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.

Truly Devious

Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

In 1936, shortly after the school opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great crimes of American history. Something like that could never happen again, obviously…

Years later, true crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder.


Remotely situated boarding schools for the excellent – be that wizards, vampires or, in this case, geniuses – have always been one of my favourite literary escapes. So when Maureen Johnson, one of my forever faves, presented us with Ellingham Academy – a school with ‘…no application, no list of requirements, no instructions other than “If you would like to be considered for Ellingham Academy, please get in touch.”’ – I was totally in before I even read the first page.

Truly Devious is a murder mystery split into two separate timelines. There’s Stevie Bell, a new arrival at the school, true crime enthusiast and Sherlock Holmes-in-training at present day Ellingham Academy, sticking her nose into history to see what she can sniff out there, interspersed with chapters covering those shocking days of April 1936 when the course of Albert Ellingham’s life was thrown dramatically and tragically off course. The only thing both timelines have in common is that no one yet understands what on earth has gone on.

Stevie has lived all her life feeling like a misfit. From a politically conservative family – her parents even work for a local senator who is the unfortunate embodiment of Make America Great Again-ism – and a high school filled with kids she got on well enough with, but never felt especially connected to, she’s frustrated and desperate for a new chapter of her life to begin.

Yeah, Stevie. We can all relate.

The school is populated by the sort of colourful characters you might expect from an institution for the strange and genius – Janelle, an engineering superstar who was caught mending the toaster at 5 years old; Nate, the teenage author of a best-selling Game of Thrones-type series called The Moon Bright Cycles; Hayes Major, writer and star of The End of it All, a web series about a zombie apocalypse; and, finally, David. Oh, David. Constantly on the edge of expulsion, it’s unclear what David’s talent is besides disruption – of the school, and of Stevie’s general sense of wellbeing – but all I can say is you’re always glad he’s around. It’s Maureen Johnson we’re talking about, so you can’t guarantee a happy ending for the pair, but however it all turns out I am invested.

Like all Maureen’s books – has anyone else read her Shades of London series? I was obsessedTruly Devious is totally addictive. There is a sense of foreboding over the entire narrative, the weight of the unsolved murders Stevie is at the Academy to investigate, plus that of the murder the summary promises is coming. Who will it be?

I’m not going to give it away.

All I will say I was reaching for the sequel as soon as I could get my hands on it.

She Said

On 5 October 2017, the New York Times published an article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey that helped change the world. For months Kantor and Twohey had been having confidential discussions with top actresses, former Weinstein employees and other sources, learning of disturbing, long-buried allegations. The journalists meticulously picked their way through a web of decades-old secret pay outs and non-disclosure agreements, encouraged some of the most famous women in the world – and some unknown ones – to risk going on the record, and faced down Weinstein, his team of high-priced defenders, and even his private investigators.

In She Said, Kantor and Twohey relive in real-time what it took to break the story and give an up-close portrait of the forces they were up against. They describe the experiences of the women who spoke up – for the sake of other women, for future generations and for themselves.

Their stories have never been told in this way before.

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite A Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey details the journalists’ investigations into Harvey Weinstein. A work of non-fiction that reads like a gripping thriller – it feels like a movie – the book explores the day-to-day of investigative reporting, and it is fascinating. As a reader, you’re invited into the trenches of reporting with Jodi and Megan as they fit together each horrifying piece to build a picture of Weinstein’s serial abuse of women.

From approaching celebrities to finding the unknown women who worked for Weinstein behind the camera (many of them muzzled by non-disclosure agreements so restrictive they hadn’t even told their loved ones what Weinstein had done to them), seeing from the inside how Jodi and Megan built up trusting relationships with the women they were asking to go on the record – and take on all that would mean for their lives – revealed the intricacies of the journalistic process. Jodi details how she got Rose Mcgowan to speak to her despite her reservations because of the NYT’s previous ‘shabby’ treatment of her by explaining her own track record on issues of gender (Amazon, Starbucks and Harvard Business School had all changed their policies as a result of Jodi’s investigations into their gender equality issues). Simply explaining what she was about and letting Rose make her own choice, Jodi reasons, was the best way forward. She was right – Rose quickly wrote back and agreed to meet. This is just one of many examples of Jodi and Megan thoughtfully building up relationships with their sources – they never came over as anything but empathetic and patient, even when they were desperate for someone to go on the record.

