As the exiled mortal Queen of Faerie, Jude is reeling from Cardan’s betrayal and is determined to reclaim everything he took from her. Opportunity arrives in the form of her deceptive twin siser, Taryn, whose life is in peril. Jude myst return to the treacherous Farie Court and confront her lingering feelings for Cardan.
But Elfhame is not as she left it. War is brewing, and she becomes ensnared in the conflict’s bloody politics. When a terrible curse is unleashed, panic spreads throughout the land, forcing Jude to choose between her ambition and her humanity…
“I feel the soft brush of his tail against my ankle, winding around my calf.”
… This is not a scenario I would ever have imagined myself finding totally hot, but such is the power of Holly Black. Or maybe it’s the pandemic enforced isolation.
Probably it’s a little of both.
Queen of Nothing, the final book in Holly Black’s Folk of Air trilogy was everything I wanted.
Did it all totally hang together? Nope!
Were some things too easily resolved? Absolutely.
Did I mind? Not one bit.
With the exception of one off-page death – not to be all blood-thirsty, but I feel like we deserved to see it – part three of this power-grabbing, sexy, magical adventure was the satisfying conclusion I needed.
Escapist, immersive and a little bit silly, this series is one of my top recs for surviving the panny-d.
We have all the necessary ingredients for total distraction: sexy faeries, political intrigue that has nothing to do with actual real life political intrigue (I remain a little unsure why all these faerie clans were so mad at each other and I do not mind at all), complicated female relationships, spies and a really big snake.
If you don’t think a really big snake is a necessary ingredient for total distraction then you have clearly never been faced with one. Nothing focuses the mind quite like a really big snake.
Jude’s story has a satisfying three-act structure that totally pays off in the finale. If in book one she was teetering on the edge of herself and during book two barrelling down the rabbit hole of Roy family levels of manipulation and general evilness (like Succession but with magical kingdoms instead of America’s largest media and entertainment conglomerate), in book three she finds something like balance. While she is not exactly a nice person by the end – thank God. That would have been so disappointing – she has found the middle ground of her humanity and her desire for power, and it is a surprisingly solid place. I don’t get the sense she’s totally ‘clean’ – her and Cardan are still very much the people they started out as (albeit older and wiser, heads of state, etc) – and a potential future that sees her fall off the no-active-evil wagon is not unimaginable, and there is satisfaction in that, too. What has been so attractive about Jude from the beginning is her propensity to make a total mess of things, and she doesn’t shed that tendency to achieve perfection like so many YA special snowflakes before her.
Like I said, she is what she has always been: a human girl in a faerie world. It’s complicated, but she’s figuring it out.
Right now we need distraction, we need satisfaction, and quite honestly, we need sexy times. The Folk of Air series provides in all departments. If you’re looking to be somewhere else for a while, these three books are a great option.
Mountweazel (n.) a fake entry deliberately inserted into a dictionary or work of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.
It is the final year of the nineteenth century and Peter Winceworth has reached the letter ‘S’, toiling away for the much-anticipated Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. He is increasingly uneasy that his colleagues are attempting to coral language and regiment facts. Compelled to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom, Winceworth begins inserting fictitious entries into the dictionary.
In the present day, young intern Mallory is tasked with uncovering the mountweazels as the text of the dictionary is digitised. Through the fake words, she finds she has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires. More pressingly, she must also field daily threatening phone calls. Is a suggested change to the definition of marriage (n.) really so controversial? And does the caller really intend for the Swansby’s staff to ‘burn in hell’?
As their two narratives combine, Winceworth and Mallory must discover how to negotiate the complexities of an often nonsensical, untrustworthy, hoax-strewn and undefineable life.
The Liars Dictionary explores the themes of trust and creativity, and celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language. It is an exhilarating debut novel from a formidably brilliant young writer.
The Liars Dictionary is a playful novel about the irony of language – even when presented with a literal encyclopaedia of words, self expression remains just out of reach. Told through two socially uncomfortable narrators – Peter Winceworth in the 19th century and half-closeted intern Mallory in the present day – Eley Williams explores the undefinable bulk of human experience.
I tend to stay away from self consciously ‘bookish’ reads – anything set in a book shop, books about authors (one rung below movies about Hollywood on the ladder of annoying things no one really needs), etc – so I worry that others out there like me might be put off when I say that The Liars Dictionary is a book that delights in nerding out about words. Please don’t be. This is no literary Once Upon a Time In Hollywood – it’s a story about expressing yourself, and the often woeful inadequacy of language in the face of that task. It’s about how we’re compelled to try anyway, even holding the weight of a history filled with devastating communication failures – small and large.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews grouping Eley Williams with writers like Ali Smith and George Saunders and while I think both are fair comparisons – and I love Saunders and I like Smith in certain doses –there is a self concious whimsy to their writing that I didn’t feel during The Liars Dictionary, to its benefit. There is something about the closely observed portrayal of the discomfort that both Winceworth and Mallory feel about themselves that kept the novel grounded, even in its most playful moments.
