May favourites

May was something of a crazy month for me. I went on holiday to Venice for week, and then yesterday I moved to a new city to start a new job – after a manic few weeks finishing up any outstanding freelance projects before that phase of my life (thankfully) reached a close. For now.

I am a totally shy introvert, so moving to a new city full of strangers into a house full of strangers (I am living in a slightly weird place that used to be a B&B, with six other people) feels like a Big Deal. I’ve moved here for a temporary, but very exciting job, so I’m doing my best to put my anxieties aside (by which I obviously mean read lots of books and watch lots of TV and try not to think about them) and enjoy myself.

So far I’m not doing too badly. I took myself out for a coffee date this morning. Yesterday I made my room pretty.

It’s in progress.

Anyway, onto my favourites from May!

Travelling by myself

In the weeks leading up to Venice, whenever I mentioned I was going away, and then, when asked, revealed that it was by myself, I got some funny looks. I felt like I had to make excuses for myself. Reassure people that I did have friends. Mention that you have to do some things by yourself when you’re single as if that was something I felt regretful about.

The truth?

I fucking love going on holiday by myself.

Wandering aimlessly for hours, not worrying that I’m boring someone else, whether their needs are being met… it’s the best. I’ve been away alone three times now and every time I wait for myself to get lonely and I just… don’t.

There might be something wrong with me.

All I can say is it felt like freedom.

F Word

This is a series on the Soul Pancake YouTube channel about a queer couple looking to foster and perhaps adopt a child. It offers a fascinating insight into the foster and adopt process in the US, casting an analytical eye over systemic racism in the system – people of colour are much more likely to have their children removed in situations where white parents are allowed to keep theirs – the limbo potential foster and adoptive parents experience as they negotiate the system and the tensions between biological parents and foster parents. It is emotional AF (I cried. A lot.) and painful and hopeful and heart-breaking – and an invaluable look at a much under-represented experience. The episode where they interview bio parents fighting to get their rights to their children reinstated is particularly devastating and necessary.

See Something Say Something

The See Something Say Something podcast is back! One of the most tragic losses of the great Buzzfeed podcast cull of 2018, I was thrilled to see Ahmed Ali Akbar and guests back on the air as an independent outfit. See Something Say Something is a podcast about being a Muslim in the US right now. From their award-winning Ramadan series to interviews with some amazing guests like everybody’s fave chef, Samin Nosrat and author Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib AKA Carly Rae Jepsen’s no. 1 fan among many other great people, every episode is a blend of political commentary, pop culture (RIP Zayn and Gigi) and just a chance to spend time with some awesome people.

Aja Barber

Aja Barber is an activist-writer-stylist talking about systematic racism, sustainable fashion and saving the planet. Through her Instagram and Patreon accounts she dissects the role of white supremacy in the climate emergency, and how we can all hold each other accountable – most especially white people – for the role we are playing in the destruction of the planet. I feel really strongly about the destructive power of fast fashion, but for a long time I couldn’t find many voices within the sustainable fashion movement that really resonated with me. It’s a lot of very rich, mostly white women dancing in fields wearing flowing dresses and talking about veganism. And while that’s fine for them, the story a lot of those accounts tell lacked the urgency and complexity with which I wanted to see the conversation take place – also, to be frank, they showed a lifestyle totally financially unattainable to me. Then I found Barber’s work. She discusses the problem of fast fashion with the intelligence, nuance and analytical complexity I’d been looking for. She constantly challenges the white woman in her audience to be better, more accountable, more intersectional in their perspective and has pushed me to consider what doing my best really looks like. And, with her particular interest in second hand shopping, she shows that living sustainably is more accessible than we might think.

If you fancy catching up, this month I reviewed…

How to be a Craftivist by Sarah Corbett
The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X. R. Pan
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

How was your May? Have you ever moved to a new place for a job? Any tips would be much appreciated!

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Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

The book that sparked a national conversation. Exploring everything from eradicated black history to the inextricable link between class and race, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is the essential handbook for anyone who wants to understand race relations in Britain today.

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge is the book about race and Britain I didn’t know I needed.

So, a weird thing about the British education system – at least, back when I was in it – is that you don’t really learn anything about the history of race in the country. The UK’s colonialist history, the atrocities it has inflicted on other countries, how those wounds continue to be felt today were – and I am embarrassed to admit this, but I’ll be honest about it – things I learned entirely by accident through fiction.