But She Said is a story much broader than the individuals that contributed to it. The Harvey Weinstein scandal was always much bigger than just one man, and Jodi and Megan take pains to break down the structures that allowed Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse to go on for so long. They look at the more obvious details, like the way his company protected him from exposure. Buried HR reports, half efforts by Harvey’s brother and business partner, Bob that clearly rank the importance of the company over that of the women that work for it, and widespread knowledge among the higher ups of Harvey’s behaviour all paint a picture of a structure built to facilitate abuse. But beyond the specifics of the Weinstein company – and how those same structures that allowed Weinstein to hurt so many women can be observed in the wider culture – Jodi and Megan dig into the specific immorality of non-disclosure agreements.

Lots of the women that Harvey subjected to abuse signed these agreements. They are generally accompanied by a pay out in lieu of an apology – and an assurance that this is the most justice any woman can expect, so she should really just accept it and move on (ew) – and weave such a complicated legal trap that the women who sign them can’t tell anyone (there is one woman who hadn’t even felt able to tell her husband) what they went through. There was one example where the woman involved didn’t even have a copy of her non-disclosure agreement herself – the terms of the agreement meant that she had to go to her lawyer’s office if she ever wanted to look at it. She Said makes clear that the use of non-disclosure agreements needs to stop. They serve only one purpose – to facilitate abuse. As Harvey’s story demonstrates, losing a bit of his fortune was not enough of a deterrent for him to stop hurting women. Everyone finding out what he really was and his crimes being reported to the police, on the other hand…

Well, if you want to know how that went I’d recommend you read the news.

She Said is a wide-ranging, extensive look at the #MeToo movement from two reporters at the centre of it. It breaks down victories – taking Harvey down – and tragic backslides – Brett Cavanaugh – and the women from all walks of life who have been affected by sexual assault and sexual harassment. You’ll be gripped, you’ll be angry and you’ll be in awe – of the authors and of the women who agreed to go on the record (one of whom was going through a divorce and cancer treatment all at the same time as raising kids by herself).

It is vital reading.

(No, I haven’t read Catch and Kill yet but it is on my list. I love me some Ronan Farrow.)

The Night Circus

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Well, we live in Coronaworld now. I hope you are safe and well and have plenty of books to make it through your self-isolation/social distancing.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is another one of those hugely hyped reads it took me forever to get around to. But, faced with a long car journey (I was not behind the wheel, don’t worry) before which I spotted in it a second hand book shop, I decided it was time to take the plunge.

Ooof.

The Night Circus is really everything you want from a work of fiction. Magical, romantic and oh-so-atmospheric, I was transported into the world of Le Cirque des Rêves – and in no particular hurry to leave it. Fortune tellers, acrobats, conjurors, contortionists, dancers and illusionists populate the circus, which travels all around the world, suddenly appearing and captivating a place for a few days before vanishing once again.

It’s a beefy book – coming in at just under 500 pages – but the non-linear narrative serves to drive the plot ever-forward. It’s like Erin is handing you a selection of puzzle pieces you gradually fit together in a series of satisfying ‘ah ha!’ moments as present and past suddenly, finally come together.

The story is just so vast – it centres around Marco and Celia’s competition, yes, but quickly reaches outwards into the lives of the other circus performers, patrons, associates and conspirators. We jump between various time lines, learning of deaths before they have happened (though that makes them no less painful once we do witness them in real time), see characters end up in despair without yet understanding how they got there and learn of a huge and bleak something bearing down on the magical place but without yet understanding how the bleak thing started – or how the performers of Le Cirque des Rêves might stop it.

Erin Morgenstern’s writing makes me think of Laini Taylor, so rich and detailed are her descriptions. I felt I was there, wandering the looping pathways around the ever-burning bonfire at the centre of the circus, peeking inside the performance tents, each more magical than the next. Even in the structure of Erin’s writing – down to her individual word choices – there is magic.

I’ve never really been into the idea of running away to the circus before, but since I read this it’s all I want to do.