I love books that play out across different timelines, and in The Liars Dictionary, Williams does it to delightful effect. As you’ll gather from the summary above, the bulk of Mallory’s work for her internship digitising the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary has become seeking out and removing mountweazels – fake words inserted into the dictionary by its creators. Mountweazels are actually a real thing, and much like the paper towns used by cartographers (and beloved by the likes of Margo Roth Speigelman), they are inserted as copyright markers – so if an Oxford English fake word suddenly shows up, for example, in the Merriam Webster, you know some copying has taken place. However, it turns out in Swansby’s, there is not just one mountweazel but many peppered throughout, words like Relectoblivious (adj.), accidentally rereading a phrase or line due to lack of focus or desire to finish; Prognostisumption (n.), belief, as made by glimpsing aspects of something from a distance; and Agrupt (adj.), irritation caused by having a denouement ruined. Mallory must seek out and remove the markers of this invented language, even as she wonders at the stories of the person who created it.
We don’t have to wonder. The novel slips seamlessly back to the 19th century where we get to see, in real time, the experiences and events that would lead Peter to invent those words. We feel with him the indefinable experiences he seeks to give language too – all experiences he is too afraid to say out loud and so hides them instead in the pages of the encyclopaedic dictionary he and a legion of other lexicographers have dedicated their professional lives to. I should mention here another unique aspect of the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary is that it never got finished. There were too many words.
The Liars Dictionary grapples with expression and definition in an utterly unique fashion, exploring language in all its limits and invention to captivating effect. It’s a quietly hopeful book, equal parts silly (I mean, an uncomfortable guy is literally called Winceworth) and profound.
Written during the early months of lockdown, Intimations explores ideas, feelings and questions prompted by an unprecedented situation. What does it mean it submit to a new reality – or to resist it? How do we compare relative sufferings? What is the relationship between time and work? In our isolation, what do other people mean to us? How do we think about them? What is the ratio of contempt to compassion in a crisis? When an unfamiliar world arrives, what does it reveal about the world that came before it?
Suffused with a profound intimacy and tenderness in response to these extraordinary times, Intimations is a slim, suggestive volume with a wide scope, in which Zadie Smith clears a generous space for thought, open enough for each reader to reflect on what has happened – and what might come next.
The isolation of the pandemic has created a space for the mind that we’ve never experienced before. Or maybe I shouldn’t say created, maybe it was always there, but in the long-term suspension of anything resembling the sort of life we had always taken for granted has finally become un-ignorable. I think whether this is a good thing or a hellish thing probably depends on the day, and what sort of person you are – in terms of both privilege and disposition. In Intimations, Zadie Smith’s utterly absorbing series of essays about pandemic life, she describes us as being “Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure”, and Zadie, like us, has “almost no idea what to do with it”. So we sit and we think, or we try not to think, and in the grey space between those two goals we reach for books like this, which are like a fresh hot water bottle in a cold lap – they burn a little, but they comfort too.
Rightly or not, I tend to read essay collections with the hope they will ‘explain life’ to me, to unlock some previously unidentified truth that will make me ‘solved’ for having read them. The first thing I often do find, but I’m less sure about the second – I think perhaps that will continue to mostly evade me until I pluck up the courage to start writing it for myself. While I definitely went into Intimations with my usual attitude of teach me how to be, Zadie, the profound experience I had with this book – and continue to have when I pick it up from time to time to reread an essay as I have done since I first read it – shook me.
The past year has been a destabilising lurch into the unknown. Before now most of us – the lucky ones, I guess – never understood how living in a real-life disaster movie could be so boring. We’ve clung to routine, or no routine, great habits and maladaptive ones, obsessive scrolling and Netflix – our coping mechanisms in the absence of any roadmap instructing us How to Deal. This whole time, we should have just been reading Intimations instead.
