Circe

Trigger warning for rape

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Circe is strange – not powerful and terrible, like her father, nor gorgeous and mercenary like her mother. But she has a dark power of her own: witchcraft. When Circe’s gift threatens the gods, she is banished to the island of Aiaia where she hones her occult craft, casting spells, gathering strange herbs and taming wild beasts. Yet a woman who stands alone cannot live in peace for long – and among her island’s guests is an unexpected visitor: the mortal Odysseus, for whom Circe will risk everything.

Circe’s tale is a vivid epic of family rivalry, love and loss – the inextinguishable song of woman burning hot and bright in the darkness of a man’s world.


I do not know a lot about Greek mythology, and I have definitely never read the Odyssey, but as I understand it, originally Circe appeared in Odysseus’s story during a year-long stopover he took on her island, Aiaia. Homer told the tale of her and Odysseus’s relationship, which began when Circe, a powerful witch, turned all of Odysseus’s sailing buddies into pigs. Odysseus himself was only saved from this terrible fate because he had some anti-magic herb called moly that protected him from this very scenario (convenient). Odysseus – in all his manliness – persuades Circe to turn the men back and despite getting off to something of a shaky start, I assume they all become friends.

As I said, I haven’t read it.

In Homer’s version, it seems that Circe is a feature in Odysseus’s story. In Circe, Madeline Miller dispenses with that idea (Homer, we are over you) and weaves a rich and episodic tale entirely of Circe’s own.

In a similar fashion to City of Girls, which I talked about last week, I really loved the sprawling timeline of this novel. We get to grow up with this character and see her through so many phases of her life – Circe as a young person, getting her heart broken for the first time, being exiled from her home, recovering from rape, and eventually her journey into motherhood and everything that happens after the birth of her son – though I can’t get too much into that, cause spoilers. Her character development is rich, with glimpses of the woman she would one day go on to be evident even during her childhood of neglect at the hands of her parents, Helios (as in the sun god) and Perse, a nymph.

Circe is an outcast from the beginning. From the moment of her birth when Helios declares her not good enough to marry to a god because she isn’t beautiful enough (to which her mother’s response is “let’s go make a better one”), Circe is considered the runt of the litter and treated accordingly. As such, it’s hardly surprising that Circe grows up feeling inferior.

Weirdly, having something of an inferiority complex seems to be a common problem among the gods. The toxicity and rivalry apparent in Circe’s own family spills out into the wider community as well, which is driven by men who all have one thing in common: they want power, and more of it, all the time. Even the literal gods feel like what they have isn’t enough. The gods are made up of two communities, Titans and Olympians – basically old gods and new gods. After a devastating war there have been many years of peace, but threat to that peace looms over Circe’s entire childhood, as her father and his friends agitate always for more, more, more.

This idea of power, who has it and what it means is central to the novel. Circe’s entire life has been defined by the unforgiving hand of her father, and she is years into her adulthood and her exile before she really understands how she can reclaim some of that power for herself – and keep reclaiming it, even as men continue to try and take it from her.

It’s a gorgeously written novel of survival, and of carving space for yourself even when you have to do that without the love and the support of those supposedly closest to you. Loss runs through its pages – a side effect of being immortal, I guess – but not all those losses are bad. Changing your life involves a lot of loss, after all. But Circe will tell you more about that.

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.

The Vanishing Stair

The Truly Devious case – an unsolved kidnapping and triple murder that rocked Ellingham Academy in 1936 – has consumed Stevie Bell for years. It’s the very reason she came to the academy. But then her classmate Hayes Major was murdered, and though she identified his killer, her parents quickly pull her out of school. For her safety, they say.

Stevie’s willing to do anything to get back to Ellingham, be with her friends, and solve the case. Even if it means making a deal with the despicable Senator Edward King. And when Stevie finally returns, she also returns to David: the guy she kissed, the guy who lied about his identity – Edward King’s son. But larger issues are at play. Was Hayes’s death really solved? Where did his murderer hide away to? What’s the meaning of the riddle Albert Ellingham left behind? And what, exactly, is at stake in the Truly Devious affair?

The Ellingham case isn’t just a piece of history – it’s a live wire into the present. The path to the truth has more twists and turns than Stevie can imagine, and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for. In New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson’s second novel in the Truly Devious series, someone will pay for the truth with their life.