I know how white I sound right now.

And yet even in the last few years, as I’ve learned chunks of a history that even now my country fails to be held accountable for, a lot of what I have learned about black history in particular has been through an American lens. It’s a phenomenon Eddo-Lodge describes in the book, the “heavy focus on Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad and Martin Luther King Jr., the household names of America’s civil rights movement felt important” to her, but far away from her own experiences as a black person in the UK.

Eddo-Lodge then sets up the history of black Britain in brief, from the slave ports dotted all over the country (one of them very near where I live that I had no idea about) to the black and brown soldiers who fought in World War One, promised the end of colonial rule in return for their service (a promise England broke), race riots and the utterly horrifying lynching of Charles Wootton – to which Britain responded by ‘repatriating’ (deporting, basically) 600 black people from the country.

In setting up the history of racism in Britain and its manifestation now, as a reader you can’t help but reflect on what’s changed – but more strikingly, what hasn’t. In 1900, the British government decided that the ‘solution’ to the problem of racist crime in the community was to send black people ‘home’ (to places they had been forcibly removed from by the British who enslaved them). Nowadays we deal with structural racism with a similar ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach – by pretending it doesn’t exist. As Eddo-Lodge says, white people “truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal.” And yet as she goes onto explain, with the stark disparities in educational opportunities, higher unemployment rates, harsher police responses (for example, black people are twice as likely to be charged with drug possession despite lower rates of use), disproportionate and inappropriate use of the Mental Health Act and generally worse health outcomes for black people, this narrative of equality we have invented quickly falls apart.

Every section of this book is fascinating and challenging, but none more so than the chapter about feminism – specifically Eddo-Lodge’s points about white feminism. That is, for the uninitiated, feminism that doesn’t take account of race. If you’re a white girl born in the nineties, in other words, the feminism that you were brought up on. Eddo-Lodge writes in detail about her experiences with white feminism, and in particular the way that white women often frame themselves as victims in a conversation about their own privilege (think Taylor Swift/ Nicki Minaj VMAs incident from a few years ago) in such a way that paints black women as ‘angry’ villains, effectively pushing them out of the conversation. As Eddo-Lodge puts it: “The white feminist distaste for intersectionality quickly evolved into a hatred for the idea of white privilege – perhaps because to recognise structural racism would have to mean recognising their own whiteness.”
White feminism perceives intersectionality as a threat to its identity. It’s the same old racism under new guise, and one that is rampant even in what many white people consider to be progressive circles.

Even if non-fiction isn’t your go-to, I think you should read this book. Eddo-Lodge’s work is important, powerful and deeply engaged with the political moment without pandering to the idea that racism is something that just happened in the last couple years – she’s very clear that it’s only white people who hadn’t noticed it before 2016. It’s a work that also serves as a call to action and a reminder, for white readers anyway, that the job of picking apart structural racism is the responsibility of everyone – most especially those who have spent their entire lives benefitting from it.
Reni Eddo-Lodge is a vital writer and Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race should be at the top of every intersectional feminist’s reading list.

Internment

Trigger warning: Islamophobia

It’s been one year since the census landed seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her family on the registry. Five months since the attorney general ruled there was precedent for relocation of citizens during times of war. And one month since the president declared that ‘Muslims are a threat to America’.

Now, Layla and her parents are suddenly taken from their home and forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, Internment is a heart-racing and emotional novel that challenges readers to fight the complicit silence that exists in society today.

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Internment by Samira Ahmed is a chilling and powerful peek into a potential future America. Muslim Americans are forced to sign up to a so-called ‘Muslim registry’, book burnings of Islamic texts and literature by Muslim authors are a regular occurrence and exclusion laws are in place preventing Muslims from entering the country. People live under nightly curfew. Lots of Muslim parents have withdrawn their children from school, fearing for their safety in institutions that have turned against them. Muslims working in the public sector have all been fired from their jobs.

Soon the hostile environment moves into its next horrifying phase: internment. Layla and her parents are removed from their home at gun point and sent to a camp in the middle of the desert. There, people are separated into ethnic groups (classic colonialist move), given no access to the internet or any kind of news outside of the camp’s electrified fences and forced to adjust to a life of imprisonment and all the terror, random acts of violence and isolation that come with that.