I’m not saying you’ll finish these six essays knowing suddenly how to mark time in some way other than with whatever you’re going to eat next (just me?) – like I said, essays don’t tend to ‘solve’ you, much as you might wish them to – but Zadie’s words go some way towards lifting the emotional burden. I’m writing this the day after Alexandria Orcasio Cortez’s Instagram Live where she revealed the details of what happened to her during the storming of the capital, and before that, how her response to that trauma was informed by a previous sexual assault. During that video she talked a lot about trauma, and how doubt over the legitimacy of our own experience – stoked by the gas lighting of a society that hasn’t figured out how to face its own darkness – stops us from talking about it. And this is so counter intuitive, she explained, because research has actually shown that one of the ways that we process trauma is to talk about it, by telling people: This Is What Happened To Me.
That’s what Zadie Smith is doing in Intimations.
It’s been really hard to figure out how to talk about suffering during the pandemic, when so many of us are in such fortunate positions of privilege. When the entire world is going through the exact same thing, how can you talk about your individual suffering? I don’t know about anyone else, but there have been times in the midst of all this when I am having an especially bad day I have found myself berating myself along the lines of – so today you’re making a literally global pandemic all about you?
Yep. I guess.
As Zadie writes: “…it is possible to penetrate the bubble of privilege and even pop it – whereas the suffering bubble is impermeable. Language, logic, argument, rationale and relative perspective itself are no match for it.” It’s an essay that suggests rather than berating ourselves for this sense of our own suffering we might be better served by accepting it, feeling empathy for it – so that ultimately, we might give other people the same kindness.
Intimations is a collection filled with these small truths – the writing brings with it a sort of clarity that you want to sit in conversation with. It is a work that keeps informing your day to day long after you have turned the final page. It’s a conversation about quarantine, and time, and the murder of George Floyd – an essay that points towards the other pandemic, the one that has been slowly killing us without half of the headlines: contempt.
She writes: “Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave-ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck, and reverse-engineered an emotion – contempt – from a situation he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. So unlike other people. Frighteningly unlike!”
It is a time of trauma – not equally distributed – and none of us know what to do. We don’t know “what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it”, and it feels like our identities have been swallowed by that reality. Intimations doesn’t have the solution – though for a short while at least does answer the question of what to do with all that time. The solution probably, let’s face it, doesn’t really exist – or isn’t so much one achievable thing as a multitude of shifting and evolving goal posts. But it says something important, all the same.
Jude has tricked Cardan onto the throne, binding him to her for a year and a day. But the new High King does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her, even as his fascination with her remains undimmed.
Meanwhile, a traitor in the court is scheming against her. Jude must fight for her life and the lives of those she loves, and also battle her own complicated feelings for Cardan. Now a year and a day seems like no time at all…
Another tale of power grabbing, deceit, betrayal and lust, The Wicked King is a sequel worthy of its predecessor.
Five months after the end of The Cruel Prince and we land back in the world of faerie – and, I’m happy to report, nobody has gotten any nicer. Reluctantly King Carden – now kind of Jude’s magical slave – is leaning hard into the whole sexy, rakish, self destructive thing, meanwhile Jude is pretending like her new found position of power isn’t going to her head.
It’s totally going to her head.
The desperate scramble for control over the kingdom that took flight with the bloody ending of book one really blossoms this time around – no sooner has Jude gotten her hands on the crown (ahem, to keep safe for her baby brother, ahem) when a brand new force rears up to take it from her.
And this girl is not letting go without a fight. We would expect no less, obviously.
The unfolding of Jude’s corruption continues to completely fascinate me. Book one was all about setting up the divide that Jude has straddled her entire life: a human girl in a magical world, raised by the man she saw murder her mother (but he’s her dad – if not biologically – and she feels for him whether she wants to or not), disgusted by the abuses rife in the world of faerie – and the world of her father in particular – yet drawn to them somehow, too. Violence and the feeling of control that comes with it holds a magnetic pull for Jude, one she can’t always resist, even as she wonders what this all means for her in the long term. You know when you’ve got a super unhealthy habit but you’re going through a hard time and you justify it to yourself like ‘it’s okay, I’ll stop from I’ve gotten through… X’ – well, that’s like Jude, but with murder. As she’s learning, it’s much harder to put behind you than an over indulgence of Ben & Jerry’s.
Her final step over the divide into evil-dom seems to come, surprisingly, with her sort-of reunion with her twin sister Taryn, who she is kind of estranged from for fucked up boy-related reasons that took place during book one. Along with her request to be friends again, Taryn brings a bunch of Jude’s things to her new home in the royal palace – toys, ‘talismans’ of her childhood – and as soon as her sister leaves, Jude dumps them on the fire. It’s a symbolic moment, her transformation into this new iteration of herself is complete. At least, that’s what she wants to believe.