This review will contain at least a few spoilers for Truly Devious. Sorry about that.

When I started reading Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series I sort of assumed it’d be like the Shades of London books – each new release a fresh mystery to unravel. Not so. Truly Devious and the mystery of Albert Ellingham’s missing daughter is the overarching theme of the series, and for every question The Vanishing Stair answered it raised at least three more.

I loved it, obviously.

At the end of the last book we saw our favourite wannabe detective, Stevie Bell, yanked from Ellingham Academy by her parents following the revelation of Hayes’s murderer. She is not okay with the situation. The Ellingham case remains unsolved and the whole Hayes affair at least somewhat unfinished. So when the opportunity to return comes up in the shape of a dodgy offer from the worst sort of Republican Senator Edward King – boss to Stevie’s parents and (surprise) father to Stevie’s on-again-off-again love interest David – despite her misgivings she’s prepared to do whatever he wants.

That particular decision looms large over everything else that happens in The Vanishing Stair.

I flew through this book. Continuing the split narrative of Stevie’s present divided by snapshots of the unfolding mystery in 1936 – the one Stevie came to Ellingham in the first place to solve before all the Hayes business – Maureen builds ever more layers of complexity onto a mystery that has already confounded everyone who has tried to solve it in the 80-odd years since it began. New and intriguing figures enter into play, from the possibly murderous runaway Ellingham students of the past, Francis Crane and Edward Pierce Davenport, to Dr Irene Fenton, the probably alcoholic true crime professor as eager to solve the Ellingham case as Stevie herself.

David continues to do the most. I’ve read several reviews where readers aren’t so keen on Stevie and David’s dynamic – some going as far as to describe it as insta-lovey and thin. I couldn’t disagree more. David and Stevie are pulled towards each other in a way that read electric to me – though they both remain defensive weirdos they can’t help but keep circling, each one taking turns to pull back in the other when they pull away. They share a similar sort of darkness, I think. It may not be the healthiest basis for a relationship, but for reading purposes it is delicious. Don’t believe the rumours: Stevie and David are a pairing you ship hard, however unlikely their resolution turning out to be a happy one is at this point.

A lot of pieces clicked into place during The Vanishing Stair, but there are a lot of questions still to be answered in the Hand on the Wall, and I for one cannot wait to see where Maureen Johnson’s twisting mystery takes us next.

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.

Normal People

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

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


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

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

I fall very much into the first camp.

I love Normal People.

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

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

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

(Who even are those people?)

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

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

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

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

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

Permanent Record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skyward

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

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

Who knew?

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

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

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

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

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

Orangeboy

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

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

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

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

And it all goes downhill from there.

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

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

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

The Lonely City

When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art.

Moving fluidly between the works and lives of some of the city’s most compelling artists, Laing conducts an eclectic, dazzling investigation into what it means it be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be redeemed and embraced.

How are you doing, really? Are you on lockdown? Are you a key worker?

I’m at home. In the past two weeks I went from working in an office, to working from home, to furloughed from work until further notice, the magazine I work on suspended from publication. I live with housemates, all men, none I am particularly close to – though we’re getting a bit closer, inevitably I guess. I’m lonely, and I am afraid what the total lack of structure in my life will do to my brain, which veers towards the angsty and sad even at the best of times.

I’ve gotten really into Money Heist. Like, to be honest, that show is my life now and I don’t know what I’m going to do when it’s over. If you have any recommendations they will be gratefully received.

What I’m saying is that one way or another, it felt like the perfect time to revisit, The Lonely City, a book of essays by Olivia Laing that I read during my months of non-blogging. When I picked up the book and reread a couple of essays this morning to refresh my memory for this very review it felt like a risk – would this make me feel better, or would it make the dread that has been creeping over me since the weekend all the worse?

Fortunately, it was the former. The Lonely City isn’t precisely an uplifting read, but it is a cathartic one. Post-break up and in a foreign country, Olivia wrote this book in a period of absolute solitude. During that time, when even ordering a coffee became a challenge because she felt so painfully self-conscious about herself (something I felt on a spiritual level), she found solace and a kind of kindship in the stories of the lonely artists that came before her. She looked at the work they created to fix themselves – or if not that, patch over their worst of it – as a road map for the way out of her own heartbreak, which began over one person and over time grew into something much larger than that.