Internment is very much Layla’s story. It’s an introspective look at her experience of internment: her constant fear, her frustration with her parents and their obedience to the rules of the camp – born only of course of a desire to remain safe, but nonetheless awful to Layla – and her growth from regular teenage girl to an activist and freedom fighter under duress.

Ahmed expertly crafted this book so as you read every page with baited breath, tense and unable to relax. It’s a relentless novel filled with dangers known – and perhaps even more frightening, mysterious. Some people are beaten by guards for all to see, others vanished from the camp without explanation. Even in moments of relative calm there is no escape from the ever-present feeling of danger. This is no more evident than in Layla’s developing relationship with one of the camp’s guards. A solider seemingly sympathetic to the plight of Layla and her fellow inmates, Layla’s relationship with Jake made me very uncomfortable. While Jake does act like a friend and an ally, he still works for the regime and the extremity of the power imbalance in their relationship makes every early scene between the pair – to me, anyway – almost unbearably tense and, for lack of a better word, icky. Yes, right now this man is acting as Layla’s ally, but it is impossible to forget that ultimately, he has power over her – in the form of a gun and a climate of disregard for the Muslims imprisoned in the camp. Basically, he could do what he wanted to her and no one would stop him – and even when he behaved kindly, that was impossible to forget.

Jake, unfortunately, is where my problems with Internment began. While it is a powerful story, I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been more. Though they would have been difficult to read, there were elements of life in the camp I felt could have been better fleshed out. The way internees had the potential to turn against each other, for example, was touched upon but not fully explored; different Muslim identities were acknowledged, but without much depth; in perhaps the part that upset me most, the sexual abuse almost certainly happening in the camp was acknowledged by Jake in a way that felt almost… throwaway. I think perhaps the reason these missing elements bothered me quite so much is because of the amount of the narrative that is dedicated to Layla’s relationship with Jake, the white guard. His arc of redemption was probably the least interesting to me, and, in my opinion, was dedicated far too much time and yet still not enough complexity – or criticism.

Then there was the novel’s tendency to fall into some of the tropes of YA. Layla took massive risks throughout to spend time with her boyfriend, David that felt… kind of unrealistic to me. Being forcibly separated from your partner is a kind of pain I couldn’t even imagine, but sneaking your boyfriend into an internment camp where both your lives are in danger for what basically amounted to a quick make out sesh… really?

Ultimately, Internment is an upsetting and necessary read about the impact of Islamophobia taken to one of its most extreme possible outcomes. It’s chilling because it’s realistic. I read Internment the week following the Christchurch shootings, in which there was an increase in Islamophobic hate crimes in the UK. A few days later there was a report in The Guardian from the UNHCR that 15 refugee children, mostly from Afghanistan, being held in Calais by the UK awaiting family unification – some of them for up to a year are currently undertaking a hunger strike out of desperation to have their cases finally heard. What’s upsetting about Internment is what could happen – but it’s also what’s happening now.

Internment, though imperfect, points out the ways that we are complicit in crimes being committed right now and challenges you to finally step into the fight.

Everything I Know About Love

When it comes to the trials and triumphs of becoming a grown up, journalist Dolly Alderton has seen and tried it all. She vividly recounts falling in love, wrestling with self-sabotage, finding a job, throwing a socially disastrous Rod Stewart themed house party, getting drunk, getting dumped, realising that Ivan from the corner shop is the only man you’ve ever been able to rely on, and finding that that your mates are always there at the end of every messy night out. It’s a book about bad dates, good friends and – above all else – about recognising that you and you alone are enough.

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I grabbed a copy of Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton on a whim at the checkout in Sainsbury’s. It was £3.99, I was stocking up on yoghurt and pasta. It made sense.

I knew very little about the book besides a few people I follow on Instagram posting about how great it was and assumed from the title that it was probably about boys. And, for the first couple of chapters at least, I was right. Dolly Alderton starts what very much appears to be a book about dating before she pivots into a much more complicated story about friendship, self-destruction, loss, grief, therapy and independence – and cooking. There is a macaroni cheese recipe in there that’ll make you lose your mind.

“Sometimes the gap between the little faith you have compared to the unwavering faith of others is a very moving thing.”