She and Carden fall further into their delicious toxicity. Don’t get me wrong – IRL, I would not support this relationship, but within the bounds of Jude’s world, it makes sense. Their mutual disgust/fascination with each other continues to play out in inventive and sexy ways, as they veer toward and then away from something like, maybe, genuine affection. Until one of them inevitably betrays the other and they are back to square one of absolute disgust with the occasional make out break in between fights.
I can’t wait to see how this all ends. I put a hold on book three at the library and then the UK was hit with the latest lockdown with no end in sight, however, so I must resolve myself that sadly, it’ll probably be a while.
For those who can get their hands on it however, I can’t recommend this series enough. It’s dramatic, thrilling, sexy, ridiculous and exactly the level of escapism we need right now.
I always fear sounding whiny and negative when I write about myself, but if I’m being honest, January has been a hard month. In the UK we’re in our third national lockdown – not as strict as the first lockdown, not as lax as the second – we just passed 100,000 deaths and our utterly incompetent government still won’t fully close the borders whilst claiming they are doing ‘everything they can’.
You compensate in weird ways. I have gotten completely obsessed with wellness and productivity influencers. Women with perfect bodies who wake up at 5am (because they want to, not because they’re anxious!) to set up their bullet journals, and always seem like they are able to eat more than their tiny waists would imply – I know this because the What I Eat In A Day video is the staple of such content creators, and I watch them obsessively. It’s not a practise I recommend.
Like most things, the current state of my days can be summed up by a tweet I found on Instagram:
This Golden Tempeh Nourish Bowl by Pick Up Limes. My latest health-based obsession is gut health, and so I have been trying to simulate some sort of control over the world by introducing more fermented goods into my life. Hence, I’m trying to figure out tempeh. Also kombucha. This recipe is real good, though I would recommend marinating it for as long as possible – it is not a leave it for 10 minutes and hope for the best sort of job.
Quote of the month From Crudo, by Olivia Laing “Kathy was becoming obsessed with the numbness, the way the news cycle was making her incapable of action, a beached somnolent whale. No one could put anything together, that was the problem. She had recently read an article that listed all the reasons why monarch butterflies were dying, before seguing proudly into an account of taking a plane across America so the writer could cheer herself up by seeing monarch butterflies. On the plane she complained about the air pollution of jet fuel and perfume, how it gave her allergies, but she didn’t connect the casual habit of flying thousands of miles with the collapse of the butterflies. Kathy didn’t blame her. The equations were too difficult, you knew intellectually, but you never really saw the consequences since they tended to impact other poorer people in other poorer places.”
How was your January? What are you reading? I’d love to hear from you in comments.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives – presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.
I am a huge Lily James fan girl, so of course I watched the Netflix adaptation of Rebecca as soon as it came out. I enjoyed it. The scenery was rich and immersive, the outfits gorgeous and Mrs Danvers downright weird. Then… I didn’t think a lot more of it. I rarely read the book after having watched the film – I don’t know why this is. I will often watch the adaptation of the book, but something about the other way around doesn’t tend to call to me unless the film was one I particularly loved. Which I did not – though I of course enjoyed it, it wasn’t an experience that was going to linger in my mind for years to come.
What changed? Well, I started to notice that there was a response I was seeing from a particular group – women around my mum’s age – of total dismissiveness of the film. They got it all wrong, they said, that wasn’t Rebecca at all. So when I went to visit home over Christmas and spied my mum’s copy on the book shelf, I decided it was time to pick it up.
And that, friends, is the last anyone saw me for the next couple of days.
In general I have really enjoyed my reading lately, but it has been a while since I have truly resented having to do anything but curl up in a corner and scour the pages like I did with this.
Because despite having watched the movie, what I did not anticipate was: this book is seriously messed up!
Rebecca is a tale of toxic relationships, patriarchy, sexuality and death – actual, real death and the insidious, incremental, unbearably slow death of the self, a common phenomenon driven by a particular type of consuming, domineering relationship.
In Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier serves us the two Mrs De Winters as foils to one another. We have the deceased Rebecca: wildly sexy, charismatic, beloved and great at parties, presented in stark contrast to the new bearer of the title. The narrator and current Mrs De Winter: youthful and inexperienced, mousy, shy and not even allowed the respect of her own name – a symbol, we soon realise, of her willingness to completely abandon herself to this relationship with the cold, mysterious Maxim – couldn’t more different. And oh, is she aware of it. She is consumed by it, in fact. Her intrigue about Rebecca – driven by her husband’s absolute refusal to discuss her – quickly crosses over into obsession, and perhaps some admiration too, for this woman who was so loudly, so profoundly, herself.