The Night Circus is one of those incredibly difficult books to review because the joy of it, I think, is in the not knowing. All I can say is that I recommend going into this much hyped novel as blind as you can – and letting it sweep you away. There’s a pandemic happening. If there’s anything we need right now it’s escapism, and it doesn’t come more escapist than this epic feat of imagination.

Just One Day

When sheltered American good girl Allyson “LuLu” Healey first meets laid-back Dutch actor Willem De Ruiter at an underground performance of Twelfth Night in England, there’s an undeniable spark. After just one day together, that spark bursts into a flame, or so it seems to Allyson, until the following morning, when she wakes up after a whirlwind day in Paris to discover that Willem has left. Over the next year, Allyson embarks on a journey to come to terms with the narrow confines of her life, and through Shakespeare, travel, and a quest for her almost-true-love, to break free of those confines.

Hello.

I would like to get back to this blogging thing.

I am very rusty. You may have to bear with me on this.

I remember a few years ago when Just One Year by Gayle Forman, the sequel to Just One Day, the book I’m reviewing today, came out. I was pretty new to blogging and it felt as though everyone was talking about it. At the time I thought it sounded like a typical romance that didn’t spark my interest (I am yet to read Just One Year so no spoilers please), so of course I never bothered picking up its predecessor. That is, until one of my housemates gave me her copy of Just One Day and told me that I. Must. Read. This. Book.  

So I did, and mate, now do I understand what all the fuss is about. Just One Day, like so many YA books marketed toward girls, is sold as this great story of romance. And while, yes, it is romantic as fuck, that isn’t really the point. It’s about identity, and how for some people that is so heavily informed by parents, friends and their expectations, that what it means to you, for yourself, gets totally lost. That’s what life is like for Allyson. Eighteen years old, she is stuck in the achingly familiar trap of friends she doesn’t have anything in common with and parents who are caring, but utterly oppressive, and she’s just about to crash land into the next stage of her life, university, when everything is supposed to change – except, it doesn’t.

In the midst of this her parents send her on a trip to Europe with the ‘best friend’ she has long since ceased to have anything in common with and she runs into Willem.

Willem.

Willem might actually be one of the hottest book boyfriends ever written. Allyson meets him at an outdoor staging on Twelfth Night and then in a completely out of character move it’ll take her almost half the book to replicate, she runs away to Paris with him for – you guessed it – just one day. Considering Allyson will spend the entire rest of the book obsessing about this man who – as the blurb says – vanishes, he had to be pretty special to sustain your interest. I won’t go into it too much because, spoilers, but suffice to say had I spent really any amount of time with this man, I would have been obsessed with him too.

But, as much as we love Willem (and I really can’t emphasise enough how much we do), it’s after his disappearance that the bulk of Allyson’s character development takes place.

Allyson can be kind of a frustrating character. She’s passive, moody and defeatist. But stick with her. All of these traits – which could easily be unbearably annoying – work in Allyson because of the care Gayle Forman has taken to demonstrate why Allyson is the way she is. She has spent her entire life with no space to breathe; her parents have scheduled and controlled everything down to a T, and the guilt her mother heaps on top of her whenever she tries to switch up the dynamic is so intense you really can’t blame her for crumbling almost every time. It is that sense of crumbling – which we see Allyson do a lot of throughout the book – that makes her such a believable character and ultimately somebody that you want to root for. Digging her way out of the trench that her parents have kept her in is a true struggle.

For Allyson, finding the way out begins with wanting to find the boy – that’s the motivation. But it’s never really about that. In finding for the first time, something – someone – she desperately wants, it’s like she reclaims a little piece of herself back from the pressures around her. She finds a piece of herself that is her own. That feeling, that wanting is strong enough to push up against the guilt that has controlled her for her entire life – and once the spark is lit, it only grows. And Allyson has to follow it.

So Just One Day isn’t so much a romance novel. It’s about building yourself.

It’s about being afraid – and how that fear can totally dominate your life if you let it.

It’s about not letting it.

Yeah, this was a book written for teenagers but, as a 27-year-old woman navigating a life completely changed from the one I had a year ago (hence the total lack of blogging, which, honestly, sorry not sorry) I found it so inspiring. And comforting too.

Change is hard, but worth it.