Everything I Know About Love is a series of funny, heart-wrenching and sometimes cringe-inducing personal essays about Alderton’s life, from her beginnings living in the outskirts of London counting down the days until adulthood finally begins, to her discovery of alcohol and its impact on her, some boys and, of course, her personal reckoning – with herself. These essays are broken up by recipes (I know I mentioned this already but the hangover mac and cheese is life changing), made up correspondence on everything from pretentious house parties to the nightmare that is the hen do in the social media age and everything Dolly knew about love between the ages of 21 and 30. From “Men love a filthy, wild woman. Have sex on the first date, keep them up all night, smoke hash in their bed in the morning, never call them back, tell them you hate them, turn up on their doorstep in an Ann Summers nurse’s outfit, be anything but conventional. That’s how you keep them interested.” (21) to “There is a reason why those with shared demons or who had similar childhoods or overlapping ancestry often end up together. I think everyone’s deepest emotional fingerprints reach out and touch each other on an unconscious level. This can be good and bad. This can lead to intimacy and connection, and co-dependency and drama.” (30). Each list is full of embarrassing misconceptions and deep truths I’ve been reflecting on ever since.

In ‘Being a Bit Fat, Being a Bit Thin’, Alderton details how quickly it is possible to fall into disordered eating habits. Always described as “a big girl” by her peers, Dolly hadn’t considered her weight in much detail before her first Big Break Up age 21. Struck down by unexpected heartbreak, for the first time in her life, Dolly found herself completely unable to eat. When she shed a stone in the first few weeks she grabbed hold of weight as one aspect of her life she could control. This is a difficult essay to read, as it speaks very directly to how ingrained diet culture is – in young women in particular. We have been so socialised into believing that thin equals happy even the most reasonable person is vulnerable to falling into that belief – and, as Alderton points out, it’s one that is incredibly difficult to ever be completely free from. Once you know something’s caloric value, it’s very hard to forget.

When I saw the title Everything I Know About Love, I assumed the love Alderton referenced was mostly the romantic kind, but the love story at the centre of her memoir is a platonic one. She and her best friend, Farley have known each other since they were children. They always functioned as two parts of a frenetic whole – that is, until Farley met her partner. Alderton writes with honesty and humility about how hard it was for her to see her best friend fall in love. It is one of the lesser spoken of aspects of friendship, but the particular heartbreak of suddenly becoming second to your friend’s serious partner is a real and horrible phase of life at whatever age it happens to you. Going from speaking to and seeing each other every day to suddenly having to fit into the newly busy schedule of your bestie can be unmooring, alienating and very, very lonely. But, slowly, you adjust to the new normal. The partner you’ve resented comes to feel like family.

Alderton illustrates that periods of closeness and distance are all a part of a long-term relationship, something that becomes very apparent when Farley’s life takes a completely unexpected and tragic twist – leading she and Dolly back to the kind of closeness they hadn’t had in years, under the most awful of circumstances. It’s not the kind of unconditional love she had always pictured, but, Dolly comes to realise, she and Farley have it. Alderton spends much of the book lamenting her supposed inability to maintain long-term love. Her life has mainly been without serious romantic relationships, and she wears her independence like a shield. But the idea that she doesn’t have forever-love in her life isn’t real. Farley is the great (platonic) love of her life – with all the joys, fights, complications and phases that entails.

All I can say to sum up this book is this: I was not ready.

March favourites

March has been kind of crazy month for me! I (finally) got a new job. It’s temporary again, and involves moving to a new city which is very nerve-wracking, but I’m excited. Truth be told, I need a change and I think some time in a new city – however long it ends up lasting – will do me good.

To listen: The High Low

The High Low

I recently read Everything I Know About Love (review here) by Dolly Alderton and absolutely adored it. When I mentioned the book to a friend, she said “I think she has a podcast” and so obviously I downloaded it immediately. The High Low is the weekly pop culture/news podcast I didn’t know I needed. Hosted by Alderton and Pandora Skyes, together they discuss the news, books, television and podcasts you need in your life. It’s most of what I care about distilled into around and hour and a half and I love it.

To watch: Jameela Jamil and Sam Smith talk about body confidence

I have been a fan of Jameela Jamil for a while. As someone from the UK, I knew she existed before The Good Place and used to absolutely love her column in Cosmopolitan. I think her I Weigh body positivity project is really wonderful, and it has inspired me to think critically about my Instagram habits and start unfollowing people who make me feel bad about myself. I Weigh is gradually expanding, and its latest iteration is a YouTube channel where Jamil interviews people (so far it’s just Sam Smith but I think there are more planned) about body confidence and the impact diet culture has had on their lives. This conversation with Sam Smith… is, well. It’s a lot. You might have a little weep. It is such an honest, vulnerable conversation about the false equivalence of thinness and happiness, the grim reality of fame and the necessity of vulnerability – especially in the world of the Instagram highlight reel.