Then we have the other domineering female presence of the book: Mrs Danvers. The house keeper at Manderly, she is a black cloud hanging over everything right from the start. She’s a like a dark shadow stretching throughout the house – the thing moving in the corner of your eye that you don’t notice until it’s already too late. She too can’t help but compare the current Mrs De Winter to the former – who, you get the feeling as the book goes on, she was probably in love with (apparently Du Maurier was bisexual herself, so even though this book came out in the 1930s it seems likely this is what she meant to imply). She makes it her mission to nurture the narrator’s Rebecca obsession, feeding her small details that add up to a comparison in which she is found desperately wanting.
What is especially intriguing about this book, is that about three quarters of the way through, the narrative utterly flips – if you’ve watched the movie you’ll know this already, but it not, I won’t spoil it for you (also, it’s way better in the book). Du Maurier executes a genius twist that sees everything the narrator had come to believe about her life at Manderly crumble away, revealing an even darker reality.
At its core, I think, Rebecca is a book about identity. As the story goes on and the gothic undertones draw in closer around her, you start to see the narrator as a woman divided – one part of her explores her power, experimenting with what she understands as Rebecca-like behaviours, only to be shamed and rejected for them by Maxim. The other, dominant side is the submissive wife, the blank page willing to be whatever her husband wishes of her – a husband who on the rare occasions he engages with her at all speaks of her innocence, her fragility and her youthful inexperience as what attracts him.
I know which side I want to see win out.
Rebecca was thrilling, compelling and totally, totally addictive. Clearly, I need some more Du Maurier in my life.
Books are, in my humble opinion, far and away the best way to show your love – and most especially at Christmas, when even the busiest among us has time to settle down with blanket and bestseller, hot chocolate in hand. Here’s a few of the books my loved ones will find under their respective trees this Christmas…
For Your Bestie: Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
The ladies of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast have written the book about friendship we have all been waiting for. Refreshing, honest, thoroughly researched and utterly celebratory, Big Friendship looks at what it means to be in a committed, platonic relationship with another person and the joys and difficulties that come with that. Strung together around the narrative of their own friendship – its inception, development, how they almost lost each other and how they went about rebuilding – Big Friendship is about the family we choose, and how we can keep choosing them, no matter what the years throw our way.
The Big Non Fiction: She Said by Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey
In this remarkable work – which reads more like a thriller than a piece of journalism – New York Times reporters Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey narrate their experience of breaking the Harvey Weinstein story, and the following explosion of the #MeToo movement into the cultural conciousness. This book takes you behind the scenes into the nitty gritty of reporting – finding sources, confirming stories and the continuing work of convincing people to come forward, despite the personal cost. If you’ve watched the movie Spotlight, it’s a lot like that.
For The Reader: Truly Devious, The Vanishing Stair and The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson
There is nothing more delicious than devouring an entire series in the liminal time between Christmas and New Year’s, and this YA mystery series has it all: remote boarding school full of genius teenagers, romance, a years-old murder mystery that suddenly intrudes on the present day when a student is found dead under mysterious and confounding circumstances. The addictive and immersive world of the Ellingham Academy is the perfect post-Christmas literary escape.
The Mum Read: The Familiars by Stacey Halls
The 17-year-old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall is pregnant for the fourth time. With three miscarriages already behind her, when Fleetwood Shuttleworth discovers a letter hidden by her husband Richard – himself desperate for an heir to his family fortune – from her doctor declaring her unfit to survive childbirth, she becomes desperate. Then she meets Alice Gray, a mysterious young midwife whose ancient knowledge of herbs and potions promises to help Fleetwood survive her pregnancy and provide the heir her husband demands. Then the witchcraft accusers come to town, and everything goes to hell. This deeply atmospheric, creepy, emotive book weaves a rich and enveloping tale that is just the right balance of female empowerment and spooky witchy vibes.
The Young’un: Asha & The Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
The magical middle grade read tells the story of Asha and her journey across the Himalayas to track down her missing father. Immersed in the culture of India, unflinching in its portrayal of family difficulties and how children respond to them and filled with adventure and peril, you’ll fall in love with Asha and her best friend Jeevan on their journey to save Asha’s family from the debt collectors who would take everything from them.
The ‘Tough Year’ Read: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Vivian’s life opens up when she moves to New York. This tale of love, heartbreak, finding your passion, utterly fucking up – like, fucking up so badly it feels like there is no way back – finding that way back and becoming the person you were supposed to be all along, is the inspirational, comforting, everything is going to be okay-ist book I have read all year. It also has sexy showgirls, theatre, costumes, glamour and lots and lots of sex. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote this book while navigating the loss of her wife, and it doing so she created the book we all need as a friend to guide us through hard times.
