyone is implicated.

With Trick Mirror, Jia has cemented herself forever as one of my favourite writers. I have already read most of the essays multiple times, and writing this I got lost in them all over again. I really can’t recommend this book enough.

Vicious

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates – brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same ambition in each other. A shared interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl with a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find – aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the arch-nemeses have set a course for revenge – but who will be left alive at the end?


My favourite fictional characters have always been the evil ones. The murderers, liars, cheaters and manipulators safely ensconced in the pages of books allow us all to indulge ourselves for a little while in the potential of pressing the fuck-it button and letting life crumble into delicious chaos.

We’d never actually do it, of course. If we have learned anything from Tokyo off Money Heist it’s that chaos is not a sustainable lifestyle unless you don’t happen to mind getting your much more likeable co-workers killed from time to time.

We mind.

Anyway. Vicious, by my forever fave V.E. Shwab is an ode to the fuck-it button. It’s about what happens when entitled masculinity meets paranormal science plus murder.

The result?

Chaos, of course. Delicious chaos.

Vicious, like so many of my favourite reads recently, is split into a few different timelines. This, combined with the short chapters and ever evolving list of times, locations and perspectives really drives the narrative, which, like all the best villain stories, has everything to do with revenge. Every player in this story is harbouring something – a God complex (actually, there are a few of those going around), a suspected curse, the exact details of their own murder (yes, you read that right) – and these separate threads weave together in gripping and surprising ways as our MC, Victor gathers the gang of misfits required to finally bring down his ex-university bestie, Eli, for reasons you’ll find out as you go along.

Victor Vale has all the elements of your favourite likeable bad guy. Emotional detachment, a pattern of drastic behaviour and general disregard for personal safety, a great alliterative name and the required enigmatic magnetism that draws fellow weirdos to his side, kind of like those whistles only dogs can hear. Plus, his parents are self-help millionaires because V.E. Shwab always spoils us with these kinds of details. As a young ‘un, Victor spends his days creating black out poetry from his parents’ books, transforming self-help platitudes into statements like “Be lost. Give up. give In. in the end It would be better to surrender before you begin” with the help of a Sharpie – that is when he isn’t trying to figure how to get super powers.

Eli on the other hand is your standard all American boy: blond, gorgeous, popular, charming and totally capable of mass murder with the right motivation. He’s kind of like Payton off The Politician had he set his sights on gaining superhuman abilities rather than the Oval Office. Plus – you know – the whole murder thing.

It’s a page turner, I’ll tell you that. Shwab takes the age-old at this point trope of the science experiment gone wrong and makes it her own, creating a unique standard of what’s morally right in the process.

(We love Victor! But he’s totally evil too? But like, less evil? I mean I know he did the murder but maybe his murdering wasn’t as bad as Eli’s murdering?)

You get the picture.

As morally upstanding as you believe yourself to be, this is the kind of story where you end up implicated.

It’s not going to end well for anyone, surely, and yet I find I can’t wait to pick up the sequel.

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.

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.

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.

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.