To watch: Fleabag (BBC, Amazon Prime)

fleabag

I only started watching Fleabag a few weeks ago, and to be honest, it has kind of taken over my life. This tragicomedy about sorrow, loneliness and attempting personal growth  is a work of actual genius. In any half hour episode the star and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge will have you laughing, crying and staring dumbly in open-mouthed wonder as she articulates the world in all its awful glory. This is the only show I’ve ever watched where, when an episode ends I immediately go back to the beginning and watch it all over again.

Also she has, from where I can see, pretty much the entire UK wanting to fuck a priest (played to PERFECTION by Andrew Scott) right now – which, given how little else we can agree on, is no small thing.

To read: “Nobody Shows”

This is heart-breaking. Also you should read it.

To use: The Body Shop Vitamin-E Eye Cream

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What does that post-it say? You’ll never know… mwahahaha

In the last year I’ve had to have a couple of facials so I could write about them for work (I know. My life is hard.) and two of the facialists I’ve seen have told me that my under-eye area is very dry. Eye cream is one of those things I always considered a beauty industry scam to get you to buy more products (looking at you “double cleansing”) but I actually do think this stuff is having a positive impact on my face! I mean, the best solution would be sleep but who has time for that. Also using it makes me feel like a fancy lady with a proper skincare routine, which I am very much enjoying.

 

Roar

Have you ever imagined a different life? Have you ever stood at a crossroads undecided? Have you ever had a moment when you wanted to roar?

The women in these startlingly original stories are all of us: the women who befriend us, the women who encourage us, the women who make us brave. From The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared to The Woman Who Was Kept on the Shelf and The Woman Who Returned and Exchanged Her Husband, discover 30 very different women. Each discovers her strength; each realizes she holds the power to make a change.

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Roar, Cecelia Ahern’s short story offering is a selection of feminist tales that aim to explore the pressures, prejudices, joys and maddening frustrations of women’s lives. The stories weave magical realism into the modern day pressures of motherhood, marriage and aging in a way that was effective if occasionally a little contrived.

Overall, I found Roar to be a pretty mixed bag. I enjoy magical realism, but Ahern’s on the nose use of metaphor at times came across a little heavy handed. The first story in the collection, The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared sees a middle aged woman gradually vanish into nothing – making the point that women in middle age and beyond are ignored and maligned in society (particularly noticeably in the UK, where it’s generally accepted that women aren’t allowed to be on TV anymore once they hit 50). In The Woman Who Wore Pink, gender roles are enforced by a literal Gender Police that sees men and women fined and even imprisoned when they don’t adhere to the roles society has laid out for them. I’m not arguing her point, but there was a layer of subtlety missing in the collection that made me feel like she wasn’t so much showing me her opinion as bashing me over the head with it.

While overall I found this heavy handedness to be disconcerting, there were times when she used it to amusing and deeply satisfying effect. The Woman Who Guarded Gonads, about a world in which men have to appeal to a room of women to be allowed a vasectomy flips the narrative of bodily autonomy on its head and has men held to the same standards women have struggled against since forever. Lines like “And what about the lack of thought for the sperm? Why deny your sperm the right to life?” highlight the utter ridiculousness of the ‘pro-life’ position in a way that was as funny as it was cathartic.

What has left me so on the fence about this collection however was one particular story that left a bad taste in my mouth. The Woman Who Blew Away is the story of a millennial influencer who is obsessed with her Instagram likes, spends hours on her makeup, has plastic surgery and takes lots of selfies who one day “became so light, her head filled with too much nothing, she blew away”. This story was such an outlier – especially in such an overtly feminist collection – built on stereotypes, assumptions and the coding of things typically ‘feminine’ as stupid. In a book packed with complexly imagined women fighting guilt, insecurity and harassment this story of oh she likes makeup and cares about social media so therefore she must be stupid was a slap in the face. It felt very Rashida Jones #stopactinglikewhores level tone deaf and cast a bit of a shadow over the rest of the collection for me – and perhaps extinguished any patience I had kept for the aspects of Ahern’s writing that weren’t working for me.