The Everybody MUST Read: I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite
This seminal work on Black British Motherhood is like nothing you’ve ever read before. Part memoir, part socio-political journalism, Candice extrapolates her own experiences into the wider narrative of racial divides in Britain. From mummy blogger representation to utterly heartbreaking health disparities experienced by Black Mothers, this book offers revolutionary insight into the real Britain so often ignored by the headlines. Compelling, emotive and revealing in every sense of the word, whether you’re a mother or not, whether you want to be or not, this book has something to teach you about life.
Reni Eddo-Lodge’s 2017 book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is a thorough and confronting analysis of race relations in Britain today. Through chapters on subjects including Black British history (and its erasure), systemic racism in institutions like the police, education and sport, feminism and the relationship between race and class, Eddo-Lodge delves into the racist structures that British society is built on and the ways they are upheld by a society that has chosen to avert its eyes.
Why was it happening for the first time in 2020? (a shameful 6% of authors published in the UK are people of colour, so it’s not actually that surprising)
And how was it possible that so many white people were just waking up to the existence of racism now?
I first had my mind given a good shake by this book last year but I decided it was long overdue a reread and today I want to do something a bit different. In the wake of the massive protests for racial inequality this year there was the huge drive for books on anti-racism. And I do think this is a good thing, but given
a) The huge amount of people (white women especially) who still voted for Trump in the US election (still matters, even though he lost)
b) The amount of white people who were surprised by that and
…I don’t think a lot of people really engaged with what they read.
So, let’s talk. When we read anti-racist texts it shouldn’t be as a passive observer. Reading the book is not the same as holding yourself accountable for the internalised racism that you inevitably hold. In addition to experiencing the author’s story and really taking on the information they are imparting, you need to push yourself – to learn more, to ask yourself big, uncomfortable questions. There’s a tendency – which I have absolutely fallen into – to hear people’s stories about racism they’ve faced, or even witness it yourself, and fall into shock and horror. You know, that moment when you think “I can’t believe this still happens! How can people be so awful?” etc. This is understandable, I think, but ultimately unhelpful. It is a means for those who consider themselves ‘good’ white people to separate themselves from those acts of racism, to centre their own feelings of horror in order to comfortably distance themselves from the truth of the matter that the same white supremacy that produced that horror is one that they (I) benefit from every single day. Nova Reid, an incredible writer and anti-racism activist I have learned SO much from has talked about this a lot on Instagram.
This post, I hope, is a suggestion of how you might read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race through the frame of accountability.
Reni on the absence of Black history in UK education: “…I don’t think my ignorance was an individual thing. That I had to go looking for significant moments in black British history suggests to me that I have been kept ignorant. While the black British story is starved of oxygen, the US struggle against racism is globalised into the story of the struggle against racism that we should look to for inspiration – eclipsing the black British story so much that we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race. We need to stop lying to ourselves, and we need to stop lying to each other. To assume that there was no civil rights movement in the UK is not just untrue, it does a disservice to our black history, leaving gaping holes where the story of progress should be.”
– Racist attacks in Liverpool in 1919, the most high profile of which was the public lynching of Charles Wootten. He was thrown into the sea and pelted with rocks by a white mob until he drowned. The British response? A repatriation drive that resulted in as many as 600 Black people being sent ‘back where they came from’ – deported to the West Indies. Many of these people had settled in the UK after fighting for Britain in the First World War.
– The Bristol Bus Boycott. Guy Bailey was denied an interview at Bristol Omnibus Company because he was Black. In response, he and the West Indian Development Council launched a campaign against the BOC’s racist practices through the local media, gaining support from local students, politicians and press – meanwhile every single one of Bristol’s West Indian residents were boycotting the bus service. Over 100 students marched in support and the boycott continued to grow. In the end, BOC were forced to cave and change their discriminatory hiring practices – though to this day, Eddo-Lodge notes, the company (now called First Somerset & Avon) has never apologised.
These are only two events that I learned of for the first time reading Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race. The entire first section is filled with stories of the civil rights struggle in the UK I would wager the vast majority have very little awareness even happened.
Questions Instead of asking yourself, why wasn’t I taught about this? Instead ask, why wasn’t I curious about this before now?
Reni on challenging white feminism: “British feminism was characterised as a movement where everything was peaceful until the angry black people turned up. The white feminists’ characterisations of black feminists as disruptive aggressors was not so different from broader stereotyping of black communities by the press. Women of colour were positioned as the immigrants of feminism, unwelcome but tolerated – a reluctantly dealt-with social problem.”