“So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? Why this need to constantly inhabit peak states, or to be comfortably sealed inside a unit of two, turned inward from the world at large?”

The book is filled with stories of artists, a lot of them from the 70s and 80s, and the various ways they did and did not manage to connect in their lives and work. They are painful, bittersweet and comforting all at the same time. Maybe my favourite was the story of Andy Warhol, who, hampered first by his weak grasp of English and second by his paralysing hatred of his body, started to use technology as a means of shielding himself from others. He started carrying a tape recorder with him everywhere he went, recording all of his interactions as part of some wider art project that seemed like it was as much about creating a means of holding himself at a safe distance from his friends and boyfriends as it was the end product, a book called a, which no one read.

These essays are filled with people who lived their lives on the fringes; people of colour, queer people, the mentally ill and those living in poverty, many of them not allowed a voice during their lifetimes. People like Henry Darger, the janitor who spent his entire life in poverty who was discovered to be an incredibly prolific artist and writer when his landlord came to clean out his apartment after he’d been hospitalised for what would be the final time. He may also have been a total psycho (his artwork is scary weird) – but nobody ever knew him, so no one knows for sure.

The Lonely City is an exploration of a subject we’re all facing right now in new and frightening ways. What is a world where we can’t go around to your friend’s place to watch a movie? How do you cope when all you want is a hug from your mum, but she is quarantined miles away from you? What this book does, somewhat paradoxically, is classify loneliness as a community experience – because at some point, to some degree, we’ve all been there.

Especially right now.

“If I sound adamant it is because I am speaking from personal experience. When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”

The Book Thief

Here is a small fact: you are going to die.

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

Some important information: this novel is narrated by Death. It’s a small story about a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, A Jewish fist fighter and quite a lot of thievery.

Another thing you should know: Death will visit the book thief three times.

I can’t really get into why, because it’s a massive spoiler, but The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is without question one of the most traumatic experiences I have put myself through by choice in recent history.

If you have read it, I have only one question for you. And it is this: what the fuck?

For everyone else, The Book Thief is one of those very famous international best seller types that you think you should read, but put off for ages because it’s long and it’s about Nazi Germany, so you know it’s going to be traumatic (but how traumatic you truly cannot imagine. Okay, I did only finish it yesterday, so I’m still in the first phase of my response but what. The. Fuck.), but eventually someone in your life pushes you (in this instance my housemate) and you finally pick it up, because It’s Time.

And you know what, trauma aside, it is an incredible book. Told by Death, in combination with the Nazi Germany of it all, means there is a constant sense of impermanence, of the looming end of it all that we all do our best to ignore day-to-day. That sense of something looming grows in time with the hate and aggression life under Hitler brings to the community. From Jewish-owned shops destroyed before closing down completely – and their keepers vanished – to the lady in the corner shop who will only sell you food after you first Heil Hitler, the bubbling fanaticism and anti-Semitism form a sinister undertone to Liesel’s every day – but as a nine-year-old it’s not something she thinks about a ton. Mostly, she’s concerned with where she and her best friend Rudy are going to go steal some extra food because her foster mother has been cooking nothing but pea soup for months.

But a normal childhood isn’t a luxury children in Nazi Germany get to experience, and there is something uniquely harrowing about the ways Liesel and Rudy lose their innocence as the war wages on, gradually wending its way toward their homes on Himmel Street. From Liesel, hiding the secret of the hidden Jew in the basement to Rudy, fighting the war with the Nazi Youth but actually fighting the war against the Nazi Youth, both children have a strong sense of justice instilled in them that the misery of their circumstances never quite manages to beat out. Their actions aren’t exactly powerful – reading to a huddled group inside a bomb shelter, standing up for your friend the Nazi Youth would call weak – but small as they are, in the depths of the despair of the situation, they mean everything.

The Book Thief is really a book about changing the world in small ways: saving the life of one Jewish man, even if only for a time; protecting one kid from the fists of the Nazi Youth bullies; leaving the window open so a young girl can sneak inside and steal your books; giving a dying man a teddy bear. It’s about one small street in Nazi Germany and how its inhabitants survived the hatred – and how they didn’t. People can change each other’s lives in ways large and small, and you see all of them throughout the scope of this expansive novel. When one person loses hope for a while another person picks it up and runs with it until they can do so again, and so on and so forth, until Death comes to visit.