While it definitely had some triumphant moments, overall Roar was let down by obvious metaphors and Ahern’s decision to give some women complexity and nuance while removing it from others.  It felt very feminism 101, which while still a good thing in itself, didn’t really say anything that was new to me.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

The Carls just appeared. Roaming through New York City at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship – like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armour – April and her best friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world – from Beijing to Buenos Aires – and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the centre of an intense international media spotlight.

Seizing the opportunity to make her mark on the world, April now has to deal with the consequences her new particular brand of fame has on her relationships, her safety and her own identity. And all eyes are on April to figure out not just what the Carl’s are, but what they want from us.

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I am predisposed to resent people who have what I perceive to be a disproportionate amount of talent. I almost want to dislike their creations because it seems deeply unfair to me for one person to have so much ability in multiple different areas when I am flailing in all of them. Hank Green is one such person. One half of the Vlog Brothers in addition to like a thousand other things, Hank is one of those people I am inclined to blame for my personal failings because he took all the talent before I had a chance to grab a piece. But he is also an adorable man I think it is actually impossible to dislike, so when I heard he was releasing a novel (an intimidating endeavour, I imagine, when your brother is one of the most popular authors currently publishing work), despite his unfairly large piece of the talent pie, I wanted the best for him. In projecting my own imagined inadequacy onto him, I forgot for a moment that Hank Green is good at everything.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Hank Green’s debut novel, is really fucking good. A book about Queen-loving aliens that isn’t really about Queen-loving aliens at all; it dissects the dehumanising effect of fame (by others and ourselves), how the power that comes with fame can be used and abused, how we use rhetoric to progress our agenda and how that rhetoric can spin out of control.

Hank Green has written a novel for 2018 – as culturally relevant as it is resonant with the polarising politics of today. When the Carls arrive, April May unexpectedly finds herself at the centre of the news cycle of aliens making first contact with earth – by accidentally making first contact with them. She’d never much thought about fame before – she was barely even on social media – but once in the eye of the media storm she puts all of her energy into remaining there. In April May’s journey from regular Joe to tier five fame we really see the corrupting potential of that fame, as April May even starts to see herself less as a person than a brand. I suppose the work of building your own identity is less when you let everyone else define it for you, and once April May has that and the relevance and attention that comes with it she is utterly unable to let go – at the sacrifice of pretty much everything else in her life.

But the Carls are also the first contact between aliens and Earth and though it may not always seem that way from her perspective, the story is much bigger than April May herself. As time goes on and the Carls remain (doing, it is important to note, nothing at all, for the most part), the world seems to split into two camps. Those who agree with April May, that the Carls are a force for good and promoting togetherness – and those who look at the Carls and see a threat. Led by right-wing media pundit Peter Petrawicki, this group comes to be known as The Defenders (as in, of Earth) from what they perceive to be the alien threat. As the novel progresses the politics of fear espoused by Petrawicki and his Defenders grows, slowly becoming ever more toxic and out of control. Even as a reader seeing the story firmly from April May’s perspective, you are not immune to their rhetoric. For a lot of the novel, the Carls aren’t really doing anything definitely good or bad – they simply exist in a way that was heretofore impossible. But it is in the absence of action that both factions project ideals onto them, and as they fail to live up to either they have, throughout, the potential to be both. Though I can’t get behind the extremism to which The Defenders descend as the book goes on the whole time I couldn’t help but wonder if they had a point.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a novel about a special snowflake – April May, the first human girl to make contact with aliens – that resists that narrative in a really interesting way. As the novel progresses, April May starts asking herself what the Carls saw in her in the first place. What made her so special? Why did they choose her? When she finally has the opportunity to ask the question, the Carls don’t respond – because, I think, there isn’t an answer. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing isn’t about a special girl seeing her specialness finally recognised – it is the opposite. April May is a girl desperate to feel special and worthy of something and so willing to believe in that narrative when it arises – and there is really nothing much more normal than that. Even when there are aliens involved.

There is so much more I could write about this book. I haven’t even touched on April May’s relationships, particularly with her girlfriend, Maya, and how her interactions display a deep and relatable level of insecurity she does a really bad job of hiding. I haven’t talked yet about her monstrous agent, and how certain at times in this book you wonder whether April May stands for her actual beliefs, or simply the stance that gets the most likes on Twitter. But we don’t have all day.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green is just that (an absolutely remarkable thing) – this book is packed with questions, compassion and a pacey sci-fi story I will absolutely return to in the future.

Yep. Hank Green is good at everything.