– An incident on BBC Radio 4’s Womens Hour in 2013 where Reni was cast as a bully by Caroline Criado Perez, who equated the anti-racism work Eddo-Lodge spoke of with the bullying and harassment Caroline herself was experiencing online at that time following her successful campaign to get a woman on the new ten pound bank note.
– The massive backlash the term ‘intersectionality’ faced when it first made it into the mainstream feminist discussion, with an article in The New Statesmen inferring Black feminists were ‘The Mean Girls Club’ only one example. Eddo Lodge writes: “…this knee-jerk backlash against the phrase – to what is more often than not a rigorous critique of the consequences of structural racism – was undoubtedly born from an entitled need to defend whiteness rather than any yearning to to reflect on the meaning of the phrase ‘white feminism’.”
One problem that comes up over and over again among white feminists – and white women in general – is tone policing. It is surprising how many white women who would sincerely consider themselves to be liberal, even anti-racist still don’t recognise this behaviour. Tone policing, as defined in this excellent series of infrographics by Feminism India, is the act of focusing on the tone of a person’s statement, rather than the content. It is a tactic often employed by white women against Black women to lecture them on how their anti-racist message would be a lot more successful ‘if they were nicer about it’. It’s a way for privileged groups to silence the marginalised and avoid accountability. Basically, it is a very sneaky form of racism white people – and I really can’t emphasise this enough – many of whom consider themselves anti-racist utilise to uphold their own comfort (AKA life in a white supremacy) over progress.
Questions Why do I feel that someone should communicate the trauma of racism and anti-Blackness in a way that makes me feel comfortable? Am I acting out of a desire to preserve my own privilege?
Can you think of a time when you have felt the ‘knee-jerk’ need to defend whiteness that Eddo-Lodge identifies? Have you ever felt threatened when listening to a person of colour talk about their experiences?
In conclusion Have you read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race? What came up for you while you were reading? What questions do you think readers should be asking themselves in response to this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Further learning Reni’s follow-up podcast, About Race where she delves further into subjects covered in her book
One terrible morning, Jude and her sisters see their parents murdered in front of them. The fearsome assassin abducts all three girls and brings them to the world of Faerie, where Jude is installed into the royal court. Mocked and tormented for being merely mortal, Jude soon realises that to survive in this treacherous, dangerous, new world, she needs to be as smart, cunning and deceitful as the Fey themselves.
But the stairway to power is fraught with shadows and betrayal. And looming over all is the infuriating, arrogant and charismatic Prince Cardan. Jude must take the upmost care.
“Because you’re like a story that hasn’t happened yet. Because I want to see what you will do. I want to be part of the unfolding of the tale.”
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black is one of those books that has existed on the periphery of my TBR forever. I remember thinking when it first came out that it looked like a lot of fun, but while some bloggers absolutely loved it, I read a lot of negative reviews too – enough that it just kept sliding further and further down the list. Then, a couple weeks back, I decided to join my local library (I know, it’s mad that I was not a member already). I became immediately overwhelmed by indecision as I wandered the stacks, so when my eye fell across The Cruel Prince I thought – I guess it’s finally time.
And you know what, that first thought I had was right. I did really enjoy this book. The thing people did not like, whatever it was – there have been too many years and too many books since for me to remember anymore – did not bother me.
Thought I suspect, but do not know for sure, what people’s problem may have been.
Everyone in this book is kind of awful.
And I loved it.
So, Jude, the lead in this drama, and her twin sister Taryn are two of very few humans in Faerie. They are all the more unusual for the fact they are free, and, for the most part, un-enchanted. They arrived in Faerie as children when they, along with their older, half Fey sister Vivienne are kidnapped by Vivienne’s vengeful, Fey father, Madoc. He just came to reclaim Vivienne from the human mother who took her away from Faerie, but for violent and murderous reasons winds up bringing Jude and Taryn along too – and raising them all as his own along with his new wife and young son, Oak, in a blended, just-don’t-mention-all-the-murder, family.
I bring all this up so you understand that Jude had something of a complicated childhood.
From such patriarchal beginnings, it’ll hardly surprise you to learn that The Cruel Prince is a book about power – because power, and the pursuit of it, is Jude’s driving force, for better and, sometimes, for worse. Growing up human in a world of Fey is not an easy road, and throughout their lives, Jude and Taryn have been subjected to bullying and harassment from their peers, and at times, full blown endangerment. Black has very much written the twins as foils to one another, at least in this first book of the series, and the blunt juxtaposition of how they have chosen to navigate their low status in Fey society is the most interesting conversation of the book.
For both women the roads they choose come with a lot of darkness, but I never felt particularly judgemental of their choices. They are simply trying to survive using the tools they have – it’s not exactly their fault the tools are shitty. Like I said, for Jude, survival is all about clawing together whatever power she can get her hands on, whatever the cost. For Taryn, on the other hand, she sees safety in going with the status quo, fitting in, and aligning herself with those Fey she hopes might make her acceptable by association.
One way to see this is that Jude is a bitch and Taryn is weak. But I think that shows a certain lack of imagination.
This messy relationship with the power dynamics also makes it known in their relationships with the men in their lives, which are hella problematic – as you might expect, under the circumstances. These women make terrible choices with men bound up in the structures that are oppressing them, and as much I wanted to shake them and scream ‘why though?!’ until I’m blue in the face, or grab a hold of him (a particular him that I cannot name because, spoilers) and point out how close he is to recognising the bullshit he has participated in without question for so long – that was all part of the enjoyment. I love characters that I am supposed to feel conflicted about. I revel in exploring all their shades of grey and I am so excited to see where Black takes it throughout the rest of the series – which I will definitely be returning to the library for, sooner rather than later.
These characters are not nice to each other. They are kind of murdery sometimes. They also make a lot of very poor choices.
It’s super fun to read. Especially if you need to think about someone else’s problems for a while.
In the markets of eighteenth century Cairo, thieves, tricksters, con artists and outcasts eke out a living swindling rich nobles and foreign invaders alike.
But alongside this new world, the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits, of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert – full of enchantment, desire and riches – where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.
Many wish their lives could be filled with wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about her. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…
Be careful what you wish for.
City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is a rich and imaginative fantasy that weaves elements of Islamic folklore with the political machinations of monarchy to create a vivid world filled with tension – of both the romantic and warmongering kind.
The story starts with Nahri, an orphan surviving via the means of the age-old con (fake healings, telling the future, the occasional exorcism, etc) who stumbles from the life she had known as just another Cairo trickster into the magical world of the djinn, beings born of fire who live, for the most part, in a magical land hidden from the human world by, you guessed it, more magic. This dangerous new world of flying carpets, flesh-eating ghouls and terrifying demon-djinn known as ifrit – regular djinn are sexy, ifrit decidedly not so. From what I gather there are a lot of claws and fangs happening – might hold the keys to Nahri’s mysterious past, if she can only get her new sexy djinn friend Dara to answer any of her questions.
I clicked with Nahri right away. A survivor well versed in thinking on her feet, she’s always got a witty retort and a means to make a buck tucked in her back pocket. She has an unusual talent for diagnosing and healing, skills she’s honing with a local pharmacist, and dreams of leaving Cairo behind to seek a career in medicine – even though that’s not something women really do, where she’s from. She can also speak any language as soon as she’s heard it, which is just very cool, honestly.
On the other hand, we have Ali, the other narrator of City of Brass. The prince of Daevabad, the aforementioned hidden magical land, he took me a lot longer to warm up to. But now, two books in (I finished Kingdom of Copper a couple of weeks back), I have come to the conclusion that this was kind of the point. Ali is not an easy person to like, but as I, and Nahri, discovered, he does kinda grow on you. Ali is the kind of guy who is stubborn about all of the wrong things. He holds himself up as the one with principles and his identity is very much wrapped up in that, but the principles – if not the high and mighty attitude that comes with them – seem to melt away when they present any personal risk. Trapped by the confines of royal life and his politically and personally domineering father, there’s a sense throughout City of Brass that he isn’t a fully formed person yet, and though to start with I read him as a weak manboy I didn’t have a lot of time for, after a while his story became one I could engage with. But initially, I’m not going to lie to you, whenever the narrative flipped from what was happening with Nahri to what Ali was up to, the story massively slowed down for me.
City of Brass is, in many ways, a totally perfect book for right now. Rich and complex, Chakraborty goes deep on the many different tribes of the djinn, their histories (a lot of which are bound up in conflict) and how those have led to the balance of power we see in Daevabad now. Keeping track of what different tribes were, which tribes didn’t like other tribes and how those feelings impacted Ali and Nahri required my whole brain. It was exactly what I needed – when I picked up the book and stepped into the world of Daevabad, everything that was going on in my day fell away. There’s not much higher praise for a fantasy than that, right?
Also, the sexual tension between Nahri and Dara… It’s also a very effective distraction.